Friday, June 20, 2014

Friday Night Clip Fix - ROCKY 4 TRAINING MONTAGE

Ah yes, Rocky IV, aka 'Rocky Balboa faces off against the oppressive Cold War machine SINGLEHANDED! Or should I say two-handed, with fists. And sled-lifting.

This is silly stuff, cartoonish, hilarious, especially with the 'Hearts on Fire' song. But actually this is what makes it even more of a piece of suspiciously brilliant propoganda. It's montage in the most Stalin sense of the word. As the critic Slavoj Zizek pointed out in his movie "Perverts Guide to Cinema", Stalin loved musicals, and this if nothing else is a musical sequence showing how hard work and dedication can get results and make characters feel the burn. Only in this case Rocky - who, of course, has to burnish himself of all of his Rich-Man trappings following the Death-by-Boxing of Apollo Creed by Ivan Drago and has to leave behind his mansion and talking dog (sigh, yes, remember that?) and become a rugged man of the wilderness.

Ivan, meanwhile, becomes a victim of the very montage that Stalin once loved to see from his Soviet propoganda pieces. Now ROCKY, not IVAN, is the one who will use the lay of the land, and things like sleds and horse carts and chopping down trees with axes SERIOUSLY WHAT THE FUCK, LIKE STEPHEN KING DOESN'T CHOP DOWN ENOUGH TREES... sorry, got carried away.

At any rate, this is the first in a series - inspired by the great Co-Host 3000 who used to do this ever Friday but stopped for some reason (maybe the closing of Spill had something to do with it I suppose).  And what better way to start than with shamelessly (or shamefully depending on your POV) Nationalist tripe of the most hilarious order.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Top 10 Silences of the Year in Film (2013)

Film is a visual medium, this is the stock statement to say when talking about movies and how they should be.  I think dialog is a very crucial part, certainly in the past, I dunno, 80+ years in cinema.  But moments in cinema where it's really on the actors to express things without words, the directors and writers still working to make things palpable, emotional, maybe even profound when there are no words, we're just watching characters *do* things (remember in Pulp Fiction as Bruce Willis walking to his apartment and going about his watch-retrieving business before, spoiler, killing John Travolta?  Yeah, like that), or just thinking.

Seeing characters in a moment of thought or contemplation is an infinitely interesting thing in a story where people have to, by nature of especially newer films, keep moving and the story has to keep going.  Surely if folks like Tarkovsky or Bresson were still around this might not be an issue.  But for now, those moments can really POP out in a movie.

Pacific Rim 

Two fisherman on a beach stand in awe as a damaged Jaeger (robot) comes out of the fog and the water and rises up so looming over them as if it could be one of those Kaiju monsters - you really don't know until it finally appears in its bent-over position and crashes to the beach.  The big "Other" has landed.  There is little for these beach-combers to think about.  The "monster" has hit shores, damaged and irreparable, dying almost.

Inside Llewyn Davis - Llewyn almost runs over a cat!  He pulls over to he side of the road in a screech, and then looks back out to see the cat, possibly in a silhouette, limping off into the woods.  We're left to think as Llewyn does: what the hell was that?  Followed up with: Is that the same cat as the Gorfeins?  Or is that the 'fake' Ulysses that I let go some miles back?  It's like the ghost of a cat coming back around, like out of mythology (this comes up in my mind especially on reading a "conspiracy theory" that Llewyn Davis *is* the cat, or an extension of Davis).  What happens if you nearly kill your extension?  It has to leave you with something.  But Davis ultimately shrugs it off and moves along on his lonesome.

The Act of Killing

The main living monster, Anwar Congo, returns to a key location at the end of the film where he performed many horrible things, including murder and torture.  Though not completely without sound (he heaves and makes sounds as if he is about to vomit, I don't remember if he does but I don't think so), he is mostly just sitting there in this room, no words to say, and you just know a flood of memories has come upon him.  This man can never be forgiven for his crimes - it's stated in the film he likely participated in a thousand deaths - but that one moment is certainly haunted enough to leave an impact.  (Note - this character may have said something in this scene, but he was mostly just sitting there in terrible, solitary discomfort).

