Deadpool

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I have a confession to make. I didn’t hate X-Men Origins: Wolverine when I saw it. I haven’t seen it since 2009, and I was so horrifyingly depressed at the time that I might have just appreciated anything to distract from the torture I was feeling inside, but I remember my reaction to it being along the lines of, “Huh, that was inoffensive.” The Nerds, I would soon learn, felt very differently…

The biggest complaint I kept running into as I perused IMBD message boards in 2009 (literally the worst thing you could do, don’t do it, I didn’t have a life then!) was the mishandling of Deadpool portrayed by Ryan Reynolds. Again, I didn’t really have a problem with it. Ryan Reynolds is my man crush. Breathtakingly gorgeous, a skilled actor, and comic chops you could fillet a steak with. No joke, if by some miracle Ryan Reynolds wanted to have sex with me I would do it. I’m not saying this to gross you out, I’m trying to make a point here. My affection for the man is such that any Reynolds is good Reynolds. I thought he was very funny at the beginning of Origins, and though I too was surprised at how they sowed his mouth shut, I assumed that was how the actual character looked.

Oh, how wrong I was.

As most of you reading know, Deadpool is one of the few enduring creations of Comic Book Persona-Non-Grata Rob Liefield, a mask-wearing, schizophrenic maniac who kills without remorse, changes sides on a whim, regenerates from any gruesome injury, curses like a motherfucking cocksucking sailor, and frequently breaks the fourth wall to address the audience and comment on his very nature as a comic book creation. He is also renowned for being very, very funny. After his… ‘mishandling’ in Origins, fan outcry for a proper big screen adaptation of the character began to grow. Rumors surfaced of a script penned by Zombieland scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick that managed to successfully capture the tone of spirit the character while still being sweary, gory, and flashing the occasional titty or two. But would a superhero movie so outside of genre norms ever see the light of day?

Well, after several years of development hell, a leaked test reel, and the tireless campaigning of Reynolds to reprise the character, here we are: February 2016, and an R-Rated superhero movie opens to $260 million worldwide. Sometimes the geeks do know what they want.

I’m not sure what else I can do to expound on how wonderfully funny the film is. Virtually every other review explains that, but that’s because it’s true. Almost every jab at the nature of studio politicking is a joy. “This is a huge house,” Deadpool remarks when he visits Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) at the X-Mansion. “It’s crazy there’s only two of you here. It’s like the studio couldn’t afford another X-Man.” Many jabs are taken at Reynolds himself, especially at his other failed attempt at superhero stardom, Green Lantern. (“You think Ryan Reynolds got this far on his superior acting ability,” the man pointedly asks.)

Fortunately, Reynolds isn’t the only one bringing the funny to the party. T.J. Miller thankfully tones down his Silicon Valley persona, delivering A-level ad-libs without overwhelming a scene, and Morena Baccarin, so wonderful on the entertaining but very cheesy Gotham, not only manages to spark actual chemistry with Reynolds but matches him move-for-move in comic timing. Baccarin still ends up being the damsel in distress, but to filmmakers looking for someone to play that role compellingly, hire her. Even Gina Carano’s mostly stoic Angel Dust gets a funny line in. The only weak link in the cast is Ed Skrein, underwhelming here as he did in The Transporter Refueled (not that the Transporter franchise should inspire hope), simply going through the motions as the ‘British Villian.’ Just because the opening credits are funny enough to call this out does not mean it isn’t bad.

Perhaps what’s most surprising here, though, is that this is the work of a first time feature director. Director Tim Miller has a lot of experience in visual effects, which surely brought a lot to augmenting the expressions of Deadpool’s mostly featureless mask. But unlike other VFX directors turned filmmakers – say, Maleficent’s Robert Stromberg – Miller keeps a tight, tight grip on the tone and pacing of his story. Even without the fourth-wall breaking, Deadpool is a tough script to shoot, jumping back and forth chronologically, existing alongside an established multi-million dollar franchise, and staging over-the-top action scenes on a (comparatively) shoestring budget. And yet Miller handles all of it with aplomb. He successfully resists the urge to ‘shakycam’ his action scenes, keeping the geography of the sequences clear and concise. His comic timing is impeccable, juggling slapstick, ad-libs, and the ever-present meta commentary on the whole thing while never overplaying a beat. And for such a self-aware movie, he actually handles the moments that asks for emotional investment with grace. You will not cry in Deadpool, but you will be surprised at how much heft the emotional scenes actually have. When one of the best things you can say about an R-Rated action-comedy mashup is that the romantic subplot actually feels believable, you know you’re doing something right.

