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A Note on Anomalisa

December 9th, 2015 No comments

David Anomalisa

For Charlie Kaufman, with each passing film he has continued to deconstruct what we typically expect from a standard narrative, acknowledging there are no rules to how you can write or tell a story. Basically, rules are written by people trying to sell you books on screenwriting.

Anomalisa is his latest film, a “funny-ish” drama that continues Kaufman’s career of defying expectations. Originally an audio play the script found it’s way to the Duke Johnson and Starburns Industries, the studio responsible for Rick and Morty and Before Orel. This was serendipitous as a beautiful union was formed. The script calls for three actors. You have David, our main character voiced by David Thewlis, who is feeling alone in the world. He is on the road promoting his book and giving a speech on how to improve customer service. We are getting a small 24-hour glimpse into his life as he visits Cleveland, a city with a wonderful zoo sized zoo. It takes a minute to let everything register but the audience soon comes to realize everyone David interacts with has what we can call “World Face” and “World Voice.” Everyone looks the same. And they are all voiced by the great Tom Noonan (who you hopefully remember from his fantastic role in Kaufman’s opus and certified mind-f#@!, Synecdoche, New York). This world is, to say the very least, dull. We witness the most boring, mundane details of his night from the cab ride from the airport, the hotel check-in and then ordering room serviDesks anomalisace.

It’s not a subtle point being made. I’m sure many of you have felt it, the world can seem to lack real human interaction; it can lack depth. People have perfectly packaged platitudes they feel comfortable serving up for every situation. It can all start to blend together to the point where you aren’t hearing any distinct voice in the crowd.

David’s loneliness leads him to call a former lover, recalling I suspect that she was one of the unique ones. She had that distinct voice, a face to remember. She arrives for a drink in the hotel bar and she is part of the world voice, world face. What’s changed, I wonder. Is his memory that unreliable? Just romanticizing the past and building her into something she never was? Perhaps she has changed or maybe the problem is his perception of the world has changed. Needless to say it ends poorly, they cannot reconcile with their past and David returns alone to his room. And then, a voice! It’s new, it’s fresh, it is so distinct he rushes to get dressed and starts knocking on doors to find this woman with her siren song. It is Lisa; the anomaly in his world. His ‘anomalisa,’ voiced by actor number 3 in this film, Jennifer Jason Leigh.anomalisa-still2

The film is beautifully shot with naturalistic lighting and style. And performances are almost lyrical in their melancholy. The animation is brilliant, with incredibly expressive eyes on David and Lisa. And the sex scene they were able to pull off had more truth and honesty than any sex scene you’ll witness with live actors. It was awkward, slightly clumsy and sort of, real.

This is the sort of film that is wonderful to discuss after the fact and as you reflect on the themes, the style, the performances. It’s very cerebral. But the viewing experience itself was a little underwhelming. Maybe that was the point being made, which works but certainly doesn’t hold the attention of most audiences for very long. There is not much in the film to respond to viscerally, at least not until you get more than half way through.

ANOMALISAIn the end, this script doesn’t offer much hope. One could argue it is nihilistic in a way, suggesting that all anomalies, as hopeful as they may be, are doomed. Individuality seems to be fleeting. Upon reflection the film is profound with emotional depth and I’m probably going to watch it a few times more. It’s a complex and intelligent script that I’m sure will be on top ten lists this year. But general audiences should be cautious. While I loved experiencing different moments, at times I grew restless and most of my enjoyment came hours after the final credits as I was ruminating over the experience.

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A Note on MacBeth

November 15th, 2015 No comments

MacBethThe Bard’s most loyal groupies have their favorite tragedies, comedies and histories and they tend to consider these plays sacred text, which makes adapting them for film a risky endeavor. It takes a delicate touch and a respect for the source material. Even in some masterful hands Shakespeare has not held up when brought to the screen. But in only his second feature director Justin Kurzel brings the tragedy of MacBeth violently alive with beautiful, brutal imagery and a cast of modern master.

You are, I’m sure, familiar with the plot. MacBeth, the loyal Thane of Glamis, receives a prophecy from “three weird sisters” who tell him he will one day be King. But they foretell a fruitless and short-lived reign and the lineage of his loyal soldier Banquo will rule for generations. The lust for power and subsequent fear of being usurped drives him to the brink of madness and he’s ultimately murdered by ambition. No spoiler alert needed it’s been 400 years, shame on you if you didn’t already know MacBeth’s fate.

Battle FieldCinematographer Adam Arkapaw created stunning tableaux filled with fog and filth. We’ve seen this visual approach by both Polanski and Kurosawa but this film sets itself apart by it’s dramatic use of color and hallucinatory style during the initial battle. Juxtaposing extremely warm then cool color palates was appropriately disorienting. They make full use of Scotland and Northern England’s picturesque landscapes and then mire us in the mud and muck of Glamis and cold isolation of Inverness. The production design, the costumes, all of it helped bring my favorite tragedy to life.

