Archive for the ‘one of the year's best’ category

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

July 13, 2014

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.

Snowpiercer

July 5, 2014

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.

Life Itself

June 29, 2014

roger-ebert-gives-a-thumbs-up-after-receiving-a-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame-in-hollywood-inWell, Roger, you made it. You’re in a movie. Not only that, you’re its star and focus. Life Itself is based partly on your memoir of the same name. Readers who are not you will no doubt wonder why I’m addressing this review to you, who are not here, and not to them. Well, it’s because you had a knack for writing reviews seemingly addressed to me and me only, and millions of other readers likely felt and feel the same way. You didn’t bother much with film theory or ten-dollar words. You wanted everyone to understand you: the film buff, the folks at the bar, the kid who was just starting to develop critical thinking. The movie about you is likewise straightforward. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t get fancy. It just tells your story.

The documentarian Steve James, whose great film Hoop Dreams you tirelessly promoted, has directed Life Itself with open eyes and no fear of showing you in your least glamorous moments. You allowed James to film you undergoing an undignified throat-suction procedure, and then you emailed him that you were glad his movie would show what is seldom seen in a movie. You always respected that in a movie: something you hadn’t seen before, and something that told the truth. That suction bit, hard as it is for the rest of us to watch, is almost the defining moment of the movie, since we know it’s there because you wanted it there. You also wanted the movie to tell the truth about your lost years as an alcoholic, when you would kill hours in bars and take home women who were bad for you.

Finally you met, and married, a woman who was good for you: Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, whom you called “the great fact of my life.” You would no doubt be grateful to know that Chaz comes off beautifully in the movie, yet still human, someone who could get frustrated with you when you didn’t feel up to doing things you needed to do. There is a scene where you don’t want to climb some stairs, and Chaz says you have to, and eventually you do it. Many of us have lived this scene in one or both of the roles. We can all be annoying and stubborn at times, and you were no exception. You would have respected a movie that touches on realities of human relationships that Hollywood usually ignores.

Many of your friends, some famous (Scorsese, Herzog) and some only known in Chicago newspaper circles, speak movingly on your behalf. One friend, of course, is absent: Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. Gene’s widow, Marlene, says at your funeral in the movie that when you were still alive she felt as though she still had a piece of Gene left. Life Itself devotes a chunk of time to your prickly partnership with Gene, with many amusing outtakes of you two roasting each other. But Marlene reads aloud a letter you sent her in your later years, saying that as you got older and sicker you thought more and more about him. You soldiered on without him, first with other critics and then as a solo act, something Gene might have snippily said would never and should never happen. But in the end he probably would have been proud that, just as you were losing your ability to speak, you gained a new voice on Twitter and in your blog. You were both tough Chicago newspapermen who wanted to keep going no matter what.

As Life Itself goes on it becomes more cinematic, as if your fading life force were naturally resolving itself into the movie it would become. It is difficult for those of us who were fond of you to see you so frail and to see the increasingly depressed-sounding emails you were sending Steve James. You sensed the movie was nearing its conclusion. You wanted to see more; you wanted to see what happened next. You didn’t want to leave Chaz and your stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. For all that, Life Itself doesn’t milk your death for cheap tears. Chaz soldiers on without you, as we all must do when bereaved, and carries on your website and your life passion. She’s sad, Roger — we all are — but she’s going to be okay, and the movie notes that. Beyond all that, your life has made for a sharp, intimate, honest and compelling film. Congratulations, Roger. Thumbs up.

Maleficent

June 1, 2014

maleficent-angelina-jolie-31It has to be uncannily accidental synchronicity, but Disney’s Maleficent — emerging as it does after a week of national conversation about misogyny — is an unintentional #YesAllWomen fable. Men — or pretty much the only men we see — are weaklings, given to warmongering to impose their power. Women stand with nature, peace, paganism. The movie is a retelling of Disney’s earlier Sleeping Beauty, wherein the evil fairy Maleficent, offended at not having been invited to the christening of the king’s daughter, put a curse on her. In the new take, the offense runs much deeper and darker.

Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is a powerful and benevolent faerie in the verdant, misty Moors, fending off occasional attacks from the bordering human kingdom with little trouble. Then one of the king’s subjects, Stefan (Sharlto Copley), who’d been friends with Maleficent when they were both younger, drugs her, cuts her wings off, and brings them to the dying monarch as proof that he is worthy of assuming the throne. In essence, Stefan roofies and rapes her. The feminist screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King), understands fable and myth and symbol. Stefan can’t bring himself to kill Maleficent, so he mutilates her, denies her the release of flight. There’s nothing sexual in the assault, but then rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power; and Stefan’s act violently asserts the primacy of maleness (monarchy) over femaleness (the faerie realm).

Your kids may or may not pick up on most of that, but the subtext enriches the journey. Maleficent goes mad with rage, cursing Stefan’s newborn daughter Aurora, but then an interesting thing happens. Keeping watch over the girl (played as a teen by Elle Fanning), to make sure Aurora lives to see her sixteenth birthday when the curse will take effect, Maleficent grows fond of her. Some will call this needless softening of a great villain, but between this film and Frozen, Disney seems tired of “great villains” who reinforce old stereotypes. Elsa and now Maleficent have layers; they use their powers unwisely and are capable of regretting it. Stefan, too, has shadings of guilt and dread; he does despicable things, but behind it all is an orphaned boy who grew up in a barn. Stefan was driven to power because he came from utter powerlessness, and his betrayal of Maleficent brings him only misery and terror.

Director Robert Stromberg has won two Oscars for art direction, and predictably Maleficent, with cinematographer Dean Semler joining Stromberg behind the camera, has an eye for the beauty in darkness. Frequently, Angelina Jolie’s bone-white, angular face is the only thing visible in the shadows, looking on with malice or amusement or affection, glamorous as all hell. The sequences in which Maleficent slowly takes Aurora into her trust and her home have the delicate poignance of The Curse of the Cat People, in which former bad girl Simone Simon embraced little Ann Carter in the world of daydreams and butterflies. Maleficent has more in common, in fact, with that undervalued Val Lewton production than with the 1956 Sleeping Beauty, a bland reaffirmation of the status quo. Here, Maleficent is described as someone who is both hero and villain, and the only one, straddling those two moral worlds, who can set things right.

Angelina Jolie could’ve played an arch, cackling, two-dimensional gorgon, and it would’ve been delirious camp to launch a thousand drag queens, but what she does here cuts sharper, and when Maleficent pulls herself up to full majestic power during the climax it’s a real fist-pumping moment. Jolie purrs, snarls, sneers, comforts, sheds a single chic tear; it’s the kind of big performance actresses used to get to sink their teeth into, paradoxically, in Hollywood’s more sexist days. Camille Paglia will tell you that women in movies back then were goddesses, iconic, rococo and formidable. Jolie’s Maleficent is larger than life: larger than the movie she’s in, which is fastidiously crafted but can’t seem to contain what Maleficent represents — not merely woman scorned but nature affronted. Violence against women transgresses the psychic soil, makes a bloody mudbath out of the earth we commonly stand on. “There is evil in the world,” Maleficent tells Aurora, guiltily meaning herself, but also referencing a place in which a faerie can have her wings torn off and her assailant can seat himself on the throne. #YesAllWomen, indeed.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

April 6, 2014

20140406-211249.jpgIn The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson makes no pretense whatsoever to reality. Anderson’s films, of course, have all been fanciful and fantastic, but this one ensconces itself in a fictional European country whose characters all speak in different accents, the natural accents of the actors playing them. When Edward Norton turns up as a fascist military inspector named Henckels, he doesn’t bother sounding like a fascist military inspector named Henckels; he just sounds American, and Ralph Fiennes, as a hotel concierge known as M. Gustave H., uses his native English tones. This prepares us to view The Grand Budapest Hotel as a fable told via actors playing dress-up. It’s consciously artificial in a way that Anderson’s films haven’t been before, and that’s really saying something.

The key to the movie, for me, is its elaborate matryoshka structure. The story is told to us by The Author (Tom Wilkinson as an older man, Jude Law as his younger self), who talks about the time he was told a story by the elderly Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) about the time he, as a young man (Tony Revolori), worked as a lobby boy in the Grand Budapest Hotel for Gustave. The Author tells this story in a book called The Grand Budapest Hotel, read in the present day by a girl standing before a monument of The Author. We are seeing all this in a movie called The Grand Budapest Hotel, making us the audience to a reader to an author listening to a storyteller. What’s more, Anderson evokes each era by using a different aspect ratio — in 1968 the frame is enormously wide, in 1932 it’s a demure square.

The events surrounding the story — Nazism encroaching like a bloodstain on a map — suggest that Anderson is boxing off the historical nightmare the way his compartmentalized, symmetrical compositions box off everything else. Just outside the colorful wackiness in the frame, shadows lie. The plot itself, sectioned off by all the narrative scaffolding, is almost inconsequential: a rich matron of the hotel (Tilda Swinton) has been murdered, leaving a priceless painting to Gustave in her will, and the police nab Gustave for the crime. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, the movie isn’t about this plot; it’s about how we use stories to keep thorny emotions in manageable spaces. People die, and the deaths aren’t felt, at least not in the story as it is told. A major character’s great love dies offscreen, her fate covered by a couple of lines of narration. The Grand Budapest Hotel is not a callous work, but it’s about packing painful experience in storage.

On the most basic level, the movie is visually sumptuous, with Anderson’s fizzy deadpan comedy ladled over the immaculate design. The elegance of the look and sound is broken every so often by salty language, glimpses of surreptitious sex, even some bloodshed, all of which are relatively scarce in Andersonworld. When the jailed Gustave takes a sip of water and sets the glass down, we see a little cloud of red swirling in it. That’s about all the reality of prison brutality that Anderson wants to, or needs to, show us. Yet severed body parts and a breathless chase between a skier and a sled are also on the menu. There may be several floors of story here, but the overstory is a movie — the movie is the hotel itself, a story for each room. So Anderson gives us movie-ish thrills and a mystery of the sort we’ve seen umpteen times.

Of all the divertissements, I think what I enjoyed most was the implication that every great hotel back in the glory days of hotels was distinct only in design. A passage titled “The Society of the Crossed Keys” gives us a montage of concierges responding identically to a crisis, saying “Take over” to their right-hand men no matter what they’re doing. For all the moneyed prestige and pride of their architecture, functionally they might as well all be in the same motel franchise. This, of course, is never true of Wes Anderson’s films, which always manage to be utterly unlike anything else surrounding them in adjoining theaters. As for this one, it’s almost as if Anderson is addressing the detractors of his hermetic-dollhouse style and saying that wildness and weirdness are possible inside the dollhouse, and darkness outside.

Noah

March 31, 2014

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David Lynch’s Dune. Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Ang Lee’s Hulk. David Cronenberg’s The Fly. Francis Coppola’s Dracula. Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. These are all big-budget movies, based on popular material, directed by artists who made them a lot stranger and wilder and more idiosyncratic than they actually needed to be. These directors could have delivered bland, lowest-common-denominator adaptations — except that they couldn’t have, because the artist demon inside wouldn’t let them. To this short list we might now add Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, a genuinely odd and sometimes off-putting work of art, folly, and often both at once.

Aronofsky takes the Biblical story of Noah (Russell Crowe) absolutely seriously, though by all accounts he’s not a Christian. He may not believe in it literally, but he believes in it as a story, a parable. A few years back, the legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb published his word-for-word illustration of the Book of Genesis, and while it was an immaculate work of craft, it had very little of Crumb in it. He seemed to take it on entirely as an exercise. Aronofsky does the exact opposite with Noah, though the craft is still impeccable; he fleshes it out as a psychological war between man and his Creator, which is really a war between man and his own poor understanding of the Creator, who cannot be understood.

Noah receives dread-ridden visions of the catastrophe to come: the Creator is going to wipe the slate clean, leaving only two of each animal to survive and multiply, because they, unlike warlike and greedy man, “still live as they lived in the Garden.” The Creator is wrathful on the highest level: Man, created in His own image, has turned out to be His greatest and most destructive failure. Noah, charged with the preservation of the animals, becomes the conduit for the Creator’s loathing of humanity as Noah understands it. Noah comes from the blameless (and lesser-known) bloodline of Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, but he still bears the weight of original sin. Rather than making all this into a bloodless psychological study of a deluded man, Aronofsky does something more difficult — he literalizes the miracles and madness, so that Noah, like Jesus in Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ, comes across as a flawed human tormented by what he thinks the Creator wants from him.

