September 29, 2015

Being Flynn

Paul Weitz, 2012
Being Flynn is a Boston-based drama based on the memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn. The film gives young Paul Dano another opportunity to work with one of the greatest actors of all time - Robert Deniro. Dano has had some fortunate employment opportunities at this point in his career. Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, Michelle Williams in Kelly Reichart's Meek's Cutoff, Alan Arkin in Little Miss Sunshine. Add Steve McQueen in 12 Years a Slave and Denis Villeneuve in Prisoners, two of the best living directors, and it's pretty obvious that Dano has one of the most colorful resumes in Hollywood. He deserves these opportunities though, because he delivers every time.

The narration starts off a bit confused, with young Nick Flynn (Dano) fighting for control of the story with his father Jonathan Flynn (Deniro). It becomes evident quite quickly in the story that Jonathan is a bit delusional. He is more of a drinker than a writer, but the booze gives him a cloudy arrogance that has him thinking that he is a great writer that simply hasn't released his masterpiece yet. One of the first things we hear from him is "There were three great American writers. Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger, and me... John Flynn". After he says this we see him driving out of parking garage in his taxi cab, his real day job. Nick didn't have a relationship with his father at all, raised solely by his mother Jody (Julianne Moore). Moore is sort of the perfect person for the role, the tired woman who is trying desperately to keep it together for her son. Nick describes his early years as being guided by lots of boyfriends. Being Flynn has what could be considered one of the best shots of all time, certainly one of the best of the past 20 years. We see a panning camera where Nick is playing catch with one of Jody's boyfriends, and as the camera pans back and forth each time it's a different boyfriend. Finally it shows his biological father John, but when Nick goes to throw the ball he isn't there on the other side and the ball goes rolling into the street. Powerful. The film is an example of how far Deniro has come as an actor. In 1976 Deniro drove a taxi cab in Scorcese's masterpiece Taxi Driver. His Travis Bickle character was more of a numb sociopath. Here Deniro is able to channel more of a narcissistic, delusional, stubborn alcoholic that is quite different than the role he filled 36 years prior. Still detached, but more conversant.

It's a story of finding your place in the world while trying to avoid the mistakes of your predecessors. A struggle of separating yourself from your parents, trying to see yourself as a unique person. We do see an arch in Nick's character, and after enduring some time in some pretty heavy drama, you really need some form of redemption. One of the frustrating qualities of John's character is his absolute defiance to break down. His thick stubborn personality never breaks, and it almost feels like if it cracked a little it would have added some more substance to the story. Interesting to think about whether this was a deliberate thing, part of the actual Flynn family narrative or whether Deniro's decision to bring that armored performance to his Jonathan role.

September 23, 2015

Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead

Kiah Roache-Turner, 2015
Any fan of zombie cinema probably has some degree of fatigue at this point. Oh, another movie about a zombie outbreak where everyone has to fight them off to survive. And it's turned into an inescapable theme. They are everywhere. Zombies have crept out of the cult-category and are now ubiquitous. They aren't underground, they are in the mainstream. The Walking Dead is the highest rated series on cable. World War Z brought Max Brooks zombie novel out of the literary world and into big budget Hollywood. So this means there are books, television series, small budget films, big budget films. Half of the Halloween outfits you see this year will probably be zombie related.

So at this point, for the most part, we aren't likely to see anything revolutionary or groundbreaking in the genre. With an over-saturation present, filmmakers should be more focused on aiming to create something that has some stylistic integrity, something individually artistic.

Wyrmwood, the most pirated Australian film in recent history, does just this. It's a self-aware zombie film with a rather simple premise. A rapidly spreading virus has hit the Outback infecting basically everyone that comes into contact with it unless they have a specific blood-type. Nothing new, right? But it's the execution of this basic premise that makes Wyrmwood a rather engaging zombie film. 

Equipped with a terrific makeup and special effects team, Wyrmwood is able to create a 90 minute zombie picture that doesn't get slowed down with unnecessary character development. It's intention is not to create depth but more sudden shifts and frantic pacing. The disease itself is relentless and unforgiving, spreading to friends and family with unhampered force. Unlikely friendships are forged quickly because the only choice you have is to team up with any living soul in close proximity to you. Not really much time to build trust by feeling someone out. It's another zombie film where life has become cheap very quickly, and the key to survival is not hesitating and being as resourceful as you can in whatever situation you find yourself in. 

