Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Memento

3.5 Stars

I have a sort of annoying habit as a film reviewer where I will give a film a relatively high rating, but then give it a mediocre review. In general, I would say that this habit comes out most prominently when I am reviewing films that I think just missed the mark of greatness or films that I think were overpraised.

Memento, hailed as a visionary expansion of the thriller and neo-noir genres in 2000, falls into the second category. It is wildly overpraised.

Memento centers on Leonard (Guy Pearce), an insurance investigator who suffers from anterograde amnesia – which means that he is unable to form new memories – brought on after he was injured when he and his wife (Jorja Fox) were attacked and she was raped and killed. The police believe the assailant was also killed, but Leonard thinks otherwise and has embarked on a quest to find and kill the man who raped and murdered his wife. He is assisted by Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and, most mysteriously, Teddy (Joe Pantoliano), who Leonard shoots and kills during the opening credits of the movie.

So, now I get to use fancy words. Memento is most celebrated because of its unique sujet (structure) as opposed to its fabula (narrative). It is composed of two sets of scenes, a black and white story told chronologically from beginning to end, and scenes shot in color, which are shown in reverse chronological order. I should clarify that, the action in each individual scene is viewed from start to finish, but the scenes are shown in the reverse chronological order relative to each other. The chronological, black and white scenes alternate with the color reverse chronological scenes. According to every film reviewer and psychologist this approach simulates the perception of individuals who suffer from anterograde amnesia.

That’s all great, but amnesia is an ineffective hook for a film. Amnesiacs might be interesting to psychology students, but, as characters, they aren’t very compelling. Teddy actually explains this to Leonard a couple of times. He knows who he was, but he doesn’t know who he is. Consequently, neither do we. As a result, Memento’s resolution isn’t really emotionally satisfying. Emotionally, the high point of the movie is actually a story within the story that Leonard relates regarding the fate of another person with anterograde amnesia, Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky) and his wife (Harriet Sansom Harris).

In some ways, Memento is the film that put Nolan on the map, but it’s also a film that presaged a couple of his more annoying tics as a director, most notably, making films inspired by the notes in the margins of his little brother Jonathan’s psych class notebooks. The mystery at the heart of Memento is simply not that compelling when viewed in chronological order, which you can do if you have the special edition DVD. Consequently, this is a film that is all about its sujet, while neglecting its fabula. As a result, Memento isn’t a classic. On a second viewing, its story becomes much more clear, but it becomes clearer still that all Memento really is is a slick, serious minded update of the 1994 Dana Carvey vehicle Clean Slate.

Memento is well made, but not visionary. Nevertheless, Memento finds itself on this list because it was selected as one of the ten best films of the 2000s by 6 of the 37 critics surveyed by Metacritic, an honor it shares with the next film I shall review, Children of Men.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Best of the 2000s: United 93

4 Stars

United 93 depicts the events of September 11, 2001 from the point of view of the passengers and crew of the ill-fated eponymous flight, as well as the points of view of the various civil air and airport and military authorities. It is undoubtedly a great film, but I have reservations about naming it a classic from the first decade of the new millennium because United 93 is so different from most other films I've seen that I find it difficult to classify.

The first major difference between United 93 and other disaster films (even those based on actual events) is that United 93 abandons all pretense at ordinary narrative devices. The standard grammar for a disaster film is to pick a protagonist and establish that protagonist in the ordinary course of their lives. The two police officers central to World Trade Center (also about September 11th) are established not in the ordinary course of their duties - on patrol. United 93 does not really establish its characters. In every scene, the camera is merely a fly on the wall, collecting video of events as they happen rather than depicting or explaining them. As a consequence, none of the passengers on Flight 93 are generally called by their names. They are strangers to each other, do not know each other's names, so they are rarely if ever used. There are no flashbacks to their ordinary lives to give meaning or context to their actions on the plane. They simply arrive, treat each other with courtesy, and, over the course of a few hours, band together courageously in hopes of saving their own lives and the lives of their countrymen. The same is true for the civil air authorities, airport, and military personnel. They are not introduced to the audience, simply observed by the audience going about their day in the crisis.

