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Cloud At Last

I’m shocked. This year was a damn good year for new movies. There were ups: Dredd, Total Recall, Argo, and downs: Prometheus, Looper, Flight, and the in-betweens: Django Unchained, John Carter, The Avengers, and this stands in direct opposition to the last couple of years, whose downs and in-betweens weren’t nearly as interesting. 2010 is defined to me as purely Scott Pilgrim, and 2011, purely Drive. 2012 on the other hand saw a deluge of good movies… but still not enough for me to compile a top ten list.

Maybe if I actually managed to see Life of Pi like I set out to, and maybe if I lived in a major city to see Zero Dark Thirty when it came out, but no, shut up — this is Dreck Fiction’s Top Ten Movies of 2012 Rundown, a list of questionable raison d’etre, outside of making ten arguably quality recommendations…

10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012) Dir. Christopher Nolan

I hate myself. When The Dark Knight came out and everyone loved it, I could not see the value in it. Nolan’s sequel was boring, overwrought, and dumb as hell. Now, when The Dark Knight Rises comes out and people are generally positive on it but don’t think it’s as good as it could’ve been, I scratch my head yet again. I loved The Dark Knight Rises. It’s visually stunning, socially resonant, and exciting. So am I a contrarian for the sake of being a contrarian? At this point, I can’t tell, all the way over here in my lonely, argumentative corner. In some ways, I don’t care, because The Dark Knight Rises and it’s lack of Batman, introduction of neat visual icons, and cool dystopic story, keeps me welcome company.

9. Persepolis (2007) Dirs. Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud

From what little I understand of comics, Persepolis and other autobiographical comics that dominated the underground scene of their time… set the medium. Nowadays any serious comic is like this, but I’d be hard pressed to find an artist with as powerful a story as Marjane Satrapi’s. This movie is beautifully animated, and tells a heartbreaking story of a difficult coming of age during bloody history in the making. It’s a microscope pushed all the way in during a greater conflict, and the humanist themes found are just as emotionally sweeping as in any great war epic.

8. Total Recall (2012) Dir. Len Wiseman

With every remake, we ask: did we really need a remake? The answer is almost always “no,” but I’m glad for a few reasons we got Total Recall 2012 (maybe in fifty-eight years we’ll get a Total Recall 2070). One reason is that for a sci-fi action movie, it isn’t boring as all get-out. There is action from start to finish, which is plainly shocking. How did they afford that? Typically the action movie dynamic is: all the action scenes are super expensive so they can’t be all the movie, so let’s pad this out with exposi — oh shit we forgot to write a story. Here, it’s not only action but action in a lavish sci-fi world. A familiar one, yes, but hey. How many movies are set in current day L.A.? I could stand to see a few more set in 2019 L.A., if I’m being honest.

7. The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) Dir. RZA

This movie and Cloud Atlas really bum me out. In twenty years, people will look back on them and call them cult classics. Movies that fucking failed financially, finally fulfilling forgotten… (where am I?) finally gaining notice only when it’s too late for the filmmakers to benefit and make another. These movies are really something else, and it totally upsets me that people call for originality and novelty in their movies, and then slam these two for being different. I don’t have much new to say on The Man with the Iron Fists, other than I’m so glad I saw it in theatres. I’ve missed way too many modern cult classics — Slither, Grindhouse, and Scott Pilgrim come to mind — when they were in theatres and making no money.

6. The Raid: Redemption (2011) Dir. Gareth Evans

I curse The Raid: Redemption for only one reason — it partially ruined the otherwise perfectly fine Dredd. This is a martial arts movie that goes for the hard hits, and even though I’ve seen that meth lab battle a few times, I always wince at the big impacts. I haven’t been this physically affected by an action movie since the first and second viewing of Crank 2, in all its nipple-cutting glory. I love energy in movies, so if you want to be blown away by a pure action spectacle (think 300 but with no slow motion and an actual story), The Raid: Redemption is just as good as everyone says.

