DW: It’s a little surprising, but not unwelcome, to see an American writer and director make a film that looks and seems so much like a European thriller. I’m happy with this, as my taste in the genre veers more towards the stylized approach and psychological themes of the European thrillers than the violent and gruesome approach that seems to be dominant in the American approach. Portman has been getting a lot of praise for her role as a repressed ballerina who can’t quite rise to the demands of her role in the lead of a prestigious production, and the implication of a supernatural element to her situation, or simply her belief that there is a supernatural element, is a good thematic approach that I really would like to see handled well. Aronofsky’s work here has drawn a lot of comparisons to Roman Polanski’s work at the height of his career, and when we’re talking things like The Tenant and Repulsion, that’s a pretty high compliment for him to be getting.
KL: I’m real hot or cold on Aronofsky; I tend to find his movies either arresting or tedious in the extreme. At first I was inclined to throw this one in the latter category, until I started seeing the trailers and their hints at deep psychological trauma and surrealism. That puts me squarely on board.
I’ve also spent all this time waiting for Portman to dazzle me the way she did way back with Heat and The Professional and rarely since then. It feels like this might be the role to do it (well, this one and her upcoming role in Your Highness.) Ditto Mila Kunis. I’m frankly pretty excited for it.
Also: $20 says Kunis’s character is Tyler Durden to Natalie Portman’s Jack.
DW: Yes, the entire premise, that Santa is actually an evil Scandinavian monster, is a joke, and I’ll even concede that it probably is a pretty tasteless one at that. But, you know, after being inundated year after year after year with sappy, saccharine, cynically exploitative Christmas movies that turn “loving your fellow man” into a commercial enterprise, I’m more than eager to embrace something that gives us the flip side to that. Enough so that I’m willing to overlook the indications that the story is more than a little slight. If, indeed, it is even there at all, beyond the premise of “we found Santa and it turns out he’s evil.”
KL: Frankly this looks pretty hilarious, and I’m all for that. There seems to be a cottage industry in inverting traditional symbols of goodness and light into something else, and within that niche is the Santa Niche; guys, there are five Silent Night, Deadly Night movies.
This seems like this season’s saving grace, the one welcome turd in the punch bowl that is the holiday movie season. Every year has one, and this one is ours; do us proud, Rare Exports.
DW: It’s still remarkably rare to find a film-maker who understands that one of the most underutilized benefits of the available film-making technology is not to create an exact recreation of the actual world, or to create a fake world that looks as if it could actually be a real world, but to create a world that could only exist within a film. Speed Racer was the last film that really “got” this, and we all know how critical and audience reaction to that went down.
And when I say that I get a definite Speed Racer vibe off of this film, I mean that as a compliment, because what I see here is a beautifully realized world that is, quite explicitly, not the real world and could never be a real world. It’s stylized and surreal but still contains pieces that are recognizable and relatable. Yes, it’s going to be spectacle and eye-candy and if we’re lucky there will be a half-way decent story to go along with it.
KL: Right? These days, I’m finding myself increasingly impatient with the same-old, which is strange, given that I no longer have writing assignments to see as much stuff as possible every month. Now that my movie-going is purely elective, I’m way pickier about how I spend my time and all that money.
Which has generated some strange cinematic bedfellows for me. The Warrior’s Way qualifies: it looks like a bunch of stuff I have not seen before (or at least in awhile), and anyway it’s a hell of a lot different from anything else coming out this month. Sometimes, that’s enough.
KL: I’ll be blunt with everyone and say I’m an Angelina Jolie fan boy going way back – first noticed in Hackers, took serious hold in Playing God and there on afterward. Johnny Depp, too, is a charismatic actor and by all accounts is a genuinely decent person. And who doesn’t love intrigue and deception and the common man lured into action hijinx?
Well, me, for one. On the other hand, The Tourist‘s writer/director is Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who gave is the absolutely stunning The Lives of Others. Hope springs eternal for me even as movie after movie disappoints, so I will let this movie’s pedigree convince me in ways the premise could not.
DW: Oh, hey, they remade Gotcha!
Jolie I have no strong feelings for either pro or con, but Depp I’m starting to feel like I’ve just about reached my saturation point with. Even though I personally tend to find him more appealing when he’s doing these quieter, Everyman style roles than the big, deliberately and self-consciously “quirk” ones. So that, coupled with the broad premise being awfully similar to other films, films that I didn’t find myself particularly impressed with either, pretty much leaves me cold on this. If I absolutely must see Johnny Depp running around Europe being chased by angry people, I’ll just go watch The Ninth Gate again.
And I’m cool with that. I liked the first one OK – who doesn’t love a Tilda Swinton villain? – and I liked the second one even more. The kids are charming and natural and the setting is just different enough from the usual fantasies that I am still occasionally surprised. With fantasy franchises, that’s usually the most you can ask for.
That said, I haven’t read the books, and I think Dorian has. So…
DW: The Narnia books never really impressed me. Even as a kid, I thought Lewis’ brand of Christian allegory was needlessly hectoring, and as an adult I find his fantasy world-building a terribly clichéd mish-mash of tropes borrowed from other, better writers. Of these film adaptation, I watched the first one and thought it was pretty disappointing. It felt like it desperately wanted to have the same kind of exhaustive replication of the source material that the Harry Potter films have, and that copying that success was the only concern for the film-makers. Well, that and rather cynically exploiting Christian audiences with a fantasy film that it’s “safe” to take their children to.
I’m not really seeing anything here to convince me that their goals or ambitions are any different the third time around.
