Gen X? Call Me Generation Spielberg …

[My apologies to Richard Amsel, the designer of the orginal poster]

[My apologies to Richard Amsel, the designer of the original “Raiders of the Lost Ark” poster, and to Roberto Bizama Diaz, who created the drawing of Spielberg’s face that I used.]

This Friday, February 1, Linda DeLibero – Associate Director, Film and Media Studies, Johns Hopkins University – and I will appear on Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station, during the second hour, 1-2pm, to discuss the work of Steven Spielberg.* We wanted to do a show about an important director, relevant to our time, who would allow us to do a nice run-up to our planned February 22 pre-Oscar broadcast. When we chose Spielberg, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had yet to announce the 2013 Oscar nominations, but we guessed correctly that Spielberg would be among the nominees. And so I have spent the last month slowly prepping for this Friday’s discussion, re-watching films I had not seen for years, and reading Richard Schickel’s new book, entitled simply Steven Spielberg: A Retrospective (for the record, full of great quotes from the man, himself, but really a piece of fluff, especially in regards to Schickel’s lightweight analyses of the films).

What I have discovered through all of this research is how much I am a product of Steven Spielberg’s aesthetic sensibilities, for better and/or for worse. I was born in 1969, and Jaws, Spielberg’s breakthrough film, came out in 1975, setting the stage for the blockbusters to come, both his and George Lucas’s. His box office successes ruled my childhood. Members of “Generation X” are usually defined as having been born between 1965 and 1979, so I definitely qualify as a member. But I’d like to reject that label in favor of one that more accurately defines how we all view the world: Generation Spielberg.

Jaws is the first film I can ever remember being denied the right to see. We lived in Palo Alto, California, at the time, and I remember walking down the main drag (University Avenue), seeing the film on a marquee, hearing everyone talking about it, and then being furious that my older sister was going to see it later (she was 11, but the film was – inexplicably – only rated PG). I forget when I finally did see it, but I remember having the crap scared out of me, so it’s probably for the best that little old 6-year-old was denied. To this day, though I have swum in many oceans and battled my fears of unseen creatures in the waters below me, I nevertheless cannot shake the thought that I am being stalked from the deep. I am sure I am not alone in this. That said, I love Jaws, and often use it in my teaching. It is masterfully crafted, and a work of great storytelling prowess.

But Jaws is an anomaly, in that most of the Spielberg influences on me have not left me scared and scarred. The first of his films that I saw in a theater was Close Encounters of the Third Kind. We had just spent a year in France, and my father, back in California a few months before the rest of us, had seen George Lucas’s Star Wars and become an instant fan, bringing me to see it with him as soon as I returned home. I think he enjoyed Spielberg’s space epic even more than Star Wars, since he seemed to identify with the protagonist – Roy Neary, played by Richard Dreyfuss – as a father, himself, prone to singular obsessions. I liked Close Encounters, but it was a little too adult and nuanced for me. The infantile simplicity of the plot of Star Wars had greater appeal. Still, the images in the film stuck with me. And now, in my 40s – older than my father was when he brought me to see the film – I find that Close Encounters remains one of my favorite Spielberg films.

And then there was 1941. Released in December of 1979, it was still around by the time my 11th birthday arrived on February 11, 1980. So that’s what I and my friends went to see. I mean, we all liked John Belushi, so we’d like this film, right? I’m not even sure we knew who directed or cared if we did know. But we did care about how dumb and unfunny the movie was. If you can’t make a group of 11- and 12-year-old boys laugh with slapstick and gross-out gags, you’re doing something wrong. It was Spielberg’s first flop – nothing I cared about at the time – and a product of true excess in every way. As Spielberg notes in the Schickel book, he simply blew too much stuff up. It’s too busy a film to be effectively entertaining. I just re-watched the film last week, and it was just as stupid as I remembered. But there were two unexpected delights: Robert Stack as the clueless general having a blast watching Dumbo (really the funniest joke in the entire film – love it, love it, love it!); and Nancy Allen just being incredibly over-sexed (maybe if we’d been 13 or 14, we would have liked the movie more).

Spielberg’s everlasting influence on me truly began, however, in 1981, with the sublime Raiders of the Lost Ark. This film, I saw with my mother. If you were to go back in time and sit in the seat next to me at my first screening of the film (I saw it many, many times), you would have seen a look of pure rapture, and perhaps guessed that a budding cinephile was being formed. Nowadays, I can see the racism or, at the very least, Western colonialist attitudes that permeate the entire movie, and it can make me wince, but as a cinematic narrative, and as a thrilling ride, the film is beautifully constructed. I particularly like the prologue which, though not connected directly to the rest of the plot, nevertheless encapsulates everything we need to know about Indiana Jones, and lays the groundwork for the adventure to come. It is a model of economic and effective scriptwriting. I experienced an intense adrenaline rush watching the film, and have tended to respond most favorably, ever since, to films that replicate that experience for me. Fortunately, I can get that same rush from films that stimulate my mind, as well my adrenal glands, but I always look for some kind of direct involvement in the story.

In a 1962 interview in Issue #138 of Les Cahiers du Cinéma, the Franco-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard had this to say about American filmmakers: “The Americans, who are much more stupid about analysis, instinctively bring off very complex scripts. They also have a gift for the kind of simplicity that brings depth . . .” Say what you will about the “stupid” comment, I’ll take what he’s stating as a high compliment, and put Spielberg at the top of the list of directors who have mastered that kind of simplicity (in his best work). And that is what I respond to in his films: he is a master storyteller, and a master craftsman, and when equipped with a strong script, the narrative clarity he achieves allows for complexity and nuance to thrive. Even in works like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (not one of my favorites <gasp, I know>), the presence of a character like the government scientist, played by Peter Coyote, who seems to come over to E.T.’s side, allows for shades of grey in the story, rather than a pure black and white dichotomy. The same can be said for Raiders – who are the good guys? Sure, the Nazis are evil, but Indy is a compromised hero, and the U.S. government agents turn out to be bureaucratic fools, locking up the Ark of the Covenant in what might be a basement warehouse of the Smithsonian. And of course, the ultimate compromised hero in the Spielbergian universe is Oskar Schindler, whose motivations remain obscured. But this is a good thing, as it forces the audience to think about big issues. Narrative clarity + moral nuance = my kind of movie.

