Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Review: Noah

When we listen to the story of the Noah and the flood we tend to imagine ourselves safely on the Ark with the animals and not outside drowning with the masses. The odds clearly suggest the opposite would be the case, but this optimistic framing is understandable. Previous film versions have made no effort to shatter this comforting interpretation, choosing to focus on the grand spectacle of the animal parade and omitting the panicked mothers clutching their babies to their chest as the waters rise.

Now we have Darren Aronofsky epic new film version of Noah, which forces the viewer to grapple with the tale’s troubling implications by placing them right there on the surface. Floating face down on the surface, to be exact.

Aronofsky’s choice to imbue Noah with a level of psychological realism causes all manner of unexpected dimensions to reveal themselves, the most glaring of these being that Russell Crowe’s Noah comes off as an absolute barking lunatic. Not since Willy Wonka has a boat ride been captained by such a complete nutter. I sincerely feel for the Christian fundamentalists who buy tickets for Noah to enjoy the sight of, say, a pair of kangaroos walking hand in hand up a ramp, but are instead treated to the sight of Noah skulking around the storm-tossed Ark, his eyes ablaze with madness, threatening to personally murder any newborn babies that conflict with his interpretation of God’s will.

It makes no difference that in this case we know that his ravings are true, that Noah really is communicating with the Almighty. We reflexively recognize this behavior as that of the unhinged leader of a doomsday cult. And yet, as unsettling as he is, in context one can’t help but feel a strange sympathy for the man. When God asks a peaceful, unassuming man to assist in genocide, would it not be more disturbing if it didn’t have some kind of detrimental effect on his sanity?

Watching Noah one gets the feeling that Aronofsky wants to break free from plot altogether and let the poetry of his imagery carry the film to the heights of other grand cinematic gestures like Tree of Life or 2001 or the director’s own The Fountain. It is held Earthbound by the demands of its budget and the need to produce a film that is at least somewhat digestible by mass audiences. So instead of the sustained ambition of Aronofsky’s earlier work the director’s trademark fevered filmmaking zeal arrives in small doses like when the camera pulls back to see the entire globe engulfed in hurricanes, or when the creation myth is combined with the history of evolution in one stunning montage that zips breathlessly through the birth of life. Between these epiphanies we get padding and pandering for action audiences like battles scenes between an army of invaders and 50-foot rock monsters.

Oh, did I forget to mention the 50-foot rock monsters? They are called "watchers" and they are eventually persuaded by divine intervention to help our hero build the Ark. It’s a bold flourish, but not an entirely successful one. They often come across as CGI distractions that wandered in from Michael Bay’s version of the Bible: “The Exploding-est Story Ever Told”.  It’s worth noting that Aronofsky and cowriter Ari Handel have Biblical precedent for these creatures. Genesis 6:4: “There were giants in the earth in those days”. So Aronofsky is open to charges of going over-the-top, but not of inaccuracy to the source material. And I say if you are going to do giants, why settle for half-measures?

Even if I question how successful Noah is in cramming a Biblical story into the Blockbuster template I can’t deny he has engaged in a sincere attempt to grapple with a cultural touchstone that most everyone else is satisfied to regard with either blind acceptance or glib mockery. (For the record, that grappling does not extend to the film’s unavoidable implications of incest, which it would be grateful if the audience politely ignored) That Noah has upset a number of religious groups is predictable news. Isn’t always the thoughtful takes on religion that draw the protesters? Just once I’d like to see a religious film picketed for being too trite or insipid or intellectually lazy.

Verdict: 6 out of 10

Monday, April 14, 2014


The seventh and final season opened with an allusion to the iconic opening shot of Mike Nichols' The Graduate with Don Draper drifting along on a moving airport walkway just like the one that dragged Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock reluctantly towards his future. 

The Graduate is a movie that would have been highly visible on the radar of a pop culture savvy guy like Don at the time of this episode. The Graduate was released in December of 1967 and this season of Mad Men kicks off in January 1969. It was a box office smash. Adjusting for inflation Mike Nichols' film grossed more than films like The Godfather or Forrest Gump, so the film dominated the culture for the better part of 1968.

