DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Four


The Stanford Prison Experiment (dir. Kyle Patrick Alvarez)

The influential 1971 experiment wherein a groups of students volunteered for a psychological study about behavior, were divided into groups, prisoners and guards, and placed into a mock prison has been studied, discussed at length and even made into two different dramatic films. But even knowing how this story plays out the film is a tense, engaging, provocative and highly relevant political statement without even a whiff of preachiness. But most important it's an example of superb crafty filmmaking. Alvarez channels the cold precision of David Fincher procedurals and a dash of his dry sense of humour. Even if you know where the story is going Alvarez ratchets up the film to sky high levels of tension.


Unexpected (dir. Kris Swanberg)

The highs and lows of pregnancy told through dual stories of a 30-year old teacher (Cobie Smulders) and a 17-year old student (Gail Bean) both of whom received news of their pregnancies unexpectedly. As the nine months go by Smulders and Bean's characters bond over their insecurities and fear and for Smulders in particular the dual journey becomes an extended mentorship of the young student outside the classroom. We're all familiar with movie pregnancies and Swanberg's treatment is refreshingly organic and honest avoiding familiar comic ground already treaded by broader films such as Knocked Up. Unfortunately, the honest and decent approach means a palpable lack of conflict threatens to soften the picture to the point of understated boredom, but the respect for the inherent drama and power of the miracle of life carries us through. 


Listen to Me Marlon (dir. Stevan Riley)

The enigmatic life, career and personality of the famed method actor gets the full biography treatment but told with a mesmerizing  poetic and languid visual and aural aesthetic. The story of Brando's life is well known, his education in acting from Stella Adler in New York, his early triumphs on stage and screen, his lulls in the 60's, his introduction to Tahiti and his new family in the South Pacific, the triumph of his civil rights causes and the tragedy of the deaths in his family. Riley admirably lays down connective tissues between all of these aspects of his life and career to his enigmatic personality traits. As told through Brando's own self recordings the form even connects to his ruminating self styled performance in Apocalypse Now. The effect is hypnotic, lyrical and ethereal, the best kind of treatment for such an interesting man.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Three


Dope (dir. Rick Famuyiwa)

Bursting with joyous cinematic energy, colour, pop music, pop culture we can't help compare Dope to the energy and verve of the first films of Spike Lee, Paul Thomas Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Dope finds us cheering for three n'er do well high school geeks trying to make it through a south central LA high school. In particular Malcolm (Shameik Moore) who continually fights against gang culture, racism, and in general low expectations from his teachers. But Malcolm wants to go to Harvard. How is he going to do it? Of course it's dope. Famuyiwa drags us through roller coaster ride through LA in the same way Tarantino directed us in Pulp Fiction. Like these other filmmakers Famuyiwa takes pleasure in his cinematic diversions - each individual scene, through comic tone, editing and the gorgeous cinematography are crafted with the attention of their own little films. This is the work of great cinema.


Slow West (dir. John Maclean)

Despite being lightyears removed from the American frontier the allure of the venerable American genre attracts all filmmakers for all nationalities. Maclean's British/Kiwi Western uses the simple yet effective concept of a young man traversing the land looking to reunite with the lost love. As a lovesick Scot right off the boat, Kodi Smit-McPhee's meek naïveté to the environment is matched by the grizzled pessimism of his guide played by Michael Fassbender (doing his best as the John Wayne lone gunman archetype). Idiosyncratic characters and humour differentiate the film the classical form, but part of the thrill of the genre are the expected conventions. The whole unfortunately is not greater than the sum of its part, resulting in an admirable but not memorable entry of the genre.


Mistress America (dir. Noah Baumbach)

Baumbach's roll of success continues. Once again matching up with her muse Greta Gerwig both as a star and cowriter Mistress America continues the examination of New York twenty/thirty something urbanites struggling to find self-satisfaction in the New York City hipster scene. If anything Gerwig is a another version of Adam Driver's character is When We Were Young, a scenester-extraordinaire with impressively eclectic tastes but a smokescreen to her deep rooted anxieties. We see Gerwig through the eyes of Lola Kirke her younger soon-to-be step sister and frightened Columbia student. Just like the idolization Ben Stiller gave Driver, Kirke sees Gerwig as the epitome of success and confidence. Gradually Gerwig's veneer dissolves over an entrepreneurial restaurant venture which goes sour. Comic dialogue flies fast and furious in the tradition of 30's screwball comedies. The throwback synth score and 80's rock, like Frances Ha, brings us back to career comedies of the 80's. Mistress America is not necessarily more accessible or conventional than Baumbach's previous two picture but more impressively neatly fitted into his cinematic voice at this stage of his career. 

