Weekly Film Log: December 29 – January 4

Ringing in the new year with a pretty nice batch of movies!

Flight (2012) – dir. Robert Zemeckis

  • Watched on 30 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 3/10

How this film got a nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars is beyond me. While Zemeckis has directed some of the most beloved films in the past, here his direction hits rock bottom. Flight‘s script is lazy, uninspired, and predictable. From the way the narrative progresses to the nonchalant way characters are presented and thrown away, nearly everything about this film is boring and clichéd. This, of course, is with exception to the beginning plane crash scene, which is impressive in its sheer simplicity. However, the quality plummets from there, gradually turning into a complete mess.

The film’s shining beacon of hope lies in Denzel Washington’s performance. He really nails his character, yet the material he is given is a tragic disgrace. I especially took offense to the film’s ending. Without giving anything away, I found it ridiculously mean-spirited, taking the easy way out and offering absolutely no sense of redemption for our protagonist. Not that the writing even gives us any reason to sympathize with his character in the first place, as he is represented as a depthless, one-dimensional character with unclear motives and zero development. Washington is much deserving of his Oscar nomination, but unfortunately is also smack-dab in the middle of a film that does not deserve him.

I nearly forgot to mention that this film is preachy as all hell. Its obvious religious symbolism is scattered here and there, even at the most ridiculous instances. Moreover, it is a culprit of some of the worst “black and white” narrative progression I’ve ever seen. The “bad” characters are penalized, while the “good” (read: pious, religious) characters are rewarded. Even from the way the film ends, the overall message seems to be little more than “drunk people are bad people and deserved to be punished for it”. Essentially, everything that could possibly go wrong with this film does, and often in very preposterous ways. This is surely one of the least-deserving critically-acclaimed films in years and outside of Washington, it would be better if this was just simply forgotten.

(Also, the musical cues are RIDICULOUS. Seriously: “Under the Bridge” and “Sweet Jane” playing over a heroin sequence? “Sympathy for the Devil” every time Goodman’s character (a drug dealer) is in the picture? I swear, at one point the protagonist snorts cocaine, enters into an elevator, and “With a Little Help From My Friends” is playing as musak. Fuck this movie.)

Man on the Moon (1999) – dir. Milos Forman

  • Watched on 31 December
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Initially, a film about the life of Andy Kaufman directed by Miloš Forman and starring Jim Carrey seemed a bit risky to me. However, to my delight, I’ve found that so much more is done with the material than I could have originally anticipated. Much like much of Kaufman’s antics and his commitment to always be “one step ahead” of his audience, the film playfully teases viewers with half-truths and utter lies to always ensure a surprise around the corner. Its narrative frequently blurs reality and fiction, to the point where it even manipulates our emotions. By the end, we’re left scratching our heads over what conclusion to make of it all. I think this method is sometimes not done as effectively as other moments in the film, but for the most part, it is fresh and satisfying.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not?), Jim Carrey does an excellent job at embodying what it was that made Kaufman so eccentric and zany. Realistically, I couldn’t imagine any other actor capturing it even remotely as accurately, mainly due to the impossible colorfulness of the character at hand. In all, however, the film ends on a pretty solid note, delving into feel-good territory and wrapping on a message to be happy with the external world – a perfect way to sum up the life of such a unique individual. Contrary to what its outward appearance may imply, Man on the Moon is a must-see. Just like its protagonist, there is much more buzzing beyond the surface.

Josie and the Pussycats (2001) – Harry Elfont & Deborah Kaplan

  • Watched on 1 January
  • Format: DVD
  • Rating: 7/10

Transporting us to the wild and wonderful world of the year 2001, Josie and the Pussycats is less a live-action adaptation of the comic strip trio than it is a quirky critique of commercial culture. Nearly every frame is saturated in product placement, to the point where it becomes eye-rollingly absurd. But this gimmick does not stop there. As demonstrated by its delightful script, the film implicates a wonderfully inventive and satirical plot as as backdrop for everything that occurs. During the time of its release it may have seemed completely ridiculous (which could explain its failure at the box office), but in retrospect, I think it captures the overall superficial tone of “MTV culture” in ways that are often quite hilarious.