Aided by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Aronofsky gives Noah’s world a harsh, savage beauty. The Watchers, fallen angels who help Noah build his ark and defend him against the army of the corrupt Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), are truly bizarre monstrous creations, covered in rock and mud as punishment for defying the Creator by helping Cain. Noah is a frequently dotty mash-up of fantasy, scripture, environmental activism, and dreamlike cinematic technique. As such, it’s the most fully alive and exciting film out there right now, and quite possibly the year’s first great American movie, or at least one with greatness in it. It feels utterly uncompromised, a pure shot from the source.

Crowe anchors the whole unwieldy thing with a calmness that comes to seem a bit frightening. He almost never even raises his voice; he doesn’t need to. By the time Noah is contemplating murdering his own newborn granddaughters to adhere to what he interprets as the Creator’s plan, he’s essentially lost us, but Crowe hasn’t. The movie is full of moral wrestling like this, as well as king-hell battle scenes and the genuinely horrifying disaster of the great flood itself, which sweeps away the innocent and sinful alike — though who’s innocent and who’s sinful? The society we see that’s judged worthy of extinction isn’t much different from ours — we’re actually worse. Noah might look at what’s become of creation and stab the hell out of those babies. The movie doesn’t quite reconcile Noah’s convictions with the future of mankind, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a work full of life, splendor, terror, awe, and foolishness — the kind of stubborn art-epic we get once in a blue moon, the sort that makes me feel protective of it, grateful for it.

The Wind Rises

February 17, 2014

the-wind-rises-image02The Wind Rises, which may or may not be the swan song of master animator Hayao Miyazaki, begins with a dream of flight. It’s early in the 20th century, and young Jiro Horikoshi wants to fly airplanes. His poor eyesight blocks him from being a pilot, so he settles for designing planes. Throughout the movie, Jiro confers with legendary aeronautical engineer Giovanni Caproni in their “shared dreams” of conquering the skies. The Wind Rises may be the most “realistic” feature Miyazaki has ever made — it lacks Miyazaki’s standard nature spirits and fanciful animals — but it’s still a humble tribute to imagination and creativity, and it unfolds in a gentle universe formed by nature and deformed by humans.

Jiro Horikoshi was an actual engineer; he designed the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, which caused the Allies (and Pearl Harbor) so much grief in World War II. But this is not meant to be taken as a too-literal biography. Miyazaki mashes up Jiro’s life with Tatsuo Hori’s short story “The Wind Has Risen,” about a woman with tuberculosis (a disease Hori suffered with). Thus, Jiro is given a wife, Naoko, who has tuberculosis. To Miyazaki, I think, Naoko represents the innocence that would soon die in the inferno of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Japan,” says a German ex-pat to Jiro, “will blow up.” Miyazaki may be saying that if we don’t blame Oppenheimer and his brothers in the Manhattan Project for the A-bomb and how the military used it, so we shouldn’t blame Jiro for the Zero and how the military used it. In part, The Wind Rises is a tragedy about dreams bent to the will of mass murder.

Miyazaki may not have as much fantasy imagery to conjure with this time — that’s pretty much limited to Jiro’s dreamscapes — but The Wind Rises is still world-class animation, with obsessive attention lavished on the smallest, subtlest things: the flush rivets in an airplane hull; a bowl of watercress salad; moths flitting about a streetlight overlooking Jiro and Naoko. The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is realized with an almost spiritual horror, accompanied by vocal effects that sound like the groaning of an angry Gaia. Miyazaki doesn’t show us the casualties, just the wreckage of houses built by men who presumed to claim a patch of Earth as their own. It’s a warning to Jiro — who is on his way to university by train when the quake hits — that human minds, however advanced and well-educated, cannot master nature and her whims.

