Is Serena the Worst Book to Film Adaptation in the History of Cinema?

Serena

I picture the caption for the screenshot above to be something along the lines of, “Jenny, baby, look, we’re in one of the worst films ever made!”

I couldn’t help, while watching the travesty that is Serena, of the infinite monkey theorem (and believe me, thinking about the infinite monkey theorem is a better way to spend two hours than watching Serena), which states that if you sit 100 monkeys at 100 typewriters for an infinite amount of time, eventually their random keystrokes while churn out the works of Shakespeare…or any given text, really.  Any given text.  Like Christopher Kyle’s feces covered script for Serena.  Had monkeys actually written the script for Serena, at least we could’ve said, “Hey, 100 monkeys at typewriters wrote that?  That’s not too bad considering it was monkeys…but let’s not try this again…like, ever.”

But it’s not just the script for Serena that is so bad.  It’s everything.  Every damn thing is awful.  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 Best Time Travel Films of All Time

2013_05_07 Predestination_0407.tif

There’s currently a film on VOD called Predestination, which has to be one of the trippiest time travel flicks I have ever seen.  Based on the Robert Heinlein short story “All You Zombies,” directed by the Spierig Brothers (don’t worry, I didn’t know who they were before this either) and starring Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook (if there is any justice, a star should be born here) as two temporal cops hopping through time to stop the crimes of the Fizzle Bomber, it blew my mind that this had not been given a major theatrical release.  Had the similarly minded Wachowski Siblings made this right after The Matrix, it would’ve been a huge hit and they would probably be remembered today for the latter and not the former.  But it blew my mind more for what it was able to achieve in storytelling.  It’s impossible to talk about what happens in detail without giving away major plot points.  Early on I had a hunch what might be happening, but I was totally floored by the depth of what was happening and how the filmmakers dragged us down deeper and deeper into this endless temporal loop.  It makes no sense while simultaneously it makes beautiful sense in its own twisted logic.  It made me wonder…could this actually be one of the greatest time travel movies ever made?  Only time will tell…

…for the purpose of this musing list, let’s be optimistic on its lasting impression and notch it at number 10.  Let the rest of the countdown begin:

Somewhere in Time

9.  Somewhere in Time (Jeannot Szwarc, 1980) – Legend has it this was one of the first films to find success in the early days of video cassette rentals (ahhh…somewhere in time indeed).  I remember making my parents let me watch it with them when I was very young (maybe 6 or 7) because Superman (Christopher Reeve) was in it, and it left me confused as I didn’t understand how one of King Henry’s wives (Jane Seymour) was still alive and acting in movies.  Also during this timeframe in my life I was similarly confused as to how a medieval Saint (Joan Van Arc) ended up staring on TV’s Knots Landing.  At any rate…lush visuals, haunting music, a beautiful setting and a love story beyond time has made this a huge cult hit, and rightfully so.

Happy Accidents

8. Happy Accidents (Brad Anderson, 2000) – This is not a romantic comedy.  I repeat: this is not a romantic comedy.  It’s actually one of the best time travel movies ever made.  It’s a shame Brad Anderson has never really found the huge success he deserved after delivering a trio of thoughtful, well done genre pieces (this, Session 9 and The Machinist).  This one is also a bit of a miracle as it made the always annoying Vincent D’Onofrio actually likable for once in his miserable acting life.  Oh yeah, and Marisa Tomei is lovely here, too. 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

Going Back to the Bridge in Selma

Selma

Like two of the other most ballyhooed films from 2014 (Boyhood and Birdman), Selma is a really good film that has been a bit oversold.  I suppose if one is going to overrate a film, it might as well be one as noble as this, but in the slightly paraphrased words of my girlfriend, “I just wish they would’ve gotten the facts straight and given this girl a little more gospel.”  There’s something curiously missing from Ava DuVernay’s intelligently directed and reverent biopic of our nation’s most celebrated reverend and Civil Rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr., despite many convenient current parallels reminding informed viewers there is still so much work to be done.  That missing piece is the call to action.

Standing tall in the film are DuVernay’s depiction of the most harrowing events (from the bombing of the four little girls in the church and the violent police suppression of the first attempt to march across the bridge out of Selma towards Montgomery, to the quieter but equally disturbing moments showing the casually institutionalized hate-fueled suppression of the right to vote in court houses across the Deep South) and, naturally, David Oyelowo’s commanding performance as MLK.

