A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

Advertisements

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Chappie” 4.12.15

Writer/Director Neill Blomkamp burst onto the scene in 2009 with the Science Fiction game changer, “District 9”, which many could say (minus maybe Duncan Jones’ “Moon, also released that same year), is one of, if not the best Science Fiction films of the past decade. It carved out a new niche in Science Fiction infusing faux-documentary elements, guerilla filmmaking, and a visceral-like quality usually only found in War films. It also contained many allegorical themes, mainly using his story of alien life forms who land on earth only to be ousted and pushed into “ghettos”, clearly Blomkamp’s take on the rising number of illegal immigrants and how they are treated once they enter into this country. Blomkamp’s follow-up, 2013’s “Elysium”, once again saw Blomkamp digging into more allegorical themes in a movie about classicism and two planets that separate the rich from the poor. “Elysium”, at least in my opinion (and most likely the opinion of everyone else) wasn’t half the film “District 9” was. But that would have been a tough feat to pull off. Considering how influential the former film was. As for his more recent film, what first piqued my interest about it a long long time ago was that film news websites were saying things like “Neill Blomkamp teams up with rap/rave group Die Antwoord on his newest film”. I immediately took notice as many people who know me know how much of a Die Antwoord fan I really am. And it seemed to make sense that the most unique voice coming out of Africa in film would team up with the most popular musical group from the same country (that and both Blomkamp and Die Antwoord have expressed their deep love and admiration for one another to the press). It was only befitting that the two would team up for a film. What also drew me to this particular project, despite its less than favorable reviews, was not only the casting of Die Antwoord (Ninja and Yolandi Vi$$er), but Hugh Jackman (who I have a newfound respect for because of 2013’s “Prisoners”), the legendary Sigourney Weaver (any Science Fiction director’s dream to have cast in their film), Dave Patel from “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008), and finally third-time collaborator Sharlto Copley (playing the voice of the robot of the titular character. Even in spite of it not getting such great reviews, given the film’s pedigree it was almost a given that I would see it while it was still in theaters.

The film first introduced us, as did “District 9” did, to a decaying, crime ridden Johannesburg, South Africa. And through a series of interviews with Ph.D types, discusses the city’s elite police force, robots which are manufactured by a company called Tetravaal. The company is the leading distributor of the droids. Within the company there are two developers, Deon (played by Dev Patel) whose sight is set on making a more human-like robot. One that can think and feel emotions on the same level that humans do. The company’s other developer, Vincent (played by Hugh Jackman) has developed his own machine called MOOSE, which can be remote-controlled and handled solely by the company employee’s themselves, which puts the two in competition. Both developers are assets to the company, but are given very little help financially in getting their prospective projects off the ground by the head of the company, Michelle (played by every Science Fiction director’s dream of having her star in their film – Sigourney Weaver). A shift in plot brings us to a visceral car chase scene after a drug deal whose occupants include both Yolandi Vi$$ser and Ninja from Die Antwoord, playing fictionalized versions of themselves (or are they?). Ninja is threatened and told by the city drug lord, “Hippo”, that he needs to pay back $20 million dollars lost in the deal or else they will both be killed. Desperate and not knowing what to do, Ninja and Yolandi come up with a plan to kidnap Deon so that he will help them manufacture a killer robot to help them pull of a heist so they can pay back the money the $20 million they owe. It’s at about this same time that Deon finally figures out the right formula to create his project of making a robot that closely resembles a human. While in transit of taking hardwired parts to make said robot, he is kidnapped by Yolandi and Ninja and taken to a remote, abandoned factory in which he is forced at gun point to create this human-like robot by the two gangsters (or shall I say “ganstas”), and completes putting together a robot that can mimic humans of whom they name “Chappie”. After doing so, Deon isn’t needed anymore, so Chappie becomes Ninja’s and Yolandi’s project in teaching and training him to become the first robot “gansta”. So that they can use his bulletproof armor and apathetic conscience to pull of the heist that will allow them to pay the money back.

Does the premise of creating the world’s first A.I. gangster sound silly? It sure does. But it’s also a heck of a lot of fun if you don’t take the movie too seriously (which I think is what turned off many critics about it). This is essentially Die Antwoord’s film. Both Yolandi and Ninja get the film’s most screen time, and for a musical duo of non-actors (except for their starring role they did a few years back in a short filmed by Harmony Korine) their characters are mostly drawn out well and come across as believable. Both artists/actors essentially play themselves, and Blomkamp seems to have clearly been inspired by the group’s aesthetic. As everything from the set design, music, graffiti, costume, and film’s music seems lifted from what I call the Die Antwoord aesthetic (otherwise known as “Zef” culture which broken down into laments terms is the band’s own “gangsta” lifestyle). The two of them essentially teach and educate Chappie on said lifestyle, which is in conflict to his creator Deon’s, who wishes for a more law-abiding and morally conscious Chappie. It’s within these so-called “training” scenes in turning Chappie “gangsta” that the film produces its most laughs, poking fun of itself and never seeming to take things too seriously (much like the band members themselves). Yolandi takes on the role of “Mummy” to the robot and Ninja taking on the role of “Dada”. Ninja being the one most responsible for turning Chappie into a gangster robot (imagine a robot version of James Franco’s “Alien” from Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers”). It’s from here that the plot grows increasingly more and more preposterous, as Chappie is conflicted by both the “gansta” lifestyle of his kidnappers and the more morally conscious embodiment of his programmer Deon, who desperately tries to get him back.

