I Saw This (double exclamation point) is our all-too regular feature wherein Graig or David attempt to write about a bunch of movies they watched some time ago and meant to write about but just never got around to doing so. Now they they have to strain to say anything meaningful lest they just not say anything at all. And they can't do that, can they?
Okay, time to get back up on this horse.
Noah - 2014, d. Darren Aronofsky -- netflix
Dogtooth ("Kynodontas")- 2009, d. Yorgos Lanthimos --netflix
Zero Dark Thirty - 2012, d. Katheryn Bigelow -- netflix
Nebraska - 2013, d. Alexander Payne -- netflix
John Wick - 2014, d. Chad Stahelski, David Leitch -- blu-ray
Harmontown - 2014, d. Neil Berkeley -- netflix
Blue Ruin - 2013, d. Jeremy Saulnier -- netflix
The Scribbler - 2014, d. John Suits -- netflix
When I was becoming a burgeoning cinephile in the mid-to-late 1990s, taking note of writers, directors, actors and actresses, composers and other names on the production roster that were making the movies that I both liked and connected with (sometimes deeply, sometimes superficially), Darren Aronofsky was high on my list of directors to follow, a singularly intriguing creative person worth being devoted to. What struck me most about Aronofsky wasn't anything he did on screen, but what he did off-screen, which was bridge the worlds of comics and cinema. With comics obviously being a very integral part of my life, releasing a movie with a comic book tie-in (not just a licensed prequel, sequel or adaptation) was a sure-fire way of getting my attention. Aronofsky did this with his very first feature, Pi, and I was hooked. The one-shot comic (published by Dark Horse if I recall correctly) and the feature were both black and white art-house endeavours, cerebral and somewhat impenetrable, but fascinating and puzzling in equal, mostly good measure.
His follow-up was Requiem For A Dream (2000), one of the most profoundly disturbing and intense films I've ever seen. It's a brilliant piece of cinema, joining the likes of Clockwork Orange and Dancer In The Dark as astounding cinema that can only be watched once.
Aronofsky went back to comics again with The Fountain (2006), his third and highly troubled feature, creating an accompanying graphic novel (with artist Kent Williams) that expands upon the three timelines presented in that film. I owned the graphic novel for years before read it, as I wouldn't read it until I ha watched the film. I wound up owning the film on dvd for some time before I actually watched it and subsequently read the graphic novel. While I appreciated the entire endeavour, it left me somewhat cold. Despite this, I would follow Aronofsky to The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) in the theatres, finding both to be great movies on their own, but again not resonating with me. I was disappointed when he dropped out of The Wolverine, as I thought he would make a great comic book movie, particularly a great, brooding and dark Wolverine story, and even more disappointed to find out his biggest budget movie would be a biblical adaptation. How boring.
Yet, Aronofsky's next feature, Noah, would find once more be accompanied by a graphic novel (actually an adaptation of the screenplay by Nico Henrichon) fleshing out his tale at something less directly religious and more disaster/spectacle/epic. Even still, I waffled with seeing this production, my interest level never reaching past mild. The graphic novel would be a pricey purchase and the film's subject matter far from enticing, so getting the full experience (as I only assume it was intended) was somewhat off-putting.
It was only its arrival on Netflix that I finally conceded in watching the film, and I found it a curious product. I'm still not entirely sure I understand why it exists. It's almost as if it was made in an exercise to see whether the Bible could be mined for blockbuster motion pictures. The focus seems to be more spectacle than anything resembling religious parity. This isn't the "true" story of Noah being told, and, not being a religious student of any sort, I'm not even sure what the biblical message of Noah is supposed to intone, but I would be surprised if the biblical moral was at all in Aronofsky's mind when putting together this production.
It is indeed epic, a sweeping tale of birthright and revenge, of fathers and sons, of obedience, love and betrayal, the temptations of evil, righteousness and the gray area between selfishness and selflessness. Noah is a man convinced in his mission, unwavering in his belief that God has told him what needs to be done, and the climax of the film deals with exactly how unwavering will he be. Can he perform an unspeakable evil as part of God's will?
