Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Slumdog Millionaire Doesn't Understand Itself

Minor spoilers after the break.

Slumdog Millionaire is director Danny Boyle's eighth feature film, and is perhaps best known for taking home eight Oscars at the 2009 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It's generally constructed with a fairly high degree of talent: the actor's performances are all believable, the writing and editing are sharp and keep a good pace, and most of all the film looks very pretty (it also won Best Cinematography). But it is also a movie which strangely doesn't understand its own material.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Forgotten, Misunderstood Horror of The Keep

F. Paul Wilson, the author of the novel from which Michael Mann's The Keep (1983) was adapted, has said that the film is "visually intriguing, but otherwise utterly incomprehensible." Normally I believe there's little value in asking authors what they think about movies which their books inspired (Stephen King famously criticized Kubrick's The Shining, later going on to make his own far inferior adaptation), but in this case Wilson is absolutely right. Whatever other beauty The Keep might contain—and I happen to think there's quite a lot—at the narrative level it makes very little sense. But that's not as important as you might think.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Place Beyond the Pines & Frustrated Expectations

Expectations are annoying. This is going to be one of those weird reviews where I really liked the film, but no matter how much editing I do, my tone is going to sound disappointed because my expectations were too high. I really liked The Place Beyond the Pines. It was good. It just wasn't as good as I thought it would be.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Michael Mann's Collateral & Digital Cinematography

Can I just be honest? I don't really know a lot about film. I may talk big about the depths of thematic development or the meaning of cinematic style, but like the rest of us I'm just making it up as I go. But if there's one thing I know for sure about movies it's that I prefer film over digital (background info). I think digital filmmaking is good for little more than lowering costs. I love film stock. Sure, some of that love comes from the romantic part of me clinging to the nostalgic notion that it's somehow more "authentic" or "genuine," but there are objective reasons film stock is better looking than digital video. Higher color saturation. Higher resolution. I know which theaters around me haven't converted to digital projection and make an effort to visit them whenever possible. But every rule must have its exceptions.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

TMNT 2014: Leaving Michael Bay's Legacy Behind

We're all familiar with Michael Bay by now. Whether you like his movies or not, we can all agree on the blueprint he uses to make them. So while Bay wasn't technically sitting in the director's chair for this Turtles installment, his producing credit plastered all over its advertisements gave me the distinct impression that it would be using the same outlines even if it colored them in differently. And it is from this precise position I can say that, even with its abundance of problems, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was a pleasant surprise.

If Michael Bay's movies are essentially a distillation of the worldview of a 15-year-old boy, Jonathan Liebesman's creation is instead a distillation of the worldview of a 12-year-old boy. How is that an improvement if we're going backwards? Bay's pimpled, insecure, furiously masturbating teenager is replaced with a slightly more innocent, endearing, bashful youth, and any loss of maturity is forgiven due to the lack of spunk to be cleaned up afterward.

The most interesting aspect of the movie is undeniably its perspective. The story is told from the point of view of April O'Neil (Megan Fox), a young, passionate journalist who discovers the Turtles during their fight against the Foot Clan and whom the camera manages to only objectify once. Nobody believes her when she says she saw a group of crime-fighting turtles, and her dual struggles to learn the truth and to have her investigative talents recognized are surprisingly sympathetic. The events carry both a sense of urgency (April is eventually fired for her eccentric pursuit) and a sense of humor (her roommate asks her mom if she can move back home in response to April's bizarre quest), and this makes her character feel human and gives the film an emotional core—even if only a slight one. She starts out with enthusiasm, but only through the conflicts of the film does she find the bravery and sense of belonging to stand by her convictions. This focus fades in and out as the Turtles become the center of attention and the movie shifts gears into action territory, but it's there to provide some sense of limited narrative coherence to the story.

Of course the "shifting gears" metaphor isn't really accurate in this situation, since in changing from April to the Turtles the movie doesn't so much shift from second to third as it does jump entirely from one car to another. The homely but reliable minivan of April's character is ditched for the fast but unpredictable sports car of the Turtles' action. The problem with sports cars is that to be effective they need an expert driver, and Liebesman—or any of the numerous assistant directors—isn't up to the challenge. If the action scene scale goes from the careful choreography of The Raid to the chaotic confusion of Transformers, this is definitely closer to Bay's unidentifiable CGI mishmash. But there are one or two solid sequences, and the best is undeniably the slide down the mountain (which unfortunately has all its highlights spoiled in the trailer), and while there's not much which stands out about the fight scenes, for the most part they work.

What absolutely does not work is the central antagonist, Shredder. His design operates under the standard Michael Bay misconception that "more = better," and in loading up his armor with a laughable amount of blades it makes Shredder into a comically large Swiss army knife. There's no weight to the character, either literally or figuratively: the Turtles throw him around like a rag doll, and there's never any point where he poses them a serious threat. Our heroes' only moment of weakness comes at the hands of Shredder's student, Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) and his ability to suck the Turtles' power from their mutated blood. But Sacks is sidelined because he lacks Action Scene Potential, and thus the film continues to keep its plotting and action separated in different vehicles.


