Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

The Tree of Life (2011)
Dir. Terrence Malick

4.5 out of 5

This much I know - Terrence Malick is not a crank. Though the famously deliberate director is approaching 70 years of age with no more than 5 feature films to his credit, The Tree of Life is not the work of a lion in winter. It's an experiment with the methods of storytelling (with a fair share borrowed from the masters of the French New [Old?] Wave) and a stellar representation of the mutable limits of the film medium. Much has been said about how The Tree of Life has not lived up to some people's expectations of it as a "movie." But what truly has more cinematic imagination? Malick's unabashedly philosophical and visually arresting ramble, or a predictable assemblage of stock character types and simple moralizing? There is no need for Tree to be a "real movie" when the movies haven't been interested in realism for decades.

In brief, the film follows a boy, Jack (Hunter McCracken), as he grows up in 1950s Waco, Texas, with his stern father (Brad Pitt), his more permissive mother (Jessica Chastain), and his two younger brothers. The coding of these characters isn't subtle - Pitt is hardworking but covetous and balances a heavy chip on his shoulder, Chastain exists in a constant ethereal glow of grace and affection - but then neither is their combined effect on Jack. From his birth through his adolescence, Jack is introduced to new worlds of love, pain, violence, and independence in a loosely linear stream of recollections from his adult self (Sean Penn).

As if this weren't ambitious enough, Malick adds a sequences exploring the same developmental span in the life of planet Earth, progressing from cosmic gases to microbes to dinosaurs. We receive this prehistory lecture presumably as a response to Chastain's plea to God for explanation when tragedy visits her family the film's first 10 minutes. The comparison isn't as intuitive as Malick assumes it is - a somewhat clumsy, almost literal equivalent of an educational short from a gasoline corporation that transitions from ancient animals dying in the mud to a fleet of Macks idling at a diesel filling station. Though it's not an egregiously long diversion, it is representative of the movie's sacrifice of specificity in favor of addressing the Big Questions.

All that said, The Tree of Life is still very rewarding to the patient viewer. I couldn't get over how quiet it was where I screened it - not just the movie, but the audience. They were letting their minds wander, or struggling to translate the narrative into more conventional terms, or inviting the movie to wash over them like a dream. I did all three at different points in the film, and I suspect that this is a major part of the intended experience. Malick has never made movies for his own benefit but this one is aggressively without agenda, directly addressing his audience with a story that is simultaneously designed to confound it. Life is completely what you make of it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Fast Five (2011)

Fast Five
Dir. Justin Lin

originally posted to Facebook on 5/22/10

2.5 out of 5

All of the main players in the Fast and Furious franchise have logged so many hours in a one-shot behind the wheel of a car, eyes darting from side to side, a half-smirk on their face, that it's impossible to take anything they do between chase scenes seriously. Fast Five continues this proud tradition of breathtaking stunts periodically interrupted by wooden performances and musty plotlines. Justin Lin returns to direct for the third time, and while he has an impressive feel for the rhythm of big action sequences, he's always stalled whenever he has to come down from a Hot Wheels high and inject some humanity into this world of cold steel and burnt rubber. Of course, this is easier said than done when your leading men are Vin Diesel and Paul Walker.

With Fast Five, Lin finally appears to be gaining some appreciation for the trifling nature of these films. He has a fun time getting the gang back together, including one member who, through the vast complexities of the Fast and Furious timeline, had already died in a previous installment of the series. The cast crossover works much better than the highly-touted "return" of the Walker and Diesel duo in the last film, and also adds Dwayne Johnson to the mix in a scenery-chomping role as the leader of a special law enforcement unit that feels like an extended audition for a role in an Expendables sequel. After a high-speed jailbreak, the action moves to Rio (and in case you forget, there are no fewer than three fly-bys of the Christ the Redeemer statue) where Fast Five quickly morphs into a heist movie, a sort of Ocean's Eleven for the meathead set.

