Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sundance 2016: 11 Things I Loved From the First Half

1. Captain Fantastic

The best film of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival (so far) stars Viggo Mortensen as a father raising his six children in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, teaching them, on the one hand, to live off the land and physically take care of themselves, but also multiple languages, political theory, and advanced philosophy. When the death of their mother forces Viggo to bring his children back into society, some hilarity ensues, and yeah, this plot sounds excessively “Sundancey.” But writer/director Matt Ross (you know him as the villainous and Lumbergian Gavin Belson on HBO’s Silicon Valley) isn’t here to make a charming comedy about a quirky family. Ross uses this high concept to weave a truly poignant story about what it means to actually educate and prepare your children for the world, and how you can still never totally get it right.

2. Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea  

For a brief 24-hour period, Manchester by the Sea had notched the all-time Sundance record for most lucrative distribution sale (before it was shattered the next day by The Birth of a Nation), selling to Amazon for a reported 10 million dollars. The film is great, but the real reason Amazon paid so much for it is because Casey Affleck already feels like a sure-thing Oscar nominee. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me, Margaret), Manchester by the Sea continues his fascination with normal people dealing with the aftermaths of traumatic experiences, but this is his best iteration yet. Affleck plays Lee, a Boston maintenance man forced to care for his 16-year old nephew after the death of his brother, but a tragedy in his own past is preventing him from being able to emotionally provide for another person. As Lonergan slowly brings us into Lee’s story, never revealing things too quickly, Affleck exudes all of the pain, distance, and repression of the most tragic PTSD survivors. This is how good we always hoped he’d be. 

3. Under the Shadow Finding the Horror Balance

I don’t like most horror films, because most of them are terrible. Under the Shadow is a great horror film because it understands what that means. Taking place in Tehran during the 1980s, in the midst of the Iran/Iraq war, this is the story of a mother and her young daughter, who is maybe being haunted by a djinn that stole her doll and has marked her for death. Structurally, Under the Shadow is much like Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, revolving around a mother who at first doesn’t think anything’s wrong, then maybe thinks something’s wrong, and finally knows something’s wrong. Also like those two classics, Under the Shadow doesn’t have a single scare for probably the first 40% of the film. It draws you in slowly and makes you care about the setting, characters, and circumstances, knowing that only then does it have the power to truly make you scream for sweet Jesus. And you will. 

4. Kevin Smith's Speech About Sundance

The new Kevin Smith film, Yoga Hosers, about two teenage girls working at a Winnipeg convenience store and using yoga to  fight Nazis reincarnated as sausages (…I’ll just wait here while you make sure you read that right), is about 20 minutes of a funny, promising film followed by over an hour of a pretty terrible one. Smith described it as a mix of Clueless and Gremlins, which is accurate thematically but definitely not qualitatively. And yet, attending that screening is something I’ll always remember, because of the long speech(es) Smith gave about what Sundance meant to him, and why being creative is so important, even when you suck. (“Most of my films suck,” Smith said.) While he was physically born in Jersey, Smith said he was really born at Sundance in 1994, and it changed his life forever. He’s been back nine times since then, and Sundance is his “personal Lazarus Pit,” referring to Ra’s Al Ghul, the Batman villain who is constantly reborn every time he enters a Lazarus Pit. Smith then switched gears and spoke about how important it is to just be creative, because all of us “can be content providers,” and no matter how much of the content may suck, someone will still walk up to you one day and say that something you created changed their life for the better. It’s a little too cliché to say that Smith’s words have changed my life, but they meant a lot to me and I’ll always remember them.

5. Miles Ahead Breaking the Biopic Formula

Since Ray and Walk the Line struck Oscar gold a little over ten years ago, we’ve seen an increasingly large number of musical biopics in recent years. After Straight Outta Compton and the Hank Williams film that premiered in Toronto, Miles Ahead is the third biopic of a major musical innovator that I’ve seen in the last six months. It’s also the best one, because it wants nothing to do with being a musical biopic. Starring and directed by Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead focuses on a specific moment in Miles Davis’ life, at the beginning of the ‘80s, when he hadn’t released any new music in five years. From there, it swerves into left field, fabricating a fever dream of Miles’ mental state and inner traumas, attempting to reach a truth (via contrived characters and events) about what would cause one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century to stop touching his instrument. The result is something that takes an almost fan-fiction route to actually capturing what made someone tick. Cheadle nails the lead performance, but even more importantly, comes off like a seasoned director embracing real experimentation with the form. 

6. Julianne Moore as a Danish Intellectual

In Maggie’s Plan, the delightful new comedy from Rebecca Miller (daughter of Arthur, wife of Daniel Day-Lewis), Greta Gerwig stars as a New Yorker that wants a baby, and has her eyes set on the already-married Ethan Hawke to give her one. Julianne Moore plays Hawke’s insufferable Euro-intellectual wife, who’s set up as the pseudo-villain in the film’s first half. That eventually switches, and it’s a credit to Moore’s acting and Miller’s script that the switch never feels forced or the result of suddenly-different characterization. And Moore is hilarious as a Scandinavian ice queen, weaponizing her pretentious accent. 

