To the Wonder

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To the Wonder – Art 6/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5

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No difficult film should be approached lightheartedly, and if you appreciate the filmmakers’ mode, or rather their cinematic language, they shouldn’t be read in another one. The foremost disconnect cinema goers have with Terrence Malick and his films (of a great many) is that they don’t know what they’re looking at, but it’s pretty, and they just wish it’d be something they can access and digest more easily. It’s especially the case in his latest offering To the Wonder, which has been described as the most idiosyncratic of his entire career; “almost too Malicky”, as one reviewer put it. To access and digest Malick, you should be warned that it takes a lot more work than you might typically invest in film.

Regardless of Malick’s intention to speak on the universally adored, transcending, and tried theme of love, he loses half the audience. Malick commits the sin of self-indulgence by making something quasi-autobiographical and tailoring it exactly how he alone can inhabit the dream. The mostly silent Ben Affleck works as his avatar witnessing this dream. Others are picked off one-by-one through Malick’s sheer foreignness to the straightforward novelistic narrative we’re conditioned to expect in the unsaid ironclad rules of pop storytelling. Heretofore Malick has either embraced the novelistic narrative outright, such as in Badlands, or a blend of novel in verse like a filmic Eugene Onegin, such as his more recent work. Now he’s gone pure verse, where his film’s purpose is to poetically spell out the feelings of people’s souls instead of giving significant plot turns and twists to expose their character through events, and it’s damn maddening to those who don’t know what to expect.

The result is the most poorly rated film of his career. His previous work stunned with his imagery, but the audience was mostly adrift anyway. To the Wonder has found diminishing returns on what some describe as Malick’s “nature photography” or “diamond commercial” bent. Looking at the distance between each of his films, and the relative proximity between To the Wonder and The Tree of Life, some have said he should have waited a bit.

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Yes, I’m here to defend not just Malick, but this supposed turkey of a film, and say that most criticism is a bunch of horse apples. To the Wonder is just as amazing as any of Malick’s previous films, and there is no living filmmaker doing anything as impressive (though many come close). If there’s been some measure of decline, it’s not been in the quality of his art, but the quality of his targeting, or his ability to please a wide audience. In a world where nobody is forced to like anything they don’t want to, that is no sin at all.

The key to decoding any Malick film is often found right at the beginning. In fact it just about gives everything away, though with these visual masterpieces that’s a vast embellishment. The Thin Red Line opens with two American soldiers escaping from World War II and hiding with South Pacific natives who are existing peacefully and permanently in nature despite the industrialized convulsions of hell surrounding them. The New World opens with Richard Wagner’s Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, as Pocahontas and her sisters are paralleled to the Rhinemaidens, with Colin Farrell imprisoned on the way to his fate. The Tree of Life opens with Jessica Chastain explaining the choice between nature and grace, their benefits and risks, leading to a choice you’ll have to make in the film. Is Malick depicting grace or nature, belief or agnosticism, through the creation of the universe, the dinosaur that takes pity on its prey, and a 1950s Texas that perhaps mirrors his own upbringing.

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To the Wonder opens with a poetic rendering of Olga Kurylenko’s story to come, as she’s helplessly drawn to the flame (unambiguously describing love). I can see the confusion on people’s faces when she says “One, two, one”. The easiest way to draw that into a picture is to show two monkeys fucking and then going about their business. In many ways, To the Wonder is a continuation of The Tree of Life’s central choice. Reduced to the easiest understanding, Malick is asking should we look to marriage as being in the manner of grace, in the Christian ideal of agape love, the “through thick and through thin”, caring in sickness and in health, sacrifical kind of love. Or should we rather accept love at its most natural, as a passionate booty call whose time comes and goes, regardless of whether the players are good people or not. Malick doesn’t present any tragedy or drama to hash out this matter. He simply depicts three people as they go about this business, and shows them embracing the flame, and its costs. Because honestly, do we truly need the ancient training wheels of dramatists done different for the ten thousandth time to really ‘get’ a love story right this time?

One of my favorite moments in the film is when Kurylenko’s daughter, who’s been brought from France to live with her mom in Texas, tells Ben Affleck that he should get married to her mom, and that will settle everything. Olga hushes her daughter, like “shut the fuck up kid, you’re ruining this delicate balance”. Affleck looks on his mistress and her child with guilt. Children naively pierce the bullshit with aplomb. Later, after developing affection for one another, Olga’s daughter realizes that despite the bizarre arrangement her self-loathing mother has consented to, Ben isn’t really a bad guy, and love exists and dissipates with or without a ring on it. When Ben and Olga split, it’s the second split the little girl has seen, with Olga previously divorcing her father, whom she grows closer to later on. When she’s leaving again for France, the daughter and Ben have both found familial love, despite him not being her real father, or even a future step-father. She knows that even though Ben is lazily taking advantage of her mother’s weakness and neediness in erotic love, he is far from a villain.

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After Olga and Ben flame out, Ben happens upon his childhood sweetheart Rachel McAdams, and they rekindle their own flame. This love too runs its course. The fact that she’s a wonderful person, and maybe perfect for him isn’t enough. There is nothing dirty about her, except for the manure on her boots from running a ranch, that makes the blood boil. If love were a marketplace, you’d always be trading up, and most do. They throw caution and a perfect match to the wind as they embrace the best possible result, however long it may last. A perfect match for a few days is more important than a non-match for an eternity. So Ben dumps the earthy McAdams and tells Kurylenko to get on a plane so he can git sum of that mentally frayed sweaty joy. Having zero self-confidence and zero purpose, Olga leaps at the opportunity, only to burrow into emptiness once again. Her friend comes to town later to remind her that her vitality is bigger and more meaningful than the Texas oafs surrounding her, but it seems the friend is mostly talking about her self, and not Olga.

To round out Malick’s conception of the types of love, a conscience emerges in Javier Bardem, who is playing a priest at a diminishing church. His love for God is questionable, maybe even lapsed. However, his expression of that love, the love that Jesus preached to show for the dregs of society – the crack heads, mentally handicapped, those who can’t help themselves – is hardly diminished. The question here is whether grace is disembodied from the Church, to where it exists outside of a code, without a supernatural hand, or instead whether that sort of love isn’t long for the world when surrounded by the harsh fangs of nature that cuts people down, eroding their spirit until they’re rotting in the ground. Bardem sees love as the one sustaining force for all being, the one thing that stays the withering of the spirit, and is more than happy to spread it, even if he gets none from God. In Bardem’s understanding of love, he runs to the flame like a firefighter, while to Kurylenko the flames suck her in against her will. Like everybody else, they’re both burned to a crisp in the end.

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Malick’s autobiographical subtext is worth considering very briefly. After he filmed Days of Heaven with Richard Gere (also about a love triangle), Malick fucked off to France for a while to study and teach. He married a French woman and brought her back to America, where they eventually divorced. He then married his childhood sweetheart, but that’s where the comparison stops (and we needn’t dig deeper for more), because he’s still married to her. You have to wonder how she reacted to this film, though. Maybe similar to how Giulietta Masina reacted to her husband Federico Fellini parading the fact he’s banging all these starlets through allegory in his film 8 1/2, but maybe not so bunga bunga. Think about it: Malick is admitting to himself that he ought to have dumped his wife and pursued the French woman again, because she was superior. But he tempers this feeling (if only to keep the plates from being thrown at him) by making this an exercise in reminding himself of the futility. The film ends with Ben and Olga realizing they’re just not right for one another, and their romance is too dirty, too earthy, too natural, to exist permanently. Malick is reassuring himself he chose right.

Olga is the star of this film, and it sounds like she earned that right by threatening Malick not to leave her performance on the cutting room floor with Rachel Weisz and a few others (yeah, they were in the film, kind of but not really). Compared to previous women in lead Malick roles, it’s difficult to say she exceeded any of them, but competently captured a recurring archetype in his work: the spritely woman stuck in preadolescence (also done in The New World by Q’orianka Kilcher). This archetype may be finally extinguished, with this film as its sendoff from Malick’s psyche. So far, only Sean Penn has acted as a possible Malick avatar, as the grown version of his own infancy in Tree of Life. Penn didn’t get what the film was about, and most of his scenes were cut in that as well. I’d say that’s a failure. Affleck gives a very “Bloomy” role here: that is to say, in my nod to Kingdom of Heaven, he’s amazing at serving his role as a silent lead.

If you approach this film and engage with its message, you may very well enjoy it. If you don’t give it a chance, don’t pay attention, only hear mumbling and see pretty shots of wheat fields and child-like meandering, you’re doing it wrong.

(As an addendum: much has been made of the twirling. I think commenters are just dizzy in this regard. Olga Kurylenko’s character seems to be a professional or amateur dancer, and her daughter enjoys acting like her mom. Otherwise I don’t think anybody else does it in the film.)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1595656/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/to_the_wonder/

The Evil Dead (2013)

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The Evil Dead (2013) – Art 3/5 Ent 6/5 Worth 5/5

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“Fellas, no matter what, just keep the blood running.” Theater owner Andy Grainger, the first primary investor in Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert’s 1981 horror classic The Evil Dead, had that advice for the young filmmakers who were investigating earning potential for their low budget flick. They would first pay a winking homage to Grainger by showing a film projector flipping blood out of the reel, and later follow the studied advice closely through all three films in the original Evil Dead trilogy, where our old hero Ash battles demons unleashed by the book of the dead both in a cabin and in medieval England(-ish). Signature star Bruce Campbell would push his inspired performance as series lead Ash into the realm of film and cultural icons, as they embellished his ability to take care of business with a chainsaw and a double barrel shotgun (“boomstick”), and with one-liners that rival Arnold’s.

When Raimi, Tapert, and Campbell felt the urge to return to produce more of the series, they left the heavy lifting from the director’s chair to newcomer Fede Alvarez, who co-wrote the 2013 film’s screenplay with writing partner Rodo Sayagues, and Diablo Cody pinching in for aid (ostensibly to aid the Uruguayan duo in its Americanization). With Bruce Campbell deciding to bow out (for now), Alvarez and Sayagues looked beyond Ash’s hammy mythology to the iconic items: cabin, Necronomicon, rape tree, chainsaw, boomstick. Replacing the mythology of the original trilogy -and competing with a very self-aware horror universe that includes last year’s Evil Dead meta riff Cabin in the Woods- is a subtler narrative of addiction that’s critical to differentiate this from needless horror remakes. Most importantly, and critical to forcing the association with the predecessors, is how Alvarez and Sayagues follow Grainger’s 3-decade-plus-old advice. And sweet merciful christ do they ever keep the blood running.

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In the short film Within the Woods, Raimi’s ancestral late ‘70s trial run for this oft-repeated story, the logic of the demonry stemmed from the Indian burial ground cliche resonant with Stephen King fans. King coincidentally shares some of the credit for popularizing the series after seeing the original Evil Dead when it was shuffled out of competition at Cannes. In the original, Raimi’s deep influence from H.P. Lovecraft turns in the Indian burial ground for the Necronomicon, the book of the dead, a Lovecraftian invention used through many media long after he died. Raimi builds it into a Sumerian artifact that acts as a gateway for Deadites, evil demons of a non-specific religion, who combine the zombie genre with the demonic possession genre into what I like to call Zemons (also seen in the Night of the Demons series). With this latest installment, the innovation departs Lovecraft for the most part, leaving only the chitin of his influence in the physical objects and mood, and instead centers in on the most classic theme of all horror, and furthermore Western fiction: Satan.

I can’t personally confirm that Alvarez and Sayagues led to this more Christian of themes because of their Hispanic Catholic cultural heritage; nor can I confirm that they alternatively might have been influenced by Antichrist, Catholic Lars von Trier’s splendid spectacle of an art film that uses some of the tropes from Evil Dead. However, either explanation for this change certainly would make sense. The most direct evidence for a connection to Antichrist is the encompassing chthonic nature of the powerful visuals and the audience outbursts of “OH MY FUCKING GOD” in pitched moments of sadism that both films share in common (the later, notably, also shared with Bruno). Moments throughout the film reminded me of the (socially irresponsible but w/e, YOLO) Christian horror trope of the dumb disbelievers who aren’t prepared to mutilate and murder people because they’re possessed by the Devil / demons (such as in Bill Paxton’s otherwise excellent Frailty).

