What movie was that...?

29 October 2013

Room 237

directed by Rodney Ascher

Seeing minotaurs within innocuous skiing posters. Calumet cans that represent Native American subjugation. The impossible geography of the Overlook Hotel. Theories, speculation and curios abound to varying degrees of success in Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, a documentary about our (by our, I mean fellow cinephiles) obsession with Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. At times, Ascher’s subjects seem like completely off the rail crackpots expounding on delusional excerpts from their manifestos, at others they seem able to part the curtain of thematic and intellectual mystery to show us the extent of Kubrick’s maddening meticulousness. To watch this documentary is to be aware of The Shining’s designs to an almost unnatural degree, and Ascher’s ploy of using editing and CGI to blend Kubrick’s works into a dreamlike web of false memories and unconscious connections is entertainingly effective. I found it fascinating, but I really wish Ascher had opted for a few second takes on some of his interview tracks, particularly to clean up the arguments and reduce the amount of mumbling/nervous laughter. Trying to follow wending trains of thought, as if his interviewees are discovering their ideas as they speak, can range from frustrating to infuriating, but that quibble aside, the film is disarmingly well made in its effort to entangle you in The Shining’s web. After it ends, you may still find yourself wondering if there’s anything else you have overlooked. 

15 October 2013

Captain Phillips

directed by Paul Greengrass

An old man walking out before me at the theater asked me how I liked Captain Phillips. I said I liked it very much and he smiled. “The good guys won,” he said, and my heart sunk a little. To view Captain Phillips through such a reductive lens as good guys versus bad guys, heroes versus villains, is to do the film a gross disservice that borders on insult. Perhaps in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, the story of a freighter hijacked off the coast of Somalia and the harrowing struggle to retrieve the freighter’s abducted captain would have absolutely been reduced to nothing more than cliché versus cliché, an airport novel played out with a conventionally hollow climax aimed at satisfying our need for vengeance. Luckily for us, Paul Greengrass is no lesser filmmaker. His handicam skills are nearly unrivaled, and his ability to find and amplify tension is superbly evident in his best works (notably, The Bourne Ultimatum, United 93), so it stood to reason that, if nothing else, Captain Phillips would be gripping and unnerving in its realism. Rather than simply work within the tried and true confines of a survival tale or a kind of hijacking procedural, Greengrass finds ways to draw parallels between the freighter crew and the band of men attempting to seize the ship. It is in these parallels where we find the harsh truths and discover the reality of just how vastly different two people’s experiences in this world can be. This is a film that addresses such topics as global inequality and forces us to consider them in a multifaceted way. And once again I was thrilled to find no trace of the dreaded contrivance I call the “story swap” scene, where Phillips (Tom Hanks, at his finest in this film) and Muse (holy hell, was Barkhad Abdi phenomenal! Bravo!) trade life stories, thusly learning that even though they have tremendously different life experience, they are the same (I just gagged a little). According to the Maersk crew who lived this story, it all went down a lot differently, including a very contradictory portrayal of Phillips’ heroism (versus real life where, according to the crew, Phillips was self-righteous and lacked leadership during the actual hijacking). Due to the fact that I encounter resistance to this shockingly often, I must reiterate a concept I thought obvious: Movies are not real life, not even the movies depicting real life. The very framework of a movie demands that narratives, timelines, even people be condensed to suit the convention of traditional plot. Can movies strive to be equitable and forthcoming when depicting true events? Absolutely, but they will never serve as a substitute for real life. Is JFK an accurate depiction of the events that befell our nation in 1963? Is The Social Network a step by step revelation of Facebook’s inception? Zero Dark Thirty, anyone? In the hands of capable filmmakers, real life events such as these become springboards to begin commentary on the state of things, to target an idea for the audience to ponder, or simply to show us that things are never as cut and dry as we may think. The complicated, murky, devastating climax of Captain Phillips is a testament to the complexities of human life on this place we all earth and a direct rebuttal to our dangerous desire to distill everything into abstractions like good and evil. The same warning applies not just to film, but to politics, ideologies, and social systems (other humans, I’m looking at you).  

08 October 2013

Gravity

directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Nope. I told you, I hate space. 
                              -my wife, when I asked her if she wanted to see Gravity with me. 

Don’t worry. I’m not going to get all Neil deGrasse Tyson and snarkily pick apart the minor details of such a tremendous film, mostly because I think it’s a really Grinchy thing to do, but more importantly, I don’t really care enough about factual minutiae like adult diapers and east to west/west to east debris fields. How did Dr T feel about the reality of Deep Impact, I wonder? There is a huge difference between taking issue with plot holes or inconsistencies that manifest as a result of poor writing versus dissecting so called factual details simply to take the art down a peg or two. The point here is that all films have elements of the unreal, elements that don’t exactly add up, because they are movies! What’s important is that the experience feels real, and Gravity accomplishes this in fine fashion. Emmanuel Lubezki is one of the great contemporary cinematographers (from the life-sapped dystopian gloom of Children of Men to the spectral mystery of Tree of Life), and as we float and fling and careen through the vastness of space, it is ever the immaculate blues and greens and whites of earth that compel us to hold on. The sound design and score were superb, evoking the wispy, nebulous beauty of Brian Eno’s For All Mankind score at times and 2001 at others (especially the terrifyingly muted, chaotic scenes of destruction as space ships and stations are ravaged). And what an aural treat (as well as a sensational call back to another space classic, Apollo 13) it was to hear Ed Harris as Houston mission control. While all of these elements coalesce spectacularly to envelope the audience in a cloak of adventure, fear, wonder and sheer awe, it is the expertly understated work of Sandra Bullock and George Clooney that tether us to something worth saving. So much of this film is jaw droppingly astonishing that it makes their matter of fact portrayals a perfect counterpoint to balance the abundant visual marvels. Cuarón’s camera work is inspired, navigating his audience through peril and splendor in equal measure, and perhaps for the first time I experienced 3D that actually worked to make the film more immersive rather than dilute its effectiveness. When Dr Stone becomes untethered and begins her terrifying tumble into space, I was right there, my heart racing, my stomach in knots. It was a brilliant experience to be so completely whisked away, much like how I felt watching Jurassic Park or Where the Wild Things Are for the first time, and isn’t that what makes the movies so very wonderful? To be transported, intellectually, emotionally, even physically, to worlds of which we never could have dreamed, it’s the closest thing to real magic we can experience. 

02 October 2013

Rush

directed by Ron Howard

Racing? Racing is stupid. No, I'm not seeing that. 
                              -my wife, when I asked her if she wanted to see Rush with me.

