Movie Diary 5/31/2011

X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn, 2011). Moves well, Fassbender is the man, doesn’t go all Brett Ratner huge at the end. That’s good enough for this summer. (full review 6/3)

True Legend (Yuen Woo-ping, 2010). Too much of the computer stuff, perhaps, but the martial arts action climaxes in a giant fight on a raised stage surrounded by tigers in a pit. (full review 6/3)

Hurricane Kalatozov (Patrick Cazals, 2010). A look at the career of the director of The Cranes are Flying and I Am Cuba and the less-appreciated (but eye-popping) Undelivered Letter. Most interesting sidelight: the importance of family professional dynasties in Georgia (the other Georgia): Kalatozov’s progeny have gone into filmmaking. (Screens at Seattle International Film Festival)

Route Irish (Ken Loach, 2010). The dirt of a Blackwater-like group, smeared across a group of burned-out people. Done with Loach’s usual fury, though perhaps more on the nose this time. (Screens at SIFF)

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973). A lot of smart work by Fleischer, and hard to resist Chuck Heston and Edward G. Robinson together.

At What a Feeling!, check more 1980s reviews, including Rocky IV and The Razor’s Edge.

Armageddon (The Cornfield #30)

Having just passed a promised date for the Rapture, we acknowledge the end of the world with this review of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. First published with the original Film.com in 1998.

Money shot.

Armageddon is not a movie. Armageddon is a series of TV commercials for a movie. At two-and-a-half hours of screen time, this makes for a lot of commercials, but at least it doesn’t require much of an attention span.

You know the plot: an asteroid is due to strike the earth in less than three weeks. NASA honcho Billy Bob Thornton enlists the world’s leading oil-well-driller (a bored-looking Bruce Willis, in a strawberry-blond hairpiece) for a daring mission. Willis and his team will fly into space, land on the asteroid, drill a hole in it, deposit a nuclear device, and blow the rock to bits. Or at least deflect its trajectory away from earth.

Yes, this is the same plot we just saw in Deep Impact, a so-so movie that, by comparison with Armageddon, is beginning to look like a model of classical construction. Deep Impact spent more time on the ground, sorting out family dysfunctions, while Armageddon follows the boys and their toys into space. Love interest surfaces in the form of Willis’s daughter (Liv Tyler, looking very askew in widescreen close-ups) and a member of the drilling crew (Ben Affleck), no double entendre intended. In one particularly grisly moment, Affleck sings John Denver’s “Leaving, on a Jet Plane,” to his beloved as the crew prepares to take off. The remainder of the film is taken up with ripping off Apollo 13, The Right Stuff, and Top Gun, all sliced and diced at mach—or should we say macho—speed. People have been calling this movie The Dirty Dozen in Space, but its hard cases are all teddy bears with tattoos. (They all know the lyrics to “Leaving, on a Jet Plane,” anyway.)

These hard cases include Will Patton, Peter Stormare (a Russian cosmonaut picked up on a space station), Owen Wilson (the funny lead of Bottle Rocket), and Steve Buscemi, who plays a genius with a weakness for strippers. When director Michael Bay cuts to his money shot of the crew in their space suits, walking toward the camera in slo-mo through a long lens (the shot from The Right Stuff), it is disconcerting to see Buscemi striding along as one of the men who will save the world. Something has gotten very strange in the movie universe when Mr. Pink is our last best hope.

Buscemi, Wilson, and Stormare all have some funny moments, thanks to a tag-team screenplay written by some of Hollywood’s highest-priced scribes. Besides the five people credited, the press notes cheerfully admit that Robert Towne and Paul Attanasio were among the busy script doctors. But even the amusing one-liners curdle in the hyperactive hands of Bay and producer Jerry Bruckheimer (whose previous collaborations were Bad Boys and The Rock). The movie goes by so quickly that even the sure-fire big moments—like, oh, the initial realization that the world is going to be destroyed by a comet, for instance—are thrown away in the headlong rush to get to the next action beat. But this is pure Bruckheimer; the producer treats the unveiling of the latest Humvee or space-age machine gun with all the care and eroticism that Ziegfeld used to lavish on his glamour girls.

There are many things to dislike about Armageddon, from its stunningly straight-faced Charlton Heston introduction to its casual contempt for the Greenpeace activists protesting the drilling of oil wells. But the movie’s most ludicrous aspect is its complete lack of gravity—even in B-movie terms. The film is so concerned with its “quirky” characters, naughty one-liners, and cultural flotsam (Jethro Tull and Dr. Strangelove references), there is no connection with the ostensible story at hand. Poor Liv Tyler has to run around whining about her boyfriend being in jeopardy, throwing herself down on NASA control panels during the climactic race against the clock—excuse me, sweetheart, did you hear about the asteroid about to hit the planet and wipe out human existence? Take a frigging Valium and lie down.

