Thursday, November 20, 2014

In a Lonely Place

I used to know this guy who reminded me a lot of Louise Bloom, the titular nocturnal creep played by Jake Gyllenhaal, not because he was advantageous nor starved for social status, but because he had a way of appearing out of nowhere like a ghost with freshly rehearsed subjects on deck to readily sow into the conversation that he spent the previous five minutes pretending to participate in. He lingered around for a few years while things slowly went from awkward to borderline frightening. I think it’s important to empathize and consider another’s past before breaking ties, but there came a time in which it was evident that it wasn’t healthy for anyone involved to continue speaking. To this date I can’t think of another human that I’ve cut off so abruptly and permanently. Like Bloom, he was very well articulated and spoke with rapid-fire urgency as though the words were causing him some physical discomfort while gestating within. This would indicate anxiety, at least to me, but also a need to connect in hopes to validate himself as a knowledgeable and interesting person, which he was. It makes sense considering that he and Bloom would consider their expression a social strongpoint, often oblivious to how suffocating and overwhelming it can be to be the recipient of that wave of verbiage. Above all things he was lonely and in need of social vindication, to the point where it would appear that it became an addiction, much like Bloom’s insatiable lust for standing.

Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is an impressive debut as far as I’m concerned. It’s both a character study and an indictment of our current media dilemma, Bloom playing the dichotomous role of the victim and benefactor of our patronage. We first meet him as he’s clipping chain linked fence to sell for scrap. A security guard rolls up on him and we get our first glimpse of his social operation (smile, talk fast, win), which ends appropriately with an act of violence that we don’t get to witness. --- I was wondering about what their tussle resulted in on my way to work today. The guard got a really solid look at him, I’m just saying. ---- He’s a thief, but he’s yearning for an honest living worthy of his effort. He’s willing to work hard wherever he ends up , and he’ll adapt easily and climb fairly quickly if he’s given the chance. The internet is his teacher. His drive carries out the rest. He isn’t looking to make an easy buck; he’s just another down-on-his-luck kid trying to work in our progressively dreary economic landscape. He finds his niche while stumbling upon a camera crew hovering around a car crash like the first vultures to a carcass. The carcass is then sold to the highest bidder on the news circuit, making our suffering a ghoulish commerce, pieces of metal at a scrap yard. After getting a foot in the door at a failing local station, Bloom begins to take his vocation to new depths only earning him more clout in the industry. The corporatized media trade preys upon our fear, lust for destruction, prying, and disengagement with pragmatic reporting. Turn on the news for thirty minutes and behold the horror.

“Nightcrawler” is strongest when working as a procedural, taking us through the mechanizations of a mostly clandestine job. We don’t know much about the procuring of footage, the price that footage goes for, and the way a producer works it into a narrative that has been tinkered to draw in an audience. There have been many great films about the news industry (Ace in the Hole, His Girl Friday, While the City Sleeps, All the President’s Men, Zodiac) but none about the men and women who sit by police scanners waiting gleefully for terrible things to happen. The scenes that I found the most engaging took place within the station headquarters where Rene Russo’s Nina Romina bids for footage and then cuts it and finds a narrative to hang it on, or in Bloom’s apartment or car where he studies police code and the fastest way from point A to B. There is a blunt but effective scene where Nina puppeteers some recently acquired footage, speaking directly into the ears of the anchors, repeatedly emphasizing phrases meant to both scare and incite the audience. Her approach is to emphasize affluent citizens’ safety encroached upon by a creeping marginalized threat. Sound familiar? It’s a fair target; I just wish Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut had sharper teeth. Where the movie fails is in its need to a: spell out the moral dilemma (there is a character planted in this movie for the sole purpose of telling us that certain footage is unethical, never so obviously than a scene in which he reveals information about the aforementioned footage) b: adhere to obligatory “lonely crazy guy” movie prototypes (the lame mirror sequence for instance) and c: the abrupt development of a narrative thread that shapes the remnants of the film in such a way that a big suspension of disbelief will be required to follow it through. This late chain of events succumbs to the same sensationalism that it seeks to indict. It nearly derails the whole damn thing.

Current Cinema Blurbs: “Land-ho!” confirms Paul Eenhorn as the wisest, most pleasant actor currently gracing our big and little screens. Tara noted that he had “a nice face.” He caught my attention first with 2013’s “This is Martin Bonner” and matches Earl Lynn Nelson’s gargantuan performance step for step. These two should make a set of Crosby/Hope road movies for our viewing pleasure. It also confirms my friend John’s suspicions that Aaron Katz is the real deal, not that we should disregard Martha Stephens’ contributions. This is easily one of 2014’s best, ignore anyone who damns it by claiming that it’s “slight” or tidy They are wrong. Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow” only falters in its final stretch, which is a bummer considering how fresh the first two thirds are. The death montages had me laughing out loud, especially when the main character rolls under a Jeep much to Bill Paxton’s baffled dismay (Paxton also whips out a refreshing performance in Nightcrawler). Cruise is top notch here, as is Emily Blunt, and the action scenes work precisely because of their willingness to embrace the absurdity of the film’s central concept. It’s an easy honorable mention. You should see it, I should see it again. HBO’s “Olive Kittredge” makes great use of its Maine setting both inside and out. It also surprised me in its reluctance to indulge in worn out archetypes and plot developments. You think you know where it’s going to go, how people are going to act, and how you are supposed to feel about them only wait and wait and wait for something to happen that would have happened in something else. Does that make any sense? It only falters a bit in its final chapters, a little here and a little there. If it was a theatrical feature it’d be one of the standouts this year. Then again, J. Hoberman put Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” on his list when that came out.

Recent First-Timers:

Masterpieces: 1943 Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone)

 Yes Please: 1935 Mad Love (Karl Freund), The Plough and the Stars (John Ford), The Ghost Goes West (Rene Clair), The Devil Doll (Todd Browning), Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis), Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie), Rosetta (The Dardenne bros), The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan). 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Great Big Visions

For a film about wormholes, Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" sure likes to take the long way. Like much of his previous work, the narrative thrust lags as the plot piles on more and more baggage, becoming a new movie with its own conflict and concerns, which are almost completely autonomous from the central conflict. He seems to always struggle with the third act, or he tacks on fourth and fifth acts to squeeze things in that he’s not willing to leave on the cutting floor. He usually has a commanding finale in mind (montages set to a narrator’s impassioned epilogue over Hans Zimmer's swelling score, to a sudden cut to black) but finds the most convoluted way to get there. Even as his films stray he’s able to somehow land them manipulatively (positive) so that as I walk out of the theater I’m filled with heavy emotions and a sad score running ringing in my ears. Time, distance, and thought always bring me back down, and yet I still end up seeing his movies on opening weekend.  
“Interstellar” follows Cooper (a reliable Matthew McConaughey), a pilot sent through a wormhole to find an inhabitable planet as Earth quickly turns to dust. There are a dozen planets to survey, but obviously not enough time to do so. The wormholes were formed by “they” as a way to bridge the large expanse between galaxies. “They” are unseen and unidentified beings that can exist in several dimensions with an undisclosed providential interest in our survival. Rest assured that you will find out who “they” are, and true to Nolan’s vibe, it’s not as remarkable as you might hope. The heart of the story lies in a father's promise to return to his daughter (the fact that he doesn't seem to care nearly as much about his son sort of struck me as odd), and consequently to save mankind. His mission therefore is all sacrifice, a fight over flight mentality notably not echoed by his elder son in a later scene. This narrow focus is where Nolan thrives. He finds a way to make the passing of time (earth standard) a constant factor in the mission’s already surmounting dread and suspense. For instance, on a planet that’s almost completely water an hour spent is tantamount to a full seven years on earth, I didn’t even care about the giant waves (which are supposedly scientifically plausible for planets neighboring a black hole) about to smash the spaceship into smithereens; all I wanted was for the crew to wrap it up as soon as possible.

