A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Post Tenebras Lux” (“Light After Darkness”) (2012) 5.17.15

I noticed that this film was playing at a theater in town of which I think I talked about in a couple of other reviews. It’s Oregon’s “only student-run cinema” that shows films that are a bit different, avant-garde, art house, whatever you want to “label” them as. I personally always get excited when they announce their upcoming lineup each term of the school season, and I even mark a calendar for what films I plan to see. They’ve opened me up to a lot of new experiences with movies I would have never heard of if it hadn’t have been for them in the 8+ years I’ve been living in Portland. I was particularly interested in this one. As after having seen the trailer before another film I saw their recently, Harmony Korine’s brilliant and misunderstood “Spring Breakers” (2013), they showed a trailer for it where I learned a couple of things. For one, it won the “Best Director Award” at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival in Mexican writer/director Carlos Reygadas 4th trip to Cannes. It’s an award of the utmost highest prestige for any filmmaker, and one that certainly has some clout (just the year prior, Nicolas Winding Refn won for “Drive”). I’ve always felt like Cannes is especially good at choosing projects in certain categories, and knowing my love for directors and the “auteur theory”, this caught my attention. As it looked to be one of those sprawling films takes place all over the world and didn’t really have any kind of narrative thread that I could tell of, at least by the film’s trailer. It also stated that it evoked the works both the great American director Terrence Malick as well as Hungarian director Bela Tarr. Anybody that knows me knows that my affinity for both of these directors runs deep, particularly that of the former, so at the very least, I knew I was in for something that at the very least would be worthwhile from a challenge the moviegoer point of view.

The film starts off with a little girl (the real life daughter of Reygadas) playing on a farm on the verge of a thunderstorm with cows, horses, and dogs circling around her. She’s shown looking around in a state of marvel or wonder at the “life” she sees going on all around her. It’s the first in a sequence of loosely edited together “fragments” or sequences within the film. From here things go from strange to stranger, as we are introduced to several vignettes of different segments in which the viewer kind of has to connect the dots in order to make any kind of sense of what they’re watching (and just as a disclaimer – I don’t mean this as a bad thing). An AA meeting of some sort takes place, which quickly soon after jumps out of Mexico to England, where the camera brings us into a boy’s locker room as they prepare for a rugby game, to a Lucifer-like, red animated Devil figure with a toolbox who seems to be making house calls of some sort (the film is rich with ambiguous symbolism), to a bathhouse, where the little girl mentioned above’s mother and father, the two central characters of the film – Juan and Natalia partake in some rather deviant sexual activity. From there the film mostly carries on in this fashion. With Mexican villagers climbing the film’s gorgeously shot countryside (it quickly becomes apparent why Reygadas won the coveted Best Director prize) to scenes involving Juan and his nuclear family, and both back to the Lucifer-like hellish character, and finally back to the English boys playing rugby to act as the film’s rather loose and open-ended climax (if you even want to call it that) of the film.

This was somewhat of an endurance test even for someone like myself who (without sounding boastful) is a bit more versed in what people consider art house cinema than most. The film comes across as a sort of “expressionist” painting, which leaves us as a viewer, the audience, to try to make sense of what it’s trying to say. The first thing that was striking, at least to me, was the way in which the aspect ratio of the film was shot. Imagine those old “home movies” from the sixties that you see in films or on TV that show just a small square in the middle of the screen. Well, the entire film is shown in this ratio, apparently known as 4:3. Apparently done to achieve a look with a clearly framed center. But (and this is a tab bit hard to for me to explain to someone who hasn’t seen it) with the outside of the square box shown in distortion like you’re looking at something through a foggy glass window. This gives it the expressionist feel in which I spoke of above.

Now here’s my major critique of the film and my critique of film’s that are simply art for art’s sake in general. Without any sort of narrative arch or development of any of the characters within the story, I found it almost “too” abstract and too challenging to make any sort of sense of what was going on. Sure the cinematography was rather impressive, and I genuinely did enjoy what I made out to be the film’s rich symbolism when taken its fragmented scenes and tried to put them together. What did each character represent though, and what was the film trying to say? Even for a hardcore art house film enthusiast such as myself, I found that I was constantly questioning why the director consistently transported us from one location to the next, without any outward meaning or semi explanation at least on a surface level. I’ll end by saying that I’m a big fan of the Swedish art house director of Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007), who may be the greatest filmmaker within the art house genre of all time. But even despite his loose interpretations and symbolic leanings, there was always, even with Bergman’s more artistic endeavors, I always felt like there was some semblance of understanding on my part. Which, despite of the undeniably impressive cinematography on display here, the interpretation seemed like that of a Rorschach Test, and admittedly, there has to be a point somewhere in where I draw the line, which wound up being the case with this film.

[C+]

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A Trip To The Movies – Review: “American Sniper” 1.17.15

Let’s face it Clint Eastwood hasn’t directed a great film in a decade. His last really good film was his 2004 masterpiece – “Million Dollar Baby” which was an absolutely stunning achievement garnering Academy Award nominations in almost every category, including a well deserving Best Actress win for Hilary Swank. This is an especially important thing to highlight because Eastwood’s creative output (a film every other, sometimes twice a year) has been at an all time high during these past 10 years. His back to back War films “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006) both were failures, both from a cinematic stand point and in terms of box office revenue, and little to next to nobody I know saw either one of them. Then came maybe his best yet still underwhelming year in 2008 with the release of both “Changeling” and “Gran Torino”. Both semi worthwhile efforts despite having their fair share of flaws. 2009 brought us his first collaboration with Matt Damon, the sports drama “Invictus”, an Eastwood effort that I skipped as it didn’t pique my interest in the slightest, that and I’m not particularly a fan of films that cast Damon in the lead role. 2010’s “Hereafter” I too skipped as it was a poorly reviewed film that featured another collaboration between Eastwood and Damon once again in the lead role. The year after he released the J. Edgar Hoover biopic “J. Edgar” (2011) featuring a stand out Leonardo DiCaprio performance in what was an otherwise long, tedious, and boring film. Enter 2014 and Eastwood planned to release another 2 films – the first based on a book about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons called “Jersey Boys” which featured no well-known actors and got mediocre to below average reviews, and basically flew under the radar of just about everyone I know (most people I talk to didn’t even know it was an Eastwood film). This being his latest film, which looked like it had some serious promise after revealing one of the better looking and well constructed trailers I had seen all year. That and the “surprise” Oscar nominations this past Thursday morning recognizing it for both Best Picture and star Bradley Cooper in the Best Actor categories quickly catapulted it from a “I’ll probably see that movie once it comes out in the theater” to a “how quickly can I get to the theater to see it” status. I then bought my advance tickets the night of the announcements, expecting the crowds to look like something similar to that of the newest “Hunger Games” release. All of that aside, I can’t say I had the highest of expectations for it, as it looked like it had the workings to either be a great film, or yet another Eastwood disappointment.

The film introduces us its real life based on a true story character Chris Kyle. A Texas man who spends most of his time at the bull races trying his best to make a living as a cowboy. His then current relationship quickly dissolving and he begins feeling unfulfilled as to where his life is heading. Like most people, he doesn’t seem content on just “being”, and strives to look for something more out of life and for himself (a lesson he is taught at an early age by his father in a flashback dinner scene with both him and his younger brother). Chris decides at a rather late age of thirty to enter the Navy, and in a montage showing him and other recruits going through basic training, it seems like he is tailor-made to be suited for his new calling as he is everything the military represents – he’s a man of high moral value that stands for loyalty, discipline, and dedication to the cause. Not to mention he’s an expert marksman. During one weekend he meets a young woman (played by the increasingly impressive Sienna Miller, who played another high-profile role this past year in Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” as Mark Ruffalo’s wife). They seem like a perfect fit and soon after decide to get married (in one of the first of many great scenes that I thought clearly exemplified a soldier’s loyalty to their cause over that of their own family – a major theme and focus of the story). Chris and his new wife quickly get accustomed to their newly married, domesticated lifestyle, only to have Chris get deployed for his first of four tours. The film then quickly transports us to the Middle East, where we see Chris as a Navy Seal sniper picking away at militants in combat. The camera looking up the barrel of his gun and square into his eyes as he picks off his targets right and left. Chris becomes an almost martyr-like hero to his peers as he continues to save life after life with his expert skills as a sniper. But at what cost will all of this have on Chris’s psyche and even more importantly, will it have on his increasingly distant wife and children, who seem to be deeply affected by Chris’ absence as he goes back and forth between tours in the Middle East and being back stateside with his family.

