Movie Diary 12/13/2011

We Bought a Zoo (Cameron Crowe, 2011). It will surprise no one that Mr. Crowe remains an extremely nice man, behind-the-camera-wise. And a few catchphrases from this one may already be circulating. (full review 12/23)

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (Guy Ritchie, 2011). It will surprise quite a few people – it surprised me, anyway – that this sequel is an upgrade over the 2009 reboot. It even, dare I say it, fulfills certain needs of a certain kind of holiday movie-going experience. (full review 12/16)

At What a Feeling!, a 1987 review of John Boorman’s triumphant childhood recollection, Hope and Glory.

Movie Diary 12/12/2001

Stake Land (Jim Mickle, 2010). Somebody’s been watching Terrence Malick movies, and it’s rubbing off the right way. The film is more than a little like The Road with a vampire plague blighting the land, and it gets a lot of things very right – especially issues of tone and mood.

Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, 2010). Right about the time you get to the dentist office scene you realize this movie’s going all the way; when Kitano’s character says, “Give me a knife and some string,” it probably won’t turn out well. Because it’s a complicated yakuza number, it’s almost impossible to follow, but all the back-and-forth appears to be in place. (full review 12/16)

I Melt with You (Mark Pellington, 2011). American males, disappointed with their lives, wallowing in bad habits – not the only bad habits on display here. (full review 12/16)

Trollhunter (Andre Øvredal, 2010). There’s top-notch troll lore included, and just enough of a supporting web to make you feel like you’re in the midst of something big going on. There’s still some life left in the “found camcorder footage” tactic, too.

Dragnet 1968: The Big Neighbor (Jack Webb, 1967) and Dragnet 1970: A.I.D.: The Weekend (Jack Webb, 1970). One of those channels at the end of the dial showed these back-to-back on Saturday. Tribute to Harry Morgan or just regular programming? Both episodes had Friday going over to Gannon’s house (for dinner and a football game in one episode, for a bachelor weekend in the other), with the emphasis on domestic comedy and jibes at Friday’s single status. Lots of free-floating weirdness when the series loses its procedural backbone: two men awkwardly stalking around a late-60s California house set, relaxing in white dress shirts and ties, speaking in the syncopated Dragnet give-and-take… all the while the hippies and the beatniks are present by their absence, just outside in the formless SoCal streets, plotting be-ins and Manson killings.

At What a Feeling!, a vintage review of Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog, a huge foreign-film hit in the Eighties.

Deep Impact (The Cornfield #51)

More near-misses lately in the world of asteroids and their relationship to Earth, prompting a visit to a Film.com review of the non-Armageddon from 1998. As it turned out, I was wrong about Armageddon not being just as much a soap opera as Deep Impact; read about the grisly results here. And MSNBC is still around, despite my skepticism.

The opening reels of Deep Impact are gripping enough to explain why Steven Spielberg got excited about this end-of-the-world property. A teenage amateur astronomer (Elijah Wood) spots a curious comet in the night sky, and sends a query to a pro (Charles Martin Smith), who takes a peek at the unidentified cosmic smear. (Sign of the times: Smith doesn’t look through a telescope, but at a computer screen.) It’s kind of like the cropduster scene from North by Northwest: the slow-dawning realization that the flying thing isn’t doing what it’s supposed to be doing, and that it’s heading straight for you. Except in this case it isn’t a cropduster, it’s an asteroid that will destroy all life on the planet Earth.

A year later, an enterprising MSNBC reporter (Tea Leoni) thinks she’s uncovered a White House scandal. (Will viewers in the future see this film and wonder if MSNBC was one of those made-up companies invented for dramatic purposes?) Actually, she’s stumbled across something only the president (Morgan Freeman) and his top advisors know: the asteroid is coming, and it’s a year away from impact. When the impending disaster goes public, the prez assures the populace that a space shuttle mission can plant some nuclear bombs on the surface of the asteroid before it gets to Earth.

The script, credited to Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin, then veers into Apollo 13 territory, as we follow the progress of the space mission. This is a very nearly separate movie, with all sorts of forced tensions between Robert Duvall, the old-fashioned NASA pilot, and his younger crew (they include Ron Eldard, Blair Underwood, and Swingers guy Jon Favreau). There’s some suspense as the spaceship intersects the flying rock, and Duvall has his share of nice moments, but the real story is down on Earth. This shuttle material simply provides the hardware in a movie that is actually closer to The Day the Earth Stood Still than Independence Day.

On Earth, everybody prepares for the worst-case scenario. Caves have been dug in Missouri, with room for a million people to survive a couple of years, or until the heaviest part of the apocalypse is over. After the really important people are chosen, the Dr. Strangeloves of this world, there will be a lottery for the remaining 800,000 slots. The film focuses on two family units divided by this system. Leoni, chosen to be a survivor, tries to come to terms with her estranged parents (Vanessa Redgrave and Maximilian Schell). And Elijah Wood, chosen because he discovered the asteroid, faces the prospect of survival without his girlfriend.

