31 May 2009

Drag Me to Hell

Directed by: Sam Raimi
Written by: Sam & Ivan Raimi
Full credits from IMDb

The first thing that struck me about the very enjoyable Drag Me to Hell, Sam "Evil Dead" Raimi's anticipated return to horror after many years of pseudo-prestige work (cf. A Simple Plan) and Spidermannery, was its goofy old-school racism. Basically about gypsy curses, the movie opens with our first hex-victim: a Latino boy who has stolen a Roma's necklace. Typical thieving Hispanics. Forty years later, we meet our heroine Christine Brown (Alison Lohman), a loan officer (boo! hiss!) struggling to succeed in a man's world; her competition at work is a Pinoy prick named Stu (Reggie Lee, who previously played an Pinoy prick on Prison Break). And her trouble begins when she denies a loan extension to Mrs. Ganush, a gypsy, er, "wandering-American" (Lorna Rover), effectively foreclosing on the hideous one-eyed woman's home. The gypsy curses her, and Christine seeks help from an Orientalized psychic (Dileep Rao), whose shopfront office is filled with shrunken monkey heads and the sounds of raga music.

Raimi, whose parents are of Russo-Hungarian lineage, seems never to have met a non-white person, especially of Eastern European extraction, that could be trusted or not reduced to a caricature-or at least who wasn't totally gross. Like the rest of the film, its origins are in the broadness of old comic books-but is it also rooted in a bit of self-loathing?

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

25 May 2009

Essay: If You're Going to San Francisco, Be Sure to Wear a Hazmat Suit

What the heck does Hollywood have against San Francisco? In a state where one's character is judged by how you voted on Proposition 8 — or how much money you donated and to whom — it's confusing that Milk-loving L.A. would have such destruction fantasies about America's gay Mecca, or that its liberal elite would so assail that hotbed of Pelosism. And yet, so far, three studio-backed movies of 2009's blockbuster season have targeted the city for demolition or decimated it altogether, and summer hasn't even officially started yet.

But it may not be rooted in hatred after all — at heart, it might be about the cultural decline of New York City.

Keep reading at The L Magazine blog.

22 May 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Directed by: Shawn Levy
Written by: Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant
Full credits from IMDb

[Night at the Museum II] subverts the values our country inherited from the Puritans — namely, the virtue of hard work. The American Dream — upward mobility through ingenuity and perseverance — is based on adults working hard, but [this movie] vilifies that attitude, arguing instead that we should all be children hard at play. The recent Apatow comedies have featured immature schlubs who learn to grow up, or, at least, to strike a compromise between their childishness and the inevitable responsibility of adulthood. But this movie encourages the grown up to grow down.

The movie opens with Larry's museum friends — his toys — being packed away in crates; like the cowgirl doll left to molder in a shoebox in Toy Story 2, it wistfully signals the end of childhood. The rest of the film isn't about learning to cope with that, though; it's about his fight to reclaim his spirit of adventure and his capability to enjoy life: to recapture his childhood innocence by shedding his corrupted maturity. Freeing his crate-imprisoned friends becomes freeing his inner self.

Keep reading my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

Terminator Salvation

Directed by: McG
Written by: John D. Brancato & Michael Ferris
Full credits from IMDb

For a movie about the dangers of technologization, the explodographic Terminator Salvation sure has a fetish for all things mechanical, from skyscraping megarobots and cluttered computer screens to whooshing airplanes and whizzing motorcycles. Director Joseph McGinty Nichol, who calls himself "McG," is less interested in story or theme than in spectacle; not five minutes in, he shows his hand with a scene in which a cop killer is given a lethal injection in front of a seated audience. Death is performance. Those bloodthirsty extras are we...This Terminator is set in a post-apocalyptic west coast, and McG plays it like Cormac McCarthy for the Transformers crowd.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

21 May 2009

Kabei: Our Mother

Directed by: Yôji Yamada
Written by: Yôji Yamada & Emiko Hiramatsu
Full credits from IMDb

Grade: 3.5/4

We need another WWII movie like we need another samurai flick. And yet elderly Japanese director Yôji Yamada has staked his late career hitherto on mining these two genres, both long thought to have been stripped bare of relevance and resonance. Miraculously, he has fashioned something meaningful within these tired frameworks. In 2002, he abandoned decades of series work—including 46 installments of the Tora-san franchise—to focus on crafting standalone films, of which he had directed few since the 1960s. He began with The Twilight Samurai, followed in succession by two more revisionist films about feudal warriors, The Hidden Blade and Love and Honor. All were more interested in aging characters and potent glances than they were in epic battles or choreographed swordfights; they were to their anime contemporaries (cf. Ninja Scroll) what Jarmusch's Dead Man was to Stagecoach.

