Monthly Archives: December 2015

The Hateful Eight — 9/10

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (2015, Quentin Tarantino)

Gory, mean-spirited, nihilistic, and full of spewing bigotry, Tarantino’s latest controversial blood-boiler shows no signs that the aging filmmaker (now 52, and no longer the young punk crashing Hollywood’s party) is softening or chilling out. He’s as angry as ever, and in this three-hour gangster mystery he lashes out about gun violence, race relations, immigration, war, and American history.

Not just history of race, violence, crime, and politics, but of film itself. Beginning with a lengthy overture set to a still frame of red mountains with a stagecoach silhouette, we’re instantly transported to the past: 1950s and ’60s epics filmed in Ultra Panavision and projected on the widest screens in the biggest theaters. The music is by the world’s greatest contributor to Western movie scores (Ennio Morricone), and before you know it you feel like you’ve time-traveled. Then we go further back, to the late 19th century, as a snowy Wyoming mountain pass is the setting for the whole bloody affair.

Describe the plot to someone, and they may tell you that when Tarantino does a movie about untrustworthy men bleeding in a safehouse together and a black bounty hunter known for killing dozens of southern whites, this might be a tired mashup of RESERVOIR DOGS and DJANGO UNCHAINED. And there’s certainly a nod to QT’s past with all of this (not to mention echoes of his former dialogue — notably an exchange taken from TRUE ROMANCE [“How about you?” “How about me what?”]), but the quotation marks around this aren’t for repetition or redundancy; they are signifiers that we’re exploring a filmography as much as a national history. Because who’s that reading the voiceover narration? Tarantino.

As with most of Tarantino’s work, especially his best (and this is among them), the greatness here comes both from artistic and technical proficiency, and from substantial profundity. Speaking to the former, this is one beautiful-looking film. The 70mm allows for compositions that reveal things and people on the edges of the frame that tell as much of the story as those in the center. But 70mm isn’t just wider than 35 (2.76:1 aspect ratio compared to 2.4 or so), it has better resolution — the textures this film picks up, such as dust in the light, hot breath barking out of cold mouths, and creases in leather coats… it’s remarkable. Speaking to the latter, there’s an aching beauty in the symbolic presence of “The Lincoln Letter” that Jackson’s character carries in his pocket. When it’s first introduced, Russell regards it like a work of art — like a great film one wants to revisit. He’s emotionally moved by its contents and respects its presentation and preservation (remind you of anything, celluloid lovers?) When its truth is revealed, we discover that all of our leaders’ optimistic hopes for a peaceful future and more civilized evolution are but wishful fictions, yarns spun by active imaginations and nothing more; and, it should not be ignored, that American history was actually written just as much by black men, who are finally going to take the credit for it.

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Spotlight — 3/10

SPOTLIGHT (2015, Tom McCarthy)

Such an arrogant piece of self-congratulatory lecture-theater that it’s gotta be a lock for Best Picture. I lost count of the number of scenes that end on sick truth bombs, but perhaps that’s because I was already losing count over the number of times McCarthy stitched two scenes together using a locked-down exterior shot accompanied by Howard Shore’s piano-tinkling compositions. (Given that this is a Boston-set film about rapist priests, no surprise they commissioned a score from the guy who composed THE DEPARTED and DOUBT, right? But what did you expect from this film, something unpredictable?)

Speaking of those scene-ending zingers, some of them make sense but are just dun-dun-DUN (Like Tucci saying “Mark my words: if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” Off Ruffalo’s stunned reaction…) and some of them don’t (when one reporter describes the euphemistic statuses granted to rapist priests like “sick leave” and “assignment,” Ruffalo says “They got a word for everything, these guys” and McAdams says “Except for rape.” Actually, those are their words for rape. That was his point.)

It’s bad enough when each of those battering-ram scolding techniques exist on their own — put them together and you have enough eye-rolling to injure an optic nerve. At one point, Keaton and McAdams are walking along a sidewalk and McAdams says “so it seems everyone there already knew this story” and Keaton goes “except for us, and we work there.” Then the camera tilts up to show the outside of the Boston Globe building, clearly identified as such. This film is made for the cheap seats and the back of the class, and wouldn’t even make an effort at the slightest bit of challenging material. It assumes the obvious position that child molestation is bad, and institutionalized cover-ups enable it (yeah no shit) and then pats its audience on the back for agreeing with the noble reporters who carry out this crusade.

