Sunday, March 22, 2015

Why do we love the movies?

This question has been nagging me lately. "Why do we love the movies?" What is it? Unlike some, I don't go the the movies for escapism from the pressures and horrors of the real world. So what is it? I've always said that I love storytelling, but that doesn't really get to the heart of the issue. Why do I love storytelling? It wasn't until this morning when I was watching the great Steve James documentary Life Itself, about Roger Ebert, that I got an answer. Ebert says in the opening passages of the movie that he loves the movies because it's an empathetic experience. We get to be dropped into the lives of other people. People of other nationalities, races, or genders, and see the world how they see it for a little while. I'm an empathetic person and this explanation struck me as remarkably true. Movies, and all art really but movies moreso than other forms, require us to empathize with characters and situations that are not our own. The great movies especially work a particular magic that gets us to connect more deeply than some others. That's probably part of the indefinable thing that elevates some movies over others, the ones that get us to connect more. But maybe that's a discussion for another time. I'm content now to have a better answer to the question of why I love the movies so much.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Whiplash

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


So says Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons) to his student Andrew (Miles Teller) as justification for his abusive and manipulative teaching style at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music in Whiplash. Andrew is a 19-year-old, Buddy Rich worshipping, aspiring jazz drummer at the fictional academy (obviously meant to evoke places like Julliard). When he catches the eyes and ears of the notorious Fletcher, who conducts the prize jazz band of the school, he feels like he's made a break on his way to being a legend like Charlie Parker. But things aren't easy in the hyper competitive world, and Fletcher doesn't make anything easier. He flings many things at his students (racial and homophobic slurs, general insults, even occasionally furniture) in relentless pursuit of perfection.


We see Andrew, through the confidence gained by being accepted as an alternate in the band, ask out the pretty girl that works at the concession stand of the theater he frequents with his dad. Melissa Benoist is charming and cute as the girl, Nicole, while Paul Reiser is wonderfully real and loving and supportive as the dad. Andrew progressively uses Fletcher's motivation to push everything but drumming out of his life, even to the point of getting rid of the bed in his dorm room for a drum set so he can after hours and all hours practice. The movie asks us (and its characters) if a single minded pursuit like this is good for the musician or the person who's doing it. Certainly Andrew achieves more under Fletcher's exacting demands than he would have otherwise, but does he actually gain any creativity or artistic understanding? Or is it merely an athletic feat of becoming a human metronome. The movie's moving finale leaves us with this question. Is it a triumph? A descent into madness and inhumanity? Is it a talented slap in the face to Fletcher as a teacher, or an endorsement of him?


Miles Teller and JK Simmons could not have possibly given better performances. Simmons is all bulging veins and muscles and intensity, while Teller strikes a remarkable balance of shy self doubt and growing confidence and even arrogance. Teller also does the majority of his actual on screen drumming, a body double being used only for insert shots and whatnot. This gives a real lived in feel to the character, as they aren't forced to cut around the fact that the star isn't actually playing the instrument we believe he is, as is usually the case. It also gives Teller a chance to really imbue Andrew with telling physicality, so that we don't even need a lot of extra dialog because we can read his body so obviously. Simmons is likely soon to hear his name announced as Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards, and it will be with great reason. It will go down as the defining role for the great character actor, even above his lovable Mac MacGuff from Juno, his loudmouth J. Jonah Jameson in Sam Raimi's Spiderman movies, or even his terrifying white supremacist prisoner on the TV show OZ. He finds a humanity and sense of really caring about the students he's abusing, giving us at least some sympathy for his extreme approach to teaching.


Finally, the work of the filmmaking team of writer/director Damien Chazelle, editor Tom Cross, and cinematographer Sharone Meir make this personal drama in the world of school jazz bands into a psychologically and viscerally thrilling movie. They get the camera right in there with the action of the band, while often cutting to the rhythms of the music in a wonderfully propulsive manner that often has the same effect on us in the audience that a car chase or a shootout has on us in a traditional action movie. Chazelle, in just his second time behind the camera, has made a truly personal and affecting movie and announces himself as a filmmaker to really watch.


Though I have many movies to catch up to from 2014, I have a hard time imagining that Whiplash won't top my list of the best movies of last year. It is an inspiring, thought provoking, often funny, horrifying, thrilling time at the movies.

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.