A Trip To The Movies (Double Feature): Reviews – “The Stanford Prison Experiment” and “Tangerine” 8.2.15

The Stanford Prison Experiment Movie Poster

The first film of my double feature was one that I listed in my “Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the Summer Movie Season” section back in June. As someone who has an undergraduate degree in Psychology I find just about any and everything interesting that’s even remotely related to exploring why we as humans act and think in the way that we do. Most everyone I know with even the slightest interest in Psychology knows about the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment that took place in the 1960’s at the ivy league university. An experiment that set out to try to found out whether or not the personality traits between prisoners and guards was the chief cause for the abusive behavior between them. The test itself consisted of one very prominent Stanford University professor, some of his hand chosen colleagues, and a sample group of college students – each interviewed and handpicked prior to the experiment, each of whom were also told very little about the actual experiment itself other than that they would be getting paid $25 a day for their participation in it (not a bad day’s pay for a college student in the 1960’s) and that it would last 2 weeks taking place over summer break. The professor in charge, Philip Zimbardo, and his colleagues then hand-picked 24 students each to split up into 2 groups of 12 – one group which would act as “prison guards” and the other the “prisoners” in the basement of one of the university’s lecture halls that would be made up to resemble a prison. From that point forward for the next 2 weeks they would be put under surveillance and studied by professor Zimbardo and his colleagues 24 hours a day around the clock to study the psychology behind control and the abuses of power. As one unfortunate student (played by “We Need To Talk About Kevin” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”‘s Ezra Miller) gives prior to the experiment – “I hope I get chosen to be a prisoner”. When asked why he responds – “because it sounds like they’d have the least amount of work to do”. Boy could he have never been more wrong.

This was one of those films, at least in the opinion of this writer, that is catered towards a certain demographic. If you’re the type of person who is into Psychology like myself, and don’t discriminate as to whether it explores either the good or bad in people, well, then this movie should be just about right up your alley. It’s a strong, assured piece of work from its young director, 32-year old Kyle Patrick Alvarez, who tackles one of the more difficult topics with a sense of authenticity that I thought the other 2 films depicting the same experiment – 2001’s “Das Experiment” and especially the forgettable and passable “The Experiment” (2010) failed to do right. Where credit should be given first off should be to the film’s amazing cast. Billy Crudup as Professor Philip Zimbardo winds up being a great casting choice. As does some of the experimentees played by a slew of some of the more notable, young and up-and-coming actors in the business including the aforementioned Ezra Miller (always excellent and a scene stealer here), Tye Sheridan (“The Tree of Life”, “Mud”, “Joe”), and James Frecheville (who I’ve literally been waiting to see reappear since his fantastic work in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”) as well as several other familiar young actors (I name those 3 specifically because they were the highlights of the film, at least for me). Director Alvarez, this being only the third film into his career, should also be given a fair amount of credit for tackling a rather difficult subject and making it seem real. His posterity and confidence behind the lens shows his mastery and commitment to the material. It’s shot almost clinically and sterile, as any movie about Psychology really should be. Evoking the work of Steven Soderbergh, with his use of oblique camera angles and in terms of its controlled style. The story looks like some kind of docu-drama, which is a true testament to Alvarez as a director and his ability to “reenact” the material with such precision as he does. All of the accolades aside, what I feel almost obligated to point out here is that the film is for “thinkers”, people looking to be challenged other than to be entertaining. The little I share with you about how the experiment winds up turning out (if you don’t have any familiarity with it already) the better. But what I will say is similar to how Craig Zobel’s “Compliance” (2012) depicted humans subordinance to authority figures, well this film explores the same terrain and does so in a way that’s more unflinching and shows it exactly for how it may have really unfolded. It’s a rewarding piece of cinema if you happen to be the right viewer. But for all others it may seem like a bit of an endurance test. Not because it’s slow, but it at times feels exploitative (which I think was/is the point), and to see human beings treating one another so poorly is almost a bit tough to watch. This is a feeling and tone difficult to describe in words, but the last time I felt something close to it was with last year’s “Foxcatcher”. This a great depiction of one of history’s most notorious experiments. But it’s an experience that’s more to be admired and appreciated than it is to be entertained by. Unless you’re some sort of sadomasochist.

[strong B]

My second film in my double feature, “Tangerine”, I had been a little bit skeptical of at first, having seen a less than impressive trailer but something that I’ve heard good word-of-mouth about as well as it garnering some great reviews. My reason for my skepticism was that the film’s poster billed itself as having been “a film shot entirely on an Iphone 5”. To me that felt like a gimmick. And being in that I’m an anti-technologist, that in and of itself turned me off to it. Then a friend of mine messaged me recently and asked – “hey, have you seen “Tangerine” yet”…I thought it was one of the funnier independent comedies I’ve seen all year”. It was simply based on this person’s recommendation of it that I decided to give it a whirl. Given that it was playing right at the same time as the film prior had let out.

