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Monkey Shines: The Bizarre Logic of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 14, 2011

Sometimes I think I should have picked a different moniker for my site. Lately it seems that, instead of being the crazy person who rants and raves about stuff, I’m actually the only voice of reason left. Although, if I think I’m the only voice of reason, then who knows, maybe I am the crazy one… I prefer not to think too much about it.

Such is the case with Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I finally caught up with yesterday. I’m not saying it’s a horrible film or anything like that, but I was pretty disappointed. It seems like the critics are raving about the effects, rather than the movie as a whole. And I kind of understand that, as the effects are really damn impressive. For me, the best special effects are the ones where you completely forget you’re watching a special effect, and you’re just seeing the thing you’re supposed to be seeing on screen. On that level, Rise works beautifully. It’s so well done that you just buy into the ape characters right away, and Andy Serkis’ motion-capture work as Caesar, our ape protagonist, is phenomenal and certainly Oscar-worthy. I have no complaints about the film on a technical level. It’s brilliant work, no question about it.

I just wish those effects and that performance were in a better movie. I honestly found this movie sort of baffling, in that it’s basically celebrating the end of human civilization. I know, it’s about the rise of the apes, I get that. Truth in advertising. But I found myself wondering why this particular story needed to be told in the first place (like most prequels). I recently watched the original 1968 Planet of the Apes again – I like the film a lot, even though certain elements seem pretty dated now, and Charleton Heston’s overacting can grate at times. The sequels, I’m not so crazy about, but I think the original still works, due mostly to a strong script co-written by the great Rod Serling. Rise made me wonder if the filmmakers involved had ever seen the original film at all, because they seem to have missed the point completely. More on that later.

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What screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (whose last credit was 1997’s The Relic) have concocted here is the ultimate animal-rights revenge fantasy. Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a drug to cure Alzheimer’s, spurred on by his own father’s (the excellent John Lithgow) suffering from the disease. They test the drug on apes, and when one literally goes ape shit and trashes the place, the experimental subjects have to be put down. But Will manages to save one baby ape, who he takes home and his father names Caesar. A few years go by and Caesar has grown intelligent, due mainly to his mother’s exposure to the drug. But an incident occurs with a neighbor that forces Will to put Caesar in an animal shelter, where he is abused and mistreated by humans and other apes. Eventually Caesar leads a revolution in which the apes escape the shelter and run rampant over San Francisco, which of course leads to their eventual takeover of the world. At the same time, in the exact same lab where Will works, a virus is being set loose that will lead to the extermination of most of the human population. So I guess the moral of the story is, we really shouldn’t try to cure Alzheimer’s.

Seriously though, Rise is just sort of confounding in its point of view. We are clearly meant to root for the apes here, even though the film constantly shows us that the apes are really no better than us when it comes down to it. We see apes beat the living shit out of each other, attack and kill humans, bite a guy’s finger off, etc. They hardly come off as noble creatures. Caesar is the only one who is “special” because his exposure to the drug has made him, well, more human. The others are just primitive animals, at least until Caesar steals the drug and exposes them to it as well. I can understand them wanting to escape the shelter and get revenge on their captors – that part, at least, seems justified enough. But beyond that, they’re simply running around and fucking shit up because they’re pissed off. I sympathized with them, but I didn’t feel that the movie ever really made the case for them taking over the world. Yes, humanity is certainly flawed, but we don’t really see the apes being much better than we are. Sure, they spare some people’s lives, but they kill others mostly because those particular individuals “deserve it”. So apparently the apes have the moral sensibility of Charles Bronson. Great.

I’m certainly not one to argue against animal rights, but I do think there are limits when animals are dangerous to humans. It’s like those assholes who raise pit bulls and insist “they’re not dangerous”, then one of them gets loose and tears some poor kid’s face off. Fuck that nonsense. And Rise shows us, over and over again, that apes are dangerous to humans when set free in society. So what exactly are we supposed to do, let them run around and attack people? That may be more humane to them, but it’s certainly not to us. I had to wonder why Will simply didn’t try to donate Caesar to a zoo in the first place, rather than an animal shelter, but either way it’s better than letting him bite people’s fingers off. The misguided argument that the film makes is that, because Caesar is abused, that gives him the right to fuck up the rest of the world. I’m sorry, I just don’t see that as rational. Hey, a lot of humans are abused in this world, and I don’t see anyone handing the keys over to them. It’s like cheering on the London rioters – yes, they’re pissed off and economically disadvantaged, but does that give them the right to victimize others? I don’t think any sane person would make that argument. There’s a difference between being angry and disenfranchised, and being a violent asshole. There are lots of things I don’t like about the human race, but if it comes down to “them or us”, I’m going to pick us, if you don’t mind. Rise basically has audiences cheering on their own extinction, and while that may be subversive, it’s also wrongheaded and just plain fucked up.

