Dear Faithful Fans: You have happily devoured my trilogy of film notes on recent movies as I have dished out each new installment, more spectacular than the last. You now regularly ask me, “What did you think of this blockbuster?” and “What of that piece of Oscar bait?” as though needing me to put this disordered world in perspective. At least I think that’s what you’re asking me. It’s hard to hear inside this bulletproof limo, and you really shouldn’t rush out into the street like that.
In answer to your earnest pleas and sincere interest, not to mention my deadline, I have gone through my notes and “hand-picked” (why do they always say that? as opposed to foot-picked? nose-picked?) a modest 25 responses to movies that caused a temporary ripple in the buzz-o-sphere during the last two years. Now that a little time has passed from the hubbub and marketing and even the slowpokes have had a chance to get around to them, let’s see how they stand up in the memory.
An Oscar Digression
As everyone knows by now, the most important movies made by Hollywood are based on comic books. If you fully assimilate this fact, it partially explains the phenomoenon of pundits fretting about the 2016 Oscar nominees’ lack of “diversity”. After all, the nominees for Best Picture only included two woman-centered Irish-Canadian indies, an Australian action picture, a sci-fi movie, and something about a bear directed by a Mexican, while the acting categories highlighted a lesbian romance and a British movie about a Danish transsexual.
Some wayward souls might have considered this diverse, but none of that counted, for “diversity” is a code for the shallowest form of human categorization and the one invented by racism: skin color, now described in politically correct terms as “looking like me”. (Imagine Leonardo DiCaprio showing up at the NAACP Image Awards and chiding their lack of diversity because nobody looks like him.)
The absence of “actors of color” among this year’s nominees tells me that England hasn’t been making movies about black people, like 12 Years a Slave, and nothing at all about Hollywood. For an index of Hollywood in the awards season, check the People’s Choice, MTV Awards and even the Golden Globes.
The most consistent observation made by Oscar watchers in the new century — which has been objectively the most diverse in its nominations until the last two years — is that Oscar voters tend to avoid the movies made by big Hollywood studios and actually seen by audiences. Instead, Oscar favors “foreign” productions and low-budget indies, like the previous year’s Best Picture nominee Selma, while generally eschewing big-budget mainstream products not made by Steven Spielberg.
None of which is to argue or imply that there aren’t serious racial issues in the film industry — and Spike Lee has always been dead right that the key is ownership of real production power. It’s just that the Oscars are, for several reasons, a bizarre distorted glass for trying to see the state of mainstream Hollywood.
While we’re on the subject, I never saw anyone point out that the voting process only permits members to submit one favorite nominee in their professional category and Best Picture — not two or five, and there’s no central committee trying to be “representative”. What does this tell us?
Consider that the same critics who jumped on board to chide the Academy also put out their own Top Ten lists, and each critic’s Number One movie would have been his or her single submission if they were Academy members. If America’s critics had chosen the Picture nominees, the list would have looked basically the same with the addition of Carol and Ex Machina — no glittering parade of “diversity”, there.
The Metacritic website has the collated list for all to see. Creed, cited by A.O. Scott and other critics who opined about this topic to Charlie Rose as an example of an overlooked nominee, and shame on the Academy, is #17. Why? Because exactly one critic picked it as #1, so it would never have shown up on the list of nominees. Same deal with the oft-mentioned new Star Wars film, at #20.
That’s called math, and while such a voting process may indirectly imply something about which movies get produced with serious Oscar intentions — as opposed to box office intentions — it should give pause to kibbitzers who wish to convey how much more enlightened they are than the Academy.
So let’s move on to the comic books.
Read the Graphic Novel, See the Graphic Movie
1. We’ll begin, alas, with Transformers: Age of Extinction.
Form and core elements: nearly three hours of dumb dialogue (90 percent expository of the “We’ve got to cross the bridge!” and “They’re gaining on us!” variety, ten percent macho and/or flippant posturing) interlaced with a dumb plot of robots that can’t fight without knocking over buildings and cars and product placements, with the good robots now and then saying “We don’t harm humans.” No reports on collateral casualties.
Visual style: shot in the nouveau-elegant manner of lengthy traveling shots composed in depth for the benefit of 3D and frequently presented in slow motion, as opposed to the sublimininal hyper-editing that must be officially out of style if even Michael Bay has dropped it, and it’s all prettied up with pleasingly saturated color palettes.
You see, Dear Masochistic Cineastes, we must give these films their due. Today’s action blockbusters conceive gorgeous and lengthy CGI-enhanced traveling shots full of swift movement for enhanced 3D submersion. For even more dazzling examples, check Avengers: Age of Ultron, with its early shot swirling through a forest attack like Evil Dead Goes to War, or an aerial shot entering Avengers HQ and passing up through a glass ceiling, or an inward 360 degree track of the Avengers defending the crystal McGuffin against robots. Otherwise, it’s one damn noisy thing after another for over two hours. In short, this is this the kind of film that’s at its best with the sound off.
Theme 1: Macho men. Kelsey Grammer plays a Black Ops CIA guy going rogue to line his golden parachute while spouting about honor and Keeping America Safe, and Stanley Tucci plays the ruthless inventor-capitalist who has a change of heart after realizing he’s been duped. Is this an argument about the security state out of control? Ironically, with Chinese cooperation, the film throws in gratuitous scenes of the Beijing authorities striding about declaring that they will do everything to protect Hong Kong even though they can’t do squat. There’s also a gratuitous Hong Kong martial-arts butt-kicking babe who rings Tucci’s bell in a good way.
