Monday, September 30, 2013

NYFF At A Glance

The grind of the New York Film Festival is wearing on me, and we’re not even at the midway point. There are still new films to see from the likes of James Gray, Jim Jarmusch, Claire Denis and, uh, Ben Stiller, so perhaps there’s excitement on the horizon. But I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a disappointing slate so far, with a couple of genuine bad films in the mix. Of course, maybe that’s my fault – twice I bailed on “Norte, The End Of History,” intimidated by the four hour plus (plus!) runtime and the fact that it was Lav Diaz’s (who?) twelfth, and shortest (!) film. The wonderful thing about being a film buff is that everyone has blind spots, there are no such thing as completists. Maybe one day I’ll look up Diaz’ other work. The New York Film Festival already tests me when I mistake “319 minutes” for “three hours and nineteen minutes,” as I did with Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” a couple of years back. I love movies, but sometimes I don’t really like vanishing from the physical world for four hours. Maybe with a friend, but, how many other people do you know willing to put Lav Diaz on their to-do list?

That same sort of thinking is, in a reductive sense, what stuffs the theater for the premiere of “Captain Phillips,” a tense pirate thriller from Paul Greengrass. It’s also the sort that allows Tom Hanks to uncharacteristically fire back at the press, as he did during the post-film q+a. When asked about preparing for the role (or some similarly boilerplate question), he talked about meeting the real Captain Phillips, and compared his more sensitive, inquisitive style of investigating the subject to the indelicate way media jerks poke and prod at their subjects with the same stupid, insipid inquiries. There was a brief heckling from the crowd, and Hanks fired back in his usually charming, conflict-deflating way, but it was an interesting set of teeth from the star, perhaps in response to yet another critic cave troll in the audience loudly demanding (not asking) that the people on-stage speak louder into their microphones. Hanks was completely in the right, of course, but you can tell some folks grumbled that this major movie star had reminded them that their jobs are secondary to whatever Lav Diaz is doing.
Whatever the case, Hanks has a right to be judgy, as he hacks and wheezes through “Captain Phillips,” being beaten and dragged throughout the runtime. Greengrass is a sentimentalist in spite of his verite approach, so he can never help giving his lead characters a little fight, and Hanks’ Phillips refuses to be a puppet to these gangly Somali pirates who take over his cargo ship. And yeah, it’s tense and suspenseful and Greengrass knows how to tell a story through this action-chaos method that he’s perfected, but so what? How many movies can Greengrass make where the white American has to battle the dark-skinned foreigner? He would be Hollywood’s red-state secret weapon if he hadn’t blown $140 million on “Green Zone,” which pretended that the general public would care that we went to war in the Middle East under false pretense. When he makes “United 93,” it’s interesting. When he gives the defense department a freebie with the glamorous, politically-cynical “Bourne” films, its understandable escapism. What do we call it now, where Phillips leads a primarily white crew (black crew members have no dialogue) against the blackest men of any mainstream Hollywood release this year? What am I saying? I’m just saying that you start to wonder about this Greengrass character. That’s all. For now.

To say “Inside Llewyn Davis” is “minor Coen” is dismissive and obnoxious as hell. But the reason the phrase keeps creeping up is that the brothers are masters at finding the grace in nothingness, in reaching out into the void and finding out that there’s no central meaning, there’s no movie-like contrivance connecting everything. Sometimes, Tommy Lee Jones doesn’t walk into that bloodbath, and sometimes The Dude doesn’t come close to solving the mystery. Such is the case with Davis, the title character played by Oscar Isaac. Clearly, he’s tremendously talented; Isaac plays the songs himself, which is admittedly impressive. But this sixties-era folk singer isn’t going to be rewarded for his skills or his stubbornness. Folk music isn’t even viable during this era, as one such impresario hears Davis play (impressively) and succinctly tells him, “I see no money in this.”

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Nocturnal Phenomenology

I first saw WE OWN THE NIGHT  years ago to battle a bout of insomnia. I thought the film would serve as enough of a distraction from my thoughts, but could also fade into background, calm me down and let me drift into sleep. Usually, when I'm tired, a film which requires me to follow a plot of us vs. them, or a thrilling scenario of classical categories, can be just the thing to soothe prescient worries of the day. In seeing something as familiar as THE GODFATHER I could be sure to lose my train of thought, but not myself, so I judged this other film would be close enough.

