Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: Mr. Nobody


There are certain reviews where you just jump right in. You hit the ground running, and the things you want to say leap forward from your brain to your fingers to your keyboard. These reviews are sprints, and though you might fine-tune them, they are over pretty quickly.

Then there are the reviews where you feel like you're never going to start writing. You spend a ton of time on stretching, to make sure you don't injure yourself in the process of trying to say everything you want to say.

Mr. Nobody is one of the latter types, and that most certainly is a compliment.

I've been stretching long enough, so here goes.

There's something appropriate about the title Mr. Nobody, as it gets at the alarming anonymity of this film. It's one of those movies that is so staggeringly ambitious, and so stunningly executed, that once you watch it, you won't believe you hadn't heard of it earlier than you did. It's one of those movies that tries to tackle nothing less than the total spectrum of human experience, and it's the rare one that actually succeeds. Simply put, it may be a masterpiece.

The plot pretzels around through a number of timelines and possibly alternate (or possibly coexisting) realities, but here are the basics of what we know: Nemo Nobody (Jared Leto) is a 118-year-old man who claims the title of "Earth's last mortal." In other words, he's the last human being not to get matched up with a genetically compatible pig who can provide him an endless supply of replacement cells. These keep the rest of the world eternally young in the year 2092, and the whole world has tuned in to watch the death of the last mortal being televised. (A bit like a reverse Children of Men.) In his waning days, a reporter comes to the side of his hospital bed to interview him on what it was like to have lived a mortal life, but Nemo claims to remember very little of his actual life. Under hypnosis, however, he reveals conflicting details about his earlier life -- which parent he chose to live with at age 9, which country he lived in, which career he chose, which of three different women (Diane Kruger, Sarah Polley and Linh Dan Pham) he may have married. Throwing in additional paradoxes, he even seems to have remembered dying on a couple occasions. The flabbergasted reporter tries to figure it all out as the clock may be ticking toward a cataclysmic event that could make the story of Nemo Nobody seem trivial by comparison -- or could make sense of everything the old man has said.

The first thing that should be said about Mr. Nobody (although it's not the first thing I'm actually saying) is that it should have been an utter disaster. Films with this much on their minds regularly trip over themselves in the attempt to get it all out there, and account for some of our most disastrous turkeys in cinematic history. Some people (though not this critic) certainly felt that way about Cloud Atlas, which is one of several epic films Mr. Nobody calls to mind (while actually predating it, which is perfect for this non-linear film). A more direct comparison might be made to Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky, another film that radically divided audiences. These films all use multiple time periods, unlikely character relationships and aspects of dream state to get at truths about the human condition, and top it all off with a little science fiction. Like those other movies, Mr. Nobody can't contain itself to a mere 100 minutes, clocking in at nearly two hours and 20 minutes, which is extravagant especially for a film with exclusively foreign financial backing.

Everyone involved with this extravaganza backed the right horse in writer-director Jaco Van Dormael, who has been unleashed upon us from the cinematic hotbed of Belgium. The man was responsible for two critically acclaimed Belgian films in the 1990s before launching on his quixotic quest to make Mr. Nobody way back in 2001, a dream that was finally realized when filming began in 2007. Instead of having disaster written all over, the film somehow attained a synergy that approaches brilliance.

Merely structuring a film that jumps between not only timelines, but time periods within those timelines, is a feat of great difficulty. Then giving his scenes a transcendent sort of harmony, one that gives the film a surprisingly coherence and cohesiveness, is yet more difficult. What seems just like showing off, however, is how Van Dormael actually segues between these scenes, frequently using seamless digital camera tricks that allow one shot to blend into another, while simultaneously jumping across continents and years -- and even sometimes placing the same characters in new contexts at impossible new angles to their surroundings. It's a feat of fluidity better witnessed by a viewer than described.

But I think I'm still talking around what makes Mr. Nobody such a singular cinematic experience -- still doing more stretching, as it were. What this film is doing with such accessible effectiveness is exploring ideas that have been explored in lesser films -- many films of so-called "hyperlink cinema" -- with a new vitality that makes them freshly invigorating. The much-discussed butterfly effect is actually name-checked in this movie, a reflection of Van Dormael's interest in how the smallest of actions and decisions have a ripple effect that can change a person's whole life. But if you're rolling your eyes at having seen this thing on screen in a hundred pseudo-intellectual attempts at profundity, roll them back to their starting position. Van Dormael actually has something new to say here, or at least a new way to say it.

Mr. Nobody considers the life of a man in terms of all the events that shaped him, and all the events that could have shaped him. While numerous films have invited us to contemplate how our lives might have turned out differently had we, say, failed to make it through a pair of sliding doors on the tube (see the Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Sliding Doors), few have imagined these realities woven together in a way that gives a tapestry of meaning to the life in question. The point is that Nemo Nobody is the byproduct of both the things he's done and the things he hasn't done, simultaneously, because the other versions of himself that had those intentions are still buried somewhere inside him. What emerges in this film is a true, deep, sensitively considered portrait of us -- any of us -- tortured as we are by the avenues we didn't take, maybe only in fragments of dreams we've forgotten by morning.

I've hinted at the expert quality of the production design, as several time periods as well as what is certainly a dream timeline are all sewn together to give us a panoply of recurring images and motifs. What I haven't spoken of is the fantastic lead performance by Jared Leto, who was giving those lucky enough to see this a couple years ago a preview of the type of dramatic range that would win him an Oscar. Leto isn't doing all the heavy lifting in this movie -- Toby Regbo in particular bears a large amount of the burden as Nemo at age 15. But Leto manages to become several different versions of Nemo at age 34, as well as the 118-year-old man in layers of old person makeup that render him truly unrecognizable. Leto expresses different yearnings and realities in all the forms he takes on, some in larger narrative threads, some in shorter timelines that only have a brief realization on screen. It's his fine performance that delivers us a death-bed version of a man we truly feel we've come to understand.

One could continue with the accolades without truly feeling like they've gotten to the bottom of what makes this movie so effective, and I know I'll have to stop writing today without actually getting there. That's in part intentional, as the idea with a movie like Mr. Nobody is to whet appetites, but leave most of its marvelous discoveries up to the viewer. That would be my truest responsibility to both Mr. Nobody and to you.

It's streaming on Netflix. Don't stop and stretch -- sprint after it right now.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Return of the project post


Remember way back when, a time before I was reviewing everything I see, a time before life made me a busy little fellow who had trouble even posting on a regular basis?

Back in that long ago time, I used to write what I now think of as "project posts." They were posts that involved the parsing of data and the compiling of a lot of arcane details from my own viewing history, and often from cinema history at large.

I miss those.

So, without further ado, here's one:

Revisiting my worst films of the year

I recently became kind of fascinated with the bottom 100 films I have ranked on Flickchart. As I've been catching up from falling a year behind on entering my films (I'm now up to last November), I've been adding some truly terrible movies ... and wondering how protective I need to be of that bottom tier of movies. When I entered the godawful Uma Thurman vehicle Motherhood yesterday, and it landed only 14 spots from the very bottom, I wondered: Does a person need to be just as protective of the bottom part of their list as the top? How truly terrible does a movie need to be in order to flirt with "worst of all time" status?

That's not directly what I want to talk about today. What I want to talk about today is another kind of "worst movie," the worst movie from a given ranking year. Now that I've been compiling this list in Flickchart for about five years, and all my movies have had multiple chances to duel it out and figure out where they truly belong in my overall spectrum, I thought it was worth revisiting how those movies I've crowned as the turkey of the year have fared within the whole body of films. Which worst movie is truly the worst? And which is the best?

