Film Brief: The Sisters Brothers

The Sisters Brothers features a great, rich, and seemingly accurate visual representation of the burgeoning frontier west, but the language didn’t seem so authentic, oft filled with anachronisms — though I wonder if that was intentional.  A character-driven story, the plot could have been beefed up.  Still, I was entertained as I followed these rapscallions.  6/10

Comparison Notes: Dead Man, Django Unchained, all westerns

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Film Brief: Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot

Gus Van Sant has been an important figure in Hollywood going back nearly 30 years to Drugstore Cowboy, and made the Cinematic Greats Good Will Hunting and Elephant.  Two Cinematic Greats by one director is quite an accomplishment.  His latest movie, the biopic Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot, contains some touching moments, but misses some obvious opportunities in telling its story — like focusing more on making the comics.  The performances are terrific and spirited.  A marginal recommendation with an extra helping of caveats, as this movie borders on being a slog and contains significant factual lapses that could only have improved the picture had they been correctly dealt with.  6/10

Claim You Were Never Really Here. I wish I could.

You Were Never Really Here reminds me of Good Time from last year: a little indie that, with the first scenes and through the intro title, I thought: YES!  This is GOOD… often you know immediately when a movie is going to be good.   But with one punch then another and another, a left hook and a right jab, you realize how bad it’s going to be.

Not showing every last detail and letting the imagination fill in the gaps can be a very effective means of storytelling.  The best examples are Fargo and American Psycho.  But when that’s the whole film — random dead people left and right, real and imagined, it just goes to show how little an idea the filmmaker has.  Of how little a story there is.  Of trying to substitute style for substance.

It all goes back to a theme I keep pounding away at: the power of linear storytelling.  More often than not, when a filmmaker goes highly non-linear, they are compensating for the lack of a good story.   Not that You Were… is all that nonlinear.  It’s just bad.  I blame it on Amazon.  3/10

Comparison Notes: The infinitely better Thelma comes to mind.  When the movie resorts to bodies floating in water for no good reason whatsoever, you realize you’ve hit bottom.

The Great Expectations of an Irrational Man

Irrational Man - poster med

Sometimes critics just don’t get fun films.  With a lame title — that I’ve now warmed to, equally lame poster art, and a Tomatometer score of 39%, I was expecting to be bored or annoyed with Irrational Man.  But Joaquin Phoenix intrigues me, and so does Woody Allen, and Emma Stone doesn’t hurt the cause — so I decided to give it a shot.

The Rotten Tomatoes consensus could not be more wrong:

Irrational Man may prove rewarding for the most ardent Joaquin Phoenix fans or Woody Allen apologists, but all others most likely need not apply

Malarkey!  Irrational Man is not Woody Allen’s best effort, but this is a delightful, fun film.  A little clunkiness hampers the early going, and throughout there is a light air of contrivance that encumbers even his better films of late, such as Blue Jasmine.  That didn’t prevent Blue Jasmine from being one of the best films of 2013; Irrational Man is not up to Blue Jasmine’s level, but it is still quite entertaining, and Woody Allen deserves credit for making a very different movie here.  He may not knock it out of the park every time, but his pictures prove fresh and inventive from one to the next.  7/10  Irrational Man - text block

Inherent Vice: Not a P.T. Anderson Pic

Inherent Vice - poster landscape

Just as “Wes Anderson” has become an adjective, so too has “Paul Thomas Anderson.”  So when I say that I mostly hated Inherent Vice, do not take that as a disparagement against the PT Anderson brand.  For Inherent Vice was completely Inherent Vice - text block 2unrecognizable as a PT Anderson film.  And it will remain so as long as PT Anderson returns to making PT Anderson pics.

Joe Morgenstern, WSJ:

Since most of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice” was meant to be impenetrable, the best approach, as you watch it drift by, is to savor the dreamy images and druggy jokes—the action is set in the stoner precincts of Los Angeles in 1970—and forget about penetrating the plot.

That’s how most critics took the film.  Just sit back and go with the groove.  Forget about the story.  Hey I’m hip, baby.  But 2 1/2 hours of vibe gets tedious.  By the end, even the humorous parts wear thin.  What great films do is put you in their world, but then use that world as a backdrop to the story.  Think Fargo, Gattaca, Pulp Fiction, Donnie Darko, and After Dark, My Sweet.  So when a world of critics tell me to slip into the world of Inherent Vice and forget about story I say no.  That doesn’t work for me.  Story matters.

Other critics have pointed out that Inherent Vice does a good job of remaining faithful to the novel.  On this point I don’t care.  Apparently that was the downfall of Wild.  If you can stay faithful to the book and make a good movie, more power to you.  But first you need to make a good movie.

Something else occurred to me scanning the reviews.  Lately it seems critics are instantly enamored with whatever junk a filmmaker puts out there, as long as it’s set in the ’70s.  That was the explanation I gave for all the praise American Hustle received.  Here we go again.

