Friday, April 22, 2011

Cold Weather

Dir. Aaron Katz

After the unprecedented and widespread success of mumblecore during the first half of this past decade, it now seems that the movement is split between two distinct ideological strains: Movies About Real People and movies about real people. The former contains the opposing poles of mumblecore. At one end is the Hollywoodization of the movement (or as I like to call it “The Michael Cera/Ellen Page Effect”) based on the pretense that awkward lovability, dialog that sounds spontaneous, and fantastic scenarios that betray the central conceit of being a film that is ostensibly realistic, will sell tickets across demographics and appeal to the debatabe desire of the viewer to see him or herself represented on screen. The other strain, of course, is the origins of mumblecore. The early films of Andrew Bujakski, the Duplass brothers and others initially brought together low budget necessity and modest conceptions about identity and place within culture. From these lowly origins these filmmakers created a genre so seemingly artless and affectless that their films eventually came full circle; transformed into trite and self-conscious pieces of anti-cinema.

So what about films about real people (perhaps, given the nature of the argument, even the italics should be done away with)? In Cold Weather director Aaron Katz mines the myriad complexities of utilizing a medium that relies heavily on invisible artifice to create something that is breathtakingly of-the-moment. He begins by utilizing a common template of mumblecore: nerdy loner type can’t find a job. Thankfully this characterization, unlike so many other mumblecore films, does not become the film’s premise. Doug, the aforementioned nerdy loner, moves in with his sister, Gail, in Portland, Oregon. While she finds a respectable job at a law office, Doug, a forensic science major, can only manage to get work at an ice factory. Doug has a subtly complex relationship with his ex-girlfriend, Rachel, which eschews backstory and exposition in favor of meaningful yet discreet gestures and insinuations. At the ice factory, Doug meets Carlos who seems specifically designed to tear down negative Latino stereotypes. Yes, he is a factory worker with a sideways baseball cap, but he’s also a popular DJ and a Trekkie. Admittedly, Carlos' characteristics are a little out of left field. Katz is far more convincing when dealing with confused and specialty-less 20somethings with all the self-defeating baggage of the under-employed, over-educated middle class.

The structure of Cold Weather allows for these characterizations to blossom and grow quietly in the restful pauses between the driving narrative moments of the film. After a neat inversion of the meet-cute formula (Doug purposefully introduces Carlos to his ex), what feels like a rom-com-for-the-rest-of-us, takes a surprising turn when Rachel disappears from her motel room. Though it may seem a conceit, given Doug’s love of the Sherlock Holmes mystery novels, the manner in which Katz puzzles out Rachel’s disappearance is compelling and highly original. Despite an early reference, Cold Weather is thankfully more Law and Order than CSI, and still more frustratingly grounded than either. Rather than follow the slippery slope of montage “crime solving” sequences, Katz concentrates on the rhythm of detective work. Scenes of silent snooping are contrasted by frantic car rides set to the sharp syncopations of Keegan DeWitt’s score, which owes much to the on-point neuroticism of Jon Brion’s Punch Drunk Love soundtrack.

As the mystery unravels, Katz’s influences begin to unpretentiously reveal themselves. Rachel appears and admits that she is involved in a money smuggling plot that involves a very Lynchian henchman in an anachronistic cowboy hat and vintage muscle car. So too does the gorgeous scenery and graceful camera movement of the film suggest a great love of cinema, in particular the effortless tableau of Hitchcock. However, the film's most enjoyable aspect is seeing Doug and company “play detective.” Comedy is meticulously grounded (no meta-isms here) and the drama and suspense plays out naturally though little is directly explained beyond Rachel’s mid-film reappearance. The point is the process not the result, as painfully realized by Katz’s conclusion. Sitting atop a parking lot waiting for Carlos and Rachel after slashing the tires of the “bad guys” and stealing back the briefcase full of money (the tropes look deliciously fun on the page), Gail and Doug enjoy a moment of downtime, the kind that punctuates the film and generally adds to our emotional investment with these undeniably likable and relatable people. As Doug plugs in a mixtape he made for Gail in high school the film abruptly cuts off.