   

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Sundance 2015 - Day Two


Glassland (dir. Gerard Barrett)

Unfortunately in terms of audience expectation Irishman Gerard Barrett's Glassland suffers from a somewhat misleading logline, "In a desperate attempt to reunite with his broken family, our young taxi driver becomes entangled in the criminal underworld." The criminal element is a minor part of this film which only rears its head in the final moments. At best Glassland carries on the tradition of British kitchen sink films, albeit Ireland here, but still a vivid depiction of characters struggling to make ends meets amid the demoralizing plague of alcoholism. In this case it's Toni Collette as the alcoholic mother of Jack Reynor's character, himself a humble cab driver so desperate to clean up his mother and, as the logline asserts, reunite his family. A slow pace without much proactivity from its hero there's that sense of us waiting for something to happen. We separately want Reynor to delve into this underworld proclaimed by the logline, but the sympathetic portrayal of the doomed mother and the heroic son engage us. Barrett thankfully lifts us out of the squalor with a strong dose of optimism even at the film's bleakest moments. There's also a minor discovey of a potential star in newbie Jack Reynor.


James White (dir. Josh Mond)

It's the Christopher Abbott and Cynthia Nixon show for this intense mother-son pic. As the title character it's a major showcase for Abbott, a supporting actor, always interesting thanks in large part to his glossy but deeply penetrating eyes. He carries this picture and then some as a miscreant on a downward trajectory of self destruction. Ironically its the illness of his mother which brings him out of oblivion and might just get him on the straight and narrow. Director Josh Mond, in first five minutes or so never leaves Abbott's face in full frame closeup. Thankfully he relaxes to a more traditional visual approach but this opening signals the risky adventurousness of his story and point of view. 

Sundance 2015 - Day One







It Follows (dir. David Robert Mitchell)


The economic simplicity of John Carpenter's horror classics seem to be the raisin d'être of this picture. The scenario is identified accurately in the title. Imagine an entity/monster/ghost/zombie following you forever, never stopping until you're dead. Mitchell combines the deadly unstoppable force of Michael Myers, Yul Brynner's robot gunslinger from Westworld and hell, why not, The Terminator to arrive at a monster as terrifying as all of them. As much as Mitchell wants to freak you out he wants to bring us all back to the nostalgia of the 80's when these films were in vogue. Mitchell's previous film Myth of the American Sleepover was an honest melancholy teen throwback picture and It Follows admirably finds the same kind of gentle honesty, helped in part by his marvellous company of actors used in both films as well as a delicious electronic Carpenter-esque score.


Stockholm, Pennsylvania (dir. Nikole Beckwith)

Imagine the most nightmarish scenario, the kidnapping of your child and then pile on another nightmare, the return of that child years later only to find her not accepting your own love as a parent. This is the starting and ending point for Beckwirth's psychological brain teaser. Based on a play Beckwith constrains the story to mostly a mother/daughter journey anchored by a raucous tete a tete of actors Saorise Ronan and Cynthia Nixon. Unfortunately the experience is more frustrating than intriguing. We understand and sympathize with the dilemma of the mother and father not being able to connect with their daughter but a ludicrous turn of the story in the second half pushes dramatic irony passed the point of plausibility. That said the film might intrigue those caught up by the caustic mother/son conflict in We Need to Talk About Kevin.


Ten Thousand Saints (dir. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman)

It would be impossible to describe the complex plotting and relationships of the half dozen characters in this delirious 80's set coming of age/ family dramedy. Springer-Berman/Pulcini's picture charts the journey of an anxious teenager (Asa Butterfield) born with a pot smoking deadbeat dad (Ethan Hawke) from his humble Vermont childhood home to a life on the road in a hardcore punk band with all sorts of teen pregnancy, drugs, death and abandonment part of the mix. The filmmakers elegantly move between comedy and melodrama but there's just too much going on to keep us focused and thus engaged.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Best of 2014

So here's the unscientific best of the year. With a couple of exceptions the common thread of this crop is clearly the cynicism and darkness which each of these filmmakers brought to the screen. Sure Boyhood was an admirable narrative exercise and sure, The Imitation Game and Theory of Everything were handsome but forgettable biopics, but these ten pictures were the most memorable for me because they either challenged traditional genres, executed age-old genres to perfection or simply projected unique cinematic voices with panache better than anyone else.

FOXCATCHER
Dir. Bennett Miller
Miller's methodical account of the relationship between Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz and his deranged benefactor John Du Pont haunts long after the picture stops 'rolling'. A fascinating character study of disparate people - Schultz the blue collar athlete wrestling in his brother's shadow and Du Pont the man-child hermetically sealed in his Foxcatcher compound - a bold exercise in sustained nail-biting tension, Foxcatcher works brilliantly on multiple thematic levels, class, patriotism, sports and American history. No film stuck more with me than this.

