Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Top 10 'Movie Stuff' of 2013

10. Europa Report
Not to be confused with (let alone dismissed as) a 'found footage' film. One could argue otherwise in the general sense, but the actual premise and presentation of what you're seeing is something else fundamentally. This is indeed a video "report" of the events that take place aboard the shuttle Europa on its mission to the ice moon of Jupiter, which is different from the forced happenstance of someone capturing the footage randomly. As a viewer, you never have to stop and rationalize or measure the credibility of what you’re seeing. This is classic expedition science fiction in the vein of Destination Moon and Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Where Gravity dumbed over the masses with showy FX spectacle and mawkish sentimentalism, this film keeps its human drama clinical while mission hazards are viewed objectively in relation to various onboard cameras. The story steers clear from both self-help 'feel good' conclusions and simple space monster trappings, instead depicting with realism (yet not without certain weirdness) the possibility of alien life and tackling the theme of Man’s willingness to sacrifice himself for profound discovery. The final images transmitted from the Europa are truly exhilarating on all these accounts.
09. The World’s End
Edgar Wright blows the doors off his Three Flavors Cornetto trilogy in all manner of action, humor, humanity and whip-sharp editorial moxie. The sheer density of the film, and in in proportion to its two predecessors, is simply too much to cover in one brief summary. So, rather than attempt to highlight everything, I will simply reference the 1987 single 'This Corrosion' from The Sisters of Mercy, which is featured quite dramatically in the film’s climax and epilogue, before being heard in full (or at least the 4:27 version) during the end credits. I reference this song in how it perfectly encapsulates the alternative rock, counterculture idealism of the film’s lead character, Gary King, and how its propulsive, rhythmic blast reflects the film’s wild exuberance as a whole. It also anthems the increasingly anarchic, borderline libertarian, attitude beamed by our heroes during their climactic act of defiance against cosmic overlords who mask tyranny with bullshit appeals to "peaceful unification" and dreams of eternal youth. I love this movie for the way it builds to an insane, 'all-bet’s-of' conclusion of party-hardy medievalry amidst a post-apocalyptic world, right down to its snap-closing shot of Simon Pegg grinning a berserker’s grin before lunging into battle.
08. The Wolverine
The best comic book movie of the year. Why? Because it’s neither an overblown, jokey gimmick nor is it bloated with dreary self-importance. This is a straightforward movie with good old fashioned storytelling. It doesn’t aim to outdo previous superhero blockbusters with bigger and more relentless CGI destruction and spectacle. You know the endings to Transformers: Dark of the Moon, The Avengers and Man of Steel that feature flying monsters and/or giant alien death rays destroying entire cites for their climax? Yeah, that doesn’t happen here. There are no gods or apocalyptic invasions or toppling skyscrapers or city-wide terrorist anarchy or chemical clouds mutating the masses into giant lizards ...or any kind of cheap 9/11 placating. Nope. In this movie Logan fights Japanese dudes -- some Yakuza, some ninja and some corporate samurai -- but mostly just dudes all the same. At work here is a much simpler genre: a criminal underworld thriller that just happens to take place in an X-Men universe. It’s a skillfully directed action brawler, but one that is laid out evenly with measured narrative that takes its time establishing plot and characters. People sit and talk in this movie, chafe personalities, challenge each other with life-notions and clash convictions as much as they do katanas and claw.
07. Leviathan
