Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012 (2013)

Crystal Fairy and the Magical Cactus and 2012

Dir. Sebastián Silva, 2013

Once upon a time in Santiago de Chile, a local filmmaker decided to make a drug movie with his roommate, Michael Cera. The results were…mixed.

Crystal Fairy is a thoroughly strange movie about four brothers and their ne’er-do-well control freak of a friend (Jamie, played by Cera), who unwittingly invites a gratingly quirky hippie chick (the titular Crystal Fairy, played by Gaby Hoffman) on their road trip to partake of a psychedelic cactus on the shores of the Atacama. The gang takes a liking to Crystal Fairy while Jaime obsesses over the cactus.

After watching the film, I didn’t dislike it, but I had no interest in seeing it again. Sebastian Silva is obviously a talented director; he has a good eye, and his washed-out version of Chile really gives the impression of being on the far side of the Earth. But I wish he had enough confidence as a screenwriter to simply let things be. His need to give the film a satisfying conclusion may or may not ruin the whole thing. It’s up to you to find out.

C+

Men in Black 3 (2012)

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Men in Black 3

Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, 2012

In order to talk about Men in Black 3, I have to talk about the first two.

Men in Black was a surprise hit. The director was a lightweight and the star, Will Smith, was only known for a TV show that was not actually as popular as we remember. The film was executive produced by Steven Spielberg, but the aliens were more in the style of Terry Gilliam and the story was unromanticized. In short, it was like nothing else in theaters, and audiences loved it. Smith plays J, a personable but inexperienced crime-fighter who’s hired by K (Tommy Lee Jones) in a constant battle to stop Earth from being destroyed by aliens.

It was funny, original, and even Sonnenfeld couldn’t capture its spirit, because Men in Black 2 was neither of those things. Men in Black 2 was soulless, derivative, and incoherent, and hopes of a sequel were dashed for a decade. Men in Black 3 came out of nowhere, and a lot of disillusioned audience members didn’t go.

Well, they should have. Men in Black 3 wisely jettisons most of the original film’s hallmarks in favour of a totally original story. Boris the Animal (played by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement channeling Tim Curry) escapes from prison, goes back to the 1960s, and kills K. When J realizes what’s happened, he goes back as well, teaming up with a younger version of his old partner (Josh Brolin) and uncovering a mystery involving Andy Warhol, the 1969 Mets, and the moon landing, all with the help of Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg), a softspoken being who can forsee all possible futures.

The change of setting is great, as are the new characters, but a few things don’t work. Firstly, a small part of the film draws attention to a possible romance between K and O (Alice Eve/Emma Thompson) which is never resolved. Second, a much larger amount of time is given to resolve J’s daddy issues. Why was this in the film? We don’t care about J’s past. Furthermore, between this, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Aladdin, why does every threequel feel the need to address this issue? And why always the third movie!?

Both of those subplots could be taken out at no expense to the rest of the story, but the story is good enough to make up for it. A lot of people didn’t see this because they thought it would suck, but it didn’t. It’s not as good as the first, but it’s miles ahead of the second and, honestly, better than it has any right to be. So get yourself some pie and watch it.

B+

Frances Ha (2013)

Frances Ha

Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013

For all the talk about those durn kids with their unemployment and their black friends, cinematic treatment of millennials has been surprisingly mature, with a light heart and a serious mind. In contrast to the self-congratulatory boomers of The Big Chill and the adult children of Slacker, movies about millennials usually end with the main characters having to face the realities of change and adulthood, a change that is always portrayed as good. Even Superbad reaches this conclusion, and after a decade of arrested development, one gets the feeling that our generation wants nothing more than to grow up.

Enter Frances Ha, the newest film from acclaimed director Noah Baumbach. While Baumbach has been accused of ripping off his mentor Whit Stillman, Stillman was never able to escape the prism of his own young adulthood, while Baumbach managed to take the same character types and situations and adapt them to the present day. In Frances Ha, the titular character (Greta Gerwig), is a professional dancer in New York City who refuses to give up on her dream, even as she loses her job and her best friend moves to Tokyo with her new fiancé. Frances’ stubbornness is painful to watch as she turns down various opportunities and her friends move on with their lives. But eventually she does get the hint.

