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Category: 2013 Films

Black & White

2013 Film #14: Computer Chess
(Writer & Director: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess starts as a mockumentary about a humanless chess tournament held between rival programmers, but quickly devolves into something entirely weirder. The film is set in the early 80s as teams from MIT, Berkeley, and some private companies pit their computers and operating systems against each other in chess. The champion gets to face off against the tournament runner and resident Master Pat Henderson (an actual human). In the early stages, as we are introduced to the concept, tournament, and principal characters, the film is centered on the possibilities of computer programming and artificial intelligence. But then, the defending champion computer starts acting weird, and the film goes with it.
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Shot on black and white tube video cameras and set in the 80s, the film feels unlike anything else I’ve seen. And structurally, Bujalski doesn’t have a single narrative through line; he’s content to go everywhere and each major character gets his own arc or theme: Peter is intent on figuring out what’s wrong with his group’s programming, Nick Papageorge is constantly wandering the halls trying to find somewhere to sleep (much like Cookie and Gerry Fleck in Best in Show, he couldn’t get a room), and there’s a territorial battle over the conference room between the tournament players and a weird, new-age couples therapy group that seems to have rented it out in the mornings. Each of these plotlines gets its own feel, which makes Computer Chess a hard film to nail down: it has elements of comedy, satire, surrealism, political espionage, and science-fiction. Some of them work better than others, and given the shoe-string budget, some performances are better than others. But the mixture feels just right, and despite the schizophrenic styles, there is a singularity of vision here that coalesces everything together.

I was initially thrown off because there isn’t a coherent visual logic to the film. It begins under the pretense of a documentary (we hear Pat Henderson scolding the camera operator as he shoots towards the sun because he might blow the tube on the camera), but Bujalski isn’t consistent with it. Sometimes we are clearly in the documentary style, in others we are in a conventional shot/reverse-shot style, while in others he is almost Lynchian in his camerawork. After I sort of gave in to the fact that the film was going to shift and break rules, I was able to settle in to the stories and have a good time. Although it isn’t wholly successful (I wish it was more funny), Bujalski’s scope and vision is worth the trip.

Film #15: Frances Ha
(Writers: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Director: Noah Baumbach)
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I’m just not sure a likable film (or TV show) can be made about disaffected, self-obsessed, white New York hipsters. Whether its the self-conscious honesty of Lena Dunham’s Girls or the sardonic, dark critique of The Comedy, nothing can stop the fact that these kinds of people are painful to spend time with. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the most bearable look into this milieu, but it is only saved by its title character and the great performance of Greta Gerwig. While everyone around her works to push you away, Frances keeps pulling you back in.

For the first 30 minutes of Frances Ha, I wanted to shoot almost everyone on screen. I hit pause, took the dog for a walk, and when I came back, I was better able to sink in. This is partly because Frances begins to take shape as a character who holds the weight of the film, but it also became a little more clear what Baumbach was trying to do.

As much as they try, it is incredibly difficult to take the Williamsburgh generation seriously. Although they couch themselves in irony, they are still clueless, walking stereotypes. Obviously, Baumbach sees them this way, as its nearly impossible to think that he isn’t making fun of his characters when Benji claims he is making real headway on his Gremlins 3 spec-script or Lev…dresses like Lev. But what’s the point? How easy and pointless is it to make fun of these people? What kind of critique of narcissism and technological vapidity isn’t already self-evident in their very existence? I was loaded with these thoughts as we were introduced to each new character in the film’s opening act.

But the film is called Frances Ha, and in Frances lies the film’s heart. She is a genuine person desperate for friendship, and her uniqueness stands in stark contrast to the people around her. There isn’t an ounce of irony in her, and although she likes all the things the people around her profess to like, there’s an earnestness to her, even when she’s lying, that they aren’t quite able to handle (Benji constantly calls her undateable). This manifests itself in the best sequences of the film: Frances attempting to stage a fake fight with a friend in the park, dancing joyously through the New York streets, or working at her old college even though she’s way too old.

But she’s also a very sad person who lies to herself and others, and clings to people that show the slightest interest in her. For the first 2/3 of the film, she’s desperately trying to match the interests and personalities of the people around her, even when it’s clear she can’t. So the film hinges on her realizing that she only really needs herself, and when she does that, she can become genuinely happy.

Baumbach shows a love for Frances that is infectious and that’s also unique to his filmography. Maybe his real-life relationship with Gerwig is softening him. Although he can’t quite escape his more biting roots, Frances Ha is ultimately a funny, enjoyable film. (Oh, it’s also in black and white).

Woo! WOO!

Even though I’m working less than usual, this summer has been crazy. Going places, doin’ thangs. The biggest news is that MAH WAHFE was offered a job at the VA. She’s worked her butt off for 9 years to get this very job, so it’s awesome that it is actually happening (and it was certainly a roller coaster getting there, especially in the last few weeks). I’m so incredibly proud of her.

