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American Sniper (2014)
American Pop Propaganda
The War on Terror has been raging on since the seminal moment of this millennium; September 11, 2001, a day that has quite simply changed everything since. No part of our lives has been entirely unaffected, and the fact that this holds true for every American citizen may help to explain the reason for the film's astounding success in its first weekend; just about everyone seeing this film knows exactly the details and events surrounding the conflict which Chris Kyle became known as 'Legend,' which only enhances his stature in most peoples' eyes as a bonafide American hero who risked his life four separate times to fight intense combat in Iraq, often forced to stay behind and cover his fellow SEALs and Marines who were deployed to more dangerous work such as house-to-house searches in war zones for information about al- Qaeda leaders. It is his story that has come to represent the accomplishment, at whatever price, of the early phase of this newfound type of conflict. Whether or not it has been worth the risk remains hotly contested.
It should be noted that it is almost impossible to review any film which covers any aspect of the War on Terror without comparing it to Zero Dark Thirty, Katherine Bigelow's masterful account of the ultimate mission for the United States in the Middle East: to hunt down and kill Osama bin-Laden. Chris Kyle himself has said in interviews that he wishes he had been assigned to SEAL Team 6, the team responsible for although he certainly did his share on Team 3 in killing various Iraqi insurgents. Nevertheless, on a filmic level, Clint Eastwood's steady, conventional and even-keeled style seems to underwhelm this material. Here we have the story of a man where the tagline is "the deadliest sniper in US military history," yet the bulk of the story seems to take this description for granted. In contrast to Zero Dark Thirty, the screenplay doesn't get into the specifics or details surrounding the complicated aspects of fighting terrorism on the enemies' home turf and the impact that has on American foreign policy as a whole. Indeed, much of the larger geopolitical themes are muted here in order to focus on the rather repetitive structure of showing Kyle's extraordinary ability to kill from astonishing lengths.
Of course, this is a much more focused type of story, but the character of Chris Kyle seems to be an archetype symbolizing American forces instead of a fully-realized individual. He exhibits typical behavior of any deployed soldier regarding guilt about dead soldiers as well as the conflict between needing to remain loyal to his family and his country. These are well-treaded conventions of recent war films, not the least of which is Bigelow's other intensified journey into the mind of the modern solider, The Hurt Locker. Kyle is very similar to Jeremy Renner's devoted and effective soldier who finds himself addicted to any form of combat as a drug, although the true story element does add a different understanding of the effects.
This is not to say that the film is made without a certain amount of professionalism and understanding. Bradley Cooper is very effective as Kyle, bulking up without looking too muscular or movie-hunkish. His acting focuses on the details of portraying a patriotic Texan, complete with the slow drawl, affection for beer and rodeo, as well as complete devotion to his wide-mouthed wife and growing family. Cooper's full range as an actor is on display here, complete with the dead-eye stare of a man who has seen horrors impossible to describe and feels an uncontrollable need to try and bring equilibrium to his life. Sienna Miller seems to have relegated herself recently to playing wives of real-life characters, having done so in Foxcatcher and here. She brings a glamorous quality to Taya, portraying her as a loving wife who puts the need for family stability above her husband's inner desire for combat and revenge.
It is this revenge element which many critics have leeched upon as evidence of Kyle's racist and jingoist attitude towards Iraqis and other Islamists. Although Eastwood does take a pretty apparent right-leaning view of the conflict, he nevertheless attempts to extricate any sort of moral judgment on Chris Kyle and his importance to the American hero mythology. The point of this story, to whatever effect it may have, is that one man saw himself not necessarily as the savior of freedom and democracy, but simply a soldier who followed the orders to protect fellow soldiers from behind, perched above with a high-powered rifle and an eagle eye. The impact this will have on the upcoming trial for Kyle's alleged murderer will undoubtedly be felt throughout the media. It will be interesting to note the recruiting effect of this movie as well. It's easy to imagine a lot of young men getting hyped for fighting through these images.
The Imitation Game (2014)
Imitation of Life
The Imitation Game follows in a recent tradition of both British-based historical dramas intended to invoke sympathy and knowledge about incidents or individuals previously unknown or under-appreciated to the general public. Like The King's Speech, The Iron Lady or The Theory of Everything, it has gained much critical acclaim, but it also leaves one feeling rather empty at the end of it all; you sit there and ask "Is that all they can invoke in us?" In the case of Alan Turing, portrayed here as a most eccentric mathematical genius attempting to crack impossible German military codes during World War II, there seems to be more emphasis on him and his hang-ups rather than his work. Of course, there are scenes discussing his attempts to fund and build an enormous electromechanical device capable of searching through innumerable possibilities of coded words in order to deduce what was more likely being used and what could be discarded. Thus, the possible codes are highlighted, allowing the Allies to use such information against the enemy.
If this sounds somewhat technical, that is because much of the dialogue here is filled with cryptological jargon, a language only understandable to those involved with such activities or otherwise interested in the usage of code-breaking as a tool to win the war. Such an idea is understandable and relatable, yet the film utilizes it only as a plot device, nothing more. Perhaps this is because the filmmakers felt too much technical language would turn audiences off, but it seems more likely they simply underestimate those interested in Turing's accomplishments. The man himself is reduced to another recent pattern of so many films: the antisocial yet brilliant genius capable of winning over adversaries through his work despite any effort to relate to others on a strictly human level. In some ways, this pattern exposes studios' belief in audiences wanting to see people who they believe are a type of ubermenschen, super-beings capable of thinking and acting beyond our middling, common understanding.
This is certainly how Turing is portrayed here, despite Benedict Cumberbatch throwing himself completely into the role. As affable an actor as in work today, Cumberbatch nevertheless gets caught up in Turing's supposed speech handicaps and nervous ticks without using them to explore the darker aspects of Turing's personality. His homosexuality, made such an issue in the trailers and advertisement of the picture, was in fact simply another aspect of his life he attempted to privatize only for it to become his undoing. Any connection between his attraction to men and his attraction to complex puzzles seems rather stretching, although the film makes attempts to do so. In particular, the name of Turing's ground-breaking machine which is used to break German codes is 'Christopher,' who is shown in flashbacks to be a boyhood crush from school and died when Turing was still young. Such a fabrication only exposes the film's desire to create something that never was; this movie has its own impossible codes that remain just that.
Despite all this, Cumberbatch is capable of creating enormous sympathy for this rather cold, unfeeling man who nevertheless somehow (through plot contrivance) manages to surround himself with die-hard supporters, including the brilliant Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who Turing proposes to though it seems he may be attracted to her in some way. Again, this is merely used for plot extension, and despite there being no disrespect towards Clarke as a woman capable of holding her own against the male-dominated cryptography section at Bletchley Park, it causes one to question just what was the true nature of this peculiar yet symbiotic relationship. The movie never bothers to answer.
Perhaps, the questions not answered cannot be. Much of Turing's work was hidden by the British government until a few years ago due to its highly-classified nature, which only underlines just how far-reaching his ideas became. The movie ends with several title cards telling us what became of Turing; the final one saying that 'Turing machines' are known better today as computers. Whatever truth this statement holds still allows us little access to understanding just what exactly motivated Turing in his work. In this film, he does it simply because he is good at it and he seems unqualified for any other work. Such a simplification is hardly ever the truth, and indeed there are many other aspects of the film which have come under fire for either emphasizing the unimportant or otherwise completely misappropriating various facts to the wrong individuals. Specifically, Turing was not as autistic or antisocial as this film leads us to believe, which only goes to show how certain aspects of one's life often become the true motivation to make a film about someone and their achievements. It's not enough that Turing accomplished so much; he has to have done it through personal shortcomings which otherwise would have caused one of us 'normal' people to falter. How can we, then, sympathize with an ubermensch?
Inherent Vice (2014)
Given his wandering and seemingly aberrant focus in The Master, a story that could only truly be effective through a tightly-wound, coherent plot line, Paul Thomas Anderson may have decided to adapt Thomas Pynchon's novel next because it fits so perfectly with his current style of narrative interest. Starting with small-focused, character-oriented stories with ensemble casts that caused comparisons to Robert Altman, PTA has gradually drifted away from such into such diverse genres as bleak comic-tragedy, melodramatic early 20th century American ambition and the aimless lifestyle of post-World War II citizens. Now, he moves down one more generation into the drug- addled, loose-fit lives of California in 1970. Though this story comes from Pynchon, it would seem that Anderson has been ready to tell this type of story for years.
