Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #7 - Magnolia (Anderson, 1999)

7. Magnolia - Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999

                To try to summarize this film in a short paragraph is futile.  Telling overlapping stories of approximately nine major characters over the course of one day in Los Angeles, Magnolia is about sin, shame, emotion, connectedness, father-child relationships, and coincidence, all in the course of a short 188 minutes.  Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA) at the ripe old age of 28, a filmmaker whose films are now some of the most critically anticipated around, the film is rife with both youthful energy and wisdom that comes with long life.  As the story moves from character to character, the camera lingers on the depth of raw emotion in each remarkably whole person.  Then PTA pulls out the rug in a few incredible sequences that connect the people and the dots and show us how people are frequently the same – with similar longings and needs, and how the world is ultimately bigger than any of us imagine it is.  It’s a great film, and it holds a special place in my heart because it happens to be the first film I saw that convinced me that film could be more than entertainment – crossing into the level of meaningful art.  Not to mention that it has the only instance of a Tom Cruise performance I really like – now that is a feat!

Frank T.J. Mackey, a misogynist motivational speaker.

David’s Response:
Paul Thomas Anderson.

                As with you, this film had a major impact on my development as a cinephile.  There is something about Paul Thomas Anderson’s ambition that was and is exhilarating to me.  Firstly, he had the audacity to make (and somehow convince his backers to pay over fifty million dollars for) a three-hour series of character studies that climax in meaningful, yet truly fantastic ambiguity.  Secondly, and more importantly, his personal voice is so strong in his films that it not only demands you interact with it, but it makes it impossible to avoid.  For a young, fledgling film lover, this voice in Magnolia was a revelation – it was just as thrilling to interact with the filmmaker’s voice than the story he had presented.  Not to say that Magnolia’s story is weak, for it is anything but.  Rather, what this film does, as so many great films do, is seamlessly inject commentary on its happenings through the language of movies, both adding additional layers to its themes and reminding us of the real minds and ideas behind its creation.  More than anything, Magnolia reminds us that the most exciting portions of the film world are the quarters of production held under nothing but the sovereignty of skilled artists, where there are no laws by which filmmakers must apply. Luckily for us all, Paul Thomas Anderson resides in these quarters and has both the talent and vision to create lasting and transcendent cinema.

Chelsea's Note:  Paul Thomas Anderson has also directed: There Will Be Blood, The Master, Boogie Nights, Hard Eight, and Punch-Drunk Love.  I anticipate his films more than any others, and I believe he is my favorite filmmaker working today.  I would highly recommend any of his films, but with caution: most of them contain a lot of adult content, specifically in Boogie Nights and The Master.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

By J.J. Abrams
J.J. Abrams has now all but solidified himself as the next Steven Spielberg.  With this film, the first Star Trek reboot, and Super 8 (not to mention the upcoming Star Wars films), he is one of the most exciting and trusted blockbuster directors working in Hollywood.  Star Trek Into Darkness continues the positive trend.  Carefully crafted, and boasting a strong attention to detail, it is an extremely fun ride.  It had good overall performances, a very interesting villain, and it was impeccably paced to maximize tension.
Abrams can certainly stage an action sequence, especially a disaster, like no one else, and there were quite a few scenes in Star Trek that reached a very high level of suspense.  However, with this said, it simply didn’t have the thematic weight to warrant a glowing recommendation.  It relied too heavily on past knowledge of the franchise (even back many years) to build investment in its characters.  It also was a bit overkill, piling one battle or action sequence on another.  I would have enjoyed just a little breathing room, maybe some tension built out of something other than another death-defying barrage. However, as this is a summer blockbuster, it is hard to expect much depth, and as a popcorn flick, it more than hits its marks.

A very strong *** out of ****

                 I find it impressive what Abrams has done for Star Trek, now having crafted two thrilling adventure films from the shell of a franchise that had previously built a large fan base employing more cerebral plotting.  Until Abrams, Star Trek stories drew mainly from political intrigue, webs of interpersonal clashes, and the curiosities of strange new worlds.  Yes, the original Star Trek series was campy, but even so, it thrived on the basis of cultural and political conflict (along with a healthy dose of melodrama).  Comparatively, with his additions to the franchise, Abrams has succeeded in creating something fresh, simplifying the formula into something more crowd-pleasing while simultaneously paying respect to the brand’s roots in utilizing the political conflict inherent to the Star Trek universe.
A perilous situation.
This isn’t to say the films are dumbed-down, but rather that much of the intellectual fat has been trimmed.  While this film has its fair share of twists and turns, its central conflict remains mostly uncomplicated, pulling from basic themes of revenge and political corruption.  The plot may be intricate, but the motivations driving the plot are not, and with more simple conflicts, there is more time for well-staged action sequences and perilous situations – which are Abrams’s sweet spot.  This man was built to make blockbuster films and knows how to use all the tricks at his disposal (including the ever trusty countdown-to-exploding-device) to efficiently create suspense.  There is nothing new here, really, but with Abrams’s skills, it is nonetheless exhilarating.  It is top-notch formula filmmaking, and while some of it seems overly contrived, it is an impressively slick and eminently exciting ride.
A weak ***½ out of ****

