Wednesday, April 30, 2014

"Locke" ★★★½

The Road To Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Shot over five days and five nights, Steven Knight's "Locke" is the story of one man's mistake and his endless desire to redeem himself, all while speaking on the phone as he drives from Birmingham to London. Yes, the film takes place entirely inside the title character's BMW and it is a mesmerizing experience, both in Knight's sheer inventiveness as a filmmaker and Tom Hardy's brilliant performance as Ivan Locke.

At first you may ask yourself how a film that takes place in a car could hold your attention for its eighty-five minute running time, but that worry fades the moment Ivan makes his first phone call. He's a construction foreman who leaves the most important job of his career because of a mistake he made in his recent past. (I won't spoil what that mistake is, especially since I went into this movie completely blind and was even more wowed than I otherwise might have been.) Ivan has a list of people he needs to talk to, as well as several personal goals to achieve as he makes the drive to London.

What's fascinating is the personal journey this character takes in such a short amount of time. Ivan goes from a man trying to control an uncontrollable situation to someone who accepts the fact that what he's done simply isn't fixable. It happens naturally, out of the many conversations he has on the phone, and also in his discussions with his never seen nor heard deceased father. He's trying to prove that one mistake isn't enough to condemn someone for the rest of their life and that he controls his own fate, not the other way around.

But Ivan is driving toward inevitability, and the closer he gets, the more unhinged and agitated he becomes. It's an honest and heartbreaking realization, and one that Hardy plays beautifully. Ivan's a man worn down by his actions, comforting to others but a mess on the inside, scruffy and more than a little rough around the edges, but he's built a life for himself. He's proud of the work he's done and just wants to get home to his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and two sons, Sean (Bill Milner) and Eddie (Tom Holland).

We only hear the voices on these phone calls, but these actors do great work and convey all the emotions they need to in their reactions to what Ivan is saying. Wilson is particularly good at bringing Ivan into reality, and Donal (Andrew Scott), Ivan's number two who must take over the job in his absence, adds some comedic moments to an otherwise dark story. You forget that you're only seeing one actor on screen and you become entranced. It's not your average car ride but you're more than happy to have made the journey.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

"Under The Skin" ★★★★

A Cinematic Odyssey

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The one film in recent memory to make me question everything I know about life, death, and a general love of movies is "2001: A Space Odyssey". What Stanley Kubrick did with that film is something that should be marveled, analyzed, and written about for years to come. I did not think another film could come that close to brilliance until I saw Jonathan Glazer's "Under The Skin", a hauntingly intoxicating film with a stellar performance from Scarlett Johansson.

The film tells the story of an alien (Johansson) in Scotland who lures men with the promise of sex into a blackish blue liquid that preserves them for something far more sinister. The longer she's on Earth and the more she studies humans, the more curious and sympathetic she becomes. She's obviously not of this world, but "Under The Skin" itself feels like something otherworldly in its style. Glazer's images are best expressed as something Special Agent Dale Cooper would call "both wonderful and strange" bringing to mind the claustrophobic acid-trip of an ending that "2001" provided. From the opening minutes - with a score perfectly complimentary to the images on screen - to the quiet ending, Glazer never hesitates to make the audience squirm in their seats. Just when you think the story cannot possibly be any darker or stranger, he ups the anti.

The darker the story gets, however, the more I found myself sympathizing with the alien creature and less with her victims. In one sequence, she happens upon a disfigured man (Adam Pearson) who, as a result of his condition, has never been with a woman. She compliments his hands, they make small talk, and never once does she mention or seem to care about his appearance. Their exchange is essential to the journey her character takes, seemingly causing her to realize what she's doing to these people. She sees the best and worst in humanity and becomes more aware of the body she inhabits.

It's a brave role, that much is certain, and Johansson doesn't shy away from anything. Her performance has stuck with me, as I find myself thinking about this movie nearly every day since I first saw it. There simply are not a lot of movies that can creep in like "Under The Skin" does; a welcome respite from the summer blockbuster season. What Glazer and Johansson have accomplished here is Kubrickian in nature, but wholly original in style and form. This isn't a movie you watch, it's one you experience. Don't be afraid to let it in.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Revisiting "(500) Days of Summer"

A Look Back At This Wonderful Indie From 2009

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

There's something about the hopeless romantic character that resonates deeply with me. Perhaps it's because I am one myself, or maybe it's the idea of lost idealism rushing to the surface that creates a lasting appeal. Whatever the reason, "(500) Days of Summer" is a film that puts this archetype front and center, the result of which is a damn fine movie.

The hopeless romantic in this story is Tom, played by the always engaging Joseph Gordon-Levitt, an architect at heart but currently employed as a writer of greeting cards in downtown Los Angeles. Tom's belief in true love is expressed when he first meets Summer (Zooey Deschanel), the new secretary at the card company. What follows is the story of their strained relationship and eventual break-up, told from Tom's perspective.

