Saturday, January 8, 2011

Keeping the Promise: Season of the Witch

A commitment to excellence. That’s one of the things that as a moviegoer I completely and utterly lack. So when’s freelance writer Eric Pope started going on about the Nic Cage Promise, a goal to see every Nic Cage movie on the weekend it was released, I was intrigued. Nic Cage is a man of considerable talents, among them looking wild-eyed, chewing scenery, and generally being fucking bananas. It is at least compelling to watch, more often than not. What could be the harm? I signed aboard this misguided ship for the 2011 season.

Which is how I found myself at 10:00 AM sitting in my local AMC with a surprising number of other damned souls about to be treated to the cinematic equivalent of a dimly lit waiting room full of sighs and old magazines.

For those of you who have been exercising good taste, Season of the Witch is a story of Nic Cage and Ron Perlman as two knights taking a leave of conscience from the crusades, fleeing to a town where they’re caught as deserters and made to escort a woman who is supposedly a witch to some monastery where she will undergo a trial (and probably execution, because hey, what else are you going to do with witches?).

The film opens with a montage of Cage and Perlman killing various ethnic peoples to religious dogma being shouted at them, both of them clearly too old or too bored to be swinging around a sword and make it look dramatic, and finally they flee the evil Church’s grasp to head back to Europe, suddenly in the grasp of the plague of rubbery prosthetics, something that’s rendered the location shooting empty of extras and the cramped city sets full of bodies but bereft of speaking roles outside of our leads.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t do anyone any favors, as Nic Cage seems to think he’s in a serious movie, looking ponderously grave (or maybe he’s just that serious about getting his paycheck). Ron Perlman, on the other hand, seems to be convinced he’s in a buddy movie, biting off his limited lines like the Hellboy we’ve come to know and love. Here, however, they seem to go noticed by nobody. He might as well be playing against the flat grey stone walls.

The characters get a bunch of other, more disposable people around them when they pick up the ‘witch.’ There’s a priest who we’re lead to believe is evil because evil priests are almost a given in a story about witchcraft. There’s a prisoner who serves as the guide but mainly serves as the source of a jarring Chicago accent until he dies by the worst CGI wolves since The Day After Tomorrow. There’s also some other people, but the script doesn’t seem to give much of a shit about them so why should I?

This merry band travels from one painfully obvious set to another, back walls obscured by heavy fog so they wouldn’t have to pay for CG extensions. No, all the CG is saved for the very end of the movie, where after toying with the idea that the movie would be about whether or not the girl who serves as the plot device is or isn’t a witch (by the way, she spends most of the movie looking creepy and exhibiting super strength, but still everyone seems more than willing to give her the benefit of the doubt about maybe not actually being a witch) the plot is suddenly tossed aside in favor of turning her into a really really awful CG monster.

No, I mean bad. Like it makes the bat-Dracula from Van Helsing look like The Thing kind of good. So our heroes fight the CG to the best of their sleepy, halfhearted ability, and then everyone you even remotely cared about dies and we’re left with a message of hope or something. It doesn’t really matter, because none of it is given any sort of gravitas. The big reveal of the plot, that all of their journey has been a trick to get them into revealing the location of a sacred book to a demon, is tossed haphazardly aside in the middle of an assault of zombie monks. Yeah, there are zombie monks, looking frightfully boring with their rubbery makeup and PG-13 trickles of fake blood.

If this sounds like a mess, that’s because it is. The movie is a clash of really terrible ideas, put together in such a way as to make it all seem dreadfully boring. There was, surreally enough, a blind woman sitting several seats down the row from me, and the quiet narration of her husband explaining the parts she couldn’t get from audio context were far more entertaining than the movie itself.

There is such a thing as a fun bad movie, something Cage has traded in through a lot of his career, but this movie isn’t that kind of film. If Season of the Witch is guilty of anything, it’s taking a can’t-miss cult premise and squandering it by taking it all far too seriously. You weren’t going to see this anyway, because most of you aren’t insane, but take this as further evidence that this movie was dumped out to die in January for good reason.

