Friday, August 12, 2016

Lights, Camera, Economics

Hail, Caesar!
Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Three and One Half Stars

By Rollan Schott
August 13, 2016

The time may come when "Hail Caesar" is poured over by disciples in the cult of the brothers Coen in much the same way that "Barton Fink" has been since its release a quarter century ago. Here is another film about the inner workings of the Hollywood system, where the movie studio becomes an arena for competing ideals about religion, money, and human worth, where its dark contradictions threaten to lurch out of the shadows and devour everything that keeps the tenuous and cynical process afloat.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On Jupiter did Abrasax a Stately Pleasure-Dome Decree

Jupiter Ascending
Directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski
One Star

By Rollan Schott

You've got to hand it to the Wachowski siblings. They've got brass. Lesser filmmakers would merely have made "Jupiter Ascending" a decent motion picture. But that would have been wrong. A failure this spectacular requires vision. It requires reach. The Wachowskis know that a catastrophe of this breadth and magnitude is not to be committed to half-heartedly.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Rough Men Stand Ready to do Violence

Directed by David Ayer
Three and One Half Stars

By Rollan Schott

The centerpiece of David Ayer's bleak and gritty "Fury" is a quiet and mysterious scene in a small German apartment that endures much longer than we initially think it might. In 1945, as the Allied forces had turned the tide in WWII and begun to advance deep in to Hitler's Germany, Don Collier (Brad Pitt) the grizzled commander of a beleaguered tank battalion, and Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), the terrified rookie in his outfit, find two German women holed up in their home after the Americans seize a small German outpost. Like these women, we have no idea what sinister designs these rough men might have on them. 

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Beyond the Infinite

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Two and One Half Stars

Christopher Nolan is among the most ambitious of our generation's filmmakers. He is also one of the most materialistic. I mean this not as a judgement. Merely a point of reference. If we are going to make sense of Mr. Nolan's sprawling science-fiction spectacle "Interstellar", I think it might behoove us to consider that it has come from the director who revealed the inner workings of a grand magician's illusion to be a convenient machine ("The Prestige"), who manufactured a dream world with all the opacity and peculiarity of a Russian Nesting Doll ("Inception"), and who chose for his superhero saga that most notorious of superheroes who does not possess any superpowers. Indeed, Mr. Nolan has persistently, occasionally even beligerently, made an effort to govern his films by the laws and limitations of the physical world.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Greetings, From the 1%

The Wolf of Wall StreetDirected by Martin Scorsese
Four Stars
By Jon Fisher

Talk about a movie whose time has come. The Wolf of Wall Street is the fifth movie that Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio have made together, and this end result cements the conclusion that DiCaprio is Scorsese’s new age alter-ego. In the 1970s, the surrogate was Harvey Keitel. In the late ‘70s and ‘80s, it was Robert De Niro. Scorsese flittered around with De Niro, Nicolas Cage, and Daniel Day-Lewis in the 1990s, and since the early 2000s, DiCaprio is his go-to guy. Funnily enough, it seems to have taken five films for the pair to really produce a vintage Martin Scorsese Movie. Not to say that Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed and Shutter Island aren't fine films. The Wolf of Wall Street, though, marks a return to the classic Scorsese themes of sin, temptation, and the dangers of living life without a moral centre.
The subject of the film is Jordan Belfort, based upon his experiences as chronicled in his memoir. Belfort was a stockbroker who dabbled – nay, swam neck-deep – in securities fraud in the 1980s. Scorsese’s movie follows Belfort (DiCaprio) as he starts out on Wall Street, first under the guidance of expert broker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey – very brief but memorable performance of a drug-addled, unethical bankster) before moving into penny stocks and eventually into massive-scale securities fraud.
Belfort, with his brash arrogance, ambition for wealth, and readiness to succumb to whatever temptation presents itself to him, is a quintessential Scorsese antihero. This film does not lionize him, nor is it reductive to the harm that he caused to so many ‘little people’. There are moments of humour and wit in The Wolf of Wall Street, particularly during those sequences in which Belfort is really going to town with the debauchery. But there is an undercutting appreciation of the vigor with which Belfort approaches life, how our society rewards people with such liveliness and ambition. By the end of the film, Scorsese does make his ultimate value judgments on Belfort, and they aren't pretty. The final shot of the film is exquisite, summarizing all that has come before it, and even hammering home a couple of uncomfortable truths for the audience itself.
There’s plenty more to this film than just Belfort. The cast is replete with characters that riff to the tune of ‘do what you feel like’ that permeates the film. Aside from the brief appearance by Matthew McConaughey, there’s also the performance of Jonah Hill, Oscar nominated as Donnie Azoff, who is so good portraying a man so gutless, so self-involved, so loathsome. He’s the perfect off-sider to Belfort, and the two mistake their shared selfishness for an intimate friendship. Jean Dujardin – the French actor who gave a wonderful Academy Award-winning performance in The Artist – is terrifically entertaining as a vile Swiss banker.
As always with Scorsese, women play a vital role in the overall feel of his film. Belfort discards his wife early in the piece in exchange for the stunningly beautiful Naomi (Margot Robbie), a trophy wife for a man with limitless wealth. Their relationship inevitably sours and fades, primarily because Belfort, like most of Scorsese’s antiheroes, is stricken with a virgin-whore complex. Belfort oscillates between idolizing Naomi for her beauty and grace, to loathing her for her emotional and sexual complexity.
The Wolf of Wall Street is not about a kind person. It follows the deeds of a pack of men (and they are all men here) that have drank the Kool-Aid, succumbed to the pursuit of wealth above all else, and who gleefully and hedonistically enjoy themselves while preying on the weak. This is not a pleasant aspect of human nature, and Martin Scorsese doesn't attempt to bring about a happy ending. He explores it, makes no apology or explanation for it, and acknowledges it as a horrid inevitability of human existence.  