Noah is a flawed beast, an awkward behemoth that's both awe-inspiring and teetering on the fringes of being comically laughable. The key cast of Russel Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, and Douglas Booth are extremely serious minded about the events they're participating in (Winstone may be a bit more on the scenery chewing side, though), probably its saving grace from being B-movie camp. Anthony Hopkins as Methuselah provides the film's brief moments of comic relief...or marginal levity as it were.
It's still hard to believe this film got made. It's not unwatchable but it's also not outright entertaining. It has moments of action and some visual sense of wonder but the characters never settle in as believable people, nor do they reach the height of mystical figures. They persist as figures in a tale, servicing a specific story with no will the change the outcome of the tale. The emotion that should be wraught throughout never materializes under the weight of the expectations of the story at-hand. That tsunami set to encompass the world sort of nullifies almost any other drama the film attempts to build.
As noted in David's take[link], there's a sense that this was supposed to be even more wondrous and metaphysical than it actually was (which perhaps that graphic novel I've yet to read bears out?), and I think the tale could have used a bit more of an alien setting to explore its characters and story, distancing itself from any form of Earth-based history (real or Biblical or allegorical)
I had come across (the just defunct) The Dissolve's best films of the decate [so far] list [link] and became somewhat intrigued with seeing all of these movies. Melancholia, which I reviewed back in April [link], was actually the last of a small streak of these that I watched, but Dogtooth was the first.
The idea behind this Greek film is fascinating, the story of three siblings who are the subjects of lifelong social experimentation by their parent. They've effectively been held hostage in their family home and yard, unable to view the outside world at all, except through the limited exposure to outsiders brought into the home by their father. They are taught the wrong words to represent objects, they are told that the land outside of the fence is toxic, and that a sibiling (that likely never existed) escaped and is trapped out there in the land just beyond the fence. They are kept placated, if not happy, by an endless stream of lies, some elaborate others simple. Now in their late teens and early twenties, they're starting to become restless and curious, though the outisde world is still a monster. The main lie, from which the title draws its name, is that they will only be allowed outside the compound once they lose a dogtooth (the parents more than aware that those permanent teeth aren't going anywhere on their own).
The film plays out with deliberate, observational pacing. It's not interested in celebrating or reveling in the lies the parents are telling the children, nor is it condeming them. There's a passivity to the camera -- it's of the handheld, mobile, sort, a seeming adherence to the old Dogme '95 aesthetic -- a watchful eye peering in unobtrusively on events with no judgement borne out for what it sees. In every right these kids parents are monsters (even before dad's heinous act with a VCR) but they're portrayed just as carefully as the kids are.
In my anticipation for watching this film, knowing only the rough plot and a few details, I was expecting something more exploitive, a bit more kitschy or on display for laughs. I was anticipating looking in with fascination and delight, I wasn't expecting the engrossing curiousity, disgust and intensity with which I watched. Something like the kids being told that flying planes overhead are actually just toys (and once they've passed out of eyesight they can be found in the grass as mother has thrown a toy in the grass to be found) could be riotously amusing as, say, a Will Ferrell film, but here it's bizarre but certainly not played for laughs. Likewise, their listening to Sinatra's "Fly Me To The Moon" in English, being willfully mistranslated to Greek by their parents could be comical but sits just as it is...something that happens in this household. The film ceases to continue so much as it ends. There's easily more story to be told here, as the criminality of the parents actions, or the psychological implications of what's been done to them are left unexplored. A second feature following at least one of the kid's journey into the real world is filled with tremendous possibility (just imagine their reaction to a real plane).
Zero Dark Thirty was an Oscar winner for the 2012 cinematic year, and a resoundingly successful follow-up for its director Katheryn Bigelow after winning best director for the Hurt Locker. It's at this point the infamous story of the intelligence tracking and death of Osama Bin Laden, and while many who have seen it focus on the gripping third act's focus on SEAL Team 6 as they invade the compound they suspect is housing Bin Laden, they tend to gloss over the rather fiercly feminist aspect of the film. The progressively feminist story is purly by its true story nature, not so much by design, as Jessica Chastain's Maya, a recent graduate and recruit into the CIA, is thrust head-first into the war on terror and takes the lead on finding Bin Laden.
