Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Case for Extreme Horror

I defended extreme horror (better known as torture porn) as a subgenre for The Airspace. Check it out.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Overlooked Gems #60: Theatre of Blood


Grade: 82/A-

Oscar season is upon us, so it’s time for much of the world to reduce important (and not-so-important) films to whether or not they’re going to win awards. Oscar prognostication is a bloodless enterprise, not to mention meaningless, and it’s enough to drive talented people to insanity (see: actors saying “yes” to Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). So it’s with the spirit of the Oscar season, and the Halloween season, that I recommend Theatre of Blood, the decidedly nasty Vincent Price film about an actor driven mad by lack of recognition.

Edward Lionheart (Price) believes himself to be one of the greatest Shakespearean actors of his time, but the critics don’t agree. They’ve panned his Lear, his Othello, and his Shylock, and when he thought he was a front-runner for a Critics Circle Award for Best Actor, they gave it to a newcomer. Despondent, Lionheart attempts suicide, but he survives, and he decides to take revenge on his critics in a decidedly Shakespearean fashion.

The film was directed by Douglas Hickox, best known for his run of black comedies and thrillers in the 70s (Entertaining Mr. Sloane, Sitting Target). With Theatre of Blood, Hickox combines the lurid Grand Guignol of Hammer Film Productions with a darkly comic wit that would fit with the classic Ealing Studios films Kind Hearts and Coronets and The Ladykillers. When Lionheart kills his critics, he not only selects a person based on a vice, but also pairs it with a famous death in a Shakespeare play; the glutton is forced to eat his beloved dogs (similar to Titus Andronicus), while a drunkard critic is drowned in a cask of wine (like the Duke of Clarence in Richard III).

The film does get a bit too episodic as it moves from one gruesome set-piece to the next, but they’re all vividly staged, they’re held together by Price’s regal yet sinister performance. They also give Price the opportunity to sink his teeth into the Bard’s most famous soliloquies, which he does with deranged glee. Price was an exceptional actor with a stage performer’s control over his voice, but his horror background saw him typecast and unable to step outside of the genre.

Price loved the film because it gave him that chance, but it also could be seen as his dark joke on the stuffier critics who turned their noses up at horror. As the film reaches its mad climax as Lionheart tries to force the lead critic to finally present him the award he believes he so richly deserves, it takes on new relevance. Mad as he may be, at least his awards show is more lively than the Oscars.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Captain Phillips


Grade: 66/B

When it comes to recreating real events for film, the first question shouldn’t be “how”, but “why”. Paul Greengrass hardly needed to justify himself with his excellent 2006 film United 93, which recreated the events aboard one of the planes in the September 11th attacks- it was the defining event of an era, and Greengrass’s film served as both a harrowing thriller and a stirring tribute to the people involved. But the “why” doesn’t come as easily with Captain Phillips, a well-made but rather thin thriller held back by its pretensions of having far more to say than it does.

The film follows the true story of Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), whose ship was boarded by Somali pirates in 2009. Phillips calmly tries to deal with leader Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), but as the crew avoids capture and the other pirates lose patience, he’s brought on board to the ship’s lifeboat. There, the pirates plan to ransom Phillips for money while the U.S. Navy plans his rescue.

As with United 93, the success of Captain Phillips is rooted in the minute-to-minute specificity of the action. Greengrass’s focus on long buildup to the pirates’ arrival is as tightly-wound as anything he’s ever crafted, and the drawn-out, claustrophobic lifeboat scenes are even better. It’s unfortunate that it’s paired with Henry Jackman’s bombastic, intrusive score, which hammers along throughout the film as if to remind us of how tense the situation is. Greengrass’s direction is assured enough not to need it.

Greengrass’s focus extends to Hanks and Abdi, both quite good as two men trying like hell to make the best out of a bad situation. A new actor, Abdi is a natural, both charismatic and conflicted as a man who sees piracy as the best way out of a desperate life. Hanks is even better as a man who has only one thing on his mind: survival for himself, his men, and, if he can help it, the pirates. Hanks’s innate likability has always been one of his greatest assets, but his strength here is that he couples it with a vulnerability that’s reminiscent of his excellent work in Saving Private Ryan. The final scene in particular is an acting master-class, with Hanks showing the lasting effect these events will have on him in a way that’s heartbreaking without seeming ostentatious.

