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Is it really as outrageously wild and wacky and dark as its reputation? Yes
Nic Cage is a living, breathing cartoon character of a personality and actor as well, and the best filmmakers seem to grasp intuitively that the best way to have Nic in a movie--the only way, really--is to first be sure they've got for him an appropriately comical, ironic, melodramatic or surreal story. This one happens to be all four, to a serious degree. It also features compelling and offbeat relationships and unexpected, wild action, all of it slyly hypnotic and even gripping. It'd be fair to describe this film as a tense crime drama that's regularly relieved by comical gags if it weren't for the fact that the perfectly timed humorous beats are so damn hysterical--and so weird. The outrageously absurd, profoundly wacky moments so thoroughly overwhelm the more somber, dark and disturbing moments--not in quantity but in sublime intensity--that they thoroughly dislodge us from any dependable emotional or psychological perch and it's hard to know with any confidence from instant to instant what we're expected to feel or think, which, apparently, is very much intentional. We're being toyed with, and not coyly but blatantly, maybe even wickedly.
The director, Werner Herzog, is a connoisseur of contradiction and paradox as he's eloquently and masterfully demonstrated in many of his films, such as the bleakly absurd "Aguirre, the Wrath of God," or the incredibly preposterous "Fitzcarraldo," or the often delightfully campy "Nosferatu the Vampyre" where subtle humor is so effectively collided against genuinely poignant drama. But this one's on a whole different level, and it's entirely the fault of Nic Cage and his nearly demented, turbocharged performance as an increasingly crazed, spiraling out of control, drug addicted crooked cop.
As his character's condition deteriorates and his affliction and corruption possess him to the core not only does Nic begin to distort his appearance and posture to match his deepening pathology but his voice as well becomes increasingly warped as it grows more high pitched and nasal, as though the mounting stress is compressing him like a squeeze toy. It's beyond silly but it somehow works, at least on the level of his character's distorted, perverted perspective.
Often the soundtrack is emphatically offbeat, quirky and disruptive, working in counterpoint to the pace and tone of the unfolding action, but the musical score might then quickly shift to more traditional rhythms more in sync with the apparent mood of the scene which only renders those moments all the more unsettling. It's a very subversive technique inciting a creeping, crawling uncertainty deep within the subconscious, at a primal level; a sincerely surreal experience punctuated so ridiculously, so blatantly by the hallucinogenic appearances of those damn freaky iguanas. So freaky...
It's disorienting--in the best way--to be so constantly jerked, jolted and yanked around by a movie, especially when it's all being done so well, so confidently. Werner Herzog has crafted a sincerely bizarre, wild ride; a rare and special cinematic experience that will appeal to--and thrill--aficionados of superior, if idiosyncratic storytelling. Very much recommended above all else for its uniquely unorthodox, unhinged vibe.
The Maze Runner (2014)
Sometimes Exciting but Usually Annoying
There's a lot of visually interesting action sequences that are quite effective even for being completely CGI created, and some of the acting is above average, especially the three lead boys, but the dialog is often corny and even boring. More importantly, the story makes little to no sense--why couldn't the adults running the "experiment" just put the boys in computer simulated tests?! There's absolutely no good reason for the boys--and one girl--to have to actually endure all the terrifying nightmare violence and horrific deaths of their fellow captives. The explanation by the Director for why the boys were in the Glade and Maze is just so completely illogical and silly and stupid.
Some kids will love this movie if they're the sort that doesn't question movies--or things--too deeply or if they're easily entertained by shallow, visually stimulating spectacles. Personally, I prefer a more intelligent, better thought out story, and I think a lot of kids do, too.
Gone Girl (2014)
It Thinks It's a Smart Satire But It's Mostly a Flimsy Farce
Ben Affleck has a few compelling, convincing scenes where his boyish innocence and modest charm are exploited to considerable effect, as though daring me to believe anything coming out of his mouth. Rosamund Pike's performance is much more ineffectual and troubling; Miss Pike is clearly just as new to and unfamiliar with the character she's playing as we are. Rather than eliciting profound wonder at the impossibly fickle and treacherous mystery that is the scorned female psyche, Pike's portrayal only manages to provoke some mild ire and a lot of disbelief. I simply couldn't tolerate what that scheming spouse--as well as the rest of this dumb movie--was demanding of my patience. Too much, man.
The production values are sufficiently high that its appearance and soundtrack are both fairly seductive. I was drawn in more by the luxury of their lives than through the lead characters' personalities. Almost right from the start I wasn't buying what this disingenuous and manipulative film was emphatically, desperately selling.
