Category: 2009


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If ever a film represented the fine line between “kids’ movie that adults can also enjoy” and “adult movie that kids may enjoy,” it’s Wes Anderson’s debut animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. The Iron Giant might have dealt with the Red Scare and McCarthyism but it’s a children’s tale in the E.T. vein at heart. Up dealt with old age and the death of our loved ones, but it was also a children’s adventure tale to its core. On the opposite side of that spectrum, Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are was a film about childhood specifically directed at adults, and I can’t imagine any children enjoying it. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox constantly straddles the line between children’s aesthetics and adult content, and it makes for one of the most magical animated films of the aughts.

My relationship with Wes Anderson films is complicated at best. While I consider Rushmore to be one of the defining comedies of the 90s and think The Royal Tenenbaums is a lesser but still great film, I often find his works wearisome. Anderson plays hopscotch with the line between endearingly eccentric and obnoxiously artificial like a teenaged hipster on PCP. Moonrise Kingdom was a surprisingly powerful meditation on young love and the essential loneliness of childhood, but the general aesthetics of the film almost felt like a parody of the increasingly 50s pastiche aesthetic that has come to define Anderon’s career. But in Fantastic Mr. Fox, Anderson’s general taste for the zany and outre hits the nail right on the head.

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Crafted in gorgeous stop-motion animation (ala Paranorman), Fantastic Mr. Fox is an adaptation of the Roald Dahl book of the same name (with many liberties taken with the story). The titular Mr. Fox (The Descendants‘ George Clooney) is a retired chicken thief. Leaving his job as a professional burglar when his wife (One True Thing‘s Meryl Streep) becomes pregnant with their first child (Jason Schwartzman), the film picks up 12 fox-years later with Mr. Fox as a newspaperman struggling with the doldrums of his day-to-day life. Mr. Fox has a happy and loving wife, and his son, Ash, is a basically good kid even if he’s no athlete and a little bit “different” (read: homosexual). Also, his nephew, Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes to stay with them. As a last ditch effort to feel alive while he still can, Mr. Fox buys a new home, and it nearly spells the destruction of his entire family.

The tree is near three different produce farms: a chicken farm, a cider factory, and a turkey farm. And being that close to a treasure trove of seemingly easily stolen goods is more temptation than Mr. Fox can resist. With the help of his opossum friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), Mr. Fox begins stealing en masse from the three farmers Boggis, Bunce, and Bean (one of which is Harry Potter‘s Michael Gambon). And although Mr. Fox and Kylie are successful at first, their thievery quickly attracts the attention of the vicious and cruel (but rightly angered) humans who threaten the ecosystem of the entire animal kingdom in order to hunt Mr. Fox down.

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If all of that plot description seems much darker than your average children’s movie, that’s because it is. Fantastic Mr. Fox is PG and earns every last inch of that rating. Alcohol is explicitly referred to as such; violence isn’t implied. It’s shown; characters curse frequently but say “cuss” instead of the actual curse word; the main character is an unrepentant thief; guns are fired with reckless abandon. In an age where so many children’s movies are neutered and focus-driven to blandness (how I felt about much of Frozen), Fantastic Mr. Fox aims for the older kids in the audiences and isn’t afraid to offend a few stuffier parents in the process, and thank god for it.

But, beyond its willingness to play with slightly darker material, Fantastic Mr. Fox has a distinct visual style all its own. While many elements of the film are clearly drawn from Wes Anderson’s wheelhouse (the yellow colors, the title cards, the general 1950s feel), most stop-motion films don’t look like this. Although the humans have the typical Wallace & Gromit claymation feel, all of the animals in the film are gorgeously constructed. Because of the film’s stop-motion style, you are constantly aware of the endless little details that go into each character, and it becomes a fun game watching Mr. Fox’s fur shift around as he’s moved between shots. Also, because Anderson used actual figures instead of CGI, there’s a tactile sense that the film’s world is lived in and it allows Anderson’s camera to really explore the film’s spaces.

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And to top it all off, Fantastic Mr. Fox has an absurdly deep ensemble cast. In addition to the stars already mentioned, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe, and Adrien Brody all make appearances. The two standout performances in the cast though are George Clooney’s Mr. Fox, which is basically an exaggerated spin on the typical Clooney charmer but with just the right amount of insanity to be an Anderson character, and Jason Schwartzman as Ash, the neurotic and self-conscious teenage son. Ash actually holds much of the emotional weight of the film, even when he’s being an asshole, and Jason Schwartzman gives one of his best performances since Rushmore in the pivotal role.

Fantastic Mr. Fox may be too weird for some. There are moments of total absurdist genius in the film (a deliciously anti-climactic pay-off to a series of jokes about wolves in the film springs immediately to mind), and that willingness to deal in surrealism may alienate viewers more accustomed to the more typically market-driven, focus-tested children’s fare. But for anyone with a taste for the truly original, Wes Anderson crafted a love letter to heist films, classic animation, and the genuine magic of childhood wonder in what is surely one of the best films of his career.

