Thursday, July 23, 2009

June and July Update

I've developed this pattern of only posting two or three times a month, mostly involving a Youtube video and a post of short reviews starting with the phrase, "I apologize" so let's just move on from there with quick thoughts on things I've watched since my last review.

Drag Me to Hell. Something of a minor masterpiece, and pretty much the best studio movie I've seen this year. Sam Raimi makes movies that look like cheesy, insubstantial fun but actually have a spine of moralistic steel underneath - Alison Lohman's character performs a wrong, refuses to take responsibility for it (not unlike Mena Suvari in last year's Stuck) and winds up paying the penalty for it. That Raimi could make such a sturdy depiction of individual responsibility in a world that increasingly wants to deny such things - in a movie where an anvil drops on somebody's head and their eyeballs pop out - is some kind of triumph. 9/10

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. It's not an easy thing to make a comprehensible film out of a mass of character-less handheld video footage, and the filmmakers here found an ingenious solution, structuring their film around a framing story of one Burmese resistance member coordinating the flow of footage by phone and computer. It's a well-made and fascinating movie, still limited by its topicality to a certain time and place, but crafted strongly enough that it should retain watchability longer than other such political documentaries. 7/10

Up. Pixar's movies have settled into a certain familiarity, which is both good and bad - I kind of want them to exit their comfort zone a little bit more they have lately - only Brad Bird seems to be able to provide real surprises from within the Pixar formula. Still, entertaining, funny, and affecting (and better than Wall-E). 8/10

Terminator Salvation: Stupid and pointless. Just a series of rambling and expensive set pieces linked by a flaccid and poorly motivated narrative. Still, better than the incoherent and boring Wolverine thanks to a good performance from Sam Worthington and some legitimately okay action scenes. 4/10

Moon: Reasonably entertaining and well-acted, but kind of unimaginative. You can stick a guy on the Moon, and the only thing you can have him do is take part in yet another 'corporations are evil' bulldozer? Come on, David Bowie's son, show us something we haven't seen before. Here's an idea for the sequel: Two Sam Rockwells are good, but a dozen are better. 6/10

Land of the Lost: Misbegotten. I like the idea of creating a bizarre fantasy-landscape made of fragments of every era of history. Too bad they populated it with a pair of unlikeable idiots and a vacuous bit of female eye candy. 4/10

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Low expectations helped me to experience this movie as tolerable and not eyeball-gougingly awful. The narrative and characters make no sense to the point of being downright insulting to the audience (stepping through a door from Washington's Air and Space Museum to some Southwestern desert? Fuck you too, Michael Bay). But all of that is beside the point given Bay's command of spectacle, which he manages to deliver on. There are amazing, earth-shattering sights in this movie. Too bad they're still embedded within a very expensive commercial for Hasbro, GM and the U.S. military. Oh, and those racist Autobots? Soooooo amazingly racist. I can't believe that Bay isn't getting laughed out of theaters the same way M. Night Shyamalan and Brian DePalma have been in recent years. Also, I realize this may put me in the minority, but I find Megan Fox's appearance to be creepy and a little disgusting, like an overblown drag queen parody of femininity. I can almost imagine an actual good-looking women coming up to her and going, 'are you making fun of me?'. 3/10

Bruno: Sort of funny, but really only in an 'I'm so much smarter than those people on screen!' kind of way. I enjoyed Borat but only because it was more honestly outrageous and more warmhearted, factors that feel warmed-over and insincere this time. Sacha Baron Cohen is amazingly talented and a courageous performer - too bad he has so little interest in using his talents in the service of any idea larger than dividing his audience into the 'get-its' and the 'don't get its'. Ron Paul is a loony and a homophobe (apparently) but he deserves better than this kind of unfair ambush comedy. 5/10

And the most interesting old movies that I've seen lately:

The Sinful Dwarf (1973): A demented little person teams up with his faded showgirl mother to kidnap girls for a sex-slavery operation. You've never seen so much devious mugging in your whole life in this grimy, entrancing bit of schlock. 5/10

Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS (1975): Sort of a case study in cinematic S&M, watching a series of men being dominated by the towering, imperious Ilsa, as played by Dyanne Thorne, who winds up getting an appropriate comeuppance from her concentration camp wards. Probably more interested in terms of pathology, but like The Sinful Dwarf, something of a must-see for fans of '70s softcore kitsch, and better than its sequel, Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (which played as part of a New Beverly double feature). 5/10

Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II(1944-46). Eisenstein's unfinished trilogy is an amazing achievement, an expressionistic political nightmare that extends beyond Stalin-era allegory into the realm of Shakespeare. I especially liked Part II as the film descended even deeper into realms of paranoia and lunacy. 8/10 and 9/10.