From that failed mission the movie finally succumbs to the Nolan bros’ trademark narrative glut. The excesses here begin when the crew, depleted after the loss of life and resources on the water planet, bicker over which planet to visit. With not enough fuel and resources to visit both, they (meaning Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brand) choose the planet manned by Mann. Without spoiling anything, I should note that this deviation ultimately leads to nowhere except a admittedly great “docking” sequence and a reveal about the nature of the mission itself. Both could have been accomplished without the beacon call and time spent paying redundant homage to the giants that came before, and all of the amped up chatty suspense that results. The time spent on this icy planet only exists to fulfill a quota. It’s part of the long way that I was referring to before. And even as characters fight, they talk and divulge/repeat information that frankly only strays from ticking clock that distances father from daughter, and makes it all the more unlikely for their reunion to happen within a reasonable period of time. And after that’s resolved we move on to the real “mindbender” which my friend correctly called “Shyamalanian.”
After the catastrophe at the ice planet, Cooper, Brand, and their two robots (the wonderful Bill Irwin adding some much needed comic relief) decide on a plan. First they move towards the black hole where they send their robot TARS to report back data on its singularity, while they slingshot (one of many nods to Arthur C. Clark Rendezvous with Rama) themselves towards the other planet manned by Hathaway’s implied love interest Edmund (but none of that really matters outside of her/Cooper’s subjective motivations weighed against the mission’s objectivity). Needless to say this chain of events results in some twists and turns due to an act of self-sacrifice as “Interstellar” enters its own “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” phase. I don’t want to spoil anything here so I’ll leave it alone other than to say that it’s a ballsy development that overcomplicates things and sacrifices the crucial reunion that the movie ultimately hinges on. In fact, I think the film could have been much better if it never returned to earth outside of the video messages that were so effective and brief.

And while I’d have to ultimately have to say that “Interstellar” feels to me like a noble/fascinating/frustrating failure, I still can’t shake it. There are enough successes to warrant at least one revisit. The docking sequence that I mentioned before is a brilliantly composed set piece with some of Nolan’s best use of sound and vision. Frankly, it’s one the best things I’ve seen this year and it reminded me of a much simpler sequence in “The Dark Knight” where Heath Ledger’s head was out of the window of a cop car set to persistent ominous ringing. I was also moved by the scene where Cooper drives away from his family, set to the countdown of his space shuttle, with a crucial intimate moment where he looks under the blanket of his passenger seat. Again we have great use of sound and montage, followed by some wonderful early scenes in space. With moments like this I find it hard to dismiss him outright as others have. I’m thankful that he wants to approach big budget Hollywood genre films with intelligence and economized human vision. But thinking back to the failures of the later acts, I am reminded of slogs in the first; the derivative agitprop vision of Midwest America, the cliché angry dad deriding the NASA-hating teacher, the far too-convenient NASA station coordinates, the characters talking to each other about things that were better shown. I’m reminded of an ironic scene in which Anne Hathaway’s Brand reminds Cooper of the importance of knowing when to shut up. For a director who posits himself as the smart pop-artist against the dumb system, he’s awfully susceptible to some of that system’s worst tendencies.     

Alejandro Jodorowsky is no stranger to ambitious vision and the Hollywood system that seems to thwart it. Between “The Holy Mountain” and “El Topo,” he’s solidified himself as a cult icon with fans like The Beatles to David Lynch. He’s an interesting interviewee, with that perpetual smile that often contradicts the words coming out of it. In the 2014 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” director Frank Pavich tells the story of the doomed movie that never was with interview from adoring friends like Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley to legends-in-their-own-right like H.R. Giger. The less skeptical talking heads, like Refn, claim that the film was never made because Hollywood was afraid of his imagination. Hearing hagiographic declarations like this, you can see why the director perpetuates his own greatness so emphatically. The reoccurring line of this movie is “I did this!” which is amusing considering what was actually accomplished. Jodorowsky has his spiritual army and they are so devoted/unbending that they can’t acknowledge the importance of the only physical vestiges left behind, the concept art (constructed by Giger and Christopher Fosse). The movie also insanely alleges that the un-filmed “Dune” gave birth to everything from “Masters of the Universe” to “Alien” to “Star Wars.” The evidence is laughable (especially when you realize that they actually imply that the world would have been a worse place without Masters), outside of the fact that he put Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Jean Henri Gaston Giraud might not have been involved in the Ridley Scott film if it wasn’t for this experience. 
I’m not completely disinclined to big egos and self-mythologizing. I understand its place in art but only if it’s there to exalt the work itself. The real conflict here seems to be the funding, though it didn’t stop the “spiritual warriors” from putting together an expensive book to help their pitch. But when the smile fades and true colors appear, this once smiling dreamer begins to rant about how he just might make the film twenty hours or ten if he likes, which might sound like a good idea to his warriors, but admittedly might not sound so good to the guy funding your film. This is common sense, and where money is concerned common sense sometimes means the difference between sinking and swimming. Jodorowsky correctly notes that money is "shit," but then proceeds to complain about people who are unwilling to give him theirs. And the more you hear this overconfident story about the little dreamer up against the machine system; you realize that he was willing to make ridiculous compromises to his vision in order to get what he wanted, like paying Dali $100,000 for every minute he appeared onscreen. The moment I realized that I hated this film came when he so eagerly besmirched Douglas Trumbull for his supposed self-importance, an attribute he so openly displayed before and after this mini-rant. Suddenly the “we are all Paul” spiritualist becomes the gossipy malicious brat who met an artist who didn’t buy into his legend so easily. He then basically claims that he is not a real artist but a technician, or a robot, which is funny when you consider who sought out whom in the first place. This story would have been better told on an episode of Karina Longworth’s wonderful podcast, “You Must Remember This.” Thankfully, Jodorowsky’s work can speak for itself because I frankly need a break from the guy.

Friday, October 24, 2014

So Nice, I Watched it Twice

As a kid, we never had cable and therefore had to rely on both my dad’s Friday-post-work trips to the local Blockbuster and VHS recordings from TNT and AMC. My grandmother had cable and my dad would somehow get wise to a movie playing on one of those two stations and convince her to record them. I remember one of the tapes was the 1954 Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin/Norman Taurog movie “Living it Up” along with the 1946 Danny Kaye/Virginia Mayo/Norman Z. McLeod movie “The Kid from Brooklyn.” Both were originally shot in glorious Technicolor, each taking full advantage of the three strip process that eventually went archaic after Eastman essentially cut out the dye absorption process. The final movie to be shot by their three strip camera was made in the same year as the McLeod film, making way for a 1952 invention that allowed a single camera negative. Eastman looked to cut out the expensive middleman and entice Hollywood away from the pricey/long process. Due to its weight and immobility (or the relative pain in the ass to move it around), the slowness of the process itself, and the overall cost, it wasn’t long until the competitors moved in. Technicolor became Eastman in 1975 only to reintroduce the dye transfer process in 1997 for film restorations. I’m not sure why I’m regurgitating this information, other than to say that I’ve always been in love with that loud saturated aesthetic. The more garish or like an oil painting the better, though as I get older I find myself more and more in awe of restraint in that time of discovery. I still wonder what my response to color association would dig up; perhaps I’d better leave that alone.

Both “Living it Up” and “The Kid from Brooklyn” are about playful ruses. Each follows a paltry good-natured man caught up in a scam perpetrated by voracious men. Each film deals with media hysteria, not unlike “Gone Girl” but in a much more lighthearted manner, drawing much of the laughter from the idiocy caused by the mix-up. Each is a remake of a 1930’s film (1937’s Nothing Sacred and 1936’s The Milky Way), and each arguably considered the inferior work by most. “Nothing Sacred” was written by Ben Hecht and directed by William A. Wellman starring Fredric March and Carole Lombard while “The Milky Way” was directed by Leo McCarey and starred none other than Harold Lloyd. “The Kid from Brooklyn” is a startlingly faithful adaptation, McLeod mimicking shots and Kaye taking direct cues from his mentor. There is either an obvious reverence, plagiary, or both at play here, up until some of the final scenes where Kaye’s many gifts of singing, dancing, and tongue twisting made their customary appearance in the form of an impromptu song number. I’ve never really understood why Kaye didn’t join the respective comedy ranks, but after some nice write-ups over at The Movie Morlocks blog as well the illustrious Farran Nehme Smith’s appreciation of “The Court Jester” I’m beginning to see the overdo comeuppance begin to surface. It seems that many dismiss him as toothless, which is probably fair, but also beside the point. I have to admit that I cringed reading Pauline Kael dismiss Kaye’s “violently evident” talents because they remain, according to her, sunk “in the mud of family entertainment.” 

I’m realizing now that I’m spending more time writing about McLeod’s film, when it was McCarey’s that I recently caught up with. It’s very odd seeing the original after seeing the remake, like hearing and loving a song only to realize it’s a cover. Unlike “Living it Up” or “A Song is Born,” “The Kid from Brooklyn” is so faithful that you can’t help but recall most of the scenes in one once you’ve seen the other. It’s a case of déjà vu. And while McCarey and Lloyd, I can’t help but love and maybe even prefer the 1946 version. It’s a new cinematic conundrum for me, though I’ll admit right now that I prefer McCarey’s “An Affair to Remember” from 1957 to his own “Love Affair” from 1939. Looking at the two, years apart, I think I have a softer spot for “The Milky Way” considering what it did with its constraints, jumping ahead ten years all McCleod and company could add was popping color and their star’s abnormal bag of tricks. It should be noted that McCleod directed some scenes in the 1936 film when McCarey was hospitalized, which may explain the decision to film his version so faithfully. So nice they tried it twice. One of the better choices, in my opinion, was to bring Lionel Stander back as Spider, there is just a tinge of nuance in his slightly aged performance. It was considered Lloyd’s best crack at the talkies, probably because so much of Buleigh Sullivan’s screen persona hinges on quick movements, mostly of the ducking kind.
I guess I should now point out that the story here, based on a successful Broadway play from two years before, follows a meek milkman who is falsely accused/extolled for knocking out the middleweight champ in a street fight. Amongst the drunken ruckus, Sullivan ducks just in time to avoid a hard right from Spider, which causes a media frenzy, a scam, a love story not only between the milkman and one of his clients but also the milkman’s sister and the former middleweight champ, some swollen ego, and a calf kicking a man in the face. It’s a screwball, a genre that McCarey just may have perfected amongst other subgenres. And while McCleod isn’t necessarily perched up there with his old friend, he probably should be. He directed many of the Marx Bros classics, the Topper films, “It’s a Gift” from 1934, the 1933 “Alice in Wonderland” often credited to the great William Cameron Menzies, “Pennies from Heaven,” and two underrated films from the late 40s (The Paleface and The Secret Life from Walter Mitty) and that’s just scratching the surface.

Samuel Goldwyn nearly made it impossible for us to ever see “The Milky Way” by buying the rights to the original and destroying all of the prints that he knew existed. The problem is the doofus didn’t know that Lloyd preserved a nitrate print and kept it in good condition, some spit in Goldwyn’s greedy eye. While this type of assholery could be considered fair reason to consider McCleod’s film < or downright contemptuous, you should never blame a film for its producer’s sliminess lest you learn to hate most of the films you currently hold dear to your heart. And I guess I’ll wind this down by saying that I think you should all see both films, though in fairness you should start with the original and then catch up with the remake and let me know how things work out on the flipside.    

Monday, October 13, 2014

1968 Favorites

1968 in roughly preferential order:

2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski)

Shame (Ingmar Bergman)

Once Upon a Time in the West (Sergio Leone)

The Great Silence (Sergio Corbucci)

Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo)

Night of the Living Dead (George Romero)

Faces (John Cassavetes)

The Color of Pomegranates (Sergei Parajanov)

The Mercenary (Sergio Corbucci)

The Boston Strangler (Richard Fleischer)

Mandabi (Ousmane Sembene)

Targets (Peter Bogdanovich)

Hour of the Wolf (Ingmar Bergman)

The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan)

Stolen Kisses (Francois Truffaut)

Memories of Underdevelopment (Tomás Gutiérrez Alea)

Death by Hanging (Nagisa Oshima)

Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves)

If…… (Lindsay Anderson)

Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton)

The Producers (Mel Brooks)

Salesman (Albert Maysles, David Maysles, Charlotte Zwerin)
Dark of the Sun (Jack Cardiff)

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Gone Girl (2014)

David Fincher’s latest bestseller adaptation begins with the aftermath of a break-in, which leads to the suspicion of a disappearance, and then the process of solving a crime that appears to be murder. It revolves around a married couple, Nick and Amy, following the collapse of their marriage through flashbacks set to diary entries narrated by the vanished. The first half of the movie revolves around Nick; every character is solitarily formed in relation to him, which isn’t to say that those who come in contact with him are shallow or underdeveloped but that we don’t get to know them much outside of their relationship to him. The diary functions as a glimpse backwards, but it’s written to carefully call events into question in order to piece the puzzle together. It’s carefully designed and treacherous, but not without kernels of truth.
A crime IS committed, though I doubt many who have avoided spoilers will guess just what it is. I sure didn’t. The twist functions like most twists, it calls most of what we have seen and heard into question. The more unbury, the less connected we feel as the film wisely decides to shift its atmosphere from thick and ominous to thin and comical. The twist also jarringly swaps our perspective from the dopey but sporadically charming philanderer to the entitled psychopathic aggrieved. Though one particular event seems to spark the crime itself, the roots, regardless of the twist, are the disintegration of a marriage through bitterness, selfishness, and surrender. Though unreliable narration is an essential element to the plot, we are led to believe that this cursed union begins much like any other while wearing itself out through time and human blunder. The majority of the collapse falls squarely onto the broad shoulders of the selfish man, as is often the case, but I’m guessing most will consider the castigation unworthy of crimes themselves. This is to say that when you sort out the misdeeds and weigh the repercussions, you can deduce that though the “man” sucks the “woman” is ultimately what we might consider the “villain.” But the film is full of villains, so she fits right in.

