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1 - To War Is Human, by Daniel Bergamini
2 - Nom, Nom, Noms, by Matt Warren
3 - Man Without a Plan, by Kyle Anderson
4 - David's Movie Journal 1/25/11
5 - EPISODE 201: with special guest MICHELLE BILOON
6 - Skeleton Business, by Matt Warren
7 - A String of Conventions, by David Bax
8 - 200, by Tyler Smith
9 - David on the Criterion Cast
10 - David's Movie Journal 1/17/11
11 - EPISODE 200: with special guests JIMMY PARDO and MATT BELKNAP
12 - Ain't We Got Fun? by Daniel Bergamini
13 - Movie Recommendation- Bloody Sunday
14 - EPISODE 199: TV WATCHING vs. MOVIE WATCHING
15 - A Long Time Ago, 300 Years From Now, by Kyle Anderson
16 - 2010: A Box Office Shrug, by Jason Eaken
17 - EPISODE 198: CRAFTSMANSHIP AND EXPERIMENTALISM
18 - David's Movie Journal- January 10, 2011
19 - Must Be The Season, by Tyler Smith
20 - David's Movie Journal- January 5, 2011
21 - Stumbling Towards Greatness, by Daniel Bergamini
22 - Surrealism: Japan Style, by Kyle Anderson
23 - EPISODE 197: MOVIES ABOUT SADNESS
24 - Essential Aronofsky, by Daniel Bergamini
25 - EPISODE 196: THE ACTION HERO
When I first began thinking about writing a review which would in effect declare a film as the best film of all time, I asked myself whether or not I was biased. After all, Terrence Malick is and has been for years, my favorite filmmaker. His films have had a continuing effect on my life and my idea of film that has been so profound I can honestly say his films have changed my life. This is why I feel as if I may be biased calling one of his films the greatest film of all time.
However, after some thought, I realized I was not biased. The fact he is my favorite filmmaker just adds more evidence towards my argument. But as much as I would like to call Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line the greatest film of all time, I do realize I cannot. I have not come close to seeing every film ever made, making that declaration not very accurate. That being said, I can confidently say that I truly believe this film is one of the greatest accomplishments in cinematic history, as well as being my favorite film of all time.
I have discussed previously on this blog whether or not Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest film ever made. While I still stand by my review, I have realized that while the film tells more about one human being than possibly any other film, it doesn't tell us much about humanity as a whole.
This is where Terrence Malick's greatest achievement, The Thin Red Line, comes in. His film, which is on an equally grand scale as Lawrence of Arabia, doesn't tell the story of one man, or even one group, rather, it tells the story of dozens of men and through its own success, tells us about humanity as a whole. While it is undoubtedly an anti-war film on the surface, the point it is making isn't a comment on war, but rather a comment on what it is to be human, and all the unanswerable questions we must ask ourselves.
Taking place during the second world war at the battle of Guadalcanal, it opens with Private Witt, played by James Caviezel, an AWOL American soldier living with the natives of the island. Just as we get to know this man, the film shifts focus to another soldier, and from there we are constantly moving perspectives. Unlike previous Malick films, the narration is not coming from one character, instead it is coming from almost every character we meet. While at times we will return to the perspective of someone we have already met, others we never see again.
During post-production, Malick instructed his editors to edit the film as if it was a river, and this is exactly how the film feels. It is constantly flowing, changing focus but always moving forward. In general, frequent change of perspective can leave a film feeling impersonal. This is something Malick has been accused of. That being said, with repeat viewings, I find it strange that anyone could feel this way about the film.
While I cannot write a review of The Thin Red Line without mentioning John Toll's stunningly beautiful cinematography, unlike many people I do not consider that the great accomplishment of the film. Since Malick's first feature, Badlands, he has proven his ability to capture beauty in just about any situation. As he continues to do this with seemingly no effort, it is the use of narration that Malick has been progressing and perfecting since his first film.
Unlikeable characters become human, side characters become fully fleshed out, all due to his masterful use of narration. We become fully immersed in these people, as we can relate to the feelings, questions and pain they feel. The example that best displays the power Malick has, is that of Private Bell, played by Ben Chaplin. He is one of the characters we spend the most time with, as he thinks of his wife back home, the love they feel for each other and whether or not he will one day return to her. Through flashbacks and reminiscent thoughts, we see the beauty and love between these two characters, and once Private Bell receives a letter from his wife requesting a divorce, we feel utterly devastated. No scene nor entire film has ever affected me as strongly as that short sequence does.
When The Thin Red Line was released, it was unfairly overshadowed by Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, leaving Malick's masterpiece to be only remembered by film fans. It is possible general audiences do not have the patience to fully grasp the film as it is a film that not only deserves, but demands full concentration. To fully appreciate the film, one must fully give into the beauty on screen, the truth held in the dialogue and narration. I can safely say, if people were to turn off their cellphones, not check their emails or talk, and be enveloped by the film, all those other things will seem minuscule compared to the greatness that is The Thin Red Line.
With the recent announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations, we can finally say that the cinema year 2010 is on the books. The nominations are an opportunity for culture-watchers the to compile their own should-win/will-win lists and compare notes, taking stock of the attitudes and trends that helped shape what appeared in theaters and onscreen over the past 12 months.
From the Tea Party to Teen Moms, MMX was one big messy pile of contradictory and inexplicable human behavior. And the film year told the tale of our anxiety, with certain key themes popping up over and over: our fear of/dependence on technology, the elasticity of truth, the relevance of identity with virtual realms, the impossibility of obtaining any measure of real justice in a chaotic world, furry vengeance, etc.
It wasn’t a great film year, like 1999 or 2007, but this year’s Academy Award nominees are at least able to hold a mirror up to our fractured psyches and force us to think about the complex world we’ve build for ourselves, and our unsteady footing therein. Or maybe not. Maybe they were just a bunch of random movies that were mostly okay. I don’t know. I’m just trying to find a way into the rest of this article.
So without delay, here’s a rundown of some of the films in the hunt for Oscar gold…
Best Picture, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Song, & Editing
If I found myself in the same predicament that protagonist Aron Ralston finds himself in in 127 Hours, the film made out of my ordeal would’ve been called 45 Minutes, because arm or no arm, I’ve got shit to do. Maybe I’m impatient, but that’s just how God made me. Anyway, the moral of Ralston’s story is this: if you’re going spelunking, be sure to bring something that’s easy to masturbate to. Also, don’t go spelunking. Stay indoors, where the chance of accidentally getting your arm pinned underneath a boulder is extremely slim (unless your name is Fred Flintstone.)
Best Picture, Director, Actress, Cinematography, & Editing
Black Swan is scary, schizoid fun, but waifs Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis are hardly believable as ballet dancers. Have you ever met a professional dance company member? Those chicks are yolked. Portman and Kunis are two seriously skinny, lawn gnome-sized young women. It really stretches the suspension of disbelief to think they have enough muscle mass to even keep their oversized Kewpie-doll heads supported atop their quivering tinderstick bodies, much less engage in any sort of physically taxing athletic pursuit. Plus I could probably count on one hand the number of periods they’ve both had in the last 10 years. But hey, eww. Let’s all grow up.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Great art about bad art about great art. This is my own personal favorite film of the year, both because it’s a remarkable story told well, with lots of exciting footage of street artists in action, and also because it was the most exciting film-going experience of my life. I was lucky enough, through some combination of connections and standing-outside-in-the-snow-for-hours-and-hours-ness, to snag tickets for the film’s world premiere at last year’s Sundance, where I was seated one row behind Jared Leto (aka Jordan Catalano) & 30 Seconds to Mars (aka Frozen Embryos), and one row in front of Hyde and Fes from “That 70’s Show.” Plus, the Vikings lost the NFC championship that day. Sometimes everything just seems to work out all at once. Unrelated: Go Packers!
Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor & Actress, Original Screenplay, & Editing
One can only imagine what kind of hotheaded shenanigoats went down behind the scenes between legendarily temperamental geniuses/total assholes David O. Russell and Christian Bale during the filming of this movie. I imagine the terms "cunt," "motherfucker," and "up da da dah da" were invoked with such frequency and vigor as to leave the words themselves completely devoid of meaning, instead becoming something like the aural equivalent of the "Jupiter Beyond the Infinite" section of 2001, a transcendental inter-dimensional light corridor made of sheer rage and profanity. Also, crazy Boston accents!
Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Score, Editing, Mixing, Art Direction, & two more
In late 2008, flush from the success of that summer’s The Dark Knight, director Christopher Nolan sat down with his family to enjoy a nice Thanksgiving dinner. His gaze fell lazily upon the Turducken at the center of the table. Then, inspiration struck. His eyes widened as a light bulb went off above his head. A duck inside a chicken inside a turkey? "This," he pointed excitedly at the bird(s), "is my next film!" He then rushed upstairs to write the entire first draft of Inception in one manic burst, and was back downstairs again in time for pie and ice cream.
The Social Network
Best Picture, Actor, Cinematography, Dir., Editing, Score, Sound, Adapted Screenplay
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Best Sound Editing
Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay, Director, & five more
True Grit may be minor Coen Brothers, but Joel & Ethan’s most commercially successful film will likely go down as perhaps the best of their good-not-great films, ranking somewhere above the likes O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading, but well below classics like Fargo and No Country for Old Men. And with Rooster Cogburn raking in the dough at the box office, look for Paramount to extend the franchise with the sequels Truer Grit, Truest Grit, the Stephen Colbert-crossover Truthy Grit (thanks, Viacom synergy!), its sequel Truthy Grit 2: Electric Boogaloo, and its sequel’s sequel Truthy Grit 2: Electric Boogaloo 2: Electric Boogaloo.
Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actress, & Supporting Actor
For added fun, try imagining Winter's Bone as a stop-motion animated Christmas special, à la the old Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Try to picture Bone protagonist Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence) as Rudolph, and Ree’s terrifying Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) as crusty-but-loveable gold speculator Yukon Cornelius. Now throw in various Hermey the Misfit Elves and Abominable Snowmen where appropriate. But what, you may ask, is the purpose of this thought experiment? The answer is, I don't remember. I think it was because the film’s villain looked a little bit like Santa Claus. Spoilers.
There you have it. Rejected ideas for this post include a thing about The King’s Speech written all like th-th-this, something about the Who song “The Kids Are All Right” being used as the theme for the next entry in the “CSI” franchise, and a really atrocious bit about sentient sex toys in the world of Toy Story 3, including speculation as to which SNL alum might be good as the voice of the Fleshlight. Awful. Just awful.