5. Chungking Express (2005) Dir. Wong Kar Wai

Wong Kar Wai is a vicious filmmaker who goes after cinematic conventions like a Charles Bronson-esque vigilante. Though I can’t get my head around how he does it (I assume, with his method, he’d have to fuck up at some point — he’d have to), I’m glad he makes movies as good as this, Chungking Express, often considered his best movie (though I prefer 2046). This movie is two parts — two love stories featuring gorgeous people in a gorgeous city looking despondent through windows at each other.

4. Battle Royale (2000) Dir. Finji Fukasaku

Django Unchained wins points for its tremendously bloody violence, but there isn’t too much of it in the end. Battle Royale somehow manages to keep its chaos going throughout its run, and though it’s generally difficult to stomach (fifteen year olds in school uniforms machine-gunning each others’ bodies apart), the adrenaline matches your guilt. I don’t like the idea behind this movie, I think it’s a little too harsh, but it does create the scenario I love from horror-comedies (this is not horror-comedy, for the record), where characters react realistically and funnily to an insane situation. I think to that scene where two students are shooting at each other at the start of the game, hesitating and stumbling over each other like the fisticuffs in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. I’m a little dissapointed that Chiaki Kuriyama went out so quickly, and that after Kill Bill: Vol. 1 she didn’t do much high-profile stuff… but the shotgun dude was cool, and he made up for it.

3. The Road Home (2000) Dir. Zhang Yimou

As much as I might bellyache over The Road Home‘s core conceits, that of good ol’ fashioned, freeze-your-ass off transcendental living, y’all goddamn cityfolk, and one person’s definition of feminism in the obsession and stalking of a man, I can’t help but be utterly silenced by its sweeping, rollercoaster romance. Its got easily my favorite score I heard this year, with that main theme swelling in just the right points in the narrative, keeping the tears inside on a steady flow. For such a tiny story where scope and scale are concerned, there are moments that feel like punches to the gut — this is exemplary cinematic storytelling, audio/video as literary device akin to In the Mood for Love. The sequence of our heroine’s initial courting of the dude builds brilliantly: she attempts to wait for him as he walks along the road (home), but gets cold feet and ducks behind the bushes three or four times. When she finally sums up the courage, she passes him on the road (home) and he gives her a nod. She smiles really big and the theme swells — no dialogue, all expression.

2. Cloud Atlas (2012) Dirs. Andy and Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer

Like I said earlier with Iron Fists, this makes me so sad. You’ll notice that when critics talk down on Cloud Atlas, their criticisms are vague as hell. I don’t believe they know why they hate the movie, and frankly, sir, I don’t believe I know why I like the movie. But I felt it as I sat there in an uncomfortable ass, stadium-seating-impaired theatre, craning my neck upward. The movie pounded with life and imagination, it was like a guided tour through three of the most creative minds in film. I don’t know what we were meant to take away from the film (a reason why it’s not #1), but I feel like if I were to begin deconstructing it, I’d ruin the purity of experience for myself. Also, go Keith David!

1. Brokeback Mountain (2005) Dir. Ang Lee

“Are they gay?” my friend asks when I’m watching it for a second time.
“I think… they’re confused.”

The right answer is simpler: it doesn’t matter. Labels have no place here. This is a story about individuals who are destroyed by such things — cultural expectations, masculine and familial priorities — so any frazzled critic who shouts that calling these characters homosexual marginalizes the bisexual community needs to sleep on it (back in 2005). The characters at various points in the movie maintain that they’re both straight men, and this represents a major failure in American (and global) society. Brokeback Mountain doesn’t point fingers or complain, it does a movie’s job, and makes a much more powerful statement in doing so. One of its most sympathetic characters is actually one of the two men’s wives, and indeed, the film illustrates the destructive power of intolerance in the female characters it reaches indirectly. In my opinion, one of the most heart-wrenching (if somewhat hokey) lines is delivered by Delmar’s (Heath Ledger) second girl.

For a supposedly straight male, I tend to concern myself a lot with LGBT issues (there’s that contrarian again?), but Brokeback Mountain doesn’t speak to The Man Inside me (who will one day walk free of the pain), but the humanist I aspire to be.

