Friday, May 8, 2015

"Love and Mercy"

American cinema has tackled rock & roll in numerous ways over the years. Just look at the deluge of biopics that have been made in the last few decades: Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, James Brown, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, The Doors, Ike & Tina and of course this summer’s the highly anticipated N.W.A biopic have all been given the hollywood treatment. To say that not even half of these movies were artistically successful portrayals of these legends is a downright disappointing. If you made a list of the best rock & roll movies, nearly half of it would be non-fiction films. This is why it is a cause for celebration to have a Brian Wilson biopic coming out on June 5th that is actually pretty tremendous.
I’m an avid Beach Boys fan. “Pet Sounds” is like my bible. Every song in that album could have only been created by a brilliant mind with ears that could hear sounds no other ear could. Brian Wilson is that man – an artist so consumed by his creativity and genius that it ended up haunting him forever. Not many artists were victims of their own creative brilliance, but Brian Wilson was. Consumed by the urgency to one up The Beatles and their revolutionary record “Rubber Soul”, Wilson set out to make something better, and he did, but it came with a cost. The Beatles countered back with “Revolver”. Wilson tried to counter with the brilliant and, as of then unreleased, SMILE, but that was the downfall.
In Bill Pohlad’s “Love and Mercy” two brilliant actors get to play Wilson in two different eras. Paul Dano is the “Pet Sounds”-era artist who had no idea what kind of masterpiece he was about to create. John Cusack is the aftermath, almost two decades later, highly medicated, taken advantage of by his manager and haunted by the sounds and voices that created “Pet Sounds”. Both actors are great and veteran film producer Pohlad (“The Tree of Life”, “12 Years a Slave”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “Into the Wild”) directs his first movie since 1990’s underseen “Old Explorers”. It’s an immeasurable feat for him as he tries the unthinkable – getting us inside Brian Wilson’s head.
The film has its bumps along the road, but the sheer ecstasy of watching Wilson record “Pet Sounds” in a studio with his bandmates is contagious and priceless. Yes, this is fiction, but Dano embodies Wilson so much in his performance that you actually do forget you are watching a movie. It really isn’t much of a surprise to know the 30 year-old actor of “Little Miss Sunshine”, “There Will Be Blood” and “12 Years a Slave” gives us another memorable performance. His depiction of Wilson is that of a wide-eyed kid being slowly stripped of his innocence by his obsessive creativity.
Pohlad wisely shifts the two time periods back and forth, and as good as Cusack is as the drugged up, lethargic Wilson of the 80’s – and boy is he fantastic in this movie – it’s Dano you want to see the most. His absence is clearly felt whenever not on screen, as is the freewheelin’ nature of the recording sessions. Cusack is as great as he’s always been in his career, never hitting a false note, showing an almost emotionless, tranquilized expression every frame, but keeping the pain Wilson felt in the eyes. It’s not easy playing a man who suffered through major depressions, schizophrenia and countless drug relapses.
This was clearly a labor of love for Pohlad and I do expect the reviews to be glowing for his wonderful film. I also fear that Dano’s memorable performance might be forgotten come awards time given the smale-scale, intimate nature of the film. It’s a delicate, sweet, but harrowing love letter to the art of creating. Who better as a subject than Brian Wilson? Dano is slowly becoming one of the great actors of his generation, all his work being done under the radar and without much buzz tied to his name. Throughout his career he’s refused to go down the hollywood route and has instead opted for a more adventurous set of roles. Will this movie be his big breakthrough? Quite possibly.
Watching Pohland try to recreate an iconic moment in music history got me thinking about some of the great Rock and Roll movies, both fiction and non-fiction. The translation from record player to screen has not always been smooth, and as much as I admired “Walk The Line” or “Ray”, I always felt like the narratives of those films didn’t capture the essence and boldness of the music created by the artists they depicted on celluloid. On the other hand, I truly enjoyed “Love and Mercy” because it never ran on conventional ground and didn’t go down the predictable biopic route, instead opting to provoke the viewer with a much bolder narrative, much akin to last year’s underrated James Brown biopic “Get On Up”.
