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It Might Get Loud

It Might Get Loud is an excellent documentary by Davis Guggenheim, released in 2009.  It charts the musical history and style of Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White.  The three meet up in a soundstage to share techniques, stories, and songs.  While these are some admittedly awkward moments, the film is an excellent example of what a musical documentary should be.  Incorporation of plenty of musical samples, vintage and current musical footage, and personal interviews make it an incredibly immersive and fascinating experience.  It is as fascinating for guitarists as it is for those who prefer merely to listen because it focuses not just on how the songs are played, but their history.  the most touching example of this is the Edge, expounding upon the crisis in Ireland that inspired Sunday Bloody Sunday.  Whether or not you are a fan of the guitar, this is still something you should check out if you care about music at all.  It Might Get loud is an excellent documentation of rock’s past, its present, and its future.

That is about all that can be said about the film without merely regurgitating the ideas found within.  However, as a fan of all three of these musician’s, I’ll never pass up the opportunity to write about them.  Coming soon, are profiles of Jimmy Page, The Edge, and Jack White; touching upon their music up to the point of this films release, and what they have done creatively since then.

Django Unchained

Django Unchained, starring Jamie Foxx and Christoph Waltz has been — like most Quentin Tarantino vehicles — extremely well recieved.  However, at this point in my moviewatching experience, I am positively Quentin Tarantinoed out.  It isn’t that I’ve tired of his style, I still think he’s a genius, but it seems that he is perfectly aware that most of the movie community sees him as a genius.

I fully expect a Tarantino movie to contain ample blood spattering and various over the top elements of cinema.  My qualm with Django Unchained is that it pushes the envelope of each of these elements.  The signature extended dialogue scene lasts for what must be about half an hour this time around, and is one of the most lethargically unneccesary scenes in the film.

I’m sure many people reading this are probably fans of Django Unchained, which is perfectly understandable.  It is certainly a well crafted film, with little to critique in the area of technical prowess; it is however, the philosophy behind this movie that I cannot quite stomach.  Tarantino has long been known for his excessive violence.  In his own words:

“Violence is one of the most fun things to watch.
This is where the problems (for me) really begin.  Like I mentioned before, Tarantino glorifies all things violent; I get it, its his thing.  What made me uncomfortable was the way he depicted slavery, particularly violence towards slaves.  He treats the violent mistreatment of coerced laborers the same way he treats a gunshot — leering unflinchingly at the despicable act.  I’m not of the camp that beleives Tarantino is a racist, but the neccesary divide between violent depiction and outright worship of torture is unpresent here.
This excerpt from one of my favorite critics Bob Hoose pretty much says it all
” …watching Django Unchained for this review, I was not much informed, edified or challenged in my thinking on the subject of slavery. I was beaten, battered and bludgeoned”
Quentin Tarantino remains a skilled filmmaker in my mind, and I have great respect for him.  However, his pretentiousness, and lack of sensitivity to delicate historical subject matter took away from what had the potential to be a great movie.

The Cinematic Brilliance of Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth

Turn Hellhound, Turn

Justin Kurzel’s name as of late, has become famous for all the wrong reasons.   Director of the egregious failure Assassins Creed, his most recent production and most promising so far.  Kurzel’s gathering of Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender got me excited, I knew they could do great work together.  Sadly, a generous critic would deem five minutes at the most of this movie to be watchable, and every second of those is derivative because it is essentially based on the fighting concepts of Assassin’s Creed games.

So, this is not a conventional review.  You don’t necessarily have to watch this film.  Even I’ll admit that it contains some pretty hard to get through moments.  This is essentially, my contribution to the clearance of an excellent director’s name, and a recognition of one of the most profound works of art ever committed to film.

This movie sort of defies what Shakespeare plays have become.  Most adaptations, like their original performances contain a lot of overblown acting, and emphasis upon the words of the play.  This makes perfect sense, after all, a Shakespeare manuscript is only words, with a few minor stage directions here and there, and they were written to be performed in an overblown fashion since — in the days before PA systems and megascreens — the back of the audience still needed to see what was going on somehow.  Kurzel’s actors consummately overturn this trend by dissecting their lines, decreasing their poetry, but increasing their authenticity tenfold.  Macbeth says “come wind, come wrack”, but Fassbender says “Come wind, come…wrack” as if he is pausing to think about just what else he is inviting.

Shakespeare shouldn’t always be realistic, and some of his work is (unavoidably) downright fantastical; but for Macbeth, a play that is exceedingly tense, brutal, and emotional, Kurzel’s added verisimilitude is a perfect match.  The famous banquet scene, as compared to the version directed by Roman Polanski is a perfect example.

