Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Conversation with Vincent B. (Part Two)

In part two, we discuss whether Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac really needs to be a two-part, four-hour film, why more people should see Calvary and We Are The Best!, and I talk about why Whiplash may be a wee bit overrated; amongst other movies. We end by picking three long shot Oscar nominations that would make us the happiest tomorrow morning.

Jaime Bell sizes up Charlotte Gainsbourg in Nymphomaniac
JC: Since you took the time to watch one of my favorite filmmaker's super indulgent movie, I'll talk about one of your favorite filmmaker's super indulgent movie: Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac. I actually saw both parts on demand at home, not in the theater. I don't know if that makes any difference. I never wrote a legit review, but it did inspire me to write this little think piece about episodic cinema. I guess my feeling is: if you wanna make a TV miniseries, just do it and don't make multiple films and call it cinema. Obviously the main perpetrators of this are the Marvel and other studio films who always feel the need to promise the audience something more, but von Trier could have easily made this one film at a reasonable length. But enough about my own personal feelings on episodic cinema and on to the movie itself. It's definitely interesting. Like your thoughts on Paul Thomas Anderson, I'm not the biggest von Trier fan, but he's one of the few directors I would consider a genius. There's no one in movies I would consider a better provocateur, and he's master that aspect, but Nymphomaniac is an example of one of his movies where there isn't much else there. Nymphomaniac's ultimate thesis about the natural sexism that coms with sexual exploration is brilliant, and only von Trier would tell that kind of tale this way. The way he objectifies all those nameless male characters (thus making the audience confront their discomfort with the male anatomy, while simultaneously confront are disconcerting comfort with female objectification) is unique. But like Boyhood, it's great moments are contrasted with more ponderous ones. The ending is deliciously funny and it shows von Trier at his most #trollsohard, but did we need four hours to get there? Probably not. The world needs movies like Nymphomaniac to reset the calibration, but it's far from one of my favorites of 2014.

VB: I do not entirely disagree. This is hardly the first time von Trier has split up his movies into chapters (he does this with most of his films), but this is definitely the most episodic he has gotten. Each new chapter is often in an entirely new place in time. I don't have any issues with this approach, or with the Marvel movies, though I think that is something completely different. Did it need to be four hours long? DEFINITELY not. But the great ending is soooo much more effective after you've seen hours and hours of erect penises and sex shenanigans, and have wondered what the hell this entire thing is adding up to. And then, of course, by the very very end, you get the super troll the maybe this all just added up to nothing and by adding up to nothing it is something... ? Charlotte Gainsbourg keeps telling Stellan Skarsgaard "I just like sex", despite him always trying to relate her demented sex stories to something like fly-fishing or the fibonacci sequence or Bach (who even does that?! So awesome). I'll leave Nymphomaniac with Uma Thurman's "whoring bed" scene - fucking brilliant.

Let's talk about Whiplash. You loved it but it didn't make your top ten. Where's the love?

J.K. Simmons blows fire in Whiplash
JC: Whiplash ended my year in the #13 spot. I really did love that movie. It's been getting most of its attention for the smash-mouth performance from J.K. Simmons (deservedly so) and it's ferocious editing (Tom Cross, also deserved), but that movie is so incredibly well-made. Damien Chazelle probably won't get a Best Director nomination, which is fine, but talk about a fantastic job here, really orchestrating (no pun intended) a visual counterpoint to the music we hear throughout the movie. He really is, in a lot of ways, conducting these scenes. It helps the movie overcome its main flaw: the script. The script isn't bad as a whole, and I thought the movie went in a totally different, much more interesting direction in its third act then I expected it to. But there are a few gaping holes here, and Whiplash fans seem to ignore them time and again. There's the Nicole character (played by Melissa Benoist) who's introduced in such a charming scene - where Andrew (Miles Teller) asks her for a date at the movie concession stand - only to be discarded by Andrew later in the film, thus confirming her status as purely a script device. There's also the tense scene where Andrew is panically trying to rush to a performance and gets hit by a fucking truck on the way there. I realize it's meant to show the extremes in which Andrew's obsessions have taken him, but didn't this seem a tad hyperbolic? And the film's grandest moment: it's thrilling climax where Andrew is able to one-up Fletcher (Simmons) with his incredible performance is one of the best endings of the year - but the whole scene is built upon the conceit that Fletcher (a monstrous perfectionist) is willing to sabotage one of his own performances just to show this punk kid a lesson. These are small issues that nag at me, but the film is great. That opening shot alone (pulling in slowly on Teller as he plays the drums) is enough to make this a show-stopper.