The Long Riders (1980). Another New Beverly viewing, a sort of rambling and not particularly focussed Western about the James and Younger gangs. Like the Andrew Dominik/Brad Pitt film from a couple of years ago, I don't think it makes a coherent statement about what it means to be an outlaw or a folk hero or anything like that. It does have a bunch of fun performances from the likes of David Carradine, Stacy Keach, and Pamela Reed, plus a fairly amazing Peckinpah-esque shootout sequence. 7/10

Hospital (1970). I've seen four Frederick Wiseman films now, and with each new one I feel like he's an essential, underrated American genius. The trick is subtlety: a lot of movies take on social issues, but not many use his strategy, seen here, of merely observing ordinary people and letting their simple dramatic situations illustrate the pedantic points that Wiseman wants to make. It's more effective than just interviewing the same people and letting a narrator fill in the gaps. 9/10

Hopefully more to come soon.


Craig Kennedy said...

We're pretty much in full agreement down the line except for Land of the Lost, but more about that in a minute.

I had a few issues with the ending of Drag Me To Hell because the envelope twist was telegraphed so far in advance, but in retrospect I can't say I actually anticipated exactly how it was going to work out. It was actually kind of a clever bit of sleight of hand. Raimi had me focused on one plot point only to miss the bigger one.

I love the underlying morality and I love how he applies it to an essentially decent if flawed human being. I'm glad Ellen Page dropped out because there's a sweetness to Alison Lohman that really makes this thing work. You sort of understand when she turns nasty, but you regret it and it's extra harsh when her character essentially gets what's coming to her.

Also, Land of the Lost is genius to be understood only by audiences of the future! SOOO much funnier than The Hangover and so much more deserving of a higher Metacritic score than Transformers 2.

Having said that, I understand there are few things more subjective than comedy and if you didn't think it was funny, it's no wonder you had a miserable time.

Jeff McMahon said...

That was speedy!

I went and saw Land of the Lost after seeing your review, Craig, which made me anticipate a sillier, more light-hearted movie than the one I got. For me, the movie had two basic flaws: that Will Ferrell and Danny McBride were essentially playing the exact same character, and that Anna Friel was merely a different flavor of idiot alongside them, so that nobody could really emerge as the audience surrogate; and that while Brad Silberling could do some cool scenes and moments with his visual and FX tricks, the world he created still seemed like less the product of a unified vision than like something put together by committee.

But it's hard to argue about comedy. I mean, a lot of these same complaints could be used against, say, Three Amigos, but that movie I love and this one just disappointed me.

Matthew Dessem said...

Was I lying about Ivan the Terrible?

Rolando said...

Your review of Drag Me to Hell is spot on. I played around with the idea of starting a blog and the only thing I ever posted was about this movie ( But you pretty much said what I think.

We'll probably forever disagree about the "racist" robots. Were they dumb ghetto kids? Sure. But I think that's ok to make fun of. It's not passing judgment on an entire race. If they were redneck kids, which is the "white" version, I suspect no one would have said anything.

However, we know why Michael Bay isn't laughed out of theaters: he's the most critic proof director of all time. 360+ million box office? Geez. Talk about a disconnect between audiences and critics.

Rolando said...

Oh, and the problem with Bruno, I think, is that he undermines his point consistently by basically coming off as a sexual predator. Ron Paul may very well be a homophobe. However, any person (male or female) will run out of a room if someone they're not interested in having sex with starts coming onto them by stripping.

Same with the hunters for that matter. He's making his point pretty well, namely that those guys are not comfortable with a homosexual around them. However, you can't blame the dude for getting angry if someone he clearly does not want to have sex with comes to his tent naked.

And you're absolutely right about it lacking the warmth of Borat. Borat is a relatively sweet and innocent character whose inconsiderate actions are a result of not understanding the culture. He tries to do the right thing. Bruno is a narcissist who makes no attempt to understand others beyond their orifices.

