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.
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
Saturday, January 17, 2015
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
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
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
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
Friday, December 26, 2014
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
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
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.
Saturday, November 29, 2014
I was having a conversation with some movie friends of mine last week when I opined that I don't think Christopher Nolan knows what a movie director actually does. That's a pretty provocative statement about a filmmaker who is arguably the most commercially successful director of the last decade and one who has a considerable and fanatically devoted cult from whom I am sure to catch some grief. But hear me out.
The things that Nolan does well are things that producers have traditionally done well: wrangling talent, managing technical departments, casting, overseeing editors and composers, and so on. But when it comes to actually blocking actors and sets and camera movements in the film frame and telling them where to move and how to deliver their lines? When it comes to the basic act of directing a film in front of rolling cameras? Man, that cat is barely functional. He's fortunate that his metier is in big action spectaculars where a lot of these deficiencies can be papered over by the need to construct storyboards and animatics for the action sequences and special effects. Left to his own devices, his idea of drama is placing an actor in a medium two-shot without a companion and dumping exposition as a fucking soliloquy. When left to construct action sequences, his default is the run and gun style that doesn't require a sense of filmic space. He's not good at this stuff.
More, Nolan views films as puzzles. This goes all the way back to Memento, but it reached its zenith with The Prestige, which is a puzzle that cheats, and with Inception. These are puzzles to be solved for their own sakes, and, y'know, that's fair. It's a defensible aesthetic. I like puzzles. It's perhaps inevitable that Nolan would make ambitious hard sci fi, because that stuff is all about puzzles. Science is the pursuit of puzzles and their solutions. There's an atavistic pleasure that all humans feel when they figure something out. The harder the problem, the sweeter its solution feels. Providing that thrill is an experience that movies rarely provide, except in tricky mystery thrillers.
When I say that Nolan is a better producer than director, that's a challenge to the prevailing notion that directors are the authors of films. It's true that film is a director's medium, but that doesn't mean directors are always auteurs. David O. Selznick comes to mind. So does Val Lewton. So this shouldn't be taken as a slight, necessarily. But his neglect of the art of directing for the other crafts of filmmaking does make for deeply flawed films.
I'm not entirely sure what to do with Nolan's newest film, Interstellar (2014). It showcases all of Nolan's failings as a filmmaker while emphasizing all of his strengths. It's ambitious, I'll give it that much. There's a lot to like, actually. It has good actors and phenomenal production design and more rigor when it comes to actual science than is usual for science fiction movies (faint praise, given the magical nature of movie physics). When it wants to make grand statements, though? That's when it tumbles down into that black hole at the center of the narrative. Its metaphysics often struck me as silly.
Saturday, November 22, 2014
Dear White People (2014, directed by Justin Simien) is a portrait of entitlement and privilege as satire and farce. That it's set at an Ivy League school where privilege and entitlement are incubated is right and proper, because this isn't a film where the obvious oppression of economic iniquity fits in. That's a fish in a barrel, one that would lend itself more to a polemic than to a wry satire. Instead, this aims at less obvious, though no less pernicious targets, including a deconstruction of the sometimes rigid expectations of black identity.
Saturday, November 15, 2014
It's a shame that the supernova of Hayao Miyazaki has sometimes blinded the world to the fact that there's another genius working at Studio Ghibli. That man is Isao Takahata, who once upon a time created The Grave of the Fireflies, one of the greatest of all animated films. His other work has been hard to get in North America, which is a criminal oversight. The appearance of The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013) on these shores is therefore cause for celebration. It's one of the most beautiful and atypical films from Studio Ghibli, reflecting its director's restless experimentation with animation. It doesn't look like the studio's house style at all. Sometimes, it's deliriously abstract.
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
I don't know what to make of director Ben Wheatley. He obviously knows how to make a good film. Whatever my complaints with Kill List or Sightseers, they're testament to a major genre talent, but one who makes inconsistent, frustrating films. A Field in England (2013) doesn't change my mind on him. If anything, it's his most impenetrable film; a bad head trip.
Friday, October 31, 2014
Before it flies off the rails at the end, Here Comes the Devil (2013, directed by Adrián García Bogliano) builds a formidable ambiance of dread. It's mostly a slow burner, in which the intellectual implications of its set-up are more horrible than any monsters, though in the end, it supplies monsters. Maybe. It's an ambiguous, sometimes perplexing movie.
Thursday, October 30, 2014
I mostly skipped the Friday the 13th sequels after number three (it was in 3-D and I was still a teenage gore hound at the time). I eventually caught up with Jason X (mostly for David Cronenberg) and Freddy vs. Jason (mostly for Ronny Yu), but the rest? Feh. I do admit to a morbid fascination with the idea behind the Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988, directed by John Carl Buechler), but I never acted on it to watch the movie before now. The premise is a 1980s variant on the monster rallies of the 1940s. Instead of "Frankenstein vs. The Wolf-man," though, this film posits "Jason vs. Carrie." Team-ups like this are usually the sign of a decadent franchise, and boy, howdy is that the case here. For all that, it remains steadfastly chained to the formula of the previous films in the series.