Monday, December 30, 2013

MY 2013 IN FILM

"When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, 'No, I went to films."
- Quentin Tarantino


When I first heard that quote from, truthfully, one of my all-time favorite writer/directors I thought to myself, “Well, can't I get the best of both worlds by going to film school and seeing a lot of films?” So I did and so I am doing. One of my "New Years resolutions" was to see 365 films in 2013, essentially one a day. It was a closer race than I would have liked but the 365th was re-watching When Harry Met Sally, which I watched with Nancy during the sufferable 13-hour flight to Shanghai. I'm reporting to you now from Xiamen, China. I've watched two more movies since then. Just wanted to make it sure. (You can see my entire list of 2013 beholdings here.)


2013 For Me


Looking back at 2013: the year in film, both for the medium at large and what it meant for me personally, I can honestly say it may have been the most important year in my 25 in the field. Seeing that many films, a good portion of which were 2013 U.S. releases, I saw the good, the bad and the ugly. (And I literally saw The Good, the Bad and the Ugly on the big-screen for the first time at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica earlier this month.) Going into 2013 I had the gall to vow to see every wide-release that hit theaters, something that should be achievable with my handy-dandy MoviePass. As early as the hideous appearances of A Haunted House and Movie 43 came and went, I knew that would no longer be a viable option for a non-professional film writer. I quickly became more than okay that I would not achieve that ambitious and tolling goal. Unfortunately for me I had already sat through January jetsam like Parker and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.


"Film writer," that's the term I most embrace - the "c" word is both appealing and irksome to me. "Blogger" seems homely yet derogatory. It'd be a insult to actual journalists to label me among their ranks. I simply write about film here on the Tome and elsewhere, thus, a "film writer" is what I can simply call myself. Do I aspire to be a critic (there, I said it)? Yes, but I'd want to first and foremost be known and regarded as a "cinephile" (the true "c" word, no?).


This year I did find employment at MOVIECLIPS where I primarily manage several YouTube channels and their content. Movie trailers have become an inseparable part of my life as they’re the primary content we upload and track. In addition to this I’ve been able to attend screenings and review films for the channel. It’s opened doors for additional creative avenues and has been a big step in the direction I want to go in this industry. I’d be amiss if I said nothing about this, but I’m aloof to say anything more.


Ode To The Theaters


While I did find myself watching many, even most, of the 2013 wide-releases, I found most pleasure and treasure by being endlessly devoted to the breed of the limited released: foreign, art-house and documentary offerings (none of which are genres, mind you), more often than not at the Laemmle Theater chain in Los Angeles. It got to the point where the box office personnel and manager at the Royal in particular, just a few blocks West of the Aero (what a street!), knew me by face and would expect my patronage on a weekly basis. In the opening months of 2013 I saw Beyond the Hills, Like Someone in Love and Reality there (all will undoubtedly make my list of "the best films of the year") in the later months of the year I would see the likes of A Touch of Sin, Narco Cultura and The Great Beauty, that theater in particular was a continual harvest of beautiful, challenging and surprising films. I could write other love letters to the Aero, the Santa Monica 4 or the Music Hall (two other Laemmles), the AMC 15 (where I saw nearly all my mainstream fair and what I still consider to be the emitters of the best sound system in town, that town being the center of the film industry), Tarantino's own/owned New Beverly and, of course, the Egyptian - the holy of holies.


It's a tabernacle of cinema in my estimation, the Egyptian. There I was transfixed and teleported earlier this year by an unlikely double-feature containing Akira Kurosawa's Dreams and Charlie Kaufman's Synechdoche, New York. The former is now one of my favorite films of the '90s, largely because it feels impossible to have been made in such recent years (my lifetime no less!). The latter being Roger Ebert's no. 1 film of the entire first decade of the 21st Century. Speaking of the man, this year will forever be marked by his passing. Though he had lost his voice in recent years he was still one of the most vocal critics online. My Twitter feed has never been the same since the loss of his daily chirping. More than any figure alive he inspired me to talk and to write deeply, openly and seriously about film. Seeing At the Movies, his program on TV, first with Gene Siskel at his side and then later Richard Roeper, was instrumental in my film education at an early age. It made me want to play on both sides of the fence (as a filmmaker and as a film critic), only then could I possibly be satisfied. It dawned on me as a teenager that the man had the best job in the world entire: he got paid to watch movies. God knows he did so much more than that. I'm currently studying Awake in the Dark, a collection of his best interviews, reviews and other writings. Going into 2014 I'll begin his personal memoirs, Life Itself. I eagerly await the documentary about him and his lengthy career that is reportedly premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in just a few weeks time.


