Friday, April 18, 2014

Transcendence


TRANSCENDENCE: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, directed by Wally Pfister (119 min.)

Transcendence is a confused and muddled film with big ideas at the beginning, big ideas which are systematically taken apart step by step thanks to a weak script and illogical behavior from central characters.  This ultimately derails everything.  The actors involved give it their all, I suppose, but the screenplay pours water all over their performances.  Here is a sci-fi thriller with no faith in its own ideas and no energy.  At the heart of everything lies an interesting premise: what happens when technology and humanity ultimately meld together?  What would be the implications of such a thing, where self awareness was not a mutually exclusive idea to the human race, and computers and the internet were able to achieve self awareness?  In the hands of a competent film, these ideas with this plot could go places.  But, alas, we are not given the tools to carry these theories anywhere interesting.

Johnny Depp is the star I suppose, although he spends the majority of the picture inside a computer and on a screen.  He is Dr. Will Caster, a brilliant scientist, and he is working on a supercomputer that is dangerously close to becoming self aware, the one element of human consciousness which separates us from everything else.  His wife, Evelyn, is played by Rebecca Hall.  Evelyn is brilliant in her own right, and believes in Will's work.  The opening act features Will giving a speech at a California science convention where he discusses artificial intelligence in some droning and uninteresting dialogue that seems cobbled together from other movies.  After the speech, Will is shot in the lobby at the same time computer labs across the country are blown up.  While the bullet does so little damage that Will is able to get out of the hospital and walk into his office hours later, it turns out that the bullet is laced with radiation which begins poisoning Will and will soon kill him.

The bullet was fired by a member of R.I.F.T. (Revolutionary Independence From Technology), a rogue group of militant anti-tech people, led by Bree (Kate Mara).  Well, Bree seems to be the only one we get to know, so I suppose she's a leader of some sorts.  This sure seems like a ragtag unit, which leads me to their assault on computer labs across the country… how?  They can't even manage to have a proper secret hiding place throughout the film, yet they can simultaneously infiltrate secure laboratories and blow them up?  I am digressing into the illogical aspects of the picture, and if I do that we will be here all night.  So let's move on.

Evelyn has a great idea.  She plans to upload Will into his own supercomputer and put him online so he can live after his body dies.  The plan is so hair brained that I can't imagine even the most layman individual thinking it is a good idea, regardless of the emotional connection.  Evelyn and Will's friend, Max, played by the always milquetoast Paul Bettany, realizes the implications of such an endeavor.  But here is this brilliant scientist, risking the fate of humanity on uploading her husband to a computer so she can hang out with him forever.  Either way it happens, and Will is uploaded to the internet, so his mind apparently encompasses everything.  Literally, everything, so that alone should end the film.  But no, Will has Evelyn move out to a dying desert town where they build an expansive field of solar panels and an underground computer lab.  That's right…

In this underground lab, Will - or the computer version of Will - figures out how to restore plants and cure broken bones and illnesses, with a catch.  All of the people he ends up healing are linked into his brain and… forget it.  The FBI, represented by Cillian Murphy in a wasted role, and another scientist, played by Morgan Freeman in a role that didn't even need to exist, employ the military to come out and stop Will and his healing and creation of a new God, or whatever.  What Will is doing with this ethnology seems harmless and, to be honest, helpful to humanity.  But it doesn't really matter because the logic in the story is absent.  The clear dangers of this whole undertaking are completely obvious to everyone except Rebecca Hall's Evelyn.  And then, the ultimate answer to curing everything is to basically end humanity?  By this time I had stopped caring.

In my opinion, there are two very important elements to a successful sic-fi film.  1) Believe in the idea, and 2) make certain the characters act logically in the face of the illogical.  Most sic-fi films dip their toe in the illogical, and as long as the characters in the story handle this lack of sense with a very firm conviction and dedication to the logical, the picture works.  Transcendence has neither of these things.  Logic abandons the thesis of the picture for sure, but it even leaves very basic, very simple moments in the film.  The whole thing unravels from one scene to the next, and the weak screenplay falls apart at the seams with every word.  Wally Pfister, who is a fantastic cinematographer, loses sight of anything interesting or worth our time in his debut directorial feature.  What a wasted opportunity, and what a waste of two hours in the theater.

F

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Under The Radar Films: Disconnect

With so many ways to consumer films both old and new these days, it isn't uncommon for some worthy movies to slip under the radar.  Whether they are released in limited theaters, on demand, or both, it is much easier these days to miss out on some impacting pictures.  Such is the case with Disconnect, a small film with large aspirations and a story that is tragically timely.  In the same vein as films like Crash, Disconnect deals with multiple narratives weaving their way into one another, however casually, while shining a spotlight on the very real and very damaging issue of internet bullying and exploitation.  I didn't expect much going into the film, but was blown away by the raw emotion on display, the performances, and the willingness of the film to not take the easy way out of situations that could most certainly fall into the routine.

The central story of Disconnect focuses on a seemingly normal family with all of the distractions of work and technology we all have in our lives.  The father, Rich (Jason Bateman, an underrated dramatic actor), is a busy lawyer who loves his kids but allows his work to stay in the way.  His wife, Lydia, is played sparingly by Hope Davis.  They have two children, a teenage daughter and a younger teen son, Ben (Jonah Bobo) who becomes the focus of this tragic tale.  Ben is like many teenage boys, awkward and quiet, consumed by his music and a loner in the halls of his school.  Naturally, Ben's "different-ness" catches the eye of two hateful boys in his class.  But instead of bullying him in the halls the two boys take a route of bullying and cruelty all too familiar these days; they go to the internet.  They use Facebook to create a fake account of a young girl and begin flirting and luring Ben into a trap.


Our second narrative revolves around a reporter, Nina Dunham, played by Andrea Riseborough.  Nina is an investigative journalist who catches sight of an online sex website where young men perform favors on camera for those willing to pay on the other end.  She meets and reaches out to Kyle, one of the young men, and urges him to tell his story on a special report with his identity kept secret.  He agrees, and his report begins to upset things within his group and draws the attention of the FBI.  All the while, an odd flirtation grows between Nina and Kyle.

The third story involves Derek and Cindy Hull, played by Alexander Skarsgard and Paula Patton, as a married couple dealing in their own individual ways with the death of their young son.  Cindy reaches out to people in a chat group online, developing a relationship with one man in particular, while Derek's grief sinks inward and he disappears from Cindy in life.  Derek is struggling at work and Cindy is lost at home, so when their identity is stolen and their bank accounts hacked, the devastation cripples their lives.  They hire a private investigator, Mike Dixon (Frank Grillo) to find out who did this.  Mike also happens to be the father of one of the boys responsible for bullying young Ben, and causing a tragic event that unravels the family in our central story.

All of these stories are given their own time and focus, and the balancing act by director Henry Alex Rubin and writer Andrew Stern keeps things afloat.  While the story of the Ben and his family takes center stage, the narrative finds easy and unforced ways of weaving these tales together.  As I mentioned there is a tragedy that is the focus of the picture, but in each of these stories there is tragedy and misfortune.  What weaves these stories together even more than characters and situations is the human condition and the way we retreat into the internet to find help.  As the title suggests, there is a disconnect between us all these days, and that is the thesis of the screenplay.  More often than not, there are people around us we can go to, but perhaps not as easily as we can find chat rooms and online relationships.