And that’s where Rise goes wrong, both as a movie set in the real world and as a prequel to Planet of the Apes. There are tons of inconsistencies between the two films that even a casual fan of the original should recognize. In the original’s future, the past has been covered up by the apes to somehow “protect them” from it; it’s implied at the end that a nuclear holocaust wiped out most of the human race and allowed the apes to advance physiologically over two centuries. The apes obviously don’t want future generations to make the same mistakes us humans once did. But in Rise’s version of the story, mankind’s screw-up allows them to become intelligent at the same time (coincidentally enough) that a man-made virus destroys most of the human population. So why would the future apes want to cover that up, exactly? They should be teaching their young, “in the year 2019 (or whatever it is), we rose up and conquered the Earth! We’re so awesome!” Isn’t their “rise” basically a triumph for their species? There’s no reason for them to want to hide the remnants of the past in the Forbidden Zone – they should be celebrating their history as conquerers of the human race! And they should be worshipping Caesar as a great historical figure – the first intelligent Ape who outsmarted his captors and led to them becoming the dominant species. He’d be like our George Washington, relatively speaking. Instead, the apes do everything they can to pretend the past never happened. For what possible reason?

Even beyond the logical inconsistencies though, Rise is inconsistent with the original in its tone. Sure, there are plenty of nods to the original in the most obvious referential ways, which mostly made me roll my eyes. How likely is it that two different people in two different times would say the exact words, “take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”? Really? Come on, that’s just lame “wink wink” writing. But the creative team here don’t even seem to understand the original on a basic level. Leaving the sequels aside, the original Planet of the Apes is an allegory, a topsy-turvy “madhouse” world in which the question is posed, “what if we were in their position and they were in ours?” The allegory can be applied to everything from animal rights to race relations, which is why it’s so brilliant and holds up so well today. It’s not necessarily supposed to be logical or even to make perfect sense. And it’s certainly not a celebration of the extinction of the human race – the famous ending, in which Heston explores the Forbidden Zone and discovers the remains of the Statue of Liberty, is meant to be a punch to the audience’s collective gut, a great “gotcha” in which we realize that the apes took over our world because, in the words of our cynical hero, “we blew it all to Hell.” This is not a good thing. We don’t root for the apes to kill Charleton Heston (unless you really hate Charleton Heston, that is), we are meant to think about the way we treat others and imagine ourselves in their shoes. And we are meant to mourn the tragedy of the loss of our civilization. By creating a prequel in which the apes are the good guys, Rise has it all backwards. In the original, we become the oppressed minority and we don’t like how it feels. In this version, we are the oppressors and we deserve our own demise. We’re totally fucked, fade to black, roll credits. Not only does it miss the point of the original, it makes the original pointless and destroys the message. Because now the apes are right in doing what they do – they oppress us in the future because we deserve to be oppressed based on what we’ve done in the past. Which wipes out the allegory of the original completely and turns it into another chapter in a revenge fantasy.

So… why did they want to tell that story in the first place? Why was it necessary to see that? Did anyone watch the original Planet of the Apes and think, “you know, this story is incomplete. I really need to know exactly why the human race fell and the apes rose to power, and I need to see it in explicit step-by-step detail.” No, because it doesn’t matter why or how, it only matters that it happened. That’s all we need to know. The logistics of it aren’t important, because again, it’s not a logical story. We don’t need that kind of explanation, because the story doesn’t require it. It’s meant to be a mind-bender, a “mess with your head” kind of Twilight Zone story that makes us think about the world we live in. If you try to explain it in real-world terms, you’re missing the point completely. The best science fiction stories are the ones that have a parallel to our world which makes us see ourselves from a different viewpoint. If you eliminate the parallel and make it our world, then there’s no longer a message to be taken from it. The original Apes makes us think about our own behavior and our society at large, and perhaps inspires a desire to change it before it’s too late. Rise makes us think that we’re just assholes, and there’s no future for us, so lights out, time for someone else to take over the planet. “Game over man, game over.” If you want to make a movie with that message, fine. I just don’t think you should call it Planet of the Apes.

So that covers that. In case anyone’s wondering where I stand on the whole Netflix DVD vs. streaming issue, I intend to continue with both formats. While I do enjoy the convenience of streaming (and the obscure films that can be found on it), as I stated in my previous column on the subject, I am also aware that not everything that’s available on DVD can be found on the streaming service. So why limit yourself to whatever happens to be available on streaming at any given time? I suppose you might want to do that if you’re a casual movie fan, and you just want to pay 8 bucks a month for something to watch. But if you really love movies and there’s a lot you want to see that can’t be found on streaming, my advice is to keep getting DVDs as well. I’m not thrilled about the price increase either, believe me, but as a film fan I’d like to keep my viewing options open. Yes, there are a lot of films on streaming, but I read somewhere that Netflix streaming has maybe 20 percent of the films that are available on DVD through the service. So why limit yourself to 20 percent of what’s available? Doesn’t make much sense to me. Not to mention that a lot of new releases take some time to get to streaming, so if you’re the kind of viewer who wants to see recent titles right now, you’ll just be frustrated by limiting yourself to the streaming option. I do like that they have a lot of recent IFC and Magnolia titles on streaming not long after they hit DVD, and I really like that they’ve added some Italian giallo and 70’s crime films to the service. I’m not putting down streaming, I just want to keep my options open, so I will continue to rent and watch DVDs as well as use streaming, and I suggest that serious film fans should do the same. Just my personal opinion.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading!