While the three leads are perfectly fine in their roles, the show is mainly stolen by Alan Cumming and Parker Posey’s supporting roles as the sinister heads of a record company set to manipulate the minds of consumers via subliminal messages. It’s a ridiculous concept, but both of these performers have proven to pull off ridiculous rather well. Here, it’s no exception. The cameo by Carson Daly is also one of the more hilarious moments of the entire film. I guess what I’m trying to say is that more people need to give this film a chance. It is definitely not the disposable biopic that its advertising makes it out to be. In reality, it’s smarter AND funnier. (And it passes the Bechdel Test, so that’s gotta be worth a few extra points!)

Tip: Double-bill this with They Live!

American Mary (2013) – dir. Sylvia Soska & Jen Soska

  • Watched on 1 January
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 6/10

Hearing all the buzz about American Mary earlier last year got me so excited. The main reason being that it was a ladies-written/directed/starred horror film that was getting some publicity, something not seen very often. For a while during my viewing of the film, I was certainly pleased. Katharine Isabelle does a terrific job with her strong performance, displaying equal parts charisma and enigma. Its body horror is satisfying, and the feminist edge placed on the narrative is done creatively. Body mod in general is just so fascinating to me, so a film that employs this theme will always interest me at least a little bit. Even better is that such images of gore and the grotesque is never simply put forward for exploitation purposes, and for that I praise this flick.

I think most of my major problems came with a lot of the characterization. Besides our lead protagonist, much of the performances came off as flat and unconvincing. This was a similar issue I had with The Woman, which also failed with its themes of female empowerment (albeit in much darker ways) due to lack of multi-dimensional characters. Also, I felt that it went way off its rails around the final third; it seemed that the writing just got bored with itself and simply moved its plot through dead air. Its climax felt directionless and, ultimately, it’s rather unsatisfying. Despite this, it’s pretty hard for me to dislike this film with the ways it so effectively puts forward its anti-sexist messages through graphic horror. With this alone, I’ll be sure to look forward to more by the Soska Sisters in the future.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) – dir. Peter Strickland

  • Watched on 1 January
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Aesthetically, Berberian Sound Studio is a real treat. As an homage 70s Italian giallo film, it captures much of the sort of pulpy atmosphere that such flicks tend to embody. And as someone who finds interest in behind-the-scenes contents of filmmaking, the various scenes that show us the wild, surreal world of sound design and special effects of these films were absolutely fascinating. It presents itself as a bit of a dark comedy, with its thinly carved-out characters satirizing Italian caricatures and doing so wonderfully.

My very favorite thing about this film is the surreal, Lynchian atmosphere that it sets across. This is largely due to its sound design, which is among the best that I’ve seen in any film (or at the very least, it is the most vital to its substance than any other film I’ve seen). Although we never see any physical graphic violence on screen, the tone definitely feels violent.

While its slow-burn atmosphere definitely worked for the vast majority of the movie, I felt that it started to lose momentum around the final third. By then, it felt a bit directionless and I was unsure just exactly what its point was. Its distance, while mostly consistent, began to unravel into sloppiness; thus its climax felt rather, well, anticlimactic. Nonetheless, on many levels, it’s one of the most aesthetically-pleasing films of 2012. Certainly a must-see for any fan of giallo, film production, or nice-looking films in general.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) – dir. Orson Welles

  • Watched on 2 January
  • Format: TCM showing
  • Rating: 9/10

From watching Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil alone, it was apparent that Orson Welles is surely deserving of his place as one of the all-time great directors. However, I think his second feature The Magnificent Ambersons ensures – to me at least – that this man is an absolute genius. After debuting with something as profound as Citizen Kane, one would think that his next film wouldn’t live up to such greatness. While Kane is still probably my favorite of his films, I think Ambersonscomes pretty damn close.

From the get-go, its apparent that, just like its predecessor, the cinematography in this film is absolutely breathtaking. The use of angles, framing, tracking, light & shadow, close-ups, deep focus – not one moment in this film is wasted by a bad shot, and it all looks magnificent. Even in the most smallest of spaces, these technical aspect work at their fullest potential to bring out the clearest sense of emotion in every character.

