Smell of Popcorn

film reviews & musings by Max Lalanne

Oscars 2012: Ten films shortlisted for Best Visual Effects category

Posted by Max Lalanne on November 29, 2012

Ten films – The Avengers, Life of Pi, Snow White and the Huntsman, Prometheus, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, Cloud Atlas, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, John Carter, and The Amazing Spider-Man – are left in the running for the Best Visual Effects category at the Oscars. Nominations for the 85th Academy Awards, to be telecast February 24th, will be revealed January 10.

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Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 14, 2012

The city of Mogadishu, in famine-stricken Somalia. It’s 1995 and a joint task force of Army Rangers, Delta Force, and the 160th SOAR, here to support UN peacekeeping operations against the militia of Mohammed Farrah Aidid, organize a quick strike raid into the city to capture some of the local warlord’s top lieutenants. It quickly deteriorates into a full-blown rescue mission as, per the title, a Black Hawk military helicopter – the best of the best available, mind you – is shot down in the middle of the hostile urban city. Leaving no man behind, the troops on the ground fight to reach any possible survivors just as another chopper gets hit by an rocket-propelled grenade. And they shoot their way to that one, too. Yup, that’s pretty much Black Hawk Down.

A viable argument could be made for Ridley Scott’s 2001 film being a technically superb, or furthermore perfect, movie. Intensely visual and visceral but aurally important as well, this down-and-dirty war picture about the disastrous Battle of Mogadishu sends you straight into, pardon the tired expression, the middle of the action. For more than two hours, the dull, metal staccato of automatic rifle and machine gun fire ring out in unpredictable yet expected bursts, explosions reduce desolate buildings to rubble littered with corpses, and the whirring sound of helicopter blades from above becomes a reassuring, even life-saving one. It would be like one of those video games if not for Scott’s filmmaking aesthetic and style, which is damn hard to discern between his various films of various genres, but here he allows for surprising moments of visual beauty to cut through the grime and blood, and even accentuate it.

Those moments are far and few between, but they make an impression: a convoy of menacing, bristling Black Hawk and AH-6J Little Bird military choppers flying in formation low over a pristine glittering beach, while the sound fades away stylistically to create a haunting and formidable atmosphere. Apocalypse Now is brought to mind, naturally, but instead of going for a gung-ho showiness of strength a sort of calm before the storm is shown. Then it is over – the choppers bank sharply left and start flying over Mogadishu, flying straight into the black smoke billowing in the air from the tires that the Somalian militia are burning as signals. Another strikingly poetic bit comes near the end, where a dozen or so exhausted American soldiers are forced to run pell-mell down the road out of the hostile slums of the city and into UN Safe Zone territory, being watched retreat by hundreds of victorious armed militia behind them. They stumble in slo-mo through some sort of claustrophobic fog, led by laughing street kids and cheered on by peaceable villagers.

What does all this add up to substantially, you might ask? Is Black Hawk Down an anti-war movie or simply pro-war? I don’t really know. Does Scott know? I don’t think he cares. Perhaps the best insight one might get about what this film aspires to be are the quiet conversations between the young Sgt. Eversmann and the lean, dangerous SFC “Hoot” Gibson, played by Josh Hartnett and Eric Bana, respectively, two soldiers with very different train of thoughts when their minds inevitably turns to some quasi-existential self-reflection. There’s a point in the film where Eversmann, who’s already shown to be a wide-eyed idealist, nervously asks the older man what he thinks about being here fighting “skinnies” in a faraway African country. “Y’know what I think? Don’t really matter what I think. Once that first bullet goes past your head, politics and all that shit just goes right out the window,” is the terse answer.

