This blog post contains spoilers.
Let me just say right off the bat that overall I really liked Toy Story 3. Its heart was in the right place, it had a lot of laughs, and both the very beginning and very end of the film pulled on my heartstrings in all the right ways (Andy’s speech about Woody had me in floods of tears.) It should also be said immediately that even Pixar underperforming is still better than all of their contemporaries at their very best (Studio Ghibli notwithstanding.)
But that is both a blessing and a curse for Pixar. Their standing in film culture is so high that to dare criticize any of their output is tantamount to blasphemy for some people. This is why even a weak effort like Ratatouille finds itself with multiple Oscar nominations simply because it’s a masterpiece compared to the likes of Open Season and Barnyard (Like that’s really hard.) But the Pixar masterminds aren’t artistic gods. Every great filmmaker you can think of has made at least one film their oeuvre could do without. Why? Because they are human beings, just as capable of error as everyone else. To shoot down anyone who has the courage to say that The Incredibles is 30 minutes too long, that WALL-E ceases to be a masterpiece as soon as the human race turns up, and that even Up goes a little too bonkers in the third act is not only unfair, it’s also wrong. It is the reason why mediocrity rules the day, because anyone who demands higher standards from the entertainment industry is dismissed as a snob (Which, incidentally, is the definition of snobbery, as it’s saying one opinion is better than another.)
So while Toy Story 3 works really well in several places, I have no reservations in saying that it is also deeply flawed and far from the masterpiece everyone is making it out to be. It’s not that the Emperor has no clothes, it’s just that he forgot to put his pants on today. You know, like having a plot that isn’t just a complete rehash of the second film in the series with elements of The Brave Little Toaster thrown in for good measure. Let’s see, we have the threat of Andy no longer caring about his toys, a prison-like setting for said toys, an antagonistic toy whose cynicism tries to bring everybody down, and a climactic set-piece in a massive location in which the toys try to get back home. Along the way, we have several scenes of the toys facing their own mortality as children inevitably grow out of them. Now, I wasn’t expecting a story on the level of King Lear, but a little more ingenuity would’ve been nice.
Watching the film felt like getting into the heads of the writing staff. I could just see them agonizing for hours on end over how to top themselves in terms of action, sentiment, and suspense. The resulting film is a textbook example of how — in Mr. Plinkett’s words — biggerer is not always betterer. Sometimes, stakes can be so high that the tension ceases and the story alienates rather than involves. For me, the moment came when I realized I was watching Pixar’s abstract portrayal of life in a concentration camp, with rewrites from David Lynch thrown in for good measure. Of course, this comes to life the most in the already-infamous “incinerator scene.” The rest of the audience was practically holding their breaths wondering how their beloved characters whom the writers wouldn’t have the guts to kill off but let’s pretend it’s inevitable anyway would get out of this fine mess. I, on the other hand, just thought it was weird. And overdone. See, when Woody and Buzz were trying to escape the clutches of the sadistic Sid in the first film, it felt like watching a stripped-down horror movie where the threat of violence was tangible and yet restrained. Here, the horror elements were so crazy and desperately threatening that it bordered on silly. It’s like the difference between the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Shutter Island.
In the end, I was left with a film that I enjoyed and appreciated mostly for reasons related to nostalgia, which I think explains the buckets of praise being heaped on the film like it’s the Citizen Kane of animated features. It’s not on par with the original Toy Story by a long shot, or even Toy Story 2 for that matter, and once the insane hype dies down in a year or so, I think more and more people will start coming out of the woodwork and echoing the same sentiments. Just remember: It’s okay to dislike the new Pixar movie. Don’t listen to any halfwit who tells you otherwise.
But Armond White still sucks.
14 June, 2010
I more or less lost interest in this blog — although I keep getting e-mails about my pan of The Hangover, which is quite nice — but the resurgence of the issue of violence — particularly violence against women — in cinema has drawn me back to the Kingdom of Doom, and I feel like I need to get my feelings on the matter off my chest.
Michael Winterbottom has a new film out called The Killer Inside Me, based on a book by Jim Thompson which I’m in the middle of reading. It’s already out in the UK and it’s due out in the US very soon. Like Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, it’s gotten the press all hot and bothered over the issue of whether or not extreme violence in art is ever justified, especially when women are involved. This article in The Guardian, and particularly the typically uninformed comments, got my mind racing about the subject, which is why I’m here now.
