Monday, December 30, 2013

Midwestern Gothic

Bruce Dern and Will Forte in Nebraska

"Hell, I even thought I was dead 'til I found out it was just that I was in Nebraska."--Little Bill Daggett, Unforgiven

I don't know that director Alexander Payne mocks mid-westerners in his films set in the heartland. I mean, I live in the rural mid-west and I recognize a LOT of the characters who populate Payne's films, from Tracy Flick to Woody Grant. I recognize the cultural and economic wasteland he depicts, too. His new film, Nebraska (2013), is ostensibly a comedy, but its stark black and white cinematography turns it into a mournful comedy at best (if that's not an outright oxymoron). This is a film that's laboring under a pall of disillusion and disappointment, set amid a bleak landscape spotted with vultures picking over the remnants of the American dream.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Innocence and Experience

Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue is the Warmest Color

I'm not entirely sure how to process Blue is the Warmest Color (2013, directed by Abdellatif Kechiche), because it short-circuits a lot of the ways I tend to think about movies. It's a deeply problematic film and it's one that I would ordinarily take to task for the way it deals with sex and sexuality, but I would be lying if I said it didn't have a profoundly emotional effect on me. Somehow, it works, even though it probably shouldn't.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Where There's Smoke

Josh Hutcherson and Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013, directed by Francis Lawrence) is more or less the same film as its predecessor. The filmmakers behind it prove that they are savvy to the way people consume sequels. That it also happens to be better than its predecessor in just about every conceivable way is just some kind of weird alchemy that happens with sequels sometimes, perhaps because it can jump right into the story without having to set up the primary conflicts and relationship (or the world in which it takes place), but I think it's more than that. The craft--for want of a better word--is better. This film cost considerably more than its predecessor and that expense winds up on the screen. This is a case of more being more. But it's not just that, either. Francis Lawrence (presumably no relation to star Jennifer Lawrence) comes to the film from genre filmmaking and proves to be more adept at the film's genre requirements than Gary Ross ever was. The action in this film is more comprehensible, the genre beats more on the mark, and in general, the style of the film is smoother and less rawboned. This is true even in the film's more miserablist settings, where Lawrence has reined-in the lazy shaky-cam of its predecessor and created images of surprising power. The opening shot of Katniss, for instance.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Dirty Laundry

Judi Dench and Steve Coogan in Philomena

I saw a headline on one of the entertainment sites a few days ago that posed the question of whether or not Stephen Frears's new film, Philomena (2013) was anti-Catholic. Given the subject matter of the film--the sorry history of the Magdalene laundries is central to its narrative--I'd say it's not anti-Catholic enough. This film goes out of its way to be understanding, but I can't imagine the headspace that permits its heroine to forgive. I'm much more inclined to less Christian reaction, myself, especially given that this is a "true story," as the saying goes.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Big Quiz Redux

This time of the year is kind of a slog for me, with most of my movie viewing confined to festival screeners (about which I can't write) and award season movies. I've been struggling to write about the last several films I've seen, which is why things have been so quiet around here. I'm hoping to have pieces about Philomena and Blue is the Warmest Color up by the end of the weekend, but we'll see how it goes. Meanwhile, here's another of Dennis Cozzalio's film quizzes from the extravagantly named blog, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Enjoy:

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Dying in Dallas

Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club

I've been dreading Dallas Buyers Club (2013, directed by Jean-Marc Vallee). I always dread films made by cisgender filmmakers in which transgender characters feature prominently, especially if those trans characters are played by cis actors (as they almost always are). Someone in the activist spaces I frequent once mentioned that consuming media while trans is like playing Russian roulette, though lately I've been thinking that it's like playing Russian roulette with a live round in every chamber. You're going to take a bullet to the brain without fail. It won't be random. It's just going to happen. The cause for my concern with Dallas Buyers Club is Jared Leto's character, Rayon, a trans woman character constructed by the filmmakers for reasons I'll get to in a bit. She's fictional even though the film itself purports to be based on fact. Leto has been getting Oscar buzz for his performance, and why not? It's a character and performance that's almost a parody of Oscar bait: straight actor playing gay? Check. Playing trans? Check. Dying tragically? Check. Dramatic weight loss? Check. It's almost diagrammatic. (As I write this, Leto has just been awarded Best Supporting Actor by the New York Film Critic's Circle, which isn't a bellwether by any means, but still...) Of course, star Matthew McConaughey does the weight loss thing, too. This is a film full of scarecrows.