All of the performances are compelling in their own right, no matter how big or small.  Jonah Bobo is compelling and painfully lost as Ben, and as his father Bateman's obsessive search for what happened to his son takes him into deep, dark emotional places.  This is a film which feels important, something to show teenagers these days so they might be able to understand the damage they can cause from a distance.   There are interesting twists and turns in the story, and not everything ends as one would expect from films of this ilk.  Too often, these films with large casts of interwoven stories crumble under the weight of derivative narration and easy ways out.  Look no further than Crash, the Paul Haggis Oscar winner that has aged poorly with its stereotypes and cliches.  Disconnect is fresh and inventive and timely, which isn't necessarily a good thing when you consider the story.

A

Friday, March 28, 2014

Noah



NOAH: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, directed by Darren Aronofsky (137 min.)

I admire many things about the work of Darren Aronofsky, but what I love the most is his ambition, and the passion in each and every moment in all of his films.  You can feel his heart and soul being poured into his pictures, regardless of the scope of his story.  And now, after the success of Black Swan, Aronofsky was given $130 million, an all-star cast, and The Old Testament in order to make his first epic.  Noah is a wildly ambitious, inventive take on a biblical legend, and a story that will certainly ruffle the feathers of a few purists along the way.  But Aronofsky clearly set out to challenge his audience, and challenge he does.  This is a robust film, one deep with ideas, powerful in imagery, and moving in performances.

Everyone knows the story of Noah, the man whom God sought out to build an ark and safe all species of life on Earth before he wiped out the wicked.  But this is not your father's Noah.  This version, played by Russell Crowe in some of his best work in over a decade, is an environmentalist at heart who uses the land only as he needs to.  This version of the planet is nearing armageddon as it has been overrun by the wicked descendants of Cain, the first murderer, armies of rapers and pillagers who devour meat because they think it gives them strength.  In their minds, "The Creator" as he is called in the film, has turned his back on man.  Noah lives away from the evil hoards with his family, his dutiful wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), and his three sons.  His family also takes in an orphan girl named Ila, who as an adult is played wonderfully by Emma Watson.

The Creator reaches out to Noah in a number of ways early on, most notably in some hallucinatory dreams where Noah is shown the destruction of the world.  He seeks out advice from his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), who assumes fire with cover the planet.  "Not fire," Noah informs him.  "This is death by water."  He figures out his mission: build an ark for The Creator's animals and Noah's family, and survive the annihilation.  This is the basic story as told through time, but what is not covered on a regular basis is the impending hoard of wicked men, led by Tubalcain (Ray Winstone),  direct defendant of Cain himself.  What is also left out of most retellings are The Watchers, fallen angels who have been encased in gangly rock and lava bodies for eternity.  These Watchers, with the gravelly voices of Nick note and Frank Langella, protect Noah on his quest and help him construct the ark.

The ark was actually built in New York State, and is an impressive set piece.  The animals traveling toward the ark in two-by-two formation is some effective CGI, and the flood itself is more furious than the stories may have ever described before.  What I found so fascinating about Noah is the fact that the ark is built, the flood occurs, and the family is set adrift merely an hour into the film.  What happens next in the narrative is an unexpected dose of psychological turmoil within Noah, and a family drama unfolding with wonderful tension and emotion.  Noah becomes conflicted about what The Creator has told him, whether or not he and his family are part of the plan moving forward, and his decision on this matter upends the passengers.  Connelly as the hard-working supportive wife, has a scene where she confronts Noah and his decision that is among the most intensely powerful moments in her career.  And Watson digs deep in her role as Ila, finding new levels as an actress.  The three central characters are fantastic, and Winstone the perfect antagonist.

One of my main concerns going into Noah was the fear that a big studio and a big budget would neuter Darren Aronofsky.  More meddling compromises auteurs like Aronofsky who consistently challenge their audience.  Fortunately, the picture is not compromised in that way, never homogenized, and I cannot imagine it pleasing Christians across the board.  What keeps the sharp Aronofsky "feel" of the picture is the fact he was able to team up with two very important people who have collaborated with him throughout his career: cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who does masterful work once again, and composer Clint Mansel, who strikes all the right chords of love, despair, and action in a score much broader than anything he has done.  This team, sharpened by Aronofsky's desire to tell his own biblical tale, keeps Noah moving and active just as much in ideas as it does in action.

There are so many timeless ideas, and criticisms on modern culture.  Man is to blame for the destruction of the world in the film, Noah is a staunch environmentalist and vegan, certain aspects of modern culture that fit seamlessly into a story older than time.  Is the film itself something great?  I don't quite know.  It's hard to say here on opening day.  What I do know is it is a busy film that somehow never feels crammed full or rushed, a picture that is always moving forward while taking time to breathe.  Noah is a picture that will take time to properly judge.  That doesn't mean it will weaken over the years, that is merely speculation as to how brilliant it may seem a decade down the road.

A-

ARONOFSKY WEEK: Black Swan, My Review From December 2010

The following review is from Black Swan's initial release in 2010…

BLACK SWAN: Natalie PortmanMila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey (110 min.)

I am glad I took the time to absorb Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan before writing a single word about what I had seen. There is no way I could have walked, or staggered (at least mentally) out of the theater, sat down, and written a single coherent thing concerning the film. Black Swan is something that must first be observed, then digested, then reconsidered. Even now I feel like I haven’t fully seen this film, that only after a second and a third viewing will I be able to fully comprehend and dissect this fantastic spectacle. My initial reaction, mere seconds after leaving the theater, was a mix of enjoyment and a little confusion and some concern that maybe he had missed the mark in a few spots, that the camp and dark humor permeating the goings on in this story of rival ballerinas was unintentional. But after quite some thought and a little fresh perspective of my own, I feel like every move, every shot, every manipulation of the audience was fully intentional on Aronofsky’s part. There is nothing, I am now convinced, that Aronofksy will do or has done in any of his pictures that does not strike the nerve it intended to strike.

Natalie Portman, with her skin and muscles wound as tight as a drum, plays Nina Sayers, a technically sound, almost flawless ballet dancer at a local New York company. Nina desperately wants the lead in the new production of Swan Lake, playing both the white and black swan. The company director, Thomas (pronounced Toe-Ma), played by Vincent Cassel, is certain she has the technical prowess and innocence to portray the white swan. Only she does not have the sexual freedom and daringness it takes to play his black swan. Thomas is an egomaniac who preys on his ballerinas, having recently dismissed the aging star (a delightfully wicked Winona Ryder) so that he may move on to a younger love interest. He lusts after Nina, but Nina does not oblige. Not only is she being manipulated by Thomas, she is being controlled by her mother.

