Monday, June 22, 2015

MRQ XVII: Great Directors Edition

Well, by now, you should k kw what an MRQ is - and my struggles to keep these entries pretty concise. This time out, if I go on too long, just know that I think I chose the right films to go on about. And all of these, save Aronofsky's Black Swan are available to stream, so you can watch them as soon as you please.

This time out, we're taking a quick stroll through: Black Swan, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grifters, The Verdict, The French Connection, The Brothers Grimm, and The Wolf of Wall Street. Enjoy, if you please...

Black Swan

It's... somewhat impossible for me to review this movie properly, because I'm not really sure how to approach it in the first place. Since I'm unable to assess the story (e.g., how much of this is hallucination? Does that even matter?), I have to confine myself to its content.

Black Swan was filmed as effectively as anything before it. Seldom have I seen a camera move in a way that really reflects what it's like when you're dancing or running. Everything looks beautiful - the tracking shots in the old-style NYC apartment, the ballet scenes... And the sheer extent of the careful editing, much less the way it's utilized, sets Aronofsky on a special pedestal; I have to think other editors felt like they'd never see such fine work ever again.

The performances are all excellent, from Hershey's work, which is like a toned-down version of Piper Laurie's part in Carrie, to Cassell, who hits the perfect balance of privilege, faux sophistication, and salaciousness. Kunis is so good that I almost wonder if the script does all the heavy lifting. I doubted Portman repeatedly because she resorted to her "small voice" so often, but she really does establish her part, and the unraveling that occurs to her. God, is it even an unraveling, or is it more like a collision between herself and the oppositional elements in her subconscious?

Black Swan was incredible. It did a hell of a lot, not the least of which was crafting a thriller/body horror film out of a ballet story. I also joked to my friend that maybe this movie should've been called Birdman - and it may have actually been an apt comment, as those two pictures have a lot in common. Bonus points go to the director for using the Black Swan for a laugh right near the climax, when a fine bit of humor would have a great impact.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Tomas "Let the Right One In" Alfredson may not qualify as a great director, given the others on this list. Yet I have to think this movie is a sign that he might get there, some day soon. TTSS is an incredibly slow, long drama that gets you engaged with the story at the same time that it undermines the importance of the events therein.

In the 1970's, a British secret agent is sent to Hungary to get information about a mole within the British ranks. The operation goes disastrously, which forces the retirement of Control (John Hurt), the agency's head, as well as Smiley (Gary Oldman), his right hand man. The story picks up again years later, as Smiley sets about performing an autopsy on the failed mission, trying to learn what went wrong and whether the mole exists.

Right there, the story is a bit deflated. Smiley isn't trying to stop a war, and you can't forget that he's investigating a matter that's already years old. In almost every way, this is virtually the opposite of a pre-2006 James Bond film. There are many intense scenes and the film's tone is rather admirable, and yet the resolution to many things is... well, it's a whimper, not a bang - and that's actually the point.

The period is so well-established, bolstered by great costuming and other design elements that really make you feel like you're stuck in 1970's London. The verisimilitude is so total that I consider it an accomplishment. I like that the movie doesn't hold your hand and forces you to read between the lines on several occasions - never leaving the audience too far behind nor too far ahead of the characters. I do think some viewers may have difficulties remembering all of the names that are bandied about constantly, though.

On that note, I think it's almost unfair to have to review this movie, because in addition to Oldman and Hurt, it stars (deep breath): Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, CiarĂ¡n Hinds, and Toby Jones. A cast like that virtually guarantees TTSS would be a must-see film, and part of why I wanted to include Alfredson's adaptation of John le CarrĂ©'s novel is that Tomas uses all of this cast so well.

The Grifters

Stephen Frears takes a Jim Thompson pulp novel and turns out a perfect film. It's tense and twisty, with a mood and tone that really suck the viewer in to this tale of three con artists and their intertwined lives.

Anjelica Houston is beyond amazing, Annette Bening is right there with her, and John Cusack must be comforted by the fact that his best ever performance came out in a film that was a passion project for him. All the support roles are right on the money, too. The visual design and editing are superb, exemplified by the opening sequence, which I've included below.

The only sticking point for me is that I don't like all of Elmer Bernstein's score. Parts of it can feel a bit too overdone - they stand out, and I'm not sure that it was for the best. I'd watch this film any day of the week, and if you haven't seen this seedy, exciting-yet-talky picture before, do yourself the favor ASAP.

