Dystopia Countodwn: Vampires and Girls
I wrote about “The Twilight Saga” on Entertainment Maven because I fucking watched all the movies in one sitting a few weeks ago. And it’s probably the Kraken vodka speaking but I didn’t hate the experience, despite my drunken howlings of ‘what the fuck’ to the screen.
And here’s a crazy theory that is aided by my rudimentary math skills. The first Twilight book came out in 2005, when its fans are at the sad age of fourteen or something. It is now 2012, when all those girls are now 21. Half of those girls graduated from Twilight into “Fifty Shades of Grey” or “Girls,” while the other half are still fans of Twilight but see it as the silly thing they still like. They have healthy laughs about the production, the campiness and the shitty supernatural laws that don’t make sense. And I don’t know if it’s my quasi-masculine perspective but to me, the saga doesn’t just give a poorly constructed love story. The saga is also schizophrenic in a way that one movie would have a ‘romantic’ story and another would have a bloodbath with lost of decapitated heads. It’s introducing girls to violence and the necessarily the kind that they would use inwardly.
Since there are impressionable girls around, they need a role model and they have found an unlikely one in Kristen Stewart. Stephanie Meyer’s first choice to play Bella was Emily Browning, and I imagine that actress to have brought the same awkwardness of a contemporary art painting, palatable in her awkwardness, the kind of person who falls down gracefully. Stewart, however, is defiantly awkward with her blunt edges, only capable of beauty when she’s being photographed in a fashion spread. Whether the unformed person we’re seeing is Bella or Kristen is up for debate, really.
She also reminds me of a less rewarded Rooney Mara, or the kind of actress whose honesty in engendering a desexualized female would have flourished on cable television a decade later. And that’s not necessarily an insult because I love TV. And again she works capably with other actors even if she can’t carry a movie herself. I’m probably writing these words after being misled by all my ‘research’ on the series, which include People and EW’s puff pieces about the saga, but they don’t necessarily make my words less true. Basically, I just wasted four hundred or so words in saying that the girls who read Twilight and the girls acting out Twilight will be fine. I’m not so sure about Meyer, who apparently is going through a writer’s block now.
As I said before, the soundtracks are better than the movies. Who would have thought that indie-tronica would be the unlikely accompaniment of the vampire-action saga? This juxtaposition has good intentions, like a sage trying to sway their younger sister from Justin Bieber to Feist. The soundtrack then implies that the people behind the movies are cooler than the one who wrote the books. But this still remind me of the syndrome that late 90’s alternative music that become devalued once they ally themselves to movies/TV shows about teen romances/angst. Alas. But once again, IT’S OVER!
- The Twilight Saga (Paolo Kagaoan and Nadia Sandhu) (entertainmentmaven.com)
What Happens “In Darkness”
I finally started writing about this movie two and a half months after watching it but despite not remembering all but one name, this movie demands attention not just because of its subject but how it handles that and the conflictophile characters within it.
Sophie Ziewatowska gives a bittersweet goodbye with a Southern writer. Rachel Stein commits to a Nazi official, who knows why she’s trying to hide her brunette roots. Hanna Schmitz, in close-ups, teaches an underage kid to be more gentle. Movies in the past thirty years have focused on the woman and her entitlement to her own to encapsulate the victimization that has occurred in the WWII. But here comes In Darkness. We were so scared about it winning and jinxing the chances of ‘better’ movies we liked, as well as the vitriol targeted towards a movie with a subject automatically deemed as Oscar bait and even criticizing it for justifying the Holocaust. That criticism, valid or otherwise, is because the movie has characters whose meanness to each other doesn’t just cross racial lines but there are enough schisms and verbal and physical violence within both groups. It’s not a problem that its protagonist, Polish sewage worker Leopold ‘Poldek’ Socha (Robert Wieckiewicz), is a man who happens to be a working-class anti-Semite, hiding Jews under Lvov, Poland’s tunnels. This is war, its more modern incarnations discard honour between the occupier and the colonized. He’s doing it for money but eventually his motives become a mix of honour code to keep what’s secret secret and of, surprisingly, good old benevolence.
