MY FAVORITE MOVIES OF 2014

At this point, I am in the waning part of the new year of 2015 and have not yet posted what I thought were my favorite films of the year. Ironic, considering that at around 300 films that were released in the US that I saw, this is maybe the first year I have ever made an effort to watch as many current movies as I possibly could (I used to particularly remain in the classics).

As such, I’m pretty much confident at this point with my attempt to at least talk about – from a year of surprisingly impressive films – the 10 that I appreciated most. The 10 that really stood out to me and spoke to me more than the rest of the noise and spectacle and drama and romance.

2014 was a year of cinematic expansion. People got to see visual limits pushed out with Birdman‘s solid literary translation as visual medium or Boyhood‘s method of production. Characters were sketched out to being fuller than some of the people in our lives in films or were sometimes used as emotional tour de forces like Whiplash or Selma or John Wick. And then sometimes we just got dazzled and wowed by how kick-fucking-ass they could get from The Raid 2: Berandal to The Lego Movie to Edge of Tomorrow.

But enough about the year. Let’s look at my special 10.

10. The Homesman (dir. Tommy Lee Jones, USA) – Any of you recalling my brief capsules I gave should recall that my initial reception to the film was extremely lukewarm. Not as ravaging as the rest of the Cannes filmgoers, but I was a bit off-put by how I interpreted it on face value as a feminist Western only to have that rug swept out from under my feet and then scrambling around trying to find a point of the film to meet at.

Well, I had recently re-visited it upon its U.S. release and I find a grave misfortunate towards myself for not realizing how Ford-ian Jones’ vision of the West turns out to be, as well as how the film’s further subject matter beyond its sudden perspective shift turns out to be encouraged and only strengthened by its basic nihilistic depiction of how life in the West can even tear down the strongest of people – indeed, it tears down all. And indeed, it still doesn’t undercut how magnificently Hillary Swank gives her best performance since Boys Don’t Cry.

I still think the ending is a fucking mess and maybe I’m also a bit too rubbed from how much it lifts from Ford, but I have pretty much no doubt in my mind that Tommy Lee Jones would be the perfect director for that adaptation of Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness on the West. Fuck off, James Franco.

9. Ida (dir. Paweł Pawlikowski, Poland) – Maybe I have just been watching enough Ingmar Bergman and Andrei Tarkovsky at this point that this is sort of judgment, tragedy, and dialogue on whether or not God exists or is at least present with our deeds. Maybe it’s that the movie does a fantastic job of providing a desolate landscape for our lead character to discover herself and where her soul lies between the convent she leaves and the world she discovers outside the convent.

And maybe especially the two lead actresses – Agata Trzebuchowska and especially Agata Kulesza – have done so well to carry the psychological torment of their lives and the secrets they have to uncover, being our greatest emotional anchor in the whole film.

Maybe it’s also that religious movies speak to me and how devoted my early life was to a similar religion.

8. Timbuktu (dir. Abderrahmane Sissako, Mauritania & France) – Which, speaking of that religion, happens to be Islam. I still hold some feelings towards that faith and one of those is how it is portrayed in culture, ideally realistically and unbiased.

Timbuktu does a beautiful job of telling two separate stories and having them converge at once: the story of Kidane and his family’s affairs from refusing to run from a very ill change and the story of Ansar Dine turning Timbuktu into hell just from assuming that they know how to keep their subjects from Hell.

It’s disturbing, it’s excruciating, and it shows how any religion can be used to make people feel they were made to suffer, rather than made to live. It will be hard for me to watch again, but I’m glad I caught it the once.

7. Under the Skin (dir. Jonathan Glazer, UK) – Sure, it’s definitely a film that only invites a particular sort of audience member that can deal with how challenging it is as a narrative. But I love that…

Under the Skin is a blank film where people read different things out of it (or refuse to read anything) and I found it to be extremely telling of alienation and how it is to try to be human – from Scarlett Johansson’s not-really-all-there performance to the vignettes of failed intimacy turned to horror story and failed assimilation into the world. That really really speaks to me.

Everything about this film is meant to work as best it can as a piece of a whole that doesn’t really fit – both the outstanding imagery and the unforgettable music by Mica Levi play this part, where something seems to be just a little bit missing from Glazer’s storytelling and it happens to be what themes we put into it. Please do.

6. Two Days, One Night (dir. the Dardenne brothers, Belgium) – Prior to 2014, I did not think much of Marion Cotillard as an actress. I thought La Mome was a fantastic performance, but I had to deal with her emptiness in both of Christopher Nolan’s films with her.

2014 has been as much her year as any other filmmaker (Lord/Miller) or actor (Chris Evans, Jack O’Connell) or other (Bradford Young, Alexandre Desplat) that I admired. Between The Immigrant and Two Days, One Night, Cotillard has been proving her necessity to bringing either a grounded or elevated humanity to a desperate situation.

As such, in Two Days, One Night, she and the Dardenne brothers end up making a world of hardship that doesn’t really have any bad people in it and painting a singular character in the middle of this movie whose struggle to keep her job only illustrates both a microcosm of her own emotional and psychological state and macrocosm of how current times have gotten tough in the world. And while it’s always some what heavy, it is remarkably hopeful all the way through.

5. National Gallery (dir. Frederick Wiseman, USA) – Sometimes one likes to just sit back and let the pictures tell the story themselves. Wiseman would certainly refuse to claim that he doesn’t force a narrative in his editing style and sure we can definitely see the edges of what he is trying to portray in National Gallery: the process of what is art, where it begins, how it never ends. Restoration, interpretation and discussion, construction, exhibition, selection, patronage, documenting even (with a film crew making occasional appearances). It’s all there.

