Friday, September 19, 2014

New J.C Chandler

I'm not saying the trailer's particularly good, or in any way bad, but there's nothing like a tease giving one heady thrills. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Favorite Survey

Among the many film-related items to read on the internet, one that I always anticipate-more for entertainment than educational purposes-is the Criticwire Survey on Indiewire. It's quite simple, consisting of a question posed by Criticwire editor Sam Adams, followed by responses from established critics around the web. Richard Brody almost always contributes, and I find his responses to often be the sharpest and most intelligent. In a brief paragraph he both answers the question and offers his typically stellar analysis of that question. The latest survey is on anticipated fall TV shows, to which Brody responds: 

The reason to eagerly anticipate TV series created by directors of good movies is that those series are likelier to be good. Calling TV a writers' medium is like calling novels an editors' medium. Editors are essential; so are screenwriters; but when the balance of influence tilts too far, the result, in television (or, for that matter, in movies) is like those series of novels churned out for kids, in which a mastermind comes up with the plots for the books that other writers are hired to flesh out; it's as if the directors at work on them were painting pictures while jumping on the hopscotch board that the rigid plotting dictated; they do the best they can but what's mainly visible is the mandatory pattern they jump to. I'm sure (he says with a Socratic smile) that there will be many fine series premiering on TV this fall, and I'll take good advice from the critics on which ones to sample, but the series I'm most looking forward to is the World Series; it would be good to see the inspired and ripened Montreal Expos (I mean, the Washington Nationals) or the Dodgers, with their freestyle flair, take on the Angels' powerhouse.

Fall Renewal

The dearth of content on here of late is in part due to a myriad of causes, but largely is simply a result of bad writing habits. Sure, in the last several weeks things have picked up outside of movie ventures; I've found myself working a job that often leaves me more eager to drink wine and lethargically converse with people than focus my attention on a screen; I've suddenly found myself in a rock 'n roll band that is growing in publicity and quality far quicker than my guitar skills are (thus practice does not simply mean cathartic relief through plucking at strings, but rigorous, callus forming, muscle stretching guitar sessions that often must go on longer than my patience can endure); and, as september is halfway through, I'm officially back to the grind of being a full-time college student, which essentially means I'm constantly wondering whether, using the rationale that I'm going to forget most of this material probably within a year, I should simply skip various homework assignments and do what I want to do, or decide to be a disciplined student and really feel good about myself. And that's simply during this pleasant time in the semester when papers haven't started piling up and midterms are still a a good month down the road. 

In spite of all of this, I still can't think of any truly convincing reason not to be posting on here, which is in part why I've decided to write this, and also why I've endeavored to churn something out at least on a semi-regular basis. In truth, I haven't been seeing as much film or television of late, not so much due to lack of interest, but mostly because I started to grow increasingly tired of wrestling to stay awake through a picture, or simply falling asleep during it and then having to finish it the next day (nothing worse, in my mind). There are solutions to this, such as watching in the morning as a springboard for the day rather than at night to let it unwind. Or, as I've started doing lately, during those four and five o'clock afternoon hours when I'm wide awake but not particularly compelled to dig into the day's homework yet. In any case, gone are those days when I would stay up late, cramming in as many movies as possible, and refusing to fall asleep regardless of how heavy my eyelids felt. It didn't matter that I wasn't really absorbing what I was watching, but rather that I was simply watching it. Seeing three movies in a row poorly was more important than watching just one carefully. That, however is a dreadful practice for anyone, and these days my curiosities with regard to the director's aesthetic and my eagerness to pick apart a film even as I'm watching largely keep me from seeing anything of worth unless my mind's at its sharpest (that's not to say I don't sometimes indulge in passive viewing with flat-out lousy movies-though even now I tend to scrutinize the bad stuff since it's arguably just as important to be able to articulate why something is bad rather than good).

That said, cinema is good enough to transcend such minor issues, and often it simply takes the arrival of some masterpiece to suddenly change one's mood and make seeing as many films as possible an absolute necessity once again. In theory I want to watch movies all the time, but at the same time there's a Netflix copy of Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise on my desk that I simply can't get myself to sit down to-and it's only 80 minutes! You say there's not enough time, but more often than not there is, and one simply has to know how to find it. 

Overall, though, perhaps getting back into movies and writing about them has as much to do with the current cinematic landscape as it does with my own feelings. It has been a particularly lousy few weeks at the multiplex, and as my conviction has increased that good movies in theatres compel viewers to watch even more good ones at home, then perhaps it'll simply take the arrival of something like Gone Girl to get me devouring films again. 

