A Trip To The Movies: Review – Eli Roth’s “The Green Inferno” 9.27.15

If you had of asked me back in 2013 two years ago what my most anticipated horror film of the year was I would have said “The Green Inferno”. Unfortunately, it got shelved like many projects do back in the year it was supposed to have been released. This was incredibly disappointing for someone like myself who had been awaiting for writer/director Eli Roth’s return to horror. You see, Roth has been off the map for a while now, mostly involving himself in producing credits in projects like the underwhelming Netflix Original Series – “Hemlock Grove” (2013-2015), Ti West’s equally as disappointing “The Sacrament (2013), “The Last Exorcism Parts 1 and 2” (2010 and 2013 – which one could only imagine Roth made a killing off of) which were mostly dismissable efforts. In fact, the last really great project I’ve seen Roth involved in was his performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009). A film in which he landed a pretty considerable role in both starring opposite Brad Pitt as Sgt. Donny Donowitz (referred to as “The Bear” in that film as he always brandished a Louisville slugger baseball bat). What a lot of people don’t know either is that Roth also directed the black and white Nazi propaganda film – “Nation’s Pride” that was shown at the climax of that film. Going back was Roth’s most successful project – the first 2 entries to the “Hostel” trilogy (2005 and 2007). The first film I liked but didn’t love and the second which I liked only slightly less than it. But both of which I extremely admire because love it or hate it, between James Wan’s “Saw” (2004) and Roth’s “Hostel” which came out only a year later in 2005, gave birth to American “torture porn” in American horror. A genre that admittedly I admire but don’t gravitate to unless we’re talking about the films that have come out of the French New Extremity movement of the 2000’s. Films like “High Tension”, “Frontiers”, “Martyrs”, “Inside”, etc, to name a few. Had torture porn elements in them but reached for something much deeper in either making social commentaries on something, or spinning philosophical undertones in them. I consider these pictures to be smart, intellectual, psychological horror. Which is how I more or less felt about Roth’s two “Hostel” films. Going even further back was Roth’s writing/directing debut – “Cabin Fever (2002) – still my favorite of all of Roth’s films and the main reason why I keep chasing his projects from year to year, in hopes of him delivering something that’s even half as good as “Cabin Fever” was. Now come 2015, we see the release of his new (if you want to call it that) film that had been shelved for 2 years. His first writing/directing job since 2007’s “Hostel 2”.

Roth’s new film, which opened in wide release this past weekend and casts no recognizable actors (pretty incredibly considering it came out in wide release and was given very little if not any marketing at all). The plot revolves around a college freshman named Justine (Roth’s real life wife – Lorenza Izzo – an actress new to me but who will hopefully start popping up in more movies to come as her performance is great here) who becomes interested in her campus’ social activism group. As she gets more and more involved with the group she learns that they have been plotting a plan to take a trip down to South America to the Amazon rainforest to stop a company from logging thousands of acres and subsequently killing off ancient Native tribes. The activist group of about a dozen then flies to Peru, and starts their climb into the Amazon jungle, and begin the protest by dressing in logger uniforms and tying themselves to the trees that are set to be cut down. Their protest is somewhat successful as they get the attention of global news media but one of them almost winds up getting killed. After having come down to do what they do, and realizing that their activism could have had deadly consequences, they aboard a plane back to the United States. But their small charter plane gets into an accident and crashes (much like the scene from “Alive” (1993)- a film who one of its many themes is cannibalism) not long after their take off, and they wind up right back in the Amazon and into the territory of the ancient Native people, a group who a big part of their mission involved coming down to protect. It’s at this point, about halfway, and forward in the film where Roth starts bringing us the meat of the story, and things start to go absolutely bat shit crazy.

