Joe Carnahan’s The Grey is macho, brutal poetry, a film that wears its bruised, wounded heart on its heavy-flannel sleeve. This is a force of nature cinema experience that leaves me crushed every time I experience it. Quiet, oppressively cold, and deeply introspective, this is an intense, Jack London-esque tale of machismo in the face of all-but-certain-death. Had this movie been released at the end of 2011 the Oscar nominations would have been different, as Liam Neeson’s towering performance would surely have been recognized with a nomination. Jumping into this project almost immediately after the death of his wife, he couldn’t have known how real life would have informed his aching, forceful work in The Grey. When the final 10 minutes of this film arrives, there’s a major twist, and it makes the entire film even that much more moving and powerful. I’m aware of the fact that many meat-head audience members were near riotous over the fact that The Grey wasn’t some sort of WWF-style smack-down between the guy from Taken and a pack of rabid wolves. With certain movies, the job of Hollywood marketing teams seem to be to hoodwink potential ticket buyers into thinking they’re lining up to see one type of movie, and this is what happened when people saw the ads for The Grey – they saw guys running away from wolves and Neeson throwing up his dukes so they expected a near constant wolf-brawl. Yes, some of this stuff does happen, just not in the way you’d think it would happen. Carnahan wasn’t going for the cheap and easy with this unflinchingly emotional piece of work. And when things do get rough, they’re believably rough, with chilling consequences. And besides, the wolves in this movie are as much metaphorical creations as they are living manifestations of animals; to literalize every single thing we see in a feature film is to do a disservice to the artists who are asking more of us as viewers. Carnahan is a 70’s influenced filmmaker, and in this film, he was deeply interested in character as much as bloody action. His eclectic output over the years has been interesting to observe and as a filmmaker he’s hard to pin down; my guess is that he likes it like that. I’ve long felt that he’s a filmmaker constantly at odds with the money-guys, as he’s always seems interested in digging beneath the surface of things, no matter the genre or aesthetic style. He’s due to have that film that truly blows him up and I can’t wait for that day. With The Grey, I was not prepared for how still and patient the filmmaking would be one minute, and then how visceral and violent it would get the next. It’s a gut-punch type movie, a piece of work that will likely haunt anyone who encounters it. Featuring one of the most harrowing depictions of a plane crash ever captured on film and ending on a note of tremendous ambiguity and narrative power, The Grey isn’t a film for the weak stomached or weak willed.
It’s positively insane to think about the fact that legendary actor Harry Dean Stanton has never been nominated for an Oscar over the course of his 250 screen performances. It’s essentially Crimes Against Cinema, and when you look at his IMDB page, one is left gob-smacked by the names he’s worked with: Ridley Scott, Lewis Milestone, John Carpenter, Stuart Rosenberg, Harold Becker, Joss Whedon, Monte Hellman, David Lynch, Bill L. Norton, Lou Adler & Tommy Chong, Sam Peckinpah, John Milius, Arthur Penn, Ulu Grosbard, Alex Cox, Wim Wenders, Nick Cassavettes, Sean Penn, Terry Gilliam, Martin McDonagh, and Gore Verbinski. And that’s just the tip of the ice-berg! He’s been one of the most important, valuable, and versatile character actors that the acting profession has ever had, and I can think of no better salute to him as an artist than Sophie Huber’s graceful and heartfelt documentary Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction. This is a wonderful film about a passionate artist, and it goes to some surprisingly dark and soulful areas of Stanton’s life, while also celebrating his utterly extraordinary filmography. Seamus McGarvey’s stylish, silky smooth, black and white cinematography is perfectly mixed with bold color snippets and a variety of clips from Stanton’s eclectic performances, and it’s during the sequences with David Lynch and Kris Kristofferson and Sam Shepard where the film really hits some terrific notes of friendship and professional camaraderie. Huber’s direction is sensitive to her subject yet probing in all of the appropriate ways, and when you get to hear Stanton sing some renditions of classic American folk songs, you sense his disappointment that he never took his music career to the next level (he openly laments this fact), while still getting the sense that he’s a man with lots of life to live despite his youth obviously in the rear view mirror. His amusing anecdotes are great fun to listen too, as he’s always giving of the sense that he’s young at heart. And that’s the message that Huber sends with this poignant, thoroughly engaging documentary about one of cinema’s most prized possessions. This unique item was filmed at Stanton’s home and at his favorite Los Angeles watering hole, and one is left with the utmost respect for this living legend.
