“There’s more to life than survival. Jay Cavendish told me that. I owe him my life. Ho for the west.” Writer/director John Maclean’s stunning film debut Slow West has more than one line of dialogue like the one that I quoted above, and it’s within his poetic prose that this slim but never too brief slice of nastiness in the lawless West finds a confident footing as one of the most exciting first features that I can think of. Starring the fantastic trio of Michael Fassbender (honestly – this guy couldn’t be bad if he tried), Kodi-Smit McPhee (one of the best young talents around), and my current favorite cinematic scumbag Ben Mendelsohn, this is a violent, fatalistic movie that has ZERO narrative fat, looks strikingly beautiful, and has a dark sense of humor about itself that proves to be one of its strongest virtues. And at 79 minutes long, there’s not one wasted moment or frame, with an overall sense of narrative economy that’s bracing to behold, with a formal design that’s eye-catching and subtly stylish (Robbie Ryan handled cinematography duties). Centering on two crusty bounty hunters (Fassbender and Mendelsohn) going after the same human reward with a young lovebird in tow (McPhee), loyalties are tested, friends are uneasily made, and the unsparing and bloody truths of travelling through hostile territory in the late 1870’s are frequently explored with a rising body count and a penchant for the starkly visceral shoot-out. Maclean directs with crisp efficiency, the performances are all spot-on, and the confidence in the material speaks to potentially exciting stuff in the future for Maclean. Jed Kurzel’s atypical score for the genre added a fresh spin to the proceedings, and the location work made this low-budget item feel much larger than it ever could be due to the independent nature of the project. Fassbender has a hardened machismo that is perfect for his quick-to-shoot gunslinger, while Mendelsohn gets to be his usually awesome and slimy self, always looking as if he needs a bath and a meal. And McPhee continually demonstrates that he’s a terrific actor; it’ll be very interesting to see what sort of roles he takes on in the future. This is a small gem that will delight viewers who are looking for some quick and explosive entertainment.
Seriously – at this point – The Weinsteins, in particular Harvey, need to be stopped. Someone has to drive over to their offices and put a banana in the tail pipe or something because I’m done with their asinine shenanigans. One of their latest casualties: Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s glorious and never released in the United States family film The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet. I call it a family film because at its heart, it’s all about family, but this being a Jeunet picture, you know you’re in for something subversive and all together unique from frame one and this overwhelmingly ravishing movie is no exception. Taking his storybook filmmaking aesthetic to new and boldly imaginative heights, this feels like an amazing mixer of his already fanciful storytelling techniques with nods to Wes Anderson, classic American iconography, bits of the whimsical spirit of Michel Gondry, along with a dollop of Spielbergian sentimentality that’s a perfect fit for the tonally wild final result. I simply can’t understand the fascination that the Weinfucks, oh I’m sorry, Weinsteins have with continually meddling with major movies from major filmmaking talents (James Gray, Bong Joon-Ho, and Wong Kar-wai are some recent directors who have battled it out with the legendary “producers.”) It’s almost as if they go out of their way to buy everything up and then just dump or bury it so that nothing can compete against their new QT film or whatever British prestige picture they have up their sleeve in any given year. It’s getting really, really tired.
Based on the book by Reif Larsen, the epic yet intimate narrative involves a 10 year old science prodigy in the making named T.S. Spivet (the incredible Kyle Catlett making his film debut, and having a TON asked of him as a performer). He lives on a gorgeous, Babe-style farm in Montana, and he’s obsessed with maps and inventions and figuring out the practicality of everything around him. His eccentric mother (Helena Bonham Carter, looking uncharacteristically beautiful yet still full of her trademark quirk) is obsessed with beetles and bugs; his father, the perfectly cast Callum Keith Rennie, is a “cowboy born 100 years too late;” and his 14 year old sister has aspirations of becoming Miss America but isn’t allowed to have a phone in her room. And then there’s the matter of T.S.’s twin brother Layton, who has tragically died in a gun accident, an accident that T.S. feels partly responsible for. Then, his life is changed one day when the Smithsonian calls, telling him that he’s won the ultra-prestigious Baird award, as he’s seemingly invented the world’s first perpetual motion machine. So what’s an intrepid kid living in Montana to do when nobody around him truly understands his numerous mental gifts? He does what any forward thinking young chap would do – he sets off by himself for Washington, D.C., hopping aboard freight trains, hitching rides with tractor trailer truck drivers, and using anyone and anything to his advantage in any possible way.