There are many more themes that I respond to in Spielberg (hint – I find him deeply anti-authoritarian), but you can tune in on Friday to hear all about them, as well as to hear more about which films I like and which films I don’t, and why. To help guide you in our discussion, here is a list of all of Spielberg’s feature films (I include Duel, since it was released theatrically in Europe, but I do not include Twilight Zone: The Movie, since he only directed one segment in that film):

  1. 1971 Duel
  2. 1974 The Sugarland Express
  3. 1975 Jaws
  4. 1977 Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  5. 1979 1941
  6. 1981 Raiders of the Lost Ark
  7. 1982 E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
  8. 1984 Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  9. 1985 The Color Purple
  10. 1987 Empire of the Sun
  11. 1989 Always
  12. 1989 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
  13. 1991 Hook
  14. 1993 Jurassic Park
  15. 1993 Schindler’s List
  16. 1997 Amistad
  17. 1997 The Lost World: Jurassic Park
  18. 1998 Saving Private Ryan
  19. 2001 A.I. Artificial Intelligence
  20. 2002 Catch Me If You Can
  21. 2002 Minority Report
  22. 2004 The Terminal
  23. 2005 Munich
  24. 2005 War of the Worlds
  25. 2008 Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
  26. 2011 The Adventures of Tintin
  27. 2011 War Horse
  28. 2012 Lincoln

Thanks for reading, and enjoy the show on Friday!

*NOTE: Missed the show? Have no fear. Here it is: Midday with Dan Rodricks: 2013.02.01_Spielberg

“Amour” at the Best Eccentric Musicians’ Hotel

Amour

Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012)

How nice to see both Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva back on the screen! Now in their 80s, these two icons of the French New Wave have lost none of their charisma or acting prowess. The Austrian director Michael Haneke cast his latest film wisely, and is rewarded with a pair of performances that envelop the audience in the sincerity of this tale of love and loss.

Haneke, whose eclectic output includes Funny Games (both the original Austrian version and the 2007 American remake), Code UnknownCaché and The White Ribbon, has proven time and again that he loves using the tools of cinema to implicate the audience – as participatory voyeurs – in the turbulent lives of his characters. In some films, like Code Unknown and Caché, Haneke creates multiple on-screen realities, through movie sets and cameras that are part of the story, to blur the boundaries of time and space within the world of the movie. In Amour, the actors are the tools this time. In the weathered faces of Trintignant and Riva, we see, reflected back at us, the history of over 50 years of cinema. When, in one of the first scenes of the film, they sit in a concert audience looking straight at us, they are effectively reversing the role of viewer and performer, and directly inviting us into their narrative.

Haneke favors the long takes, in which our discomfort slowly builds as we wait for the cut that doesn’t happen. This is a nice reprieve from the average editing pace of movies in our current age, although it does require patience. In that same opening scene, as we watch Trintignant and Riva from the perspective of the stage, we can be tempted to wonder why we are there and why we don’t cut away. In fact, for those watching who might not know what Trintignant and Riva look like, it would even be possible to see nothing but an audience of unknowns staring at us, since the shot is so wide. This sense of disorientation – Haneke’s specialty – is the perfect set-up follows.

Trintignant and Riva play Georges and Anne, a long-married couple with a middle-aged married daughter (played by the excellent Isabelle Huppert), who are about to have their lives turned upside down when Anne suddenly develops a condition that leads to her rapid decline. As they each struggle to maintain their respective dignity, their love and sense of self are tested, until the inevitable must arrive. But we are prepared to watch their drama, since Haneke puts us very much in their place.

In spite of the potentially depressing nature of the subject, I found this film extremely life-affirming. The careful construction of each scene lends grandeur to even the simplest gesture, even as we remain, for the most part. stuck in the apartment with Georges and Anne. The careful use of Schubert’s Impromptu No. 1 in C minor (Op. 90, D.899) – a piece of music that is autumnal to its core – also contributes to the elegy. Is this a paean to the triumph of devotion, to the joys of movie watching, or to the work of two such great actors? You decide. I am fairly certain, however, that regardless of your interpretation, you will understand why Amour won the 2012 Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival (an honor also bestowed on The White Ribbon in 2009).

One interesting final note. As you watch, I urge to you think about the format in which Amour was shot – film or digital – and to check out the technical specifications afterwards. Are you surprised? Darius Khondji, the cinematographer, has done excellent work, so perhaps he would succeed in any format. What do you think?

Oh – and more thing – what do you think of the pigeon?

Quartet

Quartet (Dustin Hoffman, 2012)

This was a delightful movie, if very much in a derivative spirit and similar to last year’s Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. I’m calling it “Best Eccentric Musicians’ Hotel,” because, like that other film, it follows the story of a group of elderly retirees who are looking to go not so gently into that good night. In search of second chances, re-dos, and even inappropriate first chances (dirty old man alert!), the aging musicians who find themselves at Beecham House are an entertaining bunch. And in spite of some occasionally hoary and expositional (my spell-check tells me this isn’t a word – I say phooey, it is now!) dialogue in the beginning, the film works on almost every level, leaving you profoundly moved – to laughter and tears – at the end. And isn’t that what art is for, to provide cathartic experiences? I think so.