Deadpool is by no means a perfect movie. For as much on-point skewering of the superhero genre it does, it also hits too many of the same beats. (Oh joy, yet another action finale in a generic industrial complex!) And the cracks do show in just how far they’re stretching their budget to make this thing, as we spend an awful lot of time on the highway where the opening action sequence takes place, as well as revisiting the same three interiors (apparently, the criminal underworld hangs out at one bar and one bar only.) But when a movie this risky succeeds at hitting so many of the lofty goals it sets for itself, that’s something worth celebrating. Let’s hope this means a future of superhero movies that aren’t all brooding, PG-13 grudge matches (not that there’s anything wrong with that!)

Zoolander 2

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I almost walked out on this movie.

I walk out on more movies lately. Very often not because the movie is objectively terrible (though that happens), but because I find myself bored. In the course of the ‘quarterlife crisis’ I’ve found myself in over the past few years, I’ve wondered about how many hours of my life – days, cumulatively – I’ve spent watching movies I just didn’t like that much. In high school, I used to sit through crap just because an actor or filmmaker I liked was tangentially related to the film in question, and that was reason enough for me. Nowadays, that simply doesn’t cut the muster. (Mustard?)

This goes both ways of course. I walked out after an hour’s worth of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, despite the promise of a visually stunning interpretation of the Seven Plagues because, by all accounts, it was a boring-ass movie (also a very whitewashed one.) However, I also walked out of a screening of Billy Wilder’s comedy classic, The Seven Year Itch. I had already laughed pretty hard at a couple of points, but it had been 30 minutes and it just didn’t seem like it was going to grab me. In hindsight, I’ve often wondered if this was a mistake.

Why did I keep watching Zoolander 2, even though it’s not a very funny movie? Well, I wanted to believe it could be good, and these things gave me hope…

• THE RETURN OF BILLY ZANE!!! I think I may be the only person left who cares about Billy Zane, but he starred in The Phantom and voiced a bad guy in the first Kingdom Hearts game, so he is irrevocably tied to my childhood. He reminds of Brendan Fraser, another actor who was on top for a bit and then got sent to the proverbial ‘Movie Jail’ for no real reason. But, hopefully his role in Amazon’s new show, Mad Dogs, and this cameo signal his return to the public consciousness.
• A spectacularly staged car crash gag that comes out of nowhere. The hardest I laughed in this whole movie. I won’t give away the setup but trust me on this.
• Benedict Cumberbatch as the fashion model All, who seems to exist outside of any know definition of gender or sexuality. I’ll be honest, I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the ‘Batch, but his character is one of the few that is funny right off the bat and doesn’t overstay their welcome.
• Kristin Wiig’s character does overstay her welcome, but she does get a couple of very funny bits: a fake skin cream commercial, and this one small moment she does something weird with her lips.
• Susanne Boyle flipping the middle finger and saying the word ‘Fuck!’
• Cyrus Arnold, the young boy who plays Zoolander’s chubby son in this movie. He doesn’t really get much in the way of laugh out loud moments, but he does make an excellent straight man to the insanity around him, and holds his own ground against the adults here. This kid could have a bright future, keep an eye on him.

And in those six bullet points, I’ve listed about everything good to find in the first hour of this movie. Penelope Cruz deserves kudos for being utterly game here and playing it the most seriously out of everyone, but the fact that she keeps getting underserved in her English-speaking roles is depressing enough to turn that into a negative. Owen Wilson, usually so spry and assured in these charming idiot roles, looks and sounds like he would rather be anywhere else in the world. And Ben Stiller, the director, co-writer, co-producer, and brainchild of this whole endeavor (the Zoolander character originated as a parody sketch for VH1’s fashion shows) somehow manages to overplay a character whose very nature is buffoonish. I double-checked this and yes he did make the voice his character between this movie and the last one sound dumber, and that’s not a good thing. It’s like the man who created Derek Zoolander forgot how to play Derek Zoolander.

Zoolander 2’s biggest problem is it constantly finds the bones of something funny but then hammers that note over and over and over again until it simply becomes a shrill shrieking sound in your ears. Kiefer Sutherland as a member of (one of) Owen Wilson’s polyamorous relationships is a mildly amusing idea the first time, not the five other times you’re reminded of it. Piling on the celebrity cameos isn’t fun or funny when the joke is their presence, not what they’re doing. Jokes are pilfered wholesale from the original and dropped into this sequel without a surprising context to enhance them, and again, the punchlines all go on for several beats longer than they should. (Even one of my favorite jokes from the original, the ‘coffee scene’, falls victim to this.)

