Short Cuts: Film Reviews (Pre-Oscars Special Edition)
Home again, home again, jiggity jig! It's been a couple of months since my last posting here, as the rush of the holidays and post-holiday work meant blogging time shrunk considerably. It's ironic, too, as I've been consuming more popular culture since late November than I have in ages, catching up on television (Boardwalk Empire, the final season of Gossip Girl, all three seasons of Downton Abbey, and much more), comics (I commend Batwoman, The Flash, Daredevil, and the ongoing one-two punch of Matt Fraction's dazzlingly intertwined Fantastic Four and FF to your attention), and pop music (Frank Ocean, Adele, Japandroids, P!ink, and new singles from Prince, David Bowie and Justin Timberlake are all worth your time). And of course, movies. I'd like to touch on those other aspects of pop in future posts, but since we're only a few hours away from this year's Academy Awards, I'd like to devote this moment to the movies, with quick takes on all the stuff I've been watching since Thanksgiving. After all, the "end" of the previous film year is really marked by the garish, grating, glorious hilarity of Oscar night, isn't it? The movies below range from 2012 blockbusters to tiny indie films to 1933's vision of the ways PTSD gets displaced onto class (dis)order. Good, bad, beyond awful and utterly brilliant, they've all been wonderfully vivid reminders of cinema's power for me the last three months, even if only a few have a chance to win one of those statuettes described by one wag as being the perfect symbol of Hollywood: "It cuts off the head right where the brains are, and leaves a blank space where its balls should be."
Just a note: I still haven't seen the following films: Argo, Django Unchained, Silver Linings Playbook, Flight, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Master, Amour, The Hobbit, Les Miserables, and Beasts of The Southern Wild. But this isn't a year-end "best" list, and anyway, you're probably sick of hearing about those movies anyway, yes?
Hello I Must Be Going (2012) is full of fantastically beautiful cramped images: characters pushed into the foreground as arguments blur in the back, or shoved to one side of the screen by a looming bit of mise-en-scene, or caught in close-up as a hand-held camera probes for flaws and feelings. Which makes it all the more interesting that it is, at heart, a comedy, full of wonderfully observed moments of very funny discomfort, witty exchanges, and even the occasional pratfall. At the center of this constant back-and-forth between dramatic dysfunction and hilarious release is Melanie Lynskey, whose wounded face and rubbery comic's body perfectly embody the movie's two not-so-opposite poles. That she missed an Oscar nomination is just another example of that august body's general awards failure-- the way she shifts from fantastically subtle to absurdly broad (sometimes in a single scene, or a single moment) as her character works out her post-divorce life is a wonderous thing to behold, like a tightrope walker who not only keeps her balance but makes the journey a revelatory bit of art (and she's ably supported by John Rubinstein and Blythe Danner, if not by a generally one-note Christopher Abbott). If the last fifteen minutes is a mishmash of childish epiphanies, first-year-writer's-program resolutions and one or two insightful shots, it doesn't undercut the moving jumble of feelings and framings that the rest of the film provides.
My Valentine's Day movie? Zero Dark Thirty (2012), of course. I mean, it's about a girl who chases a guy around the world for ten years.
Watching the climactic raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound, I kept thinking that even with all of the modernism of her cutting and framing, and her roots in the avant-garde, Kathryn Bigelow was the real heir to the Hawksian tradition of no-nonsense, graceful-men-under-pressure narratives that so many contemporary films either strip too bare or overload with sentimentality. Watch that scene on the plane as the SEALs are flying in, and how well Bigelow intermingles the easy banter and the black humor with the preparation and the slowly mounting sense of the violence about to be unleashed. Or, in a much starker way, how matter-of-factly she allows Jason Clarke's CIA agent to waterboard and psychologically manipulate various detainees in the first half of the film: contra Andrew Sullivan and Glenn Greenwald, this frighteningly casual process-- like someone clocking in at a particularly dirty and difficult job-- doesn't at all undercut the moral terror of what's happening: it enhances it (for the most thorough takedown of Greenwald's bad faith, see Glenn Kenny). It draws us in precisely because it treats it as a process, a profession with its own twisted sense of honor, and then it allows us to feel increasingly queasy as Jessica Chastain's rookie agent builds her own sense of moral fervor around its instability and false answers (Kyle Chandler's no-nonsense station chief is also crucial here, as Chandler brings his usual, brilliant minimalism to the role-- I always get the sense I'm eavesdropping on his characters when I watch him, like the camera just happened to catch him unguarded). It's a film rich with irony, which not even the occasionally anvilicious turns of Mark Boal's screenplay (to say nothing of the weird pluckiness he injects into its second half, as if trying to make Chastain's character the lead in particularly twisted romcom) can undercut. And the final images around a transport plane-- echoing and reversing the final shots of The Hurt Locker--act as a devastating frame for Chastain's finally-released emotions: for character and audience, the reminders of all that's been lost hang in the air, but there's no real going back from everything into which we've been implicated.
