Archive for 2010

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?

Film: Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger: Restrepo (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , , on July 6, 2010 by baker

If we ever expect to “win” the “war in Afghanistan”, men like CPT Dan Kearney need to be swiftly relieved of duty.  As shown in Restrepo, leading meetings with local village elders in the Korengal Valley, Kearney displays nothing but the broadly stereotypical American military tone of command, condescending to a roomful of rural Afghans twice his age with comments like “Remember when I told you guys…?” as though they’re children in need of firmness.  Afghans are in need of firmness – they just don’t need it from an occupying army who show little (or, in Kearney’s case, no) respect for their customs.  If you emasculate these guys, deserved or otherwise, you will make enemies of them.  It’s stunning to me that the United States military sends men like him to regions like that, and fails to remind him what backwoods rednecks surely all know: you cain’t come in here and tell me what to do in mah own bayckyard.  No, instead they indoctrinate him with the greatest willpower in the western hemisphere: good old American self-righteousness.

That the filmmakers do not interfere, and never in the film question Kearney’s tactics – even while plainly living with the platoon in the same outpost, named for a medic killed in Korengal in the summer of 2007 – raises a quite different debate: are films like this really helping anything?  It should be said at once that Restrepo is an engrossing film, so close to the action that there’s no attempt to clean the often dirty lens; when the sound cuts out, a scene continues in silence with the occasional RF hit, as though we’re watching the raw footage along with the filmmakers, stunned to be in one piece and eager to see what they got.  In the heat of battle, the camera huddles under trees watching soldiers rush past, looking this way and that before hauling ass directly behind them, low in the weeds.  Directors Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger – both veteran war correspondents – place themselves firmly inside the platoon, just as surely forming a bond with its 20-somethings warriors as refusing to draw conclusions about what they see.

For a documentary, it’s an admirable strategy, but… When I was there in the spring of 2009 – with Iranian photographer Reza Deghati, who accompanied Junger in 2000 in their National Geographic project with the late Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud – extraordinary attention went into social graces.  There’s a tenderness to it, a calm series of exchanges showing respect and friendship.  Basic courtesy aside, it’s how you got around – and it’s how you showed deference to the Afghani tradition of greeting guests without reservation.  And even then, we sometimes ran into trouble.  We once spent a night in the home of Massoud’s father-in-law.  Our fixers had failed to call ahead, and we showed up unannounced, an embarrassment to Reza and a bad way to begin our time in the Panjshir Valley.  But Reza was a friend; we were shown to the guest room – a big space, empty except for the ubiquitous large, flat cushions found in every such room – and given a dinner of stale bread and fried eggs.  All forgiven; we spent the evening in the presence of a man of humbling grace, wit, and temperance, listening to stories between the two men (with only the occasional translation).  The next morning, over a breakfast of watermelon, an Afghani-American woman showed up, leading a pair of Americans learning the local traditions for the training of contractors.  She marched into the room without removing her boots – the most basic of hospitalities – bade speedy introductions and hurried out again, leaving her bewildered-looking American clients sitting awkwardly in the corner of the room.  We left soon thereafter.

It left a bad taste, and things were awkward – but at least we weren’t carrying machine guns and dropping bombs that killed local children.  Junger, at least, must understand how this works, as he must know that the Afghans’ traditions, like our own, mask deep distrust of outsiders and a degree of fluid loyalties.  My guess is that behind his camera sat a set of gritted teeth.  No, he cannot interfere.  It would be impractical in the moment, disrespectful of his military hosts, and a useless subversion of its authority if Junger’s objective is to make a dispassionate film.  Yet he was there, and we see nothing in Restrepo of an attempt to correct the cringe-inducing boorish behavior directly contributing, I am quite certain, to our inability to weed out our mortal enemies, in a nation built of rock and regional alliances predicated less on ideology than on temporal power shifts.  I find this hard to reconcile.

Which is where Restrepo operates, on a broader level: none of this really makes sense.  When three tribal elders show up at Outpost Restrepo demanding payment for a cow killed by the soldiers when it strayed – according to the soldiers – into their wire, it’s clear that the dead livestock carries economic and opportunistic significance for the locals, who inform the military that killing the animal was illegal and claim they’re owed $500.  The CO offers them the cow’s weight in rice, beans, and sugar instead; Junger and Hetherington show the elders leaving, the matter unresolved.  In separate sequences, American soldiers are shown reveling in violent video games, then in their vertiginous high following a firefight that leaves them giggling like drunk teenagers, then in the confirmed obliteration of a combatant with a high-caliber weapon that tears the man apart.  And then, in a sequence that blows past sobering into some kind of delirium, an American is killed during an ambush, and things become dead-quiet serious for all but one of them, who dissolves in waves of helpless weeping.  The ambush hasn’t even ended.  The soldiers themselves, in interviews shot in Italy after their deployment in Korengal, have little to say about what they accomplished there; mostly, they’re happy to be gone and confused about how to handle what they saw and felt.  There’s mention of the “extra thousand dollars” they would have stood to make if their deployment had lasted until September instead of August 2008; our guards and fixers in Afghanistan greeted their brothers and friends in Panjshir and told stories about hiding in caves for weeks at a time, shooting down Russian helicopters whose remains still litter the valley floor like outsized fossilized insects.  Tank treads have become speed bumps in the road; artillery shells line the tops of walls in which bricks have been replaced with used ammunition canisters.