We can also put this movie as the latest entry in the ‘sexy, borderline tasteless Holocaust movies’ canon. Well, there is a some of nudity devoid of sexuality, as shown through other Holocaust movies and archive photos. Leopold sees line-ups of running, naked women within a forest, lit as if they’re a dream within the surreal, violent world in which he participates. But eventually nudity would imply sexuality. A scene where a refugee named Mundek (Benno Furmann), after infiltrating and miraculously escaping a concentration camp to find his friend Klara (Agnieszka Grochowska) sister, finds Klara naked under a sewage waterfall and kisses her, which is actually more sweet than anything, and less romantic one where another man Yanek (Marcin Bosak) commits adultery in the same room where his co-refugees are staying, including his wife and child. But the movie’s climax – ahem – that made me decide that this is too much, is a scene days into these characters’ stay within the underground tunnels, where the Yanek and his new girlfriend Chaja (Julia Kijowska) have sex and Klara, as the third woman, quietly masturbates while watching them. Round of applause, everyone! Not even Jolanta Dylewska’s glinty cinematography can disguise these scenes or make them a bit more subtle, showing us what would happen when people have to crap where they and their friends eat and sleep.
But I suppose director Agnieszka Holland has a point in fleshing out their story this way. This movie, adapted by Canadian David Shamoon, is based on Krystyna Chiger’s experiences, written in book form as “The Girl in the Green Sweater,” which I have yet to buy and read even though I do have the money to. So instead, after watching the movie I expertly Googled about the refugees hidden by Socha, which only succinctly hints at Chaja suffocating her own baby and Klara marrying Mundek who was hiding literally underground with her. The former subplot is almost indefensible, but why couldn’t they have violently fallen in love in the sewers? Does showing these characters kissing make them less honourable or more? Are the filmmakers striving for authenticity or are they exploiting the people they’re fictionalizing?
Besides, this movie doesn’t just show the needs of the refugees which, to be honest, has to be attended to somehow. It also shows the lives on the Polish side, as one of the movie’s first scenes have Socha having sex with his wife Wanda (Kinga Preis) while their daughter is sleeping in a different bed in the same room, a scenario that despite its grossness is more probably realistic than the rest of the scenes in this movie. So what, they love each other. Leopold’s coworker spits on a Jewish man who gypped him as if there isn’t a wooden boundary between them, not taking the apartheid and massacre that cones next. Claustrophobia is the norm. The movie suggests this across-the-board crowded arrangement as intolerable, but that’s because I’m seeing it in a North American perspective, one that relishes bounty, privacy, expansion, etc. I can’t necessarily speak for a European perspective and how they deal with the kinds of people with whom they share their land. Again, this movie is one of those cases where I don’t agree with its argument but it’s strong enough to put into consideration.
- In Darkness: Yet Another Holocaust (seattleweekly.com)
I Participated in This Thing
The Second CAST Awards were announced like four months ago and I’m only posting about it now because I had to catch up on my 2011 movies. Or more appropriately, I said ‘Eff it, I’m going to list my top ten even if everyone’s clamouring about The Raid and no one cares about 2011 anymore.’
I’m also using this news because I always take advantage of any opportunity to make fun of Nicolas Winding Refn‘s overrated movie Drive. Because the other CAST voters placed it as their top film. Or maybe, give it a second chance, since the hype of the movie is the reason I started listening to Kavinsky and College (both bands’ instrumental songs are better than the ones with lyrics), which got me thinking about how I don’t tolerate the soundtrack’s use in the movie while Sofia Coppola’s use of anachronistic music is more palatable in her movie Marie Antoinette from five years ago. In a way both movies have us as an audience are layered on top of themselves as audience members, skewing the narrative and interpreting it as their own.
Me and my friend Sasha James of That Sasha James internet fame reenact or interpretation of Drive‘s dialogue of us just saying ‘Hey’ to each other. Since I have to play The Driver – boo ho me – I say my ‘lines’ with the Peter Fonzarelli accent that Gosling mysteriously has now (Hossein Amini‘s script is very descriptive by the way, making me wonder why that eloquence wasn’t used for the dialogue). And because I’m crazy I do these acting exercises to College’s music when it finally clicked, the sensitivity that’s difficult to catch when your mind is in the wrong place. But how does an actor express and externalize longing and loneliness through ‘Hey?’ I still think that the movie doesn’t do this successfully and I’ll probably never watch the movie again. I will also promise never to make fun of Drive again, but the terrible movies this year makes it difficult for me to find a movie to mock. I don’t like easy targets.
