A Trip To The Movies: Review – “The Gift” 8.29.15

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for The Gift

My friend and I happened to decide on this film, after we showed up at another, only to find out that it was sold out. Initially I was reluctant – as even despite of seeing its many fine cumulative scores on the movie websites I frequent, it just looked like something that all seemed just a little bit too familiar like something I’d seen before. That, and while I really like 2 out of its 3 main leads in both Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Christina Barcelona”, “The Town) and Joel Edgerton (“Animal Kingdom”, “Warrior”, “Zero Dark Thirty) who also wrote, starred in, who made his directorial debut with his film here. It’s also Edgerton’s second writing credit, as he also co-wrote 2014’s “The Rover” collaboratively with his “Animal Kingdom” director – David Michod. Though outside of this, and probably my major reason for my reluctance to wanting to see it, was the casting of Jason Bateman. An actor most known for his work in comedy (and mostly bad comedies might I add) and who I really couldn’t possibly envision playing a serious role such as the one it looked like he played in this. This idea of my not wanting to see a film because it has a specific actor or actors is somewhat of a new thing for me (at least in the past few years). Bateman is among that list of actors alongside Vince Vaughn (who in my humble opinion was terribly miscast in season 2 of this year’s “True Detective”).There are a slew of other actors like Bateman and Vaughn, who have made a string of so many bad films, that I develop what I call my own form of “blacklisting”, in that I don’t even have to hear anything about a certain film if I know it stars one of these actors of which I am referring to. That said, this looked to fit into a genre of which I personally can attest to really liking – the psychological, thriller, mystery one. And given Edgerton’s already proven gifts of being a proficient actor and writer. I was able to overlook the fact that it starred Bateman and walked into it with a clean slate, not really knowing anything about it other than it was Edgerton’s directorial debut and the 3 main leads who starred in it. That, and I read one blurb that described it as this year’s “Gone Girl” (2014) so I was intrigued.

“The Gift” centers around a young married couple named Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who at the start of the film, are relocating back to California from Illinois because of a huge promotion that Simon has received. This said town in California is also very close to where Simon grew up before him and his wife moved to Illinois several years back. After some setting up of the story, mainly the introduction of the married couple and their characters. Simon has a chance encounter with a former acquaintance from his former school days, the slightly off-kilter Gordo (played by Edgerton). Edgerton seems incredibly happy to reconnect with Simon and starts showing up unexpectedly, always bearing gifts. To Simon, he feels threatened by this. Whereas his wife, Robyn, while admitting it is slightly strange, likes to think a bit more highly in people and views Gordo’s gifts as just good faith gestures and simply nothing more than that. So when the gifts start piling in more and more and certain valuables of theirs go missing, Simon becomes more and more increasingly threatened. And somewhat to the dismay of his wife, let’s Gordo know explicitly that he is no longer welcome at their house. This sets off the wheels in motion for the rest of the film, as secrets are exposed and lies covered up, and as Simon and Robyn distance themselves further and further from one another as certain truths are brought into light. We as an audience learn that there are layers and layers of lies and deceit that unfold as we try to figure out who’s responsible for all of it.

The film wound up being a highly rewarding experience even given that my expectations of it were admittedly slightly below average going into it. It took me by quite a surprise in several different areas. It’s a fine example of a of the “stalker” family drama genre. Drawing comparisons, at least to me, to the 1990 film “Pacific Heights” that starred Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, and Matthew Modine. Another film about an unsuspecting couple who deals with a rather unruly tenant who is willing to go to any lengths or cost to expose the truth. Bateman does a serviceable enough job as the husband, and doesn’t necessarily add or detract (which I thought he would) from the film. As does Rebecca Hall as his wife, an actress who, at least in my opinion, always brings her A game to whatever project she involves herself in. But the real credit here is due to writer, actor, and director Joel Edgerton, who in his directorial debut, handles a rather complex and intricate script with a deft hand and a sense of confidence in his cat and mouse setup. The thing I personally would like to highlight about the film, which I personally feel like only the best ones do, particularly of films of this genre, plays with audience expectations and keeps them second guessing throughout almost the entire duration of the film. Just when I thought I had the film figured out within its first act, the film defied everything I thought it was going to be about, and proves to be a smart and refreshing psychological suspense thriller, with a creepy and dark tone throughout like last year’s aforementioned “Gone Girl”. Where we as a viewer (and I will say we because the rest of the theater patrons seemed to have a similar response – at least from the vocalizations I could hear from those seated around me) are stretched out like a rubber band and left on the edge of our seats trying to figure out the many of its plots intricacies. Even given that it got a wide release (probably because of the casting of Bateman), it still felt entirely indie, and none of it (and I mean none) played to audience expectations like so many other films do. It takes a lot of work on behalf of the viewer to constantly disassemble and reassemble its many different changes and shifts in plot developments. Which I personally thought was its greatest strength. And despite it becoming slightly confounding towards the end, it’s something that I think I would and could recommend to just about anyone.

