Even among the legions of characters in long underwear, the Fantastic Four have always stood apart, both for their squabbling family dynamics and an endearingly retro squareness. The latest attempt to move the team to the big screen captures, well, exactly neither of those aspects, with results that are too bloody and dour for kids (heads start popping off toward the end, GWAR-style), too laissez faire for continuity geeks, and too uninspired for everybody else.
Amid the gumshoed masses of fictional detectives, author Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder looms large and wounded, an unlicensed private eye who continually takes the weight of the world on his shoulders in an attempt to quiet his inner demons. Adapting the 10th book in Block’s Scudder series, A Walk Among the Tombstones nails the mournful cynicism of the source material. If the sight of a man in a trenchcoat doggedly chasing down leads dings your particular pleasure centers, get to the theater as soon as you can.
Beginning with a tragic flashback, the story follows Scudder (Liam Neeson), an ex-cop who divvies up his time between doing paid favors for acquaintances and attending AA meetings.
La Notte (Criterion, Blu-ray, DVD), the second film in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “trilogy of alienation” (it’s bracketed by L’avventura, 1961, and L’eclisse, 1962, both on Criterion DVD), stars Marcello Mastroianni as a celebrated novelist in Milan who has nothing left to say and Jeanne Moreau as his quietly unsettled wife who can’t seem to express all the disappointment building up behind her unfazed expression. Their marriage is inert at best but they seem resigned to their roles, at least until a hospital visit to a friend dying of cancer (he has champagne delivered by the nurse for the visit – but of course) shakes up Moreau.
The film covers just under 24 hours of their life together, not that they ever seem “together” even when they go out to a nightclub and, finally, an all-night party at the mansion of an industrialist who wants to hire Mastroianni to write his biography and run the public relations of his company. It all plays out in sculpted landscapes and creamy, austere modern spaces filled with reflective surfaces, but these rarified oases of affluence are no less alienating than the crush of traffic in downtown Milan. Mastroianni is so at home in the crowds that he just flows with the current like driftwood in a slow stream while Moreau, shaken by the visit to their terminal friend, wanders away from the crowds, braving the current in the streets or simply watching the rituals from afar. Just like Antonioni, who dispassionately records every nuance of the rituals and flirtations and seductions and watches Mastroianni’s fascination with an enigmatic beauty played by Monica Vitti, a jaded-before-her-time young brunette who see-saws between childish playfulness and world-weary commentary.
This was one of the films that inspired Pauline Kael’s “Come-Dressed-as-the-Sick-Soul-of-Europe Parties” essay, a portrait heavy on the Antoni-ennui of beautiful people narcotizing themselves on small talk and cocktails and sex. Antonioni strips Mastroianni of the winking charm he brings to even his most rakish characters and turns him into an empty shell (“I know longer have ideas, only memories,” he tosses off with a self-effacing half-grin) with a self-awareness that suggests a desperation to lose himself in meaningless activity. Moreau is more haunting and less passive, her eyes and signature frown carrying a disappointment she shrugs away with a flash of a smile. It’s a portrait of lives disconnected from feeling or passion and a marriage that has slipped into mere routine, and you may find it mesmerizing and sophisticated, or merely elegantly-sculpted tedium amidst the idle rich and empty intelligentsia. I’m not an Antonioni fan – give me the strangled yearnings and corrupted societies of Visconti any day – and I find this among his more mannered and calculated films, so take my complaints as you will. I dare say it won’t convert any new fans, but if you love the sick soul of Europe in sixties cinema, this is quite the modernist contemplation of abstracted lives in the new urban world.Mastered from a new digital restoration from a 4k film transfer and it looks beautiful, clear and clean and sharp. You’ll notes stray hairs present in a couple of shots; I don’t believe they are print issues but artifacts from the camera negative or the editing process. Both Blu-ray and DVD editions include two original interview featurettes (one with film critic Adriano Aprà and film historian Carlo Di Carlo, the other with professor Giuliana Bruno discussing the role of architecture in the film) and a booklet with an essay by critic Richard Brody and a 1961 article by director Michelangelo Antonioni.
The Beauty of the Devil (Cohen, Blu-ray, DVD) is René Clair’s playful take on the Faust legend, which stirs whimsy into the tragedy of a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. As the film opens, Michel Simon is the frumpy old Professor Henri Faust, a sheepdog of a scholar disappointed in himself as he prepares to retire without making his mark on the world, and the young and handsome Gérard Philipe is the seductive devil Mephistopheles, but fear not. To prove his power, the devil gives Faust youth and the actors swap roles, with Philipe’s young Faust the rejuvenated romantic discovering everything his missed in a life of scholarship and Simon playing the devilish clown as the bearish Mephistopheles, scheming to compromise and corrupt Faust at every turn with a twisted grin and a gleam in his eye.
