Friday, December 19, 2014

Citizenfour - The Reign of King Paranoia

This year's latest round of Oscarbation* has been focused largely upon biographies of great men performing past acts of heroism.  "Selma" is about Martin Luther King Jr's decision to march against the president's wishes, "Unbroken" is Louis Zamperini's tale of survival against the Japanese, and "The Imitation Game" is Alan Turing's fight to hide his sexuality while essentially laying the groundwork for the modern computer.  As good as these movies may be (and I have no idea, I haven't seen any of them), they are all simulations.  We cannot be in the room where history was made, rather we can only create a dramatic play imagining what these people might have been like.  There is artistry in those constructs, but they will forever be infinitely distract from the actual people and the actual events.

No film, until "Citizenfour" has managed to set itself within the real room with the real history-makers at the very time when they changed the world.  It is a film that feels immediate and dangerous.  Our emotions are not manipulated by dramatic technique injecting tension, rather the filmmaking compliments the yet-tangible crisis.  These events are still enfolding following people who are still being targeted by the most powerful state on Earth.  There is no actor playing Edward Snowden, creating the illusion of his nervousness, paranoia, and excitement.  This is Edward Snowden himself on camera, feeling those emotions.  "Citizenfour" transcends rote filmmaking, this is a pure historical source.

Most of "Citizenfour" takes place in a hotel room, with three people sharing the crampt space.  Snowden himself mostly stays sprawled on the white bed, while reporters Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill take shifts between using the one chair and standing.  This room is a basic white zone of tasteful mild - the kind of generic slightly-above-average temporary bedroom that could be found in any city on the globe.  The first interviews have that forced awkward quality you would expect from people meeting for the very first time, but as time moves and the momentousness of their discussion grows, a bond is formed.  They nervously smile with the knowledge they are starting a battle against terrifying people of unimaginable power.  Even in this isolated room, their enemies could be listening.  Big Brother, long-awaited and long-feared, is now here.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Nightcrawler - The Adventures of a Humanoid Corporation

Corporatese is the language of psychopaths.  Beyond being a tribal marking - a tribe of suits, ties, briefcases, and practical black German cars - it is a twisted dialect of understatement and avoidance.  Unlike its incomprehensible cousin Legalese, Corporatese at least can mimic regular speech that a person would use.  Yet there is no individual in "business-speak", merely a conglomerate of larger interests, 'the corporation'.  A person can have emotions, they can have guilt, they can even suffer pangs of responsibility.  A business corporation does not.  A corporation is a vast omnipresent psychopath made out of fleshy, presumably moral people.  Corporatese is a dance of bullshit that lets the humans within the business machine ignore the chilling nature of the shared universe they have created.

Louis Bloom, the main character of "Nightcrawler"* might be the first character to be a living corporation.  Despite a polite, positive, even friendly attitude, Bloom makes the skin crawl of everybody he meets.  There is something clearly off about this person.  A false smile lies on his unblinking face, below swepted-back hair and above a wirey frame.  His speech is full of nonsensical buzz words he is quoting verbatim from online interview guides.  Everything about him is a staged production performed just badly enough to make you wonder if there are lizard scales hiding beneath his human suit.  Bloom uses Corporatese in every line not because he's playing a role, rather this is his natural element.

If there was ever any doubt about Jake Gyllenhaal's abilities as an actor, "Nightcrawler" is the film that will silence that dissent.  This is a deeply impressive performance that could not have been done better if the master of slime himself, Eric Roberts, had played it.  Gyllenhaal does creepy very well, just see his double(?) role in the earlier "Enemy".  "Nightcrawler" exists mostly as a showcase for this disturbing character, much as "American Psycho" existed to project the horror of the yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman.  We follow Bloom's crimes, tactical advancements, and creepy gestures of friendship towards genuine people, and are made accomplices in his meteoric rise to camera greatness.  It is one of the best performances of the year in a thrilling film, showcasing just how much damage a single person with a corporate-mindset can do, while climbing upwards to his own nightmarish American Dream.

