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Can't Stop the Movies

Peter Pan Live! (2014)

Get the jazz hands out boys

Wendy Darling sits on the uncertain line between being a child and growing into an adult.  She longs for the responsibility, but still loves playing games.  One night a mysterious boy named Peter Pan flies into the Darling household and presents an offer to Wendy and her siblings - join him in Neverland, and they'll never grow up.  Peter Pan Live! is the latest version of the classic story by J.M. Barrie.  Rob Ashford and Glenn Weiss direct from a teleplay written by Irene Mecchi.

Get the jazz hands out boysI didn't think anything would deter my delight during the opening moments of Peter Pan Live!  The camera swooped over a wonderful set of tiny houses and buildings that functioned as a stand-in for England.  We watched through the windows of one sturdy house as Wendy (Taylor Louderman) talks to her mother (Kelli O'Hara) about the excitement of growing up.  In bursts Mr. Darling (Christian Borle) attempting to put on a serious face for his family before joining in on some jokes and garbles his words to the delight of his household.

I thrilled at the illusion and realized the creative energies behind Peter Pan Live! were embracing the fantastic spirit of the original story.  The performances were at that perfect point between hysterical overacting and sturdy emotional delivery.  Colorful sets balanced the need to present information about this fantastical world in a way that still clearly communicates where we are in the story.  Those wonderful instruments resounded through the stage as Wendy looked dreamily off into the sky.  Everything was perfect.


Stan Brakhage: Desert (1976)

Desert - 1976

Many of Stan Brakhage's films are available for viewing in multiple venues.  You can watch Desert here.

Desert - 1976Like all other art, movies should be read along the culture that produced them.  Objective readings are impossible because everyone is going to be approaching each film with their own set of expectations.  I like to try and isolate myself from as many other opinions as possible before I sit down to write but there's always the off-chance that something I caught barely a glimpse of weeks ago suddenly starts blaring at the center of my mind.  Nothing is produced in a cultural vacuum, so it should be impossible to read something in that way.

That said, what to make of Desert, the Stan Brakhage film for today?  It seems to be a relatively simple production where Brakhage captured different parts of his desert journey in 8mm and blew the print up to 16mm.  The resulting images are incredibly grainy, like the desert Brakhage is filming, and the colors are blown out to the point where each image seems to bleed into the next.  The effect is one of heat and oppression that extends from the harsh images of the desert to the uncomfortable closeups of what look to be human skin.  We gradually feel the heat on our bodies from the images and when civilization seems to be in sight it just fades back into the distortion of the desert.


Tusk (2014)

Screaming into nothing

Wallace Bryton is a once-struggling comedian who found success with his podcast, The Not-See Party.  After pushing one of his subjects to suicide he finds a note from an eccentric old man with many stories to tell and an affection for the walrus.  When Wallace goes missing he'll find out just how far the old man's affection goes.  Kevin Smith wrote and directed Tusk which stars Justin Long, Genesis Rodriguez, and Michael Parks.

Screaming into nothingFor a man who has settled into a public persona that has changed very little over the last twenty years, it's nice to see that Kevin Smith still challenging himself as a director.  He was long-ago crowned one of the Gen X slacker kings of cinema and since Clerks 2 has pushed himself into his own independent territory.  Red State, which I enjoyed, was self-released and while it didn't light the world up it showed that he still had a willingness to do things his way.  The farcical horror of Red State that Smith tinkered with is still present in Tusk, and shows that he's not resting on his laurels.  Good for him.

Unfortunately, that's one half of the faintest praise I'm going to be damning this film with.  Tusk is terrible, and had it found some way to be offensively bad it would be one of the worst films of the year.  As it stands Tusk is a decent short film that could have been padded to 40 minutes and instead 90 interminably awful minutes of bewildering direction, tired dialogue, and one of the worst performances in the near four thousand films I've watched.

Smith has never had a flair for visual style.  Through most of the '90s and even into his live-action cartoon phase of the early millennium his films had a workmanlike quality to them that never aspired beyond a plane for two people to talk.  While this meant his films were never great to look at, he at least had a talent with words and framed his films accordingly.  There's no sense in ruining a good thing, which makes many of the cinematic flourishes of Tusk a step backward after the meat and potatoes style of Red State.


I Origins (2014)

The test

Dr. Ian Gray is a prominent genetic researcher trying to solve the open questions of evolution by examining the development of eyesight.  Through his research he finds answers that only raise more questions.  What if he encounters a spiritual component to his research that can't be answered through science?  Mike Cahill pulls double-duty as the writer / director of I Origins, starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, and Astrid Berges-Frisbey.

The testIt’s been a good few years for ambitious science fiction. Europa Report mixed the wonder of discovery with found footage, Prometheus blended decades of sci-fi variations into beautiful cocktail, and Another Earth took indie film sensibility and directed it toward the stars. Mike Cahill wrote and directed Another Earth, and I loved the way it used a scientifically impossible phenomenon to examine one woman’s guilt.

Cahill’s second film, I Origins, shows that Cahill is not done using sci-fi as a storytelling springboard. But I Origins uses harder science to discuss bigger ideas in a more direct way, as opposed to the more unlikely science of Another Earth used to ground characters in their emotional realities. In terms of presentation I Origins wants to use the images to transition between poor dialogue, and Another Earth speaks through its images and uses spoken word more sparsely. I Origins' direct approach is a considerable step back - not one that shows Cahill has lost his touch, just that he could stand to be grounded again.


Stan Brakhage: Star Garden (1974)

Star Garden - 1974

Unlike previous entries, today's Stan Brakhage film is not readily available online but can be watched as part of The Criterion Collection's second "by Brakhage" volume.

Star Garden - 1974Star Garden is one of Stan Brakhage’s most easy to follow and overtly pleasing films. There’s a narrative of sorts that may not have dialogue, or even characters with names, but it starts as day breaks and closes as the moon rises to send the house’s inhabitants to sleep. It’s a simple setup, family gets up, they go about their business and enjoy each other’s company while Brakhage observes the way light travels through the home and on his children. The vivid color and disorienting visuals that typically punctuate Brakhage’s work are not present, replaced instead by an apple brown that keep the home pleasant to look at.

All of this, while pleasant, is tedious to watch. I’ve made no secret of my dislike for Brakhage’s home movie productions in previous installments but here it reached a bland nadir. Aside from some initial confusion as the sun rises and we get our bearings in Brakhage’s home there is little of the experimentation or steady craft that is a hallmark of his films. Normally I want to slow down the playback speed so that I can luxuriate in the intricate detail of each frame. Here, once I realized the direction of the film a couple of minutes in, I just wanted to fast forward through the rest so that I could get on to something more fulfilling.