Final Score: A

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review. Besides my Glee essay from yesterday, you may have noticed that it’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog. Three weeks in fact. Sorry about that. After beating Grand Theft Auto V, I decided to finally buy Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Although the Final Fantasy series has had its share of missteps these last four or five years, this game had gotten pretty good reviews so I thought I’d check it out. And it’s been a major addiction ever since. Anyways, I just wanted to assure everyone that I hadn’t abandoned this blog, and hopefully, I can try to keep updating this regularly in the future although I am also working on a new screenplay so that is taking up some of my time as well. Also, there are more or less two reasons for why I’m reviewing this particular film. It’s Halloween officially and I wanted to watch a scary movie and the main actress of the movie kept favorite tweets I made about Terrence Malick films [I’m assuming it’s related to the fact that she’s been cast in his next film, Knight of Cups]. Anyways, it was a good decision to watch it.)

What is the single thread in every quality horror film? It isn’t clever meta-humor ala the Scream franchise or Tucker & Dale vs. Evil (though that certainly helps). And it isn’t genuinely disturbing supernatural phenomena ala Paranormal Activity or The Exorcist (though once again, that certainly helps). The best horror films are the ones where the audience has a legitimate emotional stake in its heroes and heroines. If you want to elicit a visceral emotional reaction from the audience, they have to care whether someone lives or dies. Let the Right One In placed character development ahead of the horror and there are days where I think it’s safe to it’s more a coming of age tale with horror elements than a conventional horror film and The Descent delivers nearly 45 minutes of group dynamics and character development before the crawlers arrive. 2009’s indie gem The House of the Devil is steeped in that same tradition.

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While The House of the Devil is clearly one of the most delightfully self-aware horror films this side of the original Scream and Cabin in the Woods, it has so much more going for it than its loving homage to the slasher/occult horror of the late 1970s and early 80s. The House of the Devil is an undeniably masterful exercise in Hitchcock-ian tension and Tobe Hooper atmosphere. In the very best sense of the word, The House of the Devil is a slow-burner and though the movie makes you wait for the pay-off, you will find yourself clinging to your blanket/pillow/significant other as the tension becomes nigh unbearable.

In the early 80s, Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is just your average college girl. She’s looking for a new apartment (with a great one-scene turn from E.T.‘s Dee Wallace as her new land lady) because her dorm mate is constantly having loud, obnoxious sex and Samantha can’t get any work done. But, like most college students, Samantha is low on money and even after convincing her land lady to drop the deposit requirement, Samantha still doesn’t have enough money to pay her first month’s rent. And after declining an offer from her rich but smart ass best friend Megan (Greta Gerwig) to have her father help out, Samantha has one week to scrounge up some cash quick.

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And, like the most evil deus ex machina imaginable, Samantha finds a flier advertising a baby-sitting job. And despite every shred of common sense saying the caller is creepy and not at all normal, Samantha and Megan drive out to the creepy Amityville Horror style house in the middle of the country side where the elderly Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and Mrs. Ulman (Mary Woronov) live. And, with an unsettling urgency, Mr. Ulman reveals to Samantha that she won’t actually be babysitting a child but rather his elderly mother. And, so after the departure of Megan and the Ulman’s, Samantha settles into an evening in a home where a Satanic ritual is soon to be underway with her as the key to its success.

Some people are going to be put off by how “little” happens in The House of the Devil. The typical moments of murder, mayhem, and gore that are the bread and butter of the horror genre occur twice: once in the middle and once again at the very end. But, in the sequences before the arrival at the house, The House of the Devil makes you genuinely care about Samantha and Megan. This isn’t Kenneth Lonergan character development but there’s enough personality between Samantha and Megan that when things inevitably turn sour, it hurts.

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And, then, once they get to the house itself, Ti West’s direction and ability to create suspense is superb. Like Quentin Tarantino before him, Ti West manages to simultaneously declare his love to the cheesy and borderline exploitative horror films of yesteryear while also being clearly of a different artistic league than them. By subverting, inverting, and deconstructing all of the tropes of those films, Ti West skillfully plays on and against audience expectations and pulls the audience along, scene by scene, teasing the big finish so that when it finally arrives, the audience has almost stopped breathing.

The film’s attention to period detail and the visual style of the era is impeccable. With her high-waisted jeans and feathered hair, star Jocelin Donahue looks like she just walked off the set of an old John Carpenter or Wes Craven film. She even carries around an absolutely massive Walkman to play her tapes in (which leads to one of the film’s best moments, an exuberant dance to Robert Palmer’s “One Thing Leads to Another” that is arguably one of the most tense dance scenes in film history). The movie was shot on 16mm film to add that extra layer of graininess and seediness and it even incorporates a cheesy freeze frame title card system at the very beginning. As far as classic horror authenticity goes, The House of the Devil is beyond question.