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Top Ten Films of 2013

For we small-time movie bloggers with full-time jobs and limited access, the top ten lists always come out a little late, as we spend much of December and the early months of the next year to hunt down and consume as many of the must-see films we'd missed as possible, and try to get this list completed by the Oscars, when the previous year becomes a permanent fixture of the past. So, given all that, I'd say we made good time this year. Here is our collaborative list, as well as the remainders of our individual lists

Rollie's Picks
Jon's Picks

1. Blue Jasmine (Rollie - #1, Jon - #5)
A class war in a powder-keg, Woody Allen has crafted a poignant family comedy into a frank examination of income inequality, an indictment of idle wealth, and a tragic portrait of the contemporary poor. This is a comedy befitting comparisons to those of Preston Sturgess, invoking the plight of the working man, and doubling as a cautionary tale for the dated tradition of women who elect to define themselves by the men in their lives, investing their fortunes in a patriarchal society. That Blue Jasmine is the best film of the year depends on the tact and the craft with which Allen melds so many prescient issues into such a modest pleasure.

2. The Wolf of Wall St. (John - #1, Rollie - #6)
Martin Scorsese's latest film is, on the face of things, a dark comedy about the hedonism and excess that reigned on Wall Street during the high-flying 1980s. Beyond that, it's also a masterpiece that encapsulates and further explores all the themes that have permeated Scorsese's films since the 1970s -- temptation, sin and the ruinous ramifications of living life without a centre. Scorsese also plays some fun games in his narrative with the audience about voyeurism, the desire for wealth and escapism. Scorsese knows that he's in a similar business to the one that Jordan Belfort engaged in with his securities fraud, and while Scorsese's racket is substantially more moral, he seems to still have some kind of Catholic guilt complex about it.

3. Mystery Road (Jon - #2, Rollie, N/A)
Mystery Road is an elegant thriller, a gripping drama, a visual feast and at times even a solid action picture. Anchored by the sure directorial hand of Ivan Sen and a cast of actors that are uniformly stupendous (Aaron Pederson and Hugo Weaving are two that spring to mind), Mystery Road is a smart movie, realistic about race relations in remote Australia while also being aware of the need for its central murder mystery to work. It builds to a finale that retains the elegant pacing of the rest of the film while also proving to be more exciting and tense than most big studio cops and robbers films.