And it isn’t like these reporters don’t deserve credit — journalism is hard, fact-checking is tedious, and research has way too many dead ends. McCarthy does go the extra mile to explore this, and that’s fine. But instead of giving us characters, he gives us mouthpieces clawing like vultures over the few Oscars they can scrounge. Ruffalo has the same earnest lip-purse on his mug the entire film, Keaton wears his Boston accent like an ill-fitting pair of Dockers, and McAdams is only good in close-up, because medium and wide shots reveal she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. And I think Liev Schreiber may have been in the movie but he’s such a vacuum of personality you won’t necessarily notice him. At least there’s John Slattery, doing an excellent Roger Sterling whenever he’s bemused: “Are there really 90 fuckin’ priests?”

McCarthy is very concerned with setting a Time and Place. One scene of Ruffalo in a cab is filmed expressly from the cab’s exterior as it cruises through Boston’s surface streets, showing us that it’s got Neighborhoods and blue collar people and middle class and, yes, churches and playgrounds. (But in case you didn’t actually look at the screen, one character helpfully tells us “look, there’s a church right there. And here’s a playground right next to it.”) When the investigation is temporarily delayed by 9/11, there’s a minute or so of people standing by the TVs basically going “Huh. Would you look at that. Anyway, so about those priests…” By the time McCarthy ladles the sound of a children’s church choir singing “Silent Night” at Christmas over shots of abuse victims crying in front of reporters, you’ll want to grab some rosary beads and say a Hail Mary for cinematic subtlety — good luck getting McCarthy to answer it.

 

 

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Son of Saul — ?/10

SON OF SAUL (2015, László Nemes)

I was about to say that this film is excruciating torture to sit through, but then I realized how insipid that sounds. You know what’s excruciating torture? Concentration camps. This movie experience involves sitting in a cushy reclining chair at a movie theater for two hours, sipping a cup of coffee and feeling good about not needing to pay for parking meters in Los Angeles on Christmas Day.

Okay but compared to other films, this is an extraordinarily difficult sit. I wanted to bail multiple times, but stuck it out due to the sheer impressive directing chops on display. It’s hard to assign a rating to this movie because of the whipsaw of emotions at play: it’s remarkably well done, it conveys its themes beautifully, and yet the godawful horrors go from stomach-churning to numbing indifference.

Generally, I like when a film viscerally evokes the genre it’s employing. I like my horror movies blood-curdling (meaning not necessarily gory; though they can be — I mean unhinged to inspire the most dread, as in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, WOLF CREEK, or THE DESCENT), I like my action movies supersonic (give me FURY ROAD over TAKEN), and I guess I like my holocaust movies unrelentingly evil and bleak — which is why I’ll take THE GREY ZONE over 20 SCHINDLER’S LISTs. That puts SON OF SAUL right up my alley, though I didn’t shed a single tear (the way I sobbed uncontrollably at THE GREY ZONE). It’s too clinical to be sentimental.

So, enough generalizations: the use of narrow depth-of-field lenses to keep the focus on Saul isn’t just show-off and budget-saving (though it’s those things too); it creates a certain perspective and enlightens us whenever the camera does focus on someone or something else. At times the narrative is difficult to follow and motivations are muddled. We’re following a growing resistance among the Sonderkommando as it unfolds, but it’s concealed so well that even in front of Saul’s face we’re unsure of who’s doing what. Morality is clouded, goals are finite, and terror is a constant. But even though this is grueling to endure, it’s not done just to tell us that the camps were grueling — that much is obvious; it’s done to raise the questions of just how much you can do to assert yourself during your final days. How much or how little actually matters when pure evil is smeared on your hands every minute. How your frame of reference changes. How fickle life and death is. And how pointless it all will be, forever. Yet even in this wretched swamp of hostile inhumanity, our hero (played to near perfection by Géza Röhrig) not only looks out for the young (both dead and alive, both Jewish and Nazi) but he can do it with a smile on his face of the utmost sincerity.

I never wish to sit through this professionally efficient, gut-wrenching exploration of existential dread ever again, but I think it might be terrific.

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Creed — 7/10

CREED (2015, Ryan Coogler)

CREED is a film about the offspring of a given sport’s greatest athlete who wants to avoid sharing that superstar’s name. This character is played by an actor named Michael Jordan.