If Joaquin Phoenix needed paint thinner mixed with alcohol to calm his nerves and give him direction in trying to adapt to regular life after World War II, all he needs here is a ramshackled bungalow on the beach, plenty of cigarettes and weed and a few compliant women to satisfy his desires. Wearing giant sideburns and a curly, moppy hairdo, Phoenix once again immerses himself into this private detective role, 'Doc' Sportello, talking to himself incoherently, staring at various points around him and still somehow able to grasp all the information and informants who come barreling at him after his ex-girlfriend stops by unexpectedly to request his help in stopping an alleged plot to kidnap and rid Los Angeles of its wealthiest real estate developer. Yet, this may all be a simple excuse for both Pynchon and Anderson to explore such a fascinating time in recent American history; a time when the Manson murders hung heavily in the air, there seemed to be little if any worries about larger sociopolitical issues, and still most people are caught up in some way or another with illegal and lethal activities.
Such callous behavior may be the reason behind the intriguing title, which refers to physical objects losing their fundamental ability to stop deterioration. Indeed, at a certain point, Doc's ex-girlfriend returns once again surprisingly and declares herself to be inherent vice in the case. Of course, this could apply to nearly everyone he encounters, including himself, yet perhaps what drew Anderson to this story is how blissfully unaware everyone is of their decrepit state of mind. Anderson occupies much of the frame with a thin, hazy layer of smoke and mist, which may not only be from the copious amounts of marijuana but also the lack of care these people seem to have for their personal belongings and materials. Despite many mentions of Charles Manson, most people are quite laid-back and wander around southern California as if there was little, if any, care in the world. Even when something important does arise, such as a man trying to escape his present status and return to his abandoned family, there is a rather light-hearted touch to it all. Anderson, like Pynchon, is not interested in judging these people at all; he simply is intrigued by their indifference and susceptibility to get themselves into precarious situations, either personal or otherwise.
Many of the actors have commented on Anderson's chaotic yet controlled method of shooting, although all have remarked how pleased and satisfied they were with the end result. Such improvisation may not be considered a hallmark of Anderson's filmmaking, yet here it seems perfectly natural. The soundtrack consists of a healthy mixture of Jonny Greenwood original tracks as well as Neil Young and a slew of early 1960s doo-wop songs which continue the feeling of laid-back nostalgia. Phoenix ties it all together with his whimsical, yet focused perspective in trying to solve a case seemingly for his beloved ex, although he has no commitments to anyone. Various cameos also work without becoming a distraction. Reese Witherspoon has beautiful, surealistic chemistry with Phoenix and Katherine Waterston is eerily angelic in her role, looking much like Jennifer Lawrence probably will in ten years.
There really cannot be much to either approve or disapprove of in this story. The payoff is rather dull, but this is no ordinary Chinatown-like neo-noir. If Pynchon is only interested in such a story as a launching pad, Anderson is only interested to the point of being able to satisfy his own notions of what life must have been like during that brief period when the so-called "hippie movement" seemed to have failed its most ardent supporters and the call of capitalistic achievement turned the nation's attention away from its seemingly endless social and cultural issues. What is America's inherent vice? Doc could tell us if only he cared, or was sober enough, to remember.
Can a film be made with all the available technical prowess yet still fail in its ability to relate what it wants to the audience? It has happened before, though usually in science fiction or action- laced stories where special effects and mechanical devices override any characterization or human interest. Yet, in the case of Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher, the result is too much stylistic layout for the sake of not enough dramatic juice to let the story flow smoothly. Watching this film is like witnessing a car engine break down due to losing oil, transmission and coolant simultaneously; this movie needs its essential fluids replenished.
So much has been said already about Steve Carell's performance, but is it anything more than a well-known comic actor under a lot of makeup and prosthetics attempting to disguise himself as a 'serious' actor? Of course, other actors have followed similar paths like this before, but Carell's acting seems too subdued to allow us to be interested in what he is doing. Bennett Miller has always been a director who likes to keep the audience at arm's, or even a parking lot's, distance, so it is hardly surprising that Carell is directed to perform so. Indeed, John du Pont is the most potentially interesting character because he is a seemingly walking paradox. He possesses a doctorate in ornithology, is the heir to the fabulously wealthy and prestigious du Pont chemical corporation. Yet, he is presented, with whatever historical accuracy that can be managed, as a quietly malevolent control freak with serious mommy issues and some ambiguous form of mental illness. All this is deduction, of course. The film has no interest in exploring who du Pont truly was or what motivates him to act as he does. Here, he is merely the lone villain, the obvious bad guy we are supposed to both fear and be fascinated with. In this regard, Carell is creepily effective, but it bodes no goodwill upon the film or our rooting interest in him. He cannot, or will not, be penetrated by the audience.
Opposing this, Channing Tatum may end up being the most revelatory element about the film. Known previously as a handsome but absent- minded meat-head-type actor receiving roles based upon his looks rather than acting ability, Tatum here finds the perfect role for himself, utilizing the typifications of his career in order to portray wrestler Mark Schultz as just what he has been stereotyped as: a mindless, muscular athlete with little to no ability to separate himself from either his brother or the past they share. He wants to individualize and prove himself to be more than a mere fighter of men for sport, but he simultaneously desires leadership and direction within the context of a team and common goal to be attained. This he had with his brother, Dave, and he soon finds it to a weird degree with John du Pont.
While the movie covers this unusual but symbiotic relationship, interest is maintained and Tatum proves himself to be a reliable and intense actor, walking in a slouch and keeping his lower jaw agape like a heavy-breathing animal. Then, the plot begins to gear forward, albeit with somewhat large jumps in plausibility or logic. Firstly, Dave comes to run du Pont's wrestling team with no explanation despite having rejected the same offer earlier. This is never cleared up. Then, the shift focuses from emasculated Mark to the unsettling strangeness of John du Pont as Carell continues to walk around, sometimes with a gun, but always lurking and watching hie beloved team of men and patriots training for American greatness in the upcoming Seoul Olympics. Finally, the inevitable element of this true story establishes its presence, forcing us to watch something that could have easily been left out in order to focus on the characters. Instead, it is presented as the denouement of a true crime TV special, shot abruptly and shockingly, but to no effect upon our sympathies or understanding.
In his review, David Edelstein referred to Foxcatcher as "a true crime story bloated into looking significant." He mentions Miller's most lauded film, Capote, as having a similar detached quality, although that film seems to understand better its obsession. It may also help that Capote is a far more interesting character than du Pont, as well as the fact that Phillip Seymour Hoffman is better- suited for these kinds of roles than Steve Carell. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that Miller has shown himself capable of visually expanding somewhat thin stories into depressing, but admirable dramas where the look of things trumps nearly anything happening within the frame. Perhaps the one conclusion to be taken from this is that you can get away with this type of storytelling provided you have a fascinating character portrayed by a competent actor. In this case, Carell's brave performance is only that; a gimmicky attempt to distance himself from comedy while simultaneously distancing himself from the audience of Foxcatcher.
The Virtue of Bemused Bewilderment
Has Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu reinvented himself through Michael Keaton? The director of films known more for their universally- connected narratives, ensemble casts and flashy but suffocating visual styles has kept only the flash and instead gone small-scale and intimate. Yet, even in reinventing his narrative methods, he has still maintained certain personal elements that keep one from being able to pin down exactly what type of movie Birdman is. At times, you may feel as if you have the rest of the film figured out, only for Iñárritu to do a near-180 spin that leaves you thinking about why and whether or not it works. Then again, whether it works or not may be a moot point when it comes to this director.
Every once in awhile, fate or some other external force graces film- goers with a pleasant experience by permitting circumstances to wed a particular actor with a particular role. Whether poetic justice comes into play is still to be determined, but few would be able to see the casting of Michael Keaton as a former blockbuster star attempting to reinvent his career on Broadway as anything but a marvelously innovative notion. Aside from noting the obvious imitations of art into life with Keaton's history as Batman, it is interesting to study how Keaton is able to unravel himself as an actor with more capabilities and dimensions than any of his previous roles have allowed him. He embraces age, the thinning hair exposing his round forehead, the facial hair sporadically spread over his face like vegetation in the desert. Aside from his brief tenure as the Dark Knight, Keaton has always seemed a marginalized actor; a familiar face but not noteworthy as a bona-fide star. This judgment no longer holds true.
As much of a revelation as Keaton is, he may have the dubious misfortune to be in the same movie as Edward Norton, whose interpretation of a method actor incapable of leading any semblance of a real life without resorting to thespian techniques is an astonishing triumph. Norton has always been understood to be a massively talented actor who for whatever reason has kept his talent to a smaller pool of roles which, nevertheless, have become indelible for many since he burst onto the screen 18 years ago. In some ways, this role mirrors his own career in much the same way as Keaton's does. Still, nothing has prepared us for this kind of Norton intensity. He is at once vain, empathetic, sweet and cruel. Such a memorable performance can be undone, however, if the film's focus becomes distracted and we lose sight of a great supporting role, which seems to be the case here. The last 20 minutes become completely about Keaton, yet our interest in Mike Shiner has only increased, leading us to be incredulous as to the conclusion of his importance. What exactly was it supposed to be? And are we supposed to ignore these feelings while following Riggan Thomson down his path of enlightenment?
