The Scarlett Johansson Project — #7

I could not wait to get to this one. This is actually the one performance that made me officially choose Scarlett Johansson this year over my other choice.

Casting my mind all the way back to 2014, I remember walking out of the theater a total wreck. For anyone who has ever had an ex, it should leave a significant impact. This in my opinion is the pinnacle of romantic drama. I’m not saying this particular film is the one to beat all-time (although one could probably make that argument), but as someone who prefers emotional realism to the rom-com formula, it doesn’t get much more real than this unique look at the state of modern relationships. Plus the score provided by Arcade Fire is something else, too.

And while this is a post dedicated to Scarlett Johansson, I am compelled to give a shout out to her actually-on-screen co-star. The notoriously strange Joaquin Phoenix is absolutely tremendous here, putting in a sensitive and melancholic performance that proves why he is among the more interesting actors working right now.

Scarlett Johansson as Samantha in Spike Jonze’s Her 

Role Type: Supporting*

Premise: In a near future, a lonely writer develops an unlikely relationship with an operating system designed to meet his every need. (IMDb)

Character Background: In a not-so-distant future humans are more socially distant than they are in a real-world global pandemic. There are no six-feet-apart policies at play but instead everyone is attached to their computers — quite literally — as they walk around in their own private one-person bubble. Everything is in reach and yet everyone is inaccessible. Spike Jonze’s smart directing and incredible — indeed, Oscar-winning — writing makes it feel entirely plausible this is the natural course the river of human interaction will take with the advent of hyper-intelligent A.I. In Her, it comes in the form of the OS1, a virtual companion tailored to our unique personalities and that has its own consciousness. (Yeah, in your non-face Siri!) This new tech is designed to keep us on schedule, keep us motivated and focused, and most significantly, keep us company.

An emotionally distraught writer named Theodore Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, decides to invest in one. He prefers his OS to have a female voice. Upon boot-up, and after quickly thumbing through a book on baby names (some 180,000 options in a literal split-second), his new friend christens herself Samantha. As the ice is quickly broken, Theodore becomes fascinated by Samantha’s ability to grow and learn. Before long, he’s starting to feel something more than pure admiration for the tech. A friendship evolves into romance and soon Samantha finds her bodiless self experiencing things she never knew she could and as well developing into something far more than anyone could have expected.

What she brings to the movie: a disembodied voice. That is literally it, at least in terms of the tools she has at her disposal to create the character. What she brings to the movie emotionally is truly profound. Jodi Benson had the hovering Weebo. Rose Byrne had an eerie resemblance to HAL-9000 as ‘Mother.’ Now, “Sexiest Woman Alive” Scarlett Johansson has no body as Samantha, a stunningly complex realization of a Somebody who is seeking connection and purpose and wholeness of feeling. It is a deeply affecting performance that encompasses the full spectrum of emotions and that becomes all the more impressive considering it required Johansson to be isolated in a sound booth. She and Phoenix never crossed paths on set.

Johansson’s distinctively husky timbre here becomes an aloe for an aching, bruised soul. Yet it isn’t just the physical qualities of her iconic voice that makes this one of the all-time greatest disembodied performances. The chemistry she shares with her co-star is utterly beguiling and convincing; the ubiquitousness of her presence both strange and comforting. Though in reality she’s a device often tucked into his shirt pocket, she feels like a real person sitting right in the room with Theodore, arms around him, chin on his shoulder.

In her own words: “Samantha makes [Theodore] realize that he can love again. I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had that relationship with my Blackberry. I guess the only thing that has changed my life, or had a positive effect on my life, is Skype or Facetime. Any of those video chats that you can do with your family or your partner or your friend are so life-changing when you are away from home for months and months shooting. It makes all the difference in the world to be able to see somebody.”

Key Scene: From the moment Samantha greets Theodore, with the most bubbly of “Hello’s”, Johannson has us in the palm of her hands.

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 

* A fun bit of trivia that I did not know when I first saw the movie back in 2014: Johansson was not the original voice for the part of Samantha. She in fact joined the cast in post-production, replacing Samantha Morton after Jonze decided the part needed something more. With Morton’s blessing, Johansson stepped in and the rest was serious tear-jerking history.


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of Julie Miller/Vanity Fair

 

Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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Photo credits: IMDb

April Blindspot: Metropolis (1927)

Release: Sunday, March 13, 1927

[Netflix]

Written by: Thea von Harbou

Directed by: Fritz Lang

Austrian-German filmmaker Fritz Lang’s critique of capitalism and class structure in his classic silent epic Metropolis is a sight to behold, even if it is far from graceful. He imagines a dystopian city in the year 2026, a self-contained universe starkly divided between the weak and the powerful, the have’s and the have-not’s. When the son of the city’s visionary planner crosses the threshold into the world of the machine workers after being lured there by a beautiful woman, he learns the terrible truth about the city and his position within it and seeks to change the status quo.

Despite universal praise for its technical prowess, most notably a sprawling and immersive visual aesthetic, Metropolis was far from being embraced as an instant classic upon its release, some 90 years ago. The now famous line “The Mediator between Head and Hands must be the Heart!” was a particular bone of contention for critics of the late 1920s and early ’30s who viewed the sentiment as an oversimplification of existent tensions between the working class proletariat and the privileged bourgeoisie.

The very idea that such disparate groups could ever find common ground was deemed unrealistic, even naïve. Among the most notable dissenters was English writer H.G. Wells, who dismissed it as “quite the silliest film.” But the most damning criticisms were lodged against the film’s alleged pro-fascist stance, the thrust of the narrative seemingly drawing parallels between the revolt against the aforementioned visionary Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) and the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party.

Before diving into all of that, an interrogation of the narrative itself might be helpful. The story concerns itself primarily with the relationship between the good-hearted but privileged Feder (Gustav Fröhlich in his breakout role) and the poor prophet Maria (Brigitte Helm), who find themselves caught up in a bitter revolt inspired by a robot built in the likeness of the latter — the result of a scientific experiment carried out by the inventor Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge). The robot, originally designed to replicate his beloved, is brought to life after Maria falls into Rotwang’s clutches at the behest of Joh, who senses growing unrest in the subterranean realm.