[strong B]

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Two Trips (Back) To The Movies: Reviews – “Magnolia” (1999) 8.8.15 and “Short Cuts” (1993) 8.9.15

This was the second film I saw as part of the Portland Art Museum’s tribute to the works of writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson titled “The Art of Reinvention: Paul Thomas Anderson & His Influences”. As mentioned in my last review of the last film I saw as part of this tribute – “Boogie Nights” (1997), this great auteur just may be the single most important writer/director to have had as much influence on my developing my own vocabulary in relation to film as an art form. Both “Boogie Nights” and this film, “Magnolia”, have had such a residual impact on me over the years since they came out that even as a I get older and both I and the films age, they still after repeated viewings to this day stand the test of time and are two films that I would still place in my top 10 favorite films of all time. Along with that I should also note that no other director in this history of cinema other than Anderson has more than one film that remains in my top 10.

“Magnolia” still remains the most ambitious work in the films of the Anderson cannon. It’s a sprawling, tapestry woven, 3 hour plus ensemble piece that looks into the lives of a dozen or so characters that inhabit the San Fernando Valley area of California (an area which plays host to almost all of Anderson’s work to date). Many of whom meet by mere “chance” under circumstances that seem purely coincidental. There’s the sleazy, misogynist motivational speaker (played by a career best, Academy Award nominated Tom Cruise); a lonely child prodigy (Jeremy Blackman); an elderly, dying, misanthrope (Jason Robards, in his final performance which seems fitting but also incredibly brave); his cheating, much younger trophy wife (played by Julianne Moore); their at-home nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) assigned with the arduous task of tracking down Cruise’s character; A boozing, cocaine addled young woman (Melora Walters); a long stand running TV show host (Philip Baker Hall) who also happens to be dying as well; a bumbling, lonely, big-hearted cop (played by John C. Reilly in a role that incited the most laughs of all of the film’s characters); and a former quiz kid superstar, now middle-aged and tormented from the years of disappointment that followed (William H. Macy). The various connections between these people and the coincidences and twists of fate that link them, are what drives the rest of this epically structured film.

Along with biblical allusions, “Magnolia” makes no secret of grappling with a plethora of large themes and issues such as the meaning of life, the nature of evil, chance, strange encounters, intersecting paths, and the ties of human connection. To me, what makes such a hugely ambitious film work so well, is Anderson’s ability to portray these themes by staying focused on the minute details of all of his characters’ bruised, tormented, inner lives. While also maintaining an unwavering empathy with all of them, no matter how broken they are. Anderson humanizes the film’s villainous-like characters but doesn’t necessarily side with them, that he leaves for the victimized and misunderstood characters. It’s a revealing portrait of the interrogation of family and it seethes with anger, pain, and sadness. But in doing it’s also presented with an underlying feeling of each of them staggering towards something like hope or redemption. Which why I’ve always referred to it as “the most depressing feel good drama ever made”. And then of course there’s “the scene” that had everyone scratching their head the first time they saw it – the remarkably photographed “rain of frogs” sequence. Which the young quiz kid Stanley/Jeremy Blackman sums up rather nicely – “this is something that happened”, that speaks to the philosophical tone of the film. A sequence that further drives home Anderson’s point that permeates itself throughout much of the film that there are infinite possibilities in life. “Magnolia” still had the same effect on me now, 16 years later, as it did on me in my late teenage years. And this revisit of the film proved once again why I hold both it and it’s predecessor, “Boogie Nights”, as two of my top 10 favorite films of all time. Not just because I’ve formed somewhat of a “relationship” or “identity” with them over the subsequent years since their release. But because I can still see myself within them just as much if not more now as an adult than I could back then when they first came out. And that’s really saying something.

