Movies

First films of my 30s

After a birthday-related filmgoing and local hiatus, I returned to Southeast Michigan on Thursday evening, ready to resume my summer filmgoing in what’s become the season of the anti-blockbuster, both for me and, somewhat, for the national box office.

I suddenly remembered that Garden State was the first film I’d seen of my 20s, back at the good ol Embassy Cinema in Waltham, MA, and so it seemed natural that Zach Braff’s new release, Wish I Was Here, take the honor of the first film of my 30s.

On a side note, I later saw Garden State again at the Odeon West End in London on its UK premiere later in 2004, with Braff and Natalie Portman in attendance, and members of the band Zero 7 sitting in the same row as me. I recall enjoying the sensation of already knowing the film was memorable and on its way to being a cult classic.

I’m not sure Wish I Was Here will enjoy that same reputation. I haven’t followed Braff’s career closely in the last 10 years, but he seems to have had some natural ups and downs, and his decision to Kickstart the film may also haunt him.

I struggled if and how to summarize the film, having originally began this review on Friday, but will plow ahead now on Monday afternoon.

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Braff stars as Aidan, a down on his luck actor in the Los Angeles suburbs who is getting by on the patient goodwill of his wife (Kate Hudson) and financial support from his father (Mandy Patinkin) to make sure his two children proceed with their education at a local Jewish school. But, in an inciting event, Aidan learns his father has developed a terminal illness, thus forcing Aidan and Sarah to find new ways to support their family. This quickly leads to a new arrangement where Aidan takes over as homeschool teacher of the children, while trying to navigate the tricky emotional ground accompanying his father’s illness and a tense relationship with his underachieving brother, played by Josh Gad.

The movie is an overstuffed mixed bag, with several well – filmed vistas of Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California areas giving way to an overly complicated plot that ought to have been run through a simplification machine. While some reports suggest that Braff sought his Kickstarter funding in order to make the movie “he wanted,” I agree with other claims suggesting that he should have proceeded with additional edits, particularly around an unnecessary thread that has his character reimagined as a valiant superhero. Those sequences loosely tie in with an additional plot thread for Gad’s character to attend Comic Con and demonstrate extreme nerdness. Such inclusions fade into somewhat awkwardly placed, though heartfelt, family sequences, concerning Patinkin’s character, Hudson’s job and the educational plight of the children. Braff and Hudson are allowed two scenes as a couple that are refreshingly simple and intimate; both are highlights of the film.

Only Hudson rises above the material, in a surprising comeback-worthy performance showing sympathy, empathy and grace, seemingly many distances away from her earlier romantic comedy work. I found myself initially irritated by Patinkin’s monotone-type performance, but have appreciated its subtleties in thinking about the film as a whole.

The anticipation surrounding the film reminds me of similar circumstances surrounding Braff’s 2006 vehicle The Last Kiss, also awaited with anticipation and received tepidly following its release that fall. I never saw the movie, but they both make clear that filmmakers face steep challenges in living up to an acclaimed early work.

Returning to the Ann Arbor 20 earlier today for this weekend’s top film helped me to find the motivation to complete the earlier musings. My friend Gabe also posted comments on the same film today.

scarlett lucy

 

Scarlett Johansson headlines Lucy, a both simple and high-concept tale from director Luc Besson treading some of Besson’s favorite narrative themes (see La Femme Nikita, The ProfessionalThe Fifth Element, et al) and some other recent films exploring the power of the human mind including 2011’s Limitless, along with action-heroine films such as Johansson’s own Avengers contributions and others like Saoirse Ronan’s Hanna.

For Johansson the role continues an impressive series of recent performances that really ought to be linked in their thematic and character similarities. (In this film, the phrase “under the skin” is even included within one of her lines.) The actress has capably shown that she’s ready and willing to step beyond her sex symbol image and move into a new phase of her career where she opens a film on her name alone and carries the content energetically from starting reel to closing scene.

