Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (dir. Tomas Alfredson)

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is an incredibly dense, uncompromising film. It doesn’t take a second worrying about whether or not you understand the terminology, know who the people are, or even fully grasp its setting. I placed it in the early-to-mid-’70s based on the clothing and hair styles, and the press notes confirm it in 1973 (but then there’s the matter of the flashbacks...). It’s immediately evident that it’s during the Cold War (because of course it is), but the rest is as elusive as the characters we’re following. It’s an admirable approach to the material, and even if it made for rough waters to tread, I also liked it all the more for it.

The central thrust of the story involves George Smiley, ousted member of the SIS (or MI6 if you prefer), rehired in secret to track down a mole within the organization (more generally referred to as The Circus). Through the course of his investigation, he digs up other business, both savory and otherwise, of the members’ past, including his own. Screenwriters Bridget O’Connor and Peter Straughan, and more importantly director Tomas Alfredson, make little effort to separate the flashbacks from the present, but if you really pay attention, you can catch on pretty quickly to figure out what the film’s rules are for such diversions. And it would all feel so terribly cumbersome if the film didn't so constantly reward your attention.

Like Robert De Niro’s excellent and sadly underrated The Good Shepherd, Alfredson’s film thoroughly enjoys its spy trappings (the code names, the passwords, the subterfuge, etc.) while never forgetting the human element. Spying is a calculated field of operation, but it’s still overseen by people, who are inherently full of weakness and can be unpredictable. They can be swayed (towards you or against you), reasoned with (to a point), disillusioned, and enraged. They have blind spots. They forget. All of these are dangerous elements on a field called “intelligence,” so they have to be accounted for as best they can. But they can never totally covered, and the way in which small mistakes and accidental revelations betray them is so subtly well-played, but ultimately the true meat of a very meaty picture.

Gary Oldman is otherworldly in the lead role. Smiley is the ultimate spy, allowing as little emotion as possible to cross his face, leaving his neutral expression a creepy blank slate. He doesn’t say a word in his first few scenes, and as the picture wears on, you start to learn he doesn’t have to. He has the kind of face that can draw a confession because he seems to already know everything, making it all the more alarming when he (and we) realize he doesn’t. When he discovers that he was also suspected of being a mole, Alfredson is smart enough to hold on a lengthy shot of his reaction, and Oldman expertly navigates some tricky emotions while belying very little. When the revelations get more personal, his sudden burst of immediately-suppressed emotion is startling.

To say the supporting cast is “strong” would be an embarrassing understatement, but let’s just say Alfredson gets a return on his considerable investment. Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, CiarĂ¡n Hines, Mark Strong, and Benedict Cumberbatch are nobody’s idea of low class, and boy is it great to see them all onscreen in an ensemble. None of them are out to steal the spotlight (though John Hurt almost does by default), but Alfredson plays them each very wisely, not just towards their individual strengths, but more aggressively towards your suspicions of each character. Most of them, at one point or another, are suspected of being moles - all of them with good reason - but none are played too strongly as a red herring, nor as an obvious suspect (and there's a difference between the two). Better still, the mystery is not even the most compelling part of the film, with the implied history between each character making for more valuable interactions. Alfredson knows how to catch just the right moment between two people, and when to subtly recall that interaction later in the picture. It's brilliant ensemble work all around.

Alfredson's manner of shooting, in fact, is very sharp. Very often we enter a scene through a window, mirroring the characters’ paranoid suspicion that they’re constantly being watched. It’s rare that such a shot will pay off as a genuine point-of-view perspective, and all the better for it, but Alfredson also knows how to use his camera subjectively. George has a wife, Ann, who has since left him. We glimpse her in memories, but she’s never directly seen. How better to portray a person who’s a bad memory to one man and a pawn to another? It's a handsomely shot film to be sure, with compositions straight out of Antonioni that really, truly demand to be seen on the big screen. I popped in the screener to scope out some scenes again and clarify some details, and while the picture certainly holds up, the power is somewhat diminished. Do not wait for this on DVD; it may be a procedural, but small screen stuff this ain't.

I was consumed by Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as I watched it, and it's stayed nice and sharp in the intervening weeks. It doesn't once assume you're anything less than an attentive viewer, so chin up and dive right in, because the rewards are great. A compelling, kind of pulpy spy plot mixed with the right dose of emotion under very careful direction, and boy...I'd love to talk about the ending at some point.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will be come out in limited release on December 9th, expand to a few other cities on the 16th, before hitting art house theaters nationwide on December 23rd. Click here to see release info.