I agree that it is quite impressive what Abrams has done with the franchise.  It is fresh, and crowd-pleasing without ever being dumb, even if the “intellectual fat” has been removed.  I am very close to a 3 ½ star rating as well – it was really was very entertaining and extremely thrilling.  I thought Benedict Cumberbatch was ever so fun and thrilling as the film’s villain, John Harris.  What did you think of him? 

Good old Benedict.
                In his scenes, Cumberbatch commanded the screen.  I found myself wanting to see more of him, as the brooding charisma of his performance was both electric and frightening.  I found myself thinking of Die Hard’s Hans Gruber, probably because Cumberbatch’s voice benefits from the same timbre as Alan Rickman.  Yet, unlike Die Hard’s iconic villain, Cumberbatch’s Harris is always coolly in control of his plans, demonstrating a superior cleverness over his adversaries.  In fact, when he is ultimately vanquished (not really a spoiler – c’mon, did you really think the bad guy would win?), it takes some suspension of disbelief just to accept that he is outduelled.  Yet, as the film is filled to the brim with the highly unlikely, barely-made-it-out-alive hijinks that define American blockbusters, I was mostly comfortable accepting this suspension of disbelief as well.
                Without giving too much away, I also appreciated the way the film handled this character generally.  As a viewer, we spend much of our time assessing his motivations and cannot make a true judgment until far into the plot.  This was refreshing and a nicely compelling move, as most blockbusters simply present a power-hungry baddy at the beginning and move on from there.
                Throughout the film, there was a lot of angst built between characters – between Scotty and Kirk, Kirk and Spock, Spock and Uhura, and more.  What did you think of this?  Did it help the story or weigh it down?  Did you think these conflicts given enough attention to be credible?

                I love your comparison of the voice of Cumberbatch with Rickman – it is a very nice parallel.  As far as angst and tensions go, I felt as though some of the relationships and their ensuing spats were more believable than others.  Although I identified with the baseline frustration in the relationship with Uhura and Spock, it isn’t a particularly fleshed out relationship, so the scenes were a bit forced.  I thought the tension between Kirk and Spock was better, and I don’t yet have an opinion on the one between Scotty and Kirk.  Simon Pegg can sell anything with a deft comic touch, but the question is was his reaction to the missiles true to his character in this or the last film?  I guess I’m not sure, and I don’t know that we know Scotty well enough and this point to make that judgment.  What did you think?


Ah, the bromance.
                You hit on a big consideration for this film – as with many sequels, it relies heavily on character development done in previous installments.  While the attention given to the Kirk-Spock tiff made it believable due to its central role in the plotting, I also found myself a little lost with the Spock-Uhura conflict, even if it was rather simple when you break it down.  It had honestly been too long since I had seen the first installment to remember they had a relationship, let along be invested in its survival.  Likewise with Scotty – while I bought his administrative quarrel with Kirk, it was hard to say if his actions were fitting.  This all raises an interesting question – if a film assumes prior viewer knowledge, does the film lose value?  I would say no, especially if the film is a sequel, but it does make the job of a critic a bit more difficult.

                I would agree that a film doesn’t automatically lose value if it relies on prior viewer knowledge.  However, I think the issue with this film was that it was so concerned with the zip, bang aspects of the production that it just left everything else by the wayside, including any character development that both (a) didn’t happen in the previous film (b) needed to happen for the tension to fully work in this film.  Now again, I thought it was great fun, there just wasn’t much in the way of actual nuance.  Additionally, it broached some very interesting subjects (specifically war profiteering) that were later dropped and not fully realized in favor of more (admittedly very cool) action sequences.

                I can hear the fanboys now – “But we already know these characters!”  And indeed, they would be right – they have a whole television series logged into their memory.  Not being a trekker myself, it is hard to know how much the film relied on or played off the years of character work from the iconic show.  Yet, while this could account for some of the glossed over character portrayals, I nevertheless agree that since its story stems from character flaws, it could have been more compelling with a greater exploration of these flaws.  Instead, we are given archetypes, and while this serves well enough to provide motivations for its plotting, it is not as impactful as it could be.
Red shirts next to a villain - uh oh...
                You could also say the same thing for the political themes it mostly dropped in favor of action – as with the character flaws, these themes are presented mainly as a jumping point to battles and thrills, rather than being the focus of the film.  Since these themes, though they were simplified, are far more interesting than your standard bad guy vs. good guy setups, I found the film as a whole more interesting than standard action fare.  Yes, it could have been more meaningful by exploring character psyches and political philosophy, but as a summer blockbuster, that was clearly not its intent, and it is hard to fault it for prioritizing excitement over thematic depth – especially when it so skillfully excites.