So let’s all make giddy little handclaps in anticipation of Oscar’s big night, when Catwoman and the Green Goblin will at last decide which movies are quantitatively superior to other movies. And just like every other year, I can’t fucking wait.
Of the five filmic collaborations between German auteur Werner Herzog and manic film star Klaus Kinski, three of them deal with egomaniacal men from a “civilized” country going into a wild, “uncivilized” country via a boat to tame the land, make their fortune, and become legends. Most critics and scholars name the first two of the three films, 1972’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and 1982’s Fitzcarraldo, as companion pieces without much of a nod to the third of these, 1987’s Cobra Verde which would also be the last time Kinski and Herzog worked together. While it’s true that Cobra Verde is less technically remarkable than the other two, it is nevertheless the film that best exemplifies the director’s ongoing theme of a single man triumphing over adversity, only to be defeated by himself.
Kinski plays Francisco Manoel da Silva, a Brazilian rancher who has lost everything in a drought. Kinski was adept, especially when working with Herzog, at playing a number of different nationalities, even though a more German-looking man cannot be found. Reluctantly, he goes to work for a gold mining company, but when he discovers he is being cheated, he murders his boss and goes on the lam to start a life as an outlaw. He adopts the moniker “Cobra Verde” (or “green snake”) and becomes notorious as the most feared bandit in inland Brazil. During his nomadic life, he comes across and subdues an escaped slave, impressing wealthy sugar baron, Don Octavio Coutinho. Don Octavio hires da Silva to oversee the slaves on his plantation and da Silva then promptly impregnates all three of the baron’s young daughters. Outraged, Don Octavio confronts da Silva, only learning then that he is, indeed, the legendary Cobra Verde.
As punishment, the Don sends da Silva on an impossible to Africa to reopen the slave trade. The bandit knows he is likely to be killed, but decides to accept the task regardless. Once in Africa, da Silva negotiates with the murderous King Bossa for the use of his people as slaves. These negotiations work, miraculously, and soon the slave trade is again up and running. However, not long after, the King accuses da Silva of a number of inexplicable crimes, of which the bandit has no knowledge, and sentences him to death. Narrowly escaping, da Silva then trains an army of African women to overthrow the King and reclaim his stranglehold on the trafficking of people.
The alternate title for this film could easily be: When Life Gives You Lemons, Do Any and Every Terrible Thing You Can Think Of To Get Back At Life, though surely that wouldn’t have fit on a marquis. It is the story of an unsympathetic man doing unsympathetic things, and yet somehow gaining the audience’s sympathy by the end. In this way, the film falls totally in line with every collaboration between Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski. In each film, Kinski plays the title character and anti-hero of the piece and with the exception of Aguirre, where the character of Aguirre is totally and completely reprehensible, each of them are successful at evil deeds while still being tragic figures. Knowing anything about Klaus Kinski as a person and his penchant for flying off the handle into fits of uncontrollable rage, it’s a wonder A) that he could turn in anything resembling a sympathetic performance and B) that these movies got made at all. It speaks great volumes of Kinski as an actor, surely, but it speaks even greater to the patience and prowess of Herzog as a director.
Cobra Verde is the ultimate “Up By Your Bootstraps” picture. Kinski’s character at the beginning truly has nothing. He was once successful, or at least stable, but then loses his livelihood via an act of God. He then is forced to take a nothing, low-level job and is cheated by his employer at it, precipitating his greater success as a bandit. Indeed, the more deplorable the task, the better Cobra Verde seems to be in performing it. He single-handedly jumpstarts the dormant African slave trade with nothing but sheer will and endurance. Then, when his needs suit it, he trains a massive horde of women to be warriors to get back at the king who double-crossed him, and his supremely effective in doing that. It’s perversely captivating to watch him do horrible things so astonishingly well. The same can be said for Kinski himself. He seemed right at home playing some of the most deplorable characters in screen history (see my earlier review of Il Grande Silenzio) and yet he always brings a distinct individuality to them. As Herzog himself has often said, no one but Kinski could have played these roles.
It’s incredibly rare for people to know while it’s happening that they’re doing something for the last time. One always laments it in retrospect, thinking there should have been more fanfare or hoopla to commemorate such a moment. Such is arguably the case with Cobra Verde. Kinski passed away four years after completing the film, meaning we’d never get another Herzog/Kinski collabo, nor a proper sendoff. For a last movie together, it’s fairly unceremonious. Perhaps why it’s not regarded as highly as either Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo is that it does mostly just build on those earlier themes, and the quite awesome shot in Cobra Verde of all of those native African women in battle formation does, sadly, pale in comparison to Aguirre’s 360-degree shot around the raft and Fitzcarraldo’s pulling a steam ship over a mountain. It is pretty unremarkable, but that is precisely why it is remarkable. Instead of trying to outdo their previous work in terms of scope and visuals, Herzog rests the entirety of the action on his lead actor’s shoulders. He gives Kinski perhaps his most varied and interesting character. While not nearly as iconic as the others, Kinski has a much more realistic person to play, one whose delusions of grandeur reach only as far as his next battle. He is no longer “The Wrath of God,” but the wrath of man, one man, singular. For all his posturing and blustering, Francisco da Silva is just a simple creature who can’t even pull a boat into the water by himself. In Werner Herzog’s view, there’s no better metaphor for Klaus Kinski.
Okay, here's the deal. It's late and I'm super busy with my new job. But I haven't done one of these in a while so we're gonna do this and we're gonna make it fucking quick. Everybody buckle up.
Electra Glide in Blue
Part of LACMA's road movies series, Electra Glide in Blue is a not too great movie that I am nonetheless very glad exists. It's the only film every directed by James William Guercio, who found much more success as a music producer, working with, among many others, the band Chicago, whose lead singer, Peter Cetera, makes a small cameo as a notorious, criminal, motorcycle hippie.
That description right there is exactly why this movie comes anywhere near redeeming itself after its hackneyed and forced post-Easy Rider, post-method acting sturm und drang. The idea that a member of Chicago, not exactly the most status quo-threatening band in rock music's history, would portray a figure of violent and seedy rebellion is part of the film's occasional gonzo sense of fun.
Sadly, after an episodic first act, in which Robert Blake gives one of the most natural and charismatic performances of his career while Guercio's camera fetishistically lingers on his tighty-whity clad buttocks, his black leather highway cop uniform and the gleaming two-wheeled vehicle between his legs, Electra Glide in Blue goes and ruins the weird, fascist, homoerotic party by having a plot. From that point on, all fun is lost.
You know how sometimes a person, while trying to convince you to see a movie will hesitate and say, "I don't wanna oversell it"? Well, I've been hearing for years how great Milos Forman's Amadeus is. I've actually met more than one person who counted it as his favorite film. But no matter how long and how enthusiastically it was sold to me, nothing could have prepared me for how fantastic this movie is.
Forman tells a story about one of the greatest and most influential composers in human history without even a dash of self-seriousness, showing a great skill for resisting temptation in the process. Often flatly lit as if to highlight the ordinariness of the baroque production design in these characters' lives, the film is, on the surface, completely unconcerned with its subject's place in history. It emphasizes that these people - like those in Forman's earlier, Czech films - are simply human. They are petty and carnal. Questions about God and destiny are not, for them, bound in literary ornamentation but are every day concerns. The death of Mozart in this story is not the beginning of his legend but the end of his possibilities.
Films, when they're doing their job, bring you into the world of their inhabitants and, in a relatively very short period of time, make you understand everything you can about a person or a group of people who are often nothing like you.
The protagonist of David Michod's Animal Kingdom is a young man who affects almost nothing in the world around him.
He gets caught up in the violent, criminal lives of his uncles because he never once gives any thought to resisting it. He probably speaks fewer lines than any other character in the movie and, in real life, would be a person we would be initially frustrated by before giving up on him altogether.
I won't spoil the film, as it's so recent and so deserves to be seen, but it's the final moments that make the whole thing so impactful. Is this a tragic story or a triumphant one? It depends on whether you're looking at it as an outsider, with the privilege of perspective, or from our hero's point of view. Perhaps Animal Kingdom is tragic because it takes place in a world so bereft of opportunities that this is what it defines as triumph.
A night of experimental films
I only attended the final installation of Los Angeles Filmforum and the Echo Park Film Center's presentation of Bay Area experimental films from 1945-2000, curated and presented by Steve Anker, one of the editors of a new book on the subject, Radical Light. The focus this week was on "small gauge" films, those shot in either 8mm or Super 8, and they were largely presented without sound.
I'll admit that I don't have quite enough working knowledge of the world of non-narrative film to comment with any authority on what I saw. But I want to take the opportunity to suggest that more film buffs seek out these types of screenings. Not only are they breathtaking achievements but it would be educational to remind ourselves from time to time that the camera and what's in front of it are integral parts of the stories we watch day to day.
Particularly recommended are Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray 1, a hyperkinetic five minutes of movement, flash and naked women dancing; Scott Stark's Acceleration, which manages to be assaulting and haunting simultaneously; and Ellen Gaine's Fragment, a beautiful and hallucinogenic image-based interpretation of the notion that, if you repeat a word often enough, it will become nonsensical.
In this episode, Tyler and David are joined by comedian Michelle Biloon to discuss vacation movies.
It was slightly disturbing how much fun I had watching Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s grimmer-than-grim, fact-based interpretation of the 1981 Irish hunger strike to protest the political status of IRA members imprisoned in Northern Ireland. “Fun” maybe isn’t the first word you would associate with such a stone cold bummer of a film, but somewhere amid all the brutal prisoner abuse, body horror, and shit-smeared walls, the film helped me forget my own troubles, and, perversely, helped cheer me up. When people talk about film being an escapist art form, I guess what they usually mean is something fun and frothy involving Avatarism or Hogwarts or whatever. But sometimes something as miserablist as Hunger can be just as effective.
While back in Utah to visit the family over Christmas, a cheerful outing to the ol’ ski hill quickly turned into a thrice-fractured shoulder, emergency surgery, and twenty thousand dollars of medical bills not covered by my insurance, which was due to be activated-I shit you not-THE VERY NEXT DAY following the 30 day waiting period for coverage for new employees at my new job. I know, I know. Boo fucking hoo. But there’s more. The day I flew home, my girlfriend was in a huge car wreck on the 405 and was spirited away via ambulance to Long Beach Memorial. I rushed directly from the airport to the hospital in my narcoticized, oxycodone-addled state to the hospital busted wing and all to find my best friend/life partner laying flat on a backboard, neckbrace on, face covered in blood (she was ultimately OK, thank God).
Also, I broke my glasses and my cat was mildly sick for about a day and a half. So far, 2011 = total fucking clown party.
Which is why it was such a relief to dial up Hunger on Netflix Watch Instant. Sometimes you watch a film for the right reason, like to educate yourself about important goings-on in recent world history, or to feel inspired by the depths of one man’s total devotion to a single cause, even at the expense of his own life. But other times you just wanna see somebody get their shit wrecked even harder than yours did. And in Hunger, protagonist Bobby Sands and his IRA cohorts get their shit wrecked wrecked. We’re talking brutal beatdowns at the hands of overstressed, ill-tempered prison guards. We’re talking damp, dirty jail cells caked in urine and feces. We’re talking indelicate anal cavity searches. We’re talking suicide via the most protracted, painful, and aesthetically upsetting means possible.
Hunger depicts suffering with the kind of fetishistic detail not seen since Mel Gibson’s The Passion, which is why I found my response to it so odd, and maybe a little disturbing. Was it schadenfreude? Or was I just relieved that my situation wasn’t that bad. It’s comforting to know that, despite how profound your own psychic and physical pain may feel to you, you’re usually only scratching the surface of human misery. Maybe that’s why, as I sat in bed hunched over my laptop, Netflix open, unable to move even one inch for fear of sending tendrils of pain shooting through my entire body, I finally, for the first time since the accident, felt… OK.
But maybe it was just the simple pleasures of watching a well-made movie. Cinema’s ability to distract is the primary component to its appeal. At this point in popular culture, the examination of entertainment’s narcotic-like effects is an entire sub-genre unto itself, turning up as the key plot point in both David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and William Shatner’s TekWar, the two most important literary works of the last 25 years. Generally, these works take a reliably critical attitude toward the idea of turning off one’s consciousness in favor of being swept up in Entertainment’s loving, smothering embrace. But sometimes escapism is necessary as a survival mechanism.
But conversely, the virtues of escapism have themselves become cliché. Think Jonathan Pryce’s fantastical flights of fancy in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, or the imaginations of the young heroes (?) of Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. These films act as antidotes to kind of anti-entertainment paranoia on display in such techno-thrillers as Strange Days and 1995’s era-defining TekWar: The Movie, starring William Shatner. Neither Days nor Creatures end well for their protagonists, but each film illustrates what is beneficial about leaving your earthly worries behind in favor of immersive fantasy narratives. Both films are, at their core, movies about escapism.
But what is escapism, and how does the term apply to Hunger? For most, a film’s escapist value is directly proportional to its ability to create an immersive, wholly-realized word as separate and distinct from the viewer’s own reality as possible. This is because most people’s lives are shitty and boring. Even people with awesome lives think that their lives are boring and shitty, and if they don’t, they usually have some sort of major personality disorder. This is why audiences generally prefer to spend time in places with names like Pandora, Middle Earth, and the Grid. Places without office parks or Buffalo Wild Wings. Places without Lady Footlocker. Places where every moment is thrilling and every action meaningful. This is usually what we mean by “escapism.”
But if you’re like me (and probably like you, too, if you’ve read this far in an article on fucking Battleship Pretension), you’ve wasted the best years of your life and a huge chunk of your parents’ hard-earned/inherited money attaining a certain degree of film literacy. And once you reach a certain level of film literacy, an expertly crafted movie becomes its own kind of thrilling adventure, regardless of the content of the narrative. For most filmgoers, the enjoyment derived from a movie is based solely on the film’s ability to wow them through a handful of flashy, turbocharged action set pieces. But a film nerd delights in excellence in every discipline involved with filmmaking: acting, direction, sound, costumes, production design, etc. Some people get excited by explosions; I get excited by the texture of wallpaper on a well-built set.
And Hunger is all about amazing textures. If you didn’t already know that director Steve McQueen came to film from the world of visual art, you may have guessed, given the film’s careful production design, framing, and lighting. One shot lingers on the wall of a prison cell covered is dried shit smeared into a spiral. A hose is turned on and, slowly, the shit flecks away to reveal the surface underneath. In other shot, prisoners empty their bedpans into under their doors into the hallway, flooding it with piss. The camera holds on the empty hallway. All at once, liquid pools under the row of doors and bubbles out into the hall, pools gradually connecting to cover the smooth concrete surface. Another shot later on reverses the process, with a lone custodian sweeping the hallway clean of pee. These moments are all about texture and surfaces, and are, for all their inherent ugliness, both beautiful and hypnotic.
But what, you may ask, is the metaphorical significance of all this piss-and-shit business? Well, I could sit here and conjure up some pile about how it all represents the cleanliness of the soul transcending the limitations of the flesh or something, but I’d be a liar. I don’t know that any of it means anything. In a way, Hunger is a film less about protest and political struggle than it is a film about scabs and bruises. It’s a film about the moist center of the open sore and its dry, flaky outer ring. It’s interested in the body as architecture, as a structure on the verge of collapse. It’s not a biopic about Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender in a fearless, Christian-Bale-in-The Machinist-esque turn that no doubt upset his mother very much), but rather a film about a group of desperate people who turned their bodies into a weapon simply by pressing the self-destruct button.
In a recent episode of BP, Tyler and David discussed whether film is inherently a storytelling medium, or if it is simply the art of pairing sound and moving image, with its narrative capabilities being mostly incidental. I tend to favor the latter point of view, which is another reason why I found Hunger so resonate. I enjoy when filmmakers don’t try to fit difficult material into the sort of neat little story arcs advocated by screenwriting books like Save the Cat. It’s frighteningly easy to imagine a glossy, Miramax-style version of the Bobby Sands story, complete with a script by Akiva Goldsmith and a Best Supporting Actress turn by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Irish accent as Sands’ steadfast gal Friday on the outside. But McQueen’s film is not a Bobby Sands biopic. It’s an impressionistic portrait of events told through a series of highly stylized, stand-alone vignettes. It reminded me in ways of François Girard’s cubism-influenced Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould. There are long takes, flashbacks, dream sequences, and in-camera SFX sequences. There’s even one moment of unexpected and, for lack of a better word, awesome violence that wouldn’t feel out of place in something like Out of Sight or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
Like all great films, Hunger casts a spell. It was a spell powerful enough to transport my mind elsewhere and allow me to forget my problems. The destination may have been a cold, damp prison where terrible things were going on, but it was still somewhere I was relieved to be for 90 minutes. But I suppose the oxycodone didn’t hurt, either.
Ivan Reitman's career began with exuberant and vivacious celebrations of a male juvenilia that followed his characters humorously deep into what should have been adulthood. Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters, along with searing the imprint of Bill Murray's id into popular culture, were broad precursors to the extended adolescence of Judd Apatow and his imitators. Of course, the success of those films pushed Reitman into long period of middle-of-the-road family comedies, with wildly varying success. So it's a pleasant surprise to see him taking on a story that involves actual grown-ups, even if it is, ultimately, a failure.
Ashton Kutcher's Adam and Natalie Portman's Emma may not have settled down in the traditional marriage-and-kids way by the time we catch up with them at the end of their 20s but they have jobs they take seriously, their Ozomatli posters have frames on them and they spend their weekend perusing the farmers' market. In fact, the one character who does refuse to grow up - Adam's dad, played by Kevin Kline as if he's doing Reitman a favor - is not a lovable scamp but a cautionary tale, a concrete and pitiful example of what Adam should absolutely try to avoid becoming.
No Strings Attached uses its R rating well, largely sidestepping crudeness in favor of the frank and unembarrassed way actual adults would talk about cunnilingus and menstruation (and a few things that have nothing to do with vaginas as well). Some of the best comedy in the movie comes from the unadorned performances of Greenberg's Greta Gerwig and Mindy Kaling ("The Office") as Emma's friends. They, along Lake Bell ("Children's Hospital"), in a winning performance, make up a trio of real, hilarious women that I would much rather watch a movie about than the one I got.
Sadly, apart from the elements outlined above, the rest of No Strings Attached consists of a bunch of cliches jostling uncomfortably against each other like a sack full of stray kittens. Portman's Emma is one of those women who's so driven and career-focused that she's terrible at relationships. In movies like this one, such women just need the scales to fall from their eyes. Their control and trust issues are only skin deep and can be shattered provided she meets a guy attractive, charming and persistent enough.
Kutcher's Adam is that guy and that's about all he is. Faced with the example of his father, he wants very much to be a good person. Which is lucky for him because he is. Problem solved! His friends are played by Jake Johnson and Ludacris, though it may not be correct to say Ludacris plays a character who is barely there and speaks only in one-liners that seem to have come out of a handbook. Johnson is provided with only slightly better opportunities but still has to be the horny roommate who does mushrooms and masturbates a lot.
Speaking of the roommate situation, perhaps the most exasperatingly worn-out cliché of the characters who seem to live in homes far out of their price range or the price ranges of almost everyone I've ever met. I'll allow Emma her apartment because, nice as it is, she does share it with three other people. Adam, on the other hand, lives in a house in the hills with his one roommate. Any chance of this being attributed to his rich father is dashed by his proudly insisting that he paid for his own car. Apparently, this lovely home is the reward for fiscal independence, even on the salary of a television writer's assistant.
The final nail in the coffin is the film's use of location. This is a spotless and up-to-date version of Los Angeles that would be recognizable only to those who can not only afford to live on the West side of Los Angeles but also have maids and assistants and therefore never have to venture beyond its borders. Certainly, that is not a tax bracket that includes industry bottom-rungers and medical students.
No Strings Attached is a better film than its premise and release date would suggest, but there is a point at which most everyone involved seems to have decided to coast the rest of the way on what they already had and what they already knew.
As I'm sure you've noticed by now, David and I just recorded our 200th episode. We had on comedian Jimmy Pardo and his podcast co-host Matt Belknap. They host the popular Never Not Funny, a show that David and I openly credit as inspiring us to start Battleship Pretension in the first place. We were so busy working out the details with Jimmy and Matt, that I completely neglected to realize just how crazy it is that we've recorded two hundred of these things.
