Friday, December 28, 2012

Bernie (2012) A Film by Richard Linklater

"You cannot have grief tragically becoming comedy," warns Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a plump, mustachioed mortician while giving a sermon to funeral service trainees on the "cosmetizing" of a corpse. The film which contains him, however – Richard Linklater's 17th feature as a director and his first fiction set in his home state of Texas since 2001's Waking Life – proceeds to disprove its central character's early dictum. Bernie gauges the reactions of a small Carthage, Texas community to an increasingly bizarre series of events surrounding the saint-turned-murderer at the heart of the film, and it does so with the light, relaxed tone of an airline tourist video, effortlessly translating shocking true-life circumstances into the stuff of detached belly laughs.

After delivering with painstaking aplomb ("do not over-cosmetize") and one-liner levity ("too much color does not make one look more alive") the embalming lecture that opens the film, Bernie drives through the sunny streets of Carthage bellowing an evangelical pop tune in the distinguished tenor familiar to the churchgoing residents of the town. Linklater then goes on to outline all the contours of Bernie's life and his role in the community. An unabashed gentlemen completely devoid of prejudice or self-interest, Bernie tends to his profession not out of personal necessity but out of both a respect for the concerns of grieving families and a seeming responsibility under the Lord. But his self-sacrificing commitment to his work and to the needs of the townsfolk basically diagnoses a lack of a personal life. So ascetic is Bernie's lifestyle that members of the town have been tempted to playfully assign psychological justifications for his self-effacing kindness; one rumor circulating in this very conservative community deals with a possible link between his superficially effeminate interests (he is heavily involved in the theater community and is the most musically gifted member of Carthage) and his potential homosexuality.

Another eccentric detail of Bernie's personality is his conspicuous interest in the older women of Carthage, a fascination that winds up dictating the course of the plot. Bernie takes a liking to Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a notoriously witchy widow who regularly attends community events alone and with a frown on her face. After their initial meeting, the narrative speeds through their relationship, making a point to merely trace its unusual developments so as to approximate the confusion of a community witnessing from the outside. It's not long before Bernie is locked in an emotionally abusive arrangement with the socially-deprived Marjorie, who relies on him to carry out her daily chores like a drill sergeant ordering around his novice soldier. Bernie, of course, gracefully complies – until one day he doesn't. Impulsively sensing an opportunity to free himself of his obligations, he grabs a rifle in her garage and shoots her in the back as she approaches her car. Four times. It's a shockingly incongruous character action, but Black avoids overplaying the anomaly. The result is a moment of convincingly multifaceted, frighteningly double-edged humanity.

Linklater's stroke of genius is in rendering this tale – which opens with a tongue-in-cheek title card indicating that it is a true story – as a fluid conversation between two modes of expression: a mock(doc?)umentary featuring interviews with the townspeople, and a staged narrative with Bernie as the protagonist. Eventually these two approaches overlap, with individuals initially appearing in interview being seen as characters in the story proper. The result is a sense of ambiguity regarding where the line between "authentic" and "staged" begins and ends, a relishing in a grey area not commonly approached in such sensitive true-life subjects. Are the people speaking directly to the camera commenting on their relationship to the real Bernie Tiede, or are they aware of their status in manipulating a recreation of real-life events? Whatever the case, Linklater's direction is so even-handed that Bernie coheres as one organic expression, and the ambiguities in representation only fuel the film's astute commentary on the incongruities in human nature.

That commentary has to do with the innate tendency towards recognizing only "good" and "evil," a trait that the lighthearted, benevolent souls of Carthage can definitely be said to flaunt. The film – which for its first 45 minutes or so is a breezy yet darkly humorous affair – enters some unexpectedly heady philosophical territory following the central murder of Marjorie Nugent, all while preserving Linklater's characteristically carefree touch and his understated, almost provocatively dry visuals. The final act concerns the low-key battle between the no-excuses ethical rigidity of law enforcement (embodied by a brilliantly po-faced Matthew McConaughey as Sheriff Danny Buck) and the collective denial of the community, who would rather resemble a meek mother give their son a slap on the wrist for his wrongdoings and call it a day than be forced to realistically engage with Bernie's major offense. All of this culminates in the afternoon court trial that concludes the film, a sequence rich with unsettling implications that is nonetheless rendered in warm daylight and a destabilizing mood of failure, as if Danny Buck is the oppressor and Bernie the oppressed. It's a challenging and deceptively critical look at the dark heart of a community essentially apologizing for a crime against mortality, the additional, lingering shade of complexity of which is the realization that Bernie's abnormal act was nothing less than a human act.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Lincoln (2012) A Film by Steven Spielberg

With Lincoln, Steven Spielberg has managed to supply meaty human drama, unexpected revelations, and even suspense to a historical political procedural of which everyone knows the conclusion. It is, of course, the story of President Abraham Lincoln's heroic passing of the 13th Amendment, a piece of legislation that brought legal equality to all living on American soil during a time of rampant slavery and a divided nation. The historical moment is ensconced in the American collective consciousness, recognized as a vital step in the path towards national freedom, yet the concrete particulars of it are seemingly foggy to all but the most astute history buffs. Spielberg's film presents all the key figures, basks in a firm sense of period authenticity, and never strays from documented historical truths (even if its does neglect certain incidental details such as Lincoln's possible homosexuality). Within this framework, however, Spielberg and playwright-turned-screenwriter Tony Kushner take a relative degree of liberty with the narrative to forward their own philosophy of political legislation. Neither portentous nor genteel, the result is one of the most clear-eyed and mature films Spielberg has ever directed.

Our first glimpse of Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is on a stool beneath a tent at a rainy Union camp, answering the questions of two black soldiers urging a swift end to the war. His gaze is fixed and his body is in a dignified pose, three-dimensionally lit as if a statue. Our second glimpse of Lincoln shows him sprawled out on a chair in his White House bedroom, his feet lifted on a nightstand as he surfaces here and there from a book he's reading to engage with his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field). The two representations are at opposite ends of the myth-making spectrum: the first incorporates the iconic stature he has developed as a historical figure, and the second undercuts that larger-than-life aura, revealing a flesh-and-blood human in complete relaxation. In posing these two images relatively side by side (only a brief, lyrical vision of Lincoln manning a ship headed towards a murky horizon separates them), Spielberg erects the central dichotomy that he will continue to exploit throughout the film. Bold, painterly shots of Lincoln in his office silhouetted in the window in calm repose are continually counterbalanced by more candid portrayals, subtly calling attention to the way history shapes and even distorts an individual into something inhuman, into an idea or an image. Yet at the same time, the film cleverly suggests that Lincoln's great act of "political genius," to reference the text on which the film was based ("Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln," by Doris Kearns Goodwin), was his ability to foretell this very phenomenon and ultimately learn to exploit his own mythical quality to his desired end.

That end, of course, was signing the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery and end the Civil War. Lincoln presents the struggle to reach this goal as a dense succession of small battles with stubborn Democrats. At best, the results are a hard-fought one or two additional votes. At worst, these battles are an entirely fruitless pursuit. The film traces the segmentation of this larger purpose from the persuasive chats around Lincoln's crowded office table between key politicians to the remote vote-scavenging of a motley crew of anti-slavery political correspondents offering government jobs in exchange for affirmative votes (W.N. Bilbo, Robert Latham, and Richard Schell, respectively portrayed by James Spader, John Hawkes, and Tim Blake Nelson, all of whom are excellent in their limited roles). Though the violence of the war is kept largely offscreen (with the exception of a brutal opening sequence of muddy combat that establishes a specter of death haunting the slow productivity of the rest of the film), the friction created by the disapproving Democratic Party –especially within the House of Representatives and especially when contrasted with a fierce radical like Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) – entails that a different kind of war rages with words, glares, and ideologies. On top of this, the Lincoln family is pitted against one another as Abraham's oldest surviving son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ignorantly pleads to join the army in support of the Union, even as his parents' bond is tested by an argument concerning their deceased veteran son.

As Lincoln, Day Lewis is so quiet and unassuming that he would nearly disappear into the woodwork were it not for cinematographer Janusz Kaminski's constant heavenly backlight. Often resembling an under-rested college student on an all night study binge with his shawl slung over his shoulder, Lincoln's air of fatigue and ambivalence (head bent over, voice just barely audible) betrays an immense perseverance, an ability to withstand long droughts of cooperation and still have a bit of beguilingly placid wisdom at the ready. Through much of the film, Spielberg renders Lincoln a mere figure in a crowded frame of politicians, as equal in focus and compositional real estate as he considers himself to be on the argumentative / conversational playing field. Seemingly every point Lincoln makes is wielded through a form of storytelling, a way of appealing to his listeners not with hard politics but with digressive anecdotes that gradually and delicately reveal their respective ideological slant. In doing so, he turns monumental political discourse into a casual gathering, as if he's invited friends over to his home for bourbon, biscuits, and small talk.

