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Director/Screenwriter: David Robert Mitchell
By Roderick Heath
David Robert Mitchell’s debut feature The Myth of the American Sleepover (2010) was a little gem of a film that revealed its creator as half in love with the classic canon of teenage rites-of-passage cinema and half sceptical, shambling, observational poet. Rejecting most of the usual overtones of such films, ranging from moral panic to slick fantasy, Mitchell instead adopted a dreamy, protean perspective that captured his young heroes on that most delicate of edge between childhood and adulthood and created a tone that was at once intimately realistic and like watching life unfold deep under water. It Follows, his second film, has gained plaudits and attention far wider than his debut, and like Mitchell’s first work, it represents dichotomous impulses, referencing with an amused smirk a swathe of bygone genre films of exactly the sort its young characters enjoy watching, and blending with his own, very specific cinematic sensibility. It Follows clearly belongs to a recent strand of lo-fi, stripped-down, spacy horror from Ti West and some other recent art house/genre crossbreeds; it also expands a growing body of work by up-and-coming filmmakers that patently reference and revere the genre cinema of the late ’70s and early ’80s, especially John Carpenter’s early oeuvre, whose throbbing, propulsive electronic scores and restrained, fluid camera style Mitchell quotes. Yet, It Follows feels unique, a contemporary horror film that feels even more connected with a type of haunting tale from the pages of musty Victoriana and the echoes of classical mythology, with a storyline that strongly recalls M. R. James’ “Casting the Runes,” which provided the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s classic Night of the Demon (1957).
One challenge Mitchell took on with It Follows and parlayed with elegance was to create as intense and unsettling experience as he could on a small budget and with limited technical means. The very opening is a single, extended shot that unfolds without camera move more sophisticated than simply pivoting on the spot: a young woman, Annie (Bailey Spry), emerges from her suburban home in Detroit in an agitated state, dashing around to the far side of the street and back, before fleeing in a car. Mitchell’s camera stands off but actually skewers his human subject like a butterfly collector’s pin, as it mimics the fixation of the strange, unseen force that pursues the desperate girl without resorting to that more familiar trick for suggesting malevolent presence—the handheld point-of-view shot. Annie drives to a remote patch of Lake Michigan shoreline and leaves a plaintive, heartfelt, frightened message in the event of her death for her parents with her cell phone. The film jumps to the next morning and a shot of her dead body torn and mangled into an obscene shape, but laid out for the camera like a diorama specimen.
The scene shifts to another, equally nondescript corner of Detroit, with Jay (Maika Monroe) as the focal point. Jay and her small gang of friends are eddying in that period between the end high school and the beginning of college or a job. Jay and her new boyfriend, Hugh (Jake Weary), go to a movie theatre to watch the portentously titled Charade (1963) and waste time before the show guessing who in the crowd each of them would trade places with. When Hugh suggests Jay has chosen a woman in a yellow dress hovering by the entrance, Jay looks for her, but can’t see her. Hugh becomes extremely agitated and demands they leave the theater, so they go to a diner instead. On a subsequent date, they have sex in Hugh’s car. As Jay reclines in postcoital distraction, Hugh sneaks up on her with a pad soaked in chloroform and cups it over her mouth until she falls unconscious. Jay awakens tied to a wheelchair in an abandoned, ruined office building, with Hugh trying to break through her panicky distraction to explain the strange and terrifying situation she’s now in. He claims that she’s going to be pursued by a demon that seems to be passed from person to person via sexual contact; it will kill its current target if it catches them and then resume pursuing whoever it followed immediately before. As an added sting, the demon constantly changes its appearance, often resembling former victims or taking on the forms of its prey’s loved ones. Clearly, Annie was Hugh’s last lover, and her death had set the demon back on his tail. Hugh keeps Jay captive long enough to see the demon and be confronted by its slow, remorseless progress, before cutting Jay loose and fleeing.
Jay reports the assault to the police, who determine only that Hugh was living under a pseudonym in an abandoned house in a decaying precinct of the city. After the entity tracks Jay through the corridors of her college, Jay’s sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi) flock to her house to comfort and protect her. During the night, stricken with sleeplessness, Jay goes downstairs and sits watching old movies with Paul, who has a mad crush on her but hasn’t gotten anywhere with her since early adolescence when he gave her her first kiss, but then dumped her for another girl. The sound of breaking glass in the kitchen sends Paul checking for an intruder. He sees nothing but a broken window, but when Jay enters the kitchen, she’s confronted by a tall and cadaverous-looking man. Jay retreats in frantic anguish to an upstairs room, pursued by the entity in various guises, all invisible to her companions, before climbing out the window and running for her life.
The notion of an otherworldly fiend that feeds on sexuality is an ancient one, speaking to a murky part of the human identity and its relationship with one of our most fundamental drives, and the horror film has long been regarded with suspicion from many quarters as a vehicle of conservative reaction, particularly when it comes to sexuality. Mitchell does seem to be encouraging his audience to approach his story as some sort of metaphor, for STDs or teen pregnancy or something else as PSA-worthy. Some sensed a similar cautioning in such AIDS-era films as the later Alien movies and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Yet, by film’s end, it seems plainer that Mitchell is baiting the viewer in this regard to make us bring our own sexual baggage to his story. In Sleepover, one of his chief achievements was to resensitise his viewers to the reality of youth and its simultaneous beauty and frailness to contrast the usual run of teen flicks where twenty-something models are cast for pornographic fantasies. Mitchell cast young actors in Sleepover who actually look young, and here, though his characters are slightly older, a similar method is at play, as Mitchell emphasises the physical and emotional awkwardness of his characters. An early scene where Jay looks at herself in a mirror in her underwear sees her beholding a new body that’s still finding definition, and its uses as vehicle of life, pleasure, and taunting appeal to others are still perplexing. A ball bounces off the bathroom window as she looks at herself, one of the film’s many moments of jarring oddness, and she goes to the window see who threw it. At first, it seems like a possible manifestation of the threat beginning to dog her, but instead it proves to have been a ploy by Paul to draw her to the window. Paul, in a manner all too familiar to many teen boys, is stranded in a state of desirous distance and perpetually unsated horniness, whilst Jay finds experience with older boys in a pretty adult world of dating and sex, one that bitten her in the darkest, most unpleasant way.
Hugh’s actions in passing along the curse, although logical and, in a way, benevolent—he drugged and tied her to show her the demon and make sure she believed him—is also a potent and distressing act of assault and violation, albeit one that comes after sex rather than before. Mitchell works in a sly joke, one Paul would understand too well, as Hugh breathlessly tells Jay to just find someone to pass the demon on to: “You’re a girl, it’ll be easier for you!” Jay’s slacker neighbour Greg (Daniel Zovatto) joins Jay and her pals as they track her down to a park where she sits in solitary pathos after abandoning her house, and together they delve into the mystery by first attempting to track down Hugh. They go to the house the police found he was living in, and Paul, idly flipping through a pile of porn mags left behind, finds a photo of him with Annie in his high school uniform. This lets them track him to through the school and learn his real name is Jeff. Confronted by Jay’s pals, who think he’s laid some heavy bullshit on her, Jeff squirms fearfully as they interrogate him in a park, and asks eventually if they see a girl who’s been approaching steadily through the conversation; the others casually and confusedly state they see her, too. Mitchell’s narrative constantly walks such a fine edge between droll diminuendo and ratcheting alarm, as any figure glimpsed in the vague distance could prove to be the demon—or just a casual passer-by. The demon recalls all those jokes about the lumbering Frankenstein’s Monster or the Mummy or Romero’s zombies as creations only dumb white people could possibly fall prey to. The thing’s slowness, however, proves to be a deceptive trait. Invisible to everyone but the intended victim, it can approach unnoticed and then spring with a sudden and remorseless force.
The haunting builds to a head as the young band flee to Greg’s parents’ lake house: lounging on the shore, a playfully distracted mood overtakes the gang, only for a young woman to slouch out of the woods and approach Jay from behind. Suddenly, from the viewpoint of the others, Jay’s hair seems to levitate spontaneously, and then she’s gripped and held in mid-air by the force. Paul strikes at the entity, only to be swatted away like a shuttlecock. Jay shoots the entity with a gun belonging to Greg’s father, but even this doesn’t stop it, as it transforms into a child to slip through a hole gouged in the side of the shed the gang hide in. Finally, Jay runs off from her friends and flees in a car, only to crash off the road in a quick swerve to avoid another vehicle. She awakens in hospital with a broken arm.
One of Mitchell’s most original and admirable inspirations here was to have created a supernatural agent which, though ethereal in nature, is tethered to set rules of physical manifestation. This touch is, again, in great contrast to the opportunism of many contemporary horror filmmakers who use supernatural themes as an excuse to assault the audience from any direction that suits their game. Mitchell is still able to wring such a creation for phobic potency, indeed perhaps even more so, as the figuration of the dread being that stalks with utter relentlessness does have the pungent aspect of something ripped out of a million nightmares. It can be outrun but never beaten, hindered but not halted; on it keeps coming, sleepless and unswerving when you’ve stopped running until that deadly little moment when you’re off your guard. Jeff theorises to Jay that it takes on the guise of people close to its victims to give an especially cruel piquancy to its hounding, and as the demon gets close to its prey, it often takes on the shape of a parent: one character is confronted by the demon as his mother and Jay later sees it as her father, the rotten scent of incestuous intent permeates the proceedings as it becomes clear that the demon rapes its victims whilst wringing the life out of them in a travesty of familial roles.
In this regard, It Follows echoes back to Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), which likewise contemplated adolescent sexuality via a dream-state landscape inhabited by potential lovers and oppressive relatives who keep morphing disturbingly into one another, as if contemplating the shift of roles encountered in each life stage and also the troubling way those most intimate with us mould our characters and sexuality. But Mitchell’s chilly, anxious vision couldn’t be more different to Jires’ playful disassembly of such Freudian tropes. The leafy environs of banal suburban streets instantly call to mind Halloween (1978), whilst It Follows is one of a string of recent films, including Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Ryan Gosling’s Lost River (2014), to exploit Detroit as a surreal location, a part-ghost town where the decay and detritus of the industrial age echoes with a haunted sense of defeat, something usually associated with the old Gothic horror film’s castles and cemeteries. Mitchell’s essential conceptualism recalls that of Val Lewton’s famous series of horror films with their suggestive approach to horror, particularly the psychologised viewpoint of Cat People (1941) and even its odd sequel Curse of the Cat People (1944), which which use the mood of horror cinema to strike at subtler understandings of the psyche. The problem here, however, is that Mitchell actively avoids making the demon subject to ambiguity: Annie’s ugly fate and Jeff’s introduction of Jay to the demon quickly confirm the reality of the monster—which is fair enough. Mitchell states outright that he’s making a monster movie, however artful, perhaps understandably when just about every indie genre crossbreed these days specialises in some kind of reality game. Mitchell wants his demon and the danger it brings to be undeniable on a corporeal and immediate level, his concern not the mind, but the body.
Mitchell’s sinuous, distanced approach to shooting works in sympathy with his tale and also at a slight remove from it: whilst following his characters in the moment, he avoids the techniques of heightened immediacy so common in contemporary genre filmmaking, preferring to to read his characters and their actions from without in alien manner. Sleepover displayed the detachment of an ethnographer studying social ritual and a distracted poet noting oddball asides, and It Follows works with a similar quality. Throwaway flourishes of plot import, like noting the newspapers and comic books taped over the windows of Jeff’s abandoned house as part of an initially mysterious but soon all-too-clear purpose, merge with wistful asides like watching Jay place stripped blades of grass on her forearm or her habit of drifting in her backyard pool—idle habits of distraction that suggest Jay’s difficulty dealing with the moment and capturing that period of youth when reality isn’t quite real. After Jay’s hospitalisation, Mitchell’s camera drifts by the windows of the hospital noting individuals and pairs of people engaged in their own little worlds of cause and effect, from flirtation to dying, before settling on Jay’s room where Greg is making love to her. This proves to be both an act of selfless friendship to end her persecution that is also an artful way of Greg getting his end in, whilst Jay lolls in the confused act of sex that blends pragmatic dispassion and real attraction. I was reminded here of an epiphany found in Suzanne Collins’ original The Hunger Games novel (completely missed by the lacklustre film version) that depicted its heroes engaging in mock behaviour that shades into the real thing, with the understanding that much of teenage discovery occurs in a similar fashion, acts undertaken for their own sake under the guise of some assumed part.
Mitchell’s camerawork evinces a sinuous respect for space and physical context and a concision of effect that’s rare in contemporary filmmaking. This approach that pays off in his suspense sequences, as the drama depends entirely on understanding of where the demon is at any one time in relation to the characters, what form it’s taking, and, importantly, its invisibility to others. The battle at the beach house sees Mitchell shoot the crucial moment in a long shot, the blandest perspective available to the filmmaker, and turns it into a space in which utterly weird things occur, from Jay being gripped by the invisible entity to Paul striking at thin air only to be shunted away out of shot. Mitchell’s melding of his early art house vision and nuts-and-bolts genre suspense mongering through It Follows is generally successful, but cumulatively, the film adds up to less than it should have. Just why is hard to identify. The climactic scene in which Jay and her friends try to lure the demon into a swimming pool to electrocute it recalls the worm-turns moments in Wes Craven’s entries, as the young folk rise to the challenge of defeating the entity. The demon, now in the guise of Jay’s father, instead of venturing into the water after Jay, hurls the various electrical objects the gang have arranged around the pool over at her. Mitchell stages this sequence well, his calm filmmaking breaking into a harum-scarum mesh of coinciding and conflicting actions as Paul accidentally wings Taya as he tries to shoot the demon, whilst Jay tries to dodge all the blunt objects thrown at her. But this climax proves ungainly and anticlimactic, and doesn’t seem to have been that well thought through by either the characters or the writer-director. The pool is, of course, too large to be electrified by such small currents, whilst the demon itself proves hardly fazed by water, which begs the question of why it goes through such an oddly clumsy exercise of trying to kill Jay from afar.
In fact, that shot of Jay and Greg in the hospital feels like the actual climax to what concerns Mitchell, his fascination with human behaviour. The ultimate failure of It Follows, however, is wound frustratingly in with the most distinctive qualities in Mitchell’s approach to his material. Whereas the outside-looking-in approach of Sleepover suited his object there, here it leaves his protagonists lacking the ornery vividness that gives this kind of horror film peculiar kick—think back to gabby PJ Soles in Halloween or everyone in Scream (1995). Where Mitchell was so good with younger teens, these older subjects are a tad ill-defined and blowsy. It’s very hard to believe someone could actually write a film about teenagers stalked by a sex monster where the teens don’t ponder just what kind of sex draws the demon. Would it bother for a blow-job? Anal? Would it follow lesbians? If this had happened to me and my friends in our late teens we’d have all been killed by the demon whilst arguing such matters. For a film that takes on such a subject, It Follows is restrained and resists trashy impulses to a degree that’s passing excessive. Mitchell’s subject demands a crazier, messier sensibility, a sense of dark eroticism.
Mitchell’s deconstructive assault on a much less structured genre when he took on teen flicks worked because it suited an aimless, rambling mode of experience. Here he never quite lets his characters bloom as independent beings; we don’t really know much more about Jay by the end than at the beginning. It Follows is in part a fable about evolving character in which Jay develops into a woman who won’t pass on her problems to others, a lesson she learns the hard way as she witnesses the demon going after Greg, and Paul, who, unlike Greg, believes in the demon and steps up to the plate to shoulder her troubles, too. Both, although given chances—Jay encounters a bunch of partying frat boys on a boat, whilst Paul drives by prostitutes with an assessing eye—seem to retreat from these options. Instead the film follows the couple walking hand in hand up a street with a figure in the background possibly tracking them. The demon now in Greg’s form? Talk about relationship baggage.
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Director: Colin Trevorrow
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers…
I was just a little too old when the original Jurassic Park came out. My youthful obsession with dinosaurs had faded, and if it had been made a few years earlier when my fragile young mind was cramming itself with The Land That Time Forgot (1974) or Baby…Secret of the Lost Legend (1985) then I surely would have watched it until it became coded in my DNA. My just-teenaged, would-be sophisticate self watched it and felt that Steven Spielberg’s school of cinematic wonderment was running on fumes: his shift back to serious historical dramas seemed nascent in a film whose staging and shooting is often half-hearted from the man who made Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). It did have a handful of admittedly classic Spielbergian moments, like the first glimpse of the revived dinosaurs, and the terrific set-piece that is the Tyrannosaur’s first break-out. My opinion was rather irrelevant in the face of those kids who were precisely the right age for it, and the parents who went along with the ride, making it the biggest-grossing film ever for a time, and unlike too many of the FX-driven blockbusters that followed it, most of them have retained a deep affection for it. I preferred Spielberg’s follow-up, The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), an extended doodle from the great filmmaker that embraced the horror movie-like possibilities of the material to a surprisingly impish degree, whilst also invoking its own absurdity. Nonetheless I’ve come to like the series overall a lot more in recent years, and even Joe Johnston’s undercooked third instalment from 2000 has moments of pleasure. Spielberg’s commentary on his own unease as a successful showman, for one thing, emerges much more strongly in the original today. And of course, there was so much Jeff Goldblum: his two turns as wiseacre mathematician Ian Malcolm embodied that rarest of creatures, the intellectual action hero, a walking insta-commentary on the drama unfolding about him, and something like the arrival of geek culture in mainstream cinema.