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Like the original, there is no clear protagonist until the very end. That role is surreptitiously given to the character of Mia, played outstandingly by Jane Levy of Suburgatory fame, whose acting ordeal here was nearly as rough as in a Jackie Chan film. I say surreptitious because (SPOILER ALERT BEGIN) in the original the victim of the rape tree is Ash’s (expendable) sister, whereas in the 2013 sequel-redux, despite the narrative misleading us with Mia’s brother handling the boomstick, and her brother’s girlfriend going to town on her own arm with a turkey cutter like Ash did in the second film, it’s Mia who is in the end the center of gravity, if partially by fate of being the last survivor like Ellen Ripley. (SPOILER ALERT END) Wonderfully, instead of this concept descending into a sad attempt at making Mia a female Ash and having done with it, Alvarez and Sayagues use her heroin addiction as the overriding metaphor, giving a soul to be stolen in the first place, a thing so delicious that frankly none of the originals even had.

It’s all the more appropriate then, that Mia is victim to her own doppelganger who pursues her into the rape tree (now more of a rape thicket), and acts as the primary vessel with which the demonry commences. The sanguine ending is further appropriate: with the return of her doppelganger in a literally chthonic rise, Mia has to face herself, her ‘demon’, who is pointedly calling her a “junkie”. The descent into monsterhood serving as a metaphor to addiction was also explored in Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction, where Lili Taylor experiences vampirism as would a person’s descent into drug abuse, speaking to the intertwining psychological origins of horror stories and the horror stories of real life. Mia’s labors through hell offer a more direct connection to the pain. A poorer sequel-redux would have rested its laurels on using the addiction as an ace in the hole, maybe just a tool with which the Deadites manipulate other characters, as they typically do, in their ‘poor ol’ me’ sweet nothings used to disarm. If Alvarez and Sayagues deserve meager praise for the easy stuff ( buckets of gore and blood that somehow won an R rating for content obviously bannable in many countries) they deserve high praise for sneaking this metaphor in on us.

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Right now, the question being asked by many critics is: will anybody even care about this film in 30 years, like many now feel for the original. It’s a reasonable question, and I think thoughtful people will be justified in thinking “nah, it’s a feast for the senses without any substance”. I’ve seen some decry the lack of slapstick comedy that came to define the series. Many are just downright horrified by the film, with reports of a person fainting in Arizona, a woman movie-goer peeing her pants (though this sounds like dubious twitter rumor monging, considering a character does this in the film), and there are widespread accounts of walkouts, including journalists paid to cover the film, all opting to exit quickly over the gore more than it being a bore. Some might see shallowness to that, and I’m even tempted to recall the silly exhibitionism of the Hostel and Saw movies (Saw’s darkly misguided take on purposefulness mirroring the addiction metaphor).

But let’s be real here. Putting meat in seats by following Grainger’s advice is no sin. If anything, that cheapness should be applauded, as this looks to be a box office smash unlike any of the previous three, suspending the “cult” status. The wit in the originals barely stands up today. Seriously, go back and watch the original trilogy. The most yucks you’ll get is from the ribald skeletons (patterned after Harryhausen’s claymation figures in Jason and the Argonauts) yelling about wenches and storming a castle. If the addiction metaphor didn’t either slip by unnoticed or fail to edify in your account, then I don’t know what will convince you. To each their preferences.

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It wasn’t just Stephen King hocking the original that made it a success. It was filling a void of imagination. We don’t have that void today. So in a relative comparison the original’s greatness speaks more to the lack of competition pounded with the ingenuity of the young Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell. Yet in an absolute comparison, the reboot wins hands down, albeit in an environment so wonderfully rich in horror films inspired in part or largely by the original. On a practical level, the amplified 2013 film is a devilish delight that throws Lars von Trier into a meatgrinder, while the original is a nostalgic and dusty haunted house routine. The truly macabre films of today that didn’t slide into an R rating put this one to shame (see: Film, Serbian; or rather don’t see). The sheen, professional acting, and polish of this film are only discreditable attributes insofar as the audience is frequently exasperated by modernity. It’s almost as if people would prefer youtube beheadings from Syria today to a glossy dismemberment on screen.

So I’m personally not too concerned with answering the question. Yes, I will watch this in 30 years. Or no, maybe I’ll be dead or possessed by demons. Or whatever. The more important question is whether Army of Darkness 2, confirmed to be on the near horizon, will be a rotten and staid concept compared to this film. I think maybe Raimi and Campbell were right to inject new blood to run with the story, and they chose very wisely.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1288558/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_evil_dead_2013/

Zero Dark Thirty, or What Bigelow & Boal Could Learn from Carlos, Leni and Anna

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Zero Dark Thirty – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 4/5

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The only healthy, intelligent way to approach cinema -whether its objective is to entertain or edify you- is to do so with an open mind, recognizing that while what’s depicted might aim to communicate or provoke truth, it most certainly is not real. There is a gale of controversy ripping Zero Dark Thirty from its moorings of purported truth, but perhaps the linchpin to this storm of criticism was born from Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal’s failure to understand precisely how arrogant it is to walk the line between journalism and art, especially on an issue so massively complex, so unbearably prolix, so uncomfortably proximal. If there’s anything to take away from this controversy, it’s that this film would have been received far differently if there were only marginally more diligent and skeptical research conducted.

But however decent the research was would have only saved Bigelow and Boal from the most piercing of politicized criticism. There’s the elephant in the room of just how fresh these incidents are that render any pretension toward objectivity moot. On-the-ground reporting with lightning-fast dissemination in the age of premature twitter deaths and unnecessarily breaking news on CNN has done nothing to shake the ironclad general rule that the further along we push hindsight, the closer to the truth we get. When William L Shirer submitted The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich for publication, he was knowingly gambling by doing it so soon after the war, with the odious and unwieldy nature of the summarized history weighing upon him. While All the President’s Men was undeniably a fine movie despite being an almost current affair, if it were made today, we’d know Deep Throat’s primary intent was to undermine his boss so he could have his job, not necessarily topple the President.

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Édgar Ramírez, one of the many incredible supporting actors in ZDT, had previously played the titular role in Olivier Assayas’ excellent film/mini-series Carlos, about Communist terrorist Carlos the Jackal, which bears notable resemblances. Like ZDT, Carlos reduces the sympathy, glamour, and romance of an epic history to a very realist portrait, replete with cinema vérité shaky cam moments, violence that is almost mundane, an utter lack of heroism, and a loose at best arc. I’d go so far as to wonder if the casting of Ramírez indicates a causal inspiration for Bigelow and Boal. What I don’t wonder in the least is how much more easily Carlos was digested almost 4 decades after the character depicted began his crusade against capitalism. How much easier it was received with European audiences being well along the road of reconciliation from Cold War tumult, and how easier it was for the filmmakers to train their drama more closely on a narrative vigorously built by historians. They used documents and tapes unveiled from Stasi records, and not CIA company men tightly gripping their files, still intimately involved in protecting themselves not just for legacy, but for further statecraft right now.

Let’s not lie to ourselves here: what Bigelow and Boal are attempting is a docu-drama, a fictionalized journalistic account. Mark Boal himself is a former journalist. He’s stated on ZDT that “I don’t want to play fast and loose with history,” yet here you are Mark, with Glenn Greenwald and dozens of other journalists, pundits, and even United States Senators climbing up your ass. As far as we know right now, no amount of muckraking was done that wasn’t known or assumed beforehand. You can appreciate a more complete and even livelier presentation of the facts on a Wikipedia page dedicated to the hunt for Bin Laden – a damning thought that signifies the credulousness of the filmmakers in relation to the CIA and Obama administration officials who treated them with access. I don’t see a Devil’s Bargain here so much as smooth operators guiding fanny pack tourists to the gift shop.

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If it were a Devil’s Bargain such as in Top Gun (or any other number of films that spew from the fount of rent-seeking at the office the Pentagon has specifically set up to promote positive portrayals of itself in exchange for consulting and the military’s big toys), we might have been more properly served. If Bigelow and Boal had dispensed with the ostentation of attempting journalism or realism, and just delivered it as a sensational grit-and-gore build up to the main dish of the expertly filmed final act, many problems would evaporate. While we’re not lying to ourselves here, let’s dispense with the codswallop that this film is really about the torture that’s caught so much hell fire, and admit it’s all about the final act. Killing Bin Laden in reality meant nothing until we made a Hollywood movie to anoint the act by dragging his dead body into our theaters in the manner of a victorious triumph. But since everybody is fooling themselves here, the fact that most reaction to the torture scenes is unalloyed disgust or horror betrays how we are improperly receiving this as “real”, because the torture depicted is very mild in comparison to the “unreal” stuff we commonly see in cinema.

If receiving the films of genius documentarians like Michael Moore, Errol Morris or Leni Riefenstahl as “real” is disreputable for any thoughtful person who really ought to understand the amount of artifice and editorializing involved -even in a documentary- then anybody who takes docudrama equally seriously is a prima facie moron. When Naomi Wolf drew a comparison between ZDT and the documentaries of Riefenstahl, such as Triumph of the Will, she aimed at the common collusion between artist and evil political forces (to not consider any difference in magnitudes of evil here is embarrassing for Wolf). The problem with this comparison is that despite her collaboration, Leni didn’t necessarily get her facts wrong, and she achieved her outward goals succinctly. Therefore, while her actual integrity was pretty much dirt, her artistic integrity was intact. Bigelow and Boal, however, were led on by CIA sources towards a focus on torture’s supposedly indispensable efficacy that was intensely disingenuous at best, and a nakedly malicious lie at worst. It’s hard to consider an artistic goal to have been met, if Bigelow and Boal began with the premise of journalistic realism.

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Since the controversy has billowed from the first screenings of ZDT, Bigelow and Boal have retreated from their initial insistence on it being a “reported film” to the sturdier redoubt of artistic license. This is the same fortress of protesting “tink, tink, can’t get me!” while playing cops and robbers as children, or more furtively in the mold of Jon Stewart once he’s called out on an inaccuracy, that he’s merely a satirist with a wider allowance of untruth than that of the legitimate journalists he rakes across the coals nightly. Which is convenient, because if we are to evaluate ZDT purely on artistry and entertainment, its merits rise appreciably. Bigelow’s ability to take a story and an ending we already know, and wrench out a pulsating and gripping thriller is nothing short of incredible. The final raid on Abbottabad, wherein DEVGRU special ops. SEALs wildly outmatch an almost undefended compound was as heart-pounding as any of the more even-footed battle scenes in Band of Brothers, and it recalled the perspective of the villains in Bigelow’s cult classic vampire film Near Dark.

Even then, however, judged on its merit as a drama, this is a film that features many composite characters, and a massively epic narrative distilled into barely more than two hours. What is lost in a two hour plus recounting of a tale stretching ten massive years hunting for Bin Laden is not only the necessary counterargument to torture’s efficacy that would have tempered the apologia, but any essential artistic purpose whatsoever. Consider Joe Wright’s recent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. By any measure, it wasn’t that fantastic of a film. If anything, it was another excuse for Keira Knightley to underwhelm in a corset. Its undeniable strength, however, was a beautifully expressionist loosening of past loyalties in adapting the novel. Wright takes us where the previous miserable bores from ’97 and ’48 (starring Sophie Marceau and Vivien Leigh, respectively) don’t bother venturing, by simply surrendering any ambition to properly adapt Tolstoy’s dauntingly massive and detailed novel. Instead, Wright’s film distills an epic length into a visual complement to the spirit of the novel that’s somewhere between a simple painting and the properly lengthy 2000 mini-series adaption starring Helen McCrory. It moves almost like a musical without music, and it works wonderfully.

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Am I saying Bigelow and Boal ought to have done “Abbottabad: The Musical”? However amusing that would have been, I don’t think it’s necessary to go that far. In fact, I think this demonstrates the utter contradictory impossibility of competently distilling an epic into a pocket-epic while aiming for the sincerity projected from a realist shaky cam image. Nearly everything that was great about Zero Dark Thirty pops out at you only in the final stretch. It would have suffered not at all with that as its focus. What we’re treated to in the first hour and a half is a depiction of torture that Bigelow and Boal got wrong, and frequent milestone reminders of where we are in recent history, the players all conveniently somehow involved. This is too precious. All of the other objections aside, the greatest marker of B&B being out of their depth when they engaged with CIA and administration officials was their depiction of both: it was simplistic, cliched, hackneyed even, almost sinking the film at times. A more contained drama featuring the time span of the final hour (roughly the Obama years) would have eliminated a decent chunk of criticism.

I would really hesitate to throw this film under the bus, like so many who object to it on political grounds are doing right now. To each their own, in all cases, but solely as a work of cinema, ZDT is very interesting. Jessica Chastain can simply do no wrong, and I’m dreading the day Hollywood decides her “moment” is over. Along with Jennifer Lawrence, she’s at the head of the class in the next generation of actresses. Her Aspergers’y personality controls the dispassionate, emotionless tenor of the entire film. She deserves any award coming her way. And as I stated earlier, Bigelow’s grasp of tension is tremendous. K Bigs might not be politically savvy, but she’s in the zone while building up tension in a thriller. If the SEALs actually used four-eyed monster helmets and the stealth-blackhawks actually look as Klingon jagged as that, then life really is imitating the art of Sci-Fi.

