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WRONG (2013)

A man loses his dog. He doesn’t how this happened. Turns out, it’s not the “how” that’s important, but the “why” – and even that doesn’t matter all that much, in the grand scope of things. Except, maybe it does? Maybe the relationship between one man and one dog is all there will ever be. Maybe love truly is all you need. Maybe love is all around. Maybe…maybe…maybe

Listen, what you need to know is that nothing I say about this movie matters. There is no sense to be made, but in that nonsense is all you need to know. Because this was written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, whose last film, Rubber, has proven incredibly divisive amongst friends of mine. Some, including myself, think it’s a genius piece of genius. Others think it’s horribly pretentious and we’re all nincompoops for loving it. But then, I might say they’re nincompoops for judging someone else’s love…were I inclined to say such a thing.

I didn’t intend for this blog to become a fount of recommendations, but merely a record of films that I’ve seen. I say this, because I don’t know if you’d like this movie or not. I tend to think all films should be seen, but then I think of how my Mom might respond to a Lars von Trier film and I think “Well maybe not.” So, yeah, I liked this film a whole lot. I don’t regret the 80 minutes or so it took to watch it. Will you feel similarly? Maybe…

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ARGO (2012)

I think Argo is a very well-constructed film that does nothing new under the sun. It’s funny when it means to be funny, dramatic when it means to be dramatic, and suspenseful when it means to be suspenseful. I don’t think it’s nearly as smart as it thinks it is, but I won’t fault it for trying. I just don’t care. I’ve watched it twice now, and both times I left thinking that it’s a good movie, but certainly not the BEST picture of the year. Of course, if we wanted to go down that particular rabbit hole – debating the merit of artistic awards – we’d be here all day, and probably have nothing to show for our time.

That said, I loved that when I saw this film at a promo screening, the audience remained seated and silent through the end credits. This almost never happens, so when it does I appreciate it. Also, I do really like that “Argo fuck yourself” became the catchphrase of the Oscar season, thus giving me something relevant to say when people wanted to talk about the awards like they matter.

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SIN CITY (2005)

Wow, Sin City has not aged well. Or maybe I’ve aged, and it just stayed static (as films will do). Either way, I remember loving this movie when it was first released, but this time I winced a little at some of the cheesier dialogue. That said, I do still enjoy Frank Miller’s riff on noir, and there are parts that always work. Mickey Rourke is awesome, and the moment when Nicky Katt takes an arrow to the chest and reacts with “Hey! Look at that” never fails to get a laugh. Also, rewatching it after all this time reinforced what a game-changer it was for comic book films. Before 2005, comic book movies could not always be counted on to have respect – or really even an affinity – for their source material. Comic creators were wary of adaptations for this reason, which would often result in little-to-no collaboration with the filmmakers; not this is all on the creators, filmmakers can be a persnickety lot with an aversion to being told how to do anything. This is the main reason why the feat the Robert Rodriguez pulled off remains fairly remarkable. In one fell swoop, he changed how comic book movies looked, how they felt, how they behaved. He adapted a work so singular, everyone had given up on the idea that it might ever be adapted. No matter what, I will always respect Robert Rodriguez for the simple fact that he’s so driven to tell the stories he loves, he invests his own money and time to accomplish this. In an era where DAVID FINCHER takes to Kickstarter to fund a little short film, we should appreciate an artist who is willing to invest of himself.

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BERNIE (2012)

I’d prefer not all of these blurbs be long recaps/interpretations/critiques. Long story short, you should see Bernie. Richard Linklater wrote and directed it, and it feels like he was stuck on how best to present this stranger-than-fiction tale of the real-life Bernie Tiede (who very nearly got away with murder because he was such a nice guy), so he indulged in the most off-the-wall idea he and his co-writer had. Also, Jack Black is subtle. That alone is worth checking out.

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SAVE THE DATE (2012)

I made a point of seeing this movie because I like the cast so damn much: Alison Brie, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Geoffrey Arend. A decent, muted romantic dramedy. Although, I am getting a little tired of Alison Brie always playing the one with her shit together. I’m a big fan of Community, and it seems people forget how amazing Brie was in the “Mixology Certification” episode when she plays a girl coming apart at the seams as she begins to doubt her choices in life.