I have long been enamored with the work of Oscar nominated cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, as for the last 25 years, he’s been putting his stylish, distinctive mark on motion pictures with some of the best filmmakers that the industry has to offer. He can seemingly do it all: small family drama (The War Zone), massive Hollywood blockbusters (The Avengers, Godzilla, 50 Shades of Grey), challenging art films (We Need to Talk About Kevin), true life drama (World Trade Center), moving documentaries (Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction, Los Angeles: Skid Row is My Home), character based comedy (High Fidelity), and most notably, four incredibly impressive outings behind the camera with filmmaker Joe Wright, who ranks as one of the most exciting and visually dynamic young directors currently working. Their collaborations – Atonement, The Soloist, Anna Karenina, and Pan (judging the latter solely on its glorious trailer) – have all been fanciful and exquisite, showing a clear mastery of movement, form, and camera placement, while always forging ahead with bold aesthetic choices that push the form in unique visual ways. And if one simply takes a look at his long and varied resume, it’s abundantly clear that his talents have been put to great, eclectic use on a variety of interesting and challenging pieces of work.
The work that McGarvey pulled off during Anna Karenina is nothing short of breathtaking, constantly asking the question “How’d they do that!?” while each ravishing scene unfolds, and through his sensual, highly attuned sense of light and texture, he gave the emotionally chilly narrative of Anna Karenina hot-blooded visual juice that kicked up the entire production – it’s a criminally underrated film featuring stellar work from Keira Knightley. In The Avengers, he was responsible for shooting one of the most anticipated summer movies in decades, and I can’t help but feel that the iconic “hero shot” of all the superheroes on the street of NYC in that circle is one of the best ripped-from-the-pages-of-a-comic-book images I’ve ever seen. And then there’s that insane bit of madness at the airport in Godzilla, where the audience is treated to a humongous wide shot of exploding airplanes and helicopters from within the interior of the terminal, as Godzilla and the U.S. Military stage an attack on a fantastical beast – when Godzilla’s massive foot comes crashing down into frame during this sequence, McGarvey was able to maximize the audience’s sense of how large the radioactive beast might actually be in real life, bringing true size and dimension to an image that features a CGI creation, something that in other, lesser refined works might have come across as rubbery or wonky within the realm of the real world. No matter the genre, the size of budget, or the narrative intent, McGarvey’s images have that long lasting, timeless appeal, where you just know that someone truly exceptional was calling the shots.
Roman Polanski’s masterpiece Chinatown is one of those movies that one should really view at least once a year, if only to be reminded of how perfect a film can be when all of the elements are in such perfect cinematic harmony. Robert Towne’s truly serpentine screenplay is incredibly layered yet never opaque, and even when the characters frequently explain the plot it never feels forced or manufactured to help the audience; it feels organic to the situation at all times. Jack Nicholson’s smirking, sly performance gets tons of mileage from that famous nose bandage, and Faye Dunaway’s porcelain doll features were perfectly captured by John A. Alonzo’s amazing camerawork. Seriously – this movie looks INCREDIBLE, with one bravura shot and sequence after another. Studying this movie solely on a formal and compositional level would truly be an experience. The final sequence is still crushing in all the proper ways, with John Huston doing some nasty and creepy character work all throughout. And I love how the cynicism of Towne’s script still feels vital to this day. Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score punctuates the drama at all times, and the way that Polanski effortlessly brought all of the elements together is truly a master class of direction. The film looks pristine on Blu-ray.
Move over, Marvel. There’s some REAL ass-kickers coming to town. You’ve had your bright, cheery, primary-color fun with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek for a while now, and personally, while I’ve mostly been a fan of the product, I’m ready for something different. It’s now time to see huge filmmakers with gritty visions take on the DC universe, which I was always way more of a fan of as a kid. I’m SO excited to see the superheroes that I personally obsessed over for years finally get a chance to explode in a massive way on the big screen courtesy of filmmakers like Zack Snyder and David Ayer and Patty Jenkins and James Wan and more to come. Batman vs. Superman looks like a dream come true, and Suicide Squad looks edgy, punk, different, and totally unhinged for this genre. Get here. Just GET HERE. I am so excited to see this world unleashed on the big screen; we’re even going to get a new Green Lantern which could really be special if correctly handled. After Nolan’s TDK trilogy and the utterly amazing Man of Steel from Snyder, we’re at the dawn of a new, more intensely dramatic age for the superhero movie. It’s time to treat the genre with serious, adult-minded thrills while still delivering the sensational action that has invaded our dreams ever since we saw similar images on the pages of comic books. DC FILMS POWER!!! Bring it on and do it with gusto!
