Monday, December 16, 2013


2013 was a year of strong documentaries (Stories We Tell, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer, Leviathan, Central Park 5), New York City (Frances Ha, Newlyweeds, Gimme The Loot, Mother Of George), more comic book & graphic novel adaptations (Ironman 3, Thor 2, Wolverine, Man Of Steel...Blue Is The Warmest Color), "True Stories" & Bio-pics (Dallas Buyers Club, Behind The Candelabra, The Butler, The Grandmaster, 12 Years A Slave) & frustrating mindfucks (Upstream Color & Outside Satan). Rich people took to kickstarter for handouts they didn't need, Steven Soderbergh had the audacity to challenge filmmakers to do something different yet he gave us Side Effects, two of my all-time favorite filmmakers (Denis & Jarmusch) returned with solid works and we finally got a break from Jessica Chastain for a year.
But once the smoke settled, 2013 was a strange year for cinema overall. There were only a small handful of films that really stood out to me. After that, everything seemed so uneven & disappointing. Some movies started out great but completely fell apart in the 2nd half (Star Trek: In To Darkness) while other movies did the exact opposite (Fruitvale Station). Other films brought things to the table like great cinematography and an excellent ending but the story could have used some tweaking (Mother of George). More than half the stuff I liked this year had some additional baggage or needed an explanation to go along with it; "it was really good, but..." (Bastards) or "personally, I liked it, but..." (Only God Forgives).
Even my top 10 this year had to be broken down in to categories as I honestly couldn't come up with a list of 10 definitive films that were just simply great.

*I've already covered a lot of the movies listed below throughout the year so just click on the titles highlighted in blue to read about them more in depth*

So, in no particular order & broken down into four categories, my top 10 movies of 2013 are...

1-4: The Exceptional
These are, in my humble opinion, the absolute best films of the year that require only a minimal amount of criticism (12 Years A Slave, Before Midnight & Blue Is The Warmest Color) or no criticism at all (Stories We Tell)....
Top: Stories We Tell  /  Before Midnight

5. Under The Radar: Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer
With all the attention documentaries got this year (in my opinion, documentaries were way better than fiction films in 2013) it sucked to see this one not included in with stuff like Stories We Tells, Leviathan & The Act Of Killing.
Not every great film gets a wide release (or any kind of a release at all for that matter). Some films are only shown here & there at special screenings or don't have the budget for promotion so they end up in a strange kind of movie limbo where they exist but not that many people really know about it. I was fortunate enough to catch this documentary, on the life & work of iconic hip-hop photographer; Jamel Shabazz, at a screening at The Brooklyn Academy Of Music. Even if you aren't big on the history of hip-hop culture, Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer offers a somewhat personal glimpse into a different side of Brooklyn than what we're use to seeing in films these days along with some history about the famous borough. This may eventually become a time capsule as the Brooklyn we see in this documentary may be almost non-existent 10-15 years from now...

6-9: Frustrating But Rewarding
These are the films that may have had a serious flaw or two (...or three or four) or may have been dismissed by the general movie-going audience because they seemed "artsy", slow or unappealing. But these movies were still somewhat challenging, slightly different and provided an alternative to a lot of the mainstream films that came out this year...
Top: Leviathan  /  Upstream Color
Bottom: Camille Claudel  /  Outside Satan*

Is it possible to have a film in your top 10 that you find somewhat morally wrong and a little twisted? This is something I'm not completely sold on personally but there's no denying that this is an original work and it's been on my mind since I saw it well over a year ago at TIFF (I missed the last 30 minutes of it and had to watch the rest this year). Unlike the critics at The Christian Science Monitor, I'm able to see the great & challenging qualities The Act Of Killing offers. This movie is so frustrating yet incredibly rewarding that it transcends the previous category and gets its own. Part of me feels like a conservative prude when it comes to my issues with this documentary about former Indonesian death squad members who participate in strange reenactments of the murders they committed years ago. I mean, there's no denying that sounds incredibly original but I honestly think we're getting a little too close to making something like Man Bites Dog (a mockumentary about a murderer) a reality. I know that may sound dramatic (and no one actually gets murdered in The Act Of Killing) but this documentary makes likable characters out of very real murderers (but this isn’t the first documentary to do that).
At the end of the day this is probably the most original & unique documentary of the year which counts for something.


Honorable Mention
No matter how much of a letdown 2013 was overall, it wouldn't be right to sum up an entire year with just the few movies listed above. Below are a few more that I thought were solid, pretty entertaining or just deserve to be mentioned...
Top: Frances Ha  /  Newlyweeds
Bottom: Her /  Nebraska

Honorable Honorable Mention
Here's an interesting group of movies that had some serious problems but contained moments of greatness, carried an important message or provided good entertainment up to a certain point...
Top: Mother Of George  /  The first hour of Star Trek: Into Darkness
Bottom: The last half hour of Fruitvale Station  /  Bits & Pieces of The Place Beyond The Pines

THE PINNLAND EMPIRE SPECIAL JURY PRIZE: films I personally loved but can't include in my top 10 because they honestly don't belong there and I don't wanna get called out on favoritism...

Peter Weller in Star Trek: Into Darkness
Is there a Sci-Fi movie hall of fame? If so, I'm gonna make the assumption that Mr. Weller has already been inducted. Given his surprise supporting role as the other villain in this years' Star Trek: Into Darkness and the Robocop remake right around the corner, I thought I'd take the time out to honor an unsung icon of modern science fiction cinema. 
Besides being the original Robocop (Robert John Burke did a pretty good job after him) AND Buckaroo Banzai (still waitin' on that sequel) this is also the same man who blew up the giant sea monster at the end of Leviathan (1989) and played William S. Burroughs in Cronenberg's adaptation of Naked Lunch (if that isn't science fiction then I don't know what is). I mean honestly - what would modern science fiction film be without Peter Weller?
So in honor of his illustrious career, PINNLAND EMPIRE would like to award him with its first ever lifetime achievement award...

