Thursday, January 27, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Capsule Review – Let Me In

Refocusing the context of Tomas Alfredson's 2008 film adaptation of John Lindqvist's novel Let the Right One In, Matt Reeves has created one of the best American horror films in years. It's not just that the film is a more visceral experience with a more horrifying undertone, but it's also a more emotional experience with better acting by its young actors (the fantastic Kodi Smit-McPhee and Chloe Moretz). I was completely floored by how much I liked Let Me In. That's mostly because I wasn't expecting anything from director Reeves (Cloverfield). All the credit is due to him, though, as he has not re-imagined (the most dreaded words in movies of the last ten years) or remade the wonderful 2008 film, but he has simply taken elements from the novel that spoke to him more personally and built a film out of those experiences. And it's easy to see the love for the source material Reeves has as Let Me In never feels like we're just seeing an Americanized version of the Swedish film. Sure, there are similar scenes (some even framed the same way), but Let Me In is its own movie without making the viewer pine for Alfredson's. In fact, the two can co-exist as different film experiences even thought they have the same source material, and that is maybe what is most fascinating and impressive about it. I also appreciated how Reeves trims the fat the story audiences know because of Alfredson's film. Let the Right One In is a great film, there's no debating that, but I've seen it three times now and each subsequent viewing makes me more aware of the superfluous material. Alfredson's film just kind of drags in parts as he's more interested in telling a more contemplative story that gets under your skin and lingers for a long time afterwards (atmosphere and nuance, not to mention ambiguity, are all strong points of emphasis for Alfredson). Reeves believes in these things, too (especially the restraint he shows in the films initial murder scene at a railroad crossing, and the way he and his DP shoot a car accident from the inside backseat), but he puts more emphasis on the coming of age aspect of the story (there's a great scene where Smit-McPhee quietly emotes like an old pro in a painful scene where his character Owen has a painfully emotional phone conversation with his part-time dad) and definitely more focus on how Abby (Moretz) has evil intentions towards Owen as she looks to recruit him for purposes other than friendship and love. Some people may say that Oskar and Eli from Let the Right One were the better relationship because Eli's intentions weren't so obvious, but that's what makes Let Me In so great: it doesn't do anything to tarnish the great things that Alfredson's film did with the source material. This is Reeves' vision, and it's a damn good one. Not only is the film atmospheric and a great vampire movie, but its better acted and more emotionally profound. It's definitely the biggest American surprise of 2010. I loved it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Ken Russell: Altered States

Heading into the 80's, Russell was, to that point, at the nadir of his career. He made two of his worst and least successful films (Lisztomania and Valentino) after having tasted his biggest success (both critically and commercially) with the fantastic Tommy. It seemed that Russell had traded in his patented stick used to jab at the ribs of organized religion for a more polarizing and bombastic approach in the study of what it means to be a celebrity ( in the case of Liszt, the first ever pop star). I was curious to see what kind of movies Russell was making in the 80's, and, specifically, how he would bounce back from Valentino – his final film of the 70's that he himself hated (he would later call it the worst decision he ever made). Russell was rewarded with a trip to the States to adapt Paddy Chayefsky's novel and subsequent screenplay Altered States into a feature film. The shoot was a blessing and a curse for the controversial filmmaker: Chayefsky left the project and denounced the film because of Russell, and Russell himself claimed – in jest, no doubt – that he was literally the last filmmaker Warner Brothers wanted to hire for the project (he hilariously stated that the likes of Spielberg, Kubrick, Bergman, Allen, Zinneman, Pollack, De Palma, Lummet, et al were offered the job before he was). What came of the tumultuous shoot, though, was yet another example of Russell as a master of the visceral montage. Altered States, like all of Russell's best films, is a brilliant pastiche film; it's a bombastic, often overbearing, film experience that references Dali, Fritz Lang, and the usual religious imagery we come to associate with a Russell film. Naturally, I loved it.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The American (2010)

The American may be indebted to the existential crime cinema of one Jean-Pierre Melville, but it also owes a great deal to Sergio Leone, and I don't think director Anton Corbijn (who directed the great Joy Division biopic Control) is shy about the fact that even though he's trying to make an existential thriller, he's also making a Leone-esque western that takes an oblique approach to telling its classic story about a protagonist who says more with his eyes than with words. As Herbert Grönemeyer's score guides the viewer through the action of the un-action, I couldn't help but think of last year's fantastic, and similarly deliberately paced "thriller," The Limits of Control. Both films require the viewer to be patient with their hired-killer tropes as the film washes over the viewer instead of attacks them with a barrage of phony action scenes and quick cuts. Apropos to how we feel watching this film, the opening shot, a slow push-in, invites us to ease into this meditative world where ambiguity should not be misconstrued as laziness. There are problems with the film's script (written by Rowan Joffe who penned 28 Weeks Later, the better of the two infected films), yes, but I think they're only pressing if you go into The American expecting another hyperactive spy thriller a la the Bourne films (and, man, how boring would that have been).