One last thing: did anybody else think the stealth-blackhawk ride with the SEALs was a bit of James Cameron rubbing off on his ex-wife, or was that just me? Maybe he forced her to watch Aliens, specifically the dropship scene, about half a dozen times. That’s probably the first thing I’d subject a woman to.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1790885/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/zero_dark_thirty/

further reading on Zero Dark Thirty:
ZDT: CIA hagiography, pernicious propaganda by Glenn Greenwald
ZDT and the CIA’s Hollywood Coup by Michael Hastings
Through a Glass Darkly by David Cole
‘Disturbing’ & ‘Misleading’ by Steve Coll

Django Whitesplained: Individual and Society

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Django Unchained – Art 3/5 Ent 6/5 Worth 5/5

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There is a hell of a lot of anger being vented over Django Unchained lately, and it’s usually coming from the expected quarters. If you’ve heard anything about it lately, you’ve probably heard something about it in relation to the racial discussion current to 21st century America, which is the appropriate reading. You might also have heard about the truth of its depiction of slavery, even from the mouth of Quentin Tarantino, probably defending his film. Forget what he’s saying, this is the improper reading. We seem to have succumbed to a great illusion that Tarantino movies have something profound to say about our history, as opposed to something profound to say about Sergio Leone, Kung Fu, and Dolemite. When Spike Lee said slavery wasn’t a Spaghetti Western, he was right. Slavery -properly treated, as it was in Roots – was a nightmare of injustice, rape, and murder.

But when Spike departed the factual for the personal, and hinted that seeing the movie would shame his ancestors, he unintentionally caused for a stronger point to be made, with the help of those who’d actually seen Django Unchained. While the film depicts the injustice, (almost) rape, and murder of the slaveholding South, its only central point in keeping with its tracing the narratives of Westerns, if any point were to be found, is the struggle of the individual against the maelstrom of evils coming from the laws and traditions of state, society, and community. The character of Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is plucked by Tarantino favorite Christoph Waltz (reputedly a white man) from a socially conscious narrative, and slowly grows into the individualist archetype we’ve enjoyed through the likes of Bogie, Mifune, and Clint.

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Django begins in bondage as a freezing and haggard abject soul, deprived of dignity and self-respect. Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) is a bounty hunter passing himself off as a traveling dentist with a goofy gyrating tooth above his stagecoach, seemingly to force his marks to lower their guard. In exchange for Django’s help in identifying outlaws, King effectively liberates him. King in turn grows sympathetic to Django’s desire to free his wife, and understands his only hope is to use King’s passport of white skin to travel unimpeded by the immeasurably prohibitive nature of Southern society. Though King operates within the bounds of the law, he undermines it with a singularly anti-social streak (choosing dead more than alive on the bounties; keeping constant reminder that an open book is an empty wallet).

After killing slave drivers wanted for crimes, this drums up the ire of plantation owner Don Johnson and his proto-Klansmen, who operate outside of the law, ostensibly to protect Southern society and its norms of hospitality and negro-whipping delight. One could infer from Tarantino’s script that King and Django are delivering the goods for us – the destruction of an unjust society – only beyond their will. Instead of leading a slave revolt, King and Django simply defend themselves within their rights whenever attacked, such as by the Klansmen doofuses. They’re morally pure, but only allow the quixotic quest of overturning society’s madness to manifest in the form of enjoyment in defending themselves from it. As Spartacus learned, you can defeat society’s evils, but you can’t defeat society, which is never necessarily free of evil.

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This film obviously chaps a lot of asses. It’s offensive to some that a white man directed it. It’s offensive to some because Django is liberated by a white man, instead of through his own agency (at least the first time). It’s offensive to others because, like the Blacksploitation Westerns of the ’70s, the film failed to advocate solidarity. It’s offensive to a few because Tarantino seemed uneasy about featuring rape (almost casual in slave-holding society), or a wider female role in the film. It’s offensive because of the monumental overfamiliarity with saying “nigger”. But the primary inspiration for all of these objections is the patently infuriating idea that Tarantino is being frivolous, and at times even comedic about something that ought to draw nothing but our austere and solemn regard. Imagine if Schindler’s List were a comedy!

Indeed, imagine that. Imagine a gentile going one past Mel Brooks and making Auschwitz: The Musical. Imagine Rape: A Lovestory (A Daniel Tosh production). This stuff would almost certainly resonate with a lot of people, and not just racist, anti-semitic, sexist frat bag douche boys. There is no prohibition against offensiveness and frivolity in the marketplace of ideas, and so long as there isn’t, there will always be individuals who will engage with something that makes light out of the pain in history, even if whoever is pushing the idea never experienced the pain, and whoever is consuming surely did. What’s significant about Django Unchained is that Tarantino isn’t even doing that, but is drawing the same heat from a weak society that’s altogether unprepared to have a serious and frank discussion about race.

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So this brings us round to the role of the individualist archetype that Django perpetuates in the American mythology. While he isn’t manumitted like Spartacus through his own agency, and while he doesn’t follow Spartacus’ tragic path of solidarity, the fellow slaves that Django frees toward the end begrudge him not for leaving them be once they’re unshackled. Nor do they take revenge on him for playing the role of a slave-driving negro, a role he played only for his personal end of freeing his wife in a scheme with Waltz (Tarantino’s avatar in the film?). Seeing Django purposefully ride off through the hills for his own ends, his fellow slaves can only smile, inspired by this man who has finally won his own agency and liberty, and is free to do as he wishes.

The thing about solidarity is that hell, as they say, is other people. Furthermore, the problem with taking offense to art or entertainment is that it exists and will be consumed regardless of your objection. Spike Lee’s objection was mocked by other African-Americans, many of whom enjoyed Django. You’re a minnow in the sea, that is to say unless you mobilize and organize and commiserate your offense, like Christian groups did against The Last Temptation of Christ. Even if your goals are just, you have to make allegiance with scumbags to achieve them. And even then, they only stick if you convince society to change, which doesn’t necessarily even work when you use all the mighty powers of the state, such as Lincoln’s Union army did to the South. It defeated slavery, but have we even today stamped out the bigotry of the South? For every Spike Lee, on the other end of the rainbow there’s a Klansman lamenting the loss of the old order.

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So perhaps the most dangerous and offensive assertion in Django Unchained is that not only are you completely free to watch something that makes the pain of slavery into a frivolous Spaghetti Western, and it will not shame a single other human being (alive or dead), but that there isn’t anything wrong with achieving your personal goals in spite of the stupidity that society has erected in the form of community and all its laws. Perhaps, despite not totally engaging in any real human drama, Tarantino’s genius is in creating it outside of the picture by permitting individuals to see each other as individuals, not groups, through the frivolity and hilarity of cutting deep to the bone and the heart and the mettle, where individuals are judged, not by the superficiality of ‘real’ history, or ‘real’ skin.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/django_unchained_2012/

condemnedmovies 25 favorites of 2012

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Here are my favorites from 2012. Some have 2011 release dates, but distribution can be fairly hazy. I rank these based on what I gave each at the time of viewing, first by overall score, then highest in my Art rating, then highest in my Entertainment rating, then alphabetically.

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topmas The Master
dir/wri: Paul Thomas Anderson
cm score: Art 6 Ent 2 Worth 7
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1560747/
summary: PT Anderson’s follow-up to There Will Be Blood that lightly traces the beginnings of a quasi-scientologist cult leaves ample room for its actors to lead in creating the film. The result is Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman dueling off against one another in a battle of physis against nomos, respectively. It’s only superficially a cautionary tale against cults, more widely a critique of the religious impulse, and even subversively posits a shadow matriarchy behind it. My personal choice for best film of 2012.

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Holy Motors
dir/wri: Leos Carax
cm score: Art 6 Ent 3 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2076220/
summary: If the interpretation of fantasy centered more on stuff like this, I’d say it isn’t a stupid genre. A character actor of sorts is driven around Paris in a limousine to various appointments, where he lives briefly in the skin of outlandishly different people, and creatures. Some of the vignettes are better than others. Highlights are his turn as a modern day miniature violently foul Satyr who grabs and runs off with a heroin chic Eva Mendes, and then later encountering another ‘actor’ in Kylie Minogue who breaks out into a random musical number before plummeting to (ostensibly) her character’s death.

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topshel Take Shelter
dir/wri: Jeff Nichols
cm score: Art 4 Ent 4 Worth 6
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1675192/
summary: In this subtly weird little movie, Boardwalk Empire’s Michael Shannon is a force of nature, figuratively and literally. Caught in the clouds of paranoia, Shannon is given visions of an apocalyptic storm coming to hit his home. While his drastic emotions and self-defeating preparations ruin his family, it poses a similar question for the viewer as the one implied in Frailty: is this guy a legit crazy son of a bitch or isn’t he? Unlike Fraility, the answer isn’t mumbo jumbo.

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topdjango Django Unchained
dir/wri: Quentin Tarantino
cm score: Art 3 Ent 6 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/
summary: Sure to electrify racial sensibilities, if only through its monumental usage of the N word, Tarantino bests himself in a Southern epic that takes “blacksploitation” and “Spaghetti Western” literally, as a film about slavery with a smattering of pasta guts everywhere. While Tarantino isn’t interested in dealing with real human drama quite yet, and despite the characteristically tedious dialogue, and though Christoph Waltz is almost the same guy from Basterds, and why he’s fighting battles not his own is any Freudian’s guess, this turned out to be his most airtight and decorous film yet, maybe even his best.

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topprom Prometheus
dir: Ridley Scott
wri: Jon Spaihts/Damon Lindelof
cm score: Art 3 Ent 6 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1446714/
summary: Disappointing to many, overhyped to most, this otherwise straightforward Alien prequel features numerous intentionally unresolved plot holes left by the huckster writer of Lost, and a by-the-numbers rendition of the typical Alien story. But Ridley’s motif of creators in relation to their creations comes to full flower here as Michael Fassbender (the one uncontroversially great aspect of this film) plays it out as an android meant to communicate with aliens who ostensibly engineered humans. Won’t suit everyone, but is a visual treat, and a redemptive outing for the series.

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topamour Amour
dir/wri: Michael Haneke
cm score: Art 6 Ent 2 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1602620/
summary: Haneke’s penchant for the macabre and the provocative never fully vanishes for this drama about an aging couple, one of whom is forced to care for his wife as her faculties are overcome by Alzheimers and successive crippling strokes. As painful as love’s ever appeared in cinema, as far as I’ve seen so far. This portrait rips to shreds the thought of “growing old together” not because of narrative tricks, but its commonplace allusions to reality. This way of buying the farm resembles a horror story, but is scarily normal and preached to be dignified and good. Yeesh. French cinema legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva give stunning performances.

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tophouse House of Tolerance (L’Apollonide: Souvenirs de la maison close)
dir/wri: Bertrand Bonello
cm score: Art 5 Ent 3 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1660379/
summary: An exploration of a fin-de-siècle Paris brothel that combines painful realism with an elliptical grace. Throughout, you run into allusions to 19th century French art and poetry that meaningfully enhances a subdued social conscience to this film, which hits you lightly but right on the spot. Bonello builds every scene with incredibly pretty sets and design, and saturates the audience with melancholy eye candy of all sorts. The film hinges on a sort of pathetic beauty that is made all the more distressing because of its perpetual tragedy.

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topseven Seven Psychopaths
dir/wri: Martin McDonagh
cm score: Art 4 Ent 5 Worth 4
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1931533/
summary: The delightfully meta crime-comedy to kill all crime films. Its genius is in guiding us to not only laugh at dumb characters and even dumber cliches, but ourselves for being so predictable as consumers of such films. Colin Farrell and Sam Rockwell kill as a comedy duo with Christopher Walken intermingling in his least on-the-nose role in some years. McDonagh’s film is uproarious and devoid of boring patterns endemic to the genre he’s grabbing by the throat.

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topfare Farewell, My Queen (Les Adieux à la reine)
dir: Benoît Jacquot
wri: Benoît Jacquot, Gilles Taurand, Chantal Thomas
cm score: Art 4 Ent 4 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1753813/
summary: Depicting three days in the life of Marie Antoinette around the siege of the Bastille, Jacquot’s film consciously avoids the spectacle and sweeping melodrama of the typical corset history starring Keira Knightley or whomever, focusing more directly on a psychological examination from the perspective of royal servants at Versailles. The story is brief, but sharp, and more scientific than dramatic. Léa Seydoux is brilliant as the Queen’s reluctantly adoring reader, while Diane Kruger interprets history’s most chic queen with notable sympathy and a reductive realism.