This film is also Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut. And what a fine way he has with his fellow actors. The four leads – Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Maggie Smith – are all excellent, as are most everyone else, including the non-actor actual musicians who round out the cast.

Based on a stage play of the same name by Ronald Harwood, the story centers on the impending closing of Beecham House, an English retirement home for musicians, for lack of funds. To celebrate Verdi’s upcoming birthday, the residents – all former stars of opera, symphony, cabaret, etc. – plan to put on a fundraising concert. The self-appointed leader of this somewhat ragtag group, played by Michael Gambon, decides that the best thing to raise the profile of the event is to bring back together the four singers who performed a celebrated rendition of the quartet from Verdi’s Rigoletto. The only problem is that two of them – Courtenay and Smith – are barely speaking to each other after a lifetime of jealousy and betrayal.

This being a feel-good dramedy, with emphasis on the latter half of that hybrid word, you can guess how it ends. Old wounds are mended, witty barbs and musical jokes are thrown around, and much fun is had in the doing of it all. Frothy it may be, and perhaps a little self-indulgent in its enjoyment of its leads’ performances, but it is a film worth seeing, particularly if you enjoy even one of the actors in it.

Too bad Dustin Hoffman, now 75, waited so long to get behind the camera!

“The Impossible” Band of “Pirates”

impossible

The Impossible (J.A. Bayona, 2012)

I went to see this film today because it was the last of the narrative (fiction) films with some kind of Oscar nomination that I had yet to see. Naomi Watts is the nominee, and she gave her usual high-caliber performance. Unfortunately, said performance was overwhelmed, as the film wore on, by excessive maudlin melodrama accentuated with overwrought music. I don’t think she’ll win.

The best part of The Impossible, directed by the man (Juan Antonio Bayona) who previously brought us The Orphanage (a not-quite-successful-but-interesting-nevertheless horror film) in 2007, is the opening. We are given enough time with the central family to understand their dynamic and to care (somewhat) about them, and then the tsunami hits. Wow! What an amazing technical accomplishment that was, blending footage shot in a water tank with traditional models and CGI. I was horrified and riveted, and deeply engrossed in the fight to survive amidst the turgid waters. When the second wave hit, I almost lost it. A man sitting next to me had screamed out loud just a moment earlier when a car, on top of which two main characters were desperately clinging, slammed into a tree. This is visceral filmmaking at its best, and I was very impressed (if squirming).

I remained involved as Maria (Naomi Watts) and her son Lucas (the brilliant – and so young! – Tom Holland) dragged themselves through reeds and mud, Maria bleeding profusely all the way. In fact, it was only when the film leaves them in a hospital to cut back to the story of Henry (Ewan McGregor) and his two younger sons that my attention began to waver. Perhaps it was because Henry sends the boys off unattended into the mountains (where they meet Geraldine Chaplin, appearing in a strange little cameo, as she did in The Orphanage) so he can look for his missing wife and elder son; perhaps it was the excessive use of music to punctuate the scenes of flood survivors seeking relatives. All I know is that by the time we reached the frantic reunion of all 5 family members (I know, spoiler alert, but since this is based on a true story, there’s not much to spoil), and Bayona set up a series of very obviously staged almost misses in the hospital, I had long since checked out. And this in a film about a tragedy that killed almost 300,000 people!

Poor Naomi Watts – for the first half of the film she is a force of nature, but in the second half she lies on a gurney, on life support. It’s hard to act when your face is covered with an oxygen mask. Perhaps the Oscar nomination is a reward for having spent 95% of the film covered in mud.

There have been more positive reviews than negative ones about the film. Here is an example of one from Entertainment Weekly. Based on what I have written, above, it should come as no surprise that I agree more with many of the negative reviews, such as this one from The Newark Star-Ledger or this one from The New York Times. The more thoughtful critics point out how much the film ignores the plight of the vast majority of victims, who were Asian, in favor of a focus on a family of Anglos (who were actually Spanish in real life, which is why I chose a Spanish version of the poster, above).

It’s not a terrible movie, and it’s almost worth watching for the tsunami recreation, alone. But if your gag reflex is provoked by too much overt manipulation of sentiment by a director, then you might find the latter half of the film as annoying as I did. Let me know.

The Pirates: Band of Misfits

The Pirates! Band of Misfits (Peter Lord/Jeff Newitt, 2012)

This will be short.

I did not life this film, at all. It was the one remaining Oscar-nominated animated film for me to see, and I expected to love it. It is from Aardman Animations, which has given us Wallace and GromitCreature ComfortsChicken Run and lots of other great things, including this little gem of a short riff on Nina Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”

In The Pirates! Band of Misfits, we are treated to characters both dumb and unsympathetic. None of the jokes are funny, and the Pirate Captain, voiced by a miscast Hugh Grant, is a bore from start to finish. The film livens up a bit at the end, when we get actual action on Queen Victoria’s warship, but by that time our attention has been lost to the insipid plot, made worse by the constant and even more insipid music by film composer Theodore Shapiro, whose contributions similarly ruined Hope Springs (I gave him a bit of a pass in that previous review, but now I am beginning to think he may just be a musical monstrosity). I won’t even bother recounting that plot, as it won’t make sense, anyway.

One thing that annoyed me even further is the choice to make Queen Victoria the villain. Leaving aside the fact that in 1837, when the film is set, she would have been only 18, and not the matronly dominatrix they portray here, it seems odd to pit her as someone evil opposite pirates, who actually were evil. The film takes for granted that we’ll like the pirates just because the director expects us to, yet makes no effort to ensure that we find something likable in them. Also, speaking of dates – yes, I know it’s just a silly animated film – but did they really have flush toilets and electrical light switches in 1837? I don’t think so. I’m not used to movies – even ones marketed to children (or especially ones marketed to children) – so completely ignoring historical realities in the name of story as this one does. Why bother with dates, then? Don’t even get me started on the airship . . . If the film were at least funny, perhaps I would care less.

