Saturday, August 30, 2014

Movie 43

Woody Allen's 42nd film that he has written and directed, Blue Jasmine (2013), was my favorite movie of last year. It's some of his best work since Sweet and Lowdown (1999). I regret to say Woody Allen's output for the 21st century is garbage, except for maybe Melinda and Melinda (2004) and Blue Jasmine.

So I knew his 43rd movie would suck. It just had to. There's no way he could follow up on Blue Jasmine.

Magic in the Moonlight (2014, Woody Allen) is a failure, but Emma Stone as SOPHIE, the psychic, gives the film some classic Hollywood glamour with her on-screen presence.

Colin Firth plays STANLEY, a stage performer whose goal throughout the movie is to debunk the medium, Sophie. He's undeniably a Woody Allen creation from his introduction in 1928 Berlin, where he performs magic, disguised as alter ego WEI LING SOO, making elephants disappear and sawing a women in half. His fans adore him.

The opposing natures of Stanley and Sophie do make for a great scene when they meet, but it's like the only decent scene in the movie. She does this business with her hands as she tries to see her "impressions," and it's no wonder this is the image used exclusively on the poster art for Magic in the Moonlight at home and abroad.

Even though cynical Stanley swears he will prove Sophie a charlatan, by the midpoint he's of course hooked. The more he watches her and tries to figure her out, the more he's stumped.

After some negligible plot twists, Sophie decides to choose Stanley as her suitor over his rich, good-looking, young competitor BRYCE.

Approaching the third act, this whole thing falls apart and it's ugly.

I've been a huge Woody Allen fan since I was seventeen and I have indeed seen every movie he's ever directed, so I might have a little more patience sitting through this in a theatre than others, but not by much.

In real life, as many have pointed out, Colin Firth is 53 and Emma Stone is 25. Emma Stone is radiant, sophisticated and beguiling as a waif ingenue, and she does fit Woody Allen's penchant for old style glitz, but I cannot buy her portrayal of a character in love with the one played by Firth--even thought this is more a flaw on the filmmaker's behalf.

Stanley seems to pose a thesis. Woody Allen's been barking up this tree since Manhattan (1979, Allen) where he thinks a perfect depressive artist type with an enormous neurotic personality disorder embodying complete megalomania that happens to be middle-aged, is capable of attracting the faithful devotion and love of a twentysomething charming young lady. Well, I guess Chaplin and Woody Allen knows whats they likes. A variation on Allen's "the heart wants what it wants," quote is appended as a coda in Magic in the Moonlight: "when the heart rules the head disaster follows..."

Because this chemistry repulses me, the bulk of this film remained terminally unsalvageable. And as tempting as it is to consider what it would be like if say someone like myself, who is a perfect depressive, suffering from a giant neurotic personality disorder, that creates art, would attract the interest of a sweet beautiful and charming young woman, it does not serve as an adequate narrative foundation for a movie. That's the difference between art and reality. And personally I look for good movies, not representations of my deepest desires. I seek great storytelling, not solipsistic virtual reality crap.

So while this crap is maybe one of the worst movies I've seen all year, I'm still a Woody Allen fan and believe he remains our most talented, important American writer-director of all time. That's why it's so disappointing for me that there weren't even funny lines in the entire movie. The huge ego jokes structured around the Stanley character get old quick, and Allen milks this right up until the credits roll at the end. This movie could pass as watchable, but why lower my standards that far?

To end with, Woody Allen's films of the 90s hold up better than ever for me: Husbands and Wives (1992), Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Everyone Says I Love You (1996), Celebrity (1998), and Sweet and Lowdown (1999) especially. And while these works are ridden with the weird Woody Allen chemistry: Juliette Lewis falling for Allen in Husbands and Wives, Mira Sorvino (as good as she's ever looked) falling for Allen in Might Aphrodite, or Winona Ryder pursuing Kenneth Branagh's character in Celebrity, the quality of the film overall overshadows and rounds out these blemishes.

And Woody Allen's natural tendency to avoid coverage, shooting in all masters practically (no one else anywhere does this ever), undeniable talent and charming knack for dialogue and neurotic characters, eye for locations, performances and taste in music, will remain his legacy.


Friday, August 29, 2014

No Shark

Anton Corbijn's music videos include Depeche Mode's "Enjoy the Silence," U2's "One," Danzig's "Dirty Black Summer," and Nirvana's "Heart Shaped Box."

His Joy Division movie is really cool. The American (2010) is cool to look at. I also don't like espionage thrillers or anything from the spy genre. So far the exception is Zero Dark Thirty (2012, Kathryn Bigelow).

Anton Corbijn has a distinct quality when photographing European exteriors. He's great with water, imposing cube structures, and exotic urban backdrops. In A Most Wanted Man (2014, Anton Corbijn), Hamburg through his eye frequently shifts from overcast bleak concrete jungles and elevated rail trains to pitch black nights bleeding with bright oranges or greens from street sources.

A Most Wanted Man also has Corbijn flavor due to score by Herbert Grönenmeyer. Dark and cold.

