The Force Awakens isn’t coming out for another few weeks. Even so, people have already committed to being amongst the first to see it in theaters. A few desperate fools (like me) are opting for the seven-movie marathon, which will feature all six current features, as well as the latest and greatest in the Star Wars saga. You can be sure I’m going to report on that entire insane experience for Drunk Monkeys. Until then, I’m going to be in a low-key state of anticipation. I’m excited, although I know at least a few whose expectations are reaching heights usually reserved for hitting pregnancy pay dirt during ovulation.
In other words, people are ready for The Force Awakens to change the world. If you ask them if their excitement is anywhere near this kind of level, they’ll probably just laugh. They’ll likely just tell you they’re big fans, and a seventh movie coming out is a big deal. That’s fair. It just seems like some people are expecting a lot from this movie. For some reason, I find myself wondering over and over again if they’re demanding a little too much. Star Wars fans are some of the most passionate of any fandom you are ever going to come across. There is also a fairly profound degree of entitlement amongst some of the supposed true blue faithful. Their expectations have reached a level in which they suddenly become aware of how absurd it is to anticipate something with such fervor. The only course of action at that point seems to be to look to the movie with overwhelming eagerness that it will deliver the experience its marketing promises, combined with extreme pessimism that the film is actually going to destroy whole galaxies worth of dreams and (perhaps) unrealistic expectations.
Then again, we’re getting some good things out of the pre-release energy. Tons of great articles have been written on the importance of diversity in casting in these kinds of blockbusters. People are making pledges to not be a stupid asshole about spoilers. We live in a world of internet mob rule and bone-warping snark, but it’s not all bad.
Me? I think my desire to be part of a large, cinematic cultural event is the thing that compelled me to purchase marathon tickets in the first place. I like this universe well enough, but seven films in a row? In a movie theater? Surrounded by lunatics who may very well burn the city to the ground, if The Force Awakens fails to jumpstart the next stage of our evolutionary process as a species? What the fuck am I thinking? Do I really want to see the movie that badly? How many airplane bottles of Jim Beam is going to be too many? I need to stay awake, after all.
I suppose I really do want to see this movie. 2015 has been an underwhelming year at the movies. I suppose I just want to end the year on a high note. If The Force Awakens and The Hateful Eight are as good as I hope they are, 2015 will close nicely. I’ll know for certain how I really felt about 2015 when I take stock of the year for next month’s column. For now, I’ve been feeling bummed out over seeing more lousy movies than good ones. To that end, I’m looking to the veterans and monster franchises to bring the past twelve months to a high-point close.
We’ll see, man. We’ll just see.
Mr. Holmes (2015): B-
It’s not surprising that the same guy who directed Ian McKellen in one of the greatest performances of his career (Gods and Monsters) is behind Mr. Holmes. This more-or-less-the-same adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s excellent novel A Slight Trick of the Mind is one of the best Sherlock Holmes stories you’ve come across in quite some time. In a cultural landscape that is currently quite packed with variations on Conan Doyle’s iconic detective, making the case for yet another actor playing Holmes can be a little hard to accept for some. Don’t worry about it. Even if you’re sick of Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Holmes is worth your attention.
The thing to remember about this story, which is set during Holmes’ retirement in his early 90s, is that no one is looking to defy expectations. Neither Ian McKellen nor the story itself is looking to reinvent Holmes, or do something so bold with the character and the universe, you’re bound to pay attention by default. Mr. Holmes is not canon. It is simply a look at what the detective may have done with his life after giving up the game for good. Obviously, themes like loss and regret figure heavily into Holmes’ reflections of past glories and missteps, haunting his desire to live and work simply as a beekeeper in 1947 England. There is nothing extraordinary about depicting Holmes as a frail-yet-feisty old timer, hopeful that there will be just enough time to get all affairs in order. The extraordinary element to Mr. Holmes lies in how the story is told. McKellen gives what may well be his best film performance in over a decade. With so many Sherlocks around these days, he remains distinctive. Laura Linney is somewhat wasted as Holmes’ housekeeper, but she shines anyway. As for Milo Parker as the young child who befriends the aged detective/beekeeper, he’s somewhere in the middle of annoying child actors. He’ll kill the beautiful mood and pacing set forth by Condon, editor Virginia Katz, and cinematographer Tobias A. Schliessler (not to mention Jeffrey Hatcher’s excellent screenplay, as well as Carter Burwell’s wonderful score). Fortunately, that only happens occasionally. When it comes to movies that deal heavily in relationships between adults and children, it’s important to remember that it can almost always be a lot worse than it actually is.
In the end, Mr. Holmes proves two things: It emphasizes the fantastic versatility of Sherlock Holmes as a character. At the same time, it reminds us of what Ian McKellen is capable of. He plays a complex elder Holmes, and almost always avoids the temptation to just play Sherlock cranky for laughs. It’s a performance good enough to suggest the notion of McKellen as a dark horse Oscar contender.
A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2012): A-
When it comes to Sophie Fiennes’ documentary about Slavoj Žižek discussing cinema and ideology, you’ve got two ways to look at things. You can either take this documentary as a Slovene lunatic rambling about movies for over two hours, offering nothing in the way of meaningful substance or analytical insight. Or you can look at A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology as an opportunity to approach film from a completely different viewpoint. Acting as a loose sequel to the 2006 documentary A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, the film essentially lets Žižek talk at length about how ideology is explored in such films Taxi Driver, The Sound of Music, Titanic, The Dark Knight, and many others. The film endeavors how virtually every movie tends to reveal more than just the character and stories in some sort of fictional vacuum. The documentary contends that most films also reveal the standing ideologies of the time in which the film is made. And if that sounds complicated, well, it is. A Pervert’s Guide to Ideology succeeds because it presents things in fairly straightforward terms. It also understands that there is only so much time in which these concepts can be discussed.
