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Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Favorite 'What the F' Moments in Film

What is the reason I didn't call this blog Biggest Mindfucks? Simply for the sake of discretion, not wanting to offend anyone, and to make the site seem more professional. Clearly this is what it is, well maybe not clearly- but it will become clear as more and more words eschew from my fingertips and onto the screen.

Before I present my top 3 biggest mindfucks (I'm not rolling out a top 10 because a GOOD mindfuck is few and far between, and I wanted to represent that) a quick definition and an even quicker caveat. Mindfuck is a pretty self-explanatory term. Let me explain it anyway: Mindfucks occur when a film (or really any medium) when all perceived notions of reality have been denounced, and quickly. It usually takes about 2-5 minutes for this all to occur, and by the end of it another, unexpected, reality is true.

Now, as with all lists, some rules/ guidelines that have unfortunately been followed. First, I could only include films that I have actually seen. That means no Memento, Sixth Sense, Mulholland Drive or Cars 2 (just kidding... but not really). Second, there is a severe breach of the Thou Shall Not Spoil Film's with Plot Twists commandment, for all the films, so if you haven't seen one of the movies, and you don't want it spoiled for ya, don't read it! Otherwise, it's all good and it's time to jump in.

Let's start with the two Honorable Mentions (it's the law of lists, there have to be Honorable Mentions...):

Fight Club (1999)-
I felt so bad about leaving this off the top 3- because its such a good mindfuck-but, as will be made clear in moments, I didn't want to lose the credibility of my choices by picking two apples that fell close to the same tree. Fight Club is an incredible piece of material (based on the book by Chuck Palahniuk- which everyone should read at some point) in which Ed Norton and Brad Pitt come into constant conflict over, what else, their fight club! It isn't a narrative masterpiece but it's testosterone-fueled, comedic, attempts to obliterate capitalism comes to a head with a big mindfuck. Ed Norton IS Brad Pitt; it's shocking really as Norton shoots himself hoping to end all his lack-of-sleep-caused fantasy. I remember seeing it and thinking: "I don't know what the fuck is going on but god dam was that exciting."

A Beautiful Mind (2001)-
You can easily make the case that 2010's Shutter Island had a better-albeit similar- twist, but A Beautiful Mind did it first, and in this life timing is everything. It won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2001, certainly due in large part to the films upbeat message: 'you can accomplish anything if you put your mind to it.' But for those of us who HAVE seen the film, the films message was the last thing on our minds. It was the twist. Much like Fight Club the main character spends the entirety of the film conversing with characters who don't exist, who are fragments of a beautiful mind. The twist was not as sexy as some of the other films on this list, but it was surely a show-stopper. I loved it when I saw it in theaters, and even after all these years, well, it still holds a spot in my top 5.

Now to the big boys.

3. The Game (1997)
Your dam right that's a clown.
When I first heard about this film I thought it was about The Game- you know, the one where you can only lose by thinking about playing it? Confusing stuff. Obviously, or maybe thankfully, that is not what this film is about. It's about The Game, a game that makes life more exciting. There are no clear rules, in fact anything goes. But it's through this mystery that excitement is bread- and eventually succumbing to fear. The film is not hard to follow from a narrative standpoint; but to understand its meaning is another story. Mystery surrounds the film and we, as the audience, are intentionally kept in the dark. Until the end. Really there is no game, its all fictionalized, everything that Michael Douglas' character feared-that we feared- isn't true. In the film it's explained as a metaphor, to me it's a mindfuck.

2. Planet of the Apes (1968)
Something must have been funny.
Before Arnold ever coined the term "mindfuck" in Total Recall (just missed making this list), Charlton Heston was running around- with very little clothing- on another planet. The planet of the apes to be exact. The basic premise of this film is that a crew has crash landed on a foreign planet after a 2000 year journey through space (but not time since the crew only ages 18 months). The planet is, you guessed it, inhabited by highly sentient apes and, once Heston is captured, he plots his escape. As he runs he is eventually stopped near the edge of the ocean and the Forbidden Zone and he takes in his surroundings for the first time. What he sees is tragic. The Statue of Liberty is charred and buried in the sand. The planet of the apes is actually Earth and humanity managed to destroy itself. This film really invented the mindfuck- and the film franchise. So now we finally know who is responsible for Pirates 4.