Verbalizing anything about this documentary of a North Atlantic commercial fishing boat would almost defeat the purpose. For starters, it’s not much of a documentary, at least not by any conventional standard. There is no thesis or exposition. No interviews or narration. No declarations about the fishing industry or environmental issues. There is only raw footage and sound of the very environ that is a fishing boat out at sea. It is, quite simply, an anthropological artifact in media form, using small, waterproof digital cameras to capture the immediate 24-hour functions of the ship and her crew in contrast to the surrounding ocean expanse. Yet, the intent here is not simply for one to experience working on a fishing boat. Fixed POV shots that last for minutes (up to 20) at a time expose the viewer to a visceral world up close, from all angles of life and death -- animate and inanimate -- often to such a degree that any rational context of the situation begins to waver in lieu of a more primordial state of awareness. We’re privy to the mechanical cranking of trawl nets in the dark, crew hands sifting through huge buckets of fish, a seagull on deck pecking for scraps, portside at surface level etc. And water. Constant water, be it sea, rain or a hot shower. It’s a powerful glimpse of existence filtered through digital sensors.
06. Computer Chess
In simplest terms, this is a sci-fi comedy that is wholly "indie" in spirit. However, it manages to sidestep many contemporary "indie" clichés, in part, due to its 1980 timeframe, wherein a two-star hotel in Austin, Texas plays weekend host to a chess tournament. Only here the players are homemade/business enterprising computers, as obsessively hovered over by their nerd programmers. Filmed in a black and white, 4:3 aspect ratio and using an appropriately dated Sony AVC 3260, this storied microverse exists in rough videographic analogue. In-camera, the authenticity far exceeds nostalgia gimmick as something almost frighteningly accurate in both look and naturalistic atmosphere. Yet, as the narrative unfolds, awkward social interactions amongst programmers and late night, corridor journey subplots reveal an ever-stranger unreality lurking just beneath. The movie itself gradually assumes the form of coded gaming gone awry, and the presence of a possible artificial intelligence leads our main, four-eyed protagonist down the proverbial rabbit-hole. What follows is an early definition of 80s pop-paranoia concerning the onset 'singularity' of all things and bizarro visions of future android incognita. It makes for quite a head-trip viewing experience where you’ll find yourself probing every other scene for the emergence of encrypted data.
05. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Yes, the narrative of what is a rather digestible children’s story has been overstuffed with Middle Earth mythos out-sourced from Tolkien’s later writings and appendixes, inflated to grandiose filler and, in some cases, concocted entirely from scratch. This isn’t the book; it’s the book retrofitted as a prequel story proportionate to Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. What’s done is done. So many sci-fi/fantasy/comic book endeavors in recent years either fail at creating immersive worlds or worlds that are genuinely interesting to explore. To give Jackson and Co. credit where credit is due, this movie continues with one of the most fully realized and engaging fantasy realms in the history of the medium, right up alongside Star Wars. If that means the storytelling goes a bit aimless within, so be it. The payoff is wondrous FX escapism & spectacle of the highest order, and I for one proudly champion Jackson’s 3D, 48fps vision: Middle Earth re-imagined as a live, televised event writ epic or a theme-park attraction akin to the original Pirates of the Caribbean ride, where I feel as if I can almost step out of my little boat and tour the Wood Elf fortress, feelings its textures and smelling the cool misty air, or stand among Bilbo and his Dwarven company as they dutifully act-out their parts for my benefit. The whitewater barrel riding is cheery fun and the extended Smaug set piece is Jackson the virtuoso action director firing on all six cylinders.
04. Byzantium
Consider this the accumulation of Neil Jordan’s auteur genre filmmaking, from archetypical horror-fantasy to heavily plotted neo-noir; from classical, windswept period to seedy urban sprawl. The 200 year misadventure of two mother-daughter vampires through English seaside towns is rife with equal parts lurid sensuality and forever youthful innocence, while the vampire mythology itself averts Eastern European Gothicism in that the source of said immortality is revealed to be something more anciently Celtic and mystical. This undoubtedly pro-feminist tale is built not on mere hip notions of female entitlement, but a grander historical backdrop of female exploitation in which our heroines survive via deeper instincts for the maternal. On display is Jordan’s innate gift for infusing his films with literary sophistication that nonetheless remains in service to cinematic imagery rather than at the expense. One of the highlights sees Gemma Arterton’s character vampirically reborn when bathed in a cascading island waterfall of blood; the metaphors overflowing. And yet, despite such poetic enormity, the story concludes with a comparatively mundane (though gory) skirmish at a dilapidated boardwalk carnival, thereby keeping one-half of the film firmly planted in aforementioned noir-ish genre, which makes for a dynamic mix.
