Monday, September 8, 2014

Recommended!: Dead Poets Society (1989)

The only upside to the death of Robin Williams is the recent glut of rep screenings of his movies. In San Francisco rep houses in particular have made a concerted effort to pay tribute to the hometown hero, coordinating non-conflicting screenings, allowing local residents to revisit their favorite Williams performances. In our case, we got to experience Dead Poets Society for the first time.

It offers Williams' second Oscar-nominated performance, and it's a lovely piece of work. As John Keating, an English teacher who shakes up a strict 1950s prep school with his unorthodox but inspirational teaching methods, Williams offers one of his more restrained performances; his lapses into comic delivery are completely in line with the gifts of Keating, a man whose love of words and knack for communication are inherently inspiring. Though it doesn't play directly to his strengths, Williams makes it impossible to see anyone else in the role.

But one of the movie's most refreshing surprises is that it's less about Keating than about his effect on the lives of the students in his care (who become, through his inspiration, the movie's title characters). As the title suggests it's very much an ensemble piece, taking its time to establish each of its young characters and their distinct personalities. These characters grow both together within the Society and inside their own distinct subplots: Neil (Robert Sean Leonard) pursues acting against his stern father's wishes; Knox (Josh Charles) finds himself helplessly in the throes of first love; Todd (Ethan Hawke) builds walls around him that, when shattered by Keating's encouragement, give way to a floodtide of long suppressed emotion. Even the more secondary characters have their moments: when Pitts (James Waterson) is chided by Keating for half-assing an assignment, we see it register when Keating specifically calls out not his work's laziness, but its ordinariness.

The movie also spotlights director Peter Weir's knack for capturing the textural details of small-town life and its surrounding landscapes. The world around Welton Academy hums with a rich inner life, from shots of flocks of birds jumping into flight to the Society's first clandestine walk through a fog-shrouded forest. (One wonders how Weir would have fared directing a Harry Potter chapter.) Weir's attention to detail is felt right down to the amateur student production of A Midsummer Night's Dream; unlike many plays-within-movies, this looks like an actual, living, breathing production, which helps us buy Neil's sudden love of acting, and the confidence (if also the roughness) of his first performance.

Williams would fall into a trap in his later film career, stuck more often than not in flimsy stories built solely as a foil for his antics (looking at you, Patch Adams). Dead Poets Society remains one of the essential Robin Williams movies by avoiding this, by being a uniformly well told story with Williams as its catalyst, not necessarily its center. Its earnestness and solid storytelling outweigh moments that would have been mawkish in lesser hands, and it holds its classic status honestly. Even honorably.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Rohan Embarks On A Life of Crime

(We had no idea that the Elmore Leonard-based movie Life of Crime even existed, much less that it would be released in US cinemas today. Completely unbidden or solicited, our UK-based friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, offered us his review. This unheard-of confluence of events must be heeded, so please enjoy Rohan's review below, and follow him on Twitter!)

Life Of Crime, based on one of legendary author Elmore Leonard’s great collection of novels, ‘The Switch’ reminds us of that period in the 90s when adaptations of his work were effortlessly hip and cool. Get Shorty, Out Of Sight, and Jackie Brown, made by three very talented directors each with a style of their own opened up Leonard’s work to a whole new generation. But there is a gulf in class between those films and Life of Crime.

The story begins promisingly, like a cool version of Ruthless People (yes, I’m referring to the 1986 Danny De Vito comedy) where a wife (Jennifer Aniston) is kidnapped but the husband won’t pay the million dollar ransom because he hates her, wants a divorce, and has a younger mistress on the side. So far, so good as all the familiar Elmore Leonard characteristics are in play: double crosses, characters who’ll do anything for a fast buck, and even a reappearance of Ordell Robbie (played with far less authority by Mos Def than Samuel L Jackson had back in 1997). But as the film enters the final 30 minutes, the stakes never feel as though they are raised and the film gets slightly stale as the inevitable Jennifer-Aniston-can’t-die and Tim-Robbins-must-suffer plot lines fall into place. Again, this isn’t an issue unique to Life Of Crime, but the leads up to events is just too rudimentary in its execution to have its audience truly involved.

As clear sign of director Daniel Schechter’s attempts to make the film into something far more cinematic and impressive is a constant use of source music from the period it is set, 1978. The songs are great but they are in service of a false atmosphere and time reconstruction for the film never once feels like it is taking place in the late 70s, and it merely looks like stars playing dress up. This is an increasingly frustrating trend with modern films which attempt a period setting but don’t pull it off convincingly, using music and costume to masquerade as period; American Hustle, Blood Ties, and Lovelace are all guilty as charged.