Blech.

“Rust and Bone” Do Not a “Broken City” Make

Rust and Bone

Rust and Bone (Jacques Audiard, 2012)

Rust and Bone is a film in which an Orca trainer from one social class meets and falls in love with a down-and-out boxer from a different social class. They each suffer damage both psychic and physical, and so must learn to trust and love again. Does it all work? You tell me after you watch it. In my opinion, it does, sort of. One thing I know, for sure, is that you will be as amazed at the integration of VFX (visual effects) into a non-science fiction narrative. It’s so striking because it is there without being distracting, and pulls you into the story, rather than being the story.

Much to my disappointment, I was unable to present this film, as scheduled, at the January 13 Cinema Sundays at the Charles, because BGE had scheduled a “planned power outage” for that morning. And now, today, the film opens in Baltimore, and gone is my opportunity to use all of my preparatory research. No matter. Life goes on. I’ll share a shorter version of what I had planned to say, and some of my impressions of the film, below.

The film is based on a short story collection of the same name by a Canadian writer, Craig Davidson. It is (loosely) drawn from the title story and “Rocket Ride.” I read both stories before last Sunday, and found them simultaneously disturbing and compelling. I feel the same way about the film, so that’s a good fit. A warning, should you decide to read the stories, yourself: one of them (which I’m stuck in now), “A Mean Utility,” is about a seemingly normal yuppie couple that goes in for pit bull dog fighting. Davidson’s a good writer, but his choice of subject matter makes for some difficult reading.

Speaking of writers, Jacques Audiard, the director of this film, was a writer before being a director (and he still writes, or co-writes, the films he directs). Some of his writing-only credits include Baxter (a strange little movie narrated by a psychotic dog – a pit bull! – who only pretends to be nice) and Venus Beauty Institute (a lovely gem of a movie starring Nathalie Baye as a 40-something woman looking for love in all the wrong places). His first film, as director, was in 1994: See How They Fall (which I haven’t seen). Since then, he has made only 5 more features, including Rust and Bone. Of those previous films, I have seen Read My LipsThe Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet. Audiard’s father, Michel Audiard, was also a writer in the cinema. More than actual screenplays, the elder Audiard wrote dialogue for films, and was very well regarded in his day. When Audiard – fils – sets out to make a new film, then, he takes his time, is thoughtful about the process, labors over the script (these days, with his collaborator Thomas Bidegain), and what we see on the screen – whether we like it or not – is a product of a true auteur.

In all of Audiard’s films (at least the ones I have seen), there seem to be mismatched couples, whether they be romantic, parent/child, cross-cultural, or otherwise. His films have the structure of romantic comedies, in that way, except that Audiard is interested, instead, in the sincerity of the emotions that course between people, rather than the craziness of the mismatch.  He flirts with melodrama, always, but avoids bathos.  In his more successful films, such as The Prophet, he exhibits a masterful control of seemingly improbable plot threads, and the joy of watching comes from seeing him weave a narrative out of these unlikely bits of material.

Audiard tends to work with the same people over and over again, at least on his crews, but only rarely repeats lead actors (Niels Arestrup, who appears in both The Beat That My Heart Skipped and A Prophet, is an exception). His cinematographer, screenwriter, production designer, etc., are longtime collaborators. This has helped lend his films a unified aesthetic, over time (hence the “auteur” designation). He loves dappled sunlight, and loves showing us the light as we emerge from shadow. He also loves POV (point of view) shots, especially if they allow him an opportunity to “iris” (create a black circle around a specific point) the shot to focus our attention.

In Rust and Bone, the very first words we hear are spoken by a little boy: “J’ai faim” (“I’m hungry”). This plaintive bit of dialogue becomes the mantra of the two leads, each hungry for something which they cannot quite define. It will take serious catastrophes in their respective lives for them to become whole. Given that one of the characters loses significant body parts, this is ironic.

Both Marion Cotillard, as Stéphanie – the Orca trainer – and Matthias Schoenaerts, as Alain, or Ali, as he is called – the boxer – give fully engaged, visceral performances that help to carry us through many of the narrative improbabilities. If you are less prone to fixating on plot details than am I, then the inconsistencies of story will bother you less, and you will be able to sit back and enjoy the lovely interplay of these two capable actors.

In an NPR interview with Cotillard, aired on November 28, 2012, the actress had this to say about some of this “interplay:”

  • “You know when it’s an awkward situation, you have to do something out of it. … But those scenes were very special, because usually I’m not very comfortable with sex scenes. But that time was very different, because the sex is a big part of this movie. Without it, we would miss something.
  • “Something happened to me on set when we were filming those scenes. … I was very happy for my character, because she went through so much and, and then suddenly she’s gonna reconnect with sexuality — with her sexuality.
  • “Usually I’m in a very bad state … on those days with sex scenes, but on this movie, it was very, very different. I accepted much easier.”

I quote these passages not to revel in the legless sex (did I just give too much away? I think not!), but to prepare you for the level of raw commitment you will see on the screen.

