Sunday, 4 January 2015

Movie Moments Of The Year - 2014

Another cobbled together list of some of my favourite moments from 2014's films as well as older ones I saw for the first time. So here's a leisurely stroll through them...

2014 films:

  • The story of creation in Noah - beautifully composed as it also worked in evolution and epic timescales into the mythology of the story.
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel - every perfectly centred frame.
  • Those final credits of 22 Jump Street - they're funny cuz their true...
  • Being in the same theatre with Caroll Spinney (the puppeteer of Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch) and James Randi within the same week during Hot Docs.

  • The breathless car chase in Nightcrawler.
  • The bracing last 10 minutes of Whiplash.
  • The wonderful sing-a-long in A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence (more fully described here).
  • And then followed later in the film by the gut punch...
  • The docking scene and entry into the black hole sequence from Interstellar.

  • Melanie Lynskey in Happy Christmas.
  • The end discussion of the erotic novel in Happy Christmas - please tell me there are extended outtakes of that somewhere on the DVD...
  • Alejandro Jodorowsky's brief passionate anger about a director's ownership of their dream of the story in Jodorowsky's Dune.
  • Gone Girl's moment of realization that she once again has been trapped into playing a role and once again has to take action...
  • The butterflies arriving with Spring in The Duke Of Burgundy.

  • Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds performing "Higgs Boson Blues" and "Jubilee Street" in the awesome music doc 20000 Days On Earth.
  • The opening single take swooping shot in The Town That Dreaded Sundown which introduces all the major players at once.
  • The first reading of the play with Edward Norton in Birdman where Michael Keaton's actor actually improvises and reacts instead of sticking to the script.
  • Both times that "Une Femme Avec Toi" plays in The New Girlfriend - both are emotional high points.
  • The avalanche in Force Majeure and the immediate consequences.

  • Little Groot's dance at the end of Guardians Of The Galaxy.
  • The opening titles of The World Of Kanako - insane and perfectly capturing the tone and pace of the film to follow.
  • The hallucinogenic trip in They Have Escaped.
  • Michael Keaton enters a small New York City liquor store lit up like a Christmas tree in Birdman.
  • Norte: The End Of History's turning point: the off screen murder.

  • The Guest dispatching some bullies.
  • Ghostly visitors in the documentary The Darkside - subtle and effective at getting the storyteller's experiences across.
  • The explanation (which involves the idea of fornication with sandwiches) of why vampires prefer virgin blood in What We Do In The Shadows.
  • Scarlett Johansson in repose in Chef.

  • Though I didn't like the film much, that final shot in The Immigrant is glorious. As is the entirety of Marion Cotillard's performance.
  • Dave Franco's De Niro impersonation in Neighbors.
  • The impressive car chase in The Raid 2.
  • A royal meeting in the garden in A Little Chaos.

Older films:

  • Light and shadow in The Uninvited.
  • Those damn minions in Despicable Me - I just couldn't help smiling during every scene they were in. Great comedic creations.
  • The massive iceberg calving event towards the end of Chasing Ice. Also the time lapse photos of glaciers shrinking over a few years were remarkable.
  • "Cool" from West Side Story - the energy, anger and frustration of youth captured in dance.
  • A final walk on the beach in About Time.

  • Sorcerer - the unbearable tension of the rope bridge crossings of both trucks.
  • Every bit of spittle that flies from the mouth's of the characters of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
  • Russian Roulette in The Deer Hunter - after hearing about the scene after all these years, it was even worse than I imagined.
  • The over-the-top-and-around-the-bend practical effects at the end of Society. Extra gooey...
  • Trouble Every Day's two "graphic" moments were absolutely harrowing.

  • A drunken walk across a banquet table with a fire extinguisher in Ashes And Diamonds.
  • The depiction of insanity and an insane asylum in the Japanese silent film A Page Of Madness.
  • This moment from the B-movie Deadly Spawn. Baffling.
  • Meg Tilly's shrieking accusation in Abel Ferrara's Body Snatchers.