If this sounds like criticism of the director's capabilities, it is more a questioning of his intentions. There can be little doubt regarding Iñárritu's talent as a director. Indeed, his ability to utilize the illusion of one continuous take throughout the whole film seems like a cheap gimmick at first, though eventually we become used to its effect, which is never overtly flashy or self- conscious. In many ways, you cannot help but be amazed at how much Iñárritu is able to fit into each frame, considering how often it fluctuates. Still, its actual effect will puzzle some viewers. What is its intended purpose other than to show off Iñárritu's ability as well as the intimate setting, in front and behind the curtain, of a Broadway play? Some have claimed it breaks down filmic barriers in order to bring the audience closer to the actors as they relate to their surroundings but the effect has little to do with its practicality.
For all its technical prowess and intense acting, Birdman at its most bleakly poignant remains a well-tread tale of a man who put his career before family and relationships. Such themes add nothing new to the experience of watching the story of a man attempting to redeem himself but Iñárritu's methods are convincingly overwhelming. One critic described the film as "vacuous virtuosity." If ever there was a label for mixed feelings this would be it, and Birdman would be that movie.
Caretaker vs Pioneer
Interstellar is a paradoxical achievement. It will undoubtedly inspire and influence future generations to further personal interests in science and astrophysics due mainly to its unsuccessful attempts to make theoretical physics part of the popular culture dialogue. Such an objective seems like a Herculean task, and the film succeeds to a certain degree, but there can be little doubt of its difficulty to find a solid fanbase, especially in non-scientific circles.
Figures like Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein exist primarily as symbols of the highest accomplishments of human intelligence. This causes most people to understand their fields as out of the common perception and, thus, impossible to comprehend. Writer/director Christopher Nolan must be given credit for attempting to bring these highfalutin concepts to the mass population and doing so in a fashion so as to make it somewhat understandable and relatable. He does this by wrapping the highly complex material in a story filled with emotional connections, forcing audiences to pay closer attention than they would otherwise. This is made more apparent through the very effective acting of seemingly endless pedigree.
Matthew McConaughey, continuing his laid-back acting style, makes this material much more relatable than most actors could. He never forces emotions, even during climactic moments, and thus brings us closer to his perspective and understanding. The opening sequences, which set the foundation of his relationship with his daughter, are so warm and touching that we are willing to follow him through any adventure. Supporting roles of Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine and Matt Damon work well enough, but it is obvious that Nolan's real connection to this story is the father/daughter relationship, which McConaughey, Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain embody so well. No longer can people claim Nolan is a cold, objective filmmaker with little to no regard for his characters and their feelings.
What can continue to be a criticism of Nolan's film style is his inability to reconcile his erudite concepts and themes with dialogue and situations that are at the very least, digestible. Indeed, Nolan has made a career out of so-called 'mind-bending' movies like Memento and Inception which attempt to deliberately confuse the viewer until that moment of denouement when the reveal supposedly enlightens us to at least enough information to allow us to pretend to discuss the film intelligently. Certainly, like those aforementioned films, Interstellar will at the very least fertilize some discussion about high-mind concepts like black holes, event horizon, and tesseracts amongst those who would ordinarily never entertain such thoughts. In this respect, Nolan is trying to achieve the impossible, but he must be respected for attempting to bring these two seemingly unrelatable worlds together. No one else could or would try such a feat.
Whether or not individuals will appreciate Nolan's vision for the future of humanity ultimately depends on one's point of view regarding our own purpose on Earth. The question posited is are humans caretakers for this planet or pioneers to search out others? Obviously we know Nolan's belief, but if one feels more inclined to be connected with earthly situations, it may be uncomfortable to get into the spirit of this story. Still, it only takes imagination to be astonished at the style in which Nolan has crafted this highly possible future reality.
A lifetime too late.
Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps known most for his role as Donnie Darko, the troubled teen with futuristic visions of destiny, may never truly escape that pigeon-hole. As Louis Bloom, he siphons similar traits of Donnie to bring us a character with the same intensity and psychological uneasiness. The main difference is that Donnie becomes a symbol of sympathetic teen angst amidst a growing world of discontentment and detachment. Louis' motive is purely out of survival, a man driven to succeed at any cost by his instinctive desire for rising above the average and middling.
It has been reported that Gyllenhaal lost 20 lbs and did extensive daily workouts to perfect the gaunt, eerie gaze he utilizes, drawing our eyes to his as we watch him survey his surroundings and react. This is an opportunist who seemingly has no conscience as to his actions, which is obviously the message of the movie; a message that is, regrettably, nothing new to this most cynical and knowledgeable of ages.
Writer/director Dan Gilroy seems to have attempted to stay loyal to the family modus operandi, that is to build quickly and quietly to an effective climax intended to challenge preconceived notions and foster thorough questioning of our understanding. His brother, Tony, did this to great effect in Michael Clayton, a similar story about a man driven to fight for survival, only in this case it was out a sense of moral righteousness. Louis' determination to succeed seems to stem from a desire to cement himself not only as a winner and accomplished businessman but also for fame and recognition from the larger community. This makes it rather apparent why Gilroy set the story in Los Angeles; not only for its endless supply of criminal activity but also its cult of narcissism and self-promotion.
Alas, Gilroy never seems to drive to the heart of this matter, or at least drive into an area which we haven't already been exposed. There is a great deal of time devoted to Louis' interaction with the ruthless and desperate TV producer (Rene Russo) who lives by the ratings, which means she wants more graphic violence and less journalistic emphasis. She is, however, a pale imitation of Faye Dunaway's great performance in Network, who was far more ambitious and had more of an impact on the men in her life than Russo does.
Additionally weak is the handling of violent crimes and accident scenes. Sequence after sequence point out how newscasters and news outlets want the story which sells above all else, which in this case consists of more violent and upsetting information. Even for a huge metropolis like LA, the amount of serious crimes within this narrative is very unsettling (although Louis uses the falling crime rate as a bargaining chip for his increasingly intense coverage of these scenarios). Yet, Gilroy sweeps all this aside in order to emphasize his righteous message. Instead, we get a gratuitously extended violent sequence that stretches plausibility and simply confirms our beliefs about these characters instead of evolving them.
There is a great deal of dark comedy attempted in this story. Indeed, the audience seems to laugh right along with Gyllenhaal's bizarre and creepy intensity which also happens to be border-line parodist acting. Yet, how much does Gilroy intend to be comedic and how much is intended to be dogmatic? Whichever the case, the end result remains the same. How terrible it is that television news praises ratings and showmanship over honest and straightforward reporting? David Simon gave us this same message in a much more effective manner in The Wire (ironically, the weakest of all five seasons). Couldn't Gilroy, with the expansive potential of cinema, have at least delved into slightly darker, more provocative territory? As it stands, Nightcrawler remains a less-than-powerful expose on a subject with much more potentiality in this digital era, an angle Gilroy mysteriously neglects.
FUBAR in the ranks
In this post 9/11 era, war has reinvented itself as a morally righteous act, no matter the outcome or manner in which it is executed. The movies have reinforced this notion with films like Fury, a World War II adventure attempting to scale the heights of Saving Private Ryan or Platoon though ultimately regressing to its own variation of gratuitous carnage and destruction. Such films seem to have a chip on their shoulders; how does one portray an event so ubiquitous to modern culture and so thoroughly researched by historians as to give us a new angle and understanding of the dimensions of such an atrocious existence? This answer may never be reached, although Fury does make a noble endeavor to proclaim the bravery and courage of the American military, in this case the US Armored Division.
Writer-director David Ayer, who has progressed from writing pulpy action scripts like The Fast and the Furious and S.W.A.T. to those of a more serious tone, nevertheless cannot seem to forget his roots as an action first, character second kind of filmmaker. Ayer has constantly focused on the 'brotherhood' of his characters, but that may be all he has to say about them. The four men occupying the tank in this film say they have been together since the Allied invasion of Africa, yet little else is mentioned about this. Furthermore, the script borrows far too much material outright from Saving Private Ryan, right down to the main characteristics of the main roles. Brad Pitt's Wardaddy is the quiet, unspoken father figure whose troops are willing to die with him (just like Tom Hanks). Shia LaBeouf is the Bible-quoting gunman who seems to have almost supernatural-like aim (just like Barry Pepper). And Logan Lerman is the young, totally inexperienced new addition to the tank who has not been trained for such an assignment but ultimately proves himself through a baptism of fire (just like Jeremy Davies).
Does Ayer believe most of those who go to see this will have never seen Spielberg's earlier film, or does he simply not care about the similarities? It may be that he feels the message of such a story overrides any other details, ultimately rendering them unnecessary and minimal. However, other sequences are either taken directly from Saving Private Ryan and other such films, or seem to have little to no basis in reality or logic. One that many will call to mind is when Wardaddy and the newly hired Norman invade a German apartment after taking the town. They stake out the room, find two young women, force them to cook breakfast until the rest of the tank crew, drunk and disorderly, barge in and cause discomfort and awkwardness. What does Ayer believe this sequence says about the relationship between American soldiers and German civilians? The film says nothing, although given the manner in which it is shot, this seems to be a badge of honor rather than a criticism.
