Review: Her (2013, Jonze)


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(Some spoilers ahead)
Her comes at you with open arms and an open heart. It is ready and eager to engage your mind and soul. That openness, an inclusive openness, is a lot of what I loved Her. It allows the story to interact with the audience on an uncommon level. We see our own relationship with technology up onscreen, amplified by an idealistic near future with its colorful and endlessly soothing aesthetic and its recognizable tweaks to everyday life. But we, even more importantly, see our relationships with people up on the screen, and the familiar but always earth-shattering patterns in which people grow in and out of each other.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) embarks on uncharted territory by getting involved with his operating system. That newness of the unknown is used on a broader level to get at what a seminal new relationship can feel like. That so-we’re-really-going-to-do-this kind of excitement. On the other side of the hill, when Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) drops a bomb on Theodore, it’s of a bewildering extreme, also representing that is-this-really-happening disbelief when everything crumbles.

It’s so important, perhaps more important than anything to me regarding Her, that Samantha is her own being. At times it comes close to getting into tired man-jilted-by-woman territory, but the film and Samantha catch certain moments when Theodore is too entrenched in his own feelings to see hers. We see it, she sees it. That he gets called out on it is critical. In one way, even if this wasn’t intentional, it’s sort of about a man realizing that women exist outside of their own orbit (shocking I know!). As sad as the film can be and as attached we get to the central relationship, I was also so pleased to see Samantha venture into the unknown, to test her own limits and find her own purpose.

As remarkable as Joaquin Phoenix is here (which it should go without saying at this point) with Theodore’s permanent halfway-out-of-his-shell demeanor, it’s Scarlett Johansson I was most struck by. Her breakneck growth, enthusiasm, inquisitive nature; trying to grasp at human emotion and where she fits within and outside of that spectrum. Her feisty shrug-like manner and cautious tip-toeing inquiries. She even makes us feel a sense of the intangible space she occupies. It’s kind of insane.

I also fell in love with the friendship between Theodore and Amy (Amy Adams). They have the comfort, ease and support that long-term friendships carry. They console, they advise, they don’t judge. Amy isn’t just put in the film so Theodore can have someone to talk about his struggles. He’s there so she can talk about hers. So at the end when it all seems pretty hopeless what with the realities of change and failed sustainable connections, Theodore goes to Amy for comfort. And it’s beautiful because there’s a faith in peoples ability to be there for each other. To have that shoulder to lean on. Again, critically, it’s mutual. She has lost someone too. They comfort each other. Human connection remains intact without dismissing the positive sides of unseeable kinds of connection. Regardless of the fallout, nothing about Theodore and Samantha is depicted with anything approaching skepticism.

Her reminds me a lot of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (but far more optimistic), not just because of the lo-fi sci-fi element but for the encompassing way it tackles the experience of loving and living and losing that at times approaches profundity. The acknowledgment that bad comes with good and it’s often all worth it even if it can seem like it’s not. There is something of the hopeless romantic in Her; that love-on-a-pedestal way of looking at life, where emotional vulnerability is both risky and worthy.

I always pick up on a melancholy air in Spike Jonze’s work. Yes there’s that optimism, but it’s more of a tone I speak of. I cannot for the life of me intellectualize it but it’s there, to the point where I haven’t worked up the nerve to revisit Where the Wild Things Are since theaters. And I’m someone who tends to run towards melancholic things, not away from them!

Jonze’s first screenplay is a wonderful achievement, exploring the intricacies of love but also taking slightly surreal side trips into the kinds of bizarre scenarios the future may hold, which often involve middlemen and ways we become further isolated from each other. If I have one complaint, it’s that it periodically feels like the film indulges Theodore too much, in a way that can make him seem kind of childlike.

Nevertheless, Her is a lovingly crafted, deeply intimate piece of work that has struck a nerve with many, myself included, and rightly so.

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Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 #16-20


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#16. For a Few Dollars More (1965, Leone)
Trumps The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for me (!). Found it more consistently engaging on a storytelling level, specifically the set-up of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef as rival bounty killers who tenuously team up to take down El Indio. They tiptoe around each other for a bit; we are introduced to each via their disparate work strategies. Their first meeting is a special kind of dick measuring contest. Communication comes in boot-crunching, silent assessments and, in a patient bit of comedy with a matched pay-off, hat shooting. In fact the entire film is littered with pay-offs, most notably the finale (big shocker) which had me cheering out loud during a solo viewing for the first time in forever. Those kinds of moments don’t come around often; it’s always affirming to be swept off one’s feet, roused to such a degree and so firmly in a character’s corner as I was the moment Manco shows up with that timepiece.

The incorporation of the timepiece illustrates what I love so much about Ennio Morricone (besides the general fact that he cannot be beat) and his collaborations with Sergio Leone. Music becomes a tent under which the entire production gathers. In both For a Few Dollars More and Once Upon a Time in the West, non-diegetic and diegetic sound merge and inform each other with one common element. In For a Few Dollars More, it’s the timepiece. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s the harmonica. The music is a direct outgrowth of the story. Part of the fabric, its essence you could say, gallantly taking off in grander operatic directions.

This is also the most potent I’ve found Clint Eastwood’s presence as iconic figure. All fluidity in his essential movements; ever-watchful and unwavering. Waiting for opportunities to present themselves. Gian Maria Volonté has that Oliver Reed brand of magnetism (something I’d have picked up on immediately even if The Party’s Over hadn’t been the film I watched 2 days before this) with a beguiling touch of Hugh Bonneville. Co-lead Lee Van Cleef is best in show as Colonel Mortimer. Persistent weariness and endearing conviction. All three lead players compliment and elevate each other.

There is a moment that elicits a special level of ‘oh no he didn’t’ when Van Cleef dares to strike a match off Klaus Kinski’s back. I found myself instinctively shouting “WHAT ARE YOU DOING”  and proceeded to have Kevin McAllister face for the remainder of the scene. Sure enough, Kinski starts FACE-TWITCHING. Moments like this are priceless, folks. Priceless.

All in all, Leone continues to perfect frame-filling studies of the masculine face and the vastness around them. Sure enough, the soundtrack has already joined the rest my Morricone on the iPod to be listened to on endless repeat.

Christian Bale;Amy Adams

#17. American Hustle (2013, Russell)
Hodgepodge dress-up. I cannot for the life of me find a point to this, and I don’t mean a discernible ‘message’. That’s not a necessity for me and doesn’t automatically equate any failure. What I mean by ‘point’ is that it ostensibly brings nothing to the table; it stakes out zero territory for itself. On the one hand, it’s light as a feather but without effortlessness or charm. On the other hand, it’s also bogged down in self-imposed ‘seriousness’ but without carrying any weight or impact. It wants to be both comedy and drama. David O. Russell’s strength (right below his work with ensembles) has been toeing the line between the two in ways that service both. That strategy does nothing to lift this project.

