41. What Maisie Knew is a very creditable and faithful updating of Henry James’ novel. The child actress is completely natural, not precocious, and the most heartbreaking moment is when she artlessly states “I love him” of her stepfather. We admire and are shocked by such simple, dangerous honesty.
The movie maintains the conceit of presenting Maisie’s consciousness as our only guide, for the only things we hear and see in this fragmentary, swiftly moving mosaic are what this poor little rich girl sees and hears. Since we also see her objectively, we now can’t be quite certain of how much she does or doesn’t understand of the tiresome behavior of the grown-ups who shuffle her back and forth. She has a nice reflex of walking away from all bothersome grown-up behavior. She’s a strangely perfect put-upon child in an effective movie.
42 & 43. Let’s discuss two B&W indies evoking bygone genres and eras. James Kerwin’s Yesterday Was a Lie is a private-eye noir with a female protagonist, drinking away her troubles and memories while stumbling through a dislocated time-loop story as the characters feverishly discuss quantum physics. Our hardbitten dame (not convincing, but purty) meets another fabulous femme (producer Chase Masterson) who sings in a dive and functions as a mentor or Beatrice guide or even alter ego to lead the heroine through the labyrinth.
The point is that love knocks you sideways, and that time is a subjective illusion. The story gets out of its ending dilemma by closing with the great song “Where Do You Start” over a montage, the movie’s most effective example of style as substance. Not driven by narrative but style and ideas, and as such not bad.
The Ghastly Love of Johnny X advertises itself as shot with Kodak’s last B&W film (the title is in red) and is in “Ghastly Scope”. Juvenile delinquents from space come to Earth (sentenced by Grand Inquisitor Kevin McCarthy) in order to find a classic rock ‘n’ roll rebel turned recluse in the manner of Howard Hughes, and who gets zombified with Johnny’s electric suit.
That’s the only thing that really sparks in this melange of juvenile sex references, quotes and allusions to ‘50s culture (although I’m not sure it’s set then, since the classic rock icon is now old and his manager has a ponytail), and a few original numbers. The heroine is torn between badboy Johnny and a cleancut soda jerk, and both are dullsville, daddy-o. On the plus side, the story is unpredictable. Gratuitous Paul Williams cameo.
44. Post Tenebras Lux is the most willfully obscure meditation from “the Mexican Terence Malick”, Carlos Reygadas. We come to realize it follows a privileged young couple living in a great house surrounded by poor peasants in semi-documentary scenes. I had to replay it through a couple of times to understand which characters were which, because at one point the husband has totally different hair (apparently a flashback to a visit to a French sex club).
Also, the small brother and sister (the director’s kids) are seen in later, older incarnations—although now that I think of it, the kids can’t be older in the family reunion scene if the dad has died in an earlier event. Are there multiple timelines, or is it false that the dad died? After all, we only hear about the death, before the one guy yanks his own head off. Are you getting that this isn’t readily describable or coherent?
I almost forgot to mention it’s in old-style 1.33:1 ratio, and many of the scenes have distorted focus around the edges like beveled glass. The narrative’s digressive, intuitive manner, yet always very present, brings to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who is also (pleasantly) inscrutable and surrealist. This is a movie that pushes at what critics mean when they claim to want original, unpredictable, serious, personal films, for many viewers will think it’s too much so and wish for some standard fare. I’m glad I saw it, but I preferred his previous movies, which are also about light and sex.
45. Michel Gondry fashioned The We and the I with a Brooklyn high school class, and it’s a “real time” bus ride on the last day of school as the mostly African-American kids gossip, text, bully, confront, make asses of themselves, etc. It’s docu-realism with Gondry’s whimsical flourishes in content and style, such as one scene that juxtaposes what’s happening in one location as a “rear projection” behind another scene—a great cinematic trick that for some reason is rarely ever done even though it’s so natural as an alternative to split-screens or jump-cutting.
I’ve often thought that’s how to do inserts like telegrams: show it looming behind the person reading. I got excited by this technique when it was in a flurry of films: Zentropa, The Nasty Girl, most splendidly Prospero’s Books. Hans-Jurgen Syberberg did it too. So getting back to this movie, it’s entirely valid as a snapshot of its place and moment and shows confidence in making something out of seemingly little except enthusiasm and conviction.
46. Francois Ozon’s In the House is a sinister little tale about storytelling, postmodern as all get out, as a high school teacher encourages a precocious and handsome 16 year old lad (actor was 21) in his “essays” about inveigling his way into a classmate’s family. Scenes offer revisions and commentaries on what’s going on, and we can’t be sure any of this is happening but, as the professor and his wife read the continuing story and debate it, we’re pretty sure it can’t end well. Or does it?
47. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter is directed with typical whirling flourish (though relatively restrained) by Timur Bekmambetov of Russian Night Watch/Day Watch gonzo-vampire fame, and scripted by Seth Grahame-Smith from his own novel. It’s curious how much of Lincoln’s life it includes, and if star Benjamin Walker isn’t going all Daniel Day-Lewis on its ass, he’s tall and respectably weary.
Yes, this is an absurd and crazy movie, partly because it’s so impressively handsome, but you know, the audacity of linking vampirism to slavery is a rather invigorating metaphor that works to clarify good and evil in a blunt manner, and the action (with mixed-martial-artist Lincoln) is exciting. It’s also not overlong.
48. The Conjuring hits all traditional beats for ghostly shenanigans, possession, and exorcism within an early 1970s, slightly desaturated setting of a spooky old house and a family with five girls, as investigated by a hardy husband and wife team of demonologists. Robert Patrick and Vera Farmiga are the couple who give lectures and write books on their experiences, Lili Taylor is the haunted mom/housewife.
Lots of flowing or jogging handheld stuff intermingled with freaky stationary bits and even some within-the-story videocam moments. It’s got the “true story” thing all over it. There’s nothing subtle about it, but it’s not bad, and I can imagine young viewers especially being freaked.
49. ,i>Now You See Me is fast and often engaging as it sets up a group of magicians who get recruited into a mysterious society to pull heists on stage. The whole movie is sleight of hand that asks you not to examine its holes and skipped events (like the “one year later”) too closely. At its most disappointing (the third act of four) it settles for ordinary car chase action.
The main problem is not so much the far-fetched flim-flam, which at least is pleasant and well-peopled (Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Woody Harrelson), but this director’s incapacity to stage action or hold a shot without a flurry of edits—a common problem, although one that’s been improving in this nouveau 3D era. There are many moments that cry out for visual flair only to settle for a glimpse of something shiny amid the cuts.
50. The German director of The Silence (German title: The Last Silence. Original novel: Silence) knows how to compose an image and hold a shot, so that this is a highly visual, almost museum-installation video of a suspenseful story that begins with two guys who look like shaggy twins being responsible for a girl’s rape and murder 23 years ago.
A similar crime occurs in the same place on the anniversary, causing reverberations among various players. Less a police procedural (although it’s that, a calculatedly unsatisfying one) than a psychological study that perhaps uses its sense of visual and aural style to lend more gravity than it merits as superficial entertainment about the favorite unappetizing topic of the era.
Watching it, I thought once again how The Shining invented the cliché of the distant overhead car-driving-along-wooded-road shot. (And in most cases it’s a second-unit effect, if not actually rented footage.) What’s really innovative and striking is the director’s short film included as a bonus, Quietsch. It uses a wide screen split into three rooms that somehow are connected with each other existentially across the splits, so that characters in one can affect the others in the brightly colored surreal events. I hope extras like this are available to people who stream films, but I doubt it.
51. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master seems manifestly about the subdued homo-erotic charge between traumatized alcoholic WWII veteran Joaquin Phoenix (note the opening shots of shirtless wrestling soldier boys in tight shorts) and weird-vibe father figure Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose fair complexion, mustache, full cheeks, thinning hair, and tendency to sing old songs reminded me at moments of my own dad. Phoenix’s first reel before meeting the other is enthrallingly vivid in style, and the whole film has a great use of music.
Phoenix (note the coincidence of a scene set in that city, with explicit reference to the mythological bird) is established as not merely restlessly horny but a person who interprets or projects sex onto everything (the Rorschach scene), so it’s appropriate to see the whole movie in sexual terms. Notice the interview where Hoffman asks him “Do you linger for pleasure in bus stations?” and Phoenix giggles as he “gets it” and says no.
He’s emotionally blocked by his avoidance of his old too-young girlfriend, who offered a chance at hetero commitment, and when he finally is able to resolve that issue by going to visit her house, it foreshadows in a way his final re-visiting of Hoffman in England, except that one path is now closed while one remains open, and he chooses to close it.
An example of Anderson’s daring narrative nakedness, and his belief in characters who express themselves through song, is the out-on-a-limb moment of “Slow Boat to China.” By the way, the extras on this one are arty and kind of essential, as Anderson blends the outtakes into a fascinating little film that sheds bits of light on the movie. The various teasers/trailers also heavily emphasize footage not in the film.
