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 despite 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 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.

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."

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011)

Elizabeth Olsen gives an amazing lead performance in the suspenseful 
and well-crafted Martha Marcy May Marlene.

I have been hearing about Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, dir. Sean Durkin) for some time, and now that I've seen it, I am happy to report that in most ways it lives up to its positive hype. It is a dramatic thriller about a young woman (played brilliantly by Elizabeth Olsen) who flees a cult to live with her sister and husband at their vacation home in Connecticut. The film cuts back and forth between Martha's interactions with her family in the present and her experiences being indoctrinated into a patriarchal, hippie-esque cult two years earlier.

As an exploration of the mindset of cult members and of the insidious techniques used by cult leaders to ensure new members' loyalty, this is a creepily fascinating and insightful film. The back-and-forth structure, cutting between Martha's present and past, is extremely effective, revealing narrative information to the viewer piecemeal and conveying Martha's fractured, subjective, disoriented state with chilling force.

Martha converses with Patrick (John Hawkes). 

Where I feel the film stumbles a little -- and now I must warn you of both upcoming SPOILERS and the possibility of an intrusive personal bias -- is when it starts following the real-life Manson Family "playbook" too closely. I am quite familiar with Vincent Bugliosi's book Helter Skelter (Norton, 1974) and the 1976 made-for-TV movie adaptation of the same name, so once Patrick and his followers start creeping rich peoples' houses, Martha Marcy May Marlene loses much of its spontaneity (and hence its dramatic edge) for me because I know all too well where it's heading. Any viewer even passingly familiar with the activities of the Manson family, particularly the Tate and LaBianca crimes, will have no difficulty seeing exactly where this film is going after a certain point.

Thus, after a couple key scenes alerted be to this intertextual "borrow," instead of remaining firmly on the edge of my seat, I started wondering: Is this Patrick guy just a Charles Manson copycat? Is that really all he is?

Sadly, the film's answer seems to be "yes." And in my view, this film doesn't need to raid Manson territory to be chilling. The early indoctrination sequences at the cult's secluded farm are incredibly spooky and disturbing in their own right, and could have maintained the film's unnerving suspense by means of the psychosexual power games already at play, without heading onto full-blown Helter Skelter-land. Alas, the choice to do the latter causes the film to lose some of its grip on the viewer -- or at least me -- because it makes one wonder if Manson-emulation was the Martha cult's whole purpose (and if so, what IS the purpose? WHY does Patrick just want to do the same stuff Manson did back in the sixties?). Or was it that Sean Durkin, the film's writer/director, simply could not think of anything else for Patrick and his followers to be up to?

John Hawkes is terrific as cult leader Patrick . . . 

. . . yet his character becomes a bit too overtly Manson-like and less interesting to me 
around the time of the scene depicted here. 

In any case, that is my main disappointment with this very well-shot, grippingly acted, and expertly crafted thriller. And since that disappointment originates with my extensive knowledge of the real-life Manson case -- I am a true crime fan and have read Helter Skelter at least three times -- it may not affect the experiences of less Manson-savvy viewers.

Otherwise, I have only praise for this tightly wrought and thematically provocative movie. The lighting and cinematography are stellar throughout, and the locations are beautiful and well-chosen. Martha Marcy May Marlene features a large dose of handheld camera work, which tends to be overused these days, yet this is the kind of film -- intimate, subjective, and creepily frightening -- where that style of cinematography really works well.

My only other critique, and it is particular to one scene only, regards the film's soundtrack: while it did not bother me in any other scenes, I found the musical score during Martha's party freakout scene to be distractingly loud and tonally heavy handed. Thumbs down there.

But thumbs up overall. I highly recommend this disturbing psychological thriller to my readers, and I only hope my spoilers will not spoil the impact this well-made movie has upon you.

The chillingly effective final shot (which is also a minute-plus long take) 
of Martha Marcy May Marlene.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

I Am A Feminist

Sigourney Weaver as Ellen Ripley in Alien 3 (1992).

