Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The 25: Part 19: Donnie Darko

(The twenty five is an examination of the twenty five films that made me a cinephile. These aren’t necessarily what I consider the best movies, nor are they necessarily my favorite. Though in some cases they are both. Instead these are the films that made the biggest most indenialable impression on me. Films that if they hadn’t hit a certain way at a certain time I would not be the same film goer that I am today. They’re the twenty five.)

We bring a lot to the movies we watch. It’s no secret that personal experience affects how we watch a movie, it’d be odd if it didn’t. Does Broadcast News have more significance for me then someone else because I lived out the Albert Brooks leg of that particular love triangle? Does Dogma intrigue me more then most because I share Smith’s Catholic School education, fascination with the possibility of the divine, and engrained smart ass streak? Does The Royal Tenenbaums hit just so because I see so much of myself and my family reflected in it? The answer to each is Undoubtedly.

But every so often a kind of reverse osmosis happens and a movie insinuates itself into your life and being. I’m not talking about the dazed, narcotic, happiness that comes from the first viewing of a movie that you know will become a favorite or one that articulates something within yourself. I don’t know if I can even quite put it into words. All I know is that watching Donnie Darko is more like taking a bite out of one of Proust’s Madeline’s then watching a movie. I watch it not alone but with my sixteen year old self sitting on the couch next to me brought back vividly to life.

(My beloved Aero...)

Not to go into to much detail about why the film resonated with me so deeply, or what happened that night to make that resonation stick (There are parts of myself I like to keep private. Even in the age of blogging.) But the night I first saw Donnie Darko seems to be the last night of my childhood as well as the first of the long confused adolescence that followed. If this perhaps gives the film some unearned significance for me, then so be it. If you’ve been following this blog you know that for me the movies are an intensely personal experience. As I get older I find I have less and less use for "objective" film criticism, I doubt such a beast exists. Every critic who is worth anything is a prism as well as a reporter, and I always have felt that its part of my due diligence to express as fully as I can to the reader just what that prism contains.

The detractor’s of Donnie Darko, mostly those who caught it on its second wave of buzz, usually condemn the movie as an ungainly, awkward, overblown mess. To a certain extent I would agree, yet at the same time I’d argue that there are probably no three words that better describe adolescence, and any movie that deals with that subject, and is not a little ungainly with its sincerity, awkward with its ambitions, and overblown in its emotions is doing something seriously wrong.

I will concede that the film’s success did have a lot to do with its timing. Many have remarked about the reverse serendipity that had a film about a mysterious plane crash come out a mere month after 9/11. But it wasn’t so much the specifics of 9/11 that Darko seemed to so eerily and completely capture as the feeling of dislocation it brought.

It happened to come out at a moment when a bunch of scared teenagers had just watched the world fall about around them and found in Donnie an able surrogate. True no giant Bunny Rabbits showed up on the golf course to tell us the world was about to end. But to a suburban kid who had been taught all his life to believe in American invincibility and watched that lie implode in on itself on September 11th, The Lone Bunny Of The Apocalypse would hardly be more of a deviation from the norm.

But in all honesty, it’s not the apocalyptic overtones, monologues about Smurf sex, “Grandma Death” narrative puzzles, Donnie’s scenes of “stick it to the man grandstanding”, Kelly’s striking Wunderkid imagery, or any of the other things that so deeply impressed me at sixteen, that really resonate with me now.

Oh don’t get me wrong those things are fine. But what strikes me now, is Kelly’s human eye, the one that has only shown up intermittently in his subsequent films (Don’t get me wrong, I have a certain affection for Southland Tales and more then a certain affection for The Box, having found it to be one of those happy movies that markedly improves with each viewing). It’s Donnie’s Mother’s reaction in the psychiatrist office, when told that her son is likely slipping into Schizophrenia, one of the most heartbreakingly realistic portrayals of how someone reacts to a loved one’s mental illness I’ve seen in a film and her later perfect response to Donnie’s question “How does it feel to have a crazy son?” It’s the halting sweetness in Gretchen’s and Donnie’s relationship, Donnie staring at the long ago picture of the smiling Roberta Sparrow, its all the little messy human moments.

