Film

Wilmington on Movies: The Purge: Election Year

THE PURGE: ELECTION YEAR (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James DeMonaco, 2016

Bad movies sometimes tell us as much, or more, about the world and society around us as the good ones. The Purge: Election Year — a sordid, ultra-violent clichéd howitzer of an action picture which has a few good scenes and has attracted a huge audience, is the third bloody chunk of an crime-horror-political-satire trilogy (the first two were 2013’s The Purge and 2014’s The Purge: Anarchy) about a murderous future U.S.A. where once a year, all the laws are repealed for twelve hours, all the police and judges and hospitals are sent home or closed down, and the entire population of the United States is left at the mercy of the gangs and mobs and psychos and killers who rove the streets unchecked.

Sound like fun? For a lot of people, apparently, it is. The Purge movies, like many contemporary action thrillers, including the most popular, doesn’t make much damned sense — but I suppose you could argue that, if they did make more sense, audiences wouldn‘t like them as much. They might get bored. The very absurdity of this movie, the way it hops and blasts from one clichéd bloodbath to another, may be what makes it entertaining for some, or a lot, of the audience. For some people, a lot of people apparently, it works. But the movie kept slipping off my radar, even as writer-director James DeMonaco worked to liven things up with quirky characterization and foul-mouthed street humor, and by cranking up the suspense and trying to plug in more satire. I appreciated the effort, but I wasn’t able to join the laughter and occasional cheers the press audience supplied.

The Purge: Election Year begins with some flashbacks that set the scene and some of the characters for us — and that show both the Good Guys and The Bad Guys, and all the victims in between, getting ready for the Big Night. The rationale for the purge is that if the populace is allowed to run amok, and if they can look forward to these orgies of violence every year, they won’t behave badly and kill people and rob and steal and vandalize and beat the hell out of innocent bystanders the rest of the year. Really? Maybe more people would develop a taste for violence, just as more people exposed to films like The Purge, may develop a taste for more violent movies.

But, as before, DeMonaco doesn’t waste time trying to justify it. The Purge Nights have been dreamed up by the one-percenters and oligarchs and rich people — the ones with enough loot to afford guards and elaborate protections and defense — and they’re the forces behind the political establishment that runs the show, a far right wing organization called The New Founding fathers, or the NFFA. (The similarity in sound to the N. R. A. seems intentional.)

In the first Purge picture, the protagonist was Ethan Hawke, as a middle class father trying to protect his family, which was protected instead by the black loner who shows up, on the run from the nasty rich kids who harass Hawke’s household. In the second picture, which had a bigger budget, the main characters are out in the streets, which are strangely deserted but still dangerous. In this third film, there are more roaming protagonists, including a woman candidate for President in the next election, Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who’s running on an anti-Purge platform. Charlie plans to purge the Purge because, 18 years earlier on another Purge Night, she lost her entire family to a gang of rock ‘n roll killers who broke into their house and blasted T. Rex and George Clinton while massacring everybody but Charlie.

For some curious reason, Sen. Roan, who is supposed to be running for President of the U. S. but lacks the usual retinue and entourage and political aides and press and (for the most part) police protectors that you’d expect even an Independent presidential candidate on the Green or Legalize Marijuana ticket to have. Charlie, who in no way resembles Hilary Clinton (except for her glasses), ends up with one functioning guard — Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), who also lost part of his family and was a character in The Purge: Anarchy. You also would have thought a Presidential candidate would have been better able to stay indoors, along with most of the population. around, and that there would be more explanation of why she ends up with one bodyguard out on the streets. But soon Leo and Charlie are running around town with a colorful little crew they bump into: a wisecracking deli owner named Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson) and his badmouth girl buddy Laney Tucker (Betty Gabriel) and others.

SPOILER ALERT

There are a lot of bloody scuffles and bad language, and we suspect that eventually Charlie and Leo and Company will end up clashing with The New Founding Fathers of America, a congregation of well-dressed elite who are gathering in a local cathedral to fill the pews with blather and propaganda (delivered by Kyle Secor as Rev. Edwidge Owens, who looks like a TV preacher and clothes horse), and to throw holy water on their guns. We’re not far wrong.)