What constitutes a great rock movie? There haven’t been a ton of great ones over the years. As I mentioned earlier in this write-up, the translation from record player to screen hasn’t always been smooth. Too many filmmakers have been caught delving into a formulaic narrative in telling their stories, choosing to have the music do the talking and forgetting about the filmmaking itself. Brainstorming through hundreds of titles I came up with five that truly broke the mold and rewrote the rules of the game. These are the iconic moments where film and music blended together and became one on screen. It is no surprise that most of the filmmakers on this list already had an incredible knowledge of music history before even making their movies (Demme, Scorsese, Crowe) and their movies really just speak for themselves. As Nigel from “This Is Spinal Tap” famously said “these go to eleven”.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

My 2015 Summer Movie Preview

by Jordan Ruimy
Summer is right around the corner, which also means summer movies are about to be unleashed onto audiences, young and old, from the first week of May right down to the last week of August. As much as people complain about the lack of quality in the summer movie season, I’ve come to fully embrace its arrival and do find it to be a notch higher than the first four months of the movie year, where most studios try to get rid of leftover scraps. While doing research for this preview, I noticed the highly unusual number of films coming out that look genuinely good. This is not even counting the indies, as the first bunch of Sundance favorites will be making their way to movie theatres in the coming months. The preview I’ve put together here is what I’m looking forward to the most. The list consists mostly of studio fare with a little added indie flavor. I omitted sequels such as “Ted 2”, “Pitch Perfect 2”, “Insidious: Chapter 3”, “Terminator: Genisys”, “Magic Mike XXL” and super-hero movies such as “Ant-Man” and “The Fantastic Four”, even though I’m sure plenty of people will be looking forward to those titles as well. This could have easily been a list of 30 movies but I narrowed it down to the 14 that I found would have the most impact in terms of artful quality.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1st)
As much as I feel worn out by the endless barrage of superhero movies we’ve been getting, you just can’t ignore this one. Summer kicks off with what will most likely be the biggest movie of the year at the box office – that is, of course, until “Star Wars” comes out in December. The original 2012 film had enough wit, sly humor, and action that you forgave its shortcomings. All credit must be given to director Joss Whedon, who proved that he’s a true cinematic talent, with “The Cabin in the Woods”. In fact, I wish he would do more of these original gems every once in a while, but alas “The Avengers” keep calling him back, which is not necessarily a bad thing. This time around it’s “The Age of Ultron”, and just by sneaking a peak at the trailer, it seems like our boys – and girls – have one hell of a baddie to go up against.
Mad Max: Fury Road (May 15th)
Here’s a summer blockbuster that is truly a labor of love. Director George Miller revolutionized the 80’s with the Mad Max films. Ever since the last one in 1985, “Beyond Thunderdome”, he’s tried to painstakingly get a new one going, all the while winning an Oscar for directing, ahem, Happy Feet. Yep, he was responsible for those cute cuddly little dancing penguins. There won’t be any dancing penguins in “Mad Max: Fury Road”. This is serious stuff, a post-apocalyptic landscape that has danger in every turn. If the trailer didn’t get you pumped up, please check your pulse, and if the image of a buzzed up Tom Hardy kicking ass doesn’t do it for you then the summer movie season just ain’t for you. Screenings have started to roll out for this one and it looks like it’s the real deal.
Tomorrowland (May 22nd)
As far as I’m concerned, director Brad Bird has never made a bad movie. His animation record – “Ratatouille”, “The Incredibles”, “The Iron Giant” – flawless. Live action? Only “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol”, but what a great action movie. Now with “Tomorrowland”, he’s quite possibly tackling his most ambitious project. Based on a Disney theme park ride and starring George Clooney, not much is known and most plot points have been shrouded in mystery, but what is known about “Tomorrowland” has been shown in the astoundingly thrilling trailer we saw earlier this year. A creative mind like Bird doesn’t usually settle for the plain and simple; his next project after this one is the highly anticipated “Incredibles” sequel. Let’s hope the finished project gives us a blistering, rollercoaster-like high just like every other thing he’s done in the past.
Aloha (May 29th)
Poor Cameron Crowe. The release of his most personal film, “Almost Famous”, 15 years ago came with great praise, and the film’s reputation has only grown over the years with a new generation taking its universal themes to heart. But following up that film with “Vanilla Sky” didn’t work out so well. I was one of the few who actually got what he was going for in that movie; most people despised it. And then it only got worse: “Elizabethtown” and “We Bought a Zoo” were career lows that could have easily ruined any other filmmaker’s career. But Crowe is a talent. Not many people can pull off a romantic screenplay like “Jerry Maguire” or “Say Anything” with such elegant ease. Crowe is given another chance with “Aloha”. An all-star cast that includes Emma Stone, Bradley Cooper, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin, and Rachel McAdams tries to get Crowe out of his frustrating funk.
