Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A Conversation With Vincent B. (Part One)

As we did last year, me and my good friend - and Los Angeles resident - Vincent B. had an email back and forth about what we thought about the most talked about movies of 2014. On the heels of the Golden Globes and prior to this Thursday's Oscar nominations announcement, Vincent and I talked about the contenders, the non-contenders and the esoteric loves that we found through out the year. In this first part, we discuss why neither of us could really catch on to "Boyhood fever", why it was quite easy for both of us to love Nightcrawler, and various other movies, including Foxcatcher, Inherent Vice, and Snowpiercer. Here it went:

JC: I guess I should start this off by saying that I never got around to seeing The Babadook, a surprise hit and a film that has a firm placement on your ten best films of the year. Yell at me and tell me about the horrible thing that I've done.

VB: The Babadook is easily the best horror movie that came out this year, and you should definitely see it eventually. That being said, I don't think it would have made your Top Ten (relative sigh of relief). It followed a grieving widow trying to deal with a socially inept terror of a child while trying to get her own life straightened out. A lot of the horror aspects come form the metaphorical visioning of grief in the form of a home-invading monster called the 'Babadook'. I think everything about it is pretty darn great. I could gush about this movie forever, but I'm more intrigued by the fact that neither of us included Boyhood in our Top Tens. All of the critics loved it. What's the matter with us?

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood
JC: I don't want to be the guy who dislikes Boyhood, and I'm not. I love Linklater, and the Before trilogy is one of my all-time favorite group of films. It felt to me, at times, like a really good television miniseries where some of the episodes are better than others. The story of how the movie was made is gimmicky, but it's a good gimmick because it plays into the kind of storytelling the Linklater is interested in. In a lot of ways, it is the most definitive thesis on his career, I just think he's mad so many better films.

VB: Boyhood suffered a little bit of over-hype syndrome admittedly, but despite that, it had a few genuine problems. One being that the performances from Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke was so impressive that it really highlighted how mediocre Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater were. One scene that really makes my case is when eighth grade Mason (Coltrane) is hanging out, drankin' some brews with older kids in a constructed home. That scene was downright uncomfortable to watch because of the combination of dialogue that sounded like it was written by a fifty-year old man trying to sound like what the "kids" sound like these days; and a group of sub-par young actors attempting to deliver that dialogue naturally. "Penis wrinkle", really?

JC: I think I'd agree. Hawke and Arquette are so incredible in their parts. Arquette is the true rock that this movie rests on, so that's why I have no issue with the individual attention that she's been getting for this movie. I just struggle with the idea of canonizing a film with such poor filmmaking. Linklater does this every once in a while, where he makes a film where the camera does nothing interesting, and Boyhood falls victim to that. Also, it's attempts to time stamp certain events felt a little obvious to me at times; the choice of music, in particular, felt especially egregious. "I Wanna Soak Up The Sun"... really? As for that specific scene with the kids talking in the condemned house, I guess I didn't notice the dialogue being so bad because I was so worried that someone was going to get decapitated by the saw they kept throwing into the dry wall.

VB: It did so much well that I'm not addressing. I do think it is very good, but not the cinematic masterpiece many are calling it. It's certainly better than Foxcatcher, or as I call it, Fox-boring or Boring-catcher. It was cold to a fault, and besides a great performance from Mark Ruffalo, featured Channing Tatum as a neanderthal and Steve Carell as a creepy rich fuck. I mean, I know nothing about the events or people portrayed in the movie, but Carell's John du Pont and Tatum's Mark Schultz were incredibly one-dimensional. I'm shocked at all the praise and nomination that Carell is getting. He's shown multiple times already that he can be great in weightier roles (like Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back), but here I just don't see where the praise is warranted.

Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, and the prosthetic
nose in Foxcatcher.
JC: And the nose! I think Matt Zoller Seitz called it the "most intrusive prosthetic nose in the movies since Nicole Kidman played Virginia Woolf in The Hours", which felt pretty spot-on for me. I went into Foxcatcher wanting to like it, but I to left feeling pretty cold. Bennett Miller, the film's director (and boyfriend of one of the Olsen twins (!!)), made two pretty good movies before this one, but Foxcatcher is so austere and so seemingly handcuffed by it's need to be journalistically close to the source material, it feels almost cowardly. Everything is inferred. It's inferred that du Pont and Mark Schultz have a sexually inappropriate relationship; it's inferred that David Schultz may have distrusted du Pont; it's inferred that Mark Schultz may have had some kind of a learning disability. The script never truly goes for it - though that hasn't stopped the real Mark Schultz from ripping the movie to shreds - and I think that really holds the movie back. But I still think that there are aspects of this movie that are interesting. All the images of Americana and industry, and it's themes of the rich and powerful (Carell's du Pont) exploiting the working class (Tatum and Ruffalo's Schultz brothers) were effective at moments. Carell's performance is so affects, but he seems to be going into a strange territory that the movie definitely needs more of. His du Pont is actually very funny, even if Miller suppresses it. In a lot of ways, I think the movie lets Carell down in this instance. It's Tatum, who turns Mark down until he is literally just a mumbling ape, who I felt was downplaying his part too much. As you can see, I'm conflicted on Foxcatcher. Something tells me that I can be talked into it upon repeated viewings, but as of right now, it feels like a handful of good performances trying to find a plot.

We both put Nightcrawler in our Top Ten (you put it at No. 1). Should we just go ahead and get to our lovefest for that movie and get it over with early?

VB: Nightcrawler is one of those movies that just completely adheres to everything I love about the movies. It looks great, is sharply written, darkly comic, violent, interesting, constantly entertaining. It's a character study first, but within that lays a pretty ferocious satire on local news (I'd even say news on a national level as well). Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is hilarious and terrifying as Lou Bloom, a guy who sprouts out self help book phrases more than he actually converses, accompanied by such an eerie grin. This combined with his physical change in appearance (sunken eyes and cheeks), creating a looming (or Lou-ming or Bloom-ing) character who is fascinating to watch, but someone you NEVER want to be around in real life.

The vacuous visage of Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler
JC: I've talked with some people who feel like Nightcrawler's critique of news journalism was a bit benign. In theory, I actually agree, but the comparison I've been using is this: Nightcrawler cares as much about the ethics of news journalism about as much as WALL-E cares about climate change. Both films are pure, stylized fiction, and yet both films find a way to comment on the realities of the audience. Nightcrawler isn't, de facto, a satire about the news a la Paddy Chayefsky, though that's definitely a part of it. I just appreciated the way it weaved real life issues into its narrative. The movie reminded me so much of Scorsese's Taxi Driver - which also weaves in themes of political assassinations, even though it's not the MAIN theme - in how it really dives deep and dissents a truly sociopathic protagonist.

VB: The relationship between Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed (as Rick, Lou's "intern") creates such a wonderful tension, and Rene Russo gives her best performance in a very long time (arguably ever). One of my favorite scenes of 2014 would have to be the dinner date sequence with Gyllenhaal and Russo. It starts out seeming like a pity get-together where Russo believes she has the upper hand. As it progresses, it slowly turns around and we realize Gyllenhaal is blackmailing and extorting Russo. How that scene unfolds is so super great. The cinematography is also amongst my favorite of the year (my favorite for that would be Snowpiercer). It's sheen enhances the artificiality of the digital medium.

JC: I'm glad you mentioned Robert Elswit's cinematography here, because it's some of the best digital camerawork I've ever seen. It reminded me of Michael Mann's Collateral in its slick deliberateness and the way it showcased Los Angeles. The fact that Elswit can shoot this so well on digital and then do Inherent Vice so well on 35mm proves he's one of the best DPs around. But I also have to throw in my own bit about Gyllenhaal's performance. Sometimes there's a performance that's so good (Joaquin Phoenix in The Master, Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion, to name a couple) that you truly worry about the mental stability of the actor after becoming such a person. That's how I felt about Gyllenhaal here. Really great work.