All manner of obstacles are in Maya's way, political and organizational are the tip of the iceberg. Facing down illegal torture methods, possible threats to her life, systemic sexism, and her own novice background are all trial by fire for her. These things harden her as they threaten to break her, but her resolve is strong, and her persistence, as well as her intelligence and dedication, is enviable.
As a "based on a true story" film, Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece. It's equal parts military and political thriller, as well as personal drama and, in its own way, revenge fantasy. It juggles many levels of beurocracy, international travel, intrigue, and more with a fluidity that finds no diversion it takes out of place. The story is propelled forward with increasing momentum, the audience already knows where its going but is never made to feel like it's just biding its time before getting there. Though no doubt there are embellishment, unlike, say, Argo which took extreme (and obvious) liberties with its source material in the name of manufactured drama, Zero Dark Thirty rarely, if ever, steps on its own toes or hits its audience over the head with false notes.
The shame here is Bigelow has crafted an immensely entertaining and successful feature, award-winning and important, delivering the story of Bin Laden's death in just over a year after it happened allowing for some sense of public closure, and yet she did not become a highly sought after, in-demand director. Bigelow's execution here is deft, navigating multiple genres and wonderful character and world building with defiant ease. It's a film on the same scale as a Bond or Bourne movie which would make her a natural target for taking on a blockbuster franchise and yet we never hear her name in the rumour mills for the next big feature. Is it institutionalized sexism of Hollywood studios, or is it that Bigelow is just not interesed in those kinds of films (Point Break, Strage Days and K-19 tell me otherwise).
Was Nebraska also on that aforementioned list of best 50 films of the decade so far? Even if it wasn't, it'd been a film sitting on my "to watch" list for a long time. I loved the pacing and light humour of Alexander Payne's The Decendents and I had heard great things about Bruce Dern, Will Forte and June Squibb's (award nominated) performances in the film, but seeing as there wasn't a single sci-fi, action, fantasy, or metatextual "gotcha" to the movie, it just took a long time (languishing in my Netflix queue for months on end) for me to get to it.
It's a simple story filled with complex emotions. Dern is a cantankerous senior citizen who's going senile while also restless as his freedoms are stripped from him. He's never had a good relationship with his sons (Forte and Bob Oedenkirk), and he and his wife (Squibb) can barely stand one another's company. When a Publisher's Clearinghouse-esque letter arrives telling him that he "may have already won", he's convinced he needs to make the trip to their home office in Nebraska to claim the prize. Everyone around him tells him it's just junk mail, but he's dedidcated to the trip. Eventually Forte concedes to driving him, giving the two men their first ever real moment of togetherness.
It's a road trip movie and a family movie, as they stop and visit elements of Dern's past along the way. His home town revels in his story of sudden fortune and the extended family gather for an impromptu reunion that goes about as well as any assembly of family goes. It's frequently chuckle-funny, occasionally awkward and sad, but always rewarding. There's a depth and truth to the story at play, particularly to the emotions, with Dern being a man who has never cared for showing his, and Forte coming to understand not just who his father was before, but who he is now, and that like most parents, despite the difficulties they have, he has done as best as he knows how.
Forte delivers a perception-shattering performance. The weirdo/goofball/creepy characters he's played in previous films and in Saturday Night Live sketches fade away almost immediately as Forte's eyes show a knowingness, a maturity and wearyness that he's never earnestly expressed before. Dern's Oscar winning performance is almost the easier job, being gruff, stoic, and occasionally completely unsure of his surroundings, but he delivers a character that never wavers in identity and provides the framework for everything else in the film to react to. Squbb, meanwhile, is the overt comic releif, the Oliver Hardy to Dern's Stan Laurel. She's mouthy, aggressive and uncensored (she even shocked me a couple of times), the perfect counterpoint to Dern's weary silence. She didn't win the best supporting actress Oscar, but it was a likewise worthy performance.
We're not Keanu fan's over at the Kent household. While I have a greater threshold for Keanu than the missus does, it's not really much of a qualification...it's like saying I can take cleaning the litter box more better than she can... which is a bad example because she definitely cleans up the cat crap more than I do... but I digress. Point being, Keanu is not a great actor, in fact he's pretty terrible. Consistently so. Limited facial expression, even more limited vocal intonation, the most animated Keanu ever got was in the Bill & Ted movies and the last of those was over 25 years ago. The perfect role for Mr. Reeves would be Pinocchio because he's a little wooden boy...except that Pinocchio would demand he turn into something resembling human. Maybe if Pinocchio turned into a T-1000 at the end of that story instead. Scratch that, just make him a Terminator and be done with it because that's spot on the type of range he displays.
