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Slow West (2015)
Where have all the cowboys gone
The western genre can be as unkind as the west itself. If the stars aren't aligned you're in for a bumpy ride. The trail is especially hazardous for filmmakers today. Few try their hand at the old stereotypes. Recently the focus has been on the brutality of the environment and the weird folks one encounters while traversing the wilderness.
Slow West, sadly, is no exception. The photography is gorgeous, but breathtaking landscapes can only do so much. Just watch Tommy Lee Jones' 2014 western The Homesman (now streaming on Netflix) and you'll understand. Lots of beautiful images, but a weird, unappealing story that drags too long and leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Slow West follows Jay (Kodi Smit- McPhee), a Scottish native who has come to America in search of his beloved Rose. While on the trail he encounters Silas (Michael Fassbender), an outlaw who takes Jay under his wing to help him journey across the land. Little does Jay know that Silas has other intentions.
While there is a fair amount to like in this film, the bad outweigh the good. For one, we have no idea how much time is passing. I think they tried to make it seem like more time had passed by having Silas give Jay a shave, but it felt awkward and out of place. And while Silas and Jay are very different at the start, as is the case for most duos in the genre, I didn't really see them bond over anything except for one particular scene where Jay figured out how to dry their clothes. Was that enough to win Silas' friendship?
Just when things start clicking between the two main characters we are already at the climax of the film. And that's a shame because the acting isn't that bad. I wanted at least another half hour of character development, especially once the bad guy shows up, played by one of my favorite characters actors Ben Mendelsohn. He has a certain look that he has nailed. That, "I might be cool right now but say the wrong thing and I will go off," look. He had it in last year's Starred Up. His character here comes in too late and there is not enough of him on screen.
For a film with the word, "Slow," in the title, this film moves way too fast. If you look back at other westerns their runtimes are typically in the 110 to 140 minute range. While there are few exceptions (High Noon being one), these stories take time to get through. And that feels right to me. Time was something a lot of cowpokes and frontiersmen had. There was no rush. This film flies to the finish, which us saying something because the landscape forces the characters to take their time. This film sort of cheats by using the forest as a cover for how much land is in front and behind them. But still, the story goes by way too fast. It sets itself up as a big adventure for Jay, but it really only takes about an hour before the big finale begins.
And don't get me started on the ending. I won't spoil it for you but it basically makes this entire film a wash. Nothing gained. I don't want to say I was mad, but I certainly wasn't pleased. I might have enjoyed it more if there was more filler before it happened, but it felt like I just waisted an hour and a half.
While I've done a good amount of trash talking about this, I can't say it's a bad film. It's just not for me. The camera work is good, the acting is solid (I'm a sucker for Fassbender), and the effects are fine. I guess I'm a little snobby about my westerns. I hate seeing the genre that I was raised on treated as a sideshow attraction. For a while I thought the genre, much like the west itself, had been conquered. Mapped out, drilled for oil, with nothing left but reminders of what it used to be. Luckily there are still a few gold nuggets left in those hills. While Slow West isn't the film the genre deserves, at least it tried.
Let's enjoy this while it lasts
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens is without a doubt the greatest piece of Star Wars content to be released by a major studio since Return of the Jedi. I'd go as far as to say it's one of the best science fiction films to be released in that time frame as well. J.J. Abrams, the creator of Lost and more recently the man who revived an aging Star Trek franchise, outdid himself. Forget all of the hoopla surrounding George Lucas' distaste for the new film. He had his time, and when he was called upon to continue the saga he disappointed the fans. J.J. answered the call and hit a home run.
The film starts 30+ years after Return of the Jedi. A new darkness has taken hold of the galaxy in the form of The First Order. The group is picking up right where the Empire left off. It's sole mission: total domination of the galaxy, destroying anyone who stands in their way. Like the Empire, conformity is their model. Standing up to the school yard bully are the familiar rebels, this time in the form of the Resistance, allies to the Republic. I don't want to go too far into the plot as I think it best that you go in as fresh as possible (I was so close to making it!), but I assure you that this new crop of characters are the best since the original trilogy.