It's not very often that I take the time to really contemplate how big a part the podcast has played- and still plays- in my life. It has not only allowed David and I to meet and talk with some of our favorite entertainers and artists, but it has enabled us to communicate with film fans around the world.
For all the complaining that I do on the show about the occasional negative review or e-mail, I seldom acknowledge the overwhelming positivity that we've met with through our listeners. We've received so much encouragement and compliments that I sometimes take it for granted, opting instead to focus on the insults. As we continue to move forward, my hope is that I am able to remember all the support that you've shown us through the years.
Thanks for everything that you've given us throughout the years. It's been a lot of fun getting to talk with all of you. Our hope is to keep the conversation going for many more years to come!
David was recently a guest on the Criterion Cast, discussing the Powell & Pressburger film Black Narcissus.
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Another entry in my attempt to watch 2010 stuff I thought I should see. This might start to cool down a bit, though, as it's getting to be time to start watching television again. I still haven't watched those last five episodes of "Caprica" and the final season of "Big Love" is about to start so I've got a whole lot of hating things that used to be good to look forward to.
It's occurred to me that if I'm going to write about every film I see, I'm going to have to admit to some of the things I'm watching for the first time and thereby expose to you just how many movies I've never seen. For instance, I've got a Netflix DVD copy of Amadeus glowering at me from my bookshelf every night when I turn on the Food Network.
This is all to prepare you for the admission that Greenberg is the first Noah Baumbach film that I've seen. I know that The Squid and the Whale is supposed to be great and everything but something has just kept these films from being a priority for me. Maybe it's because I thought they were all about effete, white, bourgeois psuedo-intellectuals, the kind of people I thought I wanted to be when I grow up back when I was in high school and I hadn't yet realized how full of shit they are. Boy, I don't know where I got that idea.
Greenberg stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg, a 40-something former rock hopeful, now living in New York and "doing nothing," though he is apparently able to pay rent and to consider buying a last-minute plane ticket to Australia without worrying about cost. He has returned to Los Angeles, where he apparently grew up, house-sit for his brother, whose family is on a two-week vacation to Vietnam (Baumbach completely fails to mine the comedic potential from the fact that there's something inherently douchey about taking a family with two small children on a vacation to Vietnam).
The reason I say Roger "apparently" grew up in Los Angeles is that neither the character nor the film seems to have a shred of familiarity with the city. Perhaps if I had never been to the place I now call my home, this wouldn't bother me as much. But this indifference to the geography of a place has always rubbed me the wrong way in movies and Los Angeles always seems to get the worst of it. In case you have seen Greenberg and you haven't been to this city, let me clear something up: if a person's apartment is in Culver City then that person does not live within walking distance of Musso & Frank. Also, only Hollywood assholes and tourists have lunch at Musso & Frank in the middle of the week.
In Baumbach's mind and, at one point, in his lead character's words, Greenberg is about living a life you hadn't planned on and readjusting your expectations of yourself to the disappointments of reality, which is a truly interesting idea that is ripe for exploration. Roger, though, is never as sad a man as he's meant to be because the director seems to be subconsciously convinced that he's still as cool as I would've thought he was when I was 15.
Even though our military invaded Afghanistan first, there have been far more documentaries about Iraq in the last ten years. Perhaps that's because the Iraq invasion was entered into with far shakier justification and therefore stokes greater ire.
That would explain why the makers of Restrepo did not make a muck-raking or even overtly political movie. If this film has an agenda at all, it is decidedly a pro-troops one. Never before attempted, let alone succeeded, painting a sympathetic portrait of what types of people join the military and what the military in general and war in particular does to them.
They may process the death of a friend more matter-of-factly than we civilians would but they are not cold, programmed machines. On the other hand, they are at least partially there for the purpose of killing people and they have to do their job well. Never has a film presented taken such a warmly humanist approach to depicting trained killers. Nothing will haunt you after watching the film as much as how you shared in the triumphant joy these men feel after having successfully ended the life of an enemy.
You don't have to marvel at the actions of the soldiers in Restrepo and wonder how you would've reacted in the same situation. Because, by the end of the documentary, you know that you would have reacted the same way they did, as a human being enjoying the company of her or his friends and doing her or his job.
As I mentioned last week in a Movie Recommendation, Paul Greengrass began his feature film career with Bloody Sunday, a telling of the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters by British military. The docudrama style of that film gave it a sickening urgency and, for better or worse, Greengrass has made that shaky, ground-level presentation his calling card on every film since.
A realistic approach to a film's aesthetics works best when it's matched by realism in the screenplay and the performances of the cast. In a film like Green Zone, however, it only serves to contrast and make more apparent the already overwhelming phoniness of pretty much everything that's going on.
It's understandable that those who believe (as I do) that President George W. Bush and his administration lied to us and cajoled us into a pointless war in Iraq would want to take temporary solace in a dream where there are easily identifiable villains and dedicated patriots to battle them. But Greg Kinnear's State department man is so hollow and sniveling in his malevolence and Matt Damon's army guy (seriously, I don't know what to call him; he doesn't seem to have to answer to any authority I can pinpoint) is so reflexively moral, the movie ends up being like a fantasy too convenient and implausible to even masturbate to.
In this episode, Tyler and David are joined by Never Not Funny hosts Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap.
What does it say about a film that leaves you feeling slightly embarrassed by the fact you enjoyed it? Does it signal that maybe the film isn't very good, or maybe that people have been too hard on it. This is how I felt about Michel Gondry's The Green Hornet, a superhero film that, while not striving for greatness, is incredibly enjoyable. Leaving the theatre, having just spent an hour and a half with a big smile on my face, I couldn't help but remember all those incredibly negative reviews.
The Green Hornet, produced and co-written by Seth Rogen, is a re-telling of the classic radio and TV show that introduced Bruce Lee to North America. The film follows the adventures of Britt Reid, slacker son of now-deceased newspaper mogul James Reid, as he deals with the death of his father by fighting crime, or at least attempting to. Reid and his partner in crime, Kato, act as villains to take down Chudnofsky, played by Christoph Waltz, and the corrupt politicians of Los Angeles.
The story is one we have seen and heard dozens of times before, and The Green Hornet doesn't do much to differentiate itself from the other action and superhero films in terms of plot. Even with the less than original story, the film manages to move past that and be incredibly enjoyable.
Many worried that Seth Rogen would leave too much of his own mark on the film, and unfortunately for some, he certainly did. However, his take on the material worked just fine for me as the so-called “bromance” that Rogen makes the main focus of the film is the most interesting aspect. Behind all the action, gadgets and plot, is more importantly the growing friendship between Britt and Kato, played brilliantly by John Cho. It is something I did not expect from a superhero film as so often friendship rarely plays a role.
Michel Gondry, who directed the film, does a great job of infusing his style while never letting it become a distraction. I have to admit that I am a huge Gondry fan, and his stylistic choices always interest me. Many have commented that because Gondry's style wasn't more apparent that he somehow failed as a director. I believe just the opposite. If he had, for instance, used the same aesthetic he did for The Science of Sleep, the film would have failed. Instead, he went about directing the film as a action film seen through his eyes.
The Green Hornet may not be a perfect film, in fact, it certainly isn't. Instead it is a fun and entertaining superhero movie. However I still feel as if I should be embarrassed liking this movie. I am a sucker for Gondry and Rogen, and their partnership in this film has led to a very unique superhero film. Many seem to be overly negative about this film simply for the fact that Rogen has added comedic sensibilities to The Green Hornet. I would argue that most of these people aren't fans of the original material. It is as if they dislike this new approach simply for the premise and not the execution. I know many will disagree with me on that one, yet I would rather see The Green Hornet than Iron Man any day. In many ways the unlikely friendship and teaming-up between Reid and Kato reflects the unlikely partnership of Rogen and Gondry on this film. Unlikely sure, but awkward, certainly not.
BLOODY SUNDAY (2002)
Having recently watched Paul Greengrass' Green Zone, I'd like to take the opportunity to guide people away from it and toward his much better, earlier film, Bloody Sunday. The approach he would later use to devastating effect in United 93 seemed to have emerged fully formed here in the telling of an Irish civil rights protest massacred by British troops in 1972. Newsreel footage of actual atrocity always works on me in a way that both ups my adrenaline and nauseates me simultaneously and Bloody Sunday works like that for almost two hours. Its unrelenting honesty is as noteworthy an achievement as any special effects extravaganza.
In this episode, Tyler and David discuss the differences in watching television and movies.
It is said nothing ages faster than a vision of the future, which explains most of science fiction. One’s idea of what’s to come is inexorably linked to the world they live in and it’s always far grander or more extravagant than what actually transpires. Once it became clear that rocket propulsion could work and indeed does work, fiction was chock-a-block with stories of people travelling the stars to strange, distant planets and of the terrible things they might find once they arrive. In every case, though, despite the immense imagination it took to concoct these stories, the actual science of the piece was only as far as current understanding. This explains why every sci-fi movie made in the 1950s seems so out of date now, even though they’re set far in the future. I find something wonderfully quaint yet beautiful in these Rocket Age pictures, like a movie version of Disney’s Tomorrowland; Innovative Anachronisms.
For no real reason, what is considered to be the pinnacle of this genre, 1956’s “Forbidden Planet,” directed by Fred M. Wilcox, alluded me for what is now 26 ½ years of life. My father owned the movie on VHS while I was growing up and I’d seen bits of it, but I’d never sat down to actually watch it until last weekend. To my way of thinking, two of its stars, Leslie Nielsen and Anne Francis, passed away within months of each other and I perhaps owed it to the great filmic powers that be to give the film a shot. It was like coming home to a place you’d never been.
What immediately stands out about this film is clearly a lot of money was spent. It’s in glorious Technicolor, used Cinemascope, and boasts four credited members of the special effects crew. The film opens with a brilliant model shot of a flying saucer spinning through space. One would expect it to be full of hostile creatures from another planet, travelling to invade Earth, but the movie tips that trope on its head. Inside the saucer are humans, Earthlings, who are on a mission to the distant planet Altair IV to find what became of the Bellerophon, a ship sent to explore the planet 20 years earlier. The Commander of the saucer is J.J. Adams (Nielsen), an all-American hero type, though the word “America” is never spoken. As the ship and crew near the surface, they are contacted via radio by Dr. Morbius, a member of the Bellerophon, who tells them that everything is fine and that they should not land. Adams is suspicious and has direct orders and so they resolve to land on the planet anyway. Altair IV is a colorful, rocky, desert-like planet with no visible signs of life. It is here when one of the first instances of 1950s thought permeated what is supposed to be a 23rd Century story. The saucer lands and the crew disembark wearing uniforms and hats. Today, knowing what we do about space travel, there’d be the obligatory scene of the crew in elaborate breathing apparatuses checking the planet for atmosphere and pressure and the like, but in 1956, it was just assumed that any planet would be habitable and thus Altair IV is.