Deceptively this movie wants you to think it functions as a post 9/11 terrorist manhunt procedural, which it does. But, it's not traditionally equipped with an attached clear cut resolution. Phillip Seymour Hoffman stars as GÜNTHER BACHMANN, a forlorn, jaded, chainsmoking bureaucrat German government spy. Günther's completely immersed in a downtrodden, messy, frustrating career. But he's one of  the best in the world at what he does.

Günther tracks a minnow ISSA KARPOV and gets his barracuda DR. FAISEL ABDULLAH, but he doesn't get his shark. There is no shark. This is a Phillip Seymour Hoffman vehicle driven toward a down ending twist that makes sense as apt for the maestro of the dark and cold, Corbijn.

No one else in this movie is any match for Günther. He has no problem getting the Chechin Jihadist to turn; nor, the one funneling the money to Al Qaeda that the American's are also after; or, even the fucking social worker for terrorists ANNABELLE (Rachel McAdams). I love Hoffman in this.

But I didn't get a lot out of this film.

Cut and dry, if I have to choose a single factor to judge whether or not I think a film is good, let's say it is whether or not I want to watch it again. So, this isn't a good movie at all. I was very bored. Movies should be an escape from reality, but watching this I wanted to escape the theatre to reality.

I didn't get the romantic tension between the terrorist and his lawyer either. He's Muslim and she's played by blond Rachel McAdams. How's that going to work? And how does Muslim Russian dude get money to live off of? Seriously, am I supposed to buy that he doesn't want the 10 million euros? I guess.

This movie just felt like a lame diversion and waste of time. Sorry, I respect that there are some people that like simple good spy flicks, but that will never be me.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

L'Écume des jours

I'm a huge fan of music videos from MTV during the 1990s. It's almost as developed as my passion for cinema. Maybe more. Who knows? Some of my biggest influences and today's most accomplished directors came up from these ranks: David Fincher, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, and Anton Corbijn are the Big Five.

Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry are the most visually inventive in the category of surreal fantasy invention interspersed with whimsical, childlike, spontaneous mazes of optical illusion and explore the world of dreams and memory existentially.

Gondry is more romantic and Jonze tragic. But both struggle to maintain the dramatic gravitas of their first two films after Kaufman. Coincidentally both directors first and second films were written by the then emerging talent, Charlie Kaufman.

Jonze on his own seems to prefer a surreal setting to launch a slow brooding tragic love story. Michel Gondry on his own seems to prefer a surreal madhouse where audiences are baffled and awed by intricate illustrations of places that can only exist in an expressionist exaggeration of his own mind.

Gondry has done some studio work that has resembled traditional movies more than his early inspired original music videos (Gondry invented bullet time a year before The Matrix in a Smirnoff commercial). His first two films were mainly Kaufman and he found ways to throw in his own genius of craftsmanship; but, La Science des rêves (2006, Gondry) was entirely his, from beginning to end, and looked like it could be any one of his surreal masterpiece music videos: Cibo Matto's "Sugar Water," Björk's "Bachelorette," The Foo Fighters' "Everlong," or Radiohead's "Knives Out."

La Science des rêves had an odd tone though. The romance was awkward and the point of the narrative often confusing. But maybe that's okay because it is a fish-out-of-water tale that takes place in someone's dreams. That would be Gondry's last optical illusion featue he shot on film. HD agrees with him as proved by his latest feature...

L'Écume des jours (2013, Gondry) satisfies my desire for more Gondryworld. It, like La Science des rêves, was promoted with a trailer showing off all of the sight gags. That film didn't have much that wasn't in the trailer, but L'Écume des jours unbelievably holds up to its promise and floods the screen with mayhem.

And this works because the spine is so simple it's as if it was conceived by an infant: boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy loses girl. To ape an expression I think I heard someone else mutter in the theatre after the film ended: "it's like a happy love story that's really sad." COLIN is the boy and CHLOÉ (Audrey Tautou) is the girl. Because of Tautou, comparisons with Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amélie Poulain (2001, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) will be inevitable, but it does seem obvious that one potential shortcoming of L'Écume des jours is that it isn't really a love story like the kind Amélie is and clearly succeeds as.

This is interesting. Gondry is French and I'd rather get a chance to experience the delights of his imagination even though audiences might be put off or just not into it. I'm saying movies are hard to make and I love L'Écume des jours.

The opening of the film features a barrage of images, but distinctly (1.) a house with an anthropomorphic mouse (I bet Gondry watched "Beakman's World"), NICOLAS, who is Colin's butler (?),  Colin's friend CHICK, an animated eel named ROCKY who lives in the faucets in the sinks (and soon an animated plate of sushi as lunch in another scene), a bathtub where as Colin bathes he drills a hole through the floor and pink liquid irrigates a plant downstairs that sets off a chain reaction of flowers growing in the downstairs neighbors' house; and (2), a Sixties-looking lecture hall-seating type room with rows of people typing on an assembly line of typewriters that stop briefly before moving on to the next recipient--I think this room is fate because they all type into a book that's called L'Écume des jours. And this first few minutes all to Duke Ellington's "Take the "A" Train."

