Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Apologies for the inactivity as of late. Business should pick up soon. But for now, it's all Breaking Bad, leading right into the series finale this Sunday when we find out whether one of TV's all-time greatest series can stick its landing. I was fortunate enough to again join my good friend Dennis on his enormously successful Dennis Has a Podcast to discuss the revelations of these past few episodes, as well as offer up some analysis and predictions for the finale. My thoughts on the first half of the fifth season can be read here and I'll be returning next week with a review of the final 8 episodes.
Click here to listen.
And don't forget to check out other episodes of DHAP on iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: James McAvoy, Rosario Dawson, Vincent Cassel, Danny Sapani, Wahab Sheikh, Matt Cross, Tuppence Middleton
Running Time: 101 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, dreams and nightmares, and the conscious and unconscious, Danny Boyle's Trance plays as if Memento,Vanilla Sky, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Inception were mixed in a blender to create a concoction Alfred Hitchcock would have appreciated. The few ads there were when it was released try to sell it as a heist movie, and while there is a heist, this is more. Going into details beyond a very basic description is impossible considering if I told you even half of what went on in this movie, you wouldn't believe it. There's twist on top of twist for nearly all its running time and when it ended it occurred to me that I hardly even remember anyone talking about the film when it was released.
Despite relatively strong reviews and an Oscar-winning director behind the lens, this came and went without so much as a peep. As challenging and ambitious as anything released in the first half of the year, it's only drawback might be that the screenplay is almost too intelligent and original, threatening at points to overtake the character-driven element, which is also incredibly strong. And yet that risk is also part of the fun. It also takes the usually tired plot point of hypnosis and does something surprisingly deep with it, turning over on itself so many times I nearly lost count. With mind blowing visuals, one career high performance, kinetic energy and a hypnotic pull of its own, the movie is fittingly hard to shake from memory.
When art auctioneer and gambling addict Simon Newton (James McAvoy) finds himself owing a massive debt, he works out a plan with the dangerous Franck (Vincent Cassel) and his henchmen to rob his own auction house and steal the multi-million dollar painting, "Witches in the Air," by Francisco Goya. But the meticulously planned heist goes awry as Simon is knocked unconscious and in critical condition, greeted as a hero by the media when he eventually comes to. Suffering from amnesia and with no recollection of what he did with the painting, a furious Franck and Simon agree he see a hypnotist in hopes of jogging the repressed memory and locating the painting. That hypnotist is Elizabeth Lamb (Rosario Dawson), who ends up getting way too personally and professionally involved, to the point that we really start to question what's wrong with this woman and what her exact motivations could be. And everyone's motivations are constantly changing and allegiances shifting as they inch closer to retrieving Simon's memory of what happened that day. But what starts as an attempt to glean a single piece of information becomes more complicated, shaking the very foundation of what's real and what's imagined.
With a fascinating fast-paced, narrated prologue that takes us inside the auction house detailing the security plans and procedures in place to prevent a theft, it would be easy to think from the onset that we really were going to be watching a standard (if exceptionally well-made) heist film in the Scorsese mold. Then things start to become a blur, but not because the plot is necessarily complicated per se. What might be the most thrilling, impressive aspect to Joe Ahearne and Jon Hodge's script (adapted from Ahearne's own 2001 British TV movie) is just how straightforward and grounded it is. When the hypnosis comes into play, there's nothing too crazy like the characters entering each others minds or anything like that. Despite being under hypnosis at various points, it never feels as if anyone is acting without their own free will and memories are not accessed unless the subject is psychologically open and avialable to doing so. Of course, Simon isn't for a variety of reasons, which is where most of the drama lies.
All three of these characters have secrets and as they come out we find ourselves shifting our allegiances and support as much they do. In a gutsy move, there really are no heroes or villains here. Just complex characters using each other to get what they want, even when what we think they want is constantly in flux. And it's about much more than the painting. Dawson's role at first glance almost looks like it will strictly be a supporting one, as Elizabeth is cleverly introduced as what looks like a plot device, or at best a vehicle to further the feud over the painting. But with each passing scene the part seems to just grow in importance to the point that it overtakes the entire film in unanticipated ways. Strangely, it's really the first time Dawson's been dramatically tested in a major high profile role, and she responds by delivering the best performance of her career. Not only is she completely believable as a hypnotherapist, but as the mind-bending plot unravels with all its twists and turns, she subtly reveals facets to the character we couldn't have guessed at.
Elizabeth makes for a polarizing character because Dawson holds just enough back as to not give away her confusing motivations, pushing and not pushing certain buttons at just the right times. And prepare to be shocked and awed at just how much of the actress you see in this, as it's surprising the notoriously prudish MPAA didn't give the film an NC-17 on the basis of her full frontal nude scenes alone. But much like everything else in the picture, it serves its purpose, making it easy to see why she took on the challenge. The always reliable Cassel is at most devious and charismatic here as Franck, playing a seasoned, sophisticated crook who isn't exactly unlikable and also has goals that are questionable from the start. He basically steals (no pun intended) the movie out from under McAvoy, who's supposed to be lead despite the very nature of the role making him a blank slate as Simon. Still, he does a commendable job as the hero who really isn't and few performers can top the actor at playing the scrambling, sensitive underdog.
The script, performances, Trainspotting composer Rick Smith's hypnotic score and Anthony Dodd Mantle's mind blowing cinematography all combine to create to what amounts to a seriously trippy movie experience in which the hypnosis sequences seem almost indistinguishable from reality-based scenes. There are many memorable shots, but there's a single reflective image (you'll definitely know it when you see it) in Franck's ultra cool apartment that's probably the most impressive of the year and London is given a visual makeover that makes it unrecognizably dreamlike. To say happenings get a bit convoluted in the third act is an understatement and it's hard escaping the nagging feeling that maybe it doesn't all tightly hold together as the characters become almost machinations of the plot. But there's an extended flashback sequence toward the end that attempts to fill that in and mostly succeeds. Those usually never work, but somehow this one's really compelling, adding rather than detracting from the narrative.
It's hard to fault Boyle for over-ambition when he successfully follows through on so many of the ideas presented. Any criticisms that the Oscar-winning director is somehow "slumming it" by directing a psychological thriller should probably see it first. It represents what's becoming an increasingly rare case of a first-rate filmmaker elevating what could have easily been standard, pulpy material. And if we want to really go there, it's time to admit that Slumdog Millionaire is one of the less painful Best Picture winners in recent memory. This is at least as strong as that or 127 Hours and definitely his most purely entertaining and satisfying effort since Trainspotting.
When characters are just watching themselves on an ipad and it's breathtakingly exciting, that's a sign you're in the hands of a master craftsman. Knowing how versatile he is, it's still tough to imagine Boyle had something like this in him, and yet easy to envision anyone else screwing it up. It could have been an all-out mess, or even turned out to be an almost equally well-made cheesy thriller like this year's Side Effects. What we get instead is a full throttle sensory experience that not only dares you to guess what happens next, but demands multiple viewings to fully absorb.
Tuesday, September 3, 2013
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Bonnie Sturdivant
Running Time: 130 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Matthew McConaughey's name is mud. No, seriously. That's actually his character's name in a film critics and audiences have been enthusiastically proclaiming one of 2013's best. And while I don't agree with that sentiment, it's easy to make a case. The southern coming-of-age drama undoubtedly has a lot going for it, making it hard to fault anyone for going crazy over an overly ambitious movie with actual ideas and two very strong performances, one of which comes from a child. It definitely works, despite the nagging feeling there's just a little something missing in the execution of what's admittedly top shelf material. The director is Jeff Nichols, who previously made the dramatic thriller Take Shelter, which fits into the same category of being a very good film occasionally flirting with greatness. He gets you to care about the characters without having to tell you to care about them and his stories often feel as richly realized as a novel. In this case, that literary inspiration clearly comes from Huckleberry Finn.
