The 2001 drama In the Bedroom is, to my eye, a flawless movie. Maybe you can pick it apart on some level, but I can’t find any major issues. I can just imagine writer/director/actor Todd Field to be extraordinarily intense. He was the piano player during the orgy in Eyes Wide Shut for Kubrick and then made two films that the master would have greatly approved of (Little Children in 2006 being the other). We need more from this guy and fast. Tom Wilkinson is devastating in this film, Sissy Spacek kills her scenes, Marisa Tomei is heartbreaking, long lost Nick Stahl was extra effective, and this was easily William Mapother’s crowning achievement as an actor. The finale stings with violent force and amazing impact, and there’s both a touch of Malick and a dollop of Kubrick from within the aesthetic that renders the viewer helpless for just over two hours. This film focuses on love, revenge, family, and how people from within a close knit unit come together after tragedy in an effort to make sense of sudden loss that feels overwhelming to the key players in the story. Field nails the small town details, the sense of community, and the overbearing power of grief that can hit someone when they’re least expecting it. This isn’t an easy film or one that offers simple answers to a series of events that are both inexplicable yet rational, which, when you think of it, is often times what life adds up too. I’d really, really like it if Field would make another film and fast.
Released in 2008, My Effortless Brilliance was writer/director Lynn Shelton’s second effort, and within the context of her career, seems like a natural precursor to her even more edgy and provocative third feature, 2009’s uproarious Humpday. Starring the terrific Sean Nelson as an amazingly sloppy and selfish writer named Eric, Shelton’s film centers on Eric’s strained relationship with his close friend Dylan, a pensive Basil Harris, who hits all the right notes of suppressed anger and irritation. It seems that over the course of time, Eric has become a bit of an egotistical ass, and while not purposefully acting rude to his friends, it’s more as if he’s oblivious to his shortcomings. Dylan tells him off, cut to two years later, and Eric, now on a book tour, decides to unexpectedly visit his estranged buddy up at his cabin in the forests of Washington. Shelton sets the mood right away with a fidgety shooting style, with foreshadowing cutaways to the mountains the surround the guarded, wounded characters within the tight narrative. As usual for a Shelton production, there is no fat on this film’s bones, with one scene organically unfolding into the next, creating a smooth passage of content that never gets bogged down with superfluous digressions.
This being a relationship movie about two guys, Shelton astutely guides her actors (the script was improvised by all creative entities) to a point of never fully explaining the row between the two friends, because as everyone knows, men have a fight, and then just leave it there, never delving into it. They drink, they lob insults, they smack each other in the junk, and then they wake up the next day and move on. I loved how naturalistic everything felt, from the sharp and witty dialogue to the manner of speech from Nelson and Harris, to the hand-held cinematography that stressed the physical rigors of the wilderness-set production which fit perfectly with the rocky emotional content. This is an 80 minute film about people and words and their personal problems, so as such, it feels purposefully insular and intimate, and the two performances from Nelson and Harris hit all the right notes of anger, hostility, and finally, warmth. Shelton even gets to thrown in some Terrence Malick-esque shots of nature (the ants on the log was a nice touch), and as always, I’m impressed with how real everything feels in her films; she’s refreshingly free of artifice which allows the viewer to get invested in her stories in a unique fashion. Funny, perceptive, and to the point, My Effortless Brilliance is one of those tiny films made on a shoe-string budget that goes along way due to the creative integrity of all the contributors.
I really enjoyed Inside Out. It’s creative, witty, smart, and more than a little LSD inspired. I mean…seriously…when they go “abstract” – get the hell out of here! Ten sheets of blotter that was! This film felt to me like Pixar’s The Lego Movie, in that, it’s a “kid’s movie” that’s been designed almost entirely for adults (even more than Up and Wall-E), the sort of film where the tykes will enjoy the bouncing characters and bright colors and the adults will stay for the complex, emotionally layered narrative that’s both experimental and traditional at the same time. The voice work is spirited, Pete Docter’s direction is amazingly quick and light on its feet without feeling overly frenetic (Wreck-it Ralph this is not), and while it certainly dips into overtly sentimental material more than I might have cared for or expected, there’s no denying the overall impact of the message and digital artistry. But I have to come back to the trippy component to Inside Out – some of the imagery is downright acid-tinged in the wildest of ways (intentional or not), and I’m constantly amazed by the subversive elements that keep getting thrown into the best of the recent Pixar crop. There’s no shortage of imagination with this film, and while Inside Out trades off of some familiar pop-culture imagery (Candy Land, Tomorrowland, and The Lego Movie kept popping up in my head), there’s no denying that this is yet another bold step forward for Pixar, as they continue to lead the way in form pushing animated content with a soul, telling stories that are universally relatable and all the more poignant for being so. Bing Bong POWER.
