Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Gunman

(Pierre Morel, USA/Spain/UK/France, 2015)

I saw this before Sean Penn's recent media splash occurred, but with that added tweak of perspective, the film makes a bit more sense.  Penn is one of our finest male actors, due in no small part to the immense contradictions that seem to constitute his personality.  A committed humanitarian and generally well-informed political progressive, he has also lived a life plagued with the turbulence of unruly and illicit behavior.  In a word, he's an angry man, who appears to have come to some kind of detente with his rage, part of which might be his admirable efforts in Haiti and elsewhere, and part of which is probably his fine-grained yet volcanic performances on screen.  Without presuming too much about Penn's inner life, I think it's safe to say that the forces that moved him to seek out and interview El Chapo are the same ones that lead him to be so vividly adventurous on-screen.

It's a shame, therefore, that this recent movie, which he stars in and co-wrote, is a plate of generic hash.  The film appears to be at least in part a money grab, following the Taken formula of a gruff, middle-aged guy who becomes and improbable action star.  That's one half of the movie; the other is a self-satisfied tale of corporate malfeasance, trading on liberal guilt.  The amount of time Penn spends showing off his chiseled torso becomes laughably excessive, and the use of the ongoing catastrophe of the Congo feels vulgar.  The filmmakers, among them Penn (who appears to have been the linchpin) tried to pull off some kind of a hat trick: a tense shoot-em-up, a well-informed political statement, and a dark drama about downfall and redemption.  It's effectively none of the three.  Morel is a decent cinematic craftsman, and there are a few action sequences that rise above the mediocre, but there is little else to be said for the film, which finally leaves a taste of high-minded vanity. 

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Martian

(Ridley Scott, USA, 2015)

Surprisingly enjoyable.  Too long to be called a romp, it is nevertheless a likable, if odd, bird: a work of peppy optimism that celebrates human ingenuity without getting too swoony about it.  Rather than a bland paean to the power of technology, it is refreshingly human-centered, and amounts to a nearly utopian political vision that is cannily couched in a near-contemporary setting.  There is something weirdly refreshing about the matter-of-factness of the plot, which contains no major reveals or surprises, but instead concerns itself with all kinds of practical challenges.  We know that they will eventually bring Matt Damon home, but we still invest ourselves in the working through of a series of obstacles that make his assured return technically doubtful.  This is all orchestrated by Ridley Scott's best direction in years, perhaps in decades; the visual style is realistic but still expressive, precise without being fussy.  It feels less like an advertisement for NASA than for science in general, and the cross-cultural plot points (the Chinese have a hand in saving the day), which almost certainly reflected marketing and box-office imperatives, feel strikingly hopeful, even more so considering the current state of world affairs.  Damon's performance is pleasantly corny; like everyone else in the movie, he's having a good time, even when his character isn't.  The corniness doesn't overwhelm, though, and the vision of a world that is curious, peaceful, and mostly united, casts a strange, soothing spell. 

Chimes at Midnight

(Orson Welles, France/Spain/Switzerland, 1967)

Viewed at Cinefamily, where it was playing as part of a theatrical release of the newly restored print.  The restoration was expert; despite the fact that Chimes at Midnight was shot on the cheap and contains some still-visible errors, it looks gorgeous, with Welles's visual brilliance evident everywhere.  His use of shadow and light, wide-angle compositions, powerfully expressive camera movement, and razor-sharp cutting, reminded me of how advanced Welles was in the technical art of cinema, and still is.

His distillation of Falstaff's story, which amounts to a kind of co-authorship with Shakespeare, is masterful.  While he's reverent of the text(s), it's impossible to miss that Welles's feels a kinship with Falstaff that develops into a kind of ownership of the character.  He goes all the way in, inhabiting the character in all this glory and grotesqueness, embodying the joy and the despair that arises from a life lived in constant, sumptuous performance.  Welles the hedonist, Welles the prankster, Welles the raging egotist and Welles the tragic, unloved genius, cast aside by his home kingdom: that's Falstaff for you.

Special mention also goes to his orchestration of the central battle, which is one of the best ever depictions of combat of any kind, ancient or modern, that I've seen on-screen.  In a way, it has a jarring effect, as it punctures the slightly dreamlike atmosphere we've experienced so-far with a kind of brutal realism, a vision of combat as mad, destructive folly, utterly irredeemable.  It might be the first indication of the world that Falstaff is so adept at skirting, but will eventually overwhelm even his prodigious talents: the world of violence and ignorance, political gamesmanship spilled over into mindless destruction; the world of kings, nobility, and conquest. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Irrational Man

(Woody Allen, USA, 2015)

A slight helping of late-Woody Allen fare.  Much of Irrational Man's virtues feel separate from the influence of the director - Darius Khondji's saturated colors and crisp compositions,  the adroit work of the cast - Emma Stone, Joaquin Pheonix, Parker Posey - all working from an under-cooked script. Allen has always been a skilled storyteller, that least-sexy of cinematic virtues, and his recent films have been well-told yarns, if little else.  The structure of Irrational Man is sound enough, but the on a line-by-line basis, it's a mess.  If you're willing to suffer through the schematic, clunky dialogue, there is an interesting existential tale beneath it all, but even that has its limits.