Far from being an apologia for a man who enabled death, The Wind Rises is the story of an artist/scientist who only wanted to make beautiful airplanes, but happened to be born in a time and country that hammered every effort and ambition on the anvil of war. At one point Jiro quips that the planes would be lighter if the weapons were left out. His spiritual mentor Caproni says that planes shouldn’t be built for war or money, and Miyazaki seems to endorse this. We spend most of our time with Jiro and fellow engineers, some of whom, like his grouchy boss Kurokawa, sternly keep the engineers on the track to military accomplishment, but most likely because that’s what the culture of Japan at that time demanded. Kurokawa also presides tearfully over the quick wedding of Jiro and Naoko, so he hasn’t been completely lost to the machinery of war.

Naoko is no Princess Mononoke, defiantly spitting blood and doing battle on behalf of nature; she’s a blank signifier of Japanese suffering. That’s about the only bummer here. Miyazaki is more concerned here with the conflict of feminine and masculine in one WWII-era male, the conflict between beauty and destruction. “The only excuse for making a useless thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “is that one admires it intensely. All art is quite useless.” The Wind Rises says that when art is made useful — mostly for the purposes of war — the earth trembles; some law of nature has been shattered. (Many guns, too, are masterpieces of design. Not to mention swords.) Miyazaki, not yet a year old when some of Jiro’s artwork strafed Pearl Harbor, has made a tragic epic about what happens when the spirit of creativity is put to corrupt usefulness.

Her

January 13, 2014

her-FilmAre four feature films (and a multitude of innovative music videos) enough evidence to declare someone a master? Her, a hushed and vaguely futuristic love story, finds writer-director Spike Jonze at four for four, after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation, and 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. All of these movies grapple with consciousness and identity while sustaining moods of playful inquiry, like droll philosophers spinning thought experiments. Her is what’s sometimes called “soft” science fiction, focusing on characters and emotion rather than hardware and convoluted world-building; it’s also a romance that questions what love is or can be. In this day-after-tomorrow universe, a man can say his girlfriend is his computer’s operating system and nobody finds it creepy.

Jonze creates a reality where the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), makes his living by writing love letters for those who don’t have words of their own. This idea of surrogate affection is a major theme of the movie; Her, like 2001, sees a future in which technology has vastly improved modes of communication but humans are still essentially monkeys who can’t talk, beholden to the archaic operating systems in their heads. Theodore is separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is dragging his feet on signing the divorce papers; he doesn’t want to let go of his identity as a husband, or at least as a man found worthy of being a husband. He’s trapped in his own head, using words to live a romantic dream vicariously through his clients.

Then he finds out about the latest hot thing — OS1, an operating system that can learn and respond and grow like a person, like Siri with a soul. Theodore’s new OS christens herself Samantha and has the smoky, cheerful voice of Scarlett Johansson, who along with the mopey but hopeful Phoenix builds one of the strangest and most honest romantic rapports in recent memory. Much of the time we’re watching Phoenix alone on the screen, but the movie invites us to envision Samantha alongside him (and she doesn’t necessarily look like Johansson in our heads). Samantha enjoys organizing Theodore’s life, and he enjoys her company; they take each other out for “Sunday adventures,” with Samantha seeing through the camera in Theodore’s handheld device.

With someone like Spike Jonze at the helm, we feel reassured that Her won’t go anywhere predictable or add stupid supposedly-comedic complications to the story, and it doesn’t. It sticks to its premise and goes deeper and expands there. Samantha wants more; she feels slighted by not being a physical presence in Theodore’s life. The surrogacy motif recurs when Samantha hires a woman (Portia Doubleday) to be Samantha’s body, and the episode is both funny and saddening — Theodore can’t get out of his head, can’t reconcile the physical woman in front of him with the Samantha in his imagination. It creeps him out on a number of levels, and the woman departs tearfully. We almost want to follow her into her own movie; we want to know what kind of woman (or man) wants to be a physical surrogate for an OS. Meanwhile, Theodore is more or less ignoring a real physical woman in his view, his old friend Amy (Amy Adams), a videogame developer, who has forged a friendship with her ex-husband’s female OS. All of this feels emotionally plausible; Jonze never pushes it into inelegant farce.