03. The Bling Ring
This is not a "message" film, because Sofia Coppola is not a "message" filmmaker aiming for biting satirical commentary. Satire isn’t even necessary here, for there is no need to satirize that which is already so obscene to any average viewer with the slightest shred of tact and common decency. Watching these blithely superficial teens as they illicitly shop Paris Hilton’s walk-in shoe vault with 'oohs' and 'aahs' and 'like, oh my god!' makes for an absurd circumstance on its own; Coppola’s minimalist approach simply presents this at face value. It is but one escapade of many in this alternate, remote world where after-hour house raids of the rich and famous, and the celebrity/fashion worship by those involved, remain impersonal. These titular Ringers are not characters to be mocked or dramatized, but subjects to be studied coolly, hence the lack of character development: vacancy. is. the point. But not the experience. Coppola chooses her scene-by-scene, Hollywood Hills environments carefully and her concentrated visual framing explores physical spaces and open distances with such depth as to convey the story through mood, tone and atmosphere; altogether, through immersion. The effect is one of dry, ironic farce and languid surrealism ...and fun-–moments of material emptiness that are vaguely liberating, as chimed in one scene of accessorizing and a car ride through Beverly Hills by Rye Rye’s 'Sunshine'.
02. Under the Skin
Warped. Utterly, completely warped, down to its very core. The term 'cinematic masterpiece' is typically said with sarcasm or as a point of reference for some near-impossible standard. I simply use it here to describe a movie that has since left me fascinated by its properties and deeply stirred by its wondering narrative, one centered on Laura (Scarlett Johansson, muted but alert), an alien in human-hooker form who roams Scotland to feed on the flesh of seduced hitchhikers. Names like Kubrick, Tarkovsky and Lynch will come to mind when watching this film, but director Jonathan Glazer only skims them for inspiration; this is ultimately his own vision. And what a vision it is, pushed far beyond Nicolas Winding Refn’s smug posturing of actors or Lars von Trier’s dopey digital screensavers and shock-schlock grabs for attention. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its art-house pretensions, but that it lives up to them with abstract imagery that actually beckons one’s imagination instead of merely assuming its own importance. Various on-location settings are either alive and moving or too bleak and naturalistic to be weighed down with overly deliberate staging. There is no artifice here, but a real world that is conversely, inescapably, oneiric. Logically, Laura remains a cypher, though her journey is all-too human in its sense of alienation.
01. Jurassic Park 3D
I first considered ranking this in at No. 10 purely as an honorary inclusion and thereby giving the rest of the lineup over to the new entries of 2013, but that would only confuse the fact that it remains my favorite film on the list, as it is one of my favorite films of all time. Not as artistically challenging, you say? Hold that thought. Showmanship is as much an art form as anything else; the art of presentation, delivery, reveal; the art of constructing thrills, generating excitement and leaving audiences glazed over with awe. To that extent, Spielberg’s 1993 dinosaur adventure stands as one of the absolute best showpieces of his career. Seeing it again in theaters this past Spring I was amazed at how well it holds up after 20 years. And while the 3D upgrade wasn’t necessary, it was by no means a hindrance either. Spielberg’s deep focus framing already lends itself to stereoscopic dimensions anyhow, so the actual 3D conversion merely feels like a natural extension. The 3D release was also color graded with a softer image and muddier, amber glow as opposed to the video-grainy, brighter blue tint of the 2011 Blu-ray (DNR vs. excessive sharpening, take your pick), which is significant as it more faithfully adheres to the darker and more cinematic contrast of the original 1993 theatrical release. Re-experiencing this cinematographic look 20 years later was a treat all its own, 3D or not.
The Wolf of Wall Street 
47 Ronin
Pacific Rim
Inside Llewyn Davis
Side Effects
Machete Kills
The Book Thief

