So much time, so little to talk about…
This might sound strange coming from someone who lives in Southern California, where there isn’t an itch that can’t be scratched when it comes to being entertained or otherwise distracted, but I can empathize with what Brian was talking about in terms of staying in touch with current films. It’s not a geographic problem, of course, but instead one which relates more to what Marya was talking about, in terms of the general level of exhaustion that tends to grab ahold of you while you’re trying to orchestrate, or at least maintain the illusion that you’re orchestrating, family life. And, of course, in economic terms as well. When it can drain you $15-20 per ticket, you tend to start assessing very closely the relative value of what that ticket green is buying and adjust your movie-going lifestyle accordingly. Now multiply that by as much as four. A few years ago my wife and I decided to treat the whole family to a Saturday night out to see Life of Pi. We went for it-- prime viewing night, 3D, Percepto, Odorama, the works—and it cost us $65 just to walk in the fucking door. Needless to say, I’ve gotten very good at honing my patience and seeking out the shadowy world of the bargain matinee and the discount second-run houses.
Add all that up, and it frequently means that, even though I live in (or nearby) “the entertainment capital of the world,” I’m still way behind the curve when it comes to seeing the latest releases in a timely manner and keeping up the pace with other critics. I used to get kinda twisted up about that. But what can I do? I think it was the learned philosopher Harry Callahan who once said, “A man has got to know his limitations.” So I completely appreciated Brian saying that he’s come to think of not having the full and immediate access of some of his colleagues as an “odd advantage,” relative freedom from whatever degree of mutual influence critics have on each other in the hours just after viewing the latest hot topic of conversation. As Brian so aptly phrased it, “whatever else my viewing habits are, they are mine to take responsibility for and enjoy,” an attitude that can and has led to (mostly good-natured) accusations of contrarianism.
I end up seeing a lot of these movies a month, several months down the line, and God bless Netflix and Redbox and screeners and all the other available options for making year-end catch-up binges like the one I gorged on over the last month possible. Though I may carry memories of the initial general reaction to any given film, by the time I get to some movies the specific reactions I may have read in reviews, as well as notions of that cliqueishness to which Brian referred, those reactions have often receded far enough back and passed through the sieve that is my mind that I find it easier to access my own reaction without worrying about whether or not it’s being colored by what X or Y thought of the movie. As much as I would love to be able to see movies at advance screenings (and I did manage a couple of those this holiday season, thank you) or even somewhere near the time of release, when everyone else is still interested in them, I like the breathing room that comes from having to wait a while.
Odie, you mentioned documentaries, and I agree with you. Forget animation. It really does seem like there’s some sort of golden age developing in terms of the breadth of subject matter, the availability and, of course, the general quality of documentaries we’ve been lucky enough to see coming out each year. This year I did have to create a separate list for documentaries, otherwise they might well have completely taken over my top 10 list. (And we can’t have that!) I published my documentary list, and a whole bunch of other trivial observations, was published last week in my weekly slot over at Trailers from Hell, but in the time since I did so I had to add yet another doc—the hits just keep on coming.
In addition to Meru, Best of Enemies and An Honest Liar, all of which did make my final cut, I easily could have made room for Iris, the late Albert Maysles’ great portrait of style maven and fashion iconoclast Iris Apfel, with whom Maysles apparently connected as a true collaborator in tone and voice and who has inspired one of his most sheerly pleasurable engagements with an audience; Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief, which fearlessly and impudently stares into the abyss of Scientology’s organizational philosophy of delusion, deception and intimidation; and The Nightmare, Rodney Ascher’s follow-up to his blessedly weird Kubrick consideration Room 237, a meditation on the experiences of several first-person accounts of sleep terror and paralysis which creates a very fine line between a formulaic talking-heads nonfiction approach and a very creepy horror film and then walks it with remarkable assurance. (Iris and The Nightmare are both, as of this writing, available via Netflix Streaming, which is where I saw them.)
Other docs I saw and enjoyed, to one degree or another, this year: Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine, made, as was Going Clear, by Alex Gibney; Tig; The Wolfpack; The Wrecking Crew; What Happened, Miss Simone?; Amy; Lambert and Stamp; Les Blank’s long-unseen A Poem is a Naked Person; Famous Nathan (a rough-hewn, literally homemade feature about the history of the Coney Island empire Nathan’s Famous hot dogs, told by Nathan’s grandson Lloyd Handwerker); I Believe in Miracles; and two rowdy, raunchy, thoroughly entertaining behind-the-scenes histories, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films and Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon. (I’m in the last one for about, I’d guess, an eighth of a second. I can show you where to look!)