Every time it feels like American Hustle might take off, it stays put. Hell, I didn’t even get all that much out of the interplay between actors, which is always what I look forward to from Russell. Basically, the man wants an Oscar so badly, going back to The Fighter, to the point where it wafts off his work, only to be masked by the newly acquired inordinate stink of hair product. On a basic level I enjoyed a lot of the film a little, which is a mite lacking in mileage.

Filled to the brim with endless story detail, the word ‘fun’ keeps popping up in reference to the film, but that didn’t reflect my experience. It pains me to reference performances, or anything for that matter, only in an awards context, but 3/4 of those acting Oscar nods are preposterous if not at all surprising (why hello there Mr. Weinstein). Jennifer Lawrence in particular, who is undeniably very talented (oh how the recent stirrings of backlash are so hilariously predictable and dull), nails the emotions of Rosalyn but is miscast and as a result unable to sell her character. David O. Russell is now 2 for 2 with casting Lawrence in roles too old for her. The only standout is Amy Adams who shatters into place the desperate self-denial of her character and the need to con herself from the inside-out.

The pageantry of the piece is self-conscious, or at least it feels that way. I still can’t tell if this is a good or bad thing. It’s a give-and-take. Was fond of the film pulling for the Bale and Adams relationship.

There are two bona-fide brilliant moments. First is Adams’ left-field bathroom stall howl, a moment of agony and ecstasy. Second is Lawrence, head-chopping and scrubbing away, belting “Live and Let Die” directly to the camera. These types of spontaneous alleyways, these peeks into character, are what I wanted more of.

The three times I laughed:
a. Cooper messing up Bale’s toupee
b. Cooper impersonating Louis C.K (I don’t know if I’ve seen a funnier moment this year)
c. Lack of resolution to C.K’s ice-fishing parable

I so dearly miss the David O. Russell of Flirting with Disaster, Three Kings and I Heart Huckabees. The issues I had with Silver Linings Playbook are irredeemable and more infuriating, but this one is yet even less of an achievement.

the train

#18. The Train (1965, Frankenheimer)
The bookends of moral dilemma serve as John Frankenheimer’s statement, with a steely action flick sandwiched in-between. Solid diversion in which it is easy to see the acclaim even if I can’t whole-heartedly hop aboard. Frankenheimer dollies around the premises with an excellent sense of establishing situation and place in one fell swoop. Burt Lancaster is game to play his own reckless stunt man, yet amusingly and unsurprisingly (and isn’t this part of the fun?), puts zero effort into convincing us he’s French. In this instance, Lancaster has a tough time connecting to the audience with his character and general presence, but this could also have something to do with his character being disconnected from the specific stakes in play.

Are inanimate objects, even masterpieces of art, worth the risk of human life? Frankenheimer and Lancaster’s Labiche answer with a resounding no. Von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) is an obsessive connoisseur and appreciator of the arts to the point where he feels ownership to the masterworks at risk. In the meantime, Lancaster’s motives are purely revenge-based. So there’s a topsy-turvy quality to the motives in motion. The end is a statement coda and resonates in a confrontational way. Even if I don’t agree with Frankenheimer’s perspective, he throws a pile of dead bodies at the audience, right next to the pile of paintings that get to persevere as a result. Throw in a spiteful revenge killing and you’ve got an ending that leaves us on a dire note, a note that forces you to think and sit with the consequences. For that I admire The Train.

Le Bonheur

#19. Le Bonheur (1965, Varda)
It’s as if Agnes Varda’s point of view should be clear as day to me. Clear as the found and placed pop colors that populate the Le Bonheur, giving it a cognizant and joyful brightness. But the film is elusive, or at least I find it to be, and that’s what draws me to it so much. The more I think about it, and read about it, I keep coming back to the name (as ya do). Happiness. For quite a while the film soaks in a picaresque and tranquil happiness. Nature seemingly pervades but really conceals just-over-there civilization. The married couple (who are married in real life) have perfectly behaved little cherubs (yes those are also their actual children). They make love in the grass. There are no complaints, no problems.

When Francois finds a look-alike of his wife to also love, we get a portrait of a different kind of cad. A cad who honest-to-goodness has no idea he is one. He is happy. He is the happiness of the title. It’s not an affair borne out of the usual domestic tiredness. He simply has a compartmentalized way of looking at things. Self-excusing and wrought with florid nonsense as his explanations are, I agree with a lot of the basics of his thought process. But the fact of the matter is that he has embarked, solo, on a polyamorous relationship without the other’s consent. Without care or any spark of consideration for his other half, or even for his second other half.

His wife has little personality. She is loving, demure, shines bright. Her life is a domestic one; blissful, but it revolves around him. Everything she has is based on the notion that he is hers. That he thinks what he’s doing is okay simply because it doesn’t change how he feels is most selfish of all because Therese’s feelings are screened out. Not even on the table. She does everything she is ‘supposed’ to, but there’s still someone else. She can’t handle this but Emilie can and takes her dutiful place. The new and easily repaired couple walk off in newfound glory, seen in increasingly mournful distance, surrounded by the beautiful decay of autumn. I don’t know if I’m anywhere near the mark here (but whatever, individual interpretation is subjective so it’s okay), but this is what I took away from it.

Watching the onscreen ‘happiness’ at the start can take a toll on the viewer, and thus it takes a while for Le Bonheur to get going, but once it does it’s engaging. Jean-Claude Drouot looks exactly like Bill Hader. Varda’s camera is potent and sly.

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#20. Her (2013, Jonze)
Separate post coming soon 

List: Top Fives of 2013 (in which I dole out a boatload of superlatives)


Welcome to the 3rd annual Cinema Enthusiast Awards! I started this, and the personal remembrance post to go up tomorrow, in an effort to encapsulate the odds and ends of a year in film. The purpose is to pay tribute and recognize the rankable elements of films great, decent and unfortunate in a given year. Each year I seem to be adding more and more categories because, well, why not! It’s my blog! Normally I have an individual song usage post as well as a posters post. This year I’m condensing them and throwing them in here. Next year I’ll get back to extrapolated posts for them, especially because people seem to enjoy them. It’s just that they are particularly difficult to do after the fact.