VB: I agree about the truck scene. It's incredibly silly and it kind of goes on completely unaddressed (wrecked rental car, potential brain damage). I forgive it because, as you mentioned, it is done to show an extreme, though it could have been just as effective if it were less extreme (like hit by an ice cream truck, mail van or golf cart - also, those three ways would be much more hilarious). But I disagree with your other two points (drama!). Nicole isn't completely thrown away. Andrew breaks up with her because his obsession with being a "great" convinces him that a relationship will hold him back. So she is out of the picture, Andrew's self-destructive behavior gets him and Fletcher kicked out of the music conservatory, and when he reaches a more reflective place later in the film, he calls her to invite her to his latest performance and hits him with "I'll have to ask my boyfriend". Burn Andrew, she don't want chu no more. She became collateral damage to his obsessive tendencies, and that's the last we hear from her. I thought it was a great way to wrap her character up and illuminate another casualty of being a "great", since all of the conflict from the film stems from achieving this impossible greatness.

Your other point I think I'll have a tougher time defending, because I do see your point but I bought into it (not only because it was a phenomenal finale). Andrew got Fletcher kicked out of his prestigious position in the conservatory. Next time we see him, he's playing in low-key clubs. Presumably, this is how he spends his time, instead of nurturing (or torturing) the next generation of potentially great musicians. Andrew took that away from him. So, an eye for an eye, a great for a great. Fletcher uses this performance, the one where everyone is watching and "no one forgets", to ruin Andrew in the same way Andrew ruined Fletcher. As I write this, I do realize it seems a bit petty, and Fletcher wasn't a petty dude. But at the same time, Andrew did take away Fletcher's most important ambition, so Fletcher decided to return the favor - though it backfires, beautifully.

JC: Those are all good points. I wanna switch gears real quick and talk about a movie that we both put in out Top Ten, John Michael McDonaugh's Calvary. This was a small Irish indie, but really was such a wonderful movie that really struck me with its powerful ending. The McDonaugh brothers are really some of the most exciting, original filmmakers out there right now. What'd you love most about it?

VB: Brendan Gleeson was definitely my favorite part of Calvary. He has an amazing way of balancing gentle wisdom and brutish toughness within one character, especially here. The script was also so great, opening with a pretty shocking scene that cements the way for a jolly (and not so jolly) band of quirky characters that treat Gleeson's poor priest like crap and send on a rollercoaster ride with his own faith. This film was probably one of the most intelligent dissections of the murky moral compass of Catholicism that I have ever seen, and to conclude the movie with such an unexpected devastating scene just really made the film stick around in my thoughts for a while. The McDonaugh brothers have now made for movies I love (Martin: In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths; John Michael: The Guardian and Calvary), and if they continue on as they have, they may well become some of my favorite screenwriters ever.

JC: Calvary was such a brilliant, melancholy deconstruction of Irish Catholicism, showcased through this small little town choking on its own dogma. I agree on Gleeson. We all know how brilliant an actor he is, but he's got such a warm softness and I'm not sure that quality was ever better used that it is here. He's in nearly every single scene and brings a really needed element to what would have been an otherwise bleak film.

I wanna talk about the movie We Are The Best! real quick, since I kinda pushed you to watch it before you made your list. I saw it a couple weeks after it came out actually, and after a friend saw it and recommended it to me. I loved nearly every second of it. It's spirited performances from the three young actresses (Mira Barkhammer, Mira Grosin, Liv LeMoyne), it's terrific incorporation of Swedish punk music, it's portrayal of the odd social structure of middle school romance. It's a film that's difficult to explain why it works so well. The filmmaking is solid and Lukas Moodysson's direct camera style works perfectly here, but's not exactly Robert Elswit-level cinematography here. It's a movie that really depends on a visceral reaction more than anything, and it really connected with me on this level. It's depiction of these oddball pre-teens just felt incredibly real to me, even a little familiar. It's also nice to see a movie about teenage girls coming of age that doesn't require them to get fucked.