This lulling – albeit methodically gripping – effect that Lincoln has on those around him inevitably dictates the tone of the film. Most scenes take considerable time developing their central purpose in the narrative, and several times separate scenes serve identical purposes, yet they are approached from slightly different angles. Such is the trial-and-error nature of political discourse, the film suggests, a perpetual process of framing and re-framing arguments to combat different biases until, finally, some breakthrough is made. One of the film's key moments is when Thaddeus Stevens – hitherto an angry, impatient abolitionist – tempers the usual antagonism of his debating approach and offers to a packed House of Representatives that the 13th Amendment be seen as promoting legal equality rather than cementing moral responsibility. It's a small but crucial shift in phrasing that allows Stevens to better appeal to the skeptical Democrats. Lincoln, on the other hand, bases his entire approach to argument on this careful consideration of the politics of language, such that every monologue he delivers crackles with euphemism, allegory, and allusion. Only in the rare instances when these tactics fail must he resort to the sheer force of his mythical status to make a point, most memorably expressed in a climactic speech where Spielberg's camera finally indulges a tight, bottom-up angle of the towering President.

Such a moment, however, is not the norm in Lincoln. Searching for unpredictable ways of quelling dissent, temporarily sacrificing one's beliefs for the sake of collaboration – these skills form the core of the film's philosophy. But it's not just a political philosophy. The techniques the characters use to achieve success apply just as well to family life, social life, professional life – anything that requires humans to interact to get something done. In a time of great bipartisan strife and some of the most urgent political issues in decades, Lincoln demonstrates, once again and for good measure, one of the most valuable tool we have as functional, productive humans: that of working together, of compromise. This may seem like the same kind of fortune-cookie hokum modern politicians spout to garner votes and sieze widespread attention, but Spielberg's honest, carefully developed film earns the lesson scrawled modestly across its runtime. It's a lesson that is expressed in every facet of the film: its patient construction, its slow-burning triumph narrative, its unobtrusive visuals (which correlate deep focus and compositional balance with humanist equality), and its dense dialogue. And it's a lesson that marks even the unnecessarily depicted inevitability at the end of the film; even Lincoln's death, in its own perversely deterministic way, is a form of compromise.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Anna Karenina (2012) A Film by Joe Wright

The world of Anna Karenina as seen by Joe Wright apparently interpreting Leo Tolstoy is expressed as a large, seemingly expanding and contracting theatrical warehouse, inside of which 19th century corridors extend into lavish ballrooms, which in turn lead outside to acres of snow. Spaces are liable to shift – the entire opening sequence is an elaborately orchestrated tour of dainty St. Petersburg, around which walls and set pieces slide in and out of the frame to accomodate ornately costumed members of the Russian aristocracy. The occasional conveniently placed ladder escorts a figure above the stage and into what appears to be both an unglamorous catwalk and the outer reaches of the town's wintry train station. Geography, such as it is, is nearly cubist in its illogic.

What this imaginative leap from both physical rationality and the source material – Tolstoy, of course, did not integrate such an adventurous conceit into his original novel – initially does is brace one for a detached, formalist reading of a historical period/text, a la Lars Von Trier's Dogville, Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, Catherine Breillat's Sleeping Beauty or Bluebeard, and Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (from which Wright apes a fluidly shot ballroom dance number). But Anna Karenina, ultimately, does not quite join that esteemed company due to its inability to fully embrace the rigid theatricality of its chosen mode of adaptation. In some cases, Wright keeps his audience at a deliberate remove from the action (there are even several images of doors being closed on the viewer), but in others, the film practically overexerts itself trying to wrap itself up in the emotionality of the material, resulting in heavily-scored close-ups of a tear-stained Keira Knightley. It's stuck somewhere between histrionic and passionate, without a clear idea of what to do at either end of the spectrum.

If Wright's previous literary adaptations showcased the director taming back (and in this case, "taming back" is akin to Bela Tarr allegedly going "simpler" (The Turin Horse) after his most "complicated" film (The Man From London)) his obvious excesses in an attempt to service a satisfying drama (see: Pride and Prejudice and Atonement), Anna Karenina sees him succumbing giddily to his impulses. Wright – who's never met a swooping crane shot, dramatic dolly move, emphatic rack focus, or glowing backlight he didn't like – enunciates every intended emotional beat with a stylistic flourish, but the result is a suffocation rather than a heightening of feeling. The effect of the technique is what's emphasized over the effect of the dramatic moment. St. Petersburg, as presented in the film, is defined by the pretensions of high-society, by the laws and restrictions set against any sort of debauchery, so the question, then, pertains to where exactly this gloss of aesthetic indulgence is emerging from. Certainly not from anything readily identifiable in the film. One might make the case that it's Anna's (Knightley) submerged desires manifesting themselves in the form of the film, but that seems a mighty stretch, especially when considering how the film treats her passions as an unawakened, and slowly awakening, entity (maybe a gradual, automated build of style would have done the trick), and also how the cinematographic approach is applied wholesale to the entire narrative, even in moments when Anna is nowhere to be found.

In the context of this stylish overstatement, the faux-theatrical setting starts to feel less like the distancing device it announces itself as and more like an ostentatious add-on to an already bustling high concept. When Anna, the wife of an aging clergyman, falls into an affair with Count Vronsky (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), the film settles into rather conventional forbidden love territory, with Wright's flourishes emphasized more than the story they're supposed to be embellishing. Furthermore, unlike James McAvoy in Atonement, Taylor-Johnson is cardboard thin as the male point of sympathy, never making a reasonable case for Anna's infatuation with him. Far more interesting is the film's representation of a community collectively turning against one of its members out of fear of damaging their surface of repressive good behavior. Anna Karenina's best scene is set at a horse race where Vronsky crashes off the side of the track, his horse contorting its body on the ground violently. Wright layers on the artificiality in this sequence, using a wooden backdrop of painted spectators to complement the small crowd on the other side, and rendering the race in conspicuously fake traveling shots of the racers in front of dark, blurred backgrounds. The setting feels so unreal, so claustrophobic and rigid, that when Anna cries out in shock at the sight of Vronsky and his horse toppling over, the dissonance between her genuine release and the rest of the audience's polite restraint is powerful. It's also perhaps the only instance when the film fully realizes its submerged critique of the stern gender roles and uncritical pack mentality inherent in its milieu.

The rest of Anna Karenina only makes small breakthroughs, presenting bits and pieces of good ideas that are never fleshed out. (For one: Anna's yearning for escape – and simultaneous inability to easily do so – is represented by the train station, a place of darkness of violence throughout (one man is killed in the tracks early in the film, and later, Anna meets her demise there as well), and Wright uses evocative close-ups of the gyrating train wheels during moments of internal emotional conflict.) Otherwise, the film is too busy making arty detours into quasi-musical sequences reminiscent of Stomp and awkwardly sensual love scenes to devote time and energy to its thornier subtexts.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012) A Film by John Hyams

In a year that has brought some films of the most damning levels of "self-seriousness" for some (Cloud Atlas, Prometheus, Compliance), John Hyams' Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning – a hyper-violent action-horror hybrid awash in portentous musical cues, self-conscious provocations, and totally earnest frauds of arthouse filmmakers – has curiously received a pass from a healthy dose of critics. Hyams' film, the sixth in a direct-to-video franchise dating back to 1992, takes the idea of pushiness to a pummeling extreme: every fluorescent light flickers and occasionally strobes out in an epileptic fit, every gesture is accented by a bellowing drone or a shrieking synth, and every time a person is killed we must see them shot three, four, five, or six times. There's a brutal intensity to the film, part of which is genuinely expressed in the material and part of which is layered on egregiously. It's the frequency with which Hyam's oppressive direction undermines the flickers of originality that makes the film such a frustrating viewing experience.

And, truth be told, Hyams' definitely has originality, if not at least a proficient command of aesthetics. Day of Reckoning is littered with extraordinary fight sequences, all shot with a respect for geography and the physical relationships of the actors – a trait that looks particularly unique amongst a contemporary preference for nearly abstract spectacle. Instead of chopping up his action into chaotic shards of movement, Hyams favors wide-angle lenses that capture the full picture of the fighting as well as the larger space it's existing in, as in a boxing match. A great deal of the violence inflicted is done so with miscellaneous objects or bare hands; a pivotal fight scene takes place in a rural sporting goods store with the two men wielding anything in their vicinity (weights, baseball bats, steel bars) to club their enemy, knocking over shelves of athletic equipment in the process. The organic choreography between camera and performer, accentuated by an ingenious integration of speed ramping effects (altering the frame rate between slow motion and fast motion mid-shot) and subtle barrel distortion (the convex image warping achieved through wide-angle lenses), gives these fights a tremendous sense of gravity and stylishness.

