Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Hit Me With your Best Shot: The Color Purple

After an embarrassingly long hiatus, I'm happy to return to the blog...and what better way to do so than by participating in Nathaniel's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" over at The Film Experience.  Finding a single frame to focus on from Steven Spielberg's The Color Purple(1985) was no easy task.  It's a seminal film for my personal movie-watching narrative.  Had I been alive and following the Oscar race at the time, I would probably regard it much in the same way that I regard The Hours (stay with me for a moment).  An adaptation of a challenging Pulitzer-prize winning novel in which (according to vocal detractors) the edges of the source material were sanded down to a fault; a film very much interested in the interpersonal relationships between women; queer undertones (and overtones) that seem to be standing in for larger ideas, rather than as hyperreal representations of homosexuality.  Both films frustrate and engage me, almost in equal measure.  And while neither The Color Purple nor The Hours is the film from its respective Best Picture crop that, all elements of filmmaking considered, I would likely have crowned "best" (that would have been Kiss of the Spider Woman and The Pianist, for the record), they are the entries that have burrowed deepest into my heart and which I return to most often with a complicated, but enduring affection.

My first inclination was to go with this shot:
One of many calm-before-the-storm moments for Miss Sofia

Sofia, as rendered by Oprah Winfrey is such a force of nature that the film often has a "come hither" energy where she's concerned.  Having first seen The Color Purple years after Oprah had entered the consciousness (and the living rooms) of millions as a television personality, I understand my handicap in trying to view the film outside of that context.  Every scene with Sofia, from her animated walk up to Mister's house, to her famous dinner table monologue feels portentous of just what a ubiquitous cultural figure Ms. Winfrey would become after the film.

For a long time, I thought Winfrey was my favorite of the 1985 Best Supporting Actress lineup (Confession time: I've never seen Twice in a Lifetime, have only seen Agnes of God once a very long time ago and have a strong apathy-leaning-towards-dislike for Prizzi's Honor, which probably colors my read of Anjelica Huston's Oscar-winning performance).  However, the more I watch the film, the more I latch onto what I truly love about it, which are the aforementioned character relationships, especially between the women.  While an impressive turn, Oprah loses points upon closer inspection for the way she seems to be acting in parallel, rather than with her co-stars, especially Goldberg.  Her big moments often feel pre-ordained and scripted, rather than genuinely reactive to the other performers.  I never really get a sense of how Sofia and Celie feel about one another, outside of tangibles that are very much beholden to everything else that's going on.  Even in scenes that they share, even in scenes where they are talking to one another, Sofia and Celie seem to occupy completely different universes (much like the actresses who portray them).  

My heart has ultimately found its way to Margaret Avery's Shug as the Belle of the 1985 Supporting Actress Ball.  Despite the brouhaha associated with how she got her Oscar nomination, she is my favorite of the pack.  It's a sympathetic, complicated and fully-realized portrayal of one of the novel's most nebulous creatures.  In her scenes at the Juke Joint, performing "Miss Celie's Blues" (my favorite moment in the film), we see Avery and Goldberg interacting and feeding each other's magnificent performances like no other two actors in the film.  

Miss Celie can't take her eyes off of Shug and neither can we.

Has Goldberg ever looked more convincingly and joyfully overwhelmed and radiant as she does in this moment (my favorite shot in the film) when Shug is singing to her? The very notion that someone is acknowledging her existence, let alone crooning a verse just for her is almost too much happiness (a feeling she is not familiar with) for Miss Celie to take.  As accomplished as Goldberg's performance in The Color Purple is (and it's very accomplished, to be sure), she owes a huge portion of that turn's power to Margaret Avery and her centered, exuberant and welcome presence.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

I'm Back! And I'm Re-Vamping!

It's been far too long since I've posted.  Without getting too personal, I will just say that life got in the way as it is wont to do.  However, I am back and will be making a few changes to the blog.  I am aware that Oscar season 2012 came and went with nary a whisper from this lowly hyper-amateur film-blogger.  I do plan on weighing in, not necessarily on the Oscar race itself, but on my thoughts on the 2012 film year as well as an abbreviated version of my annual Pretentious Film Awards.

I will also be trying out a series of posts that will keep me watching movies, old and young, with some structure in mind so as to keep me writing.  I hope you enjoy!

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Best Films of The Aughts (50-59)

59. Before Sunset - dir. Richard Linklater (2004)

 "What is love, if it's not respect, trust, admiration? And I felt all those things. So, cut to the present tense. I feel like I'm running a small nursery with somebody I used to date."