Even the original ideas here suffer the same fate. Early on, Stiller seems on the cusp of making a valid point about the attitudes of hipster culture in the form of Don Atari (Kyle Mooney), a fashion designer whose only inspiration comes from replicating patterns of the past and remarking on how much everything sucks. “Look at this,” he says, pulling back his sleeves to show a tattoo of a Sith Lord Col. Sanders. “It’s terrible! Why would I do this to myself? It’s awesome, dude, I love it!” Funny the first couple of times, not the next 15 minutes this character says variations on this exact same thing.

What kept me in the movie? Namely: the promise of Will Ferrell’s Mugatu, Zoolander’s fashion nemesis, now in Fashion Prison. Say what you will about Ferrell as a leading man (those movies are all pretty hit or miss), but he often brings a real boost to projects he’s not the star of, and that’s exactly the case here. Though it takes him a solid hour to get there, once Ferrell shows up the film gains a serious amount of momentum. In fact, he stays funny for about three whole scenes! But eventually, as with everything else in this movie, he overstays his welcome, finds the same beat, hits it over and over and over and over and over and over and over and you get the idea.

Hail, Caesar!

Matt Zoller Seitz, the current editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, is one of my favorite film critics. He is prone to pretension and a little too eager to reference his in-depth knowledge of art film, but his writing is always thought provoking, and at its best it channels the same kind of passion for film and plainspoken analysis that Ebert’s writing did.

Over the past few months, he’s done an occasional piece called “30 Minutes On…“, where he writes about a movie – any movie – for 30 minutes and then publishes what he has.

In the interest of restarting this blog, I’ve decided to try and emulate this formula. I’ll still do a little bit of copy-editing after the fact, but I think it’s a good model to keep my writing skills sharp while also doing something I love. I don’t know why writing at length became so hard for me overtime, but sure enough, doing this in 30 minutes made it feel more fun.

No promises with this blog, but I’ll see where it goes.

I hope you like it! 🙂

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I’ll be honest. I missed maybe the first five minutes of this movie. Atypical of me, I know. But I prefer to see movies at the Cinemark 8 in NoHo; cheap AND recliner seats! But I left late and then just HAD to get snacks when I got there! I digress. The fact is Joel and Ethan Coen make films so clockwork precise in their construction that missing a scene can render the whole thing incomprehensible…

…That’s an exaggeration. I followed the plot fine. But I’m sure I missed some of the tone set up in the latest creation from the cult craftsmen behind the likes of The Big Lebowski, Fargo, and No Country for Old Men. One review mentioned that Josh Brolin’s studio fixer, Eddie Mannix (loosely based on an actual human being with that name), slaps a woman early on in the film, a moment I presume is played for laughs. I can’t tell you how I feel about it in the context of this 50’s set caper, whether its presentation is problematic or a wry commentary on the subjugation of women at the time, but whatever it’s doing there it is done with purpose. The Coens are renowned for nothing if not being scrupulous, every line, gesture, and detail serving to fill out the character of each film’s word.

Or do they?

Precisely the point.

In comparison to their aforementioned works, Hail, Caesar! finds the Coens in their sunniest mode in quiet some time. When not curdling their audience’s blood with unbearable tension in their more recent thrillers, their comedies of the past decade have been of a more ‘existential dread’ variety, usually with sudden, unsatisfying conclusions that are, again, precisely the point. Jovial viewing this does not always make. That the Coens have made something so untaxing to the cerebrum, so outright goofy, is something of a small miracle these days. As a book I’ve recently read says, we should be grateful for ‘small mercies.’

Hail, Ceasar! is, simply put, the Coens’ ode to old Hollywood. Every kind of movie your parents watched as you were growing up – and therefore the ones the Coens watched growing up, too – is not only paid homage but replicated with almost terrifying exactitude. It’s perhaps none-more-obvious in Channing Tatum’s dance number, featured in most trailers and TV spots as oblivious to its own homoeroticism. But broad as those comic beats are, Tatum literally resurrects the spirit of Gene Kelly, creating a number that looks like it was ripped straight of the unused negatives of Anchors Aweigh, sans the cartoon mouse. Similarly, the westerns of John Wayne, the musicals of Bubsy Berkley, and most ostentatiously, the swords-and-sandals epics of Kubrick and De Mille are all given their due here.