I had a lot of fun with this film, even though as hinted at I’m partially bias being in that I’m a fan of Die Antwoord, whose performances in the film are borderline if not full on self-parody, which I found amusing and interesting to watch when put into the context of the film. It also has a great electronic throbbing score by the legendary Hans Zimmer (whose work up to this point in film composing has always been more orchestral). The concept of the film itself is strong enough even if the plot is jarring and the execution seems funny and pointless.

This wound up being a film that I was much more entertained by than I was in its ability (or lack thereof) to be believable or to be taken too seriously. As you have to suspend quite a bit of disbelief to enjoy it. As I was able to going into it which ultimately wound up being the case here. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this to anyone, except for die-hard fans of the genre and even more so, fans of Die Antwoord. But for those looking to kick back with something that doesn’t require much thought on behalf of the viewer other than to be somewhat of a standard slice of contemporary Science Fiction, I can assure you there are a lot worse ways that you can spend your time outside of watching this film. However, that being said, let’s just hope that Blomkamp takes his next project, the “Alien” reboot, a bit more seriously as he’s going to have quite a bit of fine tuning to do.

[B-/B]

A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Spring Breakers” (2012) 4.5.15

Spring Breakers Movie Poster

I was excited when I saw that our local college student run movie theater was showing this as the first film of their spring season. I’ve always been a firm believer that movies aren’t always better, but deserved to be witnessed on the big screen. It’s an entirely different experience from that of the privacy of your own home. The great thing about living in a city like Portland is you can re-experience or experience something for the first time at one of our many local area theaters that show older films, so that those of us can get a chance to revisit older films as they were intended to be seen – on the big screen. I remember seeing this film twice in theaters when it got a limited wide release early in 2013 and was so impressed by it that it made my “Top 10 Films of 2013”. First off, I have always been a fan of Harmony Korine’s work. Though like other directors (Lars Von Trier comes to mind), his films have always been a bit esoteric. Korine is a provocateur, who seems to be always pushing the envelope, which is essentially what he’s been doing ever since he first gained notoriety when he wrote the screenplay at the age of 18 for Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995). A landmark achievement of a film that explored the daily lives of a group of New York City teenagers as they did well, what teenagers did at the time and still do – consume. Whether it’s by having copious amounts of sex, partying, or drinking and drugging their way through adolescence. It was one of the most controversial films of the decade but while it was shocking and explicit, it also was a revealing depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager and the types of poor choices they make in their more formative years because let’s face it – teenagers think they’re invincible. “Kids” was and always will remain a deeply important film because it depicted a slice of life that most of us experienced as we numbed ourselves through our formative years for no other reason other than that it seemed like “the thing to do”.

“Spring Breakers” is essentially a companion piece to “Kids”. Korine’s screenplay seems to explore similar ideas and themes, just set in more current, modern-day times. This time focusing on a group of college students (played against Disney typecast by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s own wife – Rachel Korine) as they take a spring break trip to hell. The film starts with a brilliant opening montage that looks like something out of a “Girls Gone Wild” video set to a loud and abrasive Dubstep piece by the king of the EDM/Dubstep scene – Skrillex (who collaborates on the film’s score with who’s arguably the best film composer in the business – Cliff Martinez). It’s filmed in slow motion and shows countless crowds of college students engaged in just about every act of spring break debauchery – drinking beer bongs, girls flashing just about every body part, guys pouring bottles of beer on them, everyone flipping off the camera, etc. This does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the film. It then flashes back to the four female central characters eagerly anticipating the end of the term so that they can join the ranks of college students who flock each year down to exotic locations in chase of some sort of cathartic experience in which they can go all out without any care in the world for any repercussions for the lewd behavior in which they choose to engage in. The four girls take a trip down to Florida in hopes of searching for the “American Dream” (as you’ll often hear Spring Break referred to in the film) winding up in some kind of nightmare as they experience the dark side of what happens when you wind up in the aftermath of Spring Break. It’s within the film’s second half, when the girls are taken out of the Spring Break culture after being arrested and bailed out by the film’s most integral character, Alien (played by a scene stealing, career best performance by James Franco, complete with cornrows and a full grill on his teeth). It’s within the second half of the film that I felt like Korine really starts to explore some of the underlying themes of the film and his intentions for doing so.

