Thursday, June 26, 2014

"ENEMY " IS THE BEST THRILLER OF THE YEAR


You know what the best film of 2014 is that you've never even heard of? ENEMY, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. It's a psychological thriller that will stick in your brain for a long time. I'm still obsessing over it, and that's why I'm writing about it today.

ENEMY was unceremoniously released this past Tuesday on DVD, but it is deserving of much, much more. Certainly, it’s worthy of your 2-hour rental after it failed to garner a wide release. The latest from Denis Villeneuve, who directed the tense hit PRISONERS last year, played only at film festivals and briefly in New York this past March. That’s an utter shame, considering it is one of the best films of 2014.

Perhaps movies about the mind or those heavy with symbolism don’t stand a chance in this modern era that too often spoon feeds movie audiences. And ENEMY is a complex, layered film with a narrative chock full of fantasies, nightmares, and visions of gigantic spiders. It could almost be a horror movie.

Jake Gyllenhaal does his greatest film work in two roles in ENEMY.
And in many ways, it is just that, but it’s not a scary movie in the typical sense. There are no monolithic monsters or drooling beasts chasing down innocent victims here, despite the spider scenes. Instead, the monster is the male ego.

Gyllenhaal plays two roles here and in doing so, he’s done the best film work of his career. (He won’t be remembered come Oscar time, but he should be.) He plays a history professor named Adam, obsessing in his classroom over and over again about dictatorial regimes dominating society. He shambles around the campus, on edge, hands in his pockets, worrying about something. What is it that is eating at him so?
'The two Jakes' play a scene together as Anthony intimidates his stalker Adam in ENEMY.
Then one day he rents a movie to get out of his head, and discovers an actor in it who could be his twin. Is it indeed his doppelganger? Could it be a long lost brother? Adam becomes obsessed with this ‘twin’ and starts stalking him. He discovers that the actor, named Anthony, is quite different from him. He’s got a nice apartment, a warm, lovely and very pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon, in what should have been a star making role), and a swagger to his step that Adam sorely lacks. Adam works up the courage to meet him but when they confront each other at a local motel, Adam runs away.

It’s at this point in the movie that the true themes start to appear. Tense scenes with Adam’s mother (a stoic Isabella Rosselini), his lover (Melanie Laurent), and Anthony’s wife Helen suggest that the prof has a screw loose. Everything, including the city, seems to start closing in around him after that. And then the aforementioned spider visuals start popping up everywhere, along with haunting images of dangerous sex and dictatorships.
Canadian actress Sarah Gadon plays Helen, a woman trying to make sense of her husband's obsessions.
It’s all shot to be utterly frightening, and could give most horror movies a run for their money with the camera angles and editing often suggesting a fever dream or a nagging nightmare. Nicolas Bolduc is the cinematographer responsible for the incredible photographing of this film and he gives the locations of Toronto a muggy, claustrophobic feel like it’s never had before on film. The suspenseful score, written by Danny Bensi and Saunder Juriaans, keeps the dread going too with a throbbing sense of foreboding throughout.

And Javier Gullon’s taut script doesn’t waste a moment or line, and it’s a credit to him and director Villeneuve that they don’t feel the obligation to explain everything to the nth degree. This is a smart film that assumes the best in an audience. It merely asks you to pay attention to every moment, every action, and every image. Believe me when I tell you that wedding rings, phone calls, and repetition have seldom been used to better effect as harbingers of danger in a movie.
One of the haunting 'spider' images from the movie ENEMY.
Without giving away any spoilers here, I will tell you that there has been a ton of debate online over the film’s true meaning, and in particular, what the stunning last scene of the movie reveals. That startling end is actually quite obvious, but some reviewers have grossly misinterpreted it, like this misguided dissertation from Slate magazine (http://slate.me/1lSC25i).

The director said it best himself when he told IndieWire.com this: “In each scene, we are dealing on two levels, the narrative levels, which is like reality, and like a subconscious level where it’s like dealing with the part of the subconscious of the character.” (You can find the full interview here http://bit.ly/1yRWHMT.) But if you really need every bit explained, check out blogger Chris Stuckmann’s thorough and entertaining discourse on ENEMY on his page at YouTube (http://bit.ly/1pECF27).


