Archive for the Film Reviews Category


Posted in Film Reviews on June 29, 2013 by baker

San Francisco, CA.  June 28, 2013.

cigars and atm

Film: Martin Scorsese: Hugo (2011)

Posted in Film Reviews on March 5, 2012 by baker

It pains me to say it, but I’m settling into the idea that Martin Scorsese has lost his gift for real filmmaking.  Perhaps it’s the sudden popular attention he’s getting after thirty years spent hovering at the margins of mainstream American cinema, making films of tremulous psychological energy and percussive visceral force.  Perhaps he is himself settling, into happy old age and a passive enjoyment of soft entertainment, after three decades commanding work from an audience.  Whatever the reasons, Scorsese hasn’t challenged us in over a decade.  His budgets have gotten bigger, and his use of special effects has taken over heavily from in-camera image-making, but from Gangs of New York through The Aviator, Shutter Island, and now Hugo, his movies have become user-friendly in a way that asks nothing of us anymore but concession to melodramatic spectacle. The Departed, Shine a Light, and No Direction Home have come close to reminding us how good he has been, but their achievements are slight and sporadic next to the wave of pap he’s put out since Bringing Out the Dead, his 13-year-old masterwork and the last full expression of his thunderous gifts.  At least there are others.  Paul Thomas Anderson continues to work five years between releases, and has never made a bad film; James Gray makes even fewer films and with far less fanfare, but his output is persuasive and original.  But it may be time to concede that Scorsese’s done, and sadly watch him drift deeper into burdensome, featherweight stories devoid of the sharp pulse he once seemed unable to avoid.

There is so little to distinguish Hugo from any number of big-budget fairy tales Hollywood seems committed to producing, as from a soda fountain, on a mechanical basis.  A few quick beats early on, and one freeze-frame of an eye in the latter half, remind us of the jittery style he once swung with vertiginous force; the rest by far is saccharine to an extent films like Boxcar Bertha, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull (let alone Goodfellas and Casino) reject out of hand.  Scorsese used to exhibit a simultaneous love for cinema and deep mistrust of its connivances that lent his work such live-wire naturalism; his movies were bigger than life while embracing life’s harshest contradictions.  They were bold, unreal narratives, shivering with violence as an animal response to insecurity and incomprehension.  He wasn’t opposed to human attempts to connect; his characters just didn’t know how.  Lately Scorsese seems to have gotten self-conscious about this aspect of his work.  Casting Leonardo DiCaprio is the least of his concessions to wheezy audience-pleasing (the actor will eternally look 15, and probably always project a brand of actorly commitment that smacks more of earnestness than skill); as a storyteller, he simply doesn’t seem interested in conflict anymore.  He’s shifted to pure image-creation of the shallowest emotional depth, cut off from resonance that can’t, as Spielberg once declared, be held in the palm of your hand.

At least he’s always up for a good gimmick – Hugo is a film about the effects of watching films, and with clever 3D and allusions to the machinations of filmmaking itself, he ekes a small running joke out of the rudimentariness of the hand-cranked film camera.  He does nothing new with 3D – I don’t yet believe the technology has any intrinsic value in cinema; unlike color or sound, it exists almost exclusively in our visual perception of imagery, not storytelling – but he has fun with it.  Sacha Baron Cohen leans so far toward the paired lenses at one point that he seems not only to lean over our heads, but nearly to lean beyond the capacity of 3D to keep working, and our eyes strain to maintain the illusion.  And Scorsese isn’t as attuned as James Cameron to the framing limitations imposed by 3D; the effect breaks apart on the edges of too many shots of objects framed just at the cusp.  Nevermind the weight of the 3D glasses perched on your nose (in my case, also in front of my own glasses), and the unfortunate side effect that the glasses drain the screen of a good half of its brightness; after a while your brain adjusts to 3D and wearies a little of its demands on the optic nerve.  How much does it really add?  In Hugo, Scorsese’s equated it with the effect of George Méliès’ film Arrivee d’un train gare de Vincennes, which at the time of its release in 1896 terrified audience members into believing they were about to be smacked by the oncoming locomotive, but we’re a bit more sophisticated than that now; the joke is a once-off Scorsese cashes in repeatedly.  I kept waiting for him to find a new dimension in the gimmick, but I’m not sure there’s another one to be found.

Worse, Scorsese is clearly buying wholesale into machinations of Hollywood melodrama.  As a human story, Hugo is as steel-framed and shopworn as the (unpaid-off) automaton at its center, a preprogrammed imitator of stock emotions.  He’s almost as callous with his wide-eyed child cast as Danny Boyle in Slumdog Millionaire, photographing them for maximum adorability in pursuit of childlike discovery.  There’s something chilly and detached about denying child performances their due awkwardness; the act of discovery for children doesn’t resonate for them the way it does in our adult recollection.  In the moment, it’s plain and matter-of-fact.  Thirty-seven years ago Scorsese gave the adult Travis Bickle greater unself-consciousness than either of these kids, and it lent Taxi Driver a childlike anxiety – one fraught with violence he might have replaced with wonder in Hugo.  All the elements are in place: the adult station inspector whose broken body and nearly-ripe spirit makes him shy with the ladies (a fun Sacha Baron Cohen and a totally wasted Emily Mortimer); an aging Méliès forced to confront the awkward reality that innovation garners attention long after its prime (the spitting image in Ben Kingsley, who can do better than required here); a pair of parentless children shuffling chest-high in a mechanical, repressed adult world (Asa Butterfield and Chloe Grace Moretz are fine, upstanding Hollywood child actors).  But he plays them all for quick laughs and laborious drama.  In his old age, Scorsese shows as much patience for propulsive emotion as fresh commercial directors on their first action feature.

A good friend remarked the other day, wistfully, that Scorsese’s becoming more and more popular the longer he makes films this shallow.  I feel a cynical shell forming around me as I accept, with deep regret, that we’ve probably lost a great film artist to the clutches of the marketplace.  But I’m unsure whether Scorsese has drifted into or sought out this place of pop worship.  It can’t be easy to know you’re making the best films of your generation but constantly lose out in the box office and awards circuit to fluffier work by sillier contemporaries.  Has Scorsese known all along that he could be making popular films, and until recently capitulated to the compulsion to wrestle harder?  Or is this what happens when you smoke out your demons and drain your soul of introspection?  That finally, all of a sudden, dues paid in your distant past, you find yourself respected for your willingness to please?  That by itself would be at least understandable if, in the process, challenges gone, his movies weren’t becoming so damned boring to those of us who still want to think.

Film: Tom Hooper: The King’s Speech (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews on March 14, 2011 by baker

How our better critical selves shouldn’t miss the bygone days of The Miramax-Produced Movie: Shakespeare in Love, The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Gangs of New York. Never in American cinema, before or since, has so much concentrated sap and sincerity been injected into our theatrical intake, saturating our brains with high-glucose lies. Miramax got away with it because they lied about cute stuff (orphan children and candy) and niche history (Shakespeare and the Five Corners) instead of catastrophic social issues like disease, war, or famine, and we let them because the trade-off came in the form of confection: films we enjoyed consuming for their harmless sugar rush of Good Feelings or Easy Empathy (or Watered-Down Art, of the likes Scorsese’s been making ever since). Continuing to lament our shortage of taste and discrimination in these glorious times of Miley Cyrus, “American Idol”, and endless movie remakes seems terribly pointless in the face of popular momentum (and we are still getting our There Will be Bloods, Bob Woodward reportage, and Radiohead albums), but there remains in me a calling, like a body demanding nutrients, for richer, healthier art.

2010 was not a fulfilling year for Hollywood cinema, replete as it was with depressing remakes: The Wolfman, Alice in Wonderland, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood, The A-Team, The Karate Kid. Potentially wonderful films like The Killer Inside Me somehow failed to develop real depth, and adaptations like Shutter Island and The Ghost Writer, both by directors of formidable skill, collapsed in showy displays of empty style. We got a smattering of interesting but non-threatening films (Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, The Town), but other cultures had to give us Enter the Void, A Prophet, and Lebanon, and National Geographic released the most sophisticated documentary, Restrepo. Into that scene slipped the BBC-Miramax (now The Weinstein Company) lovechild, Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, a soft and cuddly happy-weeper that hits all the proper notes, if none of the arresting ones. It’s got a lot of pretty shots in historical settings. Shakespeare quotations. Physiological torment. A loving woman. A best friend forged in the furnace of well-meaning stubbornness. Nazi villains. And a hefty performance by a familiar Brit who’s never shown so much leading-man gravity.

