“Do you have no concept of time?” – Dr. Emmett Brown

Safety Not Guaranteed (2012)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Colin Trevorrow (FilmDistrict)

Just as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is probably the best film you’ll ever see about Abe Lincoln hunting vampires, Colin Trevorrow’s feature debut, Safety Not Guaranteed, is probably the cutest indie romantic-comedy about time travel. And despite playing it considerably safer than the title suggests, the premiere script of Derek Connolly, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, is the basis for an oddly fresh film, making it one of the year’s more pleasant theater experiences.

Mark Duplass (who co-produced the film, along with his brother, Jay) plays a man named Kenneth Calloway. He has just submitted a classified ad to a local newspaper. It reads in the following way – “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed.”

In a grand quest to prove the investigative value of print journalism (not exactly, but you catch my drift), magazine intern Darius Britt (Aubrey Plaza) and a similarly positioned, geeky Indian guy named Arnau (Karan Soni) are brought along by writer Jeff Schwensen (Jake M. Johnson) to do an article about Kenneth, only to find that Jeff has an agenda of his own. Meanwhile, Darius pretends to respond to Kenneth’s article, not only becoming his faux partner, but also one she comes to connect with on a far deeper level.

Darius has lost her mother at an early age, was never able to fit in as a teenage student, and now sees little promise in her future. Kenneth has had similar experiences, but with a simple twist. He can time travel. Or can he? In addition, is he mentally disturbed, or just plain weird? There is consistent joy in seeing this relationship develop, as two people who feel isolated from society come to acknowledge their regrets together, and discuss reversing them. Much is also found in the youthful abilities of Aubrey Plaza (who appears on TV’s Parks and Recreation) and Karan Soni, along with the hilarious performance of Jake M. Jonhson as the party-centric Jeff. And of course, Duplass does a terrific job as Kenneth, a character who is sympathetic, funny, and certainly worth believing in.

Safety Not Guaranteed, while being the indie flick that every hipster in town will want to see, is also a very effective examination of sex and relationships, the chances that pass us by, time that slips away, regrets that are unfulfillable, and the opportunities that are presently given to us. This is a film made by people just now breaking into the mainstream movie business, and it just goes to show that the less-experienced often have more wisdom than veterans would like to admit. Despite these words of praise, encapsulated by nice ideas about what it means to love and live for today, the movie is never as narratively slick as it would like to be.

Often feeling like a college thesis film, Connolly’s script features dialogue that is ever so familiar to viewers of ironic plays upon genre, yet still prompts laughter on a majority of these occasions. The characters also feel reminiscent of something we have seen not too long ago, yet it is quite clear that they have been articulated just as Connolly wanted them to be, and as his story progresses, it is difficult not to empathize with each, and enjoy their presence onscreen.

Meanwhile, the familiar elements that the film satirizes (martial arts training, “government agents,” etc.), come across much like the rest of Safety Not Guaranteed; they always feel a bit artificial, yet are usually worthy of our quiet laughter as the film moves along at a thoroughly entertaining clip. Colin Trevorrow also does wonderfully solid work behind the camera, despite how the polished, digital cinematography melds awkwardly with the predictable eccentricities of Connolly’s screenplay. Luckily, the two jive together well enough to find the heart of Safety Not Guaranteed, which beats just as strong as the satisfyingly compiled structure of Connolly’s narrative.

Although this clever presentation may make it difficult for one to remain unsatisfied, the screenplay is never quite as dangerous as it could’ve been. This is 75% romantic-comedy and 25% science-fiction, and it doesn’t take long to realize how heartfelt and intelligent the film actually is. Based on a real classified ad, we mentally connect these outrageous events to reality, which makes the overall package even funnier. And most of the time, this is exactly where the film wants to be.

Rarely will you not have a smile on your face, and when exposed to such a perfect blend of one-liners and situational comedy, it is likely that you will find some moments hilarious. But as the film begins to introduce more time travel elements, it never truly goes down a path that makes them seem well-explored. There was an opportunity here to utilize a more complex narrative in order to match the intellectual with the emotional, or even accentuate the latter. To some extent, this is accomplished (we are even teased throughout a sufficiently unpredictable third act), but would have been more effective had the filmmakers moved along a zanier tangent.

This is no Primer, the narrative genius of Shane Carruth’s twisted piece of sci-fi making it the king of independent time travel films. Safety Not Guaranteed, while being a film about time travel, couldn’t have moved in a further direction. It is a film that uses time travel to proclaim the importance of what is occurring right now in these characters’ lives – what they have lost, what they hope to gain, the possibility for companionship, and the desire to live fulfilling lives. It’s a sweet chance to see budding talent at work, hopefully by those who will one day make more cutting-edge fare. In the present, it’s charming, weird, thought-provoking, low-key, and lovely. I see myself revisiting it in the near future. For others, perhaps those who have felt as betrayed by life as Darius or Kenneth, it may even be something worth loving.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 3.5/5

Noir Before More

THE FOLLOWING FILMS ARE BOTH AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX INSTANT

 

Killer’s Kiss (1955)     ★★★ 1/2

Directed by Stanley Kubrick (United Artists)

Soon after his rarely seen, ambiguous war drama Fear and Desire (a debut that the meticulous director was apparently less than proud of), former Look magazine photographer Stanley Kubrick co-wrote, directed, photographed, and edited this fine piece of noir, prior to jump-starting his career with The Killing only a year later, a film of similar title and genre, but one that was received with considerably more acclaim.

