Viewing Diary: 04/17/2014

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.04.22 PM
Hello, and welcome to The Screen Addict! This is my new blog that will cover the same basic topics as my previous site CinemaSlants, but in a slightly different way. As you may or may not know, my last blog was very much focused on individual reviews. This will not be the case with The Screen Addict, which will be a better fit with my new schedule. (Though I may still do an individual review if I see something early.) This site will feature occasional essays and reactions to news in the entertainment/media world, as well as weekly viewing diaries, which I hope to put up every Monday. Most viewing diaries will only have a few items, but for this first post I thought it’d be a good idea to cover a lot of the things I’ve seen in the past couple weeks.

So this is a taste of what The Screen Addict will be. Hopefully it will all become clearer in the next couple weeks. (Heck, there are things that I’ll need to hash out in my own head as well.) It will inevitably take a bit of time to take shape, but the basic idea is this will have a looser vibe, and I’ll try to write on all kinds of things. Of course, film and television will be about 90 percent of it, if not more. This is less a complete shift in focus than a rebranding experiment, and I think it’s about time I shut my mouth and get started. So off we go!

NEW RELEASES: 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.02.11 PMCaptain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Dir: Joe & Anthony Russo

Marvel films are almost always a good deal of fun while you’re watching them, but too often they seem more focused on teasing and world building than creating a wholly satisfying movie. (Iron Man 2 and both Thor movies are the most obvious culprits.) It’s refreshing, then, that Captain America: The Winter Soldier is less interested in building than it is tearing the Marvel universe down. People have overstated the similarities this film has to’70s paranoia thrillers—not many of those ended with an action sequence on this scale—but this is a superhero movie that also explores the idea of the modern surveillance state.

It’s also a whole lot of fun, and the direction by Anthony and Joe Russo is impressive in both the action and dialogue-driven scenes. They are certainly an odd choice when you consider their past theatrical efforts (Welcome to Collinwood, You, Me and Dupree), but perhaps it was their work on the NBC series Community that put them over the top. That series is known for having high-concept episodes that force directors to adapt all kinds of styles, and the Russos have been among the most accomplished throughout the show’s run. It’s interesting that they put a lot of effort into making The Winter Soldier feel like anything but a television show, and they’ve set themselves up for a promising cinematic career in the future. The film may not establish itself as a truly superb superhero movie—the villains aren’t memorable enough for that—but it’s a slick, exciting, intelligent blockbuster that is good on its own merits and not simply as part of Marvel’s grand experiment.

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.03.30 PMThe Raid 2 (2014)
Dir: Gareth Evans

There are some movie fans who worship at the altar of Gareth Evans’ 2011 action film The Raid, but I was not quite one of them. The practical, bone-crunching fight scenes entertained me well enough, but these couple years later I remember almost none of it. That is not a good way to enter the first few scenes of Evans’ new sequel, which assumes near-total recall on the part of the audience when it comes to the characters and events of the original. This meant I was lost in the woods for a bit, and while The Raid 2 is a visually impressive experience throughout, it took a long while for me to give half a crap about what was going on. Evans is not afraid to up the scale, but that did little to clear things up. Even when I finally got on the film’s wavelength, I wasn’t quite feeling all the sequences that didn’t involve nonstop ultra-violence.

Then the last hour or so kicked into gear, and lord have mercy. It’s no coincidence that once Evans throws everything else out and clobbers us with nonstop action, The Raid 2 goes into a new, totally awesome gear. At its core, this is a movie for the adolescent boy in all of us who wants nothing more than to watch people beat the ever living crap out of each other, and Evans stages such scenes like almost no one else making films today. This film’s 150-minute running time is inexcusable, but when it gets down to business it does so in thrilling fashion.

