Thursday, December 4, 2014

Margaret

Kenneth Lonergan's Margaret is a fascinating movie. The director's cut that I watched was just over 3 hours with credits, and I wasn't bored for a single minute of the movie. It contains an all star cast (Mark Ruffalo, Matthew Broderick, Matt Damon, Allison Janney) led by Anna Paquin's Oscar robbed lead performance as Lisa, a teenager in NYC who witnesses a tragedy within the opening minutes of the movie that sets the stage for everything that happens after. It's really a remarkable movie, but why didn't I love it? It's a humanist epic with flawless acting, but the narrative was so messy and unfocused that I'm not sure I really felt anything by the end for Lisa other than relief that she was experiencing life and growing up.


A recount of the plot wouldn't do any service because there really isn't a plot through line to the movie outside of Lisa's quest to right the wrong of the opening tragedy. But that's maybe half the runtime, as the rest of it is devoted to her mom, Joan (Lonergan's wife, J. Smith-Cameron, who is brilliant in the role), an off-Broadway actress going through previews of her show while also developing a relationship with Ramon (Jean Reno). Lisa also goes through feelings for her good hearted friend Darren (John Gallagher, Jr.) and burnout Paul (Kieran Culkin) as well as her crush on her math teacher, Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon).


I'm gonna stop right there describing anything plot related because it could easily take up the whole page just describing what happens. But Lonergan isn't interested in a standard narrative film, so why treat it that way? The movie is told chronologically and not surrealistically or anything like that, it's just that Lonergan wants to spread things out and really get a sense of Lisa's life as she swings through her emotions (good, bad, and indifferent) and relationships. And it's here that he really lets Anna Paquin shine as she embodies each of those emotions and never makes Lisa feel like anything other than an intelligent teenage girl struggling to find her way in life and making many, many mistakes along that way. It's one of the great performances of the decade and should've swept every award show in 2011.


One complaint about the actors is that we know many of the names, but that doesn't correspond to their screen time. Allison Janney has one scene, Mark Ruffalo has about one and a half, I'm not sure why Matthew Broderick was cast in the small and unimportant role he was cast in, etc. It's not distracting like The Thin Red Line is when John Travolta, George Clooney, Adrien Brody, and others step on screen for a few seconds to distract us from the movie. So it's not a big complaint, but it's still there.


You might be thinking "isn't Anna Paquin in her 30's? Too old to believably play a high schooler." And you'd be right thinking that in 2014, or even 2011 when Margaret was released and Paquin was 29. But the movie was actually shot in 2005, when Paquin was just 23 playing high school age, much more acceptable. Lonergan had final cut, so the studio couldn't take the movie away from him and cut it themselves, but the director and the studio could never agree on a length of cut. It wasn't supposed to be longer than 150 minutes, so even when Lonergan's friend Martin Scorsese and his 3-time Oscar winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker came in to help out, their cut was 165 minutes, a cut Lonergan approved but the studio thought was still too long. Lawsuits ensued between the studio, filmmakers, financiers and probably more we haven't heard about.


Ultimately we got the movie in 2011, and I'm glad we did. While I'm not one of those many people saying it's one of the best films of the decade, it's well worth watching because it's so interesting and impeccably acted by the entire cast. And the more I think about it, sometimes movies like this that I don't think make a big impact on me, because of their lack of narrative, actually keep haunting me with their perfectly drawn characters and situations. Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart (ironically released the same year Margaret was shot) was a similar example that kept coming back to me as I thought about Margaret in that way. Anyway, if you even have a passing interest in seeing the movie, I'd encourage you to. You won't be disappointed.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Batman

Jesus, what a bore. I knew Burton didn't know how to shoot action, but it'd been so long since I'd seen this that I'd forgotten what garbage it is. Burton shoots in his usual static shots of everything, which to me give the movie a feeling of the world not existing beyond the frame of what's currently on screen. I felt this a little in Zack Snyder's devotion to the frame of the comics in Watchmen, but this is a whole other level of lack of vision. Also on Burton is the movies awful pacing, as Bruce Wayne isn't even seen until 20 minutes into the movie when every other major character, and many minor ones, have long been established. Even Batman himself has only been on screen for maybe 90 seconds at this point.