In the first act Colin wears white leather doc Marten hipster shoes and a slim-cut gray suit that makes him look a lot like Peewee Herman, or maybe I just think that because his house feels so much like Peewee's Playhouse. Peewee, Gondry, and Gondry's male protagonist are all manchild/arrested development hipster types. The first act is swarming with Gondryworld's foundation: stop motion animation (CELLOPHANE!!!), intentionally shoddy looking projection, distortion of scale and space perspectives, and dancing with exaggerated weird rubber legs. And there's a lot of handshaking that is this effect where both parties hands rotate at the cuffs simultaneously (is that a joke, "rotator cuffs?").

I wish I had more time to go into the pianocktail, but umm, it's a piano device that makes drinks based on notes and it's a really great prop gag. Oh man and there's this cake that's construction is animated and when Colin saws into it, it's pink insulation with a section cut out for a bottle of perfume and a telegram that he has a date.

Colin quickly meets and falls in love with Chloé and their ice-breaking is typical Gondry with the guy trying to say something sexual to be charming but it's just awkward. In this instance, I think it's something like: "it would feel better if it was with hands down there." The dream couple get in a swan vehicle that is suspended from a crane that cruises them through the city. They wind up at Les Halles, which is a big construction site that's really toys shot and projected--Gondry loves construction sites. They have an amazing underwater wedding and later a honeymoon picnic with "mixed weather," where half of the screen and scenes are raining while simultaneously the other half remains bright and sunny.

Such a small detail as a photo with "6 months later," inscribed on the back, depicting the happy couple, is next on a wall and it's six months later. I want more of this stuff in movies damnit!

The couple reside in a traincar lodged in between two buildings, high up in the air. There're bunkbeds inside. This is the typical Gondryworld domicile.

The rest of the film follows Chloé's diagnosis and treatment of a terminal illness resulting from a snowflake that flew into her lungs and a 3' water lilly that grew in her right lung. Holy crap that sequence is magnificent. The inside of Chloé's chest is like straight out of Björk's "Human Behaviour," video that Gondry directed. It's all construction paper, cotton and handmade looking.

And while all of this is beautiful, we haven't invested in these characters like Ryan O'Neal and Ali MacGraw or anything like that. It still feels like a music video. But that's Gondry. Chloé even says early in the film, when she first meets Colin and he asks how can she like him, he's hardly spoken a word when she replies, "It's okay, I love blanks." Maybe blanks are more fun, or at least not excluded from a working model of movie storytelling.

The second half grows more despondent and dark. Right around the time Colin refuses to murder a bunny at work, Chick's girlfriend ALISE (Nicolas's daughter) then murders the author of the books Chick reads out of passion. Then Chick is murdered. That's a quick tonal shift.

We get a melancholy black and white epilogue mourning everything Colin has lost and the mouse delivers a flip book, drawn by hand, depicting the moment Colin and Chloé fell in love. That's all I needed to say this works.

I have a minor discrepancy with Drafthouse Films releasing a 94 minute version of L'Écume des jours, released as Mood Indigo and that being the only version available here in the states. I like shorter movies and maybe this thing needed half an hour cut from it, but I'd still like to see the original. Oh well...

Definitely one of the coolest creations of fun art I've ever seen. Love it.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

12 Years a Project

The story begins with Richard Linklater shooting a movie about a boy that follows him as he grows up, picking up bits and pieces, at his leisure, for 12 years.

After a 30 year career, Linklater has never surpassed the promise of his first two features--no sophomore slump for this dude: Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993).

Boyhood (2014, Richard Linklater) feels like captured life, especially the nuances of the ordinary normally taken for granted. As a model of filmmaking this is the farthest from my own ideal--spiritual, melodrama, brutality, and subversive exploitation.

Boyhood feels like Bresson without the spiritualism, brutality, or economy (and with pop music).

However, after 2 and a half hours, Boyhood is astoundingly, the uhh stuff that memories are made of.

About 2 hours in it is also apparent how much time MASON (Ellar Coltrane) spends in school, listening to music, changing his hairstyle, and getting to know the various stepdads and stepmoms his divorced parents subsequently shack up with. That's real life. No frills. But, don't movies need frills? This movie stands apart because it's just trying to show life and 4 good people.

Mason, his sister SAMANTHA (Lorelei Linklater), and their parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, are all good people trying their best; but, for real, not like "The Brady Bunch," or "Step by Step."

The real life growth of the actor playing Mason hits you more if you've seen the film twice because it really is something for a character to age from 6-18 in a single narrative feature. Documentaries are different. When the fuzzy-headed little boy asks his dad questions like: "Dad, do you have a job?" or "Dad is magic actually a real thing?" it exhibits something acting alone cannot--the portrayal of innocence by a child whose own innocence is authentic.

The other items on the shopping list are: peer pressure, new religion, first shitty food service job, first truck, and first love. And there's a lot of pop culture references that offer that gimmick where the novelty lies in recognition and nothing more, but it's cute. "She didn't even like any of my favorite three movies of the summer: Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, or Pineapple Express!"

Boyhood opens with a shot of Mason laying in the grass as Coldplay's "Yellow," plays on the score. This is the exact time I stopped listening to music. When I was 12 my boyhood had something like "I Wanna Sex You Up," or "Gonna Make You Sweat," as its score. So it's weird, all of the music pop culture references are unfamiliar to me. But this is Linklater's movie and you know, he's sweet. There's gotta be some room for that.