Polanski is a great director, but I think Kurzels approach is just a tad superior.  Do you notice how one version of “the Scottish play” is exceedingly un-scottish?  In Kurzel’s Macbeth, the Tyrant King wears no shining golden diadem, but a faded circlet instead.  Banquo’s appearance is more saddle as well, casually staring into Macbeth’s soul without everything halting, allowing Macbeth’s madness to be seen from the outside.

This iteration’s defining moment — the scene I’ve been ecstatically anticipating writing about — is doubtlessly the final confrontation between Macbeth and Macduff.  Unlike the films first hour or so, which will probably only capture the interest of devout Shakesperian aficionados, the story’s climax is visually subduing regardless of one’s enjoyment for iambic pentameter.

Macduff and company rally against the tyrant Macbeth, bringing trees from Birnham Wood to Dunsinanane hill, fulfilling part of the witches’ damning prophecy.  As the trees catch fire, the smoke, the fading light, and the orange glow of the flames mix, creating an apocalyptic backdrop for a clash of titans.  The two exchange biting words, and clash blades.  As the weapons connect, they produce a low thunking sound.  Far from the tinny steel clashing one expects.  They fight simply, but with such emotion, that the battle become fascinatingly engaging.

When Maccbeth realizes that Macduff can in fact, end his life, a stark realization creeps onto his face.  Fassbender again proves the elasticity of his emotional range.  His visage shifts from the anger of battle, to confusion, to defeat.  Macbeth fights no longer.  He moves towards Macduff, once one of his closest friends, and embraces him, even as Macduff, wounds him, mortally.

Overcome, Macbeth collapses to the ground.  Coming to grips again with his own mortality.  Macduff and his cohorts respectfully leave him there.  Several of my classmates, when I studioed this book in high school english lamented Kurzel’ omission of a severed head, which is included in practically every other Macbeth Media.  What I pick up from this is that Macduff has a lot of respect, for a man who was like a brother to him.

With no lines, Fassbender kneels on the battlefield as the camera switches to a wide shot, showing us the futility of his existence.  The shot is beautiful.  The enormous frame contains only Macbeth, and a sword. The sword is driven down in to the ground (Macbeth’s refusal to keep fighting now near Macbeth. The barely vissible mountains make the perfect foreground, and the aforementioned orange color pallet is positively wondrous.  Fassbender’s Macbeth is left to reflect upon his actions, where it all went wrong.

When Assassin’s Creed was released, I heard it called, “A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, symbolizing nothing.  I chuckled; Shakespeare jokes are always the best jokes, and what’s more, this diagnosis was undoubtedly true.  By that standard, Kurzel’s Macbeth is “a tale shown by a master, full of rage, and humanity, signifying everything a Shakespeare movie aught.

MCU Under Review: Captain America

Captain America’s engaging heroism and world war two setting are brilliantly emphasized by a sense of noir that hangs over all the proceedings.  The icy lanscape of an arctic research base, the blue plasma blast of a tesseract powered weapon, and even Cap’s muddied uniform are all beautifully displayed with a dull, faded pallette.  This is an excellent touch.  A film that is essentially one long flashback shouldn’t feel like present day, and Captain America doesn’t.  The lens through which we see the movie makes it clear that we are in a different time period.

This film however, is by no means the best the franchise has to offer.  Granted, directors were still figuring out what they could do with this variety of cinema, but this movie does sport a number of issues.  Not flaws mind you, simply things that have been done much more effectively in movies that have come out after this one.  The score for example, doesn’t stick out at all.  It is suitable I suppose, with its booming fanfares, but it is the sort of thing that is cookie cutter for most superhero movies at this point.  There is also a montage of the war that gives us minute long snippets of battles without giving us context.  Resultantly, there are only two, maybe three really effective action sequences in this film, which, like it or not are the bedrock on which these movies are built.  Character development is nice but in the case of a superhero vehicle there has to be action to propel the picture along.

Nonetheless Captain America is a film to which we all owe a great debt.  Sure, Iron man had two movies that really showed the world the power of a superhero flick, and sure, Thor was the first interconnected origin story, but Captain America was the hammer that laid the final strike on the lock of the Pandora’s box, that exploded open releasing a universe’s worth of possibilities for superhero movies.

Plot: +1
Characters/Loyalty: +1
Score/soundtrack: 0
Cinematography: +1
Special Effects: 0
Action/tension: 0
Tone/Aesthetic: +1
Overall Enjoyment Factor: +2

Overall: 6/10

Captain America is still one of those film’s everyone should see.  They won’t be dissapointed.  They will onl notice how other films more effectively built on concepts introduced here.

Inside Llewyn Davis

This 2013 film directed by the Coen Brothers is a brilliant work of understated beauty.  True to its title takes us into the life of the eponymous character (Oscar Isaac) and his everyday struggle to eke out a livelihood in New York’s Grenwich Village.

Our “Hero” begins the story by getting the pulp beaten out of him in an alley.  The brutality of this moment is enhanced by the fact that we really haven’t the foggiest idea in regards to what is happening.  Llewyn wakes up the next morning in a nice house, clearly not his own, and leaves with his guitar in hand to start the day.

The aura of authenticity that this picture exudes is absolutely amazing.  Oscar Isaac, of Star Wars fame, is also an excellent musician.  He broadcasts through his music, just as much, if not more emotion than through his acting.  Sometimes jovial, sometimes crestfallen, his singing lends the movie a certain versatility that serves it quite well.  As if that wasn’t enough, the soundtrack also features a song with Marcus Mumford, a musician with whom an Americana enthusiast can never go wrong.

A son of a blue-collar worker, Llewyn constantly struggles with the nature of his actuality.  He isn’t the successful musician that he always pictured himself becoming.  He has worked on the water before; constantly financially strapped, Llewyn wants and needs money.  At the same time however, he is afraid of simply “existing”, which is how he describes his now catatonic father’s state of being.  Similarly he condemns his friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) for being a “careerist”.

The Coen’s knack for rich characterization is no less powerful here.  There are Jim and Jean, lovers for whom music is nothing more than a means to an end.  All they really want is to start their family.  Then there are the two men that Llewyn rides to chicago with, Johny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland Turner.  The former a soft-spoken beat poet, the latter a loud-mouthed jazz purist who ridicules Llewyn, his music, his way of life, and even his dead-by-suicide friend’s choice in bridges.  Then, there are the Gorfein’s, the music loving couple that are always welcoming to Llewyn no matter how unpleasantly he treats them.  He storms out of the house one evening, and the next time he arrives at the door to apologize, Mitch Gorfein seemingly not remembering the incident at all, invites him in for dinner.

At the plot’s conclusion, we find out, that the beginning scene wasn’t really the beginning, and most of what we’ve seen has been an extensive flashback.  Just after a fellow with a familiar shrill nasally voice takes the stage Llewyn exits the gaslight club and gets beaten up, just as we’ve seen before.  This time however, the beating takes on a whole new meaning; the destruction of Llewyn’s career.  You’ve heard of Bob Dylan, but llewyn Davis?  I doubt it.

The attacker gets in a taxi and drives away, leaving Llewyn bloodied in the alley.  Llewyn looks at the passing car and mutters “Au Revoir”.  Depressing, I know.  But it is at this point that Inside Llewyn Davis goes from being a comparable work with a fairly decent soundtrack, to a more elevated status.  This movie is a masterpiece.

In ending the story with our protagonist at rock bottom, the Coen Brothers show us that it isn’t the journey’s end that matters, but the middle; the struggle to transcend existence.  In a world that is content just to survive, Llewyn Davis will not be satisfied unless he can thrive.

John Wick

John Wick is a 2014 neo-noir vehicle directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch.  These two, though relatively unknown as directors have graced with their stunt work such movies as V for Vendetta, the Matrix, and the Hunger Games.  Together, they bring their mastery of action to the directors chair, with a stripped down, nearly flawless action movie.

The plot dispenses with such fickle niceties as background and subplots.  This is a risky move.  Our moviegoing society generally sees complexity of plot to be good, and generally necessary, and in most conditions this is true.  However, John Wick is not most movies.  From the movie’s beginning we know that John (Keannu Reeves) is a dangerous man.  We see him at a funeral; his wife has passed.  He receives a dog in the mail, his wife’s final gist to him, a companion to share his loss.  When a cruel, naive son of a Russian Mobster kills the dog for sheer thrill, the fuse burning over years of peace and domesticity is lit.  John sets out to kill the man who took the one thing that still meant anything to him.