Nina’s mother, Erica, is played by Barbara Hershey, and is perhaps one step down from Carrie’s mother. Erica was once a dancer, but never made it big, and through her shortcomings she has practically created Nina. She guards Nina like a prison warden, keeps her bedroom pink and full of stuffed animals as if she was still a child, and has a strange habit of painting endless portraits of Nina that play a bigger part than one might imagine. Hershey undergoes her own transformation for the audience, although her outbursts towards Nina feel like moments she has suffered in the past. Nina is being pulled and shaped and manipulated in so many ways, that when a young ballerina named Lily (Mila Kunis, fantastic here) arrives at the company, showing the sexual prowess and free-wheeling attitude that Nina needs in order to become the part, her dedication becomes an obsession.
Lily serves as the photographic negative of Nina. Nina practices, is obsessive, has no life outside of the company and her home. Lily is a free spirit who smokes, parties, eats cheeseburgers instead of lettuce wraps, and doesn’t take herself seriously. She is everything Nina needs to embody the black swan for her role. Naturally, as Nina begins to spiral out of control, her obsession taking some frightening turns, she becomes wrapped up in Lily’s world and her sexual repressions manifest themselves in the film’s most discussed sequence between the two actresses. Nina’s nervous breakdown is the arc of suspense in the film, and the third act spins out of control just as Nina is unraveling under the pressure of opening night. The stress of Nina's world does not hide in subtle moments of introspection, but screams loudly through great moments of hallucinatory breakdowns and paranoia so intense, the film and the player begins to unravel in fascinating ways.

Aronofsky is not subtle in Black Swan, using a stark color palette to indicate the duality of the proceedings. Almost everything in the studio, be it the office of Thomas, the studio itself, or the dressing rooms, are black and white. And in every scene there is some sort of mirror, often times showing Nina to the audience with a reflection before she really enters the frame. Such techniques may seem elementary, or obvious, for a director like Aronofsky, but that is the idea. Aronofsky is not going for undertones, he is taking the film over the top and beyond, and he signifies this by showing us the obvious motifs and designed shots.

Much has been made about the dark comedy of Black Swan, and the way the proceedings explode into an almost campy excess. It may rub some the wrong way, but again, this is the direction Aronofsky had for the picture the entire time in my opinion. Ballet is a high-concept art, the cousin of opera if you will, and the lavish excess of such a profession lends itself to melodramatic, bombastic situations. Portman is, in my opinion, the frontrunner for Best Actress. Her performance, a physically demanding characterization of a poor girl wound so tight and driven so mad by the pursuit of perfection, is simply stunning. Portman is in every scene, and her madness is so boisterous and amplified throughout that the performance must be captivating in order for the film to succeed, and captivating it is. And Mila Kunis should not be overlooked either. She is perfect as a doppelganger for Nina. She exudes sex appeal, the thing that Portman has masked in her character by her rigid physique and a disposition and physical appearance that makes it seem like her skin is going to split open.

I wondered, after leaving the theater, if the laughter from the audience was an unintentional mistake by Aronofsky, but I don’t think so. Aronofsky has made an excessive, energetic, high-concept horror film rife with darkly comedic moments, melodrama, and camp necessary to emphasize the actions of these characters who exist in the overly theatrical world of the New York ballet scene. What a mesmerizing piece of work, a marvelous shot taken by Aronofsky, and a bold picture that relishes in its overindulgence. I was not particularly fond of The Wrestler, not as much as some, but I grew more and more adoring of Black Swan mere hours after leaving the theater. High camp? Indeed it is. It is also beautiful, horrifying, savagely amusing, and a brave film from a visionary filmmaker willing to take risks. What else would you expect from a film about insanity in the ballet world aside from melodramatic excess? I, personally, would not have wanted it any other way.

A

Thursday, March 27, 2014

ARONOFSKY WEEK - The Wrestler, and A Different Obsession

All of Darren Aronofsky's films deal with a characters' obsession and their addiction, be it drugs, or numerology, or the quest for eternity.  Of all his films, however, Aronofsky's The Wrestler is the outlier, as the obsession here is not external influence, but an internal longing.  Mickey Rourke plays the title role, Randy"The Ram" Robinson, and his addiction is the image of his former self.  Randy is a washed-up former superstar wrestler, working in low-rent wrestling circuits in recreation centers, a shell of his former self hanging on to a dream.  Randy hasn't been kind to his body, a meld of muscular scar tissue and blond hair dye, and his careless youth has caught up with him.  So here he is in rec centers, taking real staples in the face and actual metal chairs across the back.  The Ram will do anything to hold on to the 80s version of himself, no matter how far gone it may actually be at this stage.  His nostalgia is the addiction in The Wrestler, and in many ways is the most tragic and sad of Aronofsky's characters.

The Ram lives in a mobile home, alone, having lost all the fortune and fame of his late 80s wrestling superstardom.  He plays a wrestling video game, one with his likeness, with the neighborhood kids on an original Nintendo.  His van, complete with a Ram action figure stuck to the dash, gets him from match to match as he blasts Motley Crue and The Scorpions.  The wrestling spectators are few and far between, and thirsty for blood from the performers who work out the result of the matches ahead of time back stage.  There are autograph sessions at YMCAs that attract maybe a dozen fans.  The popularity of wrestling has clearly waned since the 80s, and former stars like The Ram are paying for their hedonism with a world that doesn't want them anymore.  His life is a sad state.

Randy struggles to repair a long-broken relationship with his estranged daughter (Evan Rachel Wood), who mostly rejects his newfound sincerity.  He works to build a personal relationship with Cassidy, a stripper played by Marisa Tomei in a wonderful performance.  Cassidy is a broken person, maybe equally as alone as Randy, and they find each other to an extent the way people who fight the same demons tend to do.  Perhaps that leads Randy into another form of obsession or addiction, the longing and desire to reconnect with humanity in any way possible.  Having burned bridges his entire life, Randy is now trying to repair an old one with his daughter and build a new one to Cassidy, regardless of how much Cassidy may reciprocate.

The Wrestler finds Aronofsky with a shift in styles from his previous, earlier pictures.  Here, his camera is less flashy until the moment calls for embellishments.  His camera follows Randy from behind a majority of the time, and stays omnipresent rather than calling attention to itself to give the film a documentary feel.  The behind the scenes of these bargain basement wrestling matches is fascinating as these former arena-filling monsters discuss who will put who in a choke hold and who might win that night.  But it all depends on the crowd and who they're pulling for that night, because more than they are athletes these broken men are entertainers.

A central match, a brutal and gruesome match where Randy is beaten savagely for the sake of cheers from the masses, puts Randy in the hospital.  He discovers he has a heart condition and if he carries on wrestling he will certainly die.  He tries to get a straight job, but fails for a number of reasons, the least of which is not the addiction to screaming fans.  His addiction to the scene is more powerful than the fear of death.  This is Mickey Rourke's finest work as an actor, both physically and emotionally, perhaps because the idea of a successful career gone awry hits close to home for him.  The Wrestler stands out from Aronofsky's pictures in its simplicity and the lack of cinematic flourish.  This isn't a knock on the film, or Aronofsky's other films because I think there are two better ones in his portfolio.  It is simply an observation that since the obsession with his character went inward, so did his camera.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ARONOFSKY WEEK - Understanding and Accepting Aronofsky's Passion Project, The Fountain

It took six long years for Darren Aronofsky to follow up his incendiary Requiem for a Dream, six very long arduous years spent by this film fan, foaming at the mouth.  Requiem had changed my world, flipped my perspective on movies, and I wanted nothing more than to see what Aronofsky had in store next.  In those six years, so many things happened to his baby, his passion project, The Fountain.  First off, in 2002, Brad Pitt was attached to star in it and the film was given a $75 million budget.  This all fits given the hot commodity of Aronofsky at the time, and we all remember those early 2000s years when Pitt would show up in public with brand in a shabby unkempt beard.  That was for The Fountain.