END OF SPOILER

Back in the 1970s, when the paradigms for shows like this were being set down — by Roger Corman and other ballsy independent producers — this kind of picture would have been a low budget job, and it probably would have been better for it. If they were going to spend more money on The Purge: Election Year, they might at least have played around more with the idea of an entire nation plunged into chaos.

One of the strange things about the Purge series is that most of the criminal activity seems to be coming from street kids and delinquents, when you’d think some actual mobsters might take advantage of the absence of the police try to break into major banks or the mint. You’d also think there might be riots and maybe even a little terrorism. But each of the Purge movies has focused on a small group of people in a sometime half-deserted or not too populous area. Rev. Owens’ well-dressed congregation is about the biggest crowd we see. Partly that’s because DeMonaco wants to make villains of the well-fixed establishment and draw his heroes and heroines from the common people — which should be all right for me, but, in this case seems to be more a result of the scale of the production than of plausible extrapolation.

Writer-director DeMonaco has written fairly bloody, fairly effective thrillers like The Negotiator and the remake of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (also with Hawke) and he’s definitely hit the jackpot with the Purge series. He’s also left an opening for a sequel at the end of this movie. One of his producers here, by the way, is the often-maligned action picture specialist Michael Bay — who’s made better movies himself.

But, as with the Liam Neeson C. I. A. thrillers, which don’t make much sense either, DeMonaco has thrown logic to the winds — or maybe just purged it. Even so, the acting is pretty good — but mostly unremarkable, except for Williams, who supplies almost all the humor and hijacks every scene. Purge: Election Year has somewhat scruffy-looking backgrounds and deliberately garish cinematography (by Frenchman Jacques Jouffret) and zingy editing by Todd E. Miller. But there’s nothing really special about it technically or visually. Most of the time. just the central idea seems to be propelling it along: What would the world be like if the guardians and police all took a holiday? And what would the action movies be like, I wonder, if all the producers took a holiday? They probably should.

 

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Wilmington on Movies: The Conjuring 2

THE CONJURING 2 (Two and a Half Stars)
U.S.: James Wan, 2016

“Discover the truth behind the event that shocked the world.”
~ New Line Cinema Press book for The Conjuring 2.

People who like scary ghost horror movies, from Frankenstein to The Haunting, probably are partial, at least a little, to that awesome, icky sensation of being plunged into sucking swamps of cinematic dread, then rescued (maybe spuriously, maybe not) at the very last possible millisecond—a sensation you may feel quite a few times in The Conjuring 2. Some of these shivering aficionados may also believe that the current flood of mass-market nightmares, however wildly improbable they seem, might actually happen in the real world, that demons and witches exist and could some day come after us.

In this case, the “real life” protagonists are the real-life Hodgson family of the borough of Enfield, in London, England in 1977: a bedeviled working class family headed by Frances O’Connor as single mother Peggy Hodgson, with little Madison Wolfe as her most supernatural-sensitive child Janet, and the rest of the Hodgson clan played by Lauren Esposito, Benjamin Haigh, Patrick McAuley and others. Ghost detectives Ed and Lorraine Warren, who were introduced to us in the first Conjuring movie (played here as there by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) are two actual famed real-life paranormal investigators and ghost hunters whose adventures inspired the supposedly real life spook epic, The Amityville Horror (1979), as well as this sequel to director James Wan’s 2013 smash hit The Conjuring — another smash hit and also the latest example of a horror movie that tries to diddle with out sense of reality.

Did it really happen? The press book and the movie itself seem hell-bent on convincing us it did. The alleged real life ghosts allegedly unearthed by the real-life Lorraine and Ed in this “true” shocker include such horrifying and improbable showstoppers as Bill Wilkins the murderous septuagenarian (Bob Adrian), the incredible flying demon nun (Bonnie Aaron) and an evil-looking Crooked Man (Javier Botet) who hangs out in the kids’ zoetrope toy. Real or not, they’re likely to give you a few frissons, since they keep incessantly leaping out at the Hodgson kids, and Peggy, and Lorraine and Ed and assorted other eye-witnesses, from behind doors or around corners and to the accompaniment of the loud horrific clangs you often hear in horror and haunted house movies.

