Saturday, August 15, 2009

2009 so far

As the summer movie season winds down (although some anticipated films remain this month, mainly Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds, Miyazaki's Ponyo and Chan Wook Park's Thist) and the more serious fall season begins, I figured it was time to look back at the year in film so far. This will also sort of make up for how lazy I've been with this thing all summer. I haven't seen as many films as I would have liked so far this year (somewhere around 25), and I still haven't gotten to many highly regarded releases, including Tetro and The Hurt Locker, but here's what I have seen.
Top 10 (yes, some of these, including the top two, are technically 2008 releases, but they weren't released anywhere near me until 2009 and I don't really care about that sort of thing
1. Hunger
A masterpiece where every motion is absolutely necessary and every little tic says something new about the characters and their situation. The long conversation in the middle is a stunning centerpiece and acts as the highlight of Michael Fassbender's masterful performance, but Steve McQueen's stunning debut has no weak moments.
2. Revanche
Gotz Spielmann's immaculately shot noirish drama features great performances from it's entire cast as the tension continues to rise until the properly ambiguous ending.
3. In The Loop
Simply put, this is the funniest film of the year and one of the funniest of the decade.
4. Tokyo
I think somewhat higher of this one now than I did at first, especially the section directed by Leos Carax. It seems funnier and more poignant having actually seen one of his features (the great Lovers On The Bridge). The other segments are also very strong.
5. 500 Days Of Summer
I normally hate romantic comedies and I have it this high. That should mean something to you.
6. The Limits Of Control
Jim Jarmusch's stunningly beautiful (courtesy of the great cinematographer Christopher Doyle), critically misunderstood film may go down as one of his finest.
7. Star Trek
Sure the plot is nonsense and the villain is weak, but I don't think I've had more fun at a movie this year
8. Watchmen (Directors Cut Only)
The theatrical cut of the film wasn't necessarily bad, but the characters really weren't as developed as they could have been and the editing seemed off. The director's cut, which adds 24 minutes of footage, almost entirely in early character moments, fixes a lot of this. Malin Akerman and Mathew Goode are still pretty bad, the music choices are still laughable and Snyder still can't create a good action sequences, but more of the comic is here, and that is necessary.
9. Moon
Duncan Jones' debut may try a bit too hard to emulate 2001 and Solaris, but this leads to some great visuals and a morally interesting tale anchored by Sam Rockwell's great performance.
10. District 9
The sudden and unexplained shift away from the documentary style of the first half is a problem, as the second half becomes more of a simple action movie (I understand that it was necessary for plot reasons, but if the first half was written that way, they should have kept it going), but it is a damn good action movie, so for now it makes the list.
HM: Adventureland, Brothers Bloom, Up, Bruno, Sin Nombre

Bottom 5
5. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
While it is not the worst film in the series, David Yates' second entry takes one of the better books and turns it into something that is, ultimately, too dull to work on its own.
4. Taken
I know that this sleeper hit isn't exactly the type of film designed for me, but I find it somewhat depressing that this type of film is designed for anyone.
3. Public Enemies
I have to give Mann credit for trying something different, but I just don't think it succeeds. The script tries too hard to both romanticize and humanize Dillinger, never giving us anything resembling a full character. Like Heat, he tries to create a full criminal world, but, for one reason or another, it just doesn't work this time (the lack of De Niro and Pacino in the main roles of course being one of those reasons). The photo-realist, docudrama style also prevents it from reaching the stylistic level of his best film shot in digital, Collateral.
2. Angels and Demons
I don't like Ron Howard. I don't like Dan Brown. If I had paid for this one (the projector in the movie I meant to see was broken, so we got free tickets to this one), I would have been even angrier.
1. Wolverine
My original opinion still stands. This film is completely worthless. It provides nothing new about the character except a series of shockingly dull action set pieces.
There were a lot of simply mediocre films I've seen this year, but none that really deserved to be here