About a month ago, a trailer for Ron Howard’s Rush came on television whilst I was hanging out with my brother, DC. We both admitted we wanted to see the movie, but I said that Rush didn’t seem like Ron Howard’s style of film. It immediately occurred to me that I didn’t know what Ron Howard’s style of filmmaking actually was, even after all these years. DC and I puzzled over this for a few minutes, then promptly moved on to discussing the merits of the newest Mountain Dew commercial campaign (I love them, btw).  Last week, an excellent article from the newly formed film source The Dissolve delved into this concept more thoroughly, but it doesn't make it any less peculiar that a filmmaker so prominent and so well known as Ron Howard (and with such a long and successful filmmaking career) could have such a non-style. That may be a topic for any entirely different discussion, but my initial fear proved right to some extent. While I enjoyed many elements of Howard’s high octane, sexy biopic chronicling the exploits of rival Formula 1 racers James Hunt and Niki Lauda, I had a hard time with various elements that I would consider outside of Howard’s wheelhouse. Perhaps topping the “Items outside of Howard’s wheelhouse” list would be sexiness, and I will cite some of Howard’s best films as evidence to support: Cinderella Man, Apollo 13, Parenthood. Howard seems to be at his best when telling the story of mankind striving to improve, to achieve, and Rush certainly has this in spades (which is a strength), but Howard’s approach to Hunt’s romantic exploits, and the Lauda “honeymoon” sequence in particular seem awkward and forced. Perhaps Howard was trying to do something new, or perhaps he wanted his racing movie to hit on all cylinders, á la Days of Thunder, but his arrow missed the mark. A movie like Rush is practically ready-made for this kind of thing (hell, it’s in the title for shit’s sake); the daring, reckless sport of auto racing and the men who face death every day. These men live with a kind of verve unique to their profession, and thusly their passions should be as intense as their driving. I get it, but in Howard’s hands it doesn't work. Even another good Howard film, Backdraft, deals with this broad concept (substituting auto racers for firefighters), but the restraint shown in Backdraft works to its advantage. I am making much of this element, however, when it isn't the front running theme of the film. The acting is top notch from both Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Brühl, as is the amazing cinematography of Antony Dod Mantle and the scorching sound design. I really enjoyed the relationship between the two titans as they battle for supremacy across the globe, and I identified with each at different points (thank you, Mr Howard). Rush is a win for Howard and a much needed source of quality during the doldrums of September and October, but I had secretly hoped for more. I am a eternally  a sucker for a good racing movie (though I loathe actually watching auto racing on television), and Rush was a fine addition to that canon.

24 September 2013

Prisoners

directed by Denis Villeneuve

You make it sound like an episode of SVU. No thanks.
                           -my wife, when I asked her if she wanted to see Prisoners with me.

I tip my cap to Roger Deakins, for the bulky, heavy (occasionally overcooked) mystery that is Prisoners looks spectacular. I could almost feel the cold, the damp, the dread and the darkness as I hunkered down for the two and half hour, bleakness-soaked tensioner overflowing with great talent trying their best (but not always succeeding) to commit to material that valiantly endeavors to not run off the rails. Sadly, that order is taller than this film, but the twin saving graces of Prisoners are the always genius of Mr Deakins, and the coiled, restrained, dynamite performance by Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s been a long time since I could unabashedly say that I think Jake Gyllenhaal is a tremendous actor without the usual retaliatory onslaught. Zodiac, Brokeback Mountain, Donnie Darko. Hell, I still stand by the absurdist comedy of Bubble Boy and the brainless grunginess of Highway, but never more so than in Prisoners has Gyllenhaal given us so much with so little. I mean that in the best, most refreshing possible way, and some credit for this must go to writer Aaron Guzikowski for avoiding the clichéd type of bottled story scene in which detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) sits down on a cold porch with Hugh Jackman and yammers on about a troubled childhood, rough past and/or possible similar scenario from his past in which he was once the victim. Instead, a handful of back porch tattoos, a half mumbled throwaway line about spending time in a home for boys and a bristling fury become more than enough for an artist like Gyllenhaal to tell us everything about detective Loki. Gyllenhaal’s performance alone is worth the price of admission (Academy, you better be paying attention), though I will say it’s criminal how infrequently a talent like Paul Dano graces the screen, and he does not disappoint as outsider Alex, the whisper of a person who becomes the source of frenzied suspicion among the two families whose daughters vanish. If well-made, well-acted (Jackman and Terence Howard were casting missteps, though they try their damndest) and thematically on the nose thrillers are your cup of tea, then Prisoners will be your film of the year, which sounds like an insult of the film’s merits, but it really isn’t. I quite liked it, and as I have said before, a film’s earnestness (which Prisoners has in spades), when it is pure, can be a saving grace when other elements don’t exactly stack up.

17 September 2013

The World's End

directed by Edgar Wright

It’s a fitting send off for the hilarious Cornetto Trilogy: the story of five friends getting back together to sift through life’s trials whilst hacking their way through The Golden Mile, a twelve pub crawl wending a path through their sleepy suburban town. But (of course) things are not what they seem, and as the men guzzle brew from pub to pub, a strange menace seeks to strike them down. The World’s End is often hilarious, frequently badass, and Edgar Wright has shown that he clearly knows how to blend comedy and action (both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz illustrate this brilliantly). But where the first two Cornetto films shine most is in the blending of the trifecta: comedy, action and drama. I don’t mean to say that Shaun of the Dead is dramatic in any Speilbergian sense, but the scene in the jaguar where Bill Nighy tells Simon Pegg that he just wanted Pegg to grow into a good man is a touching and effective scene amid a barrage of hilarious horror action, touching because it is well written, well acted and well blended into the narrative. In The World’s End, these types of scenes are somewhat forced, bulky scenes that slow the movie down in their attempt to shoehorn a bit of dramatic weight into the plot. The scene between Nick Frost and Simon Pegg in The World’s End (the pub proper) is a prime example, as is the parlor scene that follows it. It may have its problems, but I won’t begrudge Mr W for it, especially when the rest of the movie is such a bloody- pardon me- inky good time.

02 September 2013

The Kings of Summer vs The Way Way Back

KoS directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts/WWB directed by Nat Faxon & Jim Rash

The golden leaves lining my neighborhood streets are harbingers heralding the end of summer, and perhaps it’s time I finally got around to writing about two noteworthy films from the summer passed, The Kings of Summer and The Way Way Back. These two films deal with coming of age in simultaneously traditional and novel ways, and both enjoy their own successes, but I have to call it in favor of Faxon and Rash on the basis of their well honed screenplay. Jordan Vogt-Roberts subscribes to a kind of dreamy, disjointed directorial style that serves Kings well, but its weakness stems from the story itself. The story of a trio of teens determined to live on their own for the summer take to crafting a lost boys style shack in the nearby state wilderness is interesting enough, but it seemed too slavishly written to adhere to this “one summer as a metaphysical microcosm” motif. The entire cast was charmingly believable (particularly Gabriel Basso and Nick Robinson), but there were times in the film when the teens seemed to act in a way altogether incongruous with their age and with their previous actions in the film. Way Way Back’s Liam James is stellar as the 14 old misfit who finds his grit and gusto while working at a dilapidated water park run by slackerish Owen (Sam Rockwell is a true blue joy to savor in every scene, and I so so love Maya Rudolph). I give screenwriter Chris Galletta credit for attempting to go long with Kings, but his vision exceeded his throw (a particular problem I could not reconcile was the amount of time it would have actually taken to build that house from scrounged parts), while Faxon and Rash seem to have an innate understanding for rhythms and parallelism, metaphor and motif, for making such a well trod path seem fresh and alive. Not to mention that both Faxon and Rash are superb in the bit roles they wrote for themselves. Both films are worth a watch, but if it had to be one or the other, I would say The Way Way Back is the better bet. 