This story follows the travails of Lucy, an American tourist in Taiwan who finds herself thrust into murky circumstances around drug smuggling and modest espionage in the country. She’s selected against her will, along with three hapless men, for inclusion in a drug testing program stretching the limits of the human brain to use 100% of its potential. After some initial awkward adjustments to her enhanced capabilities, Lucy embraces her powers with a mixture of assertiveness, curiosity and dread, but the smugglers are still on her trail as she hooks up with some French would-be Interpol agents.

Morgan Freeman co-stars (in a somewhat thankless role) as a brain scientist whom Lucy identifies as the one she wants to interact with and present her case to. Eventually all roads lead to Freeman and associates’ laboratory, conveniently in Paris.

The film is augmented by a light sense of fanaticism, as seen in Besson’s inclusion of multiple stock footage excerpts focusing on human evolution, and a sequence near the end of the film where Lucy bends the narratives of space and time. As well, the scenes are interrupted to show Lucy’s progression towards using 100% of her brain capabilities in a total comic-book style design.

While not a super weighty nor completely original cinematic work, this film is worth noting for Besson “returning to form” and embracing his cinematic roots, a keen sense of design and enthusiasm in the work, and, as I noted above, Johansson continuing to develop a new assertiveness in her performances that will undoubtedly serve her well in the future.

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Movies

Under the Skin and into the psyche

Soooooo…. Under The Skin.

What is sure to be one of the most polarizing films of this year has gained more appreciation from me since seeing it at the State Theatre‘s late show last Friday night. It’s a perfect film for a late show, with macabre themes and plenty of unsettling imagery.

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Scarlett Johansson adds to an impressive recent repertoire of roles with this performance, The actress strips away (quite literally at times) her aura of Sex Symbolness and Appeal, taking us back to an earlier era somewhere around ten years ago when she was more known just for her performances and less for her off-screen activities. Long stretches of the film are devoted to her character being off on her own, and while Johansson does not carry the movie in as quite an assured way as elder veterans Sandra Bullock and Robert Redford (among others) did in recent films, she commits to the character and losing herself — or rather her assumed “ScarJo” self — in the storyline.

But what is the storyline, exactly? After an assured and striking Kubrick-style opening sequence, we are quickly dropped in to the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland. Johansson’s unnamed female character is just there, with an immediate predatory orientation established. She relates to a few people, who could be considered accomplices, but their exact relationship is not clearly explained. Soon the character is on her own behind the wheel of a bulky white van and exploring the outer neighborhoods of the Glasgowegian surroundings.

At one point early in the film the woman finds herself on a beach, in a memorably unsettling sequence where she does the opposite of what a Good Samaritan might do, helping to clarify her character intent and give a hint of what might be lying ahead in the story.

It quickly becomes apparent that she’s looking for some people – namely, seemingly aimless men who “won’t be missed”, to quote other reviewers, if they don’t come home at night. This is most strikingly and unsettlingly seen in a series of late night liaisons that the woman initiates by taking men back to “her place,” but what happens after that is a bit darker than a hot mess. It’s at these moments that the film’s music score, like a modern-day Bernard Hermann scoring Hitchcock, is at its most striking and unsettling, as a theme is established for these incidents that makes it clear that the moments are important to the larger story.

I will add that those sequences – when the woman is predatory towards the man – were unsettling for me as a male viewer, as if a later point that the film makes about gender, which I won’t spoil, is foreshadowed and turned on its head.

Johansson’s character continues to explore and, seemingly, struggle to comprehend life in Glasgow and the immediate surroundings. While these sequences were possibly the most distant or unclear, narratively, of the film, they shine a rich and telling spotlight on metropolitan Scotland, reminding me (having been there in Glasgow and many other regions of the country) of its unusual combination of a brutal and invigorating quality of life, rich street culture and heightened regionalism, which is also seen in the movie in a series of incomprehensible statements, given their thick Scottish accents, from a range of people peripherally coming in and out of the main story, some of whom apparently didn’t know they were being featured in a movie or interacting with a well – known actress.

When an attempted encounter with another loner guy (who is a real individual and hopes to use his role to bring awareness to a health issue/seen and not being seen) doesn’t go as she’s planned, the woman heads north to the Scottish Highlands and the film makes a noticeable change in tone, shifting from urgency to something more … reflective. It suggests through action (dialogue is at is most minimal here) that the woman is somehow more willing and accepting to try human life at this point, as if the rejection from the other man challenged her to look at her own choices, more individually. I found this section of the film to be the most abstract and challenging to grasp, but I think it has stood out with more meaning in the days since.

