Monday, February 29, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part II: You know, some places are evil—you can buy them, but you can't always own them


Look, we'll get to the Spielberg movies that anybody besides a film historian might care about very soon, I promise.

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Robert Clouse
With Sandy Dennis (Marjorie Wolden), Darren McGavin (Paul Wolden), Ralph Bellamy (Harry Lincoln), and Jeff Corey (Gehrmann)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Steven Spielberg, part I: Never give a trucker an even break


Duel is the best TV movie ever made by a first-time film director in 13 days with practically no dialogue that isn't one guy talking to himself.  More importantly, it's also one of the supreme chase movies of all time.  (Plus, it has about thirty posters and many of them are just awesome, but I think I like the one above most of all.)

Directed by Steven Spielberg
Written by Richard Matheson (based on the short story)
With Dennis Weaver ft. Dale Van Sickle (David Mann) and Cary Loftin (The Truck Driver)

Spoiler alert: severe
Note: this is the re-edited text of a review written in April 2015; I assure you that my feelings have not changed a bit. but I repost it for completeness in the context of this, our Steven Spielberg retrospective, which begins right here and right now.

I love thee marvellously well


The Witch is an extraordinary work of horror, phenomenally capturing a time and place long gone, but which remains with us still in memory.  It even manages to be at least a little bit scary in the process—which is more than you can say for something like 99% of all horror films made, and nearly 100% of all horror films with The Witch's kind of critical reception.

Written and directed by Robert Eggers
With Anya Taylor-Joy (Thomasin), Ralph Ineson (William), Kate Dickie (Katherine), Harvey Scrimshaw (Caleb), Ellie Granger (Mercy), and Lucas Dawson (Jonas)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Saturday, February 27, 2016

2015: a year that happened

Tomorrow, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences shall hold their 88th awards ceremony, and the eve of Hollywood's celebration of itself represents the last possible moment that you might compile and publish any kind of year in review, and still expect it to be in the slightest way relevant.  If you waited any longer, you might as well keep waiting for another decade, till nostalgia kicked in and you could claim to be examining the past from the presumably superior perspective of the future.  So, with that in mindand realizing that I completely whiffed it back when anybody cared about 2014I present my favorite films of 2015.

It is not as well-founded a list as I would have hoped; my original rule back when I started Kinemalogue was to have seen at least one hundred movies from any given year that I intended to cast judgment upon.  As of today, having just seen San Andreas (a pleasant but strikingly mediocre disaster-filled diversion) and The Gift (an expertly-machined but somewhat pointless-seeming showcase for its writer, director, and star, Joel Edgerton), I've gotten my master list up to only 62.  This means, further, that I've not seen a lot of important (or "important") movies.  This is particularly the case when it comes to 2015's international filmsto my discredit, I started watching Hard to Be a God yesterday, realized fifteen minutes in that I found the shooting style kind of obnoxious, reflected that it was three freaking hours long, and finally decided that my brief span on this Earth was better spent watching Jaws for the second time in a week.  And, heck, I'll cop to not seeing fully three of the films that shall battle it out for Best Picture tomorrow night.  But then again, considering that neither The Big Short nor Spotlight really provoked any special enthusiasm in meand also considering that movies cost money that I don't have, whereas you'd have to pay me to watch BrooklynI hope that you'll forgive me.

Anyway, my point is that the following list of 2015's best films is imperfect, and that what I'm about to say is perhaps even a little irresponsible.  But since I've surely said it a thousand times already on this very blog and elsewhere, it's not like I'm going to try to walk it back nowInasmuch as 62 films can't not be called a significant and representative sample of last year's cinematic output, I'm gonna say it with some confidence, too: 2015 was by far the weakest year since I started paying attention to movies again.  2015 sucked, and it sucked raw, and it was disappointing as hell.

2015 was a year that produced many acclaimed films, yet whenever I stuck my neck out to try to enjoy a piece of high-falutin' art, I was punished for it, nearly every time, from the psychologically spurious Phoenix to the horrifyingly transphobic Tangerine to the dishwater-dull Girlhood to the ultimate penaltythe utter, soul-devouring void that was The Assassin.

