Thursday, May 28, 2015

The Reef vs. Open Water


If you're like me, then sometimes, just to relax, you need to kick back with a good "revenge of nature" horror movie featuring sharks. I am a big fan of this genre, and while I do not watch every single shark attack film out there, and mostly avoid documentaries about sharks, I am always on the lookout for quality fiction films in which a bunch of poor bastards get stalked, terrorized, killed, and eaten by sharks.

Obviously, Jaws is the greatest of all such films and I have gone on record as a defender of its sequels as well.

Here I wish to talk about two lower-budget revenge-of-shark films that I find particularly enjoyable.* I started out thinking I would write this review solely about The Reef (2010, Australia, dir. Andrew Traucki), which is one of my favorites, but in the name of balanced reportage I decided to re-watch Open Water (2003, USA, dir. Chris Kentis), a movie that always "hangs together" with The Reef in my mind. Open Water was much better than I remembered it being so I decided to include it in my discussion.

I should mention that despite the post's catchy title, the pairing of The Reef with Open Water is not intended as a "versus" in the confrontational or competitive sense, but simply as a comparison of the two films -- in the end, I really like and recommend both movies, for different reasons.

One of the more frightening bits of underwater cinematography from Open Water

First things first: The Reef and Open Water both do very well with their shark photography, making it feel like the sharks and their victims share real space together. I appreciate that both films use footage of real sharks rather than depend upon CGI. I think the shark imagery may be slightly better in The Reef, if only because the film allows us to really see the shark up close several times in moderately long takes. By contrast, Open Water uses shakier handheld camera shots and quick cuts to give us only very brief glimpses of the sharks. While I like how some of these quick shots are framed, they get a bit maddening after awhile. As one disgruntled reviewer puts it:
Open Water's "what's lurking beneath" technique is drastically overused. The "lurking" never pays off. One becomes numb to it. Just eat them, for crying out loud.
While Open Water's coyness about showing its sharks aligns it with some of the greats of the genre including Jaws, the film indeed lacks the pulse-pounding climactic payoff of its bigger-budgeted genre-mates. Given the movie's overall tone, I like Open Water's ending, both for its bleakness and for its homage to a key shot from Jaws' opening moments, yet I understand why folks like Box Office Mojo's Ford find Open Water slow-moving and unsuspenseful.

While well-composed, Open Water's quick glimpses of sharks under the surface . . . 

. . . are not quite as horrifying as seeing the shark up close and personal in a sustained shot, as in The Reef

Open Water's deliberate pace is bound up with its inclusion of many elements that are not common to other sharks-murder-humans-type movies. The tension between protagonists Susan and Daniel introduces an "indie"-film edge to the story's central relationship. The nighttime storm sequence is shot quite daringly and artfully: it repeatedly cuts to pitch black screens. And at several points along the way (mostly in the beginning) Open Water goes into arty montage sequences of wildlife and landscape that feel imported from a Werner Herzog film and/or the opening sequence of City of God. I am not complaining about these elements, I actually appreciate them and the existential seriousness and visual beauty they bring to the proceedings. Nevertheless, they take Open Water slightly outside "kick back and watch sharks kill people and have a good time" territory.

In contrast, The Reef maintains a warm, light tone and fast pace. In The Reef, everyone starts off as friends and even Kate and Luke move from uncertain and tentative to clearly still interested in each other quite swiftly. The Reef emphasizes hope and love, with no heavy, existential darkness like that of Open Water's night storm sequence accompanied by Susan's fervent praying. No, the only darkness in The Reef is materially inconvenient, baldly terrifying darkness like that which Luke encounters as he looks for supplies inside the flooded cabin of an overturned sailboat.

The Reef's Luke looks for useful gear in the flooded interior of the overturned sailboat Boomerang -- in terrifying pitch-darkness.

Broadly speaking, Open Water is about how modern bureaucracy, white peoples' need for cheap tourism, and lack of personal connections between married people lead to mistakes that destroy us, then we get eaten by sharks, whereas The Reef is about bonding with friends and relatives, mending past relationships and discovering rekindled love, then we get eaten by sharks.

Interestingly, both films claim to be based upon true events, always a proposition to be treated dubiously when it comes to commercially produced fiction films, yet Open Water in particular features several homages to Jaws: the clanging of the buoy bell, the film's last shot, and the surnames of its two protagonists, Susan Watkins and Daniel Kintner. These touches belie the film's claims to truth but are quite enjoyable.

A search of Open Water's protagonists' IDs reveals their last names are Watkins and Kintner, in reference to Chrissy Watkins and Alex Kintner, the first two shark attack victims in Jaws.

Despite their differences in style -- The Reef is pure low-budget suspense thriller whereas Open Water is a bit more serious-minded and artsy -- both films get across their character-building and story development moments effectively. The Reef lays out the group dynamics of its five principal characters immediately, diving right into the matter of Kate and Luke's past romantic relationship. Similarly, Open Water opens with deft scenes illustrating subtle tension between Dan and Susan, and later on, the means by which the couple gets left behind by the diving company is made very clear over the course of two or three brief, momentary scenes.

The Reef gets its early character-building moments, like this one between romantic leads Luke (Damian Walshe-Howling) and Kate (Zoe Naylor), really spot-on. 

While this may reveal me to be too much a child of the 1980s, I love The Reef's soundtrack. Its main theme sounds like a nuanced version of something John Carpenter might have composed for one of his horror films in his heyday, and the "sailing theme" is a mellow piece that sounds similar to a Sade backing track. Open Water's score is more ominous and overblown than it needs to be, overselling many moments that would be more effective selling themselves. But though I don't enjoy Open Water's score quite as much, it suits the overall darker tone of its film.

It's hard to tell from this still, but this is part of a really nice, swooping helicopter shot during one of The Reef's sailing montages. 

In the end, The Reef, with its more straightforward genre-embracing pleasures, has more re-watch value for me. It is suspenseful and scary, and I like the main characters more than I do the couple in Open Water, therefore more is at stake for me. I really want The Reef's Luke and Kate to survive their ordeal with the Great White and make it back to land together. By contrast, in Open Water I think the pleasure comes from the other direction: I don't like the protagonist couple very much so I sadistically root for the sharks. Open Water's Susan gradually becomes more noble and relatable as the story transpires, but I never really like or care about Daniel, which lowers the stakes for me a little.

To sum up, I enjoy both these films, but maybe it says something that while I appreciated Open Water this time out -- only my second time viewing it since the mid-2000s -- I possess my own copy of The Reef and have seen it at least four or five times. And I will probably watch it several more times before I return to Open Water again.

The Reef's lead shark means business. 

--
* The Reef's budget is listed here as being $3.8 million, which is a tiny budget by Hollywood standards, and Open Water was made for less that $500,000, which doesn't even exist by Hollywood standards. In Hollywood parlance, any film made for under $10 million counts as low-budget.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

On Trailer Park Boys


I am a big fan of Trailer Park Boys (2001-present), a Nova Scotia-produced "mockumentary" comedy series about the wacky denizens of Sunnyvale Trailer Park, especially Julian, Bubbles, and Ricky. The show originally (seasons 1-7) aired on Canadian television, though I first saw it streaming on Netflix, which it still does. Netflix is now producing new seasons of the show: Seasons 8 and 9 (2014-2015) are available now and Seasons 10 and 11 are in the works.

Trailer Park Boys is wonderful because it is one of those comedies in which very smart people are making comedy about very dumb characters, doing so with a lot of warmth, humanity, and love. The show's messages are in fact quite humanistic and optimistic, despite the show's constant swearing, pervasive drug use, and occasional gunplay. There is absolutely no mean-spiritedness about this show that I have ever been able to detect in my repeated watchings. Most importantly, the show is consistently hilarious. I place it alongside Party Down, Arrested Development, Fawlty Towers, PullingPeep Show, and the British version of The Office as one of the all-time funniest and cleverest television comedies I have seen.

Comedy genius Christopher Guest describes British comedy as "Silliness framed in intelligence. Even when it's stupid, you know intelligent people are doing it and that makes it a different joke." This principle applies to the superb Canadian comedy series Trailer Park Boys.

The first five seasons of Trailer Park Boys are all excellent, with seasons two, three, and five particular standouts. I would say that probably season three, the one in which Julian and Ricky and co. save money toward a cruise, is the all-around best, though I also have strong affinity for season two, the "Freedom 35" season featuring Ellen Page as Mr. Lahey's daughter Trina.

So is season two, the Ellen Page season, the very best overall season of the show? Although I am partial to season one (for reasons I'll come back to near the end of the review), the show really hits its stride in season two. It includes fine episodes like "Jim Lahey is a Drunk Bastard" (Ep02), about a crucial trailer park supervisor election, "A Dope Trailer is No Place for a Kitty" (Ep04), depicting the burning of Bubbles' shed and his relocation to J-Roc's van, and "The Bible Pimp" (Ep05), featuring (among its many delights) some suspicious bible peddlers and several classic Sam Losco moments during the extended conflict over the discarded hot dogs.

Sam Losco will be sure to take care of the problem. 

