Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2

The gratifying surprise of both of the Kung Fu Panda films is how well they work as Kung Fu movies (certainly they serve as better gateway drugs than anything else America has produced, unless Romeo Must Die really got the kids excited). While concessions are made to the narrative conventions of  the American family film,  there is such transparent affection for (and more importantly understanding of) the genre evident in the films that it’s tough for me to imagine anyone who shares that affection not enjoying them. Though Kung Fu Panda 2 obviously doesn’t have the surprise of the first film (which upon its build up looked  just as crass as anything else that Dreamworks was crapping out at the time) it proves itself a worthy successor to it. Head and shoulder’s above the rest of the Dreamworks pack in the creativity of its design, beauty of its animation, and solidity in its storytelling.

Kung Fu Panda 2 expands its world and its canvas with an interesting story (borrowing elements from Once Upon A Time In China of all places) and a fine Gary Oldman villain. Proving that there are few things in film as inherently pleasurable as an evil Gary Oldman performance (one of those things happens to be James Howe and hey look at that!) Oldman plays a villain who in fine Kung Fu tradition, plans to conquer the whole of China with his modernized army. Oldman’s character, Lord Shen, his army, his city and his machinery are all strikingly designed. Indeed one of the pleasures that Kung Fu Panda carries over from its predecessor is how pleasurable it is just to look at. Its animation is bright without being garish, expressive without being overly cartoonish and at times dark without being oppressive. Most importantly there’s variety (even 2D!) It’s the exact opposite of The How To Train Your Dragon school of “We have three character models and you’re going to be intimately acquainted with all of them!!” Which made that film such a chore to watch.

As in the first film, casting is half of magic. The core cast of Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Seth Rogen, and Jackie Chan are fine and warmly appealing, while Jack Black somehow mugs less as an animated character (Also James Hong. James Hong is awesome). The film brings in Michelle Yeoh who is always welcome, and Gary Oldman, who lets face it, can pretty much make me happy doing anything. Though he proves once again that playing villains is what he’s born to do. It’s like Dave Grohl with the drums. Sure it’s nice to see him front The Foo Fighters, but when he’s banging the skins all is right in the world. The only disappointment is Dustin Hoffman, whose spry comic performance in the first film was one of its best surprises and here is reduced to little more than a cameo.

Kung Fu Panda 2 might not reinvent the wheel. Nor is it likely to win over unimpressed with the first film. However, I am more than content to watch these warm strange little gateway drugs continue their completely unexpected run of quality.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Master Of The Flying Guillotine

There’s a genre of movies I like to refer to as the “Holy Shit I Can’t Believe That” Movies. Most of these movies are things we see young. Lets face it the bloom comes off of this particular rose rather quickly. As I get older I find that all too often, “Holy Shit I Can Believe It.” And when I hear about something like Human Centipede I’m far more likely to react with a sigh and a “Really?” than gleeful anticipation.

Getting old can kind of suck sometimes.

Which is my round about way of saying that it is important to keep the films that can still illicit that gleeful disbelief near and dear. Master Of The Flying Guillotine is such a film.  A rewarding exercise in bad taste, that keeps the jaw dropped and the pulse racing.

For one thing it has one of the greatest villains in martial arts cinema, introduced in one of my favorite openings of all time. From the moment The Flying Guillotiner greets the news of his student’s death by screaming, jumping through his ceiling, and setting his house on fire, before snatching up his flying guillotine and flying guiltinioning everything in sight our heart belongs to that bearded blinded bastard.

The Flying Guillotiner is out for revenge on a one armed man and he’s not particular about which one armed man he kills. In the next scene he starts his rampage by straight up murdering a drunken, one armed, hobo who was trying to get out of paying his bill. It cuts from the drunkard bragging about how good he is at Kung Fu, to The Flying Guillotiner shooting bolt upright and grabbing his Flying Guillotine.  You see The Flying Guillotiner react and are like, “Wow that guy chose the wrong time to brag about being one armed.”

The great thing about The Master Of The Flying Guillotine, aside from the afore mentioned Master Of The Flying Guillotine himself, is that against the odds it works mighty well as a straight martial arts films. Unlike other Kung Fu movies which trade on notoriety (IE The Story Of Ricky, which has action choreography to rival the works of messrs Seagal and Van Damme ) The Master Of The Flying Guillotine delivers the goods with well choreographed action, a likable cast and the best of high seventies martial arts style.

The film does eventually set on the right one armed Kung Fu master. Who joins a martial arts tournament (which it must be noticed includes an Indian Fakir, placed in brown face which has to be one of the most staggeringly unPC characters I’ve ever seen.)  Half of the film gets taken up with this tourney. And for a while the film becomes Jaws with The Flying Guillotiner as The Shark. You can’t see him but you know he’s out there. You know when he pops up its going to be bad news, but you can’t wait. And when he does come bursting back onto the scene he does not disappoint.

