Monday, July 28, 2014

Naked and Afraid

Movies: Stranger by the Lake

Stranger by the Lake is a French naturalistic erotic thriller. Got all that? The film, which takes place at a single location--a lake where gay men go to cruise--is slow moving with a plot that asks more questions than it answers.

Protagonist Franck (Pierre Delodonchamps) comes to the lake nearly every day one summer, and strikes up a friendship with loner Henri, a heterosexual man who prefers hanging out in this cruising spot because people actually talk to him (unlike the side of the lake where families go and he is treated like a "creep"). Franck also develops a crush on Michel (Christophe Paou), who looks like a slightly more rugged Freddie Mercury.

Spoiler? Or pivotal plot point? ahead:

One night after dark, Franck spies Michel out in the lake with his lover. Michel pushes the man under the water, killing him. Rather than immediately go to the police, Franck slowly becomes closer to Michel, playing dumb about his lover ("What about your man?" he asks Michel when they kiss for the first time. "He won't see us." replies Michel). The tension of the film hinges on both *why* Franck is so willing to play with fire and how much Michel knows about what Franck knows.

/end spoilers.

I found Stranger by the Lake to be fairly boring, to be honest. It's a thriller, but a very low key one. The stakes are high but the actions of the characters are confusingly passive. I read a review where the director suggests that the film can be read as a metaphor for AIDS: there is very real danger at this cruising spot, but in the haze of lust some folks are happy throwing caution to the wind. That's an interesting interpretation of the film, but it hardly breaks new ground in LGBTQ cinema.

I also found the whole "cruising spot as locale for violence" trope a little...hrrrmmm. I realize the movie isn't *trying* to be homophobic, but its suggestion that (some?) gay men will take any risk to get laid is more than a little insulting. But as I'm not a gay man, my opinion only carries so much weight here.

The one excellent aspect of Stranger by the Lake is the absolutely gorgeous cinematography. The scenery has a dreamlike quality that reminded me of Picnic at Hanging Rock. There's a lot of silence and a lot of wind blowing through the trees (it's an easy movie to fall asleep to, for better or for worse). The overhead shots of men swimming in the lake are especially striking.

But as for the plot and acting, there just wasn't enough. The characters in the film spend the vast majority of the movie naked, and there are some explicit sex scenes. But for all the nudity I never felt like I saw beyond the tanned skin of the characters: their thoughts, fears, and motivations remain, for the most part, a mystery.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Crazy Train

Movies: Snowpiercer

It's such a cliched thing to say, but Bong Joon-Ho's latest futuristic thriller, Snowpiercer, is unlike any movie I've seen before. Based on the French graphic novel, which has only recently been published in English, Snowpiercer takes place in the not-too-distant future. To combat global warming, scientists have created a chemical that when released in mass quantities into the atmosphere lowers global temperatures. Unfortunately, the plan backfires and global temps drop, covering the earth in ice and snow. The few who survive board a train which runs eternally on a track all over the world.

Obviously, you have to suspend your disbelief a bit in order to enjoy this film.

The train, which gets its name from its ability to blast through ice and snow drifts, is a microcosm of our current world: a lucky, wealthy few enjoy the debauched pleasures, such as steam rooms, delicious food, and drugged out parties, at the front of the train. The vast majority of the passengers live in cramped filth in the back of the train and eat disgusting protein bars every day. Enforcers with guns make sure the lower class don't try any funny business to make it to the front.

Chris Evans, the actor who I mainly know through a slow-motion gif of his ass moving back and forth, is unrecognizable as Curtis. Curtis boarded the train at age 17 and saw, up close, the horrors that starvation and deprivation can lead people to. He and his younger buddy, Edgar (Jamie Bell), are planning a revolt to try to make it to the front of the train and into the engine room, where they will confront Wilfred, the mysterious man who created the "sacred engine" that allows the train to run eternally.

There are a lot of shocks and surprises as Curtis makes his way through the train, but there are also some dark laughs. Tilda Swinton is wonderful as Minister Mason, a bizarre, Margaret Thatcher-esque woman who enforces behavior in the lower classes. Swinton's character is something else, and scenes with her add much needed levity to an otherwise very dark and depressing movie. I was continually amazed at how the director seemed to perfectly balance violence with humor, steampunk fantasy with gritty reality, and soul-crushing revelations about the train and human nature with a whiff of hope. Bong Joon-Ho gives it his all in this movie, and even though Snowpiercer seems to transcend genres in many ways, it never feels overstuffed. It left me wanting more.

As for the style of Snowpiercer, apt comparisons have been made to Terry Gilliam (Brazil) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children). Both of those directors are masters at futuristic fantasy and social satire. I'll also throw in Wes Anderson, who is known, particularly in The Life Aquatic, for his stylized scenes of rooms and spaces. Like these other directors, Bong Joon-Ho puts space at the front and center of this film, and I felt almost dizzy trying to get a sense of how long the train was and how certain scenes could possibly take place in what must be truly cramped quarters. But Snowpiercer deliciously fucks with your sense of space and time, forcing you to suspend disbelief in order to enjoy the movie.

The movie wasn't perfect. There were a couple expository scenes where characters reveal stories that explain their actions. I'm more of a fan of "show, don't tell", so I get rather annoyed at scenes where the characters basically tell their life story. But other than this small flaw, I was blown away by Snowpiercer.

Keep in mind that while I don't think the film is any more violent than a Tarantino movie (my threshold for violence is very high, as readers of this blog well know), there are also scenes of what we might call "social violence" (a man is punished in a creative way for rebelling, children are in peril, etc) that could be very uncomfortable for viewers. But if you can stomach watching a film that is a metaphor for how billions of people live today--in filth, poverty, and violence--Snowpiercer is well worth your time and money.

