Saturday, February 27, 2016

More Interesting than the Oscars 5: Heroines and Flops


"The word is, this just wasn't a good year for movies."

A friend and colleague of mine told me this a few months ago, when the Oscar campaign was building and no clear front-runner had emerged for insiders to get excited about. Things have changed a bit since then. Alejandro Iñárritu's The Revenant has grabbed the momentum, borne on amazing visuals and the highly publicized amount of pain everyone went through to make it. But from what I hear, a surprise upset from Spotlight or The Big Short wouldn't be so surprising—or, for that matter, so upsetting. Personally, from those options, I'd like to see it go to The Big Short. Manic comedy so rarely gets awarded, and manic comedy was both the ideal and not at all expected way of tackling subject matter like the financial crisis.

But his comment struck me, because I thought it was actually a rather solid for movies. For the first time in a while, the difficulty was whittling down my list of favorites.

For starters, 2015 was the year of the heroine. Even the year's most macho action movie (Mad Max: Fury Road) and its geekiest sci-fi thriller (Ex Machina) were not-so-subtle feminist allegories, in genres traditionally thought of as "for boys." And then hats must go off for Brie Larson, indomitable in trauma and rebirth in Room; for the lesbian lovers of Carol; for the haunted millennial girl of It Follows; for the trans sex workers of Tangerine; for the aging actress of Clouds of Sils Maria; for the harried wife competing with a memory in 45 Years; for the spunky, tomboy-ish Disney heroines of Inside Out and Tomorrowland; for Jennifer Lawrence's entrepreneur in Joy; for Amy Schumer's Trainwreck, which is most successful when it's making the least number of concessions; and for the young sisterhoods in The Wonders and the Best Foreign Film nominee Mustang.

However, it's worthwhile to note that "the year of the heroine" was not the same as "the year of the woman director." With only two exceptions, all the movies above were directed by men. The lack of women in the director's chair has become a social rallying point, and it's not an issue that can be laid exclusively at Hollywood's door. (Look at the lineups and history of, say, the Cannes Film Festival, and you won't find a much rosier picture). That deserves a longer post for another time. For now, suffice it to say that the most interesting characters of the year were women. The Academy doesn't have the best track record in recognizing truly interesting roles for actresses, but when Brie Larson wins this year for Room, as she's widely expected to, I'll be happy.

This was also the year when nostalgia paid huge dividends. Jurassic World and Star Wars: The Force Awakens became two of the biggest films in history, which if nothing else is fascinating because pretty much all that those movies have to say or add is an explicit, fan-service-y reminder of how good the originals were. Dire pessimists could see it as the limitations of directors who show up in Hollywood with nothing more than a knowledge of other movies, but it shows the upside of such sincere nostalgists as well.

Both movies are fun in a way that most current sequels, prequels, and reboots are not. J.J. Abrams is a more talented director than George Lucas, even if his film takes far fewer chances. And the success of Episode VII shows how most movies, especially ones so heavily marketed and synergized, are missing the humor, speed, and vibe of a childhood game that Lucas visualized in 1977. Jurassic World, as a wink-wink, meta, "ironic" reboot riding the Chris Pratt train, is a film I was completely prepared to hate out of principle but ended up enjoying in practice. Both show an understanding of the subtexts and moods that fans see in the original, beyond just the high concept. As someone born in the 80s but too young to remember them, I miss the days when franchises were actually created as well as exploited. But if every Hollywood tentpole showed as much care or commitment, the multiplex would be a far less depressing place.

Speaking of which, this could also be called the year of the unfairly maligned flop.

2016 saw a collection of genre films and expensive would-be tentpoles where talented, established directors failed to take off at the box office. To one extent or another, Michael Mann's Blackhat, Brad Bird's Tomorrowland, the Wachowski's Jupiter Ascending, and Guillermo Del Toro's Crimson Peak fit into this mold, with reviews and grosses that ranged from disappointing to disastrous. All of them are, shall we say, heavily flawed. Yet all of them feel personal, are aesthetically or conceptually inspired, and generally dodge the suspicion, too often found at the movies, that we're watching something that was decided on by committee. Not the best films of the year by any means, but you know what? All of them (yes, even Jupiter Ascending) left a more vivid impact on me than something as blandly functional as Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, which made major bank. Maybe some of them will even find a second life—Michael Mann has already gone back for a director's cut of Blackhat, with fans in tow.