58. The Royal Tenenbaums - dir. Wes Anderson (2001)

 "Look, I know I'm gonna be the bad guy on this one. But I just wanna say the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life."


57. A History of Violence - dir. David Cronenberg (2005)

 "You should ask Tom...how come he's so good at killing people?"

56. Capturing the Friedmans - dir. Andrew Jarecki (2003)

"We had a middle class home, educated...where did this come from?"

55. Day Night Day Night - dir. Julia Loktev (2006)

"If I think that I've been noticed or there is a small chance that I may be caught I must execute the plan immediately, even if there is no one nearby."

54. In America - dir. Jim Sheridan (2003)

"Don't 'little girl' me. I've been carrying this family on my back for over a year. He was my brother too."

53. Superbad - dir. Greg Mottola (2007)

"Are you insane?! Look at Jules' dating record. She dated Dan Remmeck who's had a six pack since like kindergarten. Jason Stone who looks like fuckin' Zack Morris, and Matt Muer...he's the sweetest guy! Have you ever stared into his eyes? It was like the first time I heard the Beatles."

The 2000s weren't exactly replete with relatable cinematic teenage behavior, especially where sex and sexuality are concerned.  I have read the criticisms of Superbad many times over.  It's aimless, it's vulgar, it's cartoonish in its portrayal of adolescent sexual desire.  However, it's also funny.  Consistently funny from start to finish, while peppered with truly heartfelt moments between its protagonists Evan (Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill).

If you've ever been a teenager, you know that the pursuit of some tail is as honest and urgent an inciting incident for a narrative as any.  People will do strange things, often garnering reactions of head-scratching, if there is even a chance that sex will be the end result.  This is especially true if one has never actually had sex.  Is this the most groundbreaking or profound of hypotheses?  Hardly.  But it's a notion portrayed cogently, with humor and and an excellent ear for dialogue and timing in Superbad.

Yes, one can easily bemoan the fact that such films seem to completely  co-opt the teenage female perspective on one end and ignore it altogether on the other.  I once wrote, on this very blog that a version of Superbad wherein two teenage girls attempt to buy liquor for a party in order to impress and bed boys for the sheer purpose of sexual gratification could not exist in the current Hollywood landscape.  Bridesmaids made some strides in this arena (though I have mixed feelings about the final result) and women are at least allowed to be funny in ways we have rarely seen before.  However, our culture seems to be vaguely threatened by the notion of women, especially teenage girls, enjoying sex.  I mean none of this in any way as an indictment of Superbad itself, as these are all criticisms that exist completely extrinsic to the merits of the actual film. 

I chose the quote listed above, which exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about.  Too often in films, characters fail to inhabit any sort of universe that feels specifically drawn.  This problem usually stems from a lack of character specificity in its own right.  Seth and Evan are sex hungry teenage boys, yes.  But they are more than that.  The scene from which the dialogue is taken occurs fairly early on in the narrative and it shows us that we're in incredibly capable hands with screenwriters Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen. 

There is a beating heart at the center of what seems like a raucous comedy of sexual misadventure as we chart Evan and Seth's one-night odyssey, in search of Jules's party, in search of the nookie that's sure to await them.  It's easy to bemoan the fact that such human truth about the nature of growing up and moving on has to be wrapped in a seemingly facile package of raunch and menstruation humor.  But when it's done so effectively, is there anything left to do but smile?

52. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not - dir. Laetitia Colombani (2002)

"Though my love is insane my reason calms the pain in my heart, it tells me to be patient and keep hoping."

51. The Departed  - dir. Martin Scorsese (2006)
"When I was growing up, they would say you could become cops or criminals. But what I'm saying is this. When you're facing a loaded gun, what's the difference?"

50. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - dir. Peter Jackson (2003)

"Do you remember the Shire, Mr. Frodo? It'll be spring soon. And the orchards will be in blossom. And the birds will be nesting in the hazel thicket. And they'll be sowing the summer barley in the lower fields... and eating the first of the strawberries with cream. Do you remember the taste of strawberries?"