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topkill Kill List
dir: Ben Wheatley
wri: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
cm score: Art 3 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1788391/
summary: This low key yet brutal melding of crime and horror genres is so out of step with the gloss and obviousness of today’s typical actioner that it feels like it was forgotten in a dustbin from the ’70s. With the paltry funds you’d expect from one of the last productions out of the UK Film Council, the filmmakers put together a gruesome little rumination on hit men that shocks with gore, before making an unthinkable Pagan-riffic change in scope at the end. Without ever really establishing a track to run along, the film suddenly bashes the audience over the head, and exits out the back door.

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toplesmis Les Misérables
dir: Tom Hooper
wri: William Nicholson, Alain Boubil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, Herbert Kretzmer
cm score: Art 3 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1707386/
summary: An adaptation of the renowned musical based on Victor Hugo’s sentimental epic about the dregs of French society in the decades after the Napoleonic Wars. Hugh Jackman delivers as expected, but Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway exceed expectations. I think the only thing that prepared me for such a lengthy musical was having read a bit about the history surrounding the events. Having neither read the novel nor seen the musical, I cannot attest to its faithfulness, but with this whopping exercise in showmanship as my introduction, I can only say, “Vive le France!”

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toppol Polisse
dir: Maïwenn
wri: Maïwenn, Emmanuelle Bercot
cm score: Art 3 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1661420/
summary: Not unlike The Wire, Polisse walks a fine line between hard-boiled police procedural dramas and social realism. While I believe it matches The Wire in quality, its shorter time span requires a more impressionistic capture of its subject: a child protection unit in Paris. By entering her own film, writer-director Maïwenn creates another layer that sharply comments on depictions of inner city crime.

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toptimeric Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie
dir/wri: Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim
cm score: Art 3 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1855401/
summary: If Salvador Dali were alive today, he’d give this movie five out of five dolphins. I won’t lie to you, Tim & Eric’s brand of comedy is fiercely divisive: there is no such thing as a neutral reaction. The absurdism and spoofing of the mundane is overwhelming, and at times deranged. This is comedy made for comedians. I very nearly lost my shit laughing at this instant classic, but anybody not in on the humor lacks the healing powers of shrim, and should move along.

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topsimple A Simple Life (桃姐 / Tao jie)
dir: Ann Hui
wri: Susan Chan, Yan-lam Lee
cm score: Art 4 Ent 2 Worth 6
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2008006/
summary: In many ways, A Simple Life is similar to Haneke’s Amour, but without any of the gloom. Ann Hui’s beautifully sweet film is about an elderly Hong Kong maid whose last years are spent with those whom she’d cared for returning the kindness out of a deeply respectful gratitude. I can’t help thinking of David Lynch’s The Straight Story, in its tactful sentiment that never truly bothers the audience with a pointless arc, but still remains eminently accessible.

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topbeasts Beasts of the Southern Wild
dir: Benh Zeitlin
wri: Lucy Alibar
cm score: Art 5 Ent 2 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/
summary: In a unique vision of baroque poverty, filmmaking team Zeitlin and Alibar take us to The Bathtub, a place beyond the levies, where everybody is equal and nobody is a pussy. We see this world through the eyes of Hushpuppy, a little girl who worships her ruffian drunkard father. Imaginatively brilliant, this humidly poetic little gem is quick to grow on you.

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toplazhar Monsieur Lazhar
dir: Philippe Falardeau
wri: Philippe Falardeau, Évelyne de la Chenelière
cm score: Art 3 Ent 4 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2011971/
summary: It’s a bittersweet balance of emotions as an Algerian refugee whose family died in the Civil War tries to step in for a class of Quebec schoolchildren whose teacher had recently hung herself. Overall, an incredibly heartwarming little movie that questions the distant lack of authority for teachers, with a strong performance from lead Mohamed Fellag.

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topmoon Moonrise Kingdom
dir: Wes Anderson
wri: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola
cm score: Art 3 Ent 4 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1748122/
summary: The story of two precocious tweens who escape from their humdrum New England existences recalls Truffaut’s 400 Blows and the films of Yasujiro Ozu in Anderson’s funnest film of the year. A diverse group of A-list actors opt for colorful background roles as the kids take charge in very adult roles.

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toprust Rust and Bone (De rouille et d’os)
dir: Jacques Audiard
wri: Jacques Audiard, Thomas Bidegain
cm score: Art 3 Ent 4 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2053425/
summary: Similar to his previous film Read My Lips, Audiard again enjoys exploring the contrast of an impaired woman whose weakness influences, if not tames, an ungoverned and volatile man. Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts both give incredible performances in this film that’s sensually shot and written.

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topintch Intouchables
dir/wri: Olivier Nakache, Éric Toledano
cm score: Art 2 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1675434/
summary: Seeking an attendant who doesn’t wear down his dignity with pity, a wealthy quadriplegic hires a lovably selfish and ignorant rascal from the banlieue who only feigned interest in the job for more welfare. In a France where an uneasy relationship exists between natives and migrant workers, Intouchables threads the needle of being as fraternally offensive to both as possible without going overboard. Unquestionably the one movie that’ll leave you in a better mood than when you began.

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topperks The Perks of Being a Wallflower
dir/wri: Stephen Chbosky
cm score: Art 2 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1659337/
summary: Chbosky adapts and directs his own popular novel about a loner trying to make it in high school in 1980s Pennsylvania. While miming some of the coming-of-age teenage dramas, Perks displays more substance with realistic characters, surprisingly good acting, and a deceptive story arc that sweeps the rug from under you.

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toploop Looper
dir/wri: Rian Johnson
cm score: Art 2 Ent 5 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1276104/
summary: Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis star in this inventive cross of Sci-Fi and Gangster genres. The Sci-Fi element helps discover narrative terra incognita whereupon a more complex judgment of gangster characters is performed than what’s typical in either genre. The Third Rock kid finally establishes himself as top rate Hollywood talent in this one.

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topalps Alps (Αλπεις / Alpeis)
dir: Yorgos Lanthimos
wri: Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou
cm score: Art 5 Ent 2 Worth 4
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1859446/
summary: While it lacks the black comedy of Lanthimos’ previous film Dogtooth, Alps is equally bizarre, with unexpected blows that pop the tension created by a cast of dour individuals with mild to severe personality disorders, who amuse themselves by acting as the recently deceased to comfort their relatives through the grieving process. One very plain and emotionally undeveloped woman stirs up trouble by becoming addicted to the game.

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topanat Once Upon A Time in Anatolia (Bir Zamanlar Anadolu’da)
dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
wri: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Ercan Kesal, Ebru Ceylan
cm score: Art 5 Ent 1 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1827487/
summary: Turkish auteur Ceylan’s latest film is an elegantly framed trek through the hill country in search of a dead body. Fundamentally a visual piece, the story is intentionally elusive and leaves dozens of more questions about the murder without concretely answering anything. Even if you can’t stand art films in general, this one is worth it just for the outrageously beautiful cinematography.

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topspark Ruby Sparks
dir: Jonathan Dayton, Valerie Faris
wri: Zoe Kazan
cm score: Art 4 Ent 3 Worth 4
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1839492/
summary: Zoe Kazan’s re-imaging of the Pygmalion myth, where a fading wunderkind writer without any inspiration is cursed while failing to manipulate into obedience his dream girl come to life. Real-life boyfriend Paul Dano and Kazan star in this goofiest of hipster films that adroitly tees off on the tired Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliche.

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topbull Bullhead (Rundskop)
dir/wri: Michaël R. Roskam
cm score: Art 4 Ent 2 Worth 5
imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1821593/
summary: A Euro-noir that thrives on a bleak and gritty atmosphere set by deft cinematography and acting. Matthias Schoenaerts gives a standout performance with the physicality of Tom Hardy.

Beasts of the Southern Wild & The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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Beasts of the Southern Wild – Art 5/5 Ent 2/5 Worth 5/5
The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 5/5

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From humid memories of redneckerie in the dirtier part of Florida to the President of the United States recommending her film to Oprah Winfrey, Lucy Alibar’s incredibly optimistic screenplay of baroque poverty is nothing if not unique, and a little bit wonderful. Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhané Wallis as a daydreaming kiddo attempting to orient her overactive imagination with her father’s homespun junkyard tales and their bayou world cut off from normal existence. Living in “the Bathtub”, an island beyond the levies in a setting with stinging Hurricane Katrina symbolism, Hushpuppy and her father Wink inhabit a world caught between gleeful fantasy and painful reality.

Written with childhood friend and director Benh Zeitlin, and based on her one-act play Juicy and Delicious which was inspired by her experiences with her father, Alibar, who was working three service jobs at the time, had to beg for funds in order to fly to Cannes to see her film win the Caméra d’Or for best debut. The project began when Sundance picked up her story for further development, and now, this blonde writer from Florida who was not too long ago a case study in lifting yourself up by the bootstraps as a broke as shit waitress in Brooklyn is in hot demand. She’s the bee’s knees, if you will.

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Another unconventional childhood depicted in film this year was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, based on Stephen Chbosky’s novel of the same name. Perks is about a tepid and solitary freshman, played by Logan Lerman, seeking ways to pierce the social cliques at school while harboring the weight of some dark incidents in his past. Chbosky was tapped by the team behind Juno, Mr. Mudd Productions (including John Malkovich) to adapt his own screenplay and even make his directorial debut, after lending his screenwriting to other productions, such as the film version of Rent. The story is somewhat personal for Chbosky, who built it around his acquaintances and experiences in a high school near Pittsburgh, PA.

I haven’t got much sympathy for coming-of-age tales, or romans à clef about one’s childhood. They all look alike because artists whose imagination extends as far as their soccer trophies and their wild and crazy times are exactly the overabundant type to think their egotistical fixation on themselves is of the least interest to anybody else. They’re the writerly equivalent of brain-dead beauties stepping off the bus in Los Angeles, ready for stardom to be thrust upon them. Soon, the only thing being thrust upon them is buckets of Ron Jeremy’s semen. Reminiscences about one’s youth are at once the technically easiest and statistically worst type of schlock because the people to conceive them are at the inopportune age of being yet to realize the folly of their creativity.

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These two films cut against that stereotype by de-personalizing by dramatic degrees, draining the ego, pleasingly so, completely so, but of course in different ways. In Beasts, Alibar creates a dizzying array of fantasies to reproduce the feeling of early childhood. The setting is so foreign to us, and yet rationalized in an idiosyncratic southern poverty where white and black folk have lost any consciousness of difference, and elaborate their understanding of the world in spontaneous poetic explanations. This other-worldly vision is generated from a similar niche in American culture that we get represented in more gloss and horror melodrama with True Blood: a New South that’s also still the Dirty South; a culture whose contradictions and cognitive dissonances fire out things more interesting than what happens in your common Pennsylvania suburb.

Or so I would have liked to think. Perks also addresses a side of childhood our popular consciousness isn’t happy to explore very often outside of after school specials (which one character is exasperated to find his life resembles). Chbosky’s narrative is designed in such a way that he doesn’t introduce its linchpin until the epilogue, when the film’s mercurial pacing begins to make more sense as we discover that the lead character has been suffering from a type of post-traumatic stress or depression induced by disquieting events. Uniting form and content in one stroke, we understand why this otherwise normal story of self-discovery suddenly takes a spill into the abyss at the very end. It competently explains the prior morose overtones in a plot that is anything but, and jumps in mood when every cinema studies textbook tells you to stand still.

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The acting in both films was simply excellent, especially considering that both featured (sometimes very) young actors, Beasts’ two leads being utter neophytes to the medium. Dwight Henry, playing the father in Beasts, ran a restaurant across the street from the production company when they were in the casting process. The two sources of momentum in Perks are the lead, Logan Lerman, who contains a storm bristling in his eyes throughout most of the story, until it erupts with fists; and Ezra Miller in support as the soulful gay class comedian, quite the departure from his hammy psychopath in last year’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. The supports in both are mostly all great, but I’m wholly unimpressed with the Harry Potter girl. Why this fella has a crush on such a lame navel-gazing mousy doll is anybody’s guess, but that’s one of cupid’s charms, innit?

