Saturday, April 27, 2013

Love: Oblivion

Since January, nearly every film I've gone to has forced me to watch one of the same two repetitive trailers for Oblivion.  Here I am, the trailers said, the movie you didn't ask for, the movie in which Tom Cruise plays a human Wall-E and flexes his Everyman muscle by putting on a Yankees cap and talkin' football on a post-apocalyptic planet.  I resented those trailers just as I tend to resent Hollywood's insistence in casting Tom Cruise, repeatedly, as an action figure-sized hero.  Resentment, though, only goes so far when you're a cinephile with a taste for science fiction.  From Oblivion I sensed something other than just another repetitive, robotic action film, and so I surprised myself by deciding to go and see it.  As the film wore on, I surprised myself further: I liked it, really, quite a bit even as I immediately recognized some of its more obvious flaws or was irritated by its rigid adherence to generic conventions.  Since seeing the film, I've been trying to sort out exactly why it is that I can't seem to hold the film's faults against it, and why it is that my sense of its winning qualities seems to be a very unpopular opinion.  Critical audiences seem to actively want to hate Oblivion, but their quippy loathing seems oddly misguided.   
There are problems with Oblivion, yes, and it's best to acknowledge a spoiler-free smattering of them right away.  Oblivion opens with an extended, forced first-person voice-over devoid of context.  As some have noticed, it's completely unnecessary as the information is rehashed later in the film, yes, but it's perhaps most unnecessary because it's simply unfounded.  We're meant to believe that Jack Harper (Cruise) is recording a sort of oral diary chronicling his time spent as a drone technician on the desolate remains of Earth.  Jack lives in a luxurious 2-person base camp with his communications officer Vica (Andrea Riseborough), and the first hour or so of the film is devoted to capturing a sense of the isolation, monotony, and sterility of this bleak future.  Each morning Vica fires up the connection with their control center contact Sally (a creepy Melissa Leo) and Jack flies down to the surface to repair weaponized drones on the decimated remains of the American northeast coast.  We learn quickly that there's little room for real emotion in this world, and no space for questions.  Jack's recorded voice-over is all but impossible, but also thoroughly unnecessary as anything but a cheap attempt to rope in an audience that may not take kindly to a slow open. Without revealing any more than that one repeated trailer did, I can tell you that Oblivion is awash with complications by the time the credits roll.  There are small twists that pull at Jack's reality that layer into much larger questions on humanity, memory, and identity; and yeah, Morgan Freeman is thrown into the mix.
The number of pieces and themes gets to be a little much, and the film is often rather heavy-handed as it tries to deliver big picture allegories on too many topics.  All of that makes Oblivion a bit exhausting, and likely rather frustrating for viewers less interested in the fantastic, myth-making quality of science-fiction and more apt to be engaged with a realist, toned-down approach.  Yes, it has a couple light logic issues. Yes, if you're sick of Tom Cruise, that could be a problem (though Cruise pulls off his the action hero role more effectively than he has in years here). Yes, there are points at which you'll feel like it punched you in the face with its big picture 'point'.  The film is directed by Joseph Kosinski, a man who I'd wager has a genuine sci-fi masterpiece in him somewhere (though who knows, this could turn out to be the one a few years down the line), and who seems deeply influenced by the speculative science fiction of the 1970's and early 80's.  Oblivion is touched by the old school. It's a highly stylized vision in rounded white edges, shiny glass surfaces, and glossy finishes.  The film is a pristine collection of cinematographic stills, and the landscapes are frequently touched by a heavenly quality that makes the repeated refrain, the lonely "another day in paradise" seem apt.  Kosinski knows how to balance the human with the mechanical. He did this in a very literal way in the gorgeous (but relatively vapid) Tron: Legacy between programs and users, and he enacts that balance here to create a difference between Vica's view of her role and Jack's growing uncertainty.
Ultimately, it's a beautiful vision, and one very much in keeping with the old school works of science fiction before it.  Kosinski is working his way towards something that breaks from past models. He began with a brilliantly stylized sequel of established, kitschy material and has jumped to a large-scale, heartfelt pastiche of past influences; his next step could be anything, and it seems only a matter of time before he releases something truly, immediately original.  For now, though, Oblivion is a science fiction film deserving of real science fiction fans.  I went into the theater expecting just another big, rollicking Hollywood affair and found something that has some action, yes, but which took its time, built its characters, and thought about the vision of the world it was building for more than just a moment.  The visuals here are magnificent, but the vision is one ripe with potential. Let's put it this way, science fiction has never been the most subtle of genres (though there are examples within the genre that succeed in being so), and Kosinski is playing with material and images plucked from the best and brightest; 2001, Solaris, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Logan's Run (yes, I put it there).  It's a new song built from old songs, a new story influenced by the old masters.  As such, it's a prime candidate for reevaluation down the line.  Don't write Oblivion off just yet.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Love: To the Wonder