Abrams introduces us to several characters that within the first few minutes of screen time have more character and range than any and all of the prequel characters. Poe Dameron, Finn, Kylo Ren, Rey, and BB-8 have gone from faces in a movie trailer to household names virtually overnight. My brother said it best that BB-8 has more personality than all of the prequel characters combined, and he's right. These new characters have goals, ambition, emotions we can relate to, AND these characters fit in the Star Wars universe. At the end of the film I was genuinely curious about what would happen to them in the next film.
Characters aside, there's a lot to love about this film. My one wish going into the film was to have a fair amount of in camera effects and a plethora of aliens actually walking about. While it's unreasonable to expect there to be a Star Wars film completely void of major CGI characters and effects, boy did Abrams do right in my book. The film is full of great costumes, animatronics, and in camera effects that fans of the original films will get weak at the knees over. It felt like being back in a place with living trees, dry deserts, and frozen plains, not just a green screen with actors wearing sensor suits (though the film is not void of that).
So with great characters and living breathing aliens on distant planets, what else does this new film offer that the prequels were lacking? Story. The prequels had a lot of issues in regards to story. Pointless sequences that went on far too long to achieve very little, details that were both boring and disappointing to hear, and the atrocious display of lightsaber fights showcasing stunt choreography instead of the characters emotions. Lightsaber duels were representative of the struggle between two characters. Obi Wan and Darth Vader in A New Hope, and then Luke versus Vader in both Empire and Return. Those fights stood for the struggle against good and evil, an externalization of their feelings. The prequels had double sided sabers, acrobatic Jedis, and the coup de grace of lightsaber atrocities, the spinning quad sabers of General Grievous. This was my main gripe with the prequels, and I was really hoping would be corrected in the new film, and thank the maker it was. Without giving too much away, there is a lightsaber fight in the new film that is possibly the best in the entire series. It's full of emotion and representative of the struggles inside the characters.
There is an endless stream of outrage over what was done with the prequels, so I won't go into great lengths. There is one thing that couldn't be helped, regardless of who was writing or directing, and it's something J.J. did not have to deal with. One of the problems the prequels had to deal with is that the audience knows where the films needs to take us for Episode IV. That's the problem any filmmaker faces when making a prequel. Suffice to say J.J. and legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan had virtually free reign about where to take the franchise. This film strikes the perfect balance of acknowledging the original trilogy while not being afraid to take it in a new direction. Upon my second viewing I noticed a few more nods to the original films. They were subtle and didn't take me out of the story.
So here we are, entering 2016 with our seventh Star Wars film in the can, and lord knows how many more Star Wars iterations will be released in the coming years. I wouldn't be surprised if in 10 years times we have twice as many films in the Star Wars catalog to talk about. I don't know if that's a good thing, but only time will tell. For the moment, let's take a moment and enjoy what we have. J.J. has given us a wildly entertaining film that will be torn apart, raised up, and talked about for years to come.
There doesn't seem to be anyone around
Spike Jonze's latest feature film Her tackles the subject of being alone. Joaquin Phoenix plays Theodore Twombly, a man separated from his wife who spends most of his time working, checking emails, playing video games, and talking to his computer. He is not the only person partaking in this ritual. The majority of the characters and extras in the film are talking to their ear pieces and interacting with their computers, or OS (operating system). Things change when OS-1 comes out, introducing the world's first artificially intelligent OS. Shortly thereafter we are introduced to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johnansson). This first encounter will forever change Theodore's life.
What is so wonderful about Her is the world that Spike creates. It's a world exactly like ours. The key for me is how nonchalantly his characters use their tech. People walk around with tech sticking out of their ears, talking to themselves, and going about their business completely oblivious to what's happening around them. We have, "interactions," and, "connections," with other people through our devices. We walk past strangers who are using the same tech and having the same experience. We rely so much on these devices to go through day to day living.
Spike ingeniously takes this obsession with tech and gives it a personality. Instead of talking to Siri about a new email, listening to music, or taking a picture (because you may never see a sunset again!!!), Theodore partakes in all of these rituals with Samantha. So he's not just listening to music. He's listening to a song Samantha picked out (or composed) just for him. He's not just taking a picture of a sunset. Instead he and Samantha can experience it with him. They converse about what they're doing instead of just mulling about aimlessly.