And boy, what a tremendous cast! Tim Holt, Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Agnes Moorehead… I could go on. It’s hard to say who gave the best performance, since they are all so tremendous. But I’m kind of partial to Moorehead; although she had relatively few speaking parts in the movie, the ones she did have were all so intense and executed perfectly.

It’s a wonderfully-performed tale about some dark, not-so-wonderful issues. All of these aspects come together to intoduce the story of an elite family’s tragic descent parallel to the rise of the industrial era. Of course, the other tragedy with this film is the fact that this was not the cut that Welles himself intended to present to the public. This is most glaring in the film’s ending, which was added without Welles’ permission and really didn’t feel like it needed to be there at all. Nonetheless, it is a fantastic film, and although this final cut isn’t totally satisfying, I’d say that for what we have in our access, it’s pretty damn incredible.

Cutie and the Boxer (2013) – dir. Zachary Heinzerling

  • Watched on 2 January
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 7/10

Cutie and the Boxer presents to us one of the most intimate true-life romance stories of the year. In essence, it is a documentary about a husband-and-wife team of artists who have matured past their prime and now struggle to make a living financially. The two have been married for 40 years, and while their present life shows us a unity of teamwork and perseverance, less restrained flashbacks reveal that their past is marred by rash decision, poverty, and alcoholism. While they had a brief few years of artistic success during the Japanese art nouveau movement, an utter lack of matched accomplishment leaves them both haunted by what once was. Even their son suffers the consequences of alcoholism after being neglected and mistreated in the past.

It’s a really sad story, and I really appreciated the playful way that this material is treated. Half fly-on-the-wall observance of the two’s daily struggles and doubts, half flashback of their personal histories via animated sketches, it’s completely unique in its own special ways. If the film suffers from anything, it is that it clocks in at just under an hour and a half; just a bit longer – or at least better paced – and it may have been truly profound and long-lasting. Nonetheless, it’s fascinating during its runtime. It’s a work that is less about the art and culture than it is about an average, creative couple who, despite their shortcomings, rely on love and passion to make it out alive.

Stories We Tell (2013) – dir. Sarah Polley

  • Watched on 3 January
  • Format: iTunes rental
  • Rating: 8/10

In Stories We Tell, filmmaker Sarah Polley pivots between the personal and the universal by way of an intimate document of the life of her late mother. Initially it is rather ordinary, merely consisting of accounts and memories from family members and others who knew her. However, the film gradually begins to unravel and cover larger issues regarding Polley’s biological father. It becomes a testament to the true importance of truth and perception in regards to personal history.

This film is most interesting in the ways it cleverly avoids giving easy answers to the numerous questions raised in the film. As pointed out by one of the interviewees, it’s nonsensical to assume that a full picture of someone can be painted through a collection of accounts from those who knew them, regardless of how intimately. I really loved the way that the documentary deviated away from its initial plain talking heads style, which can sometimes be problematic in the way it assumes personal perspective as cold-hard fact. Instead, it grows to accept the unfinished picture as something beautiful in its own right.

Polley’s direction, coupled with the fascinating soundtrack that overlays the entire product, makes Stories We Tell one of the finest documentaries to come out this year. Its shortcomings lie in the fact that it often renounces subtlety by spelling out its themes explicitly for viewers. It slightly irks me when films do this, but I think the soft, emotional beauty of the work as a whole more than makes up for it. It’s a terrific doc that never undermines the significance of the stories we tell.

Captain Phillips (2013) – dir. Paul Greengrass

  • Watched on 3 January
  • Format: Theater – Simi Valley 10 Cinema
  • Rating: 9/10

I’m usually very wary about blockbuster films, especially those dwelling within the action/thriller genre. I’m even more about the recent fascination with shaky cam. It seems that all the hot, hip filmmakers feel that everything needs to be filmed through a non-static surveillance device in order to “heighten realism”. Yet when implemented in films like Silver Linings Playbook and Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, it comes off as little more than gimmicky, annoying, and headache-inducing (the latter particularly in reference to Les Mis).