Killer’s Kiss, featuring rather conventional story elements and dialogue, stars Jamie Smith as a welterweight boxer in New York, one who quickly falls in love with a dancer played by Irene Kane, and must soon confront her shady boss and ex-lover, played by Frank Silvera. Smith and Kane often have trouble with convincingly delivering their lines, a problem when it is essential for the audience to “believe” their relationship. However, Silvera does breathe life into a compelling villain, a man with dangerous capabilities, but whose cowardice cannot save him from an inevitable fate.

Kubrick was reportedly distraught with the film’s studio-imposed, happy ending. He had good reason to be. Not only was Killer’s Kiss funded almost entirely by a loan from one of Kubrick’s relatives, but there is so much directorial promise here; the film struggles to break out of predictable noir territory, loose ends failing to tie up in a way that does this ambition any favors.

The narrative, consisting of a quite entertaining series of flashbacks, is sufficient enough. But what truly shows Kubrick’s potential is his extraordinary cinematography, placing the camera from interesting vantage points and manipulating it based on point-of-view. Each shot is precisely composed, a favorite scene of mine being that in our hero’s apartment, in which we ponder his expression as he looks into the neighboring window of Kane’s character, and are able to glimpse his view through the mirror situated behind him. And my God, what a superbly edited boxing sequence!

Kubrick’s low-key lighting throughout both the shady and pompous districts of Manhattan is also a standout, as are various set-pieces, including a climax that takes place in a warehouse of manikins. It should be clear to anyone seeing Killer’s Kiss that Kubrick was a great director in the making, his authoritative control not quite making this project into something special. It is, however, worth seeing. His will-power and skills behind the camera are apparent. And within a decade, the style and substance of Kubrick’s singular craftsmanship would ferment with unprecedented impact. Killer’s Kiss is where it began, a hint of the man who would become a true American artist.

 

Following (1998)     ★★★★

Written & Directed by Christopher Nolan (Zeitgeist Films)

Christopher Nolan, whose July 20 release of The Dark Knight Rises we are all excitedly awaiting, ain’t no Kubrick, but in his premier film, Following, one of today’s most popular Hollywood directors arguably unleashes more creativity on the genre of film noir. An unemployed writer (Jeremy Theobald) develops a fascination for following people, intrigued by where they go, and hoping the answers he finds will allow him to scribe more relevant fiction. He is soon caught in the act by a man named Cobb, played by Alex Haw (does this character have parallels to Leonardo DiCaprio’s identically named planter/stealer in Inception? That, folks, is deserving of its own essay). Cobb is a burglar, but as the writer comes to realize, this man is no petty thief. He steals to introduce chaos into people’s lives, rather than to simply steal items. As he explains to Theobald’s character, he hopes to “show them what they had.”

Complications ensue when the writer becomes involved with a woman who Cobb and he have stolen from (Emma Thomas), prompting Nolan’s own ingenious writing to take hold. Almost more so than Killer’s Kiss, Nolan’s skills are all too present here; in the future, he would simply be given much bigger budgets. Following was shot on weekends in London over the course of several months, Nolan limiting costs by shooting on black-and-white, 16mm film stock and using primarily natural light.

His first endeavor is thrillingly scrambled, the story being told in several narrative frames. This style would become popularly accepted in Memento two years later, quickly placing Nolan in the spotlight. Here, Nolan is successful by always maintaining one step ahead of his audiences, or to be more accurate, several steps. In a manner that Nolan almost never returned to, Following‘s naturalistic cinematography, jump cuts between scenes, and hip score by David Julyan tend to evoke New Wave pioneers such as Godard, more so than any conventional homage to American film noir.

Nolan’s characters are never believable, and that leads to his advantage. He is able to manipulate them any way he likes, and in a film based upon a compelling exercise in genre, not quite knowing what to believe about the principal characters is certainly engaging in an unexpected way. Considering this, Following is a very well-acted film. I’m sure that arthouse faring, late-’90s audiences, not yet associated with Nolan’s scripted trickery (and still virgins to Sixth Sense logic), were also pleasantly taken aback by the surprises Nolan had in store.

The film, clocking in at just ten minutes over an hour, is a tight package; it takes awhile to become used to Nolan’s manipulation of time, staging of specific motifs, and play upon audience anticipation. And just when you becomes complacent within Nolan’s storytelling methodology, he cons you. Twice. As an audience member, such rapid changes in plot may be confusing. Critically, it’s bliss. Christopher Nolan, despite not having much of anything to make Following, knew what he wanted the film to be, and did the best he could to make it great. It comes awfully close, and is the first entry in a career that would continue to defy our expectations.

 

 

Nolan’s first feature also ties itself together through a quite interesting theme, one that we do not fully understand until the credits roll. As his talent was recognized, the Englishman would only be given more to work with. Kubrick, who passed away a year after Nolan made Following, had encompassed the same principle. These are entirely different filmmakers, Kubrick being my second-favorite director, and one who is legendary beyond a level current Hollywood “auteurs” are never likely to touch.

