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Take This Waltz

Director: Sarah Polley
Cast: Michelle Williams, Seth Rogen, Luke Kirby, Sarah Silverman

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Take This Waltz


Early in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, before the divorce papers have been served, the husband sums up what he and his wife have together: “Security, order, contentment, loyalty,” he says. “We’re indecently fortunate.” One could say the same of the young married couple in Take This Waltz, Sarah Polley’s second turn at writing and directing a feature film. Lou (Seth Rogan) and Margot (Michelle Williams) have all those things—plus a mutual enjoyment of gross-out games and childish roughhousing.


Of course, such “indecently fortunate” relationships are bound to change. Like 2007’s Away from Her, Polley’s quietly stunning directorial debut, her new film examines the end of a marriage. But Polley isn’t interested in bitter ends. Her couples don’t bicker or scream. Rather, both films focus on how a person mourns the loss of the relationship. Her touch is lighter in Waltz, but she asks some of the same questions: How does someone begin to shift for herself again? And what does one partner owe the other? Alyssa Pelish


 

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Argo

Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Victor Garber, Kyle Chandler, Tate Donovan

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Argo


In the middle of the Iran hostage crisis, CIA officer Tony Mendez managed to exfiltrate six American diplomats from Tehran by posing as a sci-fi film crew scouting fantastical middle-eastern film locations. The question isn’t why Ben Affleck has now decided to make this into a big-budget caper film, but rather why it took Hollywood so long. A taut, racing thriller with a riveting screenplay by Chris Terrio, Argo shrugs off historical precision in favor of tense narrative flow and suspense, building masterfully to its inevitable getaway conclusion. Of particular interest are supporting roles by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, playing the Canadian Caper’s unseen collaborators in the corridors of 1970s Hollywood. Zach Schonfeld


 

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Life of Pi

Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall

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Life of Pi


Ang Lee continues to demonstrate the ability to impeccably adapt his technical and artistic skill-set to practically any material with Life of Pi, an exquisitely rendered adaptation of the best-selling novel about an Indian teen stranded on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The Hong-Kong-cum-Hollywood auteur’s film, strong enough in its establishing section, takes on a transcendent bravado once the lifeboat is in the open Pacific and the anxious coexistence between Pi (Suraj Sharma) and the whimsically-named big cat Richard Parker ramps up into full, glorious gear. At its best, Life of Pi is pure, experiential, transportational cinema, and the sheer, overwhelming beauty consistently unleashed by Lee cannot be easily shaken. Ross Langager


 

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Skyfall

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Dame Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes, Javier Bardem, Naomie Harris, Bérénice Marlohe
Skyfall


The question of open and closed systems has become increasingly pertinent in our modern world. In espionage, the question is rather difficult to frame, as aqueous institutions like M16, which are based on moving in and out of particular power structures, face an inherent problem in trying to preserve the integrity of their organization. This problem is the very crux of Skyfall, a much-needed return to form after the middling Quantum of Solace. For the first time in a great while, the Bond series takes to the reality of politics on the work of secret agents; the world of Skyfall is one where M16’s bold espionage tactics are now under scrutiny by the English government, which proves to be a difficult reality to face for M (Judi Dench, stone-faced but powerfully compelling) and for her pet secret agent, James Bond (Daniel Craig). Plus, the agency’s discontents are not merely the ones at home; some, including a former agent-turned-cyberterrorist (a chilling Javier Bardem) are evidence to M16’s global harms. Featuring ravishingly beautiful cinemaphotography by the great Roger Deakins and stellar direction by Sam Mendes, Skyfall is exactly what the Bond franchise needs to be ushered into the future. Brice Ezell


 

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Django Unchained

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Leonardo Dicaprio, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Dennis Christopher

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Django Unchained


Quentin Tarantino needs to stop doing this to us. First, he announces his next project. Then he takes years to write and (re)cast it. Then he gives it to a studio that waits until the last week of 2012 to unleash it on the public. Luckily, this combination of pre-Civil War sleaze and Scarface level exploitation splatter is so satisfying, so wholly self-assured, that it ends up being brilliant. From the moment we meet Christoph Waltz’s traveling ‘dentist’, we know we are in for a long, talky, terrific time—and QT doesn’t fail us. Reference heavy and reverent, it’s another stroke of ex-video store clerk genius. Bill Gibron


 

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The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern, Madisen Beaty

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The Master


One of the best scenes in any 2012 film occurs near the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a PTSD-stricken veteran who’s been revived and then damaged further by charismatic cult leader Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is sitting by himself in a movie theater. An usher brings him a phone. He takes the call and hears his master’s voice, calling him across the ocean. In the original screenplay, the scene went on to include Quell’s falling from a balcony and waking up in a hospital before tracking down Dodd. But in the finished film, the dream-call suffices. Quell is off to England, seduced once more by Dodd’s promised revelation.


It’s the most important scene in a film full of patience-testing exercises. To watch The Master is to experience the push and pull of indoctrination. Anderson has never before been so focused on a single dramatic dynamic within a film, here at the expense of conventional act structure and character development. After they meet, every scene is concerned with Dodd’s seduction of Quell and their growing codependency. From the eyes-wide-open “auditing” scenes that begin their relationship to Hoffman’s spellbinding serenade at their final meeting, the film invites the audience to witness an intensely personal (and certainly damned) bond between two disturbed individuals.


The cinematography by Mihai Malaimare Jr., music by Jonny Greenwood, and excellent acting by all involved contribute to a film that respects its audience too much to romanticize a collision course. Framed by sailor Quell clutching sand on the beach, The Master does arrive at a fundamental truth: all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Thomas Britt


 

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Holy Motors

Director: Leos Carax
Cast: Denis Lavant,Édith Scob, Eva Mendes, Kylie Minogue, Élise L’Homeau

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Holy Motors


Holy Motors, the surreal fifth feature from arthouse provocateur Leos Carax, operates on a number of levels, not the least of which is as a pure showcase for its magnificent French leading man Denis Lavant. His chameleonic role as a sort of futuristic actor or performance artist sees him embody nearly a dozen different characters in the space of one hectic night, sometimes even multiple ones within the same scene. In what is apparently a typical workday, Lavant disappears behind self-applied prosthetics to become everything from a crippled babushka to a lithe motion-capture artist to some kind of troll-like subterranean sex-goblin. The reasons behind these surreal performances for unseen audiences are never fully explained in the film, only tantalizingly hinted at, but their effect is to create an entrancing cinematic fugue, a deliriously dreamlike tribute to the wonder and power of films and filmmaking. Pat Kewley


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