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

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.

Dallas Buyers Club

November 24, 2013

Dallas-buyers-clubYou don’t have to be anti-science to question science in the hands of men who care more for profit. We are told by the corporate-owned press that anodynes found in nature are bad and those concocted in a lab are good — why? There’s no money in nature. In Dallas Buyers Club, a very unlikely radical and hero, ne’er-do-well Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), takes on the FDA and the medical establishment itself. It’s 1985, and Woodroof, a drug user, frequenter of prostitutes, and general scoundrel, is diagnosed with HIV. Woodroof, a reflexive homophobe, balks at this: Back then, HIV and AIDS were considered “the gay plague.” Woodroof is not, at first glance, a conventional hero — and indeed he continues to be crude and abrasive. Dying doesn’t really change him; it just makes him angrier, more passionate to suck any little juice out of life. The great thing about Dallas Buyers Club is that it proves someone can be kind of an asshole and also a great man.

At the hospital, Woodroof is given AZT, the only drug for HIV/AIDS therapy approved by the FDA. It doesn’t help him; it makes him sicker. So he looks outside the box, outside America, and hooks up with a doctor in Mexico (Griffin Dunne) who tells him about various, much less toxic treatments developed in France and other countries. They work, but alas lack the imprimatur of the FDA. Woodroof comes home with a trunk full of vitamins and protein-based serums, and sets up a “buyers club” wherein a $400 membership buys you all the drugs you want. Along the way, everyone tries to shut him down; he’s audited, his inventory is confiscated. But he’ll be damned if he’ll give in. The movie suggests that only an asshole like Woodroof — a single-minded good ol’ boy who drinks and whores around — has the Texas-sized stones to take on the big guns, all while holding off the biggest gun of all (initially given thirty days to live, Woodroof hung on seven more years, until 1992).

Dallas Buyers Club is only tangentially about AIDS; it’s really more for anyone who’s ever laughed bitterly at drug commercials that rattle off long lists of appalling side effects. At times, Americans seem to want to treat their bodies like a garden that they neglect to water and nourish; then, when the garden starts to fail, they dump kerosene all over it and hope that’ll fix it. In this movie, the medical establishment is hawking kerosene, because there’s money in kerosene. Woodroof isn’t a scientist, but he has some common sense and his will to live drives him into the library. Such patients are troublesome to doctors, who may want to be helpful (like the doctor played here by Jennifer Garner who has doubts about AZT) but whose hands are tied. The film says that this is what happens when health care becomes corporatized. Its reach becomes wider but clumsier and often mangles the Hippocratic Code. When all you’re allowed to use is a hammer, every disease becomes a nail.

Fair warning to epileptics and others sensitive to high-pitched noise: at several points in the movie, when Woodroof’s health falters, an intense whine dominates the soundtrack. Otherwise, the direction by Jean-Marc Vallée (The Young Victoria) is unobtrusive and delicate, treating the sometimes clichéd narrative beats with a matter-of-factness that helps put them over. A scene of hostility between one of Woodroof’s homophobic former buddies and Woodroof’s transgender business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) is good for a cleansing laugh, and perhaps not coincidentally this is the first time I’ve been able to tolerate Jared Leto in a movie. Woodroof puts up with Rayon and her Marc Bolan obsession, and words like “faggot” slowly drop out of his conversation, if for no other reason than that gays are now his customer base. To its credit, the movie doesn’t really give Woodroof a big moment of reform; he’s in the buyers club primarily to live and to make a living. He doesn’t want to be a firebrand taking on the Man, but he has to be.

Those who enjoyed Matthew McConaughey in his earlier roles, before he walked in the wilderness of inane romantic comedies for about a decade, have been heartened by his resurgence in meatier roles in Magic Mike, Mud, Bernie, Killer Joe, and probably the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street. It’s been a textbook comeback — the former sexiest-man-alive prince returns, possibly with the makings of a king — and his performance here is likely the jewel in the crown. McConaughey understands men like Woodroof and spends zero time detaching himself from Woodroof’s less savory inclinations or beliefs. Woodroof can be gallant and even whitebread when it suits him, but he never stops being the guy with dirt under his fingernails who bets on the rodeo and likes a lap dance. It’s great character-actor work with the scale of a major star turn, the sort of transformation we saw with regularity in the ’70s but have, by and large, learned to live without. McConaughey’s recent arc to greatness parallels that of the man he’s playing: If someone formerly so disreputable, so unworthy of serious consideration, can do work on this level, what else is possible?

