Posted on | January 28, 2015 | Add Comments
In many ways, Skyfall (2012, streaming on Netflix) embodies many of James Bond’s signature qualities. It’s suave, sophisticated, and sexy, wryly and quietly amusing but also grandiloquent and self-indulgent, yet somehow still sleek and stylish to the end. It’s quite the ride: 143-minutes of set-pieces, locales, a couple of Bond girls, and a whole lot of things going bang.
In the opening shot, we see an out of focus figure slowly approaching; we slowly realize he’s James Bond, with gun pointed and steely gaze directed up ahead. He quietly prowls around an Istanbul house littered with dead colleagues, searching for a computer that holds the identities of all MI6 members. That search leads him across city streets on a car chase, which segues into a motorcycle pursuit. Finally, one on one on the top of a speeding train, he confronts his nameless, who holds the keys to the downfall of MI6. With barely a trace of remorse, the bitter and acidic M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot”, sending Bond falling into the ocean and leaving the organization in jeopardy. But because we’re only twenty minutes of the movie, Bond survives, and is “enjoying death” while staying far away from anything relating to espionage.
When a deadly organization starts leaking the identities of MI6 members, however, he pulls himself back into the game. For once, Bond is seen in less than perfect condition: during target practice, his arms shake and he misses the shot. Lucky for him, M shows a trace of compassion by letting him stay an agent, even though he’s failed all of his tests. Bond’s adventures lead him to Shanghai skyscrapers, a Macau casino, and, after an hour of set-up, face to face with the villain of the picture: the psychotic Silva (played by Javier Bardem, with a head of bad blonde hair and a deliciously nasty smile). Physically, he’s not too much of a scare for 007 but, like the best bad guys, it’s the psychological game of wits he plays with our protagonist that makes him so lethal. Part hacker, part terrorist, he shows no mercy in taking out agents and endangering everything and everyone Bond holds dear.
Plot-wise, this Bond flick is a twisty, layered delight. The stakes have rarely been higher, the villain nastier, the surprises more surprising, or the Bond more flawed. But much like the overrated but enjoyable Casino Royale, the film often suffers from insufferably prolonged action scenes that last up to fifteen minutes. The shootouts, explosions, chases, and fistfights are certainly spectacular, occasionally balletic, and technically impeccable. But these sequences are so ceaselessly tiring you start to wish director Sam Mendes had picked a Bond-averse average joe off the streets and had him snip off a solid 45 minutes of the final cut.
Still, there’s plenty to marvel at. Despite the flaws, it’s hard to imagine director Sam Mendes having constructed a better Bond movie. There’s a terrific opening credits montage, scored by Adele’s foreboding “Skyfall” song. And the film has a fine sense of the franchises’s history, with familiar cars, characters, and, of course, music popping up at just the right moments. Cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the images a mathematical precision with clean, sharp framing, along with an artsy and atmospheric sense of color and shadow.
Skyfall also has a fine supporting cast. Judi Dench, as M, finally gets a chance to be a character (and not just a one-note bit of crusty cynicism) and she relishes every second of her screen time. So does Ben Winshaw as a new, tech-savvy Q. Thank goodness he’s in this movie, which might be entirely lacking of fun without him. Bardem, however, simultaneously lightens and darkens the mood with his instantly creepy performance. His one-take entrance, both dreadfully disturbing yet lightly playful, is utterly unforgettable. In his first confrontation with Bond, he manages to frighten, seduce, and reduce him all at the same time. Meanwhile, Ralph Fiennes gets a plump part as an old-school Intelligence Committee chairman, though I spent most of his scenes thinking he might’ve made a fine Bond twenty years ago.
What about the Bond we’ve got, Daniel Craig? With his immaculate build, threatening stare, and reluctant smile, he’s the most self-serious and brutally efficient Bond I’ve seen; a Dark Knight 007 for the 21st century. Yet Craig, a man of few words, is lacking in the lively personality that made audiences fall in love with Sean Connery all those years ago. Beneath the muscles and menace, there’s not much there, or at least not enough. I’m not suggesting we need the droll jokiness of 60′s Bond; Craig doesn’t seem to know the meaning of humor, let alone have any sense of comic timing. But it would be nice to see some him show more layers of character.
Luckily, screenwriters Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, and John Logan have concocted a doozy of a finale. With few options left, Bond and M travel, by way of the trusty old Aston Martin, to his childhood Scotland home. For once, Silva will be the one playing catch-up. Bond, M, and a paternal figure (Albert Finney) from 007′s past hide in the dusty old mansion, and face Silva and a team of henchmen. As Silva and his henchmen approach the house, Mendes and Deakins imbue the confrontation with a classic Western vibe; the bad guys severely outnumbering the good. But once inside the house, the tone shifts to that of a horror movie climax, replete with shadowy atmosphere, around-the-corner scares, and delightful booby traps.
What ultimately makes the film, and the final sequence, so powerful is its surprisingly knowing sense of mortality, an awareness of the limits of Bond’s endurance (for once, the time-to-get-back-in-shape training sequence isn’t completely ridiculous). Hey, the later scenes give us the best sense of Bond’s backstory we’ve ever gotten, detailing a Batman-like origin story. During 50 years, 007 hasn’t shown any signs of aging; rarely does he allow us glimpses of weakness, either. But this time, we’re faced with a shocking revelation: he’s still human.
Posted on | January 27, 2015 | Add Comments
Waking Life (2001, streaming on Netflix), Richard Linklater’s ambling animated opus, is the kind of film that will put some to sleep and enthrall others. It’s a brilliant, bizarre, and utterly one-of-a-kind trip.
With a script by Linklater, the film has almost no “plot”, at least in the conventional sense. It’s a chatty, meditative, intellectual feast made up of bite-sized episodes of conversational philosophizing. The film follows a twentysomething drifter (Wiley Wiggins) as he navigates his own dream, listening in on the thoughts of a cast of diverse and unusual characters. A university professor expresses his frustration with the shiftless new generation. A monkey projects and narrates a film. Two friends discuss the possiblities of cinema, then turn into inanimate cloud-statues of themselves. Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy), from Linklater’s Before trilogy, talk about the last 6-12 minutes of brain activity a dead human has, after the body shuts down. The director Stephen Soderbergh shows up to tell a story about Billy Wilder. And Linklater himself has a fascinating and slightly disturbing story to tell about author Phillip K. Dick.
What makes Waking Life such an innovative, imaginative achievement is the format Linklater chose to make the movie in: rotoscoped animation. First, he filmed his actors the way he would, more or less, in a live-action film. Then a team of Austin artists (largely not computer animators), led by the pioneering Bob Sabiston, animated over that footage using some average Apple computers and a software called Rotoshop. The result is, at first, disconcerting and distracting, even irritating. But, soon enough, you latch into the free-flowing vibe, and marvel at the bizarre beauty that surrounds you. Animation styles sometimes change from scene to scene, while some shots have a bouncy, slightly wobbly effect. The general style is that of a Picasso painting, a Monet masterwork, some modern graphic novels, and maybe some drugs stirred together, and then splattered around with unfettered enthusiasm. It’s so completely different, so fresh, so unlike anything else.