Whatever the director's attitude towards such scenarios, the actors certainly give their fullest involvement. Pitt has ensured his lasting stardom through roles like this: brash, tough, yet endearing to the younger generation looking up to him. LaBeouf, for the first time in quite awhile, shows his true acting ability when he can remain focused and under control. His role is not huge but he plays it as serious and focused as can be expected. Lerman may be the weakest link, overreaching in his portrayal of an inexperienced, frightened clerk thrust into the deepest and ugliest recesses of the battlefront. He has his tough moments to be sure, but ultimately becomes somewhat cartoonish.
The strongest aspect of the film is its action sequences, which may be all Ayer and audiences will care about or take from watching the film. Certainly they leave one completely entranced and utterly aghast. The showdown between our beloved American tank and an advanced German Panzer is fully engrossing and great fun to watch. Yet, is it supposed to be this enjoyable? The final sequence as well shows our heroes surrounded by an SS brigade trapped in their broken-down tank as they attempt to fight their way out, willing to die but only by taking as many Germans with them as possible. Such scenes ultimately begin to feel like video game set-ups. We cheer quietly and feel relieved at the sight and sound of every enemy soldier whose head explodes or is cut down by bullets at such a speed as to look like a fight scene from Star Wars.
The greatest difference between Ayer and Steven Spielberg is that Spielberg never tries to excite the viewer through carnage. He is able to do this with less emphasis on grotesque shots of mutilated bodies and fiery crashes and more of a focus on the psychological and spiritual effects of war on the individual. Fury, for all its artistic merit and genuine entertainment, would rather bombard the audience with gore than invite a thought-provoking stimulus. For Ayer, the humanity of war remains out of reach, or perhaps not near at all. This film ultimately tells us war is hell; such a statement is one of the great understatements of history. Will future war films, with all the knowledge and understanding of hindsight at their fingertips, ever give us more than such a simplistic denouement or a visual repetition of events which need not be pounded into the brain?
Gone Girl (2014)
The institution of marriage, being a foundation of civilization since the dawn of man, has adapted to subsequent eras but, in some aspects, not necessarily improved. Problems between men and women abound regardless of the type of their relationship, resulting in various commentaries and insights as to possible solutions, either temporary or permanent. Yet, the central question remains: can two people, often complete strangers when initially meeting, remain faithful to one another and build enough trust to establish a meaningful and fulfilling relationship? There have been several notable examples but, as time seems to reveal, knowing more may result in understanding less.
At last, we have a cinematic representation of the perilous ups and downs of the journey from courtship to romantic climax to marital pitfalls, all within the context of an increasingly cynical social construct. Certainly, the subject of strained marriages is nothing new to the movies, but David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's best-selling novel goes deeper, bleaker and more harrowing than any other film of its kind. Fatal Attraction was a childish affair compared to the Dunnes.
As the film opens, with a rapid and nervously jumpy energy, Fincher gives a masterclass on how to establish mood in a thriller. Every scene is impactful, every shot built to further the tension and tighten the air. The conclusion seems fairly certain, and Fincher wants us to want that conventional denouement. After all, wouldn't that be easier and safer to digest than anything else?
Yet, Fincher refuses to gratify our simplistic expectations. Flynn, in adapting her own novel, tightens up the pace and slightly alters the ending to create a remarkably paced and exquisitely fashioned narrative, but it is Fincher's trademark cool, detached visual style complete with complex shadows and hints of blue and gray that put the finishing touch on this experience. One simply cannot look away from this film. At the halfway point, the 'reveal' utilized deflates any and all expectations we may have had, only to overwhelm us with endless questions as to how, what and why. The rest of the film covers those inquiries, yet still retains a level of ambiguity and forlornness. We continue to watch because it is in our interest as thriller-fans to do so, but on a subconscious level, there is the knowledge that conventionality is out of the question.
Fincher's stylistic, sometimes smug, modus operandi is exemplified through his extraordinary ability to cast perfectly. Long understood as an overtly-handsome, sometimes aloof actor, Ben Affleck carries this film thanks to the control and forced exactness of Fincher's directing. His aloofness, as several critics have noted, is utilized here to the greatest effect, causing the character of Nick Dunne to remain an enigma and a sympathetic man simultaneously. Very few actors could pull this off, but Affleck makes it look easy, using his broad, muscular body structure, puppy-dog eyes and down-turned smile to keep everyone guessing as to his true motive.
Motive is more crucial here than in most thrillers. Flynn's story questions the deepest expectations and assumptions we make about other people, particularly those we think we would like to spend a significant portion of our life with. Affleck can reflect this as can Rosamund Pike, whose Siamese eyes, creamy skin and sultry voice give nothing away about herself, keeping our guesses constant throughout. Early scenes between Nick and Amy, showing their attempts to win each other over, can only truly be understood in light of the entire film, an aspect of Flynn's novel Fincher exploits particularly well. If nothing is as it seems, what are we supposed to presume could or will happen?
As the authorities track the clues as to the whereabouts of Amy Dunne and Nick's involvement, the notion of the simplest answer being best arises. This is frequently a logical error, yet on a certain level that may be the best method of approach. Applying this train of thought to the director, it has been argued that nearly all of David Fincher's films have been an attempt for him to overcome the frustrating and creatively-retarding experience on his first feature, Alien 3. While remaining a simple critical tool to find thematic relations amongst an otherwise diverse career, this notion is tempting to grasp. If there is any truth to it, it may be that Fincher has finally gotten the quality of clout needed to be able to make exactly what he envisions. He has often said he usually gets about 70% of his vision on screen, the rest being compromised out. Somehow, this film feels uncompromising. It is exceedingly dark, foreboding in its attitude not just towards marriage but humanity in general. Questions will abound, but answers often remain just out of reach.
Mysterious Skin (2004)
A subject such as the sexual abuse of children will always be one cast down to the independent filmmakers with far less money and far less at stake. Greg Araki, always an outsider looking in due to his graphic and intentionally shocking style, may have felt an intimate connection with the material, not necessarily because of the child abuse so much as the isolation and alienation experienced by the two main characters. Even in a place like Hollywood, it cannot be easy being a gay Asian-American director with a penchant for explicit stories and characters.
Despite this treacherous foundation, Araki was able to gain funding on the basis of adding two up-and-coming actors of their time, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michelle Trachtenberg. Interestingly, the scenes these two share together garner the best emotional elements of the film, conjuring up feelings of unrequited love as well as a kinship expressed without words, instead based on implication and shared past experience and secrecy. However, Trachtenberg has far too little time on-screen, making her character close to obsolete and nearly ruining the sweet chemistry her scenes with Gordon-Levitt create. Curiously, Araki maintains a strict editing style of crosscutting between two young men on very different pathways who nevertheless will inevitably come together since they always do in these types of stories. Brady Corbet, in the film's best performance, plays the shy, introverted and perpetually skittish Bryan, a marked distinction from Gordon-Levitt's Neil, who is sexually self-destructive and unafraid of whatever crosses his path.
Corbet, looking like a young, more passive Jeffrey Dahmer, brings a quiet sensibility to the film through his tousled blond hair, thick and bulging glasses and a still, intimate voice that can boom when necessary. His scenes involving a search for aliens as a possible solution to his nightmares are both quirky and seductive, giving us an off-balanced portrayal of isolated teens in a faraway town doing what they feel is absolutely nothing of importance or value. In the same area, Gordon-Levitt's Neil, with a strangely shaped black mullet and lips curled slightly down to give off a sexual charge, reacts to domestic insecurity by being as irreverent and adventuresome as possible. This decision eventually takes him to New York City and back home again where he is forced to confront something he has known his whole life but has kept from everyone except Trachtenberg's Wendy, despite it involving Bryan.
Without going into the full details, it requires one to say that the last few minutes of the film will certainly challenge almost everyone watching. Yet, for some, it may be a challenge of logic rather than taste and acceptance. Gordon-Levitt recounts the film's early events so plainly that it makes it impossible for us to feel any sympathy for his character and how he turns out. After all, he seems to feel no trauma, so perhaps he wasn't? Furthermore, his decisions of vocation as a young man leave one feeling he gets what he deserves rather than empathy and victimization. The only true victim of this film is Bryan, who reacted in such a starkly different way that it makes us more interested in his case rather than Neil's, whose story has been told before in other films.
This disconnect leaves Araki with the irony of having a story line that he does not need but cannot get rid of if he stays on the course he wants. In the end, he holds onto his straight and narrow path, giving us almost exactly what we expected from the beginning. This causes the early scenes to be uncomfortable but not for the reasons Araki intends. They are uncomfortable and unnecessary, a most lethal combination. Whatever Araki's intentions with this story, it can be safely assumed that his message was already widely accepted beforehand, rendering anything he had to say all but useless and redundant. Even though one may have the reputation for being provocative and graphic, this may not always be the best course of action in order to lure in a consistent audience.