So Black Hawk Down doesn’t want to be about anything but the men, because in the end the story is about them not the American government’s involvement in Somalia or the failed operation or other tempting things like that. That’s more than fine by me, as the film is so mindblowingly immersive and nailbitingly realistic that you truly feel like you are there alongside the soldiers, and that nothing else really matters. They themselves are portrayed by a stunning variety of actors, both young and old, including but not limited to Hartnett, Bana, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore, Orlando Bloom, Jason Isaacs, William Fichtner, Sam Shepard, Jeremy Piven, and Tom Hardy. Many are unrecognizable but their presence is noted. [A-]

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Ben Affleck’s Argo

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 13, 2012

To call Argo, Ben Affleck’s based-on-a-true-story thriller, a spectacular achievement would be, in all honesty and respect, reaching a bit too far. And branding it simply a “great movie,” which seems to be something that many have done recently, isn’t enthusiastic enough. Rather, here’s what it is – the best, and most vivid, cinematic rendering that you could ever hope to see incredible formerly classified and larger-than-life operation that the CIA undertook in the midst of the 1979 Iranian embassy hostage crisis to rescue six escaped American diplomats being sheltered in the house of the Canadian ambassador. And nothing much more added, but then again that’s already more than enough. There’s much chance that at the end of the film, you’ll be in complete awe of not the film itself,but instead of the unbelievable slice of history that Affleck brought to life.

What a crazy story it is. Affleck portrays Tony Mendez, the CIA extractor who, coming up with the best of the bad ideas available on the tight schedule that his boss (Bryan Cranston) was given, devised such a crazy balls-to-the-wall plan to get the Americans out of the turbulent and dangerous country that you truly believe that this could happen only in the movies. But it isn’t so, as Argo and history shows us, although, ironically enough, a film was involved in the risky operation – a Star Wars ripoff named Argo that was never made and one that proved the perfect cover for Mendez to get into Tehran, Iran, and back out with six extra passengers, all pretending to be part of the fake film’s location-scouting crew. To make his cover believable, the taciturn, bearded Mendez goes to Hollywood, enlisting the help of special effects/makeup legend John Chambers (John Goodman) and old-timer producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) to sell a movie that won’t ever be made.

Combining a very timely atmosphere of Middle Eastern revolt and revolution, although it doesn’t feel as frighteningly effective as would be expected due to the refreshingly intelligent stance that Argo takes on the Iranian Revolution (more on that later), with a tongue-in-cheek and lightly humorous Hollywood quasi-satire, there’s an adept mix of wait-is-this-really-happening absurdity mixed in with real-life, grave consequences in the film. Comedy (“Argo f–k yourself” is one joke that never gets old) and drama are deftly interchanged, sometimes a little too pronouncedly; however, that’s the way this real-life story is, laugh-out-loud funny one second and gravely serious the next. There’s nothing much in the way of character development but you still feel deeply involved, as all the actors – especially Cranston, Goodman, and Arkin – give their satisfying best. Likewise, there’s nothing new in Argo‘s execution, but it makes for a solid movie all the same.

The thing that surprised me the most about Argo, ultimately, was the way the Iranian Revolution, and the Iranian people who took part in it, was portrayed. There’s ample footage of anti-American fervor and violence at hand, and it is certainly clear who are the antagonists, but, thankfully, it never struck the volatile chord that I though it would in these sensitive hate-filled times. Affleck makes it clear to show that the people took American hostages as leverage to demand that the United States government return the self-exiled Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, which would never happen because the cancer-stricken, dying former ruler was undergoing chemotherapy in America (and, of course, President Carter made clear that he would never negotiate with “terrorists”).

Iranian women are also widely and noticeably shown, which wouldn’t be something worth of note if Argo wasn’t the first such film to show them as they are. In an almost shot-for-shot recreation of real-life photographs of the Revolution (the comparisons are helpfully shown side-by-side during the credits), burka-wearing Iranian women are shown on the streets alongside their male counterparts holding assault rifles and protesting, and young female Muslims belonging to the embassy-occupying student group give recorded speeches that play constantly on TV screens in the background. And the Canadian ambassador’s native housekeeper, played brilliantly by Sheila Vand, turns out to have a more important role than you might expect. [A]

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Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 10, 2012

1957’s Paths of Glory is described as being one of the “early” Kubricks, and indeed it is, but in many more aspects than one the film ranks among one of the director’s simplest, starkest, and very best works. Right away it brings to mind the folly-filled outright satire of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learning to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb but slyly shapes it in an altogether disturbing way to make one of the most effective anti-war movies ever commited to celluloid. It’s easier, so to speak, to put crazy characters together in a crazy plot and make a side-splitting caricature on humanity in general, but here in Paths of Glory the absurdity abounding is expertly used to hard-hitting, sober, brutal, and not at all funny effect.