7. Whit Stillman's Character Introductions

Whit Stillman films aren’t usually my thing, but he always finds a way to include some little tick or flourish that I love. With his Jane Austen adaptation, Love & Friendship, it’s the character introductions that set the tone and make the film. As each character enters the story, we cut to a shot of that person standing outside their provincial estate, turning toward the camera, and awkwardly smiling as their personalized title card comes up on the bottom of the screen, often saying innocuous things like “She packs and unpacks.” They never got old. 

8. Tom Bennett's Supporting Turn in Love & Friendship

The British aristocracy has never been more hilariously inept.

9. Werner Herzog as Opening Narrator

The opening moments of Herzog’s Lo and Behold, a documentary about the internet, take us to the UCLA building where the internet was born, and Herzog chimes in, as truly only he can, with the words “Here in this repulsive looking hallway…”

I wish Werner Herzog would narrate my life. 

10. Christine's Character Work and Production Design

Christine Chubbuck, a young, ambitious, and emotionally troubled Sarasota news reporter, killed herself on air in 1974, inspiring the screenplay for Network. This film version of her life in the months leading up to her suicide is way too long, which sadly undermines what is otherwise a really painstakingly detailed and thoughtful character piece about a troubled woman in a calm and quiet emotional spiral. The look of this film, from the costumes and the sets to the ‘70s color palate that gets saturated in smoke, effectively absorbs you into this world, and Rebecca Hall has never been better as the titular character. With better editing, this would have been a great film. 

11. Getting to See a Teen Sex Comedy From India

The film in question, Brahman Naman, was not very good, and its best moments involve a Jethro Tull song. But how cool is it that Sundance brought a teen sex comedy from India all the way to Utah? Pretty damn cool. Plus, it led to the best audience Q&A question I’ve ever heard: “Was that really your penis?” 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Predicting the 2016 Oscar Nominees

It's that time again--predicting what the Oscar nominations will be for the eight major categories. The goal is always to go 45 for 45, but this year is much more of a crapshoot than normal, as there's very little consensus on what the best films are, and the huge differences in the nominations for the Golden Globes and the various major guilds prove that Tuesday morning could have a lot of surprises. So let's get right to the wrong answers!


The Sure Things:
The Martian
The Big Short

The Safe Bets:
The Revenant
Mad Max: Fury Road
Inside Out
Steve Jobs

The Possibles:
Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina

The Long shots:
Straight Outta Compton
The Danish Girl
Beasts of No Nation
Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens

The most important thing to remember here is how the nomination process works in this category: for a film to receive a Best Picture nomination, it must get at least 5% of the first place votes. Translation: In the nomination phase, it doesn't really matter how many Academy members like a film, it matters that at least 300 of them think it was the best film of the year. That's why I'm discounting the six long shots right off the bat; no matter how well-liked they may be, I just don't picture 300 Academy voters thinking any of them were the year's best film. 

After that, it gets really tricky. I'l start by assuming the five "Safe Bets" will get a nomination, though all of them are at least slightly vulnerable. I'll also make a daring prediction that this is the first year we'll get the full ten nominations since the rules changed in 2011. In picking which two "possibles" will get the final slots, what you're really trying to figure out is which of those films will be the most widely seen by voters. I like Room's chances; because Brie Larson is considered the Best Actress front-runner, voters will feel obligated to check it out. For the final slot, I'll go with Bridge of Spies, because of the Spielberg factor, and because of how much it might appeal to the oldest demographic of voters. But keep an eye out on Ex Machina--the guild awards proved how much people love that film. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Spotlight, The Martian, The Big Short, The Revenant, Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, Steve Jobs, Inside Out, Room, and Bridge of Spies


The Sure Things:
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

The Very Safe Bets:
Matt Damon, The Martian
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Who the Hell Knows
Michael Caine, Youth
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Johnny Depp, Black Mass
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Ian McKellan, Mr. Holmes
Will Smith, Concussion

Damon bizarrely didn't get a SAG Award nomination, and Redmayne seems potentially vulnerable because extremely tepid critical response to The Danish Girl could keep some voters from watching it.  But I'm going to assume both are in. 