FILMMAKER OF THE YEAR: BRUNO DUMONT (Camille Claudel, 1915 & Outside Satan)

I know half of you are going; "...who?" while the other half of you are going; "HUH?!", but just hear me out...
While everyone from Sarah Polley to Steve McQueen impressed me this year, it's difficult to name a filmmaker in 2013 who topped Bruno Dumont. I know Outside Satan is almost two years old but it didn't get a U.S. release until the beginning of this year so that counts as a 2013 movie as far as I'm concerned. It's one thing for a movie to come out in January/February, which is essentially a death sentence, but a two year old art house movie with an extremely limited release is even worse. Outside Satan was set up to fail in America. This is why I've been such an advocate for it throughout the year. Then a few months after Outside Satan came out, Bruno Dumont was back in the art house spotlight again when his underrated collaboration with the wonderful Juliette Binoche was released in the form of Camille Claudel, 1915.  Simply putting out two movies in a short period of time is a novelty that only goes so far but when you put out two challenging & unique films in the same year that counts for something. Bruno Dumont, who is an acquired taste and a filmmaker I'd be extremely hesitant to suggest to some people, managed to channel the spirit of Fassbinder & old Soderbergh by releasing two great films in the same year. True, both; Outside Satan & Camille Claudel are made for a specific audience but religion & mental illness are still broad topics that affect so many people.
With Outside Satan, Dumont continued to get unique performances out of the non-professional actors he almost always works with, as well as explore themes of faith, religion & good vs. evil without coming of preachy and/or overly religious. He also drew up on the cinema of Carl Theodore Dryer without coming off as a copycat. With Camille Claudel, 1915 he gave the non-professional actors a rest and showed that he can work with well known professional actors like the great Juliette Binoche & Jean-Luc Vincent (dare I say Vincent stole the show from Binoche?)
It would've been nice if Steve Soderbergh had acknowledged the few filmmakers outside of Shane Carruth that are actually making an honest attempt at trying to do something new & different for the art of cinema during his state of the union address at this year's San Francisco Film Festival. Dumont's work will never reach a huge audience and his work will also never be 100% original as he's a student of Bresson, but right now very few directors outside of Carlos Reygadas, Lucrecia Martel, Apichatpong Weeresethakul and a few others are as challenging as him.

A pretty good year for alternative black cinema...
For those of you tired of stuff like The Butler 42 or even 12 Years A Slave & Fruitvale Station to a certain extent (I absolutely hate grouping those last two films in with the first two but I can understand if folks, especially black folks, aren't ready to sit through heavy movies like that) 2013 offered quite a few alternatives to American mainstream "black cinema" more than any recent year I can think of. Black skin seemed to be "in" this year which makes me satisfied for now. If you aren't interested in tales of the first black person to do something or butler/maid stories, films like; Mother Of George (a dramedy centered around an African community in Brooklyn), Gimme The Loot (a coming of age graffiti film with an emphasis on a New York City borough that isn't Manhattan or Brooklyn), Newlyweeds (a stoner comedy/relationship drama), Big Words (a hip-hop film about a has-been underground rap group) offered slightly different stories concerning black people...
Top: Newlyweeds  /  Gimme The Loot
Middle: Mother Of George  /  Big Words
Bottom: Jamel Shabazz: Street Photographer  /  A Band Called Death

A few words on Gravity, Dallas Buyers Club, Inside Llewyn Davis & American Hustle...
I didn't dislike Gravity at all. It was good. Entertaining in fact. But that's about it. I'm really not trying to be the movie-snob who hates the big-budget blockbuster. I'm a fan of Alfonso Curaon for the most part (I think it's pretty awesome that the same man responsible for Mexican art house films like; Solo Con Tu Pareja & Y Tu Mama Tambien is also responsible for Children Of Men & Gravity). But Gravity is the perfect of example of how hype can really work against a film. Before I even saw Gravity I felt like it was pushed on me more than any other movie I can think of this year. It's like I was supposed to love it which is enough to make anyone slightly annoyed & defiant.
I guess it comes down to personal preference. There's no denying that Gravity was a "game-changer" in terms of special & visual effects but I guess I'm just not very wowed by that as much as I should be. If there's one great filmmaking aspect about Gravity it's that Cuaron really did a great job at conveying that tight/claustrophobic feel but hardly anyone talks about that. All anyone seems to care about is how many people worked on the film or how long it took to render each frame of the movie. If that's all most people have to say (which was certainly the case with Gravity) then all I can do is shrug my shoulders at that.
Gravity / Dallas Buyers Club
Dallas Buyers Club put a slightly different face on HIV & AIDS; a Texas rodeo cowboy. Ron Woodruff (as interpreted by Director Jean-Marc Valle and played by Matthew Mcghounehey) wasn't your typical "good guy". He wasn't even all that good. He was an unpleasant homophobe more concerned with business first and the well-being of his "patients" second. I appreciate that we weren't given an average run of the mil good guy that we had no choice but to root for. But at the same time, Dallas Buyers Club was filled with so many clichés that you almost had to laugh at certain points (the sassy gay/transsexual junkie sidekick whose estranged from his disapproving father, the evil pharmaceutical company, the condescending doctor, the homophobe who has a change of heart in the end, etc). I also thought there were way too many scenes that put an emphasis on how much weight the two lead actors lost as opposed to how sick their characters were supposed to be. Furthermore, the phrase "based on a true story" is becoming more & more stretched these days to the point where all bio-pics need to just have a tag line that reads; "some of this stuff actually happened" (like David O. Russell did at the beginning of American Hustle). From Malcolm X to Public Enemies, no movie that's "based on a true story" will ever be completely accurate but in learning about Ron Woodruff's actual life, I couldn't help but be slightly disappointed in Jean-Marc Vallee's take on the story.
But at the same time this was definitely the role Matthew McCougnuhey was born to play more than Killer Joe, Magic Mike, Mud or any other recent film that's turned his career around in the last few years. I can't say the same thing about Jared Leto. All his over-the top cliché mannerisms and sassy gay sidekick one-liners were just silly to me.

