Tuesday, March 24, 2015

True/False 2015: Remote Control

Drone (2014)

Documentaries about the "War on Terror" seem like a permanent fixture in the contemporary film landscape. So long as horrible things are being done either against the democracies of the West, or, more probably, by the democracies of the West themselves, these kinds of films will be with us. They tend to paint a dismal picture of the world, one that more and more resembles George Orwell's prediction of the future as "a boot stamping on the human face forever." This year's crop includes Drone (2014, directed by Tonje Hessen Shei), a film that attempts to provide a multiplicity of viewpoints on the Obama administration's campaign of remote control warfare. That very multiplicity tends to blunt its impact.

True/False 2015: Poison Pens

William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal in Best of Enemies

I'm late to the party this year when it comes to writing about the 2015 edition of the True/False Film Festival. The delay was unavoidable. Life gets in the way sometimes. I need to get all of this down before I forget it all. Fortunately, I took lots of notes this year.




Best of Enemies (2015, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon) resurrects the 1968 debates between arch conservative William F. Buckley and arch liberal Gore Vidal on the occasion of that year's national political conventions. "Debate," is probably the wrong word for what these were. Duels, is more like it. Some kind of bloodsport. A harbinger for what media discourse on politics would later become. Buckley and Vidal were mortal ideological enemies and they jabbed at each other with spears tipped with venom, with invective scrawled with acid.

Monday, March 02, 2015

The Devil, You Say?

Daniel Radcliffe in Horns

Alexandre Aja is a director who is never likely to live up to his promise. I'm not a fan of his signature film, Haute Tension, but I could see the talent involved with its making. Before it immolates itself with an unearned twist ending, it's a razor sharp horror movie, one that knows the value of suspense while keeping an instinct for the jugular. Nothing he's made since then has been as assured, though I do have a soft spot for the cheap pulp thrills of his remake of Piranha. I don't know why I expected more from his latest film, Horns (2013), but I did. It has a good cast and a droll source novel. In principle, the elements are all there. Somehow, Aja fumbles it all.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Ministers of Grace

Bosch -- Christ Carrying the Cross

My first impression of Calvary (2014, directed by John Michael McDonagh) was that it was deadpan religious noir. It's a film that attempts to reconcile the mission of the Catholic church with the wickedness done by that church's ministers. It falls into the category of noir because it's a crime film of sorts, one particularly concerned with a fall from grace. Its concern with states of grace is more (little "c") catholic than is normally the purview of noir, but its fall from grace is an equally dark descent. The punch, when it comes, lands with a brutalizing force even to a mocking unbeliever like me.


My second impression was that it was the cinematic equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross," which has a central figure carrying the weight of the world through a crowd of leering grotesques. Bosch's painting has always had multiple interpretations, depending on the worldview of the critic. Is it deeply spiritual? Is it an irreligious mockery? I tend to think it's the former. Calvary provides a similar dichotomy, but it's more clearly an expression of spirituality. It's an argument for the necessity of the church in an increasingly secular and sinful world, and an indictment of the Catholic Church's utter failure in the face of its own mission.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Jumpin' Jupiter

Mila Kunis and Channing Tatum in Jupiter Ascending

While I was watching the Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending (2015), I realized that Andy and Lana Wachowski are acutely aware of their own career arc. Given that they've helmed a series of big budget fiascoes (commercially, anyway), this might be the last time they get to play with a megabudget production. As a result, they've crammed all of the ideas they have for big budget spectacles into this one delirious package. As you can imagine, this results in a dense film with overlapping moods and elements that are at odds with each other. It's a mess, sure. That much was suggested by its delayed release, moving from prime summer real estate into the wasteland of February, where orphaned productions go to die. I would be lying if I said that didn't like it though, because as fun times at the movies go, this was more fun than I was expecting. A lot more fun.

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Imitation of Life

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum) aims to right an historical wrong. It postulates that the mathematician, Alan Turing, was responsible for winning World War II, or at the very least, was responsible for shortening the war by several years and saving 14 million lives and preserving the remaining cities of a shattered Europe in the process. Further, it is outraged at the thanks Turing got for his trouble. This is all couched in a biopic that is formally adventurous only when it serves its thesis, though that may well be often enough. In any event, it has good actors, which is always a plus when faced with those terrible words, "Based on a true story..."

