Saturday, September 29, 2012

Love: Looper

As soon as Looper started up with some Brick-style hard-boiled talk of mob bosses, blunderbusses, and time travel, I began to have that feeling, that realization that this film is going to be a thing, that people are going to blog about it and talk about it and cite it as criminally underrated (or overrated) for years to come.  It's the midpoint between Christopher Nolan blockbuster and Winding-Refn sleeper (but with a better sense of humor than either), a solid genre film with independent grit. Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as the younger version of Joe. Joe is a 'looper' for a criminal syndicate, which means he's employed to kill and dispose of bodies sent from the future. We're told that time travel hasn't been invented yet, but in thirty years it will be.  Joe's good at his job, he doesn't ask questions and he stores up his silver knowing that one day his future self will be sent to him for execution and he'll retire to live out his next thirty years in peace.  Of course, when that happens, things go awry.  Old Joe (Bruce Willis) has a life he's not ready to part with and a desire to change the outcome of the future.  The timelines meet, the future is in question, and the mob is out to kill both parts of Joe's loop.
All of this, of course, takes place in a not too distant depressed dystopian future where vagrants wander the streets and shooting someone point blank for coming too near your shiny car is played off as par for the course. There's just enough excuse for a strange evolutionary human mutation, and just enough reason to throw in a futuristic hover bike or two.  Director Rian Johnson is a fan of the genre, and he seems to understand how important the odd surreal touch is to a film that generally plays its time travel elements as the norm. It's an exceptionally clever setup, and one that feels quite fresh.  Looper is a legitimately entertaining film.  You'll want to talk about it, and most of the ways Johnson has devised to deal with the inevitable questions are exceptionally sound. Still, a naysayer looking to poke holes in the complicated plot will find much to to latch on to here.
Johnson covers up the potential issues well enough, but there are places where the film asks us to blindly accept a confusing logic that relates directly to the major, major events of the film. Can the events depicted actually alter the future?  How much interaction does it take before the butterfly effect takes hold and all possibilities are destroyed? If you know (essentially) the day you're going to die, why don't more loopers disappear? How many people in the past are aware of time travel in the future? Doesn't that awareness impact its future use?  Also, did they really have to mess with JGL's face that much to make him a convincing Willis stand-in?  My advice to you: as long as it's not wondering why JGL's lips look so made up compared to Old Joe, don't think about it.  Just go with it. There's enough substance to the story outside of the scientific logistics and Looper uses its assets to pull the story in truly unexpected directions far away from the average formula. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Love: Perks of Being a Wallflower

It has been probably a little over a decade since I read Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower.  Which means it's probably about a decade since everyone's dog-earred copies started showing up conspicuously during passing periods and lunches, and since everyone had an AIM away message quoting the moment our narrator felt "infinite."  I liked the book quite a bit at the time, but I never took it on as a full blown accoutrement to my teenage identity (that space was reserved for Fight Club, for some reason) the way some of my friends did.  Years passed, and I forgot huge sections of the plot and replaced them with general emotions. The things that stuck most are, I guess, the pieces that I could specifically relate to: outsider friends, Rocky Horror, mix tapes and awkward parties and moments of feeling separate from your own life story.  Still, there  was never any question as to whether or not I was going to see the movie. Of course I was. There are things we owe to our past selves, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower would be, I thought, like a visit from an old friend. A melancholy, emotionally manipulative old friend.
The story, for anyone who missed it, is centered around the painful coming of age of Charlie (Logan Lerman), a smart, sensitive freshman kid plagued by memories of a dead Aunt and a recently deceased best friend.  Somehow, Charlie befriends the loud-mouthed Patrick (Ezra Miller) and his complicated stepsister Sam (Emma Watson), and they invite him to join their merrily wounded band of willing outsiders. Perks is committed to the lonely realities of adolescence, and the film presents itself in earnest.  This is the new new sincerity, a place where indie-movie sentiments never read as ironic but become heartbreakingly honest.  Chbosky took the directing reins on his own material, and he's cast his story well.  Watson and Miller, in particular, are wonderfully unexpected, warm and broken in ways that force us to see them as Charlie does.  It reads like an indie from a decade ago, something that works in its favor as a strange dose of nostalgia for the book's first generation readers.  Which, I think, is why it hit me like a goddamn cartoon anvil.
If Perks of Being a Wallflower had existed as this film prior to my 19th birthday, I would have watched the shit out of it.  It would have usurped Igby Goes Down and every single one of my friends would have had a DVD copy tucked away on their bookshelf.  If it had existed prior to my 19th birthday, I would have watched this when I stayed home from school sick and probably cried to myself about how beautiful it was.  We would have run it at countless overnights, post-proms, and anti-TWIRPs (that's Sadie Hawkins, for those not in the know).  We would all have the soundtrack, and we would have made more mix CDs than we already did.  Everyone would have had Emma Watson and Mae Whitman's haircuts, and we would have an even stupider dance for songs like "Come on Eileen" (which, it should be noted, was played repeatedly on the passing period mix they piped through the high school halls).  I could go on. All of this is a good thing, generally. It means the film works. It resonates. But now I have a headache from all the things it dug up. It's lovely and painful and precocious and pretentious and sentimental and cruel and funny and real and if it had existed earlier I suspect it would have fundamentally altered the course of my high school career in ways that would have been seriously problematic.

