Spotlight on The Independent Arts: The Better Angels

Better Angels 3

A. J. Edwards, a student and artistic son of Terrence Malick, opens his debut film with cold, haunting shots of the Lincoln Memorial.  A crackling Malickian voice-over of a backwoods fella talkin’ bout being Lincoln’s cousin and having lived with him for a spell when he was just a boy in Indiana begins to shape the story as the image moves to a rambling creak.  Water is transporting us back in time, back into a dream, and we’re suddenly there watching young Abe make his way in the world.  The film ends just a brief 90 minutes later with a chilling bookend…a nicely appointed cabin in Illinois (a clear step-up from the backwoods cabins of his father) where that same warbling cousin waxes about the moment Lincoln’s beloved stepmother (Diane Kruger) learns of his passing.  It’s the grand beautiful stuff of myth.

Watching The Better Angels and comparing it to the work of Malick is akin to comparing painters from the same family.  One can’t help but think of the generations of Wyeths or Renoirs.  Edwards does something Malick never did – he films in black and white – but the movements and framing and pacing and focus are eerily the same.  A low shot panning up to an open gate…or door…or window.  The actors and actresses moving about as if in interpretative dance.  Beautiful music.  Ethereal cinematography of nature.  There’s one shot of Lincoln’s mother (Brit Marling) on her death-bed where Edwards actually photographs her last breath…you see it hang in the air after her exhale, and its captured in a perfect light.  Dust and smoke and light…the black and white photography does wonders for all that Edwards and Malick love to capture.

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There are a lot of Assholes at the Bottoms of Hills in Leviathan

Leviathan

A corrupt mayor of a remote Russian fishing town (Roman Madyanov) waxes bluntly that “there are a lot of assholes at the bottoms of hills” but if his character proves anything, there are even bigger assholes at the top.  He comes across like a Russian version of Toronto’s own Rob Ford – only without the charm.

Another character, the gruff fish-mongering wife of a cop (an excellent Anna Ukulova), muses on men while watching her rambunctious young son, “At first you’re pretty and then they kill you.”

*POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

Andrey Zyaginstev’s Jobian melodrama, Leviathan, is full of these Russian-isms.  Bookended by bleak but beautiful seaside photography from Mikhail Krichman shown in perfectly framed shots scored by Philip Glass’ tense minimalist music, the film tells the tale of Koyla (Aleksey Serebryakov – who looks ripped from the stone-cold misery of a Ingmar Bergman film), a man who the mayor, the system, and the church demand be put in his place.  His ancestral home has been seized by the government at an unfair price.  His wife (a seductively sad and emotive Elena Lyadova) is sleeping with his lawyer and friend (Vladimir Vdovichenkov ).  His teenage son (Sergey Pokhodaev) is surly and depressed.

The characters in the film drink, eat, go shooting and screw each other in more ways than one. Continue reading

The 9th Annual Davies Awards in Film

 

A Look Back at 2014:

Cinematically 2014 was a long, bizarre year that seemed like it would never end, much like many of the runtime-be-damned films we watched.  It’s hard to pinpoint a defining theme as filmmakers were all over the map and seemed to be throwing everything and the kitchen sink at viewers, though time travel (in fantastic terms in Interstellar and The Edge of Tomorrow while in more realistic terms in Boyhood) and biopics (especially at the end of the year) seemed to make the most compelling cases.

Strangely I found myself disconnected from many of the overly praised but still very high quality “independent” films (Boyhood, Birdman and Selma) while I found enormous entertainment value in the smartly crafted mainstream masterpieces (Interstellar and Gone Girl).

Early in the year we were treated to some of the strangest and most unnerving independent fare with the cold Canadian entry Enemy and the ever-odd Under the Skin, both slow-burn psychological thrillers that could make David Lynch squirm and swoon.  At the end of the year, when it came to the biopics, The Imitation Game showed us how it should be done even when going by-the-numbers, while The Theory of Everything showed us how wrong by-the-numbers can go.

When it came to up-and-coming directors, Jeremy Saulnier (with Blue Ruin) and Jennifer Kent (with The Babadook) left us on the edge of our seats begging for more, while Ava DuVernay basked in the glory of being the first to attempt a MLK biopic with the noble Selma.

