Safety-Not-Guaranteed

Scorecard: June 2012

Figured I’d try to get around to posting this before we got quite halfway through July. There’s a pretty good range on here this month, thanks to a few screenings at the LA Film Festival. I usually get to fifteen or twenty screenings there, but this year I cut it back so I wouldn’t be quite so exhausted, and only ended up at eight total, but I think it was overall a good choice. I was able to process and appreciate the ones I saw more. We’ll see if I remember that come time for AFI in November, when I also usually overschedule myself.

What I Loved

The History of Future Folk

I went into this one at the LA Film Festival fairly blind, but came out pretty much loving it. A sweet little film about an alien who comes to Earth hoping to find a place for his people to live before an approaching comet destroys his homeworld. Instead, he discovers music and settles down…until another alien is sent to kill him and continue his mission. But the film focuses on the music and the relationships rather than the sci-fi elements, though when some special effects are needed, they’re surprisingly excellent. There’s a refreshing tenderness to the script and the characters are very appealing (they’re actually a real band who have been using the alien personas as their backstory for quite some time – the movie just expands and streamlines it). A hidden gem for sure, and worth seeking out. Full review on Row Three

2012 USA. Director: John Mitchell and Jeremy Kipp Walker. Starring: Nils d’Aulaire, Jay Klaitz, Julie Ann Emery, April L. Hernandez, Dee Snider.
Seen June 17 at the LA Film Festival, Regal LA Live.
Flickchart ranking: 437 out of 2990

Safety Not Guaranteed

When a local paper runs an ad for someone wanting a partner to travel back in time with him, a human interest magazine can’t resist going to try to find out what this guy’s all about – does he really think he’s built a working time machine? Over time, though, this sort-of time travel investigative comedy turns into a very good, very poignant drama about people and relationships. It would be almost incredibly easy to screw this up – make it too cutesy, or too weird, or too maudlin, or too cliched, but even though it’s clearly in a specific American indie genre, it avoids every pitfall and ends up being one of the standout films of the year. The more I think back on it, the more I love it, and a lot of that is thanks to a very strong script and a fantastically grounded lead performance from Aubrey Plaza, who’s quickly becoming a must-see favorite of mine.

2012 USA. Director: Colin Trevorrow. Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, Kristen Bell.
Seen June 16 at AMC Burbank.
Flickchart ranking: 572 out of 2990

What I Liked

It’s a Disaster

The promise writer/director Todd Bergen showed in his debut feature The Scenesters is more fully realized here, with a spot-on script brought to life by an ensemble of well-matched actors. The eight characters are gathering for couples brunch, a tradition they all do without caring about it very much, and various relationship struggles and backstory start to come out. They’re so wrapped up in their own issues that they don’t even notice when World War III starts almost outside their door. It’s a very talky movie (the apparent apocalypse is all off-screen), but the script is razor-sharp, gives all eight characters their due, and doesn’t linger on anything too long. It’s exactly the kind of indie comedy I like, and now I’m fully on board the Todd Berger train. Full review on Row Three

2012 USA. Director: Todd Berger. Starring: Julia Stiles, David Cross, America Ferrera, Jeff Grace, Rachel Boston, Erinn Hayes.
Seen June 20 at the LA Film Festival, Regal LA Live.
Flickchart ranking: 672 out of 2990

Prometheus

I’ve already written a Things I Liked, Things I Didn’t post about Scott’s return to the world of Alien. For here, suffice it to say that I thought the film is a better than average summer blockbuster, gave me plenty of things to think about, is stunningly gorgeous, and yes, does have a few problems, none of which deterred me from thoroughly enjoying the experience of watching it.

2012 USA. Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce.
Seen June 9 at the Vista.
Flickchart ranking: 657 out of 2990

Brave

Pixar’s first foray into the princess genre (their first female heroine at all) does feel a bit more like a classic Disney movie than any of Pixar’s previous, modern-set films. Princess Merida lives in a time when she’s expected to marry one of the other tribe-leader’s sons to cement the alliance her father the king forged years ago, but she doesn’t want any of that, she wants to be independent, riding her horse through the woods and shooting arrows at precariously-placed targets. The film is really about the conflict this causes with her mother, who expects her to act like the princess she is and carry out the duties of her role. Though some have suggested the film suffered from false advertising or too much Disneyfication, I was quite taken with it, and found its approach to an age-old story fairly fresh and exciting, not to mention typically gorgeous. The script hits a few obvious notes, but for the most part, remains far more subtle and gentle than most movies aimed at kids.

