Jul 27, 2014

Magic In The Moonlight


Very enjoyable, gorgeous on the eyes (cinematography by Darius Khondji) and better written than usual, this new romantic comedy by Woody Allen concerns itself with questions about the existence of God and the validity of spirituality. Its flimsy plot is helped enormously by the inspired casting of Colin Firth as Stanley, aka Wei Ling Soo, (in the roaring 20's people were still breezily unaware of their own racism) a world-famous magician and debunker of spiritualist charlatans, and Emma Stone as Sophie Baker, a medium who claims to have contact with the spirit world. Stanley is brought to a villa in the south of France to expose Sophie, who is holding seances for a rich, gullible American family in order to make them part with their money. Romance and complications ensue.
We can be forever grateful to Allen that he didn't write a part for his persona this time around, with a hapless actor trying to do him. Firth plays the egotistical Stanley with misanthropic, haughty elan. It's a joy to watch him handle comedy and romance to perfection, a little more ruffled and over the top than usual. He lands the punchlines with exquisite timing and delivers the dialogue without sounding like a comedian begging for a laugh. He can also turn a withering look into hangdog puppy eyes in a blink. He's a class act and it is a seamless performance. With a lesser actor, this would be a lesser movie.
My only gripe about the charming and very adroit Emma Stone is that she is way too thin. This girl needs some meat on her bones. Otherwise, she more than holds her own parrying with Firth. She is spunky, confident and funny, which is no mean feat. Allen knows what classic romantic comedies used to be like (hint: nothing like the vulgar fart fests of today). This time, he seems to have been kinder to his heroine, and instead of his usual semi-hysterical shrews, he gives us a smart, independent, grounded woman who doesn't take to Stanley's patronizing sitting down.
It's the first time in years that I can watch a Woody Allen movie and not cringe at his misogyny. Stone is way too young to be a romantic interest for Firth, but I was able to brush this off because they are both delightful. Besides, Allen is hardly the only director guilty of ageism in film. This is normal in American movies, where actors much older than Firth are given girlfriends who could be their grandchildren (see any movie with Liam Neeson or Harrison Ford).
As for where Allen lands in the debate between reason and spirituality, he tricks us, like a magician, into thinking one thing and ends up, after a couple of twists, squarely, and safely, on the side of love. This is the best comedy he has written in years.

