Frank, Lenny Abrahamson (2014)

Frank

Frank is an incredibly interesting, unique, and quirky little film, but also one with schizophrenic ambitions that never really works as a whole, yet has occasional moments of pure brilliance.  I don’t believe that I can really explain how or why without going into a good deal of the backstory behind the film as well as what happens in the movie (I’d be hard-pressed to call it plot), so please be aware that SPOILERS ABOUND.  This is rare for me, as I usually try very hard to avoid posting spoilers, so remember if you decide to keep reading, YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

So… for those of you who aren’t from Timperley in the UK, or weren’t aware of local personality Frank Sidebottom, who peaked in the early 1990’s with a British television show called Frank Sidebottom’s Fantastic Shed Show that plays like a low-rent version of Pee Wee’s Playhouse, the character of Frank Sidebottom was conceived and portrayed by Timperley local and musician/comedian Chris Sievey.  Chris had some success on his own with a band called The Freshies in the 1970’s and early 80’s, but in the mid-80’s started wearing a paper-mache head and shooting homemade videos and conducting local tours around Timperley as his strange alter-ego.  As the years went on, the paper-mache head was replaced with a stronger and more resilient fiberglass one.  Frank Sidebottom fronted several different band incarnations over the years, played local gigs and tours, landed spots on British television shows, and ultimate got his own Fantastic Shed Show and was revered in Timperley as a beloved personality and local cult hero.  He appeared quite a bit on Channel 4, and had a recurring bit called Frank’s Fantastic Question on the British iteration of MTV’s pop culture game show Remote Control.  His bands performed covers of songs like Anarchy in the UK and Born in the USA, but with the lyrics altered to Anarchy in Timperley and Born in Timperley. Sometimes at his gigs Frank performed with a hand puppet called Little Frank that looked like a smaller, identical version of himself. Sievey did fairly well for himself, but also spent what he made, and died bankrupt in June 2010 from throat cancer, without enough savings even for a funeral.

Jon Ronson, who had been a keyboardist in Frank’s band in the early 90’s when it was called Frank Sidebottom’s Oh Blimey Big Band, had been working on a script for a feature film version of Frank’s story when Sievey passed in 2010.  He found out about Sievey’s financial state when he heard reports that Sievey was to receive a pauper’s funeral, and took to social media, fundraising enough several times over within a matter of hours to pay for a proper burial.  Interestingly enough, the story took Ronson by surprise because although he had been working on the script for several years at that point, he hadn’t actually talked with Sievey in quite some time.  Initially he thought the reports of Sidebottom’s death simply meant that Sievey had retired the character.

The script for the film had never been intended as a straight bio-pic of Chris Sievey, or even of his years as Frank Sidebottom.  And Frank’s story is one that gets stranger and stranger the more you peel back the layers of the onion. Sievey wore the Frank head not just during the gigs, but backstage as well, and often while traveling around under the guise of Frank.  No one knew who Frank Sidebottom was except those in Sievey’s inner circle, and to the general public, Frank’s true identity remained a mystery. Sievey would not respond to being called anything other than Frank when he had the head on.  The character of Frank Sidebottom was always incredibly positive, increasingly so whenever bad things were happening in Sievey’s life.  Sievey even went so far as to wear a clip over his nose while wearing the head to achieve the very nasal tone of Frank Sidebottom’s voice, and often he wore the head so long that his nose would become indented and disfigured by the clip.  There was such a divide between the personalities of Frank Sidebottom and Chris Sievey that it seems as though there may have even been some schizophrenia or mental illness at play.  And in fact, when Ronson initially approached Sievey with the idea of building a script around him, Sievey loved the idea but then grew more fearful and hesitant when it seemed as though a movie about Frank might also have to address the psychology of the man behind the mask. That was when Ronson concocted the idea that the script not be a bio-pic, but rather a fictional character study about Frank pulled from the mythology that Sievey had created.  And this is ultimately, where the film Frank has its problems, because while this may have been the intention, the completed script doesn’t feel like a single intention had ever been settled upon.

The names of the characters in the script remain the same: Frank is Frank and Domhnall Gleeson plays the role of Jon, and early events in the film are pulled wholesale from Ronson’s early experiences in the band.  That includes how he was hired as a substitute keyboardist on the day of a gig when he didn’t know how to play any of the band’s songs, and his first experience meeting Frank while he already had the head on, and Sievey not responding to anything other than the name Frank.  In fact, the film is set up early on as the story of protagonist Jon.  We see him suffering at his bland, tired day job, trying to find inspiration and create songs as he walks about town, but not having much success with it.  I’ve read other reviews claiming that Jon isn’t very talented, and that the film is ultimately about the struggle between an untalented musician with drive and a talented band with no ambition, but that seems to me to not only be a very oversimplified description of the story, but also fairly inaccurate.  I wouldn’t say that Jon is untalented as a musician, simply that he hasn’t yet found his voice.  He’s obviously great at identifying good music, and has grown up on the tunes of the 80’s and 90’s and is something of a pop scholar.  He absolutely knows what good music is, and he has a savvy and ambition that many of Frank’s band members may not, but he lacks confidence and the discovery of himself to be able to create.  I have a hard time qualifying the band members as talented musicians, and I’ll get back to more on this later.

The first three-quarters of the film follow Jon’s story, and Frank is really just a supporting character amidst all of the madness.  After agreeing to play a gig last-minute without knowing any of the songs, and then being offered a full-time spot in the band after the band’s regular keyboardist doesn’t mentally recover from a suicide attempt, Jon finds himself indefinitely holed up with the band in a rural cottage to write and record the band’s next album.  As it turns out, the band members are all quirky to the point of being superficially insane.  The drummer and lead guitarist are French and hardly speak any English (and get very little screen time); Scoot McNairy plays the band’s manager and ex-keyboardist Don (the keyboardist previous to the suicidal keyboardist, which begs the question why he couldn’t have simply taken over during the initial gig) with a fetish for mannequin sex; Maggie Gyllenhaal is the highly strung and controlling Clara and plays all manner of odds and ends including the theremin; and Frank is, well… Frank. Jon bonds with Don early on as the only person in the band besides Frank that can and will speak to him, and Don is Jon’s first window into the band and their strange interpersonal politics. Frank is obsessed with not just music but sound, and creating things that have never really been heard before.  In one of the film’s more brilliant moments, Frank spontaneously creates a beautiful and poetic song about a loose thread on a rug. Eventually Jon develops a growing friendship with Frank, which seems to threaten the delicate balance of the group.  The French don’t like Jon and their allegiance lies with Clara, who sees Jon as a threat to Frank’s well-being.  Clara has some kind of a pseudo-romantic/emotional relationship with Frank, and she’s often the person he turns to when he can’t cope with the outside world.  Jon is frustrated by the madness he sees all around him, which includes a lack of cohesion and the band’s inability to write anything that could possibly be considered mainstream pop.  And while Jon knows he has a lot of growing to do to become the musician he wants to be, he also wants to have a sustainable career.  He tweets about his time working on the new album and secretly posts youtube videos, which often feature creative and nervous breakdowns more than they do actual songwriting sessions.  But he begins to develop a bit of a following, and eventually shares the band’s secret growing success with Frank. Frank latches onto the possibility that their music may actually finally be appreciated, which worries Clara, who sees where this may all be going.  Jon manages to book them a gig at SXSW that leads into a road trip, the dissolution of the band, and Frank losing his head, having a breakdown, and disappearing.