2012 USA. Director: Mark Andrews, Brenda Chapman. Starring: Kelly MacDonald, Emma Thompson, Kevin McKidd, Robbie Coltrane, John Ratzenberger.
Seen June 30 at AMC Burbank.
Flickchart ranking: 550 out of 2990

The Breaking Point

The lone archival fit at the LA Film Fest this year, and I decided to check it out. Definitely glad I did. It’s an adaptation of the Ernest Hemingway story To Have and Have Not, and before you ask, yes, that was adapted only six years earlier by Howard Hawks, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. But the Hawks version bears little resemblance to the book, and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall convinced studio honchos to let him do a more faithful adaptation. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to that, but though this film may be missing the sizzling Bogart-Bacall chemistry, it’s quite an excellent noir film, with Garfield playing a tourist fishing boat captain struggling to keep his family financially stable after returning from the war. A tempting, but illegal, job comes his way, and well, you can guess who well that all turns out. Garfield plays desperation quite well, not to mention the game face that desperate men get good at displaying to the world. A young Patricia Neal is a fetching not-quite-femme-fatale, and I don’t want to spoil it in case you get a chance to see the film, but the final shot is one of the most heartbreakingly poignant endings I’ve seen.

1950 USA. Director: Michael Curtiz. Starring: John Garfield, Patricia Neal, Phyllis Thaxter, Juano Hernandez, Wallace Ford.
Seen June 23 at the LA Film Fest, REDCAT.
Flickchart ranking: 731 out of 2990

Easy Money (aka Snabba Cash)

I’d hear quite a bit of buzz about this film coming off last fall’s festival circuit (it’s been so popular that not only is an American remake in progress, but so is a sequel in the film’s native Sweden, and star Joel Kinnaman is being tapped for high-profile Hollywood films like the RoboCop remake), and I jumped at the chance to see it. The main character is a smart but poor college student who plays much more affluent than he is to impress the jet setter friends he wants to have. When he gets a shot at a lucrative business opportunity (that just happens to be essentially laundering money for a drug smuggling operation), he quickly gets more than he bargained for, and easy money turns out to have a lot of hardships. Obviously, something like that isn’t going to go well, but the intricacies of the plot (there’s also a subplot about a weary enforcer for a rival gang that’s quite well done) and character interactions make this a cut above most crime thrillers, though not as relentlessly exhilarating as something like Headhunters.

2010 Sweden. Director: Daniel Espinosa. Starring: Joel Kinnaman, Matias Padin, Dragomir Mrsic, Lisa Henni, Mahmut Suvakci.
Seen June 23 at the LA Film Fest, REDCAT.
Flickchart ranking: 1128 out of 2990

Dead Man’s Burden

The description “indie revenge western” used for this film in the LA Film Festival guide made me equally intrigued and wary – intrigued because I really, really like westerns and I’m always glad to see more of them (and it seems non-indie filmmakers are rarely interested in them) and wary because I’ve see some number of really underwhelming indie westerns, and the trailer for the film did nothing to alleviate that wariness, appearing to be poorly paced and with awkward acting. I’m very glad to say that the trailer undersells the film completely. The odd pacing and acting is nowhere to be found in the actual movie, which is an extremely solid tale of a post-Civil War scrapper family and their individual quests for revenge and making their own lives. Claire Bowen (soon to be seen in ABC’s fall show Nashville) holds the movie together as the daughter willing to do anything to get off their family’s struggling farm and move to San Francisco, while Barlow Jacobs embodies the strong, silent type as her older brother, long thought dead, who returns to question the manner of their father’s death. It’s a relatively small and contained film for a western, but the characterizations are really strong and the story has a satisfying cyclical edge to it.

