31 December 2010

The Fighter *

It feels fitting that this is the last movie I'll watch in 2010. In a way it's pretty emblematic of this year in American cinema: it's very good, but it's not really great -- and to be fair, like much of what I saw this year, it doesn't seem to be aiming for greatness. It's got really great direction, but the story is so basic and by-the-numbers that it was impossible not to play along in my head. It's perfectly cast, and really well-directed, there's some really nice sound design and editing choices that help the story rise above the ordinary, and some understated but very intentional camerawork that does the same, but for the most part The Fighter is about as straightforward as the film's title. I know I've said this before, but 2010 seems like a year where Hollywood forwent any kind of ambition or pretense toward excellence, and settled for solidly made, workmanlike, unchallenging fare. The reason there's no lock for "Best Picture" for me is because nobody shot for the stars. To follow that metaphor, they all seem to have agreed to aim collectively for a low orbit. Successful but not transcendent. Worth your ten bucks but that's it.

But enough about the state of cinema. The Fighter feels like it's really Christian Bale's story more than Mark Wahlberg's, or rather Micky (Wahlberg) is clearly our protagonist but like a million stories (off the top of my head, think The Great Gatsby), the guy who the action is about is not always the guy the story is about. I think it's the right choice, letting Dicky (Bale) outshine his little brother the hero, as he's the larger than life character here. The cadre of shrill women led by Alice the mother was almost too much for me to bare, but they made a nice tidal force that showed the character of Charlene and especially Micky's father George, and without them to stand as obstacles the story would have collapsed. Still, I'm glad I'm not stuck in a room with them. Yikes.

The story moves a little fast, but it has to, and other than a couple of overly obvious lines (like Charlene telling Micky that his family runs his life -- yeah, okay, we get that by now, thanks) it's a pretty sharp script. Again, everything about this works, but it doesn't even approach a best-of list for me because it's all so plain. Maybe I'm just not into the kitchen-sink drama approach to filmmaking; clearly I want film to be more and do more, to aim higher. Originally I felt my perspective on this year's films felt more or less objectively qualitative, but maybe the trends of the year are just going against my more personal, obviously subjective expectations and desires. I'll have to talk to some of my friends, like my dear roommate Joseph, who appreciates the more down-to-earth storytelling more than I (of late) do. Stuff to think about.

But I stand by my original comment, that 2010 was a year without ambition for Hollywood and American independent cinema. Well, so it goes. Even without greatness, we've had a large number of good films this year, so maybe I should stop complaining. (Yeah, that'll happen.)

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

30 December 2010

Toy Story 3

I don't have a lot to add to what I said last time I watched this. I'm impressed again by the economy of the script and how it pays its due to the themes and relationships of the first two films. There isn't a single beat that happens just because it "has to"; everything comes first and foremost out of character.

To rehash: The first Toy Story movie sets up a world of sentient toys and their relationships to their kids, and challenges its two heroes by having them compete for position of alpha, all while teaching them the nature and value of being a toy (and not a real space ranger, or cowboy, etc.). It's clearly a story about new toys and favorite toys -- that is, it's about a toy's novelty. The second movie considers the nature of toys as collector's items and mass-produced consumer goods, and it challenges and threatens the characters' idea of what they think a toy should be. It's clearly about the middle-stage of a toy's life and about lost toys -- that is, it's about a toy's legacy. And here, in part 3, we explore what happens when toys aren't wanted anymore, we challenge the faith and loyalty toys put in their kids, and we deal with some hard truths about the finite nature of love, youth, fantasy, and devotion. It's clearly about the final stage of a toy's life, retiring, moving on, and being forgotten; it's about the finite lifespan of things, even if those things are cyclical -- and so, if Toy Story is about novelty, and Toy Story 2 is about legacy, then Toy Story 3 is about a toy's mortality.

I put this on after a discussion of how dry the year has been. There's been a good number of good films, but a dearth of great ones. Not many have risen above in that way where I can pretentiously say, "Wow, now this is cinema." What I mean is, not a lot of films feel like they'll be discussed ten years from now. The Social Network maybe, and on a smaller scale films like Winter's Bone and The Ghost Writer. And then there's Scott Pilgrim and, of course, this film -- which led me to say, only half kidding, "Hell, maybe Toy Story 3 really does have a shot at the Best Film Oscar this year." (In truth, I'd put my money on The Social Network, but nothing feels remotely like a lock.) So I watched it again. It's certainly worthy of a nomination, though it feels weird to reward a part-three of anything, even one so goddamn strong. (Though it wouldn't be the first time.) Anyway, it holds up to a second viewing, without question, and actually moves a lot faster than I remembered. In fact, it kept my attention long after when I should have gone to bed.

26 December 2010

Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)

Of course I like this movie. It's such a poetically humanistic movie, relishing in the small pleasures and tiny magical moments of being alive and human. It's not the first time theology or literature has suggested that angels live in awe and envy of mankind (if memory serves, Neil Gaiman's short story "Murder Mysteries" is one of my favorite explorations of this theme), but here it's done so viscerally and with such straightforward simplicity that you aren't simply told that angels envy us, you're shown how and why. At a remove, the angels aren't burdened with the distractions of being human and see the beauty of it instead, tiny inexplicable moments like a woman closing her umbrella in the rain and allowing herself to get soaked, that the angels here call "spiritual moments." This is a cinematic poem to what's so great about being alive.

It's also a story about being "at a remove" from life, of the importance and value in being more than just an observer of human nature, and getting your hands dirty in the muck and mess of it all. It's not nearly enough to sit back and watch, appreciate, admire, ponder; in Wings of Desire the pleasure of cold hands, smoking and coffee, or kicking up sand outweighs the most poetic thought or seemingly transcendent observation. All art falls victim to this distancing, and is therefore inferior to mere life, to mere living, even to suffering or distraction. It's a lesson I fight with every day myself, to be honest, and so again: of course I love this movie.

There's not much I can say about it, only because there's so many little things I'd love to say about it. Its use of color, light, performance and photography are all brilliant, intricate, and stunning. The editing especially carries the story as we cut from disparate scene to disparate scene or even intercut an unrelated but beautiful image into a moment. When Marion delivers her monologue at the end to Damiel in the same tone and rhythm as the onslaught of inner voices we've heard throughout, we know that what she is saying carries the weight and vulnerability of truth; she is revealing herself completely in this moment, speaking the language of the secret inner self. The interjections to Cassiel, to Peter Falk (!), to Homer lamenting a changed world, are all profound and perfect counterpoints to the main story of Damiel's fall (and his fall for Marion, so to speak).

The movie always stays with me in a million ways, leaving me wondering about life, the universe, and everything, but this time I'm also left with a strange thought: [SPOILER] if Peter Falk fell from grace as an angel twenty or thirty years ago, then who is the grandmother he is thinking about when wandering the wrecked plaza and seeing "the station where all the stations end"?

