Friday, May 29, 2009

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (***)

Directed by Sacha Gervasi


They say that comedy comes from tragedy. One of the funniest films that I've ever seen, This Is Spinal Tap, follows this theory, as we watch a has-been 80's hair band trying to stay alive in the dog-eat-dog world of the music industry. With Anvil! The Story of Anvil, all we get is the tragedy. All we get is the torment which comes for the hunt of elusive fame. It's a harrowing tale about two men who refused to give up on their dreams, and planned to rock on till they die.

In 1984, a collection of 80's metal bands toured throughout Japan. Most of them, including Whitesnake, The Scorpions, and Bon Jovi, became huge hits, selling millions of records. Only one group on that tour did not become huge, and that band is Anvil. This film, directed by Anvil follower Sacha Gervasi, tells the story of what they're doing now. There is the lead singer and guitarist, Steve "Lips" Kudlow, who works delivering foods to elementary school cafeterias. There's also Robb Reiner, the band's drummer, who does odd jobs and paints. The two met in gradeschool, and swore to each other that they would rock till they were old... and now they're old.

In their hayday, Anvil was widely respected by their peer group, particularly their second album Metal On Metal. Acts like Metallica and Guns N Roses looked up to their style and their act, specifically Lips' eccentric on-stage act, which included leather, wrap-around suspenders and playing the guitar with a dildo. Unfortunately, outside of the metal underground, they never got the respect and success most of their fans feel they deserved. Why not? The band throws around many theories: including bad management, apathetic record labels, and overall ineptness. Either way, the two founders, even at age 50, still seek what has slipped through their fingers so often.

In the film, Anvil plans a tour throughout Sweden and the Czech Republic, in hopes that their performances will create some buzz, and convince a record label to release their thirteenth album, This Is Thirteen. The trip quickly becomes a disaster: they're late for shows, they miss their trains, they don't get paid, and they return home in the same position they were before. They decide to record and release their album themselves. Lips has to take a job as a telemarketer in order to pay for it.

As movie characters, Lips and Robb are magnanimous but temperamental, dedicated but crumbling. There are few people, I believe, who can be as motivated as these two are after spending about eighty percent of their lives pursuing one goal. They are both married with children. Their families are supportive, but don't have much in the way of optimism. The only thing they have is Anvil, and it prevents them from succumbing to the near-poverty that they live in.

I couldn't help but think of Spinal Tap as I watched this film. Not only because there's an amp that actually goes to 11. Not only because there is scene where the band visits Stonehenge in England. Not only because the director of Spinal Tap was also named Rob Reiner. No, what draws the two together is the way they explain how any torture can be overcome by what you love. You may seem pathetic, washed-up, and past your prime in your everyday life, but there is a whole new world atop the stage.

Interestingly enough, the film doesn't seem to care much about Anvil's music--none of their songs are ever played in the film fully. The director seems to think that it is the men themselves that are so important. He does lionize them to a point. I'm a firm believer that not everybody deserves popularity, even if they have talent. They are not shown as irresponsible druggies or bad husbands and fathers, but they do throw tantrums and do things to sabotage their own journeys. The presentation states that they are sympathetic, and it's not always easy to buy.

Lips and Rob find some success at a gig in Tokyo, Japan toward the end of the film, but there is never much in this film in the way of catharsis. Like I said, this is not a great "rockumentary", because it doesn't care about the actual music. What it is, is a portrait of a tragically quixotic couple of guys, who always sees the light at the end of the long, neverending tunnel.

Up (***1/2)

Directed by Peter Docter


Every once in a while, there comes a film so beautifully made and told in such a heartfelt fashion that it will lead even the most emotionally-reserved toward their catharsis. Up, the new film from the most consistently brilliant film studio in the country--Pixar--is one of those films. Much in the style of their other films WALL-E and The Incredibles, Up does not pander toward its target audience (small children along with their parents), but instead plans to enlighten them and mystify them.