Needless to say, things fell through on initial production and the picture was shelved, only to be resurrected in 2004 with less than half the budget and new stars, hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.  Corners had to be cut, never a good sign for a director when the film in question is a passion project they have been mulling over for years upon years.  Aronofsky worked with what he had, and thankfully was able to have Jackman and Weisz on board in the lead roles to help soften the blow of studio interference and budget cuts.

But enough excuses.  When The Fountain was finally released, what was once an epic in the making, a tentpole feature for a major studio became a quiet Mid-November release by Warner Brothers that was met by collective confusion from audiences.  The film was considered confusing, aimless, annoying, frustrating, and forgettable.  Perhaps that is all true in hindsight, but in consideration of all the turmoil, of all the external influences on the picture itself, I can manage to - in my own fanatical way - find truth in what Aronofsky is trying to say in the The Fountain.  By no means is it a flawless movie, and it will most certainly be Aronofsky's weakest film in his career regardless of what is to come.  But much of this is not his fault, and the very soul of the picture has something to say about life and love.  So let's get into the film itself.

The story follows three timelines, one in the past, one in the present, and one in the distant future, all starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz in the lead roles.  In the past, a conquistador named Tomas (Jackman) is fighting native intruders in the name of his queen, Isabel (Weisz), and fighting to uncover the tree of life which will grant eternity to those who find it.  In the present, Tom is a scientist fighting against the clock to try and find a cure for his dying wife, Izzy.  He believes there is a cure for death, as it is in his mind simply a disease.  Then there is the future sequence, where we see Tom, or a version of Tom, floating in an orb through space with a tree.  The future segments are most certainly the most bewildering to audiences, but the explanation for this sequence is clear.  In the present, Izzy is working on a novel, which tells the story of Tomas and Queen Isabel.  Just as Tom begins reading Izzy's book, so we are shot back into the story of the past.

Izzy dies before she can finish her book, so it is up to Tom to complete the final chapter.  This is where we meet Tom in the future, body shaven, traveling with the spirit of his departed wife in the form of a tree.  Tom in the future is moving towards some version of heaven, or of complete consciousness with his wife, and absorbs her throughout his journey.  This is the very base understanding of The Fountain, but since the film was chopped and trimmed and marginalized by outside forces, perhaps it is more important to look at what Aronofsky was trying to do rather than what he was able to do.

Regardless of the time period, The Fountain is dealing with mortality and immortality in exclusive narrative threads.  Death is something Jackman's characters reject, and Weisz's characters fall victim to depiste the valiant efforts of our hero.  There are emotional truths in so many of the present day scenes.  But beyond the technical jargon of the story, what exists at the base of the film is a story about love that is not slighted regardless of the outside interference.  Jackman and Weisz create a believable couple with wonderful chemistry.  Even though the film was doomed in certain ways from the very beginning, there is passion and dedication in the performances.

It's hard to believe Aronofsky took six years between the success of Requiem For a Dream and his follow up, but The Fountain was clearly something he had been working on since he wanted to become a filmmaker.  While you cannot excuse the drab nature of the film, the short and shaky editing, and the end result in tone, you can still admire The Fountain for what it meant to Aronofsky, and what he and the actors put into their roles.  And, like every Aronofsky picture, the scoring work of Clint Mansel cannot be denied.  

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

ARONOFSKY WEEK - My Personal Journey Through Requiem For a Dream, from 2010

The following post is from December of 2010...


I wanted to wait a while before I decided to write about Requiem for a Dream. I wanted to iron out any kinks I may have had in my film writing, to come into this confidently, and I wanted to wait until the right moment. And now, with the release of Darren Aronofsky’s fifth movie upon us, I feel like I am in a good place to really examine this picture, a movie that I have a certain personal bond with and a movie that profoundly affected me when I first saw it back in 2000 at a small independent theater in Dallas.

In 2000, I was nineteen, and had been going to the movies for at least thirteen of those years. My parents were fairly liberal regarding what I could and could not see at certain ages because they had confidence in my ability to separate fiction from the real world. In other words, I had been seeing R-rated films for almost a decade; it was not as if challenging films were new to me. And I had enjoyed many hundreds of movies before 2000, before I went by myself after work one Saturday afternoon and bought a ticket to this little movie that I had read an article about just hours before, a movie from a new promising director who had made a splash at Sundance in 1998 with something called Pi. I loved many films of many different kinds, and I was deeply affected by some. Shawshank RedemptionPhiladelphiaForrest GumpGoodfellasDances with Wolves… I had my favorites, and I had films like these mentioned here that stirred my emotional side. But before 2000, before the lights went dark in the Inwood Theater in North Dallas, I had always let the experience simply wash over me in a much broader sense.

Before this Saturday afternoon, I could not have broken down scenes, angles and camera shots and what they meant or said or told the audience, or themes that were not at a surface level of a picture. I was a changed man leaving that theater later that Saturday evening in 2000.

As I drove back to my house that I shared with two college roommates at the time, some 45 minutes away, I can tell you for certain that I don’t remember passing a single other car. The roads could have been empty and I would not have noticed. I was punch drunk. What had I just seen? I don’t remember another time, before or after that late afternoon in 2000, being affected so deeply, so profoundly, by a film, by a collection of images and moments on the screen. I had to see it again, and I had to bring others the next time. I saw it the next day with a roommate, the next weekend again with another friend. I bought the soundtrack because, oh the soundtrack. What an important layer. I read the book, written by Hubert Selby, I replayed shots and moments and effects and sequences over and over in my head until I could watch it again on DVD. And when I bought the DVD, I watched it again, and then re-watched it with the director’s commentary. Requiem for a Dream changed me as a student of film. I enrolled in my first college film course the following spring.

Requiem for a Dream is a film about addiction. But not simply drug addiction, as emphasized by one character. Harry and Tyrone, played by Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans, respectively, are two drug-addled young men who, in the opening scene, are stealing Harry’s mother’s television set so that they can take it to a local pawnbroker in Long Island, get twenty bucks, and score some heroin. Harry’s mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is afraid of Harry and hides in the closet. She lost her husband some time ago, and lives a pitiful and lonely existence in a small apartment with only her television shows and her chocolates to keep her company. She will go down to the pawnbroker later and buy her TV back because, well, she does love Harry still.

Harry and Tyrone have bigger plans than carting stolen televisions back and forth for a quick score; they want to buy a pound of pure heroin, cut it up, and start to sell it. Then they will find their way onto easy street. Heroin is not their only addiction; money has its power as well. Harry’s girlfriend, Marion, played by Jennifer Connelly, perhaps the deepest into heroin addiction of all three, is fully on board with this plan. They buy the drugs, cut them, and begin to really rake in the cash. They buy new apartments, new things, and they don’t use too much of their supply so things are moving along rather well. Of course, this cannot last.