The Coens’ eye for casting has always been one of their strongest suits, and it serves to bolster these homages, and the story that frames them, enormously. Fresh-faced Alden Ehrenreich (of the Twilight knock-off, Beautiful Creatures) gets a star-making turn here as Hobie Doyle, the John Wayne-lite whose decent heart but utter lack of talent derails the making of a Laurence Olivier-esque drama the studio forces him into to better his image, much to the consternation of Ralph Fiennes’ director (who doesn’t do nearly enough comedies, as he’s always a delight in them.) George Clooney once again makes himself a fool for the Coens as Baird Whitlock, the air-headed matinee idol who’s kidnapping is the catalyst of this movie. Seriously, his facial expressions, constantly floating from shock to cocksure and back to shock, are maybe the funniest thing in this movie. And Josh Brolin brings real tenderness and, when needed, a truly fearsome screen presence to Mannix, seemingly the only one who runs this studio and tries to take all of his stars’ and starlets’ bumblings with good grace, all the while caught between the dilemma of whether he should do what he knows he’s good at or consider more ‘serious’ opportunities on the horizon.

The mentions of about four of the film’s stars barely even scratches the surface of the star-studded ensemble here, from Scarlett Johansson to Jonah Hill to Tilda Swinton. Even the bit parts are a who’s-who of character actors, from the likes of Fred Melamed and Clancy Brown, to goddamn Michael Gambon narrating the fuckin’ thing, his presence not only omnipotent in its observations of Mannix’s Sisyphean struggles, but of the inherent battle between art and commerce that is making movies. In this sense, this finds the Coens’ predilection for subtext at its most surface-level.

Of course, does this all mean it’s a good movie? I tend to need other reviewers to point out the things I don’t see and recontextualize my thoughts for me. I don’t think the Coens can make a bad movie. At the very least, I don’t think they could ever make a boring one. And Hail, Caesar! is not nearly as opaque as the likes of A Serious Man or Inside Lleywn Davis (thank the Lord.) Though you’ve no doubt noticed the massive list of stars attached to this movie, and though they are all perfectly cast, therein lies the rub. Many of these stars have only one or two scenes and don’t ever really connect with the other. As such, the movie feels like a series of very strongly conceived character sketches that are attached to a story that just doesn’t really have the emotional push it needs to be truly worth investing in, despite the zaniness of its kidnapping plot and a burgeoning Communist revolution. So again, a bad movie? By no means! But on the scale of their comedies, it’s no O Brother, Where Art Thou?

Sullivan’s Travels must be one of the Coens’ favorite movies. (In fact, O Brother takes its name from the fictitious novel that Joel McCrea’s director wants to adapt.) Hail, Caesar! feels like the Coens’ attempt to step back in time and make their own version of Travels. The central storyline, of a man torn between working for the ‘circus’ versus the ‘serious,’ only to realize the value of entertainment, is reflected almost exactly. The Coens are the rare breed of filmmaker that can flit between the starkly dramatic and the completely screwball and create classics in both while never losing the trademarks that are unmistakably ‘theirs.’ In that sense, one cannot not recommend seeing this movie. Even in their stumbles, major or minor, the Coens offer you stunning craftsmanship and things you’ve never seen before. How many movies can you say that about?

This Is a Test (Podcast Prototype #1)

So I’ve said it before, but I have trouble focused enough to write thorough, coherent criticism of something. That’s why this blog updates as infrequently as it does.

To try and combat this, I’ve decided to go the route my long-suffering high school theater teacher Pam Slawson tried: to have me record my thoughts out loud as opposed to writing them out. This is not a promise that all future updates will be podcasts, or that they’ll even be super frequent. But it will, if nothing else, allow for a little more immediacy.

This is a real shot-in-the-dark stab at podcasting. It’s about 20 minutes long, and I recorded it by myself on the Voice Memos app on my iPhone in my dining room. I was worried it might sound too echo-y, but it sounded okay to me. Apologies in advance if it doesn’t to you. I don’t currently have any ‘professional’ sound editing software or recording equipment, and I’m still figuring out the process of posting these things. The easiest way seemed to be through SoundCloud, since I already an account with them to keep track of other podcasters/musicians I follow, and they actually have a tool that lets you embed their audio player in WordPress.

This recording is about 20 minutes long and covers my reactions to the two short films my good friend Will Raisl recently starred in: Creamed and Cool Guy. (Links included in the titles) Again, this my by myself, no notes, on an iPhone in my dining room. I am planning to record with a friend this coming weekend (someone with actual equipment and a personality), so who knows? Maybe this could become a regular thing.

Let me know what you guys think.

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.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (July 23, 1967 – February 2, 2014)

It’s been over a week, but that hasn’t dulled the loss. They say they go in threes, and, of the more famous ones, he was preceded by Pete Seeger and followed by Shirley Temple. Still this one stood out a little more. His was maybe the most impactful death to me since Roger Ebert’s. Still, in all of these scenarios, he did not have the understandable circumstance of old age.

