Thursday, October 31, 2013

"The Counselor" review

"The Counselor" is an enigma of a film. Anyone expecting an action-packed crime thriller will be very disappointed here because that's not exactly what "The Counselor" is going for. There are some thrills; there are some pretty gruesome death scenes, but this is a film that's more interested in the philosophical aspects of greed and extreme pride than a body count. Problem is, the end result does not add up to a competent, fully-functional film. By many accounts, it's an unquestionable failure, but goddamnit if it's not an interesting failure.

The Counselor, that is, the title character of the movie (Michael Fassbender) is a hot shot lawyer that plans on marrying his beautiful girlfriend (Penelope Cruz), doing so by proposing with a very expensive 3.5-carat diamond. He decides to get involved in a drug deal that apparently promises a four thousand percent return rate, a decision that his business associate (Brad Pitt) warns could wind up being an extremely dangerous venture, especially when dealing with Mexican drug cartels.

Murphy's law would look like a pleasant dream compared to what soon follows after the Counselor decides he wants in on this deal. Literally every aspect of this drug deal goes way wrong and suddenly the Counselor's life is in great danger. What makes matters worse is who the Counselor is actually up against. Throughout the film he has his chats with friend, Reiner (Javier Bardem), whose girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) is batshit crazy. Once Reiner's girlfriend catches wind up of this drug deal, all bets are off.

That's pretty much all that needs to be said about the movie's plot. I had a tough time recounting it all in my head because "The Counselor" doesn't really emphasize plot all too much. "The Counselor" is an exercise in bad behavior and the inherent punishment that coincides with such bad behavior. In The Counselor's world, it's not that these bad people can't survive without severe consequences, it's that everyone who meets their demise is ultimately too naive to know what's really coming to them. They're too smart, too prideful to realize that there may be someone else out there that's a few steps ahead of them. The film, in a heavy-handed manner, plays on a "hunter vs. prey" motif, symbolized by Malkina's pet leopards who remain a striking presence throughout the film. And while the ultimate lesson here, greed = bad, is a rather simplistic one when all is said and done, "The Counselor" is still intriguing in the way it explores its themes.

Unfortunately, one main flaw is the casting of Cameron Diaz as Malkina. Her character turns out to be the smartest person in the film, but the way Cameron Diaz plays her does not suggest that at all. She overplays her hand too often, trying to make Malkina seem menacing and sexy but instead goes way over-the-top. Reiner mentions how much of a psycho Malkina is, but Diaz plays that aspect of her character to the extreme, completely derailing the film in the process. Ultimately, she's just not convincing as a baddie and compared to the restrained performances from Bardem, Fassbender, and Pitt, she seems completely out of place.

Moreso than the poor casting choice, "The Counselor" is just way too heavy-handed thematically to be effective. It's too clever and cute for its own good and the lengthy dialogue is just not filmed in an interesting or cinematic manner. The film is devoid of subtlety and the end result is something that comes off as glib instead of entertaining. Its philosophizing too often comes off as being pretentious instead of something smart or insightful. It's clear here that Ridley Scott wanted very much to stay as true to Cormac McCarthy's script as he possibly could, but in doing that, wound up making a film that feels flat and un-cinematic. And we're talking Ridley Scott here. At his best, Scott is as cinematic as it gets even if his films in the past decade or so have been consistently underwhelming. The main commonality in all his films of late seems to be the lack of a coherent script. Here, the script is not incoherent, but it's definitely rife with problems that should've been easily solvable during the pre-production/development process. McCarthy is, first and foremost, a novelist. "The Counselor" is his first screenplay, as a matter of fact. So, one can understand the problem here. "The Counselor" probably reads much better as a novel, but as is, does not make for a successful adaptation into movie-form.

Still, there is indeed something quite intriguing about this movie, something that will make me want to revisit it in the near-future. It's definitely onto something. The way the characters match wits with each other can be pretty fun to watch and the film features a scene involving Diaz and a car that you will not forget easily. What we're left with is a film filled with such promise, it's just lacking the right execution to make it all work in the end. It's a bad film, but fascinatingly bad.

Grade: C+

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Blue is the Warmest Color review

How much is too much? That's a question that often gets asked when discussing films, especially films with controversial scenes. There are times when a discussion, on what is otherwise a great film, can be completely derailed because of a particular scene that stands out way more than the rest. And when the scene is extremely violent or sexual, it raises that question: how much is too much? For me, the question is slightly different. See, I think a film has the potential to go anywhere it wants to go, but it has to earn its way there. When Dennis Hopper's character in "Blue Velvet" huffs gas and stares between Isabella Rosselini's legs while saying "mommy"... that's a scene that will really stick out to anybody. Does the film earn its way there? For me, absolutely yes. The film successfully created this world where a character this deranged can exist. It was very carefully orchestrated and it's particularly unsettling and disturbing. Ultimately, it works.