Or it might be that The Drop/A Walk Among the Tombstones double feature I've got planned for Friday. I'm not expecting either film to be great, but I'm a big believer in Scott Frank (The Lookout, which I revisited a few weeks ago, still rocks in my opinion) and Dennis Lehane has always had a soft spot in my heart ever since I saw Mystic River when I was 15 and declared it a masterpiece before it was even over. And shit, both films just look wildly entertaining.

Time now, though, to finally see Christian Petzold's Barbara now that his new picture, Phoenix (fresh out of TIFF), has bounded up to the top of my most-anticipated fall 2014 movies.

P.S. watch the new trailer for Listen Up Philip

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Movie Titles

I saw something on twitter that reminded me: even if it's a good movie, I usually can't stand it when it uses a gerund in its title. 

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Birdcage. B+

It's always a good idea to visit or revisit a great artist's work upon their death, not just to be reminded of their genius but also to respect it. For Robin Williams, doing so seems doubly important considering the fact that his beloved image on screen was such the antithesis of his dark personal life. There are several of his movies that I simply dig and would be happy to watch again, but there are also quite a few of his more popular movies I've somewhat embarrassingly never actually seen. There are also countless little gems buried in his filmography that don't get the attention they deserve; one that I recently viewed after Williams' passing was The Birdcage, a film that today is mostly known to fans of Elaine May. Not to detract from Williamsperformance in the movie-which is stellar-but the big deal with The Birdcage really is that one-time comedy routine partners May and Mike Nichols finally decided to collaborate on a movie with quite stunning results. I saw this and the Seth Rogan/Zac Efron comedy hit Neighbors on the same night, and it was astounding how naturally the former was able to keep its diverse jokes flowing, while the latter (despite a good set-up) never found its footing. The credit for The Birdcage seems largely to go to May's script, which has all the hallmarks that make her such a good comedic writer: she's not afraid to be stupid, she understands that good comedy shouldn't be narrowed down to just a few types of jokes, and, in spite of the way she tends to let absurdity build to an extreme crescendo, there's always a strange kind of insightful intelligence that grows along with it. The Birdcage has a little silent comedy here, a little 40s screwball there, and enough suggestive wit and political probing that it would never have been made in either of those periods. In my mind, you can forget Ishtar; this is Elaine May at her best. And, to get back to the original point, Robin Williams is tremendous, delivering-in his trademark fashion-emotional support on top of his jokes. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

Fall, 2014

There's a lot of really great titles coming to theaters this fall movie season, and I plan to elaborate in a separate post on the films I'm especially excited for. The Playlist just put out their most anticipated list, and sure enough, smack dab in the middle is Listen Up, Philip, the third feature from the astoundingly gifted Alex Ross Perry. It hits the big screen Oct. 17. It played at Sundance, and is now primed for an ideal release during my personal favorite movie-going month of the year. The movie's one of those rare features that truly invests itself in all aspects of its existence. Coming from Perry, it's no shocker that the dialogue and the characters are worthy of extreme scrutinization; at the same time, there's no way to watch this and not take in the nearly beguiling costume designs, multi-generation-encompassing sets, and one of the truly great whip-pans this side of Wes Anderson.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Premiere Video!

I recently started working at Whole Earth Provision Co. (a great place, by the way, and will serve as a wonderful getaway from campus come the fall semester). I work at the Mockingbird location in Dallas, which is perfect, because across the street is the Angelika Film Center, and-even better-right next door is Premiere Video, the largest video store in TX. I've always wanted to rent from them, but, living in Irving, it wasn't worth the twenty minute drive to return the movies. Now that I'll be in the area several times a week, I can finally be a frequenter of the store. 

In an age when so many people are consuming movies and television via online streaming or downloading, it's quite rewarding to shop around in an old fashioned video store that carries just about every title you could think of (from foreign to domestic, to silent to all the new releases). I currently subscribe to the Netflix DVD service, and yet I've grown increasingly frustrated by how many titles I want that they simply do not have, and that if there is something I'd like, it's not in a nearby shipping center, which means a much longer wait for the film (currently every title on my queue is listed as very long wait). 