The final 20 minutes or so of the film involve Jon tracking down Frank and seeing him, for the first time, without his head.  His forehead has scars and he’s missing hair in a line around his head, presumably from the brace inside Frank’s fiberglass noggin, bearing echoes of the disfiguration of Chris Sievey’s nose from his nose clips.  And this is where the film does a huge pivot.  The best parts of the movie up until this point are the occasional inspired bits of manic genius on the part of Frank… like his song about the tuft of rug, or a jingle he calls his “most likable song ever.”  And Fassbender is amazing in the role.  His voice isn’t the nasal tone of the real Frank Sidebottom, but rather an overly-positive dulcet American baritone.  And when he sings, he sounds a lot like Jim Morrison.  Fassbender is very aware of the performance limitations of the giant fiberglass head, which looks a lot like Davey of the Christian-themed Davey & Goliath claymation/puppet segment broadcast during educational programming on Sunday mornings in America in the 70’s.  So Fassbender really utilizes the elements he has left– physicality, body language, and voice.  And it’s an iconic, amazing performance.  Some of the best bits also include his conversations with Jon, as when he explains why he wears the mask and his aversion to human faces, and there’s some great dialogue in these moments.  But for so much of the first three-fourths of the film, I wanted more Frank.  I wanted more of these conversations, and more of an exploration of Frank.  And I couldn’t have cared less about the band’s story or their chaotic, quirky fights and affected breakdowns that occupied most of the film’s running time.  So much of that storyline, along with the recording of the album and the road trip to SXSW, just felt tired, familiar, and cliche, and cobbled together from other uninteresting indie movies.

Scoot McNairy is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors, but his role in the film was problematic.  His character isn’t developed enough for him to become as fascinating as he could have been, and he disappears part-way through the movie.  I felt like we either needed more or less of him, but the balance that was achieved just didn’t quite work for me.  Domhnall Gleeson is a fantastic actor, so likable and open and vulnerable and accessible, and he really anchors much of the journey of the film.  But the character he’s given to play is ultimately thin with not enough going on in his own right, and the film eventually sort of jettisons the importance of Jon as the protagonist and narrator.  He’s the audience’s initial window into the world of Frank, but by the end of the film, just a catalyst character and plot device.  And Maggie Gyllenhaal, well, I can’t stand her in general.  I suppose that sort of works for parts of Frank, but I don’t really understand her appeal and I would have preferred almost any other actress in the role.  While her character is meant to be abrasive, she also has a loving connection with Frank, and is really the only person in the world that can hold him together and pull him back from the edge. And because Maggie Gyllenhaal was playing the role, that element of Frank just didn’t work for me.

But beyond my personal quibbles is the problematic ending, undeniably brilliant in its own right.  It features Jon driving the near-catatonic and now-maskless Frank back to Texas, where Clara and the French drummer and guitarist are the new house band in an almost-always empty bar.  Without his fiberglass head, Frank is far gone, almost to the point of no return.  He’s always been incredibly musically talented, but he’s also afflicted with some form of mental illness, and it was the head that allowed him to function socially.  Yet when he hears the music from the stage, he tries to connect and not emotionally evade what’s going within himself, and he begins creating lyrics and singing “Put your arms around me, fiddley digits, itchy britches… I love you all.”  It’s an incredible moment from Fassbender.  The song itself works in ways that songs rarely do, the performance and moment are transcendent, and they really capture the truth behind a person’s inability to connect or communicate with others, particularly creative savants.  It’s the kind of moment and song that will make you walk out of the theatre glad to be alive and appreciating all of humanity, and that’s a rare thing in movies today.

And yet… it really calls into question the point of the film, and why so much of it was a trite and predictable movie about Jon joining Frank’s band and creating an album in the countryside and the road trip to SXSW.  Ultimately, in the last 20 minutes, the film became the very thing that Chris Sievey had been so nervous about and didn’t want… an exploration behind the mask and a glimpse of mental illness.  That’s certainly the most important part of the movie, and probably the only part of it that actually has something to say behind it.  So if Ronson eventually goes there anyway, why tap dance around it for three fourths of the film and couch the movie as a quirky, indie film about a guy with a giant fiberglass head and his band?  And to get back to my previous point, while I think you can certainly call Frank a talented musician, I’m not sure the same can be said for Clara or the keyboardist or guitarist.  Clara is simply an oddball who holds Frank together, and the other two are simply competent musicians; but the film was never about the divide between ambition and talent.  It’s ultimately about communication.  And for Frank, music is communication… perhaps the only kind he’s capable of.  The character of Jon begins to understand this, and through his journey grows as a person and likely finds his own voice, but that journey isn’t so much about music as it is about humanity.  And certainly there’s a purity to Frank’s kind of musicality that may not be for the mass market, but ultimately that’s besides the point, and not really the story the film is telling. There’s a victory for Frank at the end of the film as he comes out from behind his mask and starts tiptoeing into the world relying purely on music to help him.

No, ultimately it would appear that Jon Ronson wanted to tell the world about the beauty of Chris Sievey, and of Frank, and of seeing and appreciating those that are often overlooked and misunderstood.  And the movie ends up really succeeding at that. But he takes such a long, roundabout way to get there, and he couches most of it in the framing of his own pseudo-biographical journey, and then places that within the framework of a narrative aiming to be something else entirely, that the film feels fractured and schizophrenic, and sadly less effective and entertaining than it could have been.  Perhaps it was simply a case of Ronson knowing on some level what he wanted to say with Frank, and then holding it in while writing the script out of deference to Sievey, until feeling he had to release it in the film’s few final scenes. But really, Frank would have fared so much better with more balance, and more Frank throughout, and less of the chaotic quirkiness of the supporting cast that Ronson likely focused on as a self-stalling technique.

Certainly the film is worth watching, and it’s almost a must-see for the final scene.  But there’s a lot of bland tediousness along the way to sit through, made palatable by performances from Fassbender, Gleeson, and McNairy.  I’ll leave you with the kind of scene I wish we’d seen a lot more of in Frank– because Ronson could have explored the character throughout with a light touch, instead of avoiding it as much as he does, and you can’t fault director Abrahamson for not shooting scenes that were never written.

