Archive | January 2014

Movie review roulette: Selection #4

All right! Time to pick a new film to write about!

First off, here’s the pool:

Raise the Red Lantern


The Princess Bride

Children of Men


Being John Malkovich

Millennium Actress

La Dolce Vita

Rear Window


Arsenic and Old Lace


Au Revoir Les Enfants

The Tree of Life

Dark City (new)

And here’s the random selection (to be reviewed next week):


Replacing Au Revoir Les Enfant in the pool: Paths of Glory

Movie Review Roulette #3: Three Colors: Red

Few things fascinate me more than human connectivity. We take friends and loved ones for granted. It’s easy to view friendship and simply something we do because we have to with the people we have around.

Perhaps we think that way because the alternative can feel cosmically overwhelming. Think of the people who matter most to you. Imagine, then, how many things could have happened in both your lifetimes that could have prevented your meeting. Look at the details of human lives, and little events take on a cosmic significance.

For example: I almost died when I was born. My lungs burst. I only survived because a specialist from another hospital stopped by on his way to his vacation home in Cape Cod. Everyone who knows me only knows me because of that doctor. Who knows what the path that lead him into my hospital room looked like? Threads weaving in and out. It’s a humbling thought.

It’s so easy to see our lives as linear that we forget how much chance factors in. It can be terrifying to think about, sort of like how the vastness of space can be too much to comprehend. But it can also be beautiful, like life imagined as a tapestry.

That’s the approach Krzysztof Kieslowski took with his magnificent Three Colors: Red, the last film in his legendary Three Colors trilogy. If we are guilty of viewing our own lives as linear, films are doubly guilty of this. But Three Colors: Red is disinterested in plot markers and heroic narratives. It is about the cords that connect us to other people.

Three Colors: Red shares a bond in my heart with my favorite film of recent years, Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. The Tree of Life attempted to tell the story of the universe by focusing on the lives of a single family. Red searches for how one person fits into the narrative of humanity. It quickly finds that just one person fits into so many stories that it can be overwhelming for us, and perhaps to them if they stop to look.

The person at its heart is Clementine, played by Irene Jacob. Clementine is a model. She’s recently landed a notable job for a chewing gum ad campaign. Her face is going to be on billboards around Geneva. Things are going well.

But her boyfriend is distant. She calls him, tells him she misses him, that she loves him. He responds with irritation.

We wait for any of this to develop into a plot. None comes. This isn’t a movie about arcs. It’s a movie about the rhythms and melodies of lives.

While driving, she hits a dog. She finds the owner, who seems he couldn’t care less. She leaves his house, is upset, and goes back to confront him. She catches him listening in to his neighbors’ phone calls. She is appalled.

Tellingly, she still listens to his explanation.

His interest in his neighbors’ calls isn’t perverted voyeurism, but a fascination with the facades of humanity. One of his neighbors is a drug lord. Another has been carrying on an affair with a mistress. The judge hasn’t the heart to tell the man’s wife. It would destroy the family, and besides, the man’s little daughter knows already.

He is a man without facades, because he doesn’t have a public face. He doesn’t leave his home. He’s the sort of man who wouldn’t comprehend why someone might be upset that he doesn’t care much for his dog. He listens to others phone calls because that’s the closest thing he has to conversations.

The judge, develops a friendship with Clementine. I’ve seen criticisms of the film that find their friendship to be a stretch. But I buy it. It never pushes into romantic territory. It is a different sort of electricity, rooted in empathy. Clementine feels unmoored from humanity. In the judge, she sees someone truly adrift. In Clementine, the judge sees someone he might have loved when he was a young man, who as an old man he simply appreciates as someone to talk to.

The film has a third character, seemingly unrelated. It’s a young man, a judge-to-be in law school. He is in love with a woman who reads weather reports over the phone. Clementine calls her at the beginning of the film. The Judge listens in on their private conversations, exchanging sweet nothings over the phone.

