Best of the 2000’s: Discussion #9

The following is the ninth of ten planned online discussions between MATCH CUTS and THE FILMIST regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.

THE FILMIST: Paul Thomas Anderson is one of those filmmakers that people seem to regard purely by his influences, for some reason or another. I think that’s a little fallacious, myself – while his inspirations are obvious, this isn’t a fault. And, with that in mind, I believe that if that is the attitude people are going to take toward his films, then surely we can regard There Will Be Blood as the best Kubrick film by someone who – well, isn’t Kubrick.

MATCH CUTS: Interesting, since most critics reference Altman when discussing Anderson. But Kubrick definitely comes to mind with Blood, especially in the opening moments where it’s just visceral images and sounds, no dialogue. Directors like PT Anderson, even Wes Anderson, always will have their detractors because their films are uncompromising and personal. There Will Be Blood is basically a beast of a film, a shifty, expansive epic that complicates ideas about family, and how religion and commerce fit in with familial relations. Continue reading

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Extract (Judge, 2009)

In the grinding mundanity of the corporate workplace, people lose the will to challenge the beast they serve, strictly adhering to policies, politics, and propaganda’s of an uncaring business machine. Self preservation it seems, is a real bitch. Mike Judge’s Extract surprisingly explores this proverbial stripping of one’s balls, both literally and figuratively, within both the realm of management and the employee politic. Judge’s real coup is showing how one intrinsically needs the other in order to survive and grow, never an easy pitch to either side.

Judge is no stranger to the topic of workplace strife (Office Space has become the Citizen Kane of the sub-genre), but Extract expands its scope to include a number of interesting fringe characters circling the white collar world hoping to cash in on their malfeasance, both complicating and evolving the typical scenario of disgruntlement.  Mila Kunis’ otherworldly con-woman Cindy and Gene Simmons’ abrasive civil lawyer Joe remain on the fringes of Judge’s story about an extract plant in transition, but they each represent this shift in Judge’s distinct iconography. Cindy maneuvers through the film like a tap dancing ghost, popping up in every character’s universe with a natural charm and graceful cunning. Simmons’ one extended scene stands out as a highlight of calculated debauchery, revealing how easy it can be to destroy collective moral for personal gain.

After the visionary absurdity of Idiocracy, it’s a bit sad to see Judge descend back to earth with such a simple narrative about everyday pitfalls. But Extract has plenty of joyous subversions at its core, relegating a very concise script around the devastating assumptions we make at the workplace and how they inevitably follow us home. Boredom and compromise are a part of daily life, but Judge sees a world where these subtle soul eaters can be warped into positives, stripped of their power by smart, confident, and ambitious people on both sides of the workplace trenches. When united under a common understanding of purpose, the workday seems to pass just a little bit faster.

Best of the 2000’s: #2

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Grace can be a difficult thing to pin down in the Cinema, as it is often a fleeting and subjective monicker for a vague feeling we can’t quite fully describe. But maybe more so than any other canon of work, the films of Terrence Malick exude a bracing gracefulness, pictures gliding along with a ferocious understanding of historiography, re-wrapping vantage points with poetic confessions and fragmented moments of silence. Malick moves time and space as if the camera were directly tapped into nature’s subconscious, feeding sounds and vibrations of environment though a striking lens of extremes, producing organic visions of love, war, and responsibility in the process. Continue reading

Funny People (Apatow, 2009)

Judd Apatow obviously wants to be taken seriously without abandoning the auteurist traits that got him to this current level of success. What else can explain Apatow’s befuddling new film Funny People? Apatow’s latest is a mosaic of Hollywood inner-circles, contrasting vantage points of struggling comedians and superstar sellouts, allowing just enough overlap between them to construct a traditional redemption tale. Apatow filters both light and dark tones into the proceedings, shooting for the moon but achieving a self-important mix of inadequacy and regret.