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And you can’t forget the performances of the cast which are both an evocation of what has come before as well as stylistic statements in their own right. Jocelin Donahue’s performance as Samantha seems to be a twist on the classic “last girl standing” trope of horror films because she’s far more active and bad-ass than the Jamie Lee Curtis’s that preceded her, and after seeing her in this film, I’m excited for her role in Terrence Malick’s upcoming feature. And, Greta Gerwig’s turn in this predates her big break in Greenberg, and even with what little time she had on screen, she marked herself as a natural. And, it will be a while before I encounter a horror villain as creepy as Tom Noonan’s Mr. Ulman.

Horror is a dried up well and then some, and though good films have started slipping through the cracks with delightful frequency lately (even deeply flawed films like The Last Exorcism still had promise and atmosphere), it takes something special to make me remember the visceral promise and thrills the genre can offer when done right. The House of the Devil may not be a great film by non-horror standards, but as far as horror goes, it’s a magnificent accomplishment and a true breath of fresh air. If this is what director Ti West is capable of, I look forward to seeing what the rest of his filmography has to offer.

Final Score: A-

 

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After watching the somewhat disappointing second chapter, The Girl Who Played with Fire, in the film adaptations of Stieg Larrson’s Millennium trilogy a little less than two weeks ago, I found myself less than enthusiastic to take the time out of my schedule to sit down and watch the concluding chapter, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. And that was a shame because after both the (inferior) Swedish version and the (superior) American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I considered myself a fan who wanted to know how this story played out. And though no one will really know how Stieg Larrson wanted the series to go (there were reportedly seven more books in the work before he died of a heart attack at 50), I can happily say that The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was a satisfying conclusion to the saga of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist even if this final entry featured too little Lisbeth.

One of the reasons that I’ve enjoyed the Millennium series so much (though I haven’t yet read the books; it’s on my to do list) is that Lisbeth Salander is easily one of the most interesting and well-drawn female heroines in the fictional market today. Take the bad-assery of Katniss Everdeen but then take away the shitty characterization (I love The Hunger Games series but Suzanne Collins is not a good writer) and you have a character half as cool as Lisbeth. Honestly, the only modern female characters I find as intriguing as Lisbeth are Peggy Olson from Mad Men and Buffy Summers from… Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But, in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Lisbeth’s contribution to the active resolution of the overall plot is nil at best, and it was somewhat disappointing to see such a fantastic character take a backseat for practically the entire film.

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This review will contain minor spoilers for the plot of The Girl Who Played with Fire (I’ll try to keep the plot spoilers of this entry to a minimum) so if you haven’t seen that entry, you should probably stop reading now and come back later. After surviving being shot three times (once in the head) as part of an attempt to confront her father, ex-Soviet defector and criminal kingpin Alexander Zalachenko (Georgi Staykov), hacker prodigy and general problem child Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) is rescued from near death by left-wing journalist (and her former lover) Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). And although Lisbeth has been cleared of the murder of the two journalists that provided the tension in The Girl Who Played with Fire, Lisbeth finds herself in even hotter water as she is now accused with the attempted murder of her father after she nearly killed him with an axe (an act of self-defense).

Much like the last film, the conspiracy at the heart of the movie is propelled forward by a rogue faction of the Swedish government’s need to keep their ties with Alexander Zalachenko a secret. When Zalachenko defected, a corrupt faction of Sweden’s Security Services (which I imagine is functionally similar to the FBI or the CIA. But there was another government police organization in the film, the Constitutional Protection, so I don’t know what equivalency either organization has with American government), known as The Section, took him in, and they sucked off the largesse of his criminal activities for decades in repayment for his anti-Russian information. And as Lisbeth is being prosecuted by the government to keep the Section’s dirty little secrets quiet, it’s up to Mikael and the rest of the Millennium staff to prove Lisbeth’s innocence.

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I’ve said this in my reviews of the two earlier entries in this franchise, but it should be said again that Michael Nyqvist and Noomi Rapace were both cast expertly in these roles. And though I slightly prefer Rooney Mara as Lisbeth (she captures the vulnerable side of the character better than Rapace does), I pretty firmly believe that Michael Nyqvist commits to the role of Mikael Blomqvist better even than the excellent Daniel Craig. And that’s good because unlike the first two entries of the series (which are more Lisbeth heavy), most of the dramatic weight of this film falls on Nyqvist’s shoulders. And throughout the film, Blomqvist must decide if not only his safety is more important than uncovering the truth but also if the safety of his coworkers and lover is more important. And Michael Nyqvist again makes me wish I had seen more of his work in his native Sweden outside this franchise.

Lisbeth spends 75% of this film (if not more) either in a hospital, in prison, or on trial. The film centers around an investigation by Millennium magazine and eventually Constitutional Protection (which sounds like the ACLU but is apparently a police organization) to prove that Lisbeth is innocent of attempted murder and that there’s been a systematic attempt her entire life to keep her quiet and under control as well as to cover up the misdeeds of Alexander Zalachenko. But, sadly, with her life on the line, Lisbeth isn’t able to contribute in any meaningful way to her own defense. The only real plot contributions she makes in this film either occur at the very end of the movie and aren’t related to the main plot as well as something she did way back in the first film. It sucks to see such a bad-ass and resourceful heroine kept on the bench like that when the series clearly revolves around her.