However, for every scene in which Hyams reveals his bravura singularity as an action director, there's a competing moment of outright kitsch. The film's opening scene features the horrific murder of protagonist John's (Scott Adkins) wife and daughter, a senseless tragedy that sets up the nasty spiral of vengeance and disorientation that comprises the plot. Kicking off with a "blinking" POV shot of John's wife in bed and maintaining a perspective through his half-asleep eyes as he heeds his daughter's guileless warning that someone's in the house, the scene is – stylistically speaking – a shameless rip-off of the drug trip sequence that opens Gaspar Noé's Enter the Void, and Noé's powerfully queasy filmmaking techniques continue to exert a strong hold on Hyams' impulses throughout the film (see: fluorescent strobing, seedy underbelly of prostitution and potentially non-traditional sex practices, scene of pummeling head stomping). But there's more than just Noé emanating from the unsavory surface of the film: with its creepy digressions and inclusion of exaggerated noir elements, the narrative is conspicuously Lynchian, while the escalating madness, the bald, painted head of a Brando-esque Jean Claude Van-Damme, and the third-act travel upriver are all lifts from the Apocalypse Now playbook.

Not all of Day of Reckoning's arthouse allusions are quite so blunt though. The ultimate trajectory of the narrative towards interrogations of vaguely outlined authoritarian conspiracies and unexpected detours into cloning and body horror invoke Cronenberg, but the film's thematic groundwork, rather than pulling from any specific film or concept, seems to both blend various ideas from the Canadian filmmaker's work and mesh naturally with Hyams' story. The film's dark and brutal worldview – expressed throughout in the emphasis on cruel and sudden death – is tied to a narrative about a hero seeking justified revenge who grows more distant from the audience as the film progresses, fracturing into doppelgängers and darker selves in conjunction with the revealing of new enemy forces (an underground army of evil-seeking "universal soldiers" led by Van Damme's character Luc Deveraux, a dissenting group of killing machines lorded over by Andrew Scott (Dolph Lundgren), and even the ominous suited men seemingly working to defend justice, all manufactured by a largely unseen and duplicitous government entity). What is finally revealed to be their shared motivations is the stuff of cerebral science-fiction – eerie, multifaceted, carefully developed, and not at all what's expected after the movie's sensationalistic opening moments.

Whatever strange power the film achieves by its conclusion, however, is still undermined to some degree by Hyams' heavy-handed directorial gestures, as well as some of the unsettling implications of them. The final act yields a virtuosic single shot ass-kicking that tracks from behind the body of John as he slaughters the many foes who emerge from the universal soldiers' swampy underground labyrinth. The idea behind the mise-en-scène here is to submerge the audience into the experience of shooting and killing as in a third-person video game, to essentially provide a cathartic release for all the pent-up feelings of revenge unresolved throughout the narrative. On one level, it's an ironic maneuver, because John has just realized how fruitless his pursuit of individuality and free-will is, but on another, it still flatters the simplistic desires of hardcore action-heads seeking a "badass" comeuppance. This sequence threatens to place the audience on the same level as Lundgren's minions, who, in a goofy but humorless shot earlier in the film, shouted and growled unthinkingly in response to his vague proclamations. All of this speaks to a directorial inconsistency on Hyams' part that treads into overstatement when ideas are not obvious on the surface. It's as if Day of Reckoning is unwilling to let the inbred intensity of Adkins (a hell of an actor who manages his convoluted character arc with conviction), Andrei Arlovski (the meaty Russian opposite Adkins in the sports store brawl), Van Damme, and Lundgren do all the talking.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Screening Notes #16

The Hobbit (2012): For what it's worth, I slouched into my cushioned seat with, if not quite the level of giddy excitement I sensed floating around me, then at least a considerable measure of anticipation for Peter Jackson's inevitable return to the most lucrative Middle Earth ever conceived, but once The Hobbit began, that feeling faded as quickly as the blockbuster director plunged from his distinguished ranks upon releasing two widespread disappointments after his successful trilogy (King Kong and The Lovely Bones). Looking back at 2012, it's hard to think of a more aimless and phoned-in Hollywood epic than this film. Jackson's oddly synthetic vistas – which take computer-generated imagery to its ugliest extreme – manage to overwhelm even the built-in charm of the Tolkien world, reducing it to flawless screensaver backdrops for disconnected figures to frolic in front of. (To this end, I didn't see the film in 48fps, but judging by the initial notices, I suspect this sped-up frame rate would have only exacerbated the artificial quality of the images.) Meanwhile, by jumping back in time to a pre-Frodo landscape, Jackson merely spends three hours building to supposed plot revelations that are either already well known or feel overly familiar (i.e. Bilbo gets the ring from Gollum, Gandalf oversees a powerful sword, Sauron angrily awakes). Beyond an occasionally amusing fairy-tale tone that yields some musty dwarf humor, very little is new or unexpected in this lazy cash grab, which, despite flailing about in a directionless fashion for most of its running time, paradoxically manages to feel as if it ends prematurely.

Skyfall (2012): In Skyfall, James Bond must reclaim prized information from and put a stop to an embittered fellow agent who's trying to air his dusty old grievances towards his prior female boss, in the process leaving innocent people in his wake, blowing shit up, and generally wreaking havoc on society. Again, just so that he can watch the helpless life drain from his old superior's eyes. $200 million was spent, the brightest Hollywood craftsmen were hired, and public areas of multiple international cities were temporarily closed down in the making of this film, all for this cruel and pointless plot which has now fostered one of the biggest entertainments of 2012. I'm reminded of Christopher Nolan's Inception and the way it hinged upon petty dramas (Cillian Murphy's daddy complex, the romantic failings of Leonardo DiCaprio) seemingly only to justify and provide dramatic stakes for its conceptual and technical spectacle, as if athletic bodies moving rapidly through space need "emotional depth." These are films that seem afraid to admit that they're just action movies. Here's the thing: with a chase scene through claustrophobic Bazaars, a fistfight atop a fast-moving train, a shot of a character soaring down a waterfall, and a final showdown featuring helicopters and explosives, Skyfall is most definitely an action movie, and not a particularly original one.

Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie (2012): I definitely have a threshold, as I assume many people do, for Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim's singular brand of absurdist comedy that varies slightly according to my disposition and the social environment I'm in while being exposed to it. It's fairly well known that there's a particular environment that...well...lends itself better to their work. I'm pretty certain it's not a theatrical setting, but nor should it necessarily be a solo venture. Nonetheless, I treated myself to a viewing of this bonkers achievement completely by my lonesome, and I have a feeling that some of its impact may have been hampered as a result. Part of the greatness of Tim and Eric is that they willingly inspire a variety of responses running the gamut from disgust to ambivalence to cultish enthusiasm, and therefore the tension in a room of people watching their comedy can play gloriously to its advantage. Anyway, this is all a roundabout way of saying Tim and Eric's Billion Dollar Movie wore out its welcome about 40 minutes in, and the fact that I was braving this thing alone seemed to prevent me from hanging on during the more trying digressions. Still, to its credit it has some of the funniest scenes and moments I've witnessed all year, most of which are too elusive and outright strange to put into words here.

Flirting with Disaster (1996): David O. Russell has always been at home with chaos and idiosyncrasies, with the eccentric spirits and side-plots that pepper the edges of his narratives. His second feature, while not quite the full realization of zaniness that marks I Heart Huckabees, Russell's most representative work (not of his filmography, but of the anarchic sensibility I've always felt brimming out of his three-act structures), nonetheless strikes a fine balance between off-kilter mayhem and an overarching conceit. Mary Tyler Moore, George Segal, Alan Alda, Lily Tomlin, Celia Weston, and David Patrick Kelly are all hilariously unstable as a neurotic Ben Stiller's would-be parents, and their supporting turns show Flirting with Disaster at its outlandish best. They're so strong, in fact, that the film loses energy and authenticity when it places emphasis on Stiller's slacker dramatic arc (his search for identity (his real parents) and stability (love)), and particularly when it resolves its combustible threads at the end with Stiller choosing his traditionally motherly wife (Patricia Arquette) rather than her adrift and lively foil (Téa Leoni). It's an affirmation of domesticity that seems to run counter to the fluid, eccentric worldview Russell appears to otherwise embrace.