“Tangerine” revolves around the story of a trans gender woman living in Los Angeles named Sin-Dee. A prostitute who at the beginning of the film is released from jail after a short month-long stint for a drug charge. She meets up with the other main character of the film, her best friend Alexandra, another trans gender woman, who spends most of her time like Sin-Dee does, turning tricks for cash. The basic story line is rather simple – Sin-Dee gets word that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester, has his time during her stint in jail in the company of another prostitute, Dinah, who she vows to find and pay her back for her wrongdoings with Chester. From that point forward we see, well, the daily lives of two inner-city trans prostitutes, as they weave their way in, out, and all around L.A. in their quest to find both Sin-Dee’s cheating boyfriend Chester, and the unfortunate woman who he’s been cheating on her with while she did time for him in jail.

This was a film that had some rather strong components of it but overall wound up being a flawed one as a whole. The first thing that came to mind as I was watching it was that it felt strikingly similar to Larry Clark/Harmony Korine’s “Kids” (1995). Except with an updated, almost contemporary feel that depicted the day to day lives of trans gender people living in L.A. as opposed to teenagers living in New York City. It starts off rather engaging with a hyperkentic style and use of editing that initially reels the viewer in to its story. Also, something should be said for what I called its “gimmick approach”. As a viewer the fact that it was shot “entirely on an Iphone” didn’t once cross my mind. As director Sean Baker does a rather deft job at making it look real and not grainy as one would expect, which I found quite inspiring from a technical standpoint as in this age of film and digital movie making, you can actually film a movie (and do it well mind you) with just your phone. As reluctant and apprehensive as I am to wanting to admit it. It also boasted a great, all-instrumental score of hip-hop, electronic, and otherwise “urban” music, which I thought lended itself quite well to the material and the images we were being shown on screen. Those things aside, It mostly fell flat in terms of its execution and where the story goes with its too main leads. It tries to introduce one too many subplots in its short 90 minutes that don’t seem all that believable or maybe better put, aren’t that engaging. The many subplots makes the ongoing shifts in the film’s tone jarring and simply not all that interesting. Added into the fact that there’s a third main character who is introduced about halfway in, a cab driver on the prowl solely for trans prostitutes (which does actually produce one hilariously funny scene where he unexpectedly pays for a “non” trans person’s services only to find out via “The Crying Game” that she (or “he” as he expects her to be, isn’t really who he thinks she is). But outside of the strong look of the film and glimpse into an otherwise unfamiliar contingency of people, the current trans world, I found it to be somewhat politically incorrect (without trying to bring politics into my analysis of a film), somewhat misogynistic, and also inflammatory against the gay community. As these characters don’t really have much or dimension to them other than that they are “trans gender prostitutes”. Added into the fact that the film’s “climax” (if you want to call it that) feels underwhelming and a bit too predictable as all sides emerge to intersect with one another coincidentally. This is a film more built around a good idea than it was in its execution. Not something I would necessarily recommend, but in some ways something that I could admire in terms of conceit over storytelling.

[C+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “A Most Violent Year” 3.29.15

I can think of at least three people I know, that had seen this film prior to my seeing it, and all three had the same thing to say about it – “I really liked it, but I think it would be something that you would love“. I didn’t quite know what to make of the comments other than mostly everyone I know knows that I have somewhat of a particular eye for film, and that my tastes seem to be a bit more aligned with independent or what some consider to be art-house films. So I interpreted this comment to mean that maybe it fell a bit on the artsy side of the film spectrum. Though people also know that I’m a big Oscar Isaac fan and consider him to be amongst the very best in the crop of young actors currently working in the film industry (the only two actors out there right now within his age bracket who are as good as him are probably Joaquin Phoenix and Jake Gyllenhaal). What I don’t think a lot of people know is how much of a fan I am of writer/director J.C. Chandor. Who’s maybe one of, if not the most promising up and coming young directors, who also happens to be pretty brand new to the film industry but whose two feature films prior to this one I really enjoyed. In 2011 he released “Margin Call”, a mostly overlooked and underappreciated film about one long night revolving around a group of business men and woman the night prior to the economic collapse of 2008. I was almost as equally impressed with his last film – 2013’s “All Is Lost” about a shipwrecked man played by Robert Redford (which deservedly garnered him a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor). Then I saw the trailer for his latest film, this one, and started to think this guy might be one of the next true auteurs, because not only does he write and direct, but I began to start to realize that he may be the next true “genre” director as all of his films seemed to be entirely different then the one previous to it. Which is incredibly rare these days inside the studio system because a lot of directors (and there are several exceptions mind you) seem to make a hit film and then make subsequent films that don’t really deviate or stray away from the formula that originally worked for them. Chandor, like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Moneyball, “Foxcatcher”) seems to not really care about anything other than making high quality genre pictures. So when I heard that his newest film was a crime drama taking place in New York City in the early eighties to say my interest was piqued would be an understatement. Especially considering the number of people who said it was a very specific type of film for a very particular audience, that being someone like myself, my anticipation for it grew quite considerably.

