The Oscars : 2016

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The Oscars were riddled with some serious controversy this year, sparking a change in the Academy’s selection process for membership. For thoughts on that whole debacle, CLICK HERE

Now, the awards. I’ve been saying this for 3 years running now but I will say it once again, THIS IS NOT A PREDICTIONS LIST. This “ballot” is movies which I believe should win the Oscar for their respective categories. I will, in passing, refer to the movies and people I think will win, but those are not as important. The main thing that I want to note is that for the Short Film categories, I have watched only a few of those movies, so those will be mostly uneducated picks..

For reference (click the link, in italics) here is my Oscar picks post from last year.

ONTO THE NOMINATIONS!

Non-Feature Categories

Best Live Action Short Film: Day One (blind guess)

This one sounds the most interesting. Day One is about a soldier working for the U.S. Army who must deliver a new-born child to the wife of an enemy bomb-maker. Very problematic, very perfect for the politically charged Oscar voter crowd.

Best Animated Short FilmSanjay’s Superteam (Only one Ive watched)

Pixar’s latest cutesy short film comes with a twist. This one is about an Indian boy who’s strict religious father forbids him from engaging in fantasy day-dreaming and fun at the detriment of his religious duties. It’s the only animated short film I actually saw so far, so it’ll get my vote.

Best Documentary Short SubjectA Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

An incredibly harrowing story, this doc is about honor killings in Pakistan. The documentary has created such a stir and such an outcry over the barbaric and storied ritual that has existed in the country for a long time, that it is actually kickstarting a movement to ban all honor killings in Pakistan and has ever gotten a number of other legislative policy reforms under way in the country. Be on the look out for if they are followed through.

The “Other Best Pictures”

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul (dir. Laszlo Nemes – country, Hungary)

This one was a lock for a long time now, but with the Oscars Foreign Film category, the most weird and outdated and badly in need of reform category at the ceremony, no lock is a sure lock. It should also be noted that the films nominated in this category are hardly the best foreign films released in the past year. Please don’t think Son of Saul is the best that non-American cinema had to offer in 2015. But out of these 5 nominees, it is clearly the cream of the crop.

Best Animated Film: Inside Out (dir. Pete Doctor & Jonas Rivera) 

I don’t have the emotional attachment to Inside Out that a lot of other people have accumulated over the past year. Even if Shaun the Sheep Movie won, it wouldn’t really faze me. But lets be honest, Pixar’s got this in the bag.

Best Documentary Film: The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

It was incredibly sad that Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking doc The Act of Killing didn’t win in the year it was nominated, but that is the nature of this category…. if the Academy does not deem a topic “important enough” for them, then its hard to win. That shouldn’t be the case but it is. I know Asif Kapadia’s AMY is the frontrunner and most-likely winner and I’m really happy that Kapadia is finally going to get his due… but I’m going by what was clearly the most well-made and most eye-opening doc of the year, and that is The Look of Silence. Watch it, but be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The Technical Awards

Best Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m sorry Star Wars fans, but unless its by some sense of pity or conselation, George Miller’s Mad Max reboot has your number this year in technical prowess. It’s not that The Force Awakens wasn’t impressive visually, its just that we’ve seen all that shit before, the Millenium Falcon, the space explosions, the alien creatures. The VFX team for Mad Max did something truly original, and it was no better captured than the race through the sandstorm near the beginning of the film. The swirl of tones and shades, the props, makeup, and dust and lightning all created a visual canvas that was unrivaled… so much so, that it looks all-time incredible even in Black and White:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5s62tpM5fo

Best Sound Editing: Sicario

I loved Sicario, so I’m going to unabashedly chalk this as a consolation prize for that movie. The sound editing in Sicario, from the opening heart-thumping scene inside the cartel house was utilized almost as a soundtrack in its own right, and Villeneauve’s ability to frame action sequences with such fervor allowed the sound to contribute to the growing tension and unease in every scene.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max : Fury Road

What set Mad Max apart from most other action flicks this year was the emotional weight of its character. Even without the benefit of nostalgia (Star Wars) or the heartbreak of a cast member passing away (Furious 7), Mad Max was still able to create a passionate plea for its own characters and the sound mixing, which coupled together a thrilling music score with the powerful, echoing voices of its cast made it happen.

