Traditionally I do NOT see horror films. They are not often worthy of my time. On the flip side to this, there are some actresses (and actors) for which I will watch any film they do. Kate Hudson is one of these so her powers over me trumps my decision making when it comes to horror films hence I go see THE SKELETON KEY (Iain Softley, Universal, 2005) at the theaters. Watching it again last night reminded me of what a great little bit of fun this film is, how much Hudson could wreck my heart and just how eerily spooky and fascinating is New Orleans.
First and foremost Kate Hudson. I love her blonde hair. I love her seductive nature as well as her inherent sexiness. I love that she seems to like crazy rocker dudes. All of this comes out in the film (well here she seems to have a thing for older invalids). She plays the nurturing heroine to the hilt. Iain Softley uses his camera very effectively in framing Hudson, allowing us to gaze at her quite often. And as the film plays out you know she is headed for trouble but you are powerless to stop her. This just further cements her place in my heart.
Also in my heart is the city of New Orleans. What a fantastic place. Dark and mysterious, it is one of the best and most exciting places I have ever been. The mix of old world belief and mysticism in a modern setting work for the film as well as the city. Softley crafts the film in such a way that this supernatural world just may exist and the city provides an excellent backdrop for Softley to paint.
And to me it is obvious Softley knows the horror genre. Throughout the film he effectively uses sound to add elements of spook and terror. He uses weird camera angles to alter our perception and give hint to a world where all isn’t exactly right. The set design for the film also adds tremendous weight to the overall nature of the films horror. Finally, the performance he gets from Gena Rowlands (Violet Deveraux) is just so good. To this day when I hear the name Caroline I hear it in her Rowland’s spooky southern drawl.
This film is a great bit of fun, it’s creepy enough, Hudson is spectacular and now I want to visit New Orleans.
After seeing PAIN & GAIN (Michael Bay, Paramount, 2013) I tried, I mean really tried to think of the good qualities I had seen in the film. I didn’t have to think very long. Surprisingly, for a Michael Bay film, I was rather impressed by the performances given by the entire cast, particularly Dwayne Johnson. And that was all. Every other aspect I just absolutely hated. Michael Bay is a masterful director, one who knows how to stimulate audiences senses. But his films are too much. They are hyper kinetic and give the viewer a sense of impending disastrous overload. Finally, what this film says about the American Dream and how that dream has been subverted and bastardized is revelatory and in a way, quite sad.
First the good. I think Dwayne Johnson is a good actor, I really do. His performance as Paul Doyle is multi-dimensional. Layered and nuanced he portrays a physically strong man but one tortured emotionally and spiritually, a man who loses his end game with his personal inner demons. To see Johnson go against type is a revelation. His portrayal of weakness is gripping. I applaud his efforts in the film as well as those of the rest of the cast. Tony Shalhoub is good as the immigrant success Victor Kershaw, Anthony Mackie as the confused and misled sidekick Adrian Doorbal and Mark Wahlberg gives another great ‘dumb’ performance as Daniel Lugo; a performance that reminded me much of his turn as Eddie Adams from Torrance. Finally, umm Bar Paly. Incredible.
But that’s it. After that I pull back and think of the film in cinematic terms and realize I disliked every aspect. Bay, as I said a master at stunning the senses, takes it up an extra notch here and the result is a hyper kinetic mash-up that doesn’t just overload the senses it seeks to destroy them. The soundtrack, artfully selecting a great collection of 1990’s hits, is loud and bombastic. The extensive use of slow motion becomes tedious as does the constant insertion of titles reminding the audience what is going on and who is who. These last two items serve to give us a continual reminder that we are watching a film, lend the film a great amount of self reflexivity BUT also show just how desperately weak the narrative and writing to the story is. SIX narrators? I couldn’t believe they had (at my count) six different voiceovers working throughout the entire film. All this does is show the audience, me particularly, that the filmmakers don’t give a shit about their story they just want to blast you in your seat, leave you too numb (and dumb) to care about what you just saw. In fact, NUMB & DUMB probably would have been a better name for the film.
