Grant’s Movies of 2013: The Favorites (Pt. 3)

Let’s finish this motherfucker!

All Is Lost

Written and Directed by J.C. Chandor

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I wrote a review about this a while back where I detailed writer-director J.C. Chandor’s debut, Margin Call, and the utter 180 in plot and tone his follow-up effort pulled: Robert Redford, in a boat, which is sinking, no dialogue (virtually.) I also mentioned how Redford gave a career-best performance and that Chandor displayed a masterful grasp of his chosen medium. These things still hold true. All Is Lost is a damn fine movie.

Haunting, though. That’s the word that keeps coming to mind. It describes many things in All Is Lost, from Frank G. DeMarco’s photography to Alex Ebert’s Golden Globe-winning score to, yes, Redford’s performance and Chandor’s directing (helped in no small part by Pete Beaudreau’s editing.) But there’s one scene I keep turning over and over in my mind. The opening. Nothing but a shot of the tranquil sea early dawn. And Robert Redford’s narration. Narration. It’s a bold move within an already boldly conceived film. With a premise that puts so much emphasis on visuals and performance, voice-over runs the very real risk of undermining every artistic intention the film sets out with. Telling before any showing has been done. It could, quite frankly, have ruined the movie.

Not like that’s ever happened before…

Not like that’s ever happened before…

But it doesn’t. Instead, the narration elucidates very little. Redford reads aloud a letter that you later see him write, an apology to unknown parties. “I tried,” he says. “I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true. To be strong. To be kind. To love. To be right. But I wasn’t.” Meanwhile, the camera slowly pans to reveal the source of Our Man’s undoing. Or, at least, what has set him adrift. If memory serves, I believe Redford explains in this interview that he interpreted the opening monologue as a poem. Indeed, ‘Poetry’ is the word that comes closest to describing it.

Among film enthusiasts, there has been something of a pissing contest between fans of Gravity and of All Is Lost. It’s hard to ignore Gravity’s technical achievements, which – let’s be honest, greatly outstrip All Is Lost’s, well made as it is – and it certainly offers a more clearly drawn protagonist in Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone than Redford’s anonymous boating enthusiast. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com has even suggested that there might be some elements of sexism in the mix, Redford still icy cool under relentless pressure while Bullock screams and sobs across the stars. And hey, he may have a point there. Still, I think I enjoyed All Is Lost more for its ambiguities. While Ryan Stone’s tragic backstory certainly provided an easy, effective emotional entryway to her character, and did lead to a couple of touching scenes, I wasn’t entirely convinced it was a necessary addition to the already insane tension of Gravity’s narrative framework, and her tendency of saying everything she was doing out loud as she was doing it smacked to me of a compromise with Hollywood executives, to ensure that the plot and character stayed ‘relatable’ and ‘understandable.’ All Is Lost leaves more to your imagination. And it is better for it.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Directed by Martin Scorsese

Screenplay by Terence Winter

Based on the Book by Jordan Belfort

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This movie is three hours long. Within its first five minutes, Leonardo DiCaprio sucks cocaine out of a hooker’s asshole with a straw. Know yourself.

The above paragraph was originally going to be my entire review for The Wolf of Wall Street, and though it’s pithy enough, it actually sort of does the film an injustice since it doesn’t go any way towards explaining why it’s so damn good. First and foremost, there’s the fact that despite being Scorsese’s longest film (by an asshair – Casino clocks in at 179 minutes,) Scorsese has managed the unthinkable – a three-hour black comedy that’s never boring and never stops being funny. (FUN FACT: The original cut of the film was four hours! Scorsese delayed the release of the film to cut it down to its current length.)

And then there’s the revelation of Leo DiCaprio. ‘Revelation’ may sound counterintuitive, since he’s been turning out astounding, captivating work for well over a decade now and was – along with Samuel L. Jackson – unjustly snubbed at last year’s Academy Awards for his turn in Django Unchained. But in this film, shorn of Oscar pretentions (I’m look at you, J. Edgar) and any sort of vanity, he is a force to be reckoned with, tearing through scenes like a whirling dervish of barbed wire; you simply cannot take your eyes off of him. As Jordan Belfort, the former Wall Street stockbroker who defrauded millions of Americans with boiler room penny stocks – he charms, squirms, howls (heh), sweats, screams, snorts, and fucks his way through this film with abandon and – most surprisingly of all – proves himself an adept physical comedian. (Of the films’ many comic highs, a bit where he tries to enter his car while whacked out on Quaaludes is perhaps the most impressive.) He is, of course, aided and abetted by an impressive supporting cast including, but not limited to: Jonah Hill (who truly earns his second Oscar nod), Matthew McConaughey (in essentially a small but wondrous cameo), The Walking Dead’s Jon Bernthal, the always underrated Kyle Chandler, P.J. Byrne (Bolin from The Legend of Korra!), and, in her breakout role, Margot Robbie as DiCaprio’s supermodel second wife.

