Waxing [Cinematically]: Dallas Buyers’ Club

I snuck in a watching of Dallas Buyers’ Club just hours before the 2014 Academy Awards and I’m glad I did. It was worth it to see what film carried both the years Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

After the watch, it was apparent that Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both put in performances worthy of the industry’s highest awards. It was also apparent that the movie itself was nowhere near that mark.

I was happy to see the actors’ take home dual Oscars. My belief is that the film really only deserved a Best Picture nomination because of those two’s work.

Here’s a few reasons why

  1. Jennifer Garner certainly didn’t help any. She was unconvincing as a doctor. Unaware of a strange and wavering southern accent. And, worst of all, just unable to keep up with the strong acting happening around here. She nearly derailed some scenes with both actors, but the one on ones with McConaughey almost blew the raw intensity of his performance (mostly, his charm).
  2. The direction was incredibly sloppy. The movie dragged its feet in some places, while skipping forward to fast in others. Scenes simply existed that didn’t need to. An example: McConaughey’s character is, well, having some alone time with himself when he’s interfered with by some pictures that Leto’s character put up on the wall. McConaughey’s character at this point had started his progression toward a better understanding (his character’s personal growth and achievement), yet still he tore down the pictures, muttered a few curses and the scene cut. It was a scene that neither advanced the plot nor the characters, and we just simply don’t need those.
  3. There were just simply too many plotholes. One big one is that Ron keeps mentioning research he has and has been a part of, but the movie never really shows us this avenue. To contextualize, DBC is far, far more of an Erin Brokovich type vigiliante quest than a movie about equality (a la Milk for instance). This is incongruent with Woodruff’s move as a more enlightened man while the movie takes more on about bureaucratic threatening the FDA brings than the coming together of a society around an issue of life and death.

These movies exist everywhere and in fact are probably what makes great movies great movies. 12 Years A Slave both won Best Picture and had each of its main cast members nominated for their respective awards. DBC just simply wasn’t a movie that would stand without the performances of its two leading men.

It was worth watching. Leto’s performance in particular will be one I cannot shake from the radar of great acting and won’t be able to for years to come. The movie gave him the vehicle and that has to mean something, right?

Advertisements

Waxing [Cinematically]: Don Jon

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Don Jon is the ultimate side-project film.

I don’t mean that that to degrade what he has done, nor suggest that it wasn’t given its fair time to produce. It was a good movie; and it didn’t feel at any part like it cut corners to get going.

Well, that’s not entirely true. The reasons I think it felt like a side-project:

Time: The move is 83 minutes long. At least 5 to 10 of those minutes were taken up in shots of either the church, Don Jon running up the steps to the church, and the last part of the confessions he gives 5 times during the time.

Superficiality: Before I get meta on this — I mean really the superficiality of both the topics tackled and the characters.

Topics: sex, pornography, relationships. Each is examined, but not in such a depth where it both hypothesizes an answer and then works to understand or refute that. In casual terms, it doesn’t go through the motions, or the storytelling scientific method perhaps.

The character of Don Jon certainly goes into pornography — but just in terms of himself (a point, perhaps). There’s no point where the question is even offered of what pornography really is. Where it begins, where it ends, and what it means on a level beyond just one man’s experience with it. None of this is bad, per se, but it just offers a cursory examination of the topic — and this went for love, relationships, seflishness, etc…

Characters: much the same, the characters were all very half-seen. There was not a lot of depth happening; or the camera allowing us to dive in. Each character presented his/her catalyst to the plot and nothing more. This was almost parodied by Jon’s sister, who only looks up from her cellphone once the whole movie. (Again, topic: the younger generation not peeling their eyes away from their smartphones. Very cursory examination). But his mother — she has simple wants. His father, he is simple (though probably the most subtle performance). Jon is purportedly simple from the beginning. And his two female foils each play their extreme too.

Now, quickly meta. The idea behind the movie is that superficiality can ruin you if you let it. I don’t want to put it beyond anyone that a movie about superficiality in that respect would be superficial in its fronts as well. That could be. It would be wonderfully meta-tastic. But I just don’t see it.

There’s a chance to read into all of this as some kind of minimalist representation of something more. Julianne Moore’s character opposite Scarlett Johannson’s. The ending of ‘lovemaking’ instead of sex. But, really, when I think on it, I wonder if the intent was to keep it basic. It’s a side-project film; born perhaps out of JGL’s desire to look into what porn does to men and not wanting to dive into that topic the way, say, your psychoanalyst would want to. Taking that long Freud-dive off the high board.

Good film. Worth the watch. It takes all it brought with it when it ends. and that’s okay sometimes.

 

 

 

Waxing {Musically] – The War On Drugs – Red Eyes

The War On Drugs (the band) has put out a new single — the first new music we’ve seen since Slave Ambient.

I was a late-comer to Slave Ambient (and the band, then, by default) but it hasn’t stopped me from absolutely getting lost in the music these guys keep making.

The band is certainly of the newer “indie darlings” — a Pitchfork-backed band in no secret way. (Though the writers at Pitchfork seem so keen on harping it as “road trip” music and harking on some kind of metaphor of distance that the songs bring. To me, it’s not distance in the stretching out sense, it’s distance of a tiny thing — a moment, a statue, a note that plays. It’s the small thing that you get lost in, and you take yourself the distance. It’s getting lost music more than the “road trip” label — which denotes some kind of destination. The music, for me, will always be destination-less. And really, really good).

Here’s the new single: Red Eyes

 

Waxing [Literarily]: The Hotel New Hampshire {John Irving}

I’m going to start with a metaphor. We’ll have to see how long I can carry it for.

Reading John Irving is like having your mom do your laundry for you.

Okay, how far can we take this.

For one, Irving, and though I’ve read a couple of his pieces, I’m going to stick with The Hotel New Hampshire here.

So maybe it should be: Reading The Hotel New Hampshire is like having your mom do your laundry for you.

It’s neat & folded — Irving is a master storyteller. He’s almost too good at the literary conventions of bringing something up (a metaphor, a mantra, a detail) and having it reappear later in a seemingly innocuous way. He plans. He folds. Things are not arbitrarily thrown around. There is not a sock in the middle of a few t-shirts.

In THNH, for instance, we get the Berry family, all seven of them, each with their quips, but those fold so neatly into each other. The whole family knows the same sayings — “keep passing the open window” — and everyone seems to have their perfectly fitting take on each situation. The nuances almost come to be normalized and by the end, each person has found their fitting end. Irving makes sure of it.

it starts messy — the character’s nuances may come to be predictable at times, but it doesn’t start all easy like that. The book dives into strange forms of homosexuality, rape, incest, blindness, prostitution and, although barely, anarchy. Of course, that’s on top of the usual literary staples — death, love, loss of innocence. As with all good laundry, this batch is pretty wild before it hits the machine. Full of spunk, dirt, sweat, and well, any other substance that make its way into a hamper. In TNHN, we’re guided a narrator in love with his sister, obsessed with weightlifting and curiously incurious about exploring sexuality because of point one there. He’s surrounded by writers, suicides, blindness, bears and, well, somehow makes sense of it. See below

it gets the best treatment — this ain’t your corner laundromat. This is mom’s house. She’s got all the good stuff. Good detergent. Fabric softener. Color refreshers, stain removers, a good lint catcher. Everything. Those clothes have never seen such good days.  Which is kind of how Irving gives us, John, our narrator. He may be surrounded by a story of stable lunacy, but it all works out and along the way Irving gives you that great treatment. Literature, languages, advice from disappearing shamans, some one-liners to remember, more than a few moments that completely break your heart, and enough hints of the future for you to contextualize the book’s present. It’s a nutty family in the hands of a most capable author.

it’s warm, but just for a minute — see note about the moments that break your heart. Early character deaths. Favorite character deaths. Blindness. Sadness. It’s a warm story of a family staying together, loving each other, helping each other go through the worst of the worst, but it fades. Like your favorite blue shirt.

Okay, starting to lose the metaphor.

I’ll leave it there. The Hotel New Hampshire had two reviews I had before I picked the book up. One called it a farshot and nothing was believable. The other said that if you suspended belief you should suspend your heart too, since its twists and turns were sure to break it.

Both were true.

Is it Irving’s best? No. Garp was better and I still haven’t read much more. But this is good. And it’s lengthy and break-up-able as you read and yes it will break your heart. But you’ll come back to it after it does. After all, mom isn’t going to always do laundry. Take the chance while you can get it.

Waxing [Literarily]: William Boyd’s ‘Waiting for Sunrise’

I was looking for books that took place in Vienna shortly after the turn of the 20th century. I had read the LA Times book review of Franzen’s Kraus Project and was particularly interested in his assertion that “Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology (telephone, telegraph, the high-speed printing press) has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.”

I hadn’t thought that another time in history might echo what we’re experiencing now. I wanted to dive in. And I wanted to start with fiction.

Some searching led me to William Boyd’s 2012 novel Waiting for Sunrise which obviously wasn’t the best for my project (only the book’s first third takes place in Vienna) but it seemed an easy read and I had never read a book by Boyd.

I dug in. I rather enjoyed his bit taking place in Vienna. It did give some of the cultural overview that I was looking for — what with the charm that Franzen mentioned and psychotherapy being all the rage. There’s one cheap bit where the main character, Lysander, runs into Dr. Freud, but we’ll excuse that.

The Vienna part paced nicely. It introduced a love interest, some shady characters and a psychotherapist, all tying Lysander to Vienna while he had a woman waiting for him back in London (his home). Of course, too, he was there to solve a problem of, well, not being able to get it up — so we have some personal strife to add to the drama.

And drama we get as the Vienna part comes to an end. Lysander is accused of rape of his new Viennese mistress and love interested and he must flee thanks in part of the shady character he met earlier. Alright, alright, a little more a thriller than I bargained for — but I should have expected that with Boyd.

The rest of the book dives into WWI London (and Geneva for a bit) and some politics surrounding that. There’s a spy plot, more drama added as the Viennese love interest finds herself in London and a whole lot of belief that needs to be suspended as the plot unravels.

Fine. It had been a while since such an easy read (in terms of the depth of the text) found its way into my  hands and I think all in all I rather enjoyed it. Boyd has some lines, certainly has the ability to tell a story and resolve it as quickly as it needs to be (it’s only a few hundred pages) and still give some reasons to empathize with Lysander.

Overall prognosis: Ehhh, why not? Wouldn’t suggest it, but wouldn’t tell you to put it away later. 

Waxing [Cinematically]: The Great Gatsby

When I heard a(nother) Great Gatsby movie was being made, I sighed. It won’t work, I said. It hasn’t before, and it won’t this time. The book doesn’t translate. It’s beauty is in the density of beautiful words, splayed out for you as Gatsby in his own vulnerability.

It’s not a thriller. It’s not an exciting plot. It’s an exhaustive excursion into the soul of a man guided by love, living in a new society that doesn’t seem to appreciate exhaustive searches into anything. Life had too much going on, what with all the riches and all.

Then I learned DiCaprio signed on. Well, I like him, this could be a good sign. And Baz Luhrmann is going to direct. I like him, too. Okay, two things going for it. Carey Mulligan, yeah, she’s alright.

Okay, maybe this thing has a shot.

 

But, still, with so little offering toward making a viable film from this book’s material — Baz was either going to see something no else had saw and make a masterpiece, or fall into the same trap that the Redford version fell into (and, though, I haven’t seen it, the review the oldest version seems to get too).

It may sound trite, but I waited to hear reviews before seeing Gatsby. The first review of indifference I heard (and then subsequently mixed reviews from there), told me everything I needed to know. It was going to suck.

I just saw it. Last night. Now half a year since it’s release. And, gosh, was it bad.

 

Sure, maybe had it not had to be made in the shadow of one of the finer American novels ever written, it could stand up on a leg. But you have to know what you’re getting yourself into when taking on a project like this.

I’ll start with the small slice of good. Leo didn’t disappoint. Baz gave what was expected; gaudy, gaudy colorful scenes, parties, a soundtrack that didn’t fit, dialogue that was snappy enough to either matter TOO much or not matter at all; and some sexiness to tie that all together.

The dialogue failed though. It couldn’t keep up with Fitzgerald’s writing. It’s a tall task, for sure. But half the time Toby McGuire’s Nick Carraway spoke, it felt like he was splurted out lines fed to him through an earpiece. He failed to see how even the works’ most crucial lines (“you can’t repeat the past”) have to actually fit into a context for them to establish their power. [See: every powerful quote you remember from the cinema]. If you miss, it becomes laughable. Laudable. Almost “camp”.

McGuire missed just about every time he spoke. His writing scenes were atrocious (why, WHY couldn’t we just have gotten his Wonder Boys character thrown in just for the f*ck of it?).

Mulligan was barely allowed to speak. Fine. Daisy doesn’t need a whole lot of words. But she has to command attention somehow. Her Daisy looked too scared to even be on camera.

And then, the eyes. The eyes of the Dr. TJ Eckleburg. A fine literary device that Fitzgerald carried through his novel. Luhrmann threw that away. It was no longer device. It was a smack to the head. Like saying, “HEY, here’s a metaphor. You see, we put it in. We’re literaries! LOOK, LOOK!” and not giving anything more.