As for the little episodes that make up the film, some are engrossing and profound, others exhausting and perplexing. There are some scenes of philosophers (mostly non-actors) talking so quickly about such highbrow, scientific ideas that just about anyone without a Phd. in everything will begin to lose interest. It’s also a little pompous that Linklater seems to assume everyone has something grand and genius to say about the universe. And for the first half of the film, the nameless protagonist doesn’t really respond to any of his dream-characters; he just sits, listens, and nods. For a while, this near-wordless blank-slate of a central character is a frustration. With so much going on around the character, it would’ve helped if Linklater had fleshed this guy out, and given us someone to hold on to. Though, that may be the point: we could kind of be following anyone. And the film gets stronger as it progresses. The protagonist starts speaking, and says some fascinating things about the consciousness and reality of dreams. Fascinating and more intelligible characters appear, and then disappear, because this is, alas, a dream. Eventually, we’re left with a lovely last shot that takes you up, up, and away.
Perhaps Waking Life shouldn’t be critiqued as a movie, but debated over as a deep-dive into a director’s brain. All the characters seem to express little thoughts, theories, and ideas Linklater has had, making them more jumping-off points for intellectual analysis than actual characters. Taken for what is, which is a peculiar and rather astounding trip through the mind, Waking Life is a marvel. Imperfect, not for everybody (probably not for most), scattered in every direction? Yes, yes, and yes. But our dreams aren’t supposed to make sense to us, let alone entertain the world. When the movie finishes, you don’t just walk away and move on with your life. It consumes you, fills your brain with new ideas, gets you thinking and dreaming and hoping for more movies like this one, movies so daringly free of constraint and convention.
Posted on | January 19, 2015 | 1 Comment
A darkly comic musical, a film critic’s personal struggle, a travel through space and time (and wormholes!), and 12 years in the life of one fascinating boy. These are just a few of the films that graced 2014’s screens and left us enthralled and restless about the ever-changing art form that is film. With the awards season in full swing, the Oscar nominations recently announced, 10 best lists popping up everywhere, and the year already past it’s close, it’s time to take a look back at the year in cinema. We’ll discuss surprises, disasters, memorable moments, what the Oscar nominees mean, and, of course, our favorites. So sit back, relax, and prepare yourself for some cinephile debating.
Flack: Perhaps it should come as no surprise, in our world of Internet immediacy, that both print critics and bloggers alike announced their Best-of-the-Year lists weeks before the year was finished. As soon as December began, the lists began popping up, one after another, in a rushed flurry of movie mania. By Christmas, it seemed every critic in America had written about “The Best of Film of the Year”. So…we’re kind of late to the party.
But that doesn’t matter. For one thing, Flick and I don’t see movies before their releases (that’s why critics were able to release their lists so early), and often not until they’ve played in New York and LA for months. Besides, a little time for reflection can’t hurt. And the Oscars, the last hurrah of awards season, don’t air for over a month.
So, now we’re here to discuss the year in film. We’ll talk about which films we liked and which we didn’t, but also try to find some overarching themes that explain the state of cinema. Let’s start there, with the simple yet endless question “How’s cinema doing?”
Flick: The current state of cinema is an intriguing one, undoubtedly. Over the last few years, critics have complained that big-budgeted blockbusters are starting to become the future of film. While I certainly agree that the endless rampage of mindless studio extravaganzas is far too common, this year was filled with a refreshingly wide range of films. Yes, there was The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s 2 ½ hour conclusion to his second Tolkein trilogy, that’s greatest weakness (to name just one) was it’s ceaseless repetition and never-ending length. But there were also films such as Interstellar, a movie that while I have mixed feelings about, didn’t fail to challenge the idea of what a film with a $165 million budget could be. Sure, Christopher Nolan struggled with some of the same action flick pitfalls that Jackson did (notably running time), but what he did manage to do was make me think, something these types of films rarely do.
Independent films grew even larger in noteworthy number and many have made it to the top of critic’s lists, as well as a certain Oscar category. Birdman, We Are The Best!, Whiplash, and Boyhood all followed believably flawed characters in the types of riveting stories that keep me excited about film’s potentials. Each of those films came from directors with visions that were unique. Birdman features an astounding one-take that forces you to follow Riggan Thompson as he heads from behind the curtain to the tops of buildings. We Are The Best! matched it’s story, following three young girls starting a punk band, with a punk filmmaking aesthetic (handheld camera, inexperienced but excellent actors, etc.) Whiplash was grounded by two astounding performances, one from up and coming Miles Teller as the driven Andrew, the other from J.K. Simmons as a jazz teacher willing to take his students to the edge of sanity. And Boyhood? More on that one later.
Flack: Every year, noisy, nonsensical blockbusters get more money and attention than they deserve, while intelligent, artistic filmmakers struggle to get their voices heard and films seen. And every year, critics complain. 2014 brought us some worse-than-expected blockbusters and some truly exceptional indie films. As you said, they’re both wrong and right. I’ll start with the blockbusters.
Both audiences and critics were enamored by a number of the year’s summer tentpoles: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and, especially, Guardians of the Galaxy. All three films had their strengths, but a sense of unencumbered imagination was sorely lacking. Many would beg to differ, but I think we should stop expecting great things from Marvel. The studio has become more of an oversized producer of product and less a studio committed to making good movies. I’ll probably see the upcoming Ant-Man, but I can’t say I’m really looking forward to it.
That said, Hollywood did surprise us with one sci-fi action spectacle that felt like a relief. That’s a bit ironic, because the film, Edge of Tommorrow, was about a guy dying over and over. Before you roll your eyes, let me explain. Edge’s plot (inexperienced soldier in future-dystopia gets killed, and reborn again, repeat) may sound like Groundhog Day with more guns and less comedy. But for what it is, the Tom Cruise-starring film was a refreshing mix of exhilarating action and lively wit. Next time you have a craving for blockbuster action, check it out.
Still, the audacious ambition of smaller films thrilled me most this year (the drum-solo finale of Whiplash got my heart beating faster than anything that Marvel produced). The originality, intelligence, and artistry of the work of Richard Linklater, Alejandro González Inñártitu, and Damien Chazelle made a strong case for the enduring power of American independent cinema. Without the pressure of big studios, but with the benefit of caring executives, all three made films of precise and personal vision that brings to mind the word “auteur”. But aside from the biggest of blockbusters and smallest of indies, what other in-between films excited you?
Flick: A film that’s been talked about a lot lately is Selma and it’s one that I really loved. While the film received incredible reviews and lots of early buzz, I think the Oscar snubbery has really gotten in the way of the fact that this is a truly incredible film. Ava DuVernay, nearly unheard of previous to the film, took over directing reins after Spike Lee, Lee Daniels, and others quit the project. The film we are left with is truly incredible with a great cast led by the astounding David Oyelowo. Oyelowo captures the spirit, the flaws, the intricacies, the voice, and the drive behind Martin Luther King Jr. and he carries the entire film. His performance is one of, if not the, best of the year and the Academy’s inability to see that shouldn’t get in the way of people seeing the movie.