Best Make-Up: Mad Max: Fury Road

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Best Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

….. click again

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s production team headed by Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson decided to go the old-school route with real props and real settings, which makes the production design of Mad Max even that much more impressive, that it didn’t come majorly out of doctored and fantasized video-game imagery, but from people making things with… their HANDS. Wow.

Best Original Song: “Simple Song #3” from Youth (music and lyrics by David Lang)

Simple Song #3 plays a major part Youth‘s main character, famous composer Mick Boyle, re-connect with the specters of his past which he has continually rejected in his old age. The violin interlude to the song itself gives such a beautiful feeling, that Simple Song #3’s is anything but simple.

Best Original Score: Carol (composed by Carter Burwell)

I always judge this category on how well the musical score stood out to me as memorable, and also how the film’s images, feelings, and nuances come rushing back into my brain the moment that I hear the music. Such is the case with Carter Burwell’s timely score for Carol… I can’t listen to this score on headphones without automatically seeing Carol and Therese’s burning stares from across the room, or a snowy Christmas afternoon in New York City. It just fits.

Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road (editing by Margaret Sixel)

The entire movie is basically one giant chase scene… and that puts a lot of the pressure on the film editor to keep things well-groomed, exciting and paced with moments of heart-pounding thrills but also some breif relief. What Margaret Sixel was able to do, keeping our attention glued to the screen in every sequence of what was just one giant road-rage venture is remarkable. You’d think at some point we’d turn away and say “alright already, get to where you want to go”… but Sixel made the rip-roaring journey a million times better than the eventual destination.

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road (camerawork by John Seale)

Emannuel Lubeszki doesn’t deserve 3 Oscars in a row in my estimation, and Roger Deakins (Sicario), I feel for you man, having been nominated what seems like 10 times but never winning an Oscars… but this isn’t your year either. Mad Max‘s visual splendor is as much a product of John Seale’s beautiful panoramic framing as it is the VFX team and Production team’s prop making and action staging. This whole film was a production dream come true, where everyone contributed their share of filmmaking craftsmanship and artistry onto one glorious canvas.

The Supporting Cast

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Rooney Mara (Carol)

This year’s best Supporting Actress category is ruined by a gigantic problem. No, it’s not race-related, its politics related. Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl… this year’s frontrunner) are clearly leading actresses in their respective movies, but the Oscars have been unabashedly shameful at allowing producers and promoters to be able to coin in leading performances as “Supporting” for a better shot at an Oscar, especially in years when the leading Actress category is loaded. Not only is this disingenuous, it is basically announcing to the world that you don’t care the Oscar ceremony is as much of a muddy politics game as the presidential race. I will choose Rooney Mara for this award but honestly, I hope no one wins.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

The internet’s love for Leonardo DiCaprio always makes people get pissed off at me when I say that Leo usually gets upstaged by his co-actors in most of his movies. Well, internet, hate me if you want, but it happened again. The best actor in The Revenant was Tom Hardy. His intensity, writhing bitterness, and raw biting ferocity was pitch perfect from first shot to last. This may be the best performance of his career and it blew any other supporting performance out of the water… maybe with the exception of Jacob Tremblay, who got snubbed from a nomination. If Sylvester Stallone really wins this year, it’ll be once again a case of Oscar politics over performance.

The BIG 5 Awards

Best Adapted Screenplay: Carol – written by Phyllis Nagy

The book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was a landmark novel for gay/lesbian literature because of its treatment of homosexuality in a positive and optimistic light amidst discrimination in America, and that comes with a lot of pressure. The personal depth with which the novel was written can always been hard to transmit on screen, but Phyllis Nagy’s script does an incredible job of allowing the film’s director, Todd Haynes, a master storyteller in his own right, to evoke all the emotions that novel displays. Out of all the other nominees in this category, hardly any of them tell as affecting a story as Carol.