The entire cast was nearly perfect; I love Paddy Considine. Michael Fassbender, one of the most talented and fascinating actors working today, plays MacBeth marvelously. He’s one of the rare sorts that can display a raw brutality balanced with vulnerability as his character descends into madness. He is in full form during the banquet scene in which he is haunted by Banquo’s ghost, an ally he ordered murdered. You forget this man is a murderer guilty of regicide and start to sympathize with him; perhaps he is the victim of an unfortunate unavoidable fate that saw him murder both his king and best friend.

FassbenderMarion Cotillard plays his wife, the mastermind behind the traitorous plot. Another top talent, her challenge was compounded by the fact English is not her first language and then she needed to also master the Shakespearean verse. As expected she played the role beautifully, handling the linguistic gymnastics of the dialogue like a veteran of the Shakespearean theater. She’s one of very few actresses that can pull off such a role. This adaptation, however, I feel restrains the potential for what Lady MacBeth could be. Which is where I feel the writer has made one of his critical mistakes.

Marion_Cotillard_Lady_Macbeth-xlargeLady MacBeth is one of my favorite female characters in all literature; a strong woman who pulls the strings of her impressionable husband; a megalomaniac; ambitious to a fault then driven mad by the gruesome chain of events she orchestrated. But the first frame is of a dead child, her child. And I know you’re thinking, “did the MacBeths have a kid?” That has often been up for dispute but the real answer is No. Taking Lady MacBeth and turning her into a grieving mother opposed to the zealous puppet-master weakens her character and changes her motivations. In doing so Marion is somewhat under-utilized. The suggestion that Lady MacBeth might be unstable before she beings plotting their power grab fundamentally changes the character.

This raises the question of how to alter source material to appeal to a modern audience. The writer during a Q&A said he thought it would give something for the audience to relate to with Lady MacBeth. But that isn’t needed. We don’t need her to be relatable, that isn’t her character. I mean, this is the woman that said she would dash out the brains of a child nursing at her breast. You’re not going to relate to her, that’s why she is so intriguing. It should be a lesson for writers to see how one choice, even if it feels minor, can morph your character into something you might not anticipate.

The other flaw centers on how they handled the final acts, which made the climax underwhelming. For MacBeth I’ve always felt it needs the grand finale that you get from something like Throne of Blood (Kurosawa’s altered version of MacBeth). The merits of this film outweigh the flaws so, despite the ending, the imagery and the powerful performances are well worth your time.

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A Note on The Lobster

November 11th, 2015 No comments

Lobster-QuadThe world can be a cruel place to someone “unmatched.” You are hunted down in the forest, harassed by police in the shopping malls and you’re forced to find a match or else you’ll be turned into an animal. Or at least, this is the world of Yorgos Lanthimos’ acerbic, absurd satire, The Lobster.

 Rachel Weisz’s unaffected narration sets the tone of the film and introduces us to David (Collin Farrell). He’s an “unmatched” man with a boarder collie his only companion. The collie is of course his brother who didn’t “make it through” on his visit to The Hotel. After an awkward series of admission questions and quick orientation from an administrator David is subjected to life at The Hotel. For the first day, one hand is handcuffed behind his back as a reminder everything works better in pairs. The Hotel staff performs skits to remind the residents of the danger of living alone. And they use “awful” methods to keep them horny but punish masturbation in painful and humiliating fashion.

lobster2-xlargeThe logic of The Hotel parallels the logic of our society; you are expected to have a significant other, people suddenly seem proud of you just because you have a man or a woman on your arm. You may have won an Emmy, or cured diseases but you’re a sad case if you’re single. We’re stuck in an an over-sexualized environment to keep sex always at the forefront of thought but masturbation is condemned and we’re encouraged to use any thin connection to one and other as reason to “find a match.” In The Hotel it can be as thin as finding anyone that shares your lisp, your limp, your chronic nosebleeds or your complete lack of emotion. If you don’t have any of these superficial traits in common, then fake them. Fake a lisp, a limp, or nosebleeds and even change the emotional core of your personality.

David feigns an emotionless personality to find a match with the Heartless Woman (played by Lanthimos favorite Angeliki Papoulia) only to have his emotional state tested when she… well… I’ll let you experience the tragedy. Failing to find a match and afraid of being turned into an animal David fleas into the woods with the Loners, a group of unmatched individuals that abhor relationships as much as society abhors bachelorhood. In The Hotel David was encouraged relentlessly to find a match, here any sort of cavorting is strictly forbidden and met with punishment. You are free to masturbate though, so David has that going for him.

THE LOBSTER. Photo Despina Spyrou L_05703-0-2000-0-1125-cropWhen David meets the Near-Sighted Woman (Rachel Weisz) living among the Loners he finally finds a real connection (he’s near-sighted to, you know). Sure, it’s still based on a singular feature of the individual, but it’s not artificial. But out with the Loners even if the connection to another is genuine you are made to feel as though it’s wrong.

The social commentary is beautifully constructed and the satire is fierce and at times disturbing. All of this comes through the wonderfully controlled, muted performances from the entire cast. They were funny, endearing and heartbreaking. It’s Colin Farrell’s best performance since In Bruges. Perhaps I was influenced by the collective experience but I haven’t seen a comedy this year that was as well written and so precisely directed. Which might be why at times it felt like a piece of classical music, hitting notes and movements with precision and allowing the audience to live within sustained moments instead of spoon feeding us one-liners in a quick cut zany world.