[A+]

Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts” seems almost like the perfect film to follow-up “Magnolia” with. As the two share a lot in comparison. So much so that one could say Paul Thomas Anderson took a lot of the same ideas that Altman played with just 6 years prior, but presented them in an entirely different way. Which shouldn’t come as any surprise given that Anderson cites Altman has one of his top 5 greatest influences. I had seen “Short Cuts” years ago on DVD and even though it came out before “Magnolia” I hadn’t watched it until after. That said, it felt like a companion piece in many ways, which is only befitting being in that it was playing as part of the Portland Art Museum’s tribute to Paul Thomas Anderson and his influences. Whose lineup basically each weekend shows one of the seven of Anderson’s films along with the films that both inspired and influenced him most. With this being the only other film playing over this 3rd weekend where they screened “Magnolia” just the day prior.

Like “Magnolia”, Robert Altman’s opus, is also one of the shortest-seeming long movies of the 1990’s, clocking in at just about the same running time as “Magnolia” in just over 3 hours long (but boy do the hours breeze by). And also like “Magnolia” (or shall I be saying “Magnolia like it”?) it follows a rather large plot and character thread that also focuses on the lives of number of different characters living in Los Angeles, where everyone is on the point of cracking up and random tragedies and/or events seem to be taking place among them. Like Anderson did with “Magnolia”, Altman assembles a once-in-a-lifetime cast: there’s the late Jack Lemmon as an estranged father, a young Julianne Moore, a painter whose marriage to her suspecting husband (Matthew Modine) seems to be in the fringes. Another couple’s lives, played by Bruce Davison and Andie MacDowell, is immediately thrown for a whirlwind as they face an unsuspecting event that shocks them with grief. Then there’s the relationship between both the late Chris Penn, a blue-collar worker, and his wife, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, who runs a successful phone sex business (which the audience seemed to laugh at every time she was on-screen) and their married friends played by both a rather young and very funny Robert Downey, Jr., a Hollywood special effects make up artist and his significant other played by Lily Taylor. Tim Robbins is equally as great as the sleazy, police officer husband (one can only imagine Anderson’s cop character in “Magnolia” played by John C. Reilly was inspired by this, but written in a much different way) who cheats on his wife with Frances McDormand’s character (who’s ex-husband of her own, played by Peter Gallagher, seems to still want something from her). And then lastly we have the drinking, trailer park couple, played by both the great musician and actor Tom Waits and comedic actress Lily Tomlin, who share some of the best chemistry and scenes together.

“Short Cuts” is an interesting counterpart to both “Magnolia” and also a film that Altman did just a year earlier in 1992’s “The Player”. While being like it, it more or less cuts away from the movie business whereas that film focused solely around it. But both of which probe into the strange lives of other Los Angelinos, with its equally as intricate, inter-woven plot lines and focus on too many characters to count. “Short Cuts” stands out because it is what one would call quintessential Altman as it mirrors the “template” of films like these that he is most well known for starting with 1975’s “Nashville”, which some still consider to be his best work, which I can’t certainly argue against, but the film’s template arguably paved way for other films like it that Altman would go on to explore late into his career like “The Player”, this one, and what would ultimately be Altman’s last film – 2006’s “A Prairie Home Companion”. Altman is somewhat of the master at juggling various story lines among a bevy of different characters (like Paul Thomas’ earlier work) and there is no finer example of this, at least in the humble opinion of this writer, that shows the different, sometimes unfortunate circumstances, that bring seemingly desperate characters together who on the outside reflect a facade but when given access to who they really are on the inside, we get to see something far deeper.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night” 2.28.15

