Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 2)


Since I still have many movies of 2014 to write about and it's now 2015 and all that biz, I'm going to take a speed dating/hot dog eating contest/Irish exit from the keg party hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the remaining films I saw in a theater and give my one- or two- or three- or four-sentence appraisal of the ones my procrastinating ways neglected. Here's the second of a few batches.

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
Everything I said about Meyer's Up! in the last post applies here, too, except the budget is a lot higher, there's not as much sex (though this is a bit like saying there's not as much tin foil in the world's biggest ball of tin foil because you took off five or six pieces of tin foil), there's a lot more rock and pop music, the satirical target is Hollywood instead of rednecks and Nazis, the tone is darker and more perverse yet it feels more accessible to a general audience, and the montage editing is even zippier and more reminiscent of comic books and classic cartoons. Roger Ebert's screenplay is so funny, so weird (sample line of dialogue: "You will drink the black sperm of my vengeance!"), and so innately attuned to the midnight-movie/cult/exploitation mindset that it's odd how much of a blind spot he had for those kinds of films as a critic, regularly panning some of the best and most notable psychotronic-oddball-freakout-cult-weirdo-drive-in-B-movie movies.

Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais)
We lost Alain Resnais last year, which is sad not only because he's emblematic of an artistic generation that is slowly but steadily leaving this astral plane, but also because he was still making great movies. However, the death of an old man is not a tragedy, to paraphrase another deceased old man, and Resnais left an astounding body of work, of which this restored 1968 film is a solid example. Je t'aime, je t'aime is a melancholy piece of science fiction about the tense but symbiotic relationship between memory and narrative, and how we move around the fragments of our memories to create the stories of our lives.

Life Itself (Steve James)
Speaking of Ebert, this documentary about his life from the talented Chicago-based filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) is a little too uncritically fond of its subject and uses an effective but fairly conventional mixture of fly-on-the-wall and talking-heads interview footage, but otherwise is a funny, entertaining, and moving portrait of a guy who was a lot of things: a small-town Illinois son of working class liberal Catholics, a Chicago newspaperman, a movie lover, a critic, a popular TV personality, an arrogant clown, a recovering alcoholic, a husband, a screenwriter for Russ Meyer, a cancer survivor, and a sick man nearing the end of his life. Ebert let James film him in personal, unflattering, and difficult circumstances, and this film's greatest value is in its honest and compassionate look at subjects people in this country love to avoid: illness, aging, and dying.

Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
I really loved this movie, despite some nitpicky quibbles with the occasional line of dialogue, but I feel like I don't have anything to say about it at the moment, now that it's nominated for a bunch of Oscars and won some Golden Globes and was at or near the top of a ton of best-of-2014 lists. I hope the film's virtues don't get lost in a sea of hype and overpraise and the inevitable backlash, and I'm sympathetic to a few detractors who put forth the idea that a film focusing on the sister or the mother instead of the son would have been more worthwhile. (I want all three of those movies to exist, if I could have my way.) At the risk of adding my enthusiasm and praise to an already giant and ever-growing pile, I'm really impressed and touched by what Linklater's done here. There's a lot of beauty and sadness and warmth in seeing these characters and the actors who play them age 12 years onscreen. I like how Linklater focuses, mostly, on the small moments that actually define and shape our lives, instead of the big events that mostly don't. Even though it's his longest film, it feels like one of his most focused, pared to its essentials. Films nominated for the big awards, even the really good ones, always get more attention than they deserve, but I'm glad this one's chiseled through. It's actually about people and living and the passage of time, and not the usual Oscar staples like American exceptionalism, self-congratulatory celebrity backslapping, insincere and mawkish inspirational uplift, middlebrow art-as-display-case, the Cliff's Notes lives of notable famous people (aka the parade of indistinguishable biopics), the noble terminally ill/disabled/no-makeup/prosthetic-nosed tragic hero who overcomes obstacles, bloodless literary adaptations, etc.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The big 2014 cleanup (abridged) (part 1)

Since I still have many movies of 2014 to write about and it's now 2015 and all that biz, I'm going to take a speed dating/hot dog eating contest/Irish exit from the keg party hit-it-and-quit-it approach to the remaining films I saw in a theater and give my one- or two- or three- or four-sentence appraisal of the ones my procrastinating ways neglected. Here's the first of a few batches.

Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Psychotropic atmospheric feminist science fiction horror art film about how women are seen, not seen, evaluated, used, objectified, idealized, hated, and feared, from an alien's perspective. Maybe my favorite movie of last year. Great score by Mica Levi. Has the feel of one of those mindblowing '70s cult obscurities that falls apart in the final third, exhausted by its own strange energy, only this one doesn't fall apart in the final third.

