Tag: review

Lincoln in the Bardo in Galway

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On my first day of walking around Galway I stopped into a local bookstore, as was inevitable. There I found a book I had been meaning to pick up but had no time to read as I was finishing my Masters Thesis and then moving back to CT. Now, though, I would have plenty of time to read George Saunders’ first novel. The author, known for both is short stories and his non-fiction essays (most notably this fantastic piece about Donald Trump) delved into the longer-fiction end of the pool with Lincoln in the Bardo, a novel told through a combination of dialogue (kind of) and historical accounts (a mix of real and made-up sources) about the time directly preceding and following little Willie Lincoln’s death. The boy’s spirit (or something) pops into being at the beginning of the novel and the rest of the book concerns the other spirits’ quest to help him transition onto the next place while his father, the unpopular President only 1 year into the Civil War, lingers around the cemetery and, following real events, holding the body of his young boy in his arms. That is the majority of the story that happens in this book, but Saunders accomplishes much more in the course of the novel.

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Review: Children of Men (2006)

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In 2006, I saw a trailer for a movie that looked pretty cool. It sold two things: a nearly-apocalyptic world and that world’s potential salvation in the form of a pregnant woman, the first in a 10 year period. Looking back, it also lays out basically the entire film and yet it gets at very little of what makes the movie a very special example of the artform. But let’s just pause on that for a second.

If you ask 10 relatively knowledgeable people to name one thing about Children of Men, you’ll probably get some kind of comment about the long takes it features so heavily. This was not a new trick for Alfonso Cuaron nor was it the last time he’d go to this well, given the spectacular opening 20 minute section of Gravity. It is, you might say, his gimmick. I was impressed with this gimmick the first few times I watched Children of Men because, well, gimmicks are impressive, especially those that take a heck of a lot of timing and talent to pull off. Later on, though, I began to think of them in the more colloquial sense of the term “gimmick”, i.e. with a negative connotation. What does the movie have outside these trick shots? Does it even count if the shots have been digitally blended together? Do these long takes in fact detract from the film’s fairly powerful story and instead focus the audience’s attention on “look at me” filmmaking? So I thought, and so I have argued here. I turned on Children of Men, which at one point probably held the title for most rewatched movie in my adult life right at the beginning of my budding deeper appreciation for film.

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I think that might have something to do with why I turned on the film, actually. This was one of my first ever-so-slightly outside the mainstream films (it wasn’t shown at my local multiplex, I had to go instead to the arthouse theater in my closest city to see it) and I made sure all of my friends knew how great it was. But then I began to look further into the arthouse, I dug deeper into the past and went further afield into foreign cinema. Could I rightly go back to one of the films that I saw only at the beginning of those travels? Certainly not. I try not to be snobby about my taste in movies as much as possible, but I still have a slight tendency to overestimate the strange and underestimate the very normal but very good. With the gimmick tag attached to Children of Men, it never stood a chance of remaining on my top 100 lists and instead fell to the wayside of “movies I grew out of”.

And so now with all of that preamble out of the way, was I right about the gimmicky nature of Children of Men‘s aesthetics and did it rightfully fall out of favor? Well, no. The long takes in Children of Men are fancy, they are attention-grabbing, but most of all they’re integral to the way Cuaron crafts the deep sense of despair that permeates every frame. Take the film’s opening scene for example. It is effectively two shots long. The first is a wide shot of the interior of a cafe packed with shocked onlookers as they watch the news footage which reports that Baby Diego, the youngest person to be born, died earlier that day. You can hear quiet sobs but in the middle of it all Clive Owen’s dejected Theo pushes his way up to the counter and buys a coffee and then leaves. There’s a shot or two of the tv everybody else is looking at but mostly it places Theo as a man apart from the rest of the population. Later we learn that it’s because he’s already suffered his own great loss and has enveloped himself in a cocoon of unfeeling sadness. This is what they call depression.

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The second shot is an exterior one and unlike the first it is a handheld shot which doesn’t only follow Theo as he walks out of the store and adds his sugar a hundred or two feet away but also takes some time to pan around the area outside the shop. We see some signs of life that look relatively normal and some out of place futuristic things, but most importantly we can immediately sense that this is not the London we are used to. It is a depressed city, a little 1984-ish and a lot dirty. We already begin to feel just how far man has fallen before the bomb that was in the cafe explodes. It shakes Theo and the camera and it takes both of them a few seconds to get their feet back under them. And then the shot ends with a woman walking out of the smoke holding her dismembered arm in her other hand.