Next: 40-49 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Top Ten (5-1)


(dir. Sean Durkin)

I can't think of another film in recent memory that left me as frightened and physically unsettled as this one.  I literally felt my body unclench as the end credits began to roll.  It is so arresting and startling, almost from start to finish, due to all the elements clicking so perfectly.  Firstly, there's Sean Durkin's writing and direction, already discussed at length that I still cannot praise enough.  He exerts so much control over this story, laying things bare and keeping information at bay at all the right moments.  Elizabeth Olsen's breakthrough performance, which by all rights should have been the acting ascension story on everyone's lips during awards season, carries the film while still having remarkably few externalities to lean on.  Finally, the sound design of the film, which is worked organically into the film in a really eery, evocative fashion, so much so that you often don't know (much like Martha) where certain aural sensations are coming from.  The level of craft and polish on this film, a low-budget indie debut, really shocked me and I (broken record, I know) can't help but think that given a bigger budget and more resources to play with next time at bat, Sean Durkin will emerge as a creative force to be reckoned with.

(dir. Terrence Malick)

I have to admit my bias up front, which is that Terrence Malick is my favorite living filmmaker.  I was always inclined to be receptive to The Tree of Life, which I understand is polarizing.  I understand, but thoroughly don't care.  While it remains, for me, Malick's least "successful" film to date, that statement is much more a testament to Malick's overall brilliance and sure hand as a director, rather than a denigration of The Tree of Life itself.  As with most Malick films (with the possible exception of Badlands), narrative, rigid structure and traditionally drawn character beats remain secondary to tone and imagery, but no more so than here.  While depicting the birth, life and death of the universe (a lot to bite off), Malick somehow (mostly) avoids painting in broad strokes, with the exception of Jessica Chastain's Mrs. O'Brien; a cipher character (an effective one, but a ciper nonetheless).
The Tree of Life is not a perfect film.  It is deeply frustrating, as engrossing as it is and there are one or two sequences that, while interesting as stand alone vignettes, do not really function as a cohesive part of the rest of the film.  I'm not talking about the dinosaurs, which is what everyone has had their claws out about since Cannes 2011.  Specifically, the scene on the beach, which plays a little maudlin in the context of the rest of the film, but still strikes an emotional chord that is pretty undeniable.  But none of this underwrites the film's power.  What I saw were moments of truth, maybe not in a traditionally narrative fashion, but laid out one after another.  The way the film so effectively (and almost wordlessly) addresses the inexplicable need in little boys to be violent.  The effect that death and grief have on a family, even in (especially in, rather) adulthood. I've revisited it twice since my initial viewing and I already know that it will be a film I continue to revisit, gathering something new to behold each time.


 (dir. Lynne Ramsay)

An artful, visually interesting, sometimes ugly looking movie that puts you at alarmingly close range with the horror it's depicting.  The story of a grieving mother named Eva (Tilda Swinton) nursing her guilt after her son Kevin (Ezra Miller) commits an archery massacre at his school is told in fragmented snippets as it jumps back and forth between four separate chronologies; Eva's life before marriage and children, Kevin's infancy/toddlerhood, Kevin's adolescence and the aftermath of the massacre.  I must say, We Need to Talk About Kevin is very high up on my top ten list for a film in which there are several things that don't quite click.  The relationship between Swinton's Eva and her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly) is a peculiar, nebulous one.  I wouldn't go so far as to call it  unbelievable, but there are definite pieces missing as to why this woman and this man met and fell in love.  I don't normally balk too much at the absence of backstory, but given the film's structure, this sometimes felt like vagueness for its own sake.
Those story and character elements aside, the visual language in this movie succeeds gracefully and admirably where a film like The Lovely Bones (originally slated to be directed by Lynne Ramsay before Peter Jackson got the job) failed so miserably.  The imagery in We Need to Talk About Kevin sticks with you, unwilling to let go  Close, lingering shots of Kevin's face, pock marks, dead eyes and pores are some of the most jarring visuals of the year.  The production design is jarring, unforgettable and stark, but it feels purposeful and specific.  Even the family house (a sticking point for many detractors who feel it too sparse, untended and nondescript) feels purposeful, in that Eva never unpacked and settled into her new life/role as a mother.  Combine this visual style with the absolutely fascinating spectacle of watching Tilda Swinton and Ezra Miller go toe-to-toe as guilty mother/demon seed, respectively and the result is frightening.
*Completely extrinsic to the film itself, watch or listen to an interview with Ezra Miller if you have the chance. Because what the world clearly needs more of are ridiculously beautiful, asshole actors who you hate all the more because they're also talented.  (I'm not even sure what, if any part of that was sarcasm).


