Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cloud Atlas


What is the point of a movie like Cloud Atlas? This is a question that will echo through my mind in the coming weeks as I think back on it. Right now today, I'd say that the point of a movie like this is to shame other filmmakers for their lack of ambition and insistence on giving us the same ole shit. Not a film for people who don't pay attention, or those uninterested in thought provoking art, Cloud Atlas is a movie for those of us that thirst for greatness. This is one of the great movies ever made.

To give a plot synopsis is futile. Writer/directors Andy Wachowski, Lana Wachowski, and Tom Tykwer weave together six or seven different plot lines from across hundreds of years and many locations. It was adapted from the 2004 novel by David Mitchell, unread by me. If the novel is anything like the movie, I would've thought it completely unfilmable. What Tykwer and the Wachowski's have done, however, is extraordinary work on every conceivable level. The movie has wonderful and distinct looks across all of its stories, which also takes many recognizable faces and reincarnate them across the stories. Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jim Sturgess, Susan Sarandon, Ben Whishaw, and many others appear across many, if not all, of the stories. Korean actress Doona Bae was my favorite, although everyone is flawless in their roles, stepping up their game since the filmmakers were setting such an ambitious bar. Also obscenely amazing make-up allows the actors to jump not only through the timelines to play their differing characters, but also jump through ages, races, and even genders.

Unsurprisingly, with what I've just said, Tykwer and the Wachowski's were unable to get any studio financing for the project. Ultimately they raised a little over $100 million independently to make the movie. I wouldn't have been surprised if you'd told me the budget was $400 million. It's expert filmmaking through and through, making more of its budget than any movie in recent memory.
Ultimately, Cloud Atlas takes on themes of love, kindness, friendship, and human decency. Actions ripple across time and space and give us the sense that no persons life is without meaning or influence, even if we don't feel it while we're alive. It's a life affirming movie of the highest order. It's also the type of movie that comes along not very often that affirms the great power of cinema. I think the filmmakers were laying down the challenge to all other artists to push themselves into greatness. Although I've not been a fan of their previous work, this film is exhilarating and enriching. I'm sure I'll be writing about it again as my thoughts develop.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

End of Watch

Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena in End of Watch create one of the realest relationships that I've ever seen on screen. The actors spent 5 months together and on ride alongs with real LAPD cops in preparation for their roles as street cops Brian Taylor and Miguel Zavala. They feel like partners, annoying each other and throwing racial insults at one another, but with an indefinable and infallible brotherly love. As they stumble from car chases to burning buildings to drug cartel dangers to their wives/girlfriends (Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who are both terrific) these two are partners. They're almost not even individual people, it doesn't feel natural when only one is on the screen, they need to go together in a way I've not seen in any other cop movie.
The plot follows the partners as Taylor shoots from a handheld camera for an elective film class he's taking while going to law school. He gets tiny cameras to put on he and Zavala's uniforms so that he can make his documentary. Writer/director David Ayer shoots most of the movie this way, but he doesn't completely commit to it, thankfully. So we get many shots that aren't pov from the cops cameras, but Ayer shoots everything hand held so we still get that feeling. It works better than I would've anticipated, and I think it's because he rarely resorts to shaky cam, which has sadly become synonymous with "hand held" over the last few years. It's a terrifically shot and edited movie. 



End of Watch's plot is nothing new really, but the characters are what brings it alive. It's sometimes brutal, always vulgar (allegedly the 6th most curse words in cinema history, in a movie under 2 hours long), but always fascinating and exciting. Gyllenhaal and Pena can't get praise enough for their work. These guys feel like real cops, not movie cops. That realism hits hard because it points out how fake every other movie cop feels. They feel like types or like characters and not like real people. Taylor and Zavala felt real, and I loved the journey they took us on in their movie, one of the best of 2012 that I'm sad I didn't catch up to sooner.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Only God Forgives


Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive starred Ryan Gosling in a critical and commercial success for the both of them. Their follow up, Only God Forgives, sees Gosling try to be the first person to ever star in a movie without actually giving a performance. His character, Julian, has a reputed 17 lines of dialog in the movie, but neither they nor anything else Gosling or Refn does cares to make a character for us. Sadly, he's not the only one, as there really are no characters in this mercifully only 90 minute movie. There are only sketches. Sketches of characters, sketches of ideas, sketches of originality. As a director, Refn films the movie like the love child of Stanley Kubrick and David Lynch, with a bit of Gaspar Noe, and more than once I noticed him aping Kurosawa's love of 90 degree edits.

