The Yards (2000)

On the surface, The Yards isn’t a whole lot different than James Gray’s debut feature Little Odessa. Both follow a young man with a rough past returning to his hometown after a long time away. Both explore the family dynamic in the wake of that return. Both watch as man and family alike are sucked back into old ways as if the place in which they all grew up would hold a dark fate regardless of how loudly they all raged against it. Both Little Odessa and The Yards, tragic movies about reluctant criminals, are criminally underseen as well (although they’re both now streaming on Netflix).

In Gray’s sophomore effort Mark Wahlberg is Leo, recent ex-con out on parole and returned to his ailing mother and his seedy extended family in Brooklyn. His good friend Willie is happiest to see him again, eager to reintroduce him to “the way things work”. Charlize Theron, James Caan and Faye Dunaway round out the impressive cast, but Joaquin Phoenix as Willie is the only one who mines his character for all he’s worth. If there’s anything that separates this feature from Little Odessa, it’s that the potential of The Yards is greater than the final result.

Continue reading The Yards (2000)

Braindead (1992)

Now that The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, a.k.a. the “Defining Moment” of the Lord of the Rings saga, is nearly upon us, it’s time to acknowledge that this series has been the longest con in cinema history. Peter Jackson has pulled the wool over our eyes, and it’s about time someone blew the whistle. He’s not the David Lean of fantasy he’s made us all believe him to be. No, Peter Jackson, ladies and gentlemen, is the sick freak behind slapstick zombie horror Braindead.

Dead Alive, as it’s known (or not known) in the States, isn’t even his most deranged work–just wait till you see Meet the Feebles. But it does have the infamous reputation of being the most violent movie ever made. Obviously, Jackson had greedily set out to make a name for himself right from the beginning, though it wasn’t “Lord CG-Crowds” or “Sir Most-Number-of-Endings-Crammed-Into-One-Film” just yet. The fact is, before cannibalizing Lean, Jackson had latched onto the coattails of the Masters of Horror.

Continue reading Braindead (1992)

The Imitation Game (2014)

There is a scene in The Imitation Game where a young Alan Turing is introduced to a book of codes and cyphers by his classmate and friend Christopher. The significance of this moment is obvious (Look, it’s the exact moment Alan Turing became the Alan Turing we all know!!!). But Graham Moore’s script plays this moment as a different kind of discovery. There’s no glint in Alan’s eye as he catches a glimpse of a future in which he fathers computer science while cracking the Nazi’s Enigma code, wins the war, and is later played beautifully by Benedict Cumberbatch. Instead,  Alan recognizes a comparison between cyphers and the way people talk. Turing, who is thought to have had Aspergers Syndrome, cannot process metaphors and irony because of his extreme literalism. The concept of coded communication gives him a better understanding of how people don’t say what they mean and don’t mean what they say. This, not his mathematical genius, is his gateway into code-breaking, and it’s one of many beautiful nuances in the film.

Unfortunately, the rest of The Imitation Game, like Turing, is overly formulaic. The film adapts Andrew Hodges’ biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma, about the mathematical savant who was the biggest contributor to deciphering Nazi communications with his cryptanalytic machine. This true story could have been an otherwise simple and inspiring tale about an extraordinary Brit, alongside the likes of The Theory of Everything and The King’s Speech, if it weren’t for one major tarnish. In 1952, Turing was convicted of indecency (read: homosexual acts) and made to take hormone treatments in place of a prison sentence. He killed himself two years later. This understandably requires a different kind of film.

Continue reading The Imitation Game (2014)

Batman Returns (1992)

‘Tis the season! ‘Tis a time for merriment, gaiety, festivity, and a bunch of other synonyms! ‘Tis also a time in which box-office turnouts for fifth and sixth installments of Saw or Fast and Furious vastly outweigh those for fresh, original film — a time in which the popularity of one kind of movie seems almost contingent on the failure of the other. ‘Tis a good time for cynicism, evidently.

