A brief but self-indulgent post to notify that "Bunga," the latest episode of my (poorly) animated side-project "The Monster Show", recently went up on YouTube--in 1080p!--if you feel like checking it out. You can also catch up with previous instalments here.
TARZAN THE APE MAN (1932) ***/**** Image B- Sound B+ starring Johnny Weissmuller, Neil Hamilton, C. Aubrey Smith, Maureen O'Sullivan adaptation by Cyril Hume; dialogue by Ivor Novello based on characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs directed by W.S. Van Dyke
by Bill Chambers As with most "origin" Tarzan films, Tarzan himself is an off-screen promise for the first third of Tarzan the Ape Man, though his famous yodel (which the studio maintains was artificially created) portends his appearance about ten minutes before he actually materializes. Likewise, as with most origin Tarzans, this one has become something of a viewing formality: The basics of Tarzan are pop-culture fundamentals passed down through the generations as if by osmosis, and so any film that aims to tell the story from scratch is bound to seem a little sluggish. It's remarkable, then, that Tarzan the Ape Man, in addition to exhibiting a surprising immunity to the ravages of time, is also mostly spared the contempt born of familiarity. Cutie-pie Maureen O'Sullivan essays the talkies' first Jane, who joins her father James's (C. Aubrey Smith) expedition in Africa and immediately casts a spell on dad's right-hand man, Harry Holt (Neil Hamilton). Once they begin their treacherous journey across the Mutia escarpment, beyond which allegedly lies an elephant graveyard that James and co. plan to raid for its ivory, Jane meets her true intended, the monosyllabic, acrobatic Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller). Though Tarzan more or less abducts Jane, their compatibility is such that she refutes her father's claim that Tarzan belongs to the jungle when she's reunited with the caravan. "Not now. He belongs to me," she pouts.
*/**** Image C+ Sound A Extras B+ screenplay by Sadayuki Murai and Katsuhiro Otomo directed by Katsuhiro Otomo
by Walter Chaw Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is both the best and the worst thing ever to happen to anime in the United States. For the believer, its Blade Runner cyberpunk ultra-cool was an eye-opener, but to hold the film up as the standard for the medium means that a lot of people looking to it as their introduction believe that anime is a little excitement cordoned off by long stretches of confused, gravid exposition. It tries to condense hundreds of pages of metaphysical text into scientist characters delivering what seem like endless exchanges in high-minded gobbledygook. Akira's popularity obscures the finest examples of the medium, films that manage to balance serious metaphysical musing with actual forward momentum (the two Ghost in the Shell films, for instance); to tell adult tales in affecting ways (Grave of the Fireflies); to redefine genre thriller (Perfect Blue), action (Ninja Scroll), and fantasy (Princess Mononoke); and to present children's fables as artifacts that are as useful for adults as they are for kids (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro). Akira isn't the greatest anime film, just the most well-known, and it's worth speculating how its notoriety may have retarded the maturation of American animation.
***/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A- starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins screenplay by Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel directed by Darren Aronofsky
by Walter Chaw Unapologetic, curious, atavistic in its single-mindedness and simplicity, Darren Aronofsky's Noah is more impactful in the rearview than in the moment. It's got a hell of a wake. The film is beautiful to look at, it almost goes without saying--as grand and ambitious as its ideas, with one sequence depicting what appears to be the case for intelligent design. It's truly audacious. In many ways the movie The Fountain wanted to be in terms of scale (and featuring another Clint Mansell score that sounds every bit like a continuation of themes), Noah is a deeply insane interpretation of one of the Bible's briefest (essentially Genesis 5:32-10:1), most contentious, most instantly-relatable and hence most-beloved of all Old Testament stories. I can only speculate what the Christian response will be (somewhere between mine and Glenn Beck's assignation of it as the "Babylonian Chainsaw Massacre" is my guess), but for an atheist who counts many strong Christians among his friends, this interpretation is full of the menace and wonder that scripture must hold for the devout. It's a stirring creation mythology in that it makes no bones about the interference in the affairs of men by a vengeful God. Likewise, it makes no apologies for the atrocities it represents in its visions of suffering and sin. (I can only imagine what Aronofsky's Sodom would look like.) Noah even finds time for a dialogue about religious fundamentalism and what happens when absolute faith becomes rationale for atrocity. It's a story about the annihilation of 99.9% of human life on the planet that's ultimately about the value of compassion, and it's a critical read of divine texts that skew in that direction. After a series of films attempting to explain the ways of the divine to the mundane, here's hoping for an Aronofsky adaptation at last of "Paradise Lost": a most comfortable marriage of material and artist.