Onward to my countdown of favorites. The rules: a top 12 instead of a top 10, and a film qualifies if it either was released in US theaters or premiered on the festival circuit this year.


12. Steve Jobs (Danny Boyle, US)

Sony largely pulled this from the Oscar race when it failed to take off, which is a shame. This is some of Aaron Sorkin's best work, a characteristically witty script that's much smarter about the impact of Apple than The Social Network was about the impact of Facebook. The theatrical, three-act-play structure is a welcome break from the syndrome of biopics, and while Sorkin tends to "over-write" and smother the cinematic potential of his own scripts, Danny Boyle's craft can't be stopped.

11. Room (Lenny Abrahamson, US)

One of the year's best indies and more adventurous Best Picture nominees pulls off several nice coups: act one is less a lurid true crime horror than a clammy domestic allegory; the gripping transition scenes perform the low-budget trick of making the ordinary world look like something out of science fiction; and the last act shows how survival can give way not to relief, but to a new ordeal. In a role that demands tremendous range, Brie Larson is perfect.


10. 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK)

Sometimes you don't need an intricate plot, just a compelling setup, and two actors good enough to dredge up all the little nuances, ambiguities, and paradoxes in human behavior. In this case, the setup is simply that, after some surprising news, a woman begins to wonder how firmly she can count on her husband. Tom Courtenay and in particular Charlotte Rampling are brilliant, and the film evokes a relationship where it's hard to draw a clear line between true feeling and performance, even after years of marriage. It's a method dozens of festival films fuck up every year. This one does great.


9. Aferim! (Radu Jude, Romania)

In 19th century Romania, a piggish constable and his naive son go off in search of an escaped slave, and along the way, their cracked, burlesque odyssey lays out bigotry, authority, religion, and sex in all their absurd glory. Tailor-made for cinephiles—something like Andrei Rublev remade as a comedy—it won big at the 2015 Berlinale and slipped quietly into US theaters last month with hardly anybody noticing. But take heed of the film. It's a sad and beautiful world.

8. Carol (Todd Haynes, US)

Easily the most straightforward film to date from Todd Haynes, hardly a director known for being straightforward, yet one of his most deceptively rich as well. Don't be fooled by the title or the fact that Oscar politics put Rooney Mara in the "Supporting" category: this is Mara's film, not Cate Blanchett's and it's less successful as a melodrama about a wealthy lesbian housewife than it is as a complex portrait of young person's total, irrational erotic surrender. As everything seems to be switching to the small screen, here's a small, intimate film that really needs a theatrical presentation to sell its atmospheric beauty.


7. Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, Australia)

It's a testament to the hosannas that greeted this film last May that it's both one of the best films of the year and probably the most overrated (ah, how the internet loves that word). But it is undeniably a triumph, an unhinged formal gauntlet that, in its attack on delusional power structures, draws a fair amount of blood. Its non-stop intensity is overpowering, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how easily you can eat popcorn while being hit by a barrage of disorienting imagery. A return to old-school filmmaking? Not exactly, even if it was hailed as one. But it's fantastic when an R-rated, two hour action spectacle feels like a labor of love from a distinct voice.


6. Ex Machina (Alex Garland, UK)

A sci-fi thriller that truly thinks through and expresses the possibilities of its concept, eventually settling on a gender studies take on Frankenstein with an Apple-Store-dystopia aesthetic. In a grand Oscar tradition, the Academy seems set to vote for Alicia Vikander's less interesting role in The Danish Girl while at least partly thinking of her less Oscar-friendly role in this. But the whole thing is a triumph, and it's less about A.I. than it is about men and women, toppling two images of male authority: first, the explicitly domineering kind, and second, the fantasy of a beautiful, available woman who needs a man to rescue her. As for the fate of the second, it's the film's bitterer pill.


5. Li'l Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France)

This French mini-series made history as the first TV program to top the Cahiers du Cinema's list of the best films of the year, and its quiet arrival in the US last January was one of the highlights of 2015. Described too easily (but not unfairly) as a "French Twin Peaks", it's a whodunit with clues fanning out in all directions. Is the murderer still out there, or were the victims simply swallowed up by a toxic landscape? Don't expect to be handed answers if you're not willing to bring your own, for what we have here is a movie about complicity, inaction, and the cop-out of blaming horrific acts on "evil". All that, and it's funny too.

