Friday, December 7, 2012

Ben Affleck, David Ayer, and Rian Johnson: Argo, End of Watch, and Looper

As awards season closes in, the highly touted and mostly undeserving will make their way to the head of the pack. And yet, for all the Oscars' bullshit and politik, they still remain the most glorious of all awards shows. Three films in particular this fall define overrated, underhyped, and overlooked for us.

Goodman, Arkin, Affleck, Argo, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

Ben Affleck has proven himself a strong director with two past good films, both crime dramas; The Town and the better Gone, Baby, Gone. His third film Argo trudges into past political territory. Everything is pretty well-done about it; Affleck is even impressive once more in the lead role. But for all the hyperbole surrounding its premier, a 'good' film has become one of the season's most touted. An international incident involving American hostages in Iran, and the CIA's clever plot to bust out some stashed Embassy workers does make for an entertaining, even thought-provoking movie. Affleck does a good job of culling it all together. For all the buzz, I was underwhelmed. The biggest impression I got was the rollicking fun and rapport between John Goodman and Alan Arkin, who all but steal the show.

Pena, Gyllenhaal, End of Watch, Open Road Films, 2012.

David Ayer's career fixation on cops has made for a distinct voice among thriller directors; his scripts for Ron Shelton's Dark Blue and Antoine Fuqua's Training Day were nothing short of genre specific, complex and brilliant. His career as a helmer has been pretty much swept under the rug by indifferent audiences and critics. His first two films were excellent: Harsh Times and Street Kings both stung with an authentic darkness and richness of character which reveal Ayer's gift as a writer. His third feature, End of Watch, may well be his weakest film, and yet betrays his talent as an artist. Using a cinema verite style, we delve into the rugged shifts of two young LAPD officers, in two strong turns from Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena. Numerous tour de force sequences do not wash away the picture's structural difficulties, many terse moments are grafted inspiring. There is no denying in the end, that Ayer is one of our most idiosyncratic filmmakers.

Willis, Gordon Levitt, Looper, FilmDistrict, 2012.

Rian Johnson rises as one of his generation's most talented directors: after the intrinsic specialties of his quirky frosh-soph features, Brick and The Brothers Bloom, Johnson comes of age with one of the best genre films of the year, and definitely the strongest film overall of the three discussed here. Looper, however uneven, makes up for that in sheer cinematic bravado. Homaging Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, Spielberg, et al, Johnson crafts an exhausting and imaginative compendium of a time-travel flick.

Joseph Gordon Levitt, in bizarre make up, and Bruce Willis, play the same man, who encounters his younger/older self amidst a dense plot filled with passion. Futuristic hit men forge a scheme which bends space and time to near perfection. Many moments Johnson crafted will remain in my mind's eye for some time. This side of Andrew Niccol, I don't believe any other director is authoring science-fiction this magical and cinematic.

The Wachowskis & Tom Tykwer: Cloud Atlas

Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Cloud Atlas, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2012.

An obvious continuum of the Wachowskis' fascination with space, time, love, and destiny, the over-ambitious (and thankfully so) Cloud Atlas is one of this year's most singular filmic experiences. Interconnecting stories so dense and off-putting that the directors' employed fellow visionary Tom (Run Lola Run) Tykwer to handle the other half, this adaptation of David Mitchell's popular novel reels around the fountain with a force that only these three helmers could truly conjure.

At first, the diverging tales which make up this cosmic cornucopia are jarring as they jump. But as the exhausting, ecstatic picture comes to a close, they have all lined up fantastically. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry, in particular, have a ball playing multiple characters so far removed from anything they've evr done you may chuckle at first. Many will not care for how bizarre this movie truly is. And yet I cant imagine how anybody in love with the art and craft of cinema cannot recognize the Wachowskis as two of popular cinema's greatest talents. Bound, The Matrix, and Speed Racer are all diversely original yet enigmatic works which magnify in the mind upon successive viewings.

They smash borders of race and sexuality within, and a lot of it is borderline campy. Historical tales collide with science-fiction as they never have before. Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Susan Sarandon all don wigs, prosthetic noses, and heavy make-up, all having the time of their careers.

Frank Griebe and John Toll do gorgeous work with their cameras, reminding us that they are two of the most gifted cinematographers in the world. Sets and costumes by a multitude of talent shine as some of this year's most distinctive. What leaves the biggest impression aside from the obviously eye-boggling visuals, is the emotional impact of almost every story, reminding us that the Wachowskis are not mere masters of the eye, but of the heart and mind.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

John Hillcoat: Lawless

Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Lawless, TWC, 2012.


Hemming the strayed and frayed edges of the Great Depression Gangster picture, Australian auteur John Hillcoat, who heretofore helmed the Western masterpiece The Proposition, followed by an underrated adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's The Road, resuscitates that sub-genre with a ferocious, if imperfect vision that is definitely uncompromising.

Tom Hardy, Shia LaBouef, and  Jason Clarke all leave strong impressions as the unbending Bondurant brothers, back hills bootleggers battling the crooked local law, trying to shake them down, and a psychotic gun for hire in a deliciously over the top turn by the simply incomparable Guy Pearce.

Benoit Delhomme's camera work is a patchwork of faded days and nights, while Nick Cave not only adapted an obscure novel into a well structured narrative, he also loaned his musical gifts to the minimalist folk score.

Yet the heart of this bloody, old fashioned tale of vengeance, in which Hillcoat homages 70's movies and Sam Peckinpah in particular, is the intoxicating Jessica Chastain. Riding a high from last year's much deserved Oscar nom for the otherwise worthless The Help, and starring roles in two of said year's best films, Malick's The Tree of Life and Nichols' Take Shelter, Chastain lends the picture a feminine grace. Her wounded strumpet is an angel in disguise, and this swept under the rug movie could not have excelled without her. Here's looking forward to her starring role in Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty!

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Paul Thomas Anderson: The Master

Joaquin Phoenix, The Master, TWC, 2012.

Dropping into indifferent multiplexes with the force of a 70 mm spell, P.T. Anderson's much-anticipated new picture, The Master, offers up a head-spinning mixture of history, mythos, pathos, and meandering narrative ties.

The binding element of the picture is the casting of Joaquin Phoenix in the leading role.  As Freddy Quell, a wandering product of the Great Depression-cum-Second World War, Phoenix gives a shattering turn which is the stuff legends are made of. His method-induced performance feels truly authentic; it recalls the greatest turns of Brando, Clift, and Dean. His gut feeling becomes ours as he wanders from job to job, the causal "lost man" of the 20th century. This section is the film's richest.

As he encounters an L. Ron Hubbard surrogate, portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman in a hypnotic character turn, and becomes caught up in the gestating "religion" cash cow he has devised, Anderson loses traction. Specific sequences are brilliant; altogether it is uneven. And yet, even Anderson's flaws can be more stimulating than the average Joe's triumphs. Amy Adams offers unflinching support as Hoffman's stand by her man wife, although a couple of her scenes felt uncomfortably gratuitous.

Anderson began his career as arguably the brightest young American cinematic talent on the rise in the 90's. His passion for the kinesis of celluloid, as witnessed in his visceral homages to Altman and Scorsese (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, and Magnolia) as well as Blake Edwards (Punch Drunk Love) remain some of the best American movies of the past twenty five years. Now, with the excellent but flawed There Will Be Blood, and now The Master, he has moved on to homaging the less rugged and lived in, and more classically stylized, cinematic worlds of Kubrick and Malick, two of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. Not to mention the literature of Hemingway and Steinbeck.

The Master affords us a glimpse at a great director's inspired yet uneven universe, and even more so a great actor's greatest incantation; Quell and the pain inside of him, are most vivid in the opening and closing sequences. Stationed in the Pacific, his fear and desire shape the loneliness to come; Anderson pays tribute to Terrence Malick's war master stroke The Thin Red Line, and the art form becomes transparent, crystal clear.