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Thankfully then, the rest of the film was an enjoyable (if somewhat far-fetched) conspiracy thriller and the same type of journalism procedural that we’ve come to expect from the franchise (even if it doesn’t work on the same great level as other journalism procedurals like Zodiac). Stieg Larrson was a left-wing journalist in his native Sweden before becoming a writer, and he uses these books/movies as a mouthpiece for his views on the exploitation of women and the corruption of government. And as a fellow left-wing socialist, I respect Larrson’s dedication to his politics (even if I have quibbles here and there with his abilities as a storyteller). Having seen the entire series now, I’m once again excited to see this story make its way back to Hollywood and the capable hands of David Fincher. This ending left me satisfied.

Final Score: B

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After much delay, I finally sat down to watch the second film in the Swedish cinematic adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. I have not read the books though I have seen both the Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the American adaptation directed by David Fincher. They both have their strengths though I thought David Fincher’s interpretation was clearly the best and Rooney Mara’s frighteningly intense turn as hacker prodigy/deeply troubled young adult Lisbeth Salander still ranks among the best female performances of this current decade. But, for reasons that I am unable to fully articulate I put off watching the first of the two sequels (apparently there were plans for six books but the author died before he could write the last three), and now, honestly, I can say I wish I had waited until the movie had shown up naturally on this list so I didn’t go out of my way to watch it.

That’s not to say that The Girl Who Played with Fire was a bad film. Far from it in fact. The aspects of the franchise that I find compelling remained intact. Lisbeth Salander is still an endlessly fascinating creation of feminist fury. Mikael Blomqvist is also the type of great journalistic character that hearkens back to All the President’s Men. And, as far as tales of shocking luridness go, the Millennium trilogy is hard to top. Add on the fact that this particular entry is much better directed than the original and The Girl Who Played with Fire should be even better than the first film. It isn’t. If both versions of the first book suffered from a rather cut-and-dry procedural crime investigation at their core, The Girl Who Played with Fire makes the look into the Vanger family seem like Sherlock Holmes. Full of gaping plot holes and inconsistent pacing, I am now pray that maybe Fincher and co. can wrest a great film out of this material.

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After absconding with the bank account of the man that framed left-wing journalist Mikael Blomqvist (Michael Nyqvist) at the beginning of the first film, troubled hacker Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) returns to her native Sweden when she discovers that the state psychiatrist that had raped her in the first film plans on removing the damning tattoo Lisbeth forced upon him as revenge for his act of sadism and brutality. At the same time, Mikael begins to assist a young journalist who has a story that implicates many high-ranking Swedish government officials in a sex-trafficking ring. And when that journalist and his girlfriend (who is doing doctoral work on sex trafficking) are murdered with a gun owned by the psychiatrist Lisbeth came back to threaten and then he also winds up dead, it’s not long before the police begin to suspect Lisbeth in the murders and it’s up to her and Mikael to clear her name.

As a procedural crime mystery, I obviously don’t want to delve too deeply into the details of the plot for fear of spoiling anything that happens. But, I hope it’s not a spoiler if I say that the whole arc comes off as criminally disappointing in the end and I don’t mean that simply because the movie just sort of ends as it’s finally beginning to pick up the pace. The writing in this particular entry (and I almost suspect it’s partly the subtitles/translation because there’s no way the dialogue was this awkward in the original Swedish) comes off as lazy and half-there, and by the end of the film, particular pieces of evidence are collected and then there’s one moment that I’m fairly sure was meant to be a flashback but it appears to be a flashback to a moment that never actually happened in the film in the first place, but I may be wrong there. The movie wore me out and I decided to take a quick nap halfway through and start back where I left off so I could have just forgotten that moment.

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Thankfully, Noomi Rapace and Michael Nyqvist are as great as ever. Though, one of the defining and most enjoyable aspects of the original film (in both its iterations) was the chemistry between Lisbeth and Mikael, and the two (SPOILER ALERT) don’t share the screen together until literally the final minutes of the film. Also, Noomi doesn’t have to carry out any scenes as tough as the multiple times she was raped in the first film though a particularly brutal moment towards the end of the film comes close. And Michael Nyqvist similarly doesn’t have nearly as much to work with. It’s good then that these two are pros and just their presence alone is enough to salvage less than spectacular writing. I’m hoping that by the time I get around to watching The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, these two will have more time on screen together.

I’ll draw this review to a close. This review comes off as particularly negative but I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy The Girl Who Played with Fire. I did. I find the universe of the Millennium trilogy fascinating and unsettling and overflowing with frightening characters. Just, after the David Fincher version of the first book, I know that there is greatness possible in a cinematic version of this world, and once again, the native Swedish adaptations of the Swedish novel fails to deliver as well as one could hope. Mostly, I finished The Girl Who Played with Fire with a sense of “what could have been” and you never want to leave a movie that way.