24 December 2010

Robin and the 7 Hoods

Musicals are a funny genre. I guess I did grow up on some, but only a special few, and they were never really my thing. So watching them now, with critical eyes, is interesting. The thing they remind me the most of are Muppet movies, with winkingly hammy performances and an obtuse and circuitous plot that doesn't really reward much inspection. Despite them not being "my thing," they sure are a lot of fun. It's hard to disapprove when everybody is having so much fun. Watch Peter Falk do an Italian crime boss (with the ever-so-Italian name "Guy Gisborne"); watch Bing Crosby roll through a rat-a-tat assault of three-dollar words; watch Sammy Davis, Jr, do a surprisingly funny song and dance routine about loving his guns. It's just a fun world.

To the extent that the plot or themes matter, this is the story of a smalltime hood who becomes a celebrity for giving to charity. Somehow this makes him a more successful hood (the best I can figure is, more people come to his speakeasy and gamble/drink because he gives the proceeds to orphanages and soup kitchens), and this continues to snowball until the jealous mob boss Gisborne and the confusingly devious Marian each want a piece of the action. Considering that crime is the name of the game here, it's hard to see how Gisborne can't win with his 7-to-1 manpower, massive empire -- stolen from Marian's father, Big Jim (a cameo from Edward G. Robinson, no less), though he managed to convince the revenge-hungry Marian that the sheriff was behind it all. Plus, Marian seems to drop the whole "I'll pay you any amount to avenge my father" as soon as Gisborne has the sheriff murdered, even though it sure looked like every crimelord in the city (except Robbo and his "merry men") partook in the murder simultaneously. Once dropped, Marian becomes a conniving mastermind, convincing the weaker willed men around her one by one to front her as she counterfeits money and hides behind Robbo's Robin Hood image.

It's interesting that every (halfway successful) attempt against Robbo is done by using public opinion against him. First he's framed for the Sheriff's murder, but it doesn't stick because Gisborne and his cronies try a little too hard. Then the funny-money gig blows up in his face (even though it was started by Little John and Marian while Robbo was being tried for murder) and again, it's public opinion vs Robin Hood. That's a nice touch.

I'm not sure what to make of the end -- our three main heroes dressed as Salvation Army Santas and ringing bells while Allan A. Dale (heh) runs off with Marian and -- as far as I can tell -- the accompanying fortune. Our plucky sort-of-anti heroes accept their fate with something akin to humility, sing Alan A. Dale's own song "Don't Be A Do-Badder" and carry on. Sure, they're merry men to the end, and Robbo and his men never do any real wrong (except for gambling and liquor, and some destruction of private property and so forth), but what does it mean that the prissy man who runs the orphanage gets the (evil) girl and the (dirty) money, and our relatively upstanding heroes get the shaft? Your guess is as good as mine.

But musicals are fun worlds. Like I said, everybody has fun, and it doesn't quite matter if it makes sense. And now, I'm neglecting a houseful of family on Christmas Eve, so I should get going.

23 December 2010

The New World

I know there are significantly longer cuts of this film, but the original DVD release is the only version I have, and the only version I have seen. I also know Terence Malick is somewhat notorious for his shooting and editing style, but I do not know the details of that style well enough to speak with authority. All I can do is judge the film based on the version I've seen, and speak of the pacing and style of what there is, not how it was made or what is missing.

All that is a prelude to saying, despite it's two-plus hour length and feeling of completeness (and pleasanty slow pace), it feels like this film should be about an hour longer, at least. It feels epic in that impossible, Malicky way, and it deals with such a broad swath of history so breezily that it ends up feeling like it wants more. Entire patches of proto-American history, or of Pocahontas's life, whip by in a single shot -- elements as crucial as John Smith's deposition or Pocahontas's pregnancy and childbirth. Rarely does the dialogue carry the story directly, though one beautiful scene between John Smith and Pocahontas in England does a wonderful job of letting the characters finally speak with meaning ("Did you ever find your Indies, John? You will," she says. He looks at her sadly, and after a moment replies, "I may have sailed past them.")

But the real story here is in the subtext, which is rich and could probably be unpacked for ages. Single images convey so much information -- John Rolfe pokes his head out the window of his house to watch "Rebecca" in the field: Rolfe leans out from the security and safety of civilization without ever leaving it, and admires the lady gently taming the wilderness. John Smith spends the majority of his story in shackles of some sort, including the shackles of being President of Jamestown, and has very little agency of his own in the story -- that he does not buckle, that he exercises what little will he has in service of his own heart is telling.

That this story gets away without having any real antagonists is also telling. This is a history without victors and conquereds, and of our three primary male leads (John Smith, John Rolfe, and Chief Powhatan) are all acting out of love, not out of malice, or greed, or jealousy, or possessiveness -- and not coincidentally, all are motivated by believing Pocahontas is the greatest treasure the world's ever seen. Although the backdrop of this story is the pre-infancy of America and the intersection of English colonists and Algonquin "naturals," this is actually the simplest love story of all time -- a love triangle where nobody fights anybody over anything. In fact, so little conflict actually happens (w.r.t. the story's primary plot, the love story) that the entire thing could be boiled down to a simple: She falls in love with suitor 1, but suitor 1 is forced to leave her; he lies and convinces her he's died so she can move on, and she allows herself to be wooed and married by suitor 2; she discovers suitor 1 is still alive and feels conflicted; suitor 2 loves her enough to let her go, and she explores her feelings for suitor 1, discovering that things have changed; she returns to suitor 2 a happier woman. (That's the complicated version! The short version might be as simple as "She has to choose between her first flame and her faithful husband and chooses the faithful husband.")

In other words, The New World is a meditation on the politics of staking claim to another's property (land, wife). The wife realizes, after some deliberation, that the newer claimant is the proper one, though she dies when she leaves her original love behind. The land, we know, after much "deliberation" of sorts, will remain in the hands of its new claimant as well, and perhaps it too dies when it leaves its original love (the "naturals") behind. But Pocahontas assures her husband that all things pass, and because they leave behind a child who lives all is well. Is it crazy to wonder if Malick is suggesting that yes, it's tragic that America went from the hands of its natives into the hands of colonists and takers, but all eras must pass, and because America's children live on, all is well?

Food for thought, which Malick films are beautifully, resplendently, amazingly full of.

22 December 2010

Black Swan *

Upon second viewing, I'm really left with the same impression as from my first viewing, only heightened: the same antsiness or impatience with certain repeated beats, the same detachment and distance from what's going on and who it's happening to. It occurs to me, in fact, that my emphasis on the precision of the storytelling (which led me to think on precision in filmmaking in general) comes right out of the story's themes -- how could I not come away pondering the dichotomy between precise attempts at dramatic "perfection" and the looser, "losing oneself" naturality that must be achieved to really "transcend"? It's right there in the text.

And in that sense, I think Black Swan plays out like the most direct metaphor for artist-versus-art Aronofsky has laid out yet. Just as how everybody read Inception as a manifesto for Nolan's approach to filmmaking, this might be an analogy for Aronofsky's style, and maybe Nina Sayers is an analog for how Aronofsky sees himself. The majority of his fims are precise, philosophically rich, clinically well-produced films about characters either struggling to or struggling not to let go. If the line is drawn between control and imprecision, Darren Aronofsky clearly (and accurately) places himself firmly as one on the controlled camp, though he seems to look longingly across the divide. He acknowledges that the best of the best are the times when the two sides come together impossibly, and he seems to yearn almost desperately to find that place himself. But like the Coens, both Andersons (master P.T. and hipster Wes), Nolan and Fincher and others, he isn't known for letting go. The argument makes me want to revisit The Fountain, which feels to me like it might be his boldest move toward letting go and losing himself to a story that's more poetry than prose, but I haven't seen it in years and I can't say I'm not tainting my memory by trying to place it as a fascinating outlier among his works.