“The Green Inferno” was a highly rewarding experience for true horror fans like myself, and is the best work Roth has put out as a writer/director since the aforementioned “Cabin Fever” in 2002. Paying equal nods to “Deliverance” (1972), “Cannibal Halocaust” (1980), “Alive” (1993), and “Apocalypto” (2006). Roth here releases both his most terrifying and yet at the same time funniest film to date. It almost felt like it took the horror/torture porn elements of the “Hostel” series and added the comedic element that he combined so perfectly in “Cabin Fever”. When the activist group crashes and finds themselves in unfamiliar territory things go from bad to worse. And anyone that knows Roth’s penchant for going pretty out there with what he does with horror may understand how these subsequent scenes between the naive, upper class, mostly Caucasian college kids and tribes of ancient native peoples play out. I read a couple of blurbs of reviews prior to seeing this where many reviewers called this one of Roth’s more “restrained” films, and boy they couldn’t have been more wrong. The blood and gore factor is congruent with, and maybe goes farther than any of Roth’s earlier work. But what’s even more impressive is his ability to combine his trademark horror elements with comedy, expertly blending the two. It’s also a great social commentary on social activist groups, with Roth seemingly laughing at his own inside joke of what could potentially happen if some of these issues our American people fight for stateside were met firsthand if they were to actually travel to these indigenous countries themselves. Which makes it feel like more like an attack on social activism in general more than anything else. There’s a lot that people might pick out as being some pretty significant shortcomings of the film – it’s somewhat poorly acted, the editing is choppy, the film looks cheaply made, etc. Which is why the film has been met with mostly unfavorable reviews. But that’s not the point of an Eli Roth film. It’s to horrify and terrify you; while balancing it with underlying comedy. And as someone who has a slight hint of what to expect, it worked on several levels, especially in the middle section where the students are held in captivity. It’s a film that caters towards a certain type of audience like someone like myself who revels in full-blown horror. And for others who gravitate to this type of material I can assure you it doesn’t disappoint in what it sets out to do. In a year where the really only good horror film that stands out is “It Follows”. This is the next best piece of filmmaking that I’ve seen outside of it, and is a welcome return to the vision of writer/director Eli Roth’s earlier films. And solely because of that, I would recommend it but mainly only to die-hard horror enthusiasts, as almost anyone else might find this material to be a bit too sick and off-putting in its relishing of its pure unadulterated horror. Mr. Roth, I for one can say I’m thankful to have you back.

[B]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies: Review – “Boogie Nights” (1997) 8.1.15

The Portland Art Museum is showing a career retrospective of a writer-director whose work was single-handedly responsible in my formative years as a young teenager in my quest of developing my own vocabulary of film. THE Paul Thomas Anderson (who I still call by his original name). To others he goes by PT Anderson, or simply PTA. “Boogie Nights” and Anderson’s follow-up “Magnolia” (1999) I consider to be my generation’s “Godfather Parts 1 and 2”. I vividly remember seeing “Boogie Nights” for the first time after taking my first ever film studies class at the age of 16. While I liked it at the time, I could never imagine that over the years, as I got older and grew to understand it more (that and being infatuated with it from a film lover’s standpoint), the impact it would have on me. Like with maybe a dozen or so other movies that I hold in such a high regard as it it’s almost as if, through time and various re-watchings of it, I’ve developed almost a “relationship” with it. One that I mean in the utmost literal sense of the word. As I continue to grow older and time passes it’s become one of those films that when I revisit it from time to time, I get flashbacks from my childhood along with a constant reminder of why I developed such a deep appreciation for film in the first place. This screening of it was one of the most “special” in that it was playing as a retrospective honoring Anderson and his body of work at one of the most state of the art theaters in Portland at an auditorium that sits inside of the art museum. Not only that, but it was my first time seeing it as an adult with a meetup group I started (click on the link below the review for more details). All of whom are big time movie buffs, some even more so than myself, and I was interested to find out if it had the same kind of impact on them as it does and still has on me. Which became apparent with this viewing, my first viewing of it on the big screen since it came out 18 years ago (can you believe its been that long?). After an introduction by the museum’s curator, seated among a half to two-thirds 375-person capacity theater, the house lights went down and a feeling of euphoria rushed over me as I buckled myself in for the next 2 and a half hours. I’m guessing that most of you have seen the picture, whether it was in the nineties when it first came out, or like me, have continued to revisit it over the years.