But what’s it all in aid of? Captain Phillips is a skillfully crafted thriller with two very strong performances, but there’s little perspective on what’s (in the grand scheme of things) an awfully minor event. Where Phillips ends up by the end of the film doesn’t particularly relate to where he was at the beginning- the whole thing took an emotional and physical toll on him, but he hasn’t gone through much of a change as a person. The film also shoehorns in commentary about Muse’s choices being part of his way out of a tough life (and tries to make a parallel with a terrible intro scene between Hanks and a wasted Catherine Keener as his wife), but it doesn’t really have much to say about the way capitalism pushes these men. The problem with Captain Phillips isn’t that it isn’t well made or effective, but that it’s not actually about anything.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Counselor


Grade: 79/B+

There’s a scene in the pitiless new thriller The Counselor where Cameron Diaz’s femme fatale Malkina tells another character, “You don’t know someone until you know what they want.” 

That captures the cold nature not just of noir, but of the world of writer Cormac McCarthy, where greed is a constant, where almost everyone is a predator, and where the most dangerous person is the one whose motives are mysterious. The film, directed by Ridley Scott, plays as a more overtly philosophical companion piece to the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men. The Counselor isn’t as satisfying as that earlier picture, but then, it’s a film that’s even more determined to buck convention and alienate audiences, and that’s a thrilling thing to witness.

The titular, unnamed Counselor (Michael Fassbender) has a happy relationship with his innocent fiancée Laura (Penélope Cruz), but he’s a corrupt man at heart. The Counselor has a number of debts, and in order to pay them off and keep up his lavish lifestyle, he takes part in a drug deal with his friend, drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem), and middleman Westray (Brad Pitt). But there’s a number of other players behind the scenes, including Reiner’s calculating wife Malkina. When things go bad and the dealers are ripped off, there’s hell to pay, and the Counselor finds himself in over his head.

There’s not much inner-life to the Counselor, but that’s largely purposeful. Played with icy remove by Fassbender, the character is a man who does dirty work safely and with a detached smile. Seeing him next to the excitable Bardem (who hilariously seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr.) and the coolly professional Pitt (as relaxed and charismatic here as he was in Moneyball), it suggests someone whose work has made him inhuman. Even when whispering sweet nothings to Laura under the covers, there’s little behind his eyes. The safety and intimacy of the close-ups in those scenes? All a lie. Compare that to the nasty but unpretentious nature of the brutal drug dealers, and it might be preferable to be with those where you know you’re not safe.

Scott shoots most of the early scenes with his typically painterly style, contrasting the slickness and sterility of the interiors with the harshness of the desert. It’s a rather effective choice, as it emphasizes the cold remove of the Counselor’s lifestyle while suggesting that something more primal, more violent is on its way to tear it down. That violence is presented with a matter-of-factness that’s chilling (the use of wire in two remarkable set-pieces is particularly horrific) The fear of mortality has long been the dominant theme in Scott’s work, and here, it takes death knocking on the door to make the Counselor more recognizably human.

Some have found the film’s portrayal of women somewhat queasy and misogynistic, with Cruz designated to a victim role and Diaz vamping it up (rather enjoyably) as the malicious Malkina. Certainly many will cite the unease most men regard Malkina, especially in a batshit flashback in which she does unmentionable things to a very nice car. It’s less about their gender and more about the unforgiving world the film takes place in, where only the cruelest and most controlling have a chance, and keeping control might mean doing something inexplicable, just to make someone else terrified of you, to make yourself more mysterious- and more dangerous.

McCarthy’s first screenplay is florid, to a degree that sometimes grinds the narrative gears to a halt as characters muse on the possibility of death and what it means in 10-minute dialogue scenes. But that also makes The Counselor one of the year’s most fascinating films. The plot’s murky nature will likely frustrate many, but McCarthy is more interested the nature of the men and women behind evil deeds, what it takes for them to survive, and whether they can live with the consequences. In a world of safe films, the aggressive, frequently off-putting The Counselor stands out.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.11: Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 90/A-

More than any other film, Martin Scorsese wanted to make The Last Temptation of Christ. A devout Catholic who constantly wrestled with religion and guilt in life and in art, Scorsese read Nikos Kazantzakis’s controversial novel and made it priority number one for years. In 1983, he nearly got the go-ahead when Paramount greenlit the film to star Aidan Quinn as Jesus and Sting as Pontius Pilate. But when evangelical Christians started to pressure Paramount’s parent company Gulf + Western, the studio pulled the plug, and Scorsese was forced to move on.