Her takes the premise to its logical conclusion, which involves evolution and the digital shade of philosopher Alan Watts (voice by Brian Cox). That’s a key to the movie right there: Watts liked to peg himself as “a philosophical entertainer,” and that seems to be what Spike Jonze is up to. Jonze also writes sharp dialogue between Samantha and Theodore, emphasizing how unevolved he is and how fast she’s growing past him. Her ends on a sad but hopeful note, lingering on a shot of two humans dwarfed by the technological cityscape — monkeys in thrall to the Monolith. As for Samantha, or the higher consciousness, Watts put it best: “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

January 5, 2014

wows-03The Wolf of Wall Street may be the most exuberant film about sin ever made. Therein, for many viewers, lies the rub: Is it sufficiently scolding about what it shows us? When we’re following stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from excess to excess, when the screen is full of cocaine and whores and many other signposts of profound debauchery, are we supposed to be having such a good time? The moralists, made uneasy, rumble scornfully. Let them rumble: Wolf is a shot of the hard stuff, gargantuan and electrifying, a psychotronic epic of the id unchecked. It lands with a reverberant thud in the midst of the bitter national mood: why do so few have so much at the expense of the many who have so little? The director, Martin Scorsese, is famously Catholic, and he has made a movie that, absent the skin and nose candy and rampant obscenity, the current Pope might agree with.

But leave such meditations on the film’s clean intentions to the literal-minded. Wolf of Wall Street is a caffeinated (or cocaine-driven) victory of sheer heedless, beautiful filmmaking for its own sake; there isn’t a dead shot anywhere in its three hours, which go by like a comet. Jordan Belfort starts out as a little fish in a big pond — baying for money at a large Wall Street firm — and, following the crash of ’87, finds work at a Long Island boiler room, selling pink-sheet crap for fifty-percent commissions. Soon enough, he filches some co-workers and some weed-dealer cronies and starts his own firm, with the hilariously patrician name of Stratton Oakmont. It’s hugely successful, and the men celebrate their own stench with marching bands and “blue-chip” prostitutes and dwarf-tossing.

The stench permeates the film: One problem with wild excess is that it vampirizes the body and soul. In a never-to-be-forgotten sequence, Jordan and his right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, the movie’s nuttily inspired MVP) acquire some age-old Lemmon 714 quaaludes; impatient with the drug’s delayed-action effects, they pop more and more, until they’re both shambling, drooling, shorted-out robots. Party on, dude! The way the situation resolves itself — with Jordan catching a Popeye cartoon on TV, using cocaine as spinach, and saving Donnie’s life — is Scorsese’s sly nod to the “kids, don’t try this at home” moralism he knows some viewers will demand. The drug-taking looks exhausting, the sex is pointedly unsexy. Scorsese shows all this as hollow without standing aside and announcing its hollowness. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, you’d have to be a moral idiot to find the shenanigans emulable, but the film, like Scorsese’s GoodFellas, doesn’t pretend that excess in itself, or the fantasy idea of it, isn’t addictive and a great kick. If it weren’t, who would want it?

Pumping himself full of toxic salesman air, DiCaprio stands astride the orgies with the aura of an unquestioned emperor; Wolf, along with Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby, completes his trilogy of men blighted by filthy money. The movie isn’t misogynistic, but its narrator is, so the women are generally seen as bodies and mouths that either add to or subtract from the fun; but Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie take sizable bites out of their scenes as Jordan’s first and second wives, Joanna Lumley does an elegant turn as an aunt who helps Jordan launder money, and Stephanie Kurtzuba has a great brief bit as one of Stratton Oakmont’s success stories, a single mom who went to work for Jordan and pulled herself out of poverty. Besides, no movie that hates women would linger as it does on the anecdote in which a female staffer is offered $10,000 to have her head shaved, does so, and then sits there with the ruins of her hair, a stack of green, and a visible hole where her dignity used to be.

If Wolf of Wall Street has a hero, it’s FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), a 99-percenter taking on the one-percenters who bathe in the blood of other one-percenters (which, in turn, affects the 99-percenters that the one-percenters employ). Denham shlumps around the city in subway cars instead of inside his own helicopter or yacht or Porsche, but he sleeps with a clear conscience. By the end, Jordan, having done soft time at a minimum-security Nevada white-collar prison, is pumping up the next generation of swindlers, headlining motivational talks for would-be wolves in New Zealand. “Sell me this pen!” he demands, narrowing the wolf-eats-sheep ethos of finance down to four syllables. GoodFellas sealed Henry Hill’s moral blankness by having him gripe, “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Here, Jordan gets to live the rest of his life teaching schnooks to sell other schnooks their own pens.

