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 -- 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 its 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,
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. 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 Shakespeare, but it is a 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.  

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Review: Life of Pi (2012)

I finally saw Life of Pi -- on Blu-Ray no less -- and must confess to feeling underwhelmed. I am, in general, a big fan of Ang Lee's work, especially The Wedding Banquet, Sense and Sensibility, The Ice Storm, and Brokeback Mountain. Lee is one of the richest visual directors around, he composes beautiful shots and the visual poetry of his work (if you'll forgive the somewhat vague and pretentious phrase) is always breathtaking. Even those films of his that I like less -- Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- are undeniable visual masterpieces rife with lovely eye-candy.

So what went wrong with Life of Pi?

Ang Lee-style eye-candy abounds -- the film is every bit as visually mind-blowing as the director's previous work. But there are two key problems that keep Life of Pi from resonating with me and had me checking my watch several times during its two-hour running time:

(1) Too many of its beautiful visuals rely too heavily upon digital effects. That is, they are way too obviously created by computers, and this (for me) causes a disjunction between the "real" photography and the CGI. It is not seamless, and it makes it hard for me to accept -- or care about -- what I am seeing onscreen. Much of what happens to Pi while he is alone at sea feels fake-o.

(2) The "twist" ending, which is, I admit, fairly impactful (at least in theory), loses most of its power due to #1 above and due to the early parts of the film focusing upon the wrong things.

I am actually not going to say too much about point #2, since my associate A.J. has already covered that topic brilliantly in this post on his own blog. Simply allow me to quote a chunk of and briefly comment upon his assessment [which includes SPOILERS]:
Early on in the film's second part, Pi attempts to live with a vicious Hyena, a calm elder Orangutan, a Zebra with a severely broken leg, and, of course, a large Bengal Tiger. This clearly cannot, and (SPOILER) does not, work. The carnivorous animals eat the Zebra and the Orangutan, and eventually Richard Parker [the tiger] eats the Hyena. 
Now in the novel, each animal death marks another strong blow against Pi's will to survive. And rightfully so, as these creatures are his sole companions and the only remnants of his entire life up to this point. Their deaths are specific and, frankly, horrifying. They feel harsh and cruel well before that little twist at the end of the book, making the "truth" that is revealed all the more disturbing. 
Fastforward to the 2012 BIG HOLLYWOOD MOVIE adaptation and we are instead treated to a hyperspeed version of those profoundly impacting events. Rather than the slow torture, particularly of that poor Zebra, that ends with Pi alone with Richard Parker, we instead are treated to about one minute of quick dashing about ending far-too-soon with three animal carcasses (essentially blood-less and certainly gore-less) hidden under the Tiger's tarp-covered half of the raft. I cannot stress it enough, despite Pi's emotionally charged rebuking of the Hyena, this scene is not even remotely as powerful as it was intended--and ought to have remained. This diminishes the entire impact of the ending to the point where it feels pointless having left it in. When Pi talks to the Japanese business men at the end of the film [. . .] it just sounds like he's lying to them.
Now I haven't read Yann Martel's novel so have no basis for comparison there, and furthermore, I do not necessarily read Pi's concluding story told to the Japanese businessmen as being a lie per se -- I think the movie keeps its options open on that score. However, I completely agree with A.J. that the impact of that late scene is severely deflated by the fact that we do not care very much about those other animals (besides the tiger) nor do we care enough about Pi's parents (especially his mother) for the second version of the story to matter much to us. It is kind of momentarily horrifying but doesn't cut deeply enough.

The end of the film also makes me wonder, as A.J. does, why the first act even bothers introducing Pi's romance with Anandi? As it was happening, I was really invested in that part -- in fact, I think the first quarter of Life of Pi, before anybody gets on any cargo ship, is the best part of the whole movie, both narratively (it hasn't been mismanaged yet) and visually (not much CGI yet, just good, old-fashioned, beautifully staged and lit shots). But then the romance subplot goes nowhere, when that time could have been spent extending the scenes that build to the big payoff at the end. Isn't that the point of narrative cinema?

Visually stunning though it is, Life of Pi features a bit too much of this . . .

. . . and not quite enough of this.