2015 was also a year that saw many of my very favorite directors releasing new films, and falling short of their legacies.  On one hand, we had the likes of Michael Mann, Spike Lee, Steven Spielberg, and Quentin Tarantino, who made some good movies that merely didn't measure up to their own bodies of work.  And then we had folks like Brad Bird, Sam Mendes, and the poor, poor Wachowskis, who actually made bad movies, sometimes even outright terrible ones.

And, finally, 2015 was a year that promised the return of so many beloved film franchises, yet out of the eleven major franchise continuations that I saw, only two of them managed to live up to so much as the general idea of their vaunted predecessors (or even their not-so-vaunted predecessors!).  Meanwhile, there were nine whole fictional universesthe worlds inhabited by James Bond, the Terminator, the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, the Impossible Missions Force, the hungry dinos of Jurassic Park, the Kings of Tampa, and the Jedis and the Sith, respectivelythat each wound up worse in 2015.  (Well, given that the Star Wars Universe is a very bimodal thing, perhaps it's too much to say that The Force Awakens made anything "worse.")  But, Star Wars aside, sometimes they were made much worse.  Indeed, sometimes their failures had nothing at all to do with mere expectations, because they were dire pieces of shit on a completely objective level.  (By the way, did I mention that Sam Mendes was one of the great directors who made a really bad movie in 2015?  Let us be plain: Spectre is the fucking pits, the kind of movie that only even looks okay if you stand it next to something truly abysmal, like Terminator: Genisys.)

But last year did have its upsides, and while I may, at some point in the near future, kick 2015 around a little bit more with a Worst Of listgosh, I haven't even seen Pixels or The Cobbler yetlet's not dwell on the negative.  Let us look instead to the diamonds in the rough: few and far between they may be, but they're here!

First let's kick out the honorable mentions, films that were great, if not quite great enough: Rick Famuyiwa's coarse yet riveting coming-of-age adventure Dope; Matthew Vaughn's deliriously tasteless Kingsman: The Secret Service; Marjane Satrapi's edgy psychological horror-comedy The Voices; Robert Zemeckis' groovy Philippe Petit biopic The Walk; and Ryan Coogler's swell repositioning of the Rocky franchise Creed.  They're certainly all worth a poke.

And now, with all the bloviating out of the way, the top ten of 2015!


10.  ROOM (8/10)
In [the] room, a young woman has been imprisoned by a predator, and there she has remained for a long and degrading seven years.  Five years ago, she gave birth to a son, and in that room she has raised him, trying her best to show him that he is loved, while making a home for both of them out of the worst place in the world.  Presently, she learns that her captor has been laid offthat he will soon not be able to afford the house or this prison, and she retains quite enough sanity to know what that means.  Her efforts to escape, which have never truly ceased, now take on the urgency of pure survival.

Okay, it just can't be profitably argued that Lenny Abrahamson's Room does not break down badly around the hour marknor that it does not bottom out completely, with a truly abysmal scene that drags an inexplicable William H. Macy completely down into the muck along with itUp until that point, however, it is as fantastic a thriller as 2015 had to offer.  More importantly, it returns to form quickly afterward, and with tremendous grace.

Obviously, Room is typically a thing of abject misery; but it earns its miserablism.  It may never entirely earn what must have been the absolute central conceit of its source material, the vaguely magical world that Ma has created for her son Jackbut, then again, that's not really what the motion picture adaptation of Room is concerned with, anyway.  If Brie Larson wins Best Actress for her complex portrayal of this victim of unimaginable torments, then the Academy will have done some justice this year.  Sure, there's a fair argument to be made that anybody could play Ma, because after seven years in a shed, virtually anything would go, and practically no choice would seem "wrong."  I wouldn't make that argument myself (even if we have seen the role played on SVU at least a dozen times without any noticeable falsity).  But there's a shot of Larson's face late in Room, as the camera interrogates her own motivations, and it's perhaps the most heartbreaking two seconds of the year.  Larson deserves her gold.

