I Am Love is a film that, yet again, showcases a fearless, go-for-broke performance from Tilda Swinton, who is easily one of my favorite actresses currently working. And if you’ve ever wanted to hear he speak fluent Italian with a Russian accent, this film is for you! I Am Love is a sensual, sexual, lyrical piece of filmmaking from Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who in tandem with the brilliant cinematographer Yorick Le Saux conjured up a dreamy, tremendously stylized motion picture that literally feels like a living, breathing entity. Conceived over an 11 year period by Swinton and Guadagnino, the film is all about how unbridled passion can get in the way of almost anything and everything, and how the primal instincts that run through our bones, heart, and lower regions can sometimes not be contained, no matter how hard one tries. Music from the classical composer John Adams fills the background, giving off a rarefied vibe, while Swinton plows through the juicy narrative with so much force and command that it’s impossible not to be mesmerized by her every move. Antonella Cannarozzi’s costumes are spectacular, feeding into the overly-moneyed thematic subtext, and while the film certainly dips into melodrama, Guadagnino isn’t content to let anyone off easy, while also imbuing his film with tips to The Godfather. As with any story that is propelled by a torrid affair, there’s real heat in this film, and Swinton, ever the chameleonic artist, slips into her tricky role with so much elegance that you just can’t help but be blown away by her natural sense as an actress.
Veteran production designer and art director Charles William Breen has had an extraordinary career working on some of the most popular and long lasting films from the last 35 years. His extensive list of credits includes early career work on Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Blade Runner, Mike Nichols’ drama Postcards from the Edge, Richard Attenborough’s ambitious biopic Chaplin, James Cameron’s seminal science-fiction classic Terminator 2, Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster romance The Bridges of Madison County, Neil Labute’s scathing satire Your Friends and Neighbors and his playfully violent black comedy Nurse Betty. And that’s just naming a few! No matter the genre or the filmmaker that he’s working with, Breen is always able to transport the viewer exactly where any given project is set, and it’s through his innate sense of what’s pleasing to the eye that we’re left with some of the most visually iconic sets and brush-strokes of art direction that could possibly be imagined. Having received an Emmy nomination for Art Direction on HBO’s critically acclaimed Weapons of Mass Destruction, he’s also no stranger to the small screen, having just recently worked on the pilot for the short-lived but extremely funny FX series The Comedians, as well as 23 episodes of the USA comedic series Sirens. Breen is also a frequent contributor on short films, working with a wide variety of talent throughout the years on multiple projects, and has put his talents to use as a solo art director on the powerful drama Flesh and Bone, the glossy copy thriller Jade, the fiery revenge tale The Crow: City of Angels, and Walter Hill’s kick-ass actioner Trespass. There’s not much that Breen can’t do it seems!
One of his most distinctive credits was the 2006 gangster-musical hybrid Idlewild, from frequent collaborator director Bryan Barber, who has spent the majority of his career in the music video world. Breen brought all of Barber’s bold visual ideas to life with his production design of Idlewild; it’s gorgeous work, overflowing with detail that spills out past the edges of the frame, always providing something visually stimulating to look at. A wildly ambitious and obscenely underrated film, it’s the sort of technical and logistical tour de force that warranted an Oscar nomination. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you have something like Neil LaBute’s nasty relationship drama Your Friends and Neighbors, which highlighted Breen’s ability to use open space and a clean frame to express sadness, hostility, and isolation. It’s an emotionally cold film, and the spare production design reflects the chilly and repressed interior worlds of the characters. And while this project arrived before Idlewild, it was an early indication of Breen’s range as an artist that would allow him to even be considered for such a daunting designing challenge. And I can only image what it must have been like to get one of your first industry jobs working on the sets for the now beyond famous Blade Runner, which has come to mean so much to some many people over the years that it’s safe to call it one of the most influential films ever made. In every single shot of Blade Runner, the audience is treated to something spectacular, and I can think of few other films that have been more art directed and designed to express so many thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Son of a Gun, the stylish and exciting feature debut of filmmaker Julius Avery, who had previously specialized in short films, is a rock solid crime thriller, made with no pretensions, and a work that uses its subtle sense of maximum style to its constant advantage. It doesn’t transcend the genre, but at the same time, it’s energetic and entertaining at almost every turn, and despite a possibly too neat resolution, Avery offers up some crackling action sequences, and gets a refreshingly against type performance from Ewan McGregor. There’s also a central heist that’s unique in idea and execution, and it’s something that I’ve never seen before, which is always a welcome plus in my movie watching book. An amalgam of the prison picture, the escape movie, the heist thriller, and all out action flick, the film is a lower-budgeted item from Australia, released in the states by A24, and has found its way to the Blu-ray shelves after barely making a blip on the theatrical radar.
Co-starring rising star Brenton Thwaites (previously very strong in the underrated sci-fi effort The Signal), Son of a Gun centers on a young prison inmate (Thwaites) serving a six month sentence for a minor crime, who is taken under the wing of a notorious and violent criminal (McGregor), who offers to protect the youngster while in the joint if he agrees to help him upon his release. But little does the naïve gangster-in-training know that the plan is fairly large, involving a daring prison break via helicopter and then the risky robbery of a gold making facility, where McGregor, Thwaites, and the rest of their team force smelters to create gold bars on the spot at gun point, so that they can then sell the gold all around the city. Once the plot is set in motion, the film becomes all about the interaction between Thwaites and McGregor, and how their uneasy friendship gets pushed to its limits.
