Inherent Vice(1/9/2015)

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There’s a movie called The Big Sleep which was made in 1946 by Howard Hawks that is considered one of the cornerstones of film noir.  It’s got some iconic performances by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, some really snappy pulp dialogue, and atmosphere to die for.  Also, the mystery at its center makes very little sense.  It’s so convoluted that there are stories of the screenwriters sending telegrams to Raymond Chandler (who wrote the novel upon which the film was based) looking for clarification only to be told that Chandler himself didn’t really have a grasp on his own story either.  Some thirty years later, Robert Altman decided to adapt another of Raymond Chandler novel featuring the same Phillip Marlow character into a film called The Long Goodbye.  That film featured another story of Marlow in the middle of a complex crime scheme, but this time the setting is the 1970s and there’s a whole new tone to the whole thing.  Fifteen years later the Coen Brothers get it in their heads to make a Raymond Chandler style mystery of their own, but instead of putting a hardboiled private investigator at the center of their convoluted kidnapping plot they put a stoned slacker called The Dude into the middle of it all and watch him stumble through the whole affair.  That movie was of course The Big Lebowski and it’s become something of a cult favorite in the ensuing years.

It’s been over fifteen years since that film and it would seem that the acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson has taken up this tradition rather than adapt another Raymond Chandler novel he’s instead decided to tackle a novel written by Thomas Pynchon, a writer who is if anything even more infamous for writing dense and complex literature that’s hard to get a handle on.  Like Altman’s The Long Goodbye, the film is set in Los Angeles in the early 70s.  Out protagonist is “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is not unlike Phillip Marlow in his role as a licensed Private Investigator with clear street smarts but also not unlike The Dude in that he’s a habitually stoned counter-culture figure who sort of stumbles through a complex case largely because of ulterior motives.  He’s brought into the film’s central case by his “ex- old lady” Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who tells him about a real estate developer named Mickey Wolfmann  (Eric Roberts) whose wife Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas) seems to be trying to commit to an insane asylum.  Sportello agrees to look into this as a favor and soon finds himself in the middle of a case in which he’ll have to deal with crooks, neo-nazis, cultists, a crime syndicate called the Gold Fang, and a square police detective named Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) who wants nothing more than to teach this hippie Private Eye a lesson.

Paul Thomas Anderson’s last two films, There Will Be Blood and The Master, both felt like giant statement films.  They certainly weren’t humorless films but they were clearly being made by someone who wasn’t messing around anymore and wanted to make major works that would draw people’s attention.  Inherent Vice does share certain stylistic similarities to those two films but its subject matter is lighter in a number of ways.  “Doc” Sportello is not a complicated enigma of a character the way that a Daniel Plainview, Freddie Quell, and Lancaster Dodd were.  You more or less get what he’s about pretty quickly and the movie is more about watching him react to the crazy situation that he finds himself in the midst of.  That crazy situation certainly has elements of danger to it, but you’re never really too worried about Sportello.  You get the impression that this is an unusually crazy and personal case for him in a number of ways, but you also get the impression that he’s seen some craziness like this before and that he’ll probably see craziness like this again and that he sort of thrives on chaos to some extent.  In many ways the film is structured like a comedy but I wouldn’t necessarily call it “laugh out loud funny” even though there are a number of very witty moments and a generally comic aura to a number of the character interactions.

I’ve said that this movie is a bit convoluted, but that is perhaps a bit of an exaggeration.  The movie has a lot of small characters to keep track of and the conspiracy that Sportello is investigating seems ludicrously complicated.  I do think I was more or less able to keep track of it but I’m not sure I was actually supposed to.  I think Anderson’s intention was to make a movie that audiences would sort of give up trying to follow and just sort of cruise along with its druggy vibe.  Taken at face value I don’t think this story really does amount to much.  It’s a fairly episodic film when all is said and done and the movie never really sells the audience on the stakes involved in the case or does much of anything else to really make you care what the outcome is.  I also wouldn’t say that the movie’s style is really special enough to carry the film all on its own.  Anderson clearly knows how to make a film and he also does a pretty good job of adjusting his usual M.O. to fit this particular story, but he’s not doing anything overly wild with the camera here and in some ways he’s just letting things play out normally.  I also can’t say that this works purely as a piece of entertainment either.  The movie is certainly well paced, has some funny moments, and is most definitely not boring, but I can’t say it was a hilarious roller-coaster ride either.

I guess the film’s overall worthiness ultimately comes down to whether or not there’s something going on beneath the surface of this story, and that is not entirely clear to me at this time.  The film is set in 1970 for a reason and seems to be very concerned with the culture war that’s going on during that period.  Sportello and his police detective rival are clearly supposed to act as representatives of the counter-culture and the establishment and their various interactions are perhaps meant to act as a sort of metaphor for the wider conflicts that were coursing through the United States at the time.  That’s interesting, but I can’t say that I was really able to pick up on exactly what the film was trying to communicate about this culture war and this only really takes up a certain percentage of the screen time.  The film also seems to be largely centered around Sportello’s relationship with Shasta Fay Hepworth.  The film starts and ends on this relationship and Hepworth seems to be in the middle of both a key twist and also has a lot to do with why the film is called “Inherent Vice.”  And yet, Hepworth is missing for much of the film and I can’t say that I really got to know the character all that well in the limited screen time she has.  That title (which refers to a point of insurance law that is said to apply to Hepworth at one point) does seem to be a key clue, but I still don’t really see what the film is trying to say with this relationship either.

