Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Blindspot - "A Night At The Opera" and "The Navigator"

I remember a Saturday evening many years ago sitting down with my Dad to watch the Marx Brothers. I think we had tuned into PBS around 7PM and a double bill of Monkey Business and Horse Feathers was showing. Together they didn't even total 2 and a half hours, but holy crap did we cram in the laughs. It was silly, goofy and appealed to every juvenile instinct I had in my body (and still have). It seemed to have the same effect on my Dad since he sat in his chair giggling in that "Dad" fashion and shaking half the house along with him. Of course, that just made everything that much funnier. I was probably about 10-11, so I was also old enough to catch some of the puns, banter and sharpness of these obviously practised comedians and realized that this was a craft. A well-honed one.

And speaking of artists and their crafts...Buster Keaton remains to this day one of my all-time favourite artists in any medium. Far more than just simple slapstick, his silent comedies of the mid-to-late 20s were things of beauty and marvels to behold that would make you smile, laugh and question basic laws of physics. A somewhat "life changing" experience was watching a 3 hour American Masters program on PBS dedicated to Keaton (which I fortunately taped to VHS and wore down to microscopic width). His life had tragedy, regret and failure, but also contained some of the greatest work to ever be caught on celluloid. As the "great stone face", Keaton rarely broke a smile or showed a sense of fear while throwing himself (or mostly being thrown) info a myriad of dangerous stunts and physical gags. Though he was also an obviously well-rehearsed funny man with razor sharp timing, the falls, leaps and tumbles seemed almost improvised. It was part of his brilliance and was fascinating to hear him reflect on the broken bones and sets of cat-lives that he had. Those interview clips of Keaton in his late 50s also greatly reminded me of my Dad - there was just a certain way he told a story.

While watching these two films, it was fun to contrast what the Marx Brothers and Keaton each took from the rich comedic environment of vaudeville. Though they both retained the manic energy of stage comedy, they displayed it in different ways. As mentioned, Keaton focused it almost entirely on his sight gags that occasionally felt like dares gone wrong, but demanded a Cirque Du Soleil performer's strength, agility and finely tuned sense of balance (not to mention massive pain tolerance). As an example, an old clip from an early Fatty Arbuckle short shows him resting a foot on a counter while he tries to unstick his other foot from the floor. When he successfully peels it from the gooey molasses he had spilled, he lifts it up onto the counter WHILE THE OTHER FOOT REMAINS THERE. He appears to hang there in mid-air for far longer than any self-respecting pull of gravity would allow and then falls into a heap on the floor. It's remarkable, surprising and very funny.

The Marx Brothers, though still pretty good with a pratfall themselves, funnel most of their creative juices into the more verbal, musical and clownish elements of vaudeville. Groucho was given most of the good lines and putdowns (of anyone within his line of sight), but he also typically had several wonderful bits of verbal jousting with Chico as they each layered spoonerisms on top of assumptions and formed perfect moments of miscommunication. Each film also regularly had outlets for their music - Groucho's catchy songs, Chico's playful, wiggling-finger piano playing and Harpo's mostly delicate harp solos. Regardless of the plot, the lovers they were trying to help put together and the selfish schemes they were trying to torpedo, they never forgot to show the joy of just clowning around for the simple sake of amusing oneself (and hopefully others around them). To call them boisterous would be like calling a dozen, coca-cola-caffeinated 9 year-old boys playing video games a quiet play date.

Both films are somewhat similar in that they each have very distinctive moments and scenes that help define classic comedy from the early days of Hollywood, but also - when viewed as entire films - fall somewhere around "average" on a grading scale. A Night At The Opera contains the wild and ridiculous cabin scene that stacks people on top of each other before they spill out to the hallway and provides all of the aforementioned antics (including both Chico and Harpo doodling on a piano in front of very amused children), but sputters in several sections and offers little humour from any plot points. Well, OK, Chico and Harpo playing catch in the orchestra pit of the opera is still damn funny...