Into the Woods, a film by no means on the same level as Selma, was very entertaining. It really had everything it needed to succeed as a family film released for Christmas, but for some reason it didn’t really get a lot of attention. Meryl Streep showed off her high notes, James Corden stepped up his emotional game, and Chris Pine stepped in for a scene-stealing number. It was dark, funny, and most interestingly, a musical. There are so few musicals coming out that the ones that do should be cherished. This is no Sound of Music or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but it is a highly enjoyable film.
Let’s talk about a film that surprised you. Maybe one you weren’t expecting to be so good or one you missed at the theater but caught up on at home.
Flack: We Are the Best!, which you mentioned before, had a small release, unsurprising for an indie foreign film released in the middle of summer. But Lukas Moodyson’s Swedish comedy blends feminist girl power with DIY punk rock to joyous effect. And the premise is irresistible: kids with no musical experience/talent start a band. Catch it on Netflix.
Another film I caught up on long after it’s summer release was Get On Up, the often-ludicrous but always energetic James Brown biopic. Director Tate Taylor, who made The Help, tackles too much too quickly, broadly, and simply, and the film often feels like a messy first draft. But Chadwick Boseman, as James Brown, slips into the role of Mr. Dynamite and just disappears; even when the film falters, his infectious energy and pure funkiness holds it all together. I can’t recommend the movie, but Boseman and the concert scenes are undeniable.
Here’s a question: what do you think of this year’s onslaught of biopics (The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, Unbroken, Get On Up)? If a film’s historical subject is fascinating, can you accept the film’s cliches? Or does this genre’s Oscar-baiting conventionality need to be shaken up?
Flick: Like all genres, I feel like the outcome is more dependent on the filmmakers talent than whether or not they’re helming a sci-fi, comedy, or biopic. The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game were two that I felt really worked. They had directors (James Marsh and Morten Tyldum) who approached these people’s (Stephen Hawking and Alan Turing) lives with genuine emotion. At the end of the day, what makes or breaks a biopic is the actor in the lead role. If the actor fully immerses themselves into the character, making us believe they are that character, the film typically works. If they make a half-hearted attempt and aren’t believable, the film tends to collapse. (Get On Up is an exception; Boseman’s performance was phenomenal, the film not so funky.) Eddie Redmayne perfectly embodied Stephen Hawking’s brilliant, disabled self. Meanwhile, Benedict Cumberbatch slid right into the tortured soul of Turing, making us sympathize with the tormented genius.
Apart from these three, which I think were really the three most talked about biopics (in part because of their similarities) of the year, I didn’t get a chance to see Big Eyes, Mr. Turner, or Unbroken. I don’t see it as a trend that needs to stop, it’s really just the classification of films that follow the lives of historical figures. The one thing I do think should stop, however, is the cradle-to-grave technique. Get On Up’s use of it really hurt the film, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game’s choice to not use it helped them out. By honing in on a certain period of the person’s life, filmmakers are really allowed more freedom to relax the pace of their film. They have less ground to cover, and more room to explore a singular event significant enough to warrant an entire film.
The next topic I want to delve into is the Oscars. All end of year discussions aren’t really complete without some mention of the golden statuette and you and I certainly have some opinions. Asides from what you mentioned in your highly informative post (read it if you haven’t!), what can you tell me about February 22nd’s big night?
Flack: Sorry to be anti-climactic, but I have to respond to your thoughts on biopics. I disagree that “if the actor fully immerses themselves into the character making us believe they are that character, the film typically works”. This year’s biopics (Get On Up, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game) featured believable, committed, Oscar-worthy performances but tired direction lacking true depth or artistry. Theory and Imitation had fascinating stories and great acting, but the politely polished style of directors Marsh and Tydlum felt anything but original. Paradoxically, I found both films engrossing and enjoyable films despite those flaws; my immediate emotional reaction was a positive one. Only looking back, do I notice the lack of a personal stamp from either filmmaker.
And the Oscars? The Academy’s failure to recognize Selma in a few major categories has been met with heaps of media attention, and (for the most part) rightly so. But we should also notice, and applaud, their widespread recognition of indie films. Besides typical Oscar bait like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, movies like Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Birdman, and frontrunner Boyhood got lots of love. That indie-loving attitude was a nice surprise. That said, I was shocked Life Itself, Steve James’ poignant tribute to and examination of Roger Ebert, was left out of the Best Documentary category. Another big snub, in the animation category, was The Lego Movie. Neither of us loved that film as much as most; can you elaborate on your opinion? Any other Oscar thoughts?
Flick: I’ll start with my thoughts on The Lego Movie. According to Rotten Tomatoes, the faulty but usually trustworthy critic’s consensus website, the movie was the 3rd best reviewed film of the year with a 96% “fresh” rating. The almost unanimously positive praise came out of nowhere and it surprised me enough to go see the film. While I can’t say I completely didn’t like the film, it certainly didn’t even near the great Pixar films, such as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo. That being said, the film certainly did have it’s fair share of laugh-out-loud moments, pop culture references, and recognizable actors’ voiceovers, to keep it highly entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend seeing it instead of some of the other fantastic films of the year, but to truly review the year in film it is an important one to watch.
The rest of the Oscars? This year has just the right mix of predictable and surprising nominations to make the show interesting. The Best Picture category doesn’t have any real surprises other than the fact that it is the first year, during the Academy’s 5-10 nominee rule, there have not been nine nominees (there are eight). Surprises? Steve Carell in Foxcatcher for Best Actor, Marion Cotillard in for Best Actress, Song of the Sea (see it at the PCFF!) over The Lego Movie for Best Animated Film, and Foxcatcher’s Bennett Miller for Best Director.
In terms of the show itself, Neil Patrick Harris certainly has the chops after hosting the Tony’s for three consecutive years. Plus, it’s the Oscars. Anything can happen…Right?
Flack: Many complain about the Oscars. They favor big movies! They favor small movies! Only old people watch them! Why are they pandering to a younger audience? And so on and so on. But there’s something about the show’s distinctly old-school-Hollywood devotion to glitz, glamour, and gold statues that’s irresistible, if only to argue over and criticize. I, for one, will be watching on February 22.
Besides the films themselves, 2014 was marked by drama, tragedy, and surprise. Early in the year, news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was spread, and during summer, that of Robin WIlliams’. Obituaries seemed to flood the film world, more so than in most years. It was a year of often great cinema, but the movies took a few painful blows too.
And who could forget the drama (which seems to have died down quicker than it sprang up) surrounding the Seth Rogen and James Franco buddy comedy The Interview, which was pulled from theaters after threats from North Korea?
Now we must answer the question we’ve been tiptoeing over since this conversation began: What’s the best/your favorite movie of the year? I’ll start. As expected, my choices are both personal, as well as over-analyzed and critiqued. So…here goes.
For me, there were two 2014 films that stood above the rest. My second favorite of the year is Whiplash, Damien Chazelle’s breathless and relentless jazz drumming drama about a college musician (Miles Teller) facing a nasty, psychologically abusive teacher (J.K. Simmons). Chazelle, only a second time director, made one of the year’s most technically precise pieces of cinematic artistry: the cinematography, editing, and music flow together to create suspense, confusion, and atmosphere. The film is as exact and meticulous as the drumming Teller’s character practices. But at the movie’s heart lies a thoughtful, psychologically murky examination of artistic perfection, and how much one is willing to sacrifice to reach such heights.