Put it in the background, dude. You don’t need to shove it into our corneas. Those that want to find that, will find it. Those that don’t, don’t need to. They’re probably waiting for more scenes of Gatsby’s front hallway.

There’s more to complain about. I won’t go into the butchering of some of the more important lines in the novel (“she smelled like money” or Gatsby in the image of god or just the unnecessary voice overs Luhrmann decided to put in because he spent so much time on pizazz he forget to tell the story), but I’ll stop there.

Linda Holmes actually did a pretty good review of the movie; and its relation to the book for NPR. If you want to read more on the movie, it’s a good place to head.

If I had to score it: 4.8.

 

Waxing [Cinematically]: “Gravity”

I had high expectations for Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

That’s an understatement.

I had almost laughably high expectations for it. After seeing the first trailer I said “there’s no way a studio would finance this unless it was going to be the move of the decade.” And then I went on predicting it would be.

There was just no one that a big studio would finance a movie with two characters floating in space. No way that Cuaron would spend the precious years following up Children of Men on anything of a lesser project. There was too much at stake in both those situations. Let alone the signing of big names like Clooney and Bullock (the latter who I was less than thrilled about the casting of before I saw the movie; and still not thrilled about after).

As I did with Blue Jasmine, I’ll assign a completely arbitrary score to this film. Let’s say that arbitrary score is an 8.8 out of 10.

 

Cuaron and his team did amazing things with space. That can’t be understated. If the Academy was as impressed with the work on Life of Pi as it seemed last year, there’s no way it’ll pass up the amazing shots of space shuttle AND a space station exploding into the abyss of Cuaron’s outer atmospheres. That was mind-blowing, yes.

But effects are never going to win my heart when it comes to cinema. Is it cool? Yes. It may be the coolest movie of the year. I learned from it, too, from what I’m hoping are somewhat realistic details, so have to give kudos on that front too. But I needed more. From someone who will always put a film like Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind over Avatar, Gravity left a bit to be desired.

This was Hollywood’s first major isolationist film since the aforementioned Life of Pi, and maybe the most isolationist major film since Castaway. Bullock’s character has to deal with the existential nightmare of being all alone in a very, very lonely place. I don’t know that the film achieved the deep dive into nausea as it had the opportunity to do. Actually, I do know; it didn’t.

Even in the [spoilers] scene where Bullock hallucinates a conversation with Clooney, it missed a really opportune time to sail into Kubrick territory. Clearly, Bullock has lost her mind at this point. Oxygen-deprived, lost, lonely, forlorn, everything in between; Bullock’s hallucination should have been more surreal.

Maybe that’s not what Cuarón was going for. The movie, in its attempt to break new grounds, tried its best to be hyper real. To have the view feel within the realm of what Bullock was going through. Don’t know if that was needed. The effects, the floating, the adventuring with jet packs — all too surreal to feel the need to draw us in in a nonfictional atmosphere. Our beliefs were already suspended here, let them float, I say, float right into the starry abyss.

The movie had some great shots, some great scenes and some great reasons to be remembered. It just wasn’t the great I hoped for. Still just as after Children of Men I started immediately looking forward to Cuaron’s next film; so to does this get me ready for what may come next. Hopefully it won’t be eight years before it comes.

Did it meet expectations? No. Could it have? Probably not. Still worth the see. Still breaks ground by not needing solid ground.

Waxing [Cinematically] The Spectacular Now

Hollywood has gotten really, really good at retelling the same story. Going to see movies these days, I can’t help but shake the “I’ve seen this play out before” feeling, or predicting an ending, or being disappointed that a director/writer didn’t take a turn when they had an opportunity.

If there’s one thing to single out about The Spectacular Now, it would be its originality. The movie is a fresh dose of the non-cliche, which is all the more impressive as it drops you in the one the most cliche-laden scenes that movies love; high school.

The movie is based on a book, written by the guys who did 500 Days of Summer, and stars a new actor, Miles Teller, and an actress in Shailene Woodley that has now nailed two consecutive roles I’ve seen her in (her work in the Descendants demanded some serious attention). If these components were what brought the freshness, kudos to all involved.

Apparently, Michael Weber, one of the writers, described the film, and specifically the main character, Sutter, as “Ferris Bueller [who] gives bad advice”. That makes a lot of sense — only his advice isn’t all that bad. In fact, some of it is gold, particularly once he’s learned his lesson, it just takes him a while to get there. And, well, he’s drunk in every other scene.