But no, the real treat and charm in National Gallery, the reason I really could stand to sit another three hours to watch it again, is because of how much all of this content just blends into an ambient observation that feels like just being a regular passerby in one of the most well-known art halls in the world. I get that Wiseman’s point was to show us all of these details, but his editing is perfect enough to make me just feel like everything I learned in this cinematic visit was just incidental to lounging about for a while or two.

4. Snowpiercer (dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea) – As I’m certain everybody who has seen my review could tell, I thought Snowpiercer was the craziest fucking thing I’ve seen all year. That’s a year that includes Lucy and John Wick and two (count ’em) Lord and Miller flicks, and the insanity of Snowpiercer tops them all while carrying a bit of gravitas to itself.

It’s not too crazy enough to take itself seriously but crazy enough to let us meet it at a certain point – carrying with it a joyous amount of set design playing with each car the characters reach, some fantastically imaginative action setpieces, and especially Chris Evans’ best performance of his career.

Indeed, Snowpiercer is a freight train out of control with its momentum but able to keep on its tracks just enough to make it the whole journey for me.

3. Mr. Turner (dir. Mike Leigh, UK) – Alright, so if we’re given a film that should be a biopic, it should be a given that it should do well to capture its identity as a character study steadily throughout its whole runtime, right? And then if we have ourselves it being a historical drama, we should be able to recognize its place as a time capsule capturing all the splendid details of its era and maybe even has a touch of dated sociology to it, perhaps as the best? And finally, if that biopic happens to be one of a world-renowned painter, it ought to look damned spectacularly like art itself.

Well, the world is blessed enough to have Mike Leigh be the perfect filmmaker to do every single one of those kinds of things. Aided with such things as Dick Pope’s cinematography and Timothy Spall’s unbelievably rough yet sympathetic and communicative performance under his belt, Leigh has just about brought us back to a huge Victorian civilisation that seems almost lost just to return to a single small being who was considered larger-than-life but just closer to a flawed being like any individual you could name today.

It’s a beautiful simply humane portrait of the difference times plays out to the individual.

2. The Missing Picture (dir. Rithy Panh, Cambodia & France) – Experimental cinema is always going to hit me where it hurts and hit me even harder when its works and hit me hardest of all when it is obviously something that wears its heart on its sleeve.

Half memory, half art in motion, Rithy Panh graciously shares his pains in surviving the Khmer Rouge and finding absolutely emptiness where all records of the horrors of the regime should be. So, he takes it upon himself to recreate those moments from his own eyes, using shockingly personable clay figures to play the parts of the individuals, newsreel footage to give the art its zen atmosphere and fill in some contextual necessities, and music to give a span of time.

It sounds like it assumes its own gravitas due to the events it talks about and what it means to the filmmaker and sure, it does that absolutely. It just happens to have worked best for me to think about the capabilities of humanity to be a horror show (especially considering the previous year’s own creative document on war crimes, The Act of Killing) and put me in a movingly sober mood when I walked out the theater.

And finally…

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (dir. Wes Anderson, Germany & UK) – But by the end of the day, movies are meant to be fun and that’s just what the hell The Grand Budapest Hotel turns out to be. Constantly watchable, riotously hilarious, glorious glorious fun.

Wes Anderson’s usually alienating style has this time around become a frolicking delicious playground for the viewers to look at each brightly colored object and take their sweet ass time feeling nostalgic about moments that, in the long run, matter more to the characters than the audience.

Aye, that’s the real sneaky shit that makes me love The Grand Budapest Hotel even more. It is essentially a tale of melancholy and a blue world that is disguised as a tale of adventure and a pink world. There’s murder, war, disease, crime, surrounding all this hollow pleasantry. And by the end of the film, The Grand Budapest Hotel has been caught up with it that it cannot hide its true nature anymore. It’s a sad goodbye, given how accommodating the cast – namely Ralph Fiennes’ divine comedic timing as the florid, shallow but humblingly good-hearted M. Gustave – was, how engaging the heist brought us, and how beautiful the palace of a hotel once felt to be…

But the only reason he it gets us to be as sad as the characters when they realize the party is over is by first making have no much damn fun in the cinema, that we want to give it just one more round now that we know how quickly this feeling of romance and triumph is lost.

And so, The Grand Budapest Hotel is able to get me to press play on my Blu-ray, just one more time…

Fuck it, I’m gonna go do it right now, I’m watching that movie again and I don’t give a fuck. Fuck off and here’s to a new year of fantastic movies. Later…

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The Straight Story – 3 – Eraserhead

It’s David Lynch’s birthday for about one more hour here in the east coast of the United States where I live and – after a long day of work – I want to put down my review of Lynch’s first feature film before the clock strikes 12 where I’m at. So, this is going to be fast-tracked and in the case of anybody having a problem with how this writing sounds like or is edited, any errors and such, I ask your forgiveness.

See, this is the moment in this Straight Story project that actually excites me. One reason is because I finally get to move beyond being a bunch of glorified wikipedia fragments (though I did take time to talk about how each of his early short films make me feel) to becoming outright observational and subjective opinion on the works that make up David Lynch’s career. So here’s hoping that comes out great.

The other reason is because the movie we are about to discuss is one of my favorite films that I’ve seen. And granted, any of my close friends will take annoyance with the fact that the amount of favorite films I have is at least somewhere between 300 and 100, so it comes off as though I think every film ever deserves a place in my personal canon, but when you’ve seen as many films as I have (and continue to), you probably will need to have your favorites around that quantity in order to prevent insanity for a medium you love.

But I digress badly. Let’s get our head in the game now.

See, like I mentioned last time, Lynch really wanted to get a shot at his first feature film. That first attempt turned out to be a work called Gardenback – a nonlinear script based on another piece of art Lynch had in his mind of a hunchback with, well, a garden growing out of his back. And so it began pre-production when most of the AFI faculty members kept giving a bit of unwanted consultation on the film and Lynch became so frustrated and infuriated that he outright cancelled the film and was getting ready to dump the AFI much like he dumped all the other institutions he tried his hand at and proved unable to fit within.