Dir: Jaume BalaguerÃ³, Paco Plaza
Easily bored/excessively nauseous audiences bemoaning the rise of shakycam scary movies were thrown a monster bone with 2007â€™s [REC], a relentlessly inspired mash-up which successfully married the slow burn hallmarks of the POV genre with the fast twitch scares of more traditional horror. (The American remake/carbon copy Quarantine was not nearly as resonant, despite the presence of an ingenious sequence where the camera itself is used as a bludgeon.) The effective, perhaps not entirely necessary sequel [REC] 2 is clearly following the Alien/Aliens model, ditching much of the Blair Witchian atmospherics in favor of a steady stream of pop-out-and-go-boo shocks. Jacked up as it is, though, it still manages to bring on the goosebumps.
Dir: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
Sincere Question: During this, Pixarâ€™s Golden Age of Animation, is it somehow ungrateful to wish for an occasional decent deviation from Masterpiece after Masterpiece, in the way that Bugs Bunny and Co. served as a hellzapoppinâ€™ corrective to Disneyâ€™s dignified heft? (Despite the repeated efforts of Dreamworks, the mere presence of pop culture references and â€™70s songs on the soundtrack just doesnâ€™t scratch the itch, somehow.) Call me Looney, but the more resonant and spectacular Pixarâ€™s output becomes, the greater the risk of reducing the surface pleasures of watching drawings (or renderings or whatever) do things that real people canâ€™t.
Despicable Me would likely be enjoyable on any terms, but in the wake of the heart-wrenching Toy Story 3, its emphasis on Rube Goldbergian pratfalls and spittakes seems almost heroic. Much like last yearâ€™s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, it recognizes the virtues of letting a cartoon be, well, cartoony, no matter how newfangled the technology.
Iron Man 2
dir: Jon Favreau
Is there an actor alive who digs himself more than Robert Downey Jr.? (Ok, possibly Richard Gere, but thatâ€™s in more of a creepy, reptilian vein.) At a time when more and more actors are going Methody opaque, Downeyâ€™s lightspeed thought processes are gloriously external, finding hidden ironies in the material while simultaneously delivering his own commentary track. Too much of a good thing can sometimes be way too much of a good thingâ€”the actorâ€™s best performances tend to come when heâ€™s bouncing off of a tight-reined director, ala David Fincher in Zodiacâ€”but when heâ€™s cooking, itâ€™s hard to look away.
If you like watching Downey half as much as he evidently likes himself, Iron Man 2 might make for a reasonably diverting couple of hours. That doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s not a major mess, though. Flabby, disjointed, and eschewing conflict for extended scenes of improv clowning, itâ€™s the Superheroic equivalent of a Rat Pack film.
Picking up more or less directly where the first installment left off, the story finds billonaire playboy Tony Stark dealing with his decision to go public with his secret identity, while fending off threats both internal (radiation from the device that powers him up) and external, in the form of Sam Rockwellâ€™s competing arms dealer and Mickey Rourkeâ€™s Russian inventor with a grudge. Stuff goes boom, but in nowhere near the quantities youâ€™d expect. This may be the only superhero movie in existence where more time is spent lounging around the heroâ€™s swinginâ€™ pad instead of vrooming through the sky.
The upcoming statement isnâ€™t exactly going to set the internet on fire, but here goes: Iâ€™ve got a bit of a beef with Harlan Ellison, namely for his oft-crowed, dependably nerd-enraging assertion that the OG Star Trek series was nothing more than a â€œcop show in space.â€ Although said statement does serve to nicely deflate the pomposity that has grown around the franchiseâ€™s later incarnations, it also dismisses the very factor that made the concept so memorable for a casual fan such as myself; namely that earnest essence of parable-rich weirdness which went far beyond the cardboard sets and aliens with Russian accents. Computers being talked to death, OK Corrals in space, evil designated by goatees: these are the things that linger past the phasers and prime directives.
Star Trek, director J.J. Abramsâ€™ much-ballyhooed attempt at giving the ravaged franchise a reboot, doesnâ€™t exactly prove Harlan right, but it doesnâ€™t really go out of its way to find new frontiers, either. Although undeniably a lot of fun — along with his standard snappy patter, TV vet Abramsâ€™ command of both pacing and big screen environs has grown visibly since Mission: Impossible 3 — the final impression is of a slightly self-conscious undertaking kept so busy appeasing both nervous hardcores (Kirk still likes green chicks!) and newbies alike (but he also misses his father, in easily recognizable blockbuster fashion!) that it never quite manages to blaze its own trail.