Because that’s what makes Donnie Darko so special. What has allowed it to still resonate ten years on, now that the novelty of its strangeness has worn off and to keep its reputation intact despite the sayers of neigh. At it’s core beneath all the brainteasers, mythology and games, it remains a simple human story (The fact that Kelly’s next film was nothing but brainteasers, mythology and games sans human story goes a long way to explaining that film’s ultimately doesn't work) one of a young man trying to survive in a baffling, occasionally hostile universe, while maintaining some measure of happiness and grace. Now I don’t know about you, but that still pretty well describes my day to day life.

And that’s why though I always watch Donnie Darko with my sixteen year old self next to me on the couch, it never feels like a simple piece of nostalgia to be tucked safely away in the past. Like all the movies that become part of our life it provides a continuity between who I was and who I am, and where those two things overlap.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Like Rian Johnson, Neil Marshall is a director who I respond to primarily because he has apparently dedicated his career to making the types of movies I like to watch. Dog Soldiers is a scrappy little film, one of the few to use the Raimi/Jackson Splatterpunk tradition without simply aping it. The Descent is one of the best, smartest, most squirm enducing horror films of the previous decade. And Doomsday is Grindhouse for those raised on the films of John Carpenter and Walter Hill instead of the 42nd Street product. He simply has yet to make a film I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed.

So Given the festival buzz it got, I was somewhat surprised that I never got a chance to see Centurion in a theater. Not only that but The DVD release was so quiet that I didn’t even know the movie was out until I literally stumbled upon it at Borders as I was looking for something to use a ten dollar coupon on.

If I was surprised by Centurion’s handling before viewing it, I’m down right baffled now. Centurion is simply put, a blast, a good ole fashioned slice of B movie heaven. It delivers the requisite thrills and chills, with a keen and unique visual sensibility and an old fashioned sense of story. All while taking exquisite advantage of the severe beauty of the natural surroundings, getting its all out of its charismatic cast, and delivering some fantastically tense set pieces and some brutal action. As well as a few of the most roundly unexpected Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid references I’ve ever seen.

Centurion tells the story of the fabled Ninth Legion. The legendary group of Roman Soldiers who one day marched into Northern Britain and never marched the fuck out.

Centurion follows the few survivors’ of the massacre as they’re hunted by a group of vengeful and fucking crazy Pict warriors across the merciless and harshly beautiful landscape of Northern Britain. The cast headed by the ever enjoyable Michael Fassbender, Dominic “McNulty” West, and a surprisingly feral Olga Kurylenko all of whom do credible and charismatic work.

Comparing it to Driven, which was a B movie whose delusions of grandeur ended up sucking all the life out of it, Centurion is a film that does nothing but relentlessly deliver the goods all while couching things in a natural moral grey area that gives the film a little bit of gristle for you to chew on.

The film’s not perfect, not since The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnaussus have I seen a film where the harsh digital stock disagrees so completely with the film’s overall aesthetic. Just as much of a problem are the conspicuous digital gore shots, even more baffling then usual given the film’s excellent practical effects. Coupled with the slack final fifteen minutes, which follow a terrific final showdown between pursuers and pursued, it’s enough to keep Centurion in the “Very Good” category rather then the “Instant Genre Classic” one.

But for action movie fans who prefer First Blood to Rambo II, Centurion is just what the doctor ordered in a slack year for good action films.

Sunday, November 28, 2010


For its first half hour Faster seems to know exactly what kind of movie it wants to be. A volatile revenge action flick, with energy and style to spare, with two charismatic lead performances at the center. The kind of film the Neveldine Taylor hive mind might make if they gave one wit about storytelling, character, aesthetics, or anything other then injecting their movies with as much mayhem and bad taste.

And then rather abruptly the movie stops knowing what it wants to be, and goes for what I can only describe as The Rock’s Unforgiven. It’s the kind of movie that makes you go, “Huh?” Like the old truism about the dog walking on its hind legs It’s not done well but one is surprised to see it done at all.