(dir. Nicolas Winding Refn)

Look...what I'm about to say will offend people, even fans of the film (and it's my second favorite of the year, clearly) but it needs to be said.  Drive is fucking ridiculous.  At times, laughably so.  And everyone involved, from Refn, to Gosling, to Mulligan to the key grips is aware of it.  When you have Carey Mulligan(!) playing the young mother of a cute Chicano imp whose father's name is "Standard"; or when Christina Hendricks plays a character named "Blanche" who scarcely utters a word and kind of walks like Peg Bundy; or when you have Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan staring at each other for what feels like the entire length of a song only to have Gosling snap out of his romantic stupor and literally smash a man's face into a jelly; OR (last one I swear) when you have Ron Perlman doing ANYTHING to ANYONE EVER...I have to believe that you know exactly what you're doing. 
My reaction to Drive was something akin to my reaction to Crank (stay with me).  Totally different films, I'm well aware, but both of genre-pieces are made with a supreme level of confidence.  They also both hinge on everything running like a well-oiled machine.  The direction, acting, cinematography, editing and (clearly) the soundtrack seem to be operating on a certain kind of next-level sleekness, to the film's credit.  Drive also wisely plays on Ryan Gosling's smoldering charisma in new and interesting ways and it will likely be this role that people look at as a marker of his transition from Indie-God to bona fide movie star.



 (dir. Steve McQueen)

With his sophomore effort, Steve McQueen cements his status one of the most exciting emerging directors working today.  Shame, like its predecessor (Hunger) is obsessive in its filmmaking, every shot meticulously composed, every bit of production design has been fussed and combed over, ever scene and character beat feels specific.  A film that begins with the hot-button, controversial (in certain circles) subject of sex-addiction is, in a way, behind an 8-ball to start with (which makes Shame's success as a piece of filmmaking all the more spectacular).  The question loomed before I sat down to watch; will this film value honest and poignant depictions of the human conditions at least as much as it values ham-fisted controversy?  I consider movies like Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom and Oldboy, neither of which are terrible films, but both of which seem to collapse under the ponderous weight of "The Thing They're About," often leaving out character, emotion or even something interesting to say on the matter (Oldboy especially).
What McQueen achieves here in Shame is quite remarkable.  The reports of much sex and nudity have not been widely exaggerated.  None of it is arbitrary.  There is very little excess or bloat in this film, perhaps with the exception of a sequence towards the end involving a particularly bad bender for Brandon (Michael Fassbender).  Said sequence in no way sinks the movie, so beautifully shot and acted it is.  This is the story of a man whose achieved a certain balance with his addiction, which is a scary place to be in.  It is not seriously affecting his work or his physical well-being.  He is affluent and physically fit.  What, therefore, is his incentive to stop and is stopping the issue?
A lot of these questions are raised, in some way or another, and not necessarily answered, which will serve to alienate much of the audience.  But everything here just felt so real and resonant, tapping into the ugly truth about our basest human instincts.  I'm not being puritanical and speaking just of the sex, which is very clinical and matter-of-fact (with one exception).  The relationship between Brandon and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan like you've never seen her before) is so realistically ugly.  His frustration with her, fair or unfair, which permeates every uttered word between them, even if it is said with a smile.  Her selfishness and almost pathological inability to reciprocate any sort of kindness or generosity is palpable.  There is an unspoken undercurrent of some possible trauma (be it shared by the siblings or inflicted by one onto the other) from their childhood and the scenes between Brandon and Sissy are the hardest to watch in the film.  This is due in large part to performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, who both deliver early career-best performances.  Mulligan especially surprised, hitting an unfussy emotional register of pain and self-destruction that, while I've been previously impressed with her, I didn't know she was capable of achieving.
I remember, very distinctively, the first time I watched Shame.  I was in the theater alone, as were (apparently) many of the other audience members at the sparsely attended screening.  There was very little conversation as we trudged out of the theater, unable to shake what we had just seen and felt.  For many movies (and not necessarily in a bad way) the experience ends when the film ends.  For days, I felt the weight of Shame, the more I considered it and it just refused to let go, which is incredibly powerful.

Complete list of nominees and winners after the jump. Thanks for reading!