Monday, July 20, 2009

Pitchfork Fest

At the very beginning, I promised that I would occasionally do a music review in here. Nine months later, I guess it's time for the first one. This weekend I attended Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, which, through a laid-back atmosphere, cheap tickets and consistently solid lineups has evolved into a hip alternative to Lollapalooza. Pitchfork will never be able to afford headliners like Lolla 2008 (Radiohead, Wilco, Rage, Kanye and Nine Inch Nails), but when the headliners for both festivals were announced this year, it became pretty clear which one I'd be attending. I honestly wouldn't pay a cent to see Lollapalooza's pathetic lineup of Depeche Mode, Tool, The Killers, Jane's Addiction, Beastie Boys and Jane's Addiction. There are some great below-the-line artists (Animal Collective, Lou Reed, Andrew Bird, Fleet Foxes, Portugal. The Man, etc), but a 3-day pass to Lolla is over $200, while three days at Pitchfork was $75, the price of a one-day ticket at Lollapalooza, and with Built to Spill, The National and The Flaming lips as headliners, I knew I would get my money's worth.
On Friday night, the festival eschewed the recent tradition of the artists playing their defining album (in recent years, the festival was treated to full versions of Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation, Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and Mission of Burma's Vs.), in favor the band's playing set-lists chosen by fan vote. The night opened with Chicago post-rock legends Tortoise, who displayed all the proficiency found in their studio work, but lacked the emotion and energy to make it a truly memorable show. Also, people kept tossing around Beach Balls, which seemed kind of idiotic during an experimental post-rock show. Next came Yo La Tengo, a band I've never really liked. Thankfully, after the first couple songs, me and the friend I was with ran into another friend who had just returned from a month in Europe who shared our distaste for the band, and we spent their set sitting down and talking behind the sound tent. We could still hear the music, and it became evident that there were some issues with the sound system, but the music we did here was pretty awful, so none of us cared at the moment. After this came post-punk legends The Jesus Lizard, playing their first hometown show since their 1999 breakup. Vocalist David Yow brought a perfect amount of energy and insanity and they clearly hadn't missed a step in their decade apart, but I didn't have a great view because we had moved as close to the main stage as possible so we could see Built to Spill (these two stages were essentially right next to each other). I think this was the right decision. Built to Spill is one of my favorite bands of the nineties, and seeing Doug Martsch work his magic up close was one of the highlights of the festival. They didn't play a lot of my favorite songs (no "Time Trap" "I Would Hurt a Fly," or "Broken Chairs,") but they closed with "Carry The Zero," which is probably my favorite track of theirs. They are definitely a band I would recommend seeing live at the first possible opportunity. Overall, Friday night had it's issues, mainly the fact that there were only two food vendors, absurd lines for drink tickets and bathrooms and it was far too cold, but the bands were good (for the most part) and I had fun.
Saturday opened with Cymbals Eat Guitars, a Built To Spill-like band that has exploded onto the scene with praise from blogs across the board in recent months. I'm a fan of their album "Why There Are Mountains," and their show was OK, but they clearly aren't ready to be playing in front of such a huge audience yet. I spent the next couple hours just wandering around and taking in the festival, not staying long enough at any one set to write about it (of the bands I saw during this time, I'd say the sample of Plants and Animals that I heard was strongest). I ran into some more friends, and spent the rest of day with them, first going to see The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, who sound like a mediocre Jesus and Mary Chain knock-off in studio and even worse live. After wandering around for a while in search of free stuff (there was a lot of it), I was begrudgingly dragged to Yeasayer, whom I saw and disliked at Lollapalooza last year. Thankfully, that dislike was unwarranted, and they put on a pretty good show. They had a lot more energy, the crowd was really into it and the weather was perfect. It had been cloudy and humid all day, and then it started raining in the middle of one of their most energetic tracks, which made the crowd even wilder. We then saw part of DOOM's set, which didn't seem that great and was, by most accounts, a major disappointment, but chose to stay in place for a better view of Beirut. Unfortunately, through a small communication breakdown, we wound up moving and looking for other friends, and, by the time we got back, the crowd around Beirut was full. It wasn't all bad, since we then decided to move as close as possible to the main stage for The National and just listen to Beirut instead of actually watching. It seemed like a good show, but it was kind of hard to tell. Before describing The National's show, I should point out a few things: it was my third time seeing them in about a year, they are one of my two or three favorite bands of this decade and they were my favorite band playing at the festival. Of the three times I've seen them, this was, by far, the best show. Not only were we in the third row, but the set was much longer than the others, and another year of buzz and increased popularity has seemingly given them the right levels of confidence and energy to really control the audience. Matt Berninger's booming vocals were at their best and the rhythm section was a rock-solid as always. Their were a few more issues with the sound, but overall it was a near perfect show and a great way to end the night. Many of the issues from Friday were gone by Saturday. The food and rink lines weren't nearly as long and the weather was much better. Unfortunately, the bathroom problem was still there, but they brought in about 20 more portables by Sunday, which helped solve that issue.The National