  • Slim Pickens' death scene in Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid - waiting for his life to fade away like the setting sun.
  • The build up of tension towards the end of The Bedford Incident.
  • Spotting all sorts of unknown-at-the-time faces in Prime Time (aka American Raspberry).
  • Crossing water using floating pieces of wood in 36th Chamber Of Shaolin.

And finally:

  • Watching some of my all-time favourite films (Network, 12 Angry Men and To Kill A Mockingbird) for the first time with The Boy.

Friday, 2 January 2015

My Favourite Films of 2014

A personal list of the films that excited me, moved me and stuck with me this past year...

1. Grand Budapest Hotel

I have loved every Wes Anderson film so far. It's not just his style (though I fell for every wonderfully designed, coloured and centered frame in this film), it's his whole approach to storytelling - and dammit if this wasn't a great story with some lovely human touches. And Ralph Fiennes should get recognized for a brilliant comedic turn - particularly since he made my son laugh harder than anyone else on screen this year.

2. Gone Girl

Another case of both substance and gorgeous style. Fincher's version of the novel manages to allow sympathy, empathy and detest for BOTH main characters. And like most great magicians, he pulls the trick off with a sense of effortlessness.

3. A Pigeon Sat On A Branch Reflecting On Existence

The beauty of Roy Andersson's films (in particular with his trilogy: Songs From The Second Floor, You The Living and this one) is that through absurdity, humour and the occasional stunning image, he brings you both the warmth and the horror of humanity and leaves it up to you what to take away. There's nothing else like it.

4. Whiplash

The drums drive the film forward with a distinct pulse through raucous periods, through tension filled moments and even through a few of the quieter sections. It feels like the perfect vehicle to represent the insistent drive for perfection that consumes these characters.

5. The Duke Of Burgundy

I absolutely feasted on the smorgasbord of images and sounds on display - like director Peter Strickand's previous film "Berberian Sound Studio" and one of 2013's faves "Upstream Color", my senses came away satiated to the gills.

6. Nightcrawler

Satirical, tense, blackly comic and even provoked a spontaneous round of applause after the best damn car chase I've seen since I don't know when. Can't wait to see it again.

7. Clouds Of Sils Maria

The film may have layers upon layers of meta, but it does so within the confines of the stories. The real joy, though, is in watching and listening to Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart interact and react to each other.

8. Interstellar

I tend to agree with just about any negative points made about the film - from the comments about thin characters to the rather pointless (but I think accurate) criticism of its science - but none of that stops me from just getting lost in the grandeur of the space sequences, the ideas and the unstoppable effect that time has on us. And I don't think I took a breath from that docking scene all the way to the black hole - almost like I was left dangling out in space...

9. Boyhood

My own Boy is somewhere in the middle of the arc travelled here by the character of Mason, so forgive me for attaching personal feelings to this film. But that's what it does so fantastically well - it finds those smaller moments in the life of its characters to really bring them out and feel like true people.

10. 20000 Days On Earth

Nick Cave has led a pretty remarkable life and through his storytelling (and what a great teller of stories he is), several surreal sequences, a variety of old clips and recent concert footage, we get a fascinating portrait painted.

11. Inherent Vice

A drug-fueled, paranoid, modern retro take on The Big Sleep. All the "messiness" of the film is (at least in my opinion) by design. The fun of experiencing it is being thrown into Doc's confused brain and the ever-growing list of characters and plot points.

12. Wild

I will likely always be a Jean-Marc Vallee fanboy (simply due the C.R.A.Z.Y. and Cafe De Flore), but I didn't go in with massive expectations for his latest. His skill (and his editing team's as well) at cutting to sound (not just music, but dialogue and ambient sound) is remarkable and helps to tell this solo trek with flashbacks in a fresh and emotional way. Reese Witherspoon is great and Laura Dern puts in one of the best supporting performances of the year.

13. Locke

I'm not sure this "one man in a car on the phone" movie would have worked with anyone but Tom Hardy. With his calm matter of fact demeanour and Welsh accent, he helps make it a terribly interesting journey up a British motorway. I never found it dull in the least as we slowly learn the details of the reasons for his sudden left turn.