I'm not sure whether my teenage self would have been insanely happy or extremely annoyed by the addition of David Bowie's "Heroes" at a crucial point here.  My teenage self loved that song to bits. My current self still does.  My teenage self, I think, would not have wanted this song spread about willy nilly to all her unworthy classmates because it would have defeated the purpose  One time my teenage self was listening to this song on her boombox when she looked outside and realized that the sky was gold and everything was saturated in color.  My teenage self was not on drugs, guys, but there was a weird ecstatic moment in relation to this song where my teenage self ran out of the house and down the block and everything was very quiet and very synchronized and it was like the beginning of Vanilla Sky and no one else existed on the planet and when I came back the song was still playing (or playing again?).  That was feeling infinite, and the use of the song here exploited my goddamn emotions and I felt all that emo kid shit and I was like "yes!" but at the same time "why are you doing this to me?"  And with that I conclude: feelings. Perks of Being a Wallflower is filled with feelings. It may not be flawless, but goddamn is it potent. 

Love: The Master

 When The Master ended, we didn't leave the theater.  It's not as though the credits were stylishly managed or as if we were waiting for some sort of bonus footage, but we just sat, and stayed, and at first there was no communication at all.  It just didn't seem like the right time to speak.  We stayed there til the lights came up, and when they did we stumbled into the lobby like we'd emerged from Plato's cave and embarked in a standing discussion for what was probably a very long time.  No one had any definite answers last week, and I'm afraid I still don't have them now.  The Master is a confounding, remarkable cinematic achievement, and though I'm not sure what it all adds up to,  I look forward to watching it many, many more times.
I'd like to imagine that the strange, foggy bewilderment is deliberate.  Perhaps this is excuse making on behalf of a filmmaker I'm quite fond of and a movie I'd been eagerly anticipating, but The Master reads as so formally perfect that it's hard to imagine Paul Thomas Anderson making it strictly in service of a cinematographic ideal.  Anderson's vision is very much on display in each and every shot of The Master, and the compositions are crisp, spacious landscapes built to house the larger than life performances of its leads.  We travel by land and by sea, with aerial and tracking shots that are very nearly worrisome, as if our protagonist's erratic behavior is something we should fret about in real time.  Everything is beautiful in the most mundane way, alive with a strange post-war tension rooted in some strange, moth-eaten distaste for the washed-out banalities of modern existence.  And, um, yeah, if that sounds pretentious, you probably shouldn't see the movie.      
 The photography, of course, is a footnote beneath the hypnotic power of the terrifying Joaquin Phoenix.  A summation of the plot has almost no value, but in abstract The Master is about Freddie Quell (Phoenix), a mentally shattered WWII veteran who returns to a society unwilling to give a trauma-addled loose cannon a steady job.  On an inebriated evening of note, Freddie stows away on the boat housing the magnetic renaissance man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his 'family' of followers in a vaguely defined, Scientology-esque new 'religion' called "The Cause."  Dodd and Quell connect, somehow, someway.  Freddie is dangerous, crude, violent, and generally lacking in both intelligence and self-control. He is an animal where  Dodd is every bit a man: well-spoken, sharply composed, a supposedly brilliant multi-talent who frequently talks his way out of small troubles.  Dodd's steely, tricky wife Peggy (Amy Adams) doesn't particularly like Freddie. We're not sure for which reason.  Is Dodd the tamer?  Is he interested in reforming Freddie? Is Freddie his id? His past self? His test subject or friend or would-be lover? We're never quite sure.
 What we do know is that Phoenix is disturbingly convincing as Freddie to the point that he changes in front of our very eyes to becomes something twisted and deformed by circumstances.  It's frightening, in a way, to watch someone so physically committed to a role. He tears rooms apart, throws his body against prison bunks and stalks, postured birdlike and constantly tense, looking for a fight in every new space he enters.  Of course, part of Phoenix's strength here is thanks to a certain chemistry with Philip Seymour Hoffman, who embodies the majestic persona of his character with tremendous ease.  There's a scene in which Dodd subjects Freddie to the 'cult' initiation of 'processing' that should probably be filed away in the dictionary under the very definition of 'acting'.  It's a tense, harried interaction in which every line of dialogue, every motion, and every second builds to scene as impressive as it is infuriating. I wanted it to end immediately even as I wanted it to continue indefinitely (the old 'the suspense is terrible...i hope it lasts).
I've avoided reading any criticism or theories surrounding The Master.  This is, I'll admit, more so because I just haven't had the time to look into what other people made of it than because I've really been interested in forming my own distinct opinions.  I left that long lobby conversation puzzling over the intricacies and nuances of Anderson's work.  The point of the story, it seemed, was obfuscated in a way that should have been troubling.  The realities of the characters, too, were probably blocked.  The process of arriving at these questions, though, was spellbinding.  I'll return to my earlier thought and repeat it again: everything about The Master is so deliberately executed that I have trouble believing the overall product was an afterthought.  Perhaps we are supposed to leave befuddled or questioning what it is we just saw.  Perhaps we have undergone a processing of our own, or our viewing experience is meant to mirror the fractured psychology of Freddie Quell. Perhaps this is an induction, perhaps we're supposed to believe in something that isn't there at all. A god, a cult, time travel, a basic narrative structure.  I can't pretend to know, but I'm having a hell of a time coming up with the possibilities.