My favorite film of the year, however, is Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age journey Boyhood. Shot over 12 years with the same cast, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he ages from 7 to 18, going from first grade to the first day of college, as he transforms from cute video-gamer slacker to thoughtful and loquacious photographer. As many have noted, the film would’ve been noteworthy even if it hadn’t been this good. Luckily, it’s even better than good. Linklater follows up on his brilliant premise with a little movie that feels big, or an epic that feels intimate. By capturing the seemingly insignificant parts of Mason’s life (haircuts, graffiti escapades, new houses, wide-ranging conversation), he stitches together a quilt of moments that sum up the joy, the awkwardness, the disappointment, the rebellion, the love, and the ordinary normality of boyhood, and also girlhood, and adulthood, and life. The wonderfully natural performances (Coltrane as Mason; Lorelei Linklater as his irritating sister; Patricia Arquette as their struggling single mom; and Ethan Hawke as their divorced slacker dad) are a joy to watch, not just because seeing them grow up and age on screen is a profound experience. The four lead actors capture the flaws and eccentricities of their characters and, by the time the film’s done, we feel like we’ve known them for 12 years.
Linklater, with his subdued, nimble direction, isn’t interested in visually daring imagery or cinematic showiness (though we do get some effortless tracking shots). He’s fascinated by the average struggles of life, the fleeting nature of time, and the cumulative effect of childhood. He’s got a canny, perceptive ear for two-person conversation, a savvy take on pop culture and it’s effect on our lives, and a delicate understanding of how a child’s influences shape them into the adult they will become. Ultimately, the power of Boyhood is too sophisticated for overused headline-adjectives (Incredible! A Once-In-a-Lifetime Experience! Dazzling!), which I, admittedly, may have overused in my original review. But Boyhood is nothing if not a deeply moving experience that inspires an outburst of feelings. Yet Linklater touches something deeper, something honest, something universal yet hyper-specific. I’m still not sure what that is. Is it his ability to put the passing of time right in front of our eyes? Is it his careful examination of a boy, and his family, and all the other important people in his life? Is it his fascination with little moments, rather than big milestones? After seeing Boyhood at the theater, I couldn’t wait to repeat the experience, and, when I finally saw the film again a few days ago, I realized this is the kind of the movie that I’ll want to return to again and again over the years. Perhaps my view of it will change over time, as I grow up. Perhaps I will uncover the mysteries and meanings of the film, as I age. But I know this: Boyhood is a special little movie, a masterpiece of the everyday. Watching it, a huge smile spread across my face; later, I was nearly moved to tears. I’m not sure I’ve seen a film that had such fly-on-the-wall realism. It does so in a way only movies can achieve, using the capabilities of cinema in unique ways that highlight the ordinariness of our lives. The closing shot is perfect, because it is both complete and open-ended. After three fleeting hours, I was hungry for more. Isn’t that the highest achievement a movie can make?
Flick: At least the highest a film this year did; I, too, was deeply moved by Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, also my favorite film of the year. Hearing the film summed up as “a groundbreaking film, twelve years in the making” tends to lead to overly-hyped disappointment. But it’s true: Linklater has crafted a film so titanic in ambition, yet so flawless in execution. The result is 2 hours and 46 minutes of a filmmaker at his best. Without a doubt the most important time I spent in the theater this year, the film’s greatest strength is it’s ability to feel so real. By combining the real-life experiences of his cast and crew with his own recollection of growing up in Texas, the film feels more true to life than most.
At the center of the film is Ellar Coltrane, a nonprofessional who comes across as anything but. His Mason Jr. is a patchwork of what it means to be a boy growing up and he grows from child to adolescent, teenager to man. Coltrane is aided by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who plays his sister. Patricia Arquette is Mason’s mom, struggling to raise her two children while avoiding (or gravitating towards) abusive husbands. Ethan Hawke is Mason Sr., the out-of-the-picture dad who is trying to reconnect with his wife and kids.
Like you, I was deeply touched by the sometimes brutal frankness of which Linklater imbues this story. It is rough-around-the-edges in a way that feels natural and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. When the film drew to a close, after 12 years or a little over 2 ½ hours, I was just about sure that no other film would move me the way Linklater’s sprawling, ambiguous, and remarkable heck of a film did. And I was right.
Although there were certainly some other great films, even if they didn’t near Boyhood’s brilliance. My second favorite film of the year is Birdman. The experience of watching it was similar to Boyhood, in that it felt so new and fresh. Unlike Boyhood, Birdman didn’t span 12 years-but it did span one seamless take. Emmanuel Lubezki, the visionary cinematographer behind The Tree of Life and Gravity, brought his idiosyncratic knack for framing scenes with sheer style. He can film a conversation scene like no one else can; no shot-reverse-shot here. Instead, he follows the characters as they bounce from stage to street and bar to sky.
The story is equally intriguing: Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) aims to restart his career with a Broadway play, years after his famed Birdman films. But when he calls in popular actor Mike Shriner (Edward Norton), things get complicated. It’s all helmed with impeccable precision by Alejandro Gonzaález Inñártitu. The ending, in particular, is especially ambivalent and much discussed. But that’s what makes the film so great: it’s different, it’s daring, and it’s pretty darn good.
With the year behind us and 2015 already in full swing, what can we expect this year? A few films I’m personally looking forward to: Tomorrowland, Macbeth, and, possibly more so than anything in recent memory, Star Wars: Episode VII. Let’s hope the force is as strong with this year as it was with last.
Here are our top five favorite films of the year. In order! (Take that you cop-out alphabetical sorters!)
Flick’s Top Five
5. We Are The Best!
Flack’s Top Five
5. The Wind Rises
Posted on | January 15, 2015 | 3 Comments
When I first scrolled through the list of nominees for the 87th Academy Awards, I reacted with a “Whaaaat?”. Boy, were there were surprises abound. In the hours after the big announcement, the film world has been buzzing most about what wasn’t nominated, not what was. But while there were some eye-brow raising, disappointing, maybe even crushing snubs, there were also plenty of predictable but well-deserved nominations. Of the 11 categories I predicted, I was right about 42 out of 58 nominees; a fine, if imperfect, number. As always, everyone was left with a lot to talk about, and debate, defend, critique, argue over, and theorize about. Below, five big takeaways.
1. The Best Picture Category May Be The Least Surprising
Of the eight films that garnered Best Picture nominations, I had forecasted all (Boyhood, Birdman, Selma, The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Theory of Everything, and Whiplash) but one (American Sniper). So, what happened with Sniper? Presumably, the older male demographic of the Academy (isn’t that everybody?) really loved the Clint Eastwood war drama, despite tepid critics reviews. Still, Foxcatcher‘s lack of a nomination was a surprise, especially since it fared well elsewhere. And Gone Girl seemed to have a pretty fair shot (alas, Unbroken couldn’t deliver on it’s early frontrunner status). But enough nitpicking. The rest of the bunch was a foreseeable but merited, fairly eclectic group. The Academy deserves at least one “Bravo!” right there.
