Chris R – 2011 Round Up

By Chris R

I am sorry for the extended radio silence, between work and passion projects the writings here have fallen to the wayside. Thank you for reading and writing, here’s to finding time in 2012!

2011 was a strange year in cinema: the standouts were imperfect, giant films exploring small personal drama through an epic lens (Tree of Life, Melancholia) or niche films unable to reach a broader audience (Shame, Drive, The Artist), while several films from widely respected directors were fine but did not live up to the hype (Hugo and Descendants). Many films explored grand cosmic dilemmas and complex personal struggles, but the most successful works posed questions about our selves and our world instead of proposing answers. Perhaps due to the tumultuous state of the world, more than anything films this year looked at how we cope with loss. We saw film after film of characters trying to make sense of a recently missing person or piece of their life: Hugo and Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close revolve around children questing for a final interaction with their father, Tree of Life ponders the loss of a child and brother, Margaret explores a young adult’s loss of innocence after a tragic accident, We Bought a Zoo chronicles a family coping with the loss of the mother, while Attenberg, Uncle Boonmee, and Decendants revolve around imminent familial loss. All these films suggest that in the face of hardship and loss we must follow our hearts towards whatever we know to be right, however strange, and the best of the bunch left a lasting impact by begging us to continue being curious and engaged.

Still need to see: The Artist, A Separation, Albert Nobbs, Skin I Live In, Moneyball, Attack The Block, Young Adult, Midnight In Paris, The Help

Honorable Mention: Descendants, Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Take Shelter, We Need To Talk About Kevin

TOP TEN

10. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – Stephen Daldry set a monstrous task for himself with ELIC: explore a boy’s loss of his father in a huge international incident to arrive at a sense of hope and wonder with the workings of our world. The daunting scale and extremely sensitive subject matter has left many divided on this film, but I was moved by the experience of Daldry’s film.

9. Margaret – This film is a structural mess: characters will disappear for an hour at a time and the emotional tone is all over the map. But, by the second half Lonergan had won me over, I am on Team Margaret: despite the fractured narrative each scene is imersively human and identifiable; whether horribly uncomfortable, hilarious, or helpless.

8. Win Win (see review)

7. Martha Marcy May Marlene – 3 American films this year used recurring unannounced temporal/reality shifts to engage the viewer with a character lost in personal turmoil brought about by trauma (MMMM, Take Shelter, and We Need To Talk About Kevin). This film, hinged on strong performances from Elizabeth Olson and John Hawkes, was the most effective and most enjoyable of the bunch and the only one I want to see again.

6. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (see review)

5. Melancholia – I sincerely loathed moments of Lars Von Trier’s latest film: I left hating Kirsten Dunst and never wanting to hear or see her again. But as I walked from the theater, nauseous from the intoxicating blue-ness of the film’s conclusion, I realized I just hated watching manic depression perfectly articulated on-screen and stumbled upon the genius of the film.

4. Drive (see review)

3. Shame – Michael Fassbender is quickly becoming THE heavyweight actor and his performance here is absolutely stunning. But, one cannot discount the importance of the film’s director: this is Fassbender’s second film with Steve McQueen and his performance in each is breathtaking. While Shame is more conventional than Hunger, at times it is very directorial: shots or moments call attention to the beauty of McQueen’s craft, but do not lose the emotional weight screaming through the film.

1. Attenberg / Tree of Life (tie) – Both of these films are knockouts and each deals with loss and our place in life, though from vastly different viewpoints. Tree of Life is a gorgeous, unapologetically epic, mess that works best when Malick asks the deepest cosmic questions and worst when he tries to answer them (a recurring issue in his films). Attenberg is a small story that explores how we evolve and interact with each other, but manages to be hilarious and deeply effective. Each left me breathless and dying for more time with the characters and beautifully crafted images.

Most overrated: Hugo, Super 8, HP7, Margin Call

Films that pleasantly surprised me: Margaret, Tin Tin

Worst movies I saw (as far as I remember): Rango, Bad Teacher

This year’s GAAAAAHHHH film: Bellflower –  This strange, offkilter film is certainly one of a kind. Initially I feared I had entered a nightmare: 2 hours of sepia-tone mumble-core about “charmingly weird” LA youths, then a Kate Bush cue over two main character eating ants opened this film up into something else entirely and never looked back. Good? Unclear. Hated it? Also unclear. Fun to watch? Sometimes, extremely so. Excruciating moments? Absolutely.