7/10

The Equalizer, Antoine Fuqua (2014)

The Equalizer

The most interesting thing about The Equalizer is what it represents to the future of Denzel Washington’s career.  Denzel has always been one of our finest actors, but there just don’t seem to be a plethora of Oscar bait lead roles for African-American men in mainstream American movies these days.  And for whatever reasons, Denzel has yet to really embrace the world of indie film. If he had, I think Washington might have a more impressive resume filled with more varied and deeper work, but he seems determined to stick with mainstream cinema.  What if, for example, Washington were to reteam with Spike Lee on a bunch of smaller projects.  Washington’s name would help Lee get financing, and it would offer Washington the ability to work on scripts where he’s something other than just the intensely focused detective or criminal.  How about Washington in a Steve McQueen film?  Why have we never seen Washington work with Spielberg, Scorsese, the Coen brothers, Fincher, or Nolan?  What about if Washington were pursuing directors like Alfonso Cuaron, Richard Linklater, Spike Jonze, Kathryn Bigelow, David O. Russell, Jeff Nichols, Jean-Marc Vallee, Paul Greengrass, Rian Johnson, or Ben Affleck?  Imagine Washington shaking things up and appearing in a smaller role in a Wes Anderson movie, or doing a comedy role in an Apatow or Chris Rock film.  Maybe he should take a page from the likes of Tom Cruise, Leonardo DiCaprio, and McConaughey and pursue the great directors who are currently trying to make relevant, cutting-edge films.

Washington’s previous collaboration with Fuqua was the impressive Training Day, a film that netted him his first Oscar win.  From there he alternated between films like The Manchurian Candidate, American Gangster, and Flight, with more straightforward crime/thriller fare.  That genre seemed to be Washington’s always-reliable meal ticket, in between the wait for roles that might qualify him for more Oscar noms and wins.  The most consistent of these was with director Tony Scott, and Washington’s relationship with him dates back to the 1995 film Crimson Tide.  For Scott, that was probably around the peak of his career, following big hits like Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, and True Romance.  Crimson Tide put Scott in bed with Washington, one of the biggest and most reliable A-list movie stars in mainstream American cinema. And while it was a hit, they didn’t reteam until 2004 with Man on Fire.  Man on Fire is, in my opinion, one of Scott’s best films.  But its dark, nasty tone and storyline kept it from being a runaway success.  It was around that time that both Scott’s and Washington’s career’s started flagging.  Scott never hit the kind of mainstream critical acclaim his brother Ridley saw, and Washington’s big Oscar bait roles seemed to dry up.  So instead they kept making genre films together with increasing frequency– Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable.  None of these were bad films, but none of them were great films.  And we kept seeing Denzel do what Denzel does best, again and again.  Now Scott, sadly, is no longer with us.  What’s Denzel to do for his bread and butter?  Well, if The Equalizer is any indication, it seems like perhaps he’s plugged Fuqua into Scott’s old genre-director role, and it wouldn’t surprise me if we see these guys put out a similar movie every 2-3 years for the foreseeable future.

And just like with The Equalizer, we’ll get more Denzel doing what he does best, with a lot of seriousness and focus and intensity, and the movies will be okay but not great, and both Washington and Fuqua will maintain their Hollywood relevancy and their bank accounts.  And if that sounds like I’m harshing on Denzel, then let me apologize.  I really do believe he’s one of our best actors, and I love his work… I just wish he’d mix it up and move outside of his comfort zone more and do some different things– because he’s capable of so much more.

In a nutshell, as if you haven’t already guessed, The Equalizer is in line with what you should expect from Washington’s previous output with Tony Scott.  It would make for a happy discovery flipping around channels at 2am and landing on something both competent and entertaining.  But for a movie you’re going to see at the theatre and plunking down your $10 for, it’s a fairly generic crime thriller with a reliable lead performance from Denzel.  Chloe Grace Moretz does solid work as a young prostitute caught up with the abusive Russian mob, which pushes Washington’s Robert McCall, friendly with her in passing from some conversations at a local diner, over the edge of an increasingly dull life and a day job at a Home Depot knock-off.  The film is fairly violent, which helps to liven up the proceedings and keep the viewer awake, but the story is pretty much a paint-by-numbers job.  Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo show up in extremely small roles, and most of the Russian mob are relative unknowns.  You might recognize David Meunier from his work on Justified where he played Boyd’s crippled cousin Johnny Crowder for several seasons, or David Harbour, most recently seen on Rake and The Newsroom, playing a corrupt cop.  Martin Csokas is the big bad’s main henchman, and the villain Washington is up against for most of the film’s running time.  You might not recognize Csokas’ name, but you’ll recognize him when you see him, because his entire career has been spent playing generic, disposable gangsters just like this one.

The Equalizer plays best when it’s at its most violent, and it bears almost no resemblance to its 80’s television predecessor starring the British Edward Woodward.  The third act of the film almost becomes Die Hard in a Home Depot, and during moments where Washington’s Robert McCall maims and kills Russian gangsters with traps made from home construction machinery, a voice in my head kept saying “That’s the power of the Home Depot.”  At least Fuqua didn’t actually name the store in the film Home Depot so the movie doesn’t come off like a blatant commercial for the super chain, and Fuqua can’t be accused of building a movie primarily around product placement… but it still kind of feels like that’s what it is.

There are a couple of interesting moments featuring McCall talking about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (“Man’s gotta be a man, fish’s gotta be a fish”) or telling Csokas how he’s going to take down his organization “brick by brick” in typical Denzel-speak.  In general, The Equalizer kind of feels like Man on Fire-lite; the film’s tone isn’t as bleak or dark, Denzel’s character isn’t as over-the-edge, and as a result everything just feels similar but more generic.  Again, Fuqua is a competent director, and Denzel is always solid, but The Equalizer tastes like reheated leftovers.  If you like crime movies, The Equalizer delivers and you won’t be disappointed, but it’s not going to wow you, either, and you’ll want to keep your expectations set to moderate.  Here’s hoping that if the Fuqua-Washington collaborations replace the Scott-Washington collaborations as I suspect they might, the two of them aspire to get back to the higher level of quality and relevancy they hit previously with Training Day.  I know Equalizer writer Richard Wenk already has a sequel penned for The Equalizer 2, which may not be the most encouraging of signs.  To put his work, as well as the content of The Equalizer, into focus, he’s the man who gave us the screenplays for 16 Blocks, The Mechanic, and The Expendables 2— not exactly examples of genre re-defining work.

7/10

Top Ten of 2011, #3: Warrior, Gavin O’Connor

Warrior, by Gavin O’Connor, does something very rare for a sports movie; it almost equally develops two main characters, both heading into the ring for the big finale at the climax.  You may ultimately have a favorite between the two, but it makes the final match extremely emotionally-loaded, because no matter who wins, the audience is also set up to emotionally identify with the loser.