As I wrote earlier, Michael Bay is a masterful director. He knows how to visually craft a film better than almost everyone working today. He creates films that dazzle and entertain and most importantly SELL. But I always leave his films feeling saddened because I wasted another opportunity watching his films. He cares nothing for story and his films leave me raw, over-exposed and numb. Maybe this is his intent, but it gets harder and harder for me to justify seeing his work, to myself.
Finally, the American Dream. And elusive concept, particularly since it is a concept that doesn’t really exist to the masses like many think it does. This film effectively signals the death knell of that dream. It has become bastardized and perverse. In a way, the bodybuilders of Sun Gym are a perfect vehicle as protagonists to this narrative. Working hard and being big are not enough, being in great shape and happy are not enough. Steroids and using any means necessary to become even bigger are what it takes. Don’t work hard, take the quick and easy path. Take a short cut. The fetishization of the male form comes into play quite often in the film and serves to bastardize what the audience is to expect. The films poster shows Wahlberg and Johnson in front of the American flag. The poster itself screams to us if you are big and muscular and take the shortcuts you too can have the cars, the girls, the money. Or what the American Dream has become. The film does an excellent job of showing just how distorted our way of thinking and acting has become, the only problem is I do not think this was their intent. This distortion comes up in a couple of different ways.
First, the films protagonist is a criminal. Much like the gangster genre this film uses criminality as a way of achieving the American Dream, yet the film is not a gangster film. It doesn’t follow traditional gangster mythology, it just shows us a portrait of a psychopathic killer willing to do anything to get ahead. Second, the perversion of the hard-working immigrant. The immigrant is portrayed as oafish, rude, obnoxious. He is out of shape and didn’t ‘earn’ his money. The dichotomy struck between Lugo and Kershaw is striking. It’s almost as if the film is saying; “look, as long as you look cool it doesn’t matter what you do”. And isn’t this exactly opposite of what the American Dream is supposed to be? Where in that statement is hard work, saving and industry? It isn’t there because that no longer resides as part of the elusive American Dream.
When asked about the film after seeing it my response was simply “two hours I won’t get back”. That sums up the film perfectly. The film has very little of redeeming value to it, other than some good performances. Technically the work is good but the narrative and writing are not. In a way, like the bodybuilders of the narrative, is a perfect representation of postmodern film.
More so than any director working today Quentin Tarantino’s films have become events when they are released. Scorsese and Spielberg both previously had that status but recent works have taken them off that pedestal. The point being, I like Tarantino films and immediately go to see them at the theaters. Normally, the only thing that bothers me with his films are his blatant conceit towards his audience regarding his well chronicled encyclopedic mind of film. Basically he is constantly telling his audience he has forgotten more about film than we shall ever know. This pisses me off. For the casual moviegoer I am sure they don’t see the endless homages and know every intricate film reference Tarantino is giving us. But to me, someone who sees these things it becomes overwhelming. Finally with DJANGO UNCHAINED (Quentin Tarantino, The Weinstein Company, 2012) we get a reprieve from the bludgeoning and we get a film that I feel is his best work since the seminal PULP FICTION (Tarantino, Miramax, 1994).
DJANGO UNCHAINED is stylized entirely as a spaghetti western with Tarantino’s vision towards taking a divisive, historical issue and giving it a contemporary feel and postmodern look. The stylizing towards the spaghetti western genre here works magnificently. The extensive use of the long shot and an expansive cinematography give the film that traditional western atmosphere. The stylization of the film with a grainy texture hearkens the film back to an earlier period of filmmaking. His quick zooms mixed with non diegetic sound snaps our focus to attention. And of course, his final homage, Steven (Samuel Jackson) doing Tuco’s yell to Blondie “you son of a bitch”.
