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

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

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

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

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

[C+]

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A Trip (Back) To The Movies – Review: “Spring Breakers” (2012) 4.5.15

Spring Breakers Movie Poster

I was excited when I saw that our local college student run movie theater was showing this as the first film of their spring season. I’ve always been a firm believer that movies aren’t always better, but deserved to be witnessed on the big screen. It’s an entirely different experience from that of the privacy of your own home. The great thing about living in a city like Portland is you can re-experience or experience something for the first time at one of our many local area theaters that show older films, so that those of us can get a chance to revisit older films as they were intended to be seen – on the big screen. I remember seeing this film twice in theaters when it got a limited wide release early in 2013 and was so impressed by it that it made my “Top 10 Films of 2013”. First off, I have always been a fan of Harmony Korine’s work. Though like other directors (Lars Von Trier comes to mind), his films have always been a bit esoteric. Korine is a provocateur, who seems to be always pushing the envelope, which is essentially what he’s been doing ever since he first gained notoriety when he wrote the screenplay at the age of 18 for Larry Clark’s “Kids” (1995). A landmark achievement of a film that explored the daily lives of a group of New York City teenagers as they did well, what teenagers did at the time and still do – consume. Whether it’s by having copious amounts of sex, partying, or drinking and drugging their way through adolescence. It was one of the most controversial films of the decade but while it was shocking and explicit, it also was a revealing depiction of what it’s like to be a teenager and the types of poor choices they make in their more formative years because let’s face it – teenagers think they’re invincible. “Kids” was and always will remain a deeply important film because it depicted a slice of life that most of us experienced as we numbed ourselves through our formative years for no other reason other than that it seemed like “the thing to do”.

“Spring Breakers” is essentially a companion piece to “Kids”. Korine’s screenplay seems to explore similar ideas and themes, just set in more current, modern-day times. This time focusing on a group of college students (played against Disney typecast by Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine’s own wife – Rachel Korine) as they take a spring break trip to hell. The film starts with a brilliant opening montage that looks like something out of a “Girls Gone Wild” video set to a loud and abrasive Dubstep piece by the king of the EDM/Dubstep scene – Skrillex (who collaborates on the film’s score with who’s arguably the best film composer in the business – Cliff Martinez). It’s filmed in slow motion and shows countless crowds of college students engaged in just about every act of spring break debauchery – drinking beer bongs, girls flashing just about every body part, guys pouring bottles of beer on them, everyone flipping off the camera, etc. This does a great job in setting the tone for the rest of the film. It then flashes back to the four female central characters eagerly anticipating the end of the term so that they can join the ranks of college students who flock each year down to exotic locations in chase of some sort of cathartic experience in which they can go all out without any care in the world for any repercussions for the lewd behavior in which they choose to engage in. The four girls take a trip down to Florida in hopes of searching for the “American Dream” (as you’ll often hear Spring Break referred to in the film) winding up in some kind of nightmare as they experience the dark side of what happens when you wind up in the aftermath of Spring Break. It’s within the film’s second half, when the girls are taken out of the Spring Break culture after being arrested and bailed out by the film’s most integral character, Alien (played by a scene stealing, career best performance by James Franco, complete with cornrows and a full grill on his teeth). It’s within the second half of the film that I felt like Korine really starts to explore some of the underlying themes of the film and his intentions for doing so.

