Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Indie Gem: Dark Horse (2011)

Excerpt from an actual text message conversation:

Me: Just watched Dark Hose, have you seen it? Todd Solondz still has it.

Friend: No, what's it about?

Me: The same thing as every Todd Solondz flick: being a loser.

Indeed, Todd Solondz is the reigning voice of the cinematic loser. Although a statement like that indicates he is on their side which he certainly is not. He's not on anyone's side. What makes his films so hard to consume, especially if viewing them under the impression that you're about to see a comedy, is that Solondz's voice is always cold, objective, intellectual and completely detached. He seems to exist in his own world which he shares with only himself. This is, after all, the man who once complained that a waitress in a diner calling him "dear" was too personal and made him uncomfortable.

This is what Solondz looks like:

His characters have included a gawky adolescent girl:

A chronic masturbater who picks random names out of the phone book to make lewd phone calls to:

And a suburban pedophile who drugs and rapes his son's friends during sleepovers:

Solondz once recounted presenting Happiness, the masterpiece that features the pedophile, and afterwards was approached by a pedophile who thanked him for "actually getting it right." He was allegedly disgusted by this.

And, with that, we have the cinema of Todd Solondz.

It's a cinema of indifference. I'd, like everyone else, call Solondz a master of black comedy but, whaddya know, he hates the term. Of course he does. To call his films comedies would mean he's moved someone emotionally into feeling something generic and therefore unreal and we surely wouldn't want that, would we?

So, his is also a cinema of observation. There's no comment on these characters; no point of view regarding their place within society. These films are simply observational character studies. They admit that these people exist in the world and that's about it. Solondz leaves it up to us to decide how we feel about sharing the same world as them, leading audiences by the hand into uncomfortable situations and abandoning them there to find their own way out.

Needless to say, he's not for all tastes.

And now comes his latest Dark Horse, which, like all of his films, is an unsung gem.

It revolves around this man:

Abe, middle-aged, single, misunderstood, drives a Hummer, living at home with his parents who don't really do much but sit, glued to the TV.

Abe works for his cold father who prefers his brother who went off and became a doctor. He doesn't do much at work but surf Ebay, wondering if he should pay $400 for a sealed Thundercats action figure when he already has two of them in his bedroom and throws angry tantrums every time he's accused on not doing the minimum his job requires of him.

He meets this girl at a wedding. He fails to recognize her indifference towards him.

She's also middle-aged, living at home and depressed, a failed writer on the rebound after a break-up.

Needless to say, like all of Solondz's characters, this man is the recipient of both my sympathy and my disgust. He's a loud, oafish man; a lazy child who needs to grow up and get his shit together. At the same time, there must be some relevance to his internal sadness caused by his aloof parents who really pay him no mind as he coasts through life without guidance or direction. Who's fault is arrested development really anyway?

That's what Solondz does, provides both sides in a potential argument and leaves the rest up to us, always leaving the audience with the unpleasant reality of needing to make up their own minds. Is Abe a good man or a despicable one? Is all of this funny or tragic? Is there any hope for these people or are they all doomed by their social dysfunction? You can go on like this all day. This is, after all, the only film in which the scene where someone finally calls Abe out on his bullshit is cut , mid dialogue, before it finishes.

So does that mean there's no hope after all? The film doesn't quite seem to be sure and, before it comes to it's final conclusion, after a string of dream sequences that flip flop your emotional perceptions back and forth several times, neither will you.

As a filmmaker Solondz is in a league of his own. He's that weird guy over in the corner of the room, not saying much, not socializing with anyone; just watching and taking it all in. His films are a reflection of how he sees us. After having seen them, the question is always the same: How does that make you feel?

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Limitless (2011)

A man runs into a former acquaintance who introduces him to something which will change his life and alter his perceptions. No, not David Fincher's The Game.

There are three immediate reasons that I can see as to why Limitless got made. They are, in about this order of importance:

And if you can recognize the first two without any subtitles under those pictures, you're about what the studio was hoping for. And with an $80 million North American gross against a $27 million budget, about what they got.

It must have been that because, quite frankly, the script is mostly shit. The concept surrounding a man who is given a not-yet-on-the-market drug that unlocks 100% of the brain's function is an interesting one, but, come on guys, I know I don't have an MBA or anything, but if a drug unlocks 100% of brain function, once everyone is on it, wouldn't that leave them, more or less, all on the same playing field again?


Okay, so this is a movie about drug addiction? Oh no, I see, it's about the physically and mentally draining demands that corporate cultures place on people to succeed? Hold up a sec, Bradley Cooper wants to do a cliff dive.

Now I think I get it. It's about mentally conditioning your brain to not hold you back from achieving your...FIST FIGHT!

And so on...Jesus, someone put a lease on this puppy!

Seriously, where's Philip K. Dick when you need him?

Oh right...

So Bradley Cooper's Eddie Morra, speaking to us often in painfully bad voice-over, takes the drug and instantly it's as if his eyes are opened to the world. He goes from lowly struggling writer who has a deadline and not a single word to being able to detect algorithms on the stock markets so fast that he could probably make a million over night. It's never quite explained how the drug gives it's hero the super human strength to dive off cliffs or beat the shit out of a half dozen or so goons who want to jump him but, ya know, whatever...

Isn't Bradley Cooper dreamy?

Then his supplier is killed, he gets mixed in with a European gangster, and finds that once you come off the drug you crash, puke a lot and die. This leads to am unintentionally hilarious scene in which Eddie breaks into girlfriend Lindy (Abbie Cornish)'s office, collapses to the floor in what looks to be a near death panic begging for help and then, exactly one shot later, kicks back and chats her up a bit, looking not too bad all things considered. There's a stash of the drug that he hid at her place. She goes to get it for him. He waits, I shit you not, on the floor in her office.

Eddie's new found brain power attracts businessman Robert De Niro, who puts him to work gathering intel on his competitors in order to consult on a huge corporate merger. Is it a spoiler if I pose the hypothetical question of who you think the bad guy in all this could be?

The film was directed with some great style by Neil Berger who manages to visualize the drug trips in interesting ways and opens the film with the coolest walk through Google Maps Street View you've ever seen under the opening credits. See, look:

But that's the problem: this film is all exhibitionism. It's got comedy, drama, romance, action, and not a single fucking clue what it's suppose to be about or how any of this fits together.

I'm left reminded of the basic Shakespearian principal that, no matter how stylishly conceived, how technically proficient, and/or how well acted, a shitty script by any other name...ya know?

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Weekend Reading (A Day Late)

So my weekend looked a bit like this:

And this:

And this:

So here's the best of what was missed over the weekend:

Andrew over at Encore's World of Film & TV is counting down his favourite directors of last year. Do you agree with him?

Chris at 1001: A Film Odyssey continues his focus on the 90s with his brief look at the great Sling Blade.

Norma Desmond at The Flick Chick adds City of God to her list of 21st Century Essentials.

Black Sheep Reviews thinks Jurassic Park is just as good with another dimension. Read the 5 star review here.

Tom Clift at Movies Reviews by Tom Clift smells the Rock cooking shit in G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Film Soup Recipe #1

Film Soup is a collection of ingredients. Throw them all in a pot, leave to simmer, and you'll end up with a finished film.

Throw in a dash of:

A little of:

A pinch of:

And a hearty portion of:

And voila:

Monday, April 8, 2013

Trash Or Art? Trying to Assess Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers

Cinema has the uncanny power to conversely reduce art down into the gutters of trash and elevate trash into the realms of art.

Spring Breakers is trash through and through. But I think it's probably art as well.

I'll say this of it: Spring Breakers is a Harmony Korine film. Auteurism, like it or not, continues to live in American film through Korine's very specific art-punk film collages.

The question when it comes to Korine, or any other filmmaker that doesn't trade in working towards some clear statement, is whether any of it actually means anything or not. I'm convinced, especially in the case of Spring Breakers, that it doesn't, which is exactly it's meaning. Kornine is, first and foremost a provocateur after all. He pushes people's emotional buttons without giving any real clues as to why. Maybe it's because he's just a snotty prick, but maybe there's something more here. His films always posing a challenge to the viewer simply to endure them.

Anyone who has seen Korine's debut film Gummo, will surely never forget this:

The stomach churns just thinking about it.

Sure, the formally educated and those who regularly fancy themselves above the philistines of the average cinema-going population can argue about the "poetics of transgression," or some other such neatly worded bullshit as The Boston Globe's Ty Burr did in his review, but when it comes down to it, the twist in my gut every time the Gummo kid takes another bite is what Korine as an artist is really about.

He even hints to this during this video interview, during which he, with a mix of charm and couldn't-give-a-fuck-less, mumbles a bunch of non-answers at the interviewer. This is a man that doesn't seem to know what he's trying to achieve other than that he wants to achieve something. That he conducts most of it with a half smirk in response to his interviewer's inane questioning is somewhat endearing...he knows what he's doing, even if he hasn't the slightest clue what he's doing, if you see what I'm saying?

The interview is almost 8 minutes long so for the sake of brevity, there is one particular quote from Korine that really cuts right to the chase of Spring Breakers and what's it's purpose is:

No shit, eh? 
So there's the base concept for the film. In that case, mission accomplished. Spring Breakers is full of bong hits, lines snorted, pounding electronic music, and slow-mo flashes of day-glo freak outs (sometimes to the tedious point of repetition). It is, if that's what you want from cinema, a towering success. The artist has achieved his personal goal. Kudos to him.

One must, to continue this line of thinking, discuss Korine in terms of auteurism, in so much as that one must consider the artist as more important than the art, even if the base ambition doesn't ever rise above the point of trash. Really though, just as much art is discovered on the trash heap as it is in the ether.
Case in point:

The list goes on forever.
So where does that leave us with Spring Breakers? About in the same fucking place that all of Korine's films leave us: right back where started, at square one. Neither here nor there.
However, the questions such indifference poses in it's wake are paramount: Hate it or love it? Great artistic statement or indulgent drug experience? Cheap exploitation or examination of it? Narcissism or cluelessness? Indictment or exoneration of the behaviour it portrays? And all of a sudden you're engaged in a personal debate with yourself without even knowing it.
The film itself offers no clues and the filmmaker himself, who probably couldn't give a fuck either way, doesn't help much either. It's point seems no more than that it exists to move us in one emotional direction or the other. The Rubik cube with one square missing. It's not meant to be solved, rather just to challenge the body's endurance.
The film is then, at some base level, no more than a parlor trick filtered through the eyes of an artist with a unique, snide, disconnected, funny and challenging view of the world. It's easy to hate. However, that's the power of both art and trash; the fuel that flames their existence. I guess that's why they go together so well.
As for Spring Breakers? I repeat, it's a Harmony Korine film. Translation:  a masterpiece and complete shit all rolled into one. Make of that what you will.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages is the story of a sweet young blond girl (Julilanne Hough) who arrives in the big city with dreams of one day becoming a star only to end up paying the rent through stripping.

Wait, I think I've already seen this one...

She quickly gets a waitress job at a bar owned by Alec Baldwin, whose appearance right from the outset makes me wonder what he spent the cheque on.

At least, being an an actor skilled enough to deliver the dialogue of David Mamet on stage, he has the good sense to phone this one in, unlike another recent non-singing actor taking a crack at the musical genre, not to name any names:

He's on the verge of losing his bar and needs a way to make money quick. Wait, I think I've seen this one too:

Thankfully he has his trusted sidekick, played by Russell Brand, who, I shit you not, declare they are queer for each other during a rendition of I Can't Fight This Feeling:

Baldwin's plan is to pack the house with the appearance of rock god Stacey Jaxx (Tom Cruise) who he gave his first gig to way back in the day.

Jaxx is managed by this:

Yes, that is indeed Paul Giamatti...

Jaxx however, underneath it all, is a boozey hack and is told so by Malin Akerman, who then rocks his world PG-13 style to I Want to Know What Love Is. I'm not sure you'd consider this figuring it out or not?

This is at least the second time in history that a Tom Cruise character has had bullshit called on him by a female interviewer:

So the little blond falls for the handsome male bartender who also dreams of making it big and finally does when he's given a last minute shot. The taste of fame quickly lures him away, leaving miss Hough to crash up against walls while belting 80s hair-metals cheeseball songs from the very centre of her (heavily automtuned) soul:

I wonder if that's the way Seacrest used to like her?

Anyway, Jaxx packs the house for a thoroughly gayed-up rendition of Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me, during which he jerks a huge jizzlob out of a water bottle and onto the audience:

As these things go, the girl becomes a stripper, the manager robs the house leaving the club in trouble again, an ultra conservative advocate that someone should have had the good sense to cut from the script before Catherine Zeta Jones was cast, tries to end Jaxx's career, the hunk gets a gig in a boy band that makes him miserable and so on and so forth.
All the while the songs do nothing to advance the story in any real meaningful way.
Rock of Ages was constructed under the, what I would assume to be incredibly soft, hands of Adam Shankman,
A choreographer who also made the much better Hairspray musical a couple of years back. I'll give him this, from an aesthetic standpoint, these two films are shot, edited and choreographed better than most of the big budget Hollywood musical trash heaps of late.
But the story sucks, the songs have never been my personal cup of tea and all of the actors (save for Mary J. Blige) are all autotuned so heavily  that one wonders if they even needed to show up to the studio to record their parts.
Wait, I think I've seen that one before too...

Monday, April 1, 2013

Weekend Reading

This weekend my life looked kind of like this:

And this:

And this:

So here's the best of what you missed over the weekend:

The Flickering Myth is reporting that Hollywood has finally started to scrape the very bottom of the barrel. My prediction, in their effort to remake a truly great bad movie Disney will only end up making this reboot forgettably bad by attempting to make it good and no one will give a shit... again. If that makes any sense? I hope it will at least still have big ass laser guns.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is looking at adultery with a comparison of Moonstruck and Fatal Attraction.

Alex at Film Forager thinks the RZA's Man With the Iron Fists ain't too bad in spite of itself.

Christ at Movies and Songs 365 recaps what he was up to all last month. Spoiler: he was busy.

Tyler Perry has a new piece of shit in theaters. Vancetastic at The Audient, gives it more thought than it probably deserves (and he doesn't get past the poster).

Vance also, in the same article, raises a point about Tyler Perry putting his name in the title of his films. Remember when Fellini did that and people called him pretentious?



Just sayin...