Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Shame

Shame brings to mind Leaving Las Vegas.  They’re both about addiction, and neither are about redemption.  They’re both about addicts who have lost all inhibition, all control over their addictions.  They’re about people who’ve burrowed into their addictions, feeding their needs far past satiety, past loathing.  They wrap themselves in shame.  They are their addictions.


With Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, it’s alcohol.  With Michel Fassbender in Shame, it’s orgasm.  And while these addictions are terrible and destructive, they aren’t, ipso facto, particularly compelling.  Humanity is compelling.  In Leaving Las Vegas, humanity comes in the guise of Elisabeth Shue as a prostitute who recognizes the man inside the addiction.  In Shame, it’s Carey Mulligan as a sister so damaged she forces the man to look beyond his.

Cage, of course, won an Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas.  Fassbender deserved one for Shame, delivering a performance breathtaking in its fearlessness and competence.  His character begins the film a slave to his compulsions, yet he seems to have found some kind of a workable life balance.  When Mulligan’s character enters the scene, however, he’s forced to see himself.  His dawning realization, his reaction to that realization, and his subsequent evolution (or lack thereof) is absolutely magnificent to behold.


My tastes in film run toward the upbeat low- to middlebrow.  A movie like Shame, like Leaving Las Vegas, generally isn’t my thing.  But sometimes, a film is so good, so well made, so compelling, that it defies those tastes and becomes something I recommend to all my friends.  Leaving Las Vegas is such a film.  So is Shame.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Silver Linings Playbook



Oh, good God.  An hour and a half spent with people who yell at one another as a form of communication.  If I wanted that, I’d go home for Christmas.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

The Hunter

In The Hunter, Willem Dafoe plays a world-class game hunter who has accepted a contract to kill the world’s last surviving Tasmanian tiger.  He’s a quiet man in a quiet setting.  He walks the Tasmanian wilderness, sets traps, and tries to pick up the trail of a lonely, elusive creature.  Things get complicated because this is, after all, narrative film.  However, one gets the sense that the plot is secondary.  The film recalls the pacing and tone of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and it is a film very much more about the pacing than the destination.


The pacing is .. deliberate.  We don't get to know Dafoe's hunter with an intro and a quip.  Rather, we get know him as he (re?)discovers an aspect of himself slowly, carefully.  There are few actors who can pull this off, and Dafoe is one of them.  However, The Hunter moves so slowly, so carefully, that I found it difficult to remain engaged.  The Hunter is a film for someone ready to meditate.  I, however, saw it on a computer in an airport lounge while keeping an eye on the "Delayed Departures" board.  I may be the target audience for this film, but I was not the target headspace.


So, see The Hunter if you love Dafoe.  See it if you love Australia.  But skip it if you have something else on your mind.  The Hunter is for meditation, not distraction.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Django Unchained

Django Unchained is a revenge fantasy set in the pre-Civil War American South. It doesn't have any vampires.

It heroes are Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz, neither of whom slay vampires. Its villains include Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, and Bruce Dern, none of whom are vampires. Its Designated Damsel is Kerry Washington, who does not kill a slaveholding vampire with a silver crucifix shot from a Spencer 1860 carbine.

In short, Django Unchained is a slavery revenge fantasy that is not Abraham Lincoln:Vampire Hunter. This is too bad. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a great movie, while Django Unchained is merely good. While AHVH is fun and creative and downright wicked in its portrayal of the Slaveholding South as an undead empire and Jefferson Davis as its knowing stooge, Django goes the more obvious route of painting its villains simply as venal, stupid, cruel, or some combination of the three.


The result? A perfectly serviceable revenge fantasy populated with world-class actors, aided by Quentin Tarantino's dialogue and unique eye, and made with every bit of goodwill all hands could muster. I chuckled. I grooved. I was entertained. But it was no AbrahamLincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Kick-Ass 2

I saw Kick-Ass 2 a couple of weeks ago. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. The film's tone shifts so often, sometimes within a scene, that it kept me off balance for nearly its entire running time. Sometimes, it's a comedy. Sometimes, it's an action adventure. Sometimes, it's a gruesome and tragic horror show.