Monday, January 17, 2011


Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Catfish is that its filmmakers – Henry Joost, Areil Schulman, and Yaniv Schulman – were naïve enough to think that its viewers couldn't see what was coming, or that they actually thought anyone think they were genuine, interesting people. Ever since AOL chatrooms and IM, people have been fabricating lives on the interweb. Now with the ease of social networking via Facebook, it's all the easier. Fear not: I have not given anything away about the film's super-secret reveal, nor have I spoiled the experience for you because, really, anyone having grown up in the age of chatrooms and IM knows that people lie on the internet. So, the first 30 minutes of the film works as a kind of suspense film: our protagonists lead us on a journey motivated by nothing more than mischief and curiosity. Here, the filmmakers show an uncanny ability to keep the viewer interested despite knowing what most likely lies ahead for Yaniv as he seeks to find out about a girl named Megan with whom he's been having a "Facebook relationship" with. Megan is the older sister of Abby, a child prodigy of sorts, saw one of Yaniv's photos in a New York magazine and painted it; this intrigued Yaniv to the point where he received a package from Michigan where Abby and Megan are from. Yaniv corresponds with other family members, but when a late night Gmail chat involves a song being sent where Megan claims ownership…things get a little messy and the boys want to confront Megan about it.

Here's the deal: taken at face value the film works as it keenly observes the folly of entering into such a relationship. However, and this is a big however, the film fails when we finally see what this whole thing is about (and no, I don't care if it's real or not…my inkling, though, is that it is real and that Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix soured everyone on docs that appear to be fake…and then end up being fake). The only way to do this is to talk about the film's final 30 minutes. So stop reading if you haven't seen the movie, and I'll continue after the jump…

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Capsule Review – The Ghost Writer

There is a moment about halfway through The Ghost Writer where I had forgotten just how long I had been watching the movie. It felt like it had been about 20 minutes when in reality it was about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Roman Polanski's thriller is so efficient and so well made and polished that I lost myself in it. It's the type of thriller that relies on the tired old cliché of being "Hitchcockian", yet the cliché is apt because the film is as taut and expertly crafted as anything Hitch made. It's about as smooth a thriller that I've seen in years (a stark to contrast to one of my other favorite thrillers this year, the wonderfully grimy and cruelly ironic neo-noir The Square), but don't let its benign, British sheen throw you off: this is a nasty thriller with a final moment that seems out of place in most thrillers these days. It's a perfect coda to a film with secrets and the discovering of secrets. I've been elusive for a reason as the film's plot – and the slow unveiling of the story's mystery – is one of the things that allows the viewer to immerse themselves so deeply in the film. The acting – headed by Pierce Brosnan and Ewan McGregor – is top notch, and the film's aesthetic is the best Polanski has employed in years (I specifically loved the score by Alexandre Desplat which makes something as simple as the passing of a note the most suspenseful thing I've seen in a film this year). The Ghost Writer was released all the way back in February alongside another forgotten masterpiece of 2010: Martin Scorsese's Shutter Island. Both films, based on novels, are about men searching answers that will help unlock some truths; both films begin with ominous music as ferries approach a destination (Scorsese's ferry is enshrouded in fog; Polanski's ferry is clearly reaching its destination – both openings say a lot about their protagonists and the types of journeys they will embark on); and both films are expertly crafted thrillers by two masters that show they have no signs of slowing down. It's a refreshing reminded in this most banal of movie years that there are still two old masters out there making great movies. I have now seen The Ghost Writer twice. Upon my second viewing, I noticed a lot of the clues that help make sense of the film's dénouement, and one of the things I noticed most was that none of the film's momentum or suspense is lost after you know all of the film's information. Like any great film, The Ghost Writer becomes a richer experience with each subsequent viewing. It reminded me of the efficient, addictive prose of Ian McEwan, and the way he can conjure up suspense and irony while making it so accessible that it simultaneously works as a potboiler and as a more layered reading experience. The Ghost Writer left me, twice, with the same feeling. I can't wait to see it again.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Catching Up With 2010: Capsule Review – The Square

The Square is one of the best, most cruelly ironic neo-noirs since Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan. I love the restraint from the filmmakers where we hear things rather than see them, or how they simply let every ironic, violent, and cruel situation unfold without rushing through a single moment. It's rare to find a neo-noir these days that takes so much pleasure in the slow-burn downward spiral of its characters. The Square reminded me more of A Simple Plan than it did Blood Simple (the one movie everyone seems to be likening it to). In Sam Raimi's brilliant film it was blanket-clenching tension from beginning to end because we liked the main character (how could you not like Bill Paxton?) just enough (flaws and all…but what human doesn't have them) that we really did hope he got himself out of every impossible (and implausible) situation he found himself in. The price he pays at the end for putting the people he loves through hell seems fare in the eyes of fate. So too does it turn out the way for the characters in The Square. The two main characters – Carla (Claire van der Boom) and Raymond (David Roberts) – seem like nice enough people, and it is because of the actors and how they portray the characters' situation that we feel somewhat sorry for them by film's end. They're stuck in go-nowhere marriages and have been meeting for trysts for awhile; however, when the question of some ill-begotten money enters the equation, it throws their whole affair into a tailspin of misfortune and murder (when doesn't money do that in these types of films). This is a crucial element to any noir: that we simultaneously empathize with the characters' plight and understand that, yes, even if their situation seems cruel, they deserve their comeuppance. Classic noir is the great moral equalizer, and the filmmakers of The Square – brothers Nash (director) and Joel (co-star/co-writer) Edgerton – understand this and execute it better than most who try their hand at neo-noir. The Square is a great film with some moments that conjure up some of my favorite from neo-noir films (the spotty job of burying a body being my favorite). There's been a renaissance lately with Australian genre films, and The Square sits near the top of the very best examples of why people should be taking notice of the films coming to American from The Land of Oz.