But he never gave up, and when Universal gave Scorsese a shot to shoot the film for half of the original budget, he put his mob project Goodfellas on hold. The Last Temptation of Christ gave Scorsese his second Best Director nomination at the Oscars and was one of the most-talked about films of the year, but often for the wrong reason as fundamentalists picketed (and even rioted in France). While the film has unfortunately been overshadowed by the hubbub, it should not be remembered as Scorsese’s most controversial film, but rather as his most personal.

The film takes a look at Jesus (Willem Dafoe) not as a purely divine figure, but as a man with desire. A carpenter Judea, Jesus is plagued by knowledge that God has a plan for him, by guilt over his collaboration with the Romans (i.e., building crosses), and by his desire for the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Barbara Hershey).

 Jesus soon begins preaching, gathering followers who believe he will be a revolutionary against the Romans; but he’s unsure exactly of what’s expected of him, and his tendency to veer back and forth between messages of love and revolution frustrates his loyal follower Judas (Harvey Keitel). Soon, Jesus is crucified by the Romans, but a guardian angel offers him a chance for peace, for love, and for a normal life.

The first thing that separates Scorsese’s film from the bloated Biblical epics of yesteryear is the grit that comes with the director- Last Temptation doesn’t share their self-importance. Rather, Scorsese roots it in reality befitting to the Italian neorealists or the work of Pasolini (who made his own memorable Christ film with The Gospel According to St. Mark). That grounded nature- the handheld work for a man’s crucifixion, a low shot of a shy Jesus waiting for Mary Magdalene while she’s with another man- helps ground the more fantastical material (visions of bleeding apples, of nails pulled from Jesus’s feet), which mixes an otherworldly dreaminess befitting Cocteau with the harsh realism Scorsese is best known for.

Last Temptation is also notable for what’s perhaps the best sound design of Scorsese’s career- the use of Dafoe’s narration as a conversation with God, or of overwhelming noise that seems to crush Jesus. Perhaps most notable is a scene with John the Baptist (Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre), where the shouting and dancing of the Baptist’s followers cuts out for near-silence, with only the sound of the two men’s voices and the river remaining. It’s not always aided by Peter Gabriel’s score (a mix between effective Middle Eastern music and dated new age material), but Scorsese’s use of sound here helps sell the spirituality of the film.

That spirituality could be seen as the formal aspect, the humanity the realistic aspect of Scorsese’s film aesthetic, and Last Temptation brings the two personalities more closely together than any of Scorsese’s films outside of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver. It makes sense that the deeply religious director wanted to tell not only the tale of Christ, but this tale of Christ, which shows him as a more human, dare I say flawed character.

The film is filled with memorable performances particularly David Bowie’s sarcastic but rational Pontius Pilate and  Keitel’s exasperated Judas, handled here as a brave, loyal, and loving follower willing to go down as hated for his master’s wishes. Nevertheless, it belongs wholly to Dafoe, who takes a near-unplayable part and creates a man torn apart by guilt, by anguish, and by fear for what he has to do. He considers himself “a liar, a hypocrite”, one who helps the Romans kill other Jews and who can’t resolve his human desire for the love of Mary Magdalene with his knowledge of God’s plan for him. He punishes himself with self-flagellation, and with self-hatred just as Jake LaMotta or Travis Bickle did. That his mission is more noble than Bickle’s or LaMotta’s doesn’t change his self-loathing, nor is it helped by his not fully understanding what God’s plan for him is.

The anger and frustration of his followers is more understandable as well, not to mention the trepidation of nonbelievers. The film gets a bit ungainly and episodic in the sections where Jesus performs his miracles, but it serves to show both how he could attract followers and put-off others with his borderline bipolar swings from love to rage. He also gets carried away with his own divine nature, rejecting his own humanity by pretending to not recognize his own mother (when Jesus later lamets on the cross for being a bad son, for the first time perhaps in all fictional portrayals, it feels earned). And as he goes from a man who promises the destruction of the temple to, seemingly on a whim, a man who predicts and argues for the necessity of his own death, it’s hard not to relate to Judas’s exclamation “Every day you have a different plan!”