Black Swan holds up for a second viewing, but for me it still feels a little too arm's-length, too deliberate and tightly plotted, and Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Vincent Cassell -- though they all give really good performances -- never rise above feeling like performances. In fact, the whole film reminds me of a Sean Penn or Daniel Day Lewis performance: a profound impersonation of every tic and subtle gesture that's just a little too spot-on and accurate, and comes off as calculated rather than organic and real. Most Coen Brothers films strike me like this to varying degrees (and I love and respect them, and Aronofsky, and Day Lewis and Penn, quite a lot, so bear that in mind as I lay down the critical hammer here), but it's always the ones that feel like more and less than mere performance that for me will stand out and rise above. Black Swan isn't quite that for me. It's too perfect.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

18 December 2010

TRON: Legacy *

What worked about TRON: Legacy: For one, the mythology is strong, interesting, dynamic. It's a pretty good evolution of the world. For another, the themes and philosophy are generally strong, in that there are themes and philosophy and they suit the story and, for the most part, the story takes pains to (very lightly) explore them as it goes. For a third, the aesthetic of the world takes a little getting used to (3D is notoriously dimmer than the glasses-free 2D, and for this story to rely on so much endless black with shimmery glass and white neon challenges that a little) but once you do it's pretty good. The world is built well and feels consistent, lived-in, and larger than just the scenes we're given.

What didn't work about TRON: Legacy: In a word, the script. The script does not work. It's like someone took a lot of work structuring your classic hero's journey and building up the protagonists and antagonists on interesting paths, made sure all the beats made sense, and then handed the script to a tenth grader. The characters do just what is needed to keep the story moving but about half of their actions lack any cohesive motivation (most notably [SPOILER] the surprise reveal of TRON and his reversal from bad guy to good guy). The pacing and plot itself stumbles about as often as not and more than once fails to stick a landing (like the weird Ziggy Stardust-Merovingian sequence and the "light-jet" fight). And the dialogue... oh good lord, what dialogue. I can sum up what's wrong with the script with the following exchange, between Quorra (a program, curious about the real world) and Sam Flynn (a user), as they discuss a sunset:
Quorra: "What's it like?"
Sam: "The sun?"
Quorra nods.
Sam: "I've never had to describe it before." (He thinks. The music is soft, thoughtful. They lean close together -- an intimate moment, as he shares his world with her.) "Warm. Radiant. uh... beautiful."
She is clearly moved by this poetic description.
(end of scene.)
It really smacks of an early draft, with placeholder dialogue that nobody ever went back to spruce up. This kind of flimsy exchange is peppered throughout the story, whenever a good kicker of a line or bit of clever back-and-forth is meant to advance the characters or story. It is painfully obvious that nobody even tried.

So on the plus side, we have mythology, theme, and world; on the minus side, dialogue, plot, and characterization. So in fact, TRON: Legacy is actually a perfect sequel to the original. TRON wasn't exactly a perfect film either, in fact. The original was full of heady, exciting concepts I hadn't seen explored much before, like the user-program/god-man parallels and the idea of an infectious self-awareness spreading from Flynn's interruption of business-as-usual in the computer world. The sequel, too, is full of heady, exciting concepts I haven't seen explored much before, like spontaneously self-aware, functionless programs sprouting up inside the Grid, or the strange dynamic between Clu and Flynn. But neither film even tries to go anywhere with these ideas, preferring instead fight sequences, chases, shoot-outs, and shouty confrontations. It's really surprising how much like my reaction to the first TRON film my reaction to this one is. And in that light, though this film is far from perfect, it's kind of hard to fault it much. And so I'm left with: I'm glad I saw it. But I'm not in love. I'm not even sure if I liked it much or not.

Two closing thoughts: One, there's a weird fake-out where Cillian Murphy shows up at the beginning playing the son of David Warner's Ed Dillinger, the villain from TRON, which is a total waste of both Murphy and the legacy of Dillinger (I'd have absolutely loved to see David Warner show up again, in some capacity) since it went nowhere. He sat in a board meeting, proved himself a genius at computers and spoke with an authority that shut up a panicked room, and then never appeared again. (I suppose in retrospect that he is a plant for a third TRON film, which... whatever... but I'd much rather have seen the return of David Warner.)

And lastly: I miss the Bit. It didn't make any more or less sense than anything else; they should have brought it back. Or brought in a Byte, with 16 different possible opinions and no more.

It's been a weak year, overall, for new films. Plenty of very good ones, plenty of "good enough" ones, not much I've seen this year makes me sit up and say, "Oh my god, this is real cinema," the way I have in years past. I think Winter's Bone is the standout on that list.

Seen at the AMC Century City 15, in 3-D.

14 December 2010

The Proposition

There's a point in the movie when Samuel asks Arthur what a misanthrope is. "Is that what we are?" he asks. "Good lord, no," says the brutal, savage, monstrous killer Arthur Burns. "We're a family." It's not terribly subtle, but there's a reason this story can get away with that kind of handholding; there's a reason we are made to see so plainly the contrast between the bandits with the poets' souls and the more cold-hearted citizenry (and especially Eden Fletcher and the British soldiers under Stanley's command). We get it, the civilizers are uncivilized and the rogues are the ones quoting poetry and admiring sunsets. It's not like that reverse-dichotomy hasn't been explored before, is it?

But Nick Cave and John Hillcoat are doing two things here that justify this (in addition to the usual stuff like gripping performances, stunning photography and tightly scripted action). One, they're showing us a world where savagery is beauty, and where violence is poetry -- and not just in a hyperbolic sense. It makes you really feel it, as if it's perfectly rational that a man's head being blown off, or a sudden spear through the chest, are elegant things to behold.

And then there's the end, the reminder that these poet's souls we've been admiring, the seductive legend of a man Arthur Burns and his creepy-charismatic follower Samuel and the rest, who admire nature and live as a family and only want to be left alone, truly are as savage and monstrous and evil as their reputations suggest. The casual, business-as-usual invasion of the Stanleys' Christmas dinner leaves no doubt in your mind who the bad guys are.

But they do make such wonderful, complicated villains. One of my favorite telling lines is Arthur's, when Charlie has a gun to his head. Arthur has just delivered a non-killing (or slowly killing) stab to poor, racist (and oddly-named) Jellon Lamb, and Charlie cocks his pistol at his brother's head. Without even turning, Arthur says in a weary voice, "Why can't you ever just stop me?" I think Arthur is the monster he is because Charlie is his conscience, and in fact Charlie spends the entire film in an almost Hamlet-like fit of indecision, unable to act even though he knows he eventually must. If Charlie can't stop Arthur, then Arthur simply must keep going, keep pushing, keep on being the monster he is. It's not exactly, I think, that he wants to be caught, or stopped, or punished; it's that he wants to find the threshold he cannot cross, or the line that Charlie (his conscience) can't let him step over. He finds it, eventually, in the end, I suppose, but by then so much damage is done, and who's to blame for all we've seen here? "You never should have left us, Charlie," Arthur tells him early on. "We're a family."