That said, "Kiss of Freedom," the season three opener, is probably the best episode of the entire series. It is tightly scripted with a brilliant climactic payoff involving Jim Lahey's bare bum and it stands as one of the clearest articulations of the whole series' core values. In the episode, Ricky goes from prince to pauper in swift and hilarious fashion, yet he never loses sight of what's most important to him: his family, especially his daughter Trinity. "Kiss of Freedom" is as funny as any TPB episode but is also has the most heart of any of them.

Two highly enjoyable musically themed episodes, "Who's the Microphone Assassin?" and "Closer to the Heart," occupy the middle of season three.

Late in season three, "Where the Fuck is Randy's Barbecue" (S03 Ep06) is a favorite, especially Ricky's balcony pepper spray battle with an elderly man and Lahey and Randy's big reveal at the end. Plus this episode introduces Constable Erica Miller into the mix and opens with one of the best Ricky vs. Randy battles, culminating in a spatula spanking for the ages.

"We're about to sail into a shit tidepool, Randy, so we better pull in the jib 
before it gets covered with shit."

Really, the whole narrative arc of season three, with the boys saving for a cruise and Constable Erica Miller complicating things for Julian, is pretty damn good.

By contrast, season four is a bit uneven, with flat-out great episodes sitting alongside some pretty mediocre ones. Yes, "The Green Bastard" (S04 Ep04), with its mighty showdown in the wrestling ring, is one of the best eppies ever, and "Conky" (S04 Ep05) is wonderfully off the rails, but "Rub 'N Tiz'zug" (Ep03) ain't great, recycling Cyrus as its villain in a mostly uninspired plot. And "If you Love Something Set it Free" (Ep06), the one with Steve French, bores me a little too. But the season finale, "Working Man," is pretty damn great, doing what most of the best eppies by this point in the game tend to do: go over the top.

Season four's outdoor dope fields, located  away from the park, is clever way to integrate new locales into the series. I especially like the use of the King of Donair as a kind of funky musical hangout in "Working Man," yet overall there isn't much urgency in this season until right near the end. "Propane Propane," while not the most tightly scripted episode, flows well and has some terrific bits like seeing Lahey and Randy's "cowboy and indian" outfits and blind Bubbles trying to get his rig license. "Propane Propane" makes for a good two-parter with the season finale, "Working Man," which is a pretty terrific episode culminating in Mr. Lahey's full-on showdown with Ricky in downtown Dartmouth.

"You just opened Pandora's Shitbox, Ray!"

Season five is especially good. In contrast to the somewhat meandering season four, the "hash driveway" meta-storyline in season five is awesome. It raises the stakes, fuels dramatic/hilarious tensions between Ricky and Julian, and keeps things geographically where they should be: in the trailer park. "The Fuckin Way She Goes," "Don't Cross the Shit Line," and "Jim Lahey is a Fucking Drunk and He Always Will Be" are especially superb season five episodes. Maybe the only somewhat weak season five eppy is "The Winds of Shit."

[UPDATE 5/22/2015: I just re-watched "The Winds of Shit" and now regret naming it as a weak episode. It really isn't. It features Mr. Lahey explaining the "shit barometer" to Bubbles, one of Ricky's best negotiations with local law enforcement, and a sweet finale in which Ricky apologizes to Trinity after he is caught in a deception. These wonderful details and nuances that come to life anew upon every re-watch exemplify something that is true of the series in general: it is a very confident show. I always feel like Trailer Park Boys knows where it is going, both on the micro- and macro-levels. Bravo!]

In any case, Lahey's obsession with his "shitmoths," the liquor bottles ornamenting the interior of his trailer from "Don't Cross the Shit Line" onward, is fricking priceless.

Special note on the Bladerunner reference in "Give Peace a Chance," the season five opener: Ricky and Bubbles discuss the film during their visit to Terry and Dennis's place, then outside Lahey's trailer Bubbles looks at a bee yard ornament, an homage to Olmos' origami unicorn.

Season six is also pretty good, it's the last Cory and Trevor season and it ends well.

[UPDATE 5/26/2015: Wow! Season six RULES. The season opener has Lahey fighting Trevor and Cory inside their new "Convenients Store," episode two "The Cheeseburger Picnic" is a great one, and "High Definition Piss Jugs" -- with guest star Steve Rogers and the debut of Bubbles' Kittyland Love Center -- probably belongs on the list of all-time best eppies. The Rashomon-like revelations of "Halloween 1977" tell a crucial part of Jim Lahey's back story, plus we get to see young Julian, Ricky, and Bubbles in their Chewbacca and C-3P0 costumes. And that episode's opening vignette, in which Bubbles counsels Randy about some inexplicable but ultimately "normal" sexual feelings he's having, is another favorite. Then Sam Losco violently returns for season closer "Gimme My Fucking Money or Randy's Dead!" Good times!]

Sebastian Bach is truly hilarious in Season 7 Episode 4 "Friends of the Road."

Season seven is diminished by the absence of Cory and Trevor, yet features some great Sam Losco stuff (him wooing Barb Lahey, singing at the nightclub, etc.). Also, the guest appearance of Sebastian Bach in "Friends of the Road" is an exhilarating high point of the entire series. Sebastian Bach is fuckin' funny!

Though I like the campfire scene near the end, and love that the music of Kim Mitchell saves the day, I nevertheless must declare "We Can't Call People Without Wings Angels" to be the weakest of the season and possibly the series. It is a bit too narrative-driven, there isn't much time alotted to spontaneous comedy gags (though Ricky slipping down the riverbank multiple times is priceless).

"Jump the Cheeseburger" is awesome though.

Season eight is worth watching, it is solid but maybe not great. Season nine, however, is really strong, maybe the best season since six or even five. The stuff with Ricky's manger and Willy the goat is really terrific, as is the storyline with J-Roc's long lost son.

To bring this back to the beginning, season one tends to get slightly weaker reviews due to its slower first couple of episodes. I love those early character-builders, however, and would place midseason episodes "Mr. Lahey's Got My Porno Tape" and "I'm Not Gay, I Love Lucy. Wait a Second, Maybe I am Gay." alongside other series-best nominees.

Ricky and this bank employee on the right have a glorious altercation midway through season one episode "I'm Not Gay, I Love Lucy. Wait a Second, Maybe I am Gay." 

To sum up, I agree with this:
"Imagine the consistently taut plotting and surprising humor of the Simpsons set in Desperate Living's landscape of trash and indignantly crass characters and you've basically got Trailer Park Boys." -- Lily Sparks
Ricky's finest hour. The choice he makes here catalyzes a remarkable climactic incident in "Kiss of Freedom," my choice for series-best episode of Trailer Park Boys.

Trailer Park Boys' Six Most Essential Episodes:

1. "Kiss of Freedom" (S03 Ep01)
2. "The Bible Pimp" (S02 Ep05) (esp. as a stand-alone)
3. "Jim Lahey is a Drunk Bastard" (S02 Ep02)
4. "The Delusions of Officer Jim Lahey" (S03 Ep07)
5. "The Green Bastard" (S04 Ep04)
6. "Conky" (S04 Ep05)

It's splitting hairs between those top three. "Jim Lahey is a Drunk Bastard," the election episode, may actually be the best single episode, or else "Kiss of Freedom," for the reasons stated earlier. "The Bible Pimp" has one of the very best opening vignettes (see list below) and probably works best as a stand-alone introduction to the series since the impact of "Drunk Bastard" and "Kiss" may depend upon knowing the back stories of Jim Lahey & Randy and Ricky & Trinity, respectively. I could also name "The Delusions of Officer Jim Lahey" as a particular standout, featuring "Deputy" Randy and Officer Lahey's attempt to clean up the streets of Sunnyvale once it is temporarily declared a town. Hell, any episode that commences with Jim Lahey declaring "I'm getting drunk today. Big time!" is obviously going to be momentous.

Bubbles vs. Tania and Hampton in the opening vignette of "The Bible Pimp," one of the most hilarious openers and all-time funniest stand-alone episodes of Trailer Park Boys.

Trailer Park Boys' Five Funniest Opening Vignettes:

1. "A Man's Gotta Eat" (S04 Ep02) has the BEST cold open of whole series, involving Dino the satellite television guy. Listen carefully to Bubbles during this one, then, at the end, sit back and enjoy Ricky's van-windshield-trashing for the ages.
2. "The Bible Pimp" (S02 Ep05), a vignette in which an interesting Socratic dialogue between Bubbles and the Bible salespeople takes place.
3. "Where the Fuck is Randy's Barbecue" (S03 Ep06) has one of the best Ricky vs. Randy battles featuring an epic spatula spanking.
4. "I'm Not Gay, I Love Lucy. Wait a Second, Maybe I am Gay." (S01 Ep05), depicting the "family day" battle, in which Ricky grapples with Randy while wearing an MLK shirt.
5. "Rub N' Tizzug" (S04 Ep03): The baseball bat-wielding samsquamsh battle.

Mr. Lahey sez: "Don't cross the shit line."

Bonus Afterthought: IF you like Trailer Park Boys, then it is probably worth your time to check out Swearnet: The Movie (2014). I haven't seen any of the other TPB films, of which there are several.

