Arrival

Arrival

So… what happens now?

I honestly don’t know what to say. I went into my viewing of Arrival only knowing just enough to know that I would be uncertain as to how to approach the film; I deliberately left most of the particulars unknown to me, because I’d known from what I’d read that the best way to see the film was knowing as little as possible. How could I have possibly known what this film was going to manage to do, how it somehow transcends linear storytelling and still manages to do it in a film that one watches from the beginning to the end? If it sounds like I’m unable to put into words what the experience of watching Arrival is like, that is precisely the case; I have personally not encountered a film that one must truly see for themselves like this in quite a long time, and I am unbelievably thankful for the experience I’ve had in watching it in this way for myself.

Amy Adams shows why she is one of the best in the business as linguistics professor Louise Banks, who is brought in by military colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to make first contact with one of 12 alien crafts that have spontaneously appeared in 12 locations across the globe. As Louise and Ian try to make contact with the aliens inside and struggle with how to get the two species to understand each other’s languages, the nations surrounding the other crafts have their own potential conflicts with an alien intelligence to deal with, and it’s when agents of several nations end up crossing lines that Louise and Ian’s timetable is shortened, forcing everyone involved to try and crack the code before certain irrevocable actions are taken. As should be apparent by now, I’m being deliberately coy about the plot of Arrival, and really about the film in general; as I said in the opener, this is a film that demands one experience it for themselves. So what can I talk about? The stunning cinematography by Bradford Young? The beautiful score by Johann Johannsson? Denis Villeneuve’s assured and confident direction? Perhaps the script by Eric Heisserer, which I would happily read a book about how either he or the writer of the original novella he adapted this from came up with this story and managed to successfully write it? I could talk about any of these elements, some of which at great length. But I won’t. Again, I say; it simply must be experienced on your own.

What this film manages to accomplish in its short, almost-two-hour running time is nothing short of standard-shattering, and unfortunately, to try and explain why is to give away the film’s very essence, its gift to the cinematic audience. I try and think about it, try and put it into words, and it truly seems that my efforts in doing so almost seem to undermine what the film itself tries and succeeds in doing in terms of redefining the very language and linearity of cinema. This film could have been so much less than what it is and still succeeded as a damn good sci-fi, and that it doesn’t, that it not only manages to raise that bar for itself but still clear it with plenty of space to spare, makes me incomprehensibly grateful. This film is a boon, both to those that watch it and to cinema as a whole; it’s a monumentally rewarding experience, one that introduces a new way of thinking about storytelling and filmmaking, and that I honestly feel, at least to my fellow writers and filmmakers, makes us better for having seen and experienced it.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Advertisements

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road

What a lovely day!

I had heard rumblings of a new Mad Max film off and on for the past few years, and when the trailer finally first hit the internet, I didn’t really care enough to view it, even after I’d seen a reaction here and there that was off the charts with enthusiasm. Having already seen the Mad Max movies, and only enjoying them to a tangential degree (mostly finding them too campy to enjoy genuinely), I wasn’t all that interested in another, even some decades after the last one came out. Then, one day, I ended up watching the trailer, almost on a whim… and I was immediately, immensely stoked for this flick. I ended up seeing it with my brother in the theater, and both of us just had a big stupid smile on our face for pretty much the entire running time. Mad Max: Fury Road went on to be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as Best Director for George Miller, and that this managed to pull off those two nominations fills me with absolute glee; in the short year since its release, it is already being hailed as quite possibly the best action film of all time, and goddamn does it ever deserve that label.