Many stories are only as good as their villains. The Proposition has countless strengths beyond just the one, but it doesn't hurt how fascinating a character Arthur Burns is.

13 December 2010

π (Pi)

Recently I was discussing the fact that three of the biggest films this year were by Darren Aronofsky, Christopher Nolan, and David Fincher (Black Swan, Inception, and The Social Network respectively), and that all three feel like excessively precise films -- like or hate the films, they're undeniably works by masters of their medium, with a tight, confident grip and control over every aspect of production, from the tiniest of details to the grandest of overarching themes. But their expert precision can be as much a burden as it is a strength. In the 70s people complained that the Hollywood New Wave was the first generation of filmmakers who'd graduated from film school, who'd studied nothing except the language of film, and that for all their intelligence and technical wizardry, their films were more about film than about life -- they were at one remove from the subjects. Well this is clearly the generation of filmmakers raised in the shadow of that previous generation; second-gen film students arguably twice removed. Following consciously in the footsteps of Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Welles, et al, there's a decided lack of looseness to their work. There is almost no improvisation, or randomness, or organic give-and-take. These are artists telling stories from the mind, not from the heart.

As much as I really liked The Social Network and Black Swan, and mostly liked Inception, they had a coldness to them. But so do the best works of P.T. Anderson, the Coens, Wes Anderson (!!), David O. Russell, Jim Jarmusch. It seems to be the trend, this bent toward precision and control. And for the record, I'm not against it. I just named some of my favorite big-name American filmmakers. But it does feel like a one-sided argument.

Pi (much easier to type than its greek-letter numerical title) is an argument for the other side. Imprecise, shot guerilla-style on grainy film, somewhat unhinged and never locking down what it's even about. It feels (now) like the bridge between Eraserhead and Primer. One foot deep into impressionistic psychodrama and one foot deep into the obsessiveness of science and math. It's also obviously a precursor for many or most the elements in Requiem for a Dream -- a film where Aronofsky tried out his hand at precise control before loosening up (a little) for the more abstract The Fountain. I wonder sometimes if the poor performance of The Fountain is what pushed him back in the other direction, toward the more linear and... cerebral is pointedly the wrong word here, but let's say controlled storytelling of The Wrestler and Black Swan.

Aronofsky's always been obsessed with obsession (which is maybe why being at one remove from his subjects comes so naturally), telling stories of characters losing themselves to their passions, or their weaknesses, or (often) simultaneously both. Pi is such an impressively audacious, confident first step, even if (partly because) it's a messy, overly abstract, slightly pedantic piece of madman poetry, a deceptively simple story told from a bent, subjective view that should be offputting but never is. Max Cohen is never unlikable, possibly because his weaknesses are so profound and prevalent, because for all his super-genius and arrogance he is pitifully human. It's a good touch, and there's a lesson in writing a strong protagonist here. He has specific objectives, specific obstacles, identifiable and (sort of) relatable weaknesses, and he's doing cool stuff that maybe we all (a generation of geeks and thinkers) daydream about doing. It's not a perfect film, but it's almost a perfect first film.

12 December 2010


An impromptu online back-and-forth between a couple of friends about our favorite Robert Altman films (The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs. Miller top my list, but it's a big list) led me to realize I'd never seen Nashville in its entirety. I've seen so many Altman films that I knew just what to expect, of course -- and it's hard not to now see echoes of this throughout a lot of his later films, most especially A Prairie Home Companion, which almost feels like the wiser, calmer, existential counterpart of Nashville.

It's interesting to know that Robert Altman works from other people's scripts; I can't help but wonder how it looked on the page, and how it'd have come out in someone else's hands. (Inferior to this, I'm sure, but still.) It's not just the overlapping dialogue and long takes of deceptively loose camerawork, it's the way scenes unfold as though there's no real point to them. The way he crowds everyone into a single scene and then lets them sort of meander about, blather at each other, or just generally fail to make their points clear. Sometimes that's the point of the character (like Geraldine Chaplin's cringe-inducing BBC reporter) but often it's just sort of the Altman way, a not-too-exaggerated reflection of how people talk when cameras aren't rolling. Scenes just roll around, get to a point eventually or sometimes don't, and then we cut to the next one. I'm not saying that scenes lack a distinct (and layered) reason for being, but the specifics of the scene are often a lot less specific than we're used to seeing in cinema.

The film itself is the intersection of fame and commerce and art (and politics and ego and dread), and nobody and nothing gets off unscathed by the proceedings. Just about everyone in town has the humble dream of making it as a country-music star. In fact so many people have that dream that it becomes oppressive, the endless sea of starry-eyed hope and attention-starved ambition. There are the exploiters and the exploited, the guileless and the savvy, the winners and the losers, and they all revolve in this uneasy orbit together, occasionally colliding -- or, to belabor a weak metaphor, at least altering each other's trajectories with their magnetic pulls. A couple of "real life movie stars" (Julie Christie and Elliott Gould) appear as themselves, and they have no idea who these country stars everyone worships even are; likewise these country stars are only marginally aware of the movie stars. Nashville, we are told, is its own little cosmos. (How's that for driving that metaphor all the way home?)

Additionally, I saw in the credits that all the country-western songs throughout were written by the performers who sang them (except Henry Gibson, whose songs were expected to be universally loved, and so he had some help from the composer). Keith Carradine's in particular struck me as surprisingly solid, and the end of the film wouldn't have worked without the stilted, uncomfortable performance of "It Don't Worry Me" eventually finding its footing and spreading out into a frightened crowd, proving to the world that "this is Nashville, not Dallas." Country music isn't my thing, but the songs here were clearly what made the movie (and, to be more cynical, what made the movie two hours and forty minutes long), and they are charismatic and down-homey and honest feeling, and they don't feel whipped together just to get the job done. Credit to the performers who wrote them, because like I said, I just don't think all of the intricate and clever plotting and complex characterizations would have held together without them.

Now can someone explain to me Jeff Goldblum's character?

It's All About Love

Once upon a time I tried to write a script based on a series of unrelated dreams. I thought it might be nice to just let them fold over each other, let some kind of extremely loose narrative structure develop organically out of whatever came of the experiment. It never got very far, but I sometimes wonder if I will ever again pick it up, try again to make something of it. I'm always tempted, curious enough to keep the idea "alive" in some far-backburner of my mind. I know it would be a sort of surreal, Buñuelian thing at best, but I always wonder.

I read that Vinterberg called this film not "apocalyptic science fiction," but "a dream," and frankly that's a more satisfying way to read this. It's too somnambulatory to work as a science fiction drama, but as a dream, it almost works -- almost. The truth is, It's All About Love is more of a cautionary example than anything else. If I ever did return to that crazy conglomeration of dreams, this might be a best-case scenario of how it might turn out. A critic called it "like Kubrick without the talent," but I'd say it's more like Lynch without cohesion, or clarity, or something -- without quite so much courage of conviction.

