Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Baby-baby-baby you're OUT OF TIME - 11 moments of Cinema 2011

(Not entirely a comprehensive list - I'm sure if I really thought about it more I could have ten other examples, maybe I'll have another 'honorable mention' just in case) - but it'll do for now.  Here are eleven scenes, moments or passages in films this year that really struck me.  Not all of them are on my top ten list of the year but many are... oh, and by the way - SPOILERS!)

1) The Artist (Michael Hazanavicious)

Following being told by his boss at the Kinogram Pictures company (John Goodman) that sound in movies is the new thing, a laughing George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) exits the screening room and, from what we can see, is in his dressing room.  Suddenly, synchronized sound is all around him.  He puts down a glass, it makes a sound.  His hands over a brush, makes a sound.  

His little dog can bark and when a chair is knocked over it too makes noise, as does the outside world of cars and other things.  When he goes outside in a moment of panic three women pass by and giggle and laugh (at him, not to him, what?) and then a feather falls to the ground with a gigantic THUD like an anvil in a cartoon many years away.  He's bewildered, lost, a dutch angle comes in (how can it not?) and then he wakes up.  It was all a dream, or was it?  If that sounds poetic, just watch the scene in its entirety. 

2) Take Shelter (Jeff Nichols)

Michael Shannon gets his family (finally) into the shelter he has built over the past weeks to much cost financially and emotionally to those around him.  It's destroyed the bond with his wife and somewhat lesser-so with his child.  But now the storm has come and it has subsided.  Can he go outside?  Ever again?  Can he face what is or could be?  Is he a hero or still insane?  

A remarkable moment of despair and triumph over self-imposed fear and paranoia (for another by the way there's a blow-up when he snaps at his friend amid a cafeteria of townspeople, and rattles about the End of Times coming on nigh), and it's a moment like many others in this film that relies on the profile of Shannon, who is like a bastard-baby of Bride Frankenstein (isn't he a little Karloff-ish?) but with a kind soul buried somewhere beneath what appears to be granite-craziness.  It's almost a study of his face and his emotions as it is a character piece (and it has Jessica Chastain as a back-up plan of course)

3) Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)

ALL OF IT!  Seriously, isn't the film itself just out-of-time moments stitched together with the occasional trips (and not very pleasant at that, thanks Rachel McAdams and conservative parents) into the 'real world' of 2010?  I could go on and pick ANY of the following really: When Hemingway (forget the Ernest, just Hemingway) tells the writer Gill Pender (Owen Wilson) about death and love in war and that one must face it to be a man; Dali and the surrealists Bunuel and Man-Ray can't seem to help Gill *except* through their art ("I see... RHINOCEROS!").

Gill talks to Marion Cotillard's sexy and mentally free-spirited damsel about what a city is and what a person is in it, the beauty of it all - actually this is THE moment in time, of Woody's career arguably, and at least the late period.  Oh, and Gill gives advice to a 20-something Bunuel about The Exterminating Angel ("Why don't they just leave?" he asks when given the premise to his own comedy of frustrations).  The film is marvelous because 'out-of-time' becomes a state of mind and the point here, sorta.

4) X-Men: First Class (Matthew Vaughn)

another 'out-of-time' moment worth footnoting - our hero (and he is here) Erik finds the point between rage and serenity

Magneto (Michael Fassbender) is tempted once more by his 'partial creator' Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), to join him in his fight against humanity to make mutants rule as the new dominant species.  This is in a moment where it should be 'good vs evil', and to an extent it is... except that Frankenstein has created his monster, and the monster turns.  Indeed Magneto agrees with everything Shaw says... except, he is also there for revenge against the man who killed his mother during the holocaust.  

He counts to three and in this very small enclosure surrounded by steel and blue light, he sends a coin through Shaw's skull, telepathically linked Charles Xavier and is still there through the agonizingly slow execution: the shots inter-cut between Xavier and Shaw's heads from a side-close-up view.  Magneto has "turned to the Dark Side"TM and nothing wll be the same agaian - and yet he is an identifiable, almost empathetic character.  Like the Alice in Chains song goes: "If I would, could you?"  And this in a summer blockbuster pushed into 3,000 screens and marketed like Doritos.  