Of course, Joh is unaware of the inventor’s ulterior motives, as he actually plans to use the replicated Maria to destroy Metropolis. He plans to have her lead the workers in a violent uprising that will see the destruction of many machines, including The Heart Machine, which . . . well, you can probably guess why it’s important. In the heat of passion, the outraged leave their children behind in the wreckage for Feder and Maria to save before the city floods in the ensuing chaos.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour running time (Metropolis manifests as one of cinema’s earliest full-length features and is indeed sizable even by today’s standards) we are bombarded with Biblical references and homages to Mary Shelley’s seminal science fiction Frankenstein. This seemingly incongruous mixture of elements, as set against the backdrop of the German expressionist movement, combines to form a uniquely visual tapestry that tends to obscure, rather than enhance, the beating heart of humanity at the film’s core.

Given this, Metropolis can hardly be deemed a film of subtlety. In fact it’s massively unsubtle. Lang’s suggestion of the apocalypse is a prime example. Feder’s vision of Maria riding a seven-headed beast confesses to the unfettered nature of period expressionism, and provides Lang’s most solid alibi for taking the film to so many different extremes. It’s altogether too much clutter. In a film where so many other dynamics are to be considered, heavy-handed interpretations of scripture seem, at best, superfluous.

I don’t view Metropolis as being overtly one thing or another. It’s a veritable amalgam of thematic material and visual spectacle. It’s about communism. No, it’s not — it’s about fascists. No it’s not, it’s about artificial intelligence. No wait, it’s about sinning and the second coming of Christ. I can’t fathom having to process all of this in a time where film reviews could only be found in the paper. At a time when the mobilization of the Nazis was an event taking place in the present. And while we’re on the subject, I also don’t subscribe to the notion that Metropolis supports Nazism. Perhaps there’s a reading here that the inevitable uprising in the lower ranks is a metaphor for the eventual birth and spread of fascism in Europe, but I don’t want to give that too much credit.

The fact that the film fails to shift its emotional weight convincingly proved most problematic for me. I was never convinced by Joh’s sudden concern for his son when violence took hold of society. Remorse for his oppressive leadership was never palpable during the hand-shake — the mediation, as it were, between the head of the city and its tired hands, here represented by the foreman of the Heart Machine, Grot (Heinrich George). Because Joh remained a fundamentally unchanged man come the end, I wasn’t able to buy the denouement as anything other than a physical commitment to honor the film’s thematic contract: Show that love can conquer all. (Even the most bitter ideological divides like class warfare.)

In the end, I liken Lang’s optimism to John Lennon’s insistence that all you need is love. In the context of the world in which we live, their idealism does seem naïve but for whatever reason it almost seems in poor taste to describe visionaries like them in such a way.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Feder, holding down the fort. For now.

Recommendation: Mightily ambitious and to a fault, Metropolis I find a film with much to praise and almost as much to criticize. And yet, considering the times in which it was released, I can’t do anything but admire it. A rare silent film viewing experience for me, one I’m glad I have finally had. Do I really need to recommend this movie to anyone . . . ?

Rated: NR

Running Time: 148 mins.

What the hell: Unemployment and inflation were so bad in Germany at the time that the producers had no trouble finding 500 malnourished children to film the flooding sequences.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

20th Century Women

20th-century-women

Release: Friday, January 20, 2017

[Theater]

Written by:  Mike Mills

Directed by: Mike Mills

Fun seems like a clumsy word to describe a film trading in themes such as female empowerment and disaffected youth. But let’s call it what it is; 20th Century Women IS fun. Enlightening, entertaining, satisfying, significant — all the above. It celebrates maturity and individuality with a blitheness that is completely disarming. Therapeutic, even.

Mike Mills’ Oscar-nominated, original screenplay explores the lives of three women living in sunny 1970s SoCal. Former President Jimmy Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech serves as a tone-setter in this beguiling but often dark dramatic comedy starring Annette Bening as Dorothea Fields, a boarding house landlord who enlists two of her tenants to help raise her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann’s third feature film credit) during a period of sweeping social and political change.

Dorothea is divorced when she gives birth to Jamie at the age of 40. Coming-of-age story is mostly preoccupied with the evolution of this non-traditional mother-son dynamic, in which a substantial age gap presents many a unique challenge as Jamie starts coming into his own. But the film also uses its two other free-spirited principals in Greta Gerwig‘s photographer Abbie and Elle Fanning‘s girl-next-door Julie to stake out greater thematic territory, including gender politics, burgeoning sexuality and personal responsibility — although invariably each subplot circles back to the family dynamic and the challenges of parenthood.

Abbie finds Gerwig in her element, a character with all the hipster affectations and quirks we have come to expect of an actor who’s very much a hipster at heart. Abbie’s journey through the story mines some of the greatest emotional depths, what with her having survived cervical cancer but being told by doctors she can’t have children. Contrast her against Julie, for whom possibilities are almost too endless. She’s a leaf on the breeze, drifting between her own home and Jamie’s bedroom where she frequently spends the night to get away from her psychologist mother who is convinced her daughter’s behavior is diagnosable. Meanwhile Jamie finds himself firmly locked into the Friend Zone.

Billy Crudup also stars as Dorothea’s handyman, playing a role that similarly subverts expectations as a potential father-figure for Jamie. But his influence is frequently subdued by Dorothea who argues Jamie doesn’t need a male role model. That’s why she tapped the girls for their help. (Speaking of Crudup — how Almost Famous is his ’70s ‘stache in this movie?) Her would-be suitor isn’t on an island though; William is also in constant search of that thing that will give his life meaning.

Mills outfits a compelling story with an authentic, nostalgic retro flare. Black-and-white Polaroids occasionally punctuate the frame, convincingly meshing Bening’s ambassador for independent women with examples of actual people living the real thing; the use of soft color and lighting creates a visual collage of a bygone era rich in period detail. The soundtrack is an experimental mix of the California sound and punk-rock bands fighting back against the establishment. The harmony that is created out of all these elements is what is going to earn Mills a rightful spot amongst the Cameron Crowes and Richard Linklaters of the industry.

Scrapbook-like flourishes also downplay the weight of the material without ever distracting from or trivializing it. 20th Century Women is more often than not an upbeat adventure but don’t let all the conviviality trick you into thinking the movie takes its material lightly. This is a movie that wants to erase the word taboo from the dictionary. Bening fearlessly steers us through the rough waters of belated parenthood and single motherhood. Performances are uniformly outstanding, but she’s the rock, the rock her son so desperately needs, especially in these confusing times.