What happens from there is anyone's guess. Smith got a Golden Globe nomination, while Depp got a SAG nomination, but I don't think either will make the cut here because their movies are being mostly forgotten about among such tepid reviews. Keaton and Bale are both possibilities here, because Oscar voters can place actors in whichever category they want (lead or supporting), and there's definitely some confusion about which race these guys belong in. But I think they'll have a much better chance with Supporting Actor. That leaves Caine, Cranston, and McKellan. McKellan is the long shot, and I'm not ballsy enough to pick him (though I think he's the most deserving of the three). Cranston received nominations from both SAG and the Globes, and if I were playing it safe, he seems like the most likely choice for the fifth slot. But man, the Oscars do love them some Michael Caine. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: DiCaprio, Fassbender, Damon, Redmayne, and Caine


The Sure Things:
Brie Larson, Room
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

The Category Fraud Travesties
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

The Other Possibilities
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold
Maggie Smith, Lady in the Van

What happens in this category really depends on what voters decide to do with Mara and Vikander. Both are absolutely deserving of nominations, and both are leads in their films. But for reasons that have everything to do with trying to win awards (and nothing to do with the reality of the movies they're in), they're being campaigned  for the Supporting Actress category. This is blatant category fraud. Both of their films (Carol and The Danish Girl) are about two people trying to figure out how to love each other, despite societal difficulties relating to their sexual proclivities. What neither film is about is one character trying to love a second, less important character. Trying to pretend that's the case, and that one character is the sole "lead" role, is an attempt to change the very nature of the film's narrative. It's ridiculous, and it's cheating.

But, sadly, I'm also assuming voters will go with it. So that leaves two open slots, and four likely candidates. Jennifer Lawrence seems highly unwise to bet against, and I'm not unwise. That leaves three classy old English dames fighting for the last slot. Mirren has the advantage of being in the biggest commercial hit of the three, and Rampling was in the biggest critical hit. So I think Maggie Smith is out, by virtue of not fitting either voting angle. Mirren is the safe choice here, because she's Helen Fucking Mirren. But Rampling has never been nominated, and her film, 45 Years, is just beloved by all who see it. She absolutely carries it with a lovely, nuanced performance, and I'm pulling for her. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Larson, Blanchett, Ronan, Lawrence, and Rampling


The Mostly Sure Things:
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Please God Make It So:
Michael Keaton, Spotlight
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight

Probably More Likely:
Paul Dano, Love & Mercy
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Christian Bale, The Big Short

Probably Less Likely:
Benicio del Toro, Sicario
Jacob Tremblay, Room

For a solid three months, everyone assumed that the Supporting Actor category would come down to the two Spotlight co-stars, Keaton versus Ruffalo. But a funny thing happened on the way to the Oscar nominations: they got left out of all the precursor races. Neither got a Golden Globe nomination, and neither got a SAG Award nomination. So now here we are. What does it mean? Are they for sure not getting nominated? Are the previous snubs circumstantial, and not really to be trusted? You can make a cogent argument for "yes" as the answer to both questions, and that's the problem.

If they both get left off, those two slots could go in several directions. Shannon got nominations from both the Globes and SAG, but it still feels like his film, 99 Homes, went wildly underseen by the Academy, and isn't a safe bet here. Bale has been coming on strong, but is also facing the problem of category splitting; the Globes slotted him as a lead, and if voters can't decide one way or the other, he may be toast. The various guild nominations have proven Sicario is far more highly regarded than we'd thought, but that still didn't help del Toro with the SAG nominations. And with this level of competition, Tremblay will probably get left out in favor of the major names. 

Dano is by far the most likely "maybe" to get into the top five. But fuck it. I love Spotlight, and I'm going with my heart here. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Rylance, Stallone, Elba, Ruffalo, and Keaton


The Sure Thing:  
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

The Very Probable
Helen Mirren, Trumbo

The Egregious Category Frauds
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

The Quite Possibles
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Jane Fonda, Youth

The Spoilers:
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

If you assume that the studios get away with scamming Mara and Vikander into the wrong category, which will probably happen, that leaves one likely open slot. As aging Hollywood mavens playing aging Hollywood mavens, I think voters will ultimately choose between Mirren and Fonda, and won't vote for both. I'll give Mirren the edge, not just because she got nominations from the Globes and SAG (Fonda was left off of the SAG ballot), but also because I expect some voters will play the old, "Well, I didn't vote for her in Best Actress, so I'll be sure to mark her for Supporting" game. 

That probably means the last slot will go to Jennifer Jason Leigh, unless voters also play the old, "Well, I didn't vote for any of the guys in Spotlight, so maybe I should really fit McAdams on my ballot" game. Voters and their damn games. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Winslet, Mirren, Mara, Vikander, and Leigh

Best Director

The Sure-ish Things
Ridley Scott, The Martian
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro G. Inarritu, The Revenant

The Almost Sure-ish Thing
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Many Possible Narratives:
Todd Haynes, Carol
Adam McKay, The Big Short
Ryan Coogler, Creed
J.J. Abrams, Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies
Danny Boyle, Steve Jobs

Even though McCarthy feels slightly vulnerable (Spotlight just got shut out at the Globes), I still have to assume he's in. The fifth name really depends on narrative. Haynes is the "Honor the art-house" pick; McKay is the "My baby boy's all grown up" pick; Coogler is the "honor the prodigy" pick; Abrams is the "Honor the box office" pick; and Boyle & Spielberg are the "Honor the Winners Club" picks. McKay got the last slot on DGA ballot, but the Academy directors branch tends to be a little more esoteric and artistic than the far-more-mainstream DGA. Based purely on recent precedent with these things, Haynes and Coogler should have the best shot. I'd love to see Coogler make it in, but Haynes is the safer pick. 