We wonder why he’s in the film at all, until we realize that he is a) essentially the judge as a young man, living the judge’s past and b) would likely get along very well with Clementine.

Why is he in the film? Well, why not? We don’t know the people we care about until we meet them, but we were both living our lives fully until that point. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see the exact paths that led to two people meeting? So rarely do we get the chance to see that sort of story play out.

Kieslowski cares as about the threads that make a quilt before they’re sewn in. Freed from the constraints of a linear plot, Red simply observes and lets us wonder. It’s a fascinating subversion of typical film plots, where the audience needs to be convinced of a match of two characters We want the young judge to meet Clementine. Neither knows the other exists. Their presence in the same film seems partially whimsical and mostly arbitrary. Seems.

Red is one of the most poetic and enchanting films I have seen. Its final scene is both cheeky and beautiful, tying together all the threads of the film and the entire Three Colors trilogy. We all weave in and out of so many lives. If only we stopped to look at the patterns we create more often.

Quick and dirty Oscar Nomination predictions

These are in 7 hours, aren’t they? Damn.

All right, so I’ve been a bit behind in my tracking the races this year, but I’m going to give this my best shot.

Best Picture

12 Years a Slave

American Hustle


Captain Phillips


Wolf of Wall Street


Inside Llewyn Davis


Gah, this category should be easy with the expanded field, no? But the whole “there could be anywhere from 5-10 nominees” thing makes this trickier. That the Academy was kind enough to mention that under current rules, there never would have been a 10-nominee year helps a little. Considering that there have been nine nominees the last two years (with the current rules) at least helps us gauge that 9 seems to be the high end. That said, I’m looking at 8 nominees this year. The first three are the only real locks, with Captain Phillips close behind. My one caveat with Captain Phillips is that it seems like the sort of film that garners lots of admiration without much fervent love. Being ranked first on ballots is the single biggest factor to getting nominated, and even a small group of passionate fans can carry a movie a long way (as The Tree of Life and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close can attest).

Her is just that sort of film, and while I’d be wary about it in a 5-nominee year, I think it’s going to make the cut with the potential for more than 5. The last three movies are all films I’d write off as long shots in a 5-nominee race, but that I think will garner the first-place votes needed to make the cut. There are contenders other than these eight, and if the Academy had stuck with 10 guaranteed nominees like it experimented with briefly, I’d slot in Dallas Buyers Club and two of The Butler, August: Osage County or Saving Mr. Banks. But as is, DBC‘s performances seem to be the main source of its buzz, and August has been too underwhelmingly recieved. I’m worried that I’m underestimating Saving Mr. Banks and The Butler and I considered sliding one or the other as a 9th place finisher, but I’m predicting 8 nominees and I’m not going to cop out now.

Best Director

Alfonso Cuaron, Gravity

Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave

David O’Russell, American Hustle

Spike Jonze, Her

Martin Scorsese, The Wolf of Wall Street


Top three seem pretty secure to me, with Cuaron as the tentative favorite in the category (although I’m always, always wary about a Best Director favorite whose film is not the favorite to win Best Picture, but that’s a story for next month). McQueen is about as much a lock for a nod. American Hustle should do very well across the board, so there’s no reason not to expect O’Russell to join the party. After that, if Her is the screenplay favorite and a best picture contender, I’m comfortable putting Jonze in here. But I’m a bit tentative about he and Scorsese, and I consider them both to be a coin flip with Paul Greengrass for Captain Phillips.

Best Actor

Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyer’s Club

Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave

Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips

Bruce Dern, Nebraska

Oscar Isaac, Inside Llewyn Davis

The top three are pretty solid. Bruce Dern is just about there as well. After that, well, I was pulling my hair about between Leonardo Di Caprio for Wolf of Wall Street, Forrest Whitaker for The Butler and Robert Redford for All is Lost. Then, naturally, I used this spot for my annual attempt at a surprise prediction (it’s only worked once, when I predicted Fernando Meirelles’s nomination for directing City of God ten years ago, but traditions are traditions). But seriously, I think people are underestimating Isaac’s chances. It’s one of the most admired performances of the year in a film that most voters will be considering strongly in other categories. Only Ejiofor has won more critics awards in this category. Don’t be shocked if he makes it.