Keaton's The Navigator contains an underwater sequence that - especially for its day - is quite impressive. With a bulky diving suit on, Keaton is filmed using a lobster as a pair of scissors, fencing with a swordfish and fighting off an octopus. There's also some inventive and silly humour in the kitchen and a variety of Buster's slips and bumblings, but the dominant scenes are around an encounter with dark-skinned cannibal savages. They want to board the abandoned ship on which Keaton and his potential girlfriend have been stranded, but not much funny happens during these extended scenes and they seem to only serve two purposes: 1) reminding the "savages" of their inferiority and 2) allowing a good final gag to save them. At 58 minutes, it's pretty breezy, but even so it slogs a bit once they reach that island.

Nevertheless, both films do provide ample evidence of their classic style of humour while also keeping audiences reasonably entertained. I'll be seeing my parents this coming weekend as they prepare for an upcoming move, so I'm thinking I might bring along a sampling of both artists' films. At 87, my Dad is much less willing to go along with an anarchic bunch of maladroits or catch the subtlety of the deft contortions of a silent comedian, but I'm pretty sure the Marxes or Keaton can still get a good couple of chair shakes from him....

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Blindspot - "The Deer Hunter" and "Coming Home"

Whenever the blind spots of our history of film knowledge come up in conversation, one of the most common questions is "Why haven't you seen movie 'X' yet?". Sometimes it's just matter of "Hey, ya just can't see them all!", but usually there's a specific reason for not having ventured into a classic film (especially for those of us who list movie-watching as a passion). In the case of this month's tandem Vietnam War selections (The Deer Hunter and Coming Home), the reasons are several fold. The first is the subject matter - though I have no issues with war films or specifically ones about Vietnam, like many I had reached a bit of a saturation point in regards to the topic. Not that war films are typically happy-go-lucky affairs or that I want all my viewing experiences to shut out the evil world, but the Vietnam films seemed to have cornered the market on depressing (for many valid reasons of course). As well, both films gave the sense of revolving around a single main event or condition and (from my poor memory of hearing about them when I was younger) didn't really pull me into their plotlines. Not to mention the fact that The Deer Hunter is a full 3 hours long and the vast majority of the first half of the film takes place before any of the characters even head overseas.

But this is why I'm continuing the Blindspot efforts...Things aren't always quite what they seem. For instance, the long preamble in The Deer Hunter not only introduces the film's main characters before they go to Vietnam, but it also gives ample reason why they would volunteer to go. Their lives at home don't appear to offer much more than what they already trudge through daily (hard physical labour, drinking and hunting) and maybe the possibility of gaining a mortgage on a small house in a decrepit part of town with a spouse that you can somewhat stomach. This rather bleak view of the working class environment inhabited by the characters is built through a wedding and its preparation. By the time the nuptials take place it feels a bit like a drunken wake - though they toast the marriage of Steven and Angela, it is also a farewell party for Steven (John Savage), Mike (Robert De Niro) and Nick (Christopher Walken) before they leave for Vietnam. The entire time spent in the town is slow, awkward and entirely depressing in its limitations regarding the potential scope of these characters, but it is also highly effective at painting this way of life and the strong community bonds. After almost half the film has unspooled, the three wind up in Vietnam and the film wastes no time in painting a new picture - a horrendous, gruesome and inhumane one. After Nick and Steven rescue Mike from a particularly nasty battle, the three end up captured in a small camp where the guards entertain themselves by pitting their prisoners against each other in games of Russian Roulette. The film is justifiably known for this sequence as it is terrifying, tense and remarkably hard to watch. Their home back in the steelworks of Pennsylvania looks like a damn paradise at this point. A desperate plan is hatched, escapes are made and the three are separated and wind up in different states of disrepair.