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight – written by Tom McCarthy  & Josh Singer

The subject matter of Spotlight is something I said earlier last year really blinded and engulfed any sort of critical discourse about the film’s merit as a work of cinema. This meant that I could never really give much credit or anything to director Tom McCarthy for the way this film was handled because as long as it was “competently made”, the subject matter and its implications in our life will carry it on its shoulders anyway. Spotlight‘s take on the Catholic Church’s horrific exploitation of young boys and the brave news team from the Boston Globe who brought this injustice to light, is showcased most appropriately in its writing. McCarthy may not get the benefit of the doubt from me as a director, but him and Singer surely do as writers, because their plotting and staging of interviews, probing of the issue and long agonizing periods of uncertainty in such a terrible case lend to the film’s successful unraveling of its nightmare.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Brie Larson (Room)

I remember watching Jennifer Lawrence in her first big performance in the movie Winter’s Bone. I knew when I watched her that her acting was something special. The same goes for Brie Larson, who I saw in the indie-Sundance film Short Term 12. It was a small unnoticed performance by those who don’t play close attention to the film circuit, but it was a showcase for the tornado of acting talent that is Brie Larson. Now, in this year’s Oscar-season favorite, Room, about a young mother and her son who try to escape their prison inside a small room being held by a sadistic kidnapper, is where Brie Larson makes herself known as Hollywood’s next great actress. Her performance is something to behold. Watch it, and yes, its okay if you cry through the whole thing, a lot of people have.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Congrats internet. You won. Now you can move onto Gary Oldman to complain about being Oscar-less.

This year of 2016, we’ll watch 2 “lovable losers” win the big prize. Leonardo DiCaprio this Sunday at the Oscars…..

….and the Chicago Cubs in October in the World Series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (The Revenant)

Difficulty in directing a project really shouldn’t be a factor in determining who should win best director, but when the product that you churn out is this good, this exciting, and just a jaw-dropping wonder of depth and intense gut churning treachery to behold, I’ve got to give it to you. Innaritu has been a prolific filmmaker, and there’s only really one movie that he made that I would consider sub-par (his 2006 hyperlink miscalculation Babel). With The Revenant, Alejandro continues his Oscar success with another captivating film, just one year after another movie I loved, Birdman.

Best Picture: The Revenant

I have given The Revenant 4 Oscars in this countdown… and none of them are for the technical brilliance of its cinematography, stage-setting, makeup, and metaphysical elements, and that’s only because Mad Max: Fury Road was so dazzling. But in the end, Innaritu’s The Revenant has all the pieces that make a solid epic Oscar-winning film, and while it won’t be a time-transcending important classic like 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, it will be an enjoyable showcase of directorial ambition and the performance that finally landed Leo DiCaprio the elusive statue.

My last two favorite Oscar-nominated Best Pictures both won… 12 Years A Slave and Birdman. Unless Spotlight steals the Academy’s moral strings and captures votes for its all-important message, this year should make it 3 in a row.

THE TALLY (Films with more than 1 win)

Mad Max: Fury Road – 7 wins

The Revenant – 4 wins (Best Picture)

Carol – 3 wins

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2015 Capsule Reviews: The Last One

Here’s to 2015, one of the best years ever, at least for me. Just in time, here are 4 movies before the buzzer sounds that I’d personally like to sound off on.

My Top 10 Best Films of 2015 is COMING SOON (possibly next week). Hang on tight.

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The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015)

The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015)

You can slice this movie anyway your like to target a particular audience. For the action crowd it’s a tale of revenge, for the biopic crowd it’s a true story, for the political crowd it’s a redemption from betrayal, for the science crowd it’s a story of survival and instinct, for the history crowd it’s a story of ethnic tensions, for the religious crowd it’s a testament of God’s will. In any sense, Innaritu’s The Revenant is an avalanche. It sweeps you in its dark, hellish yet, at times fantasy portrayal of the South Dakota wilderness. It is bloody, beaten, rotting, and yet, it claws and scratches its way to satisfying means. Leonardo DiCaprio is of course incredible, but Tom Hardy is heavily underrated… his role as Fitzgerald is so committed psychologically, it works to perfect ends with DiCaprio’s tortured and intense portrayal of Hugh Glass. Innaritu’s direction with his favorite cinematographer Emannuel Lubeszki combines with harsh white winter with the earthen soil and dripping blood that creates a portrait which would have done 70mm and lengthy hype much more justice and purpose than Tarantino’s lukewarm vision did.

 

Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie, 2015)

Heaven Knows What is not for the faint of heart. Filmed on a micro-budget but packing a wrenching emotional whallop, the Safdie Brothers have created a film, based on personal writings from star Arielle Holmes, about the pain of love, and the horrifying clutch of addiction. The movie is not an “addiction movie”, nor is it an expose on homelessness. The film is a story, but it reverbrates in the screeching cries and wails of its protagonists and the claws which their lifestyle has dug into their eye-sockets so deep, they can never be pulled out. There is no glorification or exploitation eminent within the film, instead, we root for these characters to survive and cry with them as they fail and fall back time and time again. Set to a backdrop score which haunts and creeps and street landscapes which are so distrubingly familiar to all of us, Heaven Knows What takes little money and a lot of pain and heart to create one of the best “small films” of the year.