5 out of 5 stars

Sunday, July 6, 2014

One- (and some two-) Liners

Movies: The Lego Movie, Neighbors, 22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 1&2, Tammy

Well, folks. I've gotten so behind on my blog that the only way to get out of this mess is with an entry comprised entirely of short and dirty reviews. Instead of a comprehensive look at each film here, I'm going with an overall impression. Hopefully, I'll be back to full-length reviews soon!

The Lego Movie

I was excited about The Lego Movie mainly because the director/writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were also the creators of the one-season cult TV show Clone High, which was on and off the air much too quickly. I wasn't disappointed--not only does The Lego Movie have the wacky, mildly subversive humor that Clone High had, it's also one of the most uniquely animated films I've ever seen. The Lego Movie is great fun for viewers of all ages.

4.5 out of 5 stars



Neighbors is a reasonably funny film, but it doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel. Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents who are young enough to harbor fantasies that they're still cool and full of energy. Their patience is tested when a fraternity, led by Zac Efron and Dave Franco, moves in next door. The couple enters a love-hate relationship with the frat as peace offerings of weed and booze are exchanged between the two parties and the frat ultimately refuses to be quiet, respectful neighbors. Hijinks ensue and everyone learns a lesson about self-respect and the true meaning of shutting the fuck up so the baby can get some sleep.

3.5 out of 5 stars


22 Jump Street

Speaking of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the duo also directed 21 Jump Street and its sequel, 22 Jump Street (side note: as I just typed that sentence, I almost typed "22 Hump Street"...I'm sure the adult film is already out there on the web somewhere).  21 Jump Street was hilarious, and 22 is pretty good but not quite at the same level. Undercover cops Schmidt and Jenko (Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum, a surprisingly great comedy team) are back--this time looking to bust the supplier of a drug called "Whyphy" (pronounced "wi-fi") which is making the rounds at a local college. The two go undercover as college kids to gain the trust of students and figure out who is behind Whyphy. Much is made of that fact that this film is a sequel with basically the same plot os the first film. The movie is self-referential and cheeky, which sometimes hits the mark and sometimes just falls flat. Tatum and Hill are worth the price of a ticket as the perfect pair--Hill all anxiety and sarcasm, and Tatum playing the hunky lunkhead.

3.75 out of 5 stars


How to Train Your Dragon 1 & 2

Like The Lego Movie, both kids and adults can enjoy the How to Train Your Dragon movies. Both movies take place on an island called Berk. At the beginning of the first film, the vikings of Berk spend their lives fighting the dragons that attempt to steal their sheep and generally cause havoc. Young Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel, he of the nasally nerdiness) figures he doesn't have what it takes to be a dragon-killer, which is unfortunate since his father, Stoick (Gerard Butler), is chief of Berk and also a masculine badass. When Hiccup manages to shoot down a rare Night Fury dragon, only to be moved to nurture it back to health, he realizes violence isn't the only way to deal with dragons. He has to overcome massive dragonphobia in order to prove to Berk that vikings and dragons can coexist in harmony.

The second film takes place a few years later, when Hiccup is a dashing (but still nerdy) young man of about 19 or 20 years. On one of his exploratory trips with Toothless, his dragon companion, he learns that there are other vikings out there capturing dragons and using them to form an army. Hiccup and his dad butt heads when Hiccup wants to confront the mysterious man behind the dragon army and Stoick prefers to batten down the hatches and protect the village. How to Train Your Dragon 2 is more intense and scary (for little ones, at least) than the first film, and I found it more entertaining and emotionally satisfying. The sequel takes the trope of a boy becoming a man and expands upon it to include themes about family, sacrifice, and what it means to be a leader--commanding respect versus demanding respect and all that. Both films are a lot of fun, but I thought the sequel was a little "fuller".

How to Train Your Dragon: 4 out of 5 stars

How to Train Your Dragon 2: 4.5 out of 5 stars



Melissa McCarthy was AWESOME in her breakout film role as Megan in Bridesmaids and she deserves all the opportunities that come with newfound fame, including leading roles. You would think that her role as the titular character in Tammy would be ideal since she and her husband wrote the film, but alas I did not think it was worthy of McCarthy's talent. Tammy is about a down-on-her-luck blue collar woman who goes on a road trip with her alcoholic grandmother (Susan Sarandon) after she finds her husband cheating on her. The two have a series of adventures, including holding up a fast food joint in order to get bail money when grandma ends up in the slammer. Tammy (and grandma) also both find romance on the road. My problem with the movie is the character of Tammy herself. Whereas Megan in Bridesmaids was truly unique in that she was a heavyset, "butch" woman who was also super intelligent, confident in a believable way (you get to hear her backstory and how she went from bullied in high school to rich and successful), and pleasantly weird. Tammy is none of those things. She didn't strike me as smart, she didn't strike me as confident, and she seemed weird in a socially bizarre way. The film is about how Tammy learns to love and forgive herself, but the lessons are spoon fed. Mark Duplass plays her love interest, and I while I really like the fact that a plus-sized woman gets paired with a very cute (but not chiseled) man, the two didn't seem to fit together. Duplass plays too much of the straight (normal) man to Tammy's socially awkward woman. Being plus-sized in Hollywood is still very taboo, and so a film like Tammy, where weight is barely mentioned, is ground-breaking and should be applauded as such. I look forward to the day where men and women of all different sizes fill the big screen without comment.

3 out of 5 stars