That said, I am not here to go on a screed against this film or against computer generated imagery (CGI) in general -- I know that this is how things are being done these days in Hollywood. Yet I expected more from Ang Lee and his team here. I expected the astounding CGI to blend more believably with the live footage in Life of Pi, yet it didn't. The moment I knew the film was in big trouble was during the sinking of the cargo ship, when Pi finds himself in the lifeboat with the zebra, and the little boat starts zinging and zanging all over the place, hyper-kinetically zipping around the sinking mast of the ship like some kind of cocaine-fueled, obviously digital, video-game version of itself. That crap doesn't impress me any more that the opening shot of Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Shit does, and feels out of place in what is supposed to be a somewhat meditative and thoughtful Ang Lee movie.

Is Life of Pi worth seeing? Probably. It is almost a good movie, and the visuals taken on their own merits are mostly quite beautiful and pleasurable to watch. But as far as substance goes, if you want a truly great "survival at sea" story, check out the vastly superior All Is Lost. If you want a meditation upon the meaning of spirituality and existence, try Waking Life or Wild Strawberries. And if you want a film about how lies and truth get all mixed up, look to Rashomon, Rules of the Game, or Network. 

In short, don't get your hopes up too high and you will likely find much to enjoy in Life of Pi. Me, I'll be eagerly awaiting Lee's next directorial effort.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Why The Terminator Kicks Terminator 2's Stupid Ass

The Terminator (1984) is better than its sequel, largely (but not entirely)
 due to the role played by this lady right here.

Okay, this time my use of the adjective "stupid" in the post title is not fully warranted: Terminator 2's ass is not completely stupid. In fact, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) is actually a good movie that I enjoy. I admit outright that my main reason for using that post title is to create a sense of uniformity with my last post in this series.

However, I am here to tell you that the original 1984 film, The Terminator, is definitely much better than its fun but problematic sequel. As enjoyable as that sequel is, it is not nearly as tight on the filmmaking front as its predecessor, nor is it the pro-feminist work that many uninformed persons believe it to be. In fact, the first Terminator is both a better film and a more feminist film than Terminator 2.*

Let's start with that main ideological issue: sexism. In The Terminator, Sarah Connor is an average twenty-something woman living in L.A., who happens to get targeted by an invincible killer cyborg from the future. While she seems frightened and somewhat in shock when she first realizes she is being stalked, she makes several smart moves -- staying in public places and calling the cops ASAP. Then, once she learns about the whole time-travel thing from Reese, she adapts quickly to her new circumstances and responds quite well to Reese's elementary lessons in survival and weapons training. She does make one crucial error -- calling her mother to tell her where she is -- but even this blunder can be explained by her naivete about the full capabilities of the Terminator, and needn't be read as some kind of feminine weakness or hysteria. In fact, the Sarah Connor of The Terminator practically never gets hysterical, nor, ultimately, does she need to be saved by a man, except right at the outset. She shows resilience and depth throughout, and by the end, after Reese dies, Sarah manages to save herself and to destroy the Terminator all on her own.

"You're terminated, fucker!"  

By contrast, in Terminator 2, despite (or perhaps to chauvinistically compensate for) her badass muscles and paramilitary training, Sarah Connor gets sold out; she loses agency and power relative to the first film. While the early scene in which the mental institution staffer is shown erotically licking her face against her will is gratuitous and humiliating for her character  -- I have never understood the necessity of that moment -- the main way in which Connor's agency is undermined is via the ascendancy of her adolescent son. As John Connor slowly comes of age in this film -- under the tutelage of the gendered-male Terminator, NOT Sarah herself, mind you -- he also becomes her surrogate parent, bossing her around and preventing her, with the help of his new cybernetic daddy/buddy, from making the horrible errors she plans to make by assassinating Dyson. And the film wants us to sympathize with young John in this, showing Sarah's actions to be badly thought out, rash, histrionic, even outright crazy. This character who supposedly has the mental fortitude to withstand the first Terminator attack, the loss of Reese, her own subsequent institutionalization, and the appearance of yet another (and more powerful) Terminator in her time, suddenly loses it, requiring her tweener son to not only rescue her but to counsel -- no, order -- her back into a state of relative mental stability. Which she never quite regains, because she spends the whole last third of this movie taking orders from this kid, who SHE should in fact be training!

This is a progressive, well-rounded depiction of a heroic female character.

This isn't. 

