Oslo, August 31st (2011)

Oslo, August 31 (2011) movie poster

director Joachim Trier
viewed: 03/27/2013

I found myself once again in this weird, unpleasant situation.  I put the DVD into the machine (the DVD that I queued up and ordered from Netflix).  The movie starts, then slowly or quickly or somehow, I start to wonder “why did I rent this movie?”    It’s not a question that you want to find yourself pondering while watching something.  It sort of calls into question what you are doing with your life?  I could have been reading, socializing.  I could have been watching something more interesting, more important, more meaningful.  Why did I rent a movie about a recovering Norwegian heroin addict, who is having a bummer of a day after getting released from treatment?  Why did that interest me?  What sounded “good” about it?  Who am I to think that this was a good idea?

Luckily, it’s only me paying for this minor mistake.

Oslo, August 31 actually got good reviews.  I’m always on the lookout for films that sound good or interesting.  I put them in my queue, knowing that I probably won’t see them in the cinema.  When they get released on DVD, they pop into the bottom of my Netflix queue, and often, with new releases, I move them to the top.  Sometimes I don’t.  Sometimes they malinger.  Sometimes I delete them.

This is a downer of a movie about a heroin addict, facing Oslo, facing reality, facing a world he doesn’t believe in.  We don’t know all that much about him.  He’s ruined his parents finances so they had to sell their home.  His sister doesn’t want to see him face to face.  The girl that he may or may not be in love with him won’t take his phone calls.

The guy who plays him, Anders Danielsen Lie, isn’t a bad actor necessarily.  But he’s not a compelling one.  This is the kind of film that Gus Van Sant could make and even if it was still a major bummer, he would cast a beautiful young person and he could evoke his world’s surreal reality and tragedy in some magical, relatable way.  Director Joachim Trier tries. And fails.

The earlier into a film that I find myself wondering why I chose to watch it is a sign of my own impending misery, albeit temporary.  And maybe it is as it should be that it makes me question my own life.

Cosmopolis (2012)

Cosmopolis (2012) movie poster

director David Cronenbergm
viewed: 03/24/2013

David Cronenberg is probably one of the great living, still producing filmmakers.  And his films of recent years, A Dangerous Method (2011), Eastern Promises (2007), and A History of Violence (2005) have all been respectable, if not quite good films.  His style has evolved far away from his early work that earned him such notoriety for creepy, visceral horror films with a somewhat twisted science fiction bent.

Frankly, I’d like to see him go there again.  eXistenZ (1999) was the last film that he made that was anything of his earlier style.  And while that film (it’s been more than a decade since I saw it) seemed out of step with modern science fiction, he’s been making these more polished art house dramas, while they still have psychological violence and subversive aspects, are very much different inherently.

Cosmopolis is a disappointment.  Adapted from a novel by Don DeLillo, it sounds on the surface to be quite a timely bit of filmmaking.  It’s set in a near future, in a New York City limousine, which moves in heavy traffic, taking a wealthy, though quickly bankrupted billionaire (Robert Pattinson) across town to get a haircut.  The people are rioting/protesting (a la the Occupy movement).  The president is in town, slowing up traffic, and the stock market is going to hell.  All the while the billionaire philanders, gets his asymmetrical prostate checked, and talks technology, money, aesthetics, philosophy and everything as the world slowly burns.

It sounds like a prime commentary on the world of 2012 (or 2013) but Cronenberg’s style, a slick detachment reflecting the billionaire’s emotionless disconnect plus some rather high-minded dialogues between the billionaire and his visitors ends up feeling like an exercise  in “theater”, something meant to appeal to the intellect or an intellect.  And it’s somewhat bloodless (in the more metaphorical sense).

I didn’t really care for it.  It’s not that it’s terrible.  In fact, I think it’s made to do what it does and is quite polished and slick in its own way.  It just didn’t do anything for me.

I’d like to see Cronenberg go back to his gruesome, psychotic physical horror corpus and forgo the CGI and tap into the elements that made his name.  It might refresh him.

Return to Oz (1985)

Return to Oz (1985) movie poster

director Walter Murch
viewed: 03/23/2013

It was, I think, the somewhat limited wonders of Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) and the historical diminishment of films we’ve watched in the kids’ memories that led me to re-queue Return to Oz, which we watched some five years ago.  Given the Sam Raimi film’s box office success, much like the newly minted Disney Star Wars franchise, L. Frank Baum’s Oz looks to be increasingly prevalent in popular culture and cineplexes.