I love Les Blank movies, but A Poem is a Naked Person, which has Leon Russell circa 1972 at the center of a swirling consideration of art and cultural eccentricity, intercut with footage of the singer in concert and in the recording studio, seems more distracted than usual, as if Blank periodically loses interest in his ostensible subject, honing in on strange, ugly behavior and peripheral perversity to fill the running time. It’s a fascinating document, held out of circulation for 40 years due to ruptures in the relationship between Russel and his business partner, who co-produced the film, but it's not Blank's best work by a New Orleans mile.
That said, I found it more strangely compelling than the tragic, far more conventionally told Amy. I feel like admitting that I wasn’t as taken by this widely acclaimed portrait of the late singer Amy Winehouse and her battles with bulimia, drug addiction and drug addiction, all in her early 20s just as the spotlight was at its brightest, is an admission of some sort of cruel insensitivity on my part. I would like to say that I am not lacking empathy—what happened to Winehouse is awful. But the documentary, from the guy who did much better by Brazilian race car driver Ayrton Senna, is, I think, dampened for me by my response to Winehouse’s musical style—I love jazz singing, but not her particular brand—and the shallow brevity of Winehouse’s life which the movie presents. Compared to the rich social and personal history plumbed in What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winehouse's meteoric rise and horrific fall seems tragically familiar and without, despite the movie being composed largely of footage shot by the singer and her friends themselves, the sense of personal illumination or the sense of investment in the music that perhaps would have made Amy really speak to me. I recognize that the film is a noble chronicle as far as it goes, but I never really heard its voice.
To end my treatise on documentaries on a slightly more upbeat note, I took my daughter to see Hitchcock/Truffaut, which was followed by a midnight screening of Psycho, which she had never seen. (She’s a 15-year-old movie fan with a strong attraction to the classics of the horror genre.) I asked her before going in how much she knew about the 1960 movie landmark and preemptively mourned the fact that, because we were seeing the doc first, Psycho’s element of surprise would likely be ruined for her. She said she knew about the shower scene, but that was about it. And I was relieved when Kent Jones’ documentary, other than using a shot of Arbogast reeling backward down the stairs in its opening moments, carried discussion of Psycho itself only as far as that shower scene. (Nonetheless, she viewed most of that section of the doc with her ears and eyes partially covered.) After the movie let out, as we were heading back out to buy our tickets for Psycho, I asked for her thoughts and she said, “Well, I tried to cover my eyes and ears, but I saw some of it (the shower scene) anyway. Oh, well. So I know how the movie ends, but there’s probably a lot of scary stuff leading up to that, right?....” Ka-ching! Surprise factor preserved! She spent the last half of the movie in a glorious state of nervous wreck-titude and had no idea what was coming when Vera Miles opened the door to the fruit cellar. One of the great movie moments of the year for me, and for her too, judging by our 2:00 a.m. discussion on the ride home.
Well, I’m feeling sick (and after those last couple of paragraphs some may be more than willing to enthusiastically agree), so I’m gonna try and wrap this post up before it gets too much more delirious. Phil, I thought your comments on Tangerine were spot on, especially in terms of how in love many writers are with talking about the means by which it was made (thank you for invoking the specter of Robert Rodriguez) as opposed to its structure, which updates farce far more potently and wittily than Peter Bogdanovich’s deadly mausoleum piece, She’s Funny That Way. At least Bogdanovich’s movie featured two of my favorite performances of the year mired in all the goo—Imogen Poots’ New Yawk hooker and Kathryn Hahn as the actress, at first nurturing, and soon seething, who is married to the Broadway director—Owen Wilson!—who is seeing Poots, among many others, on the side.
(And God bless Imogen Poots, by the way, for enduring childhood with a name like that, and then keeping it in her professional career, and then turning out to be a terrific, intuitive actress on top of it all.)
I think Carol is, as Marya alluded, too beautiful for its own good. It could have been animated by Charlie Kaufman, so meticulously was its milieu recreated. But it also seemed remote and prescribed and predigested, a movie for audiences who want to congratulate themselves on their progressive thinking while luxuriating in the sort of cinema that soothes them to a deep sleep. I think Todd Haynes should stay in the present—whenever he floats back to the ‘50s (Far from Heaven, Mildred Pierce) he becomes a museum curator rather than a director. Neither can I share your love for Crimson Peak. To my jaded eye, it’s a triumph of design in search of a subject beyond the trappings of Gothic storytelling itself. I enjoyed it—hell, I saw it twice—but I think it’s a bit too early to start wringing our hands, as some have, about not fully appreciating Guillermo Del Toro in his prime. Or has he just gotten too widely acclaimed for a genre whose most feverish attendants like to keeps their masters more closely to themselves?
