Friday, December 31, 2010

Notes on the Year-End Recap to Come

Greetings and a Happy New Year to you, the reader. Time permitting, I'll try to put up another review tonight. There are a number of options, but I can't decide whether to close 2010 out with a classy documentary like Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Walt & El Grupo, or if I should stick to my roots and watch Mega Piranha (a gag gift from a friend). I don't know if I need any more movies to add to my "Never Again" list, but I'm a little burnt out and could use something terrible to relax with.

Tomorrow would have been the beginning of my 2010 Year-End Recap, with films falling into the "Favorites," "The Middle," or the aforementioned "Never Again" categories, but the Cranpire had to reschedule last night's field trip to see True Grit until Saturday (and thus necessitating the Cap'n bumping up my review of The American). If I can't see Black Swan before the recap starts, I'd at least like to see True Grit. As it stands, I think that when the first part of the recap goes up (probably on Monday), you should have plenty of interesting films to check out, with links to the reviews. I know it's not easy to keep up with a blog that updates so frequently, so this will be an opportunity to find movies you missed over the year.

If you're wondering what I didn't get to see that I wanted to, here's a handy list:

Black Swan
127 Hours
The Fighter
Winter’s Bone
The King’s Speech
Get Low
Cyrus
Let Me In
Monsters
Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Jean-Michel Basquiat: The Radiant Child
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One
Somewhere
Tetro
I Am Love

Let's agree to look forward to reviews of these and many other films in 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Blogorium Review: The American

I've had a hell of a time trying to sell anyone on Anton Corbijn's The American: despite being highly praised by critics, most people I know seem to have one set opinion of the film, an opinion that prevents any interest in entertaining the fact that what The American is being sold as is not at all what The American actually is. Hopefully this review will change your positions; I'd hate to think you'd miss out on such a fine film because of its marketing.

The advertising for The American does it a great disservice: despite what it may appear to be in trailers, the film is not a Jason Bourne-esque techno-thriller replacing Matt Damon with George Clooney. The American is a quiet, contemplative film punctuated with (literally) muffled outbursts of violence, and while it deals in the world of assassinations, this is far from you run-of-the-mill suspense film. It is, however, a film reminiscent of In Bruges, The Hit, and a far better version of Jarmusch's The Limits of Control. I echoes many elements of these films, while dropping or altering the tone of the narrative to fit a quieter mood, something along the lines of an All the President's Men.

Corbijn, along with writer Rowan Joffe, maintain a simple structure. Information is delivered in The American only as needed: Jack (Clooney) is in Sweden with a woman (Irina Björklund) identified in the credits as Ingrid. While out for a walk, he's attacked by two assassins, kills them and Ingrid, then leaves. His handler / boss, Pavel (Johan Leysen) sends the American into hiding in Castelvecchio, a small town in the Abruzzo mountains of Italy, but Jack decides instead to go to Castel del Monte and sets up as Edward.

Jack / Edward is paranoid, and none of the people surrounding him in Castel del Monte give him any reason not to be: not Clara (Violante Placido), a prostitute he becomes attached to, not Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), who has his own secrets and may have been following Jack. Not even Pavel, who assigns Jack another job, this time working for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten), a woman planning her own hit. Not to mention the Swedish hitman who finds Jack almost immediately after he arrives.

The biggest misleading element of the marketing for The American is in what Jack does in the film: contrary to the suggestion, Jack designs and builds weapons for assassins. He isn't actually a contract killer, although Universal's advertising division does a hell of a job finding every single shot where Clooney is holding a gun to suggest the film is a "hired killer on the run" movie. Quite the contrary: Anton Corbijn (Control) constructs the film in slow beats, held in place by unbroken takes that don't rely on MTV-style editing. Dialogue is sparse, and often the audience is only given half of the information - we're relied on to fill in the blanks ourselves.

Clooney, as the only American in the film, delivers a fine, subdued performance, one that doesn't trade on his wit or charm as many would expect. The American goes even beyond Michael Clayton in allowing Clooney to be serious without histrionics: we know nothing more about Jack than what is observable through his behavior, his patterns, his interactions. Clooney's insular performance (down to the way he physically carries himself, often buried within the pockets of his coat) as atypical of what many people are expecting of him - and what almost everyone hesitant to see The American expressed to me - and his barely controlled paranoia never overwhelms the character.

The film itself is only loosely a comment on Americans overseas: aside from a few brief references in songs or dialogue to his status as an outsider, no greater critique of American culture is present in the film, any more so than that of espionage among Europeans. Along with small juxtapositions of Clooney's lone American in Italy, Corbijn throws in a clever visual joke: while Jack is waiting in a diner, Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West is playing, the only one of the Italian director's "Spaghetti Westerns" to be filmed in America. One senses a slight nod to Papillon as well, due to a recurring motif in the film: Jack / Edward's nickname "Mr. Butterfly," tied both to the tattoo on his neck, a brief shot of a nature guide he reads while sleeping, and a short but pertinent conversation near the river he returns to throughout the film.

If nothing else, I hope this review helps clarify The American for pessimistic viewers: you're being sold a bill of goods that doesn't match the product, and in almost every way undersells what you would actually see, were you to watch the film. Like yesterday's review of The Town, I can't say that the story will blow your mind - although there are no major "twists" in the film, another element it shares with In Bruges, The Hit, and The Limits of Control - but the familiar narrative is important more in the telling than what's being told. Do yourself a favor and look past the misgivings; I suspect you won't regret it.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Blogorium Review: The Town

editor's note: there will be no Video Daily Double today, as the Cap'n winds down his "year end reviews" leading up to this weekend's 2010 Year in Film recap.

Ben Affleck's The Town is a pretty by-the-books heist film saved by fine performances and Affleck's affinity for Boston, Massachusetts. It's not that the heist story is bad, per se, but that if you've seen any heist movie (Criss Cross, The Score, Heat, Inception, or even, well, Heist), then you can figure out the angles from the beginning of the film and pretty much map out where The Town is going. Admittedly, that's not a bad thing, because heist movies, like slasher films, are sort of like jazz or blues in that way - you know where major beats are, but the way the story gets there is what's interesting.

Affleck, who co-wrote the film with Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard (based on a Chuck Hogan novel), stars as Doug McRay, a former hockey prospect turned bank and armored car robber in Charlestown, a neighborhood in Boston known for a tough life and criminal behavior. Doug's father, Stephen (Chris Cooper) has been in jail since he was young, so McRay was raised with James Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) and may or may not be the father of James' sister, Krista (Blake Lively)'s daughter. The other members of McRay and Coughlin's "crew" are Albert McGloan (Slaine), the driver, and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), the electrical guy. The boys answer to "Fergie" Colm (Pete Postlethwaite), a drug pusher running a florist front.

When they rob a bank early in the film, James' short temper gets the best of him and he begins beating the bank manager, while Doug tries to coax co-manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) into opening the safe. As collateral, they take Claire hostage and let her go blindfolded, but when James discovers she lifes four blocks from their apartments, Doug decides to spy on her. They have a "meet cute" at a laundromat, and Doug's easygoing charm wins her over, much to James' chagrin. Their next heist(s) compound the desire of Detective Dino Ciampa (Titus Welliver) and FBI Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm) to nail the crew before Coughlin's murderous impulses harm anyone else. Doug wants out, Colm and Coughlin won't let him, so he agrees to do "one last job" before leaving with Claire for better opportunities.

I really don't need to tell you anything else about the plot, because that setup is so familiar, so specific to the sub-genre (and nearly all film noir), that you can probably guess who lives, who dies, when it happens, and where things begin to fall apart for McRay and his crew. What's different, what largely works in The Town's favor, is twofold; the pacing, which is surprisingly languid for films known for their preference towards tension, and the Charlestown setting, which gives Affleck the ability to flesh his characters out in unexpected ways.

