Academy DVD Screener Round-Up!

5 12 2011

In Hollywood, there are two types of people: those who’ve risen through the ranks, paid dues, gained industry-wide respect and been recognized with membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences… and then there are assholes like Steven Spielblog who go over to the homes of A.M.P.A.S. members, and watch all their Oscar-season screener DVD’s. This past weekend, I shamelessly devoured a metric ton of them. Here’s my report:

J.J. Abrams (right) directs SUPER 8

With SUPER 8, J.J. Abrams attempts the acrobatic feat of remaking every single Steven Spielberg film all at once, and again proves that he’s a better student of film than he is a filmmaker. Lose the near-constant lens flare and chock-a-block nostalgia, and the story here barely qualifies as a full one. Not for adults, anyway. As a Spiel-worshipper, I should say that it’s commendable that Abrams made a children’s film that’s meant to be a contiguous addition to the 80’s Amblin catalogue (with the man’s name on it, no less,) and if SUPER 8 turns kids onto CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, well, terrific. But in every other way, this is just a faithful footnote that strikes a grown-up fan as puny alongside the classics.

Johnny Depp as Donald Rumsfeld in THE RUM DIARY

Johnny Depp does Hunter S. Thompson proud in his portrayal of Paul Kemp, the protagonist of Thompson’s long-gestating semi-autobiographical novel THE RUM DIARY. The meandering but likeable film built around him has its highs (Richard Jenkins) and lows (Amber Heard,) but it hangs together – barely – as a result of a few choice lines, some priceless Depp deadpanning, and perfect costuming by the great Colleen Atwood. Still, crack open a Webster’s to the word “rental,” and this is what you’ll see.

Yeah, didn't make it to this part.

I didn’t make it through PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. I shut it off. And no I will not apologize. Next!

The stuffy, overlong biopic J. EDGAR relies on the same narrative framing device as screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s last film, MILK. It’s the “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” approach, in which the main character actually says the line “OK now let me tell you my side of the story” (or some minor variation of it,) and we then launch into a series of flashbacks. In J. EDGAR’s case, the flashbacks fare better than the ‘present day’ material, if only because in the role of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio’s aging make-up is so hilariously wrong. The only believable aging anywhere in J. EDGAR is on America’s childhood crush Lea Thompson, who shows up in a small role. Lea, bless her, now without aid looks almost exactly like Lorraine McFly circa 1985 in BACK TO THE FUTURE. For your consideration in the category of Best Makeup: Time!

THE SKIN I LIVE IN is so good, you too may lick your TV screen.

Take Hitchcock’s VERTIGO, turn the ‘that’s fucked up, yo’ meter to eleven and dub it en Español, and you’ve got an idea of the treat you’re in for with Pedro Almodóvar’s newest, THE SKIN I LIVE IN. In SKIN, Antonio Banderas stars as an obsessive doctor whose live-in experiment (the gorgeous Elena Anaya) holds a dark secret… dot dot dot. Only Almodovar could pull something as twisted as this off and still make it so darkly hilarious, which does with typical style. THE SKIN I LIVE IN is weirder than anything he’s done in years, and what it lacks in the empathy of one of his masterworks like ALL ABOUT MY MOTHER, it makes up for in inspired macabre suspense. I loved it.

When brothers fight, we ALL win.

A manly melodrama, or “man-o-drama,” Gavin O’Connor’s WARRIOR casts Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as estranged brothers who enter an ultimate fighting championship in Atlantic City. Hardy’s the brooding/brawny Iraq vet, Edgerton the family man who can’t pay his mortgage, so he turns to professional bludgeoning. (And what’s more American than that?) The fighting on display is repetitive, but no matter, it’s the brothers’ emotions and motivations that take center stage, and in that arena WARRIOR clicks, particularly when booze-battling father Nick Nolte’s on screen. He makes a believable pops to both, and a believable alcoholic too, turning in his best work since AFFLICTION. But WARRIOR’s a film primarily for guys who think ‘Affliction’ is a clothing brand. Don’t worry, it’s safe to cry here, Ed Hardy Boys. No one will see you weeping inside the UFC cage…

Evil nazi gynecologist Jesper Christensen in THE DEBT

It’s no secret my favorite genre is ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ so John Madden’s THE DEBT lands squarely in my sweet spot. It’s a suspenseful piece that builds to a gripping climax, with a superb cast playing characters in early days and later (Jessica Chastain turns into Helen Mirren, Martin Csokas turns into Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington turns into Ciaran Hinds,) a choice on Madden’s part that underscores the sense that our heroes’ dealings with the brutal Surgeon of Birkenau (Jesper Christensen) totally change them as human beings. Even so, the back-and-forth is just this side of distracting, with one too may inconsistent accents – and, you know, the fact that Sam Worthington looks absolutely nothing like Ciaran Hinds. But regardless of your affection for the ‘sexy nazi hunt thriller,’ this one’s worth your money. Or in my case, it’s worth – free! Ah, the joys of watching someone else’s Academy screeners! Sincerely, boo-yah.


Mindf*#k: The Motion Picture

19 07 2010

Let’s get something out of the way: you should see INCEPTION. Even if you have no interest in seeing it, see it. If only so you can continue reading the Spielblog, and not hate the Spielblog for having ruined it for you… Ready? Begin!

INCEPTION is a heist film in which a gang of thieves led by Leonardo DiCaprio is assembled to break into a subject’s subconscious, and steal an idea. But what makes tonight’s heist different from all other heists? Tonight, American summer movie patrons, instead of simply extracting an idea, we’re going to be planting an idea in the mind of a subject. That’s “inception.” Now, if you’re intrigued by that four sentence summation of the film’s premise, but are saying to yourself “I could use about 45 more minutes of exposition about that,” you’re in luck!

Get out of my dreams, and into my car! DO IT! NOW!

It’s a feat that director Christopher Nolan is able to imbue so much new vocabulary with any entertainment value at all, but the man pulls it off, as always, with panache. The last time I enjoyed digesting this much information was watching PLANET EARTH on ketamine, heyo, etc. Yet something about all that digestion kept me from being totally immersed in INCEPTION, at least the first time around… Still, even on a second go, are these characters going to improve? Sure, the whole dream catchin’ crew (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao) are good looking and by all accounts punctual, but none of them are developed any more than your average Scott Caan in any particular OCEAN’S movie. This is a heist picture, that’s the heist crew, you don’t have to give them any dimension, that is one option. But by the time the second hour of INCEPTION hits and the talking heads are still yakety-yak’ing over the in’s and out’s of of inception, it all comes uncomfortably close to a handsomely staged reading of Chris Nolan’s spiral notebook.

Leo, as the head of the crew, is named Dom Cobb. (Dom Cobb? You know where that name belongs? On a page in Chris Nolan’s notebook, with a red line through it. And possibly a sad face.) And though it’s Leo that’s meant to be the emotional center of the film, this never really pans out. Dom’s wife Mal, (Marion Cotillard,)  we learn, is long dead – but operates as a sort of ghost in the subconscious, appearing and causing malaise for her widower whenever possible. It’s an interesting concept, and there’s even some poignancy to it when we finally see the full picture of Dom and Mal Cobb’s ill-fated romance, but the execution is questionable, bordering on unintentionally funny, as in the scene where Mal appears in an arctic jumpsuit and guns down young Fischer (Cillian Murphy.) Still, as far as detective-guy-guilt-stricken-over-his-wife’s-suicide-that-he-was-kind-of-responsible-for movies go, Nolan’s own MEMENTO is still much better: tighter structure, more engaging protagonist, and it’s a cool half hour shorter.

We want something that says "from the maker of THE DARK KNIGHT, but Heath Ledger's dead."

Something about INCEPTION kept hitting me as a re-statement of MEMENTO, with $200,000,000 to spend. The big emotional revelation is similar in more ways than one, while the bells and whistles here dwarf the neo-noir economy of Nolan’s breakout indie. With every movie, the man’s budgets get bigger, hey good for him, and this is by far his biggest non-Batmovie. He’s grown accustomed, perhaps, to making those movies, but that now familiar style bleeds over here, (booming Hans Zimmer score check, Wally Pfister helicopter shots check,) when INCEPTION could have benefited from being weirder by a quarter. For all the possibilities a film about a dreamworld presents, it’s disappointing that Nolan sticks so close to what he knows. From INSOMNIA to BATMAN BEGINS to THE PRESTIGE, Nolan puts some sort of snowbound castle in almost every movie he makes. Cue act three of INCEPTION, set in: some sort of snowbound castle. Hey, the guy likes ice! Leave him alone! But Tom Hardy skiing around this fortress picking off baddies like he’s James Bond isn’t exactly the stuff from which dreams are made… Though it was interesting to read that in the press rounds for INCEPTION, Nolan let it slip that he’d like to direct a James Bond installment himself. Whether that’s an empty promise remains to be seen, (hint: it will never happen ever,) but the finale of this film shows potential for a Nolan Bond. That is to say, it’s a sequence that might have worked better in another movie.

The word I'm searching for is "rad."

All of a sudden, in mid-Bondage, a door is opened into a room deep inside the subject’s subconscious, and we’ve walked straight into an overt visual connect to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. Now, it’s a losing game, calling out 2001 in any movie not as good as 2001, (i.e., just about every movie,) and here it serves as a comparison only favorable to Nolan in that Kubrick himself wasn’t known for the warmth that exuded from his films, either. But Nolan’s use of this allusive room turns out to be a handy gauge for what separates the two filmmakers. In 2001, the room Dave Bowman enters is a place uncharted, the final destination of the odyssey into his own mind: ultimate truth. In INCEPTION, Nolan’s room is the equivalent of The Big Store in a long con game. It’s a false construction, built to fool the subject: a sham version of the 2001 space it emulates. Like the room that acts as its final treasure chest, INCEPTION is outstanding modern trickery – but compared to the 2001, it feels like OCEAN’S 2001. Just a game.

Nolan’s not Kubrick. For all his ambition, he doesn’t work across genres, he works in one. Christopher Nolan makes thrillers. He makes terrific thrillers, and INCEPTION is absolutely one of those, but it isn’t a step outside his skills, it’s a straight-up showcase for them. His limitations are on display here, too.


Vista Theatre, Los Angeles

Sunday July 18th, 8:45pm showing

Shutter Island: Where Nothing Is What It Seems… OR IS IT?

24 02 2010

Martin Scorsese’s SHUTTER ISLAND introduces us to Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio,) a U.S. Marshal in 1954, as he’s ferried to an island off the coast of Massachussetts to solve a missing person’s case. That person, Rachel Solando, we soon discover, is a violent criminal, who’s escaped her cell at the impenetrable insane asylum on the island. “It’s as if she evaporated straight through the walls,” notes sinister (or is he just British?) head doctor Cawley (Ben Kingsley.) As Teddy digs deeper into the circumstances of Rachel’s escape, questions pile up, until the inevitable one is raised: who’s really the insane one on Shutter Island? The patients? The doctors? The detective himself? Or maybe it’s Scorsese who’s mad – for attempting to turn such a loony potboiler into high art.

Do you smell red herring? Or is it just me?

Of course, Marty’s pulled that trick before, and his latest is a lot like his last foray into genre filmmaking, CAPE FEAR, an homage to thrillers that was more fun than it was truly terrifying. Just as DeNiro’s oversized Max Cady in CAPE FEAR was a figure of almost comic rage in service of a larger rumination on salvation, the few poop-self-jolts in SHUTTER ISLAND are secondary to the overall function of the thing. But even if SHUTTER doesn’t have you on the edge of your seat, it has you in its grasp, with expert pacing and performances (Patricia Clarkson, Jackie Earle Haley, and Ted Levine deserve mention for their one-scene-a-piece parts,) and several vivid Technicolor dream sequences. But what makes SHUTTER ISLAND so enjoyable over all, is Scorsese’s unflinching commitment to the device of the Red Herring: the misdirect. His film is an island of misdirects, and Scorsese deals them like a practiced card sharp. By winding down so many paths, to so many different possible conclusions, Scorsese does just what twistaholic M. Night Shyamalan wouldn’t: he doesn’t build a story around delivering its ultimate “gotcha” reversal. This isn’t SIXTH SENSE gimmickry. It’s something grander: the detective story as character piece. Bit by bit, Teddy Daniels comes into focus, even as plot strands dead end in his search for objective truth. The final twist, then, isn’t so much a plot twist as it is a final, full picture of a character. And that picture is a haunting one. But hey, if the climax of SHUTTER ISLAND doesn’t work for you, perhaps you owe it to yourself to go back and watch THE VILLAGE again. Enjoy that.

Shhh. Don't give away the big plot twist.

Though Scorsese is far from home off the Massachusetts coast, he’s not gone far in spirit, and SHUTTER ISLAND is actually a refreshing return to self-reflection following the amoral romp THE DEPARTED, a film full of highly-entertaining kills, with a minimum of meditation on them. In this asylum for the criminally insane, however, Marty’s found himself an ideal setting for a study of the brutality that defines his career. Is violence the ultimate logic – a gift from God – as one character puts it? Or is violence simply madness – and are all those who commit it, if they’re not mad already, driven irreversibly mad by it? It’s a potent question, and one the director addresses here with care, if not subtlety. By flashing back to Teddy’s experience as a G.I. liberating the Nazi concentration camp of Dakau, Scorsese places his drama squarely in the Film Noir tradition of the combat veteran-turned-detective, the man who’s seen the depths of human depravity at war and returns to the beat, trusting no one. In most Noir, this hard-bit viewpoint is exactly what saves the hero’s life. But instead of hardening Teddy Daniels’ view of mankind, violence has the opposite effect on him: not steeling, but unraveling. Teddy trusts no one, but to his own detriment. It’s a compelling take on an archetype, that if not unprecedented, is still fascinating in the hands of a master.

Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no island crazy enough

The other Noir trope that Scorsese draws heavily upon here – too heavily – is the unreliable narrator. It’s not a spoiler to say that the seeds of the ending are planted in the first moments of the film, because within sixty seconds of his opening title, Scorsese plays a card he should hold closer to the vest, cutting into Teddy’s memory with images of his deceased wife (Michelle Williams,) and making it all too clear that her demise will be a key in the puzzle. Leo, for his part, plays Teddy too shaky from the start, projecting instability when more reserve in the film’s first act could have built confidence in his perspective. One imagines what Mark Ruffalo, who plays Leo’s partner, would have done with the role of Teddy – toning down the early twitchiness for a greater impact later. Ruffalo, though, acts as a perfect tonic to Leo in his secondary role. He gets the droll Dean Martin ‘50’s lilt down pat, which makes Leo’s inescapable Leo-ness slightly more believable.

Though SHUTTER ISLAND is something less than perfect, its effects are lingering, the questions it raises not easily dismissed. And the conclusion drawn by this brutal funhouse of a movie, ultimately, is a disturbing one: violence can’t be undone. To put faith in human recovery in the face of sadism – global, or personal – is to play a losing game. Once the crime’s committed, the case can never be truly solved.


Vista Theatre, Los Angeles

Monday February 23, 5:30pm showing

(P.S., March 15, 2010 — Just re-watched Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR, which, though still definitely worth comparison to SHUTTER, is a significantly stronger and scarier film. Put it on the queue.)