The story shifts its narrative direction roughly every ten to fifteen minutes exactly like a dream, and as you might expect some chapters work a lot better than others. The problem mostly lies in trying to connect each chapter to the previous in a meaningful, even if nonliteral, way. I'm frankly not sure you could. There are quite a lot of elements here that are nice (and every single shot is gorgeously photographed), but what they add up to is hard to pin down. I'm pretty sure most people would hate this film -- at best maybe call it an interesting failure. For my money, it's a fascinating piece of work that I'm glad (and frankly surprised) exists, but I don't love it, by any stretch.

11 December 2010

The Wild Bunch

I watched this back-to-back as a western double feature with a screener of the Coens' True Grit, and that may have colored my approach here. They certainly have a lot in common. (And full disclosure: I've seen the first half of this several times, but this was the first time that circumstances have allowed me to view the film in its entirety.) Of course the big deal about this film is its depiction of violence as visceral and gruesome, and impactful on the world of the story, not just there to titillate or excite you. Children fill the edges of almost every fight scene, witnessing, sometimes in shock, sometimes in joy and awe. Innocents are mowed down by the law enforcement men (the railroad agents and their hired guns; the junta military) and only mourned by the titular band of robbers, who seem to understand a tacit "soldiers-vs-civilians" attitude toward killing that nobody else does -- though even that is thrown out the window more than once in the story, as violence has a tendency to spread like wildfire and rarely ends well.

There's also of course the same bleak tone at the ending as True Grit, though here much more pronounced and poignant: nearly everyone we are led to care about dies at the end of the film in what is sort of like a hero's massacre and also sort of like a poorly thought out, hollowly pyrrhic victory.

...I'm going to be honest with you here. I wrote a lot more about the bleak ending. Then I wrote a whole long thing about the constant raucous laughter throughout, about how they "party hard," comparing the Wild Bunch gang to vikings and conquistadors. I commented about how they are always laughing at someone else's (one of their own's) misfortune or humiliation. I said all sorts of clever things about how the other characters in the story lacked the moral core that our anti-heroes had. But Safari logged me out of blogspot without warning me, and when I went to hit "post," it was all lost. No amount of hitting "back" resurrected all my work, and I don't feel like doing it all again. (What you're looking at here is the last draft before it fucked me. Thanks, Safari.)

And then I ended with the following, which I had saved in my copy/paste clipboard:

It's a little overlong and meanders in the middle, and it hits a lot of the same notes repeatedly -- which worked, but also wore on me. So while it's not my favorite Pekinpah film (maybe Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia?) or my favorite "revisionist western" (maybe McCabe & Mrs. Miller, or The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, if that counts? or an Eastwood like Pale Rider, Unforgiven or Josey Wales), it's still undeniably a great film, and I'm really glad I finally saw it all the way through.

10 December 2010

True Grit

It's always extremely difficult for me to unpack a Coen Brothers film after only a single viewing, and even though this one follows a slightly more linear and direct storyline than many of theirs (possibly owing to its adaptation from a western novel), it still unwinds at a pleasantly unpredictable pace. Mattie Ross is constantly offering up legal advice or threatening legal action, bringing the promise and threat of sterile civilization into the obviously wild Indian Territories. This is met with a variety of reactions, but primarily one of grim acceptance. Nobody scoffs at her, nobody once tells her how ridiculous it sounds to offer an outlaw the name of a good lawyer in a cabin in the deep woods as he faces a Mexican standoff with an ornery and trigger-happy U.S. Marshall. Lucky Ned Pepper is one of many men for whom a lawyer may do precious good; he tells her "I don't need a lawyer, I need a judge." The introduction to the character and M.O. of Rooster Cogburn is through a court hearing. The story is clearly concerned with the intersection of law and lawlessness, and even goes so far as to have Texas Ranger La Boeuf and Mattie discuss the latin terminology for a crime that is "illegal because it is wrong" versus "illegal because of our customs and mores."

Another recurring motif is the use of guns. Of course first and foremost as weapons, and nearly every time a gun goes off it has an impact, either as a shocking burst of instant death (at close quarters) or as a deceptively ineffectual way of putting down an enemy (from a distance): missing when firing is a repeating theme in this story. But guns aren't just weapons in True Grit, but also modes of communication, devices of warning, or even tools for scaring off natural predators like buzzards. The number of times a gunshot is used to communicate at great distances or to signal for help adds a new layer of potency and utility to the already strongly symbolic item.

Also, there is something in the end that I need to spend more time with. [SPOILERS!] What does it mean that La Boeuf never returns (despite some well-played sexual tension between him and Mattie)? What does it mean that Mattie lost her hand, spends her days as a one-armed unmarried seamstress, on her way to full-on crone status? And what does it mean that after it was all over, she missed reconnecting with Rooster by a mere three days, and was left to simply describe everything she'd been through as "adventures"? Does it mean it was all for naught? That revenge ruined her life and never left her, and drove apart the three comrades who had worked together to accomplish it? I am sure I'll have more thoughts when I've seen it more than the one time. It comes out around Christmas, and I know I'll be seeing it then, so it won't be long. But one viewing is never enough to get your head around a film by Coen Brothers.

09 December 2010

El laberinto del fauno (Pan's Labyrinth)

After badmouthing this film so resolutely, I felt I had to return to it and give it a fair shake. After all, Pan's Labyrinth is the "spiritual sequel" to The Devil's Backbone, something Del Toro claims in the commentary track but something I (and I think most people) picked up immediately on first viewing of this.

For the most part I agree with my diatribe, that Del Toro is like (probably) every other fantasy or sci-fi director out there, and he is at his best when given a box he has to creatively think his way out of, rather than when he is given every tool in the chest and a limitless sandbox to build a world into. Pan's isn't as bad as I made it sound -- it's incredibly watchable, and exciting and fun and emotional -- but it's not really about much. What does our protagonist want? To escape the miserable world of reality. What stands in her way? Not nothing, exactly, but surprisingly little. The various complications of the adult world (here exemplified by fascists and rebels in 1944 Spain, though honestly couldn't this story work in almost any time, place, and circumstance?) and her own short-sighted hubris, I guess. Does she get what she wants? She does, by dying (an interesting choice, to be sure) and letting her soul wake up as a princess of the Underworld.

Meanwhile, there's the second story going on here, which actually I'm pretty sure gets more screen time: the drama of Captain Vidal and his troops versus the rebels in the woods and his treasonous house-staff. The problem here is they might as well be cartoon characters, they're all so two-dimensional and obvious. The parts are all well performed, but nobody's given much to work with. Vidal is a tyrant and a true clock-watching fascist through and through; the mother is a foolishly good-hearted woman too desperate to see the dangerous man right in front of her for what he really is; the maid and the doctor are your standard-issue double-agent freedom fighters, sneaking supplies from under Vidal's nose out to the rebels; and the rebels are a mostly faceless group of guerillas with sharp-shooters, wounded men and a loving brother among them, who somehow win in the end against all odds (in a major power switch we mostly pass over in favor of chasing Vidal and Ofelia through the hedge maze). None of these roles have much in the way of contradictions or unexpected quirks to their characters; none of them seem to offer much to the tapestry of the story.