With Coming Home, the rehabilitation of paralyzed vet Luke (Jon Voigt) became more than just the expected simple melodrama of a love triangle with complications. Though old school friend Sally (Jane Fonda) does indeed slowly fall in love with Luke while her husband Bob (Bruce Dern) remains overseas, the film patiently provides fully developed characters that grow, change and adapt over the course of the story. It never becomes a straight up love conquers all story or a flag-waving salute to the injured men from the war. It actually tries to deal with the mess - the physical and mental wreckage of people and their attempts (or lack thereof) to make it through life changing events. Luke begins as an angry, railing-at-the-world patient in the hospital but slowly warms to Sally's attempts to help. She's volunteered at the hospital to keep her occupied while Bob is away and as she slowly assists Luke in regaining a sense of purpose, her own world begins to expand. The conservative values and outward appearance begin to loosen up, her political eyes open and she starts to question things - even the possibility that she could be falling into love with someone else. Luke for his own part rediscovers his passion and campaigns against the war effort while realizing that he could indeed still build a life. Sally and Luke emerge as fully realized people who are flawed but willing to make efforts to repair what's been broken and get on with focusing on their loves and desires.

Both films spend much less time in Vietnam itself than you'd think classics of the genre would do. The Deer Hunter's first trip to Vietnam lasts for only about 35 minutes while Coming Home spends almost no time there at all (apart from a few scenes showing some of Bob's experiences). Neither film suffers for its lack of time spent there since neither film is really simply about Vietnam. The focus of both films is how people try to make it through to the other side and how they don't always succeed. The Deer Hunter shows some harrowing consequences - particularly the mental slides of Steven (after his own paralyzing injury), Angela (unfortunately playing the cliche poor woman so scarred by emotional toil that she retreats into catatonia) and Nick. Walken is particularly effective in that latter role as he transitions from the cocky boyfriend of Linda (a gorgeous young Meryl Streep) to a disconnected zombie roaming the streets of Saigon. After having returned home, Mike suspects Nick is still in Vietnam and returns to find him (despite his love for Linda no longer being unrequited). He too has changed - no longer the man of black and white viewpoints, he can empathize and wants to heal the wounds and make things right. His hunting days may be over...

Coming Home also shows the process and difficulty of healing both the physical and mental scars. Just as Luke is regaining a place in the world, Bob returns even more coiled and frayed than when he left. His view of war, his country and himself has changed, but he doesn't know what to do with all that information. His wife's infidelity adds kindling to the fire and allows Dern one truly excellent "freak out" scene when he yells at his wife with a blazing rage. He's not the only one suffering though - the brother of his buddy's girlfriend Violet (now good friends with Sally) is struggling in a mental hospital to regain his footing. Robert Carradine plays him with a great deal of sensitivity and you can almost feel the pain and stress as he tries to do a simple thing like play his guitar. Nothing remains simple for those exposed to the ugliness of humanity and it can infect others around them as well. Both films have moments of hope and show strength of character and community. But in the end, no one truly walks away unscathed.

"A Most Violent Year"

Listen to The Matineecast where I discuss "A Most Violent Year" with host Ryan McNeil.

There's really not a great deal of violence in A Most Violent Year. Though set in 1981 New York City (a low period for the city marked by high crime rates), there are few visceral moments of bloodshed and brutality. What does exist is an almost constant threat of violence - around every corner and edit in the film, it feels as if some form of foul play sits in wait. The landscape of this version of New York City is bleak, crumbling and empty. The barren streets and rundown manufacturing plants aren't exactly conducive to strolling about, but the lack of people in the background of the film gives you the feeling that they too are worried about those threats lurking in the shadows.

The real violence of the film, however, refers to the damage done to its main character's (Abel Morales played exceedingly well by Oscar Isaac) view of the American capitalist framework and his moral approach to honest work resolving in honest returns. Morales wants to behave ethically - though he'll take every advantage in marketing ploys, he doesn't want to game the system or cheat his competitors. He feels he should reward those who succeed in his business (an oil company for home heating) and coach those who don't in order to give them an opportunity to grow. Morales is a sharply dressed man with focus and drive that leads you to believe he WILL get what he wants. When he stares at you, you listen. He's at a turning point in his business as he puts a huge down payment on a new parcel of land for expansion, but needs to come up with the rest of the capital to close the deal. He is warned up front by the old owners that they are happy to do business with him, but on their terms for their benefit. As Morales tackles problems of his trucks getting hijacked and being investigated for possible shady financial reporting, he struggles to gather up the remaining money needed to close the deal.

