Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Movie Roundup: 7/14/09

It's a long one this time. I guess that's what happens when you're on summer break and you go a month without posting. Same deal as always. Onward!

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2009) 56
Unfortunately mismarketed as a "real-life Spinal Tap" (or, more to the point, lazily pigeonholed as such), Anvil! is well put-together but alarmingly dreary. It's all about expectations. I expected this -- like the film it's being played up against -- to be funny, entertaining, and incisive; instead, what I got was melancholy and sometimes flat-out depressing. I likewise expected there to be some sort of triumph in Anvil's never-say-die career history to make all the unpleasantries worth sitting through. There isn't. The film attempts to fabricate one (and it's disturbingly close to the ending of Spinal Tap), but it doesn't take much at all to blow a giant hole in it. It's just a big ol' fat cheat on the face of a documentary that is perhaps a bit too lifelike. I realize the ridiculousness of this criticism, but I can't think of any other way to put it. Watching Anvil! is a miserable experience. If I wanted to be reminded about how life is a harsh, cruel, difficult exercise in following fruitless dreams, I would've just, ya know, spent the evening living.

Attack the Gas Station! (Sang-Jin Kim, 1999) 74
This is every bit as ridiculous as I remembered it, and that's a very, very good thing. There's not really much to say about it; it's the sort of movie that seems to actively avoid discussion in favor of just being watched. So watch it. Just as long as you know exactly what you're signing up for before you watch it, I can't even begin to imagine how you might be disappointed. It's colorful, hilarious, absurd, bizarre, and fuckin' fun as hell.

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2003) 78
There's a lot to be said for loving a movie unconditionally, for just unquestioningly accepting it for what it is. I know Better Luck Tomorrow is a very flawed film. Its flaws become more and more apparent to me every time I watch it. But you know what? I don't care. I love it. I think it's a great film. The best I can figure is that it appeals to some sort of unconscious impulse, because it's not usually my position (at all) to just overlook rather noticeable shortcomings. But rather than dwell on what it might not be, I prefer to admire the film for what it is: an affecting, well crafted high school drama that -- despite several plot developments that seriously stretch the bounds of believability -- seems to capture a particular teenage mindset surprisingly well. That's why I like it so much. Not because it's some tough, gritty, realistic teen crime saga, but because it works as a fantasy. It bottles the oft-unspoken desires of a generation of overachievers and plants them onscreen in a way that is watchable, entertaining, and stylish. Need I ask more of it?

Broken Wings (Nir Bergman, 2002) 63
I think this is one of those films that one has to look at in a certain way in order to appreciate. From a strictly narrative standpoint, it is surprisingly empty: characters talk, a central event occurs, characters talk some more, the central event resolves itself completely independently of any of said talking, movie ends. This doesn't exactly amount to a compelling storyline. So where the film does work is on an emotional plane. There's a good deal of socioeconomic and familial conflict at work here, and while I never got the feeling that the film ever actually solves any of it, I was also keenly aware that -- to use a cliche -- the journey is more important than the destination. Bergman wastes no time throwing his viewers into the lives of this family, and slowly we become involved enough to legitimately care about what happens to them. The film is perhaps a bit too short and the details a bit too underdeveloped to provide the full range of emotion I think Bergman is going for, but nonetheless I finished the film feeling uplifted and satisfied, and that makes Broken Wings something of a small victory.

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009) 43
A very confused film. It has no clue what it wants to be. Comedy? Drama? Thriller? Mystery? Adventure? Romance? In its indecision it elects to be all of the above, but instead of emerging in the form of some genre-bending brilliance (the sort of thing I'd frankly have expected from the guy who made 2005's excellent 40s noir throwback Brick), it just winds up a confounding and muddled mess. And I hate that it does this to itself, because parts of it -- for instance, the majority of the droll, absurdly humorous bits -- work really well. But then whenever it starts to really get going with something, it pulls another card out of its sleeve and effectively shoots itself in the foot. By the time the film is over (roughly thirty minutes past the point where I thought it was going to end, and likely the place where it should have), it has twisted and turned and conned and crossed and double-crossed and genre-hopped and tone-shifted so many times that you just kind of want it to put itself out of its misery. And so it does, but unsatisfyingly. The Brothers Bloom is the very definition of a sophomore slump: a follow-up to a very successful, clever debut that tries way too hard to outdo its predecessor and ultimately just gets lost in its own pretensions. Rian Johnson is clearly a talented guy. He knows what he's doing. Hopefully by film #3 he'll have gotten his bearings together and will have the right stuff to knock us out again. I'm counting on it, anyway.