Lolita (1962), Clockwork Orange (1971), and Barry Lyndon (1975): Revisiting these three Kubrick masterpieces at LACMA over the past few weeks – as well as visiting the museum's overwhelmingly comprehensive exhibit dedicated to the director – has constituted what I guarantee will stand out as one of my most memorable cinematic experiences of 2012, even during a year in which I attended Cannes and AFI. As my October tribute should already testify, I'm still a worshipper in the church of Stanley Kubrick, and having never witnessed his work on a big screen before, these screenings were something special. Lolita proved to be a far richer and funnier transitional film than I initially gave it credit for, anticipating with its barely concealed sexual innuendo and operatic performances much of what was to come for the director. In A Clockwork Orange, I was mesmerized by a complex and unresolvable ideological landscape that never quite struck me in my younger years as viscerally as it did now. And Barry Lyndon more than justifies its high ranking for me as one of the grandest and most beautiful of Kubrick's films in its ideal setting. So enveloping are its painterly images and exacting rhythms on a towering screen that I found myself emotionally wrecked by the end.

Silent Mountains, Singing Oceans, and Slivers of Time: Six Films by David Gatten: The intellectually dense materialist cinema of David Gatten has been my favorite discovery this year, thanks largely to a traveling retrospective that hit many of the country's major cities throughout 2012. This collection of films spreads throughout Gatten's major continuing project, Secret History of the Dividing Line, as supplementary experiments and tangential directions in the filmmaker's broadening array of conceptual explorations. From 1998, What the Water Said, Nos. 1-3 is the earliest venture in this program, and it is echoed in 2007 by Nos. 4-6. Comprising 33 minutes of Kodak film stock ravaged in varying ways by the tossings and turnings of the ocean, these works forgo Gatten's typically handsy approach in favor of a complete sacrifice to the artistic force of nature, ultimately offering a radically unconventional "document" of the sea that superficially resembles Brakhage's scratch films arrived at from an opposite pole. The two Film(s) for Invisible Ink (from 2006 and 2008, respectively) dive into serene minimalism to directly investigate a core concept running through Gatten's filmography: the relationship between the filmed image and the organic, shifting surface image (scratches, dust, hairs, etc.). (Note: the second part contains the most beautiful rack focuses I've ever seen, hands down.) Finally, Journals and Remarks (2009) and the two-part Shrimp Boat Log (2006/2010) are more conventional documentations of time, place, and texture, looking quite distinct from the rest of Gatten's work with their color photography and deceptively simple approaches. Still, a closer look at the origins of their making reveals more conceptual/structural gimmicks and heady ideas, which are the crux of Gatten's work.

Friday, December 7, 2012

What's Up, Doc? (1972) A Film by Peter Bogdanovich

Surfacing after the quiet, melancholy, restrained The Last Picture Show, Peter Bogdanovich showed himself to be a true chameleon, and an especially adept one, with his diametrically opposed follow-up What's Up, Doc?, a delightful homage to the great American film comedies (and sometimes foreign comedy) of the preceding six decades. Specifically, the film uses Howard Hawks' screwball gem Bringing Up Baby as a fundamental reference point for its structure, plotting, and characters, but along the way it also targets Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, Tati, Lubitsch, McCarey, Sturges, and Wilder, and features fleeting references to other non-comedic classics like Vertigo and Bullitt (the latter only a year old at that point). Bogdanovich, ever the film scholar, is creating a kaleidoscope of cinema pastiches, committing wholeheartedly to Godard's line of thinking regarding the inherent thievery of the medium. But, as a film made just a few years after the collapse of The Production Code and the introduction of new, still uncertain rating system in the MPAA, What's Up, Doc? is permitted an erotic energy only implicitly acted upon – and often avoided altogether – in the screwball comedies of the previous 40 years.

Here, Ryan O'Neal and Barbra Streisand replace Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn (David and Susan from Baby) as Howard Bannister and Judy Maxwell. O'Neal, the kind of unassuming star who can headline a film without making a particularly bold impression (and I say this in acknowledgment of it as a unique trait), is a perfect match for the absent-minded professor type seen so frequently in early American comedy and which Grant could play so well. Howard is a cluelessly geeky musicologist searching for the supposed inherent musicality of igneous rock formations (the film makes hilariously articulate use of his out-there pastime) who is about to be trapped in an outlandishly formal marital arrangement with his fiancée Eunice Burns (Madeline Kahn). In his well-tailored suits, his corny bow ties, and his boxy glasses (a getup that can be traced back to Harold Lloyd), he screams uptight and malformed, but Judy, in addition to finding him an attractive man stuck in the body of an out-of-touch nerd, recognizes his debilitatingly plain lifestyle and sees something inside of him in need of awakening. She then sets as her goal the complete upending of his life, assuming at some point along the way he will fall for her.

It's a screwball setup that is familiar to the smallest detail: the male heading towards a passionless marriage tied to old-world values confronted by a brassy, sensual, and unapologetically disruptive love object, wherein he is forced to ultimately re-evaluate his standards of living. Bogdanovich even echoes key plot developments and sight gags used in the setup of Baby such as the female's pseudo-accidental ripping of the back of the male's suit-coat, her role-playing as his wife during professional circumstances and talking over him when he tries to deny the fabrication, her disruption and near-sabotaging of his pursuit of a large grant from a professional colleague, and the integration of an object on the loose that needs to be re-captured (a leopard in Baby, igneous rocks in What's Up, Doc?). Other stray allusions are scattered across the film: Howard finds Judy in his hotel room lounging in a bubble bath, reprising Tony Curtis' identical behavior in Some Like it Hot; a secretive conversation at a festive dinner takes place underneath a table, borrowed from the same film; Howard and Judy sing a duet on a piano, obliquely reminiscent of Ralph Bellamy and Irene Dunne belting one out in The Awful Truth; Howard and Judy must negotiate a financial mix-up towards the end of the film, recalling Clark Gable's humble sacrifice of reward cash in favor of a measly $10 at the conclusion of It Happened One Night. The list goes on.

Instead of feeling like Bogdanovich is hollowly parroting his beloved classics, these varied reference points are given life by the film's singular location, its lively performances, and especially its extratextual context (1972 and the onset of a different approach to cinematic romance and sex), allowing it to feel like one last hurrah for the old tradition as Hollywood ushers in a new, uncertain era of comedy. That the film is set at a musicology convention at a hotel seems particularly apt; not only is Howard in a transitional state as a character, traversing from one mode of being to another, but so is the genre Bogdanovich is working in. Throughout the film, Bogdanovich cleverly manipulates the sexual energy, comedically towing the line between the polite innuendo of the past and the looser approach to the human body brought about by the sexual revolution. When Howard finds Judy in the bubble bath and begs her to leave, she playfully threatens to get out naked, prompting shrieking discomfort from Howard. One gets the sense that if Howard were not so uptight, a sex scene might have unfolded right then and there, but instead all that happens is a rolling-on-the-floor simulacrum of sex with Judy in a towel and Howard in a suit, itself an image of physical contact that would never have been permitted in the 30's. Later, when the two finally do kiss, Judy is extremely forward in her sexual advances, letting down her hair and spreading her body out towards him. When they begin passionately making out on the floor, Bogdanovich slyly cuts to a shot of a shocked janitor walking in – a variation on the default gesture of passivity marking early screwballs. In these instances, Bogdanovich is overtly creating a dissonance between the withholding of desire and the outright expression of it, a dichotomy that marks the juncture at which the film rests in the history of American comedy.

What also lends What's Up, Doc? a weight of its own is the fact that Bogdanovich, having already proven his chops as a Fordian dramatist, has a remarkable sense of how to patiently build a joke. The film's claim to fame is a spectacularly lengthy chase scene through the hilly streets of San Francisco that is the full realization of the Looney Tunes sensibility alluded to in the title. Trying to escape the convention, Howard and Judy (at this point, Judy has sufficiently charmed her object of desire) hop on a stray bicycle with a grocery bin attached in the front, loading up the four overnight bags uproariously misplaced and mixed up throughout the film. One contains Howard's rocks, another contains Judy's underwear, yet another contains a bag of jewels, and the final bag is filled with confidential government paperwork. The ensuing sequence features the owners of each bag chasing the two lovers to reclaim their respective property: Eunice's fiancé, a horde of fellow musicologists' colleague, an old women's jewels, and a gang of secret agents' prized information. (It goes without saying, but once the chase balloons inevitably into urban chaos, policemen catch on as well.) Chock full of spun-out cars, swift changes of direction, and near-catastrophic evasions of obstacles, it's a manic cartoon brought to life that is informed by a Tati-esque sense of the inherent confusion of the modern urban environment.