The crew is met by a large robot that we later learn is called Robby. Robby acts as Dr. Morbius’ friend, butler, and all around loyal servant. The design of Robby is also indicative of Rocket Age robots, in that he has a lot of spinning and flashing pieces that look fantastic but don’t serve any purpose. It’s remarked that nothing as sophisticated as Robby exists on Earth, which again illicits a chuckle since even now we have robots that are more physically impressive, though none still have functional artificial intelligence. Robby takes Adams and two crewmen to meet Dr. Morbius, played by Walter Pidgeon. Morbius tells the men that some terrible, mysterious tragedy befell the Bellerophon’s people and only Morbius himself and his wife survived, though she died not long afterwards. Morbius has been living on Altair IV for the last 20 years with his daughter, Altaira, played by Anne Francis, who is now 19. Altaira’s appearance complicates things for both parties, since Morbius did not want her to meet the strangers and Adams is worried about how the crew of lonely men will react to such an attractive young girl. Both of their fears are justified as Altaira, book smart but ignorant to the ways of humans, kisses all the members of the crew, save Adams who scolds her for wearing such revealing outfits in front of the sex-starved men. Naturally, Adams and Altaira fall in love, it’s a 50s movie after all.
The most intriguing part of the film’s story comes at about the midpoint. Morbius is very cautious about the men being on the planet, both because he doesn’t want them to disrupt his pleasant life and because he’s worried the thing that killed his own crew might return, which of course it does. Several members of the crew begin to die mysteriously and Adams and Doc, the ship’s physician, decide Morbius must be somehow behind it. They go to interrogate Morbius and find a great deal of his research regarding scientific discoveries. Morbius returns and begrudgingly tells the men about the Krell. The Krell were the original inhabitants of Altair IV that had suddenly disappeared, leaving only their far superior machinery behind, which Morbius has been trying to understand every day for 20 years. Among the pieces of equipment is a device that can read a person’s thoughts and create a physical manifestation of it, though the Krell had infinitely higher cognitive capacity and any attempt by humans to use the device has ended in catastrophic failure, with the exception of Morbius who barely survived the procedure, but as a result doubled his intellectual abilities. Morbius then takes the time to show Adams and Doc a number of the other Krell inventions, each with a specific purpose.
It’s this scene, making up about fifteen minutes of the film’s 98 minute running time, which I find the most fascinating. The writers had the foresight to come up with strange alien inventions and explain in detail, via Dr. Morbius, how each of them worked, yet they didn’t think maybe the gravity would be any different on the planet or that it might be frozen solid. It never occurred to them, nor really should it; they were operating at a 1950s level of understanding but a 2250’s level of imagination. Scenes like this are what make sci-fi movies of the era so indelible. They entirely put wonder and discovery ahead of everything else, accentuating the “fi” much more than the “sci.”
Another wonderful aspect to Forbidden Planet is its score, or more accurately, its sound effects. This was the first movie that had its entire musical track performed by electronic instruments. Louis and Bebe Barron concocted tones and whistles that make up the omnipresent otherworldly sounds. They at once unsettle and entice us as the action unfolds. The influence of this type of scoring was felt on a number of science fiction movies and television shows that followed, not least of which including “Star Trek” and “Doctor Who.” The sounds today have become synonymous with the period and genre.
I also quickly want to mention the production design which was the uncredited work of Irving Block and Mentor Huebner. As was typical at the time, the entire film was shot in a studio, but there’s a richness to the sets and props that make them feel both authentic and archaic. There are also extensive matte paintings done of the Altairan landscape and the Krell laboratory which look like they came right out of Fritz Lang’s dreams.
More can be said, but I feel like it would dilute the impact of the film on a first time viewer, as I wouldn’t want to have the film spoiled for me by an overzealous reviewer. Needless to say, Forbidden Planet is a landmark in the science fiction genre and deserves all the acclaim it gets. While watching it, I wondered to myself why no one had attempted to remake it, given its imaginative story and characters, and was intrigued and then disheartened when I learned it is in the process of being remade with a current 2013 tentative release date. I hope that whoever does get around to remaking the film gets the mood and the heart of the original and not simply try to imbue it with state-of-the-art, hollow special effects to try to appease a jaded movie-going audience. Like a vision of the future, nothing dates faster than a movie made for a quick buck.
So come on, 2010 hasn’t been the best movie year. It’s not to say there haven’t been some great films – because there certainly have – it’s to say there haven’t been as many of them, and that some of the films that could have been great ended up being merely good or even sometimes very good. It’s been no 2004 or 2007 is all.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that 2010 may prove to be a very important year for films in terms of trending away from mega-blockbusters toward more moderately-priced films. I wouldn’t have expected this after the first quarter of 2010. Avatar was making money hand-over-fist, Shutter Island performed really well, and even the abysmally awful Alice in Wonderland managed to make a capital-B Billion dollars worldwide, ensuring that Tim Burton’s downward spiral would continue for a few more movies.
Then came summer and if you weren’t a sequel or Inception you under-performed (and some sequels did as well – neither Shrek nor Sex and the City fared nearly as well as their predecessors). Massive expenses like Prince of Persia, Robin Hood, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The A-Team, Knight & Day, and The Last Airbender each cost over $100 million to make. None of them made their money back domestically*. A few others cost around as much and barely broke even. But look at two surprise hits from the summer: The Karate Kid and Despicable Me, which cost $40 million and $69 million respectively. They were well-made, got solid reviews and did spectacular business.
Also keep in mind one of the year’s biggest films was another March release, How to Train Your Dragon, and cost a sizable $165 million. Its gross surprised people, but it shouldn’t, really. When you spend that kind of money (“Inception” money, that is) you expect at least $200 million domestically.
This summer surprised me. Now, none of the movies that bombed here in America was really even a bomb. They all made big profits worldwide. But the profits weren’t the kind their budgets usually make. The summer still led the box-office this year, but it didn’t dominate like usual. Neither did most of the late fall/winter releases. Megamind and Due Date were both profitable, but not abundantly so. Little Fockers is the least successful of its series, but it’s broken even, and Tron: Legacy looks like it will too (again, worldwide, it’s made some money…some). But look at The Tourist, Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gulliver’s Travels, and the unbelievably ill-fated How Do You Know? These movies were expected to bring in the money, but they haven’t. Harry Potter 7.1 is huge and good, as expected. Even the well-received Tangled has another $80 million to make up to break even domestically.
That’s the big studio side of the coin. Throwing money at a movie is yielding less of a return. Will this continue? I hope so. It may be inevitable that some really bad movies make a lot of money, but the scale is starting to tip. People may still be viewing these clunkers, but they’re waiting for DVD. Parents who’ve just taken the whole family to a $75 outing of Toy Story 3 take one look at The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and think, “That’s a Redbox rental.” There are so many movies each week with their eye on the lowest common denominator that even with the additional two-week delay to get a movie on Redbox, the cost-effectiveness is unquestionable.
None of this may interest you, though, since you, like me, didn’t have any interest in most of those big-budget summer clunkers anyway. Well, there’s more. We’re all familiar with the Sundance favorite; this year’s Little Miss Sunshine or Juno. But aside from those most indie films don’t make any sort of dent. The awards movies usually don’t see any sort of substantial return until after Oscar nominations are announced. That’s changing. Earlier this year, two female-directed films turned in substantial profits: Winter’s Bone, and The Kids Are All Right. Take a look at BoxOfficeMojo.com. True Grit, which is a remake that departs from the original, just crossed $100 million domestically. It cost $38 million to make. Look at Black Swan, and The Fighter, and The King’s Speech. All four of them are moderately-priced films with Awards buzz, yes, but they made their money before most nominations came out.
Look at the Oscar front-runner, The Social Network, another auteur film that cost $40 million to make and made $94 million here alone. This year’s films are proving that if you give good filmmakers a decent budget, the audience will find them. The profit will be substantial proportional to the budget, instead of negligible. And because of the promise of good performances and unique visions, people are going to see them in the theater.
Consider how many of those summer movies all seem to run together, visually. And what do they offer? Will they have better action than Iron Man 2? Will they more engaging than Toy Story 3? Will they be more mind-bending than Inception? Now look at the indie movies. Each one is distinct. A Western. A dark ballet. A boxing movie about brotherhood. Behind the scenes of the King of England. The origin of Facebook seen through legal depositions. Or how about a movie about a man trapped in Utah canyons? Or a father/daughter story where no one really talks? Or the story of another year in the life of an aging British couple.
Obviously, not all of the smaller, moderate and indie films will be as successful as The Social Network or True Grit, but consider that the pricetag for the combined TOTAL failure of Somewhere, Another Year, and 127 Hours would be $29 million dollars. If not one person saw any of the three of them. Call me crazy, but that’s a much smarter risk than Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore.*
My hope is that this year marks the first definitive year of a changing of the tide. Even as studios try to force-feed 3D to the public, even as they look to every videogame and in every crevice of Disney’s history for existing properties to shovel out into theaters, even as sequels and reboots fill the screens…with all of this going on, with all of this effort expended to sneak money out of people’s wallets, the growing number of viewing options is changing the game. Bigger movies have to try a lot harder than smaller movies, but as we all know budget doesn’t dictate quality. You notice that in advertisements, they have people watching a mega-blockbuster crap-fest on their iPhone or whatever tiny device it is? Partly, yes, it’s because the bigger movies have bigger advertising budgets and can pay to have themselves advertised there. But the only reason they need to do so is because more people aren’t seeing them in theaters and they have to think of every conceivable way to maximize profits. But probably the biggest reason it’s lousy movies is because it wouldn’t occur or appeal to a true film-lover to watch a good film on a screen smaller than a box of Dots.
*It is noted with extreme sadness and a possible onslaught of severe depression that even C&D2:TRoKG made a profit worldwide.
In this episode, Tyler and David contrast and compare dramatic and abstract films.