Now I totally get that one should not be too nitpicky about blockbuster action movies making too much sense -- otherwise, NONE of them would be any fun. Yet I do ask for a certain basic level of adherence to THEIR OWN internal rules, and on these grounds I find the inconsistencies created by second Terminator film to be distractingly bad for the franchise.** For example, see item #3 on this list, in which the author notes that the main rule for time travel established by the first Terminator film -- "The time machine can't transport non-living matter" -- is flagrantly broken by the second one:
Now, technically, the first Terminator is a machine with living tissue layered over its endoskeleton, so it gets a pass, we guess. Enter the T-1000, the second film's liquid metal Terminator that can take nearly any shape and recover from nearly any wound. Oh, and it can turn its arm into a knife.  
The problem is, this Terminator is composed entirely of liquid metal. No living tissue, no flesh, just 100% mimetic-poly alloy (thank you, James Cameron). That means, according to the rules clearly established in the first movie, it cannot travel back in time.
Indeed. This has always bothered me, since no such flagrant problems exist in the first, tightly scripted and well-thought-out film.

Sure, the first Terminator movie does create a kind of temporal paradox by revealing (SPOILER!) that the time-traveling Kyle Reese is the unborn John Connor's father, which means that none of the future events of the film would have happened at all if he hadn't come back in time in the first place -- but this I write off as one of the inevitable results of ANY time-travel scenario. Paradoxes arise and exist. I don't have a problem with this twist because it doesn't fundamentally undermine the premises set up by the film. It just fucks with our heads a bit because time-travel scenarios are ALWAYS illogical and paradoxical.

Reese finds shoes --  a great moment from a superbly shot and edited chase sequence 
early in the first Terminator film. 

And who cares about the occasional temporal paradox when the action is this good? With only one major exception I can think of -- the truck-and-motorcycle chase along the L.A. River in T2 -- I argue that the action sequences in the first Terminator are uniformly better than those of its sequel. Sure, those exciting bits in the sequel are more over-the-top and quite pleasurable, but I urge you to take a careful look at the opening cops-chase-Reese sequence in The Terminator, or the final showdown of the first movie from the point where Reese and Sarah leave the hotel room and end up at the factory. The editing and cinematography (not to mention the great soundtrack) are all so effective in these sequences, so pulse-poundingly exciting and suspenseful, that they generate a cumulative intensity that cannot be matched by Judgment Day, good as it is.

The L.A. River chase = the best action sequence in T2, and the only one 
that matches the intensity of those seen in The Terminator

Lastly, one of the biggest flaws in T2 is that there's no Michael Biehn -- Reese is one of the most badass parts of the first movie. Instead, we get a somewhat annoying 10-year-old kid. calls the young John Connor (Edward Furlong) the flaw that nearly ruins Terminator 2, lambasting the film for "giving us a 10 year old John Connor who, upon repeated viewing, is so obnoxious that you spend most of the movie wanting to see him shot in the face, fate of humanity be damned." Taken together with my feminist critique about how grating it is to have such an immature kid bossing his mom Sarah around, I am inclined to agree with this point. I don't hate young John Connor per se, but he's no Kyle Reese.

The Terminator's Reese sez: "I'm a badass --  AND Sarah's driving the car right now!"

To conclude, while I am not here to disabuse anyone of their love for T2 -- let me reiterate that on the whole, I enjoy the film -- I would urge all my readers to take another serious look at The Terminator, and see if you can tap into the crazy intensity, tight direction, and more satisfying character arc for Sarah Connor that leads me to champion this film over its (perhaps undeservedly) more popular follow-up.

T2's Sarah Connor sez: "Get me out of this hysterical role in this sexist movie -- NOW!"

UPDATE 5/26/2015: This guy is even tougher on T2 than I am; he accurately claims in item #2 on this list that the actions of the T-1000 at the end of the sequel are "baffling," concluding simply that "robots are pretty dumb sometimes."

* This same logic applies to the first two Alien films: while falsely believed to be as good as if not better than Alien (1979), and also supposedly more feminist, James Cameron's Aliens (1986) is in fact no better than Ridley Scott's Alien from technical standpoint and is actually more sexist than its 1979 predecessor. But that is a subject to return to later.
** As one of the guys in this funny video puts it, "James Cameron is like: 'Shut up and watch this badass thing I made but don't you dare fuckin' think about it!'"

Monday, August 4, 2014

Carter's Top 50 Films (August 2014)

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe."

Just under a year ago, I composed a "Top 40 Favorite Films" list. Following Lee Sabo's suggestion that I treat such lists as a kind of thought-exercise, like a Rubik's cube, I have decided to create another such list now, for fun. I have expanded it to fifty selections this time.

