Saturday, July 24, 2010

Saturday Night at the Movies: "Ballast"

WWriter/director Lance Hammer's stunning debut feature, Ballast, was a big winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival (it took the Cinematography and Directing Awards), and frankly, that's a bit of a surprise. It's the kind of quiet, contemplative film that frequently did well in the early years of the festival, back when it was still called the Utah/US Film Festival and before it became a Hilton-infested gear in the Hollywood machine. It's more akin to Killer of Sheep than Little Miss Sunshine, a deliberately paced tone poem that's heavy on mood and light on plot--which, I would imagine, will turn off a great many viewers.

On DVD: "Brewster McCloud"

Robert Altman’s Brewster McCloud begins with the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But it is a warbling, off-key rendition, even after the singer (Margaret Hamilton, better known as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz) demands that the song start over (and the credits repeat accordingly). It seems appropriate that McCloud begins with this mangled take on the national anthem, since the film offers the first broad strokes on the canvas that would form, over the next forty years, to become Altman’s America, a wild, eccentric place where the authoritarian establishment was to be sneered and laughed at, where kooks and oddballs were our heroes. It was a vivid, earthy, low-down world, where people talked over each other and the backgrounds were often more interesting than the foregrounds, where women were strong and men were broken, where everything was connected to everything else while simultaneously having nothing to do with anything.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Today's New in Theaters- 7/23/10

Salt: I love me some Angelina Jolie, but I haven't been terribly worked up about her big summer action movie. I finally figured out why--because the last time she fronted an action movie by herself, the result was the Tomb Raider franchise (blergh). But this one is getting unexpectedly good reviews, and the personnel involved (including director Phillip Noyce and ace cinematographer Robert Elswitt) are top-notch. So yeah, I'll get around to this one.

Ramona and Beezus: I harbor no illusions that this one is meant for me, but 26 years ago, I would have been way fucking excited about this movie. Here's hoping it does well, so we can finally get the Henry and Ribsy movie I've been clamoring for since my Book-It days.

Life During Wartime: All I knew about Life During Wartime going in was that it was a new Todd Solondtz film-- and even that didn't turn out to be accurate. It's not a new Todd Solondtz film--it's the same one he made in 1998 and called Happiness, though the fact that he's made this follow-up with a new cast (including some racial switching! Daring!) is somehow supposed to make his decision to create a sequel to his last successful movie seem artsy and indie. It's not. Revisiting old material without bringing anything new to it smells as desperate when Solondtz does it as it does when Michael Bay or Brett Ratner does.

Jean-Michele Basquiat: The Radiant Child: Tamra Davis's documentary portrait of her friend and contemporary Basquiat, the New Wave artist who stormed the New York art scene when he was barely 20 and was dead of a heroin overdose at 27, is shockingly amateurish in places (seriously, get some lav mics), but it is heartfelt, and loaded with fantastic stories and terrific archival footage.

And to answer your question, no, I still haven't seen Inception. FILM CRITIC FAIL.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

In Theaters: "Life During Wartime"

What happens when a filmmaker runs out of ideas? Todd Solondz’s new film Life During Wartime is the story of three very different sisters. Helen (Ally Sheedy) is wildly successful but miserable. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is a plain-jane granola type, overly emotional and unhappy. Trish (Allison Janney) is a cheerful mother who didn’t realize the father of her children (Ciran Hinds) was a pedophile. Sound familiar? Back in 1998, Solondz made a well-regarded (and almost-brilliant) film called Happiness, with Lara Flynn Boyle as Helen, Cynthia Stevenson as Trish, and Jane Adams as Joy. But if you walk into Life During Wartime cold (as I did), you think he’s just being cute; in the first scene (a date gone bad that parallels Happiness’s opener), Joy’s husband (Michael K. Williams from The Wire) is revealed to be a deviant because he… makes obscene phone calls. So did Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Happiness. Ha ha, inside joke. Then the film continues, and we realize it’s not a joke—twelve years later, he’s done a Happiness sequel with different actors and better lighting.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Loose Ends: White vs. Ebert, Smith vs. Everyone, and Some Other Stuff

Two items were all over the Twitter feeds of most of the critics that I follow today. First, there was everyone’s favorite contrarian troll, Armond White. I’ve tossed in my two cents on Mr. White before, and stand by my assessment of him:

White clearly couldn’t care less about contributing to a real dialogue in film culture—he aims to be a provocateur, and nothing more… he contends that “To the unbiased, I am known as a critic who speaks truth to power.” Apparently, in this context, “unbiased” means “lacking in anything resembling good common sense.” But it’s a telling line; by claiming to speak “truth to power,” his insistence on bucking trends and casting his lot on the far side of good taste (quality of the work in question be damned) is laid bare as his primary motivation.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Theaters: "Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child"

Jean-Michel Basquiat had made his first impressions on the New York underground art scene by the time he was 18. By the time he was 22, he was a star; at age 24, he made the cover of The New York Times Magazine and was collaborating with Andy Warhol. He was dead of a heroin overdose at 27.