“Spring Breakers” is a vile and repulsive film about our generation’s fascination with sex, violence, consumerism, and over consumption. It seemed liike many people didn’t quite know what to make of the film as Korine does an expert job at mis-marketing it to look like something it’s actually not. While also being his most accessible (which is easy coming from the director of films like “Gummo” and “Trash Humpers”), commercially successful (it was the top grossing limited release of 2013), and also his most satirical and misunderstood film to date. One thing I realized during my third viewing of the film, is that you kind of have to be looking through Korine’s lens and the world in which he depicts, to understand the film’s subtext. Korine is in no way glamorizing or sensationalizing the world in which these characters exist in. Rather quite the opposite. He is repulsed like you or I are. This is clearly exemplified by the lifestyle of the film’s protagonist (if you want to call him that) Alien. Alien represents everything our current youth and adult culture idolizes – excess and the allure of money. He appears to have it all that any young person could want on the surface – lots of money, a fast car, a beautiful home on the water, endless supplies of drugs…the list goes on and on. But he’s also a byproduct of living in a society of consumerism and endless consumption. For all of his many materialist riches his life is void of anything or substance or meaning. There’s a segment in the film that many people laughed at but which I found downright deplorable. While in his home he shows off his many “riches” – money scattered everywhere, an artillery wall for his guns, an endless supply of drugs, a bed made of art, swim shorts in every color (look at my SHIT!). He embodies everything almost any young man or women could want, or at the very least, would want to be around (hence his appeal to the four female leads). Franco plays the character to a T. In one of those iconic roles that you really can’t picture any other actor being able to pull off. It’s a total transformative performance that ranks up there with some of the best of the past few years.

While the first half of the film is filmed like some sort of dream complete with rich candy colors (Korine and DP of photography Benoit Debie, who’s prior work on Gasper Noe’s “Enter The Void” (2009) was a cited influence for the “look” of the film).The film’s second half is filmed in slightly more muted colors, with many of the scenes taking place at sunset or night (a nicely, rather intentional decision of contrast by Korine). The way in which it’s filmed also has a Terrence Malick-esque feel (“The Tree of Life”) as the cinematography takes on a free-floating, soaring, stream-of-consciousness quality to it with many scenes using voice-over narration in showing multiple shots and quick edits of its characters. The film goes from Girls Gone Wild sex romp in its first half to semi-tragedy in its second. I could go on and on about the satirical elements Korine seems to want to get across to his audience. But I’ll end by saying this, like Bobcat Goldthwait’s biting satire – “God Bless America” (2011) did, Korine does a good job at putting up a mirror to our generation’s cultural climate, where we see ourselves in, but are too ashamed or embarrassed to admit it. Which is essentially what I think turned most people off to this film. It’s my favorite of all of Korine’s work to date, and in years to come, will be discovered as a dug up artifact to remind the future of the materialistic, self-serving, superficial, and hopeless reflection of both the times and society in which we currently live in.

[A-]

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Interstellar’ 11.8.14

In what I considered to be the second biggest movie release of the Oscar season behind the already released David Fincher’s “Gone Girl”, the just released “Birdman” by director Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” (released next week), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s upcoming “Inherent Vice”. Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” was, well, just like any other Christopher Nolan film in terms of my anticipation for it which was very high. I remember when thinking back to the build up and buzz of his 2010 mind bender “Inception” and seeing a preview for it during the 2009 Oscar season; a full 7 months before its release date, and from that point forward I tracked its every move. From filming, to post-production, to the months that Nolan’s films get marketed (due probably because he is the most successful director post-2000 and one of the only directors (truth) that doesn’t need to pitch a project to a studio. His films are so profitable they will just write him a blank check right then and there on the spot). But what’s even more important to point out, is that not only is Nolan the most bankable director currently working in the business, but he’s also the most artistically inclined commercial director in the business (think early to mid era Steven Spielberg). His films, even in being big budget studio films, are always something much more. Films that are always challenging comes to mind if describing a Christopher Nolan film. He basically reinvented the indie landscape with his 2000 game changer “Memento”. A film that was just as influential on the independent film movement of the nineties than was say Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” (1995). His follow up, the surprisingly mostly under seen and overlooked 2002 film “Insomnia”, which was a bona fide crime thriller that was equal parts mystery and suspense. Then came his widely successful Batman/Dark Knight trilogy which were and still are solely responsible for changing the superhero/comic book landscape. What’s so amazing about those films is they set the bar so unbelievably high for every superhero movie to follow. There’s a reason why the sheer quality of the genre became better after the Nolan Batman films. It’s because everyone who took a stab at the genre following it used it as a template in trying to hopefully make a film like it. That and he made the trilogy dark and challenging. Something that had been missing from the genre in the past. Enter 2010 and Nolan is back with a film that he somehow managed to squeeze in-between the second and third Dark Knight installments, “Inception”, which as mentioned above, was a mind bender that proved that Nolan could make genre films that were just as successful outside of the superhero/comic book box, and once again, make something for the audience that was both thought provoking and challenging. A trademark of all of Nolan’s work. Skip 2 years after his last Batman installment, in which he chose to hang the towel after, and we have a new Nolan film. One that promises to bring us to mankind’s next step in the universe, while also hinting that it could be our last.