I’m trying so hard to analyze this because I have trouble believing that Paul Thomas Anderson and Thomas Pynchon would have created something like this if there wasn’t some point to it all.  If anyone has earned a benefit of a doubt it’s probably Anderson, but there are limits to how much credit I’m going to just give the guy on blind faith and on this viewing I’m not seeing any kind of masterpiece in Inherent Vice.  That said, there is a lot about the film that makes it worth watching.  There are a lot of fun performances in it from people like Josh Brolin, Martin Short, and newcomer Hong Chau which are definitely enjoyable and Anderson’s control of tone and the wit of the screenplay does make it pretty compulsively watchable.  One could say that this alone should be hailed as a sort of triumph, nut that brings be back to where I started this review: to The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye, and The Big Lebowski.  If those three films didn’t already exist I feel like I would have been more impressed with Inherent Vice, but with them in existence it kind of feels a bit redundant to me.  I do have something of a nagging feeling that I’m missing something here and I’m definitely going to be giving it another chance at some point, but for the moment I can really only give it a rather modest level of praise.

*** out of Four

DVD Round-Up: 1/6/2015

The Interview (12/29/2014)

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With all the crazy shenanigans that have gone on around the release of this film its actual qualities as a movie have gone somewhat overlooked.  This is a movie that pretty clearly comes from the mind of Seth Rogen and it covers the usual theme that tends to run though his work: slackers rising to a situation and managing to accomplish something.  The difference is that this time the thing they’re accomplishing is a world changing piece of spycraft.  The hijinx along the way are mostly in line with what we’ve come to expect from Rogen and Co. and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to people who aren’t fans of his previous work.  A decent number of the jokes land, a decent number don’t, and on a strictly comedic level I’d probably rank it somewhere in the middle of his oeuvre.  As a movie I think it has a number of good qualities but never quite lives up to its potential.

I think James Franco is actually kind of bad in the film, he didn’t seem like a real talk show host and he never fully develops his idiot persona into a fully realized comedic character.  I also think the movie makes some of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s weaknesses behind the camera a bit more obvious than they were in their last film, This is the End.  That movie almost felt like a found footage movie and that made some rather questionable camerawork and cinematography fit in with an overall aesthetic, but here it just seems kind of sloppy.  The cinematography is often really dark, and not in a way that seems stylish, just in a way that seems underlit and kind of amateurish.  There are also some ideas here that just seem kind of underdeveloped.  The film seems to set up a motif in which Kim Jon-un’s weak ego and megalomania is juxtaposed with the Franco character’s own diva-like behavior, but the movie never really completes this thought.  So, the movie is flawed in a number of ways, but I still quite liked it.  It has a certain audacity to it and a bold willingness to build a comedy around a rather sad real world situation.  All told I much prefer it to Rogen’s other effort this year, Neighbors, and generally think it deserved to be remembered as more than just “that movie that got Sony hacked.”

*** out of four

Obvious Child (12/30/2014)

I’m probably going to be brief here because I frankly don’t have a lot to say about this one beyond “it’s alright.”  The film stars Jenny Slate (who’s probably best known for accidentally dropping an F-Bomb on Saturday Night Live) as a middling stand-up comedian who finds herself pregnant after a one-night stand and decides to get an abortion.  A big reason why people are talking about this movie is because of its relatively casual attitude towards abortion.  I like abortions as much as the next person, but by turning them into something that isn’t really a big deal they kind of undercut the film’s dramatic potential.  Outside of that, this just feels like yet another Lena Dunham-esque indie comedy about insufferable Brooklyn 20-somethings and their first world problems.  That’s plainly not my favorite kind of movie, but if they float your boat you can probably do worse than this.  The movie goes from A to B efficiently enough and it passes 80 minutes well enough, but overall it’s a pretty mediocre effort that I’m pretty sure I’ll be forgetting about it shortly.

*** out of Four

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How to Train Your Dragon 2 (1/1/2015)

1-1-2015HowtoTrainYourDragon2 I’ve been slowly trying to get caught up with the last decade or so of animated family films in the last couple of years and the original How to Train Your Dragon was one of the better films I tried watching for that project.  The follow-up film got some pretty decent marks from critics so I started it up with some fairly high expectations that were not realized.  Stylistically things have not changed much and it doesn’t really feel like they’ve “sold out” or dumbed down this iteration of the series.  Rather, I think they just ran into a lot of the typical problems that sequels run into.  The first film was actually pretty self-contained as far as these things go and didn’t really seem to do much to set up this second installment, so they were more or less starting from a place of “happily ever after” and introducing a new conflict that just seemed a little half-assed.  The film does have some pretty decent animation and some of the dragons do look really good, and there’s a new character introduced who seems fairly interesting even if her arc doesn’t really play out as effectively as it could have.  Overall it’s not a terrible movie at all by Dreamworks standards but I don’t think it holds a candle to the original and I think that overall it loses its way pretty quickly.

