Friday, December 12, 2014

Inherent Vice.

To the uninitiated (of whom this writer remains one, for now) the novels of Thomas Pynchon carry a reputation. Playfully dense stories, with fractured protagonists chasing a goal thru labyrinthine plots, loaded with bizarre conspiracies and colorfully-named characters who seem to have stepped, fully embodied, from dreams. All permeating a convoluted narrative that nonetheless lands with impact, and grace.

With this sketchy, probably inaccurate, overview in mind, it makes perfect sense that the first earnest attempt to mount an adaptation of a Pynchon novel would be made by Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson’s films, as cinematic as they are, are rife with a novelist’s attention to plotting and period detail. His original works, including 2012’s The Master, take a patient and detailed approach to their characters more commonly seen in literature. And the epic heft of There Will Be Blood (adapted from Upton Sinclair's Oil!) derives as much from Anderson's novelistic grasp of the entire picture as it does from Daniel Day-Lewis' intense performance. To immerse oneself in Anderson's work is to marvel at how expertly, and gradually, his characters are revealed, a marked contrast to characters in too many other movies who reveal themselves all at once.

And so Inherent Vice offers a period story, in which a detective, hired by an ex-girlfriend, chases a disappeared real estate mogul through early 70s Los Angeles, allied with denizens of that city's underground, beset by a rogues gallery of grotesques and minor criminals, and dogged every step of the way by a square-jawed, corrupt cop. Though it's rife with absurdist humor which I believe can be safely attributed to its source, the movie is set firmly in an established lineage of L.A. gumshoe yarns, from Polanski's Chinatown to Altman's The Long Goodbye right up to the Coens' The Big Lebowski

Lebowski looms largest over this movie, which amplifies the Coens' stoner humor to the point where we feel stoned watching the movie unfold. This is certainly abetted by Vice's perpetually stoned (yet surprisingly pro-active and competent) hero Larry "Doc" Sportello. Inherent Vice is as rooted in the perceptions of its protagonist as its predecessors, and so we see the world as Doc does: sometimes through a metaphoric fog, sometimes through a literal one, and always with something just slightly off-kilter within the scene. Joaquin Phoenix once again gives his all playing a character we haven't ever quite seen in a movie before. Just as Anderson deftly captures a wealth of authentic period detail without fetishizing it, so does Phoenix not let a single aspect of Doc define his whole performance. His sideburns, his stoner demeanor, his attempts at disguise, his beleaguered interactions with authority figures, are all just facets (and far from the only ones) of a rich, fully embodied character.

A number of veteran actors make their first appearances in an Anderson movie here. Josh Brolin is fine as Doc's nemesis, a profoundly corrupt lone wolf cop known widely, even semi-affectionately, as Bigfoot; we learn as much about Bigfoot over the course of the movie as we do about Doc, and their final scene together discovers an oblique but well-earned tenderness between them. (Reese Witherspoon's seemingly-square deputy D.A. reveals similar depth in a scene on a couch with Doc that's nearly as moving.) Talents as disparate as Maya Rudolph, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short, Michael K. Williams, and Eric Roberts all make up a cast of agents, hangers-on, and grotesques that Welles would have admired. None of them coast on their familiar schitcks, and nearly all of them are as effective as Phoenix. A well-selected set of period tunes follows Doc through the story, and give way to Jonny Greenwood's brooding, suspenseful score (his finest yet) as events spiral out of Doc's control. As per noir tradition, the whole thing is held together by voice-over narration, but here it's from the peripheral character Sortil├Ęge, winningly played (and warmly delivered) by alt-folk singer/songwriter Joanna Newsom.

And I can’t be the only one in the audience who felt the movie’s very timely affinity with the protests throughout the Bay Area, as rife with cops cheerfully involved in their own conspiracies. (The man captured in this picture is an undercover CHP officer working to undermine the Berkeley protests from within; discovered by the protesters, he pulled a gun on them, and the Reuters photographer who captured him.) Between this and the stories leaked in the CIA torture report (including horrific tales of prisoners anally fed hummus and raisins) the world seems to be merging with Pynchon's. The great revelation might turn out to be that Pynchon was a realist all along. And yet Doc and the other characters in Inherent Vice struggle to attain some kind of grace, even in the face of what seems inevitable. Even without the movie's real world resonance these struggles are involving, bracing. Even if it's just as momentary, may we all find the grace that Doc and company do. Right on.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Recommended!: Casino Royale (2006)

I mean for goodness' sake, just look at this title sequence. Casino Royale means business.