American Hustle / Inside Llewyn Davis
In the case of Inside Llewyn Davis & American Hustle, I just wasn't impressed like everyone else in the world clearly was. To be quite honest, I crammed at the last minute and watched both of these this past weekend just to say I saw them (it wouldn't sit right with me making an end of the year review without seeing everything I possibly could). Neither of these were bad but they didn’t really do a whole lot for me either outside of Bradley Cooper's hilariously obnoxious performance & Jeremy Renner's slightly complex character in American Hustle as well as the cinematography of Llewyn Davis (even though something tells me early 1960's New York City didn't look that clean & glossy)
I think if I knew (or cared) more about folk music I'd have more of a connection to Llewyn Davis. But like I'm Not There (Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan film) I felt like the Coen's latest film was filled with a bunch of folk music references & inside jokes that I just didn’t get and it made me feel like an outsider. And was it just me or were parts of it really boring?
American Hustle delivered the most out of all the overhyped films of 2013 but it still felt like a stolen page out of the book of late 90's Scorsese. The more it went on, the more I just felt like watching Casino.

Highlights, Lowlights & other random movie moments from 2013...

Surprisingly good performance: Andrew Dice Clay (Blue Jasmine)

Surprisingly bad performances: Brad Pitt (12 Years A Slave) & Jodie Foster (Elysium)

Underrated Performances: June Squibb & Stacey Keech (Nebraska), Colman Domingo (Newlyweeds), Jean-Luc Vincent (Camille Claudel, 1915), & Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives)

Andrew Dice Clay (L) in Blue Jasmine, June Squibb (R) in Nebraska
Solid Performances: Joaquin Phoenix (Her), Mads Mikkelsen (The Hunt) Tom Hiddleson (Thor 2), Juliette Binoche (Camille Claudel, 1915), Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) & Matthew McCougnuhey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Great performances: Chewital Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender & Lupita Nyong'O (12 Years A Slave), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Adele Exarchopoulos & Lea Seydoux (Blue Is The Warmest Color)

Best weight loss: Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Why are you such an asshole?: Jean Berkley (Carey Mulligan) in Inside Lllewyn Davis

When did Oscar Isaacs transform into David Krumholtz? (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Ulysses the cat (Inside Llewyn Davis)

Inside Llewyn Davis
Everything I hate about American independent film: Somebody Up There Likes Me

Everything I hate about art house cinema: The Unity Of All Things

A good year for film scores: Upstream Color, Bastards, Berberian Sound Studio, Only God Forgives, Maniac, The Place Beyond The Pines, Only Lovers Left Alive

Ray Liotta's short but memorable presence in The Place Beyond The Pines

Louis C.K.'s presence in American Hustle & Blue Jasmine

Didn't see it but the premise alone almost makes me wanna give up on cinema: Grudge Match

The sex scene (if you wanna call it that) in Outside Satan

This movie had no business being that good: Maniac

Not coming out 'til next year but read about now: Only Lovers Left Alive

Literally gave me a headache: Pacific Rim

The cure for insomnia: Stoker

Mad that I missed: The Immigrant & Paradise: Hope

Indifferent about missing: Man Of Steel, World War ZOldboy Captain Philips

Not sure if I'm mad about missing or indifferent about missing: Don Jon & Drinking Buddies

Completely fine w/ missing: way too many to name...

Barton Fink Award: Berberian Sound Studio

Woody Allen award: Frances Ha

Good movie but you did literally steal a scene right out of Leos Carax's Bad Blood: Frances Ha

Cinematography award : Mother Of George

I missed the first 30 minutes or so but I liked everything else I saw: Behind The Candelabra & The Central Park 5

Adele & Emma walk past each other for the first time (Blue Is The Warmest Color)

Lea Seydoux's eye contact in Blue Is The Warmest Color

What was the point of that?: Leonard Nimoy's cameo in Star Trek Into Darkness

Terrence Malick award: Ain't Them Bodies Saints

Only God Forgives
Ghost Dog award: Vithaya Pansringarm (Only God Forgives)

"Wanna fight?" - Ryan Gosling (Only God Forgives)

“I have just traveled ten thousand miles to see the corpse of my first-born son. I haven’t slept in thirty hours. And this BITCH says I can’t have my room.” - Kristin Scott Thomas (Only God Forgives)

"Just go fuck yourselves!" - June Squibb (Nebraska)

"I just wanted to leave you boys somethin'" - Bruce Dern (Nebraska)

Have we gotten all these out of our system now?: The Hangover 3

"good connection" scene in Prince Avalanche

I wanted to. I really wanted to, but 4 hours?: At Berkley

Best 3D movie that wasn't even 3D: Leviathan


Great but strangely overrated at the same time: Leviathan

Great ending: Mother Of George

WTF ending: Bastards

Black & White is trending: Nebraska, Computer Chess & Frances Ha

Can you go back to making good movies already?: Wong Kar Wai

If you're gonna retire, then just retire already: Steven Soderbergh

Guilty pleasure: The Internship

The Internship

Who knew there were so many New Yorkers living in San Francisco: Blue Jasmine (seriously, why didn't you just set the movie in New York if half the cast was going to have New York accents?)

Can we please see more of you in 2014?: Will Forte, Bobby Cannivale, Jeffery Wright, Lola Creton, Viggo Mortensen, Sarah Polley, Ray Liotta, Ray Liotta's laugh, Mads Mikkelsen, Ageliki Papoulia, Alice Houri, Adele Exarchopoulos, Lea Seydoux, Xavier Dolan, Samantha Morton, Cecile De France, Laura Dern, Vincent Cassel, Broken Lizard!