Yet both directors, through making such movies, have introduced a little chaos into our lives, shocked us, shown us things we have taken for granted, and more so for Kubrick, have displayed sides of ourselves that we are often not accustomed to facing. As his Dark Knight trilogy concludes, Nolan will continue to entertain international audiences, likely to never make anything as profound as Kubrick, but still write and direct movies of mass appeal more intelligently than almost any contemporary filmmaker. How odd it is, to compare these two great talents; radically different in both style and generation. Even stranger that they both began with noir.

 

CKEP’S VERDICT

KILLER’S KISS – 3.5/5

FOLLOWING – 4/5

“Summer days, summer nights are gone. I know a place where there’s still somethin’ going on.” – Bob Dylan

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)     ★★★★ 1/2

Directed by Wes Anderson (Focus Features)

File:Moonrise Kingdom FilmPoster.jpegTake a deep breath kids, Wes Anderson hasn’t gotten any less quirky. But for non-converts of the comedic auteur’s eccentric, pastel-colored glimpses of witty genius, it would likely mean nothing to say that his latest endeavor is a stylistically identical companion piece to Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Life Aquatic, The Darjeeling Limited, and his Roald Dahl-adapted animated feature, Fantastic Mr. Fox. Yes, Wes Anderson has a grandly singular style, yet like the films of Quentin Tarantino, his consistency in utilizing that style becomes original (and radically different from those of other filmmakers) to the point where it reaches predictability. So why, provided that we don’t dismiss this comparison to Tarantino, do each of these directors’ films continue to be excellent?

Moonrise Kingdom looks and feels like pristine Wes Anderson, but for a film about misfit children, it is also remarkably mature, and as if it needed to be said, both hilarious and touching. Throughout his career, Anderson has borrowed the tone and themes from such great directors as Mike Nichols and Hal Ashby, while adding his own “storybook” visualizations, and remarkable skill behind the camera (some camera movements, he has claimed, have been directly inspired by Stanley Kubrick). In addition, Anderson has continued to make movies like few have, maintaining his style and continuing to work with a close-knit group of companions, including best friend and frequent co-writer Owen Wilson. Although Wilson happens to be absent here, most of the cast and crew normally utilized by Anderson remains in Moonrise Kingdom, written by Wilson and Eleanor/Francis Ford offspring, Roman Coppola.

In the summer of 1965, a twelve-year-old boy named Sam (Jared Gilman) flees his “Khaki Scout” camp to run away with the girl he loves, Suzy (Kara Hayward). The young couple happens to live on one of many fictional islands off the coast of New England, and upon their mutual disappearance, the principle characters of their town join together (for lack of a better phrase) and search for them in the luscious wilderness. These children have faced many emotional situations that youth should never have to experience, albeit ones that many do. They come together for this very reason, and quench their disappointment in society with the freedom and hope of young love, that which is best experienced under the moonlit sky of a summer night. Together, they reign. Although they may not for very much longer.

Looking for Sam and Suzy are Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis), the town’s head police honcho, Scout Master Randy Ward (Edward Norton), Sam’s straightedge but caring Khaki Scout leader, Billy Murray and Francis McDormand as Suzi’s parents, and Tilda Swinton, as “Social Services” in the flesh. As if we didn’t have enough star power, Jason Schwartzman, Harvey Keitel, and Bob Balaban also make charming appearances. The fact is that these oddball characters have become so enraptured within their own lives, that they have forgotten to empathize with these precious children, who without their help, may one day become as sad as they may sometimes feel. But as the plot thickens, understanding does occur, and unity, an ever-present theme in the Anderson universe, binds those who couldn’t be more different.

Moonrise Kingdom may be the only film in recent memory that I could describe as having a perfect cast, although they are aided by the fact that these are outstanding characters, even for an Anderson film. Sam is resourceful and mature, outcast amongst his peers, but who amongst his hardships, remains cute, innocent, and undyingly friendly to the girl who shares his feelings. Suzy, meanwhile, is fed-up with her parental situation, and when her developing emotions are not understood by any key figures in her life, finds faith within one who feels quite the same way, and who can be seen fully without binoculars. And although many may feel differently, she is a child equally as sweet.

Meanwhile, Edward Norton’s Scout Master is surely one of the most compelling adult characters, exerting control over his Scouts with satiric hilarity, yet breaking down like a loving, concerned father figure as things begin to go wrong. These are all terrific performances, each exceptional in their own way, and all allowing us to thoroughly like each character’s presence onscreen. We simply enjoy spending time with these people. And not enough can be said about Anderson’s selection of child actors, not only with the fantastic duo of Gilman and Hayward, but also including Sam’s fellow Khaki Scouts, each with a distinct personality of their own.

The film simply looks gorgeous, the locations aplenty with eye-popping color and beauty, accompanied by architecture that along with the islands’ natural locations, appears as though it was justfully taken from an illustrated children’s book. This is the generic locale of Wes Anderson’s cinematic world, and what a wonderful place it is. This is pure imagination, and the 43-year-old sure knows how to maneuver the camera within it.