9.  THE REVENANT (8/10)
When John Fitzgerald kills Hugh Glass' son, and then leaves him to die in a shallow grave, the grievously injured Glass crawls out and across North America to find him in this 19th century revenge thriller, inspired, as the kids say, by true events.

I'm always open to a good tale of survival and a good tale of revenge, and The Revenant offers both in a gorgeously well-crafted package.  Between Emmanuel Lubezki's ever-brilliant cinematography and Jack Fisk and Jaqueline West's deeply-immersive production and costume design, it's easily the most real-feeling period piece of the yearand Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy's performances push it right over the top into unambiguous greatness.  The ending could use some work, but then, so could Birdman's; and so, if Alejandro Inarritu wins Best Director again, or if he earns a second Best Picture Oscar for his producers, then I can't be angry, even if I disagree.  However, if DiCaprio and Hardy don't get their statues, I'll honestly be a little bummed.

Two women living in a bizarre half-hallucinated universe experience a breakdown of their relationship, brought on by one's increasingly-bent sexual demands.

The best "pure" romance of the yearthere are perhaps two more that are better, although they are not chiefly what you would call "romances"The Duke of Burgundy is everything director Peter Strickland's previous, terrible film, Berberian Sound Studio, was not.  Sound Studio actually made the very bottom of my Worst of 2013 list; so it's nice to see a man completely redeem himself and put out a movie that makes my Best.  Despite a lot of dangerous tangents into hallucinatory nonsense, Burgundy makes its psychedelic style work for its story, which at its heart may be the most humanand humaneof 2015.  I loved it, and it makes me happy, also, that I could put at least one art film on my top ten list; no mean feat in a year where so many other art films were so terrifyingly, mystifyingly bad.

7.  GOOSEBUMPS (8/10)
When callow idiot Zach Cooper moves next door to famed author and dire oneiromancer R.L. Stine, it's only a matter of time before he stumbles into the man's house, knocks over his bookcase, and unleashes all the monsters that the novelist had confined within the pages of his Goosebumps manuscripts.  (Also starring a girl.)

Not an art film, is this.  In fact, Rob Letterman's Goosebumps is safe corporate filmmaking at its most resolute: Sony dug up a brand name, hired a committee of writers to spin a narrative around itwhich they did mostly by ripping off Gremlins, Fright Night, In the Mouth of Madness, and New Nightmare wholesaleand then handed it to a director of hacky CGI-filled comedies, who subsequently filled its most important role with Jack Black.  There's nothing in that sentence, I'm sure, which compels you to believe me when I say Goosebumps was actually great.  And, hell, maybe it isn'tbut I had a great time, far, far better than I ever could have expected or hoped, and that's what counts around here.  Indeed, even its slavish adherence to trope works in this dumb movie's favor, turning it into a film that is a fairly excellent example of a 1980s-style kid's adventure while, at the exact same time, serving as a frankly hilarious parody of the genre.  Anyway, I honestly loved it, and at this point in my life, I no longer foolishly expect anyone else to ever really understand me.  Fantastic poster, too.

6.  THE NIGHTMARE (8/10)
Sleep paralysis is a terrifying condition.  How terrifying is it?  Watch The Nightmare and find out.

Rodney Ascher won fame for making Room 237, an awful documentary about the conspiracy theories floating around Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.  But he's cemented his status as one of the most exploitative documentarians around with The Nightmare, which is vastly better while being in no sense classier.  It does, at least, have the benefit of being more personal, since Ascher himself is a sufferer of sleep paralysis.

The real credit to be given The Nightmare, however, is how damned scary it winds up, despite how tremendously and deliberately hokey it is on every level of its construction: Ascher stages reenactments that might not have passed muster on Unsolved Mysteries, and then he throws in a ridiculous moment (infographic and all!), where he implies that sleep paralysis is exactly like a contagious disease, and all you need to contract it is to have the idea of it planted in your mindperhaps, for example, by watching this very film.  Still, let's not go too far: the sympathy shown to the sufferers of sleep paralysis here is tremendous, and what really gets you, long after you've watched it, is the knowledge that whether or not Ascher's recreations are a little threadbare, they nevertheless represent real experiences for people who have been ground right into the dust by a condition that is all but unimaginable for those of us not afflicted.  The great strengthand the great horrorof The Nightmare is that it makes you imagine it.  And I've lost more than a little sleep myself.

