ALL HAIL, CAESAR!

Hail, Caesar! - poster alt

Not to sound lame-brained, but Hail, Caesar! is the most literal example of a FEEL GOOD MOVIE in recent memory.  I was loathe to go see it, based on the ads & trailers.  I made avoiding it something of a quest, Coens be damned!  Plus I had this running theory of Clooney + Coens = STAY AWAY!  But it seemed to have legs.  After a month or so something snapped; I broke down and headed with great gusto to the cinema.

Hail, Caesar! - text blockAnd wow do the Coens know how to put together a movie.  Hail, Caesar! is a thoroughly entertaining, sumptuously gorgeous picture made by absolutely consummate filmmakers at the top of their game.  My only fault was a lack of any real dramatic peril: this is not Fargo or No Country for Old Men.  Otherwise we’d be talking 9-territory; as it is, on the high end of 8/10.

Sit close to the big screen for this one — it’s a visual treat, I found much more so than even The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Comparison Notes: Recommended: The Grand Budapest Hotel, Chinatown, Mulholland Dr.; Not recommended: Inherent Vice, L.A. Confidential

The Best and Worst of 2014

2014 was a very different movie year than 2013 — many more good movies.  But first:

Pride — 2/10 and Honours for Worst Movie of the Year

And now the rest, in ascending order of my opinion.  That no film sank to 1/10 may be seen as a bellwether of the elevated overall quality of the movies of 2014.  Last year each movie that received an 8 or above made it into the Top Ten; this year some movies of that caliber won’t even make the top 20.  I think I watched a record number of movies this year as well, so this will be quite a list.

*The mix-up with Nymphomaniac made me rethink omitting films from my annual list which I did not see in the theater.  I will denote films seen via VOD with an asterisk.

Oculus — 2/10The Blue Room - poster small

The Blue Room — 3/10

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies — 3/10

Men, Women & Children — 3/10

22 Jump Street — 3/10

Citizenfour — 3/10.  This year’s Room 237: the most overrated documentary

Inherent Vice — 3/10

Love Is Strange — 3/10

The Book of Life — 4/10

Calvary — 4/10

GodzillaJersey Boys - poster — 4/10

The Other Woman — 4/10

Non-Stop — 4/10

X-Men: Days of Future Past (3D) — 4/10

Lucy — 4/10

The Signal — 5/10

Captain America: The Winter Soldier — 5/10

Two Days, One Night — 5/10

Jersey Boys — 5/10

Nymphomaniac Vol. II* — 5/10

A  Most Wanted Man — 5/10

The Two Faces of January — 5/10

I Origins — 5/10

Beyond the Lights — 5/10

Visitors — 6/10

The Unknown Known* — 6/10

300: Rise of an Empire (IMAX 3D)– 6/10

Interstellar — 6/10Only Lovers Left Alive - poster large

John Wick — 6/10

Snowpiercer — 6/10.  What happened to all the awards?

Guardians of the Galaxy — 6/10

Wild — 6/10

The Homesman — 6/10

Only Lovers Left Alive — 6/10.  This is becoming a bit of a sentimental favorite, so may be upgraded in the future.  Always good to get a dose of Jim Jarmusch.

Particle Fever* — 7/10

Noah — 7/10

The Dance of Reality — 7/10

The One I LoveSt. Vincent - poster– 7/10

Boyhood — 7/10  If Boyhood — the exact same movie in all other ways — is shot over 90 days instead of 12 years, nobody’s talking about it.  The impact of shooting over 12 years cannot be denied, but otherwise this is a string of Parenthood episodes.

Blue Ruin* and Cold in July — crime dramas tied at 7/10

Selma — 7/10

Mr. Turner — 7/10

Birdman — 7/10

St. Vincent — 7/10

Top FiveForce Majeure - posterBirdman - poster — 8/10

Tim’s Vermeer — 8/10

Foxcatcher — 8/10

Nymphomaniac Vol. I — 8/10

Get on Up — 8/10

The Grand Budapest Hotel and Neighbors — 8/10.  It’s a tie.

 

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes — 8/10

Force Majeure — 8/10

Nightcrawler — 8/10

The Imitation Game — 8/10

Gone Girl — 8/10

Edge of Tomorrow — 8/10.