I guess I put these two gender identifications in italics because many seem to feel as though the couple represents not only “marriage” as a whole but also males and females too. Maybe I’m missing something, but if you believe this was the intention then you have genuine cause for the concern of misogyny. Of course, you would have to disregard Carrie Coon’s Margo Dunne or Kim Dickens’ Detective Boney, or at least write them off as minor exceptions to the overall conceit. I personally don’t think the film is sensitive to anyone in particular, and if it has contempt I’m not so sure the majority of characters and whatever respective theme they supposedly represent are spared. But the truth is this; “Gone Girl” features one of the iciest and most vindictive characters in recent memory, and she happens to be a woman. The femme fatale she reminded me of the most was Gene Tierney’s Ellen Berent Harland from “Leave Her to Heaven,” only less hysterically committed to mission. Amy’s want for revenge is completely comprehensible and not limited to women, though her petrifying qualities are certainly the stuff of hand-me-down male projections. Her actions are not only spurred on by Nick’s disloyalty, abuse, and neglect but also her relocation and quarantine. Not only does he cheat, shove, lie, and mock, but he also her dragged her from New York to Missouri without much consideration for how this move would uproot and affect her.

Like I said before, the punishment obviously doesn’t fit the crime, though the climax doesn’t exactly beg for Nick’s sympathy. The fact that he’s charming is part of the point; he knows how to deflect the appearance of guilt and distract us from the severity of his actions. This might lead some to believe that audiences who root for his acquittal will suddenly develop a deep seeded hatred for women just as audiences who enjoyed the sly rampant hedonism of “The Wolf of Wall Street” will become suckling insatiable cubs upon exiting the theater. Maybe I’m just making that up, but it seems like every year we have a movie fit sacrifice to what one critic described as moralists awaiting a merit badge. I don’t think Flynn’s novel and screenplay lacks misogyny (it’s part of the nasty joke), but I’m wary of a film/literature world without bloodcurdling villains of all walks of life. Though “Gone Girl” certainly indulges in many dangerous gender stereotypes for the sake of wringing out the latent misogynistic phobias of a womanizer like Nick, most of these women (the neighbor, the mistress, the mother-in-law, the Nancy Grace, and the fans) work well within the film’s revenge fantasy conceit. This is his nightmare, one that he’s created for himself and locked himself in. It’s a film about real fear and paranoia, fanned by our relationships to media. Like Hitchcock’s worst anxieties, it’s also about a humdrum existence suddenly hurled into pandemonium. Though ugly stereotypes abound, they exist within a consciously embellished context (not unlike most noir films), not that this excuses anything, but I think it’s fair to take this into account.

Part of the joy I had watching “Gone Girl” was watching its tonal shifts from genre to genre, creepy to hilarious, heavy to light, and all with Fincher’s assured sense of framing, timing, and detail. Since “Zodiac,” he’s been more taken by the notion of process, specifically the sorting and the accumulation of details, than getting to the next narrative benchmark. The facets in between are more fascinating, the interactions and preparations surpass the events themselves. Take the big television interview where the questioning that happens beforehand, where Tyler Perry the director pitches Gummi Bears at Affleck’s face for being smug or disingenuous, that scene tells us more about media distortion than anything in . Words and appearances fuel public perception, which undoubtedly influences the judicial process. The interview itself is a narrative catalyst, but it’s only seen later on after we know that it’ll succeed in swaying one very important viewer. But the recital itself is trumped by the training, and Fincher knows instinctively that this will work.

I’ve been accused of carrying Fincher’s water before, so I guess I should point out that “Gone Girl” isn’t perfect. Many have complained that his last movie was unworthy of his talent. I thought him and his cast (as well as cinematographer, editor, and composers) overcame many of the structural issues in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but then again I might just be a fan of trash. To avoid auteur partiality, it’s important to note that the cast is universally wonderful here, down to the smallest cameo. The score is probably my favorite of the three collaborations between Reznor/Ross and Fincher. The cinematography is less flashy, and probably could have used some more zing, but it’s better than most of what we’ve seen this year. And while I think the film is excellent, I will admit that it’s ludicrous and sporadically stupid.

For all of Fincher’s notorious/celebrated cold precision, he and Flynn gleefully indulge in a wonderful Grand Guignol sequence towards the end where the wonderful Rosamund Pike gets her Beatrice Dalle on in a scene that I swear is influenced visually by Clair Denis’ “Trouble Every Day” and undoubtedly Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct.” This gloriously excessive scene is set up nicely with a champagne bottle, preparing the squeamish for the griminess to come. I love the way Amy lures the fly into her web. In a weird way it reminded me of “What Lies Beneath,” another film about sins atonement. What possibly could have caused her to make the leap from schemer and deceiver to murderer? I think it’s her love affair with her own self-mythology, helped along by media hysteria. ---- Fincher, Flynn, and Affleck are no strangers to public scrutiny and self-mythology---- She suddenly likes the idea of Amy the survivor more than Amy the victim, though you get the impression that she doesn’t have the gumption to take her own life. This final transformation sparks the final big shift in tone and atmosphere, from the unbearably tense and creepy to the downright hilarious. Though the film shifts significantly in its first big reveal, Amy’s bloody rebirth into “Amazing Amy” incarnate makes way for a jarring, cruel, over-the-top, and cynical climax in which lots of suspension of disbelief may be required. It’s a punch line for those rooting for Nick’s absolution. Instead of freedom, it’s just one nightmare marrying another, where the threat of wrongful incarceration resolves only to become a new captivity.  

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Viewing Log: September,17, 2014