So here’s the thing:
The contentious scene in the film occurs in the first few pages of the book. It’s a horrible, grotesque scene to read, and I imagine it will be even worse when I eventually sit down to watch it. However, at no point while imagining this misogynist act of violence take place did I think to myself, “Why isn’t that delightful?” I reacted the way Thompson expected me to react: With horror and disgust. Winterbottom is saying the same thing in interviews, that extreme violence should be horrific and disgusting in art because that’s the whole point. Violence isn’t cute or fun, it’s ugly. Just like when Gaspar Noé made Irreversible and argued that watching Monica Bellucci be brutally raped for 9 minutes was justified because we need to be aware of just how horrible rape really is.
“Well, duh,” I can hear you saying. “I know violence against women is bad. Why else would a filmmaker relish in it unless he wanted us to enjoy it? We don’t need to be reminded.” Fair point, but I disagree.
As Dr. Kermode points out in the Guardian piece, very few people expressed their outrage last year over a scene in Crank 2 in which a woman’s breasts are shot off. Like the rest of the film, this moment was played for cheap laughs. They wanted you to enjoy it. Given Hollywood’s casual attitude towards violence in general, it’s easy to take for granted just how ugly and unpleasant it really is unless you’ve actually witnessed or experienced it yourself.
All moviegoers are voyeurs. This is something we’ve been aware of since Michael Powell put us behind the lens of a killer in Peeping Tom. The question is whether or not we are taking pleasure from our voyeurism. Well, it depends. This question can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. Contrary to popular belief, every single film you’ve ever seen — be it A Steven Spielberg Film or Un Film De Michael Haneke — is a piece of entertainment. If you’re being engaged by a work of art, it doesn’t matter if it’s low-brow or high-brow, scatological or intellectual…you are still being entertained.
The differences come within the standards of the particular artworks. I think Die Hard is a massively entertaining action movie, but I also think Raging Bull is a deeply affecting character study that entertains me for completely different reasons. I’m not having fun when Jake LaMotta is slamming his body against the concrete wall of a prison cell, but if I wasn’t being entertained by the scene on some level, I wouldn’t be in floods of tears by the end of it.
Works like The Killer Inside Me or Irreversible — films that seek emotional honesty from the anti-social acts they portray — are not the problem. Films like Transformers, where the female characters are only there for the purposes of non-ironic titillation, are the problem. For all the articles written about the character of Hit-Girl in the massively overrated Kick-Ass, I didn’t see one person complain about the fact that the love interest was nothing but a walking plot convenience and masturbation fodder for nerds. Finally, do we still need to see slasher movie after slasher movie in which Maxim models engage in gratuitous sex scenes only to be casually slaughtered a few frames later? What makes any of these films any less offensive to women?
Answer: They don’t hold the voyeur accountable.
16 July, 2009
Why in the middle of July 2009? Because I didn’t think I could put together a solid list at the end of December because I hadn’t seen enough films worthy of the distinction in what was frankly a disappointing year for cinema. Especially after 2007 with not one but three American masterpieces: There Will Be Blood, The Assassination of Jesse James, and No Country for Old Men. I wanted to wait until I had further explored the year in film on DVD. Now that I have, here are my 10 picks for the best pictures of 2008:
TOP 10 OF 2008
10. Burn After Reading (dir. Joel & Ethan Coen): The Coen Brothers may not have been on their A game with Burn After Reading, and it definitely holds a lower ranking on their back catalogue, but the Coens underperforming is still better than most American filmmakers doing their best work. When it comes to comedy, nothing in the US quite came close to their star-studded sex comedy/bureaucratic satire. Their Altmanesque use of Brad Pitt was one of the ballsiest things seen in a multiplex in 2008. It was a move that irritated and delighted moviegoers in equal measure. It may be a lesser work by Joel and Ethan but it’s nevertheless an endlessly enjoyable one.
9. Encounters at the End of the World (dir. Werner Herzog): In making this documentary about life in Antarctica, Herzog actively resisted making a simplistic story about “fluffy penguins,” although he did manage to find the one lone penguin who decided to go off and survive on his own. Encounters doesn’t quite have the resonance of Grizzly Man but it does share that classic Herzogian theme of nature consisting only of “chaos, hostility and murder.” The underwater sequences are breathtaking in their surreal intimacy as only Herzog can do it. Again, not brilliant, but a worthwhile cinematic experience nonetheless.