Two-as-One Rating: ***¼ out of ****


Thursday, May 23, 2013

David's Top Ten - #8 - Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

It was bound to happen.  For the first of three instances, there is a movie on my personal top ten that is also at a higher point in Chelsea’s top ten.  Perhaps we take this two-become-one thing a bit too seriously, because our tastes have seemed to, in some ways, meld together after nearly five years of cinematic adventures enjoyed in marital bliss.  I’m still waiting for that fated day in which we adamantly disagree about a film – mainly because it would be a fun thing for our readers to experience.  Alas, today is not that day, and my love for my eighth favorite film of all-time is a love I share with my wife.

So instead, I will provide clues to what this mutually loved film is.  The first to figure it out gets a hearty handshake and a healthy share of respect.  Here are your five clues!  (C’mon modern peoples, try to figure it out without the help of web searches!)

Clue #1: The film’s lead character shares a last name with an infamous judge whose ruling upheld, at the time, the constitutionality of racial segregation.  (And you thought this would be easy – ha!)
Answer: State of Louisiana Supreme Court Judge John Ferguson of the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) case shares the name with the protagonist John 'Scottie' Ferguson.
Clue #2: 1964's Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte shares a strikingly similar plot to a (wonderful) 1955 French film based on a book by the same author as this film’s source material.
Answer:  The French film is Diaboliques (Highly Recommended!) and the authors are Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac who also wrote D'Entre Les Morts, the novel upon which Vertigo is based. 
Clue #3: A pivotal scene of the film takes place in a wooded area near the site of golfer Tom Kite’s only U.S. Open victory.
Answer:  Tom Kite won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and the nearby location is Cypress Point.
Clue #4: Was the last collaboration of the filmmaker and the lead actor, as the filmmaker lamented after initial lukewarm reviews that the star was now simply “looking too old.”
Answer:  Alfred Hitchcock said this of Jimmy Stewart.
Clue #5: The film’s iconic score is inspired heavily by Richard Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde.”
Answer:  The film was scored by Bernard Herrmann.

The film is, of course, Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, which comes in at #2 on Chelsea's Top Ten of All Time.

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Great Gatsby

By Baz Luhrmann

Baz Luhrmann could make one heck of a music video.  The frenetic pace of his storyboards would fit quite well with the broad, simple themes of high-energy pop music.  They do not fare as well with culturally significant, nuanced pieces of literature.  While there are moments of The Great Gatsby in which Luhrmann captures the energy and awe needed to build up the mystery at the story’s center, the film is marked by a persistently harried aesthetic throughout.  As a result, scenes that require any delicacy feel sloppy and rushed.  It is as if Luhrmann was bored with his characters and their story and needed to distract himself by spicing up their troubles with visual flair.  Rather than paying justice to the emotional weight present in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic tale, Luhrmann tells this tale in broad strokes and primary colors, with the forcefulness of an ADHD teenager impatiently tapping his toe and fast-forwarding to see what happens next.
Yet, for two main reasons, the film is not a total loss and succeeds mildly even with Luhrmann’s misguided direction. The first reason is that, while the script lacked subtlety, many of the film’s performances did not.  Cary Mulligan and Joel Edgerton give strong, engaging performances in broadly emotional roles, and DiCaprio gives the film’s titular character surprising nuance and believability.  For the sake of showing some grace, I want to say this could be attributed to Luhrmann’s direction, but the stilted performance of Tobey Maguire as the film’s meek narrator makes me think otherwise.  It is hard to imagine any director could coax such great performances from most of his cast and allow one character to be so lacking in definition.  It is far more likely that this is simply a case of some great actors doing impressive work on their own accord.  The second, and more primary reason the film finds some success has already been mentioned – the inherent power of Fitzgerald’s story.  It is undeniable that, despite having to fight through (and against) the many glaring distractions of Luhrmann’s style, you simply want to learn more about the figure of Gatsby and see what happens next.  In short, it may not be a remotely suitable telling of this story, but the story is compelling enough to be interesting anyway.