 

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino might be his worst, possibly tied with Death Proof. Despite the advertised use of 70mm and the grandiose stage-setting of the film, there is nothing memorable about The Hateful Eight… not the dialogues, the actors, the characters, or the place where they all collide. Built upon the same basic idea of his debut masterwork Reservoir Dogs, this movie nullifies any sort of imagination required from that movie to a shitshow of blood, guts, and wise-cracks that sound smart, but don’t resonate with anyone but the guy who’s writing and saying them. It’s Tarantino laughing at his own joke in a dead-silent room.

 

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

The eye-stares that ensue every time that Carol and Therese see each other throughout the film, coupled with the cold stares between Carol and her ex-husband, all call to show how great the acting is in this movie. The characters here have histories and futures with each other, and it shows simply through looks. Hayne’s direction is crafted such that we can justify calling Carol a love story, without having to put the qualifier “lesbian” in front of it. It is about Carol torn in two ways, glancing at her future of love, brightness, comfort, and passion with wet-eyed glances and hand-touches with Therese and letting go of the disasterous collapse of a marriage with her husband Harge. Blanchett is brilliant in this, and her entire aura keeps Carol at the brink of being both a strong-willed real woman and a majestic unatainable beauty queen. In today’s society there is much ado about not judging women on their looks but rather on what’s on the inside… Hayne’s Carol straddles both the visual allure and personality traits of his female stars. It draws you in with looks, and knocks you out with heart, emotion, and undeniable confidence.

 

 

 

2015 Capsule Reviews Part III

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The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015)

For a movie with such a palpably tense premise, The Martian is almost devoid of any real peril. Let me say that I did not read the book, but from everything I’ve heard about it from various sources, it’s a very well-written piece of work. So you can imagine my confusion when, as I am sitting through Ridley Scott’s latest venture into sci-fi, a genre he is usually very successful with, I am slaped around with an endless constant stream of wise-cracks from a snarky Matt Damon who is stuck with limited oxygen, food, and survival equipment on another freaking planet, and acting like he’s trying to survive a week-long house-arrest inside of a mansion. There isn’t a single moment in which I truly believed Mark Watney was in any serious danger, and that’s a problem because he was stuck millions of miles away from human civilization. The groundwork of this premise lays the foundation for an incredible sense of dire hopelessness for the central character, yet Ridley Scott provides none of this in his movie. Even the camerawork amidst sandstorms and life-threatening plot-points on the planet are shot in such a vibrantly beautiful and meticulously efficient manner that it seems like we’re looking at a high-rendered computer simulation via NASA’s website instead of a cinematic work of art and emotion. As if Watney is inside of such a simulation the entire time, robotic and fake. It seems that Mr. Scott has trouble conjuring up much drama when there aren’t horrifying alien creatures lurking about looking to feed on the main character.

 

Everything Will Be Fine (Wim Wenders, 2015)

This is going to be a quick review, because this film was atrocious. I am still trying to search for what the hell Wim Wenders, Germany’s most overrated filmmaker export (Wings of Desire, Paris Texas, both dreck), was trying to say here, and what possessed him to believe any of the so-called “acting” that we see on screen was adequate for anything more than an ABC Family original movie.

 

Time Out of Mind (Oren Moverman, 2015)

More personal performance piece by Richard Gere than anything else. Time Out of Mind documents Richard Gere as a homeless man, estranged from his daughter and permanently separated from his wife. Gere opens the piece with him lying inside a bathtub and acting disoriented saying some woman is coming to get him and everything is okay. Throughout the film, Gere’s character behaves in a way which directly confronts our fears, irritation, and genuine negative attitude towards the homeless. He is pathetic in many cases, spending what little money he can panhandle to buy a six pack and sit on a park bench, making belching noises and feeling sorry for himself. It’s easy to hate this character, and that is the point. He finally seeks help at a homeless shelter and it is here that we see the “system”. For all of the rudeness and complete lack of consideration that Gere’s homeless individual displays the social workers still treat him with respect and do what they can to retrieve the information they need to get him help. It is important for Gere to express his character as one without any identifying marks; no ID, no license, no proof of birth. He embodies the our version of a homeless man. Faceless, nameless, a category of not-quite-human on the street to avoid eye-contact with. Eternally non-existent, at least, aside from that split second we pass them by. In this sense, Gere’s acting performance and experiment overall is important because it forces us to try to like his character, to notice him, to see ourselves by his side. We resist through majority of the film, but eventually, there is a growing sense of comfort. The film succumbs to sappy clichés once or twice, mainly with the annoying side character of Dixon, as well as a scene in a coffee shop where Gere tries playing the piano with a beautiful afternoon light glowing directly in his direction. These scenes are an unimaginative plea to turn Gere into a “character”, but that rings false. The greatest strength of the film is when Gere is at his worst because that confrontation challenges the best in our ability to empathize with his situation.

 

A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence (Roy Andersson, 2015)

When I first heard about Roy Andersson, he piqued my interest mainly because of people’s complaints about his sparse and challenging comedy. I like movies that are hard to digest in terms of their artistic approach because it proves that the filmmaker is at least attempting something unique. In this sense, the movie can never outright fail because as Woody Allen says “98% of success is just showing up”. Well, Andersson technically showed up, but then died right at the doorstep and left me flabbergasted as to what to do. Pigeon is a weird movie for sure, but it is also one where its weirdness, sparseness, and supposed quirk is equivalent of the kid in the corner snorting with a cold, pulling out his snot, examining it, and then eating it. It’s not the kind you want to be associated with to examine from anything close than a safe 20 feet away. There is no charm here, just a deadly slow showcase of mannequin-like characters doing their worst impression of deadpan humor. The two salesmen, the “hook” of the narrative if you will, display their ineptitude from the get-go, reducing themselves to pointless downers. We know they’re not going to sell anything, so why are we watching them? In fact, why the hell are we watching this movie?

Bridge of Spies – Spielberg and the American way

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Steven Spielberg’s resurgence as the premier and prominent dramatist of Hollywood cinema is warmly welcomed. While perhaps the greatest of Spielberg’s traits lie in his ability to encapsulate the wonder, enchantment, terror and peril that all culminate together to create the ultimate American Hollywood “story”, his second greatest attribute is his ability to create accessibility to the darkness of human nature. While some may find this glossy finish on gritty subject matter to be “hokey” or “kitsch”, there is a manner in which the greatest commercial filmmaker, and certainly the most influential, of the last 50 years of American cinema accomplishes this juggling feat that it culminates in powerful and personal cinema.

Since Speilberg’s last truly great film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, we haven’t gotten much out of him in terms of memorable cinema. The Adventures of Tintin I can attest is definitely much lower ranking amongst the pantheon of Spielberg outputs on most people’s lists that I have to shove aside my personal unfettered and unwavering love for Herge’s graphic novels and characters which singularly defined my childhood. That movie is 100% nostalgia for me and nothing else, so I concede I am biased.

The auteur’s last two outputs however are a different story, one of them being this year’s Bridge of Spies, a collaboration between Spielberg and the Coen Brothers (who wrote the script). The film is a showcase of good ol’ American exceptionalism when it comes to negotiations and foreign politicking. We get to see Tom Hanks strut his stuff as the insurance lawyer James B. Donovan picked by the higher ups to do a “routine” defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance is an accomplished theater actor who proves his silver screen chops here), a suspected and eventually convicted Soviet spy in the U.S. The reason routine is in quotations there is because the judicial processes of giving a Soviet spy, a “communist” (gasp! That word!) a fair trial is really a dark and upsetting joke in the film. Here, the exceptionalism in the United States in standing by its principles of liberty and justice are revealed to be a smoke-screen. Behind the fog exist deep seeded anger and paranoia, a hatred for the “other side”.

It is one thing when it’s civilians; the police officer who confronts Donovan at his home about his defense of Abel, the train passengers who stare Donovan down with all the conceit and suspicion in the world, and his own son who questions his father’s loyalty to the nation after he is fed the exaggerations and fear propaganda of the Cold War in his classroom. Regular people are suspicious, they go by what they read, what they see, the influence of society and its perceptions, the uneasy fear of foreign threats and ideas, something which is rearing its ugly head in today’s American society as well. But when it is elected officials, government workers, and those in power who let that paranoia and hatred get in the way of the liberties the United States offers to foreign citizens, criminal or not, which no other country is so generous to offer, then the system collapses and we, slowly and surely, become them.