Enter Captain Phillips. Upon watching this film, I had basically zero familiarity with the style of Paul Greengrass and had entered the theater purely based on high recommendation. After watching this (and United 93, which I viewed immediately after this theater trip), I can safely say that his films know exactly what they’re doing with the shaky cam method, something I could have previously only said in reference to some found-footage horror flicks. It certainly does evoke a sense of hyperrealism to the mix. This is also due to the natural performances and non-flouncy dialogue that is presented with the film. As well as the seriously heightened tension that saturates the film from beginning to end.

Another major complaint I can give this film is just how incredibly well-paced it was. It clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, which is usually ample time for me to squirm around in my seat or seriously consider a bathroom break. Yet my attention was fixed on the screen the entire time. I loved how the plot worked itself upon many planes – from the multiple floors of the ship, to the many platforms of watercraft across the sea – all held together by a flimsy thread of vocal communication. Once again, the hyperrealism and natural intensity of the piracy plot worked hand-in-hand to make some truly ingenious results. Henry Jackson’s score also contributes to this meticulous madness, ebbing and flowing like a rabid ocean with the suspense as it presents itself.

For the most part, honestly, I wasn’t as impressed with Tom Hanks’ character and/or acting as most seem to be. His character arc is introduced at the start, then abandoned for the sake of its fervent conflict, then brought back in again around the end of the final third. Therefore, I don’t see too much exceptionality from his role that would require an outrageous exertion. He did play his part acceptably, though; the final moments of his character’s screen time absolutely shook me, as his depiction of shock and trauma is convincingly harrowing. Barkhad Abdi provides the most consistently great performance of the film as a Somali pirate. Every instance he is present is absolutely magnetizing and he deserves every bit of praise he gets.

I guess my biggest surprise with this film is not only how above-average it is, but also how it wasn’t so explicitly pro-American as I would have assumed. Though we are rooting for our titular protagonist to escape with his life, it never delves into a full-blown demonization or othering of the “enemies”. Instilling subtle themes of economic hardship and humanity’s fight to stay alive, Greengrass teases out faults that exist on both fronts, particularly criticizing the means by which such happenings are obliged to occur. It’s a much smarter film than my initial reactions to its trailer ever gave it credit for, and more riveting as well. I’m genuinely surprised at how highly Captain Phillips as made it on my top of 2013 list, but I’m glad it’s there.

United 93 (2006) – dir. Paul Greengrass

  • Watched on 4 January
  • Format: Netflix Instant
  • Rating: 8/10

I watched United 93 the same night as I did Captain Phillips, eager to see what else Greengrass has accomplished. Once again the shaky cam is ever-present here, but once again he makes use of it in increasingly effective ways. Particularly in the final third when the level of intensity is at an all-time high, it really shows that he has a knack for gripping, realistic thrillers. With the all too distressing events surrounding Sept. 11, 2001, it manages to capture the unspeakable horrors of this time in history in ways that perhaps harks up unpleasant personal memories.

This film brings to mind a quote I’ve heard (forgot the source) that states how recreating a fully accurate glimpse of a traumatic experience or event – e.g. the Holocaust – could never be completely accomplished because the trauma is artificially induced and, inevitably, illegitimate. I think the film falters slightly in how it attempts to fill in the missing pieces of a specific time and location where no one alive was there to witness, via an outsider’s perspective, a subjective lens. However, it does help that these moments are some of the strongest in the whole film, overflowing with harrowing emotion that, at the very least, feels completely genuine.

What do appreciate the most from this movie is the way that Greengrass navigates through the material he is covering. I thought this would be much more one-sided and xenophobic, and in some instances, it could certainly be interpreted as so. However, by the final third, it becomes far less of a political experience and more of a tale of human emotion and survival. Its gradual progression to this distressing climax completes its growth as a strong, fleshed-out film. It erased the pervasive images of the media to create a hyperreal perspective of unimaginable circumstances. It’s a great film, and Greengrass proves to me to also be quite a film filmmaker.

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