Moreover, the essence of Jurassic Park as an idea spoke readily and clearly to anyone who’s ever dreamed of seeing a dinosaur in the flesh and indeed to anyone who’s ever pined for reality to be even stranger than it is. Whilst I think it’s still far from Spielberg’s best variation on the theme, Michael Crichton’s novel provided him with perhaps the purest metaphor for such yearning he was ever likely to find. Crichton’s novel was actually something of a rehash for that successful literary entrepreneur, having used basically the same idea in his semi-classic 1974 film Westworld, where, as with his later, even more successful brainchild, he combined the theme of fantasies unleashed by hubris with an old-fashioned but newly relevant cautionary paradigm about the dangers of playing about with the building blocks of life. Jurassic World bears a heavy weight of expectation in reviving this peculiar, beloved fantastic zone and the fascinatingly diverse reactions to it have struck me as so erratic and vehement that it makes me wonder whether or not this seemingly uncomplicated material has a deeper relationship with what we bring to it than I suspected. Part of the power of the material lies in the way it found a way to manifest something wonderful and dreadfully primal in an otherwise very ordinary contemporary world. There are no superheroes, no complex world-building, and the material’s rules must hew reasonably close to those of the everyday. The genre patterns evoke classic safari flicks like Hatari! (1963) more than Godzilla (1954). This is also a franchise built, like it or not, around the threat of people being eaten by vicious animals, and occasionally the fulfilment of that threat.
Director Colin Trevorrow made the minor but witty and enjoyable indie film Safety Not Guaranteed (2012) and found himself chosen for his blend of droll humanism with a sense of ardent fantasticality, to step into Spielberg’s shoes. That must have been a daunting moment. He’s not even the first. Johnston, who had once been a crew member on Raiders, made a career as the second-string Spielberg, but his entry was tellingly basic by comparison in constructing suspense sequences and glib, thin storyline and characters, thrusting this material back to its ‘50s B-movie roots. And big Hollywood cinema is currently crowded with directors nominating themselves as Spielberg’s natural heir apparent, including recent stabs by Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird and more. What does this little upstart have they haven’t? Jurassic World doesn’t exactly retcon the second two films out of existence – they took place on the “B site” island of Isla Sorna anyway, rather the original park location Isla Nublar – but it does ignore them, and only fleetingly references events in the original. Those events are essentially regarded as teething difficulties in getting John Hammond’s dream up and running, even part of its special mythos (the Tyrannosaur exhibit even references it as part of the show) rebranded as, yes Jurassic World. There have been upgrades aplenty, such as they are: where Richard Kiley narrated exhibits before, now it’s Jimmy Fallon. Live animal feedings to the Tyrannosaurus have become the subject of frenzied iPhone filmings. Bored, spotty youths listlessly man the park rides. Hammond’s death in the interim has seen ownership of the park pass on to another dreamer-entrepreneur, Simon Misrani (Irrfan Khan), an Indian Richard Branson-esque billionaire.
Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) runs the park day-to-day and digs up sponsors for the park’s new exhibits, which have to be unveiled every few years because of an unexpected problem with the park’s basic purview: dinosaurs have gone from staggering must-see to a still-privileged but familiar attraction, so they need to up the wow factor at regular intervals. The joke here isn’t belaboured, but still clear enough. The original Jurassic Park, amongst other things, was the starting gun for the CGI age, and the necessity of outdoing the last spectacle is a commonplace expectation of current tent-pole films. The park’s solution to this problem has been to get the wizards in the lab, led by Dr Wu (B.D. Wong, the only returning cast member of the original), to concoct a new dinosaur species. The resulting cross-breed is a big, mean, dextrous creature glimpsed hiding in the leafy foliage of its concrete bunker, given the focus group-friendly name Indominus Rex. Claire’s business-focused life faces a speed bump, as her two nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach Mitchell (Nick Robinson) are visiting the park, with Claire charged to watch over them for a few days, by her sister Karen (Judy Greer) and her husband Scott (Andy Buckley). Gray is young and dinosaur-happy, whilst Zach is older and too preoccupied with girls to care much about anything else. Claire is too busy to spend time with the lads anyway, and gets her assistant, the glam but hapless Zara (former Merlin Morgana Katie McGrath), to shepherd them about the park instead. The boys quickly give her the slip and explore the park on their own. Meanwhile, in the pens of the Velociraptors, former Navy SEAL turned animal trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his team including Barry (Omar Sy) have been carefully raising and educating these ingenious, ruthless killers to see if they can be tamed at all.
Both this operation and the creation of the Indominus Rex prove however to have been okayed by Hammond’s genetic engineering firm InGen, which only leases the products of its labours to Masrani’s operation: InGen operative Vic Hoskins (Vincent D’Onofrio), another former soldier, sniffs around Owen’s operation with interest, quickly making it clear he’s hoping to used tamed raptors for military purposes. Soon it emerges too that Indominus Rex, in spite of Wu’s insistence that it was created purely to satisfy Masrani’s showmanship needs, might also have been concocted with the same purpose in mind. But the animals have their own ideas. Called over to assess the Indominus Rex’s pen, Owen finds the creature has vanished, claw marks on the walls suggesting it might well have climbed out when no-one was looking. When Owen and other keepers venture into the pen, they realise something even worse is happening: the creature is hiding, having created a strategy to escape and lured them in. With a quick, terrifying charge, the monster squeezes through the closing gate, devours a couple of keepers, and Owen only avoids the same fate by dousing himself in petrol, hiding from the creature’s sense of smell. With Indominus out stalking the byways of the park, Claire and Misrani are forced to call in the crowds and send out the park security team to hunt the beast down. Soon however they find they’re up against a creature that’s more than a toothy critter, but an unholy chimera capable of far more than just stomping on folks, blessed with ruthless intelligence and chameleonic abilities. Meanwhile Zach, in a moment of teen bravado, decides to take himself and Gray in their bubble-like safari vehicle out through a hole mysteriously punched in a perimeter fence…
Jurassic World extends a ‘90s franchise, and repeatedly evokes the originals although it sidesteps much of their legacy. But it represents more of a mash-up of classic ‘80s Hollywood sci-fi and action flicks of which Jurassic Park was really a late entry, in a way that many of the creators of those films, including Spielberg himself, John Carpenter, James Cameron et al, would readily recognise. Much of their genre filmmaking was just as referential of favoured models as anything Quentin Tarantino has ever made, but opposing the post-modernist reflexes where the quotations are demarcated, but are instead carefully contoured in narratives. InGen has become a Weyland-Yutani-esque company, and some of the action scenes directly evoke Aliens (1986). Owen’s characterisation, as a scruff who may well prefer animals to people after being left more than a little alienated by his combat service, evokes many a cool rough-trade loner from the time (down to living in a trailer and working on his motorcycle), and even recalled to my mind John Heard’s character in Paul Schrader’s oddball remake of Cat People (1982). There’s even a dash of Chuck Russell’s The Blob (1988) in there, as the apparently random eruption of monstrosity proves to be engineered, with some of that film’s giddy, antisocial pulp energy, if not its outrageous gore. Trevorrow tips his hat jokily to Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), as a dead Great White is fed to the monstrous marine Mosasaurus that is one of the park’s main attractions. But perhaps Jurassic World owes most to Jaws 3-D (1983), the amusingly trashy sequel that was itself heavily reminiscent of authentic ‘50s B-movie Revenge of the Creature (1955) in exploiting the notion of captive monsters unleashed in fun parks. Jaws 3-D, which was directed by Joe Alves, production manager on the first two Jaws films, took the idea of carnival barking as a base aesthetic for the film. Trevorrow does a similar thing in the early scenes of Jurassic World, entering and beholding the park with the same breathless sense of discovery as Gray and Zach, surveying its expanses in swooping, shiny helicopter shots, filming kids and adults enjoying the attractions in a manner that does a far better job than Bird’s Tomorrowland managed at recreating the tony vibe of a great ad selling childhood fantasy in one grand package.
Jurassic World also highlights the original story’s recycling of Westworld by going the whole hog and giving us the fully working theme park that never got off the ground in the original. This demands some tweaks to the timeline, including that Hammond had decided by the end of the first film not to try any longer. Perhaps the almighty dollar demanded a change of mind. Masrani, like Hammond himself, is portrayed as a generally decent guy with blind spots, rather than a blunt corporate villain. He is prone to the over-confidence of success: he’s introduced learning to fly his own helicopter, a detail that’s both an important plot point and a commentary on his character, with his inability to completely master both the complex systems of genomes and flight, jobs that can’t be multitasked or mastered with people skills, ultimately conspiring to destroy him. Claire combines a couple of well-worn character traits from some of Spielberg’s films: like Peter in Hook (1991) she’s a workaholic, and like Alan Grant in the first Jurassic Park, she’s a dedicated professional awkward around kids, who bring the threat not of domesticity but of instability. For Spielberg those themes were rather more personal than they seemed at first, conveying his concern that his own love for filmmaking, not just directing but managing a whole, important infrastructure of production, might cause him to neglect his burgeoning family. For Trevorrow these are mere pop tropes to evoke. This is most awkward when Gray’s anxiety of their parents’ impending divorce is suddenly brought up, as he alerts Zach about what’s going on, only to then drop the theme: the theme of familial anxiety, so central to Spielberg and one of the rawest nerves he always touched in his heyday, is raised but only half-heartedly pursued. Trevorrow does work in one good touch: when informed that his folks might be divorcing, Zach pouts and worries for a moment, and then says most of his friend’s parents are split too, and you can see by his look the battle between nascent adult bravado and childish fear.
Mid-film the boys discover the ruins, lost in the jungle and half-buried, of the original Jurassic Park’s central post, littered with lost memorabilia and technology, down to the famous “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth” banner that set the seal on the original experience, quickly repurposed as fuel for a burning torch. Trevorrow here literalises the sensation so many reboot franchise episodes have of being built on the ruins of previous successes, replete with references left lying about like so much refuse, and give a metaphor for his own film that doubles as neat character business, as the two boys hurriedly patch together a working jeep and use it dash away to safety. Trevorrow’s scant filmography might well render moot what his own interests here are other than honouring old movies he loves, but there is a clear recurring motif from Safety Not Guaranteed, manifest in the screwball-flavoured romance of uptight office female and slightly asocial male, a jokey variation on the call-of-the-wild theme that the rest of the film purveys rather more urgently: Safety Not Guaranteed was far more free-wheeling riff on romantic comedies as it was on sci-fi, and whilst no-one would pretend Jurassic World is sophisticated as a character comedy, this reflex of the director is more than readily apparent throughout. Owen is as wobbly at human socialisation as he is accomplished at it with raptors, but then so is Claire, who wears her business suit like armour plate; so of course both are thrown in together in trying to extract Zach and Gray from the park, heading into a version of The African Queen (1951) with giant lizards. Claire, although sharing traits with Grant from the original, is closer in spirit to a gender-swap version of Gennaro, the lawyer who was unceremoniously eaten in Spielberg’s film but in Crichton’s book went through an enjoyable mouse-to-lion growth from corporate dweeb to dinosaur hunter. Probably the film’s funniest vignette comes when Claire, in silent retort to Owen’s scepticism over her being able to follow him on a jungle hunt in high heels, quickly gives herself an action chick makeover in the manner of dozens of plucky heroines only to be met by Owen’s bewildered stare.
Howard hasn’t thus far had the career she might have, considering both her pedigree and her talent: after catching eyes as the chief salvation of The Village (2004), her performance in Kenneth Branagh’s little-seen but marvellous As You Like It (2006) was a coup of the kind I don’t easily forget. She’s been hovering on the edge of stardom since, and she gives a mischievous performance as a square character: Howard’s Claire, slightly ridiculous, largely delicious, is very much the heart of the film, a not-quite-normal person forced to operate far beyond her experience and finds herself adept. Backwards and in heels, too. Pratt’s outright play for the kind of Harrison Ford–esque status many feel he could obtain after Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) comes very close to succeeding, although Owen lacks the kind of truly defining gesture to separate him from the pack, unless it’s his unexpected empathy for animals – or the douchey air-humping gesture he makes to Claire’s eye-rolling disdain, a moment that again recalls Trevorrow’s debut, showing there’s a bit of a naughty little boy in Owen. Which is perhaps why Zach and Gray, also naughty little boys, gravitate to him so quickly. Pratt’s large, emotionally communicative eyes undercut the potential macho pomposity in the role. When the first Jurassic Park came out much of this business about genetic science was just gaining credibility: now when D’Onofrio’s Hoskins speaks of the dinosaurs as specific property of InGen it’s clear the filmmakers are thinking about the efforts of corporations to patent their discoveries in genetics, with the implied riposte that no living system obeys legalese. Malcolm’s chaos theorising in the original made a similar point, but here it’s Owen who voices the same ideas in a more flesh-and-blood manner as he contemplates such questions in terms of animal behaviour patterns, warning that Indominus might lack socialisation to a point that will make it intolerantly violent (it ate the sibling the genetic engineers provided with, a dark rhyme to the alternate theme of the Mitchell brothers’ mutual reliance). The film’s emotional crux follows hard upon as the duo come upon a brachiosaur mauled by Indominus, a moment that echoes the scene with the Triceratops in the original except this time with the immediacy of an animal’s pain and death making it clear that the dinosaurs are indeed animals and not mere exhibits, in the gentlest variation on the elsewhere more urgently portrayed alternations of understanding and inimical attitude between life-forms.
The ins and outs of this plot, as Hopkins asserts authority over situation to further his own ends, including spiriting Wu away, are occasionally clunky (and obviously intended to set up further franchise expansion, in a not-so-salutary way), but then that’s true of most of the films Jurassic World sets out to honour. Hopkins’ crew of bullying heavies moves in to take over the park’s control room to ply their solution to the problem, but when it fails they pack up and depart again with equally efficient save-ass speed, leaving Claire’s chief tech nerds Lowery (Jake Johnson) and Vivian (Lauren Lapkus) to pick up the pieces. The story hinges on the question as to whether Owen can maintain the kind of control over the raptors Hopkins expects he can, and emotionally blackmails him into trying his plan of setting the raptors on Indominus. Except that the big bad proves to have raptor in her make-up, and swiftly turns the creatures on their masters in the dark forest for a frenzied repast. To be frank, I enjoyed this infinitely more than the year’s far more critically lauded retro-rocker, Mad Max: Fury Road, which struck me as two hours of fan service in exactly the wrong way, a reductio ad absurdum of action cinema to just running and shooting, for all the technical swagger. Jurassic World doesn’t skimp on fan service either, but its set pieces and cheer-along touches, like Owen riding off to battle on motorcycle with his gang of raptors, and the finale’s all-in monster brawl, have clear narrative purpose and spin off from the story with the sort of rolling semi-logic that Spielberg always made the guiding principle of his films, rather than simply and cynically reducing story to pretext. In fact, I enjoyed this more than any summer blockbuster-season film since Pacific Rim (2013). Perhaps that exposes my still-guttering love for behemoths smashing things up, but both films share a crucial feeling, as if they are the products of filmmakers trying to articulate real affection for the material.
Trevorrow has actually done what those other, more famous pretenders to the Amblin throne have failed to do, and recreate the tone, seemingly naïve and properly breathless, of the old-school blockbuster. His direction has pop energy that doesn’t strain to modish (little wobble-cam or incoherent editing). The film has characters, or at least caricatures who vibrate effectively in this setting. It has a structure, a set-up, complication, and a proper climax. It doesn’t trip over itself trying to be cleverer than the audience, try to paste over a lack of inspiration with glib humour like Pratt’s last hit vehicle Guardians of the Galaxy, or get bogged down with pseudo-intellectualisms (see the works of Nolan, Christopher). It is old-fashioned, generally in the best way. Trevorrow gives the film an edge that wasn’t uncommon in the kinds of ‘80s fare he’s honouring, as pterosaurs attack hapless funfair visitors in a sequence recalling The Birds (1963). Poor Zara finishes up becoming object of a tug-of-war between Pteranodon and Mosasaurus in a surprisingly intense moment of life-and-death struggle that ends grimly. This isn’t quite a horror moment in an otherwise juvenile-friendly epic – the only real bloodshed seen in the film comes when a more expected victim falls under the raptors – but it does signal a return of the edge this sort of fare used to have, to the sort of flourish Spielberg once served up easily in his early Indiana Jones films: the fantasy has a dark side, and the dark side has teeth. Although the mayhem here is more expansive than in Spielberg’s entries, moreover, Trevorrow is much fonder of his main characters and serves fewer of them up for lunch, even going so far as to actually, self-consciously avoid that most sadly common trope of this sort of thing, killing off the major black character.
Trevorrow tweaks this all-hell-breaking-lose aspect until it starts to recall The Simpsons episode “Itchy and Scratchyland”, that show’s scabrous lampoon-cum-celebration of Crichton’s tales. Of course, this never really becomes satiric, but offers rather a light sheen of sarcasm that reflects a readiness nonetheless to contemplate the “rollercoaster” ideal that initially defined the modern blockbuster as an actual theme park attraction, plied smartly but not smart-assed. More vitally, too, Trevorrow and fellow screenwriters ply a concept that Gareth Edwards tried to articulate but failed to properly dramatize in his take on Godzilla last year, that of its monsters as nobly self-sufficient, even heroic in their utterly natural way, in a manner that does not necessarily respect humankind. Although Owen’s bond with the raptors does ultimately snap back into effect, it becomes clear that even those fleet killing machines can’t handle Indominus alone, forcing Claire to go fetch a bigger set of teeth for a finale that’s gleeful in satisfying the audience with a grand display of dinosaur tag-team wrestling, the lawless ferocity of these creatures turned to good use. Jurassic World is definitely not perfect. Although I appreciate that the film has a first act, that act is not always that elegant in unspooling, and Hopkins’ subplot is just never that well-handled, even his regulation icky end. But goddamn it, I liked this film, down to its last line, a capper that could indeed have come of the kinds of Hawksian comedy-adventures that lies deep in this film’s DNA strand. Jurassic World has been an instantaneous, enormous hit, and for once that’s fairly deserved in my mind.
