Posts Tagged ‘Movie Time’

Movie Time: 12 Years a Slave

Monday, December 30th, 2013

* A mentality by which one can see both Her and 12 Years a Slave and judge the former superior to the latter is a very foreign mentality to me. I’m grappling with that a lot tonight. There’s obviously an element of self-congratulation in preferring the horrifying historical drama about slavery to the twee portrait of an unlucky-in-love copywriter and his smartphone. And there’s an element of voyeurism, too, one only heightened by seeing the film in a packed theater full of middle-aged and elderly upper-middle-class white patrons from my preposterously segregated home of Long Island. Roxane Gay’s essay on the film for Vulture, for all it’s undergirded by presumptions about cinema I don’t share — I find brutality, spectacle, and decontextualized visual stylization, all of which she rejects at least as far as this movie is concerned, often inherently valuable in terms of conveying meaning; director Steve McQueen is proficient and profligate with all three — also makes the point that 12 Years a Slave furthers the idea that the movies about black people worth making involve their historical/political suffering at the hands of American white supremacy. All those caveats aside, I still found this film enormously compelling, as a story and as a political statement and as cinema, in ways that completely crush Her, which is routinely topping it in critics’ best-of-2013 lists. And that’s a gulf between me and other viewers that I’m thinking about a great dal.

* Crying in a crowded theater is difficult to do, for some reason. I wound up with tears streaming down my face consistently but without the usual sobbing and heaving — just a few sniffles. I’m embarrassed to say I was embarrassed.

* Stuffing your film with famous actors in bit parts is frequently a dubious proposition — remember Ted Danson in Saving Private Ryan? Yet the effect McQueen generated with that tactic here was invigorating, if menacingly so. Each time a new familiar face popped up, I found myself thinking “Oh Jesus, what’s this one gonna do?” Michael K. Williams, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Garrett Dillahunt, Bryan Batt — each managed to be intimidating by virtue of simply being there, all famous and shit. By the time Brad Pitt showed up, an aged Golden God whose role in the narrative and his part in getting the film made in the first place combined for a sad and knowing take on the White Savior, the cameos moreover gave the film a true labor of love feeling, a “let’s put on a show” urgency.

* Though the film was written by an African American, its director and star are two black men from England, and it co-stars two more men from England as the lead character’s primary enslavers. I felt there was a unique fury brought to the material from those four outsiders’ perspectives. The crimes of an neighbor content to excuse or ignore them are often best exposed from next door. “I’m So Bored with the USA.”

* Chiwetel Ejiofor is actually better than you’ve heard. Long, lingering close-ups the first time he sings along with a spiritual, or on the day he entrusts the sympathetic white hired hand played by Pitt to write a letter to his friends back home to plead for rescue, are asked by McQueen to do nothing but allow the audience to linger in Ejiofor’s emotional and physical company as intimately as possible. He’s just remarkable.

* Lupita Nyong’o, the film’s female lead, is required to spend essentially all over her screentime in some form of extremis — the object of brutal scorn and even more brutal affection from her masters. Even during a brief respite at the brunch table of a neighbor who herself had been elevated from slave to “Mistress” thanks to her owner’s romantic inclinations, there’s a panic in the extension of her pinky finger she affects while taking tea. Her body is ultimately the tableau on which the film’s climactic act of violence is performed: the makeup effects are among the most physically upsetting I’ve ever seen, which given my predilections is saying something, but I used “tableau” because that’s what she is made to be, a canvas on which the emotions of her slaver, his wife, her fellow slave Solomon, and her own self are painted in blood. Hugely complicated, hugely upsetting. A goddamn highwire act is what it is, and she invests that character with such urgent sadness, right down to her final out-of-focus fall from the story.

* In the scenes where we see Ejiofor’s Solomon Northrup interact with his wife and kids as a free man in New York prior to his kidnapping, much of the antiquated formality of his and the other characters’ speech throughout the film, preserved from the autobiography which forms the basis of the film, necessarily falls away. Replace the horse-and-carriage with a car and the formal attire with t-shirts and jeans or whatever, and his last happy goodbye to his family (off on a business trip without him) could come from the opening of any Hollywood movie in which a good-natured family man gets fucked over by sinister forces. Which is important. Sounding like regular, everyday people by stripping away dialect, even just for a scene, goes a long way to conveying that Northrup was a regular, everyday person, until America’s nightmarish racist dystopia — a regime so repulsive and constructed on lies so preposterous we’d have a hard time accepting it as science fiction had it not actually happened in our actual history for hundreds of fucking years, were not television networks making money hand over fist by marketing its apologists as cuddly curmudgeons, were not cackling dimunitions and dismissals and denials of its horror repeated every day with the tweet of a #tcot hashtag, were its legacy not seen everywhere from voter registration laws to the lily white neighborhood i myself live in right this very second — swallowed him whole.