Jul 14, 2014

Boyhood


Life itself. This stunning achievement by Richard Linklater is a project of such lovely and daring vision that it expands the possibilities of narrative cinema. It opens new avenues for exploring stories in film, if anybody has Linklater's discipline and artistic integrity and command to make it happen. Boyhood makes a lot of other movies look fake and labored by comparison. That it dwarfs most family dramas ever made with a graceful, unpretentious sensibility makes it all the more astonishing a feat.
Why make a movie in several months when you could take over twelve years to tell the story of Mason, a little boy (Ellar Coltrane) who grows up to be a young man (Ellar Coltrane)? One doesn't fully realize the transcendent magic that this inspired artistic choice brings until you see Mason growing up before your very eyes. No need to use three different actors in different stages of a character's life. We see Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and their parents, the excellent Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, age with the subtle transformations that time etches on us all. There is no need for artificial wrinkles and globs of latex.
Linklater cuts from one period of Mason's life to another without title cards signaling time elapsed and without expository writing. Life is a continuum of subtle changes. Time just passes. How do we know? All of a sudden, although he still looks like a boy, Mason's voice has changed. His sister is becoming a teenager. As in life, we go: "They grow up so fast!" By the end, as the movie gains in depth and wisdom, we realize that the film itself has been maturing before our eyes, from a carefree, well observed exploration of childhood, to posing the momentous questions that arise at the brink of adulthood.
It all starts with a dreamy boy who doesn't do his homework (better yet: he does it but refuses to submit it). We spend plenty of time in the daily rhythms of his life with his mother, his sister, his neighborhood friends on bikes.
Childhood is a period where children are at the mercy of their parents' choices, and Linklater shows us how frustrated everyone is by this arrangement. His kids are full of themselves in the best possible way; they are independent, growing minds, and as such they feel put upon by every upheaval, big or small, provoked by adult decisions they cannot control. Meanwhile, their mom can't go to a movie, spend time alone, go on a date. She wants to go to college in order to give them a better life, so they have to move. Indifferent to how much she does for them, the kids whine about this major inconvenience. Childhood is the feeling of not having any power or any say in the decision making. That comes later. In the meantime, there is friction, and much pushing for freedom. But like their parents, Mason and Samantha do not engage in self-destruction. They are regular kids.
The parents, Mason and Olivia, do not help matters by making iffy choices, which are bewildering and even feel blasé to the children, considering the painful and difficult challenges they bring. Yet everybody is resilient. Nothing is too much of a nightmare, because in this world people are still blessed with some common sense and manners. And because these kids are loved.
Mason's is a relatively uneventful life, as lives in the movies go. There are no terrible tragedies, no artificial stakes. It is the story of so many children in America: divorced parents, multiple marriages, extended adopted families, moving a lot looking for jobs and opportunities. We are so used to terrible things happening in movies, and this one shows such a placid (but by no means uneventful) life, that when we see a scene with people driving on the open road, or some kids making mischief without adult supervision, we fear something very bad is going to happen. Nothing of the sort. People are flawed, but mostly sane. Bad things do happen, as a result mostly of well-intentioned choices, and they are dealt with more tough but sensible choices, that is, things that people actually do.
This movie upends everything they tell you in screenwriting school about inciting incidents and act structure and high stakes. Not that it is unstructured. It has a highly complex set of character arcs, but it also aims to imitate life, rather than to heighten  it dramatically or corset it into artificially defined acts. The arc, what is called the hero's journey, simply happens to be that of a young man's life. He grows into his own, not by the commission of fearless actions, but by the constitution of his own self, by his day to day exploration, at school, at home, of who he is and who he wants to be. His progress is poignantly contrasted with his father's journey. Hawke, very charming as Mason Sr., a rather rootless bohemian, becomes someone quite different in middle age. Without fanfare or unnecessary dialogue, we discover he's trying to make it work the second time around. It is tender, and not a little disturbing comedy to watch him end up compromising with his ideological polar opposites. What Mason thinks of this transformation of his dad into squaredom central is only hinted at, but we are with him: what in the hell? But also, such is life, and most certainly, such is middle age. Dad's arc is very funny and moving, as there is no judgment, but rather a wistful recognition of people's need for reinvention.
Olivia also grows. She becomes a respected teacher, who finally gets fed up of always being the cornerstone for everyone at home. Everyone's life keeps expanding, she wants to contract. She yearns for simplification. She has given so much, and now even in her self-declared independence, she suddenly faces looking back and sizing up her life. The one character that is given short shrift is Samantha. We see her turn from a sassy little sister to a young, confident adult, but we don't get much of a sense of substance from her. The movie centers on Mason, and it is through his shrewd and sensitive observation that we understand the lives orbiting around him.
From a rather rambling start, the movie creeps up on us emotionally and gains shape and depth as Linklater unleashes quiet epiphanies. As we peek into Mason's mostly mundane activities, all of a sudden we realize how his social circle expands with step-siblings, remarkable teachers, new friends at school. These characters may come and go, but they will become his history, part of his memory and of his deepest self. For him it is always the present, as he himself observes. We have the privilege of witnessing his passage as it flows in life, hurling towards the future with both calm and alacrity. So Boyhood is also a film about the nature of time. And it dispenses with some of the artificial conventions of time in film. There are no flashbacks. Time elapses organically, though thankfully not in real time. We see it passing by watching the actors actually age. Linklater's cuts between the intervening years work like our memory works. We don't remember absolutely everything, only the highlights.
You may also find yourself recognizing how life is a cycle that repeats itself in other people, making us all connected in experience. Everybody is unique but we are all the same. There's always gonna be another little girl imitating Britney Spears, or her next incarnation, until the end of time. Will Mason follow in his father's missteps or will he find his own way to screw up? What are the mysterious forces that shape our individual and collective lives? We watch as an almost alchemical process of becoming unfolds. It is magical.
Boyhood is also a movie about life in America. For most middle class people and compared to most of the world, its a life of modestly uneventful, barely appreciated ease (no children in war or labor, no hunger or poverty). It is a life where children, if they are lucky, have parents like Mason's, who teach them basic principles, and who are there to give them a spine.
However, this quiet parental achievement takes place not in breezy leisure but in a constant, exhausting struggle to remain financially above ground. It is not as comfy an American life as we were supposed to have. The middle class is crushed in an endless battle for economic and social stability. Parents are saddled with mounting bills while trying to give kids structure and comfort, sometimes at the cost of their own sanity.  Linklater also reminds us that through the span of Mason's young life this country has been engaged in distant wars we all too readily ignore, and to whose fallout in terms of human suffering we have been mostly indifferent. 
Boyhood is an enormous achievement, logistically and artistically. Just two modest examples: picking the right boy for the main role is an incredible risk. He may be cute at the age of five, but what told Linklater that Ellar Coltrane would become interesting and manageable as he grew up? He is charismatic and quietly compelling, if not a De Niro in training. I also wonder about the creative process, in which the script had to be adjusted as reality, events and technology rapidly arised. All and any eventualities are handled with incredible smoothness, restraint, confidence and subtlety. Linklater has become a master.
By the end, we arrive at the beginning of Mason's young life. He is at the brink of becoming a man, and poignantly, an artist. From all we now know about where he comes from, we are confident that he is ready for wherever he is headed. Despite their mistakes, his parents' love and constant presence have done right by him.
This is the most realistically hopeful American movie I have ever seen. It is a film that trusts that people in this country, in spite of everything that conspires to make it extreme and ridiculous, still have the sense and mettle to be decent and to rise above.