What’s not to love? The King’s Speech is a puppy of a film, bouncy and lovable and too immature to criticize. Colin Firth is quite good, insofar as imitating King George VI’s speech is acting and sudden outbursts of anger are expressive (this is not a criticism; he embodies the part well, but it’s half-formed for a film that wants to be historically significant but lacks the willingness to put aside its comparatively inane drama). David Seidler’s script – evidently based on his own stammering as a child, and built on scenes between the king, his wife the Queen Mother (Helena Bonham-Carter) at his side, and his adorably good-natured therapist (Geoffrey Rush), who’s willing to put up with every one of George’s tantrums because he knows precisely how Seidler will use them to launch their relationship to a more profound level of bourgeois trust – provides a slew of agreeable, simplistic one-liners and English dryness. Hooper throws his camera into the mix with apparent stylistic abandon, as BBC and HBO have been doing for a while now with TV docudramas like Into the Storm and Warm Springs. It’s a sloppy film language, full of ridiculous close-ups, wide-angle Steadicam moves, and off-kilter frames that draw attention to themselves without formal purpose beyond keeping you visually involved, and it further contributes to a growing sense, watching the film, that its whole design is a series of dangled carrots, promising future riches but denying our appetites anything but a range of sweets: some cheap SweetTarts, some dark Godiva, but sugar nonetheless. So a chocolate puppy, then – fine. I could get frustrated with its cynically inept coincidence of Nazi threat with the king’s sudden (and, really, sort of inexplicable) ability to speak, thus providing a “voice” for the (comically rapt) people of England listening to his ultimate speech – but this is, after all, basically a Miramax Movie; its pretenses aren’t worth getting angry over. This is no Slumdog Millionaire.

But nor are they worth lauding. I can understand The King’s Speech being an enjoyable experience – this is the first film ever made that produced simultaneous recommendations from both of my parents – and it seems asinine to criticize the enjoyment of a box of truffles. But good art shouldn’t be exclusively for the young or the pretentious; it exists to keep our brains active and our souls awake, both at the same time. You could watch The King’s Speech half-attentive and get all you need from it; you could half-listen and grasp all it understands about human nature. If I tread carefully now, it’s because the film is just not particularly bad – but I, for one, thirst for much more than it provides. I wish I weren’t, but I am disappointed in its shortcomings. It leaves an uncomfortable aftertaste of having been manufactured for my entertainment only, of parts that have worked in like-minded films before. I would have preferred a dramatically flimsier film of harder material, a less amusing film with more guts to examine a man who became king at a time of war, and physically couldn’t talk about it. What frustration there had to have been in him, what inarticulate self-hatred, and what sense of helplessness as a force of such indomitable ego began to unleash itself across Europe. The King’s Speech stops desperately short of seeing these things with clarity, limiting most of its running time to relatively superficial family relations and skimming lightly over historical dilemma in its last half hour. At what should have been the story’s dramatic apex – George’s speech as England goes to war with Germany – the film gives us not one, not two, but three thank-you’s from the king to his therapist – that being, of course, the greater of the scene’s dramas. It’s the safer, smaller, more easily digestible choice, and there’s no danger of leaving the theater disconcerted by cacophonous human dilemma.

It’s probably disingenuous to level criticism solely at The Weinstein Company for The King’s Speech. They’re distributing the film in America; they didn’t make it (what changes were made after acquisition, I certainly couldn’t say). Hell, Miramax in the 1990s and early 2000s acquired or made a swath of intelligent, challenging films like The Crying Game, Pulp Fiction, and City of God. The wiser observation might be that, whether a studio put it together or not, the film has been made with studious attention to tried-and-true expectations of what ought to sell (an historical drama about speech, for God’s sake): the sweeter an elixir, the better. Weinstein, the marketing geniuses, bought it up and ran with it. Everyone’s seeing it, recommending it, showering it with affection and awards. Movies and their makers can certainly benefit from conformity. I’m just less sure that we can. Why aren’t more of us really thirsty, dammit?

Film: David Fincher: The Social Network (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews on January 16, 2011 by baker

At the very top of his game, David Fincher handles film rhythm as well as anyone working in popular cinema, very often while juggling tricky dialogue scenes that play in tandem with his style. You’re meant to notice both at once, the story and the way he tells it, and asked to look in the gap between them for something deeper. Zodiac is a masterful exercise, so carefully modulated as a narrative and so artfully executed as a work of cinema craft, that from the tiny visual grace notes in the corners of the frame to the consistency of its dark, ambiguous mood, you feel a petrifying relentlessness, an odd wear and tear on your psyche that you can’t evade any more than his characters can. Time seems so specific and events so immediate that both bear down on you with the weight of compounded anxiety. That James Vanderbilt’s script eventually feels careening and overambitious actually seems, in retrospect, the most articulate way to emphasize – albeit in its heavy-handed way – the crushing myopia of obsessive, self-imposed pressure; when we’re fixated, we just can’t see the whole picture.

For a director so given to the precision of the moment, Fincher has a bewildering gift for seeing his films from above, in their entirety. We forgive a lot of roughness in films when their makers give us things we can chew on (too many half-baked, overwrought scenes fill Black Swan before Aronofsky unleashes his skin-crawlingly ecstatic final half hour), but we don’t get a lot from Fincher that doesn’t seem to be a sharply conceived piece of the mechanism (whatever you feel the mechanism actually accomplishes). They’re so controlled that his films run a high risk of steely calculation, and some of them succumb – The Game and Panic Room abandon coarse human frailty for mathematical dramatic impact. But even Fincher’s failures are imbued with such a complete mood, flawless in visual elocution and cloaked in thick, rich soundscapes. I’d be the first to question his power as a cinematic artist, but as a grubby-hands manipulator of audiovisual effect, he has only equals.

It’s possible, though, that he’s getting a little too good for his own good. Since Zodiac, his films have felt disturbingly familiar, less visually inventive and more grounded in editing effect built on performance beats (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has the same gimmicky trick up its sleeve for well over two hours; it’s running on expressive autopilot from the first scene on). This shouldn’t be a criticism, but what was exciting about Fincher in the ’90s was his unpredictability, the sense that his camera knew no kinetic bounds and therefore had the imminent capacity to jolt you out of complacency. This was also the source of his comparative silliness, for until Zodiac, I don’t think he took the force of his talents all that seriously. Se7en is clever, mischievous, and curiously in love with the evil at its core – Fincher doesn’t plumb it for resonance so much as hand you your own chilled soul on the way out by virtue of having gone there; the film contains not a trace of optimism. It took me years to appreciate Fight Club‘s blood-slick black comedy – but that had more to do with my letting go (a bit) of my pretensions of Tarkovskian grandeur than recognizing depth in Fincher’s tomfoolery. I was right the first time; I could like it anyway later. But with Zodiac, Fincher became a complete filmmaker, marrying his storytelling skills with a mature cinematic expression that lent the film overwhelming accumulative weight.

The Social Network had an off-putting ring to it for me before it even came out; its conception as shown in ads and trailers seemed rooted in the same self-aware austerity that made Button something of a slog – a quietly moving one at times, but a slog nonetheless. What’s clear about it from the start is that Fincher knows exactly how to frame his actors in conventional dramatic style, and he punches up the works this time with an aggressive editing strategy predicated on action within the frame; The Social Network is a frenzy of juxtapositional uppercuts, smacking you through scenes as behaviorally stylized as Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay. It’s a fairly ingenious way to convey Sorkin’s implication that this is the way young people communicate: in staccato stabs, with information pared down to its most pungent essentials. It’s Fincher’s equivalent of checking Facebook status, or Tweeting – how are you now, and now, and now – and leaving out the moments in between. The texture of The Social Network is entirely punctuation; that it holds up as a cogent narrative as well is a testament to Fincher’s astonishing commitment to building physical performances with his actors almost purely for the sake of film form.

