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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.

BT_100114_RAW-1011.CR2
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 ‘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 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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Jiro Dreams of Sushi

May 12th, 2012 No comments

Lindsey was 9 months pregnant, a couple days past her due date, so we were trying to take our mind off just waiting for labor and thought we should use up our AMC gift cards. About $100 worth. After looking at the line up of films at the nation’s second largest theater chain I hoped I could sell my gift cards to someone else.  The wife objected, we went to Hunger Games and when we got home I paid our babysitter with an AMC gift card.  Days later we went back to AMC to watch The Five-Year Engagement. I’m still unsure how the screenwriting duo that brought us the fantastic revival of The Muppets could possible make the worst film of the year (that I’ve seen), but they accomplished the feat admirably. With ten dollars left on a gift card I was using it to practice my Gambit style card attack as I whipped it like a dagger into watermelons; I have since cut it into an effigy so my two-year old can perform puppet plays where she provides the dialogue, which is mostly just “puppies” and “mommy,” but still contains a better story arc than anything you’ll find at AMC right now. With my hard earned cash I am driving out of the valley, miles out of my way and paying Landmark’s higher ticket price to see Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

Filmmaker David Gelb takes us down a slow moving escalator, beneath the immense, monolithic Tokyo where success and money fuel afrenzy of people like a school of angry tuna, to a corner of a subway where nobody would ever expect to find the world’s most revered sushi chef. Jiro Ono owns and operates a 10-seat restaurant with a small team of very loyal apprentices and his son, Yoshikazu. In the cleanest part of a subway I’ve ever seen, there is no room for pretense. They do not exude success with any flash, pomp or glamor, but because this team is lead by a man committed entirely to perfecting a craft. Preparing sushi is an art of tremendous complexity beyond what I thought possible for raw fish and rice.

Jiro left his home at the age of 9 and started in the sushi world at the age of 10, working for the last 75 years to perfect the subtleties of sushi. Now it is a family affair. Sitting in a subway corridor,at 50-years old, Yoshikazu slaps dried seaweed over hot coals. His father instilled in him a dedication to a method taught to him over the decades of demanding work.  His focus on this method has done what seemed impossible; he’s helped his father earn a 3-star Michelin ranking.

This high of a ranking essentially means that it is worth a trip to the country just to eat at this one establishment. Gelb embarks on an intimate journey into the inner-workings of the smallest 3-star restaurant in the world. Through a mixture of melodic, minimalist score (provided in large part by the great Phillip Glass) and beautiful images the process of making sushi becomes a ballet, or a symphony or like what it must’ve been like to watch Jackson Pollack dance around his canvass to create a masterpiece.  It made me want to eat sushi, but not just any sushi.  If I were to eat sushi anywhere else I would in some way be cheating myself. So I have to wait at least a month (as is the earliest reservation) and a year (as I need to save money for the trip).

This film taught me that considering sushi to be merely rice and fish is a gross oversimplification; it reminds me that storytelling is an art of equal complexity, often oversimplified to just images and sounds.  In his debut feature film David Gelb was able to make sushi intriguing, enthralling and manages to dive deep into a fascinating character. This is the type of movie that will feed your soul, not barrage your senses leaving you feeling intellectually, emotionally and spiritually malnourished. (see: Hunger Games, The Five-Year Engagement and other films at your local AMC).

 

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A Note on Drive

September 25th, 2011 No comments

Stress has been attacking Lindsey’s body as she completes her Labor and Delivery training while being 8 weeks pregnant.  My solution, a date night starting with a couples massage at a small place on Ventura Boulevard.  It was one of the best massages Lindsey claims to have ever had, and for me, it was a painful and brutal experience – not the enjoyable kind. The masseuse nearly dislocated my knee during what I can only describe as a “lay all my body weight on you” massage.  But it wasn’t for me, it was for Lindsey, and in that it was a success – so off to dinner.

No time!  We need something quick and at the Galleria that means Fuddruckers; two burgers, sweet potato fries and quick walk to the Arclight to catch Drive.

Two previews stand-out: one, an adaptation of the novel that truly introduced me to reading, The Rum Diary. I had of course read books before I was 19 years old, but I never understood the depths in which you could consume and become intoxicated with literature until I read Dr. Thompson’s journey through the surreal world of Puerto Rico. Now Bruce Robinson is bringing it to life with Johnny Deep as Paul Kemp – Excitement! Then, as quickly as excitement set in, I’m made completely flaccid by the trailer for Red Tails.  A high-flying, racially tense action film laden with CGI planes and explosion with contrived patriotism.  It repels me. Wall to wall action is more boring than L’Avventura.  It worried me that Drive may be similar.