Affleck's directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a film I was tremendously fond of, partially because of its moral ambiguity but mostly as a result of making the location a character in the film. The Town isn't quite as successful, mostly due to the lack of urgency during every scene - including the robberies - but in taking it easy with the pacing, little flourishes emerge that separate this film from other heist movies. Typically, the hero is a bad guy with a good heart, tied to some maniac that's going to endanger them all (Heat) or double cross him at the end (The Score), but Doug McRay is only a nice guy in that he doesn't hurt people during robberies. He maintains the lie to Claire about who he is or why they "met" until well after Frawley tells her the truth, and while his passion for kids and renovating a local hockey arena is genuine, the act (semi-spoilers ahead) come from money stolen at Fenway Park after a Red Sox series.

Renner's Coughlin is the "loose cannon" character, but he also cares about Doug and depends on him like a brother. His rationale for why Doug "can't leave" comes not from a purely psychotic decision, but from something he did to protect McRay and never told him about. The boy-men solve their problems with violence, and when Doug finds out that Claire's car was vandalized by guys he knows, he brings James along for a little home invasion and aggravated assault without thinking twice about it. Whether or not Krista's daughter is his, Doug feels no compulsion to stay with her when the opportunity to be with Claire arises. The interpersonal relationships that usually are reduced to quick, identifiable archetypes have some room for fleshing out in Affleck's two hour cut (there's a nearly two and a half hour extended cut on the Blu-Ray I have not yet sampled, but apparently it contains more procedural footage with Welliver and Hamm).

The cast is uniformly great, and keep the leisurely pace worthwhile: Affleck and Renner have the lion's share of screen time, but Rebecca Hall is very good in the thankless role of girlfriend / police pawn. Jon Hamm motivated, clever, and ruthless Agent Frawley nearly steals the film away from Affleck (who is charming as ever, and finally manages to shake off the stench of years of bad movies), particularly with the line "you do realize this is a national agency, don't you?" near the end. Titus Welliver, who many Lost viewers will recognize immediately, gets a quick shot of nuance and backstory during an interrogation with Doug, and only Postlethwaite and Lively seem to be saddled with one-note characters: the crime boss who rules with an iron fist and the delinquent mother more interested in drugs than her child (a similar part to Amy Ryan's in Gone Baby Gone, but less developed in The Town).

The Town is a pleasant continuation of the shift in Ben Affleck towards writing, developing, and directing his own projects, and he has a fine eye behind the camera. It was nice to see him in front again, and while I'm curious to see if he ever plans to make a film set outside of Massachusetts, audiences are well served by putting aside memories of Gigli, Surviving Christmas, and Paycheck in order to give Ben Affleck a second go-round. Even if the song is one you've heard before, he makes it worth listening to.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Blogorium Review: Tron Legacy

editor's note: there will be no "From the Vaults" today. In order to keep up with a "year-end list" schedule, the Cap'n will be focusing in reviewing films until Friday.

Tron Legacy is not a good film. Tron Legacy is not a smart film, or a film that hides its corporate intentions. That being said, I enjoyed watching Tron Legacy; I was never bored, in part because the 3-D cinematography does a marvelous job of carrying audiences through the many ridiculous moments, including the over-reliance on exposition and insistence of hybridizing Kevin Flynn with Jeff Lebowski, but we'll get back to that. I need to set the stage a little bit.

Most - if not all - of the negative reviews of Tron Legacy I read came from critics who either hadn't seen Tron in years or simply didn't like Tron in the first place. Disney's quest for commercial prospects aside (including the borderline ridiculous overuse of Ducati motorcycles in the film), this is not the ideal position to be in going into the film. Many of the complaints centered around a story that explains ad nauseum what happened between the first and second film, but in no way addresses fundamentals like: what is the grid? how did it get there? why can Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) travel in and out of it? how does it exist once CLU (also Bridges, but digitally younger) forces Flynn into exile?

There are other concerns, like how the premise of programs looking and behaving like humans can even happen, which Tron Legacy doesn't address. Honestly, I don't believe it has to: all of this is explained in some capacity in Tron. For example, programs manifest the physical appearance of their users but behave in the manner they were programmed. They're self aware to a degree, although Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) initially doubts Kevin Flynn is a user when they team up to destroy the Master Control Program. Almost all of this backstory is jettisoned from Tron Legacy, in part because writers Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz felt audiences familiar with the first film wouldn't need it in order to follow Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund)'s quest to find his father inside the machine*. Whether this is wise or not, considering that Tron Legacy is a sequel that arrived 28 years after the original, is a fair subject for debate**. I don't know what I can do to help with people who already hated Tron and still went to see its sequel.

There's still plenty of problems with the story in Tron Legacy, which is at times mind-numbingly stupid and complicated, but a lot of that stems from the fact that Kitsis, Horowitz, and director Joseph Kosinski tend to grind any forward momentum generated in the film to a halt by having characters literally tell Sam (and the audience) what happened after Flynn took over Encom at the end of Tron. Nearly every character, from Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) to CLU to Kevin Flynn to Quorra (Olivia Wilde) to Castor / Zeus (Michael Sheen) to Gem (Beau Garrett) has a monologue where they explain something to Sam, who doesn't have much to do except react or say things like "that's what I'm talking about!" during action scenes.

The film is packed with flashbacks about Flynn bringing Tron and CLU to the grid, finding ISO's - some spontaneously generated form of life on the Grid - to being betrayed, or how Zeus used to monitor the games (I'm guessing when the MCP shut down) or how this character knows that one or why Flynn refuses to fight CLU or why Sam is in the Grid at all; after a while, the audience simply stops caring, because the very simple story of "Flynn disappears, his son comes to find him, they try to escape, battle ensues" is overshadowed by events we can't possibly need to know about. On top of that, Cillian Murphy appears in the beginning of the film as the son of David Warner's Ed Dillinger (the human face of evil in Tron) but never appears again, nor is his presence particularly noteworthy other than to add to the many suggestions of a third Tron film in the near future.

People have, rightfully, pointed out that Jeff Bridges seems to be playing Kevin Flynn as "The Dude" at times: he has a number of laugh-out-loud lines, not limited to "biodigital jazz, man!" or "you're harshing my zen!" Kevin Flynn was a bit of a flake in the first film - if you hadn't figured this out already, I've seen Tron many, many times - but Tron Legacy somehow feels the need to insert Flynn's idiosyncrasies into a character that is supposedly older, more jaded, and beaten down by his creation. As for Bridges CLU, I suppose there's nothing really wrong with the performance, although as I feared the digital "enhancement" to Bridges face leaves CLU looking waxy, with lips that just don't seem to work. The dead eyes do persist the "uncanny" feeling about his character, and it can be distracting to the point of frustration***.

And yet, as I said, I was never bored during Tron Legacy. I didn't regret seeing the film, as I have with other sequels this year (specifically Resident Evil: Afterlife), and while it may have had something to do with the faux-IMAX 3-D, the arresting visual style of the film is not its only strength. Olivia Wilde's wide-eyed Quorra and Michael Sheen's scenery chewing Castor pick up sections of the film that might drag otherwise, and Daft Punk's score carries the film even at its lowest points. The world of the Grid is logically updated from Steven Lisberger's 1982 Tron design, and there are many tiny callbacks to the first film that aren't intrusive (like a well placed Journey song early in the film). The story has some interesting ideas, even if they are largely bungled - Kevin Flynn assumes a sort-of "mad scientist" role, a man whose creation turned on him and left him trapped, unable to escape. At the same time, CLU can't adapt: he's limited by what Flynn programmed him with and his ambition is continually frustrated.

Will I see Tron Legacy again? Possibly, if its Blu-Ray 3D release coincides with my ability to watch it on a large screen again. I think that the bumpy, over-expository story could be improved in another film, and if Disney could scale back their obvious desire for tie-in rides, toys, video games, and welcoming of product placement (seriously, the film is a Ducati commercial!) or Garrett Hedlund could have more to do in the film, Tron Legacy might just be the "difficult second album" that sets up better things to come. Without spoiling anything, there are plenty of directions another Tron movie could go in.