“Interstellar” first introduces us to Matthew McConaughey’s (in yet another great performance) character, Cooper, a former engineer and test pilot who now is a widowed family man with two young children and who lives on a plot of land in rural America as a farmer who tends to his crops as a means of survival. A wind/sand storm hits, and within it there’s a revelation to both Cooper and his family that the dust that remains on the floor in its aftermath presents them with some sort of gravitational irregularity because of the pattern of its arrangement. This leads them to a NASA compound run by Michael Caine’s character. He talks of some kind of wormhole that is circling around Saturn, and states that the only way mankind is going to be saved by the growing weather and agricultural nightmare that has befallen on them is to travel through this wormhole to set up new worlds in other galaxies. As life on earth as we currently know it won’t survive much longer. Cooper meets Caine’s daughter (played by the not always consistent but serviceable Anne Hathaway). Cooper is in charge to lead this new mission, while being employed to carry out another mission to find out what happened to another spacecraft who made an attempt at their same mission to travel through the wormhole many years earlier and merely vanished in space. Cooper takes on the mission, much to the chagrin of his daughter, knowing that it might be the single most important thing to help save mankind. Both he, Hathaway’s character, a geographer played by the under appreciated and underused Wes Bentley, a physicist, and 2 robots who’s names I can’t remember at the moment, but who both play an integral role, as they embark on their space adventure.

The film is a bit of an over-stuffed hodgepodge of different ideas and existential themes that are packed within its almost 3-hour run time. Now I don’t mean this to necessarily be a bad thing. It’s just of all of Nolan’s films to date this one feels the most substantial and headiest. Certainly his most challenging. For me personally, I always value substance over style. Which this movie has both of. However, I found it difficult to follow at times and dare I say almost found it too challenging. There was so much going on within the narrative that I often times was wondering if my mind wasn’t working hard enough that the movie demanded of me. Or if it was just something that was over my head. Whichever really was the case, I let that thought go about a third of the way through, around the 2nd act, which is when the space travel truly begins. And like the great Science Fiction films that have explored space and beyond. Films like Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968), Philip Kaufmann’s “The Right Stuff” (1983), Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995), Danny Boyle’s 2007 “Sunshine” (which I found myself drawing a lot of comparisons to), and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” (2013), it brings its own unique approach to how we look at space travel. Once Cooper and crew reach space, they go through a series of events that contain some of the most dazzlingly stunning images I have seen put onto film since Terrence Malick’s “creationism” sequence from “The Tree of Life” (2011). The first descreption of it that came to mind as I walked out of the sold out theater afterwards was a “visual splendor”. Nolan and his crew of special effects experts do a fantastic job at presenting us with some of the most spellbinding visual effects I’ve seen since James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009). Besides the visual grandeur of the whole thing, it also contains a pretty authentic feeling and emotional subplot involving unforeseen time passing and Cooper’s 2 children, played by Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain, both of whom are always superb as they are here. In what at points almost falls into over-dramatic territory, Nolan and his writing partner brother John seem to think to know their audience is much too intelligent to allow that to happen. So besides the gorgeousness of the whole proceeding, this subplot was what I found to be the second standout. It tugs at the audience’s heartstrings without feeling contrived or trite. Lastly, which was my one biggest criticism of the piece, and one in which I think I hinted at above, was that it felt a bit overwrought in the ideas and themes in which it presents. Like it could have maybe been dumbed down a bit (and I almost never say that about a film) as I can imagine a lot of people who see this film, like me, are going to be slightly confused at times by the sheer amount of material and shifts in story that go on within it. I can imagine a lot of people will preach knowing what they thought the film was about but having a hard time articulating what exactly that is. But like I also hinted above, if you can leave out that element of trying to follow every little shift in the story or scientific jargon that is spoken (which there is quite a bit of), you should find yourself sitting back and marveling at the eye candy and incredibly innovative space thrill ride that only someone of Nolan’s caliber of filmmaker can take you on.