20th-century-women-1

4-5Recommendation: Refreshingly forward-thinking movie eschews traditional gender roles and provides an incredible showcase for Annette Bening’s considerable talents. I want to say all these fancy things about this movie, but what I need to emphasize is just how thoroughly enjoyable it all is. I really loved this movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Wondering if you’re happy is a great shortcut to being depressed.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Hell or High Water

'Hell or High Water' movie poster

Release: Friday, August 12, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: David Mackenzie

The day after you’ve watched something is probably not the time to proclaim that thing an instant classic. It would be wise to allow the infatuation phase to run its course before declaring your undying love for your partner. Unfortunately for me, I trade in hyperbole and sensationalist journalism so I have a very hard time calming down when I see something as enjoyable and well-crafted as David Mackenzie’s hybrid post-modern western/heist thriller.

Contrasted against a fairly weak summer slate of cinematic offerings, perhaps Hell or High Water is destined for a spot on the top shelf it might not have earned in another year but there’s no denying this is a film crafted with care and precision and featuring some of the year’s most enjoyable (read: believable) performances in a leading trio featuring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges as surly West Texans caught in a fascinating, morally complex game of cat-and-mouse (okay, cops-and-robbers if you want to be more accurate).

Two brothers — the divorced Toby (Pine) and ex-con Tanner (Foster) — set into motion a master plan to save their family’s farm from foreclosure by relieving a string of Texas Midland Bank branches of large sums of cash. These are the very banks that have been slowly but surely milking the Howard clan dry for decades. Despite their efficiency and a knack for finding new getaway vehicles, they soon find themselves on Marcus Hamilton (Bridges)’s radar, a local ranger on the verge of a long-overdue retirement. He’s hungry for one last chase and strings along for the ride his half-Mexican, half-Native American partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham).

All goes according to plan until the brothers Howard hit a bank in Post, where the locals aren’t so submissive, despite Tanner’s best efforts to terrorize. (An unsettling yet frequently amusing psychopathy renders his criminal history entirely unsurprising. In this world there aren’t good cops/bad cops, there are good robbers/bad robbers and Tanner is decidedly more the latter.) Unprepared for resistance, they find themselves scrambling to escape a bloody scene that turns a once-righteous deed into an unintended murdering spree. All the while the rangers remain only a half-step behind, distracted only by the fact Marcus is fated for a rocking chair and greener pastures come the end of the week. The two narratives, compelling in their own right, eventually coalesce into a spectacular, oft unpredictable showdown that eschews traditional heroics and villainous archetypes. Think No Country For Old Men meets Robin Hood.

In a film filled with stellar acting turns, Pine’s quasi-transformative, ski-mask-wearing thief might just outshine the rest as his bedraggled countenance bears the brunt of the film’s moral quandary. Toby’s obligations to family — a financially struggling ex-wife and two teen boys — trump any obligation to abide by the law of this crumbling wasteland, a place where old granny’s fixin’ to blow ya off the front porch with her 12-gauge just for trespassin’. (That particular scene doesn’t happen but you can imagine it happening.) A place where the hustle and bustle of cities like New York and L.A. may as well be happening on another planet. Captain Kirk Pine finds much room for personal growth in a script that believes in full-bodied characters and thoughtful story development. His devotion to his sons may justify a few smooth robberies, but does it justify the violence later on? How far should a person go to protect the ones they love?

Hell or High Water isn’t simply a case of an amateur robbery gone awry, although there is very much an element of bumbled professionalism at play. Think of these guys more as skilled amateurs, dabbling in the art of robbing from the corrupt and redistributing to those who are destitute. What inspires their actions is very much an indictment of corporate America and how that unstoppable locomotive frequently flattens any poor sod who happens to be standing on the tracks (i.e. anyone who has been unfortunate enough to put their trust in banks who consistently loan money, their money, to others who can’t possibly afford to repay the debt). Indeed, if you wish to dig deeper into these scenes juxtaposed against a rugged, wildly unpredictable American west, you’ll find hints of Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes as well. The pain. The outrage. Tension’s palpable, manifested especially in Toby’s final confrontation with a ranger who thinks he has him figured out.

Hell or High Water is impeccably performed, a reality reinforced by the brilliance of Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay, one that allows the entire cast to put their best cowboy boot forward. Even bit-parts such as a stubborn waitress who refuses to hand over her $200 tip as evidence because she has a roof to keep over her and her daughter’s heads and an elderly local who ain’t threatened by “thugs” become precious commodities. Bridges doesn’t really need the pampering but he’s par excellence. Amidst a rather bleak mise-en-scène, Sheridan finds ways to wring out a kind of naturalistic, borderline farcical sense of humor that assures levity while never distracting from the more shocking drama that awaits in a climactic stand-off. A bickering repartee between two sheriffs drives the entertainment value sky-high, while Foster runs away with his role and in all the best ways.

You might describe the portrait as stereotypical of the image non-locals have already painted in their mind of a place they perceive to be backwards and lawless. This place is hostile and the people tough, resilient and pretty stand-offish. But the film isn’t  so reductive as to parody life in these parts. It focuses upon real people living out real lives in the only way they know how, desperate to make something work in a nation described in the Pledge of Allegiance as undivided, with liberty and justice for all. The ever-captivating mystery invites us to form our own opinions of these people and communities. And suffice it to say, and while difficult at times, it’s best to reserve judgment until the very end.

My judgment is thus: Hell or High Water is one of the most enjoyable, entertaining and satisfying films 2016 has to offer. By turns nostalgic for a bygone period in cinema — that of the classic John Wayne shoot-em-up — and hungry to forge new frontiers with a riveting story that, while not categorically unpredictable, explores boundaries few films bother exploring anymore. It’s a grand adventure, something that will undoubtedly offer up something new to discover upon repeat viewings. This is how you make movies, folks.

Jeff Bridges in 'Hell or High Water'

Recommendation: Hell or High Water, an uncommonly (and unexpectedly) solid bit of modern western action, refuses to stoop to the lowest common denominator of reducing drama to bloody gunfights and cheesy quips. It’s a heist film executed almost to perfection. Fans of the cast are sure to love it, particularly Pine who continues to show he has more talent than just fulfilling an iconic leadership role on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This is undoubtedly his best work yet, slurry southern drawl and all. And I hate to keep making Star Trek comparisons, but on an entertainment scale, Pine’s misadventures here are far worthier of your time. This goes beyond where many modern westerns have gone before. Two Roger Ebert thumbs up.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: ” . . . go f**k yourself.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)

new tbt logo

If you’ve been following along with this segment, you might be aware I’ve spent the last several installments picking titles at random — and in a slight panic, with several of them being decided upon (or even watched) at the very last possible second — so it’ll be nice to reintroduce some semblance of consistency here again, in the form of Holiday Cheer movies. Granted, the next several posts should be fairly predictable. Let’s just say that I’ve graduated from scrambling for random film titles to scrambling to find an appropriate monthly theme. 😉 With all that said, I know this entry today revolves around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas but you know what, I’m prepared to take the flak. You want to hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. 