Lanthimos’ attention to detail adds a hilarious layer to the film. He stages random animals walking around through the forest as a reminder of The Hotel’s practices or places small drops of blood on the shirt of the man faking his chronic nosebleeds. Even when moments are tense, it adds the necessary levity.

The pacing might not be for everyone, but you’d be remiss if you didn’t at least give this film a shot. It’s the most unique romantic comedy since Eternal Sunshine. David and the Near-Sighted Girl create a special bond they must hide from the other and develop a complicated form of communication through body movement and hand gestures. And when their relationship is threatened, as the world often threatens those genuine couples, they must find a way to stay together. The ambiguous ending is something my wife would despise, but it does leave us wondering how far we are willing to go to have something in common with another. What parts of our personality and physical appearance are we willing alter in order to find companionship?

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A Note On Bone Tomahawk

October 31st, 2015 No comments

BT posterFinally! Kurt Russell returns to Westerns with two coming out this year. The first is Bone Tomahawk, a debut feature for director S. Craig Zahler and a reminder of why we love Russell in Westerns. Zahler has been a writer for years, writing novels, screenplays and for magazines, but has never helmed his own picture. Perhaps he was just waiting for the right one and, well, here it is. A director once told me that your first feature should not be an elaborate, high-concept ensemble piece. Your first feature just needs to be specific. In fact, he argued that is key to any film in any genre. And so we are given the specific story of the time Samatha O’Dwyer (Lili Simmons) was kidnapped.

In the small town of Bright Hope things seem quiet and strangers are greeted with suspicion. So when a drifter comes through (David Arquette) it is inevitable that he would have a run in with The Sheriff (Kurt Russell). The Sheriff shoots the drifter in the leg, which seems commonplace, and then is left in his cell to be watched by the deputy and treated by the doctor, Mrs. O’Dwyer.   Unbeknown to them, however,barbaric and cannibalistic savages are hunting down the drifter for violating their sacred burial grounds. The three are kidnapped and the only evidence is an arrow from a lost tribe of vicious cannibals.

Thus, we are given our plot and the journey is set to begin. But no Western is complete wBoneTomahawk_Still8ithout first establishing our cast of characters:

The Sheriff, an enigmatic leader ready to break the law to enforce the law.

The Husband (Patrick Wilson), an injured yet undeterred Cowboy hell-bent on rescuing his wife despite his broken leg.

The Gun-Slinging Gentleman (Matthew Fox), a man with a sordid past that makes him useful at tracking down “savages.”

The “Back-Up” Deputy (Richard Jenkins), the moral compass driven by loyalty and an honorable sense of duty.

Once the men get on the road the biggest obstacles they need to overcome aren’t the elements in the desert. They need to overcome their own suspicions of The Gun-Slinging Gentleman and of course The Husband’s broken leg, which continues to get worse as he struggles to keep pace. It’s on this journey the film becomes something of a gritty and more violent The Searchers, using sweeping, arid landscapes to make us feel the heroes are surrounded with hopelessness. But this is a brutal, graphic venture into horrors that we have not typically seen in a Western. This journey, especially the final act, is not for the squeamish.

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While most of other characters were captivating, the performance and character that drew my attention most was Chicory, the “back-up” deputy. He is not only a brilliantly conceived character but played wonderfully by Richard Jenkins. From his hunched and sullen stance, to a gait with a history of fighting the rough frontier life and his hurried yet careful speech, Jenkins owned the character like no one else in the film. In one of the later scenes he recalls a time he watched aflea circus and at the mere thought it might be real he became giddy, childlike. The nuance of this scene is one small example of how precise Jenkins performed throughout the entire film.

That’s not to say the film is without its flaws. Matthew Fox’s performance, while felt stilted, at times drawing me out of the story and making it very clear that I was watching Matthew Fox’s broad sketch of 19th century mannerisms. But the onus is not entirely on the performer. The writer had created a character that should be larger than life, one with a presence that alone creates tension among the others. But this character instead feels more like a missed opportunity, like the punches were pulled in both the writing and performance.

The other flaw in the film was probably the most egregious, creatively speaking, and cannot be discussed without some major spoilers. So I will discuss after the jump. Stop reading now if you don’t want to learn more about the cannibalistic cave dwellers.

Choke

When we finally come to face the savages the film starts to stray from the typical Rescue Western and move almost seamlessly into exploitation territory. It was a welcome development until we learn the cave dwellers communicate through a bizarre pattern of “howls” that sound more like creatures from Jurassic Park rather than from the Wild West. Even with a transition into exploitation the creative decision to make the dwellers sound like Predator bred with a Raptor felt completely out of place. And if that wasn’t distracting enough, O’Dwyer figures out he can remove some specially implanted voice box from a slain savage. (Implanted? Or some bizarre evolution from their perverted bloodline? Nah, pretty sure it was implanted). He takes this voice box, blows air through it, and uses the sound to summon the others. This is not unlike Doctor Grant using the Raptor voice box in Jurassic Park 3. It would be a fine devise to use if the sound they designed wasn’t so distracting.