The things I will do for Nic Cage. I hope he’s happy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reel Thoughts: “Land of Silence and Darkness”

Werner Herzog’s 1971 documentary about Fini Straubinger, a German deaf-blind woman, is notable at first for being very un-Herzogian.  It is presented as a medical story, the likes of which we used to see plastered all over TLC back when it was The Learning Channel, stories of hope and struggle in the face of various afflictions of being. Herzog’s oft-parodied narrative voice is nearly absent, and when it does interject it is crisp and short and unlike the mad profundity of modern Herzog.

One might easily dismiss the opening story of Ms. Straubinger as the film begins to unfold, a tale of early childhood and a loss of her senses, as the beginning of inspirational pulp. Good inspirational pulp, to be sure, but rarely are such things worth more than the run-times’ worth of emotional indulgence.

But far be it for her to bemoan her fate. Fini Straubinger, after 30 years spent trapped in her own body, was ‘awoken’ to the world of communication again and made it her crusade to help others who are similarly afflicted with deaf-blindness. 

Shortly into the film, we’re introduced to a gathering of her friends, many blind-deaf, accompanied by translators who turn speech into the dot-dash shorthand of tactile sign language.  It’s a jumble of communication, people speaking in two languages, half the party otherwise unaware of their surroundings. People are asked for who are standing just beside the shot, questions repeated in a loop between interpreters and speakers when misunderstandings occur.

It’s a mess, but it’s the first glimpse into the film’s real aim, to try to communicate the vast gulf of difference between the life of those of us who are sighted and hearing and those who no longer have either of those most paramount of senses. These are people who live in the memories of their senses, who treasure the experiences of the tactile. An early plane ride becomes a moment of wonder as Fini marvels at the sensations of flight. A visit to a botanical garden is like watching people discover a whole dimension to the universe that they previously did not know. 

The story turns, as it inevitably would, to those who are born blind and deaf. Fini remembers her days seeing and hearing, time at school, the ability to read and take in the world. But we quickly realize that there are those for whom something as easy as describing a childhood memory might forever be impossible, humans trapped in their own body, deprived of organized input, slow to learn concepts most of us mastered before we were in school.

There is one scene of a boy who is being slowly introduced to swimming. The boy’s reaction to the shower before the pool is one of shock and wonder, and it becomes impressed upon us that even something as obvious as a shower, or water, becomes something frightening and unknown and only dimly understood when you have little language and less frame of reference. Yet even those fearful interactions with the world are hopeful results compared to others, trapped so long in silence that it seems they’ll never be reached, doomed to voiceless existence. 

One is struck in watching these people struggle to integrate into the world we know that a film about their ailments is in part a patent absurdity. What would a deaf-blind person have to do with a film? Indeed, for those who were born that way, the very idea seems as alien as trying to describe living in the fifth dimension would be to us. Sight and sound conveying abstract concepts? If all you know is the feel of a tree, water falling on your face, the surprising touch of other beings trying to communicate things you can barely understand, then the whole affair becomes irrelevant to the point that it might not as well exist.

And it seems like Herzog is aware of that. His camera is fond of lingering, but the subjects he shoots are utterly incapable of playing to the camera. They tell their stories or not, act in ways they wish or not, no frame for how it will appear on film. It is without artifice, wholly honest, and utterly compelling. For how little the concept of film might mean to the blind-deaf, it is through that medium that we, in all our good fortune, are brought closer to understanding the ‘other,’ both with empathy and intellectual understanding.

Monday, January 3, 2011

And Here We Go Again–2011 Preemptive Movie Boner List

Looking forward to 2011 is a little like staring down the barrel of a gun. 2010 was a pretty great year, as I already went on about at length, but the new year always seems full of possibilities and looking at it from this beginning point its impossible to know the lay of the land. Hell, by summer we could be suffering nuclear winter! A comforting thought, in these troubled times, because to be perfectly honest I’m sick of Transformers movies.

But in reality, it looks like there’s a surprisingly strong lineup of movies coming in 2011, if the early lists I was working off of are any indication. Certainly things will show up that surprise the hell out of everyone, as they always do. But it doesn’t hurt to have things you’re actively excited for, too, to keep your spirits up during the stretches where its one bad romcom after another lame superhero movie.