I remember stepping out of the shower on Superbowl Sunday and getting a text. “Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead,” it said. And for a second I genuinely thought I would cry. And then I didn’t. And then I chastised myself. Why would you cry for this man you didn’t know, I aked? Sure, it’s sad. But talented people die all the time. We get on with our lives. And get on I did. I met my friend for lunch. I watched my first Superbowl. I strained my vocal chords with excitement. I had some badass guacamole. Overall, it was a pretty good day. And yet throughout it, I kept looking up obituaries, tweets, Facebook statuses; outpourings of grief for this unique and prodigious talent and, what seems to be unanimously agreed upon, a gentle soul. I find it funny that the two Facebook statuses I put up that day were an all-lowercase statement of mourning and an all-caps exclamation of hometown pride. It’s weird when those days happen.

He clearly meant something to me. Means. He clearly means something to a lot of us. Many have already expressed their grief with more eloquence than I will do here, but I thought I’d say my small piece, to try and figure out what that meaning, that connection to this man I’ve never met, was.

I think the first time I ever saw Phil Hoffman was in Patch Adams. I was probably eight years old, and I certainly did not know his name. Patch Adams, for those of you who don’t remember, was the Robin Williams comedy-drama ‘Based on a True Story’ about a doctor who shakes up the uptight medical system with his excessive happiness and doing clown routines for cancer-stricken kids. I remember Patch Adams was one of the first movies that moved me to tears, along with the likes of Erin Brockovich and Dead Poets Society, and that taught me what an unbelievable catharsis that could be. That Patch Adams is on that list is something of an embarrassment to me, as the film was maligned, then and now, for being unrelentingly, brazenly emotionally manipulative. But I always remembered Hoffman. He played Mitch, Adams’ stuffy, studious roommate. Y’know, the one who goes by the book until the free spirit’s alternative methods bring him around. It’s the definition of a thankless role. But Hoffman played it earnestly. Not obviously, but earnestly. And when the inevitable confrontation between Mitch and Patch comes, Hoffman screams, “You make my work a joke,” you believe him. Believed. Believe.

I don’t remember the ‘Ah ha!’ moment of learning who Philip Seymour Hoffman was, though it wasn’t until much later. I think it might have been around the time he starred as the villain of Mission: Impossible III (easily the best thing in it) and pulled off his first (and only) Oscar win for the eponymous role in Capote (he would be nominated three more times for Charlie Wilson’s War, Doubt, and The Master, respectively.) I can – and have – gone on at length about his excellence in any of these roles. Perhaps the filmmaker who most understood his talents was Paul Thomas Anderson, the American auteur who paired Hoffman to entirely distinct roles in almost all of his films (the exceptions being There Will Be Blood and the forthcoming Inherent Vice,) shuttling him from his debut cameo as an obnoxious Vegas gambler in Hard Eight to his breakout role as the achingly awkward, repressed Scotty in Boogie Nights. There’s his beautifully understated compassion in Magnolia’s Phil Parma, and his angry, belligerent Dean ‘Mattress Man’ Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (watching him scream over the phone at Adam Sandler to shut up is one of cinemas’ most underrated comedic gems.) Then there’s The Master’s loquacious, pompous cult leader Lancaster Dodd, whose verbal square-off with Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell as he attempts to initiate him through ‘Processing’ was among the most well-written, well-acted scenes of the year, and arguably of movie history.

Hoffman was also, unsurprisingly, prolific in the theater, plying his trade at both performing and directing. He joined the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York, which he later became co-artisitic director of with fellow actor John Ortiz. It was there that he met his longtime romantic partner, costume designer Mimi O’Donnell, while directing a production of In Arabia We’d All Be Kings. Hoffman’s Broadway performances garnered him several Tony nominations (for True West, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, and Death of a Salesman, respectively,) though he directed many, many more.

I know I’ll get the details of this wrong, but one of Hoffman’s early theatrical roles was a collaboration with my parents. Well, one of them at least. In the late 80’s, CARE New York produced “One World Rap,” a school play of sorts designed to educate inner-city youth on the importance of education and the privilege we in the West have over much the developing world. Hoffman – honest to Christ – starred as Robbie, a student with a boombox and a passion for rap who, if my mother is to be believed, repeatedly chants the refrain of “WE!/ALL!/LIVE IN ONE WORLD!!!” I hope someone somewhere has a video of this. If not, I hope somebody somewhere was fired for something.