Monday, November 28, 2011

On Stations Both Police and Train, and a Little Nostalgia for a Bygone Era

After getting bogged down in analyzing Eastwood's remarkable J. Edgar, I was remiss in my duties to link you to three other reviews I wrote, and a podcast on which I appeared.

First, I wrote about Martin Scorsese's fantastic Hugo, and came under fire for so doing. Still don't understand the guy's problem, but, you know, there it is.

Then there's Oren Moverman's Rampart, a decidedly weird normal film, if you get my meaning. It's not weird like, say, The Skin I Live In, but that is a very outwardly weird film. Rampart is a totally straightforward film told in from a rather psychotic perspective, and this, I'd argue, gives it its power.

And finally, we have Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, which I admired greatly and really have no understanding of those who take great issue with it. It might be getting a little big for its britches with all this Oscar talk, but it's still a very fine piece of work. These, and other concerns, are further discussed on the latest episode of the ShockYa podcast, hosted by the affable Rudie Obias, who was good enough to have me as a guest.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

J. Edgar (dir. Clint Eastwood)

At this point in its run, discussing J. Edgar without bringing up the considerable negative reaction the film has accrued would be...difficult. Not just because I feel that they couldn't be more off base, but just as much because I realize that my surprisingly passionate response towards Clint Eastwood's latest opus is by far the minority opinion, particularly among writers of my age range. And if Clint Eastwood only makes films for old people and young people who are regularly referred to as "old man," then so be it - there are too few films for us as it is. But I will nevertheless attempt to show you the film I saw on Tuesday.

The film opens on what will have to pass as the "present day," or roughly the early 1960s (though this "present day" will extend all the way up through 1972). Eastwood shows a total lack of concern for making explicit dates throughout the film, befitting screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's method of diving across decades in the blink of an eye, and back again. This isn't a film about what happened, but how one man says it happened. The problem is that that man is J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most powerful men in American history, and as they say, history is written by the victors. As much as I hate the modern method of just naming biopics after their subjects, J. Edgar is a particularly apt title - this is Hoover and he sees himself, and what becomes so fascinating over the course of the film is just how pathetic that is.

Right away his whole testimony should be called into question - when the agent taking dictation for the purposes of memoir asks if Edgar was really at the scene of an early crime, he simply says, "Let's leave that to the reader's imagination." The J. Edgar Hoover of the past, at least the one he describes to agents, is a bright, ambitious man who always has the right thing to say at the right time, and though he may battle bureaucratic forces, he will always prove the victor. But of the present? Tossed out of the offices of his superiors, rejected by those he loves, questioned by everyone, and belittled at every turn. Near the end of the film, he reflects on how evil flourishes when good men do nothing in conjunction with Richard Nixon taking office, which seems like kind of a stretch (that Hoover saw Nixon for what he was right away, despite their overlapping interests). This is undermined a few minutes later when it turns out Edgar was mostly concerned with Nixon going after his personal files, which he'd kept locked away in his office for decades. When Clyde suggests to Edgar that he retire after Nixon takes office, Edgar just says, "Shut up, Clyde," and when pushed, he rattles off the resume he finds so impressive, but can only come up with examples from the Great Depression. These instances reveal the truth underneath his version of the story (and thus the key to unlocking the film as a portrait of a "fussy little man"), and more so the truth behind the framing device, which I don't think is everything it appears to be.

If there's one thing we learn about Edgar (as he prefers to be called), it's that he doesn't take guff from many people, least of all his underlings. Yet every agent who comes to take his dictation questions his past decisions, corrects some facts he misconstrues, and points out the dark underbelly of the empire he built. Why would he put up with that? Well, chiefly, I don't think they're really there, per se. Not that Edgar is literally walking around his office talking to himself (after all, he and his secretary discuss one of the agents), but rather that it's a particularly keen invention on the part of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black to reveal the rather sorry state of Edgar's soul - a man constantly propping himself up, even as he knows his actions have resulted in men losing their careers, their families, and their lives. That Eastwood directs each of the agents towards very monotone, even, undistinguished performances is part of the point; these men represent Edgar's conscience, not his employees. This is underscored right up front if you know Hoover's education background (the first agent says he received his law degree from George Washington University, and had an ailing mother to care for; both are true of Hoover), but the general pitch of the scenes indicate this far more interesting subtext.

This is far from the Eastwood we're used to, and his stylistic touches hardly stop there; the one that really knocked me off my feet was the introduction of Clyde Tolson.

