Only recently it began occurring to me that 2012 is shaping into a rather dull year for American cinema. Let's face it: thus far very few of this year's highly anticipated releases have lived up to the hype, expectations, or reputation surrounding them. In my estimation (and granted this is my opinion, but I happen to know I'm not alone in the matter) we've witnessed a number of major filmmakers unearth their most unimpressive, worst, weakest, or otherwise most head-scratching works to date. I'm talking about Tim Burton. Steven Soderbergh. Wes Anderson. And yes, I'm talking about Christopher Nolan. From most all reports, one could throw David Cronenberg in the mix too, if you like. Hell, the way things have gone it's probably not such a terrible thing that Marty Scorsese took the year off. Joel and Ethan too.
When you boil things down, one could argue that The Avengers was the only truly high-profile projects that actually -and more or less, fully- delivered. Even the Prometheus sympathizer that I am can readily admit this.
Oh sure, there have been a handful of pleasant surprises along the way. But the vast majority of them have been limited release affairs, art-house titles, or movies that didn't announce themselves with a whole lot of sure-fire promise to begin with. This can be said about any given year, one only has to dig deep enough. It's one of the great inherent truths to the art of cinema.
And so September wound its way down and yet the release date for Django Unchained was feeling further and further away. (One would think that, especially after mentioning a number of recent disappointments, I wouldn't already be including Tarantino's unreleased film among my 5 favorites of the year. And yet, there it sits. Hey, if the Academy gets to do it with Spielberg every year, why can't I afford Tarantino the same treatment?) At any rate, I had felt for months now that American cinema has needed a swift kick in the ass.
Enter The Master, right on cue. Here it is gang. A deeply polarizing, controversial, convention-upsetting work from a master filmmaker. What could be more exciting? And the best part for me? I really liked it.
Paul Thomas Anderson is making a strong claim with every film that he is the premiere director of his generation. Despite a colder overall reception to The Master by audiences and certain critics, I think the case remains as convincing as ever, even-though I truly do think its full merits are difficult to judge upon a single viewing. The Master is a duel-character study that fascinates with every frame. Joaquin Phoenix turns in a performance that is nothing short of devastating. It's the kind of role that requires him to tap into such dark places, it becomes a wonder that he ever recovered. Philip Seymour Hoffman is equally up to the task in a role that requires enormous range. Perhaps we've almost come to take Hoffman's abilities for granted. The two actors really ignite when they're on screen together. The curious and tragic dynamic that intertwines the two characters and their psyches and personalities provides for one of the most electrifying pairs of performances in recent memory.
A lot has been made about the film's commonalities with the beginnings of the Scientology movement, but I think it's imperative not to remain too fixated on this aspect of the film. Stating that The Master is about Scientology and leaving it at that is akin to simply describing Citizen Kane as a picture about the newspaper business. For one thing there are fairly obvious reasons to view Anderson's film as a criticism about just about any and every modern conception of religion and reverence toward a higher power. In a broader sense, the film seems to skewer not just cult mentalities or religious power-schemes, but also the "self-help" (a phrase that has always been misleading) obsessions that for decades have continually fought for the collective consciousness of the nations populace. One might recall the Tom Cruise dimension of Anderson's 1999 film, Magnolia.
A great deal of Magnolia explored the notion that ultimately our salvation can only be found in one another by achieving courageous and honest connections with the people around us. Our wounds are often too great to fully manage and mend on our own. At times true healing requires the acceptance and love of another. Sometimes the hurts and wounds between family or spouses are too devastating. In such cases, sometimes only a stranger can accomplish what a father or daughter or husband or son cannot.
In many ways I felt that Magnolia provided a thematic leaping-off point for The Master. We are met with the almost impossibly broken and tragic walking wound of a man in Phoenix's Freddy Quell. At a point in the film shortly after meeting Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd, the rage and anger in Freddy has subsided for a moment and both Dodd and viewers are met with a achingly vulnerable and lost man. These are the moments where healing can begin. The tragedy of Anderson's film (and the major distinction from Magnolia) lies in the problem of how two beings can abuse and exploit such vulnerabilities. We witness this at an incredibly personal level between the two characters. We see how the same ideas inform cult-allegiance and the construction of a cult-hero. And if we're to follow the film to its deeper levels, we must also wonder about the implications involved at the broader level of organized religion. Jesus is written to have said, "Give me your weak and your weary" and so too has "the Church" taken up the same command. In this bold and personal film, one of the things Anderson seems to question is just what good can "the Church" ultimately give these lost souls once it has obtained them. In a telling scene toward the end of the film Dodd's wife, Peggy, played by a very strong and possibly underused Amy Adams, reveals what might be taken as Anderson's final indictment against the things he sees wrong in the unjust and self-defeating nature or many conceptions of God and our existential standing with such a god- which of course informs the way the power dynamics take shape within "the Church" or a given cult.