Bridge of Spies depicts an America at the crossroads of turning on itself (yet again). In an era where people were blacklisted, ostracized for their political and social beliefs, something we said would always be a freedom in this country, an era where a government official (Joseph McCarthy) went on an obsessive witch-hunt against all those he defined as “traitors”, “communists” and a list of other propagandist impact-words, an era right after World War II in which we incarcerated in concentration camps Japanese Americans because of our paranoid fear of them and their mere presence being considered an ill to society, America continued evolving into dark, troubling, and socially broken versions of itself, one decade after another.

It’s the truth many people don’t want to hear, and in Bridge of Spies, James Donovan is Spielberg’s plea to the American people that the liberty and justice we offer is only special because it applies to even those who can’t do anything for us. For it, he received bullet shots through the windows of his house. His house where his children and wife lived, bullets were sprayed by other American citizens. (cue Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II)

Is there a semblance of parallel from Coen/Spielberg’s Cold War America to our America today? Perhaps the timeliness of Bridge of Spies is not by accident, but rather, by blessing. Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker known for his accessibility and serviceability to the American audience. He brought the complexity and enormity of the Holocaust into our homes with Schindler’s List, a cinematic achievement which would have been impossible without his sensible touch. There is no condescension in the way Spielberg (or The Coens for that matter) presents the American xenophobia of the Cold War era, in this case, not a matter of race, but of ideology.

Rather, Bridge of Spies works like an old yarn your grandfather would tell after dinner. It arrives with lightly treaded footsteps and grows ever so dark as it goes, the suspense (meeting the Russians), the chills (interrogations of prisoners), the horrors (climbing the Berlin Wall) but it prevails with an All-American pride, one in which Donovan’s compassion towards a Soviet spy, at the time the worst of worst criminals (why aren’t we HANGING HIM? the court disturbingly erupts after a lenient sentence), is the true symbol of America because it can be empathetic and understanding where no one else can.

This doesn’t mean Spielberg equates the nations and their ideologies, oh no. This is the greatest juggling feat of all, and probably one which most people in American need to hear today. Spielberg puts the worlds of Eastern Germany and the Soviet bloc in perspective. As Donovan rides on a train through Berlin he witnesses a helpless couple try to climb their way over the wall only to be shot and killed in cold blood only inches away from freedom. But this is not a viciousness that resides in the hearts of individuals, but in the hearts of national leaders.

Throughout Bridge of Spies we get a brilliant contrast between Donovan and Abel’s American-Soviet friendship, juxtaposed with the cruel and unrelenting distrust between national figures. As Donovan first goes into the negotiating room, after having his jacket haggled from him by some East German hoodlums, and meets the “secretary” Ivan Schischkin to the Soviet base… and he later realizes the man he’s meeting is a top ranking official… and the jacket that was stolen from him was correctly identified by Schischkin as a Sacks 5th Avenue. No words or actions can be taken at face value here, and Donovan’s combination of both whimsy and serious business, perfectly captured by Tom Hanks’ performance, is a microcosm of what we consider an idealistic vision of America’s foreign policy, but one which, in reality, is hardly carried out in such a diplomatic manner.

This difference of dealing with Soviets and dealing with Rudolf Abel is a nation vs person conundrum that most people still can’t seem to grasp. In today’s America where people, especially immigrants, are consistently labeled on a collective basis rather than an individual one, ironic considering recognition of individualism is this nation’s claim to success, there needs to be a restructuring of the social connection between us that remembers a story like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. As Donovan rides on the train once again at the end of the film, this time a hero and with other passengers looking at him with admiration rather than (as previous) contempt, he looks out the window and sees a country of people freely walking amongst the streets, with cars, clothes on their back, kids climbing over the fence joyous and care-free (a signature melodramatic touch by Spielberg to the earlier heartbreaking scene at the Berlin Wall), and a nation comparatively prosperous and well put together to its nemesis East Germany’s crumbling, decaying infrastructure. It’s a moment to be proud to be American, but it’s also a somber moment because the individuals in the East Bloc suffer from the actions of their leaders, something outside their control.

