My Month in Film: April 2014

This month I published full write-ups of C.H.U.D., Contracted and The Hanover House. I also attended the 2014 Sci-Fi Spectacular, watching a pile of films including Pan’s LabyrinthThe Dead Zone, LegendKing Kong vs. Godzilla and three of my all-time faves: Night of the Living DeadEscape from New York, and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension.

The films featured in episode 27 of the Forced Viewing Podcast were C.H.U.D. (my pick), Bad Milo (Jori’s pick), and Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark (the Drudgeon’s pick). Zeb and John joined us for that episode.

Other films I saw include…

nebraska

Nebraska (Alexander Payne, 2013)

Bruce Dern’s Woody Grant, the driving character of Nebraska if not its actual protagonist, is convinced he’s just won a million dollars in a fictitious equivalent of a Publishers’ Clearing House sweepstakes, and I spent the entire film wondering if he was senile, a gullible fool, or just outright stupid.

Indeed, Nebraska seems to hold its less sophisticated characters–pretty much everyone not played by Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte and Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk in thinly veiled contempt, or maybe that’s just me. And director Alexander Payne’s decision to film a $17 million movie in black-and-white might be a pretentious move, or it could be that I’m a cynic.

Whatever the case may be, Nebraska largely works, because despite my doubts about the (possibly figurative) film stock the cinematography is impeccable, and my distaste for the characters is offset by insightful characterization and brilliant performances by the ensemble, especially Dern, June Squibb (rightfully nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar) and an unrecognizable Stacy Keach.

Basically, it’s an entire film that works on “fridge logic”: it’s a real treat to watch, but it’s only later that you start to have doubts about it. Or at least, I did. It could be that I’m just reading too much into things.

My rating: Pro.

Jodorowsky's Dune

Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013)

In the early-to-mid-’70s, surrealist filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky gathered in Paris an impressive collection of visionaries, geniuses and weirdos–comics wunderkind Jean “Mœbius” Giraud, science-fiction painter Chris Foss, macabre artist H.R. Giger, effects designer Dan O’Bannon–to assemble a series of concept paintings and storyboards for a proposed film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. Ideally, the film would have starred Orson Welles, Salvador Dalí, David Carradine and Udo Kier, and featured a soundtrack supplied by Pink Floyd and French avant-jazz-rockers Magma.

Jodorowsky’s stated ambition for the project was nothing less than the creation of the cinematic equivalent of a “prophet” that would expand and enlighten the minds of the world’s youth. Yet no major Hollywood studio was ultimately willing to give Jodo $15 million to make a potentially twelve-hour-long, heavily mystical film adaptation of an already dense novel.

So would Jodo’s Dune have been an all-time classic or an exorbitant, highly personal boondoggle? Whichever, at least it would have been beautiful–this documentary offers reams of Giraud’s storyboards and Foss and Giger’s concept art as evidence. Jodorowsky is an engaging storyteller, although some of his claims are highly suspect. (In the early-to-mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were looking to shed, not reinforce, their reputation as the sort of band that would have done music for Dune.)

Most of the other talking heads aren’t as compelling and don’t offer much in the way of dissent. Jodorowsky’s Dune is as much about the legend of Jodo as it is about the movie he never got to make.

But the real moral of the story is the film’s final assertion: that this version of Dune could be one of the most important films in history–not despite never having been made, but because of it. When O’Bannon was finally able to get Alien into production, he brought Giger, Foss and Giraud on board. And flipping through the widely-circulated book of storyboards and concept art reveals a lot of similarities between Jodo’s visions and films later made by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis.

My rating: Pro.

Mega Shark vs Mecha Shark

Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark (Emile Edwin Smith, 2014)

The third entry in the Mega Shark franchise is boilerplate Asylum: ridiculous situations, logical flaws, poor acting, miserable direction and laughable effects.

But these elements aren’t the true source of film’s badness. Instead–and this is par for the course when it comes to the Asylum–it’s the studio’s trademark contempt for the viewer that does Mecha Shark in. It’s guaranteed an audience no matter how bad it is, so why even bother trying to entertain?

