Tuesday, December 31, 2013

PCA Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2013, 61-80

Just one last set of 20 songs to go, and we're right at the edge of the New Year.  I've been a fan of 2013, generally, and the weeks to come should bring a toppling, effusive list of my favorite films of the year (good year for music, great year for movies).  In the meantime, the penultimate list keeps running through all the eclectic business, including some picks I don't think I could have ever seen coming.  Read on...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Love: The Wolf of Wall Street

There's a moment in The Wolf of Wall Street when you get your first glimpse at Jordan Belfort's Long Island estate and -immediately- have visions of the glitzy, jazz age parties Jay Gatsby would have thrown there. There's another moment, too, when Belfort introduces himself via a trite, accented "my name is..." spiel so rehearsed it sounds just like Gatsby's self-constructed history.  Part of the obvious, unavoidable comparison between the two films can be attributed to the presence of a slick-suited Leonardo DiCaprio, of course, though the twin arrival of the latest iteration of The Great Gatsby and the epic vulgarity of Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street seems a sort of happenstance that heightens the conversation surrounding each of the projects.

2013, as many critics have been quick to note, has been the year of warped and violated visions of the American dream.  Baz Luhrmann's Gatsby was a sugar sweet bit of capitalist maximalism that now reads as a throwback ground zero.  It pulled Fitzgerald's novel into a landscape where self-making does indeed mean fame, wealth, and all the violent excesses that accompany it, and through its lens we have a way of reading so many of the similarly bent films in its wake. American Hustle, of course, is a film that offers an apt title for the whole sub-genre, but beside it we have The Bling Ring, where teens rob celebrities to become closer to A-list, and Spring Breakers (the now infamous "look at my shit" sequence could be directly paralleled with the swelling, romantic closet excavation in Gatsby..."such beautiful shirts").  Anyone who's kept on top of their filmgoing this year should be able to immediately trace the lines and find the thematic similarities between so many of the most eagerly talked about films, and many have been quick to note: The Wolf of Wall Street is, kinda, a Gatsby for our times.    
But our times are bad, you see, and so The Wolf of Wall Street is a nasty, crude piece of work.  Where Jay Gatsby self-created in the name of obsessive love, he did so with the creeping understanding that made that work so quietly sickening: to be anyone, to get anyone, you had to make yourself invincible (and invisible) through cold hard cash.  Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is based on a real-life individual, and it's safe to say that his contemporary leanings find him ditching romantic love in favor of fanatical excess.  Jordan loves money, he loves power, he loves the things he can get with both, the passes that are afforded to him by society.  In the film's opening scenes, we see a young, wide-eyed Jordan escorted to lunch by experienced broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey).  In a restaurant more elegant than any he'd likely visited to that point, Jordan watches as a man he understands to be successful gets away with all the things he'd ever been told were socially unacceptable. Hanna drinks to excess during the workday, snorts cocaine at the table, makes broad statements about cheating the masses, and bluntly tells Jordan to break up his workday with drugs and masturbation.  His few minutes on screen serve as the basis for Jordan's entire work ethic, and as he moves onward and upward, he carries the idea of these bawdy indulgences with him.  The company he creates with deranged partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill) runs according to this notion of privilege, and the office floor resembles the chaos of one of Gatsby's West Egg parties.  The idea is, of course, that if you have money, if you're making money, if you're successful, you're afforded the luxury of creating whatever you want and getting away with it.  For Jordan Belfort, that begins with weekly in-office debauchery: carted in hoards of strippers, underwear-clad marching bands, boardroom orgies, and doesn't end until the Feds close in.  Scorsese may have pulled from Citizen Kane's self-congratulatory hedonism, but Belfort makes Kane look like an upstanding gentleman, and the showy, frenetic density of the crowd is pure Luhrmann.
If you're into the manic energy of The Wolf of Wall Street, its three hours fly by at an astonishing pace, disappearing beneath an endless barrage of excess and upped stakes.  This is the most awake I've been in the cinema through all of the current Oscar season thus far, I have to admit.  I was hooked, flat out, and found myself as thoroughly entertained as I was, perhaps, repulsed.  Though the film is bound (like Scarface, perhaps) to be esteemed and wrongly idolized by the sort of people it depicts, over the three hours Scorsese draws a scathing, blackly comedic portrait of American greed. Belfort, for the benefit of our amusement, is eviscerated in much the way that Jake LaMotta is in Raging Bull.  Indeed, Scorsese seems to draw from his own filmography, taking pages from LaMotta's rise and fall, from the montages of Goodfellas, the marriage in Casino, etc, to set up exactly the right notes in a way that feels so, so wrong.  Perhaps he recognizes that many of his films boast the criminal antiheroes and charismatic gangsters fetishized by individuals like Belfort and Azoff, that to tell their story properly he needs to construct a satirical pastiche of his own work.

Whether self-aware or not (I like to think Marty knows when he's repeating a pattern, and does so quite deliberately), the decisions made in presenting Wolf's many indecencies so zippily is one that works to push the film towards something so over the top that it may actually be revolutionary. No matter how many frat boy comedies you think you've seen, you've likely never seen as many atrocities played for laughs packed into one movie.  Few things are shied away from, and the film does its best to offend anyone and everyone, to shock you with the absolute ignorance of its millionaires, to launch an atom bomb at the notion of morality.  This is its curious beauty, its strange gift.  In his 70's, Scorsese has given us the all-out, no-limits, distempered film that many have stopped short of in the past.  The Wolf of Wall Street goes over the edge in service to the artwork, certainly, but also to make its point.
Like so many reprehensible works before it, The Wolf of Wall Street - for all its evils - is ultimately a backhanded morality play.  Jordan Belfort, a real life individual, is painted as a cartoonish monstrosity, a character who moves at so rapid a clip that keeping up with him reads as futile and exhausting before the film manages to reach its second act.  He's an arrogant, repugnant figure, and one rendered by Scorsese as a sort of merry stooge incapable of understanding that he is, ultimately, still human.  Where DiCaprio played Gatsby as an uncertain man desperately trying to appear confident, here he becomes a vengeful, quick-tempered demigod fueled by ego to the point of destruction. It's as remarkable a comedic performance as it is a dramatic one. Scorsese pushes DiCaprio through a range of responses and situations most actors will never have the burden of having to pull off convincingly.  All of the performances are good, but it's DiCaprio's show, and even as you hate this character with every fiber of your being...you can't look away.

