Monthly Archives: July 2012

Can’t Wait: David Cronenberg’s ‘Cosmopolis’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

I’m not a huge body horror fan.  Therefore, my exposure to filmmaker David Cronenberg has been limited to The Fly and Videodrome.  I think both are very good, but neither leaves me feeling like I must go on a Cronenberg binge; the intensity of his work calls for long rest between viewings.  So, with it having been months since I saw Videodrome and this new Cosmopolis trailer hitting the internet, I guess now is as good a time as any to see another of his movies.

The first thing that stands out is Robert Pattinson.  For once, his lack of charisma seems to be the point, rather than a further demerit, to the film.  Maybe I’m being a little harsh on him, as I’ve only seen the first Twilight movie, but the impression he gave me in that was indifference and not much talent beyond looking moody.  In Cosmopolis, he appears to be much the same, but now he plays a business type, desensitized to the world around him.

I’m glad to see Cronenberg playing with that desensitization, as cinematically heightened versions of Occupy protesters pound on Pattinson’s limo’s windows while he sits there, insulated and unfeeling.  Associates of some sort suggest Pattinson needs to murder people, as that’s an extension of the business world.  The streets are burning, people are yelling and throwing dead rats while the upper crust like Pattinson and Sarah Gadon talk in detached, inhuman speech patterns to each other in posh restaurants.  Something tells me this will not be a very pro-business film.  Instead, I suspect it will act as an allegory — that’s not a surprise considering its source material, from author Don DeLillo’s novel — for modern indifference.  Our lack of interest in other people is of utmost interest to Cronenberg, and I’m excited to see what he can do with a story like this.


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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

I had planned for this week’s post to be a discussion of Jim Jarmusch’s debut feature, Stranger than Paradise.  However, laziness and a weekend trip combined with my seeing The Dark Knight Rises last night to push Jarmusch’s artistic statement back a week in favor of Christopher Nolan’s not insignificant summer entertainment.  I doubt anyone will complain.  And, while I’m sure I’m one of very few people to have waited this long to see it, I know there are others who haven’t, so be warned: spoilers follow.

The Dark Knight Rises is the first of Nolan’s Batman trilogy to feel truly comic book-y for significant portions of its run time.  I know that complaint sounds absurd considering how we’re talking about Batman adaptations.  But Nolan’s grim realism previously only gave way to outlandish conceits in the climax of Batman Begins, with the steam device barreling down an elevated railway to spell doom for Gotham.  The majority of that film and all of The Dark Knight had bigger ambitions, though.  They were about grander concepts; the power of symbolism, cultural decay, post-9/11 paranoia, and testing society’s limits, among other things.  True to form, The Dark Knight Rises features many heady ideas, but unlike its predecessors, it then sets them aside in favor of a sewer lair, catchy banter, and a literal ticking time bomb.

Don’t get me wrong, that ticking time bomb is one of the best I’ve seen at the movies, and it is part of a breathtaking series of set pieces that signify the highest of stakes for Gotham City.  Its payoff is operatic, successful, and moving.  It features wonderful performances by Christian Bale (as a part of a whole that marks his best work in the series), a converted-to-the-cause Anne Hathaway, and especially the film’s secret weapon, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, whose impassioned and ill-fated pleas for help from his fellow police officers elevate an already great performance.  It is in the comedown from this high in which the film’s comic book twist ending weakens the climax’s emotional impact.


To fully execute its series-long character arc, Batman should have died when his aircraft carried the nuclear device out over the Gotham bay.  The entire film had built toward that inevitability.  Alfred tells a war-scarred Bruce he won’t make it if he resumes his vigilante ways after eight years in seclusion.  Bruce is already recovering from a broken spine at the hands of Bane, weakening him further.  In the run-up to the climax, Catwoman pleads with Batman to run away with her because he has already given Gotham everything.  “Not everything, not yet,” he says, resigned to what should be his fate.  And yet, be it Warner Brothers’ corporate nervousness refusing Nolan his preferred ending, or Nolan himself pulling back from a truly final resolution, there Bruce is at the end, raising a glass to Alfred, his death faked and everyone safe and sound.

