Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Getaway

The Getaway was my first exposure to the writing of Jim Thompson. Born in Anadarko, Oklahoma in 1906, Thompson was destined to have a great reputation in hind sight, but his work never sold much while he was alive, and the high profile jobs he had ended up feeling like missed opportunities. Stanley Kubrick hired Thompson to write his 1956 noir movie The Killing, but Kubrick ended up taking writing credit himself, pushing Thompson to a "dialog by" credit. Yet Thompson worked with Kubrick again, writing the script for Kubrick's masterpiece Paths of Glory, though Thompson ended up as the third listed writer, behind Kubrick and celebrated author Calder Willingham. Thompson caught a break when his 1958 novel The Getaway was to be made into a movie by maverick director Samuel Fuller. After going through the Hollywood game, eventually Thompson wrote the script for director Sam Peckinpah, though star and producer Steve McQueen would have Thompson fired for his script being too dialog driven, with not enough action, and the book's strange ending firmly in place. Though The Getaway was a big hit at the box office, and Thompson's The Killer Inside Me was made into a movie a few years later (both movies would be remade, The Getaway in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, The Killer Inside Me in 2010 with Casey Affleck), Thompson's stock didn't rise much and he died a broke alcoholic in 1977. The Getaway is a hell of a novel, but one that I would think is totally untranslatable to the screen.

The Getaway is actually a pretty standard, though wonderful, crime drama for the first 3/4 or so of its pages. Doc McCoy and his wife Carol go on the run after a successful but messy bank robbery, while they try and elude the cops as well as Rudy, the bank robbery partner who tried double crossing Doc only for Doc to shoot him (Doc thought Rudy was dead, but he wasn't), who's intent on revenge. Doc is a smooth talking, fast thinking, tough as nails career criminal. Carol is a former librarian who Doc swept off her feet and who took very well to the quick thinking crime life, though she's not as good as she thinks she is and is in over her head more than she realizes. All of this was adapted onto the screen fairly decently, with the expected small changes here and there. But what McQueen fired Thompson over most of all, I think, is the ending of the book.

For some, the ending of The Getaway is what ruins the book, and for others it's what makes it. After reading it, I'm firmly in the latter camp. Once Doc kills Rudy, and he and Carol try crossing the border into Mexico, is when the book turns to the surreal and allegorical. The couple meet with Ma Santis, a criminal matriarch who hides them on her farmland from the authorities before securing them passage into Mexico so that they can go to "the kingdom of El Rey", a kind of off the map resort for retired criminals, ruled over by an imposing man named El Rey. Doc and Carol hide, first for two days inside of coffin sized underwater caves, then for another few days in a small shack disguised as, and built out of, a huge pile of cow manure. They are next put on a Portuguese fishing boat to sail into Mexico (as crossing on land would be too dangerous) before finally making it to and retiring in the kingdom of El Rey. Once in El Rey, they find living is not as easy as they thought it would be. El Rey is a kingdom of murder (but ruled as "suicide" by the local police), back stabbing, and dwindling finances until there's no money left and people are put into a village where no food is allowed and to survive the residents resort to cannibalism. So as to not run out of money, the couples that come there usually end up killing one another to save their precious money and not end up in the cannibalistic village. The book ends as Doc and Carol are trying to plot the other's "accidental" death. They have a drink and bitterly toast to their successful getaway.

So, one can easily see why the movie adaptations of the book chose to go for the "happy" ending of Doc and Carol making it over the Mexican border, giving us a sense of closure and reassurance that they made their getaway. But this is where the brilliance of the book is lost in the immorality of the movies. Doc and Carol are shown to be truly heinous people, murdering anyone who gets in their way. Rudy is felt to be the bad guy, and we are repulsed by his murders while we are a bit grateful our "heroes" are able to dodge setback after setback through their quick thinking murderous tenacity. We identify with Doc and Carol. When we consume things like this, we want our criminals to be likable and roguish, and not so different from the heroes on the other side of the law, just with bad circumstances. But Thompson's ability to get us to almost forgive these awful people their sins just because they're stylishly done in opposition to Rudy's similar but more crass behavior is simply brilliant writing. I'm a big fan of noir books and movies, and this is the most thought provoking one I've encountered. Just because Doc and Carol are our protagonists does not mean they're our heroes. There are no heroes in Thompson's world. They're not likable anti-heroes either. They're charming, sure, but they're terrible people who should not get a "driving off into the sunset after completing their getaway" happy ending. They don't deserve it, and Thompson doesn't give it to them. He makes them suffer and torturously betray their real love for one another in the name of "survival" in hell. They don't get a happy ending just because they're the main characters of the story. They're cold blooded killers, dropping more than a half dozen people without thinking twice about it.