A weak **½ out of ****

Luhrmann, the man behind the films Moulin Rouge and Romeo + Juliet, clearly was not a good fit for this story.  He has a very interesting and wholly unique approach, and with the right source material, I think he could sing (you could argue that Moulin Rouge was the right source material for his spectacular style).  Although I did not (and do not) find his frantic pace completely horrible or distracting, to me, it just felt a bit off.  He clearly reaches to try to engage an over stimulated and desensitized modern audience with a barrage of images and contemporary pop music, but to me, the style was utterly disengaging.  Never boring, but just never well connected to its source.
I feel like I'm in fifth grade again.
There were some things that worked very well, namely the top-notch performances, which anchored the film - especially from a perfect Carey Mulligan and excellent Leonardo DiCaprio, who managed to be intensely obsessed and utterly disarming at the same time.  As far as Tobey Maguire goes, I thought he gave a very good performance; it was the character development as written that was problematic.  He did the very best he could with the uneven script he was given.  In addition, the set design was whimsical and fun and I mostly really liked it.  I would have liked to have been more immersed in the music of the film, and I thought that the contemporary soundtrack frequently worked.  I think, generally, Luhrmann has a good sense for how to use music in film, further evidenced by his previous works.  All in all however, it simply didn’t come together and didn’t find a center.

** ½ out of ****

               You hit on two points I would like to address – one in repentance and one push-back.  The first is the performance of Maguire as the film’s narrator.  I must admit that my own postulations are probably due to the fact that I have rarely enjoyed Luhrmann’s work in the past.  As such, I was probably a bit unfair in saying the weaknesses of Maguire’s performance could be attributed to Luhrmann’s direction.  After all, you make a very good point in pointing out that his character was not given much focus from Luhrmann and Craig Pearce’s script.  It seems that, throughout the film, Luhrmann simply gave priority to the other roles.  The film seemed to be so preoccupied with its central romantic conflict that it barely gave more than a glance in the narrator’s direction and his own struggles.  This is, after all, one of the reasons the book has been called unadaptable – its narrator is not an active participant in the large bulk of its plot, but he is nevertheless the all-important moral center of the story.
                The second point was the use of contemporary music in the film.  I would like to hear why you liked this aspect of the film.  I found it to be somewhat out of place.  While I understand and appreciate Luhrmann’s intention to modernize the story, using rap music in a 1920s setting was jarring, especially since these musical interludes were not consistent, unevenly crashing into the otherwise period soundtrack.  I would have liked to see him either go all out and use all contemporary music or not use it at all.  Using both period and contemporary music was distracting.

                It’s interesting how our previous thoughts of a director’s body of work color our viewing of current films – in this case, your view of Maguire’s performance.  I’m glad you came around. ;) music!
                 As far as music goes, I feel like his intent was frequently to parallel the 1920s to today or at least more recent times.  I thought that he was very interested in showing us how “nothing changes under the sun.”  In this way, I thought it worked in many places.  And I felt as though including 1920s music set it apart, so it lived in this interesting place – both modern and in period.  I kind of liked it.
                In your great dislike for Luhrmann, what do you think he could do well?  Would other directors be better suited to this material?  Who?  I don’t know that someone like Paul Thomas Anderson could have adapted this particularly well either, and I think he’s one of the greatest directors working today.

                I like your thought about the contemporary music in the film – that it being in the film would be a comment on how society ultimately has not changed.  I also like the thought that the film creates a unique space – not quite the 1920s, but most certainly not today.  This was, I admit, an interesting place to dwell as a viewer.  Yet, I still feel the film’s music was more a distraction from its larger romantic themes.  Sometimes what works in theory simply doesn’t translate well on screen.
                Your final question brings up a good point as well – it is not that Luhrmann is a bad director: he just many times chooses the wrong material.  There are only a handful of rare directors in film history that could handle a wide range of genres and themes well (Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks come to mind), but that doesn’t mean everyone else is a bad filmmaker.  Perhaps one part of being a great filmmaker is knowing what projects to choose.  In the case of Luhrmann, I would argue his style works best with broad themes and characters fit into campy pulp.  His early success, Strictly Ballroom, would fall into this category, and I thought it was a far more cohesive film than his work since.

                I also enjoyed Strictly Ballroom, and I would argue that Moulin Rouge has that same kind of broad pulpy camp, and I thought it worked very well for Luhrmann.

                One of the most noticeable elements of the film is the visual style as well as the set design – both of which are of great spectacle.  The film looks very cool – lots of glitz and glamour that is large and over the top.  Generally, this isn’t something I mind.  However, it just didn’t fit very well with the story and was mostly distracting.  I kind of understand why it was the way it was, but I just don’t think it worked, and I thought, especially, that the feverish pace of the editing and the camera movement distracted from the story.

                Some will certainly walk out of the theater and say, “Wow, that had some really cool visuals!”  Yet, It is interesting that something so dynamic could be a detriment to the film’s thematic and emotional core.  I compare the spectacle of this film to a really great musical score in an otherwise bad movie – that specific aspect of the film might be impressive as a stand-alone work, but if it doesn’t compliment the rest of the material, it is better to listen to it at home apart from the film.
                Truly, had Lurhmann just toned down the spectacle and used his signature visual panache in just a few more dramatic or more exciting scenes (like just the extravagant party scenes or something along those lines), I feel like the film could have worked well.  Coupled with a more relatable and consistent Nick Carraway, the moral center, the film could have been quite good.  Alas.