Theme 2: Science and capitalism running amok? The movie brings out the old saw about “some things shouldn’t be invented”, as spoken by Mark Wahlberg in ironic counterpoint to his earlier assertion of the opposite. He plays the overprotective daddy to a spunky yet clueless 17-year-old harlot-dressing bombshell whose Irish speedracer boyfriend is cast to resemble Paul Walker.
So — and this the real head-scratcher — could we spin the interpretation that the movie is “about” all this macho-ness and implicitly a critique, on the military-industrial level, of what also occurs on the personal family level? The father / boyfriend rivalry is presented as a testosterone-fueled hand-off of “protecting” the girl, and the movie doesn’t appear to criticize this, especially since the “kicking butt and taking names” mode is echoed by the robots.
The most spelled-out message: “You’ve got to have faith in people”, spoken by Marky to Optimus Prime, who must relearn his named optimism.
2. The previous, by no particular coincidence, is also the moral spelled out by Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) to his 50-year-younger self (James MacAvoy) in the much better X-Men: Days of Future Past, directed by Bryan Singer with a few moments of exaltation. Both films begin with floating black blocks over the earth, a manifestation of literal blockbusters.
The time-travel plot has Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) transporting his consciousness to his 1973 body with a mission to unite Xavier and the young Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who’s incarcerated in a Pentagon basement for allegedly killing JFK, into preventing blue-skinned firecracker Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from icing an envious dwarf scientist (Peter Dinklage) and enabling the devastation of Earth by mutant-hunting chameleonic transforming machines (hmm).
The best scene, witty and exhilarating, employs slow-motion and elaborate traveling shots to depict Quicksilver’s eyeblink disabling of a roomful of cops to the tune of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle”. Once again, the best way to see action is to slow it down — and yes, this is another 3D-prepped project. Why doesn’t he break the sound barrier? Let’s not go there.
Halle Berry gets high billing for nothing much besides having an Oscar, Anna Paquin ditto, Ellen Page for spending the whole movie exuding concentration while holding onto Wolverine’s head. Ian McKellen flies majestically in a cape. Is this the comics movie with the most Oscar winners? By the way, Berry typifies what African-American actors this century have done, and very sensibly, after winning Oscars: not make another indie critics’ darling seen by few but the kind of Oscar-invisible movie that pays for the house and gets seen by everyone.
3. X-Men also has a hacker who learns that sometimes secrecy is necessary to help people and that security organizations can do good work — unless down the line, the internal conspiracies combust as they do in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which argues against secrecy and security, or rather that they are opposites. This “dark” Captain, with its vision of a mechanical fascist “Star Wars” security state ready to laser algorhythmically projected miscreants from the heavens before they get up to mischief, is a startling step up from the previous origin film — albeit bloated at 2 1/2 hours, of course, with the action being the least interesting parts.
It begins by seeming to polish off Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury (but you’re not fooled, are you?) and succeeds in bringing down SHIELD, as infiltrated by Robert Redford’s post-Nazi Hydra. Scarlett Johanssen is substantial as the Black Widow this time around, and there’s an African-American military veteran with mechanical falcon wings called, natch, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). I forgot to mention the identity of the super-efficient Winter Soldier, but we can see that one coming. All is consistent with the comics’ controversial George W. Bush-era storylines.
4. Unlike many, I was less than charmed by Guardians of the Galaxy, which combines Star Wars shenanigans with lots of noisy destruction and casual sadism, including on the part of our ragtag team of outlaw misfits. It tries to set itself apart by employing the same hip humor as everyone else, only more so, with ’70s pop on a mixtape, comic turns by John C. Reilly, and a blue Michael Rooker, a vulgar raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper, a tree voiced by Vin Diesel (say what?), and a cameo by Howard the Duck. Paychecks are picked up by Glenn Close for standing there and giving orders next to a woman who jots everything down, and Djimon Honsou for standing there and following orders, and Benicio Del Toro for standing there in fabulous furs.
5.. Even more depressing: John Wick, a steaming pile of bad-ass patterned after comics and video games and whose object is to radiate cool from pressing “Play” until knocking over the last expendable cardboard duck.
The titular bad-ass (Keanu Reeves, coming into his grizzlement), living in a fabulous glassy hilltop mansion, buries his cancer-deceased wife and receives her posthumous gift of a beagle pup to love (aww) — until sadistic Russian ruffians (is there another kind?) steal his car and kill his dog. Oh no! This time it’s personal! Their only mistake was leaving him alive! They just fracked with the wrong Mexican!
Wait, that was Machete, and quoting it reminds me how much better Robert Rodriguez does this sort of thing, and I’m reminded also of the exuberance and playfulness seen in Crank 2. John Wick enters these sweepstakes with, at least, a nicely designed sense of presentation, something against which its puppets, including Willem Dafoe and Ian McShane, can posture. You could call it “distilled”. Or lean to the point of anorexia.
The making-of pufferies all discuss having two directors, but only one is credited as such. They’re friends who own an important stunt and second unit company, making their first movie as a showcase for their choreography, which explains why characters never fire one round when five will do, and their curious bias for seemingly unnecessary hand-to-hand antics when they’ve got a minute to fit it in, and the hero’s strangely unstoppable mystique. It’s fair to compare this to film porn, with many more ejaculations per minute, and all man to man except for one gratuitous leatherette barbie tossed in for a rumble.