Last week, I had one of the best meals of my life. The college I teach at has a pretty renowned culinary arts program, and they have an on-campus bistro that is run by students (with the help and guidance of the culinary arts faculty). A group of us from the Writing Center went on Thursday and it was spectacular. I think Lizz and I counted 9 courses (of varying size of course). Salmon, tuna, black cherry sorbet, creme brulee, bacon-wrapped pork belly, homemade butter and bread. Ah. I’m dozing off just thinking about it. Here’s a link to their website to get a taste: Sage Bistro

In nerd news, my movie viewing has slowed down quite a bit. Lizz and I finished Firefly and Serenity, so that took up some of my time. It was totally worth it though. Fantastic series and the film actually did an incredibly job of wrapping things up. I have watched a couple of other things though.

Film #24: Brooklyn Castle
(Director: Katie Dellamaggiore)
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This is an amazing documentary about the chess team at I.S. 318, a middle school in Brooklyn, New York. They are the best chess team in the nation, even though most of the students live below the poverty line. The film was shot right in the midst of the financial crisis, so much of the film deals with the students coping with the forced budget cuts. The film works because these kids are incredible. You just instantly fall in love with all of them, and their ability to persevere and overcome their economic situation is humbling. I also love the way Dellamaggiore shoots the matches themselves. We don’t see the boards or even know what’s happening in the games; instead, we just watch the kids. At points, she employs slo-motion panning shots of them in deep contemplation, and they suddenly turn into epic heroes. And like any good documentary, Brooklyn Castle tackles issues of class, race, and gender head-on, but through the frame of these incredible kids. If you can’t fall in love with Brooklyn Castle, you aren’t a human. Prepare to cry.

2013 Film #3: Spring Breakers
(Writer & Director: Harmony Korine)

Spring Breakers was one of my two most anticipated films of the year (along with Only God Forgives), and sadly, it failed miserably to live up to my hopes. This movie is just so disingenuous. It indulges a vapid narrative and aesthetic in an attempt to critique hedonistic consumerism, but it’s ironic sheen only serves to cover up for lazy filmmaking. I should have loved this movie. I love the idea of the aesthetics of this movie, but every image just feels forced. It feels like Korine is trying to do Terrence Malick and Spring Break, and every frame is burdened with that trying. My biggest problem, though, is that it is just damn boring. And not in a good way. The characters are forgettable (save for Franco’s Alien, although he is only memorable by force) and the writing is TERRIBLE. The voice-over narrations from the film’s female leads are some of the worst shit ever put on film. But again, and this is the real problem with the movie, Korine is so gutless in his filmmaking, that I imagine most of his supporters deflecting this criticism: “That’s the point of the movie! They are supposed to be inane, vapid materialists.” Blargh.

2013 Film #4: This is the End
(Writers & Directors: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg)
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This, on the other hand, was the perfect summer movie. The gimmick is that all of the actors in this film play themselves: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Danny McBride form the core group (there are a ton of cameos that I don’t want to spoil. Half the fun of the movie is seeing who shows up). While at Franco’s house warming party, the Biblical apocalypse goes down, and the group try to hold out in his mansion. While the actors play themselves, they obviously are playing heightened, stereotyped versions of themselves. It’s awesome seeing these guys indulge and make fun of these stereotypes and their careers (Franco, for example, has a giant penis statue in his house and they frequently make fun of him giving blowjobs). We even get a sort of Sweded version of Pineapple Express 2 midway through. This film is just an assault of jokes and it will take 10 viewings to catch everything. It’s the 21 Jump Street of 2013. I’m sure critics will claim this is just another bro-mance about guys incapable of growing up, but, you know, so what?

2013 Film #5: Man of Steel
(Writer: David S. Goyer; Director: Zack Snyder)

This is the worst film I’ve seen in ages. Goyer and Snyder team up to ruin Superman for a whole generation! I can’t even begin to list the things wrong here: Zod’s goatee, an F5 tornado in the sunshine (which is, ironically, one of the only times this bleak-ass movie about a dude WHO RUNS ON SUNSHINE actually uses it), Superman destroying both Metropolis and Smallville, *SPOILER* Supes killing people?!?!?!!, and the most boring, endless fight scenes of all time. This movie never ends. I’m still watching it.

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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.

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.

2013

I’m feeling a film resurgence, and I’m determined to not only catch up with the films of 2012, but also stay more on top of 2013 movies. I’m starting a working list of things coming out I want to see so I’m not scrounging through top 10 lists at the end of the year to figure out what I want/need to see. I’ve got about 20 titles so far. The films I’m most excited for are fairly easy: Only God Forgives and Gravity. First, seeing Nicolas Winding Refn and Ryan Gosling team back up is almost too much. I’d be happy with Drive 2. With Gravity, we finally get Alfonso Cuarón’s new film. Children of Men is one of the best film of the last 10 or 20 years and Cuarón helming a sci-fi epic? My only reservation is Sandra Bullock.

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But sadly, right now, I’m entirely too excited for Spring Breakers. I can’t really explain why beyond the fact that it seems like a provactive, avant garde Hollywood genre film. And I haven’t seen any of Harmony Korine’s films, I know his reputation, and I’m excited to see what he does with Disney stars. Plus, NEON!

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