Whether you’re a hardened genre fan looking to get back in touch with his “Holy Shit I Can’t Believe That.” Impulse or a new fan looking for a gateway drug, Master Of The Flying Guillotine is ideal. 

Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Honest Question

I think the book The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo is a pretty lazy piece of work, and find the movie to be incredibly dull. So why did Fincher's version just become one of my most anticipated films of the year?

Trent Reznor covering Zeppelin that's why.

I'd say it looks like Fincher found the right material to round out his serial killer trilogy after all.



June 1st. It's Back.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Days Of Heaven

Days Of Heaven has such a purity to it that it becomes difficult to write about. It is one of the handful of works that truly deserve to be called pure cinema. Owing nothing to any art but its own. All the usual criteria that you use to talk about film just fall away. It seems more than a little futile to try and capture Days Of Heaven with words, so if the reviews a bit disjointed please forgive me (“Well how could we tell?” No comments form the peanut gallery.)

Days Of Heaven is so deceptively simplistic that it could have played on the back half of a double bill with Murnau’s Sunrise without anyone batting an eye. It’s story so Biblical it feels as though it has been with us forever. It’s beauty so elemental that at times it doesn’t even seem real.

In a way the twenty years of lost time that Malick gave us in between Days Of Heaven and The Thin Red Line makes sense. Of course he didn’t make any other films. What other films could be made? Days Of Heaven feels complete in a way that very few movies do. This is not a film that begs for a follow up.

Telling the story of a Man whose girlfriend marries a dying land baron (Lets marvel at that for a second. I said the narrative is Biblical which it is. But it’s about a half step from a Harlequin romance as well. In other hands, one shudders to think.), the events told by his sister in a dazed half interested narration. Heaven is a film that actually captures the dueling vividness and gauzyness of memory. The way the things that slip away often seem the wrong things and what lodges in your mind is often inexplicable. At one moment the little sister (played by Linda Manz in a truly unforgettable performance) stops the narrative and apropos to nothing goes on a monologue about how she became convinced she was being haunted by the ghost of a one legged man named Black Jack (whom we’ve never met). The movie continues serenely on, patiently waiting for her to get back on track.  It would be impossible to imagine in another movie without seeming comic and to a certain extent it is, but the crucial thing is that it doesn’t break the spell that Malick has cast. We’re floating down the currents of her memory and we go down whatever strange tributaries Manz takes us, serenely convinced we will reach the river again.

The other actors do well as well, Richard Gere, Brooke Adams (looking uncannily like Karen Allen) and particularly Sam Shepard, as a kind man who hits his breaking point with scary conviction. The fact that these people remain people, are not dwarfed by the images they cohabitate the frame with is just as astounding as any of the images.

Days Of Heaven is after all, a film about the rhythm’s of life. Which may dwarf man but never obliterated. I’ve often wondered if our purpose isn’t merely to give things a sense of scale. If that is the case Days Of Heaven performs its job admirably. There are very few films you can say this about. But Days Of Heaven is perfect. 

Friday, May 27, 2011

Excuse Me Please

Couldn't get a post together for today I was otherwise occupied.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Scenes#10 1/2: The Darjeeling Limited

There is not enough in either of these to do a scene in and of themselves. But these are two of my favorite shots in cinema. 


See Also:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011


Bridesmaids is hilarious.

Red faced, uncontrollable embarrassing bellowing laughter hilarious.

Wincing in pain because now your ribs feel like they’ve been worked over by a skin head with a Louisville Slugger hilarious.

It’s the sort of comedy that builds momentum, with such skilled dexterity that by the end of the film it seems unable to come up with a shot that isn’t funny (A blissful reaction shot from a minor character in response to the mayhem unfolding before her is for my money the funniest moment in the picture).

The film follows Kristen Wiig who has been enlisted as Maid Of Honor for her best friend. Unfortunately this roughly coincides with Wiig’s life completing the process of going to completely to shit and the dueling stresses cause her to crack up in some truly spectacular ways (Including a mid-flight meltdown which will go down next to Albert Brook’s legendary Quaaludes scene in Modern Romance).

There is a good case to be made that comedy is at its core the demolition of dignity (as anyone who has watched Basil Fawlty attempt to beat his car to death with a sapling can tell you). And it’s here that Bridesmaid’s truly excels. Watching Wiig struggle to keep her composure and cool only to have the whole of existence conspire to strip her of both is a wonder (So degraded is Wiig’s lot in life that it even manages to make sex with Jon Hamm look like a bad deal). Never before has the ability to keep down a Jordan Almond seem to have nearly cosmic moral importance.  (It should be noted that this is a distinctly separate, though related, branch of humor from the wince humor so in vogue since Curb Your Enthusiam. In that brand we are laughing because of how completely the central characters make others lose their cool and dignity. Not because of how desperate they are to keep their own.)