27 August 2013

Adventure Time

created by Pendleton Ward

Cartoons have always been a supremely hearty source of both comedy and cultural subversion, a way for artists to embed criticism within a fabric of disarming silliness in a way almost singularly unique from all other expressive media. In terms of style and conveyance, the difference between a fresco or an opera and, say, a Looney Tunes bit may seem insanely vast even though the point of view may be identical. A prime modern example of this concept would be the scathing and sophisticated social critique permeating the raunchy ridiculousness of Team America: World Police (I know, I know, it’s technically puppetry, but don’t ruin my argument!), a film that so brilliantly binds its criticism to its lunacy that all who observe it’s point of view are spellbound. Pendleton Ward, a Texas born genius, decided to make the world a stranger and wonderfuler place by bequeathing Adventure Time upon humanity. The saga of Finn the Human and Jake the Dog endeavoring to enrich the land of Ooo through epic heroics twists along the windy, metaphysical trail, from their bottled adventures to sprawling sagas (the multi-episode Lich thread is mind-blowing), but it manages to hold tight to the thread of bonkers sincerity that gives the show the vital pulse it needs. You must be on board with the truly excellent sense of humor that Adventure Time possesses, the bizarre lyricism of the madcap dialogue, the ludicrous musical set pieces, the prismatic personalities of the world’s inhabitants (the occasional darkness of Princess Bubblegum, the desperate loneliness of Ice King, the entire concept of the Earl of Lemongrab), but the dividends paid are innumerable for those who find its brilliance. Its mythology has grown to a lush tapestry of intrigue and loveliness with each new episode, and Ward’s dedication to his world is stalwart to say the least. Adventure Time is the kind of gem that creates magic simply by refusing to abide by the rules of what a show of its ilk “should” be, and in its indifference to such norms it manages to touch a mammoth swath of the age spectrum. If you’re not on board already, I highly recommend you start. Round up a niece, nephew, son, daughter or younger sibling if you need to, but don’t shrug it off as just another quirky children’s show.  

13 August 2013

The Heat

directed by Paul Feig

Paul Feig struck cinematic oil with Bridesmaids, a hilarious ensemble comedy so good that it made another summertime wedding-esque comedy sequel (that came out just a few weeks later) seem like even more of a disaster by comparison (even though it was crap to begin with). Following up with The Heat is about the best move one could make, and bringing Melissa McCarthy along for the ride is perfection. The Sandra Bullock/Melissa McCarthy duo is comedic gold, and the two have so much chemistry it would impress Walter White (see what I did there?). I’m a little late to the dance on this, but I did see it right when it came out. It’s rare for my wife and me to enjoy a movie almost equally, but The Heat had all the right magic. If only Ms B could stay away from schlock like The Blind Side (ugh) or The Proposal (double ugh) she would be one of the greats. Duds aside, Sandra B is reliably excellent as the straight woman to McCarthy’s also reliably excellent, hilariously unhinged Riggs-esque character. It’s a great time to be had, and I will never pass up a quality opportunity to watch such talented women boss up and show the men how it’s done. 

Take notes, fellas.

22 July 2013

This Is the End

directed by Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg

Check your brain at the door, ye who seek out the laughs found in the latest Goldberg/Rogan comedy This Is the End, for there be (among other things) all manner of end timey tropes transformed into the kind of stupid, uncomfortable hilarity we’ve come to know and love from the duo. That is in no small part thanks to the spectacular ensemble of contemporary comedic all stars, from the underrated and underused (in film in general, that is) Jay Baruchel to the iconoclastic asshole incarnate Danny McBride. I’m sure Mr McBride is a perfect gentleman in real life, but he takes the concept of the prick to such astonishing heights at every pass (from All the Real Girls to The Foot Fist Way to Pineapple Express), and This Is the End finds him top form with an entrance into the film that is one of my favorite all time reveals. But let’s back up- the films finds all the cast playing themselves, focusing on the now strained friendship betwixt Jay and Seth. Jay is on the west coast visiting Seth, and the pair decide (at Seth’s bidding) to attend a party at James Franco’s house. That’s when all hell literally breaks loose. You’ve all seen the trailers, but James Franco and Danny McBride alone are almost worth the price of admission. It is no classic, but it was a helluva of a fun way to power down the old noodle for 2 hours.

And PS, go see Goon already, all you Baruchel fans. And all you hockey fans. And all you fans of kickass comedy.

10 July 2013

The Paperboy

directed by Lee Daniels

Lee Daniels directs the ever-loving shit out of the pulpy, trashy, sweaty, and astounding modern cult classic The Paperboy. It’s a scorcher of a tale, a tabloid-esque twister of deception, murder, scandal and such torrid sexuality that would make your dear old grandma blush, but it’s also an opportunity for a group of great actors to really sink their teeth into roles in ways you don’t often encounter. Matthew McConaughey has been having a helluva couple years, from the madcap darkness of Bernie to the pitch black darkness of Killer Joe, the smut glam sheen of Magic Mike to the murky mystery of Mud, and The Paperboy finds him in top form as Ward Jansen, an aloof journalist brought back home to Florida to investigate the murder case of Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). Aiding brothers Ward and Jack (Zac Efron) in their investigation is Van Wetter’s fiancée Charlotte Bliss, played to the heights of dysfunctional genius by Nicole Kidman. Anyone who scoffed at John Cusack’s recent list of duds need to see him come back with a vengeance as one of the most unhinged characters in recent years. And hats off to Zac Efron, who so effortlessly grimes up his squeaky clean image as Jack Jansen that I was mesmerized. The Paperboy is the kind of movie that aims to make the sweat and steam palpable, and Lee Daniels succeeds with flying colors. Get yourself a cold mint julep and a sturdy hand fan before setting down with this trash gem. It’ll get your heart going. 


07 July 2013

Man of Steel

directed by Zack Snyder

I was dubious of this new Superman movie from the outset. I absolutely love the character, the idea of Superman, and I as much as anyone yearned for a vital new chapter in the canon (even a reboot would suffice). Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns from 2006 is respectable in many ways, but it lacked a certain life, optimism, zest. So when I heard the meritless (and inexplicable Hollywood darling) Zack Snyder was on board to helm this new installment, my dreams seemed dashed. I worried so for my beloved Superman. I worried that the noble protector would be savagely reduced to a swinging dick aggressor who treats women only marginally less despicably as his morally vacuous nemeses. The glimmer of light that was Christopher Nolan’s stake in the works helped give me a sliver of hope, for if anyone could check Snyder’s alpha-male egomania and testosterone-addled hyperviolence, it would be Mr Nolan. [Note: I am not chipping away at Snyder’s ability to set a scene and craft action, because he is very competent at it. I am just arguing that context, subtlety and maturity seem scarce commodities in a Snyder movie.]  Alas, Man of Steel finds itself floundering in under-thought storytelling, virtually non-existent character development and synapse-pummeling action that overstays its welcome, all of which is made worse by grim realization that Man of Steel shortchanges its audience by borrowing empathy from the grand Superman myth rather than attempt to generate its own ethos.

For shame, Misters Snyder, Goyer and Nolan.

That being said, I did not hate it. Thanks to the superb work of Michael Shannon, Amy Adams and Henry Cavill, I had something to care about. Poor Amy Adams, such a fine actress plagued by the Zack Snyder malady of having nearly nothing to do but be saved by a man (double for shame, Mr S), but she found a way give her shadow of a character grit and tenacity (bravo, Ms A). Thanks to Amir Mokri, the movie does looks great, and Henry Cavill really is a fantastic Superman, but the exhausting action sequence that hijacks the last third of the film begins as exhilarating (even I always wanted a Superman with teeth) and just goes on and on and on. It’s relentless, which doesn’t have to be bad, but it also reveals itself to be equally toothless in its overblown way as no character ever really gets hurt from the trade of titanic, city leveling blows. The noise and the camera work and the violence all seem to mute each other over time, like living in a city until the sound of sirens and horns and car wrecks don’t even register anymore.