On the veteran auteur front, David Fincher delivered a dark comedy for the ages with Gone Girl while Christopher Nolan aimed for the stars with the year’s most ambitious and memorable effort, Interstellar.  Meanwhile in a tale of two Andersons, Wes Anderson delivered his best yet with The Grand Budapest Hotel while Paul Thomas Anderson delivered his least yet with Inherent Vice…which was still a pleasing effort and a notch about Wes’ best. Continue reading

Avoiding Dark Unspeakable Hippy Horrors with Inherent Vice

Inherent Vice

After There Will Be Blood and The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson deserved to take a break, didn’t he?  He pulled off a similar lark after Boogie Nights and Magnolia when he directed “his version” of an Adam Sandler film with Punch -Drunk Love.  Much like the main character Doc Sportello has to dig deeper and deeper for the truth in this hippy noir, viewers have to dig deep to find any of screenwriter Anderson’s trademark themes in Inherent Vice.  Maybe there’s something about makeshift dysfunctional families here?  Having never read Thomas Pynchon’s source material, I can only assume all the darkly hilarious dope-fuelled and sometimes absurd banter is pealed straight from his novel (especially Joanna Newsom’s most pleasing to the ear voice-over work) as I felt and heard none of Anderson here.

This is a true adaptation handled with artistic care.  Where one does find the director Anderson is in the visuals, pacing and music. Longtime collaborator Robert Elswit evocatively photographs this Gordita Beach 1970 set rambling comic-mystery with gritty stock, soft blues and hints of sunset orange.  He does special wonders with the beautiful actresses in their groovy and revealing period garb and make-up (look at those pores!).  Anderson peppers in his always great taste in period music, while Jonny Greenwood provides a score unlike any he’s previously done, sweetly nostalgic and understated, perfectly accentuating the cool mood of the film.

In the lead role of Doc Sportello, Joaquin Phoenix gives the comedic performance of the year as the most howlingly expressive stoner detective ever to grace to the screen.  Yet the film is very much an ensemble piece, so much so it’s hard to pick out the highlights from the carnival of stars. Continue reading

Battle of the British Biopics: Mr. Turner, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game

Below is The Spin on three end of the year awards hopefuls…all British biopics about tortured geniuses that when viewed together represent the best and worst of classic Oscar-bait.

Mr. Turner

First up is the finely pedigreed Mr. Turner from Academy darling writer/director Mike Leigh detailing the waning years of famed eccentric proto-Impressionist maritime artist J. M. W. Turner.  The film contains a lot of what one comes to expect from a Leigh project: Timothy Spall superb in the lead role, gritty yet refined attention to realism, fantastic supporting turns from a sometimes improvising cast, and excellent dialogue (the dark, dry, British humor runs delightfully amuck here).  The film also contains some surprises, most notably the perfectly lit cinematography from Dick Pope who photographs the film like a moving painting, masterfully capturing the scenes and environments (the approach of a retired warship he would later paint coming into harbor while Turner and his friends row out to meet it is fantastically rendered) that inspired Turner’s art. Continue reading

The Sound and the Fury of Birdman

Birdman

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman (from an a script inexplicable penned by the director and three others) might be a film about a washed-up action star writing and directing a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s classic short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” but it’s that old Shakespeare quote about life being, “…a tale.  Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.  Signifying nothing.” which inspired the title of William Faulkner’s alleged magnum opus (I’m not going to go off on a side-rant here about how Light in August is really his magnum opus and not The Sound and the Fury, which to me was always so…well…kinda like this Birdman here…self-indulgent) that runs through a viewer’s mind while watching Michael Keaton ACT!

Birdman is the super hero Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played twenty years ago and made him a mega-celebrity.  The Carver play is the intimate character-driven art piece he so desperately wants to restore his street cred and remake him into an Actor rather than a celebrity.  Inarritu’s film, in which the Birdman, the man who played him, and the play he creates exist, is exactly the type of film that people who watch only movies like Birdman (as in the explosion filled super hero movie within the film Birdman, not the actual film Birdman) think people who go to watch films like Birdman (the film, not the movie within the film) go to watch.  I can tell you now, Birdman, at times, is the worst type of those types of films that I like to watch.   It’s also, at times, maddeningly brilliant.