Vidal's obsession with having an heir is his Achilles' heel in the war with the woodsmen (in his own words, his "pride" is his weakness), and his savage disinterest in Ofelia's mother's well-being actually aids Ofelia in her quest to escape reality by severing her singular meaningful tie with it. With Mom out of the way, there's almost no reason to mourn the child's passing -- which is to say, if her goal is "to escape reality and become a fairy princess" and she gets there without any real sacrifice, you end the film with the sense that not much was at stake for her. She didn't lose anything (that she hadn't already lost) in order to gain this new thing, and the victory feels cheaper for it. Further, she didn't even make the choice herself. Aside from protecting her infant brother from Vidal, the decision to "shed innocent blood" wasn't a conscious step on her part, and although the Underworld King and Queen claim she completed the final test by shedding her own blood rather than an innocent's, she didn't even put herself in front of the bullet; Vidal's (badassedly off-hand) murdering of Ofelia was a total shock to us and to her, and only happened by good fortune to satisfy the final quest to get the fairy princess back into fairyland.

I'll admit, I think analyzing the story this way is missing the point of the kind of fairy tale being told here. The thing is I can't help it. I watch a film and I read its story and look for meaning, and layers in that meaning. That's what I do. Pan's Labyrinth plays out like a uniquely dark (though perhaps a little too novel-for-its-own-sake) wish-fulfillment story. Little girl is born into a bad life, someone comes along and promises her something better, she perseveres in the face of various obstacles and is granted, in a twisted sort of way, her wildest desire. It's Cinderella. But a little more time spent on fleshing out the dimensions of the characters or tying the various stories together a little more would have gone a long way in taking a gorgeous piece of escapism and making it the masterpiece that Devil's Backbone was. This is more like its prettier, lesser shadow than it is a spiritual sequel, in my eyes. More polish, but less presence.

08 December 2010

127 Hours *

I worked in a bookstore when this book came out, and even though I didn't read every book on the shelf it was surprisingly easy to stay abreast of not just the gist but the plots of most books that came through. Somehow, some combination of hearsay, reviews, articles, customer comments and the collective unconscious of everybody reading something added up to having a good working knowledge of a lot of books. Between a Rock and a Hard Place was too gruesome and popular not to know about (though I somehow got it in my head that Aron Ralston had to dismantle his camera to find something sharp enough to [SPOILER] cut his arm off with). Anyway it was a well known story in popular culture, "that story of the one guy who got his arm caught in the rocks and had to cut it off to get out of the canyon alive."

So it's impossible to know how I'd feel about this film if that hadn't been "spoiled" for me. It feels from the beginning like everything's building up to an obvious conclusion, what with the obstacle being "your arm is trapped beneath a boulder" and the objective is "get out of the canyon alive." For much of the story, whether or not it was working, I couldn't shake the fact that we were waiting for the proverbial other shoe to drop. It was a nice touch that he tried early and gave up, but even if you didn't know how it ended, what other option is there? From a purely dramatic standpoint, any rescue from another source would eliminate the necessity of the story being so tightly focused on the one and only real character: the story would have to be their story as well, because they would make the choice at the story's climax and our hero would just have gotten lucky. Anyway, I digress. The point is, this is one of those stories where you can't escape the inevitability of your resolution, and so to an extent the story becomes a dreadful waiting game; your audience is anxious for maybe all the wrong reasons.

To its credit, the film is never boring and almost never feels like it's just spinning plates (a little toward the end with the couch of family & friends smiling blandly at the trapped Aron, and with the child's eerie presence during The Scene). It doesn't lean too heavily on flashbacks, and more importantly it doesn't do it in bland conventional ways. For my taste Danny Boyle is too much of a music video director for the kind of visceral story this is, and the rock music and triptych-effect and not-quite-Oliver-Stone framing and cutting diminishes the experience almost as much as it enhances it. The cutting itself is actually very strong, and the shots are always very pretty, but the stylization and short-attention-span mania made things a little too palatable. I should have been dying in my seat as he snaps his bones and saws through his nerves, but instead I was merely cringing. (Credit where it's due: the sound design for those moments, and throughout, was very effective.) Don't get me wrong, this isn't an easy movie I'm quite ready to sit through again (and I mean that in a good way), but it wasn't nearly as difficult as I imagine it could be, and anything less than grueling feels like it sells the ordeal short. (To that end, I'm also surprised at how short the film is and how fast it's paced. It doesn't feel interminable at all, which is directly counter to the experience of our character, and that again strikes me as trying to make palatable what should be an [enjoyably] unpalatable experience.)

Franco's great throughout, though. I'd never seen Freaks and Geeks, and the first time I saw him was as Harry Osborn in the first Spider-Man movie. I distinctly remember saying afterward, whoever played Green Goblin's son was too good for such a small role, and I was looking forward to seeing the Hobgoblin show up in the sequel. He's an actor that never quite steals a scene but tends to shine just a little bit brighter than whoever else is in the room. Here, of all things, I could imagine his career following the chameleon-like trajectory of Johnny Depp's, but maybe with a little more sense of humor and a little less of that Daniel Day-Lewis/Sean Penn/Johnny Depp impersonation-style externalized performance. (Again, I digress.) The point is, he's very good.

Bottom line, 127 Hours totally works. It delivers what it promises, and it's not easy to sit through. But the style of it kind of watered down the tension for me, and the pacing made over five days trapped beneath a rock feel icky but deceptively bearable.

Seen at the Regal Fox Tower.

07 December 2010

The Matrix Revolutions

So we have a trilogy. Dramatically, part one makes a hero (really, a demi-god) out of an ordinary man and sets him up as the chosen one, ready to save humanity from the insidious Matrix and its nigh-undefeatable dark knights (agents). Betrayal from inside almost ruins everything, but thanks to the stalwart faith of our hero's allies, he is able to rise to the challenge and prove himself powerful indeed. Part two lets our hero return "home" to a hero's welcome, and sends our band of crusaders on a series of mini-quests, each putting them one step closer to goals they only partly understand. It also introduces us to a new (version of a familiar) adversary and while Neo and Morpheus and Trinity are busy fighting level bosses like the Merovingian and his twin albino wraiths, Smith's powers expand and the threat he poses looms larger and larger. Part two ends with our hero Neo meeting the archetypal oracle (who is not the Oracle actually, but the Architect) and learning more about his nature, the nature of the universe, and the dark destiny that lays before him -- after all, the ultimate hero's challenge is to deny one's destiny.

And so we come to Revolutions, part three, in which all the final confrontations occur. The war for Zion is fought, and it's well told, but it's also as close as I need to ever get to a Warhammer 40K movie; Neo confronts his Mentor (in the first film this was Morpheus, but here the role's been usurped by the now misnamed Oracle) and gives the "Ben, why didn't you tell me?" speech; and Smith comes into his own, having grown from evil soldier to evil god in a way that perfectly counterpoints Neo.

The Smith/Neo thing is a nice segue into what I think Revolutions is doing thematically. Seems to me that The Matrix, thematically, is about questioning the given world and exploring the boundaries of what we think of as humanity/society. The Matrix Reloaded passes itself off as exploring the dynamic between causality and freewill and it expands into a more diverse (and possibly muddied) view of agency and sentience. The Matrix Revolutions continues the overarching theme of choice and destiny, and also concerns itself heavily with the idea of balance and dichotomies: an equation has to balance itself out at all times, so the more powerful Neo becomes, the more powerful Smith must become necessarily. (Tangentially, this reminds me of the Star Trek: the Next Generation episode where the computer imbibes Moriarty with superior intelligence, will, and self-awareness because that's the only way he can be a match for Data.)