When Carl Fredricksen was a young boy, he dreamed of adventure. Along with his childhood friend Ellie, he looked up to world-traveler Charles Muntz, who explored the grounds of Venezuela searching for a mysterious beast. When Muntz is accused of being a fraud, he flees back to the wilderness, never to be seen again. For Carl and Ellie though, their mutual infatuation with Muntz was the beginning of a quickly blooming relationship, which lead to marriage and a fulfilling life.

The two keep collecting money so they can one day travel to South America, but life continues to get in the way. A tire blows out; they take money from the collection. Carl breaks his arm; they take money from the collection. Time goes by, and the correct opportunity never presents itself. Eventually, when they are both elderly, Ellie passes away and Carl is left alone inside their dream home, with land developers constantly pressuring him to sell it and move into an old folks' home.

Unwilling to be bossed around, Carl ties billions of helium balloons to the chimney of his home, and begins his flight to South America. He is unexpectedly joined by Russell, a toddler boy scout, looking to help out the elderly in order to get his final scout badge. The two land in Venezuela, but still have a ways to walk before they can get to the waterfall Carl always dreamed of taking Ellie. They run into a large, colorful bird, which Russell names Kevin. They meet a talking dog named Doug (his collar is super smart and can express his simple thoughts). They also run into Muntz, who is still exploring the jungle to prove he isn't fraudulent.

With its sparse 96-minute running time, the only complaint that I really have with this film is that it isn't long enough. The film's conclusion happens so quickly and so conveniently, that you're disappointed that you can't spend more time with these characters. Carl, in particular, is a fascinating person. With his About Schmidt groan and box head, Carl brings an interesting theme of mortality to this supposed kids' film, and it is this depravity that always separates Pixar from the other studios.

Oh, and the colors. Finding Nemo was praised for its palette, but what this film does is fascinating. The wilderness is so bright and beautiful, while Carl's home interior is bland and various shades of grey, and then there's the inside of Muntz' masterpiece zeplin, so dark with the only color coming from the orange of dim light. These films always have magnificent production design and cinematography, but never get the recognition they deserve in those categories (or any category, for that matter) because it's animation.

The evolution of the relationship between the naive Russell and the grumpy Carl makes the foundation for the film's story. Most scripts in this position would give the child unwarranted wisdom, which leads the main character to discover his inner crabbiness. Not so here. Russell, I assume to be about four-years-old and Asian-American, is friendly, brave, and gregarious, but not wise. They grow together because of their human qualities, not because they're teaching each other anything.

I feel I've spoken rather clumsily about this film. Surely, it's the first film I've seen since The Soloist, and I've been out of practice in my writing, but if there is anything that I wished to convey about this picture, it is this: it is an absolutely beautiful film for people of all ages. With its talking dogs and personable birds, its sure to send the kids into a tizzy, but its the unrelenting drive of Carl (and his unavoidable parrallel toward his idol Muntz) that makes this film memorable.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lars von Trier Doin' Work

Lars von Trier has never been the kind of filmmaker for the faint of heart. His films, so emotionally hard-hitting and tragic can leave haunting images that float through your mind for days. His Breaking The Waves was a beyond-upsetting portrait of a simple young woman's loss of purity; Idioterne was part of his Dogme 95 movement, and featured a group of young men and women pretending to be mentally retarded. Yet, even with that notorious reputation, his latest film Antichrist is creating quite a stir at Cannes.

WARNING: What follows in this piece contains some spoilers from the film Antichrist, so if you're into surprises, look away.

Based on that trailer alone, you can guess that this film will probably push the boundaries that most pictures stay within. It is a horror film about a man (Willem Defoe) who tries to treat his wife (Charlotte Gainsbourg) from a deep depression she has suffered since the death of their young child. They scream, they argue, and sooner than later, they inflict horrible pain upon each other, both physically and psychologically. Among the acts detailed, the wife supposedly drills a hole into her husband's leg, connects it to a grindstone, smashes his testicles, and then gives him a hand job until he ejaculates blood. Another moment being talked about is when the wife cuts off her own clitoris with a pair of scissors.

