Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The King's Speech (dir. Tom Hooper)

I want it to be known up front that I really did expect to like this. I have nothing against feel-good Oscar bait movies. I have nothing against any "type" of movie. But I cannot abide bad filmmaking, and if you're going to abandon the concept of making directorial choices, you'd better have something else up your sleeve.

And to be fair, The King's Speech has quite a bit up its sleeve, most notably two rather fine leading performances in Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush. Both have received considerable attention as Oscar contenders, which is deserved in a sort of "well, they don't NOT deserve it" kinds of way, and these things being so predictable, it's difficult to imagine either of them being left out at this stage of the game. Firth plays King George VI, who, upon a sudden ascendence to the throne, redoubles his effort to rid himself of a lifelong struggle with his stammer, an affliction that manifests less like Porky Pig and more like a panic attack. Rush plays his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. And again, they're both good in their roles without ever quite teetering into greatness.

Firth's technical mastery of the stammer is commendable, and he has one scene to get at the soul of King George (or "Bertie," as he's know to those closest to him) in which he completely delivers, but this is far from his magnificent turn in last year's A Single Man. Rush is given the fun work as the unorthodox, learned-it-on-the-streets speech therapist who gets to break down all the pomp and circumstance surrounding Bertie, and bring him down to merely a man. This type - the man on the streets who shatters the illusion of class superiority - is always a crowd favorite, and Rush plays it with relish. But aside from being a delight in most of these scenes, Rush isn't given much to work with, so any talk of the Oscar will inevitably feel overblown even though he is quite good given the circumstances.

The screenplay, by David Seidler, more or less navigates tricky grounds well. The dialogue is satisfactory and Seidler makes some strong choices in setting up his characters (contrasting Bertie's inability to deliver a speech with his able willingness to tell his children a bedtime story is a particularly canny move). The film covers a fifteen-year span, and like most films saddled with this task, nobody has any idea how to treat the passage of time. Bertie never changes a bit, and the weight of time is never felt - the whole affair could have lasted a few weeks with some changed title cards and anyone who doesn't know their history would be none the wiser.

Granted, nobody in this set-up is well served by director Tom Hooper, who last year delivered fairly solid, if a little excitable, work in The Damned United, but here is completely lost. Aside from obviously being quite good with actors (nobody else has been able to unleash Michael Sheen as well as Hooper did in the aforementioned film), Hooper displays none of the talents one would hope to find in a director. His camerawork and lens choices are big and obvious and glaring. In a film suited to subtlety (Bertie's entire struggle hinges on projecting an image suitable to a king), Hooper uses fish-eye lenses to either increase the size of his rooms or show Bertie in a fishbowl - none are particularly informative or evocative. He rarely employs a two-shot in a film about the relationship between two men, has no method to motivate his blocking in shot/reverse-shot conversation pieces, cuts away from actors during key moments of expression, and, as previously mentioned, is completely incapable of expressing the passage of time. All without purpose.

Again...I really, really expected to like it, and I kept cutting it breaks on my way out of the theater. It's been three days since I saw it, and I've run out of excuses for it. It's not a terrible film; it's bolstered by two fine lead performances and a slew of engaging supporting ones (Guy Pearce and Michael Gambon, most notably). But it doesn't bring anything new to the table, and too often detracts from its best elements.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Fighter (dir. David O. Russell)

In modern American drama, "ensemble" has come to mean any film featuring a large-ish cast. But true ensemble work is tougher to come by. It's not simply a matter of one main character who interacts with a lot of well-written characters played by famous people (Shutter Island is a good example of this). An ensemble will be given opportunity to interact amongst each other, and we as an audience will have the opportunity to show how these relationships intersect and ripple out to affect all of the others.

If for that, and nothing else, The Fighter is a remarkable film. The trouble comes with how they must have arrived at this method. The film tells the based-on-a-true story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a boxer from the working-class neighborhood of Lowell, MA (is there any other kind of neighborhood in cinematic Boston?) who struggles between the demands of his family and what's best for his career. The film benefits tremendously from giving just as much screen time to Micky's brother Dicky (Christian Bale), mom Alice (Melissa Leo), and girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams), with plenty of support from other key players. One of the reasons cinephiles and old people tend to say "they don't make 'em like they used to" is that it used to be quite common to have a fully-formed supporting cast stocked with great actors delivering solid work in very small parts. Now, too often, those parts are shrugged off by everyone involved, but not here.

Much has been written, and a few awards already given out, to praise Bale's performance, which is more than earned. After making his name with a sort of eccentric intensity in films like American Psycho, The Machinist, Harsh Times, and The Prestige, Bale has been floundering in the wake of his star-making role in Batman Begins, delivering surprisingly bland performances in The Dark Knight, 3:10 to Yuma, and Public Enemies. Many of us wondered if Bale, like Johnny Depp, had simply abandoned all pretense and started acting simply to work. His performance here doesn't just suggest otherwise - it demands it, and is among his finest.

The rest of the cast follows Bale's lead far more than Wahlberg's, and is better for it. Everyone is a little heightened here (Melissa Leo is especially having the scenery for lunch), sometimes to the point of all-out comedy, and one of Russell's greatest strengths as a director lies in this. Whereas comedy in most dramas often comes off as insincere attempts at levity, Russell has shown a clear understanding of how the two interact in our daily lives. And he doesn't do it (merely) through clever one-liners and insults, but rather through reveling in the occasional absurdity of existence, which never undercuts the dramatic impact but in some ways heightens it.

Wahlberg, unfortunately, fares worst of all, and in most films in the underdog sports story, this would sink the film. If not for Russell and company's decision to turn this into an ensemble piece, it absolutely would have. He's always been an uneven actor, much better in supporting roles than leading ones (Boogie Nights aside), but has typically benefitted when working with great directors. And Russell is one of the guys who really tapped into his potential in the past, with Three Kings and I Heart Huckabess, but neither of them could make it work here. Micky's role in the story is largely a passive one. He's the boxer in question, so you can't really write him out, but he's not a terribly active participant in his own life. There's nothing wrong with a passive protagonist, but you need an actor capable of subtlety, and Wahlberg just doesn't have that in him. His Micky is very one-note; mopey without plumbing depression or stagnation. He's not actively bad - the film never gives him the chance to be - but he's simply not present.

But again, this would only sink a lesser film, and it's a fairly stunning achievement when you can make a film this great without a good lead performance. Russell's direction is as exciting as ever, and his opening credit sequence that introduces us to the main players and their Lowell setting is one of the best of the year. It cannot be overstated how exceptional the cast is. Melissa Leo and Amy Adams are playing completely outside of what we've come to expect from them, and when that's done this well, it makes for an exciting watch. Everyone else is completely in tune to the rhythm of each scene, the way each moment has to resonate, and their character's place in this world. Russell plays these people like instruments in a way few directors really can.