I also wanted to make my top ten post into some manifesto on what I like about movies, since the list may be that diverse. But then I got lazy. So here goes.
Blue Valentine – Because Grizzly Bear is that perfect dash to make Michelle Williams more beautiful.
Pariah – Because I like co-opting other people’s cultures.
Shame – Because it combines how good sex is and how frustrating it is to look for it.
Rampart – Because crazy cameraman are the best.
Tree of Life – Because understanding a movie emotionally should be enough.
Win Win – Because casts should also clown cars.
Jane Eyre – Because sometimes, the first few images are enough.
Essential Killing – Because dream sequences should always be in pink.
The Mill and the Cross – Because I’m a closet Catholic.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – Because violence should always be presented with that sheen.
Now I’m going to wait for some more money, buy Carnage and Chronicle on DVD, watch Cabin in the Woods and whatever else that has a green Metacritic rating, do some laundry, go to the doctor and sleep. This emotionally shitty year is over, thank God!
Short Take: The Hunter
The Hunter, based on director Julia Leigh‘s novel, shows us an Australia that isn’t like the desert-like outback that we’re not used to. Here we have Tasmania’s vast greenery, hiding himself among trees, silver like rock formations and caves. It’s a visual work although it has more to do with what’s in front of the camera instead of how director Daniel Nettheim frames it. Most of the movie is comprised by these sequences where Willem Dafoe‘s titular character, Martin David has two-week stints searching for a Tasmanian tiger, a species thought of as extinct since the 1930’s, because of a toxin that it’s supposed to have. This forest and the town near it are contentious places. Martin poses as a University professor and in a way he is, the way he walks through the area makes him seem more like a civilized, thorough researcher as opposed to a ‘hunter,’ who sees the animal to feed either his survival or sadism. Outside the forest, his new life is laced with sections of contrivances. He has inadvertently allied himself with the environmentalists with whom he’s living and angering the townsfolk who depend on logging for their economy. One of those environmentalists is his temporary landlady (Frances O’Connor), a woman recovering from a prescription drug addiction. He becomes a de facto partner to her as well as a detective, trying to discover what has happened to her husband who is also missing in the forest. While watching this I’m appreciating Dafoe’s subtle performance, a departure from the crazy roles that he’s known for in mainstream movies. And I understand that Martin is enthusiastically taking on his multiple roles within his new society, but these new-found connections feel like a reach. Not even the climactic ending, great as it is, can make me forget the falsified tensions that came before it. Image via eone. 3/5.
- The Hunter: Willem Dafoe Versus the Tiger of the Mind (seattleweekly.com)
2011: We Need to Talk About…
I’m wishing that We Need to Talk About Kevin, the movie based on the Lionel Shriver bestseller, came out on DVD already so I can share with you the film’s first two images. The first one is of a translucent white curtain slowly being blown by the air. The second of an inevitably erotic nature, of muscle squashing together tightly, painted red by tomatoes and tomato juice, those bodies ion the streets that we see from the air in the Tomatina festival in Spain, one of its participants being our protagonist Eva Katchadourian (Tilda Swinton). Seeing these I inevitably compare this work of Lynne Ramsay’s to artist-turned director Steve McQueen’s, both seemingly having the same meditative pace and construction. The movie doesn’t live up to those expectations although we get a few visual treats – Eva hiding behind carefully stacked Campbell Soup cans, jagged ones of meeting her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly), her troublesome six-year-old son Kevin (Jasper Newell) making her office room wallpapered by maps into a ‘special’ Jackson Pollock of a mess – to clarify I’m not a Pollock hater but I would equally freak out if my kid dripped and shot paint all over the walls – and countless ones where mother and son (the teenaged version played by Ezra Miller) awkwardly share opposite sides of the same uncomfortable space. Eva, and sometimes Kevin, live in middle American kitsch suburbia, these poppy images drowned under fluorescent blandness. These images satisfy, the rest of the compositions mixing the elfin Swinton with middle American motifs, an unlikely pair that we get used to.