In a “heist” film, or “action” film, (which I will call Drive because there are a couple heists, yet this is not your typical heist film) the first sequence usually sets the tone for the entire picture.  Fast and The Furious and The Transporter (for example) both start with a “high octane” car chase with extraordinary stunts and daring getaways.  With Drive you get a smart, calculated getaway.  It’s a new pace for what has been marketed as an action film and that is where we find brilliance in Nicolas Winding-Refn’s direction.  Most director would’ve fallen into certain traps with this script by exploiting the sexual aspects, amping up the chases and neglecting the character development and very emotional story. But Refn had tight control over his direction and vision for this script.

Cut to: Lindsey and I walking out of the theater where Lindsey and I were the most divided over a film since the deplorable Sweet Home Alabama. Our conversation was being echoed in a conversation between a couple behind us where the Man complains about the slow pace saying he “was expecting Action Action Action.”  No!  Yes, this was marketed as a “heist” film full of action, but it is successful exactly because it isn’t action action action.  It is story, character and brutality.

The biggest problem with the “Triple A” film the man was looking for is the expense involved to make it worth watching.  It is far too expensive to pack 2 hours of action with practical stunts so you end up relying on fake, bizarrely improbably CGI action (again; Red Tails). My senses have stop responding to that sort of action film.  It’s a desensitization that has slowly decayed my interest over that past years and I now sit unstimulated for 120 minutes.

notice the similarities in Drive poster above

But, delivering on what we’ve come expect from Refn with Bronson (a must see) and his Pusher Trilogy, Refn presents a very fresh and unique vision – Refn’s Drive is not an action movie, it’s an emotional story with action in it.  At times it felt like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, with a sinister foreboding constantly stirring under a city that seems to have infected our anti-hero, inspiring him to become a savior.

The music pulsed, bolstering each scene even when the score superficially seems in contrast to the events unfolding.  A homicidal stalking set to opera? Yes! A classical music prelude to a violent head-stomping? Yes! Refn seems a master at selecting music that pulls the subtext of a scene, explores the emotional state of a character, and brings it to the surface.

Gosling plays the character Driver with a gentle subtlety that is off-set by his explosive fury when faced with the violent men with whom he’s become entangled.  There is a staggering complexity to a character that can go from beating a man with a hammer to a childlike flirtation with his neighbor Irene, played by the charming Carey Mulligan.  Drive becomes a true anti-hero, a tragically flawed man doing the right thing.  It’s refreshing and a bit inspiring actually at a time when it seems no banker, politician, corporate exec or anyone else is outside the grasp of all-consuming corruption.  It is nice to think anyone is capable of doing the right thing and being a hero.  Refn uses the music to say it repeatedly, addressing the man looking for the action action action, this is a story about a real hero – or at least a real human being, becoming human when we decide to sacrifice our own safety for the safety of others.

The film is not without it’s flaws.  In the cutting especially it might feel a bit pretentious, a bit of a throwback to the 80’s.  The script wasn’t perfect, especially in some of the expository moments and it felt weakest in the dialogue, but the strengths of the film overshadow those flaws.  Some audiences might think the film too violent, which Refn seems to delight in exploiting, but hitting those extremes felt organic in each scene especially for these characters, so it is easy to accept the brutality.  In the end, having firmly cemented his style, we are able to look at Refn’s body of work which seems to be tending more toward the optimistic.  I’m thrilled to see what he has coming next.

 

 

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A Note on ‘Even The Rain’

February 23rd, 2011 No comments

The Spanish actress-turned-director Icíar Bollaín has, I’m ashamed to admit, been off my radar.  I haven’t seen her other films, but I am going to now.  Her  latest film, Even The Rain, seems simple when you break down the plot into a succinct synopsis like “A film-maker wants to make a movie but the local political/social turmoil makes it difficult.” However, this film is anything but simple and possesses all the subtlety of a punch in the face. What we end up with from Paul Laverty’s (Sweet Sixteen, The Wind That Shakes The Barley) intelligent, emotional script and under Bollaín’s nearly flawless direction is a multifaceted film rich with complex characters and themes that broach social criticism.

Even The Rain essentially works with three plots that directly impact one and other.  The first two exist in the actual film we are watching starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the ambitious Sebastián, a director with a vision to make a movie about the real events surrounding Columbus colonizing the “New World.”  His efforts, and the efforts of his stalwart producer Costa (Luis Tosar) are continually tested by the second story-line within our main plot; the fictionalized account of Daniel and his involvement in the real Cochabamba Water Wars in which the people rose up against the government as it sought to privatize the water supply back in 2000.  The plot is of the film Sebastián is directing which gives us a visual of the atrocities committed by the Spanish as they forced the indigenous people into slavery and ravaged their land in search of gold.

Costa brought the production to Cochabamba for one reason – cheap labor. The impoverished Bolivians came out in droves to an open casting call overwhelming Costa and  Sebastián. They immediately start turning people away, which is where we first meet Daniel (Juan Carlos Aduviri) and get a taste of his explosive personality. He’s an instigator, demanding that everyone that came to audition be seen, and this display of indignation secures him the role of Chief Hatuey. And then he demands a role for his daughter.  Costa is uneasy with this casting choice, insisting that his volatile disposition will ruin the production and he’ll be too hard to handle, but Sebastián wants that passion for Hatuey.

