Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Love: 12 Years a Slave

 I braced myself for the worst. The buzz on 12 Years a Slave, and what was being nervously muttered about in the queue, tends to focus on affect.  Specifically on the raw power of the film's revealing, stripped down brutality.  Critics writing from the festival circuit have already applauded the film as the most honest cinematic rendering of American slavery, and it's certainly true: this is  a movie that works to effectively erase any lingering romantic notions of the Antebellum South. It's a spare, somber affair with little use for the glossy trappings of the old fashioned epic, and in that way it manages to be a thing quite different from so many of the magic realist balms or exploitation correctives (think Django Unchained) to have come before it.  So, I arrived prepared for human suffering, knowing full well that past audiences had been moved to tears or been so distraught by the torment depicted on screen that they'd felt compelled to leave the theater, able to freely escape what the characters could not.

As I've noted here before, it's my sense that many a "serious" mainstream film these days --particularly around the subject of historical/semi-historical tragedy-- tends to be unfortunately presented as emotional pornography. There are too many movies that seem to artificially manufacture sadness, and that's a manipulation I really resent from my dramas - especially when they're dealing with real life events.  Those stories isolate or quarantine suffering, catch it in a jar and zoom in on it in a way where the music swells up, a child cries, and the magnitude of the situation is reduced to merely a tiny part of the whole.  Those familiar with the past work of director Steve McQueen should already know that that brand of drama is not in his wheelhouse.  McQueen is an artist first, the sort that comes from a background of museum-traveling video installations and who has - through Michael Fassbender in Hunger and Shame - worked to dig through the psychological gray areas of characters consumed by largely self-imposed ritual and violence.  Though some have lauded 12 Years as a step forward into a more conventional narrative by McQueen, I'd argue that part of what makes the film so successful is that it does not rigidly adhere to a fluid sense of time.  Structurally, Shame and 12 Years are not wholly dissimilar. Both drift in and out of moments and find themselves sticking, trapped, in the memories that turn the most sour for our protagonists.  McQueen likes to keep his viewers in a sort of very close third person, just outside of the head space of the characters, but with a visual language so precise we know exactly what we're meant to see, how we're meant to see it, and what the character - staring into the distance- is experiencing.
 Where Shame brought us devastatingly close to Brandon's sex addiction, 12 Years a Slave draws its viewer into Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tortured servitude. The story is based on a little known book of the same title penned by the real life Northup, a New York-born free man who was kidnapped, separated from his family, and sold into bondage on the black market under a new name.  Slavery is already a tremendous injustice, but for those coming to the film with little understanding of the risks and prejudices surrounding life outside of servitude at the time, the human trafficking scenes of Northup's capture and abuse will likely be revelatory. From there, the film details what must be sacrificed to insure his survival.  When he realizes that his pleas fall on deaf ears and that his captors have no interest in the law, Northup does what he must to pass through the world.  He goes into hiding, in a way, feigning ignorance, pretending he cannot read and write, not mentioning his knowledge, skills, status, or family out of fear (rightfully) that all of this will saddle him with negative attention from his white masters.  In the early days, he fares relatively well.  He finds himself indentured to Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who, though certainly no hero, appreciates Northup's skills as a laborer and grants him asylum and preferential treatment.  When Northup finds himself fed up with his abusive overseer (Paul Dano), though, all bets are off, and Ford transfers ownership of Northup to the mean-spirited and notorious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who prides himself, disgustingly, as a "nigger-breaker."    
Much of the film seems to be set around Northup's extended tenure on the Epps plantation, and McQueen lets the tensions run high.  Epps is a leering, abusive master who turns a lascivious eye onto Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a female slave, and who delights in having the 'things' he owns cater to his every whim. He counts the poundage of the cotton they pick in the daytime and punishes them accordingly, then, in the evening, he forces them to dance and feign merriment as he yells commands at them drunkenly.  It's savagery at its most uncomfortable, and Epps is matched in his cruelty by his cold, violent wife (Sarah Paulson), a woman who enters every scene coiled like a viper about to strike.  She's aware of her husband's predilections and seething with a jealous rage, anxious to take out a sadistic revenge on Patsey when provided even the smallest moment of opportunity.  The actors are brilliantly cast, and there's a livewire running between Ejiofor and Fassbender that makes their every on screen moment --at whatever the distance-- seem like merely a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop.  Fassbender is, predictably, frightening and manic, but this is Ejiofor's finest performance so far.  He has a way of keeping the character's inner life alive in his expressions, and his countenance lets us see the layers of Northup's debasement.  We are never meant to simply infer that something is painful, we are forced to experience it, to confront it, and to understand what it means when a human being is treated as an object, as livestock. 
So, I braced myself for 12 Years a Slave, but I did not find its illustration of the torment at any point excessive or unnecessary. On the contrary, McQueen works to tell Northup's story in a way that feels far more organic than a great many of the cinematic band-aids, tearjerkers, and gold-tinged Technicolor bits on slavery to come before it. This is a quietly powerful film with a strange, somber beauty that strikes you at the most unexpected of times.  12 Years a Slave doesn't want your tears, it wants you to think and to understand the magnitude of the situation in a way that doesn't allow the camera to pull away, that doesn't succumb to false modesty or notions of common decency.  Everything works, and as much as I may favor new, adventurous, experimental creative works as my Oscar front-runners and year end favorites, it's tough to argue with the significance and organized power of what 12 Years a Slave has to offer.  McQueen has broken out of the art house and tapped into a caliber of "problem picture" the likes of which is rarely seen.  We'll be talking about and teaching this film for years to come.   

Friday, October 11, 2013

Love: Gravity (+ some mention of why this blog has been so poorly attended to lately)

My schedule is such that though I still try desperately to make time enough to fit a movie in on the weekend, having a chance to mull the thing over and write about it feels like an extraordinary luxury. Hence, I'm coming to you nearly a week after what felt like a lavish occurrence: a dinner with friends, a ticket purchased to experience deep space in IMAX 3D.  Now, I sit chained to my desk by work, the books and notebooks piled high, the tabs opened in perpetuity, iPad battery draining under the strain of so many annotated PDFs.  This is the Friday night of a beleaguered academic, and it seems fittingly masochistic that my self-assigned "break time" consists of contemplating dinner and, well, more writing.  I've taken on far too much this semester, my friends, and relate to the plight of Gravity's drifting astronauts more than I'd like to these days: distant from society, longing to feel grounded, and so on and so forth.  That's my lazy lead-in, I fear, to a film that may be anything but.  Basically: my writing is late to the party. The ink has been spilled. There's no point burying the lead.  I'm here to confirm what you already know: Gravity is extraordinary.  It's an astonishing technical feat that reaffirms why we go to the movies in these the wayward days of in-home on-demand viewing habits.  Not only that?  It validates 3D filmmaking, IMAX, and the raw power of simple storytelling.
There are only two small drawbacks to Gravity, and one of them is simply that screenings of the film aren't immediately followed with an optional 30-minute making-of documentary.  I wanted to know --as soon as the credits rolled-- how everything was done, how accurate the science was, what the actors' experience of the production was.  Alfonso Cuaron, a director I've followed since a grade school obsession with (of all things) Great Expectations, has long had a way with the camera.  The camerawork in Gravity is simply beyond, and there's a clarity to the images that provides the illusion of absolute cinematographic purity in spite of the fact that we know, inherently, that this is an effects film. Cuaron uses 3D technology, too, to provide an even more powerful sense of the pristine emptiness of space via deep focus. Everything feels visible here, and we're given a real sense of distance, of proximity, and of the way our figures are in constant motion on an otherwise placid, still, backdrop.  This is a beautiful nightmare, a wonder that convinces you at all times that it's absolutely real, plausible, and documented.  So, the film's first drawback is hardly a real one: you want to know more as soon as it's over. Knowledge is power, and stuff.
The second drawback is more relevant to an assessment of the film, but mild enough an offense that it's unlikely to trigger too much audience ire: the script is sort of lackluster.  There are a handful of bothersome eye rolls here that just feel a bit trite when matched against the enormity of the situation, but, really, they're not worth griping about.  I'd imagine there's maybe like 300-lines of dialogue here, if that.  Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) are astronauts working on repairs during a routine space walk when the Russians demolish an out-of-commission satellite somewhere along their orbital path.  Debris is hurtling at them, and upon impact a chain of events is set in motion that makes for one of the most intense, relentless film-going experiences in recent memory.  Ryan, a woman who we learn has already suffered tragedies on Earth, is our heroine here, and thanks to a plucky save by space cowboy Matt, the film follows her attempt to survive against the most harrowing of obstacles and odds.  So, they don't say too much that isn't semi-instructional or expository, and really, it's just enough to make the audience care about the flesh and blood human beings insulated in the suits.  Somehow, it works. Bullock emotes, Clooney provides a necessary familiarity in so foreign a landscape.  Don't let anyone tell you they're not doing much here, or that there's nothing to it. Gravity is a series of paradoxes: it's a small movie writ large, a giant event film writ small, an overwhelmingly physical film concerned with big concepts, deeply claustrophobic in the most open of spaces, and a placidly anxious adventure.  Go, now. Give it your money.   