AFI was desperate to keep him with them and promised not to interfere in any way whatsoever with his next film project, should he choose to stay.

So, Lynch, inspired by a daydream, decided to create Eraserhead. It took five years, a lot of money borrowing (started with AFI’s $10,000 grant, but it proved not enough), and a lot of patience, but what resulted was a midnight movie smash hit and a cult phenomenon.

And so, Eraserhead. What the fuck is it about?

Well, we all know Lynch to be an extremely abstract, imagery, and theme oriented filmmaker, but I’d say Eraserhead is among many films that proves the narrative is a little bit more straight-forward once you pay attention to it. Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) lives in a nightmarish world of industrial noise and twisted metal living and constantly pines for his next-door neighbor at the apartment building he resides in.

A woman who he apparently had had sexual relations with, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), has apparently borne a child and X’s family urges the two of them to take care of it by living together as what could maybe be a normal family in this universe, although its hard to believe what it is that X has brought into the world is in fact human.

There are further elements on-screen that give more dimension to the cosmic basis of the film and the metaphorical skeleton and artistic sensibilities, but stripped down to its basic essentials, this is how the main narrative of Eraserhead kickstarts itself.

And so begins this domestic horror story that is not happy with being merely body horror, psychological terrors, or even atmospheric scares for the audience. No, this movie wants to have its cake and eat it too and it can damn well do that. Shot in a black-and-white to accentuate how artificial and raw all this setting to be, along with one of my favorite bit of sound mixing and sound editing – affrontive, interrupting, billowing smoke, mechanic hums surrounding our ears and entering our minds – its imagery is dedicated so much to being as memorable as possible, it is very damn easy to see where Lynch’s origins as an artist come from. Imagery: Frankenstein-like imagery, shock moments like when something that is meant to be eaten suddenly makes a squelch and bleeds, evocative imagery like a man staring out the window of a radiator, proscenium imagery like a dreamlike recount of a woman on a stage looking like a freakshow creature and singing like broken crackling stereo. And all of it essential to this place that Eraserhead lives in, not one of them seemingly to be able to be taken out without ruining the entire film.

As well, as the grotesque simplicity of the mummy-wrapped monster baby that looks like something we’d feel sorry for if we felt fine with being anywhere near it. It squeaks and squawks with a spine-shivering consistency that makes us both feel a little sorry for it as a burden of its own existence and also want it to quite frankly shut the fuck up.

Which is quite the feat for Eraserhead to pull off. I don’t want to keep it anchored to one schematic (tall order for myself to not do so, but I’ll try anyway), but just one viewing of the movie would get even the most uninterested viewer understanding the movie’s commentary on fatherhood in a forced family environment and realize that this is Henry’s story more than anything. We’re following how Henry has to deal with this thrust in his life, and it wouldn’t be hard to figure how this whole tale is based on Lynch’s own feelings to his real-life first marriage and child (which ended amicably during the five-year span of this film’s production). Hell, even the setting seems inspired by the urban and industrial crime-based area of L.A. that Lynch and his family resided in when they first moved there. But Henry grows into a protagonist with whom we can’t decide if we hate or love him, his situation sympathetic and full of misfortune, but his actions furthering the debacle he has brought amongst himself. Nance has a constantly shocked, wide-eyed pudginess to him, even in moments that should seem at least pleasurable to Henry, keeping his loss of identity – because of how he is left to the devices of homemaking – to be the main problem we see on his face, and not his child or the woman in the set next door.

And speaking of the sets, they are physically magnificent, where they will be either sparse exteriors or T.L.C. based suburban living areas such as the kitchen or the living room, totally recognizable to each rooms purpose. But always with at least some automaton element jutting out of some godforsaken corner of the room, like a wall or the ceiling, interrupting the safety of the home to suddenly remind you that all the characters belong in this hellish contraption that is the film’s domain. It’s goddamn creepy and reinforces the idea that a good portion of a scary movie is how scary it can sound.

There’s a lot of other things that can of course be read into Eraserhead – a fear of female sexuality, the virtues in passivity or fatalism, etc. – but that’s one of the great things about Lynch’s films. How you can keep coming back to read more and more into it. And how it never fails in becoming one of the most unnerving experiences kept to film. The nightmare will not go away…

The Straight Story – 2 – The Early Short Films

So, one of the unfortunate facts about Lynch’s art school career is how very short-lived it was. It was, in fact, so short-lived that the amount of artwork I could find documented online was a grand spanking total of zero. Of course, I could have not been working as hard in my search and if anybody actually comes across some form of his fine art for me to view and comment on, I gladly encourage sending them to me for later review. I’m especially disappointed by my inability to comment on his Boston and Philadelphia works from having just earlier seen National Gallery in the middle of a local art festival. It gets one a little bit excited to have some artwork he himself can apply himself to.

In the meantime, the show must go on.

You see, part of why Lynch’s early artistic interests were cut short was not from lack of enthusiasm but simply disapproval of his education during this time. He wasn’t enjoying his time at the School of Museum Fine Arts, Boston, and after one year of enrollment, dropped out to instead see Europe with his childhood friend – future Oscar-nominated Art Director Jack Fisk, whom we’ll get to know some more as we go on through Lynch’s life.

Except Europe only led to further disappointment for Lynch as the two of them expected being able to arrange themselves as pupils of Expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka in Switzerland only to later discover that was not going to be possible and returning very quickly to the States with their tails tucked further between their legs.

After that brief spiel, Lynch got in contact with Fisk again – who was studying as the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts – and decided to join him there. Finding himself much more inspired in this environment, Lynch met his first wife Peggy Reavey, married her, and had a child with her – albeit all accounts on this assume that Lynch’s fatherhood was reluctant though not negligent.