Why is it so important for the hero to die?  Because guilt and sacrifice are what drive Bruce.  His almost sociopathic need to exact justice on an unjust world would never allow him to give up Batman forever, even if he got to come home to Selina Kyle every night.  It’s not in him to stop living the righteous life.  There is no happily ever after for Bruce Wayne.  Furthermore, while nobody but Alfred and Selina knows the truth about his “death,” keeping Bruce alive cheapens for the audience the ascension of Gordon-Levitt’s John “Robin” Blake.  Yes, Batman’s remark to Commissioner Gordon about Batman being a symbol and how anyone could be beneath that mask is true.  However, without Bruce’s real death, inspiring Blake to take up the cowl means nothing from a storytelling standpoint.  There is no true sacrifice, and therefore no true inspiration for Blake; he’s an imitation of Batman rather than the next iteration.

It’s a testament to Nolan, his screenwriter brother Jonathan, and the actors involved that I enjoyed the film as much as I did despite being as bothered as I am with the ending.  After the dynamic action sequences of The Dark Knight and Inception, Nolan has fully grown into his own as a big budget crowd pleasing director.  He is less successful here in marrying those action sensibilities to his big ideas as he was in those two pictures, but he does include them.  He shows plenty of skepticism toward the stock market’s and big business’ abilities to run themselves unchecked, while utilizing Bane as an example of how radical attitudes towards them might be even worse than the things themselves.

Perhaps not to the extent of Heath Ledger’s legendary Joker in The Dark Knight, the acting is superb in this installment.  As I mentioned above, Bale is great as Bruce.  His injuries add a vulnerability not seen in the last two films, and it complements and fuels the rage he feels as he can only watch from afar while his city burns.  Anne Hathaway’s coy, tough-as-nails approach imbues Catwoman with a playfulness different from Michelle Pfeiffer’s take in Batman Returns, and her bravery at film’s end shows the complexity of the character who had usually only been utilized as a villain in filmed adaptations.  Tom Hardy’s Bane, while tasked with the thankless job of succeeding Ledger as the villain, does a good job of providing a fascistic menace totally different from his series predecessors.  Gordon-Levitt’s acting is the best in the film, and in some ways he is the main character.  His progression from “hot head” cop to future Batman replacement is a fascinating one to see; he has gone from an “actor to watch” to full-blown must-see in the last few years.

A lot of The Dark Knight Rises works.  The things that don’t — an unearned romance between Bruce and Marion Cotillard’s mysterious Wayne Enterprises executive, an unnecessary expository hallucination cameo by Liam Neeson, the underutilization of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, the aforementioned ending — are enough to make this film good instead of great.  But Nolan’s virtuosic direction and magnetic performances by the other actors ensure that it’s not a debacle, either.  I’d long worried this could become another example of second-sequel-itis (Superman 3 and Spider-Man 3 being the worst offenders), but I’ll take good-not-great any day over retroactively ruining the other movies in the series.



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Can’t Wait: William Friedkin’s ‘Killer Joe’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

Besides the obvious perks of dating a graduated theatre major — Who wouldn’t want to work jobs that have nothing to do with your passions and eat five-minute rice three nights a week? — I’ve been introduced to many plays I would never have otherwise encountered.  Among Emily’s (she would be my girlfriend to the one person who reads this site who’s not a lifelong friend or family) stack of paperback plays, I reached for Tracy Letts’ Bug, a southern gothic horror/drug paranoia tale that bore itself into my head.  When I heard Letts had adapted another of his plays, Killer Joe, to be directed by New Hollywood bad boy William Friedkin (The Exorcist), I pledged to see it as soon as possible.