The Conjuring

Use of Title Card/Opening Credit Sequence:
1. The Conjuring (title card)
2. Top of the Lake (opening credits)
3. Stoker (opening credits)
4. The Spectacular Now (title card)
5. The Bling Ring (opening credits)

Bastards Creton

Beginnings: 
1. Bastards (Creton haunting the streets)
2. Laurence Anwyays 
3. Spring Breakers
4. The World’s End
5. Inside Llewyn Davis 
Honorable Mention: It’s a Disaster

Bastards

Endings: 
1. Bastards 
2. 12 Years a Slave 
3. Before Midnight 
4. It’s a Disaster
5. Prince Avalanche 
Honorable Mention: Her

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Ensemble Cast:
1. The Wolf of Wall Street 
2. Top of the Lake 
3. The Spectacular Now 
4. The World’s End 
5. Blue Jasmine 
Honorable Mention: This Is the End 

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Underappreciated Films:
1. In the House 
2. It’s a Disaster
3. Byzantium 
4. New World
5. The Pirogue
Honorable Mention: Monsters University (well known, but unfairly catches abundant amounts of slack within cinephile circles. It’s one of my favorites this year)

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Films That Started Strong But…:
1. Magic Magic (blunt and distancing climax that undoes everything that came before)
2. This Is the End (unfortunately settles into spectacle mode for last third)
3. Stories We Tell (runs out of steam and Polley neglects to place herself within her own story)
4. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (once again, the games are not nearly as interesting as the rest)
5. The World’s End (those last 20 minutes are pretty rough and yet it’s still got a high spot on my  year-end list) 
Honorable Mention: Side Effects (that twist…)

Gravity

Disappointments: 
1. Gravity
2. The Place Beyond the Pines
3. You’re Next 
4. Much Ado About Nothing 
5. From Up on Poppy Hill
Honorable MentionLeviathan 

Patsey

Newcomers: 
1. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave)
2. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color)
3. Saskia Rosendahl (Lore)
4. Ernst Umhauer (In the House)
5. Miles Teller (The Spectacular Now) (he’s been around for a while but this is a breakout role for sure so I’m putting him in)
Honorable Mentions: Cosmina Stratan (Beyond the Hills), Conner Chapman (The Selfish Giant), Macarena Garcia (Blancanieves)

New world
Underappreciated Performances:
1. Hwang Jeong-min – New World
2. Gemma Arterton – Byzantium 
3. Michael Cera – Magic Magic 
4. Elizabeth Debicki – The Great Gatsby 
5. Katharine Isabelle – American Mary 
Honorable Mention: Caleb Landry Jones – Antiviral, David Cross – It’s a Disaster, Jane Levy – Evil Dead

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Bit Parts/Smaller Roles: (goes up to minor supporting parts) 
1. Kyle Chandler – The Wolf of Wall Street
2. Matthew McConaughey – The Wolf of Wall Street 
3. Lola Creton – Bastards (integral to film, 5th billing, but very little screen time)
4. Michael Cera – This is the End
5. Adeporo Oduye – 12 Years a Slave
Honorable Mentions: Nathan Fillion – Much Ado About Nothing, Tom Hollander – Byzantium

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Scores: 
1. Prince Avalanche – Explosions in the Sky and David Wingo
2. Only God Forgives – Cliff Martinez
3. Spring Breakers – Cliff Martinez and Skrillex
4. Bastards – Tindersticks
5. Stoker – Clint Mansell
Honorable Mention: Prisoners – Johann Johannsson
Note: Even though I haven’t seen Nebraska, I’m addicted to Mark Orton’s “New West” track which is featured the trailer.

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Favorite Characters:
1. Llewyn Davis – Oscar Isaac – Inside Llewyn Davis 
2. Johanna Mason – Jena Malone – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
3. Gong Er – Zhang Ziyi – The Grandmaster
4. Amy – Amy Adams – Her
5. Mako Mori – Rinko Kikuchi – Pacific Rim 
Honorable Mentions: Clara – Gemma Arterton – Byzantium, Andy Knightley – Nick Frost – The World’s End, Aimee – Shailene Woodley – The Spectacular Now, Samantha – Scarlett Johansson – Her

Brad Pitt 12 Years
The ‘Why Are You Even Here’ Award:
1. Brad Pitt – 12 Years a Slave (OK, we all know why he’s there but ugh)
2. Countless Celebrity Cameos in the climax of Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
3. Justin Timberlake – Inside Llewyn Davis 
4. Sasha Grey – Would You Rather? (also pick for worst performanc of the year)
5. Isla Fisher – The Great Gatsby 
Honorable Mentions: Paul Dano – 12 Years a Slave, Philip Seymour Hoffman – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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This Performance Isn’t Working For Me: (miscastings/performances that didn’t work for me; must be at least strong supporting parts)
1. George Clooney – Gravity 
2. Ryan Gosling – Only God Forgives
3. Ryan Gosling – The Place Beyond the Pines
4. Carey Mulligan – Inside Llewyn Davis 
5. Hugh Jackman – Prisoners
Honorable Mention: Everyone in Oz the Great and Powerful, Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle

Antiviral
Great Performances in Not-So-Great Films:
1. Caleb Landry Jones – Antiviral 
2. Jane Levy – Evil Dead
3. Sam Rockwell – The Way Way Back
4. Steve Carrell – The Way Way Back
5. Isaiah Washington – Blue Caprice
Honorable Mention: Fiona Dourif – Curse of Chucky 

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Worst Films:
1. Pieta (Kim)
2. Escape from Tomorrow (Moore)
3. The English Teacher (Zisk)
4. Phil Spector (Mamet)
5. The Truth About Emmanuel (Gregorini)

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Character Dynamics:
1. Gary King and the Gang (Simon Pegg, Nick Frost, Paddy Considine, Eddie Marsan, Martin Freeman) – The World’s End
2. Anne and Johann (Mary Margaret O’Hara and Bobby Sommer) – Museum Hours 
3. Alvin and Lance (Paul Rudd and Emile Hirsch) – Prince Avalanche 
4. Theodore and Amy (Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams) – Her
5. Ashburn and Mullins  (Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy) – The Heat 
Honorable Mentions: India and Charlie (Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) – Stoker, Takashi Watanabe and Akiko (Tadashi Okuno and Rin Takanashi) – Like Someone in Love

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Romances/Couples:
1. Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply) – Before Midnight
2. Sutter and Aimee (Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley) – The Spectacular Now
3. Theodore and Samantha (Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johansson) – Her
4. Adele and Emma (Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux) – Blue is the Warmest Color
5. Eva and Frank (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini) – Enough Said
Honorable Mentions: Liberace and Scott Thorson (Michael Douglas and Matt Damon) – Behind the Candelabra, Laurence and Fred (Melvil Poupaud and Suzanne Clement) – Laurence Anyways

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Villains: 
1. Encarna/La Madrastra – Meribel Verdú – Blancanieves
2. Jordan Belfort – Leonardo DiCaprio – The Wolf of Wall Street
3. Uncle Charlie – Matthew Goode – Stoker
4. Kristen Scott Thomas – Crystal – Only God Forgives
5. Danny McBride – Danny McBride – This is The End
Honorable Mention: Edwin Epps – Michael Fassbender – 12 Years a Slave