The Verdict

Sydney Lumet directs, David Mamet adapts a Barry Reed novel about a drunken, defeated attorney, while Paul Newman and James Mason provide shockingly good work, even by their own standards.

Even if a legal drama sounds boring to you, I have to think it's impossible to be unaffected by a medical malpractice incident that leaves a young woman as a vegetable. It's equally engrossing to witness a wreck of a man take on a case that makes him take a hard look in the mirror, at the same time that he's fighting a system that's designed to see him fail.

This film is slow, and quite grim, albeit funny in parts. If I didn't have any interest in this story, I would still have to watch it just to see Newman's portrayal of his role. Paul's been dead for just long enough that I've forgotten how prodigious he was...

The French Connection

William Friedkin made an all-time contribution to action films by crafting the most influential and impressive car chase sequence ever. It's a critical scene in the film, as well, bringing all of the tension to a head, providing a needed burst of life in a story that is largely about listening, watching, and waiting.

I was wide-eyed when I read that French Connection was adapted from the true tale of two NYC cops - officers who stumbled onto the existence of a completely unknown international conspiracy (more or less a Triangle Trade) to bring massive amounts of heroin into the United States. If you don't understand what a big deal this was, it would be like the Feds only learning in 2014 how widespread the meth problem is.

Gene Hackman and Roy Schedier are so much fun to watch, despite their characters being such terrible cops. A major point of this film is how ugly their police work is, how frequently inept they are, and how they achieve socially beneficial results through brute force tactics. Best Picture 1971? Yes, hands down.

The Brothers Grimm

Somehow Terry Gilliam - the Monty Python member who directed Brazil and The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, all among my very favorites - managed to direct a misguided, ineffectual film. When I watched this, I wondered if the wrong movie was playing, if I'd gone insane, or if I had stepped into The Twilight Zone.

tBG is not even saved by the leads being Matt Damon and Heath Ledger. Damon's role isn't very interesting, and he sometimes feels like he's pitching his performance just slightly off. Ledger's part is even worse: his actions are often senseless, he's not very compelling, and... His work near the end of the film feels terrible. His character behaves stupidly, inconsistently, and twists his arms up as if he has a medical condition - which apparently was meant to convey that he was conflicted; it looks like a seizure instead. It would also have helped if the gents seemed to have received a real arc.

Oh, also, Brothers Grimm has a weird subplot about the leads trying to woo the same woman. Now, it makes some sense, as she's played by Lena Headey... And yet that's almost more offensive, because the picture doesn't feature her nearly enough. God, she would've been the best part of this weak work - save maybe the excellent Monica Belluci, who is also completely wasted, by virtue of only appearing in the last 10 minutes.

The movie was so... poor an experience to watch that I started to wonder if the studio took the footage, roughly edited it together while intoxicated, and then released tBG within days of completing the FX work. And yet, I have to think this thing would have been rotten no matter what, given how it bends over backwards to try to get as many fairy tale references in as possible. It never looks like it matches the picture - despite its subject matter, it all seems shoe-horned in.

I simply can't believe that Terry Gilliam made this.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Martin Scorcese made one of the funniest films of the 2010's when he released tWoW. It's immersed in its late 80's/early 90's setting, exploiting it for as much humor as imaginable. tWoW also has the benefit of being based on the true story of a swindler who operated on a PT Barnum level - just with lots of hookers and drugs.

The actions and attitudes expressed in the picture - pretty much every single one of them - are revolting, yet you can't help but laugh because Scorcese found the exact right way to present all this ugliness and play it for comedy.

I felt a little foolish for not having seen this earlier - it would've made for great theatrical viewing - but I couldn't kick myself too hard. Why? I was busy being impressed by how invested I was in a picture wherein I didn't connect with or really empathize with any of the characters.

I suppose I could say a lot more about the great cast, Scorcese's use of the camera, and the neat way that it incorporates various gonzo elements (a wordless conversation, a video cassette, the big drug scene). However, I should probably just close by noting that there's not enough setup for the change in Belfort's attitude and behavior, when he goes from symbiotic idealist to debauched swindler. Otherwise, I think most everything else is borderline-flawless.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Chime in!