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Very funny, and romantic, self-critique of the aging hipster as cultural, and literal, vampire with expressive use of Detroit locations. Maybe a little slight, but maybe not. Great music. Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston were born to play vampires. Don't lump them together, though. They're two very different characters, despite sharing the fangs.

Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
Wish she hadn't appropriated the title of a great Arthur Penn movie, but this is another fascinating anti-crowdpleaser from Reichardt. Her work is hard to write about. She gives us characters and situations that, though underrepresented in American film (especially in this past decade), tap into something essentially American, but her approach to narrative makes this familiarity deeply strange. Her visual composition is subtle but lingering. I loved the first half of this film and struggled with the second half, but it's that second half that keeps coming back to me at odd moments.

Up! (Russ Meyer)
Soft-core sex, impossibly buxom women, dumb jokes, goofball visual gags, redneck violence, hilariously strange dialogue, and a twisted, delirious comic-book eye for shot composition and montage. This is real art, in my book. Cram the middlebrow rubes' condescension with walnuts. I'll take any Russ Meyer movie over almost any Oscar winner almost all the time.

Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Nutso bit of ultra-violence on a train with an unsubtly mallet-heavy but appreciated message about the disparity of class in our rich-make-poor-devour-themselves-while-rich-accumulate-everything society we made happen. I like the structure of moving from one train car to the next without knowing what will be waiting there, the international cast, and the intensely weird approach to the fight scenes and gore. Some heavy-handed speechifying, but a lot to enjoy otherwise. The CGI doesn't even make me puke. Joon-ho's first English-language film has some studio gloss and uninspired dialogue, but his weirdness and unconventional gift of breathing fresh life into familiar genres remains.

Friday, January 02, 2015

2014

I failed in my goal of writing about every movie I saw in a theater in 2014, but what can you do? I'm currently in the process of shrinking down my social media usage to spend more time in the analog world of reading books, listening to records, avoiding pointless online political arguments with relatives, allowing more space for solitude and thought instead of constant opinion-generation and content-absorption, and decreasing time spent on my phone and the Internet. My work schedule is about to get temporarily crazy for the next five months, and when things settle down again in late May, I want to spend more time working on my non-blog writing. I'm still going to keep my blogs going, but the posts will continue to be infrequent for the next several months.
But in the spirit of online content generation and unsolicited opinion-sharing, here is my annual list of my ten favorite movies of the year, the runners-up, and my favorite revival, reissue, and film society screenings. To be eligible, the movies had to be released in the city of Austin between January 1 and December 31 of 2014, and I had to get off my couch and see them on the big screen. As always, my choices are based on my personal and idiosyncratic taste, and limited by the insanity and shortsightedness of capitalist distribution of art, the whims of the marketplace, my schedule and motivation, and the fact that I don't live in New York, Paris, or Los Angeles. Many 2014 films I have a great interest in seeing, including the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson, Mike Leigh, the Dardennes, and David Cronenberg, won't play here until 2015, and many foreign films and independents won't play here at all or may only get a few film society screenings if they're lucky. I have no idea if I'll ever get to see the new Godard or Tsai Ming-Liang on the big screen, for example. Decent distribution for films that aren't blockbuster garbage or sanctimonious Oscar-grubbing has grown increasingly scarce in the last half-decade and is only getting worse. In that spirit of optimism, here are the movies that grabbed my eyeballs, ears, and imagination this year. Omissions are not necessarily judgments.

Top 10, in a somewhat preferential but also arbitrary and ridiculous order
1. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
2. A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
3. Joe (David Gordon Green)
4. Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
5. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
6. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
8. Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier)
9. The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
10.  Mood Indigo (Michel Gondry)

Movies I liked, just not as much as the above, but maybe that could change given some time (and to be honest, I had some issues with at least half the movies in my top 10, it was a weird year, etc.)
Her (Spike Jonze)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Life Itself (Steve James)
The Homesman (Tommy Lee Jones)

Reissues, revivals, and film society screenings (just a side note here that Austin Film Society has been kicking so much ass since moving into their own space, and I missed a bunch of screenings I wanted to attend, including the Jerry Lewis series and a bunch of one-night-only things):
1. Alamo Drafthouse complete David Lynch retrospective (I couldn't make it to all the screenings because life gives you too many obligations and choices, but I saw Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, and The Straight Story on the big screen for the first time and Inland Empire for the second)
2. Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
3. Up! and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Russ Meyer)
4. Ball of Fire (Howard Hawks)
5. Je t'aime, je t'aime (Alain Resnais)
6. The Return and Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
7. Othello (Orson Welles)