 It’s because the film is so rooted in the psychology of its characters that familiar Gospel scenes have power not seen in other Biblical adaptations- Jesus’s terrified pleas to his father in the Garden of Gethsemane don’t feel like posturing, and Judas’s kiss of betrayal is more painful with the knowledge that he and Jesus have accepted this. And while Scorsese doesn’t linger on the flaying, the crown of thorns, or the crucifixion as long (or as pornographically) as Mel Gibson did with his execrable The Passion of the Christ, the impact is far stronger when we understand him as a man as much as we do as a religious figure. That the crucifixion is as much about his spiritual anguish as his physical pain and embarrassment makes it all the more powerful- for once, we understand the meaning of the words, “Father, why have you forsaken me?”

Then the controversial material starts- in a dreamlike, beautifully fluid hallucination sequence, Jesus is taken down from the cross, his wounds cleaned, his relationship with Mary Magdalene consummated. The exteriors, which looked barren before, are now lush and green. There is peace, and even as Mary Magdalene dies, Jesus is provided two wives (the angel assures them he can have whomever he wants).

Scorsese seems to be wrestling with not only his faith in these passages, but with his own demons. The Jesus of Last Temptation is plagued with doubt, with feelings of unworthiness, and with a question of whether his grand mission is all for naught. Scorsese, throughout most of his filmmaking career (and especially in the 1980s), was plagued with doubt, with feelings of unworthiness, and with a question of whether or not any of his films would matter to anyone. As a devout catholic, he worried over his sins of having divorced multiple times, of the ways he wronged others. Perhaps, if he gave it all up, he could lead a normal life.

There’s a key scene in the fantasy where an aging Jesus, now with a family in tow, encounters Paul (Harry Dean Stanton), who preaches of Jesus, who died on the cross for humanity’s sins. It echoes an earlier scene where Jesus’s followers debate whether he said the things people claim he did, and one says that “Even if he didn’t, the words are still important because people believed them.” As Jesus confronts Paul and calls him a liar, Paul sys something to similar affect- that we create truth out of what people need to believe, and that it gives the people hope- happiness, even- to believe that a man has died for their sins. Whether or not it was true, they choose to believe because of its power, and that makes it worthwhile. That’s a powerful sentiment, one that even the nonreligious could likely understand, and it could be seen as Scorsese’s message to the nonreligious viewers. “You might not believe this, but it gives me a reason to go on,” it seems to say.

At the same time, the “whether or not it’s true” isn’t Scorsese’s full perspective. He’s a believer, and he likely agrees with Jesus that it does matter whether or not it really happened. At the end of the film, as Jesus lies on his deathbed as the Romans fight a rebelling Jerusalem, his followers appear, as Judas asks if his betrayal was “for nothing”. There has been no sacrifice, no salvation, and all because he was tempted by an angel (actually Satan) to abandon his purpose for an easier life.

There’s a key quote by Frank Capra that said that Christianity was about second chances. That was the case with Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, a film embraced by most religious moviegoers as a decent but flawed man, out of desperation, wishes for an easy way out, only to realize how much the world would change and see the value of his life. Perhaps those same viewers who rejected Last Temptation could view the film through that lens- as an affirmation of Jesus’s importance, of what his sacrifice meant.

For much of the film, Jesus asks for forgiveness for his sins, an acknowledgement of the human side to a human/divine divide. With his return to the cross (in rather striking zoom backwards), he gets the chance.. A loud, dissonant scream of instruments on the soundtrack and a flash on the screen (accidental, but remarkable enough that it had to be left in) brings the character all the way to the divine. He’s in pain, but there’s relief in death, and in what it was all for. No matter how difficult it all was, it’s all for something. That’s the case with the film’s Jesus, and that was the case with Scorsese’s many hardships. Believer or nonbeliever, it’s hard not to be moved.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Escape Plan


Grade: 64/B

In 1985, the world likely would have lost its mind had Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone announced an upcoming collaboration. In 2013? Not so much.

After the diminishing returns of their mainstay franchises and senior-citizen action vehicles, Escape Plan, their first full co-starring vehicle (not counting Ah-Nuld’s cameos in The Expendables films), saw lukewarm reception at its first weekend at the box office. It’s a bit of a shame: while the film can’t compare to the stars’ 80s heyday, it’s a highly enjoyable (and thoroughly absurd) thriller from two stars whose age hasn’t negated their charisma.

Stallone takes the central role as Ray Breslin, a former prosecutor now running a security firm testing maximum security prisons. Breslin has spent his life busting out of prisons under an alias, but a shady deal sends Breslin to a complex prison with no view of the outside to indicate his location, and no way to contact his team. Placed under the eye of a particularly creepy and controlling warden (Jim Caviezel), Breslin has to find a new way to escape, and he finds a partner in fellow inmate Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger).