Can we please see less of you in 2014 even though that probably won't happen?: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, James Franco, Jonah Hill, the cast of Stoker, Denzel Washington, Amy Adams, Robert Deniro, Mark Wahlberg

Can we see just as much of you in 2014 as we did in 2013?: Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie & Bob Odenkirk

I'm not sure how I feel about you: Rooney Mara

Ok, we get it: The Butler & 42

Just in case you think my picks are bullshit, read what some past PINNLAND EMPIRE contributors chose as their favorites of 2013...

Laurence Anyways
12 Years A Slave
The Act of Killing
Stories We Tell
Room 237
Beyond the Hills
The Grandmaster*
World's End
Honorable Mention:
ByzantiumThe Counselor
Blue Caprice
Movies from 2012:
Night Across the Street
This Is Not A Film

IAN LOFFILL (Notes & Scriblings)
Blue Jasmine*
Garden of Words
Only God Forgives
The Strange Little Cat 
A Touch of Sin 

Spring Breakers
Upstream Color
Berberian Sound Studio*
Post Tenebras Lux

DOUG FRYE (The Schlock Treatment)

Looking over the list of films released in 2013, I realized that I’ll have to make a top four list, because that’s how many I’ve seen, and half of those in one sitting on an airplane. My year consisted of many episodes of Columbo and whatever turd fell in the Schlock Treatment punchbowl. I can’t add Argo or No, can I? Those are both 2012 releases, but I saw them in January. Sorry, Marcus: in 2014, I will take you up on some of those invitations. I’m just so lazy.

The World’s End* - My review of this is still pending on overcoming the aforementioned laziness, but suffice to say that any of the “Cornetto Trilogy” releases is going to be the film of that year for me. Fantastically conceived, brilliantly executed, and the most direct in expressing the key ideas of the three, The World’s End was just the best. It also featured the first “Human Torture Rack” I’ve seen in years, so style points for that.

Machete Kills - Rodriguez manages to top the over-the-topness of his first feature with Danny Trejo, and make the whole outer space vibe viable. This review is also pending, but this movie basically is style points for 90 minutes. It was a fun ride, but that’s what you have to consider it.

Iron Man 3 - The bronze isn’t that high an award when you get to the last one on this list. Luckily for me, I had this to wash its taste out of my mouth as the second feature on a cross-country flight. You had the usual suspects, good performances by Guy Pearce and running cameo from Ben Kingsley as *SPOILER* himself. It ends on a good note to close that trilogy for Robert Downey, Jr., and we’ll have to wait and see what Avengers 2 holds.

Man of Steel - This one—yeah. I’m still debating whether to write a review or just a list of complaints. Twenty minutes of Krypton to set up the ridiculous reason Zod needs to capture Superman. Thirty minutes of throwing each other through skyscrapers? Wrap it up, guys. Some of us have places to be. That goes for you, too, Peter Jackson. Three movies out of one book? Knock it off.
So, in summation, I have to get out more next year.


12 Years A Slave - Amazing performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, and virtually all cast members made this powerful slave narrative one of the most brutally honest portrayals of white supremacy during the pre-Civil War era. The only issue I have is Brad Pitt’s seemingly forced white saviorism interjected into an otherwise perfect film.

Fruitvale Station - The choice to make the film about Oscar Grant’s final day built a noticeably ominous tension for viewers that was extremely well executed. I only wish more people would have seen it while in theaters.

The Place Beyond the Pines - Thoroughly enjoyed the unique story and I have to admit that scumbag-circus stuntman Ryan Gosling solidified my view that he might be more than zoolander blue steel.

Elysium - I’m a big fan of grimy post-apocalyptic sci-fi movies, especially when they have relevant social commentary and, while Elysium isn’t the greatest film of 2013 it definitely has a rather poignant take on social stratification, the intersectionality of race and class, techno-humanity, exploitation of workers and class struggle, access to health care, as well as a frightening portrayal of citizenship rights and immigration. Although most films can get bogged down in their preachy-ness about social justice, Elysium packages these nicely with enough elements of classic sci-fi and action films to keep the story moving forward.

Valentine Road - HBO’s documentary about the murder of a young transgender/transvariant girl was extremely difficult to watch especially scenes of jury members and teachers participating in victim blaming and sympathizing with her murderer.

Star Trek Into Darkness - Star Trek as an action film just works better for me and purists be-damned, but JJ Abrams has my support in this as well as Star Wars.

The Wolverine - Orientalism and cheesy one-liners aside, it makes my list because it wasn’t X-Men Last Stand or Wolverine Origins.

Behind the Candelabra* - Matt Damon’s coked out eviction scene and Rob Lowe’s role made this already fascinating bio-pic all the more entertaining.

Man of Steel - Even though I really wanted to hate this film, mainly because superman happens to be my least favorite of all superheroes, it turned out to be surprisingly good. It was great to finally see a story about the complexities of being an orphaned alien on an existential journey. I also thought the whole undocumented-alien turned earth refugee vs genocidal intergalactic general bent on eradicating the inferior human race was an interesting choice for a franchise that is usually mired in boring story telling (enough with Lex Luther already!).

To the Wonder*
O Gebo e a Sombra
Spring Breakers
Only God Forgives
The Grandmaster
Like Someone in Love
Upstream Color
As I Lay Dying
Berberian Sound Studio
We Have a Pope
The Great Gatsby
Behind the Candelabra
The Bling Ring
The Conjuring
Before Midnight
Computer Chess
Post Tenebras Lux
Not So Guilty Pleasure:
White House Down

Most Powerful Movie Moments of '13 according to Nathaniel: The Rachel McAdams sequence in To the Wonder; the opening of Post Tenebras Lux; the final scene of We Have a Pope; the Britney Spears montage in Spring Breakers

Reasons to look forward to 2014...
Cyber (Michael Mann), The Unknown Known (Errol Morris), Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch), The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos), Maps To The Stars (David Cronenberg), Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt) Captain America: Winter Soldier, Carol (Todd Haynes), JMW Turner bio-pic (Mike Leigh), Under The Skin (Jonathan Glazer), Expendables 3


This year I decided to do a Christmas movie for The Pink Smoke instead of PINNLAND. When you have a moment, click on over there and read my thoughts on Kubrick's final film, along with some other alternative Christmas movies to get you in the spirit...

