Saturday, September 27, 2014

Lives of Observation: "Boyhood" and the Cinema of Richard Linklater

What difference does a title make?  Richard Linklater's Boyhood, which has become the most celebrated American film of the year, was originally going to be called "12 Years".  But just as Linklater wrapped production, 12 Years a Slave hit it big, so Boyhood it became.  The word "boyhood" implies something archetypal.  It has a tinge of the definitive, and the film has been criticized these lines, both accused of holding up a flattering mirror to its audience and questioned for not living up to a universality that it never really claims.  More on that in a moment, but for now, I wonder if, had the film had kept its original title, it would be clearer that it's first and foremost about the passing of time in one small corner of the world.  Title aside, the boy in Boyhood is one of the least active players.  It's at least as much about his parents.  It's even more about what, in almost any other film, would be the backdrop or the incidental details, from video game technology to political campaigns.  To watch the movie is to watch an endlessly shifting time-capsule.

A friend once told me that the worth of any movie is how well it stands when you remove its central novelty.  Thus the true measure of, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind isn't the wild visual tricks or the mobius-strip structure, but whether or not the romance at the core holds any weight.  It's a metric that hung in my mind as I watched Boyhood.  The production of the film is itself an awe-inspiring model of dedication: a narrative film shot and written in pieces over 12 years using the same actors.  The filmmakers let a decade-long plot play out and then condensed it into a feature.  It's difficult to be critical in the face of such a noble, ambitious passion project, which is surely a factor in the film's nearly dissent-free 99% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what would Boyhood be if you removed its novelty?  What if it were shot in the conventional way, over weeks or months, with different actors playing the boy at different ages, using makeup to age Patricia Arquette instead of letting time do it for you?  Stripped to its dramatic essentials, the film is uneven.  It may be ungrateful, or at least redundant, to accuse a 12 year production of patchiness, but the feeling is often inescapable.  You can put it simply: some scenes work, some don't.  Some are beautiful, heartbreaking, and funny, and several made me cringe.  Some actors inhabit their roles seamlessly, others are forced.  And, in a film that's nearly three hours long, hardly anything interesting is ever done with the camera.

And yet this description doesn't do justice to the appeal of Boyhood at all.  There is something mesmerizing about watching the characters age, and you the viewer feel more like Linklater's collaborator than his audience.  You're part of the experience, particularly if you see it with a crowd, and when a scene doesn't work, you simply brush it off and wait for the next one.  Perhaps novelties and gimmicks aren't merely accessories to a movie at all.  Perhaps they are, or can be, the core.

The acclaim has already invited backlash.  Rebecca Mead wrote a piece for the New Yorker called "The Scourge of 'Relatability'", with Boyhood used as a prime example of culture that panders to its audience.  Is the film good simply because we relate to it?  Watch it in a packed house on a Saturday night, and you can feel the audience murmur with recognition.

I must admit that I'm not sure how the film will play in years to come.  When it's viewed by a generation too young to have played Nintendo Wii or watched the shittiness of the Bush years turn into the shittiness of the Obama years, I suspect it'll seem like an artifact instead of a masterpiece.  But these are criticisms more of the movie's praise than of the movie itself.  For such an ambitious production, the film that resulted is actually very unassuming, or as unassuming as a movie about Life with a capital L could possibly be.  It covers an emotional spectrum with no pretense towards any insight that anyone over the age of 20 hasn't already figured out on their own.  And it's getting burdened right out the gate with a masterpiece status that its humble, shaggy, grinning shoulders can hardly withstand.

As for Richard Linklater, he remains the most unassuming of current American cinema's major directors.  In fact, it feels strange to even use the term "director" when his latest films seem so pointedly undirected; unlike any of his contemporaries (the Coens, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson, post-digital Soderbergh), there's nothing in Boyhood or Bernie or Before Midnight to peg a shot as a "Linklater shot" instead of a shot by anyone else.  Linklater's trademarks are more literary: the way people talk, and what they talk about.  So you might say he's a storyteller, except that what he tells aren't stories.  Lit-class terms like "conflict" and "resolution" apply to Boyhood precisely as much as they don't apply at all; what the film chooses to show and not show in its characters' lives can feel almost random.  A Linklater film is more like a series of anecdotes, some funny and some sad, placed side by side until their accumulation achieves a kind of sweep.  It's not a Tolstoy novel; it's staying up all night in a dorm room sharing your life stories.