52. Julie Taymor’s The Tempest is spectacular, as it should be. Less splendiferous than Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (one of the greatest movies of all time, and with maximum nudity), but still a magical, good-looking movie with perhaps gratuitous big-name actors and/or personalities, including Russell Brand injecting a few muttered F-words in a Cockney accent. Helen Mirren plays Prospero, now renamed Prospera (unnecessarily) and with gender words changed (“father” to “mother” etc.). Ben Whishaw and Djimon Hounsou are the nearly naked and becupped Ariel and Caliban.
I have before and will say again that Shakespeare movies always work as long as you can hear them. The thrill is inherent in such lines as “O brave new world that has such people in it” and especially the stunning melancholy wisdom of “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.” The play’s great themes are forgiveness (after revenge!) and letting go, reconciliation and even renunciation—“This rough magic I here abjure” and “Every third thought shall be my grave.”
What’s supposed to be Prospero’s final speech is rendered as a song over the credits by Beth Gibbons of Portishead. That speech is another thing of wonder. I remember at my first screening of Prospero’s Books (one of the few movies I ever went to see twice), by the end of it there was me in the middle of the theatre, somebody else farther down, and several rows behind me a woman with one or two companions. When John Gielgud finished with “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, let your indulgence set me free,” which is one of the most graceful pleas for applause ever, I couldn’t help but clap, and that woman set up a lengthy storm of putting her hands together. Amen.
53. Imagine there’s a black US President. Imagine the white Speaker of the House belongs to the other party, which represents the interests of “the military-industrial complex”, which makes money off war. Imagine there’s a bunch of crazy and bigoted nuts who are ready to commit terrorist mayhem to prevent the Prez from orchestrating a magical treaty for peace in the Middle East. If this isn’t too much of a stretch, imagine making an action movie out of all this, and you have Roland Emmerich’s White House Down.
It’s told in personal terms. A down-at-heels decorated veteran can’t get a job as White House security to support his precocious daughter because he’s too much of an undisciplined hot dog who looks like Channing Tatum. On their White House tour on the day he blows the interview, the place is taken over by security chief James Woods, because the third-in-line-for-presidency Speaker (Richard Jenkins) wants a coup, and it won’t be over until Prez Jamie Foxx gets his hands dirty with some “That’s what I’m talkin ‘bout.” Maggie Gyllenhaal stands by fretting, trying to counter the testosterone in the room with out-of-place reasoned thought.
On one level, it’s asinine, with its “my daughter’s in there” and its “you have eight minutes” (which will take 20). On another level, it’s dramatizing (in extreme terms) real political ideas via butt-kicking action. And although Emmerich uses more edits than I’d prefer, he’s not hyper. His shots have clear information, shot classically, knit into straightforward setpieces of the type where, for example, all security personnel are neatly dispatched with single bullets, but Tatum easily avoids many automatic rounds in his direction. The film itself doesn’t give the impression of having been shot carelessly, shots sprayed like so many of those random rounds to be made sense of later in the editing room.
Everyone is related to totemic objects. The bad guys of course have their weapons. The Prez: his fountain pen and Lincoln’s watch. Daughter: her camera-phone. Tour guide: his priceless objets d’art. All of these, too, can be turned into weapons, but those people who use objects of communication, or know their historical value, are the good guys. Woods is introduced divesting himself of his totem (a flag pin) as a signal that he’s no longer worthy of significant personal objects.
Note the minor presence of a figure called Skinner who looks vaguely Limbaugh-esque. He’s held hostage with a face full of woe until he finally stands up and says “You’ll have to go through me”, whereupon he’s summarily shot. I don’t think the point here is to imply that at the end, he died heroically (or foolishly and pointlessly), but simply that he dies at the hands of those extremists he’s made a living encouraging.
The same person who identifies him as “the only one who tells the truth” is the one who shoots him, and the other inbred terrorist tries to engage him in conversation about the fact that he’s got lots of ideas for the man’s show. These are his people, and being confronted with this shameful fact prods him perhaps as much as his own sense of himself as a “leader” with an audience to impress.
54. Another political thriller is The Purge, set in an alternate reality where “the new founding fathers” by 2022 have designated one 12-hour period a year when crime runs rampant. The result is that the most defenseless (like poor and homeless) are gradually exterminated. There’s no way to explain this logically, like the steps of getting there from here, so the movie skips over that, as it skips over many questions like: if there’s also an anti-Purge faction, wouldn’t they be well-funded and organized and do things like take the homeless in for that period?