And here is where Smith would be an interesting study. As with the general tone of the whole trilogy there's nothing subtle about the philosophical musings in the story, nor anything terribly deep behind it all, but that doesn't make it uninteresting to discuss. There are too many ways in which Smith is truly the anti-Neo ("your negative," the Oracle calls him) for me to get into here. One way I find interesting is that Neo is The One (a message pounded into him and us throughout the series) and Smith becomes The Many, drawing his strength from his multiplicity and multipicability in just the way Neo draws his from standing out, being singular. As Neo's powers expand impossibly to exist outside the Matrix, so too does he draw Smith's influence into the "real world." (While this still strikes me as hard to stomach, and makes me wonder if there's not a sneaky "Matrix-within-a-Matrix" thing going on here, I think it's probably easier to accept the magical realism as the point at which prophecy and spirituality rule over one portion of the story, even while science and logic purportedly rule another -- all things in balance, after all.) As Neo's personality evolves from excitable, angry, and nervous to the serenity of a zen master, Smith follows an inverse trajectory from eerie, unsettling coolness to fury, frustration, and childlike (albeit evil) glee. Like I said, too many ways the two are counterpoints for me to go through them all here.

I have to admit that the big action sequences here, including the war for Zion and both encounters with Smith (on the Logos and in the Matrix) are really thrilling, gorgeous, never-boring sequences that justify the big-dumb-fun of the story for me. For my money, despite a couple of nice sequences the second Matrix movie is hands-down the weakest, and while the first is the only one that really works start-to-finish as an elegant and never-unsatisfying story, the third one is admirable and gives reasonably satisfying closure to the series -- I'm even able, after a few viewings, to overlook the weird Freudian/Christian climax and resolution. It may be a manufactured trilogy, but I still like it well enough.

06 December 2010

The Matrix Reloaded

The problem with sequels and manufacturing trilogies out of successful films is that in most cases (see: Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Planet of the Apes, Back to the Future, and definitely The Matrix) the original stood alone so well that it needed no story to continue it. In each case the original bore hints of a deeper, larger world around its edges but it worked best when you left that kind of thing to the imagination and didn't overliteralize the experience. Well, overliteralizing is Reloaded's primary problem, I'd say, and probably the reason most people complained it didn't hold up to the original.

In each and every one of the above examples of serializing standalone science-fiction/fantasy stories, the second installment expands the world by exploring further reaches of the world. The Empire Strikes Back expands the story to bounty hunters, Imperial Armadas, and Jedi training; both the future and an alternate-reality present are explored in Back to the Future II; the savage humans and their proto-"culture" are explored in Beneath the Planet of the Apes; new pirate-mythologies are expanded on in the second Pirates film; and the city of Zion and the nature of the Matrix are explored in The Matrix Reloaded. The problem in each case is you expand the world by making concrete some of the more telling abstractions from the original, and the more literal it becomes the more you open your story up to skepticism. The more time I spend with time travel, or a world with intelligent apes and savage men, or a universe of (space | sea) pirates and (aliens | sea-monsters) and (Jedi knights | magic curses), the more I start to question the validity of it all. I buy wholesale into the Matrix of the first Matrix movie because it's sharp, elegant, and an easy-to-grasp metaphor I haven't seen done (on the big screen) before. But when you open up the world and start talking to me about rogue programs and architects and we actually see the city of Zion and its culture, people, government -- well, the more rules and boundaries you show me, the more I start to question the ramifications of those rules and boundaries. To put it another way: if you show me only a clock face, I am pleased and impressed that the thing tells time so accurately and applaud you on the elegance of your design... but if you open it up and start showing off the gears and clockwork, I might see weak points and inconsistencies, and the magic will be utterly gone.

Further, The Matrix was full of all these fascinating and maudlin monologues unabashedly pontificating on various philosophical themes, and while the dialogue was never "good" in a traditional sense, it was enjoyable on many levels. The Matrix Reloaded, however, seems hellbent on being very direct and straightforward, literal with what is said. Even when philosophy gets discussed, it is in egregiously straightforward (and muddled) ways, as when the Merovingian explains his idea of causality (vs. freewill) by serving a "program" (slice of cake) to a woman which triggers in her an orgasm and somehow convinces her to sneak off to the bathroom (where, we learn two scenes later, she gives him a blowjob). It's confusing and frustrating, but it's not a symbol: he literally does the thing he's saying he could do as an illustration of an idea he lays out in no uncertain terms. It actually feels a lot like someone else wrote a sequel and didn't have the grasp of layered dialogue and visual metaphor that the original creators had. Of course, that's tacitly not the case, and so I'm left to wonder why this film lacks the magic of the first. It's not that it's bad, mind you, it's just too obsessed with continuing a story, and the more poetic, thematically driven elements of the first are set aside to that end. More's the shame, honestly.

Additionally, I can't leave without noting: in each and every one of the above "manufactured trilogy" examples, the story is made darker by putting the characters in more dire straits and ending on a cliffhanger: Han Solo is in carbonite and Luke is a one-armed kid with some shocking family news in Empire; Doc Brown has been thrown back to 1885 and Marty's stranded in the past in Back to the Future; Jack Sparrow throws himself into the massive vagina dentata of the kraken in Pirates; the astronauts set off the nuclear bomb and destroy all life on Earth in Apes; and Neo is told that the prophecy is bunk, Agent Smith has escaped the Matrix, and the sentinels are on their way to finally eradicate all of Zion in Matrix Reloaded. Every time, you explore the nooks and crannies of the world, expand the mythology and cast of characters, and you end on a devastating low-note, anticipating your third installment.

Well, I'll start the third installment, but I doubt I'll finish it tonight. Then again, I predicted I wouldn't finish the second.

05 December 2010

The Matrix

This is one of those movies that I've seen too many times over the years. It's also one of those movies that's equal parts mythology and story (if not more mythology than story), and as such it garners instant love and worship from some factors and instant disdain and snobbery from others. The thing is, especially now that I'm viewing it from a bit of a distance, the "bad dialogue" and hammy acting all contribute properly to a story which is precariously (and reasonably successfully, like it or not) balancing heavy-handed (simplistic but resonant) philosophical musings with mind-bending and genre-bending action and suspense.

Inside the Matrix, nearly every line is a metaphor. About the only times in the entire film when someone speaks literally inside the Matrix is when giving commands or orders, and then the dialogue becomes curt, direct, and decidedly barebones. Otherwise, the language isn't just colorful, it's symbolic. Outside the Matrix, dialogue tends to be somewhat reverent, acolytes discussing prophecies and holy lands, leaps of faith and quests to free their brethren. None of this is very deep or subtle, but it sets a strong tone for a lot of brilliantly unsubtle actors to tell a story that does a pretty good job of combining first year existentialism and a beginner's course on Joseph Campbell. Not since Star Wars have so many tropes been used so excitingly.

