Tag Archives: David Fincher

Watch This: Tony Zhou on David Fincher

When I grow up, I want to make visual critical essays like Tony Zhou. His newest one is on David Fincher, and it’s pretty great, talking about Fincher’s way of shooting conversations especially and how he uses camera setups and placement to give us information about character dynamics. If you like what Tony is doing, consider supporting his Patreon. These videos are time-consuming and labor-intensive to make, plus research and analysis of this depth isn’t trivial.

Scorecard: December 2011

Only eight new-to-me films in December, thanks to a busy schedule moving, going home for Christmas, and, oh right, getting engaged (to this guy). But we were able to knock out a few more end-of-the-year films, including The Artist – one of my most highly anticipated films of the year – plus some other random stuff. Not a big month, but a strong one; I liked/loved pretty much everything I saw.

What I Loved

The Artist

A black and white silent film coming out in 2011? Sign me up for that, if only for curiosity’s sake. Thankfully, there’s more here than just the gimmick, even if the film does follow some familiar ground (specifically Singin’ in the Rain) in its story of a popular silent film hero – named George Valentin, but much more based on Douglas Fairbanks than Valentino – who resists the transition to sound, quickly falling into oblivion while young starlet Peppy Miller shoots to the top of the sound cinema food chain. Generally films like this tend to just make me want to watch the real thing (cf. The Good German), but The Artist succeeds better than most at capturing the sense of fun, excitement, humor and melodrama that characterize silent cinema, without seeming pandering or imitative; the actors don’t really even seem like modern actors pretending old styles, which is really difficult to pull off. The little bit of sound that is used is quite effective, as long as you remember that we’re seeing through Valentin’s silence-centered understanding of cinema, and thus the world. It’s a light and breezy story, but incredibly charming and likable.
2011 France. Director: Michel Hazanavicius. Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, John Cromwell.
Seen December 17 at Arclight Hollywood.
Flickchart ranking: 230 out of 2865

The Adventures of Tintin

Chalk this up as one of my favorite 3D experiences so far – the format and I don’t get along very well, with me usually ending up with splitting headaches, strained eyes, and great irritability. This time, no headache, no irritability, just an enjoyable old-fashioned whizbang adventure film, with subtle but effective use of 3D and better than expected motion capture (something else that usually turns me off). The approach here is to make the film both realistic and cartoony at the same time, a difficult balance, but one the film pulls off, making Tintin himself relatively realistic looking, but characters like detectives Thomson and Thompson much more over the top and silly. It works. It’s visually interesting all the way through, with much better composition and camerawork than 3D movies usually even attempt, let alone pull off. There are things in the margins, cutting down on the focal problems I usually have with 3D, and some sequences, like the motorcycle chase toward the end, that are positively breathtaking. The story is straight out of two or three of the Tintin comics, but could easily be direct from 1930s film serials – I won’t go so far as to say this film is in the same league with Indiana Jones (the characters are a little flatter, the pacing a little more ragged), but it’s definitely drinking from the same water fountain, and I enjoyed it immensely. And the dog is awesome.
2011 USA. Director: Steven Spielberg. Starring: Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nick Frost.
Seen December 29 at Regal St. Louis Mills.
Flickchart ranking: 331 out of 2865

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

When the Swedish version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo came out here, I was a huge fan and lamented the fact that an English-language version would surely follow soon – lamented because the Swedish one was so good and so accessible there should be no need for any pandering to American audiences. And on the one hand, I was right. That version was solid and in fact, fairly popular in the United States. But on the other hand, this version is tighter, fuller, and every bit as good if not better than its foreign counterpart. It does a better job with the Wennerstrom subplot (which ties off Blomkvist’s arc more fully), it fleshes out some of both his and Lisbeth’s backstory, and as much as I loved Noomi Rapace in the role, Rooney Mara brings a much different and just as effective take on the character here. It’s a star-making performance for her. Fincher could do this stuff in his sleep, but I’m fine watching him do it. I’m really curious how the next two in the series will turn out, since the quality of the Swedish films took a real nose-dive after the first one.
2011 USA. Director: David Fincher. Starring: Rooney Mara, Daniel Craig, Robin Wright Penn.
Seen December 28 at AMC Chesterfield Mall.
Flickchart ranking: 332 out of 2865