Two as one rating: ** ½ out of ****

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #8 - Chinatown (Polanski, 1974)

8. Chinatown - Roman Polanski, 1974

“Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.”  These are the legendary words that end this unforgettable 1974 film by Roman Polanski.  Chinatown embodies a place where people go to do things they don’t want other people to see.  Investigating a woman’s claim that her husband is cheating, Detective Jake Gittes stumbles upon another, more insidious crime.  As he digs deeper, he becomes increasingly tangled in a web of lies, corruption, greed, and shameful family secrets.  In one of the best performances of all time, Jack Nicholson embodies a detective who is worn, world-weary, a little frightening, and yet somehow still mostly good and frequently funny. 
Playing with and beautifully utilizing the conventions of the noir genre, Polanski perfectly captures the dread and hopelessness of this world and what happens when people have unquenchable thirsts.  Although the story is more typical crime-thriller fare, because of the fantastic screenplay, excellent direction, and great lead performances, Chinatown works as something much deeper.  It’s a dark, bleak look at the heart of corruption and evil, with a finale that both frustrates and amazes, simply because it takes guts to put something that hopeless on screen.  It’s way over-the-top and frighteningly honest at the same time, and I absolutely love it.

David's Response:

The infamous John Huston and Jack Nicholson
               First of all, I must say I feel truly blessed to have a wife that loves a movie because of its bleakness – the most impactful art is rarely a walk in the park.  Chinatown is, indeed, a truly bleak look into the world of high-level (and low-down) crime, and as with any great film with serious subject matter, it leaves you with a deep sense of unease.  In this case, the film’s final scene works like a sucker punch and left me wanting to crawl into a corner and cry as I nursed my nausea.  Yes, it really is that powerful. 
Polanski understood the impulses of the noir genre well enough to play with our ingrained expectations.  He turns tropes on their head several times, always keeping viewers on their toes.  From femme fatales, to red herrings, to bumbling detectives, all the tropes are there, but nothing is what it seems.  As the story unfolds, and more sordid details are revealed, we join Jake Gittes both in disorientation, curiosity, and fear.  Akin to many more effective horror films, it is a gripping fight-or-flight experience, and one that no true film lover should miss.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Iron Man 3

By the time an action film franchise hits its third film, viewers have a built-in history with its characters and world.  It is not the duty of any movie boasting a title that ends with the number three to be anything but an invitation to spend time with some old friends, see some new stunts, and of course, boo and hiss at some newly concocted villains.  As such, I will assume anyone interested in reading this review has not only seen earlier episodes of the franchise, but enjoyed them enough to be interested in a third go-round.  For you Tony Stark lovers out there, have no fear – though this film presents truly little in the way of plot, it presents more than enough spectacle and humor to be a worthy popcorn-munching flick.  The film’s lack of innovation or thematic weight make it easily forgettable, but it nonetheless is a brisk adventure and provides another dose of the cheap thrills and wit fans of the franchise have come to love.
As with most summer blockbusters, this is undeniably a minor affair, relying largely on CGI-laden set pieces, well-timed quips, angsty glares, and harrowing scenarios.  As a result, the majority of its half-hearted attempts to build emotional ties to its plotting fall flat, as they are simply used to provide excuses for the next battle.  These battles are fun, but not necessarily gripping, as we are not invested in the characters enough to hold our thumbs at their apparent demise, and the central villain is too broadly drawn to be spurned.  Yet, as with the first film of the franchise, it is the charisma of Downey’s Tony Stark that carries the film, and while it is a much more vapid experience than our introduction to the character five years ago, it provides enough variety in its action and plot twists to be eminently watchable.  (Including one sillier plot twist that is altogether unexpected and thoroughly entertaining.)  You may not remember Iron Man 3 for long after the viewing, but as you watch, you will find yourself smiling.

*** out of ****

The Avengers
            One of the most remarkable things about Iron Man 3 is the way it incorporates many of the elements from the past two films and especially The Avengers.  Although there is not real carryover plot-wise; there is a lot of acknowledgement regarding Stark’s past adventures and how they have affected him now.  If nothing else, the people behind these Marvel films will be remembered for building a world and a franchise that is absolutely gigantic.  It will be extremely hard to imitate.
            And it’s fun.  Contrasted to Nolan’s Batman franchise, which is wonderfully dark, gripping, and serious, this movie is sugar-coated candy pop.  And you’re right, a lot of this has to do with Robert Downey, Jr. who plays this character to an absolute tee, managing to inject humor and timely one-liners into every situation he is in.  He’s been perfectly cast, and he’s quite good in both the big and small moments.  The pacing is effective, and there is plenty of exciting action to be had.  I enjoyed it, yes, and I smiled quite a bit.  And, of course, it is light years better than Iron Man 2