By giving the tech a personality and the ability to think, it makes the experience of being alone not so lonely. Theodore and Samantha overcome many obstacles in their relationship, the first being that Samantha isn't just an OS. Samantha is, well, Samantha. A free thinking, super inquisitive mind that has wants and needs and can be happy and afraid all at once. It's brilliant how the outside world views their relationship. In short, it's perfectly okay to have this relationship. Not everyone agrees and those people who are hesitant cause some doubt to creep into Theodore's head, but don't all new technologies have people that oppose its use? Let's face it, 10 or 15 years ago the idea of meeting a person online seemed pretty ridiculous. Nowadays not only is it acceptable, it's become a primary alternative to meeting someone new.
This near tangible relationship with a non tangible being is, at first glance, odd. There is a scene where Theodore can't find Samantha. His connection to the server isn't going through. He frantically searches for connectivity, like a parent looking for a lost child at Disney. We don't look at this as crazy. We can sympathize because we do the same thing, like when we search for free wifi or that elusive 4G bar we desperately need for a phone call. Heaven help us if for one minute we can't receive an update or check our email, for the alternative is...alone time...
The inability to spend time by ourselves could be brought on by the pace at which we live our lives. Faster, stronger, newer, and bigger. Think of how long it took mankind to develop boats, then trains, planes, and rocket ships. Now think about how quickly we move today, both in physical and mental space. We are constantly, "progressing," because our technology allows us to do so. So when we have a lull in activity, our minds start to wander, and that is not natural for today's standards. When Theodore can't connect to the server, he is left alone, and the thought of being alone scares the hell out of him.
In the end that's what Theodore is looking for. In a way so is Samantha. We are constantly looking for distractions and a companion so we don't have to be alone. No matter how many friends, likes, retweets, pins, or subscribers we have, there is always that fear of being alone. I know this doesn't necessarily include everyone. There are people, fully functioning people, who don't require these needs, but for the most part, we can all agree that our world will never be the same because of our technology.
The connections that matter most are not the ones made by circuits, microchips, and displays. They are made with each other. They are made by communicating face to face. They are made with our senses. They are made with our memories. Spike could have taken this film is a variety of directions, and the one he chose couldn't have made me happier. You should experience it on your own. You just might learn something about yourself.
Tonight when I take the train home, I'll throw on my ear buds and play melancholy music, just like Theodore Twombly. I'll flick through my news feed or maybe take an Instagram of a cool angle on the railway. Or maybe I'll just sit there instead. I'll let my mind wander, drifting in and out of rational and irrational thought. I could revisit a memory or plan out what to eat for dinner.
With my iPhone, only so much is possible. With me, anything is possible.
World War Z (2013)
Don't give up
At the end of World War Z, just as the credits began rolling, a gentleman, scratch that, an idiot spoke up from the back of the theatre exclaiming, "What? That sucked! The book was nothing like that! Booo!" I'm sure he scurried away back home, logged online, and began tweeting, posting, and blogging, furthering his rant. Much like my response to him at the theatre, I hope he receives silence in return.
It's true, World War Z is nothing like the book. The book is told from the point of view AFTER the war. It's a "historical," account of what happened during the war. Rather than make a mockumentary with flashbacks, which would have been the wrong decision in my opinion, the filmmakers decided to put us right in the middle of the action.
When adapting a piece of literature it is impossible to bring every page, every paragraph, every nuance onto the screen. Some have come close depending on the material, but for the most part, they all have to take their own creative licenses. After all, it's called an "adaptation," for a reason, otherwise they would call it a copy or mimic.
Where World War Z works (that's a mouthful) and where so many others fail is that just because the world slips into total and utter chaos, doesn't mean that governments, military, and law enforcement agencies go away. Quite the opposite. If anything, these scenarios bring out the best of all of them. We see generals, UN delegates, and scientists trying to solve complex issues that they don't know anything about. Rather than going into hiding, they act. Society doesn't crumble. Bands of cannibals and leather strapped gangs don't patrol the streets with necklaces made of teeth. People do what they can to survive, and the higher ups try their best to find a fast and effective solution.