4. The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

A critics' film, if ever there was one, if only because it's a movie in rebellion against its own genre. All anyone can agree on is that it looks amazing, and I'd contend that the visual rapture of the film dovetails nicely with its own complicated, muddy plot, and the way its action sequences are all viewed from a distance. This is a film that sets up the complex political conspiracies and power struggles of a classic martial epic, but is about the decision to opt out in search of beauty instead. Its final carthartic moment speaks to nothing so much as the desire to disengage. It couldn't be more urgent, and it passes like a dream.

3. It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, US)

One of the American indie triumphs of the year is also one of the few recent horror movies to really carry some weight behind it. A remarkably cohesive synthesis of Halloween, Repulsion, and a bit of J-horror thrown in, it's scary and loaded with meaning, sifting intelligently and empathetically through the emotional fallout that can happen when young people (as young people do) stumble into sex. The atmosphere is wonderful, the suburban setting wonderfully drawn in an 80s sort of way. Bonus points for having teenage characters that, crucially, actually look like teenagers.


2 & 1. Inside Out (Pete Docter, US) and Anomalisa (Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson, US)

There's a reason for pairing these two together, and it's not just because Pixar making a great film and Charlie Kaufman making any film at all have become increasingly rare. Both are films about being inside of your own mind, set at radically different points in life. But most of all, both are films that use animation—that art form that frees filmmakers from photographic reality—to express something about being ordinary.

Pete Docter has emerged as the most distinctive voice at Pixar since Brad Bird, and don't forget that his Up was Pixar's first film to feature a completely ordinary human being—not a talking animal, or a talking toy, or a superhero—as its main character. This seems very crucial to his M.O. In pure dramatic terms, not much happens in the "real world" of Inside Out: a young girl moves to a new town, has a bad day at school, runs off, and comes back. But the film is painfully aware of how strong such emotions can feel when you're a child. Docter's films desire nothing but to reflect on the experience of simply living life and growing older. That he slips it into "children's films" is remarkable. Not without paradoxes or concessions, but remarkable.

Kaufman is, of course, a different matter. His films are painfully, crushingly adult, weighed down by a sense of disappointment and unfulfilled longing. His heroes invariably find themselves not only inside their own mind, but trapped there—sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically. And the brilliance of his Anomalisa is how, as the film goes on, you become increasingly aware that this world is just a projection, a version of reality with the main character's own cynicism brutally superimposed over it. Each new item of information we learn reflects back on what came before it, and adds complexity to how the character and the film relate to the world. It's paranoid, beautiful, and in it's own small way, perfect.

One film may grow up to become the other. If somehow you find a theater playing them together, it's the double bill of the year.


The Honor Roll: 12 more films that made following movies worthwhile this year...

The Big Short (Adam McKay, US)

Blackhat (Michael Mann, US)

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, US)

Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, France)

Creed (Ryan Coogler, US)

Love & Mercy (Bill Pohlad, US)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, US)

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, US)

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, Germany)

Tangerine (Sean Baker, US)

Taxi (Jafar Panahi, Iran)

World of Tomorrow (Don Hertzfeldt, US)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

More Interesting Than the Oscars 4: The Year of Taking What You Can Get

By around late December, a sense of panic had started to creep in.  I'd been haunting the movies all 2014, and for the first time in a long time, I hadn't found anything that I was comfortable proclaiming as my favorite film of the year.  I don't wish to say that this was an off year for movies; there were more than enough worthwhile events.  But rather, all pleasures seemed to come in a somewhat compromised form.  By the end, the quest was complete and I filled up 24 spots—even if I had to cheat a bit to get there.

At the multiplexes, the surprise hit of the summer was Guardians of the Galaxy, which took one of Marvel's most esoteric properties, gave it legs, and turned TV co-star Chris Pratt into a desired leading man (Spielberg is reportedly eying him for an Indiana Jones reboot, so brace yourself).  The movie itself was less witty and creative than the average episode of Firefly, but it's a sign of how multiplex audiences yearn for personality and eccentricity that the mere act of aspiring to Firefly was a genuine tonic.  Then there's Interstellar, which was supposed to ride in as the great white hope of intelligent blockbuster cinema.  The result is something of a mess, overwrought in some places and underdeveloped in others, landing neither the critical clout or the box office that a Nolan film portends.  But then again, its practical FX, musical score, and hard sci-fi ambitions are something to cling to in this day and age: this is the closest Hollywood came all year to the thoughtful fantasy spectacle of an Alien or an E.T.