I don’t consider myself the type of person to let a movie pass or fail on the merits of its final moments. I’m tempted to grant Lars Von Trier’s "Nymphomaniac: Volume II" the honor of being the exception to that imaginary rule. The finale here proposes to shock us with its sudden reveal about a seemingly ethical character’s dishonorable night moves, but anyone who has ever seen a film by the scalawag knows that he’s in love with the idea of challenging our preconceived notions of kindness, especially if the said surprise causes the viewer soreness or indignation. The character in question is not as much a character as a harbinger of principles (atheism, Fibonaccian connectedness, open mindedness, asexuality), and the finale only serves as a lazy and hypercritical toppling of these ideals. It’s odd because the entire premise is built upon the notion of a nonjudgmental societal decontamination, while the ending discharges the ultimate judgment. But because both of the leads appear to embody the director’s paradoxical personality, it’s at least sorta interesting to listen to him argue with himself. Still, for all of the sporadically interesting banter the film is depressingly chained to a biopic formula that’s frankly boring. For a guy who thinks cinema should be a rock in the shoe (whatever that means) he seems content to grant us narrative ease to help swallow his trademark brand of betrothed cynicism and humanism. What he doesn’t seem to realize is that anyone previously introduced to his work won’t be surprised by its pokes at provocation. This doesn’t only include the labyrinth of non-simulated trysts, but also some of the more interesting ideas hiding amongst the not so interesting taunts. The ideas, as spoken by Gainsbourg’s narrator and Skaarsgard’s listener, hold some genuine shock and insight that all fade by the finale. I know that it’s supposed to ultimately shame the prudes and hypocrites who might be tempted to judge her for her condition and actions (He’d scold me for using the term condition) but his suspicion towards our collective capacity for decency has already been the focus of a Lars von Trier film or three. I get it dude, my notions of purity are fundamentally impure. I can only be truly pure by surrendering to my nature. But you know what would be truly shocking? It would be truly shocking if this sermon ended with someone doing something decent, like letting another person get a good night’s sleep.
 “Oculus” is a movie about a mirror that kills people without much of an emphasis on reflection. Though part of the mirror’s wicked gift is to hold you in a trance, never more demoralizing than in the final moments, it’s more of an evil presence that kills everything around it by making you do one thing that actually ends up being another far more terrible thing. Part of the plan is to mess with a person’s perception of the objects and people around him/her. For instance; a guy tries to take off his band aid but it just keeps appearing back on the end of his finger, so he takes out a staple remover and goes to town on his “band aid” which ends up being his finger nail. Another show stopper involves an apple and a light bulb. Though the movie isn’t above icky thrills, it’s more interested in past traumas occupying the same dimensional space as present day reality, a nice reminder that the power of our past nasty experiences may still be obscuring our view of the world. Mirrors reflect, but they also distort perception as perception is ultimately based and influenced by life itself. Soooo, the wicked surface-within-a -surface toys with the fragile minds of the brother and sister protagonist, warping their ability to stay rooted in reality. Often they find themselves just standing still and staring off at wall or a plant, as many of its victims simply died of dehydration caught in a fatal daze. The mirror also plays off of the defenseless feeling of childhood, and the way those feelings are so easily triggered in adulthood. It should also be noted that this movie, like so many others, owes a lot to “The Shining” and its depiction of invasive paternal madness. For many of us, watching our parents fall out of love with us and then try to kill us is the worst and most terrifying scenario out there. Though “Oculus” is ultimately torn between grossing us out and getting under our skin, it’s commendably patient and steadfast in its unique (at least for a mainstream horror film) editing structure. By the final twenty minutes we are watching the origin story draw to a close right around the same time the current tale does. Maybe I was invested enough in the protagonists to root for them, because I was displeased with the pitiless cherry on top. But I’m sure that my opinion will bend with my mood.
 I get it, our local theaters are uncomfortable. The Art Mission is tight and the seats are too close together, and one wonders if the projection is just a utorrent download transferred to a DVR. Plus, they are well aware that their primary market is older folks who would likely patronize “The Help” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” before something like “Under the Skin” or “Only Lovers Left Alive.” It’s not their fault; it’s us Binghamton youngsters who would rather bump chests on State Street than see a good “art” film. The Cinema Saver is probably the best bang-for-buck option with digital projection for like two to three dollars, but the establishment is kind of grimy and the floors have never gotten rid of that stick. Plus, you typically go to see all of the movies you didn’t deem worthy enough to see at either Regals or AMC, which ends up being a pleasant surprise from time to time but more often results in a meh experience altogether. Plus, it’s absolutely freezing in the winter. Regals has a five dollar deal on Tuesday, but their seats don’t recline and the digital projection isn’t quite as crisp as the theater I’ll soon complain about. I guess my major gripe with AMC is this….. I paid $24 to see “The Drop” on Saturday. This wasn’t a 3D showing and I saw it locally in a theater that used to charge $6 for a ticket. So why did they suddenly double their prices? My friend Jesse said that it was because they charged more on the weekend. Since when, and how does that justify jacking up the price of admission on a non-3D movie? Oh well, I guess my point here beyond wailing and mourning the loss of $24 was to say that it might have inadvertently put some initial pressure on this modest Lehane adaptation to move faster and with more aspiration. Like most the author’s work, it deals with lonely and hurt men whose desolation is the direct result of morally dubious decisions made earlier in life. Michaël R. Roskam gets to the root of this, or rather allows his leads to air out their regret and dissatisfaction without hinting towards the writer’s signature “reveal.” It’s not as shocking this time around as it has been in the past, especially since it’s not meant to call much that happened before into question, and that’s a nice change of pace. “The Drop” is based on Lehane’s short story “Animal Rescue,” and you get the sense that it’s been stuffed and stretched to feel fuller and more realized than it actually is. I think that the lack of cachet is part of the charm here, as well as the performances. This was, of course, James Gandolfini’s final role, and a nice one to leave us with, though it mostly elaborated on a familiar persona, albeit a more sniveling one than the character he is most known for. Hardy is as good as I’ve come to expect (Lawless excluded) but could have played down Bob’s accent a bit. Some of his dialogue is clumsy, making him seem slow and timid, which is supposed to come back to bite certain characters (Matthias Schoenaerts, in what I would consider the best performance of the movie) in the ass. It’s also nice to finally see Noomi Rapace in something good (though I liked Passion just fine), even if she’s reduced to damsel in distress. I know I’m really not saying anything personal or original here, so I’ll add that it was nice to see a film in which people decide to look out for a defenseless puppy, especially since said puppy is adorable and through its presence we get to know a thing or two about a man willing to face the impending forlorn internal consequences when he gets the drop on someone who threatens to harm people or animals in distress. Bob’s a puppy with bite. It’s not as revelatory or profound (yes, I think Shutter Island is profound) as Scorsese’s Lehane adaptation, nor is it as infuriating, silly, or tragic as Eastwood’s, but in Roskam’s hands it’s a pretty slick little crime drama. Just don’t pay $24 to see it. 
 Another final performance, this time watched on a Tuesday for half of the price. “A Most Wanted Man” deals with what we now consider “post-911” issues. I’ve never really found a fitting opportunity to use that term, part of the reason being that it seems exclusive to America alone, disregarding the fact that the complicated turmoil we’ve found ourselves in has existed in other countries for far longer than 11 years. In Aton Corbijn’s film, adapted from a novel by John le Carre, we weave in and out of different cells of people presently entwined in the cloak-and-dagger world of Hamburg, Germany. Like “The Drop,” “A Most Wanted Man” features a final performance from an acting giant taken from us far too soon. In both cases I’d argue that we’ve seen better work, but mostly because we’ve seen them delivering juicier dialogue. This is not to say that Corbijn’s or Roskam’s movies are bad, but neither has the depth of better adaptations of these respective writers (Tinker, Tailor and Shutter Island to be specific). I commented to my friend that this one felt like “le Carre lite.” I guess I meant to say, unfairly and dismissively, that this film wasn’t as concerned with the cataloguing of details as Tomas Alfredsen’s masterpiece. I was completely absorbed in that movie’s visual/narrative specificity and I felt like I learned more and was better attached to its labyrinth of characters. Here we have a similar group, albeit smaller and with more concentration on three or four primary individuals. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is an espionage agent in charge of a clandestine group in charge of gathering intelligence on supposedly dangerous men and women entering Germany. They duke it out with other agencies championing other goals and motivations, each supposed to working towards the greater safety of the world, but unified they end up getting their lines crossed and mixed up. This results in blunders that affect the citizens being investigated, and in some cases, the victims of those whom Hoffman’s Gunther Bachmann’s agency investigated for good reason. Here a Chechen Muslim refugee with a sorted/shrouded past catches their eye, the eye of his superiors, an American diplomat, and an immigration lawyer. Together their warring objectives ruin lives and probably make none of us more or less safe in this tricky world we live in. This is a deliberately timely film made all the more pertinent with each tit for tat act of brutality waged abroad and at home by stupid religious men and the slick bureaucratic opportunists who claim to hunt them. Though the film slips up from time to time, no scene sillier than the one in the bar where Bachmann punches an abusive lover/husband for getting rough with his wife, it does a good job delineating le Carre’s extraordinary flair for detail and information. And the finale is one of the more proficiently desolate finales that I’ve seen in recent years. I honestly felt devastated by it. It both calls into question the cost of our theoretical protection as well as our definition of treachery, and how much will be missing from our “cultured” society when and if this ever subsides. Who will survive and what will be left of us?
 I engaged myself in a very brief debate about “The Lego Movie” with a friend. Actually debate is the wrong word as I immediately conceded to their point. Now I’m taking my concession back. I said that this movie was scatterbrained and my friend pointed out that its steady imagination and narrative pace would require a focus that most films haven’t even bothered to muster. I get what he was saying. This is one busy movie, with enough information packed into a single frame to sustain eight or nine scenes in any of the previous movies mentioned. The emphasis that I took from it was the constant bombardment of jokes, most of which landed, much to my surprise. But the through line here gets lost in the mix, buried beneath the chaos, which is actually a good thing because the narrative thread here is pretty weak stuff. Take the finale where things turn to live action.  These scenes with Will Ferrell and his son were built to suddenly acknowledge the children who have no idea what half of the jokes mean as well as bestow significance to the commonplace hero’s world. It’s like being at a party where you are ignored by the host for the entire evening only to suddenly be pulled aside to talk about your ex out of a sense of guilt right before going back to being tossed shade. Once the frenzied velocity dawdles, the movie nearly falls apart. But like I said, I laughed pretty hard at this movie, especially pretty much everything Morgan Freeman said. I think it’s also fair and essential to praise the movie’s visual attributes. Like I said before, this is one lively movie, packing each frame with visual gags to go with the verbal ones. It’s also beautiful to stare at, and it clearly drained the time and energy of a group of freakishly talented people. So while I may have docked it a half a star, which is probably something worth revising, I still think it’s scatterbrained and that’s a big part of the reason I liked it.  
PS: I've been watching a ton of older films, specifically from 1949 and 1957. Maybe I'll write about some of them soon.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