The aggressive, purposefully awkward comedy style of cinematic provocateur Jody Hill simply can’t be denied. Before he’d become a mainstream force with HBO’s Eastbound and Down and predating his extraordinarily transgressive studio comedy Observe & Report, in 2006 he released the phenomenally funny, super low-budget laugher The Foot Fist Way, which, if you aren’t familiar, could easily become the comedic discovery of the year for you as a viewer. The action centers on the insanely clueless Fred Simmons, played by Danny McBride in what amounts to his crowning achievement as an actor, a blissfully moronic, fourth-degree black belt in Taekwondo who runs his own small-town dojo in North Carolina. In classic McBride/Hill fashion, Simmons thinks of himself as a tough-guy hot-shot, full of big speeches with empty bravado, prone to tooling around in his Ferrari while always looking for new potential students. Everything is shattered after he learns that his wife Suzie (the fantastic Mary Jane Bostic) has manually relieved her boss after a night of heavy drinking at an office party. With his confidence and ego destroyed, Simmons sets out on a path of manly redemption, but this being a Jody Hill movie, stuff gets insanely outrageous and just a bit nasty. To try and get himself back on track, he attends a martial arts expo in an effort to seek out his long time idol, B-movie action star Chuck “the Truck” Wallace (Ben Best, Hill and McBride’s frequent creative collaborator, who also co-wrote the script), who actually turns out to be a hilariously pathetic loser with an axe to grind. The Foot Fist Way piles on conflict after conflict, incident after incident, some of it sexually scandalous, some of it harmless, some of it violent, all of absolutely priceless. McBride’s signature, loud-mouth, white-trashy antics have rarely been captured better than they were in The Foot Fist Way; he’s one of the ultimate cinematic buffoons and I love how he was going to be a director before David Gordon Green insisted that he take a small part in All the Real Girls. The final act of The Foot Fist Way is a total pisser (literally and figuratively…) and I’m constantly amazed by Hill’s fearless sense of what he thinks might be acceptable to his audience to laugh at. He’s primed to explode on a massive level at some point – he’s due his Hangover-type success – and I have a feeling we’ll be hearing a lot more from him in the coming years. If The Foot Fist Way was one of those little movies that snuck by, take it from me, this is one of the most enjoyably asinine films in a looooooong time.
FAVORITES OF 2014 #10 The Rover (David Michod, dir.)
Bleak. Grave. Arid. Desolate. Angry. Internal. Methodical. Australian writer/director David Michod (the superb Animal Kingdom) has crafted a haunting companion piece to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with The Rover, a gut-punch movie with streaks of jet-black humor for people who are fascinated by nihilistic, end-of-times scenarios. We’re not sure exactly what has gone down in society but life is on the downward slope in The Rover – nobody has gas or oil, while food and water seem to be in short supply. The streets are seemingly lawless except for military types roaming from town to town, and there’s a general air of despair that feels as if it’s there for good. Guy Pearce is yet again fantastic as a man on a mission and with one purpose in life – to get back the car that’s been stolen from him by a gang of dimwitted thieves. That’s all you need to know about the “plot” of The Rover, because it’s less about ticking off story points and more about the sun-scorched way this sad and introspective movie is unraveled from a normal-narrative-defying point of view. Pearce is raw, dirty, quiet, and doing some serious acting with only his eyes; you can’t look away when he’s on screen. His emotionally ravaged and quietly forceful performance as a man with literally nothing to lose is as haunting and affecting as anything I’ve seen in recent memory (Robert Redford’s legendary work in All is Lost comes to mind but that’s about it). His weathered face and sullen eyes, framed often times in close-up, dominate the widescreen space, conveying more than written words could ever provide. Michod knows that Pearce’s mere presence is enough, and the patience with which Michod tells his deceptively simple story is striking to witness. And there lies the genius of Michod’s storytelling technique – dole out just enough information verbally but allow the unspoken to fill in the blanks. Natasha Braier’s expansive yet controlled 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography captures Michod’s penchant for sudden, graphic violence with an unflinching eye, while also showcasing the dusty, dangerous, ominous vistas of the Australian outback. The aesthetically heightened shooting style is matched by the exacting editing patterns by Peter Sciberras, and the PTA-esque musical score, filled with discordant chords to keep you off kilter, allows for a constantly intense mood. And Robert Pattinson yet again proves he can act, playing a slow-thinking pseudo criminal who crosses paths with Pearce, after his brother (the always awesome Scoot McNairy) has left him for dead after a botched robbery. There’s nothing happy to be found with The Rover – this a film about bad, desperate people in tough, deadly situations. One gets the sense that Michod made exactly the film he set out to make, having to make no concessions to anyone, with nobody standing over his shoulder taking notes or offering suggestions. Stark and pare, The Rover is a great piece of contemplative cinema, with an absolutely devastating final shot that destroyed me for days.