“A Most Violent Year” centers around an immigrant, Abel Morales (played by Oscar Isaac), who lives in New York City circa 1981. Which we’re soon told was one of the most violent years for crime in the city’s history. Abel is a hard-working man who owns an oil business and who seemingly is trying to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the film one of Abel’s oil drivers is beaten down after an interstate hijacking. Abel’s wife, Anna (played by the ever so reliable Jessica Chastain), also his bookkeeper/accountant, comes from a Mob-like mentality family, as does the local teamster’s union reps, pressure Abel to fight violence with violence. Which puts him at a sort of inner conflict because he wants to be a business man and not a gangster. To top off his precarious situation with his business, he’s also informed by the local District Attorney (played by “Selma”‘s David Oyelowo) that he is being investigated for a number of different illegal activities that they think he is somehow involved with. Abel seeks council from his lawyer (Albert Brooks – great to see him back in tbe first role I’ve seen him in since “Drive”) in an upcoming deal he has lined up with a Hasidic owner of a local fuel oil terminal, which is the kind of deal that he’s been waiting an entire lifetime for. This deal is the major plot device that drives the story. But can he close it under the pressure of the number of oil competitors, a loving but seemingly untrustworthy wife, unreliable employees, teamsters union, and the District Attorney. Who with the exception of his loving wife, seem to be willing to do just about everything possible to stand in his way to try to make sure the deal doesn’t go through.

This was a brilliantly well made and executed film that defied my preconceived notions and wound up exceeding my expectations and then some. This is writer/director J.C. Chandor paying homage to the classic Hollywood gangster/crime family drama. Incorporating just about every element we’ve come to expect from the genre. The acting is also outstanding. Particularly from its two lead performances, in what felt like it should have been an Academy Award nominated turn by Oscar Isaac who is nothing short of exemplary, as well as Chastain, who wound up receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress for her fine work here. Chandor does a masterful job at recreating the look of early 1980’s New York City, filmed in a brown/yellowish color palette (what I call “cigarette stain”) where everything looks broken down, dilapidated, and decaying. A look that I thought was perfect given the context of the film. In terms of feel it felt like some of the seminal films of the genre like Francis Ford Coppola’s first two “Godfather” films (complete with Isaac putting on his very best Al Pacino/Don Corleone impression), Brian DePalma’s “Scarface” (in terms of its underlying theme of an immigrant trying to become an opportunist in the pursuit of the American Dream), as well as some of the crime films of Martin Scorsese (though much more subtle). At times it felt like it shared more of a direct influence with David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom”, which also took a rather stark and bleak look at the decimation of a crime family. The major difference here is that unlike the Michod film, Abel is not a criminal in the same sense as the characters in that film were but rather becomes one as a mere byproduct of the turbulent times he lives in. I was also thoroughly impressed with its deft storytelling which had me thoroughly engaged from the opening credits through its final frame. Not once did I look down at my watch the entire time (which admittedly I’m sometimes guilty of doing even in other good films just to see how far along we are in the story). There was a tense underlying feeling of unease that permeated as the events that unfold give the film an almost paranoiac feel. Last but not least, don’t believe anything you hear about it being a bit of a slow-moving story with little to no actual violence leading some people I’ve heard go so far as to say they have a hard time even considering it being labeled an actual “crime” film. Well let me be the one to dispel those myths. It is very much a crime film, containing almost all, if not every component contained within the genre. Also, if by “slow” people mean a potboiler/nailbiter that takes its time telling its story than I’m sorry. You just may not have gotten the director’s intentions behind delivering the story in the way that he did. The violence may be sparse yes, but when it comes boy does it pack a wallop. I can’t even count on two hands how many times both my myself and the people around me gasped at some of the film’s more shocking moments (and there were plenty of them). This is writer/director J.C. Chandor’s best work to date, as was the case with its star, Oscar Isaac. It’s an old school, classic, crime drama, that if been given a proper release date of last year like it did almost everywhere else, it would have most likely wound up earning itself a spot on my list of the best films of the year. In a year where we saw a slew of director’s making their masterpieces, here is yet another one that deserved way more attention than it got, marking J.C. Chandor as the new poster boy of genre filmmaking.