There are moments in this movie when we are asked to believe, and sympathize with, the decision to risk the entire population of earth on the off chance of saving the lives of the handful of roughnecks up on the surface of the asteroid. Hey, why not? They’re cute and funny, and Liv would be super upset if Ben Affleck didn’t make it back. Billy Bob Thornton and Will Patton are the only performers to summon up a sense of professionalism and thoughtfulness in their roles, the only people who wouldn’t make Howard Hawks—that master of action-movie professionalism—retch his guts out at the sight of this film.

Even the much-maligned Independence Day played fair by its own rules; all of the dire things critics said about that picture, and what it meant for the future of movies, actually apply here. Armageddon is disjointed, unreal, a mess; it bears the marks of its piecemeal writing process and its concept-by-committee. Its head is separated from its body, but it just goes on making noise.

Hobo with a Kung Fu Hangover (Weekly Links)

Waiting for a monkey: Hangover Part II

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald:

The Hangover Part II. “Smoking monkey steals the film.”

Kung Fu Panda 2. “Loud and aggressive.”

Hobo with a Shotgun. “Drink deep from the goblet of revenge.”

Incendies. “Forget the 19th-century novel; this movie wants to be Greek tragedy.”

The First Grader. (dead link; review below)

By Robert Horton

Fresh from its slot as the opening night movie at the Seattle International Film Festival, “The First Grader” now returns for a regular run.

As a piece of filmmaking, “The First Grader” is pretty bland for as a curtain-raiser for a film festival. As a true story, it’s a pleasant enough slice of uplift, rendered in strokes that appear aimed at middle-schoolers and up.

You might recall the true story, which came to light a few years ago. An 84-year-old Kenyan man claimed his right to enter grade school after the government of Kenya began providing schooling for the poor. The movie opens with Maruge (Oliver Litondo) receiving a letter of official notification from the government. It becomes a point of honor for this illiterate octogenarian to actually read the letter himself, so he shows up at a nearby rural school to enroll. He’s not welcome, even after he assembles an outfit that sort of looks like the official school uniform. The only person to cautiously go along with Maruge’s petition is the first grade teacher (Naomie Harris, from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise), who sees the benefit of having his presence around the kids.

Give director Justin Chadwick (“The Other Boleyn Girl”) and screenwriter Ann Peacock credit for complicating this charming situation: Maruge’s journey is always played against the backdrop of his past, as a Mau Mau agitator who fought against the occupying British many decades ago. Tribal rivalries, dating back to that time, have much to do with why Maruge’s presence at school is being challenged. There’s also a subplot about the backlash against him when the story becomes publicized. These different tensions are laid out in careful terms, without seriously shaking the likelihood that everything’s going to work out fine in the end.

The lead performers help matters; Oliver Litondo has a few acting credits in his background but otherwise hasn’t done much movie work, and he is completely believable and admirable as the snow-haired first-year student. Naomie Harris is one of those young actresses waiting to become a bigger star, and I don’t know what the delay is. At least since “28 Days Later,” she’s been a solid performer in British and Hollywood films, including navigating a variety of accents—a talent this movie calls on once again.

L’amour Fou. “Saint Laurent looks like someone who’d like to go away and read Proust.”

And some capsule recommendations for the upcoming week at the Seattle International Film Festival.

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about a variety of SIFF movies. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 15:15 point.

At my other website, What a Feeling!, we close Woody Allen week with Eighties reviews of Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days.

In Rotten news, publisher Moonstone is discounting issues of the zombie western comic book; a buck apiece for numbers 2-9.