I've been ranking my films from best to worst since 1996, meaning I have 18 movies that I named the worst when my ranking deadline for that year passed. So forthwith, an examination of those 18 awful films, and what I think of them now.

1996

Before and After, directed by Barbet Schroeder
That year's ranking: 43 out of 43
Current Flickchart ranking: 3654 out of 3814
Thoughts: This turgid family drama about how far parents will go to cover up the crimes of their children is still something I view very negatively, but it suffers more from being melodramatic than truly being poorly constructed. It does star Meryl Streep and Liam Neeson, so that has to count for something.

1997

Speed 2: Cruise Control, directed by Jan de Bont
That year's ranking: 39 out of 39
Current Flickchart ranking: 3584 out of 3814
Thoughts: Speed 2 was a victim of an injustice that will likely never be redressed. I watched it on an airplane where I hadn't paid for the headphones, so the sound was off. I'm not even sure if I watched the whole thing. Yet I counted it as a watched movie that year, and it has been grandfathered in. I will likely never watch it again to give it a fair shake, but I suspect I have been compensating by giving it the benefit of the doubt in certain Flickchart duels.

1998

Almost Heroes, directed by Christopher Guest
That year's ranking: 58 out of 58
Current Flickchart ranking: 3758 out of 3814
Thoughts: At the time I remember I was simply horrified at the ineptitude of this frontiersmen spoof/comedy, especially given the natural appeal of its stars (Matthew Perry and Chris Farley) and pedigree of its director (Guest). Time has not been particularly kind to it either, as it's still down in the doldrums of my Flickchart. It's truly woeful.

1999

Wild Wild West, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld
That year's ranking: 57 out of 57
Current Flickchart ranking: 3807 out of 3814
Thoughts: This is the poster child for my current "Is it really that bad?" concerns. Wild Wild West is a perfectly abysmal movie, a miscalculation in nearly every sense of the word, yet there are probably parts of it I sort of like, which makes its total ghettoization on my chart sort of suspect. For some reason I buried this one deep and left if there. I suspect it may end up being the lowest ranked on Flickchart among movies I saw during their release year.

2000

The 6th Day, directed by Roger Spottiswoode
That year's ranking: 58 out of 58
Current Flickchart ranking: 3799 out of 3814
Thoughts: If there's a movie I remember hating almost as much as I remember hating Wild Wild West, it's the Arnold Schwarzenegger cloning movie The 6th Day. My single snapshot memory of why it's so bad is this scene where Schwarzenegger is falling off a building, and the way he's falling is filmed so poorly that it looks like he's falling sideways. It's really bad. Worse than Wild Wild West, I'm sure.

2001

The Musketeer, directed by Peter Hyams
That year's ranking: 73 out of 73
Current Flickchart ranking: 3738 out of 3814
Thoughts: What I remember most about this wire work remake of Alexandre Dumas' tale is how everything on screen -- literally everything -- is either brown or gray. In my review of this movie I described star Justin Chambers as "a blander Chris O'Donnell," which is really saying something. Yeah, this movie is no good.

2002

Bad Company, directed by Joel Schumacher
That year's ranking: 80 out of 80
Current Flickchart ranking: 3637 out of 3814
Thoughts: Nowadays I feel like I was probably too hard on this movie, if only because I kind of buck the trend of hating on Joel Schumacher that has gained even more steam than it had back in 2002. It's certainly a very generic action movie that is not very good. I probably penalized it more for the bizarre pairing of Chris Rock and Anthony Hopkins than anything that actually happens in the film.

2003

Dreamcatcher, directed by Lawrence Kasdan
That year's ranking: 58 out of 58
Current Flickchart ranking: 3776 out of 3814
Thoughts: Now this is a terrible movie. Like some of the other movies listed here, this Stephen King adaptation has a few moments and ideas that are almost executed effectively, but its overriding ridiculous is just guffaw-worthy. It's the third lowest of the ones I've looked at so far.

2004

Troy, directed by Wolfgang Peterson
That year's ranking: 59 out of 59
Current Flickchart ranking: 3739 out of 3814
Thoughts: There is simply no way Troy is as bad as I'm remembering it to be, and as bad as I still rank it to be. I do remember really disliking it, though, as it was not one of those films that made it to the bottom of my list because there happened to be nothing worse. I really hated this movie, and so did my friend who went to see it with me, so we must have been on to something.

2005

Saw II, directed by Darren Lynn Bousman
That year's ranking: 73 out of 73
Current Flickchart ranking: 3645 out of 3814
Thoughts: My relative leniency on Saw II is a case of one great scene somewhat salvaging it, at least in retrospect. The cold open before the credits in Saw II is really, really scary -- in fact, it may be my favorite moment in any Saw movie. That just tells you how awful the rest of the movie must be if I ranked it this low in 2005 -- and also how poor the rest of the Saw series is.

2006

Lady in the Water, directed by M. Night Shyamalan
That year's ranking: 77 out of 77
Current Flickchart ranking: 3794 out of 3814
Thoughts: It was a very tall task to displace the execrable Art School Confidential from my bottom spot in 2006, and it took the worst movie Shyamalan has made (which is saying a lot) to do it. This movie is just plain laughable, with nothing to redeem it -- and I will admit that despite all of his flaws as a filmmaker, Shyamalan does have at least one moment in almost every film that's worthy of respect. Not this one.

2007

Captivity, directed by Roland Joffe
That year's ranking: 82 out of 82
Current Flickchart ranking: 3772 out of 3814
Thoughts: The term "torture porn" has rarely been more on the nose as in this movie, whose moral world view nearly makes me queasy. The strangest thing about this movie, known for its controversially graphic ad campaign, is that it's directed by Roland Joffe, erstwhile of The Killing Fields and The Mission.

2008

An American Carol, directed by David Zucker
That year's ranking: 87 out of 87
Current Flickchart ranking: 3759 out of 3814
Thoughts: I'd be lying if I didn't admit that some percentage of my hatred for this movie has to do with its right-wing politics. However, if it were a well-made satire of a liberal hero like Michael Moore, I would still be able to appreciate what it does right. But one of the creative talents behind my beloved Airplane! has been blinded by his shift to the right into no longer having any idea how to construct a laugh. This movie is pathetic.

2009

The Final Destination, directed by David R. Ellis
That year's ranking: 113 out of 113
Current Flickchart ranking: 3769 out of 3814
Thoughts: The returns in the Final Destination series didn't start diminishing until the third movie, but then they fell off the table. This fourth entry was completely inept, I thought, which is why I ranked it lower than 112 other movies I saw that year -- a new record for me. The hatred is still reflected in my Flickchart ranking.

2010

Furry Vengeance, directed by Roger Kumble
That year's ranking: 109 out of 109
Current Flickchart ranking: 3793 out of 3814
Thoughts: Quite possibly one of the dumbest comedies I have ever seen. You remember this one -- it's the one with Brendan Fraser fighting all the animals. The only reason we even watched it was because we were both off work after having our first child. And because we like squirrels. We like squirrels a little less after this movie.

2011

30 Minutes or Less, directed by Ruben Fleischer
That year's ranking: 121 out of 121
Current Flickchart ranking: 3792 out of 3814
Thoughts: And right next door to Furry Vengeance -- one better, as it were -- is probably the most mean-spirited "comedy" I have ever seen ... or at least the most mean-spirited comedy I haven't liked. Everyone in this movie was an asshole, and I felt like one while watching it. Terrible.

2012

Cosmopolis, directed by David Cronenberg
That year's ranking: 119 out of 119
Current Flickchart ranking: 3786 out of 3814
Thoughts: A boatload of incoherent, pretentious crap.