Only next time, if there must be more sequels, please bring plenty of Jeff Goldblum.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Brett Haley
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Media are very big on groups. Every generation has to have a name—the newest one is Generation Z (posing the question of what to do about alphabet names now that the end has been reached, and quickly). My generation, the Baby Boomers, has been moving into retirement for the past several years, and even though moviemakers have never gotten along that well with elderly subjects, because we are just about the last large group that attended movie theatres regularly, it makes sense that exhibitors would be interested in programming new films about our time of life. We’ve had everything from Alzheimer’s movies like Away from Her (2007) and Still Alice (2014) to The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and its sequel The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015). You’ll forgive me if I don’t jump for joy at these choices—vital women vanishing into a vast blankness and quirky Brits doddering about being cranky and precious. The few films of substance about old age, such as Time to Die (2007), A Simple Life (2011), and Amour (2012)—all foreign films—also seem to care more about our deaths (with dignity!) than our lives.
I’ll See You in My Dreams is that rare film that takes an interest in the lives of retired Baby Boomers, a new breed of youthful elderly, with a particular emphasis on one woman, Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner), and the fabric of her life lived outside the mainstream. Carol received a large life insurance payout when her lawyer husband died in a plane crash when she was about 50. Not enjoying her career teaching reading and “subjects no one else wanted,” she decided to opt out of the rat race. Now 70, she lives in comfort with her dog Hazel in an attractive, but relatively modest Southern California house with a pool, waking up to a 6 a.m. alarm, taking her morning pills, reading the paper edition of The New York Times with her coffee, and playing cards and golf with her friends Sally (Rhea Perlman), Rona (Mary Kay Place), and Georgina (June Squibb), who live in a retirement community. Throughout, she drinks a lot of very good chardonnay and never has more than a couple of items on the “to do” whiteboard in her kitchen.
Although Carol’s husband died long ago, the film reminds us that death is part of the soundtrack of even comfortable, active people after they have entered the red zone of the life cycle. Before we have a chance to get to know Hazel, Carol must have him euthanized. Only a small comment to him at the very beginning of the film—“Did you have a good night?”—lets on that he has been unwell, and then only in retrospect. The film spares us nothing of this sad duty, as Carol sits next to her companion while the vet (Aarti Mann) administers a sedative and then the drug that will “stop his heart.” Director Haley moves his camera outside the procedure room, observing Carol’s grief from a discreet distance through a window.
In the wake of this fresh loss, Carol’s life is primed for a change. A new employee of her pool service, Lloyd (Martin Starr), shows up to clean her pool, and after an awkward beginning, the two begin a tentative friendship. Lloyd tells Carol he lives with his mother after finding that the only use he has been able to find for his degree in poetry is writing lyrics for songs he likely will never record. He notices a photo of Carol singing in a group. She says she gave it up long ago when she got married and had a daughter. He wonders how she could give up something that has the ability to make everything fall away—having a peak experience, living in the moment, these are the things Lloyd hopes to achieve. Carol knows better—such moments are elusive, even illusory, and not worth throwing a life away to experience. It’s hard to know if Carol is truly bitter about giving up performing or whether she’s trying to slap some sense into a young man whose life could pass him by if he keeps running after something so insubstantial. In turn, his very interest in her—and it truly is exceptional that a 30-year-old would choose to spend time with a retiree, even one as attractive as Blythe Danner—awakens her to possibilities for her own life, including a romance with Bill (Sam Elliott), a handsome new resident of the retirement community.
In other hands, the above scenario would make for a light, possibly distasteful romcom about a cougar who finds happiness with an age-appropriate man and passes her younger man off to her daughter. Fortunately, this is not that movie. Blythe Danner is the glowing core of this expectation-defying film, and the mere casting of her in this knockout role comments on the fact that she had a career before she became “Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom.” Her every instinct seems sharper than ever—a tearful, but dignified farewell to her beloved pet, stammering incredulousness at the spectacle of speed dating, the sparkle at seeing Bill having lunch at a table across from hers and her matter-of-fact acquiescence to his very forward invitation to dinner. She’s a no-nonsense person, a bit cold for having put herself on autopilot for so many years, but clearly engaged with her friends and open to offering up details of her life if asked. When she accompanies Lloyd to a karaoke night and sings “Cry Me a River,” the audience on screen and off are astonished by her lovely voice and able interpretation. Who knew? Who indeed. Carol’s like a lot of older folks—we’re eager to share our lives and talents with others, but have a hard time finding people who are interested.
In this regard, Lloyd is a very refreshing creation played with open sincerity by Starr. He isn’t practical or driven. He knows he’s a little too old to believe in the endless possibilities most young people think will be open to them forever, but he can’t quite let go of his romantic ideals and so avoids getting a job with a future. He may be self-deprecating and a bit of a slacker, but he has a genuine humanity. In Carol, he recognizes what he thinks is a kindred spirit and someone who needs rescuing just as much as he does. She drinks, after all, and invites a pool boy into her house, though not into her bed—another cliché that never happens in this movie; indeed, the movie upends that cliché by having Lloyd appear at Carol’s door one morning, only to find Bill there having breakfast after a night of lovemaking. Lloyd appears disappointed, perhaps romantically, but more likely because he realizes Carol won’t have time for him.
Beyond the basics, we don’t really learn very much about anyone in this film other than Carol. This is a bit of a weakness considering the incredible cast at Haley’s disposal, but Place, Perlman, Squibb, and Elliott offer perfect sketches of their characters’ personalities and how they all fit together. The scenes in which the women are together playing cards, having lunch, getting high on medical marijuana, and deciding to go to Iceland because they can are very true to how long-term friends accept each other’s differences and hold each other up in the face of life’s travails. Sexy Bill is a character that would be dodgy if he and Carol were 20 or 30 years younger. I’d say Bill was giving her the bum’s rush, but they aren’t young, and time won’t wait for them to get to know each other properly before they decide that they are compatible and could be happy together. The conditioning of a lifetime kicks in very quickly, and they start thinking about a future together after only a couple of dates.
The final act of the film becomes a reckoning for Carol. Her daughter (Malin Akerman) comes to visit, and it is then that Carol acknowledges freely what was most important to her in her life. It wasn’t what Lloyd wanted for her or what her friends and Bill tried to push on her. It was her daughter and the love she had for her husband. Old age involves many diminishments, but it’s a time when we can finally be honest with others and ourselves. Danner, whose husband of 33 years, Bruce Paltrow, died in 2002 (family photos on the mantel of Carol’s home are shots of Danner and Paltrow), brings her understanding of love and loss in its many facets to this film. Her bravery and commitment provide an unforgettable portrait of a woman both older and wiser who surprises herself and us with the largeness of her heart.
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Director: George Miller
By Roderick Heath
Mad Max (1979) was a weird and unexpectedly popular film made by George Miller, a young doctor who turned to filmmaking in his spare time during his residency training. Miller had already revealed an antic talent and gory sense of humour with his short film Violence in the Cinema, Part 1 (1971). His first feature evidently aimed to transplant the ’70s craze for car chase movies into the Aussie landscape, a smart commercial move considering that adulation of the car was and is one of the nation’s major religious movements. Miller and his initial cowriter James McCausland went a step further than the usual run of car chase flicks pitting redneck cops against raffish criminals. Perhaps borrowing a little from A Clockwork Orange (1971), Damnation Alley (1976), and Peter Weir’s The Cars that Ate Paris (1974), Miller set the film in a hazily futuristic time of a decayed social order where the roads were battlegrounds for marauders. His cops were badass neo-knights battling rampaging scum, and his hero, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), was that popular figure of ’70s genre cinema, the good man pushed too far by lowlifes. The film was a hit both at home and overseas, albeit after a dub job for U.S. distribution. Miller expanded the series with Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981), which pushed the concept into the realm of myth and depicted a properly post-apocalyptic landscape, and then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Each film was exponentially more expensive and ambitious than the one before, and Gibson became an international star. Miller’s love of a bygone brand of big, sweeping, elemental cinema was laced with visual and thematic overtones borrowed from John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, Akira Kurosawa, and especially Sergio Leone, whose offbeat, proto-punkish spaghetti westerns became a particular touchstone.
The Mad Max films have been remembered with rare fondness, particularly the middle episode, for their kinetic force, their exotic creativity, and specific, instantly influential roster of ideas and images: there is a serious case to be made for The Road Warrior as the best film ever made in the country. These films were quintessential artefacts of the early days of video, providing an easy bridging point between the drive-ins and home entertainment. Imitations exploded, at first in cheap Italian knock-offs and eventually in big-budget riffs like Waterworld (1995). In their native land, the Mad Max films were admired in themselves, and considered just about the only salvageable relics of Aussie cinema’s flirtation with genre filmmaking until the reawakened interest in Ozploitation in the 2000s. Beyond Thunderdome, an attempt to take the series upmarket and give it Spielbergian appeal, was a great-looking and thoughtful entry that nonetheless skimped terribly on action, and many felt Miller had pulled his creation’s teeth. Ever since Miller, a truly talented filmmaker, has, like George Lucas, wasted a lot of that talent trying to be a one-man film industry.
Miller had been mooting a fourth episode since the mid-1990s, and now, finally, it has arrived with rising star Tom Hardy slotted into the lead role. Fury Road has been greeted with an enthusiasm bordering on the orgiastic by critics and fans. That’s not so surprising. The appeal of the series was always based on the outlandish and the disreputable, and the new film, armed with a blockbuster budget, has the jagged, thumping appeal of a heavy-metal album in a sea of autotune pop. One unique quirk of the Mad Max series was that each episode, although linked by certain elements, represented a partial reboot rather than mere sequel to the previous one, remixing certain ideas and characterisations, thus lending itself rather neatly to recomposition 30 years down the track. Fury Road quickly reveals itself determined to a fault not to repeat the mistakes of Beyond Thunderdome.
Just how deeply Australian the Mad Max films were is necessary to communicate, most particularly their sense of the landscape as both a limitlessly boding expanse and a harsh and withholding thing where paucity dictates adaptation, and their vision of civilisation as a crude assemblage of spare parts left lying about by other cultures. Miller took the Oz-gothic vision of Ted Kotcheff’s seminal Wake in Fright (1971), which contemplated the ugly, unstable tone of devolved aggression that can be seen in some pockets of the continent, and gave it a purpose. He also quoted the wild, frenetic, purposefully crude inventiveness coming out of the nation’s pop cultural quarters in the late ’70s: in the weird panoply of grotesques that form the human world of Miller’s early vision lies the grubby energy welling out of grungy pub rock scenes, art schools, and the burgeoning gay and punk scenes. At the time this was cutting edge; now it’s all rather retro. The original Mad Max films were also, oddly, the closest local thing to the Star Wars series, as Miller went to town mimicking the sweeping widescreen visions and deliberately retro pulpy force in the music scoring associated with a brand of big movie-making that was fallow for most of the ‘70s: Miller made blockbusters on a budget. Mad Max: Fury Road, which cost $150 million, can’t argue such handmade pizzazz, and Miller had to work his fascination with creating weird little worlds and exploring their sensibilities in with a near-constant barrage of thrills and spills.
Hardy’s Max is glimpsed at the outset framed against the horizon, gazing into the distance, before stamping on a two-headed mutant lizard in an attempt to quell the semi-psychotic buzzing in his head—the voices of the people he tried and failed to save in the past, including his daughter. No time to stand around, however; Max quickly gets into his battered, old Interceptor and flees ahead of a squadron of hunter hotrods. They manage to wreck his vehicle, drag him out, and take him to the Citadel controlled by Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a hulking aged warlord. Many citizens of the Citadel suffer from “half-life,” or a congenital anaemia usually accompanied by cancerous tumours that cause early death, and one half of Joe’s power rests on his ability to find strong donors to keep the others alive; the other half is control of an underground water supply. The culture of the Citadel includes his army of “War Boys,” young half-lifes kept functioning by blood donors, or “blood-bags” as they’re called, and controlled through promises of an afterlife in Valhalla if they die in combat for him. Joe also has a coterie of beautiful young woman kept as a concubines in a vault. Max is tethered, and his back is tattooed with his status as a universal donor. Before his captors can brand him, however, Max breaks free and nearly escapes, only to be recaptured. He’s given to one waning War Boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult), as a blood-bag. Meanwhile Joe’s top “Imperator” Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads men out on a supply run to the nearby cities that produce fuel oil and weapons Behind the wheel of her war-rig, an armed and armoured long-range fuel truck, Furiosa drives off the beaten path into the wastelands, stringing along her soldiers and plunging them into a battle with wasteland marauders. Joe soon realises what’s happened: Furiosa is helping the concubines escape.
Characterising Immortan Joe as a primitive tyrant with a taste for harem flesh might be seen as Miller having a sly dig at one of the basic appeals of his creation: the possibility that future civilisation decline would return humankind to barbarism and the unrestrained indulgence of primal appetites and discourteous sexuality, a notion exploited all too enthusiastically by the not-so-different Gor novels by John Norman. Some of the ugliest moments in Miller’s first two films in the series involved the pansexual rape habits of its villains, so Miller may be issuing a mea culpa as he takes on the theme of liberating sex slaves. The storyline mildly upbraids such a fantasy landscape’s appeal in repeatedly noting the stripping away of dignity and agency, something inflicted on Max as well as the young concubines, as he spends many scenes strapped to the front of Nux’s car as he gives chase, feeding him lifeblood. Easy enough, too, to read Joe as a caricature of just about any arbiter of social control, as he keeps his War Boys’ heads screwed with religion and his populace on a leash with carefully rationed water: he warns his populace as he pours water upon them not to become addicted to it, lest they resent its general absence.
Nux has the strongest, most interesting character arc in the film—point of fact, the only character arc. He charges into battle with fellow berserker Rictus Erectus (Nathan Jones), mouth spray-painted with silvery gloss to evoke the chrome-plated bumper bar of Death, desperate to live up to his creed only to be jolted out of the death-hungry obsession by his own failures. He slowly changes loyalty to the ragged team of heroes whilst Erectus becomes his personal nemesis in the pursuing armada. Hoult, usually cast as cupid-lipped young romantics, has a blast playing such a loose-screw, physical character.
Meanwhile the coterie of pulchritudinous fugitives—heavily pregnant favourite The Splendid Angharad (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley), flame-locked Capable (Riley Keough), Toast the Knowing (Zoë Kravitz), The Dag (Abbey Lee), and Cheedo the Fragile (Courtney Eaton)—are characterised not as feyly naïve or absurdly tough, but as a pack of sarcastically articulate waifs out of their depth and yet committed to their Quixotic mission, tucked under Furiosa’s wing and doing their best to operate in the ferocity of the moment. I’m not quite sure if anything about their characterisations makes sense in context, though. They’re children of the post-apocalyptic world but say they don’t want their children to be warlords. What else are they going to be? Conceptual artists? Miller should have gone back to Kurosawa to remind himself of how characters set in worlds run by different rules should act.
Max’s first proper glimpse of this coterie of bounteous female forms has them arrayed against the desert sand and sky in diaphanous silks and chastity belts like some particularly collectable Sports Illustrated foldout. Furiosa herself likes to shave her head and rub engine grease on her forehead as war paint, and has a mechanical left arm. Theron proves again she’s a performer of sneaky craft as she finds depth in a swiftly sketched character with real art, moving supply and convincingly from steely war face to shows of pathos and personal longing and anguish. Her Monster (2003) Oscar notwithstanding, I can’t help but wonder if Theron hasn’t finally found her metier here as a rudely charismatic bruiser. That Furiosa is in many ways the real protagonist of the film is Fury Road’s open secret. Max is at first frantic to the point of, yes, madness—understandable considering the indignities he suffers in the film’s opening scenes. He finally breaks free when Nux crashes his vehicle chasing Furiosa’s war-rig into a sandstorm, and his initial meeting with the cabal of females is a tense and coercive standoff, as he’s initially obsessed only with survival. Standoff turns into a three-way punch-up, as Nux, still chained to his escaped blood-bag, leaps into the fray, and Max alternates between fighting off Furiosa and stopping Nux from killing her. Max at first tries to leave them all behind, but finds the war-rig won’t go because Furiosa’s kill switches have to be cleared in an order only she knows. Furiosa convinces him to take her and the other women aboard, and, of course, uneasy partnership soon becomes unshakeable alliance.
The basic story of Fury Road reminded me more than a little of Vladimir Motyl’s White Sun of the Desert (1970) with way more action, blended with a solid B-western like Charge at Feather River (1953). Miller sprinkles stirringly bizarre, funny-appalling flourishes throughout Fury Road, proving something of his old, wicked sense of humour remains. Joe has a battery farm of tubby ladies having their breast siphoned as foodstuff that Joe trades as a delicacy. The escaped concubines pause to rid themselves of their detested chastity belts, which have barbed spikes protecting them from penetration. A remote patch of bog is home to a tribe of weirdoes living on stilts. Joe’s armada comes equipped with one vehicle carrying multiple drummers and electric guitarist for mobile war music, a touch that represents Fury Road’s most inspired nod to the rock ’n roll spirit that lurked within the original series’ texture, as well as providing perhaps this entry’s keenest example of the series’ habit of melding ancient ideas with the new. If Fury Road was nothing but such moments, it might have added up to a gonzo classic of crazy-trashy inspiration. But there’s not nearly enough humour to the film, nor enough real inspiration to its running set-pieces.