**/**** Image B Sound B+ Commentary B- starring James Belushi, Kelly Lynch, Alisan Porter, John Getz written and directed by John Hughes
by Bill Chambers John Hughes almost returned to directing with last year's Maid in Manhattan, and Curly Sue, the last film with Hughes at the helm, perhaps offers some explanation beyond his reported displeasure with having to cast Jennifer Lopez as to why the torch was ultimately passed to Wayne Wang. In Curly Sue's best bit, the housekeeper (Viveka Davis, a genuine comic find) of an upscale Manhattan apartment gambles away her paycheck playing poker against the two derelicts who've mostly conned their way into staying there. Davis has everything that Lopez doesn't in Maid in Manhattan: modesty, natural beauty, charisma, a wry sense of humour--you could watch a whole movie about this persona, which is probably what Hughes had in mind, and her one sequence ends with a joke that also happens to be a far more accurate representation of the subtle fear that aristocracy puts in the minimum-wager than any of the Cinderella markers you'll find in Maid in Manhattan. Or anything else you'll find in Curly Sue, for that matter.
THE MACHINIST ***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B starring Christian Bale, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Aitana Sanchez-Gijon, Michael Ironside screenplay by Scott Kosar directed by Brad Anderson
ENDURING LOVE ***/**** Image A Sound A starring Daniel Craig, Rhys Ifans, Samantha Morton, Bill Nighy screenplay by Joe Penhall, based on the novel by Ian McEwan directed by Roger Michell
by Walter Chaw Sickness sweats out of every pore of Brad Anderson's The Machinist. It's leprous green, corpse flesh lit by sulphur light, marking the end of a progression that took Anderson from the sunny Happy Accidents to the sepia-inflected Session 9 to the bleak and subterranean--Plutonian, really--The Machinist. But like all of Anderson's work, the current film seems best described as coitus interruptus--congress interrupted at the moment of climax by the director's peculiar fixation on mendacity in favour of the supernatural. It's all about the tease for Anderson's genre explorations: time travel in Happy Accidents, haunted asylums in Session 9, and now--what, possession? Murderous blackouts? By plumbing the depths of human failings in a literal-minded fashion, one after the other (obsession, then greed, and finally guilt), Anderson ignores the possibility that genre is sharpest when wielded as metaphor for the same. Even the profession of machining speaks to the idea of precision and craftsmanship over flights of fancy or suspicions of otherness. It's a shame that The Machinist isn't ultimately more than an elaborate Rubik's Cube: not that hard to solve, not high on replay value.
THE DREAMERS **½/**** Image A Sound A- Extras A starring Michael Pitt, Louis Garrel, Eva Green, Robin Renucci screenplay by Gilbert Adair directed by Bernardo Bertolucci
RHINOCEROS EYES ***½/**** starring Michael Pitt, Paige Turco, Gale Harold, Matt Servitto written and directed by Aaron Woodley
by Walter Chaw The danger is getting lost in fantasy, of being consumed by the lunar flame of lamplight filtered through celluloid. And the irony is that directors, the good ones, are already lost and have been for years. There have been pictures about an all-devouring cinephilia before (Cinema Paradiso, say, or 8½), and now a pair of films by two directors at opposite ends of their careers--Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers and Aaron Woodley's 2003 TIFF Discovery Award-winner Rhinoceros Eyes--strive to blur the line between movies and reality in twin tales of sexual maturation, of coming of age in a movie house--of, to parse The Judybats, learning how to kiss watching James Dean movies. Fascinatingly, the two films share Michael Pitt, forging a path for himself as the archon for the modern dreamer raised on lethal doses of popular culture, and weaning himself from that luxuriant udder only with great difficulty.