I wonder if that irony was in Coogler’s head when he cast his FRUITVALE STATION star Jordan in this seventh Rocky movie. Whether or not it was, the script still can’t really come up with a lot of interesting places to take the struggle between Adonis’s loyalty to his father and his desire to make a name for himself. As much as Coogler leans on this theme, the prospect of whether Adonis will fight as Creed or “Johnson” doesn’t carry a lot of dramatic weight.

What does carry weight is Adonis’s relationship with Rocky, and thanks to the chemistry Stallone and Jordan have, those sequences are quite good. Even when the formula is stale enough that we can predict not only each plot development but some exact lines, the drama just works. Coogler knows where to place the camera, when to cut, and when not to cut. He shows off in two fight setpieces, which happen to be the film’s best sequences overall. One is an unbroken, Lubezki-esque long take that glides like a floating boxer. The other is a bloody, jagged piece of filmmaking that favors low-angle shots, putting the canvas and ropes in between the lens and the actors.

All the beats you’ve come to expect from a Rocky movie are here, and Stallone gets to deliver some hoary old man jokes (yes, screenwriters are still making jokes about “the cloud” believe it or not). The requisite love interest subplot delivers the expected goods pretty well. It’s nice to see Hollywood fire on all cylinders when it’s feeding you processed hamburgers, and as tasty as CREED is, it’s still a hamburger.

Note: Am I the only one bothered when filmmakers completely ignore time zones? The climactic fight takes place in England, but Adonis’s mother is watching it in Los Angeles and it’s night time there. 

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The Big Short — 8/10

THE BIG SHORT (2015, Adam McKay)

Two hedge fund investors are investigating the rise in home loan defaults in Miami. One house they visit has been abandoned, and as they snoop around the pool, an alligator emerges from the water and snaps at them. As they scurry off, the camera lingers for a beat on the gator’s pitiless eyes as it continues to lurk in the water.

Adam McKay’s firecracker piece of comic journalism is full of images like this: potent metaphors for the American economy — essentially shark-infested waters where the worst evils hide just below the surface, right where you live. The Jenga towers of mass-produced crumbling blocks, the stale, un-sold fish diced up and repackaged as Anthony Bourdain’s stew… it’s all a series of alarm bells designed to shake unsuspecting rubes out of their complacent stupors.

McKay doesn’t stop there; he puts his characters in places where America’s stench wafts through the frame: at shooting galleries, holding deadly weapons and laughing. Anything could go wrong at any minute, and nobody cares. He puts them in Las Vegas, where nobody is there to gamble but everyone is gambling for a living (whether it’s leaving the SEC to hook up with a bank, investing in bonds, or shorting the market). Characters on cell phones discussing multi-million-dollar deals are stalking through busy city streets around cabs and people walking their dogs, or in pubs while elderly rugby fans sip on pints. So much is happening right under our noses, and so little is discussed or cared about. The news is interviewing Britney Spears about CROSSROADS.

It comes as no surprise that McKay has co-written and directed this behemoth. Listen to him in interviews dating back several years and you’ll find a wildly liberal, ferociously smart mind eager to expose corruption in banking and government. The villains in his 2010 cop satire THE OTHER GUYS were financial CEOs embezzling money from blue collar pension funds. So while his brain is right to make this material, perhaps his directorial talent still needs some refinement.

I like STEP BROTHERS and TALLADEGA NIGHTS fine, but I’m not a big fan of most of his work. Here, he has more toys to play with but he tries to use them all — it’s a hyper, enraged piece of filmmaking on amphetamines. To be fair, the material is angry and electric, but too many frantic camera moves and stuttering edits aren’t necessary. The script does the work, and so does the tremendous cast. Gosling is hilarious, Carell finely tuned, and in the least funny role (for some reason) Pitt is calm and forceful. Bale chews the most scenery but never feels false. This is a riotously entertaining work for its entire 130 minutes, it’s terrifying in its accuracy, and it will boil your blood when you think of just how rigged this game was where hardworking people just tried to get a seat at the table. It reminds me of Barney Frank’s great line when the DOJ cracked down on online poker shortly after the economic collapse of 2008: “They should be going after the people responsible for empty houses, not full houses.”