Escape Plan was directed by Mikael Hafstrom, a journeyman action director behind such “what was that again” films such as 1408 and The Rite. He stages the action  functionally, but not particularly memorably. The script by Miles Chapman and Jason Keller doesn’t do anything new with the prison-break formula, either, and it spends too much time setting things in motion and wasting a talented supporting cast that includes Amy Ryan, Sam Neill, and Vincent D’Onofrio (50 Cent is here, too, for what that’s worth).

But the chemistry of Stallone and Schwarzenegger carries the film a long way, mixing long-awaited fistfights with scenes of the two learning the ins-and-outs of the prison for their escape. In a way, there’s intelligence to the unabashed stupidity of the film: so much of it is less about the action and more about watching the two work together. Caviezel’s great fun as a memorably persnickety villain, but the film is at its best watching the two banter (Arnold: “You hit like a vegetarian”).

Stallone shows why, when he chucks out the self-conscious grimness, he’s among the most charismatically inarticulate actors who ever lived. Schwarzenegger is particularly strong, mixing his trademark self-awareness with a liveliness more reminiscent of his Terminator 2/Total Recall heyday than his too-jokey later projects. He’s as fun as ever when wielding a machine-gun, but more memorable still is a confrontation with Caviezel involving a pen, a piece of paper, and a tale of his youthful artistic ambitions in one of the best “fuck you” moments in recent memory. Escape Plan won’t go down as one of the best films in either actor’s filmography, but it stands as proof that we may see more good work from them yet.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.10: Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 76/B+

Everyone needs a paycheck. With the exception of someone as wildly successful as Steven Spielberg, sometimes directors just need to take on a project in order to make something, anything. That was the case with 1986’s The Color of Money, a sequel to the 1961 classic The Hustler. Scorsese agreed to make the film in order to show that he could make a commercial film (and, perhaps, get The Last Temptation of Christ greenlit). But while it’s certainly one of Scorsese’s least immediately personal projects, that doesn’t make it entirely impersonal.

“Fast” Eddie Felson (Paul Newman, reprising his greatest character) was once a promising young pool hustler, but now he’s an aging liquor salesman who never quite achieved greatness. One night, Eddie meets Vincent Lauria (Tom Cruise), a cocky young man with a natural talent for pool. Eddie takes Vincent and his girlfriend/manager Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrontonio) on the road to show them the ropes to hustling, but eventually he parts with the two. Eddie goes back to pool to face off with Vincent at a major championship in Atlantic City.

The Color of Money is Scorsese’s slickest film to date, sometimes to a fault- the grit and unbearable tension of Scorsese’s best films is largely absent, and the too-80s soundtrack doesn’t help natters. But it’s still a Scorsese movie, and the technical bravura on display is still striking. This is Scorsese’s second film with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and like After Hours, its assured, dynamic use of whip pans and tracking shots  (along with Thelma Schoonmaker’s typically energetic editing) gives the film a lot of momentum. It doesn’t totally disguise the film’s episodic nature, but it makes for a number of memorable episodes- I’m particularly fond of the long tracking shot around the pool table as Cruise dances/shoots to “Werewolves of London”, which frames him almost like a god, albeit the most childish, cockiest god in the world.

What might be most notable about The Color of Money’s style, however, is how Scorsese takes his time to establish character and environment. Mike D’Angelo handled the film’s fantastic opening better than I could in his Scenic Routes column, but I’m also knocked out by the dinner scene between Eddie, Vincent, and Carmen. Scorsese has always been a master of using slight camera movements to communicate something about his characters, and his pushes towards Vincent as Eddie calls him “an incredible flake” show the dent in the young man’s ego even as Cruise barely changes facial expressions, making him seem closer to Newman in a way that’s essential for the film to work.

Cruise was a rising star at this point (Top Gun was released the same year and shot him into the stratosphere), but with the exception of Risky Business, he hadn’t really had a chance to show how good of an actor he could be. It’s an archetypical Tom Cruise role, to be sure, but he’s quite good as the ostentatious, relentlessly brash showoff Vincent, his goofball dances and affectations suggesting a caffeinated version of Newman’s character in the first film. What makes this more than just a standard-issue Cruise performance is the lack of confidence beneath the surface, best shown whenever Carmen suggests she might leave him.

Mastrantonio hasn’t done much since the early-90s, and it’s a damn shame considering how good she is at playing women who are infinitely smarter than their male counterparts (see also: The Abyss). Carmen might actually be the most interesting character in the film- she’s manipulative of Vincent, but that doesn’t make her less affectionate. She’s wiser to the world, but she still doesn’t know when she’s pushed Vincent too far (her casual nudity around Newman irks both men, and a later confrontation connected to it is the tensest scene in the film).

But even with strong performances from Cruise and Mastrantonio (and some nice early roles for John Turturro and Forest Whitaker as a coke-addicted Eddie protégé and a hustler who pulls the wool over Eddie, respectively), the film is a Newman showcase. Many thought Newman’s belated Oscar-win for this film was an apology for his many losses in the past (The Hustler included). There’s likely some truth in that, but it doesn’t change how assured he is as an older, wiser, but still deeply flawed “Fast” Eddie. He’s more cooly confident, and his past mistakes make him a potentially better mentor to Vincent than George C. Scott’s Burt was to him. But he’s still, to some degree, a loser- a guy who never made it as far as he should have, a guy who never knows when to give up and move on.

The film’s opening monologue (delivered by Scorsese in narration) about luck is all about Eddie- he never had any, and even when it seems like things are going good, there’s a reminder like Whitaker’s young hustler to show how he can still get the runaround. His romance with Helen Shaver is a bit marginalized, but that’s largely the point- he’s willing to marginalize the one thing going for him and risk loneliness for another shot at the top. That loneliness, the sense of not giving up for another shot of glory, is something Scorsese understands. The film gets a more hopeful ending than many Scorsese films (though Shaver’s resignation that she’ll have to put up with more of Eddie’s shit suggests there’s something sadder underneath the triumphant blues rock), but that feeling makes it more than just a work-for-hire.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Gravity


Grade: 85/A-

There’s a joke among certain critics on Twitter that Gravity is essentially Movie: The Ride. It’s at least partially true, but that’s not exactly a knock against it. The new film by Alfonso Cuarón (his first since 2006’s Children of Men) works first as a pure sensory experience, one that takes the viewer through the white-knuckle survival story of two astronauts. What makes Gravity more than just an excellent thrill-ride is Cuaron’s deeply-felt humanity: the sense that human life is valuable rather than expendable.

Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a bio-medical engineer on her first space shuttle mission. A Russian missile strike on an old satellite crashes into a ship, it kills every team member other than Stone and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney), a veteran astronaut on his final mission. As Stone and Kowalski lose contact with Mission Control, the two are forced to use their wits to survive.

The relative simplicity of Gravity’s survival story makes it a perfect vehicle for Cuarón’s penchant for baroque camera movements. The film opens with a bravura 17-minute shot that’s extraordinary both for its sense of zero-gravity movement (which practically makes the viewer another participant in the action) and for its exact compositions. It’s another example of why cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki knows how to move a camera better than almost anyone else in the business.

It’s also some of the most astonishing action directing in years. The sense of spatial dynamics in Gravity is extraordinary, not to mention essential. With even the most ostentatious movements, there’s a need to show exactly what we’re seeing at the exact moment we see it. The film roots our experience in the characters’ objectives, in the specific cause-and-effect of every detail. That emphasis is important, considering the film’s central thread: the value of life.

Cuarón’s script (co-written by his son Jonas) isn’t the most elegant piece of work. Its introduction of Stone’s backstory is clumsy and contrived. It’s not unbelievable that Stone would reveal her past trauma at a moment where she’s in grave danger, but it does feel too much like the cogs of the screenplay grinding to get her into the place she needs to be for the climax. The film also takes a major misstep with a late-period scene that serves mostly to explicate the film’s theme. But these flaws are minor in the face of the film’s ultimately moving look at a character’s rebirth and appreciation.

Bullock carries most of the movie on her shoulders (Clooney is charming as ever in a mostly functional supporting role), giving what’s likely the best, most vulnerable and focused performance of her career. As Stone, she’s a character whose need to survive goes from basic human instinct to more soulful places. Cuarón frames Bullock in birth imagery that might seem heavy-handed if it weren’t so lyrical. A mid-film shot of Bullock re-entering a spacecraft, stripping off her spacesuit and down to her underwear (in a shot that consciously evokes Sigourney Weaver in Alien) then shows her in a fetal position, a cord framed near her as if it were an umbilical cord.