2013

Only God Forgives, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
That year's ranking: 128 out of 128
Current Flickchart ranking: 3663 out of 3814
Thoughts: The main reason I designated this movie my worst of last year was that I found absolutely no point whatsoever for its existence. Its violent, nihilistic existence. The presence of some artistic intention is why it has the relatively generous ranking of #3663.

Having done this, it's interesting to consider how much I've generally clung to my initial impression of these films, ranking none of them higher than #3584. Even the best on this list (Speed 2: Cruise Control) has only 230 movies that I've seen that I consider worse than it. And certainly, the initial impression is really all I have to go on, as I have not watched any of these films a second time, for probably obvious reasons.

What I wonder, though, is whether the memory of it being a bad movie or the memory of my having ranked it last for the year is the stronger component in the way I duel these movies.

I wish I could tell you that I would re-watch all these movies to see if my hatred of them holds up, but even I -- who am willing to get involved in almost any cinematic project -- value my time more than that.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Australian Audient: Mystery Road


This is the fourth installment of Australian Audient, in which I watch one film per month filmed in the great country/continent of Australia, where I now live.

If you were tuning in today expecting a review of Alex Proyas' Garage Days, there's been a change of plans. Mystery Road, an Australian cop drama released last fall, took over the April slot when my wife suggested we watch it last Friday night. It had always been a candidate for this series, I just didn't know when my wife would want to get around to watching it. I've learned in the past not to plan movie viewings by her schedule, so I decided to leave it vague as to when I'd actually watch Mystery Road, since it was certain to be one of the ones she watched with me. (Actually, only one of the four has she not watched with me, which was last month's Strictly Ballroom. She had already seen it and just wasn't up for another viewing at the moment.)

Okay, here's the review proper:

Movies where a small-town detective tries to solve a murder despite being fought at almost every turn by corrupt figures have an appeal to me. Oh, I suppose this doesn't describe a large number of movies, but one that did come to mind several times while watching Ivan Sen's Mystery Road was James Mangold's Copland. Of course, the greater New York City area of New Jersey and a dusty town in Queensland don't have a lot in common other than that main structural element of their stories.

Unfortunately, Mystery Road and Copland don't have a lot in common either. While Copland moves forward quickly and is pretty watchable, at least as I remember it (it's been a few years), Mystery Road stagnates, running a full two hours when it really could have been three-quarters of that. That's a shame, because there's so much to recommend it that is undermined by the film's turgid pacing.

The small-town detective in question is Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson), the neglectful father of a rebellious teenage daughter and ex-husband of her alcoholic mother. Jay has been called out to a remote area to investigate the murder of a young girl found in a gully, who shows signs of having been sexually abused before she was killed. Both Jay and the girl, Julie Mason, are of Aboriginal descent. As he begins following leads, Jay detects some suspicious behavior by two of his fellow cops, Johnno (Hugo Weaving) and Robbo (Robert Mammone), who stop him by the side of the road when it's clear Jay has spotted them. Suspiciously, they ask him if he's ever killed anyone accidentally before releasing him unharmed. Jay's search eventually comes to involve a suspect who may have been a regular at a seedy motel where Julie was known to sleep with truckers for money, and Julie's circle widens to involve both the sale of drugs, and his own daughter, Crystal, whose texting relationship with Julie is discovered when Julie's phone is found my some local kids. Several other suspicious figures join the group of non-specific threats to Jay and his family as the stakes are raised and the evidence seems to be mounting toward a calamitous confrontation.

Mystery Road is a hard film to come down on. Not only does it resemble Copland, but it draws from such sources as American westerns, the movies of the Coen brothers, and any number of independent cop dramas that have nourished us over the years. It is shot well and acted well, and it's a great example of the Australian film industry making good. It's easy to root for and easy to respect.

It's just not all that easy to watch. Director Ivan Sen takes an admirable gradual approach to developing the relationships between characters and revealing the details of the case, but he needed to find a better balance between spoon-feeding us and crediting us with patience and maturity. Languidness for its own sake only works in certain types of films, and Mystery Road needed to try less hard at being one of those films. This is not to say that Sen makes any artistic indulgences whatsoever -- his film is steadfastly realistic and straightforward. It just frequently creeps and slinks when it should be trotting.

Sen's minimalism can be blamed for such things as failing to convey to the audience the dynamic between certain characters, such that when certain characters show up in different contexts, it's not entirely clear who they are or what significance their presence has. This blunts some of the impact of the exciting climax, which does serve to release much of the tension that has been building in the film. One suspects the climax would be all the more satisfying if Sen worked harder to connect some of the dots for us early on. I won't lie: The thick Aussie accents contribute to some of the confusion, at least for those who haven't been listening to them all their lives.

Even if Mystery Road fails on some level as a cop thriller -- "cop drama" is the more appropriate classification -- it does succeed at giving us an unflinching vision of its world. Mystery Road does not shy away from presenting the plight of the Aboriginal in modern society, which is in many ways similar to the Native American in the United States. Many of the Aboriginal characters seen here live around the margins of society -- alcoholics, drug addicts, wayward teenage girls, old men who gamble with young children -- and even the primary example of a functional member of his race, the central detective, has clearly been neglectful of his daughter. The terrain these characters are trying to navigate is an unforgiving and bracingly realistic one, and I thank Sen for not trying to make something more commercial that glosses over the dark heart of Australia's treatment of its own indigenous people.

I also wasn't disappointed by one of my primary draws to this film, which was Hugo Weaving returning home to appear in a small movie from his native land. That's actually a fairly common thing for Australian actors to do, but we Americans don't often get to see these films, and I was excited to see a different side of Weaving than I'd seen in The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings. True enough, the man is a graying, grizzled cowboy, his native accent in full force, his leering sending chills down a person's spine. He kind of resembles the New Zealand actor Sam Neill here, and his presence in this story is weighty.

Okay! I can't promise it will be Garage Days in May, but that's what I've got scheduled for now.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Columbia is the most family friendly


This is not strictly about movies, but it sort of is.

There have been posters up around town for the past couple months in anticipation of the arrival of The Rocky Horror Show, a stage version of the cult movie that has been shepherded through its long life by Richard O'Brien, who plays Riff Raff in the original film. (And co-wrote the screenplay for the film.)

However, I noticed that they picked a sort of interesting ambassador for the show: Columbia, played in the original film by Nell Campbell, who seems decidedly to be a secondary character.

Dr. Frank-N-Further, the transvestite played iconically by Tim Curry in the original film, would seem to be the obvious choice to adorn the posters. Except then a bunch of prospective Melbourne theatergoers would be confronted with some version of this:


It didn't occur to me until now that the most famous character from either The Rocky Horror Picture Show or The Rocky Horror Show may not be the best way to sell it. I suspect that there is a certain squeamishness, even among a populace as generally liberal-minded as you find in Melbourne, about seeing a man with bushy hair dressed in lingerie. The bushy hair may or may not contribute to that squeamishness.

By putting Columbia front and center, though, aren't you trying to sell this as more of a straight burlesque show, and not the transgressive and totally out-there pseudo sci-fi monster movie costume epic that it really is? And mightn't that seem like false advertising?

More than anything, though, all this advertising has made me yearn for another screening of the movie, which I have not seen in more than 20 years, and in fact have never seen in a home screening environment. I probably last went to see the midnight show of the movie in 1992 or 1993, and that's a long time to go without seeing what was a favorite of mine back in the day.

Let's see if I can scrounge this movie up somewhere, and soon.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Calling an audible: Reviews of Noah and The Lego Movie


I hadn't been to the theater in almost a month, and had worked out with the wife (thank you my darling) to take in a double feature on Tuesday night.

Except, I would have doomed myself to failure if I hadn't noticed a handy-dandy feature at the Hoyts cinemas at Melbourne Central.