Intimidation Wins, Cowardice Wins, Film Loses

It feels bizarre for a post-Apatow bro comedy to suddenly become a major symbol of intellectual freedom.  The cast of "Pineapple Express" are not exactly pinnacles of American values and artistic expression.  But here we are.  Sony announced that after weeks of intimidation, hacks, and theater cancellations, that they are canning their release of "The Interview", a stoner comedy about two TV hosts traveling to North Korea to haplessly attempt to assassinate Kim Jong-Un.

Critics talk a lot about bold independent movies that are ignored by "mainstream" Hollywood.  We champion movies that are small, creative, and groundbreaking, which dare to do things that stupid comedies like "The Interview" would never attempt.  Let right now we have a movie that has been crushed by what is essentially terrorism.  I'll try to hold back my patriotic rage and instead be more incensed that any cinematic release be assaulted by such aggression by a nation state, one apparently no longer content to oppress it's own people but now must oppress the entire world out of petty pride and a complete lack of a sense of humor.  We should be just as angry that "The Interview" was censored just as we were thirty years ago when crazy home-bred fundamentalists tried to shut down "Last Temptation of Christ".  Movies are an artform, they should be protected like any other.  If North Korea has a problem with that, we shouldn't care.  This is the Western world, this is America, we've dealt with worse than you.  If North Korea finds our way of life a threat, we should be all the more proud of it.

But more I'm angry at Sony, who have shown their true colors here.  Sony shouldn't be humiliated by the hacks, they should be humiliated by their actions today.  They gave in to threats.  I'm sure Sony was more than happy to have a way out of what was soon to be a major boondoggle and a film that probably was going to be a flop anyway in the crowded Christmas season.  Despite theater chains dropping the film, there were still tens of thousands of theaters ready to play "The Interview".  Sony took the easy route.  Charlie Chaplain's "The Great Dictator" was an inspiring use of film to assault the greatest evil of the time, lampooning Hitler at the height of his power.  The studio execs of Sony seem to lack the resolve of just a few generations past.  We should all be ashamed.

Film, as a medium, has lost today. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Babadook - Why can't all horror films be this scary?

"The Babadook" has been inaugurated by just about every critic out there to be "the scariest movie of 2014".  The fact they're right, and that a small independent Australian horror film made for two million dollars is the scariest movie of the year - by a wide margin - should be a damning humiliation to the modern Hollywood horror scene.  You'd think after they release dozens of scary movies every year, made for far more money by veteran directors, that we would be terrified every weekend.  But we're not.  Horror has become the dumpster of the film world.  The average found footage film or crappy slasher has only slightly more credibility than porn - and none of the visceral thrills.

The crazy thing is that "The Babadook" really does not do much differently in terms of horror craft.  I cannot say there was much in this film that I have not seen in dozens of other scary stories.  You take a naturally creepy concept, such as an evil boogie man figure, isolate your characters, and slowly increase the tension.  It's a basic formula, yet one that so many films seem incapable of grasping.  "As Above, So Below"* had a naturally terrifying plot:  trap your characters in the French catacombs and then force them to trek down into Hell itself.  However, it was lazily made, unable to reach even the basics.  "The Babdook" achieves that elementary score, and it goes far beyond.

But what makes "The Babadook" advanced is not it's capable terror or that freaky grinning bastard in a top hat.  It is a great movie because it uses horror to build up a fantastic and gripping character drama.  Too many assure that just because horror is a trashy genre that it cannot have the dramatic weight of other genres.  They are wrong, and "The Babadook" does everything any other drama does:  it has compelling characters with real flaws and an interpersonal conflict that is tearing them apart.  It even features two of the best performances from any kind of movie in 2014.  "The Babadook" is a desperately human tragedy, with the fears and loneliness of it's characters heightened by the things that go bump in the night.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Freelancin': Left Behind, the Worst Movie of 2014

I know I haven't even made my Worst Of list yet, but I already know what number one is going to be.  And it's "Left Behind".  In a year few of awful awful awful awful Conservative Christian films, this was by far the worst.


This might be the worst movie I've ever reviewed for this site.  Think about that.