Consider the film’s opening sequence, in which we wind around the home of Suzy. Fantastic Mr. Fox, which might be my personal favorite of Anderson’s, was very much a good experience for the director; his tracking shots now allow what is in the frame to be portrayed with surrealism equal to his animated film. He moves the camera as if he has infinite space to work with, placing the actors far enough away that he appears to be capturing the occurrences within a dollhouse. In doing so, he fully creates a fantastical, onscreen world. Although it may seem quite different than our own, in addition to being inhabited by characters who are fully eccentric, the feelings Anderson addresses feel remarkably real, and have only become more effective in his growth as a filmmaker.

Moonrise Kingdom is a consistently funny enterprise, while also reminding us of a time when we were young, and had the will to do what we wanted, or even thought we had to do. Somewhere along the line, that strength, however innocent, disappears. But children are able to remind us, even encourage us. If they can hold onto their love, maybe they won’t end up as hopeless as some of us. In The Graduate, one of Anderson’s favorite films (and possibly the greatest comedy ever made), Benjamin Braddock simply wanted to be nothing like his parents. He wanted a future not limited by expectations or impositions. He wanted to be something special.

Moonrise Kingdom offers something of that same taste, yet it incorporates adults into the picture, as if with a grand cooperative of generations, we could figure this whole “life” thing out together. This is true comedy – it earns laughs, provides optimism, and hurts ever so gently. In addition, we have a romance so joyous, nearly to the caliber of Harold and Maude. Although Wes Anderson is never likely to depart from the style he commenced over 15 years ago, he continues to build a superb body of work, one arguably matching that of his cinematic idols. He has drawn generations of cinema together; hell, he may even be the Stanley Kubrick of comedy. Well, not quite … but it’s a thought.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4.5/5

The Powers of Engagement

Chronicle (2012)     ★★★★

Directed by Josh Trank (20th Century Fox)

Admittedly, the found-footage subgenre has become rather tiresome, almost to the extent that when combined with the equally overused superhero genre, we would find it all too easy to dismiss this rather intriguing concept as something we have seen a million times before. It is perfectly fair to say that Chronicle, directed by first-time feature filmmaker Josh Trank (and who upon the release of this surprise hit, is scheduled to direct at least four big-budget superhero movies), is indeed, far from original, incorporating generic superhero/high school themes, while also borrowing from The X-Files, subpar, psychic-centric action films (Push, Jumper), and the abused adolescent elements of Carrie (or even the Roald Dahl-based Matilda). It is with these expectations that Chronicle comes to surprise you.

The film happens to be admirably-written and directed, featuring compelling characters who are acted believably, and who actually look their age. As if this didn’t allow the movie to already overcome its inherent weaknesses, there is also an underlying subtext as to why the concept of cinematic “found-footage” fascinates us these days, in addition to the execution of uniquely staged action sequences … and with a mere budget of $15 million! Essentially, Trank and screenwriter Max Landis (son of John) have rewritten the rules for genre-mashups, despite making one that couldn’t seem more inevitable. In doing so, it remains the most exciting entry of its kind since Cloverfield, or possibly the king of all shaky-camera pictures – The Blair Witch Project.

Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has it pretty rough. He’s bullied at school, his mother is dying of cancer, his father is an abusive alcoholic, and his cousin, Matt (Alex Russel), has substituted much of their friendship in a quest to become cool. Hence Andrew’s coping mechanism of starting to film his life, and our introduction to his handy camera, that which supposedly captures a majority of the action. It doesn’t take long before Andrew, Matt, and popular, class-president candidate Steve (Michael B. Jordan) end up in a hole in the ground, where a large, crystalline object gives them telekinetic abilities. At first, Andrew films their performance of what any typical, high-school students would enact given the sudden situation – humorous tests of their sudden abilities, and later, elaborate pranks. An unfortunate incident soon occurs, and the teenagers begin to realize that they must not only keep their abilities a resolute secret, but as their powers grow stronger, vow never to use it on living things.

As can be imagined, this doesn’t quite work out. For the first time, Andrew has true friends, but with the stress imposed by his family situation, newfound acceptance fails to hold him together. His popularity at school is briefly boosted, but once again, comes crashing to the ground. It’s been awhile since I have seen a film so carefully display a teenager in turmoil, one who begins to feel that the whole world is against him. We all knew that kid when we were in high school; the one who was relentlessly picked-on. Chronicle gives him superpowers. And in the midst of these astonishing capabilities given to an increasingly disturbed child, all hell is bound to break loose.

Trank and Landis have staged a teenage character study of surprising wisdom and impact, knowingly displaying the relationships that adolescents form, and how they can go so awry. Landis’s dialogue certainly isn’t perfect, and although the young leads give captivating, thoroughly realistic performances (especially given material that floats distinctly above reality), their line-delivery isn’t always convincing. However, one cannot deny that they are very promising talents, fully encapsulating the meat within each of their character arcs, and engaging us with emotion and relatability. We care about these characters and never feel uninvolved, entwined within an intelligent, science-fiction narrative that tells a highly entertaining story. In addition, it surpasses a gimmick that is rarely believable.

Chronicle attempts to convince us that every shot has been taken by some device with video-capturing capabilites, such as the camera that Andrew brings basically everywhere he goes (and when he develops his powers, that which he is able to levitate). Other sources of footage include surveillance cameras, cell phones, etc., the largest diversity of digital gadgetry being used in the film’s climax, when Andrew takes his obsession to an unprecedented level. Yet it is always difficult to believe that Andrew has been able to sneak his camera into specific places and situations, or to a lesser extent, hide the fact that it is rolling. But you gotta give Chronicle props. It attempts something complex with a style that has become dreadfully boring. In fact, it even has something interesting to say about it.