Movie Diary 5/25/2011

Incendies (Denis Villeneuve, 2010). Harrowing multi-generational story of how Middle East cycles of violence create monsters of Greek-tragic proportions. An Oscar nominee from Canada, and not without contrivance. (full review 5/27)

L’amour fou (Pierre Thoretton, 2010). Docu-portrait of Yves Saint Laurent. Nobody said this film-reviewing job would be easy. (Decent character study, actually.) (full review 5/27)

Killing Bono (Nick Hamm, 2011). The Pete Best syndrome in play, with the true tale of Neil McCormack, whose special hell it was to be a rock and roll dreamer who watched in wonder/horror as his schoolmates took and band to the stratosphere – that would be U2 – and he stayed where he always was. Spirited turn by Ben Barnes in the lead. (Screens in the Seattle International Film Festival)

At What a Feeling!, we continue a week of Woody Allen’s 1980s pictures with reviews of Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Movie Diary 5/23/2011

The Hangover Part II (Todd Phillips, 2011). Welcome to Bangkok, monkeys and transvestites. (full review 5/26)

Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011). A science-fiction premise informs an unusual melodrama, in a pretty good swing at something offbeat – plus an impressive lead performance by Brit Marling. (Screens in the Seattle International Film Festival)

Kung Fu Panda 2 (Jennifer Yuh, 2011). I still say there’s something odd about martial arts being the attraction in a cartoon. You can do anything in a cartoon, therefore martial arts loses a great deal of its ability to impress. Is anybody with me on this? (full review 5/26)

The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, 1946). Long time no see. Shadows aplenty and lots of candlelight, as only a German could film them.

Hobo with a Shotgun (Jason Eisener, 2011). You already know what this is. It does what it says, and I can’t fault it for that. (full review 5/27)

At What a Feeling!: in time for a new movie by the Woodman, it’s a week of 1980s Woody Allen, beginning with Zelig.

Writing about Lars Von Trier (The Cornfield #29)

Lars von Trier got himself in trouble last week with comments he made after the Cannes Film Festival screening of his latest, Melancholia. In a parallel story, the world proved that it no longer had the ability to recognize a joke when it heard one. Jesus Christ, people. I’m not sure which was more absurd, the outrage of the literalists or the tortured explanations (“I think what Lars meant was…”) of von Trier’s message-board explicators.

I am an admirer of this director’s films. Some of my past writing on the subject is posted below. Note the variety of descriptive terms for von Trier over the years: scalawag, scamp, genius-crackpot, evil sprite, and, of course, “Danish.” I still haven’t seen The Idiots, and haven’t written about Antichrist—yet. We begin with an “intro to” von Trier written 15 years ago, in which I try to suggest the spirit of his work, and then we just keep going.

Von Trier: An Introduction

I think I wrote this general intro to Lars von Trier in 1996 for Film.com, although I don’t remember why.

The end of the four-and-a-half-hour extravaganza called The Kingdom brings us to the loopy story’s bloodiest and most insane moment. This combination of “The Outer Limits” and “General Hospital” has screamed right off its rails, climaxed in horror, and then halted in a completely white screen. The end credits begin to roll, and standing before us is a bland young man, dimpled and handsome. He has all the presence of a grocery clerk, a waiter, or the innocuous-looking boy who lives down the block and poisons kittens. After taking his hands away from his eyes, this man assures us that the story of The Kingdom will continue, and encourages us not to hide our eyes from the nastiness on the screen (it’s only stage blood, anyway), because “Behind closed eyes is where the real horror begins.” Then he holds up a severed head and introduces himself: “My name is Lars von Trier, and I wish you all a very good evening.”

The Kingdom was originally produced for Danish TV, which just reinforces the sense of von Trier updating the puckish emcee role from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He’s also made cameo appearances in his own films, though with his own strange emphasis; in The Element of Crime he’s a bald clerk, billed as the “Schmuck of Ages.” But Lars von Trier hasn’t settled into any conventional genre or style, and his similarities to Hitchcock pretty much end there; when the video-store guy handed me a copy of Zentropa and read that the label categorized the movie as a “thriller,” I had to clear my throat and point out that, well, it wasn’t exactly a thriller in the usual sense. There’s nothing usual about von Trier’s movies.

He was born in 1956 and attended the Danish Film School, where he made a handful of award-winning student films. Von Trier’s first feature, The Element of Crime (1984), established the ground rules for his “Trilogy of Europe,” which was continued in Epidemic (1987), the artiest and least satisfying of his films, and Zentropa (aka Europa, 1991). A decidedly postmodern take on the cop movie, Element borrows from all over film history (noticeably Casablanca, Metropolis, M, and The Third Man) but rarely seems slavish, or anything but original. The hero goes tromping through a blasted landscape, ostensibly searching for a child killer but apparently on a more existential quest. From time to time, someone can be heard asking, “Where is the story?”, and von Trier is quite content to wander away from answering that question, content instead to pull off the occasional eye-popping camera movement; there are tracking shots here that manage to evoke both Orson Welles and Sam Raimi at the same crazy moment.