This amounts to Allen playing through his familiar philosophical obsessions, which involve an appropriately neurotic skepticism of objective morality.  He doesn't break any new ground here, but does rehearse the theme with economy and some occasional flourishes of wit.  The best joke in the film is the repeated use of a jaunty instrumental rendition of The 'In' Crowd by Ramsey Lewis, which seems more bizarre and discordant as the plot develops and Pheonix's character slips deeper into the moral abyss. 

Allen's increasingly sketch-like treatment of his themes can be frustrating, especially because he once excelled at rendering on-screen human behavior convincingly.   In his late period, he has essentially subcontracted this skill out to the actors, who too often feel like they are absent direction, showing up for the pleasure/distinction of being in a Woody Allen movie, and doing their best impression of a Woody Allen character.  Meanwhile, Allen  moves the shooting briskly along with an attitude that feels more like impatience than eagerness to engage deeply with the material.

Nonetheless, there is an intensity at work here in Irrational Man.  Allen is clearly still troubled by idea of God's absence; if anything, the approach of mortality has only deepened his ambivalence about one's final resting place.  One easily gets the impression of Allen as someone who has been tempted by sin (and even, potentially, yielded to this temptation), and who has turned this into the central story of his life: a basically decent guy who has encountered his darkest demons and has never gotten over the experience.  We're likely to see more of this kind of thing from Woody before he gives up the ghost; personally, I'm hoping he deepens and refines it, but we'll just have to see.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Queen of Earth

(Alex Ross Perry, USA, 2015)

An unfortunate miscalculation.  Well-acted, directed and (especially) photographed - the high points of the film are several exquisitely composed shots - the film nonetheless suffers from a tentativeness in its conception.  Starting from the foundation of a claustrophobic relationship study, Perry fragments the narrative and characters, hoping, it would seem, for a cubistic fugue of dark, volatile emotions.  I'll admit my own biases in this regard; I like my naturalism straight-up and supple.  I don't think this precludes flights of abstract fancy, but here, the mixture doesn't set.  Watterson and Moss are excellent performers, but because the audience is refused a stable perspective, their relentless emoting exhausts and alienates rather than affects.  It feels as though Perry didn't trust himself to deliver a captivating character study, or was self-conscious about the limited materials at his disposal: a house, a couple characters, a lake.  And so he submerged the film in a creepy, semi-ironic haze, hinting at formal possibilities but pursuing none of them with conviction.  This doesn't deny the film as a leap of ambition for Perry, who certainly has exhibited impressive formal chops previously.  But it feels too provisional, too easily fractured and suffused with atmosphere - atmosphere as a crutch, rather than as an organic expression of feeling.  The intimations of horror - due not only to the brooding score, but to the frequent lingerings on the characters' pained or crazed faces, which suggest a stabbing, strangling, or dismemberment that never comes - distanced me from the film, mostly because I knew the violence wouldn't arrive.  That would cut against the grain of Perry's forced ambiguity, which becomes tedious.

In the excellent Listen Up Philip, Perry made acid poetry out of the verbal sparring between his characters, putting his impressive talents as a writer in the aid of a fully-realized cinematic world.  The rampant nastiness was tempered with a nervy, comedic buoyancy.  Here, the breezy cruelty of the characters feels arbitrary, even ornamental.  The friendship between Catherine and Virginia doesn't devolve, since it seems to have never existed in the first place; even the sunnier flashbacks are clouded with resentment.  The men are smarmy to the point of cartoonishness.  I looked, then, for some indication that we were being guided by the heavy hand of Catherine's creeping madness, forced into her subjectivity.  I don't mean that I was hoping for a careful delineation between the "real" world and Catherine's world, but for some way of entering into the world of the film, some idea, even a preliminary one, around which to orient my experience.  Bereft of emotional points of entry, we can only hope to seek intellectual ones - but those latter points were absent also.  It is clear that the relationship between Catherine and Virginia is a form of toxic codependency.  But rather than elaborated upon or further developed, this fact is merely re-stated several times throughout the movie, as if repetition alone could offer insight.

So what exactly is Perry's interest here?  It doesn't appear to be psychology, despite the ominous shadings of depression and suicide (not to mention delusional behavior), since there is neither genuine sympathy for, nor curiosity about the inner lives of the characters.  There's no hint of philosophical assertion or exploration, unless callow misanthropy counts.  Also missing is any spiritual dimension (the cinematography almost takes it there, but Perry's directorial gamesmanship clamps tightly down on that possibility). By my lights, then, Perry has crafted what is essentially an exercise in almost pure formalism, vivisecting a potential movie about suffering and despair and producing a thin, ornery sketch.  Given what are shown to be Catherine's pretensions to artistry, and Perry's own taste for perversity, one can't rule out the possibility that this is intentional. 