It was during here – in his time in Philadelphia – that Lynch would get his first taste of a filmmaking project. Shooting a camera was not exactly new to him at this point, although there is nothing much to say about Sailing with Bushnell Keeler beyond its status as an interesting home video with a man who Lynch largely credits with supporting his later early film career and inspiring him. No, it’s not too disinteresting, but one can’t comment on it the same way that the Lumiere brothers’ records of the Parisien streets are interesting but there is nothing beyond the observational to state.

No, the true beginnings of Lynch’s film work comes out of…

SIX MEN GETTING SICK (SIX TIMES)

Which is practically exactly how the hell it sounds, but permit me to be indulged for a moment as I talk about it.

The origins of this on making this happen to present itself to Lynch as the idea of having his paintings move and so it’s pretty obvious that the film itself is meant to exist in some amount as a form of experimental cinema and as a bit of abstract painting. It was in itself meant to be projected (and I believe was originally projected) on a sculpted screen with plasters for three of the six men faces we see in the short film. I wish I had a chance (maybe it will present itself in the future) to witness the film in this format as it seems essential to the experience, as though you’d be a lot more in the room with the characters and therefore their grievances are significantly more off-putting and alienating, even with the fourth dimension involvement.

Alongside this, there is the alarming presence of a nonstop emergency siren letting you know that the events you are about to witness are sure to be unmanageable and unnerving. It’s easy to make people tired of seeing the same thing six times (and the loop does feel especially lengthy, constantly giving the sense of a countdown to extinction for each of the six men showcased), but to make it disturbing and wretched… that takes some kind of personality bled into the screen.

It’s practically devoid of narrative (unless you count the looping of the imagery of men looking more and more ill to an explosive climax a narrative. I wouldn’t be against classifying it as such, but I’d take a lot of convincing). But the film itself does more than become a narrative. In the larger scale of Lynch’s career, it once again acts as a map to pinpoint how the hell his aesthetic and surreal sense works. His jagged linear usage, his dismissal of where the genesis of objects in his film begins and how they can end (one of these six men is outright vomited together by two men, if that makes any fucking sense), his assaultive splash of color but otherwise his dedication to grim darkness as the forefront to a dirty white background and sickening greens and pinks and blues that resemble bodily fluids of something you don’t expect to be anything but suffering.

In less than a minute, this loop can do a lot to disorient a viewer from his or her own well-being. It’s much impressive. But six times is too much and enough to make it play around in my head even further, so I’d like to move on.

Based on the success and reception of Six Men Getting Sick, Lynch ended up with a little more money behind to produce any short film he wished once again. That shortly turned sour as half of it was used on an attempted animated feature that ended up shot on a shitty print and so he decided – with his financier’s blessings – to move on to his first live-action short narrative film that would prove to be

THE ALPHABET

Starring Lynch’s wife as the only live-action character on-screen, a pale blue sickly young woman who is bedridden the entire time, and inspired by the nightmares of the couple’s niece, HOLY FUCK IS THIS FOUR-MINUTE SHORT FILM BLOODY. Like, it will probably give a guy in his twenties nightmares. It’s not even gratuitous blood, per se, but the presence of its brightly makeup suddenly interrupting the bloated blue landscape of the short is what’ll send a shiver down the spines of its audience.

From what is described, the idea of the film is to provide a bit of a symbolic representation of the menstrual cycle of a woman and how deep inside there’s a constant foreboding danger to the body by its own self-harm, and I guess I can read that, but there’s something especially different I would point from my own perspective.

And that’s how recycled time on Earth can truly be. We spend most of our time asleep, all of it taking in futile information that seems as imperative to our living as the ABCs – obviously the letters of the alphabet are the biggest motif in the short – we spread our seed (the constant dots remind me of the seeds on the skin of a strawberry and the baby’s crying is just as much an unwelcome touch of the spine-tingling sound effect of the short as the siren for Six Men Getting Sick), and we fucking bleed it out.

… Wow, am I ok?

Anyway, the short film, as you can expect was an extremely abstract work that came away from the storytelling device of “this is how the world works” or “this is something that happened” and devotes itself to instead just showing us some vaguely connected imagery that is still haunting and evocative in the same manner that a hideous ghastly claw grabbing us from under the bed is godawfully evocative.

And so, by that point on, the film bug had taken over Lynch and he decided to send his short film – which caused him minor celebrity – to the American Film Institute as well as a screenplay for what, pending their approval and grant for him to produce the script, would lead to Lynch’s final short film before he would begin production on his feature debut…

THE GRANDMOTHER

And at the length of 34 minutes, The Grandmother was clearly the first time Lynch would take to crafting a more straightforward narrative. Certainly the film itself had its own idiocyncracies, not least of which in the plot itself which follows a young child (Richard White) who is constantly and unbearably abused by his parents (Robert Chadwick and Virginia Maitland) in violent and terrifying household manners – from coddling to physical bullying, no form of terror is too small for this child.

So, said child begins spending his nights planting some seeds and hoping for a protector to come for him, which finally makes itself known in the form of what appears to be a kindly old woman (Dorothy McGinnis) grown out of the seeds planted.

It honestly feels like the closest Lynch will come to a Tim Burton film. Which is fine because I enjoy both aesthetics, although Lynch’s approach is hardly out of some nostalgia for the dark and certainly with the proper amount of exaggerated apprehensiveness. Every turn is at best a nightmare waiting to happen, at worst a furthering of the torture physical and mental to continue. Completely devoid of wonder.

I enjoy the darkened monochromatic film that Lynch uses – neither blue nor black but in that uncanny beeline right between those tones, like the child is waiting to die for his tortures to end and the entire families’ bloodless makeup surrounding their skin feels like the zombies of Night of the Living Dead and the parents’ actions don’t make them any less savage or the child’s behavior any less primitive. This is obviously just meant to broadly shape the characters for any overarching representation of the Nuclear family destroyed.