Final Score: B-

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There are certain films that I have to watch a couple of times before I realize how brilliant they are. It wasn’t until my second or third viewing that I began to truly appreciate how great The Big Lebowski or Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas were. But, sometimes, there are films I simply fall in love with on first sight. They speak to me with such resonance and deeper meaning that they become a window in to my own life. Chasing Amy and Annie Hall are the classic examples there. While Marc Webb’s (The Amazing Spider-Man) 2009 directorial debut may not quite reach the zenith of one of the greatest films of all time as Annie Hall does it has certainly earned its moniker as the millennial generations response to that classic film. I’ve watched the film more than a dozen times since it was first released and with each subsequent viewing I find something to love about this modern classic.

What separates (500) Days of Summer from the rest of its romantic comedy brethren is what separated Chasing Amy and Annie Hall from their peers. Though the film is nominally a comedy and scores plenty of laughs, (500) Days of Summer is as much a drama about the inherent silliness and psychological danger of intense romantic commitments and putting “dream girls” on a pedestal as it is any type of typical comedy. It is a serious treatment of the last hurrah of “young love” before we realize that maybe the world doesn’t work the way we’ve wanted it to. It earns its comparisons to Annie Hall through a strikingly non-linear structure and an almost total lack of a fourth wall, but it is in its grown-up and honest portrayal of modern romance that (500) Days of Summer makes its most momentous impact.

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Told over the course of (you guessed it) 500 days, the film is the type of total portrayal of a relationship that is hardly ever seen in your typical rom-com. It chronicles the early attraction, the courtship, the break-up (trust me it’s not a spoiler), and the emotional fall-out of a tough break-up. Tom Hanson (Looper‘s Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a young, idealistic romantic stuck working in a dead-end job writing greeting cards in L.A. because he’s too scared to pursue his real passion of architecture. Tom believes in “true love” and destiny which can be blamed (to quote the film) “on an early exposure to sad British pop music and a total misreading of the movie The Graduate.” And when the effervescent but complex Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel) stumbles into his life, Tom thinks he has found the one. But, once again to quote the film, “This is a story of boy meets girl but this is not a love story.”

Summer and Tom are clearly a match from the first moment that Summer compliments Tom on his fandom of the Smiths as “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out” plays on his headphones in a shared elevator ride. And though Summer is very much attracted to Tom, Summer is not looking for a real relationship. She believes in being young and casual and not tying oneself down with stifling commitments. Tom tries to go along with Summer’s wishes to keep things slow, but Summer can be the master of mixed signals, and whether either one liked it or not, their relationship begins to show signs of the messy emotional entanglements Summer so desperately wanted to avoid. And when Tom’s intense feelings for Summer aren’t reciprocated equally, it’s only a matter of time until their magical relationship comes crashing to a destructive end.

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Before my viewing of this film again on Friday night (with the same friend that I watched Primer with; I mostly watched the film cause he had never seen it), I hadn’t watched the movie in over a year and a half after I watched it with a girl that I was… dating? It was complicated in the same way that Tom and Summer’s relationship was. It was a (unknown at the time) depressingly prescient viewing of the film as our courtship would play out almost to the tee the way the movie played out with me as Tom and her as Summer (though I was thankfully never as hopelessly lovestruck as Tom… Thank God). And as much as I appreciated the themes of this film even before I lived out a real-life version of its plot, this particular viewing was especially emotionally brutal as I could finally relate to just how honest and richly detailed (500) Days of Summer‘s portrayal of unreciprocated romance.

It also doesn’t hurt the film that (500) Days of Summer has a fully realized and masterfully achieved aesthetic vision guiding its also excellent storytelling. If the movie is iconic for any reason whatsoever (outside of its intense fandom), it’s the general recognition that it has one of the greatest soundtracks of the last twenty years. Along with Perks of Being a Wallflower and Rushmore, I can’t name many films with a better integrated soundtrack.  There’s a sequence in the film where Regina Spektor’s “Hero” is being played that is possibly one of my 10 favorite scenes in any film ever where Tom’s expectations of the events of a party Summer is throwing are shown simultaneously with what really happens to positively brutal effect. And who can forget the glorious use of Hall & Oates’s “You Make My Dreams” for a fourth-wall shattering sequence after Summer and Tom sleep together for the first time.

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But the film’s aesthetic strengths are more than just its brilliant soundtrack (a perfect mix of modern indie pop and classic British pop like the Smiths). The friend I watched the film with is a sucker for great style in terms of clothing, and he consistently remarked on how the film’s fashion aesthetic was practically perfect. And, alongside Tom Ford’s A Single Man (a film that I watched last night with the same friend), I would be hard-pressed to name a film that labors such an almost fetishistic effort into presenting the best of fashion (in this film’s case, modern fashion as opposed to A Single Man‘s 60s fashion). And, the visual beauty goes beyond the clothing. The movie is gorgeously shot. And the cinematography accurately mimics Tom’s state of mind so that the film is stunningly beautiful when he’s happy and dark and miserable when he’s sad. Not to mention the fact that the movie finds itself capable of mimicking multiple different cinematic styles when it engages in its fourth-wall leaning fantasy sequences (i.e. Bergman and Fellini references).