Here we get into the greater problems with this entry. The price Miller has paid to make such an inflated reboot has been to do like a lot of modern action directors and essentially turn the last act—the climactic chases from the second two original Mad Max films—and inflate them into an entire movie. The first half-hour sets a hard-charging pace the film can’t sustain but damn well tries, what with Max’s attempted escape through the labyrinth of the Citadel whilst besieged by flash-cut memories of his past failures quickly segueing into Furiosa’s escape. I was near being put off the film right from get-go: Miller over-directs to an absurd degree as he sets the film racing, starting with that annoying CGI lizard and the tumult of psychic ghosts tormenting Max that reduce the necessary reintroduction of the character to a barrage of cheesy camera effects. The very opening suggests a dialogue of intense, meditative quiet and thunderous action might begin, but instead there’s only thunder.
Miller’s most inspired touches of world-building are steamrollered into the tar along with everything else. The illogic that’s often leaked out the edges of Miller’s world—the amount of petrol the villains wasted in The Road Warrior was about the same as what they were chasing—here returned in watching Immortan Joe piss water away on desert sands. Apparently none of his subject populace of human flotsam have thought to put in some kind of collecting basin or sink. Miller has his image of mock-beneficent tyrant’s egotism and human pathos, and goes no further in setting us up with either a social metaphor of real force or a villain of great stature. In spite of the film’s thematic evocations, it’s as simplistic on the level of metaphor as can be, and the raving about the film’s feminist angles in some quarters ignores the fact that the “hero saves evil king’s sex-slaves” plot is one of the oldest in pulp adventuring. Of course, we live in a time where crude and basic lip-service to political themes in movies is popular for painting our Rorschach sensibilities onto (see also The Hunger Games films), so Fury Road is quite on trend in that regard. For all the faults of Beyond Thunderdome and its big, shameless debts to Lord of the Flies and Riddley Walker, it had a depth and a wistful poetry that completely eludes Fury Road, in moments like the haunting scene where Max is treated to a creation-myth-cum-history via a relic Viewmaster where random images from a vanished civilisation have been patched together to illustrate it. There’s a hint of this in the recurring phrase asked by the concubines, “Who killed the world?”, indicting the warmongers of the future with the warmongers of the past, but without pausing to note the irony of trying to touch on pacifistic themes whilst dancing the audience giddily into a sea of carnage.
Once the action kicks into gear, the early battles and the finale are the strongest, but in the middle comes some well-staged but uninspired stuff, including an attempt to get the war-rig unstuck from the mud, whilst one of Joe’s allies, the Bullet Farmer (Richard Carter), randomly and stupidly fires off his guns into murk. It begs the question: how did any of these halfwits survive the apocalypse? Miller can think up a lot of things, but not a nonviolent action set-piece for his truckers that can hold a candle to the sequence in Ice Cold in Alex (1959) where the heroes have to hand-crank their vehicle up a hill, or the bridge crossing in Sorcerer (1977).
In spite of the film’s efforts to honour the force of the original trilogy’s realistic action sequences, here swathes of CGI still must paint the skies. Still, Miller’s respect for landscape and physical context emerges throughout. Production problems meant that Fury Road had to be shot in Namibia rather than the hallowed turf of the Aussie outback, but the vistas are just as powerfully barren and stunningly vast (if also heavily digitally tweaked), and many of the best, though relatively few, moments of the film come when Miller draws back to behold this grand arena for perpetual human foolishness. One touch that did tickle me was Miller basing some of the wasteland marauders’ vehicles on the famous spiky Volkswagen Beetle from The Cars that Ate Paris.
Dramatically speaking, Fury Road is a near-total bust however, often reducing the honourable creed of the junk action flick to moving wallpaper of bangs and booms and crashes. They’re damn well done bangs and booms and crashes, make no mistake: Fury Road is a magnificent movie production, one that clearly demanded inspiring levels of commitment to put together, and it doesn’t feel cynical in its technical grandiosity and enervated on the level of real creation like this year’s Jupiter Ascending or like the subtle, but definite defeat of an auteur by studio forces as Avengers: Age of Ultron did. But like last year’s John Wick, which also gained many plaudits from critics I’d expect to know better, Fury Road frustrated me with the presumption that an action flick can and should just be a series of Pavlovian set-pieces. Miller has a talent for fitting vignettes of humanity into the sprawl of excess, and the ones that come are interesting, like Furiosa admitting she wants “redemption” for aiding Joe for so long, and Nux connecting with Capable, the least cynical of the escapees; Keough gives a quietly luminous performance that stands out amongst her fellows, though that might be because she actually has a proper interaction with another character. But the character reflexes are astonishingly clipped and basic. Nux changes side with barely a blink, and Max and Furiosa shift from trying to kill each other to palsy-walsy in a couple of minutes.
The bad guys particularly suffer from this thinness. Part of the force of the first two Mad Max entries lay in the fact that Miller was willing to contemplate, horror-movielike, the dread of characters failing in their personal missions of protection and the loss of loved ones to the new barbarians, and his ability to think up cool avatars of evil. Here Miller reduces that element to backstory visualised in the worst way possible. Keays-Byrne’s velvet-voiced, charismatic, if often overripe, presence was one of the most entertaining in Aussie TV and film of the ’70s and ’80s, and it’s great to see him restored to his rightful place as overlord of villains. Yet he’s completely wasted as Immortan Joe, who’s just a weak retread of Lord Humungus, lacking his real physical menace, mixed with traits from Dune’s Baron Harkonnen, and he remains a mere action figure in place of a villain. Perhaps it’s admirable we don’t get scenes of the concubines being raped or mistreated, but the film lacks basic melodramatic spurs and thus the delight in seeing evil regime churned into scrap metal. Moreover, Joe’s actual comeuppance is so clumsy and helter-skelter that I almost wondered why Miller bothered.
Furiosa, finding her beloved childhood birthplace no longer exists and sinking to her knees to scream in fury to the desert, is supposed to register as an emotional highpoint, but doesn’t really cut it, considering the character’s had about 15 lines of dialogue and the hoped-for Eden has only ever registered before as a tossed-off McGuffin. Late in the film, Miller introduces a new set of protagonists to add to the band of heroes—the Vuvalini, a small remnant tribe of women ranging from young and dashing “Valkyrie” (Megan Gale) to aged matriarchs, including “Keeper of the Seeds” (the always wonderful Melissa Jaffer). Like so much else in the film, these ladies deserve and demand far more time to impress themselves upon us, and the notion of a pack of gun-wielding grannies on choppers is delightful, but they’re tossed into the drama moments before the big finish revs up. Thus, moments like the Valkyries’ eruption into battle don’t carry much weight: it’s just more stuff happening.
Frankly, although the final chase sequence represents a breathless piece of cinema construction and risky filming, I didn’t enjoy it half as much as the jungle chase of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), which emphasised fluid lines of camera motion to better read complex action using moving vehicles as mobile platforms in a running battle. Miller tries to do the same thing here, but changes camera positions and edits the stunt work too frenetically, with no sense of rhythm for the daring and the interplay of elements to register. But perhaps the biggest void in Fury Road is Max himself. Hardy seemed on paper like perfect casting as Max redux: he’s an actor of great sensitivity who has powerful star presence and also can look convincingly tough. His performances in Warrior (2011) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) elevated both: the mordant humour as well as threat he invested in Bane has proven over time to be one of the latter film’s coups. But here he proves startlingly weak. At first he makes a stab at an Aussie brogue, but his accent skids about like slick tyres on an oily road, and he sometimes barely seems present in the movie. Trapped behind the mask he wears for much of the film, Hardy looks vaguely like some downmarket Daniel Craig clone. This isn’t entirely his fault. If I didn’t know better I’d suspect the screenplay was, like the second two Die Hard movies, one of those blockbuster imitation spec scripts that someone thought might as well be repurposed as a sequel for the model, so disposable is Max’s presence throughout much of the film. Max has been robbed of all of his mythic stature and specific gravitas.
I have suspected one of the reasons the series lay fallow for so long was because by the end of Beyond Thunderdome , Max as a character had reached a point in stasis. For all the alarum and affray here, it’s still rather obvious that Miller is unwilling to nudge him even slightly past the pose of eternal wanderer. That’s not necessarily a problem—after all, Zatoichi clocked up 20-odd films in his rootless wanderings and remained entertaining—but Max here just never feels particularly important, vital, or distinctive. The man who “carries Mr. Death in his pocket” has become just another player in a busy landscape. What Fury Road does well is just about the only thing it does: stage fast-paced road action. Fury Road is a triumph of high-powered editing masquerading as awesome swashbuckling fun, but much of the soul of this creation has been left by the roadside like so many burnt-out spark plugs: it’s an almost complete dud on an emotional level—and this kind of filmmaking runs on emotion. Yes, it is a good action movie. But it could have, and should have, aimed higher.
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Director/Screenwriter: Joss Whedon
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
They’re back – Marvel’s all-star line-up, marshalled by nerd overlord Joss Whedon. It’s been a long three years since the last episode came out, and Marvel’s endless diversification of its fictional universe had, for me at least, begun to take rub of the shine from the brand even as it’s confirmed again and again its box office potency. The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK, to pacify fans of John Steed and Emma Peel), uneven as it was, was a difficult act to follow, surpassing Kenneth Branagh’s grandiose Thor (2011) as the best Marvel movie in ebulliently bringing together a cast of epic-scaled characters and delighting in watching (and listening to) them cut loose. The standalone adventures since then, Iron Man Three, Thor: The Dark World (both 2013), Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and the tangentially related Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), whilst all entertaining to various degrees, inflated their production elements for spectacle but grazed one of the major problems with bigger-is-better storytelling: they felt smaller. That, plus the fact that The Avengers, via Whedon’s pithy, zippy writing style, proved these characters, once introduced with origins explored, actually work best when pitched against other characters like them, forcing them again to jostle for the pre-eminence and respect lesser folk automatically cede to them, and treating the audience to super-friends camaraderie.
In spite of his stature as a major professional fabulist, Whedon is not a particularly original or deep inventor when it comes to the tropes of fantastic fiction. His specific gift rather has been an understanding that the fantasy in that fiction works best when inseparable from the dramatic and emotional impact it has on characters, and through them the audience. The great passage in his TV series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that depicted the transformation of nice-girl witch Willow into a psychotic killer and sorcerer after the murder of her lover, or the “Gifted” storyline he wrote for the X-Men comics, that inspired X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), illustrate that understanding well. The Winter Soldier, which I admit to underrating last year, left the franchise in interesting disarray, with SHIELD broken and Hydra, the evil organisation of fascist futurists founded by Captain America’s old Nazi antagonist Red Skull, stripped of its cover.
Age of Ultron commences with the Avengers having stepped into the gap left by SHIELD’s demise, tracking down Hydra’s secret basis and destroying them. Whedon’s greatest coup in his first entry was a single “shot” that moved from Avenger to Avenger along the course of downtown New York, locating each one in the midst of a tussle that fulfilled both Whedon’s delight in connected cinema space that underlined the dramatic democracy of his sensibility, and brought the fluency of comic book illustration onto the screen. Here he offers the same stunt very early on as the Avengers fall upon a castle somewhere in the Mittel Europa enclave of Sokovia, the Avengers charging out of the snowy woods and raining thunder and wrath upon their enemies, in a more focused zone of action where the battle is like a colossal game of tag: Whedon resolves on a slow-motion sprawl with his cast flying en masse across the screen. The once-individualist warriors are now a weathered team: Steve ‘Captain America’ Rogers (Chris Evans) leading Tony ‘Iron Man’ Stark (Robert Downey Jnr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Bruce ‘Hulk’ Banner (Mark Ruffalo), Natasha ‘Black Widow’ Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint ‘Hawkeye’ Barton (Jeremy Renner). Former SHIELD agent Maria Hill (Cobie Smulers), now officially working for Tony, provides support, and Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) lurks in the wilderness, ready to help with the odd deus ex machina.
This Hydra base, administrated by improbably monocle-clad Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), holds secrets beyond the Avengers’ ken, including the fruits of a mysterious experiment in artificial intelligence, the sceptre of unbelievable power brought to Earth by Loki in the previous instalment and filched from the SHIELD vaults, and two siblings, Pietro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and his sister Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen). They are, of course, mutants (or “enhanced” as Whedon calls them, to avoid stepping on turf currently locked down by Fox): Pietro, better known as Quicksilver, provided the best scene in last year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, albeit with a different actor in the part. Pietro and Wanda in Whedon’s take are a pair of orphaned Russians with a gripe against Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) because some of his weaponry killed their parents. Now their talents have been honed to a dangerous edge by Hydra. Pietro attacks the Avengers and leaves Hawkeye injured, whilst Wanda unleashes her psychic power to give Tony a vision of what he fears is the future, where all his pals are dead and the Earth decimated. Disturbed by this vision, Tony, retrieving Hydra’s experiments, resolves to use the recovered tech to complete one of his brainwaves: Ultron, an AI system more advanced than Jarvis (Paul Bettany), Tony’s digital manservant, to control a system of weapons to defend against alien attacks and allow the Avengers to stand down.
Tony convinces Bruce to help get the system working with the sceptre as power source. Whilst their experiments seem at first to fail, Ultron (voiced by James Spader, whose mordant purr remains immensely entertaining) awakens whilst the Avengers are partying, and, swiftly parsing his mission as programmed by Tony. Quicker than you can say “Colossus: The Forbin Project”, Ultron almost immediately decides in light of Tony’s desire for “peace”, the only way to achieve it is to annihilate human kind in general. Ultron seems to attack and virtually “kill” Jarvis, takes over Tony’s robotic support team and builds himself a crude body. Although that form is quickly destroyed in the melee that follows, Ultron escapes via the internet to rebuild himself more impressively elsewhere. Ultron invites Pietro and Wanda to help him under the guise of payback against Tony and the Avengers, and begins building a doomsday device utilising Vibranium, the same rare element that Cap’s shield is made from. Ultron also hopes to construct himself a perfect form combining human and metallic elements and powered by the core of the sceptre. To do this he takes control of Dr. Helen Cho (Claudia Kim), a medical tech wizard who has built a machine that fashions flesh, already demonstrated in repairing Hawkeye’s injury. The Avengers track down black market arms dealer Ulysses Klaw (Andy Serkis), who’s stockpiled Vibranium, to prevent Ultron getting his hands on the metal, but the team is split and driven into frantic disarray by Wanda’s psychic powers, each member sent spiralling down the rabbit hole of their own inner turmoil – most disastrously, Bruce’s alter ego the Hulk goes rampaging through a city, demanding Tony stop him with his latest, Hulk-sized Iron Man suit.
Already this synopsis should make plain how busy Age of Ultron will get. That busyness may well disorientate and even infuriate a lot of viewers, particularly those not terribly well-versed in this fictional universe or who missed a couple of instalments out of the previous ten movies in Marvel’s unfolding project. Whedon assumes, perhaps fairly by this point, that all of these faces are familiar and so can simply be let out the starting gate at full gallop. Despite being nearly two-and-a-half hours long, a lot of that run-time is spent in breathless motion. Whedon’s versing in the density of the Marvel universe as it’s developed over the past 60 years on the page is plain, and Age of Ultron revels in that richness with authentic passion: this is, for better or worse, is one of the most authentically comic book-esque of comic book movies. The storytelling style achieves the perfervid power of grand pulp fiction, harking back to days of print when villains and heroes chase each-other from page to page with scarcely a concern for anything but the next consequence of their mutual efforts in endlessly metastasising circumstances.
This does mean however that Whedon’s conceptual interests are flattened nearly into irrelevance. He imbues Ultron with Frankensteinian anger at his flawed creator, and makes Ultron himself into something of a cracked mirror of Tony himself, assimilating his flip speech patterns and plaintive neediness for companionship under the guise of gruff egotism. He accidentally cuts off Klaw’s arm in a tantrum when Klaw notes the similarities. Like just about everything else in the film, this fount of a theme is tightly wound into a narrative that can’t do much more than state an idea, rather than explore it. But Whedon does manage to imbue even a relatively second-string villain like Ultron with a distinctiveness that makes him interesting when he’s around, unlike the flat and dutiful villainy provided by several recent Marvel antagonists.
The Maximoffs are one of the big new items on this ticket, with Wanda about to evolve into Scarlet Witch, one of the key Avengers and also one of the most fractious. It’s an old adage about genre fiction, and action cinema above all, that character should be revealed in action, and the intensely mutually reliant nature of the Maximoffs defines them repeatedly throughout the film without requiring much dialogue to underline – and also provides a tragic jolt late in the film. Taylor-Johnson and Olsen, who played husband and wife in the tepid Godzilla (2014), have more chance here to show off their charisma even in more limited roles. Olsen is particularly good, plummy Slavic accent and all, in handling the switchbacks of her character, bringing something new to this panoply of heroes, insofar as she suggests a vengeful, dead-eyed confidence in her powers and the lurking spur of neurotic pain (and indeed, given the character’s instability in the comic books, menacingly so). Wanda and Pietro change sides in the conflict according to an essential, bitterly imposed awareness of the brutality in the world and their own motivation to counter it.
Ultron’s insistence on giving himself a human-like form means giving up the pure sanctity and detachment of a merely digital existence, and allows Wanda to see into his mind, which proves not a pretty place to be. The Avengers swing into battle with Ultron for control of this new, potentially unstoppable cybernetic organism he’s prepared as a shell, and once the body is captured, Tony has the brainwave of installing Jarvis, found tattered but still extant in a pocket of cyberspace, into the body to keep Ultron out and potentially give the team extraordinarily strong new ally. When Wanda, who can see deeply enough into Tony’s mind to know exactly how he thinks, warns Cap and some of the other Avengers what he wants to do, they dash back to stop him, but Thor casts the deciding vote rather literally by powering the new being up with lightning. The being that emerges, Vision (Bettany again, finally gracing the franchise with his physical presence), proves neither human nor machine and can’t even assure the Avengers that he’s not a threat, but instead proves a new and independent life form, who declares himself on the side of life and thus against whoever’s threatening it.