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.05.03 PMNymphomaniac: Volumes I & II (2014)
Dir: Lars von Trier

I don’t know if I’ll see a more ambitious movie this year than Lars von Trier’s sex epic Nymphomaniac. I also don’t know if I’ll have a more varied reaction to anything this year than Nymphomaniac. This is a four-hour monstrosity that I found at once brilliant, overreaching, funny, infuriating, cynical, and… honestly, I dunno. Like other recent von Trier efforts, I was interested by it while I was watching it, but it left me rather cold and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the desire to see it again. (There are apparently multiple edits of varying length and explicitness. I certainly don’t need to see anything more explicit than what I saw.) Nymphomaniac uses the life Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) to muse on pretty much any theme that comes to mind. It also acts as a sort of career overview for von Trier, who has one of the more interesting arcs of any filmmaker out there. As is his wont, this can be a punishing sit, and occasionally needlessly so. It may seem odd to call an opus like this a fans-only proposition, but that’s precisely what Nymphomaniac feels like.

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.05.48 PMDraft Day (2014)
Dir: Ivan Reitman

Cleveland is the perfect setting for Ivan Reitman’s Draft Day, which early on establishes itself as a film not just about a football team in need of revitalization, but an entire region. The film is bookended by the sounds of radio hosts and Cleveland citizens talking about their love of football, and as you might expect these scenes are accompanied by the sounds of soaring strings that want nothing more than to make you feel something. It’s every bit as cheesy as it sounds, and Draft Day would have been well served to stay almost entirely in the front office of the Cleveland Browns. Thanks to a typically dignified performance by Kevin Costner, the best scenes in the film deal with the less-glamorous side of running a team, and in these moments it recalls the most interesting parts of the very good Moneyball.

Unfortunately, Draft Day feels the need to throw a lot of extra characters and subplots in there, most designed to generate some kind of emotional heft that the rest of the film doesn’t quite earn. Jennifer Garner is Costner’s secret girlfriend who’s also pregnant, Ellen Burstyn is the irritating mother, and there are several young football players the film attempts to talk us into caring about. The human element of Draft Day is a big fat yawn, yet there’s something fascinating about the scenes when Costner has to focus on the job, and Reitman uses an interesting/distracting split screen effect in an attempt to give the endless scenes of phone chatter some life. It’s an unusually smart sports movie we could use a lot more of, but the flashes of unconventionality are occasionally overshadowed by the strained attempts at uplift.

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.02.58 PMUnder the Skin (2014)
Dir: Jonathan Glazer

This year has already seen two movies bound to be in my “best of” list at the end of the year. The first is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and the second is Jonathan Glazer’s mesmerizing new film Under the Skin, which features Scarlett Johansson as an alien-type creature who journeys around Scotland looking for unsuspecting men to lure into her trap. It’s a deliberately challenging movie; one that never bothers to extend an arm to the audience and guide them through what they’re seeing. There is almost no dialogue, and much of the experience consists of watching Johansson observe the world around her. She does not feel at home, and neither do we. Glazer is able to take a normal place like Scotland and make it feel otherworldly.

Then there are her interactions with the men she meets, which were almost entirely filmed by setting up a camera in her truck and having Johansson drive around and talk to real strangers. These scenes are happening fresh in front of our eyes, yet she stays entirely in character. This really is a spectacular performance in how understated it is. Her character, who is never named in the film, is a blank slate experiencing Earth for the first time. The triumph of Under the Skin is in Glazer’s ability is to turn this journey into truly unique, unsettling cinema. I’m not one to throw words like “Kubrickian” around, but there are shots in this movie where the comparison is all too apt. However, it never feels like mimicry. Under the Skin is its own thing from beginning to end, and that alone makes it essential.

 

Other films viewed:

Dog+Day+Afternoon+foto1Dog Day Afternoon (1975)
Dir: Sidney Lumet

When I watch a classic movie like Dog Day Afternoon, I’m often struck by how simple it is. So many movies, particularly these days, are far more bloated than they need to be. This film, meanwhile, simply gets its premise rolling, and over the course of two hours follows it to its natural conclusion. Not that it isn’t effective—Dog Day Afternoon is a spectacular film with one of the best performances of Al Pacino’s career—but it’s notable that there are no real twists to be found.

One thing that struck me on this viewing was the significant tonal change once the action shifted to night. For much of the afternoon, the atmosphere in and around the bank feels something like a party. The crowd is hooting and hollering, the hostages are actually having a bit of fun with the situation, and there’s a general lightness that Sidney Lumet brings to proceedings. Then, the crowds dissipate. The sun goes down, but it’s still agonizingly hot. The feds take over the negotiations. A situation that was once utterly clear becomes foggy, and our bank robbers can feel the walls closing in. It was a day that began with such promise, but even they knew there was only one way this whole thing could end.