This is a movie that might have been too intellectual for the Cineplex masses, but if you’re a horror buff or love to be nailed to the edge of your seat by a good thriller, you’ll really like this creepy film. It’s a frightening character study of a man who desires that which he doesn’t need, and is too foolish to embrace all that is staring him right in the face. Life haunts him, and I think this film will haunt you too.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

WHEN COMMENTS CARRY DIRE CONSEQUENCES


It has not been a good week for Stephen Sondheim or Gary Oldman. Both have gotten into hot messes for remarks they made regarding ‘the Hollywood system’. And almost as quickly, they recanted or apologized for their controversial musings. It seems that even in this day and age of 24/7 gossip and blogging, these two giants from the entertainment world still didn’t quite grasp the weight of their words, or the speed at which such contentious statements could spread online. Welcome to the age of instant info, guys. You’re only a couple of decades late in realizing the power of the Internet.

In last week’s New Yorker magazine, there was an article about Stephen Sondheim that focused a large portion of the profile on a recent Q & A he was part of at an event hosted by the Academy for Teachers. During the chat, he revealed that Disney had demanded some changes regarding the movie version they were making of his musical INTO THE WOODS (http://nyr.kr/1wycrCo). The dark satire on fairy tales apparently was too bleak for Disney executives who asked for rewrites eliminating the affair the Baker’s Wife’s has with the Prince, as well as the death of Rapunzel. I guess Disney can’t have adulterous mommies put on the big screen, nor have one of their core princesses killed off. Guess that sort of thing tangles up Rapunzel doll sales.


Some of the teachers and students present at the Q & A were not happy with Sondheim’s apparent willingness to go along with the cuts to make the movie more family friendly. They’ve got a point, considering the original show takes a hard look at the ugliness of life that happens after ‘happily ever after’. And it only got worse once that news exploded everywhere online.

Sondheim wasn’t prepared for the blowback at the event or the outrage over the news. In a matter of three days, he and his team were forced into full damage control mode to contain the controversy and not doom the pending film version’s release. That’s how quick such fire spreads in this modern age of media. The movie’s opening still may be six months away, but that is a long time for the term ‘compromise’ to stick to it and prejudice an audience against it.


It remains to be seen whether the movie version of INTO THE WOODS packs its proper punch, but the cuts that Sondheim mentioned give me great pause. Adaptations are always a tricky thing, and for every judicious change made, like eliminating the Baroness’ song “How Can Love Survive” from the film version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC to keep the story’s sympathies with Maria and the children, there are dozens made that tend to destroy the source material. I still cannot believe that the makers of the film version of A CHORUS LINE turned “Kiss Today Goodbye” into a Cassie love ballad pining for Zach when the song is supposed to be about dancers’ love for their profession. Cutting controversy out of a controversial show like INTO THE WOODS seems absurd to me, but I will refrain from final judgment until I see the finished product.

As for Gary Oldman, it’s no surprise that he too has quickly launched into damage control mode following his controversial remarks in this week’s Playboy magazine interview. He was quite outspoken as he defended bigoted words made by Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin from years past. He too has quickly released statements to try and stem the damage (http://wapo.st/Txj4qf). Why he made such remarks in the first place, knowing how such things sound, is hard to fathom. He was just asking for trouble saying Gibson got into hot water for slurring Jewish people because he works “in a town that is run by Jews.” And his sympathy for Baldwin’s anti-gay remarks just added more insult to the injury.

I do believe Oldman has  a point in observing that just about everyone uses blasphemous words or names in the heat of a moment and they may not mean it. (Right, Jonah Hill?) The problem is that Gibson and Baldwin have used idiotic idioms many times and such repetition tends to lose one's sympathy. And they didn’t exactly apologize immediately either which might have helped their bad words be forgiven more. Heck, even Oldman’s quote about “I see how insensitive they may be” in regards to his words may not quite do the trick for him. We shall see if his words ‘may be’ are as sufficient as the word ‘are’.

Interestingly though, I think one thing Oldman was trying to get at, which will likely not get talked about much now, is the issue of forgiveness. Words can carry as much weight as actions but should words such as bigoted slurs be seen as damaging to an artist’s standing in the business as say, actual crimes? It’s an interesting question when one considers how awarded and respected both Woody Allen and Roman Polanski have been since their awful  acts.

I myself lauded Woody Allen as our greatest living filmmaker in this blog, and I stand by my assessment of his talent. But that doesn’t make those other matters in his life less awful to me. I love a lot of Polanski’s work too, and sympathize with him in lieu of the many horrors he’s endured in his life, but surviving the Holocaust and Charles Manson should not excuse things.  