I don’t know what this film means (who can, really?) but I feel appreciative of its willingness to challenge and provoke the audience in a subtle way, along with a willingness to let actions speak louder than words complimented by an atypical story.

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Uncategorized

Quartet of New Year Filmgoing

So far I’ve caught four films at the movies in the New Year, but it may be until February (at least) before I see a film that was actually released in 2014.

This year I have decided to keep a spreadsheet of the films i see at the movies in an effort to better keep track of them and retain a memory of what I saw when.

So, the filmgoing year began with PHILOMENA, which I felt was an appropriate way to return to the movies after experiencing some personal loss at the end of the old year/start of the new year. A story that appeared to be standardly sentimental at first took on a more intriguing feel of mystery as it went on. The mystery didn’t come so much from a “whodunit” feel, and was more along the lines of “what’s going to happen next?”which is often more compelling, dramatically. 

ImageJudi Dench was unsurprisingly excellent in the title role, bringing many layers to a complicated storyline, and subtly playing with the initial impressions of a “twee old lady” to create something more complex. However, I did think at times during the film that it’s unfortunate she doesn’t seem to often have the opportunity to create EVEN MORE complex characters on film (versus what she does on stage) – the most recent cinematic example possibly being her work in Notes On A Scandal back in 2006.

Steve Coogan shone brightly in a dual role of co-writer and co-star here, showing none of his comedic talents that he is known for and keeping things quite straight, even more serious at times, throughout the story. From his many credits related to the film (writer, producer, co-star, optioned the story, etc) one can tell that the material struck a chord with him.

I was interested to learn that this movie marked the first time that Dench has portrayed a real, living person onscreen. The experience seems to have resonated with her, and it’s been sweet to observe the real Philomena Lee participate in some of the movie’s press events and publicity activities, which will probably continue in a modified form leading up to the Oscars, for which Dench recently netted a deserved Best Actress nomination.

Next up for me was SAVING MR. BANKS, a film that I wanted to enjoy, and would have liked a lot more if it had been made differently.

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The film’s stars meet the veteran stars at the premiere. I hadn’t seen this image until today and love it!

The film tells the not previously explored on film story of the making of MARY POPPINS, focusing on the challenges that existed between author PL Travers’ interpretation of the work versus Walt Disney’s vision of what the film adaptation should be. Travers and the studio went back and forth on visions and agreements for over 20 years (!) before the film was finally released in 1964.

For some inexplicable reason, the writer decided that this already compelling and familiar story needed to be augmented by a narrative from Travers’ childhood detailing her recollections of growing up with a difficult father in Australia. I might not have had a problem with this if it was told in a traditional part 1/part 2 narrative, but the film constantly intercuts between the two stories throughout the entire film, causing me to lose interest in the total story because it keeps getting muddled between the two time periods. Additionally, some threads of the later (1960’s) narrative are not given time to develop in a way that could leave things clearer for the audience and make it into a more meaningful film experience. (Perhaps this is why the film was almost completely shut out of the recent Oscar nominations in spite of it being a clear and obvious tailor-made contender for awards.)

Having said that, it was delightful to see Emma Thompson back in a leading role for the first time in several years. Thompson has spoken often in press interviews for the film of her pleasure in getting to play a complex part – and it was clear to see she has been enjoying the various publicity endeavors for the film, from singing along at various events tying into the film’s music to her recent throwaway appearance at the Golden Globes last weekend.

Next up was INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the latest film from the Coen Brothers, which I felt like I’d been hearing about for well over a year – though maybe it’s only been a year – and was pleased to finally see in its finished form. After seeing it I also reflected on how the Coens are masters in creating truly cinematic experiences where their story takes you away to a distinct time and space, and it takes… some time to come back to reality after the film. Or the experience lingers in your mind. Or both.

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GIF courtesy of Vogue article on the film.