2012 USA. Director: Jared Moshe. Starring: Claire Bowen, Barlow Jacobs, David Call, Joseph Lyle Taylor, Richard Riehle.
Seen June 23 at the LA Film Fest, Regal LA Live.
Flickchart ranking: 1141 out of 2990

Unforgivable

I went into Unforgivable expecting some sort of mystery/thriller – maybe along the lines of Love Crime or something like that – but although the main character is a mystery writer working in the romantic city of Venice and there’s a plot element where he hires a detective to find his runaway daughter (and at one point, to follow his much-younger wife), that’s not really what it’s about at all. It’s an angsty yet detached relationship drama. And by “relationship,” I don’t mean the author and his wife, but all the relationships in the movie – it’s an exploration of the myriad of relationships we have with everyone around us – spouses, former lovers, former lovers of our spouses, estranged children, estranged children’s lovers, the children of our spouse’s former lovers, etc. As these characters run around, restlessly going from one place to another but rarely connecting with each other, the film feels a bit disjointed at times, like there’s no real goal or purpose to it. It’s a bit frustrating to watch at times, but it’s messy like real life is messy, and the title suggests that even though people do a lot of unforgivable things (and the characters in this movie do), maybe we have to forgive them anyway to have any kind of relationship at all.

2011 France. Director: Andr´ Téchiné. Starring: André Dussollier, Carole Bouquet, Mélanie Thierry, Adriana Asti, Mauro Conte.
Seen June 23 at the LA Film Fest, Regal LA Live.
Flickchart ranking: 1465 out of 2990

Celeste and Jesse Forever

If there’s one thing that Celeste and Jesse Forever proves, it’s that Rashida Jones is a force to be reckoned with, both as a writer and an actress. There are elements of this break-up story that didn’t entirely work for me, as it meanders around Celeste and Jesse trying to get divorced but hang on to each other at the same time, but the script (by Jones and Will McCormack) hits enough goofy comedy and emotional truths to make it worthwhile, and the chemistry between Jones and Samberg is perfect for the film. In thinking back over it, I think really it has subplot-itis – there are a few too many of them (friends getting married, Celeste’s job promoting a young pop singer, a drug dealer friend) and though they do parallel the main plot, it’s just a bit much. When it focuses in on how this couple who seems so perfect for each other break up and try to move on with their lives, it’s pretty solid and shows a perspective that not many romantic comedy/dramas do, which is refreshing. Full review on Row Three

2012 USA. Director: Lee Toland Kreiger. Starring: Rashida Jones, Andy Samberg, Will McCormack, Emma Roberts, Elijah Wood, Ari Graynor.
Seen June 9 at the Vista.
Flickchart ranking: 1490 out of 2990

The Showdown

This late silent Red Dust-wannabe takes most of the cast from Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld, but not von Sternberg himself, and it kind of shows. A young man and his wife head down to the tropics to try to make their fortune in oil (or at least make enough to pay off his debts), but though they’re received warmly by his brother, who’s already down there, they’re greeted by a lot more suspicion and ridicule by the established oil driller (Bancroft), who is pretty sure this is not the place for a genteel woman like Evelyn Brent. He’s fine with saloon dancer Goldie, though, who he clearly has a prior relationship with and clashes with Brent immediately. The film has some humorous moments, and despite the inherent sexism in the plot, I appreciated that Bancroft’s character manages to fall in love with Brent’s while also caring deeply about protecting her from the advances of the other men in the area, including himself. It’s impossible not to want to compare it to Red Dust, and that film is so much more fun and rich with sly innuendo that this one can’t help but suffer in comparison. Even taken on its own, one wishes it HAD been directed by von Sternberg, who at least would’ve brought some sumptuous beauty to this exotic location and story of hot-running passions; instead, it’s a bit too slowly paced and dry.