But what makes me happy to return to this short film, more than the garishness that shows how far gone Lynch’s attitudes had probably become upon the hardships of his early life, but what we also have is the remainder of Lynch’s artistic desires as there are constant animations and hexing arrangements of frame speeds to give the nocturnal tale more of a very disjointed incomplete feel, even though this is a completely tale being told. It’s fascinating, it pushes further the idea that these characters aren’t people so much as subjects to some hellish family drama, and it frankly looks unique. Like it is the stick figures (with elongated tail legs) that only Lynch could possibly create.

It was obviously a hit with the American Film Institute and others upon its completion, given how personal it hit (it was shot entirely in Lynch’s Los Angeles home) and how obvious Lynch was not only learning his craft but beginning to bleed his other talents into the work as well.

And based on his newfound relationship with the American Film Institute after their combined efforts to make The Grandmother materialize, Lynch decided the time had come to take a shot at the long draining mile into making a feature film…

… Gardenback… (hehe, you thought I was gonna say something else, didn’t ya, bitches?)

… which is where we will part once again. See you again very soon.

Inhibitions and Vices

So Inherent Vice, the latest film by Paul Thomas Anderson, has moved from its initial limited two-city release to a wide national release, which is just in time for me to turn about my thoughts after having seen it at the Miami Tower Theater’s advanced screening. It heralds itself as a stoner experience, a comedy, and a mystery. I feel all of those things absolutely apply to the source novel the movie lifts itself from, but when it comes to the movie, it’s not unfathomable, but it is being sort of generous.

Based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, the movie follows along the days of the Manson family’s trial (only slightly mentioned in the movie but a big damn deal in the book) as LSD Investigations’ own Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), a man of his time – that is to say, extreme hippie – is visited upon by his ex-girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), who begins tossing a lump of work onto him as she stresses the possibility of her current boyfriend real-estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) being the target of a disappearance. Upon investigating further, Doc finds himself in the middle of a large tangle of affairs, assassinations, drug empires, government conspiracies, and broken homes – it’s a miracle the movie’s plot is still able to be comprehended when you actually can pay attention (although the sound edit isn’t really your friend there, the volume on their voices are extremely low).

Part of why I was taking so long to put together my thoughts is because I found myself having to divide them between two personalities of mine: the guy who based his observations of the movie on the original novel by Thomas Pynchon and the one who got himself adjusted to the movie itself.

So let’s begin with the guy who read the book and give the other guy his voice later:

I’m not necessarily a personal fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, save for two pictures (maybe two and a half), and, having read a couple of Pynchon books in college, I have no qualms with pointing out Inherent Vice as my least favorite of his literature (which isn’t to say I didn’t still have some fun reading it). I find Anderson’s writing and shooting style within his hey-day of the late 90s to be extremely self-indulgent beyond the necessity of the shooting itself. His two later works prior to Inherent Vice, being There Will Be Blood and The Master are the ones I do like and he seems to be a lot more controlled and focused within those films. The shots are tighter, not as willing to deviate or wander around. They say what they need to and then move right on.

Inherent Vice seems his most restrained film yet, with each scene overall being made up of long-takes and tight shots, and that actually sort of almost makes me miss the frivolous manner of shot composition and arrangement with overcompensating attention to detail that made up Magnolia and Boogie Nights. Because that would have perfect complimented the writing style of Pynchon – tangential overflows of in-jokes for each moment out of every possible manner of writing: informative, character thought, descriptive, you name it. But with Leslie Jones’ sparse and sleepy editing, it feels like being sat and down and being told we’re not allowed to play. Not a great feeling.

In addition to certain moments of the film feeling anti-climactic compared to their showing in the book (we are mostly told not shown), a major theme of the book is completely abandoned cinematically – the changing of the times. We never feel the times moving on as the book swayed us through. While the book is less about the mystery itself but how it changes Doc the same way the end of the 60s is changing California, the movie strictly rejects that aspect and undercuts it very harshly by the last scene. Which, again, doesn’t damn the movie, but it does disappoint me.

But moving on to the actual aspects of the film irrespective of the source material itself, my first reaction upon watching a movie that is supposed to be a comedy is that Paul Thomas Anderson really has no sense of comedy. At least, that’s what he has presented to me in the film. The cast themselves give off very funny performances of course (I’ll get more into them later) but they are doing all of the heavy lifting to make the film funny rather than the film itself.

Which isn’t to say Anderson is entirely lazy with this movie, he just ends up dedicating everything he possibly could to creating a fog-shrouded smokescreened picture of paranoia and unsettlement for Doc’s shifting eyes as he digs deeper and deeper into this dilemma, aided by the very shadowy but rarely underlit work of Robert Elswit (certainly not his best work of the same year he worked on Nightcrawler) and Jonny Greenwood providing his most obvious score yet for Anderson, juggling the balances between his awareness of the era and allowing for a jazzy mix between fearfulness and drug-addled groove. It’s very clear Anderson and co. just had something more on their mind when making this movie, but that doesn’t excuse the moments in the film where the cast actually can’t do anything and there’s one of many giant gaps in the film’s tone where it doesn’t feel like a comedy, a noir, or pretty much anything. In the entire movie, I can only recall maybe one shot that actually feels funny from the filmmaking itself (again, not being able to describe too specifically without going into spoilers but it involves Doc simply sitting down and the items that are surrounding him in broad daylight next to a window).

And of course, while Anderson did his best to streamline the tale within his script, the mystery and different-yet-connected cases will of course come off as convoluted and too dense to be easily engaged by unless you have some supersonic hearing like whoever editing the sound. It leaves an audience a lot more alienated and makes the running time feel exactly like the 2 hours and 28 minutes that it is.