Lymelife begins exactly the way its creators want it to. It has a confusing, off-kilter feel to the opening scenes, forcing its various plot points onto the audience in order to, they hope, root you in the story and its characters. However, when it's handled with such dizzying force and the tone rolls around like a pinball, the audience can only respond with bewilderment and indifference.
Brother writers Derick and Steven Martini based the screenplay loosely on their own lives growing up on Long Island in the late 1970s. It always amuses me when writers and directors attempt to exploit personal experience as a catalyst for exploring supposed universal themes and ideas. Why use their own lives at all if so loosely? Certainly the outcome of this film did not happen to them, meaning what was the point of starting with a pseudo-real outline if they were just going to divert from it so quickly? At the same time, why is this story set in the late '70s? There are a few cultural references such as US troops being sent to the Falklands and a brief reminder of the Iran hostage crisis, but otherwise the setting is completely arbitrary. If anything, this points to the Martini's attempting to emulate The Ice Storm too much. They strain to give their story emotional content through the setting rather than the characters. As a result, both remain lifeless and inert.
Much of the cast seems willing to go the extra mile necessary to breathe life into this story, yet director Derick seems to hold them back at the most critical moments. At this point in his career, Alec Baldwin has seemingly perfected the chiseled-handsome, narcissistic too confident in his accomplishments to see the reality of his actions. Yet, in at least two scenes where he is ready to pounce on the material and tear it wide open, Martini cuts away, as if to leave us hanging deliberately and ponder what might have been. This also causes Baldwin's performance (and others) to come across as stilted. He may be chiseled but his emotions are often trapped in that stony exterior, requiring a little excavation. Jill Hennessy floats but is still swept away by Baldwin in their scenes, while brothers Rory and Kieran Culkin show the best chemistry; effortless, smooth and very natural. Emma Roberts seems to have a breakout role on tap here, but again the director pulls away at times when she could have really let go on her character. Still, her alabaster skin and wide doe eyes are nearly irresistible, proving yet still that she is an actress to watch for in the future.
What will bother most is the ending, which is always problematic for these dysfunctional suburbia movies. After all this angst, guilt and turmoil, how does one leave the audience with something memorable and finalizing? Unfortunately, in this case the result is quite cowardly and feeble. If it is supposed to leave us hanging in the balance it does but not for the right reasons. Instead of wondering how or why, we don't wonder at all.
Nobody's Fool (1994)
Kind Hearts and Irregular Folk
Paul Newman, may he rest in peace, will always remain a symbol of virility and strength in cinema history. Even in the twilight of his career, in roles such as Sully, he shows what an actor is capable of if he takes care of himself. Physically, but also mentally, Newman embodies all the elements most actors could only hope to obtain at such a late stage. He commands nearly every scene he is in, bringing with him a level of gravitas and realism which without this story could not work.
Indeed, it still may not. Adapted from a novel by Richard Russso, director Robert Benton is certainly capable of breathing life into a vast sect of quirky, independent characters who at the very least are a little memorable. After all, he did co-write Bonnie and Clyde (which does not escape this movie without a sly reference). Yet, throughout Benton seems confused or at least unsure as to what exactly he wants to say with these characters. Setting up much of the small town of North Bath, New York takes very little time. The real challenge is where to take them. The result, I am afraid, leaves much to be desired, unless of course one is keen on various plot threads not far beyond the level of a sitcom or hour-long drama on TV. By the end, most have reached their predictable conclusions all to the dissatisfaction of us. It's not that the end is completely unjustified; it's just that one would like more.
Technically, Benton remains on the soft side of filmmaking. His camera work is minimal, the cinematography is rather lax, and the town itself looks like a series of studio backdrops although it was filmed on location. What is most annoying, though, is Howard Shore's oppressive and sticky score, weighing down nearly every scene, causing one to think we are seeing a series of climaxes when in fact they are simply transitions. Besides Newman, the only other truly moving performance is, surprisingly, Melanie Griffith as the attractive wife of Lothario Bruce Willis, who flirts with Newman yet lacks any real confidence to use him to get back at her husband. Throwing in a subplot regarding Newman's attempts to re-connect with his son, stay vital in the community, get ahead and remain out of prison, what we're left with is a perfectly mediocre and innocuous representation of small-town, blue-collar life in northern New York.
Ride Along (2014)
Ice-Cold Movie, Warm Hart.
No matter how popular this film becomes at the box office, Kevin Hart no longer has to prove himself as being worthy of a lead star. His comedic timing and graceful style more than prove that in Ride Along. The trouble is that the film itself is so lacking in almost any originality or intelligence that he would have had to do a lot in order to show himself worse than the movie.
Playing the comic relief in a pale yet obvious retread of 48 Hrs. and Training Day, Hart fully utilizes his short stature and body language to his strength. Being rather short, indeed shorter than his female co-star Tika Sumpter, Hart compensates by playing a man-child with a large inferiority complex. Constantly attempting to prove himself capable of something of value, he still cannot help but invoke his knowledge of childish things, mainly video games. He also cries in terror, jumps into his brother-in-law's arms and looks for acceptance at every turn. He is, in fact, a fully-grown imp. What is astonishing about him is how he uses this to carry the movie along. Scene after scene drags along with the obligatory sense of having been done countless times beforehand but it is Hart's sentimentality that shines beyond the dull narrative. Though his facial expressions are often overwrought, he is still capable of carrying scenes purely through his timing and understanding of comic development. At times, he sounds like he is improvising a stand-up bit. Other times, he seems to invoke the speed-demon, whirlish style of Eddie Murphy. No matter his tactic, he makes it count despite a lack of support.
Making things more frozen than necessary is Ice Cube, scrunching up his face in attempting to portray a hard-ass of a cop; one of those lone, righteous moralists who is willing to go against any and all authority in order to prove himself as being right all along about his case. Of course he is, but what is confusing is how the film seems to condemn his behavior as a loner, yet justifies his actions during the course of the story. It is never clear which side the movie falls on and it most likely does not matter. Truthfully, none of the characters or plot points seem necessary at all except to showcase the difference between Hart's ambitious high-school security guard trying to become an Atlanta policeman and Ice Cube's tough-as-nails detective on the hunt for the most ferocious kingpin in the city, so terrifying and imposing that no one has ever seen his face (You will guess who it is right away; the opening credits give it away).
The biggest fault in the screenplay is its lack of developing the relationship between the two key characters: Ice Cube and his sister. Supposedly, they are very close due to being raised in foster homes, leading to him playing over-protective daddy to her. The trouble is the writers never give them a scene for themselves. What kind of relationship did they have or have now? And how has it changed as they have gotten older? And, furthermore, what is Ice Cube's personal life? Does he have one? Clearly, these were not on the writers' or director's mind. The final priority seems to have been only to ensure Kevin Hart came out looking like a fine-bred, comedic leading man for years to come. In this, the movie has succeeded. However, the makers of the movie should not pat themselves on the back. Save that for Mr. Hart himself, the only saving grace in this entire tired, formulaic story.
Stand by Me (1986)
The Little Rascals, they ain't.
A typical, straight-forward coming-of-age story focusing on a group of boys attempting to fulfill their fantasies of coming face-to-face with death by going on a two-day trip to search for the body of a boy from their town who has been missing. While the plot itself meanders around what it actually wants to do before it finally settles down in the last third. Padding out the script through flashbacks, stories told by the characters and cross-cutting with a parallel group of teenage boys.
Indeed, the strongest aspects of the film are the young actors and the characterization of each one of them. The four main boys have charming chemistry, each one embodying a different facet of the typical American young boy circa 1959. What is so remarkable about these characters is how the two groups of boys seem to represent the entire spectrum from boyhood to young manhood. Both gangs use adult language, play with adult toys and attempt to paint themselves in a much older light than they actually are. Reiner's use of cross-cutting allows us to compare and contrast how the two groups interact and view themselves. As an audience, it is also fun to see how certain famous faces got their start in the business. Wil Wheaton, Corey Feldman, Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusack and of course the immortalized River Phoenix, whose portrayal of the conflicted, parental Chris only began to reveal the marvelous talent he possessed.
Hello, is there anybody in there?
One of the most debatable elements about Spike Jonze's poetic, melancholy ode to the nature of love and human relationships is whether or not Samantha, the operating system (OS) which becomes the object of the protagonist's affection is truly real or illusory. Indeed, using the word 'which' seems to imply my stance that she is not. After all, if I thought so I would have said 'who.' Nevertheless, this simply goes to show how the ideas the film presents can become so deeply entrenched within our own conscious, causing us to wonder not necessarily at the plausibility of this scenario but rather the consequences it would have on the human race collectively.