And for all its Sorkian wordlove – which grows tiresome to my ears, but it’s definitely a worldview, or at least a consistent affect – there are sequences in The Social Network that Fincher executes with a film purist’s elegance: Mark Zuckerberg’s opening-sequence huddle-jog across campus; the Henley Boat Race on the Thames, shot with a perversely shallow depth of field that gives the sequence the appearance of a miniature (underscoring, perhaps, its unsatisfactory taint for the Winklevoss twins). As always, Fincher reveals his gorgeous taste in sound and music, letting Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score lend a discordant hum to the proceedings; the music feels particularly right for a film about social reconstitution, which neither Fincher nor his composers sentimentalize. All this stuff is pretty wonderful, reminding us that Fincher perfected his craft on short-form music videos; the trench warfare undone by the clock running in reverse, in Benjamin Button, has the same wistful beauty, and shows a warmer side of Fincher that Alien3 and Se7en never predicted. He’s a much older man now – he will turn 50 next year – and seems drawn these days to material that rhapsodizes, in one form or another, on time. Not a lot of American filmmakers bother. I find it to be one of Fincher’s more endearing qualities.

He’s thought his way through Sorkin’s script, and gets pitch-perfect Finchery performances out of Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, Andrew Garfield as his business associate Eduardo Saverin, and Justin Timberlake as Saverin’s superstar replacement – but if the film leaves a strange aftertaste, the Timberlake element seems to be a clue. In that character, played by that pop phenom, lies The Social Network’s limitations – perhaps not as a film (quite), but as the subject for a Hollywood film. The film chronicles the numbing popularity of a social hypocrite’s technological Noah’s Ark: come with us, earthly beings, into the future, where friendship has nothing to do with personal connection and everything to do with our fail-safe server. Your God is your laptop, and ours the billions in revenue your willful hive mentality shall bestow on us. I think Fincher’s drawn to the gap in personal relationships Zuckerberg’s creation encourages – he throws the clothing brand on Zuckerberg in the opening sequence, and simultaneously raises the second issue at the heart of The Social Network: that it’s all about identifying with pop iconography. Timberlake is not just an actor in the film; he’s a presence we align with as a character, but he’s freighted to the brim with his own personal popness, lending a persona to Sean Parker no other actor could have brought.

I’m certain Fincher knows this, but I’m less certain he’s thought beyond it, that as a moral creature he’s made an assessment of The Social Network and felt willing to suggest the degree to which virtual innovation has supplanted our connectivity as humans. He seems rather to identify with Zuckerberg, and stops at the legal battles between Zuckerberg and Saverin. To be sure, he raids the depositions for their emotional cache, but I don’t sense Fincher thudding up against the inexorable decline of personal exchange. He seems to feel Facebook legitimately self-justifies as a business enterprise, and the casualties include the wimps whose sense of dejection stems directly their inability to keep up. This is the new world order, bummer or not. It may be nothing more than a difference of temperament, but I can’t stop at that. We used to have to work a little harder to commune, and it kept us on the hook to maintain our relationships. Facebook encourages keeping in touch but curtails our social role as individuals, asking us to be ourselves but requiring us to present our uniqueness as total conformity: not who are you, but what groups do you belong to, who do you like too – and can I be your virtual friend? It’s obvious that, as a commercial filmmaker (Hollywood being another locus of social networking), Fincher’s bound to an economic code of ethics that discourages reflexive self-criticism. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that the man who traversed such a canyon of interpersonal atrophy in Zodiac, regarding it with the kind of clean objectivity that let oxygen into the story’s latent epic breadth, doesn’t see the same symptoms in the insatiable obsessiveness of social networking. I think he’s left a dimension out of The Social Network that might have made it overwhelmingly hard to take.

That he’s made the film the way he has, then, and that it’s garnered so much attention as a commentary on our social status, seems to say a great deal about the direction Fincher’s headed as a filmmaker. He nearly won an Oscar for directing Benjamin Button, a comparatively lazy but more broadly appealing follow-up to Zodiac, and will all but surely be up for another this year. The Social Network strikes a balance between his exacting nature as a director (he does dozens of takes of relatively simple setups) and his obvious commercial bent as an industry figure, and Fincher’s halt just shy of implicating the film’s own genesis in the subtle but tangible degradation of many things personal hints at a complacency I’d hoped he’d transcend. It’s a harsh judgment, I know, but at a certain point three years ago David Fincher looked like a wrecking ball in pop filmmaking, threatening to smash so many of its trend-setting pretensions, even the ones he’d contributed to early on in his career. Jake Gyllenhaal and a few wayward scenes aside, Zodiac had tremendous guts to be about an untrendy, unsexy, uncomforting human truth: that our responses to pressure over time can change us in ways we can’t foresee, to a degree we can’t reconcile, and with aftershocks we’ll just have to make the best of. Zodiac was haunting. The Social Network is merely pleasing, and Fincher’s next film will be The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – a remake of a 2009 Swedish adaptation of a novel that’s become an American bestseller. No pop demands there.

Film: Joel and Ethan Coen: True Grit (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews on January 3, 2011 by baker

Joel and Ethan Coen, bless their erratic souls, are as capable of jaw-dropping masterpieces (No Country for Old Men, The Man Who Wasn’t There) as bafflingly empty films with an excess of style at the expense of substance (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski).  They seem to know exactly what they’re doing – there’s nothing sloppy about their craftsmanship, nor is it fevered in the way Blood Simple or Raising Arizona were, twenty-plus years ago – they just seem uninterested in charging every film of theirs with the same spark.  Nevermind the general letdown that would have inevitably followed No Country, a film carved out of hardscrabble and granite-certain characters; Burn After Reading, for all its amusement, barely seemed to be trying, running instead on the camp generated by its cast of Hollywood insiders and the occasional beat of Coenesque flippancy (a certain incident with Brad Pitt and a handgun comes to mind).  They followed up with their second work of art in three years – A Serious Man is their understated epic, full in theme and complete in mood, a warm, purposeful cubbyhole of a film that’s as inexplicable as Lebowski but lacks its pretenses of pointlessness.

It’s not a total shock, then, but it’s hard to know what the hell to make of True Grit.  I’m not familiar with either Charles Portis’ novel or Henry Hathaway’s 1969 film with John Wayne; the story itself is completely new to me.  Whatever it has been in previous incarnations, the Coens have made a strikingly dumb film out of this stuff, full of repetitive bickering that leads nowhere and has nothing to do with the film’s core dilemma: a 14-year-old girl’s vengeful bent.  Somehow the film never really takes off.  Its opening shot is sort of lovely, in standard-issue Coen showoffery, as the front steps of the house where the girl’s father is murdered fades slowly in from darkness.  I kept waiting for this to develop, perhaps as a self-contained, ephemeral vignette, in the way they open A Serious Man, but they do nothing with it – the opening is its own moment, abandoned stylistically thereafter.  The film grows visually dull fast, monotonously shot with heads talking in a silly Western patois that I’m told is straight out of the novel, but comes across as another of the Coens’ bad habits: like Mel Brooks or Will Ferrell, they often think funky names and dialects are intrinsically funny.  I suppose this is a matter for debate, but for me it doesn’t sustain; their frequent one-liners often kill their films’ cinematic potential.  We’re not allowed to find a calamitous stakeout funny – Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn has to tell us: “Well, that didn’t pan out.”  The Coens invested so much sociological perceptiveness in the single line “Woah, differences!” in No Country that I missed the rest of the scene under my laughter; we’re beyond their attempts at humor in True Grit.

I couldn’t understand him half the time, but Bridges himself, as always, is just fine, utterly committed to Cogburn’s physical filth, one functioning eye, and crushed-glass growl.  But he can’t carry this film.  He’s not on screen enough.  The bulk of the film belongs to Hailee Steinfeld as Matty.  She’s also fine, able to bang out the meaty dialogue, but the character as conceived by the Coens is so much one of their own clichés – the fast-talking wisecracker, playing second billing to the movie star lead (Jennifer Jason Leigh to Tim Robbins in The Hudsucker Proxy, John Goodman to Bridges in Lebowski, Holly Hunter to Nicolas Cage in Arizona) – that it needs another, human, dimension to play itself through.  It never gets one.  Neither does Matt Damon’s LaBoeuf.  The Coens consciously play to their own stereotypes, but so rarely transcend them.  Only Barry Pepper, as the outlaw Lucky Ned, manages to eek past their campy limitations; he’s almost invisible behind Ned’s drawn eyes, chewed lips, and disastrous teeth, and he barks and roars with a ferocity more becoming Ned’s rage than the Coens’ imposed performance style.