Too much death 2014 edition (I'm using TCM's In Memoriam video to jog my memory)
R.I.P. Eli Wallach, Richard Attenborough (the actor, not the director -- yes I know they're the same guy, but I love his acting and don't care for his filmmaking, except Magic, that's a weird movie, eh?), Gordon Willis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Nichols, George Sluizer, James Rebhorn, Bob Hoskins, Paul Mazursky (I had mixed feelings about him as a director, but I liked his acting -- should I start calling this the Attenborough-Mazursky Effect?), Elaine Stritch, Alain Resnais, Gottfried John, H.R. Giger, Lauren Bacall, Juanita Moore, Ken Takakura, Lorenzo Semple Jr. (particularly for the Real Geezers web series he costarred in with Marcia Nasatir), James Garner, Karlheinz Bohm, Donatas Banionis, Dick Smith, Harold Ramis, Robin Williams, and Ruby Dee. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Mike Nichols 1931-2014

As the wave of tributes to Mike Nichols rolled in on my Facebook feed and the movie blogs I read, I was glad to see several mentions of his early days as one-half of the pioneering improvisational standup comic duo Nichols & May with the great and still massively underrated (and very much alive) Elaine May and a little embarrassed at how much less his movies meant to me than to many of my friends and favorite film writers. It's not my intention to do a hatchet job on a recently deceased man, and anyone whose filmography contained as many good movies as Nichols' does will be missed. I liked a lot of what he did. I didn't love it, though, because I didn't see a strong visual personality that carried over from film to film, but I did see a certain indefinable hesitancy to reveal himself. I never quite knew who he was, even after watching most of his stuff, which was often very good but also safer, more conventional, and more tied to current social trends than the work of his old comic partner Elaine May. (I should also point out that he had a great reputation as a theater director, which is out of my wheelhouse, and was possibly more involved in the stage than he was in filmmaking.) Still, he was very good with actors, sought out interesting material, and collaborated with great screenwriters, and I can easily recommend the following films and cable television productions: 
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Graduate (1967)
Catch-22 (1970) (a messy, ambitious, trainwreck, honorable failure, which are some of my favorite movie-watching experiences)
Carnal Knowledge (1971) (pretty much the blueprint for In the Company of Men, with a Jules Feiffer screenplay and memorable performances from Ann-Margaret, Art Garfunkel, Jack Nicholson, and Carol Kane)
Silkwood (1983)
Wolf (1994) (another honorable and interesting failure)
Wit (2001)
Angels in America (2003) (maybe my favorite thing he's done outside of Nichols & May)

I can't recommend Primary Colors despite its Elaine May screenplay or The Day of the Dolphin despite its complete insanity (talking dolphins cared for by George C. Scott are kidnapped by terrorists to blow up the president on his vacation boat -- yes, you read that right -- OK, maybe you should rent that one), and I haven't seen the other ones.

P.S. Please see all four of Elaine May's films. Two of them are masterpieces, and the other two are almost as good. Fuck the Ishtar haters, most of whom haven't even seen the damn thing. One expensive flop killed her movie career, while Nichols was able to direct 21 films even though he had a handful of expensive flops. Hollywood is still a sexist hellhole.

Here's a good overview of Nichols & May with clips.