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Gray Men, Gray World

Philip Seymour Hoffman in A Most Wanted Man

When I was sixteen, my parents gave me an omnibus edition of John le Carré's Karla novels (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People). I still have it and I have a handful of le Carré's other novels, but I never fell in love with le Carré. His stories are cold and distant, filled with gray men doing gray things in gray offices under gray, overcast skies. Or, at least, I imagine the skies as overcast. Le Carré's books are anti-thrillers. They are often Kafka-esque traps for their characters. Most of the films based on le Carré are similarly dreary, though stocked with magnificent actors playing drab. When the Cold War ended, it was replaced by the equally dangerous War on Terror. The actors on the world stage have changed. The game generally has not, which is how le Carré has remained so relevant. So it is in A Most Wanted Man (2014, directed by Anton Corbijn), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the head of a small anti-terror unit in German intelligence. He's a defeated man, which makes the fact that this is the last role Hoffman played before his untimely death bittersweet.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Rhythm Method

Miles Teller and J. K. Simmons in Whiplash

Back when I was just out of college, I had a conversation with some friends over a game of spades about what you would have to score on the rhythm ACT to play with various bands. We suggested that you needed about a 12 to play most rock and roll. You needed about a 33 to play with P-Funk. You needed about a 4 to play with the Sex Pistols. You needed to ace the thing to play with James Brown. That conversation, now twenty-something years in the past, flashed through my mind with crystal clarity while watching Whiplash (2014, directed by Damien Chazelle), a film that's all about precise rhythms. It's also a film about the sociopathy that often goes with creativity, particularly as it intersects with the kind of perfectionism geniuses often pursue. It's one of the most electrifying films I've seen in a goodly long while, a coming of age film played as a psycho-thriller. It's a head-cutting film in the musical meaning of that phrase.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Rethinking the American Canon

Maya Deren in "Meshes of the Afternoon"

Sometime last year, I finally started tagging posts in which I write about films by women. There is well-documented bias in the film industry marginalizing women filmmakers and my thinking is that part of the way to counteract this is to actively seek out and write about films by women. My friend, Willow, over at the excellent Curtsies and Hand Grenades is doing exactly this right now and while I'm not going to go to the same lengths, I AM going to be consciously watching more films by women this year and beyond. (Dudes: don't worry. Your dominance of the film industry means that I'll write about plenty of the dude films you like, too. Hell, I probably can't avoid them).

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Revenge of the Nerds

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 (2014, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams) is suggestive of why Disney bought Marvel a few years ago. They see potential blockbusters in odd corners of the Marvel catalog. This one is completely unlikely. The original is borderline obscure. Indeed, the source material isn't very good, coming as it does at the tail end of Marvel's 90s-era dark age in which everything was a steroid inflated version of extreeeeem grimdark. I doubt that there was ever anyone clamoring for a movie version of Big Hero 6. The movie bears only a cursory resemblance to the comics, which is all to the good. This is a case where the movie version is so much better than the original that by all rights it should completely eclipse it.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Hindsight is 20/20

Kelly Rilley and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary and Marion Cotillard in The Immigrant

It's customary for people who write about film to do retrospectives this time of the year. I'll make up a top whatever list eventually, but I'm still waiting on a few films to make their way to me. Meanwhile, the list I'm keeping of potential candidates for that list continues to grow. A lot of people were disappointed in 2014 (particularly movie studios, who are seeing their revenues crater in the United States in the wake of some expensive flops). I'm not one of them. To my mind, 2014 was an exceptional year. These are the films I enjoyed this year:

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

December Potpourri

Hilary Swank in The Homesman

I'm behind on my reviews again. Here's a round-up of what I've seen recently:

Friday, December 26, 2014

There and Back Again

Martin Freeman in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

There's a scene near the very end of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014, directed by Peter Jackson) that highlights the sheer folly of splitting J.R.R. Tolkien's novel into three gargantuan movies. The major events are over and Bilbo Baggins has returned to The Shire only to find that his greedy relations have taken possession of his house at Bag End. He catches them in the midst of auctioning off his household belongings. After chasing them off, he surveys the damage and finds his handkerchief. This is a call-back to the first movie, when, at the outset of his journey with the dwarfs, Bilbo tries to halt things so he can go back for his missing handkerchief. The only reason I caught this is because a friend of mine invited me to one of the marathon showings of all three movies. Otherwise, I would have missed the symmetry of this scene because An Unexpected Journey would have been two years in the past. As it was, the object of the callback was still nine hours in the past, nearly forgotten. Tolkien's quaint adventure story has become such a massive white elephant (white Mumak? Maybe) in these movies that niceties like handkerchiefs often get overwhelmed.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Superhero Blues

Michael Keaton in Birdman

Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu), like many of the director's films, sometimes lets the technique of its making overshadow its subject matter. Iñárritu has been a Mannerist from his first film onward, so this is no surprise. What is surprising is the technique Iñárritu has chosen. His other films have shattered narratives; they are Cubist mosaics in which multiple story chronologies define fragments of the whole. Birdman, by contrast, is downright classical in its adherence to the unities of dramatic time and space. There's a practical reason for this. Most of the film is constructed to look like one long uninterrupted take. And that's only the start of its cleverness.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

If That Mockingjay Won't Sing...

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay part 1

The third film in the Hunger Games series suffers dramatically from being only half a movie. I mean that literally. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014, directed by Francis Lawrence) is all rising action without payoff, a function of the producers' decision to split the adaptation of the series' last book into two movies. This tactic may have enriched the makers of the Harry Potter movies and it will assuredly enrich the makers of these films, but it hobbles the penultimate film in the series. After a terrific second film, it's a hard comedown.