At first, I thought the movie started too fast. How could something this violent and concentrated go undetected, but after a while I got it. The opening montage of news reports said it all. How many of us listen to everything we hear on the news? Exactly. So much goes undetected while we focus on issues that effect us immediately. It's too late when the virus touches US soil. Not even social media can keep up with it.
As far as zombie movies go this one is pretty great. Though I think 28 Days Later takes the cake in terms of realism, in-camera effects, and sheer terror, this one holds its own. Brad Pitt plays a former UN investigator who is traveling with his family just as the zombie attack on Philadelphia unfolds. The film goes from 0-60 before you take a sip of your Coke. This is a fast paced, edge of your seat thrill ride led by one of the finest actors of this generation (Pitt's acting ability is far too underrated and lost in the kerfuffle of tabloid news).
For those of you who stare at the ticket window debating whether or not to see a film in 3D or standard, you might want to spend the extra few dollars to see this one in 3D (I know it's asking a lot, but maybe you can sneak some candy or a bottle of water to offset the concession stand price - deal with it). I tend to air on the side of "screw it, I want to see it in 3D." Now not every movie NEEDS to be seen in 3D, hell there are really only a couple that absolutely have to be seen in all three dimensions (Avatar and maybe Life of Pi), but this one really surprised me. 3D is not about things jumping out at you, but it's about layers. Luckily this film has both. Big chase scenes in Philly, particles floating about in South Korea, and tracking shots in Jerusalem make this one of the 3D events of the year. No exaggeration.
Like so many other summer blockbusters before it, civilization is on the brink of extinction and only a handful of experts can save us. What World War Z does that so many have failed is give us hope. Hope that humanity won't dissolve into nothingness. In the face of sheer danger these fighters stand tall, take a deep breath, look the enemy in the eye, and say, "No."
Only God Forgives (2013)
Coffee Table Movie
Nicolas Winding Refn has made a career of shocking audiences, for better and for worse. Through all of his work there is one word I keep repeating: hypnotic. I've seen five of his films and all of them put me in a trance. The stories, the camera work, the ethereal music beds, and the performances. Everyone involved seems to know what Refn is aiming to make, and when it works we inevitably figure it out.
In the case of Only God Forgives, I wish we knew what was going on.
Sometimes a film seems like it has one or two inside jokes that the characters get but you don't necessarily understand. I feel like if I watched this with the cast and crew they would smirk at certain moments and nod at a particular line. I, on the other hand, would be left scratching my head.
This is a film that after several viewings, probably similar to Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, would make more and more sense, and maybe even create an appreciation for what is being done. Some movies can pull it off. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such a film. it gets better and better with each viewing. Though The Master doesn't quite deserve a revisit just yet (it does have quality performances), this film falls completely flat.
It's a shame. A real shame. Refn is one of the most interesting filmmakers out there and his body of work shows it. He turns violence into an art form, where it's not just about special effects and blood curdling screams. He doesn't let violence carry on and on, barreling through walls and off of cars. Fighting hurts everyone, both the victim and the assailant. It's a very emotional experience with lots of blood, sweat, and swelling. That's what we saw in Drive, Valhalla Rising, and Bronson. That's not what we see here with OGF.
Now, I'm not advocating violence by any means. Violence when photographed and presented correctly can show humans at their most primal level. Here we have a lot of violent people, but there's no motive, nothing driving them to such violent acts. In Drive, the Driver is on his own. He must fight to survive, but he would rather use his wheels do the talking. The villain is an old, mean gangster with no patience to rant and torture his victims. His violent acts are done with purpose and precision. In OGF we have a lot of violent people, none of which we ever truly get to know.
Julian (Gosling) is a fighter (maybe) who runs a Thai boxing gym as a front for his mothers drug trafficking. He doesn't say much (less than in Drive if you can believe it) but he has a look about him that says...well, I'm not sure what it says. He's almost like a puppy. When his brother is killed his mother comes to seek revenge, hoping that Julian will help out. He doesn't. We find out later that he may or may not have been jealous of his brother's relationship with his mother, but we're never told anything that is the honest to God truth. You can't trust any of the characters...except the detective who wields a katana and slices up everything that moves.