For reasons hardly obscure, this movie eminds me of Hitman, endured around the same time. Based on a video game, it’s got an organization of bald assassins, raised since orphanhood with barcodes tattooed on their heads. Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but our guy does a job and then realizes he’s been set up by the client — a Russian president or his double — and must now take him out before vice versa, while of course protecting a knockout prostitute and being tracked by a relentless Interpol agent who utters lines like “I just need more time” and “He set us up from the beginning”.
To add character, Dougray Scott pronounces those lines with a Scots accent. French import Xavier Gens, shooting in Russia and Istanbul, makes it as shiny as possible, adopting a fluid formality rather than handheld jitters. Inescapable conclusion: routine and sadistic dreck looks better than ever. Hooray for style!
6. Kingsman: The Secret Service is a flashy, cheeky, rowdy, black-humored evocation of James Bond and U.N.C.L.E. via the Avengers (Steed & Peel, that is, not Professor Xavier and Magneto, although director Matthew Vaughn did the last X-Men), with great attention paid to whirling slow-mo set pieces of violence among crowds, and throwing in the ever-popular vulgar punchlines amid the elegant sartorial fashions and gentleman japery. Most gratuitous and egregious burp of adolescence: “If you save the world, we can do it in the asshole.”
Colin Firth recruits a young Cockney yobbo into the grueling private spy academy named after King Arthur figures, headed by some aging wanker played by Michael Caine. The villain, a lisping internet billionaire (Samuel L. Jackson), has a theory about saving humanity from global warming by tapping our natural violent instincts without inhibition, which means if we’re to take any of his premises even slightly seriously, that “saving the day” is dooming the planet. It’s a cynical movie in which the highest attribute is to kick ass (oh yeah, Vaughn also did Kick-Ass with proper style, and there’s a take-no-prisoners cheekiness about world leaders, including an Obama cameo.
Here’s a poser: Okay, this movie is vulgar, violent, British, spoofy, and destructive. So is The World’s End, in fact it’s more of all those things, yet it’s twice as good as Kingsman and notably shorter. How so? Co-written by director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg, The World’s End follows a manic, morally stunted alkie whose life peaked at 17 and who rounds up the gang to recreate an unfinished pub crawl in their home village: 12 pubs, with the final one being the titular World’s End.
It’s impossible to predict where any of this is going (unless you see the trailer, natch, so don’t), but it pulls off the trick of having wild action scenes that are simultaneously crazy, funny, and beautifully done, with lots of lengthy whiplash handheld takes. Most hysterical exchange: “It was a white lie.” It’s constructed so smartly as to reward multiple viewings, and the consideration of its themes runs much deeper than you’re used to with rowdy entertainment. It’s about the struggle against conformity and change and gentrification, which struggle might be misplaced, and it has a core of sadness.
Films Not Based on Graphic Novels, But Might As Well Be
7. Since I seem to have tangentialized into discussing a genuinely funny movie, let me now praise another film not based on a comic book except spiritually. I speak of the wit, originality, unpredictability, clean aesthetic and good heart of Pixels, an Adam Sandler joint, and the best pseudo-’80s movie to be directed by Chris Columbus 25 years later.
You think I’m kidding. Nope. It’s a genial, self-consciously absurd and entirely successful take on the kind of action movie that critics claim seem like video games. It seems to be aimed at ’80s children, and includes a similarly arrested fantasy notion of romance. It’s brisk, its “levels” clearly structured, and it has the kind of clever nostalgic humor and left-field plot details that remind me of the similarly maligned Last Action Hero, although — hey, I haven’t lost my mind — it’s not quite at that level. Look for cameos by Hall & Oates and the inventor of Pac-Man. It indulges one moment of body-fluid humor, at the expense of Q-bert, and it can’t resist wasting a Smurf.
If one wished to indulge, one can read its hostile invasion by game icons as some kind of cultural commentary. The story comes from the same headspace (or Headroom) as Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, about obsession with ’80s trivia and video games, none of which I’ve ever played. Like that book, it charmed me despite my total lack of interest in the topic. Unlike that instant classic, the movie tanked with critics — but apparently made a lot of moolah. Well, more power to it.
8. The Interview, undoubtedly the most notorious movie of the last couple of years, is a more homoerotic comedy than Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, although the level of hilarity is about the same — to wit, not much. It has an interesting visual texture, on the dark and grainy side, and it spends more energy than you’d expect on the halfwits getting to know the Korean dictator (Randall Park in a committed performance).
It’s also sly and snarky enough to get in digs at the US, from the very premise of a deniable murder plot to letting Kim flummox James Franco’s “journalist” character, Dave Skylark, with the observation that America incarcerates more citizens per capita. When asked how many times America will make the same mistakes, Skylark shouts “As long as it takes!”
In the end, it all testifies to the power of Katie Perry and American trash culture. The DVD opens with the directors thanking us for the support and hoping we enjoy our freedom, and the aroma of snark is palpable even there, leading me to fantasies of their contriving their own controversy to head off criticism.
9. Jupiter Ascending plunks Heinlein-sounding heroine Jupiter Jones (Mila Kunis) into a lost-child / messiah archetype that crosses Cinderella with Dune, evoking the Lynchian baroqueries of same — Dune Entertainment is one of the production companies! Surely that’s not part of a calculated plan.