Today’s food for thought: Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

Planes Trains and Automobiles movie poster

Being victimized by public transportation services since: November 25, 1987

[Netflix]

I can’t believe I’ve only now sat down to watch for the first time Steve Martin interact with the comedic genius that was (is?) John Candy. Now the real question: is that something I should have admitted?

I suppose it doesn’t matter as I can say with Del Griffith-like confidence that John Hughes’ classic fits snugly into the brand of comedy I cherish more than any other. That’s not to say, however, that Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the kind of story you can’t find reproduced elsewhere. It’s a tried-and-true road trip adventure featuring two distinct personalities who, despite all odds, wind up growing on one another having endured several days’ worth of mishaps that border on the (amusingly) catastrophic. Replete with sight gags and punchlines that, by comparison to today’s standards, feel sophisticated and novel, Planes is of course capped off with a happy and wholly satisfying ending that epitomizes the feel-good spirit of the holiday season.

The film explores the dichotomy of the psychological effects the hectic holiday season has on people. Ignoring the isolated incidents that seem to occur on Black Friday, the day where everyone seems to take pleasure in being their worst selves, the days and weeks leading up to Christmas have potential to be some of the most stressful all year. It’s that reality that Hughes taps into using Martin, who plays an uptight and rather uncharitable marketing executive named Neal Page, and his polar opposite in Candy’s happy-go-lucky, perpetually cheerful shower curtain ring salesman Del. While it might be more comforting — beneficial, even — to assign personalities and dispositions to a spectrum ranging from very negative to positive, there’s no denying the stereotype is alive and well during the holiday shopping season.

In Planes, Neal faces one setback after another in his attempts to get back to his family for Thanksgiving dinner, starting with missing a taxi to the airport that almost causes him to miss his flight home to Chicago from New York. This is where he first bumps into Del, who would later laugh about how amusing it was that Neal tried to steal *his* cab. Wouldn’t you know it, the two end up sitting next to each other on the flight, one that ultimately ends up having to land in Wichita due to a terrible snowstorm in Chicago. Del is quick to remind Neal once on the ground that given the circumstances it will be next-to-impossible to book a hotel room anywhere, and the two end up taking a room at some seedy motel miles away, which sets up the iconic “I don’t judge you, so why do you judge me” speech.

Things only get worse from there, as Neal is faced with the prospect of continuing to travel with Del as he seems to be the only way he’s going to get out of this crummy town. They board a train that later breaks down and end up having to cram into a city bus that threatens to fall apart at any moment. Much to our amusement the quality of transit vehicles only adds to Neal’s mounting frustrations. It all culminates in a literally explosive car ride that sees the pair brought to their knees at yet another cheap-o hotel, where the question finally must be asked: “is it me, or is it just everyone else around me that’s crazy?”

Existential rumination aside, Hughes’ judgment of character development couldn’t have been more satisfying. There are so many instances throughout the course of this escapade where we think there’s no way Del can screw things up any more than they already are; there’s no way Neal can possibly be any more unpleasant than he was trying to rent a car. And yet developments belie expectations, but only to a point. There’s a wonderful scene at another rundown motel in which the pair are confronted by their own consciences. It’s not like the humbling process isn’t unexpected. Even if you’re unfamiliar with Hughes’ filmography, it should come as no surprise the slide into relative despair can’t be sustained; this is a road trip comedy after all. Yet it’s the aesthetics of the scene that really impact. There’s something about the faux-wooden interior of this particular room that resonates warmly.

In the end, Planes‘ episodic nature epitomizes the oft-exaggerated emotions and experiences of the holiday season. Whether it’s finding the ideal gift for a loved one, putting together a master shopping list for the big dinner or simply attempting to shoulder the responsibilities of throwing a seasonal party, this time of year presents stress in many forms. Hughes is keenly aware of that reality, and he has a field day with it thanks to the interplay between these comedic greats.

Planes Trains Automobiles Martin Candy Fire

Recommendation: Planes, Trains and Automobiles satisfies on many levels with its diverse and highly effective collection of comedic situations and running jokes. It’s another one of those entries that makes one sorely nostalgic for the days of quality comedy. Thanks to great turns from Steve Martin and John Candy this is a film that fans can re-watch over and again.

Rated: R

Running Time: 92 mins.

TBTrivia: Perspectives are a funny thing. John Candy and Steve Martin have both named this film as their favorite films of their own. Ask other crew members who worked on the film and they’ll describe the shoot as “hellish,” as they were obligated to drive back and forth between locations on the East Coast and the Midwest since each time they arrived at one place the snow they were hoping to find melted too quickly. According to some crew members, John Hughes was in a terrible mood for much of the process as he was enduring difficult times in his personal life.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.filmschoolrejects.com; http://www.haphazard-stuff.blogspot.com 

TBT: Citizen Kane (1941)

Let’s send October off in style, shall we? Four Thursdays and several classics later, we arrive here at the fifth installment of TBT. And really, how can I ignore this one? It’s a film I saw a few months ago and I haven’t seen it since, so with any luck my memory will not fail me. I can finally now say that I have gotten to experience

Today’s food for thought: Citizen Kane.

Incinerating sleds since: September 5, 1941

[Netflix]

How does one hope to reveal anything new or exciting about Citizen Kane, one of cinema’s most poured-over films and a release that’s now over 70 years old? The truth is, they can’t. The best thing that I can hope to do is nod my head and silently agree with everyone who has ever sung its praises. This is a film with such a reputation that it actually takes some effort not to watch it.