Straight Outta Compton

(F. Gary Gray, USA, 2015)

While the film takes a few detours into the familiar, generic territory of the bio-pic - specifically the kind that deals with the music industry - it remains, overall, a finely-wrought, rousing experience.  Gray and his excellent cast  (for me the greatest discovery was Jason Mitchell, who radiates guile and charm as Eazy E), with a mighty assist from the fantastic Matthew Libatique - a cinematographer who continues to distinguish himself - immerse the viewer in the highs and lows of the N.W.A. story.

Compton is essentially a naturalistic, slice-of-life drama about some talented kids from the streets of South Central Los Angeles who happened to become superstars.  Gray wisely keeps the focus tight on the characters, who are depicted with aplomb, and who anchor the story in the trauma and exuberance of inner city life.  The choice is crucial: at the end of the day, the members of N.W.A. only have each other to rely upon, and their meager beginnings and spectacular success are an outgrowth not only of their individual wits and talent, but of the constant performance that hard life requires.  Their ability to count on each other is challenged, of course, and all kinds of disaster intrudes upon their dizzying ascent, but they all share a recognition that they are getting away with something.  Their elevator ride through the hidden-in-plain-sight edifice of American class imparts a hard, enduring lesson: guys like themselves aren't supposed to become rich and famous.

Gray's direction is most incisive when he's lingering on Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, and the rest of their crew as they joke, brag, argue, and spit verses.  Elsewhere there are stretches of great, propulsive energy, on the streets and in the concert venues, but the heart of the movie is in the verbal exchanges between the central characters.  This makes perfect sense - we're talking about hip-hop, after all - and we see the genesis and the genius of hip-hop's marriage of swagger, slang, rhythm, and rage.  The stripped-down nature of early West Coast rap - the combination of soul and funk beats with lyrics about violence, drugs, and sex - is given a brilliant visual swing.  The music is blunt and confrontational, but it is also mercurial, nimble, even ironic.  And all of this is connected to the personalities of its creators, which Gray depicts with precision and palpable joy. 

But while the stamp of authenticity keeps the music real (and selling), it also connects it to the darker side of what N.W.A. represents - a focused anger at the conditions in the ghetto, and the crime and suffering that are endemic to that world.  While they effectively channeled and even liberated some of the pent-up rage at the brutal reality of official injustice, N.W.A. were also tethered to real-life gangsters, and moving away from the criminal element was a long, hard struggle.  In the meantime, their hardships were compounded by crooked managers, vicious police, craven politicians, and their own personal foibles.  Gray doesn't gloss over any of this, including the more toxic elements in their music and behavior - rampant disregard (and even abuse) of women, homophobia, and the small-minded machismo that claimed lives and perpetuated hatred.  But this is secondary.  A case could be made - and some have made it, for better or worse - that the film is too easy on its characters, too quick to paint them as essentially lovable guys who take some hard knocks on their way to enormous success. 

Such are the pitfalls of the biopic, which must successfully reconcile poetic truths with the messy, doomed-to-be-unsatisfying truths of history.  But for me, the ecstatic verve of the film at its finest moments is the film's greatest offering.   Successfully enjoying old-school rap demands a certain separation of content and creative energy.  Can this be done in good conscience?  Gray seems to believe that it can be, and his use of the medium is persuasive indeed.  In the end, the film is about the possibility of freedom through expression, even under the most unjust and bleak of circumstances.  It's a welcome, timely theme, rendered beautifully.

Saturday, January 16, 2016


(Philippe Garrel, France, 2013)

Garrel's quiet, condensed, unadorned drama is a master-class in negative space.  Not merely visual, but emotional and temporal.  It delivers, in low-key flashes of luminous black and white photography, the story of a dissolution of a relationship, and the delicate web of connections that bind the central character, Louis (Louis Garrel, the director's son), to other people in his life.  Unsurprisingly, they are mostly women, and their connections to Louis are strained, though in different ways.

Garrel is a master of the ambiguous gesture.  An actor's movement of her head, a sudden glance, a hesitation before a line delivery - all of these are orchestrated and mined for maximum aesthetic energy, even if the meaning remains mysterious.  He is on par with Nathanial Dorsky as a seeker of the sublime in the everyday, guided by the conviction that there is no movement, look, or breath that is extraneous.  As such, his cinema is fundamentally spiritual.  This isn't immediately apparent, and this is where the concept of negative space comes in; for Garrel, no image is definitive, and life is so overwhelmingly complex that it can only be approached with a simplicity that becomes indistinguishable from grace. 

You can look into a Garrel film and see drama, comedy, psychology, terror, and even classical humanism.  But you have to keep looking, and looking into the film.  His engagement with the Godard, his cinematic sensai, has produced a reverent, stripped-down approach to the mechanics of the medium.  Whereas Godard's method is a kind of exuberant maximalism that is spiraling always into abstraction, Garrel's has the beatific deliberateness and painstaking care of a monk.  What does a cut mean?  Godard will give you a poetic dissertation, brilliant but baffling, as his interrogation of himself means first an interrogation of the medium.  Garrel starts from the point of view of human relations, and works through the medium to find answers that are rooted in humanity. 

