What movie was that...?

28 January 2014

Strongman

directed by Zachary Levy

Some documentarians are concerned with style and content in equal measure. Dogtown and Z-Boys and Style Wars, pour example, have style for days, but this is appropriate because the subject matter demands it. Would Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus be as mesmerizing if all of its fascinating characters were simply interviewed and tracked with a shoddy camera? My guess is probably not, but on the other hand there are excellent documentaries that don’t seem preoccupied with such frivolities (American Movie is a prime example of such magic). These “basic” types of documentaries can be disarming, because you don’t always expect such depth to emerge from the wreckage, but occasionally one sneaks out of nowhere (or, in this case, pops up on the Netflix reco page) and leaves you with that embattled sense of awe. I say embattled because documentaries like this (see definition at: good) always fill me with a tangled collection of wonder, joy and sadness, a sense that this world and the people in it are infinitely odd, infinitely flawed, and infinitely wonderful. Zachary Levy’s Strongman is a fragile, ramshackle, tragically sincere glimpse into the small world of a man with titanic abilities, abilities that are unfortunately hard to make dazzling, dynamic or marketable. That doesn’t make them any less astounding, but it frames the plight of the documentary’s focus, strongman Stanley Pleskun (who goes by Stanless Steel), as he struggles to translate his unique skill set into a lucrative career. Pleskun himself works by day doing industrial tear outs and scrounging scrap metal from warehouses, but his determination to find an outlet for his strength drives him to perform at every turn, sometimes for no one else but a porch full of intoxicated good old boys. Levy doesn’t belabor Pleskun’s promethean struggle to break big too much, opting instead to stitch together scenes of chaotic familial dynamics, struggling romance and deep sadness into a kind of liquid, free flowing narration that paints an impression rather than hammer home a biographer’s thesis. This film is the stronger for it, and this is not to say that there is not humor to be found. This is also not to say Levy depicts Pleskun as a hulking brute out of time with no use. Through Levy’s lens, we understand the difficulties someone with such singular abilities faces when trying to market his talents, we glimpse the unlikely loveliness of a quirky romance (Stanley and Barbara are a couple for the ages) and the inevitable sadness of a relationship as it self-destructs, we experience the emotive bond (for better or worse) of a close but dysfunctional family. And despite all that, we even feel warming rays of hope at the end of the film as things begin to come full circle for Stanley and Barbara. Of course, if you’re a real Grinch, you could also see it as the doom laden reset point for a cycle of tragedy and heartbreak. But I try not to be such a Grinch…


Much like Stanless Steel, Levy’s documentary won’t win any awards for slick, pretty packaging, but the power still finds a way to strike you in the most unlikely places. 

13 January 2014

Her

directed by Spike Jonze

Many great directors instill their work with shades of themselves. You get a definite impression of the kind of person Stanley Kubrick was based on his canon. You understand a great deal about Lars Von Trier by bearing witness to his cinematic fits and starts. As personal as filmmakers may get when creating their art, I find none as intimately revealing as Spike Jonze.

I distinctly remember the first time I learned Jonze’s name, sitting in my grandmother’s living room watching MTV as the video for “Cannonball” by The Breeders played out. I almost couldn’t pay attention to the video because I was worried I’d miss the director credit at the end. Ah, the old heyday of MTV programming… but there was something even then that struck me about Jonze’s style. Dozens of amazing videos, 3 features and 20 years have passed, and Jonze has revealed himself more and more with every work. When I watch his films, I feel as if I was allowed through a back door into Jonze’s mind, and even as I marvel at its oddness (and its similarity to my own), I feel almost nervous. It’s as if I got in by accident, and I worry that he might be mad if he found me wandering around in there. This analogy may sound strange, but then again Jonze is strange, wonderfully, delicately, beautifully strange in a way that takes the light of the world and refracts it back as a fragile and tumultuous rainbow.