*** out of ****

One has to wonder what the lasting impact of the Marvel universe will be.  These films are intentionally difficult to understand without having experienced them as a whole.  For example, there are many references to the events of The Avengers in Iron Man 3, and without a frame of reference, some of the plot points would not make as much sense.  In this way, Marvel tells stories much more similarly to television, in that you must “catch up” and see the last episode before moving forward.  It is, if nothing else, a brilliant marketing move that will sell many movie rentals.  (It is also why we see so many sequels to begin with – people have an innate compulsion to see what happens next.)  This may cheapen the experience, as it guarantees some level of formality in plotting, but in the case of Marvel, it also allows for the creation of a much deeper world than one film, or even one franchise, could allot.  In this way, Marvel’s films have preserved much of what makes Marvel comics popular.
            Perhaps we can learn something from comparing this film to Iron Man 2, which I also found to be a trying experience.  Weirdly enough, I found that film to be weighed down by too much plotting and subtext.  Its attempts to crescendo into a final battle felt drawn out.  Conversely, Iron Man 3 presents a very simple conflict at its center and fills its plot to the brim with twists and turns.  In this way, the film subverts its thematic hollowness and avoids being boring simply by presenting viewers with enough shiny things to look at.  When a film’s characters are broadly drawn, there must be enough spectacle to pick up the slack, and unlike the weaker aspects of its predecessor, Iron Man 3 doesn’t try to be anything but a thrill-ride, and it is a more enjoyable film as a result.

            It is exactly like you said – long-form storytelling that has become quite commonplace in this modern age of television, but is mostly unexpected when it comes to film.  And I kind of love it, regardless of if it was simply a marketing ploy.  Iron Man 3 was basically a return to form for Tony Stark after the heavy, kind of boring Iron Man 2.  Since the film is essentially a long string of action sequences, I must ask: which was your favorite?

Pretty BA.
            That has to be the almost entirely superfluous skydiving stunt.  There is no reason for this scene to take up the time it does in the film, yet it is such a ridiculous setup that it manages to subtly mock the superhero genre while also maintaining a high level of excitement.  Great stuff.  How about you – what was your favorite?

            I think that was probably my favorite stunt too – not only was creative and exciting, but it also didn’t rely as heavily on CGI as other sequences.  Of course, there were a lot of really great set pieces in this movie, and one of my other favorites was near the start – the attack on the Stark home.  Also great is Ben Kingsley’s villain, The Mandarin.  I had more fun watching him than I have had with almost any super hero villain in recent years.  I think he’s my favorite superhero villain since Heath Ledger’s Joker. Did you love this character as much as I did? 

Really BA.
            Kingsley’s Mandarin was worth the price of admission alone – but to explain why would ruin the fun for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, no?  In short, he presented a nice diversion from your standard villain in the most unexpected of ways.  One of the best things about the Marvel films are that none take themselves too seriously, and this is a great example of that.  For this and many other reasons, this is worthy mindless entertainment to begin your summer.

Two-as-One Rating: *** out of ****


Thursday, May 9, 2013

David's Top Ten - #9 - Paths of Glory (Kubrick, 1957)

9.  Paths of Glory – Stanley Kubrick, 1957

When exploring film history, you run into a large assortment of anti-war films - none are more devastating and masterfully argued than Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory. On reflection, it is odd that Kubrick, cinema's greatest tactical ideologue, could make such a movingly humanistic film as this.  Yet, perhaps it was his cerebral approach to cinema that gives this film so much power.  The story is, after all, inherently human, and unlike his other films, the ideas he presents have widespread societal implications.  So many anti-war films will appeal to emotion and burn down straw-men, but the reserve Kubrick shows with this film allows the atrocities he presents to be both comprehensible and shocking in their baseness. The story pleads for melodrama, but Kubrick does not allow it any, making its tragic elements not simply heartbreaking, but nauseating in their injustice.  It is easy to forget a simple argument against pride or bigotry - we all agree those attributes are detestable.  It is much harder to dismiss a film that builds emotional ties to its characters while presenting systematic problems with our political systems, arguing succinctly that there is no easy way out.
There is so much more to say about this film - from the terrifying thrills of its tracking shots through the trenches of World War I, to its unflinching documentation of war's political tragedies, to the film's deeply moving and sobering finale, which provides a perfect call to action.  As few war films do, not just the brutality of its action, but its arguments stick with you long after viewing.

Chelsea's Response:
Kirk Douglas in his finest role.
I have to admit that I don’t care much for Kubrick.  I find him all brains and no heart, and I find that his films have no emotional center.  He generally uses his characters as pawns to make some grand philosophical argument that is cold and detached.  So when I first saw Paths of Glory, I approached it with much trepidation, assuming that it would be like other Kubrick films I have seen.  However, I was more than pleasantly surprised with how human Paths of Glory is.  I immediately latched onto it as Kubrick told a war story about institutions by examining some events in the lives of a handful of common soldiers.  Featuring great work by Kirk Douglas as a Colonel caught between following orders and saving lives, it immediately became my favorite Kubrick film, and to this day one of the very few, along with The Shining, that I really like (although, of course, I can see the skill in his other work).  It is a fantastic picture – my favorite Kubrick and probably my favorite war film of all time, and I’m delighted you have included it here.