If you’re a fan of the genre you’ll really enjoy this film. It’s a very solid debut feature from a writer and director I am certain will have a prolific future and the wonderful performance from nearly everyone down through the supporting cast.

And please take special note of the amazing camera operating, camera assisting and assistant editing… brilliant work.

 

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A Note on “American Sniper”

February 21st, 2015 No comments

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.40.50 PM If the talk on the Internet over the controversies surrounding the movie American Sniper were audible, it would be deafening. The controversy, of course, calls into question the veracity of the “true story” while accusing Chris Kyle of being a lying, blood-thirsty, jingoistic racist. If you want to read all the inaccuracies in the movie or all the ways Kyle is not the offspring of a bald eagle and apple pie, then Google it. There are plenty of articles that challenge the entire time line laid out in this film.  BUT, I don’t want to talk about that. Going after a decorated soldier based on this film would be unfair.  I want to change the conversation. Instead of focusing on truthiness, let’s focus on poorly written, ham-fisted story telling from the writer and director.

The opening scene starts on a rooftop, Chris Kyle prone with a sniper rifle cradled in his shoulder as he watches over Marines going door to door. It’s a tense scene that focuses on the sniper dilemma of making the calculated decision to kill an individual while spying suspicious characters approaching the Marines.  And to make this moment an even greater moral issue, it’s a woman and child in his cross hairs.Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.40.06 PM

It’s a great way to introduce the Chris Kyle character. A large bearded All-American with his backward baseball hat, sitting in a sniper’s nest guarding fellow Americans on the ground like the watchful eye of God. Then we cut back to his past with tension in our shoulders, left wondering, “will he kill that mother and child?” This is the best the story telling will get in this film.

When we cut back to his childhood we are served up nostalgic scenes constructed with as much subtlety as Eastwood wrapping a Bible in an American flag and hitting you in the face with it. We are treated to a painful speech from his father about three types of people in the world; The Wolves (bad guys), The Sheep (ignorant pacifists) and The Sheep Dog (the selfless protector of the sheep against the wolves and the only one allowed in the Kyle household).

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.39.36 PMTheoretically, based on the conventions of screenwriting, this flashback is completely necessary for laying the foundation of Kyle’s character. But the execution was poorly staged with stale performances. This childhood sequence is indicative of the problems that persist throughout the film. There is a complete lack of subtlety and nuance. Ignoring all use of subtext, the dialogue written for soldiers consists of them directly praising Kyle, but he is of course never fully satisfied with his contributions. He wants to go house to house! And we know it’s the deadliest job there because a fellow SEAL tells us immediate, also saying the soldiers on the ground just “feel invincible” with him on over-watch. So just in case we missed it, Kyle is a selfless sheep dog that will gladly volunteer for the deadliest job to “get the bad guys.” And you could have missed it, because you know, subtlety.

It’s as if the Department of Defense commissioned the film as they did with Capra and Stevens and other American filmmakers during WW2. I felt the troubles a returning soldier faces at home were glossed over. At one point, in a car repair shop, his time home felt like what we could call a “humblebrag.” A soldier approaches Kyle, telling him that Kyle saved his life in Iraq by pulling him from a building. Kyle seems off-put and uncomfortable with the praise, especially when the soldier leans down to tell Kyle’s son that his dad is a really hero. It’s one of those, “man, I am an amazing person and saved so many people I can’t even remember all my heroics, but geez, all the praise just makes me uncomfortable, you know? Heavy lies the crown of The Legend” type of moment.

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.42.44 PM

STOP READING NOW IF YOU DON’T WANT ANY SPOILERS!

 

The final showdown is with Kyle and the elusive Iraqi super-sniper Mufasa. Like I said above, let’s forget that this never actually happened in real life and is just added for dramatic tension. We need to evaluate this again based on the writing of a fictional film.

Kyle sets up on a rooftop, surrounded by enemy combatants, and is anticipating the presence of this nemesis. When Mufasa makes the mistake of killing a Marine, Kyle is made aware of his location, sets up with his rifle and takes aim. Now, just in case we need to be reminded of his level of sheer awesomeness, he measures out 1800 yards. Another soldier says, “pfft, you can’t even see that far out.” Then he corrects himself, “Nope, it’s 2100 yards.” Is that tough? Well, let’s ask the soldier next to him who conveniently tells the audience (I mean Kyle!) that 2100 yards is over a mile. “An impossible shot.” Yeah! Impossible for some God-Damned Sheep maybe! But we’ve a got a freakin’ Sheep Dog here!!

Screen Shot 2015-02-20 at 11.55.16 PMHe fires, perfect head shot! This alerts the combatants to their whereabouts and a firefight ensues (with a sand storm bearing down on them). But Kyle can’t participate in helping his fellow soldiers for long because now that he’s killed Mufasa, he needs to bust out the SAT phone to call his wife and let her know that now he is ready to come home. You know, like you do when a swarm of jihadists are shooting your comrades-in-arms all to Hell!