It is never fully clear why Andrew has become determined to visually document his life, although Landis’s theming allows us to reach a few thought-provoking conclusions. When one is behind a lens, the camera becomes a barrier to reality, it becomes both an escape and a new method of viewing the world. Andrew seeks both. He has been living his high school years in near torture, and seeks a barricade to the pain. He also hopes to discover something about life that he has been severely missing. How relevant that when these inhuman powers lead to tragedy, the camera is able to relate a very human story.

Many find escape at the movies, but the best kind of films allow us to apply cinematic language to how we will continue to live our lives.  Maybe this fad of found-footage hoopla has something to do with that. Ever since the narrative, blockbuster-centric period of the late ’70s overcame the American era of art film, movies have struggled to find a balance between meaning and money. The revived found-footage genre, pioneered by Blair Witch in 1999 (and which had been used previously in lesser-known fare, such as 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust), revived that ingenuity; it felt real. In a time when media is everywhere; on our computers, phones, or tablets, the fact that a movie could appear real is a far more appealing option to attention-deprived audiences than to study a truly great film, and decide for themselves what to absorb and apply.

But we have reached an impasse; now even found-footage appears cliche and redundant. That is why Chronicle, which may lend a “cliche and redundant” vibe to all those who have yet to view it, is actually a shining star amidst a period in decline, mainly because it doubles as a smart film, reaching beyond the parameters that has been set by movies of its nature. This is incredibly entertaining stuff, and means far more than you could predict with a simple trailer, which among five, similarly-plotted others, may not stand out at all.

Not to say that Josh Trank has made a “great” picture.  For instance, in my own high school experience, I never went to a gigantic rave, a house party at a goddamn mansion, or took part in a talent show act at least three times the length of all the others. But as a normal human being, fully bound by the laws of physics (and far more realistic teenage years), I could truly relate to these characters, who seemed awfully like a few I am still fortunate to know. On another note, God knows how Trank and company were able to stage some of these FX shots with such a miniscule budget. Finally, a filmmaker who has found out how to make CGI pop off the screen, without adding an extra dimension.

Several years from now, when found-footage is a distant period in cinematic history, let’s hope Chronicle is one that is revisited. It has the mixed benefits of appearing in the later stages of the genre’s popularity; not garnering unanimous praise, but leaving plenty of opportunity for a cult following. Chronicle is one of the most surprising films of 2012, a satisfying blend of creativity, thought, emotion, and captivating style. One day, it might sit on a shelf next to Apollo 18. Let’s hope that through some extraterrestrial blessing, we can place the odds in this film’s favor.

CKEP’S VERDICT – 4/5

My Quasi-New Rating System

Anyone will tell you that rating films is a difficult process. A movie review should obviously hinge upon written content, rather than the rating itself. But sometimes it feels the other way around, doesn’t it? I might write a review that perfectly sums up my feelings surrounding a particular film, yet still ponder my choice of rating. Maybe I felt as though I overrated it, displaying within a scale of 1 to 5 not only what I believed to be the quality of the movie, but also aspects of it that I thought were important or representative of the film’s place in contemporary society; basically qualities of the film that I believed were interesting and made it worthy of a recommendation. Therefore, some films that are not-so-great may receive slightly higher ratings than they seemingly deserve, mainly because I might see something within them that is distinguishable, worth sharing, and has made me feel more enlightened about cinema had I not seen such movies at all.

Meanwhile, I feel as though I rarely underrate films. If I am reviewing something on this site, chances are I had some interest in seeing it, and will therefore see something within it that is worth appreciating. Plus, I simply love movies. Sure, there’s some awful crap out there, and plenty of films containing fundamental issues. Some are worthy of anger, laughter, or a pat on the back for at least attempting something, even if that effort failed. But at the end of the day, I would rather oversell a film than undersell it. Cinema is my language, and although I am quite literate, I still have much to learn. Who am I to dissuade you from learning with me?

So … after all this, what, exactly, am I changing about my rating system? Well, basically nothing. I have decided to start using nifty stars for my 1 to 5 scale, but that’s about it; I simply find the system too reliable to transform it into something else. Yet I still believed that this was a spiel worth sharing, as it has been on my mind for quite some time. And since you will now be looking at stars rather than numbers, I might as well explain the criteria for obtaining each of several possible symbols (at least to the best of my ability). This is, after all, something I should’ve explained a long time ago.

 

★★★★★ – In my mind, this is a brilliant film. Something that has taught me more about myself, cinema, or the world surrounding me, and no doubt an experience I will cherish. This film is important to an extent far beyond entertainment. It has utilized the cinematic medium to near-flawless potential, and in essence, has become art.

★★★★ 1/2 – A great movie, exemplary in any number of ways. Not quite masterful enough to earn a 5-star rating, but a very well-made film that stands above the rest.

★★★★ – Very good, but possibly weak in multiple areas, those that have prevented the film from achieving greatness. The movie may not aspire beyond this level, and that is fine, too. Either way, the film is strong enough for me to fully recommend.