Recently Tara brought some of my more shameful attributes to out into the open for scrutiny. She wasn’t doing this to shame me or to make me feel like a pile of garbage, rather I had asked her to give a close outsider’s opinion for the sake of personal progress. The first and most prominent flaw was my inability to live in the modern world without sparring with every commercial, song, news report, movie, book, social network, or trend as though it had materialized before me ready to defend itself. I admit it’s a flaw, an inability to mind my own business and lead by example. When you constantly complain about the misdeeds or rampant theoretical emptiness of others you forget that your own bitter seclusion is just another form of lethargy that contributes to the state of things. Pride is a silly curse. In an interview with Bilge Ebiri, Jim Jarmusch addressed the main character’s --- specifically Adam’s (Tom Hiddleston) ---- “snobbishness” as a result of being alive and inquisitive for 2,000 years. He then went on to say that he could identify with the inclination, “Sometimes, yeah. I hear myself sounding snobbish sometimes when I criticize the way other people do things. It’s not a great quality. I try to check myself because I try to be … what I don’t believe in is telling anyone else what they should do or think. If I had any religious beliefs, that would be the biggest sin.

The notion that certain vampires would become, in essence, the ultimate snobs makes sense to me. I think if some of us were allowed to live on, especially if forced into a form of pitch dark seclusion, we would inevitably weigh our knowledge and skill against the “zombies” sleeping amongst us. Musicians are often hauteur tycoons because our trade is as emulous as it is neighborly, and it always flourishes most when cut off and selectively ancestral. This is why Adam fills his sanctuary with old beautiful guitars and tape reels whilst running his operations on forgotten Teslan technology. He even lines his wall with pictures of his idols, though like any self-respecting snob he claims to idolize no one, a pure but delusional non-derivative being seeking to reinvent the wheel.  Like most men, he’s humbled and brought back down to earth by a female counterpart who can match his talent and wit ounce for ounce. For some reason--- I’m guessing she needed a break from his bellyaching --- Eve (Tilda Swinton) lives in Tangier (he resides in a vacant Detroit amongst the packs of wild dogs) until a look of anguish and surrender from Adam nudges her onto a flight to his doorstep. When the two share a similar physical space you can see how they’ve managed to preserve their love for so long and you believe that it’ll only grow stronger. At the same time, I think you have to credit Eve’s patience and ability to curb his negativity which is one of many elements to ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE that brought me into the story on a personal level, not that it’s any less hypnotic without it.

Adam’s biggest issue isn’t the zombies and their disregard for the planet, though that’s certainly part of the problem, but rather his near complete lack of self-reflection. Eve calls him out on this, noting all of the fun and productive triumphs buried beneath the heap of downbeat grumbling. This moment hit especially close to home. Within Adam’s incessant complaining and name dropping lies a deep seeded love for the vanished past. But missing the days behind you is also a sign of blindness towards the gems that lie hidden in plain view. Therefore, it’s lovely to see his will to live resurrected by the mesmeric voice of Yasmine Hamdan, even if that resurgence is followed by some unfortunate survivalist bloodshed, an odd ending. In fact many of the best scenes involve zombies and vampires alike as spellbound spectators. It’s a way for Jarmusch to declare his love for his true religion.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever recalled the camera in his films being so mobile, nor his interiors this lush. He has always had knack for making me hate my living room and clothes. It’s like a bucket of blood dumped over my head, a way of snapping out of my 40 hour a week domesticated spell. Some call that “hip” but I think it’s “cool.” The music in ONLY LOVERS is similarly rousing and ubiquitous. SQURL’s droney hex adds to the thick mis en scene, saturating nearly every scene in palpable dread. It’s nice to hear Charlie Feathers, Denise LaSalle, and White Hills break the fog from time to time. Jarmusch’s atmosphere and dwelling décor do as much talking as his trademark pokerfaced banter.

Bringing it back, Eve blames Adam’s suicidal temperament on French romantics, Keats, and Byron. She knows him well enough to not take him seriously when incessantly name drops or claims to have no idols. She is every bit his superior and Jarmusch makes sure we know this. And for all of the brooding doom and gloom this is a film about love. Though young vulgarians and depleting water supplies might bring them down they’ll forever reconnect and revive their most soul sucking deficiency.  Jarmusch’s vampire feat is ultimately concerned with Einstein’s theory of spooky action at a distance, specifically the mystical way in which these two lovers are just intertwined particles addicted to each other’s embrace.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

This past weekend, Tara and I celebrated our sixth anniversary by indulging in a long overdo Six Flags/Days Inn/ New Jersey trip. Actually, there is more significance to this expedition because we had been going to Darien Lake every year when we were in high school and college and hadn’t been to a theme park in probably eight years. Tara loves roller coasters and I try to keep up, but I’m finding my fear of heights more and more crippling as time passes. After a long day of acting tough but looking queasy and worried, I felt it would be nice to see Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” and make all of my upstate friends jealous. I was trying to find a way to catch it without driving into the city so Montclair, NJ seemed the best option. Tara pointed out that she had driven once a long time ago to see my old band play there but I had no recollection. Once we got there however I quickly realized that I had played the Bloomfield Ave Café – a since-closed, poorly lit DIY punk/metal venue with a creaky floor - more than a few times. Montclair is reminiscent of Ithaca, NY but with more of a slope. We went to the Bow-Tie Cinema where on Sundays they would should discounted older films such as “Niagra,” “The Hustler,” “Laura,” “All That Jazz,” and “Double Indemnity.” I contemplated doing this instead but the movie was “Funny Girl” so I stuck with the plan. The theater was completely empty when we got our tickets but within minutes the room filled up with septuagenarians and their children. In this way I don’t think Bow Tie is all that different from our own Art Mission’s demographic.
“Boyhood” opens with six year old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) staring up a cloudy blue sky with one of his little arms behind his head, and the other pointing upwards. He looks calm but reflective, a fairly unswerving guise that the little dude cultivates over the next 12 years. For those who don’t know, Linklater and crew made the movie over the course of 12 years, gathering annually and shooting for a few days under IFC’s buck (an estimated 200,000 a year). It took 39 days to shoot and I’m not quite sure how the script was constructed, specifically how much of Ellar’s life and personality were improvised or changed last minute. I’d wager that most of the major adult character’s trajectory were the result of conversations between Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Linklater a la the “Before” trilogy. I’d also wager that the nominal plot that guides the family through the 12 year span, as well as most of the mini-mile markers that give the film its spunk, sprang from Linklater’s collaboration and relationship with his actors. It’s a film about the moments in life that stick out.
Over the course of those 12 years Mason is uprooted twice, endures two alcoholic stepdad’s who overcompensate for a lack of masculine self-esteem, falls in and out of love with a girl, and graduates high school. These are some of the big moments in a film held together by the smaller stuff. While it could be considered aimless and meandering, it’s the characters (Mason, Mom, Dad, and Samantha) that glue everything together. Our love and identification with this family propels the narrative forward where other films would probably flop around gasping for air. Linklater’s empathic formula strives to not limit and restrict characters to tapered plot devices but to subvert and challenge our preconceived notions of good and bad nature. Here he invites us to reconsider Ethan Hawke’s “deadbeat” dad, even if his absence causes so much added stress and heartache on Patricia Arquette’s mom. Both parents are allowed their failures, while we never doubt their love and integrity.

