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Month: May, 2013

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2013 Film #2: Iron Man 3

(Director: Shane Black; Writers: Drew Pearce & Shane Black)

My first summer blockbuster and it was a stinker. Like most people, I really enjoyed the first Iron Man and was decently entertained by the second. Although I had high, high hopes for a Shane Black written and directed effort, this is just loaded with problems. First, I’m completely unclear why Tony is having such a hard time coping with the events of Avengers. This whole anxiety thing just does not work. Either go all “Demon in a Bottle” or leave it. Second, these bad guys are so stupid. Their basic power is that they make things hot, which makes getting close to them ridiculously stupid. And yet, that’s all Iron Man does. (And why are all of Tony’s suits breaking?!) Finally, there are like 10 different plotlines here, but none of them are actually followed through with. It just a hot mess from start to end, lumbering along until it doesn’t anymore. Major disappointment.

Film  #19: End of Watch

(Director & Writer: David Ayer)

It’s amazing what I’ll watch simply because it is on Netflix instant. Writer and director David Ayer’s attempts to tell this in a sort of “found footage” style, with lead cop Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) recording while on patrol for a student film (and weirdly, we never see him in the class or near a college). But Ayer isn’t consistent in this and your brain will start melting when you try to figure out how Brian was able to get the kind of shots he did. You’ll then give up when they start throwing in footage from nonsensical sources like Border Patrol and the criminals themselves, who are all carrying HD cameras. But let’s set that aside. The story itself is asinine, and more importantly, our two cops are borderline incompetant. In our first scene of them “policing”, Mike (Michael Peña) gets into a fight with a suspect and Brian cheers him on, while filming. Mike wins, which means the perp goes to jail. But we learn later from the now released suspect that the fight was cool, and that Mike and Brian “keep it G.” WHAT. The only moments where the film works is when Brian and Mike are just casually talking in the car. These conversations feel natural, funny, and even revelatory, but they are too few and far between. As soon as the plot starts back up, everything falls apart. And the Mexican gang in the film has some of the worst actors I’ve ever seen on film. Truly terrible.

Film #20: The Grey

(Director: Joe Carnahan; Writers: Ian Mackenzie Jeffers & Joe Carnahan)

Another Netflix Instant watch, but this was actually really good. Grizzled men get stranded in the Alaskan winter after a plane crash and search for safety while a pack of wolves hunt them. Not a complicated plot, but Carnahan makes it work through a fantastic depiction of this frozen wasteland. This is why we have HD cameras. Carnahan embraces the look of HD and uses it where it shines: bright whites and harsh blacks. The only colors are red blood and orange flame. Much of it is shot at night around campfires, and in these moments, we watch and listen as the men take in their predicament. I think Liam Neeson’s Ottway is a little too…knowing? He feels a little off, but overall, the film really works. A very surprising genre flick.

Film #21: Jack Reacher

(Director & Writer: Christopher McQuarrie)

Talk about surprising, I loved this movie. It seems like there was a time when you could count on a steady stream of these types of Hollywood action films. It isn’t revolutionary, but in contrast to what we get now, it’s fantastic. The key to this is in the directing: it is smooth, readable, and easy to follow. The action scenes are clean, the chase sequences are thrilling without being nauseating, and McQuarrie gives us moments of levity that remind of that it’s just a silly action movie. There are a couple issues: the plot is pretty hoaky, especially when it is all revealed, and there are some obvious plot twists. But there are also pretty solid performances all around, particularly from Tom Cruise and a super creepy Werner Herzog. I really can’t recommend this enough. This is already criminally underseen, but I could see it developing a cult following. I’d certainly like to see more, although that seems unlikely.

Film #22: Prometheus

(Director: Ridley Scott; Writers: Jon Spaihts & Damon Lindelof)

There are moments in Prometheus that are truly awesome. In particular, I think the first half is fantastic. The limited CGI, the stark cinematography all work to make this a unique blockbuster. And it is a fairly heady action film, which might explain some of the criticism. I love the premise, but I don’t think it really sustains itself. You get the sense that writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof weren’t quite sure where they wanted to go with this, and by the last half hour or so, things get pretty muddy. It seems like there were far more interesting places this could have gone, but they just didn’t. Or they left them for a sequel. I’ll say it’s ¾ of an excellent film, but it just didn’t quite make up its mind.