14. The Town That Dreaded Sundown

A compelling, moody, surprising and absolutely gorgeous film that pleases aesthetically, but also encourages you to actively engage with its visuals, colours and foreground/background object placements. A wonderful surprise and a new take on "rebooting" an old story.

15. Birdman

The device of making the entire film seem like a single take (even though the 2 hour run time is spread over several days) kept me completely engaged with Michael Keaton's struggling actor/celebrity and allowed me into his state of mind. The performances all around were entertaining and the film delivered many more laughs than expected.

16. The New Girlfriend

Francois Ozon has been an up and down director for me (even within individual films), but this is easily the best thing I've seen by him - particularly in the way he brought some well deserved emotion to the surface during several key points in this story of a man and a woman coming to terms with their true feelings about who they are.

17. The LEGO Movie

That astronaut had a crack in his helmet almost exactly like the LEGO figure I had when I was a kid. So there was no going back at that point...There was no need to turn around, though, as the energy, humour and creativity of the animation was more than enough to keep that smile locked on my face.

18. Force Majeure

Possibly the best looking film of the year. Every single damn shot was composed so very carefully and helped tell the tale of a relationship that was already precarious and whose slide might not be preventable once it begins to crumble. That avalanche metaphor is kinda perfect for this story.

19. They Have Escaped

Not your average teen runaway story, this Finnish road film marries great hallucinatory sights and sounds to show attempts to escape adulthood.

20. The Rover

Bleak, but riveting. You could feel every bit of desperation in each and every character.

15 Honourable Mentions:

Leviathan, The Babadook, Guardians Of The Galaxy, 1001 Grams, The World Of Kanako, What We Do In The Shadows, Kabukicho Love Hotel, Shrew's Nest, Happy Christmas, Coherence, Spring, The One I Love, Cold In July, American Interior, God's Pocket.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Blindspot - "East Of Eden" and "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?"

There are some who believe that Good and Evil are two very distinct objectively defined entities and that things and ideas are black or white, true or false, moral or immoral. Some would say that thought could be extended to define people in these terms and to categorize them in one of two camps: "Pure as the driven snow" and "Face of an angel" OR "Pure evil" and "Rotten to the core" (phrases we all use to describe people with no middle ground). Of course, these are a fool's definition and try to provide easy answers to explaining behaviours that please or enrage us. The "truth" is that it all depends on your perspective and viewpoint. The landscape is made up of thousands of shades of grey and they are all relative. And speaking of relatives...

The sibling rivalry within East Of Eden and the spousal feuding of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf traverse many degrees of that light to dark spectrum between good and evil. Hurting the one you love is always a complicated and confusing thing to do and that's certainly the case in both films. You could be forgiven, however, if you didn't see a lot of shading in that good/evil spectrum during the onslaught that is Virginia Woolf. From the first words spoken, it feels like a two hour blitz of spiteful bile and vituperative arguments. Most of the insult flinging occurs between the middle aged George and Martha, but they aren't shy in sharing it and spreading it around. George (Richard Burton) is a History professor who lives within the campus grounds with his wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and after an evening at a school social (with a few drinks) they set about their favourite sport - a little verbal sparring with each other. It seems to begin harmlessly - a barb here, a curt word there - but as it escalates, one can tell this is much more than just tiredness and booze stirred together into a cranky cocktail. It seems to be their lifeforce. The only way they can get through the day at this stage of their lives together is by tearing each other down. Even the moments of true passion which still exist between them can't stem their craving for a verbal attack fix. "I disgust me" says Martha, sounding every bit like a drug addict. And when the young couple Nick and Honey arrive for some nightcaps (Nick is a new professor that Martha flirted with at the social event), the mixture of booze and disgust becomes downright toxic for all.

