13 December 2014

Review: Whiplash

Genre: Drama

What a thrill to see J.K. Simmons be given the length to stride full-swing in this his most recent feature, a new piece by new director, Damien Chazelle. Whiplash works off the model most popularized by last decade's Summer box office hit The Devil Wears Prada (2006); an imperious, supercilious mentor professionally imprisons a young hopeful with a certain flair and ambition in a cell of his own making and there, by callous conduct, smarts the upstart into learning a thing or two about not only himself but also his direction. However, unlike its predecessor, this film does not suffer from an embarrassing imbalance in performances; no, here the actor portraying the upstart holds his own against the would-be tyranny of excellence across from him, in the almost possessed figure hewn by Mr. Simmons (Ms. Streep in the aforementioned). Indeed, Mr. Teller, a new actor of increasing note of late, delivers an in all respects good performance; bittered but not brittled, starved but not starving, at times raving but never risk-seeking, the central performance of this film makes the ingenu a bleeding reality, unlike the surreality of clichés and choreographed imperfections seen elsewhere. Still, that Mr. Simmons is the star of this show can be no secret; stormy and snide, a paragon of cutting menace almost eerie in its alternating placor, the mentor whom he verves verges on the ecstatic, but like the music he adores and rules so fervently never topples, no matter how severe the spin. Bravo, sir; bravo.

And, as for the work of Mr. Chazelle, to know when to hold and when to unleash with a tidal storm like what he had in his hands is akin to his character's knowing whether he be rushing or lagging: hair's breadth to the average, stunning to the expert.

The praise, however, must not escape note of the man's writing. This screenplay is a clean and simple, focused(!) investigation of a dialectic centuries old, an investigation that still layers on a beautiful novelty to it.

Grade: A-, bonsai.

30 November 2014

Review: The Theory of Everything

Genre: Drama (Biopic)

It's not often that I see a promising film about a brilliantly interesting person become a weak treatise on a social issue still ahead of its time. For this — and almost only this — character, The Theory of Everything, the new film by documentary director James Marsh, is a piece worth seeing.

The film charts a rather linear biography, nothing new in terms of dramatic structure or even dramatic content, the protagonist struggling slowly with a physical decline as blossoming slowly on a mental incline all the while vying his generally swelling interests against those of his nearest and dearest — it's a perfect idea of genius as constructed and explored already (to varying degrees of success) by such films as The Aviator (Scorcese, 2004), Frida (Taymor, 2002), Jobs (Stern, 2013), and most relevantly here A Beautiful Mind (Howard, 2002) — and, while films like Frida and The Aviator have capably broken their material confines in order to relate and resonate the ineffable inherent in their stories — Taymor, for instance, by wondrous tableaux vivants and Scorcese, for instance, by hypercolor and sequential collages — films like Jobs and this new feature flop around ineffectively within the bounds of the material world within which they exist, consequently never demonstrating in so many frames the advancing genius that they nevertheless attest to portray. Take for example here an early scene, in which the young Hawking first perceives inspiration in the swirl of milk in his train-served coffee. There, the mechanism is, honestly, entirely boring; we the audience never feel as though we're leaving the quotidian meanness of the train on a pathway to delightful, groundbreaking work in the physics. Rather, we stick, bereft of the ineffable, in the simple porcelain pool outside our character's mind, still thus impermeable to us despite Mr. Redmayne's valiant attempts to communicate with us. Other instances of similar tenor fleck the arc of the plot of this film, the worst of which instances chars the serious romantic entanglements of the films' characters with almost flippant crescendo akin to that "flavoring" such modern melodramas as Twilight (Hardwicke, 2008) and The Notebook (Cassavetes, 2004) and the best of which instances (i.e., a simple fireplace shot through a sweater) only approximates the useful perceptual abstractions successful elsewhere. Overall, in this way, the film leaves more on the table than it ever should have and makes banal an otherwise drastically interesting story of a man who has contributed significant insights to the scientific canon.