Anyway, John Wick. John Wick showed up in last October in theatres with little hype or enthusiasm (because Keanu's last bunch of pictures were all major duds...to be clear, no, not a remake of Gerald McCraney's Major Dad) but became a rare honest-to-goodness blockbuster success through word-of-mouth. One friend of ours love the movie so much he saw it multiple times in theatres and continually sang its praises (and waited with baited breath for its Blu-Ray release). That David even spoke effusively aboutit [link] resonated and, with these collective signs I began to actually want to see the film.
The wife was still far from enthused... she gets that way about things with too much hype and/or starring Keanu. The aforementioned friend (shout out to Troy-who-doesn't-read-this-blog!) got his copy of the film on Blu-Ray, watched it a couple times over and lent it to us for a viewing. It was a unique experience. The wife, naturally, wasn't looking forward to it and chose to distract herself from her lack of enjoyment by live-Facebooking her reaction to the film. I chose to turn out the lights and have a spiked refreshment at hand.
At first we gently mocked the movie -- a few "Fuck you, Theon!" comments (something me and the wife shouting regularly at co-star Alfie Allen's Game of Thrones character) and mimicry of Keanu's stilted acting tossed about for good measure -- but then Allen's character, the entitled son of a Russian mobster, goes and kills John Wick's puppy (after he was denied the acquisition of Wick's sweet ride), and things get goofy/serious. The puppy was a present form Wick's recently deceased wife, so that he wouldn't be alone, and the ex-mob hitman sees only red, and we're thrust, along with John, back into the world he had hoped to leave behind.
It's this world, it's neutral ground hotels, it's secret society gold coins, and it's weird codes of honour, that make the movie. Keanu is a vehicle for delivering both this world's nuances and it's brutal yet beautifully orchestrated violence, and the film's directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch and writer Derek Kolstad seemed to understand the exact type of character Keanu should play, and the limits of what he can play. This was obviously tailor made for him. He can't quite handle the sombre hurt of the recently widowered nor can he take on the deep emotion of having a piece of his wife restored with the puppy to any great shakes. But when he's asked to be a cold, calculating orchestrator of violence, which is 90% of Keanu's role here, he nails it straight on.
The film is beautifully stylized, the fluorescent greens and blues saturate the parts of the screen that aren't bathed in shadows. It's Michael Mann by way of modern graphic novels. The action is top notch... it's not "another level" like the big budgets of the latest Fast and Furious or Mission Impossible or James Bond feature, but it's full of John Woo-esque gunplay and throw-down, drag-out fights are close to par with the greatest fight porn of the modern day, The Raid 2 [link]. My favourite of the battles found John Wick taking on Adrianne Palicki's Ms. Perkins, an assassin more ruthless than Wick... but I enjoyed even more Lance Reddick's reaction to her breaking of the hotel rules.
John Wick was exactly what it should've been, only better. It's a B-movie ratched up to A-level status thanks to savvy filmmaking and tremendous world building. I even caught the wife, on more than one occassion, watching the movie intently, forgetting about the Facebook updating for a spell. Though still hard pressed to admit that a Keanu movie actually entertained her, I'm fairly certain there was a begrudging amount of respect there for the end product, and that's about as big a praise for this film as anything.
Harmontown is a documentary about the creator of the beloved cult TV show Community creator Dan Harmon, and the months following his firing from the show as producer and showrunner after its third season. Harmon had, before his firing, started a live show/podcast that was part comedy show, part confessional, where he would ruminate with his co-host Jeff Davis about his life, his failures and successes, his frustrations, and anything else he wanted to get off his chest, most of which probably better suited for the therapist's couch than a public forum.
After his firing, at his lowest point, he thrust more energy into his podcast, and he started sensing a bit of a groundswell. Not so much a movement, but a cult of personality forming around him. Taking a risk, he decided to take the show on the road and let a documentary crew follow him.