Batman Returns is a superhero sequel, obviously, but it’s not the kind of assembly-line movie that phrase conjures up today (it’s also a Christmas movie, hence my yuletide cheer). This isn’t an instantly forgettable Marvel sequel like Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World, seemingly intent only on filling the space between Avengers team-ups. Returns, like Burton’s first Batman film, takes pride in originality even in the face of decades of established Bat-lore, flipping things upside down and ignoring long character histories and comic book arcs in favor of new things, for better or worse. So in Batman we discover that the Joker is the one who killed Thomas and Martha Wayne, not some nobody named Joe Chill; here in Returns, Penguin isn’t a respected sophisticate but instead a literal man-bird. Returns basically says f*ck you to so much of the Batman canon that it’s difficult to imagine it being released today without causing fanboydom to implode.

Continue reading Batman Returns (1992)

Ida (2014)

The most impressive aspect of Ida, the 2014 EFA champion and Polish Golden Globe nominee from director Pawel Pawlikowski, is without a doubt the stark visual staging and meticulous shot composition. Unlike Andreas Prochaska’s The Dark Valley — another awards season foreign language contender — the visual beauty of Ida meshes seamlessly with the story rather than overwhelming it. Newcomer Agata Trzebuchowska plays the young nun-in-training of the film’s title, and her forays from the convent into what some might call “the real world” provide the framework for Ida.

Ida was essentially born into her role in the convent, abandoned as a child and only now old enough to venture out. She’s nearly ready to take her final vows and become a full-fledged nun (“It’s morphin’ time!”) but before she does, she leaves the convent to track down her estranged aunt and get a little taste of the outside world. It’s not long before this Catholic nun discovers a truth about her past: she’s Jewish. This is only the first of many threats to Ida’s identity, one focused squarely in the past and in the present, and the revelation of the love and struggle and verve of the world outside the convent shakes up Ida’s future.

Continue reading Ida (2014)

Inherent Vice (2014)

Doc Sportello ain’t a do-gooder, as one of the trailer lines for Inherent Vice sings, but he’s done good. Paul Thomas Anderson’s seventh movie doesn’t seem to match up with anything else he’s done, tempting though it may be to shove it in the same category with Boogie Nights simply because they’re both comedies. There’s a little Boogie in there, for sure – there’s also mid-’80s Leslie Nielsen zaniness, a bit of Robert Altman, a bit of early Guy Ritchie, a bit of everything. Joaquin Phoenix plays Doc, a sofa-riding P.I. suddenly embroiled in a kidnapping/murder case that’s way, way over his head. The moving parts of the case are as perplexing to Doc as those of the film proper might be to us, and when Doc gives up trying to make sense of it all is about the time we do the same.

So, yeah: Inherent Vice has Jewish real estate moguls, ex-convicts, flat-topped cops, Japanese drug cartels, the Aryan Brotherhood, doped-up dentists, maritime lawyers and an increasingly large cross-section of people known from San Fran to San Diego with clear disdain or clear indifference as hippies. There are loan sharks, FBI agents, tenor sax players. There’s a big boat which might be called The Golden Fang, might not. How could these disparate agencies possibly be connected?

Continue reading Inherent Vice (2014)

The Hustler (1961)

There’s a long legacy of sports films where the heroes are the starry-eyed, passionate lovers of the game, the athletes who play from the heart and, despite a lack of technique or formal training, still come out on top. Even Rocky emerges from his loss against Apollo Creed with the blood, sweat, tears and girlfriend to prove that, in the end, he’s the real winner. Robert Rossen’s The Hustler is not one of these movies. If you asked George C. Scott’s character, Bert, what those other heroes had in common, he’d tell you it was “character.” Paul Newman’s Fast Eddie, on the other hand, has none. The Hustler tells the story of how Eddie (our hero, if you can call him that) earned his character.

The opening scene introduces Fast Eddie, a drifting pool shark, as he executes his latest con in a small town billiards hall. Just as he’s about to put away the eight ball in a finishing move and claim all the bets, the camera decides to stay on his face, completely ignoring the action on the table. We know Eddie wins because of the sound of the ball landing in the pocket, but that’s not the sound Eddie lives for. He’s there for the shit-eating grin he gets to wear the moment he wins. For the groans of gamblers that have lost money on a rigged bet. For the wad of cash he gets to shove in his breast pocket. He’s good at pool, sure. Hell, he’s the best anyone’s seen. But there’s no indication yet that he plays pool for any other reason than that it’s a game that attracts the greasy, betting types with loose wallets. For Eddie, pool’s a means to an end of fame and glory. And this, somehow, is the protagonist we’re supposed to fall in love with.