You mentioned Snowpiercer, which is a film that I've really battled with. It's so well-made (I, too, found Hong Gyeong-Pyo's cinematography amazing), but it's script was so heavy-handed and the storytelling got downright nihilistic at some points. It really neutered the conclusion (There's life on Earth!) and made the whole thing feel like an excuse for the director to make a violent film with America actors. Like the screenwriter really loved Orwell's 1984 and decided to put it on a train. But then Tilda Swinton is so great in it, and then there are a few great individual scenes (like Alison Pill's hilarious gun-toting school teacher sequence) and I begin to think that I'm grading the movie too harshly. So, I should probably see it again. As of right now, I'm pretty much in the middle on it.

The always-great Tilda Swinton, threatening the
lower-class in Snowpiercer
VB: I loved Snowpiercer so much because, though it does clearly wear its sociological politics on its sleeves. I think it's just plain fun. The entire thing is so implausible, but made with such skill and conviction that I had a blast watching it. I don't believe the surreal nature of the movie has been given enough credit. The way the violence is filmed, the may strange but brilliant moments (the Alison Pill scene you mentioned or the countdown to the new year "time out" in the bloodiest fight scene). I think a problem many are having is that they're stuck on the politics of the movie when there really isn't anything to pick at. Starts off with the social class imbalance (so timely!), then the revolt starts, and by that point, everything that wanted to be "said" has been said, and the ride begins. My only significant problem with the movie was the very ending, which you mentioned. It is presented in an uplifting manner (Look! Life! And now people!), but the only survivors are one woman and one boy, so what the hell are they gonna do? Repopulate the earth with a bunch of incest mongoloids? That's if they don't get murdered and eaten by the probably starving polar bears. If the same ending happened but was presented in a different light, then I'd call the film a masterpiece. As it stands, I just think it's great fun. And, it arguably displays the best production design of the year and cinematography.

I know you mentioned Robert Elswit's cinematography in Inherent Vice (segue!) so I guess I should tell you what I thought about that film: I really like Inherent Vice. I watched it with a very good friend, and his thought when it ended (or in this case, stopped, didn't really end) was "that was the best terrible movie I have ever seen". I don't completely agree with the wording, but the idea? Yes. It looks beautiful and the acting is great. There's a laundry list of quirky characters that, outside of our main three, probably only exist within the movie for no longer than 10 minutes. Phoenix is hilarious. The man can say sooo much with just a facial expression. One scene that had me cracking up was the long shot of Phoenix watching Josh Brolin's character eat a phallic chocolate banana like it's his last meal on Earth. The script is a goddamn disaster, but that is a huge charm of the movie. Anytime Phoenix's character resolved one question, ten more pop up. This keeps happening and happening until the movie stops existing. Though, I will say it did leave us with a nice little nostalgic wish for innocent, smoother, less complicated times which sort of wrapped the movie up, but without resolving any of the strands of the plot. And that's the point: it was more about the experience then the plot. It was so much fun to watch. I didn't want it to end.

JC: Disaster? HOW DARE YOU! (just kidding) As is widely known around this blog, Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite, my hero, my one and only. I'm willing to extend him the benefit of the doubt that I wouldn't lend to others. If, say, Oliver Stone or Ridley Scott had directed Inherent Vice, I would probably not have been too kind (though I must say that Stone or Scott could never make anything as good as Vice, but just for reference. It would be hard for me to disagree more about the screenplay. All of the craziness of plot to mentioned is not some mishandling of narrative, but a visual representation of Thomas Pynchon. And if you want to dismiss that because BOOKS AREN'T MOVIES, GOD! then I understand, but it's been DECADES since a filmmaker so fluidly translated the feeling that the author creates on the page - I'd say it hasn't been done this well since Kubrick adapted Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. In that way, I can't imagine the screenplay being any better. Perhaps another director could have found a stronger narrative base in Pynchon's book, but that wouldn't be Anderson's style and that definitely wouldn't feel very much like Pynchon. It's stated fears and paranoias felt eerily prescient to me. I'm willing to take part in this kind of cerebral plunge into breaking down Inherent Vice because I love Paul Thomas Anderson so much and want to love his movies. Quite frankly, it's kind of pathetic that I put forward so much of an effort, but it's worth it for me and it's what makes his films so wonderful to me. Also, Josh Brolin is AMAZING.

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