F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 22, 2014)

22 08 2014

As I said in my review of “Only Lovers Left Alive,” I have not seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s work to make a definitive statement as to whether or not he is a great director. But I have seen Jarmusch’s 2005 Cannes prize winner “Broken Flowers,” which is enough to inform me that he has at least one great film to his name.

This dryly humorous pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is second wave Bill Murray at his best (yes, even better than “Lost in Translation“).  He seems to have reached a status where he seems to reject the need for validation through actively courting our laughs, instead just allowing the comedy arise naturally from the events.  Murrray can then just sit back, maintain a stolidly unruffled facade, and just let the bizarre run-ins of “Broken Flowers” guide his reactions.

In the film, Jarmusch casts him as an aging Don Juan – appropriately named Don Johnston – served with a letter that suggests he fathered a child 19 years prior.  Don would be content to never investigate any further, but his inquisitive neighbor Winston (Jeffrey Wright) insists that he go visit the potential mothers.  So, in a sort of inverted “Mamma Mia,” Don takes off on a series of painfully awkward encounters with former lovers.

The parade of women, including Sharon Stone, Frances Conroy, Jessica Lange, and Tilda Swinton, always entertains.  But Jarmusch isn’t just wheeling out stereotypes or stock characters.  “Broken Flowers” takes each of these women and sets them on an unpredictable but well-imagined path after their split with Don.  It can’t help but raise the question of what exactly his effect on these women was.

To say too much more of what each woman brings to the film is to spoil the fun.  But just dive head first into “Broken Flowers” for off-beat fun throughout and a startling conclusion that packs an unexpected punch.

REVIEW: Are You Here

21 08 2014

Are You HereBack in February, I got to see Matthew Weiner’s directorial debut at a special screening in Winston-Salem, NC, where the film was shot.  This event came about halfway between when the film known as “You Are Here” premiered to unanimous pans at TIFF and its eventual quiet theatrical/VOD rollout as “Are You Here.”

The film might have been recut some since that screening.  The level of retooling needed to save what I saw, however, requires change on a far greater scale than inverting the first two words of its title.  The film was a sloppy combination of slacker comedy, family melodrama, and improbable romance, a problem that is likely rooted in Weiner’s script.

It’s fruitless to size “Are You Here” up against an episode of”Mad Men” (the series Weiner created to the tune of all the Emmys) since the two aren’t even in the same league.  It might even be generous to say that the film is comprised of discarded ideas he had in the “Mad Men” writers’ room.  Better for his show’s legacy that he managed to put all the clichés on the silver screen instead of the small screen, I suppose.

Amy Poehler does redeem the film from being a complete trainwreck with a layered performance that gives her more dramatic depth than ever.  Her character, Terri, has lived by the rules and expects to reap the lion’s share of her father’s inheritance over her aimless brother Ben (Zach Galifianakis).  And whenever she gets screwed over by the will, it forces her to reexamine her values and priorities.

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REVIEWS: Leviathan, Manakamana (Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab)

20 08 2014

LeviathanIf you’re at all a fan of documentaries (or care about seeing the future of film aesthetics), you ought to begin familiarizing yourself with the work of the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab.  These groups of experimental filmmakers are beginning to push the form in exciting directions that are worth noticing.  They have not entirely hit their stride, but two recent features, “Leviathan” and “Manakamana,” are worth examining as potential harbingers of great things to come.

I don’t intend to give an informational survey as if you were applying for admission, especially since there are two superb write-ups in The New York Times and Boston Magazine.  But if I had to reduce their goals and aims into a single-sentence mission statement, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab is aiming to document the wide range of experience on our planet through the use of uniquely innovative

I have a hard time figuring out what the actual first film of the lab truly was, but the first project of theirs that came to my attention was “Leviathan.”  This documentary, directed by Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, takes a look at the work of commercial fisherman in the American Northeast.  The approach to immersing us in that world is not to tell us about it, or even show it to us.  We have to feel it on a visceral level.

Paravel and Castaing-Taylor stick GoPro cameras just about anywhere they can and splice together their footage into something that often achieves hallucinatory heights.  No offense to your friends’ GoPro selfies on mountains, but “Leviathan” is the real deal in terms of utilizing the potential of these now seemingly ubiquitous compact cameras.  Simply trying to discern where the filmmakers placed the camera to achieve a given shot seems a herculean effort.

That lingering question about camera position quickly fades away, however, as we simply accept that these mesmerizing sequences of “Leviathan” lack a conventional center of gravity.  Freed from the constraints of traditional camera maneuvers, the film liberates us to allow the sensation of swimming through the water like a fish seize us entirely.

Sadly, “Leviathan” is not solely composed of these scenes.  At the opposite end of the spectrum from these formally daring scenes are portraits of the fishermen’s daily life that are far too naturalistic.  While the fishing is overwhelmingly kinetic, the still moments apart from the job are debilitatingly inert.  “Leviathan” might have been best served as a short subject documentary, taking somewhere in the range of 30-40 minutes to really showcase the brilliance of its aesthetic conceit.

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REVIEW: Carrie

19 08 2014

In terms of iconic decades-old horror movies, Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” probably ranks just beside Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.”  The 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel gave the world an unforgettable image – prom queen Carrie White soaked in blood – that most people recognize whether or not they actually saw the movie.

De Palma’s film has stood the test of time, however, not just on the stickiness of its imagery.  His take on “Carrie” is frighteningly well-made from a technical perspective, fusing eerie cinematography with a chillingly removed edit.  Not to mention, it is perhaps one of the best examples of fusing the ’70s “New Hollywood” spirit with the emerging commercial blockbuster.

So judging from the enduring strength of the original, there really appeared to be no reason for Kimberly Peirce’s remake of “Carrie” to come along 37 years later.  Thankfully, the film is not an overly reverent retread that matches its original nearly shot-for-shot.  But even so, this “Carrie” is a shadow of its former self that never quite successfully justifies its own existence.

Original “Carrie” screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen updates the story effectively with co-writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, taking into account factors like the rise of the Moral Majority as well as the sad phenomenon of cyberbullying.  In a way, it’s sobering to see how little change there has been in the high school experience for poor Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz).  She is kept woefully uninformed about the real world by her fanatically religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) and is thus tormented by her peers for her naïveté.

Moretz’s performance brings all the tenderness from her work as a lonely teenage vampire in “Let Me In,” really allowing us to feel sympathy for poor Carrie.  And in stark opposition, Julianne Moore’s inspiredly demented work makes us absolutely despise Margaret.  (Also notable among the acting corps is Ansel Elgort of “The Fault in Our Stars” making a great screen debut as a popular classmate of Carrie’s who jokingly asks her to prom.)

Though the acting is good, it’s not enough to overpower the lackluster filmmaking.  Pierce relies far too heavily on CGI effects to provide the horror, and they feel particularly uninspired with their low intensity.  Without the unconventional, unpredictable filmmaking impulses of De Palma coursing through the veins of this “Carrie,” the film lacks greatly intensity and excitement.  C+2stars

REVIEW: Only Lovers Left Alive

18 08 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive posterCannes Film Festival – Official Selection, 2013

I’ve listened to countless interviews with James Gray about his film “The Immigrant,” so many that I can’t pair a quote with a particular interview and thus cite it correctly.  But in one talk about filmmaking in general, Gray talked about how great directors are effective at conveying mood.

I haven’t seen enough of Jim Jarmusch’s filmography to make a definitive statement about whether or not he is a great director.  But I have seen his latest film, “Only Lovers Left Alive,” and I can say that simply because it has control of mood does not make it a great film.  Jarmusch favors ambiance over story development to a fault in his film that probably had its proper title, “Modern Vampires of the City,” stolen by Vampire Weekend’s latest album.

The film comes from an original screenplay by the director, and it certainly earns points for being clever.  “Only Lovers Left Alive” runs in a different direction with the current vampire fad,  portraying the bloodsuckers as hipsters hiding out in the latest haunt.  When we catch up with Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton’s immortal lovers, wittily named Adam and Eve, he has shacked up in Detroit while she’s hanging in Tangiers.

It’s undeniably entertaining to get immersed in the distinctive universe Jarmusch has them inhabiting.  Watching them figure out how to get the blood they need to survive is cheeky fun, as is the creative ways they choose to consume it.  Not to mention, their demeanors and attitudes are so unexpected that it can’t help but be attention-grabbing.  (Hearing them name-drop some of their famous friends makes for a good chuckle, too.)

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REVIEW: The Zero Theorem

17 08 2014

The Zero TheoremLondon Film Festival, 2013

Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem” is the kind of film that raises so many important and intriguing questions that it’s entirely possible to forget some of them along the journey.  This oblique tale, bordering at times on the absurd, stuns with the sheer density of the thematic issues that Pat Rushin’s screenplay can pack into 100 minutes.

The film grapples with conundrums as timeless as the meaning of life, the nature of happiness, and the imminence of death and nothingness.  At the same time, “The Zero Theorem” also has its finger on the pulse of many modern malaises, such as screen addiction, the fading appeal of observable reality in relation to virtual reality, and the electronic mediation of human connection.

We explore these through the work of a computer programmer known as Q, played by Christoph Waltz, as he attempts to solve humanity’s conundrums.  In a change of pace from the two silver-tongued Tarantino characters that won him a pair of Oscars, Waltz sits back and delivers a largely reactive performance.  As he attempts to unlock the zero theorem and get to the core of human existence, Q doesn’t instigate events so much as he lets them happen.  Because we’re less focused on a conventional narrative, “The Zero Theorem” can easily delve into the realm of the existential and philosophical.

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REVIEW: The Trip

16 08 2014

The TripThis summer, Adam Sandler made a few headlines for admitting a fact that shocked many but surprised few: his movies are essentially paid vacations.  Be it the countryside in “Grown Ups,” Hawaii in “Just Go with It,” or Africa in his latest disappointing film “Blended,” Sandler certainly knows how to milk the studio teat.

Across the pond, it would appear that Steve Coogan has figured out how to pull a similar magic trick.  He stars as himself in “The Trip,” a film where he gets to go around with his pal Rob Brydon (also playing himself) on a restaurant bender around England.  Surely at some point along the way, Coogan thought to himself, “My, this a great way to eat well and expense the meals to the BBC!”

The film is not without its entertaining moments – a spirited discussion of how to properly impersonate Michael Caine’s voice springs to mind – but this hour and a 45 minute trip feels like an exercise in self-indulgence above all else.  “The Trip” is a chance to spend time with Coogan and Brydon just … because.

To be fair, Coogan is a much bigger star in his native England.  In the United States, we know him mostly as a character actor from films such as “Tropic Thunder” and “The Other Guys;” he has only really begun to enter our consciousness as a public figure with the arrival of 2013’s “Philomena.”  As for Rob Brydon, I hadn’t heard of him before “The Trip” and haven’t heard from him since.

So maybe the concept would work better for me if it was done by two actors with whom I was more familiar.  If a sequel to “22 Jump Street” doesn’t happen, “The Trip” with Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum would probably be just fine.  B-2stars


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