I really don't want to go into the details because there isn't much and most of it is speculative. There are a few dream sequences (maybe) and one fight with Gosling, who may or may not be a good fighter. He sometimes has a temper but he also has a good side. His mother has no redeeming qualities and is pretty nasty to everyone. The detective leads a pretty wholesome life when he isn't stabbing, slicing, impaling, or gouging his way through the movie.
So the takeaways? Well, it looks pretty. This would probably serve better as a coffee table book than an actual movie. I would rather just look at a few images than an hour and half of synth tones, neon lights, and sword slashing. Honestly, watch the trailer. It tells a much more precise story and is more easy to understand. Hell, the trailer is actually pretty awesome (there is also a red band trailer that is more like a short Refn film).
Only God Forgives isn't an unforgivable sin. I don't even think it needs an apology. Refn clearly made a film that HE wanted to make. He has earned it in my book. Now that he has it out of his system I'm hoping he gets back to basics and starts making more films like Drive, Bronson, and Pusher. The ball is in your court Mr. Refn.
Tough to swallow
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close tells the story of a family living in New York City post 9/11. Oskar and his mother Linda (Thomas Horn and Sandra Bullock respectively) are still coping with the loss of Thomas (Tom Hanks), Oskar's father and Linda's husband. He was the glue that kept the family together, and not that he is gone there is a giant void in both their lives. When Oskar stumbles upon a key, he sees is as one final contact with his father, one final game the two can play. What does the key fit? Where will it take him?
Oskar is a unique child, both in his abilities and inabilities. He was once thought to have Asperger syndrome, a form of autism, though his tests were inconclusive. Regardless, he is a special boy with an imagination as lofty as lofty as his determination to find the elusive key hole for his father. With the help of his grandmother, grandmother's renter (Oscar nominee Max von Sydow), and the entire city of New York, Oskar journeys out into the unknown, hoping to come across the owner of the said key hole, but more so to find out where his father's final game will take him.
This film should come with a warning along with the MPAA's rating. THIS FILM WILL TAKE ADVANTAGE OF YOUR EMOTIONS. It's really not fair at times. A boy with Aspergers loses his father on 9/11 who is played by Tom Hanks, whom EVERYONE loves. The child's mother is played by Sandra Bullock, another of America's sweethearts, throw that on top of a very intense story about love, loss, and self discovery, you've got one heavy emotional cocktail.
I do think this film hits below the belt a few times, but overall I was impressed with the story. It wasn't so much about finding closure for the death of his father, this was a story about a city still reeling from a tragic event. This boy risks a lot going out into the city, greeting strangers to find out if they knew his father or not, only to discover that there is a good in every person, including himself. He was bringing comfort to their lives, be it a shoulder to cry on or a voice to laugh with, he was there.
Horn, Bullock, and Hanks offer up pretty solid performances. Sydow, who received an Oscar nod for the voiceless Renter, gives a nice performance, but I don't know if it was more worthy than say Albert Brooks in Drive or Andy Serkis in The Adventures of Tin Tin. Regardless it's still a great character and offers another angle to the story of Oskar and his father. Horn and Bullock really lock horns in this film, spewing some shocking revelations.
Director Stephen Daldry has a knack for tackling some tough issues. His last two films, both of which garnered Best Picture nods (The Reader and The Hours), ventured into the Holocaust and suicide. Where these films differ is with the characters. They both had very deep, complex characters, which in Extremely Loud the characters are more confused that anything else, or we can't understand as in Oskar's case. Daldry isn't shy to hold punches, but his punches here seemed a little too harsh and more consistent. It wasn't totally abusive but it came close.
It's a tough movie to get through for some more than others, but for those who can handle the subject matter they have the most to gain from watching.