So what does pretty much save the film? It’s all the cast, most of them limited to no more than three appearances, but each one of them tuned into their stereotypical persona to 11 enough for it to make a broad and recognizable landscape of hippie-Nixon 70s (Martin Short and Reese Witherspoon do not bring anything new to their usual repertoire, but play their usual screen personalities so so well here where it fits). Phoenix in the lead is just absolutely ready to play the wise fool in this atmospheric noir and brings his modern charm to the film (also, did he always have that cleft palate? Because I noticed it in The Master and now it returns here). He would almost be the funniest thing on screen, if not for Josh Brolin as “Renaissance Detective” Lt. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. Brolin gives himself in to the inner life of disgruntled Bjornsen (perplexingly, the script gives a lot more material to the characterization of Bjornsen than the protagonist, Doc, himself) and elicits a lot of pathos even within the cruelty that his character perpetrates constantly to his frenemy of Doc. Yet Brolin also never ever stops being the funniest fucking thing on screen, every single time he is there. His jokes both make me spit my soda and reveal that there’s more to Bjornsen than just a flatfoot asshole. Easily, my favorite moment is a single reaction shot – that gets interrupted but not for too long – where we witness him goad on his wife’s interruption of his call to Doc, followed by immediate embarrassment from details she reveals, and ending on absolute defeat from his spouse. In one scene, Bigfoot’s humanity becomes the laughingstock of everyone in the audience, but not for Doc, who turns to defend him briefly.

Anyway, if there is one actor in the ensemble that makes me a little exhausted to have to see again, it is Waterston, but that’s not necessarily because she is terrible. She is indeed transfixing enough and hypnotic, but every moment she appears kind of starts to bring the movie’s pacing to a screeching halt just to maybe tease on the status of her relationship to Doc and that’s just not interesting to me anymore once it becomes very clear in the film what the ending point will be. And it is very fucking clear very fucking early on. And it is very different from the book and what the themes insist upon. But that’s as far as I’ll explain it.

I didn’t find myself hating the film thanks to the cast being ready to drag me along for their ride for a while. But because of most of the rest of the film dedicated to being a dreary smokescreen and nothing more to add or even heighten the cast’s work, I don’t find myself with anymore reason to revisit Inherent Vice anytime soon. It’s probably the least interesting film Anderson has produced since Punch-Drunk Love – at least Magnolia and Boogie Nights are eye-catchingly extravagant in Anderson’s lack of inhibition, but in this movie – where kaleidoscopic framing is not just insisted upon, but a necessity – Anderson’s restraint becomes just a vice that bores rather than threatens. And that’s fine, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. I’ve just been able to move on a lot quicker than poor Doc himself.

FIXING A HOLE 2014 – If It’s in a Word or It’s in a Book

Y’know what is one of the finer moments of my increasingly busy life. When I get to be lazy and people won’t feel cheated. The unfortunate forced demise of Fixing a Hole 2014 will not be one of those, since it’s less out of being lazy and of life being in the way, but the fact that I ideally do not have to give Australian Jennifer Kent’s 2014 debut feature The Babadook much of an introduction is certainly one of those. By the end of the year, most of the people who have been interested in its upon its immediate release will have certainly heard of it already and here’s hoping I interest a few more people into checking it out.

Because the movie honestly deserves it.

Kent, a former-actress-turned-Lars-von-Trier-tutored-director, went to a significant amount of Do-It-Yourself lengths to be able to construct the claustrophobic, darkened, gloomy world of The Babadook that involved asking favors from familiar friends, recruiting worldwide artisans to become future collaborators, Australian government funding and then further Kickstarter funding for the rest, and low-fi handmade efforts to create a standout horror film that would easily rank among the best since the turn of the decade and has been regarded as such by most of the filmgoing world since its premiere at Sundance 2014.

I personally saw the movie three times which is really a surprise for me to see any movie that amount in a single year, let alone during its release (at one point, I dropped my shit to go see it in the cinema the moment I found out that a local theater was finally showing it).

The Babadook is a look into the unfortunate domestic life of Amelia (Essie Davis, a classmate of Kent’s back in acting school) and her actively-imaginative and overly excitable son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). There is no father in the picture. The father had died in a car accident on their way to the hospital the night they were having Sam. Amelia has tried very hard not to let it affect her relationship with her son, who is already a handful as is, but it is immediately clear that resentment is harbored towards Sam for how his birth led to the death of her husband – a particular symptom of this is that Sam is forbidden from celebrating his birthday on the exact date, instead being forced to share his birthday with (and in turn forcing themselves further into the lives of) his cousin Ruby, to the exasperation of her mother/Amelia’s sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney).

Perhaps one of the better moments of bonding Sam and Amelia are able to share without any strings attached are in the form of pre-bedtime storybook reading, like most parents, and so one night, the Babadook suddenly appears upon Sam’s bookshelf. It begins as a harmless but subtly creepy little tale (indeed, the book itself is alarming in its red cover down to its cave-drawing-like pencil grays and blacks that make up its affrontive illustrations – I’m very heavily considering pre-ordering the book within the week), then its content becomes directly threatening to Amelia and she tries to get rid of it.

Only to find out quickly that you can’t get rid of the Babadook. And that Sam is beginning to take the matter a lot more seriously than one possibly should while Amelia’s stress and sanity is itself being pulled to the end of its rope.

Now, of course, I would like to pretend that there is more to the premise itself than the obvious thematic aspects of orphanhood, single parenting, psychological damage, grief, etc. that one doesn’t need much imagination to immediately recognize just from the description I’ve given. But you see, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with getting it all out on the surface of the film, since it kills so many birds with its own stone: Not only does the baldness of the premise allow for a much potent punch behind every character beat in their development, but it allows the visual element of the film – which is constantly present as Cronenweth-like sterile exteriors and Murnau/Dreyer interiors of larger-than-life walls and doors, dutch angles, and considerable black endlessness of corridors and rooms – to act as an extension of schematics for the trials and tribulations of the characters dealing with the ambiguity and danger in the Babadook’s existence.