5) Melancholia (Lars and the real von Trier)

The film opens on as a series of abstract paintings, all moving at what appears to be (or so I'm told) 1,000 frames-per-second, which is the kind of slow pace one might see NASA take on (appropriately so, unlike the deadening slow-mo prologue to Antichrist).  Tristan and Isolde's music plays, which will come up again in the film, and we see what could be called 'The End' in some part, but also the abstracted images of what will be the progagonist/anti-hero of her own story (seems to be a running thing so far this year, hasn't it?)

Justine played by Kirsten Dunst, in a wedding dress walking, in a river floating, and seeing her new electro-magnetic powers coming out of her fingertips (?)  It could be the beginning, or, hell, the end, why not know now and be better prepared?  Dunst is in an ethereal limbo here, and it's just staggering to see set against lush green and black back-drops. 

And equally so:

6) The Tree of Life (Terence Malick)

The universe has 'begun' via Douglas Trumbull coming out of retirement to oversee the interstellar-realm vfx: sights of space, planets, solar flares, strange colors, all put to classical choral music.  I'll get the blu-ray of this very personal, inspired, amitious, possibly too-proud film that is in a first-version director's cut right now (and hey, what comes before a fall that is the lat ten minutes of this film) just for this sequence, which is not entirely *better* than the examples of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Fantasia at doing similar feats of cinematic exploration, but on par for wonder, magistracy and pure awe inspiration.

And speaking of that...

7) Cave of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog)

Albino alligators(!)  After being submerged into Chavaulet caves in France and seeing such lovely, strange and instinctively relatable pictures from our early ancestors for about eighty-five minutes (Herzog's first "museum movie" really), he moves us miles away by the caves to a power planet where also close-by is a sanctuary of a tropical nature, and where there are, at least according to 'The Duke', are "mutated albino alligators - and MAN do they THRIVE!" 

It's here that one gets a "Herzogian" moment of ecstatic truth, where he compares the alligators own sense of awe to that which we welt with the cave paintings... perhaps.  Come to think of it, another out-of-time moment in the film, just as great if not as profound in its weirdness, is when the guide in the cave asks for a beat of silence.  Herzog pangs oh-so-slowly around as the strings of music slowly come up.  Man, does one get chills!  Only someone with a mind like this filmmaker could get that...

and speaking of which...

8) Tabloid (Errol Morris)

As the sort of 'break' following years of being queen-cut tabloid prime rib, Joyce McKinney went back home to care for her ailing father.  And in the mid 80's had a camcorder and tapes herself being agoraphobic... by this she videotapes outside repeating the same image, over and over and over and over again, with the same statement to go with it.  It's not exactly "explained", and there's no need to - here, McKinney gets something much rawer and creepier than Morris could have achieved on his own with a reenactment or other, albeit he included the footage in the film.  

This is meant to be the crazy filler between part one of the story (the "Manacled Mormon" saga, the big chunk of the juicy narrative), and part two(when she gets a much more bizarre and yet heartwarming tabloid of cloned puppies via her dead dog Booger in Korea).  To me, it was completely hypnotic yet told me as much (if not more) about McKinney and/or the fragmented mind in general than the interviews - or at least what happens to the mind after a) already being kinda kooky, and b) being under media surveillance for so long.

9) RANGO (Gore Verbinski)

Rango - who is he?  At the two-thirds mark of the story, he is 'Nobody', as he has been found out to be a fraud Sheriff by the cunning bad-ass Rattlesnake Jake, and is exiled from the town of Dirt into the desert (sound weird enough?  keep reading)  He awakens to see a man, old a grayish and possibly made of granite fiber, who rode in on a golf cart chariot with Oscar statues gold in the little basket at the helm.  He gives our beleaguered hero the pep-talk he needs to "Be a Hero".  The whole scene via this "Spirit of the West" is mythical, all the way down to the bright sun and the 'Spirit' as THE 'Man With No Name'TM.  So surprising is this scene that when I first saw it I was dead certain that Clint Eastwood returned one more time to give life and artistic license to his iconic persona,  

Truth be told this is due credit to actor Timothy Olyphant who does the only good Clint imitation as an old man, but it's also a sign of how fucking good the film is at evoking the Old West of cinema, and hero worship in general (it's almost like a deadpan parody of Joseph Campbell, sorta, maybe, maybe not).  The hero's quest is given satire throughout the film, and the scene is nothing is not self-reflexive and funny.  But it also feels real and inspiring, a credit to how seriously Verbinski takes his whacked-out animated world.  

10) Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)

This is a seemingly small moment, and a scene that involves a supporting character (then again, as an ensemble everyone in Soderbergh's film, except possibly Damon and Fishburne, supports this intense film that moves at the pace it needs to, which is neither too fast nor too slow, to detail the underlying protagonist of the virus).  But it's equally haunting and heartbreaking, plus alarmingly amusing.  Kate Winslet's Dr. Erin Mears, a scientist/detective looking into the world devastating virus, finds she is coughing and sickly looking in the middle of the night in her hotel bedroom.  She has the virus. In one unbroken shot, we see Erin distraight, if not crying then certainly on the verge.  She's doomed, and she knows it.  

What does she do?  Call up the hotel desk/security, and make sure she gets the names of everyone who has been in the room in the past twenty-four hours.  It's touching, and kind of touchingly absurd, how Mears keeps at her job in the face of clear and present danger.  I couldn't help but to laugh a little at the procedural nature of this moment, and at the same time feel such warmth and sadness to her and the situation. Soderbergh's film was called "cold" by some critics, but moments like that, or when Mears is in her last conscious moments offers her jacket very weakly from her gurney bed to a fellow sick-mate, or when Damon's character is looking through pictures of his late wife ad her daughter finally has a "prom" in the living room.  That Soderbergh cares so much for his characters, and cares too about showing it as realistically as possible, may be where audiences split.  All his strong points as a filmmaker can be found in that one scene, even down to the soft lighting from the hotel lamp.

11) Hugo (Martin Scorsese)

The films of Georges Melies exist!  In what was a beautiful-moving scene, among so many throughout the film, and especially a moment for my cry-buckets-of-tears wife by my side, is when Michael Stuhbarg's 'film-geek' brings his surviving Melies film print to show to Melieves' live-in woman (aka the actress from many of the same films), that the work of 'Papa Georges' does indeed exist.  In a few minutes we see it - the fantasy, the spectacle, the magic, and it also, finally, connects with Papa Georges who steps into the room while everybody else is watching and transfixed.  

So much was lost, as we can just feel it before he comes in to explain to Hugo and Chloe Moretz where he comes from as an artist.  Of course this whole sequence that follows of the behind-the-scenes story of Melies the Filmmaker, in dazzling colors and, yes I'll say it, 3D, is wonderful, but I can't help but dearly love those moments where Papa Georges is both rediscovered and discovered for the first time by the kids.  I'm reminded again of a line from Woody Allen (not 'Paris', though it could certainly have come from there): "All people know the same truth - our lives consist of how we choose to distort it."

Lightning round:

The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg)

In what looks to be shaping up to be a fun chase through an ancient city of Bagaa, as Tintin and Captain Haddock have to get those three scrolls that have been snatched away for various reasons by a giant hawk and Daniel Craig in a dastardly beard, Spielberg takes what is already an exciting chase and does something else - he makes a kind of innovation to his already excited/excitable style.  Throughout the film, chiefly in action set-pieces like a flashback pirate-ship battle and with a plane flying through the air with little fuel, we see how Spielberg uses animation (and to an extent 3D) to some new and wonderful uses, still using his camera - he shot the film on the Canon 5D digital cam - to get some fascinating shots that he just couldn't get (or logically anyway) with a traditional 35mm camera in live action.

And yet it's here that Spielberg shows why he still is the fuckin' man when it comes to adventures action/chase set-pieces (or rather, how he redeems himself from the faulty chase through the jungle in Crystal Skull, if he needed to anyway): in an unbroken shot that lasts what seems to be five minutes (I couldn't keep track), Tintin and Haddock go through buildings, roads, through the air, and Tintin's dog Snowy also faces off against the maniacal hawk, and the shot just keeps... on... going!  This is the kind of cinema that sneaks up on you and gives you the most spectacular chills, since it took me a minute or so the first time I saw the film to see that it IS all in one shot.  It's so seamless that seeing it again, it boggles the mind how it's pulled off.  

While it can be chalked up to it being animation, it's still storytelling pure and simple.  Among a career that's lasted forty years, it's one of the former 'Wunderkind''s truly exhilarating moments, on par with the boulder-fall in Raiders or the raptors-hunting-kids sequence of Jurassic Park.  Baad-aaassssss.

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