Clean, Shaven (Lodge Kerrigan, 1993) 55
I know why this has been called a great film. I see exactly what Kerrigan is trying to do. And now that I see this, it's time for him to move on and make a better movie. Its problem is that it plays out more like an art school exercise than it does a feature meant to be viewed by real people. Sure, as a psych student I can attest that it probably is the closest filmic representation of schizophrenia yet put onscreen, but that doesn't necessarily make it interesting. It just makes it very, very difficult. And I have nothing against difficult films. Some of the greatest movies ever made are notorious for being such. It's just that Clean, Shaven, much like schizophrenia itself, provides no in for the unafflicted. It's an isolated entity, cold and detached not necessarily by its own choosing but just by nature. That's what makes it so hard to warm up to. If all of the action is on the inside and we the viewers have no way of getting in there, what's left for us? An unsettling but ineffective curiosity. Oh well. Even still, I wish we'd watched this in my abnormal psych class instead of Diary of an Anorexic or whatever; this is much better.

Eternal Summer (Leste Chen, 2006) 83
God, this gets better and better the more I think about it. This is a beautiful, understated gem that is, I think, doomed to be misunderstood due to the way it's been marketed. Far from being exclusively the "gay film" the case makes it out to be, this is really more a poignant examination of human relationships, platonic, sexual, or otherwise. Sure, one of the protagonists is gay, but the other isn't. Therein lies a large portion of the film's conflict (which proves itself to have far more depth than one might expect from such a setup), but it also takes care to explore hugely credible themes of loneliness, longing, jealousy, and intimacy. Shane's reasons for doing what he does are entirely believable (though steeped in a certain melancholy desperation), while Jonathan's gradual realization of the impossibility of what he wants is very effective. Yes, the film does have its flaws, and it's certainly not for all tastes, but I found it both engaging and incredibly moving.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) 85
I'm going to share my controversial opinion. I think the Harry Potter movies are incalculably better than the books. I've read all the books and seen all the movies thus far, and nothing is going to change my mind. Whereas the books are turgid, overlong, and occasionally dull, the films take Rowling's source material and condense it into something genuinely exciting. Half-Blood Prince is not just one of the crown jewels of the Harry Potter film canon (Azkaban is still probably my favorite, but this is a close second), but a great movie by any standards. By now, we've all been immersed in this universe long enough to not require introductions. Knowingly, the film plunges us straight into the action. With its typically arresting visuals (seriously, these are some of the best-looking movies ever made) and veritable who's-who of British actors (Jim Broadbent is excellent as Slughorn, and Alan Rickman continues his series-dominating role as Snape) in tow, the movie plows ahead breathlessly for its 153 minutes. Many other films would make this runtime seem interminable (scroll down to P), but if anything this film almost feels too short. But I think they've made the right cuts and applied the appropriate changes; the final product is lean and easily digested, without the ponderousness of the 600+ page novel to throw around. In short: this is dazzling mainstream entertainment. It hits all the right notes, it's compulsively and joyously watchable, and -- series placeholder or not -- it's one of the best films of the year.

Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002) 48
A dull, unexceptional, storyless tale of rich-kid angst. Those of us who have read The Catcher in the Rye have had all of this before, and infinitely better. At least Holden Caulfield is identifiable; Igby's just kind of a prick. More to the point, there's really no one at all in this film worth caring about. It's mildly funny throughout, but so what? It doesn't really have anything else going for it, and for what it's trying to do it really needs to. It's not a bad film, perce; it's just a startlingly mediocre and forgettable one. I mean, I watched this thing three days ago and I can't remember half of what happened. That can't be good.

La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990) 77
It's rare to see a film this flashy also have the appropriate amount of substance to back it up. For all its action movie stylings, La Femme Nikita is really just a glorified character piece. That it's successful in both regards makes it both highly entertaining and emotionally rewarding. What emerges is a very strong, assured piece of filmmaking. Besson has an appealing eye for aesthetics, and the visuals alone probably would have been enough for me to be decently satisfied by the film (the blue-tinted robbery scene that kickstarts the film is especially memorable), but it always goes one better and actually has something happening onscreen to complement the eye candy. The somewhat episodic story is deliberately paced, but engaging. I had no trouble whatsoever getting involved in Nikita's situation, in her actions and in her psychology. She's an appealing character given a very strong performance by a highly appealing actress. It's ... hell, it all just works. It's not an unqualified success, mind you. There are small gripes here and there, as there often are, but it's certainly not something I'd be bothered by watching again.

Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) 70
Moon is not great science fiction, but it is a solid and entertaining piece of cinema. I think the reason why many have been led to call it great sci-fi is just the simple fact that films like this are very hard to come by these days. This isn't your standard-issue kinetic, things-blow-up-in-space action thriller. It's a character piece through and through, sometimes slow moving, but never dull for an instant. Comparisons to a certain Stanley Kubrick film are inevitable, but the similarities are only surface-level. As a film, this can proudly stand on its own, and that alone should be reason enough to see it. To discuss plot points would be to divulge spoilers, which of course it would be criminal for me to do, but suffice it to say that while Moon does not break any new ground conceptually, it deftly handles what it brings to the table. The clean, simple, well thought-out execution is refreshing. Also impressive, and indeed what likely makes the movie more than anything else, is Sam Rockwell's bravura performance. The man is dynamite here. It's a role that could easily lead to scenery chewing, but he handles his one-man show with a great deal of skill. His acting never calls attention to itself, and the overall effect of his work is extremely impressive. Still, I felt that something fundamental was missing; something that kept it from becoming the sci-fi classic that by all means it deserves to be. But that's nitpicking, really. It's a very good film, admirably ambitious, and I'm just glad it found its way to us.

O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) 63
A competent, if not particularly outstanding, contemporary adaptation of Othello (which, to be honest, was never my favorite Shakespeare anyway). For all its flashy modern embellishments, it's actually pretty faithful to its source material. As with all Shakespeare adaptations, this is both a strong point and an undoing. On the one hand, you know you're going to get a solid story; on the other, especially if you're familiar with the play, there are no surprises. Aside from the high school basketball conceit, O doesn't go out of its way to do anything new or different with the Bard's plotline. As a result, as soon as the setting is established, the film feels like it goes on autopilot. Still, the performances are good (the core three especially; even the normally wooden Josh Hartnett stands out here) and one has to give Tim Blake Nelson kudos for trying. It's just that, especially with the potential inherent in each and every one of Shakespeare's "major" plays for a brilliant adaptation, it's hard to not want a little bit more out of it.

The Princess and the Warrior (Tom Tykwer, 2000) 45
Okay. I get it now. Tom Tykwer is all about flash and pizazz. This is why Run Lola Run worked so well: it was 100% style. It didn't even try for that whole "substance" thing. On the flipside, this is why Perfume didn't work: it actually tried to tell a story -- a fucking weird one -- and it fell on its face, fucking weirdly. The Princess and the Warrior, despite being Tykwer's immediate follow-up to Lola, unfortunately bears more similarity to the latter film. It ain't just dumb, it's flat-out silly. The story it tries to tell is so contrived and so ham-fisted and so poorly handled that I'm led to wonder what exactly appealed to Tykwer about it in the first place. Scarcely anything clicks here: the movie's way too long, it's frustratingly slow paced, and there's something about it that's just off-putting on a visceral level (not to mention having one of the stupidest endings I've seen in a long while; without giving anything away, it's like Tykwer felt the need to grab his audience by the throat and scream, "D'YA GET IT?! THE SYMBOLISM?! HUH? WELL, DO YA? IT'S A METAPHOR! GET IT?! D'YA SEE THE METAPHOR?!" Yes, Tom. We get it). Not unpredictably, the successful things are the stylistic touches. The film's really well shot. Like, really. It just forgets that these things cease to matter if the story sucks.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009) 41
You just can't predict some things. Of all the boring-as-shit movies out there, I never would've expected a Johnny Depp movie about John Dillinger to be one of them. Simply put: Public Enemies takes a loooong time to go absolutely nowhere. It's unbelievably dull. Mann's technical prowess is impressive enough and Depp's acting is good enough that together they make this a difficult film to hate outright, but damned if I'm not very unimpressed and disappointed. The sad thing is, the film's got a lot going for it. It really does. They just forgot one key element: a script; something that dictates that things happen, and interestingly. Because all of the gripping parts are in the trailer. That's two minutes long. Public Enemies is 140 minutes long. What fills (or doesn't fill, depending) the remaining 138 ain't really worth the $10 you'd have to pay for it.