So I will keep the synopsis brief. The story revolves around the adult film industry covering from the mid seventies through the mid eighties. Through the film’s incredible opening tracking shot through a nightclub we meet the film’s many colorful cast of characters (still in my opinion the best ensemble cast ever assembled on-screen). There’s the film’s patriarchal porn director Jack Horner (played by Burt Reynolds who won a deserving Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for his performance), the matriarchal mother figure and porn actress (Oscar nominee for Best Supporting Actress Julianne Moore), porn stars Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly), as well as a number of others involved in Horner’s production company of X-rated films. Buck (Don Cheadle), Scotty (Philip Seymour Hoffman), among a slew of other notable character actor’s who are interwoven into the story like Thomas Jane, Paul Thomas Anderson regular Philip Baker Hall, Melora Walters, Luis Guzman, Macy’s wife – real life porn star Nina Hartley (who scenes produce some of the films more funny moments). But at the epicenter of the film is Eddie Adams (aka “Dirk Diggler”) played by the relatively new at the time (at least in the film industry) Mark Wahlberg (still his best performance to date imo). Reynolds’ Jack Horner “discovers” Eddie one day and realizes he possesses “a gift” that could elevate both of their careers in terms of what he could potentially offer the adult film industry. That’s basically the setup. And the film goes on to explore Eddie’s subsequent rise and fall to fame.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s film is still just as relevant and influential as it was at the time of its release 18 years ago. And I’ll tell you why – first and foremost – it was the film to launch the careers of almost every actor involved in it (with the exception of Burt Reynolds of course). Mark Wahlberg, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Don Cheadle, John C. Reilly, Heather Graham, etc. It launched all of their careers and made many of them household names in the years that followed. It’s also the strongest debut from a writer-director (Anderson was only 27 at the time he made it) who would go on to be one of the most revered and beloved filmmakers in the independent film movement (second to maybe Quentin Tarantino). It’s one of the few films that has the PTA’s signature stamp on almost every shot of the film. The second thing I want to point out is that the film’s soundtrack composed of some of the best and most recognizable songs from the eras in which it portrays, really adds a nice component as it makes you literally almost feel like you’re living in the period in which the film depicts. It’s also one of the few films, at least to me, that perfectly represents the “rise and fall” genre of films, even taking into account films that preceded it almost in the decade before it like Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (1980) or Brian DePalma’s version of “Scarface” (1983). As well as it being a critique on the nature of celebrity with Eddie Adams’/Dirk Diggler’s rise in the seventies as a young up-and-comer (no pun intended) to his fall in the early eighties when his celebrity leads up to become a narcissistic bigot. A man so in love with himself that he doesn’t see the world crumbling out from underneath him. It’s a great character study with a spectacular performance by Wahlberg that’s only matched by Anderson’s pitch perfect recreation of the time in which he depicts. “Boogie Nights” has been embedded and etched into my memory forever, and from time to time will continue to pop up as it has over the years as a constant reminder of why I fell in love with film as an art form in the first place. In a film considered by many, including myself, to still be Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest masterpiece.

[A+]

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights @ Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium

Saturday, Aug 1, 2015, 4:00 PM

Whitsell Auditorium
1219 SW Park Avenue Portland, OR

5 Portland Film Enthusiasts Went

The Portland Art Museum is doing a career retrospective of who is arguably one of the greatest directors in contemporary cinema – THE Paul Thomas Anderson. Starting this weekend with “Hard Eight” and ending in September with last year’s “Inherent Vice” along with a number of other different films from some of his biggest influences. Of all of them …

Check out this Meetup →

A Trip To The Movies – Review: “Slow West” 5.24.15

The American Western has taken on many different shapes since the days of old. The “spaghetti Western” that was made infamous by director’s like Sergio Leone in his “Dollars Trilogy” – “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), “For A Few More Dollars” (1965), and “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly” (1966) starring the “man with no name” played by Clint Eastwood. Simply don’t seem to exist anymore. Sure Quentin Tarantino did his best Leone “impression” a few years back with “Django Unchained” (2012). But that was more or less (like many of Tarantino’s films – a throwback or homage piece that paid a nod to the Westerns of old. It was somewhat of a dying genre throughout the latter half of the 20th century. One of the rare exceptions to the case being the Clint Eastwood directed “Unforgiven” (1992). Which is arguably one of the best Westerns of all time. But sprinkled throughout the nineties we saw dud after dud like Jim Jarmusch’s “Dead Man” (1995 – a film that did and still gets more credit than it deserves as the only good thing about it was the Neil Young score), then another film that same year by another prominent director Sam Raimi’s redo of “The Quick and The Dead” (1995 – also somewhat of a disaster) and only a year later came Walter Hill’s “Last Man Standing” (1996). All three films, at least in my opinion, that were disposable and shouldn’t have ever been made to begin with. Then, about 10 years later, came somewhat of a resurgence within the genre, in John Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” (2005) that combined classic Western elements while also seeming inspired by and incorporating elements of the independent film movement of the nineties, and breathed new life into the genre. Two years later another film came out the genre, which again like “The Proposition” combined elements of 1990’s indie film but one that contained more “art house” components. A film that still stands as not only my favorite Western, but maybe my favorite film of the 2000’s, Andrew Dominik’s “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (2007). Which in the opinion of this writer, is almost a “prefect” film, and an incredibly strong contribution to what we know as Western. Since then, there really hasn’t been much but a few slightly above average films (2007’s “3:10 to Yuma” remake, 2008’s “Appaloosa”). But other than those two, the Coen’s remake of “True Grit” (2010) and “Django Unchained” (2012), I can’t really think of anything else that really stands out.

“Slow West” is another post-modern take on the classic Western genre. Boasting a rather impressive cast of Michael Fassbender (pretty much anything this guy’s in you can guarantee is going to be worthwhile –  2013’s “The Counselor” excluding), young and up coming Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee (best known for his breakthrough roles as the young boy in John Hillcoat’s “The Road” (2009) as well as the central character in Matt Reeves’ remake of the Swedish vampire classic “Let Me In” (2010)), and lastly, an actor I’ve been hyping quite a fair amount of on this site as of late that anybody whose been paying attention would know, Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn, who I recently labeled “the best character actor currently working in the film business”.

The set up is a rather simple one. In 1870’s America, a young man by the name of Jay (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has traveled overseas far and wide to find the love of his life, Rose, who he was once acquainted with many years back and has made it his mission to find her and get her to marry him. However, this is the rough, late 1800’s middle America, where Natives run amok as do bounty hunters. Not necessarily a place for a young man traveling alone. He soon comes across and befriends a freelance bounty hunter named Silas (Michael Fassbender) who takes the young man under his wing and for hundred dollars, agrees to bring Jay to be reunited with his once love Rose. Silas has his own motivations and agenda for doing so, and even though he is one of the best at what he does, he also just separated himself from a ruthless gang of bounty hunters led by the notorious Payne (Ben Mendelsohn). As their journey continues the two men and the rival gang meet, mostly of the same reasons which I won’t divulge, but that ends in a climax that will have you taken aback in your seat by how everything before it winds up building to the film’s grand finale.

This was a strong addition to the Western genre that was unique enough on its own to recommend. I thought the film’s marketing campaign of comparing it to Jarmusch, the Coens, and even Wes Anderson was way off the mark. In fact I would say it shared some with Hillcoat’s “The Proposition” but that was about it. It’s a slow-moving story even at a running time just under 90 minutes. But it’s stylishly shot and well acted (by all 3 of its main leads, though with Mendelsohn in a minor part who doesn’t really enter the film until about its 2/3 of the way through). First time writer/director John Maclean seems like a natural for this type of genre and films the rugged sand dune territory of the midwest with a deft hand. I found myself marveling more at the film’s excellent use of location and framing during the first half, which admittedly I found a bit slow content-wise. As both Jay and Silas’ journey is somewhat of a slow-moving one (hence the title). But like another film that was released last year, Jim Mickle’s “Cold in July”, once the story picks up and the violence starts erupting it really starts to reel in the viewer. Many, and I mean many lives are lost along the two’s journey to find Rose. Culminating in one of the most exciting climax’s in contemporary Western film since the end shoot out scene in “Young Guns” (1988). This is a film, like “The Proposition” and “The Assassination of Jesse James” that presents us with something new and original and a nicely welcomed addition to the genre. That being said, the film felt a bit slight, and is really solely powered by its rather incredible ending. So while the build up and ending climax was highly worth the wait, I thought the wait didn’t necessarily need to be stretched out as long as it was.