It's also genuinely exciting, "inspirational," one might say. Wahlberg said that they tried to go the extra mile in making the boxing realistic, and I don't know much about that, but you can feel those punches from the cheap seats. If Wahlberg doesn't sell Micky's victory in the streets, he completely sells it in the ring. My girlfriend, who saw it the day after I did, confirmed that I wasn't the only one who wanted to literally burst into applause at the end.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Don't Get Caught Out in the Brain

Meant to tell you all about this a few weeks ago - y'know, when I actually saw the damn thing - but like many other things, it sort of fell out of my head. But every now and again you have to go out of your way just to give a simple, unpolished movie recommendation. Because sometimes, yes Virginia, great films escape us.

I'm talking of course (what else could it be?) about William Conrad's outstanding 1965 film Brainstorm. Conrad was not a prolific man, having directed only two other films (both of which came out in 1965, so I guess he was prolific for a second there) and various television shows, none of which I've seen. But I know the work of a master when I see it, and Brainstorm has the goods. The acting can be a bit of a wash (although Dana Andrews is pretty great playing against type), but the cinema? He's pulling moves here that Resnais made his name on a few years earlier in Last Year at Marienbad, somehow without ever feeling derivative. His shots evoke everything he'd need to tell his story and still pack a punch. His transitions in the second act are playfully elegant in a way you usually only see in movies that have a bit of a dreamlike edge to them, which in turn makes this film seem a little unreal (but black and white movies always seem that way, at least a little bit, don't they?).

I heard about this film via the always wonderful Criterion Cast, where guest Jett Loe of the equally delightful podcast The Film Talk put it in with such greats as The Night of the Hunter, which is no small praise to me. But what do you know, the film is nearly that great. Not exactly the visionary, singular work that film is, but Conrad possesses the same engrained understanding of what the medium is capable of. In the everlasting, "which is more important, form or content?" debate, the content side tends to say that formally impressive films that lack in the story department tend to feel a bit hollow. Brainstorm is the perfect argument to the contrary, in that it tells the same story as the script, only better.

Brainstorm is available via the Warner Archive Collection, which makes it a bit tough for a mere rent (here in Portland we benefit ceaselessly from Movie Madness), but if you have the money to buy it blind, you could do a lot worse.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Next Three Days (dir. Paul Haggis)

It would seem movie fans in the house are so terrified of being fooled twice that they remain unwilling to give Paul Haggis another chance. Crash was one of those movies that we've tried to wipe from our memories, for any number of reasons (not the least of which is that it is the blackest spot on the Academy's record in a decade in which they also awarded Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind the title of Best Picture of the Year), that we've completely buried our own feelings towards the film itself. It's become a thing beyond itself, which is not uncommon when a film is discussed far beyond the proportion of what it brings to the table. But there are some things Haggis does right with Crash, most notably in his use of tension. Now, sometimes it would be thoughtless misdirection, as in his introduction of blank rounds in a gun, but there's that scene in which Matt Dillon has to rescue Thandie Newton from a burning car that is really, truly gripping.

The Next Three Days is that sequence over the course of a motion picture, and it would seem that when Haggis needs to just buckle down a tell a damn story, he's more than capable of doing so. He just doesn't trust himself all the way (but we'll get to that later). Russell Crowe plays John Brennan, a literature professor whose wife, Lara (Elizabeth Banks), is sent to jail, convicted of murder. Having exhausted all legal channels of getting her free, he decides to break her out. The problem is, he's not a criminal. Doesn't know how to be a criminal. The best sequences of the early part of this film show just how unfit he is to be a criminal. After narrowly avoiding the consequences of a relatively smaller crime, he immediately vomits. Early on, he seeks the help of an escape expert (Liam Neeson), who outlines the kind of man he'll have to become and the stakes he'll be up against, and we can tell already that John is most certainly not that man. The film's great weakness is not holding him to the standard Neeson's character sets, but it manages to have enough fun on the way that it's not totally damaging.

Most of the film follows John making his way through the criminal underworld to acquire the skills and resources he'll need as the big day rapidly approaches, and Haggis pulls some moves here that puts this square in the classic no-holds-barred, one man against the world kind of film. But the real show-stopper is the actual escape, where Haggis pulls out all the stops. With one line - "Do I look like I'm going home?" - Haggis and Crowe perfectly establish the real stakes of this mission and John's determination to see it through. A series of near-misses, to-the-second timing, and lucky breaks are what the man-on-the-run movie is all about, and while Haggis is no Phillip Noyce in this regard (action nerds should've paid more mind to Salt earlier this year), he's also set up more sympathetic characters, which goes a long way when that damn elevator just won't close.

And then as quickly as he's gained our support, Haggis is just as capable of throwing it away. If you don't want to know where it all ends up, just know that, much like in Crash, though Haggis introduces the idea of a complex morality, he'll let you rest easy by the end. Consider this the ever-popular spoiler warning for the rest of the post. Up until the last five or ten minutes, we've had little reason to believe that John's doing the right thing. He is literally the only person, including his attorney, who believes with any certainty that Lara is innocent. The evidence, indeed, is quite stunning. Lara herself even says outright that John is wrong to assume her innocence, though the conversation is heated enough that there's just the right level of doubt. So for the most part, we're watching John break the law setting a murderer free, and honestly, this is the level on which the film is the most compelling - either John is in complete denial of the evidence at hand, or he just doesn't care and wants to be with his wife at whatever the cost. And this, alone, is interesting stuff.

But then this damn scene comes up that completely proves to us, the audience, that Lara is innocent. None of the other characters ever find out - it just comes down to a shot that tells us, the coddled audience, "Don't worry, nobody is doing anything morally wrong. Everything John does is, in the end, righteous!" While I'm not categorically against this kind of simple morality (I'm a big fan of Superman, for crying out loud), that isn't this movie. This is a movie in which everything should be called into question, every step of the way. We have to be allowed to process these sorts of situations ourselves, not told there's an out. If Lara's innocence is important to the film, then it should be established immediately instead of given the twist-ending treatment. Otherwise, it's something only being used as a gimmick, and bears no thematic resonance. It's a dispiriting end to an otherwise very engaging thriller.

127 Hours (dir. Danny Boyle)

I suppose it would have been too much to expect Danny Boyle (director of Trainspotting, Sunshine, and Slumdog Millionaire), of all people, to allow the camera to just simply observe Aron Ralston's near-death experience trapped under a boulder for five days that culminated with him severing his own arm to survive. But in an effort to satiate an imagined audience member who couldn't bear the thought of an entire film taking place in one location, Boyle has gone way too far with his approach. There's nothing wrong with portraying Ralston's circumstance from his point of view, examining the memories, thoughts, sounds, and fears as they play out in his head, but there comes a point a which Boyle goes beyond the line here and starts to deny us the reality of Aron's situation. The result is a surprisingly likeable, but very problematic film.