There are so many aspects to this scene I scarcely know where to begin. Not only is it an incredibly effective, haunting scene, but it points to some fascinating thematic undercurrents. Edgar has just finished recounting his raid on a Communist organization in New Jersey, which cost, according to the agent transcribing his tale, everyone else in the Bureau involved in the arrests their job. We faintly hear a man call Edgar's name, and Edgar instructs the agent to "ignore him," which he does, up to a point. A figure, this haunting, ghostly image on the other side of the opaque doorway, opens Edgar's door a crack, and reminds him of his appointment with the Attorney General. Edgar insists the figure, who he regards as "Mr. Tolson," "please go away", with a rudeness that will be uncommon in their relationship as we eventually see it unfold. Mr. Tolson holds there for a second longer than is necessary, all the while framed as this ghostly image, a figure haunting Edgar just outside of his comfort zone.

This comes twenty-five minutes into the film. It takes that long for Black and Eastwood to introduce the other man in the film's supposedly-central love story. It will take another seven before we get the flashback explaining who Mr. Tolson even is, much less who he will become. This decision, which can look careless on paper, is of monumental importance on a structural level - Mr. Tolson (Clyde, as he will come to be known) is a person Edgar tries to push away from his public life however possible, until the memory of him, the figure (if not necessarily the man himself) comes barging into his subconscious and refuses to be ignored. From there, it's a flood of memories, as Clyde grows more and more important and eventually is inextricable. Eastwood being Eastwood, this isn't piled on, but it is nonetheless a felt influence, and central to the film's work-before-pleasure attitude.

I know many would have liked a more urgent exploration of Hoover's alleged relationship with Clyde Tolson (and one must bear in mind that, like many aspects of Hoover's life, the extent of their real-life relationship will never be fully known), but I think Eastwood and Black's treatment of it is far deeper, and far more interesting, than the simple "yeah, okay, probably he was gay, but let's not dwell on that shall we?" attitude to which many are ascribing it. Their vision of Hoover is not only probably more historically accurate, but it's also a lot more dramatically compelling - he drew Clyde close to him until he couldn't allow himself to get any closer. The film ascribes much of the blame for Edgar's psychological resistance to homosexuality to his mother (played here by a very creepy Judi Dench), and maybe they're right to do so and maybe they're not, but his mother at least represents some essential element within Edgar that makes homosexuality repellant to him. Eastwood doesn't always handle this push-and-pull gracefully, and I don't think he really builds to their major confrontation in the hotel room in a dramatic sense. From a structural standpoint, however (and Black's screenplay is magnificent in this regard), it's an important operatic note approaching the final third of the film that reveals the raging inner passion within both Edgar and Clyde, albeit to differing ends. It's also played admirably petty and shrill, a true fight.

The point is that for Edgar, the possibility of a romance is an intrusion. He proposes marriage early on to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who refuses but becomes his lifelong secretary, but after that is actively uncomfortable with any romantic proposition, even one as simple as a dance. He simply looks away and goes right back to work, and while this might not be the most exciting path the filmmakers could have taken, it strikes me as admirably insightful.

Besides, his career in the FBI, an organization he practically founded, is storied enough. Edgar naturally focuses on their victories, the golden years when his publicity machine was working overtime to promote the G-Men to the status of superheroes (an era that is thoroughly undermined by the picture's end), but again, look to the present, when he's subtly orchestrating a plot to undermine Martin Luther King, Jr. The film naturally avoids some of the more controversial allegations in that regard, but it makes no bones about how Hoover saw King as the latest version of the Communist terror he had long sought to thwart. And if he pursues it as passionately as ever, nobody else seems to understand his choice of an enemy, recognizing instantly that he's searching for one anywhere he can find it. In another fruitless pursuit, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy (portrayed very badly by Jeffrey Donovan) pretty much throws him out for even bringing it up.

While I admired the film principally for Eastwood's masterful direction and Black's solid-as-a-rock screenplay, it'd be disingenuous to not discuss Leonardo DiCaprio's lead performance. This is not the first busily-conflicted historical figure he's played, and like his Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover is a man full of eccentricities (DiCaprio gets knocked for what many see as his inability to do comedy, but I found his instructions to the men bringing in his filing cabinets to be a very acute comedic beat), but is a far sturdier presence (eventually aided by padding his mother and doctor assure him is "solid weight"). Like all of DiCaprio's performances over the last nine years, it's wildly theatrical, the kind the cooler-than-the-Oscars crowd likes to rail against but which inevitably draws praise from all corners. DiCaprio has long been tagged for his "boyish" looks, and indeed there's rarely anything masculine about his face, aside from one, important feature - his eyes, which have a steely determination that is near lunacy, and especially as Edgar gets older and older and the make-up thicker and thicker, those eyes will become the characteristic to which we are most attached. As well we should be.

