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Jennifer Jason Leigh

Annihilation

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Annihilation

With his new film Annihilation, director Alex Garland is attempting bold, exhilarating science fiction that is on par with a master of the genre, the late Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. The science fiction films that Tarkovsky made used fantastic settings and circumstances to explore the human condition. His film Solaris is a meditation on grief and acceptance that takes place on a fictional planet with mysterious powers. Stalker involves characters who wish to travel to “The Zone,” a place that contains a room that can fulfill a person’s innermost desires. Annihilation also uses a cosmic, head-trip scenario to examine human fears, mostly our collective fear of being wiped out of existence. Garland is masterful at creating a mood of existential dread and using a sci-fi backdrop to employ glorious, overwhelming imagery, but his movie never really gets below the surface of its premise.

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Good Time

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Good Time

Good Time is as much about its setting, New York City, as it is its characters or plot. As someone who’s never been, I still have a relationship with it, albeit one forged through the images and aesthetics of the movies. In my mind, it’s a city that is constantly in motion. As a child, I took the slogan “The City That Never Sleeps” quite literally. Good Time brings that (perhaps fictional) place, and its frenetic characters, to crackling life. It’s evokes films from a bygone era of Big Apple movie making. Images from titles as disparate as Taxi Driver, After Hours, Tootsie, and even My Dinner with Andre swirled in my head as the gritty expanse of Good Time’s version of New York opened up before me.

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Anomalisa: These puppets definitely aren't kid friendly

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Anomalisa: These puppets definitely aren't kid friendly

My initial reaction to Charlie Kaufman’s new film, Anomalisa, was to call it his most solipsistic work yet. The central character, Michael, is a famous self-help author who has a little problem with the way he relates to other people. While watching the film, I interpreted his problem (I don’t want to spoil this central plot point of the movie, so I’ll try to dance around it) as a way for Kaufman to explore one man’s narcissism. His rather unique inability to connect with those around him seemed like a study in self-absorption. Then I did some homework on the movie.

The screenplay is an adaptation from Kaufman’s own 2005 play, written for a unique artistic endeavor called “Theater of the New Ear.” It was a series created by musician and film composer Carter Burwell, and it was an attempt to bring to life the old live action radio plays of the 1930s and 1940s. The actors were seated at desks on stage, reading their lines while a live orchestra and foley artist created the music and sound effects. When I came across the pseudonym Kaufman used for his play, Francis Fregoli, everything clicked into place. Solipsism and narcissism aren’t what Kaufman is really interested in here, after all. I’ll let you decide if you want to Google Fregoli Syndrome before seeing Anomalisa, but I don’t think knowing the secret would irreparably spoil the movie. Rest assured, he uses the device to explore his trademark preoccupations: existential dread, personal isolation, and general unease with society at large. As is the case with every other work Kaufman has crafted, there are many layers to Anomalisa. It’s a difficult, thought provoking picture, and one that you’ll wrestle with long after you’ve seen it.

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The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight

As if we needed any more confirmation, director Quentin Tarantino has proven again that he is a singular talent. There’s a real irony in what makes his films unique, because his art depends so heavily on referencing other movies. The man is like a cinematic blender; he fills himself with his favorite genres, and he violently liquefies them all into a wholly new product. The product this time is The Hateful Eight, a western that mines such distinct storytelling approaches as both an Agatha Christie drawing room murder mystery and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with more gallons of blood than Brian de Palma’s Carrie.

As big and loud and nauseating and hilarious as the movie is, it’s essentially a small chamber piece with a handful of characters talking to – and sometimes merely at – each other in a room for almost three hours. It could easily (and fascinatingly) be staged as a play. In fact, Tarantino first produced it as a staged reading with cast members like Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern already on board. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross by way of a grindhouse double feature. This eighth film by Tarantino is a blood soaked yarn that is by turns thrilling, disturbing, and troubling, but it further cements the director as a visual stylist and screenwriter who is unrivaled at his craft. The director’s attention to detail, and his loving devotion to the films of the past, is evident from frame one of The Hateful Eight, with an opening shot – filmed in beautiful 70mm Panavision – that is an incredibly slow pan of a gorgeous snow swept landscape.

Westerns are getting the treatment in this movie that he gave to exploitation movies in Grindhouse. If his last film, 2012’s Django Unchained, was an homage to the askew sensibilities of the Spaghetti Western, The Hateful Eight is honoring the classical Hollywood version of the same genre. This is The Alamo if it had been co-directed by Sam Peckinpah and Lucio Fulci. The “roadshow” cut of the film, which is the version I was able to see, even begins with a musical overture in the style of that Western classic. Supplying the overture and the rest of the score is legendary composer Ennio Morricone, whose music is deeply haunting and rich with atmosphere. The man who scored classics like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West a half-century ago has only gotten better, if that’s even possible. Morricone didn’t have time to provide an entire score, so he gave Tarantino permission to license unused tracks that he previously wrote for John Carpenter’s aforementioned The Thing.

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