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Scott, Miller, Inarritu, McCarthy, and Haynes

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Sure Things:
Steve Jobs (Aaron Sorkin)
The Martian (Drew Goddard)
The Big Short (Charles Randolph and Adam McKay)

The Spoiler:
Trumbo (John McNamara)

Three Films for One Slot:
Brooklyn (Nick Hornby)
Room (Emma Donoghue)
Carol (Phyllis Nagy)

The Martian was somehow left off the Golden Globes nominations, but that shouldn't matter here. It's one of the most loved and rewarded films of the year, and its screenplay is undoubtedly one of its strongest aspects. Trumbo is hard to figure out here. It's not a particularly great screenplay, but it's a screenplay about one of the greatest screenwriters in Hollywood history standing up to the rest of the industry, so you can bet everyone in the Academy's writer's branch watched their screener, and probably loved it on principle. That likely means it's in, and stealing a slot from a more deserving film. Of the three films vying for the last slot, Room made it in with the Globes, and Carol got a WGA nomination. But I actually think they'll both miss out here. Brooklyn has been coming on strong, and is also more of a "writer's movie," while Room and Carol depend more heavily on the strength of their performances.  Plus, we've seen Nick Hornby show up in this category before, for 2009's An Education

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Steve Jobs, The Martian, The Big Short, Trumbo, and Brooklyn

Best Original Screenplay

The Sure Thing:
Spotlight (Tom McCarthy & Josh Singer)

The Safe Bets:
Bridge of Spies (Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen)
The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino)

The Safe-ish Bet:
Inside Out (Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, & Josh Cooley)

Probably One of These:
Ex Machina (Alex Garland)
Sicario (Taylor Sheridan)
Straight Outta Compton (Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff)

Why Do They Hate Us:

Trainwreck (Amy Schumer)

The Hateful Eight and Bridge of Spies probably get in here on pedigree alone, as both Tarantino and the Coen brothers are long-time veterans of this category. There's also decent precedent of Pixar movies showing up here, which bodes well for Inside Out (even though it got left off of the WGA nominations). The WGA nominated Trainwreck, but you have to remember that half of the people in that guild are comedy writers, and the Academy hates comedies. That leaves Ex MachinaSicario, and Straight Outta Compton competing for the last slot, and the latter two received WGA nominations. Because the writers branch of the Academy tends to not care about box office, Straight Outta Compton doesn't hold any advantage here. Sicario's deft lead character switch in its final act is the kind of trick that writers love, but I don't think they'll love it as much as the dialogue-heavy logic puzzle that is Ex Machina

The Predictions, in order of likelihood: Spotlight, Bridge of Spies, The Hateful Eight, Inside Out, and Ex Machina

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What I Watched: Sept. 27-Oct. 3, 2015

Movies I watched last week (titles link to trailers):

Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013)

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)

Black Sea (Kevin Macdonald, 2014)

Everest (Baltasar Kormkur, 2015)

Irreversible (Gaspar Noe, 2002)

Meru (Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, 2015)

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)

Thelma & Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991)

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)

The Walk (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

9 Thoughts:

1. I've been thinking a lot about The Walk director Robert Zemeckis over the last few days. When you look at his resumé  it's really quite stunning: 17 films, which include Forest Gump, Cast Away, Flight, the Back to the Future trilogy, Contact, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her, Romancing the Stone, The Walk, and What Lies Beneath. Attempting to omit personal taste (Full disclosure: I can't stand Forest Gump), those are 12 very watchable movies, most of which either are, or at least border on, classics of their era. But here's the catch: Nearly every one of them likely started with Zemeckis asking himself, "Man, I wonder if I could pull that off?" And in nearly every case, the "that" is a sustained moment of visual grandeur. That's how all of these films likely began--with a story built around trying to make a specific moment or scene work visually, and not the other way around. 

Forest Gump shaking hands with Real-Footage-JFK, Denzel Washington flying a plane upside down, Joseph Gordon Levitt walking back and forth on a tight rope between the no-longer-existing twin towers, Goldie Hawn walking around with a massive shotgun hole through the middle of her chest, real actors interacting with a cartoon rabbit, Marty McFly traveling back and forth through time, Jodie Foster's brain traveling through four dimensional space, Tom Hanks spending nearly two hours talking to a volleyball... Give Zemeckis major credit where it's due: he made every one of those scenes work. But now go back through the list and try to imagine each of those movies without that key element. Is there even a movie left there? Zemeckis is the all-time master of putting all of his eggs in one basket, and usually he pulls it off. But when it backfires, such as his obsessive, decade-long detour into motion-capture CGI with The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol, he doesn't have anything to fall back on. The Walk works--and it really, really does work--because the final twenty minutes are so utterly breathtaking. But getting there is often a slog, and at times you can almost tell how disinterested Zemeckis is by the first 75% of the movie, as though he's thinking to himself, "This isn't the part I signed up for."  