Movie Time: Her

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

Her is a movie in which a nebbishy dotcom writer named Theodore Twombly dates Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, and Olivia Wilde and falls in love with a computer voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I promise you, I fucking promise you, no matter how many five-star reviews and best-of-the-year lists you come across: Whatever picture you have in your head of what such a film will feel like, that picture is correct. None of the film’s strengths — most of which, from Joaquin Phoenix’s feature-length Michael Stuhlbarg impression to some cute 120-minutes-into-the-future costume, game, and tech design, are minor; one of which, its frank and explicit treatment of sex as a component of love, is mitigated by pretty goddamn goofy voice-overacting; only a few of which, namely a small handful of its many many many conversations about falling in and out of love in the context of long-term relationships, have any heft behind them — make it worth seeking out before it winds up on Netflix Instant, or pretty much watching at all if you suspect you’d rather just rewatch Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (scripted by director Spike Jonze director Spike Jonze’s collaborator Charlie Kaufman) instead. Its biggest problem is baked right into its premise: Samantha, the computerized “her” of the title (which weirdly forefronts this computer program’s nature as a nonspecific and inscrutable female, which should set off alarm bells for you right there) is a creature of pure thought and speech, so nearly everything of note in the story is told rather than shown. With the ironic exception of a single, memorable, lengthy cut to black, the film basically never allows its visual component to do any heavy lifting. All the pretty colors, the L.A. cityscapes, the fancy simulated operating systems and video games — it’s all window(s) dressing.


Movie Time: Inside Llewyn Davis

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Or Introducing Bruno Delbonnel, stepping in for MIA cinematographer/genius Roger Deakins and (re)creating the grey winter awfulness of New York City so convincingly it felt less like a lighting scheme and more like a ceiling you might bump your head on. Inside Llewyn Davis, for all its subwaying and roadtripping and general peripateticism, is a claustrophobic film, a film about how having no commitments can root you to the spot just as surely as a square life. It can be seen as the third film in the Coen Brothers’ Trilogy of Calamity, with Barton Fink and A Serious Man, but here the calamity is ongoing, not a new thing that starts with a move to Hollywood or the sudden caprice of Hashem. (I suppose you could even squeeze No Country for Old Men in there too if you want, but again, no stumbling across drug money.) Llewyn Davis has been in a folk-scene funk for some time, a depression he shows no signs of exiting. Indeed, a clever bit of editing that could be taken as showing us a pivotal sequence out of order is ever so slightly recut so that we could simply be witnessing subtle variations on the same unending cycle — Sisyphus, Groundhog Day, the Möbius. Certainly the presence of a key figure at film’s end indicates Llewyn’s career will only go so far. The funny thing, the different thing, is that he’d more or less resigned himself to it by that point anyway. He’s not a delusional man, nor does he react to his plight with especially outstanding rage. He’s difficult but not impossible, cruel at times but only when driven to exhaustion by the failure of kindness to produce amicable results. He’s neither a delusional hack nor a tortured genius — he’s a talented guy who knows the limits of his talent but hopes to catch a lucky break. None is forthcoming. Joel and Ethan Coen have made much blacker movies than this one; Inside Llewyn Davis is the Coen Brothers at their greyest.