Return to Oz, director Walter Murch’s 1985 stab at the Baum stories, was a washout in its day, though it has gone on to cult status in its legacy.  Based on a mashup of Baum’s 2nd and 3rd Oz books, The Marvelous Land of Oz  and Ozma of Oz, it lacks the opulence of the MGM classic The Wizard of Oz (1939) but its darker nature and more traditional FX make it substantially more satisfying than the computer-generated fantasies of Oz the Great and Powerful.

The young Fairuza Balk plays the role of Dorothy, with the big ruby slippers to fill of Judy Garland, she deports herself quite well.  Dorothy is in a funk back in Kansas.  Nobody believes her Oz stories.  In fact, they want to give her electro-shock therapy.  When a storm and power-outage gives her chance to escape, she finds herself in a swollen river and wakes up in a different part of Oz.

Things are bad here, too.  The Nome King and Mombi the witch have stripped the Emerald City of its jewels, turned its people into stone (and stolen the heads of the women), and now let the bizarre Wheelers run rampant over the city.  It’s up to Dorothy, Tik-Tok (a mechanical man/army of Oz), Jack Pumpkinhead (brought to life by the Powder of Life), a Gump, and Dorothy’s chicken Billina to find the Scarecrow and defeat the villains.

The effects use puppetry, stop-motion animation, and other real world camera tricks to evoke the magically strange world of Oz.  The animation of the Nome King and his henchrock are very cleverly animated in stop-motion, in one of the film’s most eerie effects.  It’s also kind of nice how the character designs reference back to W.W. Denslow’s illustrations from the books versus their MGM incarnations or something different.

The film is dark.  If you didn’t pick up on that from the electro-shock therapy, maybe the witch switching heads or the evil, mad Wheelers can give you the nightmares that you so desire.

The kids both enjoyed the film.  I think quite well.  I have yet to fully query them on it since its had time to set in.

For me, I liked it even better this time through.  Cult film or not, it’s a weird, earnest piece of fantasy filmmaking.

The Croods (2013)

The Croods (2013) movie poster

directors Kirk DeMicco, Chris Sanders
viewed: 03/23/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I can’t say as I went in to see The Croods with much hope or expectation.  The trailers for the film showed polished animation design but a pretty stilted and heavy-handed narrative and characterization.  But as I often note, I’m happy to take the kids to see a lot of things, and I was willing enough to see The Croods.  The strange thing was that I thought it was the best big feature animation since Wreck-It Ralph (2012), another film that kind of surprised me.  Lower expectations can serve a good purpose.

The Croods are a dying breed.  Neanderthals to be exact.  And as Pangea starts to break apart, they are forced to change with the times.  And in changing with the times, they meet their biological usurper, a homo sapien.

While it’s all prehistoric, it’s also your classic family conundrum.  Nicolas Cage voices Grug, the big father figure of the film, who preaches fear and survival to his whole family.  His daughter, Eep (Emma Stone), is a teenager, dreaming of freedom and life experience.  So, the major plot points do turn on some extremely traditional ideas.

The film’s greatest strength is in its design.  The vivid world they inhabit features a hilarious menagerie of weird cross-creatures such as land whales, turtle birds, elephant giraffes, and tons more.  The incidental fauna and flora make up a vivid and clever and consistently surprising universe.  And the character designs, while at first glimpse maybe not as innovative perhaps, are actually very rich on their own.  The family is given clever physical traits, uniting them.  And Eep in a lot of ways is as beautifully rendered and realized as Princess Merida from Brave (2012), which got a lot more attention.  The Neanderthal family all have interesting, quirky stances and movement, and truth be told, the whole of the film struck me as really pretty good.

For someone who sees as much children-oriented animated feature films as I do, I think I’m relatively cynical.  But I liked The Croods.  Grug, Ugga (Catherine Keener), and Gran (Cloris Leachman) aren’t the most interesting of characters.  Gran actually is a pretty annoying cliche.  But Nicolas Cage, whose incongruous voice doesn’t exactly sound like it should be coming from a caveman, has enough to work with to make the father-daughter-boyfriend scenario funny and amusing.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not epic or necessarily great, it’s just a beautifully designed, clever, enjoyable computer animated film in an ever-more crowded field of weak fare.