Nicholson's Joker is nothing menacing and his characterization is really just a gangster who laughs too much. I watched many of his villainous things like destroying the art museum, the clown gags and whatnot thinking "Why is this guy a villain? He's not remotely frightening. Batman is scarier, and that's not how this should be working." None of the character's humor is funny, and none of his bad deeds are scary. So what is the point of him? Hugo E. Blick, who plays the young Jack Napier in flashback, was much more menacing and interesting in his seconds of screentime.

Very few things come out of the movie unscathed. Michael Keaton certainly does, and I liked him even more now than I did then. His humor comes through in the same way Kevin Conroy's did in Batman: The Animated Series (which is what this movie wanted to be, but of course the series wouldn't exist without this movie) and is a big part of what makes him great. The design of the Batmobile is just sofa king cool. It really is awesome, and the Batplane is as well (though the cheesy ass part where he flies above the clouds just to make the Bat-symbol in the moon was cringingly bad). I liked Kim Basinger more than I expected to, seeing as I didn't remember her in the slightest going into it.

But mainly I put this movie's failings at the feet of Tim Burton and Jack Nicholson. I supposed the screenwriters as well, since they're the ones who wrote such an uninteresting villain into the main character of a Batman movie. Actually, come to think of it, a big part of it has to go to Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren as the writers, because Batman/Bruce Wayne only becomes the main character in the second half of the movie. Up until then, he's 4th lead behind Jack, Basinger, and for God knows what reason Robert Wuhl, who is simply awful. But still, with some directorial panache the movie could've been truly impressive. Sadly, Tim Burton is a production designer and animator that has never really figured it out as a real filmmaker.

Previously I'd rate this a 4/10 or so. But I'd lower it now to a 3/10. Not as bad as the truly unwatchable sequel, but not something I will probably ever revisit.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ashes and Diamonds

Andrzej Wajda's 1958 masterpiece Ashes and Diamonds was a really terrific time at the movies. It stars "The James Dean of Poland" Zbigniew Cybulski as Maciek, an assassin at the end of WWII tasked with taking out communist leaders in Poland, alongside his friend/mentor/superior officer Andrzej (Adam Pawlikowski). However, Maciek soon falls for the sexy barmaid Krystyna (Ewa Krzy┼╝ewska) at the hotel in which they are staying. The man they're supposed to kill is staying there too, and there are a lot of close calls as Maciek and Andrzej try to figure out how to assassinate this man, or if with all the killing done in the war if it is even worth it (in this way it's very much a precursor to Spielberg's brilliant Munich).


Shot like the noir films that had lost their popularity at the time, but with a realism in acting and setting that really grounds everything as much as possible. It's a beautiful movie to look at, one that Martin Scorsese has listed as one of his 10 favorites ever made. I would and will watch this masterpiece again over the years, as there really isn't a single weakness in it. It's a pretty perfect movie.

The Hourglass Sanitorium

Wojciech Jerzy Has' 1973 surreal opus The Hourglass Sanitorium is one of the few Polish movies I've seen. Despite my local Museum of Art hosting a series of 16 films Martin Scorsese selected as "Masterpieces of Polish Cinema", I've only been able to go see 2. I'd only previously known this movie by its odd and amazing poster. When I read more, it sounded intriguing even though I'm very hit and miss on surreal art. I must say that while this suffers from some of the drawbacks of all surreal films, it is one of the most beautifully shot and put together movies I've ever seen and one that I'd happily see again any time.


The "story" as much as one exists, is that of Joseph (Jan Nowicki) riding a train to visit his ailing father Jacob (Tadeusz Kondrat) in a sanitorium. From there we are led on a series of surreal adventures such as being arrested by soldiers for having a dream, confronting living plastic mannequins of historical figures, reliving childhood memories of many different things. All with Joseph leading us through, even through the childhood segments, the adult stands in for his younger self.