Countries and governments fight, they engage in backstabbing, and they negotiate on hardline terms, but we as individuals share a direct connection of experience that doesn’t define us by the actions of those in power. We can see each other as Donovan saw Rudolf Abel. It is not a traitorous notion, nor is it un-patriotic to befriend despite polarized ideologies, but rather, as Spielberg declares in Bridge of Spies, part of what is truly American.

Sicario

Sicario-Movie
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Denis Villenueve’s Sicario does an incredible job in its portrayal national security, drug related crime, and U.S.’s relationship with Mexico as a “don’t look down” demented Alice-in-wonderland style of rabbit hole. From the beginning we latch onto Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer as a professional, someone we can confide our trust in. She leads the charge of FBI agents breaking and thwarting a local drug house in Arizona. But as soon as she takes on this strange out-of-nowhere case presented by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is wearing shorts and flip flops in the FBI’s meeting room and doesn’t hide from the indication that he and everything he is associated with is a little too sketchy for comfort, she becomes as clueless as we are and that’s where the tension builds because all of a sudden, our “heroine” is no longer in control, and as Alejandro says, “the war on the border is a war of wolves” and Macer is not a wolf.

The reprehensible acts that occur throughout the film and Macer’s completely powerless, at a loss frustration in dealing with them is disturbingly relatable to the American citizen because, like disturbing news reels, we see the horror, we hear the stories, but we are confined by both power and capability and voice from doing anything about it. They (Alejandro and Graver) constantly tell her that she can leave whenever she wants, and that is probably the only evidence of dignity that they present for themselves on screen… the cartel war has stripped them of any sense of morality (a point that is made clear by the vicious cartel lord, Alarcon, at the dinner table encounter with Alejandro) and their constant refusal to reveal any more than they have to to Macer was probably a blessing, but she kept picking at them anyway, and the rabbit hole went deeper.

The brilliant sequence in the traffic jam where they all jump out of the cars, guns at the ready, and Macer is left inside her vehicle yelling “what the f*u*c*k are we doing?!” is a perfect example of how in the dark many Americans are about this subject of drug cartels (and further confirmation that we probably want to be left in the dark). There is constant questioning and non-answers that go on throughout the film. Rather, the movie takes its horrors and revelations from visual clues. As Macer sits innocently in the back seat of the vehicle rolling through Juarez, they come across an overpass, which has 4 dismembered, bleeding naked bodies hanging from ropes. Alejandro doesn’t even look at her reaction, he just says “Welcome to Juarez”. the way Villenueve films the action, it is structured to augment chaos and unclarity. Only towards the end to we finally see the truth when Mercer emerges from the tunnel to see Alejandro holding office Silvio at gunpoint, but even then, it is a revelation that is out of anyone’s control because it is so far beyond screwed up, that Graver’s justification of it makes it pretty clear that the United States has no clue how to win this war.

It’s a great counterpoise to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which prides itself in American exceptionalism in diplomatically negotiating with its enemies (Russia and East Germany) with the utmost firm poise, but mutual respect, while in Sicario, America is completely incompetent, flustered, and grasping at straws on a tunnel to nowhere.

Gone Girl

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Gone Girl (David Fincher, 2014)

By creating films based on timely novels, stories, and pop-culture phenomena, David Fincher almost guarantees his films will draw attention for a longer time than they really deserve. I mentioned a while ago how people really need to start “getting over” Fight Club because frankly, it’s not that great of a film (gasp! did he really just write those words with a straight face?!?), it is simply a pop-culture relic of counter-culture thought. That’s not to say it’s not good, it certainly is, but again Fincher’s movies hitting American culture’s popular artifacts right at the apex of their relevance helps propel them further than they could have gone.

Anyway, in this sense, imagine if Fincher decided to make The Social Network after people got tired of Facebook, or something better was about replace it? What if he decided to adapt Gone Girl say, 15 years after the book’s inception? Would we have payed so much attention to it? Would there be some time to digest the material and concentrate more on the pathology of marriage and it’s decay, its turbulence, and eventual reconciliation? This is all hypothetical, but it’s important to ask this because Gone Girl if anything is a representation of reactionary filmmaking to a controversial event. Gillian Flynn’s book is certainly not a traditional story, it does not have a comfortable trajectory. For popular fiction, this book rides against a tide of what people usually expect from this kind of novel. In the same way Oliver Stone’s W or that Ashton Kutcher-Steve Jobs movie hit theaters right after their subjects became a tidal wave conversation piece, in the same way Fincher’s Gone Girl treats Gillian Flynn’s novel as something that is supposed to make people react. It works because it’s topical… the book released recently, there was already buzz about it everywhere and due to the movie people who are adverse to ‘reading’ will be able to eagerly join in on the conversation.