**1/2 out of Four

The One I Love (1/5/2015)

(Warning: review contains light spoilers) I didn’t really know what to expect from The One I Love when I started it up.  It stars Mark Duplass, whose surname I’ve come to associate with amateurish hipster bullshit, and most synopsises I’ve seen of it were fairly vague.   When I saw that it would focus in on a yuppie couple’s marriage I settled in for a bumpy ride… then it turned into an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”  Yeah, this is covertly a science fiction movie in which the central couple find doppelgangers in their vacation home who appear to be idealized versions of each other.  This phenomenon goes largely unexplained in the film and is mostly done as a sort of “what-if” scenario to throw into its characters’ lives and see what happens.  Both Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass do very good jobs at (sort of) playing double rolls, especially considering that they are more or less the only actors present in the film.  First time director Charlie McDowell doesn’t do a whole lot to distinguish himself and the film’s musical score also generally annoyed me, but overall this movie did work for me a lot better than I thought it would.

*** out of Four

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The Rover (1/6/2015)

1-6-2015TheRover I’m not sure what’s going on in Australia right now, but it seems to have their filmmakers in an intense mood.  In the last ten years or so there have been a handful of Australian auteurs like John Hillcoat and Andrew Dominick whose work can be characterized by intense staring and sudden violence.  Among their ranks is David Michôd, who made a similarly intense film called Animal Kingdom a few years ago and seems even more like his countrymen with his latest film The Rover.  There’s not a whole lot to the story here, it’s basically just about an intense man played by Guy Pearce whose hell bent to retrieve a car that’s been stolen form him and more or less kidnaps a relative of the people who stole it.  The movie is a little bit like Blue Ruin, which was a similarly bare-bones revenge film, but I think I liked this one a little better.  The film is set in the wake of an economic and societal collapse and the film almost feels like a sort of modern western.  The danger of this world and the brutality of its inhabitants is palpable as we watch Pearce pursue his stolen vehicle.  That said, I wouldn’t call the film overly original and there’s not a lot here that you couldn’t also get from The Proposition or The Road.  Also the last shot is absolutely moronic and made me lose some respect for the film.  Still, it’s a pretty cool movie all around and I’d definitely recommend it to most audiences that will have the patience for it.

***1/2 out of Four 

Unbroken(1/4/2014)

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All through the history of film directors have had all sorts of backgrounds, but in recent years directors have usually followed two (sometimes overlapping) paths: that of the film school brat and that of the self-taught indie auteur.  Both of those scenarios basically entail directing right from the beginning, but this hasn’t always been the norm.  If you look into the biographies of the early studio filmmakers like Howard Hawks or John Ford you find that most of them started in Hollywood at a young age doing menial entry level jobs at studios and more or less got promoted into the directorial role.  You don’t see a lot of that today, but directors from other fields of filmmaking do emerge, usually when someone becomes so famous as a writer or cinematographer or producer that they decide to try their hand at the most prestigious role on the set.  Then of course there are the actors-turned-directors; the movie stars who get sick of being pigeonholed as the pretty face in front of the camera and decide to either direct themselves once in a while or step entirely behind the camera.  Often these directorial careers are disasters that are quickly abandoned after one misbegotten vanity project, but every once in a while you get a Clint Eastwood or a Mel Gibson who seems to actually be an important talent behind the camera.  The latest star to try their hand at directing is Angelina Jolie.  Jolie’s 2011 film, In the Land of Blood and Honey, was largely ignored but that didn’t seem to daunt her and she’s come back with a high profile adaptation of a bestselling war-time biography called Unbroken.

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), the second most famous member of the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team.  Zamperini was an Italian-American track star who seemed poised to make a big splash at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo, but of course those plans were dashed when the world went to war and those Olympics were canceled.  Zamperini himself ended up fighting in that war as the gunner in the air force and it was in that capacity that he found himself fighting for his life after a crash left him and two other airmen stranded on a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean surrounded by sharks and hostile Japanese fighter planes.  Adding insult to injury, when he finally gets out of that situation he’s taken prisoner by the Japanese and while in captivity needed to contend with a vicious Japanese corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe (played here by a pop singer named Miyavi) who is determined to break Zamperini’s spirit.

This highlight of Zamperini’s story is almost certainly the part where he survives at sea for forty seven long days eating nothing but raw fish and albatross meat and somehow even survives a strafing by enemy aircraft.  That’s kind of an awkward highlight, partly because we’ve very recently seen a pair of better “survival at sea” stories in Life of Pi and All is Lost.  The bigger problem though is that this section of the movie ends at the halfway point and the movie shifts into a fairly standard P.O.W. story and that lowering of the stakes would seem to go against the conventional wisdom of how a movie is supposed to progress.  The film certainly tries to sell Zamperini’s war of wills with Watanabe as somehow equal to the trials he experienced while surviving on the life raft, but I wasn’t really buying it.  When your climactic moment of victory involves a dude holding a board above his head I think you’ve probably gone astray.