While Tarantino is lushly providing us with this visual feast his narrative becomes a masterpiece of a postmodern rewinding of historical events. This contemporary take on this historical issue, one that still engenders feelings of guilt, hatred and misery is not a topic often discussed in the films of Hollywood. If films do broach this despicable part of our history usually they are either given a buffoonish quality in order to make light of the situation and ease feelings through caricature or the films simply skip over any ugliness in the hopes that not seeing truth obscures it. Tarantino simply throws his camera directly on the horror we wish to avoid and forces us to confront it. The shackles around Django’s ankles, the whip marks across his back, the casual dismissal of black people as intelligent human beings, the derogatory and customary use of the word nigger. All things we as audiences have trouble viewing and comprehending. This film does a remarkable job of forcing a personal reconciliation or acknowledgment with these terms.
Normally I do not care for stylizing history for entertainment purposes. As a history major it offends me to the core this ever expanding push towards re-writing and re-defining history. Quite simply this narrative would not have taken place. But for me, this instance works, I like it. Not only is the film entertaining but it’s vivid depictions bring so much to the viewer. Slavery is and forever will be the dark stain on American history. It lingers with us, it resides deep in our collective consciousness and we cannot turn a blind eye to it. So, the use of dialogue is not offensive. The depictions and use of brutality and violence are as necessary to the film as they are to us seeing them.
Of course all of this is easier to see when the actors doing the portrayal are brilliant. Let me start with Samuel Jackson. Like Tarantino the role of Steven is Jackson’s best work since PULP FICTION. Jackson captures the essence of the house slave in every aspect that I would expect this role to entail. Cunning, beholden, ugly. Django (Jamie Foxx) is played with smoldering fury with Foxx taking every second to the edge. Watching the film a second time every time Tarantino pushes in on Django’s eyes I expected him to explode into action. Leonardo DiCaprio (Calvin Candie) is twisted and psychotic and Christoph Waltz (Dr. King Schultz) is erudite and so very European, always looking down on the child America. They and the entire cast are excellent. Great casting and great direction by Tarantino pulling such great performances out of every actor.
Technically the film is standard Tarantino fare. Which means excellent. On my second viewing of the film the sound design and score particularly stood out. The score is really good using some older pieces mixed in with contemporary songs. Unlike many other films released these days (Gangster Squad comes to mind) the use of contemporary hip hop songs in the soundtrack worked for the film largely due to that musical genres association with its audience. And Tarantino’s use of sound effects and the sound mixing to the film added layers to the overall quality of the film. The cinematography was often stunning and beautiful with some camera work that was amazing. Just a moment at the end of the film, his slow camera movement down Hildie’s (Kerry Washington) body and back again on Django as he returned to her for the final time was spectacular. The ONLY exception I had to any moment was in the overhead lighting at particular moments during the film. Made to be moonlight it looked artificial and hindered my buying the moments. Maybe because of the stylization of the film this was an intended lighting setup but it bothered me and I didn’t like it.
As I said earlier, this is Quentin Tarantino’s best release since his seminal PULP FICTION. I feel he has become our most important working filmmaker, surpassing all others. His work not only is technically masterful but his narrative content always forces us to examine ourselves in some way. He entertains us yes, but forces an inward examination while doing this. The bludgeoning with his film knowledge grows tiresome at times, but he respects the craft and knows that for which he owes a great debt. In discussing the other Best Picture nominees I say this about DJANGO UNCHAINED. It probably won’t win Best Picture for 2012 but it will be the film that years from now is the most quoted and re-watched film of 2012.
I know that oftentimes when I write that I get carried away with superlatives. Particularly if the film I was writing about was a fantastic film. Well get ready because AMOUR (Michael Haneke, Sony Pictures Classic, 2012) was one of those films. I truly can’t say enough about it. The story was powerful and emotional, the performances award worthy and the direction of Haneke was sublime. This film will not be for many, in fact I can hear some of the people I know already say the film was boring, depressing or slow. Trust me, they don’t know what the hell they are talking about. Take it from a film snob, a graduate from USC School of Cinematic Arts and someone who has taken the time to watch more films than most, this film is exceptional.
The exceptionality begins with the direction of Michael Haneke. After watching BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Benh Zeitlin, Fox Searchlight, 2012) last week I was sure that I couldn’t be floored over someone’s job of directing a film again this Oscar season. But Haneke proved me quite wrong. AMOUR is directed sublimely. Every choice Haneke made worked and had purpose. No score to the film? It’s all cool because the silence will often lend to the isolation and despair Haneke is portraying with Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) and Georges (Jean Louis Trintignant). Haneke makes a film only using diegetic sound and when was the last time you saw a film do this? Haneke allows his camera to work and tell the story for him. His shots linger, his camera doesn’t often move. He frames amazing shots and through stills creates an effective time passing technique. He coaxed two octogenarian actors into giving virtuoso performances and on top of all this he wrote the emotionally powerful script. Michael Haneke’s work on this film deserves to win the Best Director award.
Also deserving is the work of Emmanuelle Riva as Anne. As her condition worsens through the film my heart ached at what Anne was enduring. I felt that inner fear of not being able to do the things you simply take for granted on a daily basis. Riva gave so much of herself in this role, she was courageous and daring. As the effects of each passing stroke worsened her performance got better. I’ll be honest I had never heard of her or Trintignant prior to today and that makes me realize I have so much more to see in the world of film. Finally, Jean Louis Trintignant was great as well. In fact the chemistry between the two actors was very real. Each time Georges helped Anne up and the two actors embraced was like watching two lovers share their first dance. Beautiful moments for both actors and the narrative.
And again back to Haneke and this narrative. Such a strong emotional film and yet it raises so many modern day questions and dilemmas. Themes of isolation and despair are examined and the contemporary question over medically keeping a person alive is prevalent. I watched this film and sat quietly contemplating so much. The gentlemen next to me in the theatre, an older man, sobbed uncontrollably during the films most intense scene. I felt for this man, a stranger I did not know. I wondered, did he go through this? Had he lost a loved one in the same manner? Ultimately it just drove the powers of the film home. The lessons, the forced analysis, the technical beauty of the film and the power of film as a communal experience. Thank you Michael Haneke for a wonderful part of yourself.
Since Irene Dunne and Cary Grant work so well together in every other film they appear in I was really disappointed that MY FAVORITE WIFE (Garson Kanin, RKO Pictures, 1940) was such a train wreck of a film. The narrative premise was a good one, one that surprisingly hasn’t been re-done. Man thinks wife is dead, re-marries and first wife re-appears. And with two great stars like Dunne and Grant it should’ve worked. But I think these two characters were both so petty and just not likable as to drive the narrative down. There were a few scattered moments of comedy (like when Grant says the phones are down right as the phone rings) but they were too few and far between. The technical work is your standard classical Hollywood studio machine and so nothing stands out in this film. And to think that you have two great stars at the top of their game with the as great Leo McCarey on board as co-writer and producer yet this film still falls amazingly flat. If you’re a diehard Grant fan, or love Irene Dunne then watch the film. Otherwise, pass. You’ll thank me later.
What a remarkable film BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD (Benh Zeitlin, Fox Searchlight, 2012) turned out to be. I didn’t have any expectations when I went to see it really; that it had been nominated for Best Picture was really my only reason to see the film. I hadn’t heard anyone really talking about it so I had no pre-conceived ideas about the film before hand. I hadn’t even read a synopsis of the film. I literally was going in cold but often this is best as you can let a film work it’s magic on you. And that’s exactly what this film is, magical.
Not knowing anything about the film left me wondering a little about the direction the film was heading early on. Once I realized the unique point of view the narrative was coming from the film clicked. What an interesting perspective telling the story from the eyes of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis). It allowed the fantasy aspects of the film to work perfectly within the narrative and it also helped identify us within a population subset at odds with the larger population we belong too. This is what struck me most profoundly as I watched. I knew that after Katrina there were segments of the population around New Orleans that didn’t want to leave their homes. But the portrayal of the people of “the bathtub” placed these people firmly in my consciousness. How remarkable that these people exist. And while we absolutely cannot comprehend the way in which they choose to live it really must be recognized that to them, we are the crazy ones for choosing to live in the manner we do. The film did a great job of realistically portraying these families without subverting them and making them laughable and cartoonish. With the fantasy elements of the film this portrayal was critical to lending authenticity to the film.
