Thursday, November 22, 2012

Anna Karenina Review

An adaptation of the late 19th-century Russian classic about the consequences of love outside of marriage.

That is not the best description of the plot of Anna Karenina, but it's hard to think of a one or two-sentence summary. The novel is sprawling, exploring both the cultural as well as political state of Russia at the time of its writing. Characters constantly act as mirrors for each other--Anna and her brother Stiva showing the consequences of infidelity for men versus women, Anna and Levin showing the pursuit of love inside and outside of marriage, Levin and Karenin showing social change from within the government as opposed to in their daily lives--and that doesn't even begin to touch on the myriad love triangles. The novel is neither small nor simplistic, and, I would say, an absolute delight.

How then to adapt it to the screen and do it in such a way that makes sense 135 years after the novel?

Wright (director) and Stoppard (screenwriter) seemingly decided to abandon any pretense of even telling the story from the novel. Oddly enough, I think that decision works even though the film ultimately doesn't.

They didn't film the novel. Instead of, for instance, having a scene at a train station filmed at a train station (or on a set made up to look like one), much of the movie is set in an abandoned theater. The drama of the film literally happens onstage but also travels backstage, into the rafters, all over. The choreography and set design done to accomplish this is worth the price of admission alone. The first half hour plays out like Moulin Rouge! without the flash and manic energy. Instead there's an unrelenting balletic grace in every move. It was so well done that I was actually disappointed when Levin returned to his estate and it became him actually working the fields at his estate--the first point where it looked like a normal movie.

With all the effort put into the set design and choreography, the storytelling suffered. The movie seemed to relate the story of Anna Karenina in shorthand, with nods to all the plot elements as though the audience will just know what's happening--especially regarding Levin's working the fields with his serfs and Anna's breakdown over being increasingly isolated from society. Which I think is the point. You're supposed to have read the book before seeing this film. There's a moment where a character tells Anna she wouldn't dream of leaving her operetta so early, and I think that's the key to understanding this adaptation--it is not a straight adaptation, it's the story done as opera, but without filming an opera. The characters aren't acting, they're aware of their presence in a story, and since they know the story it's assumed you do too.

Does that make sense?

My inability to successfully describe the film, frankly, is the problem with the film. I actually don't mind the movie having the assumption I know the source material. Rather than tell the story, it's stepping forward and saying, "We all know this story, so how can we make it new? What else can film do?" Only it doesn't go far enough. When the rear walls of the stage literally part and Levin steps onto the snow-covered fields of his estate, that's when the movie loses its nerve, when the movie returns to standard filmic methods. It should have stayed within the theater the whole time, forever contrasting the artifice of Russian society with the reality of Anna and Vronsky's love through the dissonance of the realistic sets being constantly subverted by the stage itself. Then I could say that this was experimental film as costume drama or vice versa. As it is, Anna Karenina is an abjectly gorgeous film with stunning choreography that ultimately left me cold. It moves well and is definitely worth seeing on the big screen just for the majesty of it, but it's not something you can get lost in.

3/5 stars.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Strike Debt

Hopefully you've already heard about the Rolling Jubilee and Strike Debt. These are outgrowths of Occupy attempting to buy up as much bad individual debt as possible and then erase it.

They've already done a proof-of-concept where, with $500 they eliminated $14,000 worth of debt. Today they took $5,000 of the money they've raised so far and erased just over $100,000 worth of medical debt.

An action like is is at once simple in its execution and radical in its results. Beyond the immediate good that can be done to families burdened by bad debts that they shouldn't have been hit with in the first place--be they medical debts because we still don't have a single-payer system or from fraud by credit card companies piling on fee after fee after fee--this action is the first step in undermining our debt economy and, in conjunction with other debt strike actions, goes a long way to brutally screwing the vampire class.

After all the time chanting, "They got bailed out, we got sold out," the people are finally getting their own bailout and, appropriately enough, it's not coming from the government but from the people themselves.

So if you think our predatory lending culture is unfair: support the Rolling Jubilee

If you think people shouldn't be punished for being too poor for a doctor: support the Rolling Jubilee

If you think credit card companies should lose: support the Rolling Jubilee

If you think your bailout dollars went to crooks who crashed our economy: support the Rolling Jubilee

If you want to give a big "fuck you" to politicians wringing their hands over a "fiscal cliff" but who wouldn't mention wages or income inequality during the campaign: support the Rolling Jubilee

Help your neighbors take their lives back. I donated, I hope you will too. And be sure to check out the livestream of their telethon tonight starting at 8 ET.