Jen (my lady) also pointed out the visual motif of the grid (tiled floors, skyscraper windows, rows of monitors), in addition to the visual motif I was focusing on, which is a sharp verticality on an anamorphically-horizontal canvas (the crawl down the inside of the walls, the elevator shaft, the fire escapes). A lot of attention has been given to the look of the film -- arguably too much, by some standards? -- and many shots cleverly and beautifully illustrate the dynamic or import of the scene at hand. An obvious example for me was the famous red-pill/blue-pill sequence: Neo reflected in each of Morpheus's lenses, and beneath him, one hand each. The left hand holding the red pill in the left lens, and the right hand holding the blue pill in the right lens. It's not exactly the way the reflection should look, of course, but it's a reasonable approximation, and a really elegant illustration of the two diverging destinies that lay before Neo: return to the fold or break away from the world and learn the truth. It (along with several other shots throughout, actually) also speaks to the scenes in the third film with the Architect, which is a nice bit of foreshadowing, intentional or not.

Now, on to the second one. Though we'll see if we make it to the end.

02 December 2010

Modern Times

I think there's actually something lost in our savvy culture where film exists as a fully-formed and nuanced language. Early films have a real pioneering energy, where anything is still possible and any story can be told, in any form. The fact that the vocabulary for visual storytelling was still fairly new allowed people like Keaton and Chaplin, Pabst and Lang, to tell deceptively simple-seeming genre-bending tales built on brand-new archetypes and symbolism without feeling preachy. Modern Times feels like mythology more than narrative, and every event is just as pregnant with layered meaning as in any contemporary film by a modern master, but without any pretense. The result feels a lot more subversive, rather than less subversive, as the dancing singing buffoon in the funny hat and baggy pants who spins around and falls down for our amusement is also the guy sneaking in anti-industrialist, anti-socialist messages, whose charming little comedy reminds us that life gives you breaks, but life also never stops throwing you curve balls, so don't relax for a second. It also suggests that crime isn't done by evil men, that unionizing workforces isn't always in the worker's best interest, and remains heartily skeptical about the value of both industry and populist entertainment. It is very humanist, just a story about little people keeping their chin up in a world busily giving and taking away so fast they can hardly keep up. Fate and fortune are capricious, and all you can control is how you deal with it, and who you hold on to.

That's a lot of message for a comedy about a man who keeps getting stuck inside giant clockwork gears, or rollerskating around the lips of chasms inside a massive department store, or making up gibberish songs to appease a restless dinner theater crowd, or constantly destroying the barely-held-together thing he and his love try and think of as "home," only to have her patiently restore each bit as best she can before he causes another catastrophe. The thing is, I can't even describe Chaplin's setpieces without making them sound heavy with symbolism and metaphor, and if I had a complaint at all it's that there are times it feels like we're just waiting for the next big setpiece to arrive. The time between stunts and numbers are the times where the era's adolescence is most starkly felt -- sure, there's characterization, and to a degree it's satisfying too, but it's never as graceful or as meaningful as when the Tramp is actually doing something. Those moments shine on multiple levels; they have me laughing at the antics of clowns and unpacking the imagery of poets all at once.

Now I want to really sit down and revisit Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, see if I react similarly. After all, there's that famous Coke-vs-Pepsi rivalry, and I've got to pick a side, don't I? I'll get back to you on that.

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In)

What makes this great to me from a narrative standpoint is the limited perspective of the story. All the complex backstories and answers to various mysteries are left out because Oskar, our protagonist character, either wouldn't know or isn't curious. Although the novel sounds moving and interesting and a lot more complicated, all I can do it repeat my first reaction, that it was the right choice to leave that out of the film. Everybody likes a good mystery, and everybody likes a rich lived-in world with its own sense of history, mythology, and character, but I think people are happiest when the edges remain unexplored. It gives you a sense that there's more out there. It's why the first Matrix movie is a thousand times better than the following two (and I'm, to a degree, a bit of an apologist for series like those). It's why the first Star Wars, and to a lesser degree the entire first trilogy, will always outpace the later films/trilogy in people's imaginations. Or Alien, or Blade Runner, or Indiana Jones, or THX 1138 (Lucas was on a roll early in his career; it's a crucial lesson I rather think he's forgotten). If you pull me into your world and make me believe it is rational, follows its own consistent but unique logic, but you tease me with a world beyond the borders of each frame that feels just as consistent and rational, you will have won my heart.

The other thing handled so well here is of course the actual tone and style of the film itself. The cinematography is beautiful in a way I'd call "slow," or at least "patient." Glacial, maybe, which suits the region and definitely seems like the contemporary Scandinavian style, if Aki Kaurismäki is any indicator. (I'm also reminded of the Icelandic Noi Albinoi and Roy Andersson's awesome films.)

Tight close-ups remind us that our perspective is limited, that the story is about the small characters in the big world who can only see so far. Action scenes tend to be fast and just barely off-frame (like the pool confrontation and Lacke's death in Eli's bathroom) or in extremely wide shots (like the attacks on Virginia and Jocke); in both cases the camera hovers impassive, lingering at the scene but nonchalant, almost as if capturing the drama by accident. This keeps the violence from us in a way that transforms terror into dread and panic into fear, and it keeps the plot at arm's length, because Let The Right One In is not a movie about its plot. It's not about what happens next. It's only ever about young Oskar, and how he relates to the confounding object of his affections, Eli. It's about character and mood, and not plot. (That's a far cry from saying it doesn't have a plot, obviously; it just keeps the plot in the background, slightly out of focus.) And every shot in the film says this. You cannot forget or mistake the focus of this story, and because the story is so fascinating in its simplicity and because Oskar and Eli are such charismatic, complicated and well-drawn characters, this is exactly the right approach. Wonderful, inspiring, and worth the revisit.

01 December 2010

Black Swan

I made a completely off-hand joke before we watched this that Black Swan was "that ballet movie by Darren Aronofsky," which meant that it was "essentially Step Up 4: Requiem for a Dream." But really, since I'd heard that at one point this ballet story was being developed along with the wrestler's story in The Wrestler as a single film, I was more prepared for this to be in that vein than like Requiem. I'd say maybe it splits the difference, but it felt for my money like it leaned just a hair further toward the dark-surreal psychodrama of Requiem than into the exhaustive sheer physicality of The Wrestler. Either way, there is no doubt this was a Darren Aronofsky film. Actually, as I sit here and let it sink in and try to decide what I really thought of it (above and beyond "I really, really liked it"), it occurs to me that there's a healthy dose of The Fountain in here, as well, with its dreamlike structure, enfolding narratives and singularly obsessed, just-this-side-of-unsympathetic main character. So there you go.

Parts of the ambiguity and double-perspective fakeouts, particularly toward the end, felt a little overlong or repetitive to me on first viewing, but I have a strong sense this may be the fault of the viewer and not of the filmmaker. Not surprisingly I came out of the movie tense and full of nervous energy, and maybe I've been feeling a little wired/burnt-out lately and the movie just rubbed something raw in me. It's funny to sit through a scene and think, "Is this still happening? Are we here again?" and simultaneously think, "I bet that's just me, I bet I'm just antsy." Maybe I'm only defending the film because I am biased toward a filmmaker whose work I've so often loved, but I don't think so. I'm actually pretty positive that on second watching I'll be even more blown away than I was this time, though I won't mind putting a couple of days (or weeks) between me and the movie before returning. Like many Aronofsky films, it's quite the intense ride.