Garrel therefore has a complex relationship to drama.  It's the framework that supports his inquiries, but he is always seeking to transcend it.  His great talent for the momentous in the minute means that he is better at slivers of drama than the big moments themselves; in Jealousy, an attempted suicide seems treated in a strangely even and sober manner, the reverberations of which are no greater than those that come from a single moment of jealousy, or a quick smile of joy at one's daughter's antic. 

Partly, this is deliberate.  In Garrel's spiritual conception, we are always on the brink of life and death, and the point of life is to acknowledge and somehow live within this realization.  But his emphasis on the performative aspects of cinema - Garrel works with trained actors and rehearses extensively before he shoots - and the psychological realism, creates a strange, sometimes productive tension with the more abstract treatment of the medium.  His modernism is a subtle, curious sort: he is interested in making the tools visible, to some degree, but also in the archaic belief in the power of stories. 

Partly, then, this is a matter of form.  Orson Welles famously referred to cinema as the "biggest electric train set any boy ever had!"  Godard took that train set and exploded it, making strange and beautiful (and dense, and difficult) assemblages from the wreckage.  Garrel pulls and pushes the medium, but it still coheres.  That's his relationship to the medium.  But through the medium we see life, and this is where the question of Garrel's cinema is also a question of culture, specifically French culture.  The central fact of French culture is the aestheticization of life itself; after Catholicism, the French religion has become, essentially, art.  This has liberated creative energies that have reached sublime heights; it has also, in some ways, created a deep existential crisis in the heart of the culture.  "To be or not to be", for a French person, is not merely an existential question, but also an aesthetic one. The same goes for "should I stay, or should I go?"  This permits a freedom that few other cultures have dared, and the achievements made in this freedom are something to behold.  But it also creates a certain burden on the individual.  At it's best, this outlook is a powerful incentive to comprehensive humanism, emphasizing our need for beauty, love, and pleasure for its own sake.  At it's worst, it permits a subtle but devastating anti-humanism that would subordinate the messy substance of human life to an exalted idea of beauty, and in doing so, degrade beauty until it has become frivolity.  Artists from Flaubert to Renoir père and Renoir fils have made great art out of this rich material, and Garrel belongs to this long and grand tradition.  The apparent lightness of Jealousy is an example of his commitment.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Hateful Eight

(Quentin Tarantino, USA, 2015)

Sometime in the not-too distant future, after seeing the last of Tarantino's oft-promised career total of ten films (if he sticks to his guns, and do pardon the pun), I may look back and decide that The Hateful Eight was the one that did it. Turned me off to his shtick, once and for all.  Ever since the commercial disappointment of Jackie Brown, Tarantino has been in what I'll call his Spatter Period.  Kill Bill 1 & 2, Grindhouse, Inglorious Basterds, Django Unchained, and now this one.  The common thread, or at least the easiest one to spot, has been his use of copious amounts of faux human blood, sprayed every which way.  That, and, if you want to get a little more thematic about it, revenge.

I've always viewed this as a squandering of his early promise.  After the cinematic pinnacle that was Pulp Fiction, and the sober, sensitive characterizations of Jackie Brown, it has been disappointing to see Tarantino's descent into complacency.  He has basically admitted to the reasons for this artistic shift, saying that he was chastened by Brown's poor box-office performance, and resolved thenceforth to make movies that would make a lot of money.  Not in so many words, but the point was clear enough.  And his subsequent movies have made lots of money,  turning him into a "global brand," and good for him, if that's what he wants.  But for lovers of cinema, it's been a sad tale, even if it shot through with some fond memories.  Tarantino hasn't totally lost the sharp instincts and visual acumen he exhibited early in his career (even Reservoir Dogs, which shares some of this recent film's rampant, puerile sadism, as well as its claustrophobic, stage-like setting, had a certain visual snap to it), but he's mostly traded them in for hollow, unimaginative spectacle.

It's as if, looking back at the success of Pulp and mining it for a winning formula, Tarantino took the most reductive approach to his own movies.  What did he see?  Digressive, rambling dialogue, witty and profane, a nonlinear structure, with seemingly arbitrary shifts in the chronology (that mirror, to a certain extent, the superfluity and digressiveness of the dialogue), and sudden, shocking acts of extreme violence.  He's mostly dispensed with the nonlinear business, although he still likes to utilize the occasional out-of-the-blue flashback, but the two other elements, violence and talkiness, constitute what is now an aesthetic trademark, emphasis on the trade, if you get what I mean.

Possibly, I've got this wrong, and those early high-water marks in Tarantino's career were exceptions to his real interests and preoccupations.  But he is, for better and for worse, an artist who invites a comprehensive and personal approach to his body of work.  He does have, after all, on the promotional material and in the opening credits of the movie itself, the declaration that this isn't just A Film by, but The Eighth Film by Quentin Tarantino.  We're by now used to cutting QT some slack for this bluster, but it does demand a certain approach to his films.  So I remain persuaded, and disappointed, that my narrative is accurate.  Once upon a time, Tarantino was a contender for greatness.  Now, more and more, he's traded this in for pandering to what he imagines his audience demands: a high body count, silver-tongued palaver, and great gouts of sticky, Red 40 blood.