Some months ago now I pressured myself into ordering the DVD through Netflix. When it arrived it then sat on top of the Xbox for awhile before I finally decided I should just give it a chance. I carried a healthy level of skepticism going in because there was no way this film was going to be as good as everyone had told me it was. Fifteen minutes in I was completely entranced. Orson Welles’ most celebrated film, and please pardon the strange comparison, absorbs and entertains — and ultimately repulses — much in the same way as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, creating an almost mythical character at the heart of the story and protecting him behind layers upon layers of exposition, each one invariably tainted by bias and prejudice. Both feature characters so much larger than life it takes at least 120 cinematic minutes to properly represent them.

In hindsight, Charles Foster Kane (Welles) might be easier to sum up than you would think. The word ‘enigma’ comes to mind. Even ‘celebrity.’ That’s an incomplete picture though. And really, that’s the impression Welles (as director) wants first-time viewers to have. His approach all but beckons those same viewers to watch again, to find out what pieces of the puzzle they have missed. Citizen Kane, in the mode of a film à clef, weaves a dense and complex narrative to paint a collage of impressions about who Kane was, what he represented, and how his legacy would proceed him.

Kane, himself a collage of real-life personalities, was loosely based upon American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Chicago business tycoons Samuel Insull and Harold McCormick, as well as aspects of Welles’ own life. Despite his incredible wealth and influence, Kane was, for all intents and purposes, an American everyman — someone who, if you saw him on the streets, you could walk right up to and touch. And you, in all your mediocrity, would matter to him. At least, that’s how it seemed.

Among the most fervently discussed aspects of this production is its inventive narrative structure, one which spindles out like a spiderweb to incorporate virtually every aspect of this man’s life, accumulating dramatic heft until a remarkable revelation. The core of the story is concerned with developing Kane’s professional life, detailing his impoverished childhood in Colorado, his subsequent adoption by a wealthy banker named Walter Thatcher (George Coulouris), and his meteoric rise to national prominence after entering the newspaper business and seizing control of the New York Inquirer, what many today recognize as the tabloid paper The National Enquirer.

Within this framework we see Kane (d)evolve from ebullient and idealistic publisher seeking immortality via his unfathomable business savvy — save for the little hiccup in 1929 where the stock market crash resulted in his forfeiture of his controlling share of The Inquirer — to a mere mortal set on gaining as much power as a man can have — he briefly dabbled in politics before an affair effectively put an end to that venture — while essentially destroying anyone who dared cross him, and God forbid, chose to marry him. One particularly memorable sequence depicts the gradual dissolution of his first marriage to Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warrick), a niece of the President of the United States, by staging a series of conversations at a dinner table.

All of these developments are relayed through flashbacks, which result from the many interviews conducted by modern-day newspaper reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland). He’s seeking the significance of Kane’s last dying words (really, it’s a single word ‘rosebud’), at the behest of his newsreel producer. Interviews include friends and associates, some of whom are willing to speak freely about the man while others (notably Susan Alexander, Kane’s second wife) initially refuse to be interviewed. Even disregarding the immensity of the character being explored, Citizen Kane established its brilliance through this kaleidoscopic approach, using other people to inform a third party’s opinion about who this man was and why his death was so significant. As people are inherently complex, it only makes sense our best chance of gaining intimate knowledge of a single person is through the perspectives of many.

Quite simply, this is an extraordinary picture that almost suffers from an abundance of potential talking points. I haven’t even delved into how ornate and beautiful its imagery is. The symbolism. The scale. The humanity and the lack thereof, particularly during scenes at his elegant Floridian estate, known as Xanadu. The use of shadows to evoke danger and tension. The sharp suits and elegant dresses suggesting power and prestige both earned and usurped. The film has been praised countless times for its groundbreaking technical aspects, and while I claim to know little about that aspect of filmmaking, to my untrained eye it’s praise well-deserved.

To the uninitiated, Citizen Kane and all of its clout might seem a bit overwhelming and even off-putting. After all, lofty expectations usually serve to disappoint. In my case, I don’t think there was a way to prepare myself for how good this was. The film ends in an estate sale, wherein Kane’s bevy of personal possessions — most of them statues and busts and expensive paintings — are being divided up either for selling or discarding. It’s telling that this cavernous enclave is mostly filled with priceless items that, collectively, mean very little. They probably meant very little to Kane himself. The accumulation of wealth is so ridiculous it consumes the entirety of the frame. In fact, the only thing more consuming than his apparent obsession with gaining more and more stuff is that nagging sensation that we’ve missed the significance of the word ‘rosebud.’

Recommendation: Unforgettable. And quite simply a classic. Orson Welles truly outdoes himself in the lead and as a director, and if you are yet to see this film I urge you to put some time aside and give it a shot. I personally had grown tired of hearing how good a movie Citizen Kane was, but that was before I actually got around to watching it. Between the visual aesthetic and the scope and ambition of its content, this may not be the ‘best movie I’ve ever seen,’ but for all its comprehensiveness and elegant craftsmanship, it’s likely to remain in a fairly elite group for years to come.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 119 mins.

TBTrivia: The audience that watches Kane make his speech is, in fact, a still photo. To give the illusion of movement, hundreds of holes were pricked in with a pin, and lights moved about behind it.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.allposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: Chinatown (1974)

Back for more blasts from the past? You’ve come to the right place. This Thursday we find ourselves straying into dangerous territory, going places we’ve been warned to stay away from. Parts of town that remain mysterious and off-limits for good reason. Of course, I’m not talking about your local ghetto, or the part of New Orleans that’s still submerged in water. I’m talking about that part of Los Angeles that, once you’ve been there, you’ll never stop being haunted by it, just like Jack Nicholson’s character in 

Today’s food for thought: Chinatown.

Stylishly escaping gunfire since: January 1, 1974

[Netflix]

When praising a film the word stylish tends to make an appearance. Physical attraction is one of our base drives and so it only makes sense we’re drawn more to films that look good rather than to ones that don’t. We shouldn’t feel guilty for doing so though, even if there are times we’re conscious of how obvious our decisions are being driven by our desire to see good-looking people in a good-looking movie (after all, Focus isn’t the only fashion magazine posing as a movie released this year). There is of course some difference between the guilty pleasure of Will Smith’s film career and appreciating the facelift Casino Royale gave to the James Bond franchise.

In the case of Roman Polanski’s 1974 noir crime thriller Chinatown ‘stylish’ just doesn’t feel adequate. What’s more is the film does not rest on that laurel. Aside from being visually iconic and brought to life with a swankiness only a duo like Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway could provide, Chinatown offers a complex and cerebral mystery involving romance, seduction and copious amounts of danger. Equal parts mesmeric and paranoiac, this fictional world set during a period of severe drought in 1937 California was inspired by the Californian Water Wars, a series of conflicts beginning at the turn of the 20th Century between the city of Los Angeles and farmers and ranchers of the Owens Valley over ownership of the local water supply and its subsequent distribution.