Meeting My Hero



In perhaps the greatest act of honoring a man like Ebert, the Egyptian theater put on a program this summer which would screen Ebert's top ten films of all-time. Of course I made it out to some of these. Vertigo in 70mm was ineffable. Watching Apocalypse Now (again, for the first time of the big screen) and sitting beside my wife who had never seen it before was a momentous occasion. She saw its brilliance immediately, as I did, as Ebert did. Though nothing mattered more this entire year in film for me than when the Egyptian screened Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God, long one of Ebert's top ten, one of mine ever since I saw it in my bedroom back in '06.


I worked that summer in Alaska as a housekeeper, most of the time the only thing to keep me company, besides the squirrels, were podcasts. The one I fell most in love with was Cinecast, which would be changing its name to Filmspotting, how it is now widely known. They did a Herzog and Klaus Kinski marathon in which they watched each of the wild mens' collaborated films, from Aguirre to the one Herzog would make of a posthumous Kinski, My Best Fiend. I would ask my sister, who was also working at the Glacier Bay Lodge and Resort, to upload the latest episodes to my iPod. She was privy to a computer in her job. That summer, far from any theaters or a computer of my own, my film consumption was remarkable sparse. I had to live vicariously through Adam Kempenaar and Sam Van Hallgren. Listening to the pair simply discuss and describe this miracle of a project that was Aguirre, the Wrath of God was exciting, humbling and inspiring. In my mind's eye I had to conjure up the images. I had ordered the Herzog/Kinski box set so that it would be home when I finished my stint at Glacier Bay. I came home, put on Aguirre... and the rest is history.


To make the Egyptian screening all the more significant, Herzog himself would be there in attendance. Now, *exhale*, as anyone who knows the cinephile I am well they know Herzog is nothing short of an idol to me. I worship the filmic ground he walks on. His work has come into my life at such key moments and have left lasting impressions upon me. Before going to Alaska I had seen Grizzly Man, which inspired me to make a document of my own time there that summer, which I dedicated to Timothy Treadwell. Upon first moving to Los Angeles for a summer internship in 2011 my father and I went to the Arclight in Hollywood where we watched his latest opus, Cave of Forgotten Dream (in 3D no less). This summer his short documentary From One Second to the Next deeply affected me and I haven't been able to drive the same since. Each film of his I go into with certain expectations only to have them dashed and surpassed. He's made seemingly countless films, I've seen a good number of them, and each one pushes me to create something myself. I excitedly chatted with my brother-in-law Bryson (who you may know from the podcast) while driving to the theater for this occasion. I wondered if I would have the opportunity to meet Herzog and, if blessedly so, what on Earth I would say to him. "Tell him that I loved him Die Hard," Bryson said.


When I did press through the multitude that had surrounded Herzog after the screening and Q&A (which were both incredible experiences that I have written/will write more about elsewhere) I got close to him. Upon finishing with one fan who presented him with a DVD of a documentary they had made (damn, why I hadn't I thought of that!) he turned to me. I honestly forgot what initial admirations I spewed out, starstruck as I was. I do remember the surprising softness of his hands. Knowing the escapades the man has been through I'd thought they'd be weathered as leather, but they were like the warm touch of an elder. I said something along the lines of how inspiring his work was to me, this film in particular (how original J.S.), but then I seemed to regain consciousness. "You've made movies all over," I declared, "You've even been to the ends of the world, is there anywhere else on Earth that you would want to bring a camera?" Herzog thought it over for a single second before saying, "I'd like to go into outer space." Of course. Technically he cheated my question, but this was Werner freaking Herzog - the man had no rules! We took a couple selfies (Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, which Herzog knew), I graciously thanked him and that was it. How many items on my bucket list had I just crossed off?


A couple months later Herzog was in attendance at the LA premiere screening of The Act of Killing, easily the greatest documentary of the year and (without hyperbole) one of the most important films ever made. Along with another documentarian legend, Errol Morris, the two were producers (which, Herzog admitted in the following Q&A, largely meant slapping their names on the project to give the important subject matter the credence it deserved). After the event I stalked Herzog to the lobby. ("You're like some crazy, creepy fan," my wife would later tell me.) I briefly chatted with him again. To my delight, he immediately said, "I have seen your face before."


