Friday, August 17, 2012

In Theaters: "The Awakening"

The Awakening
’s general premise (and opening scene particularly) recall Red Lights, from just a couple of weeks back; the broad strokes are reminiscent of The Others and last spring’s Woman in Black; hell, there’s even a shout-out to Psycho, with a replication of the peephole shot that rivals Gus Van Sant’s. There’s very little that’s original in The Awakening, but that’s not its downfall (if homage were grounds for dismissal, we’d have heard nothing from Tarantino since ’91). The trouble with the movie is that there’s nothing in it that’s particularly fresh or intelligent. It’s a movie that goes through the paces until arriving at its astonishingly goofy twist ending, at which point the whole picture goes into the toilet.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Theaters: "Cosmopolis"

It’s been a good long while since David Cronenberg has indulged his inner freak—he’s coming off the (comparatively) staid and disciplined trilogy of A History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and A Dangerous Method—which is reason enough to go into his latest picture, Cosmopolis, with a feeling of giddy anticipation. That feeling lasts about twenty minutes, and then you start checking your watch. For a director returning to his home turf, Cronenberg has crafted an oddly airless affair, one strangely lacking in either the enjoyment of execution or the perversity of pleasure so persistent in his earlier efforts. It’s not a bad film, of course—Cronenberg is too competent a craftsman for that, and still quite capable of casting a spell. But it’s the kind of movie you keep waiting to come together, and it doesn’t.

In Theaters: "Robot & Frank"

Frank (Frank Langella) lives in Cold Springs, New York, in “the near future.” He lives alone; there is a wife who left some time ago, and two adult children. Madison (Liv Tyler) is a world traveler, always video-calling from some exotic location (a nice touch: even in “the near future,” the signal is still choppy and lousy), while Hunter (James Marsden) lives several hours away, but close enough to pop in on the weekends, since his father… well, he doesn’t need to be in home or anything, not yet. But he’s maybe a little senile, occasionally forgetting things. However, he has not forgotten how to steal—that’s what landed him in prison years ago. He shoplifts, but that’s more to break up the boredom, which also seems to be the cause of his daily flirtations with the town librarian (Susan Sarandon). He doesn’t really think about pulling jobs again until his son brings him the robot.

In Theaters: "ParaNorman"

Your first hint that Chris Butler and Sam Fell’s ParaNorman might not be your average family film comes early—from the first frame, in fact, since the picture opens with a grindhouse-style “feature presentation” bumper, and proceeds to give us an opening scene not of this story, but of a scratchy print of a zombie movie. It’s being enjoyed by young Norman Babcock (voiced by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his grandmother (Elaine Stritch), which causes some concern among the rest of the family, since grandma’s dead.

Monday, August 13, 2012

New on Blu: "Jaws"

It's important to resist blaming Jaws for what it has wrought, and there's no question about it: this is a movie with a lot to answer for. Though it hit theaters in 1975, its release marked the beginning of the end of what we cinephiles think of as "the '70s"; in cinema, "the '70s" started in 1967, with the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, ambitious and complicated studio films that challenged audiences, electrified critics, and turned a tidy profit. For the next several years, it seemed like a workable blueprint, and because they were still recovering from the collapse of the studio system and frankly didn't know what the hell they were doing, the suits were willing to take risks on mid-level movies that would bring modest returns. Then Jaws happened, and they realized exactly how much money there was to be made.

Given a large, saturation release (as opposed to the slow, platformed rollout more common to studio pictures) and a heavy television ad buy (a rarity back when they were seen as competing media), Jaws became, for all intents and purposes, the first "summer blockbuster." Star Wars followed two summers later, and the paradigm was set: fewer mid-level movies, and more big-budget monsters. Spend more to make more. And if you want to make as much as possible, then your big movies have to appeal to the widest audience possible--which means dumbing them down. Welcome to the '80s, and '90s, and '00s, and now.

What's interesting about Jaws, though, is that it doesn't hold to that shift at all; revisiting it with even the cynicism of a summer 2012 moviegoer is a fool's errand, as the picture's crackerjack craftsmanship, iconic performances, and (yes) fierce intelligence render it utterly irresistible. This is Hollywood genre filmmaking at its finest, and blaming it for the shift in mainstream moviemaking is a clear-cut case of shooting the messenger.