The Selfish Giant

Welcome to Sob-Fest 2013: (Films I had the biggest emotional response to in regards to tears shed, because yes, films make me cry a lot)
1. The Selfish Giant
2. 12 Years a Slave 
3. The Grandmaster
4. Blackfish 
5. Her
Honorable Mention: Before Midnight 

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Song Usages: 
1. “Fade to Grey” – Visage – Laurence Anyways 
2. “Please Mr. Kennedy” – Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver – Inside Llewyn Davis
3. “Put Your Love in Me” – Tindersticks – Bastards
4. “Every 1’s a Winner” – Hot Chocolate – Frances Ha 
5. “Looking for the Magic” – Dwight Twilley Band – You’re Next
Honorable Mentions: “Everytime” – Spring Breakers, “Shiloh” – Neil Diamond – Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, “Live and Let Die” – American Hustle 

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Scenes: 
1. Restaurant Heartache – Blue is the Warmest Color (picture above is not from the scene listed)
2. Parking Garage/Elevator Ambush – New World
3. Lemmons – The Wolf of Wall Street 
4. Piano Duet – Stoker
5. Ball Entrance (“Fade to Grey”) – Laurence Anyways 
Honorable Mentions: House Party Fire – Something in the Air, Church – The Hunt, Train Fight Scene – The Grandmaster, At the Club – The Heat, Split-Screen Self-Homage – Passion, Pre-Apocalypse Party – This Is the End

Posters: (pictures features below) 
1. Laurence Anyways
2. Kiss of the Damned
3. Stoker
4. Frances Ha
5. Spring Breakers
Lots of honorable mentions, however it’s hard to signify which poster I speak of per film so I’m letting it lie.

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Capsule Reviews: Films seen in 2014 Round-Up #6-10


12 years a slave
#6. 12 Years a Slave (2013, McQueen) (USA/UK)
Steve McQueen somewhat inverts his psychological studies from outside-in/how the body inherently relates as vessel between what we see of people and what goes on within. It’s all recognizably McQueen, with suffering as the nucleus, but everything about 12 Years a Slave feels inside-out. By this I mean one man’s story, which remains prioritized, is used as a catalyst for taking in, if not directly on, the larger whole, all stemming from the centrality of Solomon. There is a blanket focus on the broader sets of societal and ideological circumstances through character behavior required for atrocities to be normalized. It’s a story of perverse realities, realities that reinforce the importance of always continuing to confront history, to reexamine, to not forget. Shouldn’t have to be said, but apparently it does, that history reflects the present (not to mention that slavery, in different forms, still exists). There is an emphasis on papers, on the thin and simultaneously meaningless/critical line that determines Solomon’s, and everyone’s, fate. There is also an emphasis on the abruptness of comings and goings in the people Solomon comes into contact with. Eliza’s children, Eliza, Clemens and of course Solomon, now on the exiting end, as he leaves Patsey. It doesn’t linger on these comings and goings; no time is left to process. The moment Solomon leaves particularly resonates, because we leave with him. He is in the carriage, Patsey barely visible, a fuzzy dot in shallow focus, and we can make out enough to see she faints, and then she is out of the frame a couple seconds later.

Can we all agree that the Hans Zimmer score is a direct rip-off of his own work? Specifically the track “Time”, from the last five minutes of Inception. Considering that “Time” is my favorite piece of score Zimmer has ever done, I’m okay with this and understand his desire to self-rehash. But still.

It’s pretty clear that Lupita Nyong’o is sort of the transcendent soul of the film, or rather that Patsey is.

The riverboat sequence stands out as a distinct transitional marker. It formally supports the abhorrent process of being put into the system with atonal music and a focus on the riverboat’s wheel churning (also pulling him farther away from his family). It’s a sort of prelude to the way McQueen presents the material, with a no safety setting intact. Long takes, shallow focus, the pain showing on the face and being inflicted on the body. I also wonder about the focus on brutality in the film, and if maybe it’s sort of an easy way of addressing the institution of slavery that puts that blanket focus mentioned earlier in the shadows. It’s complicated to be sure.

I’ve tried to avoid talking about how I felt during the film because it’s the way most reviews have been framed. But I have to mention the emotional build-up, one of unsurprised but nevertheless tearless disgust, that gets released by the end. As Solomon looks on at his family, both familiar and unrecognizable, apologizing for the state of his appearance, the impact of the film hits all at once. Being lifted out of hell is more emotional, understandable as beginning vs. end of film, than taking the initial plunge.

Lastly, I get that Plan B Entertainment helped produce the film but I really wish someone besides Brad Pitt had been in that role who pulls out his Aldo Raine voice, which I hated the first time, to distract.

Simon of the Desert
#7. Simon of the Desert (1965, Buñuel) (Mexico)
Daunting to write about this one; I can’t pretend to know what Buñuel was trying to do. When it started, I didn’t think much of it, but its combination of overt moments of humor and a gentle sort of satire won me over wholesale by the end. Buñuel sympathizes with or at least pities Simon’s efforts even if the film lampoons the worthlessness of said efforts. One of the things, hell perhaps the thing, I most connect to with Buñuel is his atheism, and so I always enjoy seeing how he tackles religion in various ways throughout his career. What I took from Simon of the Desert was a depiction of misguided piety, and the way Simon’s extreme devotion to God, in which he spends years standing on a pillar, is actually sort of a cheat/empty gesture. That extreme isolation is sort of useless and meaningless; the real hardships are down there on the ground. In this parable, God and Satan exist, but the way faith functions for the characters is condemned. The local priests don’t know their own faith. A father, upon being granted the miracle of restored hands, uses them to slap his child. The townspeople react with indifference and change the topic to bread. Even Simon, who refuses all adornment and basic needs, accepts a larger grander pillar on which to stand upon.

Claudio Brook was giving me weird Bob Odenkirk vibes in his physical appearance.

Buñuel lost money at the end of the production and had to tack on a quick ending, the result being rife with lunacy and the most drastic of all scene-changes. I’m not sure what to make of it, besides it being awesome, but there is an odd complacency on Simon’s part. Radioactive Flash!

Escape from New York
#8. Escape from New York (1981, Carpenter) (USA)
Even with Carpenter films that don’t do much for me, like this one, anything I get out of it directly derives from it being ‘a John Carpenter film’, even if said characteristics help make up my ambivalence. His tendency, particularly with films he has a writing credit on, are exceedingly simple set-ups to the point of near abstraction and a refusal to be bogged down with world-building. He periodically adopts a deliberate molasses-like pacing that promotes a precise foreboding atmosphere supported by his synth scores.

I didn’t feel much one way or the other towards Escape from New York. I enjoyed it enough but wouldn’t call myself a fan. Neither would I go out of my way to put it down. Predictably great cast; I always admire the actors Carpenter chooses to work with, assembling a varied group of regulars in the character actor vein. Even Kurt Russell feels like a character actor in star’s clothing. Donald Pleasence as the President! Was annoyed that Adrienne Barbeau’s character immediately stays by her dead mate to die alongside him. Of course the one female character stops living after her lover dies. Ugh. Harry Dean! Borgnine! Lee Van Cleef! Isaac Hayes! Tom Atkins (!) who I like to pretend is the bane of my existence. So many manly men.