Plot: The multi-galactic corporation-universe raises Earth as a crop farm (guess what the crop is), but there’s a genetic / reincarnated fly in the ointment (guess who’s the fly), so some forces want to eliminate her while others want to save her, but which is which is a bitch. Our princess requires constant rescuing from her own colossally bad decisions, like agreeing to marry a stranger, or bargaining with an effete baddie (Eddie Redmayne) who stole her family, as she’s dragged from pillar to wondrous post without wasting much time processing this new reality.
A questionable move is instantly falling for a hunky unbruisable soldier (Channing Tatum), alternately looking pained at his dialogue or doing the airborne roller boogie. He’s like Wolverine spliced with Silver Surfer, and he does a knockdown drag-out with his ex-commander (Sean Bean) until Joanne Dru fires off a round and cries “Can’t you see you love each other?” (Wait, that was Red River with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift. I got distracted.)
There are two freakin’ endless time-wasting chases of whizzing noisily through the air, one that does lots of damage to Chicago and is brushed off with “We’ll wipe their memories” (guess nobody got killed! guess it wasn’t on live worldwide TV / internet!), and the other amid burning Jupiter skyscrapers with nobody on them.
On the plus side, the design/decor is marvelous. There’s a brief sequence of lived-in future-archaic bureaucracy where the movie comes alive and feels temporarily like Terry Gilliam — and look, there’s a cameo by Gilliam! I’d have preferred that movie instead (and did in 1985, called Brazil), yet I’m sure lots of impressionable kids will be dazzled by this one, so I don’t regard this as harshly as many have. It’s interestingly girl-centered, and unfortunate that she’s so dumb so often. Her valuable lesson is that when you’re queen of the world, you can smile while cleaning toilets.
10. Another girl-centric adventure is Tomorrowland, which posits that a glittering alternate reality, somehow maintained by robots, is broadcasting signals warning us of planetary doom unless we pull our socks up. These signals have the unwitting counterproductivity of convincing us of said doom and triggering our death wish over our libido, not that it uses those terms — this is Disney, after all. Therefore, we have to be optimistic and get with the program of finding solutions. Meanwhile there’s lots of noise and robot battles. And George Clooney acting all grizzled and “Get off my lawn!”
I agree with the message and appreciate the use of a science-geek heroine who’s also drop-dead foxy, and of course certain things are very well done, such as a dazzlingly fabricated five-minute “shot” of her introduction to Tomorrowland and the many wondrous things she sees. But aside from the gloss and good messaging, it’s kind of routine. Maybe adventures for girls don’t actually need to be better than those for boys, but it would be nice.
11. He may be old, but he and therefore Arizona and therefore America won’t back down, amigo. The Last Stand follows the formula: ruthless bad guy breaks out of prison with the help of an endless supply of minions who establish credentials of violent mercilessness, and only Sheriff Schwarzenegger and his podunk crew stand in their way.
“It’s the last stand,” sez the ex-governator in a line that got wisely cut and can be heard in the deleted scenes. Set on the border between Arizona and Mexico (with fields of waving corn), if this picture gits ‘er done, it’s because South Korean director Kim Jee-Woon knows something about action, but it’s still an unapologetically routine high-octane throwaway full of standard postures.
The young Mexican drug lord makes a crack about illegal immigrants, voicing a subtext, to which the Sheriff says he gives them a bad name and you can’t buy honor. With the help of a local gun freak whose quasi-legal arsenal proves helpful, plus feisty old homicidal lady comic relief, this is a movie the NRA would approve of in its vision of the self-sufficient rough-and-ready modern West where the locals can TCB better than the gummint. Forest Whitaker is dead weight as said gummint, while Harry Dean Stanton drops by as an uncredited cuss.
12. What would be the stylistic opposite of The Last Stand? Blackhat. I don’t think it’s Michael Mann’s dullest (that would be Heat, also the longest), but it’s over two hours of people tapping keyboards and saying aloud what they’re doing in order to track a hacker (or “cyber-terrorist”, though thankfully no one uses that term) who’s a mere unkempt capitalist still wearing his Miami Vice clothes. All this is lacquered in broody ambient music, half whale and half stomach rumbles, while we look at pretty city-lit skylines in slow motion.
To wake us up, there’s a big shoot-out, and then it gets personal, so our brilliant yet hulking programmer-jailbird can get all Rambo on their tails in a big parade scene where the bystanders are surprisingly cool about huge white guys waving weapons until the director cues their panic. Good thing our hero looks like Chris Hemsworth instead of, say, pre-dental Steve Buscemi, or maybe Ducky in Pretty in Pink, either of which would be more interesting.
There’s also a dull romance of teeth-grinding dialogue and perfume silhouettes with a Chinese woman (Tang Wei) displacing her handsome brother, who works for Chinese intelligence. Message 1: It’s better to work together. Message 2: Individuals with a personal stake work better than bureaucratic organizations. Message 3: It takes a rogue cyber-thief to catch a rogue cyber-thief. Message 4-6: Just do it. Seize the day. If you can dream it, be it. Well, at least that’s the bad guy’s philosophy.
Two Years of Oscar Bait, Whether Bitten or Not
13. Locke is a blessedly short (80-minute) high-concept character study in which Tom Hardy lilts a Welsh accent as Ivan Locke, having speaker-phone conversations in his car at night on the highway to London. No melodrama, just the tension of dealing with confessing to his wife that another woman is having his child, while also trying to conduct the last-minute details of a major construction job under his supervision. He lives like he drives: straight, steady, controlled, meticulous, making a point of trying to be dependable and honest while admitting that his single sexual lapse has derailed his life.
