Upcoming Movies

The Drop was a nice surprise, so who knows what other unexpected treasures are on the way. Lots of potentially good stuff to look forward to, however.

The Zero Theorem: Terry Gilliam’s latest will probably streak in and out of one theater somewhere hereabouts. Hope I’m in town when it happens.

Poster for Tale of Princess Kaguya

The Tale Of Princess Kaguya: The latest (and last?) film from the neglected co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata. Grave of the Fireflies (1988), Only Yesterday (1991), and Pom Poko (1994) lead me to expect great things from this adaptation of a traditional Japanese folk story.

Into the Woods: Disney does Sondheim? This could go terribly wrong, but I’ll see it even if it’s a trainwreck. The musical is a bit like Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm in that it mashes together a bunch of fairy tales into a new story. Meryl Streep plays the wicked witch, and Johnny Depp plays the well-hung wolf.

Posgter for Maps to the Stars

Maps to the Stars: It’s David Cronenberg, which is almost enough said, but I’m also intrigued that the screenplay is by Bruce Wagner, whose I’m Losing You (1998) was one of the strangest, most riveting Hollywood melodramas I’ve seen in recent years. It also has Olivia Williams, who I’ve had a weird, no doubt unhealthy thing for ever since seeing her play Mrs. Darling in the 2003 Peter Pan.

Gone Girl: David Fincher adapts another potboiler thriller. I adored his version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Pure pop for now people.

Interstellar: I don’t love Christopher Nolan, but this big budget sci-fi blockbuster sounds promising enough. 2014 has been a great year for oddball science fiction, and Nolan will have a hard time topping Snowpiercer, Under the Skin, or The Congress in my personal pantheon.

Inherent Vice: Paul Thomas Anderson adapts Thomas Pynchon. I just read the novel, which I thought was a cool concept with shaggy execution. I’m very curious to see what Anderson does with it.

Big Eyes: This is being hyped as Tim Burton’s return to low-budget non-fantasy territory à la Ed Wood, but the big attraction for me is Amy Adams playing Margaret Keane.

Poster for Clouds of Sils Maria

Clouds of Sils Maria: Olivier Assayas’ first English-language film is perhaps most intriguing for its casting of Kristen Stewart, who I thought was terrific in Adventureland but completely dull in Snow White and the Huntsman. Everybody is comparing this one to All About Eve.

Song of the Sea: Speaking of unexpected treasures, The Secret of Kells (2009) by Tomm Moore was a total delight that appeared as if out of thin air in my little world. He turns his animated sights on selkies in this one. Selkie stories are for losers.

Poster for Cymbeline

Cymbeline: I have no idea whether this will get a theatrical distribution, but I love Michael Almereyda’s Hamlet (2000), and this modernized version of one of the Bard’s late romances sounds fascinating. Milla Jovovich, Ethan Hawke, John Leguizamo, and Ed Harris? I think so!

Of course there are zillions of interesting foreign and oddball indie films that have played festivals over the past year, and I have no idea when or if they’ll play in Seattle. I never know what’s going to pop up on the schedule in any given week. The surprises are sometimes better than the ones I’ve been long anticipating.

 

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The Drop (2014)

Poster for The Drop

Here’s a film that came in under my radar, although I had vaguely heard of director Michaël R. Roskam’s previous film, Bullhead (Rundskop, 2011). This is a sharp little piece of modern film noir, with a screenplay by Dennis Lehane adapting one of his own short stories. It reminded me a little bit of God’s Pocket, with its focus on lower class urban characters, but instead of focusing on losers with delusions of grandeur The Drop centers on an apparently slightly simple-minded Brooklyn bartender who is more than he seems … perhaps even to himself.

The basic set-up concerns Bob (Tom Hardy) and Marv (James Gandolfini), who run a bar in Brooklyn that’s occasionally used as a drop-off point for cash collected by a Chechen gang. One night the bar is robbed by two guys wearing masks, and Bob and Marv are on the hook to the Chechens for five thousand dollars. Simultaneously Bob discovers an abused pit bull pup in a garbage can and decides to rescue it with the help of Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who is the owner of the garbage can. Then it turns out that the pup belongs to Nadia’s psychotic ex-boyfriend, Eric (Matthias Schoenaerts), who brags about how he murdered who was last seen in the bar ten years ago.

Roskam is Belgian, and one of the interesting things about this movie is how many international actors it has in the cast, including the British Hardy, Swedish Rapace, Belgian Schoenaerts (last seen in these parts in the French film Rust and Bone), and the Australian James Frecheville. It’s a great cast, with interesting characters who are all familiar hard-scrabble types but nicely drawn. The movie isn’t trying to be more than it is, which is a tough, smart little story about the mean streets. It gains effectiveness from its lack of pretension.