Enough Said - Julia Louis Dreyfuss says a quick hello to the man he's about to do a massage for... up a very big flight of stairs.  She has to walk this same flight of stairs every time she comes over.  The first time we see this uncomfortable silence, it's awkward, funny, we almost want to come over and help her out through the screen.  She smiles through the whole time she climbs those stairs, but we know what she's thinking "WHAT THE BLEEP, MOVE, HELP ME!"  It's that simple but complicated moment where the social contract becomes muddled by the basic thing of this: in order to get help, you gotta ask for it.

Before Midnight - After a blazing, long argument, the kind that keeps going even after you think it's all over and done with, Jessie is told by Celine that she doesn't love him anymore.  He sits in this empty hotel room, looking at the objects (bed, wine bottle), and we can see his sadness, being lost, and then the moment where he gets the "idea" of what to do.  The scene after this is the real masterstroke of the film, and one of the best scenes maybe ever between a couple on screen (yes, I'm getting that platitudinal), but that twenty five, thirty seconds where Jessie is in the room by himself, it's that moment where we almost get to think with him.

Fruitvale Station - Though it's technically a 'book-end' silence, with the middle portion being a conversation between Michael B. Jordan's protagonist and Octavia Spencer's mother in prison, it's mostly here about Jordan sitting on the rocks of a beach with a bag of weed.  Is he only thinking about his time in prison and this one slice that really pained him?  Perhaps, in pat terms of 'this is what the movie is showing us'.  But there's a lot more going on just in Jordan's eyes, that ocean, the sense that he is out there in the ocean already, and looking to pop back out into reality.  Then goes the weed.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Jordan has a quasi Jake LaMotta moment -  is told by his wife that she wants a divorce and that, very possibly, he'll never see his kids again.  He punches her, races to get his little girl, and rushes to his car.  Despite his wife and a maid trying to stop him, with his daughter in the passenger side he floors it, wrecks the garage door, and just in time stops before he completely wrecks the car- but not before his little girl gets a touch of whiplash.  The mother gets the kid and rushes away. 

It's here we get this long, horrible silence with out 'anti-villain' Mr. Belfort.  There is no narration here, like when he was caught cheating by his first wife and says "I felt awful, I filed for divorce three days later and moved Naomi into the house".

He just sits there, dumbfounded, blood trickling down his head profusely.  Does he *get* it now?  Does he know he's a completely terrible person?  I don't know.  This moment segues into him being read his charges for his crimes.  What he just did, which constitutes as assault and battery, endangering a child, destruction of property (also something he was never caught on when he was on those Lemmon-Ludes), it doesn't come back to haunt him.  But it's at this moment he's lost everything.  I think for a moment he does have some recognition, a moment of clarity.  The abyss stares back at him with a big middle finger.  You don't feel sorry for Belfort here, but he is painfully human.  

12 Years a Slave - Solomon Northrup has finally laid it all out for a sympathetic Canadian laborer (the "Magical Brad Pitt" of the story, maybe the only slight flaw in that someone as recognizable as Brad Pitt should come to this man's help).  But will he send word?  Near the end of this film, Solomon just stands around, perhaps this being an abstracted moment out of time, where he looks just completely in terror, like one of those frightened dogs in those Sarah MacLaughlin commercials about adopting abused animals.  The thought here isn't so deep - it's "what am I going to do?" - but then the kicker: for ten seconds, it almost feels like, his gaze turns to the audience.  This isn't unintentional, certainly not for an actor with the training and time in films that Chiwetel Ejiofor has had - Steven McQueen is, for just a moment, turning to the audience as if to say "Do you believe all this shit?  Is this what humanity IS?"  Then he goes back to looking out into the distance with his eyes about to cry at any moment.

Good God, it leaves an impact.  And it's the kind of silence that speaks more than even the BIG melodramatic moments like with Fassbender and Nyongo.