The film does certainly have its moments.  Movies about World War II era flyboys always come off a little corny to me, and this one isn’t really an exception, but some of the early air battles are handled pretty well and feature a nicely dynamic surround sound mix.  The raft scenes are also well done and the sequence where Zamperini escapes an Ariel strafing is particularly exciting while it lasts.  I’ve already mentioned that the P.O.W. camp scenes are a little anti-climactic, but I wouldn’t say they’re “bad” per se.  Miyavi and O’Connell have a certain chemistry and the give and take between the two characters isn’t uninteresting.  However, we do live in a world where The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Escape, Stalag 17, Cool Hand Luke, and The Shawshank Redemption all exists, so I can’t really get too excited by this section of the movie.  The scenes that fare less well are the flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood and Olympic career that are intercut early in the film.  These scenes are just kind of stock and they lean too heavily on “inspirational” slogans.  That said, outside of those early scenes and some of the post-film title cards the movie isn’t too bad about telegraphing its message.

I guess the $10,000 question with this movie is “can Angelina Jolie direct.”  Well, the answer is “sort of.”  At the very least she’s proven herself to be perfectly competent behind the camera.  Did the film suggest to me that she’s a distinct auteur?  Not so much.  At best it suggested to me that she could be the next Ron Howard: a somewhat talented journeyman who can make middlingly crafted studio films that are good enough to satisfy audiences but don’t challenge them or do much of anything to advance the craft of cinema in any particularly notable way.  Still, I don’t know that this has been her last or best test.  At the end of the day Unbroken was maybe not the best story to try to adapt.  Zamperini’s story was certainly a testament to human endurance but it doesn’t fit the conventional Hollywood structure too well in spite of the film’s stringent attempts to do just that.  So, I can’t say I have a lot of respect for this movie, but I can’t really say I actively dislike it either.  It’s certainly “Oscar bait” but I didn’t get the same cynical vibe out of it that I expected to.  All told it’s a perfectly watchable and moderately entertaining drama, not something I will remember for long, but not something I really regret having seen either.

*** out of Four

Crash Course: Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue

In an attempt to better diversify the content on this blog I’m introducing a new series of pieces I plan to write called “Crash Course.”  This is a rather casual series that will feature sporadically and will cover a wide range of topics.  With each Crash Course article I’ll look at something that’s been a blind spot in my movie watching and examine a handful of movies related to said blindspot.  Some of these articles will look at the works of a certain filmmaker, some will look at movies from a common franchise, and some will simply be looking at some films that all have a common theme. 

DecOverall            Krzysztof Kieślowski’s The Decalogue is something of an oddity within the cannon of cinema, in part because it technically isn’t even a movie.  It is in fact a TV series that aired on Polish Public television in the late 80s in ten more or less stand-alone episodes, each about an hour long.  The episodes are mostly set within the same group of apartment buildings but the focus is on a different set of primary characters in each episode.  The unifying theme here is The Ten Commandments.  Each of the films are meant to be a rumination of sorts on one of the Ten Commandments.  They aren’t simple morality tales so much as they’re examinations of what exactly these commandments mean and how they apply to modern life.  These were made at something of a pivotal moment in Polish history: Pope John-Paul II (a Pole) was in the Vatican, the Solidarity Party had just won in the nation’s first partially free and democratic election since the war, and the end of Soviet control was just around the corner.  The ten films don’t really comment on this directly but you can kind of sense this newfound freedom of expression and religion powering the films and inspiring Kieślowski.

I: “Thou shalt not have other gods before me.”

Dec1            The first installment of The Decalogue focuses on the most intrinsically religious of the ten commandments, the one demanding that people follow the Judeo-Christian god and not create false idols.  Our protagonist is an agnostic computer scientist who believes in a highly ordered and logical world and thinks very highly of his own intelligence.  If this series were about the Seven Deadly Sins rather than the Ten Commandments, his sin would be pride.  He and his son both work with a computer system that controls a number of things in their home and the son seems to be just as adept at technology and logic problems as his father.  But is this family perhaps putting too much faith in this computer and taking it as a false god?  Or, given that the father programed the computer himself, maybe it could be seen as a false idol representing his own hubristic faith in his own intellect.  Either way, it isn’t hard to guess that this is heading to a tragic end.  Looking past the intellectual/theological implications, this is just a really well rendered human story.  Kieślowski does a great job of establishing what this little family is like, which makes things all the more painful once things start to go wrong, and watching the father react to the (admittedly predictable) final tragedy.  There’s a certain Twilight Zone quality to this one in the way it establishes the protagonist’s hubris and leads towards a twist ending and there’s even a little bit of a light science fiction element in the way the computer is described to have something of a personality programmed into it (did the computer perhaps lead its owners astray on purpose somehow?).