The intense WWI-set story is as such: In the muddy, bloody confines of endless trench warfare on the Western front, the 701st Regiment of French footsoldiers are ordered to take the “Anthill,” a heavily-defended German-held fortification. The tired, hopeless men are led by Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas), who fully realizes that the mission is a suicidal, utterly nonsensical one that will cost the lives of hundreds of his men but, without any other options, he follows the orders of the ambitious General Mireau (George MacReady), who, in turn, took them from the genial General George Broulard (Adolphe Menjou).

The attack is carried out at dawn and predictably fails; it turns out that heavy enemy fire and massive casualties contributed to an entire platoon remaining in their trenches, disobeying orders to advance and surely die in the mud and wire. Citing “cowardice in the face of the enemy,” there is talk of putting a hundred men in front of a firing squad, but what is finally decided is that three soldiers will be picked by their officers – all for various and nonsensical reasons, ultimately – to serve as examples and to be executed the next morning. Also, as Broulard keeps saying with an cheery tone, it’s a big morale-booster for the other soldiers to see men getting killed. Because they don’t have enough death, and talk and thought of it, in their lives already.

Dax is a good obedient soldier, but he’s also compassionate (at least to a normal extent) and knows that this is all crazy. He tries to vouch for the three unlucky chosen (Ralph Meeker, Timothy Carey, and Joe Turkel) at the court-martial, but finds disgusting results, as it seems that nothing will stop the execution and the complete nonsense that is running around uncurbed in front of his eyes. So what can he do? This is where Douglas – who, in some angles, resembles George C. Scott in Dr. Strangelove – gives a massively underrated performance. You can positively feel the anger boiling under his calm, cool, and collected exterior and when it finally breaks, it’s a furious moment but one that is gone all too fast and forgotten even faster.

This is not a film with a happy ending, but as you might have heard already, in the very last famous scene Kubrick gives us one moment, one simple display of pure, breathtakingly simple human emotion that is humbling to witness. It’s one that gives us hope, after the startling onslaught of unexplained cruelty, and shows that Kubrick is not above being kind to his audience and, perhaps, forgiving to the human nature.

I love the black-and-white cinematography by Georg Krause. The steadicam might have been invented during the shooting of The Shining, but here a long and steady backtracking camera shot preceding a grim-faced Dax as he strides through the trenches, explosions heard and seen around him, then climbs up to start the attack is especially marvelous to watch. Kubrick and Krause used their wide-angle lenses, deep-focus shots, and tightly-composed framing to perfection in other scenes such as the horrid court-martial, making it effectively claustophobic. You just want to get out of that room.

On paper, Paths of Glory really shouldn’t work. If not played for endlessly entertaining laughs, the notion of seeing men, completely void of normal emotion, kindness, or justice, act wholly preposterously to convey an forceful anti-war message should grow tiring and rather obvious. But it isn’t so here, and while acknowlegement must be paid to Kubrick’s already obvious mastery of his craft, might the fundamental reason be that war itself is so absurd, it takes absurdity to truly unveil the horrors? Something to think about. [A]

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Mel Gibson’s Braveheart

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 8, 2012

It’s somewhat telling that the 13th-century-set epic Braveheart, directed by, and starring, Mel Gibson, opens with a narration: “I shall tell you of William Wallace. Historians from England will say I am a liar, but history is written by those who have hanged heroes.” A not particularly convincing tell-off right from the start to whatever historical inaccuracies and absurdities that one might encounter in this film, and they are countless, it also establishes the mood and context of the picture. Braveheart asks you to set aside your presumptions and embrace what you see and feel in front of you, and the audience bears witness to the undaunted and thrilling passion that Gibson brings to this film and to his performance as Wallace, who made sure he lived and, like Spartacus and the countless other revolutionaries before him, died a free man.