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Love: Prisoners

I'll admit it: I only went to see Prisoners after people started raving about it.  I'd been content to let it pass quietly into the night and was ready to write it off as an upgraded, Oscar-season version of, I dunno, Taken.  You know: all the angry thriller stuff, but with more depressing domestic drama. Yes, this was even though I knew the director (Denis Villeneuve) was responsible for Incendies and yes, all of it seems horrendously misguided now.  Prisoners is a shockingly good piece of work, a moody, mercurial thriller that weaves its characters and plots together in ways which should be surprising even for the most jaded of murder mystery aficionados.  The reason I liked it most, though?  It's viciously angry from the top down, and that unbridled rage, that immeasurable frustration, is an impetus that drives it to depths and peaks most similar films (with exceptions given to David Fincher) never reach. 

On Thanksgiving, two young girls wander away from the celebration and disappear. The lives of their parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) immediately become a waking nightmare of public speculation, relentless search parties, vigils, and self-medicating.  Jackman stars here as Keller Dover, a small town dad like an unhappy medium between Jean Valjean and Wolverine -- pissed off, driven, and with no time for the law.  In the hours following the disappearance, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes a mentally deficient man (Paul Dano) into custody, only to release him when his limited abilities rule him out as a suspect.  Keller, though, is convinced of his guilt and - in a stroke of vigilantism as morally debatable as it is cathartic - takes justice into his own hands.  From there, the premises diverge, morph, and throw the initial setup off balance. Gyllenhaal and Jackman rage against their own limitations and, occasionally, at each other in ways that remind you how powerful the right role can be for the right actor. Each is perfectly cast and compelling, but just when you think Prisoners could easily transform into a character-driven domestic drama focused on the aftermath of a small town tragedy, it does anything but.  

Prisoners is something like a horror film mashed up with a police procedural, a story interested in building characters and placing them both on the same team and at impossible odds.  A lot of people do a lot of questionable, criminal things in this film, and the film seems to expand and contract away from the central tragedy in impossibly smart, fluid ways that call everything about the individuals, the situation, and - at times- the town itself into question.  Villeneuve dabbles with exploitation and violence here, moving Keller and the other parents quickly away from the ethical limitations of sanity and calling into question the realistic lengths desperate, deeply wronged people will go to.  There's some serious Lady Vengeance happening for a few scenes here, and the viewer is forced to feel Keller's frustrations, to side with him as he repeatedly partakes in otherwise reprehensible behavior.  It's an intriguing, uncomfortable effect, and one Jackman and Villeneuve (with Davis and Howard, on occasion) manages to make work to the film's advantage.  The ground here is never solid, and the viewer is pulled between fascinating compulsions in the race to locate the missing girls. Do we side with the law? Or do we want the vigilante to deliver his own brand of justice?  Your own answer may surprise you.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Squalor: Don Jon

I loved the trailers for Don Jon.  They had style, personality, and operated like micro narratives in and of themselves.  There was a great sense of story in those quick minutes, an urgent pop of character that laid bare the film's motives and its raw aesthetic.  Unfortunately, the trailer may have been too powerful a dilution. All you really need to know about the movie is contained in Joseph Gordon-Levitt's repeated mantra: "my body, my pad, my ride, my family, my church, my boys, my girls, my porn." These are the things important to Jon, a frustrating walking stereotype reverently referred to as "the don" by his juicehead friends.  It's an Italian-American reference in keeping with Jon's "guido" style, but one that clearly alludes to the salvation-seeking womanizer of legend.  Jon's a stickler for a routine in keeping with the mantra: he's home for family dinner, he obsessively cleans his apartment, he shows up to weekly confession and does his our fathers while pumping iron at the gym.  All this, of course, while nightly picking up girls at a generic looking local club.  Problem is? Jon stands in for all those whose real life expectations have been destroyed by a raunch culture proliferation of porn.  He's disappointed and completely unsatisfied by real, live sex. 

Things begin to change when Jon finds himself blindsided by a love at first sight moment with Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), a slightly aloof "dime" who doesn't let Jon in so easily. The film's first half follows a sort of honeymoon period in their relationship and the unraveling of Jon's established patterns.  For awhile, the energy of the trailers is sustained, and there's a smart, self-aware quality to the writing that lets Jon exist as something more than parody. Joseph Gordon-Levitt writes and directs here, in addition to his starring role, and the opening chapters prove he definitely has a flare for deftly drawn characters.  There are slick, expert moves executed here in quickly establishing dimensional individuals. We get Jon immediately, and Barbara within minutes.  All of this only makes the Don Jon's weak second half more of a frustrating letdown. After committing in full to the piggish, misogynistic qualities of Jon; embracing the hard R-rating in montages of porn and frank language, there's a shift towards redemption so forced, so overly practical, that it's near impossible to buy.  
My theory on this is that Gordon-Levitt isn't really keen on being an unlikable character. He can only cast himself in the role of macho, porn-addled chauvinist for so long before sneaking the audience a sly smile and reminding the folks back home he's still the thinking girl's pin-up.  So, in an admirable effort, Don Jon introduces a 'real woman' in Esther (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged lady who speaks her mind and confronts Jon on his public foibles.  It's a great idea, but the more Esther becomes a presence, the weaker the narrative gets.  Esther is a deus ex machina, a ghost from the morality machine who arrives on the scene to change Jon not via manipulation, but through experience, open-minded feminism, and a sexuality derived from something other than the pouty artifice of pornography.  I should be all about this, and really, it's a smart step for a film to try.  I wanted to believe the change. I admired what Gordon-Levitt was trying to do with his character's sexual salvation, the way the film forces him to start respecting women as something other than objects.  But...I didn't believe it for a second.  