Monday, April 23, 2012

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Top Ten (10-6)


(dir. Bennett Miller)

I had a lot of mental roadblocks up going into this movie, which I didn't catch until a couple of months after its initial release.  A baseball fan, I am not.  Brad Pitt, an actor who I admire greatly, is someone about whom the general public and I rarely agree (ignore him in Fight Club, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Burn After Reading, but by all means nominate him for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button...for God's sake).  Even the promise of another Sorkin-penned feature, following on the heels of The Social Network wasn't a huge lure for me; Charlie Wilson's War and The American President are more representative of the register Sorkin usually hits in his feature work.  Do I sound like Oscar the Grouch already?  I really enjoyed Moneyball, which is so crisply edited and elegantly scored.  The greatest thing to recommend it going in was Bennet Miller, whose direction on his debut feature Capote made me immediately excited to see him tackle another feature.  There is a delicate, but sure touch here.  The movie avoids grand-standing and "big scenes," hitting that perfect register of subtlety.  While Miller gets a superb performance from Brad Pitt, he manages to do so without underdirecting the other players.  When you have such a huge star, the impulse to ignore the remaining well of characters is understandable, but can often hurt a piece.  I will mention The Descendants, which seemed to be viewed by many as a spirit twin to Moneyball on paper (the Brad-George connection, fathers and their daughters, um..search me).  But Moneyball really succeeds where The Descendants fails in that Alexander Payne seems almost unwilling to direct any of the actors besides Clooney and even then he's only directing Clooney a certain way.  Watching Moneyball, I was also reminded of what I found so interesting about Capote; that it wasn't just an acting exercise for Philip Seymour Hoffman.  That he was able to direct Catherine Keener in such a way where she was neither too muted nor too outwardly expressive.  He achieves much of the same delicate strokes here, making me wonder if Miller will emerge as an even more formidable directing talent on his next feature.  I am very excited to see what he does next.


(dir. Pedro Almodóvar)

Operates as both a stylized melodrama and a haywire mystery, in true Almodóvar fashion.  I was surprised to see this film more or less dismissed by even the most devout of Almodóvar disciples last year, who came to the conclusion that this ranks in the lower tier of his work.  Perhaps had I further examined his filmography and my response to it, I would have been less shocked.  I find All About My Mother, widely considered by many to be one of his best (if not his best) films to be hugely overrated.  Ditto for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.  Then you have Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, viewed as a trifle, but his best film in my estimation.  Talk to Her (justifiably lauded as a masterpiece) is just about the only time that I've hugely aligned with the critical community on Almodóvar.  I will concede that The Skin I Live In breaks no new ground, and certainly not for Almodóvar who has explored themes of dominance, gender and psychosexual horror in many of his previous works.  But there is something to be said about staying in one's comfort zone when you're this good at telling this kind of story, especially in the midst of a career that is groundbreaking in its own right.  The mystery at the center of the story, which can ostensibly be reduced to "Who is this woman in the room?" is unfolded in a very strange fashion indeed.  Structurally speaking, there is some slight lull during the middle sections of the film and the match cuts between past and present do get a little precious at key moments.  What elevates the film above all of these deficiencies (minor as they are) are widely different, but complimentary lead performances by Antonio Banderas and Elena Anaya.  Each of them strikes a remarkable balance of believability and nuance, even within the moments of heightened, Almodóvar-style theatrics.  With time, I imagine The Skin I Live In will be looked upon fondly as one of Almodóvar's most solid and well-made.  That is, perhaps not his Annie Hall, but very possibly his Husbands and Wives (qualitatively speaking).

(dir. Jason Reitman)

For my money, this is handily the best of Reitman's films to date.  It is certainly the most refined, both in terms theme and character, thanks to a perfect synergy of Diablo Cody's writing (matured, yet still recognizably Cody) and Reitman's direction (crisp, cold, precise).  Charlize Theron turns in a stiff, angry bitchslap of a performance that is so consistently horrifying, embodying the thesis statement "What if some people are just, in fact, assholes?"  Theron's Mavis Gary is a wonderfully specific and fascinating cinematic creation in that the text does not attempt to humanize her or give a root cause for her radioactive personality. 
Would it be reductive of me to suggest that Reitman stick to directing films penned by another writer?  Of Reitman's four feature films to date, Juno and Young Adult  is leagues ahead of Up in the Air and Thank You For Smoking.  I mentioned Reitman's directing style which, even in Thank You For Smoking was very noticeably clinical and cold (to his credit).  The problem, I think with Thank You For Smoking and Up in the Air is a certain veneer.  Masculine charisma (Aaron Eckhart and then George Clooney) functions as ersatz humanity and truth.  I am fascinated and delighted that this somehow doesn't manage to creep into the stories that Reitman tells about women, which never feel arched and convinced of their own profundity in the same way his "male" movies do.  I would be thrilled if Young Adult represented a turning point for Reitman as it's such a leap forward for  him, qualitatively, from Up in the Air.  I'm also eagerly awaiting Diablo Cody's directorial debut, which I'm sure will be polarizing, but almost certainly promises to be necessary viewing.