Merry X-mas


Wednesday, December 11, 2013


I didn't expect to enjoy Spike Jonze’s latest film as much as I did. And I assure you that all the recent hype surrounding it had nothing to do with swaying my opinion (I actually have quite a few problems with Her that we'll get in to momentarily). I've avoided most major movie reviews in 2013 (especially reviews of Her) as I've come to the realization that a lot of movie critics are now clearly only writing with the hope of having a quote lifted from their review so it can be used in a trailer or on a DVD cover. Can people just talk normally about movies? No one uses words like "stunning" to describe something in real life anymore. I wanted to go in to this knowing as little as possible so I wouldn't set my hopes too high. I did that with Where The Wild Things Are (Jonze’s last film) and ended up being quite disappointed (was that movie supposed to be for children of today, or older people, like myself, who grew up on that story). I've kinda grown out of that quirky convoluted Charles Kaufman style found in Spike Jonze's previous work (Being John Malkovich & Adaptation) so I had my doubts about Her. That's not to say Malkovich & Adaptation are bad. They just don't excite me anymore.
On one hand, Her just felt like a feature length film about someone having a deep emotional connection with a highly advanced iPhone app. Kinda hard to take that premise completely serious which is clearly what Spike Jonze wants us to do. I'm also slightly worried that this film is giving off the wrong message. It goes without saying that as a society we're becoming more & more detached from one another due to iPhones, tablets & other various screen gadgets. I'm sure if you've been following the hype surrounding Her, you already knew that's what this was partially going to be about. But this film surprisingly says it's ok to have an emotional attachment with a gadget/operating system (that's how I saw it). We definitely need to have time by ourselves but at some point we need human contact, especially when it comes to a romantic relationship. Early on in the film there's a scene where our main character (played by Joaquin Phoneix) goes on a date with a woman (played by Olivia Wilde) and it didn't sit right with me. In the scene she's clearly in to him but he backs out and chooses to go home and eventually have cyber sex with his operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) instead. At no point in the film does Spike Jonze imply how very very sad that is.
But maybe that's the point. Maybe Her is a lot more sad than what it appears to be. Perhaps it's a film that shows the incredibly dark side of loneliness, only it's disguised in a quirky adult dramedy.
Even though Her is Spike Jonze's first original script, it still has the remnants of Charles Kaufman (the screenwriter for Jonze's first two films) & Michel Gondry (a filmmaker Jonze was constantly compared too back in the day) only there's no wormholes or convolutedness and the idea of a surrogate (a common theme in Jonze's work) is kept at a minimum this time around. 

Not only was this Spike Jonze’s first original script, but this was also his first time working without his regular cinematographer; Lance Accord. Instead he used Hoyte Van Hoytema who shot recent films like Let The Right One In & Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (according to IMDB , Hoyte will be shooting Christopher Nolan's next film which I'm sure will be more convoluted than a remake of Inception directed by Charlie Kaufman). No matter what issues I have with this film there's no denying its incredibly beautiful to look at. Actually, I wonder if Her's visual beauty is what has a lot of critics & film boards fooled as to how great it really is.
Her also feels like it was made by and for aging hipsters - the music was done by Pitchfork media favorites; Arcade Fire, there's a loose connection to the "hip" cinema of Sofia Coppola in that it co-stars Scarlett Johansson who appeared in Lost In Translation which is a movie that features a character that was based on Spike Jonze, and the clothing worn by the actors in Her looks like what people in Williamsburg will be wearing in the year 3000. There’s just an all around nerdy coolness to this movie that may rub some people the wrong way while others may find it great.
This story is ripe with clichés (the lonely writer, the ugly/attractive woman that the main male character can’t see has feelings for him until the very end, detachment from the world due to futuristic technology, etc). But there are parts of this movie that just made me feel really good. We all need one or two of these movies in our lives from time to time. We can't spend an entire year watching experimental documentaries with no dialogue (Leviathan) or depressing films about mental illness (Camille Claudel, 1915). Like I already said, there's a sadness to Her that the trailer doesn’t really give off but it'll will probably make you laugh a few times (there's a virtual video game character in the film that deserves it's own spin-off short film and a phone sex scene that takes an unexpected freaky turn). This film also leaves us with a sense of hope...

In Her, Joaquin Phoenix plays "Theodore Twombly" (what an appropriately quirky Spike Jonze movie name) - a lonely writer who has a hard time connecting with people after separating from his wife; "Catherine" (Rooney Mara). As a side note, I'm not sure if this story is supposed to be set in the future or in an area of modern Japan with a high population of Americans. In an effort to connect with someone/something Theodore purchases a new form of technology that's reminiscent of HAL 9000 (although this time it's called "Samantha" and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Basically, imagine a highly advanced version of the Siri Iphone app that you can take with you anywhere in a little ear piece. "Samantha" comes with unique features calibrated according to Theodore's personal preferences and essentially acts as a virtual companion. Even though "Samantha" is just a voice inside of a tiny tablet device connected to an ear piece, her presence feels more & more real as the film progresses and Theodore eventually makes a deep connection with her. They joke with each other, argue, have a form of sex and eventually refer to each other as boyfriend & girlfriend. As some of you may be wondering from this review so far, yes, Her does feel like a slightly upgraded version of Lars & The Real Girl, right down to the awkward lonely main character that's reminiscent of Ryan Gosling (mustache and all).