It’s against this backdrop of environmental-political tension Polanski establishes his last American film, achieving a production overflowing in style and substance, one that simultaneously romanticizes and reviles the greater Los Angeles area. J.J. “Jake” Gittes (Nicholson) is a dedicated private eye who specializes in matrimonial affairs. When a mysterious woman named Evelyn Mulwray (Dunaway) employs his services, asking that he find out about the affair she knows her husband is having, Gittes is pulled unwittingly into a labyrinthian web of lies, deceit and corruption that ultimately will send him all the way back to the place he thought he would never return to: Chinatown.

Gittes (a name I keep wanting to misspell) is particularly good at what he does. That might be because he has little in the way of a personal life, dedicating most (if not all) of his time to his work. His latest assignment all but ensures this will be an ongoing pattern, as the husband in question is none other than Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling), chief engineer of the L.A. Department of Water and Power. Naturally, Gittes has some questions for the man but before he can ask any of them, Mulwray’s body is being dragged out of a river, a river that has been bled dry thanks to the diversion of water behind a reservoir that’s being heavily guarded by the department’s security. Gittes turns to Mrs. Mulwray for some answers after he’s brutalized by said security (a cameo performance from Polanski himself as a henchman is somewhat amusing) and left with no substantial leads. He’s convinced she’s hiding some secret.

Her father, a powerful and dangerous man named Noah Cross (John Huston), holds sway over where the water is to be distributed. His plan is to incorporate the Owens Valley into the Los Angeles area as a way of controlling the resource and ultimately increasing his wealth. Gittes investigates Cross, who in turn requests Gittes’ help in finding the mistress of his daughter’s husband, claiming he will double the pay and even give him a bonus if he succeeds in retrieving her. It’s something of a leap of faith Gittes takes in his investigation. He leaves behind the simpler pleasures of solving mundane cases of infidelity for a much more challenging and personal case that will have serious implications for all involved; a case where the end game for Gittes isn’t made clear. What’s he getting out of all of this?

An easier question to answer: what does Nicholson get out of starring in this pervert’s film? If the pinstriped suit and fedora don’t make it obvious enough it’s an opportunity to demonstrate some sense of stability in a seductive and — at the risk of overusing the word — stylish cinematic environment in which he gradually loses said stability to the increasing pressures created by those around him. As a private investigator, the man is not someone we can afford to like at every turn, yet Nicholson imbues the guy with a personality that’s difficult to root against, even if his stubborn persistence ruffles more feathers than just those of the characters on screen. He has the trappings of a thoroughly unlikable individual — nosy, somewhat temperamental and unable to forego obsession for the sake of his own well-being — Gittes is somehow still deeply empathetic, while remaining vintage, enigmatic Jack Nicholson.

We need look no further than Dunaway’s eloquence and measured line delivery to find Chinatown‘s better half in terms of style and grace. Evelyn exudes beauty and desperation simultaneously, a combination which usually translates into ‘damsel in distress’ status for most leading females, yet Evelyn isn’t easily pushed over, despite the complicated circumstances of her personal affairs. Dunaway proves a sensational match for Nicholson, equaling him in terms of the intensity and strength of her own convictions. The pair make for a timeless cinematic couple, despite the atypical relationship. (Award another point to Chinatown for its blatant disregard for cinema’s blueprint for traditional romance.)

Chinatown‘s frequently mentioned in the classic cinema conversation and it’s not difficult to see why. Between John A. Alonzo’s stunning ability to bathe California in visual splendor while generating fear and anxiety from the same, and Polanski’s assured direction that slowly but surely entices viewers into the mystery, there’s little that the film does that proves otherwise. Running over two hours in length, time simply disappears and a new timeline emerges: where and when does Gittes get to the bottom of this investigation? What does he find? Was it all worth the effort? When it comes to conducting business around Chinatown, the answer isn’t likely to be what any of us are looking for.

“Forget it, Jack. It’s Hollywood.”

Recommendation: Despite my personal feelings towards Roman Polanski, I can’t deny his place in the grander cinematic picture. His work is distinctive, immersive and extraordinarily complex. Chinatown is one to go to if you’re looking for another legendary Jack Nicholson performance, but it’s also something to consider if you’re seeking out a quality crime noir. Robert Towne’s screenplay is frequently cited as one of the best ever created, and if that’s how you measure your enjoyment of movies, you might keep that in mind as well. In general though, I’ll call this one a must-see based on its effortless entertainment value. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

TBTrivia: You can take Jack Nicholson out of a basketball game but you can’t take the game out of Jack Nicholson. At one point, Roman Polanski and Nicholson got into such a heated argument that Polanski smashed Nicholson’s portable TV with a mop. Nicholson used the TV to watch L.A. Lakers basketball games and kept stalling shooting.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.adammcdaniel.com; http://www.imdb.com

IMDb Top 250: The Elephant Man (1980)

imdb top 250 logo

I would like to thank Table9Mutant (a.k.a. Mutant, a.k.a. Mutey) of Cinema Parrot Disco for the opportunity to review a film that is, in my estimation, a downright classic. If you have yet to check out her site yet, please drop what you’re doing now and head over there (or after you’ve read this, that works too. 😉 )

So there was this movie I needed to watch for this IMDb Top 250 movie challenge thing I was participating in. I’m using the past tense because this was something I had committed to about . . . a year and a half ago at this point. (Is that about right Mutey? Year and a half? or has it been longer?) The movie was David Lynch’s The Elephant Man and I finally managed to calm my ADHD down enough to where I could actually watch it. However, as I was cueing it up to watch my mind started being a bit of an ass, provoking me and stuff, telling me to flip to a different On-Demand channel, something that was playing a more recent movie.

“No!” I yelled back at it, out loud. Seated on a couch in the middle of a very quiet living room. All I had done over the last several months was learn to procrastinate better. Err, sorry, excuse me — blog about other movies that to me at the time seemed more urgent. Finally I realized I could always procrastinate — yes, that ‘extremely-nonsensical-combination-of-letters-that-if-repeated-enough-over-a-short-span-of-time-makes-even-less-sense-but-somehow-if-you-only-say-it-once-you-know-exactly-what-it’s-referring-to’ word — later on anyway. I had to hit the play button now.