[B]

*Also, as an added disclaimer – I can’t stress enough the importance of seeing this on the big screen. To not do so would be doing yourself a big disservice.

A Trip To The Movies – Review: ‘Fury’ 10.25.14

I’ve grown quite find of Brad Pitt as an actor in the last almost decade or so. So much so that I consider him to be one of the top 3 best working actors in the business. If you think about the list of directors and performances he’s put in over the past 8-10 years or so there’s really nothing you can do but just admire the guy.  Since 2006 he’s worked with Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu in “Babel” (a film he would go onto pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination for), Andrew Dominik in 2007’s “The Assasination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” (still one of my favorite Pitt performances), both the Coen Brothers and David Fincher in “Burn After Reading” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008, to Quentin Taratino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), to 2011’s 1-2 punch of both Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” (the latter of which would see him garnering his first Best Actor nomination), to working with Dominik again in 2012’s “Killing Them Softly”, to Marc Forster in last year’s highly entertaining and surprisingly very good “World War Z”. And finally topping it off the same year with a small but memorable role in Steve McQueen’s Best Picture Oscar winner “12 Years a Slave” (which he would also win his first ever Oscar for Producing). Pitt has gone on to reach such a status in my eyes that at this point in his career I will simply see a film solely based on the fact that he’s in it. And I can only say that about a very few actors.

David Ayer’s “Fury” follows a lot of the same movie tropes as a lot of American made War films. It involves a group of ragtag soldiers who are part of a tank unit led by Pitt. The group is deep in German territory at the height of the Second World War. Where at the point depicted in the film, the Germans are taking the upper hand. Pitt and this ragtag group of soldiers (including an always reliable Michael Pena and Shia LeBeouf, an actor who at least in my eyes, is gaining quite of credibility since his “Transformers” days). Their tank comes under fire and it’s on the brink of breaking down, only for Pitt and his company to escape and then meet up with whatever little reserves that are left where they wind up geographically in the heart of Nazi Germany. One of their men faces an untimely death, and they’re forced to take on a young, inexperienced, and afraid soldier named Norman (Logan Lerman), with little to no combat experience as his replacement. Essentially the rest of the film is shown through the eyes of him as Pitt, his company, and “Fury” (the name of their tank) as they try and take over one town to the next in a series of truly visceral and epic battle scenes. In fact, this movie contains some of the best scenes of war, particularly that of tank warfare, that I’ve seen since the all too often overlooked and underappreciated 2007 film “Lebanon”. A film about another group of soldiers confined to a tank with no way out other than to fight for their lives.

I found myself totally captivated by this film and thought the war scenes and depictions of battle to me were not only thrilling but top notch. It’s essentially a series of one battle after the next depicted in the utmost intense and and sense of realism. It really nails the horrors of war and while I’ve heard one of the criticisms of the piece is that it’s simply too violent, I didn’t find myself necessarily finding that to be the case. It’s violent because this was a violent period in history where the lives of many men were lost. My second accolade has to do with Pitt’s performance itself. It’s reminiscent of old classic Hollywood actors like a John Wayne or Humphrey Bogart. So much so that at times I thought of Bogart’s 1943 War film “Sahara”. Where even though you know he is being depicted as this pro-American, patriotic, and mentally and physically strong leader. If like with that film you are able to overlook the stereotypes of the characters (which were intentional then and intention here) behind it you’ll see yet another bravura Brad Pitt performance. He totally envelops himself in the character which I found to be not only completely convincing but effective as well. Sure some of the men in his unit, specifically that of Pena and the other Hispanic man feel like blatient stereotypes. However I was able to overlook this because of the incredibly captivating scenes of tank warfare that had both me and the entire almost sold out audience I saw it with highly entertained, challenged, and brought on a visceral action packed thrill ride. Complete with what I found to be a brilliant closing shot “Fury” is one of those big budget, at first seemingly run-of-the-mill crop of American War films that turns out to be something much greater than it should have been.

[B+]

 

 

 

 

 

Review: ‘Boyhood’ 8.16.14

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

Grade: A-/A