Here, Tom Hardy is the recast Max Rockatansky, who lives in the most apocalyptic post-apocalyptic world I think the cinema has ever offered us. Captured at the beginning of the film by the forces of warlord Immortan Joe, he finds himself banding together with a group of fledgling runaways attempting to escape from under Immortan’s thumb, led by one of Joe’s generals (or Imperators), Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. What follows can only be described as a nearly nonstop road chase, filled with as much action as you can possibly stomach, and then you realize you’ve only stomached the first half of the film, and there’s still another whole hour of balls-to-the-wall action waiting for you. I wish I could talk about this film objectively; I really do, but I can’t. This movie just fills me with such adrenaline and happiness for George Miller and his passion for this project that I just cannot put it into words; you can so clearly tell that this, this is the Mad Max film he always wanted to make, but just could never quite get there before now. The action is awesome, the stunts are mind-blowing (seriously, Academy, get with the friggin’ program and add a stunt category in some shape or form already; please), the cinematography is vivid and engrossing, and the direction is absolutely unprecedented. The only qualms I have with the film are the script, which seemed a tad too invested in its own universe to really make the dialogue palatable to an outsider (a non-Australian, for instance), and I wasn’t a fan of the overdubbing used for almost all of Tom Hardy’s spoken dialogue, though I saw the necessity for it. I was also a big fan of the Nux character played by Nicholas Hoult, and while trying not to spoil the film entirely for those who haven’t seen it yet (seriously? come on, go see it), his character had the biggest arc of any of the leads, and he really felt like the real hero, even against Charlize Theron’s Furiosa, who was arguably the real protagonist of the picture (I won’t go too into the arguments people have made that this isn’t really a Mad Max film since Max is mostly supporting to Furiosa in terms of plot, but I’ll just say that the arguments I’ve read that make the point that Max is arguably really a supporting role in all the films are probably more correct than others might be willing to accept).

I don’t really know what else to say about this, so I’ll just finish with the only things I can say; I loved this film. I loved everything about it. It takes everything that didn’t work for me from the first three Mad Max films, dials it up to eleven, then dials it up some more, and for some weirdly stupid reason, it makes it work spectacularly. I don’t know how, I don’t know why, and for once, I really don’t care; for me, it just works, and it works greatly. If you can stomach some of the dialogue, and can manage to get yourself in the mindset to sit through two solid hours of nonstop action, go see this if you haven’t already, and if you have, go see it again; I’m sure you’ve done something recently to reward yourself for with a big ol’ smile like the one you’ll get watching this film. I love films that give me hope for the future of cinema, and this is absolutely one of those films.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Whiplash

Whiplash

Not my fucking tempo!

I rewatched Whiplash to write this review, even without me needing to in the slightest. There’s your first hint as to how the rest of this review is going to go. Whiplash appeared on the scene early 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award; from there, it rode a slight wave of praise from the festival all the way to its October release date, where the praise and accolades it received positively catapulted to the stars, and it received a number of solid category nominations at the Academy Awards, including being one of only 8 films that year nominated for Best Picture. Truly, Whiplash was the little film that could. So, is the film itself worth all that’s been said about it; is it worth the watch? To respond to that question with a mere yes is to criminally undersell what Whiplash manages to achieve as an entertainment product. I intended only to watch Whiplash to gather notes for this review, which I was able to do; what I wasn’t counting on was getting swept back up into the action, the emotion, and the wave of adrenaline that all caused me to start shaking slightly during my watch, especially during the film’s climax, which I’ve seen many viewers and reviewers regard as one of the most spine-chillingly awesome endings of any film out of 2014. You might wonder how a little indie film about jazz musicians can achieve this effect, through the film and through its ending. All I can say is, watch Whiplash. You will understand.