A much better example, comparable to the film I'm about to talk about, is Irreversible's 8-minute long rape scene. Now here, the answer is much murkier. The film is unsettling in so many ways and you can argue that its rape scene is particularly effective because of how ugly and vulgar its depicted. But then you ask yourself, why must it be 8 minutes long? Why not 5? Or 2? At what point is the point getting across? Do we, as an audience, deserve some ounce of mercy? Gaspar Noe, the director of Irreversible, would probably answer no. And you know what? Fine. That can be a valid answer, but what does that mean for the actual film itself? Are you not doing your film a disservice when one particular scene is the only thing being talked about? With Irreversible, you could argue that the 8-minute rape scene is so powerful, so uncomfortable, so unnerving that it makes the rest of the movie "suffer" by comparison. Then again, that could also be the point. Watching the movie's main character, played by Monica Bellucci, later have more tender scenes with her significant other---it's completely marred by the fact that we know her character will later get raped. For me, while the scene itself is very unnerving and something I don't want to ever revisit, I understand its placement and how it serves the rest of the movie.

This brings us to the movie I'm supposed to talk about, Abdellatif Kechiche's "Blue is the Warmest Color." This three-hour French language film is largely a very moving, intimately-detailed romance drama about a teenage girl's first love. Thanks to the long running time, we really get to live with the film's main character, Adele (played by Adèle Exarchopoulos) as she goes to school, hangs with friends, eats with her parents, has a brief fling with a guy, etc. Adele wants to be an elementary school teacher and seems to have all the steps figured out in order to become one. Soon, however, she will meet a blue-haired girl named Emma (played by Lea Seydoux) by chance and her life will be changed forever.

Through Emma, Adele experiences her first true love in all its beauty and ugliness. Again, the film's relaxed pacing allows for this romance to really blossom and the tension that exists between Adele and Emma is as real as it gets in the movies. You can really feel there's something between them when they have small talk in a bar. Something about Emma really throws Adele for a loop, and it throws us for a loop too, thanks to the way the movie's filmed.

Abdellatif Kechiche made a very conscious effort to shoot in as many close-ups as possible. While, for a three-hour runtime, it has the tendency to feel excessive and restrictive, it definitely works as a whole. We see this world so intensely through Adele's eyes that it makes her romance with Emma, at times, feel almost too intense to bear. When Adele winds up doing something later on in the film that will forever break Emma's trust with her, her attempt to reconcile with Emma is one of the most heartbreaking scenes you will see all year. There is a raw emotional honesty that both actresses bring to their roles which makes it all feel so believable and Kechiche's close-ups definitely underlines that.

A 180-minute romance film allows time for some true subtlety to take place. We get a great sense of both characters' emotions and the film goes to places other romance films tend to skip. There's a great confidence that exudes in the way the story is told here, nothing ever really feels too stretched out because of how emotionally expressive both Adèle Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux are. The film takes time to highlight Adele and Emma's social differences. In Emma's world, everyone is accepting and happy of the lifestyle she's chosen, but Adele's world is not quite the same. When her friends first catch wind of the possibility that Adele may be a lesbian, it does not go over very well. Adele loves Emma, but is careful to keep those feelings in check when they're hanging out with her parents. There's a nice set of scenes where we spend time with Emma's parents and Adele's parents. In the scene with Emma's parents, Emma's mother and stepdad know what the deal is between the two lovebirds. But with Adele's parents, Emma is merely known as a "philosophy tutor". What's great about these scenes is that they are merely parts of a whole. The film isn't about what Adele's sexual identity means to everyone else, it's about what it means to her. The film goes through great pains to emphasize that this is her story, that when she messes up, you're going to side with her even when she's wrong. Through her lens, we are learning her sense of what's right and wrong. How other people perceive her is important, but ultimately, the film is about how Adele feels about her own sexual identity and she's given the time and space to work that out on her own.

So, as you see, there is so much to treasure about this film. While, by the end, all we are really seeing is a coming-of-age story, it's so intensely told that it feels very fresh and different. Rarely do you see a teen romantic drama feel this intimate. Rarely, in most other films are the characters given room to explore such feelings in such subtle ways.

And this is why the film's depiction of its graphic sex scenes are so damn puzzling. Sex scenes should merely complement a film, they should not envelop the film as a whole. "Blue is the Warmest Color" is certainly given room to explore Adele's sexuality. We are given intense glimpses of everything else in her life, why wouldn't we explore her sex life as well? That is definitely understandable. It's not the sex scenes themselves that are a problem, it's how different they feel from the rest of the film. While the rest of the film moves about in a relaxed, subtle manner, the sex scenes here are very graphic and is depicted as being very much what it is: sex. Generally, that's fine, but in our central scene, the sex goes on for about ten minutes. For ten minutes, we watch Adele and Emma get very intimate with each other and, for what it's worth, it definitely seems like it's a very eye-opening sexual awakening for both characters. Unfortunately, we can only derive that from this scene. We don't really feel that. There isn't much to feel here, as a matter of fact. The way its depicted, thanks to the sheer length of the scene, really does walk beyond a specific line. Not some invented line that all cinema can't cross, but the movie doesn't feel as if it has earned such a lengthy sex scene. The importance of the scene is what it means to Adele and there are many ways to convey this experience. But, Kechiche eschews that in favor of giving us borderline-pornographic sexual positions that, at the end, does nothing for the audience except titillate (or point and laugh at its ridiculousness). The scene winds up taking the audience out of the movie briefly and.... that's a problem.

What makes things even more problematic is how the author of the graphic novel, in which this film is based on, points out that the sex scenes are more cartoonish than anything else. As the author puts it, it's as if the filmmakers' only source of inspiration were pornographic lesbian sex scenes. And while obviously, I cannot consider myself an expert on realistic lesbian sex, it does seem odd that Kechiche would shoot this sex scene (among the others) in this particular way. The other sex scenes kinda have a similar problem, but can be excused because they're much shorter. And honestly, if the central sex scene was shorter as well... there'd be no problem overall. But the fact remains that it's ten-freakin-minutes long and there just comes a point when it's no longer serving a real purpose to the story. It no longer feels like a powerful sexual discovery for the film's lead character, at a certain point it's just a couple of young girls engaging in sexual acts. I never thought I'd go the prude route here, but Kechiche's methods here borders into creepy Larry Clark territory (see the films "Kids", "Bully", and "Ken Park" if you don't know what this means). And part of me feels sorry for the actresses because you can't always tell how some directors are gonna shoot certain scenes. Obviously, they knew what they were getting into but there are different ways of shooting sex scenes and it just seems like Kechiche chose the most revealing, straight-forward method possible. It feels like lesbian sex from a male's point of view.

Luckily for director Kechiche, as a whole, the movie is mostly a success in its intimate portrayal of teen first love. What matters most here isn't the two leads' sexual identity. Adele's first love just so happens to be a girl. The movie never makes it a point to determine that she's strictly a lesbian, and in the end, we're left to question where she may go from here. Ultimately, she seems lost, having experienced this intense first love that was rewarding in so many ways, that lasted up to her 20s. In some ways, she has the whole world ahead of her, but on the other hand, she's left to ponder whether any future romances could ever match her romance with Emma. I love the way the film leaves us guessing. There is no exclamation point nor definitive statement here, Adele's life will go on. The film does a wonderful job showcasing how so many of these types of relationships often end in ways where so many things are left unsaid, so many questions remain unanswered. When most relationships end, especially the type Adele has with Emma, it tends to end with a frustrating ellipses, not an exclamation point. That sentiment is most definitely felt here.

In the end, "Blue is the Warmest Color" feels like a film that's simply decided to make one bold move after the other. It wants to go deep inside the lives of its principal two characters, and for the most part, it's extremely rewarding. It's not a completely smooth ride, and its direction is sometimes misguided (and quite nearly, derailed), but overall "Blue is the Warmest Color" is most definitely worth the trip.

Grade: B+ A-

Update 10/31: After further reflection, I've changed my mind on the grade. This really is a great movie, and I'm penalizing it too much based on my own reservations on the main sex scene, which really isn't as damaging as I initially felt. In other words, just see the movie! It's great. 

I almost never ever change grades, but I felt it was important to do so here. Blue will easily make my year-end best list.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

"12 Years a Slave" review

*light spoilers ahead, but really, none of these details will affect your viewing of the film*

"12 Years a Slave" is an immensely powerful film. It's not a film that somebody really "loves" because it's too brutal to be loved. But it's also too important to ignore and gives us the most definitive perspective on America's ugly past with slavery thus far. So many of us sat through history class where we certainly were told about slavery, but it was never an emphasized portion of history. It was moreso, "this is something that happened, but it doesn't happen anymore" and it's often left at that. "12 Years a Slave" refuses to leave it at that and, quite frankly, it disturbs me the way a few detractors treat this film. This is a conventionally made film with a very unconventional approach to its treatment of violence and subject matter. It's conventional in its formalism, but unconventional in how it absolutely refuses to turn away from the violence it depicts. I'll admit, this makes for a very uneasy watch, but that doesn't make it a problematic film like some may say. Far from it. The fact of the matter is that we should be forced to see these violent acts, we should be seeing the film in this manner. Not only for what it means to us, but for what it means for the lead character, Solomon Northup.

Based on a true story, in 1841, Solomon Northup lives in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. He's a talented violinist and is lured into a touring gig by a pair of men while the rest of his family is out of town. After a drunken night out with these men in Washington, DC, Solomon finds himself alone, chained in a room he cannot escape from. He will soon find out that he has been kidnapped and sold into slavery, along with a couple of other young black men (as well as a woman and her two children) who are in similar situations.

And from there, the film begins its uneasy, uncomfortable journey into this darkness that is the American South. Yes, "12 Years a Slave" forces people to see what slavery actually entails. Human beings being made subservient to other human beings where any slip up or act of defiance and they can wind up dead. If they try to escape, they're dead. If they grieve for their children, who have been taken away from them, they're dead. If it is found out that they can read or write, they're dead. "12 Years a Slave" is about all that, yes, but most importantly, it's about how one man was able to endure all of this. He was able to endure all these horrific thoughts as a slave, trying his best to play the part to avoid certain death and yet, for some reason, he insists on surviving. Most importantly, he escapes. Then, amazingly, after all he goes through, he's able to write about his experiences. "12 Years" is, in many ways, about human endurance. It's about our natural propensity to want to live in spite of everything. It's about how, no matter how many horrific stories there are about slavery, about the holocaust, about any of these terrible events in this world, there is that one story about a person who is able to escape. That story reinforces the importance of the human condition, what makes us unique is our innate ability to survive despite seemingly impossible circumstances.

There's no sugarcoating or forced sentimentality in this film. Again,  "12 Years a Slave" is a conventionally made film where its conventionality is juxtaposed with this horrific violence which not only reinforces the brutality that occurred in this era, but later, makes Solomon Northup's eventual escape that much sweeter and emotional. When he's finally able to escape and gets to see his wife and children for the first time, you won't find a more emotionally earned moment in cinema. It's an incredibly well-earned emotional scene because, man, we saw everything that he went through. Everything. We were right there with him.

We were forced to watch when he fought for his life while a noose tightly hangs around him. Thanks to the "good fortune" of having his feet being able to touch the ground, Solomon prevents certain death and keeps his toes tippying on the ground, keeping himself alive. But why? At that point in his life, why? Why continue living? Where other people may cry foul or call this particular scene gratuitous, I would have to whole-heartedly disagree. This is the single most important scene in the film. Not only does it show Solomon's inexplicable ability and will to survive but it also shows just how ordinary such an act is to the rest of the plantation. While he suffers, everyone else on the plantation just goes about the rest of their day. The scariest thing about "12 Years a Slave" isn't its depiction of brutality, it's how everyone else in the film responds to the brutality. It's incredibly unsettling to us and yet completely normal to all these other people. And in a way, that scene puts the camera on us. Why have we been able to deal with this dark period of our history with such indifference? And I'm not talking about "white guilt" or anything like that, I'm simply talking about those people who insist on saying that "slavery happened a long time ago" and that it's not even a conversation worth having with people. That today's African-Americans should refrain from even bringing it up because it happened so long ago. But when you're a young African-American and you're brought up into this country and you come to find out some of the horrific things your ancestors had to go through, how the hell are you supposed to act? How are you supposed to feel? What right do we have to tell them how they're supposed to feel?

"12 Years a Slave" would not be nearly as successful if not for the incredible acting all around. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an incredible performance. He always plays the role with just the right balance that the role calls for. The whole film rests on him, too. If his performance doesn't work, the film is nowhere near as effective, but because he absolutely delivers, it elevates the film. Michael Fassbender is also very unsettling as Edwin Epps. What makes Fassbender such an amazing actor, and it's on full display here, is the sheer unpredictability. You can never pinpoint how he's going to react at any second and yet he gives this role such a focused, and at times, quiet intensity. The film is also well-served by great performances from Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Benedict Cumberbatch.

I do have a few minor grievances with the film. Two, really. The first one would be the score from Hans Zimmer. While I did appreciate the unique approach to the instrumentation at times, I ultimately felt the score was too overbearing and overpowering at times when it wasn't really necessary. For me, the visuals were so powerful that it either didn't need such a big musical score behind it, or it could have been complemented with something more subtle that didn't call attention to itself. There were too many occasions where I felt that the score called attention to itself and didn't really add much more drama to what were already incredibly dramatic scenes. Sometimes a big musical score can be great and can help add emotion or layers to a film, but "12 Years a Slave" is already so inherently layered, that it just wasn't warranted in this case.

The other main grievance is the appearance of Brad Pitt. For me, Brad Pitt was more than a little distraction. He doesn't appear until the very end of the film, and while his role is important to the story, because he's such a big name actor and his role is so small, it did distract me. I greatly respect Brad Pitt and I know that his production company helped get the film made, but I think we could've done without his appearance here. He just didn't really add anything to the role that warranted his inclusion.

Steve McQueen has really turned into a special filmmaker. In just his third film, he's created such a clear through-line in his three works. All three of his films now, "Hunger", "Shame", "12 Years a Slave," are about men who go through unbelievably great trauma in order to achieve a certain goal. The goal isn't always positive or noble, especially in "Shame," but I think each film explores the sheer amount of abuse (physically, emotionally, sexually, physchologicall) we can take in order to prove something. Not to other people, but to ourselves. In "Hunger," it's a man going through a horrifying hunger strike to stand up for his convictions. In the end, who is he doing it for? In "Shame," it's a man who's need for sexual satisfaction leads him down a path towards self-destruction. He has an insatiable thirst for sexual stimulation. It's not something he wants, it's something he needs. It's pure, unadulterated, unemotional, animalistic sex. It's a film that explores just how inhuman sex can be when put through this lens.

And finally, "12 Years a Slave" is about a man's inexplicable need or desire to stay alive despite the fact that all hope is essentially lost. It's all there in the title. 12 YEARS. That's an entire run of education for most people, from 1st grade to high school graduation. After year 5, why would he insist upon himself that he must keep living? And when he finally does escape the plantation, it's not without the thought that he's leaving behind dozens of people who will remain enslaved until they die. They have no hope. They have no plausible method to escape. There's no way for them to become free. But, after 12 years, he can't weep for them. He must find a way to find some solace in his freedom. And thankfully, by writing about his experiences, his story will live on forever. His story, a reflection on so many similar stories that don't have happy endings, is a happy ending. Finally, he's able to justify his actions because he made it. His need to continue living will not be for nothing.

I deeply respect and admire the way McQueen handled this film. A director who, in his first two films had the tendency to be a little too self-indulgent, shows remarkable restraint here. He lets the story speak for itself and yet, at the same time, this is very much his movie. Not just in the way it relates thematically to his other films, but the fact is his unflinching style is very much still at play here. This is a story that played perfectly into Steve McQueen's strengths as a filmmaker who is absolutely unafraid to keep the camera running when the audience demands that he cut. "12 Years a Slave" is absolutely essential viewing because it approaches its subject matter with absolute fearlessness. There are many times throughout the film that you will want to turn away, but you shouldn't. Because, at the end, when Solomon Northup is finally free and you get to feel what he feels? What an unbelievable rush.

Grade: A

Saturday, October 19, 2013

2013 IS actually shaping up to becoming a great year, but what does it really mean?

Take a look at this decade thus far. Start with 2010.

You had the Fincher/Sorkin combo that is "The Social Network," Aronofsky at the artistic highpoint of his career thus far with "Black Swan," Chris Nolan make an original blockbuster film and it succeeds critically and commercially with "Inception." You also had Danny Boyle's "127 Hours," Edgar Wright's "Scott Pilgrim," Coen Bros' "True Grit" remake, David O. Russell making a comeback with "The Fighter," Derek Cianfrance with his breakthrough film "Blue Valentine." Etc. You get it.

2010 was a good year in film. A solid year in film. Lots of great directors that came up during the 90s/2000s each making their best work. So good, they started getting actual recognition for it. Russell and Aronfsky were nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for the first time in their career. Fincher, for the second time. The Coens had already gotten the ultimate recognition three years earlier but still, a Coen Brothers film getting ten Oscar nominations? Original filmmakers finally getting big time recognition, that's a pretty cool thing. I wasn't crazy about the fact that Tom Hooper won for The King's Speech, but that's beside the point. They were still nominated. These directors, who had been making solid work for a number of years, were starting to get attention. Real attention. Black Swan made serious bank at the box office. The Fighter had a solid box office return. Inception went over $800 mill worldwide, True Grit broke the $100 million barrier.

2011 was a bit of a drop off year. I've gone over this. Scorsese, Malick, Fincher all made very good-to-great films. Nicolas Winding Refn and Steve McQueen were solidifying their status in the arthouse world. Alexander Payne came back after a seven year absence, though the film he came back with wasn't his strongest effort, he's still one of America's best filmmaking talents having carved his own unique niche in the dramedy sub-genre. Point is, he came back. David O. Russell came back, the previous year, after a six year absence

Then the next year, Paul Thomas Anderson returned with "The Master" after a five year absence. In fact, when you look at it, a lot of these filmmakers had substantial breaks between films in the 2000s. It was five years (2002-2007) between Fincher films at one point, Darren Aronofksy had a six year absence, PT Anderson had two five year absences, Wes Anderson had a five year absence between live action films, Tarantino, in between Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds, essentially did a little throwaway film in between. Let's not forget the six year absence between Jackie Brown and Kill Bill. These filmmakers are all great original voices and with their films being released sporadically, you had a lot of years in the 2000s where there were maybe a handful of great films at the top, but not much depth. 2007 was the rare year where that was the exception. Other than that, you just couldn't be sure what each year would bring us. Why? I think a big reason is that so many of these filmmakers had a tough time getting their projects off the ground. With Russell and Payne, they both got stuck in development/production hell. Russell with "Nailed" and Payne with "Downsizing." Finally, they dropped their projects and moved on to something new.

The reason why the 70s were such a great decade wasn't just the Hollywood system allowing these directors to have unprecedented creative freedom. These filmmakers were making films every year, or every other year. Scorsese made five films in the 70s, Francis Ford Coppola made four, Bogdonavich made Targets, Last Picture Show, What's Up Doc, and Paper Moon within a five year period. Hal Ashby made seven films in that decade. De Palma made 8. Friedkin made 5. Robert Altman made 13! You get the picture.

The decade was great because these filmmakers were prolific. Not all their films were impeccable great, but they never ceased being interesting, and as a result, each year had a great number of interesting-to-great films getting released. Now I'm not here to compare the 2010s to the 1970s because it's way different now, the climate. But with so many people bemoaning the decline of cinema, with the overabundance of blockbusters, isn't it interesting how many great/interesting films and filmmakers have been emerging these past two years in particular? And, possibly, the next year?

Last year, we had Wes Anderson, Nolan, Tarantino, Rian Johnson, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kathryn Bigelow, Martin McDonagh, Michael Haneke, Soderbergh, Spielbergh, Andrew Dominik, Woody Allenm Ridley Scott and David O. Russell all come out with films.

This year, Soderbergh again, Allen again, Danny Boyle, Noah Baumbach, Derek Cianfrance, Sofia Coppola, Shane Carruth, Richard Linklater, Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols, Guillermo Del Toro, David O. Russell, Alexander Payne, Spike Jonze, Nicolas Refn, Edgar Wright, Alfonso Cuaron, Paul Greengrass, The Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Jason Reitman... what an explosion.

But see, since everyone largely pays attention to the summer, many would consider 2013 a disappointment. I thought 2013 had to be a drop off from 2012 because the last decade dictated that much. We never really get so many interesting filmmakers making films in the same year. 2007 was that rare year where a lot of them happened to come together. It wasn't the norm.

Now whether or not 2013 will wind up being a better year than 2012 is debatable. They both are clearly better than 2010 and 2011. They were both top heavy years. A couple of great films at the top, as there are every year, but then there's a pretty substantial drop off in quality once you get past the top 5 or 6. Last year, I had Silver Linings Playbook at number 22 in my final list of favorite 2012 movies. Silver Linings was solid as hell and probably would've been just shy of being in the top 10 if it came out in 2010 or 2011. But, it came out in a stacked year and, for me, wasn't quite as essential as those other films. Russell is capable of great work and I thought that film was just good. At times, it was really good.

2013 is becoming another stacked year. I had my doubts coming in as there were a lot of filmmakers which potentially interesting films coming out but too many question marks. So what happens? More often than not, they are delivering. While there were some disappointments like Elysium and Only God Forgives, so many others really delivered and there's still quite a few that haven't officially come out yet. Buzz for the Coens' "Inside Llewyn Davis" as well as Spike Jonze's "Her" is incredibly high. Cuaron and Greengrass each had potentially interesting films and they knocked each one out of the park, basically. Edgar Wright was able to top Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. The carry-overs from 2012 (Place Beyond Pines, Mud, Frances Ha) wound up being as good as promised. Altogether, while 2012 had at least 7 films that were absolute solid A's for me and 2013 so far only has 3, that we're getting so many near-A films is a victory in itself. I see 12 Years a Slave tomorrow so the jury is still out on that for me, but look at the damn rottentomatoes scores for Gravity, Captain Phillips, and 12 Years a Slave! 97%, 94%, 96%. Holy shit. Have you seen such high scores on a week-to-week basis? Could it just be a coincidence, given that we haven't had that kinda consistency all year? Perhaps, but this is just the beginning of the Fall movie season. Let's not forget Prisoners wound up with a very solid 81%. It goes without saying that a rottentomatoes score isn't the definitive proof on what makes a great movie, that's obvious. But those are insanely high scores, that can't be denied. My point is that these films are coming out and are getting universal praise. Why? Because this is a great year for film, as was last year. Something very interesting is going on here. Don't you think?

Look at 2014. So far, these are the films we know are coming out next year: Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel, David Fincher's Gone Girl, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, Darren Aronofsky's Noah, Woody Allen's Magic in the Moonlight, we must assume one of Terrence Malick's films will come out too, Ridley Scott's Exodus, Michael Mann's Cyber, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Birdman, Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, David Cronenberg's Map to the Stars. Then there's the possibility of Noah Baumbach's While We're Young, Todd Field's The Creed of Violence, Denis Villanueve's "Enemy" (which premiered at Toronto this year).

Right now, aside from the first five I mentioned, the rest don't even look like home runs. Each film has potential, given the track record of the first five I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Any of those five could wind up being bad films, but I doubt they'll be boring or uninteresting. And that's what's exciting. Plus, given how many filmmakers this year wound up delivering, who's to say that a number of those filmmakers won't deliver in 2014? They very well could. I haven't even mentioned Lars von Trier's Nymphomanic, which looks completely insane. We could be looking at yet another delicious year for cinema next year.

Who knows if any of this can be kept up? 2015 is looking like such a scary year, given the number of franchise sequels that are coming out, but that doesn't mean the rest of that year can't deliver the goods. We already know Guillermo del Toro's Crimson Peak and Neill Blomkamp's Chappie will be coming out that year, who knows what else. We could just wind up having a three year peak of great films, but it really seems like we've hit a sweet spot. There are just enough interesting filmmakers from a number of different eras making films at the same time. You have the old legends like Scorsese mixed up with the Gen-X veterans like PT Anderson and Tarantino, and you have the filmmakers that have come up in the 21st century like Rian Johnson, Edgar Wright, Jeff Nichols and Steve McQueen. Whereas the 70s had a bunch of filmmakers from roughly the same generation making great films, this decade could just be the ultimate mix-match of a multiple generations. There's been so much talk about how Hollywood is on the verge of collapse, and yet we have such a great in flux of filmmakers right now. And we've had two huge years, in a row, for film. With quite possible, a third around the corner. Things can't really be getting that bad, could they? Could they, as a matter fact, be getting better? As long as all those aforementioned filmmakers keep getting chances to make films at a faster rate thanks to production companies like Annapurna and Indian Paintbrush, then we may actually be in pretty great shape. At the very least, we're in much better shape than we may have thought. Hopefully, this momentum can keep for the next decade, considering a lot of these filmmakers have just reached their 40s and 50s. If Scorsese and Ridley Scott can keep making films well into their 70s, then so can the Gen-X guys. Am I right?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Captain Phillips review

"Captain Phillips" is a taut, consistently intense thriller, expertly filmed and crafted by director Paul Greengrass. Greengrass is best known for the "Bourne" sequels as well as "United 93" and while making those films, created a new way of filming action thrillers. Lots of hand-held work, quick cuts, purposeful confusion, and just all around chaos. "Captain Phillips" finds Greengrass's style at its most controlled. The camerawork is always purposeful, and it really gives off a "you are there" type feel without the threat of making you feel nauseous.

Topping off excellent filmmaking and a tightly wound plot, with what might be Tom Hanks's greatest performance and you have a highly exhilarating thrill ride. Obviously, I must choose my words carefully here as the film is based on a true story and of which there are a lot of real world implications. Still, watching Hanks as Captain Phillips really reminds you why he has been such a popular actor for so long. It's not just the charisma and the all-American quality that he brings, in Captain Phillips in particular, Tom Hanks has always carried an utter commitment to his roles and, we forget, he can really carry a thriller like nobody's business. He's not the biggest badass in the world, far from it, but he's unbelievably convincing when the stakes are high. Watching him in the last 20 minutes kinda left me speechless. I never saw him play a character that looked so damn lost and in such complete shock. And this is the same guy who played a man dying of AIDS and another man stranded on an island. Here, when the military rescues him and they question him, the utter shock on his face really threw me. He was very solid all throughout the film, but at that moment, he showed me why he's one of our greatest actors.

The film's actual plot is simple enough, though it unfolds in a complex manner. Captain Phillips heads a container ship that's meant to sail the Indian Ocean, going around Somalia. The area around Somalia is notorious for its abundance of pirates and pretty soon Captain Phillips will see that first-hand. I have read articles that claim Phillips is not portrayed accurately in the film, that he's not exactly the kind of hero that the film depicts him as. For me, though, I didn't really see him as a hero. I saw him as a complex, difficult, and perhaps, stubborn man whose actions wound up getting him into more trouble than he had anticipated. The struggle he winds up going through with these pirates is absolutely chilling and you can really feel the intensity between the pirates and the ship's crew. I don't think the film goes out of its way to show Phillips's heroic qualities, even though I can see how the actual crew members of the ship could feel otherwise.

When the pirates wind up on the Captain's ship, Phillips does his best to calm them down. He's already made sure almost all his crew is hiding in the engine room. And his goal is to make sure the pirates can't find them.  He ultimately fails to successfully bargain with them and they drag him into the the ship's lifeboat where they will hold him for ransom. This is a plan the Somalian pirates have not necessarily thought out clearly enough, but when Phillips tries to reason with them, they simply won't listen.

There are a few choices Greengrass makes in the film that I found a little befuddling, and I'll get to that later, but one big thing that is worth commending is watching the back and forth between the action that takes place in the lifeboat, while at the same time, seeing how the military goes through their preparations in taking down these pirates. It's really fascinating stuff and so well done, that I don't even care if it's fully accurate. I love the way this military procedural is filmed with the same intensity as Captain Phillips's kidnapping.

What winds up being a bit confusing, in the end, is the choice to attempt to humanize and/or understand things from the Somalian's point-of-view. We're given a taste of what these pirates are like before they get on a boat and track down this giant ship and... it isn't much to go by. Yes, they have a leader and they're following orders, but once they get on the container ship, something just doesn't feel right. Obviously, Greengrass may have felt an obligation to at least try to see things from their point-of-view, but the dialogue between them and Captain Phillips just makes them sound like thugs. There's no consistency here. If you're going to give some background on these characters, it would seem important to follow through on this and help us to understand them better. Instead, they quickly become "evil, heartless, violent pirates." Of course, to Captain Phillips, they may have very well come off as evil and heartless. It just seems like an odd choice to even attempt to see things from their view when, ultimately, this is Captain Phillips's film. Ultimately, we rejoice at his rescue. If the pirates had been characterized better throughout, perhaps their demise would have been met with some consternation. This is the one aspect of the film that felt a little too clumsy.

And ultimately, there does seem to be a case of confusion on what the film wants to be. Is it a straight-up tense action/thriller? For the most part, that's what it appears like, and when viewed in that lens, it's nearly flawless. But, the film occasionally falters when it attempts to understand and dissect US-Somalia relations. Some of the interactions between Phillips and the pirates' gang leader read a little false to me and, overall, there just seems to be some confusion as to how to handle these characters. It's like the filmmakers did not want to straight up depict them as "bad guys," but ultimately, that's pretty much how they're depicted.

That said, Barkhad Abdi, who plays the pirate leader Muse, deserves a lot of praise for how well he handled his character. His portrayal of Muse is incredibly chilling and, I imagine, a hard role to pull off. He managed to go toe-to-toe with Tom Hanks pretty effortlessly and was a very convincing foil. His naivete was interesting, and again, I wish it was explored a little better. But he definitely handled his role with an abundance of confidence. I would not be surprised if he wound up being nominated for an Oscar.

Incredibly successful when it's 100% in action/thriller mode, but a little murky when it attempts to go beyond its genre constraints. Captain Phillips, all-in-all, is absolutely a must-see film and is deftly handled by director Paul Greengrass.

Grade: B+

The Grand Budapest Hotel trailer

A new Wes Anderson movie. Comes out March 7th, 2014. Need I say more? Here's the new trailer.

Monday, October 7, 2013

In case you forgot, The Coen Brothers have a movie coming out this year still

This is easily the best made trailer I've seen this year. It really gives you a sense of the film's atmosphere and tone. I will see anything The Coen Brothers make as even their "ok" movies are better than the majority of the crap that's out there. Having said that, this looks like it could really be amazing. "Inside Llewyn Davis" comes out December 6th.