Unfortunately, other parts of the film did not work quite so well for me:

  • I would have liked a little more time with Stéphanie before her accident.
  • I didn’t like how Stéphanie’s accident was filmed, and felt like they couldn’t get the footage they needed, so they cut around it.
  • I really did not like the use of music in the film. As Stéphanie does her “tai chi,” that use of the Katy Perry music from the Orca show was especially off-putting, even if it acts like a sound bridge to the next scene.
  • I found the father-son relationship to be woefully under-developed, which makes the final payoff not work. As a result, we actually approach the bathos that Audiard usually succeeds in avoiding. It doesn’t help that irresponsible and neglectful parenting always drives me crazy and makes it hard for me to identify or sympathize with a character. Ali is a bad father. Plain and simple.
  • To compound that last issue, I could see the boy’s accident coming from a mile away, so that when it happened, rather than gasp, I thought, “Really? He did just what I thought he was going to do?” I have since read the story it is based on, and that event comes from the book, but the way it was filmed was inexcusably obvious.
  • In some ways, the film reminded me of Clean, and in neither film did I buy the irresponsible parent’s conversion, nor did I forgive their irresponsibility just because they felt bad about it.
  • In general, I would have liked more development of the boy, so that his accident would resonate more. It’s not enough that he’s a little boy for me to feel the tragedy. I need to know him. I liked his interaction with the dogs, but then the film ignored him, afterwards, for long stretches.

But there is a lot to recommend here, from the beautiful cinematography, by Stéphane Fontaine, to the wonderful naturalistic performances by Cotillard and Schoenarts. It’s not as powerful, nor as narratively coherent, a film as A Prophet, but it’s still pretty darn good. And if you watch the film and have concerns, as I do (after seeing The Cove) about marine animals in captivity, take heart from the issues of conscience with which Cotillard herself wrestled. This is from a December 5, 2012, interview she gave to Awards Daily, discussing what it was like to film the scenes in Marineland.

  • “On my first day I arrived 5 minutes before the show. I watched it and I thought it was horrifying. My trainer turned to me after the show and she said, “Did you like it?” and I thought “What am I going to answer? Am I going to lie or am I going to tell the truth?” And I couldn’t lie and I said, “Well, no, I hated it, but I don’t want you to think that I’m disrespectful.” Those people, they have a passion. They’re passionate about what they do. They love the animals so they made my job easy because passion is contagious. I will never go back to Marineland. This is an open question because some children won’t ever have the possibility, because of money, to go and see the whales in their environment and sometimes it can raise an awareness and the desire to save those animals.”

If, like me, you may have wondered what the title means, here’s a line from the Craig Davidson story, from the moment where fist makes contact with face: “”Lips flatten against teeth, mouth filling with the taste of rust and bone.” Enjoy!

broken_city

Broken City (Allen Hughes, 2013)

This is a mess of a movie. It has all of the trappings of a great political thriller, and a terrific cast (Mark Wahlberg! Russell Crowe! Catherine Zeta-Jones! Jeffrey Wright!), but it all amounts to not much at all. The restlessly roving camera (a comment I wrote in the dark about 20 minutes in) is an apt metaphor for a movie that is just all over the place.

Wahlberg plays Billy Taggart, a disgraced former police detective from Brooklyn (by way of Boston), who finds himself used as a pawn in the political games of Mayor Hostetler, played by Crowe. Now working as a private investigator, Taggart is hired by the mayor to follow Mrs. Hostetler (Zeta-Jones), ostensibly to catch her in flagrante delicto. But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? Could that be  . . . oh, wait, I wouldn’t want to give too much away. On the other hand, if you’ve seen the movie’s trailer, you already have some sense that Taggart is being manipulated to set up a politically motivated murder. And if you haven’t seen the trailer, well, bravo, you know now as much as people who have seen it.

There is some good acting here. Jeffrey Wright and Wahlberg are, as always, watchable (even if Wahlberg always sounds like he’s from Massachusetts), and Crowe and Zeta-Jones have hammy fun with their parts. Barry Pepper, as the mayor’s rival for power, however, is horribly miscast.

But the script is not really worth the paper or electronic ink it was printed on, and as my late great film directing professor from NYU, Bill Reilly, used to say, “Script is coin of the realm.” And if you ain’t got that, a manic camera isn’t going to help. Nor is a lame final slo-mo shot of the protagonist going off to meet his fate.

A Great Rib: “Arbitrage” Shows Gere’s Still Got It

Arbitrage

Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki, 2012)

I missed this film when it came out. I even had an opportunity to see it at Cinema Sundays at the Charles. I’m still not sure why I just didn’t want to see it. Maybe it was the plot description: “ARBITRAGE, the feature directorial debut of writer Nicholas Jarecki, is a taut and alluring suspense thriller about love, loyalty, and high finance” (taken from http://www.arbitrage-film.com). Maybe it was the trailer, which I found oddly repellant. Or maybe it was just the prospect of seeing Gere play yet another silver fox.

So I was surprised to find that I liked the film. A lot. Sure, it has plot holes and contrived situations, and the cop character played by Tim Roth is completely over-the-top and unbelievable, but the story of how a titan of the financial world gets away with a series of crimes is extremely compelling. And Gere, at the center, holds your attention in a way that few actors can. He has often played flawed and/or evil men with a flair that makes you root for their success (think Internal Affairs, for instance). He has a gift for understanding that no one is bad in their own eyes.

In Arbitrage, Gere plays Robert Miller, a hedge fund manager who has committed fraud in order to make his business appear solvent as it comes up for sale. It’s a tricky game, and he hides the details from his wife, played by Susan Sarandon, as well as his daughter, played by relative newcomer Brit Marling (lovely). This last deception is especially hard (and risky), since said daughter also happens to be the chief investment officer of Miller’s business. To add to the layers of lies, Miller is also carrying on a passionate affair with Julie, a French artist (Laetitia Casta – annoying and unappealing – why would one cheat on Susan Sarandon with this non-entity?). One night, while driving to his vacation home with Julie asleep by his side, Miller falls asleep at the wheel, and what happens next sets the bulk of the plot in motion.