And of course, the performances from the two leads are sublime. Alongside his breakthrough turn in Brick, this was one of the movies that really shot Joseph Gordon-Levitt into the mainstream consciousness. I hate to belabor my Annie Hall comparisons but if you took Woody Allen’s performance as Alvy Singer but gave Woody actual dramatic chops, you’d have an idea of what to expect from JGL in this film. It’s one of the strongest romantic comedy performances in recent memory, and the way that he makes you feel Tom’s psychological torment is astounding. Zooey is also phenomenal. Jess from New Girl and Summer from this (her two most high-profile roles) couldn’t be more different, and in many ways, Summer is meant to be a subversion of the typical Zooey “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” archetype. She shows a modern woman with complexity and depth that you never see in modern rom-coms and it must be commended.

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I’m hungry and need to eat lunch so I’ll draw this review to a close. If you can’t tell, I adore (500) Days of Summer. Though I don’t think it’s necessarily one of the greatest films ever made (as evidenced by the score I’m about to give it instead of an “A+”), it is, without question, one of my favorite films of the last 10 years. Without fail, I force every single one of my friends to watch this film that haven’t seen it already. I don’t even know if I can name any real substantive flaws with the movie off the top of my head. The movie has developed an odd hatedom over the last couple of years which I mostly chalk up to hype backlash and a general fatigue of Zooey Deschanel. You shouldn’t let that deter you from watching this true modern classic of the romantic-comedy genre. It’s a beautiful and important look at modern relationships.

Final Score: A

 

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Since last Sunday, I have watched 17 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The impetus for this sudden interest in Star Trek is likely tied to the fact that Star Trek: Into Darkness premiered this week, and I’ve been anticipating this film ever since J.J. Abrams first reboot of the Trek universe premiered in 2009. I had ordered Star Trek 2009 from Netflix to prep for the sequel, but the copy Netflix sent me was broken, and I had to get a new one. So, in the interim, I watched an unholy amount of Next Generation which I’ve enjoyed despite some of the silliness of Season 1. And, having watched so much original Star Trek: TNG lately, it creates an interesting perspective for this viewing of the reboot.

In the Star Trek television series, the emphasis is always on peaceful exploration and the collection of knowledge. The crews of the various versions of the Enterprise (or the USS Voyager or the people on the base in Deep Space Nine) may encounter hostile forces, but at least in season 1 of TNG, problems are solved through diplomacy and a lens of moral idealism. The whole point of Q seems to be a higher race that tests humanity’s willingness to support its own values even when its difficult. The 2009 Star Trek succeeds (highly) on its own merits and artistic vision, but its emphasis on action and combat seems at odds with the more cerebral nature of the TV series that spawned it.

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Serving as a reboot to the continuity of the original series (although with a conceit that I won’t spoil for any who haven’t seen the film), Star Trek becomes an origin story for how Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Smokin’ Aces‘ Chris Pine) captains the Starship Enterprise. After his father (The Avengers‘ Chris Hemsworth) dies saving his people (including Kirk’s pregnant mother) from a Romulan attack, Kirk grows up a troubled kid with no respect for authority until he’s recruited into Starfleet by Captain Pike of the USS Enterprise who knew his father. Determined to prove himself, Kirk joins the Federation not knowing what fate has in store for him.

After cheating on a Starfleet exam programmed by Commander Spock (Heroes‘ Zachary Quinto), Kirk’s punishment is delayed by an attack on the planet Vulcan. After being sneaked aboard the Enterprise by his best friend, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk manages to help save the Enterprise from an attack from the same Romulans who killed his father 25 years earlier. With Vulcan destroyed, Captain Pike captured, and the Romulans’ sights set on Earth, it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to save the day and for Kirk and Spock to learn to put aside their differences for the greater good.

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I was  skeptical of his casting when the film was first announced, but Chris Pine was a worthy replacement for William Shatner to play Captain Kirk, and by all reasonable metrics, he’s a much better actor than the hammy Shatner. He perfectly captures the cockiness and drive that make Kirk one of science fiction’s most beloved heroes. Zachary Quinto (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy) was very well cast as Spock, and the film gives Quinto a chance to examine the conflict between Spock’s logical Vulcan side and his emotional human half. The pair craft an appropriately epic sci-fi “bromance.”

J.J. Abram’s direction is appropriately epic. Although Star Trek was overshadowed in 2009 by the even more massively-budgeted Avatar, it’s clear that when given a big budget, J.J. Abrams knows what to do with it. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching TNG this week, the effects are laughable at best and really awful at worst, and it’s cool seeing the Trek universe with modern effects. People mock Abrams’ love of lens flare, but from start to finish, Trek is a well-choreographed action blockbuster from beginning to end that finds a beating heart in between the away missions and explosive space battles.

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Even if you’ve never seen any of the television series or original movies (which I hadn’t before my initial viewing of this film upon its release), Star Trek is a rousing sci-fi adventure in an era where that doesn’t happen often enough on the big screen. Because Abrams takes the time to develop these characters and their backstories and their chemistry as a group, you can care about these heroes even without understanding the character archetypes they’re drawn from. And with a supporting crew including John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Zoe Saldana, you’re given plenty of characters to latch onto (though Cho and Pegg don’t have much screen time).

I’m very excited to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. My family is probably going to go see it at some point in the next week or so. So, expect a review of it in the coming days. If you’re a fan of science fiction, there is no excuse for not watching J.J. Abrams’ reboot of one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time (and it makes so excited to see where he takes the Star Wars films). And, although the film’s themes seem to diverge wildly from its own source material, if you are able to divest yourself from what you think Star Trek needs to be, it seems impossible to not enjoy this voyage where we go boldly where no man has gone before.

Final Score: A-

 

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(A quick note before I write up this review. This movie was as heady of an intellectual head trip as I’ve had for a while. I wanted to wait til tomorrow to give this movie the full review it deserves because… Jesus… it’s a doozy. But we’re watching a movie in my film studies class tomorrow and I’d like to actually write that review tomorrow and not have to wait half a week to finally do it like I did for The Public Enemy. So, I spent about two and a half hours or so working on my screenplay [the psychological horror one. not Aftertaste which I’ve written 6 drafts of], and now I feel semi-prepared to jump into a review of what I can easily describe as one of the most absolutely bat-shit insane films I’ve ever watched.)

In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow or David Lynch’s Inland Empire, notions of time, perspective, and the reliable continuity of point of view are decimated in at attempt by each auteur to deconstruct their specific field of work. Pynchon’s sprawling, schizophrenic narrative was a giant “f*** you” to the literary establishment and the conventions of the structure of a novel while Lynch’s surrealist and emotionally disturbing imagery similarly bucked any idea of traditional cinematic content. Although both are essentially fantasies (Gravity’s Rainbow a dystopian delusion of World War II’s horrors as sheer paranoia; Inland Empire the frenzied breakdown of a star on the verge of madness), they capture inherent truths of their chosen medium by obliterating the traditional molds from which they are usually drawn. From a purely technical standpoint, Gaspar Noé’s 2009 indie drama Enter the Void nearly matches both of those works although it ultimately lacks the beating core at the center of those two other masterpieces.

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Much like Gravity’s Rainbow or Inland Empire, trying to explain the plot of Enter the Void is a little bit of an exercise in futility as well as missing the actual point of the film. But here goes. Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is an American living in Japan with his sister Linda (Choke‘s Paz de la Huerta). Oscar loves psychedelic drugs and makes his living dealing ecstasy at local Japanese night clubs. When Oscar is betrayed by a friend and killed by police in a raid at the Void nightclub, his spirit exits his body and wanders the Japanese skyline as he sees bits and pieces of his sister’s and friends’ lives after his death as well as a traumatic non-linear hodgepodge of incidences from his past. Taken as a loose, psychedelic interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Enter the Void is Gaspar Noé’s attempt to paint a hallucinatory picture of what our spirit perceives right after we die.

Ignoring for the moment that I’m a “teapot agnostic” who doesn’t believe in an afterlife or that anything Oscar perceives in this film after his death would actually happen, let me just open with the fact that Enter the Void is unquestionably one of the most visually striking films ever made. I am more than willing to put it in the same league as Terrence Malick’s masterpiece The Tree of Life in terms of its raw visual beauty. There is not a single wasted frame in this film that isn’t either Gaspar Noé conjuring up some ethereal, beautiful, Electric  Kool-Aid Acid Test bit of psychedelic imagery or blowing your mind with imaginative shot after imaginative shot. I don’t care how many films you’ve seen. Even if you’re a dedicated movie fanatic such as myself, you’ve never watched a movie that looks like this before.

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And much like Todd Solondz’s Happiness, Gaspar Noé isn’t afraid to disturb the hell out of his viewers with depraved and sordid subject matter while still speaking to something essentially true about darker sides of human nature. As an intentional contrast against the film’s hauntingly beautiful visuals (I seriously can’t stress enough how good-looking this film is), Enter the Void tackles some downright transgressive issues in an open and honest way. From incestual attraction to rampant drug use to rape to explicit (bordering on pornographic) sexuality, Enter the Void is one of the toughest films to sit through that I’ve watched in ages simply for the brutality of its subject matter. Death and violence and sex intermingle with the Noé’s masterful visual techniques to the point that you find yourself torn for being visually stunned by a scene while simultaneously being sickened by its content.