Posted in Film Reviews | 2 Comments »

Make Us Laugh, Dammit: Why Bridesmaids is the New Oprah (not a compliment)

Posted by CinemaPsycho on June 5, 2011

Greetings and salutations! First off, I want to welcome all the new readers who have checked out the blog due to my Insidious discussion, which has apparently hit a nerve. I hope you’ll all stick around and keep reading. We actually got some comments for the first time, which is nice. Any and all feedback is appreciated!

So, I finally saw bridesmaids.jpg Bridesmaids yesterday. I also saw X-Men: First Class, which is excellent and everyone should see it, but I really want to talk about Bridesmaids. I was actually really disappointed by this movie, and I feel that I have to explain why. I had nothing against it going in; I’m certainly not one of those people who believes that women can’t be funny, and I was all set for a raunchy and raucous comedy that happened to star funny females. That’s the way the movie is being sold, but unfortunately that’s not really what Bridesmaids is. It’s really a preachy and condescending lecture on self-esteem, and it doesn’t even work particularly well as that.

Let me explain. Yes, for the first 2/3 of it, there are plenty of dirty jokes and gross gags (for the record, I don’t find women vomiting all over the place to be any funnier than men vomiting all over the place), but then the comedy is completely derailed in favor of a misguided message that doesn’t even make much sense in the context of the film. Bridesmaids is not even the ensemble comedy it’s being sold as; it’s basically about Annie (co-writer Kristen Wiig), an amiable and bright lady who hasn’t really recovered from her bakery going under during the recession. When her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) announces that she’s getting married and wants Annie to be her maid of honor, it’s time for Annie to step up to the plate and organize the perfect shower and reception for her buddy. Not a bad idea for a movie, at least in theory.

Except, of course, that doesn’t really happen. Annie screws everything up, has a gigantic temper tantrum and is replaced in her duties by Helen (Rose Byrne), a high-class woman who has it much more together (seemingly, anyway) than Annie does. Now, if the movie had been about Annie re-discovering her abilities and self-esteem through planning her best friend’s wedding and standing up to Helen, that could have been an awesome little movie. Instead, Annie goes home and enters a downward spiral in which she loses her job, gets tossed out of her apartment by her odd roommates and has to move back in with her mother (the late Jill Clayburgh). She also sabotages her budding relationship with Nathan (Chris O’Dowd), a nice guy who actually seems to like her, after he insists that she should start baking again. Why this is so important is a mystery to me; what’s she supposed to do, open another bakery that fails in this miserable economy? Doesn’t seem like a wise thing to do.

Not only is none of this particularly funny (the humor is completely derailed by this turn of events), it also sets Annie up as a “loser” without offering her any sensible way out of her situation. The movie keeps insisting that the problem is her, but all we see is the world constantly shitting on her. What exactly is she supposed to do? They almost reach the height of ludicrousness (but not quite, that will come later) when the blunt and crude Megan (Melissa McCarthy), the least self-aware character in the movie, suddenly turns into Dr. Phil and gives Annie a motivational speech that doesn’t seem the least bit based in reality. Again, the movie blames Annie (the ostensible victim) without offering a convincing argument for what she could have done differently to change her situation. Does Annie control the universe? If anything, she’s right to be pissed off and sad and hurt, because she’s constantly being fucked over. That’s a pretty natural reaction. It’s almost as if Wiig and co-writer Annie Mumolo suddenly want us to dislike this person that they’ve spent the entire movie building up sympathy for. The most bizarre part of it all is that the movie seems to suggest that Annie’s problems stem from her neglect to get her car’s brake lights fixed. Oh yes, if only she had gotten those tail lights fixed, she could have saved her bakery, organized Lillian’s wedding and mended her relationship with Nathan and been everyone’s hero. Are they kidding? If this is some kind of metaphor, it’s a pretty clumsy one.

Then we get the absolute worst of it (and here’s the height of ludicrousness) – they bring in 90’s pop group Wilson Phillips to sing at the wedding. Of course they perform “Hold On”, their only hit and in my opinion the worst song in the history of sound recordings, and here’s where we discover the movie’s real agenda. Like that awful song, Bridesmaids is telling us how to live our lives without offering us any logical advice on how to do so. All our problems are our own fault, no one else is responsible for their own shitty behavior, and all we have to do is “hold on” and things will somehow get better. HORSE SHIT. This is the problem with the Oprah-ization of America (besides the male-bashing, of course) – the touchy-feely idea that everyone can be exactly what they want to be, if only they try. It’s a crock. I’m sorry, but we’re not all special and unique snowflakes. Not everyone is meant to be a shining star. And that’s OK. Not everyone fits into the superficial success-driven world, and not everyone should. Annie’s only real problem is that she keeps expecting “validation” from a world that’s not inclined to give it to her. She’d be much better off not caring what people like Helen think of her in the first place. Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to say, “fuck ’em” and just live your life the best you can with what you’ve got.

