Home Movies #2

Since I’ve shifted my blog to account for my contemporary cinema viewings, I’ve neglected to write about the many films I’ve seen at home. And well, there have been a lot of them. Given that these early months tend to leave a lot to be desired in the cinema, I figured I could introduce a new column that focuses solely on my at-home viewings. I won’t delve too deeply into any particular picture like I do with my Essential Series column, instead I’m just offering a little snip it of the sorts of films I’m checking out nowadays.

With this week’s column, I shifted gears and looked into some newer pictures, stepping out from my 30s cinema project for a moment.

The Chocolate War (1988) Directed by Keith Gordon

I’ve never read Robert Cormier’s young adult novel, which initially puts me at a disadvantage for accepting the material explored in Keith Gordon’s adaptation. It’s a difficult premise to fully accept, as a young man becomes the subject of bullying and social scrutiny when he refuses to take part in the annual chocolate sale at his private school. There’s an air of implausibility of most of the plot, which involves a corrupted priest exercising capitalist ambitions and a secret tribunal society of privileged students. The surrealist nature of the picture is aided by Gordon’s own directorial presence, which borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese. With excellent cinematography from Tom Richmond and sharp editing by Jeff Wishengrad, The Chocolate War is a surprisingly effective display of filmmaking technique. Gordon gives the picture a particularly somber feel. His style and the material operate on very different levels, therein projecting an oddity of a picture in tone. Still, The Chocolate War is a film that subverts expectations and has the formal elegance to make its surrealist material have genuine emotional strength.

Rating: 7/10

Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (1988) Directed by Pedro Almodóvar

My admiration for Pedro Almodóvar’s films started from the moment that I saw Talk to Her a few years ago. And as I watched films like Volver and All About My Mother, I realized that his work speaks to a very specific demographic. I continued to admire his work, but something about it just never wholly clicked for me. That is until I saw 2011’s The Skin I Live In, which utilizes genre tropes to tell an incredibly shocking story. It reignited my passion in the director, as his formal elegance managed to finally coalesce with a narrative that I could really give myself to.

With Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, one of Almodóvar’s earliest works, I see him refining the sort of style that he utilized to great effect in All About My Mother. It’s a colorful film with a compelling cast of character driven by a feminine perspective. Like with Volver and All About My Mother , it doesn’t work for me on a narrative level. But like the aforementioned films, Almodóvar’s ability to structure shots with so much depth is enough to make the film more than its plot lets on. Thematically, the film fits right in with Almodóvar’s oeuvre as a film that sees women trying to overcome masculine restraints. With melodrama to spare, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown can be filed under films that I admire, though don’t embrace.

Rating: 6/10

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) Directed by Steven Spielberg

At two and a half hours, A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a perplexing feature. Its opening hour is paced awkwardly. On one level, it bares the sort of visual composition of a Stanley Kubrick film. But with its rapid cuts and moving camera, these images connect under the basic principles of Spielberg’s technique. It’s jarring at first, but as the film progresses, you really do become immersed in the philosophy and ideas that the film provokes. And the density of its material is surprising – there’s a lot to mull over during and after the picture. Among Kubrick’s oeuvre, it’s ranks with 2001: A Space Odyssey in its philosophical musings. But in Spielberg’s hands, he manages to streamline the narrative to make it an incredibly accessible picture. While I’ve often been critical of Spielberg’s work, his ability to tell a simple and compelling story in a straightforward manner is his strongest asset. The problem is that a lot of his stories are straightforward to begin with. It’s only with films where he deals with broader material, particularly Jaws and Close Encounter of the Third Kind, is he able to really impress me.

The film is not without its flaws. The opening and closing sequences, which seem to be the most scrutinized by reviewers, stand as my favorite scenes in the picture. It’s odd how these sequences were initially noted as the Spielbergian influences on the picture, yet they strike me as the sort of decisions that Kubrick would have made. A scene involving Haley Joel Osment laughing at a dinner table felt too abstract for someone like Spielberg to have come up with on his own. It’s the middle sections that I have the most trouble with, as the film’s (well, Spielberg’s) reliance on special effects strike didn’t connect with me. Despite that issue, I found the picture to be a truly refined piece of filmmaking. Labeled as a Kubrick work, it’s about a mid-tier effort. But as a Spielberg effort, this dark, daring, and contemplative picture is his finest film to date.

Rating: 8/10

The Adventures of Tintin (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

For someone unfamiliar with Hergé’s The Adventures of Tintin comic, Steven Spielberg establishes an aura of adventure with a delightful animated credits sequence. It’s a nonstop globetrotting sequence that summates a lot of what you’ll be seeing in the feature. It also inadvertently serves to illustrate the major problems that plague Spielberg’s adaption. The sequence features silhouettes of the film’s hero, Tintin (Jamie Bell) and his sidekick Snowy as they span the globe. It’s thrilling and has a good sense of slapstick humor, but at the same time, it’s superficial and easy to digest. It’s perfectly suited for a credits sequence, but when we are finally introduced to Tintin, his dog, and the ensemble cast, it becomes disappointingly clear that they’re never going to expand beyond their character niche.