The car and higway symbolize his life as we sense his literal confinement and also the paradoxical freedom of travel with all the abstract lovely lights reflected in the windows as he carries his world with him. The voices in the car function as projections of himself as he makes conflicting demands on himself, especially in his angry imaginary conversations with a shiftless father whose legacy he feels he’s refuting and fears he’s repeating. As the car responds to his commands, it can be seen not only as the egg of his life but even as his brain. It’s a cleanly conceived and presented chamber drama.
14. After the acclaimed indie musical Once, John Carney takes a step up the financial ladder with the New York story Begin Again. Mark Ruffalo plays a burned-out A&R producer on a losing streak. His confrontational inebriated scruffiness is getting him bounced from the company he founded while suffering separation from his wife (Catherine Keener) and inappropriately dressed daughter (Hailee Steinfeld). Keira Knightley plays a nascent Brit singer-songwriter who just broke up with her breakout rock star boyfriend (Adam Levine).
Just as it sounds, none of these characters is interesting. What’s interesting is the animating concept of recording an album live all over the city (thus the “love letter to New York” cliché duly mentioned in the puffery), and that’s interesting twice over: as details of getting the work done, and because the songs are good.
It’s also trying to make the point that anyone, even random people on the street, can make art and that independent dollar-downloads free of record company sharecropping is where it’s at–especially if you have fairy godfathers like the deux-ex-limosine star (CeeLo Green) who pays for musicians and Tweets you. So music and art are nourishing for the soul, a theme I always approve.
I also like the fact that, despite all the music, this isn’t a melodrama and the characters don’t have serious problems or crises. They’re just living. The characters are almost place-holders because it’s necessary to have them in order to do the songs. Also nice is the fact that Ruffalo and Knightley’s characters are just friends and collaborators without a sticky vibe. They have some nice chats, such as when he talks about how music lends gravity and meaning to the ordinary.
15. John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard, with Brendan Gleeson, was one of the most entertaining films of its year, and the two of them followed up with Calvary. Gleeson plays a priest in a coastal Irish town where everyone has the same amazing retro taste in American music like Hoagy Carmichael and Roger Whittaker. The priest receives a “confession” by a parishioner who vows to murder him in one week in revenge for having been molested by a different priest as a boy. Over the course of the week, he encounters vividly articulate citizens who illustrate various ideas about faith or lack thereof and bring in contempo Irish references like the financial crash and Catholic scandals.
The problem is the coy “mystery” hook. We know from the start that the priest knows who the threat is, and it’s explained that the seal of the confessional doesn’t apply. But even though the film follows the priest’s POV from beginning to end, a subtle distance is created by the fact that we don’t know the one crucial fact he does.
This means that a different sort of suspense is created for our benefit, because our issue is more along the lines of “Who is it?” and basically wanting the priest to keep the rendezvous to solve the mystery for us — although the revelation is more or less random and makes no more sense than anyone else. In other words, we’re distracted from thinking in the more common sense terms that the priest should: “How can I help this person?”, which he has stated is his mission as a priest.
From that question, it’s clear his actions are of no practical value at all, and we can think of obvious choices he should make that don’t involve sending the guy to prison for murder. It would be an intriguing dead end to speculate about suicide, for the priest is strongly against it according to several plotlines (including his pre-priesthood daughter and a writer played by M. Emmett Walsh), and he answers “smart arse” when someone says Christ committed suicide.
Alas, this project has been conceived to illustrate the rhetorical/symbolic notions of a movie called Calvary, not Credibility. I don’t require credibility, and it’s fine to me that characters and actions are presented as more allegorical than psychological (as long as they’re this intelligently written), but that structural decision feels like a ruse, a sleight of hand over a conceptual flaw. Even so, it’s worth watching, and one sequence where the priest is framed against an ancient crumbling tower while phoning his daughter, framed against a modern glass pillar, is worthy of Antonioni.
16. While J.C. Chador’s Margin Call was dialogue-driven, All Is Lost is virtually dialogue-free. Robert Redford, who symbolizes privileged America supported by the corporate world market while assuming a kind of self-sufficient isolationist individualism, plays a man sleeping on a yacht that gets a hole rammed in it by an uncanny anomalous boxcar full of sneakers that fell off a transport ship in the middle of the Pacific.
So he’s sunk by the world he’s created, get it? His best hope is to float to the transport traffic lane, but those huge, seemingly unmanned ships don’t notice his plight as a bit of desperate flotsam.
This film belongs to two recent cinematic strands: the humbling or chastening of spoiled Americans who seek adventure beyond their comfort zone and unfortunately find it (Into the Wild, Grizzly Man, 127 Hours) and the stripped-down survivalist scenario of being trapped in a car trunk, ski lift, elevator, freezer, etc. (Where’s MacGyver when you need him?) Both strands probably started with the 2006 film Deep Water, in which a bickering couple are adrift in a real-time ocean. This also illustrates the possibilities of a Go-Pro movie, although I think (from the making-of) that they used small handhelds while filming in three huge tanks with three identical boats. Redford underplays before impressive effects, and it’s all just a bit pat.
17. A Swedish nuclear family goes skiing and the paterfamilias confronts the moral exposure of his manhood (or failure thereof), causing jitters in the family, in Force Majeure, a film that adopts an elegant distanced style from a stable camera. Even when tracking or dollying (or skiing), the image and composition remain classically framed and smooth. No doubt for commercial reasons, the blurbs on the DVD emphasize labeling it a comedy, and there is that “human comedy” element of uncomfortable, impassive observation of behavior that makes you release tension in laughter, but it’s basically a sad vision of lost, insecure people haunted and confused by their shortcomings.