So unexpected was the ending that the viewer has to be left wondering if there isn’t a missing final reel somewhere that, in lieu of wrapping up loose ends, would at least provide a logical closing frame. Katz, who cut his teeth in mumblecore, inexplicably falls prey to the spontaneity of the low-budget filmmaking process. In the process he disappointingly disturbs what was otherwise a thrilling, yet understated exploration of the dynamics of mystery. Cold Weather is a compelling study of what it means to represent real people in cinema and how best to utilize the classic conventions of a genre piece in innovative ways, yet it ends up demonstrating the unfortunate signs of mumblecore’s precocious eccentricities. Still, one cannot undervalue Katz’s unflagging commitment to his art and the accomplishments therein. Let’s just hope that next time Katz remembers to deliver the goods before celebrating his victory.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

The King's Speech

Dir. Tom Hooper

It can sometimes be difficult to consider the whole picture when one element of it stands out so noticeably. Colin Firth tends to be that element. Take for instance, last year’s A Single Man. A fine film carried far on the shoulders of Firth’s performance and Tom Ford’s progressive, if sometimes mishmash, artistic direction. A year later and we arrive once again at the Colin Firth picture of the year: Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. This is not to draw direct comparison to Mr. Ford’s picture, though there are striking similarities, but rather to suggest that Firth’s dominant personality tends to overshadow the film’s other merits. In Mr. Hooper’s film those merits are plentiful indeed.

To begin, the screenplay by David Seidler is solidly built and well paced. As with Firth’s performance, which drives the narrative progression, it is dynamic and secretive. Seidler himself is reportedly cursed with stammering, a fact that adds an even greater emotional depth to the film and lends Firth’s performance an air of loving respect. Themes of repression and civic duty punctuate the inspirational tale of King George’s personal triumph in what would come to be seen as his country’s “darkest hour.” Though occasionally pushing its melodrama too far, the film nonetheless retains modesty without sinking into the murk of sentimentality. That a film should be emotional, nationalistic and inspirational, while balancing an objective sense of history and a subjective, lived-in approach to characterization is a feat that is as impressive as it is difficult.

In The King’s Speech we are permitted to enter the realm of the aristocracy. It is a pleasure the viewer relishes secretly. As with Stephen Frear’s The Queen, we are presented with a considerably darker vision than that of our speculative imagination. In the court of the King of England, composure is the true ruler. The film’s characters wear faces that look to be carved out of stone and their demeanor and speech is controlled as to reveal no indelicate emotions. That our protagonist and hero, the soon to be King George VI, can hardly carry on a conversation, never mind make a speech (the importance of which is deftly conveyed in a newsreel of Hitler’s notoriously rousing bombast), is an example of aberrant behavior that we learn is systematically punished. George’s sessions with speech therapist Lionel Logue (a delightfully cheeky Geoffrey Rush) turn therapeutic as Logue attempts to explore the King’s unhappy childhood.

The term “correction” comes up numerous times. That the corrective process for soon-to-be King George VI should include psychological bullying by his family and torture by his nurse, is emotionally provocative, yet given what the film chooses to present to us about English aristocracy, it is also not quite surprising. This corrective behavior is perhaps best surmised by King George’s wife, Elizabeth (an ironically distant Helena Bonham Carter), who, in perhaps the film’s most emotionally raw moment, recalls that she at first did not wish to marry him because she would essentially be giving up her own life for a life of “indentured servitude” to the people of England. Contrasted with the King’s abdicating brother and the emerging forces of modernity (radio and the second World War), it is powerful statement in favor of the very forces that have, up until this point, kept George a stammering recluse.

There are numerous other elements worth exploring in The King’s Speech, from cinematographer Danny Cohen’s precise use of wide angle lenses in claustrophobic sets to the lavish but never baroque artistic direction. However, in conclusion, I believe it is worth mentioning how The King’s Speech, on the eve of what many are predicting to be its victorious Oscar night, is one of the last films to wear the banner head of the UK Film Council before it’s abolition this past year. That such an elegant and impeccably produced film might go on to out muscle some of the year’s most heavy hitting Hollywood films, seems a national triumph in and of itself. Not being English, I naturally can’t be certain of this. Though just as King George’s triumphs symbolically reflect the strength of nation, perhaps, stretching the metaphor for purposes of editorial denouement, one could suggest that The King’s Speech represents the strength of the film industry that backed it. For the sake of Tom Hooper, the English film world and cinephiles everywhere, I can only say: I hope so.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Social Network

Dir. David Fincher

It’s difficult to write about The Social Network for a variety of reasons. First and most superficial is that in the age of digital immediacy (spurred at least in part by the film’s subject) writing a review of a major Hollywood film that was released over four months ago is basically a cultural crime. Given the timing, not nearly close enough to be relevant to the massive discourse that surrounded the film (though with the approach of the Oscars, chatter about the film has once again picked up) and not nearly far enough away to be considered retrospective, this review is admittedly out of place. But that is beside the point. Yet another obstacle standing in the way of an insightful, centrist review of The Social Network is the dominating ubiquity of the film’s subject: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook. Yet, to the credit of director David Fincher and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, the greatest challenged faced in reviewing this film is the not my timing, nor the film’s subject but rather the characterization of that subject. In a film that establishes the result of its own narrative twists and turns before we have even settled into its world, The Social Network shifts the responsibilities of the narrative from telling an engaging story (which it largely does) to illustrating a greater internal conflict of desires and prejudices.