I give Spike Jonze credit for casting an actress like Scarlett Johansson in a voice only role. This is the kind of film that's geared towards lonely sensitive guys who would clearly want to see Johansson in the physical form so they can briefly imagine her as their girlfriend while watching a film they can relate too. Had any other filmmaker been given the same material, Johansson would have probably been a scantily clad virtual girlfriend in the vein of Simone or the hundred other sexy fake robot women we've seen in cinema over the years. I'm pretty sure Jonze intentionally cast one of the most attractive mainstream actresses in a voice only role as a way to purposely not give the (male) audience what they wanted and I kinda like that. The Samantha character also strangely helps in showing a more complex female character in mainstream cinema, which is something we don't see a whole lot of. Instead of the physical, we only get the emotional with the female lead. Johansson still even manages to come off attractive even though we never actually see her. And there's still plenty of flattering screen time for the other supporting actresses in the film played by Olivia Wilde & Rooney Mara. Amy Adams also does a good job but I think I’ve seen enough of her for at least a year. Like Jessica Chastain's overbearing presence between 2011 through 2012, I just need a break from Adams as well.

The biggest issue I had with Her is that it took forever to end. The nice imagery started to wear a little thin after a while and the story just drags on for the last 20 minutes. I mean seriously, just end already. 
I’m also willing to bet some people who've seen Fight Club one too many times will stupidly question whether or not Samantha was real (which she was) or just a figment of Theodore's imagination (which she wasn’t). Joaquin Phoenix is really good in this but there's really no other standout supporting performance like Catherine Keener in Being John Malkovich or Chris Cooper in Adaptation (unless you want to count Scarlett Johansson's voice). Instead, the actors, music, atmosphere, story, etc. all act as one entity that provides for an overall enjoyable/“cute” movie watching experience. There are subtle differences in Her from everything else that Spike Jonze has done but at the end of the day it’s still a Spike Jonze film. If you're familiar with his work from the music videos to the feature films then I'm pretty sure you all know what to expect (notice how many times I used the word "quirky" in this review).

It makes sense that this is the final review of 2013 given that I've had my face buried in the blogger app & notes app on my iPhone & Kindle fire in order to write all my reviews in 2013 (my laptop situation has been iffy this year). I admit that I can definitely get detached at times due my various gadgets but at the end of the day I appreciate human contact over anything else...

Monday, December 9, 2013

AGGELIKI PAPOULIA (Dogtooth & Alps): The most unique comedic actress working today...

Dogtooth (2009)
Next year Yorgos Lanthimos will be yet another foreign director in a semi-recent string of prominent foreign directors to make the transition from "foreign arthouse" to American/English speaking cinema with his next film; The Lobster – a dramedy/science fiction love story. While I am very excited about this (it's one of my top 5 anticipated films of 2014, assuming it's coming out in 2014) I'm also a tad bit worried. Anyone that’s seen Wong Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights (2007), Park Chan Wok's Stoker (2013) and even Haneke's remake of his own Funny Games (2008) should know that acclaimed foreign auteurs don’t always have the best luck on American soil (I personally enjoyed the Funny Games remake very much). In the case of Yorgos Lanthimos I'm even more worried because his brand of dry/dark/tragic humor is very much an acquired taste. He makes comedy out of stuff like; incest, diabetes, death, paralysis & violence against women. I'm not sure the average American movie goer would be in to his work. That's not to say he doesn’t have any American fans. I mean, I exist. Furthermore, my (American) friends over at The Pink Smoke are fans of Lanthimos as well. I've also had a 100% success rate in recommending Dogtooth to my other American friends (Lanthimos' 2nd feature which surprisingly got an Oscar nomination for best foreign film in 2010). So it’s not like all Americans don’t "get" his brand of cinema or can't find humor in traditionally unfunny things, but I can’t think of too many prominent dark comedies that have done well over here in recent years.
The Lobster obviously won’t be a big budget/Hollywood film but I'm sure part of the goal of it is to reach a wider audience so it will probably get pushed harder than Lanthimos' previous work.

Alps (2011)
I'm most anxious/concerned about this new film because Yorgos is bringing along his muse/most recognized collaborator with him to America in the form of Aggeliki Papoulia - the star of his last two films (Dogtooth & Alps) and quite possibly the funniest woman in cinema right now. I've recently come to the realization that Alps is shaping up to be one of the best films of the decade so far, and a big part of that has to do with Aggeliki's performance. I'd really love for her to crossover and gain more fans. Lanthimos’ English speaking debut with Aggeliki Papoulia couldn’t have come at a better time given that comedic actresses have started this unofficial "women are funny too" movement over here in America with figures like; Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Zoey Deschannel, Rashida Jones, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph and a few others (the interesting thing about this is that people like Maria Bamford & Amy Sedaris, two of the funniest women in the world, haven’t really been included in this scene). I've said this before and I'll say it again - I don’t like subcategorizing people according to race, gender, sexuality, etc but Tina Fey, Maya Rudolph and the rest of the gang have essentially embraced the "funny woman" label to a certain degree so I'm just going with it. Hopefully in the future we can acknowledge all comedic actors & actresses together in one group.

Sure, it’s the perfect time for Aggeliki Papoulia to gain a wider audience now that women are taken seriously as comedic actresses (...if that makes any sense) but the thing about her style of humor is that its light-years ahead of all the aforementioned women (and men) in my opinion. I'm not sure if people will appreciate her the same way I do. She's intense & dry yet somewhat physical & silly at the same time. A lot of that has to do with the excellent material she's given to work with courtesy of Lanthimos. To be honest, I can't picture her under the direction of any other filmmaker. Unlike your average female comedic actor, she doesn’t rely on a combination of wacky faces & mannerisms mixed with cuteness. Her face is always a mixture of worried, concerned & curious. Come to think of it, she hardly smiles or even looks happy half the time which is what adds to her unique delivery (note her facial expressions in the images throughout this write-up)There aren’t too many interviews with the Greek actress and I don’t know much about her but I'm convinced she takes herself extremely serious and is a very intense woman (I’m not basing this assumption on much). Not that there's anything wrong with that. An actor should take their craft seriously. But I think that she thinks she's a serious dramatic actress when she really kinda isn’t. I don’t think she knows how funny she really is or is aware she's acting in comedies. I honestly believe that after Yorgos Lanthimos yells "cut!" (on these kinds of scenes below) Aggeliki Papoulia still stays in character afterwards and doesn’t break or smile...