This touches on but one of the driving forces that I perceived in the film on first viewing. A second watch may have me rethinking a number of these matters, or shifting my focus entirely. Essentially, what attracts me so strongly to the film is the combination of ultra-impressive technical/artistic skill put forth (I don't think you'll find many argue against the brilliance at work here when it comes to things like cinematography and score) and a challenging, layered, and compelling story and subtext. The Master is certainly not everyone's kind of film (maybe most particularly in terms of its narrative structure) but it's without a doubt my kind of film. Or at least enough so to carry me into a second viewing to help clarify my overall assessment of it.
Emily Blunt goes all "Uma" on us in the smart, stylish, not-quite-masterpiece-but-pretty-goddamn-good Looper.
Rian Johnson is proving to be one of America's brightest up and coming directors. With only 3 feature films now under his belt, the man has covered a remarkable amount of cinematic territory, while infusing "genre" films with his own unique and confident touch. Indeed his 2005 debut, Brick, a send up to Film Noir set in a suburban high school, arrived on the indie-film scene as not so much a breath, but a heavy gale of fresh air. Wait, you mean to tell me that this is a mid-2000s American indie-effort that manages to combine intelligence and unbridled creativity with an uncanny amount of professionalism? And the whole thing feels... fun? Surely, you jest! Ah, but it's true, so take notes all you ever-glum, whoa is the world, Too Cool for Tripoders out there.
Next we had 2008's The Brother's Bloom (which happens to be among my top 3 films of that year), an inspired and comedic take on the caper film. As is the case with so many comedies, the film didn't quite receive the universal admiration of his debut, but its sense of style, flourish, and Wes Anderson-esque comedic tones provided plenty of reason for film-goers and critics to take notice.
With all the panache that Johnson had lent the art-house/indie film market, I was excited to discover that he would be bringing his unique talents to something more in step with the Hollywood blockbuster scene. And sure enough Looper proves that Johnson was up to the task and fully able to continue to deliver a smart, singular, genre-bending experience at a grander scale.
Looper is in many ways one of the most intelligent and cleverly constructed time-travel films I've ever seen. Part of the intelligence lies in the very fact that Johnson provides himself a couple of brilliant (and intensely comic) evasions to the head-ache inducing paradoxes inherent to time-travel. This is a keen move on his part, and allows him (and audiences alike) to focus on the more important work to be done within the movie. (And yet even still, myriad chat-room junkies, bloggers, and IMDb posters are certain to lambast the movie for "gaffs in time-travel logic" and "MAJOR PLOTHOLES!!!!!" *sigh*)
Impressively, Johnson presents us with a well-envisioned look into the future (two futures, actually- 2044 and 2074) and a plausible and sensible story of "how things are in the future" to go with it, without ever relying on too much clunky exposition. (Okay, there's a little clunky exposition. But most of it is done in Joe's (Joseph Gordon Levitt) cool film-noir-hero sounding voice, so it's alright) The point is, there's no small amount of set-up that must take place (like, just what the fuck is a looper, for example) and Johnson brings us through it, not only painlessly, but usually elegantly. Kudos.
Of course all of this (as well as many of the film's future successes) are easier accomplished when you have top-notch talent involved on-screen. Looper has this. Gordon Levitt continues to impress, both in terms of the projects he chooses to begin with, and then the abilities that he brings to them. In this case, one of the best aspects is watching him absolutely nail Bruce Willis' mannerisms and... "face behavior" if you will. (Oh, I forgot to mention it, but this is important because in the movie Joseph Gordon Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same person. Except that Bruce is 30 years older. This is an important part of "the plot". For more on "plot", see Wikipedia. Writing about "plot" bores the shit out of me.) Speaking of Bruce, he gives us one of his stronger performances to date, as well. He always seems to do that when starring in movies that are good and not total pieces of shit. Go figure.