Paul Mazursky’s 1978 film An Unmarried Woman is a film that works on every conceivable level, and I was particularly blown away by Jill Clayburgh’s mesmerizing performance as woman caught off guard by her husband’s sudden decision to separate, and who has to navigate the tricky waters of being a single woman after spending 15 years happily married to the man she so clearly saw herself growing old with. Everything in this film felt raw, heartfelt, and extremely direct, with Ma…zursky making repeatedly strong social comments on marriage, sex, friendship, and family. Bill Conti’s incredible score permits one to consistently play the air saxophone all throughout, and I loved the unhurried pace which allowed for moments – both big and small – to be showcased all throughout the narrative. In particular, the bit with Clayburgh dancing to Swan Lake in her underwear in the opening moments has to be considered one of the best random moments of spirited cinema that’s been captured (or at least that I’ve seen). Michael Murphy was great (his scene in the street with Clayburgh is an all-timer), Alan Bates stole every scene, Cliff Gorman had a helluva chest beaver, and each and every line from Mazursky’s well-honed script felt spot-on in terms of the naked honesty being explored by the various characters. Shot entirely on location in New York City, the unadorned cinematography by Arthur Ornitz was perfect in a naturalistic fashion, and as usual, Mazursky’s way with actors could be felt in every scene, as he so clearly valued his performer’s abilities to get to the heart of the scene with a minimal amount of fuss. And just as good as the film is the audio commentary that Mazursky and Clayburgh provided for the DVD, with Mazursky consistently ripping into the sad state of the current Hollywood bean-counter mentality, while also expressing his frustrations with the hypocritical behavior of the MPAA and the lack of nudity in modern motion pictures. Clayburgh also discusses the causal nudity that was so prevalent in movies back in those days, and it’s a further reminder of how Puritanical this country still is when it comes to sex on the big screen. For the love of Pete, they’re just nipples! Everyone’s got at least two…shocker I know! There’s no doubt that when people constantly say that the 1970’s were the best years for American cinema that they’re telling the truth.
Director Lynn Shelton has always been interested in flawed people, never content to settle for easy answers, constantly inviting drama into the lives of her emotionally stunted characters in all of her low-key and under the radar gems. Her latest film, the oddly charming Laggies with the peppy and wonderfully photogenic Keira Knightley, explores the familiar themes of late 20-something mental angst and life confusion and does so with sad humor and easy going style. And while it’s the first film that Shelton didn’t write (the perceptive script is by Andrea Seigel), all of her trademarks remain in clear focus, with equal attention paid to drama and comedy. Knightley is Megan, a directionless, sometimes unlikable woman who has just been proposed too (Mark Webber does a good job as her put-upon boyfriend) but isn’t sure of where her life is going or what direction she wants to take it in. She randomly meets Annika (Chloe Graze Moretz, on a roll), a teenager trying to score some beer for her friends outside of a grocery store, and feels compelled to help them out with their illicit purchase. She then develops an odd friendship with Annika, Annika’s friends, and Annika’s recently divorced father, a reliably awesome and perfectly sarcastic Sam Rockwell. What will Megan do with her life? How will her increasingly selfish decisions affect those around her? Knightley is fantastic here, displaying a varying range of emotions throughout the up and down narrative, nailing her “big” moments with ease and showing off that high-wattage smile on more than one occasion. She’s so perfect and at home in period costumes dramas that it’s always a refreshing change of pace to see her in modern films (Seeking A Friend for the End of the World is another favorite), and I rarely can remember her appearing this freewheeling on screen. And honestly, at this point, I could watch master scene stealer Rockwell read the phone book; this guy is always killer in every film and as soon as he shows up in Laggies, everything gets kicked up a notch. His dry line delivery is always on the money, and the chemistry he develops with Knightley is palpable. Shelton seems drawn to characters in turmoil, and it’s clear that she loves awkward humor and those squirm-inducing moments of human behavior that just seem a tad “off” for the situation. A pioneer of the low-budget, semi-improvised character based dramedy starring a group of self-effacing performers, Shelton is getting closer and closer to having her BIG breakout film in terms of large mainstream success, and I love her effortless ability of taking a simple premise, injecting it with dramatic purpose and heft, while still being able to deliver the funny in a sensible, never over the top fashion. This is a quirky, small movie made to feel “big” because of the acting talent, and while it was more downbeat overall than I expected, Shelton reliably brings her sharp sense of witty humor to the proceedings which provides numerous moments of character based hilarity. This is yet another notable title from edgy distributor A24 and I can’t wait to see what’s next for Shelton.
