My thoughts on the national parks, movies, sports and whatever else comes into my mind.
Episode 8: The Artist/Breaking Bad
In this episode of the Lord of the Films Podcast, I discuss my recent trip to the New York Film Festival, The Artist's Oscar chances and Breaking Bad's Emmy chances.
The Artist Review
It is funny to think that a film about the demise of the silent film genre may actually revive it (or at least revive a genre that has largely been extinct for almost a century to the largest extent possible). That film, Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist, is a fun film that takes a stale (or at lest thought to be) concept a long way. The Artist follows a silent film star (played by Jean Dujardin) trying to adapt to the change to talkie films and his relationship with an emerging film star (played by Berenice Bejo).
The least you can say about this film is that it is a well constructed film. Michel Hazanavicius' direction of this film is impeccable. He creates an entire world that works as both an introduction to silent film and as homage to the glory days of the genre. Suffices to say that Hazanavicius' use of the silent film genre will please both general audiences and film buffs. It really is amazing how well Hazanavicius (who also wrote the script) pulled of the silent film aspects of this film. This is a genre that hasn't been used in decades and the film industry has changed greatly since that era. Yet The Artist makes you recall the best of that era.
Hazanavicius' script does include some great moments but this is definitely a directorial achievement. The script could have been a lot better as it appears to be your average romantic comedy (although funnier than the average film from that genre at this present age) with a fun twist to how the story is told. The script is also the major problem with the third act. The film is at its best when it is having fun. Yet Hazanavicius tries to bring the film into a darker arena in the third act. When this happens it becomes all too obvious that script is just a little to average. The characters don't seem as interesting anymore and the story begins to slow down a little too much. Luckily, Hazanavicius' has a nice ending in store that brings everything back together to form a neat conclusion that is perfect for the film. It doesn't match the fun and uniqueness of the first half of the film, but it stops the film from becoming a disappointment.
Another asset this film has is its cast. The casting department made a smart move by combining French actors with American actors. It kind of puts another nice touch to the idea of this being a unique film. It is so weird to see John Goodman interacting with Jean Dujardin (who can't speak English), but it works. Speaking of Dujardin, he is at his best when (like the film) he is having fun. Luckily the film gives him plenty of opportunities to do so. Dujardin is able to masterfully make himself seem like the most charismatic man in the world by just using body language. Goodman also does some solid work as a studio head and is clearly having his most fun since his Walter Sobchak days. Like Dujardin, Goodman is phenomenal at (as one character in the film calls it) "mugging it up for the camera". The last role of note belongs to Berenice Bejo as Dujardin's love interest. She isn't as good at "mugging" as the other two, but she performs her role well enough to create some enthusiasm from the audience for the character.
The final asset this film has is its many technical achievements. It features some interesting costume choices (that work most of the time). It handles the use of sound so well that when it is used, it results in some of the best scenes in the film. The film also features one of the best scores in a while (courtesy of Ludovic Bource) as it works wonderfully as both an original score and as an ode to the silent film scores of old.
The Artist may feature a cliched script and may be just about the gimmick, but it is unlike anything you will see this year.
The Tree of Life Review
In 1968, Stanley Kubrick forever changed the science fiction film genre with his magnum opus, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ever since then, filmmakers have been trying to top the film that is the epitome of the sci-fi films. There was even a direct sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010: The Year We Make Contact, made in 1984. Unfortunately, no sci-fi film has topped Kubrick's masterpiece or even reached its level of greatness. In comes Terrence Malick, who some call the heir to the void in filmmaking that was left behind when Kubrick passed. The Tree of Life is definitely not a science fiction film but it is the first film that can truly claim it has captured the same essence Kubrick's opus has.
The Tree of Life not only takes place on an astronomical level, but asks questions that most filmmakers wouldn't dare ask during the course of the film. Why are we here? Why can life be so brutal at times? Are just a few of some of the complex questions Malick raises during the 2+ hour runtime of the film. Yes, the film will lose many viewers along the way, but, like Kubrick's film, the more effort you put into watching The Tree of Life, the richer the reward you will receive by the end of it. Such ambition from a filmmaker is a marvel to witness (especially in an age of mindless blockbusters raking in major money at the box office).
