Frozen

Frozen

Guess what? I also like “Frozen!”

One of the nice things about having your own film blog is that you don’t have to worry about generating clicks on your website, so that when your way too late, too short, and positive, but mildly measured review of “Frozen” is published, it doesn’t matter that nobody will read it.  So let me be the billionth person to say that I like the film and think it is pretty good. I don’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the film, and more importantly I have no interest in trying. So here it is in brief:

“Frozen” is high-end Disney pop art, littered with great music, compelling digital animation, mostly rich characters and a Bechdel-test passing narrative about the powers of sisterly love, which by Disney standards is crazy, Dennis Kucinich-level progressive. The film isn’t without its flaws (there is some  unearned tear bait in the film and an absurd character turn which was downright shamelss. Also, if your daughter has ice powers, maybe teach her how to control them instead of locking her in a room and say, “Try not to kill anybody,”) but by and large these are minor issues or are simply inherent to corporate filmmaking as a whole and gender politics at-large.  “Frozen” does everything that you would expect it to, plus a little more.

(I’m not bothering with a summary of the narrative setup. You either know it, don’t care, or can find out from one of the gaggle of people in your life that have seen it.)

4/5

 

 

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August: Osage County

August Osage County

An episode of Jerry Springer, but with A-list actors.

There isn’t much of a gap between overwrought drama and comedy, and “August: Osage County” hops that distance with ease. This film is bursting with hilarity, which depending on how much you were hoping for the scathing melodrama that this film purports to be is either fantastic or terrible news. This mindbogglingly stoic film features a cacophony of great actors all delivering typically great performances, is competently directed, and the writing, penned by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer-Prize winning film, is more-or-less immune from criticism. What then, makes this film so funny? Its very existence as a movie. On film, “August: Osage County” is incredibly silly.

When magnified by a camera lens, all the stone-faced hand-wringing, dirt-digging, name-calling, truth-telling and all that relentless snark from the play is transformed from something that probably worked extremely well on stage to something much goofier on film. The characters have ballooned into caricatures on-screen and feel more like plot abstractions than people. The plot, such as it is, creaks along as it churns out predictable turns and dramatic revelations meant to evoke some kind of reaction, which in my case was mostly a stream of varied laughter.

The fun begins, as it usually does, with Meryl Streep. Playing Violet, the aging vitriolic, cancer-riddled pill-addled matriarch of a three-generation family in rural Oklahoma, Streep gets to have a ball ripping everybody around her to shreds, like a deranged wolverine no longer concerned with its own survival. (Straight up, this is the best part of the film.) Violet’s three adult daughters, and Violet’s sister are gathering with their families at her home for one of those reunions in which nastiness abounds. Secrets are revealed, old wounds are re-opened as new ones are inflicted, and unwanted honesty abounds, though truthfully the only truth seems to be that none of these people should go anywhere near each other. If it wasn’t so comical it might be unpleasant.

The plot is mostly dependent on quiet moments of truth-facing and explosive moments of confrontational truth-giving, so I’ll keep mum on the details. I will howeer give you a list of all the characters and a snippet of their personalities to tantalize you with the possibilities: Barbara (Julia Roberts) is Violet’s eldest daughter, who received the brunt of Violet’s ferocity growing up and whose marriage with her shockingly ineffectual liberal husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is falling apart and whose daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) doesn’t really care for her. Violet’s middle daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson,) who has stayed in town, forsaking a family of her own in order to help assist with her aging parents.  Karen (Juliette Lewis,) Violet’s youngest has a brand new, sleazy-looking fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) to bring to the party. Rounding out the group is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale,) Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their twitchy, clumsy, and “slow” son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch.) (Sam Shepard is in the film as Violet’s husband Beverly, but he bails from the film pretty early on so he gets a sort of footnote.)

