Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscars 2015!

Don't be mislead by the title of this post. I've nothing really to say about this year's Oscars, for one, because I didn't watch them, and two, because, in spite of the fact that a few really great films were considered for awards, I just don't care. At this point it's almost more enjoyable to read the twitter posts of people poking fun at the show than actually watching it.

That said, I do have one thing to say concerning the broadcast: If you were disappointed that Eddie Redmayne took home the Best Actor award (I love, love Michael Keaton and would have been happier over his taking home the gold than any Oscar win ever), be glad that he improved massively on his fellow-nominee Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Hawking from the 2004 BBC film. Out of curiosity, I watched snippets of it through the night, and, for those of you who think Cumberbatch can do no wrong, check this out. It's an awful pairing of subject and performer, partly because Cumberbatch's physical appearance is nothing like Hawking's, and also because his impression comes across as a bad imitation of Eddie Redmayne playing the famed physicist. I know that's impossible since this film came out ten years before, but that's how desperate and silly Cumberbatch is in this. All one needs to do is see the final scene of the film, which is so clumsy and stupid (not just in terms of the acting, but from the choices of uninspiring shots from director Philip Martin) it makes The Theory of Everything look like a masterpiece. This is not, however, to bash on either Cumberbatch or Redmayne. They're two of the coolest actors working in Britain today. I thought Redmayne was the highlight of Tom Hooper's Les Miserables, and Cumberbatch has simply been so entertaining in everything since Sherlock premiered in 2010 that an early mishap in his career ultimately matters little.

 (P.S., I actually did see live the back-to-back technical victories for The Grand Budapest Hotel. The reaction shots of Wes Anderson's lovable smile made me think that if this film actually took home all the top prizes then I would be genuinely happy just to see him smile more)

Prediction Oscars 2016: When the the show finally ends, we'll be stoked that James Gray's Lost City of Z is coming before long.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A Walk Among the Tombstones. C+

It's a grim, dead-serious, and pleasantly low-key, adult-oriented thriller with Liam Neeson, yet that's not enough to make A Walk Among the Tombstones entirely satisfying. It needs more characters like the mysterious gardener who writes stories and keeps a bird coop atop a building (the Icelandic Olafur Darri Olafsson, who's been a character actor in a few Hollywood films and hopefully will be in many more in the future) in order to add flavor to what's a fairly ordinary (though admittedly at times pretty creepy) plot. Scott Frank, who's been a great genre screenwriter for a while, proves he's definitely capable in the director's chair (this is his second go round behind the camera, following The Lookout). The film is seeped in atmosphere (autumnal setting and all) and assured camera arrangements usually built around wide shots that give the film a really nice city-noir look. With the exception of one unexpected slow motion scene featuring a girl in a bright red coat, this is as no-nonsense as a movie can get. The film is set in 1999, just before Y2K (referenced several times) and the onslaught of technology in our everyday lives. The movie seems to relish the fact that it can operate in pre-cyber territory and simply deal with the reality of evil in a more primitive form. If only it had a little more sparks flying in the areas between Neeson and the bad guys to make this well-made, well-acted, and well-intentioned thriller just a little more interesting. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Scary Image of the Day

Willem Dafoe channels Steve Buscemi in Wild at Heart

Saturday, January 17, 2015

American Sniper: End Credits Song

(spoiler) One of my favorite parts about Clint Eastwood's American Sniper is that final shot, in which Sienna Miller's Taya Kyle watches her husband Chris Kyle go off in his truck with a veteran for an afternoon at a shooting range. Husband and wife exchange a parting glance, and her stare at Chris imparts a sense that she knows there's some sort of uncomfortable, eerie event soon occur. In no way could she have known that Chris Kyle was to be murdered that day, but one gathers she felt something wasn't quite right. Sienna Miller's gaze at her husband as she slowly closes the door is my favorite piece of acting from her in the film. It's the most subtle in a role that, while admirably played, is far too frequently overwrought for dramatic effect (it was also Eastwood's choice to end the film here, one of many examples in which he altered the written script, just for those who think he simply shoots the words on the page).

American Sniper has been breaking all kinds of box office records (being a Dallas native, it's particularly hitting home with my fellow Texans; I'm also just thrilled that it's getting people out to the theatre-since when have there been so many sold-out showings for such an extensive period of time?) and people are having an almost unreal emotional response to it. There's something about Kyle-his taciturn approach to life combined with his utterly committed sense of responsibility to his fellow men perhaps-that really strikes a chord with the steadfast American ethos of duty and love. 