Then there's the Oscar bait.  The Imitation Game shows how polish and star-power matter more at awards season than inspiration.  The cast is good and the product is slick, but just about everything the filmmakers changed or added made the real-life story less interesting, not more.  Selma was a better film, with a few remarkable sequences to call its own and real fire in its belly.  But the snubs aren't worth the controversy they caused, in part because the movie isn't that exceptional, and mostly because even if the voting went a different way and gave the film a few more token nominations, it still wouldn't change Hollywood's systemic issues with race.

Which brings us to the major contenders, in a year praised for auteurism charging the Oscar stage.  Birdman is a magnificent achievement that can't help but feel a little fraudulent, a kind of have-its-cake/eat-it-too movie where everyone involved, from the actors to the DP to the drummer, is top notch, only it's all in service of a statement that doesn't add up to nearly as much as it would like.  Whiplash is a movie that isn't only about showing off, but embodies it.  Boyhood is the best American film of the year practically by default, showing an ambition, sincerity, dedication, and purity that nothing else matched, and that can successfully overshadow how parts of the film are downright embarrassing (I'm thinking of the Hispanic day laborer who Patricia Arquette apparently saves with an off-hand comment).  The Grand Budapest Hotel is some of the most fun to be had all year, but Anderson's usual undercurrent of melancholy is thinner than before; it's the only of his films that seems less substantial with each viewing.  American Sniper stands out as deserving perhaps the most ink spilled on it, especially in the light of the controversy it's caused through face-value readings of its take on the Iraq War, but that piece will have to wait for another time.

Then there was the festival circuit.  This year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Winter Sleep, must have had the most muted reaction in years.  Amour, Blue is the Warmest Color, and Tree of Life got people arguing.  Winter Sleep is an excellent film that doesn't seem to have surprised or galvanized many people at all; if anything, it was like a given for a director who's been in and out of the spotlight for over a decade.  Far more of a lightning rod was Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, which contains two of the most mind-blowing shots of the year, but compared to his best work (including his underrated films from the 90s) is more like an exercise than a feature.  Inherent Vice showed P.T. Anderson going further off the deep end.

And yet, now that I officially sound like a bitter curmudgeon, let it be known that I found something (sometimes many things) valuable in every film I've just named.  Surprises around every corner, too.  Much to the dismay of my friends in high school, I could never get into anime, yet anime takes two spots near the top of my list for the year.  As for the Oscars, there's plenty of good you can see in it, and not just because Neil Patrick Harris is hosting.  Three godheads of 90s independent cinema—Richard Linklater, Julianne Moore, and Wes Anderson—are serious contenders to finally get their Oscars this year, and even if it's not for their best work, it's a good thing.

Speaking of good things, on to my list of favorites.  As always, here's a top 10, wide 2 wild card picks, and another 12 runners-up.

12. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

Perhaps the most valuable contribution Inherent Vice made, aside from getting Chuck Jackson stuck in our heads, is jump-starting a conversation about the importance of plot vs. story.  P.T. Anderson's film takes an intentional glee in all its loose ends.  Its narrative is like a river emptying into a sea.  But the sense of loss and paranoia that pervades it, how the twilight of an era is sliding away and leaving its heroes in an uncertain future, makes it a unique film to treasure.  A pulp noir fantasy, a twist on movie cliches, and a paranoid trip through America's most schizoid chaos.

11. Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, USA)

Moneyball was good, but Bennett Miller didn't seem to know what to do with an Aaron Sorkin script. He thrives on a slow tempo and an icy palette, which is why Foxcatcher is a more natural fit.  Steve Carrell gave the type of performance that gets awards, prosthetics and all.  But don't discount Channing Tatum's best performance to date, as something of a brute with dreams of American exceptionalism, even if all the evidence he can see—including in himself—points to something darker.

10. Gone Girl (David Fincher, USA)

Fincher's latest is one of the slipperiest films of the year, looking initially like an episode of CSI but turning into a sly, subversive satire of forensic drama, marital strife, happy ending, media circuses, Ben Affleck's blankness, and the post-modern career of Neil Patrick Harris.  Film history may yet recognize it as a comedy.

9. Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Turkey)

A rich, sprawling drama, a long series of conversations full of richness about the gaps between rich and poor, men and women, young and old, working its spell upon you gradually.

8. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson, USA)

Anderson's most fleet-footed caper to date, full of visual and verbal wit.  Forget the ending about the collapse of Old Europe in the face of World War II—those movies have already been made.  The real potency here is the melancholy feeling that Anderson was born too late to be Ernst Lubitsch.

7. Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yi'Nan, China)

This year's Golden Bear winner (still unreleased in the States, for reasons unknown) is a tricky film to get a grip on, especially if you expect a film noir and find out that so much of the movie leans towards the absurd.  This is a police procedural where the police are practically clowns, not solving so much as stumbling upon a solution—and even then, they don't grasp the significance. A dig at both Western cliches and Chinese authorities. Which, come to think of it, is the opposite of Transformers 4.

6. Under the Skin (Jonathon Glazer, UK)

A cold, spare science fiction tale, one that would be a little too basic if it were told in straightforward Screenwriting 101. But since it's told almost exclusively in (stunning) imagery, it becomes a mesmerizing nightmare, where Earth feels like the surface of the moon and being a woman among men is like being an alien presence. Watching it is definitely taking a plunge.

5. The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Japan)

Now that Hollywood animation is almost exclusively ironic pastiches with celebrity voices, I'm glad someone is holding up the old school: animation that looks like the drawings of a children's book, perfect for fairy tales.  A truly beautiful film about the expectations placed on women, far more mature and troubling than Brave.  The scene of Kaguya bolting off belongs in any highlight reel of 2014.

4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater, USA)

Linklater's masterpiece?  I'm not so sure.  But he follows his method of finding beauty, heart, and transcendence in life's little moments to their fullest possible conclusion: a twelve year epic where we dip in and out of characters' lives, seemingly at random.  I'm not sure how Boyhood will fare in years to come, whether it will be viewed as a filmmaking triumph or a gimmick.  But lovely moments abound, and it's inspiring to see audiences rally around such a film.  It shows that we do like movies and life to be connected after all.

3. Like Father, Like Son (Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Japan)

It's Capraesque in its simplicity, but fuck it, we could use some Capra. Six years into a deep economic slump, a time when you'll regularly see asshole pundits on TV slagging the poor, Kore-Eda's film makes the beautifully simple argument (in tribute to Ozu) that everyone could be everyone else's family. It gets by on the sort of sentimentality that would seem schmaltzy if it weren't so delicate. But delicate it is.

2. Leviathan (Andrei Zvagintsev, Russia)

Russia has gone from the Tsars to authoritarian communism to whatever the hell Putin is, and Zvyagintsev, with this sense of history, confirms his rep as a master of the slow-burn allegory. A brilliantly written drama, surreptitiously laying out important details as it draws a chilling (yet often comical) look at how corrupt systems can't be challenged because the challengers are only human.

1. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki, Japan)

Deeply humane and strikingly classical, Miyazaki's farewell film is a departure for him, but is like the sort of movies Kurosawa and John Ford used to make.  And if it's a "kids' movie", it's the most morally complicated ever made. Miyazaki's animation is rich, taking history partway (but not too far) into fantasy.  Its view of an attempt to live life outside of history is a provocative work of true heartache.  It played in 2013 for one week in L.A., to qualify for last year's Academy Awards, and then slipped quietly into theaters in 2014 for the rest of us.  Putting it here may be cheating, but either way, it's perhaps the masterpiece to find playing in American theaters this year: the one that shows that what we admired about the old masters is still here.


The Honor Roll: 12 more films that made following movies worthwhile this year...

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, USA)

Birdman (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, USA)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, USA)

Force Majeure (Ruben Östlund, Sweden)

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France/Switzerland)

Jauja (Lisandro Alonso, Argentina/Netherlands)

The LEGO Movie (Phil Lord, Christopher Miller & Chris McKay, USA)

Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, Canada)

Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch, USA)

Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne, Belgium)

Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski, France)

We are the Best! (Lukas Moodyson, Sweden)

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Lives of Observation: "Boyhood" and the Cinema of Richard Linklater

What difference does a title make?  Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which has become the most celebrated American film of the year, was originally going to be called "12 Years".  But just as Linklater wrapped production, 12 Years a Slave hit it big, so Boyhood it became.  The word "boyhood" implies something archetypal.  It has a tinge of the definitive, and the film has been criticized these lines, both accused of holding up a flattering mirror to its audience and questioned for not living up to a universality that it never really claims.  More on that in a moment, but for now, I wonder if, had the film had kept its original title, it would be clearer that it's first and foremost about the passing of time in one small corner of the world.  Title aside, the boy in Boyhood is one of the least active players.  It's at least as much about his parents.  It's even more about what, in almost any other film, would be the backdrop or the incidental details, from video game technology to political campaigns.  To watch the movie is to watch an endlessly shifting time-capsule.

A friend once told me that the worth of any movie is how well it stands when you remove its central novelty.  Thus the true measure of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't the wild visual tricks or the mobius-strip structure, but whether or not the romance at the core holds any weight.  It's a metric that hung in my mind as I watched Boyhood.  The production of the film is itself an awe-inspiring model of dedication: a narrative film shot and written in pieces over 12 years using the same actors.  The filmmakers let a decade-long plot play out and then condensed it into a feature.  It's difficult to be critical in the face of such a noble, ambitious passion project, which is surely a factor in the film's nearly dissent-free 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what would Boyhood be if you removed its novelty?  What if it were shot in the conventional way, over weeks or months, with different actors playing the boy at different ages, using makeup to age Patricia Arquette instead of letting time do it for you?  Stripped to its dramatic essentials, the film is uneven.  It may be ungrateful, or at least redundant, to accuse a 12 year production of patchiness, but the feeling is often inescapable.  You can put it simply: some scenes work, some don't.  Some are beautiful, heartbreaking, and funny, and several made me cringe.  Some actors inhabit their roles seamlessly, others are forced.  And, in a film that's nearly three hours long, hardly anything interesting is ever done with the camera.

And yet this description doesn't do justice to the appeal of Boyhood at all.  There is something mesmerizing about watching the characters age, and you the viewer feel more like Linklater's collaborator than his audience.  You're part of the experience, particularly if you see it with a crowd, and when a scene doesn't work, you simply brush it off and wait for the next one.  Perhaps novelties and gimmicks aren't merely accessories to a movie at all.  Perhaps they are, or can be, the core.

The acclaim has already invited backlash.  Rebecca Mead wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "The Scourge of 'Relatability'", with Boyhood used as a prime example of culture that panders to its audience.  Is the film good simply because we relate to it?  Watch it in a packed house on a Saturday night, and you can feel the audience murmur with recognition.

I must admit that I'm not sure how the film will play in years to come.  When it's viewed by a generation too young to have played Nintendo Wii or watched the shittiness of the Bush years turn into the shittiness of the Obama years, I suspect it'll seem like an artifact instead of a masterpiece.  But these are criticisms more of the movie's praise than of the movie itself.  For such an ambitious production, the film that resulted is actually very unassuming, or as unassuming as a movie about Life with a capital L could possibly be.  It covers an emotional spectrum with no pretense towards any insight that anyone over the age of 20 hasn't already figured out on their own.  And it's getting burdened right out the gate with a masterpiece status that its humble, shaggy, grinning shoulders can hardly withstand.

As for Richard Linklater, he remains the most unassuming of current American cinema's major directors.  In fact, it feels strange to even use the term "director" when his latest films seem so pointedly undirected; unlike any of his contemporaries (the Coens, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, post-digital Soderbergh), there's nothing in Boyhood or Bernie or Before Midnight to peg a shot as a "Linklater shot" instead of a shot by anyone else.  Linklater's trademarks are more literary: the way people talk, and what they talk about.  So you might say he's a storyteller, except that what he tells aren't stories.  Lit-class terms like "conflict" and "resolution" apply to Boyhood precisely as much as they don't apply at all; what the film chooses to show and not show in its characters' lives can feel almost random.  A Linklater film is more like a series of anecdotes, some funny and some sad, placed side by side until their accumulation achieves a kind of sweep.  It's not a Tolstoy novel; it's staying up all night in a dorm room sharing your life stories.

Slacker, Linklater's first official release, remains one of his best films even if Dazed and Confused will always be more famous.  Slacker is pure observation.  It's also a film without any main character; the camera simply follows one young, aimless twenty-something for about five minutes, then gets passed like a baton to the next character to pass by.  It's the precise midpoint between narrative and avant-garde film, and it works beautifully.  The film has its precedents.  Max Ophüls' La Ronde (1950) and Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty (1974) both experimented with this structure.  But that's the key: those predecessors come from abroad.  A film like Slacker draws from this international arthouse tradition and applies it to a movie as American as John Wayne.  Boyhood is something like a time-lapsed version of Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, and it's hitting home for audiences even if they aren't the least bit familiar with the French New Wave.