What purpose, for example, do the shots showing the workings of Aron's camcorder serve? What of three angles on a faucet splayed across the screen in panels, like a comic book? What does the freight train of music, especially towards the end, tell us? At the climactic moment, in which Aron has to cut off his own arm to escape (spoiler alert, in case you didn't know why the movie exists), why so much with the action-movie score? Danny Boyle's entire approach to filmmaking has often been a propulsive one, often denying the audience a chance to come to their own conclusion about his characters' actions, but here he sacrifices the very meaning of his film, using montages and music to convey what he should, with the many, many tools at his disposal, be able to use the cinema for. Temperatures in the desert can vary wildly, from scorching summertime at noon to a bitter winter at night - in order to convey this, Boyle puts a thermostat onscreen and watches the numbers count down. When Boyle (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Beaufoy) needs Aron to come to a conclusion about himself or his circumstances, he has him say it out loud.

No doubt, when trapped in one place for any extended period of time (increasingly for my generation, about an hour will do), one's mind will tend to wander, and for the most part Boyle's free-associative editing style proves an effective way to convey the film's take-home message: That Aron would be a better person if he'd just be willing to let someone in. It's the kind of reductive approach to an extreme encounter with nature that nearly crippled Sean Penn's excellent Into the Wild in 2007, though 127 Hours fares a little worse. On a basic level, yes, Aron probably wouldn't have been left to die if he'd just told somebody where he was ahead of time, but I'm not sure the film is as successful at convincing us that Aron would be a happier person if he was in a relationship of any sort (it's telling that the film tries to link this epiphany to Aron meeting the woman who would become his wife...three years later).

And yet it is a compulsively watchable film, which is higher praise than it sounds. There's an old adage, coined by Robert Warshow, that goes "A man watches a movie, and the critic must acknowledge that he is that man." Warshow was reconciling his love of Humphrey Bogart movies with the knowledge that they aren't exactly high art (most of the time), and here I call attention to it to say that, yes, I liked 127 Hours as far as it went. It seems strange to call it a piece of entertainment, but that is basically the level it worked on (though not nearly as assured or as brave as Rodrigo Cortés' Buried, also about a man trapped in a confined space). It is a movie made to be watched, though not digested. It features a very fine performance from James Franco, well deserving of the Oscar nomination that will hopefully come his way. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous (as one would expect when Anthony Dod Mantle's name is attached to that department), giving you the best view of the Utah landscape next to seeing it for yourself, and the editing razor-sharp. But in thinking about it over the last week and change, it just doesn't hold up. Its reach is beyond its grasp - its themes do not land conclusively, and as a study of survival (mental, physical, or spiritual), it's cursory at best.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Knight and Blu-Ray

They're as surprised as you are to see a new post. Between an insane and ever-shifting work schedule, a broken car, and Christmas activities, this week was out of control. Halfway through a 127 Hours piece among, hopefully, others. Do stay tuned.

But for now, my review of the new Knight and Day Blu-Ray is up at Shadowlocked.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Ruins

Dismayed because another inconsiderate cuss told you the ending of a new movie you've yet to see? Don't worry, there's hope for you yet! I outline Why I Don't Fear Spoilers (And Neither Should You) over at Megazine Media.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

High-Def Thundersmurfs

Alias, the reason I haven't written anything else in the last week. My review of the Avatar Extended Cut 3-Disc Blu-Ray Extravaganza is now live at Shadowlocked. Seriously, this thing is STACKED.

Monday, November 15, 2010

RED (dir. Robert Schwentke)

Where does this go wrong, exactly? You have Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, and John Malkovich all shooting guns. You have Richard Dreyfus, Brian Cox, and Ernest Borgnine showing up quite often. AND Mary-Louise Parker?

I mean, once you land those people, you think you'd want to punch up the script just out of one's civic duty.

But RED is a drag, through and through. Light on action, light on character, light on dialogue, there's really nothing happening here. I don't mean there's nothing happening like how there's nothing happening in Gerry, Gus Van Sant's movie about two guys walking around in the desert, I mean that in spite of all the plot and characters ostensibly doing things, there's no life in this film at all.

Bruce Willis stars as Frank Moses, a retired CIA agent living for little more than his regular talks with a woman (Mary-Louise Parker) who answers the help line for his pension checks, which he habitually rips up. One day, some black ops fellas come crashing into his house and, in a rather non-stealthy manner, completely destroy his house via thousands of rounds of ammunition. This convinces Frank to seek help from his old CIA buddies, who just happen to be the exact people who were there, "on that fateful day" that will become the center of much of the conflict. Oh, and he'd better grab that lady at the pension office, because she's in danger, too. Because he talked to her.

If leaps in logic were RED's only fault, I'd forgive it without a second thought. But nobody in the cast here is really "on" (although Helen Mirren and Brian Cox are kind of delightful together), least of all Willis, who's tuned out even by Willis standards. Louise-Parker is trying her darnedest, even if most of her role revolves around having boobs. But there's just so little to this film. There's no punch, no drive, no zing. When action-comedy is done right (and I will point out once again that Knight and Day did this SO well earlier this year), there's a feeling of walking on air, a delightful sort of hum and a near-constant feeling of ecstasy. Because even when the cars aren't racing and the bullets have stopped firing, the characters will keep you entertained.

I looked at my watch with a half-hour left in the picture and wanted to die. Slogging through those last thirty minutes was agony, and I haven't so completely wanted to remove myself from a film since Alice in Wonderland. There is nothing entertaining about RED. That shot of Bruce Willis exiting the cop car is pretty cool, but that's like...two seconds? And that's the only good action beat. All of the other action scenes are completely lifeless. There is neither the dance of combat nor the visceral thrill. Just a lot of people shooting at each other from across the room.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

2010: The Yet Another Year of the Misunderstood Movie

Whether we film snobs like to admit it or not, a film's legacy is mostly written on opening weekend. The box office scores are in, so we can see if the film is even something anybody wanted to see. Then reviews, Twitter, Facebook updates, and good ol' talk-around-the-water-cooler indicates the extent to which people saw something special there. Most of the time they didn't. On a few rare occasions they love it. And a few times every year, a film comes along that nobody seems to get - critics, audiences, even the studio itself. Nobody, that is, except for the few who will fight the battle for that film until the day they die. Or, y'know, until everyone else sees what they see. These are the misunderstood movies of that year.

Bill Gibron at PopMatters is trying to argue that this is a phenomenon unique to this year, one that will be remembered as an integral part of the cinematic landscape when we look back on 2010:
Of course, we are talking about middling hit Kick-Ass, the measureable [sic] flops Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Let Me In, and the Merchant/Ivory makeover known as Never Let Me Go. In each case, high expectations were met with limited interest - and it's a shame. All four are excellent examples of the artform, each pushing boundaries and established genre types while still maintaining a perceivable level of inherent quality. A couple were critical darlings. The others were definitely lost in the always deadly "love it or loathe it" dichotomy. But the end result was the same - movies that should have made an impact, that should have stood side by side with other breakthrough titles and argued for their aesthetic merits instead, became question marks, cautionary examples requiring second guessing and analytical conjecture.
I don't exactly agree with his estimation of all these films - Kick-Ass is fine and all, but its lasting legacy will matter only to superhero geeks like myself, and I haven't seen Let Me In - but he's more or less correct in noting they are under-appreciated when stacked against what has qualified as important filmmaking this year (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Never Let Me Go are astounding achievements on every level that will hopefully gain greater recognition in the coming years).