One question that boggles even more though is why anyone in this day and age in the public eye can remain so oblivious to the fact that disheartening words and actions can have humongous consequences. Sondheim should have known the compromising changes to INTO THE WOODS would court controversy. Oldman should have known his outspoken comments would stir the pot. And Allen and Polanski should not be surprised that some in the world will never forgive them, even if a large portion of Hollywood surprisingly has.


By the way, James Franco and Seth Rogan, did you think your new film THE INTERVIEW, about a plot to assassinate Kim Jong Un, wouldn’t stir the wrath of the Korean leader? Please tell me that you knew exactly what would happen when you ventured into the woods.

Monday, June 16, 2014

WHAT THE HORROR GENRE CAN LEARN FROM GAME OF THRONES ON HBO

HBO’s most popular series ever just concluded its fourth season on June 15 and the season finale of GAME OF THRONES did not disappoint. Its potent mix of action, political maneuvering and pathos continues to make it must-see TV. And the show, based on George R. R. Martin’s elaborate books, truly knows how to create some of the most horrific scenes anywhere too. In fact, big screen horror could learn a lot from what the show does right with similar genre conventions.

(WARNING: Spoilers await, so if you haven’t caught up to the last episode, well, you know…)
Original caricature by Jeff York of the dysfunctional Lannister clan on GAME OF THRONES (copyright 2014)
Man makes for the vilest monsters

Whether it’s Mary Shelley or John Carpenter, the best horrormeisters know that man is the most dangerous animal of all. Even if there’s a ghost or ghoul around, it’s man who invites their danger or enhances such evil through selfish human acts. GAME OF THRONES knows this and makes their human characters scarier than any White Walkers or Wights. (Wights are those skeletal creatures so beautifully brought to ‘life’ in the season finale. Ray Harryhausen would’ve been proud.) After all, whose reign of terror chills the blood more? Daenerys’ dragons or King Joffrey (Jack Gleeson)?
Original caricature by Jeff York of 'The Hound' and Arya Stark on HBO's GAME OF THRONES (copyright 2014)
A little blood and guts goes a long way

GAME OF THRONES may be the most violent show on television these days, but it’s still on television. And despite the beheadings, slit throats and dozens of vanquished characters, there is surprising little blood shown. The FCC wouldn’t allow it anyway, and the makers of  GAME OF THRONES know how to do without the excess. Sunday's battle between The Hound and Brienne over Arya Stark (Maisie Williams) was brutal, but most of it was action, not gore. Even when Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) strangled his estranged lover Shae (Sibel Kekelli) to death, the makers of GAME OF THRONES wisely focused on the agony of Tyrion as he committed murder, not on the twisted face of his victim. More horror movies should realize that violence is horrendous no matter what, without having to add insult to injury by glorifying the carnage.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Daenerys Targaryen and her lil' dragons on GAME OF THRONES (copyright 2014)
CGI is not an end in itself

Too often horror movies deliver a great CGI ghost or monster and are content with its realism. The ginormous lizards in the recent GODZILLA looked amazing but didn’t seem to have much dimension or motivation. (Why was Godzilla man’s savior? And why was he dormant for so long? Just a few questions that remained unanswered by the stultifying remake http://bit.ly/1iCNk9r) There are plenty of supernatural baddies strewn throughout GAME OF THRONES, like those Wights, but they are active participants with strategy, skills and a true reason to be there. Oh, and they look utterly real too.
Original caricature by Jeff York of the unfortunate end of Ned Stark on GAME OF THRONES (copyright 2014)
Dread makes horror palpable

There is always going to be death in horror movies. God knows it’s true on GAME OF THRONES too. However, the tension created by worrying about eminent doom is what gives both scary movies and a frightening show like GAME OF THRONES their juice. Worrying about the fate of Ned Stark in season one made his unfortunate demise even starker. And stressing over Tyrion’s fate this season made his escape all the more gratifying to the obsessed viewer. Fear of potential danger is, more often than not, just as palpable as real danger in genre pieces. And that sort of tension is what makes the best horror movies and “Thrones” the edge-of-your-seat entertainments they are.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Jon Snow and his direwolf Ghost on GAME OF THRONES (copyright 2014)
Animals shouldn’t just be victims

On GAME OF THRONES, the thirst for power has led to the death of many of the ‘pet’ direwolves of the family Stark over the past four seasons. But this season, Jon Snow’s white wolf Ghost had a large role and helped him fight to secure the Wall in the second-to-last episode. Same with Brandon Stark’s direwolf Summer who helped dispatch some of the Wights in their wintry battle. They are real characters, with a lot of dimension.

