Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Step Up 3-D (2010, Chu)

Rating: *1/2

You better learn how to duck if you’re planning to see Step Up 3-D in a theater, because there’s plenty of dodging ahead of you. Apart from the stock comin’-atcha effects that seem inevitable in a square and unimaginative 3-D movie like this one, you’re gonna have loads and loads of bullshit (or “B.S.”, to quote the MPAA-savvy baddie of the piece) thrown your way.

As a musical, the movie harkens back to the oldest, basest (and best) plot elements: it’s a crossover between the breakthrough-show-saved-in-the-last-minute populism of 42nd Street (1933) and the let’s-put-on-a-show-in-a-barn uplift of the Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney innocuous entertainment. These recognizable and cozy mechanisms don’t take off, though. For them to work, one would need characterizations, snappy dialogue and spirit, all sadly lacking from this staggering  piece of glossy and brand-infested schlock.

The actors don’t act or even make turns; they simply get a supermodel-treatment while reciting the worse imaginable dialogue. The lines are laced with words like “truth”, “self” and “discovery”, and when the girl says to the boy, after seeing his sub-YouTube documentary: “You’re a filmmaker”, she unwittingly confuses a name of a profession with a profound compliment. Step Up 3-D is a filmmakers’ film (some of the effects are great and the long take of an old-fashioned dance number by the ice-cream stand is actually stunning), but it lacks a director, a personality, even a tone.

When Adam G. Sevani (a walking Carravaggio dream boy, if there ever was one) dances his updated Fred Astaire routine, it’s joyous enough, even though the choreography lacks shape. But nothing can really redeem a movie that goes in for its kill in a sequence of squirting CGI-soda up into the air on the top of a giant fan, all filmed in a TV-ad orgiastic frenzy of wild camera swirl.

As the characters would probably say to the director: “You’re not real, you’re not yourself, and you’re hurting me.”

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Don't Cry (1972, Królikiewicz)

Rating: ****

As a group of young men has some fun and then leaves for their basic training, the genders dilute, beads of sweat proliferate, violence and tenderness become one, all culminating in a delirious (and undoubtedly vodka-fueled) train station farewell.

Grzegorz Królikiewicz’s tense, enigmatic and voluptuous short masterpiece, Don’t Cry (1972), leaves one with an insatiable yearning for more, and yet it is perfectly self-contained. With its refusal to guide the viewer towards comprehension, and its blatantly confrontational musique concrète soundtrack, Królikiewicz pushes his documentary into the realm of abstraction so intense, it’s almost abusive. Right from the very first shot of free-floating, long-haired heads turning into visual blots, it’s the mere surface of things that cries out to be acknowledged and perceived in its nakedness.

To say that the movie is dream-like isn’t enough; Don’t Cry feels like a recurring dream.

Of all the directors of the so-called Polish New Wave (Skolimowski, Polański, Zanussi), it’s Królikiewicz who most painfully lacks exposure both in his native country and elsewhere. Soon, I’ll be posting some fragments of his feature-length masterpiece, Through and Through (1973). Meanwhile, here’s the full version of Don’t Cry:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967, Swift)

Rating: **

With his rabbit teeth and flat, helmet-like hair, Robert Morse looks like a tamer version of Jerry Lewis in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967). Indeed, the character he plays isn’t unlike the persona Jerry so often brought to life: more efficient, true – but for the most part as clueless and entirely dependent on external sources of authority (in this case, on the eponymous handbook). Morse’s character, J. Pierpont Finch, is part ruthless, part hapless – once set on the fast track of career-climbing, he sticks slavishly to whatever he reads in his little book, and it is the movie’s great unresolved puzzle what makes him so endearing to Rosemary (Michelle Lee). (Or rather, by what means does the initial endearment hold up, since J.’s actions reveal nothing but a single-minded drive to upgrading his professional status.)

Less an executive Candide than a sunny Julien Sorel, Finch has remarkably few tricks up his sleeve to buttress his way up, and thus the subsequent steps in his climb strike one as rather mechanical and dull. People Finch flatters have their defenses way down all the time, and cling automatically to mere hints of sympathy, common interests, or shared past that Finch throws at them.

Towards the end, Rosemary’s sunny virtue triumphs over Finch’s sunny drive, with the embarrassingly literal “Brotherhood of Men” number to seal the deal. The movie, as crude and pasted together as it is, serves best as a showcase for Morse’s remarkable responsiveness and humor, both of which can be wasted away, but still shine beautifully.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Raging Bull Redux

Here’s a video I shot & edited, featuring my university professor, Patrick Vaughan. Enjoy!

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Tuesday, After Christmas (2010, Muntean)

Rating: ****

Tuesday, After Christmas (2010) is cut so casually and paced so dutifully that its heavy reliance on extremely long takes doesn’t strike the viewer as extravagant or even exceptional. As the director Radu Muntean slowly dissects a love triangle involving a cheating husband, his wife and his gullible young lover, we expect violent outburst of emotion at any given moment. It doesn’t come, or at least it’s not served the way violent outbursts usually are. The film’s dramatic centerpiece – an eight-minute-long take showing husband’s confession and his wife’s response – traverses all possible emotions from irony to hysteria, and yet doesn’t feel manipulative or artificially condensed.

The film is as much about infidelity as it is about the day-to-day distribution of information that we perform at all times. Muntean deliberately starts off with a tender love scene, only to reveal through a casual cut that it was actually depicting an act of cheating. As we’re forced to figure out the exact geography of the husband’s lies, we are semi-complicit with him – nowhere is it more evident than in the long scene of the conversation between the (then unaware) wife and the high-strung lover, with the husband quietly soaking into the background, the way we already have when we decided to buy the ticket and take a seat.