THE ARTIST

January 29, 2012

 

I forgot to write about The Artist.  Cute, clever at times, too long, over-rated.

BTW…silent films were shot sharp, not soft.  Some of the prints look soft to us now as they have degraded, but they didn’t at the time.

Fun at first…but too much of a good thing.


TOP TEN OF 2011

January 28, 2012

Lots of films were considered for this list – among those that didn’t make the final cut are Jane Eyre, The Help, Tree of Life, J. Edgar, My Week With Marilyn, Albert Nobbs – but I managed to whittle down the list of my favorite films of 2011.

No rank ordering this year, so I’ll stick with alphabetical order.

Buck. This is a great story simply told, and first time filmmaker, Cindy Meehl, knows how to assemble a crew and how to let the story unfold without forcing it.  Sort of like the subject of her film is with horses; the film is about the man who inspired the book and the movie The Horse Whisperer.

Buck Brannaman spends nine months out of every year on the road giving clinics to help people with their horses, or as he likes to put it, to help horses with their people.  He has a terrific backstory as an abused child who grows up to empathize with horses in amazing ways.

The film is about an hour and a half long, and you do not have to know a thing about horses to find it riveting and moving.  I love this movie.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Werner Herzog’s latest Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a 3-D film that takes viewers inside the Chauvet caves in Southern France where the oldest known drawings by humans have been discovered.

This film really captivated me, and I think 3-D is an asset here (though usually it’s just a gimmick insufficient to save lackluster, big budget extravaganzas).   In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the effect gives viewers a sense of what it would be like to see the actual drawing.  Given the strictly controlled access to the caves to preserve the site, we’re unlikely to see them in any other context.

This film is a perfect blending of science and the humanities, and it both touched me profoundly and sparked deep creative impulses along with a desire to embark on some great adventure.

Drive. Drive relies on a cast of strong actors – including Carey Mulligan, Bryan Cranston, Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and Christina Hendricks – because the script is spare.

With the absence of character backstory, strong performances are necessary to engage viewers and propel what is essentially a lean storyline:  there’s not a lot of dialogue, and the plot is a bit elliptical at times, too.

But, these are not bad things in Drive.  The story involves a mechanic (Gosling) who works as a stunt driver when movie jobs roll around and drives getaway cars for criminals when it suits him.  His character isn’t even given a name.

Think that’s complicated?  Just wait.  It’s only when he falls for a single mom (Mulligan) in the apartment down the hall that what should signal a certain type of complication in more conventional films quickly becomes another (which I won’t spoil by revealing here).

There is poignancy of the scenes between Gosling and Mulligan is nearly palpable, and it comes more from a bigger, unspecified longing than just garden variety lust. I love the tension and the surprising tenderness between the driver and the mom down the hall.

And, that’s not all.  The pacing works for me, too.  It’s all hurry up and wait, just like making a real movie, or driving a getaway car, or trying to suss out the prospect of a new relationship.

I also like the use of color in surprising ways that seems to echo the contrasting emotional tones in the film, which is really just another type of hurry up and wait, isn’t it?  I like the visual style, and the narrative surprises, and how I simply didn’t know what to expect from moment-to-moment when watching.

That can be refreshing, you know?  Drive works for me.

Hugo. Hugo is a wonderful movie for all of us who are film lovers from Martin Scorsese, a film lover and historian who happens also to be an exquisite filmmaker.

The story centers on a young boy, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) who tends the clocks in a 1930s Paris train station after his father dies, but the narrative takes hold when Hugo discovers that the old man running a toy store in the station is really a once famous but by then forgotten magician and filmmaker.

I can pretty much guarantee that people who are passionate about the movies will love Hugo.  It is a bit of a valentine to the silent cinema, and I bought into the movie completely to the point that I got teary-eyed at least three times while watching.  It’s also one of the few films I can think of in which 3D is both used well and seems to enhance the film a bit, though I’m lukewarm on the technique in general.

I do have two story quibbles.  The first half of the film with its emphasis on clocks is a bit prolonged (remember, I’ve seldom seen a film that I think couldn’t have been improved by cutting ten minutes from the running time).  Also, there seems to be a missing scene involving the Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) character.  It is implied that he recognizes young Hugo’s name and later shows up at the station with just the right book for him that was, he says, intended for his godson but is given to Hugo.  There is a lot of set-up here for zero story payoff.  But, these are really quibbles about what is otherwise a beautiful film.

Margin Call. For me, this is a must see movie.  I saw it on Friday but continue to think about it intensely.

For the mass audience, Margin Call is probably not so much a must see movie because the film is an exercise in restrained storytelling in terms of dialogue and plot coupled with intensely calculated attention to form.

Forget Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Penn Badgley, and Mary McDonnell – though there are some terrific performances here.

Cinematography is the star of Margin Call.

Film students could write compelling papers on the use of framing and focus alone.  Both are used to create aesthetically beautiful images that advance the story by creating spatial relationships emphasizing the primacy and isolation of the individual in the high-powered world of finance as it beings to spiral out of control.

Margin Call takes place over a 24-hour period (talk about Aristotelian unities) as the financial crash of 2008 is about to unfold.

