What movie was 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


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.

11 January 2013

Cloud Atlas

directed by Tom Tykwer, Andy & Lana Wachowski

Babe Ruth points to center field in the sixth inning of Game 3. Next pitch, he knocks the hell out of that ball and where does it go? Into the center field bleachers. Bambino’s homer goes from amazing to legendary. What if the ball had hit the center field fence instead? Would it have been any less spectacular? This analogy kept running through my mind as I watched the end credits roll on Cloud Atlas, the big old experience of a film from the ambitious talent of Ton Tykwer, Andy and Lana Wachowski. Tykwer and the Wachowskis clearly pointed to center field in bringing to life the story of entangled existence and cosmic fatalism, and while the film didn’t fly over the fence, I had to give the trio a hearty ovation for at least giving it a go. The sets and cinematography alone are enough to whisk you up in the razzle dazzle of a true blue experience, but despite the best efforts of a great cast (Ben Whishaw and Doona Bae were especially wonderful), I never felt truly caught up in the moment of the story itself. What it may lack in terms of overall cohesion, it makes up for in ambition, and while I don’t think merits any awards, I was glad I caught it on the big screen. A real Grinch could pick it to pieces, for the film has its problems, but Grinches are like rain at a picnic. And who likes that?