The Return of the Jedi (1983)

Return of the Jedi (1983) movie poster

director Richard Marquand
viewed: 03/22/2013

This viewing was all about Clara.  It was only a week before that we watched The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which she had enjoyed so much.  Striking while the iron was still hot, the movie still fresh in mind, not the “three years later” that I had had to wait in my childhood, we went to finish the trilogy.  It had been almost four years since I had last watched it with Felix.  But, luckily, like the prior week’s The Empire Strikes Back, we watched the more or less unadulterated version, not the one that George Lucas tainted with digital extras in toward the turn of the century.

Clara loved it.  Particularly, she loved Yoda and the Ewoks, the latter of which she dubbed “the cuties”.  She went on to say it should have been called “Return of the Cuties” or “The Cuties Strike Back” or even “Attack of the Cuties”.  Apparently, Clara, age 9 was a prime target audience for Lucas’s trilogy finale.

I have the least amount of sentimentality for The Return of the Jedi than for the other two of the original films.  I was already 14 or so when it came out, and while I hadn’t necessarily matured on to girls and music, I was not so easily amused by the “Cuties”.  Even then I could see it as a keen marketing ploy, dolls for the little ones to ooh and aww over.  And the disappointments of the finale outweighed its joys.

I recall really liking the speeder chase in the redwoods.  I remember thinking that felt exciting and cool.

More than anything, I remember the quaint disappointments like seeing Darth Vader’s head for the first time.  He’s a bald old dude!  Not very menacing.

And apparently, unlike many others of the time, I did not fantasize about Princess Leia in her slave get up.  Although, I’ve certainly noted that Carrie Fisher was indeed very pretty as a young woman.

And this time, more than before, Luke Skywalker seems like a condescending jerk threatening Jabba the Hutt.  It’s like, hey dude, you’re not a Jedi yet.  Faker.

I kept my sarcastic remarks to myself, though.  Both Felix and Clara enjoyed it.  It played for them the ways that it was made to play for moviegoers.  Fun, funny, lovable adventure.

I stuck to my guns about showing the films in their release order, though Star Wars (1977) is already a little vague in Clara’s mind.  I think I’ll give it some time before we venture into the prequel series.  Give her some time for those first three films to be “Star Wars” in her mind, which to my mind is for the better.

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013)

Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 03/17/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA, 

2013 isn’t utterly bleak on the movie front, but it’s also quite far from inspiring.  For every Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Pacific Rim (2013), or Elysium (2013) coming soon to a theater near everyone, there are a lot of weekends ahead with a huge spate of new releases, but an almost equal dearth of anything to get excited about.

I like taking my kids to movies.  And I’m willing to take them to almost anything that looks even half-decent.  I enjoy seeing films with them more than just seeing them on my own, so not only do we go see more films that I would not see on my own, but I probably even see more kid-oriented fare in the theaters than perhaps even the more adult stuff that they wouldn’t enjoy or which wouldn’t be appropriate for them.

Bryan Singer’s Jack the Giant Slayer hasn’t been on any “must” list of mine.  But it’s come at a time when nothing had been coming out for a while and I leaned toward seeing something rather than nothing.  Singer first broke out with The Usual Suspects (1995) which he followed up with his breakthrough in the comic book superhero film with X-Men (2000).  His take on Superman Returns (2006) failed to successfully re-boot that franchise, and while no one is exactly comparing him to M. Night Shyamalan, his early promise belied his career to some extent.

Jack the Giant Slayer is part of this fairy tale modernization that seems to be perhaps working its way through its cycle.  Is it over yet?  So much so that this film just seemed kind of like….why exactly?

When Clara’s friend was eager to join us, we at least had some excitement onboard.

The film stars Nicholas Hoult as Jack, who is almost as pretty as Eleanor Tomlinson who plays Isabelle, the princess in the tale.  It also features the always likable Ewan McGregor as a handsome knight, all fighting against a massive group of massive giants.  And it all conflates the classic stories of Jack the Giant Killer and Jack and the Beanstalk so much so that I can’t hardly think of them as separate stories anyways.

The giants are CGI/motion capture brutes.  They all speak in working class accents and bear various deformaties and physical atrocities from lack of hygiene that tell you about all you need to know about them.  I did find myself wondering if there was some form of classism at play here.

It’s overlong (what film isn’t these days?) but it’s entertaining.  With expectations kind of low, it’s hard to feel too disappointed.  And actually the girls quite enjoyed the film.