It’s safe to assume, good reader, that I am pre-disposed to fall in love with anything Jonze creates, and I have been waiting with bated breath (for what seems like forever) for Her, the first wholly Jonzian work (not an adaptation or director only credit), to finally arrive. And it has, in all its kaleidoscopic, retrofuturistic magic. The love story that takes place sometime in the not so distant future (where all of fashion seems to worship at the altar of David Byrne, btw) between a man and his OS is (if you can allow yourself to go with Jonze on this intellectual leap) at once a timeless story and a fresh look at the thrills and trenches of love and relationships. Joaquin Phoenix is phenomenal as Theodore Twombly, a melancholic letter writer in the throes of a divorce who cultivates a romance with an artificially intelligent operating system (wonderfully voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Don’t worry, all the questions (theoretical, logistical, comically immature) flitting through your mind are tackled throughout Her’s duration, but the film is not some sort of science fiction spectacle. At its heart, Her is a love story that ponders what exactly it takes to make love exist, to qualify it as real. Amy Adams pulls a 2008 Kate Winslet and delivers 2 Oscar worthy performances in a year (go see American Hustle, already), this time around as Amy, Theodore’s friend and fellow searcher. Her is beautifully shot, amazingly scored, and movingly realized by a staggeringly genius screwball. It’s the kind of film you never knew you needed in your life until you see it.

12 January 2014

American Hustle

directed by David O Russell

David O Russell films are delectable treats for both the casual movie watcher and the cinephile. Wild, zesty, spitfire treats that overflow with the magic of filmic storytelling in an exhilaratingly idiosyncratic way. And like many of his other great works, American Hustle finds its stride in telling the story of opportunists and truth adverse survivalists all clamoring for their own personal sense of vindication. For some of these characters, it’s about redemption, but for others it’s just about the hustle. American Hustle may not be much more than a collection of spectacular scenes, but oh, what scenes they are! Sumptuously decorated, intoxicatingly, head spinningly scripted and aggravatingly well acted, these scenes celebrate the sheer joy of filmmaking, the pure elation that film can evoke. To try and credit each electrifying performance by a dizzying ensemble cast would be folly, but Amy Adams, Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner and Christian Bale are just a few of the names on the list of dazzlers. A special shout out to the comedic genius (hell, genius genius) of Louis C K (you Swedes better be taking Nobel notes concerning Mr C K), a man so full of talent that it has become nearly imperceptible to the naked eye. Forgive me for getting lost in the revelry of such a fun film, but as for due diligence… American Hustle is a fictionalized version of the notorious Abscam sting that brought down several political figures during the age of disco, but Russell is more concerned with the art of the con as a personality trait, a characteristic, a skill. One might argue that Mr Russell is also concerned with plunging necklines (Ms Adams, Mr Cooper, I’m looking at you), but American Hustle is a hell of a movie that proves too true Mae West’s famous quote, that too much of a good thing is a wonderful. 


11 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

directed by the Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers have never shied away from tackling profundity in a way inimitably Coen. And with Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens show they still have a lot to say about their legacy as filmmakers and storytellers. Through a kind of bleakly whimsical mobius trip, the story of a struggling folk singer attempting to connect with the world is hilarious at one moment, devastating the next, and mesmerizing throughout. Perpetually aloof, dour, morose, Davis has the chops (and even the life experience Dylan pretended to have) to create wonderful art, but somehow cannot connect with his contemporaries. As he floats from couch to couch, inconveniencing acquaintances to varying degrees, Davis seems lost in the dismal doldrums of creativity. The clouds part (for us, that is) when Davis plays, however, and the superb Oscar Isaac manages to coax the whole world into leaning close as he culls the voices and struggles of lives past into existence in darkened bars and stuffy rooms. It’s a classic and excellently effective Coen tactic, but what spectacularly moving scene in a Coen movie would be complete without a wry reminder at the end that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously (lest we start getting carried away with all this heady pondering)?  A prime example: F Murray Abraham’s deadpan delivery of “I don’t see a lot of money, here” is a laugh out loud moment that cuts off a revelatory musical sequence. The musical sequences are truly beautiful, moving scenes that sum up much of Davis’ embattled personae, and serve as kind of thesis for what the Coens have so long been fascinated with: the creation of art in relation to tradition, the process of creating new via the old. This tension between tradition and innovation is evidenced in their strongest works, and Inside Lleweyn Davis is a strong addition to a shockingly formidable body of work.


I’ve been pondering this question for some years, and I always encounter widely varying conclusions when I pose it to other film lovers, so here it goes: What are your top 5 Coen Brothers movies?

My List (in order):
 A Serious Man (I should think no Coen film will ever topple its reign).
No Country for Old Men
Inside Llewyn Davis (I think it just usurped Fargo, but I am still mulling this over...)