Twelve years ago, Graydon Carter rather fatuously declared that 9/11 marked "the end of irony," so it seems deliciously appropriate that the Vanity Fair editor plays a snookered businessman in Arbitrage (2012), a pretentious middlebrow thriller whose too-easy ironies and uneven plotting sink what might have been a smart movie about family economies of all kinds.
Richard Gere, as a morally conflicted, utterly corrupt trader, is as good as advertised, and he's well-matched by Stuart Margolin, Brit Marling, and a criminally underused Chris Eigeman (one shot of Eigeman at the end, pensively gnawing at the end of his eyeglasses at a charity gala, is worth pages and pages of writer-director Nicholas Jarecki's moralisms); Tim Roth chews the scenery as a detective straight out of Dick Wolf casting, and Susan Sarandon flounders in an underwritten role, but neither of them are given much to do (and the sudden, unbelievable twists in Sarandon's character are almost offensive; there's absolutely no acknowledgment of how much she's privileged by the crimes of Gere's character that she rails against). When the movie is exploring the details and dark underbellies of financial deals, the film works beautifully; but the homicide investigation that is its other plot thread is poorly handled, and fits thematically but not stylistically with the Wall Street material-- nothing about this merger feels organic, and its crass manipulation undermines all of the hard work the cast puts into things. In the end, what resonates is not the dumb endings, or Jarecki's smug posturing, but the lived-in exhaustion of people's bodies: how they walk, bend over, and most of all sit; a slumped back, a tilted head, a shrugged shoulder are all more expressive explorations of time, memory, loss, and regret than anything the movie speaks out loud.
2 Days In New York (2012) is wildly erratic, particularly early on, when the film can't quite figure out how to juggle the sweet and the scatological. But like the blended families the film's comedy explores, the jangle of voices, styles and moods eventually finds its own odd and workable rhythm. As a director, Julie Delpy has a lovely eye for New York locations, colors and textures that draw the eye in even as the characters' neuroses and foibles push you out; its a back-and-forth sway that allows Delpy to use overlapping voices, cramped close-ups and the aural wash of background noise to generate a world and a set of character histories that feels lived-in and pleasingly implied, as much as ever explicitly stated. And it's very pleasurable to see Chris Rock in a role that let's him be sweet, harried, quiet and serious-- his slow burn and puzzled expression hold things together even as the narrative threatens to spin out into something twee. What begins as frantic ends up being warm and enveloping, without ever losing its impishness and ability to surprise.
As someone who considers Metropolitan an utterly perfect movie (and ranks Barcelona not far behind), I wasn't sure at first how to take Whit Stillman's Damsels In Distress (2011). Its first ten minutes or so are so flattened, its close-ups and group shots so suffocating, the dialogue stretched out to a place somewhere beyond absurdity, curving back into banality in its never-ending, obsessive-compulsive detail, its constant drag towards minutiae. And then slowly, the movie snuck up on me, as the superb cast found all kinds of layers in their characters: Greta Gerwig is so good at hinting at the vulnerability beneath Violet's chatty exterior; Analeigh Tipton carefully arranges the evidence of Lily's monstrous selfishness without ever breaking character or condescending to her role; and Adam Brody speaks the false bravado of Stillman's dialogue like a dream. Most of all, Damsels uses backgrounds and frame edges more beautifully than any other film I've seen this past year. There's a wealth of detail in its set design, and the bunches of students and townspeople that stream around our central protagonists give the film dynamism and emotional depth-- their activity and bright energy wittily comment on the neuroses at the center of the frame, making it far more affecting than it might otherwise be. And it ends with a musical number! All in all, Damsels In Distress is pretty magical.