If there were another thing to single out about The Spectacular Now it would be the gratuitous drunk driving scenes. It’s almost appalling, but it’s used to illustrate his character, and so you put it at ease. Still, once he involves Amy, the love interest, you start ot tense up a bit in the movie theater. You’ve seen this go down. Except he doesn’t get into an accident (well not really), and he doesn’t ruin his life drunk driving, he actually kind of gets away with it. Another turn away from cliche.

Sutter is a smart kid. He sees a serious truth in a lot of those people around him. He even sees it in himself but has some fear (one would assume of some abandonment) that prevents him from approaching his own growth. His dad left when he was young, and so we get a boy that doesn’t want to leave anything. Not his school, not his party life, not his ex-girlfriend, not his job, etc… It’s sad, but you can feel the truth in it.

And Woodley’s Amy, well gosh talk about a perfect portrayal of how pathetic we can be in our first love. She is obsessed with Sutter. Ignores his faults, loves him immediately and wants to change her life in any way that would please him. That’s first love. That’s what it’ll do to you.

Because it took pains to avoid cliche, it came off as raw as anything you’ll see these days — particularly from a pair of young actors. It tugged at the heart, though I have to admit I was expected a bit more of a tug (I blame it on the fucking excellent trailer). If it had a fault it was in some of the other actors around Teller and Woodley, or maybe even that the movie wasn’t that long (high school drama can feel like forever, they could’ve played with that) — but neither was 500 days….

Trying to be objective, I give it a 8.6. I’ll see it again. I’ll show some people. It didn’t bring on those wounds that some movies can, but it’s the closest one to come to that in a while.

Waxing [Cinematically]: Blue Jasmine

There are few things I get to look forward to year after year than Woody Allen’s next movie. The man’s output is just absurd — 44 movies in 47 years — and he continues his somber parade on with more and more creativity. To be short, I love what the man does with his opportunity. He makes great movies and he makes a lot of them. He makes duds, too, to be sure, but by sheer numbers he’d have to.

It’s precisely that I like Woody’s work so much that Blue Jasmine didn’t enthrall me the way it might a first timer to the Woodman’s art.

In thinking about how I might objectively quantify a movie like Blue Jasmine — I’d probably give it something of an 8.4.

In thinking about where I might place it among Woody’s recent movies — it’s better than any of his movies in the last 10 years except Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris.

And Cate Blanchett? Well, yes. Probably the finest leading actress performance in a Woody Allen movie in the last two decades. (Though I’d have to go back and look through all of those to be sure).

What I can be sure of is that she was incredible. Moving, theatrically — at once calling for your deepest sympathies and then clawing on the door of your greatest annoyances. You just can’t sit with her for too long, except that you want so badly to sit with her for so long. This all made even more powerful knowing that Allen is famous for his quick takes, for letting actors and actresses play things off the cuff and just “go with it”

Okay, so why all of this? Well I’ll get to that. And then I’ll get into why it’s fair to put this, and any other, Woody Allen movie against other Woody Allen movies.

It looks like I’ll have to do both to pull off a cohesive point, so let’s do both.

Blue Jasmine is classic Woody. Well actually it’s classic Woody with more than a dash of A Street Car Named Desire. Still, the movie doesn’t try to say too much that his past movies haven’t. This opposes Midnight in Paris, for instance, which had a thesis about classicism that Woody’s other movies have only mentioned but never focused on.

Jasmine? Relationships. Heartbreak. Meeting new lovers. All of it is there. Just as it was explored in 80s, here it is again. And that’s fine. He does that better than most any other.

But that’s just not enough for me to fall in love with Blue Jasmine. Not the well I fell in love with Midnight in Paris. Not the way I fell in love with Annie Hall, Love and Death, Bananas, or Vicky Cristina.

And that’s okay. It was still a great movie, held together by a great performance thanks to Ms. Blanchett.

So my entire take is based on comparing this movie to his others. Fair? Well, it has to be. Woody movies are Woody movies — and I apologize if it’s a mistake to not allow things out of that categorical thinking. It’s just how it is for me. They have the feel, the dialogue, the touch that only Allen’s mind provides. And so it goes, Jasmine gets judged against the others and it fairs well, very well in fact, but it won’t be a masterpiece on his mantel when he goes.

For Blanchett, it may be. Though she’s put in a lifetime of great performances already and has more to come.

Definitely recommend the movie — just more to wax on this one than meets the eye. And I owe that all to my love of Allen’s flicks.