8. WALL-E (dir. Andrew Stanton): In the first 45 minutes of WALL-E, I was ready to declare the latest Pixar venture my favorite film of the year. It was a majestic piece of purely visual storytelling that even brought a tear to the eyes of this embittered cynic. Something that could appeal to kids and adults in equal measure but for all the right reasons. But then they went into space, and somehow the magic was lost upon the reveal of a sea of obese Americans. The sudden pandering to children turned something downright extraordinary into just a good kids’ film. But I still had a great time with it, and on the strength of the first half, it demands a place on my Top 10 list.
7. Slumdog Millionaire (dir. Danny Boyle): Ah yes, the film that serious cinephiles are no longer allowed to like. Before the awards hooplah started, no one had any reservations about heaping buckets of praise on Danny Boyle’s Dickensian fable. Now, 8 Oscars later, no one is allowed to like the film without adding the phrase: “But it’s not that good.” Well I’m not buying into this trend. While it might not be a modern classic, it’s still far and away the best of the nominees, and it’s all down to Boyle taking a simplistic story and making it extraordinary with his explosive visual style. It’s no Trainspotting but it still holds a place in my heart. Jai ho!
6. Gran Torino (dir. Clint Eastwood): The second worst marketed film of 2008 was Eastwood’s intelligent and surprisingly hilarious study of the nature of racism. Part of it is due to Nick Schenk’s underrated screenplay, and part of it is due to Eastwood’s understated, no-nonsense direction. He previously eulogized the western with Unforgiven, and now, he eulogizes his Dirty Harry persona in what is said to be his final screen performance. Films that deal with the subject of racism seriously are few and far between (And no, Crash isn’t one of them.), and Gran Torino will surely age well no matter how many award ceremonies ignored the picture.
5. Let the Right One In (dir. Tomas Alfredson): This Swedish vampire film was sold to audiences as the alternative to Twilight but the comparison is altogether unfair since Twilight has nothing to do with vampires anyway. It also has nothing to do with reality, which in my opinion, all horror must adhere to no matter how much of a fantasy the concept is. Let the Right One In imbues its lead vampire with uncharacteristic humanity that stays with you. Its acts of violence are understated and therefore scary in a way that torture porn filmmakers could never understand. If you real horror, you have no excuse not to see this film.
4. In Bruges (dir. Martin McDonagh): The winner of the worst marketed film of 2008 was Martin McDonagh’s terrific black comedy that was sold to audiences as a poor man’s Guy Ritchie film. In reality, it’s a laugh-out-loud funny character study that balances comedy and tragedy perfectly. It features Colin Farrell’s best performance by a mile and an astonishing, underrated performance by Brendan Gleeson. It’s not quite as powerful as McDonagh’s best plays (especially The Pillowman and The Lonesome West) or even his Oscar-winning short film, Six Shooter, but as far as comedies go, there was simply nothing funnier and edgier in 2008. I look forward to all his future films.
3. Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman): Some artists are easier to take when a collaborator reels them in. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have made Kaufman universe easier to swallow in the past, but with Synecdoche, he unleashed his mind to its fullest potential. The result understandably irritated many but I found it utterly enchanting and devestating (in a good way) when you just lost all sense of time and space and let Kaufman screw with your head. Roger Ebert rightly declared that it was a far more compelling and profound study on the nature of age and death than Benjamin Button (aka Forrest Gump 2), and went as far as to say that it will have a much longer shelf life. I certainly hope so.
2. JCVD (dir. Mebrouck El Mechri): Mickey Rourke was rightly praised up and down for his performance in The Wrestler, but for my money, the better film about a celebrity whose glory days are far behind him was JCVD. Van Damme’s performance had all the heart and grit of Rourke’s warts-and-all turn as Randy “The Ram” Robinson but with one crucial difference: It’s funny. Anyone can moan but not everyone can make fun of themselves, and that’s exactly what Van Damme does for most of the film. Therefore, he earns his heartbreaking monologue towards the end in spectacular fashion. Plus, it’s just a more impressive film. It’s beautifully shot, well-edited, and fleshes out a cinematic world much more so than Aronofsky’s wandering camera. The elitist press refused to allow Van Damme the resurrection treatment that Rourke received but time will tell. Please see this.