I’ve often found the Coens’ visual approach to be a little clunky, a little too wrapped up in the mechanics of clean images in juxtaposition, but in films like No Country, A Serious Man, and Fargo they used characters in landscapes both natural and man-made as evocations of temperament, psychology, and geographical sociology; all three regularly play into Fargo‘s snowblown prairies and its tiny islands of human depravity.  Those levels don’t even step into view in True Grit; the Coens frame heads so that they can deliver lines, occasionally pulling back to fit more characters in the shot.  That’s it.  The few shots that stretch for iconography do so in ways not unique to these characters: the silhouetted rider against the landscape, in slow motion; it’s out of the opening credits of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly at best, but to what effect?  To reference The Western Film, or The Standard Western Theme of Isolation?  Because I know they’re capable of it, I kept waiting for the Coens to take this all a step further and make it their quirky own – as they did Billy Bob Thornton’s wafting cigarette smoke in The Man Who Wasn’t There, a noir cliché they turned into a physical extension of Ed Crane’s evanescencebut the shots come and go, stillborn as the one that opens the film.  They seem to have half-conceived True Grit as a motion picture, as little more than a delivery device for words.

And this seems to be enough for many people.  The audience I sat with laughed quite a bit, at lines I thought unsophisticated and uninspired.  And at risk of releasing the cynical kraken, I have to wonder: did they laugh because they really found this stuff amusing, or were they simply in the mindset to laugh through a Coen brothers film, and willing to accept less for their laughter?  For all its vapidity, The Big Lebowski has a staggering following – yes, there are good lines it, and yes, Jeff Bridges inhabits the Dude with effortless conviction, but what kind of film comedy is it?  There’s no unity, nothing it springs from but a pre-existing well of self-conscious shallowness that the Coens – and, in like form, Brooks and Ferrell – milk for every built-in drop.  I’m not sure Brooks or Ferrell ever had stronger material in them, but Joel and Ethan Coen have made three powerhouse films of thundering emotional resonance in the last ten years alone; they can do so, so, so much better than this, and still be funny as hell.

Immersion: Public Speaking (2010) and Enter the Void (2009)

Posted in Film Reviews on November 21, 2010 by baker

The basic element of cinema, running through it from its tiniest cell, is observation.” -Andrei Tarkovsky

Two films this week grabbed me by the shoulder, eased me into a sitting position, and held me there – sometimes against my will, sometimes just to keep me from floating away.  They’re completely different films on every level except one: their willingness to establish a firm immersive style and stick with it all the way, narrative clarity be damned.  Neither is really about a story anyway, but about the act of watching – a wholly different intent, and one that demands not your ability to piece the strands together or follow character arc, but to let yourself be submerged in your own powers of observation.  In the hands of commanding filmmakers, the reward therein is an infinitely stronger cinematic experience, because it allows for your own responses while you’re watching.  When these kinds of films are over, there’s no discussion of what happened, or what it all meant; if you’ve got any sensitivity to cinematic flow at all, you made little discoveries of your own the whole time.

That said, the two films in question couldn’t possibly operate with more divergent mechanisms.  Martin Scorsese’s Public Speaking – a series of interlaced interviews with Fran Lebowitz – is about wit and language; both wash over you at breakneck speed, and not always simultaneously.  Comprised purposefully of talking heads, it lets Lebowitz’ frizzy dowager face do most of the visual work, turning it into a glacial landscape we watch as from a great height, her lacerating speech spilling off like walls of ice into her ever-present glass of water.  Coming from a filmmaker so noted for his visual deftness, Public Speaking has a startling stillness to it, but little by little the efficacy of Lebowitz’ jolting wit – often made with the right, few, words; just as frequently made with their total absence – takes over, its breathless trajectory a fountain of pure linguistic dexterity that carries you along with or without your consent.  That she so frequently articulates truths we feel, in the moment she says them, that of course we knew – that Obama’s presidency, to paraphrase for example, needs to happen so that it can become a belated part of our history instead of our present – sparks the sort of self-aware amusement that causes us to miss the next two or three things she says.  Scorsese plays on that, building a film of bewildering accumulative profundity we can’t keep up with, and shouldn’t.  To paraphrase Altman, it’d be awfully disappointing if we got everything out of this film the first time we saw it – it’d mute the joy of experiencing it again.

Scorsese knows there’s nothing stylistic he can bring to Public Speaking that won’t distract from Lebowitz; aside from its whitewater rush of a pace, dictated and propelled by Lebowitz’s own delivery, there’s nothing distinct about it as a film.  But it’s light years ahead of something like Inside Job, Charles Ferguson’s ambitious but cinematically puerile agitprop, which seems pointlessly stuck, as a film, in 1988 (I think it’s reaching for a Wall Street-era feel…silly shame).  And for the first time since No Direction Home, Scorsese seems back on track as an artist, after a decade of tepid fiction work that belies his stunning oeuvre of the previous three decades.  He knows to engage Lebowitz as a subject at her own level, to let her do the talking, to let the film be about nothing but her performance (it is a performance, as the President’s public persona is also a performance).  Perhaps to highlight this, as well as to nod at Lebowitz the New York loner-philosopher, he includes clips from his own Taxi Driver (she owns and operates the same model car, albeit white).  He often frames her interviews with a listener – usually himself – at the edge of the shot, providing Lebowitz with an audience inside the film; he also cuts to alternate angles on the same interview to complement her ever-shifting tone.  But this is basic stuff.  Scorsese made the film for HBO – it airs Monday night at 10 – and lets it be, as a film, quite beautifully basic.

Gaspar Noe, on the other hand, seems unable to let an uninflected shot exist in his films; Enter the Void washes over you with the patient flow of drugged consciousness, the smallest details as crystalline as the largest.  It snatches you by the throat in its opening credits, which snap and smash across the screen with little attention to whether you can actually read them, and launches you into the film’s relentless point-of-view subjectivity, half-cracked on visual stimulus.  That the film spends its first few minutes watching the walls of a Tokyo apartment through the stoned eyes of its expat protagonist – including an extensive deep-sea-ish heroin high, complete with swarming tentacles of pure light – tells you right away what Noe cares about as a communicator: uninhibited sensation.  You realize very quickly that as a narrative vehicle, Enter the Void won’t give you much of a roadmap; it’s designed to plunge you straight into the sluggish, half-functioning mind of a very wrung-out young man who, as it turns out, doesn’t have very long to live – and then the film takes off.

The Tokyo setting has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with light: neons, strobes, fluorescents: reflected, refracted, dim, and blinding.  Noe’s control element is the human optic nerve.  It’s the one thing you can count on, the filter by which the rest of this film makes sense, and his fidelity to it is astounding.  You’re usually watching a direct point of view, the camera substituting for human vision (including quick dips to black, simulating a blink), but a few minutes in to the film, we’re shot through the chest, crumple on the floor of a filthy toilet stall, and die, the light gradually fading to nothing.  Thereafter, Noe pulls up and away from the dead body, and the film runs the risk of becoming obvious in its floating-ghost perspective, but Noe thinks further: he starts to alternate these with a shot taken from immediately behind his protagonist’s head, as we watch scenes from his short life play out in front of him.  The device is sort of heartbreakingly felt out – when you think about your life, you do place yourself in your memories, if not as an actual figure then as a shapeless specter looming over them.  Noe just visualizes the specter; the perspective is unfailingly consistent.

This stuff is pure cinema, endlessly able to communicate with image alone.  But Noe stumbles here as well, sticking so closely to his visual strategy that he winds up writing dully obvious fragments of dialogue to fill in the plot, lines that have no business in a film this ambitious.  And in delineating a childhood whose innocence was to be irrevocably lost, Noe resorts to dead-and-buried clichés of familial happiness: on the beach with dad, in the bath with mom.  It’s also clear that English isn’t his first language – his lead actor suffers from tone-deaf verbal delivery.  But his lead actress, Paz de la Huerta, who plays the man’s sister, is a relevation to me.  Noe demands unreasonably physical and emotional nakedness from his actors, and that he’s willing to take his film just as far is the only reason it isn’t, in this case, gratuitous.  De la Huerta shows no fear, as she’s all but raped by her boss and then told of her brother’s death in the same scene.  Her vulnerability in these scenes and others is sort of terrifying, and it lets the film float past its latent corniness (the brother’s specter at one point sinks straight into the head of a man fucking her; for a few moments he’s fucking his sister).  Noe’s craftsmanship is immaculate and usually original, but he badly needed de la Huerta’s grounding performance to lend it the emotional core it might have otherwise lacked.

