Now Talking about Film Directors on a Regular Basis

(Or:  “Is it possible to get to of all of Danny Boyle’s films within 4 hours?”)

A little over a year ago, I was asked by Jim Laczkowski to join in on a podcast he hosted called the Director’s Club, which discusses the works of a single director each episode.  The episode I was on was about Stanley Kubrick, and it was a rewarding experience, where we were able to see new connections and ideas moving through his films, some who I’ve seen dozens of times.

I had gone on several more times since then, talking about filmmakers from Sidney Lumet to Atom Egoyan, and I guess I made a decent enough impression on Jim, as when he left the podcast to concentrate on his online media site the Now Playing Network, he passed along the hosting duties to me this year!

I find this a great opportunity.  Looking at the breadth and depth of a director’s career has shown to be fun and revealing, both in the ones I’ve participated in, and in the 100+ previous directors on the podcast.  I’ve brought along my friend Brad to join me in the hosting duties – as Assistant Organizers of the Chicago Film Discussion Group, we’ve become more than a little familiar with extended conversations on film topics.

We have a varied selection of directors whose careers we’ll be examining twice a month, from legendary filmmakers to cult favorites to some unexpected auteurs.  But for our debut, we talked about the films of Danny Boyle, a British director who’s moved all across the film spectrum from groundbreaking genre films to Oscar-winning crowd pleasers.  Give it a listen on the Director’s Club Podcast on iTunes, or via this link.

If you find it insightful or enjoyable, stay tuned here or on iTunes for future dispatches from the Director’s Club!

TIFF 2016 Review: “Loving”

B/A-/B+ (muting the drama and an emphatic outlook makes the biopic story both deeper and wider in its scope)

Country: USA; Director: Jeff Nichols; Starring: Ruth N, Joel Edgerton

Richard Loving decides to marry Mildred, running afoul of local laws against people of different races living together. They try to make a life for themselves and their children, while getting involved in a case to mske such laws unconstitutional

Jeff Nichols should be the first one to call for every upcoming biopic movie Hollywood decides to churn out. And it’s not just because of his efforts on filming “Loving” work so well, but the directorial choices shown throughout his career provide the best antidote to the biopic’s worst tendencies.

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TIFF 2016 Review: “Daguerrotype”

Daguerrotype

F/B+/D (foolish plot and character decisions squander interesting themes shown with amazing technique)

Country: Japan; Director: Kyoshi Kurosawa; Starring: Tahar Rahim(from “A Prophet”, Matthew Almaric (from “Roman Polanski’s stunt double”)

Synopsis: A young man needing work becomes an apprentice to a photographer obsessed with using the daguerrotype – a method where people hold a position for hours to get an ultra-pure image.

Some primitive tribes resisted having their photographs taken, as they felt that it would steal their souls. The Daguerrotype (both the movie and the device), take such a concept and put it to an operatic level. A photograph is said to capture a moment in time – what does it mean to try this capturing on an actual person, both for the person and the photographed result?

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On to Toronto for TIFF2016

I am heading out this year to the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival with some fellow members of the Chicago Film Discussion Group!  Between us we’ll be catching 52 of the movies playing there, and we’ve set up a site where we’ll be posting our impressions of what we saw.  (We tried to do real-time updates last year, but I got kicked out of the theater for typing too loud).

We’re going to be posting our impressions on a sister site, where you can check out the Master List of films we’ll be seeing.  But here I’ll say what I’m most looking forward to in Toronto this year is:

  1.  “The Salesman” by Asghar Farhadi, who’s batting 100% on great films so far
  2. “Dog Eat Dog”, a midnight show where we get a chance of seeing Paul “Taxi Driver” Schrader
  3. “Death in Sarajevo”, a black comedy from the “No Man’s Land” director
  4. “Daguerrotype”, from the Japanese master of epic dread, Kyoshi Kurasowa
  5. “Old Stone”, a Chinese film that starts out neo-realist and changes into film noir halfway through
  6. The incredible Werner Herzog has two movies playing this year.  I’m attending both, and it’s my fondest wish to be able to get him into an epic drunken conversation with this mad genius at a nearby bar afterwards.  I imagine the conversation would go something like this….

There will be 25 other movies I’ll be checking out, and I’ll be posting away at them both here and on the CFDG@TIFF site (with hopefully a podcast or two as well).  Check the sites out to get an advance impression for the wave of upcoming films headed our way!

Taking a Film Punch at “Ex Machina”

This past August, I participated in an interesting new movie podcast called Film Punch.  Created by Rebecca Martin, the founder of the great Film Lover’s Exchange Meetup Group, the aim of the Film Punch podcasts is to have people immediately discuss a movie right after watching it.  I found this a fascinating idea, since as I’ve mentioned before, I consider each movie at least two movies, and the film that emerges from your immediate reactions can be quite different than the same film when you give it extended consideration and thought.

This works best with movies which give off strong impressions that people can interpret in different ways.  Their second podcast definitely qualifies, as “Ex Machina” is a masterpiece when it comes to shifting across multiple perspectives.  Each of the three main characters in “Ex Machina” can be considered the Hero, Villain, or Dupe at different points in the story, and one of the topics explored during the Film Punching was “Who’s side are you on?”  It was fascinating listening to people hash out their impressions of the movie’s events and have their outlooks shift during the conversation, and highly recommended to listen in on the process, as it’s one all too rarely put on record when it happens!