The rest of the film uses the many long takes (most are not quite as long as the car attack and the final battle which get so much of the press, but longer than normal for sure) it is made of for the same purposes as it uses those two: to build the world seemlessly and to ground the characters within it definitively. The camera isn’t always attached directly to Theo nor does it ever stray too far from him so we don’t run the risk of losing him in the gray and gritty world the film so adroitly creates and populates with the end of humanity. That’s what hit me the most this time around. It’s such an engaging and creatively crafted film that I couldn’t help but get pulled into its sad and fully realized universe.

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It is, then, a triumph when, at the end of the film, the fighting stops for a moment and everybody watches as Theo, Kee, and her baby escape the fighting in a refugee camp thanks to the crying coming from the baby. It is not to brag about my willingness to cry that I say I teared up at this scene but rather to poke a finger in my own chest. How could I have decried the film for being just a cheap gimmick when those long takes are what creates the emotional connection to the film, pulling me deeper and further in to its dark vision of the future only to show the light at the end of the tunnel, even if only for a moment? Have I ever been so wrong about a movie before?

Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

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You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.

If you need a clue that Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, an adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s novel of the same name, is a film noir, look no further than Johnny Greenwood’s wonderful score. Where his earlier collaboration with the director on There Will Be Blood was all strings and tension, this score is more laid back, low key, mournful, and full of horns. The soundtrack, on the other hand, often points in the other direction. When the movie wants to be upbeat and exciting as it sometimes does, Anderson will use a previously written pop song like Can’s “Vitamin C” to give the movie that edge. It’s no secret by now that Anderson is a master, one of the best directors working and probably of all time, and his ability to pick songs and collaborators which fit so perfectly with what he wants to do is just one more example of his brilliance. That being said, Inherent Vice is not your typical Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

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Many of Anderson’s previous films have been focused on a monomaniacal character whose fanatical pursuit of some cause or idea, whether it be riches via oil or fame via porn, leads to a terrible end for said character. No such thing happens here, though Joaquin Phoenix’s Doc sure does pursue his missing ex-girlfriend and her missing current boyfriend. If that sentence confuses you, prepare to be mired in a plot that aims to be confounding rather than clear. I followed it for a good while until one new name too many dropped in my lap and I just threw my hands up and went for the ride. I’m sure the plot is comprehensible if you see it an additional time or two, but with so many side characters who show up for a scene to impart some piece of information about another side character and then do some drugs, I don’t think it really matters too much. I think the convoluted plot is just another joke. With each new encounter the absurdity builds. This is a very funny movie. I’m not sure you could go through and pick out lines that were funny out of context, but within the world of the film the increasingly farcical situations really worked for me.

That isn’t to say, though, that this film is a comedy. It is sad as often as it is hilarious. The thesis, if you can call it that, is that Doc is a relic of the past. His hippie nature is already outdated as the sixties turn into the seventies. The forces of evil aren’t just The Man anymore, and free love means getting pulled over by a cop because there are more than three people in the car with hair past their ears. Even Doc can’t hold on to his outsider status as much as he would like to. There is a contrast there between him and his frennemy, an LAPD detective named Bigfoot, played wonderfully by Josh Brolin. Bigfoot used to be a hippie but sometime before the film starts he got a hair cut and learned of the power that comes from civil rights violations. In some ways he is a character to be pitied, especially in his final scene, and his inability to cope with becoming The Man and getting mixed up in drug trafficking from the other side of the law is in stark relief to Doc’s ability to go with the flow. In fact, this is the most I’ve liked Joaquin Phoenix in about a decade for exactly that reason. Under Anderson’s direction he abandons all sense of self-seriousness in favor of a cool detachment that really works for the character and for him. He’s delightful when interacting with prostitutes, musicians, FBI agents, real estate magnate’s wives and girlfriends, and hopped up dentists alike. Doc’s existence is not an enviable one, though I very much enjoyed my time visiting it.

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I think the most remarkable element of the movie is, if I may steal some of its vernacular, the vibe Anderson creates in part through long tracking shots of a very different variety from those that made him famous in the late nineties as a technically exciting filmmaker. The movie is propulsive in a slow, mellow way that never feels the pressure to conform to typical scene constructions or even typical story progression. So those shots which start wide on Doc and the other minor character he’s sharing the scene with and move ever so slowly closer and closer until they end as a close up of the two are basically the movie in miniature. What starts as an expansive tale of corruption and misdeeds ends in loneliness and uncertainty of a very personal nature. There is much in the world that Doc can’t control and although he has been willing to let that ride, it does make for a harshed buzz.