This is a landmark achievement between director Clint Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper and it turned out to being something much more than I had expected which was a pleasant surprise. There are many things I’d like to point out about this film that I liked, but I’ll try to keep it to just the essentials. First off, it’s an incredible character study with Cooper in his career best performance to date. I thought he was great in “Silver Linings Playbook” (2012) and good in “American Hustle” (2013) (but didn’t think he deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination). But this film puts him on a new platform as an actor. His restrained, subdued, yet expressive performance is nothing short of amazing. He also put on about 40 pounds of muscle (which looked to be about double that) to play the role, and is almost unrecognizable as his normal baby face appearance is transformed into someone much more tough and rugged. Which is a true testament to Cooper as an actor as you can tell he must have totally immersed himself into the role. Unlike Steve Carell in “Foxcatcher”, despite the transformative physical appearance, there is an undeniable sense of serious acting chops underlying his performance from within. The second thing I wanted to point out is that it feels nothing like a standard Clint Eastwood film, who tends to follow a lot of stereotypical Hollywood movie tropes with his usual lyrical narrative approach to storytelling. There is very little here that resembles that. Though a couple of minor criticisms I had of the piece is that some of the scenes at home felt melodramatic and laid the sentiment on a bit too thick. That and I thought they downplayed the relationship between Chris and his younger brother. Outside of that though I thought it was an incredibly confidently directed and assuredly shot piece of filmmaking, and is both compelling and captivating from start to finish. Which is remarkable given that Eastwood is in his later years and we may only get another film or two out of him until he retires from moviemaking all together. The scenes of Chris during his tours of duty are visceral, gripping, taut, and utterly intense. One could only imagine the difficulty of this shoot as the “sniper scenes” were filmed brilliantly giving the viewer fly on the wall access to the proceedings. Lastly, and what surprised me most, was how it defied my expectations, particularly when it came to how Chris’ heroism is portrayed. I thought at the hands of Eastwood it could have had some serious potential to fall into flag waving American propaganda territory. Had it of been depicted in this way which I honestly thought it might I would have most likely liked it a lot less than I did. But there was nothing even remotely glorifying the Navy Seals and/or military, as many of them including Chris, are faced with difficult ethical and moral decisions in scenes both inside and outside of war that I thought were presented rather deftly by Eastwood and the rest of his writing team. The last thing I thought to be rather profound, that in a fully packed sold out theater, not one person clapped when the house lights came on and the credits rolled. Every person piled out and exited the theater one by one like zombies and it was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I think they like me, were so moved by the experience of what they had just seen, that they had a hard time coming up with much of anything to say. Which is why you’ll always hear me encouraging people to see movies at the theater or cinema, as it truly is one of the few last remaining communions we have. A place where a group of people can have a collectively shared, present moment experience. And this was another perfect example of that. Ladies and gentleman, even at the tender ripe young age of 84, Clint Eastwood is back.

[B+]

Review: ‘Boyhood’ 8.16.14

A home run for Richard Linklater, and one in which feels almost like a culmination piece within his body of work. Which makes sense considering the movie was shot over the span of 12 years. So like with any artist, Linklater most likely changed a lot himself as a director over that period of that time. Adding to the authenticity of the film. This is dense and thought provoking stuff. Watching this film I felt like I was watching myself as a boy “growing up” again, much like I did with ‘The Tree of Life’, which I also found myself making a lot of comparisons to. Except, instead of Terrence Malick’s loose, stream-of-consciousness narrative, Linklater takes a much different approach and shoots it in a linear fashion like a documentary in real time. So it almost feels as if you’re right there watching this young boy’s (played remarkably by Ellar Coltrane) life unfold before your eyes. One key aspect that I really liked about the film is that even though Linklater filmed it for a few weeks every summer over the course of 12 years, while watching it, it felt very seamless in the way time passed by. Not episodic which I was thankful for because I thought had it of been edited that way it would have detracted from the film. Another aspect I liked was that within every frame, for its entire 2 hour and 45 minute run time, there was something very intentional being portrayed. So it almost demanded your attention, asking you to do interpretive work constantly throughout, as almost every shot or scene made you think (and in a lot of cases feel) deeply. Lastly, I thought it did an exceptional job in terms of depicting all of the things we go through in adolescence. How we view the world and the changes that are constantly happening all around us, as we’re being pulled this way or that by different forces and having to choose between parents and their belief and value systems (with Ethan Hawke clearly being the representative for exploring this theme), all the while trying to develop your own sense of identity and individuality.
Featuring some beautiful cinematography shot all over Texas, a solid musical soundtrack (one that Linklater uses brilliantly to tip off the viewer as to what time period they’re in), and a standout performance by Patricia Arquette, who may receive some recognition come awards season for her strong work here (as well as Coltrane). This is almost guaranteed to garner a Best Picture nomination as well as a nod in the directing category for Linklater. Already up there vying with ‘Under The Skin’ for my favorite film of 2014 as well as Linklater’s best work behind the “Before” Trilogy films. This is one that comes with my highest stamp of approval. And as an added disclaimer, I can’t emphasize enough for you to make every effort to see it while it’s in theaters, as at home (like with most films) I can only imagine it being a much different experience.

Grade: A-/A