In the opening hour of United 93, my critic brain speculated that this was possibly going to hamper the film's ultimate emotional impact, but it doesn't. The scenes of the effectively unidentified passengers calling home to tell their loved ones goodbye is heart wrenching. The cast, of mostly unknown or little known actors, is very, very good.

The second difference between United 93 and other films like this is that many of the civil air, airport, and military personnel appear as themselves in the film. They are not so much portraying what happened on September 11, 2001 as they are reenacting their parts in the events of that one horrible day. In this way, Greengrass blurs his fictionalized narrative with the reality of the memories of those who were there. Again, it's incredibly effective, but I'm uncertain what its effect is.

In the end, United 93 joins a list of films that are noteworthy for their uniqueness like Brokeback Mountain (unique at the time of its making for the portrayal of a homosexual romance) and 2014's Boyhood (unique because the film's narrative was filmed over twelve years following the actors as they really aged). All three films have rightly been praised for expanding the medium and being excellent. That said, the question that looms after observing unique films is: If ten films like this were made, would this be the best one? In the case of United 93, I'm not certain it would be. It's certainly a great film, but I can't say that it's the classic I've been searching for. I'll continue to look for that classic when I watch the next film for this project, Memento.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Far From Heaven

5 Stars

Todd Haynes' exquisite Far From Heaven is obviously a conscious attempt to mimic and update the style of Douglas Sirk (especially All That Heaven Allows). Set in the 1950s, Julianne Moore stars as Cathy Whitaker, an affluent housewife in Suburban New England, whose perfect life is rocked by her husband’s (Dennis Quaid) dawning acceptance of his homosexuality. As her life falls apart, she develops a tentative relationship with her gardener (Dennis Haysbert) which is complicated by the fact that he is black. Haynes pulls no punches in this film. These characters all carry secrets that are deadly to their happy lives in suburban Connecticut in 1957, and when those secrets are exposed they have the force and power of an atomic bomb.

The cast is superb. Julianne Moore, always great, is at her absolute best here. She has the hardest part to play – a woman falling in love, but not showing it; a woman falling apart, but not showing it. Quaid gets the showiest role, delivering some of the most powerful moments in the film with a performance so finely tuned that it hardly seems like melodrama at all. Haysbert, as the final member of this tragic trio, is also great, and thanks to Haynes, his role is well crafted. He has an inner life and purpose, rather than simply being the inspiration for a white character’s arc.

Far From Heaven rips the veneer of civilization off of American suburbia in the 1950s. He makes the right choice to set Far From Heaven in the fall in New England when New England is beautified by the natural changing of the leaves – and seems to be on fire. As the film progresses, the trees become completely bare, mirroring the devastation wrought on his characters.

One of the greatest aspects of Far From Heaven, though, is its score. Poignant, powerful, and serving the emotional resonance of the story and acting, Far From Heaven was the last film scored by the great film composer Elmer Bernstein. Moreover, there is something poetic about Bernstein, who was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee (and later effectively blacklisted), getting his last credit in a film that exposes the revisionist history of the 1950s as exactly that.

Far From Heaven is a unique film to list as one of the best films of the decade. It is so mannered, so consciously of a different time, so actively at odds with everything else that I have watched for this project that it stands out – as if it were the only film in color. I suspect that long after I have moved on to other films, I will remember Far From Heaven. I heartily recommend it to you.

Far From Heaven finds itself on this list because five of the 37 critics’ lists compiled ranked it as one of the ten best films of the decade. It was also selected as the best film of the decade by Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly. If you’re watching along with me, the next film I’ll review will be Paul Greengrass’ take on September 11th in United 93.

From Out in the Void,


Monday, January 18, 2016

The Hateful Eight

3.5 Stars

Anyone familiar with my tenure on the Void Zone Podcast will know that I have soured on Quentin Tarantino since the 1990s. So imagine how surprised I was to find that I genuinely liked The Hateful Eight. I’m serious. I really liked it. I think it’s good.