Von Trier also uses monochromatic color and the idea of hypnosis, two running gags in the trilogy. Hypnosis is compared to movie-watching itself; the cop in Element experiences mesmerism at the beginning of the film, and then pleads at the end, “I want to wake up now…”, but the film just fades out. In Epidemic, a film-within-a-film about a coming plague starring von Trier as a director, there is a character named Dr. Mesmer, and the shudder-inducing climax (in which von Trier proves that if he wanted to make a straight horror movie, he could easily freak us out) explodes when a hypnotic session becomes unglued.

Then there is the opening of Zentropa, which gazes down onto moving train tracks as a voice (the sleep-inducing tones of Max Von Sydow, no less) puts the audience under a hypnotic spell. Now, this is actually scary. You sit there wondering if hypnosis could actually be induced by a movie, and then notice that perhaps your eyes are really getting heavy. The rest of the film is a dream of back projections, model work, special effects…a miniature train set of a movie. The hero, an American in 1945 Germany, gets a job as a sleeping-car conductor (an absurdity that the movie leaves cheerfully unelaborated). His uncle, who also works on the train, describes his weird feeling of waking up in the sleeping car and not knowing whether the train is going forward or backward; that’s a handy metaphor for the movie, which delights in disorientation, just as it leaves its hero gasping for air.

Zentropa brought von Trier international acclaim, as well as the Special Jury Prize and the Technical Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. (According to Roger Ebert, when he lost the Palme d’Or to Barton Fink, von Trier flipped the jury the bird.) At that point, the director looked easy to peg: a chilly intellectual, an impertinent trickster, a man who makes movies from his brain, not his guts. But something changed with von Trier around the time of The Kingdom (1994), which has an open, improvisatory texture. Aside from its busy, headlong style, mostly shot with a handheld camera, The Kingdom also has a compulsively watchable story, with at least a dozen main characters involved in all manner of melodrama; in its own way, it’s as chewily entertaining as Gone With the Wind or The Godfather.

Given von Trier’s evolution, Breaking the Waves (1996) makes perfect sense; he has said, “The philosophy for my other films has been ‘Evil Exists.’ The philosophy for this one is ‘Goodness Exists.’” The story is once again a dizzying mix of inspirations, from the spiritual intensity of von Trier’s god (and fellow Danish film-maker) Carl Dreyer to the sublime tackiness of the 1970s pop songbook. But the tale of a Scots woman who clings to her faith despite a harrowing series of disasters is von Trier’s most emotionally direct picture yet. He has said that the movie’s dry, leached-out look (like The Kingdom, it was shot on film, transferred to video, and then back to film) is necessary to counterpoint the three-handkerchief scenario. The result is a movie that truly puts an audience through an experience, a strange kind of enchantment.

If von Trier is no longer an entirely gloomy Dane, he still is marked by contradictions. His next film will be a return to the creepy hallways of The Kingdom, with another set of episodes shot during the summer of 1996. He has announced a film called Khan to be filmed in Mongolia in ’97. Most intriguingly, he is working on an ongoing project called Dimension (featuring a frequent collaborator, the deliciously decadent former Warhol star Udo Kier), which he is shooting in three-minute increments every year; it will be completed in 2004. For a man who lavishes his attention on disease, early death, and the coming apocalypse, he’s nothing if not confident.

Breaking the Waves (1996)

Exceprted from a Film Comment(Nov./Dec. 1996) New York Film Festival wrap-up surveying a bunch of titles from that year. And what a year at NYFF: two titles later became #1 and #2 in my best-of-year accounting for ’96: How I Got Into an Argument…My Sex Life and Breaking the Waves.

The two most transporting items in the New York Festival catalog were a world, and a generation, apart. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo was one of them, a film that needs no introduction. The other was Lars von Trier’s Breaking the Waves, a nod to the awesome intensity of Carl Theodor Dreyer, filtered through a few 1970s hits. This movie may need no introduction either, especially to Film Comment readers who have already boned up on previous film festival reports from earlier this year. It charts the tribulations of a young woman in a repressive Scottish coastal town, and engages a rather old-fashioned fable of faith in the skin of an experimental movie (von Trier shot it in 35mm., printed it on video, then transferred it back to 35—lending a browned-out dullness to the visuals). It’s a big film, gutsy, likely to repel as many people as it captures. But it gives you a journey rare in the current cinema, a sense that you’ve traveled as far as you can possibly go, and that you’ll have something to think and talk about on the way back. Vertigo does that, too.