As a struggling film-maker myself I was fascinated with main plot, but I like movies about making movies (and if you’re the same watch Truffaut’s Day for Night. Brilliance). Bernal and Tosar have a captivating dynamic.  I’ve watched directors like Sebastián, fearless yet insecure in need of a producer as a cheerleader, and I’ve seen producers like Costa who struggle to steer a seemingly frazzled director on the right path in order to finish the movie. But you don’t need to have knowledge of film production nor do you need to be all caught up on your early 16th century history of Hispaniola to enjoy this film.

The film Sebastián is making is based in large part on the writings of Bartolome de las Casas, a priest who witnessed first-hand the genocide committed by Spanish settlers and the execution of Hatuey, a Taíno chief that led rebellions against the Spanish. We cut seamlessly into the film within the film which causes an effective confusion in the audience.  When the Taíno revolt against the Spaniards it takes the audience a minute to understand it is part of Sebastián’s film.  Without a change in camera movement or visual style I at first thought the extras, which were being paid a slave-wage of $2 a day, had revolted against the film crew.  This directorial choice creates a connection with the past treatment of these people and the current treatment by the film crew. Similar choices were made when staging the violent protests against the Bolivian government.  Daniel puts the film in jeopardy as he helps lead the uprising in Cochabamba and we witness the events cut seamlessly with actual footage of the protests in 2000.  Again this creates a parallel between the exploitation by the Spanish colonials and exploitation of a people in an impoverished area by the millionaires in the government and multinational corporations.

As the protests escalate and the three story lines continue to develop they become entrenched in each other. You can see on Daniel’s face during the filming of the scenes with Columbus and the Spanish that he is connecting the long history of oppression to his own life.  He is the Hatuey of Cochabamba and there are moments when you know he was inspired by the script Sebastián is shooting.  As Sebastián and Costa become more concerned that the protests will shut down production they become desperate, almost heartless, as they try to force mothers to perform in scenes they morally object to, as Costa tries to bribe Daniel to abandon the protesters until shooting has wrapped and as they spring Daniel from jail to film the final climatic scene of the movie.

The performances by Luis Tosar and Juan Carlos Aduviri are incendiary. Tosar handles the character change in Costa with a veteran’s control. He’s the de las Casas of Even The Rain, who comes to Bolivia as part of the problem with dreams of cheap labor and a product that will bring personal wealth, then slowly discovers that there are more important things than money and the film. Aduviri is an animal, a man who attacks acting with a raw intensity that becomes the stand-out performance in the film. Even in his moments of silence there is strength in his Daniel, there is a viciousness to his Hatuey.

Bartolome de las Casas wrote that when Hatuey was finally captured he and other Taíno were burned on crosses. One priest asked Hatuey if he would repent so he could go to Heaven, to which Hatuey asks “Are there Christians in Heaven?” The priest responded “yes,” to which Hatuey retorted, “then I’d rather go to Hell. I don’t want to be around such cruel people.”  At this moment in the film the writing, directing and cinematography are at their best, almost Herzogian in scope as men are burnt over a sweeping landscape. (That’s right, Herzogian, I’m using his name as an adjective, so what, it’s the most accurate description, watch Fitzcarraldo).  Immediately after shooting the scene the local government arrives to arrest Daniel, effectively ending the shooting of the film and the crew needs to decide if the lives of the men they’ve been exploiting for cheap labor are more important than their film.

The film is not without its flaws, but they are so minute it would only diminish this cinematic achievement to discuss them.  When I’m not seeing comedies (I’m finding I’m more from the Sullivan’s Travels cloth) this is the sort of drama I go to movies for.  Nearly epic, beautifully shot, intelligent and relevant.  It addresses the exploitation of inhabitants in third-world countries by multinational corporations that would claim they’re nowhere near as ruthless the Spaniards; whether you kill a people slowly by hoarding their key resources or do it swiftly with genocide you’re still killing the people.  The key creatives were so tuned into the subject matter that they didn’t shy away from their own hypocrisy.  The Western ideals that were set forth by the Spanish (conquest and personal wealth) permeate all aspects of Western culture, not excluding film-making.  In this manner the film made me consider Herzog again and the horrific stories I heard of the mistreatment of locals on the set of both Aguiree: The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo. Of course Herzog stories could be simple folklore, but it’s not limited him.  Rumors of exploiting local street kids and impoverished non-actors have surrounded production like Salaam Bombay, Slumdog Millionaire and City of God, and in Even The Rain Bollaín and Laverty allow their critical eye to be turned on themselves as film-makers.

Even The Rain is much more than a critique of an endless cycle of exploitation in the West that began with Columbus landing in Hispaniola.  This is a film of hope and optimism. I don’t want to discuss in to much detail what transpires, it will spoil the beauty of the film’s journey, but I can promise it won’t disappoint. (or if you think it does disappoint let me know and I’ll tell you what you missed).

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