Much has been made of Fincher’s auteurist interest in the loner. While he has evolved from the puerile heavy-handedness of Fight Club, Fincher remains unapologetically infatuated with those who exist on the margins of society’s concept of normality. Yet, rather than make his protagonists into heroic archetypes, he endows them with double edged faults that also function as strengths in their near pathological drive toward discovery. In Mark Zuckerberg, David Fincher found his narrative soul mate, or at least very malleable character clay. Fincher derives pleasure in creating characters whose own impulsive drives to discover truth inhibit their ability to function in the real world. They cause the setbacks to their quest. Whereas Fight Club abandoned the realms of reality, Zodiac on the other hand found an unnerving obsessive tendency in those caught up in a serial murder investigation. In that film we watched as individual worlds came apart in the face of a towering, seductive mystery. That theme is reprised in The Social Network.

What we know immediately is that Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) wants acceptance. What we realize only later is that, due to his anti-social personality type, he is largely incapable of making this happen for himself naturally and is forced to seek alternative means. In doing so he is already beginning to upset the nature social order, which is represented paradigmatically in the landscape of Harvard University and the elite social institution, Final Clubs. Yet, it is not until Zuckerberg’s first meeting with the Winklevoss twins (both are played by Armie Hammer) and their Joe Peschi-esque sidekick Divya Narenda (Max Minghella) that the ideological subtext of the film is first introduced. The brothers and their “business partner” need a programmer to help them establish an elite, Harvard only, online social network. Midway through their explanation of Zuckerberg’s duties, he cuts them off stating that he will work with them. Yet, we already have the impression of what we know will come to be. To throw it in the face of the Winklevi and all they represent, Zuckerberg will secretly undermine the whole system of elitism and privilege that Harvard (allegedly) stands for by ensuring that his online social network (Thefacebook) is spread as far as possible. Though some might argue that the character of Zuckerberg initially never had any intention of spreading Thefacebook, as that would deteriorate its usefulness in establishing who is “cool” and who is not, I would in turn suggest that Zuckerberg, as someone who gives the finger to authority and social convention, saw in that moment a chance to stick it to the exclusive attitude that rules not only Harvard but the entire Capitalist system. It was not an opportunity that he was ever capable of turning down.

In a way this is all conjecture. Aaron Sorkin bravely resists exposition (with exception of a briefly stilted moment where Zuckerberg lays out the goals of Thefacebook to a freezing Eduardo), which leaves a lot to be decided by the viewer. The kind of minute characterization I described is not beyond understanding but implies a kind of rigorous psychological strategizing that the film betrays at times. Take for example the characterization of the Winklevi. They are comic parodies at best, a ridiculous Ying-Yang pair that spend so much time offsetting one another that they forget to actually prohibit Zuckerberg from adopting their original idea. So too do we run into problems with Zuckerberg’s “best friend” Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), who is portrayed as weak minded and unnaturally loyal to the slippery Zuckerberg, even as their company grows exponentially and Mark becomes increasingly reclusive. The inclusion of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake makes a fine turn here) seeks to further increase cultural credo. While his influence on Zuckerberg is explicit throughout, his ultimate exit, as the paranoid pseudo-schizophrenic he is suggested to be, feels lazy and mythologizing. Yet, it is a testament to the strength of the story (or the collective weakness of the audience) that we brush these flaws to the side. We become as pathological and isolated as our protagonist. What we want is to understand Mark.

That understanding is tidily wrapped up in the denouement of The Social Network, which leaves a stale taste in one’s mouth. Assistant prosecutor Marilyn Delpy (Rashida Jones) delivers a monolog that is, at its start, culturally incisive (any good prosecutor is capable of making Mark look like a perpetrator because he has done nothing to victimize himself), equating a personal sense of dignity or perhaps unwavering self-admiration to a confession of megalomaniacal vices that no jury will ever see past. Zuckerberg has defended himself throughout the film and lied through his teeth about various incidents, yet he exudes a strange form of personal honor (or maybe psychological detachment) that keeps him from ever doing anything that does not feel right to him, even if those actions are wrong in the greater scheme of social morality. Yet, it is the case of his diluting of Eduardo’s shares (another instance of Zuckerberg’s contempt for elitism: he punishes Eduardo for being selected by a Final Club) that prompts Delpy to suggest that Zuckerberg is not an asshole but rather someone who is trying hard to be an asshole. Zuckerberg buys it and the film concludes with him sending a friend request to his ex, which is as good as a real apology nowadays, I guess.