Pardon my irreverence. After all, these blood-drenched maniacs and demon nuns are only trying to make a living in a distressed economy (just as the Hodgsons were back in 1977). That’s why they’re all lucky — ghosts and ghostbusters alike — to have crossed paths with James Wan, The Wizard of Saws.

For the last decade or so, we’ve been bombarded with these allegedly part-true-life scary movies: film shockers that try to persuade us that they’re somebody‘s found footage from a garage or attic, or a cinema verite’ documentary or a security video camera record, or that they’re stories taken from or inspired by real life. Since the same sort of things usually happen in these movies — which tend to show us “normal” bourgeois families terrorized, or bevies of nubile teenagers making out and beset by the maniacs, the monsters or sometimes The Devil Himself — it tends to give you a stomach-turning view of contemporary society: its bad dreams, its bad trips and the reality that supposedly inspired them.

This movie is well-shot and fairly well-acted, but not particularly well-written. For me, the best horror movies or tales that actually are about contemporary reality — or try to make us think they are — include Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Night of the Living Dead and Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining — in the last case, both the original novel by Stephen King (as good a horror story, I think, as anyone can write), and, to a lesser extent, the movie Stanley Kubrick made from it. These are movies that really do freeze the blood and get under your skin, breeding nightmares. The new found footage shockers, though they work well with the right kind of audience, often suggest some kind of screaming, bloody academic conference of spookology: Horror movies as the cracked crazy-house mirrors of today‘s flawed reality. It’s not just “only a movie.“ (Supposedly.) It’s really happening, a documentary record of the dark, mad side of life and death. And if they aren’t really happening, they could be. Supposedly.

The Conjuring 2 is not a found footage movie — like the videotapes supposedly recovered from the from the first Conjuring and the woodsy massacre of The Blair Witch Project, or the surveillance cameras that keep just missing the action in Paranormal Activity, though there is some footage supposedly shot by a local TV news cameraman (Chris Royds). Instead the moviemakers, who had the whole project blessed by Father Steven Sanchez of the Roman Catholic Church of Albuquerque, New Mexico, inform us that these events really happened in 1977 in Enfield, London and that the people are real (played by actors using the actual names of the real people, shown side by side in the credits) and that everything we see actually, truly happened.

Since what we see includes the mad doings in an alleged haunted house — assaults by beings from beyond the gave, beds levitating and flying past each other, a painting of the demon nun careening around the house in pursuit of Lorraine Warren, and an evil maniac sneaking around, trying to do a raspy-voiced impersonation of the great Mercedes McCambridge (the voice of the Devil from The Exorcist) — the movie tends to suggest that we live in a world madder than the Mad Hatter in the “Alice“ books and movies, more blood thirsty than Dracula, and obsessed for some reason with destroying the Hodgson family and humiliating the Warrens.

We’re also asked to believe that the little dark crooked figure in that whirling zoetrope machine, can come alive and start chasing Hodgsons, that the ghost of a murderer can taunt his victims and pursuers from an easy chair, That Ed not only knows all the words to Elvis’ anthem “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” but can dangle out of a high window for what seems hours, while holding a screaming child and being harassed by one of the monsters. And just to show how silly we all are if we question any of this, at least while we’re watching the show, the cast includes two obnoxious iconoclasts — Franka Potente of Run Lola Run as a German parapsychologist and Cory English as a sneaky, sneery little pain in the ass (also both supposedly patterned after real people), and shows them behaving like smug know-it-alls, who don’t have the Hodgson family’s interest at heart. Unlike Ed and Lorraine of course — and perhaps also unlike the upcoming foursome in the new Ghostbusters.

Wan, whose movies are tremendous moneymakers — they also include the first Saw Movie, the other Conjuring picture, the seventh Fast and Furious and both Insidiouses — is now being hailed as a genius, or at the very least a master craftsman. (Or maybe just a guy whose movies make an awful lot of money.) He certainly knows how to create a sense of awful sticky unease, and to crank up the terror and make audiences jump. He and cinematographer Don Burgess also move the camera almost as well as that other horror specialist John Carpenter — if not as well as that genuine genius of cinema Stanley Kubrick. I wouldn’t describe Wan as a master in the way Hitchcock, Polanski and Kubrick were masters, but he knows what he‘s doing and he definitely understands what appeals to audiences these days. Maybe some day, he will make classics of horror, and it would be ironic if, when he does, the mass audience deserts him for some other whiz kid who knows all the formulas. And who knows how to bring on the Devil, cue the demon nun and make us jump.