So there you have it. See you round.

In this year 2011, over a decade after The Matrix hit theatres and I was but a boy, I never thought I could ever be such a thing as a Matrix apologist. Of course, the sequels were poorly recieved so I had to defend those, but the original Matrix is one of science-fiction film’s proudest moments – from what I understood of critical consensus. Why then do I find that people can be so critical of it when it’s – on the level that they criticize it for – essentially Star Wars, operating on the same principle of gracefully synthesizing old tropes. Where Star Wars had Kurosawa and Flash Gordon, The Matrix had Gibson and Ghost in the Shell. It also, and this is something that Star Wars most certainly did not have, had a year that was appropriately surrounded by a bevy of cyberpunk and existential movies. We had, from 1995 to 1999, Strange Days, Dark City, Johnny Mnemonic, eXistenZ, and The Thirteenth Floor, and as Christopher Nolan will tell us, Memento. I can agree with that, though it lacks cyber and it has no punk.

If one day The Matrix actually came into your office and ripped you off, just jacked all your belongings and was seen only on the security feed, you couldn’t say a goddamn thing – it’d be crying wolf, as a legion of creatives has already beat you to it. It’s a fundamental problem the Wachowski brothers had with their universe. It’s hugely popular as a franchise in terms of finance, akin to Star Wars but obviously not as galactic (*laughs*), but have you ever really heard of a Matrix fan? As a devout science-fiction nerd, this is indeed something I’ve turned over in my mind not once but a frequently many times before.

A Star Wars fan has a Boba Fett T-shirt, a Phantom Menace poster – because I don’t know he’s a hipster – a Chewbacca bobble-head, and a preorder for Star Wars: The Old Republic, or KOTOR III-VI, if marketing jargon has been effective. The fan has a lot of universe to pick from, it’s so expansive and conducive to fandom. Same with Star Trek and Doctor Who and Buffy, I guess, though they might just say “Whedonverse,” which might as well just be Buffy for various reasons*. The Matrix on the other hand has something of a flawed universe if we’re speaking to fan-friendly terms.

The heroes in The Matrix universe are actively working to undo the universe. As a result it sort of feels temporary, and personally that’s something that doesn’t jibe with me. It’s definitely one of those weirdnerd things, but out of all the sci-fi universes I’d want to live in – where the Sprawl universe or Mass Effect ties for the top – The Matrix would be down near Ghost in the Shell, which is at the bottom because you can get real fucked up in that world. Being in The Matrix would just be no fun, and it does reflect on the movies, which are all very, very serious.

Despite some flashes of humor, all three movies and the one anime anthology, take themselves very seriously, and tonally that doesn’t always click with people. Not to harp on Nolan again but that’s one of the reasons why I can’t say without qualification that I like his movies, where even the jokes in something like The Dark Knight feel like they’re taking themselves seriously. At the same time though The Matrix always works for me, even if all the parts in Zion that don’t involve sexy robot-on-robot action come off something like… The Chronicles of Riddick.

I’ve said this before but The Matrix is not only exemplary in modern filmmaking (indeed such a general term), I’d also consider it to be the second best science-fiction film ever made, above Star Wars and 2001 and all the others. It fills out exactly what movies of this type aspire to – being hugely entertaining and taking the time out to allow the audience to think about what’s going on. Not even Blade Runner does that because not everyone can find it as entertaining. That being said, The Matrix doesn’t quite operate on the same intellectual plane as Blade Runner, where it’s existentialist questions and themes were upstaged a year earlier with Dark City.

It’s just a damn good movie that talked about all the things people have been talking about for centuries – Allegory of the Cave but the difference here is that the Cave is the Net, which I suppose makes it stretch only as far back as certain episodes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, but it never gets old and had two not-as-good sequels and a universe that nerds can’t get behind. Hmm.