Watch live streaming video from lepoissonrouge at

PFF: Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning 3D Review

John, while exploring his house to convince his daughter there are no monsters, encounters a group of black-clad men who savagely beat him then murder his wife and daughter. Just before John slips into a coma, one of the men removes his mask revealing that he is Luc Deveraux (Jean-Claude Van Damme), setting John, once he wakes up, on a quest for revenge. Only he discovers a much larger mystery and an underground army of Universal Soldiers being trained for a revolution.

A free movie for those who saw John Dies At the End, this flick was billed as the craziest, most violent, most off-the-wall genre film the Festival organizers had ever seen. To say "don't believe the hype" doesn't insult the film--the organizers set a pretty high bar. The movie still didn't thrill me much, though.

I haven't seen any of the Universal Soldier movies, and apparently this is the fourth. However it was pretty easy to pick up the plot. The Universal Soldier program grew genetically-modified people to be perfect soldiers for whatever use the government wanted to put them to--and it only takes 9 months for one to become a fully grown killing machine. Only the soldiers have started going rogue, led by one Luc Deveraux.

I found that to be the most interesting part of the movie. Jean-Claude Van Damme is really creepy and compelling as this cult leader who seemingly can appear in characters' subconscious and draw them to him. I wanted to know what his plans were, what he was doing, just everything about him.

Unfortunately, there's not a whole lot of JCVD in the film, nor much Dolph either. This is not my genre so I'm not familiar with these guys' work, but the movie was just more fun when they were on screen.

Instead of the stars of the franchise, we're following John who, while trying to figure out why his family was killed, slowly discovers a second life that he can't remember and gradually unravels the mystery around his connection to Deveraux. This is a much slower, more meditative plot line punctuated by scenes of extreme violence from the Universal Soldier that Deveraux has dispatched to kill John.

This is the bulk of the movie and, while neat, didn't grab me. I wanted Jean-Claude Van Damme. I wanted this scary bald guy appearing from the strobe lights. Instead I had Ben Affleck's stunt double trying to emote.

Plus, the movie didn't even begin to meet the standards of madness I was told to expect by the Festival planners. Apparently the version I saw was the uncut version which is otherwise not going to screen in the US. There are some excellently-done action sequences and moments of startling violence that come across as real on the screen, but nothing to meet the hype they gave it. Frankly, the movie felt like something that was ultimately too good to be direct-to-video, but not good enough to see wide-release. And that's the state of limbo the movie lives in. Much of it is very sharp and compelling, but the final product just left me tired.

3/5 stars.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

PFF: John Dies At the End Review

David Wong has a story to tell, a story about a sentient drug called "soy sauce" that opens the doors of perception to other realities. One of those other realities has plans for our world, though, and only David's friend John has the key to stop them. Unfortunately, you know what happens to John.

Another film on my must-see list, this one didn't thrill me as much as Everything Will Be OK. John Dies At the End is the follow-up to Don Coscarelli's adaptation of Bubba Ho-Tep, the story of Elvis, who hadn't died, and President Kennedy, whose skin was dyed black, living in a rest home fighting off a redneck mummy that's killing the other residents. That is about as wacky a premise as you can have for a story and that movie delivers, but, moreso, it unexpectedly explores aging and the melancholic inevitability of death. Bubba Ho-Tep turned out to be a thoughtful meditation on life choices and their consequences with a horror-comedy premise stretched over it, a film that mixes high-art with B-movie aesthetics and one that I would recommend to any person any time.

John Dies At the End, not so much.

The movie is not a bad flick nor unenjoyable. In fact, it delivers on many levels doing things that I've been wanting to see in monster movies for ages. The characters are somewhat hip and ironic and respond to their situations--even the most dramatic--with an appropriate detachment, with almost an awareness of being in a monster movie set-up. And that is fun. "You are the prophesied saviors of our world!" "Great. We'll be right back. [whispered]Screw these guys." I loved that and the opening of the movie promises something along the lines of a sarcastic Scooby-Doo.

And then it just doesn't deliver.