[strong B+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Leviathan” 2.8.15

It only seems fitting that my follow-up to my “Spotlight On” feature segment on Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev should be his latest film. A film as I mentioned in the previous article, that garnered some of Zvyaginstev’s best reviews to date worldwide. Taking home a plethora of different awards at many of this past year’s festivals. Including 1 win (Best Screenplay) and 1 Palme d’Or nomination at Cannes, as well as being a Golden Globe winner here stateside and nomination at this year’s Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language film. I spent most of the weekend revisiting some of Zvyaginstev’s previous work – 2007’s lofty and ambitious “The Banishment” as well as 2011’s “Elena” so I could hopefully gain a clearer understanding of what exactly this director is trying to achieve. What I came up with is that he seems to be Russia’s counterpart or distant cousin to the films of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s work pre-“Birdman”. Zvyaginstev’s films all seem to have a common thread that he likes to explore which I interpret to be how we deal with life’s many challenges and adversities, creating bleak dramas with an underlying element of social realism to them. However he, just as much as any other director I can think of at the moment, makes tepidly paced films which take their time to unravel that place much more of an emphasis on establishing setting and the characters that are contained within them than any other elements. His films are always weighty and dense, and are more in tune with what you make of them than what he wants you to make of them. This was maybe the director’s most ambitious film to date, and surprisingly his most accessible one, tying in themes of family, society, fate, power, and corruption that have become almost trademark in pretty much all his films so far to date.

The film opens with a series of gorgeous shots on the Russian coastal countryside that to me looked like what I imagine a country like Iceland to look like. Sparse, dreary, cold, and isolated, but also very beautiful. The story revolves around its protagonist, Kolya, and the unfortunate situation in which he finds himself in as the town mayor, Vadim, is going through the legal process of taking over Kolya’s property and abuses of his position of power to unfairly take it out from under him to build one of those new strip malls. But Kolya refuses to put a price tag on his beautiful coastal property, as both he and his family, as well as the families of both his father and grandfather have lived in it for generations it having being built more than half a century ago. His situation is further complicated by his increasingly distant and seemingly unhappy wife, Lilia, and troublesome teenage boy Roma. Kolya is a strong man though with high moral values and seems to juggle both his family situation and the process of his house being repossessed rather well. And even enlists the help of an old military friend of his now turned lawyer, Dmitri, who’s a prominent lawyer from Moscow. Kolya starts to build a case against the lecherous slime ball mayor Vadim citing violations of civil liberties and direct violations of the law. Though once a secret is revealed involving both his lawyer friend Dmitri and his estranged wife Lilia, things start to crumble and take a turn for the worse for Kolya’s situation, and he is confronted with challenges and moral dilemmas involving his family that he so desperately tries to hold onto as well as his property at whatever cost and whatever means necessary which, as the film ensues, his efforts begin to grow more and more increasingly dire and hopeless. Culminating into a tale of almost Greek tragedy-like proportions.

Like many of Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu’s previous work before “Birdman” like “21 Grams”, “Babel”, and “Biutiful”, Zvyaginstev spins us another bleak, tragic family tale that mostly works on a lot of levels and not so much on others. Since I did “like” the film but can’t say I necessarily found it “enjoyable” (similar to my feelings after having watched “Foxcatcher”). I found myself marveling more in its technical achievements than I think I did most anything else. The film is exquisitely shot with much credit due to its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on every single Zvyaginstev film to date and captures some amazing back drops and portraits of rich symbolism. The acting felt real and authentic, despite many of the characters not feeling all that particularly likeable (to say Zvyaginstev has a pessimistic world view would be the understatement of the year). All of the characters are flawed in some shape or form. Alcoholism being an ongoing motif within the film with almost every character trying to hide their pain and sadness behind a vodka bottle. The story and narrative arch was also engaging and well crafted. With fully developed written characters and believable situations in which they find themselves in. My very few minor complaints of the film is that like the aforementioned “Foxcatcher”, it felt like a bit of an endurance test at a somewhat tedious 2 hour and 20 minute runtime. I thought some of it could have been trimmed down slightly and it would have still have had the same desired effect. Also, despite the very strong performances from each of its actors, I found the material to be a bit too cold and I had some degree of difficulty getting emotionally involved with any of its characters. The sole exception for that of maybe the central character Kolya, who you almost have to sympathize with as his world gets turned upside down and his situation is so tragic that as a human being you only can have empathy for him. But even despite those few criticisms of the piece, this was yet another lofty, rather ambitious, and fine example of the types of social dramas that seem to be coming out of this part of the world right now. Zvyaginstev gives us yet another rich story of people on the verge of desperation. I have a feeling this is going to be too bleak and too depressing for most, but it contains a deeply rich, personal, and moving story, that I for one am really glad I saw and will continue to see any Zvyaginstev film that he does from this point forward for the rest of his career. My only hope is that next time he will present us with something that is a little more hopeful and not as engulfed in sadness and tragedy.

