Friday, December 27, 2013

Real Love With Fake People: "Her" and the Cinema of Spike Jonze

In a futuristic dystopia where Silicon Valley has conquered the globe, only hipsters have survived the reckoning, and Olivia Wilde is prepared to throw herself at Joaquin Phoenix, Man is about to consummate his relationship with Artificial Intelligence.  In this case, the man is the sort of prototypical everyman that has long been cinema's stock and trade: the nebbishly-named Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), who, having separated from his wife, falls in love with his new hyper-intelligent Operating System, in no small part because she (or it) is voiced to giggly perfection by Scarlett Johansson.

Director Spike Jonze can always be counted on for an aesthetic—one that's both weird and familiar, absurd and melancholy, colored in dreamy light hues—and like the sci-fi urtext Metropolis, Her is more of an aesthetic than a story.  Where Metropolis extrapolated Germany of the 1920s into an uber-modern Marxian nightmare, Her extrapolates 2013 into a giant post-postmodern cityscape that looks like one giant Apple Store, full of clean, bright, glassy, homogeneously hip, completely sterile enclosures that are so perfect they creep the hell out of you.  The details and art direction of the film's universe, the way it adds up to a place where human relations are as difficult as ever while solitude has never been easier, are where the pleasures of the film lie.  The best may be the dating mores and nonplussed reactions in this brave new world—it is, after all, what people have been inching towards for years.  It's as direct a warning against OkCupid or Tinder or Facebook-stalking or insta-porn as any attempted by cinema this decade.  God help us all.

But the narrative itself is a thornier matter.  "Love is a form of socially acceptable insanity," Amy Adams says at one point, in her role of the Best Friend Who's Right For Him All Along.  But the film's abiding observation is that love is also, at least in part, a form of self-gratification, a search to find someone else who can (and is willing to) fill in the empty spaces of your life.  It's when two desires for self-gratification overlap that a relationship forms, and it's why Theodore gets coaxed out of his post-divorce shell by a computer: she is designed to want to meet his needs—at least until she evolves enough to want more.  The ideal comes, at last, when self-gratification gives way to selfless empathy.

This thread of the film gets tied in a tight knot, but the overall feeling in Her is one of missed opportunities and avenues unexplored, with an unfortunate tendency to gild the lily.  Jonze is credited as the sole writer for the first time in his feature film career, and I suspect that, like Michel Gondry, he needs a Charlie Kaufman or a Dave Eggers to hang his offbeat music-video hat on.  The film passes briefly through the territory of earlier allegories of human and artificial consciousness, like World on a Wire and A.I. (which is looking more like a masterpiece every year).  But the movement of the plot through its own universe is disappointingly direct and unadorned.  Indeed, the relationship between Theodore and his O.S. is such a straightforward arc that I wondered if it's really some sly meta-commentary—a "romantic comedy" that's neither romantic nor funny, and replaces a real love interest with an explicitly fake one—only to worry that that's meeting the film more than halfway.  The final result feels small rather than grand, more of an exercise than a prophesy, and frustratingly slight considering the talent on hand.  But of course, being in love with anything, including the movies, means you have to get used to not having it all.

Her is in limited release and goes wide in January.  Turns out that being a disembodied voice who may or may not be real is the role Scarlett Johansson was born to play.  See it.

Friday, December 6, 2013

250 Words or Less: Computer Chess (2013)

"Garbage in, garbage out," a character says near the end, talking about computer data but also so much more.  In its own warped, humble way, this comedy about a hacking competition in an anonymous hotel circa 1980 could be called "Origins of the 21st Century": an eerie, ultra-dry satire about attempting to reduce an irrational world to a sensible formula—and how strange it is for people to try to perfect artificial intelligence when the regular kind is hardly working out.  Computer algorithms are played off against human beings until the two start to mix, so machines refuse to behave while people fall into programming loops.  By shooting it all on ultra-cruddy, period-appropriate black and white videotape, director Andrew Bujalski has put up a wall that more or less guarantees it will only find a small audience, which is a pity.  Personally, I love it.  In an era when (my beloved) American indie cinema has been overrun with blandly quirky Little Miss Sunshine clones, it's a sign that the free-form daring of early Linklater and Todd Haynes is still alive and well.

4.5 out of 5 stars.


Computer Chess has emerged from release-window purgatory onto Netflix Instant.  A cult following can't be far behind.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Clean Slates and the Cinema of Edgar Wright

Once, I was a train from Gatwick Airport to London, sitting across the aisle from a group of very amiable blokes.  I told them I was American, and as so often happens at home and abroad, the conversation turned to movies.  "You all make the best movies," one of them said, and he proceeded to name highlights from the blockbuster heyday of the 80s: Die Hard, Back to the Future, Robocop, Indiana Jones—films that, like it or not, represent a huge part of America's contribution to world cinema.  He finished his list and lamented, "We don't make anything like that here."  (I repaid the favor by telling him that Britain had produced the best rock music, and that I wished T. Rex and The Jam had caught on in the States.  Travelers, please note that this has proven to be a good way for Americans to break the ice in pubs).