Unfortunately, like too many surrealist films, we're not given a base to go from for Joseph as a character, so we don't know why things are happening (sometimes what is happening at all), or what it means to anyone or anything. If they're not relative to the main character leading us through them, and the sequences are meant for the audience and not the character then what's the point of the character in the first place? Just string the segments together like a book of short stories (which is how this movie was adapted in the first place). Another side of this is that there's no narrative momentum leading us from piece to piece, so even though the movie is only 2 hours long, it feels much, much longer.


However, this is easily one of the 5 or 10 most visually splendid films ever made. Though I wasn't always engaged narratively, there wasn't a single second I wasn't fascinated visually. The way Has moves from sequence to sequence has an incredible flow to it, as sets seem to almost disappear, or open up into the next segment. It's truly astonishing filmmaking on every technical level. I am not always one to say go see a movie just for the visuals, but if you can see this movie, do it, even if it's only for the visuals.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth made waves with his 2004 time travel puzzle movie Primer, which he made for about $7,000. It became an art-house hit and allowed him to fully leave behind his previous life as a software engineer. Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color. Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialog, though there is plenty, and though the sound design is extraordinary and integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see. Also low budgeted (Carruth has refused to say, because he felt Primer got too much press for its budget and not for the movie itself, but I've seen estimates showing this one around $50,000), but still absolutely gorgeously made, it may be the best movie of the 2010's, but it works like a piece of music, so I'm not always quite sure why it's so brilliant, but I know it is.


It's told non-linearly and often abstractly, but the basic story of the movie is that of a woman, Kris (played by the intriguingly beautiful Amy Seimetz) who is drugged and kidnapped by a man (known in the credits as Thief) who through the drug is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state, eventually leading her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give to him, before he disappears. Some others things happen that we see, but basically Kris suddenly wakes up in her SUV on the side of the highway, unaware of anything that has happened in the previous days. She returns to find her house littered with blood stains, things missing, food all over, and eventually no money in her bank accounts and fired from her job (go mysteriously missing for god knows how long and this is what would happen). Later, on a train, she meets a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) whom she has an almost metaphysical connection to. They fall in love, and both start to unveil their secret pasts and what happened to them, with more in common than we would've anticipated.


The story is told without any rush, with beautiful, Malick-esque intermixing of natural and urban settings. Stolen moments helping to fill in the gaps of what would normally be a big Hollywood thriller of kidnapping and thievery. Carruth gives a nice leading man performance, but the star here is Amy Seimetz, whose work is truly extraordinary. She gives Kris a look haunted from her past, but also her brief smile lights up her face and lets us see that Kris really is in love with Jeff. They weren't drawn together because of their pasts, they were drawn together seemingly in spite of them. Of course, you can't talk about a Shane Carruth movie without mentioning just what he did in it. From interviews I've seen, it seems more about keeping budget down than it is him being a controlling artist, but still his credits on this movie are: Writer, Director, Producer, Star, Composer (of both music and sound), Editor, and Director of Photography as well as one of the camera operators. There's certainly no doubt as to whose vision this movie is.


I first saw this movie last year when it came on Netflix, but it has stuck in my memory since then, so I went back and watched it last night. It was far less confusing than the first time around. But even then, I didn't care that I was confused on a story level because Carruth had me mesmerized by every second and so it was more that I didn't know what to expect and wasn't always sure where we were headed. This time I knew, and so the atmosphere worked even better because I could give myself over to the movie and let it wash over me while also picking up on a ton of little things I'd missed the first time around. I "got it" the first time around, Carruth's movies don't beg re-watches because you don't understand every little thing, you don't need to. They beg rewatches because he respects the audiences intelligence and refuses to spoon feed us anything. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really liked) and will continue going back to it over and over again. And at just 96 minutes, Carruth doesn't overstay his welcome, he ends things perfectly and in a way that makes us want to enjoy the ride again and again.


We must hope that Carruth's next movie, tentatively titled The Modern Ocean, won't be 9 years between like last time. Carruth has gained big fans like filmmakers Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) and Steven Soderbergh, who has called Carruth "the illegitimate offspring of David Lynch and James Cameron." And has also said that if he ran a studio, he'd give guys like Carruth a decent budget and just let them go make whatever they want and sit back and be amazed at the result. Carruth has already been nominated for many awards (including 5 Independent Spirit awards for his 2 movies) so let's hope his next work of genius is as good as Upstream Color and comes much sooner.

To the Wonder

Terrence Malick's To the Wonder is a movie I admire probably more than I like. I did like it, a lot actually. But I also felt that it was messy and unfocused, overlong, and just generally not up to the standard he set in Days of Heaven or The New World. But, my home state has never been filmed so lovingly (it's rarely filmed at all, in fact) and Malick shows so many of the gorgeous moments in Oklahoma nature that I try to stop and appreciate in my day to day life. Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki use only natural light, which makes me start thinking that movie lighting is a waste of time since this is another of Malick's increasingly beautiful films.


This movie is like much of Malick's work, meandering and unconcerned with plot. But this one is made up almost entirely of what I call stolen moments. The dreamlike snatches of conversation or fights or even making love. Malick does these better than anyone, but it's difficult for these moments to sustain an entire runtime of a movie. There are some truly extraordinary things in this movie, but around the time I felt it should be wrapping up I looked at the clock and realized we were only an hour into the 113 minutes of the movie. Malick and Lubezki say that this was Malick's most experimental movie, being SO unconcerned with telling a story in the traditional sense. But I'm not sure it totally works.


Ben Affleck says more in the 4 minute behind the scenes featurette on the DVD than he does the entire movie. Thankfully, our "main" character (as much as the movie has one) is the ethereal almost impossible beauty of Olga Kurylenko as the woman Affleck meets in France and eventually takes back home to northeast Oklahoma. The rest of the cast includes Rachel McAdams, who Affleck was friends with in high school and who he takes up with when Kurylenko goes back to France. There's also Javier Bardem's priest character, acting as a guiding light in the community while undergoing a crisis of faith inside. We hear them all in voiceover much more than we hear them in conversation. Apparently Jessica Chastain, Rachel Weisz, Amanda Peet, Barry Pepper, Michael Shannon and Michael Sheen all shot footage as well but were ultimately cut out, in typical Malick fashion.


Again, like with 2011's The Tree of Life, it's easy to see Malick's autobiographical elements to what story there is. He met his second wife while in France, eventually taking her back to live in Texas and Oklahoma while they were married. However, since we don't know a ton about Malick himself, I'm not sure if Affleck's aloof staring into the distance performance is as autobiographical as the "plot" of meeting a French girl and bringing her back to the US.


It's a movie I would recommend seeing only if you're already a Malick fan, as this is his Malick-iest movie yet.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Boyhood


In the summer of 2002, Richard Linklater began one of the most ambitious movies in film history. In his home town of Houston, Texas, Linklater started shooting an unnamed movie starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, his own young daughter Lorelei Linklater, and then 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. Each year for the next 12 years he got the cast and crew back together for a handful of shooting days to tell the story of the boyhood of Coltrane's character Mason, from the ages of 6 to 18. And that's what we get, following Mason from 1st grade into his first days as a college freshman. I don't know if it's the best movie of Linklater's underappreciated career, but it seems from the media attention like it will become his signature piece. Boyhood is being hailed by most as a masterpiece, one of the great movies of the decade or of all time, and currently has an absurd 99% approval rating on the critical aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com.

We first see Mason laying in the grass outside his elementary school looking up at the beautiful blue sky. We follow him as his mom Olivia (Arquette) picks him up and they drive home, while mom complains that his teacher told him Mason hadn't been turning in his homework and had broken the pencil sharpener. Mason counters that the teacher never asked for the homework, so he didn't know to turn it in. And he was just trying to sharpen rocks to add to his arrowhead collection, if it could sharpen pencils, why not rocks? We later see Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) fight in the back seat, fight at the table, and even see Sam tell her dad Mason Sr. (Hawke) that she was sorry their weekend had to be ruined because Mason Jr. had to be there. As the kids grow up they move around a lot, mom goes through a couple of marriages, eventually Sam gets to an age where she'd rather go to a party than go camping with dad and brother. This particularly leads to some hilariously awkward exchanges with then 15-year-old Sam about sex, and 12-year-old Mason about dad's girlfriends. But dad and Mason also bond over s'mores, and Star Wars, swimming and music as well.