2. It’s a Good Year You’re an Audacious Indie Auteur…
Despite the love for British biopics, The Theory of Everything and The Imitation Game, the Academy reaffirmed it’s recently developed penchant for (relatively) low-budget feats of filmmaking artistry. Here’s proof: Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel scored nine nominations (largest tally for any film) while the current frontrunner, Boyhood, got six (in just every category it was expected to get nominated for). Budapest‘s beloved Wes Anderson scored his first Best Director nomination, while Foxcatcher’s Bennet Miller beat out Clint Eastwood in the same category (and Foxcatcher wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture!). Whiplash‘s five nominations, along with some esoteric surprises in other categories, were other examples of the Oscar’s newfound and refreshing indie sensibility.
3. But If You Made That Biopic That Wasn’t About a Brainy British Scientist…Sorry
Selma. Selma. SELMA!!!??? That was the general consensus from Twitter, which was set ablaze by Selma‘s surprising snubs. Though the MLK biopic did receive nominees for Best Picture and Song (no complaints there), director Ava DuVernay and lead actor David Oyelowo were missing in their categories. Why? Three possible answers. First and most importantly, yeah, there may be more than a little racism and sexism in the Academy, or at least some passé views on gender and race. Secondly, Paramount’s decision to only hand out screener copies to the Oscars coupled with the LBJ historical backlash may have had a negatively cumulative effect on the film, despite the trifling ridiculousness of both. And lastly, it is possible some voters liked other movies better (subjective taste is a thing). Unfortunately, we’re left with a great movie made by and about black people mysteriously passed over.
4. Snubs, Snubs, Everywhere!
Aside from Selma, there were some shocks in smaller categories, chiefly in the Best Animated and Documentary fields. In the former, unquestioned frontrunner The LEGO Movie was M.I.A., while Roger Ebert doc Life Itself was also left out. Both films were beloved by pretty much all who saw them, and got some of the more glowing reviews of the year. Little explanation there. French drama Force Majuere was left out of Best Foreign Film, while the acting categories included some unexpected nominees: Foxcatcher‘s Steve Carrell, American Sniper‘s Bradley Cooper, Two Days, One Night‘s Marion Cotillard, and Wild‘s Laura Dern. That said, I forecasted Inherent Vice‘s Adapted Screenplay nod when few others did.
5. And Take a Deep Breath Everybody
It’s hard not to be disappointed by some of the big snubs. But people laugh at the Oscars all year long…and then get upset when the nominees are as white and male as ever? Yes, Selma should’ve gotten more nominations. But the Oscars aren’t stopping anyone from seeing Ava DuVernay’s film. Go ahead, criticize the Oscars (and they do deserve criticism). But more importantly, go see Selma, and all the other films that were left out. Good movies are good movies, with or without awards recognition.
Posted on | January 11, 2015 | 4 Comments
A riveting chronicle of suppressed anger, unbelievable bravery, and shocking racism, Ava DuVernay’s Selma uses a momentous moment in history to tell the story of a man’s entire life, and of a country’s ceaseless struggle. Rather than make a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic, DuVernay has distilled the essence of MLK into a finely crafted historical film that’s almost necessary viewing after the racial violence of the past year. It’s the story of the Dream in action.
Selma starts with a shot of the face of Martin Luther King Jr., centered and staring straight at us. He’s preparing his acceptance speech for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. He’s honored by the award, but less than satisfied with the progress being made. Racism still lies deep in the hearts of many whites, especially Southerners. By law, blacks are allowed to vote, but King knows that rule isn’t affecting anything. He confronts Lyndon B. Johnson, who’s understanding at best, indifferent at worst. Something must be done, King demands, and “it cannot wait”. But it must, Johnson tells him. And so King and a group of fellow activists, friends, and SNCC members rally for a series of marches in the heart of bigoted America: Selma, Alabama. It’s a final, collective push for black voting rights everywhere.
Director DuVernay, who took over the project when Lee Daniels dropped out to make The Butler, has done an astounding job at narrowing down the essentials of the Civil Rights movement into a cohesive but intricately detailed two-hour film. Though the filmmakers weren’t allowed to use King’s original speeches, the speeches DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb have written feel as thoughtful and authentic as the real stuff. The script manages to fit in a whole bunch of history , fromicons (Malcolm X, J. Edgar Hoover) to pivotal moments in the lead-up to the marches (the Birmingham bombing, the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson). But more crucially, Selma is Selma, not King. The Selma marches were a result of cunning strategics and unknowable courage made possible by blacks daring to dream, as well as whites who knew this effort needed every man and woman willing to help. When the first march (called Bloody Sunday) does come, and it sure hits hard, it’s all the more powerful because we have seen the work it took to get there- the brunch meetings, the late night phone-calls, the perfecting of speeches, the gathering of men and women from all around. Selma is a film that rarely glosses over the details, and instead shows us what these men and women were willing to sacrifice. In this sense, it’s not unlike Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which showed us the intricacies of political meetings and manipulation leading up to a momentous historical triumph.
And just as Daniel Day-Lewis found the humanity in the myth, Selma gives us with Martin Luther King Jr. the hard-worker, rather than the dreamer. After tiny parts in huge films, David Oyelowo makes the jump to serious leading man. He slips into MLK, inhabiting the role in just about every way. Physically, he’s got it all down: the portly physique, the refined mustache, that accent. But he also gets to the heart of the man’s struggle for racial equality. King wants change, but he’s not sure how far he’s willing to go. He wants “massive demonstrations”, but is it worth it if his dear friends and colleagues are killed in the process? Oyelowo isn’t afraid to delve into King’s personal troubles, either. In one uncomfortable scene, his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) confronts him over allegations of infidelity. “Do you love me? Have you loved another woman?”, she questions. It’s a big dramatic moment, but Oyelowo underplays it, with long pauses of silence.
Unlike some biopics, Selma is a true ensemble film. Standouts include Stephan James as SNCC member John Lewis; Colman Domingo as Ralph Abernathy, one of MLK’s closest friends; and Keith Stanfield as the doomed activist Jimmie Lee Jackson. And there are brief, fine, slightly distracting cameos from Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., and Martin Sheen.
I’ve offered nothing but praise for Selma so far, but DuVernay makes a few missteps. The Birmingham bombing scene starts with some genuine hair-style chit-chat between the girls, but then becomes an overblown, slo-motion explosion. And there are a few moments, particularly early on, with some stagey acting and typical biopic politeness. But these are minor quibbles with a vital film, bursting with life. There are several impeccably moving scenes: King calling up Mahalia Jackson to hear her sing; the Bloody Sunday march sequence; the final speech.