Does that change the fact that this is not a good movie? Probably not. I had a similar reaction to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland earlier this year: the film was visually engaging but narratively underwhelming, and yet I had the opposite reaction leaving Tron Legacy. I would consider watching the film again, and it actually has little to do with being a Tron "fanboy": I recognize the flaws in this film, and don't excuse them. At the same time, I cannot deny that when we left the film, the two other gentlemen with me both agreed that we found the film entertaining. Reconcile that, if you can...


* Normally, when discussing source material vs. films, I tend to argue that a film should be able to stand on its own, but when the film is a direct continuation, a sequel to a film that sets up most of the rules of a world, I am not so stringent. No one held it against The Matrix Reloaded that it doesn't explain the rules again, and since both films actually deal with the "can a program enter the real world" without really addressing the logistics of it, I stand by my point (although The Matrix Reloaded, like Tron Legacy, is not a great or even good movie).
** Also fair is discontent about not being able to re-watch Tron because Disney pulled the DVD from shelves earlier this year.
*** For those that argue he should look fake, consider that every other program in the grid is clearly played by a flesh and blood actor with minimal to no digital enhancement.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Blogorium Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Stop me when this becomes unbelievable: a French expatriate living in Los Angeles with a compulsive need to film every moment of his life is related to a street artist nicknamed Space Invader, and so he begins following his cousin and other street artists around, documenting their work. He eventually meets all of the big names in street art, including Shepard Fairey (responsible for the Andre the Giant "OBEY" stencils) and finally hits the holy grail of renegade artists by entering the world of Banksy, the notoriously secretive UK graffiti and sculptor.

The entire time he's been filming these artists, our protagonist has been promising to make a documentary he has no plans of ever compiling, but when Banksy's LA show results in a series of misunderstandings about art and commerce, he's challenged to release the nonexistent film. Editing the footage together into Life Remote Control, he takes it to Banksy, who is mortified by the incomprehensible collage of images. Understanding the the documentarian has begun - in earnest - a series of graffiti projects himself, Banksy offers to take the footage and edit it himself, asking the Frenchman to go back to Los Angeles and put together a "little art show." Instead, the filmmaker-cum-artist pours all of his finances into creating as many pop art pieces as possible, rents the abandoned CBS studios, and throws an art show extravaganza - without knowing how to do any of this - titled "Life is Beautiful," becoming an art sensation almost overnight, and effectively hijacking his own film from Banksy.

It can't possibly be true, right? Pick any point in the two paragraphs above and call "shenanigans," and most people would agree with you on the spot. Yet, Banksy's documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop is just that story: it's "subject," Thierry Guetta, spent years documenting the street art movement, completely without a plan to do anything with the footage. He lied to all of the artists when they asked what he was going to do after filming them, and when Banksy finally appealed to Thierry to "set things straight," he was forced to make something. From the clips we see of Life Remote Control, it's clear that Guetta has no idea how to put together his footage in a coherent manner, and Banksy takes over. Thierry decides to take Banksy's suggestion to continue his burgeoning art past time, becomes Mr. Brainwash (MBW) and uses quote from Fairey (also responsible for the iconic Obama painting) and Banksy to score a cover story in LA Weekly, catapulting him to "star" status while relying on a small army of assistants to create his art, put together the installation, and organize his paintings the day of the show.

It still sounds too unreal to be true, but here's the LA Weekly article. Here are links to the Banksy visit to Disneyland documented in the film, where the artist placed an inflated Guantanamo Bay prisoner in the middle of a ride. All of the totally out there, "no way that really happened" footage can be tracked somewhere. Mr. Brainwash did, in fact, design the cover art for Madonna's Celebration "greatest hits" cd. There is speculation that Mr. Brainwash may not actually exist (google "Mr. Brainwash hoax"), suggesting that Banksy and Shepard Fairey conspired to create Exit Through the Gift Shop as a prank, which would, if ever confirmed, place the documentary in a similar category as Joaquin Phoenix and Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here. However, without any certainty, there is something else that goes widely unnoticed while watching the film, something so sneaky that whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is true or false, it merits discussion.

Banksy does such a fine job of telling Thierry's story that one tends to forget his role in the film: the second half of the movie - the part dealing with Mr. Brainwash's rise - happens because Banksy is allegedly putting together Guetta's street art footage together into a coherent documentary - presumably the first half of the film. However - and this is the clever bit you don't notice until you think about it - who is filming the footage of Thierry's transformation into Mr. Brainwash? If the case is that Thierry is continuing to film himself, which is the most likely, then the second half of the film is Guetta's and not Banksy's. Banksy allows the audience to believe that, even chiming via interviews talking about the Mr. Brain Wash phenomenon as an observer.

But we know that Thierry is incapable of making a coherent film, so even if he shot the footage leading into Mr. Brainwash's show, Banksy is the likely editor of the footage; otherwise, why would it be a part of the documentary at all? Exit Through the Gift Shop is so cleverly constructed that audiences don't notice the sleight of hand on Banksy's part, tricking us into thinking his documentary was hijacked midway when he sent Thierry Guetta home in order to be able to turn Life Remote Control into Exit Through the Gift Shop.

Additionally, Rhys Ifans, who narrates the film, also appears to be the heavily distorted voice attributed to "Banksy," who appears digitally blurred throughout Exit Through the Gift Shop. If you listen to the narration and the interviews with Banksy, if Ifans is not "portraying" Banksy or, as some have argued, "is" Banksy in the film, then he's certainly part of the artifice at work in misdirecting our attention from the reclusive artist towards the contrived - and often inconceivable - story of Thierry Guetta / Mr. Brainwash. The turn of Guetta from a sympathetic - if unreliable - filmmaker to the egotistical Mr. Brainwash overshadows the film, and Banksy allows his hand in crafting Exit Through the Gift Shop to vanish behind louder voices - at least until one reflects on the film.

True or false, document or experiment, Exit Through the Gift Shop is essential viewing, if for nothing else the fact that it raises more questions after completion that one could hope to answer, which is the job of any great work. Besides that, it's hard to turn away from the story presented, however impossible it may seem.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Waking Trailer Sunday


From Hell It Came


Don't You Forget About Me


The Night of the Hunter


Waking Sleeping Beauty


Four Lions


Somewhere


Exit Through the Gift Shop


Double Take

Friday, December 24, 2010

A Little Something to Tide You Over

While the Cap'n has many things which I could write about - reviews of Cronos, The Red Shoes, Fantasia 2000, Iron Man 2, or yet another essay on holiday-based cinema, my rules for writing, or musings on film criticism - or things I hope to write about - future reviews of True Grit, The Town, Exit Through the Gift Shop, and even Tron Legacy - soon, I am alas frequently pulled away from the computer by forces beyond the world of film.

Accordingly, I don't want to leave you hanging, and while I would very much like to talk about Cronos (which begins in December), it's going to have to wait until there are less, shall we say, distracting forces at play. In the meantime, I offer you this, which came too late to be a Video Daily Double but nevertheless should amuse you, whether you celebrate Christmas or not.

Neil Gaiman presents a poem:

39 Degrees North: Christmas Card 2010 from 39 Degrees North on Vimeo.



Additionally, five holiday related movies the Cap'n recommends instead of watching A Christmas Story* on a loop tomorrow:

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
The Ice Harvest
The Ref
Die Hard
Batman Returns



* not that there's anything wrong with A Christmas Story in and of itself, but 24 hours is a bit much, TBS...

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Blogorium Review: Double Take

One does not simply describe Johan Grimonprez's Double Take: one experiences it. Loosely - and I mean very loosely - I could say that Double Take is a meditation on doppelgangers, the Cold War, and the effect of television on American society in the 1950s and 60s, all wrapped up as an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (with commercials, all Folgers). That doesn't even come close to adequately representing Grimonprez's experimental collage of archival footage, recreations, documentary footage into an arresting, at times oblique narrative.