That trailer only heightens my excitement.  Matthew McConaughey, suddenly willing to stretch on the screen (I’m also rabidly anticipating his turn in Jeff Nichols’ Mud), goes into force-of-nature mode.  His boots, his lascivious grin, his profession (cop with hitman work on the side), everything points to his Joe entering the pantheon of great film villains.  The protagonist, though, is Emile Hirsch, who will hopefully continue on the path he started in 2007’s Into the Wild, with his portrayal of a moral-free young man who hires McConaughey to murder his mother for her insurance policy.

And then there’s Friedkin’s direction.  For someone as auteur theory-dependent as I am, I’ve only seen The Exorcist of his filmography.  Based on this trailer and the stories I’ve been reading in Peter Biskind’s book, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, I need to delve further into his work.  At least in his ’70s, Oscar-winning heyday, Friedkin was a powerful, harsh man who, despite his faults, had a great deal of interesting things to say about the world.  I’m eager to see if Killer Joe lives up to that.


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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Many movies are forgettable, even some good ones.  But if a film makes you think about it for days, weeks, months, or years after seeing it, that usually points to its quality.  2001: A Space Odyssey and last year’s Take Shelter (already an all-time classic, if you ask me) are the first examples to come to mind.  Sometimes, though, those initial lingering thoughts aren’t always positive.  That’s what happened to me in the years following There Will Be Blood‘s release.  On first viewing, I thought it was plodding, its characters impenetrable, and the ending felt like tacked-on shock value.  But I would often think about it and ultimately its problems bothered me less.  Then I saw it a second time, read the script, and its nuanced character study grew on me.  Growing up a little and experiencing more cynicism certainly didn’t hurt my understanding, either.  I still don’t know if it’s a great film, but I feel it’s at least very good.

And now, a week after finally seeing Eraserhead, David Lynch’s directorial debut, I feel a similar transformation may be in its early stages.  I say this because Eraserhead is a “difficult” film.  It’s one you try to understand, and in that process, feeling it gets lost.  It’s a clinical movie about ideas and themes rather than real emotion.

Eraserhead is a film in which nothing feels right.  Everything about it rings false and constructed.  This is intentional and not particularly bad, given the context.  Its sets all feature a beaten, post-industrial look with exposed pipes and no decoration; nobody in Lynch’s dreamlike world has much use for brightening their spaces.  The characters dress in plain business clothes, but their style is offset by odd physical distinctions, such as Henry’s (Jack Nance) eponymous hair cut.

It is Henry whose odd story we follow.  He knocks up his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and after meeting her family for the first time — it goes about as well as you’d expect — they get married and move in together to raise their mutant creature baby.  From there, for all the film’s purported difficulty, it follows a simple parable about the angst of growing up and starting a family.

There is nothing wrong with that story.  In fact, I really like it.  However, where I feel Lynch falters is, instead of fleshing out his worries about impending fatherhood — “What if there’s something wrong with the baby?”; “How do I react to my child’s imperfections?”; “Will I find it in me to love my child?”; “What do I do if it gets sick?”; et cetera — and struggles with monogamy, he presents them as ideas and themes within a nightmare rather than forming a human connection.

While all of these characters feature human personality attributes, no one feels fully human.  I don’t mean to say I require a character to root for in a film; I don’t care about connecting to the characters as people I would like to meet.  That said, if you want me to fully appreciate your work, you should try your hardest to make your characters rounded people, even if they are tough to understand.  This is a lesson Lynch learned later in his career, particularly when working with Kyle MacLachlan.  MacLachlan’s characters in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks are oddballs, but they’re oddballs with motivations and previous experiences that lead them to their eccentricities.  In Eraserhead, though, Lynch’s characters arrive fully formed and they are weird for weird’s sake.  We know Henry works in an industrial plant, but learn nothing of his background.  His reactions to things usually consist of a silent, pained expression.  Stewart’s Mary fares a little better, as she deals with a loveless marriage and deformed baby, but her characterization consists mainly of shouting and crying before storming out of nearly every scene.  Mary’s parents exist purely as nightmarish caricatures to unsettle Henry and, by extension, the audience.  Even the character portrayed most naturalistically, Judith Roberts’ Beautiful Girl Across the Hall, is a cookie cutter seductress from the film noir stock used only to throw another wrench into Henry and Mary’s marriage; her lack of a name lends more credence to her being devoid of character depth.