12 Years a Slave

November 17, 2013

12_Years_a_Slave_Fassbender_Ejiofor.jpg.CROP.article568-large12 Years a Slave is a serious movie. It manipulates, but not cheaply. It tells a story of survival and horrendous endurance, and does not find anything remotely ennobling or inspirational in it. A man spends a dozen years in hell for no sane reason. That he began life and spent much of his adulthood as a free man only heightens his anguish. The movie is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who was drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and scripter John Ridley offer the audience no comforting way to get our heads around the situation, its outcome (the men who kidnapped Northup ultimately got away with it), or the fact that millions of other human beings in slavery had never known freedom and never would.

McQueen, until now best known for his art-house studies Hunger (about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands) and Shame (about a sex addict), lends 12 Years a Slave some dabs of dreamlike imagery — red sunlight peeking through the gnarled tree branches of New Orleans; a steamboat’s paddle wheel gnashing away at the river. But for the most part he approaches the narrative straight on and sober, with long, long takes bearing the weight of cruelty. At one point, Northup hangs from a tree by his neck, his feet just barely touching the muddy ground, while the other slaves go about their business elsewhere in the frame. We stare at Northup hanging there for what feels like hours, but is probably just a couple of minutes of screen time.

The film’s only real concession to conventional heart-tugging is Hans Zimmer’s score, at times a bit too insistent or ominous. 12 Years a Slave has its share of brutality, but I never felt a sadistic impulse behind it on the filmmakers’ part, the way I sometimes feel it from Schindler’s List. The violence here is just sad and repulsive, and even when Northup loses his even keel and lashes out at a contemptible overseer (Paul Dano), the sequence isn’t rhythmed to achieve a “yeah, go get him!” effect — we are, again, saddened, this time because the intelligent and gentle Northup has been provoked to act against his nature.

I’m not sure acting will get any finer this season than the scenes between rancid plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s suffering avatar in his previous films) and despairing slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps is sexually obsessed with Patsey, who picks more cotton than anyone on the plantation; her reward is rape, and assorted abuse not only from Epps but from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Fassbender, like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, goes beyond boilerplate evil into a deeply twisted humanity, while Nyong’o — in her feature-film debut — offers a devastating portrait of exhausted horror and misery. Patsey’s story violently refutes any easy sustenance we could derive from Northup’s. He was born in freedom and will eventually return to it; she wasn’t, and won’t.

As for Chiwetel Ejiofor, this is the major leading role he has deserved for some time, and he more than earns it, shivering in silent, profound disgust at Northup’s situation and surroundings, a man reduced to machinery. What impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave is its unstressed subtext dealing with the financial apparatus of slavery. Paul Giamatti (“My sentimentality extends the length of a coin”) shows up as a slave trader who displays his human wares as nonchalantly as a car salesman taking a buyer on a tour of his dealership floor. Both slaveowners we meet in the movie — the first is the largely less sadistic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) — have their money problems, suggesting that the god that the slaves desperately pray and sing to is having his little joke on mortals who set themselves up as God. Caterpillars munching on cotton in Epps’ field are described as a “plague,” which, coming from a man like Epps who professes to know his Bible, is an ironic metaphor. Near the end, Brad Pitt turns up as an itinerant carpenter who implies that slavery runs against the very order of the universe, echoing the earlier words of a favored house mistress (Alfre Woodard). Eventually the apparatus will — must — come crashing down. Or will it? According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 29.8 million people in slavery worldwide today. The United States accounts for nearly 60,000 of those.