II: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain”

Dec2            In his introduction to The Decalogue Roger Ebert warned about getting too caught up in each film being entirely about a single commandment.  The films are in fact only named with numbers and they do not explicitly claim a single commandment up front and many of them cover multiple commandments at once.  For example, this second film in the series is widely believed to be tied to the commandment dealing with the use of the lord’s name in vain, but this doesn’t really come out until late in the film and for much of its run time it actually seem more like an interesting take on adultery.  The basic story seems like something of a trial run for what Kieślowski would do with Three Colors: Blue in that it is largely about a woman who may need to move on from a dead, or in this case dying, husband.  However, as important as the woman is to this story, it is ultimately just as much if not more about the doctor: he’s the one the film begins and ends on and is also the one who ultimately breaks the commandment at issue.  Unlike the first film, which clearly punishes its protagonist for his idolatry, it’s not entirely clear whether or not this protagonist was right to swear an oath in vain.  In fact, it kind of suggests that he was.

III: “Remember the Sabbath day, keep it holy”

Dec3            The first three commandments happen to be the most intrinsically religious of the ten, and one of the things Kieślowski is trying to do with them is to see if they also have secular meaning.  He did that in the first one by making a sort of personal hubris a stand-in for a false god and he did it in the second one by making it a sort of rumination on what it means to make a promise to someone.  For this third film, which revolves around the keeping holy of the Sabbath, he focuses not on the Sabbath but on the Christmas holiday and the obligation people have to spend such days with family and about loyalty to family in general.   Like the second film this one also touches on adultery in that its two primary characters previously had an affair that has affected their current familial situations and they’re reunited for one night of hijinks.  This film is a bit more playful than the first two Decalogue films.  It’s not quite a genre piece, but the characters in it are going around the city over the course of a night and actively doing things rather than wallowing in their existential miseries and the nighttime setting almost gives it something of a film noir atmosphere.  I don’t think that this is the deepest film in The Decalogue by any means, but it shakes things up at just the right moment.

IV: “Honor thy father and thy mother”

Dec4            The fourth installment of The Decalogue is the third one in a row to touch on adultery in some way and we haven’t even gotten to the installment that’s actually supposed to be about the adultery commandment.  This time around the alleged adultery actually happened years in the past and was committed by a character that is no longer present, but the action still has resonance a good twenty years down the line.  The story revolves around a young woman who finds a letter among her father’s things and opens it against his will and seems to discover that the man who raised her is in fact not her biological father, which sets off a profound disturbance in both father and daughter.  Even more than some of the previous Decalogue episodes, this one creates and brings to life some really rich characters, but I can’t say I really loved where Kieślowski went with this scenario.  The young woman’s betrayal of her father’s trust combined with the discovery she seems to make would seem to be something that would strain on the relationship between parent and child, but I can’t say that having it suddenly develop into a full on Elektra Complex seemed a bit out there.  Kieślowski does sell this pretty well, but it still rang a little false in a way that these Decalogue episodes usually don’t.

V: “Thou shalt not kill”

Dec5            Unsurprisingly, the most famous installment of The Decalogue is probably this fifth one about the murder commandment, which was one of two episodes of The Decalogue to be expanded into a 90 minute film (which is called “A Short Film About Killing”).  The film is different from the previous installments in a handful of ways, firstly because it uses intercutting between two stories in the beginning and secondly because it’s visual look is a lot different from what came before.  Kieślowski used different cinematographers for most of the episodes of The Decalogue, but this one looks more distinct than most of the others because it uses a sort of washed out sepia tone look that feels a lot more raw than the other episodes.  The film starts by recounting a rather senseless and random murder committed by an angry young drifter.  Kieślowski doesn’t offer much in the way of explanation for the crime; it just seems to be the handiwork of a bastard who wants to watch the world burn.  That would seem to be the big moral twist is the second half of the film, which juxtaposes that killing with the perpetrator’s eventual execution by the state.  One killing is nasty, the other cold and calculating, and Kieślowski seems to be challenging to viewer to answer why one is any less of a violation of the commandment.  The airing of this episode caused something of a stir in Poland and was pretty controversial.  The nation abolished capital punishment not long afterwards and the film may or may not have played some role in that.

VI: “Thou shalt not commit adultery”

Dec6            This is arguably the second most popular episode of The Decalogue (having also been expanded into a feature length film, this one called A Short Film About Love), but it’s also probably the strangest one so far at least as far as the theme goes.  The numbering is supposed to suggest that this is the episode about the adultery commandment, but a number of the previous episodes dealt with adultery much more directly and this one would seem to have more to do with the commandment about coveting they neighbor’s wife than full on adultery.  The film is about a rather creepy young man who has been using a spyglass to peep on the sexual encounters of an older woman who lives across the way.  When the woman finds out about the young man’s stalkerish behavior she is more amused than offended and invites him over.  She learns that his interest is not purely prurient and that he genuinely believes that he is in love with her.  When she playfully dismisses his attitude he does not respond well.  As the title of the extended version suggests, this is a movie about love rather than a movie about sex or sin.  It’s a pretty big change of pace after the rather heavy fifth installment and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

