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 several of his movies that I really enjoy and would be happy to watch again, but there are also quite a few of his more popular 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.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Immigrant: Dreaming

 With its opening shot of The Statue of Liberty, its period setting, and its proclamation that The American Dream is waiting for you! one might expect The Immigrant to be a movie rife with metaphors and symbols. While one certainly can find them if they want to, they're more than likely to be unintended consequences on James Gray's part. What's remarkable about Gray's film is that it seems designed to go, from its definite setting, outward, forward, and beyond. This could easily have been a movie about finding universals in particulars, and yet, while, one could look at that way, Gray is really trying to move inward the entire time. He's not attempting to take an immigrant's story in New York during the 1920s and say this is what this means, this is what this represents. His method is really much more intimate, much more psychological, and so invested with the characters that any ideas The Immigrant might be broaching come from them, rather than the other way around. In other words, this is much less a movie about grand statements than about small, but vital gestures, time, place, pain, and the insoluble nature of conformity versus individuality.

That said, there are certainly some symbolic shots peppered throughout the film, most notably in the all-time great final image. Also of note is the dream sequence that occurs about forty minutes into the picture. The timing for the dream is vital: Ewa has just arrived at her relatives' house, and she has her first look of comfort and assurance as she's being put to bed, with her aunt comforting her that "the nightingale always sings sweetest at the darkest hour." She can dream easy now, as it seems that everything may end up okay after all. As her aunt and uncle leave, the camera slowly pans through the cozily lit room before the screen fades to black. Next we see bright light and this shot of Ewa outside, shielding her eyes from the sun, a look of happiness on her face that we haven't seen from her yet.

 Ewa is dreaming, but there is realism in the dream's emotion. It suggests a time of innocence and bliss when she was with her sister in Poland. We don't know what Ewa is smiling at until the screen cuts to this image of Madga, laying out a blanket for a picnic. The transparent, silky look of the blanket add to the scene's lyrical quality. In reality, people use thick blankets for picnics, but this is an idyllic dream of the past, a metaphor for how simple and nice the old days were. The image right after this one is a half second shot Madga looking very ghostlike. If you blink you miss it. 

Next we see Madga pouring some liquid from a glass jug. Silk blanket, glass jug, nah, this ain't real. Note the light green grass, a sign of early spring, of life, of hope. 

Cut back to Ewa, no longer shielding her face, but still smiling. She's at her most content right here.


Gray then glides his camera along the blanket and then up across Madga right up into the sky. It's the most dreamlike shot in the sequence, a camera movement more of emotion than logic. 

By going to the sky, however, he allows for a nice transition to the second part of the dream, which starts with this shot of Madga suddenly in a field, consumed by the grass almost to the point of invisibility. This is actually a pretty creepy shot, and it reminded me of a particularly haunting image from Jack Clayton's 1961 horror classic The Innocents

Cut to Ewa, looking at her, standing in shorter grass that suggests they're now being set apart. The dream has taken a striking turn. There's a sense that Ewa's idyllic past is not just ending, but literally disappearing, never to be had again. Even if she does find her sister, the sense of innocence in this scene will be gone.

When we see Madga again she's turned her back on Ewa, and is walking away. The separation between the sisters represents their current separation. The dream began with them so closely united because as she is going to sleep, Ewa is thinking she will soon be with her sister again in reality. Yet the sudden shift in the dream also suggests that somewhere in her subconscious she knows that things aren't going to be so easy yet. And sure enough, when she wakes up, she learns her uncle has turned her in due to her controversial behavior on the boat from Europe to New York.

The dream really starts to get unsettling here, as we get a slow motion shot of Ewa running after Madga before the soundtrack, which had been slow and peaceful, and a little mysterious up to this point, is dominated by what sounds like  horse hooves pounding against the ground.

The summertime and the brightly lit field is suddenly replaced by a fleeting shot of a dour, barren landscape in winter, at the center of which is a dead tree, the tree of death. Spring, hope, life, are all gone.                                                

 The final shot tells us where those horse hooves were coming from. The image is also fleeting, maybe about a second, but its impact is startling. Ewa's dream, already having taken a turn for the worse, has suddenly become a nightmare. Ewa has previously explained that she was forced to see the decapitation of her parents, and this soldier, saber in hand, likely is connected to that awful memory. 


Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Immigrants

The Immigrant, 1917

The Immigrant, 2014

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Immigrant: Strange Light

 The Immigrant is one of the most beautifully shot films of the year, and the first time I saw it there were several images that stuck in my mind long afterward. Among them was this shot of Ewa lying in bed after she's left the deportation center and agreed to work as a prostitute for Bruno.

The Immigrant contains lots of shots of Ewa lying in bed, but usually the lighting is cold and unflattering, with her face registering desperation and/or weariness. This however is the first time we see her after she's been fully subjected to her demeaning profession. Initially I was a bit surprised with the way Gray lit the scene. Golden rays of light pour through the window, giving the room a romantic, cozy glow. The way the shadows play across her skin (and because it's the first time we see her with her hair down) made me think Gray was turning to another dream sequence, until we realize there's a customer in the room and Ewa has reached her most degraded state yet. But by bathing the scene with such a warm glow, Gray seems to be focusing less on Ewa's sense of guilt than on the fact that she's now a little bit closer to her goal of saving her sister. To simply say that the lighting and the hair suggest heat, sin, and passion would be reductive. It's a comforting scene, really (the customer even gives her extra money for her sister), which, like those mentioned yesterday, bespeaks Gray's intelligence as a filmmaker. One of his goals is to make Ewa's experience a dark and harrowing one. She's in a new land that seems to be trying to push her back where she came from. And yet Gray isn't out to hit the viewer over the head with her difficulties, but rather to give them an experience in tune with the complicated nature of man. In Gray's world, pure evil, pure oppression, simply does not exist. Thus, this scene, which certainly has all sorts of negative undertones, doesn't come across as icy and terrible as it could have been. It's sad, for sure, but it's also something more.