To that end, Žižek moves quickly across a wide spectrum of cinema, including several propaganda films. He also maintains an understanding that with a subject such as this, there are no easy answers. However, there is always potential for discussion and dissection. Žižek and the documentary lecture casually, throwing bits of dry humor into the proceedings, and the end result is something that is certain that is certain to generate those conversations. Without a doubt, if the film does what it wants to do, you’re not going to look at film in quite the same light for quite some time.
Masculin Féminin (1966): B-
Masculin Féminin is not the first movie people tend to think of, when the work of Jean-Luc Godard comes up. While it’s not the best film by the legendary French filmmaker (it’s not even the most accessible), it is nonetheless engaging stuff. In its story of several French youths milling around Paris, falling in and out of love, and just trying to get their shit together, the movie is perhaps best for those who already have a fondness for this era of French filmmaking. The casual narcissism and mildly comical weariness of these characters (particularly Jean-Pierre Léaud as Paul and Chantal Goya as Madeleine) works best with people who have seen a number of Godard films from this period. It also helps to just be familiar with French films from this decade as a whole. Otherwise, the freeform narrative storytelling and length scenes of discourse are going to strike you as a little pretentious. Again, this is far from the most accessible French film from this time period. However, if you know what you’re sitting down for, there’s a good chance that you’ll like what Masculin Féminin has to offer. The non-linear filmmaking style combines with the backdrops of Paris and beyond to create a unique time capsule that still has some interesting elements to offer.
Spellbound (1945): A+
In terms of popular Alfred Hitchcock films, I don’t hear about Spellbound nearly as often as I should. What the hell? Why not? Spellbound is a little creaky in places, but the psychological thriller component that runs deep into this story of an enigmatic man (Gregory Peck) becoming the head of a psychiatric hospital remains powerhouse stuff. The psychological components juggled in the characters played by Peck and Ingrid Bergman (one of her best performances) alone would need three or four films to be explored masterfully by another filmmaker. As is the case with Hitchcock films, we leave with more questions than answers. However, the answers give us a satisfying viewing experience, and the questions linger in our minds long after we’ve walked away from the screen. Throw in the other themes and ideas that crop up in Spellbound, and you’ll be slightly amazed that so much is explored and suggested in a little less than two hours.
Hitchcock wasn’t quite at his peak here. Watching Spellbound, you can get a sense that he’s getting close. He doesn’t do anything revolutionary here. He just shoots a tense, well-acted, challenging film with twists that retain plenty of force after several decades. Like all of his best films, Spellbound appears as though it blended entertainment with deep studies on the subject of human nature effortlessly.
Pixels (2015): F-
So many others have written on the depressing, multifaceted failure of Pixels. We already have a review up that may well be the kindest one written by the mainstream press. Yet I feel strangely, sickly compelled to fight through the myriad of diseases this film has probably given me, and talk about my experiences with it anyway. I’ll try to be brief.
As I sat through the alarmingly banal story of several stupid, ugly, unhappy men (Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and several others) using their knowledge of 80s video games to save the world from aliens, several thoughts occurred to me:
1.) Drinking two, three liters of bourbon during a two-hour film is no longer enough to get me through the proceedings, if they really are that fucking bad.
2.) In seeking out and watching Pixels, I am no better than people who watch The Human Centipede and similarly feeble, horrible snuff-fantasy films. We’re all masochists on some level. We’re all game to watch something that we’ve been told is absolutely going to destroy the beautiful, bright sun that dwells within our hearts. It’s just that there are a lot of different ways to combine art and suffering. My point is that in terms of grotesque, people being forced to shit into one another’s mouths is pretty much on the same level as Adam Sandler trying to convey anything but the diminished spirit of a greedy, spiritually bankrupt man. I’m no longer going to judge you.
Watching Pixels is strange. I expected a bad movie, but I didn’t get the kind of experience I thought I was going to get. I expected a spectacular effort to be funny and relevant, with something oddly admirable-yet-still-disgusting-and-depressing in the inevitable failure to be either of those things. Pixels didn’t give me that. It didn’t give me much of anything. I have seen actors and stories go through the motions before. I have never seen tangible evidence of such a large group of people coming together to do something that feels like there was almost an attempt. There was almost an idea in Pixels that could have at least made it feel like more than two of the dullest hours I have ever spent watching a movie. If only someone had just dared to dream a little more. If only Adam Sandler could have realized his moron cruise liner was sinking fast, and decided to go out in a blaze of idiotic, who-the-fuck-even-cares-anymore glory. I’d like to think he did realize that people were going to hate Pixels on a level that felt like some long-lost biological imperative springing to life. Yet he doesn’t seem bothered by it. His general disposition is that of a man who is waiting to die. It poisons anything that faintly implies it might have at least been amusing in a better film. It turns the rest of the cast into lesser versions of Sandler’s shitty, stunning disinterest. No one is safe. Nothing survives. The aliens may as well have won. A barren landscape that lines the red skies with the phantom howls of the obliterated and the tortured would have been better than the ending we got.
Pixels isn’t just bad filmmaking with bad acting, bad editing, bad music, bad jokes, bad pacing, and so forth. It is quite literally going to just depress you. It will do this in a way you probably never imagined a movie could. I guess that’s something. I don’t know. Since watching Pixels, the chill in the wind has become just a little more sadistic with each passing day. It is getting colder, and I am getting more and more exhausted by the day.