Best Actress

Sandra Bullock, Gravity

Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine

Judi Dench, Philomena

Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

Meryl Streep, August: Osage County


These are the five clear favorites. Amy Adams might nudge Streep, I think, but I’m not going to bet on it. That’s really all there is to it for now. Blanchett is the favorite to win, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Bullock pulls ahead down the road. We’ll see then.

All right, I’m pretty tired now and need to sleep early to get to the nominations, so here are the rest of my predix without analysis. Sorry about that.

Best Supporting Actor

Jared Leto, Dallas Buyer’s Club

Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips

Daniel Bruhl, Rush

Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave

Bradley Cooper, American Hustle


Best Supporting Actress

Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave

Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle

June Squibb, Nebraska

Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

Oprah Winfrey, The Butler


Best Animated Feature (Because I care about this one inordinately)


Monsters University

The Wind Rises

Despicable Me 2

Ernest and Celine


Best Cinematography (Because I also care about this one inordinately)


12 Years a Slave

Inside Llewyn Davis


The Grandmaster

Movie review roulette: selection #3

Here’s my running list of films, compiled at 3 in the morning yesterday, aiming for as much variety as I could cognitively achieve at that hour.

Three Colors: Red

Raise the Red Lantern


The Princess Bride

Children of Men


Being John Malkovich

Millennium Actress

La Dolce Vita

Rear Window


Arsenic and Old Lace


Au Revoir Les Enfants

The Tree of Life


I stuck them in a list randomizer, and its choice was:Image

So that write-up will be going up next week.

New to the pool (replacing Three Colors: Red): Dark City

Movie review roulette #2: A Streetcar Named Desire

Hey all! After playing this game a while ago- with 5 Centimeters Per Second getting the call– I’m rolling out this little game as a full-time feature on my blog.

Here’s how it goes:

I have a running list of 15 of my favorite films.

I run the list through a list randomizer, and write a piece on the film that comes out on top.

I add a new film to the list of 15, and do another one every week. Since it’s Sunday early, early morning where I am, I think this can be a weekend feature, something to keep my movie writing gears from getting rusty.

Anyway, the last time I did one of these, the next selected film was A Streetcar Named Desire.

So, if you’re still reading this wall of text after all this time, here are some thoughts on that brilliant film.

Marlon Brando’s scream of “HEY STELLA!” is one of the most iconic moments of his career. But it’s Kim Hunter’s wordless acting in the scene that drives it home, and sets the tone for film that made it through the Hays Code censors with much of its power intact. Stella’s face is the essence of carnality. Her gaze, seen at an extreme dutch angle as she descends a staircase and knocks him to his knees from afar, fill the screen with the sort of electricity that you can’t predict or force out of a performer. Stella and Stanley have little in common, but their mutual lust for one another is overpowering.

Getting that across without drawing the wrath of the Hays Code censors (who enforced the guidelines for content in movies, set in 1930) and the Legion of Decency (who rated movies on their morality, and could submarine a movie if they declared it indecent) was a herculean struggle in 1951. But telling a story dripping with sweat, lust, and sexual mind games was essential in adapting Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize winning 1947 play. And the best way around those ready to chop scenes and words they deemed offensive was to let expressions, faces, and atmosphere do the talking. And lord, did Kim Hunter, Marlon Brando, and Vivien Leigh deliver.

The lack of staginess to this production of one of the greatest American plays is perhaps a bit ironic. The director, Elia Kazan, directed the play’s original Broadway run. Virtually the entire cast, save Vivien Leigh, were in his original Broadway cast. Leigh was no stranger to the role of Blanche DuBois, having played the part in London’s West End production of the play.