Now, last December, I declared JCVD my favorite film of 2008. I just couldn’t conceive a film that would move me more. Well, I was wrong. The other day, I saw the best film of 2008 by far, and it is:
1. Waltz with Bashir (dir. Ari Folman): Straight away the film grabs you with its animated style reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Waking Life. Folman, a veteran of the 1982 Lebanon war, has no memory of the conflict beyond a single enigmatic vision. The rest of the film is a slow burn that leads directly to shocking reality of the horrors of war. While most filmmakers would strictly adhere to social realist conventions — especially in the documentary format — Folman’s use of animation fleshes out an emotional truth that is a thousand times more compelling, especially when it does briefly resort to actual footage from the war at the very end. When the film ended, I could barely move. I was speechless. I knew I had experienced the most powerful piece of cinema that 2008 had to offer. I am still shocked that the film didn’t win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and as open-minded as I am about Departures, I’ll be amazed if it comes close to the brilliance of Waltz with Bashir.
And those are the 10 finest films of 2008 according to yours truly. Remember that this is purely a matter of opinion, so don’t bitch just because I didn’t include The Dark Knight or some other favorite of yours. Still, I’d like to hear your thoughts regardless. As long as there’s no bitching…
Head over to the multiplex today and the prospects are noticeably grim: Three hours of robots hitting each other courtesy of Michael Bay, two hours of sentimentality porn involving a kid with cancer and Cameron Diaz, or an hour and a half of prehistoric animated animals farting, falling over, and chasing after acorns. Amidst the countless screenings of cringe-worthy franchise installments is a film that appears better suited for the mid-November Oscar push: Public Enemies, a John Dillinger biopic from director Michael Mann.
Like most of Mann’s oeuvre, Public Enemies is a seemingly commercial enterprise but with arthouse sensibilities. He shot the film entirely with high-definition digital cameras, resulting in what Mark Kermode described as “The Untouchables as remade by Lars von Trier.” It’s a jarring effect initially but it serves to put the viewer right in the middle of the action. Moments in the film even include a song by contemporary bluesman Otis Taylor. Gone is the distance created by period pieces; it’s as if the story took place a mere 10 years ago. And why not? The news is buzzing with reports of corporate thief Bernie Madoff’s imminent incarceration, so obviously there’s nothing dated about thieves.
Of course, Madoff isn’t quite as dapper as Johnny Depp who gives his best performance since Blow. For the first time in years, Depp’s skills as a physical actor aren’t used to flesh out a Tim Burton pastiche or a campy Disney pirate; his Dillinger is flesh and blood. That said, not even Depp at his finest is a match for Marion Cotillard, who transforms a generic girlfriend role into a force of nature. Although she’s absent for much of the film, she steals literally every scene she appears in, and is currently a shoo-in for her second consecutive Oscar as a result. Largely ignored in the press thus far is Stephen Graham who electrifies the screen as Babyface Nelson. Graham previously blew audiences away as a violent skinhead in Shane Meadows’ This is England, and if he keeps this up, he will eventually become one of Hollywood’s most sought-after character actors.
And then there’s Christian Bale, a once extraordinary new talent who has lately been letting the side down with a string of one-note performances as boring alpha males. Here, he is marginally better but sadly isn’t strong enough to maintain the conflict established between himself and Mr. Depp. However, it’s not entirely Mr. Bale’s fault. The central thesis that runs through many of Mann’s films is that cops and criminals are two sides of the same coin. This concept is employed most notably in Heat, the epic crime saga in which Al Pacino’s cop and Robert De Niro’s crook were exactly the same person but with different directions in life. Public Enemies attempts to draw the same conclusion but is incapable of doing so thanks entirely to Purvis’ characterization. While Dillinger is nothing if not a cowboy who gets off on breaking the law, Purvis is nothing more than a footsoldier following orders. When the two men finally meet halfway through in a prison cell, the screen should be exploding with tension just as it did when De Niro and Pacino shared a scene together for the very first time. Instead, it’s merely lukewarm.
Because it fails to prove the Michael Mann premise and has little else to say about Dillinger or the FBI, Public Enemies falls short of the director’s best work. But despite its 140-minute running time, the story never slacks and the action sequences are the most exhilarating you’re likely to see all year, and that includes Star Trek. Perfection is an impossible thing for any artwork to achieve, and despite the picture’s shortcomings, I’ll take a flawed Michael Mann film over a good – and I use the word advisedly – Michael Bay film any day.