"Ispo fuck off-o!"

Friday, April 3, 2015

Tarantino's Plateau

Infantile, loudmouthed American film director Quentin Tarantino in 2012. 

In this post I will explain why I am underwhelmed by Quentin Tarantino's post-1997 work. Now I know that many people, including mainstream Hollywood and even several critics I respect, really love Tarantino's films, and I know there is no way I am going to disabuse anybody of their Tarantino fandom by writing this expose. That is not my aim here. My goal is simply to articulate why I do not share that fandom and to enumerate the reasons why, because:

(1) I am quite tired of telling people that I do not consider Quentin Tarantino a "great" filmmaker and having them stare at me disbelievingly, and

(2) I am convinced that a goodly chunk of Tarantino's current fan base is unaware of the genres and films that Tarantino's work draws upon, because when I try to explain that QT's films consist almost entirely of elements borrowed from the work of 1970s filmmakers, I get blank stares.*

My hope is that this post will serve as both an explanation for my ho-hum feelings about QT's recent work and as a quasi-resource for fans and non-fans alike who might wish to further explore the films and filmmakers that have made QT's work what it is.

Since Tarantino's popularity and reputation is the main reason I'm writing about him, let's start with a truthful assessment of why Tarantino's work is popular. There are three main reasons:

(1) His ability to write appealing, snappy dialogue. In this interview, QT comes right out and admits that his main strength (or at least main interest) is writing -- discussing what he'll do when he retires from film directing, he says:
I'll probably just be a writer, or I'll just write novels, and I'll write film literature and film books and subtextual film criticism, things like that.**
This makes sense to me. Tarantino started out as a video store clerk and giant fan of the movies, and in many ways I suspect he would make a better screenwriter or film critic than he does a director.

(2) His involvement with the Miramax-era indie director star system. Tarantino's fame rests to a large extent upon how effectively he has marketed himself -- and how aggressively Miramax has marketed him -- as the "indie" poster child of the 1990s. Thanks to the runaway success of Pulp Fiction, he became the biggest director-star of the decade, and Miramax built their business on doing business with QT. In Down and Dirty Pictures, his history of the 1990s independent film sector, Peter Biskind calls Miramax "the House that Quentin Built," writing that:
Pulp Fiction became the Star Wars of independents, exploding expectations for what an indie film could do at the box office. By raising the bar, changing the rules of the game, Pulp caused Miramax gradually to lose interest in the kind of dinky, uncommercial films that are not amenable to big-money studio marketing strategies, that is, the kind of classic indies that maverick filmmakers liked to make.*** 
Once Pulp hit big in 1994, Tarantino became the vehicle through which Miramax commercialized and widened the audience for "indie" films, backed by Disney, their corporate parent. Yes, you read that right: by the time Miramax acquired and released Tarantino's second film, Disney wholly owned the "indie" distributor. Disney financed Pulp Fiction.

(3) Many of his fans may not be familiar with the works from which QT borrows his cinematic techniques and tone. Tarantino is primarily a highly skilled and culturally savvy postmodern recycler -- his visual and tonal playbook is almost entirely borrowed from 1970s filmmakers like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Martin Scorsese, and Hong Kong action directors too numerous to mention.


For example, Pulp Fiction may have broken commercial barriers in terms of introducing a slickly packaged version of the Miramax/Sundance "indie" sensibility to mainstream audiences, but aesthetically and thematically the film is what you'd get if the 1970s filmmakers mentioned above collaborated on a hip color remake of The Set-Up (1949) and/or The Killers (1946) with QT writing the dialogue.

Of course, Tarantino is not the only pastiche artist working in Hollywood today nor even over the course of its history, and I do not mean to say that pastiche or sampling other people's styles is an illegitimate artistic strategy. But I am very tired of hearing QT's work trumpeted as boldly original and visionary by fans unfamiliar with the works he replicates. I cannot know what QT's reputation will be going forward, and I know his fans love him, but his reputation as a "visionary" or a "pioneer" rests more upon how he has been marketed and promoted than upon sober assessment of his work.

Believe me, I get that QT is a postmodern filmmaker, and as such he should not be expected to produce deep works of startling emotional resonance or thematic impact. I do not judge him alongside other filmmakers (like Cronenberg or Holofcener or McQueen or Bergman or von Trier) who actually have something palpable to say in / with their work. I get that he is more like Soderbergh or Korine or Refn, that is, someone whose main aim in filmmaking is surface play, inter-textuality, and "sampling" or reworking pop-culture elements that have come before. My central complaint about Tarantino is simply that he does this sampling less well than any of the filmmakers I have just named, that his debt to his influences is so clunkily obvious that his films function as ciphers or hyperlinks pointing me back to other, better films by Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Alejandro Jodorowski, Gordon Parks, etc. As Timothy Dugdale writes,
In the Tarantino funhouse, you've seen it all before yet never in such quicksilver and audacious assembly. [. . .] In no Tarantino film are emotional demands made on the audience, except for self-congratulation in catching all the cinematic allusions and artifice of emotional intensity.†
While I would dispute the final clause of that first sentence, I agree that there isn't much to cling on to in Tarantino's work except the cleverness of the assembly of the borrowed parts and, of course, the snappy dialogue. So when that assembly is tight, as in his first three films (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown), the movies are at least pleasurable to watch, though for me they don't have much repeat-viewing value. However, when a Tarantino film sprawls unnecessarily (as in Kill Bill Vols 1 and 2 and Django Unchained) or is constructed badly or messily (as in Death Proof and Inglorious Basterds) the end result is a movie with really enjoyable scenes but not much holding it together as a whole movie. And this is the core of my critique of Tarantino's work: that he has not made a coherent whole movie since Jackie Brown.

Jackie Brown, my choice for Tarantino's best movie. 

The best efforts Tarantino has made in this area are his debut, Reservoir Dogs, which coheres quite well within its episodic structure, and Jackie Brown, his best movie bar none. However, ever since 1997's Brown, his career has plateaued and he has been unable to produce another film as coherent and impactful as his first three efforts. Kill Bill flows okay but is overlong and too thinly premised.††  Inglorious Basterds is, in terms of overall narrative structure, an uneven mess.††† And even by QT's own admission, Death Proof is totally fucked, like two totally different films with different premises hastily grafted together. This would be okay if it were more artsy or "deep" or did something interesting with its structure (like David Lynch does in his 2001 masterpiece Mulholland Drive), but no, it's just a pretty decent first half clumsily affixed to a drawn-out, if visually breathtaking, documentary about a death-defying stunt by Zoe Bell.

Interestingly, while Basterds is Tarantino's second-worst film in terms of overall coherence and structure, it contains a couple of his best-ever scenes, particularly the basement bar sequence. This is the paradox of Tarantino's work: pretty great in the particulars, but pretty sloppy, even lousy, in the big picture.

My overall position on Tarantino aligns closely with that of popular British film critic Mark Kermode, who shares my esteem for QT's early work and breaks down "The Tarantino Situation" in this succinct video:


As Kermode says, Tarantino is "a much better filmmaker than we've had any reason to believe recently." Or as he puts it in another more recent video review, "It's like watching someone still playing with the same set of toys as when they first started out, but originally he was constrained by time and by budget, and he is a really talented director [. . .] but why can't he do it in a more disciplined way?"

Or, as Doc Benway put a bit more bluntly it in a fairly recent Facebook discussion:
I was recently considering the line from Pulp Fiction, "Zed's dead, baby, Zed's dead" often interpreted as a reference to Nick Zedd, which seems quite plausible considering Tarantino's arrogant flaunting of his cinephilia. But it's interesting how this intertextual reference works within the narrative. Really, this line encapsulates the reactionary impact of Tarantino on American cinema. At one fell swoop, he reduces the tradition of subversive American experimental cinema to a homophobic caricature, shoots it in the gut, and steals its energy (in the figure of the chopper). To me, Butch is the perfect stand-in for Tarantino - a washed up hack and misogynist with a daddy complex whose "cool" is supposed to magically position him as the loveable protagonist.
Benway glancingly refers to Tarantino's tendency toward public arrogance, which I admit is a contributing factor in how I feel about the man's films. I don't want to dwell too much on QT's seeming egotism and I want to make clear that I don't know if he is truly arrogant in real life. I'm merely talking about his loudmouthed, grating public persona here. Suffice to say that I have a hard time feeling comfortable with or supportive of a director who thinks it's okay to do this, even in jest.

As the second Cracked.com list entry linked here elaborates,
[Tarantino is] never one to shy away from praising Quentin Tarantino, whether he's cockily telling an interviewer that "Inglorious was so good, I don't know how I'm going to top myself," or just generally acting like a total fucking lunatic at awards shows, you don't have to look too far to find examples of douchechill-inspiring Tarantino-isms.
Indeed.

I recently re-watched Reservoir Dogs, my second-favorite Tarantino film after Jackie Brown, and was a bit shocked by the seemingly casual racism and sexism of practically all its characters. The film opens with Tarantino himself (in a cameo as "Mr. Brown") discussing Madonna's "Like a Virgin" by describing violent, penetrative sex that is painful to the woman involved. This constitutes an abrupt, harshly misogynistic cold open for QT's debut film, and while I am NOT saying that QT is racist or sexist just because his characters are, nevertheless it gets tiring and un-pleasurable to sit through ninety minutes of pervasive, violently misogynistic and racist chatter, however cleverly written. At least that's how I felt on this re-watch.

That said, I must admit that the camera work and visuals in Dogs are top-notch; QT and his team can frame up eye-popping, iconic compositions with the best of them.

The visuals in Tarantino's films are well-composed, catchy, and iconic.

Whatever else happens, at least we'll always have those first three films: Reservoir DogsPulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown. These constitute a tight little trilogy of mostly great Tarantino-ness (though I also find the basement rape scene in Pulp to be disturbing in what I assume are unintended ways). And there are many enjoyable moments to be found in the later films too -- hell, I enjoy about 60% of Death Proof and probably 75% of Django Unchained if I'm being honest.

But I will always lament the Tarantino that could have been, the director who could have taken more risks since 1997 instead of continuing the same generic routine ad infinitum. But as the most well-known director to emerge from the 1990s Sundance scene, maybe it was foolish to ever expect any other outcome than the one we got. Tarantino's work has achieved widespread commercial success, so why change the product or vary the brand? Hollywood is not fundamentally a risk-taking business, and post-1997 Tarantino is a risk-averse director. If he were willing, as he did when making Jackie Brown, to take real artistic and ideological risks with his films, rather than simply posturing publicly as if he had, I would be much more interested in his work.

--
* As I will make clear throughout this post, the one major exception to my contention that QT is not very original or interesting is in his ability to write snappy, compelling dialogue. Tarantino is a superb writer of dialogue, no doubt about it. His first two films excepted, he does not write compelling screen stories very well, and he has almost no ability to self-regulate or make wise choices in the editing room, but I will never deny that he writes fabulous and very funny dialogue.
** Here's the link to the full, uncensored interview.
*** Biskind, Down and Dirty Pictures (Simon & Schuster, 2004) p. 195.
† From "The French New Wave: New Again" in New Punk Cinema (Ed. Nicholas Rombes, Edinburgh UP, 2005) p. 62.
†† For the record, I am okay with straight-ahead genre films and do not mean to dismiss Kill Bill simply because it is a straightforward revenge thriller. Its problem is that it feels spread too thin, its pacing is off, and it drags on way too long. In this sense it is a harbinger of much of what is to come in Tarantino's subsequent mid-career works.
††† Try this simple exercise: answer the question, "Who is the protagonist of Inglorious Basterds?" Let me know if you ever figure that out; I never have. I have a friend who suggests that it's actually Hans Landa, and that makes more sense than any other answer, but still isn't satisfying.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review: Wild (2014)

Reese Witherspoon in the hard-charging yet contemplative drama Wild.

Author's note: This is a review I let lie fallow for over two months. I saw Wild back in early January; it was one of the first films I saw in the New Year. The film has stuck with me so strongly that I would rank it among the top two or three films that I have seen in 2015 so far, along with Andrey Zvyagintsev's Leviathan, Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner, and Jennifer Kent's terrific low-budget horror film The Babadook. Thus I present to you my belated review of Wild, more or less as I wrote (but never posted) it back in January:

Wow! I just saw Jean-Marc Vallee's Wild in the theater a few weeks ago, and wow! The film really blew me away. It was intense, dramatic, and yet at the same time contemplative -- kind of like a harrowing character study in the vein of Leaving Las Vegas fused with a meditative and soulful film like Kelly Reichardt's Old Joy.

To be fair, I went into Wild expecting to like it. I enjoyed Vallee's previous film, Dallas Buyers Club, quite a bit, especially for its performances, and while that film wasn't perfect, after reading this article about the director's methods, I suspected that he would really deliver the goods on this Reese Witherspoon showcase.

Vallee's moviemaking style involves "natural lighting, a skeletal crew ready to capture spontaneous moments, and no rehearsal." 

And indeed, the goods are delivered, by crew and actors alike. Witherspoon is terrific in the lead role, playing as understated a part as I have ever seen her assay. The film, with a well-adapted screenplay by Nick Hornby, is not dialogue heavy: most of the important stuff is conveyed by Witherspoon's facial expressions and body language, or else via the film's remarkable editing and sound design. Dramatizing Cheryl Strayed's post-divorce three-month solo trek north along the Pacific Crest Trail, Wild unfolds its protagonist's back story via intermittent flashbacks, most of which involve Cheryl's relationship with her mother, played by Laura Dern. Dern gives a career-topping performance as this deeply flawed but ultimately noble (perhaps too saintly as we see her through Cheryl's eyes?) character.

As this online article argues,
Wild was one of the best American movies of the year. It was quietly revolutionary in its focus on one woman’s doggedly personal tale. It should have been a huge hit instead of a minor one, and it should have been a bigger part of the Best Picture conversation. That it wasn’t reflects some unhappy truths about the way the academy, and Hollywood at large, view women’s stories.
Just so. I have discussed the unequal representation of women in Hollywood before, so won't retread that ground here, but I must say that I am really bowled over by the lack of awards-season attention Wild is getting. It is head-and-shoulders a better movie than The Imitation Game and I also strongly suspect that it is better than The Theory of Everything even though I haven't seen that one.*

It may be that both gender inequities AND generic expectations play a role in Wild's seeming lack of cultural cachet (and Oscar noms) relative to its more formulaic contemporaries. Surely Mr. Turner suffers from the same problem, being a biopic that doesn't really feel anything like a standard biopic. Both Wild and Turner zero in on a brief period in their respective subjects' lives, dropping the viewer into the period quite dramatically in medias res. No complicated backstory or explanation of the character's earlier days is given. No subtitles whisk us through a montage of the character growing up, going to school, etc.

That said, Wild does, like its protagonist, fixate upon the figure of Cheryl's lost mother, thereby illuminating aspects of Cheryl's earlier life -- but all from her own (volatile, fragmented) point of view. The film's jumpy flashback structure makes it feel more like a thriller at times than a typical "life story" type biopic.

The film's subjective, thrillerish edge is complimented by Witherspoon's hard-charging performance as Cheryl. Kathleen Karlyn has written about the ambivalence at the core of Witherspoon's star persona and onscreen roles, an uncompromising feminist unruliness perhaps best embodied in her performance of Tracy Flick in 1999's Election.** I teach this film to undergraduate Film Theory students every semester and it never fails to elicit at least a few reactionary responses from viewers (mostly young men) who see Tracy as the despicable villain of the piece. These students usually don't quite "get" the darkly comic and ironic tone of Election or pick up on its critique of Matthew Broderick's under-achieving Jim McAllister. Many students miss that Witherspoon's portrayal of Flick exposes "the anxieties women with ambition, intelligence, and drive raise in men struggling to redefine masculinity in the postfeminist age."***

Reese Witherspoon threatens Matthew Broderick's masculinity in Election (1999).

Films about complex, ambivalent, nuanced, non-stereotypical women are going to feel unusual and confrontational and uncomfortable to many of us at first, conditioned as we are to the norms of patriarchal cinema and culture. Witherspoon's gutsy portrayal of an imperfect female character in Wild is just the kind of thing we need more of in Hollywood.

If I have any critique of Wild at all, it is that two of the men Cheryl encounters in her travels are portrayed as backwoods hicks and potential rapists, and while I understand that the film is based on a real-life memoir, I still felt uneasy about the Deliverance-style vilification of rural folk in those scenes. Framing them as sinister hicks seemed an easy way to get us to fear them, and I wonder if the real-life Cheryl Strayed's memory of these two is exaggerated or condensed in some way in the book and/or film versions. Yet that uncertainty, which comes from delving deep into character subjectivity, is one of the great strengths of this (or almost any) movie. Wild dares to show us a character at her rawest and most incomprehensible to herself, depicting in vivid yet imperfect detail the grief process of a woman we may not completely like. Wild tells the story of someone who may not be fully aware of some of the ways in which she is privileged (and her resistance to the word "hobo" is genuinely hilarious). Yet finally Wild depicts the story of a person in transition, a person making discoveries about herself as we watch and participate. It is exhilarating.  

Wild is something unique and special, a woman's journey through grief depicted with visual richness, dramatic intensity, and narrative virtuosity. The sound design alone is worth the price of admission. Reese Witherspoon, one of Hollywood's finest actors, is in top form here, giving an emotionally wrenching, go-for-broke, yet atypically restrained performance. Whatever its small faults or rough edges, Wild surely represents an artistic high point for all involved.

To sum up: see this movie.

Quebecois director Jean-Marc Vallee. What a badass. 

--
* Both these films suffer from the "formulaic biopic" problem -- The Imitation Game, despite its interesting and powerful subject matter and superbly executed central performance, is edited, directed, and scored like a shitty assed Lifetime movie, and its formal clunkiness hinders, even mars the material. [UPDATE 3/27/2015: To be fair, the biopic is not a genre I am typically drawn to and I may have a lackluster appreciation for its conventions.]
** Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (U. Texas Press, 2010) p. 128.
*** Karlyn, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers p. 139-40.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Review: Transformers Age of Extinction (2014)

Or, Marky Mark is a racist asshole.

Believe it or not, this past week I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction. It is, of course, a shit movie, yet a surprisingly entertaining one. Aside from feeling some pronounced "action fatigue" around the two-hour mark, I more or less enjoyed watching Age of Extinction, which is more than I can say for any previous installment of the Michael Bay helmed Transformers franchise.* I mean, it's no Sharknado 2, which I saw recently and highly recommend, but it's WAY better than Exodus: Gods and Men, which I also saw recently and is so odious and boring and badly executed that I refuse to review it.**

I should note that I watched Transformers: Age of Extinction in a group and several of us heckled the thing the whole time. This home-brewed Mystery Science Theater 3000 element surely played a role in my ability to sit through Extinction's two-and-a-half-hour runtime.

Silly and predictable though it may be, Transformers 4 is not without its pleasures: 
this dinobot thing is pretty goddamned cool. 

All that said, there are distinct positive qualities that make this film much more watchable than any previous Bay directed Transformers blockbuster. For one, the film eschews the director's usual over-use of "shaky cam" and chaos cinema fast cutting, instead shooting the action more traditionally to allow the viewer to see and understand the fight and chase sequences. This alone was a refreshing revelation. I do not so much mind how stupid and sexist and racist Bay's films are, because at least they do not pretend to be anything other than what they are: very big, very stupid summer action movies. Yet I got headaches trying to make sense of the shitty, impossible-to-follow action sequences in the first and second Transformers movies. Indeed, the first three Transformers films are so incomprehensibly shot and edited that their visual obtuseness has become a kind of running joke. Watching Transformers 4 I found myself wondering if Mark Wahlberg had a sit-down with Bay before shooting the picture and told him that he needed to cool it with the goddamn shaky cam already.

Or maybe Bay somehow saw this video and decided to make a few changes:

A daring experiment in structural film criticism.

Then there's Wahlberg himself, who, despite embodying some questionable, contradictory ideological values, surely delivers the kind of charisma and star power a franchise of this magnitude needs.*** In fact, one could argue that Wahlberg's star persona, a perfect embodiment of vaguely retrograde, All-white-American masculinity, is an ideal fit for the tone of the franchise and Bay's work in general. Wahlberg's Cade is a man's man whose notion of fatherhood is limited to hamfisted attempts to control his daughter's sexuality by yelling at her. Once the shit hits the fan with the robots about fifteen minutes into the film, he is in his element, dropping one liners and surviving incredible stunts and fights that would kill any normal man ten times over. He doesn't blink an eye when Lucas (T.J. Miller), his longtime business partner and friend, is brutally incinerated in front of his eyes. He is the ultimate working-class tough guy.

Extinction's pronounced sexism extends to its numerous gratuitous ass shots of Cade's daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz) wearing short shorts. Cade comments on this at one point early in the film, telling her she shouldn't wear them that short, but she more or less ignores him, much to the camera's delight. In fact it would seem that the whole film is onboard with the assumption that underage girls (Tessa is seventeen) make great onscreen sex objects -- only Cade himself, gruff old traditionalist that he is, raises any objection to this. Yet his paternal over-protectiveness reads as incredibly old-fashioned in 2014 and in any case he is too busy posing for Budweiser product placements in front of American flags in every other fucking scene of this movie to even notice that his daughter is dating Shane, a badass race-car driver guy. If he hasn't noticed that, how is he going to be able to keep tabs on what she's wearing?

Aside from wearing the aforementioned shorts, Tessa's main role in the film is to cower like a victim in or around cars so that male characters like Cade and Shane can rescue her.

"Konnichiwa! I am Drift, an Orientalist stereotype of a Japanese samurai!"

On the racial front, Age of Extinction continues Michael Bay's trend of perpetuating racist stereotypes in the Orientalism that pervades the film. Drift (Ken Watanabe) is portrayed as a Japanese samurai stereotype, spouting platitudes about inner peace in broken, heavily accented English and calling Optimus Prime "sensei."

Along this same line, the film's third act takes place in Beijing, a city mainly depicted here as "developing nation poverty porn" with dinosaurs (dinobots!) dwelling in the nearby jungle. Look, kids! China is a mystical land filled with ancient prehistoric creatures and alluring young hookers who emerge unexpectedly from elevators! (That last thing really happens in the movie, in a throwaway gag meant to remind us that East Asian women exist to be erotically objectified.)

Brains (Reno Wilson) is a shrimpy blackface minstrel -- he is Jar-Jar Binks 
re-imagined as an autobot. 

And do we even need to talk about the shrimpy captive autobot Brains? Surely by now we can all spot a racist minstrel show when we see one?

Thus, in the end, despite a fun couple of hours spent heckling it, I must agree with the Red Letter Media guys' indirect review of Transformers 4: it is really not necessary viewing unless you are a die-hard fan of the franchise or are interested in seeing a Michael Bay film that doesn't give you a splitting headache.

But then again, I appear to be in the minority, since Transformers: Age of Extinction was the worldwide highest-grossing film of last year.

So fuck me!

"Hurry up, honey! There's more black people we need to go throw rocks at!"


UPDATE 03/22/2015: Film blogger Tom Holmes agrees with my general assessment, placing Transformers 4 at Number Five on his "Bottom 10" list for 2014. From Tom's capsule review: "The best thing I can say about [Transformers: Age of Extinction] is that it is likely the last Michael Bay directed Transformers movie. When all of your promotional material for the movie puts emphasis on the Dinobots, and you don't use them until there is thirty minutes left in your nearly three hour movie, you've royally fucked up."

--
* I saw the first Transformers (2007) in the theater, Revenge of the Fallen (2009) once it reached Netflix, and made it about twenty minutes into the third one before I had to quit from sheer boredom and ennui. Therefore I had planned to completely ignore the fourth film but then a former student told me I might actually enjoy it because there was less shaky cam used than in the previous films and therefore the action sequences were comprehensible this time around. That ex-student was right -- thanks for the tip, Steve!
** Sharknado 2 and Transformers: Age of Extinction are remarkably similar movies. In both, a white guy saves his wife and/or daughter from a science-fictional threat that will destroy a major city if he fails. One protagonist (Fin) is fixated on New York style pizza, the other (Cade) on Budweiser products. Both films feature climactic battles atop tall buildings. Sharknado 2 is funnier, more self-aware, less racist (though its sexually assertive black heroine dies), and far less of a brain-punishing time-suck than the Wahlberg film. Sharknado 3 is coming soon -- with THE HOFF!
*** Wahlberg, a former white rapper, has a history of real-life, racially motivated hate crimes

Saturday, December 20, 2014

End of the Year Roundup 2014


For me, the most impactful films of 2014 include MaleficentSnowpiercer, Mockingjay Part 1, Boyhood, Gone Girl, Birdman, and Belle. I urge you to read my complete review of Belle, to which I have nothing substantive to add. Here follow my comments on the other most interesting and memorable films of the past year. 

I am inclined to agree with most of the points made in Andrew Barker's review of the visually stunning, narratively imperfect, yet holistically quite wonderful Angelina Jolie starrer Maleficent, which I saw in Brockport's own Strand Theater early last summer. Barker writes:
[The] film often lurches where it ought to flow, rarely latching onto the proper rhythm. [. . .] For example, an expensive-looking yet utterly inconsequential battle sequence plopped into the middle of the pic sees Maleficent neutralize a squadron of nameless soldiers with neither motivation nor consequences, but the scenes in which she bonds with the 16-year-old Aurora (Elle Fanning) – ostensibly the most important, emotionally weighty relationship in the film – feel rough and rushed.
Now I personally enjoyed the action sequences in Maleficent, in part because, unlike so many similar scenes in today's blockbusters, these ones were comprehensibly shot and I could actually tell what was going on. Yet I concur with Barker when he states that "this is a story that would actually benefit from some slow-paced indulgence" in its character development moments. Furthermore, the visual world created by this film is so compelling that I don't think many viewers would object to spending an additional five or ten minutes there in order to get more deeply invested in the inner lives of these potentially great characters.

I should add that despite some unevenness in the narrative balance, Jolie herself is flat-out terrific in the lead role, which Barker himself observes, saying that she is "perfectly cast" and that her performance is nothing short of  "remarkable."


In the end, Maleficent is one of the best mainstream films I saw this year, pleasurably memorable due to its breathtaking visual style (THIS is how digital effects should be used IMO) and its focus on female stories and characters. It is amazing how fresh and exciting a female-centered action-adventure movie feels in today's male-dominated blockbuster mediascape. More please!


Speaking of female-fronted blockbusters, I declare Mockingjay Part 1 to be my favorite Hunger Games film so far. True, it may not be as action-packed and narratively tight as the previous two films in the franchise, but I like moody character studies and do not mind at all when an "action" blockbuster takes some breathing room between action sequences. That strategy tends to make those sequences stand out all the more, and the key Mockingjay sequence suggested by the still above is the best action moment in the whole trilogy so far. And while I have always despised the villainous President Snow, this movie finally made me fear him. Yes, I really enjoyed Mockingjay Part 1 and I look forward to Part 2 next year.

Snowpiercer is the best blockbuster-type movie that not enough people heard about this year. At the tail end of his brief review of Bong Joon-ho's latest masterpiece, my friend A.J. asked "[What] the fuck is up with all these great independent and international films taking about a full year to go theatrical in America? Are the studios afraid we might realize what we're missing and that we'll revolt?" This is a sharp question, for as this informative article documents, The Weinstein Company consigned this exciting and accessible film to limited release after director Bong Joon-ho refused to cut twenty minutes out of it. As Ty Burr insightfully marvels, "[Harvey] Weinstein is rightly celebrated for almost single-handedly cultivating a mass audience for independent films over the decades, so why is he refusing to get these challenging new movies to audiences that would best appreciate them?"

I have already expostulated at length about why I love Snowpiercer in my review -- suffice to say that I stand by my assessment of the film as an "epic, action-packed, beautifully made, perfectly paced blockbuster" that is head-and-shoulders more artfully made, entertaining, and involving than the vast bulk of today's formulaic action showpieces.* Also, Tilda Swinton.

So it saddens me that such a truly great and entertaining movie as Snowpiercer isn't getting as much exposure in the States as it deserves. This just proves that Jonathan Rosenbaum is correct about the U.S. film industry's suppression of non-U.S. films in our markets (see sidebar quote). Even a distributor like Miramax/Weinstein Co. that distributes such fare always seems to ghetto-ize it at the same time. (Cue sad trombone.)

Speaking of independent fare, Boyhood might be my all-out favorite film this year. It is my view that director Richard Linklater, of whom I have always been a big fan, is only getting better with age. His last several films, including Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, Before  Midnight, and now Boyhood, have all been top-notch, highly enjoyable, warm, memorable efforts. Boyhood is the most nuanced, seasoned, and provocative of his recent films, and one of the few such downbeat "slice of life" type films that has held me so enraptured during its running time that I was both surprised and sad when it ended. I did not want it to be over; I immediately wanted to see it again.


However, if any film is in serious competition with Linklater's masterpiece for my top slot this year, it is BirdmanAlejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's mindbending, kinetic, and visually audacious critique of the contemporary entertainment industry. There are so many reasons why this film sticks firmly in my mind weeks after I saw it: all-around great performances by everyone involved (especially Michael Keaton and Edward Norton), a brilliant approach to the camera technique that could have lapsed into gimmickry but miraculously doesn't, and most important, a heady, funny, razor-sharp satirical take on the price of stardom and the workings of our celebrity-driven entertainment industry. While some viewers might not have much interest in the film's critique of stardom, which I take to be one of the most nuanced and devastating such takedowns since Sunset Blvd., that hardly matters, because the film is so energetic and crazily funny that I think practically anyone will be entertained by Birdman even if one doesn't catch or care about the deeper criticism of show business it assays. Very highly recommended, Birdman is easily the most bracingly provocative film I saw this year.

Which does not bode well for David Fincher's much-anticipated thriller, Gone Girl. To be fair, I thoroughly enjoyed Gone Girl as it unfolded -- it had me on the edge of my seat the whole way through, no doubt. A few key scenes really stuck with me afterward, and I would probably ultimately place it above Fincher's English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for sheer thrills. But as I chewed over certain aspects of Gone Girl after the fact, I became increasingly dissatisfied with it gender politics.**


For a film that seems to want to present two sides of a twisted and violent relationship, Gone Girl strongly favors the man's side. Ben Affleck's Nick is our main identification figure, and whatever empathy we have for Rosamund Pike's Amy dissipates once we see her commit an incredibly graphic and disturbingly violent act near the end of the movie. Plus, where is the back story that explains why Amy feels compelled to avenge herself upon Nick in the first place? The film begins with her "gone" already, and all we learn of her in the first half of the film comes via flashbacks from Nick's point of view. I have not read Gillian Flynn's novel so cannot speak to the differences between the book and its adaptation, yet as Eliana Dockterman notes in point #2 of this rundown, "The movie [omits] Amy’s stories of taking care of Nick’s dying mother, of Nick skipping their anniversary to go to a strip club with laid-off coworkers and her suspicions of his cheating."

Furthermore, much as I generally admire the work of David Fincher, non-sexist gender representation is an area in which he tends to struggle. As Nico Lang puts it in this article,
This isn’t the first time that Fincher has struggled with the inner life of his female characters. While The Social Network overtly functioned as a critique of the misogynistic underpinnings of the Facebook revolution, its most narratively prominent woman was an unstable girlfriend who sets a trash can on fire. In Fight Club, Marla Singer spends most of the film being insulted, emotionally abused, neglected, and/or raped by her schizophrenic boyfriend, only to be trapped in a toxic relationship with him when he blows up the world. If The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo offered a step forward for Fincher, Gone Girl takes it right back.
I might even take issue with Lang's implication that Dragon Tattoo is an unqualified victory for feminism, but in any case I agree with her general assessment of Gone Girl: it is an amazingly well-wrought thriller with an unfortunate, mile-wide misogynist streak.

Pre-2014 films I finally saw include The Book of Eli (2010), The Master (2012), Life of Pi (2012), Wolf Creek 2 (2013), Martyrs (2008), and Ida (2013).


The Hughes Brothers' The Book of Eli is flat-out awesome. As part of some research I was doing for a forthcoming project about post-apocalyptic films, I finally checked out this three-year-old religiously tinged action adventure flick. And I was not disappointed. The scenery and cinematography are top-notch, and Denzel Washington is as intense and charismatic as ever. The film may not "transcend" its genre and it may not be Shakepeare, but it is a really well-made and fresh feeling entry in its genre, a movie not to be missed by post-apocalyptic cinema fans.

P.T Anderson's The Master seems to have divided critics and fans a bit, but I thoroughly enjoyed it and was not troubled by some of its odd situations and inexplicable ambiguities. To be fair, any follow-up to Anderson's 2007 masterpiece, There Will Be Blood, was going to have big shoes to fill, but for me that was a liberating factor -- I did not expect as much from The Master, assumed it would be smaller-scale and quirkier than the bombastic Blood. By going in with less grandiose expectations, I was able to appreciate and enjoy The Master's artsy oddness, which reminded me of the quirky humor to be found in some of the director's earlier films like Boogie Nights and Punch-Drunk Love. I got a real kick out of the film and plan to watch it again, not least for its remarkable central performances by Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

However, expectations -- this time internal to the film -- are precisely what led me to feel underwhelmed by Life of Pi. As I wrote in my review, I enjoy a slow-paced, visually dazzling film as much as -- probably more than -- the next guy, but Life of Pi set me up to expect certain things via its frame story then didn't quite deliver the goods. I love Ang Lee but would not count this among his strongest films, though I suppose I must at least classify it as a noble failure.

John Jarratt as Mick Taylor in the fun-filled Wolf Creek 2

Wolf Creek 2 is a fun-filled sequel to the excellent Aussie slasher Wolf Creek (2005). Both films are knowing send-ups of the rural slasher genre, and both are huge fun due largely to the over-the-top performance of John Jarratt as Mick Taylor. I probably even enjoyed the sequel more than the original, as it featured one particularly great sequence that pays effective homage to Steven Spielberg's Duel (1971), one of my all-time favorite movies. If you enjoy slasher horror films that keep their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, then both installments of this heartily amusing franchise are well worth your time.

However, if you prefer your horror to take itself seriously and to earnestly explore existential / metaphysical themes, then I must recommend the audacious and very well executed French horror film Martyrs. There is not a lot I can say about this film without giving away its remarkable premise, but suffice to say that while the film is not for the faint-hearted -- there are some very realistic scenes of psychological torture, as well as extended graphic scenes of a vaguely surgical nature -- the payoff is definitely worth it. This is not a film one watches for cheap thrills or laughs, but instead to be taken on a mind-bending journey -- it is a graphic horror film with an almost science-fictional twist. My spring viewing of Martyrs left a deep and favorable impression on me, though parts of it were grueling to watch. Maybe now that I've seen this I will finally work up the gumption to see Hostel.

Agata Trzebuchowska in Ida (2013).

Ida is a beautiful slice-of-life film with a bit of a dark edge, dealing as it does with the life of a Catholic nun who discovers her Jewish past, and her family's connection to the Holocaust. Ida is remarkably funny and wry, given its premise, though perhaps the main reason to see it is its stunningly beautiful black and white cinematography. I have not seen a film this well shot in some time -- the perfection and artistry of its shot compositions remind me of the work of John Ford, consisting mostly of static shots with a lot of headroom and a preference for wide shots. Beautiful work and a delightful movie.

David Hemmings as Thomas in Michaelangelo Antonioni's hip thriller Blow-Up.

Noteworthy 1950s and '60s films I saw for the first time this year include Blow-Up (1966, dir. Antonioni), Anatomy of a Murder (1959, dir. Preminger), Our Man in Havana (1959, dir. Reed), Night of the Demon (1957, dir. Tourneur), and two William Castle films: House on Haunted Hill (1959), and 13 Ghosts (1960).

I have gushed about the work of Michaelangelo Antonioni before, and his work continues to impress and speak to me. Blow-Up is one of his most famous films, and rightfully so. This upbeat yet sinister thriller captures the essence of swinging London through the eyes of young, hip fashion photographer Thomas (David Hemmings) as he witnesses a possible murder. There are several suspenseful, life-or-death moments as Thomas becomes unwittingly embroiled in the dynamics of the potential murder plot and conducts his own haphazard investigation into what thinks he saw. Yet the overall tone and pace of the film is more slice-of-life-ish than relentlessly plot-driven. That is, Blow-Up maintains its suspense and meanders a little (no mean feat), taking time to show us a young swinger enjoying this singular moment in cultural history: racy (for 1966) sex scenes, shots of a quirky troupe of young, masked street performers, and glimpses of rock and roll icons onstage (Jimmy Page in the Yardbirds!) place us right in the heart of mid-sixties swinging London.

Look everybody! It's Jimmy Page!

I think that is the key to Antonioni's greatness: he is a master of tone. His films just feel lived-in and real, even when they are going a little over the top, as Blow-Up does, especially in some of its fashion shoot scenes. Yet its spooky thriller plot makes this film more widely appealing and accessible (I should think) than his more existential earlier film L'Avventura (1960). And since those are the only two Antonioni films I have seen thus far (no Red Desert yet!) I will simply conclude by saying: do yourself a favor and treat yourself to seeing Blow-Up.

Any true film buff should know and admire the work of Otto Preminger, one of the greatest directors of the sound era and a key figure in pushing the limits of censorship and ultimately "breaking" the Production Code. Film noir fans will know him as the director of Laura, one of the most romantic yet uncanny noirs ever made, and his filmography, which includes The Man with the Golden Arm, the Production Code-bending The Moon is Blue, the epic Exodus, and the queer-themed political thriller Advise & Consent, is incredibly impressive. Yet perhaps Preminger's most famous film is 1959's Anatomy of a Murder, which I finally saw this summer. I found the film so compelling that I watched it straight through with absolutely no breaks -- I was in its grip and could not pull myself away, not for snacks, not for the bathroom, not for anything.

Ben Gazzara and James Stewart in Anatomy of a Murder.

Why should you see Anatomy of a Murder? First, the performances: Jimmy Stewart is great as the laconic small-town lawyer, and Ben Gazzara is intensely compelling as the murderer he defends. Second, the level of cinematic craft on display here is incredibly high, even if largely unobtrusive, even "invisible." Preminger reminds me a little bit of William Wyler, both directors whose level of technical and artistic mastery is so high that it is easy to miss. Check out that still above: see the deep-focus composition, the police officer glimpsed through the glass between Gazzara and Stewart? That's what I'm talking about, a subtle approach to shot composition and use of moderately long takes that conveys more visual information to the viewer and gives a sense of depth and reality to the settings and mise-en-scene.***

Finally, Anatomy is great because its plot is so compelling and its themes surprisingly mature, even taboo -- it is ultimately about the aftermath of a rape. The frankness with which the film's characters discuss this matter is groundbreaking, and lends a dark edge to this taut procedural. In sum, Anatomy of a Murder is Hollywood filmmaking at its boldest and most accomplished.

Joseph Cotten and director Carol Reed on the set of The Third Man.

I have been aware of British director/producer Carol Reed for some time but my sole exposure to his work (until quite recently) was The Third Man, his most famous film. However, thanks to stumbling across this informative post listing great films about Brits abroad, I figured out which of Reed's films to see next: the comedic spy caper Our Man in Havana, starring Alec GuinnessOvertly a farcical comedy, Our Man is nevertheless suffused with a nostalgic melancholy feeling similar to that found in Reed's much-lauded Viennese film noir. Both films serve as elegies for a time gone past, be it postwar Europe or pre-revolutionary Cuba. Both films also deal with an ordinary man -- in Our Man's case, Guinness' Jim Wormold -- unexpectedly thrust into mysterious and deadly circumstances. But Our Man is lighter in tone than The Third Man, and though it does contain a few sobering dramatic moments, it is best characterized as a comedy spy caper. Guinness is terrific as always, and while this may not be the greatest film I saw this year -- it has a few pacing problems and its basic premise is a bit silly -- I got a kick out of it and would recommend it to any fans of Guinness and/or spy capers.

In late October I went out of town to attend an academic film conference and in the evenings I would hole up in my hotel room and watch whatever was on Turner Classic Movies. As it happened to be Halloween weekend, the channel was airing many spooky haunted house type movies, so I was fortunate to see a couple William Castle productions, The House on Haunted Hill and 13 Ghosts, back to back.

The talented Mr. Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill.

The House on Haunted Hill is flat-out excellent, a well-made campy-yet-spooky haunted mansion thriller starring the ever-delightful Vincent Price. Now for me, Price alone makes this film worth seeing, as I love his sinister, unctuous, knowingly campy performance style. But the film is also perfectly suited to his presence and features other great character actors as well, most notably Elisha Cook Jr. as an hysterically drunken participant in Price's scheme to have a group stay the night at his supposedly haunted mansion. Quite entertaining with some unexpected plot twists, this is one of the most out and out enjoyable haunted house films I have ever seen. As this insightful blog review concludes: "Original, funny, clever and twisted, [The House on Haunted Hill] remains a forerunner in the genre, not to be missed." Indeed!

Sadly, I cannot recommend producer/director Castle's 1960 film, 13 Ghosts, quite so highly. Similar in tone to House yet not as gleefully wicked, Ghosts suffers for not having an effervescent personality like Price's to hold the thing together: instead, we are stuck with a fairly straight-arrowish family that lacks Price's brilliantly ironic approach to the material. The best things about 13 Ghosts are (1) its brilliant central gimmick, i.e. a pair of goggles that allow the wearer to see ghosts, and (2) Margaret Hamilton, whose witchy housekeeper is easily the film's most interesting character.

Margaret Hamilton, former Wicked Witch of the West, as Elaine the mysterious housekeeper in William Castle's 13 Ghosts (1960).

Finally, I was lucky enough to catch Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (released as Curse of the Demon in the U.S.), a 1957 British/U.S. co-production about an occultist who is killing people by cursing them with runic symbols. Though the film is slightly marred by the scenes in which the titular demon appears -- shots that Tourneur objected to but was overruled by his producers -- even those moments of unintentional camp cannot diminish the chillingly effective suspense and terror of the film as a whole. All the leads -- Dana Andrews, personal favorite Peggy Cummins, and the truly remarkable Niall MacGinnis as cult leader Julian Karswell -- are superb, and Tourneur -- best known for his Val Lewton collaboration Cat People and his haunting film noir Out of the Past -- has a special talent for conjuring dark, oppressive moods and feelings of palpable fear and danger on low budgets. This is a very special movie, one I plan to acquire on home video for my personal horror film collection.

Niall MacGinnis as demon summoner Julian Karswell in the superb occult thriller 
Night of the Demon.

On the list of Directors I knew a little about but got to know better this year are David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche), Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha), Joe Wright (Anna Karenina), Mike Leigh (Naked), Zhang Yimou (Hero), Danny Boyle (Sunshine), and Lynne Ramsey (Morvern Callar and Ratcatcher).


I saw David Gordon Green's latest film, Prince Avalanche (2013), at the Dryden Theater last winter, and enjoyed it very much. The film is essentially an "odd couple" buddy film about two men of different ages (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) trying to get along as they work together as a line-painting crew on a remote road in a national park some months after a devastating forest fire has swept through the area. The film is a wonderful rumination on mens' lives and the ways men of different ages can help and mentor each other through transitional periods. It is funny and intimate and very well shot. I liked it very much and it makes me want to go back and see some of Green's early work, particularly George Washington (2000).

Noah Baumbach I mainly know through his amazing and intense family drama The Squid and the Whale, a personal favorite, though I have been meaning to see his Margot at the Wedding for some time now as well. In any case, I saw Frances Ha this past summer and really enjoyed it a lot, though it hasn't haunted or provoked me as much as some other films I have seen this year. But it is a delightful, wry, and warm character-driven piece that is worth seeing for Greta Gerwig's compelling and lived-in performance alone. Plus Frances Ha's frank depiction of female friendship and coming-of-age is something we don't see often enough, especially shot so beautifully in glorious black and white.

I have never read Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina but I saw Joe Wright's visually arresting but emotionally hollow 2012 film adaptation of it this year.† The film's problems lie entirely with casting: Aaron Taylor-Johnson is disastrously miscast as Vronsky, and Keira Knightley, who I have seen give fine performances elsewhere (e.g. in David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method), is fairly two-dimensional as Anna. By contrast, the two other lovers, Levin (Domhnall Gleeson) and Kitty (Alicia Vikander) are quite believable throughout, especially in their wonderful "blocks" scene late in the film. Jude Law is also, as always, excellent -- in fact, he is so likable even when playing a repressive bastard like Karenin that his presence in the film makes it impossible to believe that Anna would ever throw him over for the utterly one-dimensional and unappealing Taylor-Johnson-as-Vronsky. Thus the whole film is broken.