2. Speaking of things that feel like a slog, there's Black Mass, and unlike The Walk, it doesn't have a bravura final sequence to save it. Gangster movies have reached a point where there needs to be a real justification for why to tell another story, and that justification needs to run deeper than "Johnny Depp with a Boston accent and a prosthetic forehead." Black Mass is one of those movies (and American Gangster is my all-time "go-to" here) that doesn't have a single scene that's actually good or bad. They're all just sort of there. There's never a moment where you think to yourself "this isn't working," just as there's never a moment where you think to yourself "hot damn, this is good!" Howard Hawks famously said that "A good movie is three good scenes and no bad ones." I wonder what he would have said about a movie like Black Mass, which can never quite swing the needle in either direction. 

As for Johnny Depp, yeah, he's very good in it, and it's probably his best performance since 2007's Sweeney Todd. But it still has the same two major Johnny Depp problems: 1) It continues his obsession with not looking like Johnny Depp, and 2) It continues his obsession with using his roles to impersonate other people that he thinks fit the character. In the last ten years, Depp has only had three starring roles where he roughly looked like he does in real life--Public Enemies, The Tourist, and The Rum Diary. His other eleven (!) live-action starring roles in that span all required heavy makeup/prosthetics/costumes/mustaches/fantasy. Black Mass is no different there, and it's also just another impersonation from him. As Captain Jack Sparrow, he famously tried to impersonate Keith Richards to create the character. Most of his roles in latter-day Tim Burton films appear as though he's channeling John Waters in fantasy garb. Here, as Whitey Bulger, he's essentially just answering the question of "How would Ray Liotta's character in Goodfellas have looked and sounded 25 years later, if he'd never been caught?" Sorry Johnny, but no one was asking that question. 

3. Everest and The Walk are the two best 3D films I've seen since Gravity, and probably both are in the top eight I've ever seen. That's not to say they're necessarily great films, as both have some significant problems, but as in-theater experiences, they're stunning. In both cases (and with Gravity, as well), the films use their 3D in the way that it ought to be used--to actually create a physical sense of depth to the proceedings. For most movies that go 3D, the depth doesn't matter to the action at all. Did Avengers: Age of Ultron need to be in 3D? Nope. Did Jurassic World? Also nope. In these cases, and most others, the 3D exists for the sake of getting those extra few box office dollars. But with Everest and The Walk, it's all about the sensation of looking down at the world. And sweet Jesus is it breathtaking. The Martian is a much better film than either of these, but you don't need to see The Martian in 3D, and it's not even *that* important that you see it in a theater (though you absolutely should). With Everest and The Walk, the full 3D theater experience is indispensable. 

4. In a Twitter comment about Everest, Mark Harris noted that its three main female characters (played by Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, and Emily Watson) are all just playing "woman on phone." I've been thinking about that, and how it jibed with my question about why in the hell Anna Chlumsky took that part in The End of the Tour, where all she did is take part in two phone calls that made absolutely zero use of her talents. It also feels akin to Sienna Miller's two "neglected wife at home" roles from earlier this year, in American Sniper and Foxcatcher, the first of which was also basically just a woman on phone. 

In some of those cases, maybe it's unavoidable. Knightley's Everest role, for example, feels like it had to be there, and there's no way it could have been more than what it was. But this also feels like a new trope brewing, and one we should watch out for. 

5. After Everest, I went on a bit of a climbing-movie kick, and watched two documentaries--Beyond the Edge, about the very first summit of Mount Everest, by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay in 1953, and Meru, about trying to complete the first summit of the eponymous mountain, known for it's near vertical "shark fin" face. (The former is currently streaming on Netflix, and the latter is on the art-house theater circuit.) Both are good films, and work in various ways. Beyond the Edge largely succeeds because of its score and subject, even though it's narratively weak at times. Meru is much less likely to be telling a story its viewers will know anything about, but tells it extremely well, and builds an excellent sense of drama. It also effectively uses the documentary tool of segueing away from its central narrative at regular intervals to fill in backstory, instead of front-loading it. If you leave Everest wanting more (as I did), check these out. 

6. I hadn't seen Thelma & Louise since it came out, and wasn't exactly sure what to expect. I shouldn't be surprised that it holds up really well, as many of Ridley Scott's films do. Scott is one of the best directors at making spectacle movies that never feel like the spectacle is the point. (Even with Gladiator, where the spectacle actually is the point, it still doesn't feel like it.) It's interesting to watch Brad pitt's star-making turn in retrospect, because two things really stand out: 1) He wasn't a very good actor yet, but 2) The acting didn't matter, because few people have ever commanded the screen like Pitt did here. Within three minutes of watching he and Geena Davis in that hotel room, you see why every single person in Hollywood was immediately anointing him as the next big star. 