Additionally, the film suffers from a split interest, a burden beset by the screenplay and unresolved by the director. While it proclaims throughout that it is indeed a biopic of the now standard form, it also bakes in the background a potentially powerful philosophical debate on a modern issue so new to popular discourse in cinema, that it has yet really to be discussed in such a mainstream vehicle: polyamory. Though it never outright addresses this lurker behind the scenes, the film constructs a narrative such that all roads lead to Rome (so to speak); the trials and questions in their romantic entanglements, previously referenced here, present the central characters, Stephen Hawking and Jane Hawking (née Wild), as multifaceted people both in need of support so ordinarily human that it's almost dull and yet in straits of being only partially able to provide that support to one another themselves alone. Their status, in short, is the classic recipe for a polyamor's solution to life: If one cannot for whatever reason find complete fulfillment in the promise of a single mate — and, perhaps, it would be nigh impossible for anyone to expect to do so, she thinks —  then it is only meet for one to find complete fulfillment in a multiplicity of partners, only by a little stretch of imagination different in terms from the friends that conventionally monogamous couples retain or even newly make for reasons of social and emotional intimacy. Yet, because the film leaves this would-be marvel on the back-burner in refusing to court perspectives other than the ruling shaming of conventional society at large, this secondary interest of the film withers and then dies, leaving a corpse of a beauty looming as a burning pall in the background — and the black smoke only distracts and detracts.

Now, at the top of this review I said that this disenfranchised treatise is weakly almost the singular redeeming feature of this otherwise stiff as a board biography. So, it would be remiss for me to close this review without giving due mention to Mr. Redmayne, who reproves why he is a Tony-Award winner in this film. His performance of Hawking is limited by definition, but manages to turn these limitations into assets as he finds confidence within the constrictures of his physical form. What is important and demonstrates this fact is that he never lets the signals of his failing body, however heavy-handedly they were photographed by the other filmmakers, be the entirety of his condition nor even the focus of his action; instead, they are only punctuations of the major story that his body is telling, even at its later stages. While this performance is certainly not at the maximum it could have achieved, it is still one shining part of this work — and, likely, the only major part that will receive recognition from awarding bodies at the year's end.

Grade: C-, stale.

19 May 2014

Trailer: Mr. Turner

29 April 2014

Review: Under the Skin

Genre: Drama (Thriller)

Jonathan Glazer pierces the veil and infuses possibility into black in his new film, the hauntingly emotive Under the Skin, featuring established ingenue Scarlett Johansson as protagonist succubus, charged with sexual and coquettish power to lure stray men into being dissolved of essences. The content of the film, then — sure — is a trying push at mainstream narratives — and, insofar as that push disturbs a subset of viewers, I am not interested. I am interested in, rather, how that push comments on filmmaking as an art itself; for Mr. Glazer's pinnacular achievement in this newest film is not that he can push some audience members' buttons (indeed, several fellow viewers walked out of the theater in which I saw the film while we were there) but instead that he can so competently and elegantly craft a viewer's experience that quietly subverts and eventually disturbs the central core of the viewer and simultaneously reëstablishes the storyteller's devices in his or her mind. He advances.

A prime example of this advancement is in his use of the color black in the film. Never have I before seen black used in such a way to such effect as those in this film. Black is typically the color of void, of nothing, of death and emptiness; here, however, black is the color of possibility. Early in the film Mr. Glazer meditates on black, a lingering mass over the frame sculpted via chiaroscuro with scythes of light, before ever letting form take over. This meditation is sufficiently long, to redefine black as a tool and element, as an instrument; the length, like the length of terminological discussion at the beginning of any verbal treatise, entails redefinition of previously commonplace ideas, so that we know that black is not simply the evacuated after-effect of the defaultedly primary instrument, light, but is instead more interestingly now the primary instrument itself, a crafter and not the crafted. This reading of his visual text is born out in several ways, but namely in how his characters and plotting points emerge all from it slowly and deliberately: Early in the film, a woman is carried up from a ravine by a male character, who has slung her over his shoulder. Neither person is visible to the audience until they together emerge from the blackness; the light does not make them, but rather is a filtration of the all encompassing black from which they just emerged. In the blackness, in the ether, they and all things existed and it was then and there that the director chose to draw them forth in order to describe his message. This inversion of the typical nature of basic binary color, light vs. black, is a tremendous achievement of a filmmaker who is no stranger to dramatic exploration and physical intensity (see, for example, his previous film Birth [2004]). To say that I was impressed smacks of understatement; I came to quickly understand far more about the devices of filmmaking than I had known before the viewing.