Sumptuously filmed, but ultimately as deep as a kids swimming pool, Only God Forgives wasn't agonizing to sit through. At one point Julian's mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) tells him "You're right, I don't understand you. And I never will." We often feel the same way. I left many scenes thinking "What was the point of that?" What was the point of the countless dolly in close ups? What was the point of the karaoke scenes? What was the point of the bare knuckled fight? What was the point of any of it? The movie leaves no lasting impact other than that question.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Wind Rises

Japan has given the world a lot of great filmmaking, including Akira Kurosawa, my favorite filmmaker. But one of their greatest exports is animation master Hayao Miyazaki, whom I've written about numerous times on this blog. Miyazaki's work is always gorgeous to look at, often emotionally affecting, and typically with a moral message but rarely didactically so. The Wind Rises, which everyone is calling his final movie (I'll believe it when he dies, he's been saying his current movie was his last one for 15 years), has at its center one of Miyazaki's best characters, Jiro Horikoshi. Jiro is an aeronautical engineer, eventually designing the famous Zero airplane Japan used during WWII. Flying has always been at the forefront of Miyazaki's work, often giving us awe inspiring set pieces or even just small moments in the sky. The Wind Rises has those in spades, and if it IS the master's final work, he went out on a good one.

Jiro Horikoshi was a real man, and really did design planes like those shown in the movie, but this is a fictionalized account of his life. We follow Jiro as he finishes school, starts work at an engineering firm and is eventually sent all over the world to study from others. He also meets a girl and falls in love. Though her tuberculosis makes their love seemed doomed from the start, Jiro doesn't care, he just wants to be with her. Much is made in the movie of what is right and wrong, what is worth fighting for and what isn't. Jiro hates war and fighting, he just wants to make airplanes because they "are beautiful dreams".

Jiro gets laughed at when trying to reduce the weight of a plane and he says he thought about taking out the guns. Everyone thinks he's making a joke, but I thought he wasn't, he was almost remarking on how disappointing it is that he has to shoehorn disgusting guns into his beautiful plane. A character in his dreams once asks him  "Do you prefer a world with pyramids, or with no pyramids?". Essentially saying that even though his beautiful designs will be made into death machines by the military, would he rather live in a world without beautiful things? This fits into Jiro's feelings on his love life, and he ultimately decides he would rather have beautiful planes and beautiful love, even if those things might not last.

It's a wonderful movie, one with impressive set pieces like recreating the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, and the resulting carnage as buildings fall, fires blaze, and black smoke darkens the sky. Mother Nature sullies her beautiful things with death sometimes too. Surprising, being a movie about a plane designer, but I didn't feel the joyous freedom of flight that I felt while watching Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (still Miyazaki's greatest work) or Porco Rosso. Maybe because Jiro is more concerned with the plane itself rather than the act of flying. Still there are terrific scenes of flight, just maybe nothing as transcendent as I hoped.

Perhaps the biggest story surrounding the movie has been many journalists anger at a likable protagonist being made of a man who designed planes that killed many Allied soldiers in WWII with no condemnation from Miyazaki. These people, like most controversy pushers, must have not watched the movie I watched. Throughout the movie, Jiro and his best friend and fellow engineer Honjo constantly talk about how backwards Japan is, how poor it is, how they won't win the war. These guys are just engineers, not war mongerers, they deserve no condemnation in my book. Hell, Miyazaki even creates a German man (voiced by Werner Herzog in the English dub, I had a "holy shit, Herzog in a Miyazaki movie is the best thing that's happened to me in 2014" moment when I heard his voice) to tell Jiro that "Japan will burn. Germany will burn too" to beat home the point that war is nasty and ruins its country and people. You can even tell how much relish Herzog has in spitting out his anti-Nazi lines.

