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Director: Sam Taylor-Johnson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Fifty Shades of Grey, a novel by pseudonymous writer E .L. James, has become that rarest of contemporary phenomena—a novel not aimed at children or young adults that is a true pop-cultural totem. It’s also a very old-fashioned kind of hit, the scandalous bestseller everyone snapped up just to see if it was as deliciously filthy as they hoped. This was no anodyne, run-of-the-mill romance novel, journey-of-growth memoir, arty feminist artefact, or any other chick lit cliché, no, this was an outright erotic novel, harking back to the glory days of The Story of O. and Emmanuelle. And it was not just an erotic novel, but one in which sadomasochism is a crucial theme. The novel broke many rules about what should gain precedence in literary culture, not just in subject matter, but also in genesis. The work began life as fan fiction on an online site—the slime ponds on the edges of the great ocean of literary culture—built out of the archetypes presented in Stephanie Meyer’s equally popular, equally derided Twilight novels. Initially published as an ebook and then released in print when it became clear it was going to be something big, Fifty Shades shattered publishing records.
Whatever magic spot Meyer’s creation had located with her essentially sexless tales of deathless romance, James found, too, and filled in what was missing, providing counterbalance and revelling in the filthy adult side of the fantasy. Nothing particularly original there: erotic spinoffs from popular artworks have long been covert currency, and have gained a powerful online presence since some dirty mind let go with the notion of Kirk and Spock gettin’ it on, giving birth to so-called “slashfic”: since then just about any fictional character you can think of has been in the sack with any other one you can think of in some fetid corner of the internet. James eventually rewrote and expanded her daydream smut to arrive at its current form, but as far as many are concerned, it never quite escaped the status of troubling, parasitic growth on the underbelly of an already embarrassing property.
As with any cultural phenomenon, What It All Means had to be pinned down, and in the case of a work that disturbed a tenuous balance of acceptability, safely disposed of. Pundits opined, ideologues worried, experts pontificated. Sexy stuff being sexy doesn’t cut it. From my perhaps all-too-male perspective, the book’s success represents both a triumph and a failure of feminism in a dichotomous manner that, far from aberrant, is rather commonplace today. It plays with the old-school fantasy of meeting a rich, handsome guy with issues just dark enough to both alarm and appeal, but also offers a frank, fearless interest in erotic pleasure and questions of agency that are utterly current. The special contempt many saved up for the Twilight tales was merely a manifestation of a certain vestigial, preadolescent contempt by a boy’s club commentariat for things women like compared to the serious business of turning stories where men in spandex punch each other into grand movie epics. Some of that was certainly turned on Fifty Shades, too, combined with the fact that BDSM will inevitably still be a subject of confusion and hostility to many long after we’re all dead. Of course, the book was bad (full disclosure: I tried to read it, but lost interest, ironically, when James reached the stuff everyone else was reading it for). But that was perhaps part of the point. The banal, conversational, pseudo-interior monologue style of writers like Meyer and James has annexed fields of readership long detached from fancier fare, working like mental glycerine.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson’s debut film Nowhere Boy (2009) was an intelligent, but frustrating work, mostly because of a low budget that hampered its sense of period, one that suggested her intimate, ambivalent understanding of the stranger routes of desire. When it comes to Fifty Shades, Taylor-Johnson doesn’t quite seem to approve, which is both what makes her film intriguingly contradictory and frustratingly indecisive. It goes virtually without saying that Fifty Shades hardly represents a descent into the darkest, most decadent depths of Sadean frenzy. The way James exploited this turf lends itself immediately to filming because it identifies S&M as such a visual style of eroticism. All that shiny latex and metal looks so damn good, and it is about the perspective of watching things done to the body in a way that can be read by a cinema audience in a manner not so different to the animating spirit many have found lurking in slasher films, where the body is violated to release a certain frustration in the viewer. Just watching two people happily hump in the normal fashion is as dull as dishwater cinematically because the pleasure is exclusive, perhaps as big a reason for the decline in mainstream movie sex after the late ’80s as any of the other cited causes, like AIDS anxiety and resurgent moralism. But Fifty Shades goes all squishy when it contemplates BDSM as an art that involves inflicting and receiving pain, however interlaced with pleasure; the sensatory reality of it all is still a challenge. All of this, now that I think about it, might be largely irrelevant to Fifty Shades of Grey as a standalone work of cinema. For one thing, the film deemphasises the spectacle of transgressive kink almost to the point where it feels like the cherry on the top of the cake, as opposed to the book, where it was the cake.
Fifty Shades establishes its erotica bona fides quickly, beginning with the arch character names Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). Ana is a lit major attending university in Vancouver, WA, and working part-time in a hardware store. When Ana’s roommate and pal Kate (Eloise Mumford), a journalism student working with the college newspaper, falls sick when she’s scheduled to interview Grey, Ana does her a favour and travels to Seattle to do the interview for her. Grey, a young but hugely successful tycoon in the field of something-or-other who’s going to be delivering a speech on their graduation day, stands ensconced in his soaring tower (don’t let us think he’s compensating for anything).
The moment he and Ana lay eyes on each other, something kindles: Ana, with her doelike eyes and crudely cut bangs worn like a protective helmet against the world’s interest, couldn’t be more different to the Aryan ladies Grey has on staff, which is perhaps part of the appeal. Ana’s intelligent streak sits at odds with a deliberate lack of worldliness—she’s a virgin essentially by choice, having resisted all overtures thus far, including from her photographer pal José (Victor Rasuk). Christian begins to insinuate his way into Ana’s life, visiting her workplace to buy lots of items that don’t quite make sense for home improvement, including cable ties and duct tape, none of which makes the penny drop for the clueless Ana. A rendezvous later over coffee is ended prematurely and confusingly by Christian, who sends her a set of Thomas Hardy first editions as an apology. Ana gets drunk and bold when out partying with José and Kate. She calls up Christian and insults him, which only proves a magnet that draws him to the bar. He sets his adopted brother Elliot (Luke Grimes) on Kate to keep her occupied, and intervenes self-righteously to give José an aggressive shove when he clumsily puts the moves on Ana before whisking her back to his hotel for a chaste night’s sleep.
After a few vulgar displays of wealthy generosity, Christian has soon swept Ana into his life, but then he introduces her to his dark secret: Christian is a BDSM dominant who wants a relationship with Ana, but only as his submissive who obeys a strict set of rules. The tension in the narrative comes in the uneasy suspension between Christian and Ana’s obvious and powerful everyday attraction and his resistance to the normal constitution of relationships. He tells her, with stern seriousness, “I don’t make love – I fuck – hard,” can’t stand being touched, and insists on sleeping apart from her. After making her sign a nondisclosure agreement, Christian gives her a legally binding contract—I’d like to know how he plans to enforce that over a woman whose total assets to risk amount to a Volkswagen Beetle and a set of used textbooks—that will define their relationship.
Quickly, however, some of his hard limits start to dissolve as he wrestles with his genuine, calming affection for her, even as Ana is required to start erecting her barriers. He confesses that 16 women have come and gone from his life, perhaps because they couldn’t hack it or, more likely, because they were only too willing to please Christian, who seems torn between the desire to corrupt and a need to find his way back to normal pursuits. Ana, after reacting queasily to a bit of online research, calls for a business meeting with Christian to argue over the specifics (no fisting, vaginal or anal, etc.), and successfully resists his seductive attempts just to prove she can. But resistance has its limits. Christian “rectifies the situation” by taking Ana’s virginity in a sequence that suggests sexuality filtered through high-class perfume ads. Then he introduces her to his “playroom,” his exquisitely appointed torture chamber outfitted with all the accoutrements the up-to-date, upstanding sadist might need.
In this scene, I felt the pull of something fascinating going on in Fifty Shades of Grey. Where the film plays as a jet-set fantasy with more wealth porn than anything other kind up to this point, the entry of Ana into the playroom had the potent whiff of entry into another, far more primal realm of experience that lies deep within and beyond the lifestyle fetishism. That feeling is exacerbated by Taylor-Johnson’s careful contrast between the visual scheme of the outside world, all steely hues and pastels, and the saturated reds and browns and blacks in the playroom, part Japonaise minimalism and part neo-Victorian nook, as well as the correlation and distinction between the hard-edged modernism of Christian’s favoured environs and the implements for inflicting pain on soft flesh in the playroom. It’s easy to dismiss the covert appeal of Fifty Shades because it is based in the simple, retrograde fantasy of women who want to be swept up by a paternalistic Prince Charming, but here I sensed that wasn’t quite the whole truth, that somewhere within all this fudge is an interest in the strange extremities of human desire.
In any event, the figure of the rich, remote, intimidatingly formal master (or mistress) with a penchant for arcane speech patterns is one of the key clichés of erotica. The appeal of Fifty Shades, and Twilight, too, with its self-restraining demon lover, lies in the acknowledgement both make of the ways sex is still far more dangerous for women than men, not the least of which is man himself, with both works pleasing on the teasing proximity of anxiety to stimulation. Fifty Shades aims to present outright what most other takes only offer tangentially or through heavily veiled metaphors. This blatant and unashamed approach, and the fact that Taylor-Johnson has crafted a bondage erotica film that seems set to be an actual blockbuster, makes me want to cheer it simply for being.
Moreover, Taylor-John and screenwriter Kelly Marcel have tried to craft a real film out of James’ infamously ditzy prose and narrative absurdities, tracing the tale as one of Ana’s growth from repressed college girl to a woman strong enough to tell her billionaire boyfriend to fuck off. Part of this serious intent, ironically, expresses itself through a certain level of self-mocking humour used to disarm before getting down to business. At first, the film plays as a toey romantic comedy with a kinky MacGuffin, constantly dropping wry, audience-goading in-jokes (that might well only work if one already has some idea what to expect from this) about what’s in store, woven into Ana and Christian’s duels of words and temperaments. Later, as the dance of desire becomes outright orgy, the tone shifts to one of dark, boding intensity scored to slow, thudding music. Probably the best scene in the film is Christian and Ana’s “business” meeting where they negotiate the specifics of the contract in a boardroom with low mood lighting and burnt-orange décor that suggests a rejected set for an ’80s Ridley Scott thriller, perfect setting for a sequence where the characters square off in tense verbal by-play that deflects their erotic shenanigans. A lot of terrible dialogue from the book makes the transition, sadly, though not without a certain wryness: “I’m fifty shades of fucked up,” Christian murmurs at one stage. I heard a young woman laughingly chide her mother for chuckling at this behind at the screening: “This is serious stuff you know.” Some have said this sort of things points to the fact Fifty Shades’ strong female following is coloured with an ironic fascination, and I can believe that.
And yet Taylor-Johnson’s Fifty Shades will never become a cult camp classic a la Showgirls (1994) or Mommie Dearest (1982) despite certain similarities because the film is handled with far too much straightforward finesse. Erotic filmmaking is a difficult proposition at the best of times, and with all the strictures of censorship and marketing upon her, Taylor-Johnson has been forced to be shy to a silly extent about some things. Somehow Fifty Shades manages to get to its end credits not only without a single glimpse of penis or even pubic hair (yes, that’s right, there’s more dick in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, 2007, than in Fifty Shades of Grey). The approach to the messiness of sexuality is absurdly naïve and prim by comparison with John Waters’ later works that sneakily managed to portray utter deviancy as commonplace whilst scarcely showing anything that a censor could get properly hot and bothered about. In fact, I wish Waters could have made this, but he would probably have had Ana and Christian finish up in bed with Kate, Elliott, Ana’s mother, and the Seattle Seahawks in the finale.
Yet Taylor-Johnson does create some effectively sexy moments, mostly of a vanilla variety, and a montage of stuff the couple get up to once the playroom is put to use, gathers real, if not particularly sensual, power thanks to the strong, rhythmic, trancelike cutting by a team of editors including Anne V. Coates, the editor of Lawrence of Arabia (1962)! Elsewhere, risibility strikes, like during the first sex scene when Dornan is required to slowly unbutton his shirt and reveal his ripped torso with wait-for-it relish: the image of Homer Simpson doing the same thing flashed into my mind, not the sort of epiphany from which many movies can recover. One of the problems with transferring erotica from page to screen lies in the fact that erotic narrative is rarely realistic, but rather a construction of arousal detached from normal limitations and references. In S&M fiction this problem is especially marked because it facilitates the role-playing so often key to the experience, telling tales of unholy pacts, enslavement, abuse, transformation, in which one person becomes the property of another, often in tales that look like horror stories from a slightly different perspective. In short, it’s usually a deliberate rejection of the morally instructive quality expected from artworks (not for nothing was de Sade’s Justine subtitled “Good Conduct Well-Punished”), and inherently anti-PC. Fifty Shades of Grey represents, however, an uneasy compromise between bare-boned erotic fantasy and actual drama. The drama had possibilities as far as that went: the story has a strong similarity to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), as dark, marauding gentleman ensnares a lady he’s fascinated with and wants to dominate, albeit with Marnie’s own hang-ups and culpability removed— and, of course, Johnson is the granddaughter of Marnie herself, Tippi Hedren. The cliché must hold fast: female innocence versus masculine experience. Ana, for all the good work Johnson does in trying to portray her as an intellectual frustrated by the inability of her mind to conquer her body’s kindled needs, strains to be anything more than a one-dimensional Cinderella.
Another common trope of this sort of thing, perhaps best exemplified on screen by Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nagisa Oshima’s In the Realm of the Senses (1978), and Roman Polanski’s Bitter Moon (1992), is that of a folie à deux that forms, combusts, and pushes to ever more dangerous and uncontrolled behaviours, entering an Oedipal whirlpool that might only touch bottom with death. Polanski’s film took the same essential plot to a fascinating, but potently nasty place as the older roué introduces his young girlfriend to increasingly intense perversions, only to turn her into a monster who reduces him to an impotent cripple and then makes him watch as she takes his place as destructive seducer. Fifty Shades of Grey initially mimics this structure, but eventually rejects it: it has no intention of losing control, and after all is said and done, doesn’t have any particular sympathy for the lifestyle it exploits. Taylor-Johnson doesn’t seem so much disapproving of S&M so much as James’ indulgence of the fantasy of wilful disempowerment, but the two are far too entwined in the way the story plays out. James annexed the idea Meyer plied so shamelessly, the idea of a transcendental, magnetic love that works something like animal imprinting and must have its way in denial of the good sense of the people beset by it—which is adolescent schlock, of course, but it’s hardly shocking to see it still has a place in our collective daydreams along with fantasies about sailing the ocean blue or sword fighting with Vikings. Taylor-Johnson, for her part, has tried to inject a little adult level-headedness into things and emphasise the degree to which the tale is a dance of attraction and repulsion. The idea of playing schoolgirl fantasy against problematic reality could have yielded fascinating stuff, but James’ source material is too in love with the initial posture of its characters to analyse the divide.
It could be said that what we do get is just a variation on that old schism—she wants love, he wants sex. Except that she really likes the sex she gets, and we’re told repeatedly that Christian feels unusually drawn to Ana in a manner that sounds like love and wants to be around her because he can feel her healing him. We watch a quiet wrestling match of wills with both Christian and Ana giving and taking. Eventually, however, Ana halts at the threshold of joining Christian in his kink. The degree to which Fifty Shades is actually a deeply square piece of rubber-necking becomes clear in time. Far from being a story of forbidden pleasures, it’s a shallow relationship drama, where the arguments over the demarcations of their union start to feel less and less like preludes to erotic deliria than a vision of the way modern relationships are negotiated enterprises. Although eventually we get some hot sex in the playroom, the bondage is pretty tame, enacted between characters who don’t seem to know they’re stick figures. Moreover, the shift from comedy of sexual manners to psychodrama that defines the second half is inherently weak, in part because the film has little psyche to dramatize, with no intention of spelling out the hints it’s given about Christian’s formative experiences. This might be for the best, because the hints we get point to the lamest kind of pop psychology: Christian was possibly mistreated as a child, ergo, he’s a control freak and S&M fan. There’s stuff about his uncomfortable relationship with his adoptive family, with Marcia Gay Harden earning an easy paycheque as his patrician mother, and a conversation about the mysterious older woman who initiated Christian into the BDSM lifestyle when he was a tender 15 years old, whom Ana dubs “Mrs Robinson.”
In this aspect of James’ tale, Taylor-Johnson may well have found her special mojo, considering that Christian readily recalls her conceptualisation of young John Lennon in Nowhere Boy as a natural-born heartbreaker whose own damaged personality will be cosseted rather than liberated by great success at a cost to the women in his life. But one major problem with Fifty Shades of Grey is that, like everything else these days, it’s been franchised to the max: James penned two sequels where this stuff gets worked out. This leaves the movie with scarcely any plot and without the kind of spiralling psychosexual lunacy that might fire things up. After a while, the story completely jams up, marking time with a pointless digression to Georgia, as Ana visits her mother and Christian follows her, and a sequence where Christian takes Ana gliding, replete with tedious thematic underlining: oh look, Ana’s lost her fear of flying. I’d like to hear what Erica Jong’s got to say about all this. The film cannot countenance either the possibility of Ana finding fulfilment cocooned in leather and kept in a box in Christian’s playroom, which would be one extreme of the fantasy, or the idea that she might become a domme herself, and one day turn the whip on Christian’s pasty ass, another extreme.
The film does reach a kind of conclusion, one that also suggests an inescapable recommencement, but also inevitably invites coitus interruptus quips, as Ana, frustrated with this eddying state they’ve found themselves in, gets Christian to try out his tastes at full force. Ana is shocked as she realises that Christian has a need that has nothing to do with sexuality and everything to do with transferring a deeply humiliated rage and sorrow onto someone else. This precipitates a break-up that forms the film’s surprisingly abrupt coda, which I found reasonably effective, as it suited Taylor-Johnson’s take on this fare; everyone else around me groaned in frustration, which is also understandable. It’s the old story. Boy meets girl, boy flogs girl on the rump with a belt a few times, boy loses girl. By movie’s end it’s impossible to escape the feeling that Fifty Shades of Grey has simply upped the ante on Cecil B. DeMille’s winning formula for servicing the audience’s id by letting it get a good gander at forbidden fruit, whilst also reassuring us that we remain superior and that our judgement and moral vantages are right and good.
Dakota Johnson is the film’s focal point and its real buoy. Johnson portrays the slow bloom of Ana, which stems from both resisting and indulging her temptations, with great skill. The scene where she manages to draw Christian into dancing for a few moments, and then breaks away from him to twirl on her own in gauche, girlish happiness, is the sort of moment that crystallises star careers; it’s such a pity that this moment shows up how facile and lugubrious much of what’s surrounding her is. Likewise, her subtle register puts across the key moments where Ana is confronted by just how difficult her new love life is to explain to others. Dornan made an eye-catching debut as the thinking woman’s stud muffin in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006) where he played the titular queen’s lover Axel von Fersen. He’s competent as Christian: his regulation hard body is matched by the seemingly permanent half-smile affixed to his lips, which suggests no matter how dank things might get, it’s not so serious. But he’s the one left holding the bag here, because the film has all but neutered Christian: the sense of imperious entitlement and emotional numbness the character requires has been toned down as far as possible. Whilst this undoubtedly took some of the edge off the character’s most arrogant, intrusive acts that might look awfully like stalking from a less buff, charming billionaire, it essentially leaves that character without any bite and thus no real reason for existing. It’s easy to imagine Robert Pattinson in his David Cronenberg-ised persona from Cosmopolis (2012) as a perfect Christian, but casting him would surely have been too meta. The ultimate frustration of Fifty Shades of Grey is that it’s neither gleeful camp festival nor genuinely interesting tale of sexual gamesmanship, but stuck between the two. Much like its heroes, its own scrupulousness has doomed it to eternal dissatisfaction—at least until the sequel.
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Director/Screenwriter: Wim Wenders
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This year, the Berlinale is paying tribute to one of Germany’s most creative native sons, Wim Wenders. Showing next week at the Berlinale Palast theatre is Everything Will Be Fine, Wenders’ brand-new feature film shot in 3D, and the “Homage” section of the festival will screen 10 of his works, including the film under consideration here, Pina. This documentary about one of the giants of German modern dance, Pina Bausch, was the first film Wenders shot in 3D. Clearly, he must have been intrigued by the form during his first outing and wondered how it could be applied to a fictional narrative. Like many of our finest directors, including Jean-Luc Godard and Martin Scorsese, Wenders has found a new toy to play with and has had to learn all over again how to shoot a movie. Pina is an interesting, often beautiful film that shows the learning curve for 3D cinematography is a sometimes steep and bumpy one.
Pina was a project nursed over the 20-year friendship of Wenders and Bausch, but it stayed as little more than an idea until 3D cinematography made its resurgence. In a 2011 interview with The Guardian, Wenders said, “I never knew, with all my knowledge of the craft of film-making, how to do justice to her work. It was only when 3D was added to the language of film that I could enter dance’s realm and language.” Although dance has been filmed since the very beginnings of motion pictures, Wenders’ appreciation of the importance of space as well as movement to dance is an interesting and vital addition to the representation of dance on film. The possibilities of allowing viewers to “enter” the spaces between dancers must have had great appeal for Bausch, for whom some level of audience involvement would be a natural fit with her convention-defying choreography and collaborative work method.
Sadly, Bausch died suddenly before principal photography began, so we will never know what influence the 3D effects would have had on her personal language of movement or what contributions she could have made to the visual approach and results Wenders achieved. But we do have her company, the Tanztheater Wuppertal, who were filmed in live performances before an audience and in sequences set up by Wenders in a variety of environments, including a warehouse, an overhead tram car, a glass house set in the midst of trees, a swimming pool deck, and a busy street, among other locations.
The place where Wenders achieves the potential of 3D is in the film’s opening. A topless woman wearing an accordion briefly sings about the seasons of the year, initiating a kind of snake dance in which the company, dressed in suits and evening wear, move onto the stage in a line repeating small hand gestures for spring, summer, fall, and winter as they cross the stage and double back behind a flowing scrim. The 3D effect actually seems to move us into the line and, at one point, elicits an urge to sweep the scrim out of our way. It’s an amazingly effective opening, giving the audience a stake in the film as a participant, not just the usual passive viewer of dance.
Wenders follows up by showing in slow time lapse workers dumping large containers of earth onto the stage and smoothing it into a giant square that covers the entire performance space. We are then treated to perhaps Bausch’s most famous piece of choreography, her interpretation of Igor Stravinsky’s composition The Rite of Spring. This is the only piece we see in its entirety, and indeed, it would be hard to cut away from this primal, frightening work whose power would pop off the screen with or without Wenders’ camera tricks. As the film moves on, however, Wenders is content to present fragments of dances, interspersing them with short vignettes of the dancers talking briefly about Bausch or sometimes saying nothing at all. He does not see fit to identify the dancers in any way, though he does relate them to the dances they perform. Bausch painted with a wide brush, and her company is polyglot and international, young and not so young, tall and tiny—the very opposite of the regimented sizes and shapes of traditional ballet and even more diverse than can be found in many modern dance companies.
As the film moves on, Wenders’ use of 3D is less obvious, and the film becomes less interactive as a result. He uses his power as director to become something of a choreographer, particularly in a performance of “Kontakthof,” a ballroom-dance-inflected piece concentrating on the awkwardness of finding intimacy transformed into an examination of aging by having three different casts—adolescents, adults, and mature adults—melting successively into each other, thus merging the three age-specific versions of this dance Bausch staged over the years.
The piece that gets the majority of Wenders’ attention is “Café Müller,” which introduced the director to Bausch’s work in 1985. It is also the piece where we get to see and hear Pina dance and talk about the language of dance. It’s poignant to hear her remark that the deep feeling she had for this piece vanished when she tried to dance it with her eyes open—once she closed them again, it all fell back into place emotionally. We see archival footage of Pina in the piece as well as a contemporary mounting with another dancer in Pina’s role. The dance certainly is remarkable, with two women moving through the space of a café peppered with round tables and chairs with their eyes closed, a male dancer rushing to remove the objects before the dancers run into them. Pina’s part was more minimal in this regard—she largely remained against a wall, moving slowly against the vertical plane, occasionally breaking away from it to shuffle behind a plexiglass wall and bash into it from time to time. This dance carries on Bausch’s habit of ritualized movement and repetition, seeming to turn people into machines that become habituated to their environment and frightened of separation.
Wenders recognizes this approach and chooses sites that emphasize a harrowing, hemmed-in quality to match the movements. One dance that particularly struck me begins in a factory of some kind that has metal cars moving on overhead rails along its periphery. A male dancer is swinging his female partner on a concrete floor boxed by I-beams, making this open, expansive movement appear dangerous. As they move out of the frame, a male dancer is filmed moving on the floor; he seems to be paralyzed from the waist down and must use his hands to manipulate his legs in fast, repetitive motions that create a box of his body. The effect is of a man turned into a machine, and the marriage of his frantically busy movements and his mechanical, industrial surroundings is a fortuitous one.
Other sites are less felicitous. Wenders films a younger dancer new to the company who barely had a chance to work with Pina before her death. The dancer talks about how Pina would give her little instruction—in fact, all the dancers remark on her reluctance to give them more than a line or two of direction—and how she realized that she would have to pull herself up by her own hair. Wenders films her dancing on the deck of a pool with a few swimmers in the water, a rather clichéd way to suggest her fear of drowning in her new environment. Interestingly, the choreography includes her pulling her hair up above her head, but whether Wenders suggested the gesture or the dancer improvised it is anyone’s guess.
This poolside dance was revealing of another aspect of Bausch and her company. A young woman with very little experience of or indoctrination into the cult of Pina showed more spirit and feeling in her dancing than the more established members, while still executing moves that were in keeping with Pina’s choreographic ethos. Pina’s dances are often described as cerebral, even cold, while her subject matter is about relationships, community, the fraught landscape of love and its discords. In “Café Müller,” she has a woman desperately hug a man, only to have another man break her grip and place her on her lover’s outstretched arms; when the lover’s arms grow tired and he drops her, she immediately goes back into her desperate clutch. The disruptive dancer again breaks her grip and places her on her lover’s arms, and the scene repeats over and over, moving faster and faster, until the couple repeat the sequence without prompting, a piece of conditioning that overtakes their genuine feelings. It was only when I saw Pina dance in the film’s archival footage that I understood that her choreography, for all its supposed collaborativeness, maps her feelings—every gesture she made was electric and alive. No matter how well-trained and devoted her dancers were to her, they could not duplicate her inner fire, and she could not articulate it to them in words. That Wenders’ 3D effects tended to wane the longer the film progressed may have had something to do with the difficulty even he was having finding the heart of Bausch’s art.
Wenders ends the film at a deep quarry, where a young male dancer runs into the frame from below the lip of the quarry. He is a whirling dervish of movement, thrilling and frightening to watch as he edges dangerously close to the lip. Suddenly he breaks and climbs a steep slope. The snake dance of elegantly dressed dancers miming “spring, summer, fall, winter” moves along the top of the slope. A long shot of them reveals them to be the dancers of death from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957), a too-much imitated shot that, nonetheless, offers an appropriate finale in tribute to its departed central subject.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Peter Jackson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
When Peter Jackson left off his first round of J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the world was his. The series was a smash hit crowned by Oscar garlands, and the Kiwi auteur had gained a reputation as an illustrator and orchestrator of the fantastic of the highest level. Jackson’s brand has taken some concussive hits since then. The Lovely Bones (2009), an attempt to revisit the kind of everyday melodrama Jackson pulled off so well with Beautiful Creatures (1994), was the kind of disaster only somebody with great talent can conjure, a forsaken mess that nonetheless contained remarkable patches. King Kong (2005) was majestic and quite undervalued, but Skull Island could never be really turned into another Middle-earth, and the film vibrated with such personalised élan that it made one wonder why Jackson felt the need to tether himself to mimicking such a well-worn model. Jackson’s return to Tolkien with 2012’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, wasn’t supposed to happen. Guillermo del Toro was primed to take over the reins under Jackson’s aegis and gave the material a fresh vision. But then scheduling, the grind of the production process, and the perhaps inevitable question of ultimate authority pushed Del Toro out.
The Hobbit, published by Tolkien in 1936, was initially marketed and met as a children’s adventure tale, was the seed for the grandeur of Tolkien’s fictional universe that comprises The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Yet, out of studio urgings and the whim of the creators to sate a vast and still-enthusiastic audience, The Hobbit was inflated into an epic as stately, expensive, and lengthy as its predecessor trilogy. This, on top of a glut of weak fantasy films trying to recapture Jackson’s success in the intervening decade, combined to generate a generally sniffy reception for the new trilogy. I’m generally happy to disagree with the received wisdom on The Hobbit trilogy. The strain and inflation have shown at times, where the flow of picaresque vignettes has threatened to devolve into Middle-earth tourism and theme-park rides, particularly with such superfluities as the dimwit trolls in An Unfinished Journey and the battle with the spiders in The Desolation of Smaug. Yet Jackson and his battery of writers—regular collaborators Frances Walsh and Philippa Boyens, plus Del Toro—have found scope and room to manoeuvre, and above all, allow the viewer to relax and revel in this invented world, less colourful than James Cameron’s Pandora, but far more diverse and substantial. It is easy and largely fair to turn up one’s nose at the recent predilection of movie studios for wringing franchise properties for maximum value, as evinced by the ridiculous splitting of the last books of the Twilight and The Hunger Games series. But that doesn’t really count for much on a case-by-case basis. The Harry Potter filmmakers pulled off something of a coup by splitting the last novel, and the idea that Jackson has engaged in anything beyond the pale by inflating a short book into an expansive adaptation is bunkum: long-running TV shows and film series have long been spun off from scant sources. The story had eminent scope for an epic telling, and for the most part, Jackson has told it with a depth of detail, affection, and intensity. Even Tolkien revised and suggested deeper resonances of his playful debut novel when his follow-up eclipsed it.
One of the problematic elements of Jackson’s approach has been making them not as individual units, but as connected parts of what is essentially one distinct project: all of them gain from being viewed in quick succession, making them artefacts perfectly attuned to the age of home viewing. Viewers long used to the vicissitudes of serialisation through TV and the habits of binge-viewing that the DVD/streaming age ushered in can easily negotiate this, but many film critics retain an old-fashioned belief in the integrity of the individual work. The Battle of the Five Armies is the last part of the Hobbit and demands reasonably fresh memory of the first two films to really make sense and seem rhythmically correct. Such expansive labours recall the days of Abel Gance and Fritz Lang’s multihour wonders, and Jackson’s conceptual spirit and visual sensibility contain more than a little of the spirit of silent cinema’s most ebulliently illustrative instincts, that joyful sense early filmmakers had in telling stories in whatever fashion they wanted via the medium’s horn of plenty.
The Battle of the Five Armies, as the title readily promises, is a study in scale and motion. From the very opening seconds, there is the relentless tug of imminent action, even in the quieter moments, as the characters and events set in motion in the early scenes finally collide, a formidable array of moving parts snapping into place. Tolkien’s The Hobbit was a breezy work, laced with puckish yeoman humour, with a hero knocked unconscious for most of the climactic battle; Jackson’s is far more imposing, and yet the essential spirit is still apparent. Interestingly, what distinguishes The Hobbit trilogy in the end from The Lord of the Rings is its far more human-level story.That might sound like an odd comment in the face of the film’s large swaths of CGI demon armies and fire-belching dragons. But The Lord of the Rings series inflates the stakes of its tale to consider the very fate of the entire world and the shifting balance of the natural order between warring poles of perfection and nihilism; the stakes, fought for by individuals and communities, were colossal beyond everyday reference. In The Hobbit, on the contrary, the issues are far more essential. Home. Property. Prosperity. Ambition. Revenge. Greed. Middle-earth is a place of incredulity-stirring dangers, but Jackson knows that the danger is there to give meaning to the security the characters long for.
Perhaps one reason why Jackson’s prelude trilogy hasn’t been as lauded as his first might lie in its similarities to the even more reviled Star Wars prequels: to a certain extent, both sets of prequels question and deconstruct the cosier presumptions of the series they follow. Jackson and his cowriters have carefully shuffled events to offer mirroring contrasts. The return of the King, such an idealised moment in the original trilogy as the restoration and apotheosis of order, is here subverted, as Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) finally regains his homeland and birthright, only to plunge immediately into one-eyed rapacity. We are told this is the “dragon sickness,” the evil of Smaug the dragon having sunk into the enormous treasure horde in the Dwarf city of Erebor, a fitting mythical metaphor that has been carefully woven in with effective psychology and foreshadowing. Thorin’s smouldering rage at dispossession and the allies who couldn’t or wouldn’t help finds more than sufficient indulgence in Erebor to enable his egomaniacal delusions. The heroic conjunctions of armies that save the day repeatedly in The Lord of the Rings give way here to competing camps motivated variously by desperation and prerogative, obligated to join forces only when something evil and impending demands it. The Shakespearean pathos of mad Denethor’s false regime is contrasted by the mere vanity and avarice of Laketown’s Master (Stephen Fry); the nobility of Elf leaders Elrond (Hugo Weaving) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) gives way to the haughty postures and self-regard of Thranduil (Lee Pace).