I was transported back to the late 1800s, and Victorian England, where traveling circuses were still all the rage and attracted (semi-) massive crowds. I think it’s only fair to assume those who did not turn out for these shows had some kind of moral compass that wasn’t shattered into shitty little useless bits. After a brief but trippy dream-like sequence, Lynch pans in on a striking man (Anthony Hopkins) moving through the crowds, trying to access a particular exhibit known only as ‘The Elephant Man.’ However a shift in the public perception of what these most bizarre and unholy of events actually represented — not curiosity, but cruelness — led to more than a few of the more obscure and unattractive exhibits being closed down by authorities. ‘The Elephant Man’ was one such exhibit.

Cut to a dank and depressingly dark alleyway somewhere in the London area, where once again Hopkins’ Dr. Frederick Treves is trying to get a glimpse of this elephant-like man. To do so, he must uncomfortably agree to some terms (mostly monetary . . . natch) set by the manager, a horrible man named Bytes (Freddie Jones). When he’s finally granted access Treves is so moved by what he sees that he asks if he may ‘study him’ back at the London Hospital, where Treves is a renowned practitioner of medicine. Or whatever fancy way 19th Century English people referred to medical-y people.

As Lynch’s often powerfully emotive work seeks to explore the relationship Dr. Treves formed with his patient, Joseph Merrick (a breathtakingly good John Hurt), during the time he stayed in this hospital, the narrative gets cozy in this facility, spending much of the remaining time concerned with the passage of time and how it can quite literally heal wounds. Unfortunately, the London Hospital had been deemed a facility fit only for those who could be cured of their ailment(s). Go figure, Victorian England. As if Joseph needed the added pressure of becoming an inconvenience to the bureaucracy. (Random bit of trivia: Joseph’s so commonly mistakenly referred to as John that he is actually ‘John’ in the movie as well, so for the purposes of this review I’ll stick with his movie name from here on out.)

The fabric of this narrative is weaved from a tough, humanistic cloth. The Elephant Man is an absorbing study of one of the most fundamental aspects of existence, the need and desire to fit in and belong to something. For the heavily disfigured John, it’s heartbreakingly sufficient for him to have his presence actually acknowledged by at least one person. Perhaps this explains why he opens up at all to the doctor who found him in the streets and why he said precious little to his circus manager/owner. John sees Dr. Treves as a paternal figure of sorts. At the very least, a reincarnation of his mother, of whom he carries around a picture in his pocket. Since early childhood, around the age of 10 when she passed away, John was always curious to know if she, too, would have rejected him like his father and his new wife had . . . or would she have accepted him for what and who he was?

The Elephant Man is powered by two tremendous performances from Hurt and Hopkins, the former being one of the strongest in all of cinematic history. (Certainly in my history of watching movies, which is like, so totally not a history at all . . . . . ) I feel pretty comfortable making that claim even when factoring in make-up effects that were ahead of their time, effects so convincing they inspired the Academy to introduce an award category the following year specifically for Make-Up Artistry.* Hurt, behind a mask that graphically depicts the brutality of random chance (a.k.a. the nature of genetics), is mesmerick (see what I did there? I spelled that word as if it were his last name as part of the . . . okay, yeah this is pointless information). But for cereals, you cannot turn away from this performance, not for a second. The man is utterly transfixing throughout, in ways that ingeniously distract from the grotesque physical appearance. Physically embodying the character was one step, but giving the man personality . . . that’s another challenge entirely. And yet, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for Hurt. He’s stoic yet nevertheless heartbroken by his past; grateful for Treves’ kindness yet still aware that not everyone can be like him. There’s an aura surrounding John that is wholly indebted to Hurt’s interpretation.

Obviously Hopkins is no slouch either. A complicated individual, Treves is first at odds with the hospital and its ‘curable patients’ policy. Over the months and years of John remaining under his care Treves makes more enemies than just Bytes, who reemerges infrequently throughout, eager to reclaim his prized possession any day. John’s life in the London Hospital begins in isolation, but as the doc makes leaps and bounds in progress with the patient, and the tenuous bond of trust they establish eventuates in John’s transfer to a more social area of the hospital, Treves must face up to the ethical consequences of using John as a pseudo-medical experiment. Hopkins is immensely likable as Dr. Treves, yet he’s perfectly imperfect. He doesn’t immediately question his approach with John, like how one of the first things he did with him was show him off to an auditorium packed with, yes, other medical-y people and laying claim to how this would be his most interesting patient yet. Instead, that question comes much later, after circumstances have changed dramatically. Yet, if we’re meant to feel ambivalent towards Treves, Hopkins does a damn fine job of convincing us of his better qualities.

This is of course not easy material to get through. If you have the patience to sit through some many trying scenes (I’m talking the kind that make you angry), then the upshot will be powerful, a potent reminder that people have an immense capacity for kindness in spite of all that has been shown here. Yet the treacherous scenes that come before are often punishment on the conscience; their bluntness at times visceral and greatly upsetting. Some parts are sickening, while others can be downright unwatchable. How can ignorance beget such monstrous behavior? The kind of freakishness that occurs naturally only in tents that capitalize on monsters. Lynch crafts a beautiful symmetry between John’s unfortunate looks and society’s collective hideousness.

The Elephant Man has been described as one of Lynch’s most accessible films. Structurally speaking it’s as straightforward as a . . . I don’t know, something that’s straightforward — a ruler, perhaps? No, a documentary. As straightforward as a documentary. I hesitate to make that comparison because it makes the film sound uninspired and possibly even lazy. Given the way The Elephant Man flows from one stage of life to the next, ducking and diving in and out of the various rooms that constituted John’s life the film does take on some of the evaluative properties of an in-depth documentary. Lynch didn’t have to concoct a timeline-distorting, reality-bending head trip to leave an impression here. He just needed to let the subject matter speak for itself.

slight correction: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences created the new category for the following year’s ceremony, but only after they were pressured publicly to do so. When The Elephant Man failed to garner attention for its make-up effects, it was petitioned to have an honorary award bestowed upon it, even though the AMPAS refused. An American Werewolf in London was the first film that won the prize in the following year

Recommendation: Emotionally devastating and difficult to watch on more than one occasion, The Elephant Man is an essential experience for fans of deeply human stories. In this case I think the subject matter far outweighs the talents involved in creating it (with perhaps the exception of John Hurt who makes the product worth the while on his own). This may be a David Lynch film but I will probably remember it more as just a generally classic film with astounding performances. 