Despite being separated by a generation, the two characters share a fair amount of similarities. At this point of the story both men are drifting, unemployed and uncertain about their futures. They are both just arrived in California, and since this season of Mad Men is clearly going to emphasize California not just as a location  but as a frame of mind, Matthew Weiner couldn't have picked a more quintessentially Californian movie to reference. Most telling of all, Benjamin Braddock is about to spend a Summer hiding from his troubles in a dysfunctional affair, which is a most Draper-esque thing to do.  

All that said, maybe the most significant thing about the reference is not a similarity but a difference. Mad Men has Don Draper traveling left to right, the reverse of Benjamin Braddock. Dustin Hoffman's character represented a new generation stumbling forward. Don Draper is forever stubbornly stuck in his past. He certainly is in this episode, going through the motions in a marriage he knows to be over and refusing to acknowledge that the business he helped build has rejected him.

Or maybe it just means that Don has become one of those middle-aged fuddle-duddies that so baffled Benjamin. Don seems to have no clue what a hippie even is, identifying the most unhippie-ish Pete Campbell as one. It's not too much of a stretch to imagine Don Draper pulling Ben aside and laying the "plastics" pitch on him. Although Don's pitch would probably have a bit more elegance:

Monday Morning Awesome

"Shh. You'll wake the monkey."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Denzel On The Racist Role He Turned Down

"I could just see the poster with me with a rope around my neck."

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Languid Bloody Vampire Chic

Reminder that Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive arrives this weekend. It's essential 2014 movie viewing and Jarmusch's best film since… what? 2005's Broken Flowers? This one is a touch touch or two better. Dead Man? This is more thought through. Down by Law?

Only Lovers hasn't diminished a bit in my mind since I saw it a few months back at Sundance. If anything it's gained a little. It's not a film that is going to knock you on your ass. It's a mood piece, a film you lay back and let wash over you. It's like getting slowly, pleasantly drunk on some high end , expensive booze.

Here's what I said back in my Sundance Review:

...Only Lovers barely touches on the tropes of the vampire mythology. Bats, crosses and wooden stakes are nowhere to be found. Rather, Jarmusch’s film is interested in vampires as a state of mind. What becomes of a being when life has no meaning because it never ends? The film doesn’t stack up urgent plot points so much as it sinks slowly into its atmosphere of sexy gloom. Whether or not you like the film depends on if you can meet it on its wavelength. Personally, I had no trouble getting into the proper groove right from the start... 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Ballot: 10 Greatest Working Cinematographers

I have once again participated in a poll of film bloggers over at The Film Experience. The topic chosen this month was the 10 greatest working cinematographers. This means I was choosing from cinematographers who are still in their prime. If I was choosing from all living candidates, a legend like Gordon Willis would surely top this list, but Willis, for example, hasn't actually lensed a film since The Devil's Own in 1997.

After that I leaned towards cinematographers with substantial bodies of work. Somebody like Wally Pfister could have made the list for The Prestige alone, but he fell to people with deeper filmographies.

I was disappointed that there wasn't a greater selection of women to from which to choose. Eternal Sunshine's Ellen Kuras came closest, but it would have been dishonest of me to rank her above some of the men below. Is there a more male-dominated field in Hollywood? Has there ever even been a woman nominated in this Oscar category? None leap to mind. Here's hoping in 5 years time I can adjust this list to include some women.