I’ve called it film noir, and that’s partly because of the kind of crime film it is but also partly because of the look of thing. The cinematography by Nicolas Karakatsanis is subtly striking. It looks digital, but the lighting and use of shadow and darkness are quite beautiful in an unflashy way. The digital quality is used to create masks out of shadow. There are a lot of closeups, but they aren’t used for emotional revelation. The faces are as unreadable as the characters are unpredictable. Everything and everyone has a feeling of latent shiftiness and hidden depths.

I don’t want to over-sell it. The Drop is a solid crime story with interesting characters and a nice look. The one possible false note for me was the coda, which I felt torn about. One of the things the film is doing is creating a sense of moral ambiguity or uncertainty. The coda felt like it was tipping the scales a bit on what had gradually been revealed to be an open question, but maybe I’m over-interpreting it. Maybe it’s not a happy ending so much as another indication that these characters have no good options. This is the world the live in, and it’s a criminal world.

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Image of the Day

Screencap from A Tale of Two Sisters

A Tale of Two Sisters (2003)

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A Letter to Momo (Momo e no tegami, 2011)

Poster for A Letter to Momo

A Letter to Momo is an anime that’s reminiscent of Miyazaki. More specifically it reminded me a lot of Miyazaki’s My Neighbor Totoro (1988): a young girl and her mother move to the countryside (actually an island, in this case) in the wake of a family tragedy. In this case, the tragedy is the death of Momo’s father. As in Totoro supernatural creatures — in this case yokai, which are traditional Japanese goblins — act as guardian spirits for a troubled child. The film also shares Miyazaki’s reverence for traditional Japanese culture, the nurturing countryside, and wilderness.

That said, this film has little of the mystery or sublimity of Miyazaki’s film. The yokai are bumbling goofballs who are mostly played for laughs. They don’t have the weirdness of Miyazaki’s creatures. What we get here feels a little bit more like some of Studio Ghibli’s other coming-of-age melodramas, with Momo gradually pulled out of her guilt-ridden mourning by a growing awareness of the pain her mother is suffering. The portrait of Momo is topnotch, and the movie is full of sweet details of pre-teen ennui and playfulness and wary inarticulateness. The animation is really quite beautiful  as well, reflecting director Hiroyuki Okiura’s experience as an animator on some of the greatest anime’s of the past couple of decades, including Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Paprika (2006). Some of the renderings of figures in shifting perspectives are astounding in their beauty. It mostly looks hand-drawn, too, although perhaps computer-assisted at times.

As a melodrama it hits all the right notes cleanly, although maybe too patly at times. The other characters — most crucially the mother — aren’t as compelling as Momo herself.  But Momo is the reason for the visit, and she’s fun to hang out with, particularly in settings as spectacularly designed and drawn as these. It’s good, clean fun that people the age of Momo would probably enjoy quite a bit.

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Okay, it’s funny, it looks great, good characters, good cast, zips right along, and it feels like a throwback to the great cheesy sci-fi action flicks of yore. You know, like Message from Space (1978). But that’s really all it is, eh? It’s a cheesy sci-fi action flick with an enormous budget. To my mind, the sarcastic sense of humor, which was one of the best things about the movie, was completely undercut by the mawkish sentimentality and overblown Marvel superhero teamwork formulas. One thing that a micro-budget knock-off could do that a big budget film can’t is to be cynical and mean-spirited to the bone. Loved the rascally raccoon, but I didn’t need to see him weeping over his (not really) dead friend. Leave that shit to the pretty boy.

Still, very nice indeed to see some space opera in the Marvel mix, and I hope we see the X-Men in space at some point. (I know, different movie studio.) I just wish somebody would give Elaine Lee $200 million to make a garish, convoluted Starstruck movie. Well, okay, we’ll settle for $20 million and inventive production and costume designers.

Iron Man 3 is still the best Marvel superhero movie so far, but I guess having Robert Downey Jr in the lead is kind of cheating.

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MIA

For those hardy souls who might check this blog regularly, this is to let you know that I will be Away From It All until at least August 18th. When I get back I hope to delve into Max Ophüls’ Caught (1949), amongst other things. Ciao for now.

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Lucy (2014)

Poster for Lucy

The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010) is still Luc Besson’s best movie since The Fifth Element (1997). Under the Skin is still the best Scarlett Johansson science fiction movie out of three I’ve seen this year. Nonetheless, Lucy is perfectly enjoyable for what it is, which is a slightly more high concept and bigger budget instance of the EuropaCorp formula action movie.