Jul 13, 2014

I Origins



Mike Cahill's new movie touches upon several of the themes he explored in Another Earth, a compelling opera prima done on a very low budget. Although it is an uneven movie, at least the first half hour of Another Earth is effectively disquieting and its premise is very intriguing. What if there was another planet just like ours across from us in space? Unfortunately, Cahill chucks the rich possibilities of metaphysical exploration in favor of heavy personal melodrama. Still, Another Earth is a much m
ore accomplished and interesting film than I Origins.
This time, Cahill got more money for camera, casting, locations and lights and the movie looks better, but the content is not.  In both films, Cahill's mishmash of scifi, romance and melodrama doesn't quite gel. Whereas in Another Earth he showed promise, in I Origins Cahill seems way out of his depth.
Michael Penn and Brit Marling play a couple of extremely good looking scientists who are trying to recreate a biological eye in the lab. Even if their scientific jargon is realistic, it sounds like mumbo jumbo. The audience is confused and we swat it away. There is nothing remotely believable in this movie, which is an uneasy mix of romantic fantasy, scientific caper, and sophomoric spiritual philosophizing. It's a problem when a movie about intelligent people is not intelligent enough.
The movie starts as Dr. Ian Gray (Pitt) meets a mysterious, and like many such creatures in film, obnoxious young woman (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), who may or may not be some sort of ancient spirit. She picks a fight with the doctor over his steadfast, and increasingly obtuse refusal to believe even in the existence of the soul. A lot of weird unexplainable things happen to him that he tries to solve through reasoning; the universe is trying to tell him something that he refuses to hear. This happens for way too long, so we lose patience. Then the movie veers into some vague pursuit of the possibility of reincarnation. None of it is compelling, none of it is sufficiently explained, or even convincingly believed by anyone involved. Michael Pitt is lovely to look at, but he seems to be phoning it in, Brit Marling is, as usual intriguingly charismatic, but she plays the same person she always does. The only good things in the movie are a wonderful Archie Panjabi and a soulful Indian girl called Kashish.
I thought of Terence Malick's The Tree Of Life, a tone poem that amazed and exasperated people in equal numbers. Malick, I think, was trying to express, mostly in stunning visuals, that a belief in evolution and faith in divine grace are not mutually exclusive.  Mike Cahill is trying to aim that high, but does not have the poetic gifts of Terence Malick, and he is incapable or reaching anything beyond the obvious.

