Saturday, June 06, 2015

Movie Journal: May

World of Tomorrow
May was a somewhat quiet month; I saw 22 films in total, of which 19 were new to me. However, of the ones I saw, two of them currently occupy the number 1 and 2 slots in my best of 2015 list, which is not too shabby. Plus, since we're well into 2015 now, most of the films from 2014 that I missed but really wanted to see are now cropping up on home media and streaming services, so there's no shortage of great stuff out there, assuming that I have the time to check them out. (Spoiler alert: I probably will not have time, as evidenced by the fact that this post is going up five days late.)

The best film I rewatched this month was Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, which I watched for an artist profile episode of Shot/Reverse Shot on the director's work. I remembered really liking the film the first time I saw it, which would have been about ten years ago, but this time around I better appreciated its sense of humour, which is incredibly dark but also genuinely funny, and Joan Allen's performance as the matriarch of the family at the centre of the story. I feel like I undervalued her contribution before purely because I was so bowled over by Sigourney Weaver, whose role is showier and more caustic than Allen's more brittle work.

The worst film I watched for the first time is a dead heat between David Cronenberg's Maps to the Stars and Howard Morris' Don't Drink The Water. While the latter film is clearly the worst from a technical standpoint - it's shot in a flat, ugly way which suggests that they just filmed the rehearsals and bundled them together, and Morris replaces most of the dialogue from Woody Allen's original play with frantic montages of characters running around, making it one of the most painfully '60s films I've seen in a while - the former is the more disappointing.

I more than welcome Cronenberg's move away from more "respectable" filmmaking after the tedious A Dangerous Method, but Maps to the Stars continues his movement into blunt, toothless satire begun with Cosmopolis. Maps is much, much worse than Cosmopolis, though, since its attempts at Hollywood satire are too broad to be interesting and too focused on empty shocks to be all that funny. The only remotely entertaining moment was when some incredibly cheap-looking fire effects allowed me to laugh at the film, which had stubbornly refused to give me any reason to laugh with it prior to that. Still, Mia Wasikowska is unsurprisingly great in it, and John Cusack is believably monstrous as a truly reprehensible father.

The worst film I rewatched - to make this intro even more fucking granular than it already is - was Bram Stoker's Dracula. It's long been my least favourite Francis Ford Coppola film, though it has shared that honour in recent years with the baffling Twixt. Much like that more recent boondoggle (and unlike Maps to the StarsDracula has the saving grace of being a terrible film made up almost entirely on interesting choices, so at least it's fun to dissect even when it's torture to watch. Had it maintained the level of deranged intensity that it displays in its prologue - in which Gary Oldman becomes undead by denouncing God in a Church, then stabbing a cross which then proceeds to bleed profusely - I probably would have liked it more.

I also watched Clark Johnson's S.W.A.T. - which I'm only mentioning here because my friend Kei has been trying to get me to watch it for quite literally years - and I really enjoyed it. It's a really dumb movie, but the high concentration of once and future action superstars (Samuel L. Jackson! Michelle Rodriguez! Jeremy Renner! Josh Charles?), all of whom bring the right level of pulpiness to proceedings, makes for a pretty easy and undemanding watch.

1. World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt, 2015)

One of the many great things about this animated short is that it's only 17 minutes long but it would take me about ten times that length to unpack it. It's a fabulously dense story about a young girl who is visited by a clone of herself from the future, who then proceeds to talk to her about all the things that will happen in the generations ahead, and the aching sadness of her own life. While that all sounds quite bleak, and it kind of is, the film mines a lot of comedy from the fact that the voice of the girl is provided by Hertzfeldt's young niece, who he recorded while she was playing and then built the film around her, so there are some parts which are very cogent, but other parts which consist largely of weird non-sequiturs and barely understandable nonsense, both of which puncture the melancholy that runs throughout the film. Hertzfeldt's style, which consists of stick figures placed against layered and impressionistic backdrops, perfectly suits his storytelling; it is at once childish and simplistic, yet surprisingly complex. If I see a better film this year then this will be one of the best years in the history of cinema.

2. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, 2015)

At this point it seems pretty redundant to add to the oceans of digital ink spilled over Mad Max: Fury Road, a film which no one seemed to be clamouring for before the first trailers appeared, but which we all desperately needed. A starkly unique vision in a blockbuster landscape which has begun to look all too homogenous, it's great to be reminded that big budget filmmaking can not only be incredibly fun, but emotionally and intellectual stimulating as well.

The debate over whether or not the film is feminist has been an interesting one to follow, but for me it runs parallel the film's use of practical effects. In both instances, the film isn't militantly feminist or completely anti-CGI, but it still represents a huge pushback against a kind of cinema in which women are only treated as objects or as motivation for a male protagonist, and one in which sprites and pixels do as much as possible to remove the human element from stunt work. The mere fact that such a debate can be had about a film that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and was released by (or perhaps escaped from might be more accurate) a major studio is one of the many things that makes Fury Road so invigorating. The other being how fucking crazy fun it is.