From that point on, I was hooked. I may have found Roth ridiculous, but I watched, avidly, anyway. I particularly appreciated the discomfort of father and daughter as the one tries to hide the financial deception and the other nevertheless discovers it. And while the bad guys in this movie may escape punishment, there is retribution of a sort, as family bonds are irrevocably destroyed.

I’m actually a bit shocked that Gere wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. I thought his performance had greater nuance than Hugh Jackman’s in Les Misérables or Joaquin Phoenix’s in The Master. Gere has never been nominated for an Oscar, in fact. True, he has played the silver fox once too often, but he can be quite good.

You should see this film for him, for a deeply engrossing plot – flaws and all – and for Brit Marling. Enjoy!

Oh, and that “rib” of my review title? Well, see the movie, and you’ll get why my silly anagram makes some kind of sense . . .

Master Weiwei’s Weenie (so sorry, I couldn’t resist): My SHORT Franken-Review of Three Films of 2012 That I Somehow Missed Reviewing Before

master

The Master (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2012)

How could I have not reviewed this movie? I had such a visceral negative reaction to it when I saw it . . . way back in October. I just assumed that I had written down my thoughts.

My relationship to the films of the director Paul Thomas Anderson started out so well. Although I never watched his first film, I loved his second feature, Boogie Nights, from the first frame. In it, Anderson masterfully juggled multiple plot threads, and coaxed terrific performances from all of his actors, especially Mark Wahlberg. As his films have progressed, I have liked them less, although I have always appreciated his ability to direct actors.

Magnolia was fun, but messier than its predecessor. Tom Cruise almost made the whole thing worth watching, however. I found the film after that, Punch-Drunk Love, to be interesting, yet simultaneously unwatchable. And then came the Oscar-nominated There Will Be Blood, which had a magnificent first half, and then a completely chaotic (and unmotivated by the first part) second half. As soon as Daniel Day-Lewis says, “There is a madness inside of me,” I was out of the picture.

Now we have The Master, a film that has garnered genuinely positive reviews, with some notable exceptions.

Count me among the exceptions.

This is a film that needed to be more of just one thing than a multitude of many different things all trying to coalesce into meaning. It has good actors giving strong performances and fine 65mm cinematography, and a surfeit of portentous music. It purports to be about a Scientology-like cult – led by an L. Ron Hubbard stand-in played by Philip Seymour Hoffman – and a troubled and violent young man – played by the prodigal Joaquin Phoenix – who might just be the cult’s next great recruit, yet when the film is over, we discover that either: a) the cult was just a sleight-of-hand construct meant to distract us from whatever the film is really about, or b) as long as this movie is, it’s only half complete. I actually felt that way at the end of There Will Be Blood, that we had were missing large chunks of what would have made a compelling story.

Since I loved Boogie Nights so much, I will credit Anderson with all of purposeful intention in the world, and assume that the film is not about Scientology at all. In fact, given that we open and close on the same images of Phoenix on the beach, making sand castles, I propose that The Master takes place entirely in Phoenix’s character’s head. His drifter is so lost and so lonely and so . . .  unpleasant . . . that he conjures up a mysterious religious organization which decides to take a special interest in him and save him. Alas, his inner demons will not release him, and so even his own wild imaginings provide no release – the cult fails – and he remains lost at the end. This is the only way the film makes sense to me. Unfortunately, even if this were Anderson’s plan all along, it wouldn’t make what actually unfolds on the screen any more interesting. A central protagonist who doesn’t change is a snooze to spend time with, especially the 2 1/2 hours required here.

As of this writing, the film has been Oscar-nominated for only Best Actor (Joaquin Phoenix), Best Supporting Actress (Amy Adams), and Best Supporting Actor (Philip Seymour Hoffman). I am surprised it wasn’t nominated for Best Cinematography, in which category it would have actually merited a win.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (Alison Klayman, 2012)

This was a fascinating documentary, about the internationally known dissident Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei. I knew nothing about him before watching the film. The movie follows him as he confronts the Chinese government, in 2009,  over student deaths in an earthquake in Sichuan Province. We then find out about his background (son of an intellectual father who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution), his studies and life in America in the 1980s, and his choice to return to China in the years after Tianenman Square. By the time we meet him, he has been exhibiting in the great galleries of the West, such as the Tate Modern in London. Though irreverent, he seems to be able to get away with provocations that his fellow dissidents do not, perhaps protected by his celebrity. It comes as a surprise (and a shock), then, when we find out, suddenly, shortly before the end of the film, that he has been “disappeared.” Knowing nothing about him, I assumed that was it. And what an ending that would have been. But fortunately for him (and for the world), he resurfaces, a bit cowed and damaged, but alive. In the last few minutes of the movie, we see his old cockiness return. Hence the subtitle, “Never Sorry.” As of October of this past year, he was again exhibiting internationally.

This is a strong year for documentaries – perhaps stronger than for narratives – and this one didn’t make the Oscar cut. Too bad. It’s worth watching. One learns a lot about the art of protest – literally and figuratively – and the specificity of the details we learn about this one artist lead us to a better understanding of some universal truths about the nature of oppression and resistance.

Frankenweenie

Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)

This is far from a perfect movie, but anyone who has ever lost a beloved pet will find it hard to resist. Tim Burton’s spooky dramedy of one boy’s attempt to resurrect one such lost pet has, as its inspiration, his own feelings about the dog he loved as a child. It’s this connection to the work that helps Burton bring an emotional intensity to the film that I have often found lacking in his other movies, no matter how wildly inventive they may have been.

Victor is a science nerd whose parents want him to go out and play ball. It’s at one of these forced outings that his best friend – his dog Sparky – chases a ball out of the park and into the wheels of a car. Horror! But all is not lost, because young Victor has seen the right monster movies, and so he successfully channels the power of a lighting storm into Sparky’s (freshly dug-up) corpse, und voilà! Wir haben ein Frankenweenie!