Blue is the Warmest Color - It's been some time since I've seen the film, but somehow this moment sticks out for me.  The main character, Adele (of the same name Adele Archeopololis, sic), has broken up with her girlfiend - or rather, she's broken up with her.  She still goes on, as she must, teaching her students in class and getting along.  But then she goes to the beach, and just sits on the middle of the ocean.  This character is adrift, though not totally sad.  Like the Hawke/Linkater scene it's a moment of contemplation, but it's far more enigmatic.

'Blue' is a very long film, over three hours, and there's fair arguments on what could have been cut to make a tighter narrative.  If the director had, you would have lost a scene like this.  There's nothing to do with 'plot' here, but it's loaded with conflict if you know where to look.  Or, as with so many European films of the past sixty years, it's about mood, and the mood of alienation, often created in the existential realm of oneself, and in the scope of society as a whole.  You could "lose" this scene in the water, on the ocean, watching Adele float along.  You'd lose that certain... I-don't-know-what, as the French say.

American Hustle

Christian Bale has just left in a huff.  The camera pans over from the door to a befuddled Bradley Cooper who asks the cleavage-generous, legs-open Amy Adams "You... you playing me?"  And she offers a coy reply.  After this, Cooper comes forward slowly, this silence that is kind of a two-parter: he takes her leg, he is coming close, he is getting closer, touching her leg, she's not warding him off.  But Cooper, as this bi-polar agent (? 2nd in a row for Cooper in a Russel flick), backs off, breathing in, going over to the window, breaking the silence with some sort of guttural sound that is less like a human and more like some gorilla with sexual blue-balls.  And Adams just sits there like 'what just happened?'

In a movie peppered - nay, really relying upon - with Crazy Character Moments, this is one that I still recall had me on the edge of my seat.  For all of the big bluster that Russell has his characters carry in the film, when there is restraint shown, it has even more power - and humor.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Madadayo, Used DVD's! - #3: Alexandre Aja's HIGH TENSION

Hey, I was just here yesterday, right?  Eh, eh?  o_O

But, anyway, on to the movie!

This is a French horror film - don't get many of those, do we? - from 2005 that served as the calling card for director Alexandre Aja (later of Mirrors, Hills Have Eyes and Piranha 3D fame).  It is, for the most part, a solid, if not terribly unconventional, thriller where the killer is not some masked zombie or Dream Magnet with Claws, but just some guy who looks the part: a guy in a hat, work-clothes, and slovenly.  Make note of this 'for the most part', however, just as something to keep in mind (oh, and though it's several years old, SPOILERS).

The movie is ostensibly about, well, what else when it comes to a good ol' fashioned 'slasher' than two young women (Cecile De France as our 'hero' Marie and Maiwenn as her friend Alexia) who go to a remote house in the rural part of the country, and over the course of a night have to contend with a Big Bad Man who is killing the family of one of the girls one by one.  Marie, we see, is the one who will save them through a series of events to try and draw the killer away or in to a space where he can be killed.

Aja's skill in the large part of the film is simple, un-complicated suspense set pieces.  Some of this involves the building of dread, seeing characters react and then trying to hold off the inevitable.  Aja is also FAR from the squeamish type when it comes to showing blood - when it comes to taking time with a scene he may be a step-child of John Carpenter's Halloween, but not so much when the blood starts to pour.  To give an idea, the first truly graphic scene involves a character getting his head squashed off - his skull has been placed in-between the partitions that hold up the rail of a staircase, and a cabinet comes flying down to knock it off.

The blood here is a bit over the top.  Perhaps this should have been an indicator of something being 'up' (in the fishy sense, not positive) with with this narrative.  But again, I'll get to that in another moment.  There are many things to be impressed about with High Tension, namely that Aja doesn't go for the jump scares on the whole.  Oh sure, there's a bit where Marie is listening on her walkman and gets startled by something in her bedroom, but this is the exception.  Mostly she is waiting for something to happen, waiting for the moment she can sneak around, to get her friend out, or is waiting in the back of that nasty bugger's green pick up truck with her hysterical friend and unsure how to get out of this.

There's lots of pieces like that, where Aja's camera gets us involved in the action, even when something seems a bit preposterous like what happens at the gas station in the convenience store (how quickly the killer ends up offing the poor hapless worker there).  Now, none of this in High Tension is exactly revolutionary in its execution, yet it's done more than competently, the actress de France is believable and exciting as a lead, and the violence makes things more cringe-inducing when the suspense is paplable....