The best thing about this sequence is the play with space and movement, as well as the physical interaction of bodies within that framework, so the mad logistics of what's actually going on take a backseat, which is somewhat true of What's Up, Doc? as a whole. Plot-wise, the film is never quite as tight or satisfying as the great Hawks, Sturges, and Wilder comedies Bogdanovich is drawing from (the whole bag thing, for instance, gets awfully confusing, and not always in a funny way), but O'Neal, Streisand, Kahn, and the rest of the ensemble are so assured in their roles that they supply a cinematic energy to compensate for the moments when the script lags or feels overly familiar. Similarly, Bogdanovich's compositional discipline and knack for color coding (the faded tones of Howard and Eunice's clothing are contrasted by the hotel's vibrancy as well as Streisand's bright blue eyes and, with the exception of her hip detective look, passionately colored outfits) offers a dimension of New Hollywood formalism to a genre not previously known for visual flair. Both qualities give What's Up, Doc? its precise balance of homage and conscious separation.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Zero Dark Thirty (2012) A Film by Kathryn Bigelow

The slight but crucial difference in Kathryn Bigelow's directorial approach to the sensitive issues of the war on terror between 2010's The Hurt Locker and her latest film, Zero Dark Thirty, is crystallized by the choices of music to accompany the final shots and end credits of each film. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow unleashed sludge metal band Ministry's "Fear (Is Big Business)" over her final shot of an adrenaline-fueled Jeremy Renner trudging through the desolate streets of Iraq. The image, intentionally or not, is like an advertisement for masculinity and war (the song's title explicitly suggests the noxious collaboration of fear-mongering and capitalism), and the music beneath it came across like an attempt to reflect how badass it is to tear the flesh of a faceless enemy. Fast forward two turbulent years past the actual culmination of a decade-long manhunt of Al-Qaeda mastermind Osama Bin Laden, the continued involvement – deadly and arguably pointless – of the US military in the Middle East, and the re-election of Barack Obama, and Bigelow now sees it fit to conclude another topical pressure-cooker of a film with something a bit more ambiguous and sophisticated: the somber strains of Alexandre Desplat's score, a piece that suggests traversing through uncertain terrain with its minor-key atmosphere and churning rhythms. The image, too, a close-up of Jessica Chastain's weathered face as it fails to tie up the decade-long emotional journey of her character throughout this high-stakes-heavy film, is enigmatic and nondescript rather than pushy and on-the-nose. It opens rather than closes its meaning.

The same could be said of Zero Dark Thirty as a whole. As a film covering many of the most significant political events of our time from the perspective of the United States, it's inevitable that it can only be so ambiguous, but Bigelow's commitment to never patting her audience on the back in spite of the many "triumphs," minor and major, in the film's plot, is worth commending. In fact, in a scene halfway through the film in which Chastain, playing a feisty CIA operative named Maya, lectures a group of soldiers about to raid Bin Laden's stowaway on the many possible "narratives" (her word) revolving around the terrorist leader's activity, it's almost as if Bigelow is directly acknowledging that our entire understanding of the Middle East is just one of multiple potential narratives. That what we think we know about how the pursuit of Bin Laden was treated may be false or only partially true. That what we think we understand about American soldiers and about Iraqi "enemies" might be unfounded. These are stirring possibilites with a myriad of unsettling implications, not the kind of self-congratulatory fodder that the film's sensationalist marketing tagline – "The Greatest Manhunt in History" – implies.

Zero Dark Thirty does, however, prove to be a great manhunt. Bigelow, taming her impulse towards tacky slow-motion money shots, is the filmmaker for the job; shooting largely in underlit interrogation zones, cramped office spaces, and clammy CIA bases in Pakistan, she makes even the most uneventful conversations vibrate with intensity and purpose, never losing sight of the film's major unresolved conflict even as agents dilly-dally for months without committing to decisive moves. And for a film that is so nerve-wracking from start to finish, it's remarkable that it manages to be so defined by inaction, by the inefficiency and lack of progress marking the search for Osama Bin Laden and the calming of constant national threat. During one of the film's most gripping passages (note: it's hard to commit to such a statement given the film's fluidity), Maya pressures her crumbling superior (Kyle Chandler) into following her lead and hurrying up on the active pursuit of Bin Laden at the expense of smaller, more insignificant CIA actions by writing a daily tally in red marker on his office window marking the days past since she proposed her belief in the exact location of the head terrorist. It's a sequence that is tense not for any visceral action but for the feeling that the more time passes the more innocent people are at risk, an anxiety that surely speaks to the national discomfort regarding the continued survival, 10 years after 9/11, of Al-Qaeda's most dangerous movers and shakers.

Bigelow resurrects that feeling, perhaps for many still unresolved, by opening the film on a black screen set to the panicked overlapping sounds of distress calls as the Twin Towers were being attacked. The absence of imagery is in many ways a brilliantly universal maneuver allowing for the audience to connect their own recollections of the tragedy to the soundtrack and underscoring how close the memory of the attack still feels. The voices are so intimate, so horrifyingly present, that the visceral impact of the tragedy looms heavily over the entire film, inspiring aggravation when the CIA tactics seems to be reaching dead ends and an unsettling reversal of sympathy when the cruel efforts of the interrogators are being acted out on seemingly innocent peripheral players. A stray snippet of a Barack Obama speech on television in which the president addresses the nation's refusal to stoop to torture strategies to preserve the moral fiber of the country starts to sound detached and hypocritical when placed aside the numerous scenes of brutality in which there remains a discomforting sensation that the recipient of the torture truly does not have revealing information to give. In such instances, Bigelow is making the audience complicit in the morally problematic processes of asking questions and demanding answers on such a vast international scale.

The aforementioned Obama snippet is the only time Zero Dark Thirty bothers to explicitly show the leader ostensibly calling the shots and signing off on the procedures that constitute the film's plot. Otherwise, Bigelow's interested in the workmanlike perseverance powering the engine of Obama's (and for the first portion of the film, Bush's) approaches, as well as the layers of bureaucracy that must be traversed to act upon even the simplest of propositions. Higher and higher authorities come and go throughout the film – Chandler, Jennifer Ehle, Mark Duplass, Mark Strong, Jeff Mash, and finally CIA Director James Gandolfini all make appearances as figures to whom Maya must explain her plans of attack and convince them of their legitimacy – and their resilience to Maya's ambition seems bottomless. This political battle is one in which only absolute certainty backed up by proof is acceptable, and so much of what Maya does is based on a mix of (often dead-on) intuition and incomplete (but very convincing) information. One of the intriguing questions the film leaves on the table is whether or not a government and CIA more open to Maya's impulses would have stopped the bleeding considerably sooner.

Zero Dark Thirty is photographed for the most part in a succession of medium shots fixed on faces, the camera like an impassioned observer as it carefully and never frenetically scans the events in front of it. Like The Hurt Locker, the film showcases Bigelow as a master of non-judgmentally depicting high-stakes processes, subjectively expressing the mindset of a character in a given occupation. But if The Hurt Locker's focus on a proverbial war addict gave rise to a highly questionable approach to the ethical dilemmas of the war, Zero Dark Thirty's concentration on a women with an eager commitment to peace and resolution, not to mention a sophisticated understanding of the pratfalls of American foreign affairs (at one point early on, she suggestively implicates the US government in many of the problems they're facing), sheds a more compassionate and complex light on the troubling battle against terrorism. There are less than a handful of action set pieces in the film – the most significant being the final, and far from flawless, raid on Bin Laden's dwellings – which allows the audience to suspend a critical eye on the otherwise behind-closed-doors CIA dealings. All of this makes Zero Dark Thirty a richer, more mature film than its predecessor, confronting more closely and unflinchingly than any post-9/11 American film to date the question of what exactly it means to be a part of this country during a time of such devastating crossroads.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Screening Notes #15

The Loneliest Planet (2011): At 42, Julia Loktev is a really brave and confident filmmaker. I know this because she banks the entire success or failure of her second feature (well, Gael Garcia Bernal's presence was probably a bit of a safety net, but still) on a single 3 or 4 second gesture in the midst of the only sudden spike of concrete stakes in the film, a moment that is paramount to the emotional arcs beforehand and after. Without this brilliant paradigm shift, The Loneliest Planet might have resembled a mere pale imitation of its closest aesthetic cousins: Kelly Reichardt's Meek's Cutoff and Gus Van Sant's Gerry. With it, Loktev transforms a film that is superficially just a collection of shots of a young married couple being guided through a hiking trip in the Caucasus Mountains into a profound – seriously, profound is about the only adequate word to describe this – study of the narrow line between thinking you know someone on an intimate level and realizing you don't in fact know anything. Loktev's uneasy, hard-cutting sound design and languorous visual rhythms are simultaneously entrancing and uncomfortable, and once the decisive moment comes, the tension that the rest of the film spends slowly, organically diffusing is nearly unbearable. As close as the Reichardt and the Van Sant movies are to my heart, neither of them shook me up on a visceral level quite this much.