As with any debut efforts, we have to wonder whether these accomplishments were a mere once-off, but only doubly so.  These tales have the fetid odor of the all-too personal. Once you tell your childhood story, you either croak like Wordsworth after penning his Prelude, or you wind up wrapping your Maserati around a tree in San Bernardino. You’ve simply run out of interesting things to say, because you focused on yourself, and there’s only one you. While these two films escape the cliched trappings of the vanity inherent in the genre, they’re still very much subject to its physics. I hope against hope that their follow-up efforts can take off with as much vim, but we’ll just have to hurry up and wait.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2125435/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/beasts_of_the_southern_wild/
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1659337/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_perks_of_being_a_wallflower/

Silver Linings Playbook

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Silver Linings Playbook – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5

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After hearing about David O. Russell nearly engaging in a fistfight with George Clooney on the set of Three Kings, and how a few of his projects had been held up in production hell for years, you might have thought his career as a capricious cineaste was over. Then, there was the 2010 working class ballad The Fighter, which threw Melissa Leo onto our television screens in every award ceremony as quickly as she was yanked off stage with a Vaudeville hook, and more importantly filled the hole in Russell’s resume since I Heart Huckabees. Now there’s this. Silver Linings Playbook is certainly a refreshing piece out of Hollywood, and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper’s performances may draw Oscar attention, but it is not a truly novel or powerful story when the grand mass of humanity and its artistic endeavors is counted, even solely in 2012.

As a matter of fact, narratively speaking, it’s entirely well-trod territory. Its hindrance in performing a normal rom-com story is what makes this one eminently interesting, though somewhat flawed. It’s shown or otherwise hinted that almost every character in the movie has mild to severe mental illness, yet we’re given every indication that this is a very normal story, and these people are living quite normal lives (how far is Coop’s crazy person situation from Jeff, Who Lives at Home?). We’re seeing normalcy with a few bumps, in other words. Russell’s attachment to this adaptation of Matthew Quick’s Philly-centric novel stems from his own son’s obsessive compulsive and bipolar disorders, but we may be seeing a bit of his personal feeling etched in the film’s bouts of rage. Was Bradley Cooper implicitly told he’s going to beat up George Clooney for motivation? We’ll never know!

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Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man who is a signature of American modernity: completely fallen off the cliff, with the chains of psychological issues and one’s own past impeding his progress back to ‘normalcy’. And yet he’s utterly unwavering in his optimism that he can redeem and improve himself to a delusional fault, including an ill-fated quest at convincing his unfaithful ex-wife to take him back after his stint in a nuthouse. He was sent there as part of a court order after going apeshit when catching her and her paramour bumpin’ uglies in the shower. Pat suffers bipolar disorder, among other things. Mental illness lingers genetically from his parents: his father (Robert DeNiro) is an obsessive-compulsive superstitious Philadelphia Eagles fan; his mother (Australian actress Jacki Weaver) is a grand symbol of denial. A grown man, he’s released into the charge of his parents, and sets about his nebulous plan of redemption and returning to a harsh world, with a semi-positive outlook guided by silver linings in all the bad.

Although there are a number of fun, interesting, quality parts throughout, I’m afraid the single thing that makes this picture, and what makes it interesting -beyond its rom-comitude and its off-beat and comical depiction of mental illness- is the presence of Jennifer Lawrence. In the pursuit of wooing his wife out of hiding, Coop has dinner with mutual friends, where he meets Tiffany (J Law), the sister-in-law of his pal, who is also a bit of a pill-poppin’ frank-talkin’ train wreck, and she suddenly takes a morbid, if not sado-masochistic interest in Coop as she (falsely) promises to help him get his wife back so long as he gives her attention. Tiffany is similarly exiled from adulthood to live in her parents’ home after a bout with severe grief in the wake of her husband’s death, which led to her becoming a self-destructive sex addict. Her character isn’t as ably explored as Coop’s, being a supporting love interest, but if you haven’t woken up to the fact that Lawrence is the best of the next generation of actresses after Winter’s Bone, this is your opportunity to be clued in.

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Whatever mental illness we’re seeing, as it’s not quite clear (more on that below), Lawrence deftly emotes a sharp swivel between extreme self-confidence and rock bottom self-hatred demonstrated by women who suffer a few possible debilitating conditions. Lawrence is only given a short bit of string to work with here, but she weaves something similar to Charlize Theron’s and Michael Fassbender’s incredible performances as characters with critical disconnect between their ego and body, in Young Adult and Shame, respectively. Her character isn’t outwardly aggressive or egomaniacal, like those two, but rather she’s subject to surrendering her body or even her will to whomever, passive-aggressively holding the option to manipulate those around her who know her condition. Where the illness ends and the manipulator begins isn’t always easy to figure, and thanks to a lack of overall information, they might be one and the same.

Although the film’s premise of addressing mental illness is a worthy drama, its depiction is uneven, unsure of itself. You get the sense it isn’t even really on the front burner, and is rather an aspect instead of the primary cause. We see Cooper’s character steady or imbalanced more or less solely on whether he takes his meds. For all its concentration on psychological duress, its apparent desire, like that of the characters, is to be in just another podunk and boring suburban happy drama. The ending is on a narrative climax like any other in the genre which seeks to resolve the problems set forth – problems that are anything but easily resolved in real life.

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This highly satisfying resolution is slightly sinister if we’ve been paying attention, in so far as we’re meant to be happy about deluded, manipulative, and imbalanced people seeking commiseration in each other’s arms in a 21st century form of “settling”. Would we be equally happy with a resolution where a substance abuser and someone with an eating disorder also find solace in each other’s fucked-upedness? Why it’s easy to feel happy in this narrative’s upswing is that we’re told the pills have helped Pat find a resolution, while Tiffany’s unknown diagnosis and medication is mostly elided for a stronger concentration on her dynamic and ‘beautifully tragic’ personality that dovetails an emotional white-out of smiles and family at the end.

David O. Russell’s films to date have been conventionally uninteresting flicks that gain interest by being largely devoid of the odd noisome or annoying cliche. But if you look hard enough, you’ll always find cliches, of course, and SLP is no exception. Lawrence’s beautiful tragedy wrapped up in a conflicted but peppy sex-addicted emotional wreck is in some ways, despite being grounded in clinical depression and volatility, still every red-blooded man’s fantasy: a coquette with a bit of dangerous spice (and a really, really nice ass, which Russell is kind enough to emphasize with plenty of J Law butt shots). We also have a variation on the mystical black man cliche, with Chris Tucker appearing in his first non-Rush Hour film in 15 years to be Coop’s affirmation buddy. Instead of wielding some magical powers, he’s simply an optimistic support whose patently cute loony bin escape attempts provide further comic relief. Neither of these big cliches are noisome or annoying for me; both eminently digestible.

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The supporting acts in SLP are, in a word, outstanding. If you can afford DeNiro in a 3rd or 4th string role, it likely speaks to the quality of the project. This is the best effort I’ve seen out of him in years. I’ve always thought Chris Tucker to be a misunderstood and underused talent, and I couldn’t have been happier to see him yuckin’ it up without Jackie Chan around. Shea Whigman, fresh from the thunder in Boardwalk Empire, cuts another notch on his belt as his career in character acting has taken a well-earned thrust into the limelight lately. Jacki Weaver, with whom I’m otherwise unfamiliar, plays the film’s most subtle but genuine role as the least crazy person in a constellation of nutters.

What makes this flick so interesting is, if at moments you think Cooper and Lawrence’s characters are being too “normal”, you have to ask yourself a layered question similar to films about film: whether it’s the actor or the actor’s character acting well. My general feeling is that both Coop and J Law execute brilliantly here, but differently. Coop is more professional. He has a dozen or so years on Lawrence, after all. His interpretation is an intellectual process, while hers is intuitive or instinctual. He’s more Ralph Fiennes, she’s more Brando or Depp. Both will have a great future, but I’m beginning to suspect Lawrence will make history.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1045658/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/silver_linings_playbook/

Lincoln

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Lincoln – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5

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The problem with liking a film such as Lincoln is that it’s just so goddamn easy. It’s easy for audiences to like, and the palpable drama surrounding the significance of our most venerated President after George Washington is an easy sell for Steven Spielberg (similar in a few ways to how hard it is to take issue with Schindler or Private Ryan … ). It feels like a guilty pleasure, as far as my liking Lincoln goes, in how my conscience informs me that this is mere Spielbergian Instagram-History tripe. Yet the drama constructed by playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner depicting the legal abolition of slavery with Daniel Day-Lewis capturing the essence of Honest Abe is anything but easy to dismiss, and despite many shortcomings, stands out with some extraordinary elements.

Lincoln is a film that attempts to capture that essence of the 16th President of the United States, and especially his legacy, as a contribution to our national mythology. The opening shot slowly drags us in our idolatry from behind his back, presiding over black Union troops in their complaints in the rain, to turn and face him in his humble and unpretentious reality. Kushner drifted on subject matter before finally settling on the passage of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery and served as an apotheosis for the hundreds of thousands who perished in the Civil War. Standing in the way of its passage is the Copperhead faction in Congress who sympathized with the South for economic reasons, and opposed Lincoln’s wartime powers by every inch of seizure.

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Tommy Lee Jones delivers an historic first in his positive portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, long maligned by historians of the Dunning School and rebel scum inhabiting the modern South. The difference between the Union and Confederacy, or Republicans and Democrats is only window dressing here, as Stevens and Lincoln have a more significant difference that we’re told by Kushner speaks less on the history and more on a timeless issue of radical change vs. compromised change, specifically on emancipation. A key exchange between Lincoln and Stevens in a basement meeting draws attention. Abe claims if we’d done it your way, we’d never have brought in the border and Western States, and the war would have been lost, revealing the film’s dramatic conceit, which favors Voltaire’s aphorism that the perfect is the enemy of the good.

Like many Spielberg flicks, this one has a panoply of high caliber actors, and fittingly a man of the highest caliber in the title role. Day-Lewis easily overshadows every past attempt (though there’ve been interestingly few as large as this, suggestive of Lincoln’s greater importance to our current age than those immediately following him), and makes every future attempt pointless. His physical resemblance was great enough, which is no easy accomplishment, genetics being more decisive than makeup, but his construction of a personality we know mostly from our money is being praised by historians for its surprising accuracy. His Lincoln breathes life into the affable autodidact icon. His stoic stature and resolve are unaffected by those surrounding him. He carries the enormous weight of the world easily, because his soul has been beaten down all it can be, and he’s a happy pursuer of his ironclad goals. Day-Lewis taking over the role from Liam Neeson was a bit of cosmic mercy.

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In his supporting role as Stevens, Tommy Lee Jones offers a worthy second fiddle, but his manner is as equally jovial and sarcastic as most of his roles, No Country for Old Men aside. John Hawkes, David Strathairn, Hal Holbrook already looked like Civil War re-enactors before winning their roles; Jackie Earle Haley executes a sympathetic testimony for a dying society aloof to its injustice as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens; Lee Pace plays Fernando Wood, the flamboyant Copperhead and thrower of invective, with a luster that recalls Clancy O’Connor’s portrayal of Edward Rutledge in HBO’s John Adams miniseries. Sally Field is … adequate, but I can only guess she’s been brought out of exile into the land of medical informercials because she bore a resemblance to Mary Todd, as other actors resembled their figures here.

Do many great works of historical fiction escape reliance on the big milestones and great men with long Wikipedia pages? Not as many as those which hug the icons, I would wager. Spielberg’s avoidance of the big markers in history were all pretty forgettable: 1941, Empire of the Sun, Amistad. Anybody familiar with Angels in America or Munich, two other films Kushner penned, knows his ability to sculpt into a beautifully harrowing drama what was once a factual, dusty, and ultimately dead history page. It should come as a surprise to some that despite the credit being given to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals” (the widely popular history tome about a Lincoln administration which embraced diversity of thought), this entire film encompasses the events of no more than 4 pages in that enormous book. She actually deserves more credit for advising Daniel Day-Lewis on the man she’d studied in depth, visiting historic locations with him to begin his character assimilation process. To think Spielberg insisted on the book rights prior to it being published is a mark of the intellectual bloat and superficiality of Hollywood.

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And yet we have a film that beautifully translates the spirit of Kearns’ entire book, and the legacy of a world-historic figure into a 150 minute film. So obviously this film required more than competently depicting a towering figure of American history to saunter into the Oscars and take home all the statues, which it is very likely to do. What we’re witnessing here isn’t hugely different, however: Daniel Day-Lewis is at this point inarguably a towering figure of cinematic history. Is there anybody convinced he ISN’T going to win the Oscar for Best Actor, or that his wasn’t a performance that drew anything short of pure awe? In future decades, will people be speaking of this role as they do some of Marlon Brando’s signature roles? (i.e. Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, Godfather..) I predict with some confidence that they will. Between Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview, and Abe Lincoln, all cut from a quintessential American archetype forged in the 19th century, Day-Lewis grew as an actor as his characters had him drawing down in color and flare, growing in subtle tendency.

