Monday, November 26, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012)


Where to even begin with this kooky ole thing? First of all, assigning a numerical 'grade' is pretty much impossible / besides the point. You knew what you were getting into before you rented it for $9.99 via Verizon FIOS OnDemand, or some other venue (iTunes, torrent, other cable provider, etc.)--or at least I hope you did. Secondly, trying to analyze it with words in any kind of meaningful way isn't really a fruitful task either. Or I'm at least not smart enough to do this. My gut reaction is "I get it. I like it. Trust me!" Lastly, I don't want to just list the ways that it is different than the TV show, which, as a fan of T&E, seems like the easiest way to 'get by' writing a review of B$M. So what I'm saying is that I choose not to write a review at all. This is the review. The review is over.

SCORE: 8 out of 10



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Wednesday, September 26, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Master (2012)


On the heels of a masterpiece which propelled him to a level most filmmakers can only dream of, Paul Thomas Anderson has found himself in a bit of a lose-lose situation. It's completely unfair to compare this to There Will Be Blood let alone condense the conversation down to "but which is better?"-type hyperbole, but that's unfortunately where a lot of the discourse seems to be waddling. It was probably a smart idea to make a Scientology (or, sorry, "Scientology-like") origin movie, since that narrative was (on paper at least) destined to dominate the buzz/critique/you name it. That it doesn't quite workout that way is both testament and detriment to The Master, a deeply perplexing film on a psychological level that's easily as emotive (or more so) than anything prior in the PTA canon.

I attempted to shield myself from any reviews/assessments before going in, but it was difficult since the blogs and twitter feeds I follow tend to be outlets/people very much concerned with this movie and how exactly mindblowing it was going to be (and, naturally, their personal reaction in relation to said collective mindblowingness). I thought the complaints about pacing, which I was unable to ignore, were to be expected, and I was fully prepared for long, wordless passages that I of course would love. And while there's nothing as deep and long as Blood's lengthy, vocab-free sequences, the cinematography and score are equally as exciting. However, there is a general pacing issue that, while hard to articulate, seems to bog down the film in places. Because in moments, it's a good as anything you'll ever see. PTA pulls performances out of the three main actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams)--already as talented as anyone out there--that at times made me feel paralyzed by the emotional complexity.

This is a really weird movie, and it's probably not getting enough credit for that specific fact. I feel like I have to see it again to accurately assess/quantify this weirdness in terms of how it functions within the thematic framework overall. I have no interest in dissecting this in terms of how it relates to Scientology. It's fairly obvious that Hoffman is portraying some hybrid version of L. Ron Hubbard and [prototypical cult leader x]. The direct parallels are undeniably there, for sure; I just don't find them very interesting. Perhaps if the story was told through the eyes of The Master and not (the very much fictional) Freddie Quell (Phoenix) this wouldn't be the case, but in truth that never seems like more than a backdrop for PTA to craft yet another male relationship film. Not that the "idea of cults" isn't explored and utilized to make relevant statements about humanity; it totally is. But it's not as deftly or prominently displayed as the notion of human greed was in There Will Be Blood.

And here I find myself tying it back to Blood in every paragraph. That was not my intent but it seems pretty unavoidable in hindsight. So I might as well take the bait: is it better? No. I don't think so. It's an amazing movie, though. It stands on its own as that, and will definitely be considered among the great PTA films, if not the greatest films ever. (I'm actually really interested in how I will feel about this in 10-15 years, more so even than Blood.) Of the elite filmmakers working right now--a list you can count off on one hand, perhaps--Paul Thomas Anderson is either 1 or 2. And that we'll constantly be comparing his work to what he put out last, while unfair on many levels, is proof of this fact.

SCORE: 9 out of 10



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Thursday, September 13, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Sleepwalk with Me (2012)


We are right to cringe when the movie, before it does anything else, breaks the fourth wall. At best we can hope for some intermittent, Zack Morris-level levity, perhaps perfected by John Cusak in High Fidelity, though George Carlin in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Ferris Bueller are also excellent examples. At worst we receive the type of out-of-place over-thinking that can completely kill a film (I'm thinking Funny Games but would welcome other examples). Either way, it's a high-wire tightrope act easily capable of stalling a movie's momentum for what too often amounts to nothing more than the fulfillment of the filmmaker's most masturbatory needs.

So I'm happy to report that, despite beginning the film in this fashion, the removal of wall #4 does not take away from one's enjoyment, as it is deployed sporadically and diplomatically. (That's not to say that it necessarily enhances it, either, although I did enjoy how he tells a "joke-joke" about answering your cellphone at the movies; that functions as a nice, subtle parallel to the story itself, which is in part about how writer-director Mike Birbiglia found success moving away from that type of humor to the more personal stuff, namely the off-Broadway, one-man show this film is based on and HOLY FUCK WE HAVE COME FULL CIRCLE.)