The James Bond series was always marked by a number of recurring tropes, including its lush title sequences (usually by Maurice Binder), so that Casino Royale spared no expense in the intricate clip above is no surprise. Many called it a reboot of the series, but the horrible trendiness of the term undercuts the significant accomplishment of the movie. The weirdly upbeat energy of the title sequence confirms it: This isn't a reboot, it's a rebirth.

As committed as the movie is to crafting a James Bond for the 21st century, it places him in the pre-established lineage set by the series. It often seems to be summing up the character's history from the begging, adapting (maybe the MOST faithfully, in the film series) the Ian Fleming novel that introduced the character. This back-to-the-beginning thrust of the movie is sealed with its prologue, shot in black-and-white. The first Bond movie wasn't Dr. No, but a curious one-off made for American television, starring Barry Nelson as an Americanized Bond (and Peter Lorre, beautifully cast as Le Chiffre), a B&W oddity perhaps being honored here. The presence of Dame Judi Dench as Bond's supervisor M (her fifth appearance in the role) suggests that this movie continues the long lineage, notions of a reboot be damned.

So what do we make of the Daniel Craig Bond, the character? As we're introduced to him, he's something of a blunt instrument, a brawler. Not the suave Connery Bond, certainly not the occasionally effete Moore Bond. He pointedly doesn't give a damn how his martini's prepared, and even drives up to the title Casino in a Ford. A Ford. No, what we see in Casino Royale isn't the character we've come to know, but a lone man becoming that character. The notion that "James Bond 007" isn't a man but a designation becomes weirdly confirmed in this movie, and that with Craig, for the first time, we're watching a character become that designation. Fleming's protagonist, in the books, is repeatedly subject to brutality and dehumanization, carrying the accumulated scars into palpable exhaustion in the later books; we see that process beginning here, with Craig quietly accepting that betrayal, torture, and a steady loss of humanity are all part of the job. David Arnold's opening theme song morphs quietly, insistently, into the familiar James Bond theme by Monty Norman, its opening horn blasts heralding the arrival, the birth, of the new Bond.

That the movies in this franchise have all been released in the darkening autumn months, rather than the sunlit blockbuster days of summer, doesn't feel like a coincidence. That the movie balances the demands and delivers on the expectations of a big-screen thriller with a knowing eye on Bond's world (and ours; not for nothing is he taking on cyber-threats and terrorists instead of a now-quaint Cold War menace) underscores what an incredible achievement Casino Royale is. It is very much its own beast even as it lands on the tropes that recognizably make it an honest-to-goodness James Bond movie. Even the last of those tropes, the end credits promise that "James Bond Will Return", brings a gasp of delight. For the first time in a long long time, those words bring excitement. As does the movie that precedes them.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Rohan on The Homesman

(Good friend Rohan Morbey had to go out of his way to catch a theatrical screening of The Homesman, a neo-Western starring Hilary Swank and director Tommy Lee Jones, over in the UK. The movie's getting a wider release in the US, and Rohan's review, which he's generously allowed us to cross-post, strongly indicates it's a must-see. The review appeared in its original form as always over at Rohan's site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

The old adage ‘they don’t make them like they used to’ could be applied to most genres of American cinema in 2014, but none more so than the Western. Westerns, rarely based on established properties, have been pushed away and forgotten in favor of the easy sell and easy buck. Sure, there’s occasionally a True Grit which shows a brief spike in audience attendance but it’s a dying genre. I’m lucky to have six cinemas near my home, plus another three multiplexes if I drive for an hour. Not one of them was showing The Homesman, a film starring three Oscar winners. The film has taken $45,000 in the US or about the same amount a comic book film takes in one screening. I’m not saying The Homesman should rival a blockbuster  in terms of box office, but one should be able to see this film without having to hunt it down like a precious gem.

Less of my moaning, however, because The Homesman is a gem worth hunting down. On one side Tommy Lee Jones’ second directorial effort is every bit the revisionist Western we have come to expect in the last 40 years; this isn’t a tale of square-jawed good guys versus those evil Indians nor does it attempt to romanticize the times, though the film looks stunning throughout. At the center it has anti-hero George Briggs (Jones), an army deserter who is left for dead after owing money, only to be rescued by a strong female character in the shape of Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). Briggs promises to repay Cuddy by helping her on her five week journey from Nebraska to Iowa.