As you queue for tickets, you see a display of the movies showing at this theater, their start times, and one very helpful piece of information: the number of seats remaining. That gives you an immediate real-time perspective on how likely you are to make it to the front of the line before tickets sell out; whether you might want to jump off line to use one of the kiosks; or whether you want to chance it, but have a backup plan in mind in case you strike out.

I had to use my backup plan, but not because the movie I was about to buy tickets for was about to sell out. Rather, because I gleaned that there was a high likelihood that the movie I wanted to sneak in to later on would sell out.

The plan was to pay for a 6:30 showing of The Lego Movie and sneak in to an 8:30 showing of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Except that I happened to notice as I was idly scanning the available information -- my own showing being in no danger of selling out -- that the 8:15 3D showing of Captain America had only 65 seats remaining, more than an hour-and-a-half before it was set to start. This being cheap Tuesdays at Hoyts -- where tickets are "only" $12.50 -- I knew that both that 3D showing, and the regular D showing 15 minutes later, would be long gone before I went to sneak in. Sneaking in to a second movie only works, after all, if the second movie has available seats. Yeah, you could displace a legitimate ticket holder from his/her seat, but not without guilt -- and not with assigned seats, which I would soon discover these were.

So less than four people from the front of the line, I called an audible and threw together a new plan.

Noah was also starting at 6:30, and some quick math told me that its 138 minutes would be letting out just in time to get me to an 8:50 showing of The Lego Movie. Given the extensive availability of tickets for the impending showing of The Lego Movie, I surmised that the 8:50 show would have free seats as well. Captain America would have to wait for another day.

The new plan did work, which is why I can bring you both of the following reviews.

Noah

When assessing the success or failure of a Biblical epic like Noah, released by a director with a respected track record, one pressing question comes to mind -- especially if you didn't like the movie. That question is: Was this Darren Aronofsky's vision for how he wanted to make the film, and I just didn't connect with it, or did Hollywood come in and muck it all up?

The answer to that question is especially hard to figure out with Noah, because it seems to perfectly embody some of the screwier aspects of Aronofsky's diverse filmography, which may not be for everyone in the first place, while also feeling plenty emblematic of concessions to Hollywood thinking. There's a very strong sense of intention in this movie, and to contradict that, there are also some passages that feel bland and passive. Wrapped up in all this confusing swirl of critical analysis is the fact that I'm not even sure that I don't like the movie -- and in fact, thought I might like it quite a bit for its first 90 minutes.

Noah is of course the story of God's destruction of the human race by flood, and in case you really don't know anything, here's a quick synopsis of it. God makes man and woman. Man and woman eat apple and fall from grace. Man and woman have a son who kills his brother. Killer brother creates cities of equally awful human beings who treat each other and the planet terribly. God decides to kill all human beings except for one man -- the descendant of the innocent younger brother of the killer brother, who survived and created his own lineage. Man must build a giant wooden ship and put all the animals on board to ride out the storm to end all storms, and start over again from scratch. He gets to bring his family with him.

So it would be no stretch to say that this is one of the darker chapters of the Bible, if not the darkest. One of the definite strengths of Aronofsky's movie is that he does not shy away from this darkness. It's clear in every frame of Noah that everyone understands the terrible price humanity must pay for God's wrath. The extermination of 99.9% of the earth's human beings is no small detail to be glossed over, though one could argue whether this movie properly dramatizes this scourge. The weight of the decision is certainly a heavy burden for the title character, who is twisted by his responsibility into someone cruel and bestial. But what does the movie think of the actual drowning of hundreds of thousands of human beings, or however many were supposed to have populated the earth ten generations after Adam and Eve?

One brief scene both showcases the awful cost, and makes a person wonder if it shouldn't have been showcased more. As (spoiler alert) Noah and his family are finally afloat in their wooden craft, they pass by the tippy top of what must have been one of the world's tallest mountains. Maybe 20 feet of it are still above the surface of the waves, and the last couple dozen human beings, other than those in the ark, are screaming and scrambling and grappling, knowing they are in the last minutes of their lives. It's both a bracing piece of physical evidence of the realities of the situation, and a teasingly distant one, as the camera never gets closer than about 100 feet from them. This is, as it were, the only on-screen consideration of the fate facing all the human beings that lived at that time, and as a result, it can't help but feel cursory, almost perfunctory.

To spend so much time discussing this one curious decision, which is simultaneously profound and dismissive, is to inevitably ignore the many other decisions Aronofsky makes that are some percentage effective and some percentage ineffective. Nearly every choice he makes can be both criticized and praised, though there are certainly some that lean one direction more than the other. What's most interesting is how this exemplifies the duality of his film. On the one hand, it is bursting with creativity, as several scenes showcase the head-trippy visual tricks that Aronofsky has made his trademark. As just one example, a recurring three-shot montage of a slithering serpent, a plucked apple and the raised rock Cain used to kill Abel is a potent echo of Aronofsky's recurring "get high" montage from Requiem for a Dream. On the other hand, though, long stretches of this film are drab and colorless, as whole minutes of the film will pass where every single thing on screen is either brown or gray. This drabness is, unfortunately, reflected in the lead performance of Russell Crowe, who delivers most of his lines with a dispassionate stoicism that would seem lazy, if it didn't seem more likely that it was a wrong-headed intentional choice by Crowe and his director.

All this said, the film does have a lot going for it prior to the flood, and some of the sheer spectacle of it gave me chills. But you shouldn't be surprised to learn that Noah also has a second head that will rear, and this is its interminable running time after what appears to be its climax. The concessions to Hollywood in this portion of the film might make a person howl.

There's a lot more I might like to say as I'm still piecing together my feelings about Noah, but in the interest of making space in this post for a second review, I need to cut it short. I will leave on the note of one definitive failing, however, which is that the movie entirely squanders one of the most interesting aspects of the Noah story: the logistical headache of housing all the world's animals together in the same vessel, no matter how vast its construction may be. In fact, the movie acts as though it might prefer not even to have animals in the story at all. They appear in the story as three big CG shots: first birds, then snakes, then every animal that travels on all fours. Once they have made their grand, albeit robotic, entrance onto the scene, they are put to sleep by magic smoke and then forgotten entirely. Unfortunately, many viewers will likely think that same magic smoke is working on them as they sit through this unwieldy, and only fitfully rewarding, epic.

The Lego Movie

After a dour 140 minutes of Noah, The Lego Movie was sure to raise my spirits, right?

Well, not at first.

In fact, the first 20 or 30 minutes of The Lego Movie struck me as a frenetic mess. I fell in stride with the movie big time as it went along, but the occasional bursts of freneticism (is that a word?) never ceased to be a problem. There's an explanation of sorts that eventually emerges to account for some of that, but at the times it was happening, my only thoughts were "Wait, what was that, and why are we where?" I suppose that's not a particularly strange way to feel if you're in a place called Cloud Cuckooland.

With all that has been written about The Lego Movie, especially since it's been out for two months in the United States, you need a plot synopsis for this movie about as much as you need a refresher on Noah and his ark. But because you could be living under a rock, I'll offer about an equal length description of the basics of The Lego Movie.

Emmett (voice of Chris Pratt) is your average construction worker living in a Lego universe -- in fact, he's defined by his very averageness. He literally follows instructions on how to live a happy life -- liking the right songs, buying the right coffee, what have you -- and they do bring him a certain comfort in a world of conformity. Only, it turns out, Emmett is so successful at being average that the people he considers his friends don't even have much of an impression of him. This changes when he stumbles into some kind of shadowy conspiracy by "master builders" to find the "piece of resistance" and prevent the evil Lord Business (a.k.a. President Business) (voice of Will Ferrell) from using this tool to destroy the world. Throw in a pretty girl (voice of Elizabeth Banks), a mystical man (voice of Morgan Freeman) and a hybrid unicorn-cat called the Unikitty (Alison Brie) and you've got the makings for quite an adventure.

It does become quite an adventure -- eventually. One of the reasons The Lego Movie is slow out of the gate is because it's so fast out of the gate. A translation of that paradox: It didn't grab me at the start because it was moving so quickly. The movie does not pause to develop its protagonist even in the slightest, and as I have come to hate the way they're writing Chris Pratt's character on Parks and Recreation, Pratt's voice wasn't winning me over to Emmett's cause either. It's hard to get into a hero's journey when you have such a fuzzy impression of that hero, and in truth, Emmett never becomes one of the movie's great strengths, even as other great strengths do start to emerge.

One such strength is the always-reliable Morgan Freeman, submitting perhaps the closest thing to a straight comedy performance he has ever given us. Playing, essentially, a Gandalf-like wizard -- which is a bit strange, since an actual Lego Gandalf and an actual Lego Dumbledore both appear later on -- Freeman displays a sublime knack for comic timing. Sure, his lines are the funniest in the film, but we can't just credit the quartet of writers for why Freeman's Vitruvius provides so many laughs. Freeman's delivery of those lines is what really kills it. In similarly spry comic form -- and also playing against type -- Liam Neeson turns in a wicked dual performance as Good Cop/Bad Cop. Both cop archetypes are present in the same Lego figurine, with his rotating yellow head literally alternating between the two faces, and Neeson leans on his native Irish accent like he is almost never asked to do. It's downright brilliant.

The difficulty of discussing The Lego Movie in as much detail as you want has to do with a "surprise reveal" with about 20 minutes left, which played a big role in how much I eventually came around on the movie. Even though Americans have now had more than two months to see it, I won't reveal that reveal here. I will say, however, that my feelings about the movie were picking up long before then, and the decision in the third act really brought it altogether.

I'll spare you extended ruminations on what this film has to say about conformity vs. individuality, and I'll also dispense with the standard amazement that a movie was able to accomplish this much when it was clearly envisioned as a way to make bank on a known commodity. Enough has been written elsewhere about this, and I don't have anything new to contribute to that dialogue. I'm also conscious of the fact that this will leave this short of feeling like a definitive review of The Lego Movie, just as my Noah review was inevitably abbreviated.

However, that also has something to do with the fact that I don't consider this the masterpiece that some people find it, so I don't need to find that new perfect way of expressing the exactness of what The Lego Movie does right. I'm just content with the fact that it ended up doing a lot more right than I originally thought it was going to do ... and that it ended a long night at the movies on a good note.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: Turbo


If I hadn't already reached a low point in my moaning about the mediocrity of most animated movies, Turbo would have brought me there at lightning speed.

Twenty thirteen was the year that each animated movie I saw was trying to be more mediocre than the one before it -- most notably with the likes of Epic, Planes and The Croods, but even to some extent with Fozen, the year's animated breakout hit. So it should come as no surprise that Turbo, another 2013 animated film churned out by Dreamworks (joining The Croods), would end up being the poster boy for animated mediocrity.

The writers of Turbo seem to have been peering over shoulders at Disney/Pixar, since Turbo is like a mashup of Cars and Planes -- even though Planes had not yet been released. It's got Cars' racing milieu and Planes' already plenty unoriginal notion of the massive underdog competing in a race for which he is ironically unqualified. That ironic underdog is Theo the snail (voice of Ryan Reynolds), who spends his days harvesting tomatoes in a San Fernando Valley garden, and his nights watching old VHS tapes of Indy Car racing great Guy Gagne (Bill Hader), who tells him that "No dream is too big, and no dreamer is too small." See, Theo wants to race in the Indianapolis 500. That's right, snails are known for being so slow that their speed is best discussed metaphorically, yet this particular snail has dreams of traveling upwards of 200 miles per hour.

This should just remain a ridiculous dream, of course, but fate creates the conditions where it could become a reality. Through a Rube Goldbergian set of circumstances, Theo finds himself suction-cupped to the body of a car about to burst from the starting line of a drag race. During this race, Theo tumbles into the car's supercharger, in what becomes his "origins of a superhero" moment. The nitrous oxide fuses with his DNA, and suddenly, Theo can shine lights from his eyes, beep like a reversing semi, and most importantly, travel at lightning speeds, leaving a trail of shimmering light wherever he goes. This is all much to the chagrin of his worrywart brother, Chet (Paul Giamatti), who sees only disaster in the future of the newly rechristened "Turbo." Seeing a much different future for the mollusk, taco vendor Tito Lopez (Michael Pena) discovers the little speedster and imagines that Turbo will bring fame and customers to his fledgling restaurant. Before long, though, he's got his sights set even bigger, on the country's most famous race. A collection of Tito's neighbors and a bevy of Tito's streetwise snails will do everything they can to see Turbo race alongside, and against, his idol, Guy Gagne.

Dreamworks has often been strong on the visuals and weak on the story, and Turbo is no exception. The one thing you'd need to get right in a hero's journey story like this is to give the hero a real purpose with a solid spine. Theo/Turbo has got the purpose alright, but his character has none of the psychological underpinnings that make the audience want him to succeed. The only thing we really know about this snail is that he longs to be exceptional and has a thing for racing. He isn't trying to impress some distant father or save his garden from being turned into a parking lot -- the closest he's got is to quiet the whining of his dyspeptic brother. He's just a snail who wants to go fast, and frankly, that's not enough. Reynolds makes Turbo self-centered and driven, but not much beyond that. If you want to really root for him, good luck.

Much of the rest of the vocal cast feels either obvious or out of place. Starting with the out of place: It's not that Giamatti has never worked for a paycheck before, just that a nagging snail feels particularly beneath him, even if he does give the performance his all. The same is true for Samuel L. Jackson as the leader of Turbo's coterie of new snail racing friends. Another one slumming is Luis Guzman as Tito's brother, who fulfills the same function toward Tito as Chet fulfills toward Theo/Turbo. (And as I write this out, I'm starting to recognize that Turbo may be Dreamworks' male sibling version of the sisterly bonds at the center of Frozen -- even though that movie had not yet come out either.) Among the obvious: Snoop Dogg as one of the streetwise snails. Dreamworks is nothing if not conscious of how to expand its demographic appeal, though I should note that having the human protagonist be a pudgy Mexican feels legitimately progressive.

The photorealism of the race cars and other non-snail aspects of the environment does indeed confirm Dreamworks' position at the forefront of animated technology. There are times when you might pause and wonder if the snails have been inserted into an actual live-action film. It's just a shame that Dreamworks still under-budgets in one crucial area: its screenwriting. Until Dreamworks can find someone capable of telling a truly sublime story, no amount of technological advancements will help it win any race.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Touchy Feely


Just a couple more weeks of reviewing every new movie I see as part of my Movie Diet, which you know about by now, so I will no longer link to it.

My adoration for the work of director Lynn Shelton knows no bounds. Granted, prior to last week I had only seen two of her movies, but my affection for those two movies is through the roof. I ranked her film Humpday among my top 15 of 2009, and would rank it higher if I were making those rankings today. And I really went crazy for her 2012 film Your Sister's Sister, as only one other film ranked higher at year's end. That one was probably a bit too bullish, but the two movies average out to a couple of pretty captivating sits.

Now that I've seen Touchy Feely, I'll modify that opening statement: My adoration for the work of director Lynn Shelton knew no bounds, but now some bounds have been put in place. Which doesn't mean her unheralded 2013 film, which largely seemed to escape notice, isn't valuable enough to earn a modest recommendation.

