Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Musings #3: Close-Up, Air, Age of Ultron, Scooby, & Beethoven's 3rd

So I'm waiting for this Shia Labeouf live-stream to load and figured I'd drop a few ducats on all that cinema I've devoured the past 24 hours.

When I think of Iranian cinema the first name that pops up is Jafar Panahi who's films I've quite liked but now I finally got to see one from his mentor Abbas Kiarostami. Close-Up (Kiarostami, 1990) is widely considered one of the best films of the 1990's and in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll was voted by critics onto their "Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time" list. It's a docufiction where real events are restaged for the purpose of the film utilizing the actual people involved in the original happenings. A man named Hossain pretends to be famed director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and preys upon the gullibility of a family to fraud his way into their home which he pretends he's scouting for an upcoming film. His lies begin to unravel and his facade falls apart. He's arrested and taken to trial. The actual story itself of Hossain's deception is fascinating but I wasn't sure if it was enough to sustain a film but similarly to how Hossain sneakily weaves his deceit the movie also sneakily bowls you over. A lot of the run-time focuses on Hossain's trial, his defense of being a cinephile and so deeply infatuated with cinema and its ability as an art to show suffering of everyday people as an excuse for his harmful fraudulent behavior is both perplexing and patently sad. Where the movie really shines is in the reenactments as we see Hossain and the Ahankhah family he duped staging out and reliving their experience for Kiarostami's cameras. It's really a bewildering meta study that's positively fascinating. The last few minutes push this thing over the edge into certifiable classic territory. I won't reveal what happens here but Hossain's fantasy world wherein he's a famous beloved director comes full-circle in a powerful and emotional way. I gave it 4/5 and wouldn't argue against it being rated higher.

Air (Cantamessa, 2015) is a rubbish post-apocalyptic yarn done on sets that resemble a junior high production of Alien. All dim corridors and boxy monitors littered with lines of green text as we spend  95 minutes in close-quarters with two engineers. Norman Reedus is a "chronic masturbator" (utilizing the movie's own vernacular here) with an attitude and seems to be doing his character Daryl from The Walking Dead for the most part minus the chivalry but adding a predilection for old nude pin-up posters of the '70's. Djimon Hounsou, a two-time Oscar-nominated actor also phones this in playing the slightly more schizophrenic Boatwright, who happens to be in love with a woman in their bunker who's in stasis so can only requite his love in the form of a specter only he can see (and be chided about by Reedus' Bauer in-between bouts of Farrah Fawcett fueled masturbation). The whole thing feels like a sci-fi short story or sketch spread far too thin and the actors who have done lively work elsewhere breath little life into this limp story I scored 1.5/5. I don't want to go into much detail about Avengers: Age of Ultron (Whedon, 2015). I saw it opening night, was numbed by its relentless CGI carnage and expository pummeling, then again later in IMAX, which also left me cold. Wanted to give it one more crack at home to be fair to it since I appear to be one of the few outliers who wasn't in love with it. This third watch did help its case mildly as I had an easier time watching it through than previously and could focus more on things like the types of shots and edits the filmmakers utilized and less on the contrivance of its overstuffed plot. I raised my score slightly to a 2.5/5 but I still don't think it's anything to get excited about.

Lastly, my youngest, just 3, is a bit of a film buff in her own right and we'll usually watch a few movies together each week. Scooby-Doo! Music of the Vampire (Block, 2011) is the first (and to this point only) of the 25 animated Scooby-Doo films to be a musical. Strangely, the musical elements aren't what's lousy here, in fact one of the early ones is wackily inspired, seeing the Mystery Machine with the whole gang inside bounding perilously down the side of a snowy mountain risking serious injury or death all the while singing cheerily and not missing a beat. It relies heavily on referencing the already dated Twilight phenomenon to poor effect and deserves 1.5/5. Call me a masochist but we're also working our way through the Beethoven franchise and hit Beethoven's 3rd (Evans, 2000). This is the first direct-to-video Beethoven film and also the first that saw Judge Reinhold replacing Charles Grodin. And I might be in the minority but I prefer Reinhold's unhinged enthusiasm to Grodin's crotchety exhaustion. The plot is preposterous seeing two bumbling spiky-haired punks who are after a DVD copy of The Shakiest Gun in the West (a '68 Don Knotts Western surely Musings supporter Toby and family own) that's encoded with top secret info which winds up in the camper the Newton family are taking cross-country. This plays like a mix between Home Alone with the inept burglars and National Lampoon's Vacation with the family road triple angle -- and sometimes both simultaneously like when father Richard empties the mobile home's sewage tank covering the conniving thieves standing roadside in excreta. Having seen five of the eight Beethoven films so far I can say this one is alien from the pack and quite fun in an absurd way earning it a dog drool-covered 2.5/5.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Musings #2: Spectre, Casino Royale, Peanuts Movie, Scouts Guide