Keep reading at Slant Magazine

Watch the trailer:

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick
Written by: Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George
Full credits from IMDb

Kubrick’s only sustained comedy opens with fornicating planes and ends with a bouquet of nuclear explosions, representing its two dominant tones: farce and war film. A trenchant satire that posits international power players as goofy, dim-witted and mad, Dr. Strangelove is above all a showcase for the dynamic Peter Sellers, who was never given as strong a project as this in which to display his masterful comic range. Sellers takes on three roles: a nervous R.A.F. officer, the bumbling president of the United States, and the eponymous, riding-crop-carrying Kraut at war with his autonomous, Nazified right hand.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

11 May 2009

Star Trek

Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman
Full credits from IMDb

I think we may have gotten our first Obama-era blockbuster! Sort of, anyway. J.J. Abrams' Star Trek prequel tracks the lives and initial adventures of the series' iconic characters, specifically Captain-to-be James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and Lieutenant-to-be Spock (Zachary Quinto). Abrams, with screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, sketches them as foils. A central conflict on Abrams' TV series Lost, embodied by two of its main characters, has been between faith and reason; a similar conflict emerges here, between emotion and reason, embodied by Kirk and Spock, respectively. Kirk is a hard-drinking, womanizing party boy who likes to crash fast cars and act from his gut; Spock is a cold intellectual type, devoted to study and academic experiments. In short, Kirk and Spock look a lot like the pop culture caricatures of Bush and Obama; coincidentally, their names even share the same number of letters! Is Vulcan the new black? Anyway, in the film, it's only by teaming up that they are able to defeat their common enemy, Nero (a hammy Eric Bana): "together," future Spock (Leonard Nimony) says — more on the time travel stuff later — they are able to do "great things." Obama's election was initially heralded as the dawn of a new era of bipartisanship; if that hasn't quite worked out, it looks like at least some Hollywood producers paid attention. And thus, an Obama-minded blockbuster! But the problem with such (arguably naive) political "centrism" and "moderation" is that it's still based upon a belief in violence as a panacea.

Read my discussion with Benjamin Sutton at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

06 May 2009

Rudo y Cursi

Written & Directed by: Carlos Cuaron
Full credits at IMDb

Grade: 3/5

Don't let Rudo y Cursi's vérité aesthetic fool you: despite the shaky, prowling camera capturing glimpses of Latin American poverty, this is, at heart, a glossy party film...it feels very much like a makeshift-family affair, the Spanish-language version of the Apatow Dumpling Gang's excuse-for-a-vacation Forgetting Sarah Marshall or the Soderberghers' excuse-to-hang-out Ocean's series. Rudo y Cursi's ensuing dramas — the rivalries, the falls from grace, the hot-headed hotel room trashings — feel emotionally disingenuous, like mere excuses to move the story along to another congenial bull session, another party, another sunny locale, another upscale hotel, another soccer game.

Keep reading at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:

The Window

Written & Directed by: Carlos Sorin
Full credits at IMDb

Like Wild Strawberries, to which it's heftily indebted, The Window (La Ventana) is an exploration of mortality and memory, a movie built around a big day in the life of a moribund old-timer as he steers toward some sort of closure. Argentinean director Carlos Sorin handles it gracefully, imbuing a measure of poetry into the simple story through extended stretches of silence and richly composed frames. Still, how many quiet films about dying old men do we need? Sorin, though, saves the film from banality by always keeping one eye on the relationship between life and cinema—The Window doubles as a challenging movie about the movies’ capacity for affording immortality.

Keep reading at Reverse Shot

Watch the trailer:

02 May 2009

The Limits of Control

Written & Directed by: Jim Jarmusch
Full credits from IMDb

Any lingering hopes that Jim Jarmusch could be as relevant or vital a filmmaker as he was back in his Stranger than Paradise, Down by Law days are easily dispelled by the disastrous The Limits of Control. An exercise in pseudo-stylishness, the interminable movie finds Jarmusch clinging to a faded notion of what constitutes cool, to an ideal of hip that smacks distastefully of the ‘90s—back when this brand of indie-pretentious, faux-mystical hitman shit could pass muster.

Isaach De Bankolé stars as Lone Man (an archetypal Man with No Name), a stoic international man of mystery (some kind of diamond-fencing assassin?) who spends his days visiting museums with future-predicting paintings and traipsing the streets in slo-mo, to the languorous clangors of a cruising noise-rock score. He also spots cryptic symbols strewn across Spain that signal he is to meet-up—usually in a café where he insists on two espressos in separate cups (cool, right?)—to exchange matchbooks with a stream of cohorts (including John Hurt, Gael Garcia Bernal and Tilda Swinton, done up like a Warhol doll); each offers an earful of phony wisdom and pretentious aphorisms on the house. Bankolé is like a ghost(-dog?) shuffled between insufferable spirit guides.