Gone Girl (2014)

gone-girl-movie-picture-11-1024x513There’s something rotten in the state of Missouri. Amy and Nick’s picture-perfect marriage has soured and, on the morning of their fifth anniversary, Amy has disappeared in a violent manner. Now Nick must try to find his wife before the police begin to suspect that he was the murderer. Gone Girl is, next to Zodiac, the clearest indicator of what interests director David Fincher. It is a movie about the roles we inhabit in order to woo a mate, and what happens when those roles become a reality. It is a long, hard look at the cracks that form when performances start to break down and reality sneaks in.

David Fincher has always been an obsessive (see Zodiac) and a game player (see, uh, The Game). Gone Girl is no different. It’s his funniest movie in a good while – funnier than The Social Network, even – and it’s there that he tips his hand as to what he thinks of all the gaming and plotting and playing that happens over the course of the 2.5 hour run time. It’s all kind of a joke. It’s a joke on the media, which heightens and examines every detail to the point of absurdity, and it’s a joke on marriages, which often force the couple to change for each other in ways that seem fine at first but soon lead to resentment. And, most importantly, it’s a joke on crazy relationship thrillers. It was a popular genre, once, in the glory days of Fatal Attraction and the crazy-dreamy Eyes Wide Shut, and it resurges here with a delightfully nutty third act that tips over into an insane, supremely dark comedy with plenty of bloodshed. Nick and Amy aren’t every-people, made to be held up as the way normals would act in a given situation, they’re cartoonish funhouse mirrors which reflect only our darkest impulses and desires. In the blame game that will be played by most audience members at the conclusion of the film, the finger needs to be pointed in all kinds of directions.

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It’s a fun game to play, the blame game, because the rest of the film is so well made that it’s hard to talk about the technical aspects outside of praising them for their perfection. David Fincher is a calculating and exacting director, and it’s no surprise when a flashback to a gift exchange involving sheets cuts immediately to Nick’s sister, Margo (excellently portrayed by Carrie Coon, whom you should all be watching in The Leftovers), setting up certainly less-comfy bedding for Nick on her couch. Fincher never misses a beat and, although the movie is lengthy, it never feels slow nor do any scenes stand out as unnecessary. The praise for this smoothness also goes to Gillian Flynn, who adapts her own novel for the screen and does so in a superb manner. Nothing in the film feels novelistic, everything works cinematically to tell and adapt this story in this medium. Fantastic stuff. It would all be meaningless, though, if it weren’t for Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike giving career-best performances throughout. Affleck is suitably subtle and the not-so-hidden anger under his surface seems always ready to bubble over. Pike is astounding as she uses her soft but firm voice in the narration that dominates the opening hour or so to make us feel all the right emotions. She also uses her physical presence as well as I’ve seen anybody do in the last five years or so. These four are operating at the peaks of their artistic prowess and it all gels fantastically into an astoundingly fun neo-noir movie.

Marathon of the Planet of the Apes: Planet of the Apes (1968)

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I recently picked up the 5 movie set of all the classic Planet of the Apes movies. I had seen the first one before, probably like ten years or so ago, and I’m a big fan of the two recent prequel(?) films. I know the four movies after the original don’t have the best of reputations, but I also knew that they had their adherents and maybe I would join their number. Also, it was only 20 dollars, so at 4 bucks a movie I wasn’t taking that big a risk. I foresee reviews of all 5 movies, plus some of the extra features and some additional thoughts on certain aspects of the movies that don’t fit in with the reviews. Please do join in if you have the means or inclination!

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Let’s start off with a consideration of just how weird a choice Charlton Heston is for the hero role here. We are introduced to him (after some semi-trippy effects during the credits) recording a final monologue before he freezes himself for the final leg of a journey back to earth. The idea goes that he and his crew will have only aged a few years while hundreds – if not thousands – have passed on Earth. This throws Taylor (Heston) into an existential funk, and he gets philosophical on us:

“You who are reading me now are a different breed – I hope a better one. I leave the 20th century with no regrets. But one more thing – if anybody’s listening, that is. Nothing scientific. It’s purely personal. But seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless. It squashes a man’s ego. I feel lonely. That’s about it. Tell me, though. Does man, that marvel of the universe, that glorious paradox who sent me to the stars, still make war against his brother? Keep his neighbor’s children starving?”