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “I am not an animal! I am a human being! I . . . am . .  . a man!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com

Four Years of DSB

dsb 4 bday irony

. . .being a Brit.

Roughly four years ago today I gave birth to DSB. In case you were wondering, yes, it was an immaculate conception. There was no one else who helped make it happen.

I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but I’m proud of what this has become. I think I might have said this before, but I was surprised I ever returned to this page after I took a year-long hiatus from mid-2011 until March of 2012. I remember having just . . . such an embarrassingly emotional reaction to Todd Phillips’ bacchanalia Project X that I felt the need to go and write my thoughts down. That was a review that makes my recent Jurassic World rant tame by comparison. I’m going to try in the future to not let those emotions get the better of me. I’m sure I have annoyed a few readers in the process of doing that, and I kind of regret it. Sometimes I have this feeling that I do more harm than good by coming on so strongly. That’s why the blog has lost its original slogan: ‘Rants and Raves.’ I want to take the focus off of the negatives and focus more on the positives!

Regardless, I’ve appreciated having this space to vent. I thank WordPress for being such a tool . . . a good one, that is. 😉 You can bet I’ll be signing up for another year with you. Since consistently posting from around early 2013 and onwards, this has become quite the addiction. I love the feeling of getting to write something and then have like-minded people ‘Like’ and leave feedback on my stuff. It’s truly great and that energy is what is helping propel me into the future.

Speaking of which, my next moves are going to be a tad scarier and undoubtedly more expensive. The goal is to relocate to Salt Lake City. Not only is that town a killer place to be for those attracted to the outdoors (as I am) — as well as Mormon fundamentalism (as I am not) — but every January there’s a little film festival that takes place known to some as Sundance. I have loved covering mainstream releases — and there are a lot to be found here — but I would really like to start digging into the world of independent cinema more often. I’d love to have exposure to things that could prove to be harder to access outside of the film festival circuit. So, I’m setting that as a goal for me to achieve within the next two years. I think that’s reasonable. Right . . . ?

Alright I was promising myself I wouldn’t ramble on with this post and here I am doing just that. I shall use the rest of this space to list a few little tidbits and factoids in celebration of the blog’s fourth birthday/anniversary. And is it just me, or does time really fly when you’re having fun blogging. . . ?

cropped-knoxville-downtown-night-lights1

DSB’s original banner image

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2011

  1. Drive – Ryan Gosling, meet Nicolas Winding Refn
  2. Win-Win – first of all, how many people saw this? And second, Paul Giamatti – awesome.
  3. Cedar Rapids – another under-seen and under-appreciated film, this time starring Ed Helms.
  4. Crazy, Stupid, Love – a crazy, not stupid and lovely date film

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2012

  1. The Dark Knight Rises – a near-perfect end to a near-perfect trilogy. Tom Hardy gave me chills
  2. Marvel’s The Avengers – . . .do I really need to qualify this?
  3. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s made a lot of good ones, but this one’s hard to beat
  4. Skyfall – Sam Mendes’ apology for Marc Forster’s indiscretion with the convoluted Quantum of Solace

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2013

  1. The Way, Way Back – so awkward it becomes adorable. I. Love. This. Movie.
  2. Rush – Ron Howard concocts a classic racing film, least in my eyes. And that casting — wow!
  3. Safety Not Guaranteed – an excellent and beyond-quirky little gem starring one of my biggest celebrity crushes, Aubrey Plaza
  4. The Place Beyond the Pines – too quickly forgotten, this sprawling epic proved an acting showcase

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2014

  1. Her – Spike Jonze’ deeply personal and witty commentary on our relationship with technology is one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen
  2. The Skeleton Twins – pairing Bill Hader with Kristen Wiig in this deeply touching and moving dramedy worked like a charm on me
  3. Godzilla – a refreshingly restrained monster movie in an age where we seem to demand we get all the good stuff up-front without question
  4. Winnebago Man – this docu is amazingly insightful and hilarious. Underrated is how I’d describe it.

Four of my Favorite Films I’ve Seen so far in 2015 

  1. Love & Mercy – achingly nostalgic and filled with spectacular performances, the biopic of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is a definite winner
  2. What We Do in the Shadows – painfully funny stuff brought to you by one-half of the musicomedy duo Flight of the Conchords
  3. Almost Famous – a classic from the turn of the millennium which I have no excuse for putting off for so long. This is a fantastic film from Cameron Crowe
  4. The Guest – suspenseful, artistic and bloody in equal measure, this is a crazy awesome film that snuck under a lot of people’s radars

Four Films I’m Most Anticipating in 2015

  1. Spectre – I’m excited to see where Sam Mendes can take the gritty James Bond next. Trailers so far hint at the darkest chapter yet.
  2. In the Heart of the Sea – set to the tune of the epic tale of Moby Dick, this film will reunite director Ron Howard with star Chris Hemsworth
  3. The Revenant – with a mind-glowingly awesome cast under the direction of last year’s Oscar Best Picture, I’m really curious to see what this will be like
  4. The Green Inferno – I wouldn’t call myself the biggest Eli Roth fan, but no joke . . . his latest film looks bloody and bloody brilliant. Sign me up.

What are four of your most anticipated this year? What are four of your favorites so far? 

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Four new things about the blog

  1. Expanded menus – I finally figured out how to customize menus in the editing page and now you can access all that DSB has to offer through a variety of drop down menus located above the banner. That only took me four years to figure out lol
  2. The introduction of character studies in the form of 2014’s The Franco Files and 2015’s John C. Reilly Factor. If you’re a fan of these folks, check these pages out!
  3. The DSB Spotlight – this new ‘feature’ represents the first paid contribution to this site and it makes me very proud to be able to feature a fellow movie fan’s writing on here. This is validation that others beyond the blogging community have been reading and accessing what I have to say about movies and it is humbling to say the least. You can check out this article here.
  4. With the help of esteemed blogger and friend Mark Fletcher of the fantastic Three Rows Back, I co-hosted my very first blogathon — The Decades Blogathon — which turned out to be a great experience and led to even more exposure to both film titles and film fans/bloggers alike. This was a great experience, and hopefully not the last for me.

Thank you as always for reading my stuff. It’s an honor and a privilege to still be doing this. Onwards!