But let’s backtrack for a moment. Because there is a lot to like in this movie, principally the charismatic performances at the center by The Rock and Billy Bob Thorton. It’s a welcome return to form for the both of them. The Rock apparently looking at the “Action Movie Star’s Career Trajectory” upside down didn’t realize that he was supposed to make some awesome action movies before taking shit rolls in kid’s films. While Faster isn’t completely successful, it is at least a step in the right direction, in that along with The Rundown, it’s a movie I can contemplate rewatching without flinching.

It is a shame this has taken so long because The Rock is always fun to watch. And I mean that in a very literal way, he’s just fun to look at. During a tense dramatic moment my buddy leaned over to me and whispered “I know I’m supposed to be taking this seriously, but he’s so fucking huge.” If it does nothing else Faster uses that physicality well.

Billy Bob Thorton, who has been lying low for a while now, not sure if I can remember why. Brings his trademark exquisite seediness to the part of “Cop.” Decked out in sleazy seventy leisure clothes, one of the worst toupees in recent memory. Thorton on screen is such a shambling wreck of a man on screen that he can make you forget what a shambling wreck of a man he is in real life.

These two are always fun to watch, no matter what the movie they’re in has them do. Much more problematic is the character the movie refers to as “The Killer” but I will refer to as “The Fancy Gent.” The Fancy Gent is a foppish hit man who starts hunting The Rock. Giving long monologues, and consuming conspicuously, every scene involved carries the underlying message “My isn't this gent Fancy.”

Now The Fancy Gent fits in well enough, when the movie is in Crank mode. Albeit as something that probably looked pretty cool on the page and just died on the screen. But as the movie shifts into Unforgiven mode, the presence of the fancy gent goes from distracting to baffling. Are The Fancy Gent’s martial problems really were the dramatic meat of the story is?

Faster is ultimately one of those movies that I can’t recommend, but wouldn’t really dissuade you from seeing either. It fails, but only because it tries to do too much. Which is always preferable to a movie playing it too safe.

Friday, November 26, 2010


It’s taken all of two films for The Lasseter helmed Walt Disney Feature Animation to make the long dark night of the soul that has been the last ten years (or is if fifteen) for that studio seem like a distant memory. It may be premature, but I wouldn’t hesitate to say we may be in midst of a real second Disney Renaissance.

Lasseter has taken some flack over the last couple of months. The unceremonious booting from the director seat of longtime fan favorite animator Glen Keane from the film, after Lassertar decided to rebuild it from the ground up, rubbed many the wrong way. It sounded like something from The Social Network, it’s easy to imagine Lassetter smirkingly telling Keane, “If you were going to save Walt Disney Feature Animation, you would have saved Walt Disney Feature Animation.” Coupled with the similarly unceremonious firing of Brenda Chapman from Pixar’s The Bear and The Bow (Now The Brave), not to mention the cancellation of Newt, led many to whisper that Lasseter was turning into an iron fisted control freak so terrified of failure that he was afraid to allow any voice but his own into the film. Making even someone like myself, who had previously had nothing but confidence in the man a little nervous about what I'd see coming out of Lasseter's studio.

All I can say is if this it the type of film that draconian absolute power from John Lasseter yields, then "All hail Overlord Lasseter."

But all this inside baseball about the unseemly power struggles behind Tangled, obscures what a delightful, sweet natured, film it is. There’s much to like about Tangled, from it’s beautiful animation, filled with sharp character design (including the greatest Disney horse since Ichabod’s) rich detail (The water color clothing painted in the corners Rapunzel's dresser) and lush Final Fantasy like backgrounds. To the touching story and quick screwball worthy banter (Including a scene documenting Rapunzel’s swings between elation and guilt which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a theater this year). Mandy Moore and Zacharey Levi do shockingly credible jobs and Donna Murphy does a mean Bernedette Peters impersonation. The rest of the cast is filled out with welcome ringers including Ron Perlmen, Jeffery Tambor and Brad Garrett.