It is the purpose of this journey which makes The Homesman stand apart from other Westerns I’ve seen; Cuddy has taken responsibility for three women who have developed mental illness and can no longer be cared for by their husbands. Jones’ film, similar to Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff, questions the traditional roles of men and women in the West and is a film as much about feminism as it is the more usually observed themes of masculinity. Cuddy is single, unlike every other woman in the film, and just wants a husband, children, and a traditional life; yet in the film she takes on duties which, traditionally, would have been carried out by a man. In one scene the decision of which husband should take the women to Iowa is done by drawing from a hat; Cuddy fills in for one of the absent men only to decide that she should take his place after another is selected.

Jones gives us glimpses into Cuddy's past where she ‘plays’ an imaginary piano, a vestige of a former life given up to find more opportunity out west. This also hints at a growing depression and desperation within Cuddy which is later brought to the fore in one of the film’s most emotionally impactful scenes. Hilary Swank shows here the acting form which won her those two Oscars, and reminds us of her talents which have been underused for the best part of a decade.

The film also looks at mental illness at the time and the insensitive, often rough way those affected were treated. The theme of loyalty recurs throughout Westerns and was an essential part of Jones’ superb directorial debut The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada; in The Homesman loyalty to the wellbeing of the three women is equally essential in how it is betrayed and gained. The theme of older men entering the new way of the West, key to Sam Peckinpah classics like The Wild Bunch and The Ballad of Cable Houge also envelops the film; when we first meet Briggs he is unceremoniously left to die in his underwear, begging for help and saved by a woman on more than one occasion. As Briggs and Cuddy make their journey, the film throws a variety obstacles in their way, some of which can be dealt with the old fashioned way, and some which cannot. A brief role for James Spader is pivotal to this theme where a hotel owner will not help Briggs because he must put prospective clients first, a matter Briggs cannot solve with a gun but one which he cannot let go of either in perhaps his last chance to impose his masculinity of the old way. Later we see
Briggs spending all his money on a suit but is rejected from a seat at a poker table because the bills he has from his home town are worthless. There is nothing he can do but leave and go back to the land he knows. We’re left to wonder if he’ll make it.

I’ve seen some posters calling The Homesman ‘the best western since Unforgiven’ which is both an exceptionally high bar and also unfairly overlooking some great films in the past 22 years, but The Homesman is certainly in the same company as Open Range, Meek’s Cutoff, and John Hillcoat’s Australian western The Proposition. It’s a reminder of a way of film making we don’t get to see too often, with themes overlooked in favor of ‘universe building’ and 2 minute after-credit ‘stingers’. Tommy Lee Jones has made a film which, to my mind, may only be truly appreciated in the decades to come. If you have the chance, see it now.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Rohan: "Inter" Stellar? Not Quite.

(A new month of posting begins, somewhat belatedly, with our friend Rohan Morbey, returning to the Jaman blog to drop his guardedly-good review of Christopher Nolan's Interstellar. Always happy to cross-post the good (or otherwise) word, appearing in its original form as always over at his site Closing Credits - do follow him on the Twitters!)

A quick note before I begin the review:

Regardless of what I or others may think about Interstellar, you need to see the film in 70mm IMAX to truly experience the film as the director wanted it to be seen. The advent of digital screening may be, to some, an improvement over film projected at 24 FPS due to clarity unseen before, but nothing can match the beautiful grain and slight imperfections of watching a film. The detail is so rich, you cannot mistake it for anything else and, if for no other reason, I recommend you see Interstellar, or any other movie, in 70mm whenever possible. If you need more convincing, read this from IMAX and tell me it’s not worth the extra money:

“When presented on 70mm IMAX, the sequences shot on IMAX are printed full quality in their native format- the highest quality imaging format ever devised, offering almost ten times the resolution of standard formats.”

Often I refer to truly great cinema: those movies which strive to go beyond the expectations of conventional cinema and storytelling and provide audiences with perfect examples of their genre, as having the ability to combine both ambition and ability – the ambition to make something different or new, and the ability to pull it off. Whether that’s large-scale three hour epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Apocalypse Now or smaller films such as Mulholland Drive or Annie Hall, the result is the same regardless of genre, budget, or age. These films do not aim for heights they are unable to reach, nor do they leave you thinking of better examples of similar movies.

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is a rare example wherein a film maker shows lofty ambition to offer audiences something they may never have seen before, with an innate ability to create images unseen in modern cinema and to push the limits of in-camera technology to unimagined levels. Yet, despite all Nolan’s flawless technical ability Interstellar is a frustratingly flawed film. It wants to be something more accomplished than the screenplay allows it to be, and the impressive visuals can only serve so much before the audience is left needing more.