But these are not the kind of actors who can pull off that kind of premise with any sense of camp, let alone wit or sophistication. It's a minor league version of a movie you've probably seen a few times, where emotional breakthroughs are celebrated with bro hugs and where banter qualifies as Ludacris kvetching about the subtle differences of etiquette involved in "grabbin' that ass" and "smackin' that ass." What's left is the glorious action and a white-knuckle climax that sees the gang storm a police station and recklessly drag an entire bank vault through busy city streets. There's still something unsettling about Lin's willingness to plop its heroes in another foreign country to see how much of it they can destroy, but at least this time his approach is appropriately cavalier.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Let's Make a Meme: Wrap It Up, Slash

The uncanny ubiquity of former Guns 'n Roses guitarist Slash feels like a recent development, but his cheeky top-hatted antics have been around since long before T-Pain was a glimmer in pop culture's all-seeing eye. An episode from last spring's season of South Park lampooning his omniscience was arguably more overdue (and inarguably more entertaining) than Chinese Democracy. Not that most musicians wouldn't love to have Slash's staying power - he's got a healthy Q rating even among kids whose only interaction with "Sweet Child 'O Mine" is the 'oldies' rock station.

But to remind you of those halycon days when a Slash appearance still seemed novel, I present this snippet from Michael Jackson's monstrous 15-minute medley of hits at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards. Michael is about a third of the way through his entire catalogue when Slash appears to play the riff from "Black or White" complete with plumes of smoke, wind machines, etc. It's classic mid-90s "thumbing my nose at molestation allegations" Michael.

Then it's time for the guitar solo. And Slash knows how to solo. He just doesn't know how to stop.

Fans have pointed to some similar performances as evidence that Michael's anger is staged and that the uncontrollable soloing is part of the act.1 I can believe that explanation, considering the scope of Michael's stage production and his legendary perfectionism. But, in my mind, that only makes it funnier because ordering Slash to solo is like instructing grass to grow.

It makes me wonder - besides holding up "Billie Jean," what else could Slash delay with his insurmountable urge to shred?

Slash Has A Dream

One Small Step for Man, One Giant Leap for Slash

An Inconvenient Solo

Slash Interrupts Kayne Interrupting Taylor at the VMAs2

1 I could be wrong. It did strike me as odd in This Is It when Michael recruits apparently-a-thing Orianthi instead of Slash to play lead guitar in his scheduled run of concerts at the Millenium Dome. You're telling me that Slash was too busy for that payday? Then again, Michael was always shrewd in noticing when his collaborators had passed their sell-by date. There's a reason Eddie Van Halen didn't get another call after "Beat It."

2 Bringing it full circle!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wide Angle: I Wish I Knew How to Quit You, Coldplay

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

I am always a little mortified when I hear of the existence of new Coldplay music. It's a mounting sense of dread that has nothing to do with disappointment or disgust, but everything to do with painful nostalgia. I thought that if I just refused to listen to "Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall," the lead single on their as-yet-untitled fifth studio album, it might disappear.

It has never really occurred to me that I should have a favorite band. Yet if I did, Coldplay is an obvious candidate. I've been listening to them since I entered high school. I've bought their albums and DVDs, and hunted down their demos and b-sides. I racked up several hundred posts on their official message boards. I attended their 2005-06 "Twisted Logic" tour on both coasts. But if you pressed me for my all-time favorite band I would say The Clash or LCD Soundsystem or even the goddamn Electric Light Orchestra. And I would be lying to you.

Yes, there's a very simple reason that I've been ignoring "Teardrop" - I was terrified that I might like it.

The irony of the song's title is that while it's true to those for whom sensitivity can be measured in drops, it was written by men who measure theirs in oceans. Other leaked song titles from the new album include "Hurts Like Heaven" and "Us Against the World." Coldplay is aiming to be either the Cure without the makeup or the Smiths without the intense anger and despair (Chris Martin has lots of emotions, but doesn't seem to pay attention to his meaner ones).

To say that Coldplay now seems to be inviting ridicule is to have not paid attention for the past 7 years. What was once defensible about the band is just as easy to skewer these days. They turned down every request to use their music in advertising - including Gatorade's pitch for "Yellow," which probably robbed us of a terrifying/legendary spot fetishizing the brilliant hue of the neon piss-colored jock fuel - until teaming up with Apple to sell iPods via "Viva La Vida." Martin's political activism, while well-meaning and sincere (Coldplay is perhaps the world's only non-Christian rock band that tithes 10 percent of their profits), has grown clumsier with higher levels of fame. It's the Bono Conundrum: a rock star has a more difficult time convincing us that he's for the people when he's not of the people.

When I finally gave "Teardrop" a chance, I didn't have much of a reaction. I researched a bit and discovered that it samples "I Go To Rio," a Peter Allen song that is a part of a late-1970s microgenre I like to call 'travel brochure rock' (which includes the "Pina Colada Song" from Rupert Holmes' underrated Partners in Crime and Pablo Cruise's Worlds Away, which closes with their cover version of "Rio").