10 June, 2009
Seriously. I’m genuinely scratching my head over this. I sat for 90 minutes in a reasonably crowded cinema full of moviegoers howling like hyenas from start to finish while I was only able to muster up a single, audible laugh. The film has a 78% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and several of my friends — intelligent people whose judgment I respect very much — have been raving about it since its release. Question: Is it just me?
Firstly, the film features some of the most uninteresting characters I have ever encountered. The groom-to-be has the personality of a swimming pool in a retirement home and his bride-to-be isn’t much better. Meanwhile, his friends consist of an uptight nerd who is afraid of his domineering wife, a fat guy who for some reason has the mental capacity of a peanut, and an unlikable alpha male who puts everyone and everything down for the sake of it. Nothing about them is endearing, nothing about them is unique, and therefore the odds of me giving half a damn about their plight are quite simply non-existent.
All the best gags are in the trailer, and really, that’s not saying very much. There’s a tiger in the bathroom. Uh-oh! There’s a strange baby in the room. Uh-oh! The fat guy bumped the baby’s head on the car door. Uh-oh! The biggest selling point in the marketing is the fact that Mike Tyson has a cameo and demonstrates that he is a terrible singer. I can see that for free on YouTube and it won’t take up 90 minutes of my life:
Ultimately, The Hangover is just a bunch of crude gags strung together in place of an actual story. It’s yet another film in which grown-ups act like teenage nitwits while Todd Phillips struggles to execute even the simplest of punch-lines effectively. To be fair, it doesn’t help when the screenplay resorts to tasteless jokes about an Asian gangster who is also a screaming queen. I wonder if the critics would give the film a pass if he were black.
Throughout the film, three other pictures kept running through my head: Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, Martin Scorsese’s Casino, and Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. All three are quoted at least once in The Hangover, and all three have one other thing in common: They all hate Vegas. Yet Todd Phillips is still holding onto that infantile, adolescent belief that Las Vegas is Disneyland for adults as opposed to the leading candidate for the 10th Circle of Hell. In the end, that’s what bothered me so much about The Hangover. Only in a film this stupid would the nerdy character meet up with Heather Graham playing the hooker with a heart of gold with a happily-ever-after conclusion looming over the subplot like a dark cloud. What’s next? A Judd Apatow romantic-comedy about New York in the 1970s and how much fun all that social unrest and depravity was?
Finally, Zach Gafilianakis is not that funny. At best, he’s a mildly amusing bur rather forgettable fat guy, and at worst, he is the kind of comedian who injects every line reading with that, “Look at me I’m supposed to be funny!” sort of obnoxiousness. He just happens to be subtle about it, which is why everyone has fallen in love with him. But the Asian gay stereotype basically sums him, and the rest of the movie up: “It’s funny because it’s fat.”
2 June, 2009
I think we can all agree that violent video games and horror films have no culpability when some 15-year-old lunatic decides to pick up a gun and kill somebody. It’s a game that right-wing blowhards like Glenn Beck like to play in order to boost ratings. Of course, now they are getting a taste of their own medecine with the assassination of George Tiller. Suddenly only idiots would make such outrageous accusations. Can’t have it both ways, you silly fuckers.
But what of the left-wing blowhards making the accusations? Are they not guilty of the same kind of hysterical ramblings leveled at things like Grand Theft Auto? The answer, of course, is yes. Last night, Keith Olbermann not only pinned the blame on Fox News and Bill O’Reilly in particular for Tiller’s death but even had the nerve to suggest he be taken off the air.
Typical partisan attitude. Freedom of speech for all…except for anyone who disagrees with me.
You better believe I love freedom of speech. But I want everyone to have the right to freedom of speech, and that includes bigots and racists. Unless they are explicitly inciting violence, I’m fine with all of it. Now, some on the left maintain that Fox were doing exactly that, but does anyone have evidence of this? When did Glenn Beck say it was okay to kill George Tiller? Show me the link and I will retract this blog post. Character assassination is not the same thing as actual assassination. If Bill O’Reilly is assassinated, will it be Keith Olbermann’s fault? He, too, has invoked Nazi imagery to smear his arch-nemesis.
Of course, we know what this is really about. It has nothing to do with moral accountability, but it has everything to do with the ratings war. George Tiller was not killed by Fox News, he was killed by a raving lunatic who couldn’t tell the difference between fearmongering and reality. This kind of attitude is dangerous to freedom of speech and anyone who actually believes in freedom needs to knock it off. Either everything is okay, or nothing is. End of discussion.