His Girl Friday (1940): My clear favorite of the Hawks films I've seen (I haven't seen nearly enough for this preference to hold any water), His Girl Friday is thrillingly energized and politically incorrect, combining a satire of cynical hard journalism and a comedy of remarriage in adventurous ways. Hawks' sense of humor here is bracingly dark, particularly in an extended set piece that comprises most of the film's second half when a death-row inmate hides away in an office desk while Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, a horde of fast-talking newsmen, and very skeptical law enforcers prattle on in competing directions, their voices overlapping with the fervent intensity of the dialogue in Bringing Up Baby. The gravity of His Girl Friday grows from the knowledge that death is looming just around the corner, ready to intrude on the plot's maniacal accumulation of facts, speculations, and exaggerations, and indeed it does at one point, catapulting a dismissal as brisk and no-nonsense as Hawks' filmmaking. When the eventual reuniting of Grant and Russell as lovers does occur in the final five minutes atop the first instance of non-diegetic music in the film, it collides awkwardly with Hawks' calculated tone throughout, but aside from this minor hiccup the director never allows a second for sympathy, or even an understanding of this seemingly amoral professional environment, to develop.

Midnight (1939), The Philadelphia Story (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), and The Palm Beach Story (1942): Does distance make the heart grow fonder? Each of these films sets out, at least partly, to tackle that question by separating their central lovers for a substantial portion of their middle sections. Ultimately, it's the two Sturges films that come closest to proving the old adage, if only because they approach an unanswerable curiosity with the batty sense of logic necessary to access it, while the Cukor and Leisen films reach for finales of romantic grandeur that are not fully warranted by their uneasy mixes of cynicism and corniness. I get queasy when The Philadelphia Story pairs its borderline misogynist attempt to "correct" Katharine Hepburn's star persona with an elegantly shot but insincere late night swoon between her and Jimmy Stewart (the romance is tampered by the sensation of Cukor putting Hepburn in her place), or when Midnight's errant couple (Don Ameche and Claudette Colbert) crescendos to marriage despite an hour-and-a-half worth of separation and bickering (sure, to an extent this is what screwball comedy is about, but Ameche and Colbert never once look like they're having fun together). On the contrary, I can't help but smile at Sturges' simultaneous embrace and mockery of romantic comedy tropes, nowhere as hilarious as the shot in The Lady Eve of Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck building to a climactic kiss while a horse butts its head into the frame.

Argo (2012): Argo’s confused, ultimately myopic perspective shines through in its clash of tones. Affleck is clearly at home during the scenes affectionately mocking the movie business, but when he has to swiftly cut back to injustice in Iran to service the narrative, he resorts to leaden orchestral drones and hectic imagery of throngs of gunslinging, hell-raising Iranian dissidents. It’s possible to make the case that Affleck is deliberately pointing out the frivolity of an industry that can so casually muscle up the capital for a fake product and quite possibly know nothing about the conflict they’re helping alleviate, but the delight he takes in representing these quick-witted, narcissistic producer figures clearly overshadows any stab at social commentary. Affleck casts himself as the CIA hero, which is telling: this is a self-congratulatory celebration of how witty, persevering, and sensitive we Americans, and especially those Hollywood types, can be.

Saraband (2003): See my updated Bergman list for my thoughts.

Magic Mike (2012): Seeing this again, I was struck first by how great it is (perhaps even better than I initially gave it credit for being), and then by a couple details I hadn't explicitly noted in my earlier review. One thing is Soderbergh's tic of composing his characters in the lower half of the frame in expansive medium shots, letting large areas of activity dance on top of and around the ostensible focal point. We see this most memorably when Tatum and Pettyfer flirt with the birthday girls at the night club early on (the frame at this point teeming with party lights and people), and in a later, comparatively tame moment when Tatum and Horn are having a beer in front of a go-kart course. In these instances, Soderbergh treats the eye to the spatial context of his characters while also rendering them insignificant in their larger landscapes. My other takeaway was how emphatically the film reverses Laura Mulvey's Male Gaze theory, particularly in Horn's first trip to the stripclub, where for an unusually extended period of time she scans the stripper routines, her blank, slightly smug expression providing a possible entry point into identification for female viewers.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011): I nearly beelined out of my apartment at 1 AM in search of LA's best sushi when the credits for this scrumptious-looking documentary began to roll. The greatest pleasures of Jiro Dreams of Sushi – and this could be a good or bad thing, depending on your expectations – are the frame-filling close-ups of shimmering sashimi wrapped up by master chef Jiro Ono, an 85-year-old workaholic with Ozu-like levels of quotidian precision and no plans of retirement (sidenote: I've always admired this distinctly Japanese sense of humility and determination, and this film is a showcase for it). On a primal level, director David Gelb's film is a sustained romance with what I can only assume is his favorite food, replete with images of fresh fish, tanks of unidentified saucy concoctions, and select, high-paying groups of adoring consumers. The whole thing is set to bittersweet Max Richter tunes that underscore the sad truth of food movies: the actual food is out of reach, the screen impervious to our desire for a taste.

Mean Girls (2004): Once upon a time I was a cynical middle school student who held an uninformed prejudice against Mean Girls because everyone else at school liked it. I recently got around to catching it on the satellite TV programming of a Virgin America flight (because all the on-demand features, including the so-called foreign ones like Damsels in Distress and To Rome with Love, would cost me more than it sets me back to watch a studio picture in a theater these days), and I was pleasantly surprised, feeling a sensation in the gut in which I realized all the ways I've grown (and not grown) since 2004. The movie, directed by some guy named Mark Waters and, more importantly, written by Tina Fey, is surprisingly sharp, honest, and quotable even when it's trafficking – self-consciously, of course – in all the overblown clichés of high school life that I so vehemently despise. So, whatever, it's pretty good. But the sappy final thirty minutes do threaten to spoil all of Fey's prior commentary, so that's a fairly damning blow against it.

Rise of the Guardians (2012): In the realm of kiddie animation, I go to Dreamworks for their usual stark contrast to the monolith of "prestige" that is Pixar: their fun and unapologetic genre pastiches, their nods to the complexity and wealth of possible human behavior, their forward-thinking and often decidedly unreal digital animation, and their occasionally sophisticated sense of humor. Of course, they do allow plenty of duds in the mix, and Rise of the Guardians is one of them, weirdly fascinating and visually dazzling though it may be. The film borrows the cut-and-dry fatalism, black-and-white worldview, and cornball sentimentality of Pixar, finally dumping its antagonist (who's only fleetingly humanized) down a black hole to hell and elevating its group of iconic protagonists to saintly levels because of their steadfast belief in mere hope illogically conquering darkness (a concept that makes less and less sense in today's world). Still, I like how the film brings new shadings to archaic holiday myths, such as how it renders Santa as a tattooed Cossack or how it playfully suggests that all fantastical figures work together in a sort of capitalist framework that can actually fail if business dwindles (how's that for holiday cheer, kids?), and I especially like the film's robust visuals, which luxuriate in wintry textures and hazy pillows of light that are simultaneously magical and naturalistic. No wonder Roger Deakins was the visual consultant on the film.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Flight (2012) A Film by Robert Zemeckis

For a director who has spent the last decade toiling in the still nebulous terrain of computer generated imagery, Robert Zemeckis' return to live-action filmmaking, Flight, is decidedly grounded, eschewing the radically innovative technological impulse of Zemeckis’ past work and centering its focus on individuals making do with their lot in life. With the exception of its jolting first-act spectacle – the disastrous flight from which the film gains its title – Zemeckis' latest commits to a low-key atmosphere of psychological introspection, shifting the director's emphasis on soaring movement, eye-popping lights, and huge ensembles to a much humbler canvas: the contours and minuscule eruptions in Denzel Washington's pudgy, sunken face, the use of conversation as the primary dramatic activity, and a pastoral working-class milieu where the villain is as small-scale as a nip of Smirnoff. Zemeckis reportedly sacrificed his initial sum of cash to encourage Paramount to back the project, and the personal compromise clearly reflects the artistic development. Flight feels like a conscious simplification of expression for the 61-year-old Spielberg descendant even as it repurposes his showstopping wizardry to less transparent ends.