There's room for a great deal of tension in a plotline of this nature, but director J.C. Chandor is going for something different. Though that feeling of violence being in the air is always present, the tension is muted. Perhaps it's the murky greens, yellows and browns of the cinematography and surroundings, but there's an odd lack of immediate anxiety - in particular during the first half or so of the film. It's oddly devoid of rhythm with a slow pace and very low key soundtrack. As the film moves forward and Morales begins to get more and more constricted in the possible options at his disposal, the editing and music begin to add further dynamics to the film. Though it is somewhat effective in bringing forth the feeling of Morales becoming cornered and forcing his hand to play in the new capitalism space (stretching beyond the limits of the law, resorting to intimidation tactics, etc.), the style of the film somewhat diminishes the impact. He is obviously of recent immigrant status and with strong feelings about the proper way to conduct oneself, but even though he resists, he begins to see that the new American dream is that of preserving and increasing your status in life with little regard for those beneath.

If that sounds like a dig at the current view of the wealthy 1%, that's certainly an element of this deeply cynical story. Morales' wife Anna (Jessica Chastain in a role that doesn't have nearly the range or scope it should have had) claims that he needs to be more protective of his family when threats begin to come closer to their new mansion, but what she is really saying is that he needs to ensure they retain their newly achieved higher station in life. Her attitude, practiced manner in condescending to the police and slightly trashy (complete with bright red lipstick) way of dressing, suggests possible family ties or experience with the criminal element. His lawyer (another winning and entertaining performance by Albert Brooks) has obviously dabbled with a variety of clients and his colleagues/competitors in the industry are all figuring out the new system around them as well. The main question posed by the film is whether Morales can retain his morality along with his old view of the promise of the United States and yet still prosper. Or does success in this new version of America truly mean the need to prevent others from also achieving it. There's only so much room near the top and you don't want to be caught in the collapsing, decaying section of society. Much of the film is shot very dark and dim lighting sometimes casts the characters as silhouettes of themselves to indicate that they may have already succumbed to the "easy" path. Others, who don't have the ability to fully commit to this new way of life, fall by the wayside.

There are several "surprise" moments in the movie (revelations, actions, etc.), but few are truly surprising. Apart from an excellent car chase sequence through a train tunnel that is truly exciting and raises you from your seat somewhat, the rest of the film is a set of straight line developments that you can mostly see coming from a distance. That's not necessarily a criticism as perhaps that is part of the film's intent - a warning of sorts that we can already see the disintegrating situation around us and that we shouldn't be shocked when it finally does crumble. However, that message doesn't necessarily make for a satisfying film since the path it takes isn't always compelling. The end doesn't always justify the means.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Movie Moments Of The Year - 2014

Another cobbled together list of some of my favourite moments from 2014's films as well as older ones I saw for the first time. So here's a leisurely stroll through them...

2014 films:

  • The story of creation in Noah - beautifully composed as it also worked in evolution and epic timescales into the mythology of the story.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel - every perfectly centred frame.
  • Those final credits of 22 Jump Street - they're funny cuz their true...
  • Being in the same theatre with Caroll Spinney (the puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch) and James Randi within the same week during Hot Docs.

  • The breathless car chase in Nightcrawler.
  • The bracing last 10 minutes of Whiplash.
  • The wonderful sing-a-long in A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (more fully described here).
  • And then followed later in the film by the gut punch...
  • The docking scene and entry into the black hole sequence from Interstellar.

  • Melanie Lynskey in Happy Christmas.
  • The end discussion of the erotic novel in Happy Christmas - please tell me there are extended outtakes of that somewhere on the DVD...
  • Alejandro Jodorowsky's brief passionate anger about a director's ownership of their dream of the story in Jodorowsky's Dune.
  • Gone Girl's moment of realization that she once again has been trapped into playing a role and once again has to take action...
  • The butterflies arriving with Spring in The Duke Of Burgundy.

  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds performing "Higgs Boson Blues" and "Jubilee Street" in the awesome music doc 20000 Days On Earth.
  • The opening single take swooping shot in The Town That Dreaded Sundown which introduces all the major players at once.
  • The first reading of the play with Edward Norton in Birdman where Michael Keaton's actor actually improvises and reacts instead of sticking to the script.
  • Both times that "Une Femme Avec Toi" plays in The New Girlfriend - both are emotional high points.
  • The avalanche in Force Majeure and the immediate consequences.