VB: I initially did not want to see We Are The Best! AT ALL. I hate punk music with every fiber of my being and the lives of little thirteen-year-old girls deciding to start a band because they "feel like it" - I'd rather watch a blank TV screen than that. But the film is soooo much more. It captured the rebellious spirit of punk and teenage girls in such a natural way. The friendship between these three misfits was totally delightfully to watch. The film's finale, a disastrous final performance that ends in chaos, totally encapsulated the spirit of its themes. I'm glad you recommended it to me, I appreciated that more than Wild, which I flat out didn't like.

Reese Witherspoon in Wild
JC: You "flat out" didn't like Wild? That's surprising. I thought it was such a stunning piece of filmmaking, with a brilliant editing style led by a great performance from Reese Witherspoon. Jean-Marc Vallée isn't my favorite, but his manic style worked for me here. The way it visualized Cheryl Strayed's mentally-exhaustive venture through the Pacific Coast Trail felt totally spot on to me. That the film occasionally goes for sentiment didn't bother me, because it didn't feel like a cheat. Laura Dern's performance as Strayed's mother is so pinpoint perfect that I can understand her death being the catalyst for such a self-destructive downward spiral. I also found its various depictions of the male threat very unique. We meet all these different men (though the "Finally! Another woman!" scene was terrific well), and the movie doesn't show them as villainous creatures - not in the shadows, surrounded by brooding score - but as, simply, men. Like a fact of life that every situation alone with a man presents a threat to women, even if that threat isn't actually real. No movie before has ever presented that to me that way before.

VB: I had zero interest in seeing Wild, so my expectations were quite low to begin with, and I saw it mostly for the Oscar buzz. With all these "venturing into the wilderness movies", there are two things that always seem to happen: our main character howls, yells at the wilderness in frustration and throws something of value away that they then immediately regret throwing away. Wild had all those things. The acting was great (especially Dern), but I found Cheryl Strayed as a character to be wildly annoying. The flashbacks to her younger days (just putting Reese Witherspoon in pigtails apparently makes her a teenager?) and interactions with her mom, she was a straight up bitch. The Hobo News scene was hysterical, which I don't think was the point. "Here's your hobo care package!" What? Are these real? Hobos have newspapers? What's in a hobo cara package? Worn out wool and gloves with holes in the fingers? I guess they are real and my ignorance caused me to crack up, but I found it so amazingly random - and hilarious.

JC: I'd probably be remiss for us not to talk about the zeitgeist film of the moment: Ava DuVernay's Selma, which had the weight of being the "Martin Luther King movie" and yet was able to rise above that and be an incredibly effective portrait of American history. As I watched, I was so frequently reminded of last year's 12 Years a Slave in how it's violence was direct and powerful; the way it makes its audience come to grips with its past while confronts the uncertain mature of its present. Selma and A Most Violent Year came out so late in the year, which is a shame because they're both such phenomenal achievements of filmmaking. Luckily, Selma has caught on and has managed to persevere through the pressure of presenting its subject matter. The film didn't make my Top Ten, but if I'd been given more time to consider (I've still only seen it one time) things may have turned out differently. You, on the other hand, had lower expectations - I actually had to push you to see it - and it made your list. So it's quite possible that you're more enthusiastic about it than I am?

The Civil Rights Movement brought to life in Selma
VB: I had ZERO interest in seeing it. It looked like pure slimy-worm-on-hook Oscar bait. So expectations were low. The reviews came in, they were great, but I was still not sold. And then you saw it and told me it was not like what I was expecting. So I put the noose I was fashioning back into the closet for another time and just went and saw it. I was completely blown away. From the moment I saw how DuVernay showed the Birmingham church bombing, I realized this is not what I feared it would be. It was direct, confrontational, disturbing, infuriating, but also important without the pretension that accompanies movies with self-importance. It wasn't a biopic that hit all the usually triumphant beats with an expository ending describing what happened to everyone that the film didn't show (though Selma did have that). It showed that the intricacies of the Civil Rights Movement by focusing on one event in detail, and how that event was not only on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, but through committees that were often on the same side but still in disagreement. The film also shed light into how King's position within the movement affected his personal life, which is something I feel is rarely delved into.