This film wears its heart proudly on its sleeve and doesn’t hold anything back – that apparent passion translates to rampant bloodiness and gore, the afore-mentioned carelessness for what really happened in favor of and in search of cinematic perfection, and a sort of fully unafraid, out-there inspirational corniness that might be best summed up in Wallace’s last defiant yell before his beheading: “Freeeeeedooommmmm!”

Ah, Wallace. He’s a self-professed “savage” who covers his ruggedly handsome face with blue warpaint and kills soldiers left and right with a mad fury. And yet he’s an intelligent, literate and sensitive man, merely driven to violence by an unyielding anger to avenge his slain wife. That swiftly turns into something more, a bloody campaign against the English overlords and a promise of freedom for all of Scotland (that’s constantly undermined by the local lords’ resistance to a full-fledged war).

Gibson, with his long hair, blue eyes, and a thick brogue, plays Wallace as a romantic, uncouth yet endearingly sensitive hero that makes a princess swoon when he’s not slashing limbs off. It’s as if he was born to play this role, made all the more impressive by the fact he not only had his character to invest in but also the entire film.

Saving Braveheart from being an exercise in self-indulgence is very little, but I’d be damned if I wasn’t entertained and engrossed throughout. Handsomely mounted by cinematographer John Toll and set off by James Horner’s evocative score (which, I feel, directly inspired that of this year’s animated film Brave), the film takes its time in properly starting with a young Wallace, who wants to go help his farmer father fight the English. “I know you can fight, but it’s our wits that make us men,” his father tells him. The next time that we see him, however, he’s a lifeless corpse being pulled on a cart through the moors, and the orphan boy is taken in by his kindly, educated uncle.

Jump to a dozen or so years later, and Wallace is returning from his journeys and falling in love with his childhood sweetheart, Murron (the lovely Catherine McCormack), whom he takes on night rides in the pouring rain in the Scottish heartland and later secretly weds. However, the relative happiness is not to last. Murron, having been saved by Wallace from being raped by some brutish English soldiers under the command of the local lord but failing to escape, gets her throat slit in public for treason. In a vengeful fury, Wallace returns to the village and proceeds to kick the ass out of the entire English garrison (who’s been expecting him, mind) with some help from the villagers.

That sequence is the first in the film to show the shockingly visceral violence, as soldiers get skewered with spears, dismembered with swords, punched by improvised knuckledusters in the throat, and whacked across the face with what looks suspiciously like a nunchaku all in the matter of thirty seconds or so. However, it’s far from the last, as the audience is treated to several more large-scale battles, all filmed in the same relentlessly brutal way and all giving us the same giddy, adrenaline-boosting pleasure of watching some scrappy Scots fight the armored, well-equiped forces of the cold-hearted King Edward “Longshanks” (Patrick McGoohan).

Braveheart, and Gibson, have been criticized for being Anglophobic, albeit only by modern British publications such as The Guardian. That’s a special kind of nonsense. Really, although the film is strong with Scottish patriotism and national pride, the timeless, universally recognized message of freedom and struggle against overwhelming odds is far too great to be constrained to a war against two nations.

Ultimately, Braveheart is a fantastically thrilling, emotionally involving achievement. It’s fast and bloody and fun, and what more could you possibly ask for in a film such as this? [A-]

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Making the case for The Hunger Games as one of the year’s best movies

Posted by Max Lalanne on October 2, 2012

So I recently re-watched The Hunger Games, and while this article will indeed be about its many notable merits please note that I’m not saying it should be considered in the commencing awards season at all. I’m not doing that because a) Hunger Games would never stand a chance at even being considered seriously by Oscar voters in a million years, b) Jennifer Lawrence is doing fine on her own with her Silver Linings Playbook thus eliminating the need for campaigning with this film, and c) the truth is it’s simply not that much of an individual achievement to warrant a Best Picture nomination. Although, granted, it would’ve been a different case had it been released last year. Ahem.