The writing there is about as on the nose as is possible, but what do you expect from Rod Serling, he of The Twilight Zone? I actually really liked this speech, even if there was a kind of weird disconnect seeing and hearing Charlton Heston, bastion of the NRA, lamenting the ideas of war and violence. If Taylor is supposed to be a stand in for the peaceniks of the 60s and 70s, why does he clutch his gun with such zeal later in the film? Are we supposed to be critical of his later actions? Or maybe he’s supposed to be the final warring human. Every other human that exists in the movie is basically a cow, too dumb to be violent. In that way his questions at the beginning of the movie have been answered. No, man no longer makes war against his brother, nor does he keep his neighbor starving. They’re too stupid to be jealous or evil. The apes, on the other hand…

Yes, the great conceit of these movies is that on this mysterious planet (we’ll get to that later), the other primates have risen to the top of the food chain and have developed some suspiciously human culture and language while humans have basically become glorified livestock. It’s a clever way of getting us to look at our own society in a different way. If we can identify the way backward religions sometimes take over policy or science debates in this ape-based culture, maybe we can begin to see just how weird our own system is. And that the apes are pretty much where we are now scientifically, culturally, and intellectually allows for that metaphor to develop easily and organically. It just feels a little off. If this is really a place that has apes in charge instead of humans, wouldn’t there be more than nominal changes in their ways of life? They seem to be a monogamous culture, but don’t apes in the wild have a much wider definition of what is acceptable when it comes to interpersonal relationships? How lucky is it that these apes speak the same language that Taylor does? We’ve seen English evolve over the last 700 or so years, how is it that these apes, who have, according to the movie, evolved on this planet as the dominant species, speak the exact same kind of English as Taylor? There are a hundred of this little niggling ideas that pop up throughout the movie. This is the risk that allegories run. If they aren’t perfect the seams show up and the audience can get pulled out of the film.

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Luckily, none of these little annoyances harm the film too much. Planet of the Apes isn’t trying to be 2001, although the effects are sometimes kinda similar. No, Planet of the Apes has a much pulpier road to hoe, and it does so very entertainingly. While Charlton Heston might have been the wrong choice idealistically, he’s perfect when he’s saying the lines that have become iconic. You get a chill of recognition when you hear him yell, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” but you also get a chill because his pain and terror are so real. Or, maybe real isn’t quite the right word to use here. Not much on the Planet of the Apes is real, excepting maybe the landscapes and horses, but it does have a really fun heightened quality to it. It’s as unsubtle as a movie can be in all respects. The allegory is right there, staring you in the face, and the hero is Charlton Heston! He’s never been the quietest of actors. His nearly biblical line readings here almost all work, though, because it fits in with everything else. His co-stars also shine. Maurice Evans plays Dr. Zaius, the zealous head scientist who also happens to be the leader of the ape religion. There’s a heck of a lot of talk about heresy when the two young chimps played by Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall claim that their captive human, Taylor, can talk. It seems an easy claim to prove, but the movie manages to wrestle 20 minutes or so of drama from the whole scenario. There’s a big courtroom scene and I’m not entirely sure what gets accomplished there, other than that those two chimps (Cornelius and Zira) become outcasts and, later, organize a jailbreak for Taylor and his dumb human friend, Nova. She’s played by Linda Harrison in what must be the most thankless role in sci-fi until Megan Fox graced three Transformers movies with her wooden presence. Harrison is the predecessor to Fox in more ways than one, since as far as I can tell she’s only here to look pretty and give Heston somebody to talk at.

Ok, now comes the time in the review when I talk about the ending. If you have somehow missed what happens in the last minute of screentime here, I am both amazed at your diligence in avoiding spoilers and shocked at your cultural ignorance. Either way, leave now if you don’t want to know what happens at the end of a movie from 45 years ago which contains one of the most iconic images in cinema. Go watch the movie, geez.

Now that all those weirdos are gone, let’s look at the ending. Firstly, it’s totally awesome. The slow reveal of the spikes on the top of the Statue of Liberty’s head is genius because at first they are only noticeable for being crafted rather than a natural occurrence. And slowly we see more and more of the structure and we begin to piece it together. I can’t imagine seeing this without knowing the twist, and I can’t fathom how critics kept it to themselves in their reviews. It must have been wild, and it’s no wonder that the movie was a bit of a phenomenon when it came out. To top it off, Heston adds beautifully to the scene with another perfect line, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!” His sadness and anger is real. Over the top, but imbued with a genuine sense of the tragedy he (correctly) imagines befell his planet. This twist explains some of the issues I brought up earlier, like explaining why apes would be speaking English (although not why it hasn’t evolved at all) and also explains why there’s no real history to the ape civilization, or at least none that we have been given in the course of the film. In order to hide the twist the writers had to hide much of the world building that might have normally happened. I hope the four follow-ups take some time to develop this version of the future, because it’s a fascinating one. And the ending is just the best thing. It makes sense, it wraps up the drama and leaves the door open to further explorations of the world, and it’s just so much fun. That’s the lasting impression I had of the movie. There’s a lot going on allegorically speaking and the majority of it is actually effective, but the sense of fun that it has thanks to Heston’s overacting and the creativity involved in crafting the world and populating it with interesting people leaves an even bigger impression. It’s a great start to this marathon and a great film.

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