But I keep going back to the first two images, the second set pushed to the back burner as the happiest moment of Eva’s life while the first is the gateway and culmination of her worst. The movie’s intertwining plot lines mostly show us that her worst moments continue. Her new, shabbier house is often vandalized, surrounded by distant neighbours, their suspicious children and the occasional Jehovah’s Witness missionary, oblivious to her eternal damnation. But the movie also return to her relative misery as a wife/mother of two in a rich neighbourhood, their house funded by her best-selling travel books. She’s the town’s pariah, having to apply for a lowly travel agent job while her skeletal face gets clocked by another housewife after her job interview. We find out why the townspeople hate her so much as she has to, out of obligation, visit him in jail. When her family was intact, there seemed to be an alliance between Kevin and Franklin while Eva asks for the sympathy of her daughter, which he gets. But in her present situation, mother and son are stuck together.
Despite the images, this adaptation, as a medium, can’t help but be more one-sided than I imagine the novel to be. We the audience see Kevin as a baby alone with Eva – she takes his stroller to a construction site to drown out his incessant cries as opposed to, you know, feeding him or changing him or whatever actual good mothers should do. Then he magically stops crying when daddy comes home. She even tells him that she would be in France if he wasn’t born, these impulsive words heard by the disapproving Franklin. Speaking of changing, six-year-old Kevin is seen wearing diapers, and eventually we discover that she has to accidentally injure him in order for him to be potty trained. Until this section of the movie Eva seems like a passive character but even with punitive action she can’t discipline the boy or make him be nice to her. There is an exception when, after the hospital visit, she reads “Robin Hood” to her child, only realizing that hell take up an archery obsession that eventually drives her crazy. As the torture continues to his teenage years, Kevin giving her the cut eye to let her know that something would be amiss in the house for which he’s responsible. There’s also a sequence of her as she takes teenage Kevin for a golf and dinner date, when he combats her every attempt of small talk, Miller delivering each line with vehemence as Swinton is exquisite even while reacting. But I keep replaying the dialogue in that sequence in my head, since there are possibilities that his words aren’t that mean, that he’s just holding up a mirror to her hypocrisies and performed motherly warmth.
There’s also this unnecessary nihilism to the movie, especially with introducing Eva’s daughter. The movie, especially with its flashbacks and forwards, makes us wait for what he does that puts him in jail and for why her daughter has to wear an eye patch and the way the movie develops makes us feel that these events will be obscenely portrayed. This also makes me curious about how parents of juvenile criminals in reality are treated because it can’t be as bad and extreme as this. It is about the labourious plastering of how Kevin affects Eva. I’m not necessarily asking for a sugar-coating of the grisly subject it’s as if Ramsay and those involved in this movie are making it more difficult to reach these characters’ and environment’s humanity.
Vimy Day Movie: War Horse
Vimy Week Movie is a series of WWI movies. It has three parts that will be doled out within four days, matching the battle’s grueling duration. Instead of doing this series on Armistice Day like a normal person I’m starting this today on Vimy Day, a holiday that will be recognized if we Westerners feel like it, which we really don’t. But there are mini-events and pins to commemorate the day, since we’re not on the holiday-size yet.
With War Horse Steven Spielberg not only proves himself again as a filmmaker but also as a nightclub promoter. Anytime I entered a multiplex that also showed War Horse there was a tendency that its sound system would overpower the walls, which was totally annoying. But it also invoked jealousy, making me want to enter the screening room despite the mixed reviews. I finally saw it in a smaller sized theatre which didn’t do the sounds any justice.
It’s almost embarrassing to admit to like this movie, especially the second time around when I hear ‘Be brave’ and when Jeremy Irvine says anything. But it’s by its awesome antebellum moments like ducks quacking to make David Thewlis go away and Emily Watson using her yarn needles to make David Thewlis go away. What has David Thewlis done to these characters except for threaten their livelihoods like villains do? There are also great war moments with Joey, the titular war-horse and method actor, and his black beauty of a rival. I also mention ‘antebellum’ and ‘black beauty’ because this movie also references another great war movie Gone With the Wind, Spielberg echoing that American classic’s deep colours and broken, borderline delusional characters. References also include Terrence Malick’s poetic approach to nature – although Spielberg tries and competently success to do in seconds what Malick would do in hour-long sequences – and John Ford’s methodical battle scenes. And of course, he incorporates his own hammering method of portraying violence.