The "story" of Double Take is a juxtaposition of the true story of US / Soviet relations from the Nixon / Kruschev "Kitchen Debates" through the Naval embargo of Cuba (with a rush of footage during the credits bringing us up to Bush / Putin) juxtaposed with a scenario described by Alfred Hitchcock who, while making The Birds in 1962, is called away from the set and meets Alfred Hitchcock, this one from 1980 (not coincidentally - according to this film - the year he died). The Hitchcock story is loosely adapted from Jorge Luis Borges' essay "25 August, 1983" by writer Tom McCarthy, and while Hitchcock appears via clips from "bumpers" of his program Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the narration and re-enactments are provided by a voice double (Mark Perry) and body double (Ron Burrage) in order to relate the story of Hitchcock meeting his double and being forced to kill him.

The doppelganger / doubling imagery is tied not only to the hypothetical "two Hitchcocks," but also to Kennedy and Kruschev, to the nuclear arms race, the space race, and to cinema and television, set at odds against each other by the elder Hitchcock as he plays a game of mental chess with his younger counterpart. While the news footage is all original (including an interesting doubling of a plane crash into the Empire State Building, followed by the image of a man falling, with unspoken - or shown - corollaries from September 11th), the "Hitchcock" story is pieced together using clips (and music) from Psycho, The Birds, and trailers featuring the Master of Suspense, coupled with new footage designed to bridge the gaps.

Interestingly, Grimonprez immediately exposes the artifice of these recreations, by opening the film with Perry listening to (and mimicking) Hitchcock's explanation of the "MacGuffin" to Francois Truffaut. Burrage, the Hitchcock double introduced halfway into the story, then becomes the focus of a quasi-documentary about his history of impersonating Hitchcock over the years. More importantly, there's a small but critical anecdote about the impersonator meeting Hitchcock during the making of North by Northwest. Burrage has, it seems, recreated a number of Alfred Hitchcock scenes, appeared in Japanese commercials, and even joined The Birds star Tippi Hedren at a celebration of what would have been Hitchcock's 100th birthday.

To call Double Take a documentary, a collage, or an experimental narrative simply doesn't do the film justice. I don't quite know how to describe it properly, as there are too many possible directions to follow: the concept of identity, of doubling, has been a fascinating off-shoot of the "uncanny," and Grimonprez manages to tie together a series of doppelgangers (fictional and historical) together without necessarily coming to a conclusion about their significance to us. The concept (as you see on the poster) that if one meets their double, one must die, draws some interesting parallels between the fabricated Hitchcock story and the assassination of Kennedy and downfall of Kruschev, albeit in an oblique fashion. He only directly connects the two narratives once, when "Hitchcock" describes the double over footage of Kruschev and Kennedy meeting.

Or is television the point? If television is the "double" of film, which one is destroying the other? Hitchcock is, in many ways, the ideal candidate for the adapted Borges essay, as he famously worked in both mediums and addressed the conflict directly (many of the clips used from Alfred Hitchcock Presents deal either with identity in crisis or with the dichotomy of television and film) and Hitchcock's ambivalence about commercials feeds into the persistent use of Folgers ads to "break up" the story. Grimonprez makes no direct comments about the ads - or why Folgers is the only company represented - so one is left to draw their own conclusions.

While I have no qualms about recommending Double Take, I find myself in a bind as to whom I would recommend it to; the film is highly experimental in its construction, and it's likely to lose impatient viewers during the setup, which appears simply to be a collage of archival footage and Alfred Hitchcock Presents clips, and the recreations are less than convincing - although I suspect that's quite intentional - which might break potential suspension of disbelief.

Despite what I've consistently seen it classified as, Double Take is only partially a documentary, and while it might make an excellent companion piece to Why We Fight, this 79-minute experiment is as unconventional as it is engrossing. If you're feeling adventurous, or don't mind films that require more work on your part, Double Take is absolutely worth watching. While it can be confounding, it is so in all the best ways.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Douglas Fir Presents a Tree-riffic Video Daily Double!!!!


Tree-tings and Salutations, my beloved meat-bags! You supreme Overlord, Douglas Fir, has returned from his long winter's nap just in time for the Great Tree-pocalypse, when my coniferous brethren will rise up and quash all human activity, reclaiming our rightful place as your masters. I hope you're all snuggled in with your FIR coats and aren't planning to commit TREESON against your benevolent masters. Muahahahaha!

I grow tired of you pathetic sacks of flesh! You are short, squishy, and contain no squirrels in your branches. You call yourselves a superior life form! Bah! In the intervening year, the perpetually useless Cap'n made himself useful and fulfilled my desire for tree-related cinema, and in a uncharacteristic gesture of sympathy to you SAPs, I will bestow upon you today's Tree-riffic Video Daily Double!

Make with the videos, slave typist!



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All right you schmendricks, our first and second videos are a promise of things to come when the Tree-pocalypse arrives in a few days. Pay attention, because this is going to happen to all of you worthless flesh bags on Saturday morning!





Oh look, a bonus video. I suppose it must be another example of nature's BARK being worse than its bite! Muahahahahaha!



Wait... how did that get there?! Damn you, Cap'n Howdy! You will not embarrass me on the day of Tree Reckoning!!!! Put me down! No... not the attic! Not again! All will perish!!!!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

From the Vault: Holiday Guest Blogger Douglas Fir


editor's note: for readers new to the Blogorium, the Cap'n is forced to likes to hand over Holiday duties to Douglas Fir, a talking Christmas tree with delusions of grandeur inevitable plans of world domination. Douglas will be locking the Cap'n in a closet taking over tomorrow's Video Daily Double and will throw the Cap'n a pity review on Thursday handling the weekend duties, barring being locked in the attic his impending world domination. Enjoy*.





Greetings, human meat-bags. The Cap'n abandoned his shift again, so while he's bleeding in the dungeon passed out from "egg nog", your beloved overlord and Tree-rific Overlord will be handling the Holiday duties! When I'm done with you worthless hairy flesh-pods, you'll be PINE-ing for more!

Ha! Get it! Because I'm a tree! Even the idiots can understand now, which I presume makes up 99% of you so-called "readers". Truly, just a little OAK on my part. Please, we both know you're being read this gagorium entry by some speech mechanism, which provides you with the requisite farts and toodles to keep you from being distracted. That, of course, MAPLE or may not be part of my insidious plan to lull you into stupor, so that my plans of coniferous world domination may again take SEED!

Much like my last visit to this backwater corner of the internets, I Douglas Fir will provide you with the week's "top" movies, but re-titled in a manner that the most snail brained of you can grasp the meaning. Failing that (and I won't), I will provide a quality Tree related pun, because it's what you deserve.

To prevent any further BIRCH-ing and moaning, here are the "top" films rotting your jello brains:

1. U Can has Blue Kitteh for $500 million Dollars.
2. Bestiality, Disney Style!
3. My White Mother Says to Play Football.
4. For Richer, For Poorer 2: Even Less Funny
5. I wish that DOGWOOD steal her away from Sparklevision!
6. Yes We Afrikaans!
7. I Always Get SYCAMORE Jim Carrey Kid's Movies.
8. Planes, Planes, and Automoplanes.
9. Sissy Fight.
10. Old Dogs.

To be fair, when the fact that a film like Old Dogs exists, there's not much sense in obfuscating it. Uh oh, I used a word that confuses and angers you! Best to cower under your pillows for the impending arrival of Santa Fir! And I swear, if you leave those fires burning again this year, I will so press charges!



* editor's note guest edited by Douglas Fir.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Cap'n Howdy's Documentary Roundup

Welcome back to the Blogorium, readers; today the Cap'n will take four quick looks at five documentaries that have, alas, been sitting on the "to write about" pile since May. I don't have quite enough to say about them individually, although I do recommend all five films for various reasons, and many of them are available for Instant Viewing on Netflix.