Watching the film I was often struck by just how polarized the visuals and screenplay were; the film seems to be at odds with itself, as if it were two screenplays written independently and forced to merge. On one side the film sets out to be a visual experience like no other, and although perhaps not always entirely original in what it shows (let’s not discard other great space exploration depictions just because Interstellar is the shiny and new movie), the way it shows what it does is a joy to behold. On the other side the film attempts to deal with deeper themes of love transcending time and space, the science behind wormholes, time travel, and the possible end of Earth’s population. That’s very heavy stuff for any writer or director to contend with, but especially hard when it’s your first time approaching material this multi-layered whilst making a $165 million production at the same time. While one of The Nolans (Christopher and brother Jonathan) is a film maker par excellence, as a team they have yet to collaborate on a screenplay which is solid from beginning to end.

In his very best films - The Prestige, Memento, and the majority of Inception - Nolan allows his natural flair for visual storytelling to override the need for spoon feeding information to his audience. In Interstellar nothing is left to the audience once the space travel comes into play; before this, the film is really quite excellent as it leaves out detail surrounding how Earth came to be how it is when the movie starts and we just accept this is reality. This is great film making, but reversing the logic of your entire premise is not, just for the sake of having a happy ending. The film asks the question ‘would you sacrifice yourself and never see your loved ones again if you could save millions?’ but we expect the film to go through with this, not cop out with the best of both worlds.

Interstellar clearly sets out to be different and original, but it does not earn the shift in tone in the final act. Nolan cited Close Encounters Of The Third Kind as an influence on Interstellar for the way it humanizes the experience of a world-changing event, yet Interstellar comes nowhere near the payoff of Spielberg’s picture. Instead, the entire sequence on the snow planet that you’ve seen in trailers and posters is a monumental disappointment in its desire to inject action, explosions, danger and twists for no reason beyond third-act thrills. As Gravity showed last year, there is plenty which can go wrong in space without the need for a token antagonist to appear after two hours of believable science fiction peril. Again, the film doesn’t earn it but that’s not to say there aren’t scenes between people which work very well, especially those between the astronauts and the people on Earth. Which is more important; their time in space or people’s time on Earth? This provides the focus for the film’s very best emotional scene.

The cast is excellent throughout. Though Matthew McConaughey provides a superb leading man performance, I genuinely believe switching the roles for Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain would have improved the film. However, the characters are so thin that any actor could be replaced by another of equal standing and the film would work just as well.

I cannot pretend one viewing is enough to fully understand the film, or at least to critique the science behind it. There is a lot going on and the near three hour running time is filled with ideas which either work or do not, depending on your willingness to accept the directions it takes but at least there are ideas and originality on display which we do not get to see very often and for that reason alone Interstellar is a recommendation. Paired with visuals which have to been seen in 70mm IMAX to be fully realized, Interstellar may not rival the very best action of films from 2014 but it’s at the top of the list of the best of the rest. Certainly not good enough considering the brilliance of what we know the director can achieve, but by no means a failure either.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

and Welcome to the Horror Show!

Ten horror movies that span the genre. We're not trying to put out a BEST HORROR MOVIES EVER, END OF list, 'cause that'd be presumptuous. No no, the horror movies on this list have two things in common: that we like them (and are trying to assemble a list of movies you might not have seen); and they're available on multiple platforms, like Netflix, Amazon, Fandor, etc. Simply click the title of each movie and you'll get to the page on the Jaman site that'll show you where you can watch them. Okay? Here we go!

The Mummy's Hand - The original Mummy (with icon Boris Karloff) can be found on Netflix, but it's first sequel is a fine follow-up, and is more fun. A traveling magician and his daughter wind up accompanying (and sponsoring) a group of fly-by-night archaeologists seeking an Egyptian tomb. They run afoul of a wizard guarding the tomb, and before long a mummy is rampaging beneath the full moon. It's a bit of a hodge-podge, but the atmospheric bits deliver, the comic relief is actually funny (not always the case in horror-comedies), and it just has a bracing energy that makes for fun viewing. One of the better Universal horror sequels.

Black Sabbath - Speaking of Karloff, later in the venerated icon's career he could be seen hosting and appearing in the middle episode of this colorful and insane triptych of horror tales from horror master Mario Bava. We feted Bava for his centenary, celebrated in July of this year, and earnestly recommend this for anyone knew to Bava's oeuvre. Especially this week!