Albert Nobbs (2011)
Albert Nobbs is a labor of love. Glenn Close, who stars in the titular role, has been connected with this material for nearly 20 years, playing the same role on stage in 1982. For years she tried to get the production to the big screen, and after a long wait her efforts have put forth a brilliant film. Directed by Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment), this film tells the story of Albert, an Irish waiter at a hotel. The trouble is she has been portraying herself as a man for 30 years. She has become encased in her mindset of Albert Nobbs that she doesn't know her true self anymore. She must do whatever it takes to get by, even if it means keeping her secret to the grave.
She befriends a local painter, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer), only Hubert isn't all that he says he is either. With Hubert's friendship, Albert sees that what he needs is a wife. He attempts to court another maid at the hotel, Helen (by Mia Wasikowska), only she has taken a shine to Joe (Aaron Johnson), the new handyman. It's sometimes painful to see the lengths that Albert goes to for Helen, but Albert it so pure in his thinking and kind of heart that we want him to get the girl no matter what.
What makes Albert Nobbs so special is Close's performance. Close truly fits the part. There is something in her eyes that makes you really believe that the woman in Albert is only what he keeps hidden under his clothes. All the rest is a man. Close makes us believe that Albert sees himself as a man only just a little different. We see a fragile man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants, even if it means sucking up to the harsh and vulgar members of high society.
The supporting cast around Close is fantastic as well. McTeer really shines as Albert's only true friend. I would look for both Close and McTeer to be in contention come this Oscar night. Wasikowska and Johnson look great for their respective parts, playing them with honesty. Another accent to the cast is Brendan Gleeson as the local doctor. He adds a touch of sensibility to the entitled of the day. He likes a good, stiff drink (or three) and finds himself comfortable in the company of those considered lower than him.
Gleeson's character brings up a great quality to the film. I am astonished at how much of a commentary of 19th century life is put into the film. I would say most of the first act is setting up the world they live in and periodic references and characters enter the second and third acts to remind us of the time period this story is taking place. Albert Nobbs is in fact a reflection of what it was like to live back then. In order to make a decent living one had to be a man, otherwise find someone to live off of.
It's a heartbreaking story that will really hit home. Albert on the surface is a simple man, but underneath lies a wealth of feeling, confusion, and love. The film ends with the beautiful song "Lay Your Head Down" with lyrics by Close herself, music by Brian Byrne, and sung by Sinead O'Connor. It reminded me of "Into the West" by Annie Lennox, the Oscar winning song from Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. This song from Albert is somber, sweet, and plays like a lullaby. I think it's safe to say that is exactly what it is; a lullaby for Albert, a character whose life has been so strenuous and tiresome.
The more I think about it the more I love this film. Great performances, great characters, and a perfect time period to be placed in. The song is the icing on the cake (and probably has the best shot at winning come Oscar night). It looks like Meryl Streep is all but a lock for Best Actress, but we shall see what happens. Who knows, maybe Albert will gain momentum coming down the homestretch. I hope it does.
La piel que habito (2011)
Almodovar strikes again!
The Skin I Live In (La piel que habito) is an emotionally draining yet highly enjoyable romp into a quasi new genre for Almodóvar. On the outside this has all the markings of a science fiction thriller, but the science involved really isn't the meat and potatoes of the film. It's a drama/romance steeped in mystery and intrigue, masquerading in sci/fi clothing. It stars Antonio Banderas, who reunites with Almodóvar after working with him over 20 years ago. Banderas plays a doctor whose controversial foray into developing new, stronger human skin forces him to test his new substance on a human patient in secret. Her name is Vera Cruz (Elena Anaya), and we are aware that Vera is, or at least was, being held captive inside Banderas' home.
There is also the housekeeper, played by one of Almodóvar stand by actresses, Marisa Paredes. She has known Banderas since he was a child. She is well aware of all his secrets, even ones that he isn't aware of. Her main goal is to protect him from the dangers of his work. Vera because of the reconstruction he has done to Vera's skin, he has made her similar to the wife that he lost, a concern for Paredes. Can he separate his feelings from his work, or will he succumb to desire and fall in far deeper than he could possibly imagine?
Almodóvar doesn't just give us generic characters in an average plot. No, no, no. He is not the person to put ordinary people in extraordinary situations. He takes extraordinary people and puts them in unimaginable circumstances. He has always done that and will continue to do that, and for that we thank him. Like M. Night Shyamalan, only less predictable, Almodóvar always keeps us on our toes. Just when we think we know where he's going, he jerks us in the other direction, and then jerks us back again. He does so cleanly and efficiently what others would make a mess of.