On Sunday, I got their just in time to be somewhat disappointed by Frightened Rabbit. The set from the Scottish indie-pop band wasn't necessarily bad, but it had a certain been-there-done-that feel to it, with nothing to separate it from any other indie-pop show I've seen. Next, I caught part of Blitzen Trapper's set, and they were pretty good, but I'm not sure I loved them as much as some others did. I caught parts of sets from Killer Whales (meh), Pharoahe Monch (I don't know hip-hop at all, but I thought he was good) and The Thermals (meh), before settling down for The Walkmen. We had a pretty awful view, but the sound was fine and they were good, so we enjoyed ourselves. After this, we just turned to the other stage for M83. I've never been a big fan, but the French electronic shoegazers do put on one hell of a show. Unfortunately, by this point, the main section in front of the stage was already entirely full of Flaming Lips fans, and they, for the most part, couldn't care less, which took some of the fun out of M83. After this, everyone faced a hard decision. The A stage (where M83 had just played) and the C stage were basically right next to each other. Grizzly Bear was about to come onto the C stage, but Flaming Lips were next on A, as soon as Grizzly Bear finished. Anyone with a good view of the A stage but no view of C (myself included) could either give up a good seat to rock's greatest spectacle or miss out on a great band. I chose to see Grizzly Bear and try to get the best view possible for the Lips. Grizzly Bear's latest album, Veckatimest is an early contender for album of the year, and their show didn't disappoint, even though the sound problems became a real issue and forced them to play without any monitors and varying levels. Finally, the weekend ended with a show from alternative rock's greatest spectacle, The Flaming Lips. It opened with most of the band members walking out of a giant on-screen (censored) vagina and Wayne Coyne running above the audience in his trademark giant hamster ball, and they pretty much maintained that level of gloriously giddy surrealism throughout. They also sort of participated in the write-the-night vote, but at various points, Coyne showed a sort of disdain for the list, playing the 66th most requested song and a few that nobody requested at all and some new tracks. They closed with full sing-along versions of "Yoshimi," "She Don's Use Jelly" and "Do You Realize??" and it was obvious that everyone in the crowd absolutely loved it. The show also featured bizarre video projections, tons of balloons and streamers and about two dozen people in animal costumes on stage. There really is nothing like a Flaming Lips concert, even a somewhat minimal festival version (their set was only 90 minutes, which is much shorter than their normal shows), and it was the perfect way to end a great weekend. So, for anyone who lives in Chicago, I would make Pitchfork a priority next summer.The Flaming Lips