The story is about a young woman named Lucy (ScarJo) who is forced to become a mule for an experimental new drug. When her body is infused with the drug, she gains superhuman powers. The drama is driven by the transcendant changes she undergoes in this process, and to a lesser extent by the menace of an Asian drug lord (Choi Min-sik) who is trying to regain the supply of the new drug he has sent off in four different mules. The story of what Lucy becomes is more interesting than this largely rote drug lord story. To help us understand the pseudo-scientific transformation we are witnessing we also have Professor Morgan Freeman on hand to dump exposition on the nature of evolution and human consciousness.

As science fiction I can’t give this very high marks, and I’m not even talking about the lack of scientific rigor, which is not in itself fatal to science fiction. It’s just that the transformation of a human into a superhuman is not an easy story to pull off, and I don’t think Lucy does a particularly good job of it. As a source of cool computer graphics, it’s pretty good, but as with much else about the film (and others by EuropaCorp) even that feels like stuff that’s been borrowed from elsewhere.

Not that there’s anything wrong with making new films from borrowed parts. The only scene that really grated on me was the utterly gratuitous and uninspired car chase, although I also felt that the drug lord story was not fully baked and not well integrated. Might have been more interesting of Choi Min-sik had also taken a dose of the drug and given Lucy someone with equal power to contend — or collaborate — with.

As is often the case with EuropaCorp films (see, for example, Colombiana), one of the most interesting things about Lucy was the international cast that’s obviously intended to attract a global audience. So we get Choi Min-sik as a Korean drug lord in Taiwan for the Asian audience, and we get Julian Rhind-Tutt as his British henchman. We get French, German, and Italian drug mules along with the American ScarJo. Most fascinating of all, although a completely extraneous character, is Amr Waked, who is an Egyptian actor playing a French cop. He’s the one who gets a kiss from ScarJo, too.

I’m not doing much to sell this one, am I? I thought it was fun to watch, but not much to think about. As for the infamous reliance on the “we only use 10% of our brains” factoid, clearly what the film is trying to say is that since 90% of the brain is used to regulate the body’s autonomic systems, then using that 90% for thinking means you lose your body. Am I right? It’s actually kind of Buddhist that way: free your mind, and become one with everything.

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Boyhood (2014)

Poster for Boyhood

I’m not sure how much I have to say about this movie other than that I can easily see it winning the Oscar for best film. Most people have probably already heard about the filming process, in which director Richard Linklater assembled the cast every year to shoot a few scenes for twelve years in a row.  Thus we watch all the characters age, and in particular we watch the protagonist, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, age from 6 to 18. What else could such a movie be other than a coming-of-age story? We watch Mason grow from a dependent child to a young adult who is starting to find his own way in the world.

Along the way we get bits of drama, much of it hinging around Mason’s mother’s bad luck with husbands. Although Mason is the central character, his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are also fascinating characters in themselves, with Arquette playing the single mother who struggles to establish a career for herself and Hawke playing the flaky ex who gradually gets his act together with a second wife. Considering the lower middle class social strata of these white characters, their lives seemed very familiar to me. Likewise Mason’s rites of passage as a boy who’s slightly out of step with his peers.

I haven’t read any interviews with Linklater of Coltrane yet, so I’m not sure how much of the film was improvised and how much was planned. I was impressed with the quality of Coltrane’s self-expression, which sounded just like the stuff teenagers say. The final line, too, is just note perfect as a joke on what it’s like to be high on hallucinogens and yet still a beautiful benediction on the passage of time that we’ve just witnessed. It’s really uncanny how it feels like both a dumb, stoned thing to say and also a perfect summation of the story.

In a lot of ways this feels like slices of life taken from different moments in time. The only overarching story/drama is Coltrane’s coming of age, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story about that so much as a documentary embodiment of the process. One of the brilliant things that Linklater does is to make the transitions between years without telling us in any over way that time has passed. Usually you can quickly tell that a change has occurred because Mason’s hair style has changed, but sometimes it’s not immediately obvious. This really brings home the continuity of the actors playing these characters, as opposed to the standard method of using different actors to play different ages of a character. We witness the physical changes in these people over time, and it’s an amazing, deeply moving special effect.

Why Boyhood, and not Childhood? We also see Mason’s older sister, Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), growing up, but the focus is definitely on Mason. Still, the emphasis on his boyhood rather than childhood is interesting. There are a number of scenes focused on male rites of initiation, although there’s also a hilarious scene where the father pleads with an embarrassed teenaged Samantha to use contraception when she starts having sex. I’m actually not sure what to make of the gendered title. It nags at me a bit.