Love: Inside Llewyn Davis

The key to Inside Llewyn Davis may be a line repeated twice by its shiftless protagonist: "If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it's a folk song."  In the line's first iteration, it reads as little more than stage banter, a slight joke repeated to illicit a chuckle from the Greenwich Village audience.  In the second go, when it arrives in a moment of off-putting, cyclical repetition, we find that the meaning has changed, that it has acquired more poignancy in its direct ties not only to the music, but to the life of Llewyn Davis himself.  The film is an ouroboros shaped over a span of mere days; a circular, destructive process where exact chronologies become confused and we become convinced of the inevitability of failure.  Though the folksy music may offer brief moments of uplift for those so inclined, Inside Llewyn Davis is in keeping with the bleak outlook of the Coen Brothers' last several efforts. Grim and near hopeless to the last, bolstered and enlivened by the strength of Oscar Isaac's performance.
Set during the winter of 1961, the story follows Llewyn (Oscar Isaac) as he begs friends for couches and favors, spreads frustration from nightclub to dinner parties, and eventually takes a short, unpleasant road trip to Chicago and back again.  He's a folk singer.  A decent one, but far from a great one.  This is ultimately his problem: he a man with talent, but not enough.  Consequently, he can't catch a break.  Small venues will give him a stage, but no one seeks out his album.  The thing that could have made him special is gone, and Llewyn's curse is a repetition dependent on a concession he doesn't seem willing to make.  So, he cycles through friends, he cycles through mistakes.  Everything comes back except the one thing, the one person, that he really needs, and, of course, the Coens support this with a wealth of references to various journeys, mythical and modernist.  Though Ulysses is explicitly referenced via a character name, the most direct parallel seems to be Sisyphus. Llewyn keeps pushing the boulder uphill, but never gets anywhere. He's an angry, embittered character, and over the course of the film we watch as he repeatedly lashes out at the people he's forced to rely on.
Llewyn's unpleasantness may make the film slightly less than palatable for many audiences, and while I'd agree with retorts citing a richness of content and imagery, this is far from a film for everybody. Footholds and sparkling bits of humor can be found in Llewyn's wanderings as he stumbles from the irritable Jean (Carey Mulligan) and her twinkly-eyed partner Jim (Justin Timberlake), shares a car with an enigmatic jazz man (John Goodman) and his near-silent 'valet' (Garret Hedlund), and crashes a couple intellectual parties.  There are brief laughs to be had, but each of them is complicated by a curious weight.  Sometimes the hurtful punchlines come not long after, sometimes details come to light much much later.  Everything in Llewyn's life, though, seems as tainted and infested as Jean notes when she calls him "King Midas's idiot brother."  She means it, and the Coens commit to casting Llewyn as a disaster-prone loser, the sort who seems to sabotage himself at every turn, and who can't seem to make the right decision to save his life.   A character like that, when set adrift in an otherwise romantic landscape (he seems to pass through album covers on the regular), makes for an unpredictable, strange, surreal little cinematic experience.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Love: Saving Mr. Banks

In 1964 the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins was nominated for a slew of Academy Awards, and won quite a few of them.  It's easy to forget that now, and perhaps even easier to dismiss the awards as trifles. We've shifted Mary Poppins into iconography, and for many the film feels like a childhood necessity that is either loved to the point of being taken for granted or was never fully appreciated in the first place (in which case: try again, please).  Books on the time period tend to lump the big, family-friendly musical pictures of the time together as signs of a Hollywood still bracing for its own maturity, and while that may be partially true, it fails to take into account how wonderful some of those effervescent properties truly were, and are.  Mary Poppins is, I would argue, something really quite special.  Whatever your criticisms of Walt Disney might be, the man knew how to lovingly construct cinema for audiences of all-ages, and what Saving Mr. Banks offers is a Disneyfied version of a chapter in Disney's own history; schmaltzy and amended, sure, but surprising in its potency.   
On the main stage, of course, Saving Mr. Banks is interested in Disney's 20 year process of coaxing author Pamela (P.L.) Travers to grant them the film rights to her series of children's books.  We meet Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) on the morning she's meant to fly from her prim, organized home in London to the mid-century sprawl of Los Angeles and immediately understand that there's something about the idea of giving up a part of her beloved characters that sickens her to her very core.  Emma Thompson has a great talent for school marminess, and an even greater one for managing to remain extremely likable even at her most severe. As the tightly permed Mrs. Travers, she masters a range of cherry-lipped sneers and disapproving glances in the face of Tom Hanks' down home attempts at friendly seduction.  Though Hanks looks the part of Disney, and sells it well, Thompson's clipped sentences, incessant curtness, and bossypants one-liners work to remind the viewer at each turn that this is her show.  Travers and Thompson throw their collective weight around to the point of frustration, but the film doesn't allow us to linger for too long in the author's murky frustration.