Friday, September 12, 2014

I'm Way Behind Forever: The Big Cleanup Pt. 2

A Field in England (Ben Wheatley)
I kept hearing and reading about this Ben Wheatley character without ever seeing anything he'd made, but he sounded up my alley. Guess what? He is. A Field in England is a gorgeous, funny, creepy, and concise black-and-white psychedelic dark comedy rural British occult horror period piece set in the English Civil War about an alchemist's assistant who makes a break for the peaceful side of a shrubbery-obscured field during a battle and runs into a small group of fellow deserters in search of an ale house. They encounter a creepy fellow who has been accused of stealing some of the alchemist's things, and many strange events ensue. Wheatley's film is occasionally confusing, especially if you lack a working knowledge of mid-17th century British history, and a few scenes seem stalled in wheel-spinning limbo, but on the whole, this is a thoughtfully composed, atmospheric, hypnotic, nutzoid spirit-of-midnight-movie movie that made me happy and pleasantly disturbed. I've since checked out Wheatley's first film, Down Terrace, which has been described as Mike Leigh meets The Sopranos. For once, the you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter descriptor didn't add up to zero, and I'm a full-blown Wheatley fan now.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
My Anderson-hating friends should probably skip this paragraph and take the scenic route to the next one, since this is Wes Anderson at his Wes Anderson-iest, which is mostly alright with me. The Stefan Zweig-inspired The Grand Budapest Hotel combines the doll's house miniature feel of his last two films, Moonrise Kingdom and the stop-motion animation Fantastic Mr. Fox, with the grand scale backdrop of his largest, most elaborate films, The Royal Tenenbaums and The Darjeeling Limited (my two least favorite Anderson films) and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (possibly my favorite). The storybook fable feel is strong here, with a fictional composite old-Europe setting and a reverse Russian doll structure of small story giving way to slightly larger story giving way to larger story giving way to largest story and back again, each one filmed in a different aspect ratio. Almost everyone who has ever been in a Wes Anderson film is here, and each frame is as gorgeous and insanely meticulous as ever (or as fussy, overly perfectionist, and airless as ever, depending on your taste). Making his first appearance in an Anderson film, Ralph Fiennes innately understands the highly specific Anderson tone in his leading role as uber-concierge Gustave H. I can't recall ever seeing Fiennes in a comedic role before, but he's the highlight of a film that includes such favorites of mine as Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Tilda Swinton, Bill Murray, Harvey Keitel, Mathieu Amalric, and Bob Balaban. I liked the old children's storybook feel and found most of the jokes funny, especially the bit about the switched paintings, but I was unexpectedly touched by Fiennes' performance. He plays the guy straight, never telegraphing the humor or the pathos, and I felt an empathy, warmth, and sadness for him without feeling like Anderson had manipulated or exploited my emotions. I know I like this film, but I'm still not entirely sure where to place it. Anderson's films usually improve on repeat viewings, but I do miss the elements of lived experience that make his first two films, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, outliers in his filmography. Those two movies are about guys stuck in this world who desperately want to live in a Wes Anderson film, and the removal of that tension in the subsequent films is something I miss, though much has also been gained. I'm not entirely sure why I like Anderson's films so much, but I do. His almost claustrophobic perfectionism gives me little to no space to engage with the films actively. Instead, I admire them through a thick pane of glass. I should hate that feeling, and I usually do, but his work generally fills me with happiness. Maybe Anderson is my Steely Dan of film. I love that band in all its distanced, meticulous perfectionism and detached humor even though the bulk of my musical taste tends toward the raw, wild, emotional, and/or spare.
(J. Hoberman tackles another interesting problem about the film I don't feel qualified to spout off about in an essay for Tablet, linked here.)  

Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
One of the perks of being a movie fanatic in Austin, Texas is Richard Linklater's support of the local film scene in all its iterations. He co-founded the Austin Film Society in the 1980s, but due to his busy career as a film director, his contributions in recent years have been largely financial, though I've seen him in the audience at the occasional screening. Fortunately, he found the time recently to program, introduce, and conduct Q&As afterward for a lengthy series of his favorite 1980s films. The lineup was so great, I'll just list it all here:
The King of Comedy (Martin Scorsese)
Veronika Voss (Rainer Werner Fassbinder)
Valley Girl (Martha Coolidge)
White Dog (Sam Fuller)
Reds (Warren Beatty)
Melvin and Howard (Jonathan Demme)
Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard)
Star 80 (Bob Fosse)
Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen)
Cutter's Way (Ivan Passer)
Fanny and Alexander (Ingmar Bergman)
Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola)
Atlantic City (Louis Malle)
Out of the Blue (Dennis Hopper)
Godard is one of the hardest filmmakers to write about because his films are so uniquely personal, difficult to describe, densely packed with images, sounds, words, and ideas, open to misreading, and resistant to categorization that an honest reckoning with any of them involves much flailing, inelegance, and the literary equivalent of falling backwards onto one's ass. His name has also become a contradictory Tower of Babel brand and symbol for various critics' ideas of film, and too many people write about Godard films with preconceived philosophies and closed-minded axes to grind or deity worship rubber-stamping. His post-1968 films, in particular, often enrage lazy viewers and critics who fell in love with the vibrant surfaces of the hipper, youthful, more stylish 1960s films and feel betrayed by Godard's insistence on moving forward, even as they ignore the formal similarities and shared humor and structure of the flashier, pop-culture-obsessed early stuff they like and the later work that drives them nuts. Godard's films are closer to the experience of thinking, seeing, and listening in real time than any others I can recall, rough drafts constantly in revision, non-linear narratives that aren't fragmented shards but wholly intact separate cells in the organism of the film. See? I'm getting a little silly trying to describe what he's doing. It's hard.  
Every Man for Himself was Godard's 1980 return to 35mm film after a long period of shooting on videotape (1975's Numero deux is my favorite of this period) and his first film to get decent distribution since the commercial suicide of his membership in the Maoist filmmaking collective Dziga Vertov Group (complete with the renunciation of his previous films) in 1968. The group dissolved in 1972, and Godard made a few films with Anne-Marie Mieville that were critical of his own involvement in the group and the work he made while he was a member. In Every Man for Himself, Godard continues that self-critique, this time sending up and confronting the misogyny in his earlier films, particularly the fantasized glamorization of prostitution, and connecting that relatively benign youthful ignorance with its darker institutionalized manifestations in television and filmmaking, business, French society, the couple, and the family. Every Man for Himself does this while managing to be very funny, compositionally arresting (Godard never shoots something just to move the narrative along, every shot has a visual reason to exist), innovative in structure and sound design, digressive and abstract, and about lots of other things besides. The lead male character, a documentary filmmaker for public television (French pop star Jacques Dutronc), is interestingly named after Godard's father, but his primary function in the film is to provide the connective tissue between the women who carry each half of the film, played by two of the best actresses in France, or anywhere else (Nathalie Baye and Isabelle Huppert). Baye plays an editor working on Dutronc's television shows who has an on-again, off-again relationship with him, while Huppert is a prostitute with a wealthy clientele. They're pretty close to perfect here. Godard is surprisingly well-represented on DVD and video in the U.S., but this film isn't. If you feel about Godard the way I do and ever get a chance to see this one, do it.