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Wilmington on Movies: Tomorrowland

birdlandTOMORROWLAND (Three Stars)

U. S.: Brad Bird, 2015

To Morrow (Fragment: A Railroad Lament).

 

I started on a journey, about a year ago,

To a little town called Morrow in the state of O-hio.

I’ve never been much of a traveler and I really didn’t know

That Morrow was the hardest place I’d ever tried to go.

 

So I went down to the station for my tickets and applied

For tips regarding Morrow, not expecting to be guyed.

Said I: “My friend, I’d like to go to Morrow, and return

“No later than tomorrow, for I haven’t time to burn.”

 

Says he to me. “Now let me see, if I have heard you right:

“You’d like to go to Morrow, and return tomorrow night.

“You should have gone to Morrow yesterday, and back today,

“For the train today to Morrow is a mile upon its way.”

 

Says I: “My friend, it seems to me you’re talking though your hat.

“There is a place called Morrow on the line, now tell me that.”

“There is,” said he, “But take from me a quiet little tip:

“The train today to Morrow is a fourteen hour trip…”

 

“The train today to Morrow leaves today at 8:35.

“At half-past-ten tomorrow is the time it should arrive

“So the train today to Morrow, if the schedule is right:

Today it goes to Morrow, and returns tomorrow night……”

 

Lew Sully, arranged (mostly) by Bob Gibson, courtesy of The Kingston Trio.

 

1. Yesterday

Watching Tomorrowland –a great big film hunk of love and optimism and confusion from the Walt Disney Studio — you sometimes get the idea that director-writer Brad Bird and company are trying not just to create a new movie but maybe to found a new movement; Dianetics for Disneyphiles, or Pessimists Anonymous or Worldmakers. (Just kidding.)

I liked the show, or at least parts of it. But there’s something undeniably preachy and predictable about Tomorrowland — even though it’s an incredibly well-made picture, bursting with the usual Disney high grade talent, loaded with laudable ambitions and extraordinary technique, and packed with correct politics, directorial flair and top-chop acting by some very engaging, very attractive players. (The movie’s ensemble is headed by George Clooney, the British comic Hugh Laurie and two terrific young actresses, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy, both of whom are younger than Tina Fey or Amy Poehler, at their snarkiest, would have wished on Clooney). It‘s also loaded with good intentions: those good intentions, as Robin Wood once cracked, with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. I was rooting for the movie from the early scenes on, which is, of course, a sure sign that it wasn’t quite working.

Tomorrowland doesn’t lead you to Hell — you‘ll find that elsewhere in the multiplex, especially in the theatres showing found footage horror movies, car-crash-a-thons and some of the more bourgeois romantic comedies. But it may be stuck in a kind of Purgatory of sermons and special effects. Bird’s story, which he co-wrote with Damon Lindelof of “Lost,“ is set first in the ‘60s, and then 45 years or so later (just about now). It revolves around those two girls, Casey and Athena, and a one-time prodigy kid inventor, Frank Walker, played by an actor, Thomas Robinson, who would have fit right in on the original TV “Leave it to Beaver,“ and who grows up to be an old grouchy recluse (Clooney, who is strenuously unsmiley in the last half of the movie).

2. Today

In our current decade, Frank is rousted out of his hermit’s lair — packed with inventions nobody ever bought and books nobody is reading any more — and persuaded (after some well-groomed but murderous robots disguised as cops burn his house down) to undertake a curious expedition: to find the storied Tomorrowland. His on-the-road companions: a bouncy, smart teenager named Casey Newton (Robertson) and a mysterious little girl with a beguiling British accent named Athena (Cassidy), who met Frank back in the 1964 World’s Fair, and hasn’t aged a minute since. Casey lives with her dad Eddie (Tim McGraw), a nice guy NASA employee who‘s been laid off. Athena hangs around, then and now, with people like Hugh Laurie as Governor Nix, which is either a nickname for Richard Nixon, or some apt moniker for the ultimate negativist.

