My Month in Film: January 2015

January turned out to be the all-television month, as threatened. Unfortunately I got way behind on watching and writing this month so I didn’t produce as much content as I wanted to. Hopefully I will be able to rectify that next month.

This month’s content

Television: Darknet

Television: Black Mirror

For Cinema Axis

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Other movies I watched this month include…

A scene from HIGH ANXIETY

High Anxiety (Mel Brooks, 1977)

“Top floor! Top of the hotel! You can’t get any higher! We’re pretty high!”

This is one of my favorite Mel Brooks movies and I think it tends to get a bit lost under the collective shadow of The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles…not that those are unworthy efforts, an I’m certainly not going to claim they’re not as good as High Anxiety, but there’s just something about Brooks taking on Hitchcock that hits my sweet spot.

Brooks manages to transcend the Master while simultaneously parodying and pastiching him, which he does by deconstructing the Hitchcock formula to the point where you can see how just about any story can get the same treatment and still work. It’s got enough small references to please the nitpicking suspense fan (“A Mr. McGuffin called and asked that your room be moved…”) while being broadly funny enough to entertain the average filmgoer (I will never get tired of hearing Brooks exclaim “Professor Little Old Man!” or watching him react to the incidental music). It also showcases Brooks’s skills as a visual stylist, which is not an element of his filmmaking that many seem to notice. (The conversation between Harvey Korman and Cloris Leachman, shot from underneath the glass table, is brilliant.)

It is a bit uneven, I’ll admit, with the cast’s weak link being Brooks himself: it was only his first speaking leading role (his first actual lead role was Silent Movie), and he doesn’t seem entirely comfortable. The triple-threat of Korman, Leachman, and of course the great Madeline Kahn more than make up for it. She’s the only person who could wear a Luis Vuitton-patterned pantsuit while standing next to a similarly-patterned Cadillac and make it look like the most natural thing in the world. If anyone ever tells you that women aren’t funny, punch him in the face and show him High Anxiety.

A scene from APOCALYPSE NOW

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)

I’m sure I’m about to commit some form of unforgivable heresy here, but I do not love Apocalypse Now and I don’t think I ever will. I recognize it as a Quality Motion Picture, there’s no doubt about that, but there is just something about it that simply does not appeal to me. It is not that it is long and slow, and it is not that it often seems (at least to me) like not a whole heck of a lot happens.

I think the reason I don’t care for it is that it’s just so numbing. It seems to hit the outer limits of what it’s going to be like as an experience pretty early on, and from there I generally find that unless some sort of wild freak-out happens, I get kinda hypnotized by the visuals and the sound and the noise and I sort of lose track of what’s actually going on. This is the third or fourth time I’ve seen this film, and I cannot tell you a single thing that happens between Robert Duvall exiting the film and Dennis Hopper entering it.

I think that’s probably the point, though: that Vietnam during the war was sort of like this pocket universe of madness and evil and as soon as you enter it, you know you’ve entered the belly of the whale, that everything not forbidden is permitted and you’ll find yourself writing off the most insane atrocities as routine occurrences. It’s like the room on the other side of the sliding metal door in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, only it’s the size of a country and the entire, and I mean entire, film happens there.

I understand why people think it’s a great film, and I agree, it probably is a great film. But it’s the sort of thing I watch out of a feeling of duty.

A scene from BIRDMAN

Birdman (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2014)

The interesting thing about Birdman, at least for me, is the title. As a word, “birdman” implies jazz–“Bird” was Charlie Parker’s nickname, after all. Watching Birdman is like watching an improvised bebop performance featuring musicians at the top of their game. The dialog is often percussive and even the rhythm of the editing suggests jazz. Of all the idiocies contained in this year’s Oscar nominations, the disqualification of Antonio Sanchez’s sublime score is one of the most painful. I can’t think of the last score I heard that was so integral to the success of the movie.

As such, this is an actor’s showcase, and the best moments are the “actorly” moments: Michael Keaton kawk-ing like a bird during an internal monologue or wandering around Times Square in his briefs; Zach Galifanakis trying his level best to be more concerned with friendship than money; Emma Stone delivering her “You had a career before the third comic book movie” speech; Lindsay Duncan being a snob; and Edward Norton doing…well, pretty much anything. This is really Norton’s movie, not Keaton’s.

…to be honest, I wasn’t quite as impressed with Keaton as everyone else is. That doesn’t mean he’s bad here, far from it. I just think his role here is like Bill Murray’s in Zombieland, in that you have to reflexively associate the actor with a specific role in order for it to work. If you don’t look at Keaton and immediately think, “Yeah, that’s Batman,” you’re sunk. And, to me, Keaton will always be a wiseass comic actor, the guy from Night ShiftMr. MomJohnny DangerouslyMultiplicity, stuff like that.