Shelton is pretty high-concept as far as filmmakers who came out of the mumblecore movement are concerned, and Touchy Feely is no different. In a bit of irony that would seem pretty contrived if it weren't being handled in such an independent manner, Touchy Feely concerns a massage therapist (Rosemarie DeWitt, star of Your Sister's Sister) who suddenly stops being able to touch other people without a sense of revulsion. This psychological threat to her means of making an income is in some way a manifestation of the increasing seriousness of her relationship with her boyfriend, Jesse (Scoot McNairy). Abby's uptight dentist brother, Paul (Josh Pais), is having the reverse sort of phenomenon occur: he suddenly discovers he has the ability to magically cure headaches that are caused by his patients grinding their teeth, an ability that's cultivated by a new age healer (Allison Janney). However, what Paul can't recognize is that his daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) needs to forge her own way in the world instead of continue to apprentice in his dental practice.

The title of Shelton's film is darn near cheeky, which may prepare the viewer for something light and whimsical. This is perhaps only Shelton's first of several misdirections in the film, none of them intentional and none of them particularly effective. However, this isn't to say there's no truth in the meaning of her title: The film ends up being touchy feely in a way that's not so cheeky, nor so great, as it wades into some rather squishy emotions in a rather humorless fashion. In fact, Touchy Feely finds Shelton taking further steps away from the kind of naturalism that came so effortlessly in her films that bore more of the hallmarks of mumblecore, notably Humpday. It's not that Shelton has not dealt with frail human emotions before, because in all of her films she has. It's that they have taken on kind of an ethereal, stylized aspect that does not entirely work here. In fact, moments of Touchy Feely remind one of a Miranda July film, except without July's distinct oddball charm that keeps her films from feeling oppressive.

I suppose one of the things that makes Touchy Feely so odd is another way it incorporates the meaning of the title, which is that two characters take ecstasy. Ecstasy is a drug known for the way it breaks down a person's normal inhibitions, especially as it comes to personal space and expressing one's feelings of affection toward others -- even if that affection is entirely chemically-induced. However, ecstasy has most often been used in the movies in a purely comedic manner, as a character gets accidentally dosed and acts out all the symptoms of an ecstasy trip in ways with which we are all, by now, exhaustingly familiar. To its credit, Touchy Feely does not use the drug in that fashion, but the way it does use it is strange enough that it cancels out the benefits of not being cliched. Put simply, for both characters, ecstasy functions as a medicinal means of psychologically unblocking them, in a purely positive manner that almost seems naive. It's not that a movie has a responsibility to take a parental stance toward the drug, though Touchy Feely does have some gestures in that direction as well. It's that by creating unambiguously positive outcomes for both the characters who take the drug, it seems to be aligning itself with a number of idealistic rave movies that came out when the drug was first entering a new phase of mainstream popularity, such as Greg Harrison's Groove. As a result, Shelton's movie feels a bit turn-of-the-century, and dare I say it, immature.

Fortunately, this odd character piece, composed of largely ill-fitting parts, is buoyed by the maturity of its performers. Two in particular truly shine. DeWitt proves her magnificence in nearly every movie she's in, and she handles this character's potentially unenviable journey with true grace. The massage therapist who hates touching people is almost set up to be a joke, but DeWitt doesn't allow anything about her performance to approach the camp that could have characterized the role if she had let it. The true find here, though, is Page, who plays a character perhaps more different from the one that made her famous (Juno MacGuff) than any she's ever played. There's no whip-smart buoyancy to this character, the dentist's daughter -- there's just melancholy and longing. Those emotions could be one-note, of course, but Page brings a soulful dimension to them, especially killing it in one scene where she confesses a crush she knows will not be reciprocated. The little nuances of her speech and facial expressions in this scene are simply stunning.

Not everyone fares as well as these two, though. Josh Pais is stiffer, a lot stiffer, even than the character is meant to be. In fact, given his lack of career heat relative to the others who appear here, I was struck by the feeling that he didn't belong in this group, and must have been cast as a favor. Pais does improve a little as the movie wears on -- so I guess we have the ecstasy to thank for that as well.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Windows of opportunity


Four-and-a-half years ago, I wrote a post on this blog called "Where's my Pompeii movie?"

Two weeks ago, that movie came out (in the country where I live, at least).

Two weeks after that, it's playing only in Chadstone.

Chadstone?

I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't know it, but I don't know it either, and I actually live in this country. Turns out, it's about 70 miles north of Melbourne. I don't know what that is in kilometers.

So much for seeing that one in the theater.

Sure, I'd heard that it probably wasn't all that great, something I could have likely predicted considering that it's directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the lesser Paul Anderson, who has to his credit such classics as Mortal Kombat, Event Horizon, Alien vs. Predator, and three of the five Resident Evils. It was never likely that he'd have made the Pompeii movie I wanted.

Still, my sheer desire to see a volcano destroy an ancient city on film, using the latest and greatest in visual effects, had me certain I would make a cinematic pilgrimage to see Pompeii when it was released.

Unfortunately, when it was released was only a week after I started my new job. Only two weeks after that, it's only playing in ... Chadstone.

Seems kind of a shame, because the last time I had a good opportunity to go to the theater, there was really nothing out I wanted to see. That's how I ended up seeing a Liam Neeson movie on Tuesday, March 11th. It was a Liam Neeson movie I ended up kind of liking, but just two weeks later it would have been sixth or seventh on my list of priorities.

Now that I'm finally getting my next chance to go to the movies, nearly a month later this Monday or Tuesday night (I've got my choice), the list is much longer. I can (and might) see anything among the following: Noah, The Lego Movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Nymphomaniac, Volumes 1 and 2, which are playing together in a four-hour block (for only a single admission price?) at Cinema Nova. (Okay, that last one is not a realistic contender, despite my definite interest in seeing it.) By next Thursday you can add The Grand Budapest Hotel to that list.

The thing is, what I would have seen, in all likelihood, was Pompeii, simply because I'll still have a couple more weeks to see those other movies. I guess I sensed on some level that Pompeii might be moving quickly, and I needed to catch it now or never.

I guess it's never. Because I ain't going to Chadstone. Even if I did have a car, with the outrageous price of petrol (yes, I said petrol) in Australia, no one would even consider driving 70 miles just to see a movie. Especially not a Paul W.S. Anderson movie.

Of course, "never" is not really never. I will definitely see this movie on video. Where the only possible thing it could have going for it -- a city being laid to waste in glorious, 21st century FX -- will be small and ineffectual.

So where is my Pompeii movie?

It's in Chadstone, on the other side of a window of opportunity that has now closed.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

You never go full happy


You may recall a certain Ben Stiller-directed movie from a couple years ago about a certain war movie being filmed somewhere in Southeast Asia and a certain British actor wearing blackface (played by a certain popular American actor who usually has iron over his face) who has a certain controversial line of dialogue about going "full retard." His advice is that you should never do it, if you want to win an Oscar.

Similarly, if you want to avoid your movie being accused of having too happy of an ending, you should never go "full happy."

Powder Blue, an overstretched little Los Angeles hyperlink movie from 2009, may seem like a strange example to use of this phenomenon, but it just so happens that watching it is when these thoughts about "fully happy" occurred to me.

Although I hardly think it important not to spoil the ending of a movie whose main claim to fame is that Jessica Biel goes topless (twice), I'll remain vague for those of you out there who might care.

The movie ends with two characters sitting on benches about 100 yards from each other, noticing the other and smiling. These are the two characters who the story means to end up together from about its halfway point (after one of the characters has been missing from the plot for a good half-hour). It's pretty clear that this will ultimately happen, and in that moment where they notice each other on the benches (one is a bus stop), I thought "Okay, this is a good place to end this movie." Didn't mean it would suddenly become a great movie, but it held the possibility of ending things in a graceful manner.