But regardless of what individual films you pick, this is, undoubtedly, something that happens. It's just not something unique to 2010 at all. These are just (a few of) the films that fit the bill this year. Last year? Observe and ReportThe Informant!Cloudy With a Chance of MeatballsWhip It, and in some corners, Where the Wild Things Are were all terrific, mainstream films that saw little appreciation in any serious corners. The year before? Speed Racer, Pineapple ExpressChe, and Synecdoche, New York. Even 2007, a year in which masterpieces were aplenty and largely appreciated, saw the burying of such films as Death ProofSunshine, Across the Universe, Into the Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Darjeeling Limited, and I'm Not There. 2006? Nacho Libre, Crank, Marie Antoinette, The Fountain, and Rocky Balboa.

I'm not interested in whether or not you agree with me that each and every one of these films are amazing, important works of art. You could just as easily have your own list of secret, misunderstood masterpieces, and that's fine. That's the whole point - that this happens every single year, and will continue to for decades to come. Sometimes it's the fault of advertisers driving consumers towards a different sort of film altogether, sometimes audiences don't see what is so clearly there, and too often critics are dismissive of something that tries (much less succeeds) to push film forward. So get out there, and watch movies anew. Great filmmaking is not limited simply to the films we all agree on; you'll be surprised at how much great stuff there is.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Fair Game (dir. Doug Liman)

It's no secret that movies addressing the central conflicts of the Bush years (the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, counter-terrorist policy, 9/11) have largely come up a little short. With due respect to The Hurt Locker and United 93, both of which are spectacular as thrillers and as socio-political engagement within their respective historical context, the vast swath of the rest (including Lions for LambsRenditionWorld Trade CenterGrace is Gone, and Green Zone) have been sanctimonious, overly simple, or completely disconnected with the human element of their stories. I've often heard the complaint that such films put too much emphasis on getting their message out that it drowns out anything else, but that misses the real point - that there was no anything else.

Fair Game is a perfect example of a good film that is also centrally a political statement. It's not exactly Made in U.S.A or anything, but it's as good an integration of current events into the mainstream cinema as I've seen. Its characters regularly make speeches to political ends, and the film has a very definite point of view, but - believe it or not - it's totally engaging for it. I don't think active political debate is off-limits for a fiction film, so long as the perspectives come from a recognizable place within its characters. As with any other subject matter, if it truly matters to the characters, it will matter to me. When you're telling the story of the events surrounding the Iraq War from the perspective of the people who were thrown under the bus for doubting its motivation, and you do it well, politics are important.

In tackling the story of Valerie Plame (played here by Naomi Watts), who key members of the White House staff outed as a CIA operative in 2003, screenwriters Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth make a very wise, unexpected move - push it to the latter half of the film. Most of the film is spent establishing what Valerie does for a living in the context of the case that will ultimately end her career. Meanwhile, things aren't so great at home. She and her husband, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), have a steady relationship to whatever extent possible. That is to say, he has no idea what she's doing most of the time. Meanwhile the government's combative responses to the events of 9/11 have shaken the angry liberal within him, and he happily takes whatever outlet is available to release this side.

Watts and Penn do the married coupled side of the equation quite well, though it should come as little surprise that unleashing Penn as an angry liberal allows him to wallow in the more indulgent side of his performances. It may very well be a totally accurate depiction of Wilson, but knowing Penn's tendencies, it's hard to view his shoutier scenes in a vacuum. Watts, meanwhile, holds her own in a barely-contained manner befitting her character, who proudly proclaims "I have no breaking point." The push-and-pull between Joe's active stance and Valerie's restrained approach to even the slightest confrontation will become everything for them professionally and personally, and the Butterworths establish this early and effortlessly. As things ramp up, so does their determination to stay their own separate courses, and this casual build is as dramatically beautiful as it is emotionally crushing.

On the nose? Perhaps. And the film does take unnecessary steps to get its point across, but for every cab ride Joe takes late in the film with a driver extolling the virtues of America, you get a scene as concisely rewarding as Sam Shepard's. Shepard is one of those guys capable of turning what in other hands would feel like a cheap shortcut into a defining, resonant moment (his work in Brothers last year was remarkable in this respect), and his appearance here comes at a crucial time. With a few words, Shepard has to save both a marriage and his daughter's dignity, and he does so beautifully. That whole scene is a small wonder, and due credit to Liman and the Butterworths is in order.

Liman has long been an underrated director, overshadowed by Paul Greengrass on the Bourne franchise and sheer starpower in Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but in an age where a director is either a hack or an auteur, I suppose that's only natural. Liman's hand is simply one of confidence, and while it lacks bravado, he takes a movie about people in rooms and makes it compelling. This is no Zodiac, mind you, but one need only see Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps to witness even a master filmmaker (which Oliver Stone can be when he wants to) fumble such seemingly simple achievements.

I've never felt political discourse should be barred from the cinema, and Fair Game is a perfect example of how it can flourish in a mainstream framework. It's got the pizzazz of a good procedural and the heart of an angry patriot. And y'know, I like a little self-righteous anger in my art from time to time.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

I Don't Know About Ya'll...

But this was the scariest frickin' movie I saw this Halloween season.

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

"This Isn't Going to End, Is It?"

I am not, by a reasonable stretch of the imagination, a horror junkie. Or even that big a fan of horror films in general. I often joke that I don't have the constitution for the jump-out-and-scare-ya/reach-out-and-grab-ya form the genre so often takes, and that's really true - the adrenaline rush of the modern horror flick just disturbs way more than it excites me. This isn't me looking down on that form. It's just not for me.

I am, however, sort of a junkie for psychological horror. This isn't necessarily the horror of the mind - as in The Shining, for example - but more fear, anxiety, terror, and an overwhelming sense of dread taking hold in your mind. The feeling that your fate, however gruesome, is entirely inescapable. In these films, there is no "winning." Neither the characters, nor the audience, are given the release they've come to expect from protagonists besting their enemies. Because in this case, the enemy is death itself - dressed in a more genre-fitting form - and in some significant way, these films directly address our own mortality. Most of us don't spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that some day we will die. Anyway, I know I don't. But these films force us to take stock of that very real inevitability by placing its protagonists in situations where death is a certainty, and a very immediate one at that.

The zombie film is one of the best sub-genres to explore this with. They move slowly towards you, and seem fairly harmless. But once a huge group of them identifies you, escape is impossible. They descend slowly until you're entirely surrounded. In these moments, beautifully explored in everything from Night of the Living Dead to Shaun of the Dead, we see who we really are underneath the artifice that we are immortal.