Don Jon spends so much time pushing its character towards archetype; collecting his rage, making him confused and angry. All of this to the point that when the turn comes in the final act, it's so impossibly forced that it's seems like a sort of laughable, slapped-on fairy tale ending where it should be anything but. Our contemporary Don Juan is redeemed by respect and understanding, and as forward thinking as that might be, the film can't convincingly render it in the misogynistic world it seeks to imitate. Maybe if the film hadn't made Jon so consumed with the upkeep of his macho persona I'd be able to see the shift in character as a more natural progression.  To his credit, JGL tries to introduce the shift earlier on in confession scenes, a slow pulling away from porn for a week here and there, etc; but the Jon always falls back, and each time he does he seems to fail harder, to resent and question things more. Consequently, after we've been shown what it looks like when Jon begins to lose faith or feels a change in his libido, the gentle turn away from porn-addled slacker narcissist  towards gentle, loving, open-minded figure requires a suspension of disbelief.  There were ways to make this work, but here Julianne Moore might as well be Jon's freckled fairy godmother.   

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Love: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2

As is often the case with big animated features these days, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 needs to be evaluated on a different set of criteria than your average film.  It's a delight of a movie, but outside of being a form of entertainment, it's running on a wholly unique set of guiding principles.  Namely: quality of puns, cuteness, whimsy, and face-melting explosions of color.  Like the Despicable Me movies, Cloudy is less a fine animated feature than an out-and-out cartoon hellbent on cracking jokes and having fun. The characters move in exaggerated manifestations of their personalities, their eyes are either wide and bright or hidden for comedic effect, and they operate in a world where the anthropomorphic foodstuff of dreams is considered hard science.  Let's be real: criticism outside of gauging the movie's ability to make you smile is sort of missing the point.  Logic? Nope. Cohesiveness? Not important. Story? Just enough to take you on a safari. Though there's certainly art here, of course. It's a brilliant case study in cuteness and the human ability to fall in love with anything that has a pair of eyes and a smile, but it's unlikely anyone involved in the production was gunning for prestige

Cloudy 2 is instead a hybrid of psychedelic confection and comedy geekdom.  Bill Hader returns to voice enthusiastic young inventor Flint Lockwood, and we open in the moments following the first film.  Flint and friends have stopped his rogue food replicator from producing weather altering, oversized eats, but it's too late: their island town is all but hidden beneath piles of hamburgers and its citizens are evacuated as clean-up commences.  In the bright and shiny world of the cartoon, all the chipper folk of Swallow Falls are ushered into new, temporary jobs in a Silicone Valley-esque city dominated by a innovative corporation called Live Corp.  The enigmatic genius at Live Corp's helm, Chester V (Will Forte) is Flint's lifelong hero.  Given the chance to make his mark on the world, Flint can't seem to see that Chester may in fact be up to no good.  When it's discovered that the food residue on Swallow Falls has begun morphing and taking on new, semi-monstrous qualities, Chester sends Flint back home on a top secret mission...that our wacky scientist just can't help inviting all his friends and family along on.  From there, Flint, weather girl Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), and the whole gang embark on a fantastic voyage through every possible food pun known to man with an energy that's nothing short of infectious.
Look. The fact is that I'm someone who has spent weeks with Netflix sending me nothing but Rainer Werner Fassbinder films and find art documentaries.  While I waited for my friend to get there I was sitting at a table reading Hegel, and afterward I had to head home to consider some Jacobean drama.  When I was in that theater?  I laughed. I laughed hard. I squeeeeed. It was shameless, I enjoyed every second of it.  Sometimes, my friend, it's ok to let yourself like something that doesn't aspire towards greatness, that doesn't try to make you think, or that isn't particularly new.  Harness your pretensions, give yourself a break, strike a balance, and take comfort in the coo of the smiling strawberry, in the spindly legs of the fishing pickles, in the cuddly illogic of the swimming marshmallow.  Shhhh.  All is well.  It's ok.  It's ok.

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