Thursday, January 27, 2011

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Fanciful, dark retelling of the true story of two young girls in New Zealand who insulate themselves in their own, private world, with disastrous results. Melanie Lynskey is Pauline, who is lower-middle class and repressed by her conservative mother and the remnants of various illnesses that plagued her as a child. She meets Kate Winslet's Juliet as a transfer student from England; similarly disease-ridden in her youth, she constantly escapes reality via immersive flights of fancy, i.e. pretending to be royalty in some far away land. Pauline is immediately attracted to Juliet, and the two begin to take Juliet's world of make-believe to the next level, with a wide array of fictional characters, kingdoms, and enemies, that relate to the real world only in the loosest sense. Eventually, their respective parents take issue with how close the girls proceed to get, and attempt to take measures to separate the two, turning them against their families. Their fake world has no tolerance for the meddling ways of real life, and so, they proceed to take whatever steps they see neccessary to stay together, using their false representation of reality as validation.

Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey are both given "Introducing..." credits here, and they instantly show the qualities that have led both of them to further success in film. Winslet is a strong, magnetic presence, pretty but not beautiful, comfortable without being showy. She is inspires both empathy for her misery, and sympathy for her delusional misappropriations of reality. Lynskey is given the harder role of being both inspired by Winslet and entranced by her; once familiar with Juliet's constant presence, the idea of being alone again is so frightening to Pauline, it sours her innocence and purity, so Lynskey must project both sympathy and insecure malice, which she does successfully without betraying the realism of the portrayal. She is, ostensibly, the lead of the piece, which gives writer/director Peter Jackson the difficult task of making you relate to her, which, thankfully, he succeeds in doing. Jackson, and cowriter Fran Walsh, relate the troubles of Pauline to Juliet to more conventional teenage struggles in such a way that I, as someone who was most certainly never a teenage girl in conservative 1950's New Zealand, could directly empathize with the two beleaguered youths. The increasingly lavish visualizations of the girls' fantasies ends up bringing about the Jackson we know and love, with computer-effects portraying their terracotta kingdom as being filled with lively, animated figures; while I prefer The Frighteners overall, as a film, this one has the more convincing special effects (odd, for of the two, it was the one NOT produced by Universal). Without spoiling anything, the tonal shifts of the piece are jarring, but Jackson handles the whole endeavor very well so that it feels like a uniform, singular piece, and not merely a collection of poignant, intense scenes.

Highly Recommended for fans of Peter Jackson, Kate Winslet, Melanie Lynskey, or real, friendship-based teen dramas. I was expecting something decidedly more chicky and exclusive than what I got; Jackson still has, in my eyes, an immaculate record (although I still haven't seen Bad Taste or The Lovely Bones).

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Chinese Coffee (2000)

Funny, poignant, and delightfully real, this dialogue-heavy cinematic adaptation of the original stage production depicts two older literary types debating their lot in life in a shabby Greenwich village apartment. Al Pacino plays the younger of the two, a struggling author living in a one-room basement apartment and whose girlfriend has just left him for a wealthier man. Jerry Orbach plays his best friend, a photographer who has left his wealthier wife in order to pursue more artistic endeavors. Pacino opens the film getting fired from his upscale doorman job for being too lackadaisical and inactive, and hobbles over to Orbach's place, where the two pontificate and debate the merits and losses of their respective lifestyles. We see the origin of their relationship, the evolution of Pacino and his ex, and their current daily routines. Eventually, the discussion becomes more pointed, as Pacino's most recent work may be more significant to his life, and their relationship, than is initially hinted at.

This is clearly a stage adaptation, with one detailed, evocative primary location, large, looming thematic ambitions, and very intense, highly focused acting. Pacino and Orbach turn in some of the best work I've seen of their latter-day careers; I wish present-day Pacino was less concerned with Shakespeare and more concerned with getting intimate, personal work like this off the ground, because it really brings out that subtle, quiet intensity that he excelled at in his younger days (think Scarecrow or Dog Day Afternoon). Orbach was unjustly relegated to TV (Law and Order) during this time in his later years, and shows that he was just as capable of nuance and introspection as he was in his younger roles with people like Lumet and Woody Allen. The direction, by Pacino, is excellent, creating a clear geography of the apartment, and never shying away from leaving the location for extra subtext or information. The two verbally spar like pros, with the dialogue perfectly cushioning their respective acting styles; they are not the friendliest guys in the world, even to their closest friends. While much has been noted of DeNiro's relationship with downtown Manhattan, I must say that Pacino, here, shows an intimacy and familiarity with the region I was not aware he had; not only does he know how to nail the geography of the area in simple, broad strokes, he understands the mentality of the aging, bohemian denizens that dwell in coffee shops and park benches for inspiration; although the story takes place in 1982, that aspect of the Village has never died, keeping this film both relevent and contemporary, as well as highly emotional and human. 10 points.