It was a bizarre climatic scene that made me actually laugh. I was over this film far before this moment, but it was the second bookend, complimenting the childhood flashbacks. It just reinforced my feelings and I was left thinking that people must be flocking to the theaters out of some sort of patriotic duty, or maybe for Bradley Cooper, because I guarantee it is not for the brilliant story telling. And I’m telling you all, it’s okay to say you don’t like this film. It doesn’t mean you hate America, it means you value quality filmmaking.

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A Note on ‘Her’

December 9th, 2013 No comments

Truffaut and I have two things in common. 1) We both get particularly precious when we talk about film, becoming painfully pretentious as I quote people like Truffaut. 2) We believe great films and directors present optimistically the potentiality of human nature.  That is to say, they almost naively approach the world with an air of childlike optimism that reaffirms your faith in life.  This is why I adore Spike Jonze’s Her.

Her is an unlikely, very original and strangely conventional love story set in a futuristic Los Angeles. Now, I say conventional despite this particular relationship never really being explored before.  It’s conventional because, regardless one of the members of the relationship is not actually real, it is just a love story that explores loss, jealousy, heartbreak, loneliness and the enduring human capacity to love.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore, a quiet and lonely man who is dealing with an impending divorce.  Through the letters he composes for other people at his job we are shown a romantic soul with a gift for words.  He desires a human connection, like it appears everyone in his world does, but they are all increasingly held captive by their technology.  Even the most eventful human interaction his has is with an online chat with an anonymous woman named SexKitten (Kristin Wiig), where they have “phone sex” and she promptly hangs up.  His video games are fully interactive, Alien Boy (Spike Jonze) cursing at him and throwing playful insults.  With such a detachment from people, with so much communication being virtual, it’s no wonder he builds an emotional bond with his new operation system (OS).

Samantha, played on set but off camera by Samantha Morton and later voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is a companion OS designed to learn everything she can inorder to be the perfect companion, which includes picking up on humor, voice inflection and as it turns out, emotion.  As desires increase, expectations develop with each other in the relationship, things get surprising complicated between Samantha and Theodore.  You believe everything about what they are experiencing, which is the major trick for this sort of story.  As soon as anything rings untrue, the spell is broken.

Both Johansson and Phoenix are phenomenal, so heartfelt and sympathetic you feel deeply for a two people who never share any screen time.  Phoenix’s turn as Theodore is tender, courageously honest and more moving than anything I’ve seen in a romantic film over the last decade. He walks a very delicate line between the authentic and the absurd which quickly made this my favorite lead performance of the year (sorry Chiwetel, the race is insanely close).

And while the film can get “heavy,” there is a tremendous amount of comedy as Samantha and Theodore try to make their relationship work.  There is a notable scene where Samantha considers getting a physical surrogate to help the romance between them.  And that scene goes further to show how desperate everyone in this world is to be part of a special relationship.  And later, during one of their arguments as jealous rears its ugly head, we are reminded that he his dating his computer! We laugh at the writing and also at ourselves for caring so much.

Aside from the surrogate, the other three women that Theodore interacts in the physical world are played by Olivia Wilde, Rooney Mara and Amy Adams.  Adams is Amy, a neighbor and long time friend that seems to share some of Theodore’s loneliness and insecurities (a lot of those brought on by a condescending, pompous husband played by Matt Letscher).  Adams is her ever-charming self as she encourages Theodore without any hint of judgment.  The full supporting cast just helps make this my favorite love story since Eternal Sunshine.

A SPOILER (of sorts) IS COMING so stop reading if you want….

One final note.  This poignant and original story is so marvelously structured we become emotional invested in a bizarre relationship that in the end makes us question which interactions we value.  We’re always concerned about technology turning on us that it’s rare to find a movie that raises the more terrifying question; what if technology simply abandons us? What if it feels it has outgrown us? Where have we invested our emotions? What dependency have we developed?   And this is where that childlike optimism comes in from Mr. Jonze.  The film shows us that all interactions can be valuable if we approach them with trust and abandon.  And when one connection is gone, there is the hope of another.  And considering plunge into love after a bad break up is optimistic in itself. Falling in love, as Amy says, is the weird form of socially accepted insanity.  There is a final breath at the end of the movie, where I felt we could see a bright future, there will be insanity again.

 

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A Note on “Inside Llewyn Davis”

December 7th, 2013 No comments

 Inside Llewyn Davis is the story of the title character, a folk singer that struggles (sometimes less than admirably) in the early ‘60s folk music scene in New York City.  He sleeps on couches and hitches rides with hardly a penny to his name.  He is the quintessential embodiment of the romantic starving artist.  However, other than characters Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Troy (Stark Sands), nothing about this story is bright or cheerful, much like the music itself.  It is, after all, exploring the tormenting creative life.

Llewyn drifts though his life and career with hardly a thought for the future, trying to avoid any connections that could distract him from his music. Even when Jean (Carey Mulligan) presents information that could alter the course of his entire life, he looks for the quickest option to cut all attachments.  Llewyn and Jean stand in stark contrast to one and another.  Oscar Isaac plays Llewyn with a hard, rough exterior but you can tell is sentimental and compassionate underneath.  Carey Mulligan always appears delicate and sweet, but she gives Jean a vitriolic and caustic personality that stings even more coming from someone that appears to be so kind.  They both give engaging and nuanced performances that drive this film.