His last film had me deeply worried about his future as a filmmaker.  2002’s Irreversible is as aggressive as anything I’ve ever seen, purporting to be about the deep romantic bond between its leads but pummeling them, and us, with astonishing physical and emotional brutality.  A rape scene lasts a solid, uncut ten minutes; another character has his arm broken backward at the elbow.  Noe lays an almost imperceptibly high-pitched tone over the first half hour of the film, an effect that leads to nausea.  He does all of this with great purpose and flawless technique, but I’m not sure there’s a sound point to it – at some juncture along a narrative this volatile, the sensual excess overwhelms any subtlety the rest of the film may be striving for.  What I got out of it is that nothing beats love quite as viciously as a fire extinguisher to the head in a fit of vengeful rage.  Thankfully, Enter the Void is a very different beast.  It has a similar attitude to graphic frankness – at one point we are subject to sex from the inside out – but Noe takes this stuff seriously as valid cinematic subject matter, and lets sequences play with loving attention to duration for its own experiential sake.  He also laces the film with a roiling, interminable soundscape; the film is an intoxicating thing to behold.

In a classical sense, neither Public Speaking nor Enter the Void amounts to much of a film.  The former has little arc, no dramatic tension, and no character development that leads anywhere, and it’s got a relatively specious approach to its own social value – but then, so does its subject.  Enter the Void would probably be a better film if it had abandoned its classical pretenses.  They’re not its strongest attributes, and only distract from its ultra-immersive narrative style.  What I love about both films is their willingness to ignore what must have occurred to someone in their respective productions as reliable storytelling – if not also good business sense – in favor of a bolder aspiration to pull you into your own consciousness for a while, and let you wander in whatever’s down there.  In an odd way, I’ve spent little time since either screening reflecting on it.  Both are absorbing original works full of new wonders for me.  They left me ample room to think as I watched; I left the theater already changed by them, and in recent days have been wallowing in their ether.  One cold truth is that not many films can do that.

Film: Ben Affleck: The Town (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews on November 14, 2010 by baker

Ben Affleck’s technical expertise isn’t very sophisticated, but his skill at coaxing and allowing his actors to play their parts loosely, without affect, is extraordinary.  It’s not something I expected out of him before his first film, Gone Baby Gone – but in retrospect probably should have.  His earlier parts, in Dazed and Confused and Good Will Hunting, exhibit an effortless proclivity toward naturalism; he didn’t always get there, but it’s clear he’s always had an assured sense of comic timing and delivery, and an understated approach to drama that guys like Michael Bay and Kevin Smith careful weaned him away from.  He won Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival in 2006 for Hollywoodland, playing Superman star George Reeves as a self-conscious, self-serious actor consigned to a life on the dramatic B-list, and not badly (though hardly revelatorily).  And then he made Gone Baby Gone the next year, out of the blue, with a slew of fine performers doing some of their best work: brother Casey and Amy Ryan, veterans Morgan Freeman and Ed Harris.  It’s clear he buoyed his limited craftsmanship by bringing on Braveheart and The Thin Red Line cinematographer John Toll and Heat and The Insider editor William Goldenberg, but he gave them wonderful touches to shoot and edit, and the film works.  It’s not art, but it’s not dismissible.

The Town is not much different, in spite of hiring Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematographer and editor (Robert Elswit and Dylan Tichenor) – but that could be the best sign that as a filmmaker, Affleck’s got a deft hand and the self-confidence not to have to rely on his collaborators.  The script, which he wrote along with Aaron Stockard sharing credit with Peter Craig, is a little lumpy; it doesn’t have the holistic self-perspective to complete the larger social intimations it clearly wants to (a scene at an Narcotics Anonymous meeting seems to want to implicate society for its destructive ills, but The Town doesn’t revisit this territory).  But its scenes between Affleck, as bank robber, and Rebecca Hall, as the bank manager he and his crew briefly took hostage, show an unhurried desire to develop real intimacy between its characters.  Not necessarily sexual intimacy, but human connectivity; the film is earnest in a way that risks ham and cheese in its sincerity, and nearly fails, but I admire Affleck’s willingness to lend his film an inviting change of conventional pace – even if it leaves the impression that the script might have more fully developed other parts that fell victim to running time.

Whatever happened, The Town is magnificently consistent on the level of tone and performance.  Affleck gives precious little back story, but he doesn’t need to; his actors embody their characters with enough unself-conscious tact and conviction to get past the suggestions of personal motivation back story provides.  Affleck commands of his cast the kind of simplicity and certainty that self-justifies – you feel how these people live, how they smell, why they’ve got the attitudes they have.  They come across so well-formed that it’s almost disappointing when the plot takes over, as it sometimes does, and reminds you that you’re watching a dramatic construct in need of (or just desiring) twists and resolution.  And it may be Affleck’s comparative lack of directorial invention that keeps the film moving.  He asks nothing more of The Town than that it work, as a suitably-stretched canvas: a comfortable palette for the purer slashes of color and texture he’s aiming for.

I’ll be honest, there are strokes in this film I found mesmerizing: Blake Lively’s hypnotically carnal sexuality, abandoning herself to need with a druggie’s ease; Jeremy Renner’s focused aggression, sitting somewhere behind his soft bulldoggish eyes, that flashes without warning as easily as his fraternal charm.  Affleck and Jon Hamm, as the FBI agent pursuing the four robbers, are no less appropriately subdued, but they’re not as impressive, perhaps because their characters have duller edges to them; The Town is a showcase for the little things that elucidate real character, the switches that channel hot and cold blood (it’s nice to see ever-present chin stubble that doesn’t shout action hero as much as Boston-boy style).  Weirdly, Rebecca Hall has a very slight presence, for so crucial a character.  She doesn’t seem to be doing anything wrong, but it might be yet another measure of the film’s strengths that the one character so compelled to behave according to plot development (hers is the emotional core, the character most directly afflicted by the bad behavior exhibited throughout) is the one with the least amount of behavioral freedom. Unlike the rest of the cast, Hall has little time to riff or immerse; she’s got too many lines that turn the plot, too many beats that need to impact other characters, or be impacted by them.

As a dramatic vehicle, this is just efficient stuff, generating small waves of tension and moving right along.  It’s not the sort of film that will garner much attention, because most discussion of pop filmmaking resides at the level of story: what happens, and who does what.  The Town doesn’t have the fervor of Michael Mann’s Heat, the gravitas of James Gray’s We Own the Night, or the sheer audacity of Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, but it does have a quiet confidence that its textures are worthwhile film substance.  I like its way with dialogue: witty but not writerly, sharp but not impervious to thoughtful delivery.  It’s a film not to get too wrapped up in, but to let wash over you, once or twice: a pleasant day at the beach, if never a Mediterranean getaway.  We tend to remember both, for different reasons.


Posted in Film Reviews on November 13, 2010 by baker

“A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” -Oscar Wilde

If technical invention were the paradigm of cinematic genius, there would be no greater living filmmaker than Steven Spielberg.  On the level of pure kinematics, he’s got an eye for graceful two-dimensional motion that, at its best, rivals anything by Kubrick, Scorsese, Bertolucci, Ophuls, or Hitchcock – and he’s usually slicker than any of them.  His films are extravagantly resourceful, employing the most effortless of technicians at (apparently) any cost, and he puts them to use showcasing a singular, identifiable gift for screen craft stunning first for its consistency, if not also for its visceral effect.  The strange irony of his evident widespread influence across the industry, from guys like Michael Bay and Danny Boyle to Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott, is that his craft is unfailingly disciplined, devoid of the find-it-in-the-editing slapdashery typical of these others.  You can always feel Spielberg thinking his way through his films, piecing the shots together as he shoots, wasting no time with empty transitions, imprecise frames, or a half-assed visual conceit that never quite manifests in the final film.  His is rigorous, conscientious precision from start to finish.

And from such a technical wizard, his work with actors is frequently fresh and expansive.  They will always be bound to Spielberg’s laborious scripts, which usually suffer from browbeaten plot development to the point of overwrought, uni-dimensional characterization.  But – and this may be a function, now, after 40 years, of the comparative reverence attached to being in a Spielberg picture – he often gets more expressive performances out of his actors than they’ve shown before.  Who knew Liam Neeson had an Oskar Schindler in him, or Tom Hanks a Captain Miller, or Leonardo DiCaprio a Frank Abagnale?  These are not particularly subtle or uncanny performances, nor are they great dramatic leaps for these actors – Spielberg’s achievements tend to fall further along the preexisting trajectories of his collaborators, not on brand new arcs unforeseen but by a master artist.  He sees potential, and owns it as a sports team manager or a political operative.  Or a magician, in the realist sense.