1928 USA. Director: Victor Schertzinger. Starring: George Bancroft, Evelyn Brent, Neil Hamilton.
Seen June 6 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 1983 out of 2990

The Call of Cthulhu

A short film (about 45 minutes) that uses silent-film techniques to tell the story of the irresistible call of Cthulhu on various groups of men. I’m not very familiar myself with the works of H.P. Lovecraft, but my husband likes him a lot. I was definitely intrigued by the premise of this, and found a lot to like in the stylistic touches and almost Victorian approach to the story (in terms of the men telling the story being right out of Jules Verne, almost). My attention did begin to waver, though, as it went on, despite its short length. And even though they did a good job of evoking silent film elements, I couldn’t shake the awareness that it was an imitation. The German Expressionist sets were a little TOO Expressionist (as much as I love Expressionism) and didn’t jive that well with the very British-feeling frame story. In short, it’s a fine experiment and I’m glad they went for it, but it’s trying a bit too hard to hit every silent film trope it can think of, to the point where it doesn’t feel organic.

2005 USA. Director: Andrew Leman. Starring: Matt Foyer, John Bolen, Ralph Lucas.
Seen June 4 on Netflix Instant Watch.
Flickchart ranking: 2205 out of 2990

What I Thought Was Okay

Bunohan: Return to Murder

I’ll be honest, I saw this at a late screening and I was zoning a bit throughout it. That said, really good late movies manage to snap me out of it, but this one never quite did. It has a promising premise, of a crime syndicate on the border between Thailand and Malaysia, the hitman who’s sent after someone that turns out to be his own brother, and the third brother who’s trying to turn a business profit with a boxing club in their home town of Bunohan (which means “murder” in Malay). There’s a lot of intergenerational stuff going on as well, as the enterprising brother clashes with their traditional father, who still believes in the magic of the land and refuses to sell to a development company. But the hitman brother gets all introspective and gets totally immersed in finding out about his mother (a different woman than his brother’s mother) and the plotting gets very convoluted as the crime syndicate gets all tied up with the boxing club and it would’ve been difficult to keep straight even when awake. Half asleep, I didn’t have a chance, and I didn’t care enough about the story and characters to make much of an effort. Maybe someday I’ll give it another shot, because I do think there’s a germ of an interesting story here, but I came out pretty disappointed.

2011 Malaysia. Director: Dain Said. Starring: Zahiril Adzim, Faizal Hussein.
Seen June 17 at the LA Film Festival, Regal LA Live.
Flickchart ranking: 1952 out of 2990

Four Rooms

A four-part anthology film, with segments directed by Allison Anders, Alexandre Rockwell, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino. All four parts are set in a hotel, tied together by the bellhop played by Tim Roth, in one of the most idiosyncratic and frankly odd performances I’ve ever seen anybody give in any more. Not necessarily in a good way. The first two shorts (by Anders and Rockwell) are fairly forgettable and somewhat grating, but as expected, the two by Rodriguez and Tarantino aren’t bad. I particularly liked Rodriguez’s, with Antonio Banderas leaving his kids alone in the hotel room after tasking the bellhop to keep an eye on them once in a while. Mayhem insues, and the pacing and build-up in this section is pretty awesome. Tarantino’s gets a bit self-indulgent, even for him, but has a few hilarious moments.

1995 USA. Directors: Alison Anders, Alexandre whatever, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantion. Starring: Tim Roth, Antonio Banderas, Quentin Tarantino, Madonna, Ione Skye.
Seen June 10 on Netflix Instant Watch.
Flickchart ranking: 2420 out of 2990

What I Didn’t Like

Alien 3

There were things I liked about this film – the rusty, derelict look of the prison, the characterization of Clemens (and of the crazy guy, Golic), and especially the effects on the creature, who is given more screen time here than in Alien and yet it works beautifully. Most of the scenes with the alien on-screen were great. In concept, I liked the endlessly downer aspect of it, especially in contrast to the survival-at-all-costs and balls-to-the-wall action of the first two films. But it also felt like a kick in the pants ALL THE WAY THROUGH, and I can’t say I enjoyed that, even if I appreciated on some level just the mere fact that it was different from the first two. The biggest problem I had with it is just that it’s friggin messy, and not messy in a glorious way. Messy in a confusing, what’s going on, who are these people and why do I care, and oh my god, why does it take TEN HOURS of apparent screen time to get anything done at all. We watched the extended cut, so yeah, it’s 30-40 minutes longer, I guess, but I’d heard this was actually supposed to fix the pacing issues and give us more characterization and more reason to care about all the inmates. I still couldn’t differentiate any of them except Golic from all the others, and I had no empathy with any of them. I still cared about Ripley, I guess, but she was so much at the end of her rope (understandably so, and I appreciated that shift in her character from “never say die” to “to hell with it”) that I couldn’t care much about her survival or lack of survival either, because she didn’t. The only thing I cared about, in fact, was seeing the warden get eaten so he would shut the hell up. After that happened (sorry, spoiler), I had trouble staying interested at all.