East Of Eden wallows less in that deep end of the cesspool, but still gets itself pretty dirty...Its tale of two brothers competing for their father's love and attention is a modern take on the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, with older brother Cal (James Dean) typically coming up short in the sweepstakes to gain his father Adam's (Raymond Massey) favour. The turning point is when Cal's younger brother Aron usurps him by announcing his engagement just before Cal presents Adam with the proceeds from his business as a gift. Their father rejoices at Aron's news, but scowls at Cal's offer of money: "I'd be happy if you gave me something like your brother's given me - something honest and human and good". The film returns to this perception of good and evil over and over ("Was she bad?", "Do you think I'm bad?", "He's good!") as people try to figure out which end of the spectrum they lie on. The film makes the case that there aren't really any absolute good or evil people since we are all capable of both. The choice of behaviour is ours. Throughout East Of Eden you can see the reasons for each person's behaviour: good intentions gone wrong, decisions based on immediate emotion, and longer term goals that don't show themselves right away.

Reason is a bit further removed from the world of George and Martha though...There are so many points within the film that they could stop the attacks and nastiness, but just as it threatens to peter out, it escalates to even further heights. Short of booze and pride, one never quite gets a handle on exactly why they behave in this manner (nor why Nick and Honey - after initially getting undeservedly pulled into these warped games - begin to go on the offensive with almost equal gusto). But that simply makes this examination of fragile souls so damn interesting and fascinating. It's not simply that car wreck that everyone strains to see, it's that YouTube compilation of Russian Road Rage videos. It's an exhausting film for the viewer, but the actors (in particular Burton and Taylor) are magnificent in their ability to continually wring more madness and anger and sarcasm from their characters. Mike Nichols (who passed away shortly after I watched the film) somehow juggles the ever increasing desperate attempts at lashing out of all 4 characters within fairly constricted spaces (the rooms of the house, a car, a bar, etc.). Tiring to experience, but oddly exhilarating.

East Of Eden didn't quite hit those peaks. It's not that it fails in any category whatsoever (top notch acting across the board, what felt like perfect framing of characters from scene to scene, glorious photography, etc.), but the melodrama on hand never quite seemed to go beyond the simmering stages. The film has reveals and characters going off deep ends, but as mentioned, you could always see the reasons behind their movements and reactions. Perhaps it's unfair because I'm comparing it to Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, but I wanted more escalation, more anger, more unbridled explosions of emotion, etc. It gave me a few too many moments to reflect on some plot points and relationship arcs that didn't quite flow naturally. In a great melodrama, I wouldn't have cared as much, but here it didn't quite sit as well.

Regardless, it tells its tale effectively and remarks on our perception of our own behaviours. Both films (especially through the eyes of family members) cover a wide slice of human actions and reactions - from kind to cruel and from logical to lunatic.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

Toronto After Dark 2014 - The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Easily the biggest surprise and possibly my overall favourite film of this year's Toronto After Dark film festival was Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's (director of several American Horror Story episodes) take on the 1976 early slasher The Town That Dreaded Sundown. Though that little film from 1976 has its supporters and certainly has some choice moments, it seemed like an odd pick for a revisit. The original as directed by Charles B. Pierce (director and star of the head-shakingly bad Boggy Creek II - And The Legend Continues - best known for being one of MST3K's victims) is an awkward melange of horror/docudrama/slapstick comedy that tries to tell the actual events of a masked serial killer who terrorized Texarkana in 1946. And yet...There were some well-realized moments of genuine horror and interesting filmmaking. For his first feature, Gomez-Rejon seems to have focused on those positive aspects and has built a compelling, moody, surprising and absolutely gorgeous film.

Of particular note is the way he composes his frames. More than once during the film, I found my eyes roaming about the square footage on screen, trying to pick up all the little details and contrasting different colour combinations. I'm sure I missed some clues lurking in the background, but the simple pleasure of being pulled into this lovingly created canvas and wanting to savour each little corner, shadow and object was more than enough. If that sounds like a bit of an overstatement, it's partly due to having very few expectations regarding not only the story but the level of filmmaking. It's not that I thought the movie was going to be bad (the trailer is quite handsome actually), but from its opening tracking shot that pans down from a Drive-In screen playing the original film (and which continued through the parking lot filled with many of the films primary characters) it was obvious that Gomez-Rejon had very strong stylistic ideas for the film - all of which actually help move the story forward and engage the audience.