The plot briefly. John “the Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter, is transporting his prisoner, Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), to the town of Red Rock, Wyoming. With a terrible storm hot on their heels, they encounter another bounty hunter, Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and the new Sheriff of Red Rock, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins). Unable to make Red Rock before the storm hits, they take shelter at Minnie’s Haberdashery, a tavern and cabin along their journey. When they arrive, the proprietor Minnie is nowhere to be found, and in her place they find Senor Bob (Demian Bichir), Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern). Ruth and Warren are union veterans. Mannix and Smithers are confederates, and, in the close quarters of Minnie’s Haberdashery, the tensions of America in the Reconstruction Era nearly blind them all to the real threats they face inside the cabin. It’s one part Western, one part “Old Dark House” Whodunit, and thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. Aided by a stellar cast, and a script that seems incredibly relevant to our modern times, The Hateful Eight is my favorite Tarantino film since Pulp Fiction.

Despite my occasional misgivings about Tarantino, one thing I always appreciate is his film literacy. His films are always referencing, quoting, or deconstructing earlier films, often obscure titles. He paints in bold strokes, but with great regard for the masters, and I like that in a filmmaker. Tarantino demonstrates his respect for the greats in The Hateful Eight by bringing the revered film composer Ennio Morricone (The Dollars Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in the West) to score The Hateful Eight, and it was the right decision. The Hateful Eight has the absolute finest score and soundtrack of 2015 (and that’s saying something in a year when a Cameron Crowe film was released too).

However, Tarantino’s obsession with the craft of film making also occasionally leads him astray. He occasionally crams something extraneous into an otherwise great film that takes me out of the dazzling, highly specific, and frequently self-referential film world he’s created. In The Hateful Eight, it was his decision to craft the movie as a “road show” film complete with overture and intermission. I didn’t see that version. I saw the ordinary standard cut where there was no actual intermission, just a sudden and jarring tonal shift where Tarantino’s voice comes on and begins reciting narration that would only be appropriate after an actual intermission. I think that the narration would have fit a little better if it had been done by Ms. Leigh.

Over the years, Tarantino has embraced his identity as a provocateur. He’s also reacted against any critical disdain by becoming more self-referential to the point of being nearly masturbatory in his film making. I have frequently suspected that his movies were made only for him, and meant to be reviewed only by him (Sample dialogue from Inglorious Basterds includes: “I think this may be my masterpiece”). However, in The Hateful Eight, Tarantino has crafted a film that tells a story, builds suspense, provides great moments for its characters, is beautifully photographed, and (thanks to Morricone) sings. I recommend it. See the road show version if you can.

From Out in the Void,


Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Revenant

2 Stars

In folklore, a revenant is a reanimated corpse that rises from its grave in order to torment and drink the blood of the living. It is some hybrid of a vampire and our modern conception of a zombie. The Revenant is like the reanimated corpse of its director's (Alejandro G. Inarritu) last film, Birdman. Like Birdman, The Revenant features a highly mobile camera capturing long unbroken takes of extensive scenes. Unfortunately, The Revenant's story doesn't fit this style of camera work which makes it incredibly distracting.

The Revenant purports to be based on the true story of actual historical frontiersman and fur trapper Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Glass was mauled by a bear sometime in the 1820s, abandoned by his men, Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Bridger (Will Poulter), but rallies. He manages to not only survive, but hunt down the people who abandoned him. The Revenant is the story of his vengeance quest.

Except that it really, really isn't. The Revenant has no interest in telling the story of Hugh Glass. It is more important, and exists only for the purpose, of winning its lead actor a golden statue. This truth can most clearly be seen in two consecutive scenes that appear about halfway through the film. In the first, Glass catches a fish and eats it raw, while standing right next to a crackling campfire. He then passes out from pain or exhaustion, or just because the scene needs to be over. When he awakens, he hears a noise a little ways up hill. He crawls/drags himself up the hill and encounters a Pawnee man who has killed a bison. The Pawnee man gives him a raw bison liver. Glass eats it raw while lit by the light of a HUGE crackling campfire!!!! Now, why would Glass do this? Does he enjoy his meat raw? No, he actually vomits when the raw liver touches his lips. So, the only possible reason for Glass to eat his meat raw while standing next to two campfires was so that the actor who plays him could brag about how hard this movie was to make in order to win an Oscar.