Continue reading The Hustler (1961)

American History X (1998)

Director Tony Kaye has certainly not been afraid of being too graphic in his limited body of work. In his 1998 movie American History X, starring Edward Norton and Edward Furlong, Kaye doesn’t shy away from explicit detail in showing both the past and present of Derek Vinyard (Norton), a young founder of the white supremacist group D.O.C. and his influence on his younger brother (Furlong). The graphic depiction in this movie, despite making it difficult to watch at times, is what makes it so great, along with the performances by Norton and Furlong. Through these two important aspects of the film, the viewer gets a real look at racism in this country; but more than that, the viewer is confronted with the immense influence — either positive or negative — that either a father or an older brother can have on a young boy.

The movie takes place between two time periods. The present day spans a mere 24 hours with flashbacks to the past that show several years. Each of the flashbacks is presented in black and white, a nice directorial touch to not only make it evident that what is occurring is in fact the past but also to show the ignorance and narrow-mindedness in Derek’s views. Once Derek is released from prison, marking the present day, the scene shifts from black and white to color. At that moment, we find that Derek no longer sees the world in black and white. During his time in prison, due to the help of his unlikely friend Lamont (Guy Torry) and former teacher Dr. Sweeney, as well as a falling out with the Aryan Brotherhood in jail (which culminates in a graphic rape scene), Derek is able to see the world in all its colors and look beyond race and bigotry.

Continue reading American History X (1998)

Being John Malkovich (1999)

Let me tell you about the ending of Being John Malkovich.

For a long time prior to 1999, the spec script by Charlie Kaufman bounced around Hollywood without causing much hubbub. Kaufman’s 1994 draft made no mention of John Malkovich whatsoever, and only after two years and dozens of refusals did eventual director Spike Jonze get ahold of the screenplay. Jonze was primarily a music video director at the time and had never directed a feature film before, but clearly something about Being John Malkovich piqued his interest. He brought it to Propaganda Films and a year later casting was underway.

At this point, though, Being John Malkovich had a final act that was so bonkers and off-the-wall wild that, frankly, it put the rest of the bonkers and off-the-wall wild film to shame. The Being John Malkovich that we know ends on a subdued, somber note, uncomfortably tragic, undoubtedly affecting. Craig, the puppeteer played by John Cusack, abuses the magic portal to John Malkovich’s brain and becomes trapped in the next “vessel”, the brain of a prepubescent girl, from where he presumably is forced to watch her life unfold as a caged and powerless homunculus. The original draft of Malkovich didn’t have this muted, chilling conclusion – instead, it had chainsaw juggling, human-chimp intimacy, a reincarnated Harry Truman battling a firebreathing Malkovich, Kevin Bacon, and the Devil himself.

Continue reading Being John Malkovich (1999)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

This is certainly one of those films that you either absolutely love or downright hate, and I can understand why. Martin Scorsese’s latest work, The Wolf of Wall Street, really isn’t that much different from many of his other pictures except for the intensity of the vulgarity -the literal sex, drugs and rock n’ roll – which turns certain people off from the film. The use of 569 F-words, numerous sex scenes including a gay orgy, the consumption of copious amounts of Vitamin B (posing as cocaine) and Quaalude’s, as well as speeding cars, helicopters and yachts, all add to the excessive feeling and tone that the movie captures so well, love it or hate it. Whether or not you enjoyed this film, you cannot deny how energized it is and that watching it was probably the quickest 180 minutes of your life.

It is easy for someone watching The Wolf of Wall Street to miss many of the film’s truly great aspects due to this vulgarity. The endless bare breasts and drunken and/or high (usually and) benders that the majority of the characters go on may serve as a kind of invisibility cloak for the less well-trained moviegoer. First off, the wittiness, intelligence, and authenticity of the dialogue is likely the most impressive thing about The Wolf of Wall Street. The script, penned by the Sopranos genius Terry Winter, is undeniably phenomenal; see “the McConaughey lunch scene,” “the Jean Dujardin negotiating scene,” “the epic f@#king DiCaprio speech scenes.” At the same time, however, Scorsese encourages his muses to improvise, delve deeply into their characters and bring that necessary authenticity to their performances and the film. It is this combination of impeccable writing and spontaneous inspiration that makes the dialogue in this film so good.

Continue reading The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)