My feeling is that this film will swiftly fade from memory, its strengths, its weaknesses, its pleasures, its failings.  And in some ways, that is a worse criticism, I think, than simply being a bad movie.  It’s decent, but unremarkable.

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) movie poster

director Irvin Kerschner
viewed: 03/16/2013

Having Clara all weekend with Felix away in Tahoe, I decided it would be a good time to show her The Empire Strikes Back.  It was more than a year ago that we watched the original Star Wars (1977), which hadn’t quite had the impact on her that I thought it would.  Oddly enough, she was really pressed to remember it.  She recalled the trash compactor scene, but a lot of the rest of it was a bit of a mishmash.

As usual, she had lots of questions, mainly about when Yoda shows up.  It was clear yet again that everything from Weird Al Yankovic songs to other cultural effluvia have informed what she knows/knew of the series.

But this time, she was much more into the film.  It probably is due in part to the fact that Empire is pretty well considered the best film in the series, but as much perhaps is that she is now nine.  Someone else suggested that the romance angle probably worked in her favor, but I don’t know about that.  Both of my kids like to cover their eyes and ask “Is it over yet?” when kissing comes onscreen.

Weirdly, I felt that it wasn’t all that long ago that I’d last seen Empire.  My guess now is that it was during the period that I wasn’t updating this blog.

The best thing, beyond sharing the experience with her, was that somehow I lucked into Netflix sending me the original version of the film as opposed to the version with all the CGI that mucked up the original films in very annoying ways.  The pleasure in the film, for me, was enhanced in seeing the original version without someone adding crap to my memories of my favorite childhood stuff.

From the Hoth battle with the AT-AT’s to Yoda to the “reveal” of Darth Vader being Luke’s father, it’s got a lot of fun stuff in it.  And Clara really liked it a lot, even adding it to her list of favorite movies.

At the end, after the cliffhangers, I told her that when I saw it for the first time, I was 11 and that I had to wait 3 years to see how everything turned out.  I asked her if she wanted to wait three years to see Return of the Jedi (1983).  She very quickly said no!

I also shared with her that viral video of the young boy seeing the “reveal” of the Vader paternity, because somehow I think that aspect was spoiled for her.  She thought it was pretty darn funny.

And now next weekend, we’ll watch what took three years for me to get the chance to see in my childhood.

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Oz the Great and Powerful (2013) movie poster

director Sam Raimi
viewed: 03/16/2013 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Sam Raimi’s faux-Technicolor fantasy, Oz the Great and Powerful, is quite the spectacle.  Unfortunately spectacle only goes so far in a movie.  Both a great homage to the classic The Wizard of Oz (1939) and optimistic founding of another modern movie franchise, Raimi taps into old and new and lets the art designers go to town, not just the Emerald City, to give vivid, new digital life to the work of L. Frank Baum.

Baum’s work has weathered the years, probably in no short measure aided significantly by MGM’s cinematic masterpiece, but the depths of the many Oz books have never been fully plumbed by Hollywood.  While Oz the Great and Powerful is poised as a prequel and doesn’t actually tap its roots into any of Baum’s novels (only his “universe”), the landscape of Hollywood deals and marketable names offers a long line of potential re-workings.  I’m not overly familiar with Baum’s novels, but the ones that I’ve read are rich, strange, and fantastic.

Raimi’s film suffers two major problems.  The one that most have noted is the casting.  James Franco, for what he’s worth, does indeed seem utterly miscast as the prestidigitator-turned-fake Wizard, swept up from a black and white Kansas via cyclone to the lurid daydream of Oz.  Mila Kunis, for all her charms, is also an actress so much of the present that she seems utterly awkward in a period/fantasy piece.  And while I’ve always liked Rachel Weisz, the only one who felt to me like some sort of classic timeless character was Michelle Williams.  I’ve read critiques of her performance too, but I thought she was adequately ethereal and good, the only person in the film that felt right.

But perhaps more than anything, the problem is the script.  It’s not that the story idea is bad but the whole film lacks verve, magic, even comedy.  Even in a weak film, the comedic bits are usually functional “relief” but the film’s humor was as flat as any part of the film.  And the dialogue was pretty uninspired all around.

I watched the film with Clara and in 3-D, the latter of which I usually avoid at all costs.  Very typical of 3-D, I would say, the added “depth” added nothing.  Sure, it made a few of the visuals “pop” a bit more, but c’mon!  For an extra $3 I would rather have had a better film at the core.