1. Brazil (1985)
Opening sequence. Not sure where it fits in the film.
This is the film that inspired me to write this post. I didn't feel like doing an all out review of it because I had no idea what to say. It's a visual cornucopia of symbols and motifs- more appropriately it's a satire of futuristic societies and the over-reliance on machines/ technology. Jonathan Pryce's character, Sam, runs amok among the ignorant government attempting to chase him down, really just making everyone look foolish. It's a metaphor for the ineptitude of society but the satirical elements leave the film with a highly entertaining and hilarious 145 minutes- as well as a best writing Oscar. Cut in between moments of action and romance are dream sequences. These dreams usually feature a woman- a real woman as luck would have it- and the film follows his attempt to meet her and try to understand the connection between his brain and reality. What makes this film a mindfuck? Well, about 2/3 of the way through the film Sam is tortured for misusing his government position. A cavalcade of his friends comes to bust him out, and just when he ends up with the girl of his dreams the film cuts back to the torture: Sam is catatonic and singing "Aquarela do Brazil." So what was real? What was fake? What was a dream? We don't know. I guess It's a metaphor- because if I've learned anything from this, it's that all twists have a double meaning. At least that's what I think. I don't really know.

I'm so confused.

Here is a rendition of the famous song "Aquarela do Brasil." It's not like in the film (the horn sound is louder in the film), but you'll get the picture.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Decline of Cinema: Part I -- 3D

Since I'm so pressed for time these days, what with my summer job heating up and my need to see enough of my friends before they head back to school, I didn't have enough time to actually write this review in 3D. But fret not, with the power of technology on my side, I will be able to convert my words into shockingly disappointing 3 dimensions- the only thing is... its going to cost an extra 5 dollars to read this post. Sorry (I'm not sorry).

3D is the newest trend in Hollywood these days, replacing both botox and Zach Galifianakis' hot streak. But the jury is already out on how these big, expensive, 3D films will affect cinema: negatively.

Really the effects driven films that we see today are a result of two main forces: technology and piracy (or really people's adaptation to technology). Both of these factors contribute mightily into what gets put on screen and how people will react to it.

Remind me again why I'm watching Jonas Brothers: A 3D concert experience?
With each passing day, month, year, technology improves and things that were once cutting edge are now garbage. Literally. Go Green! But this new technology offers, to those of us who are lucky enough to enjoy it, fantastically advanced sense capabilities: seeing, hearing, and even smelling (they are working on smell-o-vision... look it up!) to the point where going to the movies has become more of an experience than a social gathering spot. For the average person, and by no means do I mean the devoted cinema goer, what is the point of spending 10 dollars a month for AMC (the television network) just to watch Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Killing, or Walking Dead- shows that NO ONE watches but are quality- when they could spend their hard earned cash on 15 dollar tickets to see, in no particular order, Cats and Dogs: the Revenge of Kitty Galore, Step Up 3D, Legend of the Guardians, Yogi Bear, Sucker Punch, Priest... you get the picture. Right?

It is one thing to say that these movies are bad (which they are), but it is a different thing entirely to say that 3D adds little to nothing to a film. I saw Toy Story 3 last summer, in 3D, and I just felt dirty leaving the theater knowing that nothing about the film was special because it was in 3D. I loved the film, it made me cry and hurt so good at the same time, but it ripped me off. Of 3D films that I can remember, only a select few were actually WORTH it. Avatar for one: say what you want about the film but it was awesome seeing it like that, it definitely made it better. Another classic had to be Spy Kids 3... wait, no, that can't be right.