The Hateful Eight, if we're lucky, will be the nadir of this tendency.  Filmed in "glorious 70mm," which was also how I saw it screened, it makes no remarkable use of this rare and beautiful medium.  The opening vistas are a sight to behold, but after a while, once the film goes mostly indoors, the format feels unwieldy and excessive.  Unlike Anderson's The Master, which used the vast canvas of the 65mm frame to innovative effect, here it is merely ornamental.  So much for the visual schema of the film.  What about the story?   Tarantino has always been a first-rate storyteller, for all of his other faults, and his palpable joy at doling out some information and withholding other information has been an enduring virtue of his movies.  Unfortunately, even the storytelling can't save Eight.  It starts strong, with intimations of secret alliances and not-so-secret grudges, but then, desultorily, it introduces a sudden whodunit side plot, which is shortly thereafter resolved, and which is quickly followed by the inevitable bloodbath.  Whereas previously QT made a virtue of syncopated yarn-spinning, in Eight the pacing is clunky and unmotivated.  We aren't given space to savor the mysteries of the plot, to speculate on the true nature of the characters, or to feel the tension of a dramatic buildup.  Perhaps it was just me, but I know QT well enough to merely brace for the bursting squibs of blood.

I'll admit that I've never been much of a fan of onscreen violence, and as I get older, I enjoy it less and less.  I don't have much of a moral argument against it; or at least one I feel tempted to trot out at this moment.  Mostly, it's just not to my taste.  But I've always accepted it with Tarantino, because it does feel - some of it feels - native to his cinematic world, and because it's interspersed with other things I do enjoy: finely wrought dialogue, well-delivered by talented actors, and the other aforementioned virtues of QT's style.  But as he gets less good at those virtues, the flaws become more prominent and less easy for me to stomach.  The bloodiness of Eight, the serial dispatching of characters, and the apparent glee with which QT orchestrates all of this, are finally too much.  Beyond my own tastes, I can't think of a reason why they ought to be enjoyed.  They do not constitute an authentic rumination on the nature of human evil.  That would require insight, and it would require an awareness of actual human suffering, which has never been QTs strong suit, and which here is entirely absent.  The only explanation, beyond the aforementioned desire to pander, is that QT likes orchestrating onscreen violence - it gives him pleasure.  The motivation of pleasure is one of the central imperatives of any artistic creation, perhaps the fundamental one.  Of course, your audience will have to agree upon the pleasure, and here, I don't.  Taste can only be met, or argued with, by other taste, and so I must simply state that QT's giddy penchant for extreme pain and gore is gross.  And absent any redeeming qualities (or allowing certain minor ones), this makes the movie, largely, gross.

But there's another angle to take on this matter.  While Tarantino's pleasure with simulating pain is real - and it's not just physical pain, but mental torment as well, as Warren's pre-homicidal tale of torturing General Smithers's son, told to Smithers simply to cause him as much anguish as possible before killing him, illustrates - he offers very little of this pleasure to the audience.  The thrills are cheap and faux-shocking.  We're not meant simply to feel good, of course, but also to squirm, the way that audiences in horror films are.  And part of the uncertainty we are meant to experience arises from the subtext of the film, which is the political dimension that Tarantino has decided to haul into the scenario.

Overall, this is both the most sincere and and potentially valuable aspect of the movie.  It shows that QT actually does think abstractly about hatred and violence, at least in a political context, but it also shows just how callow and opportunistic his handling of these subjects is.  The simmering hatreds that the Civil War has left behind are, when all is said and done, the principal drivers of the action of this movie.  Tarantino's fondness for revenge as motivator has never been very interesting; like most treatments of this theme, it is exploited for its visceral appeal, and for its compression of a character's motivation.  Nothing excuses violence - at least emotionally - like the retribution for previous violence, and so revenge, from the perspective of a storyteller, is an expedient means.  No other contemporary American filmmaker has taken this to the bank more times than QT.  But here, QT deepens it, connecting it not to philosophical questions about human evil, but to the historical atrocities that the Civil War both addressed and gave rise to.  In the film's final flourish, the recitation of the phony "Lincoln letter," the cynicism of the film's take on race relations reaches its bitter apogee: reconciliation, reconstruction, and redemption are pilloried as grotesque lies, pathetic homilies that are as false today as they were in the 1880s.

This is big, worthy stuff, and if it weren't mired in the midst of QTs increasingly unimaginative theater of gore, it would offer, ironically, a shot at the film's own redemption from mediocrity.  But QT is uncommitted.  He has over his career revealed himself to be obsessed, even tormented by, the history of what Ta-Nehisi Coates has called "the black body." The physical fact of dark skin, connected with its terrible suffering at the hands of American white supremacy, clearly troubles and fascinates QT.  But his treatment of his obsession in his art has been haphazard and puerile.  His Tourettes-like use of "nigger," both by himself and in his actors' lines, his frequent pairing of black sexuality and violence, are resolving into a very troubling portrait of a man caught in a kind of anguished self-exorcism.  His public explanations and protestations only feed into this conundrum.  It's true, he has written some of his best parts for black men and women, and his recent appearances in support of Black Lives Matter are admirable on their own, but the aggregate is a welter of contradictions.  The near-castration of Django in Django Unchained, and the achieved castration (via shotgun) of Warren in this film, not to mention the story Warren tells of black-on-white male rape, are just two recent examples.  But while I don't think this makes QT an open or a closet racist, he also shows only an occasional interest in exploring these themes in a more daring and honest fashion.  As long as he is tethered to the reflexive use of slick violence and cheap suffering, he won't be among the echelon of artists who have dealt squarely and bravely with America's dark history, and the role that race plays in it.  On the basis of this film, I think QT wants to be among that echelon.  If so, he'd better grow the fuck up. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

13 Hours

(Michael Bay, USA, 2016)

The only serious question I could summon was: is it as jingoistic as it seems, and as one would expect, knowing Michael Bay's movies?  Yes, there are shots of North African insurgents shooting holes in the American flag, and another shot of (perhaps) that same flag, floating desecrated in the pool among the other wreckage.  Yes, there are invocations of such sturdy ideas as America and Pride and Get 'er Done, and quick flashbacks to the Homeland that look like they've been modeled after a Home Depot flyer.  There is even a quick McDonald's commercial, nestled into the film like an Easter egg.  But the basis of the story is one of mismanagement and indifference at the highest levels of government, the result of which, we are reminded repeatedly, cost American lives.

Is this reactionary cinema in the twilight of the Obama era?  I remain undecided.  There are no real fingers pointed - no specific bad actors, save the CIA base chief, a walking cliché of official ineptitude and cowardice.  The ad-hoc embassy, and the nearby "secret" CIA base, are under-protected, and the overriding impression I got was of an American empire that is so sprawling that it's become impossible to adequately manage.  There is no credence given to the idea that America ought to be world's police force.  It might be that Bay and his cohort view this with so much "thanks, Obama"antipathy, but there are a few blink-and-you'll-miss-them gestures towards the end that seem designed to deflect animosity from the Islamic world in general.  So my impression of Bay's views is that they are politically unremarkable, with vaguely liberal shadings of tolerance and of conservative non-intervention.  The real meat is the mythology, which is as old as the hills: the basic decency and skill of the working man, the sanctity of the nuclear family (all of the contractors are married with kids), faith in God and Country and masculine honor. 

For some reason, I can't get too worked up over this.  Peel it back a layer, and there is a festering swamp of toxic ideology, ignorance, and brutality.  But in the realm of  urgent political problems that make the headlines every day, the idea that the ideological fight needs to be fought onscreen seems dangerously mistaken.  In 13 Hours, you see the thing for what it is.  Some people might be inspired by its pageantry, but the overall experience is so punishing, so godawful - and not unintentionally, Bay really wants us to feel the hell of combat, and we do - that I doubt whether it will have much of an effect, one way or the other.  Perhaps this is naïve.  There is no mention of our overall complicity in the terrible reign of Gaddafi, and in the chaos that ensued after he was deposed.  The movie is absent of any real political awareness or maturity.  But so is most of the media, and that's been true historically.  Denouncing Michael Bay for this seems like blaming AC/DC for their bad sex metaphors, or for playing too loud. 

Points ought to be given to the actors, both for their admirable facial hair and their summoning seriousness in delivering some of the truly absurd lines.  And there are moments - scarce, and too quickly chopped by Bay's nervous editing - of striking visual intensity, mostly when the camera soars above and around the compound and through the surrounding area.  I suspect that they were stitched together from crane, helicopter, and possibly drone shots, but they make up the rare moments when Bay seems to have any sense of cinematic style or taste. 

Bay is easily one of our most crass and cynical directors.  His protestations about wanting to direct smaller films, move away from the mega-franchises he started, seem to me to be basically disingenuous.  But there's a weird purity to what he does.  He's much more a product than a producer; a kid who never outgrew his childhood love-affair with high-gloss schlock Americana.  In this respect, he resembles Spielberg, another overgrown kid with a movie camera and millions of dollars at his disposal.  But Spielberg has another side to him, an intelligence that elevates his best work, and that prevents him from being merely adolescent.  Bay is lost in the funhouse, living in an America that never existed, comfortable with his money and his dreams of happy meals and happy families, ever protected from all the noisy, foreign evil that is at least an ocean away. 

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Gambler

(Rupert Wyatt, USA, 2014)

I didn't realize until after seeing this film that it was a remake.  I assumed while watching it that it was a vanity project of sorts, although it was hard to tell for whom: William Monahan and his bloated, enervating script, or Mark Wahlberg, who charts the vivid emotional territory between irritability and the temper-tantrum?