The sad, honest truth that movies like Bridesmaids ignore is that sometimes bad shit just happens. You don’t choose it, you don’t make it happen, it just happens. And when it does, the only thing you can do is survive it. I’m all for personal responsibility and taking charge of your own life, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. Shit gets fucked up. Just because you have dreams doesn’t mean they’re going to come true. Annie didn’t choose to lose her bakery, and it certainly didn’t happen because she didn’t fix her damn tail lights. It happened because it happened. Sometimes life lets you down, no matter how hard you try. That’s just the way it goes. Again, we’re never told exactly what Annie is supposed to do. The movie paints her into a corner and then blames her for being there. The most obvious and logical way for her to reclaim her self-esteem would be to successfully plan the wedding after all of her setbacks, then maybe discover that she’s good at it and become a wedding planner, but for some reason the movie doesn’t even attempt to go in that direction. Instead, it just kind of meanders around the idea that she should do something without giving her any option to do so. But everything turns out all right in the end, because Wilson Phillips shows up at the wedding (which Helen arranged, not Annie) and sings their terrible song and Annie and Lillian are friends again. That’s the kind of movie Bridesmaids is.

Tell me, how is this any different from the bullshit spewed out of 99% of terrible romantic comedies? Honestly, I just sat there thinking, “are they serious?” I would really like to believe that women are too smart to fall for this kind of nonsense, but the success of Bridesmaids as a “female empowerment movie” (at least that’s how it’s being interpreted) seems to suggest otherwise. The only empowerment this movie offers is to take the blame for everything that goes wrong in life, and then dance around to lousy early-’90s pop music. You want to know what would really empower women? If Bridesmaids were actually a funny movie for its entire running time, and left the life lessons to afternoon TV. Now that would be a great thing for everybody.

Posted in Film Reviews | 6 Comments »

Catching Hell: Why the Ending of Insidious Makes Perfect Sense

Posted by CinemaPsycho on May 7, 2011

James Wan’s Insidious-Movie1.jpg Insidious is easily my favorite movie of the year so far. I think it’s an awesome, extremely well done little shocker. It seems to be doing very well at the box office, with word-of-mouth keeping it in the Top 5 for most of its run. So obviously people are responding to it favorably in general, and I’m glad. However, there seems to be a contingent of people for whom this PG-13 ghost story simply isn’t “hardcore” enough, and that doesn’t really surprise me. However, several of the critics have remarked that the film’s ending doesn’t work – terms like “terrible”, “silly” and “over the top” have been used. This actually does surprise me, as the ending seemed absolutely perfect to me and made complete logical sense. I don’t know if people just aren’t paying attention to the film or if they just needed something to bitch about. So I’m going to do something I’ve never done before and may never do again – I’m going to give away the ending to the movie and explain exactly why it works. I’ll do it at the end of the column and I’ll give a big spoiler warning beforehand, so you can easily avoid reading it if you haven’t seen the movie yet. The movie’s been out for over a month now, so if you haven’t seen it by now I suggest you do so, because this is one horror movie that really needs to be seen in a darkened theater with an audience. I don’t feel I’m being unfair in giving the ending away here, because people have had plenty of time to see it and I’m letting you know well in advance before I do so. I feel it’s necessary in this case because some people apparently aren’t getting it, and I haven’t seen anyone else online try to explain it properly.

First I think I should talk a little about the movie itself, its success and its criticism. This won’t be so much a review as a discussion – I’ve already stated that I love the movie and I think it works extremely well, so that about covers my opinion. For those who haven’t seen it yet, here’s a basic plot description: Insidious is the story of married couple Josh (Patrick Wilson) and Renai (Rose Byrne) whose son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has fallen into a mysterious coma. They are informed by psychic/paranormal investigator Elise Rainer (Lin Shaye) that Dalton’s spirit has been captured by a malevolent ghost in a dark realm that Elise calls The Further. That’s all you need to know as far as the plot is concerned.

If it sounds a bit like Poltergeist and other modern ghost stories of its type, that’s completely by design. Wan and writer Leigh Whannell were the team who made the original Saw, and they have said in interviews that they were bothered by the “torture porn” label and set out to prove they could scare people without using blood and gore. Mission accomplished! If it’s not the most original concept (few horror films are totally original), that’s because it’s the execution that matters. Wan proves here once and for all that when it comes to freaking people out, he’s definitely got the goods. Insidious combines the anything-for-a-scare aesthetic of William Castle with the expert precision of ’60’s-era Polanski. What’s even more impressive is the way Wan and Whannell take a story that’s pretty much been done many times over and twist it just enough to make it newly effective and yes, genuinely scary.