Highly Recommended for fans of Al Pacino, Jerry Orbach, or personal, dialogue-heavy stage adaptations. There were more movies like this coming out 10 years ago: The Big Kahuna, Tape, and Lakeboat immediately come to mind. It is a trend that I hope returns, for it brings out the best of its actors, its script, and, best case scenario, as it is here, its director.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Fantasia 2000 (1999)

Weak, but ambitious follow-up to the 1941 Walt Disney classic presenting several animated vignettes set to immediately recognizable, iconic classical music. While the essential elements of Fantasia have been transplanted here, somewhere between the obviousness of the music (only Ave Maria and The Nutcracker Suite were as universally familiar as the choices here), the rotating star introductions (Steve Martin, ok, but Bette Midler, Penn and Teller, and Quincy Jones?), and the thin nature of the stories themselves (i.e., Donald Duck as Noah building his ark), the classiness, energy, and profundity of the original are lost in this installment. Only one segment, a tribute to New York set to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," brings anything new and interesting to the proceedings, for the '41 Fantasia did not concern itself with urbanity and modern civilization. Even with the tune and animation heavily evoking Woody Allen's Manhattan, the jaunty, stylized animation provides a depiction of New York City that manages to be truly signature and exciting. If one or two of the other pieces managed to impress as much as the Gershwin segment, this would have been a thoroughly worthwhile and rewatchable endeavor. As is, it exists as merely a pale tribute to Walt Disney's original ambition of a continuing series of abstract, elemental animated films set to classical music.

Skip it, save for the following segment.

The Green Hornet (2011)

Lively, if uninspired buddy action flick about a heir to a publishing magnate who decides, alongside a faithful houseservant, to take up crimefighting to redeem his aloof, partygoing ways. That's about as much specificity as the plot allows; Cameron Diaz as the love interest is a tired rehash of Gwenyth Paltrow's Iron Man character, the buddy banter is, for the most part, disposable, and the villain is the stock superevil "head of crime in all the city" character. That being said, that villain, as played by OSCAR WINNER Christoph Waltz, is the funniest, most interesting part of the movie, as he repeatedly , and in vain, tries to come off as the scary, stock character he was clearly written to be ("Look at my gun! It has TWO barrels!!") Michel Gondry's visual work is what keeps the film afloat, in the end. There is strong production design throughout, the action scenes are energetic and clearly presented (Kato's first fight scene is pretty outstanding), and the pacing is pretty quick for a movie with literally no plot. The gas gun, annoyingly featured in every trailer for the film, is not overused, and the similarly overexposed Hornet car actually performs some surprising, original tricks by the films end. And it's nice to see two underutilized actors who saw their hayday when this time of film was in vogue: Edward Furlong and Edward James Olmos. However, the whole thing has a very been there, done that vibe that definitely contributes to this film being shoehorned into a mid-January (?!!) release; this was the only way this flick was going to break 30 mil opening weekend.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005)

Both graceful and immediate, this western concerns the repercussions of the murder of a Mexican ranchhand in Texas. Tommy Lee Jones, who also directed, stars as the rancher to whom Melquiades was both an employee and a dear, personal friend. He goes on a quest to discover the identity of the murderer in order to extract what he sees as the appropriate punishment. There is little mystery; I won't reveal it here, but the killer is revealed by the end of the first act, and the rest of the film involves him and Jones reconciling their notions of what happened and how important Estrada's humanity remains in his death. The film takes place in dirty, secluded Texas/Mexico, and it's a slow film, but punctuated by moments of heightened violence and emotion; this is more Sayles than Peckinpah. The acting is impeccable across the board; aside from a characteristically nuanced and mature performance from Jones, Barry Pepper, January Jones, Melissa Leo, and Dwight Yoakam turn in subdued, realistic portrayals that make the progression of the piece far more interesting than any outcome. Jones paints a flat, half-dead landscape out of Texas, and contrasts that with a lively, earthy presence in the Mexico scenes; it is not hard to infer Jones' opinion of that nation and its people, particularly in relation to their treatment by the U.S. This is not a film that can be universally appreciated by modern audiences, but rather one that takes its time, refuses to shower one in spectacle, and delivers a strong, human story that says plenty both about human nature and the current state of racial politics down south.