VII: “Thou shalt not steal”

Dec7            The “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not steal” commandments have always sort of been link in that they are perhaps the most straightforward and secular of the commandments.  Similarly there’s a sort of link between these two episodes of The Decalogue in that both depict a situation in which two people break the said commandment but only one is viewed as a criminal in the eye of the law.  The film is not about a simple theft of goods but about a kidnapping of a little girl who has been raised by her grandmother under the pretense that the grandmother is in fact the mother.  The kidnapper is the little girl’s true biological mother, a woman who had this child when she was sixteen and who now regrets having allowed the grandmother to take the child as her own.  So, we essentially have two thefts: the real mother kidnapping the child and the grandmother having taken advantage of her daughter’s situation in order to gain a second child, essentially stealing her.  The human story probably stuck out at me more here than the philosophical elements.  It’s one of the more entertaining entries simply because it’s kind of a chase film with the grandmother searching for the child and the young woman trying to elude her.  It also has a really good ending in which the grandmother re-gains one daughter and loses another one forever.

VIII: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor”

Dec8            If there’s any episode of The Decalogue that I would say is a pretty big misstep it’s probably this one.  It’s not a “bad” episode exactly, but it does feel weaker than some of the other ones.  The theme this time is the bearing of false witness and the story revolves around two women, one elderly and the other middle aged, who have met once again after having an encounter during the Second World War.  In that first encounter the younger woman was just a child who had attempted to find sanctuary in the older woman’s house and was turned away, ostensibly because the older woman’s Catholicism would have prevented her from bearing false witness to the Nazis.  As such, this is one of the few episodes of The Decalogue which overtly quotes one of the Ten Commandments.  It also has a scene where a student in the older woman’s class recants the story of the woman from Decalogue II, making this one of the only episodes to overtly reference one of the other episodes beyond walk on cameos by some of the characters.  The film’s ties to the commandment seem to be a little tenuous and the film also has a really abrupt ending which leaves some of the themes not fully explored.

IX: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”

Dec9            The ninth Decalogue film is a relatively simple story about an impotent man who learns that his wife has taken up a lover.  As a story about coveting one’s neighbor’s wife this doesn’t really make sense because the main character only really covets his own wife.  It makes a lot more sense if you simply assume that this is the actual installment for the adultery commandment and that by extension the sixth installment was actually the installment about the “covet thy neighbor’s wife” commandment.  From that perspective the moral is actually fairly simple.  As the movie begins the impotent man all but says he wouldn’t blame his wife if she found a lover to satisfy her needs but when she does (secretly) it tears him up about as much as any betrayal would and ends up being just as damaging to their relationship as any other betrayal.  If I were to rank the films in The Decalogue this would probably be in the bottom half, but it certainly isn’t bad.  There have maybe been some signs of fatigue in the back half of the series though whether that’s on the part of the filmmaker or the viewer is not entirely clear.

X: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s goods”

Dec10The subject for the tenth and final installment of The Decalogue is the “thou shalt not covet they neighbor’s goods” commandment, and Kieślowski takes a slightly different route in examining this one. The tenth installment is generally much lighter in tone than most of what comes before it. It’s not an out-and-out farce, but it’s certainly not as heavy as some of the other ones. In fact, it could be viewed as something of a dry run for Three Colors: White, which also features the actor Zbigniew Zamachowski and similarly has a bit of a satirical take on greed and capitalism. The film concerns two brothers who inherit a valuable stamp collection from their father and begin to wonder whether it would be right to sell it given that it was their father’s life’s work. Long story short, certain shenanigans ensue and it’s probably best not to say much more than that. The idea of letting one of these installments be a little less serious than some of the others makes plenty of sense, but it does seem a little odd to me that it be the very last one. This would have made for nice comic relief around slot six or seven and the last spot could have maybe been saved for something that would see the series out on a bit of a more somber not, but maybe I’m off on that. This is a fun hour of television and where it is it almost feels like the wrap party at the end of a long project.

In Conclusion:

So, that’s one more major film watching goal off my checklist.  “The Decalogue” is not the easiest film to really rank and assess given its unusual format.  In fact I’m still not entirely comfortable calling it a “film.”  It was clearly tailored around the television medium and outside of the two episodes that were eventually expanded I don’t think any of them were ever really meant to be seen in theaters.  On the other hand, Krzysztof Kieślowski is definitely a film director rather than a showrunner and the projects ambition and execution are definitely broader than the bounds of late 80s television.  Whatever it is, The Decalogue is an amazing project.  It’s like a great short story collection being put out by someone who’s otherwise known for writing novels.  It maybe loses a little steam in the last couple of entries and the production values are harmed slightly by its TV roots, but neither of these things seem like great concerns in the grand scheme of things.  Between the ten episodes one almost feels like they’ve watched a great cross-section of the modern human experience.