And one needn't zombies, necessarily, to do it. Two of my favorite films of all time, hands down, are The Mist and The Thing. Both use the power of the unknowable force of evil to descend upon and trap people until they are slowly picked off. Like the zombie film, the "villain" of these is not a person, but really a genre substitution for death itself. They all deal with characters who slowly, but surely, realize that if there is some "escape," it is at best a vague hope. In The Mist, in spite of everything they've attempted, they still end up out of gas at the edge of the abyss (the much-maligned ending is a subject for another time). Death will come for them, one way or another. In The Thing, or Invasion of the Body Snatchers, not only is it a force beyond reason, but it is impossible to detect. This is why Kevin McCarthy's final "you're next!" warning is so effective (even if it is undone by the sham that is the "real" ending) - he has stared into the abyss. He knows what's coming. Death will come suddenly, from someplace you least expect it. They even address a common fear (for others, a desire) - that we will die in our sleep, unaware of what is taking place.

These direct explorations of the very realness of death can be as affecting and powerful as those by Ingmar Bergman (and this is coming from a massive Bergman fan). In The Seventh Seal, Bergman had Death itself pursue Antonius Block in his travels across the land, waging intellectual war in the meantime to give Block the illusion that he could beat death. In a cosmic sense, is that so different from the illusion those trapped in The Mist's supermarket had - that this thing descending on them was something they could defeat? The best any of them can hope to do is buy themselves days (hours? minutes?) to relive the human experience - uncertainty, wonder, love, compassion, fear - before their fate finally arrives.

These are powerful feelings and ideas, and I'm always pleased to find films willing and able to explore them. I'm dying to see what Frank Darabont (writer and director of The Mist) does with The Walking Dead, which (from what I understand) takes the idea of neverending horror and draws it out over...well, however long the show ends up running I suppose. There's something massively satisfying about exploring the inevitability of death within the time constraints of a film, but a series presents other, tantalizing possibilities that I hope they capitalize on.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

You Can't Not Love Him

A guy who's seen every great thing and every horrible thing filmmaking has to offer, and still...this.

"The cinema is just such a being and a magnificent art form that – you know, a lot of people ask me 'what's your favorite movie?' and I think, gee, I could tell you ten favorite movies before 1927, and I wonder how is it that the cinema is only 100 years old and yet it is so impressively shock full of masterpieces from all over the world – Japan, Italy and everywhere. The only answer I can come up with is that the cinema, mankind was waiting for it; it didn't have the technology to do it, but it had the yearning for an art form that combined poetry and visual imagery and sound and music and drama.

"For hundreds and hundreds of years, they were just waiting for the cinema, and finally it was born at the turn of the century, and then just there was this rush of great work. That's the only way I can explain it, and that is the allure of the cinema; you're always passionate when you think about it, because you learn so much from it and it's so intriguing and so magical. And now I find that more than ever, although I have very infinitesimal budgets compared to what people have to work with in movies, is that it's more thrilling than ever because it can be more personal than I ever could consider before. But you know what I say? The smaller the budget, the bigger the ideas."

-Francis Ford Coppola

Friday, October 15, 2010

Jack Goes Boating (dir. Philip Seymour Hoffman)

I was really surprised by this, I gotta tell you. I'm a big fan of Philip Seymour Hoffman (like nearly anyone who watches enough movies), but after a pretty middling trailer, I ended up attending a matinee of this solely to see another Hoffman performance and, more intriguingly, his directorial debut. The film seemed to have little to recommend itself; add to which nobody had singled it out in any way, major or minor. It seemed like it was just kind of out there.

But wow, is this a wonderful little movie, or what. Modest though it may be, it has more than enough heart to make up for it, and four great performances to boot. Hoffman stars as Jack, as the kind of guy Hoffman made his name off of - lonely, sadsack, but tremendously honest and heartfelt. Hoffman is one of those guys, man, who is just incapable of telling a lie. Jack doesn't have a deep-dark secret about his childhood; he only hints at some really antisocial tendencies. He's just one of those guys who never made it work - career, relationships, friends, whatever. He listens to a lot of reggae to keep himself zen.

Similarly, when Connie (Amy Ryan) comes into his life, she doesn't succumb to the current trend of forcefully turning his life around. Jack is not some kind of project for him; she has her own concerns and is just as delighted with his company as he is with hers. She mentions she likes to go boating, so Jack learns to swim. She mentions that nobody has ever cooked for her, so Jack learns to cook. When she's in the hospital, he buys her a stuffed koala bear at the hospital gift shop. And she loves it; really, truly. We see in this scene that they simply belong together. There's not a lot in the way of getting-to-know-you stuff. There's no "click." They are just instantly at home with one another. It's really beautiful in a simple, unforced way.

They have two friends in common, Clyde and Lucy, played by John Ortiz and Daphne Rubin-Vega, respectively. They've been married for a while now, and Ortiz and Rubin-Vega waste no time in perfectly establishing a couple that was once unbelievably comfortable with each other, but has over time been beaten into caution. Their scenes range from awkward to absolutely brutal, and the way Jack and Connie change their perceptions of this couple who brought them together is at once fitting and shows how they are growing as their own unit. Ortiz in particular emerges as a tremendous screen presence, riding the edge of theatricality without diving into it. Rubin-Vega's character calls for more subtle emotional shifts, which she plays beautifully. Her quiet changes of expression are capable of communicating years of regret, uncertainty, and exhaustion.

Adapted from a stage play by Robert Glaudini (who also wrote the screenplay), it does suffer from a slight feeling of staginess. There are some scenes - not even scenes, but lines, really - that would play better in that form. I've never terribly minded that feeling, and ultimately it barely intruded here. I was simply too delighted. Glaudini has no problem disposing with what many films get terribly hung up on: trying to explain why people are the way they are. All four of these people at some point do something completely unexpected that you do not see coming, and nobody makes any effort to clarify their behavior. The actors are strong enough to fold it into the whole of their character, and Glaudini and Hoffman (as director) trust us enough to recognize that whatever makes people the way they are is the combination of a billion other things that may have happened decades before we met them.

I suppose it should come as little surprise that Hoffman has emerged, instantly, a perfect actor's director. His visual style is expectedly restrained, but any more flourish would almost certainly feel intrusive. The cast here is unified and each play off the others with ease, reacting both as people in a situation and as part of an ensemble building towards a greater goal.

Not a terribly ambitious film, but necessarily so, Jack Goes Boating is nonetheless one of this year's most delightful films. Come for the Hoffman, stay for the romance.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Never Let Me Go (dir. Mark Romanek)

Never Let Me Go is some kind of minor miracle. It's a slowly paced, lightly plotted major Oscar season release that spends most of its time considering death and mortality, and just how fleeting everything can be. The emotional heft of it snuck up on me, to the point that I was at work today when I was quite suddenly bowled over by the tragedy of it all. Not that it didn't occur to me when the film finished initially - and I was plenty moved then as well - but it is simply a film that benefits tremendously from time. That, ironically, is also its major weakness.