Some Linklater flavor (his accumulated films display his personality) in Boyhood to point out is that the clerk at the gas station where the alcoholic first stepdad sends his kid in is the very same actor Wiley Wiggins buys from in Dazed and Confused, I reckon. And Mason's rant's like about how facebook isn't healthy or important or the NSA matching freshmen according to their private records is told in the subtly Texan accented, Alex Jones-like, Linklater diatribe. Watch Slacker again and you'll get what I mean.

To try not to completely contradict myself, I'm trying to say that I don't enjoy this movie, it's not entertaining, it's too long, and it lacks dramatic conflict; yet, I am impressed by it and even touched.


Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Can Optimus Defeat Lockdown, his Creators, Galvatron, Dinobots, the US Government, military, CIA, and Steve Jobs?

I am a genuine fan of Michael Bay, due in large part to his last three films: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011), Pain & Gain (2013), and his latest, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014). His fluid large scale set pieces covered in geometrical patterns by strategically placed cameras, dollies, and helicopters, saturated palettes, sexy surface beauty, larger-than-life Steve Jablonsky scores, cadres of tactical swat teams, and intercutting of overcranked cartoon imagery make his films entertaining, impressive, and inimitable.

The first two Transformers don't matter to me at all, but were written by Kurtzman and Orci, while 3 and 4 are written by Ehren Kruger. In part 3, Dark of the Moon, we get a quick revisionist history primer: the Apollo 11 moon landing was really President Kennedy's mission to explore some important Transformers wreckage before the Russians. And while the astronauts landed, they went to the dark side of the moon and encountered Sentinel Prime, who was planning a teleportation bridge to bring Cybertron on Earth--don't worry, Optimus prevented it.

Transformers: Age of Extinction in 3D (2014, Michael Bay) gives us a quick revisionist history primer: the extinction of the dinosaurs was actually the Transformers first visit to Earth and they destroyed all existing life and replaced it with themselves (forming Dinobots, but more on that later...).

This is the first film in the franchise with a serene opening. It's in space, quiet. Cool sunflares come at you in 3D. Then a simple font as the title appears and vanishes. Unlike the previous installment's trademark huge, eardrum-shattering metallic clanking and computer humming, buzzing and title that inexplicably transforms into the title card. I did like those.

We're then in the Arctic just like how The Thing (1982, John Carpenter) opens. Michael Bay photographs the shit out of locations like this.

Next we are in Texas.

One night I was at my Dad's house in Corpus and I came home late, drunk. I flipped the channels and found Dark of the Moon and decided to fall asleep to it. In my state of euphoria a scene played that occurs at 1 hour and 34 minutes into the movie right after the destruction of Chicago where 1300 were killed. It's early dawn and cheesy country music rock ballad music builds. Some poor, honest, real folks at a motel hop in their GMC pickup, then a black dude gets in his GMC pickup in an old commercial sector and as schmaltzy as this stuff is I devoured it. I did a Chevy commercial with Bob Richardson ("Chevy Strong," on youtube) that does this same crap and I'm susceptible as hell to it. I definitely feel that the CADE YEAGER (Mark Wahlberg) scenes in Texas with rolling green cornfields, windmills, weathered barns and blue skies does the trick.

TESSA YEAGER (Nicola Peltz) is Cade's 17 year old daughter and a toned down sexpot compared to her predecessors Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whitely. She does wear some short jean shorts and as she's introduced there's a shot from below and in her legs looking up from behind her as Cade gripes at her about washing her shorts in cold water and air drying them--this is kind of all we need to know about these characters.

Titus Welliver is way cool as the bad guy SAVOY, who is introduced at Cade's house in glorious Bay fashion. We get obtuse roaming coverage of his profile, weirdly off-timed shutter speeds and ominous sound design, along with his entourage of  6 blacked out Escalades and a helicopter. We also get the great Cade line: "We got a saying about messing with people from Texas...". Transformers 4 is darker and less silly than previous entries, as evinced by Savoy putting a gun to Tessa's head ready to execute her.

To escape the barn there's the first exceptional action sequence: the rally car driven by Tess's boyfriend LUCKYCHARMS plows through cornfields, and there's near misses with the Escalades, but really it's the overcranked shot of the rally car flying out of the mound and the wheel peels out on the badguy's face as spittle floats--see Pain & Gain for reference to Bay's previous shots with the Phantom camera and CGI spit.

There's a surfer TNMT type West coast burnout who is unessential, but as the first act ends there's that magnificent Bay shot of the plural protagonist walking slowly away from huge explosions, but the surfer is burnt alive--see, more darkly violent. He's left like the cover of the album "Enemy of the Sun." There's even some guilt acknowledgement as Tess chides Cade: "all you had to do is report it and now Lucas is dead."

Next we go to Chicago.

Stanley Tucci plays a significant lead character named JOSHUA JOYCE STEVE JOBS who runs a company called KSI APPLE that develops technology and has figured out how to make his own controllable matter, transformium, and do everything the Transformers can. I've always liked Stanley Tucci and I think this is great casting here. Steve Jobs is matched against a CIA villain played by Kelsey Grammer and they both "set out to do good," as young boys so they got a parallel-I think the script is pretty decent.

Bingbing Li plays Steve Jobs' business partner and represents interests in the company owned by China (like the movie itself, in real life). She doesn't speak much, and while gorgeous and formidable, Bay doesn't really use her as anything more like a doll for set dressing.