★★★ 1/2 – Good, but limited. In many circumstances, films of this rating have not fulfilled their potential. They are possibly worth seeing, depending on your interest. Recommended, but not worth going out of your way to see.

★★★ – A mixed review, in some cases, as much of a compliment as it is a criticism. This is often my way of expressing disappointment, or on the flip side, acknowledging something that aspired to great cinema, and unfortunately, missed the mark. These films may have many weaknesses, but if your interest in the film overcomes your recognition of what it fails to accomplish, then do not be discouraged to seek it out.

★★ 1/2 – Mediocre; in other words, not worth your time. I may point out aspects of the film that are genuinely strong, but chances are, they have not been enough to carry the film to a point where it deserves your hard-earned cash.

★★ or ★ 1/2 – No, no, no. Overall, a very poorly-made film, not containing much thought or feeling to take away, and in nearly all cases, not one that I enjoyed. Go fly a kite instead.

★ – A blatant disgrace to cinema, and a rating I have yet to use since starting this blog nearly 9 months ago. This rating represents the worst of the worst, and I pray to use it as sparingly as my mental classification will allow. It may be impossible not to enjoy some aspects of a film this terrible (how could you resist the charms of Plan 9, for instance, or not fall instantly in love with Birdemic?), but just know that if I give anything 1-star, something is very, very wrong.

“In the beginning was nonsense, and the nonsense was with God, and the nonsense was God” – Friedrich Nietzsche

Prometheus (June 8, 2012)     4/5

Directed by Ridley Scott (20th Century Fox)

How ironic that in 2012, when technological development has reached a seemingly unprecedented apex, intelligent science-fiction has somewhat disappeared from the silver screen. In 1979, when “20th Century” Fox was still a relevant name for a movie studio, British director Ridley Scott changed cinema forever with an egg, a facehugger, a chestburster, a prolific heroine, and at long last, an alien. The final word was the one that stuck to posters like inevitable superglue, a marketing executive’s dream come true. This was the alien. It was singular; absolute. In space, nobody could hear you scream, but in theaters, everybody did.

Alien not only became an American classic, but also franchise gold, spawning three sequels, two spin-off films, comics, toys, etc. It was only a matter of time before Scott returned to his Alien universe, prompting this prequel to the series over 30 years later. Despite the fact that the long-awaited Prometheus is far from a perfect film, the much-hushed spectacle is arguably a perfect hybrid of chestbursting mythos and stand-alone storytelling, and certainly one of the year’s most entertaining movies. As if it needed mentioning, we are also left with a spectacular triumph of visual design.

So naturally, Scott uses all the 21st century technology at his disposal, filming Prometheus entirely with 3D cameras. Dare I say, the effect even trumps James Cameron’s Avatar. It almost becomes an essential conveyance of the film’s visual poetry; the theater screen ceases to exist, and the awe-inspiring display leaves us to stunningly absorb infinite levels of dimension and focus, whether onboard the ship that provides the movie’s title, on the moon where gooey shenanigans occur, in space itself, or simply when titles/words of any kind appear onscreen. Scott has also not lost his knack for relentlessly imaginative production design, matching his greatest achievements (especially Blade Runner, circa 1982), from Prometheus’s glossy interiors to the mysterious temple of an ancient, alien civilization.

As for the story of Prometheus itself, we are provided a narrative that owes as much to 2001: A Space Odyssey as it does to Scott’s original, although the result gears less toward abstract than it does toward obvious. The opening 15 or 20 minutes are honestly an astonishing piece of work, the two sequences in question foreshadowing brilliance that never quite arrives. But while the plot does begin to unravel throughout the film’s midsection, there remains a nifty bit of existentialism in Prometheus, backed by subtle theming that will hopefully be praised by even the most demanding filmgoers.

Nearing the end of the century in which we now live, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are two archaeologists who appear to be in love, and who are mutually eager to explore humanity’s origins. This leads them onboard the elaborately designed Prometheus (don’t worry, all mythological metaphors are thoroughly explained), flying them toward an extrasolar moon where they may begin to find answers. Another member of the crew includes android, David (Michael Fassbender), who serves his commanders without emotion, yet may begin to develop those that coincide with how he views his own superiority.

There is also Charlize Theron as Meredith Vickers, the beaurocratic woman who is supposedly in charge of the expedition (and who is carrier of that ever-common theme in the Alien franchise – objectives that corporate officials feel the need to keep hidden from our humble crew members). Prometheus also carries the ship’s captain, played by Idris Elba, as well as assorted crew members played by Rafe Spall, Sean Harris, Kate Dickie, Emun Elliott, and Benedict Wong. Guy Pearce also applies half a ton of makeup for his role of the deceased, holographic Peter Weyland, CEO of Weyland Corp., and the guy supposedly funding this bound-for-disaster ordeal.

Although there are scenes in Prometheus that are perfectly jolting and satisfyingly gross, the film never achieves the level of fear that Scott aroused in Alien. There is surely suspense, emotion, and even well-needed humor, but never outright terror. However, the film is a quite interesting blend of atmosphere, action, mystery, and scares. I only wish the narrative weren’t so inconsistent; it is obvious how certain plot points are ignored, only to be revisited later in a predictable context. The script, written by Jon Spaihts and Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof, also features some rather annoying dialogue, breaking one of the key rules of screenwriting – characters do not need to say things that are inherently obvious to the audience at any given time.