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Jake Tishler – Top 10 2011

Best of 2011

Drive, Take Shelter, Tree of Life, Thor, Melancholia, Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, Attack the Block, Carlos, The Artist

Films I missed (that may have made the list):

Le Havre; Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy; Shame; A Dangerous Method

Worst Films of the Year:

TinTin, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows pt.2, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Hanna

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Drive (2011, Nicolas Winding Refn)

Review by Chris R

With Drive Nicolas Winding Refn, who made a name for himself with Danish gangster trilogy Pusher and Brit-crime film Bronson, created a film that reignited my excitement for genre film. Many current action or crime films get bogged down with outrageous car chases, violence, and/or badassery; forgetting the importance of strong characters and a captivating narrative to make the action meaningful. Because of this, it took some time to get accustomed to the pace of Drive, a film that languishes in neon, driving, Ryan Gosling, and new italo-disco. The action is sparse, but precise and brutal: gunfights, knife fights, and car chases are brief but expertly crafted for a sense of heightened reality, avoiding the too common pitfall of overcutting action scenes, and provide startlingly violent moments in the cool-calm of Gosling’s world. But, this action is not the centerpiece: it is the story and style of the film that makes Drive a fun, rich, and rewarding film. Refn relies on strong performances from his stellar cast to build a love story John Hughes would be proud of, unfolding Gosling and Carey Mulligan’s relationship with actions and expressions. The film is less an existential driving film as it is a fairy tale: Gosling acts as the hero who must become a monster to protect the innocence of Mulligan. Gosling’s physical transformation is stark and, at times, frightening but Refn’s direction gives the arc smoothness and allows him to remain a mythical hero.

Bottom Line: Well-directed, well-acted, beautifully shot, edited for clarity not chaos… All this allows the polar extremes of violence and love in this movie to interact and merge. What a fuckin’ cool movie.

9/10

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Alone in the Dark [1982, dir. Jack Sholder]

by Jake Tishler

Jack Sholder first came to my attention about two years ago with his magnificent sci-fi cop drama ‘The Hidden.’  Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent from space who tracks a body hopping alien to earth, where he teams up with a hardened LA cop.   Sholder truly displays a cunning hand behind the camera pushing grandiose Hollywood style to its most expressive, comparable to other better known Hollywood/cult directors like Paul Verhoven.  An earlier film, ‘Alone in the Dark’ is not nearly as polished, but equally as inventive and bizarre.

The film begins with an amazing hook, placing the audience inside the surreal dream of a mentally ill patient locked in the asylum where our protagonist  finds himself newly employed.  A pot smoking new-agey psychologist, played hilariously by Donald Pleasance, runs the facility and quickly proves to the new Doc that his methods are perhaps unsound.  A wonderful scene details the hospital’s electronic security system when lead crazy patient Jack Palance (wonderfully subdued) serenely stretches his hands toward the glowing moon outside his window and a metal shutter slams shut before he can touch the glass.  Palance, leading a crew of the most dangerous patients on the violent third floor, convinces them that the new doctor killed his predecessor and he must be disposed of.  Then naturally there’s a power outage and all hell breaks loose.

On paper the plot seems pretty boilerplate, but all the characters really make the story pop.  Sholder strongly develops the new doctor’s family and gives much desired time to some side characters to raise the stakes when their lives are threatened.  The doctor’s mentally unstable sister comes to visit just in time for the craziness, but drags the doctor and his wife to a wild punk-rock show just before the inmates break loose.  Truly bizarre yet sincerely odd moments give Alone in the Dark a life and character rarely seen in slasher films.

After an extremely intense final act reminiscent of ‘Straw Dogs,’ Sholder gives us a surprising ending that defies expectation and brought a smile to my face.  And then he tops it, adding a epilogue that may be one of the best and strangest moments on film I’ve seen in recent memory.  I can’t give it away, it’s just too good.

Check out this little seen gem and for the love of god don’t accidentally rent the Uwe Boll/Christian Slater film of the same name.  Or, fuck it, do a double feature.

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HIATUS FOR MOVIEMAKIN’

Hey all,

Thank you to all the readers out there for checking us out. After ten months writing this blog I know writing these reviews makes me stop and actually think about the films I am putting into my brain and I hope the results are interesting, helpful, or at least entertaining.