Andrew Neiman is a first-year student at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, regarded as the top music school in the country (I got a definite vibe of Juilliard from the reputation of Shaffer passed around in the film). A drummer in one of the school’s jazz ensembles, he dreams of being the next Buddy Rich; a dream that takes its first steps towards realization when Andrew is picked out of his class to join Shaffer’s top studio jazz band by its conductor, Terence Fletcher. Fletcher has quite the shining reputation inside the school and outside in the jazz circles, but Andrew learns firsthand the lengths that Fletcher will go to toward his students to achieve true greatness from them, and when Andrew basically becomes Fletcher’s protege and primary case study, he begins to lose his humanity and his sanity in his quest to win Fletcher’s approval and to achieve true greatness. Right from the first scene, the film fully establishes the central conflict and dynamic between the two main characters, leaving the film no other option but to let that initial impression grow and climb through the rest of the film, which turns out to be an excellent decision given how the conflict develops. The construction of the film is very indie, featuring quite a few shots that might come up in a Youtube parody of independent films, but you know what; when the result is this goddamn good and effective, any flaws in the film’s production and execution fall by the wayside. That the film is relatively simplistic and straightforward in its construction, I believe, allows the film’s true merits to shine through, amusingly enough given the musical focus, thanks to the film’s rudiments. There is not a note out of place in this film, a line in the wrong spot, a shot out of sequence, a camera move not purposefully done, and that the film is as well constructed as it is even being as basically constructed as it is is a testament to how well it ultimately works. I’m a sucker for great editing, especially if it’s in time with the music, and great editing in time with the music is basically the pitch for Whiplash’s final cut; this win for Best Film Editing at the Oscars was absolutely no contest. Another Oscar win that wasn’t even a contest is J.K. Simmons’ win for Best Supporting Actor; as Terence Fletcher, Simmons is an absolute monster of a villain, in every sense the word monster can be taken, and as a fan of Simmons’ work in other films and roles, I’m ecstatic that he was given a character like this that he could really knock it out of the park with. Opposite of Simmons as Andrew, Miles Teller also really impressed me, especially since I basically didn’t know who he was before this film. If you’re one to think of Teller in only his minor roles in franchises or as Reed Richards in the latest Fantastic Four disaster-of-a-film, don’t; he really gives Simmons a run for his money in almost every scene, and that he was apparently a self-taught drummer makes his effort all the more remarkable.

I’ve been thinking of how to close out this review of Whiplash ever since it was added to the list, and what I’ve decided to do is something that I don’t think I’ve ever done on this site up to this point; I’m going to call out my fellow 1001 reviewers on their reviews of this film. Of the two that have been posted so far (that I know of, at least), along with some of the comments on them, both generally appreciated the film’s merits and construction, but took great offense to the central lesson that they saw the film trying to get across: that the unrelenting abuse Fletcher heaps upon Andrew in order to get him to improve himself (in Fletcher’s words) beyond what is expected of him not only works, but is ultimately a good thing. Here’s my response to that, and it’s going to take several sentences to get to my point. Does the film endorse this idea? I don’t know, but I can definitely see how many have thought so; I can absolutely say that the film definitely doesn’t argue against it. Are Andrew and Fletcher both generally horrible people, and is Andrew’s horrible-ness ultimately what causes him to respond to Fletcher’s methods? Yes, absolutely. Does Andrew achieve greatness, and thus are the tactics used by Fletcher ultimately successful, and therefore justified in the context of the film? Yes. Now, here’s my point: does any of this mean that Whiplash is not an absolutely outstanding film? No. Not in the slightest. We’ve all watched plenty of films with absolutely horrendous main characters, absolutely twisted villains, and absolutely repugnant central lessons that the film bases its story and structure on. But, and here’s the kicker; if the film or those characters/performances are truly well done above and beyond not even your average film but your really good ones, then it will and should be revered as a great film. People don’t hold Triumph of the Will to as high a standard as they do because they can totally get behind the central message of that film; they do so because it was a revolutionary documentary and propaganda film, and one that, despite its central message, continues to influence documentaries and films to this day. That, is truly a film of the times, and Whiplash, even with its central message, is absolutely a great film. Yes, I agree that people shouldn’t be reading into the film’s message as something that they should be taught is a good thing or the right thing to do. But to discount the achievement that Whiplash is purely as a piece of entertainment or to take stars off the rating of it because one finds themselves against the morality of the central players or villains of the piece is, to be frank, unfair. Whiplash has my vote as quite possibly the best all-around film of 2014, and it sure as hell earned it, even if I as a person would’ve walked out of Fletcher’s classroom after the first bout of abuse he hurls at that trombone player, and been right in doing so. It doesn’t matter; whatever way you slice it, this is unquestionably a magnificent film, and even with its message and central characters, it’s one I can watch over and over again and still get chills every time I do.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Gravity

Gravity

I hate space.

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat; if you intend to watch Gravity because you expect a stellar plot and riveting dialogue, or for pretty much any other reason than the unbelievable experience Gravity gives you, kindly go into your bathroom and take a good long look in the mirror. I’ll wait…… Realized what an anger/spite/pessimism-filled human being you are? No? Too bad. Yes? Okay, good. Now then, Gravity; it’s fucking amaze-balls. A crazy amount of hype revolved around this project pretty much from when it was first announced, and it just escalated the closer it got to release, to the point that few people were convinced the film could live up to it all. Those people, the ones that weren’t convinced or lost confidence, were wrong; Gravity is everything everyone said it would be, and it is glorious.

