I’ve always regarded the recent trend of ”found footage” movies with disdain. Beyond the fresh and eerily effective Blair Witch Project in 1999 (the film was both of those things due to a relatively limited release, and a leak of the film on the internet that gave it a certain mystique and hype), I’ve found most of these films little but annoying, repetitious and dull. Chronicle slips past on a technicality, truthfully; we see the footage not as it was found, but as it is recorded. Does it breathe life into a stale genre? No. But does it provide an interesting, thrilling alternative to the dreaded normalcy of such films? Sort of.
The Grey, perhaps known more affectionately as “that movie where Liam Neeson punches wolves,” might be one of the more surprising efforts of 2012. Director Joe Carnahan, best known for helming the travesty that was The A-Team reboot, seems to have learned a thing or two since then. The Grey, against all odds, manages to rise above its stereotypical man versus wild premise. Mighty surprising indeed. [Read more...]
There are few directors more bewildering to me than Steven Soderbergh. In between his successful Ocean’s Eleven films he makes smaller, indie-darling fare like The Good German, The Girlfriend Experience, and now Haywire. There’s something charming about a successful director choosing to make ambitious, low-budget films; kind of like if Peter Jackson sneaked in a Meet The Feebles sequel before The Hobbit. But it’s hard to call Haywire charming in any other respect. Really, truly hard.
Was there a single moviegoer who didn’t cackle snidely at the idea of a movie called We Bought A Zoo? Consider it truth in advertising: Matt Damon’s character, Benjamin Mee, does, in fact, buy a zoo. His reasons are unclear, his troubled son is unhappy with the purchase, and his wife’s recent death makes money seem limited. But, hey, that’s okay, because he bought a freaking zoo. [Read more...]
Oh what a glorious and noble beast this horse is. How brave and wonderful and expressive he is. How hard it must be to lose him. How impressive it is that he moves from owner to owner, facing adversity and hardships, like Au Hasard Balthazar drowned in Technicolor. This creature isn’t average, bound to plow fields and pull carriages. He’s not just a horse. He’s a war horse. But he’s more than a war horse, too. He’s all the things that people lose in wartime. Or, he’s an embodiment of the sacrifices of war. But things don’t really happen to him as much as they happen around him, which I guess is meant to demonstrate the disconnect between experiencing war and merely living through it? The horse is a metaphor is what I’m saying. [Read more...]
I’m not one for New Year’s Resolutions, but, if there’s one thing I could improve on, it’s watching movies. That’s strange for me to say, because obviously, I love movies and have since I was around three years old. But 2011 was a weak year for me, between the blog and video games, and reviewing those video games, I could never find the time. That’s why I’m delighted (and scared) to announce My Year In Theaters, where I see at least one movie in theaters every week in 2012. My first review will be posted today or tomorrow, but here’s a couple caveats:
- Movies seen on DVD, even for the first time, do not count. These movies MUST be seen in theaters.
- On the rare occasion that a movie I have seen is being revived at a local theater, it would count as a movie I could see.
- If I see three movies in one week, it still only counts as one. I could not take two weeks off in that event. I must see MINIMUM one movie every week in a theater, no exceptions.
So yeah, that’s about it. Look forward to my first review, and feel free to take this plunge into movie madness with or without me.
A commenter on my previous retrospective, that one for Todd Solondz’s Happiness, brought up a good point about it: that despite artistic merit, he couldn’t shake the feeling that Solondz was presenting unrelenting misery just to be a drag. I can certainly see where he’s coming from; Solondz’s gifts as a director are very much linked to his ability to make you uncomfortable. The reason, however, I think Solondz gets away with it, is that his films are largely pure character studies, presented without particular message or meaning. In fact, his flirtation with a message resulted in the cloying and highly unsatisfying Storytelling, in which he preempts his critics by having his characters criticize the movie they are in. Director Michael Haneke attempts much the same thing in Funny Games, a shot-by-shot remake of his controversial 1997 effort.
Here is a movie that should, by all accounts, be a success. The acting is potent, especially the performances from antagonists Pitt and Corbet, and the camerawork is sensible and chilling. It moves along at a brisk pace, and is virtually never boring. So why, exactly, do I find this movie to be such garbage?
Couple Anna (Naomi Watts) and George (Tim Roth) go with their son George Jr. (Devon Gearhart) to a vacation house in Long Island. There they are greeted by Peter and Paul (or Tom and Jerry, or Beavis and Butt-Head, pick your poison), two young sociopaths who subject them to a night of utter terror and pain. Suffice to say (and here’s where the spoilers start), none of them make it out alive.