Meanwhile, Sara spends her days obsessing over a strange game show/self-help program on television. One afternoon she gets a call and inadvertently deciphers that the person on the other end has told her she has won a spot on her favorite show. A closer listen will tell you that she has merely been entered into a sweepstakes for a chance to win, something very standard, but that is not how Sara understands it. She tells her friends in the building about it, and she decides that but one outfit will work for her appearance: the red dress that she wore to Harry’s high school graduation. The red dress becomes a new obsession for Sara as it brings back a time of happiness and emotional fulfillment in her life that she no longer has. But Sara’s other addiction, sweets, has made it virtually impossible for her to fit into the dress. She tries to diet, nothing sticks. Her friend in the building tells her that her daughter got prescribed a series of pills and “poof,” her weight was gone. Sara gets the doctor’s number and begins taking diet pills. The pills work swimmingly at first. Sara cleans her whole house in a fantastic montage sequence, is spry and lively again, and the weight begins to rapidly fall off. This, of course, is not the healthiest route to take.

The only other time the story of the three kids and Sara cross other than the opening sequence is when Harry comes to visit Sara. Things are going well for Harry, Marion, and Tyrone, so Harry decides to buy his mother a new television. He wants things to be better with them. When he arrives it takes an addict like Harry no time to figure out that his mother is on something as she flies around the house and offers food that she doesn’t have because her refrigerator is now empty. The scene where the pendulum in the narrative swings, the turning point where these characters, who have reached the mountain top, have but one direction to go, is when Harry notices Sara grinding her teeth, and she tells him why she loves to feel the way she does on these pills. The moment is truly heartbreaking, and exemplifies Sara's loneliness. And aside from being the pivot point in the arc of these characters, it is also the most powerful moment for Burstyn in the film, and one of the single most amazing speeches by an actress.

From this point, there is a shooting, an arrest, and a turf war breaks out on the streets, most of which is hinted at and not shown. But the streets begin to dry up. Nobody is looking for heroin anymore as things have become too dangerous. The business for the three kids begins to suffer, and they start using up their own supply more regularly. Desperate times grow more desperate as the story goes into the winter. Harry and Marion begin to drift, as their unabashed love for each other begins to shows signs that maybe it was a shared love of the drug and not of each other. Harry has to ask Marion to get money from her family psychiatrist, even though she may have to do unspeakable things to get it. Times are this desperate. Things begin to unravel at a rapid clip for these three kids.

Sara has also grown immune to the pills. Her body has adjusted to the dosage and she no longer has the energy and fervor she once did. The nurse assures her it is normal, but what is the point of these pills without the great feeling? Sara takes it upon herself to up the dosage, taking two at a time at first. Things immediately start to happen to Sara, frightening things. The refrigerator, her nemesis that was used for comedic effect earlier, begins to move on its own, or so she thinks. She takes another pill, then another, and her sanity soon fades. She goes back to the doctor and, in one of the more frightening scenes, explains her situation as noises rattle her and time speeds up and slows down in her head with no sense of reality. The sequence, filmed with a distorted lense, takes on the aspect of a nightmare that Sara cannot escape. She returns to her apartment, and takes more and more of these pills. She is skeletal, insane, the red dress now falling off her bones. Nobody is there to help her. The feeling of helplessness carries over to the audience as we watch this innocent life being destroyed through addiction and unhinged madness.

The story has an easily recognizable, almost standard arc. Broken into four chapters of Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter, the direction of these four characters is crystal clear. But as told through Aronofsky’s eye, Requiem for a Dream becomes a pulsating, visionary tale of addiction and self destruction that is technically revelatory. The obsessive kinetics of the camera and the energy of Aronofsky’s storytelling are evident in a number of sequences. For instance, any time a character indulges in their drug of choice, be it heroin or chocolate or television or diet pills or pot or speed, the moment is emphasized by a series of close cuts edited together to heighten the moment of payoff. These montages have since been coined “hip-hop montages” by some, and almost work like the nerve endings of the story that are tapped and toyed with to give the audience that sense of quick, static exhilaration that comes with indulgence.

There is also a recurring dream sequence in the film that I still struggle to break down. It is Harry, standing on a pier, looking towards the ocean. At the end of the pier in front of the water is Marion, with her back to him, wearing his mother’s red dress. There are obvious oedipal overtones to Harry’s dream, but I feel like there is something more at play in these moments, something I can still not quite put my finger on. Perhaps the ambiguity of the moment is Aronofsky’s plan.

The technical side of Requiem for a Dream is quite mind blowing, but would be nothing without two other vital elements. The first of these is the score, by Clint Mansel and the Kronos Quartet. Mansel, who has scored all of Aronofsky’s films, delivers a score that is, for lack of a better less cliché term, haunting. But there is no other way to describe it. The main overture of the film you have heard regardless of whether or not you have seen the film. It has been overused in film trailers ever since, and it gets my blood boiling to see or hear someone refer to the music as “that music from The Lord of the Rings trailer.” Without Mansel and the Quartet, there are moments in Requiem that would not be near as memorable or, at times, nearly as frightening.
The other vital part of the story is, of course, the performances. Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly give two fully realized characterizations of addicts in love with their shared addiction. In one telling scene, the two are lying naked in bed devoting their love to each other endlessly. Instead of simply showing these two lying in the same bed with the same single camera, Aronofsky chooses to split the screen and show each individual in their own split frame. This creates a sense of disconnect created by the drugs, a disconnect that rears its ugly head before things are over. And Marlon Wayans as Tyrone is quite surprising. I never would have imagined, and still cannot, that Wayans had this sort of range in him. Tyrone is given his own back story revolving around memories of his mother, and a deep-seeded yearning to just be lying in her lap as a young boy again.

These three kids are all phenomenal in their roles, but it is Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb that anchors the film. Burstyn is earth shattering in her performance, a performance that should have beaten America’s Sweetheart, Julia Roberts, in 2000 for Best Actress is the Academy had any guts at all. Sara is the character with whom we sympathize the most. Her addictions are understandable, and her loneliness draws us in more than the eager greed of the three kids. When she begins to lose her mind, and the hallucinations and delusions fully consume Sara, you can feel the sadness and the desperation to help her in the pit of your stomach. At least I could…

Requiem for a Dream is like a punch to the stomach, but is a picture that is told with some much savage beauty that it is impossible to see and absorb everything in one sitting. I will never forget walking out of that theater in 2000, alone, getting in my car, and not even turning on the radio. I drove in silence, trying my damndest to fully comprehend what I had just seen. It changed the way I look at cinema; it opened my eyes to a new world of storytelling. Perhaps I had seen this world of storytelling some time before 2000, but I would never again overlook it, not after that solemn drive home.

Monday, March 24, 2014

ARONOFSKY WEEK - Pi (1998), A Film of Obsession on Both Sides of The Camera

Pi is a film about obsession and determination, both in front of and behind the camera.  This was Darren Aronofsky's breakout directorial effort, the hit of the 1998 Sundance FIlm Festival, and a testament to what Aronofsky was capable of as a filmmaker.  Raw, spare, and small, Pi was made on a budget of $60,000 which Aronofsky mainly collected from friends and family.  He promised $150 back on their investment of $100 if the film was purchased at Sundance.  Artisan bought the film for $1,000,000, and the rest is history.

All of Darren Aronofsky's pictures have focused on a character's obsession in one form or another.  Pi is perhaps the most intimately obsessive film of them all, telling the story of a man driven mad by his own mind.  Sean Gullette plays Max, a mathematician who hasn't time for most people.  Max is a mathematician, and is working on figuring out the ultimate code, a key into understanding nature, the universe, even the stock market.  He is a mathematician who sees numerical patterns everywhere, and whose fanatical examination of numerology has driven him away from society.  There are people in his building in New York, like a woman and a young child, who try their best to interact with Max, but he is less than interested.