This whole aspect of the film — that a disaster movie might also be what they used to call a “woman’s picture” — is worth exploring, but Deep Impact hedges its bets too much; the shuttle mission and the climactic effects distract from the (generally well-written) human drama. Spielberg, on board only as a producer, hands the directing reins to Mimi Leder, but there are flourishes that seem to be pure Spielberg: the asteroid caught in the reflection of a car window just before impact, for instance. But Leder, who made a fumbled job of The Peacemaker, does far more confidant work here, as the movie summons up its share of shivery moments. She can’t knit the different parts of the screenplay together, and the grand finale doesn’t really come off, despite some awesome effects work. Because Deep Impact wants to rise above the cheesy fun of an Independence Day, we can’t enjoy the giant tidal wave or the sight of the Statue of Liberty in smithereens; Leder and Spielberg don’t want us to cheer the disasters. Instead, the film aims for the somber sci-fi of Contact, and falls similarly short of its target.

End-of-the-world movies are a delicate business. Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach was able to work up some dark-night ruefulness, but that was largely because the disaster was our own fault (a nuclear winter). Perhaps it’s best if these kinds of things stick to the pulp of The Omega Man and its ilk. The notion of an asteroid hitting the earth is intrinsically goofy (though not at all impossible, as we now know), and doesn’t lend itself to sober soap opera. By all accounts, the upcoming asteroid movie Armageddon doesn’t make the same mistake.

Shame Sitter (Weekly Links)

“Start spreading the news…” Carey Mulligan, Shame

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald, and etc.

Shame. “It’s almost the movie’s reason for being, this absence at its center.”

The Sitter. “Trying to explore a certain uneasy zone of creepy-funny.”

Sleeping Beauty. “Appropriately sedated-looking.”

New Year’s Eve. “Tepid romantic trusims and ‘funny ethnics.'”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the demise of 35 mm. and the primacy of digital video in filmmaking and film projecting; a couple of interesting callers add grain to the picture. It’s archived here; the movie section begins at the 20:17 mark.

At What a Feeling! we round off the week with a quick 1987 appreciation of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Dream Warriors, a return to form for the series.

Be advised of a cancellation in the program: the scheduled “Framing Pictures” event at the Northwest Film Forum at 5 p.m. today (12/9) has been CANCELLED due to last-minute circumstances. We’ll make the scheduled session on January 13th, same time (and price: free) the actual inaugural program.

But still on is Critics Wrap, the seventh annual year-end confab on the best movies of the annum. That’s at the Frye Art Museum, 7 p.m., Thursday December 15; the featured critics are Jim Emerson (scanners), Kathleen Murphy (MSN.com), Andrew Wright (The Stranger), and yours truly. More details here.

Also, a few words on the idea of “Northwest Filmmaking,” delivered for the KCTS-9’s ReelNW series, which showcases films made in this corner of the world. The piece is here.

Movie Diary 12/8/2011

Carnage (Roman Polanski, 2011). Four potent actors go at it hammer and tongs, and Polanski, while not quite coming up with another Cul-de-sac, never lets you forget that somebody’s at the helm. (full review 1/20)

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles (John Foy, 2011). This is really a pretty amazing film. A group of self-appointed sleuths decide to find out who’s behind the enigmatic street tiles found in cities around the Western Hemisphere, and learn quite a bit in the course of their investigation. The Toynbee tiles really go to show you how much impact one crackpot can make. (full review 12/16)

At What a Feeling!, we press on with Eighties cinema and review of Woody Allen’s Another Woman and Nick Castle’s The Boy Who Could Fly.

And an update. A late change has scrubbed the “Framing Pictures” session scheduled for the Northwest Film Forum on Friday December 9. This is NOT happening, but the thread shall be picked up on January 13, 5 p.m., NWFF, free admission.

Movie Diary 12/6/2011

The Sitter (David Gordon Green, 2011). The set-up is familiar and so is Jonah Hill’s muttering way within a scene, although those things are not entirely disagreeable in this resolutely profane and good-natured comedy. (full review 12/9)

At What a Feeling!, we return to the ultra-Eighties environs of Less Than Zero, a wax museum of decadence from 1987.

Movie Diary 12/5/2011

A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg, 2011). Clean, focused, sometimes shivery. Sometimes a cigar is exactly a cigar and at the same time isn’t. Along with everything else, Viggo Mortensen gives a superb vocal performance. (full review 12/23)

Sleeping Beauty (Julia Leigh, 2011). If this is faux-Cronenberg, I’ll stick with the real thing. It does make Shame look better by comparison. (full review 12/9)

New Year’s Eve (Garry Marshall, 2011). And what if Cronenberg had directed this, and Garry Marshall made A Dangerous Method? Better not to think of either possibility. Tech note: another example of the price we’re going to pay with digital shooting/projection: flat light, yellow faces, day-glo hues interrupting quiet scenes. (full review 12/9)

At What a Feeling!, we’ve got one more Ken Russell picture from the Eighties: The Rainbow, an insufficient companion piece to Women in Love.