One could get lost in the symbolism of the last 30-50 pages or so (it's 183 pages in total, so you'll only be out a couple of hours to read the whole thing). Carol struggling to cope with the reality of being in her cave. She's told to take the sleeping pills provided, to help her get through the claustrophobia that creeps in from being in the cave. She initially refuses, this part written in an almost stream-of-consciousness style from Carol's mind as she finally has to face all of her terrible thoughts, and ends up with cuts all over her body from trying to move around in the rocks, suffering in the coffin she put herself in, in every sense of the word. Waiting for days in the shit covered house, symbolizing the decay of their bodies, souls, and ultimately their relationship. Unable to get the horrid taste out of their noses and mouths. Flies and worms digging into the structure and eating at their nerves. The journey by boat, to me obviously representative of crossing the river Styx, on their way to El Rey. El Rey meaning "The King", and being the ruling Satan-like figure of this strange place. And they're put in these places by Ma Santis, "santis" meaning "of the family of saints". So a good person finally put them into their hell, even though it seemed like she was helping.

How often did a dimestore paperback crime novel have so much to talk about in it? I've never read any that had this kinda of surreal turn, which really threw me off initially though I ultimately loved it. It definitely makes me want to read more of Thompson's writing. Makes me wonder how faithful of adaptations The Killer Inside Me and Stephen Frears' The Grifters are to their sources. I am excited to explore more from Thompson now.


“Do you trust me now?”
“Less than when I didn’t trust you before.”

“Brad was a sap. You weren't. You were with him, and so you were playing him. So you're a player. With you behind me I'd have to tie one eye up watching both your hands, and I can't spare it.”

“You’ve helped this office out before.”
“No, I gave you Jerr to see him eaten, not to see you fed.”

Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Brick is an odd movie. Dialogue like that, and even more rapid fire exchanges that happen between the characters, are taken from the noir detective writings of people like Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, and Raymond Chandler. But Brick was made in 2005, which puts it about 70 years behind the times when it comes to its dialogue style. There’s a music to this dialogue like there is to Shakespeare, and it goes a long way in setting up the style and feel of the movie. Also like Shakespeare, you don’t need to keep up with each and every word to get the story. It’s there not just to set up attitude and atmosphere, but for you to come back to it again and again to discover more nuances and references and things like that. And like has been done multiple times with the Bard’s work, Johnson sets his noir detective story in the world of modern high school.

The movie stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Brendan, who in the opening scene we see observing a body laying in the shallow water of an overflow tunnel. The body is that of his recently ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). Cut back to two days previous as Brendan receives a phone call from an obviously upset Em, asking for his help. But Brendan has trouble locating her and so begins his detective work that will lead him to her body and beyond in the next few days of his life. He crosses paths with all the usual archetypes of noir: junkies, drug dealers, hired muscle, information experts, unwanted attention from the authorities, and more than one femme fatale. Brendan is not afraid to dole out a punch, and takes many more than he probably would like. And in classic noir fashion, the plot becomes so convoluted that by the end we’re not quite sure if we have it straight, but it feels like we do and that’s what really matters.

Rian Johnson made Brick on a budget of $475,000, about 1.5% the money he later made the terrific Gordon-Levitt/Bruce Willis starrer Looper with, or roughly 0.2% of the budget he’ll likely be working with as writer/director of the next Star Wars movie. Johnson’s talents for dialogue, atmosphere, and working with actors was evident here at the very start. Gordon-Levitt has rarely been better (maybe in Mysterious Skin or The Lookout, which could both show up in this column in the future) and embodies the noir detective perfectly. He’s the smartest guy in the room, but that doesn’t keep him out of harm’s way. He plays everybody just as they’re trying to play him. He’s got it figured out, but has to watch and see if it plays out like he thinks it will. Although instead of the usual noir narration, Johnson has Brendan bounce his internal thoughts off of his informant, The Brain (Matt O’Leary).

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent. One of the biggest stand outs being Lukas Haas as The Pin, the drug kingpin of the area (“he’s old, like 26” Brain tells Brendan in one of their rapid fire exchanges). Haas gives the character a certain gravitas and believability, while also some humor in what is a slightly ridiculous role in a movie that otherwise doesn’t wink to the audience in the slightest. Rian Johnson understands this need for some humor as well, and maybe plays up the ridiculousness a bit too much, but never enough to totally throw off the atmosphere of the movie. The other big eye catcher is Nora Zehetner as Laura, our femme fatale. Zehetner gives Laura the intelligence to match Brendan, the deviousness to match The Pin, and a sweet sexiness to keep us off guard about what her intentions are and whose side she’s really on.

But the main star here, other than Gordon-Levitt, is the style borrowed from that '30s and '40s noir. Maybe my favorite thing is Brendan’s penchant for talking on a pay phone. Johnson has said that the production department had to put those pay phones there, since although they were ubiquitous in the '30s and '40s, in the age of cell phones there aren’t any around anymore, at least in Southern California where the movie was shot.

Classic detective noir is a genre I love, but I would not have thought of transitioning it to a high school setting as anything more than a gimmick. Yet the transition works seamlessly, as the archetypes of noir all fall in perfectly with the archetypes of high school. Characters like a two-faced drama queen can literally be in drama class now. What would be “word on the street” stuff in classic noir, is now standard high school gossip. Secret meetings in noir can be boiled down to who you have lunch with in high school. And the junkies and burn outs of noir are now, well, the junkies and burnouts of high school. And the seriousness of the goings on in noir are nothing to the importance of high school, when everything feels like the most serious thing that ever happened.

Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt have both done bigger things since Brick, but I’m not sure they’ve done anything better. This little Hidden Gem isn’t unseen, but it’s underseen. Watch it, then watch it again to see what you missed the first time around. I notice new things in it every tim


Movies like Adventureland are rare. They see their characters lovingly without idealizing them. They see a place and time so truly that we forget we are watching a period piece. They remember what it felt like to be young and in love. Remembering the friends you wished would go away when you were trying to talk to a girl, the awkward silences you’d endure before you figured out how to really talk to women, the feeling of what it's like to be accepted by the one person you hoped would accept you, and the myriad of memorable people that may only come into your life during the course of one crazy summer. So, it’s a coming-of-age tale, a genre I’ve always loved. And technically there’s nothing new here, but it’s about as good of an example of the genre as there is.

It's 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg) is forced to get a summer job when his dad gets demoted at work and his parents aren't able to help him pay for his college graduation trip through Europe or pay for graduate school and an apartment in New York City. After being turned down by everyone because he has no job experience (despite his degree, “I’m not even qualified for manual labor” he complains), James gets a job at Adventureland, the local theme park. There he meets the oddball managers Bobby and Paulette (Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig), who put him to work in the games section of the park alongside Joel (Martin Starr) and Emily (Kristen Stewart), whom James quickly falls for. He also gets to be friends with the guitar playing maintenance guy Connell (Ryan Reynolds), who people say jammed with Lou Reed, one of James' heroes.

Adventureland is the most wonderfully realized, delicately crafted, and emotionally affecting movie about young people that I've ever seen. It captures a moment in time that didn't even exist in my life, yet I connect to it so deeply I almost can't explain it.

There's not a single moment in the movie that rings false to me, and so many moments that transcend the maligned "young adult/teen" genre. Of course, this movie is not about "teens," it's about people just out of college realizing that their studies in Comparative Literature or Russian and Slavic Languages don't mean much in the real world. It's also about those fragile feelings of first love, real friendship, jealousy, and taking the wrong advice because you don't know any better yet. More than anything really, it's the story of first love. But because everything is so carefully constructed, capturing life, the feeling of real life, it's about much more than that simple description might allude to. Sure, it's not documentary-esque real life, it's idealized and nostalgic, but in the best way possible.

Jesse Eisenberg is just so subtly good as James that I'm afraid people will underestimate him as an actor. He’s gone on to do work both acclaimed (like in The Social Network, which netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor) and not as well received (like his recent turn as Lex Luthor in Batman vs. Superman). Here in Adventureland, Eisenberg has the kind of effortless charm and real emotions that John Cusack used to bring to these kinds of young adult roles in the 1980s. He has a bit of Woody Allen in his performance as well, but never comes off like a caricature or even an imitation of either actor. He's his own person. Many people who can’t look past the surface have written this performance off as “oh, he’s just an awkward teen, it’s the Michael Cera role.” And that’s wrong. Eisenberg brings a lot of depth and nuance to his role if you’re willing to see it.