Max's apartment is a labyrinthine maze of complicated computers and devices trying to capture the pattern to break the world wide open.  He has a friend, Sol (Mark Margolis), whom he plays a game with that is more complicated than chess.  One day in a diner he meets an Hasidic Jew named Lenny, who may have more on his mind than picking Max's complex brain.  A woman calls Max one day claiming she is an employee for a Wall Street stock analysis firm and would like him to come talk about a consultant position.

The code Max is trying to unlock goes, in his opinion, beyond the realm of comprehension.  This is not a code to unlock only the stock market, but the very essence of nature itself; he is unlocking the code to God.  As these external figures begin to show interest in his work, Max begins to grow even more paranoid than he already is on a daily basis.  Both the stock firm and the Jews seem more and more intent on doing harm to Max to try and figure out what he has uncovered in his obsessive study.  But, as the film unfolds, certain aspects of these external influences begin to cast doubt upon their very existence.  Does the Hasidic Jew truly want to get into Max's head?  Is the woman from the stock firm really wanting to hire him for a job, or is she trying to do him harm?  As he gets closer to unlocking the code - or so he thinks - Max begins to slip farther and farther from his own sanity until desperation sends him to the most shocking moment of the film.

Pi was filmed in so many admirable ways.  First, it was a picture made out of desire from Aronofsky.  It was also created daringly, as many of the external scenes in New York were filmed without a permit and with a lookout to spot curious police in the area.  While the option to shoot the film in stark black and white may have been borne from necessity, it is also the perfect palette for a film about a man who cannot see the nuances of the world and visualizes everything in a two-tone existence.  You can feel the energy and determination of Aronofsky's direction, which bleeds into the story at hand perfectly.  Pi would be the catapult for Darren Aronofsky's career, and even today is one of the most ambitious and energetic debut films of an established director.  It also happens to emphasize the obsessive nature of his characters which paint the canvas of each and every one of his films.        

Monday, March 3, 2014

Scatter Shooting on the 86th Oscars


* First and foremost, congratulations to Matthew McConaughey.  I have known personally, ever since A Time to Kill, that McConaughey had the power to be one of our most captivating and skilled actors.  I'm glad he finally put his mind to doing that very thing, and his win last night capped off not only a stellar 2013, but a resurgence almost three years in the making.  And judging by his upcoming projects, including Christopher Nolan's Interstellar later this year, McConaughey isn't slowing down yet.

* All of the actors who won last night were well deserved, and really the only surprise of the evening was a minor one when Spike Jonze won Best Original Screenplay for her.  It was a surprise, but not a shocking twist by any means.

* The telecast didn't seem to go as long as it did.  Some years it drags on forever (Franco/Hathaway…)

* I did think the Wizard of Oz tribute was a little ill fitting and unnecessary.


* Ellen DeGeneres is a perfect fit to host the Oscars.  Her humor is safe but intelligent and dry, her presence calming.  Her opening monologue was brief - a smart move - and the pizza bit and the selfie heard round the world were two great moments.

* Ellen did seem to be waiting on material at times, and what was she doing with that guitar coming out of the commercial break?

* How did the In Memoriam segment leave off the late, great Dennis Farina?  What a misstep.

* I loved the genuine excitement from Steve McQueen in the end.

* I don't know what went wrong with Kim Novak, but I do know that she has battled personal image issues for most of her life.  I also know the social media response was hateful and ugly.

* All in all, The Oscars this year were even and safe.

* 2013 was a fantastic year for films, the best since 2007.  Let's see if 2014 can even try and come close to the same quality.


Friday, February 28, 2014

Non-Stop


NON-STOP: Liam Neeson, Julianna Moore, directed by Jaume Collet-Sera (106 min.)

Non-Stop, the latest annual first-quarter action thriller from the always watchable Liam Neeson, isn't the type of movie to waste it's time on character development.  We have a plot to get to.  We meet our hero, Bill Marks (Neeson), pouring some bourbon in his coffee, taking a drink, and touching a picture of his little daughter before leaving his car at an airport parking lot.  That about sums up everything you need to know about Bill, who is a Federal Air Marshal on a flight to London.  He goes through security, carefully sizing up passengers and mentally ranking them on levels of suspicion, and helps coach a little girl flying solo onto the plane.  A scattered woman named Jen (Julianne Moore) sits down next to him.  Lights go down, people fall asleep.  And then, Bill gets a series of curious texts on his phone, informing him that unless $150 million is deposited into a certain account number, someone on the plane will die every twenty minutes.

Bill is immediately suspicious, and begins to quietly investigate although Jen seated next to him suspects something is happening.  Then, people begin dying, but not in the way one would expect.  One of the more creative ways is the way passengers begin dropping while simultaneously making it seem like Bill is responsible.  He communicates with his superiors on the ground who inform him the account number in the text is actually in his name.  I won't go into mechanics because that is all Non-Stop is about, the machinations of plot and mystery.  From the beginning the camera makes certain passengers a priority, and they reappear throughout as Bill's investigation gets more desperate.

There are whisperings, and nervous chatter among the flight attendants, and then Bill must address the passengers directly to try and find out who is behind these texts.  He grows more and more paranoid with everyone around him, including Jen, and suspects come and go as the camera and the story desires.  There are clever twists and turns within the machine that is Non-Stop, until the third act kicks into gear and the action and desperation hits eleven.  The guilty parties are revealed and suffer a bad case of the "talking killer syndrome" where they explain their entire list of motives instead of simply killing the hero.  The climax is wild and exciting, but completely ridiculous if you sit back and think about it.  But that's the thing, this isn't a film to think about; just take a deep breath and enjoy the ride.

All sorts of issues with logic come into play.  Once Bill's investigative techniques with certain passengers is sent to a news outlet on the ground via video phone, he is branded a Marshal-turned-terrorist and his alcoholism is laid out by reporters.  With such an unstable past, doesn't it seem strange Bill would get a job as an Air Marshal in the first place?  On top of that, this is the type of thriller where the killers/bad guys seem to be so many steps ahead of everyone else they should be tested for mental telepathy.  One specific plot point seems plausible only if the baddies had access to the plane before they even boarded, which is impossible in my book.  But despite all of that I kept telling myself "so what?  I'm enjoying myself here."

Neeson seems to pump out one of these action films in January or February every year, the best one of the bunch being The Grey (yes, better than Taken).  I like the idea of Neeson delivering some popcorn thrills in what is typically a flat and uninspired time of year for movies.  Non-Stop isn't one of the best of that small sample but it is certainly better than the drab and watered down Unknown.  Logical flaws aside, logical flaws stacked in a big, massive heap, this is a fine picture thanks in no small part to the dedication of Neeson to keep us entertained.

B-

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Harold Ramis: My Five Favorite Works


HAROLD RAMIS 1944 - 2014

A few weeks ago the world lost a brilliant and serious talent in Philip Seymour Hoffman.  Now, the world has lost one of the most brilliant comedic writers, directors, and actors of a generation where we saw comedy evolve into much more daring and, ultimately, classic films.  Harold Ramis was a man sometimes in front of the camera, but made his mark on comedy even more behind the camera, and in front of the typewriter.  Producer, director, writer, Harold Ramis died Monday due to complications from a rare blood disorder at the age of 69.  And there is no doubt he left his mark on the world, and left us all with plenty of laughter to carry on.