To discuss the film with any degree of consideration is to give away its central mystery - which doesn't really remain a mystery too long anyway - so consider this your warning. You have my general thoughts, but from here on out anything goes.

The central struggle in the film is all about time - the time we have left and what we do with it. For Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Ruth (Keira Knightley), and Tommy (Andrew Garfield), time is all they have, and all they lack. Cloned from the undesirable elements of society, they are created solely to donate organs and body parts to people who need them. Everything is provided for them from the moment they enter this world to when they leave it, and by the time they're eighteen, they can leave the boarding school they were brought up in and live relatively independent lives. But by the time they're twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, they'll have been harvested for their vital organs and will be left to die.

It's a devastating premise for a film, and writer Alex Garland - adapting a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro - and director Mark Romanek wisely allow the audience to fill that tragedy in on their own. There is only one true outburst of emotion. All else is hinted, indicated, and felt so powerfully in the cinema (that is, the composition and editing) and acting, particularly by Carey Mulligan. She completely won me over with An Education, but she might be even finer here. Her eyes alone express everything in the film; the entire human experience.

And it's all so quietly heartbreaking. I nearly get choked up thinking back on certain images in the film - Kathy holding a pillow tightly as a forgotten love song plays on her tape deck, the image that opens the film when it is revisited towards the end, Tommy taking command of a wrecked ship. Many more I'd rather not mention, for they are the true spoilers. This is only Romanek's second film (third if you count his 1985 film Static, which he has since disowned), and while I'm not onboard with all of his decisions - his use of handheld in particular feels a little lazy - I was bowled over by how much he was capable of expressing in some of those images.

Garland's screenplay is, admittedly, imperfect. As time is everything in this film, it would have benefitted from something to communicate the passage of time a bit more. As it is, weeks will pass slowly but they'll happily skip over years in the blink of an eye. My initial impulse was to add another hour or so to the film, but Terrence Malick accomplished this feeling with less time in Days of Heaven, so, hey, whatever works. I just needed to touch base with these characters as they grew, rather than catch up with them after they already had. Additionally, the themes and plotting can be a little on-the-nose at times, though even that's hard to fault because Kathy's final monologue - undoubtedly the greatest offense in this arena - is so exquisitely written and conveys so much depth of feeling and understanding that it's hard to really fault it too much.

That said, its ambition and considerable accomplishment far outweigh its flaws. Never Let Me Go is a quietly heartbreaking, haunting film that will stay with me long after the lights come up.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Buried (dir. Rodrigo Cortés)

It happens...well, at least every summer, but it feels like every couple of months, really. People go nuts for some big action film. Some big action film gets the thorough beating it probably deserves in the critical community (well, these days, it only takes one negative review for a riot to break out), and the old "just turn off your brain and enjoy it!" line gets thrown out. Now here's the thing - I am all for turning off my brain at the movies. But my whole thing is that I want the people who made the damn thing to have put some thought into it. And frankly, I can tell when that process has taken place and when it hasn't, and there is quite often a direct line between them thinking and me enjoying.

Buried is a really smart piece of entertainment, even when it's not. By this I mean that it's a 95-minute movie that takes place entirely inside a damn box. So if you thought Hitchcock was inventive with Lifeboat or Rope or Rear Window, you don't even know from limitations. But it's more aggressive or propulsive than anything else I've seen all year. However, it does stretch its limitations - Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried alive with only a cell phone, a bit of food, a flask of alcohol, and a lighter, and the people he calls routinely treat him like a prank caller. We're all familiar with the runaround when we're calling because the cable's out, but I think there's some truth to the story that government officials treat every call like a serious call.

But even when that's frustrating - both for Paul and for dramatic plausibility - Cortés and Reynolds more than make up for it. Reynolds is one of cinema's most charismatic actors these days, and few others, including a great deal of more talented ones, would be better suited to his task. After all, we hear other voices on the phone, but every real emotional beat rests with him, and he's not allowed a ton of room for physical expression. Cortés, for his part, finds every nook and cranny from which to shoot, and keeps a cutting rhythm as exciting as any scene in Inception (only he, you know, maintains it for the film's running time), building to one of the most breathless climaxes in (wait for it) film history. Yes, I just went there.

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher)

Yeah, I'm not pleased about the huge Yahoo! Movies tag in the corner of the screencaps, either. But being as I'm a nerd for representing the movie, and not the advertising materials surrounding them, trailer screencaps remain the way to go.

In the months - nay, years - leading up to its release, The Social Network was repeatedly met with skepticism, sarcasm, and the spawn of the two - snark. Those of us confident in the storytelling powers of Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher repeatedly went to back to the standard line - "It's not really about Facebook, it's about friendship, betrayal, greed." As though we needed an excuse.

The truth is, aside from the obvious notion that a film isn't really about what it's about (who remembers that Chinatown is about a man taking control of public utilities?), it is fascinating material. As Glenn Kenny perfectly put it, why wouldn't you be interested in Facebook, except for the opportunity to place yourself above it? Whether you approve of the brave new world or not (and I say this as someone who would just as soon see the entire Internet implode), Facebook has changed the way people communicate, probably for good. You may not use it, and in a generation it may be gone, but the elaborate network of communication it has established is permanent. And we're right at the beginning of a revolution. There may be more socio-politically relevant stories out there about current issues, but in terms of things that are happening right now that have a lasting impact on who were are as people...why wouldn't you want to see a movie about Facebook?

That the film is also the story of, yes, friendship, betrayal, and greed makes for good, classic drama. Then you have Aaron Sorkin writing it, and whatever his faults, I can't think of any screenwriter who, at the top of his game, can make a movie centered around dorm rooms and depositions more electric. And then there's David Fincher, a director second only to Paul Thomas Anderson among his peers and one of the best working filmmakers, period, deciding to tackle something completely outside of what he's known for. And, as it turns out, succeeding.

And you ask why you'd want to see a movie about Facebook.

Sorkin's script is what keeps this thing dancing, no doubt, and although I shy away from such predictions in the public forum, if there's one award that's locked up this holiday season, it has to be Sorkin's for The Social Network. I've never found any cases against him terribly compelling. Conversations on film are rarely, if ever, interesting when they sound the way people speak in real life, so it is necessary for dialogue to do two things - sound like an outward expression of who this person is (this is totally apart from what they actually say, but is involved solely with how they say it), and communicate what this person wants the world to believe about him or her. And yes, Sorkin has a tendency to have all of his characters speak the same way, but at his worst, he's still ten times more exciting a writer than many with more diversity.

So when, as here, Sorkin gives his characters that needed diversity - of speaking style, of background (social, financial, educational), of goals (immediate or lifelong) - nobody is better able to entertain us solely through the written (or spoken, I suppose) word. And in addition to everything that could be said about the structural and thematic attributes of the screenplay, which are considerable, it is just damned entertaining.

