12/4/12 The Birth of Big Air (2010)
ESPN should’ve changed the title of this one, because The Birth of Mat Hoffman would be much more appropriate. This entry in the 30 for 30 series is less about a movement in BMX culture and more about how insane of a person Hoffman is. He is, by all means, an innovator of the sport of trick cycling. From his first taste of huge air at the ripe age of 15 to a final glory run at the ’07 X Games, Jackass mainstay Jeff Tremaine paints the dangerous sport as nothing short of pure addiction for the BMX icon.
Hoffman’s dedication and mind-boggling ability come to a head when he tries to reclaim the world record for a half pipe jump. The Birth of Big Air implies its subject singlehandedly resurrected the extreme sport back to popular interest, but Hoffman certainly can’t resuscitate himself as he piles on injuries to his rapsheet. Grantland writer Katie Baker wrote quite the piece in 2010 at Deadspin where she questions the judiciousness of Tremaine and producers Spike Jonze and Johnny Knoxville. I have to agree with her skepticism on the filmmakers’ motivations here, especially when Hoffman repeatedly crests and stumbles in front of family members as cameras roll.
Hoffman is both crazy talented and a talented crazy, but it isn’t a stretch to suggest those same cameras only enable his addiction. After failing several times to stick a landing, Hoffman remarks that he can’t do it with all the media pressure. No doubt this is true, and it’s a poignant reminder that a half-publicity piece for ESPN’s annual summer event might feed the disease in more than one way.
12/6/12 This is Not a Film (2011)
Whether or not director Jafar Panahi casts any of the supporting appearances in This is Not a Film is beside the point (and rather trivial) when compared to the larger picture. Panahi’s 2008 production was shut down by the Iranian government after only 3 weeks for its controversial subject matter. He was subsequently banned from making films for 20 years and at the beginning of his latest film (?), he’s facing a 6 year prison term. This is heavy stuff, to say the least, especially since the context of Ahmadenijad’s regime is very real. (Panahi had to smuggle the film out of Tehran on a flash drive inside of a birthday cake.)
This is Not a Film’s strongest scene (?) bubbles at the end, out of an elevator conversation between Panahi and an acquaintance who’s taking out the building’s trash. Panahi asks the young man about his plans after graduate school; he answers with little more than uncertainty. As the evening pyres of Fireworks Wednesday rise blaze in the background, both Panahi and the young man’s futures seem uncertain. This is Not a Film shows its director at an uncomfortable time, in life and creatively, as he struggles to tell us what his abandoned feature might have looked like. The stripped down, low tech presentation — with masking tape set designs and a camera phone — get his point across even more so. When you’re on a sinking ship, you’ll reach for anything in the hope that it floats.
12/7/12 Ted (2012)
Rip on Family Guy’s endless cutaway gags; rip its allergic reactions to narrative; but don’t rip Seth MacFarlane. After all, if FOX kept the paychecks coming to your door, what would you do? Ted is proof MacFarlane understands story. Mostly. Its third act goes off the rails into Crazy Town when a Giovanni Ribisi side plot randomly comes back. A strange climax — featuring a Fugitive-styled chase around Fenway Park — drags things down a bit.
However, MacFarlane offers plenty of laughs in his eponymous crude teddy bear, whom Mark Wahlberg wished to life as a boy many Christmases ago. Wahlberg’s struggle — managing his impending adult life against his affection for adolescence — is hilariously heavyhanded in the opposite poles of Wahlberg’s longtime girlfriend, Mila Kunis, and a literal talking stuffed animal.
The most welcome change is Ted’s lack of random references. In their place is a more… ubiquitous obsession with the Sam Jones bombfest Flash Gordon. When MacFarlane doles out the Flash (ah-aahhhhhh!) references in big heaping spoonfuls, the consistency of the joke eventually lets the whole audience in on it. Unlike a nod to an a-ha music video or a scene in Poltergeist, MacFarlane’s pop culture savvy here doesn’t exclude his audience. It welcomes them in. It’s as if MacFarlane heard his most vocal critics and sought to prove them wrong.
Or maybe he was always this talented to begin with.
12/8/12 Chronicle (2012)
This is Not a Found Footage Film.
As a stylistic choice, I liked how it brought us closer to three high school kids who all acquire a mysterious superpower. But some of the lengths Chronicle goes to just to include another handheld or security monitor are borderline ridiculous. More importantly, the genre of found footage implies said footage can actually be “found.” Without spoiling anything, how does one retrieve a camcorder out of a collapsed tunnel? There goes your first act.
If you’ve seen Josh Trank and Max Landis’ great take on the superhero genre, then you know full well I’m not choosing my battles wisely on the realism front here. By and large, these are minor complaints of a very strong effort. Despite my misgivings, some of Trank’s flashier camera movements are smartly paired with what befalls Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, and Michael B. Jordan in the first place.
And smart directing goes well with smart writing. Hollywood has seen its fair share of tragic downfalls, but the evolution of these three characters and their relationships is fascinating. Imagine situating the nadir of Jack Napier or Michael Corleone within the confines of teenage social life. Sure, some of the green screen was bad, but on a $15 million budget, who can rightfully complain? Give these guys more money, Hollywood.