But seriously, I didn’t hate it. It has its problems (that dog/tornado scene is stupid screenwriting at its height), but I would still be interested to see what else Henry Cavill and Christopher Nolan can bring to the table. But Mr Nolan, I would recommend shedding yourself of Zack Snyder, for his is the way to catastrophe (i.e. Sucker Punch). 

01 July 2013

World War Z

directed by Marc Forster

We’ve all heard the horror stories of stymied production, re-writes, re-shoots, road blocks and other nondescript calamities that nearly derailed the Marc Forster directed genre film about a zombie apocalypse, and, for most of us, these stories melded into a kind of cautionary tale warning us against seeing what surely would be prove to be utter shite. And it was thusly that I sat down in the auditorium (telling myself that I could find worse ways to waste 2 hours of my evening) to get a load of Brad Pitt’s crack at a big budget action movie (in his own way). While the film has its problems, most notably the abrupt and almost propaganda-esque denouement, I have to say it wasn’t a total loss for me. While I didn’t find the zombie spin particularly novel (except perhaps in terms of sheer scale, plotwise), I did find it refreshing to see a zombie film that didn’t necessarily revolve around a group of captives (in a house, or building, or mall, etc) attempting to survive a gore-glutted night. Instead, WWZ opts for the opposite approach as it follows Brad Pitt’s character across the globe in search of clues and, hopefully, a cure. Not to give the film too much credit, but I have been catching myself comparing WWZ to 28 Days Later... and Children of Men (to which I will say “You’re welcome, WWZ.”) in terms of tone and depiction of said outbreak, which is to say that it isn’t preoccupied with blood and guts (though the intensity is palpable at times) to sell the story. All involved give credible performances, particularly Mireille Enos (who is excellent as Pitt’s solid wife), and the film’s serious tone bears the weight of the story without tipping too much into the realm of incredulity. Zombie fans, give it a shot. Everyone else? What the hell, give it a shot, too. As one who has been down the road already I can assure you: there ARE worse ways to waste 2 hours.

25 June 2013

The American Astronaut

directed by Cory McAbee

Sometimes, a film is so easy to describe that you take it for granted.


And that’s not in any way a negative statement about the film, just a fact.

And sometimes, a film takes a little more than a mere sentence to describe. Think Mulholland Drive or The City of Lost Children. Again, in no way is this a negative statement about the film.

And then there are films like The American Astronaut, Cory McAbee’s epically epic tale of a space trader tasked with bringing a real human girl specimen to a bleak outpost on Jupiter. On Jupiter, the space trader (named Samuel Curtis) decides to make a trade for a famous figure in the region, the boy who actually saw a woman’s breast- you know what? I’m going to just stop right there and command the oft-uttered, time honored phrase, “You just have to see it to know what I’m talking about.” Cory McAbee is, aside from being a very colorful character in the artistic world, a singular genius when it comes to conveying his vision to screen. The story of Samuel Curtis and his exploits has a very Daughn Gibson-esque vibe (Gibson’s excellent debut record, All Hell was featured on OMFBC for some time), a story of adventure and loneliness tinged with weary, isolated desperation. The American Astronaut was a game changer upon its release, a piece of outsider art that wrapped its weird, comforting arms around you like an estranged but badass and instantly lovable uncle. As I blather on, I realize that I won’t be able to suitably do this film justice, so to phrase I return:

You just have to see it. 

11 June 2013

Bones Brigade: An Autobiography

directed by Stacy Peralta

Stacy Peralta has done it again, using his insider knowledge of professional skating as a window through which the squares like us may glimpse a significant and exciting shift in the sport. Anyone even remotely familiar with the sport of skateboarding has heard of the Bones Brigade, possibly the most influential skateboarding crew ever assembled (bar the nearly folkloric Zephyr team of Dogtown). Comprised of such icons as Lance Mountain, Steve Caballero, Tommy Guerrero, Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen, Bones Brigade was a miracle of skateboarding handpicked by Dogtown legend Stacy Peralta, a team molded and tempered by a devout love of the sport. To overestimate the impact of each member's achievements would be an impossibility, and Peralta’s excellent documentary is like a video scrapbook assembled by a glowing, loving parent. Peralta’s slick film making style is as evident here as it was in Dogtown and Z-Boys and Riding Giants, and the result is no less entertaining. Rodney Mullen is, for me, one of the most influential figures in my life and an unrivaled inspiration (not to mention perhaps the best skateboarder of all time), so to see him tell the story of his life, of his love of the sport, of his internal world was a filmic revelation. Something that Rodney Mullen says in the film is a kind of summation of all art, ever:

[Artistic Expression] is a kind of controlled desperation.

The story of these young men endeavoring to express themselves through the medium of skateboarding is inspiring and affecting, especially since Peralta has a natural gift for making such insider worlds accessible to the outsider without losing the essence of the world itself. His documentaries are at once encyclopedic summaries and celebrations of his subject matter, histories and rock concerts, education and recess. If you have the time, I would highly recommend rocking a double feature of Dogtown and Z-Boys and Bones Brigade. That and a couple of PBR forties actually sounds like pretty badass Saturday night.

03 June 2013

Fast and Furious 6

directed by Justin Lin

Somehow, perhaps by sheer tenacity and persistence, the Fast & Furious (and all its titled permutations) franchise has driven its way into my heart. I don’t love the movies, and I certainly don’t own them, but I will watch the hell out of them marathon-style if they crop up on TV. And as of late (meaning, for both 5 and 6), I’m back to actually checking them out at whilst they are in theatres (which hasn’t happened since the inaugural voyage of O’Conner v. Toretto). I’ll give the series credit for 2 things:

1) Going back to real life, high octane, (mostly) CGI-less car chases/wrecks/stunts. Computer effects heavy action was something that really weakened a less than stellar series throughout its lagging midsection.

2) The screenwriters trying their damnedest to maintain continuity rather than scrap the mythology (á la Spiderman, The Hulk, Superman) and restart with fresh adventures/characters. It doesn’t mean they do a crack job of it, but I give them credit for trying. 

Fast 6 finds the crew getting back together, this time to aid Federal badass Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) as he tracks a group of international baddies. Said baddies are looking to steal components that can make some sort of internet blocker for a whole country, which would be a total bummer (I jest, but the movie spends about as much time on it as I just did so who cares). The price for Toretto and his crew helping Hobbs take them down? Full pardons, yo! It’s all convenient plot devices assembled specifically to service a high action plot, and I say there ain’t nothing wrong with that. I didn't buy a ticket for Fast 6 thinking the series was suddenly going to turn into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. There were some ridiculous moments, and some really ridiculous moments, and several moments that coaxed an audible guffaw from my incredulous lips, but it was a great example of summertime razzle dazzle that satisfied my craving for a little mindless action. What’s not to like? The meat and potatoes action sequences were stellar, and I’ll definitely be buying a ticket for Fast 7, even though bulk of the franchise director Justin Lin is exiting the scene (tear, sniffle). 