Monday, May 6, 2013


By Jeff Nichols


The South: not the picturesque coastal town of Charleston, nor the exciting, sinful city of New Orleans, but the middle of landlocked Arkansas.  The director of Mud, Jeff Nichols, grew up in Arkansas, and his familiarity with the setting makes it feel about as real and honest as it could.  It’s not told in caricatures of poor hicks, but with the sun shining through the trees onto mostly dirty rivers with very real people living on them.  Ellis and Neckbone are two middle-school aged boys who meet a charming, but also disconnected man on an island near their hometown of DeWitt, Arkansas.  He goes simply by “Mud,” and Mud needs help, as he is a man on the run.  The boys embark on adventures, taking unwanted things from around their neighborhood in order to help Mud escape and sail away with his one true love.  All the while, the boys deal with their own relationships at home, both familial and romantic.  
            The most simple and least ambitious of the four films we have reviewed thus far, Mud is nonetheless a lovely and interesting film.  Continuing his hot streak, Matthew McConaughey (in the title role) is intense, gentle, and a little bit scary, but also loyal and good hearted.  Nichols also manages to get very good performances out of his child actors, specifically the boy who plays Ellis (Tye Sheridan).  Nichols struggles, ever so slightly, in creating a lasting and building tension that would have created a better climax.  In addition, his villains are a bit on the cartoonish side, and he fails to give them the depth the others receive.  All the while, however, Nichols manages to pull something ever so human and real from his characters, highlighting themes of lasting love, marriage, and father-son relationships.

A strong *** out of ****

Ellis, Mud, Neckbone
At its best moments, Mud plays like a modern fairytale, filled with the mystery and suspense of youthful curiosity.  These moments are impressive in that they create the kind of tense wonder found in only the best stories about children coming face-to-face with danger (think of the more serious moments of Stand by Me).  The film pulls from these moments to draw out its major themes of naivety and misplaced hope, but it only truly succeeds when it maintains an air of intrigue.  Unfortunately, the mystery is lost as the film moves to reveal more and more of its details, and it ultimately ends up relying on heavily worn, all-too-familiar suspense devices.  This is not to say the film degrades into a completely worthless affair, as its characters are well drawn enough to build an emotional investment in their troubles, but it is to say that it is a disappointment – something that begins with great aplomb ends with an unsure dependence on the generic.
What worked best was the fascinating figure of Mud - this character’s macho self-assurance creates a cool magnetism that is always compelling.  While it is clear that this man is hiding something, his tender hubris is undeniably captivating.  For this reason, it makes sense that the young boys in the film latch on to him despite their better judgment – he represents a sense of stability in the midst of their otherwise uncertain home lives.  However, it must be said that while this aspect of the film works well, it could have been better, as we are only given cursory glances into the family dysfunctions that so affect the impulses and motivations of both Ellis and Neckbone.  While these glances serve as a sufficient base on which to build themes, it is hard to think these themes couldn’t have had more emotional resonance had the film provided more explanation.  There is much to like here, and the film is beautifully shot and effectively paced, but there are too many missteps in the script to give a wholehearted recommendation.

A weak *** out of ****

Tom and Ellis
                What I thought worked well about the cursory glimpses into family conflict was that, even though they were cursory, they did not rely on any tropes or easy conventions.  The parents do truly seem to love their son very much, even though they clearly have some marital problems.  And even though Ellis’s father is outwardly scary, his intimidating façade is frequently pulled back to reveal someone hurting, loving, and human.  I liked this quite a bit.  Similarly Neckbone’s uncle, while being outwardly goofy, a horndog, and a bit careless, is revealed to care very much for his nephew, even though he has a hard time showing it.  I thought the film showcased very well how complex father-son or surrogate father-son relationships can be.  Nichols very gently shows us these relationships – peeking into peoples’ lives.  The only one I would have really liked to see more of was the relationship between Mud and Tom, which was left slightly underdeveloped, probably out of necessity because of the actual physical limitations of getting the two in the same space.

                You are right to point out that these father-son dynamics are executed well.  Indeed, when they are there presented, they are delivered with honesty and care.  Yet, I still feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent with these interactions, as they ended up feeling more like plot reminders than integral parts of the characters’ lives.  As you pointed out, this is seen most clearly in the relationship between Mud and Tom, but it is true of all the family relationships in the film.  Nichols should have taken time away from his broadly drawn villains to give more time to these relationships, as the baddies were almost completely unnecessary – villains with no names (or local cops) could have been far more foreboding.
                There was another element of the film that also felt a bit forced – Ellis’s romantic exploits with an older high school acquaintance.  I thought these parts felt like tacked-on efforts to help build the themes rather than flowing naturally from the story.  It all seemed a bit too convenient that he would have these experiences at the same moment he is seeing his parents experience relational turmoil.  What did you think of these scenes?