A lot has been said about the film's portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg, and it should come as no surprise that I don't really care how closely it hews to the real guy, specifically how the character plays across generational lines. In an article published yesterday at The New York Times, David Carr wrote that for older generations, Zuckerberg was seen as "a cautionary tale about a callous young man who betrays friends, partners, and principles as he hacks his way to lucre and fame. But many of the generation who grew in a world that Mr. Zuckerberg helped invent will applaud someone who saw his chance and seized it with both hands." While I think placing both readings along generational divides is a little convenient, I do think both readings exist - for me, simultaneously.

There is little doubt that Mark (played masterfully by Jesse Eisenberg) is right both morally and strategically when he is cautious moving into the moneymaking aspect of Facebook, or continuing to create groundbreaking websites without profit in mind at all, and while his actions betray him, he does show genuine concern for how Eduardo (Andrew Garfield) will fit into the ultimate scheme. I haven't found a single reading of their relationship completely satisfying, in fact. Mark isn't out to screw Eduardo, and he says "I'm afraid you're going to get left behind," not "I think you will" or "if you keep this up, you're going to." Mark wants Eduardo aboard, but he's just not willing to let friendship get in the way of what he thinks he can achieve. There simply comes a point at which Eduardo has nothing to add. I personally don't find this attitude terribly noble, but I also recognize that most of the great revolutions wouldn't have taken place without similar mindsets. It's not for me, but it is the way things happen.

Also, refreshingly, Mark is not a greedy character, insofar as he embarks on his quest not for money, or even ultimately for the popularity he sought at the start (and the title cleverly refers both to the system he ultimately struggled in and one he eventually built), but simply because it became something he must do. And coming out of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps earlier that day, a film that bolstered my beliefs that the only innovation taking place these days is the continuing innovation for how to make more money, I was thrilled to see some old-fashioned American ingenuity at play. Though Mark is not doing something for the greater good, he is at least doing something he feels is important, and everything he does - right or wrong - is at the service of this thing. It's that mindset that I find admirable, apart from the actions he takes for it.

I couldn't write this without in some way mentioning David Fincher, a director who has evolved considerably from a pretty stunning starting place into a very mature, thoughtful filmmaker. Even if it does turn out that he peaked with Zodiac (but what a peak!), his work continues to show unprecedented talent. This is probably his most outwardly comedic film to date (though Fight Club is more of a comedy in its soul than The Social Network, the latter has by far the more traditional laughs), and Fincher displays a remarkable ability at making us laugh while maintaining an altogether different mood (much, I suppose, as Fight Club kept us squirming while maintaining a humorous undercurrent). This is actually a weird marriage of the old Fincher and the new, between the pace and energy of Fight Club and the more soulful outlook Fincher's displayed in Zodiac and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

His work here is almost invisible, the deft, confident, consummately professional touch one would be more accustomed to from a studio era director (a Preminger or a Losey perhaps) than one who made his name with such visual flourish. There was no escaping the Fincher of Fight Club or Panic Room, for instance, while one can take in the Fincher of new unobstructed. His framing may be more modest, his cutting less aggressive, but his filmmaking is as powerful as ever. In spite of the many change-ups each scene requires, Fincher never misses a beat in creating something tonally and rhythmically cohesive. He leaps right from the opening scene, a classic Sorkin set-up of two people talking over, around, and across each other, to perhaps his best title sequence to date, featuring Mark jogging home, isolated from the surrounding Harvard community. Going right from high-energy conversation to moody study of character-as-action is more than just putting the two side-by-side. Mark has to seem apart from his world in that first scene or the second won't feel right, and he can't simply walk home from such an exchange. Determination must play a factor, either for escape or revenge or whatever. It sounds easy, but if it were, more movies would be this good.

As you might have noticed, there's quite a bit going on in this film, in spite of its modest running time. I've barely touched on its considerable performances (Justin Timberlake for Best Supporting Actor!), and there are themes and ideas I probably never will. But I'd like to. A second viewing is most certainly in order, and if you've stuck with me this long, I'm sure you'll be back for more.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Easy A (dir. Will Gluck)

Seriously...never underestimate what a good cast and a likable lead can do for you. Never say that script, or even direction, is the be all and end all in pictures. Though, as we learn here, lacking in either department will hinder the hell out of it.

Because Easy A would be almost worthless if not for a lot of people. Especially if not for Emma Stone, about whom it's tempting to simply say "Emma Stone is awesome!" for five paragraphs and call it a day. I'm not going to say I've been aching for Stone to get a shot like this - I liked her well enough in Superbad and Zombieland, but she never really made a huge impression. Her work here, however, is the makings of a true movie star. It's a smartly-written role, to be sure, as good as the well-adjusted, clever, insightful, beyond-her-years teen role gets, but there's little question that Stone owns it in a way only a movie star can. She's well supported, especially by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci - who play her parents - and the fact that they steal every scene they're in is a testament not only to how talented they are, but to Stone's ability to hold her own as an equal.

And there is a movie worthy of her command buried in here. As sloppy and unmotivated as the film is (every second of Lisa Kudrow's character should have been cut, for starters), as many emotional shortcuts as it takes, it still manages to tackle relevant issues in a smart way. Olive (Stone) gains a certain amount of popularity for the sexual activity she's believed to have taken part in, but when she carries the lie too far, the school starts to turn on her. Granted, this happens to an almost ridiculous degree - rumors seem to have hit everyone at the school within an hour, and the other kids actually make protest signs to demean her - but the concerns are legitimate and relevant for young people today. How much sex is too much sex? Any? And with how many people? Where's the line between keeping your sex life private and engaging in modern discourse?

I attended Catholic high school, and one of the less promiscuous ones at that. I never knew a world where teenage sex was a normal part of the landscape. Nevertheless, you'd hear stories told in whispered tones far from adult ears. They never included anyone you were terribly close with. Football players and cheerleaders, as stereotypical as that may seem, were too often the subject, though for all I know they were telling stories of my fellow drama nerds I couldn't imagine. They were typically outlandish, exciting, and all too often a little gross. But they always seemed to be happening outside of my experience. Somewhere over there.

It's interesting then to think about these conversations happening in high schools across the country, and I know they do. We are perhaps a richer society for heightened sexual awareness, but there is still a societal battle between our puritanical roots and the eventuality of some sort of enlightenment (or acceptance, as you prefer). This film represents one of the markers of the state of this battle, though it makes no bones about casting religious conservatives in a tone not only unfair, but also dramatically flat.

For young people, sex represents an exciting, but dangerous, step into adulthood. Like any similar milestone, it is exciting only in the process preceding, during, and immediately following crossing into it. And although no sex actually occurs in this film - the grand conceit is that all of these matters are addressed with nary a thrust - Olive's journey is an outward expression of something very personal and relevant: the publication of something private.

