Sunday, February 01, 2015

Seen in Parts of December and Mostly January 

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Martin Freeman as said Hobbit.

Every Christmas I figure I’ll have nothing to do but watch movies. It never turns out that way but it always seems in January I catch up with all the things I wanted to see. I assume that’s because it’s -25ºC out and I have no interest in biking, swimming, running or even being at home imagining new ways to consume cheese. Also, there’s a mix of award shows telling what was worth seeing and TV shows going into mid-season hiatus or something. Thus it was that I only saw three films in December but I saw a lot of movies and TV in January.

Snow White and the Huntsman
In the classic animated Disney telling, the wicked witch is determined to snuff out the far fairer and more innocent Snow White based on her beauty. In this slightly darker, live action version, the queen, played by Charlize Theron is head and shoulders (and other anatomy) more striking than Snow White played by the younger Kristen Stewart but it matters not as Snow White has a truer heart and some kind of symbiotic relationship with the natural order of the kingdom. Plus she is the true heir to the throne. The Huntsman of the title is the hunky Chris Hemsworth who helps Snow White find her way from her pursuers back to her family. A lot of themes are hinted at but this film is a refreshing in that suggested romances and ideas are only suggested but not taken to any formulaic conclusion. I can see why it wasn’t a hit, after all it lacks any real emotional heft but is still a stylish, well paced and fun-enough adventure.

Love Actually
Hoo boy. I watched this thinking it would be some light Christmas comedic fare. I mean, it was funny and light and Christmasy, but too cute by half and too sweet by one-and-a-half. I admit to having a bit of a sweet tooth, but treacle is too sweet for me, so if this was in a candy store it would be with in the British sweets section. Also, there has never been or ever will be a world where Hugh Grant would be believable as the Prime Minister of Great Britain.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Dragons, Dwarf armies, Elves, battles and so on. As my mom said, “It’s all just made-up stuff!” so why should you care? Well, it’s pretty good “made up stuff” and it represents the best kind of escapism where we journey to fantastical places and see the good guys become heroes who defeat the obvious bad guys. So if you like “made up stuff” then this is the movie for you. If not, then there are plenty of heady dramas based on real life stuff to see.

Foxcatcher, image via Bustle

A heady drama about real life stuff that actually happened. The true story is that an eccentric and inept millionaire with mommy-issues, John du Pont played by Steve Carrell, formed an amateur wrestling club with the desire that American wrestlers would train for the 1988 Olympics. He becomes unnervingly close to his star wrestler, Mark Schultz played by Channing Tatum, which creates an uneasy relationship with Mark’s older brother Dave, played by Mark Ruffalo. Some years after the Olympics, du Pont, for no apparent reason, drove to Dave Schultz’s house and shot him dead. Much has been made of the comedian Carrell’s performance but I found it a little bit “one note”. Ruffalo on the other hand played the protective and pedantic older brother with amazing depths. I suppose the film can be seen as a metaphor of America’s daydream of its greatness and the impact of both sentimentalizing and revering those bygone days. Or the protection and shielding of wealth may lead to a kind of psychological isolation that is not easy to overcome. Or maybe it’s just a bunch of heady stuff that actually happened.

The Imitation Game
Another heady drama about real life stuff that kind of happened. This drama retells how the genius mathematician Alan Turing designed an early computer powerful enough to decrypt the Nazi’s unbreakable Enigma code machine at Bletchley Park during WWII. A lesser known part of this story was how the same group of mathematicians used statistical analysis to decide when and how to use their code breaking device. Their dilemma being that if Britain revealed they had broken Enigma, the Germans would have changed it thus making the code-breaking device useless (as it turns out, this actually happened late in the war). The story also dramatizes how the secrecy of Bletchley Park led to moles, espionage and counter-espionage on a dizzying scale that made Turing’s secret of his own, his homosexuality, an unimaginable burden and his ultimate downfall. Turing is played with a British stage-craft aplomb by Benedict Cumberbatch, that American Oscar voters climax and clamour for so he may well be nominated for his performance. I suppose the disappointing part of the film, which is partly a default of cinematic storytelling, is how Turing is portrayed as a lone genius kicking against a system and working tirelessly alone to complete his early computing machine. In truth, many very clever people worked on a device that was seen as the one of the few possible strategies with any hope of success against the Enigma cryptography. And as important as Turing’s work was at saving lives, another computer was humming to life to create the ender of all lives with the development of the allied atomic bomb. But that’s another story.