 

ten_commandmentsThe Ten Commandments (1956)
Dir: Cecil B. DeMille

Ever since I got a Blu-ray player this winter, I’ve taken a liking to watching classic epics such as Lawrence of Arabia and Ben-Hur, most of which look gorgeous in the format. My latest experiment was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which is another film I could just watch on mute and still be entertained. However, it does provide an interesting contrast to Darren Aronofsky’s Noah in that it shows two completely different approaches to similar subjects. Both are stories about men who are asked to carry out a task by God, and both tasks involve the deaths of a great many people. Noah took this utterly seriously and explored the dark side of such events. The Ten Commandments is much more unquestioning of the story its telling. It’s still fantastic entertainment, but there’s just not a lot of complexity there.

I will say I had a hard time buying Edward G. Robinson’s character. Not five minutes after Moses parts the freaking Red Sea, Robinson is still skeptical of the quest they’ve been taken on. Even less believable: that everyone else in this crowd would go along with his babbling. I think by this point in the story Moses has earned a bit of your trust, no? Anyway, this has been “Matt Complains About Cecil B. DeMille Movies from 1956.”

 

exorcist1The Exorcist (1973)
Dir: William Friedkin

Not too much to say here besides “AAAAAAHHHHHHH,” and that I had no idea that this was filmed in Georgetown, which is now just a few miles from where I live. Do you think I went and tracked down the Exorcist Steps last weekend after watching this film for the first time? You bet I did.

 

Screen Shot 2014-04-17 at 9.08.05 PMThunderball (1965)
Dir: Terence Young

The fourth film in the series, Thunderball -is when James Bond became “JAMES BOND.” The first three installments were all very successful, and very good, spy thrillers, but this is when everything went to the next level. It also made $141 million off a $9 million budget. That, kids, is what we call “return on investment.” It’s odd, then, that Thunderball seems to have become an afterthought in the James Bond canon in recent decades. It’s not forgotten, but it’s typically seen as a second-tier Bond film. I certainly thought of it that way for a while, but after revisiting it for no real reason I found I liked it more than I recalled. It’s very much a standard example of what James Bond movies would become, but it does it quite well. It’s also big without being too big, which is a problem that would haunt several James Bond films down the line.

 

imagesCity of God (2002)
Dir: Fernando Meirelles

This one has been on my to-do list for a really long time, and now that I finally caught up with it I’m slightly conflicted. I’m normally a sucker for a stylish movie, but there were times when I wondered if Fernando Meirelles had made his film a bit too stylish. It’s all just so… much, and quite honestly I was only intermittently smitten with it. What he’s attempting to do is undoubtedly admirable, but there were times I felt like the directorial flourishes were keeping the tragedy of the story at arm’s length. That said, I more or less loved the film’s second half, but it took a while for me to get on the same wavelength. It’s the kind of movie where I understand why so many people love it, but for me it stopped short of leaving a real impact.


 

This has been an example of what a weekly viewing diary is going to be. The next diary will come on Monday. As for essays and other longer pieces, expect those to come later next week. However, if a fun piece of news comes out in the next couple days, I’ll get my feet wet with some of those articles. I’ll also add that this site is still a work in progress design-wise, so bear with me as I try to make it look as good as possible. Anyway, welcome to The Screen Addict! I’m excited to get rolling.

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One thought on “Viewing Diary: 04/17/2014

  1. I saw Captain America yesterday and really enjoyed it. I have to agree though that the comparisons with ’70s conspiracy thrillers are over-done and a risky mis-selling of the film. It’s far more focussed on action than that, and doesn’t have the darkness and uncertainty those achieve. I thought that the low key parts around Rogers as a man out of time were some of the best bits, but there’s no denying that Marvel still know how to throw a spectacular set piece.

    I also really enjoyed City of God back when it came out, and have considered going back to watch it again. For me, the sense of exploring an unfamiliar setting was part of the appeal – I thought it did a great job of making me empathise with characters in a position very different to my own.

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