01 June 2013

Spring Breakers

directed by Harmony Korine

A little over 2 years ago, while still trying wash the cosmic grime of Trash Humpers off my psyche, I was mulling over Larry Clark’s Kids and wondering why I continued to subject myself to Harmony Korine’s filmic fits. I’ve always thought of Korine as something of a poser, a clumsy shock artist who shows us ugliness not to provoke, but simply because. Posturing might be closest to the word I’m looking for. And at this point, you either love and defend Harmony’s canon (with dubious evidence, though I will concede the Julien Donkey-Boy and Mister Lonely are wonderfully shot), or you hate him and his body of work (something I can completely understand). For better or worse, I have managed to expose myself to nearly all of his films (feature length, that is) with as open a mind as possible, though my nerves were ever on edge as I braced for the inevitable onslaught of ill-conceived grotesquery. But I’ll be damned if Spring Breakers didn’t almost make a believer out of me. I told myself before watching it that his vile opus to suburban youth would either be the final nail in the coffin, or it would be his finest work, a disgusting mirror propped against the collective acceptance of youthful stupidity and thoughtlessness via the oblivious “kids will be kids” endorsement of such excess. It’s a neon banger of a nightmare Korine has cooked up for us, a Heart of Darkness by way of MTV gone wild hedonism. Four college girls hold up a fried chicken joint to fund their raucous spring break and, once beachside, take up with a local rapper and criminal. What’s terrifying is not how easy it is for the main characters (amazingly, vacuously played by Hudgens, Gomez, Benson and Korine) to descend down the rabbit hole of violence in the film, it’s how easy it is for us to believe. Our anchor in this storm is as unlikely a figure as you’re sure to find anywhere, a braided, be-grilled scumbag rapper by the name of Alien, played to- I’m not sure what’s beyond perfection- by James Franco. Franco’s Alien is a pure being if there ever was one, a man who does exactly as he says and makes no bones about his perception of the world. As he takes the girls on a tour of his house after springing them from the clink, his “look at my shit” swagger crystallizes the American Dream into a thing of horrible clarity. Never in a million years would I dream that I would be singing the praises of a scene in which James Franco sings a Britney Spears song while playing a white grand piano on the beach, but what a scene it was! I spoke about the beauty of cycles in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyondthe Pines, and Korine utilizes his own version of cycles in Spring Breakers to lull us into the dream, mainly through pieces of dialogue. Cinematographer Benoit Debie gives the film a candy coated sheen that harkens back to elements of the visually tremendous but tortuously overwrought Enter the Void. After the explosive, fluorescent climax, after the credits, after you lay your head down on your soft, clean pillow, Franco’s mantra will lope through your mind’s darkness, haunting you. “Spring break. Spring break. Spring break forever.” It really is a thing to behold, though not a film for everyone, and if you allow yourself to hypnotized by Korine this time around, you may find that he managed to give you more than you bargained for. 

31 May 2013

The Hangover Part III

directed by Todd Phillips

Defying all logic, against all odds, Todd Phillips and dud factory Craig Mazin have managed to craft a surprisingly mediocre third film to round out a trilogy that once had so much potential. And thankfully Phillips and Mazin didn’t attempt the same ploy of starting the film at the end this time (something that proved disastrous for Part II). Part III finds the group staging an intervention for family nutjob Alan (Galifianakis in top form), off his meds and reeling from Daddy’s death. On the way to the treatment facility, a pissed off gangster named Marshall (John Goodman is great) abducts the 4, demands they locate Leslie Chow, and takes poor Justin Bartha hostage (I thought he’d get at least a little more screen time). Back to being a trio, the men are tasked with tracking down Mr Chow to save their own asses. Ken Jeong is very funny as Chow, as is the hilarious bit featuring the excellent Melissa McCarthy. Phillips employs a tried and true technique of playing on the nostalgia of the first film, from the funny Vegas sequence to Alan’s unnatural obsession with Phil. Truth be told, I actually laughed out loud during the scene when Alan and Chow suggest that Phil wield a sledgehammer with his shirt off (mainly due to Bradley Cooper’s spot on reactions in that scene and throughout the film). It’s not a classic, but there could have been far worse ways to retire the wolf pack.

29 May 2013

The Place Beyond the Pines

directed by Derek Cianfrance

Watching a Derek Cianfrance movie is like watching a forest burn to cinders in slow motion. It’s tragic and wrenching, but somehow beautiful, mesmerizing. And, in its own bizarre way, pure. The same fascination with relational wreckage that Cianfrance explored in Blue Valentine provides the framework for his spectacular The Place Beyond the Pines, but the focus here is on families and, more specifically, father-son relationships. Ryan Gosling plays the shit out of Luke, a carnival motorcyclist who, after learning he has an infant son, turns to a life of crime to provide him with that which he never had. Bradley Cooper perfectly plays Avery, a good cop struggling with the ramifications of his actions. And let’s not forget that Eva Mendes is superb as Romina, mother of Luke’s son, Jason. In Place, the cyclical melody of tragedy loops like the barrel in a music box, with notes ringing out in disparate places, with various characters, but always with a fatalistic tone of despair. The people in Cianfrance’s world are all flawed, which to me makes them more real and, in turn, strengthens my connection to them. In a strange turn that almost betrays Cianfrance’s sensibilities as an artist, the actual good, loving fathers in Place (like Kofi, who is, for all intents and purposes, Jason’s real father) are pushed to the background. The same goes for Avery’s dad (played by Harris Yulin), a loving father sidelined by the narrative’s pre-occupation with selfish, struggling men. Perhaps this is telling of how Cianfrance sees the world, or himself. Interesting...
In many ways, The Place Beyond the Pines reminded me of the excellent documentary October Country, another film that attempts to uncover the melancholy truth beneath family dysfunction. Hats off to Mike Patton, musical mad genius responsible for the film’s stellar score, and a big bravo to both young men who played the damaged sons of such flawed men. Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan, you two have bright futures ahead of you and I cannot wait to watch the magic. Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, you two were reliably fantastic as well. Not a fun movie, but an important one all the same, The Place Beyond the Pines is definitely a film that will affect you. 

15 May 2013

Upstream Color

directed by Shane Carruth

From the moment I became aware of its astounding, inexplicable existence, I vowed to remain ignorant of the Shane Carruth puzzle box, Upstream Color, until I feasted my own two eyes upon it. For years I had been promised adventure (by way of the presumably defunct A Topiary), but it never came. So when news of Upstream Color’s manifestation came to bloom like a flower from dust, I swore to allow nothing to infect my excitement. One sentence did manage to find its way into my consciousness like a kind of pest:

Upstream Color is the story of two people entangled in the life cycle of an ageless organism.

Don’t ask me where it came from, but it was about 8 months ago, and ever since then it skulked about my mind. With hopes and expectations unreasonably high, knowing full well it would never run at any theatre in Detroit, I quietly waited for its DVD release. But fate smiled upon little old BC, and I’ll be damned if Upstream Color didn’t turn up in a theatre near me! My little heart singing, I sat down in the darkened auditorium (sadly, with only one other intrepid film lover in the room) to await the film I never knew I needed in my life.