Nebraska, image via Cultural Weekly

Yet another heady drama about real life stuff that absolutely did not happen. In this fictional film a grim reality of American life is dragged in front of the screen for all to see. The plot is really a device to reflect the state of a splintered American mid-west. Bruce Dern plays an elderly man who believes he’s won a million dollars despite being told by everyone that it’s really just a magazine marketing scheme but he’s determined to travel across two states to claim his prize in person. His son, comic actor Will Forte (another comedian in a dramatic role) decides to humour the old man and begins a road trip that becomes a quietly humiliating journey of discovery and redemption (or I imagine that’s what the marketing material would say). It is a slow moving, but emotionally moving movie shot in harsh black and white that reminded me of The Last Picture Show in tone, feel and pace.

Only Lovers Left Alive
Some made up stuff about made up people that is totally impossible. This is a stylish and moody film about two reunited lovers. Oh, and they are vampires and they’ve been lovers for hundreds of years. Their reunion is interrupted and thrown into disarray by the arrival of a young (and slightly out of control “teen-ager”) relative. This is a typical Jim Jarmusch film. Slow and meditative, elegant with wry humour. There’s so little plot it’s not worth mentioning. Jarmusch seems to take more interest in the setting rather than what happens. There are some nice touches as one of their peers is Christopher Marlowe who still begrudges Shakespeare for getting all the credit, or the vampire who refers to mortals as Zombies and by using some technology Tesla showed him, powers his decidedly down-market Detroit crib and hybrid Jaguar via some kind of radiation from space.

Inherent Vice, image via Bustle

Inherent Vice
A little like The Big Lebowski, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Big Sleep rolled into a drug-fuelled mystery thriller. Joaquin Phoenix is Larry “Doc” Sportello trying to find out what happened to a former girlfriend he still pines for (though doesn’t admit it). What he finds is a strangely connected conspiracy involving Black Panthers in a recently demolished neighbourhood which a Jewish real estate developer plans, along with a Nazi biker gang, to make a bucket of cash on a new sub-division which coincidentally houses a massage parlour funded and laundering money for an Asian heroin cartel. It turns out this ex-girlfriend worked with the Jewish developer’s cheating wife and the LAPD to get the developer interned along with a known FBI informant at a private mental health facility. He discovers this at a shell company disguised as a dental association. In the end, Doc helps get the informant out of his debts so he can return to his now clean, ex-junky wife and daughter. Get it? Don’t worry. It’s a P.T. Anderson adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel filmed and projected in gorgeous 70 mm film that will remind you how crappy digital 48 fps 3D movies look.

Muscle Shoals
The documentary of a tiny rural town in Alabama that is home to legendary music producer Rick Hall and his session players, The Swampers. From humble beginnings, Hall created FAME Studios while the Swampers later founded their own recording studio, Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. These two tiny studios are responsible for an unbelievably large cannon of American popular music and are rightfully showcased in this unassuming film.