Too often animals in genre entertainments are there merely to be easy victims, but not on GAME OF THRONES. Granted, Robb Stark’s direwolf Grey Wind was another unfortunate casualty of the infamous ‘Red Wedding’ last season, but he was a character that helped his master many times prior to his demise (http://bit.ly/1ybD2qD). When they’re done right, animal characters can be as moving as any human one. Just look at how heartbreaking it was when Daenerys had to chain up her dragons in Sunday’s episode. They’re family, even if they are a different species.


2014 has been a very good year for horror so far with standouts like ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE and OCCULUS making great cinematic impressions. And other horror entries could be their equal if they didn’t condescend to audiences. There’s a lot to learn from the better genre works like those mentioned and the terrific and terrifying HBO series GAME OF THRONES. Horror may be visceral, but it doesn’t have to be mindless. 

Saturday, June 14, 2014

THE FIVE SECOND HOLLYWOOD MANAGER

I’m not a manager or an agent in Tinsel Town, but I do have some strong advice for Tom Cruise regarding his career nonetheless. And it can be summed up in one sentence. Here it is:

Stop making films with a gun in your hand.

At this juncture, he’s done enough films playing the good guy/agent/soldier/cop who knows his way around all kinds of artillery. Now he needs to branch out more, especially considering that the terrific EDGE OF TOMORROW lacked enough (ahem) firepower to prevail at the box office. (It came in third its first weekend behind THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.)

Here are some other five second advisories for others amongst Hollywood's elite:  

SHAILENE WOODLEY
Do more things like THE FAULT IN OUR STARS and less like DIVERGENT.

NICHOLAS CAGE
Take a good supporting role now and then. And no action films ever again.

NBC
Your version of THE SOUND OF MUSIC wasn't stellar, but keep doing musicals. How about MAME? Or 1776?


X-MEN PRODUCERS
Nicely done on DAY OF FUTURE PAST. Now, stick with the new cast.

HUGH JACKMAN
Loved you as Wolverine all seven times but what else you want to do?

PIXAR STUDIOS
Stop with the sequels. Create something new each time.


JON HAMM
You were hilarious on 30 ROCK and SNL, so now star in a big screen farce.

DARREN ARONOFSKY
NOAH was good. THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN were better. Think smaller.

ELI ROTH
Try making a scary movie with no blood. I bet you could. I know you could.


DIRECTORS
Hire Eva Green. Have you seen here in PENNY DREADFUL? She’s stunning!

EMMY VOTERS
And while you're at it, give her the Emmy for that seance episode!


WARNER BROS.
Hire Bruce Timm and Paul Dini to do BATMAN. Their animated series is still the best Dark Knight.

JENNIFER LAWRENCE
Loved your last two Oscar nominated movies but you should play your age more.


AMC NETWORK
Adapt more comics. Start with Y:THE LAST MAN. And 100 BULLETS.

CASTING DIRECTORS
THE JUNGLE BOOK? Really? Please cast Lupita Nyong’o in colorblind roles.

HOLLYWOOD PRODUCERS
Put Amy Schumer in movies. Let her write ‘em too. Key & Peele too.


ROSE BYRNE'S AGENT
Get her lead roles in movies. She deserves bigger.

PRODUCERS OF THE DAILY SHOW
Find movie vehicles for Samantha Bee, Jason Jones, John Oliver and Jessica Williams.


PARANORMAL ACTIVITY PRODUCERS
Ditch continuing storylines. Do different locations. Start with a haunted hotel, like LA's Sunset Tower (pictured above).

DC COMICS
TV seems to be where it’s at for you. Your series are better than your movies.


CLINT EASTWOOD
Conventions, Tony Awards, whatever you do, go to rehearsals.

DISNEY STUDIOS
Don't just adapt your movies to Broadway. Now do a live action original movie musical. 

 MEG RYAN
Do what Nicole Kidman did to correct her plastic surgery. Then take mature roles like she does now too.

JASON ALEXANDER
Use your SEINFELD residuals to produce and star in a Broadway revival of 1776. Or on NBC TV?

ROBERT REDFORD
Play more villains. You were superb as one in CAPTAIN AMERICA: WINTER SOLDIER.


AMERICAN FILM INSTITUTE
Give your next Life Achievement Award to someone below the line. John Williams.


This managing stuff is easy, no? What advice would you give and to whom? I’d love to hear your sensible suggestions. And thanks for following the blog.