Carruth’s style of storytelling and filmmaking is one that demands attention, simultaneously parsing out and withholding segments of narrative that allow you a glimpse at the thing, but only through a crack in the door, and while Primer was intensely cerebral, Upstream Color is viscerally emotional. The film begins with a man harvesting larva that gives two imbibers (you’ll see) the ability to connect on a psychic level. Cut to the same harvester forcibly inserting a larva into the lungs of a woman he’s drugged at a night club (the phenomenal Amy Seimetz). Through a series of Pavlovian nightmares, the harvester manages to bilk Kris (Seimetz) of her life savings. As Kris struggles to make sense of her life, she begins a tense and rattling relationship with Jeff (Carruth), a man struggling to put the fragments of his own life back together. Woven into this tapestry is the haunting and isolated story of a man known only as The Sampler (according to his credit), a sound obsessed pig farmer who acts as a kind of shepherd for the harvester’s victims’ second selves. Lost yet? Even if I don’t mention the gestating larva that, once grown, are culled and transplanted by The Sampler into his sounder of swine- you know what, nevermind. The story is, very much like Primer, a labyrinthine puzzle that almost dares you to solve it even while the film most assuredly promises that no such solution may ever be found. Then what does it mean, BC?

To respond to the question posed to me by almost every English teacher I’ve ever had, I would say this: what does “meaning” mean? To what do we ascribe meaning? Symbolism, philosophy, parallelism? If one were so inclined, one could find a great deal of meaning Upstream Color (I sure did), but the most significant thing that stuck with me after this truly amazing film ended was the concept of interconnectivity, a Blakian thread (yes, of the William variety) stitching us all together. Poetic Genius by way of Shane Carruth's obscuring of that which is truly eternal.

Which leaves us mulling over that damned, insidious little sentence. As a kind of cipher, the sentence serves to unravel some of the mysteries of Upstream Color, but perhaps it’s the film’s mystery that is precisely what makes it so powerful. Carruth is an expert craftsman, and his style is as confident as it is oblique, but from the restless mind oft springs restless fruit. Upstream Color, though difficult, is much more rewarding than the bland fare you usually find at the theater. And PS, the sound design is to die for. If you have the opportunity, please see it in a theater, or at least on a home theater with a stellar sound system.

PPS, I am already pegging this film as one of the tragically neglected come award season.

29 April 2013

Mud

directed by Jeff Nichols

My hopes and my gut served me well once again. Last year, when reviewing another spectacular Jeff Nichols film (Take Shelter), I predicted that Mud would be a stunner. And what a stunner it is, a perfectly sized story peopled with incredible actors doing incredible work. Perhaps most notably would be Reese Witherspoon, who plays Mud’s lost love Juniper with a kind of tarnished grace that captivates and wounds. But I am getting ahead of myself… Two boys take a fishing boat out to an island to locate the source of an unlikely tale, a boat treed by a flood. But before the two can claim it for themselves, they discover that someone has already taken up residence in their prize. As if out of thin air Mud materializes, a man on the lam armed with a catalog of superstitions and a mysterious tale filled with dark corners. A story told by Nichols is never just a story, it’s an allegory wrapped in a folktale and bound with the sinew of Americana in a way that breathes and bleeds and sweats like a tangible thing. Matthew McConaughey is riding high on the second wave of his already fantastic career (please Mr. McC, don’t go back to the romcom wasteland, ever), and Mud finds him restrained and magnetic, a natural yarn spinner at the mercy of his own bad decisions. Deserving accolades aside, credit for the success of this film rests squarely on the young and capable shoulders of Tye Sheridan (Ellis) and Jacob Lofland (Neckbone), two boys crafting and testing their view of world against the rugged and often sharp corners of reality. Nichols has done it again, cementing himself in my mind as a talent to be excited about forevermore. And while we’re at it, bravo, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon. Brav-the-hell-o. One can never overstate the magic of a superb ensemble (just ask Andrew Dominik), and Mud is as much a testament to that as it is to the power of a solid story told solidly.

08 April 2013

Holy Motors

directed by Leos Carax

It’s a hell of a ride to be sure, but I gladly followed Leos Carax’s mesmerizing Holy Motors along its bizarre and wonderful journey, stopping throughout to drink in the decadence, despair and dreaminess of it all. We snobbish faux film scholars could spend days dissecting this film to death, but why? Why would we possibly want to dim the glow of such a treasure with dull analyses, with banal insights? At its most basic, Holy Motors is a glimpse of the artist’s mind, of what it means to create and to be haunted by worlds half-formed, to track and net such nebulous and flighty things. It is also a celebration of movies and storytelling, of the magic of escape. Carax invites (or coaxes) us inside his brain via main character Oscar (the always astounding Denis Lavant), who quite literally becomes many different people as he is driven around Paris. A gypsy beggar woman, a crazed assassin, a subterranean scavenger, a depressed father, and many more (all played by Oscar) coalesce into a kind of tableau of moments that, had they been part of larger narratives, would be the ones that crystallize and, preserved, drift immutably through time. Crystallize they do all the same, and that is in no small way thanks to the heaven-made match of Carax and Lavant. They seem to speak a language all their own, endeavoring to drill to the core of whatever vignette they seek out. The film is beautifully shot, beautifully scored and beautifully beautiful (even when it’s ugly), but as with all art, it’s the feeling of it all that sticks with you. It’s a lonely business, crafting lives, building worlds, but with Holy Motors, Carax allows us to peer through the keyhole, if only for a short time.

16 March 2013

Life of Pi

directed by Ang Lee

“This movie better not be just about a bunch of animals,” my wife stated as we sat down for Ang Lee’s wonderful Life of Pi. I told her a movie like this was similar to being hypnotized. “You have to want to be hypnotized, though. Otherwise, it never works.” Life of Pi is lovely, lush, sincere and beautiful, but you have to want to be hypnotized by its delicate charm. Ang Lee deserves all the praise he has earned for taking such a cerebral, philosophical novel and translating it into a work that compels us to watch and to be wrapped up in its magic. The story is surely well known (as beloved as the book is): Pi, the lone survivor of a shipwreck that orphans him, finds himself sharing a life boat with a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. As the pair struggle to define their own roles and survive the fickle and dangerous terrain of the Pacific Ocean, Pi and Richard Parker come to rely on one another. Lee finds a way to connect many of the dots in fine fashion, weaving faith, interconnectivity, survival, adolescence and the meaning of life itself into a kind of blanket that comforts the soul. Is it a film that will stand the test of time? I’m certainly not one to draw such audacious assumptions, but it sure made my heart glow.

PS Holy hell, Suraj Surma! You got mad squabbles, kid! Bravo.

14 March 2013

Side Effects

directed by Steven Soderbergh

Soderbergh has threatened this before, to go all Jay-Z on us and quit the game forever, but until that day actually comes I will continue to be excited for each new Soderbergh work. Side Effects finds the filmmaker at the top of his game with an effortlessly tangled and beguiling tale that is at once familiar and new. Channing Tatum is Martin Taylor, a white collar convict loosed from the clink and back to the beautiful wife (a deadly good Rooney Mara) who waited for him. As Martin struggles to get their lives back on track to success and decadence, Emily (Mara) struggles with dark corners all her own. After a surreal car accident, Emily comes under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law is spectacular!) who believes it’s simply a matter of chemical equilibrium. After a few trials, Dr. Banks (at the recommendation of a wonderful Katherine Zeta-Jones) discovers Ablixa, the latest and trendiest cure-all, and I won’t spoil any more for you. It’s as taught a thriller as I’ve found in recent years, and the excellent level of execution on all fronts, from acting to sound design, make for a devilishly good time at the movies. Side Effects is the slick and twisty product of a master craftsman, lethally sharp, a pharmaceutical grade thriller designed to jack with your mind in all the most delicious ways.  