As unintentionally hilarious as Shredder is, there's also some purposeful comedy laced throughout the film. Most of it rises both from the Turtles' relationship with each other and from their communal struggle to put on a brave face despite being teenagers. When they're together, they have a natural (albeit limited) amount of chemistry. In one scene they take an elevator to the top of a tall tower, and as the long ride begins to bore them they start beat boxing. This scene works as a litmus test for the movie: if it doesn't leave you smiling, this movie's not for you. Like this scene, a lot of the comedy can come off as trying too hard—like Mikey's obsession with the cat playing Chopsticks with chopsticks, or the continuous attempts to shoehorn in old catchphrases like "cowabunga"—and you'll either find them endearing or annoying depending on whether you're mad at Bay and Liebesman for ruining your childhood.

For me, most of the movie was pretty hit or miss. Its central problem is that, even when it does connect, it's never out of the park. At best it manages a couple base hits and maybe a ground rule double, but not enough to put much of a score on the board (sorry, I know it's not baseball season anymore, but I'm no good with football metaphors). Fortunately, it's nowhere near as offensive as the Transformers movies, and at worst it's simply a disappointing, unfunny bore—and at just over 100 minutes, it's much more bearable than a lot of other recent blockbuster failures. In the end, it comes down to whether you look at it as a genuine attempt at an action-comedy or as dispensable children's entertainment. If the former, it's particularly unsatisfactory, barely meeting the lowest standards of real cinema; if the latter, it's unimpressive but nothing to whine about.

That budget is just shameful though. When will we realize that throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at shortsighted, uninspired screenplays can only produce something less than mediocre?

2014 Ranked | Superhero Movies Ranked

"TMNT": Turtle redesign by Ancorgil on Deviant Art

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Boyhood: The Growing Legacy of the 21st Century

Boyhood is the latest film from Richard Linklater, the director behind the critically acclaimed Before trilogy. It is most well known for its impressive production design: the film was shot over the course of 12 years with the same set of actors, allowing us to see their characters grow up along with the actors portraying them. But beyond its technically impressive accomplishment, the film is also exceptionally emotional and intelligent. It's a movie that both brought me back to my childhood and got my thinking about what defines our generation. It is an accomplishment which all audiences ought to be able to enjoy.

Popular Perceptions of Racism in Hollywood

So here's a thing that bothers me: racism. And not just its existence in the world, but slightly more relevant to today's discussion, the discourses surrounding Hollywood and its portrayal of race. Several times a year, some stupid movie will come out where a nonwhite setting will be populated by white characters or nonwhite characters will be cast with white actors. This is a pretty obviously negative tendency. It is generally a bad thing. But what gets me even more frustrated than its existence itself is the way people talk about it.

Rush: A Look Back at The Best of 2013

Every year we see some films which stick with us and some which don't; some films impress us on first viewing but diminish subsequently, while others ripen with age. The tendency among reviewers (for obvious traffic-related reasons) is of course to come out with "best of the year" lists as soon as possible, but whether these films will remain personal favorites years later is a question only answerable in time. In this light I recently decided to revisit Rush, a September 2013 release recognized at the Golden Globes but ignored at the Oscars, and a movie which I personally enjoyed enough to place in my top 10 at the end of the year.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy: Toward A New Type of Superhero

Guardians of the Galaxy is yet another Marvel comic book franchise in a sea already overflowing with superhero movies, but there is something exceptionally unique about this one, and it's not the fact that you've probably never heard of the source material. This one is special because it actually attempts to stretch the possibilities of its genre.

By the end of the 1990's, superheroes movies had fallen off a cliff into a vat of cheesy costumes and bad pun one-liners without enough unique style or personality to justify their lack of emotional consequence (Batman & Robin is the primary offender here but other notable clunkers include Judge Dredd, Daredevil, and The Fantastic Four). After the turn of the century, X-Men and Spider-Man proved it was possible to make a superhero movie as a fairly straightforward action flick, but it wasn't until Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins and particularly The Dark Knight that the genre began to take on a new shape. Comic book movies became dark and brooding as directors flipped the switch from one extreme of insipid fluff to another of high-handed mopiness.

Why Days of Heaven Is So Beautiful to Film Nerds

Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven is absolutely gorgeous. In fact, the movie is so overwhelming visually that some otherwise talented critics seem to have forgotten what their job is and resorted to complaining that the film doesn't neatly fit into established genre conventions. I know it's unfair to pick on the outliers in a historically determined situation like this, but when the most negative professional review of a film uses phrases like "people are carefully arranged, frames are carefully composed" and "fancy, self-conscious cineaste techniques" to describe why they don't like it, I know it's going to be right up my alley. I'm not saying that as a lover of film you ought to like Days of Heaven—even I have my issues with it—it just feels like critiquing a comedy for having too many jokes. This is American art house, pure and simple, and I'll take this over generic cinema any day of the week.