While I’d be more than happy to gush uncontrollably about this film and the happiness it brought me, I should point out that it sputters from time to time in his 2 hour and 42 minute running time. Almost all of these lapses in tone and judgment deal with bad behavior. First we have two stepdad’s whose comparable corrosions don’t really add up to much beyond cliché. It’s clear that the director has little respect for macho posturing and right wing nuttiness (no scene more clumsy and disingenuous than the Nobama dude threatening to shoot the kids for posting Obama/Biden signs on his lawn), but his passion sometimes wrings out the worst in his material. We are offered broad, if any, insights to why these men suddenly unravel. It’s almost a politically obligatory impulse for Linklater. And there is another brief scene that most of us can relate to, but probably find underdeveloped and ultimately pointless where two bullies harass Mason in the bathroom. I’ve had similar moments occur, especially around that age where some of my peer’s probably took out their home lives on us unsuspecting feminine dudes, but this scene isn’t much different than anything you’d see in high school movies Hollywood has offered up many times before.

But while these mild blunders occur, they are impressively infrequent in a film that’s driven by interaction and dialogue. As in his previous film “Before Midnight,” “Boyhood” features a lot of scenes with people chatting while walking, laying down, sitting, eating, drinking, bowling, and driving. Many of these scenes are set against a dazzling picturesque milieu, putting Mason’s existence into a proper perspective. In “Midnight” Celine and Jesse argued their way through some of the most attractive vista imaginable, highlighting a sense of loss acquired through the passing of time. We watched as their pride and inability to concede essentially dismantled their once blossoming romance. Here Mason’s skin isn’t as thick, his ego isn’t as distended, and his listening skills possess a respect for what others have to impart. He wants to heed, and even when he indulges in some well articulated rambling he’s willing to admit that it’s just “profound bitching.” How did he gain such meekness and sensitivity? Was he born with it? Was it a result of being toothless and shut up by his abusive stepfather? Was it because both of his parent’s were outspoken and cared so much about Mason and his sister?

Part of the thrill of watching a young boy grow up into a good young man is in taking apart and reassembling some of the pieces that got him to that perfect final shot (the best I’ve seen in a long time). When you disassemble some of the nomadic chatter, the intermediary shifts, the physical transformations, the domestic dynamics, and the cultural landmarks (songs, book releases, phones, video games, and Facebook) you begin to see Linklater’s design here. Because so much of “Boyhood” is about Mason’s place in all things (much like Malick’s Tree of Life), it’s hard to leave this movie without considering our own. It’s a movie that’s constantly moving frontward and rousing up recollections of our own connections to the passing of time. Watching it, I had a hard time not remembering times like looking at the lingerie section of the J.C. Penny catalogue with my brother, arguing with my younger brother only to get blamed by my oblivious mother, camping with my own father, admitting that I was high and drunk to my mom, and walking with friends behind the Texas Music Theater in San Marcos. “Boyhood” has a lurching effectiveness, it really sneaks up on you.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Bitter Victory (1957)

Bitter Victory: Nicholas Ray’s fuming 1957 feature is probably best known for a certain nouvelle vague legend’s high praise, but the conversation shouldn’t start and end there.  The advertised catalyst for most of the internal conflict is a messy and contrived love triangle but the real root to me is tricky dichotomy and careerist covetousness and insatiability. The fact that Captain James Leith (Richard Burton), an archeologist with knowledge of the land but little military know-how, had a previous undisclosed affair with his superior’s wife (Ruth Roman) is really just the cherry on top. Right off the bat General David Brand (Curt Jurgens) is portrayed as an infantile sophisticate in constant route to the top, having spent most of his time killing at a cool distance with a pen or telegraph. Leith is his antithesis, a man with a healthy disillusionment about himself, the nature of war, and the façade of rank and decoration. Both men are sent to retrieved documents from Rommel’s headquarters in Benghazi, a successful mission followed by the long and treacherous return home through the desert. Within the vast spiritual confines of their prison arises the troubling and revealing nature of Brand’s professional spinelessness as well as Leith’s own detached antipathy towards his rival’s manliness and code of blind duty. Talk about a personal war film. Bitter Victory was written by the author Rene Hardy, Ray, and his significant other at the time, Gavin Lambert who formerly served as editor of Sight and Sound. The shoot was reportedly messy with rewrites, compromised castings and even a supposed lottery that left most of the actors playing characters they didn’t want to play, studio-head interferences, excessive gambling, carousing, and drinking by Ray, etc. Studio manipulation and tampering could be attributed to Leith’s hatred for Brand. He not only despises his superior because of his marriage to the woman he thinks he loves but also because Leith has made a distinction between murder and killing, specifically the physical distance that protects him from his own conscience. But what does this consciousness offer him? The catalyst for this hatred comes during the raid on Rommel’s command center where Brand gets cold feet right off the bat, leaving Leith to kill a guard in a very close and nasty fashion. But though it’s tempting to reduce Brand to sheepish villain and exalt Leith to courageous hero, there are certainly moments to suggest a complexity to the situation and Ray’s view of humanity by extension. Brand (and Leith’s Libyan friend and guide, in a surprising twist) watches as a scorpion seals Leith’s fate, while Leith saves Brand during a sandstorm, but Brand also drinks from a potentially poisoned well water after being goaded by Leith, while Leith killed a defenseless fatally wounded German soldier who has just shown him pictures of his wife and kids out of a mixture of humanitarian, self preserving, and impatient desperation. It’s hard not to wonder if the two men are all that different in nature, if their values actually come from such a different place and how much the senselessness of war plays a part in this blurring of primordial lines. What’s clear in the end is that some men get awards for these macho games while others are buried in the desert. Brand becomes a straw man adorned with medals, alone amongst his fellow dummies with his wife weeping instead on the shoulder of a hollow man. Sadly, the film’s failure  landed Ray in the hospital and some speculate if it might not have harmfully affected his trajectory.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Snowpiercer:  A cooling agent is released into the atmosphere causing the world as we know it to freeze to the point of inhabitability. The sole survivors live on a train, the wealthy in the front the not so lucky in the squalid shantytowns of the rear. The conditions on either side are economically lopsided, the poor literally inheriting and consuming the waste of the rich. The socioeconomic situation isn’t much of a secret; in fact it’s pretty much shouted into a megaphone much like the film’s fiscal and societal disparity metaphors. The train’s unending loop and overall lack of real progressive also serves as a blunt symbol for a need to derail the system or be damned to continue on the same track. The conflict concerns a violent uprising, the attempt to turn the tables and unbalance what’s left of humanity by a group of “shoes.” Part of what I love about Bong Joon-Ho’s movies is his inability or lack of desire to sustain any hint of consistent tone. You get the sense that anything can and will happen in the midst of what appears to be worn action tropes. He’s more about the small details, the facial reactions and gestures that do such a better job of speaking to the passenger’s past lives. But he’s also in love with flat out odd behavior, peppered into the narrative to keep things lively. Yes, a guy can slip on a salmon corpse whilst fighting masked men with hatchets. Yes, Tilda Swinton will take her top teeth out randomly to deliver an inconsequential line. Yes, Song Kang-ho will huff and bump industrial waste called Kronol with his daughter but only until they use it for a far nobler purpose in the finale. Oh, and yes, a teacher will break out into song with her students before retrieving a machine gun from a cart full of hardboiled eggs. Joon-Ho’s film tumbles recklessly forward from freight car to freight car, set piece to set piece, and so on and so forth. But while much of it is proudly pure mayhem, there is a distinct emphasis in rooting the action in human internal conflict. The Host was about a family dealing with catastrophe and tragedy, the same can be argued about Mother, while Memories of Murder concerned two detectives obsessive quest to find a killer (I think Fincher took notes). The central concerns are very human, the plot and action are proficiently decentralized. With Snowpierecer, Joon-ho inherited his biggest plot and character juggling act of his career, along with the job of catering to a new and very foreign market, as well as pleasing the Weinstein’s, and yet he’s still managed to pull it all off despite some dragging exposition in the final act. Even that unfortunate grind is enlivened with some nifty visual cues, including a nice nod to Modern Times. It’s worth more than a thousand Transformers.   