Monday, September 17, 2012

L&S Essentials #1: Black Narcissus

I've been wanting to begin cobbling together a list of "essential" films for some time now.  Every notebook I have from the 11th grade on has a half completed version of a 100 Favorite or 100 Best films list, but they always get cut short or run long, weighed down in some conflicted notion of what I believe should be on there and what is culturally expected to be on there.  So, instead I want to try and slowly force myself to revisit and write about the the films I personally feel are the real essentials as I think on them or return to them. One at a time, no big rush.  Maybe it'll stop at 100, maybe, like Ebert's list of Great Movies, it will go on indefinitely.  The one thing I know? There will be no particular order and every one of them will matter. 

 For the inaugural post, I've chosen a film I've fallen head over heels for this past year.  The first time I saw Black Narcissus I must have taken it in without really paying attention, letting it pass by as a pretty little thing in a fit of never ending Criterion collecting.  That was a few years ago, but for some reason last winter I found myself in need of some Technicolor and decided to give Powell & Pressburger's Himalayan melodrama another go.  I've watched it, I think, two or three times since then and with each repeat viewing I find another lush new detail to luxuriate in.

Black Narcissus operates on a fairly simplistic conceit: it's a tale of corrupted faith, repressed passions, and the madness the two of those can induce when mixed with the thin mountain air.  Deborah Kerr is Sister Clodagh, a fresh faced, disciplined nun charged with taking a gaggle of nuns to set up a school and hospital in the abandoned living quarters of royal concubines. The paintings on the wall do not match the new inhabitants, the building is built into a cliff face, the townspeople who come to them are jewel-covered narcissistic princes (Sabu), lusty young girls (Jean Simmons), and children who doubt them.  It's a haunted place, and the ghost is one of carnality. Their sole connection to their UK homeland is a British ex-pat (David Farrar) who teases and taunts them in a way that belittles their beliefs as much as it seems a flirtation.  He's not of their moral fiber, and he seems to take up a place in their collective consciousness.  Clodagh begins to drag up memories of  life prior to the habit, and the mentally unstable Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) seems further and further beyond her vows with each passing day.  There may be only so many outcomes, but the way the film reaches them is luxe and spellbinding.
In 1947, it wasn't particularly common for a relatively short melodrama to be shot with this kind of scope or scale.  Technicolor was still largely reserved for the big genre films: the epics, the musicals, the occasional western. Yet, Black Narcissus exists, and it may be safe to say than it's one of the finest uses of the Technicolor process you will ever lay eyes on.  It's a postcard oddity, and its every frame feels like you're being sucked into a museum diorama at the end of a darkened hall.  There's something appealing about the way the landscape has been disturbed, about the gothic touches, the atmospheric sound of the forever whipping wind, the shadow play, and the close ups of its leading ladies as their visages slip from lightness to dark.  Kathleen Byron is remarkable here, and Kerr is a tainted angel forever trying to hold steady though she teeters precariously at the brink of another possible life. The nuns possess cracking psyches and faces like primed canvases waiting for that crisp line of darkness to pass sinister across their searing eyes.  It's hard to imagine Wes Anderson didn't refer to this each day during the convent scenes for The Darjeeling Limited, and while some of the cultural treatments may be dated, the film's painterly use of light and framing makes it a terribly beautiful feat of cinematography all thanks to a master: Jack Cardiff.  Black Narcissus works its way into you like the delirium of that mountain air.  It's a chalk drawing you want desperately to jump into, all fluttering white habits against cobbled floors in deep blues and greens and yellowed tans, pastel clouds, soaring mountain peaks, and the vertigo-inducing depth of that aerial view.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Like: Bachelorette