Hetherington and Junger know there’s so little to conclude in Restrepo beyond futility.  Mercifully, they make no effort to heroize or eulogize – they just watch.  And they listen: the film contains a marvelous soundtrack, constructed mostly of idle bullshitting among the troops, the clicks and thunks of their weaponry, the crunch of their boots in gravel (and little ethnic music to appeal to a foreigner’s sense of exoticism).  Faceless voices over the radio direct aerial attacks on tree-covered spurs across the valley; explosions appear well before the distant boom that’s killed the screams of the men hiding there – or not.  All we know of the local perspective is what comes in pieces via the shuras with the elders, so the only suggestion of meaning to the whole goddamned endeavor is what the filmmakers show the Americans creating.  They name their outpost after one of their own KIAs.  Their Dan Kearneys evoke duty, and give the men momentary permission to “go ahead and mourn” so they can get back to work (his response to a meeting with villagers in which he’s shown the bodies of five local farmers killed by American bombings: “Dammit, dammit, dammit!”).  None of the soldiers, Kearney included, come across as bad men; they’re good old boys and die-hard patriots, doing their part to make God and mama proud.  Belief in their mission – to provide security for relief flowing into the valley – seems cursory.  In the American military – in any non-conscript army – you do as you’re told first, and think about it when you’re home.

So in an odd way – and this is the sort of documentary I would like to have made myself, so clear in its design and so lacking in sentimentality – I’m not sure what the purpose of Restrepo really is.  Those who feel we need to be in Afghanistan will nod and think how brave these boys are, sacrificing their freedom to preserve it for others.  Those who feel we don’t will shake their heads in disdain, wondering how on earth we got to be sending our boys to spurs of land in remote Afghan valleys to achieve almost nothing.  Anyone whose mind hasn’t leaned one way or another on the Afghanistan war – and I believe there are plenty in this land of ours, the ones who don’t feel the cost and don’t really care about the outcome – may find this a strange film, so full of sound and fury, etc.  If you can take a war film to mean whatever you already believe, does it help or hinder a filmmaker’s cause?  And if his cause is pure apolitical objectivity – however beautifully achieved – what the hell is his point?  The situation is so fragile these days that its commanding officer – who by all accounts maintained the best relationships with the local leadership, including Karzai, of anyone in the U.S. military – can be replaced for speaking his mind in Rolling Stone, hardly a bastion of potent political exchange.  I deeply admire this film as a film, but we need bolder debates at this point.

Film: Jason Spingarn-Koff: Life 2.0 (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on May 12, 2010 by baker

Ideally, this sort of write-up can serve as publicity for a film like Life 2.0, which screened at Tribeca this spring and again last night at IFC, with director Jason Spingarn-Koff in attendance.  A three-year endeavor, the film radiates a calm certainty about its own agenda: a study of people engaging in Second Life, a do-it-yourself cyberworld, as a way of avoiding – or discovering – their own identities.  In the process of making the film, Spingarn-Koff has swallowed and digested this theme whole, and emerged with a first feature of disconcerting presence and grace.  At the very least, he deserves here a few words of unmitigated esteem, but ultimately he has made an exceptional documentary of extraordinary access, patience, and depth.

As a conceptual exploration – of the avatar and its potential purposes – James Cameron could take from Life 2.0 a lesson in empathetic stewardship.  Spingarn-Koff is a vastly superior thinker, and digs far enough into the idea of creating and using an avatar to bring it back full circle to the humanity that initially employed it.  Avatars are a masked projection of one’s self, sure, but they are also a method of grasping for what makes one terribly, complicatedly human: our wants, our needs, the calculus of self-examination that bears no binary notation and makes us uniquely, frustratingly unquantifiable.  There it is, a face: it says all we care to say about ourselves, and in this sexy age of virtually limitless interconnected ephemera, Spingarn-Koff implies, it can lift you up and carry you afloat so far beyond your 1.0 existence that it can’t help, from drag or push, but crack open rifts – some welcome, some profoundly not – in your real world.  Luck or divine intervention supplied Spingarn-Koff with a handful of Second Lifers of startling dimensions.  A screenwriter couldn’t craft better material, all the more so for its economy and restraint.

