Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: Performance, Transaction, and the Big Sell

Martin Scorsese loves to watch Leonardo DiCaprio. I guess we’ve known that for some time, but it never quite hit me as it did during The Wolf of Wall Street. We can argue all day over whether this is an attempt to remake Goodfellas or whatever (it isn’t), but there’s one thing that’s pretty clear to me: This is as much one of Scorsese’s concert docs (Shine a Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) as it is one of his narrative epics. Jordan Belfort, the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street,” didn’t just become famous for his crooked financial practices; he was also renowned for his revival-like, inspirational speeches full of blustery bullshit to his workers. He sells stocks with messianic fervor; then he sells selling stocks with messianic fervor. It’s a perfect subject on which to hitch an extended DiCaprio concert. Half the movie is just him performing in front of people, and much of the rest of it is people reacting to him. There are even a couple of scenes one could call dance numbers.

(Spoiler alert for the rest of the review, to the extent that there can be spoilers for this movie...)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis: "Like King Midas's idiot brother"

A mesmerizing, haunted red herring of a movie, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is full of glancing blows and half-hidden truths. Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Five Things I Liked about Spike Lee's Remake of Oldboy

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is getting trashed left and right and flopping with audiences. But sue me, I kind of liked it. And while I love, love, love the original to death and still vastly prefer it to this one, I figured it might be worth noting down some things about Lee's film that I thought worked. It ain’t exactly Losey’s remake of M (though let it be noted that that film too was much hated for many decades before its reputation slowly began to repair) but I think this new Oldboy is worthwhile. I’d certainly be interested to see the rumored longer version some day.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips: "Relax. It's just business."

The real-life piracy thriller Captain Phillips opens with what feels at first like an inelegant bit of exposition. Preparing at home to embark on his next voyage, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) checks the itinerary on his computer for his date of departure, and his destination: Mombasa, Kenya. You may find yourself asking: Wouldn’t the captain of a major cargo ship know where he’s headed well before the day he leaves? You may even have similar thoughts a couple of scenes later, as Captain Phillips listens to one of his crew members tick off the contents of their container ship, the Maersk Alabama. Again, shouldn’t he already know all this?

But what seems early on like awkward filmmaking convention soon reveals itself as the first hint that Captain Phillips, for all its expert, armrest-tearing suspense, is about more than just a ship taken hostage by Somali pirates. “Companies want things faster and cheaper…You gotta be strong to survive out there,” Phillips says in another early scene, and it becomes clear that, for all his protestations of strength, he is a mere cog in the engine of global commerce. It doesn’t matter if he knows where he’s going, or what he’s carrying. But soon enough, he and his men, speeding through international waters off the horn of Africa, are being pursued and boarded by a ragged band of pirates led by a gaunt, intense teenager named Muse (Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, in a remarkable debut performance). “Relax, Captain. Just business,” the young pirate tells the middle-aged sailor. He’s right.

Friday, August 2, 2013

'80s Action Week: The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)

Okay, it’s hard to do five posts on the best action films of the 1980s and try and sneak in anything remotely surprising in there. (I guess the closest I got to was yesterday’s post on RoboCop, if only because most folks who know me know I’m fairly cool on Verhoeven.) And this, of course, is another no-brainer. It’s certainly the best of the Star Wars films (though a couple of the prequels are better than people like to give them credit for being). But it bears looking into, still: Why does The Empire Strikes Back continue to work so well?

Thursday, August 1, 2013

'80s Action Week: Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987)

Paul Verhoeven, I still don’t entirely know what to do with you. Yes, you were one of the signature action auteurs of the ‘80s and ‘90s, with films like Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers to your name, and that reputation is still solid, even though individual films may wax and wane in influence and estimation over the years. Total Recall at the time was thought of as the kind of soulless action flick Hollywood churned out on a regular basis; it’s aged now into a weirdly personal and very, very surreal fantasy, a consciously outsize macho wish fulfillment dream for the Age of Schwarzenegger. Basic Instinct was a bit better liked, mainly for its sleaze; I still like it, mainly for its sleaze. Starship Troopers wasn’t a huge popular hit but a certain subset of critics loved it because of its constantly self-aware, bright neon meta-meta-ness; I never really got it. Along the way there was Showgirls, which I haven’t been able to like even ironically, and Hollow Man, which is exciting and insane in equal measure. And then there were the Dutch films, made before he came to the U.S., many of which are excellent and all of which are idiosyncratic in their own little ways. Anyway, I find him fascinating, but Paul Verhoeven, it goes without saying, is far from my favorite director.