Kyle, Cooper's performance, the action scenes, the PTSD sequences, and Eastwood's direction, have already been commented on extensively to the point where at this point I don't feel I've much to add (Ignatiy Vishnevetsky nailed the film in a few paragraphs; I'd also recommend Richard Brody's and Glenn Kenny's take on the movie, as well as What the Flick's review on Youtube). But I will say this: the choices made for the end credits sequence was utterly fantastic. As Eastwood did in his 2009 film Invictus, rather than employing extensive title cards that "wrap up" the story, we simply get images, in this case, the funeral procession for Kyle in 2013 around and in the Dallas Cowboys' stadium. Taken from stock video footage, the images function to remind viewers beyond info title sheets that this didn't just happen, but really happened. In many ways it provides a greater emotional pull, and yet I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of that had to do with the song choice that I imagine Eastwood picked for this sequence. It's a piece by Ennio Morricone--who Eastwood of course has massive ties to--called The Funeral, taken from the a little known Spaghetti Western called The Return of Ringo (released in 1965, the same year as Eastwood's own For a Few Dollars More). It combines a stirring, heroic, somber trumpet with Morricone's trademark choir sounds to create the sense of a funeral procession that is both solemn and transcendent. It's a beautifully written piece, clearly composed to honor the dead, and is the ideal choice for the conclusion of American Sniper. Not only does it offer emotional resonance for the viewer who has spent two intense hours witnessing Kyle's pursuits, but, in a grander sense, it makes one connect the film to Eastwood's entire filmography, particularly his early movies that of course featured Morricone's most enduring works. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Drop (2014)

Besides being a really nice send-off for James Gandolfini, as well further affirmation that Tom Hardy's the real deal, there's really only one reason for The Drop to exist: to give somebody a film to see when they're just looking for something to watch at night, perhaps are too tired to engage in a challenging piece of cinema, but still want to see something well-made, well-acted, and worth their while. The Drop is the ideal film for such a night.

It's a really simple movie, and while the story contains a few secrets, it's never particularly difficult to follow. The film is low key and rife with quiet scenes of dialogue, yet it also moves well, with enough shady characters, occasional bits of violence, and threats to keep one easily engaged. As a whole though there's a relaxing simplicity to the film, which is largely due to the fact that Dennis Lehane's script is based off of his short story Animal Rescue. And the film really does feel like a short story stretched to feature length, especially when one considers that what seems like a cute little subplot involving a dog turns out to be the core element of the film. And even a little twist at the end serves more as closure and clarification than complication. In one sense there barely seems to be enough material in The Drop to sustain its running time of 106 minutes, and yet that's also why the movie is so easy to watch. One never feels overwhelmed by the story or the characters, and the smallness of the whole thing makes it ideal for those aforementioned middlebrow watching nights. It gives one the sense that they are seeing something worthwhile that's also easy to consume and that won't make them riled up afterwards and unable to sleep. When you wake up, chances are you'll have already started to forget about it.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Best of 2014!

Those who complain that all the good films of the year are backloaded until the november/december months have no argument for 2014. It's been a while since a year brought such a consistent crop of really good movies nearly every month. As I mentioned in a post earlier in the year, by April moviegoers had already been spoiled with new films from Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, Jim Jarmusch, David Gordon Green, Lars Von Trier, and Jonathan Glazer. And it didn't stop there. Through the summer we got new ones from Richard Linklater, John Michael McDonagh, Bong Joon-Ho, Kelly Reichardt, Jim Mickle, and James Gray. Now, just because a director has a new movie doesn't mean it's going to be good. However, by and large the films released were spectacular, the kind of works that will probably be talked about years from now. And of course, the fall months proved to be outstanding as well, with nearly every week bringing something outstanding to the screen. Anyway, this is all to say that it was just another great year at the movies. When people talk about cinema being in trouble, at this point it mainly has to do with getting the mainstream excited and actually going out to the theatre consistently. Because as this year proved, the creative energy in this medium is at an exquisite high. And you know it has to be a good year when I'm this enthusiastic and the new films from Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, and the Dardenne Brothers haven't even been released in Texas yet. Here's my 10 favorites:

10. Calvary. A fascinating and perplexing film, John Michael McDonagh's folllow-up to The Guard may seem important for the way it tackles its relevant topic of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, but to me its vitality comes more in how it plays around with tone--a la Alexander Payne--while also giving us one of the best movie characters in years in Brendan Gleeson's Father James.