So, let’s get the plot out of the way (for the two or three of you who don’t know it already): Ryan Stone is on her first mission in space to install a new prototype system of her own design into the Hubble Space Telescope. Everything is going smoothly… until the Russians accidentally strike one of their own satellites with a missile, causing a chain reaction of high-speed debris crashing into other satellites and creating more debris (known as the Kessler effect). Stone and the Explorer crew fall victim to the catastrophe as well, leaving only Stone and mission commander Matt Kowalski alive and drifting through space. Now they must try and find a way over to the International Space Station, which may be their only hope of returning home safely. There’s a little more to the plot than that, but I wouldn’t want to risk entering spoiler territory, especially if you haven’t seen this yet. Sure, you could go on about the plot inconsistencies (which a few scientists and astrophysicists have done; see the bottom of the film’s Wikipedia article), or how the film doesn’t offer all that much in the realm of story that we haven’t had before, but again, if you’re in this expecting the plot and story to be absolutely perfect, kindly re-read the opening paragraph. Now, for what you really came here for; the visual effects. Well, I can’t say anything that hasn’t been said before; in terms of special effects and visual cinema, Gravity is a complete game-changer, and by far the most realistic-feeling space film ever made. Not having any sound in space except that which interacts physically with the astronauts’ suits is amazingly immersive, and it even adds an ethereal quality to the visual splendor that is the film’s action sequences. And I can’t close this out without a special mention for Steven Price and his absolutely outstanding score, which I still give a listen to on occasion; it’s that amazing.

Gravity ended up being the biggest winner at the Academy Awards that year, winning seven (the most of the evening) and tying the most nominations with ten. While it didn’t win Best Picture (and honestly, I didn’t expect it to in the face of 12 Years a Slave), there was no question Alfonso Cuaron was winning Best Director for this; it took him over four freaking years to do this film, and they basically reinvented how to make a visual-effects-heavy film in the process. Seriously, pick up either the Blu-Ray or the two-disc DVD with all the special features and give them a look; how they made this is a technical wonder in and of itself. Not only is this one of the most purely entertaining films of 2013, it’s also an amazing achievement in cinema, and you’d be doing yourself a major disservice by not seeing this one. You have pretty much nothing to lose, and a hell of a lot to gain.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

City of God (Cidade de deus)

City of God

If you run away, they get you… and if you stay, they get you too.

I’ll admit I have a propensity to laud praise on a film that is technically brilliant, even if it falls somewhat short in the story department. So, when a film like City of God comes along, that is not only technically one of the best films I’ve seen in a long, long while, but also tells a hell of a story, I’m left in the unique position of just how much praise should I give it. This is another foreign film that I’d heard of long before I found the list; it was that critically acclaimed, and easily entered cinema’s storied lexicon. Once again, just like the other amazing foreign films I’d known of before the list, now that I’ve seen it, I completely get why it became so popular.

The film tells the story of a bunch of self-professed hoodlums living in a small city-suburb of Rio de Janeiro called Cidade de Deus, or City of God; their beginnings as children, how they came to power, and the struggles of how they try and consolidate and hold onto their power. Interestingly enough, the story is told not through one of the hoodlums, but by Rocket, a wannabe photographer who is largely exempt from the criminal lifestyle the rest of the menagerie of characters happily take part in, but still finds himself involved in the proceedings simply by virtue of living in the City of God. So, what exactly does this film get right? Would you hold it against me if I merely said the word “everything” and left it at that? Because there wasn’t a thing wrong with this film. At all. The story was engaging the whole way through, the script was excellent, the acting from the non-professional actors was superbly believable. And the technicals; my god, the technicals. It has been so long since I’ve seen a film that really knew how to grasp and hold interest through the use of its editing that I only now realized how much I’d become jaded by the other films that I’ve seen that aren’t half as good with their editing style as City of God is. This film doesn’t just cut to the beginning of each shot, wait until the action and dialogue have finished, and then cut to the next shot; every shot in this is interwoven with the shots before it, after it, and the rest of the scene, almost as if the editor were composing a symphony rather than merely piecing together reels of frames just so the story can be told. It’s pretty rare for a foreign film to get Oscar nominations outside the Foreign Language category, but when it happens, you had damn well pay attention to that film; City of God got nominations for not only its editing, but its cinematography (which was fantastic, knowing how to use a handheld camera instead of just using a handheld camera), its screenplay, and for its director, Fernando Meirelles. Take note again of the categories; these aren’t the bare technical categories like Art Direction or Costume Design, these are major categories, and City of God earned every one of them. It’s frankly a wonder this didn’t get nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, but a fun factoid: it was only eligible for that award in the year before, and had it gotten that nomination, it wouldn’t have gotten the four nominations it did get the year after, so it was really a blessing in disguise.