I assume that my feminist (that is, anti-sexist), anti-racist, anti-discrimination views are quite clear by now, but it occurred to me in light of some Facebook responses to my Terminator post that maybe I should provide a bit of back story and explanation for my deep commitment to social equality.

My journey toward feminism began when I was quite young, in the context of my extended family. My parents are originally from central Indiana, though they moved to the West Coast once my dad got his first professional job just after I was born. Growing up, I was always told -- and saw with the evidence of my own eyes -- that my maternal grandmother was an exceptionally intelligent woman, who could have been an excellent lawyer had the gendered assumptions of her time and place been different. She worked as County Clerk of her home county for approximately seven years in the early 1950s, and as Court Reporter for the county judge for four to six years after that. Yet it is my understanding that it would have been somewhat unthinkable for her, a farmer's wife in 1950s Indiana, to seek the bar and work as a full-blown lawyer. This always made me feel sad, baffled, and (ultimately) angry.

Mind you, I do not know how my grandma actually felt about this, and I don't recall ever talking with her about it. But the oft-repeated tale that "your grandma would have made a great lawyer" resonated deeply with me and provided me with my first lesson in the reality of structural sexism.*

Once I got to college in 1989, it wasn't long before I took a women's studies course, "Introduction to Feminist Theory and the Women's and Men's Movements," taught by Gloria Orenstein at USC during Spring Semester 1991. This course, in which we read key works like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and learned about the history of women's liberation, was a key turning point for me. It gave me terms, language, and concepts with which to articulate my deep discomfort and anger toward our patriarchal, sexist society. And it set me further on the path toward becoming an academic feminist.

That path led me, some years later, to graduate school at the University of Oregon, where I became a student of feminist film scholar Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. I highly recommend Karlyn's work to anyone interested in issues relating to women, feminism, and popular film and television. Her early work on female comedians and the romantic comedy genre -- encapsulated in her first book, The Unruly Woman (1995) and her really great article "Comedy, Melodrama, and Gender: Theorizing the Genres of Laughter"** -- is absolutely essential stuff. Her latest book, Unruly Girls, Unrepentant Mothers (2010) is just flat-out superb, and I teach from it all the time. Karlyn is obviously an academic, but her background is in journalism, which lends her jargon-free writing style a clarity and directness not always found in scholarly publications.

Anyway, during my graduate school training under Karlyn, my feminism found its voice and I started writing about issues of gender and sexuality in popular and independent films. I still do, and I also teach courses in feminist approaches to understanding film and popular media.

One thing I teach my students is that sexism isn't ONLY Hollywood's fault, yet the images and ideas circulated by mainstream films certainly perpetuate the bigger societal problem of gender inequality. This is why it's called structural sexism -- it is built into the infrastructure, institutions, and assumptions of our culture.

Want some evidence? Try this:

This chart found on page 11 of this 2012 U.S. Census Report.

That is a sobering chart whose data gives the lie to anyone who thinks women are treated equally to men in our society or that feminism in no longer needed. Even in such a simple matter as equal pay for equal work, we still have a long way to go.

And things may actually be worse in Hollywood than they are in American society writ large. Check out this interesting article about USC media scholars who are working to concretely quantify what feminist analysts and savvy laypeople have known for years about unequal gender representation in film.

The article presents statistical data showing that "in 2013, only 29 percent of characters [in the top 100 grossing Hollywood films] were female, and a mere 28 percent of the films had a female lead or co-lead." Sadly, this comes as no surprise to those of us who study Hollywood for a living. Nor does the even more discouraging data about women working in production jobs in Hollywood: "When it came to the people behind the camera — in the roles of director, writer and producer — only 16 percent were women."

Source: This article by Walt Hickey.

This saddens me greatly because (obviously) I love movies and I do not like that the industry responsible for making some of the best and most influential films on planet Earth is so pervasively and unrepentantly sexist, on both sides of the camera.