But what really makes Tangled special is it’s control of tone. The WDFA films post The Hunchback Of Notre Dame all felt like movies desperately unsure of themselves. From the anime aping Atlantis, to the Dreamwork’s aping Home On The Range; the films of the time (with a few pointed exceptions like the lovely rambunctious Lilo And Stitch) all seemed baffled at the idea that an audience might want to see a Disney movie from Disney.

And it’s that core idea, that the Disney tradition at it’s best is nothing to be ashamed of, that Lasseter has brought back to Walt Disney Feature Animation. There’s a moment in Tangled when at the crescendo of the Princess’s song a flock of birds appears and soars along with the princess’s notes as the camera pulls back to reveal the full of a sun dappled wood. My Katzenberg warped training braced for the punchline. It didn’t come. As a statement of purpose things don’t get much clearer. Yes we will go there. Yes we absolutely will play that big. And no we won’t wink or acted ashamed for so much as a second.

Tangled isn’t perfect, for those annoyed by the Disney Formula the film follows it to a “t” in a way that makes The Princess And The Frog seem loose and spontaneous. The songs by Alan Mencken seemed unusually flat (though the rest of the audience seemed to be enjoying them, so I dunno maybe it’s just me) and the film has more Mother Issues then Pink Floyd’s The Wall compounded by Psycho.

And yet these flaws are so slight when compared to the pleasures of the film. The Disney Formula is such an easy one to take aim at, because it’s so easy for the film’s to just be paint by the numbers, fill in the blank here lazy.

But when that formula is earned, by employing the quality artistry and storytelling that Disney at it’s best stands for it remains as effective a recipe for films as I know.

Under the Lasseter helmed Disney I expect the company to continue earning it for a very long time.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Night Of The Living Dead Reanimated

Like the shambling corpses it portrayed Night Of The Living Dead has gone on to have a strange second life. Due to a copyright error so negligent that it’s damn near criminal, Night Of The Living Dead fell into the public domain almost immediately upon its release.

In other words anyone can use Night Of The Living Dead for just about anything.

The unprecedented ability to legally tamper with and incorporate such well known source material has meant that Night Of The Living Dead has found itself at the center of all sorts of interesting experiments, as well as a few genuine travesties (The infamous “30th Anniversary Edition"). A kind of Typhoid Mary for media in the digital age. A fact that I’m sure comes as cold comfort to Romero as he spends his nights weeping over all the lost residuals, that making one of the most influential films of all time would have otherwise earned him.

It seems that not a day goes by without Night Of The Living Dead being featured in some kind of mash-up, tribute, or experiment.

One of the most intriguing of these was Night Of The Living Dead Reanimated a project that took hundreds of artists’ work, through dozens of different media, to create a shot by shot reanimation of Night Of The Living Dead, using the film’s original audio track as its spine. It’s a bold, exciting and appealingly democratic idea and it is perhaps inevitably, only partially successful. Sadly for all its potential Night Of The Living Dead Reanimated must be consigned to the A for effort, C- for execution pile.

The problem seems clear in hindsight. Though plenty of people volunteered material for the film’s most iconic scenes (the film occasionally suffers from an overabundance of material. Cutting between interpretations so quickly that all coherence is lost), few provided material for the connective tissue between them. A lot of Night Of The Living Dead Reanimated, might simply be termed Night Of The Living Dead Unanimated with still pictures substituting for animation a far too large percentage of the time. Which stay resolutely static no matter how frantically the makers apply the “Ken Burns Effect”.
It seems as though the “curators” of the film could have posted a list of scenes they needed done, the reward being higher exposure… But let’s face it this is just Monday morning quarterbacking.

The styles range from ultra cartoony, to startlingly abstract and folk art strange. The mediums range from straight up animation, rotoscoping, stop motion and even sock puppets. The techniques range from fluid to down right abrasive. Truly problematic is the film’s over reliance on Machinima, (animation using videogame characters). It’s singularly unappealing here, stiff and uniform, when even the worst of the hand drawn stuff reveals real personality. Machima becomes the film’s crutch and Achilles heel.