1992 USA. Director: David Fincher. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Charles Dance, Paul McGann, Brian Glover, Christopher John Fields.
Seen June 9 on Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 2067 out of 2990

Rewatches – Really Liked

Celine and Julie Go Boating

Finally had a chance to see this without distractions (previous two viewings were on shitty inter-library-loaned VHS and I could NOT concentrate, even though I liked and was intrigued by the parts I actually paid attention to). And I’m so glad I did – this movie works much better when you’re actually paying attention to all 3 hours and 13 minutes of it. It actually doesn’t feel nearly that long, despite Rivette taking his time with each scene and including a lot of things that don’t seem to directly relate to the narrative. In fact, the main story that’s likely to be synopsized (if anyone is foolish enough to try to synopsize this film) doesn’t even get going until almost 2 hours in. But the film is entertaining anyway, and with a sense of absurd fun that’s pretty infectious. I won’t claim to understand it completely yet, but the themes of doubling and switching, of storytelling and identity are fascinating and fun. It’s a shame this film (and Rivette’s work in general) isn’t more readily available.

1974 France. Director: Jacques Rivette. Starring: Juliet Berto, Dominique Labourier, Bulle Ogier, Marie-France Pisier, Barbet Schroeder.
Seen June 13 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 433 out of 2990

Alien

The first time I saw Alien several years ago, I came out distinctly underwhelmed. I’m pretty sure it was a VHS copy, or at least first-gen DVD at the best, and I didn’t care for how it looked (I know, right? Sacrilege), I didn’t think it was that scary, and I thought it tried too hard to be scary to be interesting in any other ways. At least I liked it better this time! Having a pristine Blu-ray copy helped a lot, as well as being more familiar with horror tropes and the history of the horror genre, and thus better able to place Alien within that. Also, I saw Aliens in between and enjoyed that one, so I had a bit more investment in the universe this time around. I still wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of the franchise, since I rather prefer my sci-fi to be sci-fi and not horror, but I appreciate what Alien is doing, how groundbreaking it is, and I think for what it is, it’s pretty darn near perfect at it. But I still think she should’ve just left the damn cat. And I like cats.

1979 USA. Director: Ridley Scott. Starring: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, John Hurt, Harry Dean Stanton.
Seen June 2 on Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 691 out of 2990

  • http://www.bonjourtristesse.net/ Bonjour Tristesse

    I haven’t seen very many of these. Actually just the last 4.

    Four Rooms: I love the Rodriguez segment. Banderas is hilarious in it.

    Aliens 3: I’m struggling to remember anything besides bald Ripley and the dystopian setting.

    Celine and Julie: Love this. So hypnotic and fun. Rivette for me is the most enjoyable director to come from the New Wave. He makes a 3 or 4 hour film fly by faster than your average 90 minute one. I’m deeply sad that he won’t be making any more films.

    Alien: A flawless example of the genre. I should really pick up this Blu-Ray.

    • http://www.the-frame.com/blog Jandy

      A lot of these are festival films, and LA Film Fest films to boot. Easy Money is getting wide distribution here, and so is Celeste and Jesse Forever in a few weeks, and I imagine Unforgivable will make the international fest rounds, but LA Film Fest tends to get more regional stuff that never goes much of anywhere. It’s kind of frustrating because there are usually some real gems in there, like The History of Future Folk, that I can’t find ANYBODY else who’s seen.

      Agreed, the Rodriguez segment is easily the standout of Four Rooms. I struggled through some of the others, though. Celine and Julie gets better every time I watch it – I was pretty tired the night I saw it this time, but even so, it didn’t feel like nearly as long as it is. I haven’t managed to see any other Rivette films, though – they seem to be kind of difficult to track down.