Another example of the "mid-range drama" that Hollywood supposedly doesn't make anymore, The Gambler ought to be viewed as a cautionary tale.  Monahan isn't a bad screenwriter - well, at least not when he's got Scorsese at the helm - and Wahlberg is a fine actor who doesn't take enough "serious" roles (and those he does take, like this one, are often phony-serious.) I can't say much for the director, Rupert Wyatt, whose Apes movie I still haven't caught.  He's skilled enough to convincingly set a mood, but his taste for storytelling, and his overall perspective on matter of the human scene, are seriously in question.  He somehow missed the obvious, central of the script, which is that it's miserably overwritten, full of spiraling, faux-intellectual monologues, desultory, unmotivated action, and sub-Tarantino bluster.  The thing is, I'd buy Wahlberg as a self-involved literature professor.  But not this lit professor, who comes off like a version of Nic Pizzolatto, if Pizzolatto was teaching at USC instead of headlining HBO's slow, sad decline into inconsequence.  Like everything in the film, he's just too much, while also being not nearly enough.  It's supposed to be a harrowing existential look into the abyss, but it ends up playing like so much worse: what a Hollywood middlebrow thinks a harrowing existential look into the abyss is like.  We don't feel the sickness unto death - we just roll our eyes and check our watches.

I would be remiss, however, not to mention the two things that stood out as having at least some real substance: the beginning sequence, where Wahlberg gambles away a princely sum over the course of a single evening at an off-the-books Malibu casino.  Wyatt successfully conveys the narcotic rush of both winning and losing big at the tables, and Wahlberg's stumbling out into the dawn, desolate and broke, hints at just how powerful this story could have been.  The other merit point goes to John Goodman.  True, his character is guilty of some of the scripts rampant pontification, but his "fuck you" monologue is a cut above the rest, and his ability to use his body and his wit are a reminder of what talented actors can do, when they are liberated from sub-par material. I hope Wahlberg was taking notes.


(Denis Villeneuve, USA, 2015)

Sleek, moody, menacing.  The perks of Sicario are entirely visceral.  If you want to know what if feels like to be stuck in traffic in Mexico with a shackled drug lord, waiting for the all-but-inevitable attack by his murderous henchmen, watch this film.  And that's not the only impressive scene of real-world simulation: there is also a night raid on a drug-smuggling tunnel, more than one briefing of gruff, piratical Army Special Forces types (and menacing, mustachioed Federal Marshals) in which the testosterone and adrenaline practically drips down the walls, and a military raid on a kidnapper's lair (which turns out to be an improvised crypt for cartel victims).  The film starts with this ghoulish scenario, in which the bodies have been sealed into the walls.  They are packed like insulation between the studs; an odd choice for concealing bodies (wouldn't the smell seep out?), but this is the dark new world of the drug war.  Nothing makes any sense.

We follow Emily Mortimer's character, an FBI kidnapping specialist, as she is given an opportunity to take the fight to the principal baddies, rather than mop up their horrific collateral damage.  And so we share her bewilderment as she gets a crash course on the multiple layers of corruption that exist on both sides of the border.  Villeneuve's strength is in this strategy of sudden, chilly immersion: we are, like Mortimer's character, always playing catch-up, never quite sure who to trust, never sure what lies in store for us.  The first half or so of the film uses this to great effect.  The action appears well-researched and authentic: the callous swagger of the paramilitary types, the dark cynicism of the intelligence and legal experts, the unfathomable trauma of those who have experienced the savagery first hand.

But at a certain point, the filmmakers feel the need to add some character-based juice to the story, and Mortimer goes from being an audience surrogate to a moral place-holder.   The blame rests most squarely on the screenplay, by Taylor Sheridan, which tries to skate by on the strength of its bone-crunching realism.  Sheridan sees the drug war, accurately, as a tragedy for all involved, and is conscientiously aware of how widely the blame can be shared.  But beyond that, he has nothing to say.  Mortimer's protestations about legality and due process come off as extraneous at best.  We know from the portentous score and the ominous photography (by the brilliant Roger Deakins) that things are going nowhere but South, literally and metaphorically.  Finally, the story is revealed to be one of futility: let the animals on both sides fight it out, there's no room for human conscience in this orgy of evil.  Villenueve has very little input as to the ideas, which he takes from the script at face value. Visually, as a director of action and movement in space, he is a formidable talent.  But there is nothing more to the film, which inadvertently winds up mirroring the senselessness of the violence generated by the drug war.  It ends with an image borrowed from Traffic: a "think of the children" plea that feels both maudlin and lazy.  At least in Soderbergh's film, there was a sense of the systemic reach of the rot, and a genuinely humanistic faith in the possibility of people within the system to affect change.  In Sicario, the only people who get anything done are the people who have already traded in their souls. 