Terrence Malick is enjoying a fit of productivity, and judging from the results he's either had a major epiphany or has been having a crisis of existence while dabbling with psychotropic drugs.  As readers of this blog likely already know, in the span of forty years, Malick has released a mere six films.  The fifth was 2011's breathtaking The Tree of Life, my pick for the best picture of that year and easily one of the most stunning (aesthetically and experientially) of the last decade.  With Tree of Life, Malick's already rather floaty interests seemed to officially break free from the confines of traditional narrative. He'd always been an impressionistic director, one interested in capturing an ethereal vision of the Earthly -wind blowing through a field, a watercolor sky, sunlight broken by patterned leaves- and To the Wonder is a romance in theory, but more of a cataloging of picture postcards in practice. The film is Malick's first of a whopping four films slated for release by the end of 2014, and where The Tree of Life read as the director's philosophical dissertation on the relationship between man and the cosmos, To the Wonder is something different: bite sized, enclosed, beautiful, and a little empty.  
Perhaps it's inevitable that whatever followed the grandeur of Tree of Life would read as a little dull and trite by comparison, and so To the Wonder feels like a palette cleanser.  It's a light sorbet, a lovely lilting shadow, and more of an exercise in advanced practices of cinematography than a fully realized story.  The shred of plot it does have is exceptionally loose and patterned off of simple repetitions.  In the film's lush prelude we watch as a couple, Marina (Olga Kurylenko) and Neil (Ben Affleck), wanders France aimless and in a heightened, lustful state of love. They silently embrace as the music ebbs and flows, Kurylenko's voiceover guiding us from Mont Saint Michel to Luxembourg gardens, the camera following shadows, breaking apart bodies, keenly interested in profiles, backs, and establishing shots that dwarf the characters.  It's an opening fit for a truly epic romance, but switches quickly to the American heartland.  Our couple moves in together, he is American and brings her to a boxy subdivision in Oklahoma.  The switch in landscape is enviably handled, of course, as no one seems to know how to capture the sublime from the utterly mundane in quite the way that Malick does.
In America, we watch as the couple's relationship dissolves. The film's early interest in the tides at Mont Saint Michel provide a visual parallel for the progression of their relationship.  They rise and fall, embrace and fight, and seem to be driven by purely carnal, natural, near animalistic behaviors.  There's a near total lack of actual scene and conversational dialogue, and so we're left speculating on just how deep their connection is. Does Marina connect with Neil for a green card? Does Neil ever speak? Do they have anything in common other than their passions?  Is she suffering from something like bipolar disorder? We don't know. There's a mythic quality to the characters here that's quite different from the religious, god-like power of the parent figures in Tree of Life.  In To the Wonder our couple seems to just be stuck, trapped wandering for eternity aching for some freedom the gods have felt they do not deserve.  Thus, we see everything doubled and tripled and repeated. Everyone moves as a darkened shadow, the cameras are constantly following at a character's back, hair is always blowing, people are always staring at each other, rooms are always empty, yards are bare, distractions will emerge.  We are pulled from house to house, space to space, and everything is wide open, yet completely claustrophobic.
I can't object to it, though many may find the film's general trajectory (or lack there of) extremely dull. The film worked, for me, as an aesthetic object.  Taken as a loosely bound collection of impressionistic emotions, a thought in progress on the nature of love and the failures of marriage, it seems to work. Where I found it far less effective were the places where Malick seemed to want to introduce some sort of literal spiritual engagement. Javier Bardem is wandering around the film as a sort of depressed Spanish priest, and I'll be damned if I know exactly why. We watch him visit and avoid the people he's supposed to be helping, and though it's clear he has lost his way in a manner similar, perhaps, to Marina, the connection seems imposed and unnatural. Any moment where Kurylenko's narration is disrupted by Bardem's took me away from the    To the Wonder's hypnotic element, which is a shame.  The film needs to be enigmatic. It needs to swoon, escape our understanding, and immerse itself in the startling clash between the beautiful and the malignant. Everything is lovely here, but it's the creeping sickness of the relationship (and the environment) that resonates most powerfully.  Leave the silly priest out of it.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Love: Trance