WHIPLASH
Dir. Damien Chazelle
Sure there’s kind of shameless exaggeration of performance, in particular JK Simmons’ pumped up rage which comes off as R Lee Ermey’s drill Full Metal Jacket drill sergeant character transplanted to a Juliard-like music school, and sure the theme of artistic desire and sacrifice for artistic perfection are hit a little hard on the nose, but Damien Chazelle’s laser-focused picture and harrowing journey of its hero is a force of nature impossible not be dazzled by. In fact, it’s a thrill ride of immense proportions. Cinematic bravura bursts from the picture's classically composed frames: gorgeous warm lighting complements the sense of history of the jazz numbers their artists play; dynamic editing, intrusive compositions, fetish-like close-ups of the Miles Teller’s drum kit and long extended takes of the kids ripping his skins creates a dynamic energy. And that showstopping ending puts all other films this year shame.

ENEMY
Dir. Denis Villeneuve
Villeneuve’s beguiling Cronenberg –influenced headtripping doppelganger picture is playful cinematic fun. Consciously obtuse and aloof, Villenueve places us in a David Lynch-type world, in which narrative comprehension take a backseat to the thrill of mystery and mood. Jake Gyllenhaal’s double performance is as cold and absorbing as Jeremy Irons’ double-duty in Dead Ringers. As mirror images of one another, there isn’t much to distinguish one another other than how Gyllenhaal's carries each character. It’s one of two remarkable performances this year from arguably the most interesting actor working today. Villeneuve’s probing camera and methodical pace draws into the deranged psychosis of both characters. I have my own theories of what the recurring spider motif means, and the nature of their seemingly mirror-image duality, but you won’t get this explanation here. Have fun figuring it out yourself.

SNOWPIERCER
Dir. Bong Joon-Ho
What a beautiful concoction this picture is. The familiar apocalyptic scenario played out on a train ride around the world, and seen through the deranged lens of Korean genre cinema master Bong Joon Ho. Last year’s English-language debut for Chan-wook Park (Stoker) showed the potential of the cross-culture mélange of Korean and American cinema. Here Snowpiercer achieves a kind of genre perfection, finding inspired freshness in the bloated post-apocalyptic set up. Robust and creative action sequences compliment the sharp sense of humour, elements all working in sync with the well thought out high concept scenario.

BLUE RUIN
Dir. Jeremy Saulnier
Imagine a threadbare version of Taken, replacing the righteous Liam Neeson hero with a meek and utterly frightened but intensely focused suburban everyman. And instead of the martial arts hand to hand skills of Neeson, an equally impressive common sense guile. With these stripped down elements Blue Ruin triumphs as a white knuckle revenge-thriller as tense as any of its kind.

NIGHTCRAWLER
Dir. Dan Gilroy
Influenced by the anti-heroic De Niro/Scorsese creations of Travis Bickle and Ruper Pupkin, Jake Gyllenhaal's socially awkward ne'er-do-well who finds his calling as an immoral ambulance-chasing paparazzi is a fascinating train wreck character. Gilroy's colourful Los Angeles-based cinematography (most of which takes place at night) is a delightful throwback to the seedy Hollywood of old.

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL
Dir. Wes Anderson

After fifteen years we almost take for granted the inspired diorama-like constructed imagery of Anderson's pictures. The idiosyncratic off-the-wall characters existing in a fairytale like world of their own are also well-entrenched in our pop-culture awareness. But I'm convinced years after Anderson's career has ended collectively we'll wonder how this guy never fully received his due as one of the most unique voices in cinema history. Grand Budapest Hotel represents a high-water mark for his mid-career renaissance. Without Owen Wilson as co-writer Anderson seems to have embraced even more imaginative worlds and elaborate forms of storytelling. Hotel's decades-spanning narrative is a tall-tale fantasy bursting with everything in Wes Anderson's arsenal we take for granted.

GONE GIRL
Dir. David Fincher
If you were to simply describe the plot of Gillian Flynn’s pulpy bestseller it would come off as an outrageous Joe Eszterhas-style potboiler ripped from the era of early 90’s sexual thrillers. But when orchestrated by a master of the genre, at the top of his game, where other filmmakers would have made this picture into a sloppy ham-fisted mess, David Fincher makes two and half hours a completely engrossing experience, terrifying and witty in equal measure and self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY
Dir. James Gunn
The shared universe of the Avengers/Marvel series has resulted in a television-like homogenization of its films. It's impossible to find any kind of directorial authorship in any of the Iron Man, Captain Avengers or Thor films. Guardians is the anomaly and arguably the reason the little-known comic property became a late summer sensation. James Gunn's sardonic sense of humour and his Star Wars era sense of adventure represents a refreshing throwback and a burst of energy to the bloated super hero genre.