Ellen Kuras Credits Include- Eternal Sunshine, Away We Go, Blow

Needless to say this list was tough to narrow down. As I ran out of room I was shocked to find names like Dion Beebe (Collateral), Greig Fraser (Bright Star) and Jeff Cronenweth (The Social Network) falling by the wayside. All told there was probably over two dozen candidates who would look just as at home on this list as the selections I went with. But enough second guessing on to my ballot…

The 10 Best Working Cinematographers
Honorary Mention: Harris Savides
I included an honorary mention for Harris Savides, who would have surely taken a prime spot on my ballot if not for his recent untimely death. It appears I was not the only voter who made such a citation. 
Career High Points: Birth, Zodiac, Gerry
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

10) Lance Acord  
Career High Points: Marie Antionette, Where the Wild Things Are, Lost in Translation
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

9) Darius Khondji
Career High Points: Se7en, Amour, Delicatessen
Oscar Tally: 1 Nominations, 0 Wins

8) Seamus McGarvey
Career High Points: Atonement, Anna Karenina, The Hours
Oscar Tally: 2 Nominations, 0 Wins

7) Robert Richardson
Career High PointsJFK, Inglourious Basterds, Snow Falling on Cedars 
Oscar Tally: 8 Nominations, 3 Wins

6) Bruno Delbonnel
Career High Points: Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis, A Very Long Engagement
Oscar Tally: 4 Nominations, 0 Wins

5) Christopher Doyle
Career High Points: In the Mood For Love, 2046, Paranoid Park
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

4) Robert Elswit
Career High Points: There Will Blood, Good Night and Good Luck, Michael Clayton
Oscar Tally: 2 Nominations, 1 Win (There Will Be Blood)

3) Hoyte Van Hoytema
Career High Points: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Her, Let the Right One In
Oscar Tally: Zero Nominations

2) Emmanuel Lubezki
Career High Points: Tree of Life, Sleepy Hollow, Children of Men
Oscar Tally: 6 Nominations, 1 Win (Gravity)

1) Roger Deakins
Career High Points: The Assassination of Jesse James, Fargo, Skyfall, The Shawshank Redemption
Oscar Tally: 11 Nominations, 0 Wins

And, as usual, to read all the terrific writing on these artists by the Film Experience team of writers. I contributed the write up for Roger Deakins.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Review: Nymphomaniac

It’s tough to think of a recent film more resistant to review than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Not only to does it vacillate wildly in quality between brilliant and dreadful, but it also feels redundant to review a movie so thoroughly engaged in the act of reviewing itself.

We are first introduced to Charlotte Gainsborg’s Joe laying beaten and unconscious in an alley. When Stellan Skarsgård’s Seligman picks her up off the ground and gives her a place to rest, she narrates her lifelong saga of sexual exploration to him by way of lengthy explanation for her current state.

An asexual virgin, Seligman plays like a preemptive parody of the critical response to the film. His first instinct is to interrupt Joe’s story at every turn with scholarly digressions that reduce Joe’s pain and suffering to intellectual masturbation. Yet even here von Trier is one step ahead, having Skarsgård’s character protest this reading of his character. “Are you mocking me?” he demands after Joe spins a loopy tale involving a spontaneous orgasm that results in a vision of the Whore of Babylon. Joe responds that it's probably best if he just accepts the story at face value. She is surely correct. Unpacking Nymphomaniac’s dense tangle of irony and references is so daunting that direct engagement with the story isn’t just borderline impossible, it’s irrelevant...

YouTube Tuesday: The Max Fischer Players

Monday, April 7, 2014

Monday Morning Awesome

"I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. "

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Review: The Babadook

The Babadook builds up such an excruciating tension that it's actually a relief when the monster shows up. "Phew," we say to ourselves. "It's only a demon made of shadows and claws. At least now I know what I'm dealing with." 

Like all great horror films The Babadook uses its terrors not as an end in themselves, but as a means to tap into the viewer's deeper, more primal fears. The Blair Witch Project plays on our fear of the occult, sure, but also our deep-seated panic at the thought of being hopelessly lost. The Fly uses our terror at the frailty of our own bodies. Jaws draws on our powerlessness in the face of nature. Now there is Jennifer Kent's terrific The Babadook, which is the best horror film I've seen since the one-two punch of The Descent and Let the Right One In in the mid-00's, and it's all about our fear of our own offspring. The fear that our children will destroy our life as we know it and the fear that we might hate them.

The film's lead, Amelia, could make the claim that the birth of her son Samuel quite literally wrecked her life. On the way to the hospital to deliver him she got in a car accident which left her a widow. We pick up the story with Amelia as an isolated single parent, separated from a social circle that sees her as an object of pity. Her nerves are fraying at the stress of dealing with the non-stop difficulties of her now seven year old son.