Another polarizing actor, Kristen Stewart, is here so beautifully fascinating and charming that you can't help but fall in love with her at least a little bit. She brings a certain delicate intelligence to her character that I'm not sure many actresses her age could pull off. She’s not quite the idealized manic pixie dream girl that many love interests are in these types of movies. She’s a young woman who has been hurt, made mistakes, but is a good person, funny, and someone who stands up for and protects the people she cares about. It’s not at all hard to see why James falls for her.

In fact, each supporting performance is really spot on, with Martin Starr in particular being worthy of mention as James' fellow game booth worker Joel. He sees himself and the world around him with a clarity that none of the other characters possess, giving James the kind of advice that he needs, rather than the kind he's been taking from Connell. And Ryan Reynolds as Connell is the type of work he needs to do more often as an actor. Reynolds is usually best in small doses, I find, and so his scene stealing turn here is perfect and probably the best work of his career. Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are the only really unrealistic supporting characters, but both are so funny and work so well together that I don’t really care.

Director Greg Mottola's previous movie, Superbad, was one of the most realistic depictions of teenage mindset, life, and emotions that I've ever seen (barring the McLovin storyline, which while hilarious was also that movie’s equivalent of Hader and Wiig). At the time, I gave most of the credit for that to writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and stars Jonah Hill and Michael Cera. Adventureland makes me think that maybe a lot of that credit deserves to go to Mottola. He takes on writing duties this time, telling a semi-autobiographical story that he just flat out nails as director. The delicate narrative telling of this movie is really a wonder to behold. It’s episodic, but somehow Mottola makes it feel cohesive, as the emotions and even the comedy are all part of the whole tapestry of James and his summer at Adventureland.

Of course it’s a coming-of-age movie, but I still think it's a hard one to classify because everything in it works so well that it rises above those genre clichés. So yes it has comedy, drama, romance, awkwardness, friendship, punches to the crotch, and maybe a chase scene or two. But sometimes you watch a movie so good that you just sit in your seat and hope it knows how amazing it could be if it doesn't screw it up in the end. Adventureland is that kind of movie, and it never falters once.

Defending Your Life

Albert Brooks is one of the great comedy talents. Though many people today might know him best for his starring role as panicked father Marlin in Finding Nemo, he was never better than when he took complete control of his work in the Woody Allen vein of writing, directing, and starring in his own movies. He did this to great critical and commercial success with 1981's Modern Romance and 1985's Lost in America, along with his great supporting acting work in movies like Taxi Driver, Broadcast News, and just a few years ago in Drive. His work is a bit more specific than other writers, and so he was never destined to play to as big of audiences as he deserved. Still, his writing is layered with jokes big and small, rewarding re-watches of his work. Sadly, he's only given us seven feature films, but his masterpiece is most definitely 1991's Defending Your Life.

Brooks plays Daniel Miller, who dies in a car wreck. That's not a spoiler, it's the opening of the movie. Daniel gets sent to Judgment City, where he enters a kind of trial, though they don't like to call it that. In that trial, he must defend the actions he took in his life. It's not about making good or bad decisions so much as it is whether he let himself be ruled by fear or desire. If too much fear, then he gets sent back to Earth to try life over again. If the judges deem him worthy, he gets to “move onward.”

He's told by his defender, Bob Diamond (Rip Torn), that they'll be looking at nine days from Daniel's life. “Nine, is that a lot?” he asks. “It's not a lot or a little,” he's told, it just is. But to a neurotic guy like Daniel, nine sure sounds like a lot. He only meets one other person in Judgment City who's defending more, a pornographer who proudly claims to have coined the phrase “all nude girls,” and who is defending 15 days of his life. By chance, Daniel meets Julia (Meryl Streep), and they have an instant and powerfully romantic connection. Julia is only defending four days of her life, which makes Daniel worry that she'll move onward and he won't. When Daniel sneaks into her trial one day, he sees things like her saving her family from their burning house and her prosecuting attorney crying and saying "I just wanted to see that again" after Brooks' prosecutor (Lee Grant) has been relentless in saying he doesn't deserve to move on.

We've seen many stories that deal with what a possible afterlife might be like (including Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait, whose co-director Buck Henry makes a cameo appearance here), but I think Brooks' take is the most interesting. We're told there's no heaven or hell, a person either moves onward or they are sent back to Earth to give life another try. Daniel's told he's lived on Earth 20 times, which again seems like a lot to him. Bob Diamond tries to comfort him by saying “there are people who've lived life 100 times on Earth…. Now, you wouldn't want to hang out with any of them, but it happens.” There are fascinating pieces to Judgment City, including different hotels (Daniel's is a pretty basic one, while Julia's is an opulent Four Seasons or Hilton type), restaurants, and even the Past Lives Pavilion, where you can see up to five of your previous lives. Julia is fascinated to know she was Prince Valiant in a previous life, while Daniel has just seen himself as an African native running from a lion. When Julia asks who he'd been in his previous life, Daniel responds “dinner.”

Defending Your Life turned 25 years old just a few weeks ago, and it's remarkable how little it has become dated. Because Brooks' ideas are big and weighty, but he let the story be driven by emotion and reflection of one's life (things that will never grow old), and his writing is so sharp, the movie plays in 2016 much the same it would've played in 1991. There are terrific jokes in the movie, like when Daniel and Julia meet at a comedy club in Judgment City where a horrible comic is struggling with the audience, the comic asks Daniel “How'd you die?” “On stage, like you.” Or maybe my favorite exchange in the movie is a conversation between Daniel and Bob Diamond. Bob has made a previous point of telling Daniel he uses 48 percent of his brain, whereas Daniel only uses 3 percent. When Bob misses a day of the trial, Daniel wants to know why.

Daniel: Where were you? I'm just curious.
Bob: I'd tell you, but you wouldn't understand.
Daniel: Don't treat me like a moron. Try me.
Bob: I was trapped near the inner circle of thought.
Daniel: I don't understand.
Bob: I told you...

Rip Torn is just dynamite in that role. He brings a certain indefinable, unhinged something to that part that makes you really believe he's this guy who has long since moved on from his life on Earth. Brooks, too, is tremendous in his typical intellectual, neurotic guy character that is similar in a way to Woody Allen's, but there seems something much more adult about Brooks, more mature in his character. He plays up the angst and nerves that are wrecking Daniel's life by keeping him from his desire. And Brooks the filmmaker is on top of his game with confronting this idea that, as Bob puts it, “Well, everybody on Earth deals with fear - that's what little brains do. Fear is like a giant fog. It sits on your brain and blocks everything - real feelings, true happiness, real joy. They can't get through that fog. But you lift it, and buddy, you're in for the ride of your life.”

Special mention has to go to Meryl Streep's performance. This was the first time we'd ever seen her be an engaging, regular person on screen. She'd always played any number of difficult and challenging roles, but from all accounts is a lovely, warm, friendly person, and that's who she plays here. She radiates comfort and lovability, and has a magical chemistry with Brooks because of it. The movie doesn't take off if the surprise love story doesn't work, but that's not a problem here. It's obvious why he's drawn to her, because we are too. She's funny and charming, and more than a little sexy. Although they're only together a few days, we don't doubt for a moment that there's obviously some bigger force of love happening between these two. It's really what helps take the movie from great to transcendent.

Defending Your Life has gained a small but passionate following over the last 25 years, but it is still firmly a Hidden Gem. It has ideas and jokes both big and small, beautiful romance, incredible after-life world building, and is just a tremendously enjoyable and thought-provoking time at the movies. What more could you want?

The American

The American is a startling and brilliant movie for a multitude of reasons. It contains one of George Clooney’s best performances, is shot mostly in the picaresque Italian countryside, and is the engagingly subtle tale of an assassin hiding out in a small Italian village. It was directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn, whose background in photography is obviously present in every meticulously beautiful frame of this movie. Although it made money at the box office (opening #1 and making $68 million on a $20 million budget), it was hated by audiences, resulting in a D-minus Cinemascore rating and an audience approval score of 38% on (its film critic number was the just barely “fresh” 66% approval). I think this is because it was marketed incorrectly. This is a slow, cerebral movie more in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï than it is the “Clooney as Bond” movie that was marketed. And I’m thankful for that; we need more movies with a brain in their head like this than we need another Jason Bourne knock-off.