Then again, perhaps the seeming ease with which these actors disappear into their roles makes perfect sense. As Leigh herself put it, “I had nine months in the theatre of Blanche DuBois. Now she’s in command of me.

Much (too much) is made of the contrast in the acting styles of Brando and Leigh. Brando, of course, was at the forefront of bringing naturalistic, “method” style acting to Hollywood. Leigh’s more melodramatic style felt like a holdover from the 1930s golden age of Hollywood when she rose to stardom.

Far more important than their stylistic differences is how their particular styles perfectly fit their characters, and how those differences both feel organic to this film’s world. Brando was, indeed, ahead of his time. He was part of a burgeoning revolution among leading men, with Montgomery Clift rising to stardom that same year and James Dean soon after. These young actors delivered coiled, inward performances that were almost unbearably raw for audiences at the time. Brando’s Stanley Kowalski was as frightening and primal as he was believable. Hollywood simply hadn’t seen anything quite like this performance before. It was just Brando’s second film, but it was a role he had been perfecting for years on the stage.

Blanche is a perfect contrast to Stanley. She carries herself as an old-fashioned Southern Lady, and it’s impossible not to see Leigh channeling her most famous character, Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind. But Scarlett too stands in contrast with Blanche. Scarlett had little use for the society’s mores and expectations of her. She placed survival first and didn’t give a damn what anyone else thought. Blanche desperately hides her past, tries to be liked, as a means of survival. But she is an outcast, and if not fragile, then trembling towards fragility. She lost her job as a high school teacher after having sex with a 17-year old student. She was widowed when she caught her husband having sex with another man, and he committed suicide. Society is quick to ignore any feelings of empathy for a person so lost, so close to breaking down, so trapped in her past. Such a performance demands a ghostly quality that Leigh brings, with a performance that never dials down the internal volume and never ought to.

From a creative standpoint, perhaps the most limiting form of censorship of the Hays Code days had nothing to do with sex, violence or language. The rule that carried the most weight stipulated that “heroes” and “villains” had to be clearly delineated, and the villains had to lose at the end of the film. In addition to helping shape the structure of films in ways that sustain to this day, filmmakers had a hell of a time coming up with ways to tell stories that didn’t lend themselves well to dichotomies.

A Streetcar Named Desire was just that type of story. This isn’t a story of good vs. evil, but of one person on the edge of a breakdown and another who doesn’t give a damn if she breaks or not, so long as he always gets his way. Brando plays plays Stanley with such assured and naturalistic authority that he becomes disarmingly human. His performance demonstrates the difference between coiled aggression and bombast in a performance.

Like so many great plays, A Streetcar Named Desire derives much of its power from characters playing off of each other in real time. Blanche, Stanley and Stella are dry flint nestled on a bed of hay. Replicating that energy is the single biggest challenge that film adaptation of a stage production faces. Stage-to-screen productions seem like they ought to succeed with relative ease, but so often they fall flat. You can’t just film a performance for the stage and expect it to work as a movie, in the same sense that outside of a concert setting, a live performance of a song is typically less riveting a listen than the recorded version. We’re not watching Brando, Leigh, Hunter and Malden live. Kazan needed to replicate the power of their stage performances cinematically.

Scenes like the one I mentioned at the beginning, tracking Hunter’s face as descends a staircase to her husband, radiating lust the whole time, is the sort of scene that shows the advantages movies have over the stage. We can see Stella in isolation, and Kim Hunter was able to find a moment of acting to the camera , one that would likely have been lost on a live audience, that is astonishing in its resonance.

Kazan also rarely uses stagey cinematography. A play creates its own world before our eyes. Take away the stage, and the director needs to make the world anew. As a lover of theatre, I do wonder sometimes what it would have been like to see A Streetcar Named Desire on stage, with this remarkable cast. In making the play into a film, Kazan made no attempt to make it feel like a play. And because of that, I get a sense that the film retains far more of the original play’s impact.

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