One problem arises over the historical truth behind this film’s carved arc. We’d have passed the 13th Amendment with or without cajoling the recalcitrant Congress fairly soon. Slavery was for all intents and purposes done as an institution by the time we passed it, and it was only a matter of whether or not the Union was counter-intuitively willing to perpetuate it militarily after achieving victory, which isn’t as absurd a possibility as it sounds. In the immediate aftermath of Lincoln’s presidency and life, Stevens and other radicals would oversee Radical Reconstruction in further Amendments, including the 14th with its Equal Protection that has factored so heavily into our history, and continues to do so today with Gay Marriage heading to the Supreme Court soon. So in reality, the perfect was well within sight despite this film’s insistence on the good‘s superiority.

The formal problems in any Spielberg film apply here, as they always do. The score by John Williams is annoyingly cliched high schmaltz, underwhelming aesthetically, and delivered insultingly to tutor your mood and emotion. Janusz Kamiński’s camera has, like I said above, an Instagram filter in it that drains the color of history, adding dust for the awe and coolness of it all. James Spader’s oafish vote wrangler and Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton provide the very Spielbergian need for cheeky but pointless comic relief cuteness in a serious film. Trust me Steve-O, your films are sweet and callow enough as it is, you don’t need to candy coat this pill.

These negative factors are surmountable. Daniel Day-Lewis is a veritable genius. He singularly lifts this otherwise above-average production into the ether. This is him in top form. History and politics take a back seat here, and the drama and mythology is what matters. Spielberg’s fawning adoration for the icon can make you queasy, but all things considered, there are few people worthier of such idolatry.

P.S. : “Lincoln” comes from the Roman name for a city in Britannia called “Lindum Colonia”, which between Gaelic and Latin, respectively, means “Pool Colony”.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0443272/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lincoln_2011/

A word on Schindler’s List

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Schindler’s List – Art 4/5 Ent X/5 Worth 5/5

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After seeing Steven Spielberg’s latest film, Lincoln (review coming soon), I wondered for a bit if it had surpassed Schindler’s List -arguably his best- in overall quality. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance alone is enough to lift the film out of the sight of its own failures, but writer Tony Kushner’s crisp drama encapsulating into a neat arc our national father figure who verges on the mythic was so surprisingly earnest and accessibly interesting that it compelled me to re-examine Schindler.

It’d been a few years since I’ve seen Spielberg’s emotionally-charged 1993 film. I couldn’t recall how many times I had already seen it, maybe 15. The first time, I remember bumming out friends on my hockey team by beginning to watch it. We were like 11-12 or so. They were being polite guests as I sold the concept really well (World War 2!), but when they saw stuffy Jews praying around a table, they tuned out. Mom told me to watch something more appropriate like Red Heat or Total Recall. As a history lesson, I let my little cousins watch after they were about the age I was when I first saw it. They couldn’t continue watching Aliens after the facehugger jumped out at Paul Reiser in the water jug, but I thought this was something they needed to see and could handle by then. Since, I’ve shown a few friends who hadn’t seen it before, memorably drawing tears from one person.

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I don’t know how many times I’ve sat through it, but I just did again and for some reason, it’s affected me more than any time previous.

I think we all recognize what Spielberg is about. He’s a great director in a traditional Hollywood studio-driven order of battle, but he’s clearly no intellectual, no auteur. Listen to his interviews about his cinematic inspirations, and he sounds like a mouthy nerd with no taste. He can really talk a line of placid nonsense. Although his vision has an impressive and at times wondrous sweep to it, he really does always have to lean on a great script. Like Kushner’s help on Lincoln and Munich, he’s given an enormous arm up by Steven Zaillian’s script and Thomas Keneally’s historical novel in Schindler, themselves aided by reality, and the long shadow of the events depicted. Whatever one thinks of Spielberg, it’s difficult to not think of Schindler as an extremely important film.

I always took the black and white in Schindler to be Spielberg reverting to his film school youth, trying to mime Ingmar Bergman’s bleak Scandinavian imagery that bathes the soul in a hideous chill. For once in his life, he had to make a film that wasn’t frivolous, so he went with what he knew. His and Janusz Kaminski’s imprimatur with later historical films (Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, Lincoln) has tended to use a drained Instagram-like image to evoke profundity whether there is or isn’t any in the image (not different from his use of John Williams’ condescending scores that instruct you on what emotion to have at any given moment). With the full color bookends, with the little girl in the red coat and with the candle light, the black and white highlights the stark manichean narrative, and the brilliant spirit of the victims lit through the darkest of hours.

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To get a sense of the awe this film induces, just look at the reactions of other directors. On the one hand, French New Wave great Jean-Luc Godard complains about Spielberg profiting from it (just like a fucking Trotskyite waste of membrane), while Cannes favorite Michael Haneke exposes a prejudged bias by assuming historic events attested to by participants (the shower scene at Auschwitz) could only be tailored by Hollywood for “naive American audiences”. Yeah, sure boys, whatever you say. But on the other hand, Stanley Kubrick, a friend of Spielberg’s in spite of existing in different realms artistically, halted production on his own Holocaust film after seeing Schindler, because he thought it couldn’t (or shouldn’t) be done anymore – Kubrick being notoriously flaky and particular. Roman Polanski, a Holocaust survivor himself, felt his world upside down by it, inspiring his own films, including Oscar-winner The Pianist.

An accusation that follows Spielberg around is his cardboard cutout representation of Nazis as essentially evil, or comic book Wagnerian Lucifers. There is definitely some truth to this: whether to an absurd degree, like in the Indiana Jones series; or to more subtle degrees, like in Private Ryan, and Valkyrie. It’s a laughably absurd endeavor to sift through a Holocaust film to make sure the representations of the SS are on the up and up (what more really needs to be said, it’s the fucking Holocaust), but Spielberg perceptively knew he had to get it right for this to be taken more seriously as a cultural milestone than Sophie’s Choice or Escape from Sobibor. He knew that if he didn’t, there’d be a safe harbor for those looking for any excuse to withdraw sympathy. The Germans had to be monsters, but human monsters, and not all Germans were the same, even those up to no good in occupied Poland.

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He was aided by the massive talent of Ralph Fiennes playing Amon Goeth, the sociopathic and sadistic head of the labor camp, among other actors. They had to portray humanity at its most evil, but exhibit trace amounts of humanity, and hint at one personal tragedy after another, to the point they’re able to laugh from a hubris-drenched German perspective, without coming off as cartoons. For it to work, the actors embodying the genocidal swagger of men who thought they were the height of civilization had to look to vengeful Romans stamping out Hebrew revolts, and not something out of Captain America (“but we are not the Romans, we’re the SS“).

It’s also impossible to not see this as Liam Neeson’s best performance, and the character as one of the few gems to feature in a Spielberg film with a commendable amount of complexity, luckily taken from a bit of true history. In the beginning, Oskar Schindler is a war profiteer, slave laborer, serial philanderer, decadent industrialist, and foppish opportunist. Itzhak Perlman (Ben Kingsley) is too proud to express gratitude to this man, or drink with him, and too cautious to get close to man with zero sense of propriety. Over the course of the narrative, Schindler’s selfish profit motive (“[these Jewish laborers] belong to ME!“) is transformed into genuine altruism. In the end, forced to reckon with his past by fleeing the Allied armies, he’s horrified by his former self, and relies on the gratitude of those people he’s saved to keep from doubting his own good works as merely a furtherance of his prior selfishness.

I don’t know if it’s the stuff I’ve read about the Holocaust or the war over the years, or the unspeakably evil shooting in Connecticut yesterday, or both, but today, Schindler hit me harder than any other viewing. And this is essential viewing, though not for cinema, let’s not be mistaken here: this isn’t high art. I don’t want to get carried away in my praise of Spielberg. This is a case of the content so overriding the form that it ranks alongside masterpieces of far more capable craftsmanship. There are very few films that I think qualify as necessary viewing purely on content, but this would be one of them. But Lincoln? Ehn, more on that later.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0108052/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/schindlers_list/

Looper

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Looper – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 5/5

As unsympathetic as I am to Science Fiction, I can definitely dig many films in the genre simply because of how heterodox it is. I most enjoy any attempt in the genre to consciously ignore and depart from, or to subversively undermine its hallmarks, or feign an attempt at them while creating a more tangible drama. Alien I love because it’s an infusion of horror, while Starship Troopers I love because it fundamentally and cheekily undermines Robert Heinlein. Writer/director Rian Johnson (The Brothers Bloom) grabs my attention and respect with Looper, by intermingling quasi-post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi (savaged by economy rather than WMDs) with the traditional gangster flick, and not resting on that coolness, it creates a sharp tragedy only possible with this amalgam of genres.

The film is a tech-noir not unlike Blade Runner (also quite dystopian; conscious of the East), starring now-frequent Johnson collaborator Joseph Gordon-Levitt (3rd Rock kid) in his first big time action film lead as Joe Simmons, a looper: an executioner for the Kansas mob, set to dispatching victims sent from the future where murder is exceedingly difficult. His friend Seth (Paul Dano), also a looper, is delivered the future Seth to execute in order to “close his loop”, but he fails to pull the trigger, letting him escape – a grave offense that leads to a creepy bodily disintegration when they medically torture the present Seth. Soon, Joe is faced with his own future self (Bruce Willis), and after he escapes by throwing a gold brick at him, we get to see his story in the timeline where he does shoot himself: he lives a sordid existence where his grand payoff quickly erodes on narcotics and a return out of retirement to kill again.

The plot of Looper, in spite of its chronological shifts, has only one momentary departure, and is otherwise quite linear, and told straightforward without the convoluted ambiguity of a film like Inception, whose self-satisfaction in its confusing array of manifold layers produces very little substance once you get through the smoke and mirrors. Looper is far superior to that nonsense because instead of seamlessly floating between future and present, and different timeline perspectives to subdue our critical faculties, it presents a tragedy of a pathetic and selfish son of a bitch (Willis) whose attempt to improve his fate and correct his mistakes ironically takes the opposite turn when his past self (3rd Rock) is disgusted with his future, and decides to selflessly set the course right again, even for his supposed telekinetic superhero arch-enemy.

Johnson, who is again providing a free in-theater commentary track for Looper, avoids hard Sci-Fi almost immediately by dispensing with the inanities of time travel logic and quantum physics, as Bruce Willis brusquely shapes its firmly invented dramatic logic in the matter of a few seconds at a country diner, and that’s that. Government regulation of time travel, what happens to x when y, etc., all wide of the point for this narrative. I like that. I like that a lot. People who are itching to hear that stuff I can only guess aren’t likely interested in dramatic film period, so fuck them. There are plot holes galore in Looper, but again, the integrity of a narrative’s logic rests solely on its higher purpose, and Looper is a rather straightforward tragedy which requires none of the DNA of hard Sci-Fi in the script to accomplish its goal. That stuff is just horseapples.

The concepts of the future are interesting, and somewhat amusing. Looper is another recent flick that sees our current economic downturn as a long-term imperial decline, with a psychological need for the East to be threateningly on the upswing to our former place in prosperity. Get over yourselves, you insecure shits. This dystopian hellscape, where vagrants roam farmland like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, presumes first that the permanent business cycle is a permanent business slide, and that third world countries look like this mess. Last I checked, Brazil does have poverty, but few zombie-like vagrants.

Another interesting thing is the choice of China as the future setting. This was helped along by DMG Entertainment offering funds to the production to choose this setting, instead of Paris, which was far too expensive. The Chinese version of Looper included more scenes in China from the cutting room floor, because they included star Xu Qing as Bruce Willis’ wife, who is relatively unknown in the West. The depiction of a superior China and hellscape America is deeply amusing, but was pushed from two angles, and wasn’t a totally conscious decision on Johnson’s part from the get-go.

The 3rd Rock kid has had a whirlwind of success lately, in a number of films popping up. I’m glad to see it, and I’m very glad to see him demonstrate range outside of the wistfully ignoble nerd he’d patterned before. If 500 Days of Summer was his legacy and apotheosis, I would weep for him. And I find it more a testament to his skill and less to Bruce Willis’ seniority that they dressed him up with prosthetics and makeup to look like Bruce, and not vice versa. Could Willis act like the 3rd Rock kid? Yeah, I dunno. The opposite is now a proven subtle success.