Highly Recommended for fans of slower-paced westerns, Tommy Lee Jones, or Barry Pepper. This and True Grit are great evidence for Barry Pepper's continually impressive talent, and that he deserves more prominent big-screen work.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Robinson Crusoe On Mars (1964)

A showcase for then-stellar special effects, this silly, yet ambitious sci-fi film depicts a shipwrecked astronaut attempting to survive alone on the red planet. The most interesting moments are in the first 15 minutes, as we discover that (future Mayor) Adam West, one of the two astronauts headed for Mars, is not, in fact, the protagonist of the film. Other than that, any integrity the film has is fairly middled away as soon as they reach Mars, which is not only distinctly un-red, but has a shocking amount of treadable terrain, drinkable water, breathable air (with the aid of magical space rocks, of course), and, inevitably, an indigenous, humanoid civilization. Oh yeah, and there's a cute space monkey to keep our lead occupied until he finds his companion, a subservient Martian miner who is the last of his kind, yet harbors no ill will towards this space man who spends every waking moment trying to inundate him with Earth (read: American) culture, i.e. English, God, etc. There are alien attacks, but no actual, physical aliens; they send their death rays from the safety of their War of the Worlds-looking spacecrafts. The lead puts up a strong figure until the weight of the excesses of the narrative make any attempt at seriousness futile. However, the film does have a great many set pieces and special effects, which, for the most part, are on par or superior than any sci-fi coming out at that time. A lava flow, in particular, is surprisingly well-rendered for a production that, clearly, didn't have the first flipping clue about the REAL Mars. But the whole thing is ludicrous, cynically derivative, and uninvolving, and fails to provide anything in the way of provocative sci-fi due to its reliance on made-up characteristics of Mars and a lack of any strong story elements beyond its source material.

Skip It, save for hardcore fans of corny '60s sci-fi or practical/optical effects, which, admittedly, are pretty impressive here (save for fake snow that looks more ready to be sprinkled on Corn Flakes than a Martian terrain).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winnebago Man (2009)

Humorous, semi-pointless doc about famed Winnebago salesman Jack Rebney, whose antics were captured in a cult youtube video that inspires a young documentarian to track him down, some 20 years later. The film opens with clips of the infamous video, which is actually a collection of outtakes from a Winnebago commercial from the late '80s. It shows Rebney continually breaking down in profanity-riddled tirades and acting cuckoo in front of the camera; while we laugh at him, his insecurities and apparently uncontrollable emotional outbursts make him a somewhat identifiable and human figure. This is what Ben Steinbauer wanted to follow up on with this documentary, and I'm not 100% certain he succeeds. There is a slight progression, as Rebney initially finds it difficult to reconcile his image with his personality, and then concluding with a festival for found videos where he is a guest of honor, but we never really learn anything about Mr. Rebney. He displayed his inherently human characteristics in the video, and, while it is fun to get a glimpse into his home life (he does not leave his house in the woods, and only hangs out with one ultra-personal friend), at feature-length, his demeanor begins to prove redundant and somewhat forcced; we get the idea that at his old age, he would not swear and make such a fit had Mr. Steinbauer not goaded him into it. That being said, he is a funny, interesting figure, and does not make one regret having watched this doc.

Slightly Recommended for fans of his youtube video or character-based documentaries. I'd say youtube Jack Rebney, and see if the video intrigues you to seek out this doc.

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

A surreal, thoroughly original comedy about a young man who goes to New York City to make it as an artist, only to discover that the Port Authority has hijacked the city into a repressive, function-oriented dystopia. Zach Galligan from Gremlins plays the lead, an amiable, fresh-faced small-towner who is determined unfit to be an artist, and is forced to work the tollbooth at the Holland Tunnel. He attempts to break through the art world by proxy, only to find it is a dense, insular subculture where absurdism is mistaken for poignancy, and superficiality dominates. Eventually, he discovers a society of divinely-wise homeless people, and is tasked with saving the moon. Oh, and the entire film is presented, in style and tone, like a Frank Capra film from the '40s.

The film was written and directed by Tom Schiller, who contributed many short films to SNL over the years, and this film is somewhat in the style of his more bizarre, surreal work for that program. Although clearly well-versed in classic Hollywood, Schiller is not content with merely aping the era, but rather using it to portray his bizarre story in a way that carefully treads the line between camp and sincerity. If the film was an empty excercise in style, it would not warrant a feature film, but Schiller and Galligan provide enough genuine, irony-free substance that the narrative is simultaneously completely silly and thoroughly engaging. There is a climactic musical number by Bad Santa's Lauren Tom that achieves an obscure, fragile poignancy that very few films of the era evoked, especially the mainstream comedies. The presence of Dan Aykroyd and another classic SNL alum (he's credited, but I refuse to specify who due to the perfection of his opening moments) ensures some familiar, straight-laced comedy, but mostly, the laughs are in the sheer absurdism of Schiller's storytelling methods and 1940's sensibilities. It is a fantastical, dreamlike film, and warrants a greater appreciation than it currently receives from academia (though that is most likely due to its lack of DVD availability).

Highly Recommended for fans of more original, anarchic comedy, or of old 1970's SNL. The film can be seen here, or can be downloaded off of a VHS copy on Bittorrent. There is genuinely nothing quite like this movie; a true lost classic.