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18 June 2015

Inside Out

directed by Pete Docter & Ronaldo Del Carmen

I have long held the position that Pixar’s magnificent film Wall-E is a jewel in Cinema's crown and a film that represents the animation studio’s high water mark, the crest of a spectacular wave of artistic achievements that include Toy Story 1 and 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Ratatouille (how’s that for a resume?). The waters have receded over the years but behold, the tides may be rising again! I’m talking about Pixar’s newest classic (and it is a bona fide classic, to be sure) Inside Out, a candy colored ass kicker that packs some serious metaphorical heft. Frankly, when I sat down at this year’s CinemaCon to watch this movie, I was utterly unprepared for such a cosmic wallop. Perhaps it’s because being a new father to 2 little ladies has given me a new perspective (and with it a seemingly endless supply of worries, fears and anxieties that will surely drive up the price of antacid stocks the world over), but the way in which Docter, Del Carmen et al both contextualize and personify such abstractions as memory, self perception and happiness was terrifying, uproarious, melancholic, lovely and, in a word, revelatory. The bogglingly intricate clockwork of a child’s developing mind (according to the film) is made instantly accessible thanks to a wonderful script and phenomenal vocal talents (including Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader and Lewis Black). Riley, the little girl around whom the story revolves, is a cross country transplant struggling with having to start over in a new place, while internally her emotions grapple with their own trouble when a few of Riley core memories (of which her sense of self is comprised) are accidentally ejected from their stronghold. A mission to retrieve said core memories finds Joy (Poehler, just wonderful) and Sadness (a crucial Phyllis Smith) scrambling through every corner of Riley’s brain, from her imagination to her subconscious. There’s cutesiness to spare, to be sure, but the bravery to tell a complicated and grand story like this and actually allow for such ambiguity (I won’t spoil anything but I will say the film has no easy answers to any of the questions it poses) was a wonderfully unnerving experience for me (mainly because, in the broadest sense, I have come to expect certain themes and tones from certain genres of film). For me, Riley represented my girls, which probably is what caused this film to resonate so strongly with me, but I am sure you don’t need to be a parent to get caught up in storytelling this capable. Inside Out is hell of a thing, a picture that surprises you at every turn. Look alive, Academy!

20 May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

directed by mastermind George Miller
 
Some children muse over having super powers, or winning a shopping spree at a toy store, or the dazzling magic of an endless summer. It was with the same amount of zeal, reverence and conviction that my little brother and I used to spend hours debating what another Mad Max movie would be like, such was our love for those films. Hours spent pondering plot points and characters, using the trilogy’s clues to inform this fantasy film, to will it to life if only in our imaginations. One such high water mark was when we realized that a new actor could play Max, taking up the name for either personal gain that blooms into altruism or, possibly more interestingly, reasons that remained cloudy and selfish. Any maybe the real Max comes back!... And maybe…! 

For years that was enough, but now, in 2015, like a breath of fresh, sand and exhaust choked air, Mad Max: Fury Road is a thing that exists, and I couldn’t be happier.

Much has already been said of mastermind (my favorite part of the trailer!) George Miller’s fourth Mad Max film, so I will not bore you with lengthy academic theses pertaining to the much needed (for film in general, I mean) feminist approach to the narrative, the amazingly strong performances by Charlize Theron and Tom Hardy, or the gutpunch elegance of the action. What I will say is that I find Miller to be masterful at crafting dystopian cultures that mirror the deterioration of societal values in the wake of literal, technological destruction. Just as modernity has crumbled, so has the modern mind, leaving to thrive in this wasteland the brutish, oppressive mankind of an earlier time. Immortan Joe espouses the virtues of a pseudo comitatus relationship between himself, his Warboys and his precious commodities, water he withholds from the unwashed masses and his collection of “wives”.  It’s a hodgepodge of misremembered anthropology, junk history and poisoned philosophy tainted by psychotic megalomania, a pastiche that cultivates the veil of control. Additionally, another element of modernity lost to nuclear war (alluded to in the preamble) is the quest for progress. No one in Max’s world is working on re-industrializing society, or making medicine, or building a school, and even Furiousa, the most sympathetic character in all 4 films, doesn’t seemed concerned with such lofty pursuits. Perhaps that’s the point to Miller, that in such a brutal, chaotic world, the desire to save another life is lofty enough.  In any case, for the little boy who spent a lot of time pondering a fourth Mad Max film, even to the point of having unreasonable expectations, Fury Road delivered on all fronts. And for that, little BC can begin again with the speculation of what a fifth addition might look like…