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Toyota MasterAce Tarago Space Cruiser – Model F

In Japan it was called the MasterAce; in Australia, the Tarago; in Europe, the Space Cruiser; in China, the Model F. In America it was lamely titled Van (points docked for us). Whatever the name, this "Wonderwagon" was mass produced from 1982 to 1989 (the Keaton years) and, during my childhood, was the very automobile that would cargo me to Jujitsu class three nights a week, among other destinations. Later, in my 20s, I drove one through the Pacific North West. I even lived in it, or out of it, sporadically during that time. The windshield was huge and you sat up high behind the steering wheel. It was like driving a bus. 



Sunday, December 8, 2013


Something needs to be said about Charlyne Yi. I’m not sure what, exactly, but something. For starters, any categorical analysis proves a bit tricky. Is she an actress? Sort of. She’s appeared in movies to varying limited degrees; she was on House. Is she a comedian? In her own way, sure. Is she a musician? She plays before crowds, but has no official albums. Truth be told, she’s all of these things, and with a flagrantly off-kilter style. Description? Eh, at best, "ethnic", though her up-bringing and manner is wholly American. 
Short, dorkish, vaguely asexual and genuinely (as in, no faking) awkward during interviews, on the red carpet or whenever unscripted in front of the camera. Awkward yet equally fearless. Any glimpse of Yi in the media and right away you’ll sense the impulse of an artist–-a constant performer, a beatnik, a dilettante, a suburban garage band-style bohemian of the Millennial Generation (Y, maybe? I can never get 'em straight) that has attained some legitimate success in show business while still maintaining a low key, grassroots career as a both modern day minstrel and Youtube exhibitionist.
I'm weird.
On her Youtube page Yi has done a number of skits, music videos, unplugged-shorts, stop-motion animation and poetry readings. Search her up on Conan doing one of the more clever knock-knock jokes ever attempted, and spy the movie Paper Heart, if you get the chance. Yi is the kind of girl I would marry the setup for some wacky scheme involving an obscure tax write-off or interstate fruit trafficking, or as the result of a drunken night in Vegas. Cue comedic hijinks and possible awkward sex scene.    
Spirit animal
Rare achievement

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Catch Me If You Can (2002)

A story loosely based on the young adult life of Frank Abagnale Jr., a kid turned conman circa 1960s, and the FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, who tracked him down.
Except, it isn’t much of a story in the plot-oriented sense; more like a series of episodic exploits that at-once detail the talents of con artistry while arcing the main character and the pains that motivate him. And yet Catch Me If You Can is never really all that significant or dramatic. It isn’t much of a suspense thriller or brooding, psychoanalytical crime-drama. No American-Greek tragedy here. This isn’t Scorsese or Coppola or De Palma or Leone. But then, the movie never tries to be any of those things either. With Spielberg at the helm, it’s all a dreamy game of smiles and charm. But it’s also a very emotional journey, as young Frank constantly struggles to escape the cold reality of a broken family by forging a new reality of his own, gliding from one check-cashed enchantment to the next, moving through different professions and lifestyles, reaping the sugary exteriors but without conscious aim.

The money and luxury is wish fulfilling for a while, but life on the lam soon proves to be a hollow existence. Frank just wants to be with people who will embrace him. He seeks household warmth, or at least a friend. Again, there’s no real unified story structure to support this, only a kind of carrousel narrative that jumps timeframes and takes audiences through different vignettes of Frank’s ever-changing adventure. There’s also Carl Hanratty, who counterpoints said venture as the lowly bank fraud agent for the FBI, playing cat to Frank’s mouse. He, too, is isolated, defined by his clerical pursuit. It’s a familiar 'cop and crook' dynamic.

Paranoid, angst-ridden characters that do a lot of shouting have since become a staple for Leonardo DiCaprio, and also a source of criticism for those who dismiss him as a one note actor. His performance as Abagnale Jr. shows a different angle. Here, DiCaprio is a sweet natured wonder boy possessing a real knack for comic reactions. His ability to portray Frank with open honesty, even when knee-deep in fabrication, exhibits both charisma and vulnerability that sheds the self-absorbed camera mugging of today’s method acting in favor of something more innocently Capraesque. Screen time shared with Christopher Walken sees the two -- a father and son relationship -- beaming for one another’s attention on different levels; Walken coolly conveys Abagnale Sr. as a once-master of the game whose waning ability to cheat the world with is 'Yankee pinstripe' philosophy reveals but a sad and feeble man.