Thus, I'm thinking of stopping the Netflix service for now and sticking with Premiere Video for the time being, especially considering the fact that I rented from them for the first time yesterday and found several of the titles that Netflix doesn't even carry. I rented five films, all of which I'm dying to see: Clash by Night, Letter From an Unknown Woman, Southern Comfort, Blue Caprice, and Pickup on South StreetHaving just finished four straight days work, I'm looking forward to next two, in which I won't have to work and will have time to see some movies.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Decade Old: Mean Creek

What ever happened to Jacob Aaron Estes? In 2004, his debut feature Mean Creek (which he also wrote) premiered at Sundance, before going onto Cannes, and then getting a theatrical release (from Paramount Classics, whose chunky, ugly logo thankfully eventually gave way to the much leaner Paramount Vantage) later in the year. The reviews were pretty positive, and Estes seemed primed for, at the most, a good career as a filmmaker, and at the least, a go-to writer for movies and TV. While he hasn't gone off the map entirely, he's only released one film since then, and that was the weird, mediocre comedy The Details, with Toby Maguire and Laura Linney (it was such a departure from Mean Creek that I wonder how many people who saw it were even aware of the director's once promising career). I don't know what Estes' life has been like or what he has or hasn't tried to accomplish (all he says in his interviews is that since Mean Creek was a movie about kids, he wanted The Details to be about adults), thus I can only speculate what exactly caused his meager output in the last ten years. 

Even if there's a great talent at hand, one can never assume there's going to be proper financing available to allow that talent to blossom. A good idea, even a good script, never guarantees a green light. A prime example is Shane Carruth (no pun intended), who debuted Primer at Sundance the same year as Mean Creek and proceeded to struggle to get funding for subsequent projects before distributing Upstream Color out of his own pocket nine years later. Maybe Estes had similar issues following Mean Creek, or maybe he simply was in no rush to duplicate that film's success. Or perhaps he's simply a Richard Kelly-type, someone who caught lightning in a bottle and then was just about finished.

Either way, the film itself remains pretty good a decade later. Estes, who lucked out with a thoroughly convincing teen cast, is tackling some fairly big youth psychology issues, and yet his strength as a writer is the way he manages to let them come naturally into the story rather than appear as moralizing pronouncements. 

In a world that seems devoid of adult supervision, a group of friends invite a bully on a weekend river trip with plans of retribution for his beating up one of their little brothers. The movie opens with Sam (Rory Culkin) getting a shiner from the bully George (Josh Peck). When his older brother Rocky (Trevor Morgan) finds out, he and his friends Marty (Scott Mechlowicz) and Clyde (Ryan Kelley) plot revenge. For Rocky, it's because he's protective of his brother, for the unruly Marty it's a chance for some edgy fun, and for Clyde-the most reticent of the bunch-it's because he's just tagging along with friends. But what seems like a relatively innocent act of retaliation (their plan is mean spirited, for sure, but not intended to be violent) grows increasingly complicated as George turns out to be far more complex than anyone thought.

He's a strange kid with some serious social problems, and his tendency to make videos of his life with commentary on how complicated his mind is bears some eerie resemblances to those shot by Elliot Rodger earlier this year before his tragic rampage. But George can also be pretty friendly, as he readily demonstrates from the get-go when he's picked up from his house, greets everyone, makes conversation, and even gives Sam a damn fine water gun (they've told him the reason for the trip is to celebrate Sam's birthday). 

And yet his social issues are apparent throughout the trip, from the way he brags about smoking an entire pack of American Spirits in a day, or how much pot he's smoked, to when he asks for the recipe to some sandwiches Clyde made when in fact they're simply PB&J. George's amiable persona mixed with his social oddities (which are likely the root of his penchant for bullying) works as a machine of empathy, and soon everyone except Marty is feeling that the plan should be called off. But a sense of tragedy is inevitable from the beginning, and despite the sudden compassion the friends get for George, things do turn disastrous once Marty reveals to George that he's been tricked and George goes off his rocker.

Mean Creek is not out to revere of vilify anyone; despite the fact that Sam's initial beating sets the story in motion, there's really no central character in Estes' narrative. One of the pleasures of watching the movie is that it could really be about any of the kids involved in this initially amusing, and ultimately terrifying, situation. Consider, for example, Marty, who could have simply been the stereotypical bad boy-a real John Bender type-but who here is treated with a surprising amount of sensitivity and realism. When he's first introduced, he's walking out of a pizza joint with Rocky and Clyde, and after his predictable banter with his buddies, we feel he's someone who's easy to figure out. 