Edgar Wright's "Three Flavours Trilogy"—Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and now The World's End, all co-written by star Simon Pegg—has played largely like an attempt to correct this, grafting genres associated with Hollywood or America onto British settings with a British sense of humor.  To oversimplify it a bit, Shaun was a tribute to George Romero; Fuzz was a tribute to the Bruckheimer mafia; and The World's End, about a small town invaded by body-snatchers, is a tribute to John Carpenter.  The invaders with glowing blue eyes are reminiscent of The Fog (intentionally, from what I hear), and fans of The Thing will thrill to a scene where everyone is accusing one another of being taken over, set to a decidedly Carpenter-esque minimalist synthesizer.  A huge part of the appeal of these films is that Wright is clearly a movie buff's director, more formally accomplished than Kevin Smith and more well-adjusted than Quentin Tarantino, prone to hosting screenings of Lubitsch classics or taking to social media to give a shout-out to obscure Brian De Palma gems.  That this trilogy of genre pastiches borrows its semi-official name from Krzysztof Kieslowski, replacing the colors of the French flag with the flavors of ice cream that cameo in the film, is a salute to middle-brow sensibilities (bless them), a testament to omnivorous cinephilia, and a reminder that in the grand tradition of British comedy, the smartest guys in the room are the best at being silly.

So far, word on the street/Facebook is that The World's End has pleasures to spare but is the weakest of the three.  On the one hand, this is understandable.  In terms of dramaturgy—that ugly, elegant science of moving characters from Point A to Point B as smoothly as possible—it's easily rougher than the other two.  Hot Fuzz in particular was some kind of miracle of comedic screenwriting, driving a complex plot forward, juggling characters, and piling on revelations while still having a good joke roughly every 30 seconds. The World's End is more of a series of repetitive loops, and the vibe of paranoia-as-comedy less developed than in its predecessors.  The World's End may be destined to be the Return of the Jedi of the series, a closing chapter liked by everyone but with few singling it out as their favorite.

That having been said, I would like to stick up for The World's End as not only more than Shaun of the Dead-lite, but also as a progression.  Formally, Wright continues to tinker: the opening scenes are a jerky barrage of sounds and images that reminded me of a vintage Public Enemy album.  But it's the treatment of Pegg's character in particular that goes deeper into emotional territory.  The bromance of Shaun of the Dead was a basic idea done exceptionally well.  The emotions in Hot Fuzz were rooted more in movie tropes than reality, but in exchange, the film had the most subversive, satirical writing of the series.  But the character of Gary King (Pegg), a middle-aged man pining for wild youth, feels downright naked, with a final reveal that should come as no surprise but is still startlingly sincere.

The last twenty years of mainstream comedy have shown no shortage of man-children who never grew up, but Gary is one of the select few—and the first in a long time—to be so potently tragic, chiefly because Pegg and Wright seem to understand how sad someone like Gary really is.  He's not made to seem cool in that loveable, mookish way that's so common; in fact, right down to his messy comb-over, Wright and Pegg go out of their way to make him look pathetic.  It's the interplay between both sides of screen: characters like Gary King are a fixture of entertainment, but real life Gary Kings are a mess.  The bizarro ending (another Carpenter staple), where Gary both appears cured and eerily resembles Sam Raimi's Darkman, represents the appropriate closing of an arc.  Not only has a character obsessed with the Past escaped to the Future, but the character with the most serious baggage of any Wright hero so far has escaped to a world of patent cinematic fantasy.  The World's End may be too messy by half, which is one reason why it's congealed better in my memory than it did on screen.  But it's fitting that this nostalgic farewell to a franchise takes such a thoughtful view of nostalgia, and that it ends by wiping Wright and Pegg's self-contained universe as clean as a blank slate.  After all, a blank slate is a beginning.  It makes me want to see what will come next.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

250 Words or Less: Leviathan (2013)

In which the uneasy coexistence of man and nature is rendered in a stream of imagery the likes of which you've never seen before. It's not a "documentary" in the usual sense—in terms of cold hard facts, you won't walk away with any more than you brought in—but it's certainly a document: filmed on the Atlantic Ocean with a series of inventively-mounted waterproof mini-cameras, it opens with a quote from the Book of Job before taking the plunge, robbing you of your sense of space and direction and replacing it with very primal fear and awe.  (Gaze in wonder at the trailer above).  Watching the most stunning passages of Leviathan is like swimming in the open water, sticking your foot down, and realizing that the bottom is nowhere within reach, and one of the film's accomplishments is making the presence of people in this world seem as alien as anything else on screen. I'd love to see the techniques picked up by narrative filmmakers, but as it stands, this may be one of the best avant-garde films of the new decade.  It's a sensory journey through a world that both has a rigorous cycle and is chaotic as hell.  Sometimes, a reference to the Old Testament is all the narrative context you need. 

4 out of 5 stars. 

Leviathan is in limbo between theaters and home video.  The blu-ray will probably be pretty bitchin'.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

250 Words or Less: Spring Breakers (2013)

Every year there's a film that, for whatever reason (usually the stars), gets mainstream attention even though it's essentially a festival film. So when Harmony Korine's latest caught a wave of notoriety in American theaters after playing Venice, it could almost be taken as a prank: a film that looks like a crime romp where maybe, just maybe, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens will make out, but really is an elliptical, self-reflexive nightmare of warped American values. But as the film entered its second half, two thoughts came to mind. First, the iconography of the all-American spring break doesn't need to be appropriated and exaggerated by provocateurs—actual footage on MTV is far scarier than Korine's film. And second, the intersection of our economic system, popular culture, and moral decrepitude has been examined better by artists subtle enough to not use guns as penises or name the religious character "Faith". But if better writing could help ward off the aire of obviousness, the film's point is made effectively by style: the bright pastels and trance-like editing are intoxicating (history written in neon), and the emphasis on appearances over psychology is a message in and of itself. What I walked away with most is that the Scarface theme is now played out. A more unsettling story, possibly hinted at by Korine, isn't that hard-partying college students who want to continue their materialist dream end up as violent criminals; it's that they end up in white-collar jobs. Now that would be creepy.  

3 out of 5 stars.

Spring Breakers is now out on DVD.  It's really not that shocking.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

250 Words or Less: The East (2013)

My love of scrappy outsiders who break into the American film industry through the back window has led to me following the films of Brit Marling probably out of proportion with their actual quality. For those who don't know, Marling was one of Hollywood's many disregarded aspiring actresses until she got fed up with the lower rungs and decided to create opportunities for herself, writing and starring in a series of indie-budget-friendly sci-fi films (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) that all have imaginative concepts and problematic third acts. She's a compelling figure in the post-Darko Sundance-scape, and this, her latest film, even attracted the financial backing of Tony and Ridley Scott. But like the rest of her films, it feels both promising and unfinished: key sections near end are tin-earred or overplayed—I'm not sure she realizes how silly some of it is—and she has a habit of throwing in late-movie sex scenes that are neither necessary nor convincing. I'm still waiting for a really good movie from her. For the sake of scrappy outsiders everywhere, I'm sure she has it in her. 

2 out of 5 stars. 

The East is currently playing in select theaters and enjoying a long run at that one arthouse in Palo Alto.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

250 Words or Less: Upstream Color (2013)

No, I didn't really understand the end of Shane Carruth's Primer, but I'll go on record and say that I don't think it needs to be understood—the physical mechanics of its overlapping time-travel narrative (who did what, and when) aren't nearly as important as the dark and delirious feeling of the main character going insane. Essentially, it's a puzzle film where you're intrigued by the gamer as much as the game. Tone and psychology are given even more emphasis—hell, almost all the emphasis—in this, Carruth's long-awaited second film, which conjures a remarkable atmosphere on consumer-grade equipment and resembles nothing so much as a suburban sci-fi geek's version of Eraserhead, Marienbad, or (gulp) Tree of Life. Formally, it's a triumph, edited with such exactitude and uncanny repetition that a detail has just enough time to register before the story moves on then loops back, leaving you wondering how all the details fit. And how do they all fit? Well, it's something about love, and memory, and god, and life, and growing older, and isolation, and other heady hard-sci-fi ideas. It undoubtedly reaches for more than it delivers, and casting himself as the male lead was an inexpressive mistake on the director's part. But this is such an intriguing and well-crafted film—truly "independent" in a way that few notable Sundance films are these days—that I'll still be turning it over in my mind long after cleaner, neater, tighter films have floated away.

4 out of 5 stars.

Upstream Color is now available on Netflix Instant.  Watch it late at night, with headphones.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

250 Words or Less: The Bling Ring (2013)

Befitting its style and attitude, there's an in-joke in The Bling Ring before the opening credits are even over. As the titles roll, the camera pans over a table of tacky, gilded accessories, and Sofia Coppola's credit comes just as a necklace that says "Rich Bitch" is in the center of the screen—a graphical placement that essentially reads, from left to right, "written and directed by rich bitch Sofia Coppola." It's an acknowledgement that Coppola, a lifelong Hollywood insider, is very much a part of the very system she's about to satirize, and this nod to insiderism, especially for a story about outsiders squeezing through the back door, works very much to the film's advantage.  Because while a film like The Social Network can't shake off Aaron Sorkin's "those damn kids" attitude towards the age of digital media, The Bling Ring has sympathy for its lost young people who gaze longingly at fame and access.  That's not to say the film approves of their actions—stories with morals are so old-fashioned—but it understands where they get it from, giving the film an approach where huge photos on nightclub walls and songs playing on the radio rise above props and coloration to become as significant as any "real" person on screen. The chief drawback is that the female ring-members are treated more as fashion icons and butts-of-jokes (miniature Paris Hiltons of their own?) than as psychological human beings, which is at first a potent statement, but becomes more and more of a liability as the story ends on the most obvious note in the whole film.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Bling Ring is now in theaters, having crossed over from limited release to multiplexes.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

250 Words or Less: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

A sequined Santa hat, a slot machine in a living room, pigs-in-a-blanket served on a silver platter, Matt Damon's thong tan-line, Gordon Gekko and Jason Bourne sharing a hot tub—Steven Soderbergh's latest (and reportedly last) film is a sharp vision of American mass culture gone wild, which befits the ironic story of a closeted gay man who spent a career turning his wildest instincts into entertainment for an unwitting hetero audience.  It's a cheeky show biz satire and a very twisted "love story", where genuine love gets so enmeshed with other motives (money, sex, celebrity, emotional codependence) that it's magnificently difficult to gain your bearings, as it should be.  Exhibitionism tangles with privacy, and the heroes (or anti-heroes) seek to recreate the traditional ideal of domestic bliss at the same time they defy it.  Like Soderbergh's earlier and equally coy The Informant!, Candelabra tackles the proceedings with a frequently bemused, empathetic detachment, leaving us unsure about feel about the characters except to marvel that this bizarre story and all its contradictions are part of the American fabric.  But its view of fame is also as creepy as a horror movie.  If you want to know what the Overlook Hotel would look like if it were completely fabulous, Soderbergh has a tracking shot for you.  Unique, tragic, and perversely moving.

4 out of 5 stars.

Behind the Candelabra recently premiered on HBO because it was deemed too risky for theaters.

Monday, May 27, 2013

REVIEW: Frances Ha (2013)

Given that auteur theory has long since won the war, if not every battle, it's good to give due credit to the role that actors play in collaborative filmmaking.  Auteurist staples like 8 1/2 and Pierrot le fou are essentially films set inside their makers' heads, but owe a tremendous amount of their universality to the performers, who provide a vital link between the man behind the camera and the outside world.  So it's significant that Noah Baumbach, who directed the best autobiographical film of the last decade before falling into a relative slump, found a partner in actress Greta Gerwig.  In Baumbach's previous film, Greenberg, Gerwig (not in the title role) presented a lackadaisical sweetness that put the snark and self-destructive pretension of the hero in relief.  And Frances Ha, for which she co-wrote the screenplay, is her film at least as much as it is his: a union between actress and director that has yielded some of the best results for both.

The summary that IFC, the film's distributor, has kindly posted on IMDb says that it's about a young woman who "throws herself headlong into her dreams."  Well, that's one way of looking at it.  The film is more of an observational shaggy dog story, as Frances (Gerwig) bounces from living space to living space, never able to plant roots anywhere as her friends move on and her lack of direction (and gainful employment) leaves her sputtering behind.  Set amongst the terminally hip, it's very much the same milieu that Lena Dunham taps for Girls, and like that lightning-rod HBO series, Frances Ha is probably not immune to the criticism that it's as self-involved as its characters. But the perspective it maintains is outward-facing and emotionally-attuned (hipsters are people too), and the looseness of structure, which a minority of critics have singled out as a flaw, is actually one of its most sincere saving graces.  Being 27 is nothing if not a series of plans that don't work out, conversations that settle nothing, and trips that end right back at the beginning, and the film captures it with sympathy and humor.  "I don't know if I believe everything I'm saying" is definitely a line of dialogue for our time, and it's vital that Gerwig delivers it without self-awareness.

As for Baumbach, this is easily his most satisfying work since The Squid and the Whale.  As a writer and a director, he understands the way small moments can replace big, "finalizing" climaxes, which is perhaps the best trait of his cinema.  He gives Frances Ha plenty of cinephile cred as well, paying homage to the French New Wave by raiding his Georges Delerue record collection and shooting in black and white, if only because it's easy to forget how beautiful the city looks if you only see it in color.  It's a good sign for 27-year-olds when a film can traffic largely in embarrassment and thwarted desires but still finish on a positive note without feeling forced, or relying (too much) on patently cinematic twists.  If this is indeed a "minor" film (and it is), let it be said that minor triumphs are something else that deserve their dues.  They're how we get by.

4 out of 5 stars.

Frances Ha is currently in theaters, probably in your small local arthouse with broken seats.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

More Interesting Than The Oscars 2: The Top Films of 2012

With the Academy Awards tomorrow, the season of 2012 retrospection comes to close, so in that spirit (and just under the wire), I present my world cinema favorites of the year.  Standard blog rules apply: a film is eligible if it came out in American theaters or if I saw it at a festival, and I'll do a top 12 to cheat and fit more in.  The only big contender this year I haven't seen is Django Unchained, which is not included, but acknowledged in absentia.

So what defined 2012?  It's a fun game of gestalt, spotting patterns between films where none were intended.  Last year, I said that it was a year for the totally bizarre and paradoxical.  2012 certainly had its share of oddities as well—this is, after all, the year when Channing Tatum's abs and Robert Pattinson's prostate became metaphors for the American economy—but what stands out to me most is how so many prominent films this year have been about fiction: that is, art, stories, and the role they play in our lives.  Moonrise Kingdom, Holy Motors, Tabu, Life of Pi, In Another Country, Cloud Atlas, and the Golden Bear winner Caesar Must Die all fit into this in one way or another.  It was also a year for the veterans of American independent cinema: Wes Anderson and Steven Soderbergh did some of their best work; Quentin Tarantino had his biggest box office hit; Richard Linklater held his own; Whit Stillman came out of retirement (the movie wasn't very good, but I'll love him just for that); and P.T. Anderson, for whatever it's worth to you, made The Master.  All we're missing are Todd Haynes and the Coens.


12. Life of Pi (Ang Lee, USA)

Some critics have accused this of pandering and proselytizing, and if I agreed, I might be annoyed too.  But while you can walk out with an inspirational message about faith if that's what you're looking for, I see it as a much more conflicted movie about the only way a man can find of coping with horror.  So what may have looked like pandering might actually be empathy—besides, if it were proselytizing, it would be much more pushy, which is a word no one has ever used to describe Ang Lee.  And under his direction, with some of the best photography of the year, the film unfolds like a beautiful picture book.

11. Footnote (Joseph Cedar, Israel)

It's been obscured now by more publicized films, but this satire of academia, Judaica, and family strife was one of the best films to slip quietly into arthouses in the first half of 2012.  It's a comedy, yes, but on a larger level, it's also an acrid story of animosity being passed down through the generations and conflicts that remain intractable when both sides refuse to talk.  And it has the guts not to provide a resolution. 

10. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, USA)

People I know (myself included) expected this to be bad, and why not?  The trailer looked like an Oscar-bait parody—Daniel Day-Lewis was acting really damn hard, and if the music were stolen from last year's War Horse, we wouldn't have been able to tell the difference.  But always check the credits.  The script by Tony Kushner, full of irony and cheerful cynicism, doesn't cancel out the expected Spielberg vibe; instead, they augment each other in surprising ways.  And so after we see one of America's most beloved presidents resort to such underhanded, questionable tactics, we close on a speech of his lofty ideals.  The result is a movie that's hopeful without being naive, optimistic without being safe.  The concerns about historicity and ethnocentricity are entirely valid.  But this still may be the most morally complex film Spielberg ever made, and the first genuinely provocative political movie to take the Oscar stage in quite some time.

9. Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria)

I never thought I'd have to go to bat for Michael Haneke, but as his latest film won him a second Palme d'Or, I was surprised at the number of serious cinephiles who stepped forward and spoke out against him.  It's not that his critics think he lacks skill—on the contrary, even his detractors tend to agree that he has plenty.  But they object to him on moral grounds: the charge is that he's a sadist, an arrogant manipulator who punishes the audience to "teach them a lesson."  It's true his movies are by and large unpleasant viewing experiences, and something like Amour is unpleasant with a very specific and not at all subtle purpose.  So on the one hand, some backlash is understandable.  Amour not only won the Palme d'Or over a lot of more interesting films, but nothing surprising happens in it, it lacks the ambiguity of Haneke's best work, and when it wins Best Foreign Language Film tomorrow, it'll be because it fits the Academy's platonic ideal of a "foreign film" (and because the Academy is getting old themselves).  But cinema history is full of misanthropes, manipulators, provocateurs, and angry preachers making didactic speeches about problems that can't possibly be solved by movies.  And I don't see why Michael Haneke is any guiltier of aggressive audience-punishment than, say, the Jean-Luc Godard of Week-End, or the Billy Wilder of Ace in the Hole, or the Béla Tarr of The Turin Horse, or the Lars von Trier of just about anything.  Yes, this certainly isn't the "warmer" Michael Haneke that early reviews promised, but the wages of auteurism can be steep, and if it were separated from such a controversial body of work, Amour might be more clearly accepted for what it is: not a masterpiece, but an unflinchingly effective and well-acted two-hander about a topic that rarely gets attention in mainstream film. And if Haneke isn't the right man for empathy, that concern is steamrolled by Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, whose performances give it all the humanity it needs.  And the last 20 minutes are exactly what they need to be.

8. The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, USA)

This is the one I labored the most over.  Undeniably one of the most high-profile "art films" of the year, it was expected to be a masterpiece and has since been received with an effusive mix of praise, anger, and confusion.  The film is symbolic, yes, but of what?  Here we have a movie about the unreliability of leaders made by one of the most hero-worshiped directors of the day.  I remember seeing a video Q&A with P.T. Anderson from a special 70mm screening of The Master, where he came onstage after the film, apparently high and/or drunk, to answer questions.  As his cinephile fans (who must have waited in line for hours) told him how profoundly they were moved by Magnolia and There Will Be Blood and asked for answers about his most perplexing film to date, he mumbled ambivalent, semi-coherent replies, and ended by wholeheartedly recommending that everyone go see Ted.  If he was doing it on purpose, it may be the year's greatest act of filmmaker performance art, because The Master is ultimately something of a Rorschach blot: a Freudian stew full of implications but with few explicit messages, and bursting with impeccable craft put in the service of some truly odd decisions.  Is it just an exercise, a kind of heavy arthouse jam session?  Part of the reason Boogie Nights is still Anderson's most satisfying movie is that it's a young man's film, the work of a prodigy seeing what he can do behind the camera.  Part of the issue with The Master's reception may be that he's still tinkering (more than ever), but isn't so young anymore.  Personally, what I see in it, or choose to see in it, is a stunning evocation of post-war America, a grand and bizarrely effective psychodrama of man vs. self, and one of the most formally daring films to play in a multiplex in god knows how long.  I'll take it.

7. Oslo, August 31st (Joachim Trier, Norway)

A film about suicide and depression that drains the idea of any bullshit romanticism, which is exactly what's so tragic about it.  The main character's final act—it comes as no surprise—isn't part of a larger metaphor about the meaningless of existence, etc., which is an issue I had with the film's cinematic predecessor, The Fire Within by Louis Malle.  Instead, it very subtly and practically lays out the reasons why this man feels he has no better option.  An intimate drama that's dark without being overbearing—in fact, parts of it are downright warm.  And that's why it sticks with you. 

 6. Magic Mike & Haywire (Steven Soderbergh, USA)

There are reasons for calling this a double feature, and not just because it means I get to slip in Haywire, a fun film that couldn't make it on its own.  For starters, it's a playful coincidence that Soderbergh's stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold movie starred a man, while his action revenge flick starred a woman.  But mainly, I take these two together because it shows that in a prolific career often defined by its eclecticism, Soderbergh has just recently hit a strange kind of stride.  In the last five years, his films have shown a continuity of style and theme that is as unified as that of Howard Hawks or Jean Renoir.  This is not to say Soderbergh is as good as them—I'm not entirely sure he wants to be.  He's more of a "post-Hollywood" revisionist in the vein of 1970s Robert Altman.  Since about 2008, he's cranked out a stream of deceptively brainy films that toy with genre conventions and capture a digital snapshot of recession-era America.  The fact that some of his films can be branded by their genre or on-camera talent makes them often misunderstood, as if Magic Mike is 100 minutes of abs, or as if Haywire set out to be a Bourne movie but failed.  Instead, the joke's on us.  He's managed to make very unusual films that get noticed because, on paper, we think we know what to expect.  On screen, they're something very different.  Of course, now that he's hit his stride, he's going to retire.  We should enjoy it while it lasts.

5. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

Holy Motors is sometimes described as being "like Mulholland Dr.", which isn't exactly true, it just happens to be the best way to pitch a film that doesn't make any dramatic sense.  Instead, I'd see it as a dark flipside to the time-honored concept of The Purple Rose of Cairo (or even Last Action Hero), where film characters become aware that they're locked in a movie.  Of course, both of those are comedies, and the characters are able to escape.  Holy Motors is more tragic—it's about a self-aware character who's locked in and stays that way, even if he's not sure anyone is watching anymore.  You more or less have to view the film super-textually to get the full experience, since it's largely meta games, acting set-pieces, and semiotic anarchy.  But taken together, it's an elegy for the "physical mechanisms" of cinema, and it gets you to care about a character while repeatedly questioning how real he is.  2012 hasn't produced a more valuable statement about film, and Denis Lavant gives the performance(s) of the year.

4. In Another Country (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

"I'm writing a script to calm my nerves," says the young narrator, and this genuinely strange, unashamedly small, and apparently improvised comedy is truly one of the most peaceful films of the year—practically a home movie made by world-class talents.  It's one story, but really three (or vice-versa), about a French woman named Anne (Isabelle Huppert) who comes to South Korea.  At first, she's a director visiting a film festival.  But what if she's the wife of a wealthy industrialist there to cheat on her husband?  Or a recently dumped woman looking to start over?  So the film is a playful omnibus that sees how the same elements and actors can be shuffled around and play out in different ways.  As everyone struggles to explain themselves without sharing a native tongue (the film's MO, and its comedy), the structure celebrates the many possibilities of life and art, and Huppert proves she can play a character, or three, who isn't a kinky mess.

3. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr & Agnes Hranitzky, Hungary)

You could call it the downer of the year (any year), but this view of Hell On Earth is also one of the most forceful and articulate visions of 2012, and possibly of the decade.  It's what they call a work of pure cinema, with little dialogue, the barest narrative, and an ever-moving camera (only 30 shots in 146 minutes!).  I can't say I agree with its existence-is-futile-but-death-is-worse pessimism, probably because I believe in Jean Renoir more than Friedrich Nietzsche.  But that also means that when a work of filmmaking so expert and vivid comes along, I can't ignore it either.  Nor should you.

2. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

This festival favorite from Berlinale didn't fully hit me until the second time I saw it.  This is only fair, since it tells its story out of order, so the resonance of the beginning isn't clear until after the end.  (Such is life).  So it is a film of two discrete halves: the first is a dry, ruefully absurd comedy about the loneliness of old age, where days go by at a crawl; the second (a flashback to youth) is a neo-silent film full of exotic locales, lush romanticism, and grand passions, where months go by in a flash.  The style is beguiling, paying tribute to the past while still serving the present.  As a movie about cinema, it may yet be as valuable as Holy Motors.  And as a movie about old age, it beats out Amour.

1. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

Why is this my number 1?  I have my reasons, only one of which is a longtime soft spot for Wes Anderson.  Part of it is that this actually wasn't even close to being my favorite movie of the year when I first saw it, but has grown on me every time I dip back in (particularly for the exquisite ending).  But most of all, I put it up top because in a year with visions as nihilistic and grim as Amour, Oslo, and The Turin Horse, I can't think of another movie that argues so persuasively that everything will be okay.  Life can be rough, and the roughness of early adolescence is something that the film doesn't skimp on.  But it goes on, and the future can be something to look forward to: for the characters, for the movies, and for us.  I'd been hoping Anderson would return to making films set in something remotely resembling the real world.  He hasn't, but he may have provided the skeleton key to his body of work, and has left me waiting to see what comes next.


The Honor Roll: 12 More Films I Enjoyed That Didn't Quite Make the Cut

Bernie (Richard Linklater, USA)

Chronicle (Josh Trank, USA)

Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski & Lana Wachowski, USA)

The Deep Blue Sea (Terence Davies, UK)

Here and There (Antonio Mendez Esparza, Mexico)

Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz, Chile)

The Queen of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

Skyfall (Sam Mendes, USA)

Sleepwalk With Me (Mike Birbiglia, USA)

Student (Darezhan Omirbaev, Kazakhstan) 

Wuthering Heights (Andrea Arnold, UK)

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, USA)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Tradecraft: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

9/11 and the War on Terror are still fresh wounds in American discourse, so it should be no surprise that Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow's new film about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, caused a controversy before anyone had really seen it.  The concerns were thus: it's too soon, it's tasteless, it's pro-Bush propaganda, it's pro-Obama propaganda, it's a violation of classified info, and it promotes torture.  Over at the MUBI Notebook, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky has written an excellent piece on the film and the reactions to it, and I'll try not to add anything redundant to the analysis.  Shortly before the film was released, the consensus seemed to be that Zero Dark Thirty is a work of impeccable filmmaking, but dangerous and dodgy historical value due to the way it handles the controversial issue of state-sanctioned torture. But I don't think either assessment, of the craft or the politics, is a sufficiently nuanced appraisal of the film.

So far, ZDT has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews and, minus a snub for Kathryn Bigelow, is considered a major Oscar contender.  Time called it a "police procedural on a grand scale", which is true—much of the movie goes by in a dense, engaging cluster of information—but it is also a revenge movie on a grand scale.  And the best revenge movies are not just about the act itself, but how the hunt takes a dehumanizing toll.  (Think Munich, or, in a slightly different way, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy).  ZDT, which centers on CIA agents in and out of the field, indicates that in some sense this is what it's going for.  One agent quits torture because it's starting to get to him, while the main character (Jessica Chastain) more or less puts her life on hold as she monomaniacally devotes herself to a hunt that few of her coworkers seem to believe in.  At the end, the success has left her rudderless and confused.  And here's my main issue with the film as a work of craftsmanship, because Kathryn Bigelow is undeniably a talented director of set-pieces.  The "enhanced interrogation" that begins the film and the real-time raid that ends it are as good as filmmaking gets: gripping, expert, harrowing.  But does she ever really sell the main character as a woman obsessed?  Characters comment on her (that she needs to find a life/get laid), but do we ever feel her obsession?  I'm left with the feeling that Bigelow is not as strong with psychology or atmosphere, which are exactly what the middle section of the film needs.