  • Little Groot's dance at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy.
  • The opening titles of The World Of Kanako - insane and perfectly capturing the tone and pace of the film to follow.
  • The hallucinogenic trip in They Have Escaped.
  • Michael Keaton enters a small New York City liquor store lit up like a Christmas tree in Birdman.
  • Norte: The End Of History's turning point: the off screen murder.

  • The Guest dispatching some bullies.
  • Ghostly visitors in the documentary The Darkside - subtle and effective at getting the storyteller's experiences across.
  • The explanation (which involves the idea of fornication with sandwiches) of why vampires prefer virgin blood in What We Do In The Shadows.
  • Scarlett Johansson in repose in Chef.

  • Though I didn't like the film much, that final shot in The Immigrant is glorious. As is the entirety of Marion Cotillard's performance.
  • Dave Franco's De Niro impersonation in Neighbors.
  • The impressive car chase in The Raid 2.
  • A royal meeting in the garden in A Little Chaos.

Older films:

  • Light and shadow in The Uninvited.
  • Those damn minions in Despicable Me - I just couldn't help smiling during every scene they were in. Great comedic creations.
  • The massive iceberg calving event towards the end of Chasing Ice. Also the time lapse photos of glaciers shrinking over a few years were remarkable.
  • "Cool" from West Side Story - the energy, anger and frustration of youth captured in dance.
  • A final walk on the beach in About Time.

  • Sorcerer - the unbearable tension of the rope bridge crossings of both trucks.
  • Every bit of spittle that flies from the mouth's of the characters of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
  • Russian Roulette in The Deer Hunter - after hearing about the scene after all these years, it was even worse than I imagined.
  • The over-the-top-and-around-the-bend practical effects at the end of Society. Extra gooey...
  • Trouble Every Day's two "graphic" moments were absolutely harrowing.

  • A drunken walk across a banquet table with a fire extinguisher in Ashes And Diamonds.
  • The depiction of insanity and an insane asylum in the Japanese silent film A Page Of Madness.
  • This moment from the B-movie Deadly Spawn. Baffling.
  • Meg Tilly's shrieking accusation in Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers.

  • Slim Pickens' death scene in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid - waiting for his life to fade away like the setting sun.
  • The build up of tension towards the end of The Bedford Incident.
  • Spotting all sorts of unknown-at-the-time faces in Prime Time (aka American Raspberry).
  • Crossing water using floating pieces of wood in 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.

And finally:

  • Watching some of my all-time favourite films (Network, 12 Angry Men and To Kill A Mockingbird) for the first time with The Boy.

Friday, 2 January 2015

My Favourite Films of 2014

A personal list of the films that excited me, moved me and stuck with me this past year...

1. Grand Budapest Hotel

I have loved every Wes Anderson film so far. It's not just his style (though I fell for every wonderfully designed, coloured and centered frame in this film), it's his whole approach to storytelling - and dammit if this wasn't a great story with some lovely human touches. And Ralph Fiennes should get recognized for a brilliant comedic turn - particularly since he made my son laugh harder than anyone else on screen this year.

2. Gone Girl

Another case of both substance and gorgeous style. Fincher's version of the novel manages to allow sympathy, empathy and detest for BOTH main characters. And like most great magicians, he pulls the trick off with a sense of effortlessness.

3. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

The beauty of Roy Andersson's films (in particular with his trilogy: Songs From The Second Floor, You The Living and this one) is that through absurdity, humour and the occasional stunning image, he brings you both the warmth and the horror of humanity and leaves it up to you what to take away. There's nothing else like it.

4. Whiplash

The drums drive the film forward with a distinct pulse through raucous periods, through tension filled moments and even through a few of the quieter sections. It feels like the perfect vehicle to represent the insistent drive for perfection that consumes these characters.