For this, and other reasons, the next Linklater film is always something to look forward to.  Boyhood is the movie of the moment, and as Linklater's hero would be the first to admit, life is just one moment following another.  Which means another one can't be far behind.


Boyhood is now playing to packed arthouses.  You should show up early to get a good seat.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

250 Words or Less: Noah (2014)

Darren Aronofsky enters a studio exec's office.

STUDIO: "Black Swan was a big hit!  Oscars, box office...What would you like to do next?"
DARREN: "I'd like to do a Biblical epic, but a different kind of Biblical epic.  One that meditates on the Old Testament god of wrath, on ancient faith versus modern faith, on notions of sin and purity and the struggle to discern what god wants from us."
STUDIO: "Sounds risky."
DARREN: "It is, but even if it's bad, it'll be interesting enough to be worth seeing."
STUDIO: "Would you be willing to make it, like...90% Avatar, maybe with some Y.A. fantasy romance thrown in?"
DARREN: "How about 50%?"
STUDIO: "80% and you've got a deal."
DARREN: "Done."
STUDIO: "Great.  Here's $125,000,000."

2 out of 5 stars.


Noah is now available on home video for the confusion of family movie nights everywhere. It's interesting enough to be worth seeing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

REVIEW: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

It's not easy being a science fiction allegory.  The fundamental challenge is to take a completely preposterous premise and get it taken seriously.  It's a thin line to walk, and there are a few ways to do it.  One is to make it incredibly austere and heavy, like 2001 or Stalker.  Another is to double down on everything preposterous, but be smart enough to make it satire.  Paul Verhoeven was an expert at the latter: the scenes in RoboCop and Total Recall that are funny, campy, and over-the-top are the same scenes that are paranoid, subversive, and terrifying.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tries both, tilting towards heavy but occasionally darting towards light.  It's a post-9/11 (and post-Christopher Nolan) shot at turning the franchise gritty, playing out as an us-vs.-them metaphor for geopolitical tension, starring genetically modified super-apes, where war is both unnecessary and inevitable.  Directed by Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield), the world of the film is dark and dour.  Everything is caked in dirt or fog, with much of the frame blacked out in many scenes.  The decision to go without spoken dialogue for the first 10 minutes is downright ballsy.  And mixed in are a few stabs at blockbuster humor, with ape slapstick and a few nudges from humans who aren't puny so much as goofy.

The contrast can be jarring, and for the first half, I wondered if post-Nolan Hollywood had met its match: after Batman, Superman, James Bond, etc., it had finally found a franchise too inherently ridiculous to be turned into anything gritty.  But as it accumulates and climaxes, it reaches a rewarding kind of pop grandeur, in part because of Reeves' way with atmosphere, and mostly because the film takes its time to set the stage before exploding, which used to be standard but in 2014 feels more and more like a lost art.  The path towards conflict is sketched out with a tremendous amount of schematic detail.  And when the action does explode, with an ape riding a horse firing an assault rifle, it doesn't feel preposterous.  It feels apocalyptic.

As a series, Planet of the Apes is a strange beast.  The 1968 original is a standalone of-its-time masterpiece. But the franchise had pretty much lost its reputability by the mid-70s, and after Tim Burton's widely mocked reboot, there seemed to be no reason to bring it back except that remakes are the order of the day.  And yet Dawn shows what can happen when a property lands in caring hands, with a level of visual creativity and thoughtful attention above and beyond most of what's playing now.  Dawn should proceed directly to the rare list of sequels that truly expand on their predecessor—the franchise is more reputable now than it's been since 1968.  The human characters are boring, I suppose, but their era is ending, and the film features some of the most emotionally complex CGI characters that Hollywood has done yet.  Reeves finishes the film on an extreme close-up of a motion-capture ape where the tighter he pulls in, the more the eyes look human, and I'm still not sure if those eyes belong to Andy Serkis or an FX team.  With apes on one end and computers on the other, we may need to prepare for the New Order.  For now, there's a beautiful truce.

4 out of 5 stars.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in theaters now.  It's the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which means that the Planet of the Apes rose before it dawned.  Which is crazy.