Monday, February 9, 2015

The Tree of Life review

Throughout the history of film, many directors have been utterly fascinated by time as a concept. The passage of it, how it affects people, if it's possible to alter it. The great filmmaker Terrence Malick is certainly interested in time, but to leave it at that would be doing him an enormous disservice. Malick is interested in time, but he looks at it differently. Time is a force of nature for Malick. No different than the vast and rolling storm clouds he photographed in Days of Heaven. No different than the expansive plains of the Southwest in Badlands. Time is an unstoppable entity that is intertwined with anything and everything. One does not outrun it any more than they would outrun a mountain. It is simply always present and moving. Malick's film, The Tree of Life, looks at time as a constant fluid, moving back and forth, flowing together like paint mixed with water. In the movie, the audience follows the creation of the universe, from beginning to end, juxtaposed with the evolution of a small family of five in the 1950's American Midwest. Malick descends on childhood, watching them grow and change. Marital disputes and stick ball in the streets set against the backdrop of the literal infinite. Another filmmaker with different intentions might see this small family life vs. big universe story as an opportunity to show how insignificant and small we as a human race are. To show that little problems do not matter at all and it is all going to end eventually. Malick just isn't that cynical. It is quite possible that small familial difficulties don't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't make them any less emotional and heartbreaking as a supernova or formation of a galaxy. Malick shoots these grand solar system movements with the same awe-filled eye as he shoots a small child looking up at sunlight coming through the trees. The small child is Jack O'Brien (Hunter McCracken), an average and sometimes troubled boy growing up mid-twentieth century. His father (Brad Pitt) is a rough man who treats his children with discipline and occasional anger. The actions of Mr. O'Brien seem cruel and abusive by today's standards, but they were less so at the time. And Mr. O'Brien does love his children and wife. He wants nothing but the best for them. His methods are tough and painful, but in his mind this is what will make them strong for the gritty "real" world that lies ahead in their path of life. In the end he accepts the error of his ways. "I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man." He knows he did bad things. But he changed. Nature, as a whole, did not change. It is still as glorious as it has ever been, unblinking and constant. As Jack grows up to be a man, he works as a disgruntled architect in New York. The wind swept fields and everlasting summer nights of his youth have been replaced by looming skyscrapers and fixtures of metal and glass. Jack is unhappy. "Everyone is greedy. It's getting worse." he says. It seems something big is on the horizon, something grander than before. In what seems to be dreams Jack treks through desert terrain and surreal landscapes, filled with women in white dresses and door frames, leading to where? Jack is looking for answers. Is there a God? Why was his brother killed so young? Is he important? Malick does not know the answers to these questions, although he is interested in the answers. The film is better for it. It is not a movie of staunch facts and mathematical answers, but of hopeful questions and wide eyed amazement. The Tree of Life is a film of ambition matched only by Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yet, it is a remarkably different film. Malick resembles Kubrick in his visual eye for epic events and philosophical intrigue in the unknown and the beginning of time. Where they differ, is in the way the two portray these grand sweeps of time. Malick is warmer. He has more faith in humanity, despite their multitudes of flaws. He is also looking at the whole of time in a different way. Where Kubrick saw it as a beginning-to-end type manner, eventually coalescing with a trippy divergence into another reality, Malick sees the history of time as a series of rivers, flowing into each other with a constant fluidity. It makes for a glorious and incredible viewing experience. The film itself really is not for everyone. In the most rigid sense of the word, it does not have a plot. It looks at life in an impressionistic manner, showing a series of moments and feelings. In the way Malick has portrayed it, I felt it to be remarkably powerful. However, if one is looking for the usual plot formula, they shouldn't be looking here. Yet, I would say it does have a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. It is the story of everything. Not just life itself, and even more than the universe. Time. It is the story of time.      

Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Best (My Favorite) Films of 2014

It's far past time to make my annual best of 2014 in film list. Cue the usual paragraph-and-a-half long barrage of anger/praise for the current year in film and frusturation at the concept of making lists yada, yada, yada... In all seriousness, this was an immaculate year for movies in general, and I am honored to write about. It seemed every month or so brought forth some form of greatness on celluloid (or digital, I guess.) Some of the world's best working filmmakers (Anderson, Anderson, Linklater) made movies this year, and they were awesome. But forget all this, let's get down to what this article is actually about. Cinema.
Not every movie that came out this year was list worthy, but some were still really good. A few of those said films: The Immigrant, The Double, Calvary, Selma, Edge of Tomorrow, Life Itself, Locke... There were even more solid additions that would have been higher in some lesser years. Now, the meat and potatoes of the list.
It was especially hard to get a screenshot from this movie that was, uh, appropriate to put on here. But really, Lars Von Trier's newest is one to see. He weaves an (admittedly long) tapestry obsessed with the concept of sex as an idea and driving force. It makes for some uncomfortable, funny, weird, and wonderfully philosophical viewing. If you have the time, it's worth a shot for sure.
A study in humanity. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's newest film is one of real emotion. Marion Cottilard plays a woman who is losing everything and trying, trying to get it back. It's about what people do when they despair. Cotillard's performance here ranks among her very best and she soldiers through the film with a true expertise. This is not the most revelatory thing you may see at the theater but it feels honest and has some wonderful moments.
 Guardians is not a "Great" film by any means. It suffers from the same plot structure and character problems that has plagued every single Marvel film. Yet, it's exuberant tone, hilarious one liners, and breathtaking production design make it a more than entertaining viewing. I've seen it three times now, and despite its multitudes of flaws, it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
 12. ENEMY
Denis Villeuve, the man behind last year's excellent Prisoners, proves with Enemy that he is a master of ominous alley ways and dark color schemes. Enemy is a gripping delving into one man's psyche. The most horrifying part is we don't know the way out. This boasts one of the great Jake Gyllenhaal performances (and not even his only one this year!) and is generally brilliant. I have a sneaking suspicion this will grow in stature upon future viewings.
In which Jake Gyllenhaal plays an Antichrist for the modern age and Dan Gilroy proves he's better than The Bourne Legacy. Overall a tense-as-hell and awesomely cynical thriller that works as one of the best satires of television since Network. Here, Jake Gyllenhaal gives THE best performance of the year (What the hell, Academy?).
"Ugh. The Lego Movie. A gross celebration of perverted capitalism not even trying to disguise its obvious identity as a corporate ploy to sell merchandise." That's the what I thought I'd be saying about this movie after I saw it. Instead, I was thinking "What a wonderful celebration of imagination and wonder! This movie is genuinely funny! How? I don't care. This is good." The animation is beautiful, nearly all of the jokes land, and all in all it is a good time. There's much more going on here than jokes and animation though. This is a legitimately good movie. See it.
Probably the most gripping film I've seen all year. Fincher's newest film is possibly his trashiest, going for big twists and lots of glorious pulp, but it's also one of his best. It simultaneously picking apart gender stereotypes in film while telling a hell of a good "page turner". Rosamund Pike is the MVP here, giving a wonderfully evil performance. It all looks great too. I'm looking forward to returning to this. The whole thing just works.
Quite possibly the most under seen movie of the year, mainly due to it only really being released through Video On Demand, which is unfortunate. Alex Ross Perry's newest about a successful writer (Jason Schwartzman) slowly receding into himself while alienating those around him is a hilarious and fantastic little movie. It's cynical, but not to the point where it becomes tiresome. The whole thing fittingly watches like a novel, complete with droll voice over narration and a story spanning years. Schwartzman is giving his best work here and delivers every line without fail. But Elisabeth Moss, playing Schwartzman's jaded girlfriend, is the real surprise here.
I won't lie, Birdman has plenty of flaws. It can be mighty heavy handed at times and sometimes goes into messier and less honorable directions. Yet, despite all that I couldn't help but love it. There were moments that made me cringe, but there were far more that made me beam. It's filmed so the whole thing looks like it's one shot. Thus, the movie begins to seem more like a play, fittingly. It's manic, crazy, a little misguided, but totally enthralling and awesome. The performances and cinematography are immaculate. The script has a lot of little problems, but they can be easily forgiven. It's really a very good film. Keaton is back, and he's not alone.