Then we have my home-girl, Emily Blunt. If you didn't know that Emily Blunt is my home-girl, well she is. And with Looper I've finished forgiving her for that terrible Jason Segal movie that she did earlier this year. Emily is back on my good graces with the fiery, fierce, independent, motherly, Beatrix Kiddo character that she unveils here. If I watch this movie a second time (and in a minute you'll understand that I might just not get around to it) it won't be because Bruce Willis gave two shits with this one. Nope. It'll be for Emily Beatrix Blunt.
Oh gosh, I should mention something about Jeff Daniels. Jeff Daniels is in this movie and he's very good in it and quite funny. So there's another thing.
And now is where I begin to reveal my reservations about the film...
Have you ever noticed that sometimes with cinema what starts as "one of the greatest child-performances of all-time" eventually begins to grate on your nerves like holy fuck until finally that same element becomes "for the love of christ, this fucking kid is ruining my goddamn scifi movie!" Well I noticed it when I saw the movie Looper. Ugh. There, I said it.
Okay, yeah I've got a few other minor complaints too. But they mostly involve boring stuff like disruption of over-all tone in the last act of the film and corresponding over-use of slow-motion photography.
In the end, there are heaps of praise that one can toss upon Looper -in fact, I think I've done just that- but I'm more likely to revisit either of Johnson's other two films.
Argo is very fundamentally solid film-making that gives its viewers lots to enjoy, even if the movie ultimately feels too conventional to slyly become something truly special. It should be said, however, that while predictability is a trait inherent to fact-based film like Argo, it really doesn't prevent Affleck from ratcheting up to the suspense and leading viewers toward nail-biting territory. This truth is a testament to the skill involved behind the camera, in the editing room, and on-screen. Now... some might feel as though Argo veers dangerously close to "eye-role territory", and I won't argue. But even so, the movie feels fresh, fun, and even powerful- though that last claim is softened by an undeniable Oscar-friendly feel to it all.
What really makes Argo work from start to finish is the fact that director Ben Affleck has surrounded himself with a truly impressive collection of professional actors that are all at the top of their game with this movie. John Goodman is as dependably solid as we've come to expect, and Alan Arkin, who provides most of the film's comic-relief, is simply great (and more an more gosh-darn likeable with every year that passes). As for Bryan Cranston, well... has he ever not been good?
And then there's Affleck himself who does some of his best on-screen work here in a confident and deeply human role that could easily have turned into something entirely different. There's not a whiff of self-congratulatory piety to be found in the character or the performance. So right there, one of my biggest fears going into the film was snuffed out. Argo may not land a spot in my list of personal favorites, but I have very few actual complaints about its execution and the overall product. It is certainly a worthwhile watch and about as good as one can expect a film with such mass-appeal to be.
For me that hasn't been a more purely entertaining time to be had at the movies all year. The fact that Seven Psychopaths accomplishes this while also offering up a highly intelligent and cleverly subversive finished product with as much to say about "the movies" as it does the characters within the film is truly an impressive and special feat. This is a film to be reckoned with.
Anyone who saw 2008's In Bruges ought to have an idea of what kind of tone to expect with Martin McDonagh's latest offering. This is a director that isn't afraid to let his films take rather unwieldy (and largely hilarious) routes towards its observations. Like In Bruge, Seven Psychopaths is extremely funny and very violent-- I would argue more so on both counts. McDonagh weaves humor and violence together in ways that often make the one inextricable from the other. And he does so with no small amount of playfulness and glee. What really dazzles, however, is how cleverly these elements come together and just how smart the director can be at upsetting viewer expectations only to arrive at far more interesting places than we might have thought he was taking us. If all of this sounds stressful to you, well it's not. But... McDonagh makes no efforts to avoid offending those with a penchant for becoming offended. This is worth keeping in mind.
No less (and possibly more) than three of the central actors in the film turn in career performances for the film. Specifically, Sam Rockwell delivers the type of performance that, while it won't be touted by Hollywood-at-large as such, can only be described as masterful. Certainly he is aided by a fantastic script and a character that is written in a way that ensures our interest in him never sputters. And so with such riches at his disposal, it seems that once the camera is rolling, Rockwell's world is nothing but green lights and not a single posted speed limit to be found. Rockwell absolutely kills it here, scene after scene.