A friend of mine really loves this movie and we like making fun of him. What I also like to do more is to sandbag him because he calls this ‘melodrama’ in the positive sense of the word. Although I don’t feel comfortable with that word because there’s some earnestness in this movie, which begins in the movie’s hour mark, which is, admittedly late but boy does it compensate. It brags stellar actors including David Kross and Niels Aestrup who, despite being German or French, speak English because they want to be in more Hollywood movies. On the English side it stars Emily Watson, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Eddie Marsan and Toby Kebbell, the latter somehow aging backwards. There are also some moments where it just looks dirty and muddy as it should, because war is. And when the boy (Jeremy Irvine) comes home, he’s as fractured as his father (Peter Mullan) but is trying to rebuild the family he left temporarily.
BS and Beauty in “The Raid”
The characters’ bodies’ tenacity in Gareth Huw Evans’ The Raid makes me wonder many things, among them, ‘Sure that one guy plays with a punching bag in the morning but does he also eat a healthy breakfast?’ Or maybe what re-energizes the intruding, wounded youngish policemen is the drug room that they eventually reach after elbowing a few gang members and violently losing men of their own. The white sand being kicked up in the air serves as some temporary sustenance. I’m not even sure if their near-invincible physical states can be criticized since the movie just covers an hour and a half of the titular police assignment, although movies apparently are supposed cover a longer time period than the minutes that are used to portray them.
I also found the cinematography to be problematic, reminiscent of wet wood, peeling drywall and spare lighting that, we imagine, are the visual qualities of a run-down urban drug den. There are some digital simulations of bullets coming out of illegal modern rifles. As the cops enter further into the building’s higher floors, they’re depicted through medium shots of their torsos. But I got over that eventually, as the camera gets brighter and moves up and sometimes back to show the combatants’ faces and arms and legs. All that fighting makes the cops lose many men on their team but the thugs make deliberate mistakes that cause the cops to get a Pyrrhic victory but really, would you have it any other way?
Perhaps what’s more irksome to this movie’s detractors is the back story of one of the policemen, Rama (Iko Uwais), the one doing the dawn time boxing preparation. In between sit-ups we also see him kissing his pregnant wife who wakes up to greet him goodbye, optimistic despite risks. Some consider that his wife’s image jolts him as he stumbles through the complex’s hall ways. Eventually I haven’t been as warm towards the film, since it has its detractors and genre films will never be perfect. But here’s how I see it – the other policemen have similar domestic lives, Rama recedes into his police unit and he emerges not because of his pregnant wife but because he’s an excellent martial artist who defeats his hoodlum enemies and happens to have a baby on the way.
Pardon me if I try to find a national metaphor within this movie, a straight up punch-and-kick flick ruined by a ghettoizing lens. It’s in my nature to over-think and be pretentious. But think about it – the cops are indistinguishable from first-world SWAT units except for their faces, also framed by near-bald or crew-cut heads. Their weapons are supposedly state of the art, contained with their deceptively bulky uniforms. Their mission is to civilize a place riddled with drugs and other anti-social behaviour, occasionally impeding on the rights of the decent people who have no other choice.
The gang members on the other hand have longer hair, more colourful and less professional clothes. They brandish mostly homemade swords or large versions of knives reminiscent of traditional weapons. There’s also one henchman who prefers to fight with his bare hands, an excuse to choreograph the greatest martial arts sequences rapidly caught on camera. They protect their fortress not just with this carelessly planned police raid but from rival gangs, like tribal warfare within one side deviating from the law. Both camps aren’t within perfect opposition, though, as the hoodlums’ illegally obtained machine guns, the surveillance technology, the traitor playing both sides, the Traffic-like revelation that the police’s presence is to help another gang’s corruption. What’s also complicating the binary is Rama, a good Muslim and we can interpret his religion as either one that’s victimized or one that conquers.