It's a film about Harmon, primarily, about who he is as a person, and that person is admittedly very, very difficult. The film highlights the Harmontown podcast and the people who gravitate towards it, embracing honesty and pain and the communal catharsis it provide, but it's all centered around Harmon and his often self-desctructive tendencies. The people along for the ride are his girlfriend, Erin McGathy, Davis, and the show's resident Dungeons and Dragons gamesmaster Spencer Crittenden, and each has naturally a different relationship with Harmon. McGathy bears the biggest brunt of Harmon's self-destructiveness which often manifests as lashing out, while Davis more deals with pushing the show forward. Spencer meanwhile sits quietly, uncomfortably on the outside of it, and observes.
It's with Spencer's story that Harmontown as a documentary justifies its existence as more than a piece of self-glorification/implosion. Spencer is the fan's way into Harmontown, as he was a man on the outside who innocuously offered to run a D&D campaign and suddenly found himself a man on the inside. Spencer is a stereotypical outcast nerd, the kind with a quiet, gruff exterior, a shell hardened by traumatic childhood ostracisation, a person who finds comfort in the world of fantasy and its nuances. But through his role on Harmontown's podcast he's given the opportunity to have a voice in the world he never though he'd have, to be heard and seen and validated. As he's on tour he has people, not unlike himself, awkwardly approaching him with admiration and adulation, genuine affection for who he is and what he contributes, and the film captures intimately what that discovery is like for him. Where Harmon, a bit of a self-aggrandizer, is only marginally surprised by his supportive fanbase (there's an expectation of some level of worship going on, like how a televangelist preacher takes the worship of God as his own), Spencer is genuinely shocked. Though in their own ways both men are grateful. It's obvious though that Harmon needs the outpouring of support and affection, almost like a drug, for Spencer it's almost an affirmation that his place in the world is okay.
This is a film that's meant for the fans and the outlier fans, all the avid Community watchers and AV Club message boarders, the people who know what a showrunner is. It's not that it can't appeal to a broader audience, but without having the shorthand of understanding Harmon from his work (and for sure Community is a devastatingly hilarious and often genious personal endeavour with each character a manifestation of his personality) the uninitiated viewer may just wonder "what's the big deal about this guy?" That difficult personality Harmon displays can rub even the most ardent fan the wrong way at times.
Of all the films in this I Saw This!! column, Blue Ruin is the one I enjoyed the most, and yet, it's the one I'm having the hardest time recalling. I have specific images in mind, a general impression of what the movie is, but a lot of the details are fuzzy. Perhaps as I write about it, it will come flooding back. Spoilers will follow.
The film is a low budget revenge thriller (partiall funded via Kickstarter, no less), that's less exactly a thriller, and certainly not your typical revenge story either. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a drifter living out of a bullet-hole-riddled, tarp-covered car. He scrounges and survives, but hasn't given up completely on civility, reading novels by flashlight at night. The police stop by, obviously familiar with Dwight's story, and inform him that the man who killed his parents is being released from jail. Very quickly Dwight sets up his plot to take his revenge, connecting the battery back to the engine and returning back home, a place it's apparent he hasn't been in a long time.
Where most revenge fantasies find their lead characters frighteningly proficient at stalking and murder, Dwight's plans fumble and falter from moment one. Clean shaven, wearing stolen oversized business casual clothes, Dwight looks like a soft man, timid, bleary eyed, pudgy, completely unassuming. He's not cut out for this sort of business, particularly when his target's family begins to hunt him down, and yet, he has no choice. This is his drive, his mission. His sister should be the one to talk sense in him, in any other film she would be admonishing him for what he's doing, angry abut how it impacts her life, and yet she's cautiously supportive.
I hesitate to call Blue Ruin a dark comedy, because it's a dead serious movie, and yet it's spin on the revenge tale is so fresh and about face that it's impossible not to laugh unconsciously in reaction to Dwight's failures and botched successes. Dwight a fascinating character, burdoned by what he does and what he wants to do, but it's the only thing he has left in life to care about. His time as a vagrant leaves him awkward in conversation, reserved... he keeps to himself, he doesn't make eye contact. He seems to want nothing more than to slink back into that life of desperate solitude but he has his mission which he has to see through to the end.