In addition to that narrative hook, Warrior has one more unique story element– the fact that both of the final contenders are brothers.  It’s almost too much, really– too clever and too precious.  But O’Connor is a hell of a director, and he’s working with some top notch acting talent.  The two brothers are played by Brit Tom Hardy (Inception, Bronson, RocknRolla, This Means War, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises) and Aussie Joel Edgerton (Smokin’ Aces, The Square, Animal Kingdom, The Thing, and the upcoming The Great Gatsby) and their father by the inestimable Nick Nolte.  All three are capable of incredible emotional depths while keeping things very natural and effortless.  For Nolte’s part, it might be the best work of his career, and as good as Christopher Plummer was in Beginners, Nolte was robbed for not taking home the Oscar this year.  Hardy channels Brando circa The Wild One, all muscular pathos and pain, still trying to break free of a dysfunctional childhood that has left him emotionally crippled and really unable to stand up and be his own man.  Edgerton has a family of his own, and for him it’s about being able to provide for his family and not buckle under the weight of economic hardship.  He’s determined to be the father and have the family that he never had, and he’s willing to fight for it if it kills him.

The backstory has to do with the fact that Nolte was a raging alcoholic and his wife left him, taking the youngest son, Tommy (Hardy) with her.  Brendan (Edgerton) was old enough to be on his own, for the most part, so he chose to stay behind with their father, and before too long left home himself.  But Tommy had to endure homelessness and his mother’s drug addiction until she died, then ended up going into the military.  Tommy holds a lot of resentment towards both his father and his brother for not being there for him, and allowing him to suffer the amount of abuse and neglect he went through.  All of this sets the stage for both contenders to take an emotionally-fueled climb through the MMA ranks in a cage match in Las Vegas for a huge payout.  Brendan’s in it for his family and out of financial necessity; Tommy’s in it to prove something to himself and try to take back control of his destiny and his one-time potential to be a fighter of incredible promise.

The fights here are intense and very realistically-staged, and O’Connor smartly starts wide and with a lot of long shots during the sequential matches.  As the film reaches its conclusion, the coverage keeps creeping in tighter and closer, making the successive fights increasingly intimate and personal.  It’s a technique that really serves the film overall, as well as deeply connecting us to both Tommy and Brendan.  And that’s really where the film succeeds and gains so much of its power.  On the surface it may be a sports film, but underneath that is an incredibly personal and emotionally raw story about family and what we can and should do for each other.  Frank Grillo as a friend of Brendan’s who agrees to be his trainer, and Jennifer Morrison as Brendan’s wife, both turn in great performances as well.  Morrison is underutilized, but still manages to make her limited screen time one of the best performances of her career.

O’Connor previously directed Janet McTeer in Tumbleweeds, the hockey movie Miracle, and a theatrically mishandled cop movie called Pride and Glory that starred Colin Farrell and Edward Norton. O’Connor has a real knack for taking solid but often predictable Hollywood scripts and turning them on their ear slightly, transforming them into something truly special.  Warrior is a shining example of that, with O’Connor raising the bar even further and finding new heights.  Much of Warrior is heartbreaking, and there probably hasn’t been a sports movie that emotionally connects as cleanly and powerfully since the original Rocky.

10/10

Top Ten of 2011, #4: 13 Assassins, Takashi Miike

It’s a fascinating departure for such an irreverent stylist as Takashi Miike to go formalist with this old-school samurai/bushido tale.  13 Assassins has so many similarities to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, right down to Yusuke Iseya’s hunter Koyata evoking Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchio, that it feels like a re-imagining if not an outright remake.  It’s almost as though Miike said to himself, “Only seven samurai, I’ll give them double that!”  Yet, 13 Assassins is actually a remake of the previous 1963 film of the same name, Jûsan-nin no shikaku, directed by Eiichi Kudo.

The story is set in the waning days of the samurai, who represent a certain kind of honor, nobility, and loyalty.  But many samurai are homeless and without masters, unable to even find a noble cause to take up.  This degradation of the value system is best exemplified by the rise of the supremely evil Lord Naritsugu, using his station and privilege to do whatever he wants, including committing rape and murder at whim.  After a wronged lord has his family destroyed by Naritsugu and publicy commits seppuku, government official Doi Toshitsura realizes the level of Naritsugu’s depravity, and the fact that he will only become more powerful as time goes on and his shogun family keeps him above the law.  Toshitsura hires Shinzaemon, and older samurai looking for a last mission to be able to end his life serving in honor.

Shinzaemon and his nephew slowly assemble a group of ten more samurai, a ragtag bunch with some older and past their prime, and some younger but untested and without any real experience because of the changing times.  Their journey to intercept Naritsugu takes them across the countryside, and they eventually settle on a remote village to stage an ambush.  Along the way they pick up one more addition, hunter Kiga Koyata, who fights with rocks and slings.  The village is converted into a convoluted deathtrap, and the final fight that takes place there is epic.  The samurai have to fight 200 of Naritsugu’s troop, including his personal samurai Hanbei, an old acquaintance of Shinzaemon’s.  Even though Hanbei may not agree with Naritsugu’s actions, he’s bound by the samurai code to continue fighting for him to his death.  Despite the fact that 13 Assassins features some bloody, gory violence as well as some incredible action and set-pieces, it’s also rich with themes and subtext about living an honorable life by a moral code even when that code makes you a relative dinosaur in the face of a changing world.  And though the film never violates its own time period to overtly make comparisons with our world today, there are certainly parallels one can draw to our contemporary society as its overrun by technology and we run the risk of losing much of a sense of personal responsibility and individual moral codes.

The cinematography of 13 Assassins is incredible.  And the set design, featuring long takes of entire sections of the village being employed in various traps, is amazing as well.  Miike also favors a lot of long takes that really highlight the fight choreography, which is also exquisite.  Really every technical aspect of 13 Assassins is a marvel, and it’s supported by some amazing, subtle, and complex acting from an excellent ensemble led by Koji Yakuso as Shinzaemon.  This is a film that really can stand head and shoulders next to the best of Kurosawa, and it does so in a way that’s very loyal to its historical time period and an appropriate film aesthetic, while taking advantage of contemporary advances in make-up and filming conventions.  Yet those things are always in service of that older aesthetic; 13 Assassins does everything as practically as possible– you’re not going to see many special effects employed tweaking or cheating shots, or visually stylization.  That’s part of what makes the final battle in the village such a masterpiece, and again it pays fitting tribute to Seven Samurai while probably even topping it.  I really can’t say enough good things about 13 Assassins, and if there is any justice in the world, this is destined to become a timeless classic.