Where Lynch excels in Eraserhead is his ability to execute themes within a well-rendered tone.  I’ve written a lot about the nightmare state in which the film takes place, and that does not waver for the entire run time.  Everything Lynch does is to question reality, not only in terms of consciousness but in societal mores.  Is the American family truly an ideal to which we should strive?  The X family’s long pauses, inappropriately sexual treatment of Henry, and generally menacing demeanor would suggest otherwise.  Mr. X’s droll story about his numb arm point to the meaninglessness of small talk, and perhaps human interaction as a whole.  As for the baby, that Admiral Ackbar-meets-Xenomorph grotesquerie, Lynch projects his worst fears about procreation.  Maybe some people should be barred from having children, whether it is before they’re ready or simply because they don’t have parenthood in them, Lynch suggests.  As for the segments involving the Lady in the Radiator literally turning Henry’s head into erasers, I’m still struggling to make heads or tails of it.

Eraserhead may not be a great film, but it enthralls me.  It’s bold in its themes and executes them well, despite obvious deficiencies in character, which is no small task.  It’s also a springboard of ideas which Lynch would later use to magnificent effect in more fully formed films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway.  In the week since seeing it, I have found my mind drifting to its memorable imagery and trying to make sense of its more esoteric notions.  Perhaps, in time, I will be less concerned with its issues and more ready to accept its importance in avant-garde filmmaking.  Until that day, though, I will have to live with its messy, absorbing nature.

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Can’t Wait: Christopher Nolan’s ‘The Dark Knight Rises’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

I know everyone is writing this week about director Christopher Nolan’s Batman series finale, The Dark Knight Rises.  But the excitement surrounding the film wouldn’t be so high if Nolan hadn’t made the single best superhero film yet with 2008’s The Dark Knight.  And with his last go-round in the Gotham City playground about to premiere this Friday, of course I’m anxious.

There was never a chance I would refuse to see the movie in a theater, but that new trailer has made The Dark Knight Rises my most anticipated summer movie in years, perhaps since its franchise predecessor.  There are plenty of reasons for this — Tom Hardy disappearing into another role, Anne Hathaway playing a Catwoman who appears to be more soldier than crook, and the utter destruction of Gotham seemingly imminent — but the most interesting notion put forth by the trailer is Batman’s mortality.

In it, you can see Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) walk with a cane.  A lot of time has passed since the last film and that time has not been kind to Batman.  He’s a recluse, having given up his vigilante mantle (“You’re not Batman anymore.”).  When Bane arrives and Bruce is forced to be a hero again, he’s overmatched.  Bane is stronger, both physically and in the number of followers he amasses.  You feel Batman will fail.

That’s the kicker.  Knowing this is indeed the end of the line for this story and these characters, anything can happen.  Warner Brothers can simply reboot the series to allow this trilogy (started by 2005’s Batman Begins) to stand on its own.  Nolan can take his dream of making realistic Batman films to its logical conclusion: Bruce Wayne’s death.

If I’m right and Nolan does kill Batman, I will applaud the decision.  Batman’s humanity should be explored in every way possible.  We’ve already seen him stand up to great evil and forces of chaos.  He has lost almost everyone he loves.  He has sacrificed his home, his family, and his reputation in search of some kind of greater good.  Now it’s time to stick the landing and give this series — the finest of its kind — the beginning, middle, and end it deserves.