“Spring Breakers” is a vile and repulsive film about our generation’s fascination with sex, violence, consumerism, and over consumption. It seemed liike many people didn’t quite know what to make of the film as Korine does an expert job at mis-marketing it to look like something it’s actually not. While also being his most accessible (which is easy coming from the director of films like “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers”), commercially successful (it was the top grossing limited release of 2013), and also his most satirical and misunderstood film to date. One thing I realized during my third viewing of the film, is that you kind of have to be looking through Korine’s lens and the world in which he depicts, to understand the film’s subtext. Korine is in no way glamorizing or sensationalizing the world in which these characters exist in. Rather quite the opposite. He is repulsed like you or I are. This is clearly exemplified by the lifestyle of the film’s protagonist (if you want to call him that) Alien. Alien represents everything our current youth and adult culture idolizes – excess and the allure of money. He appears to have it all that any young person could want on the surface – lots of money, a fast car, a beautiful home on the water, endless supplies of drugs…the list goes on and on. But he’s also a byproduct of living in a society of consumerism and endless consumption. For all of his many materialist riches his life is void of anything or substance or meaning. There’s a segment in the film that many people laughed at but which I found downright deplorable. While in his home he shows off his many “riches” – money scattered everywhere, an artillery wall for his guns, an endless supply of drugs, a bed made of art, swim shorts in every color (look at my SHIT!). He embodies everything almost any young man or women could want, or at the very least, would want to be around (hence his appeal to the four female leads). Franco plays the character to a T. In one of those iconic roles that you really can’t picture any other actor being able to pull off. It’s a total transformative performance that ranks up there with some of the best of the past few years.

While the first half of the film is filmed like some sort of dream complete with rich candy colors (Korine and DP of photography Benoit Debie, who’s prior work on Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009) was a cited influence for the “look” of the film).The film’s second half is filmed in slightly more muted colors, with many of the scenes taking place at sunset or night (a nicely, rather intentional decision of contrast by Korine). The way in which it’s filmed also has a Terrence Malick-esque feel (“The Tree of Life”) as the cinematography takes on a free-floating, soaring, stream-of-consciousness quality to it with many scenes using voice-over narration in showing multiple shots and quick edits of its characters. The film goes from Girls Gone Wild sex romp in its first half to semi-tragedy in its second. I could go on and on about the satirical elements Korine seems to want to get across to his audience. But I’ll end by saying this, like Bobcat Goldthwait’s biting satire – “God Bless America” (2011) did, Korine does a good job at putting up a mirror to our generation’s cultural climate, where we see ourselves in, but are too ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. Which is essentially what I think turned most people off to this film. It’s my favorite of all of Korine’s work to date, and in years to come, will be discovered as a dug up artifact to remind the future of the materialistic, self-serving, superficial, and hopeless reflection of both the times and society in which we currently live in.

[A-]

Review: ‘Neighbors’ 9.6.14

Extra Large Movie Poster Image for Neighbors

You really can’t go wrong with a Seth Rogen movie. Anyone under 40 will admit he’s this generation’s funny fat guy (sorry Zach Galifianakis, Jack Black, and Kevin James). He’s someone you wish you had as a best friend, or maybe even a big brother. He’s just so goddamn funny. And while although he may have grown increasingly more and more typecast in recent years. Most of the time, you can always count on a Seth Rogen movie to be entertaining and provide you with some healthy doses of genuine laughter.

“Neighbors” is another movie that lends itself nicely to Rogen’s comedic sensibilities. Even if at times it feels like just another Seth Rogen comedy. Directed by Nicholas Stoller who, prior to this, has directed a string of mostly good comedies from 2008’s “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, to 2010’s “Get Him To the Greek”, to 2012’s underrated “The Five-Year Engagement”. Stoller once again finds himself in familiar comedic territory. A couple of thirty something’s, played by Rogen and Rose Byrne, who are recently married with their first child and brand new home, find their domestic dream taken over upon the arrival of a fraternity led by Zac Effron (not great, but still a “servicable” enough actor) who move in next store. In slightly predictable fashion, given the title, they wind up being the neighbors from hell. I thought the film’s funniest and strongest moments were in its first act, in which both Rogen and Byrne attempt (the introduction scene generates quite a few laughs) to become friendly neighbors and succeed in doing so, only to have Effron and co. clash with their domestic parent lifestyle and begin causing their inevitable mental break down which leads them to start a kind of pseudo war back and forth. It starts off strong, with a lot of laughs produced from Rogen’s usual trademark pop culture reference jokes, as well as that of the fraternity’s. There’s some really hilarious moments involving a flashback in time to the fraternity’s earlier days, as well as a hilarious scene involving hazing. Also there seems to be a running thread of “imitation” jokes that stand out at various points in the film (Dave Franco’s is dead on imitating Robert DeNiro in the Fockers comedies), and some well shot party scenes (apparently the cinematographer cited ‘Spring Breakers’ as being a direct influence on these scenes’ candy colored look), along with a great cast of some of the better, young comedic actors out right now. Ike Barinholtz from “Eastbound & Down” is a standout, Christopher Mintz-Plasse (“McLovin” from “Superbad”), Craig Roberts (“Submarine”), Dave Franco (brother of James), and Lisa Kudrow as the college’s dean are all great casting choices. Where the film loses a bit of steam is in its 3rd act, in which the jokes start to feel forced and the plot grows increasing preposterous. Still, a worthwhile comedy. And one that I would recommend. Just don’t go into it with high expectations. If you know what you’re signing up for ahead of time, you most likely won’t be let down. It’s one of those films that’s just funny enough.
Grade: B-