Friday, December 8, 2017

Review: Pulp Fiction (1994)


okay so okay, you ever hear the old expression "a good decoy can lead the enemy away from the king, a master decoy can do it again"? how do you prove you weren't some flash-in-the-pan ripoff artist who got lucky once? and if you just do the same, it has to be moreso, right? critters moved from the house to the neighborhood, so Tarantino moves from the warehouse to the outside world, into the yellowed pages of Amazing Tales.... into John Carpenter's modern wild west, with danger and death behind every door, where law enforcement is a sad, distant dream. you can find a lot of the mundane, circular repetition of Reservoir Dogs but in a larger space, in a fascinating universe of neo-nostalgia resell and sudden shootouts and a literal macguffin, characters having musical conversations and possessing a strange sense of killer's honor. it as well is not an action film -- its visceral thrills are a surprising rarity amid the words themselves, and can barely compete. film's got it going on all over, never slows down, and never gets old. it's magic.

oh I guess Roger Avary helped with that, fine, fine.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Review: Reservoir Dogs (1992)


listen, listen: let me tell you a little somethin' about the early nineties, all right? it was a magical time full of possibility and wonder, okay? all of the sixties kids had grown up and were selling us nostalgia we didn't understand, a lot of rudy ray moore and pam grier who-the-fuck-knows who else. vague memories of blaxsploitation and Baby Boomer sitcoms and porn and 'Nam ultraviolence and whatever song was on the radio the day they were learning to touch themselves. best part of it all was the only nearby database was a video store... a group of fellas could go into a warehouse and make a movie that ripped off about twenty-seven French and Hong Kong productions and only other filmmakers would know about it... and maybe it didn't even fucking matter, okay? because style can go a long fucking way, my friend, and it can even fuel your career for a few decades. a Greek Tragedy centered around a jewel heist and a group of thieves pointing guns at each other ain't half of it when you make the structure your bitch, too, when you humanize these monsters with lyrical, mundane conversations about popular culture that increase the stakes around the site of the climax, instead of leading up to it. when ya got velocity, nobody else can turn the wheel -- right place, right time, right personality never meant so much. the only sad part is that it can never be done again... unless, of course, you're the guy who did it this time.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Review: Song to Song (2017)


When cooking a steak, be sure to awkwardly stare at it until it heats itself.

Malick's ongoing scriptless Shoot the Rodeo projects continue their study of the Human Osprey, squandering the goodwill of performers and viewers alike and generally sucking valuable oxygen away from the working class. A movie about musicians and producers who fuck each other has never contained so little music or fucking. It's amazing that his steadicams and fish-eye lenses haven't been confiscated by a government or an angry mob.

The film, in comparison to his recent works, is at least telling a story this time. The four featured characters have discernible arcs -- relationships start and end, mistakes lead to revelations, somebody dies tragically... all could be universally relatable experiences if they weren't set between the 200 vacations they go on over the course of, seemingly, one year. When the film doesn't twitch with faint signs of life or when Malick splices in footage from Voyage of Time to wake you up, you can derive some suspense from reimagining it all as a PSA on sexually transmitted diseases, because nobody-but-nobody wants Cate Blanchett to get herpes.

You know the pattern by now and you can imagine the entire film, start to finish, without seeing a single frame of it. In addition to the minor positives above, I'll say that Malick also included the line from one of his Osprey surrogates, "I could go on for hours with one chord..." as perhaps the ultimate proof of self-awareness. Remember when this guy only made films every 20 years? Those were the fucking goddamn days.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017)


Baumbach's Embarassing Dad Years.

Consequences of an incestuous family come home to roost in Shadow Earth's The Royal Tenenbaums 2, where all of the kids have grown up and have kept themselves busy by churning out anxious little copies of themselves. Will our characters something-something in time?

Hoffman, substituting the Jeff Daniels role while wearing Brian De Palma's wardrobe, remains an insufferable burden on his ex-wives and children (Sandler, Stiller, Marvel), where his lack of social awareness forces them to micromanage his behavior and ride the bull for as long as they can before the patience of the universe wears thin. Moments of joy are fleeting, moments of frustration linger, and a car gets beaten up. Standard fare, really.

Taken in the short view, it's hard to know if these experiences are transforming the characters into stronger individuals or further galvanizing them into one mess of a family, doomed to forever live under the high-maintenance shadow of their father. Transformations are internal and never-ending; in Baumbach's films, the transformations may never begin. The hopeful message of the ending casts the Meyerowitz siblings as a buffer generation between their children and their grandparents, that as long as they can contain their neuroses, the next generation is saved. Okay... the joke's on them when their kids unknowingly create another Hoffman.