Nymphomaniac (Lars Von Trier)
Lars Von Trier's latest was broken into two parts and released separately, but I tend to agree with the aforementioned J. Hoberman that the halves belong together and that the separation was a commercial decision that doesn't serve the film very well. At least I saw both halves just days apart, though I'm still debating myself on my opinion, months later. Before I get on with it, I see that the old "Von Trier is a misogynist" routine is being trotted out again. I continue to be baffled by that allegation, even though lots of distinctive male filmmakers who regularly feature women in central roles are accused of being misogynists, including, bizarrely, John Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. There's something suspicious about these accusations. Why are the men who regularly write and cast multifaceted, meaty, demanding roles for women singled out as woman-haters or guys with creepy issues while the parade of directors and screenwriters who write and cast women only as supportive wives, mothers, and girlfriends for the male lead or nagging, non-supportive wives, mothers, and girlfriends for the male lead never get called out on their flagrant, repetitive misogyny? I wish all the people who call Von Trier a misogynist would go after Oliver Stone instead. Critics accuse Von Trier of torturing his female leads. Have you seen any comedy or drama in your lives? Terrible things almost always happen to the leads, who usually happen to be men. Most stories are about things going drastically wrong for the main character. There's a paternalistic women-must-be-protected vibe to the criticism that bugs me. But maybe there's something I'm not seeing. I am a man with a lot of invisible privilege. Maybe it's there and I'm missing it. On the other hand, my wife and my mother and many women film writers love Von Trier's movies. Maybe too many people can't tell the difference between the characters and the author.
I suspect the real source of discomfort with Von Trier is his pessimistic worldview, one he shares with major influence Fassbinder. Like Fassbinder, Von Trier is a depressed man who identifies most strongly with his female characters and who sees the world as a cruel, abusive hole where most interactions are sadistic power struggles or empty gestures required by inherited social rules. The most uplifting moment in his previous film was the destruction of the entire world. (Oh crap. Why do I relate so much to both men's films?) Again like Fassbinder, he expresses this view in tragic dramas, comedic farces, and odd combinations of the two, not to mention his antagonistic prankster relationship with the press. After the stylistic exercises and formal experiments of his earliest work, Von Trier's protagonists starting with Breaking the Waves were goodhearted people hanging onto their faith and optimism in the face of almost total darkness and sacrificing everything for a loved one. Dogville ushered in a phase of films where the openhearted protagonist became hard and cruel after suffering cruelty from others, while his self-described depression trilogy of Antichrist, Melancholia, and Nymphomaniac sees his lead characters already dispossessed of their optimism and faith before the events in the stories begin. (I may revisit this opinion later. I'm worried it may be a little half-baked and ignores some of the stranger outliers.)
Nymphomaniac is Von Trier's most self-referential work, structured as a conversation between strangers. Those strangers are Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman is an autodidact intellectual who finds Joe beaten and unconscious in the alley on his way home from shopping. He helps her up, acquiesces to her request not to inform the police or call an ambulance, and takes her back to his small apartment to nurse her back to health. He asks her some questions about herself, and she tells him her life story. The film is broken into chapters, each one with a different tone and style that calls to mind the styles of his previous films, with each chapter bookended by more of Joe and Seligman's contentious but polite conversation. Seligman regularly interrupts to offer his take on Joe's experiences, while she just as often critiques and disagrees with his interpretations. I couldn't help but read the film as Von Trier's defense/critique of his own work with Gainsbourg as his surrogate and Skarsgard as his critics and the press. The deliberately artificial structure fits the schematic narrative well, and Gainsbourg and Skarsgard are two of Von Trier's most gifted interpreters. Stacey Martin (in her first role), Uma Thurman, Willem Dafoe, Jamie Bell, Jean-Marc Barr, and Udo Kier also do a tremendous job, though Christian Slater's English accent is unconvincing and Shia LaBeouf wears out his welcome. The film is honest and sharp about addiction, funny at times, compelling, frustrating, exciting, and uncomfortable. I haven't decided whether the ending is inevitable or a childish prank, and I'm not yet entirely sure how I feel about the film as a whole, though I'm waiting for the November DVD that restores the 90 minutes Von Trier's distributors made him cut to decide. One thing I am sure about is that Charlotte Gainsbourg has an incredible screen presence that is both intense and weightless, and her and Von Trier have a good thing going.