If the film has a flaw it is only that it is not as much of an ensemble piece as the ads and posters promise.  But given how funny and well realized the central characters are this seems a bit churlish.

Comedy is, for me the toughest genre to write about. Bill R, over at the indispensable The Kind Of Face You Hate recently argued (well as always) against the “Comedy is subjective, therefore if it makes people laugh it works.” Line of criticism, arguing that it denigrates the work and thought that goes into truly great comedy. The fact is though that this philosophy is something I subscribe to.

The idea is, if an audience laughs, they think it's funny, and therefore it is funny, and so comedy is a more subjectively judged artform than pretty much any other artform you might name. Well, that's horseshit. By the logic just outlined, if I cry at a movie, that film is emotionally powerful, or if I get scared by a horror movie, it's a good horror movie, or if I etc. at a movie, that movie succeeds at being etc. In short, if anyone feels the emotion the filmmaker wants you to feel, then the film is good.

 I’d argue that it kind of does. Fear and laughter are two of the only responses, which are more or less impossible to rationalize away. (It’s therefore ironic that I find comedy so difficult to write about for the exact same reason I find horror so rewarding to analyze). You might be mad at yourself for how the film got you. You might think the film cheated. But if the film has snuck past your defenses and provoked the response it desired, it has won on its own terms.  I would further argue that the films ability to circumnavigate one's defenses is no small thing at all. Indeed the ability to get past my defenses sums up pretty well why I still go to films (or read or listen to music, etc. etc.)

Anyway this is all sort of off topic, but its my roundabout way of noting that while Comedy may not be entirely subjective, it is the most difficult genre to articulate. We’ve all had the disastrous experience of trying to explain a joke to someone who just doesn’t get why it's funny. Trying to explain why I find something humorous always feels perilously close to dancing about Architecture. But in Bridesmaid’s I can at least point to the reason. It is simply impossible for me to think of Kristen Wiig, sweating like a pig and giving the weakest smile she can manage as she forces down a Jordan almond, and not feel a surge of affection and a need to burst into gails of laughter. The two impulses are not as contradictory as one might think.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Death Of Spiderman: Or How Not To Write A Story, With Brian Michael Bendis

(Warning this post is going to be about 40% nerdier than usual.)

Since its release Ultimate Spiderman has been one of the few sure things in modern comics. Week in week out the quality of most comics fluxuates but Bendis’s scrappy series was the one guarentee of the month. Sure to deliver a heaping helping of Superhero Action, well written soap operatics delivered with a snappy style and real knack for storytelling verve on a scale that against all odds stayed very human. Without hyperbole I can say that the majority of Ultimate Spiderman is easily the best most entertaining ongoing Superhero comic I’ve read.

Sometime last year it became rumored that Bendis was building towards something big. The “Death” (Quotes because this is comic books after all) of Spiderman. “Wait,” people said, “Didn’t Bendis just fake kill Spiderman not even a year ago? Did this not smack of the cheap hucksterism that is killing the big two right now? Was there not every indication that it would suck?”

“No!” I said, “Shut up that is stupid.” You see I was sure that Bendis had A! Plan! It would be big! It would be epic!

It has turned out to be astonishingly bad. Some of the most astoundingly lazy storytelling I’ve ever seen in a comic (a medium renowned for some astonishingly lazy storytelling).

But let’s back up a bit. See I had every reason to think that Bendis had some sort of plan. The last arc was Bendis in his prime. It was like a story designed to be perfect execution of the Ultimate Spiderman playbook. Crafting a fun tense story, that managed to tug at the heart strings, quicken the pulse and even take a couple of silver age villains and make them deeply creepy. And to make things even more tantalizing it ended with every character that Peter Parker cared about deeply alienated from him.

It looked like the set up for The Spiderman version of Born Again. A chance to strip down the hero (both in the specific and general sense) to his barest essentials. It looked like the chance for something really special.

And than it took one of the most bizarre left turns I’ve seen. I desperately want to believe an editorial mandate is responsible but man I don’t think anyone has told Bendis what do do in a loooonng time. Issue after issue Spiderman more or less hugged it out with everyone. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen storytelling like this before, with Bendis going around and painstakingly dismantling the potent narrative engines that he himself set up. It’s as if Bendis was a mad bomber who has taken the time to dismantle his own explosives. God only knows why.  So it could serve as a tie in to a mediocre Mark Millar book that has been nothing but four issues of Superheroes grunting and punching one another?