*Well I didn’t want to get into it above because I thought it was just a funny throwaway joke but didn’t want to bog down the already needlessly joke-heavy post; a gamble, of course. But it occured to me as I typed the word “Buffy,” up there that Joss Whedon has Buffy, a huge series spanning like seven or twelve seasons or something, and then Angel, which is a spin-off and occupies the same universe, a little later on he had Firefly, which was so short it doesn’t count, and then Dollhouse which was about four times as long but nobody liked it.

 

 

 

I don’t want to keep talking about Chan-Wook Park, I’ve done it so much. But I recently happened across a French movie called La Haine. Haven’t seen it yet, but it seems interesting, kind of a Boyz N the Hood but with Vincent Cassel, which is fine by me. I looked up the director, and it seems that the latest movie he did was Babylon AD, AKA shitty Children of Men. This is a pretty common thing, and I don’t know why, but you see it all the time: foreign filmmakers coming to America and destroying their careers. Only John Woo made it back. And it’s usually like horror remakes they do – there was a time where if you saw a trailer for some PG-13 horror remake about ghosts, it’d have some Asianguy name attached to it as director.

Chan-Wook Park was offered to remake The Evil Dead in the United States – that surely would’ve ruined him just like America did Ryuhei Kitamura and all them. And that sucks because America already has a bad reputation when it comes to foreign movies. There’s a video on YouTube called something like Akira: the American version. It’s a funny video in execution, but deadly serious in premise. All the comments below fight the good fight the video does in it’s anti-American movie cause. It’s crazy how narrow-minded people can be; I recall one of the more egregious comments being something like “I hate it when people make a movie but don’t understand the source material.” How the hell do you know that nobody understands the source material? I haven’t read the manga, but the movie isn’t deeper than every American movie ever. Goddamn.

Foreign filmmakers aren’t the only ones who can fall victim to the biggest film industry in the world – so too can our homegrown. Give them too much money, and fans will note to the end of time how they got too much money. For the most part it seems to be true, at least, that’s how it’s percieved. David Twohy did Pitch Black, and then he did The Chronicles of Riddick. Kurt Wimmer did Equilibrium, and then he did Ultraviolet. I haven’t seen Ultraviolet, but critical consensus has steered me clear. James Cameron to a lesser extent also seems to get worse with increased budget, but that’s more complicated. Terminator 2 was totally sweet, but Avatar… not so much.

One of the more tragic examples is Alex Proyas. This is one frustrating filmmaker, not only because he’s so damn picky with scripts he seemingly barely makes movies, but because he’s had a visible downward spiral. I haven’t seen The Crow but was told recently it was pretty meh. I haven’t seen Knowing either but I’ve heard it’s pretty bad. I tend not to believe that because anything with Nicolas Cage is both a hater-magnet and the greatest thing ever. The thing is – Dark City was really good, and I, Robot, while good for what it was, is a startling step downward in quality and step up in budget. All of the visual opulence from Dark City was there, though I am a dead sucker for cyberpunk anything, but the attention to detail, the lack of cliche, the script – it was all gone.

When studios give writer/directors these big budgets, they tend to flounder and seemingly forget whatever style they had used before. Why did John Singleton stop making personal movies about South Central? I’m not saying that that’s the only thing he’d be good at, but I don’t care for 2 Fast 2 Furious, aside from the obviously great title.

I watched a trailer for Insomnia, a movie by Christopher Nolan, and it looked very similar to Memento – a briskly paced, possibly clever psychological thriller. When the studios handed the job down to Nolan to do Batman, I’m sure there was someone who feared a ‘dumbing down’ of his style. But rather than do as others before him had, he made the Batman movies very much in the fashion of the smaller budgeted Memento rather than just making the Batman movies like the Burtons and Schumakers had before him.

Inception, another big budget movie, cements Nolan as someone who hasn’t lost the touch, hasn’t forgotten his roots. When the roots are good, we hope that these guys don’t forget them, but unfortunately Nolan is rare. And certainly the Batman movies aren’t as deep as Memento, but that’s not really important – I believe that the two movies were a test, and that he arrived on the other side unchanged is a major victory for everyone.

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