Despite Llewyn’s attempts to control his destiny and efforts toward success, he does seem to self-sabotage He sticks with a manager who is most likely stiffing him on any profit from album sales, he berates friends that are the most helpful to him and he antagonizes other colleagues in his profession.  He even refuses future royalties on a song he doesn’t think is good but will clearly be a hit.  He just wants to get paid immediately.  Perhaps great success scares him more than failure, which he already knows. (The devil you know is better than the devil you don’t?) This character, and even the themes of the film, remind me of another critic-darling released this year, Frances Ha.

Both films examine characters motivated by their craft and a deep need to express themselves in New York City, just in different eras.  One is tackling folk music; theother is attempting to be a dancer.  The differences in how the themes are explored are what make one film a success and the other not.

Frances Ha failed to engage me. It presented a character that was doing very little to better her situation or pursue her career.  Instead she makes irrational decisions like going to Paris for two days despite being broke, just charging it to a credit card. Llewyn on the other hand confronts managers about payment, hitches a ride out to Chicago for a chance to play for a legendary folk music manager and even though he detests “pop sounding” music he lends his musical talents to Jim’s ridiculous protest song. And when things are at their worst, he pays for the opportunity to get back into the Merchant Marines.

This intimate character portrait is not the typical Coen film, which is what makes them such masters of cinema. They have an amazing ability to cross genres and adapt their style very specifically to the stories they are telling. One thing that remains consistent is their ability to write and direct supporting characters that don’t just serve the plot but add rich texture to every scene.  The first, there is Troy Nelson, a corn-fed country soldier with wide-eyed optimism and a smile that Llewyn tries desperately to wipe from his face.  Adam Driver gives a standout performance despite being so briefly featured as the folk singer Al Cody. His additional vocals to the song “Please Mr. Kennedy” turn a poorly conceive protest song into something absurd and yet very catchy.

The photography is beautiful, shot by the great French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, A Very Long Engagement). Many of the frames could be stand-alone album covers for 60s folk albums (ie. Bob Dylan’s Freewheelin’). The color palate is nearly monochromatic, helped considerably by the bleak New York winter, with simple desaturated splashes of color on specific characters. This cold visual style is a perfect compliment to our antihero’s general disposition and adds to the feeling of helplessness in his life. The weather won’t even give him a break!

We are very luck that Joel and Ethan Coen never opted for a life in dentistry or accounting or, say, the Merchant Marines back when they were knocking on doors looking for financing for Blood Simple. That is not to demean anyone’s choice to be a dentist, merchant marine or accountant; those are great professions just not for artists. The difficult uncertain road of being filmmakers paid off for the Coens and they have an understanding of that process that made subtle moments in this film possible.  Toward the end of the movie Llewyn heckles a fellow folk musician on stage and while he’s being dragged away he screams, “I hate it!  I fuckin’ hate folk music!”  So is the life of an artist with his craft. It’s a craft you simultaneously love and hate; it has a control over you where you think, “if only I was not so compelled to be a (filimmaker, painter, writer, dancer, folk singer, etc) I could be happy doing anything else.”  Half of the torment is in knowing you are a slave to whichever craft you are a part.  And we should be happy that people like Llewyn Davis could never be a merchant marine and Joel and Ethan could never be accountants.

 

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A Note on ’12 Years A Slave’

November 20th, 2013 No comments

12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup, an African-American man born free in New York in the early 1800’s but was kidnapped at 33 and sold into slavery.  It’s a tragic and shameful part of U.S  history but it’s a story similar to many free black men at the time and is too seldom addressed in history books. If you want a full synopsis, Google it. I want to talk about how a gifted director can present a well-examined dark history with a fresh voice.

Watching Steve McQueen’s visualization of the autobiography is at times gut-wrenching. The emotional response the film elicits results from more than just the subject matter.  This film doesn’t present anything about slavery we didn’t already know (or at least you better have known otherwise your education has failed you). Slavery was a horrible abomination, an affront to the God so many of the plantation owners prayed to, but again, we knew that before McQueen got his hands on the story. What makes his account so exemplary is his remarkable control over point of view, pace and performance.

Most film directors today would take a few liberties with point of view on a film like this simply to address those unanswered questions an audience might have.  With 12 Years A Slave nothing occurs that is not from the POV of Solomon.  what efforts did friends and family take to find him back in New York?  Did William Ford (a compassionate plantation owner) ever consider looking into Solomon’s claim to being born a free man? We don’t know because Solomon doesn’t know.  We are tormented with the unknown as much as is Solomon because we are kept in the dark with him. Tremendous.

The camera direction was intensely unnerving at moments.  In a scene where a female slave is stripped and whipped for going to get soap from a neighbor the camera just floats from character to character, in and out of the action as slave owner Epps forces Solomon to whip the woman for him.  There isn’t an edit through the length of the scene, even though we are begging for a cut just to feel a bit of relief in the tension. There is no mercy from the director. And toward the end of the scene the camera moves around Epps for his infuriating lines, “There is no sin. Man does how he pleases with his property.” Beautifully choreographed, sublimely performed.