My 3 takeaways were the score, the green-lit streets and alleys, and the ending. I would admittedly have liked a bit more world-building. There is a short casual scene in which Snake enters a decrepit theater where a stage production is happening. I liked that slice-of-desolate-Manhattan life and could have used a bit more of it.

Story of a Prostitute
#9. Story of a Prostitute (1965, Seijun Suzuki) (Japan)
I believe this is only my second Seijun Suzuki film? Can’t claim to have loved Story of a Prostitute when taken as a whole, but there sure as hell were moments, scenes, elements I am in awe of. What held it back for me, though this what probably makes it a more objectively ‘great’ film, is that its focus is far more on the military than is of interest to me, at least in this particular story. Seijun Suzuki served during WWII, and uses this story, which takes place during the Sino-Japanese war, as a gateway for criticizing Japanese military institutions. That aspect is pretty scathing; there is no winning, people are swallowed up like it’s nothing, the system is the one that betrays the individual. The most committed of the bunch, Private Mikami is a boy devoid of personality for his loyalty, and who goes to trial for being taken prisoner only to later commit suicide. It’s nice to see Suzuki reach outside that relentless pulp sheen for that scathing political surge, but I admit it lost me a bit for this same reason.

Yumiko Nogawa is outrageously physical and high-pitched; a force of nature if there ever was one. This is a representative example of Japanese actors/actresses often, depending on the melodrama or tragedy of other tone of the story, using their bodies and voices in ways that seem connected specifically to Japanese theater origins. Harumi is self-destructive, coarsely defiant, and desperate, but she’s fearless. That reliable style-to-spare of Seijun Suzuki’s makes for some remarkable moments within the whole such as using slow-motion and mismatched use of sound to heighten emotion and torment. These moments slow down the nightmare.

short-term-12-brie-larson-1
#10. Short Term 12 (2013, Cretton) (USA)
So close to being great, and some of it is great, to the point where I still like this a lot despite what I’m about to write. It’s largely undone by an insistence on neatness and on failing to recognize the complexity of individuals by bluntly tacking on a predictable parallel backstory for Larson’s Grace which is rote and unnecessary. There’s also a faint whiff of it having gone to the Hollywood cleaners even if it hasn’t. What I mean is it’s a bit too shiny; a bit too neutered as to make everything more presentable. Just look at the way Nate is presented. He is the new employee and audience surrogate, our introduction into the foster care system. And he is flabbergasted by everything around him. Attempted breakouts, getting spit in the face, being called out on his naivete. Everything. And it’s like really? Really? It seems geared to represent audience reaction, which means the film is assuming that people live in under a rock and don’t understand how tough it is for everyone involved in foster care facilities.

So it’s a testament to the film that despite these major drawbacks, I really liked Short Term 12. When it isn’t stumbling, it has a natural grace, a commitment and attentiveness to both staff and kids alike, and the acting is stellar. I’ve been patiently waiting for Brie Larson to be given a chance to show people what she can do since her work on “The United States of Tara” (where she took the snarky teen role and created new nooks and crannies for her character tenfold) Her contribution to the film is incalculable. She has such a spontaneous charm, such conviction, such a lived-in quality. Her character has a pretty drastic arc, where the illusion of control and responsibility collapses completely. She’s so good that she sells Grace’s arc, and though I hate the direction they take her in, Larson is never less than captivating, selling it all wholesale. The same goes for the Keith Stanfield as Marcus and John Gallagher Jr. as Mason. These are some truly gifted performers. Marcus’ rap is heartbreaking and raw. Short Term 12 feels on its way to authenticity, and I encourage people to see the film even if it abandons its good intentions with clunky compact sheen.

Capsule Reviews: Films Seen in 2014 Round-Up #1-5


Hello all! Welcome to the new year! I’m closing in on my 2013 viewings. There are 5 more available must-sees for me to watch and then I’ll embark on 2013 lists. This year for my round-ups, I’d preferably like to do them in groups of 5. It’ll make for more posts and easier promotion, and more consistency.  I’ll also be keeping monthly track of countries and decades represented at the bottom of certain postsc.

Planet of the Vampires

#1. Planet of the Vampires (1965, Bava) (Spain/Italy)
Slightly ahead of its time with its notion of sci-fi/horror, a genre blend that wasn’t often mixed by 1965. And this isn’t just sci-fi/horror like, say, Invasion of the Body Snatchers; it’s horror in space. Mario Bava does his thing by using the physical space, cavernous ultra-low budget sets, pop color smog, and an eerie electronic score to create an inescapable atmosphere. But here’s the rub; the entire film feels like a total flatline. There’s an inexcusable monotony that takes hold instead of the intended dread. I can’t say I felt one thing during the film. It’s known these days as an uncanny precursor to Alien. Bava often discards characters and story in favor of aesthetics, and he’s praised for this today, but I’m leaning towards not really being a fan of his. Of the four Bava films I’ve seen, only Kill, Baby…Kill! is the only one I’m outright fond of. His brand of atmosphere tends to run transparent and empty for me personally.

Loves of a Blonde 1

2. Loves of a Blonde (1965, Forman) (Czechoslovakia)
Coming-of-age triptych built on a naive clutch for escapism via romance. There is a constant back-and-forth between characters who criss-cross within comic setpieces,  trekking through social and domestic debacles with a wry tracking observation. The first sequence in particular has the camera functioning almost as a sports announcer, catching increasingly lumbering developments from all sides.

Andula’s initial reluctance towards Milda reveals a self-awareness that once distrust turns to trust, she’s all-in. He of course is a cad of the first order, inverting a self-defense lesson to advance upon her as well as a faux-interest in her attempted suicide. The way his methods of persistence casually reveal this fact about Andula reveal an underlying sadness to the film. What impressed me most about it was how Forman’s second work has a quick-witted touch, laced w/ Czech pop music and a kind of farcical comedy-of-errors, but there’s a sincere sadness underneath it all that may or may not be reconcilable.

Bunny Lake is Missing

#3. Bunny Lake is Missing (1965, Preminger) (UK)
Second 1965 film seen based on an Evelyn Piper novel. Could be read from a feminist perspective as it uses the ‘but they do exist!’ film to prey upon our assumptions of women as hysterical and mentally unstable creatures with maternal fixations only to slam it back in our face. There’s also quite a bit of onscreen manipulation to make this possible, most notably if our first shot of Ann had started five seconds earlier.