But that’s all mind fodder for later, what got me while watching the movie are the raiders’ faces. I’m not usually into Asian guys but it’s always good to remember what stimulated me when I was younger. Even now, living in a multicultural country, I still get a glimpse of those kind of faces – a narrow beady eyes giving out a piercing stare that owns the room, that stare of a warrior buried deep inside poverty or civilized repression. Sometimes they have bushy eyebrows like Jaka, a trait from our common ancestors in the mainland before moving further into the islands. At other times, to the audience’s advantage, they have Rama’s near-perfect Roman symmetry, covered in darker than olive skin perceived as perfection in our shared childhood mythologies. It’s probably indulgent of me, and I’ll admit that it’s careless to owe Rama’s survival because he has the looks of the movie star, rising above lesser prototypes. He doesn’t get to make it because of those aspects, it’s also because of his fucking fists. 4/5
2011: Waste Land
Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, portraying Gramacho, also reminded me of ars povera or ‘poor’ or ‘trash’ art, unconventionally and subversively creating beauty with cheap materials. One of the contemporary movement’s practitioners include Vik Muniz, the documentary’s subject. His social project, which he began in 2007, involves returning to his home city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to create art out of the city’s trash, the latter mostly in a landfill called Jardim Gramacho, the name being ironic because this place is no blossoming garden. Muniz’ entrance to Gramacho, the part of the journey with which he has some reservations, is filmed to remind us of dystopic movies like Franci Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, except that this place is real and a necessary evil to our civilization. Walker uses Muniz both as our narrator and stand-in, explaining the landfill’s organized chaos and just as what he says about the smell, we start to get used to it.
Waste Land is an interesting look within an artist and his collaborators, as Muniz works with unlikely extra pairs of hands. The magic of shaping and the documenting of the product doesn’t happen until the movie’s last thirty-five minutes. So basically the first hour is preparation, talking to the one of the leaders of the worker’s association that represents them, taking pictures of the selected few workers who will end up being his models and apprentices. This is part of Muniz’ goal, to expose the workers into another world instead of he assumes is their sad routines.
The movie shows Muniz and his pieces as both poignant and kitschy, using materials like peanut butter to recreate canonized paintings like da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. He finds this complementary spirit through working with the garbage pickers/recyclists/catadores. For example the union leader Tiao who, with an improvised set consisted of a bathtub, is photographed as Marat. This is telling of his and the workers’ elevated self-image and unorthodox experience with intellectualism, heightened by Muniz’ presence. Tiao, Zumba and the other workers have literally created a library out of discarded books, a comment on the middle class indifference to the experiences for which the workers would strive. This unlikely mixture of mindsets and class evokes ars povera’s manifesto, but the realism within depicting these workers’ lives adds a social and emotional aspects of a creative process.
Seminal Video: The Cool Kids
My music taste isn’t just made up of crappy diva pop music, it’s also made up of hip hop. I have no idea what’s going on with music, much less rap. I’ve liked The Cool Kids since I was in college, a hip hop duo who somehow makes sense with the white hipsters who’ve appropriated them as their own. And I really thought that old school was a Toronto thing as opposed to something that the Midwest also did. What is Toronto doing now? How do I verbalize or describe the sound of what Drake is doing? Anyway, I wanted to catch up on what they’re doing recently, which is apparently lending their music to “Entourage.” I actually wanted to post some of their new stuff, but that’s not as good. “Pennies” isn’t their best song neither. I don’t even like the two-note hook in the chorus, I prefer my beats low, which their other, greater sons like “Popcorn,” “Bassment Party,” or “Hammer Bros,” have. But I found myself rapping whatever words I knew from that song. Yes, rapping. Enjoy.
Parent Relationships: Hugo
Any other seventeen year old can see that the paternal figures in Hugo represent a cultural fatherhood as it does with a biological one. That our eponymous hero Hugo’s (Asa Butterfield) status as an orphan living in a train station is a break from that said culture and identity. And his self-appointed mission to fix the automaton that his father (Jude Law) has brought home from the museum where the latter works is symbolic of him repatriating himself. The he in convinced that the automaton has a message for him that stems from the belief that the objects our forbears leave us says a lot about them and ourselves.
John Logan, screenwriter and Martin Scorsese, director adapted this movie from Brian Selznick’s children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.” And as a necessary evil, Hugo’s life is full of coincidences, his notebook of the drawings of the automatons catches the eye and anger of a man named Papa Georges (Shutter Island alum Ben Kingsley), who owns the top shop from which Hugo steals. That Hugo can’t even utter why he has the notebook points to how stunted he is. Papa Georges takes the notebook, a part of Hugo’s journey then being to recover it, going to the former’s through a cemetery, a setting so visualized out that it inescapably became overt symbolism.
