Friday, January 9, 2015

"You don't want bumpers. Life don't give you bumpers."




Last night I attended "An Evening with Richard Linklater," a conversation between Linklater and LACMA film series curator Elvis Mitchell, punctuated by clips from Boyhood, the making of Boyhood (shot by Patricia Arquette), Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy, Waking Life, and School of Rock.  They also talked about Linklater films I haven't yet seen:  The Newton Boys, Bernie, The Bad News Bears.  I hadn't even realized that Linklater had directed The Bad News Bears or School of Rock.  Although the conversation concentrated on the writer-director's thematic obsessions--time passing, memory--I was struck by the realization of Linklater's range, his quiet experimentation, his almost effortless ("slacker"?) "auteurness."  He was so relaxed, articulate, discursive, and unpretentious, that I thought, wow, he would wonderful to hang out with in Austin with a beer and some BBQ and music for an afternoon.


There's a wonderful interview with Linklater's daughter Lorelei (right, who played Ellar Coltrane' sister in Boyhood) in the Patricia Arquette "making of" film, in which Lorelei (sporting a temp tattoo on her cheek) admits that she was kind of bored with Waking Life--"Not to be insulting, Daddy."


Here are some highlights from the evening:

Linklater talked about being "allergic" to plotting in screenplays.  Instead he said replaces plot with "time structure"--and his stories are usually open-ended.  "Plot isn't really missed...if there's something else to grab you."

One of Linklater's influences is Scorsese--Linklater noted how, in Raging Bull, the director "created space" by giving/allowing supporting cast members like Joe Pesci little details that they most likely came up with on their own.  "The director in me," Linklater admitted, "fires the writer real early."  He believes that collaboration is the real nature of film.  And he went on to speak of his collaborations with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy and his long time editor Sandra Adair.

Waking Life was based on a series of lucid dreams that Linklater had at age 18; when he was introduced to the technology for the film, rotoscoping, it allowed him to tell the story by giving form to an unformed narrative.

Boyhood came out of an intent to write a novel about childhood.  The first thing that came to Linklater was the title.  But he needed to find the form, the way to tell it.  He said he sat down at his keyboard to start the novel and the title just came to him, and he suddenly knew it was a movie.  He always knew that the story would end with the boy going off to college.  And his second year into shooting, Linklater knew the last scene before it was scripted.  It was "planned out but not all scripted."

Linklater said that he wanted Boyhood "to feel like the memory of a childhood....Childhood ending by a thousand blows."  (Twice the director mentioned his admiration of Truffaut and The 400 Blows.)


Elvis Mitchell noted that Linklater's films seem very much about "being in the moment."  Linklater nodded in acknowledgment, thoughtful.

Then the director also posited the world of cinema as a "parallel world" --a kind of antidote to the "adult world that is there to tear you down from the fun years"--ages 18 to 25.  As he said this, he looked wistful.

I wanted to buy him a Lone Star.


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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Top 10 Films of 2014

1.  BOYHOOD



Simple, elegant, genius.  A feat of filmmaking and an affecting chronicle that celebrates both the mutability and resilience of relationships and of personhood. See my full post here.


2.  INHERENT VICE






This is the only film I absolutely had to see two weekends in a row.  When I was leaving the theater on second viewing, a man behind me said to his friends, "I really liked that a lot.  I just wish I could have followed the plot."  Plot be damned; it's simply the vehicle (was Boogie Nights a film about the porn industry?).  Just go along for the ride and let it wash over you as if you were high like lead character Larry "Doc" Sportello, played by the as usual peerless Joaquin Phoenix.  (Warning--spoilers ahead!)  Like any other Paul Thomas Anderson film, it's all about the relationships:  Doc and his former flame, Shasta (an excellent Katharine Waterston); Doc and his LAPD alter ego, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for this performance), the seemingly tough flat topper with an air of "possessed melancholy."  When Doc calls him "brother," Bigfoot counters, "You're not my brother."  Doc notes, tears of awe and concern streaming, that Bigfoot could, however, use a keeper.  (Shades of The Master?)  The last scenes with Shasta illustrate the concept of "inherent vice," which is explained as something that can't be avoided, like "chocolate melting."  This film is about the unavoidable mutability (Pynchon's word would be "entropy") of relationships.  And yet, ties that bind will bind again, to loosely paraphrase Patti Smith.  Doc and Shasta fuck (that is the most apt description) towards the end, but that doesn't mean they're together again, she says.   Doc repeats this to her finally in the car, the two of them close in a tight shot (used liberally in this film), in, as Shelley put it, "the time which is [their] own."  Doc is driving, although they don't seem to be moving (clearly deliberate, given that nothing is visible through the car's fogged windows), on the road to somewhere and nowhere.  Que sera.  A hilarious and deeply affecting film, if you will allow it; an inspired adaptation of Thomas Pynchon's novel; and a stunningly directed piece of cinema, as we've come to expect from PTA, America's greatest contemporary auteur.


3.  WHIPLASH



29-year-old Damien Chazelle's pitch perfect film that keeps topping itself until, by its climax, it leaves you completely wrung out.  For my full post, click here.


4.  LOCKE




Steven Knight's ingenious, perfect movie that all takes place inside Ivan Locke's (played by a terrific Tom Hardy) SUV, in real time, with the action consisting of his taking call after call on his blue tooth car phone.  The film was shot over and over from start to finish each night during production.  It's hard to imagine how tense and moving the film is, given that all of the other actors are off screen.  Read more about a screening I attended at which Knight talked about it here.


5.  UNDER THE SKIN



This film was directed by Jonathan Glazer, who also directed Steven Knight's (see Locke, above) screenplay Sexy Beast.  This is one I want to see again.  It's not completely baked, but it's compelling and audacious as hell.  And it has an outstanding score by Mica Levi. My original post is here.


6.  20,00 DAYS ON EARTH



A fictional documentary on a day in the life of Nick Cave, this is really a film about the creative process.  Although Cave lives to perform, he considers himself first and foremost a writer.  And he co-wrote this with directors Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard.  It's engrossing, whether we see Cave performing, having sessions with his therapist, driving around Brighton with friends Ray Winstone and Kylie Minogue, or perusing his archives.  The title refers to Cave's 57th birthday.


7.  BIRDMAN



While not as soulful as Iñárritu's films written by/with Guillermo Arriaga (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel), this film is a directorial feat, with kudos to cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  There seems to be a parallel process at work here, with Iñárritu re-inventing himself post split with Arriaga just as Michael Keaton's character Riggan is attempting to do with his career by staging a Broadway play from a Raymond Carver story.  Excellent performances from Keaton, Edward Norton (in particular), and Emma Stone.


8.  THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL



I was much more impressed with the latest from Wes Anderson the second time I saw it, when it recently aired on HBO.  Initially, I had found it a tad precious (my original post is here).  But now it seems more of a true gem, from its imaginative script to its impressive ensemble cast and stunning production design/art direction.  (Incidentally, I came across this interesting post on watching good films twice.)  Anderson uses several Kubrickrian one-point perspective shots as well as his own unique directorial flourishes.  An impeccably realized film from a truly iconoclastic auteur.

9.  GONE GIRL



I suspect I would have liked this movie even more had I not loved the book (and its structure, with its alternating his-and-her chapters) so much.  Gillian Flynn nevertheless did a great job adapting her own seemingly impossible-to-film novel.  And of course  David Fincher brought his distinctive directorial sensibility.  Ben Affleck turned out to be perfect casting.  The only things that bugged me were Rosamund Pike's wigs.