Seriously, the only thing I could hold against the film was that the story didn’t really break any new ground; there are stories of this kind fairly frequently on the list, and certainly all over the realm of cinema. But, if I can be frank, none of them do it nearly as well as City of God. For every film that tells this story, before and after 2002, they either were building up to this masterful achievement, or they are merely trying to swim in its wake. City of God is the pinnacle of this kind of story. The top. Bar none. See this film. You pretty much owe it to yourself to do so at least once in your lifetime; if not for the story, than to see how to make such a well done and well put together film that people everywhere will be calling it perfection. I don’t know if it is perfect, but as of right now I seriously cannot think of any reason why it wouldn’t be.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

The Mirror (Zerkalo)

Mirror

Words can’t really express a person’s emotions.

My appreciation for Andrei Tarkovsky has only grown since I first saw Solaris a few years ago. I am not alone; many revere the Soviet director as one of the greatest of all time. Even with all that said, there is an almost mythical status to Zerkalo, or The Mirror, that few other director’s masterworks can match; this, I knew going into it, was to be Tarkovsky at his most brilliant. To put it in simple words, it did not disappoint; this was spellbinding, a cinematic experience unlike any other, and an absolute masterpiece from start to finish. Mr. Tarkovsky, I hope you took a good long bow after this one.

The plot? I won’t even get into the plot, mostly because I don’t think I can. There is no real plot, or at least a conventional one; the film is instead a series of memories and dreams presented non-chronologically, jumping around between timeframes, making for quite possibly the most confusing narrative ever seen in cinema. The film switches between black-and-white footage and color pretty much on a whim, which adds to the confusion as well as the overall effect of the film; one of a constant, ever-present dream-like state, truly a portrait of a single mind in all its complexity. Suffice it to say, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does with a less experienced mind (and hand) behind the camera. The film is filled with tiny infinitesimal movements, either of the camera or the zooming of the lens, that instead of drawing focus to them, instead narrow our focus, shifting it within the frame to where it needs to be. The music is typical Tarkovsky; slow and melodious and deliberate, and perfectly matched with the visuals; nary a frame or note is out of place. And the cinematography; my god, the visuals in this are breathtaking. Damn near every single shot of this film is a tapestry; the composition, use of color or shades of light, and production value creates a host of truly sumptuous images. I’ve mentioned on a few films before how you could take any single frame of the film and have it mounted on the wall as a portrait or photograph, and Zerkalo is unquestionably one of those films.

There is absolutely no denying that I have just seen a masterpiece; it is just what kind of masterpiece it is that I will have to spend some time on, and even perhaps another viewing or two, which I wouldn’t begrudge in the slightest. While it is still the shortest Tarkovsky film on the list, it is also the most obtuse, the most challenging and difficult to ascertain, and while other films that can be called difficult are so because they don’t know how to structure their stories, there is nothing but structure here; a method to the madness of Zerkalo cannot be denied, even if one cannot be sure of what that method is upon a first or second or even third viewing. This is absolutely one I will add to my collection at some point in the future, and watch whenever I need a good burst of inspiration. Absolutely sublime; please, do not forgo seeing this film whenever you get the chance.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10

Well, here it is; the big 1,000. I wanted it to be special in some way, and thanks to Tarkovsky, it easily turned out to be. I’ll probably stop counting/posting on the milestones, as the ones after this are mostly inconsequential, with the additions to the list each year. So, happy 1,000 reviews everyone, and here’s to (at this point) approximately 150 more.