Uh uh. The characters have to cross to each other and have one of those epic kisses, one that's so epic that the camera's only option is to pull out to about a thousand feet away before going to the credits.

See? "Full happy."

What struck me about this is that it seems kind of unusual these days, at least in movies that are trying to be independent and thought-provoking. Powder Blue is definitely trying to do both, and mostly failing.

Movies that want to have it both ways -- shoot for realism, but also leave the viewer feeling happy -- have figured out plenty of ways to suggest a happy ending without turning that ending into a 100% certainty. Let's take a prominent example from this past year: Her. I'm sorry if you haven't seen Her yet, and I'm sorry if you thought that the ending would be depressing or bleak. You can consider this a spoiler alert if you fit into either category.

Her, another Los Angeles story, ends with its intended new lovebirds (played by Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams) sitting together on a rooftop, looking out contemplatively over the city. Each has recently become available, and the story has made it clear that the two have been inching towards each other for some time, ready to finally find a fully satisfying relationship in each others' arms. (Because, you know, an operating system tends not to have arms.)

Spike Jonze doesn't have to have Phoenix and Adams lean in for a kiss to indicate that there will probably be kisses in their future. It's enough to know that they have found each other, on this rooftop, and that we can trust them to take it from here.

This is of course just one example, not nearly the best nor most prominent (though probably one of the most recent). It's a happy ending without being a HAPPY ENDING.

A shrewd filmmaker should trust us enough to leave us merely with hope. Hope leaves that kiss up to our imagination. It also leaves us with the possibility that it won't work out, if we want to read the ending that way. Few movies have it both ways better than the ending of a movie that bears some high-concept romantic similarities to Her, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Of course, neither is Powder Blue the most prominent example of a "full happy" ending, though it's definitely the most recent, at least for me, as I just saw it last night. Ending with just an exchange of smiles and knowing glances from benches across the street would not have made Powder Blue a good movie, but it would have made it a better one.

I suppose my real reason for writing this post is that I promised I would write a review of every new movie I'm seeing until the end of April, and since I can't really write two posts about a movie as insignificant as Powder Blue, this post lets me off the hook for writing that review. You see, one of the problems about this "review everything" approach to blogging is that if I allow myself to become imprisoned by my self-imposed guidelines, I stop writing posts about movie phenomena that are inspired by the things I see, because they don't fit neatly into the type of package that reviews force them into. I thought about the "full happy" ending while watching Powder Blue, so I want Powder Blue to by my news peg for writing that post, gosh darn it.

And that, my friends, is my own little happy ending for today.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Australian Audient: Strictly Ballroom


This is the third installment of Australian Audient, in which I watch one previously unseen film originating from my new country of residence per month in 2014, then write about the experience here.

I've heard a lot of people throwing around a new verb lately -- to "baz" something. I'll use it in a sentence:

"The best way to do an update of West Side Story would be to baz it."

That's Baz Luhrmann, the Australian auteur with his own distinct voice, a voice responsible for the likes of Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. To "baz" something, then, is to envision it with an extra dose of that manic, pop music-infused razzle dazzle that Luhrmann has made his trademark lo these 22 years since he first came on the scene.

I'd seen all of Luhrmann's features except for that first one: 1992's Strictly Ballroom. I made certain assumptions about it, I guess, which explains why a Luhrmann fan like myself (I even liked Australia) had not seen it before now. I suppose I figured that as a first feature, it couldn't have the larger-than-life quality that I have come to associate with Luhrmann and consider an indispensable element in his films. Or maybe the idea of a movie about ballroom dancing just didn't thrill me.

But everything Luhrmann was, is, and will be was set up in Strictly Ballroom, and I thought it was a gas.

It's easy to see why Luhrmann would have been given Romeo + Juliet after making this movie, and why I referenced a version of Shakespeare's tragedy (West Side Story) as a hypothetical movie Luhrmann might make. The families of the young hero and heroine of Strictly Ballroom aren't at war with one another, but the lovebirds are in fact from two different worlds: Scott (Paul Mercurio), the aspiring professional dancer who's the son of a driven ballroom teacher, and Fran (Tara Morice), the poor daughter of the owners of a Spanish restaurant. They're kept apart because Fran can't possibly be a sufficient partner for Scott as he tries to win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix Dance Championship, the destiny he's been training for -- a destiny that's clouded when his previous partner (Gia Carides) ditches him because she doubts Scott's rogue dancing style. The deceptively frumpy Fran doesn't present very well, either, but she's just waiting to blossom into a swan -- and to introduce Scott to her unpolished if impressive authentic Spanish dance moves. With just a short time until the competition, will Scott follow the leanings of his heart, toward Fran, or the more established partners being presented for him, who may be part of a larger scheme to fix the competition?

Some successful directors start in one place and discover something quite different as they hone their skills. Others have a vision from an early age, and just keep on fine-tuning it. Luhrmann fits into the latter category. Even without having a lot of money for his first picture, Luhrmann knew how to make it grandiose. Strictly Ballroom feels painted on a big canvas, one so big and fantastical that its firmly established Australian setting feels almost besides the point. With the exception of Romeo + Juliet, all of Luhrmann's films have a very definite and important setting -- Paris with Moulin Rouge!, Australia with Australia and New York with The Great Gatsby. Yet they all take place inside his mind, a setting wonderfully all its own. Ballroom is no exception.

It's interesting to see how much of the Luhrmann flourishes already exist here. One is what we will call the "frenetic close-up," where Luhrmann swoops his camera in at the unnaturally frenzied face of a character, making them appear almost grotesque. Think Jim Broadbent dancing in Moulin Rouge! Another is his earnest repurposing of pop music, as (cover versions of) both "Love is in the Air" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" are used prominently and to emotionally cathartic effect.

But what really surprised me were some of the little details, moments that Luhrmann loves that he has revisited throughout his career. There's a lovely scene here where the camera pans up from the ground to a building rooftop, where Scott's pushover father (the delightful and ultimately triumphant Barry Otto) is indulging in a private moment of joyous dance. It's that upward movement of the camera that Luhrmann has continued to do with great style, notably as he explores the Parisian rooftops in Moulin Rouge!, and again in last year's Great Gatsby, where one particular urban bacchanal pulls upward to reveal, many floors above, men in hard hats soldering steel girders a hundred stories above a New York City they are building into what it is today.

Luhrmann can also give us a great hissable villain. He's got one in nearly every movie, and here that role is played by Bill Hunter as the conniving president of the Australian Dance Federation. Hunter may be the primary recipient of the "frenetic close-up" described earlier, and he gives a performance to match, without ever going over the top.

Ballroom is simply a joyous celebration, but perhaps my favorite element was its lead actress, Tara Morice. Morice is not a traditional beauty, something that made her very right for this role, but probably prevented her from having a particularly fruitful career (though she did appear in a half-dozen more movies). What she has beyond her non-traditional beauty, though, is a surplus of pluck and likability. A rush of sympathy courses through the viewer whenever she appears on screen. The extent to which you want her character to succeed is also what helps make this movie feel so romantic, even when her romantic on-screen partner is a novice actor who was selected for his renowned dance abilities more than his ability to read lines. Because Luhrmann has an innate talent for this kind of thing -- Moulin Rouge! may be one of the most romantic movies I've ever seen -- he gets everything he's looking for out of the pairing of Mercurio and Morice.

So when do we get Luhrmann's version of West Side Story, on the nose though it may be? Having really liked -- and possibly even loved -- Strictly Ballroom, I'm more ready for it than ever.