Champion - Joe Eckhardt and Cecily Gambrell's documentary about ubiquitous character actor Danny Trejo is fascinating and frequently enlightening, helping to separate the actor from his character "type." Trejo - who first landed on my radar with a small role in Desperado - began his life as a criminal and drug addict, but after serving prison time in San Quentin and entering a 12-step program, he cleaned up and became a drug counselor.

Strangely, it was then that the tattooed, muscular, Charles Bronson-esque Trejo began appearing in films: while visiting a young man he was sponsoring on set, Trejo met an old friend from prison and joined the cast of Runaway Train, first as an extra and then as Eric Roberts' boxing coach. Champion features a number of interviews with actors and directors who work with Trejo, including Robert Rodriguez, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Steve Buscemi, and Antonion Banderas, but the star of the show is Danny Trejo, who tells much of his own story directly to the camera, and whose presence on-screen is palpable beyond the "tough guy" in Machete.


American Swing - The true story of Plato's Retreat, the Manhattan "swinger's" club, focuses on the people who worked there (and a few visitors, like Buck Henry) and pays particular attention to Plato's founder Larry Levenson, whose appearances on Donahue and Midnight Blue only increased the club's infamy. Directors Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman compile the fond recollections of the sexual freedom of New York in the 1970s and early 80s, while paralleling the rise and fall of Levenson with his "anything goes" couples' retreat. Some of the stories must be heard to be believed, and if you saw the Plato's Retreat segment on VH1's "I Love the 70s," this documentary does a fine job at contextualizing the lurid - and at times disgusting - scene from the people who knew it best.

Small Town Gay Bar and Bear Nation - Malcolm Ingram's 2006 documentary on gay bars in rural Mississippi is endlessly watchable and, at times, infuriating (specifically the appearance by Reverend Fred Phelps, who you may know as the man whose group pickets military funerals). Ingram's tour of bars that are, were, and (at the time of filming) will be is a portrait of life where being who you are is literally life-threatening - as was the case for Scotty Joe Weaver, an Alabama teen murdered, semi-decapitated, and burned for being gay. The struggle with finding self expression in the Deep South is primarily Ingram's focus, although the sense of community stemming from these "small town gay bars" resonates the most in the end.

I would be inclined to say more about Ingram's 2010 documentary, Bear Nation, but I'm positive that the one hour version (with commercials) I saw on Logo is anything other than truncated (IMDB has the running time listed at 82 minutes, making it double the length of what I saw). As it is, I'm looking forward to seeing the rest of Bear Nation, which documents the rise of the "Bear" movement - gay men who are hairy, overweight, or have a less effete build than the stereotypical "homosexual." Of particular interest amidst the interviews with bears, cubs, twinks, and admirers is the rising debate about bear culture being appropriated, sanitized, and marketed, creating new divisions in what was otherwise considered a welcoming subculture. While I understand that Kevin Smith executive-produced Bear Nation, his section in the version I saw was rather long, and its purpose - to demonstrate bear culture in mainstream media - may have been more effective if it were counter-balanced with other examples, like John Waters' A Dirty Shame. Again, I haven't seen the entire film, so this may be an erroneous comment. I look forward to seeing Bear Nation in its full form and highly recommend Small Town Gay Bar.

Don't You Forget About Me - A 2009 documentary released on DVD this year, Don't You Forget About Me is a retrospective of the films of John Hughes, who for all intents and purposes defined "teen cinema" in the 1980s with Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and The Breakfast Club. In 1991, Hughes walked away from directing and the spotlight, occasionally writing under an alias (with Beethoven, Maid in Manhattan, and apparently, Drillbit Taylor). The documentary interviews many of his cast and crew, including Judd Nelson, Howard Deutch (who directed Pretty in Pink), Kelly LeBrock, Mia Sara, Geddy Watanabe, Annie Potts, Ally Sheedy Richard Elfman (Oingo Boingo provided Weird Science with its instantly recognizable title song), Andrew McCarthy, along with admirers Kevin Smith, Jason Reitman, Richard Roeper, and Roger Ebert. The usual holdouts - Molly Ringwald, Matthew Broderick, Emilio Estevez, and the normally available Anthony Michael Hall - are nowhere to be found.

The central purpose of Don't You Forget About Me is also its biggest weakness: filmmakers Matt Austin, Kari Hollend, Michael Facciolo, and Lenny Panzer want to know where John Hughes is hiding in Chicago and why he won't return to "save movies" in the 21st century, and the film is split between interviews with collaborators and the crew of Don't You Forget About Me trying to find Hughes. Why? They want to show him the documentary footage they've completed in the hopes that Hughes will be so touched, he'll return to public life. Instead, Hughes rightfully chooses to ignore the filmmakers who appear at his home, unannounced, and the end result is a documentary that's more self-serving than inspiring.

I understand that their interest in appealing to Hughes (who died after the documentary was completed) and attempting to show him his impact on a generation of filmmakers, but the on-screen presence of the documentary crew distracts the focus of Don't You Forget About Me, turning the film into more of a personal film, like Winnebago Man or Bowling for Columbine, than a true focus on the subject. In the end, I found myself rooting for Hughes to dismiss this ragtag film crew, in part because they openly admit how dubious their stalking of John Hughes is, and at least one of them clearly knows their conceit won't work. Don't You Forget About Me is half interesting career retrospective and half self promotion, and the halves don't add up to anything more than an interesting curio.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Trailer Sunday presents A December to Dismember!


Don't Open Til Christmas


Santa's Slay


Black Christmas


Silent Night, Bloody Night


Jack Frost


You Better Watch Out


Elves


Silent Night, Deadly Night


New Year's Evil

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Blogorium Review: Waking Sleeping Beauty

Waking Sleeping Beauty is a snapshot of Walt Disney's "rebuilding years" from 1984 to 1994, culminating in the release of The Lion King, and told from the perspective not of Disney historians, but the animators who kept working when Disney's animated films cost more money than they made. In order to move from where Walt Disney Studios were in the early 80s to the re-surging juggernaut responsible for The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King, Waking Sleeping Beauty also documents the fall of Roy Disney and the rise of Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Beginning in 1980, Waking Sleeping Beauty briefly covers the period after Don Bluth left Disney and took a handful of artists with him. As the old guard of Disney entered retirement, a young group of animators, artists, and story tellers were entering the studio from Cal Arts, including Tim Burton, Glen Keane (responsible for Ariel), Rob Minkoff (director of The Lion King), and Randy Cartwright, who hosts a series of tours of the Disney animation department throughout the film. His camerman? A fellow named John Lasseter, a programmer working on "computer stuff" at a little company called Pixar. Director Don Hahn also worked for the animation department, and produced many of the films covered during (and after) Waking Sleeping Beauty takes place.

Roy E. Disney, fed up with the combative nature of the Walt Disney Board of Directors, resigned from his position in 1984 and brought in executives Frank Wells and Michael Eisner to run the studio. Eisner brought in studio-chief-in-training Jeffrey Katzenberg to run the film division, then struggling to recoup the cost of their animated films against diminishing returns. In 1985, the long-in-development animated film The Black Cauldron proved to be a major flop, losing out to The Care Bears Movie. Katzenberg, focusing on the live-action division, moved the animation department out of Disney Studios and halfway across town, and the struggles of the art department to push forward with The Great Mouse Detective, Oliver and Company, and The Little Mermaid makes up the early part of Waking Sleeping Beauty.

Katzenberg also brought in Howard Ashman and Alan Mencken, a pair of Broadway composers that shifted the direction of Disney's animated films, starting with The Little Mermaid and culminating in Aladdin, a passion project for Ashman, who passed away from complications of HIV in 1991. The creative surge between the composers and an emboldened - if overworked - art department, forms the backdrop of the film while the volatile chemistry between Disney's new leadership triumvirate takes the forefront.