19 February 2013

Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins

being directed (as we effing speak!) by Jonathan Keevil

Whatever side of the Baauer/Azealia Banks feud you find yourself, we can all agree on one thing: the newest endeavor in the works by the Coatwolf crew is going to be a batshit delight. As for the aforementioned feud, I am on the “couldn’t give less of a shit” side (though I still kind of want to make a Harlem Shake video of my own), but Jonathan Keevil (who scored Coatwolf’s Bellflower) has me hook line and sinker with his madcap throwback action flick called Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins. Some of the movie has already been filmed, and recently Coatwolf made a video meant to kick off a kind of telethon from hell, to fund the remaining chunks of Chuck Hank that needed proper bread to make them truly righteous (the massive action set pieces). The film’s premise is tried and tested, an Oldtown turf war stretching back generations is threaten when the sister of the San Diego Twins is kidnapped by an evil organization called The Syndicate. Together with their friend Chuck Hank, the San Diego Twins decide it’s time to finish it once and for all, with an all out atomic rumble. Think Double Dragon meets Sam Peckinpah by way of a cranked up fever dream. Judging from the taste footage found in the crowd funding video, I’m anticipating a shit ton of neon, chain weapons, Mohawks and Road Warrioresque getups. And copious, copious amounts of nuclear grade ass kickery that threatens to singe off your facial hairs. I kicked in 500 bones to help the Coatwolf cause, and I am glad to say that as of now, Coatwolf has reached their goal! They are still taking donations, and the more dough they can muster, the more out of control awesome Chuck Hank is going to be. The Coatwolf collective is an extremely exciting and talented group of filmmakers dedicated to rebel filmmaking much like Monte Hellman and George A Romero were in the indie film heyday, and I am stoked to follow them every step of the way. If anyone is interested, here is an interview I had the good fortune of being able to do with OG Coatwolf genius, Evan Glodell. 


Film lovers, we have to work together to ensure that wild dreams like Chuck Hank can still come true, that magic can be made outside of the dreaded Hollywood system. Kick in if you're into it. If there's one group of wild ones who won't let you down, it's the Coatwolf cats. 

To wet your whistle, watch the crowd funding video for Chuck Hank and the San Diego Twins (below).

13 February 2013

Bullet to the Head

directed by Walter Hill

Of course I shelled out hard earned bread to see this movie. Just wanted to go on record with that...

This resurgence of throwback style vehicles for aging action stars has seen its ups and downs over the past half decade, beginning with such enjoyable schlock as The Expendables, even presaged by such ludicrous sequels as Rambo. The charm (if you can call it that) of these films is the wink at the camera awareness that brings you in on the joke. The Expendables is exactly as bad as you think it will be, which is precisely what makes it so awesome. Add a talented piss and vinegared director who also gets the joke to the mix, and you should end up with a thoroughly delicious cinematic jambalaya. Following that line, I was prepared for Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head to be a delightful shit show, but even with my expectations in the sub-basement I was surprised at how inept I found the storytelling. Sylvester Stallone seems to be the grand architect behind said filmic resurgence (as he is featured in nearly all of these movies), from Rambo to The Expendables (and even the credibly sincere Rocky Balboa), but as he mumbles his way through the back alleys and seedy corners of Louisiana, I found myself surprised that Sly’s trademark mushmouthed garble wasn’t the least intelligible element of this disaster. Sun Kang’s Detective Taylor Kwon character could have just as effectively been played by a Speak & Spell duct taped to a rolling chair, and Walter Hill’s whiskey breathed brawler style of direction falls flat throughout much of the film, unless a scene involves a bullet entering someone’s skull (which happens often). I will give a boat load of credit to Jason Momoa for refusing to allow any semblance of faux seriousness to penetrate his crazed warrior super muscle character, Keegan. Momoa and Christian Slater seemed to be the only 2 who got the memo about what exactly Bullet to the Head was supposed to be, and I expected a hell of a lot more from screenwriter Alessandro Camon (who co-wrote the spectacular film The Messenger). If watching potato skinned old action relics ply their trade on screen is your thing, you would do much better to check out the newest Schwarzenegger movie, The Last Stand (directed by Jee-woo Kim). But in all seriousness, if you want to see an actual good version of a film like this (a former action star trying like hell to avoid fading away), pretty please go watch JCVD, starring the Muscles from Brussels as himself. A fantastic film, that.

30 January 2013

Indie Game: The Movie

directed by Lisanne Pajot & Jame Swirsky

I must admit that I have only a working knowledge of the indie game world, with my tastes leaning toward classic games like Frogger, Donkey Kong and even Castlevania, but it certainly didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying this geeky knockout of a doc. Modern gaming left me in the dust years ago, which is probably why I found the artistry and motivations of this doc's talented young video game designers so refreshing and relatable. The designers featured in Indie Game aren’t concerned with heaping graphics upon graphics to create a spectacle of gluttonous bit counts. For these artists, the video game medium is prismatic canvas in which they attempt to convey a view of the world as they perceive it. I was only familiar with Fez before watching this doc, the tragic string of disasters, setbacks and misfortunes that befell Phil Fish, but the stories of Braid developer Jonathan Blow and Super Meat Boy team Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes are at once familiar and universal. Art is a nebulous and subjective concept, but at the core of all art is an artist whose goal is to create a shared experience, to conjure a response from those who choose to experience that which the artist has created. And how refreshing it was to hear artists speaking honestly about how much they wanted people to enjoy their works! It typically seems to manifest in musicians, but it always bugs me when artists say they couldn’t care less about whether or not people like their art. If you don’t give a shit, then why put it out there for people to experience and (inevitably, for it is our nature) judge? Of course you want people to like it, to be affected by it. Otherwise, you would have simply created it for yourself and could have cared less about presenting it to the world. Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky are meticulous talents behind the camera, and the result is a visually lovely doc that explores art and gaming from an earnest and vulnerable place. I was rooting for these guys all the way through, and you will too. I’m actually kind of bummed this film hasn’t received more love, particularly of the Academy variety. 

20 January 2013

Rust and Bone

directed by Jacques Audiard

Like Kathryn Bigelow, Jacques Audiard’s strength as a filmmaker comes from complexity and honesty, from a refusal to chip away at the prism until the audience is left with merely one color from the spectrum. And in addition to Audiard’s phenomenal knack to capture mood and pinpoint the weight of a moment is his ability to find the exact right talent for his film roles. Romain Duris was spellbinding in the amazing film The Beat That My Heart Skipped, as was Tahar Rahim in A Prophet. In Rust and Bone, Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts find a way to make magic out of every single frame. Cotillard’s Stéphanie is simply breathtaking, and I refuse to spoil anything for you, good reader, so you’ll just have to see the film to understand what I mean. Schoenaerts blew my mind once again, coming off a tremendous role in last year’s Bullhead (see this movie. See it right now) to play a man down on his luck, trying to find a way to become worthwhile. Both leads excel in being many things at many times in the film, heroes and villains, selfish and sincere, callous and caring, and both (due to such astonishing talent from both of them) manage to remain sympathetic, to remain people in whom we glimpse pieces of ourselves (better or worse). Rust and Bone is not a happy film, but there s a sense of clenched jawed optimism that resonates in a way that more generic films do not. One of my favorites of year.