Movie Time: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Wolf of Wall Street

Friday, December 27th, 2013

There’s an invented scene in Peter Jackson’s second Hobbit movie (SPOILER ALERT, I GUESS) where Thorin & Company fire up the forges of the Lonely Mountain while dodging an awoken and enraged Smaug the Golden. River-like torrents of molten gold pour into a mold of (presumably) Durin, the ur-Dwarf, that’s about the size of a medium-sized office building. Smaug stares at it enraptured until the heat causes it to break form and gush golden death all over the dragon. Wealth, weaponized. Find all the metaphors for a three-film Hobbit adaptation you like in that scene, go ahead, knock yourself out. Certainly this film’s herky-jerky rhythm, and its need to surround every emotional turning point with an invented ten-minute action sequence, will give you plenty of fuel for the fire. But ultimately Smaug rises again from that lake of fire, bellows a mockery of the Dwarves’ attempt at revenge, flies up into the night sky gilded with real actual gold, shakes it off into a million droplets like a sheepdog drying off after a bath, and flies off toward Laketown to burn it to ashes while shrieking “I AM DEATH.” If I get to see something like that at the movies, Peter Jackson can melt down all the rivers of gold he wants.

Wolf was more fun than Good, and I say that as someone whose favorite Martin Scorsese movie is Casino. One of the reasons it feels a bit light in the end is that we never meet any victims of the penny-stock scams at the heart of the thing, just the scammers and their trials and tribulations. In a sense, that’s Scorsese’s approach with GoodFellas and Casino as well, but in those films the characters frequently turn on and kill each other, so you’re made to understand that the criminality has real-life consequences even if only on other criminals. You see victims; they just happen to be the victimizers as well. This, on the other hand, is just DiCaprio and Jonah Hill being really funny for three hours, with tons of naked women and quaaludes. Which I liked, don’t get me wrong, but it’s almost like Scorsese and Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire impresario, hence a couple of notable BE castmember cameos) went out of their way to reduce the working-class schlubs DiCaprio and his merry men and women stiff to disembodied voices on phones. (EDITED TO ADD: The major exceptions are Belfort’s toddler daughter, whom his inebriated behavior terrorizes, and his second wife, whom at his nadir he physically and sexually assaults; but the rhythm of the sequence in which that occurs is such that its impact is diluted first by her turning her own rape into a way to best and humiliate her husband, then by a transference of Belfort’s threat from her to the kid. Moreover she’s portrayed as so slight a person — no Karen Hill, no Ginger Rothstein — that it’s weirdly unclear how much she’s ultimately fazed by it.) Still, as I said, really funny. A lot of it is a love letter to the grossness of Long Island, which I enjoyed, and of course the idea of just doing a one-to-one transfer of his mafia-movie style and story structure over to Wall Street is scathing and hilarious. Rob Reiner’s introductory scene had me convulsing with laughter, which I’d forgotten is a thing. Jon Bernthal erases the stink of The Walking Dead every second he’s on screen, so wholly does he commit to his ridiculous Jewish-goombah drug-dealer character. There are close-ups of Hill’s face, and an entire ‘lude-dosed fight scene, that could have come straight out of Tim & Eric’s Billion-Dollar Movie. It’s a pleasure to see Scorsese work with DiCaprio in full charismatic movie-star mode versus the aging-babyface anger he forefronted in, say, Gangs of New York and The Departed. And he’s making an argument that the best sociopaths extend their little reality bubble outward to a few trusted associates — do that and you can get away with almost literally anything. Wolves hunt best in packs.


Movie Time: Only God Forgives

Wednesday, August 7th, 2013

Only God Forgives is director Nicholas Winding Refn’s own Drive reaction video. The middle-aged foreign not-white cop we’re trained to think will be the villain is in fact the one who’s heroically doling out street justice, hurting only those who hurt others. He’s the Driver. The strong, silent, handsome, blond American interloper is no white savior, and he’s only even the villain accidentally, if at all. Mainly he’s a sad and ineffectual patsy, cannon fodder caught up in the larger struggle between the hero and Kristin Scott Thomas’s Tiamat figure. (Refn’s solution to making particular character troubling in that particular way is to run right at it; the last time we see her, Gosling has his hand in her fucking womb.) It’s like Refn picked us up from where we were standing at the end of Drive, moved us a couple windows over, and showed us the same thing, using our knowledge of narrative convention to show how heroism and horror are a matter of perspective.