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

500 Days Of Summer

There are very few phrases that will almost always make me avoid a film at all cost. "Torture porn," "based on the hit Broadway musical," "tearjerker" and "starring Paris Hilton" are all certainly among them, along with "romantic comedy." Outside of Annie Hall (and some of Allen's other films if they can be accurately described as such), I can never think of a rom-com that I actually enjoy, which is why it felt so strange to actually be excited by the trailer for 500 Days Of Summer. A romantic comedy that actually looks funny? And smart? And doesn't feature Mathew Mcconaughey or Katherine Heigl? Holy shit. Add in the extremely positive buzz and Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanael as the leads and it became one of my most anticipated films of the summer, so when I found out that I could get free tickets to an advance screening, I jumped at the chance. Thankfully, it met every expectation.
The Annie Hall comment above was no accident, and it's not just the highly literate, fully formed characters, the sense of humor and the repeated references to the films of Ingmar Bergman. While this film is not as insightful when it comes to relationships as Allen's masterpiece, it is the closest any film this generation has come. Tom (Gordon-Levitt) is a writer at a greeting card company, and he believes very strongly in love, fate and finding "the one," which the narrator says was caused by "listening to too much depressing British music and a complete misinterpretation of The Graduate." Summer (Deschanael) is the new receptionist at the office, and she believes that love does not exist, likening it to Santa Clause. On day 1, Tom sees her, and falls immediately head-over-heels, but this isn't where the film begins. First-time director Marc Webb and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber jump around through the 500 days of the title, showing us all of the ups and downs of their relationship, usually in just the right spot. They open around day 300, right after Tom and Summer break up, as Tom's two best friends and his little sister, who is shown to be a far more emotionally mature person than he, try to console him. We see their relationship begin, and even though she always insists that they are just friends, Tom falls in love. This is juxtaposed with post-breakup Tom falling into a pit of depression, trying to find a reason for their breakup, quitting his job and blaming our societal issues with love on "greeting cards, pop songs and the movies." Around day 30, they first have sex, which is followed by a rather amusing, semi-surreal song-and-dance number. After quitting his job, Tom goes to the movies, which, in what is by far the film's best sequence, leads to shot-for-shot homages to the final scene in Persona and the first chess-scene in The Seventh Seal, with Tom and Summer taking the various roles. Later, after meeting at a mutual friend's wedding, for the first time since their break-up, Summer invites Tom to a party at her house, and we see it in split-screen, one side showing what Tom wants to happen and the other showing us reality. Throughout the film, they discuss art, music, film, architecture and every other thing that people hide behind, but they can never really come together and discuss what is happening to them and the state of their relationship, because Tom is right, the conveniences of modernity do stop us from being able to really open up, and unless two people are absolutely perfect for each other, that will not change.
500 Days of Summer is the best American film I've seen this year, but it does have one or two flaws. The first act is one of the most consistently hilarious half-hours I've seen in a film, so, as the second act begins to settle into serious-mode, it slows down a bit. The film manages to avoid most of the Sundance-cliches. It is quirky, but, for the most part, this adds to our love of the characters and is not just for the sake of being quirky. The one exception may be Tom's little sister. Her scenes are pretty amusing, but it almost always feels very forced and contrived when an adult character talks to a child for relationship advice. In all honesty, those are my only complaints. Webb generally avoids the visual flair and lets the characters be the centers of attention, and they are great characters. Both actors give career-best performances (at least from what I've seen from them, which, in Deschanel's case, does not include her widely acclaimed work in David Gordon Green's All The Real Girls) It is impossible not to fall in love with Summer, and not just because she's played by the equally impossible not-to-love Deschanel. She is just an incredibly fun and refreshing presence, plus she loves The Beatles' underrated "Octopus Garden," which had been stuck in my head all week. Tom is the center of this film, and Gordon-Levitt does a great job of humanizing a character that, in the hands of a lesser actor, probably would have come off as just depressing, and maybe kind of creepy. The film's use of music must also be mentioned. It is full of clips from and references to bands that I love, including The Jesus and Mary Chain, Pixies, Belle and Sebastian, The Smiths, Feist, Spoon and Wolfmother. All of this, plus the intelligent and humorous script adds up to what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the year's best films. 500 Days Of Summer, more than anything else, is a very modern, very great Woody Allen film, and that should be enough to get you to see it when it comes out.
Rating (out of ****): ****

