Thursday, January 29, 2015

Selma ***

Selma finally provides a realistic portrait of Martin Luther King on the big screen. Unfortunately most Hollywood films, as they do with most historical figures, tend to provide a vapid caricature.  Centered the around the passing of the Voting Rights Act, Selma has strong focus and narrative drive.  David Oyelowo captures King's ability to inspire others around him with his quiet strength.  As a depiction of the Civil Rights Movement, Selma rightly keeps the focus on people, black and white, who decided to take action against the injustice going on around them. Tom Wilkinson as LBJ is a full fledged Machiavellian.  Director  Ava DuVerna has the cinematic eye of Spielberg when it comes to pathos, meaning the small, quiet moments carry just as much emotional punch as the larger ones.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Inherent Vice: A Unique, Often Brilliant, End of 60s Epic ****

We now have the definitive "end of 60s" epic. While The Big Lebowski will never lose it's cult status as an ode to slackerdom, I'll suggest Inherent Vice offers something more. Based on the 2009 Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice takes us back to Los Angeles in 1970.  With Nixon in the White House and the nation in paranoid shock after Manson family atrocities in California and the Kent St. killings in Ohio, Inherent Vice pinpoints a turning point in the culture.  Beneath the often hilarious slapstick humor, few modern actors do a pratfall better than Joaquin Phoenix, there's also a subtle melancholy in every scene.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, a private eye who enjoys getting high and clashing with the LA PD. The film begins with Doc alone at his apartment watching TV. His old girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterson) shows up, and like Mary Astor in The Maltese Falcon, leads Doc on a journey into, to quote Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, "the savage heart of the American dream."  Throughout the film, Doc uncovers conspiracies encased within conspiracies, basically you're old fashioned shaggy dog story.

Noteworthy performances abound.  Katherine Waterson brings mystery and allure as Shasta.  Josh Brolin plays a psychotic, but comical police detective.  Martin Short takes a wild turn as a Dr. Feelgood dentist. Owen Wilson adds humanity as a paranoid Jazz musician.  Those are just a few examples. The entire cast did a fantastic job with Pynchon's unique dialogue. 

Anderson's direction feels more restrained and less stylized than his previous films.  At 148 minutes, Inherent Vice moves along at a leisurely pace.  While each scene is connected to the grand narrative of the story, each one also works as a vignette, like songs on your favorite rock album. The narrative flow reminded me of great John Huston films like The Asphalt Jungle and The Misfits.  I'd even compare the pacing to Tarantino's Jackie Brown. As a film noir, or so called "slacker noir", Inherent Vice draws upon everything from Detour to The Long Goodbye.

Film allusions aside, Inherent Vice exists in a unique cinematic universe of its own.  A sense of time and place comes across in every shot.  For example, the imagery amusingly reinforces the tension between the "straight world" and the counterculture. Doc understands the world makes no sense, or at least the version of the world the establishment wants to uphold.  

As the "Big Lebowski" declared, "the bums lost!"  Thus the vibe of Inherent Vice.  Many writers have written eloquent reflections on the end of the 60s, my favorite being Pete Hamill's liner notes to Blood on the Tracks.  Inherent Vice achieves such a tone.

I'll need to view Inherent Vice a few more times and I'm sure with each one my appreciation will grow.  While the plot's complicated and confusing at times, it's not incoherent. A dull moment never occurs.  We now have a great triple feature on the legacy of the 60s: Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski, and Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice.


House of the Devil ***

Some movies win you over in the first five minutes.  The House of the Devil opens with stylized tracking shot following a pretty coed as 1980s John Carpenter style synth music plays in the background.  Suddenly, you're back in 1984!  Director Ti West crafted a fine homage to 1980s horror movies.  

Desperate for money, college sophomore Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) accepts a babysitting job for a strange family, the sort who appear wholesome in the surface, but are hiding something dark.  Although she's a little weirded out, they offer her a nice paycheck. A terrifying night ensues for poor Samantha.  Greta Gerwig appears as her chatty best friend.

Unlike modern horror film which prefer to shock and go right for the jugular, The House of the Devil takes it time and gradually builds up the tension.  In the final 15 minutes all hell breaks loose.

From time to time I listen to horror movie podcasts and in their discussions all point to the 70s and 80s as the high point of horror cinema. I'm inclined to agree.  Today, it's harder to shock people.  Horror at it's best makes the audience feel a sense of dread and in that department The House of the Devil succeeds.  It's a fun ride.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Deer Hunter **** (1978)

The Deer Hunter (dir. MIchael Cimino 1978) follows the lives of three men from a small Pennsylvania town before, during, and after the Vietnam War. They work the night shift at the local steel mill.  After work they drink beer, watch football, sometimes go deer hunting.  The film begins as one of them’s about to marry.  Released 36 years ago, The Deer Hunter remains one of the finest examples of American cinema of any era with its authentic locations, outstanding acting and direction, and Vilmos Zsigmond’s beautiful cinematography.

Each act centers around a ritual: a wedding, a deadly match of Russian Roulette, and a funeral.

Written and directed by Michael Cimino and starring Robert De Niro (Michael), Christopher Walken (Nick), John Savage (Steven), Meryl Streep (Linda), and John Cazale (Stan),  The Deer Hunter earned the Best Picture Oscar in 1978.  The film also won Oscars for Best Director, Sound, Editing, as well as a Best Supporting Actor recognition to Christopher Walken.  