Jonze has always been seen as a hippsterish outsider of sorts. Part indie, part surrealist poet, his three features prior show a firm handle on the technological aspects as well as a creative mind pulsating with potentialities. Writing solely for the first time, he creates a mesmerizing tale of people in the future where it's not the clothes or hairstyles or city architecture that should worry us; it's the lack of true, meaningful interpersonal connections. Indeed, it is not just Theodore who falls for his computer's OS. Is this a satirical point or a reluctant admittance? Either way, everyone knows society is headed in this direction. The only question which remains is what would it be like to have this kind of connection with an entity largely understood as impersonal?
It may be an impossible question to fully answer, but based on Joaquin Phoenix's performance, we can at least attempt an educated guess. Never one to shy away from fully involving himself in a character, here he plays a kind one would think he never could: warm, romantic, almost feminine. His thick-wired glasses and curvaceous mustache cannot hide the deep-seated emotions he exhibits throughout. Pain, bewilderment, ecstasy are all prevalent in his face, which is the main subject of the camera, and proves once again Ingmar Bergman's famous statement that the human face is the most important subject of cinema. Just as effective is Amy Adams with a hairstyle like Cameron Diaz's in Being John Malkovich. Yet, most surprising is the voice work of Scarlett Johansson. It may have been a Catch-22 to use a voice most people recognize which is automatically attached to such a physically attractive figure, but, thanks in large part to Phoenix's reactions, it works. Her voice, here a grand mixture of breathy Marilyn Monroe and husky Candace Bergen, captures the true soul of this film. Johansson's Samantha is energetic, childish, exceedingly bright and always ready for fun. Most audiences may simply insert her face mentally whenever she speaks but she brings to the story a level of gravitas and sadness perhaps no other actress could have.
So, is Samantha real or illusory? Perhaps the real issue is whether or not her feelings towards Theodore are honest. As it turns out, the most important aspect of love may be the nature of exclusivity. Being alone with someone else, physically or aurally, has to be one of the most universal feelings humans share. Perhaps, as Jonze shows us, technology will someday reach that level, and even surpass it, as well.
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Llewyn's The Odyssey
After finding the greatest mass-culture success and reaction with their searing, post-modern Western No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers seem to have been on a journey throughout their last four films. As always flouting the expectations of audiences and studios, they went at the pace and direction in which they felt most comfortable. This resulted in a high-energy, excitingly quirky and sometimes violent comedy; a most studious portrayal of a man in 1967 struggling with the greatest Jewish questions; and a straight-on genre piece made with the finest touch of cinematic craftsmanship available. Do any of these projects have a connection? At their basest, one could surmise they all are about the characters' intentions of finding home. This, of course, is a word used so often as to be overstated, yet the meaning has become so varied it can apply to almost anyone and anywhere. Now, the Coens go to a spiritual home of sorts for so many cultural figures in the early 1960s: Greenwich Village.
Intentionally set just before one young man from Minnesota came to New York and shook the whole scene out of its self-conscious doldrums, the story follows the titular character floating amongst acquaintances, sympathizers and fellow musicians as he attempts to put together his own career after a tragic loss. As has been noted, this is a great set-up for the cliché rags-to-riches story, yet the Coens are far too intelligent and savvy for that. They said they began writing the screenplay with the image of folk singer Dave Van Ronk being beaten outside the Gaslight Cafe after a concert, which is what happens to Llewyn Davis. He receives just about everything a down-on-his-luck artist could: physical and emotional beatings which leave him alienated from just about everyone. In most other stories of this kind, this would provide the artist with the perfect opportunity to dig deep within himself and find exactly what was missing previously from his output, resulting in the breakthrough success he was searching for all along. Yet, Llewyn's problems either go too deep or he is in the wrong business at the wrong time.
Like all their films, the Coens show a masterful ability to synthesize exquisite imagery, eccentrically memorable supporting roles and a bleakness that worms its way into your soul. Here, the bleakness comes out the complexity Llewyn Davis gives to the audience. Never ones to make a statement about how we should feel about their characters, Llewyn might be the Coens' fullest and most thriving creation on their resume. A bile-filled, slightly narcissistic, handsome rogue, Oscar Isaac plays him as almost upset by his own actions yet perhaps unable to stop himself from self-destructing. Trying to apologize to an ex-girlfriend, attempting to dine with intellectual supporters, even preparing to perform for a seemingly generous audience; all these instances are pure examples of Llewyn Davis' astonishing ability to screw himself over. He knows the consequences of his actions as soon as he says or does whatever it is, yet there is not necessarily a lack of sympathy for this man. He is an artist, struggling to find not only his voice but his purpose in finding his voice. Should this life-changing decision he has made be a defining time in his life, or is he still drifting, forever doomed to be unattached and undefined?
Other supporting roles are almost as superb as Isaac. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as a performing duo who reluctantly help Llewyn out in various ways; Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as the academic couple who think they are helping Llewyn by treating him as fodder entertainment for their friends; and John Goodman as a corpulent, slightly sinister jazz musician who reminds one of Robert DeNiro in Angel Heart. His condescension and constant put-downs of both Llewyn and the folk scene express many peoples' feelings as well as perhaps Llewyn's self-hatred of what he has become.
Constantly on the outside looking in, folk music was at this time struggling to maintain its existence amidst the Red Scare but also the up-and-coming rock and roll scene burgeoning throughout the United States. Traditionally, Bob Dylan has been hailed as the savior of this genre, yet just like the concept of home this may be overstated. In the end, with a new figure emerging on the scene effectively rendering him obsolete, what may be most important for Llewyn is the future, rather than the present. His ex tells him he has no concept of the future and he counters by telling her she has no concept of the present. Perhaps they are both right about one another, but as it turns out, which side of this argument would it be worse for Llewyn to come out on? Presumably, the struggle maintains itself for as long as he tries to express it through music. For him, home may be just a five-letter word.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
The Art of Addiction
For whatever reason, Leonardo DiCaprio really wanted to play Jordan Belfort in a movie; so much so that he went into a bidding war against Brad Pitt's production company and won, though still having to wait several years before being able to convince his long-time counterpart Martin Scorsese to command the helm. Seeing these two names on the marquee certainly stirs the blood up in most people, given their track records both collectively and individually. Indeed, a mere five years removed from what is now becoming known as 'The Great Recession' allows for this material to continue to have relevance in our society. However, this would have been the case regardless because like Oliver Stone's Wall Street and Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, Hollywood continues to reveal its infatuation with what is perhaps the most ruthless, notorious and powerful area in America.
Honestly, the plot itself is nothing too original. The rise and fall of the protagonist with plenty of drugs, prostitutes, scandal and outrageousness along the way. Scorsese and DiCaprio, as well as writer Terence Winter, knew this all along, even going so far as to mention Gordon Gekko and a few other well-known Wall Street figures. The unique element this film seems to present is its sheer unflinching portrayal of everything excessive and extravagant about this lifestyle, and the self-satisfaction afterward of mission accomplished.
Scorsese has never been a director to pull back and subtly craft his style; he is celebrated for the very reason of his viscerally lavish craft both visual and narrative. Having worked with him more and more, DiCaprio has carefully and steadily grown into perhaps the most fearless American actor today outside of maybe Daniel Day-Lewis. None of his other roles have required such out-of-control insanity, yet he handles it with the sure-fire steadiness of a true professional. Verging on the brink of camp, he always manages to stay right on course, keeping us interested in this character who narrates to the camera in a rather jovial manner of acceptance; he freely admits all his flaws and at times seems amazed at what he was capable of doing. In this film, Jordan Belfort loves the rush of addiction; he is willing to go to any length for any substance or satisfaction. Women, pills, cocaine, alcohol, yachts enormous enough to put a helicopter on top; all this is done with the smug satisfaction of a tested professional. In his own words, Belfort feels he "can spend my clients' money better than they can."
How did Belfort get to this level? Like most memoirs, he has a fall guy: Mark Hanna. Appearing for a mere ten minutes in this three hour marathon, Matthew McConaughey gives a performance that should demonstrate to audiences and executives that he is one of the finest American actors around. No more can we blame him for sappy, empty-headed romantic comedies and the strange satisfaction with constantly taking his shirt off. He has proved himself more than capable in movies like Mud and Dallas Buyers Club, although nothing quite prepared us for this. One scene, one speech to DiCaprio lays out how this film and, perhaps, the brokers themselves view Wall Street, America and the human race in general.
As mentioned before, this film continues to show Hollywood's fascination with the Wall Street broker lifestyle. Is this a cry for help or justification? After all, though they deal in a slightly different trade, it is even more well-known the excessiveness of movie stars and their circles. Maybe it's an affection between kindred spirits. Either way, it shows that once the powers that be begin to descend upon their happy existence, they soon turn upon the very culture and country which made all this possible. Certainly, one can see this and other films like it as an indictment of capitalism gone rogue; figures like Michael Moore will probably spin it that way. Yet, just like in his classic Mafia film Goodfellas, Scorsese prefers to look at people enjoying their addictions. Like his counterpart Henry Hill, Belfort narrates for us plenty of inside information to make us both desire and repulse this type of living. Of course, just desserts must be served. Yet, as many critics have surmised, there is an air of satisfaction from all these characters. Perhaps Belfort wrote his memoirs to prove to himself that he exceeded his own expectations of doing what he set out to do. This does not mean we have to admire him; we can only watch in abject astonishment at the possibilities America has to offer and the obstacles people are willing to scale for them.