Next up is Christopher Walken, and Seven Psychopaths presents him at his Christopher Walkeniest. I mean this is the most complimentary way, because by now it's easy to forget just how versatile Walken can be. Clearly McDonagh hasn't forgotten, and the film allows him to traverse a wide range of emotional terrain without ever sacrificing the intensity, unique edge, and undeniable aura of wisdom that makes Walken so compelling and such a joy to watch. Oh, and of course the guy can be really fucking funny.
Maybe the biggest surprise (though when I stop to recall In Bruges it really isn't) is Colin Farrel. I don't think it's a huge secret by now that the Irish Colin Farrel is best when playing...an Irish man. Here he's of the drunken man-of-letters variety, and it's his frustration with trying to pen the screenplay titled "Seven Psychopaths" that much of the film of the same name centers itself around. Farrel embodies the role with a natural, slightly melancholic but trying to be a good sport about everything, ease. If Seven Psychopaths was just laughs and blood (no matter how clever) it wouldn't approach (and I say reach) the level of greatness the way it does. This is a movie with plenty of heart buried beneath its wit and gleeful viscera, and one that examines friendship and loyalty in surprising, yet earnest ways. While not all of this depends on Farrel, it is his character that keeps this element from being tossed out of the film's orbit.
I could go on discussing the strengths that each actor brings to the film and there's certainly plenty left to praise in Seven Psychopaths' script and story, but it's better if you just watch it. That's what I'll be doing again, and soon.
The vast majority of films set in high school can be described in one of two ways: Either they make me happy as hell that those days are long past, or they get everything so far wrong that the movie doesn't register much of anything at all for me. Every now and then (last year's Submarine comes to mind in some ways) a movie like The Perks of Being a Wallflower comes along and fills me with great surprise and equal joy.
Here is a movie that actually allowed, no more like insisted that I get reacquainted with the 15 year-old version of myself. And the most remarkable thing is that as often as not I found myself missing, even nostalgic toward, that time in my life, those friendships, and the urgent and exciting mental states of mind that marked those years. Yes, the film does a brilliant job of presenting the maddening, confusing, downright stupid shit that comes along with the territory. And there's plenty of darker and more troublesome elements that make up a good deal of the film's focus. But ultimately, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a smartly observant and uplifting film. In celebrating the uniqueness of suffering and yearnings of its characters it actually celebrates the entire phenomenon of being human. The personal challenges, triumphs, and murky in-betweens that the movie's characters (and we viewers) face in our high school years are only part of the broader cycle of what it means to be a living, feeling, thinking social being. The lessons learned, losses felt, and insight gained may at first glance seem unique to the "high school experience", but truly much of the film's messages touch on that which we confront over and over again.
This universal appeal could ordinarily turn this type of "movie for everyone" into one of those movies for no one in particular. Fortunately the film-maker/screenwriter/author of the source novel is so in touch with his characters and their surroundings and so clear-minded about what he wishes to achieve that nothing here feels generic or inauthentic. His characters are fully realized and powered by some pretty wonderful performances from the young cast. The film gets so many things so damn right that it's often a mix of pure pain and bliss to behold. At moments The Perks of Being a Wallflower was really one of those movies that's just so fucking good in places that I could've cried.
Despite all of this praise for the film, I should say that it may simply not work for a number of viewers. This strikes me as a pretty personal film, and it's one that I happened to respond to pretty personally. Also, its 1991 setting is something that worked much much better for me than most 2012 settings ever could. I'm far more comfortable and emotionally responsive with the mix-tapes passed between characters than I would ever be if someone simply uploaded an itunes playlist on to somebody else's smartphone. And the film's comedic touches tickled me, but that's not to say everyone will share in my delight.
And yes, while it's been more than a dozen years, I'm inclined to go ahead and say it: The movie is better than the book.
My October movie journal will be taking a back-seat this month to my October Horrorfest movie journal, as seen here. This is really where all my movie watching action for the month can be found, but I'll be fitting in a handful of non-horror titles as well. And from the looks of things two films in, I'm trading brevity in one sense for extremely long-windedness in the other. So... cheers!