4. Inside Llewyn Davis (Rollie - #2, Jon - N/A)
Llewyn Davis, the struggling folk artist at the heart of the Coen Brothers’ latest masterpiece, exists inconsequentially within a time and a place where the very cultural paradigm shift he had advocated was occurring anyway. With him? Without him? He’s hurling stones at the tide, so to speak. Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a film that challenges our sense of purpose, and becomes one of the most political films the brothers Coen have produced, looking harshly on the “institution” as an abstract, plutocratic conceit that suffocates individualism, making Llewyn’s isolating hesitancy toward his peers the arbiter of his own failure.

5. Blue is the Warmest Color (Rollie - #3, Jon, N/A)
A visceral, physical movie of extraordinary emotional vulnerability, “Blue is the Warmest Color” looks at the galvanized culture of the LGBTQ community as a byproduct of social exclusion, dictated by the very element of their identity that finds them ostracized in the first place, and observes the intense social difficulties that arise from being gay without participating in that culture. French director Abdellatif Kechiche’s use of sex as an arena for revelation, both for maturity and for desire, is transformative. Scenes of exhilarating duration are choreographed like thrilling action set-pieces. It is fearless film making.

6. Lincoln (Jon - #3, Rollie - N/A) ('Lincoln' was a 2012 release in America)
Steven Spielberg's Lincoln is essentially the sort of film we would expect a docudrama about Abraham Lincoln to be -- reverent, sombre, sumptuously detailed, beautifully photographed. It worships Honest Abe, even to the point that it takes some liberties with history to really lionize him. Spielberg, though, is a sure handed, competent director whose evocation of the ending of the Civil War and emphasizing on the strengths of Lincoln as a leader cast a mesmerizing and touching spell. Daniel Day-Lewis interprets the cadences and tics of the great man to magnificent effect, and his performance provides the audience with something the film desperately needed to be effective -- a personal connection to the 16th President.

7. American Hustle (Jon - #4, Rollie - N/A)
David O. Russell - that most artistically mercurial of modern American indie directors - outdoes himself with American Hustle, an almost undefinable combination of humour, thriller, docudrama and analysis of American social milieu. Christian Bale once again completely transforms himself physically for the role of con man Irving Rosenfeld, who along with his partner Sydney (Amy Adams, excellent here) is extorted by an unscrupulous and ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper, turning in yet another charismatic and funny performance) into entrapping corrupt politicians, including the mayor of Camden, New Jersey (Jeremy Renner, in an underrated performance). What ensues is funny, engrossing and hugely entertaining. American Hustle is a solid comedy/drama that becomes a cut above due to the quality of its performances.

8. The Counselor (Rollie - #4, Jon - N/A)
Ridley Scott’s latest film, based on a screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, is an existential meditation on the folly of brutish masculine ambition. Mexican drug cartels provide the impetus for McCarthy’s morality play, a subject he’s approached before. Here they exist as an omniscient aura of consequence, indifferent to regret and to redemption. It is that very absolution that arouses the appetites of the power-hungry and the proud, who discover too late that this harsh world exists without apologies or lessons to be learned, but merely with death and futility. Buried within this somber, eloquent, beautiful fable is a parallel theme of men who are undone by their mistreatment or patronizing misunderstanding of women. Ambition here is neither fruitful nor noble, and McCarthy’s running parallel between ambition and self-destruction endures.

9. Gravity (Jon - #6, Rollie - #8)
Our fragility as beings in the vacuum of space and the implied value of our planet as a kind of organic spaceship are in the crosshairs of Gravity, the ultra-tense science fiction film directed by Mexican New Waver Alfonso Cuaron. Sandra Bullock may well win an Oscar for her role as medical engineer turned reluctant astronaut Ryan Stone, and it would be hard to argue against it. She extracts humanity and terrified wonder in equal measure, and for most of the film she does so with no co-stars. Cuaron expertly guides the action as director; one impressive aspect of this film is its physical accuracy, and aside from a thriller, Gravity operates as an entertaining explanation of how space works. Cuaron doesn't waver from the humans at the forefront of his tale, though, and in their plight we come to appreciate even more our odd, special place in the cosmos.

10. 12 Years a Slave (Rollie - #6, Jon - N/A)
Steve McQueen has elected to view the Antebellum South, as adapted from Solomon Northup’s autobiography of the same name, with the same sense of hyper-control and composition that he brought to his earlier feature films. The approach makes his view of the horrors of slavery stringent and unbending, the hopelessness of this institution born of the depth of its roots. This is a confrontational film, even a combative one, insisting that we observe unflinchingly the shame of our history, that we embed it in our conscience all over again. The result has been difficult for many to endure, and I can understand why. Engaging with this material is nearly impossible. Its catharsis is minuscule. And the more we allow ourselves to think in this way, the more necessary Mr. McQueen’s film becomes. 

The Rest of Our Lists

7. This is the End
8. The Conjuring
9. Pacific Rim
10. Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa

7. Nebraska
9. To the Wonder
10. Frances Ha

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The All-Encompassing Art of the Folk Song

Inside Llewyn DavisDirected by Joel & Ethan Coen
Four Stars
By Rollan Schott

The great films begin small and become large. They begin with merely a story and come to see the big picture. The great ones, it has been said, always seem to be about everything. The Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” begins as an evocation of the early tremors in 1961 Greenwich Village that gave rise to the folk music renaissance of the early sixties, permanently shifting the direction of popular music, and graduates into a stunning portrait of the pains and perils of purpose. It is funny and frightening and melancholy, and permeated with moments of deep disquiet and mystery. You know, a little bit like life.

The narrative is circular, ending where it began, which is useful because it is about man who goes so far and yet seems to go nowhere at all. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling folk singer in New York, solo now after his partner Mike (who is only heard and seen on an old vinyl) committed suicide. Llewyn lives on the couches of friends and acquaintances. His manager never seems to have money for him. He’s a fixture at the Gaslight Lounge (A real place, and considered integral to whatever troubling of the waters happened in Greenwich Village at the time) but not a star. His good friend’s wife is pregnant, and the child is possibly his. The early moments recall the Coen’s earlier “A Serious Man”, another film about a man adrift in a universe that seems to harbor designs against him.

Llewyn’s lifestyle denotes an air of temporariness, and we sense that he is quickly drawing near the end of its sustainability. So much of this film is centered on waiting – Llewyn waiting for the music to take off, Llewyn waiting for the royalties to come in, Llewyn waiting for Bud Grossman to get back to him about that gig in Chicago, We as an audience waiting for Llewyn to make a move. He finds himself suspended on a self-imposed knife edge of sorts, towing the line between what he refers to contemptuously as “Careerism” – succeeding as a commercially viable artist, and significance – reaching an audience and provoking a cultural paradigm shift. It is an impossible standard to keep, and it is at times tough to discern to what extent Llewyn realizes that. He does not lack for vision, but perspective may be an issue.

The film seems to change pace for a cryptic interlude that occupies much of the central act, when Llewyn hops a ride with an old jazz musician named Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his valet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) on their way to Chicago. Turner is an overweight and sickly blowhard, Johnny an impossibly beautiful, tragic boy with James Dean hair and distant eyes and a cigarette that seems as though it had always been there. He’d used to be an actor but couldn't make it, and had resigned himself to escorting the incapacitated Turner around the country. The two assume the two sides of the precipice upon which Llewyn has placed himself – on one side self-indulgent and pretentious hedonism, on the other broken and defeated meaninglessness, a destructively stubborn persistence chasing a phantom dream.

This a beautiful movie, perhaps the most visually arresting film the Coens have made (which is saying something). They employ a palette of pastel greens and browns and grays. There are the cavernous depths of the Gaslight, where a movement of organic music was born of the soil. There is the way the streets of Greenwich Village seem to disappear into the cold, New York morning sun. There is the perfect silhouette of Llewyn Davis on an Ohio interstate, framed by headlights in the foggy twilight. Every frame assumes a sort of timeless, painterly quality. Llewyn’s dark complexion seems an extension of his landscape.

What begins as a film about folk music becomes something cosmic. Llewyn is a cryptic antihero (dare I say a folk hero?), a cipher for our headlong need for purpose, for misplaced passions, for our futile efforts to refashion the steadfast direction of society as we see it. The final moments reveal a familiar face and a familiar voice, and we sense, in a way, a world that will simultaneously barrel over Llewyn and drag him along. For Llewyn is like anyone else, beholden to the consequences of all of us, contributing, resisting, miniscule. The universe perhaps conspired against him, but he was there, in the right place at the right time, buried within the current, screaming change at a world that was changing anyway. Does this universe vindicate him or cast him aside? Or does he merely exist?