Malick makes this film his most intimate to date as it seems large portions of the film are autobiographical in nature, especially in the middle section of the film that follows the childhood of Jack (played by Hunter McCracken giving the best performance by a child this year). Oddly, the film is also Malick's most epic yet as it follows the history of the universe from the creation of the cosmos (a sequence that rivals "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite") all the way to the demise of our galaxy. That this film even works at all is a true miracle and this combination of the intimate and the epic to such a level is something that I don't even think Kubrick had the skill to do. To be fair, Malick has a powerful tool that Kubrick never possessed. That tool comes in the form of possibly the best cinematographer in cinematic history: Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki does his best work since Children of Men (where he captures the chaos found at the end of humanity through his technologically astounding tracking shots) as he perfectly captures the beauty of nature and the imperfections of humanity.
Despite being considered by many to be just props in a Malick film, the actors are great. Despite a lot of improvisation being used by Malick on the part of the younger members of the cast, the actors that play the boys (McCracken, Laramie Eppler and Tye Sheridan) do good work. The true powerhouses of the cast are, however, Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt. Chastain has been a true revelation this year (she also starred in The Help and The Debt). In The Tree of Life, she perfects the use of subtle acting as you constantly forget that she is just an actress in a movie rather than a real life mother to the boys. Pitt, on the other hand, gets to do some scene-chewing. His performance as the father of the family is his best since The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It seems Pitt is at his best when he is playing semi-villains with ambiguous motives. Pitt deserves a lot of credit for creating an initially unlikable character that can create sympathy from the viewer at any moment and for taking on a role unlike anything else that has been on screen in a while.
To find anything wrong with this film, you really have to dig deep. Its one fault is that it has a irritating sound mix. The constant change from hush whispers to the bangs and the booms of the creation of the cosmos get annoying real fast. It is easy to see this was intentional (as the whispers convey to us that the characters are talking to God and the booms and bangs help you realize how small these characters' lives are in relation to the universe), but it results in a failed attempt to add a little more to this already dense film.
The Tree of Life is a masterpiece and Terrence Malick not only has a companion piece to his predecessor's magnum opus, but a magnum opus to call his own.
I thought I would discuss my interpretation of the film here. One of the main things I like about this film (and many hate it for) is that this a film with no clear plot. Everything is up to the interpretation of the viewer, so I hope my thoughts don't intrude upon yours. I would just like to bring up a few points for possible discussion. I thought everything that does not take place with Sean Penn (who does nothing but I think does serve a purpose) at his house and the office is from the viewpoint of God. While sleeping on the day of the anniversary of his brother's death, Jack (played by McCracken and Penn), who has had a falling out with God, asks God to show evidence of what he has seen. God then reveals Jack's mother asked similar questions by showing her reaction to his brother's death. At this point Jack wakes up and goes to work where he begins to remember his childhood and God shows him more (including how the world got to where it was). He also reveals that he has heard all of Jack's (and his family's) prayers which is what the whispering voiceovers are. Jack is the perfect example of how a human life as his parents are the perfect examples of nature and grace. When the two are dueling, life is not good for humanity. When the two are at peace with each other, life is good for humanity. Still depressed, Jack is then shown by God how the world will end and what the afterlife is like (the beach scenes). The antepenultimate scene is the long take of the field of sunflowers. Considering God is constantly represented throughout the film by light (Sun), this scene just reinforces that he is everywhere. The penultimate scene is of Jack looking around strangely and then cracking a small smile. This is Jack looking at the world for the first time with the new perspective God has given him and finally becoming a believer of God again (knowing that everything will be okay in the end). The final scene of the film is the long take of the bridge which just once again reinforces Jack's connection to God has been resurrected.
Breaking Bad: Season 4 Review
In a perfect world, serialized television would be the best example of great television. A series would just keep building on its plot through the characters (always staying true to them). As the plot continues to the series would build momentum with every episode and every season. Every episode would be better than the last. Unfortunately, we don't live in a perfect world. Many series pull off serialized storytelling well enough to create a compelling series (such as Lost). However, even a show such as Lost peaked in its early seasons and never really passed the mark of success it created. So while many shows have used serialized storytelling successfully, none have used it perfectly. That is until Breaking Bad appeared on the screen.