We first meet Casey at her Spielbergishly suburban home. We first met Athena at the 1964 world’s fair, where Frank discovered Tomorrowland — introduced by the Sherman Brothers’ maddening little ditty “It’s a Small World.” Tomorrowland, of course is one of the four theme parks that were combined in the original Anaheim super-theme park Disneyland (it was also the name of a segment on the ‘50s TV show “Disneyland,” hosted by Walt). The others, in case you forgot, are Adventureland, Fantasyland and Frontierland — with a pristine early 1900s Main Street, complete with ice cream parlor and a silent movie house showing Charlie Chaplin movies (at least they did when I was there last), a street that was the all-American nostalgia entranceway into the four parks and the whole wonderful Magic Kingdom.

But isn’t a little strange to treat Tomorrowland as if it were El Dorado? These two Spielbergishly spunky kids, along with grumpy Frank/George, who needs a shave, have discovered a sort of alternate universe in the place, which boasts a spectacular variety of futuristic rides and hangouts and knockout visual effects, and which Casey can reach by pressing a little Tomorrow pin she‘s picked up — a talisman that then zips her in and out of the place and its world and the waving wheat-fields outside, without a ticket or a pass. (Let’s hope word on these pins doesn’t get around and bankrupt Disneyland.) The girls are eager to see more — just as we‘re relatively eager to see them see it.

So the three Amigos take off together, pursued by those evil robot kind-of-Matrix cops (so evil they actually kill real cops), bantering away (and nobody, of course, banters like Clooney), to ride, boldly ride, in search of Tomorrowland. They arrive just in time to save the world. (Did I forget the Spoiler Alert? Sorry.) As I said, I was rooting for them.

3. Tomorrow

Tomorrowland the movie is a technical marvel, full of moving sidewalks and futuristic cityscapes and electronic super-gizmos and almost everything else you’d want to see if you were a prodigy kid inventor in 1964 who stumbled into a time warp, and met the Big Crush of your life, or at lest of your boyhood. It’s also probably one of the most optimistic and fervently good-hearted movies around right now, saturated with a faith in the future and a liberal idealism that come just this side of clanging you over the head and handing you a petition. Remember those flashing “Author’s Message” signs that budding screenwriter Woody Allen inserted into 1965’s What’s New, Pussycat?? A few of them would fit right into Tomorrowland, especially in its climactic “Hey Kids, Let’s Put on the Future!“ scene with Frank, Casey and the youngsters gathered around them who’ll make the new world.

Unabashed liberal George Clooney has taken a little heat in some reviews for stuff like this: for what some pundits choose to see as his malign ultra-liberal influence on the movie — as if Clooney were some kind of Johnny Appleseed of the Hollywood Left, or as if Bird hadn’t put out messages pretty much like this into his other pictures as well. It didn’t bother me, because my politics are somewhat the same as Clooney’s, and here as elsewhere he’s one of those effortlessly ingratiating actors whom you mostly don’t mind getting proselytized to by. Anyway, I doubt that he rewrote Bird’s and Lindelof’s script to give himself a sermon or two, and President Obama and Michelle don’t show up here, as they just did (via archival trickery) in Pitch Perfect 2. But it is (perfectly) true that Tomorrowland could use a few less speeches and good intentions and a few more snazzy inventions and spectacular set-pieces and many more memorable characters.

What sense does it make to spend all that money and energy on the setting for a movie, and expend so much less on imagining the people who live or hang out there? In the middle of the show, Keegan-Michael Key and Kathryn Hahn show up as Hugo and Ursula, the weirdo salesgeeks at an overflowing pop culture shop called Blast from the Past, and when the script almost immediately rubbed them out, and then 86’d some character actor cops as well, I felt cheated.

A lack of characters and unforgettable small roles is one of the movie’s big problems and one of the script‘s big holes. The writers seem to be spending all their energy on setting off the technological whizbangery of Tomorrowland, and relatively neglecting to imagine the fictional people who actually live there, or the people our three amigos will meet along the way — which is rather like basing a movie on the Taj Mahal or the Eiffel Tower (which makes a guest appearance here) and neglecting to populate them, or skimping on writing some more dialogue for the actors to say against those spectacular backdrops. As it is, even though there are hundreds of people in the ultimate Tomorrowland cast and crew list (the end-credits offer another sea of names and participants: enough, it almost seems, to swing a small gubernatorial election), they‘re mostly nameless walk-ons, or too quickly killed off, like hapless Hugo and unlucky Ursula.