Filmed in colour but screened in black-and-white, Frances Ha is a beautiful portrait of Brooklyn, the 2010s, and Greta Gerwig (her smile is gorgeous). Baumbach’s reputation as a Brooklyn and New York icon is now clear. This was my favourite film of 2013. And I don’t know if this says more about us or about Hollywood, but giving up on your dream has never been more life-affirming. A

The Last Detail (1973)

The Last Detail

Dir. Hal Ashby, 1973

While Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were winning over audiences with their ribaldry, Hal Ashby directed The Last Detail, a much darker comedy that captured the dingy, washed-out feel of early 1970s America. It’s strange to think that this movie was only intended as a star vehicle for Jack Nicholson.

Of course, Nicholson steals the show. His character Badass and partner Mule (Otis Young) are Petty officers in the U.S. Navy, assigned to escort a young sailor (Randy Quaid) to prison up the coast. The kid is naive and inexperienced, and Badass only thinks it right that he should have some fun before spending next eight years in the brig. Cue drinking, fighting, yelling, hippies, prostitutes, sausages, and the sending of breakfasts back to the kitchen.

The Last Detail’s style is traditional, straightforward, and unpretentious, leaving the heavy lifting to the scenery and especially Nicholson. Most of the humour comes from the character’s personalities and relationships, a breath of fresh air in an era dominated by farce. Although much more tightly scripted thanks to Robert Towne, the film is reminiscent of today’s Mumblecore movement, and contemporary filmmakers looking to do something different can learn something watching this. B+

Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X

Dir. Spike Lee, 1992

Few genres of film are more associated with pandering crap than biopics, and for good reason. To reduce an entire existence to the conventions of three-act story structure is artificial and ultimately disrespectful. It is the rare person who lives out the hero’s journey.

But Malcolm X was one of them, and Malcolm X is possibly the greatest biopic ever made.

Certainly it is one of Spike Lee’s best films, as well as one of Denzel Washington’s finest performances. The titular civil rights leader begins as an intelligent and charismatic young man who is nevertheless denied opportunities because of his race, and becomes a criminal. While incarcerated, he joins the Nation of Islam, and once freed becomes the magnetic spokesperson for an ideology just as bigoted as– indeed, compatible with– white supremacy.

This is the Malcolm X we know, the punching bag of talk radio and Fox News, but the story doesn’t end there. As he becomes disillusioned with the corrupt, scandalized Nation of Islam, Malcolm makes a pilgrimage to Mecca, prays alongside Asians and Europeans, and learns that people of different races can live in harmony. Of course, his new teachings cost him his life.

Malcolm X is much longer than most movies made after the 1950s, and that made Hollywood reluctant to fund it. Nonetheless, Spike Lee makes the extra time count, with a great true story and an all-star cast. Released at a time when education and the media had totally sanitized the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X shows that overcoming is about more than pretty speeches: it’s about searching within and making some very difficult decisions. A

Zardoz (1974) vs. Excalibur (1980)

Zardoz

Dir. John Boorman, 1974

For all we talk about how 1960s-70s counterculture destroyed polite society, the real impact was marginal compared with what it did to cinema. The advent of drugs and the end of censorship gave inspired filmmakers to tell stories that could never before be realized. It also meant that successful filmmakers had license to make any film they wanted, and it was a disaster: the New Hollywood was destroyed by massively expensive bombs by directors who thought they were gods, and Zardoz is one such film.

Already reasonably successful, director John Boorman found a massive hit in the classic thriller Deliverance. With a newly acquired carte blanche, Boorman chose to use an original story he’d been working on for a few years. The result is Zardoz. In a desperate attempt to escape James Bond’s shadow, Sean Connery plays Zed, and “exterminator” roaming the hills of what was once Britain, killing and enslaving whoever he finds. Gifted with uncommon intelligence, Zed sneaks inside the titular flying, talking, gun-loving, penis-hating stone head to discover an enclave of posh hippies who developed technology to keep them living forever. After centuries of youth, they have lost the will to live, and believe Zed is a saviour who can unlock their technology and bring them merciful death.

Needless to say, this movie was made on drugs, for people on drugs. There’s a lot that goes unexplained, and just as much that makes no sense. But ultimately Zardoz is a “fairy story” that relies on emotion. If you can get into this film, you can love it, and I really enjoyed it. It’s a unique window into 1970s anxieties over technology, class, youth, and the author himself. If you think you’ll like it, give it a try. B+