And that's the problem with this whole movie. The Revenant should be called "Leonardo DiCaprio will now do literally anything to win an Oscar. Seriously, anything." And that leads to a bigger question - why? Why was it necessary for Leonardo DiCaprio (and presumably the rest of the cast) to endure such bitter cold and harsh conditions in order to make this movie? Isn't DiCaprio one of our great actors? Shouldn't he be capable of conveying his character's ordeal without actually living through it? Or, more to the point, why was it necessary for him to actually endure bitter cold rather than to actually be mauled by an actual bear? My mind was filled with these questions as The Revenant flicked across the screen.

It's even more unfortunate. The legend of Hugh Glass is not well known, but it's been told and retold hundreds of times since the 1820s. In my favorite version, Glass tracks Fitzgerald across the plains, forests, and mountains of the American frontier only to learn that Fitzgerald has enlisted in the military. Killing a member of the military would almost certainly mean capture and apprehension for Glass, and so, after all of that effort, he is forced to forego his vengeance because it has become impractical. Imagine that, for a moment, surviving all those terrible, impossible things - only to be denied vengeance because exacting it would virtually guarantee that you would be hung by the neck until dead.

The Revenant does not quite tell this version of the legend (so I've spoiled nothing). The Glass depicted by Inarritu and DiCaprio has nothing to live for beyond his vengeance. They make that much clear, so it is incredibly puzzling at the end of the film when Glass chooses to forego his vengeance because a Pawnee man said something spiritual to him one time. (Okay, now I've spoiled something). Of course, there's a story there too. Glass has an encounter with the Pawnee man who teaches him that there is more to life than vengeance. The very fact that he survived must mean that his life should be about more than killing those who abandoned him? This spiritual journey could have been powerful. It could have given DiCaprio something to act out - a character arc to bring to life - instead the decision about whether to seek vengeance is confined to a single moment - mere frames in this long monstrosity of a film. Instead of a character to play, DiCaprio is given a test to endure. Which will make it a huge crime if he wins the Oscar for this.

There were some positive aspects to The Revenant. It looks gorgeous. I mean it. It is absolutely stunning, filled with dramatic vistas and frightening frozen forests. The camera work is predictably stellar, and I particularly liked the much praised sequence near the beginning of the film where a band of Arikara warriors ambushes Glass and his companions (even if I thought the CGI horses that did not react to the fact that arrows were being shot right past them was a bit distracting). Tom Hardy gives a great performance here, and Will Poulter who younger viewers (if there are any) will recognize from The Maze Runner was excellent as Bridger. I also admired Ryuichi Sakamoto's score with its crying strings.

Unfortunately, Inarritu never found a story worth telling in The Revenant, which I suppose is something of an achievement given that The Revenant is a story that Americans have been retelling to one another for literally generations. I can't recommend The Revenant. The 2 Star rating I've given it is merely a recommendation of how competently this mess was photographed.

From Out in the Void


Friday, January 15, 2016

Best of the 2000s: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

3.5 Stars

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby’s (Mathieu Amalric) memoir of the same name. In life, Mr. Bauby was an actor, writer, and editor of ELLE. In 1995, at the age of 43, Bauby suffered a stroke which left him with locked-in syndrome. His mind remained fully functional, but he lost any ability to use his body. He could not even turn his head. The only way that he could interact with the world was to blink his left eye-lid.

The film opens here, a stationary camera facing doctors, nurses, and physical therapists at odd angles, as they begin to explain what has happened and what Bauby’s new reality will be.  These first moments are terrifying, even upsetting. Together, Bauby and the hospital staff eventually work out a system of communication, where a single blink indicates an affirmative response and two blinks negative. They begin by asking him a series of yes or no questions to test his cognition, and for a moment The Diving Bell and the Butterfly hits greatness. When Bauby is asked if he was the editor of ELLE, the screen briefly goes black (indicating a single blink) and Bauby says, “Hell yes, I was the editor of ELLE!” In that moment, the film flashes back to his beautiful car, a photo shoot, and the extraordinary life he led before his stroke. When the flashback ends, the audience finds itself trapped in the hospital with Bauby once again.