All this complaint, sure, but it’s not a disaster of a film.  It’s extremely weak in parts, sure, but it’s entertaining enough.  The designs are certainly the highlights and Michelle Williams, one of my favorite actresses, stands out.  Clara and I enjoyed it.  Though it is not a beneficent omen of the movie season to come.

As for Raimi, we’ll always have Evil Dead II (1986).

Toys in the Attic (2009)

Toys in the Attic (2009) movie poster

director Jiří Barta
viewed: 03/15/2013

Toys in the Attic never even played on the big screen in San Francisco during its brief release last year.  We had to wait for this Czech stop-motion animated feature to hit DVD before we had a chance to see it.  And it was perhaps only thanks to my rather intensive scouring of coming films to even know that it had been released in the States at all.

Set in an attic, a myriad discarded toys live in a vivid and strange eclectic world.  A girl doll, a marionette, a teddy bear, a lump of clay with a bottle cap hat and stub of a pencil nose comprise the main group of protagonists. But their strange fantasy world is invaded by a long snake-like tube with an eye, spying for a creepy bust of a man, who is informed by a pincher bug with a face.  It’s all pretty weird if all you see in animation comes from Disney or Pixar, but for Czech animation, it’s a comparatively less bizarre array of figures.

Stop-motion animation still stands out in my mind as perhaps the most uncanny of all animation techniques.  Using real figures, objects, sometimes actual people, it also employs real lighting, basically utilizing a camera shot by shot, gaining all the inherent “realism” of a photograph and natural three dimensionality. The uncanny comes from the invented movement.  Some stop-motion tries for as much believability as possible, particularly when stop-motion has been used for “special effects” (something almost unheard of nowadays but still employed up through the 1980’s).  But even the best stop-motion effect are still quite obviously unreal, fantastical, and not utterly natural in their movements.  It’s an odd, sort of jarring thing, which some people probably really hate but I have always loved.  I’ve always loved that weird effect of stop-motion.  Maybe because of its uncanniness and weirdness.

Director Jiří Barta employs stop-motion, more traditional animation, and pixilation for the film Toys in the Attic, but the characters, design, world, everything is an inherently surreal thing, and the uncanny aspects of stop-motion, like in other Czech animation, taps into that vein and mines it deep for its style, tonality, and ideas.  For the uninitiated, it’s probably plenty weird.  For others, it’s plenty cool.

The Bay (2012)

The Bay (2012) movie poster

director Barry Levinson
viewed: 03/06/2013

The increasingly tired “faux found footage” style of filmmaking, most popular so it seems in the horror genre, is only even possibly interesting when in the hands of a more established director.  Case in point: Barry Levinson (of Diner (1982), Rain Man (1988), Wag the Dog (1997) among many others).  He’s made some good films, some pretty mediocre films, he’s won a Best Director Oscar (for Rain Man).  Hasn’t done much recently of major note.  But when he helms a biological disaster horror film (which had decent reviews), it seemed worth the while.

Problem is, the film is produced by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity (2007), ad nauseum) and the film bears a lot more of Peli than of Levinson.  In fact, as an Oren Peli production, the surprises wouldn’t really be surprises.

As far as “faux found footage” films go, this one doesn’t try too hard to craft believability.  Footage has been compiled years after the incident that was hushed up and is comprised of various cameras’ found footage, plus security videos, produced videos, news reports, police car videos, tons of sources.  And the story is told in retrospect via Skype by a survivor.

The story is the one infamous Fourth of July, a biological crisis started hitting Chesapeake Bay.  There’s a bit of mystery, but the story is a little choppy, but you get pretty early on that as a result of steroids in chicken poop flowing into the water, a little-known parasitic crustacean, Cymothoa exigua or the “tongue-eating louse” (this is a real thing), winds up growing huge, entering people and eating them from the inside out, planting eggs, lots of gross stuff ensues.

It’s pretty creepy.  It’s pretty gross.

As I find myself thinking, often, about films shot in this style, I have to wonder if the director could not have made a more effective film in a more traditional style with the general storyline he was given.  It’s a cheap effect, faking the found footage, and it’s as tired as tired can be.  Even in the hands of a more seasoned director, it still often falls short of worthwhile.  And that’s sort of the case with The Bay.  It would have been a lot better, made in about 1981, and produced instead by Roger Corman.