It would be fair to call Night Of The Living Dead Reanimated a failed experiment but it remains a worthy one. It's an experiment that allows one to look at something viewed a dozen times before with fresh eyes again. And that makes it all worth it.

(On a side note. Have a Happy Thanksgiving, and if you're reading this, then trust me you have my sincerest thanks.)

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets

Reading The Chamber Of Secrets is a bit like going to an alternate universe where in the promise of The Sorcerer’s Stone failed to develop into anything all that special, instead cycling back into a harmless but hardly exceptional series of children’s books.

Chamber Of Secret’s falls into so many of the traps that Rowling was so successful at avoiding for most of the series. “Cute” side characters, by the numbers plotting, red herrings so abundant that entire chapters could be entitled “filler”.

It is Rowling so it is not wholly without charm, though most of it is to be found around the edges of the uninspired story she was telling (Though in all fairness, Rowling did weave in some seeds of the macro plot in here quite gracefully. She’s also displays her skill of laying in detail early, before we even know what it means such as her off hand reference here to “The Azkaban guard.”) Concepts such as the howler, or details of life in The Weasly’s overflowing home the burrow, and her warm wit and skill with a one liner makes the story much more bearable then it might have been.

There’s just not a whole lot to say. Rowling eventually does bring in some interesting concepts, and some dark ideas and imagery, but the whole thing seems a little thin. As if Rowling is simply not playing to her full potential.

Luckily that would all change with the next book, but despite the fact that it undeniably has its moments, I find Chamber easier to appreciate as a look down the road not taken.

The Chamber Of Secret’s ends up being a better movie, then The Sorcerer’s Stone. Note I did not say a good movie.

Setting the template of the lesser Potter books making the better Potter movies. Chamber breaths a bit better, has a stronger more cinematic feel but once again fails to reach the level of the novel. Even this one.

If the key bad habit of the Potter movies is playing like a hurried checklist of scenes then its sister flaw has to be the expanding of the most superfluous scenes into inexplicable set pieces because some studio exec is nervous about the lack of action.

This rears its head first in Secrets, which the Ford Angelina sequence. A scene merely ill thought out and dull in the book, which through the magic of cinema is transformed into a scene that is ill thought out and dull as well as loud, drawn out, stupid, and unpleasantly manic.

The film’s problems are as always partially offset by excellent casting. Joining the cast this go out is Jason Issacs in particularly good form as the imperiously aristocratic Lucious Malfoy. And Kenneth Braunaugh, who I usually have a Pavlovian Dog like reaction of frothing hatred to thanks to his performance/direction/wholesale mutilation of Frankenstein (Which has made for some uncomfortable screenings of Hamlet let me tell you) actually makes the character of Lockheart work better on screen then in the page. Bringing to life his vapid pomposity and self regard (things that the real Braunaugh surely knows nothing about) in away that makes a character out of a caricature.

It’s hard to get all that worked up over Chamber Of Secrets at this point either as a book or a film. They’re not offensively bad, both just fall short of were they should be. No matter how you look at it, both the book and film series needed a swift kick in the ass.

Which is luckily just what they got with the next installment, the most satisfying installment of the series in both the book and film versions.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Scenes #2: The Red Shoes

The Red Shoes is one of the most loving tributes to the art of the theater, that I've ever seen. Therefore it's borderline perverse that The Archer's chose to use the central performance in the film as a mini essay in the things film can do that theater cannot.

Prior to the centerpiece, all the dances have been carefully shot from single perspectives. Either from the audience onto the Stage:

Or from the stage out into the audience:

The centeral performance on the other hand begins in the audience before bolding breaking into a sort of pocket universe.

The sequence starts off like the others....

But it only takes seconds for it to dip into a different cinematic language. With a simple cut. Cutting to a less extreme long shot, focusing the audiences attention, forcing them to see what you want them to in a way that is impossible in theater.

This it follows up with an even more audacious breach of technique.

An edit. And not just any old cut, but a flashy crossfade. The one cut that an audience is guarented to notice, no matter how little they know about cinematic grammar.