This is incredibly unfair. I never imagined that Coldplay's next step would involve exposing my cooly detached love of 70s soft rock for the nerdy obsession that it really is. They are not just bruising my ego's soft underbelly - they are ramming a stake right through it.

I've listened to Coldplay speak to us - literally - through their music for nearly a decade.
Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head were quixotic, dreamy records that gave me enhanced powers of romanticism and bad poetry. They started to lose me with X&Y and their newfound determination to fix us and comfort us and maybe even tie our shoes and take out our trash if we were feeling too heartbroken to do it ourselves. The bombast was reined in to great commerical effect on Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends. And if your album title is that much of a mouthful and has a Delacroix painting on the cover, then the music better be moving some units.

But it's why the music is moving me that's most frightening. Coldplay was the soundtrack to awkwardness, insecurity, remorse, disappointment, narcissism - every type of feeling that was difficult to discuss was put out in public and on the radio. How can you justify your melancholy when it's perfectly reduced to a four-minute pop ballad? It's no wonder that the thought of loving Coldplay makes me uncomfortable. They have been calling me out for years.

I give up, guys. You've fixed me.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The Informant (2009)

The Informant! (2009)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh

4 out of 5

One of the primary pleasures of watching The Informant! is watching corporate whistleblower Mark Whitacre (Matt Damon) uncouple like a set of pudgy, bespectacled nesting dolls. Damon gives an affably touched performance as the star informant in a 3-year investigation of agribusiness price-fixing, a forthright FBI ally who's nonetheless too candid about the full extent of the foul play and his involvement in it. His eyes are full of grandiose expectations of his role as a normal guy pulled into the spy game ("like a Crichton novel" he muses more than once) but his head is cluttered with the mundane. Damon's mind wanders frequently, via narration, to thoughts of his favorite department store chains during crucial points in his subterfuge. It doesn't help that he's prone to slipping in breadcrumbs of incriminating details just seconds before a sting operation. He's a steadfast reminder that yes, you can be your own worst enemy.

It's difficult to watch The Informant! and not entertain the idea that this is Steven Soderbergh housesitting for the Coen brothers. And yet the movie is an entertaining inversion of the Coen's patented shitstorm formula. Damon is the lone wacko and everyone else - save perhaps Damon's loyal wife of shapeshifting hairdos (Melanie Lynskey) - plays straight man. They unravel Damon's catastrophe with minimal repercussions to their own lives, except maybe some lucrative overtime pay. Similarly, there's a workmanlike aspect to Soderbergh's direction. This could be the most uncool film of his career. What it lacks in show-off cinematography it gains in verisimilitude to the world of middlebrow corporate con artists.

For a film based on an arcane true-life case of corporate espionage and self-sabotage, it's quite humorous. The book on which it is based has no exclamation point in its title; the film carries it like a brand. Here is a movie that makes everything exciting through sheer force of personality and punctuation. Soderbergh is curling his lip, impishly casting comedians as dowdy lawyers and G-men and having them say things that are not particularly funny. Neither is the story of Mark Whitacre, I suppose, but then there's something to be said for the way you tell a story. It's a bitter alchemy that transforms a man's troubles into dark comedy. That's what makes The Informant! a true guilty pleasure, an arresting piece of schadenfreude that holds it together far better than its doomed protagonist.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Thor (2011)

Dir. Kenneth Branagh

originally posted to Facebook on 5/23/11

3.5 out of 5

Thor begins with its titular character (Chris Hemsworth) getting hit by a van in the middle of a desert in New Mexico. It's a major departure from the status he enjoys as one of the two sons of Odin (Anthony Hopkins at his most regal), the ruler of a mystical world called Asgard, the home of all the rock stars of Norse mythology. It is quickly made clear that we're not dealing with mere superheroes here. This is a realm of the gods, and an appropriately theatrical one at that: imagine Coruscant with a healthy dose of Versaillies.

The problem is that Thor is arrogant. After he provokes a war with the Asgardians' ancient enemies, his father strips him of his famous hammer and banishes him to Earth, thus creating an opportunity for his duplicitous younger brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) to seize the throne. Director Kenneth Branagh was handpicked to accentuate the Shakespearean undertones in this tale - which he does to a highly entertaining degree - and it's to his great credit that he makes the earthbound scenes almost as compelling. You see, Thor has a difficult time adjusting to a mortal life without the deference he's come to expect. His invective is softened by an encounter with a physicist (Natalie Portman) who is researching the possibility of a portal between the corners of the universe. That she falls in love with her best piece of evidence is simply a given in a film such as this.

