A Shark Tank of Suitors are Far From the Madding Crowd

Far from the Madding Crowd Carey Mulligan

The heroine of Thomas Vinterberg’s intoxicating adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s literary classic, Far from the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba Everdene (an effervescent and headstrong Carey Mulligan) reminded me of one of those cocksure entrepreneurs on Shark Tank who comes in, lights the sharks on fire, instantly gets an amazing offer from one of them, but then hesitates to close the deal because they want to hear all of the offers from the other sharks.

The filmmakers want you to think modernly about Bathsheba, a woman ensconced in patriarchal 19th-century British countryside social mores but waaaaay ahead of her time in thoughts and actions, because otherwise this would be another run-of-the-mill period romance where a woman is swept off her feet.  Bathsheba is a truly independent woman (she’s inherited a farm from her uncle, runs it herself, and proudly has no need for a husband) and Mulligan plays her with equal parts girlish coyness and womanly confidence, all sly smiles and looks with a twinkle of her nose, her loose impetuous strands of hair filtering the drunken sunlight splashed across the gorgeous Dorset hills.  It’s no wonder every man wants her, and she could command any many she wants. Continue reading

Ex Machina

Ex Machina

Is Ex Machina yet another in a long line of Promethean caution tales?  Or is it a misogynistic nightmare about the evil extremes of genius?  Or wait…is it in actuality a crypto-feminist manifesto?  Or…is it like Dave Eggers The Circle or Spike Jonze’s Her a satire of a somewhat scary, occasionally lovely “watch out or we’ll be doomed in a split second if we aren’t careful” future just around the corner?  With its slick production values and blank slate aesthetic, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is all of these things and none of them.

When a young programmer (Domhnall Gleeson) working for a Google-gone-mad-like company gets chosen to spend a week at the founder’s (the ever chameleon-like and always engaging Oscar Isaac) hideaway estate to work on a secret project, and it turns out to be the testing of new AI (the weirdly alluring and borderline creepy Alicia Vikander), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where this is all going.  Continue reading

While We’re Young

While-We-re-Young_0

Was it really that smart of Noah Baumbach to open his latest “comedy” by making us read a scene of dialogue from a play?  Even if it is an Isben play…and even if it is pertinent to the film’s major theme…which is essentially beware of the young?  Hidden beyond this stroke of semi-alienating pretension is an almost accessible, quasi-mainstream comedy, Baumbach’s most enjoyable (though far from best) yet.

Well, at least it immediately lets you know you’re in Baumbach territory.  Our main characters are a documentarian/professor (Ben Stiller) and his producer wife (Naomi Watts).  Only in movies, especially movies made by people like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach (just like in any Franzen-esque pseudo-literary novel where everyone is a writer) is everyone involved in movies or the arts.  This once seemingly hip middle-aged couple have lost their mojo, and they try to get it back by befriending a couple who came to one of his classes, an aspiring documentarian (Adam Driver) and his pretty, young artisanal ice-cream making wife (Amanda Seyfried).  I balked at what the film was trying to make me believe…that Adam Driver (one of the most unlikable actors gracing the horizon of stardom) was supposed to be this generous, non-ironic, admirable seeker of truth and drinker of life.  Ah, but alas…(spoiler alert!) things are not all what the seem…or in Driver’s case, turn out to be exactly what I suspected…this hipster douche acting like a hipster sage was in actuality…a hipster douche!

As is always the case, Baumbach peppers the film with sharp observational (sometimes judgmental) comedy and sound-bites amidst his odes-to-Woody conversational set pieces.  Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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