Here's the setup: it's a year or two after the events of the original Kick-Ass (which I quite liked.  See my review at the link). Our hero has hung up his costume, and second (but more interesting) lead Hit Girl has done the same. But it's boring in the real world, and someone's gotta take on evildoers. Soon enough, our leads are back in harness: and just in time. Evil has a plan.


With a setup like that, a film can go anywhere. Kick-Ass 2 goes everywhere. It's an adolescent comedy, a superhero teamup movie, and a horror movie all at the same time. Do you like vomit gags? Kick-Ass 2 has 'em. Do you like that shot in which the team walks, slo-mo, abreast toward the camera? Oh, yeah. How are you with graphic torture and murder? Sexual assault? An underage girl using a pair of pliers to rip off a man's penis? Yeah, me neither.

The film has another strange feature: its title character isn't particularly interesting. Aaron-Taylor Johnson plays Dave Lizewski (aka Kick-Ass) as a bland nobody, someone who comes fully alive only when in costume. While Lizewski (who made a fine lead in Godzilla) does the job, he has a real handicap: he's cast opposite Chloë Grace Moretz, who's a genuine movie star. Not only does she have the more interesting character (a 9th-grader so damaged that she's only happy when killing), but she's a better actor; she brings a maturity and sophistication to her performance that reminds me of a young Jodie Foster.


So, toss together a number of dissonant elements, put your best performer in a supporting role, and bake until strange. If that sounds like a good recipe to you, you just might enjoy Kick-Ass 2.

Thursday, September 04, 2014

R.I.P.D.

I liked Men in Black. I liked Ghostbusters. I like Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Bacon. R.I.P.D. is a mashup up of Ghostbusters and Men in Black starring Jeff Bridges, Ryan Reynolds, and Kevin Bacon. All the movie had to do to get me on its side was not screw up.

R.I.P.D. did not screw up.

Here's the setup: Ryan Reynolds, a Boston cop of questionable moral character, gets killed and assigned to the Police Department of the Dead. A rookie on this new force, he gets partnered with Western lawman Jeff Bridges (riffing on his True Grit character) and is off to save the world.

From there, it's one gag after another as the two cops face off against a panoply of poorly-rendered CGI undead monsters. Wait – don't go away. The poor rendering is a feature, not a bug. This is a lighthearted comedy-horror-action picture, and the monsters' artificiality creates sufficient distance to keep them more amusing than scary. I smiled, I chuckled, I nodded along happily as I watched people I like fight neat monsters in a movie that entertained me from beginning to end.


All this, and James Hong to boot. What more could you ask for in your light summer entertainment?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Argo

Argo is funny and gripping and altogether successful.

Ben Affleck directed and starred in the thriller, a (reasonably) true story about the spiriting of six American diplomats out of Iran in the wake of the 1979 revolution.  It seems like the man hasn't taken a misstep since Hollywoodland, and his is becoming a name I increasingly associate with quality filmmaking.  With Argo, he assembles a top-notch cast and production team, hands them a solid screenplay, and polishes their work with the collaboration of editor William Goldenberg.

But wait - how can a movie about getting six Americans out of Iran be funny?  It's all in the writing.  While Argo is a thriller first, Screenwriter Chris Terrio wrote snappy, sharp dialogue for its Hollywood-based characters.  A cast including Alan Arkin and John Goodman bring that dialogue to life, and Affleck and editor Goldenberg make it pop with perfectly arranged compositions, perfectly timed reaction shots, and a sense of momentum that allows levity while keeping the audience keyed in on the seriousness of the situation [Side note: Goldenberg won the 2013 Academy Award for editing for his work on Argo.  Learning stuff like that while conducting basic research is part of the fun of writing this blog.].

That editing is also what makes the movie gripping.  How do you make watching a phone ring interesting?  By cutting footage of a lonesome phone in an empty room with footage of the man making the call, of the men racing to answer to the call, and the people whose lives depend on the outcome of that call.  Argo is filled with this kind of stuff, taking the mundane aspects of the operation at hand and lending them urgency through top-notch editing.

In short, Argo is a testament to the value of craft, to polishing a script and casting the right people and getting the hair and makeup just so and editing the footage with a perfect blade.  The result?  Another winner for Ben Affleck.  May he bring us many more.