But Estes throws the viewer for a loop when later he includes a scene of Marty at his home, shooting a firearm at some bottles only to be soon after demeaned by his intimidating older brother. It's a small scene, but it compels the viewer to consider Marty beyond a type and to ask where he's coming from and what he's hiding behind his bad-boy persona.

Estes' generosity towards his characters is seen most notably in George, who, rather then simply being a victim, is a fully fledged character whose personal demons are given far more consideration than one would expect given the film's initial premise. George could easily have been a device for Estes to show what can happen when a group of kids rally against a blundering bully. Yet even he is granted a few intimate moments that keep him far more interesting than one would expect, and also prevents him from being labeled a type. 

That said, the film only runs 90 minutes, and as a result Estes' film isn't entirely satisfying as a full-fledged narrative. It leaves lots and lots of questions unanswered regarding these characters, and yet one ultimately gathers that he's less interested in a fully developed narrative than in accurately representing a very real situation in a very real time and place. Though it can be lauded for tackling some difficult questions, its best moments are the small ones when Estes allows his young actors to simply exist as their characters. Despite the clear echoes of classic movies like River's Edge and Deliverance, Estes' fastens himself less to history, nostalgia, and myth than to capturing a fully realized moment. Mean Creek is by no means a great movie, but it has enough going for it that one would expect Estes' to feed off its success and create more compelling and true-to-life dramas. That he hasn't is a bit of a letdown. The film is good enough that one would hope for him to take this experience and grow as a filmmaker. That he hasn't has left Wolf Creek, only a decade later, mostly obsolete. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Immigrant: A Few Nice Shots

There are enough great shots in The Immigrant to make an album. Here are three of many that I personally really like. 

This could be a painting.


This is when Bruno is listening to Ewa's confession. One of the many Gordon Willis-style shots in the film.

The Immigrant has so many dark interiors that whenever it uses broad daylight the effect is always startling. This is when Bruno and Ewa are running from the police towards the end of the movie.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Immigrant: Funeral Canticle

I've always admired James Gray's music choices, particularly his ability to place that perfect piece of music at the perfect time (even his decision to use a pop song like "Heart of Glass" to open We Own the Night just worked really, really well). The Immigrant is no exception. Chris Spelman wrote a sparing but lovely score for the film, highlighted of course by the theme that opens, closes, and is also scattered throughout the movie. 

But my favorite music choice in the film is the decision (I assume on Gray's part) to use John Tavener's "Funeral Canticle" during two crucial scenes. For those who don't know, Tavener, who died last year, had a prolific career composing religious music. His best work could described as both aching and sublime, and it touches on the notion of the transcendent better than any music I can think of. His composition "The Lamb" was used in last year's The Great Beauty, and you may also recognize "Funeral Canticle" from The Tree of Life

It's a very emotional and grand piece of music (though not without a strong melancholic edge to it), and seems ideal for a montage or gorgeous steadicam shots through nature or a great city. Gray however chooses to use it during two of the most closed-in scenes in the film. The first is when Ewa is in the deportation center and is looking out the small window of her cell door at a religious procession (possibly a funeral?) going through the hall. The music begins, but rather than being obtrusive, it's very quiet, almost as if it's being played in the procession and we're hearing it from Ewa's cell. But it's just loud enough that we can hear it and be emotionally affected by it as Ewa prays-with a combination of desperation, exhaustion, and hope-to Mary to help through this terrible situation. 

The other scene Gray chooses to play it in is even more intimate. Ewa has just gone to church for the first time in a while, and afterwards she goes to confession. As Bruno secretly listens outside the confessional (this review notes that Bruno's probably never even been in a church before), Ewa tells the priest how far she has fallen, and how ashamed she is. Gray doesn't want to keep Ewa's feelings a secret, and a confession scene is ideal for expressing them. Cotillard provides a lot of the emotion in this scene, but having Tavener's piece play again really makes it truly moving. Once again, he keeps the volume low, letting the melody quietly affect the emotion of the scene rather than intruding on it. 

The first time Gray uses the piece, Ewa has fallen at her lowest; by the time he uses it again, she's sunk even deeper into despair. The melody however suggests redemption and grace, and though Ewa is not literally hearing it, one gathers that she's being affected emotionally the same way the viewer is by the song. Call it what you will-grace, the instinct of survival, love-but there seems to be something she's getting in spite of her suffering that is enabling her to persevere. 

If you haven't heard the piece, or have and need an antidote for exhaustion, grief, or weariness, this 23 minute full version of the song does wonders.