Slacker, Linklater's first official release, remains one of his best films even if Dazed and Confused will always be more famous.  Slacker is pure observation.  It's also a film without any main character; the camera simply follows one young, aimless twenty-something for about five minutes, then gets passed like a baton to the next character to pass by.  It's the precise midpoint between narrative and avant-garde film, and it works beautifully.  The film has its precedents.  Max Ophüls' La Ronde (1950) and Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty (1974) both experimented with this structure.  But that's the key: those predecessors come from abroad.  A film like Slacker draws from this international arthouse tradition and applies it to a movie as American as John Wayne.  Boyhood is something like a time-lapsed version of Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series, and it's hitting home for audiences even if they aren't the least bit familiar with the French New Wave.

For this, and other reasons, the next Linklater film is always something to look forward to.  Boyhood is the movie of the moment, and as Linklater's hero would be the first to admit, life is just one moment following another.  Which means another one can't be far behind.


Boyhood is now playing to packed arthouses.  You should show up early to get a good seat.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

250 Words or Less: Noah (2014)

Darren Aronofsky enters a studio exec's office.

STUDIO: "Black Swan was a big hit!  Oscars, box office...What would you like to do next?"
DARREN: "I'd like to do a Biblical epic, but a different kind of Biblical epic.  One that meditates on the Old Testament god of wrath, on ancient faith versus modern faith, on notions of sin and purity and the struggle to discern what god wants from us."
STUDIO: "Sounds risky."
DARREN: "It is, but even if it's bad, it'll be interesting enough to be worth seeing."
STUDIO: "Would you be willing to make it, like...90% Avatar, maybe with some Y.A. fantasy romance thrown in?"
DARREN: "How about 50%?"
STUDIO: "80% and you've got a deal."
DARREN: "Done."
STUDIO: "Great.  Here's $125,000,000."

2 out of 5 stars.


Noah is now available on home video for the confusion of family movie nights everywhere. It's interesting enough to be worth seeing.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

REVIEW: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

It's not easy being a science fiction allegory.  The fundamental challenge is to take a completely preposterous premise and get it taken seriously.  It's a thin line to walk, and there are a few ways to do it.  One is to make it incredibly austere and heavy, like 2001 or Stalker.  Another is to double down on everything preposterous, but be smart enough to make it satire.  Paul Verhoeven was an expert at the latter: the scenes in RoboCop and Total Recall that are funny, campy, and over-the-top are the same scenes that are paranoid, subversive, and terrifying.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes tries both, tilting towards heavy but occasionally darting towards light.  It's a post-9/11 (and post-Christopher Nolan) shot at turning the franchise gritty, playing out as an us-vs.-them metaphor for geopolitical tension, starring genetically modified super-apes, where war is both unnecessary and inevitable.  Directed by Matt Reeves (Let Me In, Cloverfield), the world of the film is dark and dour.  Everything is caked in dirt or fog, with much of the frame blacked out in many scenes.  The decision to go without spoken dialogue for the first 10 minutes is downright ballsy.  And mixed in are a few stabs at blockbuster humor, with ape slapstick and a few nudges from humans who aren't puny so much as goofy.

The contrast can be jarring, and for the first half, I wondered if post-Nolan Hollywood had met its match: after Batman, Superman, James Bond, etc., it had finally found a franchise too inherently ridiculous to be turned into anything gritty.  But as it accumulates and climaxes, it reaches a rewarding kind of pop grandeur, in part because of Reeves' way with atmosphere, and mostly because the film takes its time to set the stage before exploding, which used to be standard but in 2014 feels more and more like a lost art.  The path towards conflict is sketched out with a tremendous amount of schematic detail.  And when the action does explode, with an ape riding a horse firing an assault rifle, it doesn't feel preposterous.  It feels apocalyptic.

As a series, Planet of the Apes is a strange beast.  The 1968 original is a standalone of-its-time masterpiece. But the franchise had pretty much lost its reputability by the mid-70s, and after Tim Burton's widely mocked reboot, there seemed to be no reason to bring it back except that remakes are the order of the day.  And yet Dawn shows what can happen when a property lands in caring hands, with a level of visual creativity and thoughtful attention above and beyond most of what's playing now.  Dawn should proceed directly to the rare list of sequels that truly expand on their predecessor—the franchise is more reputable now than it's been since 1968.  The human characters are boring, I suppose, but their era is ending, and the film features some of the most emotionally complex CGI characters that Hollywood has done yet.  Reeves finishes the film on an extreme close-up of a motion-capture ape where the tighter he pulls in, the more the eyes look human, and I'm still not sure if those eyes belong to Andy Serkis or an FX team.  With apes on one end and computers on the other, we may need to prepare for the New Order.  For now, there's a beautiful truce.