Visually, the film is an atmospheric beauty. Cinematographer Bradford Young gives the whole film a warm haze, the prison scenes are lit with a shadowy sorrow, and the marching sequences are a chaotic collage of violence. But you don’t go to Selma for the visuals. You go because King’s call for equality across all color lines couldn’t be more meaningful right now. We are reminded of how far we’ve come, but also of the progress we still have to make. We imagine the day when the whole world wakes up to reality and realizes that dream. As John Legend sings over the credits:
One day, when the glory comes
It will be ours, it will be ours
Oh, one day, when the war is won
We will be sure, we will be here sure
Oh, glory, glory
Oh, glory, glory
Posted on | January 8, 2015 | 1 Comment
As soon as the bloggers and journalists of awards-season finished analyzing (and retweeting) the 2014 Oscar broadcast, they began speculating about next year’s potential nominees (Jersey Boys? Big Eyes?). A lot has changed since then, with the aforementioned films falling short of expectations and some smaller films stealthily sneaking to the front of the pack. There’s been an excess of who-cares mini-controversies (op-eds bemoaning historical inaccuracies, category-placement confusions, straight-up obnoxious Twitter outbursts), while journalists squeeze out every headline they can. Film writers have called this year’s crop of contenders smaller than usual, but they’re far from correct. Sure, some categories are easy to call, but the Best Picture race still leaves plenty of opportunities for snubs and shocks. Unlike profesional Oscar pundits, I haven’t seen every film, overheard industry whispering, or attended any cast-and-crew luncheons. But after much copying-and-pasting, fact-checking, and second-guessing, I’ve come up with my predictions for the major categories, with the nominees ranked in order of likeliness.
A Note: During the past three years, the Academy has allowed five to ten films to be nominated, and nine has been the magic number each time. Deciding how many films will snag noms this time is sheer speculation, so I’ve listed ten.
4. The Imitation Game
6. The Theory of Everything
7. The Grand Budapest Hotel
8. Gone Girl
Drawing on the consensus of critics, box-office data, other Oscar experts’ picks, nominations from other awards-groups with overlapping voter-bodies, and my own forecasting, these are the ten films that have the best shot at a nom. Looking closely, my picks can be divided into debatably hyper-specific groups. At the front of the race are three films: coming-of-age journey Boyhood, showy show-business dramedy Birdman, and M.L.K. drama Selma. There’s no chance those films won’t get nominated. To a lesser extent, the same can be said about a duo of beloved indies (Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel) and two period biopics (The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything). It’s the last three remaining spots spots that get tricky. Gone Girl (a populist pick voters can feel good about) and Foxcatcher, two relatively divisive early-fall psychological thrillers, should get in there.
Unbroken and American Sniper, two true-stories of war bravery released on Christmas, will be duking it out for the tenth spot. Many critics have been calling Bradley Cooper’s lead performance the best thing about Sniper, but it’s difficult to imagine him getting nominated in that busy field. That, coupled with liberal voters wary of director Clint “Empty Chair” Eastwood, will weaken the film’s chances. That gives the edge to Unbroken, which despite negative reviews, can be called two of the Academy’s favorite adjectives: “tough-to-watch” and “crowd-pleasing”. If one of those two doesn’t make it, an under-the-radar arthouse pic (Nightcrawler or Mr. Turner) or a Hollywood epic (Interstellar or Into The Woods) could sneak in. But don’t count on it. I’ll stand by my ten picks.
1. Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
2. Alejandro G. Inarritu (Birdman)
3. Ava DuVernay (Selma)
4. Damien Chazelle (Whiplash)
5. Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
1. Michael Keaton (Birdman)
2. Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
3. Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
4. David Oyelowo (Selma)
5. Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
1. Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
2. Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
3. Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
4. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
5. Jennifer Aniston (Cake)
Best Supporting Actor:
1. J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)
2. Edward Norton (Birdman)
3. Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
4. Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
5. Miyavi (Unbroken)
Best Supporting Actress:
1. Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
2. Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
3. Emma Stone (Birdman)
4. Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
5. Jessica Chaistain (A Most Violent Year)
Best Adapted Screenplay:
1. The Imitation Game (Graham Moore)
2. Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn)
3. Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)
4. The Theory of Everything (Anthony McCarten)
5. Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Best Original Screenplay:
1. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
2. Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, and Armando Bo)
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness)
4. Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)
5. Selma (Paul Webb)
Best Animated Feature:
1. The LEGO Movie
2. Big Hero 6
3. How To Train Your Dragon 2
4. The Tale of Princess Kaguya
5. Song of the Sea
Best Foreign Language Film:
1. Ida (Poland)
2. Leviathan (Russia)
3. Force Majure (Sweeden)
4. Wild Tales (Argentina)
5. Tangerines (Georgia)
Best Documentary Feature:
2. Life Itself
3. Keep On Keeping’ On
4. The Overnighters
5. Last Days in Vietnam
And those are my choices for eleven of the twenty-four Oscar categories. Tune in on January 15 for the announcement. One week to go…
Posted on | January 4, 2015 | Add Comments
Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s inconceivable based-on-a-true-story tale of WWII heroism and endurance, isn’t flawless but even it’s detractors must admit it is an indisputably wrenching epic. Jolie does fall into the cliche-pitfalls that plague the inspiring-biopic genre, but the film leaves a lasting sting that can’t be ignored.
It’s fitting that Unbroken opens with wonder that quickly dissolves into violence. The first shot, which begins with a lovely sky suitable for framing, is the start of a nerve-wracking plane battle that plunges us into World War II combat. For most of the men aboard these aircrafts, this is more than enough horror to endure. But one of the American bombardiers, Louis Zamperini, the film’s subject, is only beginning his story.
Interspersed with this jolting action set-piece are flashbacks to Zamperini’s conflicts with kid-bullies and police as a young Italian immigrant growing up in California. He’s hopeless and helpless, until his older brother gives him some inspiring encouragement. After that, he puts his liquor-swilling, money-swiping shenanigans aside, and commits himself to being a runner. By age 19, he’s achieving impossible feats of athleticism at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Later, at war, one of his plane’s crashes and he finds himself at sea, accompanied only by two fellow survivors, a few pieces of chocolate, and an ocean of sharks. 47 days later, help comes in the form of hell. Taken to a Tokyo P.O.W. camp, he’s beaten, bruised, and bullied by Watanabe, a barbarous guard known as “The Bird”. All the sweaty triumph of his youth is knocked out of him. “You are nothing” he is told.
“Stranger than fiction” only begins to describe the implausibility, inspiring story of Louis Zamperini (enough material for three films). Jolie and her screenwriters, adapting from Lauren Hillenbrand’s best-selling biography, were wise to focus on the most eventful decade of his life. Of course, all that running, fighting, enduring, and triumphing leads to the expected moments of swelling orchestral heart-tugging and brotherly words of wisdom, and the early scenes suffer especially from some expected triteness. The running sequences, while exciting, are devoid of any danger, and the slightly ridiculous Olympics scene has an unauthentic CGI gloss. Once Zamperini moves past his pre-teen mischief, Jolie finds little imperfections to show us in the character. And the final scene, meanwhile, ends on an overly positive note.
As a director, Jolie has a tough time avoiding conventionality though her filmmaking style is admiringly old-fashioned, brawny and sincere in ways that recall classic Hollywood tales of heroism. Yet it’s hard to imagine a 1940′s film with prisoner-camp scenes of such bitter brutality and unflinching power. Much criticism has been heaped upon the scenes of Zamperini taking a beating, and then another and another. It’s a hard thing to critique. Zamperini suffered through a few years of being tortured and we spend a couple hours watching a movie-version of his ordeal from the comfort of our comfy, cushioned seats. I think Jolie’s inclusion of such extensive scenes of savagery is an attempt to make us feel a smidgen of what Zamperini felt, and she might’ve worried that couldn’t have been achieved with tamer, shorter scenes of violence. Ultimately, the 140 minute Unbroken is overlong, not in specific scenes but as a tiring, weakening whole.