CHEAP THRILLS
Dir. E.L. Katz
This genre winner sparked a minor bidding war after its raucous SXSW premiere. Katz's slice of soul sucking cinematic nastiness applies some of the direct moral questions from say, Adrian Lyne's Indecent Proposal to a pulpy midnight film. David Koechner as a diabolical wealthy games maker challenging blue collar bar buddies Pat Healy and Ethan Embry to a game of high stakes dare. In their pursuit of the cold hard cash the meek family man Healy is tested to the limits, and the fringe criminal Embry who would seem to have the upper hand in the endeavour finds himself matched test for test. While the escalation of violence is comical in its excessiveness, the rock solid performances are humane and believable. At its best Cheap Thrills is a scathing inditement of American capitalism and the American dream.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Tragedy of Macbeth

The Bard’s tale of the ambitious Scottish lord who with his wife conspire to take the throne of Scotland by hook or crook has always made for great cinema. It’s one of the more violent and action-packed of Shakespeare plays and through the eye of Roman Polanski, at the peak of his abilities, turns the story into a ruthless and bloody parable of ambition - a film even more resonant with the Charles Manson tragedy only a couple years behind this production.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Gone Girl

If you were to simply describe the plot of Gillian Flynn’s pulpy bestseller it would come off as an outrageous Joe Eszterhas-style potboiler ripped from the era of early 90’s sexual thrillers. But when orchestrated by a master of the genre, at the top of his game, where other filmmakers would have made this picture into a sloppy ham-fisted mess, David Fincher makes two and half hours a completely engrossing experience, terrifying and witty in equal measure and self-aware enough not to take itself too seriously.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

All That Jazz

The influence of Fellini’s 8 ½ is clear in Bob Fosse’s own memoir-like fictional film. The story of a theatre director under immense pressure to make his next show a hit, while under the usual pressures of the business, told with a mixture of fantasy and realism is cut from the same mould as Fellini’s great picture. The creative evolution of Fosse’s work from 'Sweet Charity', 'Cabaret' and 'Lenny' seems to culminate in this overly ambitious yet invigorating explosion of cinema.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Insomnia

While Erik Skjoldbjærg built upon the established cinematic traditions of procedural crime thrillers, in the light of the recent trend of atmospheric crime procedurals such as True Detective, The Killing, Prisoners, 1997’s Insomnia, in hindsight looks to be a direct aesthetic antecedent  for these other more successful pictures/series.

Monday, 4 August 2014

Pickpocket

The Bresson brand of neo-realism is perhaps exemplified best with this unconventional character study of a Parisian thief desperately in need to self-fulfillment. Remarkably Bresson's seemingly simple approach uncluttered by the elements of traditional cinematic narrative allows the master filmmaker to create as much uncompromising tension as anything in Alfred Hitchcocks's filmography.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Noah

After rebooting his career with two small scale earth-bound pictures, The Wrestler and Black Swan, to my surprise Aronofsky launched back into big idea cinema with the previously unfilmed biblical story of Noah and the Great Flood. It’s a strange mix of epic swagger and Hollywood heroism and the intellectual cinematic gymnastics which Aronofsky has been known for. Ultimately it’s mildly rewarding and nothing of the intense feelings of emotion he made his name for in his more successful pictures.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Amistad

Steven Spielberg’s slavery drama exemplifies the late-career inconsistencies of the hitmaker. Startling moments of dramatic intensity and eye-popping depiction of the horrors of slavery are marred by heavy-handed preachiness. Thus, like many films of the post 80’s era we can admire the film but never feel fully satisfied by it in the end.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Crocodile Dundee

The story of the rustic Aussie cowboy Michael J. “Crocodile” Dundee character brought to the vacuous Manhattan lifestyle in the height of Reagan-era 80’s decadence milks every ounce of comedy and charm from this scenario. It was an unlikely megahit in 1986, but even today the film remains highly watchable thanks to the easy-going naturalism and uber chemistry from its two newbie stars Paul Hogan and Linda Kozlowski.

Friday, 9 May 2014

Breaking the Waves

Von Trier’s extravagantly conceived neo-realist fable seems now like a monumentally significant film in the cinema of the new millennium. Laying out Von Trier’s grandiosly tragic and melodramatic journey of her golden heart heroine under the handheld griminess of Von Trier’s shaky documentary style creates a strange but inspired cinematic experience unlike anything that came before it. Not only did it jump start the Dogme movement but legitimized the lo-fi aesthetic for all filmmakers to come.