10.  A MOST VIOLENT YEAR



Writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All Is Lost) brings us another story of almost pathological pride and determination:  Oscar Isaac plays immigrant Abel Morales (yes, I believe the name is meant to evoke "morals"), who pursues the American Dream, a kind of a Gatsby of the heating oil industry who may or may not be corrupt and who will not waver in his pursuit of a property that will open a new world for him.  Set in 1981, one of the most violent and crime-ridden in New York City's history, this is a slow-building thriller whose first two acts almost bored me.  In retrospect, though, the film resonates with its rigorous tension, both with regard to character and plot.  In short, the filmmaker is as stoic and relentless as his main character, and Chandor pays it off thrillingly in the third act (redeeming himself from the non-ending of All Is Lost).  Jessica Chastain plays Morales' wife, the daughter of a gangster who--well, let's just say that she and her husband are equals in their determination.


RUNNERS UP:  Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II, Nightcrawler (for Jake Gyllenhaal's performance), Wild, The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, The Rover, Only Lovers Left Alive (if only for its langorous mood, art direction, and the cool beauty of its yak-haired leads, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston), Selma, St. Vincent, The Skeleton Twins (for Wiig and Hader).


BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT:  Interstellar. (Whatever happened to show, don't tell?  As Michael Mann said in a recent interview in the New York Times about his upcoming film Blackhat, "The way in is usually through the amygdala.  Not the cerebral cortex." ) 



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Friday, October 10, 2014

Whip It Good




"The brain is hard-wired to distrust creativity," Derek Thompson informs us in his Atlantic article, "Why Experts Reject Creativity."  Psychologists know that any kind of change, anything new, involves a degree of uncertainty, which gives rise to anxiety.  Which is why dysfunctional relationships, especially families, often remain in what we call homeostasis.  Be ever so awful, there's no place like home.  

Thompson cites research that shows that the way to introduce something new in any field is to couch it in something familiar.  "In Hollywood, the 'high-concept' pitch offers a useful example....To grab their attention, writers often frame original ideas as a fresh combination of existing ideas.  'It's Groundhog Day meets War of the Worlds!'  Or 'It's Transformers on the ocean!'"

So, writer-director Damien Chazelle's film Whiplash (named after a song rehearsed in the film--the music by Justin Hurwitz is terrific) might be described as Rocky in the arena of jazz drumming, or Rocky meets The Great Santini or Full Metal Jacket, with Miles Teller playing an Iowa Bob inspired get-obsessed-and-stay-obsessed drummer who aspires to be the next Buddy Rich, and who meets his mentor and tormentor in the form of a music school teacher played with ferocious intensity by J. K. Simmons (below right).  

The movie has the dark, greenish palette of a David Fincher film, (kudos to cinematographer Sharone Meir). It was shot in just 19 days and edited in 10 weeks (with razor-sharp cutting by Tom Cross). Considering that this is only the second feature from 29-year-old Chazelle (he made a jazz musical in 2009 called Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench), it's a truly impressive piece of work, directed with exceptional craft, style, and passion.

Whiplash has a familiar frame with  common tropes, but Chazelle manages not only to subvert (or perhaps exceed) outcomes when the expected plot points occur, but he relentlessly amps up the intensity, so much so that we think the film can't possibly continue to top itself.  But then we get to the climax and, well, it is orgasmic.  At the screening I attended, the film got a standing ovation, and everyone seemed wrung out and flushed...and thrilled.


Chazelle (above) revealed post screening that the film was based on his own high school experience as a drummer (although the movie is set in what can only be a stand in for Julliard).  He recalled that every day that he went to music class he would feel a "mounting dread," and that rehearsal was like "going to war."  Hence his decision to make a "music movie as if it had been a war movie."  He wanted to show how lonely being a musician can be, and also how drumming is "abstract, like mathematics." He said that, in high school, he would practice 6 hours a day until his hands bled.  And you can bet that Miles Teller's character's hands bleed a lot in the film.

Aside from the fact that drumming involves hitting and banging, Chazelle views jazz itself as having an "undercurrent of hostility"; he also said he feels that "conflict is a big part of jazz."   In Whiplash, that conflict is in our faces in the sparring between Teller and Simmons. These are, respectively, career-making and career-capping performances from the actors.



Just go see it.  As reviewer Brad Brevet put it, auteur Chazelle turns the volume up not just to eleven, "but he breaks the damned thing off."


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