"Fuckery and shenanigans." That's how the sister of one of the antagonists in Finders Keepers (2015, directed by Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel) describes the film's conflict over a severed leg found in a barbecue smoker. It's as good a description as any, I guess. Finders Keepers is the kind of film that Flannery O'Connor might have written had she lived in the current media age. She once wrote a story in which a traveling salesman makes off with the prosthetic leg of a lady professor, so there's a precedent there. This is a film that certainly veers uncomfortably close to hicksploitation, to say nothing of the Southern Gothic.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Another persistent subject of the contemporary documentary zeitgeist are the lives of people--particularly children--who squat in the ruins of post-Capitalism. It would be easy to think of these kinds of films as social problem films, or at the very least as a kind of "poverty porn," but that would do the best of them a disservice. The good ones mark the lives of specific human beings, however desperate their lives, and let those lives illuminate more universal concerns. Spartacus and Cassandra (2014, directed by Ioanis Nuguet) is one such film. It chronicles the lives of two young Roma children struggling to live in Paris with parents whose basic competence to be parents in the first place is deeply suspect. This is a closely observant film that knows the power of an image and how to play with images without losing the integrity of the narrative. The end result is a highly aestheticized form of social realism.
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Song of the Sea (2014, directed by Tomm Moore) expands on the design aesthetic of Moore's The Secret of Kells, while diving even deeper into waters of Irish mythology. Like that previous film, Song of the Sea is visually ravishing, though to an even further extent. Unlike that film, Song of the Sea occasionally invites comparisons to other films, particularly films by Hayao Miyazaki. The film can withstand the comparison, but it's not the same kind of singular experience as Kells, nor does it have the overarching design-as-theme element. Don't get me wrong: it's beautiful; it's one of the most beautiful films of recent vintage. But its beauty is beauty for its own sake rather than as an integrated element of the story. Whether or not this is a flaw in the film, I can't really say. Beauty is its own justification a lot of the time.
Friday, March 27, 2015
Director Adam Curtis claims that he's a journalist, not an artist. There's a presumption in this idea that the two are mutually exclusive, though I'm not sure I believe that. I certainly don't believe it of Curtis, whose films are powerful beyond the scope of mere document. Curtis's new film, Bitter Lake (2015) pushes at the boundaries of non-fiction. It's a film of great formal daring, one that internalizes post modernism in its image collage and its multitude of allusions. It's an object designed to be consumed on the internet, though it works fine as a cinematic experience. Whether or not it manages to connect the dots of its argument--something that can be debated--is almost beside the point.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Documentaries about the "War on Terror" seem like a permanent fixture in the contemporary film landscape. So long as horrible things are being done either against the democracies of the West, or, more probably, by the democracies of the West themselves, these kinds of films will be with us. They tend to paint a dismal picture of the world, one that more and more resembles George Orwell's prediction of the future as "a boot stamping on the human face forever." This year's crop includes Drone (2014, directed by Tonje Hessen Shei), a film that attempts to provide a multiplicity of viewpoints on the Obama administration's campaign of remote control warfare. That very multiplicity tends to blunt its impact.
I'm late to the party this year when it comes to writing about the 2015 edition of the True/False Film Festival. The delay was unavoidable. Life gets in the way sometimes. I need to get all of this down before I forget it all. Fortunately, I took lots of notes this year.
Best of Enemies (2015, directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon) resurrects the 1968 debates between arch conservative William F. Buckley and arch liberal Gore Vidal on the occasion of that year's national political conventions. "Debate," is probably the wrong word for what these were. Duels, is more like it. Some kind of bloodsport. A harbinger for what media discourse on politics would later become. Buckley and Vidal were mortal ideological enemies and they jabbed at each other with spears tipped with venom, with invective scrawled with acid.
Monday, March 02, 2015
Alexandre Aja is a director who is never likely to live up to his promise. I'm not a fan of his signature film, Haute Tension, but I could see the talent involved with its making. Before it immolates itself with an unearned twist ending, it's a razor sharp horror movie, one that knows the value of suspense while keeping an instinct for the jugular. Nothing he's made since then has been as assured, though I do have a soft spot for the cheap pulp thrills of his remake of Piranha. I don't know why I expected more from his latest film, Horns (2013), but I did. It has a good cast and a droll source novel. In principle, the elements are all there. Somehow, Aja fumbles it all.
Sunday, March 01, 2015
My first impression of Calvary (2014, directed by John Michael McDonagh) was that it was deadpan religious noir. It's a film that attempts to reconcile the mission of the Catholic church with the wickedness done by that church's ministers. It falls into the category of noir because it's a crime film of sorts, one particularly concerned with a fall from grace. Its concern with states of grace is more (little "c") catholic than is normally the purview of noir, but its fall from grace is an equally dark descent. The punch, when it comes, lands with a brutalizing force even to a mocking unbeliever like me.