== TOP TEN ==

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10. Obvious Child — 8/10.  The year’s best comedy

9. Big Eyes — 8/10

8. The Drop — 8/10

7. The Theory of Everything — 8/10

6. Whiplash — 9/10

5. American Sniper — 9/10

4. A Most Violent Year — 9/10

3. Ida — 9/10

2. Life Itself — 10/10.  A must for all cinephiles.

1. Under the Skin — 10/10 and Clearly the Best Movie of the Year.  An astounding film that’s not for most, so before you proceed read my post.

End Note:  There is an interesting correlation, which I guarantee is hardly coincidental, of Scarlett Johansson and quality films.  Last year she was in Her and Don Jon, and this year Under the Skin.  Not content with simply ‘good enough’, these are great, daring, spirited films.  Really liking her these days.

Not in Love with Lucy

Lucy - poster smallMildly entertaining, but hardly exceptional.  If it weren’t for the similarly-themed Limitless, Jumper, Transcendence, Inception, etc. etc. then Lucy might have felt fresher.  But we already have all those movies, so that concept of a regular person now endowed with superpowers must be executed at a high level in order to stand out.  Lucy did not execute at that level, and tried to make up for its shortcomings by use of a rather odd “Wild Kingdom” theme.

Lucy was at its best in the opening sequences, but even those felt a little off.  The movie never quite gelled for me, and the ever-increasing product placement by sleazy Samsung got on my nerves enough to knock it down another peg or two.  4/10

Lucy - text block

 

Venture More Deeply Under the Skin

Under the Skin

I’ve made the point before that I will not award a 10/10 rating to a movie until some time has passed after watching.  A 10 rating indicates not only something truly great, but a timeless film for the ages — a masterpiece.  A classification not to be doled out haphazardly.  Though just three months have passed since watching Under the Skin, its memory continues to pervade my consciousness.  It is a haunting film that has made an indelible mark on the landscape of cinema, and a lasting impression on me.  A film that I’ve not only thought about a great deal, but that has found its way into my dreams.  And the time has come to award it my 10 rating.

For such a short time to have passed, this is a bit of a risk for me.  I would look foolish if a year or two or ten from now I reflected again on Under the Skin and felt it did not warrant a 10 rating.  It is a testament to how strongly I feel about the movie that I’m placing the 10/10 label on it so soon.

* * *

Under the Skin - Come to Me

If you read my original review, understand that my analogy to a cross between Holy Motors and Eraserhead, though still valid, is no longer the way I would couch a discussion of Under the Skin.  That was my best effort at wrapping my head around this extraordinary film, of digesting it immediately upon consumption.  My understanding of the film has deepened since then, and I realize now that it demands to be dealt with strictly on its own.  It is so unique that comparison to other movies is not particularly useful to gain an understanding of it, except as an academic exercise.

But indulge me for a moment while I contradict myself.  In a state that was half waking and half sleeping, another comparison came to me: 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Based on Under the Skin, the filmmaker Jonathan Glazer has been compared by at least one critic to Stanley Kubrick.  There are a couple visuals that bring to mind 2001; I cite examples below.

But beyond the obvious, Under the Skin may be seen as an incredible twist on 2001, and here it is: in 2001, we had the monolith.  But here, the girl is the monolith.  Under the Skin - monolith text block 2Her body — whatever that exactly is, her charming ways, her black pool, her entire alien presence.  The monolith has returned to earth, but it has folded in on itself and become this very human, and simultaneously very alien sexual being.  The blackness, the void — all the abstract and mystical bounds of humanity represented by the monolith of 2001 are now embodied with this young woman.  Instead of the monolith as something seen from afar, and hesitantly approached for a closer glimpse or a touch, it has now become something you enter, something that envelops you.

Now mind you, I don’t believe Glazer or the novelist Michel Faber had 2001 in mind at all when composing Under the Skin.  But you can tell that this movie has fired up a lot of synapses in my brain.  Know too that the whole idea of an interpretation of Under the Skin as a greatly distorted retelling of 2001 is but one point of discussion, not a way to contain, define or delineate it in any way.

Continued analysis, discussion and debate are often the fruits of a masterwork.

* * *

This is one of those rare moments when a movie can just knock you over the head and flatten you.  Under the Skin operates on different levels: as a mystery, as a tale of survival, and as an exploration of sexuality and humanity.  Its profound depth is reinforced by its haunting, aptly-science fiction score and a darkened Scottish setting.  Just phenomenal.