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Almanac Of Fall

There's something kind of strange about going through a filmmaker's work in reverse. It allows you to see the evolution of their style, what they thought worked and what failed. While not entirely intentional, this is basically what I've been doing with Bela Tarr, ever since I first saw Werckmeister Harmonies last year, which is now my favorite film (I only saw 2007's wonderful Man From London a few weeks ago, but that was because it wasn't released here until then). In fact, after watching his vastly underseen (even in the realm of Tarr, whose films are all vastly underseen) 1982 film Almanac of Fall this afternoon, I'm confident that I can now call him my favorite filmmaker. Period. Almanac is an interesting film, forming the bridge between his supposedly realist earlier films (remember, I haven't seen them), and the more difficult, allegorical films to come. It's also the only color feature I've seen from him, and his skill with the full color palate nearly reaches his abilities with black and white. The political allegory and Tarkovsky-esque camera work of his later films is here, but in a younger form, and his other influences, especially Bergman and Antonioni (and, maybe, to a much lesser extent Fellini) are more obvious in this film than in his subsequent works.
The entire film takes place in one large, dilapidated mansion. The outside world is barely shown, only intruding for two brief moments of violence. There are only five characters, and the entire film consists of their interactions. The house is owned by Hedi, a woman of about 60 and her 30 year old son Janos. There is also Hedi's nurse, Anna, who lives with her lover, Miklos. Miklos has recently invited his poor friend Tibor, a teacher to move in as well. The five of them spend the two-hour run-time manipulating and hurting each other, all of them trying to gain money and power over the others, all blaming the others for their problems. Hedi and Anna need each other, but they are always competing, and neither is comfortable with the other. Janos wants Anna, but is far too lazy to accomplish anything. Miklos is an angry man, abusing Anna and manipulating Hedi against the others. Tibor owes money to an undisclosed figure, who sends two men in to beat him. This is shown from the floor's point of view, as the entire sequence (of course done in one virtuoso shot) is shown happening on top of a glass pane. Eventually Tibur pawns Hedi's valuable gold bracelet, which further pulls everyone apart, and eventually breaks up the group, who demand a sacrificial lamb before they can return to their twisted normalcy.
It must be made clear that this is an unpleasant film. The characters cruelty and actions would seem at home in something by Von Trier, whose debut feature had been released the previous year. This has turned off many critics (many may be an overstatement given the film's obscurity, but that is unimportant), but it is necessary. The chamber-play setup as well as some of the character actions, especially the manipulative relationship between Hedi and Anna, shows Bergman's influence on Tarr. The expressive and always changing color palate was created entirely with artificial light and reminded me a bit of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits, but this may be a stretch. The loneliness of the characters, as well as their isolation within the frame as the film uses more wide-shots in the second half, recall Antonioni. Some have seen the film as a critique of the family in general, and the isolation of the characters, especially during the requisite dance scene at the end (if you've seen another Tarr film, you know what I'm talking about) does support this, but there is more to it.
The main themes of the film (as well as the pervasive long-takes) are what I've come to expect from Tarr. The characters are all unable to accept responsibility for their actions. Tibur blames his financial woes on the situation around him, even though he was the one who borrowed from a shady character in the first place. Janos blames his lack of work on alcohol, not on his own inherent laziness. Miklos seems to blame his problems on Anna, but in reality, he's just not a good person. Anna sleeps with all three men, but says that society is at fault for any problems that it may cause. Through all of this, Tarr is saying that man is always responsible for his own actions, but, with the events at the end of the film, he is saying that human nature always calls for a scapegoat, even when the problems are everyone's fault. Given the strong political undertones of his later films, this could be interpreted as him (correctly) predicting that, while at the time people blamed communism for their problems, they would eventually blame capitalism, and the cycle would go on, with people only shifting the blame and not actually doing anything for themselves. There are a lot of long takes in this film, with each conversation usually being made up of only one or two shots, but Tarr does no rely on them as heavily as he would later. The camera work here is interesting in a different way, as Tarr and his cinematographers shoot from every angle and distance imaginable, as a way of saying that the actions of the characters, and therefore humanity, may not make any real, logical sense no matter how one looks at them. I would not put Almanac Of Fall on quite the same level as Werckmeister or Satantango, but I think I would rank it third among the master's films, which means that you really should see it as soon as possible.
Rating (out of ****): ****