Conversely, I too remember the deleterious effect on movies and society that Sylvester Stallone presided over during the ‘80s and ‘90s, yet Creed managed to disarm me expertly. I have never been a fan of the Rocky films, which range from genially schlubby to aggressively cretinous. Nor do I have fond memories of either Stallone mugging his way into America’s hearts as the title character, or for the ways in which he turned the series into a cringe-worthy showcase for his worst instincts as a storyteller, not to mention his overwhelming self-regard. But getting old, in this part, serves him well, and Coogler was smart to make an aging legacy so central to the movie’s themes. It is a shame, though, that Apollo Creed can be no more than a legacy here— Carl Weathers was such a spark in those movies, such a presence, that I wished he could have long ago been given scenes as good as some of the ones Stallone gets to play in this picture. And I will say, again with no shame (though perhaps a little would be well applied here) that Creed is the first movie I’ve ever seen that made my eyes trickle at the sight of a pair of red, white and blue silk boxing trunks. I know, I know—the wringing of tears is no reliable barometer of quality, but still…
A few questions in conclusion (for now): Why am I not always in a movie theater? I remember filling out a questionnaire during my senior year of high school in which I claimed that wherever there was a darkened auditorium with a movie projector, that’s where I’d be most comfortable. That’s not always true anymore—thanks, asshole wielders of cell phones and inane commentary. (Overheard during my screening of The Revenant, a guy to his clearly impressed girlfriend: “I don’t think that’s a real bear.”) But I get the spirit of your question, Marya. I’m going to try to devote a little more time this year to the investigation.
Odie asks, “Any 2015 franchise movies you’re willing to go to bat for?” Well, I loved Ant-Man too. But since it was no doubt conceived in the hopes of generating a string of sequels which, as Phil already pointed out, probably ain’t gonna happen, I’ll say The Man from U.N.C.L.E., easily the most fun I had watching a movie all year. I think Stephanie Zacharek hit in right on the head when she described this completely unexpected picture (a Guy Ritchie joint? Come on!) as “the summer movie we didn’t know we were waiting for.” Every time I think about this movie and how much I enjoyed it, I grin and immediately want to see it again.
Marya asks, “Should I watch Room?” I say yes, of course—it was my pick for movie of the year, in a knock-down-drag-out with Chi-raq. But I get your hesitation because I shared it, as I do for any scenario involving the degradation or abuse of a child. (My other serious bugaboo is rape, which is why I still haven’t seen Irreversible and doubt I ever will.) But Room, despite it being occasionally difficult to watch, doesn't rub your nose in horror, isn’t calculated to make you squirm or quiver with rage. (And-- spoiler alert!-- it doesn't pivot on shock scenes built around the personal injury or humiliation of either the boy or his mother.) It’s one of the most empathetic portrayals of the way a child sees his (confined) world and then the whole world that I could imagine, and at the risk of coming off like Peter Travers, it’ll leave you shaken but uplifted. It’s a marvelous movie—Brie Larson is wondrous, and young Jacob Tremblay, who is the movie’s true protagonist, well, I’m not sure there’s an explanation for how he manages to do what he does here. In the long history of child performances, this one is on a very special plane. Room is directed by Lenny Abrahamson, whose last movie was the perverse, yet strangely moving Frank, all about a rock star (Michael Fassbender) who goes around cocooned in a fake plastic smiley head. That movie was about a self-imposed enclosure in which a man, hidden away right there in public, figures out how to fit in with the world. Room’s prison isn’t self-imposed, and it has some of the trappings of real life in it, but it shares a subject with Frank, a measured revelation of what the world holds for someone whose perception has been up to that point severely, tragically restricted. Both movies are well worth the attendant pain.
And now a question of my own as a way of checking out: since all but Brian, who hasn't had a chance to see it yet, have it on our lists, what do you all make of the Spotlight backlash? Is it just a symptom of the movie’s initial emergence as an award-season front-runner, or is there something more to it? Or am I just being too sensitive? I’ve heard from a lot of people in the last month or so who seem to want to communicate to me how bad the movie is, how listless the acting is, how uninteresting it is to look at. Strangely, I thought it was powerful, well-acted and, as Phil alluded, enriched by its willingness to undercut its audience’s presumptions of moral righteousness (and that of its characters) and examine how even the outraged might have in some way enabled the horrors they’ve exposed.
Hey, the Oscar nominations are coming out Thursday. Our timing is soooo good, isn’t it?
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