[B]

A Trip To The Movies: Review – “Black Souls” 5.2.15

It’s becoming more and more apparent to me that there seems to be somewhat of a paradigm shift going on in the crime genre that’s been happening over this past decade. I referred to it recently as a “subversion” to somebody in which we’re experiencing a point in time in crime films where filmmakers themselves seem less interested in telling stories that are loud, overstated, excessively violent crime pictures made not to entertain by the stories in which they choose to depict but are more focused on the psychology component of them instead. The distinction can be made by looking at Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” (1990) or Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). Both were monumental achievements that undeniably made their mark on cinematic history and often times are the two most recognized films of the crime genre outside of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather” trilogy (1972, 1974, 1990), the first two who many consider to be the greatest crime films of all time. All films that ultimately were immensely successful and instrumental in terms of their influence on just about every movie to come out of the genre since. But within the past 10 years or so, there seems to be a stark contrast to those films within a new crop of international filmmakers coming out of the genre looking to explore new territory within it, without the typical glamour and style of the “post-Goodfellas” era crime film. Films like Paolo Sorrentino’s “Il Divo” (2008), Matteo Garrone’s “Gomorrah” (2008), Jacques Audiard’s “A Prophet” (2009 – still in my opinion, the best crime film made post-2000), and David Michod’s “Animal Kingdom” (2010). All seemed to be exploring new ideas of the genre by focusing on varied components and themes around different types of crime circles. From political ones, to ones that deal with crime as a way of life, to being educated on becoming a crime lord, to the decimation of the crime family, and how crime exists from a business perspective while living in a Capitalist society. These are just some of the themes contained within what I call the “new wave” of crime film. In where the characters and their depicted lifestyles are meant to be more cerebral and looked at as being flawed than the crime films of the days of old (once again excluding “The Godfather” trilogy of course). These characters and the way in which they live aren’t even remotely appealing or alluring, but rather sad and devastating. All of the latter films I mention exemplify this distinction quite well, and when I saw this film advertised and it being quoted as “the best Italian crime film since “Gomorrah””, plus my overall love for the genre, made it an instant “must see” upon its release here in theaters this weekend.

“Black Souls” is the based on a true story account of the real-life mafia clan (known as the “Ndrangehta”) out of Southern Italy, the Carbone family (nope not the Corleone family), who consisted of three brothers – Luigi and Rocco, who are involved in the business of international drug trade, and Luciano, who has escaped the lifestyle in favor of living in a remote mountain town herding goats while trying to raise an honest, hard-working family. Though Luciano has a son, Leo, who is a high school drop out and seems to want to follow in the footsteps of his two crime affiliated uncles, particularly that of Rocco, who the boy clearly seems to idolize. Upon hearing that his family has been defamed by one of their rival families, takes matters into his own hands seeking payback and in doing so sets off a blood feud and a series of tragic events that forces all of the family members to become involved.

This was a riveting, compelling, and brilliant entry into the crime genre by Italian director Francesco Munzi. Who seems to know his influences well but sets out to make something deeper with more of a focus on the tragic-like nature of the crime world and how it affects a family from generation to generation. It really does a great job probing into the minds of the three Carbone brothers, two of whom are totally immersed in the lifestyle and the other who took a much different path and seems to know the real truth and is willing do whatever it takes to save his son from growing up to be a criminal. The relationship between the young boy Leo and his uncle Rocco as is the sibling rivalry that takes place between Rocco’s brother and Leo’s father Luciano is expertly drawn out and feels believable and authentic, and presents the family’s quarrels both within their own and outside of as realistic and utterly devastating. Only three major acts of violence occur throughout the entire film, but similar to how I mentioned in my review of “A Most Violent Year”, when the violence erupts, packed both one hell of a punch and was unpredictable, as well as hitting me on such a deep emotional and guttural level, that at times I was borderline shedding tears. As I was really that invested in the story and so moved by the tragic events that unfold. Which I thought was the film’s greatest strength and a true testament to Munzi’s adapted screenplay and deft hand at directing in how it enabled me to be so invested in the story. From a technical point of view it’s very well done, especially in terms of its cinematography, lighting, and dark contrast between the urban city of Milan and the brighter Italian countryside. But what really did it for me was how the character of the farmer brother Luciano, a man who lives by a strict moral code and value system in trying to make an honest living, and in by knowing of the truth, winds up confronting himself in an ending that left me practically speechless. As far as current, modern day crime films go, this a very solid entry that will most likely will be overlooked but demands to be seen.

