Monday, December 31, 2012

10 Great Movies At 90 Minutes Or Less

Brevity is the soul of wit. And apparently 2012 films offer the least witty crops of work this side of "Mein Kampf." Some of these titles earn their extra reels - the six parallel stories of "Cloud Atlas" demand time to breath. Others feel like glorified DVD collections of deleted scenes (sorry, Peter Jackson and "The Hobbit: Midgets Cross A Bridge"). 

Still, between those, and "Lincoln" (150 minutes), "Skyfall" (143 minutes), "Les Misérables" (158 minutes), "Zero Dark Thirty" (160 minutes) and "Django Unchained" (movie still running), filmmakers seemed to argue that if less is more, think about how much more more would be. Presented are 10 movies, in alphabetical order, that find greatness while still maxing out at one REM cycle. Take note, Hollywood. All of your ideas for a movie aren't worthy simply because they exist.

BEFORE SUNSET (80 minutes)
This movie flows. It glides. And it all seems effortless. Presented entirely in real time, director Richard Linklater and his cast of two deliver remarkably fluid dialogue that begins with pleasantries and gradually, believably breaks down to the characters' realizations that little in their lives went according to plan. Between this movie and "Before Sunrise," Linklater displays a keen eye for those brief, random moments that forever change your life.

BICYCLE THIEVES (89 minutes)
Italian neorealism takes cinema that was crushed into rubble and builds it anew with what's left. A man has a wife and son who would look sad even with a smile. His job requires one thing - a bicycle. His bicycle is stolen. He tries and fails to recover it. This film, probably the neorealism's crowning achievement, breaks your heart over and over again so many times, thank god it's not an epic. Its deep, unimpeachable sadness cuts to your core.

DETOUR (68 minutes)
You want real film noir? The seedy, lurid soul of a genre about characters whose souls just sucked, plain and simple? Here it is - everything about noir you want, and nothing else. Shot on the cheap, the movie lacks everything a conventional film class would tell you a movie "needs." But that grimy lack of production values plays up the film's wasted heart, and it has attitude to spare. Most movies on this list are short by choice. This is probably the only one that is short simply because they couldn't afford more film.

DUMBO (64 minutes) 
A bit of a cheat, sure. Early animation's painstaking production process required the movies to be short by design, lest the staff garner intense carpal tunnel. Still, good storytelling is good storytelling. My favorite of Disney's WWII era features, "Dumbo" zips from beginning to end, zipping in a zippy way. There's simply no time to be bored. Plus, my mother still cries at the "Baby Mine" sequence. For whatever that's worth.

THE GENERAL (75 minutes)
About 75% of what I think is funny, I'd wager, comes from Buster Keaton. Funny isn't people trying to be silly. It's people trying to be serious and failing. "The General" finds Keaton at the peak of his powers, a man desperately clinging to his dignity as everything crashes down around him - if Chaplin was the Spielberg of his day, Keaton was the Wes Anderson, offering straight faced characters unaware of the insanity in the background.

KILLER OF SHEEP (83 minutes)
How did this movie go undiscovered for so long? And what a crime that is. A kind of weird fusion of Altman, Kubrick, De Sica, and Cassavetes, Charles Burnett's short little masterpiece is like as science experiment gone horribly right. Shot in 1979, it set on the shelf for almost 30 years, but now it's finally getting its due. With no discernible story, arcs, or meaning, Burnett's vignettes of working class life in Los Angeles' Watts district just teems with life itself.

PATHS OF GLORY (88 minutes)
Kubrick had a heart. He just by and large didn't feel like using it. One of the few exceptions, though, being this 1957 anti-war tale of a French WWI officer who refused to carry out a suicide mission and defended his men against accusations of cowardice in court. Kubrick's classic "2001" and "Dr. Strangelove" both depict machinery acting exactly as designed and bringing on chaos. Similar to a theme explored in this earlier work, except the machinery is war. Such a moving story, told is such economy. 

PICKPOCKET (76 minutes)
Christ, if only every movie told their stories with such laser precision as this one. To bust out an old trope, this movie works like a samurai - enters the room, does its job, and leaves not a moment too soon. Every shot matters. Every cut matters. Director Robert Bresson reportedly shot takes over and over again until all soul drained from his actors' faces, wanting a movie that offers no emotional cues. Here is a movie that isn't short as much as it's exactly as long as it has to be.

RASHOMON (88 minutes)
If "Rashomon" didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent it. The movie speaks to such a fundamental aspect of human nature, that the "Rashomon Effect" entered the public lexicon simply because there was no better way to describe it. No great secret to say that people lie. Kurosawa takes it a step farther, though, and suggests these lies really aren't lies when the tellers all believe it. Basically, factual events are subjective and nothing is knowable. Such an idea has no answers, and thus no need for the movie to drag. There it is.