The Toy Story Trilogy

Toy Story Trilogy

So long, partner.

An idea I’ve flirted with doing recently is basically a re-review of some of the films on this blog that have admittedly shorter entries, mostly so because it was early in the blog’s existence, and I was still unable to cohesively explain what it was about the films I loved that I loved about them so much. There were two main reasons I didn’t: it would have conflicted with one of the major conditions that I had established when I decided to start this blog; that I wouldn’t need to feel pressured to meet some pre-determined or expected word limit or size post, and that I would just put down what came to my mind when I watched (or re-watched) the film, and let that stand for itself. The other reason was if I started re-reviewing some of the films, then at what point would doing so end; my blog posts may just end up getting bigger, and then I’d have to re-review some films that didn’t end up as short as others, and it would be a never-ending cycle, and my quest would never have a definitive conclusion. Well, a rare opportunity has come to pass with the new edition; one of the films I’d already reviewed has been expanded to include all three currently-released films in the series. Now, when I heard that the Toy Story trilogy was one of the new entries, I immediately found the decision questionable, as I’ll get to in the closer, but you know what; if they had added Toy Story 2 and 3 as individual entries, I probably wouldn’t have complained. This trilogy is probably the closest to perfection that any series of three films has ever gotten.

If you haven’t seen these, and/or otherwise don’t know what the plots are, sorry, but I’m not going to be the one to spoil them for you, even slightly. They deal with a cast of toys who walk and talk like any of us, albeit they keep this knowledge hidden from their child owners, and that’s about it for a general cover-all plot summary of the trilogy. Each film has a distinct plotline from the others, and in the best aspect of the trilogy, each film expands on the last and, dare I say it, improves on the previous film in damn near every way. Some particulars; the second introduces a new toy named Jessie, who soliloquies one of the most heart-breaking flashbacks in any film ever done, aided by a lovely melody called “When She Loved Me” by Sarah McLachlan. Not to be outdone by themselves, Pixar upped the ante in the third, of which the last ten minutes or so are now widely known to bring a tear to even the most hardened man’s eye. Another big part of all three films was the music by Randy Newman, who arguably found his career revitalized by the original, and continuing with the next two, the last of which would finally win him an Academy Award for Original Song. The animation quality increases with each film, but unlike other films that deal majorly in computer graphics, it’s not about the animation; it’s about the story, and you’d be extremely hard-pressed to find a trilogy of films with a better story for each installment. The second Toy Story is now ubiquitous with the concept of a sequel being better than the original, and the third somehow even manages to be better than that, so to merely give the second and third 10s when I gave the original a 10 seems to be a bit of a under-appreciative misnomer, but I don’t have a rating higher than 10 (which is the point of a 1-10 rating scale). Needless to say, though, thanks to Pixar’s utter devotion to putting the quality of the story first (something that Dreamworks still has yet to fully understand), each film comes ever closer to achieving that rare status of the perfect film.

Now, with all that said, I still don’t agree with adding the additional films to the list; at least, as a single entry. These are not three parts to a single story, like Lord of the Rings; these are three separate and distinct films, and to have a single entry for all three just to keep that arbitrary number of 1,001 seems to just be a lie in my opinion, a fake-out so the editors can have their cake and eat it too. Especially so when you consider that the Star Wars trilogy still takes up individual slots, and if you really want to stretch it, you could also name the Apu trilogy also. But, it’s a little too late now to throw around loopholes and definitions. Like I said in the opener, I wouldn’t have minded at all if these three films had been added as individual entries; practically any Pixar film you could name is probably deserving of being on the list in some way. Add to that that the first and second Toy Storys have a 100% on Rotten Tomatoes (with the third having a mere 99%, largely thanks to one cold-hearted bastard), with the second actually having the most positive reviews to its 100%, making it the number one film on the entire site, and it’s a little befuddling how they weren’t on the list to begin with. If, for whatever reason you may have, you have not seen these three films, you need to do so as soon as possible. A very large part of your childhood will thank you for it.

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10