And make no mistake, if you’re open to it, Insidious is absolutely fucking scary. I’m one of those people who almost never finds themselves creeped out by horror films; I’ve simply seen too many of them to really be affected by the usual shock treatment. But this movie freaked me the fuck out,and I ain’t ashamed to say so. I seriously thought I was going to have nightmares that night, and I haven’t felt that way after watching a horror film since I was a teenager. While the Paranormal Activity movies made me jump a couple of times, I wasn’t worried about how I would sleep after watching them. I can’t think of the last American horror film that had that kind of effect on people. While I actually liked Scream 4 (much more than I expected to), it’s Insidious that has really stuck with me the last few weeks, and it seems like a lot of people are responding the same way. I think that’s kind of awesome, personally. To me, that’s what a horror film should do – you should walk out of the theater unsettled, slightly rattled and a bit nervous about your own state of well-being. It’s been too long since I walked out of a horror film feeling like I’d just been put through the ringer. And it’s an exhilarating feeling, one that too few horror films generate these days.

Of course, with any success comes the inevitable backlash. There seems to be a certain contingent for whom Insidious is simply not “extreme” or “hardcore” enough for their tastes. And that’s fine, but I think the gorehounds are missing the point. I actually like the fact that there are different kinds of horror films – some use mood and atmosphere to freak you out, and some use blood and gore to gross you out. Why does it have to be one or the other? I’ve never understood why some people only respond to the latter. Most of my favorite horror films (and I would argue, some of the best) are classics like The Exorcist and The Shining that are all about freaking you out, not wall-to-wall bloodshed. More recently, films like The Ring and The Others proved that understated, low-key ghost stories could still be effective and frightening in the modern era. And then came the “torture porn” years… I’ve always kind of hated that term actually. I think it’s unfair and often inaccurate (for instance, I would argue that the Hostel movies are much smarter and more satirical than they’re given credit for) but suddenly, for many fans, horror became about how much of the red stuff you could put on the screen, not how scary your film could be.

Now it seems like the pendulum is swinging back towards the classic mood-and-atmosphere chills, and I for one couldn’t be happier about that. The gorehounds can cry all they want about these films not being “real horror”, but I think the opposite is actually true. For me, gore only works when a director knows where to put it and how to shoot it; for example, Romero’s Dawn of the Dead or Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator. When a movie is nothing but blood and gore, without any sense of artfulness or even a decent story, it doesn’t shock or offend me – it just bores me. I can’t tell you how many bad slasher films I’ve sat through where it’s all about the “kills” and nothing else – even the slashers of the late 70’s/early 80’s at least tried to generate some atmosphere. I guess some people just want to see bodies get sliced and diced, but again I think that’s missing the point. The best horror hits you where you live, literally – it gets you in a primal, unconscious place where you didn’t even know you could be frightened. I’m certainly not one to believe in ghosts or the supernatural – but the best of these movies actually make me question my own beliefs, at least for two hours. What if? Insidious is that kind of film, and the fact that they pulled it off with a paltry $1.5 million budget (practically nothing by Hollywood standards) and pure filmmaking skill just makes it all the more impressive to me. This movie gets to you, and doesn’t need excessive blood and gore to do it. What does it matter how a movie scares you, as long as it scares you?? Isn’t that what’s important?

For most audiences, I believe it is. And that’s why Insidious has become such a sleeper hit – because people are telling their friends, “this movie is actually scary”.That’s enough for people to want to check it out. Sure, there have been other recent horror films that deserved more word-of-mouth than they got – Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell being at the top of the list. But I also think this particular movie works for people because it’s something they can relate to – the possible loss of a child, a family in pain, all that Lifetime TV stuff that the movie turns on its ear. As in all the best horror, Insidious works partly because of the execution and partly because we come to care about these people. That’s something that the gorehounds just don’t get, and probably never will. But for those of us who actually want horror films to scare us (a bizarre thought, I know), Insidious is hands-down the movie of the year.

SPOILERS AHEAD – seriously, do not read beyond this point if you haven’t seen the film!

OK, I warned you. Here we go:

At the end of the movie, Josh is hypnotized to go into The Further to save his son. He brings the kid back, only to be possessed by a spirit himself. He kills Elise and the movie ends. Why does this make sense? Because:

Throughout the movie, there’s a ton of dialogue about Josh’s childhood, in which a spirit haunted and tried to possess him. Josh remembers none of this because his mother (Barbara Hershey) enlisted Elise to hypnotize him. This is why Josh doesn’t believe Elise when she tells him about his son’s being taken by the spirit. This is a variation on the traditional modern haunted-house movie in which the husband never believes what’s going on until it’s too late. In this case, Josh’s refusal to believe and his subsequent estrangement from the family is due to his childhood hypnosis being so strong.

Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Josh would be taken at the end, because he was the target all along! The kid was just the bait to bring Josh into The Further, where his body could finally be possessed. Hence the title. OK? Everybody got it now?

Now, whether you like the ending or not is up to you. But you can’t say it doesn’t make sense or that it comes out of nowhere. It’s all right there in the movie itself. I just explained it to you. Now stop saying that the ending sucks.