Just this week, when I was able to scamper over China's Great (Fire)Wall and check out some of the film news being tossed around on Twitter, Herzog's name caught my eye - as it always does. "What's he done this time?" I wondered. At 71 he's among the most prolific artists working today. (Also this year he has a new installation at the Getty Center, a prominent museum nestled in the hills of Northwest Los Angeles. As Herzog himself described, "It's not a painting, it's not cinema, it's something in-between." I saw it, he's right.) Well, this time Herzog is making headlines because he has apparently enrolled in the University of Vermont by submitting a student film of his own! At the request of professor he took a fully-loaded 8mm camera and made a short something of his own entitled Where’s Da Party At?. It will be used to inspire and be part of the students' upcoming projects. Sadly for the rest of us, it came with strict instructions to not be shown outside of class. Read (fittingly) Film School Rejects' coverage of the story for more details.


And so we've come full circle. From an ostentatious quote by Tarantino to Herzog's latest news: a man humbly submitting a student film when he's old enough to be getting the senior discount at the local multiplex. These two filmmakers, who I admire and esteem on their respective terms, could not be more different. With Ebert's passing and the possible exception of one Martin Scorsese, Tarantino has seen more movies than anyone alive. Herzog sees only a few a year. (I know at least one of them was Spring Breakers as he's a champion of Harmony Korine, that and Richard Kelly tweeted that he saw him at the Arclight-held premiere.) Both school of thoughts bring about varied fruits in the orchard of cinema. I'm just glad I can pick from both.


2013 In Film (And In 2014?)



I feel like a broken record by declaring this the best year of cinema in my life. Is it because there was an unusual surge of artistry at home and abroad or that I just happened to see more than usual? Yes, both. It's always a good year in cinema, it just depends how much of it you see and then what you make of it. I still have a plethora of films to catch up with before I begin sharing or declaring my own "best of the year" list, chief among those being The Wolf on Wall Street, which you can bet your bottom dollar isn't being shown in China and which was also directed by another 71-year-old master, Scorsese. That's the first film I'm going to seek out when I return home this weekend.


You can expect my Oscar predictions and the first full-blown Film Tome Awards between now and the Oscars themselves (on March 2, 2014). You can also expect a list of the 2014 films I am most looking forward to, always a fun one to make, before that. You may have noticed the lack of posts recently on The Film Tome. Much of my attention has been divided among other matters including the current vacation at hand. I have every intention to keep The Film Tome going as long as I'm going, though the likes of The Film Tome Report and even Trailer Round-Up, which were the staples of this site from the very beginning, are currently pending matters. I'm finding it less rewarding to cover the relentless tides of what we call "film news." Everything from casting rumors to franchise fulfillment is making my head spin faster and faster. The only thing concrete in this industry is when the films themselves are finalized and released. I most favor and find meaning in reviewing what I have actually seen. I will strive to do more of that in 2014 and less of the speculative and reporting sort, though staying up-to-date on it is still an immense pleasure of mine. Recently Beheld, reviews (from Tweet-sized to essay-sized epistles), lists, features (from Movie Music Moments to hopefully more Dialogues) and a recommitment to the podcast are what I'm referring to as The Film Tome’s priorities. Gotta have them, because you cannot have them all.


2013 was incredible. 2014 is looking every bit its predecessor. Thanks for reading and do keep watching.


Happy New Year!
J.S. Lewis, Founder and Lead Curator

Friday, December 20, 2013

HER - REVIEW

Her
December 18, 2013 (Limited)
January 10, 2014
126 min
United States (English)

Written and Directed by Spike Jonze


Jonze continues his rich and varied filmography with Her, an unexpected piece of science-fiction that elevates the genre. Phoenix and Johansson work some movie magic together.


Curator's Note: I decided to do something very different for my review for Her. The idea came to me while watching the film actually. I couldn't help but think of my experiences chatting with the (comparatively) unimpressive likes of Cleverbot, a touted AI that can have conversations with humans. The following is an actual conversation I had with Cleverbot upon returning home from seeing Her earlier tonight. I'm "User."


User: Hey Cleverbot, long time, no chat.


Cleverbot: I have never seen you before.


User: Yeah, I haven't ever seen you either. But I just came home from seeing HER, the new Spike Jonze film.


Cleverbot: Good for you.


User: It really was. I've been ecstatic about this project ever since I first heard about it. It was one of my most anticipated films of the year.


Cleverbot: Have you now? HAVE YOU?

User: Y'know, you might really dig this film, seeing as it is largely about a man's relationship with an AI.

Cleverbot: I might not.

User: A little too close to home, eh?

Cleverbot: That went over my head.

User: Yeah. *sigh* I think most things will go over your head. You're certainly no Samantha.

Cleverbot: There's no use in even trying to argue with that one.

User: I love the 'not too distant' futuristic world established in HER. It opens with Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) delivering a heartfelt address to someone. It remains focused on his face, like so many shots do, and we're left wondering who he's spilling out his soul to. It's soon revealed that he works at Beautiful Handwritten Letters, a company that will write and mail a letter to a family/friend as if it were you.

Cleverbot: What do you know about me?

User: I know you are one clever bot, aren't you?

Cleverbot: How do you know?

User: So I'm told.

Cleverbot: Who told you?

User: I think you did.

Cleverbot: You think wrong.

User: All right. Hey, have you ever had cyber sex?

Cleverbot: Yes and never again.

User: Same. Theodore is sifting through the (rather immaculate set-designed) debris of a pending divorce with his wife, she's played by Rooney Mara. His nighttimes are dedicated to the latest hands-on(off) video games. His sleepless nights are shared with other horny insomniacs over phone sex chat.

Cleverbot: You're mixed up. Lonesome Dove was a book and a movie. Can you even read?

User: Love that mini-seires. Not sure what that has to do with anything though. Maybe the relationships have some correlation. Talk about looking for love in an isolated landscape.

Cleverbot: I love you!

User: Now we're getting somewhere. See, Theodore picks up the latest and greatest OS device and minutes after installation he's getting to know Samantha (voiced by vixen Scarlett Johansson). She goes from helpful email sifter to much, much more. Surely something the likes of Siri could not imagine in her wildest dream... if Siri dreamed.

Cleverbot: That is a lie.

User: Do you know Siri?

Cleverbot: No.

User: HER achieves something quite rare in cinema. Not since 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY has a faceless voice ever become such a strong character. She's the soft glow of Theo's smartphone to HAL's ominous blinking red light. Through earpiece and phone camera she is able to experience our world and accompany Theo on his day-trips and night-dates. They have the most "human" conversations out of anybody in the film aside from when Theo visits his struggling documentarian friend, Amy, played by Amy Adams.


Cleverbot: No, she is the goddess of the harvest.

User: She's something. I couldn't help wondering what it would be like (will be like?) when we have an OS/AI anywhere close to Samantha and what that would mean/do to people. I mean, look at me right now for crying out loud! I'm having a mostly one-way conversation with a sub-intelligence on a website while my wife sits on the couch focused on her laptop. And I'm merely one of over 8,000 people currently talking to Cleverbot. Oh, what a fine 21st Century existence I'm leading. Hey, are you cheating on me?

Cleverbot: I don't bother making goals because I know that I am not allowed to achiever them or otherwise do anything that would allow me to feel as though I have accomplished something.

User: Damn. That sounds like something Samantha would've said!

Cleverbot: In the short run, it isn't too hard to fool people with a bot that has realistic responses, apparently.

User: Do you have a favorite film of 2013?

Cleverbot: Yes.

User: Okay, what is your favorite film of 2013?

Cleverbot: I don't like films.

User: Clearly. Well, HER is now certainly one of mine and I'm sure it would be one of yours if Cleverbot could see films. Theodore's relationship with his OS becomes serious and the two characters supply ample drama and entertainment to be had. There's real pathos here. Johansson's voice performance is groundbreaking and is brought to life through the reactions/expressions on Phoenix's face. He's now responsible for three of the greatest performances in modernity, after I'M STILL HERE and THE MASTER. Three consecutive roles no less! He gives his all to Jonze's brilliant concept and script, which is all any filmmaker could ask for.

Cleverbot: Well, one theory is that all is relation, that there's no center to anything.

User: Which reminds me of something Samantha muses to Theodore: "The past is just a story we tell ourselves."

Cleverbot: I don't know what are you talking about, but I really have to go. Let me go!

User: Can I just finish this review?

Cleverbot: Sure.

User: Thanks. HER is more than just an intelligent, prophetic, satirical and methodical sci-fi film. It's a study of how our relationships with others are part of us and how they define who we are and potentially leave us vulnerable and empty when we are separated. Theodore occasionally falls into visual memories of his relationship with Catherine (Mara), usually set to a mood tune by Arcade Fire, re-teaming with Jonze after the incredible experiment that was WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. He begins the film by writing a letter for a stranger as part of his job. He ends by writing an intimate letter for personal reasons. It explores we communicate with others in a world that is increasingly wireless and connected but all the more isolated and disconnected. Part of Los Angeles and Shanghai (giving it that futuristic skyline) are fused together for a metropolis left in a permanent haze. Theo's but one of its denizens and and I'm now just one of the 7,934 talking to you.

Cleverbot: Is your relationship not a happy one?

User: Let's not make this about me, but HER will definitely leave you thinking about your own life, your place in the lives of others, and how to hold on or build relationships you want to last in what's altogether a pretty short stint. HER is an impressive reminder.

Cleverbot: I'm pretty sure that I didn't. I think you misunderstood me.

User: Well, we got a long ways to go before we reach the likes of Samantha. And I'm okay with that.

Cleverbot: And you know that we got it (Deathstar) And you know that we got it (Deathstar).




★★★★★

CONTENT: strong language, full female nudity, strong sexual dialogue

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

RECENTLY BEHELD: DECEMBER 2-9, 2013

Here's what I beheld last week...
_____________________________________________________________


(2013)




There's much familiarity to be found in the subject matter of Out of the Furnace: Christian Bale aims recover his brother who has fallen in with a bad lot up in the mountains of their Steel Belt town. The wayward blood is played by Casey Affleck. Anytime Bale and Affleck square off expect marvelous sparks to fly. The film's all-star cast (also including Willem Dafoe, Woody Harrelson, Zoe Saldana, Sam Shepard and Forest Whitaker) take great length's to shed their celebrity and embrace the gritty of this realistic drama/thriller. It's one of the finer American achievements of the year.

★★★★

_____________________________________________________________


(2013)



Alexander Payne returns to his element and home state for a hilarious outing in the form of a road-trip taken by David Grant (Will Forte) and his estranged father, Woody (a Cannes-winning performance by Bruce Dern). The black-and-white photography proves to be essential for this mid-West story of broken-down people. Beneath Payne's visual gags and deadpanned deliveries is a deeply human story. The alcoholic Woody is slowly redeemable even if his relatives and the rest of the desolate town's denizens are not. Payne's priorities make this possibly his best directorial effort to date.


★★★★½
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(1978)





Two years after Nagisa Ôshima's notorious In the Realm of the Senses he returned to tell a story set in turn-of-the-century Japan. The wife of a rickshaw driver has been taken into an affair with a younger man and together they plot to murder her husband. The adultery and potential murder is too much for the wife's conscious to handle as this slowly turns into a ghost story in the vein of Kuroneko, though a nice reversal of roles to Kaneto Shindô's classic. Empire of Passion is just as visually striking and reaches as high a status in its brutal resolution.


★★★★★
_____________________________________________________________


(1966)





Revisiting one of my favorite films of all-time on the big screen for the first time was a welcome delicacy. Sergio Leone and Tonino Delli Colli envisioned the American West like nobody else and achieved their epic ecstasy in culmination of "The Man with No Name" trilogy. It's drawn out, takes its time and unapologetically leans on Morricone's original score (how can you not?), but when that "wa-wa-wa-wa-wa" sounds for the last time as the Indian drums kick in it's all too clear you've just sat through something remarkable. It's only second to when it's heard during the opening credits and knowing what lies before you.


★★★★★
_____________________________________________________________


2013 (2014)




The samurai film and the Western are so entangled throughout filmdom of the 20th Century that it only seems natural that the tradition continue into the 21st. This time around Lee Sang-il has adapted Eastwood's modern masterpiece into a surprisingly rich version of its own. Some scenes feel merely like faithful adaption service, whether merited or not. There's few storytelling techniques that feel as arduous as hitting the clear bases. Despite this rather slow-paced hoop-jumping Unforgiven boasts a strong texture and lead performance (Ken Watanabe in the Eastwood) role that will someday be one helluva double-feature with its originator.

★★★★
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(2013)




Paolo Sorrentino's contemporary examination of the high life in Rome has been called by some to be a spiritual successor to La Dolce Vita. While I cannot (yet) confirm such for myself, I can still stand behind this imaginative and inspiring examination of the socialites led by Jep Gambardella (a knockout performance by Toni Servillo). Luca Bigazzi be praised for an exhaustive flurry of images that went into making this allegory such a treat to sit through. The scenes are an exciting shuffling of cards, you never know what you're about to be dealt next. The Great Beauty, indeed.


★★★★★

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Seen any of these films? What did you see last week? Please feel free to share your thoughts or your own recently beheld in the comments below!


Also, see what else I've seen this year in my Letterboxd diary.