War movies don’t vary much. Customarily, this genre has a singular focus: examination of an individual (a soldier, usually) inside of a system (the military, usually). Wherever the film goes from there, it can typically still be traced back to that configuration of a singular unit as part of the greater whole. The individual is entrenched — to nick a military phrase — within the system, even if the premise of the film is to have that character reconcile with or refute the system itself. And in some ways this is technically true of Beau travail, the 1999 drama by Claire Denis, as it follows young soldiers training inside the construct of the French Foreign Legion. But the treatment of those individuals and that system is so unlike that which is described above, so unique in its presentation, that Beau travail can hardly be called a war film at all.
Unit master-at-arms Galoup (Denis Lavant) leads a section of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, driving them through a regimen of intense and endless physical training. The legionnaires climb, hurdle, and crawl beneath crude obstacles. They stand for hours with their arms raised under the hot African sun. They iron their uniforms a lot, the sharp creases a signifier of their shared devotion. Galoup undertakes these exercises with his men, screeching at them as he does his own pushups twice as quickly. He is the Legion, in some senses: a lifelong military man, minded only toward the group, toward uniformity, toward the system.
Continue reading Beau travail (1999)
The ambition of Robert Eggers was apparent after his debut The Witch, a one-of-a-kind horror film steeped in deeply-felt folklore. The dialect, the costumes and settings, the sound design and the themes were all clearly the result of hard research and dedication to period accuracy rarely realized in modern film. Eggers himself, who presented a special IFFBoston screening of his follow-up The Lighthouse at Boston’s Brattle Theatre last night, acknowledged the explicit attempt to “commune with the folk culture of the region” in crafting his debut. But while that hard behind-the-scenes work was definitely still required by The Lighthouse, less of it shows in the final product, resulting in a more mature effort that still values the power of myth and lore.
Atmosphere is everything. In the lead-up to the film’s premiere at Cannes in May, much was made of the film’s unique aesthetic choices. Despite the popularity of Roma and Cold War last year, the mere concept of a black-and-white format remains alienating to many audiences (and financiers). Shooting on 35mm gives that black-and-white an extra characteristic, with the blacks bottoming out into nothingness. Additionally, A24 posted this snippet from the Lighthouse script in reference to the boxy, unpopular aspect ratio that’s been largely defunct since the early sound era:
Seemingly the most off-putting of these choices by Eggers is the one it shares with The Witch: dialogue comprised of archaic vernacular and dialect, delivered in an accent that also aims to fit the time and place. Eggers and his co-writer brother Max wrote “in-dialect,” rather than writing in plain English and then translating, and the effect — as was the case with Witch — takes a minute to groove once the dialogue begins. And there’s a lot of dialogue in The Lighthouse.
Continue reading The Lighthouse (2019)
My favorite moments of True Detective, regardless of which season we’re discussing, are those that find an artful way to play with the storytelling devices. Very few television series even attempt something besides linear narrative, but at times ‘Tec goes beyond just a standard bookend flashback structure. At the outset of the first season, “The Long Bright Dark” seemed content to tell a 1995-set story framed by grainy camcorder footage of two characters recounting their experiences in 2012. But by the end of the episode our 2012 lens separated itself from the camcorder, and from that point on the first season had two timelines running with equal weight on both.
The third season has three of those timelines, more of a challenge in maintaining the feeling that each of them is as important, and “If You Have Ghosts” wobbled ever so slightly in juggling all of that. 1990 Wayne may always have been predisposed to snapping into an argumentative holier-than-thou rant, but his fuse in those segments of the story is now almost comically short. “Ghosts” felt like the longest episode of the season (which was actually last week’s 75-minute “The Hour and the Day”), partially because we’re inescapably at the threshold of a big break in all three timelines. We know the Woodard Altercation is linked to the Purcell case in 1980, we know Wayne and Roland do something bad in 1990, and we know 2015 Wayne will experience a revelation in what he does and does not remember about his life’s work. The fact that the specifics of that knowledge are still being withheld is still mostly tantalizing, but slightly frustrating in an episode as “long” as this one.
Continue reading True Detective 3.5 – “If You Have Ghosts”
This article first appeared as a part of the Brattle Film Notes commentary series, presented by the Brattle Theatre in Boston, MA, for a special screening of The Sting. Slight edits have been made from the original posting.
In many instances a film is like a con: it wants to hook you, it wants to make you personally invested in the outcome, and it wants you to walk away with a smile on your face and slightly less in your wallet. If the endeavor is a success, there will always be enough to suggest that the artist — the film artist or the con artist — knows a truth that you do not. If the endeavor is unsuccessful, the feeling of being cheated will linger and frustrate.
If we apply this analogy to today’s film industry, of course, then the Marvel Cinematic Universe might be considered the most ambitious long con in Hollywood history. But things weren’t as complicated in 1973, and that year produced arguably the least-complicated Best Picture winner ever in George Roy Hill’s The Sting. A complex plot, high stakes for hardnosed characters, themes of friendship and honor amongst thieves — these elements are all there, but they’re intentionally deployed to the background of a filmgoing experience that’s less concerned with a moral message than a good time.
Continue reading The Sting (1973)
- The first trailer for the Star Wars anthology film Rogue One took the internet by storm yesterday, providing the first glimpse of the hotly-anticipated pseudo-spinoff. Two new Star Wars movies within a year of each other, both reinvigorating the franchise after years of dormancy and prequel strife — both Force Awakens and Rogue One are led by tiny gutsy British women, and you’re trying to tell me they’re not related?