Tintin was scripted by Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright, and Joe Cornish. Wright’s sense of whimsy translates well onscreen, especially in earlier portions of the film when Tintin and Snowy banter with a merchant and contend with a local pickpocket. But like Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block, many of the characters operate under thin circumstances. None of them are particularly world weary, especially the titular hero. Problems with the script aside, Tintin transitions from a grounded piece of investigative work to a full-fledged action caper with mixed results. Spielberg has incredible control over the camera, as he swoops into the action and positions his camera with grace. But what becomes problematic is the way he stacks these action sequences one after another. It becomes relentless. It’s basically the antithesis of War Horse, as The Adventures of Tintin refuses to pause for a pensive state, instead embracing a hyperactive tone.

So, it’s got a lot of energy. Such relentless energy becomes problematic, as there’s hardly any room to breathe and appreciate any singular aspect to Tintin’s design. Despite an impressive single shot chase sequence through the streets of Morocco near the film’s end, none of the action sequences leave much of an impression. And what’s even more flabbergasting is that the Moroccan action sequence does not cap off the film – we’re still left with a rather clumsy action sequence involving cranes and an anticlimactic conclusion. The Adventures of Tintin works well in spurts, but like War Horse, there no level of attachment to any of the characters. On a technical level, the film is quite impressive, and that Moroccan chase sequence is really good, but otherwise, it didn’t leave much of an impression.

Rating: 6/10

War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)

War Horse is an oddity of a film. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film, at least from a formal filmmaking perspective. It’s exquisitely crafted with a grand level of sweep that puts it right in tow with films like Gone With The Wind or Doctor Zhivago. If anything, War Horse functions as a throwback to a bygone era of filmmaking. Its view of the world seems particularly dated, lacking any hint of cynicism at all. It’s an admirable attempt to view the world in such an optimistic way. And in a time where films like Hugo and Midnight in Paris look upon a bygone era with nostalgic reverence, War Horse seems to only add to the zeitgeist. But with that in mind, there is a very active attempt to construct a narrative around this shroud of nostalgic reverence, to the point that it feels too manufactured to be taken seriously.

The film’s biggest hurdle, and the one obstacle it never overcomes, is the fact that such an intense emotional investment is based on the relationship between Albert (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse Joey. It becomes especially problematic when the film depends on Joey to unite various vignettes throughout the narrative. The horse, with all the mysticism that surrounds it, ends up becoming a creature of bad fortune, bringing death to various characters that it comes in contact with.  It’s something that doesn’t really get discussed outright, with Spielberg diligently imposing a sense of spirituality to the proceedings.  Such spiritual undertones being ascribed to a horse can become comedic, particularly given that Spielberg is maintaining a fairly serious tone throughout his picture.

As a means to address the fact that his lead is indeed a horse, Spielberg employs John Williams’ score recklessly. The music swells at all the trite moments one would expect in a film of this sort, and serves to really underscore how inorganic and unnatural the film feels. And given that the film gallops at a bloated two and a half hour runtime, the feature can be a true assault on the ears.

War Horse has the benefit of utilizing some incredible set pieces. The film’s final act has several scenes that mount the tension of the narrative well. It’s the sort of thing that Spielberg knows how to do well, as we have plenty of impressive war and chase sequences. But despite bits and pieces that I admired, War Horse never shakes this sense of falseness. The picture ascribes to an old-fashioned model of filmmaking that I’m not necessarily averse to, but in this case, it feels too manufactured and insincere for me to ever warm up to. Whereas Hugo marries a new technology to reinforce its fairy tale and Midnight in Paris adds a sharp wit to its nostalgic veneration, War Horse doesn’t pay tribute to films of ole’; it copies it with flat results.

Rating: 4/10

Cinema Chatter – Guesswork

Part of what enamors me about the whole concept of Oscar prognostication is the mystery of it all. It’s trying to separate between your own taste and those of a larger voting body. It’s attempting to understand the perspective of studios in terms of pushing one actor over another. There’s nothing artistic about the process; if anything, it strips the artistry of filmmaking to a science. The science can become repetitive and mind-numbing; at my recent prescreening of Young Adult, director Jason Reitman expressed fatigue when dealing with the press and pundits. After the disappointing performance of Up in the Air following a long festival campaign to push the film, it’s no wonder he has opted to pursue smaller individual venues to get the word out. It works for me; Young Adult is one of the year’s best films, and the whole experience of having him, writer Diablo Cody, and actor Patton Oswalt to do Q&A was terrific.