Other than three or maybe four scenes, it’s a long, dull slog, punctuated by the occasional incoherent effects sequence.

Plus, it speaks volumes that the majority of the film’s significant body count comes not from the megalodon but from the “heroes'” incompetent handling of the Mecha Shark.

My rating: Con.

Cheerleader Massacre

Cheerleader Massacre (Jim Wynorski, 2002)

From what I can tell this is the same thing Wynorski always does these days. As an excuse to get some attractive glamor models naked (Charity Rahmer FTW), it just about does the job, but it’s not much of a movie.

My rating: Con.

The Fountain

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

I’m still not entirely clear how Aronofsky’s most personal and daring film up to that point managed to end up a critically lambasted flop (Richard Corliss, I will never forgive you!), but them’s the breaks.

It’s not my favorite Aronofsky and it’s certainly not his best, but I will always have a soft spot in my heart for it. It is beautiful, and thought-provoking, and lyrical, and Steven McHattie is in it. Plus, Rachel Weisz is in it and she has short hair. Oh, Rachel Weisz, why can’t you be mine? I mean, you’re married to Daniel Craig, but that’s hardly an excuse.

The only flaw I can find in it is that I’m not sure how a lot of the conquistador/Mayan stuff fits together. That is, I mean I know how the whole thing relates to the overarching story, but there are individual bits within the sixteenth-century material that I don’t understand the importance of.

But overall, an astounding achievement from one of the leading lights of that generation of filmmakers.

My rating: Pro.

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club (Jean-Marc Valée, 2013)

Adam Cadre has this theory that filmgoers are more interested in films, not for effects or actors or story, but as vehicles for a specific defining element. If I recall right, his examples are that Jurrasic Park is a delivery vector for credible CGI dinosaurs and Capote is a delivery vector for the late Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance in the title role.

On that count, Dallas Buyers Club succeeds as a delivery vector for the performances of Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto. From what I’ve seen of the 2013 Oscar winners, Leto definitely deserved his statue. I was also impressed with McConaughey, although I’m not sure I agree with his win.

Unfortunately those two performances are the only things I liked about Dallas Buyers Club. I’m not at all comfortable with how it warps the life story of Ron Woodroof to serve its agenda of providing its audience a hollow journey from obnoxious homophobe to profiteering rascal to folk hero crusading against the generic, faceless, fictional minions of Big Pharma and the FDA.

I’m not saying that AZT was actually the be-all and end-all of AIDS treatments, or that Burroughs-Wellcome’s motive in developing it wasn’t primarily driven by profit. I don’t know enough about the science to have an informed opinion. But I do know that the situations were very complex, and this reductionist, crowd-pleasing approach does the real people who lived through the AIDS epidemic of the mid-’80s a disservice.

My rating: Mixed.

August: Osage County

August: Osage County (John Wells, 2013)

August: Osage County is another one of those films where tragedy brings a family together so they can scream at each other for two hours, but it has two aces in its hole. First, an ensemble that’s the cinematic equivalent of the 1992 US men’s Olympic basketball team. Okay, maybe there’s some hyperbole in that last sentence–I’m not sure many would draft Juliette Lewis or Dermot Mulroney for an actors’ Dream Team–but there is so much heavyweight acting in August that, had it been released in a lesser year, it would have scored more acting nominations.

I mean, the weakest performance in the film comes from Benedict Cumberbatch. Benedict Cumberbatch! When it comes to acting, this film brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “embarrassment of riches.”

But the film really needs that skilled ensemble, because of its second selling point: Tracy Letts’s script, adapted from his own stage play. It’s filled with often unlikeable characters navigating uncomfortable family situations, and you need a cast that can bring enough humanity to characters that could easily come off as obnoxious, shrill creeps.

I’m tempted to dock it points because of some of the too-obvious plot developments–of course Ewan McGregor is banging a younger woman! of course Dermot Mulroney is angling to molest Abigail Breslin!–but for the most part August is a realistic portrayal of dysfunctional dynamics delivered by a cast that does a great job of hanging together like a credible dysfunctional family.

My rating: Pro.

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