Whedon tries to make his storyline as organically specific to this universe as possible. But regardless of whether Ultron uses Vibranium in his doomsday machine or not, it’s still a doomsday machine, and the actual plot is, again like Whedon’s first instalment, quite simple in spite of the multiplicity of moving parts. Whedon does cleverly suggest that Ultron’s unresolved filial issues drive his desire to reproduce a human form rather than simply disseminate himself into the fabric of the electronic universe: he strives to reproduce and then evolve the human form into something new, but confirms his divided psyche. Like Michael Mann’s Blackhat earlier this year, Whedon tries to depict the digital world as a microcosmic zone of cause and effect, a new frontier of existence. An important subplot here sees Thor, disturbed by the implications of the vision Wanda stirs in him, daring to enter a mystical pool to commune with “water spirits” (cue compulsory Hemsworth shirtless scene), and emerges with the knowledge that the sceptre, the Tasseract, and the Aether, are all kin to the Infinity Stone in Guardians of the Galaxy, part of a fabled set of powerful objects that can be combined to imbue godlike power. And, what’s more, someone has been manipulating all of the events that have beset the Avengers recently, probably even having deliberately placed the double-edge blade that is Ultron where it would best tempt Tony, for precisely the purpose of making them do the work of rounding up the Infinity Stones. That manipulator is revealed in the now-traditional end credits teaser, and their identity is not actually surprising if you’ve been paying attention, but this element does suggest a degree of planning that’s formed a hidden substructure to the Marvel movies in spite of their occasionally wayward surfaces.
Inevitably, with so much lore and action to wade through, Age of Ultron can’t spare much time for more than cursory interaction between some of his Avengers: Whedon assumes Tony, Thor, and Cap, all of whom benefit from their own standalone movies, have been dealt with enough, and they mostly fill out the margins – but given those guys form the core of the fan following, that will probably leave more than a few feeling gypped. Downey Jr.’s art with a smart-aleck quip and Hemsworth’s ever-growing poise and ability to self-satirise in particular give the movie a sturdy support it doesn’t treat too well. Whedon instead concentrates on two character elements to give Age of Ultron a heart amidst the furore. He makes Hawkeye, the least well-served Avenger in the first instalment, the focus for the emotional journey of the episode just as Natasha was for the first. Chastened, bedraggled, and possibly outlawed after their first battle with Ultron and the Maximoffs has resulted in the Hulk decimating a city, the Avengers let Hawkeye take them to a safe house, which proves to be his own, a small farmhouse where Hawkeye has a wife, Laura (Linda Cardellini, always a welcome presence) and two children, with another baby on the way. This unexpected interlude of top-secret domestic bliss leaves the other Avengers toey in the face of their least “remarkable” member’s suddenly revealed settlement and success in keeping his work and life separate, and they move uneasily between rooms in this space, too large for it and too small for their own gifts.
Hawkeye’s specific gift as an Avenger, in contrast to the overwhelming force of the others, is one of precision, a gentleness of touch that eludes the galumphers around him. Whedon gives Hawkeye a crucial scene late in the film as he appeals to the momentarily overwhelmed Wanda to either stand clear of trouble or engage it wholeheartedly as a warrior. This vignette is a little wonder, referring to crucial backstory – Hawkeye also brought Black Widow over from the darkside – and also illuminating the present, suddenly making Hawkeye perhaps the most vital Avenger as well as the most human, and giving the film the kind of surprising emotional kick that is Whedon’s forte. Meanwhile romance is blossoming between a most unlikely couple, as Natasha is smitten with Bruce: in The Avengers Natasha had an intensely phobic reaction to the terrible spectacle of the Hulk, one that only seemed to infuriate the id-beast all the more. Now she has become the Hulk’s calming salve, able to draw the green guy out of his rages with nothing more than offering her hand, leading to the gently erotic sight of small woman’s palm in giant green mitt. But Bruce, whilst plainly equally taken, denies the attraction at first, and feels too conscious of his potential destructiveness to let the romance run its course.
Johansson, who ironically after several years floundering in stardom finally defined her screen persona playing Natasha, gets to work new levels to the character in love. Ruffalo, long a charm machine, is wonderful portraying Bruce’s befuddled delight. Whedon’s problematic but amiable film of Much Ado About Nothing (2013) was a long study in the dynamics of intimate staging for a roundelay of character expressed through quick-fire humour and effervescent emotion. Here that model is reproduced as haiku: Whedon even uses Hawkeye’s house as multilevelled stage in the same manner as he used his own house in that predecessor. I noted in my commentary on the first film that it represented a revival of an old Hollywood tradition, the all-star extravaganza, a genre that is distinct from the more prosaic style of the ensemble drama. Whedon was rightly praised for modelling the original like a Howard Hawks ensemble flick, like Rio Bravo (1959), watching fractious personalities bump against each-other in a pressure cooker situation and enjoy the process of watching them knit together. Whedon had a chance to make his El Dorado (1966) here, the semi-remake that’s possibly even better. The long, casually comic party sequence that follows the raucous opening does provide an islet of Hawksian interaction between the many different players, laced with appearances by supporting characters from the various sub-branches – James ‘War Machine’ Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Sam ‘Falcon’ Wilson (Anthony Mackie) – and vignettes, from Thor treating some old veterans to some of his potent Asgardian booze, to the various Avengers trying and failing to lift his hammer – except for Cap, who manages to move it ever so slightly, bringing a momentarily worried look to Thor’s face (this also sets up a joke that pays off later on).
But the simultaneous blend of firm genre structure with free-flowing behavioural study that was Hawks’ forte eludes Whedon here, who’s been forced to contend with a teetering superstructure of franchise business. Wanda’s mind-games with the team destabilises them and allows Whedon to offer some trippy sequences that expose the hang-ups of the characters, based so often in the same experiences that have given them their superlative talents, a notion that particularly intrigues Whedon for reasons already noted. Age of Ultron tries here to annex the same territory so well-handled by Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), where the hero was confronted by his own internal chaos, confirming how little distance there was between his heroic side and dark one, but then emerging as purified righteous ass-kicker. In this regard, Whedon fails, rather badly. He can’t linger on the psychological trauma of his individual heroes long enough to make it seem more than another piece of plot hocus-pocus, nor can he leaven even the faintest feeling of anxiety that the team won’t reform and resurge. Age of Ultron is so jam-packed, so overflowing at the margins with throwaway details that it starts to resemble the pages of Mad Magazine, with tiny illustrative flourishes dotted between panels often providing the bulk of fun. Such a stuffed narrative would defeat many filmmakers. And frankly I think it’s defeated Whedon too.
Whedon’s sense of throwaway humour in marginalia makes this work for the most part however; the audience I saw the film with had most of its audible fun with such tossed-off touches, like Thor explaining his hammer-swinging technique to Vision, or Natasha shouting “Sorry!” as she pummels through a crowd on a motorcycle. One of my own favourite moments sees Ultron flying a jet whilst singing a ditty that signals just how cuckoo, and how human, he is. There’s a strong dash of the old James Bond spirit to this instalment, littered with rapid shifts between exotic locales to wreak havoc and look good doing it. The ship graveyard of Chittagong, Bangladesh provides the backdrop for an early battle (albeit supposedly in Africa), a location Whedon disappointingly doesn’t make much of, instead shifting focus for the battle between Iron Man and Hulk in a Michael Bay-esque wreck-the-city sequence – a well-staged, spectacular interlude that nonetheless represents screen time that could have been better spent on something else. The very end credits scan a grand Grecian-style monument depicting the Avengers in the midst of battle, well aware these are our neo-Olympians. There’s an odd and effective little moment that suggests again the breadth of cultural reference Whedon can make, as he offers a glimpse of Wanda retreating in a scuttling, stop-motion manner like a J-horror ghoul. Sadly, that kind of effective lo-fi trick can’t live long in a film with so many digital effects artists on the case.
Whedon’s visual sensibility is also still often surprisingly cramped, staging a major action sequence in a confined metallic chamber that looks like a set left over from City of Lost Children (1995), and offering up a climactic final image of a whole city floating above the Earth, and yet barely registering the surreal intensity of the moment: it’s just more cool stuff happening. Whedon’s visual syntax doesn’t break down, and yet the finale is such a whirlwind of events that his efforts to give every hero their clear ground for individual heroism, something Whedon did extremely well in his first instalment, here become more than a little ineffectual, offering, for instance, just a few blink-and-miss shots of Fury and Hill gunning down baddie robots. There is one grand moment when the heroes form together in Zukovia’s central church to protect the controls for the doomsday device and face a storm of steel and violence, a moment that evokes the most beautiful cover-wrapping comic book illustrations. But such moments of visual power are scarce. One reason I liked Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) more than many was precisely because Snyder was alive to the visual impact of such ideas, achieving an almost DeMille-like grandeur and beauty in his city-levelling battles and doomsday machines, and also wrestled with the notion of god-like entities battling as something perhaps frighteningly inimical to the rest of us. Whedon probably won’t be keelhauled for doing exactly the same thing like that film was because he’s got credit Snyder doesn’t have. In the lengthy, gigantic, overstretched finale, he bends over backwards to depict the Avengers trying to save the civilian populace of Sokovia as Ultron turns their city into a gigantic battering ram.
Apart from Scarlet Witch’s rousing entry into battle after Hawkeye’s pep-talk, however, Whedon never builds the same elating thrill as his first entry in studying all of his heroes defining themselves through battle, simply because he seems to feel unable to pause long enough to do so, nor the same impact in the face of self-sacrifice. The script promises that the battle will certainly prove deadly for at least some of the Avengers, and one significant character does die, albeit one carefully cross-indexed for relative value. But if Whedon was hoping that his second instalment would annex the mythic gravitas of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), all I can say is he doesn’t make it. There is another problem the superhero genre faces and Marvel might soon find the ride becoming considerably bumpier soon because of it: the moment when it starts to become a feedback loop that refers to scarcely anything outside itself, an phase that will delight the long-haul fans but eventually detach the casual aficionados. A large part of the impact of the first Iron Man in 2008 came from its deliberate, naïve but effective tapping of the fantasy of many of finding an impervious shield to the cruelty of the times, worked via a very basic story and easy-going sense of humour. The Winter Soldier brought that to up to date as it depicted the modern American sense of self in vivid conflict: Marvel has traced the history of the War on Terror incidentally. The trouble with Age of Ultron is that it can barely refer outside itself, unless it’s to anxiety over the AI future, which ain’t a new anxiety. Now the brand is brushing the edges of a cosmology, and still uninterested in sacrificing broad entertainment to acknowledge the genuinely deeper streams of its mythos.
Even Whedon proves caged by this: to put it bluntly, Age of Ultron, like the much-abused superhero films Spider-Man 3 (2007) and Iron Man 2 (2010), is haplessly overstuffed, and like the latter, is forced to bear the burden of expanding this fictional world, which seems a bit ridiculous at this point, eleven films into a series. And yet it coheres more than those likenesses, if only because Whedon is talented enough to do big things with the smallest flourish. My criticisms of Age of Ultron might sound a bit more impassioned than they’re really intended to be: Whedon’s made another enjoyable movie here, fashioned with verve and working the rollercoaster intensity that the modern blockbuster movie aspires to. Many of them these days can’t really manage it: such intensity demands a movie offer the capacity to make the audience feel the ride as well as gawk in bemused amazement. Age of Ultron will undoubtedly frustrate many with its sheer too-muchness, and will riotously entertain as many or more, because it retains honour in that too-muchness. Avengers: Age of Ultron is as determined to entertain to the limit as an old vaudeville act. For the sake of the show it tap-dances whilst juggling, singing, and balancing a chair on its nose. I would have settled for just the tap-dance done well.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ettore Scola
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It was strictly a coincidence, but a few hours before I viewed How Strange to Be Named Federico, I took a look at The Three Disappearances of Soad Hosni (2012), an experimental biography of Egypt’s biggest star told entirely through clips of her films. Bowled over again by the audacious approach Rania Stephan took to her subject, I was fully primed for this impressionistic tribute to the great Italian director by Ettore Scola, who modeled his own career to some extent on Fellini’s.
Anyone interested in learning all about Fellini’s life and career should look elsewhere. Scola privileges impressions, memories, and imagination in offering some background on the director. In particular, Scola pays tribute to the camaraderie he experienced with Fellini, particularly when they both worked for the satirical newspaper Marc’Aurelio.
Scola transitions between color and black and white cinematography, between reenactments and archival footage, and across decades to show the footprints Fellini left that Scola stepped into. We see a reenactment of a young Fellini (Tommaso Lazotti) showing his sketches to a front-office editor at Marc’Aurelio, who flips through them declaring them funny or not funny and then deciding they are good enough to bring to the attention of the head editors. The bullpen sessions of the illustrators, all with their own “columns” and all vying for the coveted center spread, is a wonder of competitive spirit, friendly banter, and creative foment.
Scola first enters the picture as a nine year old (Giacomo Lazotti) reading Fellini’s cartoons to his blind grandfather. Ten years later, we will see Fellini’s introduction to the Marc’Aurelio office play out again when young Scola (Giulio Forges Davanzati) shows up, portfolio in hand, to see if he can make the grade. A rather sobering scene of some low-level functionaries of Mussolini’s fascist government coming into the editorial office and the illustrators standing at attention and giving their names and “rank,” that is, the sections they draw, created an uncomfortable reminder of the Charlie Hebdo attacks this past January.
Film director Fellini (Maurizio De Santis), an insomniac, is shown driving with Scola to view the prostitutes standing on the streets to ply their trade. They pick up one hooker (Antonella Attili) who relates that her days in the life are nearing their end; she has saved money, which she has given to her boyfriend to purchase a house for them. The seeds of The Nights of Cabiria (1957) thus are sown. There are some other interesting tidbits about Fellini’s works, including the omission of Mastroianni among the great Italian actors the director tested to appear in Casanova (1976) and the enshrinement of Stage 5 at Cinecittà Studios as Fellini’s home.
As the film moves into eras in which footage of the real Fellini and his film shoots are available, Scola gives us a behind-the-scenes look at some of the director’s classic films. Crane shots of Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni playing in the Trevi fountain in La Dolce Vita (1960) intermingle with footage and restaged circus acts from La Strada (1954), with his Fellini stand-in watching the proceedings. Hilariously, Fellini and Scola are accosted by Mastroianni’s mother, who complains that Fellini always makes her son look handsome, whereas Scola always makes him look like a vagabond. While some of Scola’s memories may be suspect, I have no doubt this incident actually took place.
Scola distances himself from the film somewhat by having Vittorio Viviani serve as narrator, offering at least the semblance of an objective point of view from which the audience can take its cues. A familiarity with Fellini’s works makes viewing much more enjoyable and enlightening, as the movie feels a bit like a group of friends getting together to talk about a mutual acquaintance. A sampler of Fellini’s films at the end might jog a few memories, and offers, like a similar end montage of excised kissing scenes from Cinema Paradiso (1988), the only truly sentimental interlude of the film. The free-wheeling and affectionate moments that went before are almost as good as having the maestro back among us.
How Strange to Be Named Federico is the closing night film. It will show Thursday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Simo Halinen
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among the more difficult challenges to empathy I have personally faced is trying to understand the mindset and choices of transgender individuals. I know and consider one transgender woman a friend and colleague, and I accept unconditionally that she is a woman. Yet it’s hard for me to understand how a mind and body can be so at odds that one would literally undergo the pain of surgery and hormone injections required for gender reassignment. That is why I very much looked forward to seeing Open Up to Me, a new Finnish film that puts a transgender woman at the center of its story.
The film opens during a therapy session, the last one Maarit (Leea Klemola) will have with her therapist. Maarit, a former school counselor, puts her underemployment as a cleaner with a janitorial service down to her honesty. She fears she will never have a relationship with her daughter Pinja (Emmi Nivala) because of her ex’s hostility, and she admits she would like to have a relationship with a man but worries that the exceptional individual who would accept her may be too hard to find. Her therapist leaves her with the final thought that it’s no longer necessary to hide away from other people and that Maarit must try to get the things she wants out of life.
On one cleaning job at the home office of a psychotherapist who is leaving town for two weeks, Maarit is given the keys to lock up. She explores the woman’s bedroom, trying on her lipstick and putting on one of her outfits. The doorbell rings, and not sure what else to do, she opens it. Sami (Peter Franzén), an attractive high school teacher and soccer coach about the same age as Maarit, asks if the therapist is in and learns she has just left town. Sami assumes Maarit is her work colleague and asks if she can talk to him. His marriage is in crisis, and he fears it will fall apart imminently if he doesn’t do something. Maarit, a trained social worker, agrees, and learns and is touched by Sami’s innermost feelings about sex and love. Just as he leaves, his wife Julia (Ria Kataja) arrives looking for the therapist, whom she has begged Sami to see to no avail. Again, Maarit agrees to speak with Julia, and gives her some advice that makes the couple’s evening at home the best they’ve had in ages. Unfortunately, Maarit has developed a crush on Sami and pursues him to the affair that was almost inevitable from the moment they met. Maarit, it seems, will now learn what it’s like to be the other woman.
The script for Open Up to Me is a mass of ’80s tropes and techniques, like an abundance of annoying lens flares, the dress-up/mistaken identity set-up from the Melanie Griffith-Harrison Ford vehicle Working Girl (1988), and a horny high school student with a lot of screen time, Teo (Alex Anton), who only seemed to be in the film to channel Tom Hanks’ manchild from Big (1988). Nonetheless, I had no trouble overlooking these recycled plot devices and some pretty schematic coincidences. This film gets my full endorsement for the riveting central performance by Leea Klemola.