The Counselor

October 27, 2013

the-counselor-michael-fassbenderReaders of Cormac McCarthy, who wrote the script for the convoluted new thriller The Counselor, might ask who this movie’s Ultimate Evil is, the Judge Holden, the Chigurh, the suzerain of the earth, silent and serene. Is it the drug kingpin Reiner (Javier Bardem)? Or the middleman Westray (Brad Pitt), who arranges deals between men like Reiner and men who need a lot of cash? Or even the sallow-faced assassin (Sam Spruell) we see stringing wire across a desert highway, the better to separate a motorcyclist from his helmet and its contents? Or could it be the never-named Counselor (Michael Fassbender), whose naïve dabbling in the drug trade stands to win him either $20 million or despair? Who in this amoral universe knows all, sees all, claims that nothing must be permitted to occur upon the earth save by his dispensation?

There’s an answer to that, late in the movie, and meanwhile we watch as the chess pieces, set in shaky motion, march towards a properly bleak McCarthy end. The Counselor is not so much a thriller, really, as it is a new gloss on McCarthy’s favorite conflict between the evil that knows too much and the good that doesn’t know nearly enough. The key, for those inclined to seek it, might lie in a late-inning phone chat between the Counselor and a cartel bigwig (Ruben Blades), who sounds like a somewhat gentler Judge Holden and speaks obliquely about crossings and events long set in stone. Over and over, the Counselor is himself counseled to avoid the path he wants to follow, and once he’s too far along the road, he is told it’s too late.

The movie is full of odd one-on-one conversations that may exasperate those who want the film to get to the point, but the dialogue is the point. It’s not snappy or clever, but it does evoke Hemingway in its weary fatalism and particularly its repeated assessment of women as a threat to the male Garden of Eden. Without women, you see, there would be nobody for men to impress with diamonds and other flashy indicators of wealth, and therefore no crime, no war. I don’t think the movie itself (or McCarthy) believes this — rather, it’s one more way in which the desperate and stupid men in the film sabotage themselves. The Counselor is not a feminist work — not with the old reliable madonna/whore construct represented by the Counselor’s innocent fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz) and Reiner’s cheetah-owning girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz) — but it’s not a masculinist work either. McCarthy is not much into heroes except when he’s writing about the literal end of the world.

The Counselor is vaguely apocalyptic as it is, set in a world where cartel thugs dispatch the unwise with vicious time-activated nooses called bolitos — McCarthy digs sending human beings to their maker with implements that seem designed for use on livestock, as with Chigurh’s cattle gun in No Country for Old Men. (In Cuba, a bolita refers to a lottery ball, and someone’s number comes up here.) The movie is being called violent, but the brutal bits are few and far between; we get what we need to keep our dread fresh. The Counselor has been directed by Ridley Scott outside his usual mode of ladling hot/cold visuals onto the screen to let us know that he, Ridley Scott, master visualist, directed it. As a result, it’s Scott’s best film in quite some time. He serves McCarthy’s story. We get the sense that the script magnetized everyone involved, who felt no need to diddle with anything or show off. The cast hums with a low intensity — there are no Oscar moments here, no disgraceful displays like Hugh Jackman in Prisoners. This film isn’t getting, but should, the grateful accolades that Prisoners got, and shouldn’t have.

How seldom we see the feared cartel monsters, or even the drugs themselves, in this putative cartel thriller. Almost everyone in the movie is on the margins of the trade, profiting from it without getting their hands bloody. This isn’t a noir thriller featuring the poor and desperate, but rather the rich and desperate, desperate to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. The story is simple but told with a terse economy that doesn’t spoon-feed us the narrative. The Counselor is one of McCarthy’s late-period minimalist fables, philosophical in speech but plain in action, unlike the efflorescent wilderness of pain and madness painted in McCarthy’s gravestone work Blood Meridian. “The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die,” says Judge Holden in that book, “but in the affairs of men there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night.” We don’t see many drugs in The Counselor because the people may as well be clashing over rocks or sand or flags. The Judge or Chigurh of the movie is revealed before the credits roll, but ultimately the Judge and Chigurh represent human folly, the illusion of control over events save by our dispensation.