[B]

Review: “Force Majeure” 2.9.15

Winner of the Un Certain Regard award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as well as receiving a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Film at this year’s ceremony. “Force Majeure” was a film I had been highly anticipating as many of the films that have either been nominated or won the former award, which has only been around for 16 years, have churned out some of my favorite foreign films, only second to the world’s most prestigious’ category – the Palm d’Or, which is the Cannes’ equivalent of the Academy’s Best Picture. The Un Certain regard category in which I speak of is almost always reserved for films that the Cannes voting panelists find to be of great significance and importance in relation to the international film community. Some films that have either been nominated and/or won this coveted award are as follows: “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005 winner – Russia), “Tyson” (2008 nominee – America), “Dogtooth” (2009 winner – Greece – still one of my all time favorite foreign films), as well as director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s (“Leviathan”) remarkable “Elena” (a 2011 nominee), and the 1-2-3 punch of 2013’s boastful nominees “Stranger by the Lake” (France), “Omar” (Palestine), and “Fruitvale Station” (United States). As I often times do with seeing a film solely based on the directed of who it is attached to, I also see films (especially foreign) that garner nominations in categories in which I find to have great validity by means of reputation. This film was yet another example of that approach to why I watch certain films. Not knowing or having the faintest idea of what it was about but still trusting my intuition and the word of mouth that comes out of Cannes every year.

The film introduces us to a family taking “holiday” (as most of us know the Europeans call it). They’re what you might consider to be the perfect nuclear family – a seemingly strong-willed father Tomas, his wife Ebba, and young daughter Vera and son Harry. Their holiday at a wealthy ski resort in the French Alps seems like the idyllic family vacation. Which we’re shown through a series of photographs as the start of the story. Ebba is just happy to have Tomas to both herself and their children, as it is inferred that he lives a pretty demanding work life at home. They seem to be enjoying themselves immensely, and I couldn’t help but think of an American version of a trip to Disney World, where at the surface level, everything seems to be perfect. That is until one day they experience a catastrophic event, and the residual and lasting effects that it has on the family, particularly of Tomas’ wife Ebba,  while also acting as a sort of “reawakening” for each member to reevaluate both themselves and that of each of the other family members. This is essentially what the movie goes on to explore, without giving away any further plot details.

This wound up being both a beautiful and remarkable film that had my attention from the first frame to its final one. It works on almost all levels – from the story, to the acting, to the amazing cinematography of the French Alps, but even more importantly, how it explored the interpersonal dynamics of a family following a traumatizing event. The undeniably flawless direction by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is truly a sight to see for any true fan with an eye for film. The film captures this devastating family tragedy amongst the backdrop of the beautiful French Alps. Not only that, but like Bennett Miller (“Capote”, “Foxcatcher”) it does so with such a restrained approach using long take techniques to capture a certain sense of stillness to everything. That and like the late great Stanley Kubrick, the director has an uncanny ability of filling up every single frame of the picture without a single inch going to waste. It also incorporates a beautiful classic score which I thought was right up on par with some of the best compositions of Kubrick’s films, which to me seemed so fascinating to the images being shown on-screen as it seemed to fit perfectly even if it comes off as a questionable choice for a movie score on behalf of the viewer at the beginning. The last but most verbose part of the review which I think is unquestionably worth noting in relation to this film is how deeply rooted it was in psychology. Anybody that really enjoys reading between a film’s lines for its underlying subtext should find this to be one of the more denser films they’ve seen. Evoking the works of the German director Michael Haneke (“Funny Games”, “The White Ribbon”, “Amour”) who acted as a reference point for me in its examination of traumatic events that shows how they manifest themselves from an individual standpoint. Looking at themes such as residual and vicarious trauma, self reevaluation, moral dilemmas, as well as the primitive instincts that make us human beings. This was just another example and further proof of a belief I’ve always held, in that foreign or international cinema, is operating at such a higher plane, than many if not all of its American counterparts that try to explore similar themes but that aren’t able to do so with such assuredness and a sense of realism. This wound up being a thoroughly engaging, well acted and shot, and probing psychological film that explores some very deep and heavy themes, that had my brain’s light switch turned on from start to finish. A must see for any fan even remotely interested in foreign or international cinema that challenges the viewer to really think, as opposed to merely sitting back and being entertained.

[B+]

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+]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Foxcatcher” 12.21.14