7. While Zemeckis built most of his films around sequences of seemingly unworkable visual spectacle, Phoenix is built around one fleeting facial expression. I first saw Phoenix at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and thought it had one of the best endings I'd ever seen. A second viewing of the film only reinforces that. Some of the greatest endings are built around the most subtle things. The Usual Suspects dropped our collective jaws with nothing but a close-up of a pair of feet limping, and then not limping. The final moment of The Godfather says everything it needs to with Dianne Keaton's face slowly being shut out of the frame by a closing door. One day, after enough people have had the chance to see it, Phoenix will be talked about in the same way. 

Scott Foundas of Variety wrote that the film's climax is "so expertly orchestrated that one imagines (director Christian Petzold)  started with it in mind and worked the rest of the movie backward from there." It's also a film that spends most of its duration as the highest of high concepts, yet the ending almost totally abandons that high concept plot, and somehow turns itself into a heart-wrenchingly intimate character piece in the final moments. Like The Usual Suspects, the ending of Phoenix forces us to reevaluate what sort of movie we've just watched, but this time, no trickery or epic reveal is required. 

8. Irreversible, by French provocateur Gaspar Noe, is a film that forces you to confront what it even means to be shocked. I saw Noe's latest film, Love, in Toronto last month, and it made me curious about the rest of his work. Love is 3D film filled to the brim with explicit, un-simulated sex. Its visual composition, and the way it curates music to its lush images, is frequently gorgeous. But the rampant porn-level sex, which was supposed to be the most daring thing about it, actually ends up being what held it back. The problem is, the acting just isn't very good, and you can't help but think that all the sex is why Noe couldn't get better actors. Tone down the unnecessary explicitness of the sex, and Noe probably could have made a much better film. 

Irreversible has a variation of the same problem. Here, it's a nearly ten minute, graphic rape scene. But in this case, it's not that this kept him from getting good actors (Vincent Cassell and Monica Belucci are quite capable), it's that it forces the viewer to respond viscerally to the film, instead of artistically. Like Love, there are scenes in Irreversible that transfix you with their compositional beauty. But also like Love, you're forcibly taken away from that beauty by something else, something which just didn't need to be there. 

Like a salacious exploitation movie version of Zemeckis, Noe seems driven by creating films around specific sequences so alienating to the audience that he's almost seeing how far he can go without driving away the viewer altogether. But unlike Zemeckis, Noe is such an artful filmmaker that his works would actually be much better without their sequences of notoriety. 

9. My main takeaway from Black Sea--a pretty good "greed of the thieves ruins the heist" movie, which takes place almost entirely on a submarine--is that Scoot McNairy is proving himself to be our next truly great character actor. Besides having the best name in Hollywood (and really, there isn't even a close second), he seems to have a gift for playing every variation of sketchy that exists. In Argo, he was "This-guy-might-blow-it-for-us" sketchy; In Killing Them Softly, he was "desperate criminal" sketchy; In 12 Years a Slave, he was "Trust-me-I'm-not-sketchy" sketchy; In Non-Stop, he was "No-really-I-promise-I'm-not-sketchy" sketchy; In Gone Girl, he was "ex-boyfriend" sketchy; In the upcoming Our Brand is Crisis, he's "political advisor" sketchy; And in Black Sea, he's "corporate liaison" sketchy. Paul Giamatti, maybe the greatest character actor of his generation, has forged a very successful career partially out of playing every kind of sleazy manager--Straight Outta Compton, Love & Mercy, Private Parts, 12 Years a Slave, The Ides of March, and The Truman Show, to name a few. Scoot (can we call you Scoot?) looks primed to have a career on that level. 

A full column on The Third Man, my pick for The Greatest Film of All-Time, will be coming soon. 

Sunday, September 20, 2015

TIFF 2015, Days 3-4: Got Women?

One of the big talking points of this year’s collective film conversation, and particularly at TIFF, has been women in film. Are women getting good roles in front of the camera, and are they allowed any control behind it? While TIFF is a much more specialized level of industry reality than Hollywood at large, here at least, the answer is yes.

My Saturday began with what is, so far, the best lead actress performance of 2015, Sandra Bullock’s Our Brand is Crisis. Directed by David Gordon Green (whose career has varied from the indie George Washington to the populist Pineapple Express), Bullock plays “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a mildly unhinged American political strategist hired to advise a Presidential campaign in Bolivia. She takes the job (of course she does!) mostly because the opposing candidate’s campaign is being run by her old nemesis, Pat Candy (Billy Bob Thornton). What ensues is basically a Latin American Tom & Jerry episode, with Bullock constantly quoting Sun Tzu’s “the Art of War,” and Thornton gleefully playing the entire movie with the self-satisfied smirk of a Roger Moore-era Bond villain.