At the center of Flight is the towering performance of Washington as alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker. By now it's become relatively par for the course that Washington should contribute an air of authenticity and tactility to even the most paper-thin Hollywood stories, overshadowing and sometimes obliterating the integrity of the supporting characters and subplots around him. That's nearly the case here, though it's also fair to say that Flight never intends itself to be anything less than a muscular Denzel Washington vehicle; Washington is the spotlight, and the fact that secondary elements of the script feel underdeveloped or weakened by heavy-handed execution only supplies greater significance to Washington's act of dramatic immersion. The film opens with Whip dozing after an all-night binge of sex and drugs with airline hostess Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez, who floats naked in front of Zemeckis' calm camera), downing the remains of any open bottles, snorting cocaine, and then scurrying to a flight he has to pilot that morning. It's a shocking introduction to this character, playing against Washington's characteristically composed, morally firm screen persona, and the film feels the repercussions of Whip's hastiness on its ensuing 90 minutes.

What's interesting, and a thorny decision by both Zemeckis and screenwriter John Gatins, is that the subsequent plane crash results not from Whip's questionable physical state – he exhibits remarkable grace under pressure despite his condition, and the film makes brazenly clear that Whip's the only guy who could have avoided a potentially tragic massacre and orchestrated a far less fatal open-field slide – but from an unpredictable malfunction with the aircraft. Laying the blame directly on Whip's alcoholism would have been grounds for safe and easy moralizing, but by introducing an outside variable Flight both erects the dichotomy of fate and chance that is one of Zemeckis' key concerns and forces Whip's self-analysis to come about on internal rather than external terms. After the crash, a generous attorney named Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) goes to work on brushing under the rug reports of Whip's incriminating blood work, so the threat of imprisonment still looms over his future, but the fundamental conflict of Flight is nonetheless firmly within his psyche: the question of whether or not he will admit to his alcoholism, stop living a life entrenched in lies, and ultimately clear his conscience and secure his identity.

This is some heavy existential stuff, typical of the mysticism that has always been on the fringes of Zemeckis' body of work. In itself, Flight's preoccupation with philosophical issues of the self, the divine, and the relationship between the two is commendable at a Hollywood level. Unfortunately, Zemeckis has the tendency – already especially evident in the cerebral sci-fi Contact – to overplay the Big Ideas inherent in his material, feeling the need to layer on directorial cues when rich subtexts are already self-evident in the action. For instance, when Whip's foil, the heroin addict Nicole (Kelly Reilly), is first introduced, we hear Red Hot Chili Peppers' downer hit "Under the Bridge" on a radio nearby, a tune about loneliness and isolation that speaks all-too-neatly to both Whip and Nicole's juncture in life (Whip has been abandoned by his wife and son, and Nicole is mistreated by a rotten landlord). Later, Hugh takes Whip to the crash site for a glance at the wreckage, which – by virtue of conveniently being on the grounds of a monastery – doubles as an opportunity for Zemeckis to spell out his religious belief. Yet while the result of the crash (only 6 casualties rather than a whole plane's worth) is cited as an "act of God" on multiple occasions, the same phrase is used to apply to the rare form of cancer suffered by a young man Whip encounters when hospitalized after the accident, as well as the unexpected aircraft defects. God, it seems, is capable of hostility as much as benevolence. It's this thematic ambiguity that balances out some of Zemeckis' more heavy-handed gestures.

Flight, however, despite its theological core, thankfully does not lay all responsibility for human affairs on God: though the divine may have a part in major existential happenings, it cannot continue to play a role in individual lives. Put simply, at a certain point a man must take what he’s given and decide his own fate. This is where Flight gets interesting, and where Washington takes center stage. The middle portion of the film is dedicated to charting Whip's on-and-off relationship with alcohol, his interior battle with addiction after miraculously surviving a traumatic event. On either side of him is Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood) and Harling Mays (John Goodman), two longtime friends placed, fairly schematically, on opposite ends of the spectrum: the former is a supportive colleague and the latter is a caricatured druggie who conspicuously guzzles Budweisers while driving (the film's attitude towards Harling is one of its muddiest points; his thoroughly irresponsible behavior is always supported by blaring musical accompaniments and rockstar tracking shots, shifting the tone from somber character study to amped-up stoner comedy on a dime). Whip is tugged every which way by these diametric points of reference (perhaps influencing the naming of his character), but ultimately it's the time he spends alone that proves most illuminating. As he hooks up with Nicole and starts living with her in his inherited Georgia farmhouse, the improvement in her trajectory only emphasizes how stagnant and even self-destructive Whip is. At one point, she returns from her new grocery store job late at night to find Whip watching old family videotapes in the living room (assumptions about drug addiction and class are not the only clichés Flight traffics in), a collection of empty bottles surrounding him as his sentences descend into incomprehensibility (Washington is so convincing in this scene that I'd be surprised if he wasn't at least half as drunk on set as his character is onscreen).

At a certain point, it seems as if every one of Flight's strengths (its quiet introspection, its largely effective supporting ensemble, the stock it puts in the power of an individual) is also hampered by a weakness (the sudden burst of a gaudy genre trope, the introduction of a poorly written character, the use of religion or class as an explanatory umbrella for narrative action), but fortunately nothing ever does pierce the surface of Washington's beautifully realized character. Everything here has been integrated to poignant effect: the insecure covering of his lower lip, the knee-jerk use of mouth spray to combat the stench of alcohol, the donning of dark sunglasses to ineffectively conceal intoxication or a high (occurring at two pivotal points in the film: before the flight and before the legal hearing that will decide his fate), and the frequent resorting to an uninflected one-word answer to avoid facing the truth. These telling details accumulate into one of the most honest, genuinely moving studies of addiction Hollywood has ever produced, something that not even the film's sentimental coda – in which Whip directly reports of his failings so that the film's moral compass is clear-cut – can undo.

Monday, November 19, 2012

We Won't Grow Old Together (1972) A Film by Maurice Pialat

Maurice Pialat's second full-length feature We Won't Grow Old Together is a devastating exploration of a slowly disintegrating romantic affair that is about as brutally honest about the self-destructive interdependency of relationships as any film ever made. As is typical of French cinema of this era, it concerns a brutish, self-involved artist type and his ethereal, sophisticated partner, a tendency seemingly reflecting an autobiographical realm for filmmakers like Godard, Truffaut, and of course Pialat. But whereas Godard and Truffaut's early romances are tinged with a certain swagger, Pialat's work is defined by its serene neutrality. We Won't Grow Old Together takes as its subject the relentless coiling and recoiling of a relationship, with characters variably looking villainous and sympathetic, and Pialat's camera remains a curious, impartial observer, never quite passing judgment even during the lovers' more explosive fights. There's an unknowable complexity to human relationships, Pialat understands, and his respectful approach preserves this truth.

Things get even more complicated in adulterous relationships, which We Won't Grow Old Together proves – imperceptibly at first – to be studying. Jean (Jean Yanne) is married to Françoise (Macha Méril) but has been involved with a mistress named Catherine (Marlène Jobert) for six years. Françoise's screen time is radically truncated in favor of Jean and Catherine's, making it appear initially as if Jean and Catherine in fact married and Françoise is the mistress (that Françoise embodies a level of acceptance and even support for her husband's extramarital activity is an idiosyncrasy I can only interpret as being part of a different mid-century French mindset). But Pialat's choice to focus on the relationship of unmarried lovers is pivotal: this is a situation in which no formal agreements have been made and only emotional rather than concrete stakes are on the line. Such a relationship superficially grants a lack of concern for one another's feelings, and Jean takes this to the extreme by assuming a degree of license for psychologically and emotionally abusive behavior. For Pialat, this arrangement is fertile ground for emotional honesty.

The film begins with Jean inviting Catherine to the Camargue region where he is visiting for one of his several odd jobs as a cameraman. (Jean is, as so many New Wave protagonists are, a filmmaker and a cinephile, and his sporadic references to great directors are the vehicles for Pialat's own cinephilia.) On this trip, Jean treats Catherine like swine (or, as he puts it, a rat) for no discernible reason, showering her with bitter remarks and disturbingly direct (albeit untruthful) summaries of her personality. We learn that Catherine is an aspiring actress with inconsistent success, and Jean's cruel behavior seems to stem as much from his inability to possess her artistically as it is to do so personally. During these spiteful rants, Pialat's detached camera (either remaining wide or fixed in eye-level two shot, but only rarely relaying information in the shot-reverse-shot formula) makes plain the angelic composure of Catherine in contrast to the animalistic tendencies of Jean, which is not so much a passive submission to Jean's vitriol as it is an assertion of her own strength. Among its many other compassionate qualities, We Won't Grow Old Together is a celebration of Catherine's wisdom and resolve.