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Brothers Bloom

Rian Johnson's 2005 debut film, Brick, was a deservedly critically acclaimed piece of neo-noir, taking the world of Dashiell Hammett and moving it into a modern high school. Part of what made it so good was that combination of a world that is familiar because we've all lived it and a world that is familiar because we've grown up watching others live it. I was hoping for something similar when they first announced his follow-up, The Brothers Bloom. I knew it would be a con film, but I hoped there would be a twist. Unless some added quirk and an obvious Wes Anderson influence counts as a twist, my hopes were dashed, but I was not really disappointed in the film as a whole. It's not as good as Brick, which was an exciting, visually fascinating debut, but it is a very fun way to spend a couple hours.
The film opens with a way-too-long prologue telling the story of the titular brothers' first con. We see the younger one, simply called Bloom, as a romantic who is uncomfortable with their actions while the older Stephen plans and predicts everything in advance, and he is always right. The narration is heaviest here (it's really only used early), and it is pretty bad, plus the child actors are unimpressive. Next, we see the adult brothers, Bloom (Adrien Brody) and Stephen (Mark Ruffalo) and their partner Bang-Bang (Rinko Kikuchi, from Babel) at the end of their latest con. Bloom is depressed, and despite Stephen's attempts to keep him, decides to quit. After a few months of hiding in Montenegro, Stephen finds him for one last con, involving eccentric American heiress Penelope, played by Rachel Weisz. Penelope has been alone for most of her life, studying everything and picking up hobbies. Her money is limitless, and she goes through three or four different Lamborghinis in her first ten minutes of screen-time. She is fun and quirky and Bloom quickly falls for her. Under the guise of antique dealing, the group winds up in Prague, and through a complicated, but still perfectly clear (one of the film's strengths is that it doesn't heavily rely on bad expositional dialogue) scheme, they get part of her money and move to Mexico to get the rest. Here, parts of the brothers' pasts and Bloom's feelings for Penelope begin to become an issue, and Bloom begins to wonder how he can get her out of the game.
The film does have issues. There is a lot of really obvious foreshadowing in the beginning, and, despite the stunning locations, I was kind of disappointed in the visuals. Johnson fails to really utilize everything around him, and many of the shots that do work don't come up until the end. There are also some cliche moments in the script, especially when the brothers constantly talk about living an "unwritten life," but the good certainly outweighs the bad in terms of dialogue. The film's sense of irony and some of the camera motions (especially in the way it pans from person to person) come off as Wes Anderson-light. If you added some brighter colors, a bit more irony and replaced Ruffalo and Brody with Owen and Luke Wilson, it would probably be a pretty good Anderson picture, but I love Anderson's work, so this didn't really bug me. Whatever flaws I found were outweighed by the breezy sense of fun and adventure. A large part of this was due to the actors. Brody's character is the "normal" one, and, while he isn't great here, he provides a solid emotional center. Ruffalo gets some juicy monologues, and he does a very good job with them, creating a likable character where a lesser actor would have seemed too sinister. Weisz, who I'm normally not a huge fan of, shows that comedy is one of her strengths, perfectly portraying her character's awkwardness and her transformation into a "normal" person. The real star in this film is Kikuchi. I hated Babel. I think it's one of the worst films of the decade, just the equally bad Crash on a larger scale, but she was very good in her Oscar-nominated role as a Japanese mute. Here, she plays a Japanese mute again, but this time her character exists mainly for laughs, and she gets them. Every little look she gives, even from the background, completely steals the scene, and the audience, at least in my screening, reacted wonderfully to her character.
The film manages to avoid many of the cliches of the con-man film (although some just have to be there) and there are some great bits of dialogue ("My brother writes jobs like dead Russians write novels") and memorable characters. I'm not sure what exactly the film was aspiring to be, but, despite a couple little issues here and there and the fact that it doesn't quite live up to the fantastic poster at the top of this review (seriously, how awesome is that thing?), it works wonderfully as a fun and breezy adventure story.
Rating (out of ****): ***