But why? Without editorializing too much, Zuckerberg looks like, acts like, and talks like an asshole. Why is it necessary to assure him and the audience, in the end, that he is in fact a good guy? Zuckerberg’s opposing desire for acceptance and hatred of elitism are surely interrelated but a conclusion that posits these characteristics not as byproducts of a cultural system that constantly screws the underprivileged (a dangerous word to use in relation to a white kid from Harvard, but no less apt in this circumstance) anti-socialite but as a form of personal weakness is insulting and ideologically incoherent, especially considering the speech that preceded it where Delpy reminds Zuckerberg that he is fucked precisely because he wears “fuck you” flip flops. This failure to follow through is the film’s ultimate weakness yet it is inevitably excusable. We understand how the system works. Sorkin and Fincher deliver the neatly packaged ending and relinquish the strain of ambiguity. Hollywood does not like ambiguity because audiences, by and large, do not like ambiguity.

Many have suggested that “the next big thing” will ultimately usurp Facebook, as it did to Myspace and Friendster. Yet, to hear Zuckerberg explain it in the movie, equating online social networking to fashion by suggesting that Facebook will never be finished but will instead evolve over time, makes one wonder if Facebook hasn’t in fact added a new strain to the history of communication but rather taken a step in its evolution. It is a heady suggestion about a medium that came into existence so that college students could get laid easier. Yet, to doubt its historical and cultural relevance is to admit either Ludditism or total cultural illiteracy. And that’s coming from the guy who just saw the Facebook movie.

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Dir. Yorgos Lanthimos

While watching Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth, I was reminded of an American independent film from a few years ago called Ballast. When I saw Ballast in the winter of 2009, I got out of the theater with a strange feeling. I went home and penned my first film review (the reason you won’t find it here is because it is woefully inadequate as a piece of criticism and helplessly self-involved). My review went something like this: have you ever experienced a work of art and had no idea what to make of it? Later, I went on to discuss an intellectual inferiority complex that I believe I still possess. Despite that set back, in recent years Ballast has become one of my favorite films. Nowadays, I could tell you all about the gritty realism and the use of non-professional actors that recalls Italian Neorealism, as well as the sheer, unmistakable beauty of the cinematography and the heartbreak of the quiet story. But back in the winter of 2009 I was just as confused and slightly upset as I was when I finished watching Dogtooth just a few days ago. Experience, however, has taught me that this kind of feeling should be treasured.

Two names that have gotten a lot of mention in relation to Dogtooth’s elliptical, ambiguous style are European establishments Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier. For anyone familiar with these two titans of cinema, this should come as little surprise. Dogtooth mines the post-horror landscape Haneke and von Trier have been exploring in films such as The White Ribbon and Antichrist. In Dogtooth, Lanthimos explores the horror of the banal. Many have made insightful assertions about the film being an ideological reflection of an anti-state attitude or the nightmarish protocol of raising children in the relative seclusion of the bourgeois. Yet, these are projections of critical thinkers. The film itself is relatively formless though it plays something like a bleak coming-of-age story. Three “children” (they are at least in their early 20s) are held within their parents compound and fed lies about the outside world. Their parents alter their linguistic universe (a “zombie” is a little yellow flower, a salt shaker is a “telephone”) and thus unhinge the children from their base of reality. When one daughter blackmails the woman who is paid to have sex with her brother, she receives two videotapes (Rocky and Jaws...make of it what you will). This act sets off a chain of irrepressible events that result in the girl attempting to escape her family home after she removes her titular Dogtooth, its loss being the symbol of freedom in the demented world of the film.

Along the way taboo moments (the boy’s sexual encounters become disturbing when his father offers him one of his virginal sisters) are balanced by darkly amusing ones. The father explains that the house cats the children see around the yard are fearsome predators who are responsible for the death of their other brother, who, it is suggested, escaped sometime before the film begins. One gets the distinct impression of a playful heart behind Lanthimos’ cryptic film. He seems to be teasing the audience. It may be that we are part of some kind of self-reflexive cinematic experiment, not unlike the social and psychological experiment the parents are performing on their children. Lanthimos is testing our tolerance and our trust.

Yet, this is not the film of an egghead auteur. The exquisite manor in which the family lives is contrasted by stark acts of violence, which punctuate seemingly innocuous yet somehow deeply troubling moments of childlike play. The parents seem intent upon protecting their children from all outside forces, including nature, yet the film’s conclusion seems to affirm what we already know to be true: certain forces can not be stopped and any attempt at repression simply augments their power. Yet, it is still significantly terrifying to realize that were it not for our insider’s perspective, this idyllic home of an upper class Greek family might be resemble an antiseptic Utopia.

There are so many smart ways to analyze Dogtooth that it can be overwhelming. Yet, the film is not meant to assault your pride or your intellect. Rather it seems meant as a dark reimagining of everyday life at its most profoundly basic. It does not transcend quality, yet that same cinematic quality is uniquely tempered by a kind of extraordinary vision of contemporary 1st world culture. The family’s rituals are so like our own it is frightening. Perhaps, that is why Dogtooth got under my skin, just as Ballast did. Though the two films are worlds apart they cut through the thick of the abstract to illuminate a kind of unification. That unity was enough to make Ebert cry after viewing Ballast. It’s enough to make me scream after Dogtooth.

True Grit

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

I’m developing a theory: if you want your film to be middling, benign and commercially successful get Steven Spielberg on your producers list. Quips about Gremlins and Men In Black aside, one glance down what has to be the most bourgeois filmography in the history of the art reveals that Spielberg has bank rolled some of the last 3 decades most richly middlebrow fair. There’s no arguing that Steven Spielberg has become synonymous with popular American cinema of the highly profitable variety. So, as the credits began to roll in the final moments of Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest film, True Grit, with our amputee protagonist walking stoically off into some unknown distance, I was less than surprised by who’s name I saw directly after the Coens themselves: Executive Produce Steven Spielberg.

What’s objectionable about Spielberg is not that he is offensive. Just the opposite, in fact. His films are, for the most part, boring or at least predictable. They are characteristically uncharacteristic. In an age when even Michael Bay can be considered an auteur (one who is also, might I add, in Mr. Spielberg’s pocket), Spielberg’s films make a compelling argument for a reevaluation of that precious, aged film theory. Why do I bother making a fuss about Spielberg? Because True Grit, as the colorless Western procedural it was, belongs to this same ilk of ubiquitous Hollywood filmmaking. Almost entirely void of the dark undertones and incisive black humor that have made the Coens’ best films canonical and iconic pieces of American cinema and their less-than-great films precious oddities, True Grit is, as regular cinematographer Roger Deakins captures so well, as lovely and lifeless as the slice of the American Southwest where the film is shot.

In True Grit everything is where it’s supposed to be. Having no experience with the story (a remake of a 1960s John Wayne vehicle, itself a direct adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel) I still had little trouble predicting where everything was going to happen. Here, Maddie (played with overt precision by Hailee Steinfeld) is abandoned by her hired Marshal, Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridge: the Dude in chaps, wise cracking his way through an obvious character arc). Now, Texas Ranger La Boeuf (played with charming self-deprecation by Matt Damon) makes an idiot of himself. Then he does something brave to make up for it. A shotgun tears through the roof of a house here and a character learns how to love and care for another person there. There’s nothing wrong with a solidly built film, which True Grit inarguably is, but there is so little about this film that distinguishes it that, upon first viewing, even the experienced cinephile is at a loss to identify it as a Coen brothers film.

Yet, there are a few distinguished aspects of True Grit, which betray the otherwise bland texture of the film. The first is a solitary moment, mid-film, in which two “villainous” characters are being interrogated by Cogburn. As one “flips” in order to keep from going to prison, the other grabs a knife, cuts off his fingers and then stabs him in the heart. At which point Cogburn takes out his pistol and shoots the cutter, point blank, in the face. The viewer is spared no detail in this ordeal (although the low lighting helps for the squeamish and faint of heart) and for a minute it looks like this sleeper might arise from its slumber. Yet, we quickly return to the monotonous tone of the first half. Burn After Reading, a film critics were surprisingly dismissive about, had a similar sequence that was even more affecting perhaps because it was the face of an idiot protagonist that was getting blown off and not some nameless henchman. Another fascinating particle is the character of Tom Cheney (Josh Brolin) who is, as it would turn out, more a cowering imbecile than an evil villain. Compared to Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) of No Country for Old Men, Cheney delightfully undermines the stereotype of the merciless Western villain.

Tepid fair though it may be, True Grit will no doubt get name dropped this award season alongside Fincher’s beyond-culturally-relevant The Social Network and Aronofsky’s flawed Black Swan in what has been another middling, benign, and altogether average year in Hollywood. Last year things got “political” (and self-congratulatory) at the Oscars, when the world rejoiced in snubbing the Rich White Man’s film of the year (Avatar). I wonder if this year, just on the basis of the heavy hitting films of the last 6 months, we won’t return to that tried and true Spielbergian model where the widest reaching film always wins.