That sequence is dazzling. However, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly soon gets down to the business of explaining how Bauby constructed his memoir – dedicated transcriptionists read the letters of the alphabet in the order of their frequency in the French language, and Bauby blinks when the transcriptionist reads the appropriate letter. This allows the audience to see how The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was composed. Unfortunately, once that form of communication sets in, the transitions between Bauby’s memories (or fantasies) and his realities happen more gradually – which lessens their impact.

I struggled with how to review The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. On the one hand, almost everything about The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is very good. It is well written and poignant. I think the pacing could have been addressed, but then that may have been an intentional choice to allow the viewer to gain a sense of the pace of Bauby’s reality. The acting is superb. Amalric is wonderful as Bauby. Emmanuelle Seigner is excellent as the mother of his children, and Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father is heartbreaking. On the other hand, I never intend to watch The Diving Bell and the Butterfly again. It’s not what I would call entertaining. In fact, some passages of the film are actually quite difficult to watch. I think I can safely say that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is an excellent film without much re-watch value. I suppose with that caveat, I recommend The Diving Bell and the Butterfly quite strongly, but I don’t think that it is the classic film I began this project in order to find.

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly finds itself on this list because 5 of the sampled critics named it one of the 10 best films of the 2000s. David Denby of The New Yorker named it the best film of the decade.

Once Again, From Out in the Void,

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best of the 2000s: Almost Famous

5 Stars

The first time that I saw Almost Famous, 15 years ago, I dismissed it. To me, it felt like some kind of teenage wish fulfillment less realistic than The Lord of the Rings. Sure, a 15-year-old kid could talk his way into covering a touring rock band for Rolling Stone magazine.

Well, the joke’s on me. Cameron Crowe, writer-director of Almost Famous, filed his first story (a cover story) for Rolling Stone on December 6, 1973. He was 16-years-old, and he’d spent 3 weeks the previous summer on the road with The Allman Brothers in order to compile the story. Knowing that the basic premise of Almost Famous is grounded in Crowe’s real life has led me to reexamine the film, and I’m happy to report that I think it is fantastic – easily one of the best films of the 2000s.

Almost Famous centers on teenage music journalist, William Miller (Patrick Fugit). While still in high school, he receives an assignment from Rolling Stone to go on the road with the band Stillwater, headed by up and coming lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). Hammond is suspicious of Miller at first, but Miller eventually earns his trust with the help of Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) whom both Miller and Hammond profess to love. Almost Famous tours America delivering a knock out sound track, iconic film moments, and then goes out on a high note. It is wonderfully acted, funny, good hearted, and still rock’n’roll.

Of course, rightly, the movie is remembered for the performance of Kate Hudson as Penny Lane, who, along with Polexia Aphrodisia (Anna Paquin), Sapphire (Fairuza Balk), and Estrella Starr (Bijou Phillips), reclaims the title of groupie – excuse me – “band aide” for women who aren’t just there to be seen next to someone famous, instead they seek to support and inspire the music.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman also appears in a small role as real life editor of Creem magazine,  Lester Bangs. So far, that makes Phillip Seymour Hoffman the most valuable player in the 2000s, having appeared in now 3 of the films believed to be the best. His role here is small but very important, and it is great to see Mr. Hoffman extolling the virtues of not being cool.

Almost Famous is the kind of movie you can watch again and again, not because it demands to be studied, but because it can be repeatedly enjoyed. It’s like a good rock album that way, and it’s true that it isn’t a “serious” film. But that’s all the better. I have suspected as I watch the films critics selected as the best of the 2000s, that critics have elevated films of political and social importance in a bid to make film relevant. I think that’s a mistake. Sometimes, like Penny Lane, we should just be here for the music.

Almost Famous finds itself on this list because 5 of the 37 sampled critics listed it as one of the 10 best films of the 2000s. For my part, I agree. The next film I will review, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, was also selected by 5 critics, but it was also selected as the best film of the decade by one of the critics. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly will be the first film I’ve reviewed listed as number 1 by any critic sense my review of Cache.

As Always, From Out in the Void