The film contains all the trademark Apatow vulgarity, the random coupling of diverse characters, and the deep seeded morality hidden beneath loads of comedic posturing, except without much of the charm of his previous features. Instead, Apatow attempts to inject a seriousness into the proceedings by trying to rekindle Adam Sandler’s dramatic chops, pitting his character George Simmons against the prospect of dying a slow death after living a luxurious, hollow life as a Hollywood icon. And the problem starts at the top, with Sandler’s inability to transcend the material and convince us his character has a soul under the sudden bursts of anger and egomania. Seth Rogen admirably hangs on to Sandler’s shirttails as Ira, a young, slightly dim comedian who turns into Simmons’ good luck punching bag, giving a run down character a complexity the writing doesn’t afford.

Funny People spends copious amounts of time with characters sitting around, shooting and talking shit, seamlessly stealing each other’s jokes as if it were just a part of the routine. So it’s not surprising the film really doesn’t go anywhere, languishing by as Simmons tries to re-woo a long lost girlfriend (Leslie Mann), going to comedy gigs, hoping that life will throw you a fastball down the middle. Success and comedy comes naturally to these characters, and this is in no way an examination of the difficulties toward breaking into the industry. Apatow spends little to no time on the art of Comedy, the process, the experience beyond a few improv sessions, favoring time spent with friends, both faux and real.

It’s an odd epic not without its pleasures (the Eminem cameo and Eric Bana’s small role provide much needed comedic shock), and Apatow’s scope is admirable. But the film is entirely too inert at drama and unfunny in comedy to tow either side of the genre line, making it a strange moment of banal creative expression for a director just finding his rhythm.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Anderson, 2009)

With Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson the auteur, the charming orchestrator of verbal banter, the rigorous explorer of family melancholy, comes full circle and revisits the nuanced themes and motifs of his two previous masterpieces (Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums). Anderson’s first official foray into animation clarifies what the director has been building toward with his last few films, problematic pictures about misbegotten families that confuse deep irony with deep humanity.

Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book, takes Anderson’s themes to a far superior level, using stop-motion animation to infuse the lively creatures beneath us with human traits, emotions, and conflicts, complicating the beasts and their burdens with inevitable change. The film frolics at a breakneck pace, cramming detail upon detail into strikingly composed frames, revealing a sublime order from mother nature’s darker hues. In short, the film creates a dynamic, communal animal universe with traditions, histories, and legends that all layer into a superbly specific tale of adaptation, instinct, regret, and contentment.

And so it begins, with Mr. Fox (George Clooney) leaning confidently against a skinny tree overlooking a vast valley, immersed in a tape cassette recording of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett”, pleased with his profession (killing chickens) and his singular family (wife Felicity Fox voiced by Meryl Streep). It’s possibly the only moment in the film where our hero is alone, and it can easily get forgotten amongst the countless joyous moments to follow. But it speaks volumes about his character as a kind rogue flushed with self-confidence, waiting for life to happen, hiding insecurities about parenting, later entranced back toward darkness by a mid-life craving of sorts. This type of complexity inhabits each of Anderson’s characters, and the world seems to evolve from their mere existence.

Deep seeded emotions carve these characters into complex animals, rendering the fabric of their hair, skin, claws, and teeth. Parental influence, sibling rivalry, responsibility, and trauma become benchmarks for their interactions, creating kindred moments akin to Max’s deep longing for his mother in Rushmore or Chas’ haunting admission at the end of  Tenenbaums. Their detail evolves from the colorful and illuminating mise-en-scene – interiors flushed with portraits, landscape paintings, objects of affection, and clothes, exteriors dense with movement, danger, and elemental shifts. Anderson takes his characters through holes, trees, sewers, and finally into the sun, basking in the glow of immediacy. Color pops from every angle –  the red of Fox’s tail, Badger’s dark suit, and Ash’s light blue cape immediately make an impact.

Wes Anderson creates universes from the ground up, rooting space, time, and style within the organic makeup the characters, and when he’s most successful the screen pops with visual splendor and darkly comedic undertones. Fantastic Mr. Fox has these traits and more, illuminating the texture of wild instinct, the detail of fatherhood, and the colorful glow of love. If these brilliant incarnations seem occasionally forlorn, it’s because the wild animal in them takes a backseat to their human soul, for the good of friendship and family. But Anderson also understands that each needs to release the necessary beast inside, if only for a moment, to eat, scream, or hold an occasional rumpus.