But speaking of a film that is just soupy Oscar bait, I would like to discuss The Theory of Everything. I didn't hate it, the acting was superb; Eddie Redmayne's delving into the physical changes Hawking endured was pretty devastating, and Felicity Jones as his wife attempting to continue their like alongside this illness - and her moments of guilt - was also great. but a British biopic period piece about a figure that goes through a physical ailment the progresses as the film continues? That is borderline Oscar bait self-parody. Though there are many effective scenes, particularly when they come in with the color-coded, letter/number system for communication and Stephen is not thrilled, to say the least. It's not crap because the acting is so strong, but the sheen and score and just snooty British biopic atmosphere of the film just makes my eye roll so far into my head that I'm having seizures.

JC: I kind of like The Theory of Everything. For all its wondrous, score-pounding melodrama, I did at least think that it presented a more nuanced version of marriage than most films of this kind. I can't remember the last biopic that focused on the love within a marriage that doesn't even make it to the end of the movie. Though it's hard to look past how prudish it becomes about Jane's infidelity (her sneaking into her boytoy's tent is intercut with Hawking nearly dying at the opera and flashing hospital lights that just scream "How dare you!? Slut shame!!!") when it seems to find easy comfort when it comes to Stephen leaving his wife for a perky nurse. Redmayne's Hawking is a feat in physical performance - though I'm not very sure how much more he's bringing to the role - and Felicity Jones does bring some heart to what is essentially a nothing part (Mark Harris described it best when he called it a "fine, basically supporting performance as a fine, basically supporting person"). The movie takes a man as complex as Hawking and basically deduces that the most interesting thing about him is that he has a degenerative disease and he had an up-and-down marriage. So, I think the movie is fine except that it really has no business anywhere near a Best Picture discussion. But alas, here is stands amongst the main contenders.

Speaking of movies that take interesting takes on marriage, no movie does that more than David Fincher's Gone Girl which is such a weird, funny, bleak movie filled with great performances. Can you remember the last time that an R-rated adult drama was led by a female performance and became such a big hit? Sure, the film is based on Gillian Flynn's hit novel (she wrote the screenplay as well_ but it's still not exactly a recipe for commercial success. I really liked Gone Girl. I haven't read Flynn's novel, but I've heard it's quite faithful to the twisty aspects of the book. The claims of sexism that have been waged against the film are warranted in a way, but there's something satirical about this story that rose above it. I feel like Flynn and Fincher are telling this story with tongue placed firmly in cheek. The movie is not flawless - it's too long and it's complicated tone never seemed to find the right calibration for me - but it's such a well-made movie. Nobody's better at making digital look like film that Fincher and his frequent DP Jeff Cronenweth. Also, dare I say: Tyler Perry is pretty great in this movie.

VB: I had more fun watching Gone Girl than any other film this year. I didn't know anything about the story before I saw it, but my main interest was in Fincher. I'm glad you used the phrase "tongue-in-cheek" because I thought this movie was fucking hilarious. Not in a lollersaurusROFLROFL manner, but in a satirical way. I find the sexism debate pretty interesting. Most of it has been aimed at Rosamund Pike's character (obviously, because she is CRAZY), but Ben Affleck isn't exactly the best representation of males. He is inattentive, irresponsible, a liar, an adulterer, kind of all the stereotypical negative male traits all in one. While Amazing Amy is smart, clever, cunning and resourceful. That Amy's plan comes off without a hitch, his quite impressive. Most of the great femme fetales of film history were motivated by the same things men were (money, power, fame, et al), but in Gone Girl, she's out for castration. Bring the male down, whatever it costs. That is not the best way to paint a female character, but I think Pike's performance is strong enough to overcome it but being DIE MALE DIE. So I think the satire curves the sexism a bit. I think Amy is a GREAT character who was loads of fun to watch. The tone issues youhad with it are valid. Despite how funny I found it, the score is pretty chilly and the visuals match, basically a trashy B movie with smart A movie execution. And this is probably by the far the best thing Tyler Perry has ever done in the film world.