The father’s meltdown can be seen as what the wife has been provoking, implying that she didn’t realize the consquences of her desires and fears. I’m left wondering about the enigmatic endings, which I can’t give away. Notice the provocative presence of one woman who analyzes and rejects “normal” behavior, both in her sex life and in avoiding contagious hysteria on the bus. I think the “force majeure” isn’t the avalanche (an impressive trick shot) but social expectations that define us. A cold, discomforting, finely tuned existential drama that might as well be German.
18. Whiplash won a Supporting Actor Oscar for JK Simmons, which is to say he supports nobody, since the Academy apparently has no real concept of supporting. Neither does the movie, in which his teacher is the same tired bully promoting a certain idea of “suffering” “inspirational” art at least since Warner Baxter played the director screaming at the chorus in 42nd Street back in 1933. In this case, the teacher uses the language of homo-erotic fantasy to “encourage” his “faggot cocksucker” students. Hell, why not call them “niggers” as well for real encouragement?
Although I’m not autistic and human emotions don’t baffle me (more than anyone else), I’m Spocklike in that what bothers me most is when people are illogical and irrational, which is most of the time. When this is highly underlined, as with pundits blustering on TV, I become almost nauseated. My restless brain begins deconstructing and exposing their obvious stupidities, which are usually demonstrated by taking their “argument” seriously for a moment.
Which bring me to this movie, where a fascist bully rationalizes his B.S. by repeating a parable about Jo Jones throwing a cymbal at Charlie Parker’s head, from which he makes the fallacious leap from something that happened (apocryphally or with embellishment) to what didn’t: “If he hadn’t done that, Parker would never have become Bird and the world would have been deprived of his genius, and that would have been a tragedy.” Teacher also mentions Louis Armstrong, but nobody points out that nobody threw a cymbal at his head.
Let’s leave aside the notion that genius is so fragile, when it’s the nature of genius to process everything thrown at it — whether a cymbal or a kiss — such that literally everyone and everything is a teacher and also in the way, and that genius would follow its destined path barring war or disaster, flowering no matter what’s around it, maybe not that year in that venue with that band but maybe a year later or six months earlier or because it had a bagel one day instead of a baloney sandwich. Oh, how we need the myth of the tortured genius to justify greatness!
I could digress at length, but I’m employing restraint. Instead, let’s confine ourselves to the logic of the teacher’s conclusions and its application. By definition, it’s impossible to prove what didn’t happen (the conclusion he’s jumping to), except in the most narrowly obvious matters, and what is obvious should always be stated clearly. We can only declare with certainty that Parker would have never become Bird, and the world would have lost a genius, and it would have been a tragedy, if Jones HAD thrown a cymbal at his head — and killed him. Then the homily becomes: don’t kill your students, for you might deprive the world of the next Bird. And that’s exactly what our teacher has done!
In the flurry drummed up by this movie, I see no clue of self-awareness about this nor an expectation that the audience might find it, and here’s why: although Damian Chazelle says it was inspired by a high school jazz class, I can be sure that the ending (trumping and impressing the bully at Carnegie Hall) is a cathartic fantasy that didn’t happen to him — or else he’d now be a great musician instead of filmmaker. And so, the effect of this departure from the authentic (the thrown symbol, ha ha) is the false conclusion of the rationalized fantasy (what didn’t happen), or the tendency to justify nonsense.
The viewer is liable to accept this because of the dazzling display of drumming that finishes the movie, yet that reality came about because the actor underwent a crash course of training without anybody throwing something at his head or standing in the way of his support. And now critics and viewers respond with those killing words: “Good job! Here’s an Oscar!” Therefore, the conditions of creating this art refute the manifest content of the story being told. Surely lots of folks have noticed this. Or I could be wrong — maybe if I threw something at Chazelle’s head, he’d make a better movie. At least I’d feel better, because that’s the function of such behavior: it’s about what the thrower needs, not the genius.
19. The Imitation Game is very good on genius. By being about searching for the truth, it’s also about lying and how learning to decipher is linked with learning to lie. I perceive its dominant theme as human consciousness, including self-consciousness, for Alan Turing is presented as an Asperger’s type (literal, uncomprehending of subtleties and ironies) adrift in a world of fleshy cyphers who must be decoded.
In aid of this theme, the whole movie exhibits self-consciousness that might be criticized in another film, including gorgeous establishing shots and transitions of events like the Blitz that are like painstakingly tweaked dioramas in a puppet theatre, a theatre of war. Benedict Cumberbatch’s “look at him act” performance also fits this theme, achieving touching moments within its lost-child self-consciousness, holding the movie together without dominating it.
Also risking self-consciousness, or at least obviousness, are the intelligently dialogued “dramatization” scenes to explain everything, to create suspense and link our contemporary attitudes, e.g., Keira Knightley’s spunky lass faces sexism. I believe all this self-consciousness serves the themes of Turing’s mind and the idea of artificial intelligence embodied in the title. The fact that it’s all connected to real-life war stuff, spies, and cottaging is icing on the cake. I also like the fact that it’s about smart people and helps you feel smart, especially when we’re put into the excitingly played and edited eureka moment of the first decoding.
In the modern manner, Graham Moore’s script threads three timelines: schoolboy, WWII, postwar. The eras are linked fluidly by association and intuition and seem to be occurring simultaneously, just as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything might tell us all time occurs, so it’s ironic how that movie follows a traditional chronological plod.
The provisional “now” of the movie is a police interview in 1951 meant to frame “flashbacks”, but even this frame isn’t presented in order, as we don’t see the beginning of it until the middle, yet the movie’s first shots and narrative are from it. Many scenes, such as the police, are outside this frame. The structure uses what it needs at the moment and discards the rest, and the viewer doesn’t question it. It’s not showy, but this presentation would have confused viewers in the ’40s or ’50s and probably wouldn’t be acceptable in classic screenwriting classes. To me, it’s a sign of how avant-garde concepts of narrative structure have been seamlessly assimilated into the mainstream.
20. Top Five is writer-director Chris Rock’s very sharp and engaging day-in-the-life, with a few flashbacks of a surprisingly sexual slapstick nature, of a movie star who got famous with a trilogy of idiotic monstrosities about a police bear called Hammy (so bystanders shout “Hey Hammy!”) and now is on the wagon, which also means no more comedy, since “every time I was funny, I was fucked up”. In a plotline reminiscent of Sullivan’s Travels (1942), he’s opening a historical epic about the Haiti slave rebellion called Uprize, which is in the process of tanking while everyone lines up for the new Tyler Perry about Madea in a haunted house.
He’s also getting married to a Bravo Channel reality star who has cameras follow her everywhere. But it’s impossible to say her “reality” is more absurd than his, since a New York Times interviewer (Rosario Dawson, very pleasing) is following him around all day. This could be called absurd realism as it doesn’t so much take on celebrity culture, blackness, etc. as use them as a given backdrop for many notes. It came out the same time as Dear White People, also entertaining and free-floating yet less sure-footed and not anchored by a central POV. Rock’s film could be compared with Stardust Memories, which means his directorial debut is already his 8 1/2.
The potential for poor-little-rich-me pretension is avoided by the lively style and grounded approach to this series of sketches, each of which seems about right in length, pace, and target. And the ending does itself the favor of avoiding wrapping things up nicely. Maybe a few too many incidents are crammed in, like the arrest, but that leads to the funny scene where rapper DMZ is in a holding cell and opines that he doesn’t like being limited because he has so much to offer, and demonstrates with a wonderfully wretched rendition of “Smile”. Cedric the Entertainer is, as usual, perfect as a crass blatherskite, and Ben Vereen drops by as the Dad who sponges a few bucks and says “Oh, it’s only funny when you say mean shit?”
21. Cop Car, short yet expansive, derives its tension between the slow quiet pace of its wide-open spaces and the queasy danger brought about by two stupid kids who come into possession of a seemingly abandoned sheriff’s car. Kevin Bacon plays the bad sheriff, and one of the film’s ingenuities is not bothering to explain whatever nefarious skullduggery he’s involved in, because it’s more important that the kids have no idea what’s going on except for their increasingly dangerous fantasy of adulthood and their unthinking assumption of the “coolness” of it all.
This tight, brutal little movie crosses, like the best noir, into the existential. Clearly influenced by the Coen Brothers’ crime movies in its determined cross-purposes and sense of place and pace, this is a gripping, admirable genre piece.
22. Clouds of Sils Maria creates its zone and pulls you in — as all movies are supposed to do, though few pull off so beautifully. Olivier Assayas’ movie is gorgeous and intellectual yet “down to earth”, though the sky is also crucial to its effect. The story examines the relations between a big star (Juliette Binoche) and her assistant (Kristen Stewart), an economically based and tentative friendship that includes laughter, debate and the spaces between their positions and personalities.
The actress is fretting over the older role in an All About Eve-type play where she became a star 20 years ago in the ingenue role, and now the ingenue is being played by a trainwreck Lindsey Lohan-type (Chloe Grace Moretz) who trails scandal and PR behind her. When the star rehearses lines with her aide, we can’t help projecting that play’s predatory layer unfairly and provocatively onto their lives.
This is very much a High Art movie (with Albinoni music) that’s also about popular art as well as general and practical observations of the creative process, and somehow it wears all this unpretentiously and fascinates us with its sinuous wiles, in reference to the enveloping titular metaphor. A “snake” cloud formation gathers and slithers around the mountains in a Swiss valley — is the snake time devouring youth, or is it youth devouring the old? The movie has an uncanny touch beside its everyday concerns. It’s hard for me to imagine that anyone wouldn’t get caught up in this film, yet I realize there are tasteless people.
23. And lo, a few days later, another wonderful movie about the same thing: 40-something artists confronting 20-something incarnations of themselves, with Vivaldi in place of Albinoni. This is Noah Baumbach’s While We’re Young, a very Manhattan movie about a documentarian couple (Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts) who feel alienated from their child-bearing peers and hook up with a 20-something couple (Adam Driver, Amanda Seyfried) who energize their boho mojo. Charles Grodin plays a weary old master. Funny scenes include a purging ceremony and Stiller’s pitch to a money guy.
The film opens with dialogue from Ibsen’s Master Builder, recently made into a terrific Wallace Shawn/Andre Gregory film directed by Jonathan Demme (please watch that one too), about opening the door when youth comes knocking. In Ibsen’s play, the apprehensions are justified, but Baumbach’s witty, smart, refreshing, shrewdly observed movie, with just a dash of farce, is more wry and forgiving, and it’s about real stuff!