Movie Time: Contagion

Friday, January 11th, 2013

On a whim I started watching Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 viral-epidemic disaster film Contagion at midnight last night. I can’t say that’s a great idea: It kept me up way past my bedtime, and when you’re a tired father pretty much the last thing you want to see when staying up past your bedtime is the grayfaced corpse of a little boy in his pajamas, which is something you see within this film’s first, I don’t know, ten minutes. Keep repeating, “It’s only a movie…it’s only a movie…”

It’s very much a movie, in fact, a nice little disaster picture of modest ambition and tight execution. The Soderberghian excesses that Traffic trained me to look for were there: fathers freaking out about their blonde daughters risking their health by having sex, technocrats discovering their souls when It Happens To Them, sentimentalized poors, overscoring. But Soderbergh’s primary ambition is twofold: to make a movie out of that amazing chapter in The Stand that follows the virus from hand to hand and object to object across the country, and then to pull the world back from the brink of apocalypse. I admire a movie that has such specific goals and trims away so much fat in their pursuit.

Soderbergh uses his repertory company of very famous actors to strong effect, killing some pretty blondes for that Psycho effect and thus training us to wait for the deaths of all the main characters, many of which then fail to come. He leaves a lot of loose ends like that: one character collates interviews for a report we never see, another exits safety for danger and we never see that what happens when they arrive, another takes a grave but secret personal risk and we never know if they pay for it. There’s a portentous off-screen character we never meet, there’s a sweet and sappy resolution for a young character the architect of which never gets to witness, there’s a Devlin MacGregor-style megacorporation dog that doesn’t really ever bite, and on and on. The handoffs between storylines happen so quickly and are edited with such aplomb that the loose ends feel like deliberate signal-sending: This isn’t where the story ends, it’s just where it stops. By looping back to the very very beginning in the film’s final scene, Contagion even not-so-subtly suggests that it could start again at any moment. Thus the grim watch-the-car-crash catharsis of a good apocalypse flick and the triumph-over-nature catharsis of a good disaster flick are welded together inseparably, leaving you turning the thing over and over in your mind, trying to find the right angle to determine what it is you just watched. It’s a neat little trick in a neat little movie.


Skyfall thoughts

Tuesday, November 20th, 2012

Hey, I went to the movies! Second time this year! I miss it.

* Skyfall was good. I enjoyed it. I don’t understand the contention that it’s the best Bond movie ever. I’ve seen very few Bond movies but I can tell you that I enjoyed GoldenEye and Casino Royale and very probably Quantum of Solace more at the times I saw them in the theater than I enjoyed Skyfall yesterday.

* It reminded me an awful lot of the experience of watching The Avengers, which was the last time I actually went to a movie theater and bought a ticket and watched a movie, in that it was a good time overall with strong action sequences punctuating long boring stretches. Now, Skyfall‘s long boring stretches weren’t nearly as long or as boring as The Avengers. This movie’s non-battle character interactions were actually capable of making me laugh more than twice, and it was more accomplished as filmmaking on nearly every conceivable level, up to and including simply giving you lovely things to look at as often as it could, even when what was going on was otherwise a bit on the dull side, so in fact “boring” may be overstating the case. But yes, same overall pattern.

* The dullness was particularly dull in the long first third of the movie, following the opening sequence in which Bond appears to have fallen to his death. Since it’s unlikely that the rest of the film was going to play out in flashback, we knew he was still alive; since it’s a James Bond movie, we knew he’d be back on the job. Everything that led up to his resurrection and reinstatement, therefore, was just playing out the clock. You can get away with an awful lot when you have a set of strong, visually magnetic actors being all authoritative at one another, but that’s only papering over the lack of dramatic drive during this section.

* Kind of felt like a James Bond-fronted Christopher Nolan Batman movie cover band, didn’t? Numerous plot points and even specific mechanics and images were ported nearly wholesale from The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises. I don’t know enough about the film’s production history to tell if this was deliberate or a coincidence, and frankly don’t care enough to go look it up, but man was it striking. Javier Bardem playing the Joker made it all the more so. So did the identical “he let himself be captured” scenes, the calm supervillain in the isolated jail cell, two students of the same master, etc etc etc.

* What was up with the Evil Homosexual vibes from Silva in that one scene, by the way? I almost couldn’t believe my ears and eyes, it was so flagrant and anachronistic. Sure, it gave the movie a chance to imply that Bond has had homosexual experiences too, but that’s not really enough, is it. Also hinky: We’re not to think any less of M for handing Silva over to be tortured to death. It’s on him for not understanding!