Despite how quickly Prometheus jumps into the action (in contrast to the slow-paced, brooding first of hour of Alien), the third act is resolved rather weakly, opening itself up for sequels but never quite providing the awesome climax that would’ve allowed the film to soar (not to say that the final scene isn’t worthy of applause). I also felt a slight longing for the minor characters to be more developed, although the main relationship between Shaw and Holloway is well-established. Some performances are also greater than others; Noomi Rapace (of the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Charlize Theron are quite fitting, but I never quite bought into the two-dimensionality of Marshall-Green’s performance and character. No, the show is instead stolen by Michael Fassbender, giving an exquisitely memorable peformance as the film’s most “human” character, the non-organic David; tying into the themes that solidify Prometheus’s subtle intelligence and beauty.

David is a piece of machinery that is invariably curious; he models his look after Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, he spies on the dreams of his fellow crew members while they are in deep sleep, and he makes decisions that occasionally contradict human orders. David may not be blessed with emotion, but he has been programmed with enough intelligence to wonder what it is like, amongst several other human functions. He humorously compares his views of how he was created to those of the humans seeking their creators. Yet at the same time, we are not certain that he recognizes his spoken ironies as being humorous. For observant viewers of cinema, Prometheus‘s wise usage of a sexuality theme only deepens the film’s engrossing universe of thought; David might not know love, but he wonders about humanity’s relationship with its own reproductive abilities, and attempts to understand it, even be involved in his own way. We are never fully aware of David’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations, but he and Rapace are certainly at the core of the film, and Fassbender’s performance anything but robotic; we are always certain that this is a mechanical man with a hidden heart.

The film explains a lot to its audience, and you are always left wondering if the makers made the right decisions; that is, what to keep ambiguous and what to unveil. We do know this – Rapace’s character is a Christian lingering on the death of her father (Patrick Wilson) and mother, David is a cynical machine made by scientists, and Theron’s character may have parental issues of her own. These perspectives all come to shape how these characters view the origins of humanity, and what they hope to understand about it. At the end of the day, this is what Prometheus is about. Many fanboys will nitpick the movie until there is nothing left, examining elements of every shot and how they fit into the Alien universe. While they are surely allowed to do this, it would be unfair not to praise Scott’s use of ambiguity in continuing to build his own science-fiction universe. After all, these are mere human beings exploring the unknown, and we are supposed to be placed within their shoes. What fun would it be if we were aware of every extraterrestrial development?

Although I have already noted what makes Prometheus great science-fiction, it is also important to recognize what makes it such a fun film. One reason is this – feeble, stupid humans. I do wish I would’ve felt something more as certain characters were killed off, but luckily, emotion does exist in many (but not all) scenes where it is necessary. Yet that doesn’t change the fact that some characters in Scott’s film simply make hilariously bad decisions, contributing to characterizations that some may argue are weakly drawn. While it may be true that Prometheus doesn’t have the greatest screenplay to support such refreshing ideas, I didn’t particularly mind that a majority of these boys and girls consistently put themselves in obvious danger. This is a movie about humans questioning their place in a universe beyond comprehension, and for the most part, these miniscule entities of life don’t uncover such unknowable answers.

The universe is indifferent to many of their fates, and to some extent, so are we. Except for those who matter; those who may change the course of said universe. These are the characters who drive Prometheus, involving us in a script that may not be completely up to snuff, but no doubt provides the thought severely missing from modern science-fiction pictures. Plus, we are invited to be awestruck by some of the best visual effects in cinematic history. So who cares when everyone decides it is completely safe to take off their space helmets? After all, this was a franchise born by a man touching something he shouldn’t. If he hadn’t done that, his chest cramps would only be indigestion, and one of cinema’s greatest legacies would cease to be born. Thank you, Ridley Scott, for making such smart films about human ignorance. From experience, however, we have been shown that some humans have the strength to wise up. Perhaps, in the distant future, both they and Scott will finally find what they are looking for.

A Texan Burial

Bernie (2012)     4.5/5

Directed by Richard Linklater (Millennium Entertainment)

In 1996, 39-year-old Bernie Tiede shot 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in the back with a rifle. Four times. This case of first-degree murder occurred in Carthage, Texas, and you’d be hard-pressed to find one soul in that small town who wouldn’t fully defend Bernie’s blatantly criminal act. Why? Richard Linklater, a Texas native himself, and acclaimed director of both independent and mainstream fare, asks many questions of Carthage’s real-life subjects in his fusion of documentary and fictional, dark comedy, but they all come back to “why.” What motivates a human being to take the life of another, and why would some be so compelled as to dismiss the enactment of the legal system with this instance, in particular? Linklater, who arguably made his masterwork with Dazed and Confused, and who directed Jack Black in the acclaimed comedy School of Rock, makes a film very different from anything else he has done, and needless to say, coaches a performance out of Black that is nothing less than exceptional.