Breaking Bad started off as a well acted series about a man trying to make a living in an indecent way. With season 2, it built a base of momentum that led to a mind-boggling finale. In season 3, it yet again built on this momentum by introducing new characters into the mix that ratcheted up the tension. In season 4, the series brought tension and chaos to unimaginable levels. The result is that Breaking Bad, a once above average thriller, is now the best series on television, and it is only getting better.
There are many reasons for this consistent progression. One of them is that the series has slowly become the master of the twist. Sure, shows such as Lost arguably had crazy and more ambitious twists. However, Breaking Bad succeeds with pulling off twists in that every single one used is organic. Every twist is done with the characters in mind to the point that every twist seems realistic. yet it is the most insane show on television.
Another reason for this progression are the actors, who have now completely set into their roles. Bryan Cranston, as the arrogant Walter White, is giving the greatest performance in television history. The change from (as creator Vince Gilligan describes it) "Mr. Chips to Scarface" is completely natural. You don't notice the change at all while watching an episode. Yet when you compare it to the pilot episode, the transition is startling. Nobody on television can hold the screen like Cranston does and, like the show itself, he always seems to stop itself. I thought he wouldn't be able to top his "I am the one who knocks monologue" to his concerned wife in "Cornered", yet he topped it with his confession to his son in "Salud". Then he topped it again one episode ever in one of the scariest scenes I have ever witnessed. As Walter runs out of options, he breaks down and Cranston tops it all off with the most desperate "hyena" laugh I have ever heard.
Co-stars Aaron Paul and Giancarlo Esposito are no slouches either. Paul continues to deliver one of the most heartbreaking performances is ever and shows that he can hold his own against Cranston (Just watch his square off scenes with Cranston in "Bug" and "End Times"). Esposito, meanwhile, created one of the most complex villains that has ever appeared on the small screen. Originally, Gus Fring was just a nemesis. Now he is a man with underdog story come true (that also just happens to do a lot of bad things). The best thing I could say about Esposito's performance is that he makes you feel a little upset with Gus Fring's ultimate fate (The last image of the character was one of the creepiest things I ever witnessed).
A third major reason for this constant progression is the writing. Vince Gilligan and company really are masters at story telling. They leave little hints seasons in advance before they bring about their reveals and twists. Who would have thought a tiny glance from Walter at a plant in "End Times" would end up having such major consequences in future episodes? The writers left that little hint to one of the most important moments in this series history. A lesser series would have just pulled a twist with out anything coming beforehand to justify that twist. Another example of this comes from Walter's "I am the one who knocks line", which perfectly foreshadows his actual transformation into the "one who knocks" by season end. It makes the season just seem so cohesive (Also completing this cohesiveness is Cranston's perfect delivery of "I won" in the finale, bringing his fall to villainy ever so closer). Gilligan and company are also great with dialogue. This series is the closest thing to a Coen Brothers or Tarantino film on television. The dialogue is snappy and perfectly combines a sense of seriousness and comedy.
Finally, I can't leave out the look of this series. Many images from this past season are completely ingrained in my head due to Michael Slovis's masterful work. There is the western-esque images of Walter entering a bar, the claustrophobic view of the crawl space, and the haunting last moments of Gus Fring.
Breaking Bad has become the best show to air on television since Lost. It brings riveting performances, masterful writing, and gorgeous cinematography all to one place. The question is where does this show go from here? And is there any chance Walter can be saved from himself now that he has clearly crossed the moral line (once again)?
Melancholia, the latest film from the media's favorite Nazi sympathizer (not really) Lars von Trier, opens with a breathtaking slow motion sequence that contains many of the gorgeous promotional photos we have seen thus far. It's completely engrossing. The problem is, is that nothing from the rest of the film validates this opening sequence. Nothing gives it connection to main narrative or reveals a deeper meaning within the scene. Instead it just seems like a short film that comes before the main feature, completely disconnected. Therein lies the problem with Melancholia. The film plays like three different films (the opening sequence, the section titled Justine after Kirsten Dunst's character, and the section titled Claire after Charlotte Gainsbourg's character) that do not relate to each other except that it's about the same characters.
