Sunday, September 29, 2013

Like: The Butler

Pardon the crassness of this statement, but I sincerely wish I gave a shit about The Butler.  It's a film with a noble purpose, that boasts subtle, graceful performances from talented actors, and which approaches the Civil Rights movement from an angle I have not seen chronicled on film before.  I wanted to be able to say it movingly dramatized its important history, that it possessed a quiet power I didn't see coming.  This is, after all, a story worth telling presented at a time when we need to be reminded of all-too recent discrepancies and struggles within our country.  The Butler tries, but doesn't get there. Instead, it's another ensemble biopic produced by the Weinsteins for your Oscar-nominating consideration.  It flips through important events like its rifling through a calendar, cuts out character building in favor of presidential impersonations, and crams decades of individual and societal developments into a sparse two hours of interconnected subplots. Its sense of self-importance is second only to its crippling sense of obligation.

Lee Daniels knows how to make a drama that tackles 'issues' in an affecting way.  He did it most successfully with the tough to watch Precious and last year gave us a steaming mess of racial tensions with The Paperboy.  Those films both had style, grit, and a sense of the person at the helm. By comparison, The Butler feels like a weak attempt at playing Steven Spielberg, but without any of the raw cinematographic grandeur that made a movie like Lincoln kick.  Here, Daniels is attempting to sketch out the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker), an even-tempered White House butler whose career spans three decades and numerous presidents. Gaines is loosely inspired by a real life figure, and the script wisely uses his post as a point of access for multiple perspectives.  Through Gaines, we are able to get an exclusive glimpse of the Civil Rights debate from life experiences outside and inside the Oval Office, and to understand the strange role he's asked to play daily.  Cecil is made privy to every side: each president's struggles, his wife's (Oprah Winfrey) familial and social uncertainty, and his son Louis' (David Oyelowo) radicalized reactions to his father's occupational complacency.
Of course, when so much history is on the table, the film can't seem to decide what to cut and what to keep, and the sense of obligation, of desperately trying to bring in as much as possible, is immediately noticeable. Because it's not enough to have one main character, the story flits back and forth between members of the Gaines household, building unnecessary subplots as bridges for a near constant barrage of pseudo-history. Young Louis is at the center of peaceful protests, Klan attacks, and eventually the Black Panthers. His activism compels him to act drastically where his father's job requires one to remain apolitical, do his duty, and speak when asked.  Daniels succeeds in weaving together violent incidents, family parties, and White House anecdotes in a way that's largely cohesive, and it's interesting to consider how much political sway a quiet man in the White House may have had.  The Butler manages to be -at the very least- entertaining while you're watching it, but perhaps not always for the right reasons.

By its conclusion, The Butler is a cloying, rather pandering affair that ends two decades beyond what would have been a successful conclusion. The film it could have been is one that cuts things short during the Reagan administration, lets us understand that our society has a long way to go, and gives the man his due.  What happens, though, is the result of the film's confused  jumble of plots, half baked relationships, and sense of obligation.  It can't leave us to our own devices, it has to take us through to the present day and get all uplifting with big, diverse block parties drumming up votes for Obama and victory celebrations.  The emotional manipulation gets turned up to 11 here, and if that wasn't already bad enough, Daniels makes the horrendous decision to scar the film with a depressing aping of a scene Michael Haneke pulled off with ten times the sucker punch in Amour. There's a sense of a turn toward the soap opera or TV finale in the final third of the film that kills off any good will earned in the early chapters. It's as if Daniels wants us to forget that he opens The Butler with a horrifying rape (implied) and murder sequence and usher us out into the world with a vision of how happy and silly Whitaker and Winfrey look in matching 90s windbreaker suits.  I'm sorry, but...what?