29 May, 2009
Everyone is making fun of the new promotional trailer for Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I understand why. The original is a masterpiece and features Harvey Keitel’s finest performance by a mile. Meanwhile, Nicolas Cage is…well, he’s no Harvey Keitel, that’s for sure.
And yet I can’t help but feel optimistic about this film. Firstly, the trailer makes it clear that it has no bearing on the original whatsoever, besides the fact that it features a self-destructive cop in the title role. Herzog has stated that he is not remaking Ferrara’s film, and at this point, I believe him. After all, he hasn’t even seen it. According to Mark Kermode, Herzog told him that while the original is about the burden of guilt, his picture will be about the bliss of evil. How can you not be fascinated by that premise?
As for Nic Cage, I can understand the readiness to mock his performance considering the kind of dreck he puts out on a regular basis. We’ve seen him carry a remake before (The Wicker Man), and the result is one of the funniest bad movies of all-time. But here, Cage is playing an addict, which is one of the few things he does well. He won a well-deserved Oscar for playing a drunk in Leaving Las Vegas and played a pill-popping parademic in Bringing Out the Dead which is Scorsese’s most underrated film. This alone gives me the strength to keep an open-mind for his performance in this film.
Finally, it’s only a trailer. Just because the trailer is bad, doesn’t mean the film will follow suit. Everyone I know dismissed In Bruges based on the trailer and were forced to eat their words when they discovered how intelligent and witty it really is. On the other side of the coin, how many films have you seen in which all the best bits were in the trailer? It means nothing. Sure, the film could be rubbish, but it’s just as likely that it will be a masterpiece.
Ultimately, Werner Herzog is one of the greatest filmmakers working today. He is one of the greatest filmmakers who has ever lived. That doesn’t guarantee that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans will be a great film, but it’s reason enough to give the film a chance. If nothing else, the film will be so insane that it will be as thoroughly enjoyable as Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man. If Cage is going to continue making bad films, I’d take this kind of thing over Next or Knowing any day.
25 May, 2009
The First Kiss is based loosely on Robert Browning’s poem “Porphyria’s Lover.” It was the final project for my Intermediate Film Class, was shot on 16mm with 7219 film stock, and exclusively utilizes post-synch sound. Unlike the last film I made and posted on this blog, Top Model, I am actually pleased with the final product, and once I get some original music and tweak the sound at the very beginning, I will start submitting this to festivals forthwith. Hope you enjoy it.
25 May, 2009
There are many films that premiered at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Obviously I’ve been waiting for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus for ages, and despite the mixed reviews (What Gilliam hasn’t gotten mixed notices?), I’m still as excited as ever. I’m deeply interested in the Palme D’Or winner, Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, and I will definitely be seeing Jacques Audiard’s A Prophet. But with the exception of Parnassus, there is nothing I am looking forward to more than this year’s cause célèbre of the festival, Antichrist.
First, let me make something absolutely clear: I hate Lars von Trier. I have spent much of my recent life defending filmmakers who others perceive as self-indulgent and pretentious whether it’s Gilliam, Greenaway, Jarmusch, Malick, Lynch, or Herzog. I also readily embraced Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible which similarly freaked out the press at Cannes seven years ago. And even I have no tolerance for the films of Lars von Trier. I like some of his early films, but by Breaking the Waves, he revealed himself as an intellectual bully who likes to make everyone — actors and audience alike — suffer as much as possible for no good reason whatsoever. “Oh, isn’t humanity ugly!?” Well duh.
I had no reason to believe that Antichrist would be any different, and had little desire to see it. That is, of course, until that fateful press screening with people booing, screaming, and laughing at moments of intended horror. What sealed the deal for me was the following from a Reuters article:
Jeers and laughter broke out during scenes ranging from a talking fox to graphically-portrayed sexual mutilation.
Many viewers in the large Debussy cinema also appeared to take objection to von Trier’s decision to dedicate his film to the revered Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. Applause from a handful of viewers was drowned out by booing at the end.
All I could think was: “Has Lars von Trier actually lost his mind?” Instantly I resolved to put aside my hatred for von Trier’s films and have made plans to see his latest picture, which has surprisingly been picked up by IFC Films for the U.S. (Albeit with cuts.)