Banderas isn't just a talented doctor, he's a talented doctor bent on righting wrongs, revenging his family, and filling that empty void in his life. The same goes for Vera and Paredes. They both fit archetypical characters from the thriller genre, but there is so much more going on under the surface. Almodóvar's characters are like icebergs. What you see is only a tiny percent of what they are truly made up of.
Like so many of Almodóvar's previous films, especially those made in the last decade or so, this film has such a clean look to it. What I mean is the camera shots are well placed, level, and you can easily follow the action. We're not floating around the room or rumbling inside of a car. He and José Luis Alcaine (they've worked together several times before) utilize the beauty of their talent, the beauty of their setting, and juxtapose it with the ugliness of what is going on. There is kidnapping, murder, jealousy, lust, and science experiments, yet somehow they make it all look so chic. The use of color, a prominent feature in many of Almodóvar's films, is highlighted brilliantly here.
It's unlike any Almodóvar film I've ever seen, but at the same time it's like wearing your favorite shirt. It just feels so right, so comfortable. The material has changed but the elements are all there. He continues to shine with age and pushes the envelope further and further. He's a rebel, a genius, and a visionary, and one of the most talented artists working today.
Addiction up close and personal
Shame, the real feel bad movie of the year, is only McQueen's second feature film to date. His first film, Hunger, focused on a man who made his life very public when he went on a hunger strike during the 1981 Irish Hunger Strikes. In Shame, McQueen dissects the very personal and often shocking sexual addiction of Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender). Brandon is a well off business man. He has an apartment in New York where he leads a seemingly good life, but hides a dark secret that is on the verge of destroying him. His sex addiction has gone out of control. To make this even more difficult, his sister drops in unexpected and crashes at his place (played by Carey Mulligan). Her lifestyle begins to interfere with his addiction, forcing him to take drastic measures.
Every waking moment is spent towards achieving one goal: orgasm. We see him smile, laugh, engage socially, but when he is alone he is focused, like a junkie going through the routine of drug addiction. Brandon's tools aren't lighters, spoons, and rubber ties. He uses prostitutes, Internet pornography, magazines, or his imagination. Even at work his mind wanders off, either at a passing coworker or something he has looked up on his computer. This is far from a private matter. His addiction is slipping into the open and he knows it. We assume he is aware of his problem. At the beginning of the film we see Brandon lying naked in bed, the sheet pulled over his private area. He lies motionless, only staring at the ceiling above, breathing in and out as if he knows that today is going to be a long day. We know he's not thinking about work. He has one thing and one thing only. Sex.
Most people associate sex with pleasure. I'm sure Brandon has at one time or another had a pleasurable experience during intercourse, but he is long past that stage. During a scene on the subway he spots a woman. She's an attractive woman. She's alone. Vulnerable. She eyes Brandon staring back at her. The two have chemistry. In silence they are mentally engaging each other. His stare never wavers, he just scans her up and down. Suddenly her face changes. She gets up, showing the audience her wedding band. We can feel her shame for flirting with Brandon. He gets up and stands behind her. He follows her out of the train only to lose her in the crowd. His disappointment isn't so much in relation to not getting to know her, but that he will have to continue his search for sex elsewhere.
Brandon is a tragic character. His only connection with people is linked with sex. How will this person help or interfere with me reaching my goal of orgasm? Brandon's limit's knows no bounds. Fassbender, who also appeared in McQueen's Hunger, gives a fascinating performance. It is fearless both in the sense that it is a physically challenging role and that he accomplishes the role with such honesty. He could have played it like some debonair businessman just looking to score. Fassbender knows that his character is truly disturbed. He knows that if people found out about his condition he would be ostracized. He also knows that he needs help and won't get it. All of these factors come into play and create an incredible performance. Much like Gosling pulled off in Drive, Fassbender uses his eyes and body language to express how he feels.