5.  CRIMSON PEAK (9/10)
Edith Cushing is seduced by a dashing Englishman and goes to live with him and his sister in a rotting, haunted Gothic mansion.  But it's not necessarily the ghosts that young Edith has to fear.

What can be said about Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak without just pointing at pictures of it and saying, "See?!"  Well, its failure at the box office is certainly worth a little bit of pissing and moaning; I don't think I've been this disappointed in the American public in some little while.  But the main thing is this: it's just gorgeous.  It is gorgeously shot, and even more gorgeously designedTom Sanders is not just a fucking treasure, he might really be the single best production designer working in pictures todayPeak was my favorite movie of 2015 to just sit and look at.  Oh, sure, it has a story too, and it's totally and perfectly fine.

4.  FOCUS (9/10)
Will Smith and Margot Robbie join forces and dance around their obvious attraction to one another as they embark on a series of globe-trotting cons.

Yes, their characters have names in the filmNicky and Jess, respectivelybut the fuel in the perfect entertainment machine that is Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's Focus is the sheer appeal of its movie star leads.  A good version of Focus could still exist without Smith and Robbie; the amazing version of Focus that does exist would absolutely not.  And so, in a better world, Focus would've made more money; in a truly correct world, Smith and Robbie would be excitedly hoping to get a pair of Oscars tomorrow, instead of at least half of them sitting the whole thing out because Hollywood as a whole is racist as fuck and the Academy is possibly worse.  Anyway, there's an awful lot that could still go wrong with the upcoming Suicide Squadthe words "written and directed by David Ayer" topping that particular listbut the chance to see Smith and Robbie together again in another frothy fun caper means that I'll be there, butt-in-seat, on opening night, and I encourage you to do the same.

3.  ANT-MAN (9/10)
Not long after being released from prison, Scott Lang finds himself dragooned into a superheroic heist using his newfound shrinking powers, while he tries to reconnect with his family.

Speaking of "fun comic book movies," Peyton Reed's Ant-Man is the definition of that phrase, easily beating out the more beloved (yet demonstrably worse) Guardians of the Galaxy as the best film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's otherwise lackluster Phase 2.  Oh, sure, the ending is still hamstrung by the need to keep Scott Lang running around and available for future films; there is a version of Ant-Man without its invidious connection to the MCU that I have no doubt would make my Best of the Decade list.  But the version we got is still really, really Goddamned good.

2.  MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (10/10)
Imperator Furiosa and Max Rockatansky become uneasy allies in their running battle against the warlord of the wasteland, the Immortan Joe.  Then cars explode, for two truly wonderful hours.

I feel bad for initially giving Fury Road only a 9/10.  I had to sit with it a while (and rewatch it three times) to realize that, yes, it is pretty much a perfect cinematic object.  I still believe that the biggest overt problem is what I said back in May: it's the glimpsing inclusion of the Doof Warrior, which promises more than it actually delivers in terms of the film's otherwise-awesome metal soundscape.  But now that I've had time to reflect, I can tell you, almost a year later, why the film felt (very, very, very slightly) disappointing the first time I saw it: it is structured so that its action scenes actually descend in quality from the first one to the last.  And yet, when every action scene is obviously a 10/10, and each one is still better than every other action scene of 2015, I was plainly wrong not to give George Miller's masterpiece the highest possible score I could.  Now, don't get me wrong.  It's still not as good as Gravity, and maybe that was a big part of my previous annoyance too: the fact that Fury Road, which is certainly incredible in its own right, has unfairly eclipsed the greatest piece of experiential cinema ever made, to the point that when action movies are made in the future, they'll be compared to Fury Road instead of the truer benchmark represented by Alfonso Cuaron and Sandra Bullock's misadventures in space.  But, anyway, that's terribly unfair to Fury Road itself.  Therefore, let it be known that I reject my previous crabbiness with my whole heart.