When two Arkansas teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) happen upon a washed-up boat stuck in a tree on a small island on the Mississippi River, they make an even more intriguing discovery: A man living in it. His name's Mud (McConaughey), a grungy free spirit whose presence on the island is a mystery. What they do know is that he's from the area and on the run from something or someone that involves his old girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). But Ellis is having problems of his own as his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are divorcing just as he's falling hard for an older high school girl (Bonnie Sturdivant. With the help of Neckbone and an old friend from Mud's past, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), he agrees to bring Mud food and supplies and aid him in locating Juniper. Unfortunately, it turns out that this man's problems are far greater and more dangerous than any teens should be involving themselves in.
There's absorbing sense of discovery in the film's early going because we have literally no idea what this guy's issues are. Since he's living in a washed up boat the implication is that he's homeless. But why? When we find out what exactly he's running the answers and explanations are considerably less surprising than you'd imagine, guiding the narrative into slightly more familiar territory than I'd originally hoped. That's not to imply the story isn't involving, but rather overtaken in a special kind of way by the atmosphere and performances. There's definitive deep south world created here and the plot points take a backseat to what's essentially a coming-of-age story for Ellis as he learns how relationships work and painfully begins his journey from child to young man as a result of the unfolding events.
As Ellis struggles with his own burgeoning relationship with the older May Pearl at school, an accurate (if entirely dysfunctional) image of adult relationships is reflected back at him through his parents and the love affair between Mud and Juniper, much of which exists inside Mud's own mind. It could even be more accurately described as a deluded obsession baring very little resemblance to reality. Which of course is exactly the point. Men trying to understand women they'll never quite be able to understand. And the big joke there is that we probably didn't need a movie to tell us that. But this one does, and pretty well. There's also a fairly absorbing action-adventure crime drama to go along with it when we realize the severity of Mud's troubles, which not only involve a woman, but the law as well. Still, everything seems to find a way back to his feelings for Juniper.
McConaughey is yet again cast against type, this time as a dirty, chip-toothed hobo pining over a woman he can never have. To call it the role a stretch is almost an understatement, but he proves to be up for it, effectively conveying layers of mystery to the character early on before the narrative takes a sharp turn, requiring him to be both pathetically desperate and a badass action hero at the same time. He pulls all of that off, in addition to sharing magical chemistry with his two young co-stars who both give really unforced, naturalistic performances. Especially The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan, who has to carry most of the film's load as the male lead torn between how this mysterious stranger's love story fits into the fabric of his own life.
Mud may be the title character but Ellis is clearly the protagonist in every possible way, his actions and feelings guiding everything we see on screen. Jacob Lofland's role as Neckbone is the smaller, more cynical one but he shares some good scenes with Michael Shannon (as his uncle), who steals scenes a character who may actually qualify as the sanest and most direct in the film. Of course, he's still extremely eccentric and certifiably unhinged, but at least he gives somewhat sage advice and knows what the deal is. That he's playing a wise, calming presence (at least by his standards) should give you an idea just how messed-up these characters truly are.
If that wasn't enough, Reese Witherspoon comes completely out of left field with a supporting turn as emotionally and physically beat down southern belle Juniper that recalls her challenging 90's work in films like Freeway and Fear. It's a smallish and underwritten, but pivotal role that's built up quite a bit before she actually makes an appearance that completely delivers on the myth. At first, it's jarring to even see her playing such an edgy role and she initially seems miscast before eventually nailing it, reminding us that she was an actress before becoming a movie star and was always better at the former. It would take about five or six more of these types of risky choices to put her back on the track that McConaughey's on now.
Watching this, it's hard not to be reminded of the sun-drenched south poetically depicted in the films of David Gordon Green or even Terrence Malick. Nichols is in good company, despite this being a bit more conventional and less visually impressive. But it's ultimately about how men can't seem to understand women at all, and because of that, the film settles into a predictable rhythm that flirts with being formulaic at times. It's easy to tell where it's going, and to an extent, how it will get there. The ride itself is worthwhile largely because of McConaughey, who turns in what's probably his strongest work yet in this recent creative renaissance he's been enjoying. It's amazing to think that just a few years ago was starring in clunkers like Fool's Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. He's definitely come a long way, as this performance serves to only further erase those movies from our collective consciousness. As long as he stays the course, a very real possibility exists that he could be a future Oscar winner and it not be a joke.