But I don't mean to suggest that Thor is too lightweight. While it has its weaker moments, at its best it recalls the Richard Donner-Christopher Reeve version of Superman, another tale of an unwilling interplanetary traveler burdened by the troubles of the world he once belonged to and the alien world that he has come to love and protect. Like Donner, Branagh approaches this material with the right balance of action and introspection, with the former often driving the latter. Thor, however, is built for bravado - no son of Odin could ever be described as 'mild-mannered.' And thanks to an overwhelming sense of old-fashioned adventure, Thor is a fantasy as lusty and bombastic as the gods themselves.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Dir. Matthew Vaughn

originally posted to Facebook on 6/2/11

2.5 out of 5

Somewhere between the pandering X-Men: The Last Stand and the effective X2: X-Men United lies the frustratingly coy X-Men: First Class, a prequel that explains how mutants went to bat for their less-evolved human counterparts and were pilloried, distrusted, and discriminated against. Lather rinse repeat.

Ah, but First Class is also a film about one of the comics' most definitive schisms, a story of the burgeoning rivalry between Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), he of the optimism about humanity's genetic future, and Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender), a.k.a. Magneto, a Holocaust survivor with salient feelings about human intolerance. Given that First Class takes place in 1962 in a nation where one's skin color could negate their fundamental rights, Fassbender would seem to have a perfectly legit point. McAvoy tries to explain to him that angry, vengeful, and magnetic is no way to go through life. But in a credit to Fassbender's striking performance as the angsty future supervillain, it's difficult to completely blame him for his shortcomings.

The film itself gets no such pass. After using a considerable chunk of time to establish McAvoy and Fassbender as reluctant allies, the development of McAvoy's kiddie korps of mutants feels rushed. There's a romance of plot convenience between YA versions of Beast (Nicolas Hoult) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, reclaiming the va-va-voom she ironed out for her breakout role in Winter's Bone) that resembles something like an arc. Aside from an elegant training montage, the x-kids are too busy running scared to develop any chemistry.

First Class wants to carry itself with an adult gravitas but is saddled with a teenage brain. For one, the number of mildly distracting cameos thrown at the audience is staggering. Matthew Vaughn seems to have raided the repertories of his favorite cult filmmakers, as there's no part too small that he can't fill with a James Remar, or a Ray Wise, or a Michael Ironside. Another warning sign: the movie is set during the Cuban Missile Crisis but emblazons its huge war room maps with the word 'RUSSIA' in bold typeface. In other words, if you can recall the Soviet Union, you are probably not the film's target audience. First Class is not the first brainless blockbuster with legitimate grown-up aspirations, but it's a pity that it won't commit to a single course of action. It doesn't embrace the sharp allegory of the Bryan Singer X-Men films, but it won't give the kids a chance either.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Drumline (2002)

Drumline (2002)
Dir. Charles Stone III

2.5 out of 5

Essentially a football movie where all the action takes place at halftime, Drumline works hard to put a fresh spin on a familiar narrative. Focusing on a brash young freshman drummer (Nick Cannon) who arrives at the fictional Atlanta A&T on a band scholarship, the movie doesn't take long to ramp up petty institutional politics into life or death situations. Cannon's talent is apparently so prodigious that it's dangerous. Both his drum major and his band director (a lobotomized Orlando Jones) seethe at him for being so good. As if that weren't enough, the university president shows up to inform Jones that if he refuses to "modernize" his program (read: play some damn hip-hop songs), donors will revolt and the band will cease to exist. Why he just couldn't fire the band director, I don't know. I suppose that the climatic competition wouldn't have as much juice without a looming scythe.

The villains and stakes of Drumline are so pointedly absurd because it's not the type of movie that really requires a villain. The bad is mostly in the abstract; nobody's going to die in Drumline but the film requires personifications of jealousy, stubbornness, and pride if it hopes to proceed with any kind of story. It's mostly held together by bits and pieces of other, more memorable movies, but this is accomplished in probably the most dignified way possible. It's hardly a happy-go-lucky collegiate romp - it more closely resembles a morality play. I did not expect this from a guy who is best known for creating, directing, and starring in the Budweiser "Wassup!?" commercials.