There is the couple who begins an affair in Second Life, carries it into the real world, leaves their respective families, and in short order discovers a few of the many distinctions between these worlds.  There’s the fashion designer who opens her own boutique in Second Life and makes a flabbergasting living at it – all out of her parents’ basement, wearing pajamas, at night.  And there is the 20-something fiancé whose 11-year-old female avatar dances her way into the lives of other men doing the same, as well as into a facet of his past that might otherwise, he thinks, have remained buried in his subconscious.  The arcs of these threads are defiantly dramatic; there’s the suspicion, moving along, that perhaps Spingarn-Koff has fabricated at least parts of them.  He seems to have too much access to these people, capturing too much blunt behavior too well to be real.  But this is the kind of documentary that feels impervious to that sort of criticism; even if he’d hired skilled actors to invent roles for his film, he’s still woven the parts into a complete tapestry, of astonishing moral complexity.  Life 2.0 is far less about its specific subjects than its musings on the ways in which they’ve orchestrated change in their lives, without passing judgment on the method or the outcome.

Indeed, much of the film’s footage is taken directly from Second Life, in sequences following the avatars through their homespun idylls (Spingarn-Koff’s own filmmaker avatar sits idly by, observing without comment).  The lovers meditate on lily pads, then transition, on their own time, into lovemaking on a canopy bed.  Their voices are their own, spoken on headsets in real time, as their 2.0s caress each other in stilted CG affection.  The scene, like much of the film, is curiously mesmerizing, a gorgeously self-contained dream sequence; it’s not hard to see the fascination with this thing.  Elsewhere, we drift across glimmering seas, through skyscrapers in the act of being created, across landscapes as thinking minds give them shape and physical properties.  It’s glorious, but it’s also tinged with the towering prospect of disappointment, as is a dream in the moment, still dreaming, when the dreamer begins to wake.  Imagination gradually gives way to self-delusion, at least in the viewer’s mind; Spingarn-Koff’s Lifers rarely seem to feel this.  In the brief moments when the illusion crumbles – the lovers, attempting a real relationship at her home in Westchester, dissolve into a petty squabble over the gardening (nicely shattering the tremulous suggestion of a “planting the seeds” metaphor) – these Lifers tend to quickly evade the problem, so invested are they in justifying the transition of their needs from one universe to another.

Other scenes suggest a legitimate solution in Second Life to real-life problems.  The woman in the basement revels in her idealized physical form online, but finds that in Second Life, theft is real and requires a flesh-and-blood lawyer.  What is property in Second Life?  Does intellectual property count if it has no real-world commercial counterpart other than the owner’s bank account (and if so, while we’re at it, wouldn’t a lawyer avatar suffice)?  To a certain extent, my disdain for Second Life began to fall apart as this story developed.  As unsettling as it is to see a person ignoring vast swaths of real life in favor of a perfected virtual life (Spingarn-Koff’s camera roams through her cluttered living space, lingers on her ashtrays, her disheveled bed, her girth), her tenacity seems to rule out the vaguely hopeless nature of Second Life.  It can still be what you want it to be, as long as you’re finding satisfaction in it.  We only see a few fragments, but the woman’s real life – including the parts that stem directly from her involvement in Second Life, such as a bewildering rendezvous with her new Second Life friends in Las Vegas 1.0 – appears to work.  Not for me, but for her.  Judgment is beside the point.

And then there’s the bittersweet and sobering aspect of Second Life.  It’s easy to suspect that the 20-something might be gay; he’s effeminate, his interviews are frequently in shadow, and his fiancée frets to Spingarn-Koff of his obsessive, closeted relationship with Second Life, holed up in his office for all-night virtual benders.  What emerges instead, when the 11-year-old avatar dons guns and explosives and starts a shooting spree and multiple self-detonations in dance clubs, is sadder, and revealing in a way that Spingarn-Koff might have exploited for its Hallmark potential.  He doesn’t; the thread suggests that behavior of any kind, fantasy or otherwise, is girded with psychological underpinnings we’re only superficially conscious of.  The fantasy life carried into Westchester is borderline tragic in its evasion of personal responsibility – on the part of both lovers – but the fiancé here makes a series of real-life choices based on the self-discoveries he encounters via Second Life.  I won’t say the whole thing doesn’t strike me as pathetic, but Life 2.0 makes a powerful case against judgment at all.  Second Life may be simple, but we are not, and can make use of its illusions.  As do painters, writers, filmmakers, musicians, advertisers…hell, anyone who uses Instant Messenger.

Spingarn-Koff captures everything with a steady and patient visual sensibility, his camera content to watch, to show us the ordinary details of the Lifers’ lives.  Street lights, tire tracks in the snow, cigarette smoke, cheap carpeting, poor soil, air travel, oblivious relatives, cell phones, sunsets, and all their attendant gestures and usages.  This unsentimental place is the world we inhabit, and in his accumulated real-world textures, juxtaposed with those of Second Life, Spingarn-Koff achieves a heartbreaking grandeur in the final passages of Life 2.0, one composed of the brick and mortar of human desire, in all its rough imperfection.