                I did not find those scenes forced.  In fact, I kind of like how it was all happening at once.  It showed who Ellis was as a whole person, not just as related to the central conflict.  I think, if anything, it makes sense that Ellis would look for that kind of relationship as his parents were experiencing turmoil.  He clearly thought his parents were making a big mistake, and this may have been his way of acting out – proving that he could do it better than they.  Yes, it was naïve, but I kind of liked that it put a period on that idea. 

            You bring up some good points about the Ellis’s dating subplot, especially that it helps to define him as a character in a more complete sense.  In concept, the subplot serves the film well.  In reality, I still felt these scenes to be a bit contrived.

                What did you think of the Juniper character?  Although not particularly well developed as we didn’t get much time with her, I really loved the scene where she takes care of Ellis as he has just been hit by one of the baddies.

I actually really liked the Juniper character, and found Reese Witherspoon’s performance to be effectively reserved.  I appreciated that the film kept us at a distance from this character, and her own meekness helped to shed light on some tragic flaws we may not have otherwise seen in Mud.  She is the great hope for Mud, and her beauty serves to melt Ellis’s heart in no time, so I found it affecting that she was eventually revealed to be such a mess.
Reese Witherspoon as Juniper
                There is one last thing I would like to discuss – the film’s idealism, or lack thereof.  I found it interesting that both Ellis and Mud are shown to be grasping onto the hope that love will conquer all, only to be let down by reality.  I found this misplaced hope to be a major theme, and the film does not initially seem to be very optimistic about love.  Yet, Ellis and Mud’s ultimate letdown serves to bring a new hope in their friendship, so it seems the final message of the film is that meaningful relationships cannot be forced, and the relationships that are most important to us are many times right under our nose.  It was a nice touch to end the film, and surprisingly, didn’t feel forced or overly saccharine.

                I think it was interesting that the naïve way that Ellis and Mud view love is shattered to make way for something much more lasting, complex, and beautiful – a meaningful love that commits despite flaws and is comfortable and protective, like Mud’s hallowed shirt.  I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I think in a sense Nichols was contrasting how youth view love and how reality often clashes with this ideal, but how truly loving relationships are able to forgive and allow people to have flaws and love them anyways.  I thought it was interesting and honest, and despite the film’s flaws, was movingly communicated.

Two-as-One Rating *** out of ****

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #9 - Marty (Mann, 1955)

9. Marty – Delbert Mann, 1955

            For some odd reason, Marty is often overlooked when modern day film writers compile all-time best lists, even though it won both the Academy Award for Best Picture and the Palme d’Or the year it was released.  (It was one of two films in the history of the medium to accomplish this feat.)  Perhaps this is because Delbert Mann is not an auteur in the traditional sense of the word, but we must remember that Marty is a writer’s picture.  The screenplay is by Paddy Chayefsky, who also penned the brilliant Network, and it is wholly wonderful.  It delights in telling the story of a somewhat homely butcher in his mid-thirties who is plagued by a desperate desire to get married but is unable to get any dates.  It takes place over the course of about two days during which Marty meets his female counterpart and must decide if she’s worth pursuing, because his friends call her “a dog”.  Ernest Borgnine gives a celebrated performance here in a role that is completely off-type.  The main character is so well drawn, and the whole of the film is heartbreaking and earnest, especially in its little details.  There is a conversation at the midpoint of the film that gives the audience a beautiful glimpse of what the future could be for these two, should they have enough courage to attempt it.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better, more human love story.

David's Response:

One of the most poignant first dates in all of film.
            There are rare instances when a director’s best service to a script is to simply get out of the way – here is the prime example.  This is the least cinematic great film I have had the privilege to see, and because it zeroes in on a series of simple, yet achingly heartfelt conversations, any directorial flair would have distracted from the remarkable sincerity of its dialogue.   It simply wouldn’t make sense for a story about unassuming, humble folks falling in love to be anything but modest in its own telling of the tale.  Mann’s direction trusts the strength of Chayefsky’s words, and the sincerity of Borgnine’s truly enchanting performance, to indelibly capture the awkward thrills felt by novice romantics.  It is, indeed, a writer’s picture, but perhaps more accurately, it is an everyman’s picture, for like Mann, Chayefsky also gets out of the way of his characters.  In everything, he never draws attention to his own voice, but shows the reserve to provide an unadorned slice of life’s most universal and uncomplicated joy – the feeling of falling in love for the first time.  Simply beautiful.