3.  A Star is Born (dir. George Cukor, 1954)

I've somehow never seen any of the three versions of A Star is Born, though the Streisand-Kristofferson vehicle is the only one that I've avoided out of choice, but the news that the on again-off again attempts to stage a new version (with Bradley Cooper possibly taking over as director from Clint Eastwood) inspired me to watch the Judy Garland-James Mason version. While as a musical it is a little too static for my tastes, it's hard not to get swept up in the grandeur of it all, or to be moved by Garland's central performance as a night club singer who gets discovered by a Hollywood star (Mason) and begins her ascent to the top. It's a hugely enjoyable and deeply sad film for reasons both textual and extra-textual, and the only thing that marred it for me was that I watched a "restored" version which replaced scenes cut from the film with still photos and audio, which I always find very distracting, even if I respect the intent.

4. Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh, 2014)

It's easy - not to mention fun - to joke about all the grunts and snorts in Mike Leigh's biopic of J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall), largely because the film plays so much of it for laughs in the first place. This is one of the funnier biopics I've ever seen in how it plays the antiquated language for arch laughs, and that goes a long way to making the two and a half hours fly by, as does the gorgeous cinematography, which beautifully mimics Turner's own work. Beyond that, though, this is one of best movies I've ever seen about the artistic impulse and, more intriguingly, about the ways in which an artist relates to their audience. I can't think of many biopics that show an artist fall out of favour because they follow their muse and alter their style. It's an aspect of an artist's life which I find very interesting, and I'd be curious to see how much Leigh himself identifies with it as someone whose style has shifted markedly over the years.

5. Beyond the Lights (dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood, 2014)

This was probably the 2014 film that I was most excited to catch up with since it became something of cause célèbre amongst a lot of the critics that I read. It did not disappoint. A wonderfully observed romance anchored by great performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker, Prince-Bythewood's film tells the story of a Rihanna/Beyoncé-esque pop star falls in love with the policeman who prevents her from jumping off a balcony. That setup could easily have been corny as hell, but Prince-Bythewood's script and her actors imbue it with real sensuality and specificity, then use it as a way of dissecting what it means to be black and in the public eye in America. Minnie Driver is also great as Mbatha-Raw's stage mother, a character type that she brings a lot of sympathy to, without losing sight of the potential harm she is doing to her daughter.

6. Eat Drink Man Woman (dir. Ang Lee, 1994)

Probably one of the greatest food movies of all time, and a wonderfully bittersweet, almost Ozu-esque depiction of life for a celebrated chef and his three adult daughters living in Taiwan. Lee and his co-writers, James Schamus and Hui-Ling Wang, play up the inter-generational discord in ways that are often very funny, but the real heart of the film lies in the many ways that the characters' best intentions end up going awry. Considering the sheer number of delicious dishes on display, I defy anyone to watch it without feeling intensely hungry afterwards.

7. Cinderella (dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2015)

Branagh continues his unlikely drift into becoming a studio filmmaker with this very faithful and utterly charming adaptation of the earlier Disney classic. While it's not as thematically interesting as last year's Maleficent, which I enjoyed less than Cinderella but have thought about much more, it's a very elegant and funny film that makes good use of Branagh's love of sumptuous locations and occasionally broad jokes. It reworks the story just enough to keep it interesting, giving the Stepmother (a gloriously venomous Cate Blanchett) greater agency and a more compelling motivation, while also hitting all the beats we expect from the story. It's worth if for no other reason than seeing Stellan Skarsgård's equally unlikely metamorphosis into the Ed Wynn of our age.

8. The Gambler (dir. Rupert Wyatt, 2014)

This got pretty middling reviews when it came out at Christmas and it sank like a stone at the box office, and I can kind of see why. There'd be little new in this story of an English professor (Mark Wahlberg) whose life starts to unravel as he tries to gamble his way out of debt by taking loans from increasingly dangerous people even if it wasn't a remake of an old James Toback script. However, what it lacks in originality it makes up for in attitude, swagger, and a great soundtrack. This is a very confident movie, and Wyatt does a good job of making William Monahan's typically purple dialogue move at a quick pace. It's also overflowing with great character actors in roles both big and small, and is probably the closest we'll get to seeing John Goodman play The Judge from Blood Meridian in a movie, which is something I'm immensely grateful for.

9. Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck (dir. Brett Morgen, 2015)

As a once teenaged Nirvana fan who tore through Heavier Than Heaven and thought that the publishing of Kurt Cobain's journals was both the best and most disgusting thing ever, I was always going to be predisposed to like Montage of Heck. What I really responded to, and what set it apart from a lot of other documentaries on the band, was that it made some attempts to puncture the myth around Cobain, even if it burnished it at others. The use of Cobain's artwork and animations built around recordings of his voice played into the image of him as a dark and tortured genius, but the moments I really liked were the stories of him joking around, or footage of him playing with his daughter, which made the simple but important point that he was more than just his suicide. Morgen is a little too in love with some of the material he has access to - the home movie segments go on far too long - but he does a great job of crafting a personal and human portrait of a icon. The music is also really great, which doesn't hurt.

10. Tomorrowland (dir. Brad Bird, 2015)

Well this was a heartbreaker. After four films in a row which I would describe as, at worst, great fun, Brad Bird stumbled with an ambitious but deeply confused film whose visual splendour was never matched by a script that manages to be both frustratingly opaque and stridently didactic.