Not much goes according to plan, a rival mobster enters the plot, a mysterious and sexy woman shows up on the scene (Alicia Vikander, pre Ex-Machina), and before you know it, loyalties are tested, sparks fly between Thwaites and Vikander, bullets are fired from various automatic weapons, and a couple of cars do some fantastic, un-CGI’d flips and roll-overs. Shot with clarity and an excellent sense of formal composition by cinematographer Nigel Bluck, Son of a Gun looks terrific all throughout and Bluck’s effective shot selection offers up unique angles during the action sequences, while also feeling intimate during the slower, more dramatic moments between the characters. Swiftly paced and featuring durable performances by an interesting mix of familiar faces and complete unknowns, Son of a Gun is a crime picture for genre enthusiasts. It does what it sets out to do with smarts and unassuming aesthetic flair, and will likely serve as a calling card for filmmaker Avery, who I imagine is taking meetings all over town by this point.
The Informant! is one of many masterworks from the sly and crafty filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. The film is like a cinematic onion, and over the course of more than 15 viewings, has repeatedly shown itself to be a brilliant piece of satirical storytelling. The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns is fascinating in many respects, and Matt Damon delivers what’s probably the best (and my favorite) performance of his excellent career. This is a deceptive and tricky and extremely clever black comedy that’s going to confound many viewers and delight others. Getting old-school Marvin Hamlisch to score the film primarily with a kazoo was a typically absurdist move by Soderbergh, who always surprises with bold filmmaking decisions and his unconventional sense of humor. He’s a filmmaker who has openly stated that the various films by Richard Lester have continually inspired him; The Informant! feels like possibly his most Lester-esque piece of filmmaking.
The Informant! is an extremely funny movie but in a very ironic, irreverent fashion. And yet, it’s also completely terrifying in that you’re basically watching a schizophrenic yet genius-level individual flush their entire life down the toilet. Comparisons to Michael Mann’s The Insider are appropriate but not entirely accurate. Sure, the landscape is big business and both films feature “whistle blowers” as their protagonists, but The Informant! struts its stuff as a devilish social comedy, whereas Mann’s masterpiece was a rigorous journalism thriller on par with the likes of All the President’s Men. The Informant! is yet another instance of Soderbergh taking wild creative chances, and having those chances pay off like gangbusters. Damon’s interior monologue which is heard in voice-over is some of the most dryly hilarious stuff you’re likely to find in any movie, and what did the fantastic Scott Bakula do to deserve that haircut?! There’s a deep and inspired supporting cast of comedians playing it straight (more Soderbergh tomfoolery), and as usual, the filmmaker acted as his own cinematographer and editor, because, you know, Peter Andrews and Marry Ann Bernard POWER.
Bryan Barber’s Idlewild is a tour de force of style, of song and dance, of energetic cinematic pizazz, and a loving ode to the big Hollywood musical that happens to be spliced with the gangster film, all shot in a modern, MTV-inspired aesthetic that I think is wildly unique and more than eye-popping on an aesthetic level. Charles William Breen‘s extravagantly detailed and lush production design should have received an Oscar nomination – it’s really crimes against cinema that this didn’t happen. Every set, every scene, all sense of art direction is so in tune with all the elements that this really becomes a true feast for the senses. From top to bottom, Idlewild is insanely underrated, as it never had a wide enough release nor was it treated with any sort of respect from a pedigree standpoint. Marketed simply as “the Outkast movie,” Idlewild is so much more than that — it’s a crazy explosion of so many elements and genres and styles that I’m not really surprised that it flew under the radar. It’s sort of like The Cotton Club on acid, spiced up with sexy and sultry song and dance numbers, with a solid gangster-movie plot that sets into motion all the dramatic conflict that a narrative would need. Barber threw everything in his back pocket into this film — it’s stuffed (some might say overstuffed but not me!) with visual information that stretches the mise-en-scene to new heights and the film seems absolutely drunk with the many possibilities that the cinematic art form can provide.
Swept under the rug with a half-hearted, late summer theatrical release by Universal Pictures, the film hasn’t even been graced with a spiffed up transfer on the Blu-ray format, which is tantamount to a slap in the face to the extremely gifted cinematographer Pascal Rabaud, who shot the ever-living-hell out of each and every frame of this dazzling motion picture. I had the chance to see this one in the theater, and I can definitely say that it was an overwhelming experience to behold on the big screen. The absolutely ridiculous cast includes Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard, the show-stoppingly gorgeous Paula Patton, Cicely Tyson, Macy Gray, Faizon Love, Ben Vereen, Patti LaBelle, Bruce Bruce, Malinda Williams, and Jackie Long. John Debney’s eclectic and always present musical score envelopes the entire picture with a jazzy sense of spirit, and because the film is so thick with period flavor and distinct visual atmosphere, you really get the sense of being fully transported to the world that all of these fabulous people put on display. I knew this movie was for me when the song notes started dancing off the music-book pages for the piano players, and when the rooster emblem on the flask started to dance and crow. At times, the film feels like it belongs in the same company as Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby — this was maximalist filmmaking delivered at a furious pace with a ton of heart and soul underneath the supreme sense of high style. Idlewild is like no other musical that you’ve seen and it’s so deserving of rediscovery that it almost feels comical.