Green and screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) do a great job of keeping the action relatively comical and light-hearted, while persistently maintaining an undercurrent that these actions do have actual consequences for an entire country. Occasionally the metaphors are too heavy-handed (the opening credits show Bullock on a potters wheel, literally getting her hands dirty), and the ending features a major tonal switch that simply doesn’t work. But that misfire at the ending doesn’t undo what is a highly entertaining movie, and if anything, serves to reinforce how un-preachy the bulk of the movie is. It also might mean that George Clooney, who produced this, has learned from the bogged down moralizing of his own Ides of March, which covered similar ground four years ago. In that, Ryan Gosling’s campaign strategist began the film an idealist, and ended it jaded and morally broken. Here, Bullock starts the film that way, but ends it somewhere a bit less label-friendly.

What’s especially interesting about Our Brand is Crisis is that it was written for, and based on the true story of, a man. It’s obviously rare in Hollywood for roles originally written for men to end up in the hands of women, but it does happen every once in a while. Angelina Jolie’s Salt is a notable recent example, which at one point was to be a Tom Cruise vehicle. But the key here isn’t just that the film was written for a man, it’s that the true story was about a man—James Carville, who really was hired to advise a Bolivian presidential race. So what does it tell us that a prominent Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) and a prominent Hollywood star/director/producer (Clooney) collectively took the story of a prominent Washington figure (Carville) and gave it to a woman to star in? Dare I say it, but I think we call that progress.

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For as great a female lead role as Our Brand is Crisis is, and as groundbreaking as it may be in terms of its origins, it still doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test, as every single conversation in the entire film is about the two male presidential candidates. What’s especially hilarious is that neither of the other two movies revolving around strong female characters I saw this weekend—About Ray and Brooklyn—pass the test either. Brooklyn is a film about a young Irish immigrant in the 1950s, and the story is largely centered on her finding a husband. About Ray stars three women—Elle Fanning, Naomi Watts, and Susan Sarandon—but the story is about a family dealing with Fanning’s transition to becoming a man, and that’s what every conversation revolves around.

Brooklyn was the better of the two films. It’s an unabashed period piece that doesn’t just take place in the ‘50s, the film nearly convinces you it could have come out then, too. I mean that as a compliment. This isn’t a revisionist feminist immigrant story; it adds no contemporary moralizing to the equation. The lovely and talented Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Hanna) stars as Eilis, and the gist of the story is about whether she’ll go for the cute Brooklyn Italian boy or the handsome Irishman back home. The story is very simple on the surface, but screenwriter Nick Hornby (who has written two excellent films about a young woman’s emotional journey, An Education and Wild) mines the simplicity for the important human story at its core.

About Ray was a more troubling film, but still works reasonably well if you can reframe your expectations of what it fundamentally is. Watching the trailer, you’d think it’s a film about teenage Ramona (Fanning) undergoing gender reassignment surgery to become Ray, and his family (Watts as his mom, and Sarandon as grandmother) coping with the change. In reality, that isn’t the film we got. This is Naomi Watts’ movie, and it’s the story of a mother—and grandmother, to a lesser extent—dealing with their child’s desire to change gender. We don’t watch Ray transition, we just watch Ray want to transition. Ray is, in a very real and problematic way, just the movie’s MacGuffin. Combine that realization with the title’s obvious association to the famous song by The Lemonheads, “It’s a Shame About Ray,” and you officially enter difficult territory with what this film is conjuring about its transgender character. Is he just a plot device? Is it a shame about Ray?

Luckily, if you can get past those uncomfortable questions, there’s a good movie about parents here, albeit one very different than you might have been expecting. Watts is dynamite (as she often is), and the film’s tone reaches a nice balance of being about a heavy (and timely) subject without ever feeling heavy or preachy. Its characters are well written, and there’s great heart at its center. Yes, the same center where Ray probably should have been, but still.

Maybe it’s a bad sign that a movie headlined by three powerful actresses and no men is still, literally, About Ray, as that’s sort of the point of the Bechdel Test. But maybe it doesn’t matter. The Bechdel Test could be outmoded in that it’s meant to catch movies where women don’t matter to the structure at all. That’s clearly not the case here, but it doesn’t change the fact that these films are still about advising a man, finding a man, and even turning into a man.

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Okay, let’s change the subject and talk about movies that are not only about men, but also star them! I saw three good ones this weekend—Youth, Trumbo, and Beasts of No Nation. Youth, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to 2013’s Oscar-winning foreign language film, The Great Beauty, was the best of the bunch. Starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel, Youth sees the two elderly men, playing a great composer in retirement and a great director in creative stagnation, respectively, meet at a spa in the Swiss Alps and reflect on life. That may sound boring, but nothing ever is with Sorrentino, who can turn seemingly anything into a stunningly vibrant visual composition.

Sorrentino can also turn seemingly anything into a visual manifestation of the mind’s search for beauty, and he does that here, almost to the point that it’s all there is. Yes, Youth is the kind of movie where Michael Caine can be sitting alone overlooking a field of cows, and then imagine conducting a symphony from the cowbells. Youth is also the kind of movie, as are many of Sorrentino’s works, where gratuitous nudity somehow feels utterly essential to the artistic journey the film is on.