But let’s step out of the world of the movie, for a moment. Haneke has described the film as a pointless exercise in violence, meant as a comment on America’s fascination with a sort of oddly voyeuristic character torture. I can certainly get behind his intentions, but his product is as ugly, disgusting, and voyeuristic as the films he is trying to decry. Unfortunately, that seems to be the point, which puts me in an odd position as a critic.
By placing his villains in a position of complete superiority, Haneke may fulfill his conceptual promise, but ultimately fails on the whole “movie” side of things. Suspense is built almost entirely on the idea of escape, of a happy ending. You don’t need that escape, or that happy ending, but it is that fleeting hope that keeps the audience engaged in the circumstances and the characters. In Funny Games, there was no doubt in my mind that the attackers would come out on top, especially after one of them ridicules the audience for wanting a satisfying conclusion. So far we have a suspense movie without suspense.
As mentioned above, Pitt’s character occasionally breaks the fourth wall, which does little but clarify things that don’t need to be clarified, in the most pretentious way possible. Not to say he’s spouting direct exposition, Haneke is too devious for that; instead, he pontificates and philosophizes, letting us know that because we are watching this, we are therefore sick bastards that deserve to be punished with misery an unsatisfying ending. The whole thing comes off as self-indulgent, Haneke sermonizing when he has no right to. So far we have a self-indulgent suspense movie without suspense.
In Haneke’s attempt to keep the film moving, he abandons any kind of characterization for shocking immediacy. Which is a fine idea, but this is a suspense movie we’re talking about. If we don’t know the characters, we can’t sympathize with the characters. The film deliberately keeps the viewer at arm’s length, an enormous flaw that Haneke poorly defends by calling attention to it, not unlike Solondz’s tactic in Storytelling. So far we have a self-indulgent suspense movie without suspense or adequate characterization.
There’s alienating your viewers for artistic effect, and then there’s sadism. What Haneke does to his characters is sick, but what he does to his audience is even sicker. Should the more informed of us moviegoers be subjected to such ridicule and derision? Is Haneke’s contempt for America so visceral, that he can’t discern the good apples from the bad? Tim Roth was apparently so scarred by the making of this movie, that he refuses to watch it. I have no doubt that Haneke has made good movies. I don’t even think he’s a bad, or contemptible man. But remaking his own movie, shot-by-shot, with a message that could be easily described in one sentence, and having a work environment so apparently detestable that your own star won’t watch the finished product? That takes a delusion of grandeur so immense, that it seems futile to even criticize. So far we have a sadistic, self-indulgent suspense movie without suspense or adequate characterization.
And that was exactly his intention.
So what’s there to say, really? Haneke wanted to make this movie, twice, apparently, and he did. He wasn’t misguided. He’s certainly not a poor writer or director. And his actors are capable. It’s sadistic in the worst sense, presenting a moment of relief near the end that is immediately undone by one of the laziest deus ex machinas I have ever seen, where Pitt’s character picks up a television remote, and literally rewinds the film. You’d think there would be a point to that surreal departure beyond giving the audience a treat and then cruelly taking it away, but there isn’t. It’s just mean. Mean to his characters, and mean to his audience. In fact, it feels less like his giving the audience a treat, and more like him momentarily stopping punching us in the face, only to continue immediately afterward. It’s more of a concept then a movie, an answer to a question that no one’s asking. If Haneke’s intent was to point at his movie and call it shit, then he succeeded more than he intended to.
The Good: Strong performances all around, excepting the obviously inexperienced child actor. Cinematography is competent, if not especially interesting.
The Bad: At nearly two hours, the movie overstays its welcome. The aforementioned child actor really grated on my nerves. Dialogue seems predictably stilted, as if (as it probably was) it were directly translated from another language.
The Ugly: Funny Games is not just an unpleasant movie to watch. It’s a deeply brutal and unnecessary one, too. It attempts satire, and fails quite miserably. The fourth-wall breaking pushes you out of the movie, rather than drawing you in. For a movie touted as a suspenseful thriller, it is neither suspenseful nor thrilling.
Final Comments: Despite solid performances all around, Funny Games breaks under the weight of its own pretentious meta-concept. The only thing worse than its hypocrisy is its smug acceptance of that hypocrisy, which it tries to pass off as high-art philosophy.
Coming up soon on Film Retrospective: I take a look at a more favorably reviewed Michael Haneke film, Cache.
Fair warning: The following retrospective review will contain spoilers. Due to the themes and content of this film, it is advised that the easily offended do not read this retrospective review. “Happiness” was given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA when it was released in 1998, citing pervasive language and heavy sexual themes as the cause. The film was rejected from the Sundance Film Festival for being too disagreeable. The film deals with taboo topics frankly and honestly. So will this review.
Here’s the thing: I really don’t want to talk about Happiness. And honestly, I have no obligation to. But I feel that I should. I think it’s an important enough movie to kick off our Film Retrospective segment, and it’s controversial enough to warrant a good dissection. But Happiness affected me on a very emotional level, and I don’t quite know why. So let’s just jump into the abyss, shall we?
Happiness follows the Jordan sisters, Joy (Jane Adams), Helen (Lara Flynn Boyle), and Trish (Cynthia Stevenson). Joy is somewhat lacking direction. She has a manageable job working a telephone sales line, and continues to struggle as a musician. Helen is somewhat full of herself. An accomplished poet, she lives in a self-proclaimed “life of irony” in New Jersey. She also gets a call from her neighbor Allen (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an introvert with sex on his mind and a penchant for heavy breathing. Trish is somewhat oblivious. She has two kids, and is happily married to Bill Maplewood (Dylan Baker), who, unbeknownst to her, is a pedophile.
Do you see why I didn’t want to talk about this? At a hefty two hour and fifteen minute running time, Happiness is easily one of the most exhausting movies I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t shy away from some very, very disturbing stuff, and its repeated interior settings make you feel claustrophobic, fast. But when all is said and done, Happiness is an oddly hopeful movie. And, as I said earlier, I don’t quite know why.
In scope, Happiness recalls films like Short Cuts, or Magnolia; but in tone, it seems more closely aligned to a sort of deranged Buñuel-ian satire. It could be called a comedy, but the laughs are sparse, and almost always uncomfortable. Writer/Director Todd Solondz keeps you masterfully on edge, and a simple line like “Would you like a sandwich?” becomes simultaneously horrific and hilarious.
In all sincerity, Jane Adams made this movie significantly easier to watch. Her performance is quiet and peaceful, and she has one of the most purely beautiful complexions I’ve ever seen. But the showstopper here is Baker, who seems deliriously committed to his role as a middle-aged therapist/father/pedophile. In fact, the most heartbreaking scene in the movie comes near the end, when Bill sits on the couch with his son Billy, and comes clean about his pedophilia.
“What did you do?” Billy asks after some needling. “I fucked them.” Bill replies, tears forming in his eyes. The scene is so affecting because it’s played without commentary on the director’s part. There’s no moralizing, just a father telling his son simply, plainly, what a horrible person he is. And the father isn’t regretful. “How was it?” The son asks. “It was… great.” Bill says. “Would you do it again?” “Yes.” Needless to say, the grueling scene ends with the both of them, broken down and sobbing on the couch.
There’s a running theme of discharge, whether it be physical (Bill’s son Billy worries that he hasn’t been able to ejaculate), or emotional (Joy’s guitar-playing and songwriting), all the characters try to find means of unloading their unhappiness. The result, strangely enough, is an honest look at the roots of happiness, and how subjective it is in the first place. For Joy, it’s her musical talents, and the prospect of finding Mr. Right. For Bill, it’s drugging and sodomizing his son’s little league teammates. And in the end, Bill heads off to jail, the sisters share an awkward conversation with their newly separated parents, and Billy spots a young sunbathing woman, and finally, erm… discharges. So there’s a happy ending after all.
The Good: An endless stream of talented actors, raw direction, and an ambitious script that lives up to its promise.
The Bad: Occasionally, although not very often, Solondz falls back on a predictable contrasting of dark subject matter with a chipper soundtrack for satirical effect.
The Ugly: And what an ugly movie it was. It should be noted that none of the father’s escapades are detailed on screen, but the build-up is predictably nauseating. For very serious moviegoers only.
Final Comments: Happiness has enough content for two movies. It’s unrelentingly bleak and at times painful to watch, but stay to the end and you’ll find that you’ve just watched a masterpiece.
The film genre is ever changing, yet never evolving. We go to the theater to be absorbed into another world, more fantastic than our own. To see sights we’ve never seen, to hear words we’ve always thought but never uttered, to feel what we’re too afraid to feel. Film is an escape, yet has film escaped its own fantasies?