I'm continuing my attempt to catch up on the past year's "must-see" movies that I managed to not see, so there's no old movies or undiscovered gems here. Those will come later in the year but these posts will be fewer and further between then because television will have roared back to life and begun to dominate mine.
This one was a very pleasant surprise. As much as I had loved Anton Corbijn's previous feature, Control, I had failed to make The American a priority. What a shame. It's a thriller about a hitman but it's also unabashedly "arty," deliberate and precise and using stillness and a largely opaque protagonist to illustrate existential crisis. In other words, it's exactly what your mainstream movie-going friends think all art films are like.
It takes a real craftsman to make a film with such little inertia not only work but be compelling. The trick is to make the film that only looks like it has a lack of momentum from the outside. Once you're in it and you understand what the story is really about - a man deciding whether to come to terms with his sins or to keep running away from them - it's almost impossible not to get caught up in it.
The aforementioned craftsmanship is heavily on display but it is also reflected in the actions of the lead character. The meticulously pieced-together film is mirrored in the custom rifle the hitman spends most of the movie painstakingly perfecting. When he's finished, the gun balances on its fulcrum with no hands to hold it, an artisanal wonder in its own right, with no regards to its purpose. That's what Corbijn has built as well: a film that gets its thematic job done but can be left untouched and will still be beautiful years from now.
Directors Jay and Mark Duplass will forever be tied to mumblecore, a made-up word for a made-up film movement. But apart from their arthouse-slacker pedigree, they're also a seriously funny couple of guys. Mark Duplass, for example, is a part of the ensemble of FX's The League, a show which puts him up against Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer and rotating list of other alt-comedy/improv hot shot guest stars. So, he's got his bona fides, which are very much on display in Cyrus.
The Duplass' cast is populated with Apatow veterans John C. Reilly, Jonah Hill, Catherine Keener and Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Walsh, along with Marisa Tomei, who was in My Cousin Vinny, for Christ's sake. So any fear that this is going to be a whiny, emotional indie can and should be dashed by the end of the opening titles.
While Cyrus is ultimately a very slight film, it does manage, at times, to outdo the previously named reigning champ of film comedy. Judd Apatow has increasingly wandered into James L. Brooks territory and with a success rate closer to recent Brooks than classic Brooks. The mix of pathos with real comedy is hard to pull off without coming across as sappy and condescending. When Cyrus is hitting all its marks, it's devastatingly insightful about the ways we can be self-destructive when loneliness and desperation overpower common sense.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Let me first state that when I heard Zack Snyder was making an animated movie with the hilariously unwieldy title Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole, I immediately came to the conclusion that there would be nothing in it for me. Then I started to hear murmurs. Word started to trickle out that "It's actually not that bad" and that I would "be surprised."
To the people who told me those things: I don't know whether to hug you or offer you a knuckle sandwich.
Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole is a fucking stupid and terrible movie that I was excited to keep watching because it quickly became delightful to marvel at each new fold of craziness in the fabric of the film. People often jokingly wonder aloud after seeing an awful movie, "How did this get made?" But I honestly feel the need to ask that question here. How did a studio decide to pony up the dough for something this bizarre? This is the rare example of a film that likely could have benefited from a little more executive interference. Someone needed to step in and say, "People aren't gonna think it's cool when you show owls learning to be blacksmiths. People are, in fact, going to laugh at it."
That sequence, by the way, is set against an annoying piece of flat, pop music trash by a band called - and I am not kidding - Owl City. And that's far from the last piece of comedic treasure the film has to offer.
The characters in this movie (the owls, let's not forget) are almost constantly giving each other impassioned and heartfelt speeches about what's in their heart and how they should follow their heart. Except they don't use the word heart. They seriously say gizzard, repeatedly and with a straight owl-face. This doesn't become part of the tapestry but grows more and more laughably jarring with each usage (which is roughly every 90 seconds of screen time).
And it would be hard, in type, to adequately describe the flat-out most fucked up thing that occurs in Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole. Okay. In real life, owls eat a mouse or the like and then, after digesting the parts they need, regurgitate a sticky, wet and condensed pellet of fur and bones. This fact of owl life is perfectly natural and perfectly disgusting, certainly a detail you would leave out if you wanted to anthropomorphize a creature. Not only does Snyder stage the regurgitation of a pellet in detail, he does it using the most adorable baby owl in the whole film. And then everything gathers around the pellet, beaming proudly. And then pellets become, like, a freaking plot point.
I normally wouldn't recommend a film as bad as this to anyone but it really has to be seen to be believed.
This is the first full movie I've watched on Bluray since getting my player for Christmas and I'm tempted to write solely about the fact that John Hawkes' whiskers were practically in my living room with me and the glare of the sun off the hoods of pickup trucks lit up my whole apartment.
Instead, though, I'll just write about what a great movie Winter's Bone is. Like The American, it's an artfully diluted take on the thriller genre, this time filtered through the lens of director Debra Granik and cinematographer Michael McDonough's anti-travelogue of southwestern Missouri.
There's a startling attention to detail that not only wraps us up in the place but clues us in to the mindset and the way of life of the rural poor. There's detritus crowding every frame, piles of stuff that can't be let go of because you never know when you'll need it and you won't be able to afford another one if you do. Everything is worn, used, stained. The trucks, however, gleam like they just came off the lot.
This gathering of things toward you is also a metaphor for the way the citizens of these hills treat one another. These people are mine and those people are yours and everybody had better know their place. Just as in the Coen's recent True Grit, a life lived out on the edge of options leaves very little room for morality and sympathy. There is survival and then there is everything else.
Few places and few ways of life are a better setting for a noir detective story. Jennifer Lawrence, in her breathtaking portrayal of Ree, is hard-nosed, stubborn and committed to her search like the best gumshoes but with a need and a purpose that Marlowe and Spade had the luxury of investigating without. The stoic, creased and gruff men she contends with hide behind their beards the way urban noir underworld villains hide in the shadows. Ree is not pistol-whipped but beaten with a coffee mug that has likely resided in the same cupboard since someone's grandmother bought it decades ago.
Winter's Bone crackles with sharp and evocative dialogue. It creeps into your body with its danger and paranoia. It all slouches toward an ending that is neither happy nor sad but suggests that, like life among these ignored denizens of the beautiful inner America, things will simply go on, for better or worse.
There are so many things wrong with Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch, I literally don’t know how to start this article. Do I lead with the film’s thematic inconsistencies or do I opt to point out everything that’s artistically wrong with it? As I ponder this question, it occurs to me that I’m perhaps putting too much effort into this thing. Maybe I should take my cues from the phoned-in performance of Nicholas Cage and do only the absolute minimum, then put my efforts into things that matter more.
Ah, but then I wouldn’t be able to truly convey just how frustrating this film is.
Caution: Spoilers ahead!
Season of the Witch feels like a straight-to-DVD movie that somehow managed to get a Oscar-winning star attached. In doing so, the film immediately qualified for a theatrical release, but the studio seemed conflicted on where on the 2010 release schedule to put it. It certainly didn’t have the budget to compete with the usual summer blockbusters, nor did it have the artistic bona fides to be released in the fall. Originally scheduled for a March release, it quickly became clear that it would have been swallowed up by the Alice in Wonderland box office juggernaut. So, what to do? Nicholas Cage does not star in straight-to-DVD movies.
Finally, it became obvious what to do. Dump the film in early January 2011. There won’t be any competition from bigger budget films, and it might find an audience in those wanting a break from those depressing Oscar bait movies. Who knows? It could actually win the weekend before being immediately forgotten by audiences and critics alike.
I wouldn’t usually spend so much time talking about a film’s box office prospects, but I really want to stress just how much this film, by all standards, should never have been released in a theater. It just doesn’t feel right. The scale of the film, while not being particularly ambitious, is just a little too large for the obviously modest production budget.
The script has a specifically small screen feel to it, complete with a short running time, archetypical characters, and on-the-nose dialogue. The screenplay, however, is not wholly without ambition. The story of a crusading knight’s growing dissatisfaction with the church’s constant invocation of God in the midst of bloody massacres could be the stuff of well-funded, critic-approved films like Kingdom of Heaven or Agora. And the constant accusations of witchcraft brings the message to our own doorstep, where the Salem Witch Trials determined the tragic fate of countless young women.
The problem with the film’s damning commentary is that it doesn’t have the artistic conviction to carry it through. The primary story concerns a small group of men escorting an apparent witch to a monastery, where she is to stand trial for bringing plague to the land. Throughout the film, there is some nice ambiguity, as we ourselves doubt the evil of the accused young girl. She seems decent enough, causing most of the men to question the church's certainty of her supernatural abilities. Chief amongst the doubters is Nicholas Cage's character, whose loyalty to the church- both literally and philosophically- ended shortly after the slaughter of heathen women and children; as he is our protagonist, we take our cues from him. And, yet, she does seem surprisingly strong, and occasionally quite vicious. The "is she or isn't she" dynamic could have really been rewarding, if the filmmakers developed it further and continued it to the end.
Unfortunately, all ambiguity melts away by the end of the film, as the girl is revealed to, in fact, be possessed by a very powerful demon. Suddenly, the actions of the church in its rooting out of evil seems pretty rational. A bit overzealous, to be sure, but certainly warranted. After all, if there is a demon roaming the countryside, spreading a deadly plague everywhere it goes, one could say that any effort to kill said demon is justified. I'm reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis, in which he says, "the reason we do not execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did-if we really thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return and were using these powers to kill their neighbours or drive them mad or bring bad weather-, surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, then these filthy quislings did."
For the briefest of moments, I found myself tempted to think that perhaps the filmmakers were trying to use this story- a tale of the pursuit of a few truly evil people resulting in the killing of thousands- to make a commentary on modern "holy wars," such as the War on Terror. Then, upon looking back on the film's complete lack of subtlety, I realized that I was giving the writer and director far too much credit. This is not an allegory. It is, first and foremost, a period thriller, using words like "witch" and "demon" to capitalize on exotic supernatural imagery. A bit of social commentary is thrown in- perhaps to make the writer feel as though he is doing something important- but is soon smothered by the commercial instincts of the director.
Much has been made in the last few years of Nicholas Cage's questionable choices. I used to think that these objections may be unfounded. But, then, of course, I never took the time to watch any of the movies in question. As far as I was concerned, Cage followed up his brilliant performance(s) in Adaptation with his junkie cop in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and his Adam West-like sociopath in Kick-Ass. I had not seen Knowing or Next or Bangkok Dangerous or The Wicker Man.