Lest it seem unwise that Catherine remain involved in such a problematic relationship, let me point to the ways in which Pialat displays an understanding of the complexity of human behavior and how breaking free from long-term relationships is never as easy as simply walking away. After a certain length of time watching resolution follow psychological combat, it becomes clear that the film is adopting a structure of repetition: Jean explodes at Catherine, Catherine deflects, Jean returns to her to offer cool tenderness, and the cycle repeats. The closest the film comes to schematism is in a too-clever cut from Catherine declaring her wish to never see Jean again (or something to that effect) to a shot of Jean picking up Catherine from a business meeting presumably only a day or two later. Aside from this rather calculated effect, Pialat allows great space – through pauses, through cresting and falling tension, through wordless sequences of narrative cushioning – for the vulnerable emotional landscape between the two to develop organically. The film does not follow a tight-knit timeline either: one moment, the lovers are conversing in Jean's car in Paris; the next, they're at Catherine's mother's (Muse Dalbray) seaside cottage. Dissolution and reconciliation, as unwise a cycle as it may seem given the destructive circumstances, is occurring at a naturalistic pace that is only obscured slightly by Pialat's steady fascination with the process of break-up, which manifests itself in an elliptical cutting rhythm that often forgoes the chunks of time the two spend apart to focus on moments of connection.

Pialat balances Jean's aggression with scenes of comparative serenity that, if not quite capable of justifying the continuation of this affair, at least pose high points that suggest why Jean and Catherine got this far in the first place. Of particular note is the section of the film spent by the sea, where the neutralizing effect of the ocean and Catherine's parents seems to illuminate an otherwise subsumed affection between the two that is crystallized in a lovely scene of late-night waltzing. Suggested by a single long take of Jean and Catherine in the middle of a crowd, the scene shares the rejuvenating ambiance of a similar moment in Claire Denis' 35 Shots of Rum, but unlike Denis' climax, which seems to crystallize undercurrents in the rest of the film, the peace and quiet rendered here is only fleeting. When they return to the cottage, Jean makes a sexual advance on Catherine during a comfortable embrace in bed and upon rejection finds himself tearing her shirt and throwing another fit. It's harsh and disruptive, but utterly plausible in the rugged emotional terrain cultivated by Pialat throughout the film.

We Won't Grow Old Together pulls a fascinating paradigm shift in its third act by placing sudden emphasis on Jean independently coming to terms with the cruelty of his behavior. Faced with a Catherine whose patience is wearing increasingly thin, Jean must consider the question of whether or not making a concerted effort to resolve issues is worthwhile. Françoise returns crucially in this section to side wholeheartedly with the abused Catherine, even as she calmly directs her husband towards an overdue resolution. Here, Pialat peels back Jean's rigid surfaces to reveal a clumsy, fundamentally sensitive beast underneath. It's the kind of radical openness and enduring compassion that cinema rarely has the time, energy, or intelligence for, and it transforms the film from an insightful study of a romantic relationship to a broader, more devastating investigation into human frailty. I can't think of a shot that could better clarify this than We Won't Grow Old Together's perfect parting gesture: an image, repeated from earlier in the film, of Catherine flailing about joyfully in the ocean, overtaken here and there by a wave. It's an impression of happiness that will likely haunt Jean forever, representing a kind of emblem of the casualties of his behavior even after any specific memory of Catherine has faded.

Friday, November 16, 2012

On Showboating, Oblivion, and Tom Hanks

If you've seen the fascinating disaster that is Cloud Atlas, you may be interested in my new review over at The Daily Notebook. This is one of those films where the fact that nothing "works" is exactly why it works. Genres, plots, and images collide, converse, and ultimately crumble, and A-list actors engage in a dress-up party. What's not to like?

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Out of Sight (1998) A Film by Steven Soderbergh

The characters in Steven Soderbergh’s films are often defined by a particular moral code and the extent to which they’re willing to bend or break it. Out of Sight, a brisk, stylish popcorn movie that belongs to the more commercial half of Soderbergh's directing persona but is just as distinctive as the rest of the his output, offers a poignant expression of this theme in the shape of an illicit romance between Jack Foley (George Clooney), a charming bank robber, and Karen Sisco (Jennifer Lopez), the US Marshal on his tail. Inherent in the premise are romantic comedy as well as crime thriller undertones, and Soderbergh plays each out to its logical extreme without ever making the film fit squarely in one genre. A master of tone, he is instead able to infuse the breezy two hours with an unrelenting sense of tossed-off cool, lending a feeling of detachment that is both comic and haunting. The result is a work that points ahead to Soderbergh's star-studded Ocean trilogy even as it attains a dramatic gravity never quite reached by that slick franchise.

In fact, the Ocean movies may have never occurred had Soderbergh not detected and exploited the oozing charisma of George Clooney, which provides the fuel that runs Out of Sight and ultimately so many of the actor's subsequent films. (This is not to say Clooney hadn't already proven his chops in film and television (I haven't comprehensively surveyed the actor's pre-'98 career), but that Out of Sight was ostensibly the first major motion picture to place so much stock in his low-key magnetism.) As Jack, Clooney is compulsively watchable; confident, quick-witted, level-headed, and forever armed with flirtatious banter or silencing one-liners, he's able to make even a death threat in the midst of a bank robbery sound comforting and easygoing. It's obvious that a man this affable couldn't find himself stuck in jail for too long, though he does get arrested early on after an impulsive inner-city robbery that the film eventually cycles its way back around to in its fractured chronology. Prison is treated throughout Out of Sight as an entirely non-threatening limbo zone for the criminals Jack surrounds himself with, an inevitability that comes and goes in an almost arbitrary fashion. It's a trope that is in keeping with Soderbergh's forward-moving outlook on life, his propensity to underplay external circumstances in favor of internal stakes.

This is a tendency that speaks directly to Out of Sight. Soderbergh cares less about the physical markers of one's worldview than he does about how worldview shapes a way of personally relating to the world (at one point in Magic Mike, Channing Tatum dumbfoundedly blurts "I am not what I do," which is about as close to a direct summary of the director's outlook as he'll allow). A perfect example: Soderbergh stages Jack and Karen's first meeting in the claustrophobic trunk of a getaway car where Jack has temporarily kidnapped Karen after escaping from prison, about as enclosed and separated a space as possible from the outer world. In this tight, awkward physical scenario, Jack and Karen have only their words, their thoughts, and their body language to rely on – they can't even see each other's faces. Accordingly, there's a strange, hushed intimacy to the voices in this scene as the two drift from the obvious topic at hand to small-talk concerning movies and love stories. Even though Karen pulls a gun on Jack once the car has stopped and the trunk has opened (back in the outside world, social roles are reclaimed), it's obvious that there's romantic chemistry during this smooth ride of darkness, and after it the film becomes increasingly focused on their ill-fated attempts to revisit that indescribable feeling while upholding professional differences.

The truth is, however, that love can't realistically be acted upon for such diametrically opposed figures, so the few overt love scenes in Out of Sight feel like dreams more than concrete occurrences, making the final irresolvability of Jack and Karen's romance that much more tragic. The film is seductively old-fashioned in its approach to cinematic romance, presenting love as an ideal escape from the constricting boundaries of life. In a key sequence, one of Soderbergh's finest in two-and-a-half decades as a director, Jack visits Karen at a lounge and woos her with his soothing verbal play before the two retreat to a hotel room to make love. Shot in warm tones in front of snowy Detroit panoramas reduced to luscious blobs of blue and white, the entire scene is lovely, but it's elevated to something haunting and mysterious by the somnambulant rhythm of Soderbergh's cutting and the actors' movements. Here, Jack and Karen seem to move differently and speak differently than they do under the professional circumstances of the rest of the film, with flirtation bubbling out of every gesture. Soderbergh takes his time to show the two in any sort of contextualizing shot, instead remaining fixed on their faces and their bodies glowing against the moody nightscape. This lack of context – it is unclear both when and where exactly the scene takes place in the frame of the narrative – only bolsters the sense of love as an escape, something pure and possibly unreachable within the lives led by these characters.

Fortunately, the situations surrounding Jack and Karen's central romance are compelling in their own right, and provide an understanding of why the two leads are bound by their respective lifestyles. Subplots are sprinkled throughout Out of Sight – a mansion robbery aided by cohorts Maurice (Don Cheadle), Buddy (Ving Rhames), and Glenn (Steve Zahn), a snapshot of Karen's relationship with her father (Dennis Farina), compulsory flashbacks to various prison activities shot in harsh sunlight – but because of Soderbergh's light touch they never descend into heavy exposition, and the same stylishness brought to the love scenes is spread across the rest of the film. Nonetheless, this is still a film built confidently on the nuanced chemistry of its two would-be lovers. Clooney set a high standard of charm here that's arguably never been exceeded, and Lopez, who has has not been involved in such strong material since, has never been more naturally alluring. Their final scene together on either side of a cop car divide is a crystallization of the submerged infatuation simmering out of the rest of the film, a bittersweet, wordless goodbye that's tinged with all the unspoken longing of the preceding two hours.