Based on British author Martin Booth’s spy novel A Very Private Gentleman, The American follows Jack (Clooney) as he flees Sweden, running from men who are trying to kill him. We’re not sure why, but Jack’s handler Pavel (Johan Leysen) says it’s because Jack has lost his edge now that he’s getting older. Jack goes to where Pavel sets up a safe house in Italy, but a paranoid Jack runs away on his own to a different town. He’s eventually set up with a job to make a gun for Mathilde (Thekla Reuten, the innkeeper from In Bruges). While in the town, Jack becomes involved with local prostitute Clara (Violante Placido), despite Pavel advising not to “make friends” with anyone, telling him “you used to know that.” Jack also crosses paths with local priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), with whom he has many philosophical conversations. But Jack never lets down his guard, even as we can tell he wants to for Clara.

Violante Placido, as Clara, is kind of the heart of the movie, at least in regards to what she means to Jack. Placido is even more beautiful than her mother Simonetta Stefanelli (whom most of us know better as Michael’s Italian wife Apollonia in The Godfather), but with the same expressive eyes, sweet smile and intriguing Italian sensuality. Her Clara is the classic hooker with a heart of gold, but nothing about her feels standard to me. Her performance has depth to it, even though most of the story focuses on Jack and how she relates to him.

Possibly the best scene in the movie is one in which they go out on a real date at a restaurant and her girlish excitement at being with a guy she could actually connect with is endearing. When a man comes over selling roses and she tries to shoo him away, trying to tell Jack, “He thinks we’re a couple,” Jack retorts simply with “It’s okay.” The look in her eyes, seeing that Jack isn’t embarrassed she’s a prostitute and actually enjoys being with her, being seen with her, and thought to be her guy, almost brought tears to my eyes in what that means to Clara and how beautifully Placido expresses that.

But, of course, this movie works because of George Clooney. There may be no other actor as interesting to watch as he thinks. Jack’s mind is always going, even as he keeps a relatively stone faced exterior. Clooney says so much with his eyes and his body language, and even the tone of his voice, so much more effectively than most actors. He has always been able to sell that there’s a lot going on under the surface, and Jack is one of his best characters, easily on the level of Out of Sight’s Jack Foley or his title character in Michael Clayton. Jack is lost, at a crossroads in his life, and he’s a broken man in many ways. He sees possible redemption for himself in his relationship with Clara, maybe, as long as he can stop wondering if she’s a fellow assassin out to kill him.

Director Anton Corbijn and writer Rowan Joffé unfurl this story slowly, methodically, but never boringly. There’s not a wasted scene or even moment, really. Everything tells us something, as long as we’re paying attention. Corbijn’s photography here (along with cinematographer Martin Ruhe) is extraordinary. The movie is beautiful to look at, for sure, but it’s also framed so gorgeously and often in a way that assists the narrative. There are shots where there are things in the background that inform the foreground, or shots that show us the labyrinthine streets of the Italian mountain town, or ones that frame Clooney in a way that underscores what’s happening narratively. It’s a movie that could and should be studied by film students for the brilliance of the shot selection.

Corbijn’s allowance of silence in the movie is likely what turned off some viewers, but it’s what captivates me. He lets words hang in the air as we contemplate something as simple as two different people calling Jack “Mr. Butterfly.” Well, he has a butterfly tattooed on his upper back, which we’ve seen multiple times, but have both of these people seen it? Is it connection or coincidence that these separate people used those specific words? Jack doesn’t live in a world of coincidences. Other movies point out this kind of possible connection, but The American knows it made its point and doesn’t need to bash us over the head with it. It doesn’t insult our intelligence, it respects us as viewers.

Corbijn followed this with another spy story, 2014’s A Most Wanted Man, based on spy guru John le Carré’s novel. I haven’t seen it but want to, especially as it was the last starring role for Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my all-time favorite actors. I love spy stuff, and The American has to go at or near the top of the heap for me. The Zen-like control of the movie, the cool restraint of Clooney’s performance, even the references to other spy movies (the code Mathilde wants on the briefcase that carries her gun, 014, is literally double O7). I think history will be kind to this Hidden Gem, much kinder than audiences were in 2010, as more people find it over the years divorced from the awful marketing that sold it as an action movie. It isn’t an action movie, but it is a great movie.