Brad Bird became a star animation director (for The Iron Giant, Ratatouille and The Incredibles), before becoming a star live action director (with Tom Cruise’s last Mission Impossible), and he was so successful (financially and artistically) with all those shows, that maybe everybody figured this one was an unblockable slam dunk. But, despite all those magnificent effects and those visuals, and the small city of people employed to put it all together — or the fact that the film becomes such a passionate advocate of education. youthful invention and innovation, and the unleashing of dreamers and their dreams everywhere — Tomorrowland drags more, and is more obvious, and less delightful and just plain less entertaining than Bird’s other major outings. Not, I hasten to add, because of any shortcomings in Clooney and his two very gifted and mucho charming girl chums in the bantering, wisecrack, speechifying, or chemistry departments. They’re all just fine — although Clooney could use a shave. (Doesn’t Brad Pitt complain?)

To me, it seemed largely the fault of that old culprit and usual suspect these days, the script, which seemed to be in better than good hands, with both Brad Bird and “Lost‘s“ Lindelof, and may be better than a lot of what rolls down the chute these days, but still seems deficient dramatically and comedically. Perhaps everybody was lulled by anticipating those dynamite effects and visuals, and by figuring that the wondrous technology could dig them out of any hole that opened up under them. AUTHOR’S MESSAGE! AUTHORS MESSAGE! But you need people to fill up a theme park, and also, most of the time, to tell a good story in the movies. And, as a great man, dream-weaver and inventor named Disney (or his songwriters) once said, “It’s a small, small world.” END OF MESSAGE. END OF MESSAGE.

 

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The Art of Movie Titles

Just got an email announcing that Homework, the Freddie Highmore/Emma Roberts teenage-angst-slacker drama that Fox Searchlight picked up at Sundance, is getting a title change to The Art of Getting By.

Personally, I think this is a good move on Searchlight’s part. Homework was a bland title that had “working title until we think up something better” written all over it. The Art of Getting By, in any case, is both catchier and more fitting for what the film is really about. I bet they had a lot of brainstorming meetings over bagels and coffee with a white board figuring out something better to call this film. Hey, at least they didn’t go with “Annoying Rich White Kids Get Life Lessons” or something.

Now, if they could just find a way to cut the diabetic coma-inducing sugariness of the script down just a notch (no, I will NOT use the words “twee” or “precious” to describe it, no matter how apropos they may be) … we might be getting somewhere. I felt when I was watching Homework at Sundance that it wanted to be edgier and braver. Terri and Submarine both, for me, dealt with teen issues and angst with more honest and real — and interesting — characters. But at least it’s got a better title now.

John Hughes’s movies often had great titles for what they were. The Breakfast Club. Sixteen Candles. Pretty in Pink. Weird Science. Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Some Kind of Wonderful. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Home Alone. (Come to think of it, I like all those movies, even now. Yes, even Home Alone — the first one, not the sequels.)

A rose by any other name would smell as sweet … or would it? I’m kind of with Anne Shirley, who didn’t think a rose would smell as sweet if it was called a skunk cabbage. Would those Hughes films have been the same movies if they’d been titled … Detention? I Can’t Believe They Forgot My Birthday? Wrong Side of the Tracks? Two Geeks and a Hot Babe? Get Me Home for Thanksgiving? Crushing on the Wrong Girl? Playing Hooky? Bad Parents Forget Kid?

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Review: Mildred Pierce

Kate Winslet is terrific in many ways in Todd Haynes’s lengthy five-episode HBO miniseries adaptation of Mildred Pierce — not the least of which is bringing her own unique sensibility to the role made melodramatically iconic by Joan Crawford back in 1945. Although Crawford won her only Oscar for the role, I’ve never been a huge fan of the Michael Curtiz-directed adaptation of James M. Cain’s 1941 novel of the same name, probably in part because Crawford has just never been one of my favorite old-school actresses.