By the time the movie is over, many other young kids will have resurrected their own dead pets, and the undead Sparky will prove that, dead or alive (or some combination thereof), a dog really is a mad scientist’s best friend.

Why is it not perfect? Well, the tone is uneven in a few places, and the use of the one Asian character is funny, but also in questionable taste. But the animation is beautiful (I saw it in 3D), and you really do feel how much Victor cares for Sparky, and vice versa. The film still resonates for me, even now. As I write this, my own little pooch lies on my bed, nestled next to my thigh. If you have such a companion, then you’ll probably be moved by the film, as well.

I love Pixar, but Frankenweenie is my pick for the Best Animated Film Oscar this year, in spite of its flaws. The beauty of its visual style and the genuine feeling that courses throughout make it a true work of art.

Go Team USA: The Triumphalist Jingoism of “Zero Dark Thirty”

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

For me, the best part of Zero Dark Thirty, back when I saw it in New York, in December, was the preview for the upcoming Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, beforehand. Although previous films by that director (Brian Helgeland), such as Payback and A Knight’s Tale, were hardly amazing, they were watchable, and there was something very appealing about the trailer. Perhaps the company that made that trailer just had a really good editor at work. We shall see. I also enjoyed seeing, for the second time, the ridiculous trailer for what promises to be a silly (but hopefully also very fun) new film from <gasp> Michael Bay: Pain & Gain.

Can you tell that I’m delaying writing about Zero Dark Thirty? Let’s see, what were the other trailers? Snitch (second preview with The Rock, this one not so good), Oblivion (now the third time I have seen this, and my reaction by now is: “blech”), Broken City (I’ll be seeing the film this Tuesday at a press screening, and just from the trailer it looks like it could be decent), and After Earth (is it just me, or does anyone else find it annoying how Will Smith keeps pushing his son on us?). After all of these coming attraction announcements, the feature film began.

Let me start my review with two declarations:

  1. I was not in raptures over The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow’s previous film. True, it won 6 Oscars, including Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Picture. I was happy to see a woman finally win for directing, and since the Oscars are generally more about successfully managed press campaigns than about the quality of the films, why not give it to Bigelow? She’d put in her dues, after all, with films like Near DarkBlue SteelPoint BreakStrange DaysThe Weight of Water, and K-19: The Widowmaker. There are plenty of male directors that I don’t particularly admire who have won Oscars – John G. Avildsen (Rocky), James L. Brooks (Terms of Endearment), Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves), Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind), Delbert Mann (Marty) – so I was fine with her Oscar. Still, it might have been nice to have rewarded some earlier women directors whose work was of superior quality, such as Jane Campion (The Piano), Martha Coolidge (Rambling Rose), Jodie Foster (Little Man Tate), or Marleen Gorris (Mrs. Dalloway), to say nothing of women directors of foreign-language films, such as Claire Denis (Beau Travail), Deepa Mehta (EarthFireWater), Marleen Gorris, again (Antonia’s Line), or Agnieszka Holland (Europa Europa). The Hurt Locker was a very well made film – Bigelow knows what to do with a camera and what to do with actors, especially macho male actors – but it left me cold and unengaged with the story. I felt, as I did watching Point Break and Strange Days, that Bigelow was more interested in the pyrotechnics and logistics of the action sequences than in character development.
  2. I felt, after watching this new film, as if I had just seen Team America: World Police again, only without the puppets, and without the irony.

Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the hunt for, and eventual killing of, Osama (or Usama, as he should be called, as this film reminds us) bin Laden, has received mostly extremely positive reviews, and has even been called the best film of the year by some. On Thursday, January 10, 2013, it was even nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (though Bigelow was not nominated, herself, for Best Director). Here is a sampling of the critical praise. Even while praising the film, some have decried its depiction of torture, however. For a rare minority, that depiction of torture is inexcusable, leading to a negative reaction to the film. A documentary filmmaker I admire greatly, Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the RoomTaxi to the Dark Side), has even decided to publicly criticize the director, Bigelow, and the screenwriter, Mark Boal, for their irresponsible approach to the subject.

So where do I stand?

This is a competent enough, if plodding, espionage thriller with mostly compelling actors (except for the lead, Jessica Chastain, a lightweight who is mysteriously being called great in this film, and who just received a Best Actress nomination) that tells the story of the painstaking intelligence gathering that led to the ultimate revenge killing, when U.S. Navy Seals exacted retribution for the murder of 3000 people on September 11, 2001, on U.S. soil. But it is not a great film. It puts at its center a character, Maya, (Chastain), who remains a cypher throughout, yet with whom we are asked to sympathize time and again, especially at the end, once she cries post-mission accomplished. As a work of art, it falls short.

It is also morally reprehensible.

I’ve watched plenty of films that ask us to identify with people who do bad things, yet few have bothered me as much as this one did. Perhaps it was because this film purports to be journalistically true, and is told in a breathless patriotic manner, that I find its support of tactics in which no nation based on freedom and integrity should engage intolerable. Even if these events transpired as depicted – and there is pushback against that idea (granted, from some politicians and CIA operatives) – the fact that the filmmakers never address the morality of torture, or the debate around it, allows an impression that torture is just business as usual to permeate throughout. When confronted with this fact, the screenwriter responds, “It’s a movie, not a documentary.” Given that the appeal of the film is that it tells the story as it really happens, this is a disingenuous reply, as best (as Gibney notes in his piece, as well). The movie even opens with the following on-screen title “Based on first-hand accounts of actual events.” So one can disagree with the criticism leveled by folks like me, but one can’t claim that the film doesn’t deserve hard scrutiny on factual grounds. And leaving that aside, the title begs the questions – whose “first hand accounts?”