4 out of 5 stars.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is in theaters now.  It's the sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which means that the Planet of the Apes rose before it dawned.  Which is crazy.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

More Interesting Than the Oscars 3: "Great Year For Cinema" Edition

As 2013 came to a close, a story started circulating that we had just witnessed one of the great years in film history.  Praise for the year as a whole was declared from the Telegraph to NPR to, and Vanity Fair even compared 2013 to 1939 (the de facto choice for Greatest Year in Cinema), running a photo of Blue Jasmine alongside Gone With The Wind.

Well, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves.  And besides, while Gone With The Wind is a masterpiece of production values, if it's the foundation on which 1939 rests, we may be viewing that legendary year with rose- (or Technicolor-)tinted glasses.  But all the hosannas for 2013 as a new high point get at one of the central concerns of being a cinephile today: that is, the nagging worry that movies simply stopped mattering as much as they used to.  After browsing through film history, you want to see a new release that "lives with you" the same way as the classics of the past, and you get disheartened when you don't find it.  As the main character of Peter Bogdanovich's Targets despondently put it, "All the best movies have already been made."

But this is, of course, largely an illusion, or a natural consequence of judging the past vs. judging the present.  When you look at the past, you hit the highlights; here and now, you have to wade through the filler.  I don't think we just lived through a miniature cinematic golden age; this year's Oscar nominees have about as many problems as usual, and I'm hesitant to apply the word "masterpiece" to the year's usual suspect.  But I must admit, as I browsed the festival circuit and even the multiplexes, I was captivated at the wealth of material this year.  Even up to last week, I was still catching up on new films I wanted to see, and there are many more, including James Gray's not-yet-released The Immigrant and Miyazaki's scarcely released The Wind Rises, that I haven't gotten the chance to.  So take heart that the sense of discovery is still alive and well.  After all, some of the best films of 1939 didn't get their dues until years later.

What defined 2013?  It was a year for satires of conspicuous consumption and the American dream (The Wolf of Wall Street, Pain & Gain, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, and even Behind the Candelabra).  It was also the year of running the gauntlet, of narratives that shoot a path straight through the storm with a hero who, by necessity, wants nothing except to come out of the other end alive (Gravity, All is Lost, 12 Years a Slave).  But looking at a list of my own personal favorites, I saw that another theme quite unintentionally rose to the surface: undecided fates, and stories that stop just shy of a definitive ending.  Make no mistake, something has changed since the beginning—progress has been made, and we've taken our first steps towards the realization of something important.  But by the time the end credits roll, characters or institutions or even entire countries remain suspended.  Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's the state of cinema, or maybe it's 2013.  But for a moment, we reach a point where everything is motionless.  And then the lights come up.

On to the films.  What follows is my Top 12 of the year.  Or really, a Top 10, plus two bonus candidates.  Because I cheat.

12. The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese, USA)

"Subtle" is generally not a word I'd use for a three-hour string of (ironic?) orgies, drug freakouts, and on-the-nose speeches about stealing America's lunch money, but first impressions can be wrong.  I initially emerged from The Wolf of Wall Street exhausted, bleary-eyed, and browbeaten by the loud, repetitive surface, and the lack of focus on plot and psychology.  And yet something kept drawing me back to it, getting me high not on the excess, but the little details and smaller gestures.  So after lots of agonizing, it makes the cut, slipping in at the end.  The moral point of view (or lack thereof) is brilliant provocation, and even the title is misdirection—it's important to remember that we're not even on the actual Wall Street, but amidst a group of assholes on Long Island who fancy that they can create their own.  Of all the American dream satires that have dotted this year, Wolf is the best, and it's the most morally provocative because its sense of morality is handled with such ambiguous, disgusting, gaudy finesse.  And Kyle Chandler riding the subway home, an agent of Truth and Justice whose life apparently isn't interesting enough to make him the hero of his own movie, is the saddest happy ending of the year.

11. Nobody's Daughter Haewon (Hong Sang-Soo, South Korea)

A young woman keeps falling asleep in public places, as her life and choices (most of them not good) play out around her.  This miniature from Hong Sang-Soo made the festival rounds but is currently unreleased here in America, where it will eventually play at a few theaters in New York, unceremoniously appear buried on Netflix a few months later, and generally be seen as something of an acquired taste.  Indeed, its sensibility takes some getting used to.  It's not immediately apparent because Hong's style is so subdued, serene, and "realistic", but this dramatic/romantic/coming-of-age comedy is actually as much a mindfuck movie as Mulholland Drive or Primer: a character sketch drawn in the gentlest kind of surrealism, where shuffled layers of dreams and reality complete one another, and build to a message as important as any 2013 has offered.

10. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA)

The ascendancy of Greta Gerwig climaxed with this wonderful comedy, in which the co-writer/star/muse helps director Noah Baumbach get out of his own head and hand in an eerily familiar film about being in your mid-20s in the 2010s.  "I don't know if I believe everything I'm saying" is definitely a line of dialogue for our time, and it helps that it's delivered without a taint of self-consciousness.  Baumbach provides the little moments, the gentle arcs, and the New Wave vibe, and Gerwig provides the film's reason for existing.  Another step forward for tales of aimless young people: the lack of emphasis on romance.

9. Stories We Tell (Sarah Polley, Canada)

How do you organize every event you've experienced into a coherent narrative?  In our own memories, we do it without thinking; for documentary filmmakers, it's much trickier.  "Truth" (or whatever) is notoriously difficult to nail on film, so it's an elegant solution that Sarah Polley's beautiful chronicle of her thorny family history becomes a celebration of subjectivity.  It's a work both brainy and heartfelt, toying with verifiable fact and unreliable memory, and sifting through the emotions thereof.  And at the close, it offers this much as wisdom: if, in your life or your work, you're dealing with material of great sadness and confusion, you can't do better than ending on a joke.

8. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon, USA)

Joss Whedon's Shakespeare adaptation was one of the most unexpected, enjoyable comedies of the year (really), and its pleasures are many.  There's the way it feels like a home movie starring underrated professionals; everyone shines in beautiful camaraderie, and if an A-lister ever stepped on screen, the atmosphere would dissipate.  Then there's the way Whedon has made a "hip", modern version of Shakespeare without altering the essence or poetry of the original text, for which high school English teachers everywhere owe him a debt of thanks.  But most of all, the cinematic achievement of Much Ado is the way Whedon takes the most rudimentary elements of filmmaking—a set (his house) and actors (his friends)—and finds ways to stage comedy that are worthy of Lubitsch.  Comparing this to, say, Kenneth Branagh's version is instructive, and not at all flattering to Branagh.  Branagh is striving for the highest artistic aspiration he can imagine, and Joss is out to give you a good time.  Much Ado reminds you that the two were never that far apart at all.

7. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke, China)

Jia Zhangke is considered among many critics today to be not only a leading voice of Chinese cinema, but a leading voice of cinema, period—and here, we have something of a radical departure.  Jia's earlier works are subdued, elliptical stories of the working class in modern China: in a usual Jia film, the camera sits back, and there are few if any cinematic flourishes.  But then comes A Touch of Sin: an arthouse revenge flick, absolutely stuffed with cinematic flourishes, as Jia's ordinary people get fed up with a corrupt system and reach for weapons like avenging angels in a kung-fu movie.  (Reportedly, the Chinese government is none too happy with the film, and has banned local media from talking about it).  Coming from one of the 21st century's leading social realists, this approach catches you off-guard, and since the film played at Cannes it has divided or even baffled many of his supporters.  Personally, the shock won me over; I think Jia made the avant-garde statement of the year simply by becoming more "conventional".  But make no mistake, it's still very much the work of a great and unconventional artist, a yowl of anger with a head on its shoulders, condensing different strands of cinema and culture into one of the most electrifying, melancholy, urgent, and challenging films of the year.

6. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman, USA)

If Stories We Tell was a tribute to subjectivity, this is the opposite—or at least, as close as a film can ever come.  This type of documentary is what they call Direct Cinema: no interviews, no voice-over, no music, no Errol Morris style or post-Michael Moore stunts—just extended, organized raw footage.  Never doubt that you're under the control of a director, but the goal of the film, much like the best college classes, is to invite reactions without prescribing any.  The film follows various strata of UC Berkeley life as one of the nation's top public universities is hit with the economic crunch, and what emerges is a vital portrait of patchwork unity, of a singular body made up of different and often confrontational identities.  And it's so full of ironies, tragedies, wonders, and contradictions that it's truly awe-inspiring.  Some may chafe at the idea of a four hour documentary with no central character.  But keep your eyes and ears open, and you get what feels like years' worth of experience and insights in less time than it takes to drive up the Pacific Coast Highway.

5. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, USA)

At one point in the finale(?) of Richard Linklater's exquisite trilogy, Julie Delpy mentions that she once saw an old black and white movie where an unhappily married couple visits Pompeii.  Unless I'm not mistaken, she's talking about Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, and it's a knowing reference on the film's part.  Voyage is about an upper-class, middle-age man and wife traveling through Europe, growing tired and distant, sniping at one another, falling out (sound familiar?), and eventually reconciling in a sudden happy ending that still makes movie buffs complain.  This reference is both a skeleton key and a crowning touch for Before Midnight.  A valedictory for the Gen-X indies of the 90s (whose practitioners are getting old, and not always gracefully), it's also a revision of the alienated relationship dramas of the 60s, which Voyage kicked off.  If Rossellini's happy ending has been received as a spiritual statement, Midnight has a happy ending because working your ass off towards one is the best anybody can do.  This means a lot, especially from one of the few directors today who knows that a conversation between two people is worthy of an entire film.  A warm testament to talk, to late summer, to outdoor cafes, and to collaborative filmmaking.

4. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski, USA)

Few film this year lifted my spirits as much as Andrew Bujalski's delightfully bizarre shaggy dog comedy.  Sundance titles post-Garden State too often feel like studio movies where the characters are wearing hoodies, but this one was both a return to the lo-fi spirit of 80s/90s touchstones like Stranger Than Paradise plus its own kind of step forward into the zeitgeist.  If you're looking for a movie about how we arrived in our new techno-driven millennium, you can keep Mark Zuckerberg endlessly clicking Refresh at the end of The Social Network—just let me keep the story of a hacker convention and a weird New Age sex therapy group trying to share space in the same hotel.  Entrancing, inventive, and surreal.

3. Stranger By the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)

Like Antonioni's Blow-Up plus gay cruising (but much funnier than Antonioni ever was), this is a peculiar kind of murder mystery.  It's not that the murderer's identity is ever in doubt—we see it happen.  But the mystery, scarcely resolved, is why the crime took place, and why a young witness finds himself so fatally attracted to the perp.  Time and again, "Queer cinema" faces an uphill battle.  On the one hand, its distinct identity is essential to its existence; on the other hand, it risks ghettoization, of being something that straight audiences assume doesn't apply to them.  Stranger By the Lake walks this line to perfection, turning its deliciously minimal mircocosm—a rocky shore where everything except sexual appeal/desire/identity has been removed—into something specific yet intensely universal, and always compellingly mysterious.

2. No (Pablo Larrain, Chile)

Shot on beautifully cruddy 80s videotape, Pablo Larrain's media satire is a deeply ironic crowd-pleaser, and the fact that it can be both those things at once says a lot about how film and television work.  Its view of how social change can best be accomplished (if at all) through vague promises of happiness make it one of the most clever, provocative comedies of the year, and the archival footage it unearths, seamlessly blended into the fiction, is almost too hilariously strange to be believed.  (Overthrow a dictator!  Richard Dreyfuss and Christopher Reeve want you to!).  Of course the good guys will win, but the film's hero and its ending make for a magnificent question mark.

1. Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, USA)

The Coen brothers enter their fourth decade as feature filmmakers this year, and though their reputation is crystallized as "the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski", the duo are still evolving.  With this and A Serious Man, they deviate into trickier structures and ambiguous endings, spinning modern folk stories and character stuides, shouldered by certifiable non-celebrities and liable to bounce off in a new direction at any time.  Llweyn is a film that slowly sneaked up on me.  Coen movies have always had wit, character, atmosphere, pop-surrealism, and a morbid sense of humor, but this may be the first one to really have soul.  In part because of the music, in part because of Oscar Isaac's performance, and in part because the Coens themselves seem to be reaching for new levels of emotional depth, the film manages to do justice to the sense of despondency that so often exists on the fringe of their comedy.  It's a quintessentially American film, a mythic tall tale of success and failure where a road trip to Chicago can be a journey to the underworld.  Of all the films of 2013, this is the one that's come to live with me as much as any of the old classics.  I suspect Inside Llewyn Davis will have to sneak up on the movie-going world in general, but if someone wanted to say that this is the best the Coens have ever done, I wouldn't complain.


The Honor Roll: 12 more films that made following movies worthwhile this year...

Bastards (Claire Denis, France)

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, USA)

Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, Romania)

The Bling Ring (Sofia Coppola, USA)

The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)

The Hunt (Thomas Vinterberg, Denmark)

Faust (Aleksandr Sokurov, Russia)

The Last of the Unjust (Claude Lanzmann, France)

Leviathan (Verena Paravel & Lucien Castaing-Taylor, USA/UK/France) 

Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami, Japan/France)

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, USA)

The World's End (Edgar Wright, UK)

On to 2014...

Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Cinema of Pain: "12 Years a Slave" and Steve McQueen

This post will be a little less formal than usual, since it's largely an attempt to gather my thoughts about a film that spurs a lot of them: 12 Years a Slave, the current Oscar frontrunner by British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen, which left me deeply shaken as a human being (as it's meant to) and deeply ambivalent as a moviegoer.

For starters, though it may go without saying, the film is difficult to watch.  The cruelty on display—not just physical cruelty (more on that in a bit), but humiliation, degradation, and hopelessness—had me sick to my stomach by minute 40, with another 90 minutes, a lynching, and a rape scene still to go.  You could call movies like this the "cinema of pain", and even before I saw the film, I saw the old aesthetic arguments it revived.  This is McQueen's third feature, after Hunger (about an IRA hunger strike, in which Michael Fassbender gets emaciated) and Shame (about sex addiction, in which Michael Fassbender combines orgasms with anguish), and the overall impression is that McQueen's supreme goal is to take loaded subject matters and present them in the most "unflinching" manner possible.  Over at the MUBI Notebook, my friend Adam Cook has asked the excellent question of whether McQueen would be able to make a movie without loaded subject matters, and that's the question that will loom over his career as a director.  On a technical and visual level, his filmmaking is top-notch, but pain tends to be the overriding experience: you go in expecting it, and come out thankful that you made it through.

Over the past few years, this M.O. has earned McQueen detractors as well as fans, much in the same way that many cinephiles have rebelled against Michael Haneke (of Amour fame), finding his provocations viscerally effective but hollow and technocratic.  After all, once you've got the audience in their seats, showing them images that make them physically and morally repulsed isn't hard.  So for McQueen's most mainstream film yet, there are two key questions.  First, is "hard to watch" synonymous with good art?  And second, is there more to 12 Years a Slave than scenes of unflinching cruelty?  To answer both in turn: no, it isn't, but yes, there is.

The dramatic effect of the cruelty—once the nausea passed—is something I found fascinating, because if you want to talk purely in terms of onscreen gore, there actually isn't much of it.  By coincidence, the movie I saw before Slave was Prisoners, a well-made but fairly typical forensic thriller that probably has more gore than McQueen's film.  Yet in Prisoners, you don't feel it.  Countless moviegoers have probably watched Hugh Jackman torture Paul Dano while they ate popcorn.  Paul Giamatti patting a slave's pecs during an auction is so much more unsettling, as is the way the slaves are so reduced to survival instincts that they're unable to help or trust each other.  So you might say that one of McQueen's accomplishments is making us feel cruelty in a way that most movies, even cruel ones, do not.  In part, this is due to the tone of 12 Years a Slave, and the way it gives a historical scenario the texture of a nightmare.  The scene of Chiwetel Ejiofor dangling an inch above the ground by a rope is brutal enough as it is, but the way everyone goes about their business in the background is downright surreal.  When Ejiofor is chased around the barnyard by a drunk Michael Fassbender, who yowls semi-coherently while slipping in mud and pig shit, it would be absurd if it wasn't also terrifying.  That's the thrust of 12 Years a Slave: to be a 135-minute madhouse, effectively saying that by all our standards of morality and logic, things like this can't happen—but don't doubt for a minute that they did.

As 12 Years has been getting crowned "the definitive film about American slavery", the film's choice for its point of view has been scrutinized.  Solomon Northup was a freeman who was kidnapped from the North, sold into slavery in the South, and finally freed again over a decade later.  It's what trailers call a remarkable true story, but I've been pulled into conversations where critics and cinephiles raise an interesting point: if you're going to make a film about slavery, why make it about him?  A man like Solomon was the exception, not the rule.  Why not make the film about one of the millions who were born into slavery and stayed there?  In some circles, this has been received as a cynical compromise: Solomon is educated, well-spoken, and from the middle-class, and is thus a "movie hero" that wouldn't scare away the mass audiences (and white audiences) of 2013.  I'm not sure how cynically compromised the film is; overt cynicism is pretty much the point.  But Solomon's status as an outsider is essential to the film's DNA.

The early scenes that show Solomon living comfortably are what might today be called "post-racial America" (a phrase that's circulated on the airwaves, as if racism somehow disappeared on Election Day, 2008).  He has a good job, an education, a loving family, and a nice house, and in the few moments we see of his freedom, he interacts with white people as equals.  As a framing device, this gives Solomon's trip to hell and back a very different kind of context and psychological arc: Solomon starts with our post-racial ideal, is then dragged to the depths of sub-human treatment, tries to maintain optimism, escapes by luck, and in the end, as the title cards inform us, becomes an activist.  By making the film about him, the film's message is something more incendiary than just a recreation of 19th century cruelty.  It throws down the gauntlet and announces that you may think you're free of all this, and that if you just explain yourself you'll be judged independent of race.  America's greatest sin may seem a world apart—separated in space for Solomon, and in time for the viewer—but it's still there, and it's not going away.  Wander to the wrong part of town, and it will arise all over again.  And that challenge, more than the long takes of whipping and rape and lynching, is what's stuck with me.

I'm still not sure that McQueen, an emissary from the art world whose influences reportedly include Andy Warhol, is interested in being a storyteller.  In fact, the "period drama" aspects of the film are handled with something close to contempt, featuring a parade of celebrity cameos with unconvincing accents and half-hearted verbal tics.  For a while, this bothered me.  But relentlessness has its impact (a Warhol lesson if there ever was one), and by the end, I'd decided that perhaps contempt is what the mill of period dramas deserves.  Awards season is full of movies with celebrities in powdered wigs, and few have this much formal rigor or shrewdness.  McQueen may well end up pigeonholed as a provocateur, and like most provocateurs, it feels like he places himself both above his characters and above his audience.  How much you value such provocation, and whether you feel that the cinema of pain can actually change anything, is up to you.  But as for the Oscars, if the Academy wants to congratulate themselves for making Important Films, 12 Years a Slave will be one of their better choices.  Best Picture winners about race in America tend to be the opposite of provocative, either falsely reassuring (Driving Miss Daisy), pseudo-complex (Crash), or both (In the Heat of the Night).  By comparison, McQueen's film is downright radical, living up to his earlier statement that while art can't solve problems, it can start conversations.  If and when he wins the Oscar (and becomes the first black director to get one), I wonder if the Academy will realize he's been making fun of them all along.

12 Years a Slave is now in theaters.  Bring xanax.

Friday, January 3, 2014

250 Words or Less: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

I miss physics.  Without them, the last 10 years or more of CGI action sequences have largely been extended Roadrunner cartoons, and it should noted that Roadrunner cartoons work because a) they're three minutes long, b) they're comedies, and c) you don't need to invest yourself in any life-or-death stakes.  So one way of approaching The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is to say that Peter Jackson seems stuck in both the standards of the times and a quagmire of his own making.  This one is better than the last one, I suppose, but the same issue remains that it feels like Jackson and co., who now have nothing to prove (a deadly condition), are adding things to stretch out the plot.  And in doing so, they are both losing the narrative's focus and dissipating the sense of wonder that their Lord of the Rings trilogy did so well.  Few of the additions—including political intrigue, an elf-elf-dwarf love triangle, and a few Tolkien paragraphs turned into setpieces—feel like they should have been included in the first place.  At its best, there's a certain grandeur that makes the wide shots a joy for the faithful and the nostalgic.  But the atmosphere is cartoonish and the storytelling swollen, ending on an action spectacle where nothing is risked, nothing is settled, and it all goes in circles for 30 minutes.  And like I said, I miss physics.

2.5 out of 5 stars

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is in theaters everywhere, but at the showtime you're looking for, they're probably only showing it in 3D.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Of Empathy and Gargoyles: "Inside Llewyn Davis" and the Cinema of the Coen Brothers

"The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything but his art." —George Bernard Shaw 
What do the Coen brothers believe in?  It's an interesting question, particularly since a tour through their body of work provides more negatives than positives.  They don't believe in the meritocracy of institutions, public or private.  They sure as hell don't believe in human nature.  They don't believe in the redemptive power of Love, or Sacrifice, or Brotherhood.  They don't believe in a grand universal plan, or the romantic notion that the joys and sadness of life are beautiful.  As witnessed in The Big Lebowski, they don't even believe in nihilism, which is just another belief system ripe for hypocrisy.  But in their own devoutly middlebrow, pop-culture-obsessed way, the Coens believe in art.  They may not believe in artists—hypocrisy again—but a night at the movies or a song on the radio is the best that the world, or rather their world, has to offer.

You can see this implicitly throughout their work, the way their rigorous, referential, highly "cinematic" cinema has rewired Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, and Dashiell Hammett with the expertise of two moviehounds who, in building an entire movie around anecdotes of 30s Hollywood (Barton Fink), would be sure to include a period-appropriate reference to Ruggles of Red Gap.  (A secret handshake for cinephiles if there ever was one).  It's elevated to something resembling an explicit "philosophy" in A Serious Man, where the best advice that anyone can offer is hiding in plain sight as a Jefferson Airplane song.  The brothers didn't steal the title for O Brother Where Art Thou? from Sullivan's Travels just to be clever.