This story exuded an authentic and weary sensibility looking at the competitive and colorful Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960’s. I could obviously identify with the narrative thread of “artist traveling with a cat” – and the presence of the cat in the story turned out to be an intriguing barometer of Llewyn, the main character’s, moral compass. The story was bleak at times but never in an unforgiving way, and boasted a keen sense of detail throughout the story. Not to forget about the catchy songs paying tribute to the era, some featuring the talents of Justin Timberlake in a role far away from his well-known pop persona, but clearly highlighting his musical ability.

This film and the next one had me noticing the nuances of screen pairings and couplings, where Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan again appeared onscreen following an earlier – and drastically different – pairing in the 2011 film DRIVE. Similarly, in the film discussed below, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams again appear opposite each other just a year after sharing scenes in the also drastically different THE MASTER. It got me thinking about what that must be like for the actors themselves – familial? cordial? old home week? distant? – and if other audience members pick up on the reuniting. (Based on press reports and interviews it seems that both instances were friendly and enjoyable for each pair of actors.)

So, that brings me to HER, seen yesterday back at the reliable Quality 16 – though it’s a film more appropriate for the downtown venues of the Michigan or State Theatres. I’m still feeling awestruck from this film and likely will continue to feel that way for several days. I also feel like it vaulted to the top of my top films in 2013 list, and can see I’m not alone in that sensation. Why did it resonate? It tells a futuristic yet realistic tale with nothing but humanity – no sensationalism, no whirlwind special effects, a strong look at the lead character’s life and story arc, and intense commitment from the principal actors.

ImageHER looks at the life of Theodore Twombly (great character name), thoughtfully played by Joaquin Phoenix and even more so when you realize that many scenes were him acting alone, similar to other 2013 releases GRAVITY and ALL IS LOST but told in the most down to earth style of the three. Theodore struggles with his life after his longtime love (Rooney Mara, continuing to show impressive character depth and command of the screen) leaves him. I should add that Theodore and his ex’s storyline is conveyed almost completely in flashback, yet in a completely opposite and more resonant way from SAVING MR. BANKS. And when the two characters meet in person again, it drives the point of the whole story home in a powerfully abrupt moment. Theodore has a few other women in his life, with Olivia Wilde appearing in a  well-used blind date cameo role, and Amy Adams supporting him as a neighbor and close friend. Adams continues to show versatility and command in her roles, bearing in mind that this was released in tandem with her (ahem) showier part in AMERICAN HUSTLE. She also gets to deliver one of the movie’s best lines – in a stellar screenplay – which I’ll quote here:

“We are only here briefly. And while we’re here, I want to allow myself joy.”

That line also seems to capture the story arc between Theodore and his personal OS, Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson. I don’t want to go into detail about their storyline here, since I feel that you have to see the film to experience it. But I will say that it is very humane and resonant, with an eerily realistic feel to it when you consider how much time people in the present era (myself included) spend looking at their mobile devices, laptops, large screen televisions…

A few “industry observer” type notes on this film:

  • It’s really interesting to note that Johansson was actually a late replacement for the voice role after filming had been completed, where British actress Samantha Morton had originally voiced the role, and apparently been present with Phoenix on-set in many scenes… but then director Spike Jonze felt in post – production that the part needed to go in a different direction.
  • The film is one of few recent films to make use of locations actually in Los Angeles, although augmented by some additional scenes shot in Shanghai. A recent Los Angeles Times article made note of this as California struggles to retain its dominance in film production in the face of extensive tax credit/rebate production programs in place in other US states.
  • The film’s score is composed by Arcade Fire, possibly their first contribution to film scoring, and reflecting a trend of better known for pop/rock composers dabbling in film scoring.
  • I was impressed with the film’s vision of a future expanded Los Angeles regional subway system (and the region is on its way to something like that) – and others have also taken note of the vision, as Gizmodo explains in this article.

To conclude I feel that HER shows an honesty and simplicity rarely seen in modern filmmaking, and reminiscent of an old favorite ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND – which I can’t believe is 10 years old this year. It will be hard to top a film experience like that, but that’s part of the fun of filmgoing – always keeping an eye for that Next Big Thing, and noting the sensations along the way.

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