If you know a thing or two about derivatives, you’ll appreciate the film on one level (and cringe as the flippant use of formulas to manipulate markets without considered concern for those affected), and if you haven’t followed the crisis and its genesis carefully at all, you’ll still get the gist of what is going on (greed guides these financiers, and that is not a good thing for the rest of us).

All of that is well and good, but I was utterly mesmerized by the images, lost in them sometimes from shot-to-shot, absorbing as much as I could before one image replaced another on the screen.

Margin Call is the type of film I admire more than love, but I admire it greatly for engaging all of my cinema senses, making me think carefully about the choices writer-director J.C. Chandor has made in crafting the film, and telling a different type of financial crash story.

Where Charles Ferguson’s award-winning documentary Inside Job (another terrific film) makes me think and makes me angry by indicting the system that allowed (encouraged!) the collapse, Margin Call makes me see people (clearly and in isolation because of the selective focus!) who are reckless and greedy and ambitious and, yes, selfish, but people nonetheless.

For all of the attention to the formal elements of filmmaking in Margin Call, Chandor confines his judgment of the assorted characters to that aesthetic realm.  The narrative elements leave those assessments to the viewer, and the film is stronger because of this approach – the explicitness of point-of-view in the cinematography is offset by the implicitness of the point-of-view in the story.

After all, we know these are “bad guys” and don’t have to be told so again and again by the filmmaker.  That sort of spot on storytelling would diminish the power of the film.

I maintain that the character development is there but implicit, wedged into the interstices of the story, and who needs a plot riddled with conventions constructed in the formulaic way when there are such formal beauties to behold as the elements that guide our understanding of the story.

After all, as I tell my students repeatedly, form and content are inextricably linked.

Meek’s Cutoff. This film is not entertaining in a way that will appeal to mass audiences or, perhaps, in any conventional way we think about entertainment.  But, it may be brilliant.  Meek’s Cutoff is not the first revisionist Western – those have been the most engaging films in the genre for about two generations — but more than any other I’ve seen, this one pushes the generic envelope.

Plot does not matter because Meek’s Cutoff is all about perspective, and we learn all we need to know about time and place and gender and race from the way director Kelly Reichardt tells the simple story – who says what to whom, when and how it is said, and how the camera records the actions and interactions of daily life on the Oregon Trail in 1845.

The image dominates the narrative, but framing and mise-en-scene work to evoke a slow sort of tension that is breathtaking.  I felt the same way about Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy, another film I find remarkable.

I love Meek’s Cutoff in ways that have touched me deeply, but I don’t expect most of you to like it very much.  That’s okay.

Of Gods and Men. Based on a true story, Of Gods and Men examines the deliberations of a group of Trappist monks living in Algeria who are caught between the government and a fundamentalist terrorist group during a time of civil war.

Should they stay and fulfill their calling or leave to preserve their safety?

Like many European films I favor, this story unfolds slowly and episodically with a sense of pristine authenticity.  It is also one of the most beautifully photographed films I’ve seen recently.  Of Gods and Men is simply stunning to look at in terms of lighting and composition.

There is a lot to think about here…and I do keep thinking about this film.

Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Story Ever Told. Werner Herzog’s latest Cave of Forgotten Dreams is a 3-D film that takes viewers inside the Chauvet caves in Southern France where the oldest known drawings by humans have been discovered.

This film really captivated me, and I think 3-D is an asset here (though usually it’s just a gimmick insufficient to save lackluster, big budget extravaganzas).   In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the effect gives viewers a sense of what it would be like to see the actual drawing.  Given the strictly controlled access to the caves to preserve the site, we’re unlikely to see them in any other context.

This film is a perfect blending of science and the humanities, and it both touched me profoundly and sparked deep creative impulses along with a desire to embark on some great adventure.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Pay attention to the glasses.  The most common complaint I’ve heard about this adaptation of the John le Carré is that viewers can’t figure out what’s going on.  Early in the film, George Smiley (played by the wonderful Gary Oldman) gets an eye exam and new frames for his glasses.

Pay attention.

The glasses are the same basic shape, but the lighter colored frames designate scenes before his forced retirement while the darker frames indicate the timeline after retirement when he begins a sanctioned but secret investigation of his former peers.  Keep the timelines straight, and you will love unraveling this yarn.

In fact, that’s how I described the film to a good friend of mine.  I’m a knitter, and this film is like an expensive skein of tangled yarn.  It’s tricky to unravel but worth working at the task.  When the knots become looser, the promise is palpable.  When the skein is unraveled and rewound, the result is exquisite.

This is an old-fashioned spy story featuring superb production design, fine writing and directing, and a terrific cast (Mark Strong, Colin Firth, John Hurt, and Toby Jones to name a few).

My advice to you is to take the time to untangle the yarn.

We Need to Talk About Kevin.  Lynne Ramsay’s film does a terrific job of capturing the essence and tone of Lionel Shriver’s novel while remaining distinct and powerful in its own right as a film.  That’s the trick of adaptation:  understanding the essence of one work and figuring out how to translate what is best about one form into a completely different form.

The casting for We Need to Talk About Kevin is flawless.  Tilda Swinton embodies Eva Khatchadourian and John C. Reilly is perfect as her sweet and patient husband Franklin, who loves so much that he fails to see what is before him.

Maybe he fails to see Kevin because what resides behind those dark eyes is nearly unimaginable.  Or, maybe he just believes the side of his son that is presented to him by the calculating child.

In any case, the two actors who play Kevin, Jasper Newell at ages 6-8 and Ezra Miller as a teenager, are spot on in this film.

We Need to Talk About Kevin popped up in my nighttime dreams for two nights following its viewing.  I continue to think about scenes and images.  It’s a hard story to tell, a hard story to watch, and a hard story to shake.

Lynne Ramsay has created a film that is tough to watch but very much worth the effort.


WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN

January 28, 2012

The fall semester of 2005, I taught at Wake Forest’s Worrell House in London.  For many reasons, this was my best semester among many as a student or as a teacher.

Among the students living in the house with my son and myself was at least one voracious reader who recommended several interesting novels (thank you, Liz Lundeen!) including Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

The novel was one of the most difficult I’ve ever read in an emotional sense, a searing account of a mother who fails to bond with her child and how she copes with the terrible crimes her son commits as a teenager.

You may think reading my description that there will be plenty of blame to go around, but the book is much more complex than that, which makes it heartbreaking and authentic in little ways that most mothers can probably identify with if willing to admit human vulnerability.

What real mother has never felt self-doubt and exhaustion and assorted types of worry?  In the case of Eva Khatchadourian, a renowned travel writer turned reluctant mother, the worry and fear turn out to be grounded in unimaginable truth.

Lionel Shriver’s book is unlike anything else I’ve ever read (and I like to read!).

Lynne Ramsay’s film does a terrific job of capturing the essence and tone of the novel while remaining distinct and powerful in its own right as a film.  That’s the trick of adaptation:  understanding the essence of one work and figuring out how to translate what is best about one form into a completely different form.

The casting for We Need to Talk About Kevin is flawless.  Tilda Swinton embodies Eva Khatchadourian and John C. Reilly is perfect as her sweet and patient husband Franklin, who loves so much that he fails to see what is before him.

Maybe he fails to see Kevin because what resides behind those dark eyes is nearly unimaginable.  Or, maybe he just believes the side of his son that is presented to him by the calculating child.

In any case, the two actors who play Kevin, Jasper Newell at ages 6-8 and Ezra Miller as a teenager, are spot on in this film.

We Need to Talk About Kevin popped up in my nighttime dreams for two nights following its viewing.  I continue to think about scenes and images.  It’s a hard story to tell, a hard story to watch, and a hard story to shake.

Lynne Ramsay has created a film that is tough to watch but very much worth the effort.


ALBERT NOBBS

January 28, 2012

Glenn Close played the character Albert Nobbs on stage in the early 1980s and has work for many years since to bring the story to the screen.

Albert Nobbs is an 18th century Irish woman who dresses as a man to make a living as a waiter.  Albert Nobbs is an engrossing, moving, and ultimate gentle story about the complexities of identity and vagaries of humanity.

Close gives a noteworthy performance (as does Janet McTeer) and not only stars as Mr. Nobbs but also produced and co-wrote the film.

 

 


EXTREMELY CLOSE & INCREDIBLY LOUD

January 28, 2012

I admire Stephen Daldry’s work – especially Billy Elliot and The Hours.  He takes risks and adapts difficult material, like The Reader (which I actually read a few weeks ago long after seeing the film).

The preview trailer for Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close turned me off a little because of the MOVIE STARS in major roles and what I thought would be the likelihood of storytelling clichés related to 9/11.

The film was a pleasant surprise.  The story is unusual and creatively told.  The performances are strong.  The visual style compelling.  Two small quibbles:  the film is a little long, and the amount of narration in the first half or so of the movie is a bit overwhelming.

It’s always a gift to go to the movies and get more than is expected.

 

 


HOMELAND

January 18, 2012

So glad this great series is getting its due…


THE DESCENDANTS

January 15, 2012

I have a lot of respect and admiration for Alexander Payne.  That’s probably why it has taken me so long to write about The Descendants. 

After I saw the film last month, I immediately wanted to watch Election and Sideways again.  Actually, I did watch Citizen Ruth (which I had never seen) then opened a bottle of pinot noir and watched Sideways (the third time I have seen it).  I’ve seen Election many times for some of my research projects, so I know it holds up, and I was pleased to learn that Sideways holds up over time for me, too.

I like other work of Payne’s, like About Schmidt, but it’s really Election and Sideways that are the high watermarks for me of his work.

The Descendants is fine.  There are moments that feel emotionally authentic, and it’s fun to see George Clooney as a bit of a milquetoast with family events related to his wife’s accident and an upcoming real estate deal.  High points of the film often swirl around interactions with his older daughter, played by Shailene Woodley, who is very good.

In the end, this is a well-made film, I enjoyed watching it, but The Descendants has not touched me in any lasting, indelible way.  I wanted it to be more to me than it is.

I’m not sure what this means, but seeing The Descendants does make me less interested than before in visiting Hawaii.  Go figure…