One of Hoffman’s Off-Broadway productions, Robert Glaudini’s Jack Goes Boating, eventually became his only foray into film directing. As Jack, Hoffman also starred as a shy, lonely blue-collar limo driver who enjoys getting high with his only two discernable friends, married couple Cylde (Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and keeps his hair in short, matted dreadlocks. Clyde and Lucy set him up on a blind date with the equally shy, lonely Connie (Amy Ryan), and the film follows their slow, gentle courtship while their friends’ marriage concurrently disintegrates. Hoffman approached the material and his actors – himself included – with an utter lack of vanity. Jack is tired and worn-down and schlubby, and so is Connie. But there is a spark of life within and between them. Though their awkwardness is certainly used for laughs, they are not laughable. Hoffman reveals their layers with an objective realism that belies true warmth and tenderness, as these two come to realize that they are loved and loveable. It is maybe my favorite performance of his.

It may not mean much coming from someone who’s not a professional actor, but Philip Seymour Hoffman was and is an inspiration to me. I remember Jim Carrey was the first celebrity whose name I ever knew, and is still the only whose movies I will see based on his name alone. I remember being in awe of his elasticity, his faces, his voices, the way he contorted his body, how all these reduced me to stitches. I remember how bold and admirable I thought it was that he had this willingness (some might say need) to do anything for a laugh and to throw himself headlong into it, and much to the chagrin of my friends and family, I emulated him religiously. I also remember being inspired by Jack Black in middle school, a man who had the same comedic confidence as Carrey but who was closer to my body type, being moved by a man who shared attributes with me that I was all too painfully aware of and seemed to embrace them, and I, too, emulated him. But as I grew older and more interested in acting beyond being ‘The Funny Guy,’ I looked to Hoffman more and more. Here was a chubby, average-looking man who would not stand out in a crowd. A total dude, if you will. And yet he possessed incredible gifts, presence and range and integrity and who commanded your respect and attention. His filmography is host to a variety of characters performed with incredible honesty. It may sound cheesy, but I honestly find myself, when I am having trouble with a role, wondering, “How would Phil Hoffman do it? How would he look? How would he sound?” Of his performances I have seen, there are a great many that I wish were mine. I know that sounds shallow and vain, but it’s true. He was that fucking good.

Hoffman had a prolific career, and he certainly wasn’t slowing down before he passed. He recently been announced as the star of upcoming Showtime series Happyish, and had just been at the Sundance Film Festival promoting God’s Pocket, the directorial debut of fellow actor John Slattery, as well as music video director Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. He was also finishing up  work on his role as Plutarch Heavensbee in the two-part Hunger Games finale, Mockingjay. Literally the day before he died, I read that Hoffman had just announced plans for his sophomore film as director, Ezekiel Moss, a period piece with supernatural elements, and Jake Gyllenhaal and Amy Adams attached to star. I was excited.

I remembered reading, almost a year ago, an article – most likely on the front page of the IMDB – describing how Hoffman had checked himself into rehab for snorting heroin. Not injecting, not ingesting, snorting. He had relapsed only a week prior and was released only a week later. I wondered, first and foremost, how much a week of rehabilitation would actually help someone who had fallen off the wagon so quickly. But then I also wondered how big the media shitstorm surrounding Hoffman would be, the public outcry. How could he?! The SHAME of an Academy Award-winning actor – with three children! – who stooped so low as to do heroin. I braced myself for the torrent …Only it didn’t come. I think I might’ve been the only person I knew who knew of what had happened. And I didn’t bring it up because, I dunno, it didn’t feel right? Something like that? I’ve often wondered why that was.

I have, without even trying, been kept up to date on several stages of Justin Beiber’s DUI arrest. I also learned that he was accused of egging someone’s house. I don’t feel particularly strongly about Beiber one way or the other, as an artist or a person, but I do believe that he is another in a long line of celebrities that will be chewed up and spat out and shit upon, because we as a society do that.  To what end I’m not certain; to feel vindicated in our intelligence? Our comparative lack of wealth?  Either way, we have mocked the downfall of many a celebrity before and will certainly mock many more to come.

…But not Phil Hoffman. Why? Because he was clearly smart? Talented? Did he seem like a nice guy? Did we think his accomplishments made him a nice guy? Did we just like him more? Either way, seeing Hoffman’s face on the cover of People and the words ‘His Tragic Final Days’ emblazoned next to him… It feels more personal. Not in the ‘it happened to me’ sense, but in as much it’s somehow easier to imagine what his family is going through. I don’t know.