Mr. Turner(12/25/2014)

12-25-2014MrTurner

Mike Leigh is a filmmaker who is in the odd position of simultaneously being one of the most consistently acclaimed filmmakers in the world and also one of the most under-appreciated.  I suppose you could say that he’s a great filmmaker who’s been taken for granted.  Leigh hit his peak of critical acclaim in the early 90s when he made films like Naked and Secrets and Lies, which both took the film world by storm.  Since then he’s been quietly turning out strong efforts like All or Nothing and Vera Drake, which were all appreciated but didn’t necessarily excite people.  As a rule, critics can actually be oddly unappreciative of consistency.  When someone like Leigh finds a mostly successful formula and simply sticks to it, observers actually get sort of bored.  They like to see reinvention and breakthrough more than they want to see more of the same thing they’ve already loved over and over again.  Audiences seemed to be especially weary of his last film Another Year, which really felt like “Leigh-by-numbers” and didn’t have much of a concept to lean on.  He does seem to have made a comeback though with his latest film, Mr. Turner, which returns to the period trappings that made Topsy Turvy such a pleasant aberration in his filmography.

The film is a biopic of the famous late 18th century/early 19th century painter J.M.W. Turner (played here by Timothy Spall), who achieved great fame amongst art aficionados of the period with his vivid landscapes and nautical paintings.  The film starts somewhere in the middle of Turner’s life.  He’s already built his reputation at this point and has already left his first mistress Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen) with whom he had two illegitimate children.  The film takes something of an episodic approach to Turner’s life and follows him through the death of his father (Paul Jesson) and his relationship with a kindly widow named Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey) and his general betrayal of his housekeeper/mistress Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson).

Mr. Turner is not the easiest film to talk about and analyze because it makes few attempts to conform Turner’s life into some kind of three act structure.  Instead this is a true character study about the life of a difficult and complicated artist which doesn’t try to either judge or pigeonhole its subject.  The J.M.W. Turner here is a really prickly person who definitely mistreats a number of people in his life.  He’s most certainly a bastard and Mike Leigh never downplays these aspects of his personality or forgives Turner for them, but he never lets that be the end of the conversation either.  His Turner is not a mean hearted person and he does do a number of things over the course of the film that seem to contradict his otherwise unpleasant demeanor, but then aren’t most lives filled with contradictions and inconsistencies?  That’s the thing about this movie, we very rarely see film characters who are this complex and multi-faceted, and it isn’t really until you’ve finished watching the film that you really see the amount of depth in the film’s depiction.

I also think that Leigh might see something of himself in in J.M.W. Turner, perhaps not on a personal level, but in his role as an artist.  Turner does not really fit the usual model of what you expect of a 19th century artist.  He isn’t some kind of bohemian French eccentric with beautiful muses who’s nobly starving for his passions.  He’s someone who is relatively well off but who has to constantly brownnose patrons in order to remain as such and Leigh does pretty much everything in his power to deglamorize his life and his surroundings.  This is not unlike Leigh’s own career, which has been well respected but also removed from the glamour that’s his Hollywood and European contemporaries.  The film also delves into one of the defining worries of an artist’s life: what their legacy will be.  Turner’s paintings are very realistic works and realism is a style that would become increasingly devalued in the years to come.  Turner seems to realize this, late in the film he has an encounter with an early photographer and seems to realize that this strange invention may make his work obsolete.  Even without this technological innovation he has seen the way artists of earlier generations have been devalued and seems to be very worried about the same thing happening to him after his death.

As deep as this character study can be, Leigh has also surrounded his subject with a number of interesting people.  The artistic community in early Victorian England has not been given a lot of exposure on film so it was definitely fascinating to see figures like Mary Somerville, Benjamin Haydon, John Ruskin, and J.E Mayall come and go from the movie.  I can’t say I was all that familiar with any of those names before seeing the movie, but they’re all really well realized and could have each easily supported movies in their own right.  These aren’t just gimmicky historical cameos either, each of these figures brings out something in Turner and reveal an aspect of his personality one way or another.  Even more interesting are the famous supporting characters are the women in Turner’s life, who are each also fascinating in their own rights.  I was especially interested in Turner’s relationship to Sophia Booth, a widowed innkeeper he meets and starts a relationship to without revealing his true name and occupation.  You get the impression that he creates this separate life with Booth because he enjoyed living a simpler life away from the pressures and pretentions of the art world, sort of like Don Draper’s West Coast friendship with Anna Draper on “Mad Men” except with the identity swap reversed, and Marion Bailey’s charming performance does a lot to explain why he’s want that.

I’m not exactly sure where Mike Leigh first came to learn about J.M.W.Turner or when he got it into his head to make a biopic out of his life, but I’m glad he was able to bring this project into fruition because it’s a really rewarding movie when all is said and done.  When I first left the film I knew it was a really strong work but wasn’t quite sure what to make of its episodic structure and its lack of a traditional arc.  It wasn’t really until I reflected on it that I really got a sense for just how complete the film is and how well it managed to paint (no pun intended) this complicated life.  Timothy Spall was the perfect choice for the lead role, Dick Pope’s cinematography is beautiful, the period settings are vivid but also realistically worn… in general it’s yet another instance where Mike Leigh managed to make everything come together perfectly.  I’d hesitate to call it one of Leigh’s masterpieces and it maybe could have used a trim here and there, but as a whole I think it’s a pretty damn nice accomplishment.