Instead, director John Lee Hancock divides the film between the events of the Disney/Travers standoff and the writer's Australian childhood as Helen Goff.  We dance from the luxury of Travers' embittered stubbornness to the rather tragic events following her family's move to a small-town farmhouse.  We meet her worn-out mother, but more than that we're shown the impact of her relationship with her alcoholic father, Travers Goff (Colin Farrell).  Hancock ties the memories and their triggers together smoothly, allowing us to slowly understand the worldview of the grown-up Pamela Travers through the heartbreaks of her younger self.  Farrell is a bit awkward, perhaps uncomfortable, but we understand enough of why Helen was so enamored with her troubled father, just how charming and playful he could be, and the reasons why she seems to carry the ghost of him with her at all times. The scenes do the trick, but put a damper on the pacing of the film. Where the 1961 scenes fly by, they begin to obviously mask the severity of the Aussie memories like a spoonful of sugar to medicine.
Somehow, though, Hancock does manage to tie everything all together in a neat, effective little package. The cross-histories of Travers and Disney, as we know, do eventually resolve themselves into a beloved, classic film.  Whether or not it was looked upon fondly by the prickly Travers or momentarily endured is up for debate, but Saving Mr. Banks convinces us that something was indeed accomplished, that magic was worked, the stories were revised and rewritten, and that all was resolved with a happy ending.  By the end of the film it may not actually matter what Travers thought of the project for what Hancock ultimately does is remind us how beautiful an object as magical, innocent, and redemptive as Mary Poppins truly is.  It has something to say about the transportive qualities of artworks (stories, films, etc) and the way meaning is found that sneaks in there and manages to cross all the wires between the emotions of the characters and the emotions of the audience.  It's a bit cheesy and sickly sweet, sure, but damn if it isn't dead on.

PCA Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2013, 41-60

Onward and upward. I'll admit, the list is being narrowed down and amended as we move from section to section. It won't be a finished product until the last thoughts on entry #100 have been posted, and the tracks vying for space are all good.  Battles are being waged in the iTunes master playlists, and tensions are running high. With this, we seal off part three. 60 songs down, 40 to go.  Hit play on the 8Tracks list at the bottom of this post, read on...

Friday, December 27, 2013

PCA Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2013, 21-40

We journey on with our trek through my preferred nominees for the best tracks of the year in this, part two of our five part voyage. Here we have old favorites with new music (or, in one case, a revamped version of an old classic), new favorites with new business, and bands who hit a strong note or two on otherwise lackluster albums. Mixing up genre, making you work for it, I've no time to pepper this with Soundcloud bites, Spotify links, or YouTube inserts. Maybe later. For now? Use the 8Tracks playlist at the bottom of the post and read on...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Love: American Hustle

Let's all think back to just a few years ago. It was a simpler time for David O. Russell, a time of being "that guy who argued on set with Lily Tomlin," a time of releasing critically divisive films here and there. The days of I Heart Huckabees are naught but a foggy memory, and Russell's name seems to have become synonymous (since The Fighter) with a sort of mainstream prestige picture. The months of lead-in on American Hustle promised what Russell delivers best: a brilliant ensemble cast adopting heavy regional accents with which to spit wise-ass dialogue until the dramatic undertones of the story give way to something comedic.  It delivered just that, and it seems like it's nearly impossible to turn around without the film getting top billing on a year-end list, racking up nominations, or being declared -- by enthusiastic critics -- a perfect film.  *Perfect* is a touch excessive, but what American Hustle is is entertaining. 100%, absolutely, in every way possible: this is a movie movie, the kind you watch because it's fun, smart, slick, and satisfying, the kind you watch with a bucket of popcorn, the kind you rave to your friends about.        
As is the case with all the best stories, American Hustle is built around a bit of truth, but devolves into freewheeling, ecstatic fiction. Russell and co-writer Eric Singer root the tale in the true life Abscam sting operations conducted by the FBI in the late '70s.  The truth is that a con artist worked alongside the bureau to entrap supposedly corrupt members of Congress into taking bribes from a phony Arab sheikh. From that morsel, the two have concocted a flashy team of con-artists, politicians, and gangsters, and they move them around like dolls in a dream house.  You start with the right haircuts, the right outfits, the right glasses. You move on to the right soundtrack, the right pop songs, the right accents.  You let the characters swagger, you force them into scenarios, you dream up new ways to get them out of trouble. This is what American Hustle does. It blends the lightest parts of Scorsese gangster pictures with the mood of Ocean's 11 and a touch of history and runs with anything it can think of.   
That's not to say that American Hustle is sloppy. Messy, maybe, but lovingly constructed. A deconstruction of its exact flaws would definitely begin with calling it out as a style over substance situation. The film is a looker and a charmer, enough so that it doesn't necessarily matter that plot points aren't filled in or the unreliable narration is touch and go. The real joy here is simply watching the characters exist.  From the first scene, when we're introduced to portly con-artist Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) as he artfully arranges his comb-over, we understand that this is a movie where the smarmy guys aren't just smarmy guys: they're likable, surprising people. It's Irving's partnership (and love affair) with scrappy survivor Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) that finds their mutual instinct for survival flourishing in an unending string of confidence schemes and petty crimes.  They loan shark, they sell forged art, they network; all the while falling deeper in love though Irving's young wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) waits at home looking after their young son and beating Irving at his own game.  It's this weakness, perhaps, that allows FBI goon Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) into the picture, and soon Irving and Sydney are all wrapped up in an over-the-top scheme with no positive outcome in sight.
The major players, for all their many moral faults and shortcomings, are never presented to the audience for our pity.  The world of the film -- for all its color -- exists entirely in shades of murky grey. We learn to love the players and their game, to appreciate their quirks, to want to spend time with them, to enjoy the oddly sweet ways in which they go about a nasty, back-stabbing business.  This is why Russell succeeds, and why the movie is rapidly proving to be somewhat infectious. For all the necessary evils, for all the survivalist moves, the destruction, and sad truths, American Hustle keeps the darkness at bay.  It's infectiously fun, the kinds of movie you want to see win awards even if it's not really the best options out there.  

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Pop Candy Arcade Playlist: 100 Most Excellent Songs of 2013, 1-20

2013 was the year of epic returns and surprise album releases. From David Bowie to My Bloody Valentine to last week's Beyonce pop-up, there may be only a handful of days left to go, but it still seems possible that there may be one surprise left, that I may be kicking off this list too early.  Only time will tell, but for now, we have arrived.  We have reached the end.  Nearly every musical artist I have ever gone through periods of fanatical admiration/obsession/love with has released new music.  While not all of it was memorable, it did seem like there was as surplus of good songs, of good albums, and that this year it's all the harder to pick and choose the great ones.