Von Trier deserves much credit for this directorial efforts. You cannot say this film isn't ambitious. Ambition is something we deserve from every director but never truly get. We get it in this film for sure. The problem is von Trier thinks his film is smarter than it actually is. He thinks there is some deeper meaning to be found amidst this film. Unfortunately, there isn't.
The second half of this film (excluding the opening sequence), Claire, is definitely the best of the two halves. This part follows Claire (Gainsbourg) and her family try to cope with the possibility of another planet hitting Earth. It is very intense and von Trier completely captures the sense of bleakness and paranoia between the characters.
The only problem with this section actually comes from the first half of the film, entitled Justine. This part of the film follows Justine (Dunst) on her wedding night. This section of the film should have given Dunst a lot to work with. Unfortunately, she is let down by von Trier's writing as all she is given to doe is act depressed for an hour. It gets annoying fast as von Trier hits us over the head with it to excessiveness (a scene where Dunst's character pees on a gold course is the best example of this). By the time this section is over, the average viewer will have lost most of their interest in the film and Dunst's character has become un-redeem-able (which hurts the film when she becomes an important player in the second half of the film).
All this section manages to do is make the viewer be able to point out nitpicks in the second half of the film (a good second half of the film at that). For instance, I took more interest than I should have in a scene involving a search on a computer. A character searches "Melancholia" and most of the items on the search compute to the condition of Melancholia rather than the planet that is about to his them. In our media is everything world, such a search would not result in that way in the real world and it comes off as a blatant attempt to reinforce the depressed setting of the film. I really shouldn't be putting too much focus on such a small thing, but this is what happens when a film wastes its time with such sequences as the first half of this film.
The film does somewhat redeem itself by the ending with an intense scene that is superbly acted (especially by Charlotte Gainsbourg who is the unsung hero of this film). Unfortunately, ambition is not enough to save this film.
Ken Burns returned to PBS this past week with his now famous style for documentaries. His efforts, along with co-director (and frequent collaborator) Lynn Novick, resulted in the informative, but ultimately lackluster Prohibition. A documentary that strives to live up to its predecessors, but has too much going against it to reach that level.
Prohibition follows the rise and fall of prohibition (taking a lot of time to note that Prohibition was always doomed to faiL) during the course of three nights (or episodes). "A Nation of Drunkards", "A Nation of Scofflaws" and "A Nation of Hypocrites" rise and fall on how interesting the subjects they cover are. For instance, the story of the rise of the beer company owners in "A Nation of Drunkards" is much more interesting than the well known exploits of Al Capone in "A Nation of Hypocrites". The greatest strength of a Ken Burns is that it revels in exploring lesser known components of subject. Instead Prohibition spends too much time on such common knowledge incidents such as the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre and the Fall of Al Capone.
Ultimately the thing that really kills this documentary is the major weakness of ever Ken Burns documentary: its runtime. At around five and a half hours, Prohibition gets lost in itself and ultimately will lose many viewers by the last episode. The first episode, as it explores the roots of the prohibition cause and the history of alcohol in America, seems completely necessary. However, almost four hours dedicated to the Prohibition era (which only encompassed thirteen years) is too much. The documentary ultimately becomes bogged down by the second and (especially) the third episode. There is just too much repetitiveness. I can only watch so many crackdowns (no matter how great they look when captured on film) and hear Al Capone's name so many times before it becomes too much.
Burns and Novick do deserve credit for making this documentary so stylish. Burns' approach to documentary filmmaking is probably still the best approach to making a historical documentary. The combination of music from the era, pictures and a wonderful voiceover by Peter Coyote always combine into something great. It is also interesting to note that Burns and Novick use a lot of video in this documentary. It is integrated into Burns' normal documentary style with great efficiency and results in some of the documentary's best moments (such as numerous federal crackdowns on speakeasies and a speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt). The directing duo is also once again able to get an all-star voice cast to accompany Peter Coyote. Some of the voices involved include those of Tom Hanks, Paul Giamatti (surprisingly the most noticeable of the voices), Jeremy Irons, Samuel L. Jackson and Patricia Clarkson.
Ultimately, Prohibition seems like one of Ken Burns' lesser projects and has too much in common with another Prohibition era television program, Boardwalk Empire. Like the first season of that series, Prohibition is well made and has a great cast that performs the material well, but it can't bring everything together to make an engrossing program.
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