18 January 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

directed by Kathryn Bigelow

Pro torture? Anti torture? Too much sensitive intel divulged to the world about acrimonious and savage US interrogation tactics during the first tenth of the 21st century? As for these questions, it’s a moot effing point. The torture happened, US sanctioned torture that yielded, among (surely) a warehouse full of blind alleys and useless information, intelligence that brought a SEAL team to Osama Bin Laden’s compound ten years after the Twin Towers attack. Personally, I think the film is far more complex than being simply pro or anti torture, and you don’t need some tacky scene where a soldier cries in a bunker to see the effects that years of breaking human beings have on those involved. That is largely thanks to the phenomenal work of talent like Jason Clarke and Jessica Chastain, who inhabit the moral gray area of their characters with brash and scorching devotion. Is what the United States did to extract information during this War on Terror grossly wrong? Of course, and the movie plainly agrees. But did these savage tactics lead to uncovering the whereabouts of one of the world's greatest terrorists? Yes, and the movie plainly agrees with this argument as well. The mark of a great film is the refusal to be simply one thing or another, and a film dealing with this sort of content that decides to be one thing over another reduces itself to mere propaganda. Kathryn Bigelow is one of our finest filmmakers, and she would no more reduce her film than she would cede an ounce of integrity in achieving any filmic vision she may have. I know for me, watching the film in a full theatre, the climax of the narrative was met with the same sort of shock and silence depicted in the film, There was very little conversation from the audience, but a sense of dazed closure seemed to permeate the auditorium. From a directing, storytelling, editing and acting standpoint, the film is as tight as they come, and Jessica Chastain deserves every award in the book as Maya, consumed with thought of capturing OBL. There will continue to be much debate over this excellent film, but the inherit weakness in each argument is the debater’s compulsion to simplify a film that expertly deals with an immensely complex event. Zero Dark Thirty is a difficult film, but a film well worth watching. 

17 January 2013

Searching for Sugar Man

directed by Malik Bendjelloul

Being a native Detroiter, I am aware of both the legend and the reality of musical legend Sixto Rodriguez, but the most magical and outrageous aspect of the story of Sugar Man is that the reality is as spectacularly surreal as the legend itself. Malik Bendjelloul’s amazing doc tells the story of a mysterious Detroit songster by the name of Rodriguez, a genius who disappeared after only two albums. According to legend, he killed himself onstage, and though he faded to obscurity in the States, his music was essential to the youth railing against Apartheid in South Africa. It wasn’t until a few intrepid music lovers decided to do some digging that the truth about Sixto Rodriguez was brought to wonderful, inspiring life. Searching for Sugar Man is inspiring the way American Movie is inspiring, a testament to passion and unfailing optimism that resides within such artists as Rodriguez. Though at times it’s a little heavy on the sweet, Searching for Sugar Man is like candy for the soul.

15 January 2013

Detropia

directed by Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady

Ugh. Another doc about how bad things are in Detroit. Yes, it’s a little rough in my hometown, and yes, there doesn’t seem to be a clear light at the end of the tunnel, but filmmakers like Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady will have you believe that my beloved city is naught but a wasteland inhabited by scavengers, criminals and weirdoes. There is probably a larger element of truth in that concept than I would care to admit, but when all the world ever gets to see is the negative, we Detroiters find ourselves getting a little defensive about how our Motor City is portrayed. RoboCop. The Crow. True Romance. Vanishing on 7th Street. Hell, even The Goonies finds Mouth (Cory Feldman) commenting on how Detroit has the highest murder rate in the country (I know it’s true, but come on people). Detropia attempts to comment on the destructive forces (the manufacturing exodus of the 80s and 90s, the population decline that has left whole city blocks vacant) that have reduced a once thriving city to a dilapidated ghost town, but the result is uneven at best. I will give Detropia credit for not focusing on violence (a topic sadly more suited for Flint, MI), but I would have liked to find a bit more optimism. There are a few significant moments, but if you want to see a much better, much more effective meditation on the current state of Motown, please check out Florent Tillon’s wonderful doc Detroit Ville Sauvage. And while it’s not particularly well made, I also whole heartedly recommend the Palladium Boots doc called Detroit Lives, a mini doc that actually focuses on positive things happening in the city.

A thought: Does it ever irk any of you when your city/state/region/country is consistently portrayed in a negative or consistently one sided way? I supposed it’s different for people who live in places like New York City or some other place that has been referenced countless times in a variety of ways in film. Even in the snoozer Up in the Air, the Detroit long shot was as depressing as possible, and The Five-Year Engagement half jokingly portrays Ann Arbor (the snootiest of Michigan cities) as bleak and uncultured. 

13 January 2013

Django Unchained

directed by Quentin Tarantino

Some of you were already familiar with the legend of Django when the rumors surfaced of a Quentin Tarantino western about revenge in the Antebellum South. For those familiar, it was a prospect almost too good to be true. One of my generation’s finest filmmakers contributing a new chapter to the grand Django canon. For those of you who have no idea what I am talking about, allow me to school your ass. Since Sergio Corbucci brought the original Django to the big screen with the tale of a coffin dragging gunslinger who goes up against damn near everyone (and from whose film QT pulled the title song for Unchained), the myth of Django has seen many sequels and permutations, most notably (and recently) Takashi Miike’s badass film Sukiyaki Western Django (which is something of a Django origin story). Django is another kind of filmic Chen Zhen, an archetype on which filmmakers hang their visions. For Unchained, Tarantino has transformed that archetype into a freed slave (Jamie Foxx) whose friendship with a bounty hunter (the spectacular Christoph Waltz) leads him on a path of revenge. Jamie Foxx is out of sight as Django, firing on all cylinders for the first time in a long time as he kills his way through the wild and racist West. Christoph Waltz is as astounding as always as King Schultz, the bounty hunter who frees, mentors and befriends Django. Hats off to Leonardo DiCaprio, who not only plays an actual character for the first time in ages, but who appears to be having fun as well (though I cannot confirm or deny such a claim). Gone are DiCaprio’s trademark scowl and/or look of furious disgust, replaced by a spectrum of unhinged delight that rivals Sam Rockwell’s Billy Bickle in Seven Psychopaths. All deserved praise aside, I didn’t love Unchained the way I love so many of QT’s other films. The passion for film is there, to be sure, but the magic was lacking. In addition, it was bizarre to hear not just contemporary songs in a QT film, but original songs that he actually commissioned specifically for Unchained. But I will never pass up a chance to see Franco Nero (the original Django from Corbucci’s classic) size up the new Django (Nero is one of my favorite parts of the film, hands down).

What perhaps disappointed me the most about Django Unchained was its complete lack of female characters with depth. Kerry Washington is a phenomenal actress, and strong female roles have become (for me, at least), a welcome and necessary element of Tarantino films, which is vital and important for filmic culture as a whole. I can appreciate the historical context of the world in which the film functions, but Tarantino's clearly revisionist zest could have easily accommodated such welcomed spirit from the ladies. For shame, QT.