Everyone has a nemesis. Megatron is now GALVATRON, who hunts Optimus along with bounty hunter LOCKDOWN. Steve Jobs has the CIA villain. Wait, next complaint: LOCKDOWN isn't that cool because he's just like slim and built and mean. In Transformers 2, THE DEVASTATOR combined all of the construction vehicles and destroyed the pyramids with its huge spinning shredding metal vortex while he exhausts storms of debris in his wake. In Transformers 3 (my favorite so far) SHOCKWAVE is like the coolest villain ever, with his DRILLER and complex means of demolishing huge buildings, skyscrapers, and anything in his way.

And, Shockwave has that sinister one red glowing cyclops eye.

And, Shockwave makes weird animal noises sound effects when he appears. Man I love Shockwave. But, there's no Shockwave in Age of Extinction. Lockdown is lame and talks with a British accent. The scale of Lockdown's ship behind him in the Texas scenes are visually striking though.

But Bumblebee's nemesis, STINGER, has really cool sound effects, that screeching whistling insect siren.

There's a great downtown chase in Chicago. Man, how'd they get to film all that? Great location work.

Next we go to Beijing.

Geng Han is the dude playing guitar in the convertible that gets sucked up in Shanghai and he is a huge star in China in real life. I know some people who worked on this and there's a funny anecdote about Amir Mokri, the cinematographer, being instructed to offer special treatment to Geng and receiving an explanation about how famous he is, to which Mokri replied: "I don't care. I don't give a shit. I fuck Chinese Justin Beiber in the ass. He's nobody to me..." And there's another story I heard about Bay getting mad and throwing a walkie into the Grand Canyon.

The scenes downtown in Shanghai with the car wrecking while in the back ground an elevated train and ocean liners are pulled up to the sky by Lockdown's magnet are full on Seventies disaster genre homage done right. Wow.

Somewhere nearby Optimus has no chance left but to go recruit the Dinobots, travelling to a conveniently close for the sake of the plot location. Optiums fighting a fire-breathing T-Rex is almost ridiculous, but not when you get the logic of this franchise. It's what we've come to expect.

Back in China Bumblebee uses a pterodactyl buddy to fight Stinger and that's another great sequence.

The conclusion has some good arc. Cade is ready to die for Optimus by the end, as Tess is ready to die to protect her dad Cade, and Jobs buys them a disaster relief home because their's was destroyed.

It's kind of bullshit that Galvatron survives because it feels like we're watching a serial instead of a stand-alone movie. And that Optimus threat to his creators: "Leave planet Earth alone because I'm coming for you," lacks the closure one typically demands from a two and a half hour movie.

I saw this in 3D, twice. And I'm glad I did.


Monday, August 25, 2014

All You Need Is Kill

I've kept watch on the career of Doug Liman for practically as long as I've grown up with the movies. Swingers (1996) and Go (1999) were fun in my teens. The Bourne Identity (2002) and Mr. & Mrs. Smith (2005) were larger escalating Hollywood action star vehicles that seemed like he'd lost his individuality or voice.

But now Jumper (2008), along with his new Tom Cruise movie, look like Liman has found a niche with intimate interior conflicts in protagonists who are somewhat reluctantly thrown into a life with new super powers. I know, I'm into it too.

Fortunately for me I actually got to walk into the theatre for this with no idea what the plot was about.

Okay, so I might have remembered scanning across the term Groundhog Day somewhere.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014, Doug Liman) is Starship Troopers meets Groundhog Day. (Okay I should confess I think a good friend of mine told me this a while back and I forgot.)

Oh and Edge of Tomorrow is based on a Japanese source novel called All You Need Is Kill, which I know nothing about whatsoever, but man is that an awesome title--I can't figure out why any distributors would want to change that title here in the US but I ignore it and always think of this movie as All You Need Is Kill.

All You Need Is Kill (2014, Doug Liman) stars Tom Cruise as, great casting here, an asshole officer who wants to avoid combat so in the first few minutes he's thrown right up into the front lines of a huge battle. He pulls it off. It's like the whole time he's a fish out of water, but Cruise is also not exactly the young action star he once was, so that parallel is crucial to the drama.

I'd only just seen Emily Blunt in a movie earlier in the week, The Five-Year Engagement (2012, Nicholas Stoller) but I fell in love with her totally in that. In All You Need Is Kill she's some average citizen who overnight becomes a military hero who annihilates thousands of mimics in combat. (Mimics aren't really important, they're bad guys that are very dangerous.) Blunt's got blond hair this time out and she's so spritely a waif and since a lot of this movie takes place in Paris and other parts of France, she feels a lot like Joan of Arc.

Bill Paxton is like the Ned Needlemeyer of Grounhog Day and he keeps reciting some lines about battle being the great redeemer, the fiery crucible, the only place where true heroes are formed, the one place were all men truly share... blah... blah... blah... But he's got a Kentucky accent and as staff sergeant makes the movie feel like it takes place during the Civil War, which is fun. Also it's nice to see this military group with enormous obstacles ahead in their mission and even more enormous artillery to deal with it setting in someone other that James Cameron's hands. The Paxton-Cruise scenes are genuinely funny, in an otherwise somber action movie.