Gordon-Levitt plays Tom's heartbreak beautifully, never making it sentimental or pathetic. He becomes withdrawn, depressed and, for a while, angry. Angry at Summer, yes, but mostly angry at himself for believing that he could change Summer's beliefs about love to fit with his. She tells him early on that she's not looking for a relationship, nor does she believe in true love. But Tom believes so earnestly that he's the man that will cause her to rethink what she already knows. Where your sympathy lies depends upon the character with whom you identify the most.

On one hand, there's Summer, who is upfront and honest about what she's looking for. She tells Tom how it is and asks if he is willing to accept her terms. On the other hand, there's Tom, a man whose judgement is clouded by his convictions. But that's what makes watching this movie such a rewarding experience: It nails both sides of a doomed relationship so perfectly, that no matter who you see yourself as, it's a pleasure to watch.

This pleasure, for me at least, comes to fruition in two key scenes of the film. The first is a small moment that sets up the second scene, when we're led to believe that Tom and Summer could potentially get back together. It's a few seconds on a train after they've left a wedding and it seems like they're falling in love all over again. Tom is awake in his seat and Summer's head ever-so-gracefully falls on his shoulder. The look on Tom's face is one of pure joy and relief. He's done it, he's won her back, or so he thinks. It's a small gesture, yes, but in the hands of a less capable actor it could have gone way wrong. Gordon-Levitt lives in this moment and reacts accordingly.

The second scene is when Tom shows up at Summer's apartment for a party. She invited him at the wedding, they had that moment on the train, so naturally Tom thinks this is his shot at happiness. Many will remember that this is the expectations vs. reality sequence, where the left side of the screen shows what Tom thought would happen and the right shows what actually happens. It's sad, yes, but contagious in its effect. What we're left with is a broken man who has to reconcile with his own ideals.

The one love Tom still has in his life is the city of Los Angeles, which is a character in and of itself. Out of Tom's loss comes the will to pursue his dream of being an architect and letting the city that surrounds him be his constant source of inspiration. Los Angeles is shown in ways we're not used to seeing on screen; there's an affection for the city. You could almost say that Tom is having a constant affair with it. And that's just one of many charms this movie offers, especially upon repeated viewing.

Director Marc Webb uses a variety of filmmaking techniques, all of which compliment the mood and tone of the characters. There's a musical number when Tom and Summer have sex for the first time, a reference to French New Wave films when Tom is "suffering", and interviews with the characters about their thoughts on love. None of this ever takes you out of the story because it's all so complimentary of what Tom is going through. "(500) Days of Summer" is love in its richest form: it loves the characters, story and setting, but it also loves every aspect of the filmmaking process.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Californication Season Seven Premiere: "Levon"

Finding Its Way Home

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The final season of Californication premiered last night and after seven years of Hank's (David Duchovny) debauchery, the show appears to be getting back on track. The first season as a whole proved that Californication was something different, a comedy that pushed the limits even for cable television, but one that had a lot of heart and soul. Many wrote the show off as being just about sex, when in fact it was anything but. As the seasons progressed, however, it was clear that the writers were more interested in sexual situation comedy, rather than the story of Hank and Karen (Natasha McElhone).

I questioned how Californication could last past a season or two and the answer was it couldn't and shouldn't have. This always was a short term story, at least for me, and while I wish things could have ended much sooner, I'm glad that this first episode in the show's conclusion indicates a return to form. It begins moments after the ending of last season, with Hank knocking on Karen's door to tell her he wants to make it work. Things don't go as planned, so Hank decides to get a job working in television. Easier said than done.

Fans of the show will remember that season five revolved around the making of the movie "Santa Monica Cop", which has now been adapted into a television series and is being run by Rick Rath (Michael Imperioli). Hank convinces Rick that he's worth hiring because of his life experience and that his pain in the ass work ethic is beside the point. "I'm on a quest to reclaim the best parts of myself before it's too late", Hank says at one point. The same can be said about Californication.

The core of the show has always been Hank and Karen's relationship, and their scenes together, sparse though they may be, always remind me of why I fell in love with the show in the first place. Duchovny and McElhone are so good that when they're together, it no longer feels like I'm watching two characters on a screen, rather, I'm a witness to two very real people having arguments and conversations that actually matter. And when the show is firing on all cylinders, the comedy comes out of the characters, not the situations they're thrown into.

Take Charlie (Evan Handler) and Marcy (Pamela Adlon) for example. They're the most unlikely couple in the series. Their chemistry is just perfect on as their co-stars and the funniest moments in "Levon" occurred when they were arguing about Charlie's erectile dysfunction. While Charlie has been the focus of ridicule throughout Californication's run, he's best served when Marcy is with him. Keeping them apart for so long was one of many missteps in the show's prolonged run, but now that they're living not-so-happily ever after, all could be forgiven. And yes, watching Charlie flounder about is always amusing, but it's having Marcy by his side that makes those scenes work. That's a testament to Adlon's comedic timing, which makes Marcy's mixture of bitter and sweet spot on.

It's that dichotomy that always made Californication work, and for too long, Tom Kapinos - the show's creator and, now, only writer - went for the wacky comedy instead of comedic character study. But for the first time in several seasons, I was laughing again and happy to see these characters for at least twelve more episodes. Let's hope that Californication, much like Hank and Karen, can get it right a second time.