[strong B+]

DVD Review – “Big Eyes” 4.13.15

If you had of asked me a year ago whether or not I’d ever watch a Tim Burton film again my answer would probably have been no. In charting the director’s career trajectory, in the past decade or so, he’s made one “dud” after another. Becoming somewhat of a sell out. The type of commercial director that I usually try to stay as far away from as possible. Sure he’s single-handedly responsible for making some of film’s most iconic films ranging from “Beetlejuice” (1988), to what I call the Keaton/Nicholson “Batman” (1989), “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), to what’s still my favorite of Burton’s films – 1994’s “Ed Wood”. Since then, almost a full twenty years ago, he hasn’t made a single good film other than 2003’s “Big Fish” which I thoroughly enjoyed but mostly because it had that “classic” early Burton feel. He’s the master of the fairy tale and one could easily argue he created his own style and niche within the filmmaking industry. But following that film, he managed to somehow lose his touch, for lack of a better expression. Especially in more recent years with film’s like his atrocious “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” remake (1995) and “Alice in Wonderland”(2010). Amidst a slew of other “family friendly” films which has pretty much become his trademark at this point in his career. But even despite of my admitted disliking of where his career path has gone over these past several years. His new film, “Big Eyes”, looked like something entirely different outside of the current Burton universe that at this point we’ve almost come to expect from the director. What interested me about this film, and which was essentially my sole reason for seeing it, was the casting of its two central leads in both Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz. Both actors of whom I deeply admire. Then when I saw that both actors were nominated for Golden Globes in the Best Actress and Actor categories respectively, I decided with some apprehension to give the film a shot.

“Big Eyes” first introduces us to Margaret (played by Adams), a 1950’s Northern California housewife who for reasons that aren’t entirely spelled out, the implication is that she is unhappy in her current marriage, so she moves her and her daughter to San Francisco to start a new life for themselves. Margaret is a painter, and has a certain style in both form and self-expression that is both unique and singular to her. She paints young children that are sad and wide-eyed, eyes that look like over-sized jelly beans that like many artists, she seems to do for the love of the art form itself with no real particular desire for any sort of notoriety. It is by a chance encounter that she meets a fellow artist, a man named Walter (played by Waltz) one day while trying to sell her work. Walter comes across as charming, handsome, and very charismatic. She sees him as being somewhat well established within the art community. And before long the two wind up getting married. Walter takes on the role as art dealer, and encourages Margaret to focus solely on her paintings, and explains that he would like to team up as any husband and wife should on the path to what he sees as major success. Along the way we meet a rival art dealer (played by the always welcomed but underused Jason Schwartzmann), a San Francisco news writer (Danny Huston), as well as a critic for the New York Times (Terence Stamp). The couple’s career really starts to soar and take off. But there’s just one problem. Margaret finds out that Walter is taking credit for her work. And even despite her unhappiness with this idea of him accepting all of the credit from the art world, she continues to paint her singular style portraits, because she sees it, in benefits them both. Financially speaking of course. But as the popularity grows with her work, along does a sense of shame and fear that their “cover up” is not only illegal but a secret that as the film progresses, only becomes deeper and deeper in terms of its deceit and manipulation. Until Margaret decides to take action. Which is where the major plot device and elevation in story begins to take place.

