Friday, December 23, 2011

Movie Journal #5

Y'know, you try to get a new post up every week, and sometimes you do and sometimes you don't. On the plus side, plenty of new movies have been seen in the intervening time, including a few not represented here, namely The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, both of which are reviewed at Battleship Pretension.

The Iron Lady
After praising J. Edgar for telling Hoover's story from his own perspective, you may find it suspect that I'm more or less disenchanted with The Iron Lady for doing same, but hear me out. Eastwood made it clear from the beginning that Edgar was not to be trusted, and brought his unreliability back around to make a thematic point by the picture's end. The Iron Lady presents a series of montages highlighting Margaret Thatcher's victories, minimizing her success, and finding little insight beyond the fact that it apparently took her a few days to get over the death of her husband (spoilers for...something, I'm sure). It amounts mostly to a rather breezy Wikipedia entry that manages to tell us that Thatcher's roots as a grocer's daughter may have had more to do with her political policies than we previously suspected (conspiracy!). Meryl Streep, an actress so much better than the impersonations she's been saddled with of late, is fine in the role - acute, but not terribly compelling or penetrating.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas
Because I missed the few opportunities available to me to see Arthur Christmas (I'm busy, all right?), this ended up being the only true new Christmas film I saw this year. The good news is that it has more than enough Christmas to go around. I missed the second Harold & Kumar adventure, and maybe some key developments along with it (I doubt it), but for me, this delivered joys in much the same vein as the duo's now-legendary trip to White Castle. Only in 3D, which, particularly in this case, really does make everything better. Danny Trejo has been widely, rightly praised for playing Harold's Christmas-crazed father-in-law, but I sure wasn't expecting Elias Koteas to show up playing a Russian gangster, and yet there he is! And not a moment too soon. And I'll be damned if, somewhere between a sex-crazed Neil Patrick Harris and Santa getting shot out of the sky, it didn't deliver a nugget of the Christmas spirit along with it, albeit in a manner more befitting South Park than Charlie Brown, if you get my (snow)drift. Wow that was a bad pun, but I really, really couldn't resist it.

While I don't think this quite holds water for the best-of-the-year race in which many would have it, it's a pretty solid little indie debut there. The whole film is largely building to one very key moment, but it does it in a very subtle, surprisingly effective (and affective) way. The moment itself is pretty striking for how quickly writer/director Andrew Haigh undercuts his own emotional note with the painful sting of reality, and how much more poignant it makes it. At first blush I thought the use of sex was perhaps a little too indulgent, but the more I think about it the more I notice its rather smart structure - skipping past it entirely the first time, building up to showing pretty much the whole shebang by the end (without becoming pornographic, mind), which is a pretty solid way of showing growing intimacy.

A film for which I have infinite, unfathomable affection, but a very difficult time actually, you know, discussing. But honestly, that's only because I was laughing harder than I have during any other film this year. I laughed so hard I wasn't looking at the screen for stretches of seconds, too occupied was I with doubling over, spilling into the empty chair next to me, closing my eyes, and losing my damn fool mind. I loved watching this movie, plain and simple. That said, I do know enough of it to know a good one when I see it, and this one has the chops. I have no response to those who say it's uncinematic, other than to suggest they look beyond the inverse relationship between number of locations and number of lines and look at, well, you know, the cinema. Polanski's use of space and depth, and the way he plays with that, is as arresting as any use of 3D I've ever seen, never mind where he chooses to point his camera, how he moves it, what he captures, or how he arranges his subjects. All of which are still concerns of cinema, mind.

That he also directed his four stars (Jodie Foster, John C. Reilly, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz) to some of the finest performances of the year seems almost secondary, were it not from the unbelievable humor he wrings from each and every last one of them. I could watch Foster leap up to snatch a bottle of Scotch from the towering Reilly for days, man, never mind Waltz's sudden interest in the proceedings as soon as the bottle is unveiled. It's a film all about behavior, and if it's not probing enough for some, well, fine then, but for those of us who delight in a line delivery, the way a sentence is formed, the way a person reacts to something, and the willingness of four very fine actors to go for broke, well, this is a treasure trove.

And it's just so freaking funny.