1.  EX MACHINA (10/10)
A billionaire inventor invites a code nerd to his polar fortress for the purposes of making sexy smalltalk with his fembot.  And that's when things get weird.

Well, Fury Road might the most visceral entertainment of 2015, but Ex Machina, which is plenty visceral in its own right, is also the smartest.  And it's not just that it's so incredibly current.  Oh, sure: it's nice to see the best two films of last year tackling overtly feminist themes with such gustoand Ex Machina digs far more deeply into things than Fury Road ever thinks about doing, because (when you get down it) Miller's film is really just one more story about barbarous sex slavers, no matter how cleverly it builds its tale and action sequences around its core ideas.  Meanwhile, Ex Machina is just as fantastic a sci-fi allegory as Fury Road, but one that also has room for a lot more nuance than what you're likely to get with a powder-white warlord who has giant tumors and direly-mutated sperm.  Anyway, nuance is certainly not nothing.

Its intelligence goes much further than that, however.  In this regard, it's very much like Fury Road, in that it combines its fantastic allegory with a story that is also completely and totally literal, a thing which can be enjoyed on a purely narrative level as one more technologically-advanced spin on the oldest Gothic horror story in the big Gothic horror book.  Throw in some hard sci-fi thoughtfulness that has nothing to do with allegory, then, and you've already got yourself a novella of some substantial genius.  But, of course, Ex Machina is not a novella; it's a film.  Therefore it would be nothing at all without the things that make it a film.

But I don't know if I could use all ten of my fingers if I tried to count the number of debut films more assured in their direction than this oneindeed, if Alex Garland wants to keep going, we might be looking at the birth of one of the all-time greats (or maybe not; his screenwriting, after all, swings wildly up and down in its quality).  Regardless, as shockingly refined as Garland's sensibilities already are, this doesn't give nearly enough credit where it's due.  Ex Machina, being almost purely conversational, depends crucially upon its actors, and they give everything they've gotabove all Alicia Vikander, who was nominated for an Oscar this year, only for the wrong movie.  Let's hope she wins it anyway.  Meanwhile, Ex Machina itself was nominated for Best Original Screenplay (which, in 2015, it quite obviously is) and for Best Special Effects.  The Special Effects award is less clear-cut, but I hope it wins, because it deserves it, even beyond Fury Road.  This is not because Ex Machina's CGI creation of Evaher inner workings almost always exposed to viewis seamless.  It is seamless, in technical terms, yet it draws all your attention nonetheless: it is a quiet spectacle, constantly unfolding, where you find yourself convinced utterly of Eva's robotic nature, but keep staring because it is so convincing and alien and weird and absolutely amazing.  I only go on about it because I think it's the one element I didn't get to expound upon in my original review; when everything about a movie is so perfect, you tend to run out of space.  Ex Machina is so good that it goes a long way to redeeming a not-so-great year, all by itself.


And that's the show, folks.  Hey, maybe 2016 will be a year where my Best Of list won't consist mostly of 8/10s!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part III: The road warrior


Used Cars might be but a curio, bound body and soul to the era that produced it, but it surely has its charms, and they're not insubstantial.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
With Kurt Russell (Rudy Russo), Jack Warden (Luke Fuchs), Gerritt Graham (Jeff), Frank McRae (Jim), Deborah Harmon (Barbara Fuchs), Al Lewis (Judge Harrison), and Jack Warden (Roy Fuchs)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part I: The really big shew


Say, did you know that the Beatles were popular?

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis 
With Nancy Allen (Pam), Wendie Jo Sperber (Rosie), Susan Kendall Newman (Janis), Theresa Saldana (Grace), Eddie Deezen (Richard), Bobby Di Cicco (Tony), and Marc McClure (Larry)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Reviews from gulag: In the eternal war of dads against communism, sometimes your dad comes home, and sometimes he does not

Given that the Cold War has been over for a quarter century now, perhaps it's mildly surprising that 2015 offered not one but two stories of fathers who crossed the Iron Curtain for their country.  Today we take a look at Bridge of Spies and Creed... and, okay, fine, it's a lot more because I watched them back-to-back than they have any actual thematic overlap whatsoever.