Why some have tried to dampen this beautiful movie with controversy is beyond me. It may be often slow moving, but it's gorgeous and wonderful and a fitting end to Miyazaki's extraordinary career if this indeed his curtain call. Personally, I really hope he's coming back for an encore soon.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Brazil


Terry Gilliam's The 1984 Life of Walter Mitty (okay the actual title is Brazil, but the title I made up is much more descriptive) is a slog and a half to sit through. Gilliam is a talented filmmaker with a distinct vision, but his cluttered, caricatured universes don't appeal to me. I've been meaning to revisit this movie, typically considered his masterpiece, ever since I loved his The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, but only got around to it now. I now remember why I'd been so hesitant.

The movie concerns Sam (Jonathan Pryce, doing his damnedest to make something of the role) a low level bureaucrat in an undisclosed future who frequently dreams of grand things like being the hero saving the girl, or fighting a giant samurai or whatever. He gets mixed up in a blah blah blah, who cares? Gilliam sure as hell doesn't. There are people who today, nearly 30 years after the movie came out, couldn't describe the plot. I think a big reason is that Gilliam doesn't give a shit about it, so why should we? Gilliam cares only of giving us cool things to look at.

Visually astounding, the many creations in the production design of the world have certainly dated to 2014 eyes, but Gilliam's vision was so singular that it doesn't really matter because he'd created an entire new world anyway. The dream sequences are all terrifically filmed. I don't know what the budget for the movie was, but it looks like it was considerable. The problem is that Gilliam's characters and the situations he puts them in are all too arch, too exaggerated, too much like a caricature of what a story looks like that it's simply impossible for me to be able to sit through 2 1/2 hours of it an have a good time.

The movie is dark and depressing and stunning to look at, but Robert De Niro (in his 3.6 seconds of screen time) was the only actor to bring any life to the party. I was continually impressed by the sets and SFX, but I also continually didn't care about them. Gilliam didn't create anything that means anything. He created things that look cool, and he tries satirizing the inane bureaucracy surrounding government, but he doesn't really have anything smart to say about it other than "it sucks, and government sucks for having it", the same with the beauty obsession in this (and our) world. "It sucks" is about all Gilliam has to say, but he tries also distracting us with impressive and often grotesque visuals. It's not enough for me.

Jeremiah Johnson


Sydney Pollack's epic mountain man tale Jeremiah Johnson wouldn't work as well without the tremendous lead performance from Robert Redford and the stunning landscapes of Redford's adopted home state of Utah. We don't know anything about Jeremiah's backstory other than the opening narration telling us he wanted to be a mountain man, trapping and hunting bear, beaver, elk, and whatever else he can sell for profit while not having to live in the hustle and bustle of the city. But Redford tells us a lot in his performance, shows us in very little dialog that Jeremiah simply wasn't a modern man. He needed to be with nature, to be alone, to work and live off the land and all it provides. It's a stunning performance, easily the pinnacle of Redford's distinguished career.

Jeremiah meets many folks along the way of his journey, a bear trapper who teaches him a lot about how to survive in the bitter colds of the mountains, a talkative scoundrel who gets him in good with a few Indians (and not so good with others), an adopted mute son, and eventually an Indian wife. One moment that struck me was when a US Cavalry unit is sent on a rescue mission and comes to ask Jeremiah if he'll help lead them through the mountains. He begins laughing and when the Lieutenant says he doesn't get the joke, Jeremiah simply says it's been so long since he's heard that much of the English language it's funny to him and he's not used to it. Being with a wife and son who don't speak English, and spending so much time alone, the simple concept of having a language you understand sound funny because it's been so long since you've heard it really connected to me the isolation of this character and performance.

What I'd remembered most from my viewing of the movie as a kid was the seemingly endless snow that Jeremiah has to navigate. In this viewing, while the snow is endless, Pollack shows us many sides of Utah's land, the snowy mountains, the desert-y basins, the green forests. It's a wonderful movie to look at and really gives a sense visually of time passing, and land being traversed. Pollack has said that since there wasn't a through line of narrative, that the movie had to depend on the mood and rhythms of the storytelling, and I think he was greatly helped by the land itself in that regard.

There's action, love, humor, and a wonderful lead performance. It's an epic that is just shy of 2 hours, proving again that "epic" doesn't mean "ass bustingly long running time". It's a "western" that's not set in the wild west we normally think of. It's also a movie I loved wholeheartedly and will definitely be going on my list of favorite movies of the 70's, maybe our greatest decade of filmmaking.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

House of Cards


I finished season 2 of the Netflix series House of Cards last night and I feel confident in saying that it's one of the best shows on "TV". Where they go from here I can only imagine, and we'll have to wait another year or more before season 3 premieres, but House of Cards is undeniably going to go down as a landmark show in entertainment history, and a creative solidifier for Netflix as a rival to HBO as the go to place for adult TV.

Adapted from both the British novel and BBC series House of Cards, the US version is the first production from Netflix (the previously streamed show Lillyhammer was produced independently and only distributed by the company) and they got heavy hitters like David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth behind the scenes, with Spacey taking on the lead role in front of the camera, and playwright and screenwriter Beau Willimon as show runner. Netflix's research showed that the previous format of "Appointment TV", wherein each episode of a show created talking points for people to gather around the water cooler to discuss while they waited for next week's episode, was not necessarily what people actually wanted. Viewing trends showed that people liked spending an entire weekend watching a season of Breaking Bad or Lost or even comedies like 30 Rock or How I Met Your Mother. Netflix decided their model would be to release an entire seasons worth of episodes on the same day. So on February 1st 2013, season 1 appeared to great acclaim and viewership. On February 14th 2014, season 2 "premiered" to the same. Research even showed that more than 600,000 people binge watched the entire second season over Valentine's Day weekend.


Spacey's role as Congressman Frank Underwood is the role of a lifetime for him. Underwood is pragmatic, cold, and calculating, but with a southern boy's charm and snake oil salesmanship. Spacey's tendency to seem arrogant or smug fits perfectly the role and he's better in it than he's been in anything before. As his equally (or maybe even more) cold wife Claire, Robin Wright has not a speck of Princess Buttercup in her anymore. Frank says in the first episode "I love that woman. I love her more than sharks love blood" and I think the choice of comparison is telling with these characters. He didn't say "more than kids love candy" or "plants love sunshine". Along the way of the two seasons we also get a cavalcade of great characters ranging from Kate Mara's nosy and ethically bendable reporter Zoe Barnes, to Corey Stoll's recovering alcoholic Congressman Peter Russo, lobbyist and former Frank Underwood employee Remy Danton played to perfection by Mahershala Ali, Michael Kelly as Underwood chief of staff Doug Stamper, and a wonderful Gerald McRaney as billionaire businessman Raymond Tusk, with whom Frank has a developingly antagonistic relationship (as tends to be a theme with Frank).

Every actor is terrific in their role, and the writing is wonderfully character based. Oftentimes, plots that would've been made into huge stories in other shows are glossed over here for how they affect relationships and the characters themselves. For example, in season 2 Molly Parker's Army veteran Congresswoman Jackie Sharp is being groomed by Frank to take over his spot as House Majority Whip after Frank got a new position at the end of S1. Frank is confident he can get her confirmed in congress, while she isn't as sure. Instead of a season long or even multi-episode long arc where we see them fight to get Jackie the position, the show simply cuts during an episode onto Capitol Hill where we see outside an office door "Office of House Majority Whip Jacqueline Sharp", because the show is more interested in what that title and power means to her in her life and in her relationship to Frank than it is in giving us a storyline of "will she be confirmed or won't she" and padding out the runtime or episode count of the season.
And that's how I think the show can survive beyond the two seasons that were initially planned (season 3 was recently confirmed, and then delayed while awaiting tax breaks from the state of Maryland) because it's not about the plot, it's about the people. Each character has their own motivations and quirks, which affects how they handle other characters and their motivations. The characters don't all talk the same, I found myself really enjoying the more flowery language given to Spacey, and the actors help them all feel like real people. It's a terrific show on every level, but I'd caution people that it may take two or three episodes to get hooked. They had the two seasons entirely mapped out and ordered from the studio, so they didn't have to worry about grabbing you in the first episode to make sure you come back next week. It was after the second episode for me that I found myself hooked. Now I'm kinda pissed I have to wait until next February or after (depending on how far back the production delay sets them) to see these people again.