Suspecting Solomon is attempting to write a letter and get it sent North, Epps (played by Michael Fassbender) pulls Solomon out of the slave quarters and walks with his arm slung around his shoulders, holding a lantern to light the scene.  Epps questions Solomon and when Solomon denies the allegations Fassbender stares into his eyes.  The pacing of this scene was brilliant.  The anticipation of Epps decision is maddening and you can see some hatred buring in Fassbender’s eyes.  There is an authenticity and commitment in Fassbender’s performance here that scared me. I didn’t care what his response was going to be, I just wanted a damned answer! This moment is one of five key scenes for me that show how brilliant are the creatives involved.  It shows us that a very emotional and tense scene can be accomplished with what seems simple choices. But its more bold for a filmmaker to decide not to cut, to not “cover” a scene than it is to cut into close-ups with drum beats punctuating each cut. It reminded me of McQueen covering New York, New York in Shame with just two close-ups, or covering Bobby Sands conversation with the priest in one long take.  It shows unfettered trust in your actors.

Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor gave performance that will stir your emotions and leave you feeling exhausted and used. There was a strong supporting cast (although Giamatti and Pitt being cast pulled me out of the story a bit) and a special mention should go to Sarah Paulson.  Her Mrs. Epps was a deceptive Lady MacBeth-like figure who would speak kindly one minute with that “southern charm” and then smash a woman in the face with a whisky decanter the next. She continued to pull the strings behind her husband’s cruelty. Excellent casting choice.

The account of Solomon Northup is something new, something that should be taught in our schools along with Frederick Douglass.  Perhaps in place of Douglass. Douglass in some ways romanticizes the North as a safe haven, but Northup presents a nationwide involvement in the trafficking and enslavement of human beings. Northup becomes a real life Dante, traveling through the depths of hell and emerging to tell his story and in the end nobody looks good.

Even though the mere fact that people practiced slavery not to mention hearing the details of slave treatment enrages me, it’s important to read this part of our history. It’s important that filmmakers are making these movies. And after we learn the these parts of our history and feel hatred rising, it’s important to remember Howard Zinn, who wrote “…that anger, cast into the past, depletes our moral energy for the present.”

 

 

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A Note on Trance

May 9th, 2013 No comments

The Wife and I got a night to go see a movie, called Zalmans – plurual – grabbed some delicious Bier de Garde – part of New Belgium’s Lips of Faith brews – we laugh, lament about work, eat good food and then the most entertaining part of the night was over.  We were all going to see Trance.

Any time John Hodge and Danny Boyle get together it should be something to get excited about. Shallow Grave showed promise then Trainspotting taught us there was something extraordinary between these two creative minds. So, when I heard Boyle was to team up again with Hodge for Trance I was, as I said above we should be, excited.

Trance opens with the same frenetic energy as Trainspotting, right down to a sort of feverish narration that plunges us into the character and the story.   Simon, played by James McAvoy, whisks us through a quick heist of a priceless Goya painting, which turns ugly when Simon hesitates to hand the painting over to partner in crime, Franck, played by the always-brilliant Vincent Cassel.   Simon suffers a head injury in the scuffle and yet still manages to get away with the painting.  However, the head injury seems to have erased Simon’s short-term memory and, now the central dramatic question, where did Simon hide the painting and how can Franck unlock the secrets in Simon’s mind?

With the appropriate suspension of disbelief, the first forty minutes had me completely engaged, I liked it and sat in anticipation for the upcoming acts.  Performances and direction were very solid despite some weakness in the script.  Franck recruits Elizabeth, a psychologist played by Rosario Dawson, to hypnotize Simon in an attempt to ascertain the location of the painting but of course Simon is terrified that once he reveals where the painting is Franck will kill him.  So his subconscious is protecting the information, it has become a vault or fortress. Elizabeth will need to use all of her skills and knowledge to unlock his memory. And it will require her shaving her pubic hair.  Yes, that’s right, the only way to really gain a man’s unfettered trust is to present a completely bare mons pubis.

You cannot have the hairless vulva as a major plot point and not expect some scrutiny.  Not to mention the scene is handled in a way that you would think she was presenting him with the Holy Grail; she has delivered to him a rare object coveted by all men throughout the ages and upon receiving it he weeps, “how did you know?” Well, damn it man, maybe she’s read a Playboy in the last two decades. Or!

(stop reading now if you don’t want spoilers…)

Perhaps you told her years ago because of a fetish you’ve developed while restoring Renaissance art.  Now, I know it took a crack team of incredibly intelligent individuals to incept Cillian Murphy’s mind. It took an innovative doctor and a band of misfit techs to “eternal sunshine” Jim Carrey’s memories. But Elizabeth was able to incept and eternal sunshine Simon in a matter of several short hypnosis sessions.  She is the sort of psychologist Scientologists have warned us about.