Wilde (The Cornfield #50)

Anglo-Irish literary subjects are on my mind at the moment, and Oscar Wilde died on Nov. 30, 1900, and that’s about it justifying a look at a 1998 Film.com review of a rather disappointingly normal movie.

One of the elements of Wilde, the film bio of the great Oscar Fingal O’Flaherty Wills Wilde, is the suggestion that the flamboyant writer was in fact something of a comfortable bourgeois, a man who loved his children and his pleasant home and his smoking jacket. Certainly the movie arranged around Wilde is decidedly non-radical. Of course Wilde’s dalliances with young men are depicted with frank detail — these are the 1990s, not Wilde’s 1890s. But in most respects this film is as fussy and stately as any movie biography from the Hollywood golden age. It’s The Life of Emile Zola with rent boys.

Which is all right. There are pleasures to be taken from such a traditional film, and Wilde has its share, chiefly in the lovely central performance by the comedian/actor/novelist Stephen Fry. The movie begins with a wonderfully offbeat sequence of Wilde touring the United States, sharing his bon mots with a group of filthy coal miners. The trajectory then travels through Wilde’s marriage to the mostly silent Constance (Jennifer Ehle, the merry-eyed actress from the BBC “Pride and Prejudice”) and his growing success with “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and his plays on the London stage. His fascination with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (perfectly captured by Jude Law) unrolls with predictable foreshadowings of doom. There’s even a scene between the two of them on the street, before they’ve met, when Wilde is struck by a thunderclap of fear at the sight of the young man.

Surprisingly, not much time is spent on the sensational trials that preceded Wilde’s imprisonment for homosexuality. We do get a strong sense of the toll of his two years in hard labor, eloquently caught by Fry’s performance. Even the sight of Wilde with his flowing locks shorn for jail is a very effective shock. Elsewhere, director Brian Gilbert (a solid filmmaker who’s never quite matched his debut picture, a little-seen delight called Sharma and Beyond) keeps the focus on Wilde’s superb one-liners and a portrait of the society in which the great man lived. Vanessa Redgrave suggests volumes in her brief scenes as Wilde’s mother, and Michael Sheen does what he can with the role of Wilde’s loyal friend Robbie Ross. Tom Wilkinson, as Bosie’s hateful father the Marquess of Queensberry (and the man whose public smearing of Wilde led to the disastrous trials), has one marvelous scene at dinner with Wilde, where the writer manages to seduce — in the social sense — the older man with flattery and attention. The movie flubs a great moment: Queensberry’s insulting note to Wilde accused the author of being a “Somdomite,” a tragi-comic misspelling. If you didn’t know the story already, you might miss that absurd historical detail.

Inevitably, and inadvertently, some of the movie plays like that old Monty Python sketch where Oscar Wilde exists only to one-up his associates in the creation of saucy zingers (“Your highness is like a stream of bat’s piss”). But when it works, it works nicely. When Wilde is released from prison, a broken man, he still has the elan to comment on the hat worn by the woman who picks him up at the gate. That’s heroism, in Wildean terms — to maintain one’s wit amidst heartbreak and chaos. Wilde had the depth to understand that style is not frippery or decoration; style is a way of being, and staying, alive.

Empire of Hipsters (Weekly Links)

Hep chicks of Hipsters

Links to reviews I wrote for the Herald, and etc.

Empire of Silver. “A little too much epic sweep for a mere 112 minutes.”

Kinyarwanda. “Just the right amount of background on what led to the eruption of violence.”

Hipsters. “Not all that different from Hairspray, except in this case you worry about being sent to the Gulag.”

On KUOW’s “Weekday,” I talk with Steve Scher about the late Ken Russell, and why we need maniacs in the arts. The talk is archived here; the movie segment commences at 16:22.

At What a Feeling!, a 1988 review of Russell’s Lair of the White Worm, a crackpot indulgence based on Bram Stoker.

Sunday afternoon, I will speak at the Vashon Library, on Vashon Island, WA, regarding “Things to Come: Visions of the Future on Film,” a talk about how the movies have imagined the future. It’s at 2 p.m., and it’s free.

Early warning for next Friday: Three critics sit down at the Northwest Film Forum and talk about movies past and present. “Framing Pictures” happens at 5 p.m. on Dec. 9, and is listed here.

Movie Diary 12/1/2011

Shame (Steve McQueen, 2011). The director and actor, Michael Fassbender, of Hunger, a film that makes this one look conventional by comparison, if stirringly acted. (full review 12/9)

You’re Telling Me! (Erle C. Kenton, 1934). W.C. Fields, running alongside a bulletproof tire and stepping into a pie; the stuff of immortality.

At What a Feeling!, Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion is reviewed in 1984, in a combined piece with another romantic perversity, Paul Cox’s Man of Flowers.