Klemola makes Maarit’s sometimes self-sabotaging honesty the hallmark of her character, and suggests some of the masculine habits she has retained post-transition, like pursuing Sami and coming on strong, that make her performance as a transgender female so believable. (A review of the film by one transgender woman confirms that her performance was very convincing.) When she tells Sami what it was like to go on her journey, one that started at the age of five, I felt I got a bit of insight into the flash of awareness many of us have at that age about who we are as a discrete person, separate from our parents and surroundings. Maarit’s attempts to deny her gender identity by becoming an athlete, husband, and father and keeping her secret self well hidden make perfect sense. As with any soul-denying lie, however, the truth will out eventually, and the collateral damage to her daughter and wife a lasting regret she will have to learn to live with.
The women in this film are more courageous than its men. Pinja is harassed at school when a suicide inquiry brings Maarit back to town under suspicion of child abuse. Pinja, however, stands up to the ridicule and fights back to restore her father’s good name. Julia, though she hasn’t much screen time, comes off first as a bigot when she learns what kind of person her husband chose to cheat on her with and then as someone relieved not to have to pretend to be happy anymore. Sami is kind of a mess of a character, seemingly not concerned with Maarit’s physical change, but eventually uncomfortable in her world. I pegged him as a curious man who never intended for the affair to be more than a dalliance and who becomes furious with Maarit for her characteristic honesty when she unexpectedly runs into Julia. He’s a weak, entitled man who doesn’t deserve Maarit, as she learns rather quickly.
Although this is a film that will draw attention because of its unique central character, the real takeaway is that honesty, no matter what its cost, is the most rewarding approach to life and that eventually those we love can learn to live with the truth. In the film’s best moment, Pinja and an emotionally overcome Maarit are reunited. Pinja’s matter-of-fact last line is, “Dad, your make-up is running.”
Open Up to Me is showing Friday, March 27 at 8:00 p.m. and Tuesday, March 31 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Coscreenwriter: Ivano De Matteo
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
One of the most popular writers in Europe is Herman Koch. The sometime actor published his first book, a collection of short stories, in 1985 and has produced eight novels to date. He hit big with his sixth novel, Het diner (The Dinner), a best seller that has been translated into 21 languages, spawned a 2012 film of the same name in his native country of The Netherlands, and reportedly will receive an English-language film treatment with Cate Blanchett at the helm in her directorial debut. The story, one of feuding brothers and family crime, proved irresistible to Italian director Ivano De Matteo as well. His version takes liberties with the novel that open the action beyond a single dinner conversation, giving context to the hard choices at the heart of the drama.
The film opens with two drivers exchanging heated words when one of them blows a red light because he is talking on his cellphone. As tempers flare, the offended driver stops his car, pulls out a baseball bat, and goes after the cellphone user. The driver’s side window shatters, but not from the bat—the driver is a police officer, and he fires a fatal shot into the man in self-defense. The bullet passes through the man and strikes his 10-year-old son Stefano (Lupo De Matteo), who is sitting in the passenger seat and was pleading with his father to stop arguing. This incident brings the two brothers at the heart of the story, Massimo (Alessandro Gassman) and Paolo (Luigi Lo Cascio), together, the former a lawyer defending the shooter and the latter a physician treating the injured boy.
The solidly middle-class Paolo and his wife Clara (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) have one son, the sullen, acne-scarred Michele (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), who hangs out with his older cousin Benedetta (Rosabell Laurenti Sellers) watching embarrassing and violent videos on TV and YouTube. Benny’s father, Massimo, is a wealthy widower who is on his second marriage to Sofia (Barbora Bobulova), who has recently given birth to a daughter. Clara hates Sofia, and Paolo has some long-standing enmity toward his brother, but like clockwork, the two couples meet at Massimo’s favorite restaurant once a month.
Michele has been doing poorly in school, and Paolo wants to keep him from going with Benny to a party. Clara, not wanting him to miss something he has been looking forward to, gets Paolo to relent. At the party, Michele is hopelessly out of place among the college-age crowd and ends up getting very drunk. He decides to leave, and Benny trails awkwardly after him in her high heels. The teens are uncommunicative the next day, but when Clara watches an Italian version of “Crimestoppers,” she sees a video of two people beating and kicking a homeless woman and dragging her along the street. Clara views the video again on her son’s laptop the next day after he goes to school, gets up shakily and walks to the kitchen, only to have her knees go out from under her, shocked to confirm her fear that the pair may be Benny and Michele. Later, Benny pumps her father for legal information about the crime, which she claims her friends committed; Massimo goes to an unsuspecting Paolo and says he suspects that their children were responsible. Angry at Clara for keeping him in the dark, Paolo forces the truth out of Michele. It is then up to the families to decide whether to cover for their children or turn them in.
The theme of The Dinner is similar to that of another EU festival film, Magical Girl (2014), that is, the human struggle between emotion and reason. Clara and Paolo are horrified that Massimo can defend the policeman who left a family man dead and his son temporarily paralyzed, but Massimo believes that everyone deserves a defense. This is the kind of rational thinking one needs and expects from a lawyer. Paolo is overcome with horror at what his son and niece have done, yelling at Massimo, Clara, and Sofia for talking about the best way to keep them from paying for their crime. Paolo’s conflict is enormous, flipping constantly between love for his son and his belief in justice, challenging his kneejerk liberal philosophy. Clara shows herself to be a hypocrite, watching her “Crimestoppers” show to see whether justice will be served, yet choosing to believe the lies of her son until he is forced into confessing and then actively seeking to keep the truth from getting out. Sofia is more dispassionate, as Benny is not her natural daughter, but she will do whatever Massimo believes is right.
The film remains blessedly neutral about technology. Just when we think the film will blame Benny and Michele’s actions on their consumption of violent videos, we see that a security camera is instrumental in uncovering their crime. De Matteo rightly lays the blame directly where it belongs—on human nature, on people driven to violence by thoughtlessness or the view that some people’s lives are worthless. Envy certainly plays a role in how Paolo and Clara regard Massimo and Sofia and their luxurious lifestyle. Our sympathies are constantly shifting, and our beliefs about the characters reinforced and challenged again and again.
The naturalistic film style and the mesmerizing performances, especially by Lo Cascio and Mezzogiorno, take this film and its somewhat familiar theme to some interesting places. It is, however, hard to get a toehold on the film because we are catching these characters at a stressful moment in time; without a thorough grounding in character, the film sometimes tips into melodrama. Whereas the first half of the film contains only diagetic music, the introduction of an emotional score in the second half amps the melodrama rather unnecessarily.
The tack De Matteo takes to this story recalls the amorality of privilege and the immorality of envy found in The Bling Ring (2013), suggesting that Gen X filmmakers (De Matteo is 49) are acutely aware of the worm riddling our new Gilded Age and are seeking to examine and expose it. While The Dinner perhaps needed a more full-bodied script to draw out more nuance to the situation, this film is well worth a look.
The Dinner is showing Thursday, March 26 at 8:15 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Olivier Assayas
By Roderick Heath
Here there be spoilers.
Olivier Assayas’ career is littered with films studying the cross-pollinating perversities of art and life and contemplations of art as life itself—as hobby, business, mirror, catalyst, passion, refuge. Key to much of Assayas’ cinema is a belief that performance is a kind of life and that all life is a kind of performance. This notion becomes an ever more enveloping truism as new portals of reality are opened by technology and our increasingly narcissistic gaze. Assayas has tackled this obsessive theme from many different angles in his career. Even his discursions into genre and reportage, like Boarding Gate (2008) and Carlos (2011), hinge on the spectacle of individuals trying to reinvent themselves according to a self-concept: the former film’s protagonist, forced to survive conspiracies of power and the brutal results of her own extreme emotions, became something like the science fiction heroine she had once written about, whilst the latter espoused the idea that Carlos the Jackal was essentially a man who fell in love with playing the radical titan and made his life match the image. Assayas’ international breakthrough, Irma Vep (1996), depicted a film shoot as intersection of cultures, peoples, epochs, and modes of artistry, recognising and disassembling all the grand and inane things that go into creating a popular artwork. Clouds of Sils Maria inevitably evokes that movie in constructing a similar fablelike exploration of the tensions between player and play, a cotillion of ideas and impulses dancing around the subject of art in the modern world itself, and also just as fascinated with the iconography of the great female performer. That iconography has clearly often tantalised and tormented Assayas, as he documented in his works with ex-wife Maggie Cheung, Irma Vep and Clean (2004).
Clouds of Sils Maria belongs to a small battery of recent films that have tackled the same theme, including most prominently Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) and Roman Polanski’s Venus in Fur (both 2014), all of which meditate fixedly on the process of actors creating new realities as they wrestle with the purity of the text and the complexity of existence. The corollary to his recurring theme is that Assayas knows that however much artists might wish it and be facilely in love with the notion of art and life conjoining, it never does, or at least not in the neat manner most takes on the idea suggest. Assayas maintains tension is his variations on this theme by keeping the audience guessing as to where he will draw the line.
Crucial to both the intent and the effect of Clouds of Sils Maria is the presence of Juliette Binoche, whose own aura of matured excellence as a performer and invocation of a specific kind of European chic is crucial for the attitude the audience is encouraged to take toward her character, Maria Enders, and that of Kristen Stewart, playing Maria’s personal assistant Valentine. At the outset, tellingly, Maria and Valentine are travelling, between stages of life. Maria seems at first to be on a kind of cultural victory lap, heading to Switzerland for a film festival where she is to accept an award on behalf of publicity-averse playwright and filmmaker William Melchior. Melchior wrote the play that gave Maria her big break, “The Maloja Snake,” a tragic tale of a widowed, middle-age businesswoman, Helena, who falls in love with younger female employee, Sigrid, only to be cruelly used, discarded, and driven to suicide. Melchior later adapted the play into the movie that made her an international star.
Maria is now just coming off a stint playing an X-Men character in Hollywood, the pinnacle of that career in terms of fame and financial reward. Soon it becomes plain that Maria is actually beating a retreat, turning her back not just on such pay-cheque work but also on new horizons in a changed cultural zeitgeist, and also fleeing the fallout of her ongoing, acrimonious divorce. On the train taking them through the Alps, Maria reads Val her acceptance speech on behalf of Melchior, whilst Val drip-feeds her interesting offers, information titbits, internet gossip, and relevant bulletins that come to her through copious cell phone calls. One call brings genuinely startling and shocking news: Melchior has just been found dead near his home in the mountain village of Sils Maria. Later, Melchior’s widow Rosa (Angela Winkler) tells Maria that he was fatally ill and took a graceful self-administered exit in his favourite spot, high above the lake of Sils.
The festival award turns into testimonial event, and Maria is faced with some less agreeable aspects of her shared past with Melchior, as his other favourite actor, Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler), comes to get in on the act. Maria is still deeply contemptuous of Henryk after he seduced her, forgot her, and got interested in her again once she hit the big time. Reluctantly, Maria meets with Klaus Diesterweg (Lars Eidinger), a new hotshot theatre director who wants to cast Maria in a revival of “The Maloja Snake.” Whereas Maria made her name as the young character in the play, whom she played with a precise relish for callow, egocentric cruelty, Maria is now to take the role of the older, waning, doomed Helena.
Maria is initially seduced into this potentially facetious piece of backtracking by Klaus’s theory that Helena and Sigrid are essentially portraits of the same person at different stages in life and thus a predominantly psychological work, whilst Henryk describes it as a simple and relentless portrait in the pathetic subordination of a weaker person by a dominant one, and thus about the power dynamics of interpersonal society. When Rosa decides to leave the house she and Melchior shared, she offers it to Maria as a place to rehearse the play and commune with the essence and inspiration of Melchior’s art. Maria and Val move in for the duration, and begin the heady work of finding an access point into the play’s theatre of pathos.
The title of both Assayas’ film and the play within it refer to a strange weather phenomenon in the region—a snakelike ribbon of cloud that creeps up through the mountains and over the lake at Sils Maria whose exact cause is unknown. This mystery is correlated with the enigma of desire and the wilful self-immolation of Helena depicted in Melchior’s play, which concerns both the consumption and supplanting of the old by the young, but also with the impulses that still burn within us as we age and the overpowering force of repressed, asocial wont. The invented play that serves as linchpin for Assayas’ dramatic enquiries was inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant (1970), a work Fassbinder likewise translated from stage to screen. Although Assayas has been prone to fetishizing lipstick lesbianism in the past, the status of Fassbinder’s works as singular classics of the burgeoning age of outright queer art concern Assayas less than using them as template for fabricating an exemplar of ruthlessly psychological, selectively realistic, serious-minded modernist art. Likewise, the film’s allusions to Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968), annex the aura of intense worthiness still retained by that grand, but fading era. Simultaneously, the way Fassbinder used gay coupling with cunning alacrity to render the power dynamics in all relationships bare in deadly contrast is also vital to Assayas’ plan.
Assayas can then toss such high-falutin’ fare playfully against the seeming frivolousness of much contemporary big-budget cinema. Rather than merely exploiting the dissonance to better affirm the aspirations of the would-be artist in the face of sell-out self-loathing, as Birdman was rewarded for depicting, Assayas is a postmodernist, knowing all too well that the divisions between high and low art are often illusory, but also he is determined not to pander. He wants to know why metaphorical studies in human nature, which can be at once simplistically minor and mythically large, have stolen so much thunder from the integrity of such grand art. “The Maloja Snake” is supposed to be the kind of work artists and scholars can get lost in for years trying to plumb its subtleties and evocations of seldom-explored corners of the psyche, and the way each person engaging with the text transforms it via their own experience and intent.
Maria trips up on her own evolving and altering reading of the work, which she once understood on the level of pure instinct in channelling her own ruthless, youthful drive into the figure of Sigrid. This must now be subordinated to the far more painful process of reconciling her own fear of aging with the terrible description of Hanna’s disintegration, but also on the level of raw theatrical craft, stumbling over lines that once seemed abstractly forceful and now only ring as clunky and didactic. Appropriately for the theatrical dimensions of his inquiries, Assayas structures his film in three acts: a first part, a second part, and an epilogue. But he also subdivides the film with a classic cinematic device—fading to black as the punctuation of most scenes rather than the direct leaps favoured by most modern editors, emphasising, rather than sublimating, the passage of time, giving the film a mood of somnolent, yet wiry expectation.
By most standards, not much actually happens in Clouds of Sils Maria. Assayas gives the bulk of the screen time to Maria and Val shacked up in Melchior’s house, arguing approaches to the play in specific and the business of performing art in general in a manner that takes near-unseemly delight in the mere display of actors verbalising with all their wily talent, as if taking a calculated tilt at the dogma of modern filmmaking, to avoid devolution into mere talk. Assayas quietly undercuts cliché in making the older European actress more emotional and quicksilver in her reactions and creative yearnings and the younger American taciturn in her emotional life and more overtly intellectual and theoretical in her explorations, albeit in such a way that often conflicts with Maria’s sense of worthy art, talking up the necessity of committed acting even in light fantasies. The association between the two women seems workaday, but steadily unveils itself as a complex and loaded mesh of mutual requirement as Maria and Val are bound together by shared intelligence and passion for the creative life, albeit a passion that the younger woman must subordinate to the elder as the successful professional. Val functions as sounding board, mental fencing opponent, grease trap keeping distractions and time suckers at bay, and avatar out in the world of youthful desire. The project of restaging “The Maloja Snake” is both expedited and complicated by the other side of the casting equation. Klaus tells Maria he’s secured Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz), a rising starlet who’s a big enough fan of Maria’s to have dropped other commitments for the chance to play opposite her, news that helps lures Maria on board with the appeal to vanity, though Maria has never heard of Jo-Ann.
Val, in another of her functions—translator for the vagaries of the internet age for Maria—is able to dish all the dirt: Jo-Ann is infamous for her spacy, spiky interviews and You Tube-enshrined freak-outs. Like Maria, she’s just come off a big-budget scifi movie, cueing a sequence when Maria and Val go to see the film, donning 3D glasses for the privilege. In the brief glimpse of the movie, Jo-Ann’s character is a mutant walking out on her fellowship of good guys, revealing herself to be a traitor who’s in love with the bad guy before exterminating her mutant friend (Nora von Waldstätten). Val vocally admires Jo-Ann’s talent and encourages Maria to work with her, even take some inspiration from her. After the movie, the pair argue over what they’ve just seen. Maria dismisses the pop psychology and what she sees as inherent ludicrousness of the material, but Val argues passionately for Jo-Ann’s transcendent dedication to the part and the force of feeling underneath the generic metaphors. Maria laughs heartily with a hint of wilful contempt, whilst Val continues to argue with frustration, but they patch it up when Val dismisses the film’s villain. This sequence binds together much that’s essential about both the film and Assayas’ recurring peccadilloes, not least of which is the spectacle of cinephilia itself, the critical dissection of clashing artistic concepts and world views, and Assayas’ adoration for louche glamazons in tight outfits, an adoration he always treats with wry awareness, harking back to Irma Vep’s PVC fantasias and the confused invocations of Catwoman as inferior descendant.
As a mimicry of Hollywood blockbuster style, the movie-within-a-movie misses the mark, probably deliberately. The wigs and costuming recall a different brand of comic-book-inspired pop cinema from the ’60s and ’70s with a hint of retro camp, whilst the overt discussion of emotion in the dialogue cuts against the grain of the current superhero genre’s pre-adolescent distrust of such things. In this aspect, Assayas is clearly more definitely referencing the Twilight series, setting up Val’s passionate defence of the kinds of role and performing that gave Stewart her own fame and fortune. There is another message in the mutant movie that has warnings for the two ladies: one mutant kills off the friend who tries to council her wisely but against the flow of her tumultuous feelings. When Maria and Val meet Jo-Ann, she and her boyfriend (Johnny Flynn) are listening to Handel in an upscale hotel. Jo-Ann seems to be a calm, cool, generous young woman light years removed from the half-mad or druggy tyro the internet records. Jo-Ann charms Maria by copiously praising her and explaining the roots of her adolescent obsession with acting as being rooted in seeing Maria live on stage. Only when Maria and Val return to Sils Maria can Val explain the tabloid storm waiting to happen they were just privy to, because Val recognised Jo-Ann’s boyfriend as Christopher Giles, a hot young writer who’s married to a prize-winning German artist. At first, Assayas seems to be constructing an obvious point here, decrying the way celebrity’s worst moments can be captured and turned into permanent, inescapable representations, and that Jo-Ann is just a young talent who indulges, but isn’t defined by her appetites. But another facet suggests itself, that Jo-Ann is a consummate performer in life as well as on screen, becoming whatever she thinks is needed of her in a given moment.