- Cillian Murphy has joined Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, marking the fifth collaboration between actor and director following the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception. He’s joining an impeccable cast that includes Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, Mark Rylance and a handful of newcomers. If any team can turn a fresh eye onto a very famous part of history, it’s this one.
- World’s Most Perfect Human Charlize Theron has been cast in the eighth installment of the Fast & Furious franchise, but for some strange reason they’re not calling it Fast & Furiosa.
- Relax, you guys: Sherlock Season 4 is now filming.
Continue reading Film & TV News: April 8
- Guys: a Deadwood movie. We dare not dwell on this possibility and are currently knocking on every wooden object in the vicinity, but HBO and David Milch have stated that “it’s happening”. Lots of deserving shows bring up the possibility of concluding with a movie, but a Deadwood film just makes perfect sense.
- Lots of TV news this week, as a matter of fact: Steven Soderbergh has revealed a six-year plan for The Knick, Ridley Scott has expressed interest in helming an adaptation of The Prisoner, and Arrested Development will be structuring its fifth season like Making a Murderer. All of those things sound awesome.
- Christopher Nolan’s next film will be Dunkirk, and fellow collaborator Hans Zimmer has already signed on for scoring duties. Tom Hardy’s name has been thrown out for a starring role, but that’s just a rumor at this point.
- Aaron Sorkin will make his directorial debut with Molly’s Game, a true-life tale of a championship skier who turns into a “gambling matron”. If Sorkin can cherrypick from the directors he’s collaborated with recently — David Fincher on The Social Network, Bennet Miller on Moneyball, Danny Boyle on Steve Jobs — then Molly’s Game will be one to watch.
Continue reading Film & TV News: January 10
- The bad guy is back: Empire has released a few new pictures from next year’s Suicide Squad featuring Jared Leto’s Joker. Just in time for Halloween!
- SNL is set to be hosted by Matthew McConaughey for the first time in over a decade, and Adele will be the musical guest. That might just be enough for me to actually tune into SNL again.
- Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, the highly-anticipated Christmas Special and return of the BBC show, will air on both sides of the Atlantic on January 1st, 2016.
- Even if you haven’t seen Crimson Peak yet, this conversation between director Guillermo del Toro and fellow directors Christopher Nolan and Alejandro González Iñárritu is highly recommended.
Continue reading Film & TV News: October 27
To my mind, two things played a major role in spawning a resurgence in post-apocalyptic storytelling in the past decade. The first is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a bombshell of a novel from 2006 that depicted an ashen, desolate earth struggling to grasp the faintest glimmers of hope. It became a decent John Hillcoat film a few years later, but the craze spun off into more than just that: The Book of Eli, I Am Legend, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion, last year’s brilliant Snowpiercer, last year’s crappy Young Ones, that crappy now-cancelled NBC show Revolution, etc. etc. They’re not all directly borne of The Road, of course, but the genre itself certainly received a huge boost from McCarthy’s novel. That’s why the time was right to revisit Mad Max with Fury Road, and why the likes of Blade Runner is getting a new treatment as well. Heck, just this week there’s talk of Christopher Nolan being involved with the long-awaited Akira adaptation.
The second influential piece of post-apocalyptic storytelling is The Walking Dead, the massively popular AMC show that launched a thousand other zombie-related things and an official spinoff of its own (Fear the Walking Dead, which is pretty good if almost exactly what you’d expect). The thing that pushed TWD ahead of the pack was the format of a television series: movies and books are comparatively finite, but the long-term storytelling at hand in a TV series (or a comic book series, like the one TWD is based on) serves the genre in the perfect way. In both cases — Road and TWD — the aim was to create a new world out of the old one, to watch characters deal with the differences, to play witness to what fantastic and terrible things might arise after something alters life as we know it.
Continue reading The Leftovers 1.5 – “Gladys”
Inception. Five years after seeing the 2010 Nolan mega-hit in theaters, I still asked myself whether or not the top stopped spinning. For a long time, I couldn’t accept the fact that one of the most ingeniously crafted movies of all time would end so ambiguously. There had to be something else there, some other hint to what is really going on at the end.
After some time, however, I grew complacent and rested on logic. Having seen the movie dozens of times, I saw little that pointed towards Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) still being in a dream at the end. Moreover, the top is clearly wobbling, and, generally, tops, like dreams, do not regain stability after they start to collapse.
Continue reading Inception (2010)
There was a time when I’d never met a movie about con artists that I didn’t like. You name it: the almighty Sting, the classic you-didn’t-even-know-this-was-a-con Usual Suspects, George C. Scott’s The Flim-Flam Man; modern takes like Matchstick Men, Catch Me If You Can, American Hustle; the super-rewatchable original Italian Job and the super-rewatchable remake Ocean’s Eleven. Some of these — like, say, The Spanish Prisoner — technically aren’t that great as far as cinema is concerned. Maybe that’s part of what’s so damn endearing about them: they’re movies, not films, which means they could conceivably appeal to just about anyone because style and fun outweigh technique and competence. I think I was just fine with that for a while, and I might still be.
But I also remember taking issue with Christopher Nolan (you: “who the hell are you to challenge Christopher Nolan?”; me: “I have as many Oscars as he does“) when he made the following comment about heist movies in an LA Times interview while filming Inception:
I originally wrote [Inception] as a heist movie, and heist movies traditionally are very deliberately superficial in emotional terms…they’re frivolous and glamorous, and there’s a sort of gloss and fun to it. I originally tried to write it that way, but when I came back to it I realized that — to me — that didn’t work for a film that relies so heavily on the idea of the interior state, the idea of dream and memory. I realized I needed to raise the emotional stakes.
Continue reading Focus (2015)