But it is excellent, certainly a bar-raiser for YA novel adaptations that cater to their main audience of teenagers while still being enjoyable for adults and everyone else to enjoy – not that there have been any of the sort recently, which makes Hunger Games quite a remarkable pioneer also. Critics generally liked the film when it came out in March, though many quasi-dismissed it as an Americanized, if you will, version of Battle Royale (“You know what they call The Hunger Games in France? Battle Royale with cheese” was a rather popular meme at the time). Though I haven’t seen the subversive Japanese cult hit (nor the Arnold Schwarzenegger action picture The Running Man), my only response to that is my agreeing with the sentiment that everything has been already done and its the execution that matters. End of discussion.

Why is The Hunger Games one of this year’s best movies? Because it’s smart and moves along at a peppy yet unhurried pace, because it doesn’t dumb down anything for its perceived audience who were, after all, old enough to understand that the source material – Suzanne Collins’ trilogy – was very good stuff, or at least the first book was. Because it doesn’t overdo it, masterfully and even sophisticatedly executed by director Gary Ross without tripping headfirst into the pitfalls of most YA movies, ridiculous romantic subplots and all included. Because it’s a film that, like well-crafted cinema should, stands up to multiple viewings without revealing its flaws. And because it has another great performance from  Lawrence.

It’s easy to say that The Hunger Games shouldn’t count in Lawrence’s “notable” filmography between, and alongside, her star-making indie Winter’s Bone in 2011 and Silver Linings Playbook, because, you know, it’s a lead role in a mainstream movie that didn’t challenge her too much or was too complex or whatever. But whoever says that is wrong. Lawrence really carries the movie on her shoulders, and imbues just the right amount of headstrong, slightly aggressive stubbornness mixed in with restrained vulnerability that, together, prove a marvelous result. It’s a quiet, understated, and softly nuanced performance but one that is powerful in itself and helps the film a lot.

The supporting cast is pretty great, too. Josh Hutcherson is likably disarming, some of the edge that belonged to his lovelorn character Peeta in the book is non-apparent here but that’s okay. Woody Harrelson pulls off the constantly swilling if well-meaning mentor Haymitch with great, skillful carefulness. Liam Hemsworth is hilariously wooden but thankfully his hunky Gale has all but five or so minutes total in the film. Elizabeth Banks is absurd but not distracting as the dithering Effie Trinket. Lenny Kravitz is a quiet, blink-and-you’ll-miss-him presence. And Stanley Tucci, sportingly doffing a blue wig and a megawatt smile to play couldn’t-care-less television host Caesar Flickerman, is just genuinely brilliant.

So. My point. If you passed on watching this movie in theaters because you were afraid of the hysteric teenage masses/didn’t want to watch another “teen movie,” do youself a favor and rent The Hunger Games because it is indeed, one of the best films of the year. Not being a so-called “prestige” late fall picture nor having the too-cool-for-school popular clout as fellow box office successes (like The Avengers) enjoy, if there’s one movie that’s in danger of being forgotten by the end of this year it’s this one.

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Is Cleopatra the most underrated historical epic of all time?

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 30, 2012

When you think of Cleopatra (available on Netflix streaming), the controversy jumps to mind – the staggering, ballooning cost of the 1963 picture and the poor reception of such that practically led 20th Century Fox to bankruptcy, the consuming affair between stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that led to the same studio landing a lawsuit on their heads. All of this and more helped made Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s historical epic a legendary faux-pas in Hollywood history. Read the rest of this entry »

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Review: Sci-fi actioner Looper won’t exactly blow your mind but it does try

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 28, 2012

A film largely about the choices and decision that one makes, whether they be in one dimension of time or the next, Looper achieves in being a smart and original sci-fi action drama but neve.comr reaches the mind-bending, head-wracking grandeur of Inception, the last film I can remember that successfully played with our collective minds (Source Code tried but failed).There is much difference between the two productions, yes, but writer-director Rian Johnson’s nifty premise has the same deep potential that, in this case, wasn’t exploited to its fullest. But it’s still quite a ride, and one that feels like a welcome breath of fresh air in this year’s lineup of new releases.

What sort of premise is it? The one that sees Joseph Gordon Levitt, in the year 2044, make a living as a “Looper,” a hitman assassinating targets that were sent back from the not-so-far future. Time travel was indeed invented 30 years from now, but now remains only in the hands of the mob. They see this as a fine way to get rid of enemies literally without a trace. Send the target back into the past and he would’ve never existed in the present. Or something like that. Change the past, change the future. But then it appears that the mob wants the loop closed, so to speak, so they send back the older self of Gordon Levitt’s character, played by Bruce Willis, to get killed by his younger self. Because he’s Bruce Willis, he escapes (and later gets to indulge himself in some badass shoot-em-ups that could belong in The Expendables).

There’s many more layers to this story than should be divulged here, but, again, it’s all about the choices. Whose choice then, you may ask, was it to cast Willis as Gordon Levitt’s older self – while the two play off each other excellently, it’s well apparent that much was spent making them, well, resemble one another a little more. No adjustments at all would’ve been preferred (this is the movies) but here Gordon Levitt is saddled with heavily distracting prosthetics that, bizarrely, appear on and off during the duration.

When the two meet in a roadside diner – this film likes combining heady sci-fi concepts in low-fi settings, and the refreshing sensibility is such as well – halfway through to attempt to talk things out, a side view of the two sitting apposite each other reveal, among other things, the obvious trickery at hand that Gordon-Levitt wears to more resemble Willis’ well-known nose and overall visage. You get my point, anyway.

Once the action starts being anchored around the rural, Western-esque farmhouse property owned by tough single mother Sara (Emily Blunt) and her young son (Pierce Gagnon), who may or may not play an important part in the story, Looper stagnates a little in the more middling complexities of the story. It is certainly due to Johnson’s indie roots, but a more sweeping and grand approach to the story would have been ideally preferred while still keeping the finely tuned characters intact.

However, it also works to its advantage, maintaining a distinctively cool, taut and slick vibe that isn’t weighed down by unnecessary visual effects or more typical Hollywoodian temptations. [B+]

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Review: End of Watch a superbly acted cop drama with visceral and emotional realness

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 21, 2012

In writer-director David Ayer‘s End of Watch, the cops at the center of this engaging, surprisingly good slice-of-life drama set in the violent, tough South L.A. area aren’t rogue vigilantes or morally questionable or corrupt or even dealing with the latter in the system. These arguably “bigger” and certainly more cinematically tired themes are of no interest to this movie, which focuses on a pair of LAPD self-described “ghetto street cops” (Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena) as they cruise around in their black-and-white and generally are allowed to behave much like normal, relatable human beings who happen to be putting their life on the line every minute.
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Weekend Wrap-up: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia & more

Posted by Max Lalanne on September 21, 2012

Yirmaz Edogan, Firat Tanis, and Murat Kiliç in Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia: This 2011 Turkish import (with English subtitles throughout) by Nuri Bilge Ceylan is a tremendous feat of filmmaking. A dark, morose, and funny police procedural taking place largely in the rolling steppes of Anatolia, in rural Turkey, at night, the 150-minute-long film follows a police commisioner (Yirmaz Edogan), a prosecutor (Taner Biset), and a young doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) who – along with a little group of policemen, soldiers, and diggers – are driving around a convicted murderer in order to find a body buried somewhere in a field. Read the rest of this entry »

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