The Rutles (Eric Idle & Gary Weis, 1978) 70
Not having watched this in years and years, I was concerned that my younger viewing self had played up this film's quality a bit too much and that I'd be slightly disappointed upon revisiting it. I shouldn't have worried. Eric Idle's unfortunately underrated Beatles sendup is still amusing after all these years, though definitely more sly and clever than straight-up hilarious (not that there's anything wrong with this at all; it's just slightly different from what I remembered). One good thing that comes with age: I actually get all the references now (I'm pretty sure the humor inherent in the Brian Epstein-inspired Leggy Mountbatten would have been lost on 12-year-old Chris; just a guess), and I'm able to recognize all of the curious guest cameos (like wtf that really is Mick Jagger/Paul Simon/George Harrison, as well as half the original SNL cast). So yeah. Good stuff. And short! You can watch this twice instead of watching Public Enemies once!

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) 66
A vicious, meanspirited little thriller. It works, though. You have to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief (without saying it's impossible or even implausible, I'm not entirely sure when the key event that leads to the conclusion could have happened), but once you let yourself go the film is entertaining enough to work on its own terms. It has a biting edge that may be just a little too dark for a lot of people, not to mention a cast of characters who are fundamentally despicable, but these things suit the material. The last thing a story like this calls for is a warm, cuddly treatment; Danny Boyle puts it on ice and lets it stay there. It's also an interesting historical curiosity: this was both the feature debut for the now Oscar-winning Boyle (it predates even his breakthrough Trainspotting by a couple of years), as well as one of the first screen appearances for Ewan McGregor. It's clear even from these humble beginnings that both men are quite talented, and it's fun to know where both ended up. Shallow Grave is quite a bit darker than anything I would've expected from such an early stage, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. Fun, you might even say, in the most macabre of senses.

This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984) 84
Eh, everyone's seen this. We all know how good it is. I don't think I need to say anything about it.

I'll try to do this a couple more times before school starts, just to avoid pile-up and all that stuff. Later!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Haltime Report: 2009

I've said it a million times before, but it's worth repeating a million times more: 2009 is amazing. That's all there is to it. This is turning out to be a watershed year, especially in the wake of the very lackluster 2008 (with a few big exceptions, of course). I haven't seen enough movies to make any value judgments there, but quality of music is up by an unbelievable margin. Everyone is releasing stuff this year, and it's almost all really, really good. And the party's not over yet! Despite the influx of anticipated albums from January to June, we've still got several biggies to go.

Music Stuff We're Still Being Promised: AFI, Brand New, The Dodos, The Flaming Lips, Frightened Rabbit, Mew, Porcupine Tree, The Twilight Sad, Vampire Weekend. Honestly, this madness will never stop.

So, yeah. I'm pumped. There's as much awesome stuff to look forward to as there is to look back on.

Speaking of, let's do that. This is something of an annual tradition. Every year since 2005, I've been compiling a so-called Halftime Report to spotlight the very best in music and movies from the first half of the year. With the exception of songs (which get the full Top 10), I do half-size lists (seems appropriate, right?). It just feels better that way. So, without further ado ...

The Songs:
Yeesh, this was a hard list to make. I had to cut some really worthy songs, which made me feel bad (so if you see Franz's "No You Girls," or Other Lives' "E Minor," or even Doves' "Kingdom of Rust," give 'em a pat on the back for me, okay?), but here's as close as I could come at this point in time. Also, I adhere to the one-song-per-artist rule, or else this would be nothing but three bands over and over.

10. Telefon Tel Aviv, "The Birds"
If anyone knows of a song more elegantly beautiful released in the past six months, by all means indulge me. A positively enchanting slice of nocturnal electronica by a duo that met its end far too abruptly.

9. VNV Nation, "Where There Is Light"
This sort of encapsulates everything I like about these guys. Huge and epic-sounding, with a keen ear for melody and a passionate delivery. Time will tell if it's one of their best, but I think it might be.

8. Rinôçérôse, "Panic Attack"
Fun, unpretentious, bouncy electro-rock. It's catchy as hell, and one needs not feel bad about dancing around his or her bedroom to it. What more do you need?

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, "Young Adult Friction"
I love finding new bands. No one had even heard of these guys prior to Pitchfork's drooling review in early February, but by now we're all intimately familiar with this: a pop song so warm, well constructed, and likable that it almost feels like it's been a staple on our personal soundtracks forever.

6. Metric, "Gold Guns Girls"
Though I appreciate their meditative stuff as well, this is what Metric does best: amped-up, energetic, impossible-not-to-dance-to synth-rock. The "more and more..." coda basically kills me with its awesomeness each time.