Other highlights from her career so far include a quick solo reenactment of the fight between Rocky & Drago from Rocky 4, the scene in front of the mirror at the end of Dogtooth, the way she takes a blow to the head in Alps and just her all around awkward disposition all throughout Alps
While violence against women has pretty much become an unfortunately accepted thing in cinema over the years, she seems to embrace it and own it in a funny way (admit it, that scene in Dogtooth where she gets whacked over the head repeatedly with VHS tape is hilarious). Has there been a film yet that Aggeliki Papoulia has appeared in where she isn’t beaten?
I'm fully aware that my own personal sense of humor is a little different. I've lost count of how many times I've recommended a Tim & Eric Skit to someone only for them to come back and simply say: "This wasn't funny." My appreciation for Aggeliki Papoulia might just be the same. Dry awkward humor ain't for everyone. But I guarantee the average movie-goer (or even some so-called "movie buffs" whose knowledge of cinema doesn't go beyond Christopher Nolan & Darren Aronofsky) can't name an actress working right now as unique as her which counts for something. There's a handful of talented actresses out there right now who could have certainly played the same parts that Papoulia is known for but it wouldn't have been as genuine. I truly believe there's a real piece or her in the characters she plays.

Ariane Labed in Attenberg
And she's not the only unique up & coming actress from Greece to potentially gain a wider fanbase. Ariane Labed (co-star of Alps) has a unique charm & delivery as well. Besides winning best actress at Venice for her performance in Attenberg (one of my favorite films from 2012) she also had a small part in Richard Linklater's Before Midnight this year. Like Papoulia, she also has the same brand of dry (non-forced) awkward humor.
Every time I see Greta Gerwig, who lays on the whole "Hey guys, I'm the awkward girl!" a little too heavy sometimes, I cant help but wish Yorgos Lanthimos' actresses could get the same spotlight...
Am I the only one who finds her absurd impersonation of Prince (below) to be hilarious?

Given the projected cast of The Lobster with actors like; Lea Seydoux (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol & Blue Is The Warmest Color) & Ben Winshaw (Skyfall) I imagine Aggeliki won’t have a starring role this time around but I don’t think Yorgos would come this far in his career with his leading lady (who essentially made his films what they are) to suddenly give her a small insignificant part in what could possibly be his "biggest" movie to date. Actually it would be awesome if she ended up stealing the show from the more recognizeable actors. 
Will Americans/those unfamiliar with Lanthimos & Papoulia's style of humor & drama be open-minded & accepting? We'll have to wait next year (hopefully) and see...

Both Alps & Dogtooth are currently available on netflix

Monday, December 2, 2013


Stories We Tell was so good that I was honestly intimidated to write about it like I am with a handful of other great modern films I haven't gotten the nerve to do justice on this blog and probably never will (Cache, The Mirror, L'Argent, Life Is Sweet, Mulholland Drive, Do The Right Thing, etc). The only reason I was able to find the words to write a review on this is because it's an incredibly personal film and I'm in an pretty personal mood when it comes to cinema these days as I'm two films deep into the personal "Whole History Of My Life" series on The Pink Smoke (Part One: The Belly Of An Architect, Part Two: Fear X).
I also make it a point to do an individual review on the one or two movies I consider to be the absolute best from each year since I started this blog: Uncle Boonmee (2010), Drive (2011), Post Tenebras Lux & Holy Motors (2012).
I've been going on & on about this documentary for the last 6 months so maybe it’s time to actually write about it...

This has been a pretty strong year for personal/intense/strenuous relationships on film which may sound a bit unappealing if you're actually in a relationship. Why would you wanna see other people's personal stuff when you already have your own stuff to deal with? Gimme an action movie or a dumb comedy so I can escape that for two hours. It’s understandable to not want to sit through a draining three hour long relationship drama (Blue Is The Warmest Color) or a 20-30 minute long argument sequence like Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke have at the end of Before Midnight. But Stories We Tell is about more than just the relationship between Sarah Polley's mother & father. It’s about the importance of family (as cliche as that sounds), secrets and getting a new perspective on someone (specifically a parent) you thought you knew all your life but kinda didn't to a certain extent (although after making this documentary I'm sure Sarah Polley got a better understanding of her mother).
I really stand by my opinion that Stories We Tell, Sarah Polley's extremely personal documentary about her family and the discovery that she was the product of an affair, is the best film of the year (I still have yet to see Inside Llewyn Davis, Her or Nymphomaniac but I'm sure those films won't have the same personal & emotional level as Stories). Some of you may not be as touched by this documentary as I was but I'm pretty sure that anyone who has a love for cinema and/or a close relationship with their family will definitely get something out of it.