Everyone has a Ramis favorite, and it seems like everyone has a dark horse film that he played a part in that they liked more than most.  His reach stretched so far and touched so many lives in the comedy world, picking five of my favorites was certainly a tough task.  But here goes nothing...

5) Animal House (Writer) - Ramis, along with Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, would write the ultimate college comedy in Animal House, a staple for each and every college student, a right of passage for fraternity kids.  John Landis directed, and Ramis' words still influence college comedies today.

4) Multiplicity (Director, Producer) - Multiplicity is arguably the most underrated, under appreciated comedy of the 90s, a wonderful physical comedy, a witty tale, complete with sharp commentary on the busy lives of all of us.

3) Groundhog Day (Director, Writer) - Twenty years ago, the term "Groundhog Day" was not a common metaphor for the day that will never end.  Thanks to the writing and directing of Ramis, and the performance from his lifelong friend Bill Murray, Groundhog Day transcended the silver screen to become a term used on a daily basis.

2) Ghostbusters (Writer, Actor) - Ramis worked with Dan Aykroyd and Rick Moranis to create one of the most iconic pictures of the 80s, a pop culture staple.  Ramis would step in front of the camera to play Egon, the no nonsense straight man to an array of funny men.  Ghostbusters is a legendary film, and its unfortunate the fabled third entry may never happen now.

1) Caddyshack (Director, Writer) - Caddyshack is arguably the most legendary comedy of all time, a consistently amusing, sometimes hilarious, occasionally gut busting satire of the rich golfers and the poor golf course workers.  Such a biting commentary of a die area of social types deserved a brilliant screenplay and wonderful actors.

I don't feel much conviction with my choices in this list, because as I am typing these out other works of Harold Ramis spring to mind.  That's the strength of his comedy and the breadth of his influence.  There is Analyze This, which is sharp and memorable, Stripes where Ramis starred, and his later pictures like The Ice Harvest and Bedazzled are sorely underrated.  And let's not dismiss Ghostbusters 2 as a sequel that failed; it may not have hit the mark compared to the first one, but it is assuredly a solid sequel.

Anyone who's familiar with American comedy films in the least has spent some time with the work of Harold Ramis.  That is a broad scope and an impressive reach for one man, who has most definitely made his mark on Hollywood, and helped redefined comedy for a generation.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Robocop


ROBOCOP: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Abbie Cornish, directed by Jose Padilha (108 min.)

I've learned to give up the fight against the remake.  Remakes, or re-"imaginings" of old, classic films of our youth are going to happen, no matter how high you or I might stand or how loudly we may shout.  Hollywood is a business, and they are selling brands, so to resist remakes is to push that boulder up the hill and never make it to the top.  That being said, would it kill these remakes to come with a little imagination, or a little energy, or maybe just an ounce of noticeable effort?  Where my eyes glaze over is when I watch a dull and lifeless remake of a far superior film.  The most recent version of Total Recall springs to mind, an unmitigated disaster of a remake.  The film had no heart and no soul and didn't try, hoping that super-duper CGI and loud noises would mask its inferiorities.  No such luck.

Remakes are almost never comparable to their predecessor, and most are just plain bad films from top to bottom.  I took all of these feelings in with me to see Robocop, the new version of a classic piece of 80s science fiction, which was full of wit and biting satire and gore and brutality.  I set the bar low from the start, then the PG-13 rating dropped said bar even lower.  But a funny thing started to happen to me early on in Robocop: I started actually watching this version.  So many times heading into these remakes it's easy to sit and scoff and compare each and every little thing to the original, because then it's easy to label this new version as inferior.  I was all ready to hold this version of Robocop right up next to the 1987 film and tear it to pieces, but director Jose Padilha and his cast would not allow it.

The story in its essence is still there.  Joel Kinnaman, taking over for Peter Weller, plays Alex Murphy. This time around, Murphy is not a greenhorn cop but a capable undercover detective working to bring down some organized crime in this futuristic Detroit.  One night he is nearly killed outside his home when a bomb explodes on his car, and his remains are offered up to a corporate machine looking to implement new robotic technology into the Detroit police force.

The Corporation, Omnicorp, is headed by a megalomaniac in training, Raymond Sellars, played with some verve by the criminally underemployed Michael Keaton.  Sellars wants to borrow from the robotic technology the American military has been using overseas to build a brand of new crime fighter the American people can get behind.  One could almost see a political run behind Sellars' motivations here.  Sellars is meeting resistance from a bureaucrat whose anti-robot stance is backed by a bill in Congress.  Sellars sees Murphy in the suit as a loophole, so he employs - or, maybe, twists the arm - of Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) to build a robot suit around the remnants of Murphy.  His brain and head, his lungs, and his hand survived the blast, and they are encased in a hi-tech new version of the Robocop suit of armor.  It is slick and, most of all, not distracting in its differences from the original.  

Enough about the suit and the mechanics of the plot and so forth, what I admire more than anything about this new version of Robocop is, I think, the effort of everyone involved.  This is not a sleepwalking exercise or a cash grab by any means.  Real ideas are at work here, and I admire Padilha, the actors, and the writing team for giving it a shot.  Keaton is clearly having fun, and Oldman is solid as the soul of a film that could have easily had none.  This time around, we get much more of Murphy's family, his son and his wife played by Abbie Cornish.  There is also an interesting continual bit concerning Murphy's brain, his emotions, and his cognitive awareness throughout.  Rather than having the slate wiped clean from the get go, Murphy has to face the fact he is no longer truly human.  He will no longer be a normal father or husband.  While the satirical bite of the first film is mostly absent, Samuel L. Jackson has a recurring role as a television political analyst that heightens the geopolitical and corporate evildoer subtext of the picture.

Listen to that, talking about geopolitics and subtext while talking about a remake of Robocop!  I never would have thought such a thing.  Things aren't perfect by any means, mainly concerning the muddled and rather lukewarm presence of villains all the way through.  There is no big bad street criminal for Robo to fight.  Most of his police work is glossed over too.  But things aren't overwhelmed by a full-on CGI assault on the senses.  The effects are tasteful and used only when they need to be, allowing the viewer to take in the fact that they are seeing actual places and things rather than all green screens.

Maybe it was because my bar was set so low that I came out of Robocop with a nice feeling, but I don't think so.  There is a nice film and a competent remake here.  It isn't some sort of instant classic, and it won't have the pop culture personality of the original in twenty years, but I doubt anyone involved expected it to be.  They went in with the right attitude, and their energy in front of and behind the camera elevates what could have been a disaster to a pleasant February entertainment.  One of the best compliments these reboots can ask for is that the audience stopped thinking about the original somewhere along the way.  I definitely did early on in this new Robocop.  If remakes would try at least this much, they wouldn't be so unbearable for the most part.

B

Monday, February 10, 2014

TV Timeout: Why True Detective is Changing the Game Even More


I can only think of one other time where I deviated my content from the silver screen to turn attention to the happenings on television.  It was the early days of Breaking Bad when, after only a few episodes, I could see the sea change at hand, where smart television shows were shaping into extended films.  Breaking Bad mixed the small screen with the big better than anyone before, intensifying the drama, the human connection, and the cinematography of cinematic storytelling we have all seen in some of the best films of all time.  I say all of that to say this: HBO has landed on something as special and as unforgettable as Breaking Bad, their best show since The Sopranos.  It is True Detective, and while it exists on a network that is always ahead of the curve, last night's episode, number 4 of 8 of this first season, completely changed the game.