Inside Llewyn Davis

December 8, 2013

Inside-Llewyn-Davis“Talented” is death, a waffle-word to describe the never-was, the artist distinguished enough to get on stage and not stink up the joint, but not exceptional enough to soar and to take the audience with him. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), the folk singer at the center of the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, is talented. Llewyn used to be someone, part of a folk duo called Timlin and Davis, until Timlin jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Now Llewyn drifts from gig to gig and couch to couch. The movie definitely takes the romance out of living in Greenwich Village in the old days; it’s set in 1961, not even a decade after the events of Paul Mazursky’s wistful memoir Next Stop, Greenwich Village, but the winter air is thick with the desperation of the “talented” to break out. Llewyn is decidedly not Larry Lapinsky, munching on an apple strudel at the end of Next Stop and thinking about where he’s been and where he’s going.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a plotless, week-in-the-life character study, following Llewyn from New York to Chicago and back, often in the company of a cat who seems as restless as he is. The musical backdrop works here the way it worked in the Coens’ 2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the songs of Americana born of strife and poverty yet transcending despair by the purity of their sound. “If you’re singing,” the songs seem to say, “you’re alive.” The saturnine Llewyn doesn’t transcend anything; he’s down, and he seems to want to take the audience down with him. He’s a bummer, and Oscar Isaac plays him that way, but with an angry edge; Isaac is uningratiating but compelling. Llewyn is a dick who knows life is passing him by, and knowing it makes him more of a dick. He doesn’t even have the redeeming musical grace that Sean Penn’s even more loathsome guitarist had in Sweet and Lowdown.

As always, the Coens get the external details precisely right. I don’t know how much it cost to reproduce the Greenwich Village of 1961, complete with period cars that are only seen glancingly enough to identify them as period cars (maybe those were done with CGI), but it was worth it. And as always, the filmmaking is gorgeously controlled, no mess, nothing extraneous. The lead character is heavy but the movie isn’t; it’s full of lively, immediately readable people, except for Llewyn himself. The title (also the name of Llewyn’s solo album) is ironic: we never really do get inside Llewyn Davis.

We know so little about him; he doesn’t say much about himself, and we don’t know whether he mourns Mike Timlin or just mourns the fact that his own career hit the water along with Timlin. The only people who seem to like Llewyn are a sociologist (Ethan Phillips) and his wife (Robin Bartlett), and Llewyn repays them by losing their cat and then insulting them. Yet Inside Llewyn Davis wouldn’t work if it were about a kind-hearted go-getter who doesn’t make it. It would be too depressing. It plays as a deadpan comedy in which a has-been or perhaps never-was tries to be as objectionable and as annoyingly unyielding as, say, Bob Dylan (seen briefly here at the end, as if showing Llewyn how it’s done) without having Dylan’s genius. Yet when he tries to sell out, as when he gigs as a session musician on an inane novelty ditty called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” he can’t even sell out right — he opts to take a fast paycheck instead of waiting for his agent to approve it, thus cheating himself out of the song’s royalties.

So the Coens surround their central blank with more enjoyable company, like John Goodman as a heroin-addicted jazz player, or F. Murray Abraham as a Chicago club owner, or Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as a husband-and-wife folk duo, half of whom Llewyn may have impregnated. I also appreciated Stark Sands as a soldier/folk singer who speaks fluent Coen-ese. They all have enough life to sustain their own films, but we stay stubbornly with Llewyn as he mopes and schleps the cat around and tries to scrounge money or couch space. Why make a movie about Llewyn (or Barton Fink, or Larry Gopnik, the mathematician non-hero of A Serious Man)? Why not, especially since American cinema tends to want to dismiss or forget any protagonist who isn’t dynamic and aggressive and, well, American, particularly now in the era of the superhero blockbuster? In a world of iron men and supermen and Norse gods, Llewyn is actually an exciting novelty.


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