Prior to directing Trance, the last time a Danny Boyle film felt like a Danny Boyle film was: A. Slumdog Millionaire B. 127 Hours  C. Sunshine  D. None of the above.  Quick, what's your final answer?  If you're me, the only answer is D.  Boyle is a director who at his best provides his films with a striking, visceral kinetic energy and who, at his worst, channels his need for cuts and edits and pop music into a student film-style mess.  In his recent work we see the strongest evidence of his aesthetic in scenes relying on booming rhythms and constant motion; jumping trains, cycling rapidly across a desert. These are the moments Boyle excels at bringing to life, and he transforms straight narrative into something vibrant, often bloody. Give him a hint of reckless endangerment, a touch of decrepitude, an altered state, and a story coated in postmodern sleaze, and he's set to go.  Of course, this is the Danny Boyle that I want to see.  I don't want a film from the Boyle who's advertised with mentions of the aforementioned films. I want a film from the Boyle who made Trainspotting, Shallow Grave, and 28 Days Later.  A reality-bending thriller like Trance?  Exactly the thing.
Trance is the type of film you shouldn't know too much about before watching, so please excuse the vague tiptoeing I'll be doing here.  Loosely, the film is a thriller constructed around the flexibility of memory and the untapped potential of hypnosis. James McAvoy stars as Simon, an art auctioneer who finds himself involved with a group of dangerous criminals anxious to recover a targeted missing painting. The work is Francisco Goya's curious Witches in the Air, a piece that depicts a man in the midst of being spirited away (or torn apart) by a gaggle of male witches.  There's more to it than that, of course, but the subject matter seems quite relevant to Simon's plight.  Torn from his seemingly average life, Simon finds himself tortured and carted around by the criminals searching for the painting.  He was the inside man. He was supposed to make things easy.  Instead, the Goya disappeared. They believe he knows where it is, but a nasty blow to the head has left him with no access to those memories.  Head honcho Franck (Vincent Cassel) decides to wire Simon and send him for hypnotherapy sessions in a last, desperate bid.  Simon sits in Elizabeth Lamb's (Rosario Dawson) office and falls under her gentle spell, the boys wait outside, ready to pounce. From there, the film transforms from your average heist thriller to a rich, dizzying  unraveling of our accepted reality.   
That is, of course, all I dare tell you, but consider this: Trance is a sort of flashy, pop noir done up with glass surfaces and color-blocked rooms instead of filtered through the shadows. As such, it's a lot of style and a lot of rhetorical posturing without a tremendous amount of actual substance.  Or, to interpret that another way, it's sort of a high class B-movie. Though it's gussied up with a lot of mind-bending concepts, the purpose of Trance is, simply, to entertain and surprise in rapidly changing, spiraling, and often pulpy ways.  Held under a microscope, its plot is filled with small holes, intersections, and curious loops. We are meant to trust that Simon is as suggestible as Elizabeth claims he is, and to believe in the timeline laid out before us without question. What we may not be sure about as we watch, however, is whether Boyle's final product is clever or a touch messy.  It's hard to tell.  The good thing is, of course, that it's also tough to care. Trance doesn't stop. Just when it seems like it's about to hit a wall, it brakes, jerks, spins rapidly away from that possible outcome.
The characters grow in surprising ways, aided by the actors' (McAvoy, Cassel, Dawson) understated abilities to play up initial genre archetypes and, therefore, ease us into something other than the dizzy free fall we're about to enter.  In that respect, Trance reminded me quite a bit of another thriller released this year: Side Effects. Both work within certain modes while actively pushing against expectations, and each yields a sort of guilty pleasure level result aided by bouts of weird, lurid sex and violence.  Though neither is the type of film a director would roll out come awards season, each is smart and satisfying if only because it seeks to frustrate some unwritten cliche.  Trance announces, for me, a return to form for Danny Boyle.  It's risky, raw, colorful, and fractured; imperfect, but damn entertaining. 