A pretty stock sports story about the earnest outsider in it purely for the joy of the sport and his nemesis, who relies on (dun dun DUN) science and personal/political connections to ensure frequent victories (I half expected a Rocky IV montage in which Prost gets strapped into a car full of hypodermics while Senna builds a car out of wood), and in this way its resemblance to Speed Racer extends to arenas outside of merely their shared sport. Director Asif Kapadia also perhaps strains to craft a narrative out of disparate events taking place over several years, but that's kind of the name of the game and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it compelling regardless. The footage he had access to is pretty stunning, particularly those POV shots from a car (oh, to have seen this in the theater!), and he edits them together into surprisingly visceral showdowns. That it builds to a wallop of an ending is, well, something I'll leave you to discover any further on your own.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin and Young Adult

Well, we REALLY need to talk about We Need to Talk About Kevin, which I make no bones about declaring an out-and-out masterpiece in my review at Battleship Pretension. And dammit, I meant it. Lynne Ramsay turned out a force of nature of a film, brilliantly emotional, dynamic, horrific, and really everything you'd want from a gut-punch at the movies. It's wrapping up limited runs in New York and Los Angeles right now (sorry for not posting this earlier, kids!), but hopefully it'll expand to other theaters soon? I can't imagine it just wouldn't, but stay on top of Oscilloscope's website, as I hope they'll have the latest.

Far more problematic is Jason Reitman's Young Adult, a film that tries to put on a grown-up face with its unlikeable-but-hot-female-protagonist (so daring you guys) but just doesn't have the conviction to really be anything. I liked moments in it tremendously, but in taking a comedic premise and playing it for tragedy, Reitman really undercuts the impact this could have had. I get into the meat of it far more in my review at, yes, Battleship Pretension. That'll expand to more theaters on Friday if it sounds like the kind of thing you might be interested in.

Oh, and while you're at it, why not check out my piece on Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film I was delighted to discover upon rewatching I still really dig. In fact, I dig it a lot more now. I get into THAT at Shadowlocked, for whom it turns out I still write from time to time!

Movie Journal #4

Time for a larger-than-normal edition of this little journal thingy to make up for lost time.

A Dangerous Method - Not the easiest film to love, but a superbly accomplished one nonetheless, and one of which I’ve become more fond as time goes by. Michael Fassbender and Keira Knightley really walk away with the film, and I really admire director David Cronenberg’s choice to let the sunshine in, as it were. Most directors doing a piece about some grittier psychological elements would opt for a more dour color palette, but the power of the film is not unrelated to contrasting a pristine location in an optimistic era with the behavior that one was encouraged, often insisted to hide or disguise. Doesn’t exactly provide the visceral thrills of the typical Cronenberg production, but hardly shortchanges the psychological probing.

My Week with Marilyn - I came away from the film feeling slightly more engaged than expected, but the ensuing time has not been kind. I now find it almost unforgivable, a weak attempt to pander to ideas of how we would’ve liked the period to exist without asking why we want it to exist that way. Michelle Williams is fine as Monroe, as is Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier, but the film’s eternal quest to find its reason to exist is fruitless. The protagonist, Colin Clark, is not worth following, but provides the filmmakers just the right amount of distance so they can show you some of Marilyn Monroe without really getting to the beating heart of who she was and what drove her. It’s portrayal without introspection, and for arguably the most famous actress in motion picture history, that’s not enough.

Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop - Thoroughly enjoyable and surprisingly reflective. I don’t know how true to life this is, but O’Brien seems quite candid in the film and director Rodman Flender doesn’t shy away from the many instances in which his subject comes across as a bit of an asshole. It humanizes O’Brien tremendously, but it also humanizes celebrity - it takes quite a lot to make you sympathize with a guy whose biggest problem on a given night is that too many people want to talk to him, but the film effectively takes those sort of struggles and makes them credible. It’s also, no surprise, funny as hell.

Bellflower - Kind of blown away by the misogyny tags that have been leveled against the film, not because the film doesn’t depict a certain strain of woman-hating, but because I thought we’d all learned by now that just because a film portrays a certain behavior doesn’t mean it supports those ideals. The film is ultimately too slight and far too fractured to amount to much, but I found it viscerally satisfying in many regards and refreshingly honest about the effect of testosterone on the mind.