The Game is my FAVORITE film by David Fincher. I’m not saying it’s his BEST (between Seven and Zodiac I’m still undecided), but make no mistake, the one I keep coming back to the most over the years is this underrated 1997 effort, which coming two years after Seven, seemed like the next logical step for this dark hearted magician of the cinematic arts. Released to mixed reviews (with ardent supporters) and indifferent box-office (just under $50 million domestic), it’s a film that was ahead of its time, both aesthetically and narratively, offering one of the sleekest overall visions of nighttime paranoia ever crafted (it seriously looks like it was shot yesterday!), while showcasing a mentally twisted and ever-shifting narrative complete with a whammy of an ending that has remained one of the most divisive movie moments in the history of the medium. Yes…the history of the medium. I’m going there. Anytime you bring up The Game in conversation, the chat tends to drift towards that mind-fuck of an ending, and while some love to complain about the implausibility of it, that’s the whole genius part of the entire endeavor – it’s a film that LOVES its own impossibility, and while vigorously contrived in every conceivable way, it’s been done for its own maximum impact when put into context with the bigger picture. It can’t be denied that the bitter social commentary that runs throughout the entire picture is equally matched by the Hitchcockian level of glee that Fincher had with running his mega-star (Michael Douglas, in one of his absolute best performances, as the amazingly named Nicholas Van Orton) through the emotional and physical gauntlet. Sean Penn is devious in a supporting role as Douglas’s brother (a part originally intended for Jodie Foster), who gives his big bro the ultimate birthday gift – a gift certificate to a mysterious company called CRS, short for Consumer Recreation Services. After a darkly hilarious encounter with a CRS representative (the late James Rebhorn, master scene stealer), Van Orton’s “game” begins. Or…did his game “begin” the moment the film started? And what’s with Deborah Kara Unger and all these sketchy people popping up? And why won’t my briefcase open and why can’t I access my credit cards and why am I being shot at? And by the end of the film, is it even over? If I am being coy with describing the plot, well, that’s by design, because while the film has definitely caught on with a rabid cult following over the last 18 years, there are still plenty of people out there who might not be familiar with this utterly perverse, wickedly entertaining film. I’ve literally seen this movie at least 100 times; no exaggeration. It used to run on a loop during the college years, it would play as background noise as I’d be writing term papers, and after two theatrical viewings back when I was 17(!), I immediately knew it was going to be an important film for me for years to come. There’s something so sinister, so Parallax View-y about John Brancato and Michael Ferris’s script that I just adore, and I’ve become obsessed with studying the edges of the frame on recent viewings, looking for even more clues that I’ve still yet to discover. On the technical side, the film is remarkable, with Harris Savides’s sensational and deeply burnished cinematography setting the ominous tone right from the start, with slippery camera movements and perfect compositional choices. James Haygood’s faultless and beyond crisp editing keeps the pace riveting and tight all throughout which gives the entire film an immaculate quality, while the awesomely eerie score from Howard Shore envelopes the images with sinister delight. And who can forget the use of Jefferson Airplane’s immortal White Rabbit being blared on the soundtrack when Douglas comes back to his staggering mansion (Jeffrey Beecroft’s astute and moneyed production design is lush and rich with texture) to find it decorated in glow in the dark spray paint graffiti lit by black-light? And again, there’s that ending, which I have to say, has got to be one of the most challenging finishes, both mentally and thematically, to any movie that I’ve ever come across. The Game can be seen as so many things – a film that denounces suicide, a film that is honoring Hitchcock, a film that satirizes and scolds the confident and controlled business class that runs our major cities, a film that holds a mirror up to our fears and anxieties while constantly picking at what bothers and frustrates us the most. The Game has long been one of my absolute favorite pieces of cinema, and that will likely never change. It’s a movie that has provoked constant debate and passionate discussion all throughout the years, and it’s one that I look forward to revisiting for years to come, as there are rarely films this watchable, this visually stimulating, and this thought provoking all in one heady package.
Fascinating on a historical level, riveting when it comes to the sport being discussed, and compelling in a deeply humanistic fashion, Gabe Polsky’s terrific documentary Red Army examines the intense Cold War relationship between Russia and America, and the various hockey players that were caught up in an international saga of greed, hubris, and outright dictatorship. Literally kept as slaves by their country, Russian hockey players back in that time period were revered by all and had to adhere to an intense training schedule that kept them away from their families for long periods of time. All of their insane treatment is detailed in this sad and scary film that highlights just how difficult it would have been to be playing under the Russian coaching regime back in the 80’s. Red Army primarily focuses on legendary defenseman Slava Fetisov and how he and his various teammates navigated the politically charged waters of worldwide sport during a time of immense uncertainty and volatility. Fetisov is quite the character, and while he provides tons of amazing information and anecdotes, on more than one occasion someone should have reminded him that he was there to make a documentary, not just to have his ass kissed; there are NO off limits questions when you’re the front and center focus of someone’s film. That being said, the exciting hockey footage that Polsky intercuts with his intelligent question and answer sessions with some of the era’s biggest stars commands the audience’s attention, and this is easily one of those movies where if you’re not a fan of the milieu, you’ll still enjoy the film because of how well-crafted it is on a formal level, and how interesting it is as a history lesson. And for any hockey fan or current or player (I was lucky enough to lace up for 15 years), this will be a fabulous way to spend 80 minutes. And if you’re of a certain age, the names and faces on display will bring back waves of emotion and nostalgia. I know it did for me. Mike Vernon POWER in there, too.