9. Listen Up, Phillip. Alex Ross Perry's ambitious follow-up to The Color Wheel in which we're asked to follow repellent characters not to be rewarded with their positive transformations but to be terribly amused and enlightened as to the ways narcissism reaches such extremes as to almost work as an addiction. The movie also looks amazing and features Jason Schwartzman's best performance. 

8. Snowpiercer. Bong Joon Ho has created one of the great train movies of all time, and mind you there have been plenty of good ones. Just when you feel the film is getting a little obvious and worn down it takes fascinating narrative and visual turns. Always entertaining, and at the end something quite more than that. 

7. Boyhood. This movie is so good Linklater could sit on its success and take a little step into the shadows, and yet I think we're all quite eager for That's What I'm Taking About, coming out sometime in 2015. We could have said the same thing last year when everyone was putting Before Midnight on their top-10 lists. It's just what Linklater does.

6. Interstellar. It took two viewings of this for me to buy into it, and now two months after it's release I'm still thinking about it and also feeling its emotional power. If you think of it like a giant, geeky sci-fi novel, then all the physics jargon the characters incessantly spout suddenly seems okay. And if you're not wowed by the rest of it-the visual spectacle, the soundtrack, the performances, and the way it converges ideas and emotion, then there's no talking to you. 

5. The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson's pastry cake with a haunted soul. 

4. Ida. Pawel Pawlikowski's nearly indescribable little drama about history, grief, family, and how to live. That it tackles so much in only 80 minutes and has time for some really good old school jazz makes it one of the truly amazing achievements of the year. 

3. Foxcatcher. Masterful in every possible way, but I think what I liked best was the autumnal setting and the way Bennett Miller insists on long wide shots and then lets them simply breathe and be still, letting the viewer simply absorb the environment. 

2. A Most Violent Year. The same could be said for A Most Violent Year, another wonderfully controlled drama from J.C. Chandor that also features my favorite performance of the year from Oscar Isaac. Such a finely calculated film in every sense, can't wait to see it again. 

1. The Immigrant. 

I'd almost like to just keep this list going, because I also loved Whiplash, Fury, Birdman, Nightcrawler, American Sniper, Joe, Cold in July, Gone Girl, and The Babadook, The Raid 2, The Rover. 

Also, there were, as usual, lots of older movies I saw this year that blew me away. My favorites:

Raw Deal
4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days
Johnny Guitar
Deep Red
The Hunt
Wagon Master
Sherlock Jr.
Mother of George
Modern Romance
The Big Easy
Ace in the Hole
The Rock
The Leopard
Something Wild
Master of the House
Letter From An Unknown Woman
Monsieur Verdoux
To Be or Not to Be

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Story of Temple Drake (1933)

The Story of Temple Drake tells a remarkable story in a largely unremarkable way. It takes William Faulkner's controversial 1931 novel and presents the bare necessities of its narrative, resulting in an efficient but far too rushed motion picture. That was pretty typical for most of the literary adaptations during the 1930s, and one certainly can understand why much of the source material was scrapped here. Ultimately the most important aspect of the novel is the character Temple Drake, and the film retains much her complexity, though in the end it sidesteps her perplexing descent into evil in favor of a more upbeat conclusion.

The film establishes Temple (played by the great Miriam Hopkins) early on as a wealthy, featherbrained college girl who would rather jump around from one man to the next than settle down with anyone in particular. At the film's beginning she leaves a party with a reckless drunken college kid who takes her to an eerie backwoods bootlegging operation to satisfy his craving for a drink. 

These early scenes at the house owned by bootlegger Lee Goodman are when the movie is at its best. Temple has entered a living hell of sorts, a world completely devoid of the comforts and securities she had in the city. Cinematographer Karl Struss, a master at creating surreal, haunting images (he photographed movies like Sunrise, Island of Lost Souls, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), uses minimal light to create a world of shadows and creepy faces and hideous dread. Particularly intimidating is Trigger (Jack La Rue), who, with his black suit and hat and hard, chiseled face might be the devil incarnate in this hellhole. 

At this point we're fast approaching the pivotal moment in the story, one that made the novel infamous despite not actually being described, and that is similarly only implied in the film. It is of course, if you're at all familiar with the story, the rape of Temple with a corncob by the impotent Shooter. However, while I was watching the film, a shot of Temple just prior to this off-screen nightmare reminded me of a similar shot used in last year's great The Immigrant. Take a look at the two:

In the former image, Temple has just woken up in the barn after her first night at Lee Goodman's place, hence the streaks of light passing through the cracks in the wood. The image of Marion Cotillard's Ewa from The Immigrant has similar beams of light streaked across her face. The difference is that the shot of Ewa takes place just after she has prostituted herself in order to get money to help her sister. Temple, on the other hand, is still pure, having been subjected to real terrors the night before but as of yet still free from actual physical violation. Why then do I bring up these two shots when they don't really share much in common except for some rays of morning light? Because when I thought about the two images and the women who inhabit them, I started to feel that these characters actually share a little something in common. 