American Hustle (2013)
The Great Con Divide
With a star-studded cast, lavish cinematography which so effectively evokes the 1970's bewildering chic style, and a plot line intended to rekindle memories of other hustling movies from this era such as The Sting, American Hustle has all the glitz and glamor necessary to become both a popular and critical acclaim. The co-writer and director, David O. Russell, has emerged in recent years as a force to be reckoned with. His most eclectic collection of works includes delving into the world of existential detectives fighting nihilism, a truth-based story of an underdog boxer fighting for his and his troubled brother's reputation, and a romantic tale of two mentally unstable people falling in love. Clearly, Russell has a wild imagination and he puts it on full display in his most ambitious and commercial project to date. Loosely based (as it so willingly tells us up front) on the ABSCAM scandal of the 1970s, Russell treats the case like a true filmmaker: he takes what he wants, abandons what he does not, and shakes it all up to create a perfect concoction of Hollywood craftsmanship and subtle plot manipulation.
This is not to say that these traits are condemnations. Indeed, in the world in which Russell attempts to let this movie live, these are necessary hallmarks, as Christian Bale so smoothly tells us, "Everyone hustles to survive." Russell must have smiled with delight in writing that line since it so precisely reveals the justification needed both by the con artist characters in the film and the filmmakers in which they reside. Obviously, he prefers a character study to a straight-up Ocean's Eleven type double-crossing plot structure. Such an ensemble cast has swallowed his bait. Nearly everyone loves playing dress-up here, not just with clothes but also hair, jewelry and accents. It's an actor's dream come true. Bale goes method, as he so often does, gaining a gut and giving himself a noticeably bad, fake comb-over, which Russell fonds over for several minutes in the film's opening. Bradley Cooper wears mini-curlers to make his straight hair curly, lives with his androgynous mother and a woman who says she is his fiancé, and seemingly lives passionately for his job as an FBI agent determined to crack down on corrupt bureaucrats, politicians and ultimately, the Mafia. Jeremy Renner must have needed several bottles of hairspray, but mostly plays it straight as a mayor with a heart of gold, evident from his large, multi-cultural family, who wants only to protect his community from financial crisis.
While the men fuss over their looks so profusely, the women in this film almost certainly went overboard as well, though for them the effect must have been even more profound. Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence raid the Elizabeth Taylor closet and layer themselves with furs, backless and strapless dresses of the gaudiest colors, as well as hairstyles that would make any 18th century French woman jealous. If it seems that there has been too much emphasis on the look of this movie, it must be stressed that the movie stresses these elements on its own volition. It grows almost to the point of overpowering the story and characterization. Most audiences will claim to not have a problem with it, but for those trying to see what lies behind the material elements will prove difficult.
While Russell freely admits to not basing his entire story on true events, the fact that he even inserted the title card "Some of this happened" at the beginning shows his desire to remind us that the acts and personalities of these characters are rooted in reality. Why is this necessary information to digest before the film begins? The intended effect on the audience, presumably, is to trick us into believing more of the outlandish results and developments as we continue to watch. No matter what we see, we are still reminded some variation of these events did happen at one point to people faintly like the ones we are watching on the screen. At this point, is it even worth mentioning? Why not simply take a story like this and use it as a launching pad for a completely new and different take on the con game sub-genre? Even if this was Russell's original intent, it still renders the use of that title card almost entirely useless.
Perhaps the greatest fault one can find with this film is that it is too self-conscious. Having focused so much effort on the look of the film, one gets wrapped up in a story that is all surface with little substance. Yet, on one level, this may be a clever ruse by Russell. After all, the entire story is about various people conning one another for various reasons, as well as themselves into acting in ways they wouldn't ordinarily consider. Though this would seem to rustle up some emotional conflict, Russell practically telegraphs his intentions through dialogue and the actors' faces, thus deflating any intent of luring us in for the whole movie. All the actors are clearly enjoying themselves, especially Lawrence who plays her role as a sassy, fiercely unstable woman determined to hold on to whatever remains of her shattered life. It is a brave performance, although in the end she remains mostly obsolete to the story. By contrast, Adams is thoroughly stunning in all her outfits as well as a great counterpart to the introvert and conflicted Bale. Indeed, all the actors chew the scenery as though it were delicious beef jerky. The result is a mostly interesting, though altogether somewhat unfulfilled experience which is a letdown considering the buildup this film gives itself. In a way, this is just another con by Russell, but the audience may not be as receptive as the FBI.
Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
Matthew has AIDS
Dallas Buyers Club is the type of film that seems to only receive the green light if a brave enough, or obtuse enough, high-profile actor attaches himself to the project, usually as both starring lead and producer. Matthew McConaughey joins the list, following in the footsteps of George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and others. However, none of them changed their physical appearance to quite the dramatic level McConaughey has. Losing nearly forty pounds for the role of Ron Woodruff, a Texas man diagnosed with AIDS in 1985, the pasty, sallow skin stretched over a diminished skeletal structure certainly is a shock to most audiences, especially considering McConaughey is best known as a genial, strikingly attractive lead in various romantic comedies.
Moving away from that genre since 2009, McConaughey seems to have gotten tired of being boxed in as an actor and has put together a most impressive resume capable of showing his true potential as an actor. This is his most "method" performance, comparable to the likes of DeNiro in Raging Bull, although to the opposite extreme. Yet, beyond simply losing weight and gaining a mustache, McConaughey really digs deep into this character, willing to go to any length to show his drug abuse, unsafe sexual behavior and overall self-destructive tendencies as being rooted not just in Woodruff's life but in his community as well. Many of the early scenes in the film depict him at his favorite hangouts: the rodeo, where he seems to constantly hustle others, the bar where he downs shots and cigarettes like candy, and work where he shoots the breeze and more cigarettes. The main problem with the film is that just about covers its character study of Ron Woodruff.
As the film progresses, one gets rather frustrated at the seemingly inept structure and logic behind this story. For example, after being told that he has AIDS, Woodruff refuses to believe it, which follows what has already been shown. However, after some confusing visual tactics and a couple blank stares into the camera, he moves voraciously over books and articles, finding out enough information to be able to search out a certain drug he has read will slow down the HIV virus. Obvious to anyone who has seen this sort of rebel with a cause story before, the hospital and FDA refuse to give him anything more than a place in a study they are performing attempting to find out the effects of this drug. Rather than die by chance, he travels to Mexico, gets in contact with a formerly licensed doctor and discovers, or at least believes without much conviction, that there are alternate treatments which are not available in the U.S. due to said FDA. The battle lines have been drawn.
What follows lacks the energy and conviction one would hope for in a film of this type. McConaughey is game for this role, ready to pounce at a moment's notice. The problem is that the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, refuses to let him loose. Countless scenes seem so restrained and controlled that we get little sense of a man on the verge of dying from an incurable illness, which I can only imagine must be one the most terrifying and harrowing feelings possible in life. However, the film does not seem interested in such feelings, only in pushing the narrative forward but even that is disjointed at times. Jennifer Garner's frumpy doctor, with no life outside of work other than sitting at home and drinking wine, lacks any real interest or importance at all. So when she confronts Ron about a very serious development in the story, her lines come across as static and silly. How could she feel the way she claims to if we have seen little of this behavior?
The other noteworthy performance beside McConaughey is Jared Leto, an actor who seems to wait out for these kind of roles. Playing a transvestite and looking like the lovechild of Sigourney Weaver and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he too is game for going all in and leaving nothing to the imagination in this portrayal of two men on the brink of death and willing to go all in. Yet, the film maintains its breadth-over-depth stance. By the end, all we are left with are more questions about who exactly this Ron Woodruff was. Scenes involving his starting up the buyers club have the only true excitement and movement in the film. He travels the world looking for exotic and unavailable drugs and doctors who will write prescriptions for him. It's a sad fact when these are the most interesting sequences in a film revolving around people dying of the most devastating disease discovered in the last century. Perhaps Hollywood isn't ready to tell this type of story yet. Philadelphia was close but got bogged down in cliché courtroom sequences. This film bogs itself down by relying on obligatorily timed moments that leave nothing to chance. This may make for a safe story, but it cannot fit the true happenings of a person battling AIDS.
Winter Passing (2005)
An earnest attempt to adopt both literary and highbrow cinematic techniques into an indie story, Winter Passing reminds one of the state in which American cinema has found itself over the last decade or so. To categorize broadly, there are the main-stream, box office extravaganzas with huge budgets, casts, advertising campaigns and hopes. On the flip side is a film like this; personal, introspective, rough around the edges, yet still not altogether coherent and meaningful.
