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.