Okay, on to April. In April I'm going with a film by another Australian crossover director, Alex Proyas, who directed The Crow and Dark City. The movie I've chosen actually comes after he made those two Hollywood movies, 2002's Garage Days.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Hard to Kill

 
As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

So how does a guy, in this day and age, end up seeing a Steven Seagal movie for the very first time, 24 years after its exceedingly short window of relevance has closed?

He forgets to change the channel after the baseball game ends, and just keeps watching.

Yes, I'm still in Australia. But if you follow sports news, you know that the Major League Baseball season got underway with two games in Sydney between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks this past weekend. At one point, I thought I would be at one or both of those games. It didn't turn out that way, but I still got to watch the last three innings of Saturday night's 3-1 Dodgers win on free-to-air TV.

After it ended, I saw that a movie was starting, and decided to play that game where I try to guess what it is before the title appears. The title Hard to Kill appeared pretty early on in this one, so I lost the game -- then compounded matters by deciding to sit there and watch the whole movie.

Seagal plays (great name alert) Detective Mason Storm, a cop who has just collected video evidence of a crooked scheme by mobsters and politicians at a pier. Spotted but able to escape, Storm finds out later that night that he hasn't gotten away without revealing his identity when several hit men break into his house and shoot him and his wife (Bonnie Burroughs). Storm is at death's door, but never goes through -- he instead ends up in a coma, but the police force lets the world believe he has been killed in order to remove him as the target of further reprisals. His wife does die, and his son's fate is uncertain. Storm remains in the coma for seven years, at which point he awakens with vengeance on his mind. He's also got to clear his name, as the corrupt cops who set him up also framed him for murdering his wife. Assisted by a nurse in the coma ward (Kelly LeBrock), Storm goes into hiding while trying to rebuild his strength and recover the evidence against the corrupt politician (William Sadler) at the heart of the mafia plot and the murder of his wife.

If you're seeking out poster boys for bad late 80s'-early '90s action stars with nary a credible film to their names, you could do a lot worse than Steven Seagal. Your other top choice would be Jean-Claude Van Damme, who actually may rank a rung below Seagal on the credibility scale simply because Seagal was in Under Siege, which was pretty good. Neither guy has much to be proud of, but at least there was something earnest about Van Damme. Seagal always struck me as a bit too much of a smirker.

So it may please you -- or disappoint you, depending on your preconceived notions toward the man -- to learn that I thought moments of Hard to Kill, Seagal's second star vehicle after 1988's Above the Law, really worked. You might even say it goes for realism from time to time. Knowing that these movies tend to be outrageous self-parodies, I was kind of surprised not to find Storm awaken from seven years of atrophied muscles and just pop out of bed, ready to kick someone's ass. It's not quite on the order of The Bride willing her toe to move in Kill Bill Volume 1, but Mason Storm does have to figure out how to use his body again, and has to escape from a hospital using his wits more than his muscles.

There's an almost enviable cleanness and simplicity to the movie's setup and narrative direction, as well. You'd be tempted to describe the script as lean, in fact -- and that's an adjective almost always employed in complimentary fashion.

Of course, Hard to Kill can't escape its ultimately simplistic ambitions and scale, as much of its execution can be characterized using that all-encompassing yet inexact term we always use for dated material: "cheesy." Yes, Hard to Kill is pretty cheesy, and it's not just the 1990 musical score that sounds a lot like you would expect it would. In some scenes it's just oozing that cheese.

That didn't surprise me, but what did surprise me was that it was ultimately a lot less of an action movie than I was expecting. Seagal movies and Van Damme movies are usually marked by at least one and possibly as many as six superfluous action scenes, which exist only to allow the hero to crack a few more heads. Hard to Kill has one very obvious example of this principle, a convenience store robbery that Storm comes across on his way home that has no relationship to the rest of the plot. (We have to see Storm righteously cracking some skulls before he goes to sleep for seven years, you see.) While in most movies a scene like this would be purely gratuitous, here it seems to be compensating for the relatively low body count that's to follow.

Hard to Kill also reminded me that Kelly LeBrock wasn't only in Weird Science. The Amazonian British model did quite good work in John Hughes' film, but here many of her line deliveries are outright absurd. It ends up being a little weird that she becomes Storm's love interest, as a quest to avenge your dead wife never loses its righteousness as much as when you are already shagging someone else.

Hard to Kill is also fun from time to time for spotting other familiar faces, such as Breaking Bad's Dean Norris and the aforementioned William Sadler. I was most disappointed to discover that the film does not feature the great stunt actor Al Leong, whose presence as a henchmen in action movies from this era was so ubiquitous that my friends and I actually learned the actor's name. Seeing his face would probably help:


There he is!

Yeah, he wasn't in this movie.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

That whimsical AIDS romp for your tablet


I haven't seen Dallas Buyers Club, but I do know that it's about a guy trying not to die of AIDS.

Which makes it the perfect fodder for an afternoon of casual tablet watching and in-movie fact-checking, right?

A Matthew McConaughey more or less at this stage of AIDS-related decimation is the star of a new ad I've been seeing on Hulu for Google Play, which focuses on a feature I think I should take credit for because I thought of it a good ten years ago: the ability to touch-pause a movie and read a fact sheet about the person you're seeing on screen. (My version didn't require pausing, and was more like a Pop-Up Video-style bubble, so I probably won't get around to actually suing.)

It's a cool feature, to be sure, but I can't get over how funny a choice Dallas Buyers Club is to advertise it.

I suppose it's a cheerier choice than, say, 12 Years a Slave, if you're looking to advertise recent award winners (as this ad chooses explicitly to do by mentioning that Dallas Buyers Club "and other award winners" are available on Google Play). But only compared to something so raw and intense could DBC be considered cheery, I imagine.

Maybe they first thought of Gravity as a better choice, then laughed at the absurdity of watching such an opus on a tablet or smartphone. Or maybe the star had to give permission to use his likeness, and McConaughey was the only one who would do it.

To give some perspective on why this choice surprises me, I immediately thought of how Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest was the movie Apple plastered all over its iPods at the time I got my first one back at Christmas of 2006. The fact that the device could play movies was a selling point they were pushing particularly hard, and what better way to encapsulate the innate fun and whimsy of an iPod than to show the mug of Captain Jack Sparrow himself on the box of every iPod you sold? Of course, that movie was a dud, but it was what the movie represented -- joy, mischief -- that mattered more than its quality.

Now, Google is definitely aware of this advertising attitude in its spots for Google Play featuring McConaughey and Buyers Club, as probably the movie's most light-hearted scene is showcased here. McConaughey and Jennifer Garner sit across a table from each other, joking and basking in at least the ironic charm being proffered by Ron Woodroof under the circumstances.

Those circumstances being, you know, his gaunt face and approaching death by way of Auto Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Don't confuse my writing this post as a criticism of Google. This is a hip, progressive choice of a movie to advertise the functionality of your technology, one that represents a bold resistance to the notion of playing it safe. Google ought to be commended for associating itself with a movie that features not only AIDS, but also a trans woman.

I do, however, also think there might be something sort of insensitive about suggesting that viewers pause a dramatic heavyweight like Dallas Buyers Club in order to see what amounts to an on-screen IMDB entry for its star -- even during one of its lightest scenes.

I mean, isn't something frivolous like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest a lot more appropriate place to do something like that?

Of course, 2013 was blessedly without an entry into the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise -- no certainty, given that the two-year interval since On Stranger Tides would have been about the perfect time to bring along Pirates 5. In the absence of such a film, I would have expected Google to choose something like Thor: The Dark World to sell the product, given that they also needed something that had only just come to video.

Instead, it was Dallas Buyers Club -- a much darker world than Dark World.

However, that a corporate giant would choose Dallas Buyers Club as its envoy makes that darker world just a little bit lighter.