17 February 2015

Starred Up

directed by David Mackenzie

David Mackenzie will (for me, that is) forever be known as the match that ignited the stick of Jack O’Connell TNT, and Starred Up is, from a debut perspective, on par with Ryan Gosling’s criminally under seen performance in The Believer. Prison movies have a long history, and such modern classics as A Prophet or Hunger have elevated the genre in beautiful, grim, affecting ways. With Starred Up, Mackenzie has taken the family dynamic of prison life and added the twist of having a literal family dynamic play out in the form of a father and son struggle. O’Connell is Eric Love, a teenage offender whose violent behavior in juvie has gotten him bumped, or starred up, into full grown prison. Love is no stranger to the system, and the opening sequence plays out like a perfectly tuned procedural in which every person (Love included) know their roles. In a place where actions, looks, and subtlety mean so much, Mackenzie and O’Connell play each scene with minimalist perfection. That is, unless the scene calls for maximalism, in which case O’Connell goes supernova in all the right ways, evoking the wildness of a caged thing with such emotive force that I felt like cowering in my own living room. Ben Mendhelsohn is one of the most reliably spectacular actors of his generation, and his Neville Love is an understated coil of unknowable complexity that hints at so much more beneath the surface. Starred Up is a stellar gut punch that should have been on all sort of “Best of 2014" lists. Go see it.

06 February 2015

Locke

directed by Steven Knight

I suppose he had it in him all along, it just took nearly 50 shit kicking LBs of intimidate-the-pee-out-of-your-bladder muscle to get me to pay attention. But my attention Tom Hardy now has, now and forevermore. Since his career defining performance (to date, that is, for I am sure he has a fair few like that in him) in Bronson, Hardy has been bringing the heat to virtually every role he has taken on (let’s all continue to block This Means War from our collective memories like some sort of trauma). And he rises to quite a tall order as the titular Ivan Locke, a concrete man whose life unravels over the course of a 90 minute car ride. Quite literally, the film follows Locke (Hardy is the only actor seen in the film) as he sits in the driver’s seat of his BMW, making phone calls, blowing his nose and making the occasional lane change. It sounds about as riveting as a ham sandwich, and most of the time, a movie such as this would be nothing more than a gimmick film, a ploy to gain some undeserved attention, for gimmick films like this almost always fall short in terms of content. But in Steven Knight’s (Eastern Promises, Peaky Blinders) deft hands, Locke’s story is at once compelling and fresh. I found myself fully invested in each moment, which is a testament to Knight’s writing as much as it is Hardy’s wonderful performance. Locke is a prime example of effortless, simple, organic storytelling and what wonders we can achieve when we cut away the fat of contemporary classicist excess.


13 December 2014

Nightcrawler

directed by Dan Gilroy

Jake Gyllenhaal has been acting his face off in recent years, not that he has ever really been off his game. Going back to October Sky and Donnie Darko, Mr G always showed promise, promise that he mostly lived up to throughout his career, but he has been turning out straight up phenomenal performances in his last 3 films (his work in Prisoners is some of the best acting you are likely to see, ever), conveying so much with so very little. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler is several things, part LA noir, part seedy thrill ride, part (shudder) social commentary, but luckily for Gilroy what his film lacks in total depth it makes up for in fine performances. Between Jacob G, Renee Russo, Bill Paxton, and a wonderfully natural Riz Ahmed, you almost don’t notice the thinness of the plot and the variety of ways in which the film nearly deteriorates into vapors. JG plays Louis Bloom, an unscrupulous go-getter who finds his niche filming sensational video footage for a local news station. Russo excels as the head of the news station and object of Bloom’s intense attention, playing razorish yet damaged with equal parts guts and fragility. I wanted more from this movie, which isn’t to say that it is bad (I thoroughly enjoyed it), but rather that it had the potentially to be a truly inspired work of art. Don’t let that deter you, though, because it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And that scene when Louis, alone in his apartment, turns to no one in response to his television is one of those genuine moments that can define a role and a film. Just wonderful.