But no worries, because Haynes has gone back to the source material rather than the Curtiz film, and the end result is far more Douglas Sirk revisisted than Curtiz. Which isn’t altogether a bad thing — Sirk’s Imitation of Life is one of my favorite old guilty pleasure melodramas … and what better time than now to to revisit a Depression-era melodrama revolving around a fulcrum of economics and class and survival?
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Somewhat in Defense of Sucker Punch (Well, Parts of It, Anyway …)

It will probably surprise you to learn that, for all its flaws, I kind of dug Sucker Punch. Or rather, I like the idea of Sucker Punch a lot, and I like parts of how it was executed. Visually, it’s pretty stunning. Loved the desaturated and tinted tones, loved the hair and makeup (yes, even the many false eyelashes), loved the costuming (and look forward to seeing gangs of roving teenage cosplayers lovingly recreating those costumes at cons over the next year).

I loved the movie’s opener, which in many respects evokes the opener for Watchmen, which was also brilliant … and was also, as is the case with Sucker Punch, the best part of that film.
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Juno Temple Joins The Dark Knight Rises. Cool.

Here’s some casting news in which I’m particularly interested: Variety is EXCLUUUUUSIVELY reporting that indie starlet Juno Temple is locked to join the cast of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. The pot had already been sweetened by the addition Joseph Gordon-Levitt to the mix, but Juno Temple being cast as well is great news.
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Spotlight: Cinematographer Michael Simmonds on Working Collaboratively with Ramin Bahrani

You’ve probably seen Michael Simmonds work, even if you don’t realize it. The ace cinematographer has been very busy over the last few years shooting lots of movies, including notable docs Project Nim and The Order of Myths. He’s also shot all of Ramin Bahrani’s better-known films: Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo, and Plastic Bag, a terrific short narrated by Werner Herzog, and featured on Futurestates.

I first met Michael at Sundance years ago when Man Push Cart, Bahrani’s first major feature, was playing there, and his work so impressed me that that I’ve followed it since. A while back (okay, a LONG while back, like in October), we chatted through email about the way in which he and Bahrani collaborate, and he was kind enough to allow me to share his thoughts with you here.
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Imagining the Future Through Film

The site Futurestates, part of ITVS, is a very cool site that challenges students to think about what the future will look like 25, 50, 100 years from now. The site combines films on pertinent subjects with lesson plans that tie in and challenge students to think about what they’re learning and hypothesize about what consequences might result decades from now, from choices they’re making today.

One of the Season One lessons, for instance, used Ramin Bahrani’s terrific short film Plastic Bag, narrated by Werner Herzog, to illustrate the relationship between humans as consumers and how we impact the environment without thinking.

One of the season two episodes, Exposure, which releases April 4, was directed by Mia Trachinger, whose film Reversion played at Sundance a few years ago. Reversion was a trippy film about a group of people who lack the ability to travel linearly through time. Trachinger used this basic conceit to explore the idea that if we don’t experience life linearly, we don’t ever see the direct consequences of actions, as an allegory for consequential morality generally.

Reversion had some flaws in the execution (Trachinger just told me she’s recut the film, though, so I am really interested to see it in this new iteration), but it was a really smart concept and Trachinger herself kind of reminds me of a sci-fi Miranda July … very smart and passionate, with a particularly interesting and engaging way of looking at the world.

Here’s the trailer for Trachinger’s film Exposure, which imagines a future world in which teams of government workers are tasked with the job of inoculating the population against disease by exposing people to contagions, and a group of people trying to avoid being exposed.

I’ll be keeping an eye on this project, now that I know about it, and maybe using some of the lessons with my middle school youth group at the Unitarian Church to kick off some discussions about some of the issues addressed. Pretty cool.

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The Real Problem with Mars Needs Moms

Over on the Hot Blog, David (again) takes Brooks Barnes to task for lazy writing on his blog-tastic piece titled “Many Culprits in Fall of a Family Film.”

And as is often the case, David has some interesting and astute points to make about the journalism (or lack thereof) in this piece of writing for The Paper of Record and the business side of who did what to whom and who’s taking the heat for the failure of this film. And there’s lots to pick apart there, lots of business angles to analyze and quotes to dissect, and if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the business analysis of Mars Needs Moms, you should go read it.
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Dallas IFF Announces Stellar Lineup

SXSW may be rocking Austin right now, but the Dallas International Film Festival, which runs March 31-April 10, is just a few short weeks away, and the fest, under the leadership of Artistic Director James Faust and Senior Programmer Sarah Harris has just announced an impressive slate.