So, yes: Whitaker is dignified but he's certainly been better, Winfrey does a great impression of Mo'Nique with a cigarette, and the movie is generally alright.  But, The Butler never really made me care and it never seemed to push towards anything that could be art over raw expository narrative.  Oh, and yeah, the rumors are true:  the presidential impersonations by Robin Williams, John Cusack, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, and James Marsden are all pretty damn terrible.  Seriously Weinsteins, can we back off the sappy biopic waxworks and give a chance or two to something new and different?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Love: The Grandmaster

I don't know why I picked up In the Mood for Love, I don't know at exactly what age. I know that I was pretty young, and that it was a film I adored almost immediately.  That chance pick up triggered a hunt for everything of Wong Kar-wai's I could find; Chungking Express, Fallen Angel, Days of Being Wild. His films were (and are) beautiful, a form of visual poetry so arresting that the specifics of the story became inconsequential. The composition of the images spoke that which the dialogue could not, the attention to color - the saturation of light, the surprising richness that comes from layering shades of black - seemed to elevate the mundane to the breaking point of reality.  Wong Kar-Wai's films are works that manage to be both Earthly and ethereal simultaneously, and it's perhaps because of this that he's capable of rendering a love story (even when it turns bad) like no other. Of course, The Grandmaster is supposedly not that. Its framework sets it up as a martial arts biopic: this is the story of Ip Man, legendary master of Wing Chun kung-fu, teacher of Bruce Lee, a man who lived through turning points in China so severe that his not-so distant past feels, at times, like dynastic ancient history.
So, what does Wong Kar-wai do with biopic material? How does he handle a real life, one filled with choreographed action sequences?  Well, he kinda just bends it into a different sort of love story.  This is to the benefit of the aesthete, but to the story's detriment.  The version of The Grandmaster I was able to see is, of course, the one chopped down twenty minutes in an effort to transform it into something more cohesive for American audiences. Because of that, I don't know exactly what I'm missing, but I sense I'd prefer to have seen it in its original shape.  There's an imposed structure on The Grandmaster, one built of intertitles and blocks of expository text that forces the focus onto Ip Man.  Often times we do not see the historic events, but are forced to read them and understand -more concretely - what is happening.  While the written explanations provide a fair amount of clarity to the film's confusing, absorptive structure, the intertitles also seem misleading.  Yes, the film follows Ip Man (Tony Leung).  Yes, it's interested in acquiring knowledge through him. Yes, it aims to show us a world as he might have experienced it.  When you're visually experiencing the film, though, Ip Man doesn't feel like the focus. He's a presence, the way of angling a rich art film to appeal in a more commercial way, but a presence the story frequently slips away from in favor of an even richer, even more fascinating subplot.
The biggest problem with The Grandmaster also happens to be its greatest asset: as we watch a film we understand to be about one thing (Ip Man), it keeps breaking away to tell us the tragedy of Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi).  Gong Er is a far more compelling character, and through her we are made privy to something less practical, more legend.  Through her, Wong Kar-wai makes ideas of honor and reputation resonate in ways that feel far more immediate than any of the genre that I've seen.  Gong Er is the daughter of Northern martial arts grandmaster Gong Baosen (Wang Qingxiang). Her father is retiring, and has traveled down to the South for a sort of celebratory match of skill and wits. Gong Er arrives on the scene as her father is preparing for a bout with Ip Man, and we learn that she is the only martial artist as versed in the Bagua 64 Hands technique of her father.  She would be his rightful successor, but she is female and her it is her father's wish for her to devote her energies to become a doctor.  As one thing leads to another, we are treated to a beautifully choreographed showdown between Gong Er and Ip Man anyhow. They leave quite the impression on one another, and the feeling lingers for the duration of the film.  Their love is impossible, but palpable, made real by the dance of slow motion martial arts (a little too much slow motion, though) and repeated refrains.
As the film continues, Gong Er dominates it further. Her quest is the one that Wong Kar-wai appears to be most interested in, and as she struggles with her own sense of what's right we become as fascinated by her as Ip Man is.  Leung is infinitely watchable, as usual, but Zhang Ziyi is magnetic. Her face registers incremental shifts in her character's emotions, and her presence seems organic to the mise-en-scene. She is part of it, a key element of the composition of each photograph, and a source of great power for an otherwise barely there story.  Basically, the film is best when Gong Er is part of it, and while you could arguably make the claim that she is the Grandmaster of the title, the organizational elements of the film seem to fight against surrendering focus from the life of Ip Man.  The result is something that doesn't seem to quite know where it wants to go, and which may have a couple too many elements in play to become a truly pure artistic success.  Still, it's a gorgeous piece of work.  The fight choreography alone is tremendous, and with Wong at the helm, we see the intricacies of the gestures from unconventional angles. We get the movement of the feet, the subtlest gestures of the hands, a thrilling attention to the precision of the art.  I have a strong sense that the 130 minute Chinese cut is a far better film, but if you go for the visuals and not for the story, there's no way even the Weinstein-mandated edit of The Grandmaster will disappoint.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Squalor: Drinking Buddies