DiCaprio is often criticized for his accent work, which he indulges in regularly but has never quite mastered. This is probably his most affected to date, but I've always found his vocal performance to be totally compelling, and that is no different here. He is our guide while the picture criss-crosses through the decades, and a commanding presence it is. Eastwood wisely directs the rest of his actors around DiCaprio, pushing them to performances that might fit the stage better than the screen (they would undoubtedly be more widely-acclaimed there) to fit Black's admittedly stage-y dialogue. While he certainly commits some egregious sins of exposition ("your brother, the President of the United States" and "You mean Mrs. Roosevelt?" sting especially hard), Black isn't going for conversational dialogue, nor should he. It's big dialogue befitting a big story about a powerful figure. It's lightyears away from his work on Milk, but it's also more thematically, structurally, and dramatically rewarding.

And As noted previously, I never would have guessed he had this in him, but his execution of some rather tricky transitions and ambitious structure is incredible. He weaves the past and present together so effortlessly, creating visual parallels to emphasize the thematic ones. I was particularly taken by a montage in which Edgar rides comfortably in an elevator in the 1960s while his men do his dirty work (and dirty it is), a juxtaposition that will pay off in spades by the end of the film, and then...the elevators open, and we're effortlessly back into the 1930s. No music (Eastwood is characteristically restrained in his use of score, which he writes himself), no sweeping camera moves. Simple, elegant shots and sharp, rhythmic cuts. Classical, but very effective montage. Time slips and flows like sand, getting jumbled up every time you dip your hand in.

It's a story, but it's more important than that - it's an idea, an emotion, a clear dissection of the line between Edgar's work and that which he instructs. This isn't the only instance of Eastwood cleverly slipping through time as his characters enter and exit rooms (most notably, one sequence has Edgar exist Clyde's house in 1969 and arrive at his own in 1972), but it is by far the most elegant.

For all his restraint, however, Eastwood displays a certain charming messiness that...well, it's the most difficult aspect of his work to discuss, because his sharpest critics accuse Eastwood of being too dry and also too messy. But it's that element that makes Eastwood's work so electrifying, and causes it to rise above from the biopics both montage-laden (Ray, Milk, etc.) and truly "uninvestigative" (The Queen) to which we're accustomed. Richard Brody describes it best:
Eastwood is, and always has been, a great sketch artist for whom brisk, stylized restraint - a sort of opaque tightness within a frame of breezy looseness - has always been second nature. The sense of improvication in tension with reserve, of expressive freedom conflicting with circumspect reticence, is one of Eastwood's fundamental themes, not least in J. Edgar. What's more, most directors, when they get older, get even sketchier - they're in more of a hurry to expose their feelings and ideas and they have learned not to worry about trivia in their urgency to get to the heart of the matter. They get both quicker and more radical.
When I was at AFI Fest, I attended a panel dedicated to young actors who had some heat going into awards season. Armie Hammer (whose work here is fine, if a little knowing and mannered, but he absolutely nails his old-man phase) was on that panel, and spoke of how he was introduced to Eastwood, a week before shooting was to commence on J. Edgar. This means that not only had Eastwood not met Hammer prior to casting him, and Hammer's story implied that they hadn't even spoken. Eastwood simply said "I'm looking forward to seeing what you'll do."

I know, to many, this statement will confirm everything they despise in Eastwood's work, which takes on an air of the studio era way of working, in which everybody pretty much showed up to work and was responsible for their assigned department. And maybe it is, but they made some damn electric films back then precisely because of the invisible specter of the unexpected. Resultantly, Eastwood creates a unified theatrical environment in his performances, but each actor brings a very distinct interpretation of their character and the story as a whole to bear, and creates a more lively environment than many give it credit for.

After two notable, but not exactly good, films (even I can't find anything notable in Invictus), Eastwood has reemerged here with his best film since Letters from Iwo Jima, and one of the most electrifying directorial turns of the year. His methods, if unusual, pay off in spades here, in no small part because he tapped Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the finest actors of this generation, to lead the charge with a performance as commanding as it is compelling. If they don't find the truth of the real J. Edgar Hoover, they certainly find his truth, and what better way to get at one of the most powerful men of the 20th century?