Last year was the first year that the fest took off under its own steam, after three years of partnering with AFI, and this year from the looks of it Faust, Harris, who set out with the goal of bringing films from a wide array of cultures to Dallas audiences, certainly seem to be aiming for that goal. I’ll be in Dallas myself a few days toward the end of the fest, so I’ll be keeping you apprised of all the cool happenings at this year’s fest. In the meantime, you can check out the press announcement with the full line-up right here.

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Spotlight: Ari Gold on Adventures of Marketing Adventures of Power

Three years ago, filmmaker Ari Gold made a little film called Adventures of Power, a quirky comedy about a dorky air drummer (played by Gold himself) who pursues his air drumming dream all the way fro New Mexico to New … Jersey where he battles Adrian Grenier for a $2000 smackeroos. Unfortunately for Gold, the film debuted at Sundance to divisive reviews, just as the faltering economy was bursting the bubble of industry sales at the Park City fest.
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Review: Mars Needs Moms

I’m going to be right up front about Mars Needs Moms and tell you that I wasn’t overly impressed with this movie. And I feel bad saying that, because it’s apparent that an awful lot of work went into making it. Actors wore little dots all over their faces, for Pete’s sake! To do motion capture! That’s gotta count for something, right? Unfortunately, someone forgot to give the story as much thought as they gave to the motion capture technique, which isn’t in and of itself new enough or nifty enough to overcome a flawed script.
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Hope for Hathaway

Okay, people, I need to get something off my chest here. What the hell happened to Anne Hathaway?

As I watched the Oscars, with poor Hathaway so gamely and desperately trying to make it work, I just felt … sad, I guess. What happened to the Anne Hathaway who showed such damn promise in Rachel Getting Married? Who the hell has been helping her choose her projects since then? I mean, really. Let’s go to the map:
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Anime Girlfriend

There’s a new episode of My Anime Girlfriend up over on Atom.com. I kinda dig this little web series about a data entry dork and his anime girlfriend, Yuruki. I’ve seen a lot of little gems at Atom over the years … more so before they got bought by MTV and essentially made into a web channel for Comedy Central a few years ago, but you can still find a lot of good stuff over there.

One thing, though, is that it’s all comedy now there, so a lot of the indie stuff that wasn’t comedy isn’t there anymore.

P.S. If you have a fave short film that you’d like me to check out, send me a URL. I’ve been watching more shorts of late, and I’m particularly interested right now in shorts that are really original, or even experimental.

Episode 3 of My Anime Girlfriend is embedded below. If you’ve not seen the first two episodes, you might want to watch them first. Short, but cute, especially if you’re an anime geek.

o

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Quote Unquotesee all »

“People react primarily to direct experience and not to abstractions; it is very rare to find anyone who can become emotionally involved with an abstraction. The longer the bomb is around without anything happening, the better the job that people do in psychologically denying its existence. It has become as abstract as the fact that we are all going to die someday, which we usually do an excellent job of denying. For this reason, most people have very little interest in nuclear war. It has become even less interesting as a problem than, say, city government, and the longer a nuclear event is postponed, the greater becomes the illusion that we are constantly building up security, like interest at the bank. As time goes on, the danger increases, I believe, because the thing becomes more and more remote in people’s minds. No one can predict the panic that suddenly arises when all the lights go out — that indefinable something that can make a leader abandon his carefully laid plans. A lot of effort has gone into trying to imagine possible nuclear accidents and to protect against them. But whether the human imagination is really capable of encompassing all the subtle permutations and psychological variants of these possibilities, I doubt. The nuclear strategists who make up all those war scenarios are never as inventive as reality, and political and military leaders are never as sophisticated as they think they are.”
~ Stanley Kubrick

“You can’t make films about something the audience knows nothing about. The trick is getting the audience to tell their own stories in the story so that they know what will happen. And then, just before they get bored, you must surprise them and move the story in a new direction.”
~ Mogens Rukov

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