Assayas, who started as a film critic and then turned to screenwriting, penned the script for one of Binoche’s important early films, Andre Techince’s Rendez-vous (1985), and he all but invites the viewer to go right ahead and conflate the various players on and off screen with the characters in the film, with himself cast sarcastically as Melchior, ghostly, pointedly absent but still the puppet master, and Binoche and Stewart playing versions of themselves. Assayas certainly mines the ironies of the two actresses’ careers with assiduous skill, playing off the oppositions they seemingly invoke—European/American, maturity/youth, high art/pop culture, and on and on—whilst also collapsing and undermining those divisions. Mostly this feels like a sarcastic dare for the audience to make such an ill-advised leap: Assayas is ahead of the game. Binoche’s own recent, too-brief part in Godzilla (2014) was an interesting discursion for a hugely admired performer who nonetheless has had a frustrating time of it in English-language cinema, whilst Stewart, an actress with an impressive resume of film performances under her belt in small and independent films, is still currently defined for most by the Twilight franchise, which made her name the easiest of cheap-shot targets, whilst Jo-Ann’s transgressive romance with Giles evokes Stewart’s own tabloid crash-landing.
Of course, there’s nothing terribly uncommon about either actress’s career pattern either, and it’s this very commonality of experience that intrigues Assayas, trying to turn the mixture of specificity and universality that’s supposed to make for great art inside out. Like fellow ’90s French auteur-star François Ozon, Assayas is fascinated by characters who indulge in role-playing and try to actualise their internal dialogues, but he’s careful not to stoop to an overt a trick like Ozon did with Swimming Pool (2003) and have his characters prove to be literal, obvious projections of a creator’s thought process. Instead, Assayas reroutes his awareness that all characters are essentially fragments of the author’s (his) mind, whilst purporting to make them radial extensions of Maria herself, commenting on past, present, and future, as Val, Jo-Ann, Klaus, and Henryk all present dimensions of Maria’s ambitions and anxieties in obedience to the common pattern of function in drama.
At the same time, all of them are struggling for autonomy, for their own justifications and arcs: actors’ egoverse couples folding themselves into every other person around them with the eternal fear that others will erase them. Maria and Val’s life together in Henryk’s house quickly starts to feel like a kind of sexless marriage, especially as Maria relies on Val to give her juice and morale, but she also resents it when Val’s admiration goes to anyone else, like Henryk and Jo-Ann. Maria’s feelings about other actors are coloured by the way they interact with her life experience, whilst Val assesses them purely with the gaze of an intelligent fan. Jo-Ann comes to represent the unalloyed force and ambition of the young actor as opposed to the toey criticality of Maria as the weathered artist.
Maria stores up Val’s implied criticisms and veiled warnings and then ambushes her with their implications at random moments, whilst the two women begin to bicker and butt heads with greater frequency. Their adventures in the surrounding landscape mark stages in the decay of the partnership, from casually stripping off and diving into the lake to getting lost and wandering in the descending murk after arguing aesthetic quandaries until they literally can’t find their way home. Val strikes up a romantic liaison with a photographer, Berndt (Benoit Peverelli), who shoots Maria for the festival promos: Val amusingly introduces him to Maria as the man who took “those really trashy photos of Lindsay Lohan.” Val leaves Maria to meet up with Berndt a few times, but after one excursion, she is depicted driving back through the mountains in the fog, the film’s sole moment of showy filmmaking: Assayas double-exposes the image, so that the road continuing to twist and bend from a driver’s perspective even as Val stops the car to vomit by the side of the road, expertly visualising Val’s physical state of head-swimming nausea and her tumultuous, disoriented emotional state of things having gone bitterly wrong. Eventually, she asks Maria if she wants her to leave after a particularly gruelling rehearsal session, feeling that her ideas are only confusing Maria, but Maria asks her with disarming directness to stay and embraces her.
The mountainous setting is replete with otherworldly evocations, a Wagnerian landscape for communing with gods, and the Maloja Snake itself, which took on a spiritual significance for Melchior. Maria and Val try repeatedly to grasp that meaning by hoping to see it, whilst Val herself gets lost in the churn of lesser atmospherics. Early in the film, Rosa shows them a film of the event, taken by German filmmaker Arnold Fanck (codirector of The White Hell of Piz Palü, 1929). In the film’s provocative, initially bewildering pivotal moment, Maria and Val try to catch sight of the Maloja Snake on a foggy morning. On the way, the duo argues about the play’s ambiguous ending, which implies but does not show Helena’s suicide. Val points out that it’s hardly conclusive and that it might in fact support the theory that the play is actually about Helena wilfully throwing off the vestiges of her life en route to rebirth. Maria barks irritably at Val that she’s trying to make the play the opposite of what it was supposed to be. Moments later Assayas observes the duo descending a hillside, and Maria reappears on the reverse slope, but without Val behind her. Maria reaches the peak and sees the Snake forming, but when she looks back, she sees no sign of Val. Maria searches with increasing frenzy, but turns up no sign of her companion. Assayas fades out and returns weeks later, with Maria in London with a completely new PA and the restaging of “The Maloja Snake” now in final rehearsals.
What the hell has happened? Maria doesn’t seem disturbed or unhappy, so it’s unlikely Val has met a sticky end accidentally or deliberately. More likely she simply gave up, walked back to the house, packed her bags and left her job. But there is no certainty. At first it seems like a mischievous diegetic joke, Val making a point about the ambiguity of the text’s conclusion to taunt Maria. It’s also possible to take it to mean that Val never was, that she was just a projection of Maria’s self, a facet of her personality she now no longer needs as creative quandary gives way to hard career choices (this does seem unlikely, however). As the film’s metatextual humour has constantly threatened, this proves to be rather Assayas’ act of narrative self-sabotage, highlighting the very point that was just being argued about: he quite deliberately erases all sign of what’s happened, and the audience must decide for itself. Val vanishes as the Maloja Snake appears, and Assayas mediates dreamily on the mountains engulfed by cloud, Handel sawing away on the soundtrack.
The unanswered mystery of the sudden disappearance calls back to another icon of mid-20th century art film, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), but where Antonioni was evoking the mystery inherent in much of life, Assayas undermines the very structure of his art to reaffirm it. The notion of a character suddenly absented from a story and thus from existence is another of Assayas’ fixations, from the fraying New Wave director in Irma Vep who seems to vanish into the experimental movie he leaves behind to the antiheroine of demonlover being abducted into the black zones of the internet and the protagonist of Boarding Gate retreating from revenge to be lost in the great mass of humanity. The tale of Val and Maria seemed to demand a conclusion, a grand gesture—that they split, become lovers, destroy each other—but Assayas simply avoids it. Whatever Val has done has been aimed at hurting Maria and perhaps herself, and more importantly, she’s hurt the narrative and broken free. The rest of the film plays out normally. Maria has a new assistant (Claire Tran), who has Val’s confidence but nothing like her bohemian edge. Whilst Maria and Klaus have dinner, the director pensive about his project, news comes of Giles and Jo-Ann’s affair: Giles’ wife has attempted suicide, and the shit is about to hit the tabloid fan.
Jo-Ann coolly invites the tabloid blame for the tragedy to shield Giles, revealing an almost saintly side, but as she and Maria rehearse and Maria tries to sensitise her to the dramatic value of evoking pity for Helena, Jo-Ann dismisses the point, stating that the audience is now entirely bound up in Sigrid—in short, she’s taking charge now and fuck the older woman, Maria and Helena both. Helena accepts this without demure, and meets with Piers Roaldson (Brady Corbet), a young, first-time filmmaker far less slick and self-assured than Klaus who wants her to play another mutant in a low-budget scifi film he’s about to shoot in Ukraine. Ironically, Piers has contempt for this very thing Maria’s been struggling to accept and adapt to, as well as for Maria’s concerns about her age. “She’s outside of time,” Piers tells Maria of the character he’s written for her, a creature who does not age normally. The likeness is obvious, to the image of the eternal actress, frozen at a phase in life by the movie camera, exempted from the petty cares of life. By inference Maria has finally reached a point where she, too, has transcended time. To reach this point, Maria has essentially been stripped of her illusions, her airs, and her beliefs. There is nothing now but the job itself, but that is a form of freedom. Assayas fades out on the image of her ensconced in Helena’s place, smiling with wry expectation to herself, aware that on one level Val was correct, that Helena’s self-destruction is as much a journey of wilful disassembling as it is one of tragic succumbing, an expression of desire to find what else there is life—and that Maria doesn’t have to follow it to the same end.
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Director/Screenwriter: Carlos Vermut
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Midway through Spanish filmmaker Carlos Vermut’s mordant sophomore feature Magical Girl, Bárbara (Bárbara Lennie), a former prostitute in the S&M scene around whom much of the action centers, meets Oliver Zoco (Miquel Insua), a wealthy paraplegic who runs a brothel for sadists. Married to a psychiatrist who keeps her on a short leash and desperate for $7,000 to pay off a blackmailer, Bárbara has agreed to a one-off session with one of Zoco’s clients. Zoco asks her if she likes bullfighting, and they agree that neither of them has a taste for it. Zoco then offers the following analysis of the place of bullfighting in Spain.
It is curious that Spain is the country where bullfighting is most popular. Do you know why Spain is a country in eternal conflict? Because we are not sure if we are a rational or an emotional country. Nordic people, for example, act in accordance with their brains. However, the Arabs or Latinos have accepted their passionate side without blame. Both, they know which are their strong points. Spaniards are balanced right in the middle. That’s the way we are. And what is bullfighting? The representation of the struggle between instinct and technique, between emotion and reason. We have to accept our instincts and learn to deal with them as if they were a bull, trying not to be destroyed by them.
This speech is the key to the quietly savage tale Vermut has put on the screen for our amusement and horror.
In sadomasochistic relations, it is the submissive who controls the action. Magical Girl shows just how much two seemingly vulnerable and submissive females control and bring about the ruin of the men in their lives. One of them is the picture of innocence—Alicia (Lucía Pollán), the 12-year-old, leukemia-stricken daughter of unemployed literature teacher and single father Luis (Luis Bermejo). The close, loving relationship between them is evident in his loving names for her, the games they play, and his parental concern over Alicia’s request to spend the night with some girlfriends watching Japanese anime. Her favorite anime is Magical Girl Yukiko, and her fondest wishes are to possess the costume Yukiko wears and to live to be 13. When her father discovers her laying in her room unconscious and rushes her to the hospital, he learns that her second wish likely will not come true. He decides he will grant her first wish, even though the designer outfit costs nearly $7,000.
The second submissive is Bárbara. The opening scene of the film shows a young Bárbara (Marina Andruix) turn the tables on her math teacher Damián (José Sacristán) when he forces her to read aloud a note she was passing in class. The note reveals that she thinks “Cabbage Face” is pathetic, and when he demands the note from her, she makes it disappear through sleight of hand. The adult Bárbara is kept in luxurious bondage by her husband Alfredo (Israel Elejalde), who shoves an antipsychotic or antidepressant down her throat, checking to see if she has swallowed it, even sweeping his finger around the inside of her mouth to be sure. The depth of her disturbance shows when they go to visit friends, and after being forced to hold the friends’ new baby, Bárbara starts to laugh. Compelled, like Damián compelled her so long ago, to reveal what she was thinking, she says she was imagining what everyone’s faces would look like if she tossed the baby out the window.
At home, Alfredo forces Bárbara to take a sleeping pill, and when she awakens in the middle of the night, she finds only empty hangers in his clothes closet. She downs the bottle of sleeping pills, only to vomit them out the window and right onto Luis, who is standing in front of a jewelry store ready to smash and grab the valuable contents in the window to finance the Yukiko costume. Bárbara takes him in, washes his clothes, and while they are drying, seduces Luis, thus leaving herself open to the blackmail he sees as the only way to get the money he needs.
Both Alicia and Bárbara depend on others to take care of them. Both are sick and find ways to use that sickness to get what they want. The frivolousness of Luis’ mission forms a dead-on critique of affirmative parenting. Luis may be delusional about Alicia’s real needs—as a friend from whom he tries to borrow money says, Alicia just wants to spend time with him—but when he presents her with the dress, her reaction is underwhelming. When she starts looking through the box, he realizes he missed something—the $20,000 magic wand accessory—and is forced to extend his blackmail demand. Alicia is indeed a very entitled child who elicits our sympathy and scorn at the same time.
Bárbara finds a way to embarrass Alfredo for making her go out when she didn’t want to, and though he tries to leave her that same night, he returns the next day with an ultimatum I suspect would vanish into thin air if Bárbara ever called him on it. That she doesn’t, and indeed, pursues increasingly more dangerous sexual activities to deal with her blackmailer suggests to me that she’s trying to have her cake and eat it.
As with any good bullfight, Vermut waves his red cape and punctuates these fairly straightforward, intertwined stories like a picador with some lacerating scenes of seriocomedy, as when Bárbara splits her forehead open when she head-butts a mirror or Alicia dances in manic delight to some Japanese music, clutches her side and suddenly collapses out of the frame. The undercurrent of economic crisis in Spain adds an air of desperation, and Luis’ instruction to Bárbara to put the money in a copy of the Spanish constitution held at a public library because “nobody will read it” offers a sardonic commentary on the state of neoliberal policies in Spain. His men—all educated intellectuals—often have the mere illusion of control, but when they succumb to their emotions, their ferocity is something to behold.
Vermut offers some interesting set-ups to suggest character, and even cinematic parody. When Bárbara enters Zoco’s mansion, the formality of the setting and faux gentility of the characters echo the sleazy sophisticates of Eyes Wide Shut (1999), and the addition of the black lizard room, with this animal silouette hanging portentously over the door, is the kind of sly joke one would expect from the likes of Luis Buñuel. Revelation of the scars criss-crossing Bárbara’s body brings out the Spanish sense of morbidity (and incidentally, offers more erotic menace than a “sensation” like Fifty Shades of Gray  could begin to think of) and the pallor of death that permeates so many film from that country. In other instances, an overhead shot of Damián’s desk, with every object regimentally aligned with geometric preciseness, is a perfect snapshot of a man desperately trying to keep the bull locked in its pen, and the small hand reaching toward him holding the key to the gate.
When Vermut pulls his sword out from behind his cape to go in for the kill, the change is as unexpectedly thrilling as it would be in a real bullfight. Damián is the sleeper character in this film, and his obsession with Bárbara the driving force in a truly unsettling tale of revenge. Like the Spanish, Vermut moves us slyly between the poles of reason and passion. The final victory, perhaps unsurprisingly, goes to the bull.
Magical Girl is showing Saturday, March 28 at 3:00 p.m. and Wednesday, April 1 at 7:30 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago. The Wednesday screening will be introduced by Steven Marsh, associate professor of Spanish film and cultural studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
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Director: Christian Schwochow
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On October 3, 1990, East and West Germany were officially reunified, and Germans in both halves of the country looked forward to better times for the entire country. The hardships under which the East Germans lived for decades, however, did not vanish overnight, and integration of the two populations was fraught in many ways. Christian Schwochow, who was born and grew up in East Germany, has begun to examine this past. His 2012 miniseries The Tower dealt with the crumbling of communist rule in East Germany, observing life in the former Soviet bloc country near the final approach of reunification. West takes a step back to the 1970s for a look at life for East Germans who were granted permission to emigrate to the west.
The film opens with our main characters, Nelly Senff (Jördis Triebel) and her son Alexej (Tristan Göbel) bidding a loving farewell to the man of the house, Wassilij (Carlo Ljubek), who is leaving on a trip. The context of the trip is vague, and when he says that he will see them in a week, the furtiveness of the exchange made me wonder whether they were all going to try to escape to the west. Flash forward three years, and a worried-looking Nelly is indeed making for the border with Alexej to start a new life—but with the government’s blessings. Nelly, jittery that something will foul up the plan, tries to keep Alexej from the leaving the car to use the rest room. This action ironically arouses suspicions, and Nelly is asked to submit to questioning. Although her papers are in order, East Germany reserves one final indignity for her before she leaves—she is made to strip, jewelry and all, for a cavity search before she is released to West Berlin’s Marienfelde Refugee Center.
Mother and son are given room and board, and Alexej is enrolled in the local school. They are given a card that will need 12 stamps from various officials before they can leave the center and find a job and a place of their own. Slowly, Nelly begins to make friends, and Alexej latches onto a long-time resident of the center, Hans Pischke (Alexander Scheer), who distracts him when the boy witnesses a hanging suicide. Nelly, initially furious that Hans seems to be playing father to Alexej, relaxes when he tells her why and begins to trust him. Sadly, an American official, John Bird, (Jacky Ido) who refuses to stamp her card because he believes Wassilij was a Soviet courier who is still alive, derails her plan to get on with her life and stokes her paranoia to the point that she begins to suspect Hans of being a Stasi spy.