His deficiencies as an artist are precisely those of a magician: the illusion works fine until outgrown by ambition.  Lately, that’s been a problem for him.  David Copperfield used to put on a great show flying across a stage, but then he’d add unbearably operatic music, and move to it, and catch a falcon on his gloved hand…and the illusion bloated with self-conscious pomp and dissolved in its own showmanship.  Rather than simply manipulating us, he couldn’t help but remind us that we were being manipulated, and how much in awe of him we ought to feel for it.  To his credit, Spielberg rarely turns the spotlight back on himself, content these last years to let it settle on Tom Cruise or Janusz Kaminski’s electrifying cinematography (no cameraman in Hollywood gets better lighting packages, or greater freedom to grease the frame with glint and sheen).  He’s visibly spellbound by the act of yarn-spinning, pushing his camera through space with the manic vim of a film school student, drunk on exposing film to his imagery – it’s intoxicating to watch, as beautiful shot cuts to beautiful shot with effortless vertigo.  But then he’ll start to take himself seriously, and the whole thing sours under the pressure of becoming a finer wine than the maker has the grapes for.  It’s an excruciating effect.  Munich has ambition to spare from its opening sequence, juggling dramatic tension with sociopolitical pathos as a group of Palestinian terrorists bursts in on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 games, after having first been helped over the locked gate by the cocky, innocent American team.  Muscular and relentless, the film demands quickly to be taken as a serious entertainment – but the two don’t gel, and Spielberg can’t decide which he’s making.  His juggle becomes a series of trades: the fun ball in the air one second, and the serious, complex ball the next.  Munich is just too slick to convey the sober dilemma of governments sending its citizens after each other for causes too deeply ingrained in history and cultural identity to ever resolve themselves through the blunt means at hand.  Would the film be more abominable if Spielberg had settled on making an entertainment, gutting it of resonance on purpose?  Or is his inability to hold his style at arm’s length in the service of tougher subject matter a permanent liability for him as an artist?

He didn’t used to have this problem.  Spielberg cut his teeth on giddily fun films of marginal substance.  Jaws is a featherweight drama made with mesmerizing skill, digging into specific fears with a chainsaw and letting up only at the last possible moment, to our great relief.  Close Encounters of the Third Kind exchanges fear for awe, allowing itself the mysterious childlike simplicity of believing in a benevolent intelligence beyond our own.  Yes, the belief itself is mysterious and childlike – it sidesteps the adult anxiety that we’re probably isolated, and that if not, we couldn’t possible fathom our celestial neighbors.  Raiders of the Lost Ark gives up fear and awe and wallows in sheer infantile sound and fury, in a gloriously dizzying film of visceral-comic energy.  There’s so much room in these films for the unadulterated joy of well-executed screen craft.  They were such buoyant entertainments to have grown up watching – I remain terrified of deep water and enthralled by outer space, and not so far below the surface, I am still Indiana Jones.  Because I was a child when I began to love these childlike movies.

His ’80s films are a bit confusing.  They betray, simultaneously, a more complex sense of Spielberg’s own identity as a storyteller and less self-assurance about how to handle it.  I think E.T. takes the adult world too seriously to give in to the illusions of youth, even if Spielberg’s still smitten with them.  He believes in the pain of adult circumstances, in divorce and responsibility, but also that an adorable alien can make children’s bikes fly across the moon; between these irreconcilable worlds is a sickly-sweet ocean of syrup that Spielberg doesn’t know how to traverse, or acknowledge.  His craft is by now sugary without parallel, but it’s becoming more and more in the service of stories of emotional or historical weight too meaty for him: The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Always. He counters with a treacly portrayal of human emotion in these films that kills the fun his filmmaking desperately wants to have.

But then he tried a new tack, and he’s been building on it since.  Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is sort of a masterpiece: a gutsy, balls-out series of action sequences hung on masculine tension, in the form of the core father-son relationship (between themselves, and with the same woman) as well as with its treatment of Nazism.  Less able to snub Nazis as ineffectual, as he did in Raiders, Spielberg presents them here as cock-waving opportunists, as eager for glory as Jones & Jones and just as blitheringly male.  He makes the one female figure a ravishing, conniving temptress, lets most of the men fuck her, and watches their downfall as she fucks them all right back.  It’s perhaps Spielberg’s first foray into adult relationships – complete with the wisdom to chuckle over them.  Last Crusade is one of his funniest, brawniest films, and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking he let the title become a joke twenty years later when he released the fourth Indiana Jones film.

The ’90s picked up here, with the darkness of Hook and Jurassic Park, but somewhere in here – ostensibly at the suggestion of Billy Wilder – Spielberg decided to make Schindler’s List.  In many ways it’s a complete, and very adult, departure from anything he’d ever done; it’s fair to believe he’d grown up enough to know he could leave much of two decades of solid craftsmanship behind, and take mature advantage of the rest.  Steven Zaillian’s script, read alone, is a weird thing, full of awkward, pointed dialogue and obvious transitions, but Spielberg transcends its sillier contrivances with a bold and unshowy visual style, a suggestion of historical scale, and a treatment of 1940s Poland that’s creepily enigmatic – Kaminski’s black-and-white photography aside, Spielberg uses sound – street noise, music, spoken dialects – with an unaffected naturalism he’d used but never shown a lot of trust in in the past.  Schindler’s List immediately feels haunted, as Polish Jews arrive in Krakow on trains that will eventually take them back out to their deaths.  Spielberg meanders through these sequences with supreme confidence; the world he creates seems to expand in every direction, his camera free to look where it wants – there will be something to see.  He adopts a handheld approach and warms to it instantly; his style takes on an articulate ease it’s never had before, in sequences such as the ghetto liquidation, which he intercuts with a speech by the demonic commandant Goeth – every cut, every beat, every frame seems fully, willfully intended, and flows with consummate cinematic intelligence.  This is stuff to learn filmmaking by.  Where he falters is in his treatment of the Jews themselves, and this may be less his fault than, again, in his searing ambition.  How to treat a mass of people, historically?  Conventional narrative wisdom provides the masses with cases-in-point, characters whose experiences are less unique to them as individuals than to all.  But it has the effect of making all the Jews – and Schindler’s Jews in particular – come across as subservient innocents, decent ciphers every one.  It’s clumsy, especially in a film of such formal intelligence whose lead characters are allowed such behavioral ambiguity.  It also feels didactic – not the worst trait, for sure, in a Holocaust film; Shoah, for its whole 9 1/2 hours, is far more so – but it didn’t need to be to make its point, which we’re bound not to miss.  Ten years later, Roman Polanski found an elegant way out in The Pianist by focusing religiously on a single character: the man is neither innocent nor helpless, and Polanski doesn’t shower him with undue affection; he’s just a guy stuck in the maniacal, single-minded mechanism.  Maybe the scale of Schindler’s List, as an undertaking of obvious personal and professional ambition, prevented Spielberg from trusting in something simpler.

The film won a slew of accolades – two Oscars for Spielberg himself – and from here on, his films have alternated between brassy prestige projects (Amistad, A.I.) and conscientiously frivolous throwaways (The Lost World, The Terminal), with the occasional crossover (Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can are two of his better films, beholden to entertainment but speedy and concise).  What lingered in the first decade after Schindler’s List, that curious strained seriousness, as Andrew Sarris might have put it, grew legs of its own after he won his second directing Oscar, for Saving Private Ryan. It’s a good film, opening on the best work he’s ever done: Omaha Beach moves past the rigor captured in Schindler’s List into a new realm of cinematic control, one signified by pure, meaningless chaos.  It’s one thing to make a chaotic film; it’s quite another to direct chaos.  For twenty-six minutes the screen rages from all directions, shot at first from the bewildered perspective of a good documentary cameraman and easing into narrative subjectivity, the barest of strategy captured between blistering snatches of unpredictable violence.  That a director as dramatically precise as Spielberg can make a sequence like this feel so unpredictable is probably its greatest achievement – it’s certainly the film’s best chunk.  Laud Private Ryan for riffing on a clutterless plot, and for allowing character to play out in extended battle scenes of terrifying veracity (nothing hits harder than the soldier begging not to be stabbed in the chest).  Applaud John Williams for his gratifying restraint (absolutely a new achievement in a Spielberg film, one never to be repeated).  But Spielberg can’t bring himself to let us discover human emotion on our own, and draw our own conclusions; the film opens and closes on the most contrived screenwriting, performances, blocking, and scoring of his career, as the elderly private begs to be told he’s “led a good life,” that he’s “a good man”.  The film would have been stronger, and Spielberg would have spared us the embarrassment of watching a profoundly capable director undercut his own achievements with unforgivable sap.  A film that immersive in war cannot conclude itself with such numbing pap.