Today's New DVDs- 7/20/10

Cop Out: It's not as bad as most critics said; it's also not as good as we've come to expect from director Kevin Smith. It is, mostly, an indie director appearing to have a great time making a mid-budget big studio movie with one of his heroes. There are worse crimes for a director to commit--like, say, responding to its critical failure by going on a campaign to make critics pay to see his films, and talking shit on critics who dare call that out as bullpuckey. But more on that later.

The Losers: This may very well be producer Joel Silver's Joel Siveriest movie to date-- a big, dumb mishmash of explosions and dopey jokes and wildly incongruent acting styles, given a shiny buff by energetic young director Sylvain White. But it has its moment-- stuff blows up real good, the pace is relentless, and the actors mostly seem in on the joke. It should find a nice home on disc.

The Most Dangerous Man in America- Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers: One of last year's Best Documentary nominees, this crackerjack nonfiction political thriller probes the story of the Pentagon Papers leak, one of the early dominoes of the Watergate scandal, with intensity and intelligence.

A Town Called Panic: This Belgian stop-motion action-comedy is a blast to watch, and has got a clever comic ingenuity. But it's all at the same pace, all at the same relentless pitch of barely-contained mania, and its unvarying tone grows downright monotonous by the picture's end.

On DVD: "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers"

The press notes for The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers don't call it a documentary; they call it a "political thriller," and the description is apt. The film may engage in the most familiar trappings of doc filmmaking--sometimes to its own detriment--but the story it tells is so engaging and engrossing that we're swept right up in it. It's a film about a moment in history--a specific moment, right before the entire house of cards that was the Nixon administration came tumbling down--but it is also an intimate, candid portrait of a man who had a crisis of conscience, and decided to act on it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

On DVD: "Cop Out"

I was talking with a friend about Kevin Smith's Cop Out, a buddy-cop action-comedy starring Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, before its release last February. We seemed to agree that while we wanted it to be an enjoyable goof from one of our favorite comic filmmakers, it sure did look like the kind of terrible formulaic movie that we'd see a poster for on the wall of Morgan's dressing room on 30 Rock. "It'll be one or the other," I told him. Joke was on me. It's both.

On DVD: "The Losers"

I don't even know, you guys. The Losers, a flashy new wind-up toy/movie from the team behind... um... Stomp the Yard (you read that right) is, by just about any definition, a bad film--filled with pat situations, hackneyed dialogue, and irritatingly overcooked photography. There are plenty of reasons to hate it, but I can't quite work up the bile to. It's a cynical exercise in empty style and tentpole creation, yes, but the whole thing is so openly crass about its intentions, so willing to lay its cards on the table, that you just end up kind of going along with it, and by the time the credits rolled, I felt something akin to affection for the damn thing. I'm not proud of myself, but there it is.

On DVD: "A Town Called Panic"

The stop-motion animated cast of the new Belgian feature A Town Called Panic first appeared in a series of five-minute short films (lumped together into fifteen and thirty minute blocks), and I'm not surprised by their popularity; the film is fast-paced, funny, and inventively made. It would also seem to go down much smoother in smaller doses. Panic is short for a feature film but feels much longer, primarily because there is no change in its tempo. What works for five minutes doesn't always play when dragged out to 75, at least not when pitched at the same level.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

On DVD: "T.A.M.I. Show"

For decades now, one of the most keenly sought unavailable-on-video movies was T.A.M.I. Show, a 1964 rock concert film with a stunning line-up of famous rock and soul acts: The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Chuck Berry, Jan and Dean, the Miracles, and many more. Indeed, the financial and legal issues entailed by that kind of a line-up were what kept it out of circulation for so long—obviously, releases and contracts didn’t yet include clauses licensing performances in perpetuity, on any future media, etc. The film remained a prize bootleg for years primarily due to the efforts of the Beach Boys, who had their performance snipped from all prints after the initial theatrical run (perhaps because they’re so comparatively dull in it? Just spit-balling). This year, at long last, it finally made its way to DVD in a full, authorized version, and it is a wonder to behold.