It's 1957, the Cold War goes on, and in the midst of a counterintelligence sweep, Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) is identified, captured, and charged, inter alia, with espionage.  James Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer at a prestigious New York law firm specializing in insurance defense—but, more importantly, a veteran of the prosecution team at Nuremberg—is cajoled into taking Abel's case, to demonstrate that the spy has received the due process of law.  But Donovan, a man of principle, takes Abel's rights more seriously than anyone might have expected, and offers a vigorous defense, even appealing the case to the Supreme Court—though he finds little sympathy there for his arguments.  In the end, it's all Donovan can do to persuade the trial judge to not execute Abel—not because the judge wouldn't like to see the commie fry, but because, one day, a live Soviet prisoner may be more useful to America than a dead one.  And, hey!  Wouldn't you know, apparently later that very same week—or maybe it's five years later, for Bridge of Spies exists in the kind of bizarre timewarp where children don't age and the ongoing narrative finds itself crammed into a space that is at once too large and too small—Gary Powers gets himself shot down over the USSR.  And this isn't to even mention poor, innocent Frederic Pryor, arrested under false charges in East Germany.  The CIA reasons that since it was Donovan's idea in the first place, it seems only fair that Donovan be drafted into the service of his country once again, and thus do they send this untrained civilian into East Berlin to bring our boys home.

Firstly, Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski need to stop, or be stopped.  For twenty years, Kaminski has coasted on his twin triumphs of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan, a pair of films notable for being shot in high-contrast black-and-white and being set almost entirely outdoors, respectively.  Otherwise, Kaminski has largely busied himself with undermining Spielberg with perhaps the most offensively grating interior lighting set-ups in all cinema—and Spielberg, for his part, has fucking loved it.  Meanwhile, it makes it all the more distasteful that critics unaccountably seem to like Spielberg and Kaminski's ENORMOUS SHAFTS (of light), although I strongly, strongly suspect this has more to do with all the other moving parts of Spielberg's emotion machines—the editing, the scoring, the acting, etc.—which all still function more-or-less as well as ever.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

I tell you, they're drunk with religion


Perhaps the finest of its breed, Ben-Hur is a smashing entertainment, an Old Testament kind of story set against the backdrop of the New.  It is fueled by a sharply-drawn and deeply-satisfying tale of revenge, animated by enormous sums of money, realized by some of cinema's all-time finest talents, electrified by its star, and, finally, glommed onto a good-enough Christian fable... just in case you felt like taking a nap after the chariot race (though, speaking personally, I think this part's reasonably swell, too).  Ben-Hur is everything you could ever want out of a Biblical epic (and probably more!), and it represents the Golden Age of Hollywood at its very best.

Directed by William Wyler
Written by Karl Tunberg, S.N. Behrman, Maxwell Anderson, Christopher Fry, Gore Vidal, Andrew Marton, and Yakima Canutt (based on the novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Gen. Lew Wallace)
With Charlton Heston (Judah Ben-Hur), Haya Harareet (Esther), Martha Scott (Mariam), Cathy O'Donnell (Tirzah), Sam Jaffe (Simonides), Finlay Currie (Balthazar the Egyptian), Hugh Griffith (Sheik Ilderim), Jack Hawkins (Quintus Arrius), and Stephen Boyd (Messala)

Spoiler alert: sadly, the Kingdom of Judea is not freed in any conventional or meaningful way

Saturday, February 13, 2016

A fourth wall break within a fourth wall break? IT'S MADNESS MADNESS WE'RE ALL OF US FICTIONAL CHARACTERS NOW


More fun than funny, really, and very nearly crippled by an unrelentingly dull A-plot, Deadpool still winds up being a rather appealing hour and a half at the movies, thanks to its star and its willingness to let you know how incredibly desperately it needs your approval.