* I’ve spent a lot of time giving everything from the Nolan Batman movies to Homeland the business for their ludicrous plot holes, so I’d like to point out to everyone that I’m not going to say a word about any of that here. The reason why is because this is a James Bond movie, and even if it’s in the more serious Daniel Craig mode, and even if fancy-pants director Sam Mendes is in charge, no one here has any delusions about what that means. Contrast it with Homeland, allegedly conceived as a sort of penance for its creators’ stint writing terrorists as supervillains and torturers as hard-man heroes on 24 yet increasingly driven by supervillainy and soap-operatic sloppiness itself; or with Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, which despite the marvelous villain performances and skyline photography in its final two installments spent so much time cultivating itself as an “adult” take on the superhero genre that it did nothing to enrich its inch-deep dorm-room philosophizing and a titular protagonist who’s frequently incidental to the advancement and resolution of the action. Live by Serious Business, die by Serious Business. This movie never did, to its great credit, and so there’s no need to put the boot in for how all of Silva’s fake/rogue cops know exactly which subway station he’ll be fleeing into and out of at every moment.

* What a pretty, painterly film! Again, the fact that it’s a James Bond movie cuts against the pretension of, say, having not one but two explicit homages to Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. I haven’t seen a Sam Mendes film in a long long time, deliberately, but I must say I’m impressed by his use of all those lovely lovely rectangles of imagery. Bond overlooking the London skyline, the Romantic/Byronic Wanderer in the urban wilderness. Bond bound, his back to us, framed by row upon row of jerry-rigged computer mainframes. Bond in the mouth of the dragon. The Bond Girl forced to live out the William Tell routine against a backdrop of crumbled totalitarian sculpture. Fighting in silhouette against a backdrop of LED signage. You never knew what the next juicy morsel of eye candy would be, and that helped propel you through the slow spots. The use of silhouettes in particular also helped compensate for what I assume was Mendes’s inexperience in shooting action, not that you’d necessarily know it from watching the shootout in the hearing room or the opening motorcycle chase or the showdown at Skyfall.

* Komodo dragons! I love love love that they didn’t limit Bond’s “you gotta be kidding me” look to a single shot — he kept looking at the thing incredulously for several seconds, even when busy getting flipped upside-down by his opponent.

* Ben Whishaw as Q: They’re casting roles in blockbuster franchises directly for Tumblr at this point, aren’t they?

* Extremely good-looking people are almost like aliens. Daniel Craig as Bond is one of the most iconic examples of ugly-pretty’s male division since Jagger; the man wears a suit impossibly well, and hell, the movie was basically built around how he looks much older than he is. Clever of them to leave that just-graying stubble intact for so much of the movie as well. And Berenice Marlohe as his ill-fated entry point into Silva’s world — when they’re having that conversation in the casino, her features were so perfectly, oddly symmetrical and striking she seemed like a special effect. Which of course is how Bond Girls are employed, historically, but seeing the two of them together like that really brought it home.

* Her beauty is less unusual or otherworldly, but I also thought this was the best I’ve ever seen Naomie Harris look. Making Moneypenny a genuine peer of Bond’s does a lot to right the ship.

* I didn’t feel at all cheated by the climactic battle sequence, which is almost unheard of in the major franchises these days. With the possible exception of the out-of-nowhere sudden paramount importance of Bond’s gamekeeper, which I didn’t mind because it was Albert Finney with a beard and a shotgun, everything was properly weighted from a dramatic perspective as well as cohesive and coherent and intelligible as action. Nice work, gang.

* Silva pretty much won, right? He killed M. He died not knowing it, though, and I suppose that’s what matters.

* How nice to watch a big action movie in which details of framing, editing, and sound design matter. Proper superspy storytelling requires its leads to be aware of the people on their periphery, the sounds beneath the sounds, the corner you’ll turn two corners from now; proper superspy filmmaking requires the same, and the deft touch necessary to nudge the audience in the direction its characters are headed, just a couple paces behind. Simple things like Bond asking Séverine about her “friends,” and then oh look, a couple of goons are standing out-of-focus over her shoulder in the distance — so deeply pleasurable to me. Bond is nothing if not a cinema of pleasure.

* PS: This is as good an excuse as any to direct you to my review of the three Matt Damon Bourne movies and the previous two Daniel Craig Bond movies, probably my single favorite piece of film writing I’ve done for this blog. Hope you dig it.