That’s not to say Life Of Crime isn’t enjoyable by the very nature of it being an Elmore Leonard adaptation, but one can’t help but be slightly perturbed by how minor the film is; it’s a minor Leonard adaptation, it’s a minor work for all actors involved, and it’s a minor release in the 2014 calendar. The film never really feels made for the cinema screen, despite some well known faces selling it, but as a rental (as opposed to paying £10/$12 to see it in cinemas) it won’t disappoint so long as you’re not expecting anything near Steven Soderbergh quality.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Rohan: Tracking the Night Moves

(Kelly Reichardt's Night Moves is being regarded as one of the year's best. Though it's starting to appear online in the US, it has only recently opened in the UK, where our friend Rohan Morbey, who blogs at Stop Thinking For Yourself, checked it out. We're delighted to repost his enthusiastic review, and hope you'll follow Rohan over on Twitter!)

A dam in the Pacific Northwest is targeted to be blown up by two young eco-crusaders and one ex-con. They want to send a message to everyone and no one in particular and assume it’s a victimless crime, after all they’re just sticking it to ‘the man’ who is poisoning rivers and polluting water. So what’s the harm? Unlike those corporate a-holes making trillions, these three really care for the planet and the environment, right?

Night Moves focuses on Josh (Jesse Einsenberg), Dana (Dakota Fanning), and Harmon (Peter Sarsgaard) as the three plot, carry out, and face the consequences of their actions in another slow paced, character-driven drama from director Kelly Reichardt. As you would expect from this director, dialogue concerning plot detail is at a premium and relies on the audience to work out what is happening, to which Reichardt gives subtle clues to aid the general plot of ‘blowing up a dam.' Unlike most films with a terrorist storyline, there is no background given to the characters or why they are doing what they are doing, nor is there any police manhunt after the event, sending the film into thriller territory.

We can assume Josh and Dana met at an activist meeting, where documentary film making no longer was enough to get the message across; we see them both watching a short film where Dana challenges the film maker, and Josh stands in his corner, quietly judging the content. Like many of Reichardt’s characters, Josh is a loner, often framed on his own, in corners, and in the shadows. Furthermore, the three never look like a team who have carefully rehearsed their plan. They are merely three individuals who are in this for their own selfish motives and have given no thought of what happens after the bomb goes off.

Whereas Reichardt’s previous three films (Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, Meek’s Cutoff) all have characters on a literal journey from one place to another, Night Moves sees Josh and Dana on a more internal journey, from being eco-crusaders to potential murderers when a man is reported missing near their target; their journey threatens to be one of no return. I especially liked the shift in tone between the first and second halves of the film, from slow-burning character drama to a paranoia study (calling this a ‘thriller’ would be misleading), without ever losing focus on the characters and, of course, Reichardt’s love of natural settings. Oregon and its surroundings are just as vital a character in her films as New York is to a film maker like Woody Allen, and Reichardt’s appreciation for open spaces, natural scenery, and her character’s relationship to those places are essential elements of her cinema.

For the first hour we know very little about Josh and Dana, and it’s only after the event that Reichardt shows them in their natural habitats. Josh doesn’t have an underground lair with multiple screens and blue prints, but rather works on a farm harvesting vegetables earning very little and has a boss whom he seems to look down on, like all those at his eco-crusader meetings. Dana works at a health spa, just a temporary job (I assumed) like any young girl might have until she finds her calling in life. These are two very ordinary young people, and Reichardt does an excellent job of keeping them that way; even in the surprising moments of the final act when something happened which, at first, I didn’t quite buy into but on reflection perfectly fits in with the typically unplanned and lack of thought given to the actions from Josh up until that point.

The film ends with the director’s trademark open and abrupt ending, the most densely plotted scene in all of Reichardt's films, yet as is her usual modus operandi the ending is open and abrupt enough to leave the audience to make up their minds as to what happens next. Although it may star one of Hollywood’s brightest young male leads in Eisenberg, Night Moves feels just as auteurist as anything Reichardt has made to date, and cements her place as one of American cinema’s most important film makers working outside the ,Hollywood system.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Film Ain't Dead Yet, You Basterds

Pleased were we to hear that Quentin Tarantino intends to not only shoot his next movie on 70mm film, but that he's pushing forward to have it screened that way as well. Yep, the star-studded (and presumably stylishly violent and dialogue-heavy) Western The Hateful Eight is going to get the widest 70mm release a movie has received in about 20 years. The last movie to get such a release was Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet back in 1996; more recently, Paul Thomas Anderson's 2012 opus The Master had a limited 70mm release. (A friend comments that Anderson used a digital intermediary print when putting his 70mm prints together, and wonders if the film-purist Tarantino will be pressured to do the same.)