Still, I will try. Of course, this is not a music site. This is a film site, primarily, and just a one-person operation.  I'm doing this mostly for the benefit of my own future self, though I do like making playlists and sharing sounds I have enjoyed.  As this list unfolds, it's important to note that it is a mix that leans generally more towards subjective favorites than out and out "BEST POSSIBLE SONGS EVER."  It's also, as always, in not particular order, and not -- in any way-- a countdown.  That said, the absolute favorites are more likely to jump onto the list in the first 10 or so. They're the definites though, naturally, tastes change with the weather and Number 100 may have just as much merit as number 15.

Presented with minimal commentary.  Read on...

Pop Candy Arcade Playlist: The 13 Guiltiest POPtimist Pleasures of 2013

**This year I've decided to double post the year-end music lists here as well as at my (largely defunct) other blog, Pop Candy Arcade.  If you're looking for a past history of year end music wrap-ups, though, you will find them there.** 

In the years that I've made 'best of' playlists, I've not regretted it.  The projects are, essentially, exercises in personal librarianship; a means of building a small time capsule to collect songs small and large and the memories that may go along with them.  They're also among my most frequently played song collections because, well, they're all the relatively recent things I love.  So, when the holidays come around, I begin to sort through the songs I've marked over the course of year and work on sharing them.  Those familiar with the process know that before the big, official list of goodies we must confess and excise the so-called 'guilty pleasures.'  These are the songs I enjoy, admittedly, but which I may feel the need to explain after I sing along.

For you judgmental, head-shaking, eye-rolling listening pleasure, I present you with these not-so-sweet 13 tracks.  Maybe I shouldn't like them, but I definitely do...

EDIT (12/31):  Zedd's "Clarity" and the Britney Spears track "Work B**ch" are now honorable mentions. Totally overlooked/forgot about two songs that totally need to take their place. 

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Squalor: All is Lost

Sometimes I see a movie and I'm really not sure why I'm bothering to see it at all. I tell myself that I'm trying to be open-minded, that people I respect have enjoyed it; and, really, I'm hoping to be pleasantly surprised. From the moment I buy the ticket, though, I know the likelihood of the subject matter piquing my interest is slim to none.  All is Lost is one such object.  It's a film fascinating only in its ability to sustain a full-length narrative on a paragraph of dialogue and minimal characterization.  In the way it uses its formal devices, I'm intrigued, but the maritime calamity that ensues feels like a cheap shot, and one that follows a wholly predictable ebb and flow of problems and short-term solutions. It's Life of Pi without the animals and religion, Gravity without the benefit of innovation, Captain Phillips without the Somali pirates, Open Water with less of a shark problem, and so on and so forth.  All is Lost is a wash (pun intended) of repetitive, damp survival scenes and cornball reaction shots that compound and compound until the formalist strengths collapse beneath the improbability and frustrating familiarity of the scenes.  What I'm saying boils down to exactly this: you can call it "commercial avant-garde" all you want, David Denby, but that doesn't change the fact that I've seen single-serving catastrophe worked out before in ways that haven't made me want to roll my coat into a pillow and take a nap.
The most exciting moments of All is Lost, for me, occurred in my own mind as a Maersk line ship is seen at a distance.  In these moments, I imagined how perversely interesting it would be if Robert Redford's unnamed character were rescued by Captain Phillips (only to stumble into further crisis).  I then spent a significant amount of the film's final section imagining the production company clever enough to (within the span of a year) quietly make easter egg-style link-up points in every single one of its cross-genre releases.  Yes, Virginia, this idiocy is what was occupying my mind as Robert Redford sputtered and grimaced and fiddled around with a sextant and made fresh water out of condensation in a tin can.  This is, of course, not an inaccurate synopsis of the film, though one that completely snubs any of the deeper metaphorical readings many are wont to graft onto it.  So, here's the slightly more accurate version: our hero wakes up below deck on his yacht only to find that during his nap, a drifting shipping carton has crashed into his hull and his vessel is taking in water.  The film is entirely devoted to our hero attempting -- stubbornly, tenaciously, determinedly (choose your adverb) -- to stay alive as his weakened craft is pelted with obstacle after obstacle until we are left, quite literally, with just an old man and the sea.  The challenges are practically biblical, the solutions interesting in their boy scout ingenuity, the small inconsistencies are many.

Of course, when we see a film like this that has the benefit of a strong performance by its actor, our ability to root for the underdog, to be drawn into their situation and to, therefore, experience the film as something harrowing often makes the thing hold water (I know. I'm out of control with the puns. I can't stop. They're so damn easy).  Redford is, indeed, pretty decent.  It's a highly physical performance, and he manages to imbue his waspy survivalist as so balanced, so focused and headstrong and determined to live that he is the sort who can sustain the formal conceit of the film. Taking the film's poetic temperature is easy: its verse on life is blunt as hell, and if a 'Victory at Sea' minimalism appeals to you, All is Lost will read as something hypnotic.  For me, the formalist graft just doesn't pay off in the long run, and the transformation of character into symbol requires a few too-many stupid accessories.  The experiment is admirable, the tools too banal.  Where Gravity transforms an impossibly similar situation into a majestic, thrilling spectacle fraught with human psychology, All is Lost is a tedious bore.  Then again, it may be that that mundane, quiet reversal is exactly what you want...