Another factor in the film appearing so authentic was the performance of Wallis. This little girl was amazing. Strong, independent and fierce, Wallis gives a performance truly beyond her years. Her chemistry with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) was intense at times and touching at others. The thought that kept racing through my mind as I watched the film is how daring and trusting the parents of Wallis must be. I also felt that Henry was great as Wink. I loved his role as the proud father; often at odds with his role and alway battling inner demons and alcohol. Benh Zeitlin really coaxed great performances from both Wallis and Henry.
The films greatest work was done by Zeitlin whose direction was superb. I really liked the cinematography and the extensive use of steadi-cam and handheld camera work. The cinematography is in your face; it’s gritty and real. I liked the choice to rack in and out of focus at various moments. All of these elements lend depth, credibility and realism to a mixing of genres difficult to blend together. Zeitlin’s choices for score worked, particularly the southern appeal to the music. His work getting performances from two amateur actors is nothing short of remarkable. On top of all this he co-wrote the adaptation. All in all if he were to surprisingly walk away with the Best Director Oscar, I would have no problem with that at all. The film is really good and deserving of awards and accolades.
This is going to come off as a little strange at the very least. As a whole LES MISERABLES (Tom Hooper, Universal, 2012) is a fantastic film. The literary source is obviously one of our greatest novels. The performances by the entire cast is first rate. Technically the film is wonderful and the direction pulled together by Tom Hooper is magnificent. BUT, I can’t say that I liked the film all that much. Standing back from it something just doesn’t sit well with my sense of the film. I didn’t care for the adaptation; being from the celebrated stage play was patently obvious but rather than resolve anything for me it created a disjointed film. I just never fully connected with what I was watching and that kinda bums me out.
Watching the film three specific areas stood out for me. First, the sound design for the entire film. Incredible. Each area was done exceedingly well. If there was an Oscar for Sound Department, this film would win. The score was sublime, naturally. The singing of the entire cast was good, even though Javert (Russell Crowe) often sounded like Christoher Nolan was trying to make him sound like Christian Bale in THE DARK KNIGHT (Nolan, Warner Bros., 2008). But what I really noticed, what blew me away was the sound mixing and here the film better win the Oscar. Song after song was layered perfectly. Voices blended together with sound and music to create a masterpiece. Overall a brilliant effort.
Next the visuals to the film. Here again some really great work was done. I noticed the art direction right away but slowly realized the entire production design was great. The costumes were good but I really felt the job done by the makeup team was spectacular. The film was incredibly stylized and the work done in these areas heightened these aspects. The film is visually stunning and there are even hidden moments of cinematography that hint to German Expressionism and y’all know I absolutely love that.
Almost as much as I love Anne Hathaway. I don’t care if she is a prostitute in the streets, selling teeth and hair for francs that woman is GORGEOUS! When Fantine sings I DREAMED A DREAM, the emotional weight is overwhelming. Showing emotion of that level yet maintaining her vocals, what can I say, I thought Hathaway was great. The entire cast was good but really it came down to moments for each. As Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) singing Valjean’s Soliloquy or any moment with the Thenardiers (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter). All good. But the best, to me, was Eddie Redmayne as Marius. He was incredible every time he was on screen.
If the film does anything it definitely sparked my desire to re-read the Hugo novel once again. My first true classic that I read as a child, I look forward to re-reading one of my all time favorite stories.
Sometimes films sneak up on me. I head into the theatre not really excited to see the film, or maybe I am trepidatious about watching it for whatever reason. Then, as I slowly find myself sinking into the narrative, captured by the images up on the screen I realize what a good film I am seeing. LIFE OF PI (Ang Lee, 20th Century Fox, 2012) did an incredible number on me. Going in to the theatre I was only seeing the film because it had been nominated for Best Picture. I had absolutely no other desire or reason to see the film. And what I saw was remarkable. A highly stylized wonder of a film with a narrative that packs quite an emotional punch.