Movie Journal #2

Rejoice and Shout - So, yes, admittedly, only an idiot would say the movie's a total loss. I mean, you get to sit and listen to all this great music, and typically watch some film of the performers doing it live. And man...that is a sight to see. Totally lives up to the title of the documentary. But, you know, as a documentary, as a piece of filmmaking, this couldn't have been any flatter. It's a strict chronological tale of the evolution of gospel music, focusing of course on its life pre-1960, but certainly touching on music made all the way up until,, actually. But there's no pep to it. They talk to the same five people the whole damn time, and it quickly develops into a very predictable artist showcase, followed by several minutes of talking heads, then another artist, then...well, you get the idea. It's dry, dry, dry, even though the music couldn't be more ecstatic. Great subject, poor documentary.

Into the Abyss - Whoooo, baby, this was exhausting. Werner Herzog's latest film has been pushed as a documentary about the death penalty, and by the end it certainly takes on that subject as its thesis, but it focuses so specifically on one case that it's almost solely an exploration of only those people involved. But by taking on the larger issue towards the end, he really gets you to think about the societal and moral implications of the ever-controversial practice. I've been staunchly against the death penalty since I was 18 and really started diving into it, but even I could see the perspective of those who feel differently thanks to Herzog's film. Herzog, for what it's worth, isn't too fond of capital punishment either, but was good enough to give all of his subjects their due in the interviews. Fascinating story on its own with overwhelming implications.

Secret Sunshine - I'm not pleased to say that I don't really understand the overwhelming love for this one, but it's not one I'm ready to dismiss outright. Its totally unpredictable plot and tonal shifts are something to behold, as is the lead performance by Do-yeon Jeon. I found myself emotionally devastated quite frequently without ever feeling terribly caught up in either the protagonist or the plot. As a total work, I might have more appreciation for it a few weeks hence, but right now, I'm feeling the weight of aimless scenes and unsteady camerawork.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Movie Journal #1

I'm not saying this to brag as much as provide context - with the end of the year and awards season approaching, I've been receiving a ton of screeners. My goal is to somehow plow my way through all of them, and write at least a little bit about each. Hopefully I'll get one or two of these up each week to let you know how the progress is going, and maybe tune you into some films you might have missed this year.

Page One: Inside The New York Times - I was really looking forward to this one, and it's certainly not without its pleasures. Choosing David Carr as your chief subject will certainly yield many, and I've had a long fascination with "the newsroom." Add to that a little social relevance with the decline of the newspaper as an industry (and, in many ways, an institution), and you've got the makings for a fascinating doc. Andrew Rossi takes advantage of these interests, but doesn't do as good a job at finding the wider appeal, the deeper importance. For a film that's already a bit of a self-reflection (a piece of media about the media), it would have been greater served by spreading itself around offices at the Times beyond the Media Desk, where it spends nearly every second of its time. We get a sense for how this department's concerns can be extrapolated and applied to any other desk, but that's hardly the documentary's doing. As a result, we don't get the full impact of the paper and what it really is to be "inside The New York Times." Worth a watch if you're into that sort of thing, though.

Project Nim - Partially as a function of covering more movies semi-professionally this year, I've seen far more documentaries this year than any other (three today alone beats the count for some years), and Project Nim is definitely in my top three or four. Go for the crazy ape behavior, stay for the people, I say. I was expecting the unforeseen consequences of a group trying to raise a chimp as a human would be, but I did not at all expect the people involved to be so endlessly fascinating. As Nim's life progresses, people fall away, and people join, but every last one of them is more interesting than the types you get in most narrative films. The self-involvement and narcissism on display is breathtaking, as is director James Marsh's slight prying into...well, just what kind of person signs on for something like this? Excellent film all around; Marsh injects it with real style utilizing the surprisingly extensive footage shot at the time, reenactments, and stately-shot interviews. Loved it.

Ceremony - An absolute delight. It's one of the more obvious of the "sons of Wes Anderson" set of films to which we've been treated over the last decade, but that doesn't stop it from developing an entertaining wit and rapport amongst the characters. It becomes a tad staid and conventional as it progresses, but the first 30-45 minutes in particular are dynamite. Michael Angarano gives an amazing lead performance, a character far from what I expected after seeing the trailer. If it is another film by a lonely guy reflecting on some real life unattainable woman (which it kind of reads like at times), at least he went through the trouble to make it not boring.

If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front - Fascinating stuff. It uses one man's arrest in conjunction with one of the ELF's arson jobs to explore the short history of the movement in America in the late nineties/early oughts. In so doing, we have a personal story to follow as well as a deeper history. It definitely has a perspective on the whole affair, but gives due time to those opposed, and doesn't judge either for their beliefs. It also provides some insight into protests in general, chiefly the effectiveness of peaceful, unobtrusive protest (relevant all over again with the Occupy movement), and explores the question of whether what the ELF did could even be called terrorism. They raise, but don't explore any further, the question of whether or not these crimes were prosecuted as terrorist acts so the government could have one more terrorist conviction under its belt. Good stuff all around.