Hollywood has turned into a 5 year old: simply doing things because they can and not necessarily because they are good ideas. I ask any executive at Legendary Pictures or Warner Brothers to look at me with a straight face and tell me that it was in the best interest of the public for Clash of the Titans (2010) to be converted into 3D. I say it can't be done... but the challenge is out there. I guess it figures into the money side of it (shame on me for taking THIS long to bring it up) and how only movies with explosions, cliched plots, and even cheesey one-liners, make any money- not only make money... but open big! You (my reader) can shake your head all you want at that last sentence but the sad part is, well, that it's true. Even if you don't want to believe it.

Obviously with the inflated ticket prices it had to be the case- 3D's make more money. 5 years ago you might say that making money off a behemoth, like Green Lantern let's say, was quite like fishing with dynamite, in that it was so successful ALL the time.

Like most red-blooded Americans, I too enjoy watching previews for movies before I actually watch the movie I paid to see. Something about it is just so enjoyable. The best part is that different movies have different previews- and different previews mean's more excitement. DVD's are the same, except those previews are like a time machine back to whatever year the movie came out. I watched Dodgeball recently and laughed so hard when the preview for Pauley Shore is Dead came on. It's funny because his career died and that was his last hope, saved forever in my DVD collection. But, as with all DVD's, there is a preview that everyone has come to know (and skip ASAP) as soon as it comes on. The one about piracy, right? It's different depending on how old the film is, but the message is always the same: Privacy is stealing- you wouldn't steal a car would ya?

But it is a real problem- people do it. And they do it often. It drains money out of the Hollywood system and really ruins Independently financed films, and often the careers of their shephards. By a show of hands, who when to go and see Everything Must Go? Midnight in Paris? 13 Assassins? I can go on... The Tree of Life? The Trip? Beginners? Or Submarine? All critically acclaimed, next to none widely seen.

But the system can't be blamed here. In fact, Hollywood is doing everything they can to solve this problem- it just consists (or consisted) of running out special effects laden shit-shows (read: films) hoping that the audience would show just because the film looks so dadgumm awesome. Well, the results don't lie: it worked. Or at least it was working until people started to realize how bad the movies they were paying to see were. That's when Hollywood's version of the Great Depression set in. All these shitty films had been green-lighted but no one wanted to see them. They wanted to see something quality. Remember those Fantastic 4 movies? Me either...

It seems as if there has been a severe changing of the guard in Hollywood. Quality over spectacle, just as long as they are mixed. The summer season this year, a season usually reserved for bad films that somehow manage to take 15 dollars from your wallet, has been good. Above average probably, if only because Green Lantern and Hangover 2 stunk up the joint, but surprisingly quality nonetheless.

So, yes, 3D has done nothing good for our beloved movies thus far. And one can easily argue that 3D is a terrible trend in Hollywood (in that it adds little to nothing to the movie going experience), and that it pushes out other, smaller, talented individuals. But what it does do, and what it can do, is expand the possibilities of what film can be. It's a whole new world.

But until then I wait with bated breath for Green Lantern 2: The First Wasn't Good But We Made a Sequel Anyway in 3D and IMAX.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

'The Hangover: Part II' Review

There is a bit from comedian Jim Gaffigan where he mocks American society by saying that people here are so dumb that they buy bottled water when they can just get it from any tap for free... Had to be there I guess.

This bit was the first thing I thought about after I saw The Hangover: Part II. Says one studio exec, "How stupid do I think the movie going public is? I think we can get them to see the exact same movie they paid for in 2009." Well, I guess roughly 120 million in domestic grosses thus far tells a pretty sad picture: Americans are that dumb, present company included.
You say, Let's be reasonable, everyone with a brain could have told you that this was going to be a financial success but a critical disaster. Todd Phillips is not actually the genius everyone anointed him to be. He is, realistically, a nobody who hit gold with Hangover but, who, otherwise would be hard pressed to hit bronze. And granted yes, that is a fair point, but my displeasure with the film goes outside the plot, or message, or anything that the film is about; my fault with this film is so much deeper. My fault is with the Hollywood system and how a film like this is allowed to exist.