Let's slow down for a bit to unfold True Detective for those curious masses out there.  True Detective is unconventional in the fact that it is an anthology series.  This means that next season, there will be a new cast and a new set of circumstances.  We have seen this happen before in American Horror Story, only American Horror Story wishes it had compelling writing and fascinating characters like True Detective.  This debut season stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as Martin Hart and Rusty Chole, two detectives with wildly different backgrounds.  Harrelson's Hart is a family man with a wife and small children, though his friendliness with the bottle and the women have already begun to unravel his world.  McConaughey's Chole, on the other hand, is a much less transparent, much more complex character.

There is a murder which sets the plot in motion, an elaborate and satanic murder.  The murder occurs in 1996, and the series is framed by an interrogation of both Hart and Chole in the present day, in separate rooms at different times.  The framing of the series felt like a gimmick early on, but as we learn about these characters this season, things feel less and less like a gimmick.  In 1996, Hart is a company cop who can't keep his personal life in order, while Chole is detailed, disciplined, and working every minute to keep certain demons at bay.  One of the first and most effective skills of the story is its ability to set a stage, then flip everything.  Early on, McConaughey's character seems difficult and unapproachable, a hardnosed detective obsessed with his work and virtually unlikeable.  Harrelson's character comes across as a loving man who works hard in his job and has little patience for such an inaccessible person as Chole.

Then the tables begin to turn.  By the time episode four began last night, the tables had completely turned for me regarding the perception of these two men.  Through the first three episodes we have learned about both Chole and Hart.  We have learned about Chole's lost family, his dead child, and his ex-wife.  But there is still a mysterious edge to his police work.  Regarding Hart, we have discovered his alcoholism, his infidelity, as he has digressed into a more pathetic and less noble character.  It's almost as if the perception of these characters had flipped, with Chole blossoming into the more likable of the duo.  As the partners close in on their murder suspect, a very disturbing murderer to be sure, their personal lives seem to be heading in different directions. 

All the while there is the present-day narrative, still loaded with mystery.  We see Chole in the present day as a shell of a man with long hair and ragged skin, drinking Lone Star beer and mowing down cigarettes one after another.  Meanwhile, Hart's interrogation (with the same officers) shows Hart as a man who is put together.  Wearing a suit and tie, well kempt, Hart is the very opposite of what he has become in 1996.  The direction of the detectives interrogating both Hart and Chole are still a mystery, yet we are getting closer to understanding the deep and dark issues which drive said interrogations.

Which leads me to last night, where True Detective took on a new face and a new skin.  This is cinematic storytelling with the advantage of working with eight hours.  Without getting into too many details, Chole has decided to travel back into his old life and his old problems in order to infiltrate a biker gang to catch the murderer.  That is all I will say regarding plot, but what takes center stage in the final moments of True Detective is the cinematography.  There is a final climactic scene of episode four which becomes a six-minute uninterrupted shot.  Some of the greats have pulled off uninterrupted scenes in their greatest films.  We all remember Scorsese's shot in Goodfellas through the back of the Copacabana.  Alfonso Cuaron directed a fantastic extended shot beyond ten minutes in his Sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men.  This final moment in episode four of True Detective rivals both.  I know this is a bold statement, but anyone who takes the time to watch episode four will agree.  It is a scene you must see more than once to see everything, and to truly appreciate the craftsmanship at work.

I know I have skipped over so many wonderful elements of True Detective for the sake of time and space, including the great Michelle Monghan as Hart's wife, Maggie.  It isn't a new notion that television shows have taken cinematic cues, but here is a series which sharpens their skills better than any series before.  Yes, better than any series.  There are intricacies and idiosyncrasies of the series and the script that heighten each and every scene throughout, and there is no denying the power of True Detective.  It is a shame there are only four more episodes this year, and if they plan on changing characters and narratives next season, I suggest the powers that be bear down and work hard to match the incredible intensity of this debut.

Stay tuned for an episode breakdown from here on out...           

Thursday, February 6, 2014

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Capote (2005)

After the events of this weekend, I felt it was no better time to revisit Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar winning performance as Truman Capote in Bennett Miller's Capote.  It had been just over eight years since seeing the film in theaters, and I remembered very little.  I do remember being captivated by Hoffman's turn as the infamous American author, though underwhelmed by the film overall.  But a lot can happen to a person in eight years, and given the tragic and untimely death of Hoffman Sunday, there would be no better time to go back and watch Hoffman and, more importantly, watch the film surrounding him.

We meet Hoffman, as Truman Capote, one night in the typical bourgeoisie Manhattan dinner parties.  Capote is already famous, having placed himself in the limelight with his novel turned famous film, Breakfast at Tiffany's.  Hoffman absolutely becomes Capote from the get go, with the slick hair, the frail frame, and of course the fragile and effeminate voice.  It seemed impossible at the outset not to picture Hoffman in the role, but before long I almost forgot the reason for watching the film.

One morning in mid November, 1959, Truman catches an article in the newspaper about a murder in a small Kansas town, four people gunned down in their farmhouse.  Immediately, he decides his next book will be about the murders and the affect they had on this sleepy Midwestern villa.  He decides to visit the Kansas town with his friend and writing partner, Harper Lee (Katherine Keener), who was just about to hit the big time with her publication of To Kill a Mockingbird.  This Kansas town is unsettled, upset, a Norman Rockwell painting that is splitting at the seams.  The Sheriff in town, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), is too upset by the murders.  Capote, on the other hand, is fascinated by the case and its impact on the town.  But when the murder suspects are caught, it is clear Capote's direction changes.

Two drifters, Perry Smith and Roy Church, are arrested and ultimately convicted of the crime.  Capote takes an immediate liking to Smith, for what reason we aren't sure at first.  But throughout the second and third acts of the film, Capote develops a relationship that goes beyond simple understanding to sympathy and acceptance.  Truman realizes the story he has on his hands and begins the journey from article to novel.  The end result would become In Cold Blood, the best non-fiction novel ever written.  What is so amazing is the notion that Capote knew it would be from e first word he typed.  The relationship Truman forges with Perry Smith is the focal point of the picture.  As Perry nears his ultimate fate, he and Capote become closer and begin to understand one another on a much more complex level.  There is attraction, sure, but there is also a kindred spirit between the two.  "It's like we were raised in the same house," Capote tells Harper Lee, "only I went out the front door and he went out the back."

Overall, Capote is a film which requires great patience and attention.  It is detailed, only not riddled with detail on the screen.  The art direction and sense of time and place are wonderful, but this is an actor's film.  The nuance of the film lies within the words of Hoffman, who disappears behind Truman Capote.  I don't think Capote is any sort of revelatory picture from top to bottom, but I do understand the powerful performance Hoffman delivers.  His ability to shed the gruff and unkempt persona he carried with him in so many roles is fascinating.  The voice is something to marvel, a great feat of physical acting, but the power of his performance is the way he can use this cartoonish voice to his advantage.  Never once does it feel satirical, or false.  It always rings true, which is the case with each and every Hoffman performance out there.