There are other elements that drive the plot, such as it is—Paul Dano playing a bad boy actor preparing for a role (and wait until you see what the role is), Rachel Weisz as Caine’s daughter, and Jane Fonda as, more or less, Jane Fonda. All of them help the story get to its key beats, but those beats remain predominantly about the way things look and feel with Sorrentino’s formalist guiding hand. As with The Great Beauty, they feel lush, elegiac, and quite lovely.

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Youth will come out at the very end of the year, just in time for Fox Searchlight to give it an Oscar qualifying run mainly aimed at Michael Caine. It will find steady business in the art house circuit, and Caine will either just barely miss the nominations cut, or he’ll be the fifth nominee that everyone knows has no chance (my bet is on the former). In either case, we pretty well know what to expect from Youth as regards the box office and awards race. That can’t be said for Trumbo or Beasts of No Nation.

In Trumbo, Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous Hollywood screenwriter, legendary in the industry for being the face of the Hollywood Blacklist, going to jail, winning two Oscars under pseudonyms, then triumphantly writing Spartacus and Exodus under his own name. It’s a decently good movie, but ironically for being about a screenwriter known for his economy of dialogue, this one needed to make a few more cuts. Every scene, on its own, feels well placed and worth keeping in, but by the time you get to the end, you can’t escape the realization that the movie was at least 20 minutes too long, and didn’t flow especially well.

The power of a good story is what keeps things from getting out of hand, and this is one of the best true stories in Hollywood history. It also helps that the minor roles are almost all played by great actors that you love watching—John Goodman as a schlock producer, Helen Mirren as a gossip columnist, Louis C.K. as another blacklisted screenwriter, Diane Lane as Mrs. Trumbo, and Michael Stuhlbarg as blacklisted actor Edward G. Robinson.

It’s unclear what to expect with Trumbo. It’s not quite good enough to be an awards season player, but that doesn’t always stop distributers from trying. It also plays a bit more like an HBO movie than a feature film, and director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Borat) has already been down that road twice with Recount and Game Change. On the other end of the spectrum, something that doesn’t at all play like a TV movie, Beasts of No Nation, will mostly be watched on one.

When TIFF director Cameron Bailey introduced the premiere screening of Beasts of No Nation, he thanked Netflix for providing TIFF with the film, and then said, “That’s the first time Netflix has ever been thanked at the festival; It will not be the last.” (Indeed it already happened again four days later, with the premiere of Netflix’s Keith Richards documentary, Under the Influence.) Bailey’s comment hinted at a major question Hollywood is asking about this film: Is this the new business model?

Beasts of No Nation will open in theaters on October 16, and will be available on Netflix on the same day. The theatrical run is only happening for the sake of Oscar eligibility, and Netflix stands almost no chance of making back the cost of the film from box office gross. What they’ve really paid for is to be a part of the awards conversation. If a film that comes to Netflix immediately upon release manages to get a Best Picture nomination, it not only changes the perception of Netflix as a provider of original entertainment, but also changes the very nature of theatrical releases. Of course, for that to happen, the movie also has to be good enough.

Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who is most well known as director of the first season of True Detective (another changer of business models), Beasts of No Nation is an African child soldier drama starring Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah. It is, at times, absolutely stunning. A handful of sequences are reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, and the ending scenes are remarkably powerful and affecting. It’s the connective tissue that’s the problem. Between the very good first twenty minutes, and the great last twenty minutes, is a little over an hour and a half that only leaves fleeting impressions. The tragedy of child soldiers is one that has little nuance or depth to explore. The point comes across quickly, and a little goes a long way. The overly long middle of the film also doesn’t have enough plot to sustain it. As Idris Elba’s Commandant leads his child army from conflict to conflict, village to village, there reaches a point where nothing is being narratively gained anymore. The entire first two hours of the movie exists to drive home the power of the last twenty minutes, but that power wouldn’t be diminished if we got there a bit faster.

How the Academy will treat Beasts of No Nation is, in my eyes, the single most fascinating question of the 2015 awards cycle. With no mitigating factors, nominations for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Attah, who as the child Agu, is really the lead of the film), and Supporting Actor (Elba) should all be possibilities, but I think there’s a real chance of it being shut out of the major nominations. Five or ten years from now, the notion of a film needing a theatrical run for Oscar qualification could feel like an antiquated idea. But in 2015, that’s still how the business model works. If enough of the Academy sees Beasts’ same day drop on Netflix as killing the theatrical element of the film industry and biting the hand that feeds, it could be the subject of a huge backlash. On the other hand, as Anne Thompson pointed out when I asked her this question, the fact that Beasts of No Nation will be available for everyone on Netflix at least means that Academy members will watch it. And as we see every year, sometimes the list of nominees looks heavily determined simply by what the most voters saw.

Coming Next: Susan Sarandon and Brie Larson as two very different kinds of doting mothers, and the best film of TIFF 2015.