10/10

Published in: on March 5, 2012 at 1:44 am  Leave a Comment  
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Top Ten of 2011, #5: A Separation, Asghar Farhadi

A Separation is a fantastic achievement, and a film that should be seen by all.  It begins with a marital dispute between Simin and Nader, and slowly reveals their personalities and breaks down the reasons informing their different belief systems, approaches towards life, and priorities about how to live life.  From the opening scene, where Simin and Nader are pleading their sides to a judge, the film validates both characters while illustrating the problems facing any two people trying to live a shared life.  At a base level, we all have fundamental differences with each other.  No one thinks exactly the same way, and the more we love someone, the more these small differences can ending up creating enormous rifts.  For Simin, it’s the fact that she’s living in Iran, stuck in a world with fundamental belief systems and antiquated sexual politics.  She’s learned to live with it, but she wants something more for her daughter Termeh, more possibilities and a better future that can’t be found as a woman in Iran.  Nader, for his part, understands this and may even agree with her.  However, he has an ailing father with Alzheimer’s, and to him, family is the most important thing in the world.  This includes his father as well as his daughter.  Nader can’t uproot his father, and refuses to leave him behind alone in Iran.  But Simin sees this choice as being at the expense of their daughter’s future.  This has resulted in the erosion of Simin and Nader’s marriage, and while Nader maintains his love for his wife and refuses to say that he wants a divorce, he also recognizes that he can’t and shouldn’t keep her in a marriage against her will.

The Iranian judge, however, sees things in much simpler terms.  Or perhaps their judicial system simply isn’t equipped to deal with subtleties.  To him, this is simply a minor problem within a marriage, and he won’t grant Simin a divorce.  As a result, Simin leaves their home to go live with her mother.  She’s hoping that her absence will convince Nader to relent and finally agree to leave the country, or that their daughter Termeh will finally be persuaded to leave with her.  But Termeh sees her father as the moral center of the marriage and sticks by him.  She harbors feelings of resentment towards Simin and refuses to abandon her father and grandfather by leaving Iran with her mother.  All of this sets up the circumstance where Nader has to hire another woman, Razieh, to come in and help with the cooking and the cleaning, and to watch his father while he’s at work and Termeh is at school.  From there the real narrative of the plot kicks in, and a series of events unfolds that threatens the family’s future and their freedoms.

A Separation does two things better than just about any film I’ve ever seen.  The first is the way it deals with its characters and their belief systems and depicts the ways we communicate with each other and the ways we compromise our lives for our families.  The characters’ self-awareness is heightened by the fact that they live in Iran and within very conservative political and religious systems.  For instance, when Nader’s father soils himself while in Razieh’s care, her religion dictates that she’s not allowed to touch him or help him change his pants.  It’s obvious that there’s nothing sexual going on between them, but the letter of her religion is clear.  So she has to place a phone call to try to explain the situation and get special permission to help him.  Or there’s the fact that she’s agreed to help out at Nader’s apartment without telling her husband.  He’s in debt to some creditors, and recently served some jail time for not being able to pay them back.  She needs to help make money, but she’s not allowed to be in Nader’s home without her husband’s permission.  There’s an entire system of social and religious etiquette at work here that refines these characters’ moral choices; at every turn, there’s an enormous amount of thought and specificity that has to go into every decision.  It’s something, really, that any person should be thinking about when making a decision, but it’s something that these characters have to deliberate on.  They aren’t allowed the kind of lazy, thoughtless, reactionary actions that many American commonly practice.  They’re held accountable for every small decision, and every thing they do means something and has consequences they need to take into account.

It’s fascinating to watch a film where the women are wearing shrouds over their heads, and have to dress in full robes in public so that the men can’t see or touch their skin, but to nevertheless feel there are very few differences between that culture and ours.  It’s an enormous compliment to director Asghar Farhadi that he’s able to cut through such superficial societal differences right to the universal truths.  These people are remarkably similar to us, similarly complex, and dealing with decisions in the same way that you and I would.  They may be living within a sometimes-antiquated system, but the characters themselves are incredibly modern in their thinking.  It’s the strength of this remarkable cross-cultural bridge that’s the other phenomenal attribute of A Separation.

But A Separation isn’t simply the drama of a failing marriage and the choices that people make.  That may be where it begins, but it shares elements with the films of Hitchcock or the novels of Dostoyevsky.  A Separation may be examining morality and how moral choices are either upheld or eroded when a situation dictates some other set of needs, and how those situations can result from a chain of events originating with simple happenstance, but Farhadi builds these elements with masterful narrative structuring that evokes the beats and unfolding plots of mysteries and thrillers.  He’s created a film universal in what it has to say about people, our relationships with each other, and how we try to find common ground, but he’s done it in a form that is eminently entertaining and keeps you on the edge of your seat biting your nails.  And it’s supported by acting that’s top-notch across the board.  Nothing is ever forced or unnatural in the slightest, yet all of the performances are emotionally full and extremely complex.

The only criticism I can possibly level at A Separation is how the ending cops out a bit, instead trying to leave the audience with more to chew on.  A Separation has plenty for the audience to chew on already.  Perhaps it’s meant to underline the fact that no decision is ever all good, and every decision and choice made results in something negative along with the positive.  Part of being an adult is learning to accept this, and being willing to shoulder the limitations that come tied to our freedoms.  And part of being a parent is realizing that we can’t always protect our children; that even when we try to encourage them to make their own choices, that in itself has consequences and places the enormous burden of adulthood on them.  And yet, eventually everyone has to enter into this part of the world; everyone has to learn compromise, accept their failings along with their victories, and live with the consequences of their actions– especially when those consequences are not always directly their fault.  Humans are ultimately fallible, no matter how hard we may try not to be, and we simply don’t always have the control over our lives or the world around us that we would often like to have.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #6: The Skin I Live In, Pedro Almodovar

The Skin I Live In is in many ways a return to the genre films Almodovar made earlier in his career, but with the infusion of maturity, confidence, and narrative skill amassed over his later body of work.  It’s also a return to his working with Antonio Banderas, a frequent early collaborator.  It’s fascinating that both of them have come full circle, and after a successful run in Hollywood, Banderas is no longer quite the hot property he was 15 years ago.  But again, the wisdom and maturity that comes from that journey adds so much color to his performance here, and Skin finds Banderas at the top of his craft, exploring dark, emotional corridors with unwavering focus and concentration.  This is yet another performance that far outshines a lot of what was nominated for this year’s Academy Awards, and one that really should have received more attention.

The plot of Skin is fairly complex, and it’s structured in such a way as to provide certain elements of surprise and really delve into various pulpy genre conventions.  I don’t want to ruin too much, so I’m going to be very particular in how much I explain.  But all of Almodovar’s favorite themes, from loopy, insane genre-bending, to permutations of noir and pulp, to sexual politics, to his deep exploration of emotionally complex women all converge quite nicely here.  The film poster alone bears similarities to that of the French film Eyes Without a Face, and Almodovar is certainly riffing on the mad scientist genre.  As the film opens, we learn that Elena Anaya’s Vera Cruz is a patient of Banderas’ Robert Ledgard.  She wears strange body suits to protect her skin and odd face masks, and Ledgard is busy working on some experimental skin grafts for her.  She also seems suicidal, and we’re not sure what events figure in her past; perhaps she’s the survivor of some strange fire.  As a result, she’s locked in a room in Ledgard’s house, and her meals are prepared for her and sent up to her by way of an elevator in the wall and a dumb waiter within.

