F.I.L.M. of the Week (October 3, 2014)

3 10 2014

We Steal SecretsOscar-winner Alex Gibney isn’t called the hardest working man in documentaries without reason.  It’s not uncommon for him to churn out more than one feature-length film in a given year, and unlike Woody Allen, they all manage to be exceptionally good.  His first of two 2013 docs, “We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks,” more than hits the sweet spot.

Gibney tackles the politically charged and highly controversial subject of Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks, a site committed to publishing information that powerful figures would rather be kept under wraps.  But unlike Gibney’s films tackling a pretty clear-cut right and wrong, such as his chronicle of Elliot Spitzer in “Client 9,” the ethics and morality of “We Steal Secrets” are incredibly murky.  This masterful steering through foggy gray area makes the film a perfect pick for my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

The documentary also provides a great blend of two very different narrative styles, the individual portrait and the issues-based landscape of their broader intellectual context.  Gibney gives us plenty of biographical information on Assange, shedding light on his background and thus allowing us to better make sense of him.  Yet even with all this knowledge, he still remains a question mark.  That is not to insult Gibney’s filmmaking but rather to complement it – he casts Assange as neither hero nor villain, simply a man who has made choices that we can interpret in a variety of ways.

As Assange fundamentally changes the nature of geopolitics, it is certainly a fact that he pushes the world in the direction of being more transparent.  Gibney fills “We Steal Secrets” with commentators on both sides of the privacy debate, with a passionate and well-informed case being made for each.  Ultimately, the choice of whether secrets are good, necessary, or justifiable is left up to the viewer.  And after Gibney’s powerful documentary, not forming some kind of philosophy is simply not an option.  One can only hope he has something similar in mind about Edward Snowden…





REVIEW: Her

2 10 2014

Writer/director Spike Jonze’s “Her” is an uncommonly thoughtful film, one that is lightyears ahead of what we can really even fathom.  Most works tackling the topics of technology and humanity are set in distant futures, yet they never seem to escape the mire of our present times.

“Her,” on the other hand, dares to imagine a world only tenuously related to our own.  Jonze’s vision is hardly disconnected from contemporary concerns, though.  It just requires us to adjust our frame of reference to imagine issues we may not have even contemplated.  As a result, Jonze is able to urge us to see the world differently – a very worthwhile way to wield the power of cinema.

In his unspecified future Los Angeles, Joaquin Phoenix’s socially isolated Theodore Twombly finds romantic companionship not in another human being, but rather in his OS, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).  The soothing sultriness of her voice allays our concerns about intelligent computers, so we’re never worried about her turning into HAL from “2001.”  Instead, we can focus on the very unique insights their relationship yields about intimacy and emotional mediation.

All that we think we know is up for reconsideration in “Her,” even the very nature of love.  In the hands of many directors, this kind of existential revelation might leave us feeling depressed or hopeless.  But Jonze, with a respect for artificial intelligence and an optimism for the future that feels quite groundbreaking, deposits us at a higher ground of understanding that almost overrides any emotional response.

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REVIEW: Two Days, One Night

1 10 2014

Two Days One NightTelluride Film Festival

In 1999, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne arrived on the world stage of cinema in a big way with “Rosetta,” a film that won them the Palme d’Or at Cannes as well as global renown.  That story, which they both wrote and directed, followed its eponymous 17-year-old protagonist as she battles for self-survival in an unfeeling Belgian capitalist system.  In spite of all the setbacks she faces, however, Rosetta always summons the strength from within to get back on her feet and scrounge around again for a job.

Two Days, One Night” arrives from the brothers 15 years later, who once again take an out-of-work female as their subject.  Marion Cotillard stars in the film as Sandra, a struggling factory worker who learns she has one weekend to convince 16 coworkers to relinquish a bonus in order for her to stay on the company’s payroll.  Such a daunting task would seemingly shock anyone out of lethargy and into tenacious survival mode.

Yet when the Dardennes first introduce Sandra, she lies motionless on her side and is content to simply an important phone call ring until it gets forwarded to voicemail.  Throughout the film, Sandra appears to believe that going to fight for her job is a futile waste of her time and energy.  Most of the push to continue the journey, in fact, comes from her rather saintly husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione).

Much of Sandra’s lack of confidence is explainable by her personal struggles with depression (that might be a generalized description of the specific condition afflicting her, which seemed to resemble bipolar disorder).  To focus solely on the personal, however, diminishes a whole world of social commentary in “Two Days, One Night.”  This is the second time that the Dardennes have placed the imminent possibility of joblessness in front of their central character, and the response that follows has shifted from powerful pugnacity to alarming apathy.

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REVIEW: The Skeleton Twins

30 09 2014

The Skeleton TwinsCasting Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, two recent products churned out by the “Saturday Night Live” star-making factory, definitely leads to a certain set of expectations about what antics should follow.  So when “The Skeleton Twins” begins with two very serious suicide attempts by its leads, who play long-estranged siblings, all assumptions fly right out the window.

Yet that’s only where the reversals begin since co-writer and director Craig Johnson refuses to let his film devolve into angst-ridden or melodramatic clichés.  He charts a tricky tonal course but manages to navigate it seamlessly.  “The Skeleton Twins” is thus hard to categorize since it so effortlessly defies the normally clean-cut division between comedy and drama.

To label it a dramedy seems to miss the mark, too.  The serious and the sardonic do not merely coexist in “The Skeleton Twins;” they are interwoven to the point of being nearly indistinguishable.  The film’s closest blood relative might be 2007’s “The Savages,” which also concerned two acerbic siblings trading barbs over grave family issues.  Johnson finds humor not merely a relief to the film’s drama but rather a means for exploring its repercussions more thoroughly.

But really, to compare “The Skeleton Twins” to anything at all does it a disservice.  Johnson fashions something wholeheartedly organic with his film.  It is not beholden to any pattern or formula but rather to capturing the truths of existence.  With his detailed and nuanced portraiture of the two leading characters, Milo and Maggie, Johnson allows their specific aches and struggles to illuminate those that hit closer to home.

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FEATURE: Can you identify a director by a music video?

29 09 2014

This week sees the long-awaited release of “Gone Girl,” the latest film by director David Fincher.  It’s become a bit of a habit among film lovers to lament that this modern master does not yet have an Oscar to his name – especially given that he came within arm’s reach back in 2010 with “The Social Network.”  (And to be honest, I’d rather him make a great movie than win an Academy Award.)

For those particularly interested in Fincher’s work, feel free to check out my “Fincherfest” series from 2010 where I reviewed all of his movies up to that point.

Yet while the holy grail of the film industry seems to elude Fincher, he is certainly not lacking in trophies for his mantlepiece.  At the MTV Video Music Awards (yes, the ceremony that gave us Miley’s twerkgate scandal), Fincher is the most rewarded director of all time with eight nominations and three wins.

He’s one of many current feature directors who also dabble in the music video form.  For Fincher, it allowed him to explore cinematic language and got his foot in the door in Hollywood.  Many directors, on the other hand, take music video projects once established as fun exercises.  Either way, some of the best and the brightest in the business have tried their hand in music videos.

But just from the conventions they use or the themes they explore, can you match a director to a music video?  I’ve put 10 below for you to watch and guess.  Click the link at the bottom of the post to be taken to a Facebook note with the answers.  (While you’re at it, go ahead and like the page too!)  Enjoy, and let me know how you do in the comments!

Fincher

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REVIEW: The Conjuring

28 09 2014

Mass-produced horror series like “Saw,” “Paranormal Activity,” and “Final Destination” (with “Insidious” rapidly approaching supersaturation) tend to give the genre a bad name.  It’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, a horror film like “The Exorcist” could get a Best Picture nomination.

I certainly do not mean to draw a parallel that implies “The Conjuring” is equal in stature to William Friedkin’s aforementioned terrifying masterwork, nor am I saying that James Wan’s film was robbed of Oscar glory at last year’s ceremony.  I merely aim to point out that when done well, horror films can really be exemplary pieces of filmmaking.

Wan expertly utilizes filmic tools like sound design and cinematography to cast quite the spell with “The Conjuring.”  He’s interested in more than the quick “gotcha” of a jump-out scene.  The scares those generate, after all, generally tend to dissipate within seconds.  Wan’s filmmaking lingers with its eeriness, leading you to wonder when all the tension floating around will materialize into a nightmare.

His mission is also aided by a more than passable script, based on a true incident from the call of duty of demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren.  Though hauntings, possessions, and exorcisms are old hat to most by now, “The Conjuring” never seems plagued by triteness.  If anything, the well-plotted and developed screenplay hampers Wan’s filmmaking through its sheer length and scope.

In the time between the film’s big scares, some of the tautness of the terror has a chance to loosen.  Taking ten to fifteen minutes out of the final edit might have made this one of the all-time greats.  Still, “The Conjuring” delivers where it needs to – and delivers big when the frights arrive.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: White Bird in a Blizzard

27 09 2014

White Bird in a BlizzardGregg Araki’s “White Bird in a Blizzard” begins with the interesting premise of hybridizing two familiar generic forms, the missing person thriller and the adolescent sexual flowering drama.  The body of Eva Green’s Eve Connor disappears mysteriously while her 17-year-old daughter Kat (Shailene Woodley) “was becoming nothing but [her] body.”

Though the blend starts off curiously, it eventually just feels blandly noncommittal.  The film lacks a clear, purposeful narrative through-line to propel it forward.  It progresses largely on the basis of “here are scenes of things that happen to Kat,” an assuredly unsatisfying way to watch a film.

The wishy-washy, always vacillating plot of “White Bird in a Blizzard” is certainly not helped by the fact the leading actress has already explored its central issues.  We’ve seen Woodley deal with family trouble ensuing from an absent mother in “The Descendants,” and we’ve watched her carnal awakenings in both “The Fault in Our Stars” and “The Spectacular Now.”

Woodley still has intermittent flashes of inspired breakthrough, which is a testament to just how talented of a performer she truly is.  Making a put-out teen watchable on its fourth reheat is certainly an achievement.  But “White Bird in a Blizzard” could mark the moment where she started to find brick walls where she once found niches in her archetypical adolescent.  I fear that the film’s lasting legacy will not be that Woodley revealed intimate parts of her soul but rather that she bared intimate parts of her body.

If that’s what Shailene Woodley needs to grow into an adult performer, then the film is certainly not a waste.  But I can’t help but think “White Bird in a Blizzard” does not serve anyone else particularly well, especially not its screenwriter and director Gregg Araki.  His work as a pioneer of New Queer Cinema broke boundaries; yet here, turning in a much more mainstream product, Araki seems lost and leaves a rather indistinct stamp as an artist.  C+ / 2stars








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