In the end, I didn’t much care about this combative, cantankerous iteration of “The Greatest Generation” presented in this film nor the bitter children raised by them, well acted though they were. Based on real people or no, the characters were too artificial to relate with and the plot too contrived to be much more than a melodrama machine, albeit with a nastier streak than most. This is not to imply I didn’t have a great time at the movies though. “August: Osage County” was a lot of fun to watch, if for no other reason than than I got to see  Julia Roberts tackle Meryl Streep. “Oh no she didn’t!”

2.5/5

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Slacker

Slacker

An odd day’s journey into even odder Austin oddness.

“Slacker” feels a lot like an acid trip, sans the hallucinations. The film meanders from one bizarre conversation to the next, unable to linger too long on any one topic but always fascinated by whatever is happening in whatever instant it is in.  These conversations consist almost entirely of absurd, self-aggrandizing banal nonsense, and yet you can’t help but be excited by the manic energy of the philosophizing weirdos uttering it.  It is like they are determined to find the truth in the mundane, or the mundane in the truth, plausibility and conventionality be damned. In the end, it may be just an extreme form of mental masturbation, but brains have needs too.

I for one am glad there are oddballs like those in “Slacker” out there in the universe, championing whatever causes strike them. If you’ve spent any substantial time in a liberal college town, you can’t help but run into them. Some are students, but even more seem to have wandered in from the sociopolitical wilderness of surrounding communities to wrap themselves in the warm intellectual cocoon of the university, or they seem to have grown from the fertile landscape of the city  itself, feeding off of radical ideas  like eccentric wildflowers. They aren’t just in the city. They are the city.

I have never been to Austin, but I have heard rumors of its prodigious peculiarity. I hope that these rumors are true, and that “Slacker” does it justice. In the film, we arrive in town as passive observers, wandering through the town and soaking up its otherworldly ambiance. The film eavesdrops on a variety of oddities, including a woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, a pop-tart chomping man surrounded by televisions, a robber that is charmed by an elderly anarchist, an expert on JFK assassination theories, and a couple of hipsters positing conspiracy theories related to children’s cartoons over beers. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many of these characters are as ephemeral as ghosts, drifting back into the ether of Austin as quickly as they appeared, not unlike an early 90s Austin-version of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Whether and to what degree any of these individual ideas appeals to you is, I suppose, a matter of personal ideology. (I don’t have any problems with the theory that some children’s cartoons teach children to expect rewards for completing tasks. Not that this is a revelatory concept.) However, it isn’t the content of any of these ideas that matters. It is the spirit of these conversations which counts. These people are on self-defined crusades against abstractions of all shapes and sizes. I find their rebellion against normality comforting.

“Slacker” provides a strange viewing experience. Aside from evoking the weirdo-derived ambiance of Austin, the film seems to be utterly devoid of agendas. In that sense it feels incredibly unique. I was mystified for its duration, and the odd reaction it generated lingered long after the film is over. Not unlike an acid trip.

4/5

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Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)

Diary of a Country Priest

A dreary, dreamy dip into the sad lot of a true (maybe) believer.

I know I am going to sound like a real Pleb, but sometimes I find Robert Bresson’s Hypnagogiac film-making to be really, really frustrating. Robert Bresson’s opaque dialogue is cryptic enough on its own. Uttered by sleepwalking existential French zombies, and it is downright maddening. Such it is with “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,” a dreary drama about the angsty adventures of a neophyte priest that  I confess I had trouble engaging with. I suppose  there is a compelling meditation on faith in here for those with the patience for it, but that certainly wasn’t me.

That may make me sound like a lazy philistine who wants his movies to force feed him their ideas, but really I just want a reason to engage intellectually and emotionally. Bresson gives reasons to not engage intellectually and emotionally. He works hard so that we also have to work hard. He is notorious for making his actors do take after take after take, until exhausted and psychologically drained, any ability or inclination to emote or act like a human is beyond their capacity. It is a bold choice, certainly, but often a tedious one. I loved it in Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” but found it extremely problematic in “Pickpocket.” With “Diary of a Country Priest” veering in the “Pickpocket” direction and lacking the cinematic flare of other angsty “Does God exist?/What does suffering exist?’ films from say an Ingmar Bergman, I was left as alienated and isolated as the film’s title character.