The narrative to the film is as I described, sneaky good. The narrative unwinds slowly, seemingly leading you down one path while innocuously supplying the films themes and messages. And for me these messages helped to make the film so revelatory at the end. Because it seemed pretty blatant in content from the beginning my viewing sensibilities were looking one way and the film snuck in and got me elsewhere. This was wholly unexpected and gives the film so much depth. I became immersed in the story told by Pi (Irrfan Khan) and his blossoming relationship with Richard Parker. You identify with their struggle and their need for each other, their symbiotic role in the survival of each other. This narrative resonates long after the film is finished.
The lasting images of the film for me will be the excessive and hyper stylized nature of the film. From the opening frames this film tells you the world we are being introduced to is not real, that we are seeing things in the manner that Pi’s mind prefers to remember them. This determined and purposeful stylization by director Ang Lee is masterful and they way in which he pulls all the elements of the film together is brilliant. The CGI is intense yet sublimely used. The use of colors poignant and meaningful. The technical work meshes together into a greater part of a whole. All of these things help propel a magnificent film and the credit is all due to a great director.
One final thing I personally need to do now would be to read the novel. Already reading the script I not only want to compare the adaptation by David Magee but would like to explore more fully the themes and allegorical messages the narrative provides. Obviously the narrative deals with the isolation of man in contemporary society as he struggles with issues beyond his control; violence, rapid acceleration of technology, an ever shrinking global community and cross-nationalism (wow bet you didn’t think that was all in there huh?). Or the role of religion and faith and the strength and power both provide to the human experience. The film is so well done that it makes the book worth reading and isn’t that saying something about where we stand in contemporary society.
As I watched LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (Clint Eastwood, Warner Bros., 2006) the other night for the first time, a few things struck me as remarkable. Some of these things I already knew and some I had never once considered and one I forget stupidly. Nothing can be said about the film without first discussing the cinematography by Tom Stern, which was incredibly well done. As I watched, the difference in POV dawned on me. And then I slowly realized how great at his craft Clint Eastwood is while realizing my memory must be going because how could I forget that? This was a fascinating and beautiful film and I can’t believe I hadn’t taken the time to watch it sooner.
Beautiful is the most elegant way of describing this film and this beauty starts and ends with the cinematography. From the opening shots of Iwo Jima, wide panoramic giving a picture of the islands bleakness to one of the films final images, that of the rising sun over a distant Japan every shot is meticulously crafted and beautiful in result. The film is almost entirely shot in black and white and besides being exceedingly difficult to capture I wonder what the actual thematic reasoning was. The lighting set-ups, particularly in every cave scene was extraordinary. Vast shadows were created adding to the peril of impending doom for the Japanese soldiers. Throughout the film they injected bits of color at various moments, usually red and usually blood, adding depth and horror to the images being shown to us. Quite simply the film is as I said, beautiful.
The film was a good thirty minutes into its narrative when I realized what a fascinating and unique POV I was watching. At least three American generations have been given a steady diet of American POV WWII films and the narrative to this film provided a refreshing and enlightening change. Regardless of which side you fell on, in the end the men fighting all had one goal. To get home safe and to see their families and loved ones again. The brutal and savage methodology of war had worn these men down and this provided another unique perspective. It was incredible to see the Japanese code of honor and willingness to die for the glory of their country. And this code surely hastened their defeat, to the point where it was sad watching. In the cave as the men one by one set grenades off, hugging them close to their chest is a particularly gruesome scene to endure. This fatalism that pervaded their military, especially their officers, was astounding. Hard to believe an entire generation of military officers buying into such lies fed them by their government. Quite tragic.
Also tragic is my forgetting just how good Clint Eastwood is as a director. Maybe it’s because he only does movies every other year or so, or because at this point in his career he isn’t beholden to a constant media and publicity barrage but I always seem to forget how good his work is. He crafts shots that are simple yet effective. He uses sound perfectly whether it be in his use of score or in his overall sound design. He gets smooth performances from his actors and finally he creates a beautiful and haunting film. The type of film that resonates with you days after watching because it was so damn good. Here it is the next morning after having watched LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA and I have already had two conversations with people about how good a film it was. Great film.