Check out the podcast on either iTunes or SoundCloud.

Review: “Hell or High Water”

B+/B/A-/A+/A (Entertaining crime drama with a great humanity under a deep, dark outlook)

Director: David Mackenzie; Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Synopsis: Two brothers go on a bank-robbing spree in Texas, which brings a grizzled Texas Ranger in pursuit of them.

“What’ll you not be having?”

That’s asked by a waitress in “Hell or High Water” to her customers, and it’s a very appropriate question, as its implications hang over every character and action in this story. Rarely has any movie, much less a cops-and-robbers tale, been so sharply defined by things that are lacking, and tied it so well to a abscence felt in society today. The movie starts off with this impression in mind, taking a slow turn around a bleak townscape before showing a robbery in progress. The robbery is driven by the need of the two robbers to settle a debt, something that will give solace, not triumph, if they’re successful. And in the first of the movie’s surprising turns, the robbers are not only pessimistic about the law catching them, they nearly take it as a given. It may look like a Western, but it has the sensibility of a noir.

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Review: “Kaili Blues”

Director: Gan Bi; Starring: Yongzhong Chen, Shixue Yu, Yue Guo; Country: China

Synopsis: Chen Shen, a worker at a small country clinic, heads to his fomer home town to find his nephew, where he goes through his past in a unique way.

C/A-/A+ (Initially obscure storytelling leads to a rewarding, meditative, and singular movie experience)

Like seeing Apichatpong “Uncle Joe” Weerasethakul direct “Birdman”. “Uncle Joe” specializes in a type of “contemplative cinema” – movies with a calmer, deliberate pace and a slightly removed perspective. In these films, an audience isn’t propelled from scene to scene in a race to see what happens next, but gets shown a situation (usually for an extended moment of time), and by observing picks up meaning from the details they see. This can lead to some distinct rewards, such as precisely human interactions between characters, and a much more involved presence of the world the movie is showing.

“Kaili Blues” presents two worlds, and the switch between them makes for one of the most extraordinary experiences a movie has provided.

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Review: “The Neon Demon”

 

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Director:  Nicholas Refn; Starring: Elle Fanning, Karl Glusman, Jena Malone

Synopsis:  A young girl becomes a success in the fashion world, which puts her (and the audience) into some nightmarish and strange places.

D-/A-/F/D  (Dumb plot and tone changes render it much less than the sum of its amazing images)

The Neon Demon” is a movie partly about high-end fashion shows, but ends up being the best movie to be playing behind one.

Bad Fashion

Too hideous, yet can’t look away…..

In fact, the movie operates at the level of a fashion show runway – not so much a ‘story’ as a collection of individually-designed scenes that appear in front of you one after the other.  Each scene is given enough time to soak in and observe its effect, only to depart and then another arrive, and the best way to appreciate the whole thing is to wipe your mind clean of what you saw last and take the next scene on its own terms.   And also like a runway show, some scenes will get you thinking, “Hey, that’s an interesting twist on things….” while others will leave you yelling, “What the Hell is Going Into My Eyes?!?”.
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The Perfect Ending: “Paranormal Activity”

A tale of a tiny horror film, Steven Spielberg and “The Hook”

This is the story of a tiny horror film, and how a legendary director gave it a perfect ending by making the story worse.

In 2009 “Paranormal Activity” took audiences on a frightening journey.  The story of a couple, Katie and Micah,  experiencing a ghostly visitor in their home and their attempts to document its appearance, the film made nearly $200 million dollars (and spawned several sequels).  Part of the reason it worked so well on an audience was that it followed a key principle of horror, one nicely illustrated by this classic campfire tale (taken from the American Folklore site):

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Review: “Streets of Fire”

“Streets of Fire”

C-/D-  (multi-genre mood exercise degraded by misguided cast and direction)

Potentially captivating in how it uses a very 80s style to evoke a 50s setting (and with a villain donning some black suspendered overalls out of “Metropolis”, the 1920s as well).  At its best (the musical numbers at the beginning and end) the colors, smoke, bright backlights, swirling camera, and rousing music provide a moment exalting both eras at once (it’s as if Dario Argento directed the “Take On Me” video from A-Ha).

Unfortunately, the effect doesn’t last, and the different sensibilities fall out of alignment, with the fantasy elements of a music video world competing with those from a biker vs. small town movie, a Chuck Norris machonathon, and a even a western.   What really drags it down is the bizarre combinations of cast and direction.  Michael Pare is a piece of meat with eyes who spouts rapid-fire dialogue – it’s like watching the T-1000 programmed by Sam Spade.  Amy Madigan’s performance apparently involves playing Peppermint Patty imitating Clint Eastwood while dressed like David Crosby.  But Rick Moranis’ smart-talking band manager and romantic rival is the most wrongheaded performance of all time.  It’s even more ludicrously unbelievable than Sophia Loren romancing Anthony Perkins (!) and Burl Ives (!!!!) in “Desire Under the Elms”, and it acts like a trapdoor, dropping the audience out of any investment of belief in the story.

(Nice Flock of Seagulls hairdo on a ‘young’ Willem Defoe, though.)