The Curse of Frankenstein - Hammer Films, the celebrated studio that practically defined horror from the late 50s into the 70s, began their horror cycle in earnest with this, the first of several film sin a long running Frankenstein franchise. Peter Cushing appears for the first time as Baron Frankenstein, making the first of many, many attempts to bring life to the dead. Cushing's work in this series would ensure his status as a horror icon; this status would elude Christopher Lee (who appears here as the Creature) for a while, but he would certainly attain it as well.

The Curse of the Werewolf - Again Hammer Films (and director Terence Fisher) make with the curses. This one falls upon a young Oliver Reed, who was sadly born under a bad sign and eventually transforms into the title creature in the light of the full moon. The period trappings and atmosphere are stunning in this one, as is its steady pacing. This movie received substantial acclaim in 1961 as not just a great horror movie, but simply one of the great British movies of the year.

Ju-On 2 aka Ju-On 2: The Grudge - It is safe to guess that most people with a profound love of contemporary Japanese horror have sampled extensively from the long-running Ju-On/The Grudge series. Directed by Takashi Shimizu (even the American remakes), the series is largely set in a house haunted by the ghosts of a woman and a child who were killed there. These ghosts lash out in anger at anyone who enters the house, often following them to their own homes, profoundly unsettling familiar spaces before unleashing supernatural wrath. Though some object to the series' apparent simple rehashes of many of the same themes and incidents, approaching them as variations on a theme shows a master horror filmmaker at work. Most of the films can be seen independently of one another; this one was the first one we saw, and, quite frankly, it scared the hell out of us. (Kudos to its startlingly beautiful coda, one of horror's finest grace notes. We wouldn't dare spoil it, but can't believe no one talks about it.)

The Moth Diaries - This barely got any kind of theatrical release so we're delighted to see it available on so many platforms. Director Mary Harron (American Psycho) helms a nice little B-picture about a student at an all-girls school who finds herself quite literally bewitched by a new arrival to the school. The Gothic symbolism is discussed maybe a little too directly, but it bleeds beautifully into the nicely-sustained atmosphere, with a couple of jaw-dropping visual moments as well. In a just world, Harron would get to make a movie like this every year.

Fright Night (1985) - Before the Scream series enshrined the ironic stance as the dominant approach to horror, the original Fright Night took an almost post-modern, knowingly referential approach to its genre. The story of a young horror fan who discovers that the new next door neighbor is a vampire, and his enlistment of washed up horror host Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall, just stellar) to battle the threat, received a cult following immediately upon release, and even garnered critical appreciation for its knowing nods to horror movie history. Its scares remain potent (with some lovely non-CGI creature effects throughout), its characters three-dimensional, its humor funny, and there are a number of fine lesser-known 80s tunes on the soundtrack. The remake is decently conceived and crafted, yet unnecessary.

Berberian Sound Studio - The famous Italian horror movies (including the gialli, the gory mysteries derided from pulp literature) are only sporadically available on line. But Berberian Sound Studio is happily fairly easy to find, and is well worth watching (and, crucially, hearing). Toby Jones is just dandy as Guilderoy, a repressed British sound engineer brought in to shape the sound of an Italian horror film. Vegetables and other benign objects are mercilessly torn apart as Guilderoy explores various sonic extremes, and though we never see the images they accompany, Guilderoy's mounting stress and insanity are plainly evident.

Silent Hill - This adaptation of the acclaimed (and often downright terrifying) video game franchise gets a bad rap, from both casual viewers and devotees of the series, which I don't understand. We're big devotees of the notion of movies-as-environments, and appreciate the Silent Hill movies for so lovingly capturing the look and feel of the creepy town of Silent Hill, as much a mental landscape as a place on a map, people by desperate residents and terrifying creatures. Mychael Danna's score leans heavily on the acclaimed soundtracks of the games by Akira Yamaoka. Even if the story doesn't grab you, we eagerly recommend getting lost in Silent Hill this Halloween...

American Mary - And though we haven't seen this final entry (which we're nevertheless pretty sure we can call the most extreme movie on this list), we're excited by what we've heard about its makers, twin sisters Jen and Sylvia Soska. The story of a disgruntled medical student (Katharine Isabelle, herself finally a growing cult phenomenon after years of work) who plies her talents within an underground society bent on body modification was won numerous awards and much attention for its makers, who continue to turn out more and bigger movies with winning confidence and infectious verve.

Happy Halloween!

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