In contrast is a turn from Martin Sheen as a southern drawl district attorney with a soft spot for romance that passes through Frank’s life fleetingly as a source of paternal affection. You’ll also spot the familiar feminine faces of Amy Adams, Jennifer Garner, Elizabeth Banks and Ellen Pompeo, each given roles (some brief, some not) with dazzling personality before hitting their own stardom. That leaves Tom Hanks as the odd man out, so to speak. Hanks does everything in sturdy, reliable fashion, servicing the character of Hanratty with his effortless low-key mannerisms; if nothing else, delivering what is arguably the greatest performance ever while eating an éclair. He chases Frank doggedly, with procedural paperwork instead of uncanny brilliance, only to then engage the conman with a fronted indifference that hides genuine curiosity. Their interaction changes over the course of the film into a lax mutual understanding.
Catch Me If You Can is as immersive of a period film as you’ll find anywhere, as its 1960s settings are replete with immaculate production/costume design. A palette of primaries, creamy pastels and Christmas ambience is radiated not through heavy saturation (as is the norm for making "colorful" movies) but with light artifacts. Spielberg and Kamiński have crafted a world where vibrant colors are filtered and slightly blown out through halos, light refraction and reflective surfaces, thus accentuating depth of field with dramatic shadows and filmic textures. It’s a stunning work of cinematography.  
Spielberg is at the top of his technical game. The visuals pour across the screen like liquid in the way moving actors are micro-blocked within single takes: watch closely as Hanratty and his men enter an Atlanta penthouse with snub-nosed pistols drawn, the close-up POV shifting from one revolver to the next, each with a playful sting from John Williams’ score. Spielberg’s camerawork zigzags from cinéma vérité handheld to low, Wellesian perspectives; with classic Curtiz push-ins and even a few carefully placed Dutch angles. The director is so visually nimble here that, at times, it practically becomes a dance, one that is announced from the get-go in jazzy fashion with the opening, animated title sequence.

Key details per shot informs certain scenes with specific character traits that can be charted over the course of the film, such as Frank’s tic for tearing off labels from condiments and champagne bottles or the way Hanratty fidgets with his gun holster and flashes backward credentials. Clever editing delivers match-cut segues, including a moment where Hanratty rebukes criticism with a 'Knock Knock' joke setup that is humorously robbed of its punch-line but nonetheless rhythmically answered in the following transitional shot as two Alka-Seltzers plop into a glass of water—Who’s there?

 Whole scenes that are internally funny are also juxtaposed as a means to illustrate characters and innuendos: Frank’s double-win hotel encounter with an exotic woman of the night (Garner) parallels Hanratty spending his evening alone in a Laundromat, plagued with a pink shirt gag. The movie is alive with such invention. One of its most dexterous set-pieces involves Frank’s clever evasion via misdirection at a Miami airport; a scene that dazzles the senses with visual exuberance as a party of beautiful, giggling flight stewardess prance their way down the terminal to the music of Sinatra, ending with a duped Hanratty turning to the skies above just in time to see Frank’s plane fly away.
There are some missed opportunities, I think. Spielberg can never fully pull himself away from the familial issues to explore the more capitalistic themes inherent in Frank’s monetary wizardry and manipulation of the social status. We’re privy to the process, well enough, along with a few evanescent moments of commentary, including a scene where young Frank, upon receiving his first checkbook, is told that he is now part of a "special club", but there was perhaps a greater subversive or satirical jab at the American dream (system) that was never really seized. Alas, Spielberg remains largely one tracked, but he does indeed follow it through to the fullest extent and with all cinematic prowess and influences accumulated over the course of his career.
On an adjacent note, this film continues from Saving Private Ryan to War Horse the director’s love for, and aspiration to, French cinema, seasoning his films with accents, locales, music or certain filmmaking motifs in the name of. Frank’s mother is played by French actress Nathalie Baye who appeared in a number of 1970s, post-French New Wave films under directors Pialat, Godard and Truffaut. A scene in the movie even takes place in the quaint town of Montrichard.

For anyone reading this, I highly recommend you watch or revisit Catch Me If You Can (preferably on Blu-ray release) before the month of December is up. It makes for a delectable piece of entertainment best viewed during Christmas time.

Monday, December 2, 2013

15 and Getting Straight

T-Rex Paddock Explained

For those who always pondered over the specifics of the set piece concerning its immediate geography:

click to enhance