One night while in film class the topic came up of similarities. How films have steadily filled a certain mold, that there is a doctrine for police procedurals, romantic comedies, action films, buddy comedies, and all other types of genres.
The professor asked “Are these similarities prevalent in most if not all films? Are all films in their respective genres the same?” the girl who seemingly knows nothing about film yet speaks as if she’s the master pipes up in a dull dreary tone, “Yes..” she says.
This peaked my interest. I turned to her and asked, “How? Could you please explain your hypothesis?” She didn’t decide to elaborate on her claim, even after my persistence.
So I have to ask, is this girl just saying yes because she feels like she’s fitting in with something to say? Or has film gotten to the point where viewers will pay $8.50 to go and see, essentially, the same film with different actors? Have we become sheep that Hollywood just herds into their “genre pens”?
Once the thought entered my mind I couldn’t help but think every romantic comedy follows the same set pattern: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. What about the breaks in that mold? The films that ultimately try to do something different. Do we cast those aside? Generally these are the films that no one ever sees because Hollywood deems them to be “unmarketable.” Are these types of films truly outside of marketing to an audience, or is Hollywood just afraid to break the pattern that has persisted for a multitude of years?
In “(500) Days of Summer”, there is no boy gets girl back. In fact you could say that there was no boy loses girl because technically he never had her in the first place.
In “Annie Hall”, boy meets girl, boy gets tired of girl, boy stays with girl just to prove a point. These are two of my favorite films in the genre of romantic comedy. But instead of running with that oh so typical plot they chose to do something completely different.
I’m not saying that any film that is similar to another is automatically bad. “Some Like It Hot” is in my top five favorite films of all time, yet it follows the genre’s plot outline. What it does differently that makes me enjoy the film so very much are the characters, two likeable guys just trying to escape from an improbable situation dress up as women and join a traveling girl band. It is absurd to be sure, but I love it all the same.
Hollywood has a tendency to fantasize a genre. The rom-com has fallen in that pit of despair, but why do we have to live with that? Do we constantly want to struggle in the theater when we see our lead at the bar whining because he lost the love of his life? Do we always have to judge a relationship to see if this guy is just like Ryan Gosling? Cause if he’s not Gosling he’s not good enough. Why doesn’t society want to do something about it? Do you like seeing the same story? Would you like more freshness? Instead, people go by the thousands to see the same exact film, done with different actors who have different character names. Joe Schmoe is now John Monroe and that changes EVERYTHING.
Of course no film is ever about just the plot. In fact some have none (I’m looking at you Michael Bay) it’s just relentless heart pounding action. What’s the point of all the action if you don’t have the driving force behind it?
I was discussing this with one of my friends and he said “Most people would rather see three-dimensional effect than a three dimensional character” which is true and false considering the massive line to see “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” yet more and more people are going to see the 2-D version of the next action movie rather than the 3-D one because they don’t believe in 3-D as a medium. The reason, at least from what I think, is that 3-D isn’t used in a viable way. It is slapped onto whatever studios think will make them the biggest buck. People don’t buy into 3-D because it isn’t used properly. Is there a proper use? I’d like to think so, since it has the ability to bring you deeper into that world.
On the technical side people just seem to forget. Directors over see the entire project. Cinematographers cue the shot and give us something to see. They are the eyes behind the film, without them we’d be detached from the film; their job is to put us in the shoes of the character, as if we’re there. Essentially all aspects of film drive the plot. That’s what it’s all about right? Story-telling.
The wheels of change cannot start turning until people stand up against prediction. In the future what can we look back on as an accomplishment in the film industry? Edgar Wright tweeted it best when he said, “We better start making some original movies. Otherwise, what are we going to remake in twenty years time?”
So I have to pose the question that Hollywood should be constantly asking its sheep: Why do you go see movies? Is it so you can escape from the world? What do you feel about seeing the same plots over and over again? Is there a certain plot you haven’t seen realize but would like to?
Welcome one and all to Error! Not Found, where myself and a dedicated group of editors will provide the latest news and reviews of Film, Television, and Games (AKA The “Holy Trinity” of visual media). Movie reviews will be posted the Sunday following their release, television reviews will go live as soon as we can get them up after the air date, and game reviews will be posted the Tuesday after their original release. We’ll also try an provide a stream of news relating to any and all media. So sit back, enjoy, and thanks for visiting!