JC: To wrap up our discussion here, let's bring it took something we both love, the Oscars. For all are blathering about disliking Oscar bait, it's hard not to get excited about the annual ceremony. So for the end, I'd like us both to pick three dark horse, surprise nominations that would make us most happy on Thursday morning. Here are mine:

1) Best Actor: Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel. Maybe I'm wrong suggesting that this is such a dark horse, given the film's resurgence amongst the ranks during awards season - it even won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Comedy or Musical on Sunday night! - but it seems like Fiennes has always been on the outside looking in throughout the season. I hope I'm wrong. He's so wonderful in this film. He works off his own prestigious reputation so well and gets so many laughs in the meantime, a perfect protagonist for such a dastardly melancholy movie. Fiennes is too good to be without a nomination for so long and it really doesn rank amongst the accomplished actor's best work. I personally find Fiennes' work here better than any of the other big-time Best Actor contenders. A nomination here would prove that there are still slight glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse once known as The Oscars.

2) Best Cinematography: Bradford Young, A Most Violent Year. It's very possible that Young will get some love in this category for his work in Selma, which I guess would be a fine substitute, but the way he sets the mood in A Most Violent Year is really a stand-out. Chandor's film is good in just about every way that a movie can be good, and the film's sleek Godfather-like tone is created in large part by the shadows that Young is able to create throughout the film. A Most Violent Year isn't going to get much awards attention outside of Jessica Chastain's spot-on, showy performance, so it'd be nice to see it get some notice here. It'd be a nice way to coronate a young, up-an-coming talent in category most people don't pay attention to.

3) Best Picture: Inherent Vice. We can go ahead and place this in the "never going to happen" category. Vice was too strange and it expected too much from its audience. It doesn't pander for the gold the way the usual Best Picture nominations tend to do. And yet, it's better than all the front-runners. What sets Paul Thomas Anderson ahead of the rest of the pack is not only that he may be the best director in America, but he's probably the best screenwriter as well. He'll never be a guy who wins the Oscar (though he got surprisingly close with There Will Be Blood in 2007), at least not with the films that he's interested in making now. All that said, if Inherent Vice manages to sneak in and ruin the party for everyone else? I can't think of anything that'd make me happier.

VB: My three dark horses are:

1) Best Actor: Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler. We've already gushed over his performance in this film enough to warrant too many more words, but I think you said it best: "Sometimes there's a performance that's so good that you truly worry about the mental stability of the actor after becoming such a person". Nuff said. I consider it a dark horse because I feel like Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything) and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) have sort of staked their claim, leaving two spots for so many different great performances. If Ralph Fiennes got it, I would be pretty happy about that as well.

2) Best Actress: Scarlett Johansson, Under The Skin. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that there hasn't been much awards love for this film. Probably a bit too weird and esoteric. But her performance was my favorite of the year. I feel one of the hardest portrayals an actor can do is being someone pretending to be someone else. There is always a level of insecurity and awkwardness you have to reach that is easily overstepped. But she was PERFECT.

3) Best Production Design: Onderj Nekvasil, Snowpiercer. Considering the limited space and how much had to be conveyed, I think the parade of train cars that the revolt pushes through, each seemingly more elaborate, colorful and gratuitous as the next, is an easy Best Production Design. It's inventive and clever, adding an excitement to the plot progression. "What is next!?!?!" No other film this year can claim that it's production design added such a level of excitement to the film. And on top of that, Nekvasil had to design these sets being mindful that a number of them will have huge but confined action set pieces. I'd call this a dark horse just because the film itself has gotten so little attention in awards season, besides the Boston Online Critics Association (what even is that?).

**BONUS: Best Original Score: Antonio Sanchez, Birdman. The Birdman score is my favorite score of the year, but because it uses some pre-existing music, the Academy deemed it ineligible. Which is complete bullshit, because it's brilliant and unique and it's use of drums is unlike anything from this year or any other year. Those lone chaotic drums... I really can't think of a film that has used percussion in such a suitably obtrusive way. But the samples of Mahler and Tchaikovsky are what drove the Academy to their decision. So, it's impossible. :(