Pick on someone my own size? You're telling me... I'll try to keep my eye on the prize:

We had a sick night, bitches!
  • This is a review of The Hangover: Part II
  • This is a review of The Hangover: Part II
  • This is a review of The Hangover: Part II

Ok, I'm ready.

After The Hangover (2009) grossed the most money ever for a rated R comedy, its sequel was put on the fast track for quick production. It was such a cash cow that for every month Warner Brothers had to wait for its release, an angel lost its wings. Things were getting serious. But along it came, and the anticipation mounted, until finally the first trailer was released to the public. But then came the crucial mistake- at least from a marketing perspective.

Do you remember what made the first one a good watch? The mystery of it all. It was satisfying when we finally figured out what happened to these guys and we actually cared when they found Doug. Not so in the sequel. This time they loose someone else (the brides brother) but we can care less. He is not important in the scheme of things, and saving him isn't given enough clout in the story. It just doesn't work well. Plus the trailers gave too much away. People were going to be seeing this anyway, what is the purpose of showing everybody just how similar the two films were are?

It may be a comedy, but also is supposed to be a story. But there is no good story to be told in this second part. Its like the guy at a party who follows up someone's recollection of an interesting event with, "Something like that happened to me once, only it was a little different." No one cares what he has to say and eventually he is shunned from the conversation. Well, welcome to the life of Todd Phillips.

He could have done it right, and to say otherwise is ignorant. Maybe he was pushed too hard by Warners to get it done quickly- I'll probably never know. What I do know is that I paid 11 dollars for a piece of junk film that should never existed. There must be such a premium on new ideas that people in power have to continuously beat dead horses again and again just to turn a profit. People will pay to see Hangover 2 and Shrek 4 but they won't pay to see King's Speech or The Tree of Life- its the truth.

If you agree with that last sentence, well, your wrong. Every year production company executives get together and come up with a list of the 50 best screenplays that have yet to be produced- its called the Blacklist- and I'm going to assume (actually its pretty dam obvious) that some of those writings are more worthy of a silver screen appearance than The Hangover: Part II. Get out of here.

Obviously it comes down to money, and how the public's perception can guarantee it. The original Hangover made a killing, and was well reviewed. Making a sequel was is like playing with house money. They knew they were going to make it back- it was destined to happen. Take College Republicans on the other hand (Number 1 on the 2011 Black List): it could be quality, it probably is quality, but the market for it (a cunning political strategy type film) is unknown. Hence, why make it? If we are going to buy bottled water instead of drinking it from the tap, well, why not sell it?

3/10 -- Just Say No.

Here is that Jim Gaffigan bit for those who are interested:

Saturday, June 4, 2011

'The Tree of Life' Review

The title is a bit of a misnomer, and by that I mean this isn't actually going to be a review of the new Terence Malick film, The Tree of Life, instead it will be more of a critical response. But truer to the point, it is a collection of thoughts and responses to one of the most evocative films I have ever had the pleasure to see. It might not flow, it might not be poetic, but (I think) it gives a pretty accurate representation of this film. It, the film, doesn't exist to entertain, like so many other Hollywood films; it exists to ignite conversation, to spark thought processes, it exists to ask highly philosophic questions in its search for an answer.

How does it all begin? With a spark? With a fire that ignites life? The Tree of Life opens with a shot of what looks like a flickering flame. Light meaning life.