The Babadook does such a masterful job grounding Amelia situation in reality that by the time the horror elements really kick in we are totally invested. Samuel, for example, is irritating not in the way cute movie kids are annoying but in the way real children can be a huge pain in the ass. He is a good kid at heart but is oblivious to the relentless stress he inflicts on his mother, throwing tantrums, breaking down emotionally and all but disappearing into his own imagination. You can see the constant toll it takes on Amelia to maintain her composure and not yell at Samuel to stop ruining her life. When these behavioral issues threaten to get Samuel expelled from school it looks as though Amelia's nerves may reach a breaking point. It's at this point that Mr. Babadook enters the picture, seemingly willed into existence by Amelia's darkest buried impulses.

"Mr. Babadook" is the title of a children's book that mysteriously appears on Samuel's bookshelf one night when his mother offers to read him to sleep. To say it is not suitable for children is a colossal understatement. After a few seemingly innocuous page it quickly reveals itself to be a nightmare in paper form. Where The Wild Things Are as written by Hannibal Lecter. I recall not being the least bit frightened by another recent scary children's toy: the possessed doll in The Conjuring. It's appearance was so absurdly, over-the-top evil looking that I had to stifle a laugh every time it appeared on screen. Did the toymaker design it specifically to be possessed by malevolent spirits? The Mr. Babadook book on the other hand, has the opposite effect. It's meant to be disturbing and boy is it ever. If anyone wants to play a terrific prank, obtain a copy of the book and secretly leave it in on the shelf of anyone who has seen this movie. They'll be sleeping with the lights on and a shotgun by the bed.

Once the book appears The Babadook follows a somewhat predictable arc of gradually increasing horrors, but Jennifer Kent's execution, and the heroic performance of Essie Davis in the role of Amelia, elevates the film right out of cliché territory into a much more unsettling place. You might be able to guess, for example, that Amelia will become so rattled by the darkness surrounding the book that she attempts to destroy it. And if you further wagered that the book doesn't stay destroyed you wouldn't necessarily lose your money. What you would not be prepared for, however, is the phenomenally creepy way in which the book returns. The Babadook gets around all the defenses we have learned from years of watching horror films and gets under our skin.

I am curious how a mall crowd of teens raised on a diet of wind-up jolt machines posing as horror movies would react to a real deal film like The Babadook. My hunch is they'd run for the exits. But the ones that stayed would be treated to an experience. The Babadook leaves a mark on the viewer. It is absorbing, entertaining, and, above all else, terrifying. Here is a movie that raises up the whole horror genre.

Verdict: 9 out of 10

Thursday, April 3, 2014


A critic is supposed to be capable of remaining impartial and open-minded about any film until seeing it in its entirely. And while no one can honestly do this 100% you do want to get up around 90% or so, a bar which I believe I can clear. What's not possible is to avoid developing some base-level expectation of the probable quality of a film. These kind of gut reactions are reflexive. You can't be ruled by this initial guesswork but it's no use pretending it isn't there.

Case in point: Malificent, which I'm guessing is going to be lacking in some significant way. Snow White and the Huntsman without Colleen Atwood's costumes to distract from the film's crappiness. And this prediciton is nothing against Jolie or even the concept of the film itself. It's not even the underwhelming trailer. It's those pointy cheekbones. They're stupid. 

Once glance at them and I'm more or less convinced there's no way Malificent can be a top notch film. The idea of making a live action character resemble an extremely stylized cartoon betrays a lack of wisdom that can't possibly be limited to this one choice. It suggests a filmmaker primarly concerned with corporate fealty. Directives to "Make it look just like the cartoon everyone knows!" takes precedence over common sense concerns over whether something is objectively ridiculous.

Now the important thing is that I am open to being proven wrong. And I am, I swear. But I don't expect to be. A misstep this glaring is like spotting a cockroach. If you see one the house if probably full of them.