I read many a Facebook status expressing bewilderment with the concept of addiction and why Hoffman would have used such a dangerous substance in the first place? Surely he knew the dangers associated, so why would he take such leave of his senses. I’m not an addict (not a chemical one, at least,) but the way I see it is this. I used to look down pretty on substance use in general, but especially on addicts. I believed that they were selfish and impulsive and deserved every misfortune that came their way, death included. I also felt similarly about depressed people. There were people in my high school who were depressed, so much so many of them cut their wrists. I made fun of these people to their faces, and I insisted that their problems were not real, and to these people I am sorry every day.

That’s because I eventually became a victim of depression. I didn’t go looking for it, I wasn’t trying to get attention. It found me. It came completely out of the blue and knocked the wind out of me, and for six months I was terrified of living, and then spent another six months trying to ignore that terror as much as possible before I finally committed to therapy. There were times when I genuinely wanted to die, or if not die, stay asleep forever, because waking up meant confronting my life, which had suddenly become so hard and cold and helpless. I am lucky that I had the support group that I had, and that I was able to not turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism, and that I’ve been able to work to a place where I worry about how I’ll be able to give my life meaning instead of if I want to live it at all. I’m lucky. Many others are not.

I know why I felt way I did about addiction and depression. We as a society are trained to see mental problems not as diseases but as faults of character. These two articles sum it up pretty well. And besides, I don’t imagine most addicts realize their addicts until they’re addicted. I mean, isn’t that what a disease is? You’re not sick until you’re infected. There’s a reason people don’t start off doing heroin.

I’m sure that even though it didn’t become an enormous story, having his personal troubles in the public arena was more than Hoffman could bear. Still, I wonder if his relapse becoming a more public story might have helped keep him on the straight and narrow. Maybe it would’ve just made it worse. Maybe he shouldn’t have been in New York at that place and that time. Maybe he shouldn’t been working so hard; maybe he should’ve been working more. Maybe he’d never have become an addict if it weren’t for something from his past, so far away and so personal that nobody but him could know what it was. Or maybe, in the end, there was nothing that anybody – not even Philip Seymour Hoffman – could do. And maybe that’s the saddest thing of all.

He is survived by Mimi O’Donnell and their three children.

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Grant’s Movies of 2013: The Favorites (Pt. 2)

The Rabbi’s Cat

Directed by Joann Sfar & Antoine Delesvaux

Screenplay by Joann Sfar & Sandrina Sardel

Based on the Comic Book Series by Joann Sfar

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Once more I fudge my rules, but this exceptionally weird, very, very French film got the most limited of limited releases in 2012 when it was listed as a potential wild card nominee for Best Animated Feature at last year’s Oscars (it ultimately wasn’t). Set in 1920s Algeria, this adaptation of Joann Sfar’s series of graphic novels begins when a rabbi’s hairless cat eats a talking parrot and gains the ability of speech. The cat is in love with the rabbi’s daughter, the beautiful (and realistically designed – for once) Zlabya, but the rabbi fears the cat’s deceitful and self-serving tongue to be an ill influence on his daughter and forbids him to come near her. Determined to prove his newfound commitment to Judaism, the cat badgers the rabbi for a bar mitzvah, and from there the story spirals outward to feature visitations from a cousin who live with lions, a Russian painter stowed away in a shipment of smuggled books, an epic quest for a fabled African Jerusalem, and none-too-kind parodies of Belgian reporter-detectives and their dogs. Along the way, the cat learns a thing or two about humility. But not much.

If I lost you at ‘The Cat Talks After It Eats a Parrot,’ chances are this is not your film. But like The Croods before it, The Rabbi’s Cat makes it onto the list for the litany of sights and sounds that are wholly original to itself, albeit with a much more laidback, contemplative tone than The Croods’ manic energy. Seemingly emulating the Marjane Satrapi model of self-adaptation (Persepolis, Chicken with Plums), Sfar guides us through his worldview of religion and its potential for grace and for harm, all filtered through his wry comic sensibilities. It doesn’t hang together particularly well, as it lurches from one scenario to the next and crowbars its philosophical points into the dialogue with little care. But you’re unlikely to see a film that both entertains with such imagination and asks difficult questions about life and religion and existence with the gentle, funny touch that this does.

It deserves praise, if nothing else, for this rarest of moments depicted on-screen: two people of different faiths calmly debating the pros and cons of their and the other’s religion and enjoying each other’s company immensely.

