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.