Pain is a word often associated with addiction. We see videos of addicts going through withdrawals in health class. They kick, scream, shake, vomit. Evidence of a sickness in the body. Fassbender's character also shows great pain and uneasiness. During times of sheer euphoria, at least for a normal person, Fassbender gives us pain and suffering. He can't help what he's doing but he needs it to stay normal.
Along with Fassbender is Mulligan, another one of today's rising stars. Her character is rebellious, dependent, and loving. She wants nothing more than to find someone to care for her and to spend time with her brother. Her brother is too involved with his addiction and her taste in men and willingness to fall in love with them brings her down even more. She plays a girl on the edge of a breakdown and really shines on screen. Like Fassbender, she gives her all for the role, exposing her true colors.
In just two films McQueen has established himself as a major player in the art house scene. Both films are festival favorites with critical praise, but the general public isn't ready for his heavy storytelling. With hope (and some financial backing) he will continue to make the films he wants to make and hopefully garner enough praise here in the states to win over more of the public. It's going to be hard if he keeps getting NC-17 ratings.
The Ides of March (2011)
Watch your back!
The Ides of March is a "grab you by the throat kind" of political drama. I don't want to call it a political thriller like The Manchurian Candidate, but it has certain elements that make you stand on edge (confrontations, secrets revealed, intense dialogue). It stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, a young and talented man who is second in command on presidential hopeful Mike Morris' (George Clooney) campaign staff. When he has an unauthorized meeting with the opposing candidates campaign manager, all hell breaks loose as friendships are tested, news stories are released, and the worst thing a campaign can buy pokes its ugly head out; a scandal.
Along with Gosling and Clooney is Philip Seymour Hoffman as Clooney's head campaign manager, Paul Giamatti as the opposing manager, Marissa Tomei as the news reporter for the Times, and Evan Rachel Wood as the young intern who catches the eye of Gosling in more ways than one. A terrific ensemble cast that pulls off a terrific political drama in a political climate that is volatile and overflowing with unethical behavior.
Gosling continues his dominance on screen. Not just as a heartthrob but as a dramatic force. Not since Paul Newman flashed those baby blue eyes has there been an actor with such intensity without saying a word. There is an intense scene between Wood and Gosling where with just ONE look Gosling lets the audience know what he is thinking, what he wants to do, and what he has to do. This performance along with Drive make 2011 a really special year for the young actor.
Clooney pulls off the rare quadruple crown by acting, directing, writing, and producing. Though not as prominent on screen as Gosling, Clooney's presence is vital to the film, especially towards the end. In just his fourth film behind the camera, Clooney is building up a pretty decent resumé (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Good Night and Good Luck, Leatherheads). He calls on the help of Phedon Papamichael to photograph (he also photographs Clooney in Alexander Payne's Oscar hopeful The Descendants), who cleverly shows us what the people see and what is going on behind the scenes of politics (flipping back and forth nicely between the two). There is a scene where Clooney is giving a very enthusiastic speech in front of a large American flag, meanwhile Gosling and Hoffman are having an intense discussion on the reverse side. I saw Clooney on one side speaking of the light side of politics while on the other side, in front of an illuminated AND reversed American flag (used on soldiers uniforms in times of war), two men delving into the darkness of politics. They are the soldiers of war. Clooney is the poster child (literally).
There are so many reference to the Obama campaign that are hard to ignore like the advertisements, the political messages, the overall feeling of goodness. I don't think this is in any way shape or form a slant at Obama. No, no, no. I think they are trying to mimic the political climate and using images and ideas we have recently seen. I DO believe this is a huge slap in the face of politics and even a little jab at the current administration, saying that no matter how hard you try to do good if you want to succeed in Washington, you need to get dirty.
There are so many levels to dissect here. It's a story about survival, idealism, morality, politics, and a big reflection on the political machines that are in play in our nation's capital. What we see on TV is Clooney's character, Mike Morris. A clean-cut, righteous politician who wants nothing more than to change the ways of government. What we don't see are the nasty, backstabbing ways of politics, where one candidate's agenda doesn't mean squat when it comes to getting elected. There are others waiting to bring you down or raise you up.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and much like Roman politics there are friends waiting with open arms and knives at the ready.