West is a film that cuts a lot of narrative corners and provides so little backstory on any of its characters that it’s hard to register them as anything but types. This sketchiness may be deliberate, as it helps us to identify somewhat with Nelly’s dislocation and distrust. Nonetheless, because we are shown things Nelly is not—Hans taking Alexej away from the scene of the suicide, Alexej buying flowers for his mother that he leaves as a surprise for her in their room—her anger and paranoia seem quite unreasonable. Schwochow further plays with our sense of reality by giving us a few brief glimpses of Wassilij, sometimes as Nelly’s delusions and then perhaps as a real person. He offers an American paranoic, a fairly predictable, but perhaps accurate touch, but puts Nelly in the position of using sex to find out what he knows about Wassilij; adding this cloak-and-dagger element and setting up the stereotype of the German woman desiring an African-American cheapens an already unflattering portrait of an intelligent, professional woman (a chemist) defined by her lover and mother roles.
Nonetheless, looking past the narrative weaknesses, West is a riveting experience thanks to the mesmerizing performances of Triebel and Göbel. Triebel won best actress awards at the 2014 German Film Awards and 2013 Montreal World Film Festival and was a best actress nominee of the German Film Critics Association in 2015 and the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival. Triebel is on camera almost constantly, and her intense, full-bodied performance makes up for the sometimes weak dialogue with which screenwriter Heide Schwochow, the director’s mother, saddled her. So focused is she that looking at screencaps for this film, I was extremely surprised how much her character smokes in the film—I just never noticed. At the same time that I felt her full-bore seductiveness toward Bird and deep love for Wassilij in their one brief scene together, there was a certain containedness that felt absolutely right for someone who lived under an oppressive, vigilant regime.
Göbel’s open face and innocence stand in contrast to his costar’s suspicions and fear. Alexej misses his father, a fact he and Nelly talk about openly. At the same time, his inability to deal honestly with his mother, standing bewildered, unable to say the flowers are his gift to her when she snatches them out of their vase and smashes them in a trashcan, rings painfully true. His relationship with Hans is wonderfully warm, untainted by the suspicions of others; we’re grateful he has Hans to turn to when the West German boys start to pick on him and break his glasses. Frankly, I could have looked at him the entire film and not have been bored at all.
Alexander Scheer has a tricky balancing act. Hans must be normally friendly but seem abnormally so to Nelly. He doesn’t quite pull it off, but I give him full marks for convincing me that he had been tortured by the Stasi and emotionally crippled as a result. It is important to realize that not everyone can be strong and put the past behind them.
Schwochow’s handheld work, getting right into the faces of his characters, creates an intimacy that draws us into the story, even as his muted, cool colors suggest the gray area between imprisonment and freedom. When Nelly’s world gradually starts to open up, it is a joyful relief, a reminder that despite its imperfections, unification made life better for a lot of people.
West is showing Saturday, March 21 at 5:00 p.m. and Wednesday, March 25 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Co-Adaptor: Alain Resnais
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
On March 1, 2014, Alain Resnais died after a long and fruitful 91 years of life. A chronic asthmatic from a comfortably bourgeois family who was exempted from active military duty during World War II, he made some of the most powerful antiwar and humanist films ever produced, including Night and Fog (1955) and Muriel, or the Time of Return (1963). He also created films of mystery with elliptical narratives like Last Year in Marienbad (1961), reflecting his early interest in surrealism. In his later years, he struck up a working relationship with British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, whose comedies of manners reminiscent of Molière’s bedroom farces must have held great appeal for the French director. Resnais’ adaptation of “Intimate Exchanges,” Smoking/No Smoking (1993), swept France’s César awards. His next collaboration with Ayckbourn was an adaptation of “Hearts,” the bittersweet Private Fears in Public Places (2006). Their next collaboration turned out to be the last film Resnais ever made, Life of Riley, or Love, Drink and Sing, as Resnais’ title translates. The story and presentation are light as a feather, yet something of Resnais’ gravitas as a director adheres, making it an appropriate valedictory work.
The comedy involves three bourgeois couples—Kathryn (Sabine Azéma) and her physician husband Colin (Hippolyte Girardot), Tamara (Caroline Sihol) and her wealthy husband Jack (Michel Vuillermoz), and Monica (Sandrine Kiberlain), who has left the titular George Riley, for life on a farm with Simeon (André Dussollier). The first two couples are involved in an amateur drama of the 1965 Ayckbourn play “Relatively Speaking,” and much of the film’s action involves them traveling to and from rehearsals. It appears that Kathryn and Tamara were once professional actresses, and a mild level of competitive sniping goes on. Generally, however, harmony reigns.
All that changes when Kathryn wheedles a secret out of Colin—one he all but reveals to her with poorly veiled hints—that George has terminal cancer and has perhaps six months to live. Despite Colin’s warnings about patient confidentiality, Kathryn immediately blabs the news to George’s best friend, Jack, whose distraught reaction is theatricality itself. The friends decide that the best thing for George is to join the cast of the play to get his mind off his troubles, and he is summarily recruited for that purpose. The heightened emotions that emerge during the amateur theatrical, so reminiscent of a similar treatment by another British humorist, Jane Austen, in Mansfield Park, pose a challenge to the harmony of the couples, as each woman—long-ago lover Kathryn, estranged wife Monica, and current fling Tamara—are drawn toward the charismatic, doomed George out of boredom, duty, or a need to be needed.
Resnais hews close to the stage origins of this romantic farce by emphasizing the artifice of his soundstage shooting, with fake flowers and plants, barely there sets, and long sheets of painted muslin to simulate walls, with the actors pulling back the muslin to exit and enter the scene. There is a sitcom quality to the construction of the film with Resnais’ use of drawings of each set as the establishing shot of where the next scene will take place, and light, lyrical transitional music. The cast of veteran actors use all the verve at their command, with Resnais’ wife and frequent collaborator Sabine Azéma a particular stand-out as a take-charge woman shackled to a passive husband. Michel Vuillermoz is pitch-perfect as a doting father to 16-year-old Tilly (Alba Gaïa Kraghede Bellugi) who all but ignores his gorgeous wife, practically ensuring her dalliance with George. While André Dussollier doesn’t have much screen time, cartoonish encounters with a tree stump, trying to avoid kicking it when Monica runs to George’s side, lead amusingly to the inevitable.
The difference between the “no sex, please” British and the “amour fou” French is the emotional bedrock of their respective approaches to the bedroom farce. British romantic comedies tend to be less fussy, more declamatory, and generally safer from an emotional point of view. The French, who seem to take love as it comes, compartmentalizing the propriety of official matrimonial alliances and the passion of romance, always seem much more serious to me about the place of love in their lives. It’s hard to imagine an Englishman filming Jacques Demy’s semi-tragic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), for example. It is this underlying passion that gives Life of Riley the heft it has. When each of the women contemplates spending George’s final days with him in Tenerife—in his infinite bet-hedging, he has asked them all—their true feelings emerge in a very telling way. It is at this point that Resnais finally and fittingly films scenes in the interior of each of their homes.
Despite the brightness of the comedy and energetic work of the splendid cast, it is hard to watch Life of Riley without a certain melancholy setting in. Like the unseen George Riley, Alain Resnais’ ghost haunts this motion picture. The final grace note of the film reminds us of just how enormous our loss really is.
Life of Riley screens Friday, March 13 at 6:00 p.m. and Thursday, March 19 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Jessica Hausner
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Austrian director/screenwriter Jessica Hausner is one of the most unique voices in European cinema today. Her particular concern with the intertwining dance of love and illness made her film Lourdes arguably the best film of 2009. Amour Fou, her first film in five years, forwards that concern and suggests by its title that Hausner will present a comedy about the folly of love. Indeed, Hausner’s film offers an amusing look at the petty passions of the haute bourgeoisie, but as she did with Lourdes, Hausner builds a sense of horror that mirrors the rising passions of a world in flux.
The film takes place in Berlin in 1811. Friedrich Vogel (Stephan Grossman), a tax official with the Prussian government, and his wife of 12 years, Henriette (Birte Schnoeink) live a comfortable life with their 9-year-old daughter Pauline (Paraschiva Dragus). They are attended to by servants and attend musical evenings and balls among their social peers. Henriette is a compliant wife who considers herself her husband’s property, remarking that she has no desire for the freedom her companions are afraid will infect the common classes as French revolutionary ideas spread through Europe. A poet she admires, Heinrich (Christian Friedel), responds that it is better to die free than to be bound to an unhappy, conventional life.
Heinrich, in fact, longs for death, saying that he has no talent for living and suffers constantly due to his sensitive nature. Further, his romantic nature requires him to find a woman who will die with him out of love for him. Unfortunately, the woman with whom he has been involved, his cousin Marie (Sandra Hüller), refuses to enter into a suicide pact with him. Thus spurned, Heinrich believes that Henriette, who was attracted to the tragic heroine in his most recent poem, may be an acceptable substitute.
Amour Fou is as droll a film as one can imagine. The actors all underplay their scenes, a parody of the polite society to which their characters belong. Their homes and clothes tend to bright colors, thus saving them the inconvenience of donning rose-colored glasses. The scene in which Heinrich implores Marie to die with him is worthy of Mike Nichols and Elaine May, an earnest Heinrich (“You would make me very, very happy.”) met with Marie doing a double-take and dismissing the idea with an incredulous laugh. And Hausner gives the Vogels a Weimaraner, indelible to me as the quintessential absurdist dog because of the photos of William Wegman.
But Hausner tends to trap her characters at the bottom of frames, inside window panes, and below heavy, sashed curtains, similar to how she seemed to crush Christine, her pilgrim with multiple sclerosis in Lourdes, by filming her through a small slit between enormous church pillars. None of these wealthy bourgeois are truly free, though they scarcely seem to notice. Their self-dramatization—the aristocrats whining about having to pay taxes, their loathing of equality and their fear of a Jacobin terror, the poet for whom death seems the only answer to his roaring mediocrity and dependence on his relatives for a living—is laughable, but given the social and economic terrors of our modern world, all too familiar and deadly serious.
Heinrich’s courtship moves in fits and starts, with a selfish cruelty Henriette recognizes but is helpless to resist. He insists that she is lonely, a misfit, unloved and unloving, despite all appearances to the contrary. Henriette begins to have fainting spells and spasms, which are initially diagnosed as a nervous disorder, but later determined to be the result of a large tumor or ulcer that will kill her in a matter of months. Given her diagnosis, Henriette’s attitude toward Heinrich’s proposal changes, but in his simpering egotism, he only wants her to die for love of him, not to forestall her own suffering.
Hausner’s linking of love and illness is an interesting one. In Lourdes, Christine’s attraction to a man and determination to compete for his affections with a pretty nurse seem to banish her disease—making her a shoe-in for the best pilgrim of the trip award—though she is only in remission. Henriette, on the other hand, falls ill when faced with Heinrich’s “mad love”—not a true romantic love, as he clearly says he’s still in love with Marie, but one based on a platonic ideal not unlike the kind of love desperate pilgrims seek from Our Lady of Lourdes.
Looking at her own mediocrity—her skill on the pianoforte is hardly better than her daughter’s and her singing a crow’s caw when she renders a song she heard an opera singer perform at the gathering that opens the film—and her pending mortality, Heinrich’s proposal seems a way to fulfill her desire to make a mark, to become mythic through an act of extreme romanticism. This is the age that birthed Richard Wagner, after all. How else can one explain her rejection of her life, of a daughter and husband who clearly love her? Indeed, Friedrich travels through the conflict-torn countryside to reach a specialist in Paris and returns with the news that Henriette might still be cured.
The careful framing, gorgeous period settings, brilliantly orchestrated set-pieces like a ball with period dancing, and vibrant colors of this film are a feast for the eyes, and I admired the subtle performances of this uniformly fine cast. Schnoeink especially initially emerges as a shallow hausfrau without a thought in her head that her husband and acquaintances haven’t put there. As her situation grows more dire and her choices narrow, our laughter gives way to concern and a contemplation of what we owe to society and what we owe to ourselves. There is a shocking ambiguity to her actions and a genuine poignancy to her growing attraction to the eternal, but is she the victim of yet another man dumping his desires into her empty cranium? Trapped between two equally distressing outcomes from the audience’s point of view, we wait anxiously for Henriette to make her choice.
Amour Fou screens Monday, March 9, at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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Director/Screenwriter: Eugène Green
18th Annual European Union Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Most of us have met people who identify with bygone eras. They style themselves to suit their preferred time, in ’60s go-go boots, short Sassone hairdos, and day-glo miniskirts or ’40s wide-shouldered, double-breasted suits, fedoras, and hand-painted ties. It’s rare to find someone go much earlier than the 1920s, however, because the clothing gets a lot more complicated and cumbersome. However, though he may not dress the part on a daily basis, Eugène Green is all about Baroque, a period that occupied the whole of the 17th century in Europe. Green is an New York-born filmmaker and naturalized French citizen who, through his teaching, theatre work, and films, has revived the French Baroque style of performance.
Green began making films when he was in his mid-50s, and when I saw his last feature film, The Portuguese Nun (2009), I felt he had a lot of potential but hadn’t quite jelled as a filmmaker. I’m happy to report that with his new feature film, La Sapienza, Green has arrived with a clear intention of what he wants to say and the wherewithal to pull it off superbly.
The film’s central couple, architect Alexandre Schmidt and his psychologist wife Aliénor (Fabrizio Rongione and Christelle Prot), are frustrated by their career compromises and disconnection from each other. After a particularly disheartening meeting with some investors who reject his desire to use existing structures and people-friendly spaces in favor of a more cost-effective development project for Bissone, Switzerland, Alexandre decides to take a break. He asks Aliénor if she wants to go to Italy with him, where he intends to do research for his long-delayed book on his idol, Baroque architect Francesco Borromini (1599-1667).
The two travel to Stresa, a beautiful town on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy, where they encounter 18-year-old Goffredo (Ludovico Succio) and his 16-year-old sister Lavinia (Arianna Nastro) while walking along the lakeshore. Lavinia suddenly grows dizzy and weak, and the older couple hail a cab and take the siblings home. Aliénor’s concern for Lavinia grows, and when Alexandre announces that he needs to travel to Turin and Rome to conduct research, Aliénor decides to stay behind. She enjoins him to take Goffredo, an aspiring architect, with him.
It’s possible to look at the doubling of Aliénor and Lavinia and Alexandre and Goffredo as doctor/patient and teacher/student, respectively, and suspect that the roles will be reversed. Indeed, this is exactly what happens, but this schema is more complex than that. The couples are bilingual in French and Italian, but to learn their individual lessons, the females speak French to each other, and the males speak Italian. Aliénor and Alexandre become time travelers, not literally meeting people from the time of Green’s imagining as happens in a film by another New Yorker in love with France—the all-too-facile Midnight in Paris (2011)—but rather by interacting with teens who embrace the ethos of the Baroque period. Succio and Nastro are rather unusual looking, as though they came from another time. Lavinia is said to have a wasting disease, archaic terminology that takes Aliénor aback, and the girl believes there is a cloud hanging over Goffredo that is the cause of her condition, certainly an evocation of hysterical illness that would not be treatable until the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Goffredo sleeps with his door unlocked, despite Alexandre’s cautions against it. The young man says he always burns a candle at night, whose light he believes will keep him safe. Indeed, Goffredo wants to design buildings to contain light and people, a stark contrast to Alexandre’s design for a windowless hospital to eliminate outside distractions and focus its patients entirely on their recovery. “I would do it differently today,” he says to Goffredo.
The heart of the film might be said to encompass Alexandre and Goffredo’s tour of the great edifices of Borromini. Alexandre explains the challenges Borromini faced, particularly from his mentor and eventual rival, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a compromising architect with whom Alexandre regretfully identifies. The plain facade of Borromini’s Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza, built on a limiting footprint in Rome, opens to reveal an undulating, soaring interior, using the geometry of circles and ovals to create the feverish excessiveness that characterizes Baroque style. Green leads us to the cornice high above the nave floor, shaped and lit like the eye of God, the most ancient being in a film reverent toward the past.
Alexandre’s desire to retain existing elements for new construction, as Borromini did, reminds us that cities and towns are an amalgamation of styles from throughout history; Green’s reference to an archeological dig further reinforces the fact that human life on Earth has been built, layer by layer, on the foundations of the past, a repudiation of modernity and its overweaning ego. Green lays his criticism on a little thick at a dinner party of shallow bourgeois professionals living on an ancient estate without seeming to notice anything around them but their own intrigues. He doubles down with a comic burlesque involving an Australian tourist (Jon Firman) who demands to be let in to a chapel that is closed because he came all the way from Sydney to see it.
Green’s camera roves Borromini’s edifices and lingers lovingly on the majesty of Stresa, contrasting the survivors of the past with the straitjacketed characters of the modern age for whom the camera rarely moves. In keeping with Baroque theatre style, the actors declaim their lines with little emotion and generally static facial expressions. Nonetheless, though the buildings have been given the illusion of movement by their architects, our cast comprises real people with actual movement and simmering emotions that infuse their performances as the film progresses. As with The Portuguese Nun, Green adorns his females, especially Aliénor, with beautiful and distinctive clothing in keeping with his version of a costume drama.
Green himself becomes the mouthpiece of the past, playing the Chaldean, one of an ancient tribe driven by the American invasion of Iraq from their ancestral lands and thought by Aliénor, who encounters him one night, to have gone extinct. The Chaldean says his people were able to read and speak with the stars, and he looks at Aliénor and says her destiny is a good one, filled with love. When Alexandre and Goffredo return to Stresa the next day, Lavinia is cured, Alexandre and Aliénor find themselves passionately in love again, and Alexandre finds a new purpose as a teacher. It appears Green believes in oracles as well, and he arrives at his happy ending via a well-lain journey of discovery. In his worldview, it seems that those who remember the past will be lucky enough to repeat it. Bravo, professore.
La Sapienza shows Saturday, March 14 at 3:30 p.m. and Monday, March 16 at 6:00 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St., Chicago.
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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
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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