But, now, I have seen Season of the Witch and I get it.
In this film, Nicholas Cage brings none of the charisma and life that he has to many of his best (and even some of his worst) roles. His delivery of the admittedly less-than-stellar dialogue betrays what I would suggest is a lack of faith in the material. He looks bored and, given the lack of dimensions of the character, I'd say he probably is bored. It is one thing to have opted to be in the film, but it is quite another to indicate your distaste for the role in your performance.
The supporting cast- lesser known though they may be- certainly does what they can to imbue their characters with something unique. Ron Perlman can always be counted on to, at the very least, have fun with any role, but, for me, the standout was Stephen Campbell Moore as the suspicious priest. As the church's official representative, we found ourselves immediately distrusting him, but Moore soon wins us over by refusing to judge the character. Though he is still given lines like, "We're going to need more holy water," his commitment is admirable.
I could go on, listing off the things that the film failed to do, but I won't. Because those are largely incidental. The most frustrating thing about Season of the Witch is that it actually had potential. In spite of a fairly low budget, it was directed by the man who made Swordfish and Gone in 60 Seconds; certainly not high art, but at least adequately made. It stars an actor whose commitment to making his characters distinct and interesting is his greatest talent. It has a very willing and eager supporting cast of actors clearly looking for the opportunity to turn in solid work. All in service of a story that could have been thrilling and suspenseful while also containing social commentary and satire.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. What could have been a modest thriller wound up being a forgettable collection of compromises. A supernatural shrug that should never have even been considered for a March release. Season of the Witch is, to its very core, the quintessential January movie.
Happy New Year, everybody!
I've never been one to make resolutions at this time of year but, ever since I jumped feet first into the corporate world about 22 months ago, I've done precious little writing. So I hereby resolve to be a contributor to this blog on a nearly regular basis from here on out (I know this is just an informal resolution but the proper paperwork has been submitted to the appropriate office and is awaiting approval).
The main method by which I'll be keeping my promise is by keeping a journal of sorts of the movies I watch, be they theatrical or home viewings. As our good friend Ryan Gallagher pointed out on Twitter (@ryangallagher), everyone else in the world is doing the same thing so my hope is that my asinine opinions will get drowned out in the mix.
I'm currently in my yearly process of watching all the important things I didn't get around to in the past year because I was too busy enjoying How I Met Your Mother, so these first four days of 2011 are pretty packed. Or packed, at least, for someone who is not a professional film critic and has a day job and a girlfriend and belongs to a gym (?) and has a margarita habit that's in first position, priority-wise. This is all in preparation for the best-of Tyler and I will do on the show toward the end of February.
So here's what you can expect: an update, at irregular intervals, consisting of my brief opinions on the films I've seen since the last update. This being the first such update, I'll use the 1st of the month as the starting point.
The Social Network
I'd missed this in the theater (due only partly to my tendency to strictly avoid movies that people keep telling me I have to see) and I had pretty much resigned myself to catching it on Bluray in the next couple weeks. So imagine my surprise when, on New Year's Day, I noticed that it was screening at the Sunset 5, which is a Laemmle theater. For those reading in other parts of the world, the Laemmle chain provides the kind of theaters where well-to-do liberals go to see self-congratulatory documentaries about environmentalism and films that have poster-board blowups of Manohla Dargis' glowing review outside the theater.
Of course, I'd heard great things about The Social Network and I've always been strongly attracted to Aaron Sorkin's brand of verbal peacocking. And the movie was directed by David Fincher, which was intriguing given that while he'd made some films I find to be pretty terrible (The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room), he also made one of the greatest American films of the past decade (Zodiac). So I was interested.
The Social Network is a fantastic thriller about intrigue on the cutting edge of the business world. It manages to make the writing of code breathlessly compelling because Fincher and Sorkin both are moving the film so quickly that you're left with little time to even attempt to understand the technical goings-on. You're left with simply the gist of what's going on in the creation of Facebook the website and only a little more than that in the creation of Facebook the company, which is fine, of course, because that's not what the movie is about.
The movie is about the rise of a new kind of person, the person who exists alongside his technology, who inhales and exhales along with the avatars he's created. Mark Zuckerberg and the hundreds of millions who use the tools he created to socialize have spent so much time crafting the virtual versions of themselves that they are all that's left in their own field of vision. And this has become not only acceptable but a perfectly practical way of getting along in the world. There has been and will be much discussion about whether these changes in social behavior are good or bad but Sorkin, for one, seems to have made his mind up about it and he doesn't approve.
The questions the film is interested in are whether Mark Zuckerberg is a good person or not and whether he is who he is because of Facebook or if Facebook is what it is because of him. He doesn't care about profit - usually a signifier of good in American films - but it's because he traffics in a different kind of currency, one that is less tangible than money but far more human.
Sorkin has chosen to be more nuanced than that (as opposed to his other mode, really really not nuanced). He suggests that the retreat into the virtual world has made Zuckerberg and his generation neither good nor bad but something approaching amoral. This is an arena in which David Fincher, with his cold palette and precise camera movement, is quite comfortable.
Given how much of the film rests on Fincher's distancing methods and Sorkin's towers of syntax, it's surprising and refreshing that the best sequence in the film is a rush of physicality, sweat, close-ups and sweeping music. The regatta scene is nearly blindsiding because we're suddenly seeing people actually doing things with their hands, and feeling them with their bodies and really, truly, visibly caring about them.
Perhaps this is what The Social Network is trying to tell us. That life is lived and experience gained by physical experience and not through the window of a screen with its deadening glow. That's old-fashioned, purist bullshit, of course, but it is remarkable that the film can make such a stodgy point while using the tools and aesthetics, the cadence and the lexicon, of the contemporary young world.
The Kids Are All Right
Lisa Cholodenko, in films such as High Art and Laurel Canyon, has long been a sharp observer and chronicler of the psychic life of the liberal, artsy fringe. She's delighted in settling into that battlefield in the outsider mind where their version of normalcy meets the understanding that they are not the norm.
The Kids Are All Right is Cholodenko's most successful film because it approaches these same types of characters from a different angle. It treats the ways that they are like everyone else as more important than the ways that they are different. I'm not talking just about the fact that the parents in this family are lesbians. I'm talking about the fact that they are West Coast, wine-drinking, composting, dedicated to political correctness lesbians. But they are parents and after that, they are also human.
The story concerns the introduction of the sperm donor, and therefore the biological "father," of the family's two children into the family unit. When he enters the picture, he sees that the conventional things he rejected long ago, either consciously or subconsciously, are actually desirable and, what's more, within the scope of his ability. It's in this middle, happy section of the film that Cholodenko reveals herself to understand not only the landscape of the mind but the abilities of the camera and the editing bay. These naturalistic scenes capture the life-affirming minutiae of this world. You can practically detect the aroma of flowers or the wind in the hair of a motorcycle passenger.
This isn't a happy-ending type of film, as you can problem guess based on the critics who have adored it, and this section of the story must end. The carefree exuberance, the feeling that a new life is beginning with endless possibilities, is revealed to be nothing more than a vacation, a summer at the beach. It is time for school to start again, for the daughter to go to college, time for the real family to close ranks again and get back to the business of being a team.
The donor has to learn that he was never more than that. Despite his biological ties to these children, a real family is forged in shared experience over a long time, strengthened by the survival of hardship and fiercely protective of itself. It is still within the scope of his ability to have a family, just not this one. He'll have to earn his as they earned theirs.
Where The Kids Are All Right made the latte liberals relatable, Tiny Furniture displays no inclination to do so at all. Lena Dunham drops you into the world that is hers because she knows no other and seemingly doesn't care to.
Dunham displays an affinity for blocking, framing and (oh, Christ) mise-en-scene. And she is a sure hand in writing and directing (and performing) understated comedy.
Perhaps the funniest line in the movie is when, during an argument with her mother that she feels passionately about but we, like the mother, are befuddled by, Dunham's Aura insists, "I'm having a really, really hard time." It is at least to the filmmaker's credit that she understands that, while this character no doubt is having a hard time with her petty and wholly common post-college tribulations, she is rich, white and talented and she's going to be just fine.
David O. Russell has never been comfortable simply telling a straightforward story but here he makes his most earnest effort yet. This experiment in conventionalism is mostly successful but occasionally lazy, as if Russell couldn't bring himself to condescend to telling a story he thinks we've seen before.
A shame, really, because everyone else is absolutely giving their all here. Christian Bale and Amy Adams provide us with new reminders of why they're both well-respected actors and big movie stars. And it's remarkable that, though the movie is set in 1993, I didn't think about the Funky Bunch once.
But it's Russell who lets them down, especially when it comes to establishing motivations for character. Why does Charlene dig Micky so much? Why did Dicky start using crack? Why the hell do Alice and George stay together?
It's not until the big set-pieces (in terms of both action and emotion) that Russell himself even seems motivated. He and his camera are energized by Bale's virtuoso monologues and tics. He colors the boxing matches to look like the video stock of the time, making them captivating in their garishness.
The final fight and its aftermath are great scenes, worthy of the modern-day Rocky this movie sometimes wants to be. It's too bad the journey there doesn't make it worth it.
And Everything Is Going Fine
In 1996, Steven Soderbergh made a film of Spalding Gray's Gray's Anatomy. This one deals with Gray's eyesight problem but, like all his performance pieces over the years, it is really just a long monologue, well-delivered, about the world as experienced by Spalding Gray.
For as unvarnished as these performances seem to be, they're really just a projection, the Gray that Gray wants us to see. As we see him say in Soderbergh's new documentary, "I like telling the story of life better than living it."
There is no narrator in And Everything Is Going Fine, save for Gray himself, who died of an apparent suicide in 2004. The film is presented to us entirely in the form of pre-existing video recordings (of monologues, of interviews, of Gray at home with his kids or his father). It's the video part that Soderbergh never lets us forget. The documentary varies, minute to minute, from high-quality performance footage to glitchy, washed out old tapes. We are constantly reminded of the medium and of the fact that we are not watching the real Spalding Gray but the version of himself he curated for us.
It's helpful to know how Gray died but I wonder, if I didn't know, how would I feel at the end of this project? Probably like I'd just read a short, melancholy novel. The character's hardships and flaws were vivid while I was reading it but once the book is closed, he never really existed.