"Gravity" review

"Gravity" is one hell of a movie-going experience. Let me start off right at the bat by telling you that this film demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible and in 3D. If you see it in 2D and on a small screen, you are missing out. The bigger the screen, the more immersed you are. Needless to say, it was the most immersed I have ever been at the movies. Ever. I've tried to think of a movie that comes close and I can't. You know how "Life of Pi" had amazing sequences out in the ocean but then it cut away to "present day" and took you out of those amazing moments? "Gravity" never lets you cut away. Never. In fact, there are very few moments in which it cuts away, period.

Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson asked on his twitter why people should be impressed by "Gravity" when there is "2001" and I have that answer. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is more a philosophical film. It's completely engaging in different ways, but one thing that "Gravity" manages to do that "2001" never really did was completely capture the human experience of being alone in space. The emotional experience of being alone in space. With all of its jaw-dropping photo-realistic visual effects, what will surprise you the most about "Gravity" is just how intimate it is.

The film starts out with a beautiful image of earth and soon you are brought into this world that's populated by only three characters, only two of which you get to meet. There's veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski, played by George Clooney, who is a complete motormouth. He never stops talking in the beginning the movie, which is good, because you can't really hear much of anything else. In space, everything is quiet except for the characters who can talk to each other. As soon as you get used to hearing Matt's voice, it gets taken away and all we're left with is the panting and the short breathing of Mission Specialist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).

This is Stone's first mission out in space and she's picked the worst occasion to be out here. In one long unbroken opening take, which will be analyzed and studied for years to come, we go from just hanging out with Matt and Ryan Stone to suddenly being forced to watch them handle the tons of flying debris that's headed their way. The high-speed debris comes into collision with their space shuttle and Ryan Stone winds up tumbling out of control. For what feels like forever, we watch Ryan Stone spinning in space, trying to keep her composure whilst being unable to stop breathing. The more she breathes, the lower her O2 levels get. So each breath she takes ratchets up the tension. And for 80 out of the film's 91 minutes, the tension never dies. It just keeps building, and growing, and it becomes unbearable after awhile.

Director Alfonso Cuaron has constructed the sci-fi thriller of our time. It's not just the visual effects or the aforementioned intimacy he creates by having us all experience the film through Ryan Stone. The greatest stroke of his genius is the way he's able to craft this story, constantly raising the stakes. Each time Ryan Stone manages to get out of a jam, she finds herself with yet another impossible task. Cuaron just absolutely refuses to relent, refuses to give us a moment to catch our breath. Keep in mind, throughout this entire time, Cuaron and his crew are using brand new technology in order to capture all these images. The way he's able to craft this film completely astounds me. Like he did with "Children of Men," you can't help but wonder how some of these shots are even done. How is he able to do these things? He's not merely a director, he's a magician.

Back to the intimacy. "Gravity" is epic in many ways, but through it all, this is an intimate story of one character's struggle to survive despite seemingly impossible circumstances. Often, Cuaron forces us to view the film strictly through Ryan Stone's eyes, this frightened Mission Control specialist. She, like the audience, is trapped in this situation and has no idea how to get out of it. And by making this such an intimate experience, everything that we see looks that much more immaculate. Whether it's earth, the sun, the space shuttles, the debris, or even the characters in their suits. It all looks so goddamn real. And by keeping the focal point of the film on the main character, and not on all these other things, it really amplifies the experience.

No matter how photorealist everything looks, if we were merely shown all these things without a specific perspective, it would be easy to take yourself out of this world. Even in 3D. It looks amazing, but it's outer space. What's that got to do with me? They're just pretty images. But Cuaron keeps the entire film locked into Ryan's perspective and we're barely given much time to really enjoy everything we're seeing. Earth, the stars, the shuttles... they're all around us at all times. They're just there. They're never really pointed out to us overtly, barring a few moments here and there, they're often just in the background. So you're not just thinking "oh what pretty images," it actually becomes ingrained into your viewing experience. It's slipped in. You're as close to being in this movie as you'll ever get. It's amazing.

Sandra Bullock is stellar in the film. She gives a very physical performance and considering the fact that she spends the majority of this film in a space suit, it's incredible how she's able to humanize this character. If there's one aspect of the film that's "lacking," it's characterization. We don't really get to know all that much about these characters. But, that's not due to a defect in the script, it's due to the nature of this story. This is a tight 91-minute space thrill ride. The pacing is non-stop. There's no time to get background checks here. We know just enough about Ryan and Matt for us to work the rest out ourselves. Because this story is told so intimately, we are able get to know this character from a visual standpoint. By the end, it doesn't matter how much we know about Ryan. We just had an experience with her.

And that's what "Gravity" is, it's an experience. I can't help but marvel at this film, it's an incredible achievement. It's a film that takes a person's will to live to another level. It's a film that really tests what it means to be alive. Space is completely unforgiving. We live here on Earth and, obviously, are given everything we need to live. What if it was all taken away? What if we were surrounded by bleak loneliness? The image of Earth behind Ryan starts to haunt you by the end of "Gravity" as it's always visible when Ryan is out space-walking yet actually making it to Earth feels more and more like an impossibility. This film is not merely a method for Alfonso Cuaron and his crew to test out all their new visual effects toys, Cuaron has crafted a film that is rife with meaning and emotion. Beyond that, it's a film that showcases remarkable vision and craft. Combine those aspects with Bullock's powerful performance and you have the ultimate cinematic experience.

Grade: A+