Just how is it that action classics are born? Few, if any, are instantaneous; in recent years perhaps only The Raid—and, now, its sequel—has managed to acquire anything close to the clout required of a genre film to be declared an instant classic. No, reputation seems rooted above all in time, in a film’s ability to stand tall over those that release in its wake and re-work its ideas to lesser effect, if indeed to any at all. Take Die Hard, the standing of which was only enhanced last year by the two Die Hard-in-the-White-House films that served to evidence the strength of the original’s formula while showing that nothing, still, can quite manage to match it.
As Vic + Flo Saw a Bear opens, a little boy is playing the trumpet…poorly. He is told that, if he ever wants to make any money doing so, he will need to practice. In order to be worthwhile, he needs to improve. In order to improve, he will have to put in the time. Though it seems inconsequential at first, this scene forms the background of the film, a quiet, internal story about two women trying to better themselves after lives full of mistakes. Vic + Flo Saw a Bear is a detailed, layered character study that leaves much of the particulars up to the audience. Through moments of quiet contemplation and half-confessed histories, its central characters become fully formed individuals searching for their place in the world and struggling to accept their limitations.
Jean-Luc Godard begins his iconoclastic 1965 road movie Pierrot le fou with an excerpt from a book about Diego Velázquez as recited by Jean-Pierre Belmondo: “Velázquez, past the age of fifty, no longer painted specific objects. He drifted around things like the air, like twilight, catching unawares in the shimmering shadows the nuances of color that he transformed into the invisible core of his silent symphony.” This drive to capture interstitial essences—the atmospheric in-betweens of solid objects—repeats itself when Belmondo, doing an impersonation of an elderly novelist, advocates for a similar aesthetic in relation to literature. Would that the novel were no longer about people, but about “life itself—what lies in between people: space, sound and color.”
Drawing chiefly from Bertold Brecht and Robert Bresson, Godard’s Vivre sa vie is at once a detached yet highly ascetic portraiture of a woman’s venture into the sex trade. In depicting a woman absent of humility, Godard treats this series of presentations not as a fall from grace but as a becoming of unwitting identity. Without realizing it, Nana’s (Anna Karina) self-identity becomes most profoundly expressed through analysis of her decisive actions to become a prostitute. A 22 year old with a child she rarely sees, Nana finds purpose in prostituting; it serves as a means for her to find herself—to truly reflect upon her life. Through long takes and an austere mise-en-scene, Vivre Sa Vie is more inviting than a typical Godard, but remains as complex and self-critical as any other.
Jean-Luc Godard has moved through several different stages as a filmmaker, but he’s always remained the great innovator. Whether landing a political point, highlighting social problems or toying with film tradition, he’s constantly tried to break free from convention. In Band of Outsiders, his seventh feature, he plays with American crime archetypes to deliver an entertaining if lightweight thriller elevated by iconic scenes of experimentation.
The story focusses on wannabe gangsters Franz (Sami Frey) and Arthur (Claude Brasseur), and their liaison with the naive Odile (Anna Karina). The two men are really just immature kids. Even when trying to scheme, they’re in it for larks. They pass childish love notes to women, play at outlaws in the street with imaginary shootouts as Billy the Kid, and race around dreaming of Indianapolis.
I recently watched the Oscar-nominated documentary The Square, about the enduring political protests in Egypt, and was captivated by its shoot-from-the-hip approach. It created so much urgency that it opened a plot of land for a gripping non-fictional drama. It’s remarkable when a documentary like this, one that has to stay in tow with the rush of an unpredictable reality, dramatizes events so compellingly that the true conflicts and experiences of life don’t seem too distant from behind that illusory screen.
Film is, after all, an illusion of truth, reality, and phenomena. A great filmmaker is one who can blur the lines and I discovered that with Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s Paradise Lost trilogy, which documented the West Memphis Three murder case from their trial in 1993-94 to their release on an Alford plea in 2011. Convicted of murdering the three young boys Steven Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin were handed out life sentences, and Damien Echols (the main target due to his interests in the Occult) was sentenced to death.
There won’t likely be a worse tagline this year that “proof is the burden”, the ludicrous sentiment adorning posters of Reasonable Doubt, whose title joins its tagline in attesting the loose grasp of legal terminology the movie maintains, not to mention the loose grasp of logic. But the judicial system, to be fair, isn’t entirely the concern of Peter Howitt’s thriller, though quite what is remains by the time the credits roll a defiant mystery. This is a movie that plays as though it might have been thought up on the spot, its myriad plot twists plucked from the air on the morning of shooting and introduced to the actors moments before their scenes. Would that that were as interesting as it sounds.
Based on a true story, Jamesy Boy tells the story of James Burns who in his teenage years descended into a life of crime and gang violence. During his subsequent imprisonment he discovers hope and humility through writing and follows the advice of a fellow inmate as he tries to slowly turn his life around.
There’s a dead little girl, a victim of a horrible crime whose killer is still on the loose. There’s a suspect who everyone has decided must be guilty. There’s a desperate cop who will stop at nothing to catch the killer. And there’s the little girl’s father, out for revenge and just a taste of solace. If this sounds a bit familiar, that’s because it’s the sort of story you’ve seen played out a million different times with slight variations pasted over it until it hopefully looks like something new.
Big Bad Wolves doesn’t look like anything new; in fact, what it transposes over its basic narrative is also lifted from a variety of sources, barely repurposed and certainly not reimagined with any sense of storytelling, character depth, or style. This is the same old story, told again at a slightly higher volume, as if by the pedantic relative you’re pretending to tune out at a family gathering, if that relative really liked torture.
There are times when a film comes out that is complete rubbish with the exception of one scene. There’s a scene near the end of all-but-forgotten 2013 action film Getaway, starring Ethan Hawke and Selena Gomez, where we are shown a tracking shot from the point of view of a car as it weaves in and out of traffic, passing cars and swerving out of the way just in time avoid crashing into a car. It’s a fantastic scene and easily the best part of a movie that is otherwise an over-edited, atrociously written mess. 2012’s Tom Cruise-led Jack Reacher had a magnificent car chase scene, one of the best in recent memory; pity the rest of the film didn’t match its exciting brilliance. The third act of Attack of the Clones almost makes up for the torture we were forced to endure before reaching that spectacular climax. Hell, even Rock of Ages had a pretty legit scene. I could go on.