Directed by T.J. Miller
Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
With Ryan Reynolds (Wade Wilson), Morena Baccarin (Vanessa), T.J. Miller (Weasel), Stefan Kapicic (Colossus), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead) (thanks a lot Grant Morrison), Gina Carano (Angel Dust), and Ed Skrein (Ajax, ne Francis)

Spoiler alert: moderate

Friday, February 12, 2016

Reviews from gulag: Dear film critics, please stop confusing "insuperable boredom" with "challenging art"

As we continue to catch up with the last gasps of last year, let us briefly discuss 45 Years, Anomalisa, The Assassin, and Memories of the Sword.

45 YEARS (2015)
Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are old British people, with 45 years of marriage behind them.  But seven days before their newest anniversary—which has taken on a great deal of significance already, thanks to their 40th anniversary's preemption by Geoff's heart issues—they receive a letter from the far-off land of Switzerland, addressed specifically to Geoff, informing him that all these years later, they have found the central metaphor of this film, encased and preserved in glacial ice: the body of Geoff's old lover, Katya, who died back in 1962 when she fell into a mountain crevasse.  Geoff grows increasingly compulsive about remembering Katya—and Kate grows increasingly apprehensive that she was not loved the way she always thought she was.

The thing that 45 Years is about is very, very obvious, which I presume my plot synopsis makes clear: both its main characters are, in many respects, crybabies—Geoff, because he still gives a shit about a woman who died almost half a century ago, and Kate, because she cannot understand why Geoff might give a shit, and also because despite being a grown woman of advanced age, she operates under the bizarre impression that our spouses (if we ever wind up with spouses) actually see us as the fulfillment of every stray fantasy about their ideal partner.  Given that the only mate that most of us would ever actually perceive as truly perfect would be a telepathic shapeshifter with complementary sexual fetishes (who also shits dollar bills—or pounds sterling, if you like), I doubt any of us will ever find precisely what we're looking for in this world.  This, you know, is the way of things.  It's no reason to be unhappy.  But, on the other hand, most of us are crybabies (yours truly included!).  And unhappy we often are.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A shocker on shock street


Zippy and weird, Goosebumps is every bit as great as you could ever hope a family-friendly horror-comedy based on 62 individual books to possibly be—and, heck, now that I spell it out like that, I suppose it's actually even better.

Directed by Rob Letterman
Written by Darren Lemke, Scott Alexander, and Larry Karaszewski (based on the books by R.L. Stine)
With Dylan Minnette (Zach), Amy Smart (Gale), Jillian Bell (Lorraine), Odeya Rush (Hannah), Ryan Lee (Champion), and Jack Black (R.L. Stine)

Spoiler alert: moderate, bordering on high

Sunday, February 7, 2016

I met a traveler from an antique land


A half-assed tribute hung upon an even more half-assed plot, Hail, Caesar! is still one hell of a fun jaunt through Old Hollywood, and who can argue with fun?  Me, obviously, but I recommend it strongly anyway.

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
With Josh Brolin (Eddie Mannix), George Clooney (Baird Whitlock), Alden Ehrenreich (Hobie Doyle), Ralph Fiennes (Laurence Laurentz), Scarlett Johansson (DeeAnna Moran), Tilda Swinton (Thora Thackeray/Thessaly Thackeray), Frances McDormand (C.C. Calhoun), Veronica Osorio (Carlotta Valdez), Jonah Hill (Joseph Silverman), and Channing Tatum (Burt Gurney)

Spoiler alert: mild

Thursday, February 4, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXIX: John Carpenter

A few closing remarks before we get to the numbers:

Over the past four months, we've had the pleasure (and, sometimes, the pain) of taking the journey through my third favorite living director's entire filmography—along with some essential detours here and there, into his career as a writer and producer, too.  If we're missing some of the more ephemeral things that have his name on them, I think the world will keep turning.  (Or has it stopped spinning 'round, just waiting for my reviews of Zuma Beach, Better Late Than Never, Blood River, El Diablo, and Silent Predators?  The last one's about snakes that bite people!)  No: I think we've done what we set out to do.  Carpenter, we've noted previously, will in all likelihood never make another film.  And you know what?  That's okay too—the man has earned his golden years.