Inarritu’s central conceit is all so very meta and insular, appealing to those who believe in the myth of the tortured artist (“What do you risk?” Keaton blusteringly asks a brusk Broadway critic, “I RISK EVERYTHING ON THE STAGE!”) and those who live it.  It’s been dissected many times before.  It brought to mind the lines from a classic episode of Seinfeld where Jerry is forced to wear a fur coat and man-purse and the building super Silvio mocks him saying, “No, he’s very fancy! Want me, love me! Shower me with kisses!”  So then, how does a Director and a Cast make this often mocked mindset seem fresh and meaningful?  Surround it with sound and fury. Continue reading

The Last Cut is the Deepest for The Skeleton Twins

Skeleton Twins

There’s a truly fantastic scene about half-way through Craig Johnson’s dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, where Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig lip-synch to Starship’s hilariously 80’s anthem, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”  It’s been highlighted ad nauseam in the TV spots for the film, but it’s even more dynamic and infectious on the big screen.  Its almost painfully prolonged unfolding is built upon the rising tension of Wiig’s character being supremely pissed off right now and refusing to play along with her brother’s antics until that moment comes where she just can’t take it anymore and has to join the insanity.  The look on Wiig’s face as she reluctantly (yet deep down so happily) mouths the lyrics, “Let them say we’re crazy…” is a perfect moment for this gifted actress inside a wildly imperfect film.  Hader, likewise, is borderline idiot genius with his mannerisms and body language.  It’s a shame then that writer-director Craig Johnson saddles them with such obvious clichés.

The dysfunctional sister-brother relationship dramedy has long been the bastion of many an indie filmmaker.  Most of these films star Laura Linney (think You Can Count on Me, or probably the ultimate example of this sub-genre, The Savages).  Wiig is an interesting substitute for Linney, as the comedic actress has never been allowed to go dramatic before, but with such a great built-in chemistry with Hader (who is most beloved as SNL’s Stefon, the worst NYC tour guide EVER) the two click whether they’re lip-synching to bad music or revealing devastating secrets to each other. Continue reading

The Mystery of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

All the lonely people...

All the lonely people…

Ned Benson’s somber relationship drama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is not a mystery despite the title, though it’s plenty puzzling.  The version reviewed here, Them, is an edited combination of what was originally two separate films, Him and Her.  It flips back and forth between our two players Conor (James McAvoy, donning an unconvincing American accent) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain, all pale grief and feigned smiles) as their marriage disintegrates, but it never plays its gimmick out with the obvious one scene played twice from different points of view gag.  That may have actually made the film a bit more interesting, though it would’ve also added to the film’s already burdensome two-hour-plus runtime.

After surviving a leap from a bridge, Eleanor moves back in with her parents (William Hurt as the stereotypical soft-spoken bearded professor and Isabelle Huppert as a drunk French former violinist) and single-mom sister (a likable Jess Weixler, who it would’ve been nice to learn more about), while taking a class on the theory of identity taught by a bitter but wise woman (Viola Davis).  Meanwhile, Conor is moping around his failing restaurant, lashing out at customers and his best friend/chef (Bill Hader) and moves back in with his recently thrice divorced and overly philosophical father (Ciaran Hinds, always good).  Slowly but surely we find out the real reason behind the break-up and their decent into the spiral of grief (hint: it’s not just about losing each other), and it is indeed tragic and hangs a pall over the whole family, not just our protagonists.

The film is filled with talking it out and philosophical ponderings espoused by really good performers.  In lesser acting hands, the film would’ve been an outright mess.  The characters speak dialogue sincerely as if read from discarded Felicity-era WB melodramas and self-help books.

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The Quick Spin on Woody, Blue, Blood and Lucy

Here’s a quick rundown on 2 flicks still in theaters (Magic in the Moonlight and Lucy) and 2 on Netflix (Blood Ties and Blue Ruin):

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight – Woody Allen’s latest is a postcard pretty period-piece set on the sun-splashed French coast and countryside.  Here a renowned magician (Colin Firth) travels to France at the behest of his friend to debunk an American spiritualist (Emma Stone).  The whole film, like Emma Stone (luminously photographed in classic Allen fashion to play up her best features – that red hair, those blue eyes, that mischievous smile) is ridiculously good-looking and light on its feet.  Stone soaks up the sun and Allen’s directorial affections, plumbing her plucky personality to its most glorious depths.  Her performance, which takes on the allure of a subtle silent film starlet, is almost transcendent.  The film, far from Allen’s greatest, is sill a pleasure to watch, and would’ve been forgettable if not for Stone’s classically styled star turn.  Word on the street is she’s signed up for another Allen flick.  Like her character, clever girl.

Bottom Line:  Spin once.  Watch out for Emma Stone’s next Woody.

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A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast to tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading