Sunday, March 16, 2014
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.
Saturday, March 15, 2014
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
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
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
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.
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
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).