What movie was that...?

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.