But, I must step out of the fold for a stretch (ideally less than two months) as I am executive producing and editing a short film based on a Mark Twain short story for Astrolab Films. After the first shoot I must say that I am really excited about the project: the script is inventive, the actors are fabulous, and our crew is out of this world. Here is a link to the indiegogo page where you can find out more about the project, check out a video, and (if you like) make a donation:

http://www.indiegogo.com/huckfinnfilm

Or, if you just want to see the video, check it out below. It is an early version of the opening credit sequence:

Thank you all, Alex P and others may continue to post, but I will see you all soon!

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Terrence Malick Megapost

by Chris R

In anticipation of 2011 Palme D’Or Tree of Life opening this weekend – I already have a ticket for Saturday, though it seems Fox Searchlight is giving credence to specific showtime, man –  I took the opportunity to watch Terrence Malick’s small, but meaty, filmography (4 movies, 9 hours). I will go into detail about each film, but a few things tie the works together and define Malick’s style as an auteur. Many cite his films as poetic, a word overused in art, but here it is best taken literally: Malick’s films are structured and edited as poems, with rhyming images weaving scenes into stanzas. The fact that the films are all visually breathtaking allows for the slow-forming narrative this structure requires, but the gorgeous imagery – at its best – tells the story and defines the characters through their surroundings. The films focus on how a place’s history, culture, and personality affects and forms people, but never in a simple or direct way. He focuses on the intangible with each film, leaving the tangible to our assumptions and imaginations.

Badlands (1973)

Malick’s first feature is by far his most traditional, but also implements many of his signature directorial tactics (languid wide-shot landscapes and personal, slightly abstract voiceover). Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek star as a small-town teenage girl and confident man from the wrong side of the tracks destined for love. After a turn of events with Spacek’s father, played by Warren Oates, their lives and love change forever, sending them on a blood-stained trek across middle-America (think a simple, unaffected Bonnie and Clyde). Badlands is also Malick’s most pop-culture conscious film: the film introduces Sheen as a rough neck James Dean wanna-be, whose charm and dedication almost makes his emotionless violence allowable. Sheen’s character is aware of the Dean comparison and craves it, but he and Spacek also seem to think their lives became a fairy tale when they met: the acts of violence and sweetness are both displayed so matter-of-factly, amplifying Sheen and Spacek’s naivete and detachment from reality. I know that might sounds irritating and bizarre, but Sheen’s quiet charisma and Spacek’s personal exposition as voiceover captivate and engage, lending a playfulness to the film akin to Wong Kar-wai’s charmingly naive criminal characters.
9/10

Days of Heaven (1978)

While Badlands‘s cinematography was beautiful and, at times, stunning, Days of Heaven may be the most visually arresting film ever made. With very little dialogue and an enigmatic voiceover from a supporting character, the film relies on images to tell the story: each image invites you into the space and the relationships of the characters, spinning scenes out of connected visuals. That is not to say that the story is bland or abstract; the basic plot is actually rather straightforward – a migrant worker couple see a chance to become wealthy through amoral means, consequences ensue – but Malick renders the intangible emotional textures and transitions in each character delicately with a succession of gorgeous imagery. Though, despite the languid character narratives, Malick steamrolls through the actual meat and potatoes plotpoints, hurrying through each confrontation or turning point to get back to reveling in the emotional turmoil that lead up to and resulted from these moments. With a running time at only ninety minutes these scenes could be longer, as is they are quick and could use more time to gestate. Though, these rhythmic breaks remind us that this film was edited, re-edited, and re-structured for over 2 years. Without these fleeting structural issues Days of Heaven could be a masterpiece: the opening harvest and locust scene are utterly breathtaking, the only film that I could compare it to is There Will Be Blood and they are still worlds apart.

9.5/10

The Thin Red Line (1998)