The conceit seems like an excuse for Jarmusch to parade his favorite working actors by the camera; their monologues—Bankolé rarely speaks—smack of things you might write in a diary and be embarrassed by later, but Jarmusch fancies that they’re worthy of providing the backbone for a script: “the best films are like dreams you’re never sure you’ve had,” “I believe that musical instruments, especially those made of wood, resonate with every note they’ve ever played,” “sometimes for me the reflection is far more present than the thing being reflected.” (Sounds like somebody’s so cool he’s even into Eastern philosophy.) Everybody speaks in a soft, slow monotone, delivering affectless readings dripping with alienated emotionlessness. The film’s dispassionate repetitiousness is meant to be trance inducing, I imagine, but it is instead, at turns, noisome and soporific. The Limits of Control makes a few points: that “life is a handful of dirt,” that reality is arbitrary, that everything is subjective. In short, it’s pointless. Grade: D+

Watch the trailer:

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Directed by: Gavin Hood
Written by: David Benoiff & Skip Woods

In Benoiff's tossed-off script ("add a little sibling rivalry and we're done!"), Logan is the voice of (relative) pacifism, reason and empathy, while in contrast the villains argue for pre-emptive action and drop lines like "your country needs you!" Ostensibly, then, the neocon-ish pseudo-patriots are the bad guys here - hooray? But Hood's tone undermines it; Logan is an unconvincing counterpoint to the glorified bloodspills. The opening battle scenes look like War by Annie Leibovitz, combat rendered in glossy, romantic fashion photography. And then there are the copious action scenes: the teleporter's (Will.i.am) acrobatic gunfights that change angle mid-frame, like The Matrix, and the swordfighter (Ryan Reynolds) who splits a bullet in two like something out of Wanted. (Rounding out the opening act's supermutant taskforce are two former Lost cast members. Apparently when you die on The Island, you wind up in an X-Men movie.) Twice, Wolverine is photographed against a background of lush flames, including once while gunning a motorcycle. For all its lip service, X-Men: Origins' violence-fetish struck me as hyper-jingoism, more Iron Man/Dark Knight bullshit - a Bush-era hangover spoiling Obama's first early-summer blockbuster season.

Read Benjamin Sutton & I's discussion at The L Magazine

Watch the trailer:


Written & Directed by: Tony Gilroy
Full credits at IMDb

The screenplay’s the thing in Duplicity, Tony Gilroy’s bleak but breezy exercise in storytelling sophistication. About corporate espionage and the globe-hopping escapades of high-class sexgod megastars (Clive Owen and Julia Roberts), the film, unlike Gilroy’s previous Michael Clayton, is less concerned with exposing a moralistic portrait of a corrupted culture than with testing how complexly constructed a narrative can be before the center cannot hold and things fall apart. Gilroy cross-cuts between incongruous temporal planes, he leaks essential information gradually, he upends what we think we know with flashbacks, and he persistently realigns the character’s loyalties. The story’s joints creak under that kind of pressure, those gutsy narrative demands, but Gilroy’s serviceable direction manages to keep together the precision-crafted machine—his scriptopuzzle. And the film’s pleasures derive from watching him get away with it, from watching it unfold successfully.

Duplicity’s heroes meet as bonafide spies—Owens is MI6, Roberts is CIA. Years later, they’re both working for a consumer-goods corporation at war (“old school espionage—Moscow rules”) with its competitor: think Johnson and Johnson vs. Proctor and Gamble. Gilroy hints at a civilization, or at least a business culture, in tatters: no one trusts anyone else, duplicity has replaced innovation, the CEOs have body doubles, the offices have thumb-scanner security, and each company has a large team of hi-tech hackers and con artists devoted to stealing their counterpart’s every file: travel records and expense accounts, not to mention, say, new research and development. That sort of cynicism, combined with a pulsating, tick-tock score, evokes a 70s thriller, but it’s misleading; at heart, the movie is more 1930’s, a screwball comedy built around Roberts-and-Owens’ measured suavity, rapid-fire banter and general movie-star appeal. The two characters use mistrust as an aphrodisiac, deceiving one another and everyone around them. They are playing a very similar game to the con Gilroy is playing on us: we can’t trust a damn thing he says. We are at his mercy, the film a cinematic dominatrix; it’s a turn-on, albeit a shallow and ephemeral thrill. Grade: B+

Watch the trailer: