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.



11 10 2011

Europe. Let that sink in. Europe. There is a place called Europe, and not only is it separate from the United States of America, (see?) but it was actually around for many hundreds of years before the USA was. I had never believed this until I finally visited Europe for the first time recently. Until I see something with my own eyes, I’m not going to go on my blog and vouch for it – that’s my aforementioned ‘Objective Truth Guarantee.’ But having been there now in person, I can say for a fact: Europe exists.

Not only does it exist, in some cases, it’s superior to the USA. For instance! We here in the States have to wait until Christmas to see Tomas Alfredson’s megastar-packed TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY – but in Europe? That motherfucker’s been out for weeks. And on my Euro-Trip, you’d best believe that rather than go see some “ancient rune” or “actual Magna Carta,” I had my ass parked in a cineplex so that I could get the jump on reviewing this potential awards season contender – and brag about it.

Ha ha ha, ha ha.

What's with all these 'people touching their glasses with their right hand' movies coming out all of a sudden?

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY is the second adaptation of John LeCarre’s seminal spy-versus-spy novel – but unlike the 1979 television miniseries, this new version actually attempts to pack the entire plotty thing into one feature film. It’s a steep condensation of material and, I’m literally the first to report, it’s not entirely successful. This TINKER moves fast, but for a film that sits squarely at two hours, it might have actually benefited from another twenty minutes. Blasphemy, yes. But when there’s so much to savor and the buffet’s already closing down for the night, that’s going to make for an unsatisfying evening, regardless of the quality of the beef & broccoli.

And the quality is high. Alfredson, whose LET THE RIGHT ONE IN is (not to oversell it) one of the best vampire films ever, is clearly in command of the chilly Cold War aesthetic of TINKER. Much of the film is shot from perspectives outside, looking in, through windows and doors, underlining a creeping, constant sense of l’espionaggge. Alfredson gets fine performances out of his first-rate cast as well. Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, John Hurt, (my hands hurt from typing,) Ciaran Hinds and Colin Firth all contribute solid British-accented backing for Gary Oldman, who, as protagonist George Smiley, has begun to garner award buzz – at least in Europe. As a longtime Oldman freak, I’d love to see the man get him some statue don’t get me wrong, but I’m not holding my breath… Gary – and I call him Gary because he’s my new best friend – has long been one of cinema’s most gifted mimics.  His Smiley plays to his strengths in that it is largely indebted to Alec Guinness, who played Smiley in ’79. This is likely a calculation on Oldman’s part, consciously leaning into the Guinness legacy instead of running from it – but it still never adds up to a performance that feels wholly like Gary’s. (Not like his best and wildest.)

LITTLE KNOWN FACT: In England, all children are originally born with the name "Benedict Cumberbatch." (See: Benedict Cumberbatch, above.)

In spite of the seriousness with which this adaptation has clearly been handled, there’s one more underlying flaw – maybe the killer one. While the ‘79 miniseries drew out the mystery of discovering the mole in MI-6 – and back then, at the height of the Cold War, this was worthy of real suspense – the new TINKER is approached with a grayer, politically relativistic, outside-the-dog perspective. The hunt for the mole is treated, finally, as an unfortunate witch hunt – one that sadly tears apart friends and colleagues in MI-6. But when the whole witch hunt is being coolly condemned, well, that kind of takes the fun out of hunting witches, doesn’t it?


London England, 7:30pm showing

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