Friday, April 12, 2013

Love: The Place Beyond the Pines

I've heard that James Franco's assessment of  The Place Beyond the Pines begins with an appreciation of Ryan Gosling that borders on the homoerotic.  What does not make sense to me, of course, is not that Franco's essay exists, but that there are writings on Derek Cianfrance's film that do not make it their business to focus, however obsessively, on Gosling's presence.  We open, after all, on a shot of Handsome Luke's abs and progress, from there, through a cinematic fun fair of effortless, curious, hyper-masculinity. The Place Beyond the Pines is a movie about fathers and sons unlike any I have seen before, a grave meditative triptych in which the only mistake may be introducing a bleached-out Gosling too soon, and obscuring him in later chapters.  Cianfrance directed Gosling previously in the beautiful Blue Valentine, and here he is wise enough to channel the magnetism that the actor brought to his role in Drive.  If it sounds like I'm just another Gosling fan girl, I'd beg to differ. In the opening sequences, Gosling is objectified by Cianfrance's camera, transformed once again into a silent, dangerous thing that dares you to cross it and demands you fix your gaze upon strange sections of its painted surface.  As Luke, he is a sort of stomped upon angel, a scuzzy, trashed-up daredevil who grapples, like the Driver, with good intentions and his very particular set of skills.
In barely legible, bolt-fractured type, HEART THROB stretches across Luke's clavicle, wrapped around his neck in a way that reads ironically and, yes, like an unbearable burden.  Luke, or Gosling, is strangled by his objecthood, laid bare by the camera and, relentlessly, chased through the film.  Luke is the first character we come to know, and the film's first moral quandary.  The Place Beyond the Pines is engaged in a long history of real, American drama. It's a ponderous film, oddly paced and interested in outsiders, isolated spaces, and struggles against nature.  There's something of the claustrophobic western to it, an inverted version of the battles waged in Monument Valley, where the sins of fathers leave bloody tracks along the paths of their sons.  Our outlaw is the wandering Luke, a motocross carnie who rides into Schenectady only to encounter a girl he once left behind, a diner waitress named Romina (Eva Mendes).  Romina has given birth to a son, Luke's son, and though she does not want him to be involved (or perhaps even to know), Luke wants to provide for his boy.  He is interested, we quickly learn, in giving his son a stable home using whatever means necessary.
As it tends to in films, the whatever it takes quickly leads towards a life of crime. Luke robs banks, and eventually, this bankrobbing leads to a relay-style hand-off of the film's narrative limelight to a man on the other side of the law, Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), a do-gooder cop with a son the same age.  If Cooper already proved that he's a capable dramatic actor with Silver Linings Playbook, his role here confirms that that was no mere fluke. Where Gosling works in part because he's got a silent swagger to rival Steve McQueen, Cooper has the impossible job of trying to steal the story from an electrifying presence.  That's a tough, tough job, and to his credit, the guy does an admirable job making Avery into a wholly dimensional, struggling lawman. Without spoiling anything, allow me to simply say that the encounter between Luke and Avery is memorable, and it is one that trickles down to impact, in alarmingly complicated ways, the pre-destined paths of their boys in adolescence, where Cianfrance switches focus once again (to Emory Cohen and Dane DeHaan).
Yes, The Place Beyond the Pines is, sneakily, sort of three films all at once.  This accounts for its lengthy run time, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, is what's great about the film even as it's what's absolutely terrible about it.  Cianfrance is taking very real structural risks throughout, here, and though the film is looped, bridged, and tied together into one very neat, clean narrative package, it's tough not to acknowledge that the second half of the film drags in ways that the Luke sequences do not.  We move from a quick burning crime story, a world with guns, motorbikes, chase sequences, and creeping darkness, to the stories that follow the inevitable happily never after. Cianfrance's problem, of course, is that crime pays too well when pitted against real human drama. As savory as the storytelling is in the later sequences (though sometimes melodramatic), it can't compare to the rush of those earlier, Suicide-scored rides.  Of course, a too good beginning is far from the worst problem a film can have, and all things considered, The Place Beyond the Pines has the makings of a very strong, lasting piece of American cinema.  Cianfrance strikes a curious balance between the film's sprawling formal ambitions and its very personal, very intimate nature. We get to know the characters not merely through dialogue and action, but via landscapes, lingering shots, and the film's hauntingly atmospheric score. We switch vantages, we change stories, we move across decades, but we always, always, come back to the same split seconds.  

Thursday, April 4, 2013

RIP Roger Ebert

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert passed away today after a prolonged battle with cancer.  He was a mere 70 years old and a tremendous influence to any and all who go to write up their thoughts on the cinematic arts.  He will be sorely missed.

The balcony is closed, there are no words.

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