First off, these are two women coming from places of contentment (as we see in the dream sequence in The Immigrant, Ewa seemed to lead a very peaceful existence in Poland, at least for a time) who are thrown into foreign and terrifying situations and fall into prostitution at the hands of strong and powerful men. One reason why Ewa manages this is because on the ship to America men would force themselves onto her. Her mortification over this fact is part of the reason why she is able to give her body to men later in the film. She has less to lose since she has already lost her purity, plus her sister's well-being seems to be more important to her than her own. Temple, as already stated, is coming from a wealthy, shallow lifestyle, and in the film we see that after her rape, she runs off with Shooter to be a prostitute in Memphis. Her motives for this may ultimately be altered somewhat from the novel, but I think they are still to an extent applicable. Here's what I had to say about it in an excerpt from the paper I wrote on Sanctuary a few weeks ago, in which I suggest Temple's venture into evil and prostitution are an escape from a different problematic world she previously inhabited:

This leads to what is arguably the most challenging question in the novel, namely whether Temple’s actions following her stay at Frenchman’s Bend are meant to suggest that she has now adopted an evil nature or whether she is still ultimately a good person who is compelled for a variety of reasons to inhabit an evil persona. Ultimately, it seems pretty clear that Temple is remaining with Popeye and taking part in reprehensible behavior out of necessity while at the same time trying to avoid the society she grew up in. Temple has realized the dark ways of the world, and thus she seems to understand something artificial and trivial about her existence prior to arriving at Frenchman’s Bend. After moving to Memphis with Popeye, it would seem that Temple is not so much in love with evil but resisting her old life. “The fatal adaptability, the “social sense,” these are the things that paralyze any impulse on Temple’s part to flee the scene or to resist the evil.” In retrospect it almost seems as if Faulkner has been driving towards this notion the entire time. Consider, for example, Ruby’s chastisement of Temple and her way of life soon after her arrival at Frenchman’s Place: ‘“Oh, I know your sort, honest women. Too good to have anything to do with common people. Let a man so much as look at you and you faint away because your father the judge and your four brothers might not like it.'" Faulkner seems to suggest that this guarded, sheltered existence of Temple’s is a problem just like the other end of the spectrum—Frenchman’s Bend—is a problem. And the problem does not just relate to the young social scene that Temple was a part of, but to the society in general. It is a society that puts norms over any care for ethics and truth. One of Benbow’s opponents in the murder is his sister, who does not “see that it makes any difference who did it." She is more concerned with what other people will think of her brother for taking up a controversial case, and she positions this worry over any real care for justice. In Temple’s case, rather than suggesting that it is an improvement that she is now living in a brothel in Memphis, Faulkner seems to be implying that it is a logical result of her realization of the weakness of her former life. She would perhaps prefer a different situation all together (evident by the fact that she imagines other realities for herself, such as becoming a boy, an older teacher, or even a corpse), yet by staying with Popeye she knows she has security while also freedom from the society that now disenchants her. “Temple has ventured into the terror of the unknown and she has accepted its violence completely. She has taken the worst that the world offers and she has found it sufficient and somehow acceptable.” It is her new sanctuary.

Now I know that there are all sorts of levels where this comparison falls apart. I know Ewa is trying to get back to at least the contentment of her previous life, while Temple's motive for this wild venture in Memphis is to escape the world she once knew. And I know that Ewa's ends are primarily moral while Temple's are largely amoral. And yet in both cases we still have strong examples of female characters taking control of a situation for reasons that are ultimately unselfish and for some sort of greater good. I strongly advise seeing The Immigrant, which was my favorite movie of last year. I can't quite recommend The Story of Temple Drake except that it's a good example of the boldness of pre-Hays Code Hollywood storytelling. Any themes I'm gathering from it are largely a reflection of those found in Faulkner's novel, and without having read it there would be little insights to get from its stripped down adaptation. So, watch The Immigrant a bunch of times, and between viewings read Sanctuary. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Rover (2014)

Now that final exams have ended, I've started playing catch up on some of the earlier films of 2014 that I missed out on. 