DW: I’m not a fan of Taymor’s work, and the reaction I have to this is one of the reasons why. I love The Tempest; it’s one of my favorites of Shakespeare’s plays. But there’s something curiously pedestrian about taking it and turning it into a big, flashy special effects film. Yes, the material is there to do just that to it, the play is full of magical creatures and impossible situations. But it’s a tiresomely literal take on the material. To take the things that were intended to create an impossible to realize mental picture in the audience and then actually go ahead and film it just feels, oddly, like an indication of a lack of imagination on the part of the film-makers. And then there’s the stuff that just feels off, like turning Prospero into a woman, thereby completely changing the dynamic between Prospero and Miranda that actually drives the play. It’s a peculiar change to make in light of the literalness of the rest of the film.
KL: All I’m going to say is Across the Universe was one of the more offensive movies I’ve seen in a long time, and Taymor has a lot of ground to make up for it. I get angry every time I think about it.
KL: So here’s me confessing a shameful thing: I’ve never seen the original TRON, and barring great leaps in the science of extending my attention span at home, I never will. Thus its value to me is pretty slim, and affects my judgment of what I’ve seen of the sequel almost not at all.
Here is my hope: That, as mentioned a bit further down, the filmmakers took this opportunity to make a truly surreal, unique and otherwise bonkers movie to slip into mainstream theaters. There is almost nothing movies can’t show us anymore, and video games have been eroding and evolving what storytelling is and can do for decades. These things put together could make a dynamite movie, or just a completely kick-ass action flick-slash-whatever else it is.
On the other hand: big, safe Disney sequel with blockbuster money behind it. But a man can dream, can’t he?
DW: I want to be interested in this, but I just can’t quite get there. Part of the problem, I think, is that this is a sequel to TRON. That was a great movie for a little kid who loves video-games, but as an adult it’s pretty damn flawed. And as visionary and cutting-edge as it was when it came out, those same designs, even slicked-up with state of the art CGI, now just look hopelessly dated. And not in a cool, retro-future way, but in a “wow, those are definitely some ’80s designs there” way.
So I think I’m going to file the original TRON away as a pleasant memory from my childhood and just go ahead and ignore this new one as much as possible.
DW: So, I’ve watched this trailer a couple times now, and I still have really no idea what’s going on or why I’m supposed to care. Yeah, we’ve got Paul Rudd and Reese Witherspoon in your standard meet-cute set-up, and you’ve got some broad comedy with Owen Wilson as the bumbling ex and Jack Nicholson playing straight man to Rudd, but…it just feels like a bunch of tropes and bland characters tossed together in the hopes that we’ll respond to the charisma of the actors and the reassurance that, yet again, we have a “feel-good” romantic comedy-drama for this Christmas season.
To be honest, I feel a little cheated that a film pairing Rudd and Nicholson has such meager ambitions.
KL: I think both of them are losing sight of who they are—it could be said Nicholson lost that a long time ago. A friend of mine said he’d occasionally like to quiz Paul Rudd sometimes to see if he knows what movie he’s filming at the time, because for all his charm, he really is just playing Paul Rudd in everything he’s in. And that’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a quick and easy way to the implosion of an actor’s credibility.
The trailer’s as forgettable as the apparent premise; what surprises me is that the first place I saw a stand-up for this movie is at the Magnolia Theater, which, here in Dallas, is a pretty upscale kinda-sorta art house theater. The James Brooks angle, I guess, but for every As Good As It Gets there’s a Spanglish.
Let’s go to the IMDB page. “Feeling a bit past her prime at 27…” Oh, fuck you, Hollywood.
KL: I feel like the Coen Brothers have been honing in on something their whole careers, most often in their dramas but occasionally in their comedies. They’re hacking away at concepts like justice, retribution and sin, though like most of us they ultimately can provide no answers but can only observe. Some people are good, some people are weasels, and mistakes or lapses in judgment can bring about terrible consequences. (Even Burn After Reading, their darkest and most misunderstood comedy, understands this.) Their gift is not in sermonizing but rather in sculpting perfect – and perfectly inscrutable – lessons in human behavior and the consequences thereof.
Early reviews are in on this and they’re very, very good, which is to be expected. Since No Country For Old Men they’ve been on a streak almost unlike any other in their career. On top of that, I just plain love Westerns and think they’re perfect fodder for the Coens’ particular brand of moral spelunking. This is my most anticipated movie of the year.
DW: To be honest, I don’t think I’ve really liked, unreservedly, any Coen Brothers film since Blood Simple. I get what they’re doing with their films, and I can recognize the qualities that lead other people to praise their work, but man, I dunno…I really can’t find any more positive a way to review one of them than “It was okay, I guess.”
This has a cast of actors I like and it looks like a gritty, realistic modern take on the Western. It looks okay, I guess.
KL: I guess what Gulliver’s Travels makes me realize is how special and rare a gift a movie like School of Rock is. It put its (large) child cast on equal footing with the adults and made the melding of adult and kid concerns seem effortless, indeed to the point where those concerns were not separate at all. It’s fun, funny, and even a little – dare I say it? – inspiring.
Then there’s this. There’s some pretty good talent backing up Jack Black there – Jason Segel, Emily Blunt and Billy Connolly are always welcome names. But screenwriters Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller have mostly done pretty bland film work (Yes Man, Planet 51), and director Rob Letterman’s credits are a handful of uninspiring CGI also-rans. So will this be more than Jack Black being Jack Black at some CGI? Probably not.
DW: See, a film in which Jack Black plagiarizes someone else’s work and gets a prestigious job as a writer? I’d be interested in that. That’s got potential. Jack Black doing his usual shtick in this holiday’s fart-and-poop joke movie for kids? Yeah, not so much.
And there is a lot of talent in this film. I recognized a half-dozen folks from the British comedy scene here whose work I really do like. But they’re all reduced to bit-players in the same film Black has made a few times already.