In preparation for the latest wedding I'm playing a supporting role in, I cleared out a small hole in my schedule and rented the VOD record-breaker Bachelorette.  When you've reached a point in your life where weddings you get to merely attend are rare and weddings in which you're an active  bridal party member are yearly (+) occurrences, you begin to develop an interest in the pop cultural representation of the bridesmaid.  Bridal parties are weird, guys.  Think about it.  Combinations of friends and relatives are invited to be entrusted with the planning and execution of events that lead up to and occur on the day of a major life event which will, ultimately, not be a major life event for them personally.  Yet, their money and their time are frequently both on the line, the pressure levels are high, and the opinions/personalities of each bridesmaid or groomsman rarely fall into convenient, homogeneous synchronicity.  Quiet rivalries form, quiet allegiances, quiet ambivalence.  Strange notions of class warfare and social norms sneak in and begin to color situations as mundane as "we need a dessert," or, "how the invitation should be sent."  With the comedic and dramatic possibilities opened by throwing these people together, it's kind of amazing that any wedding-centric movie actually follows the bride or groom.  Bridesmaids was just the beginning.  The Hangover was a distant extreme.  Bachelorette is, for better or worse, as un-apologetically touched by the nasty, bitter darkness natural and -let's face it- not uncommon in the worst of these bands of insiders.
The ensemble band at the center of the bitter, raging Bachelorette is a terrible threesome of grown-up high school mean girls. Maid of Honor Regan (Kirsten Dunst) is the quintessential alpha Manhattanite.  Every ensemble is immaculate, her shoes cost more than your monthly rent, and she can barely hold back her seething, temperamental inability to understand how her genuine, rather sloppy friend Becky (Rebel Wilson) could be walking down the aisle before her.  Becky was cruelly referred to as 'pig face' for the duration of the girls' high school career, but the film finds a way to ground the relationship Regan and Becky have in believable territory.  What binds Becky to the icy, back-talking Regan is the same thing that binds her to supposed friends Gena (Lizzy Caplan) and Katie (Isla Fisher): these mean girls are fragile freaks disguised as wolves.  Becky is the only one able to comfortably live with her vulnerability on the outside, a trait they all seem to masochistically resent her for.  I say masochistically, of course, because Bachelorette is very much the chronicle of a self-made unraveling, and the women it depicts are flawed in fascinating, colorful ways that make them (at times) dangerously unlikable.  Charlize Theron's Young Adult character would fit right in with this ladies, and while Regan's constant disgust is at least accompanied by a driving, type A desire to constantly save face, the same cannot be said of Gena and Katie.
Caplan's Gena seems to get a good share of screen time here, and she's playing a role she's well suited for (a sort of evil version of Janis Ian).  She's morally decrepit, drug-addled, and passively disrupted by the negative outcome of a deep, warm-fuzzy relationship with her high school boyfriend (Adam Scott).  While Caplan lends her comic timing to the film, Isla Fisher's Katie is perhaps the character study most worth talking about.  Katie is -in broad strokes- a despicable person.  She's stupid to the point of ignorance and clearly not interested in her own education.  She works in retail, snorts copious amounts of cocaine, and fantasizes about meeting a man who "has a job."  Not a good job, just a job.  Katie is enthusiastically spiteful, at times in a way that suggests she has no real understanding of the outcome of her words or actions.  For Katie, there are no consequences.  She keeps living though it's very likely she has no desire to, and Fisher somehow keeps Katie from becoming a vapidly misogynistic portrait of female entitlement. Instead,  everything about her becomes sad and somehow wasted, and she serves as the unfunny bridal party fool though it's clear early on that all three of them are sad clowns in their own ways.

Bachelorette is, ostensibly, a comedy.  At times, however, it reads more as a comedy only in the classical sense that it "ends with a wedding." There's not much that actually registers as funny here. While the mishaps and mayhem of the plot belong to the genre, everything has been bent out of shape by writer/director Leslye Headland.  Things that would be spun in cutesy directions in a Katharine Heigl movie arise from cruelty here, and the characters dare to make jokes about one another's disorders, disabilities, and weaknesses in a way that stings in its honesty.  There were points at which things became uncomfortable enough for me to wonder if the dialogue was achieving something clever and fresh or if it was simply perpetuating the mean girl rhetoric it seems to want to tear down.  I can't say I liked everything here, but I can say that I found myself admiring its tenacity.  Bachelorette is an ensemble comedy that never feels like more of the same old same old.  It's always dangerous enough to be interesting and cynical enough to shun conformity even if it's in favor of bad taste.  So, in the spirit of weddings, let us offer a toast: may you never have friends like this, and may you never be part of this.

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