Almost every year, at least one historical drama is released with Oscar dreams. This year, that film is The King's Speech. The film follows the new and reluctant King George VI as he struggles with his severe stammer during the outbreak of World War II. The plot may sound both dull, as well as a strange story on which to base a film. However, it is certainly neither of those. The director, Tom Hooper, doesn't need or attempt to heighten emotions or tensions. Instead, he finds the tension that is naturally in this story. That being said, once the film was finished it didn't seem to leave any significant mark on me. Leaving the warmth of the cinema, I felt the same as I had when I entered.
As much as I believe this is a great film, expressing how I feel is difficult. The film is technically perfect, with fantastic cinematography and direction. The acting is outstanding, with Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush giving possibly their best performances ever. With all this, the film should be one of my favourites of the year, but it is not.
While I certainly didn't come out of the film feeling nothing, I didn't leave the cinema feeling much. This is something I didn't expect, as even the trailer managed to get an emotional reaction out of me. The subject matter alone, one which I can personally relate with as I suffered from a stutter as a child, should have been enough to make me feel strongly for the film.
It is a strange feeling, seeing a film which technically has so much going for it, yet was unable to evoke a strong emotional reaction. Although I feel that I need to explain why I didn't love this film, to ignore the positives of this film would be an utter mistake.
A film such as this would be nothing without strong leading performances. Luckily for the film as well as the audience, the film has several strong performances. Colin Firth, an actor I have never been a fan of, delivers one of the strongest performances of 2010. He does not simply mimic King George, as he makes this man living so far removed from our lives into someone entirely sympathetic and human. Geoffrey Rush, playing the King's Australian speech therapist, elevates what could simply be a quirky, unorthodox instructor and turns him into the one of the most interesting parts in the film.
Tom Hooper, no stranger to period drama as he worked on HBO's John Adams, creates an astonishingly realistic depiction of pre-war England. While not revolutionizing the period drama, or even offering anything too fresh, it is Hooper's exquisite framing of shots that amazed me most. Often with films such as this one, a director is attracted to showing off with cinematography and style, however, Hooper is restrained yet extremely confident.
Far and away the most compelling moments of the film occur between the King and his therapist, as their mismatched friendship grows and the King's stammer begins to improve. The film leads up to one very important speech, in which it is announced that England is at war. While never filmed like one, the speech scene feels almost like a suspense film. As the King delivers his speech, you are left on edge. Each sentence, each word, each pause is another chance for him to slip and it is nerve racking.
Tom Hooper's The King's Speech is no doubt one of the technical achievements of the year, with the fantastic performances, witty writing and beautiful direction, it is not hard to recommend. The further I get into this review of the film, the more I find myself liking it. That being said, it was never a question of whether or not it was a good film, but rather why it didn't leave a mark on me.
In 1966, the Best Picture winner at the Oscars was Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, Sergio Leone turned out the pinnacle of Spaghetti Westerns, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Jean-Luc Godard made the French New Wave love story Masculine and Feminine, and Ingmar Bergman released his haunting, unsettling Persona. Four very different films from four very different filmmakers, and yet their influence, along with a truckload of others, can be felt in another film from the same year: Seijun Suzuki’s surrealist gangster picture Tokyo Drifter. The film is a hodgepodge of genres, filming techniques, and tone, all while utilizing a very straight-forward crime script.
The opening black and white sequence depicts a single man, Tetsu we’ll find out, dressed all in white walking toward camera through a vacant train yard. It’s a very wide shot and his surroundings engulf him. A song played on the trumpet, which we’ll hear a great deal more of, accompanies his walk and immediately evokes thoughts of Ennio Morricone’s scores to countless Italian Westerns. Tetsu is soon confronted by a man in a dark suit who asks him whether it’s true he’s given up his life of crime. Tetsu replies that he has indeed gone straight at the behest of his boss, the aging Kurata. In order to prove this, the dark-suited man drags Tetsu over to a larger group of men in similarly dark suits who proceed to beat the living tar out of Tetsu. Tetsu refuses to fight back, claiming his duty to his boss prevents him from doing so. From a nearby automobile, a man in dark sunglasses, the crime lord Otsuka, tells his lackey that despite Tetsu’s perceived docility, he has seen the man destroy whole hordes of enemies. As he says this, a brilliant, Technicolor flash fills the screen as we see Tetsu indeed demolishing a group of men in full color against a flat black background. Already this film has employed a number of interesting film techniques one might not expect from a mid-60s Japanese crime film.
The rest of the film is no different in that it’s very different. The story continues with Otsuka and his evil henchmen trying to screw over Kurata and kill Tetsu. You see, Tetsu, even when he’s not fighting, is still the most dangerous man in Tokyo. Tetsu also has a girlfriend, the lovely Chiharu, a singer in a local nightclub, whom Otsuka wants for his own. Tetsu eventually must leave Tokyo to keep his surrogate father safe and wanders various parts of Japan trying, usually in vain, to stay out of trouble. He becomes “the drifter from Tokyo,” which he then sings about anytime there’s a quiet moment. Not only does the lead character break into song several times during the film, but the other characters seem also to be able to hear the orchestral swell that accompanies it. The song becomes Tetsu’s calling card. Various times in the film, Tetsu is confronted by a gang member who is sure he’s killed him, but each time Tetsu “The Phoenix” begins singing his signature song before appearing again and beating his rival.
Suzuki employs various jump-cuts during the film, some so jarring it causes one to immediately assume the DVD skipped. It’s almost always used as a joke, though. On one occasion, Tetsu is being pursued by Tatsuzo “The Viper,” and they end up on train tracks. The Viper points his gun at Tetsu while a train barrels toward them from behind the hero. There are numerous cuts to build tension as the train comes ever-closer. Finally, at the last possible moment, Tetsu dives forward, takes out his gun, and fires which is followed by a harsh cut to Tetsu walking calmly away in a completely quiet surrounding. It’s not until later that we see Tatsuzo again, his hand shot up and his face badly scarred. It’s little touches like this that make Tokyo Drifter so engaging and intriguing.
Seijun Suzuki is renowned in the field for his action choreography and it comes to the forefront in this film. There are many fights in the film and no two are filmed or set up the same way. An early fight scene is shot almost entirely in medium-to-wide shots, very static and sterile, while a later fight, a huge brawl in a mod-retro Wild West saloon, is covered using long, panning cranes and zooms. The final battle, in the night club, is one of the most stylized fights ever filmed. In it, Tetsu returns to Tokyo to confront his foes. He is again wearing the all-white suit from the beginning of the film. The main nightclub room is expansive but dark, with only two spotlights. When Tetsu enters, the lights immediately change and stark reds hit various statues while the characters fling themselves behind objects as cover from the gunfire. With each henchmen shot, the light in the club gets ever brighter, until finally, the enormous room is visible and seen to be just as white as the character’s clothes. It’s this kind of surrealism that sets Suzuki among the most innovative and underappreciated directors of the time.
Seijun Suzuki made a host of other surreal crime films in the ‘60s and they are all worth a look, but none is as visually striking or off-the-wall as Tokyo Drifter, which manages to pack all of those styles and genres into only 82 minutes. It’s also pretty clear within the first few minutes of the film that it had a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, for good or ill, and for that alone it deserves to be better remembered. It’s so important in fact that the Criterion Collection has seen fit to release it and a few other Suzuki titles in its esteemed line. So go watch it already, will ya?
In this episode, Tyler and David discuss movies in which sadness is a major theme.
It is difficult to take a critical look at Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. This is not due to its quality, but rather due to what it is attempting. The film is melodramatic, obvious and even slightly ridiculous. It is also beautiful, masterfully directed and nearly perfect. Aronofsky is not a subtle director. This is not a flaw; it is a choice. His films are about limits, both in terms of character, but also in terms of filmmaking. His work will often push both his characters as well as his audience to their limits. Black Swan is one of those films, and with lack of a better term, I will have to use the cliched but appropriate phrase, it is pure cinema.
Black Swan tells the story of the aging ballerina Nina, played by Natalie Portman, as she prepares for her first starring role in Swan Lake. To get into more detail about the story of the film would be pointless as the story is very simple, allowing the emotions and imagery to be the main focus. The story mirrors very loosely the ballet, Swan Lake, in which Nina stars. This device, as well as elements of the plot, borrows heavily from the classic ballet film The Red Shoes, in which a ballerina cracks under immense pressure.
Many feel that Aronofsky failed with his third film, The Fountain, as he attempted something on too grand a scale. He seems to have taken this to heart in his next film, The Wrestler, where he pulled back, creating a gritty, realistic character study. Featuring the realistic aesthetics of The Wrestler and the exaggerated emotions and filmmaking of The Fountain, Black Swan appears to be a combination of the two films' separate sensibilities. This marriage may seem awkward, but it is an absolutely perfect match for this specific story.
As Nina begins to lose her grip on reality- due to the pressure put on her by both her overbearing mother and her coach- the filmmaking begins to intensify. It takes its cues from the emotional traits of a ballet in which everything is exaggerated. People often call the film obvious and melodramatic. To me, this isn't a bad thing. Not every film must be subtle and this film basks in melodramatic qualities. Aronofsky has always been considered a great filmmaker and, with Black Swan, he proves himself a true auteur.
Nearly every creative decision behind the technical aspects are noteworthy, from the outstanding score by Clint Mansell to the cinematography. The film, shot by Aronofsky's long time collaborator Matthew Libatique, is both gritty and stunning. Libatique and Aronofsky use several simple tricks to incredible effect, such as shooting on Super 16mm and an almost constant use of handheld. Just simple decisions like these do so much to pull the audience into the film, making it seem all the more real. This realism makes the scenes when Nina begins to lose her grip with reality all the more disturbing.
Of course, the technical aspects would be nothing without a captivating leading performance, and Portman delivers just that. She is both utterly innocent and, at the same time. It feels as if she could strike out at any moment. It is a transformation from the virginal white swan to the dangerous, tempting black swan that appears both in the film's reality as well as in the ballet.
Similar to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, Black Swan is a horror film which moves past the genre's familiarity and delivers something truly fresh and challenging. Aronofsky was not attempting to say anything of importance with this film, instead, he perfectly crafted a disturbing, challenging and unique horror film.
In this episode, Tyler and David discuss what makes for a good action hero.
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