Of course, there are less magical musicals, too.
Can't Stop The Music has nothing on Rock of Ages (2012), a movie so in tune with the fun of 1987 glam metal that it ends with Journey song from 1981. It's not just that the film wastes the game talents of Mary J. Blige, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Bryan Cranston, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Paul Giamatti, and very looped-out and wonderfully weird Tom Cruise, nor that it ignores the potent kookiness these performers could provide in favor of a tired boy/girl/fame triangle involving the Smurfette-like Julianne Hough; it's not just that Adam Shankman directs movie musicals as if he's never seen one before, overlooking the potential pleasures of rock sensuality and 80s video excess in favor of smug camp and incoherent camera angles that obscure rather than reveal; it's not even that the film can never figure out how its songs fit into various narrative moments, how on-stage numbers work in relation to off-stage numbers, or what any of these songs mean to any of characters singing them.
It's that, even for an adaptation of a cheesy Broadway jukebox musical, Rock of Ages seems to have no idea why its source material was so popular, or why it might have a lasting power for its audience. What 80s pop metal lacks in terms of musical innovation and cultural cachet, it makes up for in sheer energy, crassness, knowing theatricality and a heartening belief in the power of melodic loudness; even in the Kidzbop versions that litter the movie, the head-pounding fun and cartoonish danger of the songs shines through. "Oh, my god, I can't believe I'm actually here, " Julianne Hough chirps while standing on the Hollywood sign, to which the audience for Rock of Ages can only respond-- baby, you were never really there.
Red Hook Summer (2012) weaves so many stylistic registers into its tapestry that it's often dizzying: just when you think you have a handle on it, it spins off in a different direction, barely allowing you to settle before it spins off again. This can be a bit maddening, but also breathtaking, funny, and quite moving. And its self-conscious juggling of documentary realism, theatrical and highly stylized performances, improvised (almost sketch-like) comedy, gospel-as-narrative-allegory and avant-garde visual play makes it the Spike Lee film which most bears the mark of one of his idols, Melvin Van Peebles. By the end, I felt wrung out-- as Clarke Peters' flawed and hypocritical preacher puts it at one point, in one neighborhood you see a whole world, and Lee makes sure it's one that's overflowing at every turn. And that final, pre-credits montage is fantastic.
Uptown, that vibrant life is turned inside-out, drained of its earnestness, and overloaded with menace. Cosmopolis (2012) has the narrative outlines of a tragedy, but the internal rhythms of a comedy. Which is not to say that David Cronenberg's latest is funny-- although it sometimes is, in a very dark and deadpan way--but that it's wonderfully and existentially absurd, down to the tiniest elements of its dialogue, its performances, and its extraordinary cinematography, which looks at everything through the heightened reality of a wide-angle, forcing us to feel the dizzying illusion that we can somehow take it all in, even as the wealth of detail on the screen creates the anxiety that we never will. And Robert Pattinson is superb-- more than in that little franchise of his, it is here that is fully, frighteningly, hilariously vampiric.
Battleship (2012) is so enervating, unimaginative and unpleasant that it almost makes one long for the relative wit and sophistication of Armageddon.
McConaughey completely transforms the character). Central (in all senses) to this experiment is Jack Black, a gifted performer whose own boisterousness has sometimes hidden how skillful an actor he really is; it is his exasperated sweetness, mixed with a silent-but-potent sense of moral certainty, that anchors the film, and acts as its ironic heart-- Bernie is kind, but if he didn't feel the need to force that kindness on everyone, he wouldn't get in such trouble. Like nearly all of Linklater's films, Bernie's unclassifiable story and tone made it hard to market, but it's a gem. (If you like Linklater's work, I would be remiss here if I did not recommend my friend David Johnson's Richard Linklater, part of the University of Illinois Press's Contemporary Directors series, and a brilliant, one-book survey of why the Austin auteur is such a crucial part of American filmmaking).