Once the reveal takes place, we set upon a conventional kind of climax, but it also sets the film free from information withholding (for better or worse), becoming manic with perverse incestuous and infantile elements, and a gloves-come-off formalism by Preminger to match. It’s both conventional and delirious, like watching an extended improv exercise with impossibly high stakes.

The more grounded first two-thirds are won over by the supporting cast of British eccentrics reveling in grotesquerie. There’s Noel Coward as a gay masochist who speaks in drolly slimy propositions. And there’s Martita Hunt as Ada Ford, a retired shut-in who lives in an attic listening to tape recordings of children describing their nightmares. Anna Massey is her upright golden self. Carol Lynley and Keir Dullea give performances that don’t quite fit in with their surroundings but it works, separating them from the rest just as they are in the story. The two groups of performances fall into coarse vs. whimsical. Not sure where Olivier fits in. We’ll put him in the category of ‘Olivier’! There; problem solved.

How about that creepy doll hospital, huh? There’s also a deeply misplaced tie-in with The Zombies (whom I love dearly), foreshadowing future par-for-the-course industry tie-ins of all kinds. The first time appear, on a pub TV, it’s painfully awkward. The second time, played over Ann’s escape from hospital, works really well and predicts the way music will be used in film very shortly afterwards. Preminger uses his busy lingering frames to feel like a maze of the mind, but whose mind, and how do we find out?

spectacular now

#4. The Spectacular Now (2013, Ponsoldt) (USA) 
Indie darling coming-of-age romance based on a YA novel? Doesn’t sound like my cuppa. Oh, but in this case it was. Brings us into the characters lives on their own level of experiencing first loves and mistakes and conflicting flutters and people letting them down. This ushers in a level of investment on our part  uncommon in most romances; we come to care deeply for Sutter and Aimee, separately and, for better or worse, together. Ponsoldt makes us feel like part of the story; we feel as they feel. The uncertainty, the butterflies, the ways people change and don’t change and the self-doubt.

I cannot stress enough how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are; it’s to the point of hyperbolic-free ‘revelatory’. Ponsoldt keeps long takes with the two actors, both in frame, so we can see how they share physical space and their physicality with each other. Their scenes feel unrehearsed, clumsy, vulnerable. We catch how substantial and new the blossoming relationship is for her, how casual and freewwheeling for him, and the ensuing changes on each end. We know Sutter. He’s a class clown type, clinging to high school because he sees no forward-motion for himself. He’s always deflecting. Woodley is just as impressive, if not more so, because the film doesn’t favor her perspective and yet she’s able to elevate a ‘nice girl’ role into something so beautiful and fragile. We become so excited for her, and then protective of her.

The Spectacular Now is so good that it manages to come out on top despite falling into a few conventional coming-of-age trappings. The ‘I’m just like my father’ subplot lacks oomph or subtlety. So that unfortunate side-trip takes up a lot of been-there-done-that time. There’s also a framing device that immediately undercuts and underestimates everything between.

I’m über-picky with romance. But I was struck by the maturity with which this story and these characters, even the secondary ones, are crafted. People are neither wholly good or bad, everyone is flawed and capable of weakness, ill-advised coping and the hardships of living with oneself. It’s an obvious truth, and one that films tend to forget in service of tropes. I guess what I’m saying is that The Spectacular Now doesn’t view its characters as characters, it views them as people. And I responded very positively to that.

It also gets the fumbly awkwardness of courtship, particularly the mismatched intentions of them (playing half-hearted and whole-hearted investment off each other) and new-to-them experiences like sex. And I’m not talking movie-awkward, I’m talking awkward-awkward. But a normal kind of awkward. A kind we all relate to and recognize. It’s a quality you can’t miss. It’s due to the performers and that James Ponsoldt is so committed to telling this story with honesty and sincerity.

A final thought was that a new kind of feeling to have towards a coming-of-age romance was conflicted feelings about how I wanted it to end. It’s not cut-and-dry and I found myself wondering ‘what do I want for these two?’ Aimee may be good for Sutter but Sutter really isn’t good for Aimee, and her undying loyalty to him shuts out her own potential. You see it happening; it’s frighteningly casual. When and how the film comments on this is a stand-out. Have I mentioned how great Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley are? Because it bares mentioning again.

Also, I think The Spectacular Now would make a fitting double feature with The World’s End.

thepast-berenicebejo

#5. The Past (2013, Farhadi) (France)
Companion piece to A Separation in that it takes a multi-player domestic crisis right up to the point of melodrama, flirts with it, but stays on the side of caution, using its energy and resources to comb through the minefield of clashing perspectives and human emotion. Farhadi’s strength, and the film’s, is his lack of judgment; he acts as a resolute and humanistic seeker of truth and escalating bursts of hardship along the path to dust-settling. I know some reacted negatively to the plot overload, but the film plays with melodrama, and that’s what melodrama is rooted in; heightened plot developments that seem not to cease and which threaten familial or romantic implosion. Maybe it’s because Farhadi feels more naturalistic and observed in formal ways and so the melodrama sticks out as somehow being below him or crass amongst the rest. Me, I like the marriage he finds between the two. It’s hard to call it over-plotted when all of the developments go back to an event that has already taken place; developments simply equal secrets being revealed and confessions being made, in this case like a Matryoshka doll.

What I did take slight  issue with was that there seems to have been a shrill women vs. calm and exhausted men dichotomy set up that felt iffy. Bèrènice Bejo, as great as she is, isn’t afforded quite the same level of understanding as the other characters, most emphatically when placed against Ahmad, who may as well bear the title of Shitstorm Cleaner, the character we most immediately empathize with. I also felt the resolution, or lack thereof, to be limp. Between this and A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is becoming a favorite of mine. I’d really love to see About Elly.

Review: The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Scorsese)


The Wolf of Wall Street
#256. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Scorsese)
Brazen, bloated, maniacally funny, exhausting, redundant, and revolting. I don’t know how else to describe this film which is causing quite a stir amongst the general public and the online film community. If it didn’t provoke this kind of discussion and/or disgust than I’m not sure it would be an unqualified success. It’s been said so many times at this point, but depiction does not equal endorsement. It’s an uncomfortable film for many reasons, mainly because Scorsese and screenwriter Terence Winter are constantly toeing the line between an unapologetic immersion into Jordan Belfort’s scummy lifestyle, in a way that is meant to feel infectious, and pulling back for that nasty transparency. Scorsese has always had a fascination with these types of hyper-masculine guys who turn their backs on the law in various ways. And that comes through, complicating things a bit, mostly for the better.

What the film lacks in layers it makes up for in audacity and a commitment to turning people off and on in fluid measure, and the experience of watching it is more than varied. Because this is a pitch-black comedy, a satire, and a film as ugly as they come. There are times we laugh at them and times we shake out heads in disbelief and times that we pull back in horror. But there are also times we laugh with them. Because we’re meant to. And you catch yourself. The Wolf of Wall Street isn’t just meant to condemn, to mirror the worst of man’s base instincts, and the mentality of American Dream as horror show. We are meant to enjoy watching them to a certain extent. Not in a way that wholly supports, but in a way that truthfully links us to these characters for being entertained on any level, even a critiquing one. The filmmakers and the audience are not placed above the goings-on no matter what our reaction is to what we see. That last shot couldn’t be more reflective of that.