What role does this kind of exhibitionism play in cinema today? I'm not sure, mostly because I have not seen the actual film (it doesn't have a US distributor, and it will most likely be saddled by small theater release and an NC-17 rating). The detailed events that happen in the film are shocking, but not particularly surprising if you're familiar with the work of von Trier, but what seems to be debated over in France is whether or not he may have become too megalomaniacal for his own good. Narcisism has never been a debate for von Trier, after the showing of his film last week, he stated in an interview: "I am the best filmaker in the world".

I'd have to imagine that both Defoe and Gainsbourg--two excellent performers in their own right--are von Trier fans, because these kinds of acts require absolute trust in the man in charge, and absolute fearlessness. The film's cinematographer is recent Oscar winner Anthony Dod Mantle, and it is said that he films the horrific moments with stark clarity. Again, there's nothing in Mantle's work that would suggest that he would do it any other way. If there is one thing von Trier has certainly accomplished with this Antichrist fiasco, he has drummed up more publicity for this film than anything the film could have done on its own. The man has created a career by coaxing controversy, and even after all these years, we've fallen for it again.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Double Trailer Watch Whammy: Nine & Whatever Works

In my two-week hiatus, there was an incredible emergence of late-year trailer sightings. First The Road, and now Nine. I'm still not sure if I'm as excited about this film as I am for the animated film 9 (I know these films have nothing to do with each other but they'll always be tied together in my mind), but seeing the actual images that Rob Marshall creates always drums up anticipation and enthusiasm. The most interesting thing that I saw in the preview was the opportunity for Day-Lewis to be playful (when's the last time we've seen that? A Room With A View?); and of course, the film's star-studded female line-up (Kidman, Cruz, Dench, Loren, Cotillard) is something to behold.

Ah... it feels so good to see Woody going back to his bread and butter. Not that he isn't a good serious filmmaker (Interiors and Another Woman are all sorts of brilliant), but there's nothing I love more than watching Woody at his most purely nebbish and silly. Add to that a seemingly perfect match-up with Curb Your Enthusiasm's Larry David, and a supporting cast including Patricia Clarkson, Evan Rachel Wood, Ed Begley Jr., and Michael McKean, and there is a possible set-up for Woody's best film since 1999's Sweet and Lowdown (I don't care what anyone says, all of his films have been mediocre since that great movie).

Trailer Watch: The Road

Ever since reading Cormac McCarthy's harrowing story of a man and his boy trying to survive, I have been anticipating this film. While reading the story, Mortensen seemed like the perfect choice for the film's protagonist, and while I'm not familiar with Austrailian filmmaker John Hillcoat, the visuals in this trailer look just lush enough to be satisfying. The story seems jumbled a bit (Theron's character is basically a cameo in the book; there is never any explanation as to why the world has become such a wasteland in the original story), the film doesn't seem to compromise any of the book's captivating intensity.

Friday, May 15, 2009

A Word About...

Directed by Tom Alfredson

The Swedish horror film was an underground hit in America last year (even prompting talks of a remake before it was even released), but I wasn't able to see it due to limited theater appearances--plus the fact that at that time much time had to be spent trying to watch all of the actual American films that were being packaged in December as well. That being said, after a mountain of expectation, Let The Right One In is a horror film that delivers much more than its slasher peers.

The story of Oskar (Kare Hedebrant), a twelve-year-old, often-bullied outcast who daydreams about revenge alone in his room. His life changes when a young girl named Eli (Lina Leandersson) moves in next door with her father. He only sees her at night, but he comes to like her. Unfortunately, Eli is a vicious, blood-sucking vampire who can't help but feast on blood, no matter how she manages to come across it.

The most fabulous aspects of Let The Right One In are the ways it attempts to humanize the often looked-over concepts of horror films. Eli's father attempts to satisfy his daughter's urges by murdering random wanderers and draining them of their blood. His attempts always fall flat though, and Eli is forced to fight for herself. Furthermore, the romance that blooms between Eli and Oskar envelopes both sweetly and plausibly. The characters within the film are not Dracula-like caricatures, but instead human beings--only a few are infected.

The film's slow pace can put you off occasionally, but overall, Let The Right One In is one of the most exceptional horror movies of the decade.