The truth is that filmmakers reveal themselves in scenes like these.  He got away with potential schmaltz in Close Encounters by leaving room for silliness in human behavior; he could have done the same at the end of Schindler’s List, but chose to take the austere route (wayward films don’t win a lot of Oscars).  He does the same in Private Ryan, denying a main character (and us) the ability to reflect on the film’s premise – sending eight guys to rescue one – as absurd human melodrama.  It’s no less emotionally captivating to consider it this way, although it might dilute the film’s worshipful overtones.  What Spielberg announces with this stuff is that it’s really not human experience he’s exploring in his films, but something closer to pop mythology.  It’s easier to see in the projects he’s produced: the HBO series Band of Brothers and The Pacific; the Clint Eastwood films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. They’re broadly didactic projects, evoking patriarchal reverence in lieu of the actual experience of being at war; the themes override the humanity.  They are deeply uncomfortable with moral ambiguity – these films will show it, but then make damn sure you know to feel humble on your way out.

So when Spielberg turns his attention to Munich – or, even more egregiously, War of the WorldsI just don’t trust his commitment, apart from his compulsion to Get Serious with a Camera.  He’s at a stage in his career where he is directing the hell out of his films, trusting few shots and fighting no impulses he may have to let action play entirely within one.  Having produced them, has he digested some of Michael Bay’s Transformers attention deficit disorder, or has his craft become so precise over the years that he no longer sees action on screen as life or behavior, but as movement in a frame?  Worse, he’s crossing lines of taste he should have never had to worry about after (the bulk of) Schindler’s List, letting action scenes play as cheap stimuli in Munich, or investing War of the Worlds with a downright offensive 9/11 analog that cheapens the film (it might have been great fun) and 9/11 (suggesting the terrorists were aliens from another world, not human beings).  More than once, I have quit this film in disgust the moment little Dakota Fanning crumples in tears in the backseat, as intergalactic war carries on outside, and cries out with affecting dread, “Is it the terrorists?”  This cannot be read as insightful cultural cross-referencing, or whatever; Spielberg’s shown over and over that his primary concern is entertaining you with polished, well-funded sleight of hand, not speaking to you as a fellow person puzzling his way through the universe.  I’m afraid now he feels he’s earned the right to be an Important Filmmaker.

And so what if he has?  It’d be too harsh to imply he doesn’t mean what he’s saying, and I think Spielberg is as sincere as they come.  But sincerity on its own is not enough.  Convincing an audience that they’re watching a world of your creation is a skill not to be undermined with abstract analysis; what he does well, he does inimitably.  But I think as an intellect, as an artist, insofar as he is one, Spielberg sincerely believes in his own hokum.  I think he’s so wound up in good intentions – as a creator of myth, a teller of tales; the job used to belong to the village elder, the head of the tribe – that he loses sight of whether his films respect our instinct to discern legitimate human behavior.  We know from childhood whether we’re being lied to; it’s not voodoo, it’s recognizing truth in expression and tone.  As we grow older, we lose some of this understanding behind the masks we wear to obfuscate our own emotions – it gets tougher to see through everyone else’s masks.

The dilemma in film craft is that we’re all aware it’s a facade, but we agree to let it fool us.  The illusion leads to insights via narration, with stories or audiovisual experiences – those can be distinct – that carve us a canyon into things we know to be true but which don’t necessarily add up to something greater on their own.  Film craft can give shape and dimension to innate truths.  It cuts through the simpler stuff, what we work through as children, and it can do so in one of two ways: by putting up a facade we aren’t meant to see through (there’s no penetrating the Omaha Beach sequence), or by letting us, indeed asking us, to see through it (Godard never asked you to believe in anything he gave you).  Filmmakers run into trouble when they’re not sure which facade they’re presenting – or when they want to have it both ways.  It’s the worst problem for a filmmaker with emotions – that would be almost all of them – because he badly wants you to feel what he feels, but killing the illusion for the sake of deeply-felt candor asks you to look all the way through the facade and see the man behind the mask.  When Spielberg opens himself up to that analysis, we can see the man-child playing with his toys.  The stunted intellect playing at adult earnestness.

It’s hard to articulate why this matters to me.  Steven Spielberg has been the central cinematic figure of my lifetime.  His is the one name anyone can toss out on the fly, an apparent paragon of popular moviemaking.  I am making a film now, and have others in the works, and I can’t count the number of times I’ve been asked whether I want to be “the next Spielberg”.  It’s not his fault; the man’s tastes fall neatly into those of pop culture, and have made him a billionaire, an icon, a national figure.  He’s used it for good social cause, and he’s helped other filmmakers get on their feet.  And let’s be honest, he’s made some wonderful films.  But if he’s an artist, he’s an incomplete one: he’s not able or willing, for reasons of his own, to push at his own boundaries, to acknowledge real, complex mystery, or to let us out of his films without bald confirmation of human goodness.  It’s not an indecent impulse, he just doesn’t ask us to plumb any deeper.  I’m sure there’s more to us than virtue.

Spielberg used to believe, as a comparative child, that there was awe in the unknown, even if it was terrifying.  I wish he could still believe that as an adult – he could be making the most glorious films.

Film: Terrence Malick: The Thin Red Line (1998)

Posted in Film Reviews on October 1, 2010 by baker

There is some kind of artist in Terrence Malick, but it may be less about his craftsmanship per se.  Among his skills are an ability to lull powerful performances from confident actors, a sensitivity to light and motion, and a real cinematic configuration of time and space – a specific, unique one. He’s got a way of weaving Native Americans through the frame in The New World that catapults the film way beyond its relatively quotidian storyline; shots of leafy ripples in water transcend his vaguely inspired, elastic narrative.  As a storyteller, he’s prone to losing his way among imagery and tone-building, but he’s astronomically committed to what might as well be termed the musical qualities of film: timbre, pitch, rhythm, inflection.  According to the editors’ comments on the gorgeous Blu-ray edition of The Thin Red Line, he’s barely involved in the fine cutting of his pictures, allowing the mood to grow to his satisfaction and then refusing to watch further cuts.

On a disc replete with curious observations by Malick’s collaborators, that may be the most baffling.  The Thin Red Line – as Days of Heaven, The New World, and even Badlands – is a film of rigorous editorial precision, less conscious of concise storytelling but fastidious in effect; no cut feels arbitrary or inarticulate.  What he’s saying from moment to moment is another issue.  Malick is notoriously philosophical, but of a bent closer to hippies and college sophomores than Sartre or Thoreau, who seem most likely to have inspired his humanist and naturalist musings.  There’s something supremely flaky about the way Malick spells things out in voiceover, giving unilateral verbosity to guys who don’t deserve it, like Bell (Ben Chaplin), who’s barely able to construct a sentence in the film but wallows forever in metaphysical meditations.  Even when they work – Nick Nolte’s internal monologue gives greater dimension to Lt. Tall’s unforgiving ambition later on – every character speaks in the same voice, with the same attenuation to the vagaries of human behavior.  The reasons are obvious – they’re all facets of Malick’s own voice – but the trope grows gimmicky fast; we’re quickly inured to the philosophy as its wasteful wordiness rolls dully off the sharper, more expressive action onscreen.

It’s here that Malick’s strengths as a filmmaker come to bear.  Editor Leslie Jones claims the battle scenes and crane shots across the hills during the Guadalcanal attack scenes were difficult for Malick, who wanted nothing more than to work closely with the actors – but the truth is that those shots, careening at neck height through the tall grass in search of invisible Japanese bunkers, convey more about the existential crises of soldiers in battle than any of the solipsistic words Malick puts in their mouths.  Some of them start out quickly, zipping up behind and passing a soldier creeping low through the grass, and then slow as the shot widens, revealing a pristine hillside untouched by mortars, before catching up to the soldiers ahead (the ones most likely to take the brunt of the onslaught we’re all sure is on its way).  These shots contain perspective and purpose, executed with style, panache, and taste into utterly cinematic expressions of human feeling.  They flow with immaculate technical fluidity and formal dexterity.  They are the core of The Thin Red Line.