**** out of Four

Wild(12/21/2014)

12-21-2014Wild

About five or six years ago I watched a movie that had been recommended to me almost on a whim simply because it was on Netflix Streaming (way back when Netflix Streaming was still relatively new).  That movie was called C.R.A.Z.Y., which is a movie with a really stupid title but which ended up being pretty damn good.  It was a sort of family saga and coming of age story about a gay teenager growing up in Quebec during the 70s.  That probably doesn’t sound wildly enticing, but the film really works and even manages to find a good explanation for its wacky title.  I tried to keep an eye on that film’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée, but his follow-ups seemed really un-noteworthy.  He made one film called The Young Victoria which just seemed like Masterpiece Theater nonsense and he made something else called Café de Flore, and I’m not even sure what that is.  Then last year he reemerged after he directed a little movie called Dallas Buyers Club which somehow managed to become a multi-Academy Award nominee in spite of some very corny elements.  I didn’t hate that movie but it certainly seemed pretty far removed from the potential I saw out of Vallée previously.  I guess at the end of the day Vallée never really was the auteur I thought he was, but he does seem to be a fairly skilled journeyman and he seems to have made something of an artistic comeback with his latest film: Wild.

Wild is based on a memoir called “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by a the essayist and advice column author Cheryl Strayed.  The film is framed around a literal journey that Strayed (played here by Reese Witherspoon) took to hike the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail, which is a wilderness trail that crosses the entire West Coast from the Mexico border to the Canadian border.  It’s a hike that is apparently attempted by about three hundred people each year and completed by a little over half of them, so it’s not an entirely crazy goal and there is are a series of waypoints in place to support these hikers, but it’s still a pretty arduous trip that requires a lot of time and dedication.  Strayed started on this journey after a handful of tough years following the death of her mother, years in which she started using heroin, engaging in compulsive sex, and eventually ended up divorcing her husband (who was put off by the aforementioned behavior).  The film intercuts her wilderness adventure with flashbacks to the difficult years that preceded it in order to frame this hike as a sort of cathartic adventure Strayed needed in order to escape her self-destructive behavior and put per life back on track.

The obvious reference point to go to when looking at this film is the 2007 Sean Penn directed film Into the Wild, which looked at another young person’s real life journey into wilderness adventuring.  Both movies can be similarly episodic, both feature a lot of North American scenery, and both movie have the word “wild” in their titles, but there are definite differences as well.  Strayed is a little older than that film’s protagonist, Christopher McCandless, and her trip is generally more planned out and a bit less unconventional.  Of course the biggest difference McCandless did not live to tell his story while Strayed did.  As such, McCandless has a certain mystique that Strayed doesn’t and the film that was made about him viewed him as something of a puzzle to be pieced together.  Strayed, by contrast is pretty actively aware of her motivations and comes from the borderline narcissistic tradition of the personal essayist.  In fact Strayed’s basic motivations and character arc so apparent so quickly that making an entire film about them almost feels redundant at times, but that doesn’t mean that this isn’t a journey worth going on especially when it’s brought to the screen as strongly as it is here.

Anchoring the film is Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed.  If I have any complaint with Witherspoon’s performance it’s that I think a certain degree of vanity may be on display in the way that the character never quite seems to be disheveled as she maybe should have.  Characters often mention that Strayed looks dirty and exhausted, but I don’t know that I ever quite saw that in Witherspoon’s performance, at least not to the extent I think I should have.  Witherspoon’s hair always looks shampooed, her complexion never quite looks filthy, and in general she just doesn’t seem able to completely leave her movie-star good looks behind and really transform into someone else.  That said, from scene to scene she’s quite good in the film.  She’s pretty good at displaying the character’s occasional peril and hardships without going over the top and exaggerating things.  The movie in general is pretty good at making Strayed’s trip seem like a pretty enticing adventure without losing sight of the fact that its protagonist was rarely ever in any truly life threatening danger on the trip.

Ultimately I don’t think Wild is a particularly deep or important movie, but then few movies really are.  It’s an adventure story of sorts, albeit a more realistic one, and it mostly works both as a character study and as a travelogue.  It also sort of quietly works as a feminist critique of society given the amount of time on this journey that Strayed seems to be living in fear of sexual assault (even though each of these encounters turns out to be a false alarm), which is a good reminder of how the two genders move through the world differently.  The movie is a pretty good watch all told and in its own way I found it entertaining and interesting even though I don’t really think it’s great.  It also sort of seems to put Jean-Marc Vallée’s career back on track even as it more or less convinces me that he’s never going to be an overly distinctive talent so much as a capable craftsman.  This is not a movie that should be watched with the heavy expectations that its status as an awards season prestige picture puts on it, but as a sort of summer movie for adults (which happens to be coming out in December) I think it delivers.

***1/2 out of Four