My second impression was that it was the cinematic equivalent of Hieronymus Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross," which has a central figure carrying the weight of the world through a crowd of leering grotesques. Bosch's painting has always had multiple interpretations, depending on the worldview of the critic. Is it deeply spiritual? Is it an irreligious mockery? I tend to think it's the former. Calvary provides a similar dichotomy, but it's more clearly an expression of spirituality. It's an argument for the necessity of the church in an increasingly secular and sinful world, and an indictment of the Catholic Church's utter failure in the face of its own mission.
Monday, February 16, 2015
While I was watching the Wachowskis' new film, Jupiter Ascending (2015), I realized that Andy and Lana Wachowski are acutely aware of their own career arc. Given that they've helmed a series of big budget fiascoes (commercially, anyway), this might be the last time they get to play with a megabudget production. As a result, they've crammed all of the ideas they have for big budget spectacles into this one delirious package. As you can imagine, this results in a dense film with overlapping moods and elements that are at odds with each other. It's a mess, sure. That much was suggested by its delayed release, moving from prime summer real estate into the wasteland of February, where orphaned productions go to die. I would be lying if I said that didn't like it though, because as fun times at the movies go, this was more fun than I was expecting. A lot more fun.
Tuesday, February 03, 2015
The Imitation Game (2014, directed by Morten Tyldum) aims to right an historical wrong. It postulates that the mathematician, Alan Turing, was responsible for winning World War II, or at the very least, was responsible for shortening the war by several years and saving 14 million lives and preserving the remaining cities of a shattered Europe in the process. Further, it is outraged at the thanks Turing got for his trouble. This is all couched in a biopic that is formally adventurous only when it serves its thesis, though that may well be often enough. In any event, it has good actors, which is always a plus when faced with those terrible words, "Based on a true story..."
Wednesday, January 21, 2015
When I was sixteen, my parents gave me an omnibus edition of John le Carré's Karla novels (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People). I still have it and I have a handful of le Carré's other novels, but I never fell in love with le Carré. His stories are cold and distant, filled with gray men doing gray things in gray offices under gray, overcast skies. Or, at least, I imagine the skies as overcast. Le Carré's books are anti-thrillers. They are often Kafka-esque traps for their characters. Most of the films based on le Carré are similarly dreary, though stocked with magnificent actors playing drab. When the Cold War ended, it was replaced by the equally dangerous War on Terror. The actors on the world stage have changed. The game generally has not, which is how le Carré has remained so relevant. So it is in A Most Wanted Man (2014, directed by Anton Corbijn), in which Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the head of a small anti-terror unit in German intelligence. He's a defeated man, which makes the fact that this is the last role Hoffman played before his untimely death bittersweet.
Saturday, January 17, 2015
Back when I was just out of college, I had a conversation with some friends over a game of spades about what you would have to score on the rhythm ACT to play with various bands. We suggested that you needed about a 12 to play most rock and roll. You needed about a 33 to play with P-Funk. You needed about a 4 to play with the Sex Pistols. You needed to ace the thing to play with James Brown. That conversation, now twenty-something years in the past, flashed through my mind with crystal clarity while watching Whiplash (2014, directed by Damien Chazelle), a film that's all about precise rhythms. It's also a film about the sociopathy that often goes with creativity, particularly as it intersects with the kind of perfectionism geniuses often pursue. It's one of the most electrifying films I've seen in a goodly long while, a coming of age film played as a psycho-thriller. It's a head-cutting film in the musical meaning of that phrase.
Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Sometime last year, I finally started tagging posts in which I write about films by women. There is well-documented bias in the film industry marginalizing women filmmakers and my thinking is that part of the way to counteract this is to actively seek out and write about films by women. My friend, Willow, over at the excellent Curtsies and Hand Grenades is doing exactly this right now and while I'm not going to go to the same lengths, I AM going to be consciously watching more films by women this year and beyond. (Dudes: don't worry. Your dominance of the film industry means that I'll write about plenty of the dude films you like, too. Hell, I probably can't avoid them).
Sunday, January 04, 2015
Big Hero 6 (2014, directed by Don Hall and Chris Williams) is suggestive of why Disney bought Marvel a few years ago. They see potential blockbusters in odd corners of the Marvel catalog. This one is completely unlikely. The original is borderline obscure. Indeed, the source material isn't very good, coming as it does at the tail end of Marvel's 90s-era dark age in which everything was a steroid inflated version of extreeeeem grimdark. I doubt that there was ever anyone clamoring for a movie version of Big Hero 6. The movie bears only a cursory resemblance to the comics, which is all to the good. This is a case where the movie version is so much better than the original that by all rights it should completely eclipse it.
Thursday, January 01, 2015
It's customary for people who write about film to do retrospectives this time of the year. I'll make up a top whatever list eventually, but I'm still waiting on a few films to make their way to me. Meanwhile, the list I'm keeping of potential candidates for that list continues to grow. A lot of people were disappointed in 2014 (particularly movie studios, who are seeing their revenues crater in the United States in the wake of some expensive flops). I'm not one of them. To my mind, 2014 was an exceptional year. These are the films I enjoyed this year: