‘The Puffy Chair’ Breaks Up with Hollywood’s Illusion of Lasting Relationships

11 December, 2013

Mark-and-Jay-DuplassMark and Jay Duplass exhibit the mundane elements of everyday life with The Puffy Chair, a road-trip film that explores these banalities as its self-centered characters go on a journey yet essentially do nothing extraordinary except watch television and disagree with each other. This quasi-documentary glimpse into the triteness of life utilizes naturalism and a low-budget style that diverges from conventional Hollywood filmmaking. The Duplass brothers satirize interpersonal issues when blurring the lines between their real and fictional relationships, with family members and significant others playing parts alongside Mark Duplass in this independent film. With breakdowns in communication, the duo mocks the quickness of romantic relationships in Hollywood films, questioning viewer’s acceptance for this hyper-compressed construction of time. Through presenting failures in communication as an antithesis to Hollywood conventions, The Duplass brothers’ mumblecore film anticlimactically and naturalistically shows the disintegration of romantic relationships.


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With the approach toward naturalism, the camera often spins around in search of the action rather than knowing where thenext moment takes place. Comparable to Dogma 95 films, no shots exist without the shakiness of the digital camera recording the action like a home video. Minimal sets and no special lighting also become evident, enhancing the sense of real life similar to other independent films of the 2000s like Half Nelson. In doing so, the Duplass brothers look at relationships through the comedy and entertainment that comes from moment-based, dysfunctional scenarios rather than life-altering, climactic events. Regarding relationships of even unlikable characters, this brings viewers a more genuine identification that Hollywood films cannot re-create without this unpredictable, home-video style.

Rhett and Amber’s relationship comes without much build-up. The film stops following them in what seems like an eventful day after they meet. Instead, it stays with Joel and Emily in all their dullness, watching television and talking. This does not further the plot other than exhibiting the unexceptional happenings of everyday life, not letting the film skip over any of these mundane activities in pursuit of something more interesting somewhere else. Viewers only see the promise of Rhett and Amber’s first encounter, yet the suddenness of their marriage forces the audience into dooming the relationship rather than interpreting it as a hopeful scenario. Joel also acknowledges the ridiculousness of the situation, yet he allows for suspending his disbelief during the surprise engagement party that escalates into becoming a wedding.

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The Puffy Chair’s strength as an independent rather than big-budget, studio film comes from its improvisational style. This quality occurs not only with performances, but also with the cinematography. A camcorder aesthetic gives an impromptu sense of unscripted urgency when the camera, often refocusing and providing extreme close-up, gives viewers an intimacy with the characters while maintaining an atmosphere of movement and spontaneity. Though reliant on this spontaneity, this wedding scene makes an overt effort at scripting lines when Rhett repeats his wedding vows after what Joel dictates. Still, unlike the performances for typical, Hollywood films, Rhett cannot say the lines verbatim even within moments of Joel’s dictation. In this scene, Rhett also makes minor alterations to his brother’s words, exemplifying the immediate disconnect between the way the characters communicate in the film as well as Rhett’s incapability in promising commitment to Amber.

This scene also makes an anticlimactic parody of the fast-paced romances in Hollywood films; Rhett meets his wife and ends their relationship within a day. In her article, “Against Hollywood: American Independent Film as a Critical Cultural Movement,” Sherry B. Ortner says, “Where Hollywood films seek to provide escape and fantasy, independent films seek to tell realist or hyper(bolic)-realist stories about the world as it really is, in all its ugliness and cruelty, or all its weirdness and strangeness…” (Ortner 10-12). Ortner describes how Hollywood idealizes situations in a way unlike independent films. Emily, Joel’s girlfriend who deludes herself with romanticizing relationships, falls into this Hollywood mentality that separates her from Joel.

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Emily spends her free time watching movies and hoping for pop-culture reenactments, like Joel holding speakers outside her window. These moments also show that other films exist as fictions and entertainment for parodies within the world of this Duplass brother’s mumblecore. In creating these Hollywood ideals, Emily convinces herself of the possibilities for an unrealistic, happy ending for Rhett and Amber even though the relationship disintegrates as fast as it ignited. Even the eBay-bought chair, which Rhett believes taints their group relationship, meets an anticlimactic end. Rhett lights it on fire and within that minute, a stranger extinguishes it, putting out the flames to a potentially dramatic instance without letting the moment build up.

The moment becomes prosaic in the same way Emily and Joel’s relationship dissolves without a grand payoff. In the opening scene, when Emily and Joel fight and she storms off, this dramatic occurrence fizzles when Joel walks back inside his house instead of chasing after her. Later in the film, Joel says, “There’s a lot of things in this world we pursue that seem really important to us and we get wrapped up in.” In a Hollywood film, one attributes this pursuit to winning over the significant other. In this film, Joel fights harder for the trivial upholstering of an unappealing chair than for his relationship.


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The final scene also removes itself from Hollywood conventions by rejecting the happy ending. As Ortner writes, “…Hollywood films are in the business of fantasy and illusion, independent films… are usually highly realist; and finally, where Hollywood films classically have happy endings, independent films rarely do” (2). Here in the film’s final moments, Joel and Emily break up. While they argue with each other throughout the film, no big fight occurs within their splitting up. They make an amicable departure to their relationship, hugging each other for closure to a relationship they leave behind. Dissimilarly, Hollywood films prefer the happy, boy-gets-the-girl endings or scenes of aftermath in showing how characters cope with the break ups, like with He’s Just Not That Into You’s network narrative exemplifying each of these scenarios.

The Puffy Chair provides neither of those alternatives. Instead, it opts for authenticity, especially with Mark Duplass and Katie Aselton being a couple while playing the parts of two people in a relationship. In addition, the non-actor parents of Mark and Jay Duplass play Joel and Rhett’s parents in the film. By doing so, The Puffy Chair creates an overlap between real life and the fictitious plot of the film by blending actors and characters. This authenticity and naturalism gives viewers the impression of watching what happens in the real world rather than an upbeat ending one hopes for in a conventional, Hollywood comedy. If Hollywood films sugarcoat or sweep away the harsh realities of opposites attracting in relationships or sudden romance, independent films such as The Puffy Chair use tough love for reminding viewers of the problems present in these scenarios.

Unlike Hollywood films, The Puffy Chair approaches break-ups as the result of rushed relationships where characters lack commitment. The lack of communication between Emily and Joel exemplifies two people with different agendas. She wants marriage while he confronts her for unrealistic expectations of him. They stay together until the randomness of life happens on a road trip where they learn their differences, break up, and implicitly move on. The Duplass brothers mimic the naturalness of real-life disagreements, like neorealist films do in presenting the everyman and using non-professional actors for authenticity, instead of giving viewers an escape into the excitement of studio-concocted productions about finding everlasting love. In a way, The Puffy Chair even makes a joke of seeking excitement from Hollywood cinema when Rhett says, “So we pretty much have the whole day to do nothing,” which they do, so they go see a movie.

Works Cited

Half Nelson. Dir. Ryan Fleck. Screenplay by Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden. Perf. Ryan Gosling. Thinkfilm and Hunting Lane Films Present, 2006. DVD.

He’s Just Not That Into You. Dir. Ken Kwapis. Screenplay by Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein. Prod. Drew Barrymore. Perf. Justin Long, Jennifer Aniston, Ben Affleck, and Bradley Cooper. Warner Bros., 2009. DVD.

Ortner, Sherry B. “Against Hollywood: American Independent Film as a Critical Cultural Movement.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 2.2 (2012): 1-21. HAU Journal. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.

The Puffy Chair. Dir. Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass. Screenplay by Mark Duplass and Jay Duplass. Perf. Mark Duplass, Katie Aselton, and Rhett Wilkins. Roadside Attractions, 2005. DVD.

Glengarry Glen Ross: The Corruption of the Masculine Crisis Through the Portrayal of the Working Man

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David Mamet sends an ironic message with Glengarry Glen Ross that dishonesty and corruption become methods of surviving in the competitive world of men. His nineteen-nineties, post-modern representation of the crisis of masculinity glimpses into the lives of pressure-stricken salesmen when a system of capitalism forces them into fighting for job security. These conditions place the characters in a moral conundrum whereby they seek alpha-male prominence through material gains or fail by default of not meeting the sales standards of Mitch and Murray. Mamet, with the direction of James Foley and cinematography of Juan Ruiz Anchia, treats the film like his stage play by keeping the characters in a contained, fishbowl-like habitat so that the incessant rain, passing of the L train, and lingering presence of a detective in the merciless real-estate office isolates tensions between characters. Through an oppressive environment and performance styles of an all-male cast, Mamet situates the characters of Glengarry Glen Ross on scale of failure and success in a cutthroat, corporate workplace driven by masculinity.

glengarry_glen_ross-21-e1308035197187-700x381The implication that an order of free enterprise subordinates everyone in the office, including John Williamson, creates a male workplace under the notion of nothing being good enough. The winners keep their jobs and win a car or a set of knives (figure 5).  The underachievers lose their livelihood, stripping them of their male pride. No options exist in between. This male-driven environment of the film presents itself through few, minimalist sets. Mamet contains the dialogue-driven actions and restlessness of the film in an atmosphere that maintains, as Vincent Canby mentions in his New York Times review, “… the claustrophobic nature of the original stage work,” (Canby, par. 5). This claustrophobia intensifies pressures of cutthroat mentalities as a pro-capitalist business creates the film. The enclosed environment also makes the world beyond feel empty, like the salesmen make pitches in a rainy, desolate world that predestines their failure.

A sense of entrapment permeates throughout the film when the salesmen, whose jobs rely on communication, cannot communicate with each other. Though in the business of selling, they have literal barriers between each other. With Geroge Aaronow and Dave Moss, respectively, in the middle of the scale of failure to success, Alan Arkin’s portrayal of Aaronow creates a character 3-glengarry-glen-ross-1267050533whose natural pace feels slower than the other characters. He talks slower and repeats back what he hears as a question. Where he exhibits passivity, getting nowhere because he does nothing except talk, Moss displays aggression without caring about consequences, like stealing leads from the office. In playing off the environment of the film, Moss makes Aaronow, the weaker of the two, feel trapped as an accessory to his schemes.

Shelley Levene, with the nickname “Machine” which sounds old and outdated, and James Lingk, respectively the weakest characters in the scale of failure and success, find their manhood reduced to motivations revolving around women. Levene thrusts himself into various immoral methods of conducting business for the sake of his sick daughter while Lingk backs out of his deal with Ricky Roma because of his wife’s disapproval. Levene’s determination for helping his sick daughter, a less self-serving need than wanting a car like Roma, pushes him to desperation. With the subtle reminder of a woman’s photo on his desk, the downfall of Levene prompts the audience in viewing failure as the ultimate death to masculinity, since he goes to the extreme of stealing for a female, in the corporate world.

Al Pacino’s performance as Ricky Roma, the most successful salesman in the office, makes the material prize, a Cadillac, his main concern throughout the film. His self-reliance makes him stronger, someone who excuses himself from the detective’s accusations of robbery and Blake’s condescending speech—where Baldwin emphasizes on the chalkboard a sales acronym that the working men see every day on a poster behind him. Through Pacino’s sweet-talking, confident acting style, Mamet points out the fault in the mentality of the characters needing “brass balls” glengarry-glen-rosswhen Roma uses femininity in order for making his client feel masculine and in control. Roma uses femininity to his advantage, pitching to Lingk as if they sit together on a date, letting Lingk be the man with his arm across the booth as Roma seduces him into a sale with charisma.

John Williamson becomes the physical antagonist to the salesmen of Mitch and Murray as a higher power that enables their struggles by not handing out good leads and messing up sales instead of cooperating with them. In his article, “A Cinema of White Masculine Crisis: Race and Gender in Contemporary British Film”, Niel Graham Slack discusses this inner-workplace divide in context of another working-man film of the nineties, The Full Monty:

Theirs is very much a group response, a coming together to ward off some notion of a challenge from ‘outside’ their ranks… this idea of coming together, of joining forces with one’s own kind for the purposes of defeating a common enemy… (Slack 74-5)

Slack’s analysis applies to the mentality of Williamson as a hindrance from the point of view of the other characters, yet they use him as a crucial figure in their deal-closing efforts and Williamson falls into their corrupt tactics as well. When Roma emasculates Williamson with insults, he scolds, “Whoever told you that you can work with men?… I’m going downtown… to Mitch and Murray. I’m going to Lemkin… you fairy. You company man…. You never open your mouth till you know what the shot is. You fucking child.”

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Pacino plays his character like a parent in control of their rage, as if saying, “I am not mad at you, but I am disappointed,” while Spacey portrays Williamson, for the only time in the film, with a childish look of shame, especially at the sound “fairy” as an insult that correlates femininity with weakness. This moment of noticeable concern on the usually stoic Williamson’s face allow for a realization that though Williamson makes the decisions in the office, outside his comfortable authority exists a chain of command in the corporate world that terrifies him. The unseen men of the film, like Lemkin, make even Williamson feel subordinate. Here, he becomes on par with the salesmen as another fish in their bowl, under scrutiny of the capitalist system’s hierarchy that traps them.

The notion of not being masculine becomes evident not just in femininity, but also in the childishness that Roma detests Williamson for, which Levene exemplifies when Lemmon’s fast-talking pace for wordiness puts viewers on edge for a moment where he might, and ultimately does, open his mouth too soon. Likewise, in an unsuccessful pitch, viewers make the connection of childishness and Levene weakening himself when he sits on a couch where toys scatter around him. Lemmon even gives himself a moment where he holds the teddy bear before placing it beside him. 1.49619_imageLevene, the character who tips his scale toward failure more than anyone else, encompasses both feminine motives and childishness.

Even though Levene holds the literal fishhook, Lemmon’s character makes the least masculine of sales pitches here. By contrast, Pacino’s Roma, who sits at bars with his smooth-talking manipulation that pries on insecurities, becomes the only salesman capable of figuratively reeling in his clients as bait. Pacino’s acting centers on paying attention to people. He looks them in the eyes and tells them the stories they want, but Lemmon’s character spends more time convincing himself, not making direct eye contact and switching his sales tactics in an unnerving way that gets him sent out in the rain, without an umbrella of his own, on numerous occasions. Lemmon changes his personality and his facial expressions within brief moments based on the parts he plays for scheming, but because he seems so inauthentic, he fails at it, unlike Pacino who uses manipulation in a charming way. Ultimately, because his talk does not redeem him, Lemmon grabs for Kevin Spacey, resorting to physical force in reclaiming dominance and masculinity in the desperate situation.

glengarry-glen-ross-title-stillFinally, The L train tumbling through this dialogue-driven film implies action and the actor’s names appear on screen like passengers on the train. This indicates the constant rotation of salesmen in and out of the office, making the never-ending commitment to work from fear of burning out as Slack explains:

…it is shot through with a sense of fear the men see themselves as being under threat, not just as individuals but as a species. Moreover, it is not just in The Full Monty that this is the case, since this idea of extinction (the interpreting of issues such as unemployment… attributed with triggering a crisis in masculinity – as something more threatening still) is discernible in the other post-industrial films as well. (74)

From this dread of extinction and falling into a crisis of masculinity, the actors place their defeatism into well-timed reaction shots. Here, each tearful eye glints with the unhappiness of shattering hopes.

The salesmen in Mamet’s 1992 film exude disparity under the pressures of capitalist business promoting superiority in the workplace as a form of masculine success. Mamet’s ironic message makes the male-run system of capitalism, seen by the salesman as opportune for achieving their greater destiny, destroy them when unscrupulous tactics become their downfall. The competition between the characters that drives them to lying, scheming, and stealing leads them into turning on each other for a chance at getting ahead, commenting on world operating under a rigged game where nobody wins except the system itself.

Works Cited

Canby, Vincent. “Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) Review/Film; Mamet’s Real Estate Sharks and Their Prey.” Rev. of MovieThe New York Times 30 Sept. 1992: n. pag. The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

The Full Monty. Dir. Peter Cattaneo. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy. Perf. Robert Carlyle, Tom Wilkinson, and Mark Addy. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 1997. DVD.

Glengarry Glen Ross. Dir. James Foley. By David Mamet. Perf. Alec Baldwin, Jack Lemmon, Al Pacino, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, and Alan Arkin. New Line Cinema, 1992. DVD.

Slack, Niel Graham. “A Cinema of White Masculine Crisis: Race and Gender in Contemporary British Film.” University of Sussex (2008): 74-75. Sussex Research Online. Web. 15 Nov. 2013.

Visual Portrait of Barton Fink’s Deteriorating Psyche in the Hotel Earle

4 October 2013

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In Ethan and Joel Coen’s 1991 comedic noir film Barton Fink, a symbolic prologue to the decade’s later films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and David Fincher’s Seven, the titular character undergoes a manic, mental deterioration. This visual depiction of an inner descent exemplifies itself in many outward aspects of the filmmaker’s cinematic approaches that include setting, characters, and cinematography. One specific sequence with such parallels involves Barton’s arrival into the world of a ramshackle hotel. In this particular sequence, The Coen brothers and cinematographer Roger Deakins, through methods that include disorderly production design, fluid camera movements, and elements of German Expressionism depict unsettling characters and represent Barton Fink’s entrance into the Hotel Earle as his hellish descent into psychological instability.

The transitioning shot of waves striking a rock on a beach overlaps with Barton’s entrance into the eerily uninhabited Hotel Earle. Similar to German Expressionism films, this wave-crashing imagery shows submergence, like a sense of drowning, into a world of madness that quickly overcomes Barton’s mind. This brief overlap into Barton’s unsettling new dwellings starkly contrasts with the high culture, elegant atmosphere of the scene before. In that earlier scene, where Barton expresses his concern for the “common man,” the colors gleam and the lights shine brightly. This provides a sense of warmth in a room full of inhabitants, unlike the bleak and lifeless lodgings of the Earle, but this vibrant coloration soon washes away, turning into the insipid, muted hues of the Hotel Earle where the world of commercial Hollywood ceases.

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The mise-en-scène of the Hotel Earle, the everyman’s abode, creates visual frustration and discomfort along with an intolerable air of mugginess. Fans scattered throughout the entrance imply an incessant heat that places anxiety on the audience’s perception of this foreign environment. This heat, along with slow and fluid camera movements, creates tensions. The characters in the hotel dress inappropriately for such atmospheric conditions as well, wearing multiple layers and faded uniforms. These elements create the impression of unbearable uneasiness within the menacing realm that welcomes Barton Fink.

The composition of shots within this sequence also shows many objects placed slightly off center, such as wilting plants not aligned with the staircases in the background. Deakins’ cinematography frames Barton Fink between these spiraling staircases that split in two as well as merge together, highlighting the division in Barton’s mind that both dissociates and blends his sense of reality and imagination. This method stresses a subtle implication over Barton’s psychological condition in a way that echoes German Expressionism. The framing and surroundings thus intensify Barton’s mental state.

This unpleasant aesthetic also appears in forms of clutter. Innumerable unmatched lamps, plants, and furniture clash like in a Sartrean idea of hell where torture comes from a disordered setting. The camera, in a wide, high-angle shot, moves upward as Barton enters as if watching him descending into damnation. These wide shots, suggesting more disarray beyond their sizeable frames, enhance the overwhelming anxiety that Barton Fink feels, by taking up the role of the common man, in a way similar to Italian Neorealist films. This overwhelming notion creates a world indifferent to his character. It is a world that consumes him. He has no control, especially after establishing himself as a resident in this place by contracting a living arrangement with the character of Chet.

The Coen brothers introduce Steve Buscemi’s character of Chet, the jovial bellhop, with a similarly hellish implication. Chet, seen through a high angle, emerges from below in an entryway unusual to a conventional check-in greeting. This surreal entrance exemplifies Chet as a specimen, reminiscent to Jean Paul Sartre’s Valet in No Exit, of the underworld the hotel represents. In this Sartrean fashion, Chet ushers Barton to his personal hell with an automated quality that enhances the darkly comedic aspect of Barton Fink.

BartonFink2Chet, in his overly friendly, painfully accommodating, and robotic manner, proclaims himself with an exclamation yet raises more questions about the phantasmagorical atmosphere of the Hotel Earle. For instance, when Chet asks for Barton’s signature, he spins the intimidatingly large book toward Barton before the overhead shot spins the camera in the opposite direction, expressing Barton’s spiral into madness as he signs away his soul. After, the camera moves in a jarring, quick unison with Barton, as if realizing the implications of this contract. The rapidity of this camera maneuver, and one following it where Chet bids Barton farewell, stands out from the unhurried movement of the preceding shots. Here, there is more of a shock in the concrete, ink-to-paper selling of Barton’s soul to the oddly animate hotel.

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In the next moments, the elevator operator represents a ferryman, like Charon from Greek mythology, who guides Barton into his Hadean accommodations six floors up. The presence of this elevator operator guiding souls to the sixth floor echoes the notion that the hotel is hell, entrapping Barton within its barriers. The elevator partitions imprison Barton while keeping the viewers outside the compartment, looking in on Barton. Deakins’ slow, dolly move into the elevator before Barton tells the operator his destination inches toward the figurative portal before shutting viewers out at the last minute, implying a forbidden world behind those cage-elevator gates of hell.

With Chet and the elevator operator as devilish agents, transitioning cinematography, and the Hotel Earle as an earthly depiction of hell, the Coen brothers and Roger Deakins carefully construct camerawork and visually suggestive set designs for illustrating these concepts as Barton Fink tries bringing himself near the “common man” by checking into the ominous, low-culture hotel. From this moment onward, interpretations to the questions regarding where Barton’s world shifts from real to surreal and what truly happens in his mind grow increasingly blurred. Deakins varies the pacing of his camerawork in relation to Barton’s psychology while the Coen brothers paint a surreal picture around their main character so that Barton’s inner struggles run parallel to the external factors affecting him. The rest of the film’s sequences show how the confined setting punctures Barton’s fragile psyche and ultimately escalates into a literal inferno by the climax.

‘Don Jon’ Review

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Overall Rating:  3/4

Cinematography

This is what I mean about comedies being able to have a style/look to them. The aesthetics of the film, from lighting to composition, aren’t cheapened just because it’s a comedy. Interesting enough, it comes from Thomas Kloss who may remind some of Fear. Don Jon is his best film in terms of creativity in cinematography, and hopefully he works on another one with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the future.

Acting

don_jon_addiction2The feelings I get from Don Jon is that Joseph Gordon-Levitt really is that guy. He’s believable, from the voice-overs to the sinister stare he gets when on the prowl for his next hook-up. I keep trying to remind myself of the dorky kid from 10 Things I Hate About You.

Scarlett Johansson plays both trashy and privileged well. Her character is obnoxious, but I enjoyed her in the role. Tony Danza isn’t a babysitter anymore to say the least and he’s great in this film along with his hilarious on-screen wife played by Glenne Headly. Brie Larson hardly speaks in this film and still adds to the dysfunctional family dynamics.

Julianne Moore cries and gets naked. That should be the title of her biography.

Directing

I find it impressive when a director gets such powerful performances while starring in the film as well, like Ben Affleck in Argo. They don’t stand behind the camera, watching from the same perspective as the audience. It’s much more subjective and interactive and I think that takes a different set of skills from a director.

You watch Don Jon and can’t help but realize that Joseph Gordon-Levitt really did what he wanted with his film of which he is the director, writer, and leading man and that he did it well. It’s different and entertaining. The film is unapologetically what it promises from its trailers and Joseph Gordon-Levitt definitely has my respect and blessing as director for being especially ballsy (points for my most appropriate use of “ballsy” ever).

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The structure of this film is basically what’s seen from the trailer in that it’s almost a feature-length montage sequence. The paralleling of the same scenes in certain locations works for Don Jon by not slowing down the pace or losing any of the film’s humor in the repetitions. The repetitions also play off the film’s emphasis on one-sided relationships in clever ways, especially when Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character confesses his sins to an indifferent priest whose identity remains unknown.

The third act falls short when it becomes reminiscent of lovable, dark comedy from the early 70s, which I’ll leave unnamed to avoid Don Jon spoilers. The ending is too awkward for this film mainly because of how forced it feels in relation to backstories and character arcs. Still, I admire this film for pushing boundaries and not holding back on its premise.

Score

Nathan Johnson, who composed other films starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt such as Looper and Brick, scores Don Jon. It’s nice that Joseph Gordon-Levitt got to know the people working in those departments on his non-directorial films and that he appreciated their work. Now as a plug for Brick, everyone should see it. It’s probably the best work from either of them and it’s completely underrated.

‘Prisoners’ Review

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Overall Rating: 3.5/4

Cinematography

I had no idea who the cinematographer for this particular film was, but as I watched it I kept thinking of how incredible it all looked. It felt familiar, too. When the end credits rolled, seeing the name Roger Deakins made perfect sense.

Deakins, one of the greatest directors of photography, can do no wrong. A very small handful of men find themselves in his league, such as Kaminski and Richardson. With 10 Academy Award nominations, this man is the Meryl Streep of cinematography. His work has a mesmerizing quality of elegance. In Prisoners, the subtleties and smoothness of his camerawork are hauntingly impressive. The lighting for this film is intentionally consistent, unlike Skyfall’s variety, so the film maintains its performance-driven quality. His lighting, while not being overpowering, is still striking; especially in a moment where Detective Loki throws open a door to a basement. With negative space and scenery, Deakins creates the sense of a tension that is both beautiful and disturbing within the shots.skyfall_deakins-620x435

 Acting

Prisoners contains a large group of people who know how to nail mannerisms, even for somewhat vague roles. This proves the power of emotionally driven performances, even when all the background information doesn’t lend itself to dialogue in the script. Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, and Hugh Jackman really did their homework and threw themselves into disturbing roles of characters with moments of contempt and redemption. Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Terrence Howard play the broken-down parents of missing children with depth, and Melissa Leo is almost unrecognizable.

 Directing

Denis Villenueve pushes these actors over the edge. He does not hold back in presenting the horrors of this film’s subject matter, and that is what a movie with this kind of a context needs. This is not the kind of film for playing it safe and the pacing of this film never slows down or speeds up where it should not. It hits those beats with ease, even for a film that goes well over 2 hours. This film must have had an incredible editor as well.

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This is screenplay is an emotional roller coaster. The moments rise and fall in heartbeats, and in numerous moments I caught myself gaping at the screen, literally on the edge of my seat. It gives hope as fast as it takes it away and has you questioning right and wrong throughout.

There are controversial motives in this script, but it is the ending that leaves most viewers divided. Aaron Guzikowski leaves the final moments open for interpretation, where many hope for more closure. Still, even with its twists and turns, how often is there closure in these real-life situations? The answer is hardly ever, and the screenplay provides more closure than it may even need to. Sure, it’s an open ending that fades out moments too soon for some, but whatever comes after should be obvious. The ending, while not perfect for everyone, is perfect for the film. It is an ending that leaves a lingering feeling with you long after the film finishes, and haunting and hopeful feeling that’s hard to shake off and is much more powerful than relieving every emotional wound this film inflicts.

 Score

I am not sure I have ever experienced more stress watching any other film. Probably not, and a lot of that goes to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score, which is as seamless to the film as Roger Deakins’ camerawork. The score is subtle as well, which is admirable. Sometimes scores, in a self-indulgent way, draw too much attention to themselves for these sorts of stress-inducing films, but like the lighting, this score does not overpower. By not overpowering, it elevates the emotional drive of the film.

‘Gravity’ 3D Review

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OVERALL RATING 3.5/4

 Cinematography

It’s beautiful. George Clooney doesn’t need to mention it as much as he does because we all know it. The reflections in the space-suit helmets, the pitch-black starry sky, and the appearance of Earth are a lot more believable than any other space films.

The best part of the cinematography though is the intricate long takes that draw you in right from the opening sequence, with a camera that feels like it’s floating and spinning in zero gravity along with the astronauts. It’s a film full of long takes that reminisce that really amazing car scene from Children of Men. The entire film ends up feeling so much like a long take that I began forcing myself to pay attention to when there would finally be cuts. Needless to say, Emmanuel Lubezki, who works frequently with Cuarón and likewise has an adaptable filmography, nails the negative space as well. A space film isn’t awesome without negative space anyways.

Acting

It’s a good thing Sandra Bullock got this role instead of any of the other potential actresses. She’s emotional, she’s funny, and she’s honest. There’s never a sense that she’s trying too hard to sell the believability of a scene, and she definitely made me nearly want to cry at one point (that rarely happens for me). There are a lot of emotional shifts that go with her character and she eases well into those transitions.

Give her another Academy Award, especially for that whole final act.

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George Clooney plays a charming , space-man version of George Clooney. That’s basically it, and you love him for it. It’s easy enough to picture Robert Downey Jr. in that role he almost had, but that shouldn’t take away from Clooney. His character is just the space partner Bullock’s character needs, and I’ll leave it at that before I give away too much.

Directing 

Alfonso Cuarón’s filmography exhibits a versatile range of films, all of which he executes well. Gravity is no exception, and it’s arguably his best cinematic endeavor, although that’s a tough contest against Children of Men, Y Tu Mamá Tambien, and my personal favorite of the Harry Potter films. What is there to say except that this guy is a genius? In his films, no matter how elaborate or action-oriented, the best thing he accomplishes is getting to the emotional core through subtleties in the performances of his actors.

Writing

Gravity, written by the director and his son,  provide a satisfying amount of backstory for its characters. That’s obviously important for any film, especially ones with minimal characters for audiences to, no pun intended, gravitate towards. More importantly for this film in particular, without giving anything away, is that the backstories add an extra layer for the audience putting themselves in the character’s positions. Would we just give up? Would we be so optimistic, calm, or trusting? Would we make or accept those sacrifices? There’s enough backstory for empathy, and that’s crucial for a film that has you holding on to very few characters in one place (yes, in the context of movies I call space a single location). There’s a good balance of existential crisis and humor as well. I doubt that’s easy to pull off, but Gravity makes it appear so.

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The ending is pretty damn powerful too. I wish I could tell you what it is.  Go see this film. Seriously.

Score

Steven Price’s score strikes plenty of emotional chords in this space epic. It does a perfect job building tension in an immensely stressful atmosphere while not losing the sense of how amazing the visuals are. It doesn’t take away from the hauntingly silent, breathtaking environment (again, no pun intended… well maybe a little), even though it also motivates a reminder of a horrifying situation. My only issue is the heartbeat sounds interwoven into the score at certain moments, because heartbeats are overdone and I think we can be a little more creative than that.

Safe House Review (On-Camera Structured)

This is the first film review I ever wrote and it’s also featured here.

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Training Day and The Bourne Ultimatum had a kid. They named it Safe House. However, these over-protective parents lived on the fearless side of action-movie life; it seems that they were slightly traditionalist in teaching when it came to their cinematic progeny. Even so, Safe House runs throughchase scenes with thrill-kicking baby steps where good cop/bad cop characters and treacherous government agencies cross paths in a sordid South Africa. While Safe House is somewhat cautious, it is still a well-acted, engaging, tug-of-war film that stays true to its action genre.

I know that calling an action film “cautious” is a paradox since such movies follow plotlines fraught with danger. Step 1: Break things, crash cars, and terrify innocent people. Step 2: Kill people. Kill lots of people. Even add throwaway characters whose sole purpose is to die. Step 3: Have a hero. Have an antihero. Just have someone stopping the unstoppable bad guy. Safe House definitely does not stray from this formula for danger, as seen in the following clip: [INSERT: "Frost Attacks Weston While Driving Through Cape Town"]

The film’s disadvantage though, may come from David Guggenheim’s script because the traitor’s reveal does not surprise much and viewers probably won’t feel sympathetic toward many characters falling victim to the first, lethal step in the action-movie formula. Even in Training Day, we feel the injustice of a drug dealer’s death, and Jason Bourne loses not only his true identity, but also a love interest somewhere in his trilogy.

Film Title: Safe House

Regarding Safe House, there is a massacre of men from early on in the film by mysterious characters who are after the notorious, former CIA agent Tobin Frost, played by Denzel Washington. The men fighting off the intruders include Frost’s cross-examiner and his team. Prior to the entrance of the intruders, the cross-examiner orders the disabling of cameras in the safe house for an undocumented, torture-filled interrogation of Frost. After these unethical actions, viewers have no reason to feel sympathy toward the cross-examiner and his comrades once the shoot-out begins. Now obviously the bad guys win this fight or the story stops there, after an easy victory about 20 minutes into the film, so screenwriters should at least make viewers feel the impact of the loss of life by having characters worth caring for. Here is an easy solution, Guggenheim; think backstory. Even that poor cop in Reservoir Dogs, had a family, and even the Joker’s concocted story of his scars presents itself as a believable, sympathy-inducing tragedy the first time it is heard inThe Dark Knight.

While no Quentin Tarantino or Christopher Nolan masterpiece of a screenplay, Safe House still provides two main actors who give impressive performances. Ryan Reynolds, especially, makes a dedicated effort to prove himself outside of the comedic roles where he seemingly now has a comfortable, cushioned seat eternally waiting for him in that genre. When his character, subordinate CIA agent Matt Weston, ends up being the man who must keep Frost within an arm’s reach and bring him to a new safe house, Reynolds’ Weston shows a range of emotions while never abandoning his moral code. At first, Weston spends his monotonous workdays answeringphones, twiddling his thumbs, and endlessly waiting for a less sheltered job. Nothing says, “I need some ominous, Denzel Washington type of apathetic criminal as a house guest” quite like that kind of inactivity.

Frost tells Weston, “First rule is to protect your house guest. I’m your house guest,” and so the party begins. For the rest of the film, Frost tries escaping Weston’s rookie handcuffs while Weston tries keeping Frost cuffed to anything conveniently around. So the CIA’s most-wanted double-crosser and, quite simply, a really good person are unenthusiastically attached. Inevitably, they show their effects on each other.

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Dynamic characters develop throughout the film; they learn, adapt, gain insight. Skilled actors must convey this character development. Reynolds does that during Weston’s “bonding” time with the icy Frost—puns intended. He goes from being a crying, nervous beginner to a confident, unstoppable justice seeker. Not bad for the guy in all those romantic comedies.

Washington “good guy” roles exists in films like Inside Man and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. His criminal, ruthless, and reprobate characters, like Detective Alonso Harris in Training Day and Frank Lucas in American Gangster, have far more complexity and disquieting intrigue. Add his Safe House character to that list. At times, Washington seems like playing Frost is too easy, but he is at his best when with his character’s foil, Reynolds’ Weston. The two effectively challenge each other at packaging their relationship of being both enemies and comrades for a neat delivery.

Safe House‘s director, Daniel Espinosa, also effectively borrows from The Bourne Ultimatum‘s use of shaky cameras. The camera—or eyes of the audience—places viewers in the middle of the action, next to the characters, or even with their point of views. If characters are crashing through windows or involved in violent brawls, as seen in Safe House, shaky cameras put viewers on edge in an engaging, suspense-building way. Unsteady cameras make viewers feel as if they are also running with the characters rather then sitting and watching the action stroll by.

So, Safe House is not a mere infant walking, running, and jumping off buildings in its parent’s deadly footsteps. It is more like a wunderkind Bourne in good Training, but still young at that. Safe House colors carefully in the lines of the genre’s formula, but at least that means there is no incomprehensible mess all over the page, or big screen.

‘The Bling Ring’: Why Is This A Movie?

OVERALL RATING: Do I really have to rate this? 0.5/4

Cinematography

This movie is so fascinating if you want to see obnoxious people do cocaine in a car, or cocaine in a club bathroom, or sit in a closet. There’s the added bonus of seeing repetitive security camera footage. Oh, and you’ll love all the paparazzi videos of no-talent celebrities that you never cared about seeing before. Cutting edge. Seriously, how much money did they give Harris Savides and Christopher Blauvelt to do this?

Apply lipgloss... for the entire movie.

Apply lipgloss… for the entire movie.

Acting

Vapid, obnoxious characters everywhere. I doubt their real-life counterparts fare any better, but this is a film. If an audience is going to spend money and 2 hours of their time watching these losers, then at least add some dynamics. None of their underdeveloped, pathetic backstories do anything for sympathy. I stand by my opinion that Emma Watson is not a very good actress. Her American accents create painful movie-going experiences and that goes against the fact that the person she portrays in this garbage probably cannot even articulate the alphabet. I’m not going to bother talking specifically about anyone else because they all bore me beyond belief.

Directing/Writing

The only director note this movie probably had was, “sound annoying and look busy by snorting cocaine.” At least Sofia Coppola stays behind the cameras nowadays. That’s the only kindness this film does for us, but we’ll still never forget The Godfather III. I’d expect a career of cinematic brilliance as an apology for that, but it seems like the joke is on everyone else for letting her make this film and reminding us that she doesn’t understand characters, not even in writing. There are more trips to Paris Hilton’s closet than character development in this film. We all know people take selfies but we really don’t need to see an entire movie of it. The film presents such an awkward structure as well, but

Every other line in the film: "Take a picture."

Every other line in the film: “Take a picture.”

the nonlinear moments and voiceover cut-ins add nothing interesting. This entire film could’ve been 30 minutes long and still told the same dull story. It could’ve been 10 minutes long and maybe we’d have an interesting short film, or zero minutes because it shouldn’t exist in the first place.

Music

The music is the only thing that works for this film… until the characters sing along to nearly every song.

‘World War Z’ Review

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OVERALL RATING: 2.5/4

Cinematography

Swarms of zombies seen from afar. Anything up close and personal is left more for the imagination. There are quick moments that Ben Seresin does a great job capturing, such as the red flare lights, pharmacy scene, and rainy runway aesthetic. The films takes the audience to many different places under various conditions, and Seresin does a great job keeping up with those changes. Overall, it seems like his best cinematic work.???????????

Acting

There are no outstanding performances in this film, except maybe from a couple zombies. Brad Pitt plays it straight as Gerry, the family man well-endowed with survival skills. Pitt is a brilliant character actor and roles like these don’t do justice for his talents. I’d rather see Tyler Durden fight zombies, Detective David Mills investigating the cure, or Rusty Ryan steal from a zombie-infested research center. We hear of Gerry’s backstory in dialogue, but why bother if he’s just so normal and blasé? Gerry seems quick-witted and more importantly, unflawed, making his character much less interesting.

Directing 

Expect more of an action movie than a blood-and-guts film. Marc Forster does a great job capturing the global chaos of a zombie apocalypse, but he does not focus much on individuals in danger, leaving audiences with less sympathy toward the film’s many zombie victims. The film constantly moves from place to place with its shaky camera, which is understandable given the circumstances of a global apocalypse, but it needs more beats for Gerry’s character. I attribute this to a lack of character development and while it may not be in the script, Forster could have found some moments within scenes like when the family finds shelter or in Gerry’s many nightmares.

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Writing

Many last-minute, drastic script changes went into this film, resulting in an entirely new ending. Once Pitt’s character leaves his family, the film gradually loses its sense of danger. Zombies are everywhere, but he’s the only character the audience really needs to care for and they already announced the sequel. The film throws so many odd characters into the mix as well without really making much effective use of them.

It is an interesting world when zombies run, rather than shuffle around, but anyone familiar with Zombieland won’t see World War Z as pushing any envelopes. In fact, the film loses its edge by its second act, and there’s arguably no tension at all in the convenient and hasty final act. This film does a poor job of setting anything up for the sequel as well, ending as a standalone feature.

Score

Marco Beltrami’s score surges through the film but it’s only after that you realize its impact. It’s not about scares, but it is about the tension that builds during a global crisis. The score maintains the suspense of the film more than any other aspect. It’s especially unnerving after Gerry and his family realize that a traffic jam soon becomes a Philadelphia zombie takeover.

‘The Heat’ Review

I’ll start by saying I wasn’t in the best of moods before seeing this but thankfully, this film in not what a lackluster trailer had anyone believing. Many still may not enjoy it but I think that as a comedy, the film did what it should because I felt better while watching it. I even laughed a few times.

OVERALL RATING: 3/4 

Cinematography

I don’t believe that comedies shouldn’t have an identifiable style. Usually, it’s the darker comedies, like In Bruges, that take the risk but I think it’s time for the genre to try a little harder. This is why I appreciate The Hangover films because even as mass-appealing comedies, they have a specific look. This is also where praise for a lot of Simon Pegg and British films comes in. The Heat doesn’t really light any cinematic sparks in this department though, which is especially disappointing since you may know the cinematographer, Robert D. Yeoman, for his work on Dogma and many fantastic Wes Anderson films. As a filmgoer, if you’re only looking for some inspiring lighting or memorable long takes, this isn’t the film for you.

Acting

Melissa McCarthy outshines Sandra Bullock, and everyone else in this film, but both women have great awareness with physical comedy. They swear as much as they like as well, which is a lot with McCarthy’s insults, and it’s unapologetically funny. As per usual, McCarthy’s husband cameos in the film as well. Another great appearance is from Nathan Corddry, for any fan of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, and other recognizable television faces include Kaitlin Oslon from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Tony Hale from Arrested Development, and Andy Buckley from The Office.Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 8.17.28 PM

Directing 

Paul Feig, above all, is probably the reason this film does hit its comedic beats. His body of work proves his diversity with comedy (yes, not all comedy is the same and not everyone works well with each style), and he sets high standards for female-driven comedies, especially because of Bridesmaids. He seems to be the perfect director for McCarthy as well. She’s one of the funniest women around, but it seems that especially with Feig does her natural humor as the inappropriate character with heart please audiences the most.

Writing

The payoffs are predictable in Katie Dippold’s script, but at least the film keeps its pace. The problem with many comedies that extend over the 90 minute mark is that so many lose comedic steam midway through. When the energy gets lost in the script, the audience loses the laughter momentum as well. The Heat, playing off of its predictability, comes with a variety of  moments so ridiculous that it’s hard not to laugh, like McCartney’s “bad-cop” interrogation style or Bullock’s knife encounter. Not bad for a comedy that extends over 2 hours, especially since a sequel is now in the works.

"The Heat" New York Premiere - Outside ArrivalsThere is an issue with the generic lead characters. I wish they were something new to the buddy-cop genre rather than uptight FBI agent and reckless cop. The fact that they are female leads doesn’t excuse this lack of character development or make it refreshing. Merely dealing with gender doesn’t push any envelopes if the females are written like stereotypical male characters. This is the same issue Zero Dark Thirty had, because why are strong female characters basically written like a male, yet constantly proving themselves to men?