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Other F Word (dir. Andrea Blaugrund)

Chuck Klosterman wrote this great essay cataloguing life on a rock cruise headlined by Journey, Styx, and REO Speedwagon. It was something like a month at sea with a regular rotation of shows headlined by these three bands, and in it he talked about how part of the appeal for most of the attendees was that their interests and concerns had grown alongside the bands’. They all started out young and hungry and just wanting to make some noise, but now they were settled into careers, and there was something comforting about watching a band as big as Journey that now plays solely to make a living.

One of the central conflicts in The Other F Word, the thoroughly enjoyable new documentary now playing in New York and Los Angeles, is the search for nobility in playing in a punk band so you can feed your family. After all, punk grew out of a young, primal urge to tear down the system (one that it still feeds), and many of the bands that have been around for ten, fifteen, twenty years aren’t exactly in it for the reasons they were when they started. They do it because it’s their job.

The word to which the title refers is actually “fatherhood,” which is what inevitably spurns the primary concern to pay the bills. When you’re childless and especially single, it’s in your best interest to keep a roof over your head, but you’re almost equally concerned with finding some form of self-expression. But suddenly your sole concern has to be for these kids, and for most of these guys, that means their music becomes a passion in a whole new way, with the added ironic sting that the method by which you provide for your family also keeps you far away from them on world tours for over half the year.

Fatherhood had a varying effect on the film’s subjects (which are pretty wide-ranging, focusing on Jim Lindberg of Pennywise but bringing in Tony Hawk, Art Alexakis of Everclear, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Mark Hoppus of Blink 182, and many more), but most expressed a determination to not entirely release their roots. The other great irony they run into is that their music has, in several cases, made them quite a bit of money, so they end up rubbing elbows with their respective city’s more affluent population (who, as one of the guys notes, “are fine...but really boring.”).

It’s not an incredibly complex film, but it nevertheless gets into some interesting territory about how practical it is to keep “living the dream” twenty years in. All of the stuff between the guy and their children is pretty touching, with the added amusement that comes from a guy covered in tattoos of questionable material and screaming for the rise of anarchy wondering how he’s supposed to realistically prevent his kid from using bad words in school. Most of them, unsurprisingly, came from broken homes, typically a result of an absent father, and they seem genuinely motivated to not be that guy at all costs.

The Other F Word is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and can be seen in several other cities in the weeks to come.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

AFI Fest Preview

AFI Fest 2011 kicks off tomorrow, and I’ll be there all week covering as many damn films as time and my own ability to stay awake will allow. I’ll be rolling out daily recaps over at Battleship Pretension, but you can come here for regular link round-ups. I’ll also be Twittering vigorously @railoftomorrow.

I was unable to attend the press screenings preceding the festival, but I researched all of the films as they were announced, and have thus assembled a list of what I feel are the movies to see, though scheduling will prevent anyone from possibly seeing all of them. Admittedly, some of my reasons are a trifle vague, but I’m trying to maintain some of the mystery for myself.

If you end up attending the festival, shoot me a tweet, say “hi,” buy me a sandwich, whatever! I’ll be busy, but not that busy. As always, the comments are open, so if you want a different kind of coverage, be sure to let me know as well - I hope to get to all types of things, but you never know everything you leave out.

J. Edgar (dir. Clint Eastwood) - It's the opening night gala, and tickets are scarce. More are supposed to pop up any second now, so keep your eyes peeled! But any new Clint Eastwood movie is a must see, and this one has the benefit of almost certainly being better than Hereafter.

The Adventures of Tintin (dir. Steven Spielberg) - I don’t care what your too-cool-for-school friends say. Spielberg is one of the greats. This is his first foray into animation, 3D, and digital filmmaking, and for that alone it demands your attention. Plus it’s been getting great reviews overseas, where it’s already opened.

Carnage (dir. Roman Polanski) - The reviews have not been across-the-board praise, as many feel the film is trapped by its stage-y roots (it’s adapted from the hit show, God of Carnage), but beyond the allure of any new Roman Polanski film, there are few directors who can turn one room into such a dynamic force as he.

The Artist (dir. Michel Hazanavicius) - The Artist has remained every cinephile’s fantasy film since it premiered out of nowhere at Cannes (literally - it was added to the competition a week before the festival). Initial reviews were ambivalent, but it’s been gaining steam ever since. I would be ecstatic if this revives interest in silent film, but for now, I’m just hoping for a damn good movie.