On that point alone this film would merit recognition. However, it is not simply artistic or narrative craftiness that recommends this film; additionally, the use of the instrument to follow through the delivery of a necessarily visceral tale is just elegant. Though at times the craftsmanship is perhaps bulkier than it could be, the capitalization on the redefinition of color throughout the film is wondrous. I am thinking now clearly of one exemplary shot as an example: the camera's hovering behind Ms. Johansson's head and there fixated on her hair, many strands exactingly filamented from the darkness surrounding them — a unitary conceit of what works in the entire film. How many strands are dependent and intertwined from one rounded origin and how easily few stray and blow in the breeze, them seduced by the gentle caresses of seemingly errant breezes operating noiselessly and invisibly in the atmosphere around, to coax and extract from the mass just several and, if done properly, not disturb the lot while doing so; how fitting the roundness to be but a superficial covering of control and thought and dream — the brain — in everyone and of beauty and strangeness in her in particular; and how investigative the careful juxtaposition of such layered lines in narration I cannot say enough. Cinematographer Daniel Landin, editor Paul Watts, and director Mr. Glazer all have done great work here.

The film is finally to be recognized for its commensurately beautiful sound design. Mica Levi's dissonant score and Johnnie Burn's precise sound design set the visual content of the film off in brilliant and startling relief against the reality of the viewer's world, where commonplace quietudes interspliced among jagged music prickle hairs.

Overall, while not perfect, this film is a strong strong addition to the filmic canon of this era — one that I would be sad to have missed.

Grade: A-, bravo!

02 March 2014

The SpyGlasses Full: Official Winners (2013)

Winners are below in bold.

Best Live-Action Film (Feature-Length)
12 Years a Slave

Blue Jasmine

Oslo, 31. August

La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)

Best Director
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
Stephen Frears, Philomena
Paul Greengrass, Captain Phillips
Spike Jonze, Her
Abdellatif Kechiche, La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)

Best Actor
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Anders Danielsen Lie, Oslo, 31. August
Joaquin Phoenix, Her

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Judi DenchPhilomena
Adèle Exarchopoulos, La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)
Meryl Streep, August: Osage County

Best Supporting Actor
Emory Cohen, The Place beyond the Pines
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Franco, Spring Breakers
Salim Kechiouche, La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)

Best Supporting Actress
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Scarlett Johansson; Don Jon, Her
Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis
Lupita Nyong'o, 12 Years a Slave
Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station

Best Art Direction
Hannah Beachler & Kris Boxell, Fruitvale Station
Judy Becker, Jesse Rosenthal, & Heather Loeffler; American Hustle
Andy Nicholson, Mark Scruton, & Rosie Goodwin; Gravity
Adam Stockhausen, David Stein, & Alice Baker; 12 Years a Slave
Justin Thompson & David Bleich, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Best Cinematography
Sofian El Fani, La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)
Jakob Ihre, Oslo, 31. August
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Hoyte van Hoytema, Her

Best Costuming
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave
Sandy Powell, The Wolf of Wall Street
Trish Summerville, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle

Best Make-Up
Mindy Hall, The Wolf of Wall Street
Peter King, Rick Findlater, & Tami Lane; The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Ve Neill & Linda D. Flowers, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Evelyne Noraz & Kathrine Gordon, American Hustle

Best Visual Effects
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Oz, the Great and Powerful

Best Original Score
Carter Burwell, The Fifth Estate
Arcade Fire & Owen Pallett, Her
Danny Elfman; Oz, the Great and Powerful & American Hustle
Henry Jackman, Captain Phillips

Best Original Song
"Moon Song" by Karen O. & Spike Jonze, Her

Best Sound Editing
Brent Burge & Chris Ward, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Lisle Engle, American Hustle
Glenn Freemantle, Gravity
Wylie Stateman, Lone Survivor
Oliver Tarney, Captain Phillips

Best Sound Mixing
Chris Burdon, Chris Munro, Mike Prestwood Smith, & Mark Taylor; Captain Phillips
Niv Adiri, Christopher Benstead, Skip Lievsay, & Chris Munro; Gravity
Ren Klyce, David Parker, & Michael Semanick; Her
Andy Koyama, Beau Borders, & David Brownlow; Lone Survivor
Skip Lievsay, Greg Orloff, & Peter Kurland; Inside Llewyn Davis