The film contains more strengths than weaknesses but really doesn’t come across as equaling the sum of its parts. I’ll start by saying both Adams and Waltz put in two very fine performances. Both of which I see as totally deserving of their Golden Globe nominations (and earning Adams an eventual win). Though many critics see her win as a sort of “token gesture” in the year of Julianne Moore knowing that her performance couldn’t possibly be topped. To me though, who really shined here was Waltz, who has catapulted himself as being one of Hollywood’s finest, still somewhat new discovery (the guy’s won 2 Oscars since his breakout performance in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) ). He shows a certain range and depth here within his performance that is a perfect example of their being two sides to every person’s character. As more and more of his true character is revealed, the story itself becomes more and more interesting. A feat only an actor of Waltz’s stature could only pull off. The second thing I’d like to say about the film is like the early Burton films of old, he does an expert job in terms of the look of the film, transporting us right into 1950’s suburbia as he did with films like “Edward Scissorhands”. His use of framing and film composition makes sure that not one shot goes unwasted. Which for me personally was nice to see that he can still make a film that feels “Burton-esque”, utilizing his biggest strengths from a technical standpoint as a director. Which I haven’t seen in a long long time. The story itself is engaging enough and moves along at a steady pace, mainly because of its “can do no wrong” two leads. It had me hooked and genuinely interested in what was going to happen next. That is until the ending, where in my opinion the film loses almost everything that was built up before it, becoming both trite and predictable in its court room scenes of the exposition of the truth. I took into account that it’s based on a true story, but given if this is exactly how the events wound up transpiring, I just didn’t find myself buying in to the way in which the film was resolved. It felt too-textbook and lost steam in its last act. However, that being said, this is somewhat of a return to form for Burton, which reminded me of the days of old in that if given the right material and actors (both Adams and Waltz are dynamite) he can make a picture that still retains the strongest components of his earlier work. This is a movie I’m recommending simply for its standout performances. And if you can look past its mostly predictable and calculated ending , which I couldn’t, you might find somewhat of a hidden gem of a film that hits the mark mainly because of its two strong leads. That even given the the strong work on display, had my eyes rolling as the end credits finally came.

[B-]

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-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Birdman’ or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance) 11.15.16

Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu is perhaps maybe the single most influential filmmaker on my becoming a film student and how I view film. More than any other filmmaker I’ve written about on this blog up to this point. I didn’t really get into looking at film as an art form until I was around 18 years old, in 1999, when I took a film class my senior year in high school that was being offered for the first time. I remember vividly the teacher telling us that first day that we needed to be prepared to “never look at film the same way again”. It was that same year I really starting delving into films by directors who would go on to become some of my favorites – people like Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Paul Thomas Anderson. To name just a few. Then, a year after, just when I was really starting to formulate a film vocabulary and started developing a taste in what I liked or didn’t like, a film came out by a young director hailing from Mexico City, Mexico named Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu called “Amores Perros” (2000). It completely took me by storm and seemed to encapsulate everything I loved about the medium that I had learned about up to that point. It had an multi-thread, interwoven script about 3 well developed central characters, all of whom were interconnected as if by a mere act of chance. It brimmed with energy and was explosively violent shot with an assured sense of immediacy at times (just re-watch the opening 10 minutes and prepare to have your jaw gape) while switching gears and becoming incredibly patient at others. But most importantly, and what Innaritu went on to continue to explore in a lot of his work to come following, it focused on people facing life’s ultimate challenges (2003’s “21 Grams” and 2010’s “Biutiful”) from all walks of life all over the world (2006’s “Babel”). And in by watching and re watching those films it’s almost as if I started to develop my own sense of “cultural language” in film. Because Innaritu was and is one of the first international/foreign filmmakers to explore universal themes that affect almost everybody on a global scale. So it didn’t matter if his stories were set in Mexico, the US, Morocco, Japan, or Spain. Each film had an undeniably human element to them which I really connected to and identified with. Though many Innaritu detractors complained about his films being too depressing, too dark, too grim, and feeling all a bit too similar, which I guess I always felt like I could see but personally looked at his films as something deeper and uniquely different from one another. Then enter 2012-2013, and reports started to come in from film circles that Innaritu’s next project was going to be something that fell more into the comedic realm. A total 180 from his trademark stark and bleak dramas. One that would be set in New York City and star Michael Keaton, an actor who I had almost practically forgotten about since his heyday in the 1980’s where he played Batman in the Tim Burton version (1988) and who I couldn’t recall having seen in anything since Quentin Tarantino’s “Jackie Brown” (1997). Though as was with any Innaritu film the level of excitement and anticipation for his next release was unprecedented.