Or even more likely, since the Purge works in all directions, wouldn’t the poor neighborhoods organize and arm themselves and launch themselves against the rich neighborhoods, where they work as gardeners and maids? Or perhaps rather the slightly less-poor neighborhoods, who provide most economic competition? Wouldn’t the result be more like pitched battle between armed camps, with streets blockaded, rather than a turkey shoot?
There’s something to be said in theory for the “moral invisible hand” (as a friend put it) of a state of anarchy, but it would have to be ongoing, not a 12-hour “escape valve”. Despite the film’s assertion that it works by keeping crime way down and providing “catharsis” (for the maimed? for the survivors whose loved ones got killed?), it’s frankly unbelievable that it wouldn’t have the opposite effect. Since many crimes are committed by the mentally ill who aren’t checking their calendars, or by otherwise non-rational people, the set-up wouldn’t work.
Also skipped are specific points about the situation in the movie, where Ethan Hawke’s home (he having made his fortune by selling security systems to his rich neighbors, to underline the karmic irony) is surrounded and invaded by a youthful gang intent on getting the black homeless veteran hiding therein. Such as: if the wild youth only have one night a year for this, why would they waste most of it around a virtual fortress for the sake of one guy when there’s clearly easier pickings elsewhere? Sure, he killed one of them, but they’re apparently willing to kill each other and ready to die. At least this issue would be discussed among them as the hours tick by, wouldn’t it?
Or this: once the family decides to defend themselves, wouldn’t it make sense to take advantage of the guest’s military training (and the fact that he’s already killed one of his attackers) by arming him and asking for pointers on defending their home ground? Even I know it’s easier to defend a narrow entry and attack from cover than wander around haphazardly.
Their cameras tell them exactly how many invaders are outside and how they’re approaching each door or window, so wouldn’t they have an advantage in, say, first shooting at the SUV drivers and others from a 2nd floor window, and then rushing to whatever window they’re attacking to barricade and hide from cover, picking them off as they try to enter or perhaps waiting until they’re a little way into the room? And then, if necessary, retreating to tops of stairwells or the ends of long corridors where they can see anyone approaching? They know their own house better than the invaders.
I kept mentally rewriting the events to take account of some of these ideas while trying to keep the suspense and action in place. It can be done, but this writer/director settled for concentrating on pace and suspense for fear that more rational behavior would end things too quickly, I suppose. So the movie falls apart when you think about it. Yet, as metaphor two steps sideways from the way we live now, it’s a solid idea that makes sense. As a kinetic “funhouse” construction, it works you over as you’re watching it as long as you don’t take enough time to second-guess its decisions until later.
55. Savages feels like Oliver Stone’s most satisfying movie in a while. Aside from its assurance in telling a character-based story laced with nasty violence, and one that juggles many factions at cross-purposes in a kidnap/war between two homegrown indie pot dealers and a Mexican cartel run by Salma Hayek (!), I especially appreciate its central focus on a three-way of heroes (two men, one woman) who aren’t punished for their unconventional sexual menage.
The woman narrates, declaring cleverly at the beginning that we shouldn’t assume she’ll be okay at the end just because she’s telling this—a good ploy, but I’m including a sideways spoiler in the next sentence, so beware. The double ending begins with a highly non-credible tragic version, then follows with a “happy ending” that’s entirely credible. This illustrates, again, that happy endings are often more reasonable than unhappy ones.
56. The Rum Diary is written and directed by Bruce Robinson, previously responsible for Withnail and I and How to Get Ahead in Advertising (utterly brilliant). It feels like his stuff, with which I’m more familiar than with Hunter Thompson, who wrote this novel about a journalist in 1960 Puerto Rico who has misadventures while being seduced into a shady real estate scheme because of a foxy lady.
In theory, Johnny Depp should be too old for the part of the callow young reporter, but in practice he’s fine. His character is essentially a passive observer who (therefore) gets the stick. Cast and atmosphere are excellent. Both this and Savages have an appealing, sleek, sunshiny surface.
57. The Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer each filmed three of the six stories in Cloud Atlas simultaneously, which must have been a nightmare since the same actors are in all of them! I’m fortunate in that I’ve read the book (or rather listened to it), so I understood everything about the film, because it’s very faithful, although the structure is different.
The book is a stylistic tour de force of six separate stories embedded within each other, so that you start with the story furthest back in time, then interrupt it halfway through to begin the next story, and so on until you get to the farthest future story, and when it finishes, you begin stepping backward to finish the others until you arrive at the oldest again.