Room 237
Fascinating documentary about the numerous conflicting theories concerning the “true” yet hidden meanings in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Shining. Scared the crap out of me. But these, I assume, amateur sleuths have invested far more significance to every continuity error, every can of baking soda and every misunderstood prop than Kubrick ever intended. I’m sure there are some valid themes of a certain Kubrick-esque mystery, but I genuinely doubt he was trying to secretly communicate that he filmed the fake moon landing just because Danny is wearing an Apollo 11 sweater. I think another aspect that bothered me were how many times someone references a composition as having hidden meaning. I mean, from a design point of view, there are many aesthetic decisions that are taken because they are proper, or intuitive or just look good. I find this is generally something people who are not visual thinkers do again and again. They want there to be meaning in every brush stroke of a work of art. But that ain’t how it works, folks. Perhaps there have been too many documentaries or exhibits or magazine articles dissecting art in such a way and now everyone wants to play art critic and bring their heretofore unknown theory to the party. If that bothers you, you won’t like this film.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Slavoj Zizek (pronunciation unknown: try “Slav-oy Zeesh-ack”?) and Sophie Fiennes team up again to create another “Pervert’s Guide”. Zizek is a Slovenian sociologist and philosopher with an immense knowledge of cinema meaning this is an intriguing and entertaining walk through his explanation of Freud and Jung and a host of other philosophers and ideologies (Marxism, Communism, Socialism, Capitalism). His point? We are responsible for our dreams. He contends we need a crisis to interrupt achieving our dreams for their continuation. What happens if our dreams come true? Complete disappointment of course and then what? We have to create new dreams. You know what is really weird? The day after seeing this, I was mulling over how my own dream of home ownership has turned out to be a disappointment and that I should just wake up to the reality of creating my own new dream, I turned on the television and the animated film, Tangled was playing. In it, a reformed thief, lay bleeding near death in the arms of his redeemer, Rapunzel, who after a life as a captive was now free. Simultaneously they tell each other, “You were my new dream…” I found the whole scene quite moving which is probably a sign I need therapeutic help.

They Live
AKA John Carpenter’s They Live. A drifter played by none other than “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, while travelling and looking for work in recession era U.S. unwittingly discovers a pair of sunglasses that reveal the truth all around us, including the fact the Earth has been taken over by an alien race. These aliens use the entertainments, distractions and enticements of our own consumerist society to keep the population “asleep” to the fact that they are being controlled. At times sublime, at other times bizarre, this film is a completely overlooked and forgotten gem from 1988. The only reason I’d even heard of it was due to its mention in Slavoj Zizek’s film, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.

Mr. Turner
Like mathematical genius, artistic genius, like the British painter J.W. Turner, is difficult to convey on film. It’s even harder if the film is made by the opaque Mike Leigh. I don’t really like Leigh’s movies (Topsy Turvy being the one exception) and this movie highlights what I do not care for. His naturalistic approach is weirdly pockmarked with odd and awkward scenes. Rather than invent insightful dialogue (which in truth, like The Imitation Game, does become a little too much like a therapist’s diary), Leigh leaves us in the lurch. So many scenes are confounding. Cuts to characters not doing anything, which reminded me of some bad soap opera or like a 1970s film where poorly lit, wordless scenarios seemed the norm, only added to the confusion. I had to comb through several Web sites after the viewing just to piece together a timeline of Turner’s life so I could figure out what I just saw and even then I was left not really caring that much. In the end, that was the bigger disappointment. I didn’t learn enough about this guy to care what happens to him, especially when the only thing worth noting was his negligence of one family so he could die, in his dotage, in the bed of another.

The war room of Dr. Strangelove, image via DVDClassik

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Stanley Kubrick’s masterful dark comedy about nuclear war is as funny and relevant today as it was in 1964. The humour is so astringent that it feels like it was made yesterday, not 50 years ago. An American general, played by Sterling Hayden, loses touch with reality and starts a global nuclear war based on the theory that fluoridation of water is a Communist plot to “deprive us of our precious bodily fluids”. In one of his greatest performances, Peter Sellers plays three roles, that of a British officer Group Captain Mandrake, the US president Merkin Muffley, and the titular German scientist, Dr. Strangelove (nee Merkwuerdigliebe). Just when the Americans celebrate a new world order in their war room bunker, they don’t even realize it’s too late and the Soviet Doomsday Machine has already triggered a worldwide annihilation event. As we see massive explosion after explosion (stock footage of nuclear tests) we hear Vera Lynn sing, “We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when…”