Director Bennett Miller has only done 3 films up to this point in his 16-year career. But any serious film-goer or movie connoisseur understands the impact this evidently very talented and gifted young filmmaker has had on the rest of the entire film landscape and community. He has an undeniably assured approach to craft and is an A rate storyteller. In many ways he reminds me of the Coen Brothers with their almost storybook-like approach in the way their stories are told. Though without the Coens’ smaller-indie leanings or sense of obscurity. Miller is maybe the most accessible independent filmmaker that works mostly out of the studio system. With the growing popularity of other directors to make films that seem hip or cool, seemingly fitting for our times, what separates Miller from this crop is that he has a classic Hollywood style in the way in which he tells his stories. The sole exception being his brilliant debut, a documentary shot in black + white about a young New York City tour guide by the name of Timothy “Speed” Levitch called “The Cruise” (1998). I first saw “The Cruise” after hearing from believe it or not of all people, Edward Norton, who listed it as one of his top 5 favorite films of all time. It was around this time that I saw Miller’s second film and first feature film – the Academy Award winning “Capote” (2004), which arguably featured one of if not the best acting performances of the last decade by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. One that would garner him both an Oscar nomination and win for his spellbinding performance. The film also got nominations in the Best Picture, Best Director (Miller), and Supporting Actress (Catherine Keener) categories. It was a landmark achievement for the then 37-year old Miller, and brought him praise and accolades from the entire film industry at large. Then came in what I still consider to be Miller’s finest work to date (prior to seeing this film) 2011’s “Moneyball”, which also happens to be one of my favorite movies about the game of baseball. Like “Capote” it too garnered several Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Actor (Brad Pitt – in one of my still favorite roles of his second to only “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007)), and Best Supporting Actor (Jonah Hill). Miller once again established himself as one of the most sought after directors in that within his only 2 feature films to date, he’s received more Academy Award nominations than any other director over the course of just 2 films. Which is an amazing achievement in and of itself. The difference between Miller and more traditional Hollywood Oscar bait directors is that Miller doesn’t seem to have a care in the world other than that of his own for the type of material in which he chooses to explore. Both “Moneyball” and “Capote” are films that inhabit another time and place, tackling themes that one could look at as still being prevalent today, but in worlds seemingly unfamiliar to the ones in which most of us exist in. And while some people felt like “Moneyball” was more of a “feel good film”. If you really read between the lines and underlying subtext there’s nothing cheery or happy about it. After waiting only 3 years between his last film and this, it almost felt like a treat in that we were being given another film from a director who seems to take considerable amounts of time (6 years if you average them out) off between them. Knowing my love for everything Miller has come out with up to this point (all 3 films of his have fallen in the “A” range for me) it was inevitable that I would be one of the first in line to see his next release, and I made a point of seeing it opening weekend.

Based on a true story the film first introduces to one its 2 main leads – a former Olympic gold wrestler named Mark Schultz, played by Channing Tatum. Mark seems to be in a bit of a slump, as he wants to train and continue his career in Wrestling. But he essentially has no way of supporting himself outside of living off of his about to run out of money that he earned several years earlier, all the while picking up small, humiliating jobs like talking to schools about what it means to be a former Olympic gold winner. He then by a matter of chance gets a phone call one day by John du Pont, played by the almost unrecognizable Steve Carell, complete with a prosthetic nose, teeth, and hidden under layers of makeup. Du Pont’s family is one of the wealthiest families in the country and have been for generations, and he has an enormous estate where he trains his Olympic Wrestling team that goes by “Team Foxcatcher”. Coach du Pont gives Mark the opportunity of a lifetime to come join his team, with full privileges to everything he could have possibly imagined in his wildest dreams. A guest house that would put any other guest house to shame, top class training facilities, and as much money as he could ever want. Mark has an older brother David (played by Mark Ruffalo), another former Olympic gold winner, who also happens to be Mark’s Wrestling coach. Not wanting to pass up a golden opportunity Mark takes up du Pont’s offer to join Team Foxcatcher. On the surface the offer seems too good to be true, but as Mark begins to train and win bouts he slowly starts to rebuild and regain the confidence he once had that went missing. Not to mention that through this process he starts to form a special bond with Coach du Pont and begins to look up to him as not only a mentor but a father figure. Though as the movie unravels we get to see that there’s a lot more than what meets the eye. And the mentor/peer dynamic starts to take a dramatic turn. As does the addition of David who also after some serious convincing, agrees to come work for Coach du Pont and join Team Foxcatcher so that he can train with his younger brother. Also like his brother he has an apparent drive to be the best again. And also like his brother he is convinced that only Team Foxcatcher can help bring him to the top. But at what expense and to what lengths will the brothers go under the increasingly suspicious and paranoid Coach du Pont?