When the film is firing on all of the right cylinders storywise, it is almost too intimate to watch. Alongside Todd Solondz or Todd Haynes, this film tackles taboo subject matter without making judgments or presenting a side. It simply observes and the picture never turns away. Part of that functions from the film’s point of view which is told more or less entirely either through Oscar’s eyes or from over his shoulder. We never lose the sense of being right in the heart of the depravity of the film. And there are moments where you want to look away. Where you want Gaspar Noé to take us out of the horror of these disintegrating personal lives (and his imagery would often turn as hellish as the scenes they were portraying), but he wisely knows to force you to confront these issues and it makes for a wildly emotional experience.

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And all of the various ways in which the film is a stunning, resounding success makes the film’s monumental flaws all the more frustrating. First and foremost, the performances are an almost universal trainwreck. Not only is Paz de la Huerta aggressively unattractive, she is an awful actress. She is completely devoid of emotion, intonation, and suggestive expression. You see more of Linda than you actually do of Oscar (who is simply a passive observer in many scenes) and the role deserved a more dynamic When Oscar is still alive, you can hardly hear or understand any of Nathaniel Brown’s monotone dialogue. The Frenchman playing Oscar’s friend Alex is no more understandable. Though at least he is somewhat expressive. And none of the other, smaller bit parts impress in this film chock full of nonprofessional actors.

And, sadly, at the end of the day, while the film may be a technical masterpiece, it is also one of the most self-indulgent and pretentious movies you will ever watch. For every moment of inspired brilliance (Oscar’s pre-death DMT trip, the various flashbacks to his parents’ death, the nonlinear gamesmanship), the film will throw in at least one or two moments that make the film drag to eternity. There was absolutely no reason why needed a view from inside a vagine of a penis thrusting in and out of said vagina and then ejaculating. Unnecessary and gross. While many of the sex scenes are intentionally uncomfortable and depraved, I’m not sure if the unsimulated sex scenes were actually necessary. For a good ten minutes or so, Enter the Void becomes a really artsy porno. I’m sure there would have been a way to maintain the veracity of the film without including actual sex.

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Never have I watched a film that is simultaneously an almost peerless masterpiece while also being somewhat juvenile and deeply, deeply flawed. Despite the movie’s major shortcomings, if you’re into the post-modernist, mindscrew genre of cinema (think David Lynch or Darren Aranofsky), not only must you watch Enter the Void. You must watch it right now. It is powerful, provocative film-making and if Noé can learn to tamper just a bit of his excesses, he could jump to the forefront of international filmmakers. He is that talented. As it is, Enter the Void should enter the canon of visually triumphant cinema even if it ultimately buckles under the weight of its own ambitions and the deficiencies of its principal cast.

Final Score: B+

 

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Considering the very unfortunate cold outside right now, I really considered not picking this particular song off of Animal Collective’s 2009 masterpiece, Merriweather Post Pavillion. I’m continuing my series of picking one song off of each vinyl record that I’ve purchased for my new vinyl collection, and Animal Collective were next on the list. It’s so damn cold outside that a song with the word “Summertime” in the title seems perhaps a wee bit inappropriate but it’s my favorite song off the record. It would be too cliche to lead off with “My Girls” anyways (although that’s another phenomenal track). Plus, this was the song that made me fall in love with Animal Collective in the first place because of it’s absolutely manic, psychedelic, bat-shit crazy music video. Enjoy.

I’m a “Gleek,” but long-time readers already know this (and Darren Criss’ star-making performance of “Teenage Dream” has already made it as my Song of the Day). Glee finally comes back after a considerable hiatus next week, and I couldn’t be more excited. I’ve missed the shenanigans of the students of McKinley High (and of those that have graduated like Rachel and Kurt), and considering that the last episode ended with nearly ever power couple on the show breaking up, I need to know what’s next. Anyways, this particular performance from Lea Michele way back in the first season remains, arguably, my single-favorite performance from Glee‘s resident diva and vocal powerhouse. I actually prefer this version of the song to the original Barbara Streisand number (lol and in my screenplay two characters have an argument about this… it makes sense in context). I get chills every time I hear her sing this tune. For all fans of showtunes, it’s a can’t miss performance.

If you’re judging me right now, that’s fine. I don’t give a shit. I’m a Little Monster. My love of Lady Gaga is a not so secret guilty pleasure. Ever since the first time I got absolutely wasted in Florence, Italy, and danced the night away to “Poker Face,” I’ve had to move past my “serious music fan” snobbery and admit that Lady Gaga makes damn catchy pop music. Born This Way was sort of “meh,” but if you don’t find at least something to love on The Fame Monster, I think you might be trying to hate on Lady Gaga without actually giving her a fair shake. “Bad Romance,” “Alejandro” (my personal favorite, “Teeth,” and “Paparazzi?” Come on! I’ve actually went out and partied two nights in a row now (well, it will be two nights when I meet up with my friends after I put up this post) and for the first time in ages, I actually feel like I have a social life. It’s pretty awesome. I guess a benefit of actually going to class is that you get to make new friends. Anywho, I wanted to pick something youthful that is a song most kids my age can appreciate. What better unifier than Lady Gaga?