Batman needs to sacrifice the rest.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘Paper Moon’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

Craft is often forgotten — and occasionally abandoned — in deference to style.  Style is what makes people take notice.  When asked what makes a director’s films work, many people will point to the director’s visual flair, genre trappings chosen, and their movies’ overall tone.  Kubrick had his obsessively perfect shot compositions and reverse tracks; Altman’s camera never stopped moving or zooming; There’s the stupidly named but not untrue “Spielberg Face”; The list goes on.  Those are tangible things onto which a viewer can latch, and they often enhance the picture as a whole, but they are not what make a story work: rounded, imperfect characters whose decisions make sense given their previous actions, and a plot with every scene advancing the story in a meaningful way.

Film critic, historian, and director Peter Bogdanovich understands the importance of craft.  He understands it so well, in fact, that his 1973 con artist film Paper Moon is an exercise in craft; everything he does is in service of the story and characters.

Bogdanovich wastes no time throwing the audience into the Depression-set tale.  He opens at nine-year-old Addie’s (Tatum O’Neal) prostitute mother’s funeral as swindler Moses Pray (her real life father Ryan O’Neal) arrives late in a backfiring jalopy; he “knew” Addie’s mother with strong implications he may be her father.  Her handlers learn Moze is heading to Missouri, where Addie’s aunt and soon-to-be caretaker lives.  They convince him to escort her there safely, and he reluctantly agrees.

This exchange occurs in no more than three minutes.  Nothing extraneous can be found.  The audience learns the situation (an orphan needs to reach her remaining family, her “father” must get her there) and necessary characterization (despite his reservations, Moze doesn’t put up much of a fight when asked to care for Addie; she needs a parental figure).  His cranky car and shifty attitude (and wispy mustache) provide enough of a mysterious hook to pull us in, and Bogdanovich expeditiously goes about answering our questions in their episodic journey.

The pair heads to a grain mill owned by the man whose brother killed Addie’s mother in a car accident and Moze demands money on Addie’s behalf.  Moze is not great at doing this.  Instead of bargaining for the thousands he requested, he eagerly accepts the $200 the man offers, surprised to have gotten any amount.  After receiving the money, he pockets it.  Addie, who had listened to the exchange outside the door, confronts Moze at a diner.  She’s tough as nails and angrily demands her money from him, although he had already spent it.  She tells him he has no choice but to earn her repayment with her by his side.  What a cool nine-year-old.

That diner scene is emblematic of the film as a whole.  Each character wants something: Moze wants to keep the money and continue with his life unburdened, and Addie wants the money owed her.  Incrementally, it advances the plot while revealing more about each character (the child is stern and sharp while the adult of the pair is irresponsible and a little inept).  The rest of the film follows suit.

From there we learn Moze’s profession.  He’s a grifter posing as a traveling Bible salesman.  He reads obituaries and swindles the deceased’s family by saying the dead person had recently put a down payment on a “deluxe” edition of the Bible and he’s at their doorstep to deliver it.  Upon seeing Moze at work, Addie looks to improve his methods by casing the rich people and discounting the poor; it’s a liberal sensibility that speaks perhaps more to our current political climate than the 1970s, but that’s a discussion for smarter people than this writer to have in another venue.

The clockwork nature of the film boggles my mind.  There is no fat on the script.  Each time Moze and Addie enter a hotel, you know a pivotal character building scene will happen, with Moze’s paternal instincts growing with each room key that touches his fingers.  Each episode — Moze and Addie carefree while selling Bibles, a dancer named Trixie Delight (Madeline Kahn) wooing Moze into being her sugar daddy, and run-ins with a cop in the bootlegging business and a hillbilly family with a penchant for wrestling matches — serves to deepen the film’s central relationship.

Any film that acts purely as an exercise, no matter how well done, would still be a failure.  Stylistic exercises like Kill Bill and Drive wouldn’t work without healthy portions of character work, and likewise a craft exercise like Paper Moon requires a lot of style to succeed.  Bogdanovich and crew inject plenty of style into the film and achieve deeply felt resonance in the process.

While I think Bogdanovich’s direction, outside of the sharp black and white cinematography, could be described as unfussy, that would be misleading.  He uses several extra wide shots throughout the film that not only look beautiful but also show us just how bleak a world Moze and Addie inhabit, which makes their fun loving nature more impressive.  Noteworthy, too, is how little Bogdanovich zooms the camera.  Instead, the camera dollies in and out and booms up and down, creating a retro look you don’t see much in filmmaking today; it is a neat callback to the camera techniques used in the time the film takes place.

Bogdanovich isn’t alone in the film’s success, though.  The O’Neals take their father-daughter chemistry and create characters that never feel manufactured; you can imagine them having lived this existence.  Moze is a man who disdains responsibility, to the point where he’s found a lucrative-but-unfulfilling business he would never outgrow if it were not for Addie, who seems to be destined to run a Fortune 500 company by the end of the film, given her shrewdness, eye for detail, and fairness in regard to those less fortunate than she.  The character actors, especially Kahn as the seductress, make the most of their small screen time.  Kahn’s heart-to-heart with Addie rings especially true; she’s an aging dancer trying to make the  most of her fading beauty in a time when a woman without real world skills would be eaten alive.

Bogdanovich set out to make a film that fulfills every key aspect of storytelling.  That sounds like a lofty goal, but it isn’t.  By following the simple rules of (1) make every scene count in the grand scheme of the film, (2) make the characters grow in every scene, and (3) change the characters — for better in this case — by the end of the story, you will create an effective work.  Paper Moon reaches transcendence, though, by utilizing actors who never hit a false note and visual techniques that feel both fresh and oddly antiquated at the same time.  It’s a “full package” film if there ever was one.


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Can’t Wait: John Hillcoat’s ‘Lawless’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

I don’t think Guy Pearce has it in him to let me down.  Whether he’s the unimpeachable-boy-scout-who-must-break-his-code Edmund Exley in the flawless L.A. Confidential, a king-to-be who wants nothing to do with his throne (The King’s Speech), or a brain-scrambled neo-noir detective trying to solve his own mystery in reverse (Memento), he has always shown he knows a thing or two about acting.  Now, in Lawless, he reteams with his The Proposition and The Road director, John Hillcoat, priming himself to add another memorable role to his resume.

Clearly, Pearce is not the only reason to be excited for the movie.  Shia LaBeouf seems elated to abandon the nonsensical action and sexism-a-paloozas that are the Transformers franchise in order to try a more mature role.  Tom Hardy looks to solidify his movie star credentials as a bourgeoning southern booze magnate.  Jessica Chastain has a mischievous glint in her eye not seen (by me, at least) in any of her performances to date.  Oh, and Gary Oldman strutting his acting titan stuff.

The great cast aside, Hillcoat is an interesting director poised to take the leap to “must see” with Lawless.  While The Road remains one of those “I’d watch it if I didn’t keep forgetting to shoot it to the top of my Netflix queue” films, I have seen his very good Australian western, The Proposition.  In that, Hillcoat displayed a keen sense of tone and an eye for interesting, stylized violence reminiscent of one of my favorite filmmakers, Nicolas Winding Refn.  Pearce’s role — a prisoner tasked with killing his criminal older brother in order to save the life of his slightly-more-innocent younger brother — in The Proposition is reason enough to get me to see anything else these two do together.

A period setting? Gangsters? Violence? Count me in.