Though it wouldn’t have hurt to have include some witty intelligence to even out the violence (what were the Coen brothers waiting for when they re-wrote the script?), there is much to admire. Jolie is as capable with tension-escalating action scenes as any seasoned male helmer, as proved by the rousing war set-pieces. But, amidst the not-too-amusing crew quipping, she also places in moments of uneasy apprehension to combat. And the sea-set scenes, which recall the recent Kon-Tiki and Life of Pi, are some of the most moving, thoughtful, and cleverly constructed in the whole movie. That’s due in no small part to cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose forceful frames beautifully capture the transition from sun-dappled optimism to watery isolation and later grimy gloom.
Jack O’Connell’s performance as Louis Zamperini, his first Hollywood lead after a few acclaaimed British dramas, has the charisma, grit, and sentimentality the role calls for. It’s a brazenly physical performance and we watch in awe as his taut physique, slick hair, and dumfounded smile fade away. The bones weaken, a beard grows messily, and his gaze loses it’s former spirit. But sheer commitment aside, O’Connell impresses most with his sheer acting chops. He’s cocky and troublesome, then thoughtful and tough, and eventually weak and frail and faded. Miyavi, as the vicious “Bird”, succeeds at getting us to plain hate him, without turning into an inane caricature. As Zamperini’s fellow survivors, Domnhall Gleason, Garret Hedlund, and Finn Witrock, bring heart-rending humanity to their vital roles.
Unbroken may be prolonged and predictably made, but Jolie’s unflagging commitment to this vast, incredible true story largely pays off. At once a predictably traditional Hollywood epic and a wrenching, undeniably powerful film of pulsing immediacy, it is an imperfect but inordinately affecting accomplishment.
Posted on | January 2, 2015 | 1 Comment
I traveled into the woods with a different perspective than some. I had never seen the play and was not familiar with Sondheim at all, other than knowing who he was. But, the story? The characters in the film read like a “best of” of fantasy storybooks, all conceived by the Brothers Grimm. Rapunzel, Jack (and his beanstalk), Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and more all come together. So why did Sondheim throw them all together into one big interwoven fairytale that is a musical, a tragedy, a romance, and a comedy? I’m not sure why, but 29 years ago he did. Now Rob Marshall, returning from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a massive flop, is back in his comfort zone with a big, showy musical.
He’s brought along quite the dramatis personæ, too. The compact cast makes up for it’s size in strength. Nearly every one of them contributes a memorable moment to this memorable ensemble. You won’t forget Lila Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood’s duet with Johnny Depp as The Wolf, nor will you forget Chris Pine’s pipes in “Agony”. (Depp is the weakest leak of the cast. While he is as entertaining as ever, he’s still playing the same role he’s been redoing since the first Pirates.) Meryl Streep apparently has another trick up her sleeve left and this one comes in the form of surprisingly high notes. Streep’s “Stay With Me” is quite good for an actress who is now 70, but the creepy fingernails, wretched face, and blue hair she inhabits and pervades the way she does all of her characters, are sublime.
There are so many central characters, so many plot lines, so many starts and stops that the film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Somehow, Marshall has managed to cram all of the storylines together with the help of James Lapine’s, who also co-wrote the play, tight script. At just over 2 hours, the film never really stops. One scene involving the Wolf seducing Little Red Riding Hood segues into another involving the Baker and his Wife arguing over who should go (you guessed it) into the woods. While not all of the storylines are strong as the others, they all collide into one another so often that if Johnny Depp’s Wolf is all too familiar, Meryl Streep’s high notes will be sure to show up in the next scene.
The film is not without it’s faults. It doesn’t really know who it’s for and Marshall can’t decide whether he wants a full on musical or a much more safe Disney moneymaker. Is the film for young Disney princess toddlers? No, not really. Is it for Sondheim enthusiasts? Maybe, but it’s not entirely faithful. Is it for Depp and Streep fans? Possibly. In the end, it’s really for all of these people and maybe that’s a good thing. A mix of these groups did see the film and placed it at #2 at the Box Office, hopeful to those looking for something more original and not involving dwarves or red haired girls.
As I sat in the theater watching trailer upon trailer, a preview for the new Cinderella played. As I watched the following film, it dawned on me that these characters have been reworked multiple times in very recent years to varying degrees. Jack the Giant Slayer in 2013, Red Riding Hood in 2011, Tangled in 2010, and more have reimagined these characters over and over, with no end in sight. The Cinderella trailer only reassured me that Hollywood’s obsession with rehashing every franchise possible, especially Disney, will continue to cascade down on those looking for more thoughtful cinema.
While it may not exactly be “thoughtful cinema”, Into the Woods does achieve what few would have guessed, myself included, and that is being crowd-pleasing, while thoroughly well-done at the same time. What the film achieves so wonderfully is it’s ability to dodge the stereotypes that chase down so many films produced by Disney and the like. In subverting the clichés of the genre, Into the Woods achieves something less and less fantasy films of recent years have: It is a fantasy in the true sense of the word. Who would have guessed that Marshall and his team would be brave enough to embrace the grim side of the Brothers Grimm while also imbuing their film with some seriously funny scenes? Not me.
Posted on | January 1, 2015 | 1 Comment
Big Night is a humble but delectably sumptuous indie. Directed by actors Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott with a fierce passion for culture and cooking, it’s about the communal joys of a large meal, as well as the creative conundrums chefs face. Genial and suspenseful, though slightly overcooked, it’s a filmmaking feast too delightful to miss.
With a script by Stanley Tucci and Joseph Tropiano, the film (released in 1996, streaming on Netflix) is based around an intriguing central concept that builds and builds and then, almost like theater, plays out with a group of characters in a single setting. It’s 1950′s New Jersey, and two Italian immigrant brothers have conflicting views on their failing family restaurant. Sensible but unsatisfied Secondo (Stanley Tucci) has just talked with his banker, who’s posed an offer: if he doesn’t pay his debts by the end of a month, the restaurant closes. But his brother Primo (Tony Shaloub), the chef, is unwilling to compromise his cooking. When an American customer unhappy with her risotto requests spaghetti and meatballs as a side, Primo refuses. They don’t serve meatballs, and risotto doesn’t go well with spaghetti anyway.
Still, something has to be done. Well-connect restaurant competitor Pascal (Ian Holm) asks Secondo if he’d like Louis Prima, who’s coming to town, to dine at the restaurant for a publicity boost. He agrees, and Secondo and Primo gamble it all on one big night. Everyone’s invited: Secondo’s girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver), Primo’s flower-designer crush (Allison Janney), a persuasive car dealer (Campbell Scott), Pascal, and just about everyone else in the movie. Of course, there are complications: while Primo toils away on timpano pasta, Secondo lusts after fancy cars and cheats with Pascal’s wife, Gabriella (Isabella Rossellini). It’s only food, sure, but everything’s at risk.