Well, whether it was scripted out or improvised, this is an impressive evocation of growing up. It really captures a strand of the American experience in a way I’ve never seen before. Film is necessarily about time, and Boyhood brings that home with a sweet vengeance. 2014 is turning into an extraordinary year for movies.

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Image of the Night

Screencap from The Cabinet of Dr Caligari

The announcement earlier this year that a new digital restoration of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) was being made from the original negative was exciting news. Now the restoration has been released on a German Blu-ray, and the screencaps (via DVDBeaver) have got me drooling. Can’t wait to see this, and I hope I get the chance to see it in a theater.

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A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’été, 1996)

Poster for A Summer's Tale

Up till now I’d only seen three of Eric Rohmer’s less typical films: Perceval (1978), which was an adaptation of Chretien de Troyes’ medieval romance; Triple Agent (2004), which was a spy story of sorts; and The Romance of Astrea and Celadon (2007), which was another adaptation of an old — in this case Renaissance era — literary romance. A Summer’s Tale, which has finally received its first theatrical release in the US nearly 20 years after it was made, is apparently a more typical Rohmer film. It is a contemporary romantic comedy in which people try to talk through their romantic dilemmas and troubles with each other. It’s part of a four movie series called “Tales of Four Seasons” that Rohmer made in the ’90s.

The basic set-up is that Gaspard, who has just gotten his master’s degree, is taking a summer vacation on the coast of Brittany before he starts his job. He meets a woman named Margot who has just completed a PhD in ethnography and is working in her aunt’s restaurant while waiting for her boyfriend to return from abroad. Through conversations with Margot, we learn that Gaspard was expecting his girlfriend Lena to show up after a trip to Spain with her sister. When Lena hasn’t arrived after a week, Margo encourages Gaspard to go out with another girl named Solene. Eventually Gaspard finds himself having to make a choice between these three women, but he isn’t sure which one he wants.

For the most part the film is comprised of conversations between Gaspard and the three women, with a few scenes in which Gaspard is alone or there’s an outing with other people. Rohmer has a reputation for making talky movies, and that’s certainly true of this one. The conversations are generally interesting, but I did feel that at times the staging of the action included a lot of moving around for no reason other than to break up the static feeling of people just talking to each other. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible that I wasn’t picking up on how the seemingly random movements of characters were actually communicating a state of mind or relationship between the characters on screen.

The characters are well drawn. I’ve seen at least one criticism of the movie that the three female characters are all underdrawn compared to Gaspard. Gaspard is obviously the focus of the film, but I thought it actually did a pretty good job of creating distinct characters for all three women. Margot in particular seemed nearly as well wrought as Gaspard, as we get a strong sense of her interests and opinions toward a variety of things. She’s also the one that Gaspard is most honest with, even though he isn’t completely honest even with her. Rohmer is at pains to show us that none of the characters is particularly honest, in fact, and all are manipulating each other and hiding from their own real motives on some level or another. That’s the richest source of the comedy, as we watch these young people trying to fool themselves with their brave talk and confused behavior.

In the end I had a similar reaction to this film as I did to the novel by Iain Banks that I recently read, The Crow Road. I just don’t seem to have much appetite right now for stories about the romantic turmoil of twenty-somethings, and while I found Rohmer’s more focused story of more interest, I still ended up feeling pretty disengaged from the whole thing. Maybe that’s also partly a response to the unsentimental view of the characters, and I might like this better the second time around. As I say, I did find the conversations generally interesting.

One thing that I really liked about the film, which I also really liked about Astrea and Celadon, is the way it cuts away from scenes. I can’t put my finger on it yet, but Rohmer has a way of ending his scenes at moments that are poignant, funny, or otherwise expressive, but in very subtle, often deadpan, ways. He often gives us just enough to imply whole depths of emotion without hammering us over the head with it, as when we get a brief scene of Gaspard waiting for Lena at a cafe table (we know he’s waiting for her, because of a conversation in the previous scene) and a brief glance at his watch tells us that she’s late, then he gets up and leaves, telling us that he’s concluded that she’s not going to show up. Because of what we know about the uncertain status of their relationship, this little scene in which basically nothing happens speaks volumes. I also really liked the way Rohmer used title cards announcing what day it is to both give us a sense of time flowing between scenes and also to generate humor or tension based on things we’ve been told earlier are going to happen or were expected to happen by a certain date. How can a calendar date be so damned funny? Rohmer finds sly ways to make them so.

This is by no means a standard romantic comedy, and the humor is more droll and dry than laugh out loud funny. It’s a little uncomfortable in the way it pokes fun at our romantic pretensions and self-delusions. It ends on a completely ambiguous note, with a kind of smiling shrug. So it goes.

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