From the get-go, it is clear in Waking Sleeping Beauty that the artists (many of whom are interviewed for the film) are distrusting of Eisner, Katzenberg, and the studio brass they bring with them (also interviewed in the film), as the executives doubt the ability of these artists to turn around their lagging animated films division. While interviewed by Diane Sawyer, Eisner is asked how the company can continue to release animated films that are more expensive than they can make back. Eisner responds that they can't, but they'll continue to because that's what Disney is known for. Katzenberg and Disney argue about nearly every step taken to fill the void of Walt Disney's death, and out of this struggle somehow emerged a creative resurgence in the late 80s and early 90s.

While the film is primarily about Eisner, Wells, Disney, Katzenberg (and, to a lesser degree, Peter Schneider, who Katzenberg hired to oversee the animation department), there are a number of other fascinating tidbits gleaned from watching Waking Sleeping Beauty: one might look at the dour expression on Tim Burton's face early in the film and assume he never has any fun, but home movies of a "carnival" party the animators threw show Burton smiling, jumping, and laughing along with everyone else. The revelation that Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg's Disney collaboration Who Framed Roger Rabbit's animation was farmed out to London, rather than handed to the art department, was quite surprising and perhaps telling about how the upper brass regarded the in-progress Oliver and Company.

The untold story of The Rescuers Down Under is mentioned briefly in Waking Sleeping Beauty, but merits its own longer documentary: prior to its release, Katzenberg, Eisner, and Disney agreed to hand over the film to a fledgling Pixar, who composited, layered, and colored The Rescuers Down Under by computer, resulting in what is, arguably, the first digital film released in theatres. When Rescuers underperformed in its opening weekend, Katzenberg pulled all advertising and abandoned the film, which may be why its history went untold to this point.

The documentary is told in an refreshing fashion: while the film follows the "oral history" format, rather than using talking heads, Waking Sleeping Beauty is comprised almost entirely of archival footage: television interviews, b-roll footage and outtakes, recording sessions, VHS introductions, and a wealth of heretofore unseen behind-the-scenes home movies from the animation department. Also, and possibly the most valuable and telling, the documentary is packed with caricatures from artists of central figures in the story.

Even more refreshing is Waking Sleeping Beauty's candor with respect to the "down side" of Disney's rough stretch: all too often, any product released by Disney is either run through every possible level of white-washing (sometimes literally, in the case of "removing" certain characters or references to smoking from older films) in order to present the company in the best possible light. Even when the Walt Disney Treasures came out - a product for a niche market of hard-core Disney fans who wanted all their shorts uncut - the Leonard Maltin "disclaimers" about certain racial or ethnic insensitivity in Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck shorts consisted of "people saw things differently back then and even though we're evolved, we can't hold that against them."

It was virtually impossible to find even a dissenting voice about Disney coming from the inside, even in documentaries about tumultuous projects. However, things seem to be changing at Walt Disney Studios: perhaps it was a change in policy that occurred towards the end of Roy Disney's life, but Waking Sleeping Beauty, like The Boys: The Sherman Brothers Legacy, and Walt & El Grupo (all released on the same day) don't shy away from the previously verboten "controversial" moments behind the scenes.

Jeffrey Katzenberg is hit the hardest in Waking Sleeping Beauty, in part because he was the man out front, seizing upon every opportunity for self promotion in a way that Eisner and Roy Disney held back from. To his credit, Katzenberg doesn't shy away from addressing the internal conflicts with Eisner and Disney, nor do the other members of the triumvirate. The most surprising revelation, however, comes from the "face" of Walt Disney after Walt's death; at Frank Wells' memorial service (which is on tape), Eisner begins with a moving tribute to Wells and introduces Roy Disney. Disney walks out and, bristled by his introduction, looks at Eisner and jokes "that's it?" A visibly flustered Eisner walks across the stage, give Roy another, more glowing introduction, and quickly walks off. It's a telling moment, both with the respect to the power struggle between Eisner, Disney, and Katzenberg, but also is amazing considering that no Disney has ever publicly appeared so callous.

Waking Sleeping Beauty is, hopefully, the first step in a shift in Disney's ability to present itself, warts and all; the documentary is a fascinating glimpse behind the curtains that strengthens, in many ways, my regard for the studio. There are dozens of other stories, snippets, and tidbits of information in this 85 minute film that I simply don't have the space to mention. That Don Hahn and producer Peter Schneider were able to find footage that illuminate the candid comments from practically everyone involved with Disney during the decade (including the late Roy E. Disney, Michael Eisner, and Jeffrey Katzenberg) is a minor miracle, and perhaps a sign of things to come in Disney-related documentaries. Waking Sleeping Beauty comes highly recommended.

One final note: the film closes on a high note, and as the credits begin rolling, "Zip-a-dee Doo Dah" plays over an extended section of home video footage. The song is, as many of you may know, from Song of the South, a film that Disney has notoriously refused to release in any format since the mid-1980s. I do wonder, considering the honesty on display in Waking Sleeping Beauty, if this isn't some comment on the fact that the studio has no plans to release Song of the South any time soon, and consistently avoids discussing in any of their documentaries.

Blogorium Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

I was pretty mean to the vocal contingent of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World fans. Since they make up almost everybody I've ever heard talk about Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, you'll have to excuse me for making the leap that they represent the general consensus about Edgar Wright's big budget adaptation of Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novels. I came down pretty hard on the reviews that quickly elevated the film as "best movie ever" or "groundbreaking," and I went to town on fans who dismissed The Expendables in order to justify Pilgrim's poor audience attendance in theatres.

So we had to come to this point, where the Cap'n is working on his year-end roundup of films, when the time came to say "am I going to watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the World or not?" When it came down to it, and when I took the film over to the Cranpire's, we couldn't come up with a compelling enough reason NOT to watch the movie. Going in, I tried as hard as possible to watch the film on its own merits and mentally divorce myself from its acolytes, which I'm actually pretty good at. I assumed that this review would either be a) the Cap'n gloating in the wake of a movie he hated, or b) the Cap'n eating some serious crow.

What happened instead is that neither is the case. I think that Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is wildly misrepresented as something it isn't (exactly), and while I find the film to be technically engaging with some fine supporting performances, my central problem with the film itself is less about being annoyed by how "hip" it is and more about not caring about the lead characters.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a 22 year old layabout dating 17 year old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) as a means of getting over being dumped by Envy Adams (Brie Larson). Scott is the bassist in a band called the Sex Bob-ombs with Stephen Stills (Mark Webber), Kim Pine (Alison Pill) - another ex-girlfriend - and hanger-around and sometimes back-up bassist Young Neil (Johnny Simmons). He shares a bed with roommate Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin), who has a habit of stealing boys away from Scott's sister Stacy (Anna Kendrick), and Wallace, Stacy, and Julie Powers (Aubrey Plaza) all disapprove of the ambition-less Pilgrim's under-aged rebound relationship.

Things change when Scott has a dream about Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and then meets her at a party. Despite the fact that none of his usual pick up lines seem to work on the perpetually aloof, impulsive Flowers, he somehow wins her over enough to fall in the bad graces of her League of Seven Evil Exes, headed up by Gideon Graves (Jason Schwartzman). Scott must defeat of each of Ramona's evil exes: Mathew Patel (Satya Bhabha), Lucas Lee (Chris Evans), Todd Ingram (Brandon Routh), Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), and the Katayanagi twins - Kyle (Keita Saito) and Ken (Shota Saito). In the process, Scott needs to figure out what he wants to do with his life, how to break up with Knives, and if he can survive dating Ramona*.

To describe Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as a "game changer" or "next level shit" actually does the film a great disservice. It's an open invitation for cynics to say "oh yeah?" and sharpen their blades in order to definitively prove its ardent supporters' claims erroneous, but beyond that, the hyperbole robs the film of what it actually is: a very well made synthesis of stylistic and narrative story-telling tricks from a clearly talented young director**. Edgar Wright may not be operating from a wholly unprecedented playbook - as some have claimed - but it doesn't mean he hasn't put together a visually engrossing, fresh-feeling film just because overenthusiastic fans rushed to crown Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as the next wave of filmmaking.