The opening scenes of The Battle of the Five Armies take up where The Desolation of Smaug left off, with the terrible dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) breaking his way out of Erebor and, in a fit of saurian pique, attacking the commune of Laketown as a reprisal for its aid to the dwarf band that had tried to take back Erebor from him. Jackson’s gift for complex interactions, one part Rube Goldberg and one part Chuck Jones, is quickly revealed again describing calamity in vistas that evoke Cecil B. DeMille and Fritz Lang. The fleeing Master, boat loaded with gold, accidentally gives Bard the Bowman (Luke Evans) his chance to break out of prison. Bard makes his way across the city rooftops to take on Smaug with his paltry weapons. Bard’s son brings him the Dwarf-made black arrow that is the only effective chance against the malevolent creature, and in the midst of a churning inferno of blazing buildings and seemingly hopeless odds, Bard makes his stand with his son serving as a human bow. Jackson executes all of this with astonishing panache—the sweeping, vigorous camerawork, the ingenuity of the effects and vividness of the colour, and most particularly, the careful twinning of different scales, as monumental events crowd in upon individuals, from an old woman left haplessly alive in the midst of fellows turned to black ash as tidal waves of flame dash upon them to Bard’s slight, slowly stretching smile as he sees his chance to kill the monster, a tiny registration that signals the turning of worlds. Most directors would be happy to pull off such a sequence once in their careers; compare, indeed, to Gareth Edwards’ laborious Godzilla (2014), which couldn’t get anywhere near such clarity, intricacy, and high drama. For Jackson, it’s just an opening scene.
This moment is such naturally climactic stuff that almost anything that comes after it runs the risk of anticlimax. But Smaug’s death must come to facilitate what happens next, with Erebor freed and reclaimed by Thorin and his Dwarvish band, Laketown decimated and its citizens needing a home and sustenance. The citizens of Laketown would gladly make Bard, already a popular and populist figure, their new chieftain, with the Master, in a grandly comic coup de grace, killed by Smaug’s colossal corpse plunging from the sky to land on his fleeing barge. The Master’s sleazy aide Alfrid (Ryan Gage), faced with the unleashed contempt of the townsfolk, even tries to hitch his wagon to Bard’s success, but quickly finds that Bard’s ideal of civil service is uncomfortably different to his predecessor’s. Bard decides the citizenry should reclaim the ruins of Dale, the formerly prosperous human city outside Erebor laid waste by Smaug, as well as the share of Erebor’s treasure Thorin offered Laketown. But when he presses the claim, Thorin contemptuously refuses him, infected with the greed for the gold whose endless lustre promises to place him “beyond sorrow or grief” and granted all the power his will might use to humiliate everyone he once had to bargain with, plea to, or outwit in his days surviving as exiled king and freebooter. He has his band seal up the great gap Smaug left in the gate of the city and prepares for an assault by the coalition of Bard’s humans and the Elvish army of Thranduil, who seek the return of a collection of ancestral heirlooms. Meanwhile, Thorin’s arch foe, Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett), leads an army of Orcs sent by the resurgent Sauron to capture Erebor as a strategic position. The Manichaeism that renders the moral schema of The Lord of the Rings so blissfully, uncomplicatedly heroic, but also thematically bombastic, is thus tempered with irony throughout Jackson’s take on The Hobbit.
The death of the singularly terrifying monstrous beast, rather than liberating, proves to be an act that merely uncovers the lack of faith between the factions and races and sets them picking at one another, the various leaders exposed in their chauvinism. Lee’s arrogant Thranduil happily provokes the Dwarves, and they, in turn, jeer and insult him, as Thorin’s cousin Dain (Billy Connolly, having a ball) turns up with an army to support him and vows to cut off Thranduil’s head and see if he still smirking then. Jackson and company elide Bard’s royal heritage to better bolster him as a figure of everyman sense and heroism in contrast to Thorin, but even Bard feels obliged to engage in battle if Thorin won’t respect his claim. Bilbo maintains the incorruptible streak that distinguishes his Hobbit breed: his great prize for the venture is an acorn he’s carried hoping to plant it at home. Yet, even he is seduced by the mysterious and magical gold ring he carries. Bilbo, having found the precious Arkenstone that is the symbol of kingship and sovereignty in the domain of Erebor, withholds the stone from Thorin, as his increasingly unreasonable instability frightens Bilbo and the rest of the hapless party. Thorin’s fear of a cursed lineage echoes Aragorn’s, but whereas Aragorn never seriously seemed in danger of his dark side, Thorin’s nearly consumes him. Thus the moral crux of the film comes when Bilbo sneaks out of Erebor to give the Arkenstone to Gandalf (Ian McKellen), who has come to warn all of the approach of an Orc army, in the hope the claimants can use it to leverage Thorin out of his intransigence: Bard attempts to make a deal, but Thorin instead almost throttles Bilbo for his perceived betrayal and then refuses to help Dain when the Orcs turn the confrontation into a savage battle for survival. It’s all a lot like Ran (1985) with monsters.
The Hobbits, as little folk in a big world, are ideal audience avatars, but problematic protagonists. Their peaceable homelands and instincts insulate them from the scale of threat that actually lives in their world, and thus our surprise is theirs, too. But Bilbo is as much viewpoint as protagonist in this tale, in spite of the title; his naïve charm counters Thorin’s tragic hero status and his attempts to stand up for right are important precisely because Bilbo is not a great force, but the representative of humble virtues. Freeman’s quietly excellent performance as Bilbo has deserved more attention than it has generally received or demanded, perhaps because his role necessarily lacks big gestures, except for his leap to save Thorin in An Unexpected Journey. Freeman’s Bilbo, surviving by the grace of his quick wits and dodging a thousand forms of death, is all the more engaging a hero—compared to Elijah Wood’s Frodo, who remained a little too much of a big-eyed blank slate—because he sounds like a neurotic Sussex accountant tossed into the centre of a Wagner opera, his small bleating voice competing with the roars of monsters and overlords, quietly offering “Sorry” to Thranduil when the Elf king notes Bilbo broke the whole Dwarf party out of his jail. His expert way with a character forced to negotiate his path in the world contrasts Armitage’s showier role, playing a figure of grand melodrama, including having to mouth most of the trailer dialogue—you know, those breathy, momentous lines like “Welcome to such-and-such!” before the cut to a wide shot of some rad-looking place. But Armitage, as well as wielding fervent, dark charisma, readily swings between Thorin’s schizoid poles without feeling affected.
The biggest outright invention for The Hobbit trilogy on Jackson’s part was the Elf warrior-woman Tauriel (Evangeline Lily, who wins the award for cast member whose name sounds most like a Tolkien character), and her triangular romance with Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) and Elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom). This fresh aspect hasn’t always been too elegantly woven into the straight-ahead flow of the original narrative, but it pays off here, placing a stronger emotional stake amidst the battle, particularly as Kili and Tauriel try desperately to save each other’s lives whilst battling Azog’s hulking brute of a son Bolg (John Tui). Jackson and company’s efforts to flesh out the background drama and give the tale a denser sense of connection and import in the light of The Lord of the Rings has been honourably attempted, but hasn’t really added up to much, in spite of their efforts to try and synthesise the multiple plot strands that made the predecessor trilogy so gripping. In the earlier works, Jackson might cut away from a giant battle to Frodo and Sam climbing into the lair of Shelob, with the promise that something cool and scary would soon happen to make up for the segue. Here he has Legolas and Tauriel go scouting the ancient Goblin stronghold of Gondobar to see what’s going on. They see lots of Goblins and run off, mission accomplished. In The Desolation of Smaug, Gandalf was caught by Sauron and Azog and caged; here Elrond, Galdriel, and Saruman (Christopher Lee) turn up and rescue him without any resolution or revelation much greater than confirming Sauron is alive and well and living in Middle-earth.
At least with Jackson, his ready indulgence of fan service–that is, inclusion of tropes and actions designed to delight those already familiar with this fare–has always felt honest and part of his own enthusiasm. Even at their most erratic, these films feel generous, especially compared to the increasingly parsimonious franchise-wringing displayed by some recent blockbuster rivals, like the Marvel superhero films that have become a perpetual game of promise without payment. The rescue of Gandalf pays off in an entertaining, if brief, display of bad-ass skills from the trio whose aura of power and accomplishment was always suggested in the previous films but scarcely enlarged upon. Galadriel, in particular, has long been a frustrating figure, the image of beatific Celtic wisdom, but here at last she gets to do the routine where she turns into a blue, glowing transsexual last seen in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) to send the resurging evil spirits running.
One of Jackson’s special talents is particularly apparent here: most directors would have been readily overwhelmed by the mere action business, but Jackson throws in details of near-operatic intensity, as the bedraggled and injured Gandalf begs Galadriel to flee with him, finally giving more than a hint that there’s something romantic in their relationship, and Galdriel instead uses the arc of emotion to spur her attack on Sauron and the Nazgul in a desperate and self-destructive use of her powers. Many apparently found Radagast (Sylvester McCoy), who spirits Gandalf away, another annoying addition, but perhaps because of my own youthful fondness for McCoy and his stint as Doctor Who, I’ve had no problem with him as a figure of the kind of whimsical battiness Tolkien was very fond of, but that Jackson and company usually suppressed in the material to communicate to an audience in a much less whimsy-friendly age. I wish Radagast had gotten to do more here, as he and Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt) turn up with the last-act deus ex machine to join battle.
There is, yes, the slight feeling that Jackson, perhaps pushed to deliver a more ruthless cut for this last chapter, has forced to treat some of his competing elements scantly in favour of putting over his action pay-off; whereas the last two chapters were baggy, The Battle of the Five Armies is almost a little too focused on bringing the action. At least Jackson’s sense of humour has never been entirely buried amidst all the epic pomp and portent, though never as recklessly impudent as in his rowdy early fare like Bad Taste (1987) and Brain Dead (1992). In The Desolation of Smaug it seemed to me that with Laketown, a fascinating polyglot (particularly notable in the usually lily-white Middle-earth precincts) and crossroads dominated by a corrupt oligarchy, Jackson was actually trying to make some satiric capital. This sense rises again as Jackson references The Simpsons, with Alfrid squealing, “Think of the children!” annexes that show’s special talent for mocking bleating self-interest dressed up as civic virtue; indeed, this jokey dissection of rotten leadership prefigures the more serious versions driving the storyline. One of Bilbo’s lines has a stealthy, Monty Python-esque absurdity as he points out to Thorin that “there’s an army of Elves out there, not to mention several hundred angry fishermen!” The Looney Tunes sort of sensibility tends to bob up more, however, in such dazzlingly goofy vignettes as when the Orcs send trolls with rocks tied to their heads dashing at walls as living battering rams, knocking themselves stone cold in the process, and Alfrid, like a blend of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, dresses up as a woman and tries to escape the warfare with “breasts” filled out with filched gold coins, so gaudy in his puerile selfishness that he’s almost lovable.
A brief vignette in the book, with Bilbo’s return home to find his house and possessions being auctioned off, serves a neat narrative function, as Jackson tweaks it into the mordant punchline of Bilbo’s journey. The great drama of dispossession and reclamation he’s just been through giving way to this petty variation, with the quiet, throat-catching codicil that the only way he can prove who he is is to show the original contract he signed with Thorin and the company—the mission has become his only identity. In this manner, mirth and darkness in this fictional universe are constantly in dialogue, and the touches that keep it recognisable sometimes surprising: Jackson depicts the entrance of the Laketowners into Dale, where they’re confronted by a blackened public sculpture that clearly evoke photos of the blasted ruins of Stalingrad. Such a different, grimmer zone of reference plugs into the undertone of personal World War I reminiscence some critics have found in Tolkien’s writing. The impact of broadened horizons and fighting for one’s life always provides an undercurrent of melancholy to these tales: you can go home again, but never as the same person. Moreover, as thrilling, expansive, and deliriously well-staged as the eponymous battle is, The Hobbit, unlike The Lord of the Rings, is essentially a tragedy, building as it does to the deaths of Thorin and Kili.
Jackson’s approach to the fantastic hasn’t entirely met with approval beyond immediate issues with his individual works. For the most part, Jackson has taken Tolkien’s creation literally, and some critics have accused him of sucking out the protean symbolic power of fantasy, with its Freudian and folkloric dimensions (and with them all but the most vaguely metaphoric or chaste sexuality). There is an accurate facet to this, though perhaps a similar dynamic can be observed in Tolkien’s own work, even with its grand cosmology and constant underlying spiritual parable. From his first published work, Tolkien has represented a strange kind of faith in the legitimacy of world-building, a creator of fixed points for the unconscious’ formless stuff, as opposed to the destabilised whims of surrealism. But one of Jackson’s most integral aesthetic touches has been to infuse his images with those underlying thematic urges toward transcendence, purity, and communication with the ethereal, as well as the fulsome, earthy, tangled nature of the organic universe and its blazing malefic zones beneath: the characters are constantly tugged between such poles. The films are thus constantly touched by a Zoroastrian sense of light.
In the original trilogy, this urge was most clearly sublimated into human Aragon’s love for Arwen, embodiment of the ethereal whose fate is connected with both the stars and the sustenance of the earth, first appearing in a blaze of white light to Frodo, who is healed by her touch. Here, romance is worldly; Tauriel, like Arwen, is an Elf but is draw closer to the corporeal by her love for Kili, and finally left distraught with very real tears pouring down her face. In the film, Jackson stages the climactic battle on Ravenhill in the midst of fairytale reaches of frozen waterfalls and billowing snow on ruins, augmented by the Melvillian touch of making Azog, Thorin’s nemesis, white as Moby-Dick. Transcendence here in The Hobbit is bound together with death. Thorin’s romance is with death; it’s the only form of greatness he’s ultimately made for.
The film’s most powerful and distinctive moment touches the same woozy, ethereal zone of communion between life and death, heaven and earth, in a landscape of enchanted ice, Azog seems to float dead under the ice that has become a zone of slaughter, and the rigid, white waterfall becomes a torrent of blood. The final duels on Ravenhill reference the battle on the ice of Alexander Nevsky (1938) and its manifold children, like The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the ebullient wire-fu of Tsui Hark: the influence of the Asian fantasy film style Hark and others initiated, with its fast pace, lunging camerawork, and easy sense of how to blend the corporeal and the mystical, has been powerful on all of Jackson’s Tolkien films, and particularly marked in the barrel ride of The Desolation of Smaug and the climactic battle here of Legolas with Bolg, staged on a toppled tower jammed between two cliffs in a breathless whirl of action. Another film that’s surely often lurked in Jackson’s mind throughout the series has been John Boorman’s Excalibur (1981), and here Jackson tips it an explicit nod as Thorin and Azog’s fight climaxes in a similar fashion to Boorman’s depiction of Arthur and Mordred’s last embrace, which was itself inspired by the most influential of fantasy illustrators, Arthur Rackham.
Most admirable is the final scenes’ surprising sense of gentle diminuendo rather than overt triumph. Bilbo’s urgings for Thorin to look at the Eagles soaring in the sky as he dies is close to the best thing Jackson’s accomplished in this universe, as is Tauriel’s desperate appeal to a regretful Thranduil that he take away her grief, and the simplicity of the moment when Gandalf sits himself beside the battered, already haunted Hobbit and starts cleaning his pipe, ludicrously small and yet utterly beguiling gestures in the face of such experience. “You’re a good fellow, and I wish you well,” Gandalf says when taking his leave of Bilbo, “But you’re only a little thing in a great big world after all.” Somehow, it’s a testimony, a warning, and a benediction all at once: would you actually want to live in Middle-earth after all?
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Director/Screenwriter: Paul Thomas Anderson
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Thomas Pynchon has long been considered an unfilmable author. The celebrity-averse writer’s absurdist, metastasizing narratives and quintessentially postmodern, metafictional conceits, wrap the reader in material wrought from a heated blend of pulp novels, B movies, history books, philosophy volumes, underground comedy, comic books, urban legend, paranoid nightmare—anything that gives a strange and lively psychic radioactivity and helps build his byzantine worldview and heady conceptual universes. Such tales usually prove too dense, too eccentric to wrangle within the acceptable demarcations of a feature film. Enter Paul Thomas Anderson, unafraid of a challenge.
Anderson’s only other proper novel adaptation was his revision of Upton Sinclair’s Oil! for There Will Be Blood (2007), a radical variation on a theme that allowed him free space to construct his own vision. With Inherent Vice, Anderson faced a more difficult task, not the least of which is satisfying Pynchon’s cult, though the novel was greeted as one of Pynchon’s less complex and most accessible works, if also one of his less powerful. The invocation of the hectic, distrustful, whirlwind energy of hippie-era SoCal offered Anderson a landscape to lose himself in and another stage of modern American history to infiltrate and anatomise. The decline and decay of the 1960s counterculture fits between the ’50s imperial flimflam of The Master (2012) and the devolved hedonism of the ’70s in Boogie Nights (1997). But Inherent Vice allows Anderson to go one better, because Pynchon’s tale is a pop cultural core sample that presents a host of subterranean connections between modes of Americana.
Rather than return to the balletic ebullience of Boogie Nights or channel the frenetic pop-art accent of much ’60s cinema, Anderson takes a different tack, adopting his hero Larry “Doc” Sportello’s frazzled, spacey, mesmeric rhythm of perception, enforced by his steady diet of strong weed, as the aesthetic key. Anderson breaks up the world not into pop fantasias but into free-floating surveys that occasionally resolve in startling moments of revelation and visions of clarity. Doc is essentially a professional hippie, but he’s also a licenced private eye who got into the business tracking down criminals who skipped out on their bail and found himself adept enough at it to make a tolerable living while living in a hash haze. One day, his ex-girlfriend, would-be actress girlfriend and former surfer chick Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston), turns up at his beachfront shack looking urbane and trendy. She appeals for Doc’s aid with a moral conundrum on the verge of becoming a dangerous situation. Shasta is the kept woman of wealthy property developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) and is worried Mickey’s wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her personal trainer/boyfriend are plotting to shanghai Mickey into a funny farm and annex his fortune. Shasta wants Doc to try to head off the plot before she is forced to make an unpleasant choice between survival and collusion.
Through some eerie conjunction of unlucky stars, Doc quickly finds himself embroiled in other cases that all seem connected by mysterious threads and cross-currents of coincidence and conspiracy in the covert Los Angeles social war. Black power tough Tariq Khalil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to seek out a prison friend of his, Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson), who’s a member of the White Power motorcycle club Wolfmann uses as bodyguards, to help get weapons for the revolution. When Doc is knocked unconscious whilst visiting a brothel on the fringes of LA, he awakens in a car park next to Charlock’s corpse and Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), with a mass of coppers itching to pin the murder on him. Hope Harlingen (Jena Malone) hires Doc because she was married to one of Shasta’s friends, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson), a surf rock saxophonist who supposedly overdosed, to investigate rumours Coy isn’t as dead as he’s supposed to be. Bigfoot, Doc’s police persecutor/contact, has personal reasons to be interested in one of Charlock’s fellow Nazi thugs, Puck Beaverton (Keith Jardine), who works as muscle for professional assassin Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie) and may have facilitated Mickey’s disappearance for various colluding forces. Doc has found a new part-time squeeze in Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon), uptight deputy D.A. by day and pot-smoking cool cat by night, though that relationship isn’t going far even before Penny hands him over to the FBI, which might have played a part in Mickey’s disappearance. One of the prostitutes from the brothel, Jade (Hong Chau), alerts Doc to the danger of the Golden Fang, the name of a mysterious schooner often seen off the coast. Or it might also be a drug cartel dug as deep as a tick into the fabric of the new, groovy American life. Or it might just be the tax dodge of a bunch of dentists. Or it might be…
The hilariously convoluted plot does in the end make a kind of sense, the mimicry of forms and protocols from decades’ worth of private eye fiction ingeniously sarcastic. A femme fatale breezing in and out of reality like a conjured dream calling the hero into the netherworld. Down these mean streets stumbles a man who is himself not mean. Dense and mysterious connections between the seedy back alley and the mansion on the hill. A plethora of come-ons from exotic lovelies and sneak-peeks into the sordid delights of fame and power. Friendly antagonism with the respectable forces of law and order. A double-cross and a fight for survival. A host of oddball foes and friends, alliances and chance encounters. The P.I. genre was always popular because it offered the chance of ennobling justice pursued by nonofficial forces, gratifying the courage of the everyday rather than the occupation of the state. On another level, the story is mere mass distraction, a random free-for-all of worldly nonsense that impedes Doc’s ability (and desire) to recognise crucial facts, immediate dangers, and the reality of the relationships that define his life.
Doc is no Mike Hammer, but he isn’t clueless either, constantly revealing a streak of native wiliness and survival instinct that seems to have been honed rather than dulled by his druggy lifestyle. His perpetually fazed state usually synchronises functionally with the surreal barrage of events he’s faced with. Indeed, as presented, the landscape Doc inhabits might only be tolerable whilst stoned and make sense only when filtered with the specific mix of detachment and the preternatural powers of perception imbued by heavy cannabis input. His tale is narrated by his astrologer and soothsayer friend Sortilege (played, in a genius stroke of casting, by folk singer Joanna Newsom), whose drawling, blowsy voice weaves soft as smoke through the tale, matching Anderson’s recurring use of wide master shots gently prodded toward focal points in creating a sense of blasé estrangement. Inherent Vice elides ramming home points about the decline of the counterculture but does so through inferences that are bitterly amusing, particularly in the inevitable corruption of the drug scene, which is indeed the deepest, truest satiric target and essential theme of Inherent Vice, formulating too much of then-modern American life as “something to be run away from,” but also depicting the very thing you want to flee ready to meet you on the far side of the rabbit hole.
Rather than subdivide the realities presented through Doc’s fuzzy-headed narrative, the film keeps them all connected literally or spiritually in a roundelay of perversity. This refrain is perfectly in keeping with Anderson’s fascination with the manifold and defining ways of life in a modern western state, refusing the simple division of the ’60s landscape into one of squares and longhairs—a division that suited both camps—and contemplating the woozy, iniquitous nature behind much of the “liberation.” Pynchon’s tale, readily understood by Anderson, comprehends the foul meeting place of haute capitalism and hapless counterculture in the perfect enterprise—illegal drug retail. The Golden Fang, or whatever it is, deals out both addiction and redemption, financing rehabilitation facilities where junkies can dry out, tune back in, and start their journey back toward the point where they want to get high, in perfect tune with the circadian rhythms of the nation.
The doppelganger aspect of this is drawn out by Doc’s love-hate relationship with Bigfoot, a policeman who wants to be Joe Friday and also wants to be a media star, and is constantly caught short of his many all-American ambitions. He torments Doc, going so far as to bash and kick him when he catches him trying to speak to Sloane Wolfmann and taunting him with the suggestion that Shasta might be dead, but then admitting she’s only missing. But Bigfoot also seems to desperately rely on Doc in some fashion as his alter ego, his smothered conscience or unconscious, his drop-out double, calling him up in the middle of the night essentially to hear the voice of someone he doesn’t owe anything to. Ironically, the first glimpse of Bigfoot comes when he, in his half-assed acting career, plays a hippie with a giant fake afro flogging Wolfmann’s tacky new real estate (“…and best of all, a view of the Dominguez Flood Control Channel that can best be described in two words—right on!”). As if in obedience to the mysterious cue in the coincidence, Doc is already making himself over by sporting an afro.
Doc’s first stop on his mission is the brothel, lazily disguised as a massage parlour, set up in a demountable on the fringes of Wolfmann’s latest crime against the landscape overlooking LA, building an unbearable future through which a mysterious army of men scuttle and dive to the dirt avoiding Doc’s gaze. Within, Doc encounters Jade, who starts casually making out with coworker Bambi, ignoring Doc’s status as private eye. A hidden assailant clops him on the head with a baseball bat, and he awakens sprawled on the dust of the estate next to Charlock’s dead body, amidst fluttering, red plastic flags and a row of cops aiming guns at him. All this is scored sublimely by Lex Baxter’s “Simba,” one of the composer’s popular “exotica” recordings that evoke communing with the wild and tribal via the hi-fi in plastic suburbia. Anderson’s ear for music to pervade his work is just as clever and telling elsewhere, particularly in the use of German psychedelic band Can’s throbbing, percussive, alien music rather than the sound of a more familiar band from a nearby scene, like The Doors, Love, or Jefferson Airplane.
Inherent Vice shudders with rattled nerves. Doc’s segue into searching for Coy Harlingen evokes the most fervently paranoid side of the era’s fantasies, probably the most famous of which is the “Paul’s dead” rumour communicated through signs and symbols permeating the Beatles’ output that Paul McCartney, despite all signs to the contrary, was actually dead and had been replaced by a lookalike. Funny thing is, Coy really does turn out to be alive, having faked his death to end his destructive relationship with Hope. Coy took an offer from a morals crusade group that wanted him as an agent to infiltrate the hippie scene, but has been forced onto a treadmill of fake identities and ridiculous assignments, like pretending to be a hippie scum protestor at a Nixon speech. Of course, the morals crusade is actually the Golden Fang’s public face, and Coy is trapped with no way back to his personal reality.
Doc’s first meeting with Coy comes at a classic noir location, a fog-shrouded pier, perfect for swapping mythologies of the night and anguished personal lessons, for ghost ships to cruise the harbour, for men returning from the dead and melting back into the murk. Later, Doc has to track Coy down to where he’s undercover, having slotted himself back into a band he used to play in—they’re too drug-addled to recognise him—for the sake of an investigation, living in a record exec’s rented house that’s become a kind of commune for bohemian brethren who divvy up pizzas in a burlesque of Last Supper art, with Coy nominated as the hipster Jesus, seeking his return to life after his sacrifice. Anderson tips his hat most explicitly to long-time influence Robert Altman here, who used the same joke in MASH (1970). The atmosphere and essential conceit of Inherent Vice recalls Altman’s similar defloration of the Marlowe myth in his flaky take on Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye (1974), whilst the visual language often recalls early ’70s Altman’s love of wide shots and slow zooms.
It would be easy to overstate the Altman imprint on the film, however, as Anderson seems to have other models equally in mind. Anderson fashions the film in complete opposition to the hallucinatory, chiaroscuro approach to the Californian alternative scene Oliver Stone wrought so well in The Doors (1991), though that style would have seemed apt for adapting Pynchon’s novel. Pynchon’s writing has long shared the antic, near-cartoonish quality that was popular in much ’60s culture, sharing that quality in common with figures like MAD Magazine artist Mort Drucker, the early films of Richard Lester, and Pynchon’s fellow black-comedy writer Terry Southern, who penned the novel Candy and cowrote Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) and Easy Rider (1969), two of the most influential films of the era. Anderson tweaks Bigfoot in a fashion that recalls Easy Rider’s tragic character George Hanson, portrait of trapped America, a man so busy playing parts demanded of him that he doesn’t quite know who he is anymore.
Anderson generally takes his cues from a different strand of period film, particularly Arthur Penn, whose Alice’s Restaurant (1969) was the first post-counterculture film that came out when the movement was cresting, and his own revisionist take on the private eye flick in the light of shifting modern mores, Night Moves (1975), and Lester’s radical turnabout Petulia (1968), whilst the inner thesis of the film invokes the famous “high and beautiful wave” passage of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Wim Wenders’ early works also feel like powerful influences on the film’s serious substrata, particularly his American debuts Hammett (1982) and Paris, Texas (1984). The former film walked the detective drama through reverent genre pastiche, but also adopted a similarly opiated, abstracted sense of time and sad learning as well, studying the distance between the odd comfort found in the terse, distorted world created on page and the actual spectacle of a deeply corrupt world, and the latter’s intimate, emotionally gnarled anatomisation of formerly happy, wayfaring lovers wrecked on the shoals of an unforgiving land. Anderson, whose jesting, yet penetrating vantage on his native land has defined his work to date, seems to want to adopt the same stranger’s-eye view. And indeed, that suits Doc’s status as self-imposed exile in his own land.
Doc is presented as a classic kind of comic character on the surface, the guy who stumbles blithely through danger, a figure that threads through the history of movie comedy from Harold Lloyd to Inspector Clouseau and Frank Drebin, with just a little of Groucho Marx’s shyster ingenuity, and, of course, his name pays tribute to Groucho’s progeny Bugs Bunny. But Anderson, via Phoenix’s dextrous performing, confirms there’s a real person buried under the shaggy hair and patchouli cloud, a man trying to fly over petty abuses and major heartbreaks inflicted by the ways of the world, from losing Shasta to a rich man to getting knocked over by cops like schoolyard bullies. Late in the film, when Doc converses with smooth, cold-blooded lawyer Crocker Fenway (Martin Donovan), who may be connected to the Golden Fang and have arranged the murder of his wayward daughter’s lover, Doc meets Fenway’s sneering depreciation of his worth with, “Well I might not be as well connected, and for sure not as much into revenge as you folks are, but if you jive with me, my man—’ and makes a clicking sound as if cocking a gun. Phoenix expertly twists this line, eyes bugging out like Jack Elam after a bender, so that it comes out as both punch line and exact character signature.
Inherent Vice neglects Anderson’s theme of master-pupil relationships, perhaps because The Master signalled a natural end to them, all the better to concentrate on his twinned rivals and doppelgangers, another constant refrain in his work. Equally, Inherent Vice’s official status as comedy, however uneasy, suddenly gives new dimension to the farcical impulses throughout his films, like There Will Be Blood’s invocations of Tom and Jerry, Coyote and Roadrunner, and the Three Stooges. Turning Coy into hippie Jesus readily evokes the many profane temples constructed by Anderson’s characters in their searchings, his pilgrims in a land without holy places, and evokes the purest side of the counterculture in its search for things worth honouring distinct from the interests of commerce and state. Woven throughout all the dope and derring-do is a meditation on Doc and Shasta’s relationship, tethered to the drama overtly and spiritually. A flashback depicts the couple in their happiest moment, when, strung out during a weed famine, they consulted Sortilege who made them try a Ouija board; the board immediately gave them a street number to what seemed to be a connection, only to belong to an empty lot. Doc heads to the same spot on an impulse and finds an oddball modernist building now in the space. Moreover, the building proves to house the Golden Fang, or at least a Golden Fang, a collective of dentists headed by depraved Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short, bless him) who has a massive stash of heroin under his desk he shares happily with Doc before dashing off for a quickie with his vinyl-clad secretary Xandra (Elaine Tan). Then Fenway’s professionally maladjusted daughter Japonica (Sasha Pieterse) turns up, having just escaped from the institution her father exiled her to after Doc tracked her down on an earlier case, to resume her corrupt ways with boyfriend Blatnoyd. Somehow Doc finishes up in a car with this twisted duo and his pal and protégé Denis (Jordan Christian Hearn), stopped by cops who have been told, post-Manson family, to look out for cults. But the invisible hand of some defender stops them all getting busted. Blatnoyd turns up dead shortly thereafter, having fallen off a trampoline and then been mauled on the neck; Doc suggests to Bigfoot that he investigate to see if Blatnoyd was killed with actual golden fangs.
The scenes with Blatnoyd mark the most overtly rompish passage in the film, whilst the subplot of the boat that also bears the name of the Golden Fang, upon which Doc suspects Wolfmann, Shasta, or both may have been borne across the seas, provides a host of connections with pulp fiction, particularly the otherworldly junk bearing human cargo in Albert Zugsmith’s proto-psychedelic epic Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962). The voyaging motif that popped up throughout The Master returns here, postcards from far off places touched with hints of enigmatic benediction and longing. Doc’s marine lawyer pal Sauncho Smilax (Benicio Del Toro, in a marvellously dry performance) clues Doc in on the Golden Fang’s mysterious past, including a sojourn into the Bermuda Triangle when owned by once-blacklisted, now anti-communist movie star Burke Stodger (Jack Kelly). Meanwhile, Sauncho happily gives advice with equanimity to Doc and Bigfoot, because Doc never pays him and, well, he’s a marine lawyer. Doc eventually does track down Mickey, finding him installed in a Golden Fang front, a rehab facility, where Coy is also installed on one of his missions. Mickey is a wreck painful to behold, mumbling through the haze of detox about his epiphany that his business depredations were evil, a portrait of cynic turned loopy, drug-fuelled idealist now being forcibly transformed back into his previous condition because too many people, from his wife to the U.S. government, require it. Anderson abruptly and disorientingly has Doc’s seemingly all-consuming investigation fold in upon itself in tragicomic diminuendo, as Mickey returns to business and Shasta suddenly appears again as she did at the beginning, fetching beer and questioning Doc about his requirements in women.
Here, crucially, the underlying tone of something darker, rawer, in Anderson’s enquiry leaps to the fore, hinted at throughout the early scenes with a cheeky sensibility, as he notes that the sexual liberation surveyed in the LA scene is too often rather an elaborate form of prostitution, particularly around Wolfmann’s house, where Anderson places his camera at Doc’s sitting eye line, so both sexy housemaid Luz (Yvette Yates) and Sloane’s trainer and lover Riggs (Andrew Simpson) are both objectivised as bodies. Upon her return to Doc, Shasta strips off and lays herself across his lap, taunting him with a long story of being reduced to Wolfmann’s concubine, brought in as if she ought to be on a leash in secret dens where plutocrats meet and shared around as common property. Shasta’s long monologue, delivered in a slurred testimony replete with disquieting, simultaneous urges to be chastised and purified but also have stirred masochistic, anti-human impulses sated, drives Doc to spank her and fuck her in a spasm of powerful anger and desire.
This astounding vignette drives the film into radically different territory, Waterston’s quake-inducing performance evoking Nastassja Kinski’s haunted reverie in Paris, Texas and Last Tango in Paris (1972) in grazing the edges of sexuality’s intense, troubling ambivalence, and also a hint of Olivier Assayas’ Boarding Gate (2007), which similarly explored the problems of love interwoven with hate through a prism of pulp fiction. The notion that too much of human life is, under all the flashy surfaces and propaganda, a case of people seeking power over others and the strange, contorted ways the dominated react proves a secret thesis of Inherent Vice, and the throughline of the entire affair, Doc’s attempt to bury and forget the plain fact that his girlfriend left him for a rich man and now comes back to the better man only to test him, is simplicity itself. But, of course, the encounter concludes with Shasta’s reminder that “This doesn’t mean we’re getting back together.”
Shasta’s mysterious return begs as many questions as it answers, but it’s Coy who then haunts Doc; just as Bigfoot is Doc’s doppelganger, Coy is Shasta’s, another free spirit similarly erased from reality by the forces of iniquity. This drives Doc to foolishly brave the lair of the one definite (and perhaps, in the end, only) spider in the Golden Fang tree, Adrian Prussia (Peter McRobbie), who seems to have killed Bigfoot’s partner and is perfectly willing to get rid of Doc’s pestering presence by having Puck take him captive and arrange his death by forced overdose. Doc battles for his life with the kind of streetwise skill that’s always been lurking under his ridiculous exterior. The sense of threat Anderson has managed to infuse amidst all of these antics pay in off in a sudden burst of real and thrilling violence—except Doc, in his peerless fashion, cries out, “Did I hit you?” moments after unloading a load of bullets into a man’s face. This sequence would have made an old-school noir filmmaker proud, proving Anderson’s gift with nuts-and-bolts cinema is still tuned whilst still defiantly maintaining his chosen style, via an oblique framing of captive Doc and Puck through a window.
Inherent Vice ultimately belongs in a genre that is infamously difficult to pull off and even harder to sell: profound farce, a vision of hapless humans entrapped by their own unruly impulses within a society defined by the same impulses, shot through an ironic, but still correct sense of the unity of opposites. Even in Bigfoot’s final, near-fatal betrayal of Doc we find the opposite, a gesture of desperation and hunt for comradeship that the cop can’t quite acknowledge. Inherent Vice is a thoroughly immersed period piece, but sustains a peculiar blend of the hazily remembered with the immediate: Anderson knows that Doc’s desire to excise himself from the pains of living in the world is an ancient and immediate ambition. Anderson cuts him a little more slack than Pynchon. Where Boogie Nights wrapped up with the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” as it elegy to happy endings after nightmares, Anderson leaves off with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” as Doc and Shasta are adrift on the highway, Doc keeping one suspicious eye on trailing headlights, knowing evil is always lurking, but feeling that a puce knight like him stands a chance of fighting it off.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jean-Luc Godard
By Marilyn Ferdinand
You know why I quit playing ballads? Cause I love playing ballads. —Miles Davis
The above quote by jazz great Miles Davis has always stuck in my mind. Why would someone give up on something they love? Why would they push themselves to the edges of their chosen form with sounds that couldn’t be more different from a ballad? Miles was frank about his reasons: “”You should never be comfortable, man. Being comfortable fouled up a lot of musicians.” Comfort has fouled up a lot of other people, too. Just see what some writers about movies have to say about the National Society of Film Critics’ choice for best picture of 2014—“…as stupid & self-congratulatory a choice NSFC could make” (David Poland, Movie City News); “snobbish and elitist” (Scott Feinberg, Hollywood Reporter). In an age of punditry, not being utterly accessible for critical parsing or two-line synopsizing is perhaps the greatest offense a film could make.
I, for one, congratulate the NSFC for their choice and wholeheartedly agree with it. Goodbye to Language is a joy, not least because the 84-year-old dean of French cinema, Jean-Luc Godard, continues to embrace new challenges and humbly said to the NSFC in a thank-you missive that he is “still learning.” Nobody insisted he keep making movies, and at his age, he would be forgiven for retiring on his laurels to write full time or tend his garden. Instead, while other directors have approached 3D technology timidly or in the pursuit of butts in seats just like its original aim in the 1950s, Godard has, like Roberto Benigni, chosen to “lie down in the firmament making love to everyone” with his warm and ground-breaking embrace of 3D cinematography.
There are many knowledgeable Godardians who have done a far better job than I could of analyzing the content and technical aspects of his latest effort and contextualizing it within his oeuvre. Indeed, the excited discourse among Godardians is a juggernaut of its own, with the endless possibilities of Godard’s intentions being picked over like the booty in a dragon’s treasure chamber. For me, such detailed intellectual exercises are for the young. As an older film enthusiast who craves the immediacy of experience, I prefer to bask in the absolute beauty of Goodbye to Language.
If I can be so presumptuous, it seems that Godard is a little tired of these mental roundelays as well. Goodbye to Language seems more like a repository of impressions, inspirations, even questions. While he drops a few references, images, and actions into the film regarding Africa and violence, his oft-repeated refrain, “There is no why!” challenges his seriousness of purpose in raising these subjects. For me, the film is a valentine to all the things Godard loves—nature, dogs (particularly his dog, Roxy), art, film, language, and his partner in life, Anne-Marie Miéville. As though to confirm that assertion, one enterprising writer at MUBI has catalogued many of the literary, visual, and musical quotes Godard incorporated into the film, and the range of his influences, from Derrida to Anouihl to Ezra Pound, reveals Godard’s far-ranging intellectual and cultural engagement that makes the title of his film all but impossible to take seriously. At the same time, Godard is dipping several toes into the media of today, commenting on and making use of the renaissance in 3D filmmaking and smartphone videography, the former with wild abandon, the latter with more petulant reservations.
Goodbye to Language concerns itself with nature and metaphor in four alternating parts, preceded by an introductory scene at a book stand near Usine a Gaz, a cultural center in Nyon, Switzerland. Most amusing of the goings-on in this section is a professor named Davidson (Christian Gregori) looking at a copy of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and telling a young woman not to look the writer up on Google. Godard juxtaposes book readers with smartphone readers and eventually shows a smartphone with a headshot of Solzhenitsyn on the screen. I laughed out loud at the futility of Davidson’s plea and at the way a man of towering importance concerned with the worst in state oppression in his writings could be reduced to a selfie by proxy.
Godard uses two couples who strongly resemble each other to play almost identical scenes in parts 1 and 2, in what seemed to me to be an homage to his New Wave compatriot and former film editor Jackie Raynal, particularly her film Deux Fois (Two Times, 1968), in which she says goodbye not to language, but to meaning. At the same time, by using different actors, he is illustrating a very literal interpretation of the word “metaphor,” that is, a comparison of two unlike things that share something important—and no matter how much the pairs of actors (Héloïse Godet [Josette] and Kamel Abdelli [Gédéon]/Zoé Bruneau [Ivitch] and Richard Chevallier [Marcus]) resemble each other, they are not the same.
Godard varies the scenes in ways that modulate the amount of alienation between the two couples. In a pierside scene, Josette is looking forlornly at the clouded sky from behind a set of bars when a man’s hand moves tentatively into the frame, but remains far from Josette’s hand. In the replayed scene, Marcus’ hand moves much closer to Ivitch’s. Josette and Gédéon are filmed in an apartment. Both are nude, but unlike Ivitch in the later sequence, Josette is conspicuous in her nakedness, putting a trench coat on at one point but allowing it to flap open. Gédéon says with disgust that there is no Nobel Prize for art, which must be his profession, and his unease spills through the scene. The couple’s unhappiness crystallized for me when Josette sits naked next to a vase of flowers, more subjugated objects for a painting than real and relatable. A shower scene shows Josette from behind, standing in the bathroom doorway urging Gédéon to finish so she can use the shower. The second couple tussle in the glassed-in shower, a scary scene considering that they could break through the glass, but at least they are showering together.
Godard also offers sequences of violence (an apparent murder, water running in a blood-filled sink) and of low comedy (the men farting on a toilet while their women try to talk to them). Throughout, scenes from films appear as short snippets or on a large TV in the couples’ bedroom, drawing the eye away from the foreground. And that is literal, as Godard’s use of 3D allows us to separate the planes of background, foreground, and subtitles. The viewer has the freedom to close one eye or the other to get different angles and colors, reminiscent of the open-source films like Sita Sings the Blues (2008) that allow viewers to embellish and change the basic film.
Godard even seems to send up his own rebellion against France’s so-called quality films and Oscar-bait period films by inserting an interlude of Mary Shelley with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron as she pens Frankenstein. At the same time, he seems to suggest that the act of creation is a terrible beauty and that technology can unleash forces that can subvert our humanity. Is Godard a hypocrite, decrying smartphones while playing with 3D? I say we all draw our lines, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
He saves his most dazzlingly colorful scenes for the nature sequences that feature his dog Roxy, which may be a proxy for Godard himself. Roxy is a philosopher queen in her natural world of trees, grass, and flowers ruminating on what the river knows, immediately putting me in mind of “Ole Man River” from Show Boat (1936/1951). Roxy is rejected by one couple, left standing on a pier while they go off in a boat; they may even have tossed her in the rapids. The other couple adopts her and takes her everywhere with them. Dogs, we are told in voiceover, are the only creatures that love others more than themselves, making them superior to human beings in their capacity for empathy and sacrifice. Godard, the old dog learning new tricks, may be wondering whether he will be accepted or rejected and signals in what I believe to be an almost total lack of ego that he really does what he does for us, not himself. The ungenerous criticisms flung at this sweet film show us to be the lesser—again.
To quote from Miles Davis again: “If you understood everything I say, you’d be me!” It’s time to stop our own ego trips, give up on finding new ways to reduce his vision to a few paragraphs, and offer this consummate artist our sincere thanks for never giving up on us.
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Director/Screenwriter: Gina Prince-Bythewood
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Last year, I participated in one of group blog Wonders in the Dark’s legendary countdowns, which poll numerous cinephiles on what they consider to be the best films in a given genre or category. This countdown involved romance films, the definition of which was left up to each voter. Film fans will quibble as they always do about what is included and what is missing, but I think the voters did a pretty good job of choosing a wide array of films with a romantic bent, from cartoon features like Lady and the Tramp (1955) and WALL-E (2008) and warped relationships in the noir films Double Indemnity (1944) and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), to gay love in Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Blue Is the Warmest Color (2013) and eternal love in Portrait of Jennie (1948) and Romeo and Juliet (1968). I was happy to see some newer films on the list, but dismayed that most of them were made by indie and foreign directors. It seems that Hollywood’s formerly large portfolio of adult romances has been pushed out of the way by adolescent and dysfunctional relationships, as well as period pieces made more romantic by their elegantly arcane settings.
That’s why Beyond the Lights hit me like a ton of bricks. The central pair in this contemporary romance, a Rihanna-style pop star and a policeman with political aspirations, are in their 20s, accomplished, and self-aware. They don’t meet anywhere near cute, and they don’t give up everything just to be together. They actually have lives that include, but don’t revolve around each other, and director/screenwriter Gina Prince-Bythewood lets us see those lives. Wow, imagine that!
The film opens in Brixton, London’s sketchy multicultural neighborhood. We meet Noni as a 10-year-old child (India Jean-Jacques) being dragged into a hair salon by her mother Macy (Minnie Driver). Macy successfully begs the beautician, Felicia (Deidrie Henry), who is closing for the day, to give her a few tips so that she can bring Noni’s unruly hair into line for an important talent competition the next day. The film cuts to the competition, where we see a tap dancer whirl around the stage before Noni takes her turn. She offers a soulful, a cappella rendition of Nina Simone’s “Blackbird,” and comes in second, behind the dancer. Macy drags Noni off the stage in a rage and forces her to throw her trophy away. Noni learns the hard way that winning is the only option.
The film fast-forwards to the present in which a grown-up Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) no longer worries about her nappy hair or being a runner-up. She’s a popular singer who works a sleek, purple weave and fuck-me clothing and gestures, and carries on an affair of convenience with rapper and musical collaborator Kid Culprit (Machine Gun Kelly). The duo’s latest single wins a Grammy, and as Noni drives off with some friends in a limo, the teetotaler uncharacteristically swills some champagne straight from the bottle. When she returns to her hotel room to change clothes for an after-party, she tells Kazan (Nate Parker), the moonlighting cop guarding her door, not to let anyone in. Wondering why her daughter is taking so long to emerge, Macy orders Kaz to open the door. They find Noni sitting precariously on the balcony railing, crying that “nobody sees me.” She pushes off, but Kaz catches her wrist and hauls her back up with the words “I see you” on his lips. The media are abuzz with reports of her suicide attempt, witnessed by people on the ground. Forced into a position of damage control, Noni goes with the cover story that she was intoxicated and slipped. Kaz, cast as a hero, believes in telling the truth, but compromises his principles to support her cover story. He wants to keep his distance from Noni, but she pursues him and the two commence a serious romance.
What sets Beyond the Lights apart from other mainstream romances—and despite the largely black cast, this film maintains an assured classic structure—is the attention to the details of the lovers’ lives and the way such now-familiar components of popular culture as paparazzi, scandal-mongering, hero worship, and image creation actually affect those who work in the public eye. Noni’s suicide attempt could have signaled just another cliché of the poor little rich girl or tragic star, but Prince-Bythewood smartly let us see the soul of this person in the opening scenes, drawn to jazz and self-expression but pushed by an ambitious mother to pursue fame and fortune. This strategy invests the audience with a stake in her rescue and recovery, as well as lifts the story out of the jaws of superficial melodrama.
Kaz’s story is just as interesting. The son of a retired cop (Danny Glover), Kaz is following in his father’s footsteps as part of their joint plan to launch him into politics. His initial courting of some influential religious leaders is rocky, as they question him about his youth and then upbraid him for seeming to compare himself to another youthful mover and shaker, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annoyed by their retreat behind the sacred cow of King, Kaz merely asks them to know him by his deeds. He is warned that Noni might not be good for his image, even though he has gotten some much-needed name recognition from the press conference at which she thanked him for saving her. But his dedication to honesty might be a larger hindrance to him in the long run.
Ultimately, what makes this story so compelling and this love match so right is the journey toward authenticity Noni and Kaz are on. Kaz tells Noni that he loves Nina Simone, unwittingly signaling to her that he can understand her real self, and self-consciously says that his parents named him Kazan because they thought it sounded African, a sly joke on an older generation that looked to a continent many of them had never seen for their authenticity. He refuses to consider himself her boyfriend until she breaks up with Kid Culprit, giving her the courage to do just that and try to jettison her false, hypersexual image on stage. The new relationship kicks into high gear when they drive across the border to Mexico for a weekend idyll. Noni pulls off her fake fingernails, pulls out her weave, and the pair visits an open-air market. Kaz refuses to give her some cash for an ID bracelet, forcing Noni to barter her diamond earrings for it. In a moment in which Noni owns her stardom as part of who she is, she gives Kaz a “really?” look when he asks her if the diamonds are real.
Unfortunately, the getaway is ruined when Noni’s mother and the paparazzi find her after a fan videos her singing a very moving version of “Blackbird” at a karaoke bar and posts it on YouTube. Whisked back into the fray of celebrity, Noni refuses to chuck it all because it makes Kaz uncomfortable to be under a microscope. She wants to have a world stage to say what she wants to say as a singer and songwriter and isn’t ready to cash in her chips based on the wants and needs of a man. When Noni and Macy play hardball with her record company to include a couple of songs Noni wrote on her new album, which will cost the company hundreds of thousands of dollars in rerecording and production fees, the price is dropping Kaz. After a quick beat, Noni simply and unemotionally says, “OK.”
Prince-Bythewood offers a wonderfully intimate look at Noni and Macy’s relationship. Macy tells a story Noni hasn’t heard before. Macy was abandoned by Noni’s black father and rejected by her family and she ended up—infuriatingly—just as they predicted: broke in a Brixton tenement. A passage out opened when a very young Noni opened her lungs to sing along to a recording of “Blackbird.” Macy’s actions become much more understandable, even forgivable, when put in context, but she just can’t seem to recognize Noni as a person—a common affliction of parents everywhere. In the end, both Noni and Kaz have to separate their own dreams from those of their parents if they are to give birth to their true, adult selves.
I believed almost every minute of this film, with only a few false notes sounded mainly to move the action forward. The portrayal of the music industry, with its power plays, image churning, and negotiating, seemed real without being the caricature of villainy we often see in feature films. Noni and Kaz’s relationship develops slowly to the random rhythms of life, not on the predictable waves of plot. Prince-Bythewood doesn’t feel the need to show skin when her characters have sex—indeed, this welcome change of pace offers insight into what Noni is fleeing, revealed in a very professionally shot music video at the beginning of the film that is little more than a visual sexual assault. I liked how full and teeming the film was—it was a nice touch to have the kindly hair stylist return as a member of Noni’s staff. Even the concertgoers seemed to get just enough camera time to make them seem like more than extras.
Most especially, I loved Mbatha-Raw, who with her appearances in the highly regarded film Belle and this one, is having quite a year. She adopts a different spine for the Noni she presents to the world and the one she has kept under wraps, and melds the two believably through the course of the film. Her rendition of “Blackbird,” sung through tears, is inspired and beautiful. Her dignity is kept intact by a sympathetic director and matched by a dignified love interest who learns that his chosen path doesn’t really fit his character. Mbatha-Raw and Parker have a wonderful chemistry, which Prince-Bythewood captures in some beautifully paced and rendered scenes. Beyond the Lights may be optimistic about the power of the truth, but this large and talented creative team have made a believer out of me.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Nuri Bilge Ceylan
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers
Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan has steadily gained a select and growing circle of international film devotees since his debut in 1998 with Small Town. His last four films have won prizes in the Cannes Film Festival, 2011’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia brought him a far wider level of acclaim, and this year’s Winter Sleep captured the Palme d’Or, cementing his reputation as one of the age’s major filmmakers. For fans of Anatolia, Winter Sleep may prove to be a subtly dissonant experience. Extreme length and a vivid mood connect them, and yet where Anatolia was a stark, eerie work where conversation and human connection were as scarce as houses in the blasted plains of central Turkey essayed through a rarefied mix of utter realism and poetic contemplation, Winter Sleep calls back to Ceylan’s earlier efforts as a novelistic work where the loquacity of the characters pointedly contrasts the taciturn men of the previous film. That’s not so much a criticism as a point of reference, for Ceylan’s gift for situating stories in very specific climes that are nonetheless readily recognisable, universal portraits of humanity is still palpable, and he captures that specific sense of place with longing and desolate romanticism. Whereas Anatolia was a film about exposure, as its policeman and functionary protagonists wandered the vast plains searching for a dead body, Winter Sleep is a tale of homes and refuges, albeit one that notes how a bedroom can become as wintry and alienating as King Lear’s blasted heath.
Aydin (Haluk Bilginer) is a middle-aged former actor who now runs a hotel in the rocky region of Cappodocia, a tourist hot spot in the summer because of its spectacular scenery and the fascinating local tradition of building houses into the rocks. But it is also a place of chilly, oppressive winters and depressed conditions for many of the inhabitants who aren’t benefiting from the economics of tourism. The film opens in the last wane of the tourist season, and the only guests now at the hotel are a Japanese couple and a motorcycle-riding wanderer, Timur (Mehmet Ali Nuroglu), who’s interested in the possibility of riding a horse whilst staying at the hotel, as promised by pictures on the website. Aydin apologetically explains that the pictures were just for visual impact, but then he does discuss obtaining a horse for the hotel guests to ride and hires a wrangler who promises to capture one of the wild horses that live in the valley below. Aydin’s energies are scarcely demanded by all of his interests, delegating them to assistants and family, giving him considerable time to pursue a significant project in his mind, a history of the Turkish theatre. But he procrastinates with a sideline he loves, writing “The Voice of the Steppes,” a column for a regional newspaper in which he can pontificate on any subject he desires. Aydin lives with both his sister Necla (Demet Akbag), who’s recently divorced her alcoholic husband, and his wife Nihal (Melisa Sözen), who, being much younger than her husband, is beset by the boredom and isolation of the hotel and has made herself useful running campaigns and soliciting donations to improve the local schools.
Besides the hotel, Aydin is a landlord, owning many houses in the nearby town of Garip. Aydin’s troubles begin when a stone crashes into the passenger side window of his jeep when he’s being driven through the town by his manager Hidayet (Ayberk Pekcan). The rock was thrown by a kid, Ilyas (Emirhan Doruktutan), who runs off but falls in a pond. Hidayet fishes him out, and he and Aydin take Ilyas back to his father, Ismail (Nejat Isler), who is one of Aydin’s tenants. Ismail is unemployed after a spell in jail, and is now well behind on his rent. Aydin’s agents had seized some of their property as payment, including their refrigerator and television, and also possibly manhandled Ismail in the process. Ismail slaps his son in the face for his act, but then punches in one of his own house’s windows, and almost attacks Hidayet in a fury, held back only by his brother, Hamdi (Serhat Mustafa Kiliç). Hamdi is an imam, amiable and personable–perhaps a little too much so. He tries to act as interlocutor with Aydin and broker an arrangement to keep the peace, but he proves hapless as he offers to pay for the repair of the car window, only to learn it’s excruciatingly expensive for his poor family’s finances. To even make such an approach, Hamdi has to walk the 10 kilometres from town. Aydin, for his part, rather than being pleased or understanding about such efforts, takes veiled potshots at Hamdi in his column, complaining about badly dressed, rundown imams who stick their nose in other people’s business.
Like Asghar Farhadi from Iran, another paragon of the new Middle Eastern cinema, Ceylan tips his hat to artistic traditions of Europe and Russia as well more parochial ones, and makes a very literate, not merely literal movie. The great Russian authors of the 19th century are clearly a major influence on this work, particularly Anton Chekhov, whose wryly observed, ultimately tragic tales of ordinary oppressions and disappointments are an official inspiration, as well as Ceylan’s favourite film masters, including Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, with whom he shares an unfashionable yet powerful fondness for deep, meditative tales digging into psychological and sociological matters. Aydin is the kind of character Chekhov and Ibsen particularly enjoyed, if that’s the word—a pompous, self-appointed master of the world who quietly grinds down the people around him, though Aydin isn’t quite such a pillar of monstrous egocentrism as some of those writers’ protagonists are. Initially, Aydin seems like a quietly industrious, but world-weary, henpecked intellectual whose prosperity is merely resented, but we get an eyeful of just what a shit he can be when Hamdi brings Ilyas to see him and apologise, as with smarmy delight, Aydin holds out his hand for Ilyas to kiss. Ceylan’s portraits of contemporary society out in the Turkish boondocks do indeed seem to justify the likeness to Victorian Russia, glimpsing a country riddled with uncomfortable extremes, where a prosperous urban class has partly annexed remnants of power and position and expected deference once reserved for the aristocracy, cheek-by-jowl with people trying to subsist.
Ceylan’s eye for physical context and cinematic atmosphere, which dominated in Anatolia, is more muted here, but just as crucial. He introduces Aydin wandering in the dawn light amongst the crags of the landscape, and returns to the motif, viewing Aydin ironically and consistently as a man exiled from his own home in spite of his nominal security and mastery. This impression is made literal when Nihal asks him to leave whilst she holds a private meeting of donors and interested parties to her school project, leaving Aydin wandering without, gazing in pained jealous at the warmth of the interior and the place Nihal has gained for herself in a niche that doesn’t involve him. Early in the film, the wrangler Aydin hires captures a wild horse, which stumbles into a canal and has to be hauled out in a gruelling sequence. The animal is stowed in a cave near the hotel, where Aydin visits it in the darkness of early dawn, the animal a boding presence of shackled, incomprehensible wildness under his house, encapsulating all the violently contradictory feelings starting to burst forth in Aydin’s little world. At first, this seething seems aimed at Aydin from out in the world, crashing in very solid form as Ilyas’ rock against his car, but soon becomes palpable in his house.
A revealing early scene sees Aydin consulting with one of his friends, the bearded and contemplative Suavi (Tamer Levent), and calls in Nihal to give her two cents as well, on the subject of an email he’s received asking for his help lobbying for a specially built sewing hutch for local women. Nihal reacts with scarcely concealed contempt and anger that Aydin hasn’t done a damn thing to help with the local schools that badly need upkeep, but responds to a flattering email into helping with a scarcely necessary project. What gives Winter Sleep it subtle propulsion is the way each scene opens a gate into the next, as this scene presages Aydin’s subsequent encounters with Necla and Nihal, which reveal the household to be no paragon of domestic tranquillity. Early on, Necla mentions to Aydin that she liked his latest column, but as he begins to expound on subjects beyond his usual ken, and particularly as he indulges critical pot shots at Hamdi, Nacla chafes. Finally, during their familiar evening scene when she reclines on a lounge behind him in his office, she unloads, pouring suspicion and scorn on his pretences to punditry and suggests he takes stances he thinks will make him popular or save him from really taking a position: as she notes, he pours scorn on the faithful for their naiveté and distrusts the irreligious for their lack of commitment. Aydin fires back that he understands why she got divorced; clearly her husband couldn’t take her venomous tongue anymore. Indeed, Necla does seem to be taking her feelings out on Aydin a little, in part because earlier he sceptically responded to her wistful thesis of shaming wrongdoers into right action by asking for their forgiveness, an assumption of sin and mode of passive resistance.
Later, Aydin intrudes upon a meeting of Nihal’s school donors and encounters Levent (Nadir Saribacak), a teacher with a wry streak who enters murmuring that he’s just visited the local army base: “These military types pretend to love their wives in public,” Levent notes, “But if they had the chance they’d put them in sacks and dump them in the river.” Aydin is quietly ruffled as Nihal tends solicitously to Levent, and then goes morose when Nihal asks him to leave. Aydin retreats to his office where, in a droll jump cut, he’s pictured sitting at his computer with a long-nosed mask on, a vision of sullen rejection. After Nihal’s meeting is over, he makes a play of concern about the state of her records of the donations she’s received and the trustworthiness of the donors, stating that any scandal might affect his own good name, but actually, obviously just trying to insert himself into her business. “Your altruism moves me to tears,” Nihal comments acidly, and it becomes clear that their marriage has only been technically sustained for a couple of years now by his promise to let her have this salving venture to herself. The film’s centrepiece arrives in a chain of epic, melancholy exchanges between husband and wife, in the classically Bergman-esque mode of tearful truth-telling by wintry firelight a la Hour of the Wolf (1968). Nihal condemns Aydin for his intrusive egotism but also herself for her cowardice in remaining married to him to avoid the cruelty of surviving alone in the big world. Aydin goes through a big show of collecting up Nihal’s records and papers to inspect, retreats to his office and, realising he’s made a major tactical error, returns them, confessing he’s too lazy.
One of the best qualities of Winter Sleep is its sensitive mixture of the utterly humdrum with the majestic, the slow-burning intensity of its humans turning minor bugbears and petty conflicts into spurs for major crises, and their tethering to a landscape that both ignores them and inflicts realities upon them. Where Anatolia depicted the aftermath of murder, the heat of the moment long left behind and only the chill of a dead body and destroyed lives noted, Winter Sleep avoids even that much melodramatic cue. People in this film are smouldering, cramped, and aching with mostly self-imposed frustration and anger and sorrow. Aydin’s lack of interest in the property that sustains his situation is indicted as part of the problem rather; he has scarcely any concept of how enforcement of his proprietorial interest has left the already desperate and disenfranchised Ismail even worse off—and of course, this is the sort of iniquity that happens every day anywhere. However, Ceylan and his coscreenwriter, his wife Ebru, are careful not to make Aydin a monster; although his thoughtlessness and position of economic power are definitely destructive, he is just as hapless as the people who would like to blame him for all their problems. Aydin, aging and greyed, seems to yearn to dissolve into the landscape at some points, and his pretences hide his anxiety over the final wane of the abilities and attributes that have allowed him to make his life. Not that the Ceylans indulge his self-pity either or the usual shallow psychology of suffering: during his argument with Nihal, when he begins a spiel about his upbringing in a poor town without electricity, Nihal interrupts him by telling him he’s not playing a role anymore.
Winter Sleep is a highly verbal experience in many respects, sustaining dramatic engagement almost purely through the conversation between its characters at many points, though just as often defined by the silences between them. Many of the characters uphold, or try to uphold, a distinct philosophical viewpoint, but for the Ceylans, this is not so much philosophical work as a depiction of characters wrestling with the gap between their gift for reason–that is, their humanness–and their inability to make it work in their lives. Some have criticised this aspect of the film, and yet the discussions reminded me acutely of real-life versions I’ve engaged in, stews of words and impulses mixed together in yearning toward a coherent sense of meaning, inflected with the peccadilloes, humour, and competitive spirit of the people engaging in them. Necla and Aydin’s argument over her ethical ideas lays down a basic dichotomy, with Necla upholding a vision of forgiveness and accepting responsibility for another’s faults that could create a firmer connection of common feeling and thus perhaps heal, whilst Aydin ripostes with questioning whether the victims of Nazis should therefore have apologised to their persecutors. Necla never gets around to trying to put her thought into action, but is clearly tormented by the idea that in leaving her husband, she abandoned him to worsening alcoholism.
Aydin doesn’t have an actual intellectual or ideological position. The Ceylans cunningly use him to exemplify something all too common in the contemporary world, a person with pretences to being a thinker who nonetheless has only a series of ideas he’s rejected, bugbears to expound on, and fashionable causes rather than an actual set of concepts and ideals to be coherently expounded. Indeed, the figure of a blowhard pontificating on the internet is hardly relevant only to Turkey. Finally, Nihal is the one who actually tries to put an ideal into practice, but this works out in a different manner to how she expects. “A life that’s all mapped out isn’t real,” the motorcyclist states simply but with unshakeable authority, though his way is pointedly lonely, an existential cowboy passing through the lives of these domesticated ethicists. Aydin finally begins to look like an avatar for the divided state of modern Turkey, an urbane pseudo-intellectual in a country that stretches between Europe and Asia, modernity and history, his real past rooted in the hardscrabble soil of the national past but turned into self-dramatizing present, making him expansive and parsimonious, yearning and defensive, sceptical and sentimental all at once.
Gökhan Tiryaki’s cinematography is one of Ceylan’s great weapons in sustaining his films, with his capacity for finding a line of beauty in landscapes that offer no focal point, and capturing a sense of physical opposition, interior lights smeared in honeyed warmth and exteriors of sharp, yet bleary space. The drama of big egos and small towns could be played out just about anywhere, but Ceylan is keen to the specific nature of the environment he depicts, a place of history deep, dense, and boding, inflecting casual actions with an awareness that Ceylan articulates as a mood of haunting. Aydin often seems poised as if straining to hear something just beyond the frequency of human ears, the hum of the ghosts that inhabit these ancient hills. But Ceylan also notes the modernity infusing this landscape, the laptops and mobile phones, the presence of interloping tourists and the necessity of bilingualism (Aydin chats amiably with his Japanese tourists in English), things that define a borderless world, the sophisticated as opposed to the parochial. But it’s the parochial that’s inescapable once the tourists have fled the winter snows that will enclose everyone and force them to sit and stew in their thoughts. One wry scene shows Aydin and Hidayet skipping across the hotel’s muddy forecourt. When Hidayet asks why Aydin doesn’t pave it or cover it with gravel, Aydin retorts that if he did, his authenticity-craving clientele would be disappointed.
After the excoriating argument with Nihal, where Aydin’s bullying fails and forces him to try and save face in utter defeat, he announces he’s decided to decamp to Istanbul for a while to work on his book. But faced with a wait for a train and tramping around the cheerless, snow-clad expanse of the railway station, Aydin instead decides to go to Suavi’s house and hide out with him for a while. This amusing, pathetic discursion sees him getting drunk and gabbling with his friend and Levent, who’s also a pal of Suavi’s. Here the film becomes a gruesomely funny portrait of middle-aged men drinking in their underwear until they recite Shakespeare and then vomit on the floor. Understandably, Aydin is ultimately chastened by the experience. The trio then go out to stalk the hills and hunt, with Aydin cast as bandy-legged Hercules, managing to plug a rabbit after glancing around to see if there’s anyone else to do it for him. This funny antiheroic passage is contrasted by Nihal’s attempt to do a good deed and expiate Aydin’s excruciating patronisation of her moral intelligence. Just before he left, Aydin give her an envelope filled with cash to put towards the school fund, but Nihal knows all too well it’s essentially a bribe to make her think he’s a generous person after all.
Instead, Nihal resolves to give this money to Ismail’s family to help them out of trouble, and she treks to their house, where she chats with the stunned Hamdi, before Ismail enters, in a moment Ceylan shoots with sly operatic intensity, Ismail’s shadow falling on the floor just before he’s seen, looming like the tragic hero of some Wagnerian extravaganza. And indeed, he does suddenly possess such stature. Where most of Winter Sleep shows its kinship to the Chekhov of “Uncle Vanya” or “The Cherry Orchard,” here Ceylan, who had suggested the influence of Dostoyevsky in Anatolia, tips his hat more definitely to that Russian master. The subplot of Ismail and Ilyas proves to be a variation on that of Snegiryov and Ilyusha (note the similarity of the names of the boys) in “The Brothers Karamazov,” the tormented and fallen father triumphing before his son in his refusal to put money before pride, whilst also calling out to “The Idiot,,” in a rejection of Nihal’s efforts that nonetheless proves cathartic in a distressing way for her. From Hidayet’s jeep Aydin glimpses the town of Garip and transforms it into a raft of humanity afloat on the elements, a promise of shifting perspectives and epiphanies that offers the climactic scenes a hint of awakening even in the midst of the winter snows that drown time and sound, and narcotise the will.
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By Roderick Heath
Many times in 2014, I was tempted to throw my hands up and walk away from the year’s film scene. It seems to have been a pretty common feeling. The profitability of the film industry’s most exalted spheres have slumped, and the sense that the obsession gripping Hollywood for recycled product and well-milked cashcows might be choking the industry it at a time when people are all too willing to switch over to some other source of entertainment is becoming more convincing—not that it’s likely to spark any great sea change in Hollywood yet. Certainly a sense of diminishing returns was all too palpable in this year’s mass market cinema. Some have posited that the current economics of Hollywood have practically killed off the stream of mid-budget films aimed at adult audiences, though that strand had long been an endangered species: adults have long been very picky about what they go to see in a movie theatre. This year, I lost the last of my patience with Marvel and even Godzilla’s presence on the big screen couldn’t entirely please me.
Despite all that, 2014 has slowly accumulated good films like specks of gold in river sand until the year has proven doggedly, quietly impressive.
We Are the Best!
A lot of this year’s films have concerned themselves with creativity itself as a theme: the sources of it, the process of gaining the skill to express it, the worldly powers it gives those who master it, and the constant, dogging anxiety of doing right by it. We Are the Best! looked wistfully back to time most artists have gone through, when their impulses and characters demanded creative outlet long before they actually had the skills for doing so, when their spirits were at their purest. Damien Chazelle’s scripts for Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano and his own Whiplash posited the idea of the artist needing brute force to gain virtuosity. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proposed that creative vision is the result of specific, often terrible, sometimes wonderful formative experiences. John Carney’s Begin Again and Jon Favreau’s Chef both suggested a fall is needed to rise again as a creative force. Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook presented a heroine as a frustrated artist whose possible incipient psychosis might be a by-product of that potential creativity. Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur turned creative ownership into gender struggle, the wish-fulfilment side of much art turned around on itself in a bitter sex farce. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) portrayed an actor who had known the dizzy heights of Hollywood success trying to prove himself an artist in the face of a culture geared to poles of celebrity-obsessed admiration or antipathy. Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner gave us a panoramic contextualisation for a boorish genius. David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars portrayed creativity turned septic tank, the world of acting and celebrity having turned into stews of self-worship and pharaohlike, incestuous self-perpetuating discourse control. Jerome Sable’s Stage Fright, a film that failed resolutely to achieve any of its interesting goals, nonetheless also made the link between cathartic horror and creative success with a great climactic image, its heroine transformed into a stylised icon of trauma and triumph, splattered blood and theatrical make-up mixing on her face.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Willow Creek depicts an exercise in self-mythologising fallen victim to the primal, unruly terrors that still inhabit our world. The Lego Movie made good sport of generations of popular mythology and then delved into the childhood roots of how we construct our own world views, and then how we adapt them to coexist with others. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys breezed through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-pain narrative of the showbiz flick to conclude that sometimes professionalism is a greater value than mere inspiration and that identity often trumps aspiration. The Fault in Our Stars tried to portray the moment when the intellectual awareness that art cannot contain life’s grief suddenly becomes all too immediate.
Some films took this thematic turf a step further and contemplated characters trying to create or recreate themselves, the creation of the self and life itself becoming art forms. The very notion of becoming, the processes that create us as individuals and as a collective and point us forward became a recurring concern. The alien temptress of Under the Skin felt the faint breezes of the humanity she gazed at uncomprehendingly, but finally became fatally trapped between worlds. The heroines of Wild and Tracks both sought to conquer distance to rebuild their damaged interiors. The eponymous Lucy of Luc Besson’s scifi action epic accidentally pushed onto a higher level of awareness and then willingly pushed herself to achieve the status of a god. The flailing hero of Locke, his life suddenly turning into a disastrous quagmire, struggled throughout to pull off a piece of managerial legerdemain that would write his commitment in the sky. The hapless heroine of Obvious Child converted the minutiae of her existence into her art, stand-up comedy, which then often affected her life, an ouroboros chain of creation and deflation. The bourgeois Los Angelinos of Coherence, many of them failed or flailing artists, are confronted by doppelgangers who might turn their own failings and self-hatreds upon themselves, and offers a heroine who quite literally tries to beat herself to death to grasp a better version of the same thing. Amy of Gone Girl tried to control her own life narrative through a dense mesh of art and action.
As far as “big” movies go, this year has been trending lacklustre to rotten, riddled with overhyped, underwhelming fare as the current Hollywood ethos of sequels, remakes, and franchise service finally began to crack up under its own weight. Usually a film year offers two or three blockbusters deserving of appreciation, but this year, the fun and spectacle the genre offers have been remarkably lacking. Something like Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sounds far better as a think-piece article than it actually played as a movie, with its occasionally brilliant images foiled by a flimsy script. Guardians of the Galaxy, a pseudo-original hit for Marvel, spawned innumerable memes, most of them wittier and more entertaining than the spectacularly ordinary, lazily composed film. Maleficent, a promising concept in revisionist fairy-tale-telling from Disney, proved to be depressingly incompetent trash that couldn’t even be bothered to sustain a basic story and character logic. After feeling the strain throughout 2013, I also felt this year like I saw the comic book movie, the industry’s greatest money faucet at the moment as well as its stand-out cultural phenomenon, begin quietly dying. The depth of enthusiasm it can still wring from aficionados has started to feel forced and wilful, with minor tweaks and twists greeted like momentous events and competent films inflated into titans by sheer force of hype. What was once one of the best comic book series, the X-Men franchise, saw Bryan Singer returning to the helm on Days of Future Past, a work overloaded with promise and expectation that managed to piss just about all of it up against the wall, save for the great “Time in a Bottle” scene. Captain America: The Winter Soldier provided a reasonably honourable attempt to bring the superhero genre down to earth and contextualise it amidst a semblance of real, contemporary evils, but still ended up a grab bag of random story elements and stodgy action. The unfortunate mess that was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 has been generally recognised, though again I felt a little out of step as I found it a slight improvement on Marc Webb’s first, dolorous reboot; at least it had the minatory courage to shoot for romantic tragedy, something the gutless Marvel films couldn’t countenance.
Exodus: Gods and Kings
Ironically, I found two of the most entertaining big-budget works of the year were throwbacks to bygone brand of spectacle, the biblical epic: Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. Scott’s film sometimes played like a highlights reel from The Ten Commandments (1956), but Scott’s pernickety, critical scepticism gave it specificity and wove intelligently with the vistas and grandiosity, taking as its keynote the detail that “Israelite” means “he who wrestles God,” and keeping camp and earnestness in a healthy balance. Aronofsky’s was a different beast, more ambitious and cinematically lively than just about any other big movie of the year, if also more humourless in trying to forge new zones for mythopoeic inquiry. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Peter Jackson’s (probably) final entry in his Tolkien series, like Scott’s film, is all but a throwaway master class in big movie making, making sweeping use of the screen, reading action coherently, and packing even the most functional shots with visual lustre. The most hyped and discussed blockbuster this year was Christopher Nolan’s divisive Interstellar, another supremely ambitious work that saw Nolan trying simultaneously to earn the Kubrick comparisons he’s had heaped on him whilst also positioning himself as heir to Steven Spielberg as king of the Hollywood mythologists. He didn’t make it, with a script that ran the gamut from irritatingly pedantic to haplessly schmaltzy, took some blind alleys and a last act that didn’t work. Yet Interstellar was still an often-compelling experience that packed a sense of true wonder in both scientific theory and cinema, and signaled the widening outlook of movie scifi after decades of being reduced to mere action backdrop.
The Lego Movie
One of the best major money-spinners from Hollywood this year was Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s The Lego Movie, a zippy, hugely entertaining film that contained, in its building blocks, a sense of perspective on how children build their own worlds, a satirical streak that broadly and successfully lampooned many popular modern Hollywood narratives, and also more specific gags that occasionally cut deep: after its portrayal of Batman as an emo-jock jerk with a sideline in death metal music sporting lyrics like “Darkness!” and “No parents!” I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to take the character seriously again. One thing that 2014 has been a quietly terrific year for is the kind of trashy fare we’re not supposed to honour on best-of lists: I’ve created an honour roll for my preferences below.
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons
Not for the first time in cinema history and surely not for the last, it was interesting to see filmmakers from beyond the pale take on the sort of thing we used to expect from the Dream Factory and outdo it by degrees. Stephen Chow’s funny, frenetic, almost endlessly inventive Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons had zest and ingenuity enough for 10 films, as well as a lampooning streak that didn’t strain to seem urgently hip. Meanwhile Welsh expat turned Indonesian auteur Gareth Evans made the year’s best action film and crime epic by far in The Raid 2: Berandal. Evans will certainly hear the call from Hollywood soon, and part of me hopes he might spread his gospel from such a vantage, but another part of me wants him to stay where he is, creating tropical storms. Paul W.S. Anderson took a thankful time-out from those goddamned Resident Evil things to make Pompeii, a film that was crucified by many on release and a box office bomb, and yet became a quick fetish object for Anderson’s vulgar auteurist fans. Yes, it reminded me why I once thought him an interesting talent: the film’s clunky, clichéd sword-and-sandal first half gave way to a second half that was a sustained study in controlled, ebullient cinematic spectacle.
David Ayers, who gained some notice as a screenwriter and then as director, released two films this year, the fairly well-regarded and successful Fury, and the much-derided Sabotage. I greatly preferred Sabotage, a gamy, vicious, hard-driving revisionist western in cop garb that sported Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos’ in two impressive, blind-siding female performances—you know something’s weird when Williams and Arnold Schwarzenegger counted as one of the best romantic pairings of the year. Fury, by contrast, tried a two-faced game in looking with unvarnished force at the inhuman side of war, and offered a marvellous centrepiece sequence that saw Yankee tank crewmen and two German women thrust together amidst rites of passage and stews of resentment. But then it retreated into a stale and incomprehensible celebration of comradeship that threw away the very point it had been making in favour of a clumsy, ill-conceived action finale. Jaume Collet-Serra, who has made some decent DVD shelf filler in the past, raised his game considerably with Non-Stop, an expertly developed pressure-cooker thriller that slipped into excess by its finale, but along the way used widescreen photography to conduce both claustrophobia and paranoia, expertly charting a drama that concerned not just Liam Neeson’s regulation damaged badass and his electric concerns, but also a small community roused from dozy distraction to group action. Even better was Omid Nooshin’s barely seen Last Passenger, a thriller similarly pitched at first on a level of near-subliminal menace amidst a drowsy romantic comedy, building into an urgent fight for survival with dashes of Spielberg’s Duel (1971), even if, again, Nooshin didn’t quite know how to end it.
Cold in July
Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas’ attempt to revive his beloved TV show, proved a mixed, but mostly charming bag that provided solid evidence that social commentary and good humour don’t have be mutually exclusive and that Kristen Bell remains one of America’s wasted natural resources. I wasn’t so thrilled with Jeremy Saulnier’s much-hyped Blue Ruin, a very indie film that displayed some fine craft throughout but fizzled on both the levels of raw suspense and supposed critique of revenge-minded action films, many of which already essentially made the same points: if the movie really wanted to disassemble the genre’s usual presumptions, it might have started by making the villains less caricatured. Jim Mickle’s Cold in July was a similar mixture, more intriguing and pulling off some inspired perversions of expectation. Scott Waugh’s Need for Speed was excessively goofy and a little too determined to annex the Fast and Furious fans, yet it was the kind of formally strong, candy-coloured entertainment too rare this year, and benefited from an excellent cast having a ball. Eugenio Mira’s Grand Piano sustained some strong sub-Brian De Palma staging and remained taut until almost the end, though, like too many films this year, failed to even try to come up with a convincing finish. The zippy efficiency and moodiness of these films to my mind showed up the pretences of some of the year’s more acclaimed genre-leaning films, including Bong Joon-ho’s okay but incredibly overblown Snowpiercer (save that schoolroom sequence, a black comedy apotheosis) and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, a film that had no idea how to discipline the many impulses of its source material for effective cinema, leaning at different stages towards media satire, marital parable, thriller, and horror film, and doing none that well.
Similarly confused was Luc Besson’s Lucy, which toyed with some great mind-bending scifi ideas and confirmed Besson’s powerful sense of style hasn’t entirely abandoned him. But Besson’s lazy story development and perpetual B-movie presumptions foiled its potential. José Padilha’s remake of Robocop was a beggaring spectacle, lumbering where the original was fleet, obvious rather than sly, painfully literal and bogus-classy rather than disreputably ingenious. Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow became a critical charity case after it bombed at the U.S. box office because it was a rare attempt in the current studio scene to forge something new, but it never had any clue what to do with its superficially clever storytelling and battery of reliable actors. Kenneth Branagh’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was an odd duck, trundling into a tedious welter of contemporary action clichés, but along the way suggesting something more serious, contemplating its young hero’s confrontations with his mortality and first life-or-death struggle and patriotic duty shading into romantic conflict in a manner vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). Divergent was a The Hunger Games cash-in that moved in frustrating fits and starts, but proved ultimately more entertaining than any of the Hunger Games films have managed to be yet, with a less duly stoic heroine and some nice villainy from Kate Winslet. McG’s 3 Days to Kill was a sorry waste of talent, including the agreeably battered Kevin Costner, Hailee Steinfeld playing the same part as she did in Begin Again, and Amber Heard cast as a potentially great character, a brilliant, ruthless, sexually adventurous hit woman who was then made to stand around and do absolutely nothing.
White Bird in a Blizzard
The Expendables 3 continued that barely watchable series’ habit of casting an increasingly awesome array of leathery action greats and forcing them to mouth terrible dialogue and mow down cardboard villains. Machete Kills, which likewise cast Mel Gibson in what seems now to be his most appropriate role as charming asshole, was a slightly more enjoyable genre mockery, but signs are that between this and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, it’s time for Robert Rodriguez to grow up. The latter at least featured a well-reviewed Eva Green, who was unleashed to great effect in an off-the-wall incarnation of thwarted passion in White Bird in a Blizzard, where she found the meeting point of Douglas Sirk character and J-horror ghoul, and also in 300: Rise of an Empire, the latter, a mildly entertaining, if often ponderous study in CGI action that offered one of the year’s most memorable movies images: Green’s Queen Artemisia kissing the lips of a prisoner’s severed head, a bold moment of far-out eroticism in the midst of a genre usually very busy sublimating it.
Amidst the growing school of independent fantastic cinema, Ti West, who had been shaping up as a major talent, turned in The Sacrament this year; tense and entertaining, it was nonetheless something of disappointment in resorting to the found-footage mode West had so effectively countered before, and skating over its not-quite recreation of Jonestown without penetrating beyond its studiously composed surface. Still, some sequences, like the lengthy one-shot portrait of a woman poisoning her brother, were powerful, and Gene Jones’ performance, alternately seductive, defensive, and imperial, was superlative. Two classy thrillers I was eager to see and ultimately severely disappointed by were Hossein Amini’s The Two Faces of January and Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man. The former almost gave “old-fashioned” a bad name as it moved pokerfaced through potentially cracking, perverse material, and the latter crept glacially towards a preordained, cynical finale without locating its own dramatic heart, for all the good work by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rachel McAdams.
The Quiet Ones
More sustained, and indeed one of the small gems of the year, was professional provocateur Bobcat Goldthwait’s restrained, smart, witty found-footage burlesque Willow Creek, which wove rich, satirical value contemplating various forms of mythologising and coupling whilst offering some quality scares, particularly in its signature, epic-length tent sequence. Hammer Studios’ revival continued to slip along unsteadily with John Pogue’s well-made, attractively cast, but rickety The Quiet Ones, a film that, like Blair Erickson’s The Banshee Chapter, mixed traditional horror filmmaking with found-footage touches to varying effect. The Banshee Chapter sustained interest by having a plot composed of an array of inspired connections and a defiantly Val Lewton-esque sense of minimalist scariness. The Irish horror film In Fear failed to keep me until the end, sadly. Surprisingly, the best-regarded horror film of the year has proven to be an Australian film, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook, all the more remarkable considering the film’s quick trip in and out of movie theatres here. I must admit, however, that apart from Essie Davis’ sustained performance, it left me cold: the relentless showiness of the filmmaking couldn’t disguise that this is well-worn territory for horror fans, replete with neon-flashing metaphors, and the marvelous prop book that sets up the drama wrote a cheque the film couldn’t cash. Also, the characterisations, particularly of the hapless heroine’s son, kept changing according to what Kent wanted to do with a scene. James Ward Byrkit’s Coherence was a fleet and entertaining mindbender, made for next to nothing and sustaining its “Twilight Zone”-esque plot with conceptual cleverness and a dash of enjoyably sarcastic commentary in offering a literal portrait of people who become their own worst enemies.
The Monuments Men
Over in “serious” movie land, things have often been just as frustrating. George Clooney, who was so impressive with his first two features as director, reached an artistic nadir with The Monuments Men, a film that lurched from scene to scene with no sense of structure, tension, or character substance, only the most snivelling take on its cultural thesis, and a series of lazily tethered vignettes that added up to the one of the most galling moviegoing experiences I had in 2014. Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo were terrific as a pair of mutually exploiting rodents in Nightcrawler, with Gyllenhaal particularly offering an expert black comedy performance as a creep who shape-shifts into whatever he thinks the market wants of him. But the one-note script was far too pleased with itself, built to an utterly predictable “dark” climax signalled about an hour earlier, and cut no deeper as media satire than the average Kent Brockman report. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was for me a new departure for the director: whereas his take-it-or-leave-it directing style has been at least reliably on a level with his writing, this was the first time I’d been frustrated that his script couldn’t have been handled by a director with a half-ounce of taste and a real sense of the European tradition he was bastardising and trivialising. David Cronenberg, who had been on a roll, crashed to a halt with Maps to the Stars, a would-be devastating critique of modern Hollywood and American parenting. Cronenberg’s direction was poised in a way that only showed up the emptiness of the script, which did at least have a core idea with potential—the likening of modern Hollywood with ancient Egypt as a place where incest is the logical end-point of cordoned power and privilege. Yet the satirical points were dismayingly stale and smug: nutty actress celebrating a rivals’ misfortune and a self-help guru who’s a total asshole to his kids.
Under the Skin
The year’s most unavoidable movie in terms of critical regard has been Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Boyhood’s stature derives entirely from the unique conceit behind its filming, having been shot in snatches across a 12-year period to chart young star Ellar Coltrane’s growth. This method is indeed affecting for allowing us to see actors age before our eyes, but as a work of dramaturgy, it’s a superficial achievement that fails to gain real entry into the psychology and viewpoint of its young hero (certainly not like Terrence Malick did with The Tree of Life), instead presenting a mass of vignettes and ironically being prevented by the niceties of that method to get up close to the poetry of becoming. Studying Ethan Hawke’s face and how much it’s changed since Joe Dante’s Explorers (1986; another greatly preferable study of childhood dreams giving way to adult realities), moved me more than young Mason’s growth into a vague and wooden avatar for just about every stubbly, arty, self-involved young man likely to make up the bulk of its audience. Yet the film offered up some excellent moments that rang painfully true, particularly Mason’s encounters with the various men, most of them his mother’s poor choices in mates, frustrated with his ever-intensifying individuality, making plays for power over him disguised as sagacious aid. Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin is another highly regarded work of the year, and I have more sympathy with it: the final scene was so good it almost urges me to put it on my best-of list, and yet I could never shake off the feeling that I was watching an exercise in music video aesthetics being stretched to a 90-minute film: so coolly confident when portraying utter alienness stalking social refuse in a desolate Glasgow, the film turned stodgy as it tried to reverse the perspective, as ornery, ordinary humanity can scarcely get past Glazer’s relentless aesthetic filter. Still, the film’s sense of atmosphere, the chill and cheerless Glaswegian streets and the wild surf and rain-smothered hills, were powerful in a manner that made the film’s contemplation of various forms of life stunted by circumstances urgent.
Gregg Araki, a filmmaker who shifted from enfant terrible to major artist nearly a decade ago with Mysterious Skin, returned with White Bird in a Blizzard, a jumpy, oddly curtailed film that nonetheless continues to nag at me, in Araki’s perfervid and often dreamlike blend of John Waters-esque camp and P. T. Anderson-like haunted nostalgia. The film’s animating murder mystery offered a thriller element less by pondering who murdered whom, but rather in contemplating whose aberrant and frustrated sexuality boiled over with destructive results, and how much Shailene Woodley’s young protagonist has inherited it, in a work pitched at the nexus of wistful coming-of-age tale, suburban tragedy, and punch-drunk satire. Gia Coppola’s debut film Palo Alto, an interesting if rather loosely structured adaptation of a book of short stories by James Franco, sometimes trod similar territory in portraying adolescence in affluent, distracted America as a no-man’s-land of experience. Franco’s much-mocked, yet dogged, directorial career threw up some intriguing, if ultimately unsuccessful films, particularly Interior. Leather Bar., a pseudo-documentary exploration made with gay filmmaker Travis Mathews that rummaged through concepts of acting and the aesthetics of sexuality, whilst Franco’s solo work Child of God turned Cormac McCarthy’s arty gross-out novel into a portrait of utter human degradation that, by the end, may well have been reborn. Jean-Marc Valee’s Wild tried to bash Cheryl Strayed’s diffuse memoir of walking therapy into an epic of personal experience: the result swung wildly between clumsy devices and granola pseudo-philosophy, and yet often communicated a sense of life far more unruly than this sort of thing usually offers, and had the straight-up nerve to portray a heroine who was no angel. John Curran’s Tracks, a similar tale, chose a more distanced take, one that ought to have proven superior, and yet the evasive smugness of the film’s dramatic pitch somehow turned great adventure into tedious hike. Amma Assante’s Belle touched on fascinating history and personalities and offered Gugu Mbatha-Raw a star-making role she made the most of (see also Beyond the Lights), but proved filled with vapid characterisations and laborious speechifying on a level somewhere between romantic melodrama, historical consciousness-raiser, and Jane Austen fan bait, to the point where it almost became self-satire.
Get On Up
As ever, biopics were a cash crop this year. Mr. Turner essayed the form with eccentric power and teeming detail, trying to capture an age and way of life as much as the prickly personality of the singular man who inhabits it. And yet somehow, somewhere, the film lost its own thread of enquiry, to the point where it seemed to be essentially ingeniously-composed rubbernecking. The Theory of Everything provided an utterly contrived and smoothed-over portrait of Stephen Hawking, exemplifying just about everything wrong with this contemporary brand of prestige lure. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys and Tate Taylor’s Get On Up were both showbiz biopics that gained less attention than expected. Both films kept their own theatricality in mind, making comedy out of the usual road-to-stardom stuff, and the vivacity of Get On Up’s early scenes suggested Taylor might redeem himself after the godawful The Help: the recreations of the flash and cool of a real cultural revolution were often superb. But whereas Eastwood’s sturdy sense of technique and emotional directness eventually helped his film locate a modicum of worldlywise catharsis, Taylor’s became cartoonish and ultimately formless: Chadwick Boseman worked his ass off playing James Brown, and yet never quite found what was going on behind those sharklike eyes, whereas Nelsan Ellis quietly stole the film as his long-suffering, less mercurial yet vital compadré Bobby Byrd. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Coincidence) likewise was essentially a showbiz farce constructed out of archetypes and received ideas posing as a grand and incisive tragicomedy, but redeemed by its sheer delight of technique and performance.
A Million Ways to Die in the West
2014 was a weak year for comedy, but then again so are most years now. The controversial dumping of the Seth Rogen-James Franco vehicle The Interview by an assailed Sony probably hasn’t cheated us of a classic of mirth, and yet the event as a whole suggested new truths about global culture with some galling and ridiculous ramifications. Few were particularly keen to see a film from Seth MacFarlane after his job hosting the Oscars, and his western parody A Million Ways to Die in the West proved frustratingly patchy and indecisive as to what kind of movie it was. Yet it was an intermittently enjoyable experience after all, a contemporary answer to Blazing Saddles (1974), just as undisciplined and tendentious, if much less consistently inspired, offering such random joys as the spectacle of Amanda Seyfried sucking on Neil Patrick Harris’ moustache, and Gilbert Gottfried’s wacko cameo as a fake Abraham Lincoln joyously announcing his newfound wealth to a bunch of oblivious schoolkids. On the other hand, the much-praised Obvious Child was, like its heroine, nowhere near as funny or radical as it wanted us to think it was. Jon Favreau’s likeably minor Chef had energy and a good-humoured take on the same story other films took deadly seriously this year, though its chief effect in the end was to make me hungry. Lukas Moodysson’s We Are The Best! was a gleefully energetic if rather shallow and sometimes nerve-trying paean to the joys of youth rebellion.
Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)
2014 was at least a vintage year beyond the precincts of the Anglo-American zone. Little surprises and pleasures I was privileged to catch this year included a couple of fine Canadian films, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais’s mordant portrait in comedic existential angst Whitewash, featuring a drolly soulful Thomas Hayden Church, and the superior Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, both films unfolding like bleak fairytales in the midst of the woods. Out of France came one of my more frustratingly unseen films of the year, Jean-Luc Godard’s much-acclaimed Goodbye to Language. Bertrand Tavernier’s Quai d’Orsay (released abroad as The French Minister) was a divisive film, as some branded it a laboured Gallic version of Yes, Minister and The Thick of It, but it was to me a lighter, much less one-note indictment than those satires, instead a deft comedy of manners that tried to comprehend the degree to which modern politics is a game of perpetual catch-up football enacted by people whose talents and follies coexist. Roman Polanski offered what was, to me, easily his most enjoyable and full-blooded film in a long time with the twisted role-playing satire Venus in Fur, setting Mathieu Amalric and Emmanuelle Seigner into a pas-de-deux of sexual and artistic gamesmanship. Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie was, by comparison, a good-looking but still-born study of an alienated young woman who finds…well, something or other in prostituting herself out. Nuri Bilge Ceylan, maker of 2011’s superlative Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, captured the Palme d’Or this year with Winter Sleep, an equally lengthy and intensive interrogation of the modes of petty tyranny and fear that too often consume and define life on the most everyday levels, unfolding like a good book but infused with genuine cinematic values. Jauja, Lisandro Alonso’s spacy, intriguing, if ultimately unsatisfying odyssey across the Argentine pampas inferred history as a chasm people fall into and societies emerge from. Naomi Kawase’s Still the Water was a lustrously beautiful, if excessively diaphanous fable that told a not-dissimilar story to Boyhood, but with a far richer sense of social and natural connection, as well as a more specific sense of the fears and torments of growing up.
Performances of Note:
Agata Kulesza, Ida
Allison Pill, Snowpiercer
Brendan Gleeson, Calvary
Dakota Fanning, Night Moves
Don Johnson, Cold in July
Dorothy Atkinson, Mr. Turner
Dylan Moran, Calvary
Edward Norton, Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Emma Watson, Noah
Emmanuelle Seigner, Venus in Fur
Essie Davis, The Babadook
Eva Green, 300: Rise of an Empire; White Bird in a Blizzard
Gene Jones, The Sacrament
Golshifteh Farahani, My Sweet Pepper Land
Imogen Poots, Need for Speed
Jake Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler
Joaquin Phoenix, The Immigrant ; Inherent Vice
Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice
Katia Winter, The Banshee Chapter
Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice
Marion Cotillard, Two Days One Night; The Immigrant
Martin Freeman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Mireille Enos, Sabotage
Nelsan Ellis, Get On Up
Olivia Williams, Sabotage
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
Russell Crowe, Noah
Shailene Woodley, White Bird in a Blizzard
Thierry Lhermitte, Quai d’Orsay
Tilda Swinton, Only Lovers Left Alive; Snowpiercer
Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner
Tom Hardy, Locke
Favourite Films of 2014
Calvary (John Michael McDonagh)
Calvary wasn’t a perfect work, but it was a massif of ambitious drama that actually had something to say and said it well, simultaneously curious and sceptical, brutal and humane, extraordinarily funny and deeply sad. A titanic lead performance from Brendan Gleeson backed by excellent ensemble work helped give flesh to a film that delved into matters of faith and character and beyond, to study the failure of the most profound social bonds in the modern world, to try and honestly state both why the failure happened and also question what, if anything, might remake those bonds.
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Peter Jackson)
A lot of pretenders have tried to claim the crown of the FX blockbuster king in recent years, and the sharp knives that greeted Peter Jackson’s final Tolkien entry suggests many are ready for a change of dynasty. But Jackson still does this sort of thing with a sense of gusto, fulsomeness, and an eye for beauty in unlikely places that makes most rivals look pathetic, particularly amongst this year’s big movie dross. Battle of the Five Armies stands tall in the Hobbit triptych: fun as they were, the first two often felt like theme park rides in Middle Earth, whereas here the final battle rams together every moving part in the story with consequence, and pays off with a pair of harshly beautiful death scenes carrying more tragic gravitas than just about anything else in the entire sextet. The spectacle of cross-purposes, naked greed, and swaggering arrogance from various self-appointed supermen who conspire to start a war also represented the most morally complex passage in the series, and the possibility of redemption through trial therefore more moving.
Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski)
I found myself cocking an eyebrow suspiciously at Ida, a continental excursion for a filmmaker who had previously been based in Britain. With its black-and-white photography, Holocaust themes, preciously framed shots, and general air of mournful seriousness, it seemed like something carefully pitched to be the perfect art film for pseuds. Yet under the film’s studied surface lay a fervently beating heart and a brilliant sense of character in a work attuned to cultural dislocation and flavourful in its evocation of the period. Pawlikowski’s style conveys the way life flows on, running roughshod over personal loss and horror, suggesting both why that’s inevitable and possibly even for the best, and also noting the good and bad reasons why some might choose to opt out altogether.
The Immigrant (James Gray)
A tragic tale situated in real history but dusted with the lightest gilt of magic-realism, The Immigrant needed no gimmicks or stunts other than good filmmaking to tell its story, rising with a symphonic blend of intricacy and directness and represents one of the most concise and intelligible aesthetic constructions of recent years: The Immigrant withholds until its last shot, and then haunts for days afterwards. The sublime intelligence of Marion Cotillard’s bedeviled heroine and particularly Joaquin Phoenix’s tortured Caliban deserve great acclaim, but won’t get it.
My Sweet Pepper Land (Hiner Saleem)
This oddball mix of Fordian western, Leanian epic, Shakespearean romance, with a jigger of antic gallows humour, has gained little release and appreciation, and yet it’s stuck with me with more affection that many other films of the year. My Sweet Pepper Land resituated Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan, portraying a young policeman’s entanglement with a victimised schoolteacher and a criminal potentate as a way of exploring the new frontiers of an ever-assailed nation and cultural tensions pulling the Middle East in the many directions all too clearly described by contemporary history.
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt)
I wasn’t sold on Kelly Reichardt’s lauded anti-western Meek’s Cut-Off (2010), but her follow-up Night Moves was accomplished in treading similar territory with a lighter foot and a less obvious sense of irony. A notable film talent emerged more completely. Depicting a trio of eco-terrorists driven to blow up a dam by various motives both political and personal, Reichardt, like Hiner Saleem, blended disparate genres, including war movie, murder mystery, horror film, and the jangled nerved thrillers of ‘70s cinema (including Arthur Penn’s great film of the same name) for the sake of depicting people and an age at a crossroads, the grey zone where commitment shades into hostility, idealism is subsumed by solipsism, and alienation realises that it is actually sociopathy.
Noah (Darren Aronofsky)
Aronofsky’s startlingly odd, mammoth, misshapen revival of the biblical epic had chutzpah beyond the measure of any rival in big-budget cinema this year and an actual vision to purvey, daring to enrich a stark legend with conceptual weight and philosophical enquiry. See also Ridley Scott’s less thoughtful, but brilliantly staged Exodus: Gods and Kings.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)
Jim Jarmusch’s best film in many years was a droll and opulent exploration of the bohemian creed through a twist on an old metaphor: vampirism. Tourism through the desolate grandeur of Detroit is equated with the intellectual journey of life and of romance through the ages, constantly changing expressive form and governing code but never the vital essence. The coda landed a blackly humorous rabbit punch in contemplating how sooner or later, everyone who looks at the stars has to acknowledge the gutter they’re in.
The Raid 2: Berandal (Gareth Evans)
Punctuated by thunderous, brilliantly staged and choreographed sequences of mayhem and martial artistry, Gareth Evans’ follow-up to his claustrophobic ass-kick classic from 2011 expanded his scope enormously, not entirely without some pacing problems, but finally creating a spectacle of motion matched to an expansive drama of gangland honour, offering everything from tragedy to farce and hazy poeticism.
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne)
Note-perfect social realism and incisive ethics and psychology provide reminders just why the Dardenne brothers are so lauded, in a taut and thrilling tale that is also utterly believable. Marion Cotillard’s second great role of the year saw her inhabit an Everywoman without a trace of either star slumming or self-important art.
Vic + Flo Saw a Bear (Denis Côté) / Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie)
I pair these films in part because Stranger by the Lake was a delayed 2013 film, which Marilyn Ferdinand reviewed back then, and because both are cool, bare-boned, almost mythic tales with a queer twist: Stranger by the Lake invoked primal rituals of mating and blood sacrifice in a landscape deliberately cordoned off from the modern world, whilst Vic + Flo Saw a Bear becomes a kind of fairy tale enacted by two aging, life-damaged lesbian partners threatened by a lurking demon from one woman’s past. Both films conclude with wrenching, brutal, yet oddly touching visions of people who just can’t live without love, even in the face of annihilation.
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
The Palme d’Or winner is over three hours long, driven by dialogue, and replete with silence and evocations of alienation–it’s like the art movie your mother warned you about. Yet Winter Sleep is patient rather than inflated, dense with detail and quietly motivated, taking its characters seriously but never over-indulging them. Ceylan analyses psychology and social context with a feel for how the two affect each other. Like Calvary, with more finesse, Ceylan uses a small town and its occupants to delve into the way so many of us create phantoms of our preoccupations, terrors, and preferred world views and inflict them on other people.
Would Be On Favourites List If I Had Seen It In Time:
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)
Locke (Steven Knight)
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh)
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase)
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)
Venus in Fur (Roman Polanski)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Gregg Araki)
Willow Creek (Bobcat Goldthwait)
Rough Gems & Underrated
Begin Again (John Carney)
Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)
Coherence (James Ward Byrkit)
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Ridley Scott)
Interstellar (Christopher Nolan)
A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor)
Palo Alto (Gia Coppola)
Quai d’Orsay (aka The French Minister, Bertrand Tavernier)
Selma (Ava DuVernay)
Starred Up (David Mackenzie)
Roll of Genre Pleasures
Cold in July (Jim Mickle)
Grand Piano (Eugenio Mira)
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Chi-kin Kwok)
Last Passenger (Omid Nooshin)
Need For Speed (Scott Waugh)
Non-Stop (Jaume Collet-Serra)
Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)
Sabotage (David Ayer)
Veronica Mars (Rob Thomas)
Overrated & Underwhelming
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent)
Blue Ruin (Jeremy Saulnier)
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman)
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller)
Fury (David Ayres)
Godzilla (Gareth Edwards)
Gone Girl (David Fincher)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn)
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum)
Lucy (Luc Besson)
Maps to the Stars (David Cronenberg)
Obvious Child (Gillian Robespierre)
Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho)
Tracks (John Curran)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (Bryan Singer)
3 Days to Kill (McG)
The Fault in Our Stars (Josh Boone)
Maleficent (Robert Stromberg)
The Monuments Men (George Clooney)
Robocop (José Padilha)
The Rover (David Michôd)
Bird People / The Blue Room / The Captive / Charlie’s Country / Child’s Pose / The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby / Force Majeure / Frank / A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night / Gloria / Goodbye to Language / The Guest / The Homesman / Horse Money / Ilo Ilo / In Bloom / It Felt Like Love / Joe / Land Ho! / Leviathan / Love Is Strange / Mommy / Norte, The End of History / Nymphomaniac / Pride / The Strange Little Cat / Stray Dogs / The Tale of the Princess Kaguya / The Tribe / Unbroken
The Best Older Films I Saw First in 2014:
Baby Face Nelson / The Beguiled (Don Siegel)
Bell Book and Candle (Richard Quine)
The Big Night / Finger of Guilt (Joseph Losey)
The Bigamist (Ida Lupino)
Break of Day (Ken Hannam)
China Seas (Tay Garnett)
The Colossus of Rhodes (Sergio Leone)
Creature with the Atom Brain / The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake / Pier 5, Havana (Edward L. Cahn)
The Driller Killer / China Girl / The Addiction (Abel Ferrara)
Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler / The Testament of Dr. Mabuse / The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
Electra Glide in Blue (James William Guercio)
Faces (John Cassavetes)
Girl Walk//All Day (Jacob Krupnick)
Hatchet for the Honeymoon (Mario Bava)
Heaven Can Wait (Ernst Lubitsch)
The Horsemen / Black Sunday / Prophecy (John Frankenheimer)
Love Me Tonight (Rouben Mamoulian)
The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi)
Matango (Ishiro Honda)
Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (Hayao Miyazaki)
Phantom Lady (Robert Siodmak)
Queen of Spades (Thorold Dickinson)
Rabid / The Brood / Scanners (David Cronenberg)
Railroaded! / T-Men (Anthony Mann)
Seas Beneath / The Plough and the Stars / The Long Voyage Home / The Sun Shines Bright (John Ford)
Shaft / Shaft’s Big Score! (Gordon Parks)
The Sorcerers (Michael Reeves)
The Story of Temple Drake (Stephen Roberts)
Strangler of the Swamp (Frank Wisbar)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (Charles B. Pierce)
Trouble Man (Ivan Dixon)
Une Femme est une Femme / Vivre Sa Vie / Alphaville (Jean-Luc Godard)
The Uninvited (Lewis Allen)
Winstanley (Kevin Brownlow)
Woman Who Came Back (Walter Colmes)
Wyatt Earp (Lawrence Kasdan)
Scorecard: Best Films of the 2010s, Halfway Mark:
12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen)
Anna Karenina (Joe Wright)
A Dangerous Method (David Cronenberg)
The Grandmaster (Wong Kar Wai)
Lincoln (Steven Spielberg)
The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson)
Mysteries of Lisbon (Raúl Ruiz)
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)
To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Most filmmakers portion out what talent they have in small, polite courses, but Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu throws messy, teetering banquets every time. Since his debut with 2000’s Amores Perros, Iñárritu has made technically bravura, deeply felt and seriously intended works that push at the edges of narrative cinema, sometimes to the limits of credulity and patience. His second film, 21 Grams (2003), was radically told soap opera. His Oscar-nominated Babel (2006) displayed all of his best and worst traits—intense and vibrant portraiture of characters and the worlds they live in, conveyed with powerhouse cinema, tied together with threadbare contrivances and inchoate emotional connections and impulses. Iñárritu has been quiet for some time since his bruising break-up with his screenwriting collaborator Guillermo Arriaga—only the exhausting, Spanish-made drug-addiction drama Biutiful (2010) was released in the interval. Now he’s come roaring back to prestige-clad attention again with Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), a film that seems intended to give Iñárritu’s rival in the Latin-American wunderkind stakes, Alfonso Cuaron, some more competition. Following Cuaron’s showy technical extravaganza Gravity (2013), with its epic-length shots and special effects, Iñárritu ripostes with a more earthbound drama that nonetheless one-ups Cuaron by offering a film that affects to be composed of one, constant, driving shot.
Iñárritu uses this device to illustrate the drowning wave of anxiety and detail that threatens to swamp his protagonist, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s directing and starring in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Riggan is a former movie star, famed for his part in the “Birdman” franchise of nearly 20 years earlier, and he feels like he sacrificed too much of his credibility and talent for a paycheque. Now he is dogged by the alter ego by which too much of the public knows him, constantly hearing a droning, mordant voice mocking his efforts to reinvent himself as an artist, his Birdman characterisation become his personal daemon.
Riggan has managed to pull together the theatrical production and steered it to the very threshold of opening in the St. James Theatre on Broadway, but has just realised how bad his supporting male star Ralph (Jeremy Shamos) is. By serendipitous fortune, or perhaps contrivance, a lighting rig falls on Ralph’s head during a rehearsal, badly injuring him. Riggan has to find another actor quickly. He consults with his lawyer and confidant Jake (Zach Galifianakis) and rattles off a list of potentials, like Woody Harrelson and Jeremy Renner (“Who?”), but they’re all busy playing the current wave of superhero films. Costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) suggests her boyfriend, Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an actor of the stage who has great critical favour and a reputation for uncompromising artistry—that is, he’s a pain in the ass.
Because he knows Riggan’s play inside out from helping Lesley rehearse, Mike is able not just to slip quickly into the role, but also immediately coax Riggan to make improvements. Riggan is delighted at first with his new costar, but soon Mike’s loose-cannon ethic starts to make Riggan’s situation feel even more nightmarish. Iñárritu has described himself as a frustrated musician, and he once composed scores for Mexican films before he broke through as a director. The intimate flow and relentless tug of music is clearly what he’s after here, translated into visual terms. The constant sense of headlong movement created by his tracking shots is matched to a syncopated jazz drum beat, lending a neurotically arrhythmic yet propelling heartbeat—at one point, the drummer is even glimpsed as a busker outside the theatre, and it’s as if his nerveless beat has invaded Riggan’s ear and won’t leave it; and then, later, inside, playing merrily in the theatre’s kitchen. Iñárritu’s camera aims to bind everything into a multileveled, pan-dimensional stage, sweeping up and down stairwells, around rooms, in and out of the most cramped confines of the theatre and out into the expanse of the Manhattan night where crowds reel and neon blazes.
Iñárritu captures the teeming, electric sense of the location in a way that few recent films have managed, recalling classic films whose grungy-glamorous portraits of urban gods captured both the city’s boiling, stygian ferocity and vigour, a crucible of possibility—movies like Sweet Smell of Success (1957), as well as the specific canon of Broadway films like A Double Life (1947), All About Eve (1950), and The Country Girl (1956). In Birdman, powerful theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan) sits in a solitary vigil with pusillanimous pen poised for takedowns in a nearby bar, recalling Sweet Smell’s savage columnist J. J. Hunsecker, whilst Riggan seems to be threatened with a schizoid breakdown along the fault lines of the real and fictional persona like Ronald Colman’s Anthony John in A Double Life. Riggan keeps moving because, like a shark, he’ll die if he stops—he’s invested all his money into the production. His actors share and amplify his brittle, egocentric, dedicated gusto, particularly Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who’s also his girlfriend. He recounts to Mike his “origin story” and its connection to this obsessive venture: as a young performer in a school play, Riggan impressed Raymond Carver, who sent a congratulatory message backstage to him written on a bar coaster, inspiring Riggan to choose acting as his career. Mike ripostes by noting this clearly indicates Carver was drunk at the time.
Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), a recovering drug addict who’s just of out of rehab and is working as Riggan’s PA, stands outside of the stream, angry at her father for his false promises as a parent and left with a raw and cynical understanding of this niche world, plainly contemptuous of her father’s hoped-for redemption via art in a scene that’s scarcely relevant beyond a few city blocks. She lets loose this contempt on Riggan after he confronts her about smoking dope. Mike, on the other hand, is deeply impressed with his own integrity as anointed artist-hero who brings edge and danger to the stage, and constantly tests the limits of Stanislavskian realism. He erupts in a fury during a preview performance when the real liquor he’s been drinking proves to have been replaced with water. During another preview, when he and Lesley are being wheeled on stage in a prop bed, Mike, in the thrill of imminent performance and momentarily overcoming the impotence that’s been besetting him, attempts to ravage Lesley there and then. Lesley, appalled and infuriated, promptly breaks up with him, and when Laura consoles her, they lock lips, caught up in the whirl of passion. Mike further antagonises Riggan by giving an interview where he steals Riggan’s Carver anecdote, and postures as the saviour of the show.
Mike is often insufferable in this manner, but also candid and committed in his bullshit artiste way. He tries to warn Riggan that he’s headed for a fall, locked on the wrong side of a perceived opposition between artist and mere celebrity. Mike reveals a far less aggravating side as he forms a bond with Sam, whom he encounters at her favourite hideaway, perched on the edge of a balcony high above Broadway, ironically calling to mind the similarly poised, detached yet omnipotent Batman that Keaton played a quarter-century ago. Mike is drawn to the damaged and sceptical young woman, and seems almost like a different person when calmly admitting his fears and faults to her, though his attempts to convince her of her worth are met with good-humoured derision. Nonetheless, the sideways-glimpsed romance between Mike and his daughter adds another worry to Riggan’s already overloaded psyche. Riggan is having semi-hallucinatory experiences, introduced at the start when we see him floating like a bodhisattva in his dressing room, and then seeming to use superpowers to move objects and, eventually, trash that dressing room—except that when the camera steps back and takes on a more objective viewpoint, he’s revealed to be smashing things the old-fashioned way. Finally, the mocking voice is revealed to be Riggan in his Birdman guise, sweeping down through the city streets to preach like Mephistopheles the gospel of entertainment and the security of low expectations with high pay.
Casting Keaton as Riggan was a coup of uncommon fortune for Iñárritu, giving him as it does a legitimate hinge not just of performing ability but potential satiric and thematic impact. Keaton’s stint as Batman was his apotheosis as a movie star and also the start of a long wane, though he’s long been a difficult actor to contain, too impish and odd to make a standard leading man, too self-contained and nonchalant to behave as comic fount. In a similar way, Iñárritu’s other actors are cast to play off associated roles; Watts’ pash with Riseborough clearly is a skit based on Watts’ breakthrough role in Mulholland Drive (2000), whilst Norton plays a variation on his public persona. Such conceits are entirely understandable in a film that is both about theatricality and possessed by it. The way Iñárritu films his actors and lets them combust in big, showy spiels and set-piece rants may only indulge rather than critique that theatricality, but there’s nothing much wrong with that, especially as it all contributes to the hothouse atmosphere and, moreover, delights in acting, raw and untrammelled, as the ultimate source of spectacle, both on stage and screen. Iñárritu lets his actors go wild with their tools just as he’s doing with his camera.
Meanwhile, Iñárritu manages a cunning and sinuous control of tonal shifts whilst never seeming to demarcate his moves officially, leading from farce to drama to elegy through virtuoso manipulation of elements and the connective sinew of Antonio Sánchez’s score. Riggan’s encounter with a hot-to-trot Laura in the lowest hallways of the theatre sees her transformed by lighting into a sultry and beckoning sylph in the labyrinth, then the camera follows her up to the stage, segueing into the first preview performance where a tone of elegy dominates, the tone Riggan wants for it, until Mike suddenly violates the mood with an outburst. Iñárritu cues a shift from hyped-up intensity to punch-drunk eeriness after the dispiriting impact of Sam’s excoriation of her father and his bleary, defeated suck on her worn reefer: the camera slides out and across the stage in the midst of dry ice and blue light, picking out Laura as a ghostly figure in mid-flight of elegiac speech in one of Riggan’s stylised dream sequences. A trip out the door of the theatre plunges first from exhausting claustrophobia to the mad tumult of the street to the shadowy and sheltering refuge of the bar. A quick recourse to a salving cigarette shimmers with a sense of relief and relaxation. Mike and Sam making love on a catwalk high above the stage sees camera hover and then float out above the actors at work below with swooning romanticism falling into gentle diminuendo. Iñárritu almost wills style into substance in such pirouettes, lending his vision of this hothouse of creation the quicksilver changeableness of creative vision and dramatic mood.
As a statement about the soul of the actor and the eternally tendentious nature of creative endeavour, Birdman works best through such epiphanies and flourishes of stagecraft, transforming mundane realities into mimetic canvas where Riggan’s terrors and inspirations collide and crossbreed. The problem here is that when one examines each facet, the film seems composed of a great mass of clichés. The washed-up star striving for a second chance. The sassy, irate, burn-out celebrity’s daughter. The young tyro prick. The nutty, oversexed actress. The vituperative critic who has appointed herself as guardian of culture determined to cut down our hero. It’s worth noting that 2014 has seen a small glut of films that seem like obvious metaphors for their makers’ troubled relationship with the business of art, the demands of family, and the pundits who approve or dismiss their work; there’s a strong undercurrent of this in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, John Carney’s Begin Again, and Jon Favreau’s lightly comic Chef, which strained to transfer the theme onto the world of celebrity cooking. Birdman shares with the last two films the figure of the unruly, ageing male talent and his efforts to balance a relationship with a child against renewing artistic success. Yet Chef was more sophisticated and accepting than any of the more self-righteous and noisy versions, particular when it came to the hero’s relationship with his critic-antagonist, who curiously pointed out that their battles on Twitter were “theatre.” Iñárritu, bluntly and ridiculously, portrays Dickinson as an outright creep who announces her intention to destroy Riggan’s project for even daring to try.
The best defence one can offer is that Birdman is an exercise in cut-up aesthetics, an extended jazzlike improvisation based in stirring, familiar melodies and refrains that reflect the distorting intensity of such a feat as Riggan is intending. We could accept the film’s stereotypes and cornball ideas as mere extensions of his enthused, but not terribly original mind—and I would, except Iñárritu’s technique, wonderful as it is, subtly foils his excuse, as he readily leaves behind Riggan’s viewpoint when he feels like it. This isn’t exactly a deal breaker in terms of the film’s worth, especially as Iñárritu and his cast make the characters vibrate with such energy and offer many segues of contradiction and surprise. More problematic is the film’s approach to the art it portrays. Unlike some stalwarts of artist-meltdown portraiture like 8½ (1963) and All That Jazz (1979), Iñárritu doesn’t suggest much deep knowledge or interest in the art form he’s portraying, and scarce interest in whether Riggan’s boondoggle project is worthwhile; the project is subordinated by force to the desire to see him win through. The snatches we see and hear of Riggan’s adaptation may strike one as effectively stylised and lyrical or stilted and graven, and there are dancing reindeer in his dream sequences, which, in spite of what Laura says, isn’t a good idea.
In terms of artistic commentary and perspective, Birdman poses as extra-relevant: it mentions superhero movies. But its cultural presumptions are actually passé. Iñárritu’s idea of cutting-edge satire of actor vanity is to show Riggan pulling off his wig. Appearing in superhero movies might have hurt the careers of some actors in the past, but the idea that it’s some sort of ticket to serious career oblivion is dated. Perhaps if Iñárritu had cast a more obviously limited actor than Keaton, some classically bland leading man crumpled by time and anxiety, his points might have landed with more urgency and specificity. When Tim Burton cast Keaton as Batman, he did so precisely to avoid cliché about square-jawed heroes, a subtlety that seems lost on Iñárritu, who plays up the presumed entrenched dichotomy between serious art and adolescent fantasy with thudding simplicity as food for the sorts of self-congratulatory pseuds Riggan’s supposed to be battling. Theatre critics line up to bathe in the aura of celebrity like everybody else these days, and Hollywood stars regularly use the Great White Way to give their careers a retooling.
Iñárritu does fruitfully use his dichotomy at one interval, when Riggan’s Birdman alter ego finally appears and unleashes a wave of blockbuster destruction, offering the balm of such adolescent, but buoyant destruction fantasy as a cure for the terror of “seriousness,” an eruption of Michael Bayisms that scarcely feel out of place in this work’s sturm und drang. Riggan responds with his own, stripped-back fantasy of flight, evoking Marcello Mastroianni’s escapades as a kite in 8½. Birdman needed to embrace its inner Robert Altman film more, given flesh to the potential in Riseborough and Watts’ characters, and kept the film a grand extravaganza of comic types crashing against one another. Because Birdman steadily loses steam in spite of its propulsive method, as the conflicts of ego and temperament that pop and fizz so well in the first half give way to more sustained contemplation of Riggan’s hapless state. This doesn’t work very well as Riggan isn’t that detailed or empathetic a protagonist: there’s no sense of who Riggan was before Birdman—did anyone ever take him seriously as an actor?—and his major failings, including infidelities and neglecting of Sam and his warily understanding ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan), are all safely vague and past. Also bordering on cliché is the subplot where one of Riggan’s antics makes him an online superstar, with Sam translating and exploiting for the social media sceptic the power he doesn’t yet understand. This element feels shoehorned in (again, Chef actually did this better) perhaps to make sure we know the film is set in the present rather than in 1965, which is indeed when the movie’s presumptions as a whole would’ve been more believable.
The constantly unstable sense of reality certainly invokes the Latin-American traditions of magic-realism, with which Iñárritu, a fan of Borges and Cortazar, is clearly conversant: most every moment tingles with the mysterious, transformative energy of the imagination, or maybe lunacy. Time folds in upon itself, reality bends to one’s will, invented personae torment their creators, and dream states infuse and upend all certainty. But Birdman may be viewed best as a screwball farce, as much a lampoon on the idea of artistic endeavour as anything else, sharing more in common with the Marx Brothers of A Night at the Opera (1935) and Room Service (1938), the early scenes of Some Like It Hot (1959), and Looney Tunes than Fellini or those old Broadway films. The script is littered with good lines, like Riggan’s furious self-description as Birdman prods him to return to the cape: “I look like a turkey with leukaemia!” Even if Iñárritu isn’t a comic filmmaker of great finesse or originality yet, he still manages to pay off with some sequences of slapstick zest as well done as anything I can think of recently, particularly when the infuriated Riggan drags the supposedly ascetic Mike out of his sunbed in a rage over the newspaper interview and starts a fight. Norton reveals surprising comic grace as Mike scrambles and flails like Jerry Lewis cast as hapless henchman. One sustained sequence varies a very old bit of comic business, as Riggan steps outside of the theatre’s rear entrance for a smoke during his break, only for the door to swing shut and catch his bathrobe: Riggan is stranded outside, and forced to dash in his underwear through Times Square and back in through the front entrance of the theatre, with enthused tourists and gabby New Yorkers taking photos of him all the way. Inside, he has to dodge Ralph and his lawyer who have come to try and squeeze money out of him, and once he gets back into the theatre, has to start acting a scene from the aisle, a disaster that becomes gold as the audience is wowed by the unique staging and Riggan’s seemingly raw and risky playing.
Fittingly, the film’s climax is based on another old showbiz joke, one memorably used by the Looney Tunes cartoon “Show Biz Bugs,” with its immortal punch line “I can only do it once!” as the artist self-conflagrates on stage, totally breaking down the barrier between act and deed. Frustratingly, though, Iñárritu can’t quite commit to the joke and its black comedy triumph and gives a coda that offers instead triumph through going above and beyond in a not-too-costly fashion. In a visual joke, Riggan, masked by dressings that resemble his Birdman guise, has become a hero, but only in the most ironic and self-punishing of fashions. On one level, none of this is a joke, but rather an attempt to articulate flurrying artistic worry and ecstasy with deadly, transcendental seriousness, and Riggan’s climactic gesture is meant also partly as a real solution to his quandary, an act of daring that can wow even the most jaded or hateful—except that it would actually be taken as a sign of deep mental illness, which is indeed a possible interpretation, but the very end obfuscates too much. The film’s weak and shop-worn ideas can’t be entirely forgiven when it yearns so badly to say something of substance. Yet Birdman still counts as a major work of cinema purely because it loves cinema so much, and evokes that line of Orson Welles’ about a movie studio being the greatest toy train set a kid ever had.
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Director/Screenwriter: Mike Leigh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Joseph Mallord William Turner’s place in the heart of his native folk has only become more secure as time has advanced. He’s seen as triumphantly, transcendentally English as Walt Whitman was American or Goethe was German and is more popular than either. His painting “The Fighting Temeraire” was recently voted the greatest British artwork of all time by newspaper readers, the perfect encapsulation of a national spirit always torn between bold forward lunges and a haunted sense of loss. Mike Leigh is, on the face of things, the last filmmaker one would correlate with Turner, save in their very specific sense of nationality. Leigh is a portraitist and Turner a landscape artist, but both have stretched far beyond those limits. Turner’s blazing vistas, his expressivity through elements that humble mere humanity but also subsume them into the primal dramas of existence, couldn’t be more different from Leigh’s meticulous realism in environment and slightly skewed character study that is the very core of his art, closer to Dickens and Hogarth. In short, Leigh is literal where Turner became increasingly ecstatic and allusive.
Mr. Turner, Leigh’s new biopic about the artist, has the quality of an old, bitterly humorous observation that the lovers of so many artists are eternally frustrated their mates are never as sensitive in their dealings with life as they are in their art. Leigh conceptualises Turner accordingly and seems to push it to an extreme, offering Turner as a man with the elephantine hide of a Londoner who’s survived everything life has thrown at him, swathed in a mound of flesh that deep, deep within, holds a man of exceptional, almost morbid sensitivity. The film’s Turner (Timothy Spall) is first glimpsed furiously executing a painting of a Dutch landscape, complete with two gabbling women walking by on their day’s business, as oblivious to Turner as he is to them. Leigh returns to this motif repeatedly, contemplating not just Turner as man of and in his time, but as only one functional element, meeting other savants of the era, joking and jesting and crossing swords with characters of all sorts, roaming through crowds, be they holidaymakers, passengers, or fellow artists—a viewpoint, but not an entirety.
There’s a constant sense of buffeting, a sense that slowly makes the almost implacable veneer Turner usually offers comprehensible, especially when one knows Leigh’s perspective. Leigh has generally been less didactic in the political and social perspectives of his works than fellow British realist, director Ken Loach, whilst still being obviously and unabashedly fervent. This sensibility, particularly in his earlier work, reflects in the figure of a tortured working-class male trying to make good on his talent but stymied in major and minor ways, faced, in Meantime (1983), Naked (1993), and Career Girls (1997). Leigh’s take on Turner essentially envisions the same figure having survived and gained prosperity against the odds, whilst also splitting this characterisation, and offering the eruptive ne’er-do-well Benjamin Robert Haydon (Martin Savage) as Turner’s professional malcontent twin, echoing Meantime’s Mark and Naked’s Johnny Porter. Leigh emphasises Turner as the barber’s son made good as artistic genius as a man who’s remained utterly of the earth, a portly mound of flesh, a man who can offer a range of responses from approval to contempt with variations on the same porcine grunt.
Leigh’s formally interesting decision to start with Turner at age 51 in the full stream of his success and tracing his final few years, invites inevitable personal reverberations: like Turner, Leigh is acclaimed but getting old, facing the shifting tides of taste and critical favour. The film’s narrative is both teeming and yet also exceptionally simple, portraying the last years of Turner’s relationship with his father William (Paul Jesson), with his housekeeper and concubine Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), and with another lover, Margate boarding-house keeper Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), in whose house and company he finally dies. The one person Turner trusts and loves implicitly is his father, who, as his assistant, is first seen seeking out the paints that his son turns into visions.
Like any Mario Puzo gangster, the Turners are bound together in their class-informed, clannish interdependency: everyone else really is just a stranger, and whatever happened to sunder Turner from his former lover Sarah Danby (Ruth Sheen), he’s made the break completely, even denying the two daughters he’s had by her. The Turners pursue their venture as a trade, whatever its trappings: a wry scene early in the film depicts William’s showmanship, ushering buyers for their wares into a dark annex before opening doors into the gallery, the better to dazzle them with a sudden flood of colour and light. This is British art as cottage industry. Yet it drags Turner all around his world, hobnobbing with the gentry, arguing with fellow artists, conversing with boarding house owners.
A quietly bravura sequence early in the film sees the artist parading the halls of a colossal manor where a coterie of fellow artists are employed to offer décor for the cavernous house, chatting in a way with Lord Egremont (Patrick Godfrey) in a manner that reveals their shared traits of quick understanding and dour dislike of wasting time. Turner pauses to share a brief interlude of clumsy but intent bonding with a young woman (Karina Fernandez) practising Beethoven on the piano who indulges him by playing some Henry Purcell for him to sing raggedly along to. Turner is bitten for a loan by Haydon, who remarks with dry wonder at the turns of his life: only recently released from debtor’s prison, he’s now being entertained by a lord. After hectoring Turner, Haydon extracts the promise of £50 from him. During the evening soiree, a young soprano’s precious recitals give way to a bawdy song that delights the guests in a calculatedly cute assault on the rules.
Like most of the film, this sequence seems to be a mere quilt of vignettes, and yet the supple moves of Leigh’s camerawork and staging gives the film an oblique, but unified tenor that skirts the dancelike and the theatrical, as everyone’s free on their stage of life, eventually compositing into a tapestrylike vision of the age. Leigh and cinematographer Dick Pope offer one marvellous shot as punchline: Turner watches Haydon stroll off into the garden whilst still framed by one of the manor’s huge doors. Three more painters lurch into the shot from the side, pausing to follow Turner’s gaze and cluck over their hapless, solitary fellow who’s nominated himself to play the role of unappreciated genius, and yet, with Turner’s attention and the frame itself suggesting the tension between the security of acceptance as an artist and the unfettered state of the man beyond. Neither the character of Turner nor Leigh as controlling voice have too much time for rebellious romanticism: Turner is powered by sublime vision, but releases it in a job of work. Leigh is evidently trying to deromanticise the past here: this Georgian London is a bristling, dirty, vigorous, aggravating, invigorating sprawl, still earthy in a manner alien to the oncoming Victorianism. John Ruskin (Joshua McGuire), intellectual definer of his era’s culture, is portrayed as a chirpily effete idealist who engages Turner amidst a salon session with other artists in a conversation that ranges from gooseberries to French artist Claude Lorrain. Turner has a professional’s reluctance to bad-mouth Claude, one of his influences, in the face of Ruskin’s breezy dismissal.
Painting is often portrayed as a dainty art, the cliché of the artist seated and dabbing away at a canvas, but anyone who’s spent any time actually engaging in the form or seen anyone tackle the form on a large scale know that it’s actually a virile, physical activity, messy and demanding. Leigh embraces this quality and pushes his notion of the artist as brute force, as Turner does everything from politely caress his paint to spit on the canvas to gain his physically involving effects. Spall’s Turner is a genius Caliban who can be showman, raconteur, even a seducer, and can offer the most surprisingly eloquent soliloquies on art or life, if often sputtered out between lips barely willing to move. Turner barely bothers to speak, and the sense emerges that verbal expression is not something he likes, particularly when called upon to release emotion. The film’s torturous scenes dwell on this incapacity—amusingly, when he tries to give a stilted speech on optics to the Royal Academy, and, more hurtfully, when he can’t cough up a cliché to conjure his feelings after one of his daughters dies. Not that he’s an insensate pillar of self-indulgence: Leigh constantly hints at secret sources of pain and also the very real incapacity in many creative types to offer the sorts of codes and semaphores used to mollify and normalise social situations.
Mr. Turner as a whole is both brilliant and problematic, a storm-swell of accomplished filmmaking where the exact object feels uncertain, like a great, necessary leap was left untaken. Yet the result is stirring and fascinating, a fresco of ingenious detail that communes between the mud of history and the ether of personality. The sustained depth and brilliance of Spall’s performance as the pivot of Mr. Turner is a career highlight for a hugely talented actor and is surrounded by such pitch-perfect turns. Leigh does not, as we expect from most biopics, transfer the passions of creative endeavour onto a romantic love for easy consumption; far from it. Turner copulates bullishly with Hannah and others when the need arises, but seems to feel them as no more than natural urges, like eating or defecating. Instead, he finds electric transcendence in art, clearest when he has a sailor strap him to the mast of a ship, Odysseuslike, to be swept up in a snowy squall at sea, both an act and observation which he alchemises into his mighty work “Snow Storm—Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth.” Turner’s relationship with Danby is both excruciating and funny, and finally dusted with tragedy. Quite clearly Hannah enjoys Turner’s attentions, but nothing like a romance persists between them, with interludes of carnality suddenly rising and falling like winds and then returning to polite distance. Only right at the end when Hannah, essentially left alone to exist as a peeling, scabby wraith in Turner’s house, seeks out her missing master and finds him now ensconced with Booth, does the depth of Hannah’s bond emerge. The theme of the servant who takes both pleasure and refuge in being the pokerfaced crutch of the genius reminded me more than a little of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1972).
By contrast, Turner’s relationship with Booth starts when he goes to paint in Margate, a picturesque and teeming seaside locale fit for his artistic obsessions. The town proves to have a personal meaning to him, as he was sent to school there, and survived where friends didn’t in the dank and appalling state of educational institutions of the age. Mrs Booth has a husband (Karl Johnson) who fascinates Turner with his grim and guilty recollections of days as a sailor on a slave ship, which Mrs Booth tries to awkwardly bypass with bromides. On a return trip, Turner learns that Mr. Booth has died. He takes the opportunity to praise the widow on her weathered beauty and seems to prize her company as a refuge from the world he strides through as colossus but can actually barely stand. As the two become a couple, Booth eventually sells her Margate house and buys another on the Thames as an easier-to-reach refuge for Turner. Again there’s a hint of investment for Leigh here: Bailey is his partner, and the scenes of Turner’s oddly earnest seduction of her have the immediacy and particularity of such a backdrop, the authentic human comedy of courtship in late middle age.
Compared with the increasingly formulaic and tepid state of the prestige biopic industry, which has served up turds in the past few years like The King’s Speech (2010) through to this year’s cartoonish Get On Up and empty The Theory of Everything, Mr. Turner seems like an alien artefact, overflowing with biographical detail, but much of it subordinated to a powerful but discursive intent to explore the world about its antihero as much as his impenetrable head rather than turn the stuff of life into dreary plot beats. Everything from serious artistic debate to glimpsed contretemps between lovers excites Leigh’s eye. Mr. Turner isn’t quite sui generis, as it particularly resembles Alexander Korda’s underrated Rembrandt (1936), which likewise considered the artist from mid-life onward and contemplated him from a similar perspective of interest as a man of real artistic ideals but hapless in the world. Echoes here, too, are to Ken Russell’s similarly holistic fascination for artists in the world. Russell’s lacks of measure and subtlety and Leigh’s lack of the penetrating force of metaphoric exploration that a less earthbound artist can wield, are revealed as complementary. What Mr. Turner ultimately lacks is a focal point. Whereas the sprawl of Leigh’s Topsy-Turvy (1999) was given centrifugal force by the project of creating and staging “The Mikado,” Mr. Turner, moving across time as it does, flails to find shape. Although the creation of “Snow Storm” is brilliantly exposited, other sequences affecting to portray moments of inspirations for great works like “Rain, Steam, and Speed” and “The Fighting Temeraire” are weak.
Leigh and regular cinematographer Dick Pope occasionally stoop to offering hints of Turner’s vision in their visual textures, most cleverly in one shot where the camera seems to be studying what could be fine details of blotchy paint on one of his canvases, only for this to prove to be a mountainside, creating a clear and explicable link between Turner’s subjects and his vision. Otherwise, Leigh circles his subject, studying Turner’s surface exactingly, expressing wonder and incisive fascination, but never gaining access to the mysterious mills of his creativity. In fact, Leigh doesn’t really even try, and it’s arguably a good idea that he doesn’t, refusing to tie the wonder of creativity or life in general up in the neat bows of pop psychology and false epiphany. But Leigh’s contemplation of Turner’s artistry too often threatens to become banal, as when he shows a friend his painting of Hannibal’s progress across the Alps and has her strain to pick out an elephant: Turner doesn’t paint the obvious! At one point Ruskin, studying Turner’s vision of drowning slaves thrown from a sinking ship, bypasses the hapless humanity to concentrate on suggestions of God’s presence in the glimmering light piercing the clouds above: the object which Turner contemplates is subsumed by the aesthetic perspective, something that the often peevishly literal Leigh can’t abide. Here Leigh shows his hand to a great degree, suggesting a cheeky likeness of critical masturbation, but he might just betray his own lack of real penetration into his subject, trying to cover it up with sneering that stumbles perilously close to boorishness. More interesting and telling is the later conversation Turner and Ruskin have about Claude: Turner quietly refuses to engage in Ruskin’s critical habit of creating hierarchies and dichotomies, maintaining professional respect and perspective for an artist responding to different stimuli. At his least, Leigh can lumber like a thoroughbred horse drunk on fermented apples, a mixture of precision and wayward intent.
Leigh’s method is far more at home depicting Turner attending an exhibition of his fellow artists, an electrifying sequence laced with wry and pointed observations as Turner shrugs off news that his work has been relegated to the dreaded antechamber along with Haydon’s, and instead struts through the scene like a king surrounded by fellow royalty, offering pleasantries and keen observations whether wanted or not. John Constable (James Fleet) labours on his mammoth painting of the opening of Waterloo Bridge, furiously adding flourishes; Turner, with impudent precision, strolls over to a naval painting and adds a red buoy to break up the visual texture and thus enrich it, making a theatrical act out of his very simple revision and grabbing attention from all, from the fascinated to the appalled. Haydon, on the other hand, explodes in anger and frustration when he’s grilled over the meaning of his painting of a donkey, which he claims is Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and almost comes to blows with his rivals.
Turner and Haydon’s acquaintance is faintly reminiscent of that between Lesley Manville’s frantic Mary with the centring couple in Another Year (2010), with a similarly empathetic yet unsparing wisdom about the types of personalities that weather storms and those that don’t, and how they tend to relate. There’s the suggestion Haydon, rather than being burdened by Turner’s loan, actually needs it to keep him connected, and Turner senses this when he abruptly absolves the debt and washes his hands of the wayward fellow artist. Manville appears in another of the film’s transfixing scenes, playing plucky Scots scientist Mary Somerville. Somerville demonstrates the peculiarities of magnetism to the interested artist, a swift understanding and amity developing between the Turners and Somerville fired by intuition and sharing a wry sense of their own individuality and hard-won space for expressing it.
That indeed is one of the major themes of Mr. Turner. One of Turner’s few outbursts of intemperate feeling comes after his father dies. He goes to a brothel, intending to sketch one of the young whores (Kate O’Flynn) in a pose of desolation, but when he learns she’s 13, suddenly taps his own grief and becomes a sobbing mess. Art here is most clearly a ritual Turner uses to sublimate his emotions, but fails in the face of such a well of grief—or, perhaps it succeeds in just this cause. Turner is left unmoored by his father’s death; where William took pride in turning his son’s showroom into a place of wonder, all Turner can do is poke the dead flies gathering in some meshing whilst showing some buyers his wares. Leigh works in a hint of satiric semblance as Turner evolves not just into a proto-modernist with spare, almost abstract visions that bemuse his public, including Queen Victoria (Sinead Matthews), but also becomes the first to receive the backlash of incomprehension. Turner is burned and humiliated when he’s satirised in a stage revue he attends, his art jeered as a confidence trick to suck in rich patrons, a routine gone through about once a week in British tabloids with artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin these days. By the end of the film Turner is turning his nose up at the rigorous craft and sentimentality of the pre-Raphaelites (Leigh turning his own nose up at the current film scene?), aware that his intransigent pantheism and Regency libertinism is on the way out. He’s also confronted with the new phenomenon of photography and is fascinated even in the face of his own potential obsolescence.
Turner later encounters Joseph Gillott (Peter Wight), who is also a working-class man made good, but in industry, which has made him fabulously wealthy. Gillott, bucking the turning tide of Turner’s popularity, offers to buy up all of Turner’s works. In spite of the similarities between the two men, Turner resists because he wants to donate his works to the British people. Although Leigh surely means this moment as an earnest apotheosis for the artist’s concept of his role in his society and denial of mere financial success, nonetheless, he has Spall play it less like triumph than as a bemused, half-willing gesture toward an ideal and a hope from a man who’s feeling bruised and confused by the twists of his fate. Leigh depicts Turner’s waning days as a brutal and unstoppable succumbing to the natural forces Turner himself worships. He hauls himself out of his bed to try to sketch the corpse of a woman found drowned in the Thames mud, again perhaps trying to conceptualise his own looming fate through his art. “The sun is God!” he declares on his deathbed, and then gives a dry little chuckle before expiring, as if his dying epiphany is a private joke between himself and the universe.
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Director: Jean-Marc Vallée
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In 2010, we had Eat Pray Love. In 2013, we had Tracks. Now, this year, it’s Wild. I haven’t seen so many people on walkabout since, well, Walkabout (1971), and they all happen to be women. What’s going on?
Unlike adventuring men in the movies, who conquer nations and open new frontiers both physical and intellectual, adventuring women escape their societies and take on physical challenges to heal and find some direction for their directionless lives. In the case of Wild, our heroine is quite literally tamed. That many women have found the memoir upon which Wild is based so inspirational leaves me feeling a little let down.
Wild tells the true story of writer Cheryl Strayed’s 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in 1995 at the age of 26 to recover from the loss of her beloved mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and the breakdown of her first marriage. Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), who it appears took that last name in memory of her infidelity to Paul (Thomas Sadoski), takes on the PCT on impulse. She’s not like all the men on the trail, who hike regularly just for the pleasure and challenge of it. She’s never done a hike like this, has packed so much stuff that she spends several minutes just trying to stand up with the pack on her back, and reads instructions for her camp stove when she’s out on the trail, only to find out she’s got the wrong kind of fuel. In an obscure way, her voyage of self-discovery seems like a death wish, except that there are other people on the trail who keep up with her by the epigraphs she puts in the guest books that dot the trail, making her a minor celebrity; she gets care packages mailed to her at regular intervals by her friendly ex-husband; and she leaves the trail several times to eat, drink, and be merry. Tenzing Norgay she ain’t.
Despite an opening that would seem to predict otherwise, the actual trek is the least important part of Wild. We begin by seeing Strayed remove a boot and a bloody sock to reveal her big toenail hanging on by a thread of skin. She braces herself against her pack and tears the toenail off, only to go reeling in agony, bumping the loose boot down a cliffside. In fury, she removes the other shoe and flings it after the first one with a frustrated scream. But this is a mere set-up for the copious flashbacks that overwhelm the scenic beauty and demands of the trail to show all the bad breaks and bad choices that have brought Strayed to this point.
The film toggles between her progress on the trail and her past life. It is through these lengthy flashbacks that we learn Strayed’s story—her abusive father and impoverished life with a single, uneducated mother. Dern’s hippie-spirited Bobbi is a complete joy and a person who shows the beauty of the present moment that I wish more of the film had given us on the PCT. Seeing Bobbi attend the same high school as her daughter speaks volumes about her backstory—married too young, dropped out to raise her unplanned-for child—and her spirit. When we learn she is fatally ill with cancer at the tragic age of 45, the loss is ours as well as Strayed’s. The other significant people in Strayed’s life—her brother and ex-husband—are sketchy, though both Sadoski and Keith McRae make the very most of their supporting parts.
Indeed, the entire film is filled with perfect cameos of the people Strayed meets along the trail. The farther she goes, the more real those people become—a generous farmer (W. Earl Brown) and his wife (Ann Hoag) who invite her to have dinner and take a shower in their home, a friendly and helpful hiker (Will Cuddy), even a one-night stand when she goes into Portland to avoid a snowed-in part of the trail. Her memories become snippets of roughness—her father (Jason Newell) pushing a fist near her face, her boyfriend shooting heroin into a vein in her ankle, a forceful sexual encounter in a hotel room.
Of course, Wild is a showcase for Witherspoon, a controlled, conventional actor who is a good fit for this material. Strayed is too smart to be anything but honest—in fact, she’s a terrible liar in a scene in which she initially fears for her safety from the farmer—and not given to open displays of emotion. At the same time, Witherspoon can convey just enough vulnerability to put across Strayed’s love for her mother, sorrowful regret for her failures, and bald-faced terror when she encounters a real threat on the trail. She proved with Walk the Line (2005) that she is fully matured from the child actor she was. In Wild, she’s unafraid to show sexual desire, and her acting is largely unself-consciousness.
Writer Nick Hornby produced an understated script that could perhaps have used a bit more of his trademark humor. I found Strayed’s struggle with her backpack in a tacky motel room one of the most memorable parts of the film. That, unfortunately, is a problem. The film feels flat, with staged moments like Strayed’s encounter with a rattlesnake that seemed like a fugitive from a TV western. The cinematography should have been a slam-dunk, but the unimaginative set-ups and pedestrian lensing captured little of the trail’s beauty. Dropping a red fox in at certain moments as a spirit guide was hokey, but it was nice to see a wild animal that hadn’t been wrangled within an inch of its life in the movie.
Perhaps the hardest part of the film for me was how little I liked or cared about Strayed. The last letter she writes to Paul is a kiss-off, telling him that she’s gotten him out of her system and has no further use for continued communication. Nice way to use a guy you’ve abused to keep you alive in the wilderness and then kick him in the ass once more just for good measure. Strayed reaches the Bridge of the Gods between Oregon and Washington, and we learn, in her own words, that she’ll meet her current husband and have two kids. So finding herself with a mold-breaking trek meant learning from her journey and her self-destructive behavior how to be a good conformist. Ultimately, despite the many good things it has going for it, Wild left me sadly uninspired.
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Director/Screenwriter: Ruben Östlund
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s the holidays, and in this part of the world at least, audiences finally have the opportunity to see the feel-good Swedish movie we’ve all been waiting for.
. . . . feel-good Swedish movie?
Yeah, not exactly what I was expecting either—but then, I’d be lying if I said you’d really feel all that good at the end of Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. In true Swedish style, this closely observed parable about social roles and the lies we tell ourselves and others mixes an ounce of bitters with its liberal doses of comedy and leaves behind a queasy-making aftertaste.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) arrive at a frightfully luxurious ski resort in the French Alps with their two children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), for a rare five days of quality family time. As with many modern families, Ebba pries Tomas and the children away from their electronic masters for a beautiful day on the slopes. The family cuts a fetching figure of togetherness as they shuss on a pure pillow of snow, pose for photos, and nap together in almost identical blue underwear on the king-size bed in the master bedroom.
Trouble stirs when a controlled avalanche is triggered by the report of cannons rimming the resort for just this purpose. The Swedish family and others dining on the resort’s outdoor terrace start snapping photos and shooting videos with their smartphones until they realize that the advancing snow seems to be coming perilously close to the resort. In the panic that ensues, Tomas runs away, leaving Ebba and the children to fend for themselves. Although only harmless spray from the avalanche reaches the café and dissipates quickly, something just as dangerous has been loosened between Tomas and his family. The remainder of the film watches this family as they blunder through their disillusionment at discovering the head of the household has feet of clay.
In 2014, the idea of a male protector seems almost prehistoric, particularly in Sweden, the divorce capital of the world, and Tomas and Ebba’s marriage is something of an anachronism compared with the friends they meet at the resort. For example, Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg Faber) has an open marriage and picks up at least two different men during the trip, astonishing Ebba by saying that if her husband were enjoying himself with another woman, she’d be happy for him. To Ebba’s question about whether she is afraid of being left alone, Charlotte says she doesn’t like the idea, but that her life doesn’t revolve around her husband and children. Ebba, on the other hand, is especially vulnerable to her family’s opinion. Harry and Vera, free of the many social layers that burden adults, initially despise their parents and throw them out of the master bedroom with torrents of jeers, causing Ebba to try to accept Tomas’ version of events—that he didn’t run off—to win back their children’s trust. Tomas’ continuing and fervent denials only set off a series of increasingly hilarious—and harrowing—episodes, as the children worry about divorce, Ebba’s anger repeatedly bubbles and bursts like a thermal hot spring, and Tomas crumbles into a blubbering mess of self-pity.
Relationship troubles have been the stuff of high comedy for centuries, and Östlund knows how to draw the absurdity of the situation out of his actors. Kuhnke’s sad-sack look is so cluelessly nonchalant that I cracked up every time I saw him; his embarrassment at being caught out as the self-centered guy he is makes his intense self-loathing and over-the-top crying jag two-thirds of the way through the film ring like a cracked bell. He confesses to cheating at games with his kids and being unfaithful to his wife—it’s like watching Bill Clinton begging forgiveness from his wife and the nation through his voluptuous smirk and twinkling eyes. Östlund ups the ante by introducing Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a divorced friend of Tomas’ from their bachelor days, and his 20-year-old girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and the pair very nearly walks off with the entire picture. After he and Fanny have been drafted by Ebba into a little game of “Courtroom” and watch in growing discomfort the event captured on Tomas’ smartphone, Mats stammers out an unconvincing defense of Tomas’ actions as the force majeure (irresistible compulsion) alluded to by the film’s title. Infected with outrage but well aware of the cliché she and Mats are, Fanny scolds him for running off with her and ignoring his own children, and the two have a hilarious bedroom argument that is both absurd and painfully real.
While Force Majeure focuses most of its attention on the failings of men, especially bourgeois men, it ranges over the whole of humanity, contrasting our social constructs with our primal instincts. Modern conveniences, including exquisitely appointed apartments for the well-heeled vacationer, insulate this family from the snowy, rocky environment they have chosen to visit. Yet they depend on funiculars, chair lifts, covered conveyor belts, and tow chains get them to and from the ski runs—the effect is similar to Charlie Chaplin threading helplessly through a series of giant gears in Modern Times (1936). Watching Tomas and Ebba argue in the hall amid massive wooden beams or in a funicular with a craggy mountainside passing behind the window only confirms the pettiness of these two mortals, so protected by their wealth and technology that Tomas’ failure to think of his family before himself is actually all but irrelevant. It’s telling that their solution to restoring family faith and harmony occurs on the mountain, the only place where this instinct really has any use at all, and even that solution must be faked—another stab at Tomas’ loss of animal prowess.
Force Majeure isn’t perfect. In Bergmanesque fashion, the semi-tragedy of this family’s illusory happiness is laid on thick, in both appropriate and unfortunate ways. One of Ebba’s reactions to her husband’s fecklessness is to go skiing by herself, a potent symbol for both her vulnerability at this moment and her potential strength. But then she sees Tomas and the kids skiing on the other side of a wood and breaks down sobbing in a somewhat heavy-handed symbol of her lost state of grace. Tomas’ breakdown goes on for too long, mainly to set up a joke group hug, a joke that fell flat for me. Another joke in which two young women come over to Mats and Tomas and say their friend thinks they’re cute, and then return to say that their friend wasn’t pointing at them after all, seems an unlikely and schematic way to showcase the men’s considerable egos. Better was a nighttime swarm of drunken men screaming and jumping like apes, Tomas unwittingly caught in their bacchanal of raw testosterone.
The film drags on too long and includes an unnecessary and improbable emergency that panics Ebba in a false equivalency with Tomas’ fear and shows Tomas to be a changed man, willing to own up to who he really is. That he tells the truth to Harry may be a small glimmer of hope that the next generation will be better than Tomas’, but frankly, I wouldn’t bet on it.
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Directors/Screenwriters: Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
By Roderick Heath
The cinema of Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne has hardly lacked admiration since their breakthrough La Promesse in 1995. The duo all but defined a new style of European realist cinema, charting the evolving moral, economic, and social states of their native environment with keenly felt authenticity, but also quietly blending aspects of many forebears who covered the same terrain of utterly ground-level human experience. The brothers have stuck to a basic template that’s served them well, turning what at first glance would seem to be major impediments—the recessed, caught-between nature of Belgian identity, the lack of fame and import accorded to their native city of Seraing, an industrial and port city of staggering ordinariness—into perfect keynotes for their studies. The stark character drama of their first Palme d’Or winner, Rosetta (1999), portrayed the dogged and perhaps unwelcome persistence of common human feeling even when survival dictated determined self-interest in its hard-bitten young heroine. Two Days, One Night, their latest opus, deals with a spiritually similar drama, but inverts the focus. Like the brothers’ previous work, The Kid with a Bike (2011), Two Days, One Night tries to comprehend the forces both overt and subtle that create not just the context for individual failures and miseries, but also the forces that bind communities and that snap into action once they’re faced with intolerable situations.
Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is first glimpsed dozing on her bed, waiting for a tart she’s baking to finish, when she’s roused by a phone call. Sandra’s immobility proves to be portentous, as she’s recovering from a bout of intense depression. The phone call reflects this: Sandra, barely recovered and still emotionally fragile, is faced immediately with a crisis her condition has precipitated. She learns that at the solar panel factory where she works, the foreman, Jean-Marc (Olivier Gourmet), has essentially given her coworkers a choice to either keep Sandra on or receive their annual €1,000 bonuses, because the company can’t afford both. The call has come from Sandra’s friend and advocate Juliette (Catherine Salée), who believes that if they can confront the factory boss Dumont (Batiste Sornin) quickly enough, they might be able to call another vote on the Monday morning when she can be present and argue her case. Sandra’s husband Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), a chef in a local fast food restaurant, encourages Sandra to fight for her right to be heard, and when she and Juliette manage to catch Dumont just before he drives home from work, they gain his harried acquiescence to another vote. What becomes immediately clear to Sandra and Manu is that she can’t afford to wait until the Monday to plead her case with her fellow employees: she must lobby them individually with pleas not to agree to her sacking.
Sandra’s journeys to confront her coworkers are laced with more than a plea for her economic survival, as Sandra’s very sense of self and worth is at stake. At first, she can barely be stirred from her bed, her sense of uselessness and unworthiness now seemingly affirmed as she has been implicitly indicted by her coworkers as a being no longer worthy of their loyalty and affection. Only her husband and Juliette’s unswerving loyalty get her moving, though their loyalty feels almost cruel to a person who can barely face the mirror, never mind the outside world and the glares of people she has to beg for her job. To achieve her ends, Sandra quickly realises, she not only has to confront people who have effectively declared her a nonperson, but has to do so in their own little worlds, their own lives, some of which prove to be as straitened as her own and all of which involve a certain rupture of comfortable privacy and precious leisure time, or, indeed, the lack of either. Some are busy with second jobs or coaching children’s sports teams, or looking after babies or trying to kick back.
Most of us have been in a predicament like Sandra’s at some point in our lives, and the Dardennes are brilliantly attuned to the states of mind and little epiphanies that move with quicksilver intensity during such times. The shifts of Sandra’s headspace are casually but acutely noted, as she murmurs in a momentary wish as she and her husband sit eating ice cream in the park, “I wish that was me…that bird singing.” It becomes clear through such touches that the Dardennes are actually telling two closely related, but slightly asymmetrical stories: the tale of Sandra’s recovery, as well as the crisis that both threatens it and confirms it. Fighting for her job and sense of self causes Sandra many anguished moments of doubt and self-disgust, particularly after a violent incident she believes she’s precipitated. But Sandra’s journey is, of course, only intersecting with others, and indeed becomes a study in the uncertainty principle, as her knock on the door both encounters individual quandaries and collides with and catalyses them. This proves particularly crucial when she visits the home of Anne (Christelle Cornil), who explains that she can’t want to give up her bonus because she and her husband are renovating their house, but promises to talk it over with her husband and asks for Sandra to return. Sandra comes back to find the couple quarrelling violently, and soon after, Sandra and Manu find themselves taking Anne in after she leaves her husband.
The tight and remorseless structure bears out some of the Dardennes’ influences. The film’s plot is driven by cause and effect of almost Sophoclean concision, up to and including the limited timespan, the traditional 24 hours of Greek tragedy expanded to about 60. Echoes, too, of French realism like that of Emila Zola can be found, and those particularly Spanish genres, the picaresque and tremendista stories of wanderers and of slices of lives afflicted by sudden calamity. Cinematically, the Dardennes have always seemed close to the unvarnished, resolutely proletarian work of early Mike Leigh and Ken Loach, but they’re better character students than Loach and far less untidy than Leigh. Their films often feel closer to the rigorous, unblinking portraiture of Robert Bresson and Neo-Realist studies in compressed desperation and blue-collar straits, including Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), except, of course, the world has changed so much since those works were made, and today’s economic turmoil is more elusive and insidious. As some have noted, Two Days, One Night is something like a thriller as we cheer on our heroine through mounting tension and twists of fate, with Jean-Marc, unseen until the “climax,” cast as the antagonist who’s carefully laid the carrot and stick on the employees. There’s even a strong echo of High Noon (1953), stripped of its gunfighter bravado, and reduced instead to a round of pleas for conscience versus self-interest; that film’s roots in the milieu of the blacklist is crucially similar to the forces the Dardennes are exploring. The film also bears the imprint of Flemish art traditions, the internationally renowned product of the Dardennes’ corner of the world: Holbein’s “Hunters Home from the Hunt;” Rubens, in the glimpse of Hicham’s wife as Madonna with child; and Hicham himself hefting about farm produce in echoes of a once-popular subgenre of Flemish painting. Nor are these mere aesthetic echoes, but they also are reminders of art fundamentally based in things people actually do, and a belief that in such things lie deep truths.
The Dardennes often evoke religious images and ideas in their work, not with the sense that they’re quietly proselytising, but rather to invoke the most common roots of communal ethical understanding, the vivid and collective intensity of parable. The ethical drama is as important as the surface fate of the characters, whilst Sandra, our everywoman hero, moves through a range of possible likenesses: Jesus sacrificed for our sins, Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Pamina called back from the dead, Diogenes searching the marketplace for honest men. Whilst Sandra and Manu are working to keep their toehold in the middle class, the question as to what sort of person Sandra is and can be becomes a vital issue, and indeed, seems the question that plagues the woman herself most powerfully. Seeing the melancholic self-contempt etched into her face, we can only immediately assume empathy for her, for she’s such a hapless and assailed creature, and yet a dissonance is carefully built, as Sandra’s rounds uncover the degree to which people remain mysteries to each other even when in close contact. Her workplace is filled with such vile characters and subtle iniquity that it seems reasonable to assume working there might have precipitated her depression. The question looms by the end: does Sandra have the kind of mettle she looks for in her fellows?
The Dardennes’ characters are so often in desperate search of something, usually a definite goal, a job, a loved one, but with a hint of existential anguish lurking just behind that official end, because they’re lost in the world. The very elusive issue in Sandra’s life is also the crucial question of the film: where’s our solidarity? The political dimensions of the film are immediate and powerful, of course. This is a portrait of working-class people and the kinds of problems that afflict them. The boss Dumont is portrayed believably as a man with his own reasonable motives and worries, a person of responsibility and judgement who tries his hand at Solmonlike wisdom and repeatedly fails, and thus becomes party to barbed and cruel choices that make one of his employees a scapegoat, transmitting downward the pressures of the market to the level of the individual employee, the canaries in the coal mine of capitalism, the one who has no room to move and can’t shift the effects any further. The choice to situate this drama in a struggling solar panel factory nicely complicates the situation insofar as it’s not some long-caricatured bastion of capitalism. Interestingly, implicit but not actually spoken aloud in Two Days, One Night is the prejudice against Sandra’s psychological malady as unreal compared to a physical injury that would mark her as a nobly injured worker.
The film correlates this invisible state of crippling with the equally hard-to-discern nature of financial distress in a modern Western state, where the accoutrements of suburban life give an illusion of stability that can become a perpetual goad to anxiety. This belief in Sandra’s status as a glorified malingerer is plain in what proves eventually to be the conspiracy against her whipped up by Jean-Marc, who has characterised her as a useless drag, a feeling some of the workers clearly share. The Dardennes are keenest in studying the links of individual psychology to larger subjects. They trace unfailingly the stew of fear, annoyance, frustration, anxiety, outright transference, and prejudice that conspire against Sandra, as well as the empathy, common feeling, and scruples that aid her and gain her unexpected fellowship. The worst reactions Sandra encounters, from Anne’s puerile inability to face her at all to Jerome’s (Yohan Zimmer) assault, suggest intense displacement, and even Jean-Marc’s conniving is rooted only in his function as the man who turns top-down whim into achieved fact. Sandra is introduced to gradations of personal necessity, as what might seem as a luxury to one of her coworkers is for another an overriding and desperate need. Sandra also stumbles into the subtle distinctions of class between the nominally equivalent workers: Alphonse (Serge Koto) is one of the factory’s contract workers whose job security is much less assured than the other workers, and he informs Sandra that he’s afraid to vote for her in case it pisses off his bosses.
The film’s moment of biggest dramatic potential becomes instead an almost comic diminuendo. With echoes of Chantal Akerman’s stringent portraits of hapless domestic women, Sandra, after a particularly hard rebuff from one of her coworkers, goes home, does the housework, fixes her kids lunch, and then goes into the bathroom and takes a fistful of antidepressants to kill herself. Juliette comes by to break news of a fresh chance, whereupon Sandra admits to her and Manu what she’s just done, with a blankly sheepish look. The Dardennes cut straight to Sandra in a hospital bed, fresh from her stomach pumping and already clearly itching to get moving again, suicide already no solution for a woman who’s starting to relearn the joy as well as the pain of fighting for herself. The Dardennes build the film around two interludes of listening to music in the car as Sandra and Manu drive about on their torturous route: the first time Sandra irritably stops her husband turning down Petula Clark’s French-language version of “Needles and Pins,” “La nuit n’en finit plus,” whilst the second sees the pair joined by Anne, singing raggedly along to Them’s “Gloria.” Such a scene suggests the influence of another classic feel-good movie moment where characters sing along to a pop hit, but without the feeling of vulgar manipulation; instead they rather capture the vitality of the place pop music has in many people’s lives that no other art form can touch, and its power to bond them.
Cotillard’s French-language work has seen her moving from strength to strength lately, and Sandra complements her turn in Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone (2013), a role that offered and demanded more acting pyrotechnics, but was similarly about a woman learning to repair herself and operate in a harsh world, eventually turning her weak points into points of armoured strength. The Dardennes only recently broke with their general preference for nonprofessional actors in lead roles: the rest of the cast mixes in several actors, including Rongione, who have become regulars. Cotillard, whose signature smoky eyes deliver registers of sensation like a seismograph, both blends in with the scenery seamlessly and lends the proceedings the finite intelligence and charisma a good actor can offer, defining her character’s states of mind and mood with pointillist precision. The outcome of the meeting on the Monday morning that will decide Sandra’s immediate fate is in doubt until almost the very end, but by the time Two Days, One Night reaches the destination it’s been heading to with inevitability for every little swerve in fortune, it is clear that Sandra has all the tools she needs to continue and formed a small fellowship who affirm both her and their own rights to exist. When Sandra is given a Faustian offer that could swerve off the worst, however, we realise that the entire movie has been leading to this point, as it presents Sandra with the same dilemma she’s presented everyone else with, only intensified in its you-or-them meaning. Sandra’s eventual choice is bound thus to entail defeat either way, fiscally or morally. Which choice you prefer may say too much about yourself and the world you live in.
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Director: Laura Poitras
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Every weekday, I hop on a Chicago Transit Authority train for my hour-long commute to and from work. My fellow commuters pass the time in a variety of ways—sleeping, staring out the window, reading a book or newspaper, talking to a fellow passenger. However, the majority of them use their commute to text, check email, play games, browse the Internet, listen to music, and do the myriad other things smart phones have made possible in this miraculous age of technology. They also do one thing they may not realize they are doing—provide the U.S. government with abundant information not only about themselves, but also about the people and places they know and frequent.
We know this is happening and how because in 2013, a 29-year-old contractor for the National Security Administration (NSA) named Edward Snowden provided Glenn Greenwald and Ewen MacAskill, then both reporters for the British newspaper The Guardian, with thousands of documents that offered ironclad evidence of the widespread, highly invasive government surveillance program being conducted by the NSA on American citizens and foreign nationals—including heads of state—around the world. How we came to know what the government never meant for us to know is the shocking, compelling, and utterly engrossing story of Citizenfour, easily the best and most important American documentary since Barbara Kopple’s Oscar-winning Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976), though I expect a timid AMPAS will find some less-explosive documentary to honor with an Oscar, one whose director can safely accept it in person. Director Laura Poitras now lives in Berlin, having moved there several years ago after suffering repeated government harassment dating back to 2006, when she started producing films dealing with life in the United States following the 9/11 attacks. Poitras was essentially drafted to make this documentary because “citizenfour,” the alias Snowden used when he first contacted Poitras, says she self-selected as the recipient of his information based on the films she’s made.
Citizenfour presents an almost perfect balance of the disclosures that tore the veil surrounding the massive surveillance programs of the NSA and its even more effective cousin in the U.K., the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), and the human drama of the whistleblowing experience for both Snowden and the journalists who made his disclosures public. The intriguing cloak-and-dagger beginning—white-lettered email messages typed on a black background and masses of code scrolling their way up the screen—pulls one into the story. Poitras’ voiceover recitation of these and other messages are as far as she intrudes into the narrative, though her participation is absolutely pivotal to the end result.
After following instructions on how to secure her communications, Poitras receives a series of encrypted emails that outline the scope of the information Snowden plans to share with her; each allegation is appended with the assurance, “I can prove this.” She is encouraged to bring Greenwald into her work. Snowden contacted Greenwald first, but refused to proceed when they were unable to communicate securely. Eventually, Poitras, Greenwald, and MacAskill travel to Hong Kong to meet Snowden and discuss the way they intend to share the information with the public. Her camera focuses on Greenwald as he sets up for the first filmed interview with Snowden in his suite in the Mira Hotel—it’s thrilling to get to know this maverick at the same moment in film time as Poitras and Greenwald do.
Snowden is younger than the reporters expected. He’s good-looking in a geeky kind of way, intelligent, and articulate. He’s realistically paranoid, unplugging his hotel room’s phone because, he reveals, modern phones have a chip that acts as a room bug whether you’re on the phone or not. Most important, he’s principled. He was welcomed into the halls of power with the highest security clearances available in the NSA, and he was horrified by what he saw. He observed the massively invasive nature of programs like PRISM and Tempora that were collecting data from everyone, not just suspected terrorists and, crucially, being run entirely in secret. Remembering the early days of the Internet when young students and university professors from all over the world could freely converse with one another, he is appalled by what this democratic tool has become. He displays a surprising degree of humility, deferring with a touching amount of trust to Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras in all things journalistic. He says he wants to reveal his identity early to prevent our personality-driven media from focusing on a manhunt rather than the information he’s disclosing. He knows he will have to give up his home and family, maybe forever, and has done what he can to protect those he loves, though he is distraught about the effect his disappearance will have, especially on his long-time girlfriend. His hope is that his actions will inspire others to come forward.
Poitras puts the story in a brief, but effective context. She takes viewers from the 9/11 attacks through early hearings about NSA abuses, showing archival footage of former NSA intelligence official William Binney revealing in the early 2000s that the organization, through its Stellar Wind program, was spying on American citizens illegally. Importantly, Binney, a double-amputee, remembers FBI agents storming into his home with guns drawn: “I don’t know why.” Then Snowden explains the spying capabilities of the NSA and GCHQ programs in a fairly easy-to-follow way. These explanations may no longer be necessary for most viewers of crime TV dramas, as CCTV is ubiquitous in British programs and real-time video capture from cellphones was part of a storyline in the Nov. 9, 2014, episode of CSI; nonetheless, it’s helpful to know that the metadata that we are always assured protects our identities has been jettisoned in favor of personally identifiable data collected on a routine, daily basis.
Snowden’s caution—he admonishes Greenwald for having too short a password for his computer and Poitras for leaving an SD card in her computer drive for several days—doesn’t seem far-fetched in this context and once his revelations become public in The Guardian and are picked up by media around the world. As Snowden watches Greenwald being interviewed on CNN, his concern for his own safety and the sheer magnitude of what he’s done reflect on his pensive, worried face. Poitras is followed in Hong Kong, causing her to cancel plans to do additional filming and return to Berlin, and Snowden is whisked from his warren at the hotel to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Hong Kong, then to a safe house, and finally to Russia with the help of WikiLeaks.
Following this rapid-fire series of events, the authorities start to get their wits about them. Greenwald testifies in his adopted country of Brazil about U.S. spying in that country; Greenwald’s partner is detained for nine harrowing hours at Heathrow Airport. Snowden is charged in the United States with “willful communication of classified intelligence with an unauthorized person” under the Espionage Act of 1917; President Obama says Snowden should return to the United States where he will be treated with all the rights and privileges to which he’s entitled in the U.S. justice system. We are then treated to a meeting of ACLU lawyers and others looking into Snowden’s legal defense who say that choosing to charge Snowden under this 100-year-old law enacted during time of war allows the government so much discretion that they would not be able to mount an effective defense.
The film’s cumulative effect is deeply discouraging. High-level government officials, including then NSA Director Keith Alexander, are shown apparently lying to Congress. Big-name electronic communications companies like Google, Yahoo, and Verizon are revealed to have provided, either voluntarily or through some form of coercion, whatever the NSA has asked for. The sheer numbers are almost too large to comprehend: 1.2 million Americans on a security watch list, 200 million text messages captured per day, thousands of terabytes of data captured and available for mining now or in the future.
Nonetheless, Poitras is a true believer who knows how to encourage audiences that even this seemingly insatiable machine of high-level control can be fought. A nighttime shot of Snowden in his new home in Russia reveals that the girlfriend he clearly loves very much has joined him in exile. Further, Snowden learns from Greenwald that someone else has taken the big risk to come forward. Together in another hotel room, the two talk and write down messages. Poitras tantalizingly films brief glimpses of the sheets of paper. Nothing is explicit except a diagram that shows boxes and arrows that point to a final box around the acronym “POTUS.” Both Greenwald and Snowden smile—courage inspired, mission accomplished.
Trailer for Citizenfour on TrailerAddict
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Director/Coscreenwriter: James Gunn
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
The U.S. summer blockbuster season has just passed, and what a dismal time it was for critics, audiences, and studios alike. A parade of banal sequels and listless franchise expansion have meant that some are seriously questioning just what Hollywood is good for right at the time when the mass cinema industry’s basic presumptions are being challenged. Guardians of the Galaxy, the latest in Marvel’s world-conquering, epoch-defining hits, was one of the few real critical and commercial bright spots of the season— an industry surprise considering the source comic’s lack of legacy and its deliberately volatile, tongue-in-cheek take on fantastic fare. The building blocks of Guardians seems at first glance to be quite a distance from Captain America’s boy scout decency or the PG naughtiness of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, offering a hero who seems to have nothing more going for him than the vocabulary, horniness, and general attitude problem of an ’80s movie delinquent and a talking racoon who likes taking out his confusion with a Gatling gun set in distant climes of classic space opera. But audiences seem to have been hungry for a little more bite and jollity in the genre, and Guardians has been generally received as a genuine throwback to the kind of goofy, audience-delighting hit that made the 1980s a rather good time to be a kid—or at least, that’s what the hype reported.
Director and cowriter James Gunn was not, at first glance, the kind of filmmaker one expected to score such a hit, as his biggest claim to fame prior to this was his dark, unstable farce Super (2011). That work subjected the superhero genre to aggressive deconstruction, exposing its heroes as stymied vigilante wingnuts and sexual fetishists out of their depth, essayed with a blunt and rather obvious method but managed with a spirit that made the film as entertaining as what it was satirising. Gunn emerged from the infamous, outrageous exploitation studio Troma and entered Hollywood writing Scooby-Doo (2002) and Dawn of the Dead (2004) before making his directing debut with Slither (2006). Undoubtedly Gunn’s clear understanding of what he was kidding made Marvel hire him. The studio’s product has been, in the past two years since The Avengers (2012), devolving into bland and shapeless pablum, and new ingredients have definitely been required. Gunn’s writing partner on this film, Nicole Perlman, did script-doctor work on Thor (2011), still my favourite Marvel movie. The hope that something of Super’s corrosive spirit could be blended with Thor’s grandeur to create something as simultaneously wry and spectacular, knowing and unfettered as, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Flash Gordon (1980) rose in my heart.
Guardians kicks off with an unabashedly Spielbergian touch, in a prologue set in 1988: a young boy, Peter Quill (Wyatt Oleff), is called in to his dying mother’s (Laura Haddock) hospital room to say goodbye to her. She leaves him a specific and peculiar gift: a mix-tape filled with all her favourite oddball pop hits. When she expires, Peter runs outside to grieve, only for a mysterious UFO to fly over and pick him up in a tractor beam. Twenty-odd years later, Quill (played as a grown-up by sitcom star Chris Pratt) is now a low-rent corsair and space stud zipping about the galaxy using the dodgy nom-de-guerre of Star Lord. He’s trying to escape the influence of his adopted father, Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker), leader of a band of pirates called Ravagers who picked up young Quill on a contract to deliver him to his real, mysterious father, but kept the kid and raised him as one of their band (sadly, no Pirates of Penzance jokes are forthcoming).
Quill snatches a chance to make himself rich when he locates a mysterious orb in a wrecked spaceship on a remote planet that every other goon and chancer in the galaxy is after. Yondu is incensed that Quill beat him to it and doesn’t plan cutting him in, whilst warrior Korath (Djimon Hounsou) and his henchmen fight Quill for it. Peter gives Korath the slip and heads to Xandar, a squeaky-clean intergalactic imperial hub that recently signed a peace treaty with the phlegmatic Kree race, after a protracted and bloody war. But once there, he’s immediately attacked by three rivals, one of whom, Gamora (Zoë Saldana), is after the orb. The other two, Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper) and Groot (voice of Vin Diesel), are bounty hunters after Quill, but after a struggle in the streets of Xandar’s capital, all four are arrested by the peace-keeping Nova Corps, led by sarcastic Corpsman Rhomann Dey (John C. Reilly) and flung into a rough prison floating in space called the Kyln. Initially antagonistic and mutually contemptuous, Quill, Gamora, and the bounty hunters soon find themselves bound together by a mutual interest: money. Gamora hopes to make a fortune selling the orb to the omnivorous “Collector,” Taneleer Tivan (Benicio del Toro) and offers the others a piece of the action, necessitating an escape plan.
The constituent parts of Guardians are interesting and occasionally spark, particularly the characterisation of Rocket, whose loyal companionship with Groot stems from their background as products of crimes against nature committed in some genetics lab. Rocket’s unstable, resentful, acidic take on the world around him is used to cover up some major existential pain that leads him at one point to nearly shoot up a bar full of people just to release his anger. Groot has a vocabulary limited to three words, “I am Groot,” with variations of intonation that only Rocket can understand in a ready jest on similarly opaque utterances by Chewbacca and R2D2 in the Star Wars films. Groot tends to express himself more through the language of his “body,” like when he releases glowing buds to swim in the air for both lighting purposes and a little symbolic commentary, and, most strikingly towards the end, when he sprouts a thicket of lush foliage to enfold and protect his friends from harm. For a more dramatic thicket of backstory, we have Gamora, whose body is a literal lethal weapon, trained since childhood along with her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) by their adoptive father, intergalactic harbinger of doom Thanos (Josh Brolin), who destroyed their civilisations.
Somewhere along the line, however, Gamora rebelled. She pretends to be in the service of her father and chief bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) but actually intends to foil them. Nebula chases after her sister in an inevitable, quasi-sibling feud of mythic proportions. Drax (Dave Bautista) is a hulking alien Quill and the others meet in the Kyln who seeks revenge on Ronan for killing his family and signs up for any business that might lead him to his foe. Gunn’s referential framework here, likeably enough, can be seen as encompassing not just obvious touchstones like Star Wars and such predecessors in the space opera realm like Lensman and Buck Rogers, but also John Carpenter’s Dark Star (1974) and some its pop culture children, most of which have appeared on TV—Red Dwarf, Lexx, and Futurama. There’s also some kinship with much more disreputable ’80s fare like Ice Pirates, The Last Starfighter, Night of the Comet (all 1984), and My Science Project (1986), half-clever, scrappy, rascally movies that blended genre fare with a pop spirit that ironically contrasted the traditionally weird and epic zones of scifi with characters still locked in mundane, earthly zones of understanding. Guardians has clear ambitions to annexing that tradition.
Well, that’s what Guardians of the Galaxy’s ambitions are. The film’s actual achievement is, by contrast, so minor that it counts as the biggest disappointment from a big movie I’ve had since Gravity (2013). How could I fail to like what’s clearly entertained audiences so fully? I don’t know. I’m desperate for good space opera. Perhaps therein in lies some of the problem. Guardians threw my mind back to the Pirates of the Caribbean films insofar as that, like those works, it’s overloaded with raw material that could make for truly great, weird, original adventure films—perhaps, indeed, too many because neither Pirates nor Guardians have any idea how to put them together. Guardians isn’t a traditional superhero story; in fact, it’s Marvel’s first work that, though based on a comic series and linked via plot elements like Thanos to other strands of the Marvel universe, represents new genre turf. Yet Guardians fails to escape the template Marvel has established of superfluous motivations and static characterisations, without any place of real interest to take its stories. The early films the studio put out had the advantage of being origin stories, a necessity in setting up superhero franchises that frustrates some comic book fans but helps make the phenomenon coherent for the rest of us. A maxim often bandied about in reference to the comic book genre is that second films are the best, because the business of setting up character and situation has been done and the sequel can hit the ground running.
But Marvel has been proving that maxim untrue, because their sequels have tended to be ramshackle hunks of fan service with plotting that is painfully superfluous. Even this year’s superior, but still highly overrated Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which tried to shift into new territory by borrowing a veneer of hard-boiled cynicism from ’70s thrillers, still readily descended into info-dump explanations and bland, bloodless action. Guardians is technically an origin story but tries to behave like a swinging sequel. Similarly, although Gunn makes many gestures toward placing his work in a grand tradition of zippy fun, the actual product he ends up with is a by-rote work with occasional touches of impertinence that fail to add up to anything substantial. Rather than a flow of loopy, inspired humour and madcap action, Guardians offers up zany ideas harvested from its source material and then lets them sit around serving no function. Guardians wants to act like the usual epic claptrap of its genre is mere background whilst playing up the idiosyncrasies of it heroes, but it remains enslaved to a banal edition of its genre as it overcompensates by stuffing in more plot elements and antagonists than it knows what to do with.
The biggest lack of Guardians is any faith—or even real interest—in storytelling. The early fight between Rocket, Groot, Quill, and Gamora on the streets of Xandar is a good example, simply allowing the three different plot strands/character groups to collide on the street. The prologue sets in motion a theoretical sense of longing for family that Quill gains through his new compadres and invests plentiful melodramatic thrusts to give the story some charge. Yet Guardians’ attempts to get emotional and exciting flounder without ever feeling urgent or convincing. The team comes together and becomes inseparable mostly because that’s what the story demands they do, without much effort put in to developing convincing camaraderie: we go from Rocket drunkenly threatening to kill everyone to superfriends real fast and a couple of low-rent group bickering sessions. The closest we get to a scene of real emotional bonding, touching almost on a love scene (that verboten thing in this perpetually preadolescent genre), comes when Quill and Gamora take a timeout so they can share backstory, delivered in lumpen stare-into-the-middle-distance manner. Guardians lopes from scene to scene without a clear sense of direction. Drax summons up Ronan and his legions for no better reason than the film needs a bit more banging and blasting at that juncture. We spend ages waiting for our heroes to encounter the perverse Collector. The moment they reach his lair, the film swerves ridiculously as one of Tivan’s servants (Ophelia Lovibond) tries to master the infinity stone to escape his influence and instead causes a big bang in a twist that feels less like a radical blindsiding to keep us on our feet than a clumsy waste of time and money.
Imagine getting an actor of Del Toro’s calibre and wasting him like that. In fact, Guardians stands as an incidental monument to the decadent lack of interest in the talent Hollywood has its disposal in the age of the FX blockbuster. Fine actors—Glenn Close! John C. Reilly! Benecio del Toro! Josh Brolin! Djimon Hounsou!—are hurled into the mix and then given absolutely nothing to do. The film even makes a show of this by casting Vin Diesel as a tree that only speaks three words. Quill’s status as intergalactic lady’s man and arrested-development miscreant might have been funnier if J. J. Abrams’ take on James T. Kirk hadn’t already done basically the same thing. Having him flip the bird to the Nova Corps whilst getting a mug shot taken scarcely constitutes investing him with a lode of real character and comes across like a rebellious gesture that’s been relentlessly examined and finally approved by a corporate strategy meeting that thinks it’s being edgy.
Similarly, Gunn throws up the comic’s wacky ideas—a crazy anthropomorphic racoon! a space hero who’s a total scrub!—and expects us to find them outrageously entertaining and not pay any attention to how little invention has gone into the stuff that surrounds them. For instance, in Ice Pirates, a film usually written off today as an example of what could go wrong with the ’80s fantasy template, there’s a genuinely inspired aspect to the final battle, which takes place in the midst of a time warp where the heroes pass through a lifespan’s worth of events in a few minutes even as they charge about trying to defeat the bad guys. Even the ramshackle charms of Flash Gordon sported more real wit, like the impromptu football match in Ming’s throne room that entwined a great, specific joke about culture shock with slapstick humour. By comparison, Guardians has a dismaying lack of cleverness for all its enhanced budget and technical advantages.
Gunn and Perlman’s script does throw up some wisecracks that are pretty funny: the most edgy and unexpected comes when Quill, responding to Gamora’s peevish complaint that his spaceship is filthy, tells his other new friends, “Oh she has no idea. If I had a black light this’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting.” But the humour doesn’t add up to much. There are great long patches without anything particularly amusing going on, and really only the fanciful effects that give us Groot and Rocket distinguish them from comic-relief characters in decades worth of second-string westerns. Drax comes from a race that speaks in vaguely medieval fashion but has no understanding of metaphor, a potentially fertile idea for comedy, but the script develops the idea lazily (apparently though Drax can’t comprehend figures of speech like “over your head,” he has no problem using simile). Pace’s Ronan is supposed to be a fearsome figure of genocidal intent and deep wells of resentment behind his status as a vengeful extremist, but he arrives on screen as basically the same glowing-eyed, hooded bad guy Christopher Ecclestone played in Thor: The Dark World (2013). At the outset, we see Gamora close to Ronan, but what side she’s really on isn’t questioned for any narrative intrigue, whilst the relationships are spat at us by the movie without much care for impact or how we connect them, such as who Thanos is, what his connection to Ronan is motivated by, what Gamora and Nebula’s relationship was before Gamora’s treachery.
The film’s simultaneously flippant yet somehow witless take on employing generic niceties keeps the story from ever seeming important, and thus there’s no vitality to the inevitable wham-bam climax. Guardians makes an outright joke of the obvious McGuffin status of the object that motivates the plot, the orb which holds an “infinity stone,” a source of immense, primeval power. As Quill says, “It’s got a real shining-blue suitcase, Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon sort of vibe.” Rather than amusing me with the plain cheek of this self-referential jive, though, this line highlighted how fed up I am with blockbusters that can’t sustain a proper storyline or be bothered investing real stakes in a plot that connects convincingly to the heroes’ predicaments. Similarly, the film’s soundtrack is replete with the hits that feature on Quill’s inheritance, his mix-tape, utilised as an ironically jaunty soundtrack in place of the usual blaring Wagnerian stuff. There is inherent fun to watching Quill dance across an alien landscape to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love” or planning battle to the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” But again I felt after a while that the music was being used to disguise the film’s lack of imagination and skill: the songs are patched over the sequences rather than carefully wound into them, unlike, for recent example, the ingenious deployment of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” during the best scene in the otherwise insipid X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). The film tosses out what it sets up as a clever escape sequence in the Kyln, as Rocket lists required objects, only for Groot to almost sabotage it by casually snatching one object and setting off anarchy, and the would-be clever sequence dissolves into so much visual white noise.
What Gunn is trying to do here is actually quite difficult, certainly more difficult than he seems to have realised. It’s certainly not impossible: the action-adventure film that satirises itself as it goes along whilst not deflating the excitement. Look at a really great predecessor that did this sort of thing: the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The careful deployment of information, the steadily constructed tension, hints of character, unfolding of incident. John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China (1986) nailed exactly the mix this film is after, veering blithely between high myth and low comedy, timeless thrills and fleeting insouciance, as did just about any Hong Kong action of the ’80s. Gunn’s work isn’t particularly interesting visually, zipping by its alien landscapes as just so much more CGI fodder without a sign of wonder or investment in the fantastic, betraying the film’s references to Star Wars and the like as the smarmy pretensions of a second-rate jokester. The film’s action scenes are big and expensive and noisy, and yet remarkably dull, failures as cinematic spectacle just as the script fails at satiric comedy. There’s an odd moment in the final battle when a bunch of spaceships join together like a giant Lego set to form a kind of net to catch Ronan’s ship. This is another striking idea, one that comes out of nowhere, performed by a bunch of characters whose presence in the film has been vague at best. Guardians tries to have its cake and eat it, but doesn’t know how to bake and can’t chew.
To me, the film’s one real flash of excitement came when Gamora and Nebula finally meet in battle, a conflict where, for all the weaknesses in its set-up, at last showed a buzz of emotional investment in the fight and the sight of physical dynamism in the actresses and their stunt stand-ins that is the essence of this type of cinema. But even this doesn’t count for much because it’s over before you know it and only ends with a set-up for a sequel (isn’t everything?), and it’s thrown into the mix with about 15 other vignettes pieced together without much intelligent scene grammar. Finally, right at the end, something of Guardians’ ambitions came to fruition in Groot’s final sacrificial action, and the borderline-mystical joining of the ragtag team who become the eponymous Guardians by virtue of their exceptional weirdness, as well as pith, to defeat Ronan with the infinity stone. Pratt does give Star Lord his all, and he could well be a promising action-comedy star. This and the black-out gag featuring a dancing baby groot almost convinced me that I hadn’t wasted my time. And yet, it is easy to understand why Guardians been such a big hit, and I can’t even discount the possibility that some day it will be as big an object of cult veneration as the ones it invokes. Either way, my personal, dismal movie-going year continues unabated.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jim Jarmusch
By Roderick Heath
Jim Jarmusch’s career seems as intimately connected with the evolution of American independent film as Pablo Picasso’s was to modernism in painting: he helped to give birth to it, he gave it much of its aesthetic and thematic lexicon, but then he remained happy in his niche and left it for everyone else to accept or reject what they liked in their own attempts to reforge the art form. Similarities between Jarmusch and Picasso end there, of course. Jarmusch’s calm, wry, gentle style subtly evolved from his early work, though it remained defined by a resolute minimalism and lack of interest in cinematic flash that only partly hides a New Age take on an old Hollywood value, one that holds films are no more interesting than the people in front of the camera and what they’re saying. Jarmusch was one filmmaker who seemed to arrive with the phrase “cult following” already attached to his name, and he continued on that way, though that following has diminished a little in recent years. It’s odd indeed to think of a filmmaker like Jarmusch in an age increasingly detached from the kinds of small, arty movie theatres in bohemian neighbourhoods and video store back shelves that fostered his following. Only Lovers Left Alive signals Jarmusch’s awareness of this, as it provides an aging retronaut’s statement of fetishistic revelry in all that is arcane and eternal in the midst of yet another paradigm shift. Jarmusch’s one concession to a zeitgeist is his story, which depicts that much-beloved and abused figure of crepuscular romanticism, the vampire.
This is a vampire movie as only Jarmusch could make it—except perhaps for Amy Heckerling, whose Vamps (2012) was completely different in tone and yet dealt in almost exactly the same ideas and concerns. Jarmusch’s vampires are undying hipsters, as their creator aligns the outsider status of the artist: the sun-shy, attention-wary bohemians who create for the pure love of creation and expression of innermost emotions, and subsist in fear of a world that will surely misunderstand, if not fear them. Adam (Tom Hiddleston) is a wan, rake-thin composer who’s walled himself up in a house in the midst of Detroit’s blasted suburbs. Adam has a contracted gopher, Ian (Anton Yelchin), to dig up anything he asks for, from an array of vintage guitars to a hardwood bullet in a working .38 shell casing he claims to need for an “art project.” Adam’s elegantly dishevelled home is crammed with LPs and amusingly jerry-rigged technology. Amongst the talents he’s developed in his hundreds of years on earth is a gift for zany electrical engineering: not surprisingly, Nikolai Tesla is one of his heroes, like Jack White was in Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003). His house runs on a generator that absorbs atmospheric energy, and he’s linked his laptop up to an old TV so he can see anyone he’s Skyping with on a decent-sized screen. But Adam’s real metier is musician, one he’s been following for centuries. He once let Schubert claim a piece of his “just to get it out there,” and now composes droning, spacey Shoegaze-ish pics he describes as funeral music. He has let some of his new compositions leak out to test their mettle and has become an underground music hero, a problematic achievement as now bands of young fans are trolling the streets of Detroit in search of the elusive master’s home.
Adam’s life partner, or more accurately undead partner, is the inevitably named Eve (Tilda Swinton), who resides in Algiers, the couple well used to both times of togetherness and separation, a quirky habit that has undoubtedly fostered their centuries-long affair’s steadfast ardour. Eve chums about with aged fellow vampire Kit (John Hurt), another reclusive artist: he used to be Christopher Marlowe, no less, and is still irritated by being forced into hiding because of his supposed murder and that his “illiterate zombie” front Shakespeare gets all the credit for the plays he wrote afterwards. Kit, who’s become old and incapacitated, has been adopted by a café owner and literary protégé, Bilal (Slimane Dazi). Adam, Eve, and Kit don’t drink human blood direct from the source anymore, more out of respect and caution for their own health than for people because of the amount of “contamination” out there these days. Besides, it’s hard to dispose of the victims for things have changed, as Eve notes, from “the old days when we could just chuck them in the Thames alongside all the other tubercular floaters.” The sensible, modern vampire prefers to procure nicely purified and bottled supplies from clinicians and blood banks: Kit gets his from “a lovely French doctor” and passes some on to Eve. Adam buys his from a physician in a Detroit hospital, Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), whom he meets late at night with menacing silence wearing a surgical mask, lab coat, an antiquated stethoscope, and a nametag that reads Dr. Faust, and pays off with huge rolls of cash. Getting their blood offers a sublime, druglike pleasure for the vampires. But Adam seems to be in a particularly dark and downbeat mood of late: his wooden bullet is actually a suicide option, and his distress signals reach the intuitively understanding Eve. She grumpily prepares to travel to him, packing her only necessities—her favourite books.
Only Lovers Left Alive plainly deals with matters that have long fascinated Jarmusch, in particular, cultural memory in the context of the New World’s determined lack of it. The fetishism for the detritus of recent pasts and the mystique of cool evokes a constant thread in his films, whilst the film’s closest immediate analogue is probably Mystery Train (1991), his ghost-riddled, wry comedy that used Memphis rather than Detroit as his blasted avatar of Americana, whilst the central couple have similarities to the Japanese cool cats who traversed that city and declared preference for Carl Perkins over Elvis Presley in the pantheon of hip. The travelling, eye-caressing surveys of nocturnal cities, splendid in their desertion and decay, immediately evoke Jarmusch’s early works, like Down by Law (1986) and Night on Earth (1991). The literary nom-de-plumes and hints of blurred identity and life-after-death journeying recalls Dead Man (1996). Jarmusch’s style, verging on an antistyle and influenced by such great stripped-down cinematic mechanics as Ozu and Dreyer, is so spare as to be hard to spot variations in, but some of Jarmusch’s later works, like Broken Flowers (2006), certainly started to feel hermetic in their outlook and references as well as method. That film’s hero and his habit of driving while listening to his mix CDs, in careful excision of anything unwantedly messy or edgy, contrasts Jarmusch’s early works, which were like toggling between late-night radio stations, taking in a panoramic sample of the cultural landscape and its otherworldly wells. But Only Lovers Left Alive reveals a real artist’s capacity for self-awareness and even self-satire: Jarmusch has made his own dismay at time’s relentless advance and its impact on the institutions of artistic meaning he treasures part of the film’s texture, whilst also noting that what could be taken by the jaded as inevitable repetition might also be fecund revivalism, reinvention, even rebirth.
Some might find it odd that Jarmusch has made a film that could be called the black bible of the current crop of hipsters and trendies in its celebration of the fashionably arcane, bygone maxims of style and authority. But, of course, mix-and-match delight in the ephemera of the past and present is hardly a recent invention, and has been a secret tool of bohemia in contention with industrial society’s chop-chop insistence as far back as the pre-Raphaelites and neoclassicists. Nothing was as cheap and ephemeral as an 8-inch single record was in 1960, but now it’s an artefact, a lodestone and repository. Jarmusch starts the film with a sequence that stands amongst his best, his camera moving in a swooning circle in mistimed mimicry of such a record spinning on a player: Wanda Jackson’s “Funnel of Love” played at the wrong speed turning into a druggy anthem for its pair of separated lovers, who both recline in their dreamy, separate but connected anomie. Jarmusch might move his camera more in this film than he did in his first three films put together, if still sparingly, creating a sense much like being sucked into a whirlpool in a lake of tar, a slow and slurping decline. Jarmusch repeats the motif later as he intercuts between Adam, Eve, and Kit sinking into ecstasy as they have their taste of blood. The correlation of vampiric activity and junkie habitudes isn’t a new one: Paul Morrissey’s Blood for Dracula (1973) mooted it a long time ago, and Abel Ferrara’s The Addiction (1995) put it front and centre for a far more lacerating approach to the idea of contemporary vampire life than this one seeks to be. But Jarmusch’s take is original insofar as he equates it with the experiential, potentially communal thrill of lotus eating, absinthe drinking, LSD, and MDMA, as well as the solitary corrosion of heroin.
Jarmusch’s attitude to his antiheroes is wry and exacting even as he makes it plain he’s on their side, sharing their quirks, their fears, and their loves. They snobbishly refer to ordinary people as “zombies,” and Adam reveals he’s contemplating self-annihilation because he’s fed up with their “fear of their own imaginations.” Jarmusch confirms his antennae certainly haven’t weakened, as he articulates the feeling that’s been prevalent amidst sectors of the educated culturati in the increasingly messy state of contemporary democracy of increasingly blinding, fraught despair at the reactionary impulses apparent in modern society. Jarmusch satirizes the attitude a little bit, too, not letting his undying cool folk off the hook by reminding us forcefully by the end that they participate in the roundelay of consumption, too, and that their pretences require somebody’s sacrifice. One of the key conceits and driving jokes of the film is that the actually cool and creative will always recognise their kind: Adam and Eve have shifted with the evolution of culture from baroque to romanticism to Motown (“I’m more of a Stax girl myself,” Eve admits), obeying the necessity of changing modes of expression whilst recognising unchanging fixtures and standards. Adam’s stringy-haired gloominess, so readily identifiable in the age of Emo, was imbued, Eve argues, by his association with Byron and Shelley. Adam has a wall filled with privileged heroes (and of course, he says repeatedly “I don’t have heroes”) including Buster Keaton, Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, and Rodney Dangerfield.
The film is textured by allusions. These run from small, jokey ones, like the encounter between Dr. Faust and Dr. Watson, to larger, more expansive rhymes, like linking the dying industrial mecca of Detroit with a traditional vampire’s castle, comprehending the similarity of the movements that eroded both feudal aristocracy and Western industrial capitalism, and the narrative’s refrains to Algiers, hang-out of escapee nonconformists from Delacroix to William Burroughs. Drug dealers constantly try to entice Eve from the alleys of the Casbah, an ironic touch as Eve is certainly on the hunt for her fix, but not that kind: her good stuff is far more difficult to acquire and more acute in its representation of life bartered. Jarmusch unfolds many scenes in successions of dreamy dissolves and repeated framings that infer the connectedness of Adam and Eve even in separate places, and finally portrays them both naked and in bed, lounging in a slight asymmetry that captures both their definite sexuality and their faint androgyny.
The couple’s eventualmeeting, clearly the first time they’ve come back together in ages, is one of two superbly affecting moments: centuries of gathered affectations and borrowed trappings the two lovers wear like costumes suddenly fall away, and they are again a courtly gentleman and his lady, Adam stripping off Eve’s glove and kissing her palm with all the tortured and fulsome passion of some De Laclos characters. The second comes as Adam gives Eve tours of his midnight world, showing her his ingenious power supply when it breaks down and driving her around Detroit with its endless razed blocks and tomblike warehouses and factories, pointing out the old Packard plant, “where they once built the most beautiful cars in the world—finished.” Eve confidently anticipates Detroit’s rebirth in the future when “the cities of the south are burning.” Adam takes Eve inside the Michigan Theatre, a beautiful manmade cavern with decayed remnants of glorious ambition and soaring craftsmanship, now used as a car park and recognised as itself only by the two exiles. Jarmusch’s camera floats rapturously, scanning the ceiling and his two lovers back to back as they crane their heads up and their bodies spin upon the dusty floor.
Jarmusch blends his fictional conceit cleverly with a realistic basis that’s sneakily exact and detailed, a method that defines most well-thought-through fantasies. Adam and Eve are a sophisticated, unconventional couple, only slightly exaggerated, with deftly recorded rhythms of behaviour, from Eve picking up on Adam’s distress signals to the eternal bugbear that is Eve’s sister Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Ava has warned both of them that she’s likely to turn up in their lives by psychic means, projecting herself into their dreams, and she does arrive at Adam’s house when Eve’s only been there for three days. The way the couple refer to her makes one perhaps expect a darker, deadlier, more traditional version of the vampire, but, in fact, Ava’s a carefree, self-indulgent, ageless teenager, dangerous to them not because she’s more wicked but because, like so many teens, she has much less idea of consequences and no interest in their adult fussiness. Her affectations, like polka-dotted stockings and faux-fur coats, mark her as an interminable scenester and low-rent party girl, the embarrassing sibling who’s been dogging the couple for ages and making them cringe a little for offering pose without style. She flops on Adam’s couch, drinks up his blood supply like it’s going out of fashion, puts on his new recordings to listen to, and airily informs him she’s heard some of his stuff in an underground club in Los Angeles. “Zombie central,” Adam contemptuously describes that city. The closeness of Eve and Ava’s sisterly relationship is swiftly, casually noted as they mirror each others’ pose and actions in stripping off gloves and reclining on the sofa, leaving Adam cut off and glowering in the reverse shot. “Are you still upset about the thing in Paris?” Ava questions. “It’s been 87 years,” Eve does admit.
Adam’s misgivings about having her around prove well-founded however. When she talks the couple into exploring the city’s nightlife with her, Adam gets Ian to guide them. He takes them to an agreeably grimy nightspot where a quality punk band grinds out music, and Adam hears his own droning sounds piped during the break. When the quartet return to Adam’s house at dawn, he and Eve retreat to bed, leaving Ava and Ian together. In the evening, Eve is shocked to find Ava has killed Ian, a moment of weakness that’s left her in discomfort from imbibing his polluted blood. Adam and Eve’s patience snaps: they throw Ava out on the street, and she shambles off into the night yelling insults. The couple quickly rid themselves of the immediate problem by taking Ian’s corpse to an abandoned factory and tossing it into a sunken pit filled with some nasty substance: “Don’t ask,” Adam warns Eve, and when the body lands in it, the flesh is immediately eaten away. Eve recoils, and mutters, “Well, that was visual,” in a wry punch line that feels like a jab back at the way Jarmusch has been criticised for rarely indulging visual qualities. Realising that they still face investigation because Ian had been seen with them in public, Adam agrees to accompany Eve back to Algiers. They fast through the flight in anticipation of some of Kit’s quality blood stash, but the pair finds Kit is dying, tended to by a distraught Bilal, from blood that was badly contaminated. Thus, the pair is left not just distraught by the fading of their friend and fellow true believer, but also starving.
For all its blackly humorous morbidity, invocations of collapse and melancholia, and permanent nocturnal atmosphere that resolves in a restaging-cum-parody of a strung-out junkie-lovers drama like Panic in Needle Park (1971), Only Lovers Left Alive is a work of peculiar grace and good humour, even in its darker refrains. The title’s implicit message (borrowed from a scifi novel that inspired a punk rock album) speaks of romanticism undying and captures the peculiar faith upheld by everyone who treasures a work of art, even in an age that wants to transduce it all into a cloud of bits somewhere. Adam mocks Ava for enjoying something on You Tube (admittedly, only a schlocky piece of Euro dance music with a video featuring a joke shop Dracula and go-go dancers) and ignoring the grand cornucopia such phenomena provide, the ready, but not tactile connection with a vast scheme of invention.
Only Lovers Left Alive is a stand for the tactile connection, albeit one whose mood is ethereal. Adam and Eve inherit the dreams and achievements of a culture that has so little use for them. Adam is given renewed zest and will to fight for his survival in a new and alienating place when he sees a young female singer, Yasmine (Yasmine Hamdan), performing in café, a vision of leather-clad beauty and talent suggesting that Adam’s ever-renewing search for quality and cool has found a new, embryonic zone for experiment and distillation—a new zeitgeist to be absorbed by. His next phase, and Eve’s, too, can only be achieved, however, through an act of calculated parasitism. The couple put it off as long as possible, but when presented by an opportunity—a young couple making out in a deserted courtyard—they move upon them with impunity, bearing their fangs before the film blacks out in an unnerving and bleakly funny last glimpse. Even the biggest dreamer amongst us is still just another animal.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Rob Thomas
By Marilyn Ferdinand
From 2004 through 2007, “We Used to Be Friends,” the dreamy, edgy song performed by the Dandy Warhols, opened “Veronica Mars,” a television series that created such a loyal following that it survived low ratings to last three seasons and encouraged more than 91,500 people to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign so successful that we now have a movie based on the series. What was it about this series that had people of all ages and backgrounds—including me—glued to the tube each week?
The series, which featured Kristen Bell as the title teenage gumshoe, was much more than the updated Nancy Drew or straight-playing “Twin Peaks” it seemed to be. Its essence was noir, with corruption at the heart of its original through-story of Veronica’s investigation into the murder of her best friend, Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried), in the fictional town of Neptune, California, a playground for the rich and famous with a soft underbelly reminiscent of the Los Angeles of Chinatown (1974). Veronica, daughter of ex-sheriff and current P.I. Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), ran in the rarefied circles of Neptune’s power elite, but remained a resolute outsider by dint of her lowly financial status and exposure to the ruinous power of wealth and influence as exemplified by the campaign of the 1% to run her dad out of office for daring to come after one of their own. Many fans of the series believe, in the words of the Film Noir Foundation, that “it’s a bitter little world,” and despite the futility, it still felt good to see our wry, savvy antiheroine act like Sam Spade: “When a (girl’s best friend) is killed, (s)he’s supposed to do something about it.” We thrilled, too, that like Spade, she fell like a ton of bricks for the wrong person—troubled rich kid Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring)—possessive, violently protective, and oh so sexy.
When the series ended, it seemed like Veronica had put her demons behind her and followed her father’s advice to get out of the cesspool of Neptune and make a normal life for herself. The movie picks up at the point where Veronica, a recent law school graduate, is interviewing for a job at a top New York law firm and living with Stosh “Piz” Piznarski (Chris Lowell), her kind-of boyfriend during her undergraduate days at Hearst College. A high-profile murder in Neptune grabs her attention—pop singer Bonnie DeVille (Andrea Estella), nee Carrie Bishop of Neptune, Logan’s girlfriend, is found electrocuted in her bathtub, and Logan stands accused of murdering her. One text from Logan that he needs her has Veronica on the first plane out, assuring understanding Piz that she will be there only a couple of days to help him choose a defense attorney.
Logan, now an officer in the U.S. Navy, greets Veronica at the airport wearing his dress whites. She is dazzled and says, “You should always wear that,” but as they say, love is blind—the uniform fits him like a laundry bag and makes him look like the prototypical pencil-necked geek. How he managed to maintain a relationship with a junkie pop star while in the Navy is beyond me, but thankfully, he wears civvies for the rest of the film and seems to have been able to make bail—he is filthy rich, after all. This series’ version of the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” Scooby gang—computer geek Mac (Tina Majorino), gofer/buddy Wallace (Percy Daggs III), and Latino tough Weevil (Francis Capra)—have all grown up into responsible adult positions, with Mac making a very nice living in IT, Wallace a school teacher at their former high school, and Weevil a married man and doting father.
Veronica Mars is a solid, if unremarkable film whose hole-filled scenario is, as Rod pointed out about the plot of another noir, The Big Sleep (1946), rather beside the point. What fans of the series and viewers of the film will most enjoy is a chance to visit with or revisit some beloved characters indelibly created by the prodigious talent of the actors who played them, their acting chops better than ever, and especially the incredible chemistry between Bell and Dohring and the close relationship Veronica has with her father.
Veronica gets drawn back into her former life and her former love, reflecting in the noirish voiceover narration that peppers the film that she is an addict of sorts of both. But then, the script doesn’t make Veronica’s law career seem very exciting. When she interviews with attorney Gayle Buckley (Jamie Lee Curtis), she is told that the firm tries to keep its corporate clients out of court as much as possible—so, in fact, if Veronica takes the job, she will be spending her days literally settling. Once she’s caught up in the adrenaline rush of the investigation to exonerate Logan, she knows that all she really wants to do is get people—the bad guys—into court. Working as she did in high school, investigating her classmates who may have graduated from smaller stuff like test rigging and cyberbullying to actual murder while her father investigates even more grown-up stuff like systemic corruption in the police department, is just like old times.
Yet Veronica’s quest for a safe and normal life seems to have changed her, made her more vulnerable. While still verbally quick, she has slowed down a bit, preferring direct actions like punching a bitchy former classmate to cutting her with her rapier wit—then again, this scene plays like a rip-off of the Indiana Jones and the Arab swordsman scene. A more genuine moment shows Veronica hiding from a killer, panting with terror and thinking as fast as she can for a way to save herself while obviously flailing at the unexpectedness of her plight. The scene is beautifully choreographed and builds tension that the film sustains to the end. The film is also ably aided by its moody look and a soundtrack as edgy and dreamy as its theme song.
One change from the TV series to the movie is Veronica’s heavy use of her smartphone. I thought this was natural for someone well versed in the use of surveillance equipment and an early adopter of new technology, and yet, Veronica seemed to be the only person glued to the screen in her hand. She happens to appear in Neptune the weekend of her 10th high school reunion and is dragged there by the Scoobys. As if by some time-travel miracle, virtually no one was checking their phone every few minutes or texting someone. A crucial plot twist shows a similar stupidity about the power in everyone’s hands these days, though we could possibly blame drugs and alcohol for this particular lapse. Similarly, the Neptune police seem not to have given much thought to the audio/video capabilities of cellphones and are repeatedly recorded doing things they oughtn’t, including unprovoked violence against some defenseless teens. Viewing this film on the heels of seeing the footage from Ferguson, Mo., was a truly eerie experience.
Still, the main event is Veronica and Logan. Their mutual attraction burns a hole through every scene they share, though Logan keeps a gentlemanly distance, even when he is blindsided and momentarily made jealous by Piz’s appearance at the reunion. A flash of his old protectiveness goes overboard when the reunion committee decides to humiliate Veronica by projecting an old sex tape of her and Logan. His rage precipitates the equivalent of a barroom brawl from a creaky Western, a truly shoddy piece of comedy that undercuts the Veronica Mars vibe. While this display from Logan would have sent the Veronica of old packing, the more vulnerable version may actually feel the need for a man who can mix it up, and when he saves her father from an attempt on his life, he becomes plainly irresistible. I have read some criticism of this relationship that it supposedly reinforces the idea that women are looking for sexy bad boys when they should be attracted to nice guys. Of course, it’s ridiculous and futile to tell hearts and genitals what they should want, but in fact, Veronica is a bad girl and thus a perfect match for Logan.
Most fans of the series are crazy about Weevil, and I was disappointed that this complex character had so little to do and ended the film on a note that seemed all wrong. Daggs, also a fan favorite, is just as good in the movie, but again, has little to do. Colantoni is a veteran actor whose presence is felt in any project in which he appears. In Veronica Mars, he is every bit the sympathetic dad and quietly persistent private eye he was in the series, and he and Bell continue as one of the best fictional father/daughter duos anywhere; his joy at being surprised by Veronica’s sudden appearance at his office is a delightful and truthful moment. While Bell has maintained an active career on television, neither she nor the inexplicably lesser-seen Dohring has ever made the impact they did with “Veronica Mars.”
In the end, this pastiche of filmic styles takes it final cue from Casablanca (1942). In their version of “We’ll always have Paris,” Logan and Veronica repeat some words from the series:
I thought our story was epic, you know, you and me. Spanning years and continents. Lives ruined, bloodshed. EPIC.
As Logan heads back to the Navy, Veronica goes back to being a gumshoe, apparently with the Scoobys back by her side fighting the bad guys, as though listening to the words of Victor Laszlo: “Welcome back to the fight. This time I know our side will win.”
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Director/Screenwriter: John Michael McDonagh
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
John Michael McDonagh debuted as a feature film director with 2011’s wry comedy-thriller The Guard, which became the most successful independent film ever made in Ireland and clearly established McDonagh as a major new talent in the national cinema. Like many of the new wave of Irish filmmakers, including his brother Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson, both of whom came from playwriting, and their forebear, novelist and poet Neil Jordan, John Michael’s talent has a highly literate, theatrical inflection that stands at odds with the mantras fed to modern film students. Calvary, his follow-up to The Guard, plainly declares itself to be no run-of-the-mill social-issues movie, even as it tackles some of the most pervasive and passion-stirring issues relevant to modern societies. Whilst the conventionally pretty cinematography drinks in the grandeur of Ireland’s rugged west coast, the drama is compact, even claustrophobic, befitting the film’s revision of an old and hoary theatrical event, one that used to tie together and define communities in festivals of religious fervour: the passion play. Brendan Gleeson, Irish film’s stocky Atlas since John Boorman made him a movie star in The General (1997), counters his lead role as the Falstaffian antihero of The Guard with a role here as Father James Lavelle, the priest of a small Catholic church in a coastal town. A cold opening sees Lavelle enter the confession box on Sunday as per his roster of duties. The man on the other side of the screen is silent for a moment, to the point where Lavelle is confused, but then the man says, “I first tasted semen when I was seven years old.”
Lavelle, startled, nonetheless utters the first in the film’s manifold self-referential quips: “Certainly a startling opening line.” The man querulously asks Lavelle what he means, and then informs him of his design. In revenge for the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of priests, he intends to gain attention and make a statement by killing a cleric. Not a bad priest, mind, but a good one—Lavelle himself, whom he predicts will die by his hand on the beach in precisely one week’s time. Lavelle emerges from the confessional quietly shaken, but continues his holy duties without demur, alongside Father Leary (David Wilmot), a dim, rubbery poltroon of the faith. Lavelle reports the incident in abstract to his bishop, Garett Montgomery (David McSavage), and confirms he knows who the man is. The bishop tells Lavelle he’s free to go to the police because the man showed no sign of penitence and received no absolution, but Lavelle makes no move to do so. Instead, he picks up his daughter Fiona (Kelly Reilly) from the train station. Sporting a bandaged cut on her wrist from a recent suicide attempt, Fiona has retreated from her London life to recover from the bleak depression that followed a break-up. Fiona has been in pain, however, since the death of her mother, the event that drove Lavelle into the priesthood, a move which Fiona felt was akin to being abandoned by him.
The week before the next, fateful Sunday thus sees Lavelle engaging not only with his wounded daughter, but also the denizens of the town, still hewing to an old-fashioned sense of the job as one demanding an active interest in their lives. Lavelle is not an old-fashioned priest, however. Thoroughly worldly and experienced in personal folly (he’s a recovering alcoholic), he’s up-to-date on all the modern perversities he and Leary hear about in the confessional (“Do you know what felching is?” “I do know what felching is, yeah.” “I had to look it up.”). This fillip of modern lifestyle was mentioned by one of their female congregants, Veronica Brennan (Orla O’Rourke), who’s recently left her husband, the town butcher Jack (Chris O’Dowd), in favour of pursuing erotic dalliances around town, particularly with Senegalese immigrant Simon (Isaach De Bankolé), a car mechanic. Because Veronica sported a black eye in church on Sunday, Lavelle sets out to find out who gave it to her. Jack blames it on Simon, and Simon takes umbrage to the point of flicking a cigar against Lavelle’s chest and threatening to beat him up for his unwelcome prying. Veronica herself tells him more politely to mind his own business.
Other people around town whom Lavelle ministers to, interacts with, or merely swaps jests and insults with, include Frank Harte (Aidan Gillen), a black-humoured, professionally cynical doctor who works in the local hospital emergency room, Mícheál (Mícheál Óg Lane), an altar boy who swipes communion wine and paints the coastline, and retired stock trader Michael Fitzgerald (Dylan Moran), who’s bought a nearby mansion with an ill-gotten fortune and now is stewing in a solitary, alcoholic haze of bile and self-regard. Lavelle also ferries supplies to an elderly American writer (M. Emmett Walsh) who lives alone on a small island off the coast. The writer is aging and asks for Lavelle to find him a gun so he can end his days when the time comes. Lavelle does obtain a gun, from Police Inspector Stanton (Gary Lydon), who entertains a wise-cracking rent boy, Leo (Owen Sharpe). Does Lavelle intend the gun for the writer’s peace or for self-defence?
Ireland is a country wrapped up in a specific mythology that long since went international in fame and allure, one that’s both a blessing and burden for contemporary artists to work with. The last 20 years has seen both the boom of the “Celtic Tiger” and then the bust, and the ongoing exposure of the septic underbelly of the Catholic Church’s dominance of a society that might well be said to have swapped imperialism for theocracy in the 1920s, shaking up some of the most fetishized aspects of the Irish myth: poverty, religion, and detachment from modernity. Calvary’s essential conceit, mapped out by McDonagh in interviews, is the potent irony provided by setting up a good priest as the martyr for the bad ones in the context of an age when cumulative disgust can cause divorcement of the public at large from a once omnipresent institution. Calvary starts as a kind of deadpan situation comedy where the oddball assortment of characters and their helpful priest interact with barbed geniality. But as the film continues and deepens, jokey conversations quickly show real teeth, and Lavelle is quickly exposed to the level of real anger, contempt, and fear in the community, as cheeky humour gives way to purposeful mockeries and acts of licenced cruelty. Calvary’s title gives an immediate hint as to the oncoming stations-of-the-cross epic Lavelle is facing, his faith not so much tested as his commitment to his role in an age that doesn’t seem to care much for what he offers, even when he sees many proofs that his function is still needed, and especially when confronted by a seemingly imminent date with fate that demands affirmation of just how dedicated he is.
McDonagh bites off as much as any artist, literary or cinematic, could chew here. Indeed, the scope of his ambition almost feels anachronistic in an age of oblique independent films and buffed-down mainstream pseudo-dramas. McDonagh’s writing pitches itself on the outer verges of archness, as his carefully studied characters exchange knowing witticisms whilst not budging from their sharply drawn, almost caricatured postures—indeed, a couple of them, like Sharpe’s Leo and Milo (Killian Scott) never quite escape the realm of improv-theatre exercise. Milo is a young, bespectacled, bow-tie-sporting gent who’s considering joining the army to release sadistic fantasies provoked by his inability to get laid in his small and claustrophobic town. Lavelle derides his plan and suggests moving to a bigger city where “young women with loose morals” are in greater supply. The village is a stage that only offers a small roster of major players, each one charged with a certain relevance to Lavelle’s predicament. Those characters seem to be aware of the roles they are playing, inhabiting types they know are types. Harte, tiring of baiting Lavelle for a moment, mutters that “the atheistic doctor, it’s a clichéd part to play – there aren’t that many good lines.” “You really should talk you know,” Lavelle tells Fiona, “Let it all out.” To which she replies, “Like one of those shit plays at the Abbey?” McDonagh’s highlights his work’s postmodern, smart-ass tilt with a purpose that finally reveals itself by the climax, as the film reproduces with slippery awareness that way the characters hold life at arm’s length with humour and wryly stoic pith that the unknown nihilist seeks to violate with intimate anger.
Lavelle’s controlling viewpoint is a vital, subtle aspect of the film, as the increasing tension and darkness of his situation begins to colour every exchange, and every piss-take joke at his expense and provocation becomes more loaded. Historical abuses of the church, including Simon’s cool statement that “we’re not in the missions now,” are fired at him by several characters. Harte approaches him at the wrong moment with a bleak and horrifying anecdote about his early days doctoring in Dublin when he saw a kid left completely paralysed, blind, deaf, and dumb by an anaesthetist’s failure. The doctor suddenly plays the part of serpent in the garden, a satanic taunter armed with life’s dumb cruelty to goad Lavelle. The priest’s nerves have already been rubbed raw by a series of events, from finding his beloved pet dog with its throat cut to his and Leary’s church burning down. Whether these crimes were committed by his would-be murderer or others remains unclear, but it certainly seems that Lavelle recognises a common disdain for him. That disdain finds apogee when he encounters a small girl walking a laneway and chats amiably with her, only to have her father roar up in a car and furiously threaten him after bundling her away. Lavelle is confronted by the severed cords of trust and amity to which he’s supposed to be tied to his community, the assumption that he’s the force for good suddenly stricken and actively derided by Simon and publican Brendan Lynch (Pat Shortt). Lavelle responds by breaking his drinking ban, whereupon he gets pie-eyed and unleashes his own wrath on the publican by firing his gun off, shattering bottles. When he’s out of bullets, however, Lynch pulls out his own weapon, a baseball bat, and when next we see Lavelle, he’s washing a broken nose.
Calvary’s seriousness of intent reveals itself steadily, a palpable anger and mournfulness about the State of Things, but this is also a vitally funny film, with verbal comedy lethally sharp throughout. Lavelle’s conversations with his melancholic daughter are laced with a spiky, rhythmic style of humour that suggests their deep accord whilst also defining the toey, touchy space each maintains in their mutually therapeutic exchanges. The film’s comic highpoint comes when Lavelle goes to visit Fitzgerald at his house to discuss Fitzgerald’s proposed, large cash donation to the church for the hell of it: “That interests you doesn’t it? he asks, “It’s goin’ to be a black day altogether when the Catholic Church is no longer interested in money, huh?” Lavelle finds Fitzgerald, completely tanked, seemingly determined to make some sort of point to the priest as he waves airily at artworks that have cost him fortunes whilst decrying his wife, children, and servants, all of whom have quit him, and mentions his quasi-illegal financial dealings, which might be investigated but certainly won’t ever see him imprisoned. Finally, for a last piece of anarchic one-upmanship, Fitzgerald shows off his copy of Hans Holbein’s “The Ambassadors.” “I don’t know what it means, but I own it,” he notes, not recognising the weird smudge in the foreground of the frame is actually a carefully distorted skull that can only be seen through a special lens, a memento mori inserted into the original painting’s apparent celebration of lucid, scientific achievement. Lavelle finally loses patience with Fitzgerald and turns to go after berating him for inviting him over merely to tease him. Fitzgerald stalls his departure by saying he can piss on the masterwork he owns, and takes down the painting for that purpose. Lavelle retorts, “Why not? People like you have already pissed on everything else,” and departs as a stream of yellow fluid begins raining upon the masterpiece.
Whilst it could be said McDonagh’s epochal anger (albeit of a type many feel) is a bit obvious here, he’s made it, firstly, very funny and caustic, but also has contoured it into a drama that takes on a legitimate, even fundamental question facing most modern societies: as old faiths wane, what takes their place? In effect, who cares? What constructs tether a society together, beyond a mutually negative reaction? At its best, as McDonagh intends Lavelle to exemplify, the priest fulfils a holistic role that conjoins therapist, carer, interlocutor, concerned friend, public philosopher, and social worker, a contradiction to the modern world’s presumptions of specialisation that result in compartmentalisation. Harte can repair bodies, but has no feel for humanity; Fitzgerald is a member of a ruling class that no longer rules, but simply hoards and decays. Lavelle’s own outlook holds that his job is to provide “solace,” and later, at a crucial juncture, tells Fiona he thinks there’s far too much obsession with sin these days, and that forgiveness is underrated. This line isn’t given much weight but is very much the key to the film, and particularly the very final scene which portrays a stirring act of forgiveness and outreach that represents the triumph of Lavelle’s spirit. Lavelle reaches out to the cocky, provocative Leo, who cracks wise about his own sexual abuse by priests, having dealt with it in the utter reverse manner to the secret would-be murderer, by turning himself into an extroverted male prostitute.
Calvary has spiritual similarities with many studies of faith and commitment, particularly Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1951), an evident influence on this film in the segmented vignettes of the torments and quandaries besetting both priest and flock. The film’s kin are also found in other studies in the martyr complex where the heroes find themselves faced with a choice between physical survival and moral success, from A Man for All Seasons (1966) to The Crucible (1996) and Hunger (2009). The latter film’s epic ethical argument between prisoner and priest in brusque, tart, Irish accents feels like close kin to McDonagh’s work, and though he lacks Steve McQueen’s gifts for alchemising his concerns into the raw expression of cinema yet, McDonagh remains clearer-headed about his hero’s confrontation with mortality. A sneaky piece of prefiguring sees Lavelle note two sketchy figures in Mícheál’s beach painting: Mícheál is bemused as to where they came from, suggesting they’re some kind of echo, but actually, of course, it’s presentiment. Otherwise, however, McDonagh steers far away from wrestling with the specifics of the material’s possible transcendental side. His concerns are worldly.
Calvary also resembles a thematic follow-up to Antonia Bird’s once-controversial Priest (1994), with its script by Liverpool Catholic writer Jimmy McGovern, which similarly set up a pair of committed, faithful, but unusual priests, one gay, the other a pulpit radical, to face the modern Pharisees. Calvary’s new prognostication of the ills the older films identified looks squarely at a time when doubt is a way of life, and presents the unusual notion of its protagonist as scapegoat and outcast in a society where he would once have been automatically venerated, or at least tolerated. McDonagh’s smart enough to understand why, too, whilst empathising squarely with his hero’s battered sense of commitment and humane interest.
McDonagh provides two deeply serious sequences that serve as pivotal moments, as Lavelle goes about the most important tasks before him as a priest and anchor the film and catalyse the darkening tone. The first comes with a very Dostoyevskian scene in which Lavelle goes to a prison to visit a former student of his, Freddie Joyce (Gleeson’s son Domhnall), who’s been imprisoned for life as a serial sex murderer. Joyce pathetically reports his desire to be hung in spite of the absence of a death penalty in Ireland, and speaks of fantasies about the afterlife when he’ll be reunited with his victims, purged of all his malicious urges, and begs of Lavelle an answer to the question of why, if God made him the way he is, he would not understand him. Lavelle answers with utmost consideration, “If God can’t understand you, no one can.” Later, he’s called to the hospital where Harte has lost his fight to save the life of a French tourist who was in a car crash. Lavelle sits with the tourist’s wife Teresa (Marie-Josée Croze) in a chapel, coaxing her through grief and doing his job’s ultimate function, acting as the midwife between states of existence, with unerring sensitivity. Lavelle encounters Teresa again at the point where his wavering resolve threatens to drive him from his town, and her deep gratitude and admiration arms him with new strength to return and face whatever fate has been allotted to him—to save a soul or give his life.
The way McDonagh’s distancing ironies and those of the characters’ are entangled might, with a less talented filmmaker, have caused too much friction against the material’s deadly earnest elements and considerations, but for the most part they work well in tandem, and with gathering power. McDonagh sharpens this to a beautifully nasty point when a man is shot after preaching detachment from the film’s vital central problem, followed by the shooter’s angry declaration, “Detach yourself from that!” The finale of Calvary is enormously powerful for precisely its invocation of this shedding of posture and confrontation with immediate reality, in terms of cause and consequence. More than that, it’s an unsparing climax that surprisingly validates not just the potential martyr’s feelings, but also those of the wrathful agent, who screams with a fury as natural and potent as the rolling storm swell crashing on the coast, “I was one of the lucky ones! There’s bodies buried back there!” McDonagh manages to complicate rather than polarise the morality inherent in the final confrontation, as the fury and pain of the would-be killer is depicted with such stirring force that it presents to the audience the possibility that not only Lavelle, but the audience itself is not so innocent, complicit if only by detachment from the evils that beset the world and dog others like demons. By meeting the challenges he sets himself with unremitting focus at last, McDonagh redeems his flaws and arrives at a genuinely compelling and relevant piece of cinema.
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Director: Anton Corbijn
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The entertainment world and fans of thoughtful, fine acting mourned mightily this past February when actor Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose at the age of 46. During a prolific career that encompassed small roles and large in crowd pleasers like Twister (1996) and Mission: Impossible III (2006), as well as serious-minded films like Capote (2005) and The Master (2012), Hoffman brought a complexity and intelligence to his creations that always made them memorable. A Most Wanted Man, his final film, was an apt one with which to end a career of great accomplishment thwarted by the weaknesses that flesh is heir to.
A Most Wanted Man promises an exciting story of international espionage from its opening sequence—a young, haggard-looking man dragging himself from the water at Hamburg, Germany and threading his way furtively through a lot of cars waiting overnight for the morning a ferry and finding one to sleep in. His entry into Germany has been observed by German intelligence and his identity confirmed as a Muslim rebel of Russian-Chechen background, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). What he is doing in Hamburg and how he will be dealt with becomes the concern of Günther Bachmann (Hoffman), the head of a small cell of intelligence operatives, whose low-key, painstaking tactics are at loggerheads with the punitive, action-oriented methods of Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), a heavy-handed colleague Günther openly ridicules. Günther’s approach wins out.
This development will be an enormous disappointment to the adrenalin junkies whose ideas about spy work have been shaped by the M:I, Bourne, and even James Bond franchises. However, fans of John le Carré, the author whose book formed the basis of this movie, will be right at home. Le Carré, the creator of George Smiley, a gray, anonymous member of Britain’s MI6, knows that spy work is more a drab waiting game than a thrill ride, a psychological gambit that preys insidiously on vulnerable informants and nervous targets. Although the powers that be—in this case, the Americans and Russians—have not abandoned brutal interrogation and imprisonment, Günther bucks the establishment to follow his leads upstream to what he hopes will be the heads of Islamist terrorist operations in the Middle East.
Günther and his team have gathered intelligence on a Muslim humanitarian named Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) who appears to be using a shipping company to divert a portion of relief supplies to Islamist groups to sell to fund arms purchases. Günther learns that Karpov is the son of a Russian official notorious for his brutality and criminal activities, and that he has come to Hamburg to seek help from a banker named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), whose father laundered money for the elder Karpov. Issa has a sizeable “inheritance” in Brue’s bank, but wants nothing to do with it—he only wants to be able to stay in the West and out of the reach of the Russians who tortured him. Günther uses his “friendly persuasion” to ensure Brue releases the money to Issa, who will then be persuaded by his attorney, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), to transfer the money to Abdullah. Günther plans to seize Abdullah after the transaction and persuade him to reveal the Islamists to whom he has been diverting resources, but he must persuade skeptical German and American intelligence officials, led by American agent Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), to go along with his plan.
There is abundant, real-world evidence that “extraordinary rendition,” an extraordinarily obtuse term for government-sponsored kidnapping and torture, is highly ineffective in extracting useful information from suspected terrorists, and that Günther’s methodical approach—combining a mild threat with offers of help in exchange for cooperation—works. Günther knows how and how much pressure to bring to bear to get his reluctant informants to go along with his plans; he even manages to bring Abdullah’s son Jamal (Mehdi Debhi) into his network. But the violence of 9/11 and the racial and religious hatred that has only grown in the ensuing years has left the major powers with itchy trigger fingers. Sullivan has already blown Günther’s entire network in Beirut with her cowboy tactics, forcing his removal to Hamburg; Günther doesn’t want to trust her, but he really has no alternative.
A Most Wanted Man is slow and methodical, just like Günther and his team, making for a sometimes too sedate ride. Moments that could have been amped for more tension with music or quick cuts, like Annabel’s capture by Günther’s team, play out with a low unease. It’s true to life, which is its virtue, but rather undramatic. We’re not sure whether or not to root for Günther, who uses repugnant techniques like kidnapping, surveillance technology, and coercion to “make the world a safer place.” Yet, anyone who has watched “Law & Order” or any of its offshoots will recognize the same techniques and have to own up to the fact that we tend to sympathize with the cops because they are almost always on the side of the angels as those shows are written. The ambiguity of Günther’s position is that we see the seams of his good cop/bad cop routine, an act he shares with his civilian aide-de-camp Irna (the criminally underused Nina Hoss), and virtually all of the characters he is manipulating are fairly well-intentioned people who are completely out of their depth in the world of geopolitical espionage.
For example, Dobrygin plays Issa as a damaged, haunted man who took up the Chechen cause against Russia because of his father’s brutality to his Chechen mother and who, through Islam, has tried to find inner peace from his past and the horrible torture he endured. It would be tempting to think of him as another Raskolnikov, except that his crimes are those of a psychologically vulnerable freedom fighter, not a student with theories about human nature and moral relativism. Rachel McAdam is brilliant as an idealistic public-service attorney who goes above and beyond for Issa. Her attempts to assert her authority are as weak as her concern for Issa is strong and motherly, though she threatens to pull focus from the other characters simply because she’s so pretty and photogenic. Dafoe is his usual excellent self, creating a somewhat weak character who is trying to redeem his business from its nefarious past one client at a time.
Hoffman, playing an obese smoker and drinker, fits the mold of the intelligent outsider who blends into the background—the perfect guise for a spy. It is much to Hoffman’s credit that he manages to retain some of our sympathy while arousing a bit of our scorn. Hoffman keeps Günther’s motives somewhat obscure—is he just another kind of cop or is the spy game something that he does as a strange kind of sport? He takes incredible pride in his work, perhaps to the detriment of his cause when he openly insults people he believes to be his inferiors, and his belief in the rightness of his methods places a considerable blind spot in his way. When faced with Sullivan’s abrupt, cutting authority, he tries to work her the same way he does his informants by allying his interests with hers. Wright makes the most of this small, but crucial role, reviving the Ugly American in all its nasty glory. Yet it’s also easy to see that Sullivan and Günther are cut from the same cloth and know the same tricks—what separates them may be down to the very different roads Germany and the United States took with regard to the dignity of the individual over the last 30 or so years.
We see a bit of the Muslim community, and it is as work-a-day and ordinary as any other ethnic enclave. Abdullah is thought to be a good man with just a little bit of bad, enough for more radical Islamists to exploit. That, to Günther, makes him a useful side street to the center of terrorist activity. Abdullah’s sincere sympathy for Issa softens our hearts to these men who seek some kind of healing for their community, but are misguided in their methods. Dobrygin and Ershadi’s one significant scene together is perhaps the most moving of the film; only the horror of Issa’s badly scarred back—partial proof to Brue that he is who he says he is—is more moving.
The final scene of the film offers Hoffman the catharsis, the break from the even-toned professional, we knew was inevitable. He howls, hating his world. From that howl, we hear perhaps an echo of what drove him to his fatal addiction, a man too sensitive to face the world without a potent veil before his face.
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Director: Steve James
By Marilyn Ferdinand
This is, perhaps, a review I ought not to write—after all, my acquaintance with the facts of Roger Ebert’s life and work isn’t exactly casual. I spent almost the whole of his career reading his reviews, watching his various TV shows, and attending his film festival. I owe my inspiration and approach to film criticism to him, more public acknowledgment than I might otherwise have gotten to his very occasional mentions of my work, and my absence of Second City Syndrome to the widespread love and influence he wielded as a critic who lived, worked, and died in my home town. Yet, when a local boy made good—Steve James—makes a documentary about another local boy made good—Roger Ebert—it would be unseemly for me not to comment on the effort. In fact, however, Chicago isn’t the home town of either James or Ebert—look to Hampton, Virginia, and Urbana, Illinois, for their earliest roots. Yet both embraced my Midwestern metropolis and found what so many other creative people have—a laissez-faire atmosphere that makes it possible to do the work in a generous and open fashion and avoid a lot of the competitive bullshit that closes off so many opportunities, both personally and professionally, in the nation’s large coastal cities.
Life Itself really isn’t Steve James’ kind of movie, and I’m not referring to the subject matter. His very people-focused documentaries offer biographies of sorts about his subjects, perhaps most comprehensively in Stevie (2002), which brought James farther into the frame than any of his movies, based as it was on his former Little Brother when James was in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program. James likes to spread into his subjects’ lives, take in the long horizon through his own observations. Life Itself, however, began as an end-of-life project for its subject—though neither Ebert nor James knew they would have only five months together, it was obvious to everyone that Ebert’s days were short.
James reveals in the film that the nine single-spaced pages of questions he sent to Ebert to answer in writing were too much for the failing film critic, who requested that he receive them one at a time. Late in the film, Ebert points James to his autobiography, Life Itself, to glean answers, revealing even more than the voiceover recitations from the book by Stephen Stanton, doing a very good job of imitating Ebert’s voice, that the movie was largely structured and scripted by Ebert’s own take on his life. I think it was very honest of James to name the film after the autobiography, but I’m not sure he needed to crib so much from Ebert’s TV show, particularly his tribute show to Gene Siskel, in creating the film. At many points, I felt as though I were watching Sneak Previews or the tribute show, the latter of which included seminal moments from the careers of the two critics, such as their appearance on The Tonight Show when Ebert panned Three Amigos (1986) to Chevy Chase’s face, the combative outtakes of them recording promo spots for the show, and Ebert being interviewed about why he did not get top billing in Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.
James tries to address some of the controversy surrounding the “thumbs” approach to movie reviewing with a series of talking-head interviews. Most cogent was his interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum, former chief film critic of Chicago’s alt-weekly, The Reader, and what he perceived as the demotion of serious film criticism that had arisen during the 1960s by the populist approach Siskel and Ebert popularized. (I’m not sure why James decided to do the interview in the lobby of the Music Box Theatre on Chicago’s North Side, but I’m always happy to see the old place, no matter the circumstances.) But he also recounts the appearance of Andrew Sarris, and especially Pauline Kael, on the print beat, pointing out that they were the darlings of those members of the film intelligentsia who were inclined to pay attention to the mainstream press—not surprisingly, both were based in New York City. A line that came from this part of the film, “Fuck Pauline Kael,” was said in reference to the people who held her in much higher esteem than they did Roger Ebert—who was, ironically, an acolyte of Kael’s approach. The line got a laugh, but a cheap one.
Was being and staying a Midwesterner the secret behind the enormous affection Ebert garnered from most of the people whose lives he touched? Life Itself doesn’t say so explicitly, but does mention a throwaway comment Ebert made when the New York Times came a-courtin’ following his Pulitzer Prize win—“I don’t want to learn new streets”—exactly the kind of no-nonsense sarcasm a Chicagoan might issue to a self-important “newspaper of record.” Ebert worked for the Chicago Sun-Times, the proletarian paper in town, and stayed true to his employer, his coworkers, his alma mater (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and his roots to the end of his life. James reports that as Ebert and his long-time TV partner Gene Siskel, a native Chicagoan and Yale graduate who worked for the Republican-leaning Chicago Tribune, became the most popular film critics in the country, the self-appointed tastemakers in Los Angeles and New York ignored them and refused to carry their syndicated program—until it was no longer possible to do so.
The film recounts Ebert’s enormously mature felicity with words, even while working on the college newspaper; his alcoholic “men’s club” at O’Rourke’s, Chicago’s late, lamented haunt for newspapermen and writers; his entry into AA and sobriety; his jaunts to the Cannes Film Festival; and, of course, his marriage to Chaz, the woman who saved him from the life of loneliness toward which he said he seemed to be headed and who kept him going in the darkest throes of his fight with cancer. James offers a clip from the Conference on World Affairs Ebert attended for many years in which he announces that he is very ill—the salivary-gland cancer he thought he beat had returned and gone into his jaw. James is unsparing in showing the results of the illness—the lower part of Ebert’s face swings freely, the skin no longer having a jawbone to anchor it.
It is in the footage of the day to day of Ebert’s final few months that James finds familiar ground, and it is here where the film really comes alive. Watching Ebert struggle to break free of his walker and wheelchair is grueling, but it also affirms how present he is in his life. When he comes home from the hospital, Chaz tries to stage-manage his ascent up the stairs, a cadre of home health workers at the ready. Ebert insists she give him his notepad to write some instruction or other; the couple’s power struggle continues for a couple of minutes, and Chaz finally relents. Ebert in his prime was a force of nature, a storyteller nobody ever interrupted, a critic of uncompromising honesty. He largely remained that man to the end, insisting on exerting his agency even in the most reduced circumstances. It’s easy to see how he could become so influential and champion so tirelessly the careers of filmmakers he believed in, from a faltering Martin Scorsese to promising young director Ramin Bahrani to Academy Award winner Errol Morris, whose first film, Gates of Heaven (1978), was dismissed by everyone but Ebert. That is what makes the single most affecting seconds of Life Itself so poignant. When James tries to press Ebert to type an answer to a question, we see his email response: “I can’t.”
I have read extravagant praise of this film as well as withering takedowns by critics and fans alike. Life Itself—like life itself—isn’t perfect, but it is a fitting tribute to a man who meant a lot to a lot of people. I think Ebert would have given it a big thumbs up.
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