The film’s central conflict (creative perfection at odds with the hard facts of life: money, changing tastes, competitors) will be all too familiar for artists, and plenty fascinating for everyone else. Secondo, with his relunctant business sense, seems like the sane one, but there’s something about Primo’s exacting love for the food of his home that’s utterly persuasive. It’s helpful that both actors seem indistinguishable from their characters: Tucci makes Secondo, practical in his work but less so in his personal life, a living, breathing protagonist. And Shaloub captures the tragedy of the Primo character: his aversion to change, his love for Italy, his difficult-to-watch perfectionism. The other actors have less complex roles, but still imbue their characters with personality and humanity (Scott’s deadpan wit; Rossellini’s subtle mix of anger and caring; Holm’s wild, deceptive charisma) .
Tucci and Scott are, for the most part, fine filmmakers. They’re old-fashioned storytellers with an understanding of and fascination with the most primal and complex parts of life (food, family, art, work, love), they get all-around terrific performances from an ensemble cast, and have a spot-on ear for jazz in film. Working with cinematographer Ken Kelsch, they create a look that’s both gorgeously delicate and boldly crisp. They employ long takes that last minutes to capture the ongoing pressure of the kitchen and the free-flowing beauty of the town. And then, for the dinner scene, they unleash a fabulous flurry of cuts and camera angles that capture the surprise, satisfaction, and pure joy of the final meal.
Like it’s characters, and the meal’s outcome, Big Night is not faultless. Tucci and Scott raise the story’s stakes higher and higher throughout the film, until the beach-set finale shows the melodramatic strains in the script (actors doing something operatic…who’da thunk?). It’s like a perfect dinner that ends with climaxes overdone last course…but finishes with a terrific dessert.
The final scene of Big Night, a near-wordless one-take five minute sequence too good to ruin, is an understated encapsulation of everything the film is about. Al dente.
Posted on | December 30, 2014 | Add Comments
For many, the holiday season means ample time for movie viewing at home and, in our digital world of always-on screens, on Netflix. Two teen classics from the 1980′s prime of writer-director John Hughes - The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – are streaming now, but only one is worth your time.
The Breakfast Club will turn 30 years old in two months, but, to the eyes of this thirteen year-old, the film’s biting humor, soul-bearing honesty, and wonderful ear for teen talk pack an uproarious, tear-jerking punch on first viewing. The film opens, along with the thumping drums and yearning vocals of Simple Mind’s hopelessly, delightfully cheesy “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”, with Anthony Michael Hall’s voice-over: “You see us as you want to see us…In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed.” For the rest of the film’s pensive but goofy 97 minutes, the five students (nerdy but wounded Brian (Anthony Michael Hall); pressured jock Andrew (Emilio Estevez); lying loner Allison (Ally Sheedy), beloved rich kid Claire (Molly Ringwald), and rebellious delinquent Bender (Judd Nelson) perpetuate and then shatter these stereotypes during an 8-hour Saturday detention. They’re forced to write a 1,000 word essay, but they end up doing anything but. The kids get high, tell lies, wander the hallways (and the ceilings), share their deepest secrets, and wonder…when they come back to school on Monday, will anything be different?
For a star-studded Hollywood comedy, this is deep, dark, low-key stuff. The film, which revolves around five characters talking, owes much of it’s success to writer-director John Hughes’ fresh, authentic, insightful, and hilarious dialogue (legend has it he wrote the script in two days). What he lacks in cinematic style, he certainly makes up for with his singular, distinctive voice.
Luckily, he also found the right actors to bring that voice to the screen. The ensemble cast of budding Brat Packers have a surprising knack of comic timing, a keen sense of affecting but not sappy sentimentality, and genuine chemistry. The cast takes Hughes’ vibrantly written characters and gives them faces: Michael Hall and his injured geekiness; Estevez with his misleading shield of athletic strength; the unpredictable bizarreness of Sheedy; Ringwald and her privileged warmth; and, of course, Nelson’s teasing, alarming, utterly confident stare.
For some, the kids may be too anti-authoritarian, or the humor too crude, or the film too sappy. But, for me, Hughes hits just one sour note (spoilers follow). In the final minutes of the film, Ally Sheedy’s Allison gets a makeup makeover from Claire; her dandruffy, Gothic strangeness dissolves into smiley lipstick gloss. She walks over to Estevez’s Andrew (who’s only talked with her briefly during the film) and he’s blown away, completely speechless. Kudos to Hughes for not predictably coupling up Estevez and Ringwald, but this spur-of-the-moment scene is at best a last-minute stretch, and at worst a way of telling teen girls: you’re not pretty if you don’t look like everyone else.
Everything great about The Breakfast Club (the cast, the dialogue, the humor, the heart) reaches a deeply poignant, but hysterically funny, high during the soul-bearing finale, as the five kids admit their reasons for getting detention. It’s a scene of heartbreaking confessions, but also riotously vulgar humor, and the actors improvised it!
The unpredictable comedy and honest emotion of The Breakfast Club is sorely missing from John Hughes’ cutesy, meaningless 1986 comedy Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. How has this shallow, trivial, largely not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is film achieved “modern classic” status? If you haven’t seen the film in a while, you may be questioning me. But the memories of over-nostalgic Gen-Xers shouldn’t cloud judgement of a film. A movie should be critiqued based on how it holds up today. By those standards, why are we even talking about Ferris Bueller?
“Bueller…Bueller…Bueller?” a dull high school teacher asks in a monotone voice. But Ferris Bueller is, of course, is sick. Well, not really sick. He’s tricked his doting, rich parents into letting him stay home for the day. And what a day he’s planned… After he picks up his troubled best friend Cameron and loving girlfriend Sloane, the trio embark on a series of wealthy adventures: speeding around in the pristine Ferrari of Cameron’s father; visiting a museum of fine art; eating at the fanciest restaurant in town; crashing a downtown parade; and evading the school’s scheming principal, Edward Rooney.
Honestly, the stakes couldn’t be lower, the characters couldn’t be simpler, and the story couldn’t be more banal, obvious, and unexciting. While The Breakfast Club was something of a social commentary on the American teenager, Hughes doesn’t seem to have anything to say here, except “Enjoy life, do expensive things, and avoid anything remotely difficult or demanding.”
The movie coasts by on Mathew Broderick’s assured, nonchalant charm. He’s completely convincing as Ferris: careless, likable, slightly irritating. His fourth-wall smashing monologues are the apotheosis of his slacker-king cool. The rest of the cast makes little impact, though they’re given broadly-drawn, one-note cliches to play.
Amidst the mildly worrying materialistic morals, there are moments of sheer, weightless joy. The showstopping parade musical number, during which Ferris lypsyncs to “Danke Schoën” and “Twist and Shout” may be the film’s peak. It’s meaningless, but good fun.
That’s the difference between Ferris and Breakfast Club. With the former, Hughes wants to do nothing but entertain us, and fails. But with the latter, he meshed comedy with drama, social commentary with character study, populist fun and frankly-stated big ideas. I’m looking forward to spending a little more time with his films.keep looking »