Advise and Consent (Preminger, 1962)

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With his scathing masterpiece Advise and Consent, Otto Preminger indicts the whole Washington political machine with a great sense of subtlety and purpose. It’s one of the only Preminger’s I’ve seen, with maybe the exception of Laura, that doesn’t get bogged down at least for a while in deadly monotonous melodrama, and the end result captivates on a number of different levels.

Advise and Consent begins as a mosaic of the D.C. ecosystem, following Senators of both parties (Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon) as they prepare to debate the President’s confirmation of a new Secretary of State (Henry Fonda). Surface-level public procedure swiftly turns into back door wheeling and dealing, illuminating a brutal underbelly of devastating character assassinations, blackmail, and moral ambiguity.

But Preminger never hammers these harsh realities into stone with oratory speeches or grand actions of principle. His brilliant use of the tracking shot allows the narrative to flow along seamlessly behind the characters, one step from realization, yet unable to grasp the ramifications until it’s too late. Even though there’s one heavy in the film, the greatest villain of Advise and Consent remains the compromise of personal identity.

Both Fonda’s left-leaning nominee and Don Murray’s tragic Senator Anderson become victims when the consequences of the past come back to destroy the present. The Capital building acts as a breeding ground for these situations, an elegant bubble blocked from the rest of the world in order to keep the machine running. But the process works, or at least Preminger has faith that it does, and so the gripping finale provides a comeuppance for everyone involved. As a timely precipice on the compromises of Democracy, Advise and Consent will only become more relevant over time.

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Hatari! (Hawks, 1962)

The art of casual conversation comes into full focus during Howard Hawks’ deceptively weighty Hatari! Set on the vast African savanna, Sean Mercer (John Wayne), a gruff Irishman with a broken heart, leads a diverse band of trackers who catch wild animals for zoos around the world.

When an Italian photographer shows up and gets Mercer’s heart fluttering, Hawks begins a long series of vignettes framed by extended musings between two characters at a time. Seemingly more interested in reaction than specific actions, Hawks lets his characters hang out together, allowing them to fine tune thoughts on relationships, ethics, and the dynamic world around them.

In such an exciting world (the action sequences are riveting at times), where lives are at risk every day, these men and women take the danger with a grain of salt, longing for a connection off the battlefield. Hatari! admires its characters for their bravery, but more so for their ability to adapt to the changing tide of the seasons, both emotionally and physically. The film takes place over the course of the three month season for catching animals, and at the end these characters genuinely want it to continue, not because of the thrills, but because of the human interaction.

Hawks’ strange adventure film takes on a silly demeanor by the end, as baby elephants run through town leading Wayne to his lady love, but the entire affair, no matter how ridiculous, feels completely endearing. There are no villains, or shootouts, or betrayals in Hatari!, just various charming personalities trying to find human solace in a world where animal instincts are king.

The Brothers Bloom (Johnson, 2009)

In one way or another, every film manipulates the viewer. It’s the essence of the beast. Yet Rian Johnson’s sophomore effort The Brothers Bloom folds the art of trickery onto itself, morphing what begins as a charming con man story into a prolonged and sometimes irritating series of plot twists, character reversals, and thematic revelations.

Bloom begins with a whimsical prologue introducing the brothers as children, and we get a glimpse of the rules/roles of the con game they will soon perfect. Johnson then cuts forward, Steven (Mark Ruffalo) and Bloom (Adrien Brody) now legends in the confidence game and ready to pull off one final job on a wealthy eccentric named Penelope (Rachel Weisz). From here on out, the characters become secondary to the shifty narrative, submerging the themes of sibling rivalry and conflicted identity underneath an ocean of manipulation.

As with Johnson’s shifty debut Neo-noir Brick, The Brothers Bloom seeks to cleverly revitalize a lost genre, this time the Screwball Comedy. But the results are much the same; a sometimes convoluted, sometimes invigorating exercise in nostalgic recognition.

During its most concise moments, The Brothers Bloom works beautifully as a character study of two brothers coming to grips with their past traumas. At its worst, the film looks and feels like a Wes Anderson rip-off, from the snap zooms to the drawn inter-titles and quirky supporting players. Once again, Johnson appears to be trying too hard to sell material that’s already solid in a pure form. For every exciting step forward, he seems to take two back toward cliche.

Joe Versus the Volcano (Shanley, 1990)

Long before Office Space, John Patrick Shanley’s Joe Versus the Volcano tackled the monotonous horrors of the workplace, the rhythms and patterns of occupational degradation, to preface a hero’s journey toward enlightenment. In Joe’s (Tom Hanks) case, the maddening corporate workplace turns a once courageous firefighter into a sniveling hypochondriac convinced he’s dying of cancer.

The credit sequence and opening scenes are straight out of every working man’s nightmare; fluorescent lights droning from above, toxic lumpy coffee, a boss repeating conversations over and over again, and a windowless lair ripe for suffocation. This makes Milton’s dank basement office seem like a sunny day at the park. The following narrative can only be described as odd – Joe gets diagnosed with a Brain cloud, terminal of course, finding a new lease on life, then gets convinced by a tycoon (Lloyd Bridges) to live out his remaining days in style and sacrifice himself to a South Pacific volcano so that the company can gain mining rights from the natives (led by Nathan Lane and Abe Vigoda).