Posted in Film Reviews, Psycho Therapy | 294 Comments »

My Top 10 of 2010: The Year of Dreamers, Schemers and Crazy Mixed-Up Kids

Posted by CinemaPsycho on February 14, 2011

And now, without further ado, here’s my Top 10 of last year. Hope you enjoy, and keep in mind these are personal favorites. As always, your mileage may vary. And here we go:

10) Splice –yes, I’m aware this is on some critics’ Worst lists. They’re wrong. For my money, Vincenzo Natali’s Cronenberg-on-acid tale of scientific progress gone horribly wrong was the freakout flick of the year (far more disturbing than anything in The Human Centipede, that’s for sure). Warner Brothers was foolish enough to release this in early June against the summer blockbusters, but I’m just thankful that it even got a wide release. Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley are riveting as the “nerd” couple who can’t resist going just a little further until it’s too late to turn back, and Delphine Chaneac gives a truly incredible performance as their genetic offspring Dren. Much more intelligent than its advertising would make you think, Splice is not an anti-science movie but a testament to the horrors of simply going too far.

9) The Ghost Writer – say what you will about Roman Polanski, the man knows how to make a thriller. This complex story of an undistinguished ghost-writer hired to craft the memoirs of a popular British politician (Pierce Brosnan’s smooth, crafty performance is obviously loosely modeled on Tony Blair) but finds himself in over his head is Polanski’s best film since The Pianist. It’s a bit old-fashioned in its deliberate pacing, but I found that to be a breath of fresh air in the current climate of quick cutting and hurried storytelling. The acting is first rate all the way, especially impressive delivered by a cast full of severely underrated actors doing their best work in years – Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Olivia Williams, Kim Cattrall and even Jim Belushi! But it’s the master behind the camera who keeps the film humming with suspense and intrigue. Whatever one may think of the director, there’s no denying that The Ghost Writer is a work of absolute class.

8) Scott Pilgrim vs. the World – another awesome movie that was mostly ignored by audiences this past summer, Edgar Wright’s exuberant tribute to the obsessions, follies and foibles of youth was the comedy of the year. I actually admired these kids and their seemingly unstoppable passions for love, music and even video games – life without enthusiasm for the things you care about is no life at all. Whether or not Scott and Ramona are a good match is beside the point; it’s the idea that he has to try or always regret not trying that matters. His challenge to defeat her seven evil exes is the perfect metaphor for overcoming the baggage that another person always brings to the relationship, whether they intend to or not. It’s been quite awhile since I was in my early twenties, but I found myself enthralled by these kids and their constantly changing universe. If you remember what you were like at that age, they shouldn’t be hard to relate to at all. It doesn’t hurt that the cast is fucking hilarious – and yes, that definitely includes Michael Cera. Boundlessly inventive, relentlessly enjoyable and drop-dead funny, Scott Pilgrim is a movie for young people of all ages.

7) 127 Hours – Danny Boyle proves himself once again to be a world-class filmmaker with the true story of a guy stuck in a hole. That’s the basic idea, but of course it’s so much more than that thanks to the talents of Boyle and James Franco (whose Oscar nom is well-deserved). It’s an impressionistic, hallucinatory trip through the mind of one man who discovers what’s important to him while under severe physical pressure. Franco’s Aron Ralston is a bit of a callous daredevil. a guy who’s more interested in exploring caves than in the people closest to him, until he finds himself up against an immovable object. The sacrifice he’s forced to make is brutal, but it makes him a better person. It’s the kind of “inspirational” story that’s made up a thousand lame TV-movies, but Boyle makes us believe it by getting us so far into Ralston’s head that we suffer his ordeal right along with him. The multimedia experience that takes place within his mind, complete with Scooby-Doo references and Coke commercials, only makes us relate to his struggle all the more. 127 Hours isn’t just the “guy forced to cut off his arm” movie that the media portrays it as – it’s a film about a guy who loses a body part but finds his soul.

6) Toy Story 3 – I can’t imagine a Top 10 list without Pixar’s latest masterpiece on it, but it’s a testament to how good the film year was that this didn’t place even higher. And it easily could have. Seriously, who doesn’t love this movie? Both hugely entertaining and masterfully brilliant, this third and probably final chapter of the rightfully beloved series is not only a satisfying conclusion to the story, but a terrific entry in its own right. I love the characters both old and new, and the comic revelations given to each of them (particularly Buzz). I love Michael Keaton’s vocal work as Ken. I love that it turns into a prison break movie, with all the plot contrivances and genre trappings inherent to that kind of film. Hell, I love everything about this movie! Much credit to director Lee Unkrich, screenwriter Michael Arndt and the entire Pixar team for making Toy Story 3 such an absolute joy to watch.

5) Shutter Island – I know there are people who consider this to be a minor Scorsese film. I absolutely do not share this view. It’s easy to see it as a simple genre exercise, at least on the surface – Marty definitely knows his noir as well as his Val Lewton horror. But if you watch it closely, it’s clear that there’s much more going on than Scorsese having fun with genre tropes. The ending which disappointed many audience members (who apparently weren’t paying attention) is representative of the film’s intentions as a whole. Rather than being a simple murder mystery, it’s an exploration of a damaged psyche that may or may not be beyond repair. The conversation between DiCaprio and Ted Levine about the nature of violence (one of my favorite scenes of the year) seems superfluous to some, but in fact it’s what the film is all about. Expertly directed and acted by an exemplary cast, Shutter Island is a haunted ode to the heartbreak of mental illness. It’s the only film on this list I’ve seen twice at this point (once in theaters, again on DVD) and it worked superbly on me both times. An unappreciated masterpiece.