I cannot wait to see what Hillcoat does with the Prohibition-era South, a time in American history that can’t help but be fascinating.  I’m glad to see him strip away the folk hero aspects of these booze runners and instead slather grimy true-crime details on the flick.  I’m excited to see the nitty gritty of how these mom and pop liquor rackets blossomed into criminal enterprises, with all the familial jealousies and toe-stepping on rival gangs that go along with it.  I fully expect captivating performances from all the principle cast members — especially the disturbingly eyebrow-less Pearce — and a smattering of ultraviolence to sweeten the pot.  If these things happen, Lawless could go from simply being a bright spot of late-August film doldrums to a year-end awards contender.

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I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School: Marc Webb’s ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’

Welcome to I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, my weekly article to prove that I have it in me to go from movie buff to film critic.  Each week I’ll cover movies I’ve heard feature prominently in film school, films I believe are worth exploring deeply, classics I’m ashamed to have never seen, and occasional new releases if they strike me.  As these are longish discussions, spoilers follow.  For more from me, check out the rest of Defeating Boredom or follow me on Twitter, @Rob_Samuelson.

There is a magic to being the first to do something, even the inconsequential things.  It’s not merely novelty; it’s something harder to articulate.  That is why I felt magnificent sitting in the theater Monday night/Tuesday morning waiting for a midnight showing of director Marc Webb’s update of my favorite superhero’s film franchise, The Amazing Spider-Man.

However, that is when the specialness of being first turned sour.  Webb and screenwriters James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, and Steve Kloves decided they wanted to be the first to connect Peter Parker’s parents’ story to his superhero journey.  Throughout the movie’s runtime, they sprinkle in little nuggets about Richard Parker’s scientist days and drop ominous overtones on top of his and his wife’s mysterious death.

But here’s the thing: Peter’s parents do not, nor should they, matter to his story beyond their tragic early deaths.  In fact, by making Richard a scientist with a connection to Peter’s fateful run-in with that spider (and don’t complain about this spoiler, because it’s clear in the trailers), it cheapens Peter as a character.  It takes a beefed-up version of the American Dream — orphan comes from nothing and works through constant setbacks to make himself not only a great hero but a brilliant scientist — and turns it into something lesser.  Yes, Peter is still an orphan living with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May in The Amazing Spider-Man, but it feels almost like he’s a trust fund kid in regard to his mental inheritance from his father.  If his dad was PhD material, that makes Peter’s brilliance less surprising, and therefore less impressive.  When he’s creating his crime-fighting gizmos, the audience shrugs and thinks, “Oh, that makes sense,” rather than being wowed with how much Peter can do with how little he’s been given.  Peter is supposed to be the only person who can do what he does, but having his father be just as smart, if not smarter, tarnishes that specialness.  When he’s asked by Dr. Curt Connors to be a de facto lab assistant, it’s because Connors worked with Peter’s father and needs Peter for some of his father’s research; even though Connors is impressed with Peter’s obviously prodigious scientific skills, those are not what Connors wants.  Webb and company could have easily avoided all this by dropping the father plot line and just had Peter win Connors’ internship on merit rather than clout.

While that sounds like one aspect of The Amazing Spider-Man ruined my experience, that is not true.  Besides Spider-Man 2, Sam Raimi’s exemplary 2004 sequel, Webb’s work is my favorite of the franchise.  He and Andrew Garfield know Peter Parker’s personality: He’s not the weenie of Raimi and Tobey Maguire’s movies, but he is nervous around pretty girls like most high school boys would be.  He doesn’t flaunt his intelligence.  He sticks up for those unable to defend themselves.  And when he dons that Spider-Man mask, he loves it.  He cracks jokes that actually made me chuckle instead of the bad uncle jokes Maguire spouted in the previous trilogy.  Overall, he has a blast when messing with low-rent crooks early in his vigilante career.  Emma Stone plays a Gwen Stacy who is more than the eye-candy-damsel-in-distress type; she’s capable, smart, and heroic in her own right.  Denis Leary, while underutilized, is good when he is on the screen as Gwen’s dad, the tough-but-fair Captain Stacy.  Rhys Ifans’ Connors/Lizard is a tragic and conflicted villain who doesn’t resort to simple mustache twirling.  I would have preferred to have seen more of Sally Field as Aunt May, but Martin Sheen as Uncle Ben was grounded, loving, and pragmatic; my favorite Uncle Ben since Brian Michael Bendis’ rendition of him in the early issues of Ultimate Spider-Man.  That said, clunkifying Uncle Ben’s “With great power comes great responsibility” speech is a colossal miscue, but not Sheen’s doing, so I cannot fault him for that.