Joe Versus the Volcano is a singular vision, a Romance of class manipulation, second chances, and love at third sight (Meg Ryan plays three very different women). The sublime and strange characters live in a disturbingly familiar not-so-distant future, where honest to goodness valor gets perverted so the rich can get richer and the poor can sit idly by and await death. Joe transcends this murky and stagnant life by staring mortality in the face and smiling confidently.

Star Trek (Abrams, 2009)

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Trekkies be thankful. J.J. Abrams has made your beloved franchise relevant again. Aided greatly by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman’s concise script, Abrams’ Star Trek is a blast of from start to finish, a supped up revamp that uses time travel, alternate realities, and fated encounters to reinvent familiar and characters and scenarios.

Maybe my expectations were low considering I’d just watched Robert Wise’s abysmal 1979 feature, but the new Star Trek takes its icons seriously, throwing in a hint of ironic humor to lighten the often weighty character exchanges. The action scenes, which probably owe more to the new Battleship Galactica than most would admit, are superb kinetic displays of multi-directional movement, something the film offers in spades. Everything from the galactic free fall by Kirk (Chris Pine) and Sulu (John Cho) to Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) bracing space battle feels meticulously mapped out, providing a window into the epic consequences of their individual actions.

Abrams achieves this by cutting to a number of different wide angle shots to close scenes, final and epic exclamation points often shrouded in the silence of deep space. Some have compared Star Trek to last years Iron Man (apparently in reference to quality and release date), but Abrams’ film outshines Faverau’s simply because the former constructs a coherent and satisfying ending while setting up for sequels to come. In short, Iron Man fails in this department, like many modern Hollywood films do in this regard. Thankfully the Summer of ’09 begins with an exciting rarity.

The Shield: Seasons 5 & 6 (Ryan, 2006, 2007)

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I lump these two shortened seasons together because Forest Whitaker’s Lt. Tom Kavanaugh appears over the course of both, becoming the lighter fluid to Vic’s fire. Cavanuagh, a manipulative and forceful Internal Affairs officer, sets out to prove Vic was behind the murder of Terry Crowly, the inciting incident in the Pilot episode three years before. The battle between both men gets incredibly personal and dirty, challenging the loyalty of the Strike Team and ultimately leading to the tragic and horrific demise of one member.  After the emotional roller coaster ride of Season 5, it’s predecessor feels like a bit of a downturn, as Kavanaugh exits and a new, more universal force becomes Vic’s key adversary. However, both Seasons expand the universe of The Shield to new heights, giving credence to Claudet’s lasting strength (and CCH Pounder’s incredible performance) and Dutch’s weaknesses, while solving a few notorious cases that have been haunting The Barn for years. The finale of Season 6 promises a great ending to the show, forcing Vic and Aceveda to align in the face of insurmountable odds.

Cinema Repeated: Films I Return To, Over and Over Again

In the three years since Match Cuts came online, I’ve found myself returning to certain recent films time and time again, trying to endlessly wrap my mind around them. It’s as if these select few works continue to challenge my understanding about filmmaking, writing, and the world around me, even after becoming incredibly familiar.  They’re often incomplete, mysterious, and confounding pieces, seemingly evolving over the course of time, and my repeat viewings are a direct confrontation with their shifting parts. Yet others resonate so perfectly despite their many flaws that the entertainment value actually increases with each viewing. These might not be masterpieces, or even the best films of their respective years, but they might just be some of my favorites since they continue to fascinate me no matter how many viewings. A small list follows, with thoughts for discussion in anticipation of further evolutions.

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Miami Vice (Mann, 2006) –  Michael Mann’s enigmatic cop film functions as a brilliant and cynical sign of the times, where subversive law enforcement factions fail to nab the big fish in the face of grave social danger, settling for a victorious return to the status quo. The strange digital artifice feels absolutely connected to the cold, blue hues of Mann’s stylized vision of moral ambiguity.

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Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (Tarantino, 2003) – The best modern action film, not simply because the fight scenes are exquisite, but because the entire narrative boils with cinematic intensity. Music, visuals, and dialogue fuse together forming a calculated, masochistic, and breathtaking postmodern mish-mash. The film is a striking first half of a twin genre juggernaut constantly at odds with itself.

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Just Friends (Kimble, 2005) – Makes me laugh like no other recent film. Maybe it’s Ryan Reynolds’ inspired performance, or Anna Faris’ nut-job pop princess, or the vintage slap stick wackiness, but it all adds up to something unique – a modern comedy devoted to character and smarts over gross out set pieces.

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Gangs of New York (Scorsese, 2002) – Brash, brutal, and abrasive, but undeniably compelling. A disturbing vision of our nation beginning from spoils of blood, sweat, and revenge. Scorsese’s strange slice of historiography changes with each viewing, equal parts epic, war film, and melodrama. It’s these shifty tones that force the viewer to re-address the work with different eyes.