Sunday, January 10, 2016

American Gigolo

(Paul Schrader, USA, 1980)

Schrader's gimlet-eyed tale of American fear and desire.  That description would match any number of his films, come to think of it, but perhaps none more so than American Gigolo.  Gere is fantastic in the role he might've been born to play; he's always been an actor of intelligence but limited emotional range; here, his slightly unctuous charm and his occasional fits of petulance match the character perfectly.  He's both naive and savvy, a quintessentially American kind of hustler.  The story is a classical morality play, a specialty of Schrader's, who has made a career of fashioning flinty, high-modern tales that reveal themselves to be near-parables of sin and redemption.  Of the films of his I've seen, this might be the most perfect iteration of that subject: he draws class, sex, money, and acute psychological insight into his deceptively straightforward 80s noir.  At times, his limitations as a director are apparent, but they are the kind of flaws that merely cast his triumphs in sharp relief.  The synthesizer and the slickness are of a piece with the era, and come off as markers of authenticity rather than dated tropes.  In American Gigolo, the journey leads back to a confrontation with the self, which, in Schrader's Protestant conception, can only be redeemed through the intercession of a higher power (in this case, it's the incarnation of Love.)  I don't think I've seen a Schrader movie that wasn't on some level a noir, but unlike the cynicism and outright nihilism that are the usual philosophical markers of the genre, Schrader brings an unmistakably Christian perspective to the table.  Crucially, his films can seem bleaker than even the bleakest noir, and I get the sense that this has to do with his peculiar kind of reformist theology: only when his characters have suffered the tortures of the damned can they find the way back to the light. 

Of course, it would be wrong to view his films in exclusively this light.  Schrader is a secular filmmaker, but it's a secularism that's won through a harsh, even existential battle, and the shadows of faith - which also mark the possibility of transcendence - are what gives his films their flashes of uncanny depth and brilliance.  Schrader's work is rife with the best kind of contradictions, because he's been able to make his own inner conflicts into the substance of his art.  And it's everywhere in the film: the wary eye of the moralist, but also the gleeful cry of the neurotic who has been freed from his repression.  He knows the worldly lures of sex and money better than most of the Californian philistines, because he is an outsider twice over - a reformed believer, and an intellectual on top of it.  Gigolo has a the stamp of the definitive about it: any other treatment of Los Angeles venality and the overwhelming temptation of success has to test it's mettle against Shrader's magisterial film. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The Wind Will Carry Us

(Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France, 1999)

Another bracing dose of Abbas Kiarostami's subtle, transcendent, and slyly comedic humanism.  As always, there is an impish side to Kiarostami; his trademark of epistemological uncertainty that is at least partially for laughs, a joyful concession to the beguiling confusion of existence. All you can say for sure is that there's something funny going on - both inside and outside of the frame.  Gradually, however, the picture resolves.  That's the way of Kiarostami's fundamentally poetic approach to cinema.  An image, a character, an object - sometimes all three at once - is introduced, and then shifted slightly, repeated, echoed, as the theme develops. The Wind Will Carry Us, like pretty much every Kiartostami film I've seen, seems to be about nothing short of life itself.  He's one of the very few directors that pulls this off with apparent effortlessness; nobody does the universal in the particular like Kiarostami.  The quiet strangeness of life, the limpid beauty of nature, the awkward and quaint behavior of human beings are all regarded with a wise, curious eye.

More specifically, The Wind Will Carry Us concerns the old theme of urban versus rural culture.  Much of the humor comes from the awkwardness of the main character and his cell phone, and the mutual bemusement of the documentary crew and the local villagers.  Among Kiarostami's great skills is rhythm, and much is revealed in the contrast between modern, urban rhythm and that of the rural community, which is shown by Kiarostami as being more attuned to nature.  Among the rhythms is the act of reproduction and the human desire that precedes it, which must be kept hidden due to the cultural strictures of the remote town and the realities of censorship in modern Iran.  Sex and death might be the essential dialectic of Kiarostami's work, but there are other factors at work in the foreground that, at least to my eyes, are just as important, if not more so.  If the big, heavy themes loom in the background, we should be careful not to miss what's closer at hand, if far less imposing: the daily rituals of a life lived slowly, the little eddies of emotion generated by misunderstanding and mood, the small graces and tenderness born of compassion and affection. 

Sunday, January 3, 2016


(John D. Avildson, USA, 1976)

Finally catching up with this one, I found it to be considerably more idiosyncratic than its reputation would suggest.  It wears its shameless myth-making proudly, playing through the absurdity of the story's arc with the kind of shambolic swagger that Rocky himself exhibits; he can't help but be endearing. You want to see the kid win.

It's in the final act that the story becomes most obviously schematic, and doesn't quite fulfill it's early promise, and yet even here, it's hard to fault the film as it follows The Italian Stallion to his inevitable triumph.  There's a kind of elemental innocence to Rocky the character, which goes a long way in explaining the massive and enduring success of the film and the franchise it spawned.  Rocky, although it exhibits a level of grit and an immersion in hardly-working-class milieu that is exemplary of the American cinema of the 1970s, is in many ways a kind of corrective to the stories of despair and ellipsis that marked the films of that era.  Rocky's triumph was a re-claiming of the old myths of Americana - the self-made man, the land of opportunity, etc.  The bruiser with the heart of gold, the essential goodness at the heart of even the most disreputable bum, the triumph of the working man.  In such a resumption of illusion, there is a subtle undertone of menace; inside every escapist fantasy is a submission to a corrupt system.  But as far as entertainment goes, it brings together elements of striking imagination and verve, larding the absurdly obvious with moments of genuine delight.  Besides all the bullshit, there was something authentic about Rocky, at its core; it saw the despair of inner city decay for what it was, and it didn't try to deny it.  The film is just self-aware enough to permit viewers to accept it for what it is, and love it.