The Amazing Spider-Man is both a deeply flawed and surprisingly effective movie.  I’m sure a lot of people are jumping on the “IT’S FANTASTIC!!!” or “IT SUCKS!!!” bandwagons, but like most movies, it doesn’t fit in either pigeonhole.  The film’s insistence on providing more Parker family history is a massive problem, but the acting is better than any summer action movie I’ve seen in a long time, and its main plot thrust feels like the Spidey adventure of the Stan Lee-Steve Ditko-John Romita days.  While messy, the film mostly does the characters justice, which was the only goal I wanted the film to accomplish while walking into the theater.  I finally got the Spider-Man characterization I’ve long wanted, the one I’ve cherished more than most of the people in my life, and that is something worth cheering.

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Can’t Wait: Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘The Master’

While my other movie series, I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Film School, looks back, I figured I should place at least one foot in the here and now of giddy anticipation.  Therefore, Can’t Wait focuses on upcoming movies I, well, can’t wait to see, along with a few reasons why.

I have no trouble picking favorites.  My problem lies in picking so many favorites that I need to impose arbitrary categories on them in order to not come off as someone who loves everything.  Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is a prime example: he is my favorite director (in his prime).  And when my favorite director (in his prime (I will soon write an article further explaining my thoughts on this (so many parentheses))) will soon release the thoroughly intriguing The Master, his first film since 2007’s There Will Be Blood, my giddiness is off the charts.

That second teaser trailer for the October film shows a filmmaker furthering what has been a three-film-long stylistic transition.  While Anderson started, in movies like Boogie Nights and Magnolia, with a style highly reminiscent of Robert Altman — huge ensemble casts, epic running times, a constantly moving camera, et cetera — his last couple directorial efforts, Punch Drunk Love and the aforementioned There Will Be Blood have sharpened his focus.  He’s become a colder, more analytical director.  He has increasingly depicted a single character’s journey (Adam Sandler’s Barry Egan in Love and Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview in Blood).  It’s clear Anderson has changed his storytelling touchstone from Altman (with large doses of Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme) to Stanley Kubrick.

Hints of Kubrick — tied for first with Scorsese in my favorite director (all time) list — litter that trailer, and the one that preceded it.  It opens with Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Freddy Sutton, placed far from the camera, voyeuristically waiting alongside a road for a passing truck to hitch.  That draws parallels to the faraway, let’s-step-back-and-hide-while-these-characters-live-their-lives framing Kubrick used in Eyes Wide Shut.  The fact that Sutton is to some degree mentally unhealthy recalls famous deranged Kubrickian characters like Lolita‘s Humbert Humbert, A Clockwork Orange‘s Alex, Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack D. Ripper, and The Shining’s Jack Torrance.

The Shining’s influence is particularly apt in this Master trailer.  Any time light filters into a room through windows, it washes out everyone and everything, just like any Shining scene in the Overlook Hotel’s lobby.  The score, courtesy of Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, brings the same sense of “off” as did Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind’s musical work on Kubrick’s horror masterpiece.  The Master looks downright frightening, which is not what I expected when I heard the rumors its story is a thinly veiled (and unflattering) biopic of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Showing the worst sides of society’s institutions were a penchant of Kubrick’s, and with There Will Be Blood‘s and now The Master‘s skeptical approach to faith, Anderson appears headed in the same direction as one of cinema’s all-time greats.  Count me in.


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