The Thin Red Line is such a simple idea with grand, awe-inspiring execution: a man (Jim Caviezel) among many, deciphering his own understanding of death, fights a battle for a ridge in a foreign land during the largest war the world has seen. But, clocking in at three hours and boasting a cast of most of the finest working actors, The Thin Red Line is a bit of a beast to wrap your head around. Malick’s film presents so many characters, but each draws you in: the voiceover helps invite you into each character’s psyche, but having so many narrative voices does not overwhelm as I expected it to. He initially gives you one trait or motivation for each character and the rest is implied or built upon as they go deeper into battle. As expected, the imagery is utterly breathtaking. The battle for the ridge plays out like a poem: the camera moves gracefully and forcefully, the perfectly framed figures move deeper into the setting, as the place shifts from peaceful and serene to all out carnage, all the while asking us why. Though some think the film is messy and unfocused, I think that is the beauty of it: we do not have a singular focus once the battle begins besides the point of action at any given moment, allowing each character’s actions and emotions in this high pressure situation to reveal their unconscious selves to us, while the time between battles is spent learning how the characters consciously view themselves and their context. It absolutely makes sense that the conflict between Nick Nolte and Elias Koteas largely defines the drama of the first act and a half because they are the commanding officers, they are the characters with lives in their hands. But, Caviezel’s subtler, more philosophical narrative – articulated most fully in two conversations with Sean Penn – carries us through the film, asking us to consider the way these men face death and their responsibilities to one another. The problems with Caviezel’s narrative for me was Malick’s depiction of tribal life as bliss (Caviezel’s idea of heaven): lines like “Kids here never fight” are ignorant and fetishize that way of life. But, in the film’s context – a vast war considered on a large scale but fought among individuals – this frustrating assertion is allowable as a man’s escape from the madness of modern war

9.5/10

The New World (2005)

Initially there does not seem to be much of a difference between The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven, and The New World, but something about Malick’s most recent film simply does not connect. Like the others, this film is stunningly gorgeous in nature and savage when humanity strikes, the narrative uses a poetic structure and abstract voiceover, and the setting largely defines and affects the characters. Perhaps the largest blight on the film is the acting: Colin Farrell’s performance is comprised mostly of sad faces and stubble while Q’orianka Kilcher does not have the chops to engage with a look, despite being enchantingly beautiful. In The Thin Red Line and Days of Heaven Gere, Shepard, Caviezel, Penn, and Nolte speak volumes with a look or expression, here there are a plethora of exchanged glances but most land empty and meaningless. The poetic image sequences weave the narrative vessel, but the characters occupying that narrative are empty and uninteresting. Malick’s previous works introduce characters we immediately know or learn and use our assumptions as building blocks, but here the characters go against the grain of what we know of the Smith/Pocahontas story and lean heavily on melodrama that does not connect. Despite fetishizing American indigenous people – “They do not know jealousy”… c’mon – the perspective of the story is startling and refreshing: there is no wink to the history of this fabled story, the characters and viewer are experiencing this New World for the first time. Scenes of British settlers in raw nature and Pocahantas in England are beautiful and layered with emotions, but the actual human interactions seem forced and remain unremarkable. However fascinating it is to see the essence of the American settler and their effect on the native people, the characters of The New World simply do not fill the narrative of breathtaking images with enough substance.

7/10

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Carlito’s Way (1993, Brian De Palma)

Review by Chris Rand

Brian De Palma, like Michael Mann, consistently draws me into watching his movies with their premise and cast, then leaves me not disappointed as much as ambivalent. The images in De Palma’s films are striking, the characters are drawn simply, and the acting is usually superb. Though, somehow, De Palma has a knack for taking the air out of any moment of drama he creates. I have yet to be truly pulled into the world of his films or really care about any of his characters, just drawn in by the strong visual sense. To me, De Palma is an ‘auteur’ in the same sense as many Hollywood directors: their films do little for me beyond their visual style (which is constrained by the accepted guidelines of Hollywood filmmaking), but that style is noticeable and recognizable. Carlito’s Way had me prepared for the worst from its opening credits: hazy black and white footage of Pacino getting shot and rushed to the hospital accompanied by the most culturally confused voiceover I have come across. The voiceover, along with the score, were the most glaring and frustrating pieces of Carlito’s Way: again and again the attention grabbing excitement of the score destroys any sense of building dread or drama and Pacino seems to be several characters at once for the voiceover – an old Puerto Rican gangster in Harlem, a Black jazz musician, and Scarface in old age. But, what makes these aspects so frustrating is that they are both post-production additions and could have been altered. What De Plama has on film is strong performances from much of the cast, exciting visuals that build on the style De Palma carved out in Scarface, and more downright cool tracking shots than any film could need. But, the miscues in post-production mood-shaping consistently distract from the film this could be and alienate the viewer from the drama on film.

Bottom Line: That is not to say Carlito’s Way is not worth watching: the Grand Central finale is absolutely breathtaking and Sean Penn’s performance is initially offputting and his appearance laughable, but his character evolves into the emotional pivot of the film. But, lapses in the director’s judgement squander anything great this film could be.

5/10

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