When Darren Aronofsky’s Noah came out in 2014, the website I was writing for at the time sent me to screen it and review it. The film stars Russell Crowe as the biblical Noah and follows his ark-building journey after God warns him of a great world-cleansing flood. Animals arrive two-by-two for the cruise, forty days of rain ensues…you know the story. Amongst my original thoughts was the following:
“This is probably Aronofsky’s least personal work — the close-quarter character examinations of Pi and The Wrestler aren’t at play here, and while the character of Noah is drawn quite well, the confines of a big-budget blockbuster based on what may be the most widely-read story of all time just doesn’t allow for as much intimacy.”
I was wrong. Not about the impersonal nature of the film — that’s still the case — but about Noah being based on the Bible.
Continue reading Face Off: Noah’s Ark (1999) and Noah (2014)
It would have been easy for Shoplifters to glamorize the criminal acts of its central characters. Hirokazu Kore-eda’s latest film follows an impoverished Tokyo family surviving on a hierarchical system of thievery, nicking small items where the opportunity arises or, more frequently, setting out on an express mission to steal that which they need. The setup, of course, is worlds away from the heist genre, but it’s still refreshing to experience these criminal acts for what they actually are: desperate, thrill-less acts devoid of meticulous planning or grifter’s luck. And if there is any thrill in stealing shampoo and ramen noodles, it’s a thrill that quickly sinks into the pit of one’s stomach, weighed by the immorality of it all.
Shoplifting — or crime, more broadly — isn’t really the main focus of Shoplifters, anyway. This is a movie about family, and the family in focus happens to sometimes commit criminal acts. For the first chunk of the film, we might almost leave it at that. We spend as much time at home in quiet moments with the members of this family as we do in the “action” of their thievery, although it quickly becomes apparent that both are survival tactics. Fulfilling the role of Family Member, in many ways, provides much the same life-giving sustenance as does the role of Thief.
Continue reading Shoplifters (2018)
You could call Roma the most colorful black-and-white film ever made. After the Centerpiece screening at the 56th New York Film Festival, writer/director Alfonso Cuarón noted how important the visual presentation was to the overall effect of the movie. Crucial among his points was that this black-and-white is “not a nostalgic black-and-white” but instead “modern” and “pristine,” disabusing the viewer of the notion that this tale is unfolding in a long-forgotten place or time. Despite being assured throughout the film that the place is Mexico City and the year is 1971, Roma simultaneously manages to assure you that what’s happening is happening here and now.
You could also single out the production design, the incredible detail in every frame of the film, as a primary contributor to this experience of color in a movie that supposedly doesn’t have any. A sweeping shot of the countryside seems to give off a yellow hue because the lighting is so sunny and natural; muddy brown makes its way into an otherwise cold shot of a discarded action figure and a flattened soccer ball in the garage outside. A rock thrown through a window in one scene leaves a hole that we look through weeks later, and somehow this lasting detail even evokes color in clear glass.
Continue reading Roma (2018)
The 53rd New York Film Festival came to a close Saturday night with the world premiere of Miles Ahead, Don Cheadle’s longtime passion project about the late great Miles Davis. An actor of Cheadle’s caliber attached so fully to a single film might be a rarity, and in this case it’s the lead role, the directing, and the writing that all fall in the man’s wheelhouse…and he co-produced and wrote original music for the film. And he was in Avengers: Age of Ultron just a few months back.
Interestingly, the similarities between the vigilante War Machine and the musician Miles Davis make it evident what Cheadle saw in both charac…just kidding. Miles Ahead is the best thing Cheadle’s done since Hotel Rwanda, or at the very least the most substantial role since then, and thus an overdue reminder that Cheadle is a fantastically likable leading man. He’s likable even when he’s playing Davis at his lowest point, a five-year creative drought fueled by cocaine and loneliness that makes up the majority of Miles Ahead, and through all the stubbornness and figurative horn-tooting (sorry) Cheadle still conveys the fact that Davis was overflowing with passion for his art. It’s fitting that the actor, who took eight years to craft Miles, matches the musician in passion for his own art.
Continue reading Miles Ahead (2015)
A film like The Measure of a Man needs the right actor in the leading role, and Vincent Lindon is the right actor. He’s not commanding, but he’s dignified; he’s not emotive, but he’s emotional; he’s not a force of nature, but if he is then he’s a fault line waiting to quake. He’s always just about to boil, “simmering”, maybe, but then again there’s even less violence in his demeanor than there is in a pot of increasingly hot water. Lindon is simply comfortable, at ease and natural in a tie or a T-shirt, genuine as if he’s blissfully unaware of the camera in his face (and in Measure it’s really in his face).
On the other hand Lindon’s character, unemployed factory worker Thierry Taugourdeau, is decidedly uncomfortable. There are very few opportunities for Thierry to just loosely enjoy life in his own body in the manner of the actor portraying him; Thierry can’t afford that. He’s confronted with his financial realities during every waking moment, sometimes explicitly and sometimes during a scene of him dancing with his wife, and Measure presents Thierry during a time in his life when his employment is everything. He’s like a saggy old Augie March in a rotation of labor by necessity instead of by election; instead of working in jobs dictated by his pride, he takes what he can get and usually has to suppress that pride.
Continue reading The Measure of a Man (2015)
The Walk is being compared to Gravity in a recent spate of fairly misleading TV spots, intense Inception-esque music set to critic quotes that swoop in to say things like DOES WHAT GRAVITY DID FOR SPACE! It’s clear what they’re trying to say: this is more an experience than a movie. It’s partially true, and certainly the most affecting parts of the film are those which purport to be more than film. Lots of movies try to push for that as a selling point, and the floating and swooping superlatives in the Walk trailers recall all of those other movies that are GUARANTEED TO BLOW. YOUR. MIND.
Robert Zemeckis handles the majority of the story of Phillippe Petit, the eccentric and restless French high-wire artist, with much the same eccentricity and restlessness as characterizes his subject. There’s voiceover narration hosted by a Statue of Liberty-bound Petit (get it? France!), there’s a black-and-white sequence, a few flashbacks, a few time lapses, a few time jumps. The Walk, like Petit’s mind, is all over the place. At times the quick pace is paradoxically dragging, but I suppose such is the case for Petit as well. He’s bored by ropes strung between lampposts and trees. He wants a true high wire. He wants to see New York, to see the towers. He wants to see mountains again, Gandalf, mountains.
Continue reading The Walk (2015)
This year’s New York Film Festival played host to a 15th Anniversary screening of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coens’ Dirty Thirties road movie, though it hardly seems like that much time has passed. I might have described O Brother differently — say, the Coens’ Dust Bowl love letter or the Coens’ Homer homage or the period highbrow escapee buddy whatever — except that the directing duo melted all of that babble away in the post-screening “discussion” of their writing process. “We just started with ‘three guys on the road'” said Joel; Ethan added, “then we tarted it up with Homer.” That was that. Next question. The Coens are experts at both of those things: interpretive film direction and film interpretation deflection.
But they were no less the storytellers on stage, despite their succinctness, and they were joined by O Brother stars George Clooney, John Turturro and Tim Blake Nelson as well as legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. The latter was a pleasant surprise, and though the Coens have recently worked with the likes of Emmanuel Lubezki and Bruno Delbonnel it’s endlessly exciting that Deakins will return to the fold (as will Clooney) for the next Coen film Hail, Caesar!; if it’s at all the blend of O Brother and Barton Fink that it appears to be, then it can’t come soon enough.
Continue reading O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Foxcatcher is a strange and strangely true tale of wrestlers Mark and Dave Schultz and their time with sponsor and “coach” John du Pont. Whether you know the shocking ending of the story or not hardly matters, as director Bennett Miller’s sense of pacing and tone heralds a dark and tragic end from the very first frame. This is Drama with a capital D, and there’s never any doubt that the relationship between these three men is hurtling to that inevitable conclusion.
But what makes Foxcatcher work so well is the willingness to find the motivations that drove these people in the years leading up to the horrific event. Even if you have a vague awareness or clear understanding of what will eventually come to pass, you won’t feel like you’re just waiting for it to actually go down onscreen. The stories of each man – especially Channing Tatum’s Mark – are captivating, and they’re beautifully displayed in some truly impressive performances. Tatum and Mark Ruffalo clearly push themselves physically and emotionally to portray the Schultz brothers. Steve Carell, turning in a rare dramatic performance, is unrecognizable as the toothy and manic John du Pont.
The story is very much focused on Mark at first, following his life in the shadow of his older brother and his introduction to du Pont. Du Pont asks Mark to join him at Foxcatcher, a self-sustaining training ground at the du Pont estate where young wrestlers work together to achieve their goals, and Mark eventually agrees. “What does he [du Pont] get out of all of this?”, Dave asks Mark early on in the movie. This question, like much of du Pont’s character, is never nailed down for certain. While the Schultz brothers work for wrestling fame and glory, du Pont’s goals are a little more complicated.
Continue reading Foxcatcher (2014)
The script for Lisandro Alsonso’s latest film Jauja is reportedly only 20 pages long. Though I haven’t actually read it, that short length wouldn’t surprise me after last night’s NYFF screening. Starring Viggo Mortensen as a Danish military man stranded in a nameless South American desert, Jauja certainly isn’t your typical Main Slate festival offering. If anything, the film walks the tightrope between historical epic and surreal experiment, providing plenty of opportunity for reflection along the way. Unfortunately, the fact that the spaces in which we might take time for reflection vastly outweigh the moments that actually demand interpretation proves to be Jauja‘s downfall.
The film opens with a beautiful shot of Viggo’s Captain Dinesen sitting with his daughter, Ingeborg, and right away we get a taste of Alonso’s directorial style without so much as a hint of what may betide these characters. Mortensen, the only recognizable face in Jauja (or in any of Alonso’s films), is facing away from the camera for the entirety of the motionless opening shot. That’s essentially Jauja in a nutshell: the landscape, the framing, the aesthetic, the emotion generated by the imagery alone – all of this is much more important than the actors, or the characters they play, or the “plot” they partake in.
And make no mistake: Jauja, visually, is stunning. Every shot is carefully composed and lit, and the locations chosen provide Alonso’s camera with enough lush detail for consumption. Many shots seem to stretch on forever, and where most directors would probably work to keep the foreground characters in focus by blurring the backdrop, the reverse is true here. Rocks and clouds and figures far in the distance are as clear as the whiskers on Viggo’s face. Jauja‘s color palate is equally agreeable, and the blue dresses and bright red pants are captured beautifully aside the damp mossy terrain that makes up so much of the film. In this sense, we should admit, the narrative matters less and less.
Continue reading Jauja (2014)
Gone Girl had a lot to live up to in the David Fincher oeuvre. I may be alone in saying that nothing in his filmography of the past few years has totally astounded me; The Social Network and Zodiac – well acted and beautifully filmed though they were – just didn’t have enough plot to hold me for the entire runtime, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had more than a few other problems. That said, there’s little doubt that Fincher is still to be considered among the few American masters of filmmaking. Not only does Gone Girl provide more proof of that, but it’s also a film with a much stronger plot than the aforementioned dramas.
Ben Affleck stars as Nick Dunne, husband of Rosamund Pike’s Amy Dunne, who is forced to deal with the events following her sudden disappearance on their fifth anniversary. These events include police interrogations, candlelight vigils and family consolations – but the most jarring presence is the frenzy of media coverage that descends upon Nick’s life. As the first half of Gone Girl progresses, Nick’s behavior seems more and more suspicious, and even though we’ve been following his story since the very moment of his discovery of Amy’s disappearance, Nick still seems more and more guilty.
Continue reading Gone Girl (2014)