This movie is like if the Groundhog Day template was refined by Stephen Hawking and turned into a script that fully utilizes that discovery. I mean every which way you can imagine. A disturbing part of All You Need Is Kill is the tendency in some training exercises to reset (by killing yourself or having someone else kill you) and effectively resulting in scenes where some characters die several gruesome deaths in a few quick moments.

There is one tender moment during this where the Cruise character stares at the Blunt character for a few seconds the morning after one of her gruesome resets; however, she is totally oblivious and we the audience of course, are the only ones to get what he feels.

Cruise's go to, or his Q, for the weapons and strategies he needs is played by Noah Taylor. All You Need Is Kill feels a lot like Vanilla Sky (2001, Cameron Crowe) in the way Cruise plays a protagonist in a world that is not our own yet so close, and we attempt to understand its rules as a plot device. Noah Taylor functions in a very similar role to Cruise in Vanilla Sky.

The best part of this story, while it's got a great plot, is Cruise's character arc. By the end, around that third act, after he's been through it all and out of time to mess around, when he's become cynical, bitter, hardened, and that soldier asks him,"are you drunk?" we really feel like he cares about shit.

Although one minor potential plot hole for me was that device that the Noah Taylor character gives Cruise that helps him see the real vision of where the Omega is. Did I miss something? Should I need to know more about he just happened to succeed in perfecting this technology?

The opening invasion scene is amazing and the repulsion out of the plane by the flying soldiers is as cool as Jumper's aerial action scenes. Doug Liman's doing interesting work with these two and I think he'll follow up with some more soon.


Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Nightmare Crew

Writer-Director Kat Candler spent a decade honing her craft through shorts dealing with intimate character pieces told with her nurturing, hip, heartfelt touch. She's carefully planned her first big feature with help from the independent filmmaking community in Austin, TX, specifically the Austin Film Society and also from workshops and the eye of the Sundance Institute.

Filmed in October of 2013 on location in Port Neches, Port Arthur, Groves, Nederland, and Galveston, TX, and starring Aaron Paul and Juliette Lewis, an expansion of a short she'd made in 2012 called "Hellion," screened at Sundance and South by Southwest in 2014 with a limited theatrical run and VOD release.

Aaron Paul's character HOLLIS is the least interesting part of Hellion (2014, Kat Candler), but the dramatic anchor in the piece. His brooding performance is what is called for, albeit with its tendency to remain locked in a singular specific tone. It lacks the dimensions that arise elsewhere in the ensemble. I'm not talking about Juliette Lewis's AUNT PAM, Hollis' sister who is ordered by Child Protective Services to take young WES into her custody, although Lewis also delivers a decent performance.

The boys are what this is about and Kat is a master at working with these young actors, most of whom have never acted before. Hollis' boys, 8 year old Wes (Deke Garner) and his older brother JACOB (Josh Wiggins) are front and center the protagonists of Hellion.

Jacob rides with his crew HYDER, LANCE, and ROGER riding dirtbikes, listening to heavy metal, and committing senseless acts of vandalism. In the script, Kat referred to these four as The Nightmare Crew, but they are never addressed as such in the finished film.

The opening of the film is the most destructive instance of the Nightmare Crew's mayhem, scored to a high-octane metal scourge, Jacob leads a demolition job on some cars in the parking lot of a high school football game, using baseball bats and gasoline while the boys indulge in full reverie of their power. It sure looks liberating. This scene is crucial because Kat starts with this crescendo of frivolous violence and matches it with a chain reaction of domestic turmoil that grows parallel in pitch with the Nightmare Crew's potential demise and subsequent survival attempts.

Jacob is vulnerable because he's lost his mother and his dad turned into an alcoholic who tried to abandon his sons, leaving Jacob to take care of Wes, unsure of where his father went or when he would return. His anarchy is an external manifestation of his pain, and Wes wants to be just like him.

It's a tearjerker.

The rest of the crew, like Hyder and Roger, are good kids, but they are delinquents out of boredom. They are even kind of pussies. Except for Lance, the beefy kid. Lance reads skin mags and already in early adolescence has acquired a world-weary misogynist disdain for women other than as sex objects, cusses, and like Jacob, comes from a rough home. Lance is played by Dalton Sutton, a young man who had never acted before, and I bond with his character the strongest (it might be also because I worked on this as Second Second Assistant Director and bonded with him the most in real life. He's a good kid. He's the only one of the boys who really lives down in Port Neches and he plays the only character who is really all bad.) But Lance is what Jacob (and Wes) are doomed for if they don't make some serious changes.

The music here fits the respective character as far as its date and style. I love the scenes with Wes and his pop songs. It says so much without words that he's into sweet good stuff too unlike the other headbangers. There is a huge ethical dilemma in Hellion: if Wes loves Aunt Pam and she obviously is capable of providing  a better life for him, then should he leave his dad and brother?

Wes's laugh is hysterically charming because that's the actor Deke's laugh in real life. I swear if you heard him laugh in real life and it doesn't melt your heart than you are a sociopath. I'd worked with Deke on a short a while back and knew him and his dad, Derek. Deke's name is really Derek too, but his dad calls him Deke because he'd loved that name in the Elvis Presley movie Loving You (1957, Hal Kanter) where the King plays Deke Rivers.