That said, there are a few other goals I have set for myself in movie watching this year. I’m going to join the growing legions who take the Nic Cage Promise, a sacred oath to see any Nic Cage movie on opening weekend. Which will certainly be a source of entertainment. For those who listen to me lament my decision or for me actually watching the movies remains to be seen.

And that’s it. No more talk, time for some fucking movies! 2011, don’t let me down.

Source Code                                                                                                                       

Mind fuck or soft sci-fi thriller? Who knows! Can’t wait either way.
directed by      Duncan Jones
starring            Jake Gyllenhaal
                          Vera Farmiga
                          Michelle Monaghan
                          Jeffrey Wright
release date    April 15

Duncan Jones is the director of 2009’s Moon, one of my favorite movies of that year and one of the best modern sci-fi movies. So obviously I’m going to be excited about his next thing. But when his next thing looks to be a crazy time-bending trip through alternate realities in order to solve crimes? Well, I’m totally on board. The trailer seems to set up most of the plot, though its hard to tell where it goes from there. It could be Déjà Vu, it could be 12 Monkeys. Either way, I’m excited to see how it all pans out.

Fast Five                                                                                                                              

And above all else we don’t ever, ever let them get into cars!
directed by        Justin Lin
starring             Vin Diesel
                            Paul Walker
                            Jordana Brewster
                            Dwayne Johnson
                            Sung Kang
release date      April 29

I have both an ironic and utterly genuine love for the Fast and the Furious movies. I don’t really think the series is ever going to top the amazing The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift for ridiculous-shit-per-minute, but this movie looks like its going to give it its damnedest try. Of note is the addition of Dwayne Johnson, who is so perfect for this franchise that its criminal that its taken five movies to get him involved. There are few things as compelling, in a popcorn movie kind of way, as cars going fast and blowing stuff up real good. Guilty pleasure of the year? Easily. But I’ve never not enjoyed the silly machismo riff of Vin Diesel’s wheelhouse.


Your annual quota of Young Girl Murdering Dudes.
directed by       Joe Wright
starring             Saoirse Ronan
                            Cate Blanchett
                            Eric Bana
release date      April 8

This movie popped up on my radar nearly out of the blue with the release of the trailer. Part The American and part incredibly badass action movie, Hanna looks to be a cross between Jason Borne and a heartwarming coming of age tale. With lots of gunfire and broken necks for good measure. The pairing of Bana and Blanchett is a great one, as both actors at the type that can sell limited screen time to put in compelling performances. I love the look of this movie, bleak and cold. So long as it doesn’t stray too far into dumb action, it should be a marvel to see.

X-Men: First Class                                                                                                            
directed by             Matthew Vaughn
starring                   James McAvoy
                                 Michael Fassbender
                                  Kevin Bacon
                                 Jennifer Lawrence
release date            June 3

I’ll be the first to admit the X-Men movies are in a sorry state. X-Men 3 was bloated and lame. Origins: Wolverine was a steaming pile of shit. But before that, the X-Men movies were something greater, superhero movies with scope and social message, films that were smarter than the cookie cutter origin stories that came in the wake of Spider-Man. And by taking X-Men back to its roots in a period piece about mutants in the 60s, I feel like First Class has a good chance of recapturing that sense of purpose the series lost. Matthew Vaughn won me over with Kick-Ass, and working off of more restrained material here might make this film something truly special.

Hugo Cabret                                                                                                                    
directed by              Martin Scorsese
starring                    Ben Kingsley
                                  Sacha Baron Cohen 
                                  Chloë Moretz
                                  Jude Law
release date            December 9

Scorsese was never really a guy on my radar, despite his high profile as a director, until 2010’s Shutter Island, which very nearly made it into my top movies of 2010 list. That said, I became incredibly curious when his next project was announced as a family adventure movie about an orphan who lives in a 1930s Paris train station and gets wrapped up in a mystery involving his late father’s work with an automaton. With the talent attached, I’m hoping for an amalgam of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Hayao Miyazaki, but regardless of what it turns out to be, I’m incredibly excited to see what Scorsese’s talents create when bent to younger fare.