September 12, 2015

Top 5 Most Anticipated Fall-Winter Films of 2015

5. Room 
Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Release Date: October 16, 2015
The followup to 2014's avant-garde Frank, Abrahamson directs this film based on the book by Emma Donoghue. Starring Brie Larson, Joan Allen and William H. Macy. It's a cold drama about a boy who is locked in a shed with his mother for his entire life.

4. The Hateful Eight
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Release Date: December 25th, 2015 (Limited)
This one is sort of bending the rules because it doesn't go wide until the beginning of 2016, it felt worth including. This one makes the list simply because it has Tarantino's name on it. As one of the greatest filmmakers of the past 50 years, at this point anything he makes is worth seeing.

3. The Martian
Director: Ridley Scott
Release Date: October 2, 2015
What was a really entertaining book gets the film treatment. It's one of those books that while reading it's easy to imagine it in movie form. Miraculously enough, it also seems to be a film that is perfectly cast not only with Matt Damon in the lead (who seems fit to maintain a sense of humor in the face of terrifying isolation in deep space) but a supporting cast that includes Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig. When I saw the cast listing it felt surprisingly appropriate to the personalities in the novel.

2. Steve Jobs
Director: Danny Boyle
Release Date: October 16, 2015
What's sort of become a legendary script in Hollywood, surrounded by controversy. It was a big part of the Sony Hack where a lot of big names were thrown around as if everyone was playing a big game of hot potato with the movie. Fincher was originally signed on to direct, but couldn't get on the same page with the studios and walked. Dicaprio was going to play Jobs, but ultimately passed. Boyle then approached Christian Bale who was Fincher's original choice, but Bale passed because he didn't feel like a good fit for the role. Eventually it went to Fassbender, which originally felt like an odd choice. But after watching the trailer it seems like he will manage to balance ego and brilliance together well.

1. Star Wars - The Force Awakens
Director: J.J. Abrams
Release Date: December 18, 2015
How could this one not be number one? Expectations are very high, the franchise seems to be in the right hands with Abrams who did a good job with the Star Trek reboot. He seems to appreciate the narrative, is well aware of the rabid fan-base and will certainly do his best to respect something considered cinematically sacred to millions.

September 11, 2015

Welcome to Me

Shira Piven, 2015
To sum it up, Welcome to Me is the story about a mentally-ill woman who suddenly wins the lottery and decides to invest her winnings into a Oprah-like show starring herself. Creative premise that certainly pokes fun at the self-help gurus with their positive energy talk and "Secret"-like life philosophies. It also very clearly pokes fun at mental illness though, sure to not be everyone's cup of tea. It creates a character in Wiig's Alice character that is basically a caricature of someone with borderline personality disorder. But enough levity to keep it in the comedic realm without becoming just sad. Kristen Wiig gets another acting credit in her filmography where she takes a bold step into a role that forces her to expose herself (literally), and show some real vulnerability as she also did in The Skeleton Twins.

The first act of the film shows her lonely life, consumed by her illness and her battling with her on again off again relationship with her medications. The ridiculousness only builds to her getting her ridiculous talk show, which sad to say, could actually happen in this age of Kardashian-consuming culture. But the whole theme gets a bit tired after we see many episodes of the show run, where there isn't a whole lot of material for her to run with other than destroying set pieces and screaming at actors playing characters of her childhood foes. But it's certainly interesting at times, certainly has a few laughs here and there, and not a big commitment with it's scant 87 minute run time. It's a proper vehicle for Wiig's dead-pan comedy style. Any fans of her will find something here to appreciate.

Funny Games

Michael Haneke, 1997
There is inexplicable evil in the world. We have seen it in the headlines, have to endure stories of home invasions, torture, assault, etc. We try to come up with explanations for people's horrible behavior. Their abusive upbringing, past sexual abuse, lack of a father figure.

Funny Games quickly introduces you to family trio of Anna, Georg and their young son in their car on their way to their vacation home in the country. As they try to guess classical pieces playing on CD's, you see that they are a classy family that enjoy each others company. When they arrive at the home, you see that they want nothing more than to just let loose and spend some time relaxing, once again in each others company. The walls and gate at the end of the driveway almost seem completely unnecessary, as the surrounding inhabitants look they should all belong to a country club. And they probably do.

But when the evil couple works their way into the home, everything about their intentions feels icy cold and calculating. You've already grown to like the family of three, what's not to like? You even like their dog. But what transpires is pure evil. A rigidly tense sequences of events of unforgiving brutality. The scariest people in the world are undoubtedly the ones who have nothing to lose. In a way the sinister duo here are more frightening, because they are seemingly one of the more accurate depictions of pure sociopaths ever put on film. When the fourth wall is broken, it sends chills down your spine. You will spend a portion of the film questioning possible missed opportunities, probably playing out the scenario in your head of what you would do. But we don't really know do we? Until it happens to us, and after watching a film like this you will certainly be locking your doors at night. But is it enough? Is that what's the most horrifying part about this movie? These people, like the pair here, if they weren't able to work their way through the gate... would they have given up? One would assume no. Sometimes you are just the unlucky one that left a light on at the wrong time. Wrong place, wrong time. Wrong week to take a vacation. Sometimes it's not just about someone feeling wronged in some way. Sometimes it's completely impersonal. As mentioned earlier, there is pure evil in the world. There are some people walking the earth who are just downright maniacal. We all like to believe that we live in a world where there is a certain sense of justice. Funny Games is one of the more terrifying films ever made because it challenges the conventions.

September 7, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller, 2015
In this era of too many reboots, forced franchises and unnecessary sequels, Mad Max seems to come out of nowhere and surprise everyone by outdoing itself and it's predecessors. Fury Road takes the franchise out of cult status and gives it a fresh aesthetic while also preserving what made the original films appealing.

Tom Hardy is a good fit for the role of Max; the guy that you are supposed to learn a lot when given little about him. What you do know is he is a man haunted by his past, the lost souls that he wasn't able to save. Now the world that he wanders through is a dystopian wasteland, where the world is run by various warlord-led factions. In the early moments of the film the pacing is set and it doesn't slow down much for the duration. Someone who doesn't typically enjoy the action genre can still get something out of Fury Road, especially stylistically. There is so much visual invention going on, so much attention to detail. It seems to be a movie that probably took a lot of effort to film in the desert, from a logistical perspective but also from a pure engineering perspective. There is a wide array of vehicles assembled by the war dogs in the film. A good portion of the story is the variety of these war-mobiles in pure battle with each other whether it's to protect territory, gather resources, or retain what one feels is rightfully "theirs". It's interesting to think of how many mechanics must have been on set to help with any operational quirks that must have occurred here and there. Fury Road seems like a really good candidate for the dvd / blu-ray extra features of the behind the scenes footage and directors commentary. The grand scale of the films stunts / choreography seems almost unfathomable. While all of this chaos was in front of the cameras, there must have been boom lifts, helicopters and drones shooting frantically.

Miller's world is really a hot rod hellscape. At times it almost feels like a Steampunked Sin City. Filled with deranged and death-inducing drag racing. It's an unforgiving universe that nobody would really want to spend any time in other than in a voyeur role. In fact, one could argue that it's one of the dilemmas with the story. The sense of pointlessness to it. The fact that in this world there aren't really any "good guys". The Mad Max world shows us that our race has failed. Yet, at least for the sake of the Mad Max narrative, there is a level of human resilience. Many of the remaining inhabitants live to serve a leader, live with some kind of religious ideology. The warlords manage to keep a grip on their populations, usually by limited their resources like food or water. But there are still babies being born in this horrifying society. And they won't ever know what the world was like before everything was destroyed.

Complimenting the attention to visual detail, there is a real impressive use of sound. A great synergy of music to action, whether it's transitioning from a death to an ambient heartbeat in the song to the heavy metal guitarist that is riding on a flat bed with dozens of amplifiers raging behind him. Fury Road is chaotic yet managed. Energetic but not to the point of pure lunacy. It's a style over substance movie that manages to go so heavy on style that the imagery will take root in your mind for some time after. Out of all of the 2015 films, it's one that basically lives up to the hype. Now let's just hope that this doesn't start some trend of motor-heads souping up their Dodge Rams and putting all sorts of unnecessary equipment on the exterior to look like some kind of badass. Who knows, maybe Fury Road will inspire countries at war to have their own heavy metal guitarist standing on top of a tank or something to get the soldiers amped up.