It’s a moment of tranquility amidst a space traveler’s worst nightmare, and it’s those moments that give the film its meaning and power. A later scene with Stone at her lowest ebb, slowly and quietly coming to terms with the likelihood of her death only furthers the film’s sense that life is a gift. Gravity ultimately works not because it’s a brilliantly executed survival story, but because it’s a film in which human survival, this human’s survival, matters.

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Monday, October 7, 2013

Overlooked Gems #58 and 59: Wolf Creek/Martyrs


Wolf Creek Grade: 84/A-

Torture porn. It’s hard to get past a label like that, particularly when a film is released in conjunction with the likes of dunderheaded films like Saw. But there’s some real gems in the run of films I’d file under “extreme horror” rather than that loaded term. When it was released in 2005, Wolf Creek was dismissed when it wasn’t scorned. Roger Ebert famously gave it zero stars, and most other critics weren’t much kinder. But the film has found some champions over the years- Slant even put it on their Best of the Decade list. The film is deeply unsettling, even upsetting, but it’s not the pornographic exercise many made it out to be.

Two British tourists (Cassandra Magrath and Kestie Morassi) and their Australian friend (Nathan Phillips) are backpacking across Outback, eventually stopping at Wolf Creek National Park, the location of a giant crater. Their car breaks down, and they accept a ride from Mick (John Jarratt), a seemingly friendly local countryman. But the grouop soon finds Mick has more sinister intentions for them.

Writer-director Greg McLean hasn’t made much of a splash since Wolf Creek’s release, a real shame considering how deftly he handles the film’s two halves. For roughly an hour, there’s no violence in the film whatsoever, but rather an expressive sense of foreboding and doom. McLean shot the film on digital, but he manages to get evocative pictures of the Australian skies, seas, and deserts. It suggests an existential dread in style of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God, and it’s a shock that more critics weren’t knocked out by it.

Then again, perhaps they were thrown by the film’s gearshift in the second half, at which point the beautiful compositions and thrown into Texas Chainsaw Massacre-style grindhouse grit. Not all of the violence is actually shown (though what is on-screen is pretty gruesome), but the psychological effect is overpowering, and it isn’t leavened by the film’s grim, hopeless tone. The material might be familiar- Texas Chainsaw Down Under, if you will- but it’s nonetheless an effective portrait of youthful city folk meeting something horrifying out in nature. Like Hooper and Herzog’s films both, it’s a force to be reckoned with.
                                                                                                          
Martyrs Grade: 80/B+

But nasty as Wolf Creek is, it’s got nothing on Martyrs, a French horror film which seems to exist partially as the final word on how far extreme horror can go. The film follows Lucie (Mylene Jamponai) and Anna (Morjana Alaoui), two childhood friends dealing with the former’s horrible past. Lucie was abducted and tortured as a young girl, and now she believes she’s found the family responsible. But Lucie is psychologically disturbed, and she has visions of a deformed creature that’s after her. Anna knows her friend isn’t well, and she’s not sure that the people Lucie’s found are the people responsible.

That’s the set-up for the first half of Martyrs: Lucie’s revenge, and Anna’s reluctant help (and attempt to save one family member). It’s intense stuff, directed without mercy by Pascal Laugier, whose smart handheld work gives the film a nervy immediacy and sense of disbalance. The film’s use of POV, meanwhile, manages to blend horrible fantasy with harsh reality in a way that makes Martyrs feel like a nightmare.

And that’s the easy stuff. Without going into spoiler territory, the second half goes clinical and removed where the first half was immediate, as one of the characters is subjected to some of the worst torture imaginable (those with weak stomachs: avoid). This section breaks down our defenses systematically, using repetition to show just how hopeless the situation is. The film becomes reflexive and autocritical of the extreme horror genre, as if it’s asking what kind of pain a person can take, and what that suffering means. The answers are questionable, possibly even dubious- I’m still wrestling with what Laugier expects us to think of the film’s almost transcendently painful material. Nevertheless, it stands as proof, alongside Wolf Creek, that extreme horror isn’t half as artless as many believe it to be. It's pitiless, but not thoughtless.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
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Friday, October 4, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.9: Martin Scorsese's After Hours


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the basic plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 89/A-

There’s almost nothing more soul-crushing for a director than seeing a dream project fall apart. Martin Scorsese knows this as well as anyone: after saving his career with Raging Bull and finishing The King of Comedy, Scorsese had his dream project, The Last Temptation of Christ, greenlit by Paramount, only to see the film canceled weeks before production was to begin. Scorsese would eventually get a chance to finish the film, but first, he had to direct something, anything, to keep his career going.