Upstream Color

Shane Carruth got strong notices (and many awards) for his 2004 debut film Primer, a mega-low-budget movie about two friends who stumble into inventing a time machine. Made for just $7,000, the film is remarkable in many ways. My favorite way is the elliptical and complex storytelling, so that we’re not always sure where we are in the timeline of the movie. Carruth feels no need to spell everything out for us, and has even said that although he had to figure out the complex timeline of the movie in order to make it, it’s not necessary for the viewer to. I love that he didn’t spoon feed us everything, or anything, but also that it’s not just a puzzle to figure out. You can work to figure out the logistics if you want, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the movie. There’s also the immortal line “Are you hungry? I haven’t eaten since later this afternoon.” Unfortunately, he struggled through financing his next picture, a sci-fi masterpiece of a script called A Topiary, before eventually abandoning it to make 2013's Upstream Color, which for my money is the best movie of the 2010s.

Upstream Color is a mesmerizing, hypnotic, nearly silent movie. Not silent like The Artist, I say it's silent simply because it relies very little on dialogue. There is plenty of dialogue in the movie, but it doesn’t rely exclusively on it to tell its story or convey ideas. The movie is more about the rhythm of the narrative, the extraordinary cinematography, and the overall sound design. Or I guess I should say that these elements are elevated more here than they are by other filmmakers. The sound design is integral to the story in a way you pretty much never see, and can’t really be explained unless you’ve seen it. Also low budgeted (though 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), still absolutely gorgeously made, you’d never guess from looking at it that it was a low budget movie, except for the fact that it’s unlike any movie you’ve ever seen.

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 only as Thief (Thiago Martins) who, through the drug he slips her (which has some sort of worm in it), is able to put her in a hypnosis-like state. Eventually he leads her to liquidate her bank account and all other money and give it to him, before he disappears. Somehow she’s then led, still in a hypnotic state, to the Sampler (Andrew Sensenig) a pig farming sound recorder, who removes the worm from her body and transfers it to that of one of his pigs.

Suddenly, Kris awakens 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 days with no explanation 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 a 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 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. Weirdly, I could continue detailing the entire plot and it still wouldn’t ruin the movie, but I’ll leave it there for you to discover on your own. The movie works the first time around, no matter how much you know about it. But like all the great pieces of art, it enhances upon each viewing as your understanding of it and emotional connection to it grows.

Now, you can't talk about a Shane Carruth movie without mentioning just what he did in it. From interviews I've seen and read, it seems more about keeping budget down than it is him being a stereotypical controlling artist, but still his credits on this movie are: Writer, director, producer, star, music composer, sound composer, editor, director of photography and one of the camera operators. There's certainly no doubt as to whose vision this movie is. It’s likely the only reason he could make such a professional looking movie on a budget so small, by doing nearly everything himself.

I first saw this movie in 2013 when it came on Netflix streaming (where both of Carruth’s movies still are), but it has stuck in my memory since then and I’ve revisited it multiple times. It’s always 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. Now I know, and so the atmosphere works even better because I can 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 in previous viewings. 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 re-watches because he respects the audience’s intelligence and refuses to explain every little thing to make sure we understand it. I enjoy Upstream Color much more than I did Primer (which I also really like) 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, titled The Modern Ocean and with a reported cast including Anne Hathaway, Keanu Reeves, Daniel Radcliffe, and Jeff Goldblum among others, will still be his vision. It’s reportedly “big budget” but with Carruth that could mean almost any number that would still be microscopic by Hollywood standards. 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 Soderbergh has also said that if he ran a studio, he'd give talents like Carruth a decent budget and just let them go make whatever they want and sit back and be amazed at the result. Hopefully that’s what we can look forward to with The Modern Ocean. Carruth has already been nominated for many awards (including five Independent Spirit awards for his two movies, nominated for Best Director both times) so let's hope his next work of genius is as good as Upstream Color and comes much sooner than the nine-year wait we had to endure last time.

Box Office Prophets

At the beginning of this year, I started writing a monthly column for, called Hidden Gems. In it I try and shine a spotlight on movies that may not be unknown, but are underseen or undervalued, I feel. I've decided to re-post these here on my blog as well, so that I have all of my writing on my blog and none get lost in the shuffle. Some are re-worked or expanded from pieces I've written here before, but I've decided to re-post all of them except the first piece, on Big Night, since I posted that under my Top Films list, as it's my all-time #1 movie.