I was initially interested, mildly, with how this lumbering, plodding schlock fest would resolve itself only because I quickly became aware that it would require a tremendously skillful and tactful twist to bestow any sort of honor upon itself, but no, it merely continues to lamely drone on and on, wallowing in its own inflated sense of importance. It's a clunky, corny, spastic, tone deaf, silly sham of a cinematic experience. If you're entertained or even amused by this overly clever, self fascinated triviality then that says some pretty unappealing things about you. Perhaps you enjoy being cynically conned and openly mocked? Me, not so much.
Sitting through this too-ridiculous-by-a-half stunt of a film is more daunting than actually being married to the cunning manipulative psychopath into which Rosamund Pike's stoic anti-hero methodically morphs. "You're delusional!" Ben Affleck's outwitted, out maneuvered husband accuses his crafty spouse, as though the thought hadn't already occurred to us. He complains that their relationship has become something very bad, something very nasty--I dunno exactly, I stopped paying much attention by that point--and she replies so mechanically "That's marriage." Wow, hysterical. Or not. Who knows, or cares. Not me.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
A Visual Feast with a Generous Helping of Clever Wit and a Big Scoop of Genuine Heart
The visual splendor alone of every scene, of every frame, elevates this modest but heartfelt film to classic status, but it's the inspired storytelling which truly distinguishes this tribute to those innocent days at the very dawn of our video game saturated culture. Easily one of the most clever, entertaining and satisfying children's computer animated films I've ever seen, up there with the Toy Story trilogy, Wall-E, the Incredibles, and Finding Nemo.
Like Toy Story and Wall-E, Wreck-It Ralph relies on a very potent mix of bittersweet nostalgia for a bygone age and an acid sharp cynicism for an increasingly uncomfortable future. The result is an endlessly endearing cautionary tale warning us to be wary of the myriad increasingly complex and seductive technological innovations which are threatening to overwhelm us with their irresistible electronic magic. That's a dicey position for a computer generated film to take and it acknowledges its own potential hypocrisy with some very astute and hilarious self deprecating humor.
The movie is also saved from descending into self parody on the strength of the very fine performances of its leads. John C. Reilly's naturally affable manner imbues Ralph with a nuanced blend of restrained self pity and emphatic hopeful pride, enriching his character with genuine humanity. And Sarah Silverman is a shear delight as the quick witted pixie faerie who blithely coaxes and goads Ralph to fulfill his destiny as savior of their realm.
Pixar's Toy Story is the original classic computer animated film and rightfully lays claim to the title as Champion of the form, and Pixar's Wall-E certainly upped the stakes with its positively mature and sophisticated theme of catastrophic environmental abuse by an increasingly contented and oblivious populace, but Disney's Wreck-It Ralph achieves greatness by virtue of its unbounded love for its subject and the infectious joy with which it's brought to life. Effervescent glee bursts from every detail. Wreck-It Ralph cheerfully destroys all resistance on its whimsical mission of mass appeal.
The King of Marvin Gardens (1972)
The Last Gasp of Hope for a Dying Nation...
Alienation and disconnection -- the uncomfortable mood gripping the nation would soon degrade into deep malaise and acute paranoia as America was stunned and traumatized by revelations of the government's deceptions and lies about the failing war in Viet Nam and then soon enough the vaudevillian scandal of Watergate. This film strives to capture the infinitely subtle drama of when innocence isn't so much lost as it's cynically packaged and sold. Dreams may die hard, but delusions usually expire with barely an audible whimper, and there was no more epic delusion expiring at that moment in our history than the vainglorious belief in the USA's infallibility. God, himself, had ordained this vast land exceptional and anointed its multitudinous inhabitants, or so we'd been told.
Like the crumbling, decrepit, musty seaside resort town which plays host to this tragicomic farce, America was not living up to its slogan as the Shining City on the Hill. Atlantic City in the early 70's not only manifested the startling decay of so much of this nation's urban spaces, but also poignantly symbolized the inner decay of our national psyche. And while it's certainly sad and scary to witness the gruesome, slow, writhing death of the Great American Delusion, it's also somehow comforting and reassuring to know that just beneath the still warm corpse germinates tender seedlings incubating the merest wisps of hope for our nation's future. Amidst the emphatically strained and tortured metaphors which comprise this modest cinematic tragedy lurks genuineness and sincerity and psychological resonance. It's an awkward, peculiar little picture story that will haunt your psyche, if you're not already dead, or too delusional.
The Wicker Man (1973)
A Slightly Corny & Silly, but Very Fun Fantasy/Thriller
I detest most religions and religious beliefs so it was easy for me to cheer for the Heathen islanders, even if they were a bit wacky. Edward Woodward's uptight, self righteous police officer, Sergeant Howie, is a barely sympathetic character, entirely confined and controlled by his demented, pointless Christian faith, and therefor is the perfect target for some devious, mean spirited, soul testing pranks.
Christopher Lee is compelling as the aristocratic wizard, his innate sinister yet sophisticated charm perfectly suited for his role as gracious host of his private island's Pagan Party. Few other actors could so effectively generate such a charismatic image of formidable worldliness. Think of a more modest, more homey Gandalf.
There's a very memorable scene of a very gorgeous and very nude Britt Ekland writhing in possessed, ritualistic desire. The risqué scene functions not just as a salacious exploitation of Brit's sensuous physique but also as a stylized Rorschach test by which we are very emphatically prompted to measure our own level of prurient repression. Sexual desire, as Christianity would have us believe, is unnatural and evil. Ha!
Some of the dialog, especially in the later half, is unnecessarily deliberate and expository - it would have been much more mysterious and suspenseful to not have the motives and meanings so literally explained. Heathenism, even more so than Christianity, embraces irrational, nonlinear thought and so it isn't necessary to have the pagan islander's ideas and actions any more comprehensible than those of the good Detective's. In fact, I much prefer my Paganism entirely inscrutable, thank you.
The finale is positively gruesome, aesthetically inspired, and undeniably satisfying. In spite of it's modest flaws - the most obvious one being why the islanders would bother to continue to deceive the Detective once he's trapped on their island - this nasty little thriller will definitely tickle your spiritual funny bone.
Contact "Touches" Greatness
This potentially remarkable film falls just short of the cosmic realm to which it aspires, but it does frequently soar to dizzying heights. Unfotunately, it's occasionally pulled back down to less rarefied atmospheres under the weight of its overwrought, clunky romantic malfunctions. Jody Foster's character's atheism may be used against her to deny her the opportunity to fulfill a lifetime dream, and her attraction to the man responsible for this possible denial is played for all it's melodramatic, soap opera worth.
And Jodie Foster - a consummate pro whose career credits are the envy of any working actor - is here just so relentlessly earnest and strident, and as focused as a cobra poised to strike. It's a bit of a one note performance, and maybe a little tiring. She does, of course, posses a wonderfully photogenic face which we are invited to scrutinize at great length in the countless increasingly tight close ups of her tense square jaw and piecing baby blue eyes.
The special effects are a bit sketchy by today's astronomically high standards, but 15 years ago I imagine audience's were sufficiently impressed. The most glaring weakness are the matte painting backgrounds upon which has been place a considerable responsibility to generate awe and wonder, but their unnatural cartooniness is distracting. Most of the other digital effects are executed sufficiently well enough to serve the increasingly exciting action.
The effects, and in fact the entire film very effectively plays off our collective memory of other classic landmark Sci-Fi films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind, and even The Andromeda Strain with its terse and clinical scientific dialog executed with icy cold precision. These three films are certainly very fine company to be keeping and Contact earns its position by virtue of the challenging and unique questions raised by its intelligent script. It might come off as self important and smug of me to be nit picking this film, but my petty criticisms can be read as a testament to the high standard to which Contact strives and largely achieves.
Hostel: Part III (2011)
An Sad Expression of Emotional & Mental Illness, Despicable
Imagine people making bets of who can more savagely sexually violate your child and you begin to get a sense of how shockingly sick is the premise, and the people responsible for conceiving this ridiculous crap. You understand how disturbing my analogy is, don't you, that there exists human beings in the world who have premeditated the production of this valueless, worthless bit of cultural excrement? There should be laws here prohibiting this sort of careless, demented stupidity, but those laws would only make this sort of depraved reckless behavior that much more appealing to its emotionally crippled, mentally malfunctioning fans. The first "movie" in this series should have triggered a SWAT team response to the producers' homes to liberate the abducted sex slaves in their basements. Hmmmph.
The Minus Man (1999)
A Serial Killing Postal Worker?! Hmmm, Ya Don't Say...
There's a curious mood to this odd film that belies the grim, grisly subject matter. It's almost a waking dream - a gauzy, hazy, half conscious remembrance of something vaguely unpleasant. The film takes such deliberate time in revealing the magnitude of the killer's pathology that it eventually feels as inevitable as a lazy canoe ride down river towards an unseen waterfall. What's most disturbing, most curious is that the fateful waterfall never arrives. The film just idly slips away into the murky mist of our most primal, most unnamed terrors. Owen Wilson's laconic demeanor and syrupy drawl effectively paint a compelling picture of a desperately disconnected but amiable loner. His eternally forlorn expressions are matched by an insistently melancholic soundtrack creating a tone that's unusually restrained and subdued for a genre that normally revels in overblown melodramatic spectacle. With so much technology today meticulously and cavalierly contriving obscenely graphic, hyper real vistas of nightmarish hell, it's actually refreshing to encounter a film that relies almost exclusively on the power of suggestion to implant deep within our psyches its special horror. Be patient and this nasty little movie will whisper some horribly dark voodoo into your soul.