The energy and pace of this film has got the intensity of adolescence and the turmoil of small town dysfunctional family hardships to a tee.

The film's not a Hallmark card in the way its denouement leaves open serious questions as to what Jacob's choices are in the future and it ain't no bowl of cherries.

Shot entirely handheld, with lots of long lenses to capture the facial expressions of the actors, the film is a modest success and has cool dirtbike races.

Being on set I definitely shared a huge part of my life with the Nightmare Crew while we were out there and I'm happy I could be there for them. To quote an "Eastbound and Down," line from the first season by Kenny Powers, "I kept it real with those motherfuckers, and they kept it real with me."


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Noah (New and Improved by Hollywood!)

The Bible is cool. It helps to be familiar with the various incarnations that the word of God has gone through over the ages. There's the Vulgate, Septuagint, Hebrew Tanakh with Torah, along with the various apocryphal works and eventually the King James, among others. These were all drafted in different languages and all share similarities and omissions in comparison with each other.

I thought Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky) might be cool because I like many of Aronofsky's films: Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000),  The Wrestler (2008), and Black Swan (2010). My dad actually videotaped an episode of "48 Hours," for me in 1998 that followed Aronofsky's process of completing and finding distribution for Pi, sort of like a production diary. Thanks, Dad.

The movie Noah sucks.

First of all we get a creation myth. Okay, cool. Snake tempts Adam and Eve. They eat forbidden fruit, Cain kills Abel. Got it.

But then we are told that "The Watchers," a band of angels, have been sent to watch over Adam and Eve while God created the rest of the world. And The Watchers are giant slow walking rock people. Here's where they lost me, pretty quickly: The Watchers bore me to death for the same reason I don't watch any Peter Jackson Tolkien movies, which is because The Two Towers put me to sleep when trees started walking and talking--it's just so frikkin boring. But The Watchers also came from outer space to "protect mankind," wait isn't that the job of the Transformers and Optimus?

Also Noah takes the serpent's skin from his dad as a birthright and this thread is tied up over the course of the film by the end. But why? Why keep the skin? Why does it glow? This snake skin business is stupid.

Jennifer Connelly plays Noah's wife. She has always been one of the most beautiful actresses around--and I'm really picky about beauty. Here she looks radiant, classically elegant, natural, and her expressions are weighted with the sorrows of a lifetime of adversity and sacrifice. Her dark thick eyebrows, and mole above her left lip delicately complement her tearful visage. Right away we also may root for this handsome couple because they were also John and Alicia Nash once upon a time.

The CGI is amazing. Time lapse photography of the river that miraculously springs forth to find the Ark is one of the early spectacles shown, followed by various classes of animals finding their way to the Ark (first birds, then snakes and reptiles, then all of the beasts that walk on all fours...). These sequences of biblical proportion are the best part of the film. There's also some cool POV shots from the two doves.

Sexy as hell Emma Watson is soon introduced as Ila, who will be the wife of Noah's son Shem.

And Ray Winstone is introduced as a Tubal King who is the heavy Noah must battle. Yeah the Hollywood producers thought Noah needed a bad guy to fight, of course. So, Winstone's character stows away on the Ark (ughh!).

About 80 minutes in the flood occurs.

The movie just totally sucks from here.

Yeah okay, I get the heavy guilt laid on Noah. But I don't buy it. By this point Noah believes he is evil because he would kill to protect his family. Umm, no. Noah also refuses to let Ham bring a wife on board. And by this point I'm fuming because I know there's no way this movie is going to show God telling Noah to kill a pregnant Emma Watson. No frikkin way!

Plus wasn't it Abraham who was tested by God to murder his own child? This seems like a borrowed plot from elsewhere in the Bible.

So by the end Noah doesn't knife Ila's twin baby daughters (No-duh!). And also during the last hour one can't help but wonder who Noah's male offspring will have sex with (if at all?) if the only women that survive are Ila and Naameh. This matter is resolved somewhat adequately. Ham just straight up splits, but before he leaves there's this shot where he's staring at Ila and her two baby daughters. This moment reminds me a lot of the scene in Your Highness (2011, David Gordon Green) when the Justin Theroux wizard character tells his captive played by Zooey Deschanel that he remembers kidnapping her as a little girl and thinking to himself, "wow that's a baby and one day I will have to have sex with that baby." Sorry, okay? I had to mention it. But those questions loomed large for me and I'm sure I'm not the only one.

And at the film's conclusion Noah presents his surviving kin their birthright, the glowing snake skin! But God appears as a fireball that emits concentric light rings before simultaneously exploding and turning into a rainbow. Yay! See? God does talk!

Great CGI, I'm still a fan of Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson and Russell Crowe, but man this piece of crap is unforgivably ridiculous and silly. At least the ethical dilemma between Tubal and Noah was clear, but fight scenes and weird rock people ruined this movie for me.