Elsewhere, Malick seems adrift inside his own head, shuffling aimlessly through sequences of sparse complexity or resonance.  These interludes tend to feel interminable, seeming to emerge visually and structurally freeform from what came before, and leading nowhere.  I make no demands that a film maintain vigilant guard over its narrative trajectory; not enough filmmakers are unafraid to meander for the sake of immersive atmosphere.  But if The Thin Red Line were a term paper – a thought-out critical exegesis, complete in form from its opening note – it’s rife with the sort of silly ponderings one should get out of the way in the process of thinking through it: “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?”  Oddly, this sort of stuff can take on a real emotional power when put firmly in the context of an individual character and his personality, as with Private Bell, coursing into battle (and thinking with words we can believe he’d use, to his wife, in his memory): “I belong to you. If I go first, I’ll wait for you there, on the other side of the dark waters. Be with me now.”  Had Malick disciplined himself to use voiceover in this capacity only, I think he’d have made a colossal masterpiece.

When the film came out in late 1998, it played second string to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in the Hollywood WWII arena, losing countless awards to it and suffering the effects of comparison to a tighter film more grippingly told.  And for all the backlash that Private Ryan seems to have endured since then, I think it’s one of Spielberg’s best films: simple in form, beholden to so little as a story.  Spielberg takes his time, letting his battle scenes develop with magnificent unpredictability: we know only that bad things are likely to happen, eventually.  Even better, he lets his characters develop within these scenes, pausing when the film could use a breath instead of when a character needs to be fleshed out.  Released months later, The Thin Red Line felt far looser, almost sloppy in form, hardly a war film at all.  It was hard to read, and harder to digest with critical determination.

Which may be okay.  Over the years I’ve returned to it from time to time, and gotten more used to its rhythms.  Familiarity doesn’t make it any better a film, really, but it’s softened me to the fact that there’s probably little Malick could have done to clarify his film.  He doesn’t bother with neat packages.  Days of Heaven, a film I’ve written off in the past as a beautiful, beautiful train wreck, now appears a bit more coherent, even if it suffers from overbearing performances from actors who were probably quite leery of so unsupportive a narrative framework.  And The New World, released in 2005, immediately resonated on a formal level.  The truth is that there are always idiosyncratic filmmakers who speak to nobody in particular when they work, demanding an audience of the willing like-minded: the Jarmusches, the Hanekes, the Kiarostamis, the Andersons.  These guys play without a backboard; look to the Scotts, the Howards, the Nolans if you want consensus.  You can reject those clearer voices – I think Wes Anderson has largely run his stylistic course (Fantastic Mr. Fox aside) – but there is so much of a personality at work in their pictures that there’s generally something there worth examining, if only once, for a moment.  How much less doubt could there be that Malick makes the films he thinks are worth making, with force, consistency, and competence?  He is only now making his fifth film in 40 years: The Tree of Life, due out this year.  In a marketplace dominated by loud, boorish shit (Private Ryan opens and closes with the the archest, preachiest crap Spielberg’s ever directed), I will welcome his quiet deliberation, even if I think he could do better.  It’s healthier for us as film viewers and filmmakers to sample purer tastes.

Film: Christopher Nolan: Inception (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on August 1, 2010 by baker

The troubling thought Chris Nolan plants in my brain in Inception – and I’m sure he was aware that he was doing it, although he might not have found the thought quite as disturbing – is that movies as we know them are essentially predicated on other movies.  He litters the film with dramatic truisms lifted straight out of Robert McKee’s dogmatic screenwriting tome, “Story”: the bigger the stakes, the bigger the catharsis; the mind naturally turns to the positive, toward catharsis; etc.  And then he proceeds to build an entire film out of dramatic tropes borrowed from every potboiler thriller you can think of: the detective on one last job before he returns to his family, along with the crack team of specialists who all impart exactly the right piece of information when we need it; the ghost who haunts him; the gratuitous shootout that has no dramatic purpose except to punch up the pace of the thing; etc.  In addition to a detective story, it’s also a corporate morality tale (as was The Dark Knight), a love story, a science fiction story, and a consummate action film.  Did I miss any?

What becomes interesting about Inception is how well Nolan directs the actors.  Their timing never feels unduly rushed; the editing doesn’t seem to have truncated interactions in a way designed to speed the film up.  Yes, the actors are also plunked into their generic types and need to transmit a hell of a lot of facts to us along the way – and there is no time to spare in this film – but there’s also a real sensitivity toward finding the right beats, the right gestures, letting things happen on the edge of frame that remind us that behind these characters, behind this entire construct we’re watching, is a human being talking to us.  There’s one tidy little grace note that I imagine Nolan directed, but even if he didn’t, he’s made the film in such a way that these things can happen: as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Dom Cobb charges down a hallway, he guides himself into an elevator with a hand on the outside edge.  The gesture itself is somehow extremely real and right in the midst of Nolan’s dramatic chaos, but the presence of Cobb’s wedding ring on his finger rejiggers the scene, just a hair, back to what the film is really about.  The beat is over as soon as you notice it, but the framing and movement takes your eye straight to this hand – and for a moment, Nolan is close to being a real filmmaker.

But what then undoes this film – or at least relegates it to the puerile Choose Your Own Adventure video game fantasy it really is – is the suggestion that it’s not dreams that inspire filmmakers, but their memories of other movies.  Alex Proyas at least took the time to plant Dark City firmly in the ’40s noir genre, letting us know he doesn’t necessarily think all movies are to blame for the (narrow, amusing) scope of his (shorter, better) film, but Nolan’s pretenses are catching up to him.  I believe he’s actually got an imagination of his own, and he’s getting better at spatial orientation in his films, which indicates that perhaps he’s taking things a bit more seriously on their own terms instead of thinking all things cinematic are simply about effect – but then, all things in his films are simply about effect.  And so what?  How many countless, perfectly harmless movies have been made from and about movies?  My own addendum: how many of those are great films, inspiring the sort of self-reflection that gave birth to the concept of art to begin with?

The point is that this is, I think, a reductive and potentially harmful way to look at movies.  Our attention spans are growing shorter and less muscular every day as cell phones and computers speed up, causing the mechanical and practical concerns to slow down and piss us off.  If I’m committed to a film at home, I really need to close my laptop, or else I will tap the mouse pad every now and then to check my email – I can’t help it myself.  Neither can Nolan – he’s got no patience beyond complicating and explaining and building on his plot, and you feel carried along inside Inception as on a raft in whitewater, thinking just enough to skirt the rocks ahead.  There’s really no motivation to think any further, since Nolan isn’t actually saying anything (my co-attendee at the screening remarked that Inception is a perfect Rubik’s cube, which it is; once solved, there’s nothing else to do but solve it again ad infinitum, until it becomes rote).  Nolan’s not without skill, he’s just recycling things we’re already familiar with to make the whole concoction go down easier.  I’d be just fine with that if he didn’t also indicate, at every step, that this is how movies are made, this is what movies are. Theo Angelopoulos suggests films are an extension of our souls, David Lynch an extension of our psyches.  Nolan tells us they’re nothing of our own making anymore, that movies are made of what we recall – or imagine we recall, or can’t tell the difference anymore between conjuring and recalling – from movies.

He’s hardly the first to go down this road.  Spielberg, Scorsese, Bertolucci – they’ve all implied roughly the same thing.  But Nolan has made this idea an explicit part of Inception, in a film about planting ideas in people’s heads and making them think the idea is their own.  At best, this is just sad, indicative of our unwillingness, laziness, or indifference to exploring what’s in our own minds, but at worst it suggests the way a lot of filmmakers these days really approach filmmaking: as an appeal to things we no longer need to think about, because they’ve simply become part of the language we use to talk about movies, not life.  It’s a pulpy, self-reflexive attitude championed by guys like Tarantino, who at least goes out of his way to make a coherent, enjoyable experience filled with surprises.  Invocations of film history used to have a softer touch, in the hands of Woody Allen, Truffaut, Bertolucci.  There was a whimsical remembrance of the warmth to be found there, not this leaden immutability (see Bertolucci’s The Dreamers for a purer account of the dangerous mix of nostalgia and unreality inherent in cinephilia).  It’s detracting from the efforts of guys and gals who’d rather try something unique to themselves, and wrap this whole mysterious film medium around their own wayward thoughts and feelings instead of the other way around.  The Kelly Reichardts and the Gus Van Sants, the Paul Thomas Andersons and the Ramin Bahranis need all the encouragement and support they can get; we do not need audiences requiring cliches to feel satisfied from a cinematic experience.  Where else will all the future great films come from?