But he did have one absolutely perfect movie.  One film where his signature fascination with gore and gratuitous violence really paid off thematically, while his natural perversity made for an ideal match with the story. Certainly among Verhoeven’s American genre films, RoboCop is his masterpiece. Who else but this director would take what could have been a fairly standard tale of a cop who is turned into an indestructible, crime-fighting cyborg, and then underlined its utter strangeness in such a way that still did justice to its narrative? With overtones of both Brazil and The TerminatorRoboCop is equal parts satire, tragedy, grand guignol gorefest, and sensitive human drama, and it manages to be a parody of itself even as it delivers the goods. (Put another way: It’s the movie everyone seems to think Starship Troopers is.)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

‘80s Action Week: The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)

Although the series would define what so many viewers now think of as “post-apocalyptic,” the first Mad Max was not really a sci-fi film at all. Rather, it was a low-budget gearhead thriller about a loose-cannon Aussie cop who takes on some violent motorcycle gangs. Its director, George Miller, a doctor, had been inspired to make it after spending a little too much time around the emergency room – hence all the random cutaways to eyeballs and the film’s almost clinical fascination with realistic violence.

It was with this second film, known to most of the world simply as Mad Max 2, that director Miller and star Mel Gibson took Max (who lost his wife and child in the earlier film’s shattering finale) and projected him into a post-WWIII future. Now, society had fully crumbled and small, ragged bands of ruthless warriors fought desperately for oil across a bleak desertscape. It was an epic gesture, to be sure, but it wasn’t a particularly grandiose one. I don’t know what kind of budget he was actually working with, but Miller craftily used the natural terrain of Australia to create his science-fiction wasteland. In effect, he did with The Road Warrior what Jean-Luc Godard did with Alphaville, creating a faux-futuristic prism through which to see the present.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

'80s Action Week: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Steven Spielberg, 1981)

Yes, it’s still good. Steven Spielberg’s 1981 masterpiece hasn’t dated one bit, in part because it was already something of a throwback – a blend of cutting-edge effects and technique with a defiantly old-fashioned sensibility. Spielberg took the template of the action serial – those corny, disposable, cliff-hangery pieces of escapist pulp from the ‘30s and ‘40s – and crafted something whose speed, narrative shorthand, and element of surprise were very much of the moment. Its hero, wisecracking archeologist adventurer Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was a combination of Buster Crabbe, Clark Gable, and, well, Harrison Ford himself, whose cynical cool had just made Han Solo one of the most iconic heroes in movie history. In a sense, this is what Spielberg has always done. (Heck, he did something similar in Lincoln – mixing a post-Nixonian study of the infernal American political machine with an earnest, Capraesque belief that men of good will can still accomplish great things.)

Monday, July 29, 2013

‘80s Action Week: Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)

So I took an unintended break from this blog for the past few months. Not because I didn’t have anything to write about, but because I had too much to write about, most of it for other places. One of the big things I worked on over this time was a list for Vulture of the 25 Best Action Movies Since Die Hard, a piece that got a lot of people reading and thinking and calling me names, as intended. One of the best things about writing it was revisiting the great action films of the 1990s – kind of a banner decade, what with films like Speed, The Rock, Point Break, Hard-Boiled, Terminator 2, etc. But one of my regrets about the list was that, because we pegged it to Die Hard, I had to ignore a lot of the great action films of the 1980s – an altogether more complicated and darker lot, I think, than most of the ones that came later.

So, I’ve decided to dedicate the first week of my return to the blog to ‘80s Action. For the next five days, each day I will highlight one great, seminal action film from this decade. Here’s the first one.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

An Economic Recovery Plan for the Land of Oz

In his excellent BFI Classics book on The Wizard of Oz, Salman Rushdie comments on the odd fact that everybody in Oz always seems so happy, despite the fact that they’ve apparently been enslaved by the powers of evil. Indeed, the Ozites’ joyous demeanor in the face of political and social catastrophe suggests that they may be ignoring the true desperation of their circumstances. We’ve seen this before – in Greece, most recently, but also in lots of other economies whose “zest for life” was much praised even as those nations were inching towards demographic and fiscal catastrophe. Luckily, in the case of Oz, disaster can still be averted. Here’s a four-point economic recovery plan for the Land of Oz.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Forgotten Films: High Tide (Gillian Armstrong, 1987)