I have a fondness for art fueled by madness. That’s part of the reason why Apocalypse Now is my favorite film of all-time. It is the work of an extremely talented and ambitious filmmaker who was nearly broken by the chaos surrounding him while he tried to create art. Somehow, he channeled that chaos into creativity, and the result is an explosive masterpiece full of flaws and structural problems that still manage to fall into place in spite of themselves. One should embrace flawed masterpieces. Films that appear perfect (e.g. Oscar-bait costume dramas) shouldn’t be trusted. More often than not, they have no soul.
On the other side of the coin, my favorite bad films aren’t the cheesy B-movies aware of their own shortcomings. I like the films that aim way higher than they need to, and completely fall flat on their faces as a result. The news of Lars’ talking fox instantly made me think of Neil LaBute’s The Wicker Man, a staggeringly stupid remake of a flawed masterpiece that seems to think of itself as a new horror classic. Three years ago at Cannes, Richard Kelly’s Southland Tales received the same kind of treatment from the press. I rented it, thinking it couldn’t possibly be as bad as all that. Not only is it worse than all that, it is so terrible it’s genius. And this is the moment that turned night into day for me:
And that’s exactly why I have to see Antichrist. For the same reason I rented Southland Tales, Guy Ritchie’s Revolver, and M. Night Shyamalamadingdong’s Lady in the Water. If I’m going to spend two hours of my life on a lousy picture, I’d much rather see something as astonishingly bad as the above three than the slightly below average rubbish that Hollywood churns out every week. After all, which films do you remember more?
24 April, 2009
Wasn’t there already a mall cop comedy out this year? Yes, but thankfully, Observe and Report is allegedly to be the edgy mall cop film. Writer-director Jody Hill’s inspiration for this project was Martin Scorsese’s brooding psychological thriller, Taxi Driver, in which Robert De Niro makes himself into a vigilante hell-bent on washing down the streets of New York City with blood. The idea of spinning this concept into a comedy starring Seth Rogen is an admirable gamble in these conservative times, cinematically speaking. But does it pay off in the end? This is meant to be a film crafted for people with dark senses of humor. Unfortunately, the film itself isn’t nearly as funny as the screenplay seems to be, mainly because Jody Hill the director doesn’t have the guts of Jody Hill the writer. He introduces one twisted set-piece after another, including a controversial gag involving date rape, but rather than embrace the darkness of his material, he becomes so amused by the surface of his jokes that he winds up presenting them like the goofy fantasies of the main characters in Superbad. Therefore, the darker bits are mixed in with the lighter bits which result in all the wrong notes being hit, which ultimately causes the picture to fall flat on its face.
Part of the reason why Observe and Report never manages to pick itself up again is down to the casting. Seth Rogen has mastered the well-meaning slacker in the past, but as a bipolar mall cop who uses the law to make himself attractive to a soulless skank, he is completely lost. Anna Faris demonstrates once again that she is the most convincing dumb blonde in the country but never once indicates that she is capable of anything else. Liotta phones in his post-GoodFellas tough guy even more than usual, spoiling any and all opportunities for a double act between himself and Rogen. Finally, whenever scenes don’t come together – e.g. most of them – Hill cuts away one of the many annoying supporting characters incapable of anything but pulling funny faces, further destroying what could have been an inspired satire of what our society has become as a result of the introduction of malls.
Worse still, even the writing loses its nerve halfway through when suddenly the script gives into rank sentimentality, laying out its pathetic dénouement in the form of Collette Wolfe, playing the one character who shows any genuine compassion towards Rogen’s mall cop, and happens to be reasonably attractive. Gee, I wonder how this story is going to end? So much for making the comedy version of Taxi Driver, huh? The moral of this tragic story is that if you want to generate laughs from darkness, you need to be willing address the darkness directly. Otherwise, all you’re left with is a poor man’s Paul Blart: Mall Cop, but at least in that case, audiences knew exactly what they were getting into. Observe and Report, on the other hand, is a comedy with ambition but one that chickens out when the push comes to shove. It’s like a major league baseball player on steroids. Remember that awkward taste left in your mouth after the juiced-up Barry Bonds broke Hank Aaron’s home run record? Well, Observe and Report is the Barry Bonds of the current comedy scene, the Revenge of the Nerds revival led by Judd Apatow and his stoner buddies. And who wants that?