That Olive embraces, wholeheartedly, her newfound popularity as "one of the sexed" is no surprise, and neither is her belief of "more is better." I've heard criticism that someone as smart and well-adjusted as Olive would never do anything as deeply stupid as the decisions that drive this narrative - which begins with lying about losing her virginity, becomes lying about having sex with the school's outcasts, and blossoms into being the school's resident sex bomb - but they simply forget, or possibly never experienced, the drug of popularity. It is nearly impossible at that or any age to turn away from something that gets you noticed.

And this is why I really liked this movie in spite of itself. There are ideas, themes, and a relevant message at the beating heart of this movie, so when all else fails, you still have a lot worth clinging onto. Well, that and Emma Stone is frickin' amazing.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Railin' Around Town

That is the WORST title for a blog post ever.

That said, there are no less than two (TWO!) blogathons going on right now, and I'm participating in...the two to which I refer.

First, Jeremy over at Moon in the Gutter is hosting the excellent Paul Thomas Anderson blogathon, so I contributed a piece I wrote...over a year ago at this point. So if you weren't reading me then, read it now! I'm exceptionally proud of it.

Next, Fletch of the Blog Cabins is putting on a 30 Days of Crazy blogathon, which gave me the opportunity to finally - finally! - do that Barton Fink piece I've always wanted to write. Which is to say, me writing anything about Barton Fink, far and away my favorite Coen Brothers film. I really didn't expect to write what I did, but hey, there you have it.

Fresh content soon, I promise. My work schedule went from me barely being there to me being there all the time, but I saw two new movies this weekend and I'm on vacation next weekend, which means plenty of airport-and-plane writing time.

Monday, September 13, 2010


Anyone who says old movies don't have the pace and excitement of modern films owe it to themselves to watch this sequence, the final showdown of Howard Hawks' Red River. It's the best testament to how exciting classic framing and cutting can be that I can imagine.

Friday, September 10, 2010

A Diversion (But What a Diversion!)

I've been rewatching The Red Shoes over the last couple of days (not like on repeat, mind you, just here and there as time allows), having seen it only the once (and now owning the magnificent Criterion Blu-Ray). I've already gone on record about how magnificent it is, and it is one of the highest regarded films, like, of all time, so there's really no call for this other than pure celebration of those rare movies that are absolutely perfect. There is, quite literally, nothing wrong with this film. Everything I ache for at the movies - purity of expression, honesty of emotion, and no concessions - is present here. God, this is magnificent.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Limits The American's Control

I've written in the past (about another George Clooney film, in fact) how delicate a balance is required in order to maintain mood and tone in the cinema. All the good one sets out to accomplish can be so easily undone with the slightest nudge.

The American is a film all about mood and tone, and for it to be successful, it needs to take an extraordinarily measured approach in shot composition and editing. As Martin Scorsese said, "Cinema is a matter of what's in the frame and what's out," and the director of a film such as The American must have absolute command over this principle. Keeping in mind such antecedents as Antonioni's The Passenger, Melville's Le Samourai, and Jarmusch's The Limits of Control would be advised, though not strictly necessary. Any Antonioni or Jarmusch will do.

And when I say The American falls short of those films' achievements, I mean that neither as a backhanded compliment nor as a negative reaction. After all, I don't even really like The Limits of Control all that much. But it without a doubt sets a specific tone and maintains it absolutely for its running time. With The American, director Anton Corbijn establishes a certain mood but hasn't the full courage of his convictions. His tempo is measured and calm for much of the film, fitting his protagonist's manner, and Clooney is well up to the task of turning his natural instincts way down. The Clooney charm can't help but peak through from time to time, but this is otherwise a side of Clooney we've not yet seen. It's not just his calm (we've seen that in Solaris) - it's his control. Like Clooney, Corbijn can't quite maintain absolute control. Too often he buckles, allowing the music to flourish when quiet would be best, or removing us from our protagonist's point of view, to which we have otherwise been tethered.

Yet that simply makes The American an imperfect film, though thankfully not fatally so. One wants to praise this to the heavens in the midst of all the "it's too slow!" remarks burdening the Internets, but one must still be honest. It is still a wondeful, rapturous film, full of the tension that comes about only in quiet. The introspection of watching a man absolutely in his element (in constructing a rifle or working out) and completely out of it (the film's final moments in particular). The limits, that is, of his own control.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Going the Distance (dir. Nanette Burstein)

Never underestimate what can be done with a great cast and likeable protagonists.

Going the Distance is far from a perfect film or even a very good one. It tells a much longer story than really works when you're trying to bring it in under two hours, without really acknowledging this essential problem. The movie takes place over the course of a year or so, but this is one of those films where not a lot seems to happen between the moments they choose to show us from this time. A lot of the jokes fall flat, and the supporting characters are pretty stock. The romance central to the film is built almost entirely via montage.

But it does work in a way these sort of stock films so often don't, and a lot of credit goes to the cast. Justin Long and Drew Barrymore play Garrett and Erin, who fall in love before Erin has to move away and try to make a go of it in a long-distance relationship. These are two fairly polarizing performers, and the worst things you can say about them are because of these sorts of roles, where they have to be relatable and likeable but simply come off as bland.

Luckily, writer Geoff LaTulippe has a character that seems tailor-made for Barrymore, giving us her usual ditz five or ten years down the line as a 31-year-old intern trying to make up for the follies of youth. Both she and Long are given actual characters with wants and desires totally outside of what they're looking for in each other, and their struggles are driven by what real people struggle with in their situation - trying to wed professional aims with a relationship that works really well. They don't fight over stupid, shallow things. They don't take petty measures to "get back" at the other person. They're just normal people trying to make the best of a bad situation. It seems simple, and yet this is the exception.

What really makes this film rev is the supporting cast. Erin lives with her sister's family, and Christina Applegate and Jim Gaffigan are just as good as you'd expect. Applegate is hindered by playing what could commonly be defined as the Leslie Mann in Knocked Up role, which is an irritating, never funny character, but she pushes through all right in some key moments. Charlie Day and Jason Sudeikis play Garrett's friends; Day is playing a more likeable version of his It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia madman, which will cause someone to say he "can only do that one thing," but...c'mon. Assuming that is true - I'm not familiar with the guy enough to know if that's all he has - any actor would kill to do one thing as well as Day does his thing, and any scene with him and Sudeikis is gold.

Sudeikis and Gaffigan ended up being the stand-outs in the cast for me. They're doing something you have a hard time coming across in mainstream comedies - the earnestly performed, ego-free supporting performance. There's no way to put it other than that they play the role they're given, and they play it very well. Better than either of the leads, and better than most leads in most films. Like a lot of things about this film, their performances are the kind of thing we should be able to take for granted. As we can't, they're almost worth seeing the film for all on their own.

I'm dying for some film to save the mainstream romantic comedy, that most despised of genres that too often earns its hate but which I do actually kind of love. This isn't it, but it's helping. It's sweet, and it tries to get at some real issues, and it does have a handful of very, very funny moments, but ultimately comes up a little short in some key areas.