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A GLIMPSE INSIDE THE MIND OF CHARLES SWAN III (2013)

A couple of years ago, there was this movie called I Melt With You. It was about four white male friends in their 40s, who get together for a long weekend of drugs and debauchery. They lament their lost youth, and the way the world no longer appreciates them. They complain about their marriages and careers, bemoaning the stability of each as a cage from which they can never escape. And none of this – NONE OF THIS – is done with a wink. It is very earnest. The filmmakers believe with all of their heart that they’re men without a land, and the film never questions that their plight is THE WORST THING EVER. The film, despite some interesting filmmaking, was quite simply the worst thing I saw in 2011. And A Glimpse Inside The Mind of Charles Swan III is basically the same thing. Charles, played here by Charlie Sheen in the midst of his very public meltdown, can’t accept love. This is the central tenet of the character, and the film flirts with it a few times. But mostly, the film just can’t believe anyone would choose to not spend their lives with someone who has a killer soundtrack, lives in a hyper-stylized world, and pals around with Bill Murray. I mean, sure, the person at the core of that is broken and shallow and has no real regard for humanity in general, but look at all his cool stuff!

I hated this movie. There was a time when I couldn’t imagine hating a movie with Bill Murray, Aubrey Plaza, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. That time has passed.

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THE MASTER (2012)

I’ve seen some people say they felt the characters in this film were unsympathetic. Hogwash! Over 90% of the world’s population worships at the altar of some God, so how do you not sympathize with characters trying to find something in which they can believe?

The dynamic between Freddie Quell and Lancaster Dodd is simple: Quell is a man of practicality – good with his hands, but simple-minded. He wants answers, but he wants answers he can understand. Lancaster Dodd is a man of the abstract – talented at following trains of thought that not even he absolutely understands, but accepts nonetheless. Much like the pharmaceutical industry, he understands that the money is not in the cure, but rather the treatment. People flock to religion because they want to feel less alone, they want to feel like there’s a point to everything. For most people, the randomness of chance offers no comfort. It’s okay if God makes bad things happen to good people, as long as it’s part of some Divine Plan. And of course there’s no way we can understand such a plan. But, we are told, to question it is to play our human role in the dynamic. Because questioning is healthy.

The thing about asking questions is that it’s a very open, welcoming act. When a question is posed, we are all on equal footing. We have the question, and our minds are allowed to do with that what they will, free to arrive at whatever conclusion we find. But then the answer is given, and what once was open is now closed. The equation is finished; some people had it right, some had it wrong. And no one wants to be wrong. I don’t know if it’s a modern concern, but it’s beyond argument that no one likes to be considered ignorant. Tell someone they’re wrong about something, and they will grow ever more defensive about their stance. When Dodd is confronted about an inconsistency – an inconsistency that hints at an evolution of thought within The Cause – he barks back that it simply is what he wrote and should be accepted. He knows he’s hit upon something, but can’t defend it yet because he’s still figuring it out for himself. Freddie, on the other hand, simply beats the hell from a man who has the temerity to think Dodd’s writing in this new volume isn’t his best. Freddie Quell, you see, isn’t just Dodd’s audience, he’s a fan, a true believer. And, like all fans, he doesn’t care much for the good name of his hero being besmirched. Seriously, tell a Quentin Tarantino fan you don’t like his movies, see how well that goes for you.

I first saw this movie on opening night in Cincinnati, with a couple of friends. They didn’t care for it, but I was smitten. I could not imagine that I might see another movie in 2012 that was better, or at least moved me more, than The Master. Then I saw Holy Motors.

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HOLY MOTORS (2012)

I am in love with this movie. I don’t know that I can recommend it to many people, as I can’t think of a single other movie that I’d say is similar to it. Obviously, I see a lot of movies. Sometimes they can start to pile up, and I get frustrated with the three-act structure and formulaic storytelling of traditional narrative. In Holy Motors, Leos Carax has made a palate cleanser. His film, steeped as it is in film history, exists unto itself, never feeling the need to hold the audience’s hand and guide them through this Parisian paradise of cinema.

Honestly, I don’t even know what I’m saying anymore. I just know that I love this movie, and I never want to stop. See it. Don’t see it. You are the one who must live with your decisions.

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TRADING PLACES (1983)

This might sound strange, but Trading Places was a major reason for this project. I was in Louisville, sitting in an awesome bar called Sergio’s World Beers and drinking an amazing beer that technically does not exist (it’s called Brooklyn Black Ops) and talking with my friend Tyler about something or other and he quoted Trading Places. Having not seen the movie, I smiled politely and laughed even though I didn’t know the reference. He called me on this, dismayed that I had never seen such an iconic 80s comedy. I confessed that I thought very little of 80s cinema. He told me I had to go home immediately and watch Trading Places. That was in December.