Among the heroes here are luminous Emily Watson, as the waif of faith, and Katrin Cartlidge, as her skeptical friend (who is made up to look like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons). Also cinematographer Robby Müller. The man who shot the rich, evocative images of The American Friend, etc., gives himself over to von Trier’s hand-held, harsh-lit scheme—how many great lensmen would be that adventurous? When I think about Breaking the Waves, I keep coming back to Continue reading

Pirates, Assassins, Twins (Weekly Links)

Depp, Rush: Untouchable Boys

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald this week.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. “Trimming its sails and sticking to a more streamlined story.”

13 Assassins. “Showers of flying arrows and buckets of blood.”

The Princess of Montpensier. “Tavernier is too wised-up to fall in love with the costumes and castles.”

The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. “One of the most crowd-pleasing films I’ve seen in the last couple of years.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the Seattle International Film Festival, which is now underway. It’s archived here; the movie bit kicks in at the 18-minute mark.

Some notes on the part of SIFF that travels to Everett, from the Herald.

In case you missed it, there’s a new Rotten one-off in comic-book stores: a gory little tale that shares space with Moonstone’s Zombies vs. Cheerleaders series. No kidding: order it from the publisher, or run to your local comic store and purchase. And you can pre-order the scintillating Rotten prequel book, The Lost Diary of John J. Flynn, U.S. Agent, also from Moonstone (or Amazon.com, or do support your local book seller).

Dinosaurs are back! So What a Feeling! recalls the abysmal Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend, with a vintage review at my other website.

Movie Diary 5/19/2011

The Whistleblower (Larysa Kondracki, 2011). Not too many expectations going into this one, which may have something to do with why it seemed to work pretty well. Rachel Weisz plays a real-life UN peacekeeper in Bosnia who uncovers evidence of appalling human trafficking. (Screens in Seattle International Film Festival)

At What a Feeling!, we re-visit one of those awful movies that are probably a lot more influential than they seemed at the time: Bachelor Party, from 1984.

Movie Diary 5/18/2011

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (Rob Marshall, 2011). It’s not as complicated as the endless Part 3 of the series, and it does have zombies. Remember, “from the director of Chicago.” (full review 5/20)

Perfect Sense (David Mackenzie, 2011). A sci-fi premise runs beneath this somber love story starring Ewan McGregor and Eva Green, who would probably populate the Earth with a very good-looking super-race if they were the only survivors of this apocalypse. (Screens at Seattle International Film Festival)

Beautiful Boy (Shawn Ku, 2010). Michael Sheen and Maria Bello learn their teenage son is a school gunman, a situation rendered in handheld digital. (full review 6/17)

The Princess Montpensier (Bertrand Tavernier, 2010). Tavernier goes at this period piece like he’s just getting his second wind as a filmmaker, and there’s no costume-drama corn to be seen. (full review 5/20)

Flamenco, Flamenco (Carlos Saura, 2010). Saura does for Spanish song and dance what he did for the Portugeuse in Fados, which means you need to get in front of this movie and goggle. Vittorio Storaro photographed. (Screens at SIFF)

Finding Kind (Lauren Parkesian, 2010). Documentary about the “mean girls” phenomenon, destined to be shown at high schools and middle schools for some time. (Screens at SIFF)

At What a Feeling!, the Eighties keep rolling with reviews of Cocktail (“I can’t make it with my best friend’s lady!”) and a double on The Sure Thing and Into the Night.

Movie Diary 5/16/2011

Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, 2011). Owen Wilson, a writer who dreams of 1920s Paris, gets magically taken back there. Even if Allen’s scenes still show a distressing tendency to dribble away, at least this one has some amusing references and a romantic city at night. (full review 6/3)

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011). The wha’? (full review 6/17)

13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2010). Count ’em, 13. And a pretty good bunch of samurai they are, too. (full review 5/20)

A Screaming Man (Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, 2010). A somewhat different feel from Haroun’s excellent Daratt, but both films are the work of an old-school arthouse director. Here, a former swimming champion tries to hold on to his job as the country of Chad crumbles around him. (Screens at Seattle International Film Festival)

Black Venus (Abdellatif Kechiche, 2010). Speaking as someone very impressed by Kechiche’s Secret of the Grain, I have to say this horrible true story (about the real-life African woman who was exhibited as the “Hottentot Venus” in 19th century Europe) makes for a grueling experience, for a variety of reasons. Devastating at times – but grueling. (Screens at SIFF)

At my other website, What a Feeling!, we hear about sex, lies, and videotape from its original release.