Director Jeremy Saulnier tells his film in an extremely straightforward manner, and yet it's exactly the right touch. There's no distraction, no flashy angles, unusual cuts, or any of the vast variety of tricks indie directors for so long following the Tarantino boom have used to try and distinguish themselves. Saulnier instead relies upon holding shots, minimal cutting and letting scenes and actors breathe. It's not as much about mounting tension, but about establishing the natural settings and normalicy that otherwise exists in this unconventional scenario.
Yeah, I'm remembering it well now, but it's certainly worth another watch.
And finally for today (in actuality, I've been writing this column over a 5-day period), there's The Scribbler. I first heard about this film via Bleeding Cool (a comic-book and nerd cinema-related website I write for) as they reported a graphic novel being released for the picture. A couple days after this report I noticed that the film was on Netflix, so I figured why not give it a watch. If it’s bad, I can turn it off.
It’s not a bad film, per se, but it’s far from great. It has the same sensibilities of The Crow, a highly stylized, dark and gritty quasi-supernatural/quasi-superhero-esque production, replete with whatever janky emo-style music is fueling the goth teenagers as they brood introspectively in their bedrooms. Set in a facility that’s home to residents undergoing psychological rehabilitation (long and short term residents), it’s definitely not a Cuckoo’s Nest full-blown lock-down/caged-in situation but more of a half-way home. But it’s dank. Extremely so. Remember that toilet stall Ewen MacGregor dove into to retrieve his suppository in Trainspotting? Imagine that stall as an entire building. Yeah, it’s gross. The city this building resides in seems to be shrouded in perpetual night, or at least whenever it is day it’s like the sun nervously shines as the darkness threatens it’s habitual take over. Also, rain and lightning seem almost a constant, for mood you see, except when it’s more convenient not to be raining.
Our protagonist, Suki (played by Katie Cassidy) is a young woman with multiple personality disorder who comes to the building recovering from her latest suicide attempt. There she rekindles a friendship with Hogan (Garrett Dellahunt), a gearhead who pretends to be insane in order to live in the building on the cheap, sex up its desperate/vulnerable women, and liberate their drugs for his own profit. She also befriends Cleo (Gina Gershon) a long-term resident, who shows her the ropes, including avoiding the stairs where a crazy naked girl likes to push people down them.
The film is so aggressively in your face about how edgy it’s trying to be. It uses all the cinematic tricks of psychological thrillers and body horror films (oh, those shadows and neons), only never to any great terrifying or suspenseful effect, it’s strictly an aesthetic choice, like it wants to be a horror movie but the story doesn’t facilitate it. The sex scene between Suki and Hogan is kind of disgusting rather than titillating because of how it was shot, edited and soundtracked. It’s like the film wants you to be repulsed by it because of the style choices it makes, but it’s only a slightly left-of-standard superhero origin story. It realistically wants you to root for the title character as she comes to understand who she is and how her multiple personalities help her fulfill her true potential but it’s story is at cross purposes with its tone.
The acting in the film is quite good. I liked everyone’s performances in it (including Michelle Trachtenberg as Suki’s nemesis, Michael Imperioli as her skeevy psychologist, and Eliza Dushku as the detective investigating the deaths in the building), they truly seem invested in their roles, so it’s unfortunate that the director’s vision (which seemed to be “let’s make a Cronenbergian superhero story but with a Zack Snyder pastiche”) clashed with everything else going on. Honestly, I probably would have liked this in 1993, when comic-to-screen movies were rare, and rarely good, but we’ve moved well past that in the 20 years since.
Man, this took a long time and over 5000 words. If I were concerned with page hits and visitors and any sort of monetary-earning angle to this site, I would’ve pushed each review out one-a-day. But even though they have no real connection to one another, beyond the fact that I’ve procrastinated in writing about them, they still feel like part of a whole and belong together in one fell swoop. I’m rather impressed at my ability to recall how I felt about a film despite not entirely recalling the film (though as I write the specifics of the film tend to re-emerge). I’m working from the top of the “to review” list with this one, but I may start at the bottom and work up from hereon out, get to the fresher stuff first instead of taking forever and having current releases wind up in yet another I Saw This!!