But, yeah, beautiful movie, a great example of how a film can be musical. Lovely.

A scene from THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

The Theory of Everything (James Marsh, 2014)

Like most recent high-profile biodocs, this is a shamelessly emotionally manipulative piece that only skims the surface of its subject, refusing to go for a bit of insight or a glimpse of the person behind the façade. (The Hawkings’ divorce has to be the most magnanimous split I’ve ever seen, and yet it’s so sudden–the Other Woman barely registers before Hawking announces he’s running off to California or something with her.) I actually feel kind of guilty for rating this as high as I am, but…

…I’ll be honest with you here, Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones put in amazing performances here and that pretty much makes up for the flaws. Redmayne has been getting a lot of good notices here which he well deserves; I’m not sure how to describe the nuances but if you compare Redmayne to Chadwick Boseman in Get on Up you see the difference between embodying a real-life personality as opposed to just doing an impression of him. I liked Boseman in that movie, he was actually the one reliably good thing about it, but Redmayne works at a much higher level.

I will also give the story a bit of credit and admit that the first third of the film is the strongest: the chunk that introduces us to Steven Hawking the Heroic if Awkward Young Scientist before the ALS hits and the movie turns into a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit or whatever. The portrayal of Young Nerds in Love at Oxbridge was quite charming, and Redmayne and Jones make the cutest couple.

A scene from BEGIN AGAIN

Begin Again (John Carney, 2013)

Honestly, I did not expect to like this one–it looked like a tepid romantic comedy–but I was pleasantly surprised! It’s just likable, through and through, without becoming blandly or cloyingly so. Mark Ruffalo puts in one of the best overlooke performances of 2014, Keira Knightley can actually sing, Hailee Steinfeld becomes the current go-to actress for the “teen girl whose parents do not approve of her wardrobe” stereotype, and James Cordren is James Cordren and bless him for that.

No, it’s not perfect–the songs have the feel of songs written specifically for movies, Steinfeld’s guitar solo is a bit too unbelievable, and Adam Levine derails his character by…well, being Adam Levine (you can tell he’s a douche-nozzle the minute he steps into frame). But it’s the perfect combination of charm and idealism, and I really appreciated how the script didn’t feel the need to pair off Ruffalo and Knightley by the end.

A scene from RIVER'S EDGE

River’s Edge (Tim Hunter, 1986)

This is, as Todd Liebenow so rightly points out on an episode of Forgotten Filmcast that probably hasn’t been released yet, a sort of anti-John-Hughes-teen-angst movie, starring Keanu Reeves as the sort of kid John Bender would have been if he’d been real. It’s a dark, grim affair, set in a town that looks like it hasn’t seen a day that wasn’t overcast in several decades, run-down homes, bad parents, and the like.

It has a very powerful sense of realism, particularly if you remember the “Satanic panic” of the mid-to-late-’80s and the suspicion with which society viewed clumps of teenagers who listened to metal and punk and dressed the part. If you knew burnouts when you were in school, you probably knew kids like these. If you were a burnout, you definitely did.

There are some great performances here: Dennis Hopper as a drug-addled paranoid, a character not far removed from his role in Blue Velvet; Joshua John Miller, who perfected the “brooding tween” archetype at the tender age of twelve; Daniel “Mr. Arzt” Roebuck as the dead-eyed killer; even Reeves, playing a sort of evil twin to Ted Logan. This is the sort of role that he made his name playing, before he overreached a bit and became a national punchline. Only Crispin Glover’s hammy (“What do you know about Feck!?”), flamboyant, wildly gesticulating performance disappoints.

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Coming in February: Time to play 2014 catch-up, with CalvaryCam2CamThe Double, Filth, FrequenciesFrankGone GirlOculus all likely candidates for the docket. Beyond that, March is planned as an all-retro month, and I’m considering Enter the VoidFear and Loathing in Las VegasHeathersOver the Edge, and Time After Time for that.

2 thoughts on “My Month in Film: January 2015

  1. I can understand why you didn’t love Apocalypse Now. You may like the documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse because you get to see all of the crazy shit that went on in making that movie. I watched that first and it made me respect and love it even more. I was going to pass on Begin Again, and High Anixiety but your review made me want to check iem out.

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    1. Yeah, I have always wanted to see Heart of Darkness. I’ve heard some of the stories about the making of Apocalypse Now and they’re reminiscent of some of the wilder stories going around about the Fitzcarraldo shoot.

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