4) The King’s Speech – Movies about the British Monarchy generally don’t do anything for me, mainly because I’m an American and I think their political system is even dumber than our own. I don’t really care about these inbred creatures of inherited power. This movie made me care, at least about Bertie, aka King George VI, whose speech impediment nearly prevented him from leading the country during the great crisis of World War II. Played with gut-wrenching precision by Colin Firth (in a performance that richly deserves a Best Actor Oscar), Bertie is a man with power over everything except his own voice, and his inability to speak is devastating to witness. The brilliance of The King’s Speech is in the way it juxtaposes Bertie’s personal struggle with the issues in the larger world around him, and we come to understand that he needs to overcome this affliction not just for himself, but for the good of the entire country (and possibly even the world). It’s an individual’s triumph that affects history itself. In that sense, it is the story of stutterers in general writ large over the canvas of world affairs, and it makes the subject important even to those who don’t suffer from it. There’s no “why do we care?” aspect to the story – we should care anyway because we are human beings, of course, but we also care because we know what’s at stake. Cheap shots from idiot comedians aside (amazing that there are still ignorant douchebags who think that stuttering is funny), that is. There is no greater Hell than having something to say and not being able to say it, or not being listened to because you repeat a few syllables here and there. The King’s Speech dramatizes this personal Hell, and does so brilliantly, from the excellent cast led by Firth, the fantastic Geoffrey Rush and a luminous Helena Bonham Carter to the intelligent, compassionate work of screenwriter David Seidler and director Tom Hooper. There are no easy fixes or third-act miracle cures, no bullshit Hollywood stuff here – there is only hard work and the support of friends and loved ones for Bertie, and he was one of the lucky ones. One of the few films that can be called truly Great, in both execution and intention.

3) The Social Network – I’ve kept pretty quiet about David Fincher’s film about the founding of Facebook, and I think it’s been misinterpreted in a lot of different ways by different people. I don’t think Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin have made a brilliant film about Facebook (for the record, I am not on Facebook nor do I care to be) – instead they have made a brilliant film about Mark Zuckerberg, who I find to be a fascinating character as played by the exceptional Jesse Eisenberg (in a riveting performance that apparently has nothing to do with the real Zuckerberg). I find him to be kind of a flawed hero. I certainly don’t consider him to be an “asshole”, as many viewers apparently have. He’s clearly suffering from some form of social disorder, which operates alongside his vast intelligence and causes him to speak the truth as he sees it to everyone around him at all times. He sees himself as challenging an unfair, unequal social system, and while I may not approve of some of his methods (particularly regarding screwing over his best friend), I get where he’s coming from. Facebook was his way of distinguishing himself, making himself seem special and important. Who wouldn’t let that go to your head at his age? If he had a bruised ego, it was because he actually was the smartest person in the room at all times, and he was the only one who recognized that. His treatment of Erica seems abhorrent to some, and I get that. But who hasn’t had those kind of dark nights of the soul? Look at it this way – she broke up with him simply because he had the nerve to speak to her honestly and directly. Why wouldn’t he be pissed off and hurt? From his point of view, the creation of “Facemash” was his way of levelling the social playing field, tearing down the pedestal. What he essentially did with Facebook was to reject the old social system (as represented by Harvard) and create his own, an online mirror version with himself at the top of the pyramid. I think that’s brilliant! If his intentions weren’t always the most admirable, that only serves to make him more human. Who cares if he pisses off the Winklevii of the world? They’ll get along just fine, believe me. Zuckerberg’s problem is not that he doesn’t understand the social system – it’s that he understands it too well. And guess what, he used its flaws to his advantage. Good for him, I say. Who among us wouldn’t jump on an opportunity the way he did? If he hadn’t, someone else would have. That’s the way of the world. That’s what The Social Network is all about – it’s all right there in the title. And it’s as perceptive and insightful a film about that subject as you’ll ever find.

2) Black Swan – I’m now convinced that Darren Aronofsky is a great director. I’ve liked most of his films, even really liked some (particularly Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler), but this is the first one that I’ve outright loved. I don’t think I’m going overboard when I call Black Swan a stunning piece of filmmaking. Natalie Portman (“and the Best Actress award goes to…”) is absolutely spellbinding as a ballet dancer gradually cracking under pressure, particularly the self-imposed variety. I’ve seen this misinterpreted as well – one critic even thought the problem was supernatural in nature, if you can believe that. Nope, poor Nina is losing her mind, but at least she’s doing so in the most fascinating way possible. By attempting to shape and twist herself into something she is clearly not meant to be (the dark character of the title), Nina loses her grip on reality and her own sense of self. I’ll be honest, I know next to nothing about ballet, nor do I particularly care about it one way or the other, but Black Swan’s powerful, hallucinatory spell is undeniable. Some have complained about its “stereotypical” female characters, apparently not understanding that the entire film (and everyone in it) are seen from Nina’s warped point of view. Of course they seem like monsters to her – she’s insane, remember? Hellooo, McFly? Given how tightly wound she is, one has to wonder if Nina wouldn’t have eventually imploded regardless of what part she was after. But at least this way, she self-destructs in spectacular fashion, even in a kind of bizarrely beautiful way, fully befitting someone in the theatrical profession. Subtlety isn’t Black Swan’s purview: it’s blissfully, deliriously over the top, and I loved every minute of it. Someone on IMDb listed it as one of their “Most Depressing Movies”; I found it to be absolutely exhilarating.