I think what I liked most about the film is that it’s a comedy with as much respect for the setup as it does for the punchline. The premise is two old men are arguing about environment vs. genetics, and decide to settle it by ruining the life of their bank’s manager, then plucking a con man off the street and handing him the keys to the castle. But who are these old men? Why do they care about this argument enough to do all this? In too many modern comedies, I can’t say these details would get adequate attention; we’d just throw Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson up there and have them crack wise and say “Because movie!” But the world of Trading Places feels real and lived-in. The photography of Philadelphia captures the disparity between the haves and the have-nots without every rubbing your face in it and demanding your empathy. When Jamie Lee Curtis shows Dan Akroyd her apartment and says “It’s crappy and small and dirty, but it’s mine” it’s really just a standard, cheap, urban apartment. There’s no crazy neighbor, no peep-holes, no pipes that clank comically. It’s just a place where a person who struggles might reasonably live. Or the first night Eddie Murphy spends in the house, where he has a bunch of people from his old neighborhood come to his new digs for a party. He’s happy to show off all the nice things in his new place, but then they start to become his nice things and he isn’t so hot on the idea of stiletto heels digging into his Persian rug or people stomping out their cloves on his nice floor. His indignation feels organic, germane to the character’s arc. Also, it’s hard to imagine Eddie Murphy doing anything this subtle now.

I started to wonder, at some point, whether they might be asking us to favor one of these characters over the other. Were they wanting me to celebrate the complete and utter decimation of Dan Akroyd? Was his lack of empathy enough for me to want blood, especially when this lack of empathy reinforced the theme of the aforementioned bet? Akroyd cared little for the have-nots, having been surrounded from birth by people telling him that in America the disenfranchised choose to be that way, that capitalism means anyone can succeed? The option, of course, is to cheer for Eddie Murphy to be shown the world of incredible privilege, only to then be cast back into the street once he’d internalized that which he had long thought beyond his reach? I mean, both endings have their merits – paging John Sayles, paging John Sayles – but ultimately a mainstream comedy of this size isn’t going to turn nihilist all of a sudden. Not for another ten years, at least. So when the plot turns and you start to glimpse the payoff to which the film has been working, I was excited and surprised, ready for the market to open and the comeuppances to be issued.

One thing I was not ready for, however, was Dan Akroyd in blackface. I am realizing that there may be no other “comedy trope” that so thoroughly and immediately takes me out of what I’m watching as a white person in blackface. That and the animal husbandry joke fell flat for me, otherwise I enjoyed the hell out of this movie and fully anticipate watching it again.

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LOOPER (2012)

I am a Rian Johnson fan. I saw The Brothers Bloom on a date so terrible, the bartender took care of my bill because sympathy. But as horribly as the lead-up to the movie was, that’s how amazing the film itself turned out to be. I have since revisited The Brothers Bloom many, many times, and would advise each and every one of you to check it out.

I saw Looper at a promo screening, and when it was over I heard a woman behind me say, “That was interesting. I’d like to read the book.” After that, my friend Kevin told me he didn’t care for it as much as he thought he would, because he wanted the science to be a bigger deal. I’ve heard this sentiment echoed, though slightly paraphrased into “I thought it started strong, but then it falls apart.” I don’t understand this at all. The beginning is cool, and I think Johnson does a hell of a job building the world. But the film really comes alive for me when we get to the farm. That’s when Johnson finally tips his hand and shows you that this is not a film about time travel or causality or anything like that; this is a film about Hope.

This is a film about looking around you and seeing a parade of weakness and fear, and wanting the next generation to be a little bit better than ours. Every parent will tell you that they want a better world for their children, but generational empathy is not exclusive to parents. Joe is alone. He has one friend, of whom he isn’t terribly fond. He has a father figure in Abe, the man who cleaned him up and put a gun in his hand. And he has that gun, the only thing he’s ever been good at.

But then he meets Sara, and her boy, Cid. Sara was once a part of his world, though they never knew each other. Sara was ripped out of that world by familial duty, and resolved that if she did nothing else, she’d make sure Cid never had the need to lose himself in that world. She loves Cid, to the point that she’d die for him. It’s arguable that Joe has never seen such a love in the flesh, before he met Sara. But now he has, and he’s got this gun.