There weren't exactly continuity issues, but there was a level of confusion to the movie itself. The frame narrative is David telling Arnie, a reporter, all about soy sauce: how he first discovered the drug, what it did to him, and the ultimate adventure on which it led him and his friend John. By the end of the movie, though, I don't know why David is trying to tell Arnie the story. Plus there's a flashback at the beginning of their conversation that takes place after the events of the core story that doesn't really tie in to anything else. The movie, frankly, felt like the pilot for a TV show on HBO or Showtime--a show I would totally watch, but that didn't make for a cohesive movie.

Now maybe I missed something. Coscarelli's not new to the game and the movie is carefully constructed--it moves at a steady clip and is constantly entertaining and surprising--but it felt like there were plot holes and short cuts that didn't need to be there (how David ends up taking his first dose of soy sauce for instance). And maybe it says something of the movie itself that my first impulse is to lay the fault for any sense of dissatisfaction with me, but it just felt a little flat.

Much of the movie was very satisfying. The central plot of John and David being exposed to the soy sauce and then being roped into a plan to save the Earth from a Cthonic horror from a parallel dimension was lots of fun and Paul Giamatti as the reporter, well, Paul Giamatti ever, in anything, is a delight. The movie is a lot of fun, a total popcorn-muncher and great for a Saturday afternoon, but it didn't meet the expectations set by Bubba Ho-Tep. Were I judging the film exclusively on its own merits, it might have rated higher with me, I might have overlooked or simply missed the things that tripped me up, but Coscarelli is so good that I find it hard not to hold him to the standard he established. John Dies At the End is good, but it could have been better.

3.5/5 stars

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

PFF: The Everything Will Be OK Trilogy/It's Such a Beautiful Day

The latest from animator Don Hertzfeldt, this piece is three 15-20 minute cartoons about Bill, a man with an unstated neurodegenerative condition, and his common and curious thoughts and experiences.

THE festival gem. I'm a fan of Hertzfeldt in general and had this down as my festival must-see. After all, a movie like this isn't going to see any sort of wide-release, it's only going to play the festival circuit.

Being a fan of Hertzfeldt, however, did not prepare me for this movie. I knew he could push paper animation farther than anyone else and that he could plumb the depths of absurdist, black humor. I never expected to be crying by the end of one of his pieces and trying not to cry now, nearly a month later, remembering it.

The trilogy, billed by the Film Fest as The Everything Will Be OK Trilogy (Hertzfeldt's title for the complete work is It's Such a Beautiful Day) is three cartoons: "Everything Will Be OK," "I Am So Proud of You," and, "It's Such a Beautiful Day." The first piece is posted in its entirety here and, while visually it goes beyond anything Hertzfeldt's done before, the content feels like classic Hertzfeldt--absurd, dark, and wry, which is not a criticism. The short has hilarious moments--"Downtown, the hot smell of manure blew past him as he walked. Bill soon came upon 3 dead horses in the road, apparently struck down by a large moving vehicle. Well, he thought, that would explain the smell then." "His ex-girlfriend said she'd be really creeped out if she knew Bill's severed head was floating around above her in space."--but had a palpable shift in the middle where I realized, while the audience was still laughing, this wasn't funny anymore, that there was something tragic happening on screen.

Rather than have sync-sound and dialogue, Hertzfeldt instead narrates the entire trilogy in a constant, straight, unaffected tone. This, initially, heightens the humor and absurdity, but, as the movie goes on, increases the tragedy. It's like having someone read a story to you were horrible things keep happening and they won't stop no matter how much you ask. They just keep plowing along. Which makes the really heartbreaking moments--when a scene is repeated 3 times with the same narration and the same cadence, when he says, "That hand keeps dropping things," when a character is said to be softly crying--hit harder. The unaffected tone keeps things from becoming melodramatic and makes the moment of revelation, that this isn't funny, hit so much harder.

I could go on and on about the beauty of this film and obsess over every part, every decision made in the telling, but it would make for boring reading. This is a trilogy and every part stands alone and is remarkable in its own way, but as a trilogy it manages the amazing feat of rewriting itself and your understanding of it by the end of the third part. The first part means something else after the third part and is no longer funny. Only tragic and sad and beautiful.

This is the best movie I've seen all year.

5/5 stars