That’s certainly not easy work and we have to big it up to everyone, but to name the main MVPs: production designer Alex Holmes, whoever is in charge of mixing that spine-tingling sound (a visit to the doctor becomes possibly the most unsettling moment for me in the movie every time I watch it, just from its undertone of all its uncomfortably close shots of inspection), and of course Davis and Wiseman for being able to convey their own psychological troubles in genuine manners, especially Wiseman who – maybe accidentally but still impressively – can change the overactive grin in the prestige of his magic act to a fearful grimace.

This is of course Amelia’s story most of all, though, and Davis is able to take the dynamics of her character’s spiraling descent up a smaller notch more and more to mirror what’s going on in Amelia’s life until, before we know it, she becomes one of the spookiest parts of the whole movie, even in spite of being just as game as Kent and co. in the beginning of the film to try to turn this boogeyman in the closet sort of film into the adult translation of those sort of small child terrors.

If I had to state what was the most disturbing thing I found in this completely unsettling and constantly dreading picture, I feel I would be going into spoiler territory, but I guess what I will state is that I found myself struggling with tearing my sympathies between Amelia in the face of what Sam is becoming and Sam in the face of what Amelia is becoming. And that’s probably the best thing to do – scaring the hell out of an audience by having them look at themselves.

It’s certainly not without its fault – almost exclusive to the third act of the picture which takes itself to a near-camp level of eye-rolling anti-climactic resolution before catching itself thankfully one more time prior to the finale – but the movie has deserved practically every amount of praise it has got over the past year as a taut, creepy, intense instant classic of the horror genre that will probably remain revered well beyond the turn of this decade.

THE STRAIGHT STORY: 1 – LIFE BEFORE LYNCH

I’ve been wrestling now and again to figure out where exactly to begin on my year-long look into the career and life on one of my favorite filmmakers and a heavy artistic influence on myself, David Lynch. It’s obvious that my enthusiastic jumping into this is based on the announcement less than a year ago of the imminent return of Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s landmark television series, for a short while on the Showtime network. I was so enthusiastic that I didn’t entirely plan out what the hell I was going to land on both feet with in this thing once I jumped. Ideally, I started with his earliest artistic work, but that would involve talking about his physical fine art pieces and I would like to give myself a bit more time looking into those pieces before I speak up on it. In the meantime, Eraserhead could hardly be considered the beginnings of Lynch’s abstract method of cinematic storytelling when he has so many fine short films under his belt that proved to AFI what a keen filmmaker they had under their sleeve. But those short films still wouldn’t make an adequate introduction in my mind.

No, instead, I decided to go into the very beginnings of what made David Lynch who he was and post about that instead. My reasoning is a lot more complex than simply telling an origin story: I was astonished to find a lot of things within Lynch’s early life actively making a presence into his work as an artist. It’s not exactly thematics of his work so much as the overall atmosphere and landscape of most of his well-known stories. Let’s look at the basic facts of who he was as a person and get those out of the way:

  • Born 20 January 1946 in Missoula, Montana
  • Didn’t stay in Missoula for long. His father worked for the Dept. of Agriculture and so the family moved a lot around the country – Including residing in Spokane, Washington, not too far off (3 hour drive) from Yakima, the hometown of Lynch’s constant collaborator/actor Kyle MacLachlan.
  • Raised Presbytarian
  • Oldest of three children.
  • Eagle Scout.

Now, between these details, I want to take a brief moment to look into Lynch’s childhood moving around. Lynch would constantly have to find himself in a new environment due to his father’s profession and the demands of it, making his childhood an extremely transitionally based one. One would have some trouble being able to adjust oneself to a life that is never exactly rested where it is.

Except according to Lynch in his book (co-authored with Chris Rodley), Lynch on Lynch, he really didn’t have that much trouble with making himself at home anywhere he went. He would get along with the people at every new school and quickly make new friends, even as an “outsider”. This may not sound familiar, but the moment I read this part, I thought of Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) of Twin Peaks. A man who is in Twin Peaks on business, who has no immediate residence within Twin Peaks, and probably will not stay, and yet has no trouble getting along with absolutely everybody in the town who is open to his presence.

Of course, there’s a lot of facets of Cooper that are ripped straight out of Lynch’s own being (indeed, MacLachlan made such a good actor for Lynch’s films out of practically being his surrogate into the film worlds), but the fact that something from his early youth could be applied to arguably the most famous character Lynch has come up with yet makes me grin a bit.

Now, there doesn’t seem to have been much of Lynch’s life that is worth bringing a frown on a child’s face. And while we would show that Lynch is just as capable of pleasance with his film works upon his making of the 1999 Disney film The Straight Story, it just takes a bit of a dig into the world to find what really made Lynch tick as an artist, as shown in this excerpt from Lynch on Lynch.

“My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it was supposed to be. But then on the cherry tree would be this pitch oozing out, some of it black, some of it yellow, and there were millions and millions of red ants racing all over the sticky pitch, all over the tree. So you see, there’s this beautiful world and you just look a little bit closer and it’s all red ants”

Sound familiar? That’s right… It’s exactly how the opening montage of his film Blue Velvet plays out. The nice, smiling cheerful, colorful suburban neighborhood absolutely eager to add to all of the joyous landscape you find yourself in, but underneath the dirt, you find the disgusting, the intense, the affrontive presence of all of these ugly bugs in our face. You’d have to have little imagination to understand the metaphor of an ugly sinister reality underneath every pleasant facade of any community. Of course, this isn’t something exactly limited to Lynch’s style or themes anymore. It’s been a constant work of tv series since Twin Peaks to shows such as Buffy the Vampire SlayerVeronica Mars, Rian Johnson’s Brick, and even before Twin Peaks, with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man probably being my second favorite usage of that atmosphere of pleasant evil behind Twin Peaks itself. And while those all have a bit more subtlety than Lynch’s representations of suburbia in Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, Lynch’s obnoxious exaggerated showcase of these things actually only makes me love his works more in their directness to the matter. You don’t need much imagination to understand these themes, whether you like what he’s saying about them or not.

