The past few months have been rather busy for me. With work and grad school taking up far more time than I had anticipated, I have not had the chance to give Film Misery – or really, movies in general – the kind of time they deserved. Now that the semester is over, I should have much more spare time to see movies, write about them for Film Misery, and engage in discussions with a forum of people I’ve missed more than I’d like to admit.
Busy as I was, I still managed to find a spare Saturday or two to catch some matinees of numerous films that hit theaters during the semester. Below is a back-log of movies I had wanted to write about in greater detail, but never quite found the time or energy…
Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing
Pablo Berger’s contemporary silent film is the third movie in roughly a year to riff on the Snow White tale, but it is the first one that actually knows how to tell a good story… as if that was a big hurdle to jump. Reimagining Snow White as Carmen (played by Macarena Garcia), the orphaned daughter of a legendary matador, the movie shows her fall into the care of her wicked, gold-digging stepmother. When Carmen escapes, she befriends a crew of bull-fighting dwarves and eventually carries on her father’s legacy as “Blancanieves.”
I have taken issue with every Snow White adaptation I have seen, and Blancanieves almost feels like a response to my complaints. Mixing moviemaking styles both contemporary and from the silent era, Berger’s film is a work of legitimate style (unlike Mirror, Mirror) and it has a great sense of characterization, knowing how to embody each Dwarf with some semblance of personality (unlike Snow White and the Huntsman). The Prince Charming trope is given a fresh, lovely twist (unlike the Disney Snow White), and Snow White herself feels like a legitimate person, and not a helpless and/or personality free waif (Mirror, Huntsman and Disney).
Best of all is Maribel Verdu’s nefarious, sexy and surprisingly kinky take on the Evil Stepmother. Verdu, whom you might remember from Pan’s Labyrinth and Y tu Mama Tambien, will make you forget Julia Roberts or Charlize Theron even tried (and failed) to play this part. Verdu is everything the Evil Queen needed to be: a deliciously petty diva, an utterly glamorous fashionista, and a thoroughly evil bastard. Just wait until you see what she does with Pepe, young Carmen’s pet rooster!
Grade: D | 1st Viewing
I realize I posit this question about two decades too late, but when exactly did mainstream horror movies decide they didn’t want to be fun anymore? When did they decide that blood, gore and an intense “yuck”-factor were acceptable substitutes for legitimate frights, jumps and a truly interesting killer? Don’t get me wrong; I’m no prude. I can enjoy violent slasher/horror flicks as much as the next guy, and I honestly don’t believe Fede Alvarez’s remake is in any way beholden to the comparatively goofier spirit of the Sam Raimi original. But Evil Dead is emblematic of everything that makes me resist the more recent efforts of this genre. It is humorlessly gruesome, devoid of interesting characters or villains and, excepting the admittedly tense final minutes, has no particular sense of craft or perspective. I’m just ready for this type of low-budget schlock to die already, and to be resurrected into a genre worth talking about.
I don’t want to trash the horror genre wholesale, though. If anything, I want to love it! If you have any recent, decent horror movies you think are worth my time (or at least better than this crap), please let me know!
Grade: A- | 5th+ Viewing
I revisited Jurassic Park a few years back, on DVD, and I remember feeling a bit underwhelmed. Sure, those classic elements still worked their magic – the sinister foreboding of that rippling water, the spine-tingling John Williams Score, Jeff Goldblum’s performance – but I hadn’t ever noticed how thinly drawn the characters and the “playing God” allegory had been. Yet watching Spielberg’s adaptation of Billy and the Clonosaurus in theaters (superfluously augmented for 3D), I’ve lightened up considerably on the movie. It’s not quite that my issues with the story went away; it’s just that the big screen has a way of making them feel so much smaller. Jurassic Park remains a lavish spectacle of a moviegoing experience, and still arguably the deftest use of the computer technology it helped popularize twenty years ago. To see how well it works here is a testament to Spielberg’s skill with special effects. Given the countless imitators of the past two decades (some directed by Spielberg himself), it also reveals a depressing truth about the state of movie effects today.
Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing
I walked in to Abbas Kiarostami’s new film with a seemingly contradictory mixture of impossible-to-meet expectations and a unfettered good-will. Fortunately the Iranian director of the 2011 masterpiece Certified Copy, the best movie of that year and possibly of this decade thus far, did not disappoint. Like Someone in Love, the story about a young Tokyo prostitute forging a unique friendship with a lonely widowed professor, is not quite as strong an intellectual achievement as Copy. But that comparison admittedly underserves this movie’s strengths; it is, on its own terms, one of the better films from the first half of this year. Featuring strong chemistry from Tadashi Okudo and Rin Takanashi, Kiarostami also reaffirms his capacity for subdued yet stylish filmmaking. His opening shot is an astonishingly complex, yet effortless use of sound, depth of field and playing with viewer perspective. A later moment, one involving a series of voicemails, is a gentle act of heart-breaking.
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
Grade: C | 5th+ Viewing
The original Jurassic Park is a gripping, exciting sci-fi larf, borrowing from the revered tradition of classic monster movies. Its sequel, itself a loose adaptation on Michael Crichton’s own literary sequel, is about a pre-teen girl who kills dinosaurs with gymnastics.
Grade: B+ | 1st Viewing
Had he not been such a raging ass-hat in real life, I think Elia Kazan would be considered one of the truly great auteurs of his time. Sure, he has two indisputable masterpieces to his name – On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire – but when I see a smaller movie of his like Pinky, it sort of blows my mind to realize how amazing a talent the guy really was. Pinky is about a young biracial woman (Jeanne Crain) who returns to live with her black grandmother (a wonderful Ethel Waters) in the Deep South, and must contend with the racism of her small town. While it is disappointing that the studio went with the safe casting choice of a white actress like Crain, Kazan finds something quietly revolutionary in the story’s race and body politics, playing at the (presumably) white audience’s discomfort of witnessing the actress become a victim to some truly heinous racism, including police brutality and attempted sexual assault. Pinky is a little too safeguarded to be Do the Right Thing, but Kazan deserves credit for his film’s relative boldness. Again, a damn shame about HUAC.
Grade: C+ | 1st Viewing
Rodney Ascher’s spotlight on a handful of theories regarding Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining – many of which being of the absolute crackpot variety – has been the subject of interesting debate. It has received strong reviews, with many calling the documentary one of the great films about movie making and movie criticism. Yet it’s not without its dissenters; a particularly conflicted Jonathan Rosenbaum called the movie “at once entertaining and reprehensible… [it]refuses to make any distinctions between interpretations that are semi-plausible or psychotic.” As much as I would love to jump into the fray of that debate, I feel all this attention paid to Ascher’s film is slightly overblown. The truth is that, as fascinating as these theories about The Shining can be, they get a disappointingly mediocre presentation in Room 237.
Ascher’s film is hampered by numerous frustrating choices, not the least of which being its deadly choice not to show the faces of any of its five theorists. Instead, we get their narration accompanied by appropriate clips from The Shining and – rather bizarrely – clips from other Kubrick films that kinda, sorta fit with what the subjects are saying in voice-over. I am still figuring out what Ascher is trying to accomplish with this choice; perhaps he is hinting at the thematic fluidity of Kubrick’s oeuvre, or perhaps he is commenting on how we all have our own outlandish theories we foster about the art we love. If it’s the former theory, it’s executed with astonishing glibness. If it’s the latter, it utterly fails because it essentially takes the critic out of the criticism. That is just about the last thing this doc should be doing when talking about a movie that has clearly affected people on so personal a level. If the Ascher’s point is something else entirely, I don’t see it being supported particularly well in his filmmaking.
Grade: B | 1st Viewing
Think of Spring Breakers as something of a Girls Gone Wild special, had it been shot by Terrence Malick, written by Whit Stilman, and Second-Unit directed by Russ Meyer. Harmony Korine’s movie repulsed me time and again, yet I feel like I was practically obligated to like it; if I didn’t, Korine wins. To be fair to the Trash Humpers director, Spring Breakers is more than an endurance test (though it is certainly that). He manages to capture the aesthetic gloss of the MTV-like party exuberance and, through relentless overexposure, reveals how ugly and vacuous it truly is. James Franco’s performance as Alien is a far cry from the bland leading performance he gave in Oz: The Great and Powerful earlier this spring; in Breakers, he is a fascinating portrait of a life defined by pop-culture extravagance and vapid cultural assimilation. T&A rarely feels this (intentionally) exhausting.