Force Majeure image via Cineuropa

Force Majeure
Great simple film that has been described as a dark comedy about marriage and family but feels as tense as any thriller you'll see. While on a vacation in the French Alps, a Swedish family have a scary encounter with a controlled avalanche that causes a rift between husband and wife, children and parents and even man and woman. All manner of themes of modern masculinity, femininity, family, parenthood and relationships play out against the beautifully filmed and notably framed backdrop of a ski resort. Recently I went to see an exhibition about Stanley Kubrik that contained many photos, books, costumes, sketches, drawings, scripts, schedules, props and plans for his films. I also heard an interview with the director of Force Majeure who had said the inspiration for his film came from a Youtube clip and he gathered online videos and image searches online as research for his film. How do you make an exhibit from that?

Dom Hemingway
Jude Law plays the thief Dom Hemingway who is released after 12 years in prison (his stay lengthened by his refusal to rat out anyone else) and plans to make up for lost time as quickly as possible. During his internment, his wife divorced him, became ill and died while his daughter grew up resenting his absence. Dom’s first order of business is to be repaid his prison debt and then reacquaint himself with his daughter. Well, he loses his money and further alienates his daughter. Despite everything, Dom’s redemption always seems one lucky break away. Law is great and funny in the role, as his Richard Grant as his longtime friend. It’s a funny, if violent, movie that manages to entertain even if it walks a bit too close to a formulaic ending.

Marco Polo
The Netflix original series that is definitely hoping to mimic HBO’s Game of Thrones success with their own series that has nudity, violence, exotic locales and political intrigue. I’m watching it, but let’s be clear, it’s no GoT.

The Fall series 2
I wasn’t sure there’d be another season from the BBC about Stella Gibson investigating a Belfast serial killer but here it is. So far so good. Gillian Anderson is compelling as lady cop playing tough in a man cop world while Jamie Dornan seems to be going off his very controlled rails as serial killer Paul Spector. Belfast continues to look cold and wet. Update: Just finished this series and the last two episodes were very intense. I may need to watch an hour of Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck to calm down.

The Musketeers
This BBC series based on the Dumas novels is a rollicking good time. Sort of in the model of the 70s films, our heroes are flawed men with true hearts etc. It’s a little bit of drama, action, humour with a dollop of sex appeal. This is one of those period dramas in which only the villains look like smelly rags of garbage and the good guys have somehow managed to keep all of their teeth white and shiny. It’s fun enough to shake off the chills from The Fall.

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon
I’d seen this years ago but couldn’t remember anything about it. I probably slept through it. This is Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of a William Thackery tale of a 17th century young man from the Irish gentry and his ambition to become a fine gentleman – by any means necessary. The story reminds me of a series of paintings by Hogarth called A Rake’s Progress which tell a similar tale of ruin. In Barry Lyndon we meet Redmond Barry, played by Ryan O’Neal, who is a hot-tempered Irishman who has ambitions to be a wealthy gentleman despite not having the talent, station, work ethic or birth right to actually become one. Through a journey that takes him through the Seven Years War as a soldier, deserter, spy, and a gambler he does eventually marry up, as it were but then through lavish spending, ruinous drinking and lascivious behaviour, he loses it all. This is a beautiful and incredibly detailed film that often looks like a Gainsborough landscape painting. Unfortunately it is also as dull as watching a Gainsborough painting dry. It is tedious and long and by the end I wished I’d been the one pointing a duelling pistol at Redmond. I was compelled to see it after seeing the Kubrick exhibit at TIFF.

Fantastic Voyage
The 1966 sci-fi classic about a medical team who have been miniaturized and injected into the blood stream of injured diplomat so that they might repair a blood clot in the patient’s brain. The fact that the American military had created some incredible technology that allowed them to shrink a team of scientists in their submarine to the size of a “microbe” but hadn’t developed any better surgical techniques is absurd.This film is always cited for its depiction of the human body and remembered for Raquel Welch’s body hugging scuba suit.

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