Spy (June 5th)
Earlier this year I caught “Bridesmaids” director Paul Feig’s “Spy”, an irresistible spy comedy that deserves to be a hit at the box office. I seriously haven’t laughed this hard since…”Bridesmaids”?  Melissa McCarthy stars as a CIA agent who gets caught up in a whole bunch of trouble when a fellow agent gets assassinated. This is clearly the best work McCarthy has ever done, but the other surprising standout is Jason Statham hilariously mocking his usual meathead persona to sheer perfection.
Jurassic World (June 12th)
It’s rather strange how the times and expectations have changed for the Jurassic franchise. After “Jurassic Park III” it seemed like nobody wanted the franchise to continue. Fourteen years later and the box office is now driven, more than ever, by audiences who want sequels, remakes and franchises. The good news is that most of these big Hollywood movies are directed by fresh talent just graduating from the indie circuit. “Jurassic World” will come out with the buzz of a very good trailer behind it and an indie director (Colin Trevorrow) who has shown in the past that he’s got the chops for action. I’m all for this film happening, but I do hope it tackles new possibilities instead of the usual same old. Spielberg did it best the first time around, but there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work again. Fresh off his “Guardians of the Galaxy” triumph last year, Chris Pratt stars, but where’s Jeff Goldblum in all this?
Inside Out (June 19th)
If you’re a true movie fan, you’re certainly itching to see what the animated studio behind “Toy Story 1,2, and 3″, “WALL-E”, “Up!”, “Finding Nemo”, “Ratatouille” and “The Incredibles” has in store for us this time around. Of all the animated movies coming out this year, none is more anticipated in my books than Pete Docter’s foray into the human psyche. Yes, this is a “kids” movie but it is not squarely aimed at just children. Just like all other Pixar movies, “Inside Out” carries with it adult themes mixed with what seems to be bitingly beautiful CGI animation. Pixar has been on a bit of a slump lately with a few “good but not great” movies, so it’d be a real kick to see them get back on their game with this one, especially if one take’s a look at the brilliant trailer that came out earlier this year. One thing’s for sure, the ambition seems to not be lost with this latest effort.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (July 1st)
Four out of the last six Sundance Grand Jury winners have received a Best Picture nomination, which is why close attention must be paid to Alfonso Gonzalez-Rejon’s sophomore effort that justly won the top prize at this year’s festival. The reviews out of Sundance were phenomenal and the buzz has been building ever since. Telling the story of a couple of quirky best friends and their friendship with a fellow classmate dying of Leukemia, the film will likely be compared to last year’s “The Fault in Our Stars” due to its less-than-grim depiction of teenage cancer. But that’s where the comparisons should end. The YA stereotypes we usually associate with these kind of sappy, conventional movies get deconstructed and shattered by Gonzalez-Rejon. What we’re left with is a movie with a unique voice calling out a new generation to artfully confront pain head-on.
Trainwreck (July 17th)
I’ve been a big fan of Amy Schumer’s blunt, terrifyingly in-your-face stand-up ever since she started in the comedy circuit. Trainwreck seems to be the perfect vehicle for Schumer to strut her stuff, and Director Judd Apatow also clearly sees Schumer as a major comedy star in the making. Apatow is no stranger in making movie stars out of comedians: Steve Carrell in “The 40 year Old Virgin”, Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up”, Jonah Hill in “Superbad”, and I hope Schumer is next. She’s edgy and ready to break out. In fact, she also wrote the film’s screenplay, which hopefully means it has her bracingly audacious wit all over the pages. Apatow admitted that he encouraged Schumer to add her own “personal wee of fear and neuroses to the script”. If the rave reviews coming out of SXSW for her portrayal of Amy in the film are any indication, she might have also revitalized Apatow’s directorial career after a few duds (“Funny People”, “This is 40″).