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Youth is Not Wasted on the Young. It's Abused by Adults
The two lead kids are a curious, quirky revamping of Shakespeare's star-crossed adolescent lovers from Verona, but the inexorable obstacle thwarting Sam and Suzy's eternal union is not their feuding clans but the increasingly bizarre, malfunctioning society into which they've been born. The 60s in America were a time of drastic, profound social changes and 1965 was a year immediately on the threshold of some of the most drastic, most disorienting upheavals to the status quo. A generation of educated, financially advantaged, and chemically motivated young people were beginning to reject the many negative, outdated beliefs that afflicted the unsteady, faltering nation, and they did this by adopting radical new attitudes, fashions, and philosophies. They molded these into their personal arsenals of weapons of defiance, and would deploy them against the powers that be. Parents often were the most convenient and most deserving targets of the generational revolution, and this certainly is the case for the two precocious 'tweens here. Suzy's parents' disintegrating marriage is a potent catalyst in moving her to take moderately drastic action and escape to the far side of the mythically quaint New England island, New Penzance, along with the stoic, strange, but charming Sam, whose parents are guilty of the even more heinous and inexcusable injustice of having died and left him an unwanted orphan.
Throughout the film there are plenty of subtle - very subtle - hints at the many classic stories from recent and distant history that deal with childhood traumas, triumphs, and treacheries, such as Lord of the Flies, Oliver Twist, The Tempest, Hamlet, The Hardy Boys, Old Yeller, Barn Burning, and many others. None of these sources is bluntly, crassly, overtly referenced or quoted. Rather, these many appropriate influences are only faintly detectable through the unquestionably clear, but curiously distorting prism of Wes Anderson's now exceptionally well developed cinematic method. Interestingly, all the well known literary antecedents from which Wes draws upon have been inverted - flipped on their heads - so that it's only by a very definite spinning around and turning inside out of the increasingly outlandish situations that we might guess and appreciate from whence it all comes. That's a hard feat to pull off even just once or twice in a movie, but Moonrise Kingdom is a jam packed solid 94 minute parade of exactly this trick. For example, in The Tempest Miranda is alone and isolated on a nearly deserted isle with her father and - like any creature inexperienced in the crass ways of the wider world - she naively assumes that all new visitors to her island posses hearts of gold. But Suzy, in the incessant company of only her younger three brothers, is shockingly sexually aware and sophisticated, or at least appears to be if you chose to judge her by her mod mini skirts and her lavish eye makeup and her brutally honest and sharp tongue. Another example of how the film cleverly compliments it's literary sources is the tightly militaristic coordination of Wes' khaki clad kids, which plays so nicely against our memories of the increasing ragged and savage shipwrecked gang in Lord of the Flies. The subtle contrast is made doubly resonant when, unlike the inhuman treatment dealt out to the incompetent misfit Piggy, Wes' clean cut, spotlessly uniformed scout troop - in spite of their well meaning but bumbling chain smoking troop leader played exquisitely by Ed Norton - independently conspires to heroically rescue the self ostracized Sam from the clutches of the nefarious adults in a brilliantly choreographed Seal Team 6 style maneuver. The deft allusions to literary teen dramas are here only to help us grasp just how upside down their world around them has gotten, and by implication, our world around us today. And then there's the spectacularly understated beach camp scenario with Sam and Suzy that develops into a preposterous spoof of that most ridiculous of all teen love fantasies, The Blue Lagoon. I bet almost nobody who has seen this film gets the joke, but I did and it's a touch of genius in an already superbly intelligent and genuinely funny film.
Wes has made it look deceptively simple and natural, and therefor many viewers will likely miss the full brilliance of his masterful achievement. That's not to say that those possibly oblivious viewers won't enjoy his surprisingly nuanced and deeply satisfying fable; they just won't admire and cherish it and be raving about it as emphatically as I am. It's so confidently, and efficiently, and stylishly executed that all the sly nods to its cultural heritage finally are icing on a sincerely delicious and satiating cake. I kept catching myself thinking "I need to see this scene again," and "I really wanna see that scene again!" Well, I just gotta have me another big fat slice of the whole damn movie.