Love: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

What's the point of reviewing The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug?  I'm not sure there is one. It's not a sequel, it's not a conclusion, it's just the midpoint of a frustratingly fractured long-form adaptation.  At this point, you're either going to watch the whole business no matter what or you didn't give a shit about the first one and won't give a shit about the second one.  For those of us in it for the long haul, there's little to do apart from approving, disproving, or -- if you're so inclined -- picking apart Peter Jackson's strange edits.  I'm pretty firmly in the camp of those willing to stamp a seal of approval on The Hobbit and move on.  All of my commentary from last year still stands (visit it here): it's a lovely, rich fantasy film that feels true to the relative lightness (opposite Lord of the Rings) of J.R.R. Tolkien's work.  It remains slightly cheesy, whimsical, a touch nostalgic, and too labored over...but it's a brilliant children's film even when the orcs are losing their heads by the dozens.
If it's better than part one, it's mostly because the dwarves sing less, there's a dragon, and it's shorter.  If it's worse, it's because there's too much leaping elf CG and too many fan fiction liberties.  Typing that, I realize it's overstatement. Really, it would be hard to deny that Desolation of Smaug is better than its predecessor.  As we continue our travels with Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), Gandalf (Ian McKellan), and the occasionally merry band of dwarves, we find ourselves thrown directly into the action.  There's no mincing about and overeating, just running, jumping, orc-battling, and non-stop heroics from our largely diminutive journeymen. Bilbo has learned how to take advantage of the one ring and the course set for the Lonely Mountain now promises significantly more rapidly-paced twists than initially anticipated.  In part two, we're treated to several of the novel's most memorable episodes: they enter Mirkwood, encounter giant spiders, step into the treasure hoards of the mountain, and engage in combat with the enormous dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch).  Much as this review is, the whole thing is comma, comma, comma, and then, and then, and then; frequently in the excitable, wonderful way it should be.  Still, this is no hulking summer monstrosity.  Jackson retains the elegance of his take on the series, and throughout Desolation of Smaug, the action is allowed to linger in each of the worlds built. We're given a keen sense of place, and if you're predisposed to appreciate the lofty spaces imagined, you will enjoy luxuriating in every new corner of the map.
So, Desolation of Smaug is a placeholder. It's just a thing lurking in the middle that's more interesting than the first chapter, maybe less so than the last. As with all books split in half, it ends on an unsatisfactory note and teases what's to come. Though only time will tell how the series pans out, I remain optimistic.  It's a lovingly constructed project, though an incomplete, and overlong one.  Serious purists, though, may be disappointed. With Desolation of Smaug, Jackson continues to attempt to mold the storybook qualities of The Hobbit to the epic contours of The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He's determined to make it function as a more direct prequel, and the films go to great lengths to add and append glimpses into the future.  The result is, unfortunately, that The Hobbit is becoming a far less intimate object than it should be.  It loses too much of Bilbo even as it allows the filmmakers to apply some of their own imaginative capabilities.  Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), a warrior elf, is a completely fabricated addition to the series designed, one can assume, to break up the sausage fest.  She's an alright character, though her story comes attached to the too early appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a rather distracting, unnecessary love triangle.  Sauron enters the picture too, dragging the fantasy into the murky politics of war long before such things are required. The revisions are weird, but I can't say they bothered me too much. I came to accept that in the three-film expansion this would never be a clean-cut project, and Jackson has a ways to go before he stumbles into Phantom Menace territory.  So, we'll keep judging this as one massive film. The same rating applies. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Love: Nebraska

I've been living under a rock for the last few weeks. That means that though I've gone out of my way to check out a few movies, I've read absolutely nothing about them.  So, I know people are generally receiving Nebraska with open arms, but I'm not sure exactly how or exactly why.  Someone told me that people keep telling them that this is the movie where Alexander Payne, a director who has been at the helm of any number of critical successes, finally learns how to "make a movie."  The person who told me this was wholly dubious of the claim, certain that it all it meant was that Payne (a director they find boring) zeroed in his focus on a story even more quiet and personal and mundane than the films that have come before it.  To tell the truth, I hadn't been sure how I'd felt about Nebraska up til that point. I liked it just fine, but wasn't sure it deserved the heaps of awards praise it seemed to be acquiring.  When I heard this sort of dismissive read of the film, though, my immediate urge to defend it took hold.  I guess that's the kind of film it is: one that feels like family. You're allowed to knock it a bit, but someone else? An outsider? They just need to shut their mouths.   

Of course, in many ways, Nebraska seems designed to inspire precisely that protective feeling. Payne's drama is a quiet, family affair in a no-frills black and white that allows the characters themselves to add color to an otherwise stark landscape. Part road movie, part comedy of errors, the film is an intimate glance into a family forced into adventure by the stubborn delusions of their usually quiet patriarch, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern).  Convinced that the spoils of a million dollar sweepstakes await him in Nebraska, Woody has been repeatedly attempting to walk his way out of Billings, Montana to collect what's rightfully his.  Of course, the money is non-existent, and his wife (June Squibb) and adult sons repeatedly attempt to convince him that it's nothing but a con job.  Woody, though, can't be deterred.  So, hoping to put an end to his dad's repeat attempts at escape, David (Will Forte) loads frustrating old Woody into a car and takes him on a road trip that winds up crossing back through the family's past.

The trappings are, of course, extremely humble and small-scale. It's as easy to dismiss the gestures it's making as it is to overhype them as a corrective for the loud, clattering blockbusters.  Dern, Forte, and Squibb are all charming to watch, all utterly convincing, but I'd argue it's not really the acting that makes the movie what it is.  Though these are quieter, gentler turns for Dern and Forte both, they're aided tremendously by the corralling influence of the film's construction. It's the way we approach the characters through the larger plot elements, the carefully timed way that small details are revealed, events occur, and the gentle, contemplative camerawork used to capture them that delivers. Nebraska plays out like a tightly constructed short story in which we're moved by the prose even before we find something 'other' to latch onto in the characters.   
The deeper one travels into the film, the richer it becomes. Though there's not much that's truly surprising or revelatory about the film as an art object, it's a sturdy piece of work that manages to slowly endear the characters to the viewer and to pick up on the little things.  Nebraska reads as organic material, but unlike so many meandering indies, it gets to where it's going and seems to be the better for it.  As Woody and David's story unfolds, we find a surprising amount of humor and spirit that colors the unlikable curmudgeon as quite accidentally lovable.  It's an odd turn, a sort of happy sad that proves that Hollywood's standards and aesthetics can't touch the world Nebraska inhabits.  That, more than it's pacing or relative quiet, is what makes it better than the bulk of Payne's past work.  It doesn't feel like a vehicle for a bravura performance and is instead just left to become a good, story-driven movie.