Drinking Buddies is a brief thing. It's the sort of lo-fi indie that knows not to overstay its welcome or push its luck, and, in the right mood, that's refreshing enough.  Zoom out a bit though, away from that fleeting viewing, and the things driving it all begin to blur.  They're too standard, too repeated, too much like the non-plot points of an over-workshopped short story. We meet a girl named Kate (Olivia Wilde) and a boy named Luke (Jake Johnson) who are, it seems, best friends.  They work at a microbrewery in Chicago, and it is there where we see them joke around, be themselves, and act like overgrown children when they know no one else is watching.  Kate tastes Luke's beer by sticking a finger in it, and his bickering, but otherwise nonplussed reaction tells us all we need to know.  Of course, there's more to that, and Drinking Buddies quickly drives its not-so mumblecore sensibilities towards Hollywood to become a very quiet, understated romantic comedy. When Kate brings around her newish boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston) to meet Luke and his girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick), the besties are so blind to the signs that they fail to realize something may be up with their significant others.  
From there, the film becomes a short blend of "will they or won't they" scenarios with very little drama or comedy to be found.  Instead (and perhaps this is essentially a mark of the mumblecore), Drinking Buddies just kind of exists and, at times, feels almost voyeuristic in its rather straightforward, unpolished depiction of modern relationships. There's not much particularly interesting about it, unless, of course, you're interested in the reasons why it's not interesting. The right academic could almost certainly write an extensive, praise-filled essay on how this film's refusal to up the volume makes it a rarity or success in the current cinematic climate; I'm just not that person.  Though I'm willing to admit the film feels like a serious breakthrough for director Joe Swanberg (he made Hannah Takes the Stairs) away from the intense, insufferable non-activity of the initial "mumblecore" gesture, ultimately Drinking Buddies is just a pleasant enough encounter at a neighborhood bar with room to collect your thoughts.
The most fascinating element, I fear, and the reason why I will ultimately recommend that my friends check this film out, is its wholly accurate depiction of a sort of 20-something North Side Chicago life. Kate and Luke work for Revolution Brewery, a very real, enormously popular staple of current Chicago existence. They hang out there, they play pool at the Empty Bottle, Kate bikes down streets and through neighborhoods that are all-too familiar. Wilde, Johnson, and Kendrick sorta blend right in, and supposedly took to living and hanging out in these places during shooting with, well, no fanfare whatsoever.  Any marks against the film's casual approach to dialogue be damned, one thing I can say is that I totally bought into the idea of these characters as people. I totally know versions of them.  Frankly, though, I have no idea how Swanberg managed to film this thing without anyone I know talking about its curious disruption in their day-to-day hangouts. Maybe everyone's too distracted by the late night blazes for Chicago Fire, the Divergent set-ups, and Transformers destruction to notice Olivia Wilde hanging round the bar after shooting.

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