And as a woman there’s an additional layer to watching all of this because this is a world where misogyny runs rampant, where women are either on Belfort’s three-pronged prostitution scale, or have (smartly I say) hitched their way to money through marriage or have fought like hell to become one of the boys. And then there’s the glorious Aunt Emma played by Joanna Lumley. But there really is no room made for us in the world of this film, and women are seen as objects to be defiled, put down, worshiped, or disgraced at every turn. Sound familiar? Because fucking seriously, this is the world we are living in. This is the mentality. And Wolf of Wall Street gives us a first-class ticket to a special kind of debauchery.

DiCaprio is blistering on a wavelength we’ve never seen from him (hell, never even come close to), and never thought him capable of. This is an extreme film with an extreme character and he’s been waiting to play this part for 7 years. He is all-in, unhinged in a way few performances are, keyed up for physical comedy and improvised distastefulness. It is both exhilarating and exhausting to watch him work; in many ways, it’s the performance I’ve been waiting his entire career for. In fact, this might be the most pitch-perfect cast of the year. Everyone is standout in their own way.

And as for the men, well, the funniest scene of the year might also be the most grotesque and pointed depiction of mankind I’ve seen since….ever? It’s the perfect example of Scorsese and the godly Thelma Schoonmaker committing to the subjective experience of Belfort but always, always, always pulling back the curtain in some way to reveal the pitiful reality. DiCaprio and Jonah Hill are higher than their characters have ever been, on Lemmons, are seen from a distance; slobbering, writhing, screeching, fighting between a kitchen island, unable to reach each other, unable to speak with any semblance of coherence. Literally conquered by a phone cord and a piece of ham.

Laughter is the best medicine and the only way to present this story. It goes down smoother but with an amplified potency which, though I wish it had more of the kinds of stinging moments depicted in the brilliant head-shaving scene, makes for a film that pitches us right into the heartlessness of a rotted mentality that supports the notion that having money gives you carte blanche to stop being human.

Films Seen in 2013 Round-Up #246-257


Here you are; my last batch of capsule reviews for films seen in 2013. My 2013 film lists will be posted within the next month. Usually I do a slew of posts including favorite and worst posters, song usages, worst films, performances, a myriad of top fives, and finally top 30 films split into 2 posts. This year I’m going to whittle down the favorite posters, worst films, and song usage into the top fives post. I’ll also continue what I started last year with a Personal Sampling of takeaways from the year in film.

new world

#246. New World (2013, Park) (South Korea)
Mob movies have to work a little extra to earn my commitment. I’m not adverse to them, and there’s actually quite a few I like or love. But it’s not a genre I automatically care about. New World, written and directed by I Saw the Devil scribe Park Hoon-Jung more than earns my commitment. It pulls you in from the word go. It’s more about the characters and how their long-standing relationships go hand-in-hand with the choices that are made than strictly adhering to mob tropes. There is an unforeseen ripple effect that the characters can’t quite define, but they all know it’s there. The parking garage fight scene is a kinetic stunner, right up there with the final minutes of Drug War and The Grandmaster fight sequences for year-best. I seriously cannot stress that enough. All of the performances are incredibly strong, none more so than Hwang Jung-min, his doofy swagger acting as a posturing veneer. This is swift, smart, and impressive all-around. It felt like a kind of unspoken love story between two ‘brothers’; the curious coda falls in line with this reading.

Blackfish
#247. Blackfish (2013, Cowperthwaite) (USA)
Serviceable documentary that barely has to work to earn empathy, which ends up being an eventual disservice to the film’s quality. It does what it needs to do, it gets this story told. But there is an art to documentary filmmaking; they are not simply an information delivery service. And there are many conventional documentaries that succeed with flying colors. But Blackfish is very narrow, very blunt and lacking in nuance. Yes, it is gut-wrenching and very emotional stuff. Yes, it is effective. Yes, it is important for people to see. But delivering that information efficiently is not all it takes to make a great documentary; just a decent one. For instance, showing the Sea World ads is an easy potshot. Sure, show them once. But several times? Enough now; that’s lazy. What I did find the most interesting, this being an example of the film going beyond info-delivery service, had to do with the former trainers who were caught between being kept out of the loop (but sensing or knowing something was amiss), but staying on out of loyalty to the animals and the apparent relationship between them; a relationship that we come to see is part genuine and part one-way street. That is an aspect that comes through as we see the interviews, and it’s a collective experience happening below the surface of the text. It’s called layering.

I’m also intrigued by the way it uses the orcas’ intelligence as a way to gather further empathy, but not addressing the idea that all animals, mostly of lesser intelligence, kept in zoos and the like is kind of on a similar scale? It’s not a knock on the film, and yes I’m talking about going from the specific to the very broad. But as I watched it, many of the basic actions taken against these animals in their separation and captivity can all apply to any zoo or park. In one way it feels like a way to pat ourselves on the back for caring without us having to address the larger scale ethical issues at hand. It’s a rough sketch of a thought I had.

Blackfish does a nice job summing up its subject matter, but I’d have liked if it relied less on how easy it is to get its audience to be horrified by what we see as a substitute for craft.

Those Magnificent

#248. Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines (1965, Annakin) (UK)
In theory I love the epic race films of the mid-1960’s. It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World is a favorite of mine; a farce to end all farce. But that is the only one I like! The Great Race has its moments but is too high-pitched as a whole and this one goes absolutely nowhere. It is steeped in slapstick with machine-driven repetition and it doesn’t know how to create and/or build comic situations. It’s stuck in first gear from all angles and is too attached to the aviation accuracy (which, yes, is pretty cool and Annakin’s knowledge is palpable and evident) to craft a story around the machines. All Western nationalities are brought down to the same level of buffoonery. Well, sort of. The reveal of the Japanese pilot speaking in a perfect British accent is legitimately hilarious. Most other crass jokes fall flat. The American cowboy protagonist is a total buzzkill. But as for the good things, there’s the whimsically animated title sequence, a spunky Sarah Miles, a young (and thus very much a looker) James Fox and…yeah that’s about it.

Cutie and the Boxer
#249. Cutie and the Boxer (2013, Heinzerling) (USA)
An engaging portrait of two NY-based Japanese artists and how art and marriage intertwine and repel. I found myself very attached to Noriko, whose marriage to Ushio feels like a sad and settled kind of familiar loyalty. She’s been through so much with this man and struggles for the kind of respect she deserves as both a woman and an artist. The feeling it has of biding its time both helps and hurts the film.