The meaning of life? C'mon, its not brain surgery...
Written and directed by the enigma that is Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life attempts to answer life's most oft asked question: why? A haughty premise. Malick's way of doing this is by examining the ornate relationships between father/mother and son, and between man and god; tracking how they develop through the years as a son grows to become a man and tracking how his (supposed) new experiences shepherd his beliefs. And it is within this idea that I feel the film suffers. There is not enough closure, or really any link, between the protagonist, Jack, as a child and as an adult (played by Sean Penn). Obviously he doesn't find the answer to any of the lofty questions, all of which he asks himself at the beginning, but we are left with no definitive answer to suggest that Jack understood anything. But to be quite honest (and the tiniest bit fair) this film does not have the story structure that we are all used to. No X wants This, Y wants That but they are in conflict so only one person can get what she or he wants. No, you won't find that here. What you will find is a film that searches for answers. However, its just convenient (or random) that Brad Pitt and Sean Penn are in it- by no means is this an A-List movie. In fact they don't need to be, it's almost as if they stick out too much and deter viewers away from what the film wants. Only Brad Pitt, and one of the child actors, has anything that resembles a character. This film wants to exist for itself and for Malick, the fact that this film is seen by anybody is just an irrelevant consequence of its brilliance.

I know it sounds confusing, and maybe a bit boring- people actually fell asleep in the theater- but to understand the grand scope of this film one must first take it for what it is. This isn't an action movie, it is a question, potentially rhetorical, that offers audience members a chance to sit and think for 2+ hours about what it means to be alive. Clearly this isn't your typical Saturday night film, in fact your girlfriend might just dump you after taking her to see this, but for those of us brave (or dedicated) enough to stick it out to the bitter end, well, we can at least brag about being cultured. Even if the entire thing is an existential trip down Jack's memory lane that many won't have half the brain to understand. It's just a fact. It takes a lot of thinking.

This film is not a narrative, its not a story, its more of an avant-garde experience coming from one of our country's premier filmmakers. Its message is told more in symbols than speech, more objects than emotions, and so its interpretation is dependent on how each person sees it. That is the beauty and the folly of the film. There is no one answer to life's many questions, in fact life is different for everyone who lives it. But for a film, well, an audience needs something more tangible, something with a more concrete meaning. There needed to be more of a story linked to its existential premise to give it the weight that it should have carried. The film was great.. but it could have been better and I will believe that until I think about the film more and decide otherwise (always a possibility with me).

The one person who will get the most credit and the most blame for this film is, no surprise, Malick. In my lifetime the man has only made 3 films. 3! There is no way his career is possible unless he is every bit as talented as we are led to believe by a 30 year hiatus and then garnering 7 Oscar noms his first time back. Malick certainly delivers the directing goods here; the tone, the mood, and even the moral of the film can be felt at all times because Malick really hammers at his point. Nearly every single camera angle is slanted upwards, pointed at the heavens- the ultimate goal- and his usage of light really says more about a character than words ever could. What he attempts here is beautiful, trying to show just how interconnected life is (at least thats what I got from it... feel free to offer your own little one-line schtick here) but it never comes does come full circle. There is a scene on a beach at the end where adult Jack (Penn) runs into all of these people, his parents, his dead brother as a 8 year old, and I wasn't quite sure if that was the right way to end it. I didn't follow his progression. I believe that it was Heaven but then we cut back to reality where adult Jack is walking around a city block. For a film that CLEARLY was trying to be abstract to suddenly switch gears and justify itself... I didn't get it. And maybe that is on me and my inability to understand Malick's vision (you'd have to call it that because no other word works), but I don't think it is.

I think that Malick found his 'story' someplace he never thought he would be. It had grown too large and the only way to fix this problem was to keep adding until it made sense.

And maybe THAT is the point.

We add, and add, and add until we have no space. Until it ends. The film, our life. It fades out. There was never any meaning to it; we collect friends, jobs, maybe a spouse, and memories but ultimately nothing comes full circle. We like to try and justify that it does, maybe imagine the things we would like to see the most and prove to ourselves that what happened mattered. That it mattered to someone. But our time is up, the light wanes, and then its done.