Southpaw (July 24th)
We’ve all seen the photos of a bulked up Jake Gyllenhaal with boxing gloves roaring victory in the ring. The transformation is tremendous, especially coming off the gaunt, almost unrecognizable work he delivered in “Nightcrawler. Gyllenhaal is hot right now, really hot. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, “Southpaw” has awards written all over it for its main actor, but will it the deliver the thrill of a knockout? Playing a young boxer that has to care for his young daughter after his wife dies, Gyllenhaal didn’t want to fake the fight scenes. He sparred with real professional boxers to get ready for the role and Fuqua hired an actual HBO crew to shoot the boxing scenes in real time.
Irrational Man (July 24th)
Not much is known about Woody Allen’s 45th directorial effort. What we do know is the Woodman’s penchant for hit or miss releases. Allen has just been a hit and miss kinda guy ever since his golden peak in the ‘80s and the vastly underrated work he churned out in the ‘90s. For every dud like “Scoop”, “Whatever Works”, “Hollywood Ending”, and “Anything Else” there’s been a golden nugget like “Midnight in Paris”, “Blue Jasmine”, “Vicki Cristina Barcelona” and “Match Point”. This one stars Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone and is rumored to be a much darker story like the aforementioned “Match Point”. The big draw for me isn’t just Allen or Emma Stone – one of the very best actresses out there – but rather Phoenix, whose acting comeback at the beginning of the decade has been nothing short of brilliant. We are seeing a legendary acting career being built right in front of us and it’s exhilarating to watch.
Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (July 31st)
Yes, I know, Tom Cruise. The recent HBO doc about Scientology was not very kind to the 52 year-old actor. Will we be able to separate our biases and enjoy this latest installment of the successful action franchise? Especially coming off the triumph of the last one (“Ghost Protocol”) that almost, just almost, eclipsed the 1996 original? I don’t have an answer; sometimes you just have to let the movie do the talking.  In fact, the same thing can be said of Woody Allen, who is no slouch to controversy. The trailer for M:I 5 looks great and the return of the “Ghost Protocol” cast is an encouraging sign. You can also expect Cruise, as usual, to perform his own stunts. The big showstopper has Cruise attached to a plane as it flies 3000 feet in the air. Christopher McQuarrie who directed Cruise in “Jack Reacher” replaces Brad Bird in the director’s chair.
Ricki and the Flash (August 7th)
I love Jonathan Demme. He’s one of the few truly great directors that has focused on the female voice for more than 4 decades. “Married to the Mob”, “Something Wild”, “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Rachel Getting Married” are prime examples of that. All are great movies. Hopefully we can add “Ricki and the Flash” to that list soon. Meryl Streep stars as an aging rock star who is given a second chance to make amends with her estranged daughter, who she abandoned many years ago to chase her dream of rock stardom. Fun fact: Streep’s real-life daughter plays the daughter, which marks the first time they’ve worked together since 1986’s “Heartburn”. Another fun fact: Diablo Cody, of “Juno” fame, wrote the screenplay.

Friday, March 27, 2015

It Follows

Jordan on It Follows

Any horror movie fan you talk to will tell you that the last few years have been weak for horror movies. What’s the deal? Well firstly, everything that’s coming out seems to be a rehash, reboot, or sequel to an older, higher quality film. Clich├ęs abound, the genre is in dire need of new blood, and we may have found it with two bright new talented directors coming to the forefront of the genre. These new original voices know the secret formula that many great horror movies have used in the past: cast a female in the lead. In horror movies, the female lead doesn’t need to be weak; in fact, she can be strong. Very strong. Usually the last “man” standing. I remember writing a term paper in film school years ago about how women in horror advanced the cause of feminism in our society. Who can forget Ripley in “Alien” saying, “This is Ripley, last survivor of the Nostromo, signing off”, or in the movie’s sequel seven years later uttering the kickass line, “Get away from her, you bitch”. If one looks back at film history they will notice a rich history of women in the lead role: “Rosemary’s Baby”, “The Shining”, “The Exorcist”, “The Ring”, “Halloween”, “Psycho”, “Suspira”, “Alien”, and “The Birds”, just to name a few.
The genre was rejuvenated earlier this year with “The Babadook” – a smart, snappy, and darkly twisted tale that dealt with death, mourning and the matriarchal role. The main character was of course female (Essie Davis), but here’s the kicker: so was the filmmaker, the promising Jennifer Kent. It was an original, refreshing change of pace to a genre that was, for the last decade or so, more interested in the same old boring ideas about the male psyche. Kent reinvigorated the game and “The Babadook” was a major success – one that will likely spark a new wave of horror filmmakers to one up it.
The same can be said of David Robert Mitchell’s “It Follows”, which refuses to follow the conventions of 21st century horror cinema. Its DNA is ingrained in and inspired by the classics. Just when you thought there wasn’t really much more room to manoeuvre creatively within the genre, Mitchell delivers this stunning movie. Having opened just last week, the film is already a hit with critics. After it’s sly, subtle bows at the most prestigious of film fests last year (Cannes, TIFF, Sundance) and the most glowing of reviews (check out that 96% RT score), audiences will likely soon discover what most festival goers already knew: this movie is the real deal. A blend of the surreal with the very real. A taste of the next generation of horror movies to come.
Much like “The Babadook”, the story’s main character is female and the implications are more psychological than gore-tastic – a relief if you ask me. Dealing with 19 year-old Maika Monroe who loses her virginity and is later told by the same guy that he has passed on a curse to her that will follow and haunt her everywhere she goes, the film is imprinted with ridiculously clever undertones. The only way for our main protagonist to get rid of this “disease” she has inherited is to sleep with someone else and pass it on to them. Oh boy. Here comes a slew of film school term papers for the next decade about the film’s allegorical connection to STDs. Those sly open-minded students wouldn’t be far off in their theories, but there’s much more to “It Follows” than just its fascinating dissection of STDs and teenage sexuality.
Every scene in Mitchell’s film is filled with unbearable dread, bringing to mind early John Carpenter just by its synth-driven musical score, courtesy of the brilliant Disasterpiece. The jump scares are also frighteningly timed, all thanks to Julio C Perez IV’s editing and the dreamy atmosphere Mitchell creates on-screen. Scene after scene, the viewer is engulfed in an inescapable sexual nightmare, and just when you think the film will unfold in a conventional way, Mitchell pulls the rug under you and slaps your face sideways. Just like the classic movies it has been inspired by, “It Follows” is inescapably eerie. It’s also the first great American movie of 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Jordan Ruimy Names 10 Influential Films of the Half-Decade

This decade has so far been a transitional decade for movies. We are living in an exciting, confusing time where superhero movies, sequels and popular book adaptations are becoming the foundation at the box office. If the notion of an original, creative, idea seems to be lost and forgotten, there are still – now more than ever – filmmakers pushing the norms and boundaries of what a movie can be. Filmmakers like these are few and far between, but they need to exist to make movies further progress and evolve just like they have in past 100+ years. To me, the following ten movies represent the most important of the decade thus far.  They are the movies have marked my mid-decade, the movies I feel have further advanced the cinematic medium. As always, I write articles such as these to get the readers to chime in with their own picks. Looking forward to reading them.
1) The Tree of Life 
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree Of Life” is a mosaic of a film that might test the limitations of its audience, but more importantly, the cinematic medium’s limitations. No matter what faults you may have with Malick’s movie, you cannot deny the sheer chutzpah and originality that went into its creation. There has never been anything quite like it and I highly doubt there ever will be. Malick tries to transcend the boundaries of life itself by trying to find a kind of meaning. This is his search for transcendence, in the little moments that make us and shape us. Death, mourning, rebirth, transcendence are just a fraction of the themes being tackled here. The mainstream might not have warmed up to the film’s non-linear narrative; for the rest of us, the symposium of abstract shapes and colors that pop our eyes out on the screen is just what the doctor ordered. This is the greatest cinematic experience of the decade.
2) The Master 
P.T Anderson’s masterpiece is almost unexplainable. A reinvention of the cinematic language with a never better Joaquin Phoenix. The backdrop is scientology, but that’s only the backdrop for a much more complex movie. The surrealistic nature of the film was a hint for things to come in the Anderson cannon – “Inherent Vice”, anybody?- but here was a movie that had the best director of his generation at the peak of his powers, using scientology as only the background for bigger more complicated themes. I was more than riveted. Bold, innovative and infuriating, “The Master” is a landmark movie, but one that will likely divide its audience in half. Too bad, I was hypnotized by almost every single frame of its puzzling, schizophrenic narrative.