Moonrise Kingdom

Film #18 – Moonrise Kingdom
(Writers: Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola; Director: Wes Anderson)
20130517-101230.jpgIs there a more idiosyncratic filmmaker in the history of cinema than Wes Anderson? It seems beyond pointless to even spend time illustrating his unique quirks, and certainly, that specificity has turned reviewing his films into a routine. Either you buy Anderson’s approach or you don’t. Until you change your mind. Moonrise Kingdom is probably the most Wes Anderson Wes Anderson film ever made; I’d venture that most film enthusiasts would be able to name its maker within 3 seconds of its beginning (name another film so markedly the work of its creator so quickly!). And yet, somehow, inexplicably, it is also the best film Anderson has made since Rushmore and easily one of the best films of 2012. Moonrise Kingdom made me remember what I loved about Anderson’s best films.

Like most of Anderson’s films, Moonrise Kingdom is about family. But unlike most of his work, this story has nothing to do with genetic families and everything to do with family as belonging: the Khaki scouts are a family, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Howard) are a family, and Sam and Cpt. Sharp (Bruce Willis) become a family. Most of our main characters are desperately searching for someone who will accept them for who they are, regardless of the costs. This instantly engaged me in the story of the film in a way his other work has failed to do. This is a Wes Anderson film with heart; I truly cared about so many of these characters in a way that I have never done in one of his films.

And it’s damn funny. People certainly don’t speak naturally in Wes Anderson films, but there is an obsession on his part with how language works that makes even a simple conversation vibrant and alive. Dialogue is so frequently used as a way to propel the plot, but in this film, the dialogue itself is the point: how people speak, how they think, how they listen, how they accentuate their dialogue through physical mannerisms (the funniest scene in the movie is a mini-monologue by one of the Khaki scouts as he rallies the troops. The whole scene hinges on the way he moves his arm and scrunches his face to emphasize a point, and it is so funny, Lizz and I watched it 3 or 4 times). The film moves so fast that I can’t wait to watch it a couple more times to pick up on everything.
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Anderson has added a few new actors to his company and they fit right in. In particular, Ed Norton is amazing as Scout Master Ward. He doesn’t feel like a Wes Anderson actor, but as soon as he steps in frame, it feels like a shame he wasn’t in any of the previous films. He’s just so genuine as the loyal, but hapless scout master, and he handles the dialogue really well. Similarly, Bruce Willis plays against type, and to a lesser degree, manages to fit naturally into the already established troupe. Of course, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman are present, although Murray doesn’t get as much to do as I would have liked. Schwartzman’s appearance is also brief, but it’s a whirlwind of awesome.

The music to this film is incredible. A large section of the soundtrack comes from Benjamin Britten. I’m not going to pretend I knew who that was before the film, but it fits so beautifully with what Anderson is going for. Alexandre Desplat fills in the original score and, of course, there are some choice pop songs that fit snuggly into place. Every song feels like it was specifically made for this film, which is a testament to Anderson’s cinematic ear.

After years, I think Moonrise Kingdom is the impetus to look at those early Wes Anderson films and remember how important they were to me in high school. And for the first time in a long time, I’m anxious to see what he will do next.

Mud

2013 Film #1: Mud
(Writer & Director: Jeff Nichols)
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It takes a film like Jeff Nichols’s Mud to realize how monotonous the settings of most Hollywood films are. While Mud is really a coming-of-age story about 14 year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) as he helps fugitive Mud (Matthew McConaughey), it is the specificity of the Arkansas setting that dominates. Set against the banks of the Mississippi, Nichols embraces the river in a way that mixes the splendid awe of Terrence Malick’s films and the sense of adventure in Huck Finn. Even in the small town, Nichols depicts characters and traditions that are so alien to conventional films yet so comfortable to the average American. By the end of Mud, I was desperate for more films that took up these neglected places as cinematic backdrops.

Mud is not as singularly focused as Nichols’s previous film, Take Shelter. There is enough material for 5 films, and plots are introduced and alluded to in rapid succession without much development. This gives the film a pacing that can feel slow and unwieldy, and most criticisms seems to focus on the film’s “bloated” narrative. But this criticism really misses what Nichols is doing. Mud has a vitality that extends beyond the central plot. Through the various side-characters, you get a sense that this is a living breathing world. Unlike most films where characters are introduced and employed to serve the main plot, here everyone is in the middle of their own story that may intersect directly or only tangentially to Ellis and Mud’s. It’s almost as if there are other movies being made at the same time as Mud that just haven’t been released yet.

The most forefront of these “other movies” is the dissolving marriage of Ellis’s parents. We see their problems only from Ellis’s point of view, and it is never quite clear why they are fighting. We come in on the tail-end of arguments or see them through swampy windows. And we certainly know the effects, even if we don’t know the causes. can feel the drama here, a whole history, that we will never know about. But it doesn’t stop us from filling in the gaps ourselves from the clues Ellis picks up.

Similarly, there is a whole undeveloped story surrounding Ellis’s best friend, Neck Bone (Jacob Lafland). He lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), but we have no idea what happened to his parents. We get a feel for what there life is like, but the details are fuzzy. I want to know Neck’s story, but again, the characterizations are so rich that we can survive without it (Galen is so interesting, he needs his own movie. In the opening “day” of the film, Neck is wearing a Fugazi shirt. Instantly, I was confused about how a 14 year-old kid in backwoods Arkansas in 2012 would have a Fugazi shirt. But we briefly enter Galen’s mobile home, and we can piece it together. There are punk show posters on the wall and and a guitar and amp in the corner. From this 2 minute sequence, you get a whole backstory to Galen: he’s an aging punk suddenly burdened with his sibling’s kid. He doesn’t really have any skills, so he rummages through the river floor for things to sell. He takes a hands off approach to taking care of Ellis works, but he’s lucky that Neck is such a good kid [or is he?! Why the obsession with guns?!?! Another small plot] Overall, Michael Shannon is maybe on screen 5 minutes, but in that time, he creates a whole persona).

The entire movie works this way: every piece, no matter how insignificant it appears, fits together to build a rich, complicated, and living world. If you buy into that world after the brilliant opening sequence with the boys sneaking to an island in the middle of the Mississippi, you will buy into the whole of Mud.

The Deep Blue Sea

#17 – The Deep Blue Sea
(Writer & Director: Terence Davies)
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As I was watching Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea, I couldn’t help but think of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun. Both films are haunted by the spectre of World War II. Both films employ melodramatic techniques from the 1950s like music and complicated framing to magnify emotional moments. Both feature striking performances from powerful women. And both deal with the messiness of relationships. Fassbinder’s famous proclamation that love is an unbalanced equation governss both films, and that unbalanced equation has tragic consequences.

The Deep Blue Sea begins with Hester (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful, mid-30s Englishwoman as she composes a suicide letter to her young lover. She swallows a handful of pills and places herself in front of an open gas furnace. But her attempt is unsuccessful, and the rest of the film documents the following day with frequent flashbacks that show us how Hester ended up at her choice. Altogether, Davies weaves a melancholic story of the disaffected Hester becoming bored in her marriage to the much older William (Simon Beale) and turning to young, brash veteran Freddie (Tom Hiddleston). Their relationship is based purely on lust, and despite their confrontational, angry, and even violent connection, she can’t leave him.

This feels like a film out of time, not only in terms of content, but also in technique. DP Florian Hoffmeister uses soft-focus and dramatic lighting to give everything a fuzzy, white halo. His camera is beautifully controlled and economic, while the editing is seamless, metaphorical, and precise. There’s a craftsmanship here and an intent behind each shot and cut that evokes the best of old Hollywood films. In one beautiful sequence, the camera records Hester and Freddie from above while they nakedly embrace on a white bed flowing with sheets. The camera spins slowly and the shot eventually dissolves to Hester in an elegant negligée next to Freddie; still the camera spins. This shot dissolves into another, and now Hester is lying on the ground in front of the open furnace, still wearing the negligée, but with an old, frumpy bathrrobe added on top. It is so perfectly controlled and beautiful, and we seamlessly travel through time.

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Weisz is stunning as Hester and it is a challenging role. Davies employs many tropes of the classic melodramas, the most glaring being the impulsive and overly-emotional female lead. It certainly isn’t a role about female empowerment, but it’s a testament to the skill of Davies and Weisz that they never fall over the edge. Hester’s impetuousness makes sense and she has enough self-awareness about her situation that we almost respect her decision. She never wants us to feel bad about what she’s done, and even though Freddie deserves blame, she refuses to place any on him. I could also use the film’s conclusion to elaborate this point, but I’m not quite sure where I stand on it. Overall, a really unique film, especially in contrast to what we are used to seeing produced.

I should say, after watching this, I was compelled to watch The Marriage of Maria Braun again. It is so good. The way Fassbinder mixes politics with melodrama is so seamless. You can jump in if you want, or you can just go for the story. And Hanna Schygulla…unreal.

The K-Fry-C

Film #15 – Dredd
(Writer: Alex Garland; Director: Pete Travis)
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Pete Travis’s Dredd just never quite took off for me. There are so many missed opportunities and hints at what a great action film this could of been. First, scope. By limiting the film to a single highrise, Peach Trees, the best part of Judge Dredd, Megacity 1, gets eliminated. A single city stretching from Boston to DC housing 800 million people? The possibilities are endless. But instead, we get stuck in a single, fairly non-descript building. Second, Slo-Mo, both cinematic and drug-induced. The narrative is driven by the Ma-Ma gang’s production, distribution, and use of a drug that works to slow the perception of time in the user’s brain. It seems like there are possibilities here for interesting story-telling, but the filmmakers only use it for 2: victims are given a dose and thrown from the 200th story so that the fall is agonizing for them, and it gives Travis a chance to indulge in hyper-slow action sequences (think The Matrix x 100). Are there no other ways to utilize the drug? Finally, Lena Headey. You’ve got Queen Cersei as your main villain, yet she couldn’t be more boring, generic, and uninteresting. They tell us she is known for violence, but beyond that we get nothing. I just kept hoping they’d turn her into a badass, or at least a worthy villain, yet she was hardly even given a line. In fact, she seemed depressed for much of the film, not menacing or even engaging. Overall, there’s just a strained seriousness to the film that defies all logic. Judge Dredd is a ridiculous creation. Indulge, go crazy, have fun! This could have been the 21st centuries RoboCop.

#16 – Killer Joe
(Writer: Tracy Letts; Director: William Friedkin)
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It’s nice to see William Friedkin embrace the possibilities of digital to create small-budget, weirdo films like Killer Joe and Bug. I can’t say I’m a love either (Bug just isn’t my type of film), but you can tell when a great filmmaker (past his prime, sure) is behind the lens. This is a grimy, provocative, grindhouse film. The tone is set immediately: on a rainy evening, Chris (Emile Hirsch) violently pounds on his father’s (Thomas Haden Church) trailer door until his step-mom (Gina Gershon) opens up. Except she isn’t wearing pants and Chris is eye-level with her netherregions. From there, Friedkin and Letts set a prototypical noir plot against a backdrop of grotesque violence and sexual weirdness. Chris hires crooked cop Joe (Matthew McConaughey) to kill his mom for $50k in insurance money. Joe wants Chris’s sister Dottie (Juno Temple) as a retainer, and things go predictably bad.

Friedkin and Letts walk a fairly perilous line between indulgence and satire. At times, they fall off and the tone gets ruined through awkward dialogue or weak performances (I’m not a huge Emile Hirsch fan and there’s probably a reason we haven’t seen Gina Gershon since Bound). But when they get it right, this is a darkly funny film that is both surprising and disturbing. In particular, the final setpiece in the family kitchen has such a breathless forward momentum that the choppy opening hour is forgiven. Like in Magic Mike, McConaughey sort of goes nuts here and it’s fun watching him dig into Joe. Likewise, Juno Temple plays Dottie with just the right amount of awkwardness. But I think Thomas Haden Church steals the show. He plays Ansel so effortlessly; the dumb oaf comes of as the only really likable person on screen. He gets the best lines and interjects levity just where it’s needed. I can definitely see this film developing a cult following and think it will definitely improve through repeat viewings.

I would avoid, however, if you are particularly fond of the K-Fry-C or chicken legs in particular.

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