A film like this depends even more so on its actors and writing than more grand movies due to its lack of polish and refinement. Often, this can still lead to an effective experience, but here under writer/director Adam Rapp's embalmed oversight, much of the story suffers from a case of severe underplaying. Zooey Deschanel, a marvelous actress, maintains her ethereal beauty and her doe-like eyes continue to draw us into her soul. Yet, in many scenes she seems to be subdued in not being able to fully express herself, allowing for a somewhat uneven and stilted performance. Ed Harris gives the film's best performance as a once-brilliant writer on the verge of total collapse after the death of his wife and Will Ferrell shows once again the full capabilities of his range with this subtle, nuanced performance to go alongside his much broader roles of Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby.
Though most of the actors do rise above the material, the material itself is often too cluttered and uneven to maintain the audience the whole way through. Several sequences serve little to no purpose of the overall plot, including one early thread which serves as the entire reason for the story, only to be dumped by the end of the film for supposed "artistic" purposes; i.e., ambiguity serves as a great excuse for unconvincing writing. Some characters remain constant, while others seem to be strung along by the plot as if they were puppets. Essentially, Rapp seems interested only in arriving to his abrupt and rather unsatisfying conclusion, seemingly to show us how far everyone has come. Everyone, that is, except for the audience.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
A safe bet for audience satisfaction
12 Years a Slave represents a late-flowering of Hollywood's attempt to continue the white-guilt trip regarding the American slave trade since Roots was an international hit in the 1970s. The exception, however, is that this film is far more superior in its technical qualities than nearly every other of its kind. It begins with the simple yet allegedly powerful statement "This film is based on a true story." Whether this is intended to get the audience to sit up and pay extra attention or simply to help prop up a rather deflated synopsis remains a unique element to singular films. Nevertheless, in this case, it seems to add nothing to the terror and brutality exhibited in the rest of the film. Herein lies a great discrepancy for the film's level of satisfaction: does a "true story" translate to a more powerful and effective experience, and if so, does this imply that fiction has no relevance left?
All this to say that, despite its misgivings about its audience's ability to absorb information, Steve McQueen's adaptation of Solomon Northupp's memoir of being kidnapped, sold as a slave despite previously being a freeman, and eventually brought back to his rightful position, does strike a powerful and memorable chord. This is helped in large part by the expansive, eclectic and effective cast which includes such diverse names as Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt. Yet, what struck me most about this film was the way in which it seemed to be so single-minded in its approach that it failed to see Northupp as a representative of American slavery in the decades prior to the Civil War. This is exhibited most apparently in the finale, which ends rather abruptly without any real sort of coda or satisfying cadence. This may very well be what McQueen intended, but it still diminishes the viewing experience as it limits the audience to experiencing only what Northupp wrote explicitly. In most cases, this would be fine, but the camera's ability to transcend its subjects and expand on its themes almost requires more than what the source material allows. In this sense, the film fails to live up to its billing.
It seems that this was done most likely to keep a safe awareness of its time and place in the box office. This film will most assuredly be a front-runner for the Oscars next year, yet it has the opportunity to go far beyond more conventional or even exploitative tales of slavery such as Mandingo and, to a lesser but more entertaining degree, Django Unchained. McQueen was well on his way to showing the most realistic, truthful and even sympathetic portrayal of the relationship between blacks and whites during the 19th century. It's a shame he seems to pull back and give us a book report just at the moment when more exposition could have benefited greatly.
Trashy, though not entirely without merit.
Given the state of the remake business in Hollywood today, one shouldn't be too surprised that Stephen King's early work has been given a fresh coat of cinematic paint. Not that this film completely disregards Brian De Palma's stylish and memorable 1976 adaptation. Yet, with a well- respected director in Kimberly Peirce and a very up-and-coming actress in Chloë Grace Moretz, you would think this movie could be capable of a little more oomph in its delivery. What we're left with is trashy, a little fun, and a whole lot of disappointment.
A perfunctory prologue and coda to bookmark this film leave a bad taste in the audience's mouth, but we keep our hopes up for the main bulk of the story, which gives us the forlorn Carrie, her religious-fanatic mother and a criminal attempt by high school girls to humiliate this most unpopular girl for seemingly no reason whatsoever. The acting is mostly solid, although some of the minor roles like Judy Greer seem out of place and not in conjunction with the tone of the story. Julianne Moore takes her psychotic mother role to an almost camp level with a real-life Evil Queen look and a touch of human compassion for her daughter. Moretz will be a huge star someday in part because of her incredible ubiquity, but she is far too beautiful to convincingly play a mousy, rejected high school teen. From the first shot of her, we cannot accept all the cruelty she receives, especially to the level which it escalates.
The rest of the girls look at least five years older than Carrie and seem almost orgasmic in reaction to humiliating her. One thing Peirce does bring to this remake is a subtle hint of lesbianism attraction, especially regarding Margaret White. Yet, it too bears little to the main crux of the story, which of course is that tragic night at prom. Here, special effects trump any sort of real terror and fear, leaving us somewhat impressed but otherwise unmoved. An anti-bullying message tacked on as the last line is completely unnecessary and gives this whole project an air of self-righteousness that tastes terrible. The best part of this movie should be a vested re-interest in De Palma's earlier classic. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie will never be forgotten to horror film fans, which is something that cannot be said for this updated Carrie and Margaret White.
Love Actually (2003)
All about that four-letter word.
This is almost without question the ultimate romantic comedy. It certainly has plenty of each of those qualities, practically to the point of overkill and excessiveness. Yet, balancing out certain gratuitous subplots are others that are either impossibly sweet and charming or really bizarre and funny or perhaps even both.
Writer/director Richard Curtis, no stranger to this genre, certainly had enough material here and was able to assemble one of the best casts of British actors ever. Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Liam Neeson and a plethora of over actors put real joie de vivre into their roles, expressing a form of happiness and satisfaction rarely seen in today's movies.
Perhaps most impressive is that nearly ten years on, many of these actors remain in our memories in part because of this film. It has its moments of unnecessary storytelling such as that of the horny Brit Collin traveling to the US in order to sleep with the first woman he meets and the budding relationship between the two sex actors. However, there are other stories, especially that of the Prime Minister and one of his assistants and the unrequited romance between a man and his best friend's wife that give the film its true value.
Some scenes are purely, beautifully emotional; others are totally strange, absurd and maddening. Then again, isn't love?
Another Year (2010)
The culmination of Leigh's insightful cinematic style.
Mike Leigh's cinema is certainly not for everyone, especially those unwilling to look deep within the human emotion pool and see their own reflection. In his most recent work, he brings together practically all of his directing powers, culminating in a very serious, and sometimes charming, story focusing on a loving couple and the various sorts they have remained friends with over the years.
Like so many of the greatest directors, Leigh has established a strong rapport with a small collection of actors, resulting in very strong performances every time out. Here, frequent collaborators Jim Broadbent, Ruth Sheen and Lesley Manville shine in their respective roles, particularly Manville as an alcoholic, depressed, middle-aged woman clinging to the one relationship in her life that has any meaning or happiness. As the film progresses, albeit without any sort of manufactured "plot," we witness life as it really is: strange, funny, at times exhausting and stressful, yet having the possibility of being rewarding and worthwhile.
Though this may not be Leigh's absolute best work (my initial response to that would be All or Nothing), it does ring true as a definite Mike Leigh film. It explores the entire spectrum of human feeling and behavior, yet it doesn't do this in a cynical or manipulative manner. Rather, it seems to unfold naturally and coherently. It views us all as similar in the sense that we are subjected to this world and its cruelty, yet it is possible to attempt to rise above it through reaching out in love and compassion. Not sentimental, just hopeful.
Career Girls (1997)
Perhaps Leigh's most personally relatable work.
A remarkably cohesive and concise look at friendship, memory and the passing of time, Mike Leigh's beautifully told film explores these themes in such an effective manner that it is hard to believe so much can be said in a mere 80 minutes. It makes most American films seem flabby and overly tedious.
Two outstanding performances lay at the center of this story as we are taken into the lives both past and present of Hannah and Annie, college roommates reunited for a weekend. This perfectly ordinary setup is fodder for Leigh to work his magic in dissecting, this time via multiple flashbacks, how these two came to rely so heavily on one another as well as the long-term effects of their relationship as it weathers various problems, especially men.
Ultimately, here Leigh has crafted a portrait of friendship and loyalty so alarmingly realistic and straightforward that it may come across as too contrived or preposterous for some. Indeed, there are several huge coincidences that must take place in order for the necessary conclusion. However, these never come across as overtly nice and neat and the end result indeed justifies everything that has come before it. Regardless of whatever they encounter, Hannah and Annie will remain as close as they can. After all, without each other who would they have and who else do they need?