Just a year after Reitman’s Up in the Air fiasco, director David Fincher went all out on a press campaign for The Social Network. The film was critically lauded and looked to have had its Best Picture and Best Director wins sealed; that is until the Producers Guild of America awarded The King’s Speech instead. Things went south fast for The Social Network, so it’s no wonder Fincher has opted against any sort of awards campaign on his part for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

But as you can see on the updated sidebar, I’m thinking the film is going to play big. Like the Coens’ True Grit, I’m getting a sense that it’ll be the sort of late player that doesn’t have a wider buzz circulating around it until after its release. And perhaps this is a bold statement, but I’m thinking the film will be a larger commercial player than any of Spielberg’s films in the December timeframe.

Part of what makes this whole prognosticating thing a snap is that I’m working with historical data. When you have someone like Meryl Streep, who’s been nominated 16 times since 1979, it’s going to be likely that she’ll be nominated again given the weight of her role in The Iron Lady. Sight unseen, you’re taking a logical bet. Similarly, Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch with War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin lead me to believe that he’ll secure a nomination (for the former, though it’s not out of the question for the latter) for either Best Picture and/or Best Director. Numbers are on your side.

There are plenty of curveballs to throw you off though; there are typically one or two first-time nominees who enter the field. From there, you’re basing your information on others expectations, adding up praise and subtracting dismissals. One can attempt to create a formula to the whole affair, but then, there are those odd-ball nominations that simply come out of nowhere and can’t be justified (Tommy Lee Jones for In The Valley of Elah for one).

But as we wait for the upcoming New York Film Critics Circle to outline what will certainly alleviate confusion as to who are “contenders” (which will be followed by the National Board of Review’s top films), it’s all guesswork. And well, it’s the best time for this sort of thing; it’s probably the closest any Oscar pundit gets to actually implementing their own cinematic taste into the proceedings.

So for now, here’s my first stab at predicting the 2012 Academy Awards. It’ll be lots of fun to see how off I am come February 26.

Best Picture: The Artist

Best Director: Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Best Actor: George Clooney, The Descendants

Best Actress: Viola Davis, The Help

Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, The Tree of Life

Best Supporting Actress: Vanessa Redgrave, Coriolanus

Best Writing (Adapted): The Descendants (Nat Faxon, Alexander Payne, Jim Rash)

Best Writing (Original): The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)

Best Art Direction: Hugo

Best Cinematography: The Tree of Life

Best Costume Design: The Artist

Best Film Editing: The Artist

Best Makeup: The Iron Lady

Best Music (Original Score): War Horse

Best Music (Original Song): The Muppets 

Best Sound Editing: War Horse

Best Sound Mixing: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Visual Effects: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Best Animated Feature: The Adventures of Tintin

Best Documentary Feature: Tabloid

Best Foreign Language Film: A Separation 

 

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)

My response to most of Mr. Spielberg’s films has been that of mild indifference. He has not been a filmmaker I have ever thought ill of, and even in his most offensive efforts (The Color Purple, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), I wasn’t particularly nitpicking about the craft on display. But his best work (Jaws, Catch Me If You Can, and Minority Report) has never aroused me to commend the craft on display either. He exists as a director of whom I am surprisingly familiar with, but at the same time, resist. I don’t harbor the same resentment that some have over the man, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s criticism that Mr. Spielberg is responsible for “the lack of artistic merit in mainstream cinema” – meanwhile, I understand the attacks made against him. Effectively, my stance on Spielberg, the filmmaker, is the same as my stance on his films – mild indifference.

So it should be of no surprise that I wasn’t particularly moved by Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film that I admittedly, had high hopes for. Leafing through the Spielberg cannon, I felt that Close Encounters was my most glaring of omissions and sought to remedy the situation.

I found the film’s opening act, where alien life is brought to the world, to be rather effective – you gather that aliens are not merely touching upon the United States, but all across the world. Obviously, Spielberg zeros in on how the potential of alien life affects select individuals, but that initial introduction has a global aspect to it that I wished Spielberg would pursue. The sense that none of the characters know what is going on is riveting as well, as the world that Spielberg initially frames is one that is grounded in a sense of reality.

Unfortunately, once that initial encounter happens, I grew increasingly distant from the film and its characters. The problems stem from what I look for and appreciate in cinema, and what Mr. Spielberg provides. He isn’t a bad filmmaker by any stretch of the imagination – he is, for all intensive purposes, an imaginative person who manages to convincingly realize his visions. But there’s an emotional component that he adds to his films that I always feel comes across as forced. The emotional component feels less like something organic, and more like padding to progress the narrative. In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s Richard Dreyfuss who accepts the position of taking the audience from point A to point B, and in doing so, he attempts to provide a completely dimensional character. But the writing is so uneven, that his portrayal results in a totally unconvincing character that removes you from the film entirely. Upon the film’s conclusion, in a scene of such lush visual design and imagination, we’re left with a disappointing image of seeing Dreyfuss conclude his narrative arch and obsession – yet the other dimensions to the story, such as what happens to his family and his role as a father, is conspicuously absent. This exemplifies the tragic flaw in pretty much all of Spielberg’s films – the need to sweep emotional details under the rug in exchange for a visually appealing, happy ending.

Rating: 5/10