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Terminator Salvation

In recent months, despite the large amount of time I spend on Rottentomatoes, I've grown wary of the Tomatometer. See my recent review of The Limits of Control for a good example of this. I was hoping that the same sentiment would hold for the newest entry in a franchise that helped to define my childhood, Terminator Salvation. I was wrong, and the film's 39% seems about right. I first saw Terminator 2: Judgment Day when I was six or seven (probably a poor decision on someone's part), and while certain things flew over my head, including the various references to the first film, which I didn't see until years later, I still loved it. I watched it again last week in preparation for the fourth film, and it has held up. It's still one of the all-time great action films. I don't think the first film has held up quite as well, but it's still pretty fun. The third film was the first not directed by series creator James Cameron, and it showed. Jonathon Mostow's film wasn't terrible, but doesn't reach the quality of the first two. McG's entry in the series is about half as good as Mostow's. I've been waiting since I was a kid to see the future war between man and machine, and the only thing it did was leave me feeling underwhelmed.
I guess I should have expected this. McG, despite recent successes in television, is still the director of Charlie's Angels, and it was written by the guys who did Catwoman, but the ace cast and the source material gave me hope. This hope was very quickly dashed. The film opens with Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) on death row in 2003. Before his execution, he agrees to donate his corpse to Cyberdyne systems after meeting an executive named Serena (a bald Helena Bonham Carter). Flash to the future (2018 to be exact), and we meet adult John Conner (Christian Bale), not yet leader of the resistance, who loses a large part of his team in the first of the film's many dull action scenes. Conner (using Bale's far-too-serious Batman voice) goes back to the resistance's submarine headquarters and finds out that they have a plan to destroy Skynet and end the war by changing the system's signals. He also discovers that Skynet has a kill-list, with his name second. First is Kyle Reese (Anton Yelchin), the man he will eventually send back to protect/impregnate his mother in the first film (as for his mother, Linda Hamilton has a voice cameo on a series of tapes that are played to catch up audiences who forgot). We then meet the rest of John's team, including his wife Kate (Bryce Dallas Howard) and right-hand-man, Barnes (Common). Marcus suddenly wakes up in Los Angeles, and after exploring the post-apocalyptic landscape, meets Kyle. They encounter a few giant robots/Transformers rejects who engage them in a series of repetitive, sepia-toned action sequences. Eventually, Skynet captures Kyle, and Marcus runs into Blair Williams (Moon Bloodgood) a pilot for John's team who has been shot down. They head back to the base (in order to keep a PG-13 rating, a sex scene between the two, presumably in this part of the film, was cut, which is stupid, because it muddles the rationale behind their future actions), but before getting there, Marcus steps on a mine. This is where the film's first big twist, you know, the one that's been a major part of every trailer, is revealed. Eventually, Marcus and John attack Skynet's core. Along the way, we get references to the famous lines from the other films and one surprise "cameo" (is it a cameo if it's just a digitally created version of the actor?). There is more violence, and then the movie ends.
Terminator Salvation was not all bad. It's certainly better than Angels & Demons or Wolverine, but it is not good. I can ignore the logic/continuity errors (24 year-old Claire Danes aging into 29 year-old Bryce Dallas Howard, who looks about 24, in the 15 years between the events of T3 and Salvation, as well as switching from vet to doctor who can perform human heart transplants was almost too much), and the special effects were certainly impressive, but the action, which makes up about 80% of the movie is repetitive and dull and the dialogue that makes up the other 20% is a boring mix of cliches and references to past films. Some of the actors, especially Yelchin, who also impressed in Star Trek, and the Australian Worthington, who will be a major star by the end of the year due to his starring role in James Cameron's highly-anticipated Avatar, do a great job with what they have, but the others don't. Common is distractingly bad during his scenes and Bale never leaves his one-note, overly-intense Batman-mode. The emotional moments, which were what separated T2 from most 90s action films, all fall pathetically flat, as none of the relationships are believable or given enough screentime to make us care. Surprisingly enough, I don't think I can really blame this on McG. There are a few good looking shots, and the pacing is perfectly fine, so I'm going to blame it on the writers, John Brancato and Michael Ferris. Bad dialogue and the same action scene constantly repeating itself are what sink this film. The two really good performances (Kyle and Marcus both have roughly equal screentime with John, which helps), the effects and the nostalgia factor save it from being total crap, but I can't recommend this film.
Rating (out of ****): **