By the way, another recent movie on the same topic is Eugene Green’s La Sapienza, if you want to try a triple feature. Watching these movies reminded me of my young turk 20s, when in college I was finding my young arrogant strength to impress and/or intimidate the old guard with my force and potential — and now I’m a rabbit in my hole, no money, no impressive accomplishments, frittered. Poor me.
24. You may recall the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, about Philippe Pettit’s walk between the Twin Towers, which was presented as a kind of heist thriller with reconstructed scenes and real climactic footage from the event.
I guess we didn’t really need a movie remake with finely buff Joseph Gordon-Leavitt addressing the audience with a French accent from the torch on the Statue of Liberty and presenting it all as an illustrated lecture-flashback longer than the doc, but Bob Zemeckis’ exuberant visual approach has a sense of fun and audacity that keeps us watching through the long Mission Impossible set-up, which includes Ben Kingsley as a cranky old circus-acrobat mentor. The Trade Center effects are seamless movie magic, and the final reel is gasp-worthy — within the context of remembering that the true footage is more astounding even if not so close up and bird’s eye. Actually there’s a literal bird’s eye at one point.
But maybe I’m wrong. A fun eye-popper about something truly inspiring that really happened — maybe we do need movies like this, more than we need most movies. What was intriguing about the doc and about this version is that it’s about a plot do something illegal, as with most action thrillers about secret agents and the like, but the illegal objective is beauty and grace rather than violence and power.
It’s about control but also surrender, a literally delicate balance of man and the elements, and the idea is to convey something of the world’s wonder and the positive possibilities we hold back because we’re too cynical and/or socialized to strike out for them against the odds. If some people dream of elaborate plans to enforce terrorism, this is to enforce wonderism. It’s too bad we don’t already have that word.
25. Speaking of Oscar-winning documentaries: the most startling revelation in Citizenfour is how dull most of it is. This behind-the-scenes record of Edward Snowden’s story as it breaks in the news consists of too much footage of him sitting in rooms blathering generalities and banalities without being intellectually challenged. Knowing that we (probably) already know the story and outcome, it teases us with a narrative that promises to unveil hidden secrets, a sense of queasy nervous voyeurism that implicates us both with the whistleblower and, with perhaps unintended irony, the National Security Agency.
Unexplored irony #1: Snowden violates the NSA’s privacy, which is called “secrecy” when it’s the government or a private corporation or any bureaucracy or organization, and axiomatically a bad thing that must be exposed in contrast to “transparency”. He does this in order to protect all our secrecy, which is called “privacy” when it’s individuals, and axiomatically a good thing, nay, a sacred right.
#2: Then he realizes his safety depends on his total lack of privacy/secrecy, so that the whole world knows his name and face, follows his travels and even glimpses his girlfriend as he becomes one of the world’s biggest celebrities, the most public defender of privacy in history. He’s only a few steps removed from that first performance artist who built a glass house with multiple vidcams to record his life online 24/7, even sleeping and using the bathroom.
#3: Snowden’s main journalist, Glenn Greenwald, must have spent part of his life in the closet and be old enough to remember the ’80s-era gay community’s fiercely articulated debates over “Silence=Death” and how “you don’t have a right to privacy about your sexuality”. The evolution of these debates is that same-sex couples may now demand the right to publicly register, at the courthouse and to the IRS, whom they’re sexing up — something once literally unthinkable in the paradigm of “private life”.
Instead of becoming inhibited by the knowledge that everyone knows what they do and with whom, the uncloseted ones changed the culture of judgment and disapproval and illegality and scandal surrounding it — and built a healthier world. The middle-class, Industrial Revolution conception of “privacy” is the first thing you throw overboard.
#4: Greenwald defends this thing he calls “privacy” by imagining a fear-laden future of “the chilling effect”, where people are so paralyzed that they can’t masturbate or read subversive literature or plan armed resistance. Is he unaware of an entire culture of people who blog pix of themselves masturbating to Karl Marx or idly surfing websites devoted to insurrection — duly logged by the NSA, not that anyone is prevented from buying guns – -or tweeting every unwise thought that flies through their heads, causing the fogeys to wring their appalled hands?
Is he aware of people who post every personal thought on their blogs, or run websites where you can watch them shower or sit on the pot for $3.99 a minute? Has he heard of reality TV, or the generation that must be scared by threats of being arrested for child porn if they email nude pictures of themselves, so that laws written to protect children will be used to victimize them? We’ll learn ’em to believe in privacy, dammit!
It seems to me that historical and technologicals trends are against both privacy / secrecy and control, and I suspect there’s a rising generation with no idea what people like Greenwald and Snowden are fretting about. Far from being inhibited, there are people who seem liberated, even encouraged to do what they wouldn’t if they couldn’t document and upload the footage. They fully expect their job interviews (Skyped from home) to include access to their websites and links to their sex tapes and frat hazing rituals and street fighting videos and racist remarks, ha ha.
In the future, everyone will have a sex tape for 15 minutes — not on literal tape, of course. No one will be trusted to hold public office until their sex tape has been hacked — and all organizations from the Pentagon to Walmart to the Vatican will be hacked. Kids today will learn from role models like Donald Trump and vulgar comedy blockbusters like The Interview to not give a damn if you say or do something inappropriate, until inappropriate becomes the new appropriate as people stop being offended and just get on with whatever they feel like doing, and it will be anarchy with dogs and cats making love in the street.
I have no trouble foreseeing this, and I can’t say it won’t be a better world.