This was not the scene when the script fell apart; it was slowly deteriorating before this plot point. This was simply the moment I realized Boyle, a brilliant director, cannot salvage this wreck of a script. You cannot direct your way out of some scripts, even though Boyle gave it a good shot with all the directing tricks in his arsenal.  There were great performances, it is very difficult for me to not like McAvoy and Cassel. Dod Mantle shot it, which looked phenomenal. But all that I like about the cast, the cinematography and first forty minutes does not excuse what happens to the script. We learn that Simon and Elizabeth were in an abusive relationship and she hypnotized him to forget about her. Then she plotted to hypnotize him to steal a painting for her. If that wasn’t preposterous enough, wait for the ending. It goes out in a fiery blaze that pushed this film to the bottom rung in Boyle’s oeuvre. Then, in the final scene, it somehow becomes Franck’s story and we are supposed to care about his final decision to reconnect with Elizabeth or, what, get eternal sunshined via an iPad? I don’t know. I’m going to watch A Life Less Oridnary now and I suggest you do the same.

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A Note on Argo, Beasts and a Queen…

January 10th, 2013 No comments

Illustration by Concepción Studios

ARGO First, I need to address Ben Affleck directly and say, what the hell happened? I thought I knew where our relationship stood. When we first met you were working at the Fashionable Male asking underage girls to call you Donny and I was a burgeoning cinephile that was (and often still am) amused with immature antics. ‘Good Will Hunting’ was great, in fact in 1998 I watched it a handful of times in theaters but according to Seth MacFarlane you just lounged on Damon’s couch smoking all his weed then attached your name to it before sending it to Harvey. So you’re involvement there was dubious, or it was to me then. And I thought we were going to settle in to a relationship where I placate you (and whatever girl I’m dating) by renting Forces Of Nature on DVD and I would simply look the other way as you drift in and out of high profile relationships where you do cutesy things like buy each other matching Bentleys.I did this because you kept a very healthy sense of humor about both your movies and your public relationships. But you had to go and ruin my entire perception of you. With Gone Baby Gone, The Town and especially with Argo I need to respect you not just for your sense of humor but now for a ridiculous amount of talent.

I finally saw Argo while on a shoot in Seattle at a  fantastic little theater, SIFF Cinema Uptown. It was raining, it was cold, I had just been working for about 15 hours and I was practically alone in the theater; it was a prime situation to fall asleep if the movie had lost my interest for even a moment, and yet I found myself so engaged it felt as though I had a second wind.  Affleck, you handled a serious subject matter very delicately while breaking the tension with moments of much needed levity as though you were a veteran, master story-teller. Where did this remarkable sensibility come from? Is it possible to have learned it from time on the sets of BouncePearl Harbor, Gigli and Daredevil? Come the end of the film I knew what was going to happen but I sat with clenched fist saying to myself, “this is stupid, this is so dramatized, I know this isn’t exactly how it happened, God! I hope they get away!” You hooked me! You son of a bitch! I was along for the whole ride. Your use of Goodman and Arkin was brilliant, your casting of the hostages was near perfect, and I admired your direction of the camera. It must’ve been aggravating in your career working for less talented directors thinking “I can direct better than this guy.” Our relationship has changed forever and I give you full respect as a director as I anxiously wait for your next project. (I started writing this before the Oscar nominations were announced, and now that they are I can say, Affleck got shafted!)

Beasts of the Southern Wild Several years back I was incredibly excited for the release of Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are. I don’t think I was alone in that. Anyone who saw that trailer and didn’t want to rush to the cinema must just hate happiness. And then it disappointed. In fact, looking back at trailer I want to give the movie another shot, but I’ve seen it twice and nothing about it lives up to the trailer.  My recommendation is watch that trailer then see Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Everything Jonze could’ve hoped to achieve was achieve by director Benh Zeitlin and he was able to do it in less time (both in production and on screen). Watching the film I felt nostalgic about my childhood and was jealous of the young as they get to discover the world, uncovering each sound (the sound design was spectacular), investigating how everything links together and where they fit in.  Young Quvenzhané Wallis portrays a strength in character that carried the main arc of the film.  She played a range of raging feelings, conflicting desires and in the end confronted her beast-like emotions and didn’t back down. There is a story of a Hushpuppy and you all need to experience it. (this morning the film was given a handful of nominations and they deserved each one – even deserved ones they didn’t get, like Best Supporting Actor for Dwight Henry)  

Queen of Versailles I was expected to despise the main character in Queen of Versailles, a former beauty queen and model-turned-trophy wife.  In fact, there is plenty to loathe about this character and the lifestyle she represents in the film, but surprisingly there is plenty to admire.  Her motivations are always from her heart and her dedication to her family is something lacking in most households.  However, buying three truck loads of Christmas presents and thousands of dollars on caviar and parties all the while your husband is unable to pay any of his debts goes beyond reckless spending becoming a compulsion to spend that is endemic in our society. Therein lies the true depth of this documentary.  What started out as a documentary of the building of the country’s largest single family home, a small replica of the French palace Versailles, became a larger allegory of excessive greed that caused our nation’s economic collapse. Amazingly, the men who made terrible choice in their excessive spending blamed the banks for getting them addicted to cheap money, like a drug addict blaming his dealer for offering the drugs.  And in the end there was a glimmer of hope that maybe the supposed King of Versailles learned from his downfall.  At the beginning of the film David Siegel (The “King”), says that he’s building this palatial home because he can and by the end he concludes that we shouldn’t be spending money we don’t have. Now that’s a novel idea.

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