Joe (David Gordon Green)
Larry Brown was a great Southern writer who died way too early in 2004 at the age of 53. He was a great writer, period, but I mention "Southern" because he was a Southerner who wrote beautifully about the South. I wish he could have seen David Gordon Green's lyrical adaptation of his novel Joe, my favorite Brown book. I also wish homeless Austin man Gary Poulter, who played Wade, had lived long enough to see his sole acting role on the big screen. Poulter drowned in Lady Bird Lake after the filming of Joe, but before its release, and he put something scary and true on film that couldn't have come from an actor. You're looking at life up there. Joe is a return to the dark, offbeat Southern dramas David Gordon Green made before his recent stretch directing comedies, and it's his best in a long time, though I'll stick up for those comedies, too. Joe also sees a rare layered, subtle performance from Nicolas Cage, who's spent most of the last several years operating in just two modes: 1) catatonic emotionlessness, and 2) mother of all freakouts. I absolutely enjoy a crazy, yelling Nicolas Cage, but that would not have been suitable here. If you were to tell me when I was reading Joe that Nicolas Cage would be playing the title character in the movie, I would have said, "Oh, hell, no. That is a bad idea." It's nice to be wrong. Cage is really good here, and not enough people are checking it out.
Green accomplishes the rare feat of capturing Brown's voice and staying relatively true to the novel while also reflecting his own oddball sensibility and style. A Southerner himself, Green gets the strangeness and menace and humor while avoiding the condescension, grotesquerie, heavy-handed Southern Gothic tropes, and romanticization of Hollywood and East Coast interpretations of the South, even with the outskirts of Austin, Texas having to stand in for rural Mississippi. Green populates the film with professional Hollywood actors, local actors, nonprofessionals from other fields, and homeless men, creating a unique texture where craft and experience rub up against instinct and newness. This film is so rich with character, atmosphere, detail, and dialogue. And cinematographer Tim Orr, who's shot every one of Green's films, is a wizard-poet when it comes to capturing sunlight onscreen. A gorgeous, tough, strange, moving, dark, exciting film.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

I'm Way Behind Forever: The Big Cleanup Pt. 1

I'm seven months behind on this blog, pushing eight, and the movies keep stacking up. I haven't felt like writing for several months now, and only my horror film blog (Decapitated Zombie Vampire Bloodbath) and my Twitter feed have been updated with any regularity. I'm a melancholy bastard on my best days, a depressed guy on my worst, with most days swinging in the middle. In recent months, my depression has been very mild and intermittent, but it often makes me feel like an emotionless alien who can't relate to or understand other human beings. When I get like that, I don't write as much, and that's what happened here. Now, I've got eight months of movies to write about, so I'm going to try to be more concise and knock out at least a handful in each future post. Once I finish this albatross of my own making, maybe I can get back to writing more regularly on all three blogs and work on other personal stuff. Here we go.