And while that was the expected result, there I was an hour later into the film, not only completely awake but deeply moved, anxious and out of breath. I felt enveloped by the very surface of the film, like another skin, or a singing breath in a language I didn't know but which made me tremble. There is, not only in WE OWN THE NIGHT but in all of James Gray films, a histrionic physicality, as if rain, light, a face, or the very night trembled with feeling and fell apart right in front of you as you are enveloped in the damage each image suffers.

I feel there isn't much lively discussion to be had about only the stories of each of his movies, as if TWO LOVERS could be considered an emotional film because its story pertained a 'damaged' man, a 'fuck up', who is torn apart between the love he feels for a woman he thinks is an outsider like him and another woman who wants to protect him, provide him safety from his own brokenness. While the story, as written, is itself a wonder (being written by Gray and Richard Menello ) of personal storytelling and classical, clear and concise dramatic construction, the events as seen and experienced in the screen rarely look, well, constructed. It's as if the story is in itself a great superstructure that the images, in carrying out the narrative could only shred it into chaos, hurt, and longing. Pure emotion.

Friday, September 13, 2013

This weekend at the movies

-Luc Besson’s “The Family” opens this weekend, and it is a non-stop bludgeoning, just endless gratuitous stupid violence and bloodshed for the sake of dumb laughs. It’s the sort of movie that shortcuts the slapstick and assumes someone overeagerly beating another person to death is funny. There’s some stuff in there about mocking gangster genre tropes, and it’s even more dated than the ten year old soundtrack of hits from LCD Soundsystem, Gorillaz and… M? Read my review here.

-I saw “And While We Were Here” under a different title two years ago, when it was in black and white, and that was probably the best thing the movie had going for it. Which was not an insult, as the color scheme made Kate Bosworth’s vulnerability that much more interesting, added to Iddo Goldberg’s black-suit handsomeness as her harried husband, and gave some mystery to teenager Jamie Blackley as her fresh-faced crush. The film has been colorized for its release now, and I can’t help but think something was lost in the translation, though I certainly hope not. Check my review here.

-“Blue Caprice” is an upsetting true life story of the D.C. sniper attacks in 2002 that felled a number of innocent civilians. Isaiah Washington is mesmerizing and terrifying as the shooter, and young Tequan Richmond is very good as his teenage son who assists in the murders. It’s definitely an anatomy of a broken relationship between these two (the boy is not actually his son, but he kidnaps and essentially brainwashes him), though I’m not entirely sure if it fully explains why the man’s grudges led him to embrace a violent bloodbath. Check out my review here, or my other review here.

Monday, September 2, 2013

In Praise Of Frank Grillo

Filmmakers don’t trust actors anymore. It’s a chicken or an egg thing, really: most filmmakers reveal an open contempt for them, and many studio-level leading men have a shockingly low level of craft (blame… mumblecore?) that it’s a wonder how we even need performers anymore. People with limited imaginations and attention spans have negative things to say about Terrence Malick, but perhaps he is ahead of his time: maybe in the future we make cinema about nature and forests and trees, and we use Ben Affleck as an accompanying prop.

Today’s blockbusters are either guilty of being loud and plotless, or loud and overly-plotty. But the leading men of yesterday told stories with their faces, and if they were still being employed, we wouldn’t have this problem. The face of Chris Pine tells you nothing other than, “Vaguely pretty.” It doesn’t have the tales you’d see in the crevasse of Robert Mitchum’s cleft. It doesn’t even have the wily intelligence of young Robert Redford, who was considered an underwhelming actor in his youth. Today’s actors are either talkers, like Robert Downey Jr. or Jonah Hill, or blunt objects like Channing Tatum and Mark Wahlberg. It’s not about skill, but about how you’re used, and these are talented thespians who have been smart enough to maximize their skill. But they have no stories to offer. Casting Tatum in a movie meant to mimic “Die Hard” just makes you feel like you’re playing an avatar in an off-brand “Die Hard” videogame: perhaps the power to identify pulls us closer to today’s movie star, whereas yesterday’s actors were deified, worshipped. Even limited talents like John Wayne represented an invitation to the story. Today’s leading men are merely a small part of the entire experience. You can perform a monologue from “Death Of A Salesman,” great; can you dodge a fireball?