The Naked Island

New rule: Whenever Cinefamily is playing something I’ve never heard of when I’m there volunteering, I should definitely watch it, because more often than not, it’s something pretty amazing. This film is an essentially silent document of the daily lives of a family eking out a meagre existence on their island farm. The parents paddle to the mainland before dawn each day to bring back heavy buckets of fresh water, carefully carrying them up the treacherous path to their home and fields, each step a potential disaster. They’ll do that trek three or four more times during the day, metering out the precious water to each plant, any spilled drop a cause for despair. Other times are more enjoyable – a trip to the city with their two sons after harvest, joy over a fish the boys caught. Still others are deeply traumatic, as when one boy falls ill, necessitating an anxious voyage to find the doctor. It’s a very simple film on the surface, and excruciatingly paced at times, but it adds up to one of the more emotionally resonant and profound films I’ve seen all year.
1960 Japan. Director: Kateno Shindô. Starring: Nobuko Otowa, Taiji Tonoyama, Shinji Tanaka, Masanori Horimoto.
Seen December 21 at Cinefamily.
Flickchart ranking: 407 out of 2865

Wayne’s World

I had this linked in my head with Dumb and Dumber, likely because they both came out in the early nineties, had a pair of guys as the main characters, and starred comedians I don’t generally care for that much. But Jonathan promised me I would like this one much more than Dumb and Dumber (which we watched a few months ago, and I didn’t hate, but isn’t really my thing), and he was totally right. This one is smart, funny, and meta, and I’ve already taken to quoting it almost as much as Jonathan does. Definitely one we’ll return to a lot, I bet. Read our He Says, She Says entry
1992 USA. Director: Penelope Spheeris. Starring: Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, Tia Carrere, Rob Lowe.
Seen December 3 via Zune on Xbox Live.
Flickchart ranking: 454 out of 2865

What I Liked

The Hudsucker Proxy

With this one crossed off my list, I now have only The Ladykillers on my “unseen Coen” list. I’ll get to that one eventually, but this one I’ve actually been meaning to see for quite a while and fortuitously popped it on on New Year’s Eve – fortuitously because it’s actually set on New Year’s, at least for the climax. I’ve heard it said that this was one of the Coens zanier, cartoonier films, so I was expecting something along the lines of the farcical Burn After Reading, and it’s definitely that side of the Coens. But here, they’re pulling tropes from 1930s-1940s films galore, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Christmas in July to His Girl Friday to Bringing Up Baby to It’s a Wonderful Life. Not everything totally works (Leigh’s Katharine Hepburn attempt comes off as grating more often than endearing), and it’s a fairly superficial pastiche, but I honestly don’t have a problem with that, and I enjoyed it a lot, right down to the art deco production design. The only major nitpick is by following the Wham-O line of products (hula hoop, etc.), the film forces itself into 1957, when all the styles it’s borrowing are at least 10-15 years older than that. Not a dealbreaker for me, but rather distracting.
1994 USA. Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen. Starring: Tim Robbins, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Paul Newman.
Seen December 31 on Netflix Instant.
Flickchart ranking: 502 out of 2865

Gremlins

Yes, I’ve never seen this. Until now! :) I’m really glad someone mentioned that Gremlins is actually a Christmas movie; I’d meant to watch it in October as part of my month of horror, but we watched it on Christmas, and had a lot of fun with it. I knew the basic “don’t feed it after midnight” premise, but it’s the details that really got me. All the father’s whackadoodle inventions, and how supremely goofy the film gets, culminating in the scene I screencapped above, when all the gremlins stop terrorizing the town and settle in to watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I totally didn’t expect it to be so goofy, and I loved that.
1984 USA. Director: Joe Dante. Starring: Zach Galligan, Phoebe Cates, Hoyt Axton, Keye Luke, Corey Feldman.
Seen December 25 on DVD.
Flickchart ranking: 965 out of 2865

Dogtooth

What a bizarre little film. I honestly don’t know what I think about it yet, and may not until I rewatch it at some point. Very little story ties together a series of vignettes showing the strange version of child protection practiced by this family – they keep their young adult children (late teens/early twenties) confined on their isolated estate, telling them it isn’t safe to leave until their dogtooth (made-up, but the kids don’t know that) falls out and regrows. It’s a disturbing look at extreme forms of indoctrination and “training,” none of which the children seem to question until an outsider’s brief interactions with them begins to tear the parents’ program apart at the seams. It’s a prickly film, not particularly enjoyable, but somehow continually fascinating despite its off-putting tendencies.
2009 Greece. Director: Yorgos Lanthimos. Starring: Aggeliki Papoulia, Mary Tsoni, Hristos Passalis, Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Anna Kalaitzidou.
Seen December 31 on Netflix Instant.
Flickchart ranking: 1709 out of 2865