That’s all I’ll allow for the plot, because like every film that Jeunet has crafted, there are constant surprises in store, with his amazing sense of visual wit and overwhelming attention to detail within his mise-en-scene being almost second to none in my estimation. Shot after shot, the film looks like an utter treasure, with Thomas Hardmeier’s elegant and honeyed widescreen cinematography popping with vibrant color and depth of field, with something always interesting to look at in all areas of the frame. Jeunet is a grab-bag guy, a man in love with the endless possibilities of cinema, and as usual, his obscene production design (handled by Aline Bonetto) is stuffed with endless bits of visual information that both inform the story and boost the atmosphere. And then there’s the craft, DIY-inspired special effects and flights of fancy that amp up the pleasure-zone factors; it was filmed in 3-D which must’ve been a total treat to experience. This film was NEVER released in ANY fashion in the United States. Fuck you, Harvey Weinstein. Fuck you. The Cinema Godz cast shame upon you and your company. It should be considered a CRIME AGAINST CINEMA to get a film this wonderful and unique all the way to the end line and then not have it get a chance to see the light of day in a country where there would have been plenty of people to enjoy it. The only way that this movie can be seen is if you have a Region Free Blu-ray player, or if you feel like downloading it online illegally. I don’t do that stuff, and normally I’m against that practice, but in this case, I encourage everyone to do what they can to see this masterful piece of moviemaking.
Intriguing right from the start (if a bit purposefully confusing) and building an impressive head of steam throughout 90 semi-perplexing minutes, William Eubank’s supremely stylish sci-fi mind-teaser The Signal is one of those flicks that keeps you at arm’s length for much of its duration, only to finish with a whammy of a twist ending that most people won’t see coming (I didn’t). Trading on some beats from other genre entries but still doing enough to feel fresh and zesty and alive with possibilities, this low-budget effort benefits from Eubank’s background as a cameraman, as the 2.35:1 widescreen framing is stunning, with cinematographer David Lanzenberg opting for a bold, saturated color palette and harsh, washed-out desert tones that amp up the creep factor while maxing out the style department. Seriously – this film looks 100X bigger than it actually was – I can only imagine what Eubank could do on a massive canvass from on a visual level. Without giving too much away about the oblique yet thoroughly engaging narrative, The Signal plays with the idea of the alien close encounter in a way that really hasn’t been done before – but you may not realize that fact until the very end. Upon deeper inspection, it’s a film that operates on multiple levels and gives you some really interesting bits to chew on and contemplate. Brenton Thwaites is a very appealing young actor who does a really good job at being exasperated, and when finally presented with his moment of truth, he registers with true force and sincerity. There’s lots of nifty special effects and tons of powerful imagery, making this a highly enjoyable “calling-card” movie for Eubank. I’m disappointed that this film didn’t find a larger theatrical audience last summer, but I have a feeling that over time, it will gain the audience it deserves via the DVD and Blu-ray and streaming market. Low on budget but high on unnerving ideas and glorious style, The Signal is one that truly got away – check it out if you’ve previously missed it!
This week we’re back to our regularly scheduled podcast, discussing John Carpenter’s ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK and the top five films of both Kurt Russell and John Carpenter!
Inspired by the urban legend surrounding the real life suicide of Tokyo office worker Takako Konishi (go to Google…), David Zellner’s bizarre, enigmatic, and totally masterful oddity Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter is easily one of the most spellbinding films of the year, a motion picture almost impossible to classify, and the very definition of a film where the less you know about it the better off you’ll be when you see it. This was my first Zellner Brothers experience and it won’t be the last; I’m stocking up my Netflix queue with whatever I can get my hands on, and I’ve discovered some funny short films online (Sasquatch Birth Journal #2 is priceless!) which seem to indicate a general level of cinematic idiocy that I can really get behind. I love it when a movie takes me totally by surprise, and when a filmmaker confidently mixes a variety of tones with the express goal of creating something wholly unique and startling. That’s what this film is – wildly original, deeply stylish, mentally stirring, and at times, thematically troubling when it isn’t being irreverently funny. And it’s yet another small movie from this year that trounces the big-budget competition; I’m finding it harder and harder to come up with any solid reasons to see whatever piece of uninspired nonsense that the studio system is hurling my way.
Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter, which was co-written by David Zellner and his talented brother Nathan, stars the fascinating actress Rinko Kikuchi as a mentally ill Japanese office worker, “still” unmarried at 29 (much to the chagrin of her overbearing mother), who discovers a degraded VHS copy of Joel and Ethan Coen’s celebrated film Fargo. The narrative details, with much humor, painful sadness, and creepy unpredictability, how she misinterprets the film for real life, leading her on an asinine and quixotic quest to find the money that Steve Buscemi’s character had buried out in that snowy field near that wire fence before he got fed to the wood chipper. The film is all about Kumiko’s quest and the interesting people she meets along the way (a segment with a helpful cop played by David Zellner himself and some scenes with a widowed woman are particularly strong and affecting), and the way the Zellners have framed their story leaves little doubt in the viewer’s head that they’re dealing with a lead character who isn’t thinking clearly. And what’s more, the subtle ways that the filmmakers fill you in on this fact are awesome to notice and discover. The script is limited with its dialogue, as the Zellners prefer to tell their story with a focus on allowing their indelible images to propel to narrative forward, resulting in a work that feels dreamy and one that’s constantly challenging reality.