05 June 2014

Godzilla

directed by Gareth Edwards 

I was excited, albeit very nervous, when the first teaser trailer for the newest Godzilla film premiered. There was a new found sense of tension, of anticipation, of reverence that was completely lost in the 1998 debacle. And it didn’t hurt that teaser ended with the classic, skin-crawlingly excellent sound piece made famous in Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece, Gojira. Gareth Edwards proved me right by treating his source material with much respect, possibly even to the detriment of the story…

Edwards is no stranger to the political sci-fi genre. His solid film Monsters featured a grounded story of geo-political tensions amid an alien infestation of sorts, and the result was something quiet and haunting. Godzilla finds similar anxieties about the frailty of our planet, though they fade into the background quickly and are nearly never heard from again. Edwards even appropriates the nuclear fallout fears felt in Gojira to some degree of success, though it mostly relates to how the creatures react to life above ground (oops, spoiler alert). As for the human element, no one is given anything to do but react to circumstance, though Bryan Cranston and Ken Watanabe try their damnedest to flesh out their character cutouts. Despite this, Edwards treats the King of the Monsters himself with both love and awe-filled respect. Each tease (a rising shot of a massive haunch, the magnificent sky diving scene from the trailer) works like magic to instill in us a sense of awe, tantalizing us until the moments when Edwards does show us Godzilla in his entirety. But in the end, it seems as if everyone was so focused on Godzilla that they neglected to tend to the human drama surrounding such a tremendous creature.

For a kind of alternate universe Godzilla film, give Bong-Joon Ho’s amazing The Host a try. It was the perfect quencher for my Godzilla thirst back in 2006 (and still does the trick today!).

27 April 2014

Wake in Fright

directed by Ted Kotcheff

I was having a conversation with a new friend about our favorite movies when Wake in Fright inevitably came up, and it suddenly occurred to me that I have never written about it before. Ted Kotcheff’s masterpiece of Australian cinema was lost for over 30 years, almost fated to die an anonymous death before being rescued at the eleventh hour by the film’s editor, Anthony Buckley (the only print he was able to locate was marked ‘for destruction’). The story of the film itself is fascinating, for years only known to me as a film I would ever hear about but never actually see, but thanks to Buckley’s tireless efforts, Wake in Fright is here to stay.

It’s hard to separate such a shocking, mesmerizing, astonishing work of art from its context, and indeed the physical and cultural landscape of the Australian outback is inextricably linked to the framing of plot, theme, and motif, but there are universal truths to be culled from the geographic isolation, the societal ritualism of drinking and reckless savagery, an ordinary man’s decent into darkness. It’s a film very much about masculinity and what wretchedness man is capable of, the outback serving as a dusty pressure cooker in which civilization languishes.

The film opens with a tremendous 360° scan of the minuscule town of Tiboonda, enveloped by stark desert on all sides, both setting the weighty tone and establishing the remoteness, the vacuum of reality into which we are going to venture. School is letting out for Christmas break, and John Grant, a sullen teacher, is anxious to get back to the city to see his girlfriend. He longs to be out from under the thumb of a government bond trapping him in the outback, to go to London to be a journalist. But a layover in a neighboring town (referred to as The Yabba) changes all of that. Grant swills beer with the local cop Jock Crawford and gambles away his savings, stranding him The Yabba for 6 weeks. Things begin to spiral quickly for Grant (played to perfection by Gary Bond) after he leaves Tiboonda, and we the audience are trapped in horror as we watch his deterioration. Relying on the quasi-hospitality of the locals, Grant begins to embrace the depravity within as he sucks down beer, ravages a pack of kangaroos and bears witness to (and takes part in) life on the fringes.

Australian history is one bulging with violence and savagery, and Kotcheff evokes this concept in his directing, depicting the rural outback village as a microcosm of Australia’s struggles as a whole, but in doing so without much politicizing (e.g. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, by contrast, is highly political and highly effective) Kotcheff creates a more universal and existentially terrifying world. The horrors of Wake in Fright are not simply a product of a geographically isolated region, nor are they some removed abstraction over which we (as American, British, French, Chinese, insert country of choice here) the non-Australian audience need not fret. As an American, I am ever aware of my country’s blood glutted history, and I could easily imagine regions of the nation where this story could very easily take place.

Every component of Wake in Fright is of the highest level, the acting is superb, the cinematography is brutal, the sound design and editing are devastating, a work of art that never leaves you. Donald Pleasence delivers a mammoth performance as Doc Tydon, Grant’s mysterious and intriguing companion through much of the film, and Gary Bond is phenomenal as our everyman sliding into the depths. One of the only films I would classify as essential viewing, Wake in Fright will surely change you.

PS it’s currently streaming on Netflix. You’re welcome.

For anyone interested, Nathan Southern had the opportunity to interview Ted Kotcheff last year about his work: