Friday, December 30, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives REVIEW

Uncle Boonmee is as unencumbered by the trappings of narrative as anything I’ve ever seen, which admittedly isn’t much compared to others. Still, I doubt there are many movies that have done so little with a 100-minute runtime. Uncle Boonmee won the Palm d’Or at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival (the festival’s highest honor), and on one level it deserves it--it is gorgeously photographed and evokes a half-remembered-dream feeling--while on another it’s almost unforgivably glacial. I’m thinking in particular of how slowly the actors deliver their lines, as if they were all half-asleep themselves.

 The story, such as it is, concerns a man named Boonmee, who has recently had a kidney operation but will be dead by the movie’s end. On his way to the grave he encounters the ghost of his dead wife and his long-absent son, who looks a bit like a black-haired Chewbacca (mating with a monkey lady will do that I suppose). Together with Boonmee’s sister-in-law and nephew, they’ll reminisce about, well, whatever comes to them.

The movie has a sizable following but to me it all seems rather aimless. What, for instance, does the opening prologue involving an escaped water buffalo have to do with a later tangent in which a catfish seduces a princess (you read that right)? On their own they’re interesting, but what is writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul going for? As far as I can tell, he’s talking about the relationship between humans and nature, and the ways they can become messily, sometimes supernaturally, intertwined. That's is all well and good, but what about that connection? What about that messy, supernatural relationship? Beats me.

I’m not the kind to dismiss slow, artsy, foreign films--if anything they’re my favorite kind--but Uncle Boonmee was simply not for me.


In Shame's opening sequence, in which director Steve McQueen and editor Sean Bobbitt introduce us to the everyday routine of a lonely sex addict, there's a moment where Michael Fassbender's face is out of focus, exaggerating the shadows under his eyes, the hollowness of his cheeks, the sharp angles of his jaw.

The symbolism is obvious--his character, Brandon Sullivan, is not quite among the living but not quite dead. He's trapped in a no-man's-land of compulsive behavior, never satisfied, always hungry.

In this particular scene he's eyeing a redhead on the subway, sizing her up, undressing her with his eyes. As for the redhead, she refuses to meet his eye at first, but then, still blushing, becomes bolder, not just meeting his stare but almost daring him with a coy smile. There's a ring on her finger, though, and soon a look of guilt crosses her face. She flees at the next stop, with Brandon following her but quickly loosing her in the crowd.

Is Brandon a willing predator, or a slave to something he can't control? In scenes like this, he seems to be fully conscious of what he's doing, but in others there's every indication that his addiction is legitimate. Sex to him is as necessary as three square meals a day--when it's time, it's time, and he's practiced enough to snare what he wants when he wants it.

The trade off is that Brandon doesn't have anything that you could remotely call a life. When he's not pursuing his lusts he's covering his tracks, keeping the sordid corners of his life hidden from view.

He's not a bad guy, after all. He is the type of suave gentleman who will hold the door open for you with a gracious smile. And unlike his obnoxious boss, he's not likely to hound a woman at a bar with pickup lines and obvious come-ons. His magnetic smile seems to naturally draw women to him, and when it doesn't, he has the money to pay for what he wants.

Still, his life is a solitary hell, devoid of love, and for whatever reason he wants nothing to do with the one woman who loves him and needs his love in return--his sister, Sissie (Carey Mulligan).

Sissie is damaged in her own right. "I love you, I love you, please!"she screams into her cellphone one night, as Brandon eavesdrops.To whom is she talking? He doesn't know and neither do we. All we know is that she doesn't have anywhere else to go, and so Brandon reluctantly agrees to let her sleep on his couch.

Reluctantly is being nice about it, though. He seems to genuinely hate Sissie, even as his eyes tear up one night while listening to her sing "New York, New York" in a swanky club. Whatever pain runs through their family runs so deep that neither feels the need to talk about it, though they obviously should. Sissie has scars on her arm and by the movie's end she'll have a few more. Brandon, meanwhile, will finally be brought to the brink, able to finally see himself as he really is--a broken man in need of something more than the empty sex and pornography he's filled his life with.

This is the second collaboration between McQueen and Fassbender. The first, Hunger, was the daring and austere story of a man's slow, agonizing death at the hands of a hunger strike. More than one critic has commented that Shame could just as easily have had the same title, and it's true, as Brandon's shame is more implied than overt, which is one of the movie's true negatives. McQueen and his co-screenwriter, Abi Morgan, may push Brandon towards his breaking point, but his journey would've been more powerful if there'd been a greater sense all along that he wanted to change but just couldn't find the strength.

Working against it, too, is the movie's emotional distance from its subject. This kind of distance can be exactly what's needed if what's on screen is sufficiently powerful enough. Such was the case with Hunger. In Shame, it's hard to escape the sense that we need just a little bit more. In the hands of a director like Terrence Malick, we would have been given Brandon's thoughts--his regrets, his longings, his inward cries for help. Instead we're left on our own to decipher the lines of Fassbender's face.

More often than not, his face is all we need. There are moments of such stillness, though, when Brandon's face is so eerily calm, that we can't be sure what's going on inside him. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps everything.

As a PS, I should mention that Shame is not easy to sit through. It's suitably unsexy, casting Brandon's life in a disgusting light, and the result is at times uncomfortable to watch. This, of course, makes Shame a hard movie to recommend outright. What saves it is its artfulness (the visual compositions are beautiful, as is the score by Harry Escott) and its moral center--which some critics have derided as too simplistically moralistic.

PPS: I don't typically say this, but Shame strikes me as movie crying out for a religious conversion. Brandon is so mired in the muck of his own depravity that I don't see how human willpower alone will do him any good.

Perhaps McQueen feels the same way. In the film's final scene, Brandon catches a glimpse of the same redhead from the movie's opening. She looks more assertive, more willing than before, even though that ring is still on her finger. Brandon, for his part, appears to be in great pain, torn between two sides of himself. If he was hungry before, he looks ravenous now, but not for sex--for grace. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

RELEVANT Magazine's Top 10 Films of 2011

My own top 10 list is still forthcoming, but a few of the picks that will end up on it made their way onto RELEVANT magazine's year-end list. You can read the feature, which I wrote, here.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Young Adult REVIEW

In college I wrote a short story about a family that had suffered a tragedy and the emotional wounds that continued to fester among them years later. The story was less about the particulars of the tragedy, though, than it was an extended exercise. Written in an austere, quotation-mark-free, borderline stream-of-consciousness style, I was attempting to mimic the repressed emotional turmoil of one particular character—the family’s teenage daughter. In retrospect, I probably laid it all on a little too thickly.

Still, I’m reminded of that young girl I created when I think about Mavis Gary, the woman Charlize Theron plays in Young Adult, the second collaboration between director Jason Reitman and screenwriter Diablo Cody. Young Adult isn't about the same kind of tragedy, but, like my own story, it is about how the past can become a prison and how one's frustration with the way life has unfolded can blind us to emotional problems, leading us to act impulsively, even irrationally.

In Young Adult, Mavis, who ghostwrites a failing teen book series for a living, returns to the small Minnesota town where she grew up. She’s ostensibly come back for a real estate deal, but really she’s come to reclaim her old beaux, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson), who is both married and a new father.

The only person in town who’s wise to what she’s doing is Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt). Matt was not only in love with Mavis when they were in high school but was also the victim of a vicious hate-crime that left him with a shattered leg.

The two are kindred spirits now, if they weren’t before, united by their common brokenness. What sets them apart, though, is that Matt is keenly aware of his problems. Mavis, on the other hand, either can’t or won’t acknowledge what is so plainly obvious to others and to the audience—she needs serious help.

It’s a credit to Reitman and Cody that Mavis is likeable at all. She can be mean and cruelly flippant when it suits her, but mostly she’s just cold and unfeeling. She has a dim view of marriage and an even dimmer view of children. In her mind, she’s not stealing Buddy away—she’s rescuing him. Her life, too, is a parade of bottles. First thing every morning she’s sucking down Diet Coke like an infant draining a bottle of milk. By mid-afternoon she’s dulling her senses with shot after shot of liquor.

As prickly as she is, though, it’s hard not to feel something special for Mavis, or rather, the person Mavis could be if she could put her life together. She reminded me of girls I knew in high school and to some extent in college. Girls who are looking at the pieces of their lives and trying to fit the ends together, however inelegantly.

Likewise, in Young Adult Reitman and Cody prove how keen their eye for detail and sense of place is. As Mavis drives into her hometown, she can’t miss the glistening new Chili’s, the immaculate Staples, and other big retail businesses that have sprung up along the outskirts. She regards them with disdain, as if they belong there even less than she does. Afterwards, I couldn’t escape the sense that I’ve been in towns like this, where “growth” goes hand-in-hand with a shiny new big box store. But is this really growth or just a sign of local stagnation?

Ultimately, what I love about Young Adult—and yes, I would use the word love in connection with Young Adult—is its lean, mean focus on cracking through Mavis’ brittle surface, stripping her of her delusions until she can see herself as she is. That the film backtracks in its penultimate scene, with Matt’s sister, Sandra (Collette Wolfe), assuring Mavis that she doesn’t need to change and that she really is too big of a fish for small-town Minnesota, is a bold move and threatens to capsize everything meaningful about Mavis’ internal journey. But even bolder is the film’s final, quietly devastating shot, which throws her entire future into question.

I have my own view about what happens after the picture cuts to black, but I suspect others will have wholly different opinions. The beauty, of course, is that neither yours nor mine can be proven. And that means that, regardless of how bleak things look at the end, it’s just as likely that Mavis’ best days are still in front of her.

Friday, December 9, 2011

What Does "Oscar-Worthy" Mean To You?

The New York Film Critics Circle and other critics groups have begun announcing their winners for 2011, officially launching this year's awards season. But regardless of their picks, the biggest awards event—the Oscars—is still to come.

I'd like to look beyond the Oscar ceremony itself, though, at just the phrase "Oscar-worthy." When the nominees are finally announced next February, what will unite them all is that at some point, a critic somewhere has used the phrase “Oscar-worthy” to talk about them. For example, “So-and-so delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. His/her most understated yet.” Or, “So-and-so’s gifts for directing make Such-and-Such one of the best films of the year, a truly Oscar-worthy effort.”

But as contemporary culture becomes more fragmented and the Oscar telecast struggles for relevance, a question worth asking is whether phrases like “Oscar-worthy” or “Oscar-level” mean anything anymore, if they ever did.

My own disillusionment with the Oscars began when Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture over Saving Private Ryan. As a small boy, the Academy’s choices had been sacrosanct to me. But in 1998 or 1999, it was suddenly obvious that voters had chosen what was comfortable and romantic—a crowd-pleaser—over a work that was serious and of historical and stylistic importance.

From there, once I learned about Oscar campaigns and how politics plays into the voting, the magic began to evaporate. I never would’ve guessed, when I was a boy, that sometimes people win because “it’s just their time.”

This was precisely the feeling when Martin Scorsese finally won his Best Director Oscar in 2007. Here’s the director of Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas—all lionized as classics of Hollywood cinema—winning largely because of the overwhelming sense that it was finally his time.

What, then, does it really mean to say that something is “Oscar-worthy” if the Oscars themselves aren’t as genuine as they might appear?

The name may be tainted, but I have to admit that it still means something to me, as I suspect it still means something to others. Getting rid of Oscar and “Oscar-worthy” means casting aside a cultural shorthand that unites generations and connects the present to the past and the future. The ceremony itself may amount to nothing more than the industry patting itself on the back, but the name signifies a gold standard that doesn’t belong to Hollywood—it belongs to anyone who loves movies.

That’s why, whenever I think about giving up on “Oscar-worthy,” I have to ask myself, what do we replace it with? A common language and shared history are important. I’m not prepared to give up on them. Not just yet.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Contempt REVIEW

Jean Luc Godard advanced more than just French cinema with movies like Á bout de souffle (Breathless) and Vivre Sa Vie (My Life to Live)—he advanced world cinema. But compare Le mépris (Contempt) to either of those and you’d swear you were dealing with two different directors. Whereas Breathless and My Life to Live feature hand-held, black-and-white camera work, unconventional soundtracks, and acting that feels improvisational, Contempt looks as slick as anything produced by the dream factories of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

But Contempt’s glossy sheen is just that—a sheen. Behind its carefully controlled tracking shots and lush, emotional score is a movie that's potentially as subversive as those others marking him off from France’s “Tradition of Quality.”

Michel Piccoli plays Paul, a playwright who’s been hired by Hollywood producer Jeremy (Jack Palance) to rewrite the script for a big-screen version of “The Odyssey” being directed by Fritz Lang (himself). If this sounds like the movie’s plot, though, it would be more accurate really to call it the subplot, as everything that happens between these three men takes a backseat to a story of Paul’s marriage—or, more specifically, the collapse of Paul’s marriage.

Sex symbol Brigitte Bardot stars as Camille, Paul’s wife and the object of Jeremy’s attentions, and I would like to emphasize the word “object” here, for throughout the film Godard photographs Bardot in seductive poses purposely objectify her.

Why does he do it?

From a utilitarian perspective, one that severs content from form, there may not be one. Godard just wants to titillate us, you might say.

But this ignores the historical realities behind Contempt’s production, as well as Godard’s own politics. According to Roger Ebert, when Godard’s financial backers saw a rough cut of the film, they balked at its lack of nudity, remarking that “he had cheated them by shooting a film starring Bardot and including not one nude shot.” Ebert adds, “In revenge, he gave them acres of skin but no eroticism.”

In other words, when faced with the same kind of situation as his characters, Paul and Mr. Lang, Godard responds with a critique of capitalist ideology disguised as capitulation.

How well does he really pull this critique off? That's debatable. Personally, I'm not sure he entirely succeeds. Neither would I rank Contempt as one of my favorite Godard films (that distinction would go to My Life to Live and maybe Pierrot le Fou). Still, it's transfixing in its own way. Lush would be a good word to describe it. Mythic and epic would work too, despite its intimate plot and settings. A feeling of mystery and of a piercing sadness permeates the entire picture. It is, for whatever it may lack, undeniably haunting and beautiful.


Vampyr, Carl Dreyer’s 1932 horror film, is visually interesting but also completely unaffecting. Especially when you compare it to his 1955 masterpiece, Ordet. It feels more like an undeveloped exercise than a fully thought out movie, with characters who act as they do because the script requires it and not because of any interior life they may lead. You could almost call it hackwork--if not for Dreyer’s fixed reputation as one of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema.

And indeed, Vampyr is marvelously filmed. When Dreyer’s camera isn’t smoothly tracking with his characters down hallways and corridors, it’s locking them in striking medium and tight close-ups that confine them to the very edges of the screen, as if they were the least interesting thing in the room. But excellent visuals just can’t make up for Vampyr's lackluster story and thin characters, even if the plot moves with more dexterity than it does in a movie like Ordet.

What’s missing is emotion. Ordet, if judged by its tableau staging--which links it more to the early days of cinema than to anything made in the middle of the twentieth century--and the slow...deliberate way...the actors...speak, just seems like it shouldn’t work. And yet, the sense of despair and joy suffusing the movie is stirring, and what it has to say about the power of faith is profound. It may well be the closest any of us come to witnessing a genuine miracle.

You’ll find nothing remotely as profound in Vampyr. It’s a genre picture, through and through, and worth watching if you consider yourself a cinephile, but otherwise, you’re better off sticking with Ordet.

The Descendants REVIEW

When it comes to movies, or any art form really, everyone's going to have their own opinion. But the view some critics have expressed about Alexander Payne's The Descendants--namely that it's cynical--doesn't make sense to me. If a cynic is someone who, according to Merriam-Webster, is "contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives" and cynicism an attitude "based on or reflecting a belief that human conduct is motivated primarily by self-interest," then The Descendants is one of the least cynical movies I've seen this year. For, it seems to me, that what Payne is expressing isn't a distrustfulness driven by contempt but a longing to understand what lies behind our flaws and frailties.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a successful lawyer and "back-up parent" living in Hawaii. His motto is "give your kids enough so that they can do something, but not enough so that they can do nothing." He's spent too much of his life working, though, and now, with his wife, Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma following a boating accident, he seems to be reaping what he's unintentionally sowed. 

For one thing, there are his daughters--the 17-year-old Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and the 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller)--both of whom are a handful in their own way. For another, there's the discovery that Elizabeth, who will soon be taken off life support, had been seeing another man before her accident and was on the verge of asking Matt for a divorce. And if that weren't enough, he's under pressure from his cousins to sell a large chunk of beachfront property his family has owned generations so it can be developed into a golf course.

So, with all that's going on, what's a man to do?

In this case, the answer seems to be: go find the man your wife was sleeping with and give him a chance to say goodbye. Which is why The Descendants strikes me as a deeply humanist, rather than deeply cynical, work of art. It even reminds me at times of the work of Frederick Buechner, one of our best religious humanists.

In Buechner's excellent novel, Godric, the narrator at one point remarks, "What's friendship, when all's done, but the giving and taking of wounds." Payne echoes this sentiment in an emotional scene near the end of The Descendants when Matt gently kisses Elizabeth's damp forehead and whispers, "Goodbye my love, my friend, my joy, my pain." And in a similar scene, one character shouts at another, "I forgive you because I have to!"

In fact, forgiveness in The Descendants is almost an inevitability, and therefore something of a mystery, since bitterness is the easier and more obvious reaction to pain. It's also just as central to Buechner's work and, of course, to the gospel itself. Payne may be addressing it from a secular perspective, but then my question is: is there really such a thing as secular and religious forgiveness, or does all forgiveness come from God? 

I'm no theologian, but my own feeling is that no such distinction exists. Forgiveness comes from that part of ourselves made in God's image. Not a "sacred" part of ourselves, per se, but a part that reflects that sacredness, making all acts of forgiveness a religious act.

All this being the case, cynicism isn't a word I would use to describe The Descendants, although it would be fair to say, as one moviegoer did, that it's "a little bit gloomy." What shines through for me, though, isn't one particular emotion, but a range of emotions we'll all experience in our lifetime--anger, grief, anxiety, confusion, but also happiness, joy, and laughter. Clooney conveys each with a performance that is one part Movie Star and two parts Everyman. We never forget it's Clooney we're watching, but neither is this the brash Clooney of other films--Clooney's own The Ides of March, for example. Matt King is a man who could exist in the real world, even if he is more handsome than most of us.

My one complaint about The Descendants is that it felt visually flat. Payne peppers the film with shots of the Hawaiian landscape--it's beaches and streets and hotels--but it all looks like a weathered postcard you found at the bottom of your mailbox. He's not able to truly capture Hawaii as a living, breathing place; it's merely a pretty thing that exists somewhere far away, where the view outside the window may be greener and bluer, but it's the day-to-day struggles of the people that's the true beauty.

Melancholia REVIEW

Critics have been comparing Lars Von Trier's Melancholia--about Earth's fatal collision with a mysterious planet that's also called Melancholia--with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life--a luminous mediation on God, life, and death--since the two premiered at Cannes in May.

For me, though, there's no contest--Malick's film is the clear winner. Not only are The Tree of Life's images more beautiful, they're also more meaningful. They point beyond themselves to something deeper and universally true. Melancholia's images, as beautiful as they may be, are undermined by a ruthless nihilism and a lack of imagination; they mean nothing beyond the obvious.

Just as problematic, for me, was the movie's oppressively gloomy tone and Kirsten Dunst's subdued performance. Melancholia is essentially a one-note picture, with the brooding Dunst as the sun around which everything--a lavish wedding party and the end of life as we know it--orbits. 

I wish I could say that I felt some empathy for her character (she plays Justine, a young bride suffering from clinical depression) but I can't. I couldn't connect with her, just like I couldn't connect with the rest of Trier's movie. The whole time I felt as restless and bored as Dunst looks during the wedding party in the film's first half.

If Melancholia has any power at all (and it has very little), it comes from the sound design and the use of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. In the movie's final shot, as Earth and Melancholia collide and life is extinguished in a brilliant burst of flame (trust me, this isn't a spoiler), the deep rumble of the planets and Wagner's triumphant music vie for dominance. It's a breathtaking finish to a forgettable art house film.

Marwencol REVIEW

A man is followed out of a bar one night by five thugs and beaten to within an inch of his life. Why he is beaten is a mystery that will haunt him for years. Maybe it was something he said. Maybe liquor had loosened his tongue too much and he let something slip he wouldn't normally have, like the fact that he has over two hundred pairs of women's shoes in his closet at home, all of them his, and that even though he likes women he doesn't feel like himself when he's wearing men's shoes, men's clothes.

Whatever it was that sparked the attack is just one of an endless number of memories that were erased from Barry Hogancamp's mind that night. Since then, life has been an endless series of baby steps. First, reconstructive surgery, then learning to walk and talk. As a Medicaid patient, he was entitled to therapy for awhile, until he hit his limit. But what good was therapy anyway? Could it rewrite the past? Could it help him gather up the pieces of his life and put them together again? 

With no one to help him, Barry resolved to find his own therapy. Since then, he's been diligently photographing the tiny, plastic residents of Marwencol.

More a state of mind than anything else, Marwencol sits in Barry's front yard, where most people might keep a garden, and consists of a handful of waist-high buildings Barry constructed himself from wood scraps and found objects. A narrow, muddy road littered with Barry's own high-heeled footprints runs between them. This is Marwencol's main street and is often the stage where Barry's dramas play out: On the steps of the church here, a Barbie and a World War II era GI Joe kiss while a fellow soldier peeks around a corner, expressionless; up in the bell tower, an American sniper watches over the sleepy town, a light mist in the air; and below, on this corner here, a group of GIs in a Jeep wave to a pair of friendly German SS officers standing in a doorway. Marwencol is neutral territory, you see. Everyone's welcome, as long as there's no trouble.

To an outsider, these are just dolls of course, but to Barry they represent the only life he can remember. One resembles him, another his mom, his best friend, the married woman he fell in love with after leaving the hospital, and on and on. They are as real to him as the town he lives in, and, using a simple digital camera with a broken auto focus, he lives vicariously through them, sometimes revisiting painful memories (like alcoholism, his divorce, his tragic beating), and often staging fantasies of love and revenge.
If Barry's project started out as therapy, though, it's become something more since, as Jeff Malmberg's 2010 documentary (named after Barry’s fictitious town) poignantly shows. Through interviews with Barry and his friends and family, Malmberg reveals how Barry's work has advanced beyond the personal and into the artistic.

Another documentary about art, Exit Through the Gift Shop, made a bigger splash with critics and moviegoers last year, but to me it pales in comparison to Malmberg's heart-breaking portrait of Barry. Marwencol captures with great simplicity one of the saddest of all truths--that sometimes essential parts of ourselves can be suddenly and irrevocably stolen from us.

Barry responds to his tragedy by making art. Others might respond by appreciating it. In both cases, I think the result is often the same: a new creation, a second birth.

It's a mark against the film, in my view, that it doesn't try to explore this redemptive aspect of art in a spiritual sense, but that's my own obvious bias showing. What it does do, with great delicacy, is ask questions that cut to the heart of what it means to be human--questions like: who was I, who am I now, and who do I have it in me to be in the future?

Barry is still answering those questions.


Almost nothing I can say will do Hunger justice. For one thing, I know next to nothing about Ireland’s provisional IRA and their long struggle with the British government. For another, it’s a movie of extremes, and extremes always have to be seen to be believed. You have to see, for example, Michael Fassbender’s pale, threadbare body for yourself to believe that a film about a hunger strike can be called “gripping.” You have to watch him waste away before your very eyes to understand that other kind of hunger that drives a man to act with such desperation.

Fassbender plays Bobby Sands, a real-life figure who chose starvation where others might’ve chosen compromise. What I can’t judge, though, is the worth of his cause.

Did Bobby and his fellow prisoners deserve better? Well, of course. The prison conditions in Hunger are grim, to put it mildly. Thin blankets are all that separate the men from the icy air of their cells, which are littered with dirt, grime, excrement, and rotting or half-eaten food. But these aren’t the normal conditions of the prison; they’re the result of a blanket protest and a dirty protest.

At the heart of their complaint is their status in the eyes of the British government. As paramilitary prisoners, what they want, above all else, are the rights of a political prisoner, including the right to wear their own clothes instead of a prison uniform. They are not, they insist, common prisoners. But Margaret Thatcher will not budge. These men are not political prisoners, she insists, and they will not be treated as such.

Because I don’t fully understand the situation, I can’t say who’s right here. On the one hand, I sympathize with the prisoners, who’ve done what they’ve done for the sake of an independent Ireland. But if these men have acted violently, if they’ve taken lives to achieve political ends, doesn’t that make them, in some sense, criminals? Doesn’t Thatcher have a point when she insists that violence is violence? And is it really worth committing yourself to subhuman conditions all so you can wear your own clothes instead of a prison uniform?

What I can say about Hunger is that the directing and acting are first rate. In one scene, director Steve McQueen holds his camera on Bobby and his priest (Liam Cunningham) for a total of 17 minutes while they debate the sense of what Bobby is about to do. Rarely has simple talking been as captivating as it is here.

In another, Fassbender’s body is flung about like a rag doll as he’s forcefully shaved and given a haircut by prison guards, then tossed into a bathtub of icy water. I can’t imagine that Hunger was anything but a genuine trial for him and his co-stars. The raw physicality of the Bobby Sands role would be enough to scare away a league of actors Fassbender’s equal.

As impressive as it is, though, Hunger still strikes me as a bit…well, thin. It tells me nothing about Bobby Sands the man, only Bobby Sands the symbol. Nor do I have a sense of what his protest accomplished. These faults may have more to do with my own ignorance, though, than with the film itself, which is beautiful even as it’s hard to watch, stunning and unforgettable even as it leaves me scratching my head.

Higher Ground REVIEW

Higher Ground is the first film from Vera Farmiga, whom many will recognize from Up in the Air and Source Code, and it’s a solid first effort.

The movie chronicles a woman named Corinne’s (Farmiga) lifelong affair with Christianity, detailing her first curious brushes with it as a child, her full-fledged commitment to it as a young wife and mother, and her (apparent) rejection of it in her forties.

From the outside looking in, the spirit-filled community Corinne devotes much of her life to is both recognizable and bizarre. Recognizable because what they what from life is what we all want from life—a happy marriage, healthy families, friends, laughter. Bizarre because their practices are outside the norms of secular culture and most mainline denominations. What they do can seem crazy at times, wrongheaded and manipulative at others.

Regardless, everyone in Higher Ground gets a fair shake, which is the movie’s strong point. Farmiga forgoes caricatures for genuine human portraits, articulating in the process what it’s like to live with one foot in the sanctuary and one foot in the outside world, an experience many Christians can relate to.

It’s in this sense that Higher Ground critiques “Christian films” that view salvation as a means to an end, not something transcendent or spiritual. Higher Ground’s goal isn’t to simplify a life of faith but dramatize its complexities and highlight its nuances. If the story ends on a note of indecision, it’s because Corinne’s story (which is based on a memoir by Carolyn S. Briggs) isn’t finished—it can only comment on her state at the time. But more than that, her position half-in/half-out of the sanctuary represents a type of faith potentially stronger than it may first appear. For it’s when you despair of ever praying ever again and yet still pray that the soil is fertile, ready for something new and potentially greater—or at least with more perspective—to grow in its place.

Everlasting Moments REVIEW

Everlasting Moments isn’t an easy movie to describe. On the one hand, it’s about how a woman named Maria (Maria Heiskanen) used her natural eye for beauty to take startlingly honest and intimate photographs. On the other, it’s an examination of Maria’s marriage to an alcoholic, abusive, philandering man named Sigfrid (Mikael Persbrandt).  In both cases it defies expectations. We expect, for instance, that Maria will eventually leave her husband, but she doesn’t. We also expect her to become famous for her art, but again, she doesn’t. It’s for both of these reasons, though, that Everlasting Moments is so good (even though it’s a movie I admire more than I like).

Director Jan Troell has crafted a work of art that corrects two reigning ideologies—that personal happiness should be our highest goal, and that only success and money can bring happiness. While it’s obvious to everyone else (including us) that Maria should leave Sigfrid in the dust, she remains steadfast in her love for him, becoming a picture of the suffering servant in the process. To our modern mind, this makes about as much sense as turning the other cheek (I’m still struggling to understand her decision). It also makes no sense that Maria wouldn’t have become a famous artist. But such an expectation relies on a faulty view of art—one driven by greed and a sense of entitlement rather than a search for meaning and a simple joy in using one’s talents for the glory of God. It’s in both these sense that Everlasting Moments, like Christ’s Sermon on the Mount, preaches a counterintuitive message, and one that's missing from too many contemporary films.

The Tree of Life REVIEW

It only took a few months for it to happen, but I've finally written a full-length review of Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. You can find it over at the Art House Dallas blog.

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes REVIEW

Is it really possible that a movie with such a gangly title like The Rise of the Planet of the Apes could be one of the best movies of the summer? Well, when you consider that a title is only a name, and that you (hopefully) wouldn’t judge a person based on their name alone, it shouldn't be too surprising, I suppose.

Personally, I was ready to dismiss it because of James Franco. Not because I dislike him. I just wasn't sure I could take him seriously in the role of a scientist who discovers a cure for Alzheimer’s.

I’m still not sure I can, but that’s okay. What makes Rise work isn’t the humans, but the apes of the title, and more specifically, Caesar, the ape played through motion capture technology by Andy Serkis.

This isn’t Serkis’ first motion capture performance—trivia buffs already know he was Gollum and King Kong—but it should be remembered all the same, both for its emotional complexity and technical accuracy. Rise forces Serkis to Act, with a capital A. He can’t rely on dialogue or just hitting his mark, as his co-stars can. Instead, he has only his face and his body at hand to convince us he’s just as much an animal as he is an intelligent, self-aware creature. And just as difficult is the challenge of hanging on to our sympathy as he transforms from an innocent “child” to vengeful “adult” hungry for justice.

The comparison doesn’t exactly hold up, but Serkis’ performance reminds me of Al Pacino’s in The Godfather, where we watch an innocent become a monster, and where the eyes say so much. Caesar is not a soulless, computer animated thing. In his narrowed, hateful eyes you can glimpse an intense burning for what’s beyond his grasp, mixed with a conflicted sense of self. Caesar may hate his human captors, but he hates just as much the transformation that’s been wrought in him by his circumstances. If he comes a monster it’s because he is seen as one, not because he wants to be one.

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in so many other respects, isn’t anything close to The Godfather, of course, but as summer entertainment, it feels like an enormous accomplishment. And if Rise should ever rise again for a sequel (and it wouldn’t surprise me if it did), I’ll be crossing my fingers and hoping 20th Century Fox does what only make sense--bringing Serkis back for the lead.

Attack of the B Movie: CARNIVAL OF SOULS and DETOUR

Invariably, the idea of watching a B movie is always more satisfying than the actual experience of watching one. For two examples, consider Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls (1962) and Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). Both are “classics,” but they also illustrate how the ideas behind a B movie are often more interesting than the movies themselves.

Carnival is about Mary (Candace Hilligoss), the lone survivor of car crash that killed two friends. She’s suitably haunted by her experience and feels dead inside. But she isn’t just haunted by survivor’s guilt—a mysterious figure only she can see is literally haunting her. And all this has something to do with a deserted carnival on the outskirts of the small Utah town where she works as a church organist.

In Detour, a pianist named Al (Tom Neal) hitchhikes to LA to see his girlfriend, who’s trying to become a star. When he accidentally kills a big spender along the way, he decides the best thing for him to do is bury the body and assume the dead man’s identity. His plan seems to be working pretty well, too, until he picks up Vera (Ann Savage), a tough cookie who’s wise to him and threatens to rat him out if he doesn’t help her scam the dead man’s family out of some inheritance money.

In both cases, the acting is awful, and the plot of Detour in particular is hopelessly contrived. That we’re still watching either is a testament to the resourcefulness of Harvey and Ulmer, who knew how to do a lot with very little. And then there’s those big ideas. Because Carnival was an independent release, it could push boundaries that higher profile films of the time couldn’t because of the Production Code, which was in place from 1934 to the late 1960s. With Mary’s skeptical attitude toward Christianity, her disregard for authority, and her Quagmire-esque neighbor who can’t get his day started without a little help from Dr. Jim Beam, Carnival is hot stuff (for 1962 standards). It’s just too bad that its few genuinely suspenseful moments are ruined every time an actor opens his mouth.

The same goes for Detour. With a not-too-bad beginning, Ulmer’s film noir devolves into a gabfest with the ricketiest of plots. What salvages it (and that’s being generous) is Al’s struggle with the American dream. Everything he does is motivated by his need to transcend his economic station. And because he ultimately fails, Detour exudes a sense of wear futility that makes it easy to identify with. Does it go as far as saying that the American dream has failed? A case could be made that it does. And that would be fine, if the movie actually made sense. Al’s supposedly rational decisions required enormous leaps of faith on my part. I’m as willing to suspend disbelief as the next man, but this movie asks for more than I can give it.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Reviews: Thor, Pirates 4, The Tree of Life, Super 8

Silly in the best and worst senses of the word, Thor is also sloppy and incomprehensible. If Mystery Science Theatre 3,000 had ever featured a $100 million trainwreck, this would have to be it. That Kenneth Branagh, who is an undeniably talented actor and director, had anything to do with this disaster (based on Marvel’s comic about the Norse god of thunder) is almost as unbelievable as the movie itself.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
No matter how frenzied the action gets in Disney’s latest Pirates film, On Stranger Tides always seems to be on the verge of nodding off. Maybe that’s why there’s a new chase scene every five minutes. But a glut of “action” isn’t the movie’s only problem--it’s also lost Orlando Bloom and Kiera Knightley, who were the emotional core of the first three. Without them you’re left with a cast of undeveloped characters like Gibbs, Barbosa, and Sparrow, who may be fun but you just can’t build a real character out of him. The movie’s only saving grace is the romantic sublpot between a missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) and a beautiful mermaid (Astrid Berges-Frisbey). Screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (who also penned the first three) take the high road in making Philip a sympathetic man of integrity instead of a hypocrite or an untarnished saint. That’s doesn’t make it a good movie, but it’s enough to save it from being a calamity like Thor.

The Tree of Life
There’s been a lot of talk about the grace-vs-nature theme of Terrence Malick’s gorgeous and emotional Tree of Life but little's been said about what I feel is the film’s true focus: the father-son dynamic as a picture of humanity’s struggle with God. In the movie--which can be best understand as a stream of memories than a conventional story--a depressed architect named Jack (Sean Penn) reflects back on his childhood and his brother’s death at the same time as he struggles to understand who God is and why bad things are allowed to happen. Though at first glance the young Jack’s struggle with his father (played with incredible force by Brad Pitt) seems unrelated to the adult Jack’s struggle with God, they are actually two sides of the same coin. Just as the young Jack (played by the excellent Hunter McCracken) can’t understand what’s going on in the mind of his father, who vacillates constantly between love and rage, so his adult self can’t understand the mind of the Almighty.

But that doesn’t mean that Malick ends on a note of existential dread. Instead, Jack eventually settles into humble acceptance, with both his father and God. If Malick’s execution of this spiritual transformation isn’t all that it could be (why on a beach? and why do so many people have glazed-over zombie eyes?) far be it from me to complain too much. The Tree of Life succeeds on so many other levels that I think it’s earned a misstep or two. I hesitate to call it a masterpiece, because that word is so often applied to movies that will be forgotten is a decade or two, but I can’t help feeling that this one has a long future ahead of it.

Super 8
Speaking as a fan of both Spielberg and J.J. Abrams, I feel I can confidently say that you, Super 8, are no Spielberg movie. You’re definitely a mishmash of Spielbergian influences, but you lack a certain emotional and visual punch. Sure, you’ve got some scares, but where’s your tension? Where’s your delight in making us so anxious we can barely stand it? Okay, you’re your own movie, I get it--but you also make a big deal about the tradition you belong to. The problem is, I don’t care about your monster: in the first half of the movie, he’s a villain; in the second half, we’re supposed to feel sympathy for him. But how can I feel sorry for him if you don’t bother to develop him as a character. Case in point: E.T. Here, we spend almost equal amounts of time with Elliott and E.T. They develop a bond over the course of the movie, and so we feel heartbroken first when E.T. appears to die, and again when E.T. must finally return home.

And then, Super 8, there’s your other villain, the Air Force. Everyone talks big, especially Nelec (Noah Emmerich), but you don’t have the courage to make them truly villainous. Are you afraid you would seem unpatriotic? Fair enough. But at least make them mysterious, perhaps in the way the government agents in E.T. were mysterious.

Maybe I’ve being too hard on you, Super 8, but it’s just that I had high hopes. I expected genuine thrills, and yes, I even expected to witness the second coming of Spielberg. But I’m afraid all you gave me was just another monster movie.