 

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45 Years — 7/10

45 YEARS (2015, Andrew Haigh)

Haigh’s follow up to the beautiful, delicate WEEKEND is another quiet, contemplative story about what love means and about how closeness between romantic partners may have nothing (or everything) to do with time. Plenty of subtle, intimate details serve as microcosms for how we deal with shattered foundations: sneaking a cigarette, reckoning with age, hearing a bump in the night, having breakfast, taking a walk, window shopping, etc. There’s so much to admire about how Haigh observes a couple existing, letting tiny gestures speak volumes.

Rampling is terrific, but if there’s one criticism about her it’s that her arsenal is a little small: her weapon of choice lately tends to be a thousand-yard stare, body still, face catatonic. She did it a lot in DEXTER too, and here — though she has plenty of amazing moments — she goes back to that well a few times too often. That’s still better than Tom Courtenay, though, whose lack of a three-dimensional character here may be due to the script more than the actor’s talent. The story is told from Kate’s perspective, so while we see Geoff allow drips of honesty to slip through the cracks of his blissful façade, we never really get inside his head.

Haigh’s directorial style isn’t flashy or assertive; he frames his actors well and lets the emotion do the heavy lifting. This serves the story, but at times the experience of watching the film is just one of pleasant patience leading up to a stinging conclusion. Then again, life — or a long marriage — may just be a series of unimpressive moments, trivial gestures, and shuffling feet, until it’s over with the force of a frightening earthquake.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens — 7/10

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, J.J. Abrams)

Finally, they made a good STAR WARS. Okay, I’m being a little disingenuous — THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was perfectly fine, and I didn’t even seen Episodes II and III, so what do I know. STAR WARS isn’t my thing, so don’t listen to me if you’re a fan.

But if you’re not really into this space opera mythology, FORCE is a pretty entertaining Hollywood popcorn adventure. Like most of Abrams’s filmography, it’s focused on being hyper-competent, well-paced (for the most part — the third act of this drags a bit), disarmingly funny, and a little chilly on the emotional front. His MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III is not one of the best of the franchise, but it’s rock solid and eminently rewatchable — which can most likely describe FORCE AWAKENS as well.

The single biggest problem with the Lucas-helmed films in the series (and again I haven’t seen a couple of those) is that they were terribly directed. Lucas would screw his camera to the floor and let his actors walk awkwardly into the frame to deliver their clunky exposition. He filmed the droids from human-waist height, so they looked like human waste. Abrams’s camera is the spaceship to Lucas’s junk heap: it soars and glides, and gets down to the floor to gaze up at R2-D2 — the angle from which he should be revered. It catches up with the performers rather than imprison them. And in one damn good scene, John Boyega’s Finn is confessing to Daisy Ridley’s Rey (he’s great in this, she’s fine) and Abrams puts her a step above him. In classic over-the-shoulders, Abrams watches them share a reckoning, and it’s done with Finn looking up to Rey literally and figuratively, with her in a position of strength and judgement. This, my rose-colored-glass-eyed friends of the ’70s, is good directing. George Lucas knows nothing of that.

Structurally, though, this definitely feels like the seventh episode in something. It gives the same story beats we’re used to, and has plot holes galore. And as good as Boyega and Ridley are, there’s also strong supporting work from Adam Driver (a surprise not that he’s good — he always is — but that he’s so good as a pure villain) and an unrecognizable (because it’s a voice/mo-cap role) Lupita Nyong’o. But there’s also Domhnall Gleeson, who’s become an increasingly annoying omnipresence on screen — annoying not only because he’s everywhere being lame (FRANK, EX MACHINA, BROOKLYN) but because watching him is like when you put socks on out of the laundry and they’re still wet. Here he’s a villain, and not only is he the least threatening presence imaginable (perhaps Abrams’s goal), but he inspired outright guffaws. It’s a huge disaster.

He does, however, get the only scene in the film that seems to draw Abrams out of his shallow competence stupor and try to say something relevant — albeit fairly thin, the Gleeson speech to the troops has a distinct air (in the production design, the colors, the response, and staging) of North Korea and Kim Jong-un. And in a movie about an arms race, dictators, and world-destroying weaponry, that’s its one potent piece of imagery. Kids can look the other way, though — this movie was made to sell BB-8 toys, and luckily BB-8 is very cute. Sign me up for Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII.

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