I’ll just flat-out start by saying this was probably the most highly original, inventive, and exciting film I’ve seen to have come along in a while. In fact, had it of come out last year, it wouldn’t most likely have, it would have, landed a coveted spot on my “best films of the year-end” list. What’s so interesting about this film is that it kind of came out of nowhere. In fact, I don’t even remember how I heard about it. Since I really don’t read any film news/review anymore that’s not where I took notice of it. I do however somewhat regularly look at cumulative scores and saw that this one was graded rather highly. Then I saw the name of the title and it piqued my interest. And merely based on that and that alone, plus seeing a tagline that it was “the first Iranian Vampire Western”, I thought to myself well at the very least this sounds interesting. What I “didn’t” know while watching it is that it’s an American film. Even though all of the characters in the film are Iranian actors who speak in the Persian language and it’s written and directed by an Iranian-American filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour who has lived in America for practically her whole life. Which is ironic because the film feels totally foreign, and different from just about any other American film I’ve seen, bringing us into a poor desolate land known as “Bad City” which feels like a world far, far, away when in actuality it was shot right here in the States in Bakersfield, California.

The film opens with an old man, Hossein, a heroin addict who seems to be at the end of his rope in terms of his addiction. The only saving grace in his life is the assistance of his son, Arash, who is at his father’s beckoning call because like most sons (at least that I know) does just about anything to save his father. Anyways, Hossein owes quite a bit of money to the local town drug dealer, Saeed (whose look seems to be taken straight from Ninja of the rave/rap African group Die Antwoord). Saeed takes one of Hossein’s prize possessions much to the chagrin of Arash. Saeed seems to be the focus of the story, at least for about the first quarter of the film, along with his hooker, junkie, drug partner Atti. But one night Saeed happens to stumble across a young woman, called simply “The Girl”, that follows him to his apartment, which in that point in the story it shifts gears completely and this “girl” or young woman of whom I speak of becomes the central focus of the story. What’s even more notable is that said woman is a vampire, who goes around town wreaking havoc but does so with a conscience. She seems to only prey on the weak, sick, and degenerate members of society. It is by this chance encounter between the town drug dealer Saeed and the girl whom Arash crosses paths with, which involves the major subplot of the story, one that mirrors the one from “Let The Right One In” (2008) and the American version “Let Me In” (2010). But don’t be fooled, besides the reference, it’s undeniably unique enough (not to mention they’re adults and not children) to separate itself from those films. It is through their relationship that the rest of the story unfolds, and all of the characters previously mentioned are reintroduced back into (or out of, depending on how you want to look at it) the story.

As you can probably already tell by my comments at the beginning of my review I absolutely loved just about every aspect of this film. There is just so much I want to talk about that I feel like I would be doing it a great injustice to leave any of them out. But for the sake of not writing a novel, I will try to keep it to just the key elements of the film in which I really liked. First off was its stunning black-and-white cinematography. I’ve always thought a film is better when shot in black-and-white. As it takes the viewer away from the color palette and allows the images to speak for themselves. In this film this approach works brilliantly as it’s maybe the best looking black-and-white film since as far back as I can remember. This format also gives this chilling, noirish tale a look of authenticity that works perfectly given the content of the story. It’s also about as stylishly shot from a design angle and has a look and sometimes feel of an old Jim Jarmusch film (especially in the hipster department). The cool, sleek, and cold feel and tone matches the images on-screen magnificently. Another thing I think is important to point out, is that for a movie with this much style (Quentin Tarantino came to mind for me at times) it’s also loaded with substance. The central story and the many shifts in character arcs make it completely and utterly compelling from start to finish. There’s also a great “meta-ness” to the whole affair. While it certainly is a horror film at heart it also combines elements of film noir, westerns, comedy, drama, and romance. All genres that are balanced quite well considering how dense of a film it winds up being. The last thing I think that’s important to point out is that there is scene after scene of sheer beauty that seem like they have the potential to be iconic movie history (an example would be the dancing scene between John Travolta and Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction” (1995) – but imagine not just one but several scenes like that). Which had me looking up the screen with a shit eating grin for practically the entire film, so engaged by the style, story, and characters that I had to pass up a bathroom break in fear that I was going to miss whatever was next. This is hands down the most unique, stylish, and fresh take that breathes new life into what is otherwise a tired genre, that being the vampire film. It’s only two months into the year and this one has already secured a spot on my top 10 list of 2015.

[A-]