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Inherent Vice - text blockInherent Vice is a scattershot mess, a train wreck disguised as an ingenious labyrinth.  A series of conversations with little to no action never works in a movie.  It’s trying to be some type of latter-day Chinatown or Big Sleep or Jackie Brown.   But those movies focus on story first, then on atmosphere.

The Big Lebowski is the other obvious comparison.  I’m a fan of Joaquin Phoenix, and his “Dude” is great here.  As much as I disliked this movie, the funny scenes mostly worked for me.  And there are other good parts; a rather brilliant sex scene stands out.  But mostly, PT Anderson’s attempt at some crazy cross of David Lynch, Quentin Tarantino and the Coen brothers utterly fails.  He needs to stick to being PT Anderson.  3/10

Oscar Wins for 12 Years and Spike Jonze

12 Years a Slave, easily the best film of the year and one of the most powerful stories ever told on film, won the Academy Award tonight for Best Picture.  Congratulations to the Academy for getting it right this year.

Congratulations too to Spike Jonze, a much deserved win for Best Original Screenplay — just when the 2nd-best movie of the year Her was looking like it would get shut out.

Also — what was with all the shots to Joseph Gordon-Levitt?  Why was he even there?  Was the Academy trying to compensate for its snub of Don Jon?

Oscars for 12 Years and…?

12 Years a Slave - poster largeI was happily surprised to see the year’s best film 12 Years a Slave receive the Golden Globe for best dramatic picture, and then again winning last night for best picture at the Critics’ Choice Awards.  There seems to be some momentum for it; the question is will it be enough to overcome the formidable mojo of the otherwise mediocre American Hustle, as well as the rest of the field including another strong contender, Gravity?  It will be interesting to find out.  Though 12 Years a Slave is obviously the best picture of the year, the Academy is generally too dense to bestow cinema’s greatest honor upon those efforts which most deserve it.  It will be interesting to see.

The 9 nominees for Best Picture:

  • 12 Years a Slave
  • American Hustle
  • Captain Phillips
  • Dallas Buyers Club
  • Gravity
  • Her
  • Nebraska
  • Philomena
  • The Wolf of Wall Street

I’ve seen all the above except Philomena.  Off the list are Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, from earlier in the year, and Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine, both of which are better than a number of films which did make it.  Also not expected for a nomination was the bold Don Jon.  Excessive boldness puts the Academy off, which is too bad because Don Jon was a strong and original movie, one of the year’s best.

SNUBS

‘Snub’ is a term the media likes to use during the awards season, but I prefer to look at it as mere incompetence.  Notable omissions:

  • Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix for Her, and Tom Hanks for Captain Phillips, who both put in much better performances than those of everyone who was nominated except Chiwetel Ejiofor for 12 Years.  There’s also the perceived snub of Robert Redford for All is Lost.  He did a great job, but it’s tough to nominate someone for best actor in a role with no dialogue.
  • Best Actress: though it was only her voice, Scarlett Johansson did a great job in Her.
  • Directing: Compared to Spike Jonze, who was not nominated, David O. Russell (American Hustle) is a hack.  In fact, based on his last two films, he’s a hack even not compared to Jonze, who did a brilliant job with Her.
  • Don Jon: Both Joseph Gordon-Levitt (starring) and Scarlett Johansson (supporting) turned in terrific performances in Don Jon.  Neither character is necessarily sympathetic or likable, but that speaks even more to the caliber of acting on display.

THESE ARE COMEDIES?

One more comment in regards to the Golden Globes:  None of the movies nominated for best ‘Musical or Comedy’ were musicals or comedies.  Now granted, there weren’t any musicals this year.  The Wolf of Wall Street had something of an overall manic, comedic tone, but it was not a comedy per se.  And the other nominees?  Her, American Hustle, Inside Llewyn Davis and Nebraska?  Not comedies, folks, though there are some humorous moments here or there.  I suppose by that standard we should call Sophie’s Choice a comedy.

The Golden Globes decided to put those nominees in the Comedy category for the express purpose of insuring recognition of at least two ‘deserving’ movies, not just one.  In other words, they didn’t have the cojones to put American Hustle up against 12 Years a Slave.  What’s too bad about all this is that there were at least two very good comedies this year: The Way Way Back and This Is the End.  The Golden Globes certainly lost their way by not recognizing good comedic movies deserving a place in the category which was created for that purpose.  I suppose they made up for it somewhat by giving the top honor to 12 Years.

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Going back to the Best Picture Oscar — the awards season is much like the Presidential Election.  Films have to be campaigned for and win lesser victories before winning the biggest prize.  It’s remarkable how little press, and indeed how little respect, 12 Years has received, even after winning the Golden Globe.  So I would say it still has the odds against it, but then there was a time nobody gave Barack Obama a chance to win it all — so you never know.