Then Skin bounces around in time, and we get some backstory about Ledgard and an earlier life with a beloved daughter.  He’s a tragic character, passionate and haunted, and over the course of the story his strange depths are slowly revealed and explored.  Through it all, Almodovar balances some disparate changes in tone, seamlessly weaving together his eccentric range of taste in one film.  There are parts of Skin that feature the kind of very broad, almost over-the-top parody from early in his career, while other parts showcase a more layered, studied investigation of dark character depths.  The fact that Almodovar can find the odd balance to make all of this work together is in many ways a career high.  And the success with which everything comes together, both in terms of the plotting and the eclectic and varied themes, will provide any Almodovar lover with some deep satisfaction.

Both Marisa Paredes as Ledgard’s maid, a role that is more complex than it originally appears on the surface, and Anaya as the subject of Ledgard’s painstaking work, turn in accomplished and complex work.  Anaya reminds one of Penelope Cruz, who has worked with Almodovar on many films and several of his most recent ones, and certainly fits a particular brand of Almodovar ingenue.  Skin is extremely rich both in terms of its genre stylings and the performances, but to reveal any more would be to do the film a disservice.  While it’s unfair to characterize anything Almodovar does as straight drama, particularly taking into account his gender politics, the level of twisted genre exploration happening in Skin is exciting to watch.  It’s also great fun seeing a filmmaker so accomplished with such a strong voice take such a gleeful headlong sprint into some of the truly bizarre places Almodovar ventures here.  Skin is likely the most inventive, playful, and cheekily insane film to hit theatres this past year.  It’s visually stylish and gorgeous-looking, creepy and fascinating, and manages to land several different types of emotional sucker-punches.  Kudos to Almodovar for this strange and bizarre creation, and hats off to Banderas for taking a risk here that results in perhaps the best work of his career.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #7: Shame, Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his debut Hunger, like Nichols’ Take Shelter, is another re-teaming of an actor/director pair that really should have resulted in an Oscar nomination this past year.  Michael Fassbender turns in a very emotionally raw & naked performance of a sexual compulsive and sex addict living in New York City.

This is the kind of material that could easily slide into exploitation, but McQueen handles everything with such a deft touch, and Fassbender implicitly trusts his director and allows himself to be very vulnerable and emotionally transparent throughout.  We seem to be in an era where American stars are so busy courting huge Hollywood success, and where Hollywood is transfixed with trying to make these boyish man-children into leading men.  Consequently, time and time again the actors who demonstrate a true masculinity and maturity, as well as both an honesty and complexity in their work are coming from Ireland, Britain, and Australia.  Fassbender gave a great performance in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, a big Hollywood film so well-executed that it does pain me a bit that I’m not able to include it in this list.  But here he’s plumbing even darker depths.

Shame didn’t receive a very wide release because of its inability to escape the dreaded NC-17.  And Shame certainly has its share of nudity, including some dangling man parts.  But a lot of this is front-loaded.  The film opens, shows you exactly the things that some audiences may be nervous about seeing, sets the tone, and then moves on.  Once that world has been established, once that level of sexuality is omni-present, McQueen knows he doesn’t need to visually dwell there.  Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan is such a sexual compulsive, that he can barely go minutes without pursuing some kind of sexual release.  Women he picks up on the street, co-workers, magazines, internet porn, prostitutes– life for Brandon is a non-stop sexual buffet, and there’s nothing he won’t put on his plate.  At one point he even has sex with a man in a sex shop.  But there’s never really any question if Brandon is gay.  It’s simply part of his unending quest for physical release, and a constant need to raise the stakes by pushing his own boundaries farther and farther.

Somehow, Brandon is just barely able to hold down a job.  Part of that probably has to do with the fact that his boss, David Fisher, played by James Badge Dale, has a mess of a home life and sort of hero-worships Brandon.  David is the kind of frat boy who one day grew up and got married and had kids, but doesn’t seem to genuinely emotionally connect with his family.  He’s living an illusion and playing an artificial role of family man, but he’s not above secretly having affairs on the side, or having sex with Brandon’s own sister when she comes to town.  And David is not smooth, not in the least.  Despite the fact that he’s obviously had sexual relations with women, even married one of them, he constantly acts like an idiotic teenager trying to get laid.  As annoying as the character is, including him is a smart move on McQueen’s part because it invites a lot of comparisons with Brandon.  Next to David, Brandon is a very smooth operator.  He’s also much more intelligent.  And for all of his compulsiveness, he’s very self-aware.  This isn’t a teenager’s game to Brandon; it’s something that drives him and haunts him, and his shame throughout is palpable and complex.

The arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan in a performance that equals Fassbender’s, traps Brandon by shining a light on just how far gone he is.  Brandon avoids talking to her as much as possible, but when she literally shows up on his doorstep, there’s nowhere left to run.  It’s quite obvious that both of these characters have suffered some pretty terrible abuse, but McQueen never reveals the full details.  We don’t know if they were molested by their parents, if they were forced to participate in incest with each other, or if the abuse was less overt but just as psychologically damaging.  Either way, sister and brother are both extremely hyper-sexual characters, deeply scarred and in great pain with an intense need for love.  Yet, this need for love has been subverted into the sexual.  And they both pursue it in their own ways, but neither in a way that is healthy or could actually lead them to fulfillment.

Brandon in particular seems more sexually aroused the more he doesn’t know the people he’s with.  Once an emotional connection is made, as is the case when he tries to date a co-worker, his sexual equipment stops working.  It’s a case of that emotional connection representing too great an emotional risk, triggering a system shutdown.  Consequently, Brandon is forever pursuing love and meaning through empty sexual relations that can never amount to anything.  And the empty void of his existence just keeps deepening, widened by shame, and increasing the fevered pitch of his sexual mania.

Brandon tries his best to hide from himself and to keep pushing away a problem that seems to have no solution.  In spite of how debased a character he is, he’s also intelligent, self-aware, and not without a sense of humor.  A dinner date with a co-worker is intensely uncomfortable, but a fascinating look into his psyche.  He tries to be open and honest about his beliefs, while at the same time also knowing how unattractive it makes him.  When the conversation takes a certain turn and he realizes how far gone he must appear, he tries to bring it back with self-effacing humor.  But at a core level, Brandon is simply broken; he lacks trust on such a basic level, that he’s unable to give love to another person without the vulnerability destroying him, and he’s unable to receive it.  His existence has become a non-stop feeding of sexual addiction, but by leading an isolated, solitary existence with no real friends and no family, he’s able to shut down a large part of himself and exist only for the addiction itself.  When Sissy lands in his apartment on his couch, all of that changes.  Not only does he have to deal with repressed feelings that obviously make him uncomfortable, but he has to be more honest with himself about the extent of his mania and the way his life only exists to feed it.

Shame is an incredibly brave film with two incredibly brave and honest central performances.  And while it’s sexually graphic at times, it plays those cards pointedly for their full effect when it needs to, so that most of the film can be spent examining an overtly sexual world through tone and characterization.  It also doesn’t attempt to provide easy answers or to solve its characters lives with lazy melodrama, but recognizes that real change is a process.  Sometimes that process requires a life-changing event for it to be initiated, but continuing to carry through with it is a constant daily struggle, and some days are more successful than others.  While that makes Shame a very honest film in its approach, it also makes it slightly unfulfilling.  It’s bravura filmmaking to be sure, but it’s bravura filmmaking with an ultimately somewhat modest aim.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #8: Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols

Jeff Nichols follows up his self-assured feature debut, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, with another collaboration with actor Michael Shannon.  If there were any justice in the world, Shannon would have been nominated for an Oscar this past season for his work here.  Was there really any reason Brad Pitt needed a nomination for Moneyball, in which his entire performance consisted of mumbling and chewing tobacco?

Take Shelter is a complex and challenging film that poses question about faith, spirituality, and the drive to provide for one’s family.  In lesser hands this could veer into the territory of some of those awful Christian-themed films, but Nichols isn’t concerned with pushing a message on the audience.  Instead he’s much more interested in asking questions.  Shannon’s Curtis is a blue-collar family man doing his best to be a good husband to his wife Samantha and daughter Hannah.  But he starts having dreams where his family is threatened or hurt, and when he wakes up from them, he’s physically depleted and the pain from them lasts for days.  As time goes on, the dreams become more intense, even apocalyptic, and Curtis begins experiencing waking hallucinations as well as penetrating migraine headaches.  Every part of his being is telling him to listen to his inner voices, and that this is all happening for a reason.  There are Biblical allusions throughout, and Curtis keeps wondering if he’s been given divine information about some coming event like Noah or Moses, or if it’s all in his head.  For as much as he wants to be able to trust himself, he fears he may simply be losing his mind.  This is further complicated by the fact that his mother Sarah, played by an excellent Kathy Baker, was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was Curtis’ age and now lives in an assisted living facility.  Curtis knows he may be surrendering to the same disease; he seeks medical help but it’s not conclusive, and all the while he tries to hide his declining condition from his family to spare them from the same trauma he went through when his mother was committed.

There’s a beautiful and touching character arc here with Curtis and how he was abandoned, though not intentionally, growing up.  As a result, he’s extremely emotionally vulnerable and has a great fear of abandonment.  That same fear, flipped in on itself, has created this intense drive in him to never abandon his family and to protect them through anything.  Yet, in trying to be a strong male provider for his family, he covers his own vulnerabilities and insecurities, and emotionally isolates himself.  The possible onset of schizophrenia not only represents the same disease that took his mother returning for him, but also threatens to emotionally wreck his family in the same way his world was wrecked long ago.

Jessica Chastain plays his wife Samantha, and as always she finds incredible emotional nuance and range with something a lesser actress would have simply walked through.  Samantha has a very narrow focus on a simple and happy home life.  When Curtis begins to unravel, at first it’s something that she doesn’t really want to acknowledge.  But as he gets worse, and his behavior becomes more erratic and he does things like building a bomb shelter in the back yard, her faith is tested as well– her ability to love the man and not the illusion, and her ability to stick by him wherever his journey may lead.

The bomb shelter in the backyard is one of many Biblical metaphors.  Just as Noah built his boat after hearing messages from God, so Curtis has the bomb shelter.  And the question is posited– is this a world where faith even exists any more?  Is this a world where someone can listen if God were to give them a warning, or have we become so focused on explaining away everything through science that we’re now deaf to our own instincts and inner voices?  Or was Joan of Arc simply schizophrenic, and is that all it has ever been when people believe they see signs or hear voices?  We all live our lives ultimately having to depend on something to make decisions– a sense of right or wrong, our own instincts, or listening to our hearts.  But what does this mean?  And what do we do when those instincts become razor sharp, banging down our internal doors– yet without a reflection in the world around us?  How much patience do we have, and how long can we wait without proof?  Do we inevitably concede to trust those voices as long as it takes, or in the absence of tangible support, do we deny the strongest instincts that we have?

These are the questions Take Shelter asks of Curtis, and by proxy, asks us to consider as well.  We’ve reached a place in time with our current technology where it’s given us so many alternatives to our own inner voices, and so many reasons to distrust them or abandon them altogether.  Curtis is a simple man.  He’s certainly not intellectual, but he’s not stupid, either.  He has a wisdom within his own narrow life experience, but Take Shelter asks him to question everything about it.  And the film Take Shelter itself is extremely intelligent.  It never simplifies, never preaches.  And it posits its questions in a way that should really connect with contemporary audiences.  You couldn’t ask for two better lead actors than Shannon and Chastain, and they’re supported by excellent, often understated work from Baker, Shea Whigam as Curtis’ best friend, Ray MacKinnon as his brother, and Lisa Gay Hamilton as a counselor.  This is a film that was hugely overlooked this year by much of America, and while it’s not some big Hollywood blockbuster with lots of explosions, it is structured somewhat like a dramatic thriller and may be able to connect with audiences who were never even made aware that it exists.  Take Shelter often moves slowly, but it also does so purposefully, offering plenty of food for thought.  And it features an emotionally compelling climax, and a final scene that should give audiences something to think about and consider for some time afterwards.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #9: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Tomas Alfredson

I’ve been waiting for the past several years to see how director Tomas Alfredson would follow up his phenomenal Let the Right One In, so I was ecstatic when I found out it was to be a cerebral thriller with such a strong British cast.  And Gary Oldman reinterpreting a role made famous by the late Sir Alec Guinness definitely upped the fascination factor.  Luckily, Tinker Tailor completely delivers on the two elements I was most interested curious about– Oldman totally makes the role, something quite different from the parts he’s had over the last decade or two, his own; and Alfredson delivers an extremely intelligent adaptation of le Carre’s novel that never dumbs itself down, but instead constantly makes the audience play catch-up with it, something all too rare in contemporary thrillers that usually pander to a perceived witless, lowest-common denominator audience.

In fact, Tinker plays its cards so close to the vest that often times we’re not sure what’s happening, from the plot to smaller details like the nature of George Smiley’s home life.  But we’re given what we need when we need it, and the rest of the time we’re kept in the dark in much the way most of MI6’s agents constantly are.  It’s refreshing that Alfredson would risk alienating a mainstream audience who needs all of the answers constantly spoon-fed to it the entire running time, and it’s likely the reason Tinker Tailor didn’t scare up larger box office returns.  Instead, it’s the kind of film that benefits from re-watching and will likely find more and more audience favor as time goes by; and yet it still did well enough to merit production of a now-rumored sequel.  With four more le Carre books starring George Smiley, and three additional novels he makes appearances in, there’s certainly room to grow Tinker Tailor into a franchise if the creative team wants to pursue it.

The plot has Oldman’s Smiley retiring from MI6, commonly referred to in-house as “the Circus.”  Shortly thereafter, Control, played by John Hurt, dies of natural causes, leaving behind an investigation of what he believes to be a Soviet mole in their infrastructure.  About the same time, one of their field agents, Jim Prideuax, played by Mark Strong, has a mission compromised, is possibly fatally shot, and disappears.  Smiley begins to secretly take over Control’s investigation with the assistance of a younger agent, Peter Guillam, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, still on the inside of MI6.  There’s a particularly intense and expertly-directed scene where Guillam has to steal some secret documents from the MI6 library and navigate a system where any baggage or briefcases must be checked and put into security.  While all of this is going on, another field agent, Ricki Tarr, played by Tom Hardy, shows up at Smiley’s house after having been branded a traitor, the story of his own compromised mission linked to information that may help reveal the identity of the mole.  The title of both novel and film comes from the code names Control has assigned to the four agents he believes may be the mole, agents played by Colin Firth, Toby Jones, Ciaran Hinds, and David Dencik.

Of course the entire cast in fantastic, but some of the more well-known actors like Firth and Hinds don’t get a lot of screen time.  For me the stand-outs were Dencik and Cumberbatch.  Dencik has a great scene filmed on a landing strip with a small airplane that reveals the depths of fear and paranoia going on under the surface.  And Cumberbatch’s Guillam is a nice counterpoint to Smiley while working alongside him.  He’s younger, a bit more green, and more emotionally vulnerable and accessible as a character than Smiley.  He helps ground the film and broaden its scope from what we get with Smiley, who plays his cards so close to his vest.  It’s a shame that neither Dencik or Cumberbatch picked up Oscar nominations this past year; their work certainly deserved it, much more than some of the other nominees, for example Jonah Hill in Moneyball.

Tinker Tailor is the kind of smart, intelligent thriller rarely produced these days, and something I personally have been hungering for.  Since Hollywood has dumbed-down so much of its output over the last decade, hopefully we’ll continue to see some of the excellent foreign directors with growing cache dip their toes into larger-budgeted genre films and produce movies that engage the brain along with the adrenaline glands.  And not only is Tinker Tailor whip-smart, but Alfredson is a very visually gifted director, and the cinematography, framing, and editing all work together to create a sharp, gorgeous package.

9/10

Top Ten of 2011, #10: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, David Yates

The entire Harry Potter phenomenon is something that has truly deserved all of its successes.  The existence of the books are nothing short of a miracle, considering how J.K. Rowling wrote the first one while on social security and unemployed, a single mother in the throes of clinical depression contemplating suicide.  Unlike most young adult fiction, the Harry Potter books are extremely well-written and intelligent.  They don’t speak down to their readership, but rather invite it to rise and grow with the series.  They portray an enticing, magical world where every child has a place and an extended family at Hogwarts, where children are respected and valued and encouraged to embrace their destiny.  It’s no surprise than an entire generation of children has been given hope by the series, and learned to appreciate the joys of reading.

The films began with director Christopher Columbus, who did an adequate job on the first two creating a sense of magic and the wonders of discovery.  But the director of fare like Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire has never been much for subtlety, and one of the signatures of his films appears to be the trite, phony, narcissistic grins of overly-precious Hollywood child stars.  Luckily for the series the three leads were cast so well, and all of them grew with the films into talented young actors.  Things really experienced a shift when Alfonso Cuaron took over for Prisoner of Azkaban and began treating it like something more than a shiny, happy child’s confection.  Then David Yates came on board with the fifth film and stuck through to the end becoming a central, governing voice along with screenwriter Steve Kloves.  Not only did Yates provide a great consistency during the run of the final half of the series, but he began with the adaptation that is easily the worst book in the series, the Order of the Phoenix.  The fifth novel is almost unreadable as Rowling seems to have lost the through-line with this installment, and most of the book is spent scrabbling around trying to find its voice, its purpose, and the ending for the series.  My personal theory is that the success of the film series really hit Rowling while she was working on it, and suddenly she was no longer writing only for herself or even for her enormous and still-growing readership, but for the Hollywood machine, and the pressures of not upsetting it created a lot of anxiety and self-questioning.  Luckily for her, she was back on track with the publication of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, but Phoenix is filled with a lot of meandering and stumbling, and reads like a collection of filler material by a writer trying to find her way through a first draft to the end.  Nevertheless, Yates took the material and did something rare– made an adaptation stronger than the source material.

So the weight on Deathly Hallows, Part 2 is enormous.  Not only does it finish up an unprecedented film series, one shot with the same young actors over the course of a decade as they matured, never replacing any of them, and one with a cinematic vision that became more honed and refined as the series continued, but it does justice to a literary phenomenon, and the end of the film series signals the close to a multi-media legacy featuring a who’s who of the British acting community.  The special effects, set design, make-up, and art direction continued to evolve and grow over the course of the series, always representing the best of its time, and by this last film has evolved into something truly special.  And in addition to all of the talent in front of and behind the camera, Deathly Hallows has the unenviable task of wrapping up plot detail after plot detail, of portraying moment after sacred moment in the endgame of a beloved literary benchmark.  Every moment of the film is an opportunity to stumble, but the film never does.  Under Yates’ confident leadership, Deathly Hallows hits every small bit out of the park and brings a satisfying close to an unwieldy eight-film adaptation.

Now, it’s likely that Deathly Hallows can’t really stand on it’s own.  I can’t imagine anyone who’s never read the Harry Potter books or seen the other films sitting in front of this one and having any idea of what’s going on or caring about the characters.  To that point, Deathly Hallows, Part 2 really can’t be appreciated as a stand-alone film.  But the manner it which it closes such a long and successful series is the kind of razor’s edge, miraculous balancing act that deserves acknowledgement and deep respect.  Forget the new “trilogy,” the Harry Potter film series is really the Star Wars of this generation, so powerful that its success has redefined the Hollywood blockbuster franchise, inflicting the irredeemable Twilight films on us with their mimicking marketing strategy right down to splitting the final book into two films, a move that was required to capture the full density of the final Potter book, but one that is nothing more than imitation and a blind money grab on the part of that other franchise’s vapid excrescence.

9/10

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