3) Margaret 
“Margaret” is an absolute masterpiece. It thematically is going for the tone of a grandiose opera, but in a modern day context, filtered through the emotions of a teenage girl associated with a tragedy she witnessed and felt responsible for. It expresses the emotional teenage mind-set like no other. Every performance is astounding and every character in it so compelling and fully-realized. There’s no doubt in my mind that if this movie hadn’t been tangled up in lawsuits years ago, Anna Paquin surely would have been winning many awards for her performance. It’s such a shame that a movie of this size and scope was overlooked. Director Kenneth Lonergan asked friend Martin Scorsese for some help in the editing room and what you ended up getting was a movie that could not be explained easily and has only gotten better with time.
4) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives 
Grasping a film such as this one may require some major attention from the viewer, and even when the attention is there, frustration may come about as a result of the film’s abstractedness and non-linear narrative. This is all not too surprising when you consider Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmography and his constant acknowledgment of nature and the way it binds to us as human beings. Have I lost you yet? Snoozing? That’s how some folks might react when watching “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”. Coming out of the screening I attended, there was a kind of head scratching vibe in the air. It was as if Weerasethakul’s film had not only confused the general public, but actually angered them in frustration with what they had witnessed. I dug it the its mysterious setting and its dream-like episodes. If you’ve seen “Tropical Maladay” or “Syndromes and a Century” you know just how special this guy is.
5) A Separation 
Filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s indisputably great “A Separation” is the portrait of a country in turmoil. Just like the marriage depicted, it is constantly caught in the politics and restrictions the society offers. In one memorable scene, a man tells his daughter to speak Arabic as opposed to Farsi. In another telling moment, a girl’s school textbook recalls a time in the country’s history when the only two classes that existed were “royalty” and “everybody else”. Every person involved in the trial of “A Separation” has the best intentions and their own honorable values to go by. It is the most truthful and unbiased depiction of Iran I have seen this decade. The characters in Farhadi’s film live their lives according to the same religion and guidelines that are asked for them to obey. Yet, in the end it is only our own personal experiences that can provide us with the moral compass for the story.
6) Under the Skin 
What Glazer has accomplished here is quite remarkable and shouldn’t be forgotten. He’s made a picture that defies all the rules and, just like most films on this list, has reinvented a new kind of language. He showed real promise with his first film “Sexy Beast” back in 2000, a cerebral and intense film that paved the way for Ben Kingsley’s best performance. He followed it up with “Birth”, which was kind of all over the place and not as successful as I wanted it to be, but now he’s really surprised me with this one, an out of left field vision that stuns. More than two years after having seen it I still can’t get the damn thing out of my head. Its originality and absurdity is what I love the most about it, and of course Johansson, who is just perfect for the part of a murderous, seductive alien, was the perfect casting choice.
7) Holy Motors 
Leos Carax. You have to give it to this wildly imaginative filmmaker. He’s allergic to formula and refuses to adhere to the norm. In this thrilling, visionary, frustrating, exhausting and masterful film, he decided to give a poisonous valentine to the cinema, splitting his film into a bunch of different genres. Episodic in nature and more than eye-opening, Carax gave us something we’ve never seen before: a surreal nightmare of the past, present and future of cinema. With unusual acting chameleon Denis Lavant by his side, this was a movie in which anything could happen, in which any image could get juxtaposed with any other. There is no three-act structure built upon a tired, overplayed premise. Carax pushes, pushes and pushes until he finds the existential, surrealistic nirvana he’s been looking for throughout the movie with a simple but awe-inspring final image that is as haunting as it is ridiculous.
8) Black Swan 
Taking a cue from Kanye West’s 2010 album, this is Director Darren Aronofksy’s Beautiful, Dark, twisted fantasy. Natalie Portman gave the performance of the year in a film that was more than just about ballet; it was about the boundaries an artist had in order to push his or herself to the very limits of their art. The same could be said of Aronofsky, who’s never adhered to the conventional or acceptable. A potent, poisonous child of Emeric Pressburger/Michael Powell’s “The Red Shoes” and David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive”, this was a campy, visionary, extraordinary mess that turned into the film that confirmed the filmmaker was the real deal.
9) Inside Llewyn Davis 
There was a hint of reflective existentialism in the Coens’ Best Picture winner “No Country For Old Men”. Those kooky brothers were maturing before our very eyes and we had no idea what was to follow. “A Serious Man” was unlike any movie they’ve ever done: autobiographical, philosophical and damn near apocalyptic. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is where the Coens, the thinkers, make the masterpiece they’ve been hinting at this decade. A meditation on failure which just so happens to have as a backdrop the 1960’s Greenwich Village New York folk scene. This is the scene right before Dylan, when Folk was still square and the struggles for the artists were very apparent. Our Llewyn Davis doesn’t want to sell out, sticking to his artistic integrity and preferring a life without money than to sell himself to the devil. If only we had more artists like him today.