The bulk of the film is spent on numerous exhibitions of exuberant marching band performances. This seems like a wise decision. I was in a high school marching band for one year of intense but unexhilarating memories. I was only vaguely aware of the style of performance portrayed in Drumline. Seeing truly is believing when it comes to trumpet players who do the splits and choreographed drum cadences that look like what you'd get if you told a dance crew to strap on a bunch of basses and snares. Drumline scores points for its effort regardless of its overall success. Otherwise, it is quite exemplary of a recent generation of plucky just-gotta-perform youth pictures - the performances may be spellbinding and kinetic, but the rest is a derivation on an old theme.

Midnight in Paris (2011)

Midnight in Paris (2011)
Dir. Woody Allen

originally posted to Facebook on 6/8/11

3 out of 5

About 20 minutes into Woody Allen's new bookworm fantasy Midnight in Paris, when a character notes that aspiring novelist-cum-Hollywood hack Gil (Owen Wilson) looks a little vacant behind the eyes, I couldn't help but think about its particular resonance for Wilson himself. His personal struggles aside, is there anyone who believes now that he will ever recapture the goofy/soulful mojo he displayed in The Royal Tenenbaums or The Life Aquatic or - why the hell not - Zoolander? Well, in Paris Wilson seems hell-bent on showing us how he's overcoming his career ennui with a equally lethal dose of enthusiasm, continually starstruck by the artistic luminaries of 1920s Paris who he encounters after stepping into a magic Packard at the stroke of 12 every night.

Wilson is the latest Allen surrogate, cuckolded by a shrewish fiance (Rachel McAdams) and her hoity-toity parents on a business trip to the City of Lights. He wants to quit churning out box office chum and find a publisher for his novel. She wants to ensure that she can still drop 20 grand on a handmade porch chair once they're hitched. His trips into the past only affirm how little he is enjoying the present. However, I wouldn't think that rubbing shoulders with the likes of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Picasso would do much to dispel anybody's intellectual insecurities.

Midnight in Paris has a cute idea. It also has fun bursting nostalgic bubbles and the idea of returning to a mythic "golden age" where we didn't have to put up with the quotidian nonsense that makes up the 98 percent of our lives, and could
really focus on wringing out that remaining 2 percent of truth and beauty. I'm simpatico with Allen in theory, but I can't fully embrace the movie when most of its characters lack depth. McAdams is nothing more than a straw woman created to make Wilson's indecisiveness feel more like oppression. The famous writers and artists are best described as entertaining caricatures, and they are met by Wilson with the same sort of overexcited reverence seen in the history report at the end of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. But, dudes, at least he's enjoying the ride again.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Trip (2011)

The Trip (2011)
Dir. Michael Winterbottom

4 out of 5

I once had an instructor in college who could not get enough of onscreen male bonding - not treacly cop-outs filled with high-fives and lunchpail philosophies and daddy day cares, but commiseration on some of the more uncomfortable/organic facts of life. Aging. Disappointment. Cynicism. Improvised moments of glee that negate all troubles, though only for a moment. I imagine she would be immensely satisfied with "The Trip." Steve (Steve Coogan) intends to go on a restaurant tour of northern England with his girlfriend, but when she bails he invites his best friend and antagonist Rob (Rob Brydon), an impish Welshman who rarely gets far into a conversation before slipping into one of his celebrity impressions. Both men are simply playing versions of themselves - fictitious, but not by much.

The movie is essentially a study in contrasts. Steve is the more famous and pessimistic one, his personal and professional lives are in shambles. Though he is supposedly assigned to seek out the best food in each of the towns on his itinerary, he's more interested in where he can get the best cell reception. He is mortified by fame, save for the fact that it provides him with a steady stream of partners for one night stands. Rob is a massive ham, but a happy one. He's found a wife who will indulge his inscrutable need to transform into Hugh Grant in the middle of a heart-to-heart. And as professional comedians, their unspoken rivalry is just as strong as their obvious bonds of affinity.

"The Trip" is all about the emotional shorthand that good friends acquire after years of good times and hard feelings. Outside of some perfunctory concern from Rob about the reason that he's the one accompanying Steve on his trip, there isn't much said between Coogan and Brydon that qualifies as a serious conversation. But these are two people who have learned to sense what the other needs, and what they require most from one another. Sometimes that's a shouting match over whose Michael Caine voice is most accurate. Sometimes it's a therapeutic ABBA sing-along. Perhaps friendship isn't quite as dichotomous as it's portrayed in "The Trip," but it's damn near close.