This is intriguing news, and not just to tech-savvy film-lovers. One wonders how wide, exactly, the widest 70mm release can be, given the relatively low number of theatres equipped for 70mm there are in existence. They're out of the way of most moviegoers, though one imagines there're enough Tarantino-faithful out there willing to make a daytrip of it. This also feels like the latest salvo in an ongoing war between film and digital formats; basically the studios have pretty much universally switched to a digital presentation, thus forcing theatres to convert to digital projection. But many movies (including 2/3 of Best Picture nominees, and the forthcoming 7th episode of Star Wars) are still shot on film. 20th Century Fox and Paramount both moved to phase out film entirely until filmmakers like Tarantino, JJ Abrams, and a vociferous Christopher Nolan convinced them to preserve the option of celluloid as a filmmaking medium (and thus keeping Kodak in the film manufacturing business). This enables some of Hollywood's finest cinematographers to continue working with their preferred tools, and offers you a deeper, richer visual experience when you step into one of the rare theatres still equipped to show films ON film.

The end result of this still-raging conflict may not be apparent to many viewers. But one doesn't have to be a hopeless nostalgic to prefer the film image over its digital counterpart. Though we at Jaman remain committed to helping you find great new movies to watch online, it'd kill us (figuratively, of course) if you seized that as your only movie-watching option. A whole world of cinema can be found on this screen, but your greatest cinematic experience remains at your local movie house. Tarantino and co. are fighting like hell to ensure that you continue to have the opportunity to enjoy that experience; it's up to you to accept their invitation.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Recommended!: Tempest (1982)

The directing accomplishments of John Cassavetes have such a powerful reputation that even when he appears as an actor in other filmmakers' work he seems to exert an auteurial pull. Indeed, Paul Mazursky seems to be counting on this in Tempest, his 1982 modernization of Shakespeare's final play. Casting Cassavetes as architect Philip Dimitrius (the stand-in for The Tempest's lead character, the magician/ousted duke Prospero) guaranteed an intense performance at the movie's center; casting Cassavetes' wife and longtime collaborator Gena Rowlands as Philip's wife Antonia offered Mazurky a direct tap into the power of Cassavetes' body of work. And what power it is.

Though Cassavetes' work as actor and director is rooted in years of stage work his films are deeply informed by improvisation, a connection to the immediate moment with little apparent influence of classical works. It's difficult to imagine Cassavetes initiating a project like Tempest, but damned if he doesn't give it his all. Cassavetes approaches the story of old age, anger, and forgiveness from a less lofty, more earthbound place than Shakespeare imagined, but the story resonates no less strongly for it. Propsero summons the storm with all of the literary might and effects the theatre can muster; in Tempest Cassavetes provokes it with delicate traces of his glasses and a gentle coaxing, to equally powerful effect. Even his climactic appeals for forgiveness eschew Shakespeare's poetry for a simple, gut-level "Forgive me" that carries volumes of tragic sincerity.

Mazursky's adaptation is startlingly faithful to Shakespeare's play, adhering to its structure (unfolding over the course of a single day, aided by flashbacks) and parallelling many of its scenes. Mazursky's cast are uniformly as committed as Cassavetes, and all reap similar boutnies, from Susan Sarandon's airy but knowing Aretha to Molly Ringwald's young but wise Miranda. Ringwald's performance in Tempest was her debut, and if she felt any pressure it doesn't show. Philip and Antonia's final, this-is-divorce argument is the kind of scene Cassavetes and Rowlands must have explored and executed countless times, but Ringwald brings her own music to the scene and impressively keeps at their level. (She's equally moving in her first scene with Sam Robards - the original Miranda/Ferdinand scene is one of the loveliest meet-cute scenes ever, and Ringwald and Robards' 1982 correlate, aided by underwater photography and Stomu Yamashta's achingly gorgeous score, does it more than justice.)

Earthy and idyllic, Tempest is a worthwhile trip. It dances to its own peculiar rhythms, approaching both Shakespeare and Cassavetes from angles not often seen, and fuses classical and modern artistic impulses into a splendid and ultimately moving whole.

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