Claude Laydu plays the titular priest, who indeed has a diary which frames the narrative. Referred to only as “Priest,” he begins working with his first Parish in a small French town called Ambricourt. He takes to his job with an incredible stoicism, dreaming of feeding his flock Spiritual morsels divined from his close relationship with God. Everybody else in town just seems to find this amusing. He teaches a catechism of girls who spend their class time giggling and snickering at private jokes at his expense. Chantel, (Nicole Ladmiral) the obstinate daughter of a wealthy Count says deliberately inflammatory things in the hope of shocking the Priest. His advisers in the priesthood are more concerned with his diet and amount of prayer than resolving the moral crises that he encounters among the fair people of Ambricourt, responding to his complaints and questions with the French version of “just take it easy buddy.”

Despite the fog of indifference and shaky health, the Priest  stays resolute in his determination to tend to the souls living in this country village. His greatest triumph involves reigniting the faith of a mother who had long since forsaken God after her son died. The Countess (Rachel Berendt,) and mother of Chantel finds herself cowed back into her faith after a feisty and challenging conversation with the Priest ends with her throwing a locket belonging to her son in a fire and taking a long-needed Communion. It is the one moment of self-actualization for the Priest, and his crowning professional achievement.

Yet this one good deed does not go unpunished. The Countess dies the next day, and Chantel unhelpfully starts spreading rumors that it was the admonishments of the Priest which did her in. The controversy puts a damper on his already weak standing with the community and a further strain on his frail body. He is given every reason to rail against God, yet by the end of the film, The Priest still proclaims, “God is Grace.”

One of the tricks of this film is figuring out the extent to which The Priest’s belief in God is fueled by a quiet egotism.  Is his vision for the universe one in which he is the arbiter for the faith of everyone in this village? Does his passion bury a chasm of doubt buried deep inside his soul? The ambiguity was compelling for a time, but the film isn’t as cynical as that. It tips its cap at the very end, transforming the narrative into an anecdote about the divinity of suffering . Not that I was paying that close of attention. As “The Priest” was wrestling with his faith, I was wrestling with boredom.

2.5/5

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Zach and Miri Make a Porno

Zach and Miri Make a Porno

How to use porn as a “meet cute.”

Given my absurd effort to attempt to review every film that I see from beginning to end, I am obligated to write something about “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” I don’t really want to though. Despite what you make think, it isn’t very much fun to write about films which aren’t very good, and “Zach and Miri” just isn’t very good. This review will be shorter than most.

I suspect that you can only write so many scripts about characters trapped in a post-high school inertia which combines raunchy dialogue and a sweet emotional tenderness . Eventually that well simply goes dry. In “Zach and Miri,”  there are a couple of nice performances  and a couple moments of lewd brilliance, but most of the film feels like Kevin Smith’s bucket is scraping against a bed of rocks.

Much credit goes to Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the film’s title characters, a pair of “just friends” and roommates who decide to shoot a porno in order to ease their financial woes. This is of course just the contrivance needed for them to acknowledge their mutual feelings for each other and live happily every after, but Rogen and Banks have a goofy chemistry which makes the film work despite a mostly shaky script. Aiding them in their home-made porno endeavor are Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, and Ricky Babe

It is during the scenes in which they are shooting their porno that the film comes alive. Their first attempt is a “Star Wars” parody called “Star Whores,” which features such characters as “Hung Solo” and “Darth Vibrator.” When this film goes awry because of a deal with a shady landlord, their next attempt is shot at the coffee shop where Zach works and is called “Suck My Cockucinno.” This leads to the best moment in the film. Amidst a ridiculous scenario involving milk delivery and silly innuendos, Zach and Miri have the sex which makes them realize they love each other. As to the rest of the film, we have a classic “idiot” plot which fuel the drama the rest of the way and generated a fair bit of ambivalence in me.