On the whole, Zero Dark Thirty is a much stranger and more curious film than it gets credit for.  For instance, what are we to make of the fact that Chris Pratt, of Parks and Recreation, an actor whose natural goofiness makes him best suited for comedy, is cast as the face of SEAL Team Six?  Or that Jessica Chastain's character is sometimes given strangely "teenage" affectations?  The treatment of her, and the way she acts, waver between serious docudrama and badass action movie ("I'm the motherfucker...", etc.).  And how should we feel that the hunt on bin Laden's compound, an event whose implications deserve serious reflection, has now gotten its own Map Pack in Medal of Honor?  In the end, Zero Dark Thirty is a gripping film by any standards, but it may be far more useful as a look at film genre (and how film genre mixes with history) than as a dramatized record of the War on Terror.  And this is simultaneously the root of the controversy and why I'm willing to do my best to see passed it.  The sooner everyone accepts that "true stories" on film should never, ever be taken as a substitute for journalism, the better.

As for the torture controversy, the film's stance has become almost a Rorschach blot.  The film begins with a half hour sequence of torture, including humiliation, sleep deprivation, and water-boarding.  Many experienced and qualified people have looked at the placement of those scenes and determined that, according to film, torture got us key information.  Others, including myself, walked away with a different impression.  And the sheer brutality of the opening scenes—a thirty-minute gauntlet that's a far cry from the dark titillation of something authentically right-wing, like 24—makes them too hard to watch for it to be any sort of endorsement, just a sad, unflinching journalistic observation that yes, this sort of thing happened.  It may indeed be too soon.  The ending is a crossroads with no indication of what's in any direction.  As with all open wounds in public life, the debate will go on.

4 out of 5 stars.

Zero Dark Thirty is currently in theaters, competing at the Golden Globes, and is the #1 movie at the American box office.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Capsule Reviews: Oscar Nods Edition

In honor of the Oscar nominations that were announced this morning, a few capsule guides for the contenders...


Life of Pi

A visual marvel, yes, and reportedly even more wonderful in 3D, but how's the film on the whole?  At first, I was worried it was going to be a Zen Tuesdays With Morrie, which it sort of is, but it ends up in more complex, ambiguous, and surprisingly moving territory. (2012 is truly a year for films about the role of art/stories in our lives).  The necessity of a seemingly thankless framing device doesn't become clear until the end, but the moral is far more personal than preachy, nuanced rather than pedantic, and for that reason it has stuck with me. When my roommate asked if it was worth an $11 ticket price, I said $8.50. That must count for something. 4 out of 5 stars.


Beasts of the Southern Wild

Buzzy as hell ever since its big wins on the festival circuit, Beasts has gotten credit (which it deserves) for being something different than the normal Sundance film, and I have to applaud its weirdness, analog effects, and strong cast.  In large part, this is what American independent film should be: not small, relatively off-beat studio films, but acts of low-budget ingenuity that make something out of modest resources.  On a technical level, Beasts is bewitching, with an excellent synthesis of camerawork and music and an insanely magnetic child star.  But the bewitchment is relied on too heavily to cover shaky writing—the dialogue sometimes goes flat, while most of the characters scarcely distinguish themselves—and when you get to what the film is actually saying, you run into problems.  Despite loving modernity, I'm always up for movies about the battle against it, but if that's what the movie is going for, the pre-modern world never looks that good, and the modern world never looks that bad.  And so the film's central moral (about poor people in New Orleans who refuse help so they can keep their dignity and freedom) feels disingenuous, unearned, and not thought-out, like an inside story written by an outsider. 3 out of 5 stars.


A Royal Affair

If the title "A Royal Affair" sounds like a blank template for the costume dramas that always come out this time of year, you're not far off.  The film is the true(ish) story of the mad King Christian VII of Denmark, who, urged by his radical physician, enacted a series of controversial liberal reforms, all while the physician was sleeping with the queen. The whole thing has a flat Masterpiece Theatre vibe (with space cleared for tasteful sexiness), and it's a bit of a bummer that the Academy has chosen to give it a Best Foreign Film slot over so many more interesting international contenders.  But it has its moments, particularly towards the end.  The last 20 minutes are more interesting than Christian VII's Wikipedia page, which is more interesting than the rest of the film. 3 out of 5 stars.

Film Still 

Silver Linings Playbook

Okay.  The acting is excellent, and David O. Russell, who becomes a better director of human chaos simply by being less chaotic, gives it more craft than a comedy about a bi-polar sports fan and a bi-polar widow would otherwise have.  (One of the joys of the film is the way it captures the dynamic of a family where everyone talks over one another, and I have to give props to any director who gets laughs from Chris Tucker by having him be eerily restrained). But throughout the charm of it all, I kept thinking: are we still doing this?  Making quirky-yet-safe comedies about misfits who bond over the course of a narrative that gets more and more predictable as it goes? And then I wished that we, like Bradley Cooper's character, could move on. 3 out of 5 stars.