Jun 25, 2014

Snowpiercer


The long awaited first foray of director's Bong Joon-Ho (The Host, Mother, Memories of Murder) into big budget filmmaking is here, and it is a rather interesting mixed bag. That Bong is gifted is clearly in evidence in this adaptation of a French graphic novel that depicts a post-apocalyptic Earth where the sole remaining humans are stuck in a very long train that is circling the globe. It is 2031 and because of our plundering of the environment, the Earth has been frozen and nothing can survive outside the train. This train is basically a spot-on metaphor for the difference between coach and first class in current commercial aviation and, more essentially, for the way we live now, with the poors stuck all the way in the back in dire oppression, while the one percent rides in comfort and luxury in the front, controlling everything and sharing nothing. In between, there are cars of armed goons protecting the wealthy from the hoi polloi. There are other fun details in the other cars that I won't disclose here, but as a metaphor, it is perfect for what goes on today. The downtrodden in the back want to get to the front. The one percent in the front will do anything in their power to keep them in the back. Life on Earth.
As fanboy action movies go, this is a darker tale than usual, and there are a couple of twists at the end that are anathema to the heroic tropes that are a staple of the genre. But, and this is a very big but, although the enormous skill and imagination of Bong are in full force, what made him such an exciting writer-director is missing in this film. I remember seeing The Host and being totally exhilarated by his mischievousness. At first it wasn't clear what exactly we were witnessing. A cheesy monster film with a giant fish that looked like a mean version of Charlie the Tuna, The Host was also a hilarious Korean social satire. The protagonists were a bunch of losers, and Bong's balancing act between mischief and real terror was a fresh, original marvel to behold. Mother, a darkly funny, harrowing movie about a monster mom, was also sharply satirical and critical of Korean society, full of mordant detail. This incisive playfulness, his assured handling of several dissonant tones is what makes Bong one of the best directors working today, yet his mischievousness is sadly missing from this film.
It is not altogether gone, harnessed by some mordant visuals, and in particular by  the amazing Tilda Swinton, who plays Mason, the envoy between Mr. Wilford, the owner of the train, and the masses. She is spectacular, and seems to be the only actor who is truly alive for the first half of the film. She brings her considerable chops to portray the sum of all ass-kissing bureaucrats, stern but morally dubious headmasters, the sum of all of those who do the dirty work for the more powerful. She is over the top, and hilarious. At times I thought she was channeling Emma Thompson at her most prissy, at times she reminded me of Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks, but at the Q&A after the film, Bong revealed that Swinton was channeling Margaret Thatcher. So that's who that was! Tilda Swinton rules, bless her irreverent, mirthful soul.
Because Snowpiercer takes place in a sci-fi world (the production design and special effects are awesome) a lot of the day to day human observation in which Bong excels is sacrificed in the name of keeping the giant machinery of the metaphor rolling. There are enormous holes in the story (screenplay by Bong and Kelly Masterson). A lot of it doesn't make sense. I never understood why the rich needed the poor, and that is just one of many headscratchers. To Bong's credit, I was able to suspend my disbelief because of the forward momentum of the story, and because he unleashes wonderful actors like little bonbons, one after the other.
I suspect that the exigencies of marketing may have played a role in the script. There are some cringe worthy lines from Curtis, the hero (Chris Evans, doing his best and still managing to be uninteresting) about his inability to be a leader. He repeats them over and over, and we finally learn why he thinks he cannot lead (another tired antihero trope that needs to be put out to pasture) in a convoluted speech at the end where he tells us everything that happened to him in the past. I cannot help but think this sounds like something added after focus groups. The result is that we don't care, because we didn't see it. Now, we don't necessarily need to see it, as it is a gruesome tale, but when the biggest twists are in the form of exposition at the end, the revelations sink as we never once saw any tension, or ambiguity at the beginning that may startle us emotionally. Tragic things happen, but they don't really connect, perhaps because the characters exist to service the concept, and as hard as the actors work, it's hard to care for them. Actors like Octavia Spencer and Jamie Bell are excellent, but are swallowed by the enormity of the mayhem and the lack of clarity in the story. Ironically, the giant engine of the plot seems to be as indifferent to the plight and nature of the characters as the giant engine of the train. This movie seems devoid of real emotion.
There are long, sharply staged, extremely violent, cartoonish fight sequences, but I was not truly excited and amazed until the point in which the rebels finally burst into business class, so to speak. That is the really fun part. It is visually stunning and it deploys more of Bong's sense of humor. But in general, the exhilaration comes more from the set decor and the special effects rather than from keenly observed truths. Sadly, many potentially rich nuances of the characters' experience fall by the wayside.
This is a very ambitious movie, and as action movies go, far less inane and hypocritical than average, with a great subversive metaphor and a wonderfully ambivalent ending that somehow manage to survive an ideologically confusing exposition. I'd still rather get my kicks from a cheesy giant fish, a family of losers, a poisonous mother, or a hapless policeman, those fascinating people in Bong's down-to-Earth universe, than from high concept bells and whistles.