STAND BY ME (88 minutes)  
Stephen King crowns this the best adaptation of his work, and although time will tell on "Dreamcatcher," I get where he's coming from. A coming of age story of four boys blissfully unaware of the cold hard punch of life waiting for them around the corner, this movie is so light and gee-whiz charming without being cloying about it, you forget its about people trying to see a dead body. What a little treasure of the movies. Make more stuff like this, Rob Reiner! We miss you.

That's it for 2012! Happy New Year from Filmvielle! May your 2013 be brief and to the point.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Read This DJANGO UNCHAINED Review With An Ironically Perfect Song

DJANGO UNCHAINED (dir. Tarantino, 2012)
 "Django Unchained" is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly untrue.

Here is a movie you wanted, whether you knew you wanted it or not. A work of glorious mayhem, Quentin Tarantino's latest blends spaghetti westerns, blaxploitation, a downright-odd-at-times slapstick, and a stinging indictment of American history, with a delirious amount of blood serving as the glue. Call it "Blazing Saddles" meets "Shaft," The Man With No Name meets Sweet Sweetback, or whatever you want. There's nothing else on the block like it.

Self-dubbed Tarantino's "southern," the movie drops us in 1858 (two years before the Civil War, a helpful title card informs) as bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) absconds with the title slave (Jamie Foxx). In exchange for his help tracking down Schultz's current targets, he promises Django his freedom and the chance to rescue his wife from the satanic plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio, positively relishing his role).

Following 2009's "Inglourious Basterds," "Django" finds Tarantino continuing a new, unexpected phase of his career - historical period pieces as wish fulfillment. It doesn't matter that Hitler never died in a torched movie house or a runaway slave could never shoot his way through plantations with such reckless abandon. Tarantino's characters are unaware they're trapped in the confines of history. Instead, merely trapped in their creator's own imagination.

Accuracy is beside the point. What matters is Tarantino's revisions make emotional sense. He creates characters and follows them to their logical end, wrapped up in a way that is also satisfying to 21st century audiences in the theater. 

One could make the argument that his career since "Jackie Brown" (to date his most human work) represents an increasingly indulgent exercise in genre. That characters don't matter. That plot doesn't matter. That an emotional core doesn't matter. That instead, his movies stand as an alter to himself and all the film geek knowledge he can thrust upon the world.

So easy an argument, that I almost believe it as I write it. But it's too easy. His movies aren't patchworks of those that came before. And they aren't dead museum pieces. They're breathing works that are hyper-aware of their own existence as movies and using genres we love, allow those genres' very conventions to be the heroes.

A hard pill to swallow, I know, that a slave like Django could waltz onto a plantation with a gun and fire into the chest of a man who whipped him, offering the perfect capper of, "I like the way you die, boy." Only in the movies is this possible. Unlike "Jackie Brown," where the emotional core comes from the characters themselves, "Django" ultimately satisfies as a testament to movies themselves as the great uniting art form.

It's movies as fantasy, yes. But it also speaks to film iconography as a shared emotional language among fans. And when it hits on a gut emotional level, as Tarantino films don't always do, it's because he's employing the bastard art of cinema (visuals, performers, musical cues, edits) to make it happen.

Plus it doesn't hurt that "Django" ain't no film student thesis. Tarantino reaffirms his status as one of cinema's most merry pranksters, throwing everything he loves into a blender and frappe-ing it into a new singular work. Above all else, the movie is wicked fun, Tarantino slashing American history with unbridled zeal. 

His trademark weaknesses remain, to be sure. The movie is too long by a fair shake - you could cut 30 minutes from roughly any random chunks in the movie and not sacrifice much. Although no individual moments are downright "bad," he does indulge his seeming belief that every idea he has must be committed to screen. Some scenes (such as a dinner table conversation between Django, Schultz, and Calvin) aren't performed as much as they're staged, as Tarantino invites us to hang out in them.

Pacing can be your friend, QT.

Look. You know Tarantino by now. I know him by now. If it's your thing, this will be your thing too. If it's not your thing, it won't be your thing. Just don't call him a pastiche artist. He might take the familiar, but he reintroduces it as something aggressively original. When he makes a new movie, I look forward to it. I want to see it. I want to talk about it.

"Django Unchained" allows for a few new Tarantino tricks (luscious western cinematography, violence that stings instead of just titillating, and some of the most overt comedy of his career). But it's ultimately a logical step in the path his career's taking. What a vital filmmaker, and what a vital film. I'm so glad it's a thing mainstream audiences will see. Whether or not they realize what they're in for.