5. The Duke Of Burgundy

I absolutely feasted on the smorgasbord of images and sounds on display - like director Peter Strickand's previous film "Berberian Sound Studio" and one of 2013's faves "Upstream Color", my senses came away satiated to the gills.

6. Nightcrawler

Satirical, tense, blackly comic and even provoked a spontaneous round of applause after the best damn car chase I've seen since I don't know when. Can't wait to see it again.

7. Clouds Of Sils Maria

The film may have layers upon layers of meta, but it does so within the confines of the stories. The real joy, though, is in watching and listening to Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart interact and react to each other.

8. Interstellar

I tend to agree with just about any negative points made about the film - from the comments about thin characters to the rather pointless (but I think accurate) criticism of its science - but none of that stops me from just getting lost in the grandeur of the space sequences, the ideas and the unstoppable effect that time has on us. And I don't think I took a breath from that docking scene all the way to the black hole - almost like I was left dangling out in space...

9. Boyhood

My own Boy is somewhere in the middle of the arc travelled here by the character of Mason, so forgive me for attaching personal feelings to this film. But that's what it does so fantastically well - it finds those smaller moments in the life of its characters to really bring them out and feel like true people.

10. 20000 Days On Earth

Nick Cave has led a pretty remarkable life and through his storytelling (and what a great teller of stories he is), several surreal sequences, a variety of old clips and recent concert footage, we get a fascinating portrait painted.

11. Inherent Vice

A drug-fueled, paranoid, modern retro take on The Big Sleep. All the "messiness" of the film is (at least in my opinion) by design. The fun of experiencing it is being thrown into Doc's confused brain and the ever-growing list of characters and plot points.

12. Wild

I will likely always be a Jean-Marc Vallee fanboy (simply due the C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe De Flore), but I didn't go in with massive expectations for his latest. His skill (and his editing team's as well) at cutting to sound (not just music, but dialogue and ambient sound) is remarkable and helps to tell this solo trek with flashbacks in a fresh and emotional way. Reese Witherspoon is great and Laura Dern puts in one of the best supporting performances of the year.

13. Locke

I'm not sure this "one man in a car on the phone" movie would have worked with anyone but Tom Hardy. With his calm matter of fact demeanour and Welsh accent, he helps make it a terribly interesting journey up a British motorway. I never found it dull in the least as we slowly learn the details of the reasons for his sudden left turn.

14. The Town That Dreaded Sundown

A compelling, moody, surprising and absolutely gorgeous film that pleases aesthetically, but also encourages you to actively engage with its visuals, colours and foreground/background object placements. A wonderful surprise and a new take on "rebooting" an old story.

15. Birdman

The device of making the entire film seem like a single take (even though the 2 hour run time is spread over several days) kept me completely engaged with Michael Keaton's struggling actor/celebrity and allowed me into his state of mind. The performances all around were entertaining and the film delivered many more laughs than expected.

16. The New Girlfriend

Francois Ozon has been an up and down director for me (even within individual films), but this is easily the best thing I've seen by him - particularly in the way he brought some well deserved emotion to the surface during several key points in this story of a man and a woman coming to terms with their true feelings about who they are.

17. The LEGO Movie

That astronaut had a crack in his helmet almost exactly like the LEGO figure I had when I was a kid. So there was no going back at that point...There was no need to turn around, though, as the energy, humour and creativity of the animation was more than enough to keep that smile locked on my face.

18. Force Majeure

Possibly the best looking film of the year. Every single damn shot was composed so very carefully and helped tell the tale of a relationship that was already precarious and whose slide might not be preventable once it begins to crumble. That avalanche metaphor is kinda perfect for this story.

19. They Have Escaped

Not your average teen runaway story, this Finnish road film marries great hallucinatory sights and sounds to show attempts to escape adulthood.

20. The Rover

Bleak, but riveting. You could feel every bit of desperation in each and every character.

15 Honourable Mentions:

Leviathan, The Babadook, Guardians Of The Galaxy, 1001 Grams, The World Of Kanako, What We Do In The Shadows, Kabukicho Love Hotel, Shrew's Nest, Happy Christmas, Coherence, Spring, The One I Love, Cold In July, American Interior, God's Pocket.