Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Refreshingly Ambiguous Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year follows the story of Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), a principled, up-and-coming businessman trying to succeed while maintaining his honor at a time when New York was overrun by dishonorable criminals. His wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) has vague family ties to the mafia (much of the characters' pasts are left in the background but still made palpable), and all around them are hurdles and roadblocks which would be easier to surpass if they gave in to corruption. A lawyer determined to take them down. A faceless mob determined to destroy them if they won't kneel. And at its heart, a man and woman who want nothing more than to live on their own terms.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

John Wick Places Choreography Over Narrative

John Wick does everything I want an action movie to do visually. It lets its choreography shine by not over-editing its fights into an incoherent mess, and at 100 minutes it never overstays its welcome. This emerges from the same school of filmmaking as The Raid and represents all the most promising trends in the action genre. Here the film even ups the ante by doing some world building (characters have pre-established, almost mythological relationships, and they interact with a clear set of symbols like the gold coins and the Continental hotel), and by playing with its color palette and saturation to reflect Wick's emotions (flat black and white for his grief in the beginning; vibrant reds and blues for his enjoyment once he returns to "work"). If I had to pick a direction for action movies to go, this would be it.

Theory Stays Away from Everything, Embraces Romance

Plug A Beautiful Mind back into the historical biopic generator with The King's Speech and you get The Theory of Everything, the story of legendary theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. But while it is by no means a fresh take on the genre—it's the same tale of human exceptionality we've already heard numerous times this year alone—the performances from its cast give it a charm and vitality which helps it stand apart (slightly) from the crowd. This time of year it's easy to be cynical and cry Oscar-bait at every opportunity, but The Theory of Everything manages to be heartwarming in spite of its derivative "prestige product" storytelling.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Big Hero 6 Brings Fresh Comedy to Stale Formulas

Big Hero 6 has an absolutely wonderful sense of humor, and it's hard to overstate the importance of that in a genre which is growing more and more stale by the minute (it's an obvious combination of the Disney and Marvel blueprints). And the best part is not only that it's funny, but that it's funny in so many ways. It uses all the tools at its disposal to get jokes across—visuals (try and tell me the way Baymax walks doesn't remind you of Charlie Chaplin), sound (the scene where Baymax is taping up the holes in his arms), script ("There are no red lights during car chases!")—and it's not even primarily a comedy.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Oscar Season 2015: Discussion and Breakdown

So, the Oscar nominations were announced. In fact, they were announced several days ago, making them decidedly old news at this point. Oscar season brings out the worst in me. It turns me into a cynical, whiny brat, because it could be this great celebration of American film, but it's not. It's the same thing every year: another collection of tales of human exceptionality. One Man Facing Unspeakable Odds. Rewarding movies which have all the depth of Captain America but are considered "real movies" because they feature an abundance of actors shouting and/or crying. Reappropriating our love of strong leaders without considering what they might entail. It's everything wrong with Hollywood.

But as much as I wish the Oscars were different, I can't seem to give them up. They're one of the few times each year where it becomes acceptable to be obsessed with cinema. And even if they don't come close to representing the most impressive or important movies of the year, they're a fun game to play. You pick your favorites and you shout at the TV when Crash wins Best Picture. So without anymore pointless caveats, here's my take on the 2015 Oscar nominations.

Incestuous Sexual Satire in Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars is a satire of Hollywood nepotism which takes director David Cronenberg's signature Freudian sexual politics and turns it into a message about how the film industry is in love with itself.

Inherent Vice Simplified: 200 Words or Less

"As long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel could always be sure of a bottomless pool of new customers."

A drug-fueled crime comedy with the added thematic complexity of that rare director who works well with the details of actors' performances while keeping in mind the bigger picture of the film. An all-star ensemble pushed to their peaks by a restrained camera that would rather hold on a long, slow zoom than constantly edit itself into oblivion. An effortless 70's vibe with an uproarious sense of humor that emerges naturally from the characters rather than staging artificial gags. A purposefully convoluted story about a stoner with fading memory which leaves us wondering what our lives mean when we spend so much time asking questions and when any answers we might find will eventually be forgotten.