This film wound up falling slightly below my expectations which admittedly were set pretty high. The first thing I think that needs pointing out are the very solid performances by the film’s two brothers – Tatum and Ruffalo, both of whom give career best performances. I will say this about the acting though, for all the Awards hype around Steve Carell being the second front-runner for Best Actor behind Michael Keaton in “Birdman”, I thought the other 2 actors outshined him. Carell’s character reminded me somewhat of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s in Miller’s “Capote”. However whereas Hoffman really shined acting-wise underneath his mostly physical performance, Carell doesn’t quite achieve a fraction of the same level of acting with his performance. Don’t get me wrong it’s a very fine one indeed. But I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that I felt like I wasn’t really watching all that much going on underneath the prosthetics, fake teeth, and makeup. As his performance came much more from the outside than in. A truly great performance, certainly an Award nominated one, should have you thinking that there’s no one else out there could have played the role other than that specific actor. And I didn’t really feel that way about Carell here. But that aside, both Ruffalo and Tatum (who I’m starting to gain a lot more respect for as an actor) really were the stand outs and both give knockout performances that one can really only sit back and admire at. The story itself has a lot to say about the abuses of wealth and power and how some people abuse them in selfish ways to try to gain what they want, when in actuality they’re so blinded they can’t see the impact that their ways have devastating effects on others around them. Both the relationships between the 2 brothers Mark (Tatum) and David (Ruffalo), as well as that between Mark and Coach du Pont, are very complex and well depicted. Miller also adds an almost “Capote”-like restrained approach to the proceedings. There’s a a certain stillness about it all and at times it felt clinical in the way it looked at and portrayed its subjects. Music is essentially non-existent until the drama heightens in its last act. Within this approach though Miller captures some beautiful establishing shots of the team training in different environments along with picturesque shots at both dusk and dawn around the du Pont estate. It’s a calculated, assured piece of directing that shines through in almost every frame and shot, and it becomes obvious why he took home the Best Director award at this year’s Cannes Films Festival. The few criticisms I had of the piece is that it felt tediously slow at times, like you’re waiting for something to happen outside of the central storyline of depicting the downward spiral between mentor (Carell) and mentee (Tatum). While those scenes were good in terms of context in building and driving the story, I felt like they could have trimmed down that portion a bit and the end result would have still been just as effective. Also, and this might be the most important thing I have to say about it, was that it was incredibly sad. So much so at times that it made a lot of the film borderline uncomfortable to watch. At least it felt that way to me. It’s a feel and tone that permeates throughout the film, from beginning to end, and is chock full of scenes that are bleak, tragic, and excruciatingly painful to watch. Do I think it needed to be in order to tell the obviously tragic true story? Well, maybe it did if it was trying to stay true to the story of showing exactly how the events unfolded. I just personally had a hard time with how Greek tragedy-like sad it was. While we watch one character get so psychologically damaged that his mental state slowly declines until there isn’t a semblance left of himself. While also watching another one of the other character’s reveal his true identity of the utterly despicable and deplorable man that he is. So for those reasons, even despite the stellar acting from its 3 leads, it becomes a bit tedious and too dark at times. Which I often times really enjoy. But when the feeling and tone is so despairing from beginning to end, it makes it very difficult for me to recommend it to anybody outside of the looking to be unapologetically challenged and wanting go to that really dark place. But if it’s something that you can endure and sit through despite that, what you’ll find is a compelling and thought-provoking story, with at least 2 of the better performances I’ve seen this year, and a pretty solid 3rd one as well. It also includes a shocking climax that had myself and everyone else in the audience gasping in their seats, not quite knowing what to do or think once the end credits rolled.

[B]

 

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Nightcrawler” 12.7.14

This was the second to last of my crop of movies to see to wrap up the end of 2014. The other being Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” which is scheduled to be released here in Portland later this month. Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” doesn’t open here until January, so unfortunately it’s just going to miss the cut and therefore won’t be considered as a 2014 release even though it’s already opened in NY and L.A. I had heard a lot of buzz surrounding this one, and like I do with pretty much every movie I know I’m going to see these days, especially those in the theater, I shut myself off from talking to anyone who’s seen it, didn’t watch any trailers, nor did I read any reviews. As I’ve found this new approach walking into a movie with a total clean slate has made my moviegoing experiences a lot more exciting since I implemented it at the start of the year. To be truthfully honest I saw this film merely because of genre and the few blurbs I had stumbled upon unintentionally about it. But even more importantly because it was a film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Who since 2009’s “Prince of Persia” seems to be doing everything right in terms of picking projects that he seems to find interesting, seemingly without a care in the world for what’s going to draw the people to the box office or what’s going to earn him the most money. In fact, I am so impressed by Gyllenhaal’s career trajectory since then that he has slowly inched his way into my top 5 favorite actors currently working in the film business today. He has put out one string of good films after another over the past few years. Which started in 2011 with Duncan Jones’ (“Moon”) brainy Sci Fi trip “Source Code”, then David Ayer’s (“Fury”) 2012 “End of Watch”, and the back-to-back films he’s done with French director Denis Villenueve in last year’s “Prisoners” and this year’s “Enemy”. The latter two performances which I considered to be right up there with Gyllenhaal’s best, if merely from an acting stand point. Sure he’s done some other great films like Richard Kelly’s cult hit “Donnie Darko” (2001) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007). Those are certainly great films in their own respect. However up until this point in his career never has he been so consistently good. I personally thought he was nabbed of a Best Actor nomination last year for “Prisoners”. As I truly thought it was one of his strongest, most compelling performances to date. Then after having seen “Enemy” earlier this year and loving both the film and his performance as much as I did, I vowed to myself that I would pretty much see anything that he’s attached to from this point forward in his career. Then came the second Gyllenhaal film this year, “Nightcrawler”, a film that once again looked like it had the potential to be yet another great film from an actor who over the last few years has proven that you really can’t go wrong with seeing whatever this undeniably gifted young actor does next. It is because of my strong affinity for Gyllenhaal as an actor that I decided to catch this one while it was still playing in theaters, as I heard a very strong response to both the film itself and his performance.