Hannah Arendt
#250. Hannah Arendt (2013, von Trotta) (Germany/Luxembourg/France)
I could have done without characters stating that Hannah Arendt has no feeling about a dozen times. Hannah Arendt is consistent in its moderate interest, but it isn’t until the response to the New Yorker article finally kicks in that the film really takes off in ways philosophically transfixing. Sukowa is stern, likable, and has more conviction than the rest of us as Arendt. I particularly responded to the refreshing depiction of a healthy relationship in her marriage to Herr Blücher, and an equally healthy friendship between women with Arendt and Janet McTeer (who is awesome here) as author Mary McCarthy.

The Nanny
#251. The Nanny (1965, Holt) (UK)
Surprisingly astute ‘psycho-biddy’ film dominated by excellent camerawork by Harry Waxman and future Kubrick camera operator Kelvin Pike. It’s slightly less straightforward than I expected, which I liked, and it maintains an inescapable atmosphere throughout.

Prisoners

#252. Prisoners (2013, Villeneuve) (USA)
Presents moral dilemmas without really taking them anywhere. Feels like a season of procedural crime drama crammed into 2+ hours. On a basic level, it’s thoroughly watchable, but only intermittently engaging. Anything and everything going on with all four parents was more than a little rote, and while Hugh Jackman really gives his all, it’s a burly performance that lacks form. Jake Gyllenhaal on the other hand is compelling and magnetic in a way I’ve never quite felt from him. We know next to nothing to nothing about Loki (except tattoos and twitching!) but every moment with him feels informed in a fully-realized way. He’s tired and going through the motions but he’s still all in. The way he handles the scenes with Jackman, trying to calm him down, is mechanical, and says a lot about him without really saying anything. Melissa Leo reminds me of a Hollywood-version of a patron from my library. Which is freaky. Roger Deakins partially saves the day, making Pennsylvania a foreboding and chillingly stark place where hope seems to have evaporated and everything cuts just a little but more. A late sequence that functions as one of the film’s climaxes, features cinematography as the star. A blue-streaked and bloody race to the hospital becomes a year highlight.

Rapture

#253. Rapture (1965, Guillerman) (France/USA) 
The definition of an undiscovered jewel. Patricia Gozzi, looking like a gamine teenage Juliette Binoche, is uncut, honest, and raw as the troubled Agnes. Everything feels like a highly fractured fairy tale; delusional, grand, and run-down. It’s keyed into French New Wave sensibilities but isn’t led by them. The isolation and family dynamics sit somewhere above us, slightly inexplicable and unconventional but visible all the same. Dean Stockwell is sort of impossibly good-looking in the 60’s, something I wasn’t aware of until now. Seek this out when you can. It’s sumptuous, troubling, and off-kilter in equal measure.

Dark Knight Rises
#254. Inside Llewyn Davis (2013, Coen Brothers)
 (USA) 
Inside Llewyn Davis uses the Greenwich Village scene to evoke the warmth of community, and creative outlets amidst the chilly haze of winter (courtesy of Bruno Delbonnel), and one man’s anonymous search outside that epicenter for success, purpose, and place. When trying to describe how I felt after this film ended, I mistakenly landed upon the film having the kind of heart I don’t often find with the Coen Brothers. But this wasn’t the sentiment I was looking for. They often have heart; but there’s a softness, an emotional center to this film that I haven’t quite experienced from them, at least based on my emotional response by the time the credits rolled.

It attaches itself to cyclical journeys within journeys, streaked with surreal touches and a cat (well, more than one cat) that overtly represents the idea of journey (the cat’s name is Ulysses!) It’s about how we are and who we are within the universe, but also about the search for something that might not be there; in this way it reminded me of an acute depression. We drift along with Llewyn, as he comes to life through song and only through song, a dreary wanderer whose supposed lack of routine reveals itself to be just that. Attempts to break the cycle lead him to the start. It’s clear the guy has lots of talent but he seems destined for the eternal winds. The film has a spiritual and structural connection to both Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou?

Oscar Isaac is a revelation. There are a lot of showier performances this year (not a knock), but Isaac might be the one that ends up sticking with me most. He’s resigned and has a chronic tendency to burn his bridges. But he’s got this stuff in his blood, and Isaac is this guy here, always suggesting a fullness of character that doesn’t come around too often. If I have one complaint, it’s that Carey Mulligan’s Jean stands out as even more shrill and cartoonish than most Coen Brothers supporting characters. It’s written and played to the hilt in a way I didn’t find satisfying or successful.

Anchorman 2
#255. Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013, McKay) (USA)
I liked this quite a bit overall. McKay and team have a throw-everything-at-the-audience and see what sticks kind of mantra, which lends a hit-and-miss quality to their work. This is evident in most broad comedy I like (I’m also very picky with my broad comedy and Anchorman happens to be an instance when it works for me big time). I’m not sure the sequel ever feels like a full film as it’s more concentrated on the parts, but a lot of those parts are hilarious so it’s hard to complain. It’s also worth noting that this is the kind of film that works least on a first viewing. It’s built for re-watches, the kind where you latch onto your favorite things and sort of ignore the duds.

But basically I just love seeing these guys work as these characters. Ron Burgundy feels like the role of Will Ferrell’s career; he slips into it so naturally. They all have an innate sense of timing and rapport with each other that just becomes a pleasure to watch. Carell’s role as Brick is obviously much expanded. It can become a bit much but many of its finest moments come from him. A scene where Brick shows up to his own funeral and the guys have to convince him he’s still alive might have been my favorite part. I wish a lot more had been done with the satirical elements it introduces involving the advent of the 24-hour news network. Idea kernels are there but undeveloped. And all of the racial humor fell flat for me; I’m not really sure what they were trying to do with this but it was one-note and mostly uncomfortable as opposed to funny uncomfortable. I’m also disappointed that Christina Applegate is given next-to-nothing to do. But for every failed subplot or flatlining punchline, there’s a scene that starts with Brick, Brian, and Champ laughing their asses off at Garfield comics or a delightfully random section involving sharks and a lighthouse. Such is the way of comedy, and for all its weaknesses, these happen to be man-child characters I enjoy watching, and so the performances ultimately hold this thing together.

The Wolf of Wall Street
#256. The Wolf of Wall Street (2013, Scorsese) (USA)
Review coming soon

YOUAINT-articleLarge
#257. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (2013, Resnais) (France) 
Alain Resnais’ late-career film proves he is still challenging and pushing the medium of cinema up until the last. That’s a vibrancy and inventiveness I on’t take for granted. However, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet feels limp. It calls back and forth to itself, hides and peeks out from within, but in effort of what I’m not sure and ultimately can’t seem to care. The parallel stories that come to life by a group of actors playing themselves is never involving, and the tricks on display only furthered my awareness of this.