Gravity

October 5, 2013

Sandra-Bullock-in-Gravity-2013-Movie-Image-2We could easily come up with a few legitimate complaints about Gravity. Emotionally, it’s a little pat. The film’s tagline — “Don’t let go” — resolves into that time-honored Hollywood bromide about life always finding a way. And along about the fifth or sixth crisis faced by Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), we may think a better title for the movie might be The Perils of Sandra. Despite its comforting aspects, though, Gravity is a work of techno-art, with images of humbling grandeur and scenes almost painful in the depth of horror they evoke. The film’s climactic reassurances, though welcome on some level after the bone-shaking ride we’ve had, feel a little soft because the true takeaway from the experience is this: Space is very, very unforgiving. Don’t fuck with it.

We’re up there above Earth, floating and bobbing and revolving, along with Dr. Stone and astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney). Stone is tinkering around on the outside of the space shuttle Explorer; this is her first time in space, and she’s nervous and nauseated. This is Kowalski’s last mission, and he scoots around in his Manned Maneuvering Unit, his mood jocular and calming. Then the Explorer receives ominous news: the Russians have blown up one of their own satellites, and the debris is heading for the Explorer with a powerful quickness. As the death-junk approaches, the music (by Steven Price) becomes a menacing paradox, huge yet needlingly intimate. This crap is coming for you, the score says, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. Soon enough, the Explorer becomes a piñata, communication to Houston is cut off, Stone finds herself reeling through the inky void, and Kowalski doesn’t have a lot of juice left in his MMU. And you thought you had problems.

At first glance a minimalist survival nail-biter on the order of, say, Cast Away or Open Water, Gravity ratchets up the terror by observing the pitiless logic of physics. In this zero-gravity reality, people bounce off each other and go spinning heedlessly into hard, unyielding objects; the physicality is a little overwhelming — the smallest movement can have massive consequences. For every action, it seems in space, there is a wildly inequal and opposite reaction. To deal with this, career astronauts must possess a certain serenity under enormous danger and a certain outlook on life and death, perhaps born of seeing the world from a literally different perspective than most of us do. Clooney’s Kowalski never loses his cool, continuing to urge Stone on with lulling optimism even when his own situation looks bleak.

Some have lampooned Gravity as “Sandra Bullock screaming for 90 minutes.” I’m sorry if the marketing has made it seem that way — and most of what you’ve seen in the commercials happens in the first half hour — but that’s unfair to Bullock, an amiable comic actress who has been impressive in dramatic roles, never more so than here. Stone is our avatar; we share her fright and her awe. Bullock finds the spark in a woman who long ago, in the wake of a tragedy, gave herself up for dead. Gravity is, in part, about how Stone learns to value her life again, and that’s a bit of a bummer — we intuit her turn rather than feeling it. But that’s not Bullock’s fault; the script only has so much time to flesh out Stone’s background. When Stone starts to feel alive, Bullock becomes more animated; we can almost feel the heat of her flesh where the blood is flowing again. (Maybe it’s intellectual rejuvenation — rather than feeling powerless, Stone has a hallucinatory epiphany that these are mechanical problems she can think her way around and solve.)

Gravity is perhaps the magnum opus from director Alfonso Cuarón, who hasn’t made a feature since 2006’s Children of Men; he spent much of the intervening time working on this film. This director adores technical challenges, technical wizardry; the carnage-spattered long-take chase scene in Children of Men is deservedly legendary, and he lets his shots here sprawl and breathe and gather dread. Gene Siskel’s statement about Who Framed Roger Rabbit (“I don’t know how they did it, and I don’t want to know”) applies just as accurately to the kind of magic Cuarón weaves. Not merely a cold craftsman, Cuarón shares with his confederates Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu a tough-minded humanism: people are imperfect and inhabit a hostile environment but strive anyway, and the striving itself is worth noting and making movies about. Nothing feels sadistic about the way Cuarón tightens the screws on his characters. He wants to view them in extremis — and more extreme than outer space you can’t get — because that’s where the story is. Gravity has some soft spots, probably best blamed on the marketplace demands of making a movie at the $100 million level, but it’s still a masterpiece, with appropriate respect for the vastness of the chessboard and the smallness of the pawns who can navigate it.


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