Baumbach is building a Cinematic Universe of Discomfort with only slight maneuvering of continuity. Books become sculptures, adoptions become births, ping-pong (paddle-that-cock) becomes pool, Pais becomes Eisenberg becomes Stiller becomes Sandler, and Laura Palmer is rescued between every film. The performances are so good and the situations so infuriating that a complete and utter lack of movement doesn't matter. This is far from the filmmaker's best and an admirable distance from his worst, but I do appreciate this new age of Baumbach where actors remember they can act and film remembers how to be film.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Review: Dunkirk (2017)


Dunkirk is a war film of an unusual sort, one that frustrates as it entertains, though not in equal measure. Nolan's usual trademarks (quick pacing, gimmicky time manipulation, non-sensationalist cinematography) blast us through an intense, rarely-portrayed moment in history -- a retreat! -- while deftly avoiding the trappings of the genre (heavy-handed character development, an all-powerful antagonist with a scar on his face). Its ballsy approach breathes life into what has become routine, a genre that wears out its welcome the older Braveheart gets. Loving everything about Dunkirk would be a whole lot easier... if we didn't have, er, History to ruin it.

It is perhaps a mistake to lean too far into glorifying the Event instead of merely portraying it. Without a flashback scene or one where someone stares longingly at a blood-stained photograph of a wife and child, the main character is the Dunkirk Evacuation itself and with it the baggage of any bottom-up artistic licenses. Cillian Murphy is the lone survivor (???) of a torpedoed ship because the story requires him to be. French and British soldiers holding the line are needlessly simplified as the result of a German tactic of not "wasting precious tanks." In the film's most egregious scene, three different war film clich├ęs collide in one tugboat. It's a shame, as with Interstellar, that Nolan simply can't go whole-hog on an objective POV. Somebody just gots to have a crowbar.

Poor decisions like these accumulate to lessen the overall impact of the film. The "miracle" of the real-life evacuation is the result of solidarity, the protective instinct of soldiers and civilians, which is difficult to convey when the story conspires to tell us otherwise. Not that this could please everyone, but those most displeased should be British soldiers, who only have deserters and shell-shocked madmen portraying them -- unless, of course, you're in the RAF, then you're safe.

So, at this stage in his life, Christopher Nolan has a number of achievements under his belt that anyone could count as proof of "doing enough." The next step in his plan, mimicking the career of Steven Spielberg, is a lofty goal but hey, if anyone can do it...

*waits patiently for Nolan's kids movie*

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Review: De Palma (2015)


Baumbach's... um... wait, you're telling me Brian De Palma didn't take one drink throughout this whole thing? Dammit.

Seems as if we're suddenly in an age of bridge-burning, earth-scorching documentaries that confirm our suspicions of Hollywood as an unforgiving bitchtown that fights creativity and meritocracy at every opportunity. That successes are jet engines constructed by tornados and failures are coliseums falling upon one person. You got yer Jodorowsky's Dune and yer Lost Soul, both flashy and exhaustive deconstructions of a specific tragedy. But what about a documentary of one long, difficult career? What about one that's driven by its own subject?

"Documentary" could even be stretching it. De Palma comes across more like the home movies of Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow, supplemented five years afterward with still frames and film footage. This is their attempt to at least make some damn money off of this thing, and it's Brian De Palma sitting in a chair and talking. What else? It's a goddamned compelling hour and forty-five minutes.

It turns out that De Palma is the perfect candidate to talk about himself. He can do so with such clarity, such seemingly perfect recall, that there's no feeling that this had to be cobbled together from several afternoons. Baumbach and Paltrow's involvement was only to start the propeller and let the ship drive itself. It would be foolish to think that this could be done for every filmmaker in the twilight of their careers -- who would be as effusive, as honest about their failures? Still. Let's try.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Review: Mr. Jealousy (1997)


Baumbach's Post-College Years.

There are two concepts at work in this film. One is Every Beta-Male's Biggest Fears Realized, and the other is Man Goes to Therapy as His Friend. The former is certainly enough to make a movie on, but I can't help but lament the backseat given to the latter, a more fertile soil for zany hijinks than simply following your girlfriend's ex around. Payoffs for the subplot shine far too late, at the climax to the main story, upstaging a wholly underappreciated performance by Eric Stoltz.

The movie is more Allen-esque setups than Baumbach-isms, though Baumbach is well-suited to the requirements of non-sequitor jokes, fantasy sequences, irises, and a constant running narration from a god character (Ernie Fusco, maybe?). I will say that his usual fallbacks are missed; they appear in scenes shared with Kicking and Screaming alumni Carlos Jacott and John Lehr, here and gone very fast, and I counted only one Uncomfortable Meeting in the entire film. I wonder, was Baumbach going through an identity crisis? Like the main character? Is he going to start rehashing his childhood after this? Are his films -- dare I say it --- autobiographical?

Stories can't help but lean Biblical, no matter how hard they try not to. Logically, Lester has every reason in the world to be jealous. His life is full liars and cheats, people that confirm his worst suspicions and prove him right at every turn and don't see the irony in their actions. However, Lester is unfortunately in a fiction, where the antagonist resides in his own brain. Gotham creates its own supervillains, so Lester's suspicions create cheaters in other people, where he is more to blame for the infidelity of his girlfriends than they are. Baumbach is aware of this, I'm certain, but it's hard to tell if he thinks this is an endurable lesson or an unending hell. His main characters usually end up in purgatory, in the middle of some internal transformation, headed somewhere. Which direction is always unclear.