Aronofsky's longtime DP Matty Libatique shot Noah on film and it does, as mentioned, look amazing. The scale and detail of the deluge, and animal migrations are ILM magic goodies.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Republic of Zubrowka

My biggest bias to overcome with Wes Anderson's films is the nagging reluctance I have to root for his brand of protagonists which I tend to deem lame White nerds. Don't get me wrong, I think Anderson is one of our brightest auteurs. While I prefer everything after The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004, Anderson), my favorite of his films, I only say that I respect his earlier work (not like). I hated Rushmore (1998, Anderson) even though many of my dear friends adored it. Rushmore for me was always problematic because I couldn't get past the big-headed (ego and cranial mass) manchild in a weird little schoolboy uniform with shorts like Angus from AC/DC used to wear (although in Max Fischer's case seemingly unironic), who treated everyone around him like shit basically.

Then I despised The Royal Tenenbaums (2001, Anderson) essentially because it felt like a failed tragedy on the grounds that all of those good looking rich White brats didn't generate any empathy from me whatsoever and I felt like the only one who wasn't engaging with these whiny pussies.

But The Life Aquatic found Anderson brilliantly mastering artifice. The sets were unashamedly fake in a fun way. The costumes were cartoon inspired. And the location work was exotic and gorgeous. Anderson blends real locations with miniatures all the time now. I love The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and Moonrise Kingdom (2012).

Bigger biases that awaited me for Anderson's latest include the aforementioned lame White nerd contempt but also add that of taking place in a hotel and centering on the bond between a young lobby boy and a middle-aged slightly effeminate single male concierge.

Seriously? People think hotels are cool? Thinking about hotels makes me psychosomatically sleepy. A bond between a man and a boy? Aww hell no.

But indeed Wes Anderson succeeds with his genuine knack and commitment to original storytelling in his latest film, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

The film opens with a layered framing device. An unnamed girl in the present visits a statue of a writer from the Eighties who wrote a book about a hotel owner he met about 20 years prior whom he was told a story about a concierge that worked at the same hotel from '32 to around '38. Or, we're hearing a story of a man that inspired a man to tell another man who wrote it and a little girl read it. Why? Umm, I can't say exactly. Cause it's cool?

Right off we're introduced to M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), the head concierge of the Grand Budapest. What ultimately separates this man from other of Anderson's lame White nerds is his proclivity for having sex with several different old dowagers who are all blond, self-absorbed, and rather like himself in these ways oddly. Kind of like Monsieur Verdoux (1947, Charles Chaplin), Gustave is a platform for rather Black Comedy, but Chaplin killed old ladies; and, Gustave is somewhat more disturbing because he actually may love and be turned on by his assortment of octogenarian lovers, even though he doesn't murder them. There's a great moment early in the film when Dmitri (Adrien Brody) exclaims in front of a crowded room: "...he sleeps with old women... and he probably fucks them!" And there's even what I take to be the first (partially) nude sex scene in a Wes Anderson film (?), a shot of Gustave getting a blow job from an elderly woman.

And as Gustave is introduced there is a music box effect on the score which accompanies him. I don't know, it sounds like children playing an xylophone.

Along with M. Gustave we are introduced to The Grand Budapest Hotel. A truly delight to behold, the miniatures of the edifice, surrounding snow-capped Alps, ascending ski lifts, and majestically perched Elk atop a peak are cleverly old fashioned and carefully chosen. The interiors are pink, purple, orange, and a golden champagne. The architecture is symmetrically foreboding.

The supporting cast is marvelous, but special mention should go to the antagonists Desgoffe und Taxis: Dmitri and Jopling (Willem Dafoe). Dmitri has that special brand of Anderson's trademark insolent arrogance. And Jopling is truly menacing and darkly hilarious with his crew cut, 8 identical rings on his knuckles, missing front teeth, and leather trenchcoat (with snap flap where he keeps his pistol and liquor). Jopling is homicidal. Is this the first Wes Anderson movie with murder?

Another cute old-fashioned touch is Jopling's iris in device with accompanying organ swell as D.u.T. leitmotif. Then there's the baking of tools to escape prison into pastries as a means of smuggling them inside; the fake yet kinetic staging of the downhill sled chase; Jopling's demise with accompanying Wilhelm Scream.

The pacing of this movie is relentless and I commend Anderson for it. It's classic adventure which is rarely found nowadays.

Gustave's language is crafted extensively and is a real treat. Yes, the requisite flash and filigree are amusing, but his process of deduction, charm, and colorful expressions ("She was shaking like a shitting dog.") round out the finished work.

I wish I could go more into the cast and compliment the various international players, but instead I'll just close with saying how much I loved the scene where Jopling throws Deputy Kovacs' (Jeff Goldblum) cat out the window and Kovacs replies: "Did you just throw my cat out the window?" and the reactions of the female cousins, some of them claiming they don't think he did--mastery of comedic tone. And the moment Gustave acquires "Boy with Apple," saying: "I'll never part with it. I'll die with it above my bed. Actually we should sell it..."

But finally, a word on Grand Budapest Hotel's aspect ratio. The film was shot in 1.33:1, resembling a square--which in this case resembles exotic Hollywood films of the Golden Age. Gus Van Sant has shot a few films: Elephant (2003), Last Days (2005) and Paranoid Park (2007) he exhibited in this ratio, but it's been virtually obsolete when showing first run mainstream Hollywood films since the Fifties. I love it and wish other filmmakers would use it more often.

Congratulations to Anderson again. He won me over, this time, again.