Jeff McMahon said...

Rolando - first, good points re: Bruno. Second, obviously, we disagree on how we each define 'racist'. For me, I think that when a group of rich white filmmakers are trying to find a way to add comic relief to their big-budget movie and decide to endow a pair of characters with outdated, ludicrous stereotypes meant purely for the sake of mockery, with no redeeming characteristics, and when said characters are completely imaginary computer-generated alien robots who yet have inner-city accents, gold teeth, monkeyish facial features, a tendency to brawl for no good reason, and are illiterate, then yeah, that's racist.

Perhaps your definition varies in some way. But imagine if the same characters had been played by actual African-American actors instead of CGI creations? Then the veil would be cast aside and you'd be forced to agree.

Rolando said...

We have a second point of disagreement because their main characteristic were positive. They were likable and heroic. You see them as comic relief, I see them as Robin to Batman. And like most kid sidekicks they try to act coo and come off being obnoxious. Now in my personal life experience it's true that teenagers trying to be cool dress and talk "ghetto/urban" or whatever.

And that's another disconnect. You see their primary characteristic to be "black transformers" and I see them as "teenage boy transformers." Seeing as how, regardless of race, that's how everyone I knew as a teenager acted, I consider their behavior part of the that package.

You also dismiss the fact that they were the heroes that went up against the biggest, baddest villain. I felt they were positive examples throughout the whole movie.

With regards to your point of using live actors, I think (hope?) all the robot characters would have had more nuance. As it stands they're CGI robots so I'm ok with the exaggerated characteristics. Any one of them would have seem a goofy caricature if played the same way by actors.

Joel E said...

I love your take on Drag Me To Hell. You may have notched a few points higher in my overall esteem with your comments.

I've seen Frederick Wiseman's Titticut Follies, one of the truly memorable experiences of my college mass media class. I do recall being disturbed and moved by that film, but I haven't seen anything else of his.

As for your discussion with Rolando about the racist characters in Transformers, I guess I'd suggest to Rolando that Auntie Mame or Amos and Andy could easily be portrayed as the heroes that defeat evil and save the day, but if they're simply exploitive caricatures of the basest stereotypes, then it doesn't make it any less wrong. If their portrayal is somehow intended to be a commentary on the very teenagers you knew and grew up with, that social commentary seems to have escaped every nuanced critical analysis of the movie I've read (and I've read many, from a wide variety of sources from AintItCoolNews and to the New York Times and House Next Door).

Sometimes a racist caricature is just a racist caricature.

Rolando said...

Oh, I never said it was commentary. They were making fun of teenage boys for acting ghetto. I'm just saying why I think that's ok and not racist.

The real issue is that Michael Bay is a white man so he's not allowed to make fun of minority stereotypes (even though minority people can make white stereotype joke all they want). So of course everyone assumes it's malicious. I don't think it was.

Jesus, I can't even believe I'm the minority and I'm argue to open the door to racial humor to white people... if you don't want it, I guess I can't force you to take it. And feel free to crucify each other over white guilt.

Jeff McMahon said...

Rolando, first of all, how do you know that the people you're arguing with are all white? I myself, being partially of Mexican descent, could be considered not-completely-white if I felt like it (although in reality I'm a pasty, bad-dancing, ofay).

Next I don't think that the racism in this movie (or in the first Transformers) was malicious, but rather simply the result of misguided bad taste. One can be offensive without intending to offend.

Back to the main issue: You say that they were 'Teenage boy Transformers acting ghetto'. I say, why would alien robots be teenagers, or boys, or want to 'act ghetto' in the first place? Leaving all of those questions aside, why would the filmmakers want these robots to be any of those things?

And then, why would these robots come equipped with accents, gold teeth, big monkey ears, and illiteracy? There comes a point when you have to step back from the fictional construct and all the justifications built into it, and look at what the filmmakers were intending and doing.

Craig Kennedy said...

Hmm...interesting, Jeff. I wouldn't care to argue that the characters in Lost were subtly nuanced, but I found them easy to differentiate.

Friel kind of was the audience surrogate in that she seemed to be the smart one who really knew what was going on.

Kind of glad my review inspired you to check it out, yet deeply embarrassed it went over so poorly. Heh heh.

Ross said...

Is it just me, or does the sinful dwarf look like Jack Black?