The film has an amazing visual look, with the 2.35:1 widescreen cinematography by Sean Porter always putting something interesting in the frame, with Kumiko’s red hoodie cutting across the blown-out white expanses of the Minnesota winter landscape in extremely memorable fashion. Melba Jodorowsky’s fluid editing allows the film to move along at a brisk pace without ever feeling rushed, and the eclectic and offbeat musical score by The Octopus Project never leaves any doubt that you’re watching something willfully absurd yet sincerely heartfelt. The film is essentially about loneliness and isolation, and how one woman is committed to doing SOMETHING with her life, regardless if that something is rational or not. The Zellners have made an absurdist film to a certain degree, and yet, there’s emotional impact because of Kikuchi’s mesmerizing portrayal of a woman who has lost all sense of normalcy, desperate for this one thing to come to fruition. You never know where this movie is going, it’s impossible to guess how it will end, and I absolutely LOVED the final section, which will likely frustrate and annoy those who need everything spelled out for them in order to be satisfied with a movie. I’ve never seen anything that remotely comes close to resembling this bizarre and completely transfixing film, and it’s yet another indication of how there are some truly great movies out there to be seen if you’re willing to look a bit harder at all of the available selections.
Yann Demange’s riveting thriller ’71 is one of the most hard core, cut from real life docudramas that I’ve ever seen. Taking a cue from the run-and-gun filmmaking aesthetic of Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday feels like a spiritual cousin in many respects), this is a blistering anti-war statement focusing on a bloody and violent riot in the streets of Belfast during The Troubles in 1971, and how a left behind British soldier (the phenomenally intense young actor Jack O’Connell)… has to contend with all sorts of dangerous elements over the course of one hellish night in an effort to stay alive as a group of radicalized demonstrators are looking to do him in for good. This film has tremendous camerawork that goes for the visceral in every moment, the sound design is excellent, there are surprises left and right from the gripping narrative, and Demange exhibits a firm grasp of no-fat linear storytelling that grabs you by the throat from the opening seconds and never lets up for 95 minutes. Agonizing to watch at times, incredibly suspenseful, and dispiritingly sad by its conclusion, the film is aided immensely by O’Connell’s vigorous performance. He’s now demonstrated in three films (Starred Up and Unbroken being the other two) that he is one of the premiere young talents to emerge on the acting scene in quite some time. He always looks different, he’s got a fantastic set of eyes that seem to posses a laser-like intensity, and he’s able to convey vulnerability and confidence in equal measure. As far as military themed thrillers go, this one is at the very top of the list.
Internal, quiet, and a film that’s constantly searching for answers, Breathe In is a wonderful, heavily improvised drama that places a strong concentration on mood and atmosphere and the lingering moments after a conversation ends, while endlessly stressing the emotionally suspenseful moments of its character’s lives. This is a very different film from writer/director Drake Doremus after his no less accomplished debut Like Crazy, which for me, still ranks as one of the best c…ollege/long distance relationship movies that I’ve seen. He’s again delivered a serious and dreamy look at relationships with Breathe In, but this time, instead of college students, Doremus’ tale centers on the possible May-December romance of a married man and a high-school exchange-student whose sudden presence in a suburban family’s home shakes everyone to their core. Using off the cuff dialogue to propel the plot forward was an interesting way to have the actors confront the highly complex situations that the characters find themselves in, and even if the final act isn’t as perfect as the previous two, the performances, especially those of the consistently excellent Guy Pearce and the continually alluring Felicity Jones make up for any potential shortcomings in the story department. This is a very good movie, extremely well observed from almost every angle, and further demonstrates Doremus’ inherent interest in people and their emotionally fragile states (Like Crazy did this sort of thing extremely well; it’s such an underrated film). The probing, expressive cinematography, classical music score, and the overall sense that “anything can happen” keeps you engrossed, and it can’t be said enough – Guy Pearce is one of our absolute best actors currently working, and he turns in an exceptionally challenging performance as a man driven to mental madness over his shortcomings as an individual and the knowledge of the pain that he might be capable of inflicting on those who love him. And Jones is every bit his equal, hitting all her notes of guarded sexuality and emotional vulnerability, creating a woman who is very much in control of her surroundings but still doesn’t quite grasp the ramifications of the scenario she helps to create. Amy Ryan and Mackenzie Davis offer excellent support. Doremus is clearly a filmmaker to look out for in the future.