Anyway, Papa Georges is actually acclaimed silent filmmaker George Melies, almost lost in movie history until Hugo and Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg) rediscover him in the early 1930’s (I imagine a more boring story, Tabard or some twenty-something assistant finding Melies through records or whatnot, but we like this story better for reasons of our own). Pointing out Papa Georges is a case example shows how loss doesn’t only occur through accidents but through adult self-will. He almost shuns movies because he believes that his contributions are no longer wanted, because he’ll never have a comeback because those things aren’t supposed to happen.
Speaking of which, the movie, being from a children’s lit source material, only shows the development and evolution of a child through its connections with the father. But whatever is missing through the Hugo-father-Georges story lines is shown through other story lines and connections within the characters. There’s the limitation or lack of Hugo’s adolescent phase, the loss he experiences or his survivalist induced kleptomania don’t count as that. His adolescent phase is shown through the world falling out of Georges’ movies the same way a person outgrows movies or cultural pieces they used to love as children. ‘Films have the power to capture dreams,’ as Hugo quotes his father describing a movie the latter has seen as a child.
But that fantastical quality is also George’s biggest disadvantage, as most of the children who have seen and loved his films have experienced the war and other misfortunes and have wanted other movies if none at all. The lightest genres they can tolerate are social commentaries disguised as comedies, as evinced by Harold Lloyds and Charlie Chaplins. And time moves on, as sound in movies demand that even those slapstick silent movies have to become relics. Thankfully, not everyone grows into adolescence or adulthood, that Hugo and Rene, instead of sporting battle scars and limps, use their first childhood encounters with beauty and magic to continue into great artistry. Their much derided interests can show the other grown-ups that dreams can come true in a big screen. They even have to remind Georges that.
The second thing missing directly from Hugo as a character but is well and alive through traces around him is the female presence. The only thing we know from his mother is his father’s words of her English provenance. There are slightly stronger examples. Hugo’s love interest Isabelle (Chloë Moretz, her grating accent scaring me of what Les Miserables might be like this year) instinctively chooses to dig up her godfather Georges’ past with Hugo – both calling it an adventure – her precociousness disregards that she can possibly hurt Georges’ feelings and instead views this as her right to know about his past or about anything. She probably chooses this as punishment for her godfather banning her to watch movies.
She lacks the protective instincts that her godmother Mama Jeanne has, but she still has a stake on the resurfacing of Georges’ work, her role as his actress and muse being a great contribution to his work. Rene’s compliments confirm her share within early cinema. There’s also the woman selling flowers in the train station (Shutter Island co-alum Emily Mortimer) revealing to the Station Inspector Gustave (Sacha Baron Cohen) that her brother died in the same war that has gotten him injured. I resent giving masculine-dominated movies brownie points for writing one line for each female character or something (which is an exaggeration I admit but come on, why give Emily Mortimer such a small role?). But these women and men surprise each other with their shared history, and these revelations support and cement the connections that these characters have.
There are a few silver linings to being an orphan (or yes, fan girls and boys, to Jude Law dying. The movie visualizes his death forgettably, as paper-thin fires consume a museum, one of equally paper-thin looking sets. Anyway….). First is the connections that these grownups forge under his voyeuristic eye, that these workers and shopkeepers and regulars organically create a familial rapport. That these are older versions of his lonely self, and that they can cure their anomie.
Second is that Hugo’s orphan-hood allows him to dig twice as hard and in many different directions to discover himself. Let’s think about his direct provenance – he’s a son and nephew of repairmen and he would have stayed that way had these elder men lived. I don’t want to romanticize him living in a train station by himself. The other train station orphan shows what hygienic state Hugo could have been in. But the station also represents multifaceted urban stimuli and he could also have followed the examples of those around him. A cafe owner, a flower sales rep, a station inspector (Gustave also being an orphan), a librarian, an Indian Chief, you know how the Imperial nursery rhyme goes. For a person who belongs nowhere, like an apprentice in Confucius’ world, the choices are endless. And as much as there are people like Gustave who wants to lock him up or the characters who think he’s invisible but there are others like Georges and Rene who give him a chance.