Sometimes in life we step up behind home plate, crouch down into catcher position, extend our hand prepared to catch cinema but instead a curveball confounds us. That's been me the past week or so but I have seen a few things amid my own personal narrative feature titled "My Life" so here's some shorthand thoughts. I'd never seen any of the Bond films starring Daniel Craig. Truth be told I've only seen a couple 007 films period. Not anticipating others would similarly be trying to get caught up in the days ahead of the release of Spectre I was only able to nab Casino Royale (Campbell, 2006) from my library. And I've got to say it's a hell of a lot of fun and pretty much nails the Bond mythos as I've come to imagine it. Exhilarating if not borderline preposterous action scenes, the splendor of delicious designer suits and gorgeous gowns, romantic spark, and purportedly the best damn spy stories around. I immediately scored it a 3.5 but have since revised that mark to a 4/5. I think I'd be hard-pressed to find a Bond picture I'll enjoy much more. It certainly doesn't hurt that I'm a big Eva Green admirer (ever since seeing her in Bertolucci's The Dreamers). Now Spectre (Mendes, 2015) on the other hand fell short of the promised Bond polish. It's got a fantastic opening sequence amid the Day of the Dead celebration in Mexico with thousands of extras and a helicopter whirling out of control and buildings exploding and for a few minutes I was immensely happy to be watching it on a gigantic screen to take in its explosive bombast. But (as the longest Bond film yet) this thing grinds down to just a tick above a slog. The romance with Léa Seydoux (who was quite remarkable in Blue Is the Warmest Color) is undercooked and I fear she was miscast in her role, and the lead villain, Christoph Waltz as Blofeld, does a mild variation on his usual screen persona and with such a bloated run-time you'd imagine they would have given him some more screen-time as his character is nearly an afterthought. I also revised my score on it starting at a 3 but now officially logged as a 2.5/5.

Last night I caught Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (Landon, 2015). After unsuccessfully trying to see it twice previously (including Halloween night) due to forces beyond my control you may imagine I was miffed or disappointed but given its critical drubbing I was mostly apathetic. But having seen it I'm glad I did. Admittedly its aim is pretty narrow. If you're too young, the movie is far too vulgar, but if you're older than the target demographic (or just don't care for low-brow entertainment) you'll also likely care little for this. Tye Sheridan has been on my radar since he appeared in my all-time favorite film The Tree of Life as one of three young brothers, and has followed it up with roles in some more very good films like Mud and Joe (kudos to his agent) but he may wish this wasn't on his resume when he's trying to land work in a few years. I thought it dumb carefree fun, certainly not reinventing the zombie comedy or rising to the heights of that sub-genre's best efforts (like Return of the Living Dead which I discussed in my last post) but enjoyable nonetheless. If you've been yearning for a film that depicts a teen hanging precariously from a window by holding onto a zombie phallus pushed beyond its stretching point then your dreams have miraculously been answered. I'll give it 3/5.

Went with the family to see The Peanuts Movie (Martino, 2015) and loved it. I'm a big Peanuts fan and have a deep genuine love for the comic strips and animated TV specials. I had to do some child wrangling at times so am anxious to see it again a second time at home down the road and give it my full attention but upon first watch I'm quite happy with it. Minor concerns going into it (like the use of bland modern pop music) were relieved almost instantly. Kudos to Blue Sky Studios for bringing Schulz's creations to life in a vibrant way yet remaining true to the spirit and style of the original source material. It plays largely like a "Greatest Hits" of Peanuts moments which can both be nostalgically pleasurable for older viewers but also a fresh introduction for a younger generation. I had read awhile ago that Schulz nearing his death had some regret about never letting Charlie kick that football or kiss that little red-haired girl and while I don't want to necessarily reveal any pertinent plot points there are finally some moments of catharsis for 'ol Chuck that nearly made me emotional. It earns 4/5.