Shame (dir. Steve McQueen) - This is easily required viewing based on the strength of McQueen’s debut film, Hunger, which, like this film, starred Michael Fassbender. Unfortunately, not very many people saw Hunger, but the reviews for this have been extraordinary so far, and its reputation alone will make it one of the most talked-about films of the fall - it’s without a doubt the highest-profile NC-17 film of the last decade.

Into the Abyss (dir. Werner Herzog) - It’s the new Werner Herzog film. Need I say more? Strategic festival-goers may want to wait on this, as it’s released in Los Angeles mere days after it’s shown at AFI Fest (I’ll be waiting, but only because there are more rare, and equally enticing, opportunities at the same times).

The Kid with the Bike (dir. Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne) - Once again, one could do worse that to rely on a reputation as strong as the Dardennes, but even those given to say “more of the same” are declaring this especially noteworthy. Those who do not tire of artistic excellence are over the moon.

Jeff, Who Lives at Home (dir. Mark Duplass & Jay Duplass) - I’ve had an unsteady relationship with the Duplass brothers since their breakout film, The Puffy Chair, culminating with what I felt was a massive misfire with Cyrus. Yet I can’t resist the pull, especially with a cast headlined by Jason Segel, Ed Helms, Judy Greer(!), and Susan Sarandon.

Melancholia (dir. Lars von Trier) - Once again, strategists may want to take its impending release (November 11th in Los Angeles) as reason to check out some smaller stuff, but this is my one major indulgence - I’m dying to see this projected on the Egyptian’s enormous screen. Reviews have been exuberant, and many felt it could have taken the Palme d’Or if not for von Trier’s knack for getting into trouble.

Miss Bala (dir. Gerardo Naranjo and Mauricio Katz) - A few months back, I was embroiled in an extensive, multi-blog debate about the modern quick-cut style of action films. My opponents will be delighted to know their precious “classical” camerawork is, reportedly, very much alive. Don’t get me wrong, I’m dying for a more rigorous action movie myself, so if you see me at the 8:30 show on Friday night, do say “hi.”

Pina (dir. Wim Wenders) - In addition to praising the cinematic stylings of Michael Bay, I’ve also sought to alienate myself from critical circles by vigorously championing 3D. And a 3D dance documentary directed by Wim Wenders is just what the doctor ordered! Those I know who have seen it think very highly of it.

Rampart (dir. Oren Moverman) - I enjoyed, but was not particularly electrified, by Moverman’s debut, The Messenger, but it was enough to get me curious. Plus, co-written by James Ellroy? Corruption in the LAPD? Indeed!

We Need to Talk About Kevin (dir. Lynne Ramsay) - I am, regrettably, not as familiar with Ms. Ramsay’s career as I (or I’m sure you) would like, but I hear she’s one hell of a filmmaker, and this one’s got Tilda Swinton! Maybe that doesn’t make it the must-see movie for you that it is for me, but if that’s the case...why?

The Loneliest Planet (dir. Julia Loktev) - Ecstatic reviews out of the New York Film Festival. Phil Coldiron called it “the sharpest account of what it means to be an educated, disillusioned young American made thus far in the 21st century.” Richard Brody noted that Loktev “condenses a world of bitter and incommensurable experience into a single shot.” Hurrah!

Michael (dir. Markus Schleinzer) - Reportedly a very calm, measured portrait of an accountant who keeps a ten-year-old boy locked in his basement. Not for those whose souls have not already been sanded to dust, I’m sure, but I’ll give it a go anyway.

Green (dir. Sophia Takal) - I’ll be honest, I don’t know anything about this one, but it was one of a handful that was highlight by those who would know as a must-see. Sure, I could look up reviews, but I don’t want to totally spoil my own fun.

Alps (dir. Yorgos Lanthimos) - Did you see Dogtooth? I still don’t know what to think about it, but I wouldn’t trade watching it for...well, seeing it on the big screen as opposed to a standard-def stream on Netflix wouldn’t have been so bad. Nevertheless, Lanthimos is more than a director worth watching - he’s worth fearing. In a good way.

The Day He Arrives (dir. Hon Sang-Soo) - Again, woefully unfamiliar with the director, but I hear it has intellectuals discussing things! While drunk! In black-and-white! Yeah, I did go to film school, why do you ask?

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (dir. David Gelb) - An apparently enrapturing portrait of a world-renowned sushi chef who operates out of a subway station, and whose waiting list can stretch for years.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (dir. Nuri Bilge Ceylan) - Very depressed I’ll have to miss this one (due to scheduling conflicts), as it’s a slow-burning procedural in which a killer leads the police to his victim’s body. I’m sure things don’t quite go as planned.