The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese)
Though I find moments to admire in each of his films, Martin Scorsese's 2000s work has seemed less vital, less strange, less energetic, too big, and too polished, with a wax-museum respectability, a taxidermied Hollywood royalty feel that keeps me at a distance, an odd sensation considering how much I love the thirty years of work preceding it. I'm also not much of a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio's acting, and he's been in every Scorsese film of the 2000s except Hugo, probably not coincidentally my favorite Scorsese film since the unfairly maligned Bringing out the Dead. DiCaprio seems like a guy with tremendous dedication to the craft, someone who lives and breathes acting. He means it. He means it so much. Unfortunately, he's been a professional actor since he was a small child and a huge celebrity since he was 12 or 13, so he has no fucking idea how people from any non-celebrity walk of life actually live. This was especially apparent in that gargantuan piece of shit Revolutionary Road. He always looks like he's acting instead of being, and that blows it for me in any film where realism, or at least movie realism, is required. Until now, the only DiCaprio performance I enjoyed was his cartoonish Mephistophelean Southern dandy slave master in Django Unchained.
The Wolf of Wall Street is different. For the first time, I'm convinced DiCaprio is the guy he's playing, as much as anyone can be convinced by a bona fide movie star. For once, that oily big shot charm and trying-too-hard intensity perfectly fit the guy he's playing. Scorsese attacks the material with a ferocity, energy, and humor I haven't seen in him since the 1990s, and though he's consciously echoing Goodfellas and Casino here (with some After Hours black comedy and screwball drug paranoia) in narrative structure, formal technique, use of voice over, epic length, and main character who is both an unreliable narrator and a criminal, this is not a derivative retread of past glories. There's an unsettling, foreboding strangeness that suits the current era (I'm not really sure how to explain what I mean here), a pinprick sharp leanness (odd for a three-hour movie, his longest), and one of the great virtuosic, desperate, darkly comic Scorsese scenes (the Quaalude overdose scene). He's got the juice back.
A quick word here about the supporting cast. If a DiCaprio lead in a recent Scorsese film is all too expected, the supporting characters are typically atypical. Scorsese's always had a nice eye for offbeat, colorful supporting cast choices, and there's a lot of great, unusual work here from Matthew McConaughey, Joanna Lumley, Spike Jonze, Rob Reiner (who answers the phone in an English accent and becomes enraged if anyone interrupts him while he's watching The Equalizer), Kyle Chandler, Jean Dujardin, and even Jonah Hill. I was surprised how much I liked this movie.

Her (Spike Jonze)
Speaking of Jonze, his science fiction romance about a lonely man's relationship with his operating system in a near-but-not-that-near-future Los Angeles (a composite of filming locations Shanghai and L.A.) is gorgeous, disturbing, sad, funny, a little annoying, and possibly a fuck-you letter and/or public working out of emotions from a divorced man to his ex-wife, if the parodic nods to, critiques of, and quoted shots from Jonze's ex Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation are anything to go by. I like the muted haze of colors and the way cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema caught the light, and Jonze's script is smart about loneliness and the way the everyday nuts and bolts of human communication is headed. Not a big fan of Arcade Fire's score, but I like most everything else, save for some minor nitpicky objections. Real good stuff here from Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Chris Pratt, and the voice of Scarlett Johansson.

The Return and Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev)
I caught a pair of features from writer/director Zvyagintsev at a recent Austin Film Society Russian film series. Zvyagintsev often gets compared to Tarkovsky in the American press, but this probably has more to do with American film critics not knowing many other Russian directors rather than any aesthetic similarity between the two men. Other than leaving plenty of space for thought and building narrative in a slow, detailed, visually distinctive way, I don't see much commonality. I liked both films a great deal. The Return, about two young boys and their long-absent father who mysteriously returns to take them on a trip of equally mysterious purpose, is a tense, slow-burning thriller, full of dread and regret. Elena is a character drama about a late-middle-aged woman from a working-class background whose second marriage to a wealthy older man (also on his second marriage) hits trouble when her son's family experiences a crisis. Like The Return, Elena proceeds by the slow accumulation of details, facial expressions, and some startlingly visual shots, and is about estranged family members, but both films find their own curious worlds to inhabit. Zvyagintsev is as astute an observer of young men, the natural world, and the working class as he is of middle-aged women, indoor living in large cities, and the wealthy, and that makes me excited about what he has yet to  accomplish.