You can argue about causality and the metaphysics of displacement all you want, I’m just happy there’s someone out there making a cool-ass movie about the power of hope and a mother’s love.

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RED HOOK SUMMER (2012)

I love Spike Lee, but this movie was tedious. The child actors are horrible, and every scene that’s just the two of them is pretty much interminable. But Clarke Peters is awesome, and it does build to a decent last act. Still, the journey to that last act was often boring, which is a word I never thought I’d associate with a Spike Lee joint.

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LAWLESS (2012)

A decent story told well. Really nothing remarkable, just a solid film with a really cool cast.

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ROMAN POLANSKI: WANTED AND DESIRED (2008)

I admit I didn’t know the saga surrounding Polanski fleeing the country was so complicated. While I’m sure I’ll be more than happy to discuss the details of the case at bars and parties, for the time being I will just say that this thing is streaming on Netflix and you should watch it.

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HIGH FIDELITY (2000)

I had forgotten this movie was so well cast, and how well Stephen Frears directed the film. I have an aversion to John Cusack, but given how closely he and Frears collaborated on every aspect of this film, I have to give him his due. It worries me that there are people who make a point to watch this movie every year, because many of the points made in this film are things that seem profound when you’re 25 but just become accepted as you move into your 30s – which just so happens to be the age of everyone in the movie. But then, I make a point to watch Requiem For A Dream every year, so maybe I don’t have room to talk.

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ABOUT A BOY (2002)

Rewatching this movie, I can’t remember the last time I agreed with Bob McKee so much: Entirely too much voiceover. The film is charming enough, but the voiceover really started grating on me after a while.

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CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977)

I cannot imagine anyone but Steven Spielberg making this movie.

I confess, I had forgotten this film was so amazing. I mean, I remembered all the obvious touchstones: Devil’s Tower, the Five Tones, the return of the people and arrival of the aliens. But I had forgotten the soul of the piece, what makes it stick thirty-six years later. In this, the story of aliens contacting us through art and science, Steven Spielberg had written a film that was more autobiographical than even he realized.

While the whole movie is great, I really just want to talk about the ending. At the risk of sounding like a hammer who looks out upon a world of nails, this is a film about storytelling. Richard Dreyfuss’ character is consumed by these visions he doesn’t understand, but knows are real. Even though everyone in his family is telling him they aren’t, and moving further and further away from him, he can’t help but pursue this thing that has found purchase in his mind’s eye. He has faith that this shape he sees is real, but as most religious people will tell you, doubt is an important part of faith. He knows in his soul that this thing exists, but he needs to touch it and know that it’s real in a very tactile way. And doubt…well, doubt will eat at you. Doubt will drive you crazy, because it sounds so damn reasonable. It is tempting to relegate the visions to the bin of Things We Don’t Discuss With The Neighbors, as it would make life so much easier. But, you see, the idea has taken hold, and it will not be ignored.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the end is when you see that, while the government has assembled their own team of people in orange jumpsuits to greet the aliens and board the ship as human ambassadors, it is the common man whom the aliens chose and who followed his heart that is taken aboard. Just as those in power will always try to groom the people they want to succeed, there will always be the outsiders who remind us that we do not choose the muse, the muse chooses us.

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DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1963)

A few years back, I was watching Changeling, the Clint Eastwood film, and I found myself missing Stanley Kubrick. Changeling is about a mother whose son disappears, and then returns, only it’s a different boy. Except that the government keeps insisting that this is, in fact, her son; and if she can’t accept that, then maybe the problem is her. I watched Angelina Jolie drown in red tape, and I thought: This movie is hilarious.

I don’t know when exactly I saw Dr. Strangelove for the first time, but it definitely had a huge effect on me and my sense of humor. I love comedy that isn’t presented as comedy, mostly because reality itself is so damn absurd. The randomness of familial love, the certainty of religious fervor, the pedigree implied by a piece of paper. These are the reasons we drink.

I’m afraid if I start recounting the plot, I’ll just end up quoting it ad nauseum. If you have not seen this movie, do yourself a favor and watch it.

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MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

This is one of those movies that you know, as a cinephile, you need to see at some point in your life – which is one of the guiding principles of this whole endeavor. Also, one of Community’s most stellar episodes is an homage to it, so that’s makes it even more of an imperative.