With Kung Fu Panda 3 coming in the months ahead I'm attempting to get caught up. I've only ever seen the original film so seeking out the sequel is in order. I did screen Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five (Hui, 2008) where panda Po (Jack Black) gets to instruct a group of bunny children on their first day of training and regales them with origin tales of the famed Furious Five. Albeit a smaller-scale production the animation was still very eye-popping and of the stories Po weaved my favorite was Mantis' which showed us how he was forced to finally learn patience after falling into a trap set by crocodile bandits. It's 2.5/5 stars. Lastly I screened What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? (Melendez, 1983). This is an interesting Peanuts special as it serves as a travelogue through Europe as Charlie Brown and the gang toured some of sites from World War I & II. The simplicity and warmth of Peanuts' animation is retained and it was a joy to see Parisian streets and fields of red poppies in that style. We visit Omaha Beach, solider cemeteries, stop by Ypres, and Linus recites from the poem In Flanders Fields, but it never dips into jingoistic sentimentality and is ultimately a nice tribute in its own subtle way earning it 3/5.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Musings #1: Return of Living Dead, Orpheus, Cobbler, & Why, Charlie Brown, Why?

The Return of the Living Dead (O'Bannon, 1985) is every bit the puerile punk rock zombie romp it's cult favorite status would have you believe it to be. I'd actually been sitting on this DVD for over a decade. While working at GameCrazy in the early-2000's we were giving out copies for some promotion (which now that I think about it is a bit odd as it earns its R-rating and then some!) and I took one. A novice newbie at a medical supply warehouse gets a crash course training session that results in a canister containing a zombified corpse to be breached releasing a toxic gas that brings about a rampaging zombie plague. A group of ragtag misfits adorned in leather, spikes, mohawks, or sans clothes entirely, are coming to pick up their pal there for a night of debauchery but end up dead center in a raucous war zone of reanimated corpses from a nearby cemetery. This is about as fun as zombie flicks get as it doesn't take itself too seriously, has memorable characters, well-done zombie mayhem, and some grisly gore. I ranked it 3/5.

Then I screened Orpheus (Cocteau, 1950) and was blown away. This is the middle film in Cocteau's Orphic Trilogy but the first I've seen. I've already raced out and put the first, The Blood of a Poet, on hold through my library. This is a modern variation on the Greek myth of Orpheus. Knowing little going in I wrongly expected something perhaps more dry or detached, I don't know, Shakespearian dialogue or something, but boy I couldn't have been wronger. This is a fast-paced, pulpy thriller, with romantic intrigue, surreal supernatural spark, and a gorgeous cast and production design. In this world Death is a femme fatale, people can float through mirrors into alternate realities, and more mind-bending developments await around each corner. Cocteau was working on another level entirely and this feels incredibly ahead of its time. Bringing a myth into contemporary Paris could seem absurd but it's done with such relish here that it's magnificent. I scored it 4/5 but heavily considered a 4.5 and may go higher after an eventual second viewing.

Then there's The Cobbler (McCarthy, 2014). Look, I'm a Tom McCarthy fan. The Station Agent is one of my favorites of the 2000's. I also liked The Visitor and Win Win. I even went to see Million Dollar Arm just because he worked on its screenplay. And he's set to make some major waves with Academy Award hopeful Spotlight in the weeks and months ahead. But The Cobbler is batshit insane. It's one of the easiest targets of the year but I was predisposed to look for something to like in it. And it's definitely competently made. It looks good and moves along briskly enough and the filmmaking ain't shabby. But that script is atrocious. It's just bonkers. Adam Sandler, who's much better here in stuff like this away from his own productions (him playing a schlub home electronics installer in Pixels was groaningly bad) plays a fourth-generation shoe repairman who discovers he has a magical piece of equipment that'll allow him to transform into anyone who's shoes he puts on. That idea alone isn't necessarily bad or not worth exploring. But they take it in all kinds of strange directions, there's violence, racist undertones (whenever he wants to steal something he switches into the guise of a black man?), a lousy crime plot that overwhelms the narrative, the untactful death of a parent, and more. The last few minutes has revelations that had me literally shaking my head in disbelief and suddenly felt like an expository dump in the vein of recent Marvel comic films as if a Cobbler franchise was about to be launched. One of my favorites Dustin Hoffman has a small role and is always welcomed even in laughably bad dreck like this but I haven't been this confounded by the ridiculousness of a film in ages. 1.5 of 5.