We Were Here - Achingly sad and surprisingly beautiful, this account of the AIDS epidemic, focused on the San Francisco gay community, is absolutely stunning. After briefly recapping the late ‘70s joyful period for the city, it launches right into a scenario far more terrifying than Steven Soderbergh’s considerable Contagion, because this time the government isn’t even trying to help. From the slow whispers to packed hospitals to the eventual stemming of its impact, the film analyzes the whole period at levels you probably never thought of before. Through the unimaginable tragedy, it also demonstrates the power of a community to come together in times of crisis, undefeated by the denial of help from those outside of it. One of the best films of the year, certainly.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Movie Journal #3

The Descendants - Writer/director Alexander Payne is certainly back in form after seven years away (and I wasn't a huge fan of Sideways as it was; love About Schmidt though), creating a very real sense of place in a state (Hawaii) so often ill-represented. The beginning is frontloaded with enough voiceover exposition to kill Robert McKee ten times over, but once it moves past that it becomes a quite effective (and affective) piece of dramedy about getting the family back together, as it were. Payne certainly still has his chops when it comes to showing people at their pettiest, and the humor that comes out of this, though this is easily his most humorless film. Some of this could be attested to George Clooney's lead performance, which, while good, isn't up there with his best and belies his rather limited range. The man is as skilled at comedy as he is drama, but I've never seen him effectively mix the two, and The Descendants suggests he may be unable. But again, in the realm of "good story, well told" cinema, this is a very fine entry and makes for a rather emotionally satisfying evening at the movies, and I'd lie if I said I wasn't touched by the whole affair.

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - I'm as much a fan of genre deconstruction as the next guy, though I think this one sets itself up for a premise it can't quite deliver on. It's taking hillbilly horror and pointing out the privileged, xenophobic perspective from which it stems, which makes for a series of good laughs, until it turns the tables and becomes a straightforward lost-in-the-woods horror film of a slightly different variety. Genre deconstruction is so often made by huge fans of the genre in question, and it seems like director Eli Craig (who wrote the screenplay with Morgan Jurgenson) wanted to have his subversion while still "playing by the rules" as it were, which doesn't totally gel or make for a satisfying whole. Still, I'd be lying if I said the movie wasn't a fun sit.

Margin Call - I mentioned on Twitter that I was already bored of this film well in advance of seeing it, so the good news is I ended up mostly liking it. It's nice to see Kevin Spacey this engaged in a role again after what's honestly been a pretty dreary decade, and he gets the film's most complex role just right. The dialogue, when it comes down from the ledge of profundity, is nice and snappy, the characters are well-drawn and instantly accessible, and the cast is pretty uniformly good. It's hard to totally buy Zachary Quinto as a rocket-scientist-turned-stockbroker (I know his job is more complex than that, but come on now), but he sells it remarkably well. In scenes that require him to say things his characters has said or thought about nine hundred times, he has a kind of hurried, nervous, let's-get-on-with-it approach approach that suits the character nicely. And writer/director J.C. Chandor, making his feature debut in both departments, does a fine job of condensing some rather complicated material (the whole insane practice of credit default swaps that got us into the financial crisis), thought he often resorts to the "tell it to me in English!" approach.

The film's biggest issue? Worst cinematography of the year. Easily. Unmotivated handheld mixed with Tony Scott lighting (look, we're being flashy) and zero sense of composition. If the visual element of filmmaking matters to you, Margin Call becomes almost unbearable to sit through at times.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Shame (dir. Steve McQueen)

It'd be easy to tag Shame as a film about sex addiction, because, yes, it plays an awfully big role in it, and anytime any film tackles sex in a serious way, that's all anyone is ever going to talk about. On top of which you have a superhero (Michael Fassbender of this year's X-Men: First Class) and a young hot-on-the-scene actress (Carey Mulligan) taking their clothes off, which makes for a perfect storm of people wanting to talk about a lot of stuff that doesn't really have much to do with the film, which I found to be of considerable substance beyond its, um...substance.

Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, one of those high-class, clean-cut, a-little-too-well-dressed white guys who works at an anonymous Manhattan firm that does something or rather, whose apartment is way too clean, but who has a hidden secret, that the movies love so much these days. While his secret isn't quite of Patrick Bateman proportions, writer/director Steve McQueen (not that one) turns his sex addiction into something that seems almost as dire. When we meet Brandon, if he's addicted, he seems functionally so. He pays off a hooker, masturbates frequently, and has anonymous hook-ups, but the most desperate he gets is following a woman he was flirting with on the subway, and looking a little disappointed that he lost her in the crowd. When he goes out clubbing, his friend is far more active in looking for women than he. Brandon sits back and more or less lets them come to him (which I guess is easy when you look like Michael Fassbender), which belies a degree of confidence, but in all the wrong areas - he knows he'll eventually get his next hit. If not from this girl, then one of her friends. If not them, someone else. This is the addict who has become his own dealer, and he has his system to get by day-to-day.

His system gets a good deal complicated when his trainwreck sister, appropriately named Sissy (Mulligan), runs out of places to go and decides it's time to crash with him. Though it's easy to tell Brandon isn't wild about this idea - and the mountains of porn he has stashed in his closet is as good a reason as any - he allows it, and slowly his world becomes unraveled. His descent starts to be a more even-tempered version of Requiem for a Dream, twice as harrowing because Fassbender and McQueen actually invest in this guy as a character (zing!). Fassbender's achievement here is critical to the film's considerable success; McQueen's a big fan of the long take, and quite often we're left peering into Brandon's eyes, searching for the buried soul amidst sleepless nights and a constantly drained system. Brandon's confidence isn't an act - he knows exactly how to get what he wants, and puts no effort into obtaining it - but it's just as much his escape. While he and Sissy's past is only hinted at, her specific presence seems to unsettle him on a chemical level, in no small part because she shares his struggle.

If Brandon's the functioning addict, Sissy's the one who's just started recovering. Mulligan can convey infinite sadness with one glance, and easily overcomes the initial image of her as an actress (young, beautiful, almost flawless) to show us that Sissy's way past hitting rock bottom. She's not a ball of emotions as much as a constantly-erupting volcano that's as ecstatic to finally be spending time with her brother as she is thrilled to meet a new man as she is furious at her ex-boyfriend who won't take her back or even much talk to her on the phone as she is forever swimming in a deep depression. Mulligan is one of the most intuitive actresses working today, and her total commitment here is revealed in Sissy's unpredictability - we never quite know how she'll react in a given situation because Mulligan herself seems open to that discovery organically. A lot of awards talk is justifiably surrounding Fassbender, but I really hope Mulligan doesn't get lost in the process.

As the third man in this organization, McQueen guides all of this admirably. He opens the film with an extended eerie montage that instantly catapults us into Brandon's ongoing, pervasive, grinding nightmare. There is a lot of sex in this film, but McQueen ensures right away that none of it will be the least bit appealing, and only get less so from there. Escape seems impossible - when Sissy takes up with Brandon's boss in Brandon's apartment, he goes on a run, but McQueen's endless tracking shot keeps him centered, unable to totally escape, forever running down what seems like an endless block (and I know the streets in New York can be long, but this was a particularly keen location find). McQueen is one of the kings of the long shot that pulls you in deeper and deeper until the emotion is unbearable. Here he grants his performers a little more freedom than in his debut film, Hunger, using the handheld camera as a way to catch live behavior as opposed to the usual oh-man-it's-handheld-what's-gonna-happen-now set-up. It's also just a gorgeous film, bright and colorful in a way that heightens the seedy underbelly without being terribly ironic about it.

And I'll be honest, it's an exciting film, in that rare way few other films can be. It's tackling subject matter that is rarely addressed but critical to delve into in our culture (which uses sex as a means of comedy, entertainment, arousal, advertising, and a million other ends), and doing so in a mature, thoughtful way. It features the best work yet by, for my money, the two finest actors to emerge in the last few years, and it establishes its director as a permanent fixture, a guy whose every new film now matters. It's ambitious in subject, theme, and emotion, but never indulgent; it's not trying to make a "big statement," but wisely focuses on how two very damaged people deal with their trenches. It's bold and brash and it doesn't care that it got an NC-17 rating (and it's hardly the wildest NC-17 movie you'll see, but it ain't kidding about it either) - it just is what it is, and it takes it all the way.

Shame will open in limited release on December 2nd, followed by small expansions on the 9th and 16th, though its rating will prevent it from getting to all theaters. To see when and where it will play near you, check out Fox Searchlight's website.