Furthermore, I am in complete agreement with this post about the need to reject the horrible, demeaning concept of "strong women" characters -- we need well-rounded female characters, NOT "strong" ones -- and this related post about the Trinity Syndrome, i.e., the tendency for seemingly powerful female characters to be marginalized by male ones in the movies in which they appear. I also urge my readers who are interested in these matters to see Anita Sarkeesian's sharp rundown of the Bechdel Test, which is a quick and handy (if somewhat limited) guide to sexism in the film industry:

So what can I do about these sobering statistics? What can I do about structural sexism in movies?

Well, on the scholarly side, my anti-sexist, anti-racist beliefs have led me to write (or co-write) articles like this one and this one, exposing the implicit sexism and racism of the rise of geek culture. (The short version: popular geekdom is a guise assumed by white masculinity in order to keep itself front and center in American culture, as it always has been. Onscreen geeks think of themselves as more sensitive and progressive than more traditional, manly, jock-ish males, when in fact they are every bit as sexist and male-centered as the jocks they have replaced as the central male figures of our current cultural moment.) I am proud of this work and only hope more folks will read it and understand its frightening implications.

On a personal level, my progressive beliefs have, over time, caused a subtle and gradual shift in my film tastes -- though I think that the change in my movie preferences is also a simple result of my getting older. That is, I think it is developmentally appropriate that, as a man in my mid-forties, I should find most of today's superhero films to be too simple-minded and adolescent in their themes, and that I should instead prefer films whose content is aimed at adults my age. In terms of my feminism, I can still enjoy a fun, mindless blockbuster, but as I have written here before, I find it increasingly difficult to enjoy terrible, two-dimensional, insultingly bad screenwriting, and I really cannot stomach watching many more films that blatantly celebrate how great white men are at the expense of women, people of color, extraordinarily bodied persons, etc.*** I think I have more or less reached my limit on throwing down ticket money for blatantly sexist crap.

As for what ALL of us can do, I think we can be more cautious about which films we spend money to see, and we can at the very least become aware of the sexist (and racist, and other discriminatory and damaging) stereotypes so commonly and unthinkingly circulated by our popular films and media. I am NOT saying we should boycott or avoid all films that star white men, or cast aside films we might enjoy just because they contain damaging stereotypes and messages. We ALL have films we love that are ideologically questionable. Like it or not, we live in a world where Hollywood is globally dominant, and Hollywood is very much invested in maintaining the cultural status quo.† I think the key to resisting this pervasive ideological conditioning is KNOWING that we are seeing racist / sexist / imperialist stereotypes, watching out for them in the media we consume, and not buying into those retrograde messages unthinkingly. To me, awareness is the key, for awareness empowers choice. And we are all still free to make our own choices and, ultimately, to enjoy what we enjoy.

* I emailed my mother to learn some of the finer details about my grandmother's legal career, and even in that email response my mom reiterated the story I grew up hearing: "I believe in another day and age she would have been a lawyer. She was so smart and loved all the things pertaining to law." She also added that "Mom always made comments how she would have liked to go to college but that didn't happen in her time. Only a few were that lucky and her family was not into education nor did they have any money."
** "Theorizing the Genres of Laughter" is anthologized in Classical Hollywood Comedy (1995, ed. Karnick and Jenkins) pp. 39-59.
*** "Extraordinarily bodied persons" is my preferred term for folks commonly referred to as "the disabled" -- I prefer the term "extraordinarily bodied" or "differently abled" and I believe I learned both of these terms from Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's terrific book Extraordinary Bodies.
† Hollywood doesn't support the status quo because of some deliberate, evil plot to keep women and other non-white, non-male groups down (though there is a great deal of cultural and historical momentum behind centralizing white men). Hollywood studios do this because they think it is profitable not to rock the boat or upset people too much. Most Hollywood films are in fact rife with internal ideological contradictions -- that is, they contain both liberal/progressive AND conservative/retrograde ideas that coexist side by side. This is so that folks from all over the political and social spectrum can enjoy these mass media products and see what they want to see in them -- and keep paying money for the privilege. Capitalism (heavily influenced by patriarchy) drives Hollywood.