The Act of Killing

Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer

Co-Directed by Christine Cynn & Anonymous

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I wrote a pretty extensive piece of this film in this blog post. Steven Boone’s review, which inspired me to see the film, is maybe one of the finest pieces of film criticism I’ve ever read. Come to think of it, Matt Zoller Seitz’s thoughts on it aren’t half bad, either. I’m not what else there is to say, other than this: ‘Fascism’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days, so much so that it’s almost as ubiquitous as  ‘Hipster’: a word to describe a certain mindset that’s become so malleable that it’s lost all meaning. But it’s important to understand how we as human beings construct our image of ourselves. How we bend and filter the information around us to suit our needs. And how we process our memories to make them our struggles and our triumphs. And how that allows things like genocide to happen. The Act of Killing does that with a power that few films have ever had. (Maybe second only to Waltz with Bashir.)

Any documentary with a message and a halfway decent editing crew can make you angry and sad and sick to your stomach. It’s easy to choose not to watch them. I often don’t. And that’s perfectly understandable.

See it.

Byzantium

Directed by Neil Jordan

Screenplay by Moira Buffini and Based on Her Play “A Vampire Story”

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It’s fair to say that vampires, as far as cinema is concerned, have become blasé. They’re an aloof, chiseled, veeerrry horny species affixed with permanent scowls who for some reason can’t stop fighting werewolves. And sometimes, they sparkle!

Y’know, the bloodlust is a metaphor for sex and it’s really all about the hunger within ourselves blah blahbidy blah.

Y’know, the bloodlust is a metaphor for sex and it’s really all about the hunger within ourselves blah blahbidy blah.

That said, when Neil Jordan, who’s Interview with the Vampire arguably created the template for the modern-day movie vampire, returns to the genre two decades later, you sit up and pay attention. And when that film decides to use vampirism as a metaphor for institutionalized misogyny …well, you pay attention to that as well.

Luminously shot by Sean Bobbitt (whose work here is second only to his work on 12 Years a Slave), Byzantium follows the story of teenage vampire Eleanor (Soairse Ronan) and her mother, Clara (Gemma Arterton), in modern day England. Eleanor, who repeatedly writes the story of her birth and transformation only to tear it up and throw it to the wind, only drinks the blood of those she knows are ready for death. Clara, who supports them by stripping and hooking, is not quite so discerning. When a close call with the Brethren, a patriarchal organization that has been chasing Clara and Eleanor for centuries, ends (spectacularly) violently, the girls flee to an English coastal town. There they meet the lonely, pitiable Noel (Daniel Mays), who mentions that his recently deceased mother has bequeathed him the dilapidated Byzantium Hotel. Convincing Noel that the two of them are sisters, Clara moves them into the Byzantium, promptly begins renovations, and enrolls Eleanor in the local school. Eleanor meets Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a hemophilic dying of Leukemia, who is immediately attracted to her and knows that something is up. Of course, for all her better instincts, Eleanor can’t help but be drawn to FranK, too. And do you think that this newfound idyll is too good to be true, and the Brethren are still hot on their tail?

There’s certainly a lot of familiarity to Byzantium’s framework, and perhaps that just comes with the territory. But what makes it such a joy to watch is the strength with which it is written and performed. To call Ronan’s performance excellent is redundant, but it is. Arterton, who’s essentially been misused almost her entire career, finally gets a chance to shine as Clara, whose abusive backstory and callous disregard for life makes her a potent mix of sympathy and terror. Similarly, May’s Noel (a performance that is almost certainly underrated even by those who saw it) easily checks a lot of the schlubby loser boxes, but he also brings an awareness and sensitivity to Noel that makes his sadness even more pathetic. (“Y’see, I know what your sister’s doing,” he tells Eleanor. “The thing is: I just don’t care.”) Jones, whose creepy, sweaty ginger face bothers me, actually overcomes those handicaps in the Frank, revealing his inner strength and letting you get why he and Eleanor fall for each other as deeply and as quickly as they do. And if you need a villain, it’s hard for them to come more despicable than Johnny Lee Miller’s Ruthven, who despite being relegated to flashbacks, practically coats the screen in a film of slime every time he appears. (“I have given you your profession. Whore,” he chillingly spits at Clara.)

Some might argue about the effectiveness of Buffini’s misogyny metaphors (I personally found them compelling enough.) And you certainly can’t call much of what happens in Byzantium original. And what does a girl who’s been alive for two centuries need to go to school for in the first place? But the truth is that when everything started coming to a head, I found myself both very, very fearful for and of our protagonists. I don’t know many movies that have made me feel that in the same breath. And that’s why Byzantium is on this list.

It is also home to what is perhaps 2013’s most effective, disturbing, beautifully shot gore (again, second only to 12 Years a Slave.)