Paul Dano gives another extravagantly flamboyant performance, quite different from any previous, but is unfortunately cut brief. Piper Perabo I didn’t realize was in this film until I checked the credits, because she blends into a showgirl flusie such that I could barely recognize her from the more swashbuckling spy caper series on the USA Network. One last thought on the actors: I think Jeff Daniels, who plays a kingpin sent from the future, isn’t given his just dues. Quite contrapositive from veteran actor William Hurt, who overacts while underperforming, Jeff Daniels underacts while overperforming. He’s a lunch pale Yooper and doesn’t exhibit the dramatic personality of a Dano, but can always deliver a high caliber nuanced supporting role.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1276104/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/looper/

Sinister

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Sinister – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 3/5

- This review has a few spoilers, which are best read after viewing the film if you wish to enjoy this rather once-off scare flick, but if you don’t give a shit either way, please proceed -

A genuinely good horror film is hard to come by, for a few reasons. As you get older, horror becomes less about scares, and more about yucks, or some boring intellectual point that dresses itself up in the macabre to be more fun than it is. Sinister straddles all three: surprisingly maintaining a decent amount of teh scarie, delivering some unintentional laughs from baddies popping out of nowhere (rawwrrh!), and it hangs on to a postmodern film-that-kills theme that we might remember from The Ring, establishing our real dark theater to be in the same peril as the fictional world on the screen. This mixture undermines its seriousness and its cheese at once, of course, but that isn’t really a lasting problem, because very little about this film is very lasting. It’s a quick short burst of horror fun, and a rare success for the genre.

Co-written and directed by Scott Derrickson (he of The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Ethan Hawke leads as a true crime writer who frequently uproots his family to follow juicy murder stories with unresolved or otherwise botched investigations, going so far as to inhabit the neighborhood of the deceased. This time, he puts his family into harm’s way by buying the very house of the slaughtered family (“it was a steal”), nearsightedly hiding this fact from his wife. Sneakily, an ancient Babylonian demon has developed a long-standing scheme of strategically placing a box of “Home Movies” in the attics of his latest victim. A more appropriate title is “Home Snuff Movies”, each filmed by a different child while murdering their family, before having their own souls harvested by the demon for its longevity.

These films act as a spiritual gateway for the demon, not unlike the Abrahamic eschatological warning against graven images: that they will come alive and haunt their creators. These “home movies” have caused the wholesale slicing, dicing, hanging, lawnmowing, and hot-boxing of a number of families going back to the 1960s. Hopping like a frog from one lily pad to the next, the demon begins his harvest only after the family that discovers the box of film reels has moved from the previous house, making it easier for the chain to be unnoticed by the next human sacrifices. This is where Ethan Hawke and his family come in. The story is an over-done pattern recognizable to horror fans, replete with cliches. There’s the easy stuff: haunted house / creepy people in the bushes. And there’s the wincing attempts at drama: the outer fluff of an alcoholic and vain man obsessed with notoriety from his books, regardless of all else, including his family.

In mini-noir fashion, Hawke’s investigation leads him to a local town cop feeding him information (tremendous actor James Ransone from The Wire and Generation Kill), and a professor who testifies for prosecutions on matters of the occult (Vincent D’Onofrio, who apparently submitted his performance entirely through Skype). They piece together the elements in this child-eating demon cult, but most of the details surface too late to do Hawke any good. Before he knows it, his possessed daughter poisons him and lops off his noggin with an ax. She then joins with the demon, as they walk into the screen of one of the “Home Movies”, to start the cycle over as the next family moves in.

Subtle hints are given throughout the film that what we’re watching is indeed one of these “Home Movies”, and our screen is a portal for this Babylonian demon to begin haunting us. Not exactly a great motivation for us to ever relocate to another home, especially in this shitty real estate market. This mise en abyme that introduces our real world into the fiction is a neat, but more on the nose rendition of what other horror films like The Ring have done. If it wasn’t subtle enough before, it only spurs outrageous laughter when the demon (for the second time in the film) pops his face out at the last second, overwhelming the screen (raarrhr!!!). Sinister would have been better without the cheap scares, but not better enough to have warranted cutting them out if the producers wanted to make any money from word of slobbermouth (and they did, holy moly: for a $3M production they’ve earned back $47M).

Though it falls short of the panic-inducing terror in The Descent, the goofy camp of a B-movie horror, or the narrative play of The Ring, it has a hardy balance that makes it worth the one watch it’ll ever be good for.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1922777/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/sinister_2012/

Argo

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Argo – Art 1/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 3/5

There is something awfully stinky about Argo, Ben Affleck’s film about the 6 US Embassy employees who escaped Tehran in 1980, and it ain’t got nothin’ to do with sensitivities about the Iranian people, nor general American jingoism we’ve come to expect from Hollywood. It’s about how we address history in our films. The most dreadfully boring historic narratives are the ones that hug real events. There’s nothing inherently commendable in whatever received a positive grade from the History Channel’s old series History vs. Hollywood. And yet contrarily, there isn’t automatically anything necessarily improved by taking dramatic license to sex up history. Like with book adaptations, film that’s loyal to history is therefore not really loyal to film.

Argo seems to be a textbook case of the fallacy of argument to moderation, in that it cuts a nice middle ground between historic truth and historic invention, yet yields nothing of consequence. Like Spielberg’s Munich, not only mundane details, but historic truth is elided or otherwise glossed over for the cheap and empty thrill of delivering action. But unlike Munich, Argo wholly invented the action from a rather mundane history. We can be most struck by the comment made by one of the real life participants depicted in this story that they saw more stringent security on their way to the Toronto International Film Festival than at the Tehran Airport in 1980, contrary to the tension in the final act which the film pretty much relies on to be the least bit interesting.

The film follows the overthrow of the US Embassy following the Iranian Revolution, and the eventual escape of 6 employees in the foreign service who were taken in by the Canadian ambassador, with the help of a CIA exfiltration plot where they’d pose as Canadian filmmakers to sneak out of the country. Aside from a tepid and quick admission that the Iranians were storming our embassy because we gave Shah Reza Pahlavi absolute power 2 1/2 decades earlier, the film is mostly apolitical, and therefore its unnecessary inventions render it a mostly mindless actioner unconcerned with its surroundings. While it’s commendable that Argo hints to the viewer of America’s complicity in the Pahlavi tyranny, it doesn’t mention Kermit Roosevelt engineered the coup d’état over the democratically-elected Iranian government in 1952 from that very symbolic embassy.

But these inventions – the dramatic closing and last-minute reopening of the plan by the Carter administration conveniently at the moment Ben Affleck asks for his ticket at the counter, the tense security measures through the Tehran airport, the high speed chase of multiple cars as the plane is taking off – call into question the overall point of the film. If the point is mindless action for action’s sake, why not go one further into the absurd as Quentin Tarantino did in Inglourious Basterds, and obviously modify history for whatever end? If we want high speed car chases that never happened to make mundane history sexy, what’s honestly keeping Ben Affleck from including Ancient Aliens, some Transformers, Hitler’s ghost, or a flying horse? If you’re going to modify history to make it less mundane, why should we submissively accept a mundane point about nothing?

The fact that this film got so many events wrong isn’t a big deal. Again, getting history right is no barometer for a successful piece of art. But minimizing the role of the Canadians in the exfiltration and heaping scorn on the Brits and Kiwis for turning our 6 foreign staffers away, when in reality they either took them in or helped them escape, is not dramatic license, it’s just ignorant, shitty writing. The film’s pace wasn’t improved by those choices, if they were even actual decisions of newbie writer Chris Terrio’s, which is highly doubtful. They’re more like massive, gaping holes. The filmmakers have tried to walk this back after receiving criticism, unconvincingly. Honestly, a film about David Petraeus taking a shit, including a high-speed chase and a tense security clearance to get to the bathroom would be closer to a comparable narrative to Argo than would be deemed praiseworthy of Affleck and Terrio.

What I find so amazing about this film was how the South Park guys, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, made a recent episode complimenting this movie and Ben Affleck. I find it amazing because this is exactly the craptacular souped-up pop culture frivolity that South Park glories in making fun of so often. Nevertheless, the film examined out of any cultural context is a decent little yarn that you’ll likely enjoy. I still think it’s a major step down for Ben Affleck from The Town, which was equally as preposterous, but the motivation to reach that preposterousness at least required no self-deception on the part of the writer that we were engaging in any manner of realism beyond that demonstrated by Bad Boys.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1024648/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/argo_2012/

Seven Psychopaths

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Seven Psychopaths – Art 4/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 4/5

Genres today are all eating themselves alive. They do it in unconscious self-parody, but they also do it more creatively through parody and pastiche.  Writers struggle to develop fresh material that lingers in the confines of the genres, still teeming with vibrantly active consumers. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who won an Academy Award for the short film Six Shooter, and earned acclaim for In Bruges, looks to the absurdity of the consumer’s taste in the typical actioner fare. In Bruges and his latest offering Seven Psychopaths are both films more about the gangster sub-genre than merely inhabiting it and inheriting its traits. Both are stories where the film characters themselves are bored to death of the genre’s cliches, knowing how the plot will unfold. Instead of laughing at Stallone or Schwarzenegger unknowingly making fun of themselves, we’re laughing with these characters. And we’re laughing a lot more, because it’s making fun of us for prolonging the genre.

Seven Psychopaths extends this game. Sprouting from the self-awareness of In Bruges, where the characters receive the cliches in a passive manner, McDonagh goes one further here by making the characters active participants in the business, generating their own story as they see fit, to the confusion and bemusement of the traditional genre characters. With fellow Irishman Colin Farrell once more playing a variety of the self-effacing avatar for Martin McDonagh within his story (also called “Marty”), McDonagh also creates a role for his darker persona to carve away at an otherwise flaccid story, played by Sam Rockwell as the story’s signature cliche to end all cliches: a killer who kills killers all for his buddy’s book about killers.

Hack writer Marty (Farrell) is an alcoholic with little luck, penning an atrocious gangster story featuring laughable elements. His pal Billy (Rockwell) who busies himself stealing the dogs of saps with mentor Hans (Christopher Walken), returning them for a finder’s fee, occasionally shoots Marty great ideas, but Marty is reticent over his disdain for his friend’s otherwise philistine mind. His poor observational skills allows the obvious to float by: that Billy is killing gangsters to create a story for him, which he wants to help write. Billy even convinces him to put out an ad to hear the stories of “real psychopaths”, which lures a serial killer of other serial killers (Tom Waits .. of all people) to come out of the woodwork and tell his stories. Soon enough, Marty realizes his hackneyed ideas are mostly a bastardized account of Hans’ and Billy’s real experience.

Marty’s reluctant to give up control of the film’s narrative, nevermind his own book, but Billy and Hans dominate the latter half of the film. Getting themselves in deep by stealing the Shih Tzu of mafioso Charlie (Woody Harrelson, who won the role after Mickey Rourke’s erratic behavior saw his departure from the project), Marty’s psychopath friends force his hand on becoming instigators in the story instead of writing it. This contrast between Charlie and his crew on the one hand, who are constantly mocked and frustrated by characters operating outside the rules of the gangster genre is the central focus of the narrative. Charlie is a typical genre cliche operating under his own logic of savage revenge for his sweet little doggy, while Billy and Hans, through their suggestions for Marty’s shitty book, show that their singular purpose is to look the cliches in the face and laugh, such as when Walken faces down and creeps Woody in the lobby after Woody’d just shot his wife.

On the lam in the desert, Marty has now utterly lost control of the script, and has no power to rebuff his psycho friends overwhelming his book. Billy’s heinously funny suggestions for a graveyard shootout involving all the principal characters is at once one of the stupidest action film denouements imaginable, and yet utterly genius in its undermining capture of the genre’s worthlessness. In their own ‘real’ denouement, nothing goes as expected as Marty tries to worm his way back into control of the film’s plot to the further consternation of the Woody’s robotic fiends pursuing them.

I think McDonagh has one-upped himself by a wide margin with this follow-up to In Bruges. It’s certainly one of the funniest films done recently, and subtly genius in its subversive satire of a tried and done genre that rises above the adoration of Quentin Tarantino’s pastiche on ’70s action films. The clever inclusion of Boardwalk Empire stars Michael Pitt and Michael Stuhlbarg, not coincidentally portraying mafia goons, as the very first victims in the opening shot establishes the point of the film immediately. It he could afford it, and were less subtle, McDonagh would have had them played by Sly and Arnie.

Walken’s performance is more than you’d expect from a veteran pigeonholed into being a walking amusement park. Rockwell opens an explosion of raw instinct to accomplish a highly amusing character constrained by nothing. Though Farrell’s role is diminished by virtue of the plot, his comedic timing as a bumbling self-obsessed moron is tremendous.

Seven Psychopaths is certainly one of the freshest, funniest films of the year.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1931533/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/seven_psychopaths/

Skyfall

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Skyfall – Art 2/5 Ent 5/5 Worth 4/5

For all the burdensome weight of being the latest in a long-running glamorous and harebrained spy film franchise that spans well over 40 hours of screen time, 6 lead actors, 50 years of history traversing massive ravines in geopolitical and cultural history – a history at times defined by this very series – Skyfall lives up to the best that came before it, and is a deeply impressive genre film. While the subjective question of how it rates in that series is answered variably, invariable is Skyfall’s aesthetically crisp exterior. But the interior being a dreadfully common revenge thriller, only made distinguishable from thousands of other films pitched to the bored studio princes by its iconic hero, some touches were necessary to avoid redundancy, and to regain the icon’s lost coolness, still yet the only true legacy of James Bond.

GoldenEye, the first in the series to feature Dame Judi Dench as M, was a stern departure from all that came before it. The new female M, a strongly contrasting foil to the misogynistic legacy of the icon shaped by Sean Connery (an actor who expresses little compunction over wife-beating), was in a way the avatar for Barbara Broccoli, who inaugurated a new era after inheriting the franchise from her father, with a James Bond hewn for the ’90s. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond was a reined in boy’s club adventurer who was forced to atone for his mindless chauvinism of all varieties: Rule Britannia or his serial philandering. Atonement as a theme would be key here, and return again numerous times up til Skyfall. GoldenEye was a meta-comment on the rest of the series, and the Cold War culture it emerged from. In the disappointing follow ups, Brosnan’s Bond retained the wry boy’s club demeanor, but slowly Dench became a matriarch instead of a rival. This role was necessary to anachronistically reboot the series, so that her matriarchy could be more firmly established on a younger Bond, who unlike the debonnaire Brosnan, actually lived up to her comment in GoldenEye that he was little more than a blunt instrument.

As is natural for many people my age, I compare every Bond film to GoldenEye. Much like the contemporary New World Order spy thriller Sneakers, its atmosphere and purpose in the wake of the Cold War – a period where we all had to grow up ostensibly and stop overthrowing developing world governments in a grand chess game over ideology – was far more interesting than any of the suave emptiness that preceded it, or followed, for that matter. And there was that Nintendo 64 game, of course. Retaining the producers and writers through much of the later Brosnan films, as well as the selective amnesia concerning the sinister aspects of Anglo-American intelligence services (how much did The Good Shepherd earn at the Box Office?), the Daniel Craig reboot trilogy is an altogether different beast. For one, it’s profoundly influenced by the Bourne trilogy’s frenetic pace and embrace of the darker psychological and physical effects of the cloak and dagger profession. But in Skyfall, Judi Dench is guilty of subtly breaking the unsaid barrier between the overthrown Mosaddeghs and Allendes of our real past and the Connerys and Moores of our frivolous past.

While facing a parliamentary inquiry over her failure to protect the identities of NATO agents who’d infiltrated jihadist groups, Dench’s M quotes Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses“, which is influenced more by Dante’s sinner Ulisse in The Inferno, singularly seeking knowledge and reason, than Homer’s heroic trickster Odysseus of the Iliad and Odyssey. Tennyson’s Ulysses, growing a case of cabin fever, feels equally marooned at the completion of his journey in the domesticity of ruling the “savage race” at Ithaca. He calls for his mariners to brave the eroding effects of time on their aged bodies and cut out again for more adventures, his lone sense of irrepressible purpose. The final line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” delivered by M in her defense, is no mere mea culpa for her character’s failure in the film. It serves as a metaphor with Bond’s weathered body, mirroring that of Ulysses. In eerie entendre with Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost, “courage never to submit or yield”, it serves also as a metaphor with the evil that one must embrace, for better or worse, in the most purposefully maniacal of government services, those that operate in the shadows.

As a matriarch of the field agents at MI6, M must at times kill her children for the benefit of those outside the shadows. Her willingness to tell an agent to take the shot while Bond is in hand to hand combat above a moving train, and her willingness to betray a megalomaniacal agent gone rogue isn’t as surprising as the humanity she expresses in coming to decisions that rip out one’s heart. Playing the result of latter example, Javier Bardem’s colorful Bond villain Raoul Silva, a former MI6 agent turned cyber terrorist, is obsessively transfixed with revenge to haunt his adoptive mother’s necessary sin of betrayal. M’s playing of the game is more easily forgiven by Bond, who sees her less a Medea and more a close student of moral hazard. One child’s death is worth dozens of children’s lives. After being shot off the train and wallowing in peace, Bond’s return from the soggy drunkenness in a Greek afterlife is wrought from ennui among the savage race at Ithaca, and his loyalty to mum, who’d recently survived an attack by Silva.

Bardem has an incredible gift of making unsympathetic characters endearing, to such an unsettling degree that he creates his own miniature narrative that demand your moral judgment. The notorious Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men is a demonic brute, sure, but his psychopathy operates within the limits of a code. Uxbal, the main character in Biutiful, is a deplorable criminal and human trafficker, but his embattled conscience ineptly tries to always effect a virtuous outcome. Raoul Silva, a villain with dyed blond hair and a supervillain genius, recalls Bond’s antagonists of old. Cut from the same cloth as Bond, he also has a more sympathetic tragedy, akin to the betrayal faced by Sean Bean’s Agent 006, Alec Trevelyan, whose parents were Lienz Cossacks, traitors turned over to Stalin by the British. In the Hong Kong turnover of 1997, M turned Silva over to the Chinese in exchange for captured agents, whereupon his cyanide capsule failed to kill him, instead mangling his jaw bone and inflicting agonizing torture, adding a bit of vividness to the stakes to an otherwise more adventurous caper franchise.

Silva’s elaborate plan to wreak his vengeance on mommy dearest has received a deal of flip criticism. Some remark on how convoluted the plot is, and reminding them that this is still after all a James Bond movie isn’t enough, because it’s not as convoluted when you parse out how Silva didn’t plan Bond’s involvement, and despite a connection with Bond over their shared painful upbringing, he couldn’t comprehend Bond’s randomly selected genetic disposition towards a loyalty loose enough to protect M at all costs, but still use her as bait. If anything, M’s knack for addressing moral hazard rubbed off on her would-be son. Another remark is how Oedipal either Bond or Silva’s relationship to ‘mum’ is. No, you don’t have to credit Freud whenever there’s drama and a mother involved. It’s a backwards implication anyway, Dench’s M is far from a Jocasta.

One of the very true remarked upon connections was how this was the Dark Knight Rises of the Bond series. Our heroic icons, as a symptom of the post-Great Recession blues, need to seem breakable, fallible, and outmatched by an imperceptibly powerful foe who operates in the East. Unlike Batman, however, Skyfall at least is under no illusions that the film’s substance takes precedence over its style and easy mythology. In this case, Bond is saved from ostentatiously getting too big for its britches by a niche history of vodka martinis and backless dresses, rather than virtuously knowing itself, I think. But the mythology ties in with as much smoothness as the rest of the picture. Ben Whishaw takes the place of Desmond Llewelyn as the series’ comic relief quartermaster Q, a character not seen since the Brosnan era. Later on, Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris wrap things up by finally revealing themselves in very familiar surroundings as the dispassionate male M, and the playfully ridiculing Moneypenny.

If the story isn’t a competent match for the latest Mike Leigh film, it’s running with the best of any Bond film, at the very least. But devolving once more, if the story isn’t the point anyway, the incredibly sleek aesthetic design, flowing from the most gorgeous of any Bond intro featuring Adele’s tie in song, makes the shaky-cam Bourne movies look positively ancient and low-budget. One of the benefits of Hollywood appealing to slobbermouths over-intimate with laser guns is that they get to soak up some of the world’s best visual artists, and give them high tech shit to work with. The jet-setter tenor of Connery Bonds lingered well into the Brosnan era, if only because of habit, but the Craig Bonds feature a retro kitsch style only in ever so small doses as an homage, and especially in the third act of the character’s dark origins trilogy we get a brilliant explosiveness of a new style, similar in spirit to what made Bond so cool in 1962.

It isn’t a work of genius, it’s a dark adventure film with a tinge of John le Carré, and yet for all that it wants to be, it is. Javier Bardem and Judi Dench are both exceptional in their roles, and once again, Daniel Craig is the sinewy but broken hero that Bond was always meant to be, inhabiting a cold and indifferent film universe he was always meant to inhabit, albeit with the same ending and upswing we know to expect. This is, after all, just a Bond film.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1074638/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/skyfall/

Safety Not Guaranteed

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Safety Not Guaranteed – Art 2/5 Ent 4/5 Worth 5/5

Every American comedy film these days seemingly comes from a circle of people connected in some way to the Frat Pack or a comedy troupe like Second City or the Groundlings. Safety Not Guaranteed is no exception. Aubrey Plaza, in her debut as a lead, is an alumna of the Upright Citizens Brigade and regular on Parks and Recreation, and producers Mark and Jay Duplass made their extensive connections with previous film Jeff, Who Lives at Home, and the FX comedy The League. So it’s hard to call this one an indie sleeper while it packs such a wallop, however much those involved may appreciate being called a wallop. But the buzz for this movie is definitely slow to percolate, and rewarding once you dive in.

Inspired by an infamous time-traveling advertisement placed by John Silveira in his own periodical as a gag, Safety Not Guaranteed follows Darius Britt (Plaza), a shy young woman interning at a hokey Seattle magazine that somehow sees value in investigating such an ad. Is the guy serious? Is he a militant nutcase? Does he want to eat and rape all his neighbors in a ritual for Hades? Frivolous boss-lady Bridget (Mary Lynn Rajskub) is interested enough – perhaps out of the sheer desperation of an equally frivolous periodical – to send Jeff (Jake Johnson, easily confused with David Krumholtz), one of her more snarky and self-obsessed reporters, to investigate.

Jeff selects two interns, “the Indian and the lesbian”, to assist him on the road trip to the boonies. The sole purpose of his indulging the self-evidently fruity ad is a side mission to scope out a big-tittied high school sweetheart who once gave him a really sweet blowjob. While he pursues that angle, Plaza is thrown into the lion’s den to muckrake and make sense of the nerdy and obsessive-compulsive world of Kenneth Calloway (producer Mark Duplass), the man who placed the ad, who has a paranoid aversion to narcs and double agents who are on to his time-travel scheme. Plenty rolling-in-the-dirt as kids playing guns shit ensues to audience chuckles, deceptively making us feel complacent in our laughter.

The center of the film is an off-beat and rather cute drama that leaves behind a lot of the comedic cliches we’d expect, instead focusing on the social ineptitude of characters. Aubrey Plaza confirms her debut was aptly rewarded with a commanding performance at once funny and endearing, perhaps a superior Mila Kunis. Her character is poorly written: she’s perfectly hip with the in-crowd, but we’re to believe she’s a castaway. It’s hard to believe, and not just because she’s pretty. Her deft language and mannerisms demonstrate someone who’s never spent a minute at chess club, but is (perhaps quite contrarily) strongly in tune with the ridiculousness of Gen Y. Plaza is more capable as a parodist than an actress at this point, outpacing the writing. Her deadpan delivery is almost perfect for a Woody Allen project. I think her style offers a wide range, but we’ll have to wait to see it flower into bigger things. Her impersonation of Sarah Silverman has me guessing bigger things for her.

While trying to swindle the time-traveler into thinking she’s serious business, Darius moves from Bond girl (or rather, Austin Powers girl) to a sincere moment lamenting the tragic death of her mother because she asked for a gallon of milk (reflecting some of the heartbreaking letters written to John Silveira’s post office box in the original prank). Meanwhile, Jeff is off finding the merit in home-baked pie and homely hairdresser boobs. He’s dismayed that his high school babe is no longer the knockout he remembered, but a discarded sports wife. He has a brief stretch where his humanity overcomes him, and he gladly delves into the easy sensuality of suburban pussay. His impetuous desire to get what he wants is smashed hard when she rejects his offer to come live with him back in Seattle, and he reacts with infant-like rage. This side-story is notably given no resolution, except for Jeff to seek solace and redemption by getting his virgin Indian intern (Karan Soni) laid by some hotties at the gas station.

That isn’t to say any of the film at large has a proper resolution. One of the film’s chief failings is the lack of a logical resolution. Stop reading if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want a spoiler, but the film’s conclusion is diametrically opposite to expectation (which is good), but also coherency with the rest of the project. Darius and Kenneth make way in an actual time machine that ostensibly plops them back into 2001. The final scene is a home video of a ‘what does it all mean’ statement by Kenneth. It’s not unlike a Puritan going out for a night of drinking and Dionysian sodomy, only to blow his brains out with a Glock once the festivities end. If you get it, let me know, because I sure as fuck don’t. I’m not sure at which stage of the filmmaking process they decided this would be a fit ending, but if it were at the writing stage, I have some serious questions about their judgment.

However! However … this was an altogether fun movie, with a number of enjoyable gags that separate it from the chaff we’ve come to expect in comedy lately, and a standout debut performance by Aubrey Plaza. It definitely deserves a nice watchin’.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1862079/
http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/safety_not_guaranteed/

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