There is no doubt that this is a personal project for Linklater, examining the mechanics of small town life, and by combining staged scenes with actual interview footage (in such a way that we may not know who are actors and who are Carthage citizens), the audience is invited to understand who Bernie was, and why people loved him, before we see him commit a terrible crime. By doing so, we are able to empathize with Bernie, the woman he murdered, and the people who surrounded him in daily life, while examining our own values in a way that could only be applied otherwise had we lived in Carthage at that particular time. This is all thanks to Linklater’s grand experiment in narrative, taking a true story, proving it is true through first-hand accounts, and allowing it to fluctuate by staging scenes that are bitingly funny. For any who are curious, this is how you take true events and transform them into compelling entertainment.

On that particular note, forget everything you know about Jack Black. His performance here is impeccable; we never quite know when his character is acting, when he is compelled by unquenchable, psychological desires, or when he finally may snap. Despite being an actor in a sea of real Texas folk, we always believe that Black is Bernie, the assistant “funeral director” who cannot help but be the most popular man in Carthage. He is outgoing, ridiculously friendly, exceedingly generous, and to some extent, compulsively loyal to his Lord and savior. Yet Bernie has closeted habits differing from those that garner love from his neighbors; he may have homosexual tendencies, and as observed by almost everyone, a knack for hanging around rich, elderly women, especially after they have lost a loved one. It appears as though Bernie is simply being the caring individual we have come to know, but underneath his uncontrollable need to be friendly, is there something else? Something darker, perhaps. Something that explains why Bernie is so actively involved in community theatre.

After the death of her husband, Bernie came to care for Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an old woman known by the town to be an antisocial shrew, even before she become a widow. In fact, she appears to be the exact opposite of Bernie. Maybe that is what draws Bernie to her; out of all the little old ladies he has consoled, never has he seen one so lonely. Despite not being attracted to her in a conventional sense, he soon learns to love her …. and spend all her money. Marjorie appears to not have a problem with this; she has finally found one to share a life with her, her siblings and children maintaining their distance. But that’s when it happens. Marjorie traps Bernie, she prevents him from enacting the extroverted activities that compensate for his introverted anxieties. She claims him as her own, jealous of the town’s love for him. And despite loving him equally, she treats him as a possession within her own prison of loneliness. And as quickly as the awful thought runs through Bernie’s troubled mind, she lies face down on the floor of her garage, dead as a doornail.

In a hilarious, caricatured performance, Matthew McConaughey plays District Attorney Danny Buck, who simply knows something’s up. Bernie goes through great lengths to prove that Marjorie is still alive, spending just as much of her money as he did before, but a good percentage of the time, using it to benefit his own town; a continued penance for his sins. It would be a crime to reveal any more of the film; in fact, I have probably said too much already. This is what you need to know – this is an incredibly well-acted and directed film, one quite different from any before it, and so far, the best I have seen to be released this year. I don’t know if the film is ever quite as funny as Linklater hoped it could be (he has even been quoted saying that on paper, his co-written script “[read] boring”), but the laughs are certainly there, and for fans of dark humor, there is no shortage of morbid ones. Much of the humor (and tragic sadness) is drawn from Black’s conflicted protagonist, in addition to the eccentric folk who let their voices be heard along the way.

There is a certain subtlety to Bernie; a cheerful outlook on a horrid incident, an empathy for its protagonist but a certain shadiness as to what his motivations might be. Was this an act of impulse, or a task slowly brewing in Bernie’s subconscious, or even conscious mind? This is what makes the film such a tremendous study of character. One of the film’s main criticisms has been its lack of Marjorie’s side of the story; the idea that the shooting might have arisen from Bernie’s haphazard usage of the old woman’s finances, that which enabled him to live the high-class lifestyle that he had always wanted to live. The film certainly doesn’t dismiss that possibility, although it is more interested in exploring another one. The intent of Bernie is not to allow us to make a judgement, the main one being whether Marjorie’s abuse of Bernie justified him to kill her. Any sane person would say this is false – murder is murder. The opportunity to make this judgement is certainly open to you, but Linklater would rather use his fictional/nonfictional hybrid to show you something you are not used to seeing, something that goes beyond a simple question of right and wrong.

He shows you these people, where they live, and how they see the world. He then challenges you to understand how they feel about Bernie, a man who has made such a positive impact on their lives, and who they believe should be forgiven, maybe not by the legal system, but by a higher power. But here on Earth, the legal system is all we have. So to the dismay of many, Bernie faces punishment. Richard Linklater dives into a fascinating story, his uniquely structured film allowing us to take away the most we can, that which he felt could be conveyed most efficiently through a cinematic medium (the director originally obtained his source information through an article in Texas Monthly, written by Skip Hollandsworth, who aided Linklater with the script).

Bernie is not for all tastes, and even divided the good people of Carthage. I mean, if one of your townspeople was murdered, would you appreciate a comedic film encroaching upon the event? Yet Linklater’s accomplishment transcends comedy, and not just because of its dramatic elements. He becomes a storyteller of a rare sort. Harnessing one of the year’s boldest (and funniest) performances, he weaves together Shakespearean tragedy, humor both cheery and dark, Southern quirkiness, and a heartfelt respect for the power of small community. Across America, and especially beyond our borders, odd stories like this occur every day. Filmmakers like Linklater are determined to tell them. He does so not only through his own voice, but those of the people who were intimately involved. So sue him.