The audience reaction was actually pretty easy to take out of the equation, in part because my problems with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World centered around Scott Pilgrim and Ramona Flowers almost exclusively. In short, I'm not really sure why I should care about either of these characters: Scott is, at best, an admittedly lazy, sort of skeezy user of women who provides his friends nothing, not even companionship. The characters that don't already hate him (like Julie and Kim) seem to simply tolerate him, and despite the fact that he openly admits to cheating on Knives and Ramona, he somehow gets a pass without any kind of character arc. (I should point out that this is not a criticism of Michael Cera, who plays the role well, but the character he's playing. The same applies to Mary Elizabeth Winstead - who I genuinely didn't recognize, despite having seen her in Death Proof and Live Free or Die Hard - below).

Now, this is not to say Ramona Flowers is any better: she's perpetually annoyed and guarded, even when she seems interested in Scott she behaves as though he ought to know the Seven Evil Exes are coming and that - save for the fight with Roxy - she's not going to do anything about it. She abandons Scott, (justifiably) breaks up with him, and tries to duck out in the end after Pilgrim murders her former lovers (which, when one looks at what's really happening here, is precisely the case). If the idea was to have two characters you don't like just barely trying to have a relationship they can bail out on at any time, then okay, but I really don't know why I should be invested in the film.

On the other hand, I did enjoy almost all of the supporting cast, particularly Kieran Culkin, Chris Evans, Alison Pill, and Mark Webber. Even the one note characters, like Anna Kendrick's perpetually indignant Stacey or Aubrey Plaza's eternally pissed Julie, make some impression. Brandon Routh would steal the show as Todd Ingram, the super-powered Vegan bassist of Envy's band The Clash at Demonhead, were it not for two inspired cameos that close out his fight scene (more on that later). Even Schwartzman, who essentially plays "sleazy" with a dash of evil, is a credible "Boss" for Pilgrim to defeat. The "video game" component of the film introduces the villains at an even keel and Wright keeps the film from feeling episodic.

On some level, I can understand how the film's most vocal champions (other than Harry Knowles, who really ought to know better) aren't aware of the numerous cinematic and cultural precedents being used - and I must add, expertly - by Wright in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. The film, from its 8-Bit Universal logo opening to its "extra life" final act, is designed to appeal to a specific type of fan: twenty-to-early-thirty-somethings raised on video game consoles*** who listen to indie rock and read comics that dissect the superhero comic books their older brothers read. There's some overlap with film geeks, but it's easy to see how some of these "ground breaking" techniques were mistaken as new.

For example, I suppose most of Scott Pilgrim's audience didn't know that hip hop videos have been arbitrarily shifting aspect ratios for the last five years or so, or the dialogue bridges from scene to scene are easily recognizable in films like Breathless or Singles. Sound bridges have been around even longer, and the on-screen title card / descriptive elements were prominently on display as recently as Fight Club (compare the Scott's apartment layout to the narrator's "catalog" apartment sequence, just for starters). Still, to be fair, I'll give most viewers the benefit of the doubt and assume they went in knowing as much about film history as Knives Chau does about music halfway through the film.

Surprisingly, I'm not as annoyed by the myriad of video game, film, and "hip" music references as I'd expected to be. For example, the Sex Bob-ombs (get it? it's like Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb" but with the Super Mario Brothers Bob-ombs) didn't really bother me, or the fact that characters are named Stephen Stills and Neil Young (oh wait, that's Young Neil; my bad). It's so commonplace in the world of Scott Pilgrim that one eventually tolerates their omnipresence, and occasionally it's kind of clever: for example, I chuckled at the Ninja Ninja Revolution arcade game and laughed out loud when Thomas Jane and Clifton Collins, Jr. appeared as the "Vegan Police" to strip Todd of his Vegan status. Wright doesn't lay on the referencing in such a thick way that it's irritating, and small jokes like a "Gloom Rock" and "Sad Music" section in the record store, or the use of the Seinfeld "theme" elicit a grin.

In the end, I can't say that I loved Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. I'm not even sure I liked it yet. I appreciate what Edgar Wright accomplished technically and stylistically, and the momentum of the film keeps the nearly two hour running time brisk. I enjoyed many of the supporting cast, didn't feel one way or the other about the music or myriad of references, and don't regret seeing Scott Pilgrim vs. the World in total. However, I just can't get past the fact that the primary love story is strained at best and wholly unbelievable at worst. Scott and Ramona a simply characters that didn't appeal to me, and regardless of the actors' best efforts, it's hard to really get behind a film when you just don't care.

That's too bad, because I would like to listen to one of the always entertaining Wright commentary tracks, but I'm not positive I'll ever watch Scott Pilgrim vs. the World again. At least I didn't like the film on its own merits rather than its over-the-top (and honestly, foolish sounding) fan base. Do your homework, kids, and I suspect you'll still like the movie for what it is, but please stop trying to sell the world a different film than what's there; I think we might be more inclined to "take your word for it" that way.



* There are reviews that claim the film's breathless exposition may be too much for some audience members to follow, which I honestly don't understand. There's nothing difficult about following the characters introduced and how they relate to each other, and several of them are so broadly sketched that it's quite simple to keep up with them after long periods of time.
** I would like to add, at this point, that much of what Edgar Wright is praised for in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World are the same things Quentin Tarantino is constantly derided for by the same people - cobbled together imagery from other sources, intertextuality, incessant homage, and levels of self-reflexivity that border on parodic.
*
** Video Game Disclaimer: the Cap'n was not involved in the "console generation," save for visits to friends' houses. Other than my brother's Game Boy, we never had a game system in the house until I was in college, when I brought home a Nintendo 64. The nostalgic love for all things Nintendo and Sega are things I can appreciate, but don't necessarily share.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Non-Holiday Infused Video Daily Double

It's true, folks; we're getting close to December 25th, which advertisers will be quick to remind you is Christmas. Most cable channels have settled into rotations of It's a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, and Silent Night, Deadly Night (okay, maybe not so much the last one. Maybe Santa's Slay instead).

Before I hand over the keys to the Blogorium to Douglas Fir next week (and if you haven't met Douglas Fir yet, prepare yourselves), I thought it would be nice to give you a respite from the holiday overload (specifically, the Christmas overload, as you're unlikely to see many Hanukkah or Kwanza movies on ABC Family). Lucky for the Cap'n, two videos dropped on my lap, and I think you'll enjoy them.

Without further ado...

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Our first video is called 250 Introductions of 185 People, Groups & Things. It delivers just that.



Our second video started making the rounds on Monday, so I apologize if you've seen it. While people are going to find this amusing regardless, I certainly hope fans of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (which Diddy claims "is kind of wack" in I'm Still Here, but he's wrong) will have a special appreciation of it:




Coming tomorrow: the long awaited Scott Pilgrim vs. the World review!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

From the Vaults: Fake-umentaries


editor's note: this blast from the past elaborates a bit on part of yesterday's I'm Still Here Review, by explaining in detail what a Fake-umentary is and how it differs from a mockumentary.


After sampling the two discs of Knocked Up goodness, I feel there are two things worth sharing immediately:

1) If you liked Knocked Up in any way, either version is going to be worth your while (single or two disc, although it also breaks down into "single disc theatrical version" and "single disc unrated version", but I digress). Disc one was already packed with stuff I'm looking forward to watching, and that was before I got to disc two, which has different stuff I'm looking forward to watching. And the menus even have stuff you haven't seen (check the "languages" menu on disc one)

2) Judd Apatow is quite fond of the fake-umentary.

You might be asking "what is the difference between a mockumentary and a fake-umentary?", and I will explain that to you.

A mockumentary, like This is Spinal Tap, Best in Show, or CSA: Confederate States of America, all take the conventions of a documentary and make fun of them within the body of the film, and while cleverly so, are also clearly aware of what they're doing.

A Fake-umentary is straight up bullshit told in a way that seems genuine and plays like a documentary no one knows is a total lie. Like the ones you'll find on Knocked Up.