Of course, Jason Blum deserves to be hissed for passing on the horror project Carpenter brought to him in 2014.  And who knows?  Maybe one day we'll even get to see Dead Space: The Motion Picture, a gossamer non-production to which Carpenter has been "attached" mainly in the sense that he helped out with some of F.E.A.R. 3's cutscenes, so we know he has some vague connections in the gaming industry, and that he gave an interview once where he said doing it would be cool.  But hell: stranger things than that have happened in Hollywood, and God knows that the adaptation of the Alien-inspired shooter would be just about the perfect ending to a career that began forty years ago with Dark Star, the Alien before there even was Alien.

Meanwhile, Carpenter is still making music, even if he has quit making pictures.  Check out Lost Themes, if you haven't already.  It's fucking fantastic.  (And Lost Themes II is right around the corner.)

Above all, JC's left us with his legacy: the 21 films he directed, and a few more worth looking at that he scripted.  Without Carpenter, we don't have the slasher genre.  Without Carpenter, metafictional horror would be defined solely by Wes Craven, and while I know there's folks out there who'd be okay with that, I sure as heck ain't one of them.  Without Carpenter, we don't have quite as many old-fashioned ghost stories, punched up with new-fashioned gore and hints of social commentary.  Without Carpenter, we wouldn't know just how awesome the end of the world could really be.  Without Carpenter, we're missing some of cinema's signal triumphs.  Without Carpenter, the 80s just wouldn't be as cool.  And without Carpenter, the medium would be noticeably poorer.  We salute his merger of the classic and the modern: his inimitable style, forever unpretentious, almost always easy on the eyes (and, of course, the ears!).  God bless you, John.

So, without further ado, this is the list:


21. ELVIS (2/10)
20. VAMPIRES  (4/10)
19. GHOSTS OF MARS (4/10)
18b. CIGARETTE BURNS** (4/10) 
18. ESCAPE FROM L.A. (5/10)
17a. EYES OF LAURA MARS*  (5/10)
17. DARK STAR  (5.01/10)
16. BODY BAGS  (6/10)
15a. PRO-LIFE**  (6/10)
14. HALLOWEEN  (7/10)
13. STARMAN (7/10) 
10a. BLACK MOON RISING*  (7/10)
9. THE WARD (8/10)
7. THEY LIVE (8/10)
6. THE FOG  (8/10)
5a. HALLOWEEN II*  (9/10)
4. CHRISTINE  (10/10)
2. THE THING  (10/10)

Films marked with one asterisk (*) indicate projects which Carpenter helped write, but did not direct; films marked with two asterisks (**) indicate TV episodes.  And yes, in case you didn't figure it out before, I'm obviously not the biggest fan of the original Halloween.  Indeed, I might well be the smallest fan, given the outsized enthusiasm with which its other fans tend to embrace it.

But, like it or lump it, that's my list.  However, if you've got the time, you can find a few more goodies, after the jump.

John Carpenter, part 0: Stab your eyes—I'm a man! I'm my OWN man!


A banner year for Carpenter, 1978 saw his name on four different motion pictures—and fully half of them were any good!  But Eyes of Laura Mars, in case you didn't get the hint, was in the other half.

Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by David Zelag Goodman and John Carpenter
With Faye Dunaway (Laura Mars), Tommy Lee Jones (Lt. John Neville), Rene Auberjonois (Donald Phelps), Brad Dourif (Tommy Ludlow), and Raul Julia (Michael Reisler)

Spoiler alert: severe
Content warning: mild ART

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

John Carpenter, part XXVIII: One flew under the cuckoo's nest


Five years ago, JC left us with one last gift before heading right back to the Basketball and Video Game Dimension; and, as I'm sure you know, The Ward was not appreciated in its time, nor is it tremendously appreciated now.  But, in our own small way, we aim to change that.

Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen
With Amber Heard (Kristen), Mamie Gummer (Emily), Danielle Panabaker (Sarah), Lyndsy Fonssca (Iris), Laura Leigh Moser (Zoe), Susanna Burney (Nurse Bundt), Dan Anderson (Orderly Roy), and Jared Harris (Dr. Gerald Stringer)

Spoiler alert: severe