Best Editing
Jeff Buchanan & Eric Zumbrunnen, Her
Claudia Castello & Michael P. Shawver, Fruitvale Station
Alfonso Cuarón & Mark Sanger, Gravity
La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)
Joe Walker, 12 Years a Slave

Best Screenplay (Original)
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine (Honorable Mention)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Don Jon
Spike Jonze, Her (Winner)
Eric Singer & David O. Russell, American Hustle

Best Screenplay (Adapted)
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope, Philomena
Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire, Oz, the Great and Powerful
Abdellatif Kechiche & Ghalia LaCroix, La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)
Joachim Trier & Eskil Vogt, Oslo, 31. August

Best Animated Film (Feature-Length)
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

Best Animated Film (Short)
(Not Given This Year)

Best Documentary Film (Feature-Length or Short)
(Not Given This Year)

Best Foreign-Language Film (Live Action or Animated, Feature-Length or Short)
La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)
Oslo, 31. August
La Vie d'Adèle (Blue Is the Warmest Color)

19 January 2014

Review: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)

Genre: Drama (Meditative)

There is a great deal of what is true in La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty), Paolo Sorrentino's (palpably influenced) exploratory buffet of one man's particular experience in existential search of a singular gobbet of sustaining vision. Told in a retrospective soup — served calda — the film is impressive in its conjugation of so much of what one cannot underestimate as a panorama of instances, which not so carefully assembled would surely otherwise take the impression of a frivolous menagerie of curiosities sometimes provocative but mostly just lurid, even if manicured. What a viewer then should expect to receive from the film is not any truth himself or herself, but a strong sense of appreciation of something so well tuned and crafted that it bears vivid verisimilitude to an actual experience — not the experience, mind you — of trying. Is that experience what the film terms "The Great Beauty"? If so, then it is more lost than I am giving it credit for being; if not, then fiat ars.

Grade: A-

P. S. Woe to you, viewer who still "distinguish" 'high' from 'low.'

11 January 2014

Review: Her

That Joaquin Phoenix is striding in his prime is the least of the excellences that grace any audience savvy enough to visit Mr. Jonze's newest feature, Her, an elegant bastion of the verve behind the dynamic intersection among psychological science, computer science, and philosophy. Mr. Jonze views and portrays a future nuancedly real (and, purposely for counterbalance, quirky; see those tailored waistlines) for us spectators to warmly inhabit yet feel diaphanously separate from. The sun strokes and lens flares that festoon (previous SpyGlass Full winner's; see also here) Hoyte van Hoytema's imagery not simply paint pretty pictures but serve an adamantine purpose, making us spectators subconsciously aware of our own spectatorship, the fourth wall that divides us from the characters and preserves us — almost sterilely — from complete intoxication by the animus on the screen, a brooding counterpart to the manic pixie dream girl (see here) both borrowed from stock – true — but in the hands of Mr. Phoenix a relentlessly thorough and compassionately melancholy gentleman stumbling upon happiness in his small but vivid world. Misters Buchanan and Zumbrunnen's editing slices together the segments of his life with nanoscopic acuity, permitting an invasion of only reflections in any one otherwise linear scene; and the music, composed in parts by Arcade Fire, Karen O., and others, flavors special slices with a bitter sweetness or subtle ecstasy that captures what we know any idyllic dialogue between kindred consciousnesses is wont to be.

Were any voting awards-granting body bolder, notes for all named parties so far would be clear, as well as one for Ms. Johansson, whose voice over is simply perfect: Like light through a prism, she is radiant beyond what anyone I think could expect from an actress put to such a challenge as this always disembodied yet always present character. It is almost troubling how affecting she is, completely absent from screen.

Even what in other films would constitute a flaw, the predictable unidimensionality of the familiar "broken lovers" trope, here marks an asset, advancing the perhaps at one point insolvable tension of the plot to a natural conclusion; Theodore idly spars with his acerbic ex-wife as both evidence to growth and evidence of his growth's limitation: He is human; he must stumble on (taking solace in those familiar with — perhaps all too intimately — that terminal condition, a final thought that begs the perhaps trite but still interesting question, Who is she whom the title of the film names really anyway?, which I like the film leave open with intention here).

Grade: A, rhapsodic.