A portion of said one-man show was excerpted on the radio program This American Life, which I listened to a few years ago. So I was familiar with the basic plot, though it wasn't fresh in my mind. The film definitely has that labor-of-love feeling and because the material has been incubating for so long and via so many different platforms (there's also a book), the end result is the type of thoroughly developed, personal narrative that we rarely get to see. Now, one might say that many an indie flick are born of a similar labor-of-love, perhaps a majority of them. True, but I can't think of any projects that traveled the very peculiar path of: comedy routine > one-man show > radio monologue > essay book/memoir > narrative-driven fiction film. I think this is stuff is worth pointing out. I personally could never imagine focusing this much energy on a single creative project, which--oh by the way--just happens to be a close re-imagining of events from your actual life. This fear of self-discovery, I suppose, is one of the reasons I found the film so powerful. I don't want to look at any portion of my life this closely for five seconds, let alone for over five years. An interesting perspective is gained; one that's simultaneously as hyperreal as fiction can get, yet also as dramatically/thematically orchestrated as any true story wrung through this much iteration could ever possibly achieve.


SCORE: 8 out of 10



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Thursday, August 16, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Campaign (2012)


When Adam Sandler decided to try some serious roles (the great Punch-Drunk Love, 2002, and the mediocre Spanglish, 2004) he seemed to have come out the other end minus whatever comedic likability he had going on perviously. Whether this had anything to do with his experience making those movies or was just a natural part of aging, I have no idea. I don't think he'll ever be a great actor in the way say Bill Murray is great, but I would rather see him try to make a dozen more Reign Over Me's and Funny People's before another Jack and Jill, for the good of our decaying general public and popular culture, at least.

Why do I bring this up? Maybe it's something like a fear of not being able to do comedy which keeps Will Ferrell from attempting the transition but jesus christ his Will-Ferrell-ness, while still largely effective in moments, has become overall very grating. (Note: I can't count Melinda and Melinda and Stranger Than Fiction as true departures; they were different roles for him, for sure, but they were still grounded in comedy--haven't seen Everything Must Go yet.)

Zach Galifianakis, on the other hand, is in the absolute prime of his comedic career. Here he is basically playing a perfected version of his Seth character and he doesn't miss a note. This, plus a strong supporting cast, ultimately drown out Ferrell's over-the-top annoying moments and a flimsy-ass plot. Not a classic. Barely a 7. But good for some mindless summer LOLs.

SCORE: 7/10



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MOVIE REVIEW: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey (2011)


This will be a short review. As far as documentary subjects go, the story of a poor black kid from Baltimore getting into puppets and eventually rising to the very pinnacle of the profession seems like as close to a 'can't-miss' as a filmmaker is ever gonna come across. Not to take anything away from the people who made this, though; it's a very enjoyable movie.

It's not a knock against the quality of the film, but I have to admit: the Elmo origin story is probably the least interesting part of Kevin Clash's arc. Obviously, they needed "Elmo" in the title to sell this thing, but it's definitely not a story about someone's quest to create a singular, insanely marketable character. That it's so interesting in spite of this anticlimax is a testament to Clash and how his personal development was depicted by the filmmakers.

UPDATE (2/16/13): Listen I'm not changing my score but I thought I should do something of a postscript here given the recent scandal. I'm not sure if he seems a tad creepy in hindsight or if I felt that way (a little) initially, but that's where we're at. Nothing's sacred, etc.

SCORE: 8 out of 10



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Friday, July 27, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)


Early in Beasts of the Southern Wild, before everything goes to shit and the giant prehistoric monster hogs begin their migration toward "The Bathtub" in Louisiana, we see the two primary characters--young Hushpuppy, a six-year old girl, and her volatile dad, Wink--riding on a boat that is actually the flatbed portion of a pickup truck which has been converted into a water vessel complete with a motor and everything. WHOA! Obviously, this is cool-looking, but it's also sort of a logistical/realistic nightmare (at least in my mind). I knew little about this movie going in, but I knew at that moment it could one of two ways. Luckily, it went pretty much all the way in the correct direction.

In a fantasy film, where anything can and usually does happen, the ability to genuinely surprise an audience is often paramount to whether or not it's a success. Beasts seemed to be following a fairly predictable, albeit beautiful and emotionally-engaging arc, before Hushpuppy and three accomplices decided to jump into the ocean and swim toward a distant light. I felt happy when her dead mother cooked her fried alligator. When the children started slow-dancing with strippers in 60s-era negligee, I was floored with delight.

This is a powerful and occasionally disconcerting movie. It will make you feel things. Sure, on occasion director/co-writer Benh Zeitlin shows his emotional hand a little early (Hushpuppy's cat food and gravy dinner) or overstates the important political message in a too-obvious way. But it's never oppressive (which is good since this is such an anti-oppression film).

Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film about real life that doesn't rely on real life to make its statements. In an interview with The Atlantic, Zeitlin noted, "I don't want to shit on indie film, it's just that a lot of it is not any more sophisticated than big action movies. Action movies are a lot more interesting a lot of the time because they are engaged in myth and genre and culture. You can track your culture through Hollywood, you can't track it through indie movies." This sentiment was easy to glean before I stumbled on that quote (if not so easy to articulate), and it's an angle/idea I would have never considered before seeing this film.

The greatest films never exist solely as perfect or near-perfect examples of what the medium can achieve. They actively work to expand upon the medium as well: its lexicon, its relationship to culture, and so on. Benh Zeitlin accomplishes it all; an extremely high 8 for this first time filmmaker.


SCORE: 8 out of 10



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