Jun 22, 2014

Venus in Fur


Roman Polanski brings David Ives' hit play to the screen. The movie stars Polanski's doppelganger Mathieu Amalric, as Thomas, a playwright who is auditioning actresses, and his wife Emmanuelle Seigner, as Vanda, a ditzy actress who walks in from the rain and then turns out to be a human bag of tricks, and then some.
The playwright and the actress weave in and out of the text of the play they are working with, something called Venus in Fur, which is an adaptation of a novel by Sacher-Masoch, the guy who lent his last name to masochism. So we are watching a movie, adapted from a play that has a play in it that is adapted from a novel.
Visually, Polanski helps the Chinese boxes conceit by making it clear we are entering a symbolic theater. The opening scene is a lovely tracking shot in a stormy night in a Parisian boulevard that suddenly veers into a little theater, where several doors open (like in the opening credits of Get Smart) until we reach Thomas, who is on the phone berating all the idiot actresses he has auditioned so far. In comes this Vanda, acting like a ditz, but somehow convincing him to let her read. She is vulgar and seemingly out of her depth, and completely wrong for the role of a repressed 19th century woman, but when she reads the lines, she transforms into the character, who also happens to be named Vanda.
Emmanuelle Seigner is a formidable beauty, but she is not the actress that the role requires. She is entertaining, but lacks nuance. And it pains me to say this, but this is an instance where the role is better suited to a younger woman. Perhaps a better actress (say a Juliette Binoche) would better convey that mercurial quality of Vanda's that seems forced in Seigner.
Amalric, however, is a great actor, and he is fantastic as this man who thinks he calls the shots and whom this mysterious woman eventually unravels.
When I saw the very entertaining play on Broadway, I did not quite understand what the point was. The woman who starts as a ditz ends up being far smarter, and she needs to deploy all her female arsenal of tricks to get where she wants to, from coyness, playing stupid, being ravishingly beautiful, turning out to be extremely smart, etc, but to what end? To effect some sort of gender revenge on the hapless guy? Is that it? Polanski helps clarify the metaphor by going symbolic full force, something that he can do with cinematic tools. The same could have happened onstage, change the lighting, make her final assault a coup de theatre, but it didn't and it was confusing. Here it is clearer, although I'm not sure, if I understand this play correctly, that women want to emasculate men, even if they have good reason sometimes.
This is a small movie with two actors on a stage, but thanks to Polanski's command of his craft, it does not feel like filmed theater. It feels like a movie and it makes the Broadway staging seem poor and pedestrian in comparison. It is gorgeously framed and cut, it flows beautifully.  When the actors mime pretending to use props, Polanski adds the sound effects of a spoon tinkling against an invisible cup or the swoosh of a whip, and it works like magic. This gives an added layer to the play within the play, to the idea that theater is both magical and it is a game. Polanski really knows what to do with the language and the tools of cinema. This is why I love him.
Too bad that the bombastic score by Alexandre Desplat, a mix of carnival and Greek music, unbalances the subtlety of Polanski's visual approach. The end also builds into the almost grotesque. Of course, these choices are all Polanski's. His biggest choice is to have decided to make this particular story of gender war into a film. It is not a coincidence that Thomas has a last name that rhymes with Polanski, that Amalric looks like him and that Vanda is played by his actual wife. Polanski has always had a macabre sense of humor and, given his notorious past, I'm still trying to figure out what he is trying to say with this one. In a scene where Vanda protests that the play is abusive towards women, Thomas is outraged, finally claiming that not everything is abuse and that things are complicated. Indeed.