This also has some issues, some that grate on me more than others. But you know what? Screw it. I loved this movie. As technology advances, it seems like genuine awe at the cinema is less prevalent. A realistic explosion or spaceship is no longer such an impressive feat as it once was. Yet, somehow Interstellar made me gaze in wonder, and even a little bit of joy. It's not because of the incredible special effects (although they were a factor). No, it's Christopher Nolan's use of the universal theme of pain felt through passing time. We are all watching it pass. Time is a countryside speeding away as we ride on a train. Nolan understands this, and uses it quite well. And on top of that it's backed by a terrific Matthew McConaughey performance and a wonderful Hans Zimmer score. Interstellar is sometimes a little ridiculous, sentimental, and even derivative. But overall it is a beautiful and powerful experience and one of the best times I had at the movies this year. 
Whiplash is tense, economical, and terrifically edited. It sounds like a cliche, but I honestly was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire film. There has been much fuss over J.K. Simmons performance, and for good reason. This is one instance where I would not feel foolish in using the word bravura. The movie is about a young and talented drummer going to school under a wildly abusive (and equally talented) teacher. As it progresses, it begins to read not as an artist coming of age film, but of the creation of a monster. A cautionary tale about taking things too far. It's all very entertaining. Jazzy and exciting, yet incredibly dark underneath it all. In a year of such experimental and interesting films, Whiplash stands as more conventional. Yet, it's one damn fine piece of convention. I look forward to what writer/director Damien Chazelle has to offer next.
Boyhood is likely the most talked about film of the year, mainly because it was filmed over twelve years, tracking a boy from ages six to eighteen. It's easy to see someone disregard the movie as nothing more than a gimmick, a simple little movie that's getting blown out of proportion because of the method in which it was made. Yet, that wouldn't be true. Boyhood could have been just an exercise, but it it so much more than that. It not only honestly depicts childhood, but delves into real introspection and as it goes on becomes a commentary on itself. This is a film that revels in the little moments. Richard Linklater knows that what makes up most of our memory is not the big weddings, funerals, and birthdays, those events are kept in photo albums. Our true memory is made up of the talks with friends, afternoons in the woods, and muffled voices in the next room. Boyhood is a truly incredible movie, and not one to be forgotten. 
An amazing movie about the futility of human existence what Earth looks like from the outside. This is almost tied for my number two spot (and was actually my #1 for a while), it's that good. Scarlett Johansson gives total role commitment here and it pays off. Her portrayal of an alien alone among strangers is by far the best female performance of the year. There's so much to unpack here, I almost feel as if I am doing the film an injustice by trying to sum it up in one measly paragraph. Even on a rewatch, Under the Skin keeps surprising and giving forth more, while still keeping things opaque. All of this set to the breathtakingly shot Scottish countryside. This is light on narrative, but heavy on theme and atmosphere. I look forward to returning to this one for years to come. Oh, and the soundtrack is wonderfully creepy, adding to it all.
How does Wes Anderson do it? This movie is much too good. It's a layered and whimsical film about the nature of storytelling. The film begins with a writer telling a story of a man who told him a story. Thus begins the fantastically wonderful cinematic journey that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson's detractors have lambasted him for years over "doing the same thing". Here, he goes deeper into his trademark pop-up book style and uses it as a backdrop for an incredible story with genuine novelistic sprawl. I do not think this is quite Anderson's best (The Royal Tenenbaums takes that title) but it is certainly his most impressive. Here, he has created a world like no other. On the surface it seems like an ode to times that have past. It isn't. The world being reminisced about here never existed anywhere else but Anderson's imagination, and he is simply bringing it to light. Essential viewing.
Simultaneously an examination of America at a certain time and place, the best deconstruction and parody of noir tropes since The Big Lebowski, and a love letter to Thomas Pynchon, Paul Thomas Anderson's newest film is nothing short of a masterpiece. Every line of dialogue carries heavy thematic weight and each character brings something new. It is a very funny film that at the same time is almost unrelentingly sad. It is the end of an era and everyone is unsure of themselves. The curtains have been pulled back and rays of unwanted sunlight are washing in. Even those in authority, the ones who are supposed to know what is going on, can't help. Anderson frames this all through the pot addled psyche of a good natured detective, Doc Sportello (played wonderfully by Joaquin Phoenix). Many have been complaining about the complex plot of the film. It is a bit convoluted, but rightfully so. It's commenting on the equally complicated detective noir films of the past (The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, etc..) and echoing the dazed and confused minds of the main characters, who are as lost as anyone. I could go on for hours about this movie. I've seen it twice now and I know this is one that will only improve on successive viewings. 