It pains me to no end to call Gillian Armstrong's High Tide a "forgotten" film. Back in the late '80s and early '90s, it was anything but. It was the film people pointed to when talking about Judy Davis's greatness as an actress. It was also the film people pointed to when talking about the brilliance of its director, a woman who would go on to make a number of other masterpieces and near-masterpieces, including Little Women, Last Days of Chez Nous, and Oscar & Lucinda. (Armstrong and Davis had also collaborated on the excellent My Brilliant Career earlier in their careers, a film that put both of them on the map.) But slowly, this staggering, heartbreaking tale of a mother and daughter reuniting started to vanish from viewers' radars. It has never had a proper DVD release in the U.S. -- even in Australia, it was released in a crappy pan & scan edition that is now out of print -- so maybe there were some rights issues that prevented its gaining a wider audience. (It's a gorgeous film, so presentation matters a great deal.) The good news, however, is that it's currently available on Netflix streaming, in a pretty good-looking version, so you could watch it right this very minute if you so wanted.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Two by Frank Perry: Man on a Swing (1975) and Dummy (1979)

I’ve written about the work of Frank Perry before, both on this blog and elsewhere. He’s one of the great unsung American filmmakers of the 1960s and 70s, though he’s now known primarily for the ill-fated Mommy Dearest (and, to a lesser extent, The Swimmer). During the 1960s, he and his then-wife Eleanor, who wrote his scripts, had a remarkable run of magnificent films, many of which are still hard to find: Last Summer, Trilogy, and Diary of a Mad Housewife among them. After their divorce, Frank continued to create work of genuine interest – even if it couldn’t quite match what he did with Eleanor. Recently, two of his films from the 1970s made their way to home video, through Olive Films’ lovely Blu-ray/DVD of 1975’s Man on a Swing, and Warner Archive’s excellent DVD of 1979’s Dummy. This came as a shock to me: While both films were well-known at the time (the latter in particular was an award-winning TV movie written by Ernest Tidyman, screenwriter of The French Connection and the novelist who gave us Shaft), I didn’t think they’d ever be properly released.

In a Moving Image Source piece I did on the Perrys some years ago, I discussed the clinical aspect of their films, brought about perhaps (I speculated) by Eleanor’s work as a psychologist. All the films they did together have the quality of scientific inquiries, as if their subjects were under a microscope. Indeed, this is partly what makes the films so compelling: Eleanor’s psychological precision crossbred with Frank’s sensitivity to performance results in something both Olympian and very human.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Abbas Kiarostami on Japan, Actors, and His Use of Sound in Like Someone in Love

Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love is a genuinely beguiling work of art. It furthers the director’s recent project of portraying relationships that are constantly in flux -- a theme that reached its pinnacle in his 2010 masterpiece Certified Copy. But the mysteries of that earlier film were more overt – percolating out into the very atmosphere of the film, so that its setting became as mutable as its human interactions – while the new film has a greater precision to it, and a cleaner, even more suspenseful, narrative arc. The story of the odd relationship between an older Japanese man and a young female student, Like Someone in Love seems concerned with internal and external space. Its early scenes are riddled with phone calls, and therefore with spoken words that seem like incomplete thoughts (since most of the time we’re only ever hearing one half of a conversation). But as the film progresses, offscreen space, and the sounds of what’s happening beyond the frame, gather devastating importance.

Anyway, it’s a lovely movie, and you should see it if you haven't. And if you have seen it, you should probably see it again; I know I need to. Its director needs no introduction: He is, quite simply, among the small handful of directors who continue to be of seismic importance to world culture. From his early masterpieces -- both documentaries and fictions -- much of them made with Iranian schoolchildren, to his later experiments with narrative form and technology, he’s been at the cutting edge of everything we know as cinema. I sat down with him for a bit during the New York Film Festival last year. Here’s our chat.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

On Tragedy, Beauty, and the Cell: An Interview with the Taviani Brothers

Paolo and Vittorio Taviani have been making visionary films for more than four decades, but sometimes it feels like they've been gone from American screens for so long that very few people here remember them. Hopefully that injustice will be partly undone by the release on these shores of their latest, the compact and beautiful Caesar Must Die, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin last year. (Go here to read David Edelstein’s rave.)