Like The Godfather, The Deer Hunter opens with an extended wedding sequence, illustrating how the Russian/Eastern European population of Pennsylvania acknowledge their old world heritage, while at the same time embrace America in a cinematic portrait of assimilation. From the perspective of 2015, the sense of a lost America seems even more striking.  The iron and steel industry forged the nation's backbone which sustained communities for decades has virtually disappeared.

Foreshadowing comes in flourishes during the wedding.  Nick seems unsure about their decision enlist, while Michael seems ok with it.  During the the reception Michael and Nick encounter a soldier at the bar on leave from Vietnam.  The soldier sits there like a sphinx. Michael tries to prod him about Vietnam’s like, but he reacts with disgust to their enthusiasm. He has endured too much to be put into words, something both Michael and Nick will tragically realize in time.

The film then shifts to Vietnam where Michael, Nick, Steven are captives of the Vietcong.  In a cringe inducing sequence they are forced to play a deadly game of Russian Roulette.  The sequence remains difficult to endure and controversial for its portrayal of Asians.  Many question if American troops were ever put through such an ordeal by their captors (most likely not).  However, as a metaphor of war, the scene works.  The act of going to war is like a game of Russian Roulette.  You might survive or get killed.  There’s no way of knowing.  The scene assaults the audience with the stark reality of war. Cimino and the writers went for metaphor instead of realistic depictions. 

The final act follows Michael when he returns home, where he learns Stephen lost both of his legs and Nick has gone MIA.  He begins a relationship with Nick’s fiancee Linda out of desperation.  While his friends want the good times to keep rolling like before, Michael realizes things will never be the same.  In a beautifully shot scene possibly modeled on The Wanderer Above the Sea painting by Caspar David Friedrich,  he comes upon a deer and aims to shoot, but pulls the gun away at the last moment, realizing he no longer wants to kill, choosing life over death.

Later, Michael returns to Vietnam to locate Nick.  He arrives in April 1975 as South Vietnam's about to fall.  He discovers Nick has gained a reputation in the Saigon underworld for playing Russian Roulette.  Michael confronts him, but Nick appears to have no memory of his former life.  Once again, Cimino asks the audience to suspend reality.  How could Nick have survived years of playing Russian Roulette?  How could Michael return to Saigon during such a chaotic time?  All I can say is sometimes the magic of cinema can even prevail over logic when the conditions are right.  Nick’s character arc plays like a Greek tragedy and symbolized what the war did to many American soldiers.

The final scene reunites all the characters after Nick’s funeral.  In their grief, they begin singing "God Bless America."  In the DVD commentary, Zsigmond recalls pleading with Cimeno to change the ending because it felt way too sentimental, almost laughable.  Cimeno replied, "the actors will make it work."  Cimino was right.  Roger Ebert said it best in his review,  "the lyrics of "God Bless America” have never seemed to me to contain such an infinity of possible meanings, some tragic, some unspeakably sad, some few still defiantly hopeful."

The entire cast had a magical chemistry.  John Cazale steals every scene he’s in as the loudmouth Stan.   Chuck Aspergen (Axel) a non actor who De Niro befriended while doing research in Pennsylvania, adds a presence.  Meryl Streep brought compassion and a quiet strength to the movie. De Niro carries the film in the lead role.  Both Walken and Savage exude a tragic lost innocence.

I would consider The Deer Hunter not so much a film about Vietnam, but a film about what Vietnam did to America.  Many films which came later dealt with the realities of the war such as Platoon or the PBS Series, Vietnam: A Television History.  

The war's legacy continues to divide Americans.  For some, the era left them cynical and skeptical about America’s future, while others held on even tighter to the old fashioned patriotism.  The Reagan campaign of 1980 capitalized upon the need to reboot the old values and pop culture followed right along in the new zeitgeist.  Films in the 1980s restaged the Vietnam War with a far more satisfying outcome.  The Deer Hunter ages well because of it’s ambivalent politics and bold attempt to make sense of a tragedy.

Watching The Deer Hunter represents all that’s good about movies. It has aged well.  An epic story with evolving characters and small moments - a true American classic



Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Hobbit: Battle of the the Five Armies ***1/2

Peter Jackson's final installment to the Hobbit trilogy ends the saga on a thrilling note. The story picks up with Bilbo Baggins and company preparing to defend Middle Earth from an army of darkness.  The entirety of the film revolves around the battle, providing a strong narrative focus.  CGI effects are ideally suited for the fantasy genre and they are used to amazing effect in Battle of the Five Armies.  Many fantasy stories involve large scale battles which would be way too expensive to film with real actors - so I'm big fan of CGI when used to its full potential.  As the characters meet their fates the themes of heroism and sacrifice have an emotional resonance. Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) journey from mild mannered hobbit to brave defender for good perfectly encapsulates the hero's journey.  Jackson also tied up all the loose ends to bring the entire six film saga to bring all the elements full circle.  All of Jackson's fantasy films hark back to the silent movie tradition - using moving pictures to present a spectacle on the big screen. Battle of Five Armies keeps the tradition alive and well.  Cecil B. DeMille would be proud.