Lastly, before calling it a night, I watched Why, Charlie Brown, Why? (Jaimes, 1990). Man, this pretty much devastated me. In short the story revolves around Linus and a classmate named Janice who is diagnosed with cancer. Now you might think dealing with a difficult subject would have less bite in the warm, wholesome world of Peanuts -- but the inherent sweetness of the Peanuts' universe made this even more heartbreakingly tender. Janice first notices an odd amount of bruises on her body on the bus, soon after she's forced to leave class due to feeling bad, and then we encounter her next in the hospital receiving treatment for her leukemia. The entire time I was just gutted. But there's one scene particularly that I'll never forget. A bully on the playground sets his sight on Janice, yanking off her hat and mocking her bald head, etc. Linus, seething with rage and disbelief, launches to her defense and tears the kid down with razor-like precision in the most raw and deep moment in the Peanuts' animated canon. The story does end happily at the very last moment but you still feel emotionally rocked and are trying to regain your bearings after. I gave it a 3.5/5 and now having seen it consider it an overlooked Peanuts gem although one I won't be racing to watch again too soon.


Hey! My name is Brian and welcome to Musings from the Middle Seat. Thanks so much for coming. I could get extremely wordy and verbose here but I'll try to rein it in and keep this relatively short. This is a blog of the cinema. In it I'll be sharing my thoughts on all the many films I'm fortunate to see. I'd been brainstorming for over a year on tackling some sort of movie-related project. And if I were to write I grappled with exactly what to write, be it standard criticism, capsule reviews, etc. I've decided upon a format I feel should be fun for readers and myself alike. A loose, informal conversational style where I share of myself, my thoughts and feelings. Everyone interprets a text differently and gets something unique from them so I want this blog to reflect my own perspective.

A little background on my interest and experience with cinema. As a child I was more into action figures and professional wrestling. As a pre-teen I'd wander the horror aisle at the local video store but I didn't start really widening my field of knowledge on film until around the age of 16. My first job was at a movie theater. I would go on to work at a total of three different movie theaters and three different video rental/sales stores. It was around that time via being able to see free films at the theater and discovering the treasure trove of free movies through local libraries and inter-library loan systems that I really started my own personal film education. I'd devour whatever I could. In high school I entered into the Broadcasting Arts program my Junior and Senior years. It dealt with production,  mostly of radio and television, but was more relistically a large chunk of time for other rascals and I to act wildly without much supervision. In college I went on to become a Mass Communications major and a Film Studies minor so I was able to learn a ton about film. From being behind the camera, to editing, dissecting movies, and so on. Two classes that really stand out from the pack are Holocaust and Film, a sobering but eye-opening course, and Alternative Traditions in Cinema, likely my all-time favorite, which introduced me to stuff like Stan Brakhage and other experimental film. As an adult now I've continued exploring the far reaches of movies both of the present and past. Through lists like the TSPDT Greatest 1000 (and their 21st Century's Most Acclaimed list), film books and essays, podcasts, the blogosphere, etc. I'm continually learning and finding more movies to seek out.

If you don't know me personally it'd probably be of note to know some of my tastes and favorites. I'm a Terrence Malick obsessive. I find his work truly transcendent and beautiful and I could go on and on. Some of my other favorite directors would be Kelly Reichardt, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Noah Baumbach, and the Safdie brothers. Listing favorite movies would be opening a can of worms, I'll just mention a handful: any Malick, I may say this week To the Wonder or The Tree of Life are my favorite, ask again next week and it'll be The Thin Red Line, Killer of SheepMarketa Lazarová, Real Genius, House PartySymbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, This Is Martin Bonner, All the Real Girls, The Station AgentCold Weather, Lost In Translation, Before Sunrise, Red Hook Summer, Gerry, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, and Old Joy.

I consider myself open-minded when it comes to movies. I try to be open to anything. I try to pay sharp attention and give movies my full focus if at all possible. I've always felt it's a disservice to both the film and yourself if you aren't giving yourself over to the experience fully. Lastly, this blog's title, I was aiming to go with Days of Cinema, as a tip of the hat to Malick, but the domain wasn't available and whenever I'm at movie theaters (which is several times per week) I try to sit in the center of an aisle (usually 1-3 from the bottom of the stadium-style seating) so the image fully fills my field of vision, thus "Musings from the Middle Seat". I hope through this project I'll further ignite my passion for cinema, learn more, about watching and writing, hopefully offer some entertainment to others, and make some new friends and peers to share in our mutual love of the movies.