And yet look at the perfection of that invisible edit here. Which breaks at the exact moment Grishna turns. Powell's genius only allows you to see what the seams in the illusion when he wants you to.

The introduction of Moira Shearer, is suitably breathtaking. It's not the first time we've seen her dance in the film, but the grace and beauty of it never fails to amaze.

Our first look at the shoes. Once again so much of the credit goes to Moiria. That gaze, that instant want immediately sells their power.

This is our third real leap from Stage to Screen and the one that the sequence will employ the most. Subjectivity. Shearer literally seeing herself projected in the shoes is the kind of instant communication you can only do on film.
Leonide Massine is the true underrated star of The Red Shoes. He is so charismatic, and so funny in the movie, it's a true shame that he never worked that much in film outside of The Archers films. He's responsible for much of the choreography in the film, including all of his own, and he makes the character of "The Cobbler" capable of a laugh out loud funny reaction shot like the above, and true menace. Which isn't even getting into his character of Grishna, who steals the movie at every oppurtunity.

The Final Seduction...

Part of what made this such a tough scene to analysis on a purely technical level, is that the editing is so sophisticated that some of the shots are damn near subliminal. I'd be shocked if this one lasted sixteen frames.

Obviously this is to hide the wires (Crystal Clear thanks to Criterion's Scorsese sponsored new restoration.) But it's such an eerie effect, it hardly matters.

Once again, another subtle change from theater to film. While breaking the fourth wall is fairly common onstage, and is indeed basically done anytime an actor needs to project, on film it's always jarring. Not to mention that Massine is breaking it in character, it becomes doubly disconcerting. Almost as if he is reaching through two walls of unreality to reach us.

The night brings with it one of the film's most menacing sets.

And the most menacing use of Jazz hands that I know of.

The carnival scenes are some of the most beautifully decadent ever shot. But look at the above shot how many planes of action are simultaneously ongoing? Four? Five? The sophistication of it is mind blowing.

Don't ask me why but I've always found those clearly young dancers in the false old age makeup very disturbing.

Note Massine's shadow lying in wait.

""I never knew what a natural was before," Powell told the studio owner J. Arthur Rank. "But now I do. It's Moira Shearer."

-Roger Ebert-

That's a powerful series of images. Once again the film's ability to dip into the subjective, without disrupting the objective reality of the ballet is just something of a miracle.

The ballet enters it's most abstract movement. And the one I have the least to say about.

I mean seriously I have very little to say about Newspaper man.

This next part is horrific on a very primal level:


Once again, the ability to keep the objective reality of the ballet with while portraying what's happening in Shearer's head is astounding.

But this is the shot that blows my mind. To break the fourth wall (just one of them this time) right before the emotional climax of the piece... To replace the poor girl from the ballet's look of woe, with Victoria Page's smile of triumph as the audience applauds (in the middle like Lermontov predicted) seconds before the emotional climax of the ballet? To know, just know that you'd be able to reengage that amount of emotional involvement after ruthlessly snapping the suspension of disbelief with that shot and that smile?

That's not confidence. That's damn near cockiness.

Oh well at least he quickly reestablishes the somber tone wit-


And STILL. Note the bored stage hands temporarily treading on the emotional reality. Much more importantly note Lermontav.

The explosion of brass that hits here is one of the ballet's most impressive musical beats.

Once again. These shots are damn near subliminal, and their power cannot be over estimated.

And once again Massine is the unsung hero. It's tough to emphasize in the stills how violent the dance is in motion, and how Massine exudes a kind of Satanic grandeur.

This would seem the natural end point for the sequence. After all it mirrors the opening shot, it would bring everything back the perspective of the audience. But no. One last time, there must be a cut, Powell must remind us that Film and Theater are not the same.

The Red Shoes as always must have their say.

(Sorry this took so long. I don't mind saying that this post took a lot (I believe the technical term is "fuck ton") of work. As a result I now have a bit of a backlog. So expect a fairly robust posting schedule in the weeks ahead)