(An aside: some have noted the absence of roles of for women in this film beyond being objects for the men to ogle and fuck. I think that though we can all agree that more and quality roles for women performers are very much a good thing, I would argue in this particular case the absence of them is very much the point.)

If you’ve heard of this film, you’ve no doubt heard of the deluge of drugs and sex and, yes, foul language that pervades it, sometimes all at once. If, like me, you are drawn towards ‘challenging’ content, then this shouldn’t really be a barrier to entry for you. Others have expressed their discomfort – in some cases, even outright anger – with Scorsese and DiCaprio making a film about Belfort and his outrageous lifestyle, fearing it to be a celebration rather than a condemnation. I personally don’t see it, since at no point do I believe the film’s portrayal of Belfort and his associates even approaches sympathetic. Sure, there are aspects of their lifestyle that are glamorous; they wouldn’t have done what they did if it wasn’t.  But Scorsese is content to let their actions speak for themselves, and their actions are clearly repugnant. I keep returning to the final shot, which for all the loudness and grandstanding that has preceded it, actually makes it point quite subtly. It’s a quiet yet effective damnation of Belfort, but also of the reason he’s still making money.

Pogo said it best…

Pogo said it best…

It’s maybe the most magnetic film about repellant people since… well, GoodFellas. Scorsese’s got kind of a knack for this thing. You should go see it.

Of course, there’s the sight of a dominatrix pulling a candle out of Leo DiCaprio’s ass and poring the hot wax on his back. Again, know yourself.

Her

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze

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Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in a near-future Los Angeles. He has a job that he is quite good at, one which I won’t give away here because its reveal is so, so wonderful. He is also reeling from the divorce of his childhood sweetheart, Catherine (Rooney Mara), an ongoing process in which he’s been dragging his feet for over a year. Despite support from his married friend, Amy (Amy Adams), and blind dates with improbably gorgeous women (Olivia Wilde,) Theodore still finds himself alone and aches to make a true connection with someone. Anyone. On a whim, he decides to purchase a brand new operating system, one that is artificially intelligent, speaks in a human manner, and can adapt and evolve to new information and interactions. After the setup process asks him a series of personal questions (“How would you describe your relationship with your mother?”), Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) is born. And slowly, steadily, surely, they begin to fall in love. Let me be clear, not he begins to fall in love. They.

Spike Jonze, the indie darling behind Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are (as well as some much-loved music videos and commericals), steps up for his first wholly self-originated project. Unsurprisingly, he knocks the technical aspects out of the park. There is K.K. Barrett’s gorgeous production design, and the hybridization of Los Angeles and Shanghai locations, and Hoyte van Hoytema’s luminous cinematography, that somehow manages to give smog a dreamlike hue. But then there’s the central performances. Joaquin Phoenix astounds again, somehow pulling a 180 from The Master’s terrifyingly unbalanced Freddie Quell – a career best performance – and showing us the shy, soulful, very, very likable Theodore. And then there’s Scarlett Johansson, who despite being present only in voice-over absolutely fills up the room anytime she’s on screen. See what I did there? You don’t see her and yet you do. (To quote another critic, you gotta hand it to a girl who’s so hot she doesn’t need a body.) There is a chemistry between these two actors that simply lights up the screen, a chemistry made all the more amazing when you consider that Johansson was a replacement (Samantha was originally played by Samantha Morton.)

What may most fascinating about Her is how often it doesn’t play by the rules you expect it will. Though the question of how long how a romantic relationship with a piece of software – especially one that’s designed to meet your whims – never really leaves, Her surprised me by making me believe that Samantha was coming into her own person. And that Theodore respected that. And though Samantha clearly possesses many of the hallmarks of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl – the stock character free spirit that loves life and shakes up the hero’s dull routine – they’re made more plausible (and bearable) by the fact that Samantha is by her very nature enraptured with the world. And though problems relating to Samantha’s being arise, they’re not the ones you’d expect, but ones that make sense in the world that Jonze has created.

Her certainly had the potential to be a much darker film, especially taking into account the elements of Jonze’s personal life that must have affected the script (he is divorced from Lost in Translation director Sofia Coppola.) But instead of bitterness, there is a soft, enveloping warmth and undeniable respect – for all his characters – that courses through this picture. Whether you feel that Theodore and Sam’s relationship is legitimate or not, Her made me believe that they were two people. I suppose the premise of the film might suggest that. And yet they did it, and that’s maybe the most surprising thing of all.

I was enthralled. I was moved. I certainly had a lot to think about afterwards. And if features this pretty fly-ass song.

And I think that’s why it’s my movie of the year.

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