Here's to a great 2015.        

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Inherent Vice review

It's only after the smoke clears and the euphoria wears off that we can look around at it all and ask "What just happened?" Cinema, pure and not-so-simple. That, my friend, is what has just happened. With Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson has deconstructed the gumshoe detective film genre and created one of the best novel adaptations of the past ten years. When I first saw the trailer for the movie, it looked quite a lot like a return to the hyper-energetic fast moving Anderson of the 90's. The man behind Boogie Nights and Magnolia. That couldn't be further from the truth. Inherent Vice is Anderson at his most constrained and wistful. He completely abandons elaborate and exuberant camera moves for slow dollying in on characters and very relaxed tracking shots, perfectly fitting the film's tone. This is the kind of movie I'd imagine an elderly man sitting on his front stoop in a rocking chair telling as he watches his fragile life slip from his fingers. It plays as a fondly looked back upon memory, with a hint of regret. It is very fitting Neil Young's song "Journey Through the Past" accompanies the soundtrack. The film takes place on the verge of change. An era of hippies and long-haired relaxation specialists being pushed to the fringes of society. The violent advent of Charles Manson certainly hasn't helped anything. Larry "Doc" Sportello (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is a good-natured P.I. holding on to the past with the help of plenty of marijuana and late night pizza. He's just a guy who wants to stay cool and do the right thing. Like a bowling ball dropped through a window, Doc is plunged headfirst into a complicated case involving a supposed dead saxophone player, a mysterious organization that might be a boat called the Golden Fang, and many other loose strands that require a very clear head to keep in place. The plot isn't as hard to follow as some may have said, but it doesn't matter. The convoluted case isn't what's important in this movie. Like it's spiritual predecessor The Big Lebowski, Inherent Vice is a movie about characters, tone, and setting. The many complications of the plot are also due to Anderson lampooning the noir genre, which is notorious for its numerous complicated plot strands. Just look at some famous examples like The Maltese Falcon or North By Northwest. They are all over the place, and that is part of their genius! Anderson understands this perfectly, and uses all of it to his advantage. The novel Inherent Vice is a personal favorite of mine and its writer, the famed Thomas Pynchon, is also a writer I admire very much. PT Anderson is also a fan of Pynchon. His film here is not just hero worship. He is taking his knowledge and love of film and applying it to his love of the work of Thomas Pynchon to create a perfect Pynchonion vibe filtered through the pot haze of early 1970's California. It's nothing short of beautiful. One thing Anderson added in that was not in the novel is voice over narration from one of the secondary characters, Sortilege (Joanna Newsom). In adding this, Anderson was able to capture Pynchon's wonderful use of language and apply his own personal literary touch. All of it works to near perfection. This was shot on 35mm, and it looks stunning on the big screen. There has been a shift toward shooting on digital recently, and this film is proof that film is a medium that still has its place. The whole thing looks gorgeous, mainly because of the celluloid it was shot on. It certainly helped that Robert Elswit, a long-time cinematographer for Anderson, was working here. He is one of the best (the best?) cinematographer working in Hollywood today and deserves some recognition for his work here. Holding it all together are the wonderful ensemble of actors working here. Joaquin Phoenix, channeling his inner Dude, does some great work (as expected) here. He truly embodies his character and never hits a wrong note. Josh Brolin plays a macho cop and opposite side to Phoenix's detective. Brolin has always been good. But this here may be his best work. He is funny, yet subtle, and delivers some of the movie's best lines. Joanna Newsom is great, Katherine Waterson is great, Benicio del Toro is great, Reese Witherspoon is great. Really, everyone is great. Overall, it's a masterpiece. A pot-fueled, funny, wistful, journey through post-60's California. While it might not be There Will Be Blood, Inherent Vice is more or less the best new film I've seen in 2014.