Double-edged sword alert: Just like Oliver Stone’s George W. Bush piece and the Kutcher-Jobs film, because of Gone Girl‘s topicality, it completely forgoes saying anything about its own subject. There’s nothing insightful that Fincher adds to what Flynn said in the book, and its because the film is riding entirely on the book’s reputation. In the same way the Harry Potter films desperately clung onto J.K. Rowling’s reputation as a precedent and then continued replacing every ounce of magic in Rowling’s world with elaborate special effects, David Fincher replaces any conversation of marriage that Flynn wanted to address in the story with a simple “He’s an asshole/She’s a bitch” mind-game. That’s probably why the ending of the film felt a bit gimmicky because it never really ended with a bitter compromise, but just a bleak captive situation in which we feel sorry for Nick that he’s caught in a spider’s web… the more he struggles the harder it is to escape. I would like my readers to go watch John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence to gain an interesting perspective on marriage, and see how a “bitter compromising ending” is handled well in a film script… and trust me, the wife and husband’s tug-of-war is just as infuriating if not more so because it’s displayed as being rooted from a completely normal circumstance (alcoholism).

But let me save Fincher’s soul after I’ve picked it apart. The acting in this film is phenomenal. Rosamund Pike and Tyler Perry (yes, that Tyler Perry) steal this show, and interestingly enough for completely opposite reasons. Pike is incredible because she signals you to be uncomfortable right from the get go with the way she purposefully offers stilted dialogue delivery. The idea of making her read her lines to Affleck as if she was reading straight off of her character’s journal was inspired because you automatically sense something between the two isn’t normal or real despite their initial passionate love. Tyler Perry on the other hand is perfectly cast, and his character is the most likable… this is rather cheeky because Perry’s Madea character is one of the most infuriating people on the cinema screen. It’s very refreshing to see Perry play someone who maintains the enthusiasm with a completely laid-back unassuming attitude. I like to call these kinds of characters the “Gandalf characters” because when they show up, you’re always assured things are going to go right.

What Fincher succeeds with in his actors counters his lack of exploration of Flynn’s novel, but it should never replace it. The most important thing to remember about Gone Girl is that it is a story of marriage above everything else, and psychology, regardless of how haywire it becomes, is still rooted to the issue of being with someone else for the rest of your life and the mental fortitude that takes. In this sense, I wished Fincher thought about these things instead of lacing together a sleek and polished product to latch onto a novel’s coattails, but it’s still a movie worth watching… even though it’s not really a movie worth remembering.

Maps to the Stars

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Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg, 2014)

David Cronenberg has been a complete bore for his last two movies, the one before this being Cosmopolis. It’s not because of a lack of his signature marks of psychological turmoil or graphic violence, those are in quite generous supply… rather, its because he’s no longer satisfied with just telling a great story. There’s a lot of phony symbolism and motif that goes on in Maps to the Stars that borders on the most pedestrian methods of conveying internal struggle that one could imagine in a narrative. The characters see ghostly visions of their past and must come to terms with them. This completely unimaginative way of showcasing the ‘demons’ of Hollywood fame and fortune coupled with Cronenberg completely forgoing his signature style for very standard ‘clean corners’ camerawork makes Maps to the Stars a pre-school puppet show rendition of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. A bright moment here is Julianne Moore, who was clearly born to play her role as Havana Segrand, a washed-up Liza Minelli-type who wants so badly to reconcile her ruined relationship with her dead mother by starring in a remake of the movie which gave her mother fame. Moore has made quite a career out of playing manic-depressive women and here she is able to really strut everything she’s got. But again, one can’t help but draw comparisons to Naomi Watts in Mulholland Drive and yet again, can’t help but think how much plainer and un-affecting Havana Segrand is in moments of utter failure. The fact that she constantly sees the ghost of her mother following her around taunting her gives us a direct reasoning for her anxiety and depression. There’s no mystery with any of these characters, they all have clear motives and clear demons, leaving us to have absolutely nothing on our plate to chew for ourselves. The ending scene where Segrand is killed with her own ‘Best Actress’ trophy used as a weapon is the type of eye-rolling irony that one would think Cronenberg was better than, but guess not.