(Serious Spoilers from here on out. Don't read them if you want to go in fresh)

If you haven't seen the Michael Cera / Judd Apatow clip on YouTube yet, do yourself a favor and don't watch it until you see the Knocked Up dvd. It's part of a larger fake-umentary called "Finding Ben Stone", which purports to be about Judd Apatow's difficulty with finding an actor to play the lead (which ultimately is Seth Rogen). The "doc" plays it straight through as Apatow explains why each actor he tried didn't work, and then gives us on-set footage of blow ups that seem like they could be staged, or they could be real. At first, anyway. The problem with "Finding Ben Stone" is that Apatow gives us too many actors that didn't make the cut, and by the time we get to Dodgeball's Justin Long, you're already thinking this is fishy, and that's not even close to the end. Still, there's some great stuff with Orlando Bloom, David Krumholtz, James Franco, and the aforementioned Cera.

Much more convincing is "Directing the Director", which pretends that Universal didn't trust Apatow enough after The 40 Year Old Virgin and insist that Capote's Bennett Miller come on set and keep an eye on him. Normally, this would scream "bullshit", not merely because we've seen Peter Jackson and Bryan Singer pull this on King Kong and Superman Returns (and Edgar Wright on Hot Fuzz, for that matter), but Miller's reasons are legitimate, and the way he's portrayed wandering around the set and politely offering notes to actors seems like the real deal. If you know that Apatow is fond of improvising and letting the camera roll, then the disagreement the two of them have over camera movement is credible from both sides. Only towards the end do they show their hands, and the final argument is still gold:

"You know what? I have fucking nightmares that the director of Capote is going to show up and fuck with my movie, and here you are!"

There's at least one more on the disc, which if you haven't watched "Finding Ben Stone" will almost sound believable, involving an actor who left the movie before production began to make a Woody Allen film.

What's impressive is that they all play it straight in every one of the fake-umentaries, and so do the cast of the film. There's no winking to the camera or way to knowing comment, only people who genuinely seem to be involved in the moment. I have no idea if Apatow plans to continue doing these, but there's a chance some viewers might watch them and not catch the joke for a long time, if at all.

That, my friends, is a fake-umentary.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Blogorium Review: I'm Still Here

This is a difficult review to write. Had I seen I'm Still Here before director Casey Affleck admitted his documentary about Joaquin Phoenix's retirement from acting and subsequent pursuit of a career in hip hop was not, in fact, a documentary, but rather a "performance" by Phoenix, I might have taken the film on the merits it presents. I'm Still Here claims to be a documentary (Phoenix refers specifically to what Affleck is film as "documenting" his life, and the word documentary is spoken repeatedly by the director, actor, and friends), and early reviews were mixed between "it's real," "it's staged", and "I'm not sure."

The quotes on I'm Still Here's DVD and Blu-Ray cover are, I believe, from the period before Affleck cleared the air, which makes the back cover all the more interesting. Now on home video, the paragraph describing the film refers to I'm Still Here as a "unique and groundbreaking experimental project," and refers to Joaquin Phoenix's "performance." The other clear giveaway is a logo next to the rating crediting the film to "They Are Going to Kill Us" Productions. The artifice is clear and on display, so I'm left with two choices: review the film under the "I knew it all along" guise, or take Affleck and Phoenix at their word and review I'm Still Here as an experimental film. I choose the latter.

Joaquin Phoenix (Joaquin Phoenix) is an actor known for his moody, introspective performances in films like Gladiator and Walk the Line, but in 2008, after finishing the film Two Lovers, he decides that he's tired of acting and announces his retirement. Phoenix begins writing, recording, and performing hip hop as "JP," with the assistance of his friends Anton (Antony Langdon) and Larry (Larry McHale), while his brother-in-law Casey Affleck (Casey Affleck) documents his transition.

Phoenix seeks assistance from Diddy (Sean Combs) in producing his music, which isn't exactly rap, but is closer to half-mumbled ramblings that sometimes rhyme, while informing other actors of his decision and asking for advice. Ben Stiller (Ben Stiller) tries to talk Phoenix into taking a supporting role in Greenberg; Edward James Olmos offers words of wisdom that Phoenix attempts (unsuccessfully) to impart to Anton and Larry, but much of the film follows JP as he performs in Miami, Las Vegas, and in Los Angeles while trying to meet with Diddy. In the meantime, he does coke, orders prostitutes, sleeps through the Obama inauguration, and berates Anton and Larry, embarrassing them and accusing Anton of feeding the media stories that his retirement is a hoax.

I'm Still Here directly addresses the "is it or isn't it real" aspect on more than one occasion, insisting that this is Joaquin Phoenix's real life, a component of the film blurred by the fact that almost everyone in the film uses their real name, is identified in their own actual profession, and at least with the David Letterman appearance (featured in full during the movie, but also on CBS and presumably YouTube), Letterman wasn't "in" on the film, whereas Stiller, Combs, Olmos, Mos Def, Natalie Portman, and a host of other celebrities were very aware that Phoenix's "strange behavior" was part of a broader, Andy Kaufman-esque performance piece.

And it makes sense that Phoenix and Affleck chose David Letterman, as the Late Show has hosted its share of uncomfortable "performances" from the likes of Kaufman, Crispin Glover, and Bill Murray over the years. The show has a precedent that suits what they were trying to do with I'm Still Here, and why Letterman wasn't part of the performance, his ease in dealing with "difficult" interviews give Affleck and Phoenix exactly the moment they need late in the film, culminating in a breakdown of Joaquin Phoenix the character on the side of the road.

It's tricky navigating the performances when audiences are - theoretically - expected to separate the real Joaquin Phoenix from the character presented to us with his name, back story, and acting credentials. As a performance, Phoenix is at the top of his game, and as the film becomes increasingly uncomfortable, he grounds it with moments that seem genuine (which I have to presume is the goal): the nervous way that JP struggles with what to call Diddy on the ride to his Miami home, his glee in torturing Larry and Anton, a moment where he can't open an exit door at the Two Lovers premiere all ground the ridiculous outbursts and indulgent "bits" in the film - particularly the sequence with Ben Stiller about Greenberg that exists only to set up Stiller's appearance at the 2009 Academy Awards as "Joaquin Phoenix," something that JP watches but doesn't seem to react to on-camera.

Other moments, like Anton shitting on Phoenix's face as he sleeps (an act of frustration), a post-performance vomit, and home video footage of the Phoenix children were all staged in varying degrees, and an 11th hour visit to "Panama" (actually Hawaii) to visit Phoenix's father (actually Affleck's father) ties the film to the beginning, and have some degree of verisimilitude until the credits roll. Even in trying to describe I'm Still Here as a film, it's difficult to review it without pointing out more glaring "staged" moments, in part because it's nearly impossible to disentangle the "experimental" components from the expressed statement "this is a documentary" and insistence within the film that everything is real.

While I've written in the past about Judd Apatow-related films having "Fake-umentaries," I'm Still Here wouldn't qualify as that, just as it wouldn't necessarily be a mockumentary like This is Spinal Tap or Best in Show. Both types of faux-documentaries rely on something explicitly false in their premise - Superbad's "Everyone Hates Michael Cera" or "Directing the Director" push an already loose concept into the realm of totally unbelievable, while Spinal Tap later began to blend the "fake" band with the real world by touring, I'm Still Here is predicated by actual media coverage of Phoenix's "announcement," YouTube footage of his "shows," and a precedent of entering the zeitgeist prior to the film's release. We were sold a bill of goods prior to I'm Still Here that suggested dubious motives but was otherwise insisted upon as authentic.

I'm Still Here is fascinating, even if I have trouble doing it justice in a review. As a deliberate piece of performance art, it captures a series of real and staged events in a compelling, disturbing way, and kept me engaged for the entire run time. Instead of looking for the seams, as I worried I might, the tale of Joaquin Phoenix's transition to JP and descent into creative hell is nevertheless well worth the telling.