Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Movies I Saw That Nobody Else Did

Want to see a stylish action movie with great set pieces, solid acting, the biggest laugh ever on the word "Oh," and a cleverly-constructed pocket universe where hit men have their own hotels, nightclubs, and a strict code of honor?  Look no further, and don’t let the fact that Keanu Reeves is starring in this stop you from watching it—it’s to his career what The Grey is to Liam Neeson’s (another movie you should see if you haven’t) and it’s the best thing Reeves has done in ages.   The highest praise I can give this film is that it’s an American Johnnie To film, so if you liked Drug War, Exiled, Vengeance, or the two Elections, this is for you.

Oh, Homesman.  I don’t know when I’ve been angrier at a movie for a plot turn, or when a movie has so deliberately set its audience up for one kind of story only to pull the rug out from under them and then kick them in the head after they hit the floor.  And then punch them hard in the gut one final time just as it ends. The big plot turn is right there in the novel by Glendon Swarthout, too (though it’s a bit more foreshadowed), and I could make a very apt comparison to another film, but it would be a massive spoiler, and moments this strong deserve to be seen unprepared.  I’m still trying to figure out why those kicks and punches hit me so hard; I’ve got the movie on video but I’m damned if I’ve had the guts to sit through it again and relive what I felt the first time.  So that in itself is a kind of recommendation, along with the words: “This is like no other movie, never mind no other western,” “Tommy Lee Jones really likes to go dark when he directs, and this film makes him my pick to do Blood Meridian,” and “Jesus, please keep giving Hilary Swank stuff like this, because she’s fabulous.”
If you ever want to see a Mobius strip in film form, then Predestination was made for you.  Based on a short story by Robert Heinlein that is the ne plus ultra of a by-your-bootstraps time travel paradox, this is a science-fiction film where the intelligence of the concept outweighs the special effects, which makes it the absolute reverse of most SF movies, where the smarts is in the CGI and the dumb is in the script.  No dumb script here.  Just a plot that copulates with your head and an actress who steals the entire movie out from under the above-the-title star, Ethan Hawke.  Hawke could play a saint and still project the hint that there’s something sketchy about his character, so he just has to show up to bring that ambivalence to the screen, but it’s Sarah Snook who is this movie, in a performance that won her this year’s AACTA Award for Best Actress (the Australian equivalent of our Oscar).  She deserves it.  With the right part, she’ll be winning the American version of an AACTA in no time.
Movie biographies usually stick to the same feel-good format:  “This is the story of (name) who (fill in the inspirational blank),” said blank normally filled in with a precise action which winnows a man’s life down to a specific achievement which is designed to elicit a set response.  In Theory of Everything, it’s “Stephen Hawking” and “comprehended the universe while fighting ALS;” in Imitation Game it’s “Alan Turing” and “invented the computer while decoding a Nazi cipher and hiding his homosexuality.”  In Mr. Turner, it’s  “JMW Turner” and “did things you’ll have to watch the movie to see,” making this film that rare biography which throws the viewer into the middle of a life as it’s being lived, and requires not a response to a storyline but a level of patience and attention to detail which can perceive meaning and structure in what’s being viewed.  Like, y’know, looking at a series of great paintings.  You get none of the usual movie biography tropes here, just moments from a life united by a subtle but towering performance by Timothy Spall, and stunning cinematography.  The fact that this movie is not nominated for any major Oscars, while Imitation Game and Theory of Everything are, tells you all you need to know about how the Academy views biographies that try to present a life that's something more than an uphill battle against disease or the embodiment of a thrice-repeated tag line.


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