Sarah & Michael Polley (L) / Diane Polley holding Sarah (R)
Without question Stories We Tell is the film that Sarah Polley has been working towards as a director so far. It couldn’t have come out at a better time given that Michael Haneke's recent academy award winning film; Amour, is spiritually connected to Polley's first film; Away From Her. Both stories are partially about aging couples having to battle sickness/alziemers. I don’t know if I've seen too many reviews on Amour that didn’t bring up Away From Her at some point in the critique. This brought some attention back to Polley's work just in time for the release of her new documentary. After watching Stories We Tell for a second time, her filmography made even more sense. Both; Away From Her (2006) & Take This Waltz (2011) have to do with infidelity and Sarah Polley is the product of an affair (a fact she came to find out later on as an adult). I’m surprised I didn’t catch the connection right away but after listening to Polley's interview on the treatment podcast with Elvis Mitchell, it turns out that she didn’t even catch it right away, so I don’t feel all that slow after all (I'm also surprised that I didn’t catch how all three of her films coincidentally have three-word titles). 
I don’t mean to sound so cold by saying that Polley is just the product of an affair. Her mother isn’t as guilty as one would imagine and according to Sarah Polley herself, she was raised with tons of love growing up. In the documentary we come to learn that Polley's mother; Diane - a theater actress who passed away years before this was made, was already unjustly vilified by damn near all of Toronto from the events of her first marriage. Before Polley's parents met, Diane was married to another man who she eventually divorced and she was made out to be an unstable & unfit mother and became one of the first Canadian women in history to not gain custody of her children following the divorce (a few years later Diane eventually ended up getting custody when it was discovered her ex-husband's new wife was abusing her kids/Sarah's older half-siblings).
I don’t know what it is but cheating on a partner, which Diane certainly did in her second marriage to Polley's father; Michael, is kind of the worst thing you can do to someone in a relationship. There are reasons for doing it I guess but at the end of the day I don’t have much sympathy for it. But through the course of this film, Sarah Polley makes her mother out to be one of the few sympathetic people in recent cinema to cheat on someone (and get pregnant from the affair as well) yet you don’t look at her in the same negative light that you normally would someone in her position.
This is kind of ironic because Polley’s portrayal of her mother is in contrast with the portrayal of Michelle Williams' character "Margot" in Take This Waltz (Polley's 2nd film) another person in one of Polley's films that we're supposed to feel some type of sympathy for when she cheats on her husband. But I just can’t do that no matter how much the tone of Take This Waltz suggests I should. The circumstances in that film are much different (the character of Margot isn’t a bad person either, but at the same time I get very frustrated with her throughout that film. I mean, who leaves their stable/good/loving husband for a rickshaw driver???).
As a male I sometimes have an issue with films that show people who cheat because 99% of the time whenever a man is doing the cheating, there's never much understanding or sympathy when they stray from their significant other (which there really shouldn’t be) but whenever it’s a women, there's a much better chance that there's gonna be a "legitimate" excuse or the film places these female characters in situations where they have no choice but to cheat. Thankfully Sarah Polley doesn't present it that way.

Sarah & Michael Polley, 2012
After years of wondering if the father she grew up with was really her biological father (her siblings always joked about how she didn't look like her dad) Sarah Polley does some investigating and comes to find out that her biological father is really Canadian filmmaker/theater playwright; Harry Gulkin (Harry & Diane met years ago while working together on a play in Montreal). What are the odds that Sarah Polley's biological father is a filmmaker too?! But that's not to say she didn't get her creativity from the father she grew up with (who she still considers to be her real father). Michael Polley was also a theater actor and a writer. One of the major conflicts between Sarah's parents is that Diane wanted Michael to apply his talents as a writer more but that never really happened until this documentary which he wrote part of. This is one of the many bitter-sweet things about Stories We Tell. Diane Polley never got to see this film which is essentially a love letter to her. She also didn't get to see her talented husband finally apply his writing to their daughter's work. Diane Polley would have also probably felt some type of relief & unburdening from today's modern audience that this documentary was made for as we don't see her as the unstable & unfit woman that she was made out to be in her first marriage.

Harry Gulkin - Sarah's biological father

After coming to learn the shocking news of who her biological father is, Polley shows us how she, her family and her new family deal with it. But most importantly, it’s how her father Michael (the one she grew up calling "dad") handles it which might surprise some of you (I don't want to give off the vibe that Diane didn't love Michael because she clearly did very much).
To a certain degree, Stories We Tell is a collaborative project between Sarah & Michael Polley. Michael narrates the film (with somewhat sad & haunting voiceover) and he doesn't just feel like a typical interview subject in a documentary. 
Style-wise, Sarah Polley draws a bit from filmmakers like Errol Morris (specifically The Thin Blue Line) in that this documentary has some reenactment scenes (spliced together with real home video footage of the Polley family) and other cinematic moments that make Stories We Tell an interesting viewing experience (I was also reminded of Jonas Mekas from time to time).

who fucking cares about our family? - Joanna Polley (Sarah Polley's sister)

Not to sound arrogant but I represent the perfect test audience for Stories We Tell. If I enjoyed it, almost anyone can. I hardly relate to anything in this film. I'm an only child who grew up in a fairly pro-black household with both parents who are still together to this day. Sarah Polley is the youngest of 5 from a white Canadian family whose parents had some issues that were either hidden, swept under the rug or never addressed (I like to think my parents have a pretty open relationship and know everything they can about each other). That's what makes this film so genuine in that it transcends race and personal experiences. We all know we're prone to relate to a story with people who look like us a lot of the time but Stories We Tell is an exception to that. Another indicator of how great this film is and the kind of nerve it touches on is in the kind of conversation I had with the person I saw it with (Teo Maniaci - the cinematographer responsible for the great Clean, Shaven and one of my favorite films; Claire Dolan). Without even knowing each other very well, moments after the movie was over we shared semi-personal stories with each other brought on by Polley's documentary. 
There's something so intimate & personal about Stories We Tell that you can’t help but be at least a little touched by it and thankful that Sarah Polley felt courageous enough to open up to a bunch of strangers about her personal life.

I wanna put Stories We Tell up there with some other early contenders for best films of the decade so far along with Post Tenebras Lux, Alps, Uncle Boonmee, Tabloid & Holy Motors.
Since Away From Her, Take This Waltz & Stories We Tell are an unofficial trilogy that all deal with similar themes, I wonder if Sarah Polley is ready to tackle new ground with her next project...


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