It’s also not the only thing of Lynch’s childhood that made an appearance in Blue Velvet but of the infamous scene where Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini) – many references to The Wizard of Oz appear in Lynch’s work and while I’d like to speculate that he watched it as a child, I really don’t have any source on that – appears naked and battered at the doorstep of Jeffrey (MacLachlan again!) was based on a childhood incident that traumatized Lynch as he and his brother witnessed a woman walking naked onto the street at night. And that trauma still carries itself to an uncomfortable in the scene itself when we reach it in the film.

Despite all of this happiness and nourishing childhood atmosphere and in spite of his status as highest-ranking Boy Scout (one who was able to actually attend the inauguration of John F. Kennedy), Lynch was still a dark young man. If not for the fact of his attitudes towards the wormy underblanket of the cities he lived and played in, the fact that he remained rebellious to his environment. He and his friends would begin making bottle rockets, but soon become bored and create pipe bombs to use around the city – eventually leading to their arrest. You could say Lynch was wild at heart.

Or how his high school interest in the Beat generation took a cinematic form within the character of Bill Pullman in Lost Highway. Or even, to the smallest of degrees, Lynch’s own early agoraphobia as a child would play part to the home lives of many many characters in Twin Peaks themselves, most certainly in the character of Harold Smith.

The reason I bring all of these facets up to introduce Lynch’s career is not simply as something to go on about his beginnings (this is hardly too incomplete of a post to do that), but to largely point out that, like him or not, Lynch was a very inspired filmmaker. Maybe the most inspired of us all. He digs deep into places, some seen, many unseen, of himself to figure out how best to communicate the stories he wants to tell with us. These are only the immediate sources of his works’ genesis, as we go further and further into his career, we will be discovering just where – in other aspects of his life – did he come to creating works such as Twin PeaksLost HighwayBlue VelvetMulholland Dr., and Inland Empire in their whole. But those will be discussed for another day.

In the meantime, to tie into the next chapter to come on The Straight Story, art was never a stranger of a subject for Lynch to take interest in. His father would constantly provide him with spare paper to draw and paint on (his drawing usually darkly based on war but in the same interest that most children of the culture of the American hero would have) and, by age 14, Lynch was acquainted with the artist Ace Powell – heavily influenced by Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. The prolonged exposure to art influenced a still-doubtful-of-art-as-a-career Lynch into rooming with his friend (and another collaborator) Jack Fisk and enrolling in Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts.

From there came the kickstart to Lynch’s artistic sensibilities and intuitions, his fruit of which we will get into next week…

Thank you for reading so far.

State of Affairs for Motorbreath 2015 (featuring my David Lynch song)

Howdy, gang!

Haven’t posted in a while, which I am sorry for. Some urgent personal stuff as well as other projects got in the way of holding onto Fixing a Hole 2014 and at this point, with how many movies I’d have to play catch up on, I believe it safe to say that Fixing a Hole 2014 is currently a bust.

Can’t win them all. However, I shall be doing at least two more reviews (one of them video – possibly a third article) that had been requested of me a while now so expect the final chapters of Fixing a Hole – The BabadookThe Interview self-interview, and (possibly) Lucy – within the coming month.

In the mean time, I will still be picking up the ball I dropped in the past summer and reviewing all the features I saw at Cannes Film Festival 2014 that I haven’t reviewed already. This will take over the coming year, but granted this means the following films
– Mr. Turner
– Winter Sleep
– Timbuktu
– Maps to the Stars
– Lost River
– Coming Home
– Two Days, One Night
– The Rover
– The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
– Still the Water
– The Salvation
– The Homesman

Plus possibly a few movies I didn’t see at Cannes (I saw them in other venues) but which did screen there and would probably be great additions:
– God’s Not Dead
– Life Itself
– Force Majeure
– National Gallery
– The Tale of Princess Kaguya
– Cold in July
– Pride
– It Follows
– How to Train Your Dragon 2

In addition, now that 2015 is in, I gotta start kicking off that David Lynch overview series, so expect that by Thursday at the latest. In the meantime, I would also heavily recommend Joel Bocko at Lost in the Movies’s work on David Lynch. His love for Lynch largely outweighs mine to the point that I fear inadvertent overlap, but he’s goes to the full mile every time he talks about Lynch.

Also being brought in for the new year means at least an overview retrospective of the past year. There’s a few more films I want to catch before I post a Top 10, Favorite Scenes, Motors Nominations, etc. superlatives for my own film experience of 2014, but it should be done by the end of the month.

Finally, this month, I allowed for the consultation of friends, readers, and so on to let me know which movie director I should make a retrospective of. This was before I was aware of the return of Twin Peaks, which forced my hand to David Lynch. This problem is also stacked on by two factors: One such friend insisted I should make each film work a video review (which means this will be a monthly thing, possibly bi-monthly and making articles for the smaller works to tie in so I can contain this within 2015) and that the majority vote went to Tyler Perry. Meaning you all hate me.

But I’m a man of my word (which makes me an awful man) and I will do my best. So thank you all for kickstarting me and following me for the past year and a half that I moved to WordPress. In the meantime, I have one more thing to leave you all with…

… a song project I wrote and recorded for a college assignment in regards to my fandom of David Lynch and specifically for Twin Peaks). Figured it’d be a smooth enough thing to kick off.

Man, my life is going to suck.