10) The Social Network 
A film such as “The Social Network” relies on characters more than plotting. The characters populating the film stay etched in your head way after the film is done, which is in fact the highest quality of the film. There is an almost irresistible vibe created; Fincher uses low lit cinematography to enhance the dreary atmosphere happening throughout. The hallways of Harvard feel cavernous and nightmarish, whereas the look and portrayal of University life is nothing short of condemning. Although the movie can be seen as an entertainment first and foremost, the substance that drives its themes home is very apparent. After a second, third and even fourth viewing of David Fincher’s masterpiece, I discovered new things that might not have seemed as obvious or apparent the first time around. “American Beauty’s” advertising campaign told us to “look closer; the same goes for “The Social Network”.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Richard Linklater: A Retrospective

Of all the great, deserving, American filmmakers that haven’t won the Best Director prize yet, Richard Linklater is up there with the most deserving. His filmography is as original and diverse as any of his generation. In 2014 he released quite possibly the best movie of his career. To many of us it’s unthinkable that the Academy might fail to honor such a landmark in American cinema with Oscars for Best Picture or Best Director. It stings when any great film is denied its place in the ranks of Best Picture winners, but we can regard it as inauguration into a pantheon of films just as prestigious: “Do The Right Thing”, “Goodfellas”, “The Player”, “Pulp Fiction”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, “Fargo”, “L.A. Confidential”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Traffic”, “Lost in Translation”, “Sideways”, “Brokeback Mountain”, “There Will Be Blood”, “The Social Network”, “The Tree of Life & Zero Dark Thirty”. Whatever happens on February 23rd, Boyhood will join an ever-growing list of classics.
1) Boyhood, 2014
You’ve heard and read countless raves for this 12-years-in-the-making masterpiece; what else is there to say? Linklater used everything he learned in his 25 year career to make this movie. The pacing, the direction, the editing, the writing and the acting are all what we’ve come to know as Linklater-esque. There’s an every-growing maturity that is starting to comfortably creep into his work and, believe it or not, I think the man has many more great movies to come. What touched me most about “Boyhood” wasn’t just the sweet performances – especially by Arquette – but the way he makes the movie flow in such an organic and beautiful pattern. Many think it was about a boy growing up, but the film hit me hardest when it dealt with the bond between mother and child. It hit notes that felt so personal to me.
2) Waking Life, 2001
“Waking Life” is where Linklater decided to take huge risks and make personal, innovative cinema. It came out in 2001 when the theme of dreams and identity was very prevalent at the movies with the release of “Mulholland Drive” and “Memento”. Shot in Rotoscope and delivering vibrantly alive images, the film was a breakthrough for Linklater, unafraid to delve into topics that would become a source of obsession for him in the years to come: The meaning of life, dreams, freewill, consciousness and many more existential questions are at the heart of the movie. Its images linger in your head for weeks, months, even years – with every frame soaked in colors and palettes that have no limits to the shapes, sizes or imagination that can be used.
3) Dazed and Confused, 1993
This was the breakthrough. The first time I saw this movie I knew I had seen a damn-near classic. The atmosphere envelops you and makes you feel like you actually know every single person on-screen. The attention to detail is astounding. You are there in 1976 Texas, on the last day of High School for the graduates of Lee High. There are so many different characters, and so many different plots that, in a way, the film seems to feel plotless. This was a sign of things to come for the young Texan filmmaker. Although this was a big studio picture, the narrative structure was anything but conventional, focusing more on character than actual storyline. Linklater’s 25 year obsession with the passage of time is very apparent here as the film seems to take place within a 24 hour time frame and uses that to further explore the routes many of the characters are about to take in their lives. 