5. Sunset Rubdown, "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!"
It's only because I made myself choose one. Anything else from the album might do just as well. Still, there is a certain something about this song that I can't deny, no matter how hard I try. Likely the most overtly melancholy thing Krug has ever written, and it's just great.

4. The Kingsbury Manx, "Well, Whatever"
The list's inevitable dark horse. Of the ten million indie pop songs getting tossed out there, who would've guessed this would be the one to really do it for me? Short, sweet, lovely.

3. Bat for Lashes, "Daniel"
"When the fires came the smell of cinders and rain perfumed almost everything: we laughed and laughed and laughed" is the most striking lyric so far this year, and -- regardless of how streamlined this is compared to the rest of Two Suns -- this is how indie dance-pop should be done.

2. Silversun Pickups, "Panic Switch"
Haters, begone. I don't care if they sound like another certain SP-initialed band, or if there's not an original bone in any one of the members' bodies. No matter how I look at it, I can't get past the fact that this is just a damn great rock song. The "waiting and fading and floating away" bridge is one of those sublime moments that reminds me just why I love music so much.

1. Pure Reason Revolution, "Deus Ex Machina"
A serious #1, and it won't be giving up that spot easily. A dark, aggressive, and uncannily literary excursion into almost EBM-ish industrial that sports melodies upon melodies, harmonies upon harmonies, and one brilliant idea after another for six intense, utterly danceable minutes.

The Albums:
Actually, it was significantly easier putting this list together. There have been tons of strong albums, but these five proudly stand above the rest.

5. Metric, Fantasies
The ostensible reason for this placement could be because I saw them play 8/10 of this in a mindblowing show that has to be seen to be believed, but I think the real reason is that it's just a damn fine pop record. Their best album.

4. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
I'll be the first to admit that I prefer the "melancholy indie-pop" Decemberists of not-so-old, but no one ever said going in a new direction was a bad thing. This is an admirably cohesive album, and what can I say? The crunchy, 70s-inspired hard rock sound looks good on them.

3. Silversun Pickups, Swoon
This is exactly the album I wanted them to release. There are a couple rough patches in the second half, but it gets placement on this list based on "Growing Old Is Getting Old" and "Panic Switch" alone.

2. Pure Reason Revolution, Amor Vincit Omnia
An exhilarating combination of prog-rock, industrial/electronica, and elements of metal with multi-part harmonies and complex arrangements. And what do they get for their ambition? A lukewarm reception and continued obscurity, because the world at large has decided it doesn't sound enough like their first album. Sigh.

1. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer
By a landslide. By tightening his songwriting and widening his accessibility ever so slightly, Spencer Krug has made a record every bit as good as -- though fundamentally different from -- 2007's decade-defining Random Spirit Lover. So pretty much what I'm trying to say is, this album is really, really, really fucking excellent.

The Films:
For some reason, I haven't been to see as many movies this year. Who knows? I guess fewer have been grabbing my interest. Nonetheless, there's still some really good stuff out there waiting to be seen.

5. Up
At this point, I'm just leaving a space open on all of my lists for Pixar movies. They've earned it. Yeah, this is good; this is really good. But seriously, did any of us ever expect anything different?

4. Star Trek
Now, honestly. Did anyone expect this to be as good as it was? Really? The world at large, myself included, seemed to be preparing for a huge trainwreck -- an understandable sentiment. But what we got was thrilling mainstream cinema: a visually impressive, highly enjoyable reboot with great casting and a solid story. It even kinda sorta makes Star Trek cool again.

3. Duplicity
A complex, twisty little snake of a movie, but a fun one. It should be no surprise at this point that a film about con artists should naturally try to con its audience as well. This one succeeds. Oh: and Clive Owen is still the world's biggest badass.

2. Drag Me to Hell
This damn movie has no right to be as good as it is. No right. It's just a schlocky gross-out horror flick. But it's such a ridiculously well made, fun, and endlessly entertaining schlocky gross-out horror flick that I'm convinced Sam Raimi is some kind of warped genius. With all due respect to Spider-Man, it's good to have you back where you belong, Sam.

1. Sin Nombre
A devastating and deeply frightening film, but also a profound and beautiful one. For every moment of intense darkness, there's another that's equally hopeful. The result is a masterpiece: powerful, human, and damn near perfect.

And that's it! Only six months until I get to do this again! And yeah, I am going to attempt decade lists too. Holy crap.