And now, my favorite film of the year is… (drumroll please)

Inception – Christopher Nolan’s ambition is equalled only by his skill and confidence. I already wrote quite a bit about this in a previous column (check under July 2010), so I’m not going to go into it too much. I will say that yes, I still think it’s the mind-blower of the year, and there were some serious contenders to the throne. As far as I’m concerned, Inception is the movie that other movies want to be when they grow up. What more is there to say? And yes, this would make for an awesome double feature with Shutter Island. I’m going to have to try that sometime.

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So that about covers it. Done and done. I’m happy to say that I saw every one of these films theatrically – I did see some very good films on DVD in my “catch-up month”, but none of them quite made the list. This, for me, was the best of the year in film. Feel free to agree or disagree. Regardless of opinions, if you haven’t seen any of the films on this list, I hope you’ll make the effort to do so. Some are still in theaters, the rest are available on DVD/Blu-Ray. I hope you’ll find them as rewarding as I did. Now on to 2011!

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Under Pressure: Tony Scott’s Unstoppable

Posted by CinemaPsycho on November 7, 2010

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If I’ve learned anything from all my years of watching and reviewing films, it’s this simple fact: when a movie really works, you can’t argue with it.

Sure, you can try to be critical and negative just for the sake of it, but as far as I’m concerned, a critic isn’t doing his job if he doesn’t acknowledge when something’s just plain good. Such is the case with Unstoppable, the fifth collaboration between director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington. It’s a film that I’m sure will be dismissed by many critics, most of whom won’t have seen it with an audience. Granted, this isn’t the kind of movie that will sweep the Oscars or wind up on most people’s Top 10 lists. It is, however, an absolute blast, an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser done with exceptional skill, and at a time when Hollywood seems to have forgotten how to make those kind of movies, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

The plot is relatively simple, as it should be. Inspired by a true story (though no doubt liberties were taken), the film is basically about a runaway train loaded with explosive chemicals and the two railroad workers, Frank Barnes (Washington) and Will Coulson (Chris Pine) who try to stop it before it hits a populated area in rural Pennsylvania. They’re assisted by Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), possibly the hottest railroad employee ever, Ned (Lew Temple) a pickup-truck driving redneck, and Inspector Werner (Kevin Corrigan), a conveniently knowledgeable railroad inspector. The company executives don’t want their expensive train to be derailed, and they certainly don’t want the PR nightmare that comes with killing innocent people. They’ve got their own plan for stopping the train, but veteran Frank knows it’s not going to work, and is willing to risk his life to do it the right way. Needless to say, complications ensue.

That’s pretty much the whole movie, but of course it’s all about the execution. As in last year’s surprisingly fun Taking of Pelham 123 remake, Scott and Washington take a simple premise and turn it into gold, easily the best runaway-train movie since, well, Runaway Train. Scott knows how to do adrenaline-rush action without subjecting the audience to Michael Bay-style information overload, even if he does rely on fake local-TV news footage a bit too often. Even though we pretty much know how this is going to end, we don’t know how it’s going to get to that point, and it’s the details and complications that make this tense and gripping. Washington and Pine bounce off each other well in fine buddy-movie fashion, and the supporting cast delivers just the right amount of convincing concern without going too far over the top. And at a tight 98 minutes, the movie certainly doesn’t wear out its welcome the way so many other bloated blockbuster movies have done lately.

What I liked most about Unstoppable is how much genuine heart and humanity is contained within its basic action-flick framework. In an era where “extreme” violence and ironic detachment are the norm for genre films, this movie succeeds by simply making us care about its characters and the situation they’re in. We root for Frank and Will not because they’re invincible superheroes, but because they’re regular guys doing something heroic and admirable. It’s the old standby concept of “ordinary people in extraordinary situations” that’s worked for everything from North by Northwest to Speed, and it works yet again. I find that celebration of the common man much more appealing than the obnoxious macho posturing and heavy steroid abuse of The Expendables and movies like it. Most of us aren’t supercops or secret agents or (thank christ) mercenaries looking for a fight; we’re all just trying to get through the day with our heads above water. Unstoppable is a solid argument for the nobility of the Regular Guy, the person in the right place at the right time who does the right thing simply because he can. And boy, do we need that now more than ever.

I’m not surprised that they did a nationwide sneak for this, because this is exactly the kind of movie that will benefit greatly from strong word-of-mouth. I’m sure the highbrow critics will dismiss it as a “programmer” or a glorified B-movie, but for my money, Unstoppable is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in a theater all year. And I could be wrong, but I think audiences are going to feel the same way.

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