A Dangerous Method                                                                                                       
dangerous methoddirected by            David Cronenberg
starring                  Viggo Mortensen 
                                 Michael Fassbender
                                 Keira Knightley
                                 Vincent Cassel
release date           TBA 2011

The two previous Cronenberg/Mortensen collaborations, 2005s A History of Violence and 2007s Eastern Promises were both fantastic movies. Its hard to believe that Cronenberg’s next, a biopic about the early days of psychology, will be any different. Mortensen plays Sigmund Freud against Fassbender’s Carl Jung, two colleagues who are torn apart by a rivalry over how to approach the fledgling science of psychotherapy and the troubled young woman, played by Knightley, who comes between them. I love this part of history, I love the actors and director, I can’t imagine how this movie will be anything less than lush and intense and amazing.

Midnight in Paris                                                                                                              
directed by
             Woody Allen
starring                   Rachel McAdams
                                 Adrien Brody
                                 Owen Wilson
                                 Marion Cotillard
release date           May 2011

So far little is known about Woody Allen’s latest project, a story of a family traveling to Paris for business. The plot hinges around a young married couple forced to deal with the idea that a life different than there’s isn’t necessarily better. It seems right in Allen’s wheelhouse, but I feel that his movies live and die by the cast. Owen Wilson is a personal favorite of mine, an actor I feel who is wildly misused and underappreciated outside of Wes Anderson films. Woody Allen is always kind of hit or miss with me, but I’m always game for the newest comedy he puts out.

directed by             Nicolas Winding Refn
starring                   Ryan Gosling
                                  Carey Mulligan
                                  Christina Hendricks
                                  Ron Perlman
release date            September 16

Nicolas Winding Refn is the director of 2009s flawed but violently beautiful Bronson, a movie I loved despite all of its issues. His newest movie takes him into action/drama territory, a story of a Hollywood stunt performer by day/wheelman by night played by Gosling. When a hit is put out on him after a botched job, he ends up on the run with an ex-con’s girlfriend (played by Mulligan) in his car. No idea at this point how action versus crime drama this movie is going to be, but knowing Refn its going to be intense and saddening and probably brutal. I can’t wait. Gosling always does good work, even if most of it flies under the radar, and he’s the perfect fit for a tortured criminal type.

directed by               Tarsem Singh
starring                    Henry Cavill
                                   Freida Pinto
                                   Mickey Rourke
release date             November 11

Tarsem Singh is the tragically non-prolific director of such movies as The Cell and The Fall, movies that are arguably more style than substance, but present such a well constructed, hauntingly beautiful vision that I can’t find it in myself to care whether or not they’re deep stories. His next movie deals with the Greek warrior Theseus (played by Cavill) who leads his army into battle with the Greek Gods against the Titans, lead by King Hyperion (played by Mickey Rourke in what I can only imagine will be a great scenery chewing roll). It sounds like Clash of the Titans, to be sure, but I’d love to see a riff on that mythology by someone with an eye for making movies that aren’t ass-fugly (see 2010’s nightmare remake of Clash of the Titans for a good lesson in how to fuck this up). This far out, there’s little to go on, but I’m sold by the pedigree of fantasy vision Singh brings to a movie alone.

The Ides of March                                                                                                            
directed by               George Clooney
starring                     Philip Seymour Hoffman
                                    Paul Giamatti
                                   Evan Rachel Wood
                                   Marisa Tomei 
                                   Ryan Gosling
release date             December 2011

You tell me George Clooney is making a political drama and I hearken back to the amazing Good Night, And Good Luck. This is cause for celebration, because the world needs movies as smart as that one. You tell me that it’s based vaguely on the 2004 Democratic Primary of Howard Dean, starring Ryan Gosling as a young press spokesman who falls prey to backroom politics, and you’ve got my attention. I love a smart political drama, something immediate and personal, and Clooney’s proved he knows how to make that film. The movie’s set for limited release in December of 2011, so it seems like Sony Pictures is already early in positioning it as an awards movie. Awards or not, I can’t wait to see what Clooney does with the material.