Because it sure as shit wasn’t because he had something else to put in its place. The crisis that Bendis has manufactured here has been embarrassingly rote (and once again Modern Comics are a place known for embarrassingly rote storytelling). First with a feint involving a big ole deus ex destructive thingy, and then by bringing Norman Osbourne back from the grave.


Because bringing him back to life the first six fucking times wasn’t a big enough of a surprise.

God I can’t even bring myself to complain anymore it’s just depressing. Is Bendis on Autopilot? Is he doing these in his sleep? Or turning in drafts via automatic writing? Perhaps it would be best if Bendis did kill Spiderman (Though I don’t believe for a second that he or Marvel are actually going to end their cash cow). Because this entire arc has been the product of a man who is profoundly bored with his work. At this point it would be a mercy killing. 

(I'm not proud)

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Five For The Apocalypse

Whelp it’s the end of the world as we know it. Er… again, so we don’t have any time to lose. Here’s five for the apocalypse. Now you might look at this list and go “Guh?” its true that I could have picked quite a few more iconic (or better) movies, in what people think of the apocalyptic genre. But I had only one hard and fast rule while composing this list which was The End Of The World had to be the actual end of human life on Earth, if not the end of the actual Earth itself.

No Mad Max prowling the wastes for the Gasoolleeene. No John Conner and the resistance no nothing. In these films when the curtain fell it fell. The end is the end.

Knowing: Say what you will about Proyas’s film, but it was not one of half measures. Love it or hate it you have to give it credit for the courage of its convictions. It’s a film built around a single moment. But man when the time came they went there (Unlike say the cowardly 2012). Flash flying the Earth with CGI of such loving detail that even the most ardent fan of Nicholas Cage Kitsch couldn’t help but get a bit peakish.

City Of The Living Dead: As likely to make you go “Huh?” as scream in horror. The ending of City Of The Living Dead seems to imply terrible things while making very little sense (which hell might have been Fulci’s motto for all I know. The Beyond, this film’s twin could have also easily had a place on the list.) Despite the fact that it makes negligible narrative sense there’s no denying the weird sense of dread Fulci creates in those final moments. How life can bottom out at the last possible second.

Frailty- Most religious themed horror films are designed to prey on the fears of the faithful. Frailty on the other hand, until its twist too far, seems like the ultimate horror film for atheists. A film about an awful nice guy who sure is sorry that the Lord told him to kill you. Never mind the fact that you look just like him, you’re a demon and Bill Paxton getting proactive about The Rapture. Taking his holy ax, gloves, and pipe and starts murdering people in preparation. It’s a deeply creepy, atmospheric horror film, that well deserves a cult following even if (SPOILERS) the revelation that the end of the world actually is at hand is more apt to produce sighs of relief than of terror.

Richard Kelly's Apocalypse Trilogy: Donnie Darko, Southland Tales, The Box: All of Kelly’s films feature soft apocalypses to one degree or another. From the seam of the sky opening in the haunting final moments of Halloween in Donnie Darko. To whatever the hell it is that goes on at the final moments of Southland Tales (a film that is every bit the mess its detractors say it is, yet I can’t help but like a whole lot.)

But the film that continues to impress is The Box. I was an early defender of the film and my admiration for it grows with every viewing. It’s quiet oppressive strangeness. The hush of it’s wintry setting and Win Butler’s sparse score. Where average Suburbanites seal their own doom. Proving their unworthiness to a soft spoken, unfailingly polite messenger of the divine with every click of the button (not a monster just a man with a job to do). For those wondering what this is doing on the list, its all about Mars.

For those who’ve been avoiding based on its mixed reputation, I urge you to check it out now that it is at most a dollar rental. It’s a wonderfully disquieting piece of work.


Yes the imagery here suggests fodder for several decades worth of couch time (And if you just watched that not knowing what was coming I can imagine you might need some couch time yourself). Yes if you’ve watched this at work you probably don’t have a job now. Yes if you’re not an anime fan you’ll probably never watch anything in the genre again. Yes the sheer amount of gobbly gook in it is enormous.

But if you’re talking about The End Of The World, something that is by its very definition beyond human comprehension, I think out of all the movies I’ve seen only The End Of Evangelion’s is strange enough, alien enough to really qualify. Coupling the meltdown of the psyche with the meltdown of the world it remains one of the most astonishing moments I’ve seen in a film.

So that’s the apocalypse see you tomorrow. That said if the joke is on me, and end is at hand, I’m going to be PISSED I went into work today.

Bonus Round: The Passage which was my number three book of last year came out in paperback today. If you haven’t read it and are looking for a summer read that will not allow you to put it down without severe psychic distress. It captures the end of our species with a kind of terrible beauty, while also serving as the best post apocalyptic novel since The Stand and one of my favorite adventure stories of all time.