4) Before Sunset, 2004
5) Before Midnight, 2013
Celine and Jesse.  It started with “Before Sunrise” and then continued with the beautiful “Before Sunset” and capped off with the mature, pessimistic “Before Midnight”. Richard Linklater’s trilogy of romance in European cities has been building a solid cult following for more than two decades now.  “Before Sunset” is a masterful examination of love, family life and conversation.  Never has an audience wanted an on-screen character to cheat on his wife more than when Jesse shows up at Celine’s apartment in the climactic scene. Celine is indelibly played by Julie Delpy and Jesse is superbly played by Ethan Hawke. Linklater and his two actors wrote the screenplay, much of it clearly improvised, from the artists’ own experiences and points of views. This organic style brings a real sense of authenticity to the films. These movies ask us questions about love that many studio movies refuse to ask. Is our view of love as a society conflicted, disjointed? Or can we really love someone eternally, in a “forever” sense of the term? How much can we compromise until we end up losing sense of ourselves and our own independence? There is not one answer to any of these questions. Linklater is a curiosity seeker who asks more than he answers and the way “Before Midnight” ends makes you wonder what can possibly happen next. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Celine and Jesse.
6) The School of Rock, 2003
In “Boyhood”, Ethan Hawke’s dad creates a Post-Beatles “Black Album” mixtape for his son. Something tells me it’s something Jack Black’s riotous imposter substitute teacher Dewey Finn would do for his class in “The School of Rock”. Just like Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous”, this is Linklater’s love letter to rock and roll. A passionate, studio-backed project that did exactly what it had to do and did it in such an expertly crafted way. Black’s Dewey Finn is a firm believer of the power of rock and roll – he wants to pass down his knowledge to the classically trained school kids he substitute teaches.  “I have been touched by your kids… and I’m pretty sure that I’ve touched them”, Finn exclaims to a horrified group of parents whose jaws drop at the comment. We get what he’s saying; he’s just passin’ the torch, man. 
7) Tape, 2001
The passage of time gets dealt with again in this semi-experimental film that, with “Waking Life”, kickstarted Linklater’s second phase as a filmmaker after the ill received “The Newton Boys”. Taking place inside a hotel room in real time, “Tape” stars Linklater muse Ethan Hawke, Robert Sean Leonard, and an incredibly powerful Uma Thurman. In the ensuing hours our trio dissects a painful high school memory that may or may not be true. Linklater, the Auteur, is in full display here with the film’s themes of memory, time and place taking center stage. However, the most fascinating aspect of Tape is that you don’t fully know what is real and what is not. Some characters may be lying or might have just perceived events in a different way.  The 86 nail biting minutes the filmmaker lays out are thought provoking to say the least. This might just be the hidden gem of the Linklater canon. 
8) Bernie, 2012
Tackling the real-life story of a Texan man who shot and killed a “companion” in the back, you might expect one of the darker films in Linklater’s filmography. Suffice to say that what we got instead was quite possibly the most likeable murderer in cinema history. Bernie Tiede, as played by a never better Jack Black, was a well-liked church going fella who didn’t seem to have a bad bone in his body. What led to him committing such a terrible crime? Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s screenplay tries to dissect the events and come to an understanding. However, like most of the director’s movies, the answers don’t come easy; in fact, there might not even be many by the time the movie is done. It’s a fascinating look at human nature and, if at first it seems distant from his other movies, it couldn’t be more relevant to the themes he’s been seeking out his entire career. 
9) Slacker, 1991
Here’s where it started. This classic Gen-X film was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress just a few years ago (and for good reason). Here is a director defining a generation, speaking volumes about human weirdness and connection.  “Slacker” is a film that flows from character to character on the streets, apartments and cafes of Austin, Texas. It is plotless, aimless but nevertheless mesmerizing in its random meetings and conversations that seem to connect to one another in unique, original and trippy ways. It isn’t hard to consider “Slacker” a ‘Stoner Classic’, but to call it that would also take away from the fact that it can be appreciated sober, as an organic exercise to open up your senses and make you think hard about our conscience and subconscious. 
10) Me and Orson Welles, 2010
Linklater’s ode to the stage came and went faster than any movie he has released in his 25 year career. This despite solid reviews and an incredible performance by Christian McKay as a rambunctious, youthful, Orson Welles trying to prove his worth by staging a play of “Julius Cesar”. The film takes place in 1937 New York and the attention to detail is beautifully rendered as Linklater gives us something he’s never given us: a period piece. This is a pleasingly simple but satisfying dramedy that pays tribute to one of the giants of our time and worked as a breather for Linklater, in between all the thoughtful dialogue-driven works of art he seems to consistently deliver effortlessly.