Friday, May 8, 2009

The Limits of Control

As a film critic (sort of), do I have the right to grant a director a certain limit of self indulgence if he's never failed me in the past? I think so. Apparently other critics disagree. The Limits Of Control, the latest film from American master Jim Jarmusch, is also the worst-reviewed film of his career, scoring a rather pathetic 26% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. To an extent, I do understand the hatred. While the film is not ideologically complicated, it is a bit difficult to sit through. The entire thing is a few minutes of silence, followed by a short amount of dialogue, repeated for 115 minutes, the main character only says six or seven full sentences, three of which are in the final scene, and the entire thing is obviously more concerned with aesthetic than plot. Conveniently, these are things that I tend to love. Now, it does run a bit long, and there are some clearly overly self-indulgent touches from Jarmusch, but sometimes you just have to accept these things. It's not a perfect film by any means, and it probably won't hold up anywhere near as well as Stranger Than Paradise or Dead Man, but I'm still pretty sure that it's worth seeing.
The characters are not given names, so I'm just going to use the descriptions given by IMDB (which has the film erroneously titled No Limits, No Control). The main character, "The Lone Man," a hired assassin is played by Isaach De Bankole, who has appeared in a few of Jarmusch's films before, but never as a lead. It opens with him meeting the "creole" and "French," who give him a speech on life, and how anyone who thinks they're better than others should go to the cemetery, because then they see what life is: dirt. This idea is constantly repeated throughout. They then give him a matchbook with instructions for his next contact, a man with a violin. He goes to Spain to meet him (the rest of the film takes place in Spain, I'm not sure where the opening took place). He goes to a cafe, orders two espressos in two separate cups (something else that is repeated throughout), and meets the man, who gives him another matchbook, and the cycle goes on. It all sounds rather boring as a description, so I'll just go with the highlights. Tilda Swinton plays a mysterious blonde contact who discusses film, and the idea that the best images in film are the same as our greatest dreams (I'll get to this later). Paz de la Huerta plays a contact who is nude for the entirety of her screentime. I had no problem with this. A contact on a train discusses molecules. John Hurt plays a contact who discusses the nature of Bohemianism and gives Isaach a guitar. Gael Garcia Bernal is a contact who discusses history and myth. Someone is killed (not on screen), and our only real chance to see Isaach's emotions is blurred in shadow, which was probably the right decision. Finally, at the end, Bill Murray plays the target of this convoluted assassination, and he, as others have pointed out, is clearly channeling Dick Cheney, and he discusses power and control. After his mission is over, Isaach cleans up and goes on. We never know who ordered it or why any of this has happened, but I guess it doesn't matter.
I probably shouldn't have spent so much time on plot. It's not that relevant. Basically, it's saying that technology and government are bad, while bohemianism and art are good. Nothing remotely new or groundbreaking, and that's not the point in this film. First, it's probably important to discuss De Bankole's performance. The camera is focused on him for nearly the entire time, and it studies his face and body. During the silent scenes, he is near-perfect, and, after Jarmusch's homage to Le Samourai in Ghost Dog, it's hard not to compare him to Delon's protagonist in Melville's masterpiece. Then he occasionally opens his mouth, and these moments aren't as good. His dialogue isn't that great, but he doesn't do too much with what he gets. Still, the physical nature of his performance is fantastic. There's also the music. Jarmusch uses a post-rock score to perfection, and the film picks up whenever the music starts.
However the real star of this film is Christopher Doyle's cinematography. In my opinion, Doyle deserves to be mentioned in at least the same category as Roger Deakins and Emmanual Lubezki, arguably the two most well-known working cinematographers among most film buffs (with good reason). To quote a friend of mine, Wong Kar Wai's masterful "In The Mood for Love will make your eyes cum rainbows," and Doyle's photography is a huge part of it. While The Limits of Control may not reach that level of beauty, it is still a fantastic looking film. The shots of the actors and settings, using great lighting and Jarmusch's standard lingering pauses, pull the audience in and allow us to look around if we're not in love with what's happening on screen, although many of these pauses do last a bit too long. During the first part of the film, there are some shots that seemed really obviously cinematic in nature, which sort of bugged me, but Swinton's speech on beautiful images in film and dreams clears this up, and almost makes it a commentary on those shots in Jarmusch's past work (although I don't know if that's how he meant it to be seen). As we are reminded throughout the film, "reality is arbitrary," and there are moments where the color shifts, the background appears to be a bit off or the editing brings attention to itself (this last one really doesn't work too well here) that remind us of this idea.
Overall, it is an undoubtedly beautiful film, with some very good performances and great music that's hurt by an ultimately shallow premise, a bit too much lingering (and this is coming from someone who considers The Werckmeister Harmonies his favorite film, so there is a lot of lingering) and questionable editing. I wish I hadn't made this blog under a 4-star system. I don't think it's a three-and-a-half star film, but it's better than a three. Well, I guess this is where that benefit of the doubt I was talking about comes in.
Final rating (out of ****): ***1/2