The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
An unfortunately mediocre waste of a good cast, Clooney's film about the units tasked with saving European artworks from the Germans plays like an anthology of World War II movie cliches. John Goodman and Jean Dujardin have a nice chemistry in their scenes together, but the film is slackly written, directed, and edited, with lots of big speeches, forced sentiment, and a disconnected structure that doesn't move. This is a fascinating subject that deserves a better film.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I'm way behind #21: American Hustle (David O. Russell)

Who the hell is David O. Russell? I'm confused. Does he have an identity crisis as a director or is it my problem? I can't find much stylistic or thematic connective tissue between his various films, and though I tend to be entertained by his work, I'm skeptical of the praise he gets. He's a fairly good mimic, has a nice touch with actors (when he's not screaming obscenities at them, throwing tantrums, and getting punched by them), and is a natural entertainer, but is there a strong point of view and personality there?
Just look at the body of work. His first film, Spanking the Monkey, is a dark comedy/drama about a college kid home for the summer who has an incestuous relationship with his mother. If my hazy memory is correct, the movie fits pretty comfortably in the '90s indie youth movie template with its pop culture dialogue, teen angst, and forced transgressive subject matter. He followed it with Flirting with Disaster, a screwball comedy heavily indebted to Woody Allen; Three Kings, an action-adventure/political satire hybrid that was much more visually stylized than his previous work; I Heart Huckabees, a derivatively ambitious but ill-fated attempt to make a Charlie Kaufman movie without Charlie Kaufman; The Fighter, a gritty '70s-style drama/biopic about boxer "Irish" Micky Ward and his large, screwed-up family; Silver Linings Playbook, an overly sentimental but cute clusterfuck of Sidney Lumet street drama and Frank Capra meets Howard Hawks romantic comedy; and American Hustle, his watered-down, easy on the blood version of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas and Casino and Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights. Again, my question. Who the hell is this guy?
I was entertained by American Hustle without being moved, and it barely lingered in my memory afterward. Before I get into why that might be, I've got a few other bones to pick. The first is not Russell's fault, so maybe I should let it slide, but this is my blog and I feel like complaining about it. Mainstream critical consensus about this film was pretty favorable, with many newspaper and television critics calling it one of the best of the year. I disagree, but they're entitled to their boring, predictable groupthink. (I love everybody.) What stuck in my craw was the way so many critics used this film as a cudgel to beat Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street. More than one critic actually wrote that Russell "out-Scorseses Scorsese." I'm speculating, but I think too many newspaper and TV critics are lazy viewers dazzled by wigs and hit songs, and they like films that pretend to grapple with a serious subject while actually offering easily digestible flash and candy. The flash and candy films make you think you've thought about something or had some kind of intimate experience without all that troubling self-examination and conscience rustling.
Let me get down from that soapbox and step on another one. There's a real arrogance to calling a film "American _____," but that hasn't stopped a boatload of middlebrow filmmakers from doing it. Intentionally or not, if you call your movie "American Blank," you're making a claim that your film has captured something vital about a feeling, attitude, behavior, fantasy, dream, etc., of an entire country, when usually, you've just captured something obvious about upper middle class white suburban families or sexy white teens or attractive crime film cliches (American Beauty, American Psycho, American History X, American Gangster). (Notable exception: American Ninja really captures the U.S. ninja experience, in all its multiplicity.) Or maybe you feel you're approaching your film's subject in a particularly American way when you're just offering more Hollywood provincialism. Sometimes, it's warranted (American Splendor, based on Harvey Pekar's comic of the same name, Chris Smith's double whammy of American Job and American Movie), but most often, it comes across as hubris.
Playing devil's advocate with myself (that sounds dirty), though, I can see American Hustle capturing at least a partial tenor of the times. What with all this Throwback Thursday business and popular music and fashion and advertising constantly repurposing '70s and '80s and '90s culture, the film's overbaked period '70s setting and its exaggerated wigs and clothes and wall-to-wall '70s radio hit jukebox clowncar soundtrack exemplify this country's cultural obsession with nostalgia. And Russell's attempt at a '90s Scorsese/P.T. Anderson gliding-camera, music-packed, stable-of-favored-actors ensemble sprawl is a classic American move, an I-like-that-successful-thing-I-will-make-my-own-cheap-knockoff party.
It's such a thin film compared to the work of Scorsese or Anderson, but it's fun. While those guys use carefully chosen music as point, counterpoint, and commentary about the characters and events in their films, Russell inelegantly throws a nonstop barrage of big hits from the period at the screen as an easy way to churn up emotion, nostalgia, pep, and entertainment. It's fun. The cameo from Robert De Niro is way too on the nose, but it's fun. I'm still not sure what I think of Bradley Cooper, and Jennifer Lawrence, for all the praise she got for this part, is pretty wasted here, but I thoroughly enjoyed Christian Bale, Amy Adams, and Louis C.K. in their roles. This movie, it's fun. That's all it is, though, with plenty of self-importance and peacock-feather pomp sitting on top like donut sprinkles. It's candy pretending to be a meal.

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