And then the TWIST.  Oh, as M. Night would say, WHAT A TWIST!

I was hoping it wouldn't be the case, but it was, ultimately - the "turkey" ending, to coin the phrase from Invader Zim - she was the killer all along.  This happens in the last, not even ten minutes but maybe five minutes of the movie, and it is the sort of ending that makes the word "BUT" almost mandatory with this movie.  It's the sort of reveal that will make the audience split up, either they'll go for it and be 'Like OMG like srsly you guys, wow, I didn't see that coming, amazing" OR "Hey... wait a minute!"

And of course Aja and his collaborators who what "really" happened, and a lot of it just doesn't make sense in terms of execution.  The movie has to twist itself into knots to explain how things occurred, and the ludicrous factor is off the charts.  It's not an example of a film doing a proper dramatic "GOTCHA!" which, much as I have problems with another film like The Usual Suspects at least the claim can be made there - it feels like lying.  It's a lie that undoes so much good filmmaking that came before it, and makes this a recommendation with a STRONG caveat.

High Tension is an example of a mind being a terrible thing to waste, and by that I mean the mind of an ending. 

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars, Or TFIOS if you must use acronyms that sound like a news station, is a good movie.  At certain points a very good one, that captures at least the pacing and feeling of falling in young love that the book, which is a bestseller not unlike in my parents generation say Love Story.  Its got attractive young people who have thoughts that can be expressed outside of just 'I love you'.  That matters.

Its also the sort of movie that, having read the book, I wish was better.  Could it have been great, I don't know.  Its a curious thing seeing how Josh Boone, working from a script by the writers of 500 Days of Summer and the Spectacular Now (also starring Shailene Woodsley), gets the material but is also hampered, or just doesn't stretch far enough, in other respects.  The first half of the movie is about these two young people falling for each other, their meet-cutey-Ness, and dialog that has a slight 'Cool!' humor air like Diablo Cody.  But it works, the actors have chemistry, and the air of light romance and friendship shines through.  In this respect it's almost an improvement (or just a solid adaptation) of the first half of the book.

Where it changes is in the second half, where the drama involving cancer comes back up ten fold, and Boone feels the need to pump up drama with unnecessary (or just typical and schmaltzy) music cues, and this is where it also doesn't do quite the service to the book.  There are scenes that, of course, stand out, like when Hazel Grace has an highly emotional conversation with her parents about dying and her mother (the great Laura Dern) and finally coming to terms with this reality but in straight on, honest terms.  Or anything with Willem Dafoe, especially the scene where the two kids meets this author Dafoe plays and the awkwardness makes Louie seem, well, comparable.

This is just one of those things I suppose that comes with adaptations, some things will be lost and you don't get quite what You picture.  One of the smartest choices is the casting of Woodsley, who is simply one of the most 'on' young actresses working today, with eyes and a face that is loaded always with emotion and depth that speaks to what should be an amazing career to come.  The problem then comes with the casting of Ansel Gort as Augustus.

He is a good actor, competent as Boones direction.  But with a partner like Woodsley and so much of the dramatic stakes hanging on what he can deliver, he's not on her level.  He does give much as he can, like in a third act scene in a car that was an incredible scene in the book.  Its just one of those things of the actor, certainly, looking like a heartthrob (and, May be, letting the attitude, like his leather jacket or unlit metaphorical cigarette do the acting) isn't up to her level.

But it's good.  I know I keep using that word, possibly as a defense mechanism or something, but it is, just that, no more no less for the most part.  It's the antidote and itself a kind of (un?)intentional criticism of Twilight and My Sisters Keeper when it comes to sappy teen romance and kids-with-cancer melodramas.  And its no wonder that it will be a gigantic hit with its major audience.  Just not great.  It's the kind of movie that features a sorta inspirational sorta hmm scene where the lead couple kiss in the Anne Frank house and everyone else kisses around them, and its without any question of its sincerity.

John Green with cast