The movie decides to flip sideways through them every few minutes, with an action or image or dialogue in one segment triggering the transition to another. After all, each story is about people struggling to escape from malevolent forces that would kill or imprison them, and each hero finds solace in accord with some kindred soul.
There’s some embarrassing makeup in the Korean section, where plastic-fakey jobs on some occidental actors take us out of the story—or arguably underline the strangeness of this story, or demonstrate the theme of repressive society forcing everybody into one mold and making you masquerade as what you’re not. This section is literally about artificial and molded people, such as the grown clone underclass who are basically used as fast-food workers! (And, we discover, are actually fast food—notice the other section where the hero mockingly repeats “Soylent Green is people!”)
However, the rest of the movie has makeup so remarkable that most viewers won’t recognize some of the actors until the final credits shows all the faces of the main 13 players. Hugh Grant is especially surprising. Most of the actors play not only across race/ethnicity but across sex, although these are mostly glimpses rather than full-blown characters.
This conforms to the philosophy of souls transmigrating across times and bodies. This seems a personal project for the new improved Lana Wachowski, who has evidently transmuted his body to match her soul. This is the Wachowskis’ most coherently conceived and narratively tight project since Bound, and you can quote me. I’m so glad I watched this three-hour epic at home with a pause button (and subtitle option).
58. A Japanese woman named Hisako Matsui has made one of the best biopics ever about an independent, outspoken American woman, and it stars a British actress. Emily Mortimer plays the titular Leonie who, early in 20th Century New York made a partnership with Japanese poet Yone Noguchi. She edited his novel, which was published pseudonymously and successfully as The American Diary of a Japanese Girl by Miss Morning Glory.
They didn’t quite get married, but they had a child, and as this movie follows Leonie’s life and odyssey through carefully picked, lovingly framed, and tellingly detailed scenes in America and Japan, where she is always an odd figure, we come to realize that her son will grow up to be the famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi, and that this movie’s agenda is to provide a revealing background to the history that shapes an artist—especially his mother. This movie tells her life while respecting her privacy, since it discreetly ignores committing itself on the matter of who fathered Leonie’s second out-of-wedlock child. A remarkable movie.
59. Here’s a quietly terrific sure-footed film: the surprisingly convincing, awkward-teen slice-of-life Terri, about an obese misfit who becomes friends with principal John C. Reilly. This perfectly mines the same uncomfortable, daring, compassionate comic territory as Mike White (Chuck and Buck, Enlightened ), and turns on an epic scene of hideously awkward interaction among three stoned kids. It’s directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick Dewitt. Seriously, seek this baby out.
I deduce that this script has either been sitting in a drawer, or it’s based on the writer’s own distant memories, or both. How do I know? Though set at a well-heeled California high school, there’s not a cellphone in sight. The earliest high school movie with cells was all the way back to Clueless, where it was a joke. The recent The Moth Diaries, based on a novel set in the early ‘70s but updated to present day, has a cell in the first scene and never again—because they couldn’t figure out how to inject them unnecessarily into the story.
Compare with The We and the I, a project for a high school class developed by themselves, and where texting is a major plot point. We can work out a taxonomy on today’s teen movies based on the cellphone element.
60. Terence Malick’s To the Wonder has an extra where Ben Affleck makes an observation to the effect that Malick makes movies about how his characters remember events rather than the event itself. Certainly Tree of Life charts an uncanny ability to zero in on fragments of how things stick in our memory because of a certain emotion or just a vivid visual moment.
When we remember events or eras in life (college, marriage, accident), certain moments stick out against the background blur, and it’s the same after we read a novel or watch a movie, we remember certain details vividly while others recede, no matter that the story was told in clear coherent order with everything having equal weight. That’s not how we remember; we recall fragments that hit us for some reason. Malick is skipping over the story and going directly to how we remember stories.
So here he’s perfected a meditative memory style (really a series of classical music videos), with the camera constantly drifting forward (as usual) through experimentally edited fragments to bathe us in a notion of how personal experience of love as a pleasure (fickle, contingent) relates to spiritual concepts of love as a duty that you perform rather than receive. For example, as when Javier Bardem’s priest declares that love is something Christ tells you to do whether you want to or not. Although I didn’t immediately “like” this film as much as Tree of Life (which absolutely bowled me over), I must admit the odd possibility that I’ll remember it even more clearly—whether I want to or not.