Enter Lies, a script by Joseph Minion (largely inspired by a Joe Frank monologue) about a man’s comically terrible night in New York. Scorsese liked the script and realized that he could shoot it fast and cheap ($4.5 million). Released as After Hours, the film wasn’t a huge hit, but it showed that Scorsese wasn’t down and out yet, that he was willing to push himself stylistically, and that, given the right material, he could make a damned funny movie.

New York yuppie Paul Hackett (Griffin Dunne) meets Marcy (Rosanna Arquette) in a café. Marcy invites Paul over to her SoHo apartment later that night, but he’s in for a rough night. So starts a series of misadventures: Paul loses his money, inadvertently causes a woman’s suicide, gets accused of a series of robberies, and eventually has all of SoHo after him. All he wants to do is go home, but the city might kill him first.

After Hours plays like a mixture of the early, grungy Scorsese classics like Mean Streets, the dark city horror of Taxi Driver, and his upcoming kinetic masterpiece Goodfellas. Scorsese notably edited the film down from over two hours to just 97 minutes, and the result is a movie that’s all nervy energy, grit and horror, with an added element of absurdist comedy. It’s a film that moves so quickly that it’s hard not to get caught up in the visceral excitement.

Thelma Schoonmaker’s editing actually serves as the punchline to some of the film’s funniest jokes. Paul insists to his cab driver that there’s no hurry, only for the film to enter a sped-up frame-rate that makes it look like he’s racing like a bat out of hell (this also, notably, leads to Paul’s money flying out the window, which strands him downtown). Another cut takes an irate Paul, demanding to enter a club, into a punk-rock nightmare where the flashing lights, crazy-looking kids, and sound of Bad Brains’ “Pay to Cum” assault him. The movie’s most inspired joke, though, is a number of jump-cut fades as Paul soliloquizes to a bored listener about his terrible night. It all sounds absurd, and the sound and fury to his speech, combined with the fades, makes him sound nuts to anyone who hasn’t seen just how crazy his night has been.

After Hours is, notably, Scorsese’s first collaboration with cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who would shoot most of Scorsese’s movies up to The Age of Innocence. Scorsese and Ballhaus make SoHo look simultaneously sexy and nightmarish- it’s seductive to this yuppie, but he’s also too square and too neurotic to not get ripped apart. Ballhaus’ relentlessly agile camera movements- which whip and dolly around with caffeinated glee- only help add to the nervy energy of the film. They’re also great at showing Paul’s neurotic perspective, not to mention how his innocent actions (a massage, a journey to retrieve a barman’s keys) can be misconstrued. It’s as if Hitchcock (whose “wrong man” storyline informs this film) and Buster Keaton had an amphetamine-popping kid.

Scorsese packs his film with a wonderful oddball cast- manic-depressive Arquette; John Heard as a first affable, then distraught bartender; Catharine O’Hara and Teri Garr as a pair of psychotically enthusiastic women who take to, then turn against, Paul; Linda Fiorentino as Arquette’s artist roommate; and Cheech and Chong as a pair of burglars. Dunne, meanwhile, acts as a perfect straight man to all the comic absurdity, both understandably upset and kind of a dick to everyone he encounters. His hilariously pathetic attempts to relate to the crazy people around him (“That’s like that Edward Munch painting…The Shriek?”) only exaggerates how out of his depth he is.

So what’s this all about? Scorsese has pretty much admitted that After Hours is mostly a stylistic exercise, a chance for him to show off all the tricks he’s had over the years to show that he could still make an entertaining film. It is mostly that, but I’d argue that it’s hard not to see some of Scorsese’s own plight in Paul’s night on the town. Here’s a guy who spent most of the 80s scrambling to stay in the business, between his kicking a drug habit, having to force himself through The King of Comedy (which initially bombed), and saw his dream project collapse. Like Paul, Scorsese saw the whole world seemingly going against him. After Hours, then, is his chance to laugh it off.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

I also contribute to The Airspace, pretty terrific site by a bunch of smart people. Give it a look.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this
link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Curious about my favorite films from various years? Check out my account on
Letterboxd.