Film: Roman Polanski: The Ghost Writer (2010)

Posted in Film Reviews with tags , , on March 6, 2010 by baker

The Pianist (2002) uniquely aside, Roman Polanski generally vacillates between twisted creepiness (Rosemary’s Baby, 1968) and pulpy silliness (Death and the Maiden, 1994) (or pulpy creepiness (Chinatown, 1974) and twisted silliness (The Tenant, 1976).  He’s got a strikingly clear visual sense, most of the time – his best work cuts with the organic intricacy of a brilliant previsualist – and an ability to strike a match against his performers without burning off their naturalism.  He’s a ludicrous actor himself, but like many actors – Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Woody Allen – he knows how to direct others in ways that complement his own filmmaking energy; Jack Nicholson and Adrien Brody are as shockingly focused in Polanski’s films as is Richard Harris in Unforgiven (1992), or Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004).

There’s a fire inside him as well, speaking of vacillation, and Polanski’s films tend to be either full of thought or full of emotion, but rarely in equal measure.  And so he’s made The Ghost Writer, a well-written film in a structural sense, but a chaotic emotional jumble of painfully little consequence.  All the ideas are there, from the title on down: nobody is who they appear to be, and it’s usually less for intentionally deceptive reasons than from a sort of incidental lack of proclamation (there are exceptions).  I like this conceit.  It’s perfect for a filmmaker.  The ghost writer does a lot of work for a lot of money, polishing other people’s thoughts for which they – the other people – are ultimately responsible.  The ghost writer gets none of the credit, but also none of the fallout.  He drops in and out with complete anonymity.

Which, indeed, is how Ewan McGregor’s ghost writer operates in the modern island fortress of Pierce Brosnan’s former British prime minister.  Barely acknowledged upon his arrival, McGregor stands in the midst of Brosnan’s family and associates as a scandal erupts ferociously around them (but in the distance, overseas), neither a threat nor particularly useful, except as an occasional perfunctory PR wordsmith.  The film happens by and large in the immediate, in the constant discovery of new accusations and complications, both in the prime minister’s public and private life.  The circumstances are ripe for an exploration of the ghost writer’s soul, as one man privy to another man’s demons.  But Polanski doesn’t plumb for it, content to fill the screen with odd casting choices (Timothy Hutton and James Belushi in stock roles, Kim Cattrall weirdly cast as a British secretary) and a pervasive foul-weather gloom that smacks of vaudevillian excess rather than intelligent artistry.  Does it have to be?  Of course not.  Is it a missed opportunity for a capable director?  Definitely.

Polanski can direct above a potential haphazard script (Chinatown risks cornball hamhandedness at every turn), and I would say he’s probably giving The Ghost Writer his best shot, but he doesn’t seem to have inspired McGregor or Brosnan with much creative investment, and some of his other actors – Eli Wallach and Tom Wilkinson in particular – seem cast for lazily obvious reasons.  Pawel Edelman shot The Pianist with a graceful restraint he’s got no reason to emulate here; the film is dim and moody, but with some clever shots aside (like the last one, beautifully framed and choreographed), simply shows competent actors doing the mundane tasks Polanski and Robert Harris’ script asks them to do.  I’m of the (marginalized, I think) opinion that the mundane has a rightful, complex place in cinema, since we’re already made up of the mundane, the trivial, and the practically necessary, as functionaries in the modern world.  Escapism has its place, but we cast real shadows and reflections that we shouldn’t be afraid of examining in a smart film – one that knows how to let these little details coalesce into something much less ordinary than its parts.  The trouble is that Polanski and Harris seem to have confused movie mundane with real mundane.  A writer discovering secret letters and incriminating photographs in a plot that features the CIA and the Middle East is mundane in a Hollywood way; it’s so boring and contrived that it better be in service of not only some deeper thinking, but at this point in film history some self-conscious eye-winking.  It’s neither here.

To be fair, there is one other level at which Polanski might have intended The Ghost Writer to play, and that’s as weirdly clairvoyant autobiography.  It still wouldn’t quite work as a motion picture, but would at least take on a certain twisted, silly creepiness – the work of a director ostracized from society by his own crime, hidden away overseas and cranking out literal autobiographies couched in sweeping global scale.  That’s if he’s the prime minister.  If he’s the ghost writer, well hell, The Ghost Writer might as well be an allegory about its own making.  That both of these characters meet a similar end is just plain surreal in light of Polanski’s recent arrest – unless it’s possible to read this as Polanski’s own self-indictment.  A monumental stretch, sure, but I’m looking for more beneath this film.  It’s the only emotional current I can find.