The film opens to us taking a look at a levitating man (played by Michael Keaton), who seems to be preoccupied in some form of meditation. He sits in front of a mirror in a dressing room and has one of those internal dialogue monologues that give us some back story about who he is. A sort of has been once famous movie actor in a trilogy of films called “Birdman”. Soon after he is interrupted by his lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianakis) that his scene in his writing, directing, and acting in play is about to start, and we’re then introduced to a few of his actors (one of whom is played by Naomi Watts) as well as his freshly out of a stint in rehab daughter played by Emma Stone. An unexpected accident occurs, and with only 3 nights left until opening night of the play, he is forced to find a stand in. Enter Edward Norton’s character, who acts as said stand in, and who Galifianakis’ agent promises will double the size of his audience. Which his fledging play seemingly needs. We also meet his current lover (played by the ravishing Andrea Riseborough) and ex-wife (Amy Ryan). Can this be the comeback play his career so desperately needs? Or has his time come and gone and his resurgence as an actor be a complete and total failure?

“Birdman” winds up being a cinematic and theatre lover’s wet dream (as I so eloquently put it as the house lights in the theater and credits started rolling). It has more energy, more snap, crackle, pop, bang, and more ingenious elements encompassing it cinematically than any other film I’ve seen this year. It’s director Innaritu’s masterpiece and has some of the most confidently assured and inspiring camera work that I’ve seen from any filmmaker in years. The way in which he zooms, zips, and swirls around every corridor and crevice of the theatre in which 95% of the film takes place in, is nothing short of a revolutionary feat. He captures it with the utmost authenticity depicting what the theatre scene is like through filming it with a mightily and very impressively minimal amount of takes and edits which makes the entire film feel like one long tracking shot. Which is a true testament to the art and craft of theatre. As anybody who is versed in the both the theatre and feature film medium knows that the major difference between the two forms understands that in the theatre there is no room for mistakes. Which comes across in the film and gives it a sense of urgency like the theatre which is executed perfectly on screen. Augmented by the dazzling cinematography by Emmanuel Luzbecki, fresh off his Oscar win from last year’s stunning “Gravity”. The whole affair is also brought to life by the incredible jazzy sounding and bopping score by Antonio Sanchez. Never mind the acting and performances, all of which are exemplary, but particularly that of Michael Keaton, which is sure to garner him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, and possibly put him in the frontrunner position to win. His borderline real life self-referential bravura performance proves to us all once again that actors don’t ever necessarily lose their gift, they just become older and are replaced by younger talent making it harder and harder to find a great script that suits them. And this character fits Keaton perfectly like a glove. Edward Norton is almost equally as impressive as a narcissistic, vain, and completely full of himself actor, also who’s aging, and who also seems to know underlying that his time is running out. Expect some awards buzz and a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here as well as he is nothing short of dynamite. I also have a newfound deep respect and admiration for Emma Stone, perfectly cast here as Keaton’s post-rehab daughter/assistant, who really shines and proves why she’s considered to be such a talented and sought after young actress. Everybody in this rich ensemble piece really seems to bring the razor sharp screenplay by Innaritu and his writing team come to life. I could go on…and on…and on to talk about it’s satirical comment on the nature of celebrity and mental illness, dark comedic undertones, rich underlying symbolism, and ambiguous ending. But I’m afraid this would turn into something that looked more like a thesis than a film review. Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu – you have finally made your masterpiece at 51 years old and 14 years into your career. With a film that should garner Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Director (Innaritu), Actor (Keaton), Supporting Actor (Norton), Cinematography (Luzbecki), Original Score/Screenplay, and Editing. This is hands down one of if not the best film of 2014. And a landmark achievement for both director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu and star Michael Keaton. In a film that’s sure to explode over the next few months and catapult both of their careers into exciting new territory.

[A]