The film portrays a group of inmates in Italy’s Rebibbio Prison putting on a performance of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The film's actual cast consists of the same inmates, playing themselves playing the parts, and the film was shot in the prison. As in so many of their other works, the Tavianis blur the lines between the modern and the mythic, between emotional immediacy and the impulse to deconstruct, to analyze. They highlight the physicality of the actors -- the film is full of the earthiness and immediacy so characteristic of their work -- even as they depict the transcendental quality of these forgotten individuals' encounter with great art. (In some weird way, in its blending of the intimate with a distant poeticism, the film reminds me of Visconti's La Terra Trema.) Meanwhile, the production of this most canonical of plays -- Shakespeare's most incantatory work, here revised to fit the actors' varied dialects -- spills out from the stage of the prison into its cells and common spaces. So much so that it becomes almost a cubist meditation on the enclosure of the self. As the inmates broaden their personal and psychological horizons, the Tavianis’ aesthetic entraps them further.

So, the film is magnificent, though perhaps it doesn't have the more accessible, epic grandeur of some of the Tavianis' better-known works. Indeed, at some point in the 1970s and 80s, these filmmakers were an international phenomenon, and deservedly so. I can think of few films greater than Night of the Shooting Stars, with Allonsanfan, Kaos, and Padre Padrone (which won a controversial Palme d'Or at Cannes back in the day) following close behind. I'd also highly, highly recommend the English language Good Morning Babylon, an exquisite, sweeping, and decidedly weird drama of two Italian brothers who come to the U.S. and wind up working on the set of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance. It was made at the height of their popularity, and flopped mightily -- suffering, perhaps, from the fact that the Tavianis were directing American and English actors, with an English-language screenplay, even though they themselves speak very little English. Nevertheless, as a teenager, I think I saw it something like twenty times. Get over the crazy dialogue, and it's amazing. (I bet it plays great in Italian, with subtitles.)

During the last New York Film Festival, I got to realize a lifelong dream of speaking to the Tavianis about the new film, and their work in general. Here's what came of it.

Monday, January 28, 2013

To the Wonder: “I write on water the things I dare not speak”

Terrence Malick’s To the Wonder premiered at Toronto and Venice last Fall to some fairly disappointed reviews, and, as much as I love the film, I guess I’m not surprised. Devoid of the monumental nature of his prior work – it’s not set against the history of Creation, or the founding of America, or World War II – it feels, at first glance, fairly slight. It’s a tale set in the contemporary world that could be outlined with a simple and predictable sentence: Boy meets girl, then meets other girl. And it pushes Malick’s style of weaving together movements and gestures and muffled words and intimate bursts of whispered narration to pretty much the breaking point. If you walked away from The Thin Red Line, The New World, or The Tree of Life wishing there had been fewer shots of people speaking in voiceover as they roamed around a beach, you’re probably screwed. But I’m here to tell you that To the Wonder is magnificent. I'm also here to tell you something about the film that might help at least some viewers understand it a bit better.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Pasolini and The Trilogy of Life; Or, Why It’s Important to See Films Properly

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of introducing Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Decameron at MoMA, and to participate the following day on a panel about Pasolini in general and The Trilogy of Life in particular, alongside Richard Pena and Simon Abrams. It was quite wonderful seeing the films again on a big screen, but I’d already had my eyes popped by seeing them a little while earlier, on Criterion’s beautiful new edition of the three films. Really, the films, both on Blu-ray and on the screen, looked brand new in ways I never thought they would. It also revealed certain things to me about them, and about Pasolini the filmmaker, that I’d never quite considered before.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

My Top 10 Films of 2012. And Then 10 More.

With links to reviews where applicable.

1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
“More than anything, a film about death -- or perhaps more specifically, mortality…In Ceylan’s hands, this landscape becomes a metaphysical one. The endless dark valleys of the Anatolian night, where giant stone faces lurk watching and where the characters’ own memories seem to live on forever, never quite register as a real place…Then the mythical gives way to the mundane; the mystery of death is gone, replaced instead with its physical and social consequences. And a film that began in the enveloping, sensuous darkness of a dream ends in the cold, hard light of the painfully real...”

2. It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt)
More on this later, I hope, but imagine what The Tree of Life might have been like had it been animated with stick drawings and ran a little over an hour long, without skimping on any of the ambition. This is basically that movie.