The movie is full of smaller moments like this. In fact, it's almost only made up of moments like this. During its 164 minute epic length run time, Linklater gives us a series of life moments. They're not all big speeches or scary incidents. Sure, there are talks about the nature of life and thoughts on the magic all around us in our world, as well as fights and drunken step fathers and all that, but nothing is played to the back of the room. It's all very intimate and insular to Mason's life. After all, life isn't made up of the big moments, but of a series of small moments with occasional spikes in emotion. As I was watching, like Olivia, I expected more, I expected better, I expected bigger. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I really understood what it was I'd just watched, which was a truly extraordinary movie. I realized how many times Linklater and his cast, especially his two still growing stars, could've stepped wrong and didn't. Could've hit false notes and didn't. Could've gone for the big Oscar moments, but didn't. Linklater doesn't even give us milestone markers like "1 year later" or "age 14" or whatever, and the movie is better off for it. We realize we're in different times through changed hair cuts or subtle signs of growth (Samantha's braces at one point), and it was startlingly fascinating to see both the kids and adults grow older over the course of the movie.

The acting all around is simply superb. Ethan Hawke, working with Linklater on their 8th collaboration, is terrific as the semi-flaky dad who grows from having his kids put Obama signs in peoples yards to marrying a woman whose family give Mason a Bible with his name on it and a shotgun for his 15th birthday. Linklater doesn't make fun of these conservative folks either. When the old man brings out a shotgun, my theater certainly had a huge laugh, but we then see the old man (and Hawke) teaching the kids how to be safe, and to shoot, something which both kids obviously have fun doing. Patricia Arquette can be a tremendous actress when given the right material (Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead immediately comes to mind), and here she has the best role she's ever had, bringing warmth, love, intelligence, emotion, and even believably having truly shitty taste in husbands, except for the one she had kids with. And although star Ellar Coltrane is getting the most headlines, and he's terrific, he has a natural ease onscreen and wonderful chemistry with each and every one of his co-stars. I can't let this review go by without mentioning how terrific I thought Lorelei Linklater was as Samantha. From a child singing Britney Spears songs to annoy her brother, to a young adult complaining that she won't be eating lunch because the peach schnapps flowed a little too easily last night. It's great, un-showy acting from everyone.

A central idea like this isn't as unique as you might think. The famous British Up documentary series has followed a group of 14 people every 7 years starting in 1964's 7 Up, with 56 Up being released in 2012. Legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut did a series of 5 films based on the character Antoine Doinel, from 1959's 400 Blows to 1979's Love on the Run, each time played by actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. And there's also Satyajit Ray's famous Apu Trilogy, though that followed a characters growth played by different actors in each movie. There's even Linklater's own Before Trilogy, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as young intellectuals falling in love and us following them on just a few brief times over 1995's Before Sunrise, 2004's Before Sunset, and 2013's Before Midnight. But we've never seen a movie like Boyhood where the aging and growing up over 12 years is all done right before our eyes in a single movie with the same actors. Because of labor restrictions, you can't sign a contract for more than 7 years, so there were no contracts in this movie. Ellar Coltrane or his parents could've just decided they didn't want to participate anymore and quit. Richard Linklater has said this was simply a risk he had to take to do the movie he wanted. Lorelei Linklater has said she lost interest in the middle years of filming and only continued because her dad was the director, before regaining her enthusiasm over the final years. Richard Linklater even said he had talks with Ethan Hawke that if he died during the 12 years, Hawke would've taken over as director and finished the project.
I've been saying for years that Richard Linklater is one of the great American filmmakers working right now. From his meandering first film Slacker, which was a seismic shift in American independent cinema, often pointed to as the leader of the 90's indie movement, to his follow up Dazed and Confused to Hollywood movies like School of Rock or experimental movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. And he's always had a way with actors. Jack Black should have an Oscar on his shelf for the work he did in 2011's Bernie, which also was one of the shifts in Matthew McConaughey's career towards acting respectability. Linklater has now made what will likely mark his career as THE Linklater movie. Although I'm probably more partial to the Before movies and Dazed and Confused, Boyhood is certainly a master at work again and I'll be extraordinarily surprised if it's not one of the 2 or 3 best movies of 2014.