DuVernay, taking a cue from Spielberg’s Lincoln, does a commendable job showing the slow tension-building behind-the-scenes process of what it takes to organize a meaningful march against injustice and how that can be used as a tool to raise public sentiment for the passing of legislation (in this case, the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965).  The tenants of nonviolent protest are on glorious display here, showing how powerfully effective yet dangerous it can be, as it coaxes the irrational radicals out into the open light of day where those watching on the sidelines are suddenly spurred to stand up because they are left with no other option once violence erupts against the peaceful marchers.

Sadly, Paul Webb’s uneven screenplay betrays both DuVernay’s skills and Oyelowo’s passionate portrayal as the writer plays loose with some key facts and insists on fitting King into the archetypal mold of a leader riddled with self-doubt.  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

Bawdy Sophistication, In-Jokes and Cameos Galore in Chris Rock’s Top Five

Top Five

Chris Rock’s stand-up prowess and HBO boundary ripping hilarity never successfully translated to the big screen where, to be honest, his most memorable work was his voice-overs in the Madagascar series.  So here he is now, in the beginning of middle-age, trying to get his groove back by writing, directing and starring in Top Five.

Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a recovering alcoholic and former stand-up comic who has decreed he wants to be taken seriously now after years of staring as a wise-cracking bear-suited cop in the idiotically successful Hammy the Bear series.  His first serious film, the Haitian slave-revolt biopic Uprising, is hitting theaters just as his marriage to a reality TV star (Gabrielle Union) is set to air on Bravo.  On the fateful day before his bachelor party, a NY Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) follows him around NYC for an in-depth interview.  Along the way the pair riff on life, love, politics and pop culture while making pit stops in Allen’s old hood to meet the family and friends he left behind as he climbed the ladder out of the ghetto and into Hollywood stardom.  The cast features great turns in small roles from some of my favorite comedians including Tracy Morgan and J.B. Smoove, as well as countless cameos –  some of which (DMX singing “Smile”) work, and some of which (Adam Sandler doling out marriage tips) don’t.  There’s also a “watch out, world, here she comes!” spin from Leslie Jones who proves she’s waaaay funnier than her strained bits on the current season of SNL.

Despite its obvious eschewing of the entertainment business and celebrities and its tenuous parallels to Rock’s own career, Top Five miraculously avoids becoming an insular cell of wall-to-wall in-jokes (though there are plenty).  For most of its cameo-laden run-time, it’s actually a sophisticated romantic comedy where Dawson’s character has her own ulterior motives that lead to enjoyable banter and palpable chemistry.  Both leads relish in bouncing off each other’s energy with Rock finally fulfilling the promise he has always shown and Dawson fulfilling the promise she showed over a decade ago in such films as Sidewalks of New York and 25th Hour.  As fabricated as their “all in the same day” whirlwind tour of the city becomes, you root for something real to take root because the two are so engaging and delightful to watch. Continue reading

Crazy Mothers, Scrappy Kids, Idiot Fathers and Humorless Dictatorships in The Babadook, St. Vincent, Wish I Was Here and Rosewater

It’s that time again for The Spin to whip up a seemingly random hodgepodge of recent films viewed in theaters, on VOD and on Netflix and draw tenuous lines connecting their themes while passing judgment on the merits of their attempts to be profound or entertain.

All of the films feature main characters dealing with serious father issues, three are from first time feature film directors, three of the films feature troubled and/or precocious kids, two feature single mothers raising sons, and two were funded by Kickstarter.  Here’s the rundown:

Babadook Poster 1

First up is the Kickstarter-funded first feature from Australian writer-director Jennifer Kent currently playing in select theaters and available on VOD.  In The Babadook (a title, that like the film, can take on multiple meanings), a single-mom/nurse (Essie Davis, absolutely outstanding at becoming unhinged) is struggling to raise her out of control, starving for affection and monster-obsessed six-year old son (Noah Wiseman, effectively obnoxious and cute and seriously troubled) whose father died in a car crash on the day he was born.  Their toiling roiling relationship reaches a fever pitch when a creepy would-be charcoal-etched kid’s book, Mr. Babadook, finds its way into their house and refuses to be ignored.   The film, an expressionistic psychological thriller neatly wrapped in a horror gift box, is derivative as hell but also smartly crafted to show the damaging effects of not dealing with grief, unmanaged stress, sleep deprivation and paranoia.  The creepy music, sound effects, cinematography, and art design are all well woven by Kent, who hints at a very promising future.  The ending will be a let down to some, but like the best psychological thrillers, is open for multiple interpretations depending on whose POV (the mother’s or the son’s) one takes.  The Babadook represents the best of what films can and should get funded through Kickstarter and is a creepy fun ride for anyone with any passing interest in psychology and the horrors of a human mind unwound. Continue reading