***/**** Image F Sound B- starring Anna Friel, Michelle Williams, Oliver Milburn, Kyle MacLachlan screenplay by Sandra Goldbacher and Laurence Coriat directed by Sandra Goldbacher
by Walter Chaw Sandra Goldbacher's Me Without You is feral and alive and home to two of the best performances of last year from Michelle Williams and Anna Friel. One of the more uncompromising films about the things women do to one another over the course of a long friendship, it becomes a bit repetitive by the end and a bit like a Jane Austen novel ("Emma, actually," the film helpfully informs) transplanted to the England of the past three decades, but its conventions skate with the honesty of performances from its main trio of Williams, Friel, and Oliver Milburn as the prototypical rakish, misunderstood Austen hero.
**½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras C+ screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller directed by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Emmet is the platonic Everyman who becomes embroiled in adventure and intrigue after stumbling on a fabled MacGuffin called the Piece of Resistance. It's Hitchcock with a dash of Star Wars or The Matrix, or maybe vice-versa, as Emmet is designated "the Special" (a.k.a., the Chosen One), the saviour who will lead a band of rebel misfits to victory against the nefarious Lord Business. Oh, and Emmet's a little Lego dude with the voice of Chris Pratt. His predicament takes him on a globe-trotting journey through Legoland (not the theme park but a realm where Lego characters bloom to life à la Toy Story), not quite north by northwest but with a pit stop in the Wild West, where he picks up a wizardly black mentor named Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman--one wants to type "natch"). Lacking obvious talent and vision, Emmet is doubted and doubts himself but eventually rallies the troops and, when Lord Business finally unleashes his liquid freeze-ray known as the Kragle, voluntarily sacrifices himself for the greater good. It helps that he's desperate to impress the sultry, resourceful Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), who considers Emmet hopelessly uncool--especially compared to her boyfriend, Batman (Will Arnett).
Image A- Sound A Extras B- "Who Are You, Really?," "The Sun," "You're No Good," "At Last," "**** the Pain Away," "Don't You Feel Me," "In the Evening," "Dead Meat," "Life Matters," "Radioactive"
by Bill Chambers SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. The penultimate season of "True Blood" was fraught with behind-the-scenes turmoil. Creator-showrunner Alan Ball had departed the series and his replacement, Ball's old "Cybill" cohort Mark Hudis, was himself replaced partway through the season by long-time "True Blood" scribe Brian Buckner. (Ball has a history of tapping out after five seasons and being notoriously difficult to replace--"Six Feet Under" ended when it did because he couldn't convince anyone to take over.) Whether this directly contributed to an abrupt plot development that effectively cleaves the season in two, the truth is that "True Blood" weathers these personnel changes invisibly enough as to affirm it is either on autopilot by now or, to be less generous, was already something of a runaway train that had only ornamental use for a conductor. Whatever the case, the show's sixth year represents a marginal rebound--though at this point in my "True Blood" journey, I'm just a masochist ranking the instruments of torture.
***½/**** Image A+ Sound A+ Extras A starring Tim Roth, Alexandra Maria Lara, Bruno Ganz, André M. Hennicke screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola, based on the novella by Mircea Eliade directed by Francis Ford Coppola
by Walter Chaw Set in just-antebellum Europe, Francis Ford Coppola's Golden Age superhero fantasy Youth Without Youth finds mild-mannered ancients professor Dominic (Tim Roth) transmogrified by a bolt of lightning into a being who appears to not only have regained his youthful appearance, but also developed the ability to alter physical objects with his mind. Dominic is in 1938 Romania when 1.21 jigawatts of electricity send him back to the future, able to absorb entire volumes with a single touch, learn dead languages in his sleep, and have contentious conversations with himself reflected in mirrors literal and figurative. It's a superhero movie in the same sense as Kasi Lemmons's sorely underestimated The Caveman's Valentine: based on a literary source, it's itself intensely literate, sprinkling Mandarin and Sanskrit in with, late in the game, a language of our hero's own devising to which he devotes reels of obsessive notes. All that's missing is a purpose for our hero--something remedied as the picture moves forward past WWII and Dominic encounters Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara) en route to her own collision with cosmic destiny.
½*/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B+ starring Hayden Christensen, Jamie Bell, Rachel Bilson, Diane Lane screenplay by David S. Goyer and Jim Uhls and Simon Kinberg, based on the novel by Steven Gould directed by Doug Liman
by Walter ChawJumper is the first movie director Doug Liman hasn't been able to save with his amazing way with action sequences. Blame its glaring inconsistencies, the overuse of one nifty special effect that renders the picture's centrepiece an anticlimax, and a passel of squeezed-off performances as truncated--as brief--as the rest of the picture feels. It's over before it begins, wasn't much while it lasted, and is so brazen in its abuse of internal logic that the only audience that would see it will be irritated by it. Based on a Steven Gould cult novel I read years ago (but not long ago enough to love it), its high concept is that there are genetic anomalies among us who are capable of teleporting anywhere they've been before; the catch is that a group of witch hunters is eager to kill them because they're abominations before God. It's Highlander, essentially, or any vampire movie, a skylark about rock-star bandits that swaps immortality for the ability to zip around at will--with only some party-pooping senior citizen (it's snow-on-the-roof Samuel L. Jackson this time around, playing Illuminati-cum-Homeland Security bogie Roland) around to spoil the fun. The obligatory hot chick is dead-eyed Rachel Bilson as Millie, trading not so much up from Zach Braff in The Last Kiss as sideways to Hayden Christensen's protag "jumper" David. Millie and David have loved one another since high school, a misleadingly fun prologue tells us: what follows is about an hour of deadening, repetitive, useless nonsense that fails, completely, to provide a universe in which this stuff makes any kind of impact, even as escapism.
NATIONAL TREASURE ½*/**** DVD - Image B Sound A Extras C+ BD - Image A Sound A Extras B+ starring Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, Diane Kruger screenplay by Jim Kouf and Cormac Wibberley & Marianne Wibberley directed by Jon Turteltaub
by Walter Chaw How's this for a barometer of the national cinematic weather? National Treasure is going to get more praise than condemnation from me because it isn't homophobic, misogynistic, or blatantly misanthropic. All it is, really, is astonishingly boring, terribly stupid, and, it bears repeating, boring. It's boring. (Also stupid.) Essentially the film is a Hardy Boys adventure where cryptic clues have our intrepid boy scouts traversing America's historic landmarks on a scavenger hunt for two hours and change. Where the hero is a misunderstood scholar, his sidekick is a computer nerd, and his girlfriend's hobby is history because history is cool. (The sequel will probably touch on spelling, maybe arithmetic--be still my beating heart.) And where inspiration runs out a little over half-an-hour into the runtime, causing National Treasure to resort to recycling the same rising and falling in action over and over into--and our film's history buffs will appreciate this--what seems an eternity.
**/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B- starring Kurt Russell, Scott Speedman, Ving Rhames, Brendan Gleeson screenplay by David Ayer directed by Ron Shelton
by Walter Chaw Lost in the familiarity of critics calling films combinations of two similar films is the truism that, in all likelihood, these films were pitched exactly the same way to stuffed wallets lacking in much imagination. In this spirit, Dark Blue is Training Day meets L.A. Confidential--to that end, Training Day scribe David Ayer wrote the screenplay from a story by James Ellroy, author of L.A. Confidential the novel. In other words, Dark Blue is a chimera composed of the worst parts of a pair of better films--a green rookie/corrupt grizzled vet police thriller set in Los Angeles (Training Day) that, banking on the borrowed gravity of historical events to lend itself a measure of importance, features an evil Irish mentor/supercop responsible for the picture's central crime (L.A. Confidential) and a tired storyline riddled with exhausted characters (a showboat role, a thankless role) and racial conveniences. It's by now fair to wonder if director Ron Shelton will make another Blaze, let alone another Bull Durham.