It is overly simplistic, and rather insulting, to describe this film as “two guys talking.” I mean, yes, that’s what you’re looking at, so, superficially, you are correct. But give into it, watch the myriad subtleties and nuances at play. Take note of how the camera reflects the attention being paid by our surrogate, and how even that sympathy changes as the film goes on. This is not a film about a conversation, it is a film about Conversation. Two people, equal in commitment to their own subjective experience, discussing that which matters. Sometimes they make incredibly salient, insightful points. And in the next moment, say something so woefully off-point that it’s unfathomable that you ever identified so richly with them.

I’m sure there are those who would claim this film is not cinematic. They don’t see how two people sitting at a table, being waited on by a third man, while they discuss the vagaries of life, could be Cinema. To this, I say: Cinema, like everything, requires love to grow. Because when you love something, you see in it all the potential in the world. To say something so simple could not be cinema is to deny the power and vastness of cinema. Just as there were those who couldn’t imagine a moving camera, a film with recorded sound, or a film in color, those who could not imagine the story of two men reconnecting over coffee and quail were proven wrong. Never tell cinema it can’t do something, that only makes it angry.

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ADVENTURELAND (2009)

As I stated in the Dr. Strangelove piece, I love when comedy isn’t presented as comedy. Greg Mottola wrote and directed this ode to his youth, and he imbues it with all the warmth one would expect from nostalgia, but also enough perspective to rise above something so easy. He knows teenagers and those in their early-twenties are not machines of wit, ready to spew rat-a-tat banter and the perfect pop culture reference at a moment’s notice. You might have one friend who has read Gogol, but for the most part you’re all just trying to get a handle on what the hell is happening in your head and your heart. His characters, when the chips are down, speak in ellipses. There is a tremendous scene where Jesse Eisenberg’s character confronts Kristen Stewart’s character about an injustice. Neither character knows what is happening with the other, they don’t even know what’s happening with themselves. Eisenberg tries to assert dominance, realizes a moment-too-late that this is a bad idea, and then can’t reconcile the myriad impulses and rationalizations firing within him, and simply walks away. It is staggering how much is said without dialogue in this scene.

Oh, and Kristen Stewart is really good in this. Now that she’s become synonymous with the Twilight franchise, that might be the hardest thing of all to believe.

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FEARLESS (1993)

My friend Brian has long insisted that I needed to see this film. He was right.

Jeff Bridges’ character walks away from a plane crash, flush with the certainty that he can’t be killed. It is often said that the thing which separates humans from animals is our awareness of our own mortality. Bridges, now free from fear, wants to live an immediate, present life that has always eluded him. He wants no part in lying or delusion. This experience has made him into a new man, and he sees no point in the trappings of his old life: his wife, his son, his job. He wants to be in the moment, with someone else who has been through the same experience.

The ugly truth, however, is that to live is to compromise. We would all like to be utterly and completely ourselves, present in each moment to the fullest extent of our consciousness. Were we to do that, though, how would we ever relate to anyone else? As David Foster Wallace said, we each can only see the world through our own eyes, and empathy is realizing that everyone else suffers from the exact same truth. To love someone is to accept them. Not just the things that amaze us, but also the things that annoy and trouble us. Because if we are honest, if we reject delusion, then we know that we too are annoying. If we are to be loved, we must be humble. We must know fear.

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KNIFE IN THE WATER (1962)

I am often reminded of the first time I ever saw The 400 Blows. I was in high school, working at a video store. I had seen great movies before this, but there was something about this one. I could feel an assured hand and eye behind the camera, and there was a never a moment’s doubt that what I was seeing was exactly what I was intended to see. It was the first time I really recognized the power of a truly great filmmaker.

I won’t pretend that I have thoroughly processed Polanski’s debut feature already, as it only ended thirty minutes ago. I will say, however, how struck I was that with his first film he already had such an incredible understanding of how camera placement and composition can bring you right into a character’s psychology. Knife in the Water is a simple story: a married couple pick up a hitchhiker and invite him to join them for an overnight sailing trip. Were this a modern piece, chances are you’d know where this is going already, all bloody entrails and crying into the night for help. This film is a product of more restrained, subtle time. Here, the two men spend the trip trying to assert themselves over each other, and the woman is content to sit back and watch her husband beat his chest until things actually need to be done.

I am ceaselessly amazed by films that utilize a simple setup and make filmmaking seem effortless. I would say that any and all aspiring filmmakers and playwrights should watch this film.

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