Jean-Luc Goddard once said that all a movie needed was a girl and a gun.  Stahelski and Leitch endow their creation with the next best thing; a grudge and guns… lots and lots of guns.  Setup, and complications are unnecessary.  We have a sympathetic character, a despicable brat of a villain (played by Alfie Allen who, is ironically known for his friendliness on the set).  This simple story of loss and search for recompense is something we have all experienced taken to the extreme, and by streamlining the story — trimming away excess flourishes and twists — the events of the plot are made more relatable through their minimalism.  Certainly, the exact misfortunes Wick goes through have happened to very few of us (hopefully none) but Wick is made to represent the archetypal man with nothing to lose.

Stahelski and Leitch created this movie on a low-budget, not that this is discernible.  It has the energy of a summer blockbuster, with all the charm of an indie production.  The fight scenes, though spectacular are extremely minimalistic.  Reportedly, because of how few stuntmen were available, as soon as an enemy was “killed” on the set, they left the cameras field of view, only to discreetly return cleverly creating the effect of an endless army.  John Wick holds back on the explosions as well, which is somewhat to its credit.  The movie’s directors have said that the climax may have been more dramatic, but they ran out of cars to destroy.  This is a rare case where a shortage of funds is a boon, and not a burden.

Wick moves through scores of enemies mowing them down with tact and truculence.  There is scarcely a single use of shaky cam in the whole movie, and the directors avoid quick cuts.  Rather, we see the eloquence of the beautifully orchestrated combat with sweeping wide shots.  Reeves has an extremely strong work ethic, and the regimen he underwent to become John Wick is evident in the fact that no visual trickery is required to make the fights seem intense.  Wick’s epic headshots, chops, and hip-tosses pick up the slack in that department.

John Wick is a movie built upon solid, bulletproof action sequences; by action experts for action enthusiasts.  It succeeds where most action movies fail by not getting tangles in a web of drama.  It knows what it is and sticks to it.  The movie isn’t hurt by a lack of emotion and theatrics because the story doesn’t require these things.  When John Wick finally gets his man, he simply fires a shot and kills him.  No monologue, no explanation; his dog is dead, and someone must pay, plain and simple.  the work that Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have done here is profound, and I hope to see more of it in the future.  Their style and attitude are of a caliber that even the most sophisticated hollywood director would do well to learn from.

Days of Future Past

Back in 2014, I had a bit of a bone to pick with Days of Future Past.  I actually had no desire to see it, for one reason: the film’s complete butchery of Kitty Pryde.  In the comic version of DOFP, she is still a newcomer to the world of superheroism and the story arc is her coming of age in a way.  Her older self travels back into the body of her younger self, and it is up to her to reverse the assassination that would eventually propel the state of the mutant community into darkness.  Bravely, the story featured Wolverine as a minor character, showing that the X-Men were more than who had become, and still is, their most popular member.

The story’s cinematic iteration is not quite as bold, featuring its poster boy as the film’s de facto starring character.  Wolverine is sent back into time by Kitty Pryde, who, in addition to her abilities to phase in and out of a solid state, has been blessed with the mutant ability to send someone back in time to a younger version of themself.  This has to be one of the most foolishly contrived plot devices I’ve ever encountered.  The creation of an ability for the sake of its carrying forward of the plot is simply too convenient.  Imagine if Iron Man, in addition to all of his other abilities, had a computer program designed to carry warheads through wormholes; or if Captain America, besides his super strength, possessed the super-ability to hide from pursuers?  Besides, how did Kitty discover that she had this ability?  What absurd situation has ever required her to use it before?

I watched the film quite bitterly for quite a while, and my opinion changed completely when I got to the infamous “quicksilver scene”.  Trapped in a plastic prison, walking into an ambush, prison guards have the X-Men dead to rights.  Suddenly, time slows down.  Jim Croce’s “Time In a Bottle” plays, and Peter (not Piotr) Maximoff begins weaving his way through the room, moving ten times faster than everything else.  He moves the guards fists into a self-attacking position, and moves the bullets coming towards his friends.  He even tastes some soup that happens to be flying through the air.  Every threat in the room is instantly incapacitated, all in the time it takes Wolverine to push out his claws.

Naturally, each event following this one (which is actually quite insignificant in terms of the grand time travel plot at hand) pales in comparison to its spectacle, comedy, and perfect execution, but the rest of the movie is still an extremely well made political thriller/sci-fi drama.  The conflict between mutants and humans fits perfectly into the activism of the 1970s, and the inclusion of President Nixon makes the struggle feel that much more believable.

In the end, the movie rights the wrongs of the franchise’s past, and cleverly connects the new generation of X-men with the old.  Although the timeline that it fits into has since been brutally dissected, Days of Future Past‘s aura of excellence is diminished nonetheless.