Rewatches – Love

Charade

I just bought the Criterion Blu-ray of this and popped it in just to check the transfer (which is gorgeous; definitely the best way to own this public domain film, which is often sold in highly degraded prints) and then ended up watching the entire thing. I’ve seen it a bunch of times, but never in this kind of picture quality, and that just made the film – already supremely enjoyable due to the winning combination of a twisty espionage story, cutesy romance between Hepburn and Grant, and a script both witty and goofy – that much more fun to watch. If anything, I like it more every time I see it.
1963 USA. Director: Stanley Donen. Starring: Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy.
Seen December 1 on Criterion Blu-ray.
Flickchart ranking: 79 out of 2865

Tucker and Dale vs. Evil

I first saw this over a year ago when it played a one-night show at Cinefamily (to a sold-out crowd that included Alan Tudyk, who did a Q&A, and Nathan Fillion, who was there to watch – okay, I’m done name-dropping) long before it had any distribution of any kind. I loved its parody of cabin-in-the-woods horror movies, even if it is a bit on the nose at times, and couldn’t wait to share it with Jonathan, but didn’t get a chance until last night. He loved it as much as I thought he would, and though I feared it might suffer without a full audience, it was just as much fun as I remembered.
2010 USA. Director: Eli Craig. Starring: Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss.
Seen December 31 on Netflix Instant.
Flickchart ranking: 584 out of 2865

Stats

Films seen for the first time: 7
Rewatches: 2
Films seen in theatres: 4
List of Shame films: 2
2011 films: 3
2000s films: 2
1990s films: 1
1980s films: 1
1960s films: 2 (1 rewatch)
American films: 6 (2 rewatches)
French films: 1
Japanese films: 1
Greek films: 1

Review: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

benjamin-button

directed by David Fincher
starring: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton
USA 2008; screened 7 January 2009 at Laemmle Theatres

Benjamin Button is different than every one else. He was born old, and grows younger as everyone else grows older. Along the way he lives as an ancient-looking child in an old-folks home, with adoptive black parents, works on a tugboat before and during World War II, has a fling with a diplomat’s wife in Moscow, and carries on an on-again-off-again lifelong true love romance with childhood friend Daisy. As might be expected, this both ends sadly and takes a long time. Not that either of those things is necessarily bad. In fact the main part of the story is handled quite well, mostly well-paced, certainly well performed by Brad Pitt and especially Cate Blanchett, and generally solid.

Unfortunately, Button’s extraordinary story is framed by a present-day narrative of the dying Daisy having her daughter read Benjamin’s diary aloud to her. The film cuts back to this narrative throughout Button’s story, a device which really only works once or twice when certain major surprises are revealed. Beyond that, it’s fluff with little point beyond emotional manipulation. (Even more questionable is the threatening hurricane, which turns out to be Katrina – WHY?) The film would’ve been much tighter without it. Besides the frame story, there’s also another story old Daisy tells about a backwards-running clock, which obviously has a thematic tie-in, but basically never comes up again and has no real significance. I swear, people trying to make important, award-winning films need to learn to hire good editors.

Benjamin Button - Brad & Cate

The concept of the film is fantastic – as well as the obvious implications of Benjamin’s backwards life for his relationship with Daisy, the underlying questions of what it would be like to be thirty with the experience of a sixty-year-old (and vice versa) are fascinating. The film only touches on them briefly, and doesn’t try to get too philosophical about it, which is probably good. After all, the focus is the romance, and though it’s strange that everyone seems to just accept Benjamin’s situation with very few questions, leaving the more profound implications as implicit suggestions rather than explicit explorations is a more subtle, more evocative approach.

However, the film is ultimately more interesting in concept than in execution, which is a little disappointing because we’ve come to expect excellence in both from director David Fincher. Once in a while an especially well-lighted scene would remind me Fincher was directing (like the gorgeous shot of Daisy dancing in the silhouette), and one sequence in particular was brilliant on its own – the almost whimsical scene with the car accident. The problem is that the sequence doesn’t fit into the rest of the very standard, very non-whimsical cinematic style. I really would’ve liked to have seen the whole film done with this sort of imagination and stylistic flair. After all, it IS a fantasy.

Benjamin Button - Daisy Dancing

Of course, Cate Blanchett is perfect, as she always is, in a role that calls for her to age from about 18 to over 60, while Pitt is more than adequate de-aging the same age range. (I don’t mean to sound like I’m dissing Pitt – he just isn’t given quite as much to do, given Benjamin’s general easy-going nature.) The make-up and CGI work is highly convincing, except it did get a little distracting as Pitt’s younger versions kept evoking his earlier film roles – “Look, that’s Pitt like he is right now! And there he is circa Fight Club! And circa Legends of the Fall! And hey, there he is in Thelma and Louise!” But perhaps that’s a failure of my own imagination.

Overall, I did like the film, but it’s easily a half hour too long due to the dumb framing device, and it’s more manipulative than I would like. And the fact that I expect more from Fincher doesn’t help. Above Average