A Separation (dir. Asghar Farhadi) - Another one very close to getting cut from my schedule due to a very tight day, but this has become the movie to see in the rounds it’s made through festivals. The screenplay is apparently tight enough to bounce a dime off, and the emotional punch quite a wallop.

The Turin Horse (dir. Bela Tarr) - Tarr claims this will be his final film, which makes it something of an event unto itself. Never mind the reviews that have called it a devastating masterpiece, which should be a good way to start off the day (both screenings are in the first block, and while one would like to wander around town late into the night pondering the fragility of existence after such a thing, them’s the brakes). It runs a scant 146 minutes with only 30 shots. I couldn’t be more giddy. Word on the street is that Tarr himself will be there. For which screening, I do not know. The word was not that elaborate.

Extraterrestrial (dir. Nacho Vigalondo) - Timecrimes fans will want to note that this is director Vigalondo’s follow-up. Me, I’ve yet to see Timecrimes, but I know its fanbase is expansive; hence, I have included it.

Bonsai (dir. Cristian Jimenez) - Like so many others, this is getting fantastic reviews, and it has a very friendly premise to those who share my interests: “In Cristian Jimenez’s wry and nostalgic tale of love and literature, struggling writer Julio revisits and revises his memories of his college romance with Emilia.” Sadly, as with so many others, scheduling will prevent me, but it needn’t you.

Bullhead (dir. Michael R. Roskam) - If you think about it hard enough, you already know the premise based on the title. And it sounds righteous. Word out of Fantastic Fest was strong. Strong like a bull.

Le Cercle Rouge (dir. Jean-Pierre Melville) and The Killers (dir. Robert Siodmak) - No, Melville and Siodmak didn’t come back from the dead and remake his own classics, Haneke-style (note: there is no proof that Haneke has died, though he often looks not unlike an extra in a Romero film); rather, this is one of the films Pedro Almodovar has chosen to highlight in his stint as guest director. The other two - Eyes Without a Face and Nightmare Alley - I’ve unfortunately not seen, but these two are dynamite.

Shorts! - There are four shorts programs, and one of the major recommendations from festival veterans is to make sure to catch at least one at any festival. I’ll probably be catching Shorts 1, but that’s purely a function of scheduling, as it’s actually the shortest program.

There will also be a few events at the festival, namely the Young Hollywood Panel, featuring Kirsten Dunst, Anton Yelchin, Armie Hammer, and Evan Rachel Wood (that might be too much pretty on display, but I think the room will find a way to manage), and the Sony 3D Panel. Those who read this whole damn thing might remember that I’m quite fond of the potential of 3D, and I want to see what Buzz Hays, Senior Vice President of the Sony 3D Technology Center, sees in its future.

Getting by far the least notice of all is Two Visions of the West with Bob Birchard. Part of that is the time - 9:30 am makes it by far the earliest event all week - but it’s also one of the few retrospectives, and worth taking note of. Birchard will present The Canadian, a silent later noted for its stark realism, and Trail of the Vigilantes, the description for which includes the words “oater,” “lawman,” “outlaws,” “comic,” “mysterious,” “hell-raiser,” “sidekick,” and (wait for it) “nymphomania.” This falls at the beginning of my busiest day, which will end well after midnight, but I’m pretty intent on making it.

Finally, there is a Secret Screening scheduled for November 6th at 9:30. I don’t have any insider knowledge, and my plan is still to attend Melancholia at 8:30 that evening instead, but...if I hear tell that it’s something irresistible, my plans may have to change.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Communists, Young Love, Bastards, and Hipsters

Did I go too far in noting Communist ideology into my review of In Time? Only...time...will tell.

Moviegoers outside the multiplex aren't going to fare much better, I'm afraid - I was really looking forward to Like Crazy, and was sorely disappointed. It's not awful by any stretch; it's more that it keeps showing promise but on which it can't really follow through. Some nice moments here and there, but not enough connective tissue. Anyway, I wrote a whole damn review about it.

I don't know if I'll get around to writing about The Rum Diary or Hipsters, but suffice to say neither are particularly noteworthy. The Rum Diary is enjoyable enough for much of its running time, with sporadic bursts of wonderful inspiration, and it's great to see Depp subverting his relatively-for-him wholesome Disney image again, but it's a little too celebratory of its subject, Hunter S. Thompson (by way of fictional Paul Kemp). Michael Rispoli is magnificent.

As for Hipsters, well, it uses my least favorite convention - introducing us to this crazy group of characters through a totally bland protagonist - and its storytelling is pretty patchy. Great music, though.