Full disclosure – though I love being a citizen of the United States, I despise tribal identification, and have never enjoyed books, movies, music, art, etc., that ask me to sympathize with a story just by virtue of being a member of the tribe being depicted. As Samuel Johnson once said, “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” So the rah-rah, Americans-are-the-only-ones-who-count tone of this film really rubbed me the wrong way. That doesn’t mean I sympathize with those who commit acts of terror, but just that I want to live in a world where we consider every human life as equally valuable, regardless of country of origin.

But while all of this would still bother me, I would at least understand the critical adulation showered on this film if it actually delivered the goods. The final raid on the bin Laden compound is extremely well rendered and engaging, but the rest of the film drags, as Rex Reed has noted. So what in the world is going on? I think it’s all about context. I imagine that a non-American audience of critics would react quite differently to the film. And if this were a film that had all of the same scenes, in the same order, but was strictly fictional without any reference to America’s most wanted man, I don’t think the same critics who love it now would remain quite so enamored.

And now, since the film annoyed me so much, I’d lke to just throw down my typed-up notes (originally written in the dark of the theater), rather than waste any more effort on a “review:”

  • Titles on screen, as well as occasional intertitles, make the film feel very documentary-like. Doesn’t this put the lie to the “it’s a movie, not a documentary” line?
  • Jason Clarke (Lawless): “In the end, everybody breaks. It’s biology.” Really? My understanding of torture is that this is only true in TV shows and movies.
  • Jason Clarke’s Aussie accent seems like it’s slipping through sometimes.
  • Whether or not we got actionable intelligence or not is a separate question as to whether or not we as a nation should be engaing in these acts of “enhanced interrogation.” The film does not address this question. If anything, it comes down squarely on the side of the interrogators, especially since one of them (Clarke) is one of the main characters. What is wrong with us if we think this is a good thing?
  • We never shoud have given an Oscar to the person who directed Point Break (imagine if we had given one to Jane Campion, instead).
  • The film shows torture like in a “gore-no” film – what’s the point of dwelling on it?
  • It feels like an extended episode of “24.
  • Detainee talks, after he says, “I have no desire to be tortured ever again.” See – torture works!
  • And then we get MORE “enhanced interrogation” (of London bombing mastermind)
  • Jessica Chastain is not always working for me – she’s actually a bit of a lightweight
  • After Chastain and Jennifer Ehle are stunned in Marriott explosion, why don’t they help others leave? They only save themselves.
  • Film, shockingly, almost has result of making me sympathetic w/ people on other side from us, since we treat them so poorly. I think Three Kings handled torture in a better way.
  • I thought Jennifer Ehle’s chracter behaved stupidly before she was blown up. Is that really what happened?
  • How did Chastain survive shooting of her car? What the hell!
  • Is that a Duplass in CIA headquarters? [looked it up later – is is! Mark Duplass in a major studio film . . . interesting.]
  • Mark Strong’s character’s comments about how they don’t have anyone to ask anymore because of the cancellation of the detainee program put the film squarely on the “torture is good” side.
  • A bit smarmy and anti-Obama: “The President is thoughtful and analytical. He needs proof.”
  • Audience I was with laughed when the Navy Seal called out “Osama” – twice! – on 3rd floor!!!! Was that because of nervous energy, or because they thought it was stupid, or . . . . who knows?
  • Triumphalist jingoism turns me off.
  • When Chastain cries at end, I feel as if we are asking to suddenly identify with someone for whom we have no backstory.

And that’s it. A big fat zero.

Oscars 2013 – My Picks

The 2013 Oscar Nominations were announced this morning. My picks are below. These are the movies that I think should win from among the nominees, not the ones I think necessarily will win.  The list is broken up into 4 separate images, with my choices highlighted in purple. I have not highlighted any of the short films, because I did not see any of them. I’m kind of cheating with the Documentaries and Foreign Films, since I’ve barely seen any of them. As a note, my 3 top films of the year are Amour, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi. If Amour were not also nominated for Best Foreign Film, I might have picked it for Best Picture. If the screenplays for Life of Pi and Django were not in separate categories (Adapted vs. Original), I would have been hard pressed to choose between them.

If you click on any of the images, it will open in a new window, with greater detail.

Reed_Oscar Nominees 2013

Reed_Oscar Nominees 2013

Reed_Oscar Nominees 2013

Reed_Oscar Nominees 2013

Friday, 1/4/13, Midday on Film: The Movie Star Edition

Gods Like Us

pg. 350 – Traditionally, “movie stars … have served a crucial and psychologically necessary function as role models for trying on different identities and projecting alternate ways of being.” But now, we do the same thing for ourselves.

pg. 357 – “By their very existence, movie stars insist that entropy cannot exist, that glamour and youth never fade or, if they do, get resculpted into something of harder, better value.”

Join us on January 4, 2013 at 1pm, as Linda DeLibero (Associate Director of Film and Media Studies at Johns Hopkins University) and Christopher Llewellyn Reed (Chair of the Department of Film/Video at Stevenson University) speak with Boston Globe film critic and author Ty Burr about his new book, Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame, on the second hour of Midday with Dan Rodricks on WYPR, 88.1FM, Baltimore’s NPR News Station.*

You can read a review of the book on the Entertainment Weekly website, if you’d like (it’s a good review).

We look forward to your questions via email or phone. You can listen live on 88.1 FM, in Maryland, or stream live from the show’s website (linked to, above – you’ll also find the phone and email info there). If you miss the show, you can podcast it later (and that info is also available from the show’s site).

*NOTE: Missed the show? Have no fear. Here it is: Midday with Dan Rodricks: 2013.01.04_Ty Burr