Alicia Vikander and Domhnall Gleeson deliver the most tender, romantic, and emotionally resonant scene in Anna Karenina, a movie that is supposed to be about two other people's all-engulfing love affair. 

Even this mostly positive review of Anna admits that Anna's and Vronsky's "mutual self-absorption makes them harder to root for as a couple, which diminishes the emotional wallop expected from the material." And this harsher (yet accurate) review by Christy Lemire says the film "depicts the tragic heroine as a victim of her own doing rather than society's," thereby diminishing the film's sense of tragedy as well as our ability to sympathize with or care about Anna. She stumbles around making an histrionic mess of things, all over a guy we cannot fathom why she (or anyone) would like.

The Guardian's reviewer writes that "As Vronsky, Aaron Taylor-Johnson certainly brings conceit and a callow self-regard. He preens well. As in his earlier movies Kick-Ass and Nowhere Boy, he is an attractive, open presence, but he is out of his depth here, especially when he has to suggest Vronsky's later agony and wretchedness."

In the end, I would advise fans of Wright's or of visually "theatrical" cinema to check out Anna Karenina, but to go in with low expectations as far as the two leads go. As the Lemire review puts it, the members of the stellar supporting cast are "all working as hard as their surroundings – if only all that effort resulted in an emotional payoff."

I plan to write a separate appreciation of the great British director Mike Leigh after his much-anticipated next film, Mr. Turner, comes out later this winter, but allow me to say a few words about Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002) and Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) before concluding this section with some talk about the remarkable Lynne Ramsay.

Zhang Yimou is the best-known of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland Chinese directors, and his arresting visual style is characterized by long takes, stunning close-ups, and an artful use of vibrant primary colors (especially red) in his usually period-set films. I have seen Zhang's Red Sorghum several times and am a major fan of his breathtaking domestic melodrama Raise the Red Lantern, which I have seen countless times and which numbers among one of my all-time favorites. This past spring I finally saw Hero, Zhang's take on a wuxia (or martial arts) film. I hardly have the words to describe how beautifully staged and shot this film is. I highly recommend it to anyone who loves movies. It is remarkable.

Danny Boyle is not my favorite director, but I have enjoyed enough of his films (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later, Shallow Grave) to want to take a chance on his 2007 science-fiction outing, Sunshine. I like the movie very much overall, as will folks who like "hard" sci-fi films (like 2001, Moon, etc.) that focus upon the human dramas that emerge under the extremes of realistic space travel. There is action in this film, to be sure, and the film is briskly paced (not quite slow enough for my tastes actually) yet the emphasis is on psychological choices, severely tested loyalties, and logic/reason/science vs. emotion and ethics in survival situations. Sunshine is a good sci-fi movie in my book, with maybe only one weakness: a slightly over-the top third act. I think this is germane to other Boyle films also, but whereas it works great in the escalatingly bonkers/paranoid narrative of Shallow Grave, I think it works less well in films like 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which depend on a kind of documentary realism to compellingly establish their onscreen worlds, then seem to change tone and go a bit "off the rails" near the end.

Amazing Scottish film auteur Lynne Ramsay. 

However, no such inconsistencies mar the works of Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay, who is surely working her way toward being one of my all-around favorite directors. Scott Tobias writes that "to my mind, Lynne Ramsay is one of the most talented filmmakers in the world," and as loyal readers will know, Ramsey's We Need to Talk about Kevin ranked very highly in my last year's end-of-year roundup -- I singled it out in my "Concluding Thoughts" as one of three films I saw last year that everyone should see.

So this year I made it a point to see Ramsay's two earlier features: the poetic yet neorealistic Ratcatcher and the more upbeat (if darkly comic) female buddy road movie Morvern Callar. Tobias describes the latter film thus:
Working with a plot that could fit comfortably on a cocktail napkin, Ramsay has to rely almost entirely on cinematic effects—and Samantha Morton's revelatory performance—to decipher a woman who's so deep in an existential funk that her behavior is always curious and sometimes extraordinarily callous.
Indeed. One of Ramsay's great strengths is that she is both a brilliantly visual director -- with a background in still photography, each of her shots is beautifully and artfully composed -- and someone who seems to understand the depths of the human soul. I would describe all three of her feature films as "heartbreaking" to varying degrees, depicting emotionally challenged characters who must grapple with horrifying, even traumatic, circumstances. Yet despite (or perhaps because of) their bleakness, Ramsay's feature films are also hopeful, showing us that these somewhat broken protagonists can endure, maybe even improve their lot (though Ratcatcher is arguably the most ambiguous on this score). The films' conclusions feel earned and, even at their most artsy, grounded in reality -- the social reality of our world and the interior realities of her minimalistically yet richly crafted characters. I recommend all of Ramsay's work but I suspect that We Need To Talk About Kevin or Morvern Callar will be more generally accessible than the bleaker Ratcatcher.

The more great films by directors I know well list includes works by Steven Soderbergh (Side Effects, The Underneath), Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, Bernie, Boyhood), Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, Cul-de-sac, The Fearless Vampire Hunters, and The Tenant) and, perhaps most importantly and intriguingly, John Frankenheimer.

Frankenheimer is a director I have been aware of for some time, mainly due to his best-known film, The Manchurian Candidate (1962). Last year sometime I saw his highly enjoyable, criminally underrated, environmentally themed monster movie, Prophecy (1979), which I loved so much that I am quite surprised in retrospect to discover that I forgot to include it in last year's roundup.

This year I got to know Frankenheimer's work even better by taking in Grand Prix and Seconds (both 1966). Both of these films are nothing short of amazing, absolute must-sees in my book. Grand Prix may be of special interest to folks who enjoy racing movies (not me) or who (like me) love any movie that allows the viewer to immerse into a "scene" and really see how people involved in that scene or subculture live their lives. For me, I tend to gravitate toward movies about movie productions (Living in Oblivion, State and Main, Bowfinger), submarine crews (Das Boot, Destination Tokyo, U-571) and/or the popular music and entertainment scene (Almost Famous, Nashville, Showgirls) most of all, but Grand Prix is one of the best films of this general stripe I have ever seen. I do not give a crap about car racing in real life yet I found this film to be utterly absorbing, and the cinematography of the races is breathtaking.

Seconds is even better, I recommend it to everyone. It is simply one of the best "mind-fuck" thrillers I have ever seen. I cannot say too much about its premise without giving away surprises, so suffice to say: go see Seconds. It is a masterpiece.

Next up on my Frankenheimer viewing agenda will be Black Sunday (1977) and Seven Days in May (1964).

My Best Moviegoing Experiences this year include seeing The Thing From Another World on the Dryden Theater's big screen and seeing Snowpiercer at The Little Theater upon its initial U.S. release. The Thing screening was a chance to see an old favorite on the big screen for the first time, and the spooky 1950s theremin music that they played in the theater before showtime was priceless.

Seeing Snowpiercer when I did, within the first week of its (belated) U.S. release last spring, was very special. I do not typically rush out to see movies on their opening weekends, but this was a film I eagerly anticipated and it was fun to meet friends at the Little and feel like we were on the leading edge of seeing a very special movie indeed.

Concluding thoughts: If you only see three of the films I've discussed here, make them Birdman, Boyhood, and Snowpiercer. And if you see three more after that, make them Belle, Seconds, and Ida.

2014 movies I still want to see include Nightcrawler, The BabadookLocke, Inherent Vice, and Force Majeure (the latter enticingly described thus: "If Michael Haneke grew a sense of humor, he might make something as pitilessly funny as Force Majeure." Count me in!).

The first few films I plan to see in January 2015 include Wild, The Imitation Game, and (the film I am most excited about) Mr. Turner.

Happy New Year!

Timothy Spall sez: Come see my award-winning performance in Mike Leigh's Mr. Turner 
or I'll splatter paint in your face.

--
* I want to go on record saying that I have not yet seen Guardians of the Galaxy, and while I don't expect to be surprised by it in any way, I have been hearing that at least tonally, it is more in line with the kinds of fun, upbeat blockbusters I usually prefer. So I will probably check it out on home video.
** I am far from alone in this: other writers who have commented upon Gone Girl's misogyny include Lindy West, Joan Smith, and, in a particularly nuanced analysis, Eliana Dockterman.
*** For more on the "classical" Hollywood mode of composing and shooting, see Tony Zhou's excellent video essay on "The Spielberg Oner" in which he claims that Spielberg is the last great practitioner of patient, well-composed semi-long takes of the kind that prevailed in Hollywood's Golden Age. Or see Steven Soderbergh's loving ode to Spielberg's amazing sense of "staging."
† I cannot speak to Anna Karenina's fidelity to the novel myself, but this writer informs me that "if you know and love the novel, something about the movie just doesn’t feel right. The problem, I think, is that it’s too romantic. The film, as Wright promised, is all about love, but Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” isn’t a love story. If anything, “Anna Karenina” is a warning against the myth and cult of love."