(dir. Andrew Haigh)

Dubbed by many as "The Gay Before Sunrise," in a way that only serves to reduce the power of Andrew Haigh's arresting and nuanced debut feature.  Structurally, the similarities are apparent, but Haigh's examination of two men (Tom Cullen and Chris New) attempting to form some kind of connection in the days immediately following an alcohol fueled hookup has a unique, bare bones texture to it.  The result is an incredibly honest, stripped-down examination of two very representations of male homosexuality.
Tom Cullen's Russell is introspective, shy, with eyes that always seem to be searching and contemplating.  Chris New's Glen is artistic, forthright, a shade militant and often vulgar. Glen sees Russell's tentative nature as stemming from shame or internalized homophobia on some level.  Russell sees Glen's brashness as a facade masking insecurity.  It's a dynamic very familiar within contemporary gay interaction, but never put to film in this manner.
None of this is to say that the film is about this dichotomy, in the strictest sense of the word "about."  In fact, the way the film seems to move along, adapting and changing like a living breathing thing, truly discovering these characters and what the narrative is, in fact, "about" is what's so wonderful about what Haigh is able to accomplish.  It's acted with heartbreaking realism, but it's not self-consciously improvised to the point that it stilts the scenes and disrupts the narrative flow.  The plot is not tethered to a strict structure, but the film also manages not to feel shaggy or bloated.  There was very little narrative fat here that could have been trimmed, everything feeling very integral to getting inside the lives of these two men at this moment in time.
Haigh wisely avoids over-sentimentalizing the subject, which could have easily made for more mawkish, manipulative fare.  The final scene in the train station breaks your heart, yes, but it is completely earned and one gets the impression that there were few other places these characters could reasonably have ended up.  Weekend has the exciting freshness and enthusiasm of a great debut (though it is in fact Haigh's second film) and I am eager to see what he follows this up with.


(dir. Lars von Trier)

I run very hot and cold on what I've seen of von Trier, truth be told.  I really enjoyed Dancer in the Dark and Breaking the Waves.  Dogville and Manderlay were both slogs and sitting through them definitely yielded diminishing rewards (Manderlay especially).  Finally Antichrist, which I would categorize as an interesting failure, seemed to reach a point of self-parody by last frame; not for its violence (which did not affect me viscerally) but for its excessive misery.  So, while I hardly went into Melancholia expecting to be bored (his films are never boring) or met with inadequate filmmaking, it's not a movie that I ever expected to love.
von Trier somehow manages to take all the elements that serve as assets to his films and really hone them this time around.  Marrying (no pun intended) an uneasy wedding reception with the imminent destruction of the planet allows him to showcase his flair for heightened human drama and allows him to express his fatalistic ideologies.  Make no mistake, there are several "von Trierisms" ever present in this narrative.  The film manages to somehow be at once comically insular and geographically generic.  There is a deep, seemingly endless well of characters who behave absolutely deplorably, including Kirsten Dunst's Justine (a radiant performance).  Apropos to nothing, I challenge anyone to find an actress better at playing insufferable than Charlotte Gainsbourg (to her credit).
All this being said, I found myself loving Melancholia, almost from first frame.  As with all von Trier movies, it's difficult to disparage any of the formal elements.  The photography, production design, editing and even the visual effects are all top form.  He thankfully is using his great ability with craft (mostly) for good rather than evil this time as the story (specifically watching how each of these uniquely drawn characters) reacts to what's coming is fascinating.  It also avoids a lot of cliched character beats that a lot of other filmmakers, including von Trier, have shown a penchant for falling prey to.  For instance, Keifer Sutherland's John is ever the pragmatist, concerned with facts and the bottom line, but von Trier doesn't draw him as such by making him completely cold and impenetrable.
When the inevitable moment actually comes, it may be easy to impulsively read it as traditional von Trier-esque misery, but it feels almost peaceful, so expected it is.  The characters have been stripped bare at this point and there is an eery calm* washing over the narrative, as horrifying as it is to consider what's happening.

*Charlotte Gainsbourg aside, because she goes out with a loud fight or she doesn't go out at all.

Part 2 of Top Ten of 2011 (5-1) Coming Up Next...

2011 Film Grades

2011 Film Grades

The Iron Lady (D)
Moneyball (B+)
Something Borrowed (D+)
Weekend (A-)
The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (B-)
Young Adult (B+)
Melancholia (A-)
The Descendants (D+)
Hugo (B)
The Artist (B+)
Shame (A)
We Need to Talk About Kevin (A)
The Skin I Live In (B)
Martha Marcy May Marlene (A)
Drive (A-)
Another Earth (C+)
The Help (B-)
30 Minutes or Less (C)
Rio (C)
Captain America: The First Avenger (B+)
Beginners (B+)
Midnight in Paris (B+)
Super 8 (D+)
X-Men: First Class (B+)
The Tree of Life (A-)
Bridesmaids (B)
Scream 4 or...Scre4m if you must (C-)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (B)
Hanna (B)
Like Crazy
(B-)No Strings Attached (D)

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Ensemble Cast

The Artist
Cast: Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman, Malcolm McDowell, Penelope Ann Miller, Missi Pyle, Uggie

For a consistent dedication to the movies stylization.  The cast somehow manages to do this without everyone's acting style feeling homogenized.  Very impressive work.

Cast: Rose Byrne, Jill Clayburgh, Jon Hamm, Ellie Kemper, Matt Lucas, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Chris O'Dowd, Maya Rudolph, Kristen Wiig, Rebel Wilson

When the comedy clicks, it rewards and the cast is so dedicated.  Each of these performers either builds on their persona in an interesting way or introduces us to a new side of them.

Cast: Brady Corbet, Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg, John Hurt, Udo Kier, Charlotte Rampling, Alexander Skarsgård, Cameron Spurr, Kiefer Sutherland

The ensemble takes on the dual task of effectively and admirably portraying a group of people with unique histories and relationships, while still reacting to the impending doom.  Everyone here feels essential.

Midnight in Paris
Cast: Kathy Bates, Adrien Brody, Carla Bruni, Marion Cotillard, Adrien de Van, Kurt Fuller, Yves Heck, Tom Hiddleston, Mimi Kennedy, Rachel McAdams, Alison Pill, Corey Stoll, Owen Wilson 

The conceit in Midnight in Paris is rife with complications, many of which the screenplay doesn't rush to explain.  The successful lure can therefore be attributed to the cast and their commitment to the material. They walk a fine line between broad caricature and specific interpretations of this melange of literary and cultural figures.

The Tree of Life
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Laramie Eppler, Hunter McCracken, Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, Fiona Shaw,  Tye Sheridan

Brad Pitt aside, few are given the opportunity the opportunity in this piece to showcase really meaty, actorly moments.  As a whole, however, the cast remarkably cohesive with a palpable family dynamic that feels lived- in and authentic.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Cinematography

Newton Thomas Sigel for Drive
Reminiscent of Dante Spinotti's best work with Michael Mann in the way Sigel photographs Los Angeles like a dark, looming, chameleon-like character in the narrative.

Alwin H. Küchler for Hanna
Fast-paced and frenetic, like the film itself.  Very clearly envisioned and executed stylized photography that really clicks.

Manuel Alberto Claro for Melancholia
Perfectly suited for Von Trier's piece.  Lush, long, drawn out shots (very much like the narrative), the photography drinks in everything that's going on at the house.  The ending sequence is spectacular.

Sean Bobbitt for Shame
Serves Brandon's arc so well, as the cinematography helps us feel his emotional claustrophobia.  Even exterior shots feel like the world is closing in on him.

Emmanuel Lubezki for The Tree of Life
A consensus pick for a reason, Lubezki tops himself here. His work with Malick on The New World was breathtaking, in a completely different way.  The shots of the O'Brien home and the twenty-first century business world are just as considered and beautiful as the shots of nature.

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Screenplay

Original Screenplay Nominees...

Mike Mills for Beginners
The quirky veneer would absolutely crumble if not for the deeply universal, human truth lying underneath it. The scenes between Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer are some of the most wrenching and honest of the year. 

Sean Durkin for Martha Marcy May Marlene
Operates as both a fascinating character study of an emotionally scarred young woman and as the creepiest thriller of the year.  The screenplay's two-ply structure (life in the cult vs. life at the lake house) is handled superbly.

Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan for Shame
Structurally, it's not as tight as some of the other nominees, but damn if McQueen doesn't make up for that with deeply interesting, truthfully written scenes of human interaction.  Broken record, I know, but
Brandon and Marianne's date scene contains some of the year's best writing.

Andrew Haigh for Weekend
The dialogue is rich with insight into the dynamic between Russell and Glen that seems so real, yet has never been portrayed on screen this way.  An unfussy yet truthful distillation of two very different ideas of male homosexuality. 

Diablo Cody for Young Adult
Cody has had less of an uphill battle with me than she does with the rest of the world.  I maintain Juno as an example of great writing (if a little slow going in the beginning) and her work on United States of Tara was top drawer.  Here, she creates a tapestry of unlikeable characters and does so with her signature humor, ear for great dialogue with just the right amount of humanity and honesty.  That she manages to do so almost every time out without creating work that seems like carbon copies of one another makes me value her all the more.

Adapted Screenplay Nominees...

Hossein Amini fo Drive (Based on James Sallis’s novel of the same name by)
So deliciously visual and specific, yet still clearly conceived of on the page.  Refn’s direction elevates much of the script, certainly, but Amini’s balance of character deepening and economic storytelling go a long way.

Pedro Almodóvar for The Skin I Live In (Based on the novel “Tarantula” by Thierry Jonquet)
Not so much for the handling of the mystery, which is dolled out in somewhat odd pieces throughout the narrative, but for how well the scene construction and characterization transcends the stylish veneer to hit very rewarding emotional beats.

Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian for Moneyball (Based on the book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” by Michael Lewis)
Two of the industry’s highest regarded screenwriters somehow manage to coalesce very different styles on a project plagued with development problems in service of adapting a tricky, non-fiction story that doesn’t inherently lend itself to the cinematic moments birthed in Moneyball.

Rory Stewart Kinnear and Lynne Ramsay for We Need to Talk About Kevin (Based Lionel Shriver’s novel of the same name)
The script makes for a unique, auterist approach to the text managing to be at once a clearly distinguishable Lynne Ramsay film (why doesn’t she work more often?) and a recognizable representation of the novel.  Adaptations need not always be cut-and-paste renderings of their source (paging Taylor, Faxon and Rash…).

Apichatpong Weerasethakul for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loosely Inspired by “A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives” by Phra Sripariyattiweti)
Of these nominees, it is one that I saw least recently, but it still burns bright in my memory.  So uniquely constructed, yet imbued with so much depth and sympathy for its characters.  A seemingly abrupt change in both setting and rhythm towards the late middle strangely insulates the two halves of the narrative against one another in a way that’s fascinating, if it doesn’t entirely work.  A revisit is certainly warranted.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

2011 Pretentious Film Awards - Best Director

And the nominees are...

Nicolas Winding Refn – Drive
Refn's stylistic exercise rests completely on his direction—his control over tone, his ability to guide his actors through what is not exactly the most verbose of pieces. He rises to the occasion admirably. Other directors tackling action, whether it's a first-time foray or a return to the genre should take note.

Lars von Trier – Melancholia
Puts his misanthropy and angry fatalism to good use, making an effective, lush and beautiful mood piece that operates as an actorly showcase and displays his unmatched talent with powerful, visual storytelling.  Few of his films fail to say "Only Lars could make this." A true auteur working at peak form.

Steve McQueen – Shame
McQueen's sophomore effort flirts dangerously between being an actor's exercise and a truly narrative experience, but his touch is so deft here, drawing the most out of his actors, his location and his subject matter to craft an incredibly arresting and haunting piece of cinema.

Terrence Malick – The Tree of Life
A tone poem, like Malick's previous four films. Yes it's problematic (the most problematic of all of Malick's films to date), but crafted so lovingly and so specifically that one cannot deny its power. He tackles the birth and death of the universe, as well as the fecund period in between with his signature eye for location and ear for tone. Ethereal, wistful and beautiful through and through.

Lynne Ramsay – We Need to Talk About Kevin
It's hard to watch We Need to Talk About Kevin and not imagine The Lovely Bones that could have been (Ramsay was originally slated to direct the film before the project was wrested away from her). Here, she does what few filmmakers can accomplish—taking a novel, adapting it recognizably yet still giving it her artistic, personal stamp. Let's just hope we don't have to wait nine years for the next Ramsay film. (her previous film was 2002's excellent Morvern Callar)