Love: Philomena

For those not among the crazed individuals trying to catch all the potential Oscar nominees in order of arrival, chances are Philomena will be sought out because it offers one of two possible things: Judi Dench and/or Steve Coogan.  While the story itself is a good bit of 'human interest', Philomena seems to be a case where it's an attachment to the actors involved that draws audiences to the theater seats.  If you're like me, you inexplicably love Coogan and want to know what it looks like when the man who crafted Alan Partridge writes a film gunning for awards contention. If you're like everyone (and yes, that includes me), you find yourself oddly delighted by Dame Judi Dench's master ability to switch from charming grandmother to unblinking bad-ass with only a moment's notice.  Dench is, at 78, something of a power player.  She's a lady capable of proving you wrong, and in this case, her presence is enough to draw you happily in to a simple, melancholy story about rather startling, tragic events.  

Philomena is, in some ways, a rather rosily cheeked flip side piece to 2002's The Magdalene Sisters. Like that film, it centers around a mystery wrought by the mistreatment of young women housed in abbeys (or asylums, as they were sometimes referred to) in 1950s Ireland run by the Catholic Church.  Philomena Lee (Dench) was one of them, and, as a teenager, was forced to give her son up for adoption.  After keeping the secret for much of her adult life, suddenly confides to her daughter, who, shocked by the news, mentions the secret to fallen journalist Martin Sixsmith (Coogan) in a chance meeting.  Sixsmith, recently told he should pick up a "human interest" story to re-up his profile decides to meet with Philomena. Soon, the jaded, critical journalist and the devout, optimistic Philomena are a regular odd couple on a fact-finding jaunt through Ireland to DC and back again.
The film is based on the real-life Sixsmith's book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and though the twists, turns, and curious intersections of Lee's search for her son are at times as harrowing as they are fascinating, the movie is clever enough to know that while we may stay for the outcome, we've come for the characters. Coogan and Jeff Pope have crafted an intelligent script from Sixsmith's account, and Philomena locates the real human interest in an already jarring human interest story.  Dench is brilliantly cast, and sets aside some of her steely dramatic persona to become the bubbly, enthusiastic type of woman who praises the rote details of a romance novel, compliments people constantly, and refuses to speak an ill-word of the nuns responsible for her tragedy.  She's so kindly and prone to distraction that, by comparison, Coogan's comic timing is subverted and he becomes a sort of broken straight-man. The two work surprisingly well together as cynic and eternal optimist, and by the film's conclusion it is perhaps their dynamic that resonates as the most touching aspect of the story.  There's something surprisingly sweet about what unfolds throughout Philomena that seems to run counter and serve as a balm to the dark truths lurking forever beneath the surface, and ultimately, the film is most notable for sharing its heroine's staunch refusal to be brought down.  As Philomena herself is not prone to dramatics, the film does not wish to paint her as being so, or to present her in any way that would inspire pity where she might not want it.  So, it is a layered tale that finds its heart in the story that results from the first story, and which marries the comic and the tragic in the most humble of hosts.

RIP: Peter O'Toole

There are actors who hit a nerve with us, and who, through their performances, choices, and chronicled lives we feel we have somehow come to know, if only as a strange, distant fascination.  Peter O'Toole was one of those characters for me, a larger than life, charismatic hell-raiser whose eyes seemed to belie a certain impish flamboyance in his every appearance.  Though I feel I had always been aware of his role in 1962's epic Lawrence of Arabia, it was his turn opposite Audrey Hepburn in How to Steal a Million where I think I first encountered him.  He was a dapper sort of spindly-legged cartoon, a person who looked like a bonafide movie star and who had such an air of likability about him that, as time wore on, tales of his boozy history revealed themselves as amusing footnotes to his curiously eccentric public persona.  I've long been fascinated by Peter O'Toole, through Lawrence, to How to Steal..., to What's New Pussycat?, The Lion in Winter, Becket, and (one of my personal favorites) to his bravura, wickedly maniacal turn in The Ruling Class.  Though O'Toole has been something of a scarce presence since 2006's Venus, it saddens me to know that there will be no more interviews, award show appearances, or witticisms from Peter O'Toole (and do, when you have the chance, check out this classic).  The actor passed away yesterday at age 81.  He was one of the great ones.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Love: Frozen

Frozen is a Disney princess film that follows closely in the footsteps of Tangled and, to some extent, Pixar's Brave. Like the "Rapunzel" update before it, Frozen is ostensibly meant to be a modernized, musical retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Snow Queen," though, you know, with 95% of the story excised and rewritten. Adding up what remains of the original fairy tale amounts to roughly a reindeer and, well, a queen with icy powers.  Purists may be disappointed, but many will find the revision a welcome one. Though the milquetoast, white skinned, blonde character design may be a bit too reminiscent of smirking Rapunzel for some haters, Disney gets everything else right with Frozen. After decades of criticism on their seemingly passive princesses, Frozen represents another strong step (or two) in the right direction. 

The story's construction is less old school fairy tale and more Broadway musical, though it follows the structure of both to a T.  We are introduced, in the once upon a time land of Norway, to two young princesses, Anna and Elsa.  Elsa, the elder, was born with magical powers. She can produce snow and ice out of thin air, much to the delight of her playful little sister. When Elsa accidentally injures Anna, though, all bets are off.  Anna's memory is wiped by a Troll King, and with no memory of her sister's magic, she can't understand why they've become distant.  Meanwhile, Elsa is forced to take her ever-growing powers underground, to hide in her room, try to control herself, sheath her weaponized hands in gloves, and ignore Anna lest she injure her again.  When the King and Queen die in an accident, the girls live an even lonelier existence, wholly detached from one another. Things change when Elsa comes of age. The castle gates are opened for her coronation and the sisters are reunited with each other even as they interact with outside parties for the first time. In true stage spectacular style, character grievances and motivations are spelled out in song, and the trajectory becomes clear from square one.
Excitable Anna (voiced by Kristen Bell) is thrilled to engage with Elsa (Idina Menzel) again, and anxious to make first contact with eligible young princes.  Anna's enthusiasm finds her quickly smitten with a handsome guy, but when she enthusiastically drags him to meet Elsa, her disapproval escalates quickly into an argument, and Elsa's emotionally triggered powers plunge the kingdom into perpetual winter. Freaked out and exposed, Elsa bolts, escaping the scene, and tearing off into the wilderness. Halfway up the mountain, she comes to terms with her new freedom. She can be who she is, finally, but the problem with her glittering, fabulous, self-imposed exile is that everyone in the kingdom is suffering.  From here, the story shifts to Anna's attempt to connect with her sister and solve the problem, and on her journey the story picks up a handful of lovable, charming sidekicks: Kristoff (Jonathan Gross) the ice merchant, his trusty reindeer Sven, and enchanted, sun-obsessed snowman Olaf (Josh Gad).
All the pieces are in place for a cliff-scaling adventure chock full of romance, self-discovery, and cheeky jokes.  For the most part, Frozen delivers on those promises in full while providing a killer merchandising tie-in in its double dose of princess power. Extra doll sales aside, Elsa and Anna's story is an important one, and much needed.  As entertaining and impossibly charming as Frozen is, it's also a bit of a game changer.  It shouldn't be much of a spoiler to note that the kingdom can only be restored via a togetherness between the sisters. Elsa isn't a villain to be vanquished, but a woman who wishes to be understood and appreciated for her unique abilities.  The film's largest defect is that to successfully bridge the communication gap between the sisters, it must first keep Elsa at a distance. Consequently, we lose sight of the more complicated character for longer than we might hope.
Still, the decision is one that makes a fair amount of sense. Elsa is relatable in her insecurities, but more in keeping with the traditional fairy tale model of being a little too special.  Shifting the spotlight onto Anna allows the story to ground itself in something like reality.  Though her nose may be perfectly turned up and her waist teeny tiny, Anna is written to read on screen as a real girl princess: she has no magic powers, didn't know magic existed, has been desperately seeking her sister's attention for years, crushes too hard, is smart, resourceful, kind, awkward, and knows her priorities. She connects in a way that allows us to crack the surface of the sister that's been forced to hide away for years, and by the end?  It's all worth it. Point: Disney. This is a win, and one that girls need.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Love: Blue is the Warmest Color

The simplest synopsis of Blue is the Warmest Color involves describing it as a character study. In an unending string of close-up shots, we sit dangerously close to a young girl named Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and watch as her life unfolds. As a teenager, Adèle is navigating the waters of sexual attraction.  She tries to heed the urges of her gossiping friends, picks up with boys and loses her virginity to one who seems to really like her. All the while, she fantasizes about one of those slow motion instances, in this case a chance passing with a mysterious girl with blue hair.  Their eyes met, something happened, and Adèle's understanding of herself shifted.  For the first hour of the film, we are left alone with Adèle to work things out.  The film is patiently anxious, wrapped up in a slow burn of angsty emotions and trapped in a limbo of what Adèle can and cannot find space to express.  She breaks the heart of a boy, we feel for him. She tests the waters with a flirtatious girl, and is crushed.  She pours over books, messily eats spaghetti, ties her hair back and adjusts it nervously.  

Director Abdellatif Kechiche allows Adèle to carve out her own space, and the objective camerawork never seems to pass judgment on her decisions. When Adèle finally does meet and speak to the blue haired girl of her dreams, the air changes.  The reality of Emma (Lea Seydoux) makes the already tight space of the film feel dizzy. There's a slippage that occurs, a disorientation that adjusts the way the viewer engages with Adèle's timeline. What had seemed stagnant and plodding is transformed, suddenly.  With Emma's arrival, time picks up speed, events become confusing. Friends are lost and gained, life events seem to come and go.  We wake up one day and find that Emma and Adèle are living together, that they have made a small life of their own.  The film's greatest triumph is the way it balances an individual character study with the love story of a couple. We watch as one girl becomes one of two, and the nuanced approach to attraction, the way time seems to stop when Adèle is away from Emma speaks to something universal.  Simply put: the quiet moments of the love story get something really right, and audiences should be able to relate regardless of orientation.  Our time spent with Adèle in isolation allows us to see the effect that Emma has on her, and vice versa.  There's a magnetic pull, and under its control Adèle is both liberated and trapped. Ultimately, the film seems interested in showing us the tremendous effect that a person can have on another's life.

Throughout most of its three hour duration, Blue is the Warmest Color moves steadily forward. For as many meditations on Exarchopoulos's face as we see, the film never really ground to a halt or wore at the limits of my patience.  There's little that's been added that feels at all extraneous to the central story. Adèle's life is Adèle's life, and what Kechiche decides to show us feels generally key to our understanding of her character and the ways her world is shaken by Emma's appearance.  It's worth noting that the Exarchopoulos's character shares her first name for a reason: the camera was set on her in off hours, too, and much of the film is improvised.  The original name was Clementine, but too much collected footage of Exarchopoulos when she ate or rode public transport resulted in a conflation of life and art.  There's something odd about this, something that feels both like a blurring of a cinema verite line and a cheater's move. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux each give tremendous, deceptively simple performances, but there's something about watching Adèle on screen that suggests both genius and real pain.  At points it feels less like acting than a curious form of manipulation, as though we are watching a real girl get put through the emotional wringer. 

Which leads us to the last bit. As seems to often be the case with Palme d'Or winners, Blue is the Warmest Color has attracted its fair share of controversy.  It seems that just about everyone involved in the production of the film has had their moments of disowning or speaking out against elements of it, of wanting to walk away from it like the thing itself itself were just a bad memory, a poorly chosen ex-lover.  Though claims of a fraught production have led to a fair amount of scrutiny, Blue wears the most glaring of its problems right on the surface.  For a great, often beautifully nuanced and subtle film, its sex scenes closely resemble unadulterated pornography.  As in, they are filmed not unlike what we have come to define as "porn." And when a middle-aged, male director turns his camera on two young girls ruthlessly and animalistically exploring one another's bodies, questions of necessity, voyeurism, and exploitation are unavoidable.      
To be fair, I admit that I did find the sex scenes to be a bit over the top, and generally just a snore. Though their treatment was in line with the objective lens of the film, there was something about the constant switching of positions, the duration of the events, and the sound mixing that went beyond presenting vital information about their individual characters (ie: proof of their intense, physical attraction, evidence of their level of comfort with one another, some releasing of carnal urges, etc) and began to work against the tonal qualities of the film.  In a story already so emotionally open, vulnerable, and tender, do we need a 10-minute love scene? Or, better question, do we need a 10-minute love scene filled with rim jobs and impish eyes peering up above the curvature of an ass?  I'm kinda like, meh? Maybe we don't?  Personally, I had to actively resist the urge to check the time or flip through my planner during that one in particular. Far from eliciting a puritanical response, it mostly felt as though the repetitive actions and fleshy monochrome had been dropped in as a carnal intermission from the real film. It felt like break time, and I thought it would be a good time for a bathroom or snack break, but didn't want to look like the prude rushing from the theater. Tough times. There was an accidental silliness to it that I found grating, and though the original graphic novel does indeed devote time to illustrating the physical bond between Adèle and Emma, I did question how essential the extended duration of the love scenes was to the film as a whole. 

 More distracting than that, though, the film loses a half point for me due to its insistence on seemingly using "the mouth" and "orality" as a theme. Adèle is always smacking on things, slurping, kissing, drinking, using her mouth to consume and express.  For a person who despises listening to other people's mouth noises, the attention to them here exceeded what I'm able to stand. I reached a comical level of irritation at a few points during Blue is the Warmest Color, when bowl after bowl of spaghetti was served, oysters consumed, cheeks kissed over and over in a succession of greetings.  Maybe I'm imagining it, but I don't think so: much like the weight of the sex scenes, the insistence on the sounds seemed forced, imposed, and too much for the emotional ephemera at the film's center.   Every time another plate of spaghetti was introduced, my skin began to crawl.    

Love: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Where many YA adaptations have faltered, the first entry in the Hunger Games franchise succeeded in transferring the doomsday sensibilities of its dystopian vision to the big screen.  The film trafficked in fear, didn't cut itself down or hold back on the violence that concerned reluctant parents. It was, in many respects, a strong science fiction film, but still a sort of B-grade one.  It hadn't found its footing, seemed to have been treated as a relatively low-budget project. Something about it, though, connected with audiences beyond the age range of the book, and though it was flawed, its ideas and principles were manifest, its allegory en pointe.

For some there were still a few kinks to be worked out, and I know that as entertained as I was by the emotional jousting, many were counting up the mistakes. Yes, Peeta had to become a stronger character. Yes, Katniss needed a little more dimension. Yes, key background context  (familiar to those who had read the books) needed to be on screen for the newbies.  Yes, yes, yes, all of it, yes.  Fear not. This time, the odds are truly in the sequel's favor. With Catching Fire, all is forgiven. The cast and crew have taken the criticism to heart, learned from the experience, and done their absolute best to level up. The results are impressive. As a sequel, it's incredible. We're talking Empire Strikes Back, Prisoner of Azkaban, Dark Knight credit so far as upping the ante of the franchise goes. While that would be more than enough to please the average fan, the true feat of Catching Fire is really that it's kinda hard to deny its strength separate from the series context. There are strides towards an overall great film here, and I'm not afraid to admit it.

This may sound completely crazy, but I found myself engrossed in Catching Fire in a way I've yet to experience with the recent spate of Oscar dramas. In a lot of ways I felt like this was ostensibly a better, more satisfying film than a "serious artwork" like, say, Blue is the Warmest Color. Before you freak out, let me remind you that I know this sounds crazy and that yes, Catching Fire is a very different kind of film; one produced for raw entertainment value, to be consumed with popcorn, to be devoured as cult commodity, sure. But, there's a rare quality to it. Part of the credit can surely be given to Jennifer Lawrence, who, fresh off her Oscar win, plays our struggling heroine with a depth this genre simply isn't used to. Katniss has moved beyond the surly, snarly rebel of the first film. As a victor, her situation has become all the more complicated. Her fake love story with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) may have saved them both from death, but in producing it she became a symbol to an oppressed nation. She beat the system, found a way, and that has her in a curious fix. Her fiercely private lifestyle has been co-opted by the public. She's watched, recorded, and written about, but, even more than that, she's captured the special attention of the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland). Snow wants to keep the people in control, and Katniss can't seem to stop herself from accidentally giving them hope. Adapted away from the first person narration of the books, Lawrence must manage with little dialogue what Katniss has so much time to say: she is not equipped to deal with her role. She's torn, and Snow forces her to choose between sacrificing her family or her values, two things that seem to be inseparably linked. 
Needless to say, Lawrence delivers the goods. This time, though, Josh Hutcherson does as well. Peeta is far more compelling, and it seems that the actor and the character have grown together: Hutcherson has more confidence, more presence, Peeta is in the same boat. There's a chemistry and camaraderie between the two this time that makes the potential of their relationship feel more viable, and which strengthens the very core of instability at the story's center. Acting aside, however, the movie is brilliantly paced. There's a plotting here that feels somehow stronger than my experience with the book itself. We are made to experience the dire nature of Katniss and Peeta's situation, and the conditions of Panem itself. Where the first film relished the chance to jump into combat, we are here forced to fully immerse ourselves in a suffering country ripe for revolution. In District 12, a curfew has been instated, the government has deployed masked police, and those who ask for trouble find their public flogging nationally televised. As the victors tour the nation, they come repeatedly face to face with suffering, brutality, and injustice they have no power to stop. For Katniss, this is maddening. She knows that she is the cause, that what she did is changing the world, but that people are dying because she, essentially, did something selfish. This is a devastating conceit for an action film, and that central conflict permeates every moment of the film. When even the fleeting fight sequences seem to have the fate of the unfree world riding on them, nothing seems cheap anymore. Again, you can call me crazy, but when a surefire blockbuster manages to remain entertaining while throwing ethical weight, personal crisis, and tragedy behind it...it's got something. It's really got something.

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