Excalibur

Dir. John Boorman, 1980

Though much in the vein of Zardoz, Excalibur works a little differently. Excalibur is a mythical reimagining of the King Arthur legends that managed to change our perception of those legends. The ideas are more interesting than those in Zardoz, but the execution is less inspired. Nigel Terry’s Arthur is often painful to watch. Nicol Williamson is enjoyably campy as Merlin, but he disappears halfway through, only to return for the big finale. The whole film is episodic, and while the creepy, otherworldly visuals are enjoyably reminiscent of Josef von Sternberg, they don’t really fit the story until the second half. On the other hand, most of the actors are fun to watch, especially in hindsight, and the film’s use of Welsh is inspired and quite admirable at a time when the language was proscribed.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, I caught Excalibur on cable and was mesmerized. Watching now, I don’t know why, but it might have been because it was unlike anything I’d seen. Now that I’m an adult, I have seen a lot of the same tricks, done better, including in Zardoz. C+

Black Hawk Down (2001)

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Black Hawk Down

Dir. Ridley Scott, 2001

Black Hawk Down is an unusual film. The first R-rated movie I ever saw in a theater, Black Hawk Down is an American war movie about a war most Americans didn’t know was happening. It helped turn Jerry Bruckheimer into a household name, it played a pivotal role in film academia, it redefined the image of the American soldier just in time to go to war, and it raised issues about combat readiness and urban warfare that would haunt us in Afghanistan and Iraq.

By the early 1990s, decades of Communism and famine had devastated the Horn of Africa. When the famine ended and Communism fell, the country of Somalia became the poster child for failed states, constantly torn between autonomous warlords who needlessly hoarded food supplies. In response, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force which included Army Rangers, Special Ops pilots, and the not-so-secret Delta Force; all led by General Bill Garrison (played here by Sam Shepard).

One day, a small contingent of American troops were deployed on a routine mission to arrest deputies of Mohammed Farrah Aidid, a particularly brutal warlord with links to Al Qaeda. Underestimating the need for armor, water, and air support, two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down on opposite ends of the city, and a 30-minute mission turns into the deadliest battle in American history since Vietnam.

The most amazing thing about the battle– which is not covered in the movie– is that it went totally unnoticed back home. It only made a seven-inch column on the fourth page of the New York Times. When the Author Mark Bowden did publicity for his book about it, which inspired the movie, most of his readers weren’t aware that American troops had ever been in Somalia.

A few days ago, some friends and I were debating whether director Ridley Scott has an authorial voice that comes through in his films. The best we could agree on is that Scott spares no expense in his films, and Black Hawk Down is a shining example of what that kind of dedication can accomplish. He and producer Jerry Bruckheimer got all the right equipment, thousands of extras, real Army Ranger training, and some of the best talent in Hollywood– though not all, more on that later. Scott even came up with the idea of putting the character’s names on their helmets; a godsend to anyone who enjoys war movies but can’t tell people in uniform apart. The editing is great, the action is great, and while the visuals are dated, it’s only because so many movies, TV shows, and videogames copied this very film. The music is like nothing else in war cinema.

With a cast in the dozens, the film chooses to focus on a few people. Tom Sizemore is the put-upon convoy leader; Jason Isaacs is a tough-as-nails Captain who is nonetheless overwhelmed, but puts on a strong show for the men; Ewan McGregor plays a clerk desperate for action who has the bad luck of being selected for this mission; and Eric Bana is an unpredictable badass. Sam Shepard plays Gen. Garrison as a hands-on general who knows his men and struggles with how to get them out of this mess.

Not all of the cast is great, though. It’s in this film that Orlando Bloom began his career as a decoy protagonist, and Ron Eldard can’t deliver a line believably as one of the Black Hawk pilots. It’s no wonder we didn’t see him after that stupid pilot where he played a blind cop.

And of course, there’s Josh Hartnett. Josh Hartnett was Hollywood’s newest heartthrob that nobody wanted. Whether he was a flat-out bad actor or just constantly given the wrong roles can be debated, but everytime he’s onscreen, the film grinds to a halt. He is given the film’s central story, and it’s the most generic war movie plot ever: sensitive sergeant is reluctantly put in charge, copes with difficulties of leadership. Luckily, there’s so much else in the movie that he can’t ruin it.

Get used to a lot of squinting bewilderment.

The most common criticism of this film is that it manages to glorify battle even as it depicts an American defeat. I understand but disagree. The film came out December 2001, and established the idea that even when Americans oppose the war, they support the troops. The film is pro-soldier: in the heat of battle, the man next to you is more important than politics, and people can be heroes even when the fight should never have happened. In spite of its flaws, Black Hawk Down manages to provide a unique viewing experience; in the pantheon of Hollywood war movies, it’s a must-watch. B+