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Viewing log: July 17, 2014

The Immigrant: I know there have been bolder, happier, and more entertaining movies thus far in 2014 but James Gray’s latest is probably the best. While the others (I’m thinking Under the Skin and Grand Budapest – I haven’t seen Boyhood or Snowpiercer) are getting their fair share of just accolades and box office fortification, The Immigrant tanked and basically snuck onto Netflix Instant this week. The story concerns Ewa (Marion Cotillard, give her all of the awards please?), a Polish woman entering Ellis Island with her sister. All of their trials thus far have led to a very brief honeymoon with the land of the free as the sister is quarantined and prepared for deportation due to a case of tuberculosis while Ewa is accused of immoral activity on the boat, the details of which are heartbreakingly revealed later on during confession. From this suspicious conundrum enters Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), let’s call him an entrepreneur in the pleasure industry. He saves her from deportation and eases her into his business. He thinks of himself as compassionate and most of his women believe this to be so while Ewa knows better and hides none of her contempt for him. The Immigrant’s driving theme amidst the systematic despair is that of a woman holding on to any strand of hope in a better future for her and her sister. That glimmer comes in the form of a magician named Orlando (Jeremy Renner), a cousin to Bruno and the mark of all of his contempt and envy. You can probably guess that things get complicated and bleak as a result of this enmity. What you probably can’t guess is where it all ends up. I don’t want to give anything away other than to say that it evokes another New York film set amongst dead end dreamers, with one of the characters in this movie pulling a Rocky Sullivan act for the benefit of another’s mental justifications. Gray’s restrained New York is shabby and tattered, with an attention to what’s lacking in every frame rather than a typical period piece show and tell. He’s more interested in the complexities of human desperation as well as mining the deepest and most honest of emotions from knowingly melodramatic material. I know it’s been said before but it’s worth repeating that this film is like a good novel from the same period, much like Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence or Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. And the final shot is a stunner.

That Obscure Object of My Desire: What is this object? I think I have an idea, and if I’m right it would make sense that it could reduce bourgy patriarch duff Mathieu (the game Fernando Rey, perhaps Bunuel’s greatest clay clod) to an immobilized fly heading towards a crowded light bulb. Those of us lucky/unlucky (I kind of like not being in control) enough to be stricken with the same weak impulse know at least part of what makes him so pitiable. We have been there, at least in the desire part of the spectrum. When we hear lyrics like “my knees get weak,” we know what that feels like. You start to lose balance the closer you get. Hopefully most of us have learned not to feel entitled to anything belonging to anyone else, even if we’ve been bred to feel that way. Mathieu has this sense of entitlement and it has woven itself into his life so tightly that he can’t see past his own folly, thus leading to his downfall. Moments of clarity come rarely, usually because she (played by both Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina) slips up the power balance. Even gravity has its dark matter, but soon enough he goes from repulsed right back to drawn with the simplest of gestures. You don’t doubt who is in control here. I don’t doubt it myself. Bunuel understands this too, so much so that he chose to go out with it, leaving everything to fireballs and debris in his absence. Maybe he was always in charge after all.

The American Friend: This very loose adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game follows a sick picture framer who is diagnosed with a deadly disease who agrees to get involved in some seedy activity to earn money for his family. Sound familiar? Wim Wender’s The American Friend is about moral compromises in impossibly complicated situations, but it’s more about one man rushing towards death. After learning that his condition has been greatly exaggerated, by the same man who seems a guardian angel, he finds himself trying to mop up after a messy situation. The results are Wenders gold. PS, Sam Fuller and Nicolas Ray make cameos.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: This sequel follows the parallel Balkanization and collapse of two correspondingly conflicted sects of survivors. The first group is the upshot of a revolution of apes freed and united by a primate enlightened by a drug that happened to wipe out most of the human population. The remaining humans are having a much harder time surviving the elements and go wandering into what used to be the Muir Woods National Monument in search of a dam that could potentially provide them with power. These two groups who had only suspicions of each other’s existence suddenly meet and within seconds a human shoots an ape, beginning what will be a nasty tit for tat war that splinters both groups into mutinous dissidents. I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the conversion of Koba, an ape with a justified distrust for humans due to lab testing and torture, though I was moved by his motivations for revenge. One of his mirrored human counterparts was less human/interesting by comparison, the typical short fuse with an aberrant detestation for the apes, while his ultimate/surprising foil is more plausible and effective. What makes the uprising so effective, when taken from the point of the view of the betrayer, is the chilling scene in which Caesar beats his future Brutus to a bloody pulp. I could personally understand it as a decisive betrayal and as such it’s heartbreaking. And it’s not even all that justified, at least not from a leader’s standpoint. A temper flared and Koba therefore succumbs to his humiliation. Matt Reeves’ horror chops elevate the material and franchise, and the effects team here pulls off some minor miracles. Despite the fact that San Francisco looks more like Seattle or Binghamton (overcast all the time), I dug the look here. The Hooker’s and dark moss green really worked to ground the CG apes in their surroundings, and those nighttime battle scenes initially made me think of the Wind Demons from Rankin/Bass’s The Life and Adventures of Santa Clause, especially that often mentioned shot of Koba riding the horse and firing off not one but two machine guns. It almost looked like stop animation. Though it’s probably a gross oversimplification of current turmoil (Israel/Palestine, sectarian war in Iraq/Pakistan/Syria/Egypt/Somalia/Rwanda/etc, the U.S. government) --- and just so you know, I don’t think this is the purpose of the film altogether ---- Dawn gets closer to the core of our convoluted times than most of its peers, meaning summer blockbusters. It questions the catalyst of war, specifically is ease, the shoulders on which the blame falls. It’s not entirely on Koba because that momentary lapse of judgment from Caesar provided more than enough fuel for the fire. It was a display of strength and superiority, which had me immediately thinking about the pundits and politicians who complain about our own need to dispel the appearance of “weakness.” It’s dangerous banter. Note also how Koba saves Caesar’s life at the beginning and see how that plays out towards the end. Dawn is a tragedy that has heart and, thanks to some exemplary filmmaking, it’s damn dirty good.