Remember, this is NOT a list of "must-see" classics provided by a film scholar or "expert," but rather a slapdash list of my "favorite" films at the present moment, the main criterion of value being how much pleasure I take from viewing and re-viewing these particular movies.

I have tried to go on instinct and simply jot down what the Top 50 might be, without reviewing my list from last time.

Here are a few notes on the changes and what they tell me about my tastes these days:

I typically do not throw newly discovered films into my "Favorites" list until they've had some time to "season." Given the types of films I generally prefer -- films made for adults with some narrative, thematic, and/or visual substance and ambition -- it doesn't do to rush movies into my personal canon until I ensure they will withstand the test of time.

That said, two films I discovered only last year -- We Need to Talk About Kevin and Holy Motors -- have made this list. These two are definitely solid favorites despite their newness to me.

I may be kind of "over" James Bond, I haven't sat down to do a Bond-fest in quite some time, and thus Thunderball -- still the best-ever Bond film IMO -- has been bumped.

I could have put First Blood and Blue Velvet and Female Trouble and especially Nebraska on this list, but the first three are ones that I haven't returned to as much lately and the last one is a "new favorite" I've only seen once -- Nebraska needs further road-testing before making a list like this.

I also more or less ignored documentaries on that previous list -- I don't know why -- and have corrected for that omission here.

So. . .

Tabloid (2010)*
Pitch Black (2000)
Holy Motors (2012)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Stranger Than Paradise (1984)
Bernie (2011)
Brother's Keeper (1992)
Blade Runner (1982)
Zodiac (2007)
Memories of Murder (2003)
The Room (2003)
The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
King Kong (1933)
King Kong (1976)
Nashville (1975)
Chinatown (1974)
The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Barry Lyndon (1975)
Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Shampoo (1975)
The Parallax View (1976)
The Birds (1963)
Dogville (2003)
Rashomon (1950)
Caché (2005)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Videodrome (1984)
Contagion (2011)
Election (1999)
Muriel's Wedding (1994)
The TV Set (2006)
Cure (1997)
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976)
Duel (1971)
Alien (1979)
The Terminator (1984)
Rio Bravo (1959)
The Last Waltz (1978)
Heat (1995)
Double Indemnity (1945)
City Lights (1931)
Fargo (1996)
A Serious Man (2009)
Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995)
Chuck&Buck (2000)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Deep Water (2006)
Raise the Red Lantern (1991)

UPDATE 8/6/2014: A few more ruminations on the process behind and implications of this list:

First, Mother and Snowpiercer did not unseat Memories of Murder, the latter still being my favorite Bong Joon-ho film. This highlights the subjectivity of the film experience, in that Memories, while a terrific film, and surely worthy on an artistic level of being on any quasi-objective "best films" type list, is my #1 Bong Joon-ho film in part because of my personal tastes (I love serial killer stories) and due to how strongly I bonded with it when I first saw it (I was absolutely spellbound). As a scholar and film critic, I would say that Mother (2009) is Bong's objectively best film, and that Snowpiercer (2014) is his best big-budget, mass-audience film. But humble little Memories of Murder is still my personal favorite.

Other substitutions on this list are more arbitrary -- Contagion for Bubble, Dogville for Melancholia, The Birds for Psycho -- and these were based mainly on what came to mind this time. I probably like each of the films in these pairs about equally at the end of the day. In related news, I vaguely considered swapping in Zero Effect for The TV Set, because I saw the former Jake Kasdan film more recently and remembered how much I like it. But no dice on that one. See how arbitrary this process is?

Eyes Wide Shut, The Lost World, Election, and Rashomon represent films that would have made it onto last November's list if I were more honest with myself and/or I had remembered them when composing it.

Finally, yes, I do enjoy Jurassic Park 2 more than I usually enjoy the original Jurassic Park; I have watched the sequel MANY more times than the original. As with the Bong films discussed above, I know it's odd how much I like the second Jurassic Park film -- I am not saying that it is objectively better than the first, only that I personally enjoy it more.

* This was a really tough one; Errol Morris is my favorite documentarian and I struggled with whether I should put Tabloid, The Thin Blue Line (1988), or Standard Operating Procedure (2008) down as my fave. Tabloid won out because I watched it (again) most recently so its pleasures were freshest in my mind.