Kevin Smith has a notoriously unhappy relationship with critics, so I’ll understand if he doesn’t take kindly to this review, (Not that I qualify as a “critic,”) but the film never seemed to rise above the level of a high-concept curiosity. The seed of a great raunchy comedy is in there, but it needs a lot more from the script and its supporting cast. You can only lean on overtly crude language and shocking sat gags for so long before it becomes an exercise in tedium.

2/5

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Assault on Precinct 13

Assault_on_Precinct_13_Mondo_Poster_2011

“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.

There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of  frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.

Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.

“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.

These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang  problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.

“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.

4/5

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

A musical tale of artistic futility that is more effective after the credits roll.

In general I find being a month and a half behind on my film reviews irritating, but in the case of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I’m glad I’ve had time to let the film marinate. Initially this film felt so slight that it didn’t elicit much of a reaction from me. It seemed “just” a minor tale about a ill-fated folk singer who deserved most of the bad luck he got. Yet the film continued to fester in my brain in the intervening weeks. The songs have been stuck on repeat in my head. The cool blue images of early 1960s New York have lingered on the edge of my consciousness. I even cultivated a bit of sympathy for the film’s frustrated and disagreeable protagonist. In other words, I’ve been won over by its melancholic charms.

One of the Coen brother’s many strengths is their ability to viscerally evoke time and place, particularly in bygone eras. Granting that I wasn’t around then, the world of “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks and feels like New York City circa 1961. (Even if it is a complete misrepresentation of those days, that it conveys authenticity is much more important than strict adherence to historical accuracy.) Folk music hadn’t yet established itself as a major political/commercial force, the hippies hadn’t joined the party yet, and there is the loitering presence of post-World War II stiffness still permeated the air. The times, they aren’t-a-changing, but they will be soon.

At the center of this proto-burgeoning folk music scene is Llewyn Davis (Oscaar Issacs,) an aspiring musician whose character is loosely based on real life folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Truthfully though, Llewyn is one of those brilliantly put-upon Coen Brother’s creations. His life plays out as a string of misfortunes that  have been unfairly thrust upon him. Certainly much about his situation straight up bad luck, but a lot of  his misery is self-induced. A sort of bad karma stemming from how much he seems to loathe everyone around him, including himself.

Like most assholes, his nastiness comes from a place of profound insecurity. Llewyn was part of a rising folk music duo that was on the verge of hitting it big until his partner killed himself. Desperate to receive validation as a solo act and extremely sensitive at the prospect of being valued only as a part of an act, Llewyn makes a great deal of choices based on his own standards of artistic integrity, standards which let opportunities for commercial success slip away. Yet nobody sees the merits of Llewyn’s music. (Even Llewyn himself seems to have his doubts.) This has created a streak of bitterness which sharply contrasts the optimistic and heartfelt music he writes and performs.

With a solo record that isn’t selling, Llewyn survives by cycling through his friend’s couches, but he is quickly running out of options. He has stayed for the last time at the apartment of his  ex-girlfriend Jean(Carey Mulligan.) She now lives and sings with her new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake,) and once she gets enough money from Llewyn for an abortion of a baby that may or may not be his, she would prefer not to see him again thank you very much. Llewyn also has the Gorfiens, a pair of middle-aged professors who let him stay with them if for no other reason it bolsters their liberal cred, but Llewyn snaps at them when they sing-along with one of his songs, and this after losing their cat. You tell me whether you think this is the kind of film where things work out for the hero.

The Coen Brother’s typically great direction aside, Oscar Isaac’s performance is vital because of his ability to generate pity and scorn. Llewyn looks down on seemingly everyone he speaks with in the film, yet people can’t help but try and help him. Every time he does something right, he endures the consequences for some earlier jerk thing he did. Llewyn is stuck in a folk music limbo, with just a modicum of success to keep him clinging to hope that he might “make it” someday. It might not strike you at first, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” has great music and the usual Coen cocktail of humor and sadness. Like “The Cranberries” might say, I think you have to let it linger.

4/5

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