The town of Texarkana (which straddles the border between Texas and Arkansas) still lives with the past - not just those killings from 1946, but also with the movie made about them. They have yearly screenings of the film which pull in most of the townspeople, but there are also those that would rather put it all behind them. In neither camp is high school senior Jami who, even though she describes herself as unpopular, finds herself at that Drive-In on a date with one of the star athletes of the town. She isn't a fan of the original movie so they go to a secluded spot and just as romance is kicking in, they are interrupted quite rudely and violently by a hooded figure. Jami is spared and escapes, but it appears that the attacks have started up again. Further victims follow, but Jami is determined to help track down the killer this time (since the original was never solved). What follows is part classic well-paced creepy slasher and part "re-imagining" of what a sequel can be...

It doesn't follow the story of the 1976 film, but instead incorporates that film (and clips from it) into this continuation of the real-world events of 1946. The word "meta" will be used to describe it and though that's somewhat accurate, don't let it scare you off. It's original in its approach and will even keep you somewhat guessing as to the various suspects, timings of killings, etc. Its cast is excellent too - Addison Timlin does an excellent job as the re-imagined Final Girl with her own issues and a veteran troupe of actors provide her damn fine support (Veronica Cartwright, Edward Herrmann, Ed Lauter, Gary Cole). And I'll say it again - it's a feast for the eyes. It pleases aesthetically, but also encourages you to actively engage with its visuals, colours and foreground/background object placements. I love surprises.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Toronto After Dark 2014 - The Babadook


Silly made up sounds to fit a children's verse or shudder-inducing syllables to remind you of the darkness that exists in all our souls? In the case of first-time feature filmmaker Jennifer Kent's critically praised creeper The Babadook, it's not an either / or situation. The cute can definitely coexist with the terrifying.

Young Samuel typically celebrates his birthday in tandem with his cousin even though the date isn't right. His mother Amelia likes to avoid discussing his actual date of birth since it was the rather auspicious occasion of the car crash that took his father's life (as he drove Amelia to the hospital to give birth). As he closes in on turning 7 years old, Amelia seems to be having a harder and harder time coping with single parenthood. Samuel is a handful as his imagination gets the better of him on a regular basis - his certainty that monsters are after him, his magic tricks and his creative construction of weaponry are all putting Amelia right on the edge. One night she finds a storybook called The Babadook that she's never seen before and they decide to read it together. It illustrates a tall, top hat-wearing, cloaked in black man-beast called The Babadook who will come a calling and knock three times. And Once you let him in...he never leaves.

The book seems to leave quite the impression on Samuel as he starts worrying about the dagger-fingered Babadook and warns his mother repeatedly about it - especially after something knocks on their door one evening. Amelia's sleep patterns start getting messed up, Samuel appears to be harder and harder to control and she starts having issues at work. She's a complete wreck and begins pushing away those that can and want to help her - she is caught up in a crushing concern for her son while also being way past the frustration point with him. The house starts closing in on her...

And what a claustrophobic house it is. Dark, gloomy and somewhat colourless (the red Babadook book easily stands out), the house seems to shrink as the movie goes on - shadows become denser as they surround people and objects, spaces feel more cramped and camera angles leave no escape for Amelia. Essie Davis is absolutely fierce at times and summons all manner of terror and rage while expertly capturing the frustrated, hopeless, sleep-deprived nature of a parent "trapped" by forces beyond their control. Samuel is one of those forces, but so is her own internal struggle to see beyond the he's-driving-me-crazy moments in front of her. The film and its monstrous, looming ghostly figure are the perfect representation of the feelings of a lone parent - never sure about their decisions, not being of sound mind, torn between protection of their child at all cost and a desire to get the hell away...When a night's sleep feels like it all happened in a 5 second time span, you tend to open yourself to dark ideas...

The film seems to revel in practical effects and lighting and it creates almost unbearable dread. If there was one criticism I heard about the film, it was that its gradual build-up and finger-clenching tension never quite resolve in a final scare-burst. Though I understand that desire since that creep factor is handled so well, it's actually quite appropriate that things don't end with an expected result. After all, what is parenting but one long unresolved set of choices along an analog spectrum of possibilities. Sometimes it can be hard to recognize the darker impulses, but you have to resist them and lock them up inside. A frightening prospect.