With a movie this great, it doesn’t matter much to me what other critics are saying, but the high praise it has received is, I admit, reassuring.  Check out the official site and its culling of criticism — what might be hyperbole for a lesser film is anything but for this one.

But there were some negative reactions, among both professional critics and amateurs.  On Amazon, it only has a 2 1/2 out of 5 star rating.  A typical review:

A very beautifully photographed, but very odd film. Director was clearly a fan of Kubrick. Long, slow scenes with not much going on. Not appropriate for younger viewers and people that enjoy a faster pace.

Now I normally am not interested in citing dissent, but I have a point to make.  People who did not like this movie all have one thing in common: they just didn’t get it.  It went way over their head.  And I get that.  That’s the first level I mentioned: a mystery.  A mystery for the viewer to figure out.  Only then do the other two levels reveal themselves — that of  the survival adventure of the “lioness on the prowl”, as Scarlett Johansson put it, and then that of an exploration into human sexuality.

Under the Skin - depth text blockSo my point here is the fact that so many people did not like it does not indicate weakness or a lack of quality, but exactly the opposite.  A lot of people will be out of their depth with Under the Skin, and will not be able to get anything out of it.  As I said, I get that.  I had my hands full trying to comprehend this movie as I sat through it.  But if you can grasp it at all, it will stay with you.  You’ll be able to attain your own ways of understanding it.  And like any truly great art, its greatness will only expand from there.

* * *

iTunes extras graphicLest I forget to mention, there are now iTunes Extras available when you purchase the movie from Apple — this, and the upgrade to a 10 rating, constituted my original impetus for this post before I decided I had a helluva lot more to say.

The Extras are only available with the purchase (not rental) of the movie in HD ($15), and include 10 featurettes.  My inclination is that if I’m going to buy this movie, I’d rather have the Blu-Ray disc.  Now a check on Amazon does not mention the Extras, but I found a review of the Blu-Ray that confirms the featurettes are included.  So if I decide to purchase the movie, I’ll get it on Blu-Ray, and perhaps return it if the featurettes are not there.  I don’t recommend anyone purchase the movie unless they’ve already seen it.

Personally, this movie is still so vividly held in my memory that I don’t feel a need to purchase it — yet.  But those featurettes I am curious about, so I will probably buy it sooner than later.

2014 — The Year of the Blockbuster

Does it seem like there are more big (as in big budget) movies this year?  It occurred to me watching trailers a while back that this year if filled with one giant production after another.  I remember when each year would welcome three or four big-budget, special effects-laden movies.  Not the case any more, it seems.

There’s the Scarlett Johansson movie Lucy.  Written and directed by Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element), I’m pulling for it.  Now start adding on: Godzilla, Captain AmericaX-Men sequel, Transformers sequel, Spider-Man sequel, Edge of Tomorrow, Johnny Depp’s movie Transcendence, Expendables III, Planet of the Apes sequel, Hercules, Jupiter Ascending (The Wachowski brothers return to sci-fi), Guardians of Blockbuster movies post - text blockthe Galaxy, and for good measure a Twister remake, Into the Storm.

Now add on the Age of Antiquity films I wrote about: Pompeii, the 300 sequel and Noah.  At Christmas is coming Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings.

Now that is one HELL OF A LOT of big-budget movies.  Complete saturation.  And I am quite certain I am leaving a few big ones out.  So what’s my point?

I heard a news flash a few weeks ago that box office revenue is up this year, but somehow I doubt enough to keep up with all the spending, which begs the question: have these studios learned nothing?  I refer to my post Big Movies Go Bust — from just last summer.  I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see if all the expensive projects this year translate into profits, because all I see is Hollywood quadrupling-down on the blockbuster.

 

Passing through a Ghost World

Ghost World - poster large

Ghost World (2001) is a well-known, potentially essential indie that I had been wanting to watch for a long while, but could not as it had not been available via streaming rental; recently it became available on Apple TV.  It was worth the wait: I really liked it.  And it’s hard for me to put my finger on why I liked it so much.  There is nothing remarkable or avant-garde here, just a straightforward story told in a straightforward way.  It speaks to the subtle power of that story, and the not so subtle strength of its characters.

Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi

Thora Birch and Steve Buscemi

Those characters are two disillusioned, outsider teens who have freshly graduated high school and are not interested in going to college or doing anything else to fit into mainstream society.  I found watching these girls — played expertly by Thora Birch and Scarlett Johansson — to be utterly compelling.  Purely out of their mischievous nature, they become involved with an older man played by Steve Buscemi, in a role that fits him to a T.

Ghost World was universally praised upon its release.  Joe Morgenstern of the Wall Street Journal:

Here’s a dark, deadpan comedy about alienated kids that manages to be smart, surpassingly odd, extremely funny and mysteriously endearing at the same time.

And Roger Ebert:

I wanted to hug this movie. It takes such a risky journey and never steps wrong. It creates specific, original, believable, lovable characters, and meanders with them through their inconsolable days, never losing its sense of humor.

* * *

Beyond just being a good movie, Ghost World may be considered a mile-marker, a final say-so on the 90’s indie film movement, and a cap on 90’s Ghost World - text blockculture in a broader sense including music and fashion.  An idea that we’re now done with punk and grunge and maybe it’s time to move on, to reset our clocks by possibly revisiting the classics.  I might be reading too much between the lines, but I had a feeling of watching the end of an era.

I very much liked Ghost World, but I wasn’t as completely enamored of it as was Ebert.  It was completely entertaining and engrossing, and crossed the threshold that distinguishes “great” films, but there were a couple moments where it slipped on mainstream movie clichés — and at those moments it lost some of its authenticity.  But I highly recommend it.  By my count, it’s just short of essential, but may be considered an “essential indie”, i.e. if you’re into indies don’t miss it.  And as I continue to reflect on Ghost World, it’s entirely possible that my opinion of it will increase.  But for now, 8/10.

* * *

Comparison Notes (recommended): Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Spalding Gray’s Death Lives On

Monster in a Box - still

The Times:

Ghosts are captured on camera in“Rumstick Road,” the genuinely haunting new work that runs through Wednesday at Anthology Film Archives. Described as a “video reconstruction” of a performance from the mid-1970s by the Wooster Group, the New York experimental theater troupe, Elizabeth LeCompte and Ken Kobland’s film is by its very nature phantasmal.

This type of stuff fascinates me — the shadows of mental illness and suicide chasing through generations of families.  Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath and Jackson Pollock come to mind.  I became a huge fan of Spalding Gray when independent film channels aired his triptych of highly engaging Spalding Gray post - text blockmonologues Swimming to Cambodia, Gray’s Anatomy, and Monster in a Box.  I was taken aback when hearing about his death in 2004 — the tragic loss of a great creative genius who I identified with on multiple levels.  And now I find out his mother committed suicide when he was in his 20’s.

Reading further about it, his death resonates with me in another way: the ability for certain powerful movies to go beyond just leaving a lasting impression, and actually haunt you.  Wikipedia:

On January 11, 2004, Gray was declared missing. The night before his disappearance, he had seen Tim Burtons film Big Fish, which ends with the line, “A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal”. Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, has said, “You know, Spalding cried after he saw that movie. I just think it gave him permission. I think it gave him permission to die.”

The movies Leaving Las Vegas, Elephant, and from just a week ago, Under the Skin, clawed away at me long after I left the theater.  You might say those are my demon films — so much scarier than ghost & goblin movies, because this type of haunting is personal, and real.

* * *

Spalding_Gray_on_Video_in_‘Wooster_Group’s_Rumstick_Road’_-_NYTimes_comThe Times article again:

No matter how articulate the notes that are left behind, suicides set off questions that never stop resonating in the minds of the living.

I would love to see the Rumstick Road movie — but I doubt it’ll make it out to the sticks of San Diego, and apparently, for some reason, the DVD is priced at $400.00 (that’s four hundred).  So not sure how likely it is I’ll get to see it — probably a little less likely than ever seeing Escape from Tomorrow.  So in the meantime, I’m going to investigate the availability of his monologues — and I suggest you do the same.

For some reason I’m connecting Spalding Gray to Alton Brown and his knives and his guns and his mint julep (tweet).  Not sure why.  Maybe Gray’s story about surreptitiously drinking vodka in a restaurant where the act was verboten.  The great irony of this account from Monster in a Box was that he couldn’t get any vodka in communist Russia.