In some ways The Rover is an odd choice for David Michod's followup to his great 2010 debut Animal Kingdom. It's a sparer, simpler film with less characters and plot dynamics yet more violence and references to genre touchstones like Mad Max. In other words, it feels a little like something Michod would have made first before moving onto the more ambitious Animal Kingdom. Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he actually started developing this project with Joel Edgerton back in 2007, put it on the shelf to make Animal Kingdom, and afterwards decided on The Rover as a followup for lack of anything else to make. 

And in a sense it's an admirable move on Michod's part. Rather than feeling compelled to top Animal Kingdom, he shifts gears entirely and shows he's completely capable of making a bloody, post-apocalyptic road movie. When it premiered at Cannes and had a subsequent release in the summer, the reception was decidedly mixed, and even those who thought well of it saw it as a step down for Michod. On the contrary, I found it to be a bold and impressive move for the director, and if it lacks the power of Animal Kingdom it's more due to the constraints of the genre than Michod's script. 

The movie opens with a title card reading 10 Years After the Collapse. Guy Pierce, who plays the protagonist Eric, stops by what's left of an old bar for a drink, and when he glances out the window he sees that his car is being stolen by three men after crashing their own truck. Eric, grim, angry, and taciturn, finds left for dead the brother (Robert Pattinson) of one of the thieves, and together they set off across the barren Australian to find the men and the stolen car.

It would barely be enough story to withhold the film's running time of just under 100 minutes (sans credits) if not for Michod's incredibly assured sense of pacing and tone, as well as a subdued yet fierce performance from Guy Pierce (probably his best performance since 2005's The Proposition, a Western that actually shares some tonal similarities with this movie). 

Michod manages to keep the film tense and exciting not because of chases (the only one of which occurs in the film's first ten minutes and barely even registers as one) or intense shootouts (there are a couple, but they're stripped of any real stylization and often Michod chooses to show the actual killings off screen) but by maintaining a sense of movement and dread with the occasional burst of extreme and unexpected violence to keep the viewer aware that in this world no one is safe and anything can happen. His most successful choice however is the way in which he develops Eric's character, presenting him at first as a man who is essentially evil but who gradually reveals himself to be someone devastated by grief and the notion that actions no longer have consequences in a world bereft of meaning. Watch for an important moment about two thirds into the film in which Eric's entire worldview (at least in this post-apocalyptic nightmare) is explained in a few lines of revelatory dialogue that suddenly bring cadence into his world that previously seemed driven by only senseless anger.

With so little story at hand, it would have been easy for Michod to indulge in long scenes of expository dialogue between Pierce and Pattinson (who also, it should be said, goes against type with quite satisfying results), yet he largely avoids this in order to maintain the film's slow yet propulsive, somber yet anxious mood (and when he does allow the characters to converse, the conversation is minimal yet meaningful). This makes both characters enigmatic and tough to relate to, yet it ultimately works wonders for a story that's about what it's like when things are so ravaged that meaning can no longer be applied to actions.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Make What You Don't Know

I understand why the ever-pressing creative principle write what you know is important, and I understand that perhaps it applies more to songwriting and fiction than the visual arts, but I think this quote from Ignatiy Vishnevetsky regarding his debut film Ellie Lumme is a refreshing challenge to that notion nonetheless: 

Well, I think it’s more fun when something doesn’t come naturally and you have to put a certain degree of effort into it. I’ve made this, and now we’re working on this other project that I’ve done some preliminary work on, so maybe this is just my approach, but I think it’s really important to always cast someone against type, to get some distance — this is just purely dealing with actors — to create distance between the character and the performer. Because then they have to cross that distance. I mean, if you’re playing someone exactly like you, you’re just going to be you. But if you’re playing someone different from yourself, you’re going to have to sit down and think and imagine this person’s world. It comes down to things as basic as appearance. You know, Stephen wears glasses, and it was very specific that his character wouldn’t, just to make it uncomfortable. I think it’s important for the actor to look in the mirror and have someone else look back at them. And I think that’s how I approach everything. I think when you set your goal outside your comfort zone, then you really have to figure out how you’re going to get there. You have to figure out, how do these people live? How do they spend their day? How do they organize their space? And I think that’s where the really interesting creative work happens — in the journey from Point A, which is you, to Point B, which is outside your area of expertise. I have a very limited area of expertise, and I swore to myself I would never make a movie about, y’know, Russian immigrants who become film critics. But the funny thing, now that I think about it, is that the most personal stuff comes in during the process of resolving the disconnect between yourself and your subject. Because you’re constantly drawing on your own life experiences to figure out how other people see the world.