We are first introduced to Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou, a man living in L.A. who is desperate for a job and is willing to take just about anything he can get. He seems to have zero qualifications or any kind of prior job experience but proclaims that he’s a “hard worker” to the employers he tries to persuade to give him a job, any job, at the start of the film. He seems to have no family, girlfriend, kids, or anything that would link him to the rest of the world. Except for the fact that he’s smart, persistent, and has a considerable amount of drive and ambition. One night he stumbles upon an accident and has a sort of epiphany as he sees the race of the reporters desperate to cover whatever story happens to be the biggest one of the night. Gyllenhaal’s Lou then decides that this is his calling and what he wants to do with his life. So he grabs a cheap camera and police scanner and begins to crack the codes of police dispatchers calls in hopes that he will be the first one in line to capture footage of whatever break out news story happens to be going on any given night. It is here that he meets his adversary in the form of Bill Paxton, a fellow freelance reporter who is the man who seems to have broken down this method of beating the cops to the scene of the crime or accident, all in hopes of capturing whatever footage he can get so that he can be the first to sell it to whichever news station will pay him the most for it. On one unsuspecting evening he documents a grisly scene of a murder, and gets his first taste of the potential of his newfound endeavor through a local news station whose director, played by Rene Russo, gives him his first paycheck and the promise of much more money to come if he sticks with it. Lou then begins to slowly fine tune his craft with the addition of a new camera, fire-red mustang, and an intern whom he hires on to help him become faster and more proficient in his almost addictive-like quest to get to the scene of the crime first, and over time he succeeds at doing so. And is in turn employed full-time by Rene Russo’s news station to bring them a story, night after night, which in turn increases his drive and ambition to be the absolute best freelance reporter in all of L.A. Then one night, he stumbles upon a scene of extreme violence and its aftermath, a pivotal scene that goes on to drive the rest of the film and the events that unfold after it.

This was a spectacular film that exceeded my moderate to high expectations. Throughout it made me think of Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive” (2011) which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to and who ironically enough I came to find after was produced by the same team as it. Mainly because I felt like part of the beauty of it lay in its subtext. Some people will view the film, much like “Drive”, as a straight ahead action-thriller. Which is fine and all. But underneath it all in its subtext I thought it was trying to say something much deeper than what appeared to be at its surface. Oddly enough I looked at it as something similar to that of “Scarface”. About having the drive and ambition in the pursuit of the American dream and wanting to be at the very top by whatever means necessary. Every decision Gyllenahaal’s character does seems to be driven by Capitalist thought. He becomes so incredibly obsessed with the prospect of delivering the next best news story that he’ll do just about whatever it takes even at the expense of those of others around him. Gyllenhaal once again amazes with his spellbinding performance in which he totally immerses himself into his character and puts on one hell of a show. His sunken face (apparently he lost a considerable amount of weight for this film) and beady eyes that look like they’re going to pop out of his head make him look like some kind of insect and acts as one of the many ways of reading into the film’s title. But besides the transformative piece he also really brings a certain depth and range to his character that border lines on someone with a serious mental illness who falls so deep into his craft that he begins to flirt with insanity. A character that brings to mind the late great Robin Williams in 2002’s “One Hour Photo” or better yet even, Robert DeNiro as Travis Bickle in Martin Scorcese’s masterpiece – “Taxi Driver” (1976). He delivers thoughts, ruminations, and words at a mile a minute and comes across as a likely candidate for someone with Autism or Asburger’s Syndrome. It’s a piece of method acting that truly shows his incredible range as an actor. The story itself is utterly and completely captivating from start to finish and has a great sense of pacing. As while on his quest to capture the best news stories the film becomes highly riveting, tense, and psychological. Not to mention that it seems incredibly dark for a studio film (much like “Prisoners” was). His physical and internal transformation is simply an awe to watch. As he starts off as a nobody and brings himself on some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy to uncover the truth, he becomes almost blinded by the world around him and loses his sense of self and identity, turning into some kind of monster. The supporting turns by both Bill Paxton and Rene Russo were also perfectly cast, and help anchor Gyllenhaal’s astonishing performance. This is a film that worked for me on a lot of levels, but mostly in the “can’t look away” turn by Gyllenhaal, that should garner him at least a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor, if not an Academy Award nomination. Like “Enemy”, this is the second Jake Gyllenhaal film to totally blow me away this year, and is also his second film to likely wind up making my top 10 best films of 2014. This film both shook and rattled me and had me thinking long after the credits rolled. Which in the humble opinion of this writer, only the best ones seem to do.

[that sweet spot between a B+ and A-]