Confronting the Controversial American Sniper

American Sniper is Clint Eastwood's war film about real life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), a figure who has recently stirred up controversy responding primarily to his 160+ confirmed kills. To some, he's a patriot; to others, a murderer. But there's a more important question to be asked first: does the film endorse him? He's built from a problematic blend of violent machismo and egotistical patriotism, and many viewers have come away from the film disliking him. But just like last year's Wolf of Wall Street, rejecting the film based on an aversion to its protagonist misses the point. There are plenty of problems with American Sniper, but the controversial way it presents Chris Kyle is not one of them. For me, that's its greatest strength.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Intimidating Masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey

Ever since I started writing about film, nothing has scared me more than the idea of trying to write about 2001: A Space Odyssey. The fact that everything has "already been said" about this masterpiece has itself already been said so many times that there's not even an original means of expressing my lack of originality. So with the knowledge that I will probably never be able to fully encapsulate what makes this my favorite movie of all time—let alone say something truly unique about it—here is a small list of a few things I love about it.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Finding Nicky: A Local Low-Budget Indie Gem

Nicky is a stylish short thriller from local Massachusetts director Dom Portalla, and like The Darkness Within before it, it showcases his talent for filmmaking with almost nonexistent funding. There's no getting around the fact that he made this film for less than 1% of the average Hollywood budget, but he uses all the tools available to great effect. He crafts this story about a missing child as a taut psychological thriller rather than a formulaic personal drama, expertly feeding us enough information to keep us hooked while keeping enough in the dark to maintain suspense and mystery.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Walk Among the Tombstones Stumbles onto the Screen

A Walk Among the Tombstones is ostensibly a crime drama/thriller about a private detective searching for two kidnappers, but it succeeds at generating neither drama nor thrills. It is a messy and misjudged collection of recycled cliches and empty red herrings centered around Liam Neeson's standard retired/alcoholic blank slate.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Trouble of Adapting Your Own Material in The Drop

The Drop is an atmospheric crime drama worth watching for Tom Hardy's performance alone. The story doesn't seem to really know what it wants to be, but he plays his character perfectly. He manages to look good next to James Gandolfini doing what James Gandolfini does best. He's very quiet and keeps to himself, but you can tell there's something volatile beneath the surface, some remnants of a troubled past. This is hinted at gradually though his mannerisms (as well as through some of the lighting), so that when the movie reaches its climax, it earns its sudden power.

The General: Combining Action & Comedy

Part 2 of my Back to Work Recovery silent comedy double feature

The General is only my second outing with Buster Keaton, but it's easy to see why he's such an enduring figure of the silent era. He's a master of integrating action and comedy into the same scenes*. His stunts are some of the most impressive of all time (jumping around a moving train), made all the more magnificent because the star of the show is also the stunt double (something which was perhaps easier before the advent of sound). But these sequences aren't just spectacular or exciting, they can also be hilarious. Like Chaplin, Keaton establishes himself early on as an underdog so that we root for him and rejoice in his successes. We put ourselves in his shoes, and that makes the laughter all the more genuine when he makes a fool of himself.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Chaplin's Quiet Genius in The Gold Rush

Nothing makes me laugh quite like silent comedies, so after a difficult week back at the grindstone after the holidays I decided it was time for a Back To Work Recovery double feature with two movies I've been looking forward to for quite a while: Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush and Buster Keaton's The General.

The Gold Rush is a film I tried to watch previously, but I could only get my hands on the 1942 re-issue with Chaplin's mood-ruining narration in the background (don't bother with this version of the film, it's not worth it). I recently managed to acquire a copy of the Criterion restoration of the original, which looks remarkably good considering they put a disclaimer at the beginning saying the various sources they had to piece together vary "drastically" (they don't).

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Liam Neeson's Non-Stop Action Hero Career Continues

Non-Stop is Taken on a Plane. There are two things going on in it, one which basically works and one which does not.

Learning to Turn Alienation into Pride

"When you're in a battle against an enemy so much bigger, so much stronger than you, to find out you had a friend you never knew existed, well, that's the best feeling in the world."

Pride (2014) is an unapologetically cheery and thoroughly heartwarming tale of solidarity in the face of social injustice and alienation. It's a story of dissimilar people coming together to share similar life experiences.

Frank: Where Does Art Come From?

Frank tells the real-life story of Frank Sidebottom, a late-80's, early-90's musical comedy icon. Through its story, it investigates the relationship between trauma and art, and asks where creative inspiration comes from. For someone trying to do something at least mildly creative with his life, there were times where it felt like it was speaking directly to my personal experience. Its story reaches for something real in the nature of art.

Nightcrawler: The Temptation of the Image

More Alternative Posters

Since its release, I've seen a variety of reviews which understand Nightcrawler as a critique of crime journalism. I think we can take this reading one step further: Nightcrawler interrogates our consumption not only of news media, but of images in general. It examines the hyper-realism our lives take on when they begin to revolve not around our own experiences but around images of those experiences.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Days of Heaven's War in the Heart of Nature

"Nobody's perfect. There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you."

"I've been thinking what to do with my future. I could be a mud doctor. Checking out the earth. Underneath."

Terrence Malick's central cinematic concern is the search for pure nature outside society, for humanity without it's inhumanity; but this is a search that he believes will always ultimately fail. There is no pure nature outside of humanity's corrupting influence. He developed this conflict through his study of Heideggar, whose idea that there is "no cosmic power, only action of hands upon the world" would profoundly influence his thinking. This theme that nature is fundamentally torn from itself is perhaps most clearly expressed in Edward Train's voice-over soliloquies of The Thin Red Line ("What's this war in the heart of nature?"), but it finds its simplest and most concise formation in Days of Heaven.

Underneath the Earth of The Tree of Life

Talking about The Tree of Life is almost impossible without immediately descending into the realm of subjective opinion. It is so uniquely idiosyncratic that you can't compare it to anything else in objective terms. I could tell you that I think it's one of the greatest films ever made, but for somebody already skeptical of critical objectivity I have no way to back up that claim. I know there are many people who hate it, and they're not wrong to do so. I have no cards to play; there's nothing for me to do but tip my hand.

I loved it.

Monday, January 5, 2015

The Babadook's Revitalization of the Horror Genre

"If it's in a word or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook."

The horror genre has had a hard time finding its footing recently. Theaters have been packed with flops and failures relying too heavily on jump scares, but since these movies are so easy to produce there's no incentive to change practice. In comes Australian filmmaker Jennifer Kent with The Babadook, a film which is more psychological thriller than traditional horror—although its roots in classics like The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby are clear from beginning to end. It utilizes strategic editing and sound design to create a thick atmosphere and constant sense of dread instead of sticking to the crutch of loud noises and cheap tricks (strickly speaking, the movie isn't exactly "scary" as the Babadook itself makes fairly few appearances). Its sense of existential anguish is slightly overbearing at times, but its restraint, intelligence, and power are all things Hollywood could learn from.

Damien Chazelle Gives Hollywood a Case of Cinematic Whiplash

"There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'good job'."

The obvious temptation with Whiplash is to either tear it to shreds on its own principle that criticism makes you stronger, or to (ironically) praise it, thereby spelling the director's doom. The central question of the film revolves around the cost of success, asking whether genius can be achieved without sacrifice and perseverance (and what your life is worth if you have neither).

The Imitation Game Imitates Stale Biopic Formula

The Imitation Game is the based-on-a-true-story tale of Alan Turing, the inventor of the modern computer, and thus a man who has irreversibly changed the world. With such a fascinating subject, it's easy to get lost in the historical curiosities of this enigmatic man and miss the fact that what's actually on screen is a fairly dull and safe biopic.

How Peter Jackson Lost his Battle with The Hobbit

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is a tale about the price of greed in the third part of a bloated trilogy stretching a single short book into three long movies. The irony is palpable. Even if director Peter Jackson isn't greedy for the profits brought in at the box office, he's undeniably greedy for more Middle Earth, and his punishment is the death of any artistry he might have previous wielded.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Top 10 Films of 2014

2014 is behind us now, and you know what that means: obligatory top 10 lists! Let's just be honest, the only reason anybody writes these things is to boost traffic, and the fact is that there's no way to accurately judge a year's worth of film in a year's worth of time. Even if you could see every important film released in your country, there are international releases that won't be available until next year; and even if you could see all those, there's simply not enough time to digest that much material completely. Opinions shift. Your friend points out something you didn't notice and it ruins the rest of the movie for you. You notice something you didn't see before and it makes the rest of it better. Only 5 entries in the top 10 I wrote last year are still in it today, and except for Side Effects they're all in different places. Anyway, you get the point, and chances are you haven't read this far into a paragraph when there's a more easily consumable list right below it, so I'll just get to the good stuff. With the caveat that I still have a lot left to watch, here are my top 10 favorite movies released in 2014 so far (full updated list).