All of which goes to explain why, in their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, music is a much more foregrounded, likeable main character than any of the humans on display.  Most critics have been sure to mention that our titular folk singer (Oscar Isaac), who wanders Greenwich Village in 1961 looking for a gig or at least respect, is a fuck-up and an asshole.  And so he is: arrogant and irresponsible, soulful only by himself or on stage.  But the music stands apart—you'll meet his music before you meet him—and it has an arc of its own.  "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" sounds lovely at the beginning, but has picked up context by the time it's reprised at the end.  A folk standard called "Dink's Song" is a recurring centerpiece, and one of the most telling tragedies of Llewyn's life is that it will never sound as good when he sings it alone as it did when he recorded it with his former (and now deceased) partner.

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, Llewyn has become the latest battleground in the critical dust-up over the Coen brothers.  The duo are darlings of cinema to many, mainstays on the festival circuit abroad, and at home are among the few "auteurs" to gain traction, respect, and prestige with an audience who wouldn't call themselves cinephiles.  But there is a faction of critics and cinephiles who find their work insufferable.  In short, the charge goes, the brothers make smug, mechanical, misanthropic comedies, populating their films with grotesque gargoyles, delighting in pain and cheap derisive humor, and targeting meaningless satire at everyone but themselves.

This charge has dogged the Coens for years, and not exactly without cause.  A film like A Serious Man, which elevates suffering to comedy (or vice-versa), splashes around joyfully in a relentlessly cynical microcosm.  Burn After Reading sinks into it.  One reason The Big Lebowski is the Coens' best film, and not just their most quoted, is that it's the one that most effectively dodges this charge, combining their morose goofiness with a genuine celebration of underachievers who want nothing more out of life than a group of friends to go bowling with. As for the rest, I've seen serious critics, not to mention serious men, write off the Coens entirely.

I've never sided with the criticism, which strikes me as a reductive reading of films that are generally a good deal more nuanced.  But when the Coens take to the stage at Cannes and the Oscars to accept awards, it's not hard to see why they catch backlash.  At a time when serious cinephiles are on the lookout for anyone who can measure up to the old masters in terms of formal innovation and emotional engagement with the outside world, the Coens are two intelligent, prolific smartasses who rarely make it a point to attempt either.  It's not so much that they refuse to explain the deeper meaning of a cryptic film like Barton Fink, it's that they laugh off the idea of deeper meaning altogether.  And this, just like Tarantino and his pastiche buffets, has made the brothers a curious case study for their oh-so-disaffected time and place.  The "death of the author" is in full swing; the Coens just know the best place to hide the body.

So where does that leave Llewyn?  In a way, it's become a victim of auteur theory, where a lot of negative criticism seems less like a review of Inside Llewyn Davis and more like a review of "a Coen brothers movie".  This is a mistake, I think, as the film is borne on a tone not normally found or sustained in their work: namely, a very melancholy sense of loss.  It doesn't aim to be riotous like A Serious Man, its closest antecedent in setting and structure.  In fact, it finds the Coens at peak empathy.  Llewyn is an asshole, yes, but not outside the normal boundaries of artists and young men.  And if it is indeed a movie about an asshole, it's also about the condition of being an asshole: of going through life thinking that the problem is everyone else, only to realize—and to a certain extent, I would argue that Llewyn does—that the problem is you.

Of course, in the end, it all comes back to music, and the way that songs can be more pure than their creators.  After all, Bob Dylan and John Lennon, to pick two of Llewyn's more famous, less fictional contemporaries, could be huge assholes themselves.  But does that make the idealism and beauty of their work any less potent?  Or is being a person more important than being an artist?  And so Llewyn will pass up opportunities for help, and the gargoyles around him will take on added dimensions.  He'll butt heads with a condescending, vitriolic jazzman (John Goodman) without realizing that the way Goodman treats him is a funhouse version of the way he treats others.  (On the pecking order of artists and squares, jazz is apparently higher than folk).  He'll brush off a baby-faced guitarist named Troy (Stark Sands) without realizing that Troy's unconditional warmth and friendliness, initially played for laughs, make him a better person.  But most of all, he'll be too proud to compromise, and not lucky or brilliant or strong enough to make it on his own.  So he'll sing his heart out and close his show by saying "That's what I got", knowing that offering it up is the best anyone can do.  Then he'll get the shit kicked out of him while Dylan strikes it big in the other room.  And throughout it all, Oscar Isaac's weary face gives this "comedy" a very serious tone.  I felt for him—maybe there's an asshole in all of us.  Or perhaps we have an uncommon sighting of the Coens' emotional engagement.  Inside Llewyn Davis is an elegy for the also-rans who were good, but not quite good enough.  This is America; there are a lot of them.

Inside Llewyn Davis is now in enough theaters that you have a chance of seeing it before they start showing Her instead.