Lastly, I don’t want to sound like I’m belittling repairmen. If anything Georges just saw himself as a box cranker and a vaudeville act – a man with a bigger sense of entitlement would have probably died instead of reducing himself as a toy shop keeper. But as Hugo’s father saw potential in an automaton that the museum didn’t want to display, these stray young characters’ constant search has great results. As much as this movie is about the characters’ returning home, it’s also about appreciating the utilitarian craft, a 20th century fight and attitude towards unappreciated art forms. The other characters have thought as a rickety few hours of escapism, Hugo and Rene’s mission was to convince everyone that they have experienced movies as magic.
Pink Ribbon$ Inc.
Lea Pool, of Lost and Delirious fame, is great in documentary form while attacking the ‘breast cancer culture,’ a militant movement turned into a unicorn march, in Pink Ribbon$, Inc. This is a movie about semantics, one with which I have an issue. One of the movie’s featured talking heads criticize the word ‘survivor,’ used towards and by women who have faced tribulations. That word is preferable because it implies a ‘post’ phase of convalescence, a move up from ‘victim,’ the latter word evoking constancy and forced submission to their suffering. One of the talking heads’ arguments is that ‘survivor’ makes the ‘victims’ feel that the latter weren’t strong enough to defeat the disease. So what’s the correct word then.
These words are chess pieces within a war about the voices of those afflicted with the cancer. Some have understandable problems with breast cancer allowing us to say ‘breast’ in public, both sexualizing and infantilizing a disease. There are scenes where a woman is holding up a poster saying ‘WALK IF YOU LOVE BOOBS,’ negating that the cancer should be more urgent. The culture has thus acquired a dictatorial attitude of public optimism, neglecting how diseases suck, making these feelings of pessimism shoved into the private sphere. Hiding/not being able to vent bad feelings and pretending to be constantly perky are signs of neuroses, insanity if we count that one group tries to silence the other.
Silence on one side can occur when the other’s message is overpowering. There are four stages of breast cancer, as a Texas-based stage four breast cancer support group informs us, the group having to find themselves because they’re pariahs in other supports group who see them as ‘angels of death.’ The disease can permute from stage two to convalescence to stage four, or someone can just be diagnosed to four and wait to die. We have forgotten so much about the nature of cancer and the happy ones’ clamouring misinforming us about the methods of finding a cure and treatment. Doctors remove cancer cells in a medieval way, like ‘slash, burn and poison.’ Misinformation is also bound to make many of us forget out tenth-grade science that cancers are mutations of the cell and opposed to viruses that destroy them, complicating the way scientists should be looking for cures.
Common knowledge suggests that Radioactive materials advance cell mutations causing cancer, those chemicals unsurprisingly found on the products of the multinational companies that advertise the perkiness and sponsor the Runs and Walks and Jumps for a Cure. The lack of cognitive dissonance is especially alarming when a mother and daughter are one of many who take part and have to be massaged after a long few days of the marathon. So basically these people, mostly women, are asked to buy products – pennies of proceeds will go to breast cancer research! – that would hurt them and take part in actions that would hurt themselves so they can fundraise money with the slight possibility of curing themselves. They’re asked to inflict self-harm twice! ‘Corporations are evil’ is hardly a novel message, but it’s still startling, knowing the effects and the rising numbers of women diagnosed with the disease. Images via TIFF.
Parenthood: A Separation
I saw Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation after I wrote my Parenthood in 2011 Cinema post and I didn’t want to just write a sentence or two and ruin that post’s flow. And I’ll probably decide to discuss the movie outside its gender/familial dynamics. So voilà.
A Separation gives attention to how members of its society views and examines motherhood and womanhood, among the many complex topics upon which the movie beautifully touches. Nader (Peyman Maadi) deals with his father’s (Ali-Asghar Shahbazi) incapacity by hiring working class Razieh (Sareh Bayat) as a daytime housekeeper and caretaker for his father while he leaves for work. After a dispute between them – some money is missing in Nader’s drawers and he of course accuses her of theft – he pushes her, possibly leading to her miscarriage.
If Nader is found guilty of causing the miscarriage, it’s murder under Iranian law. Nader’s pre-trial takes place in some bureaucrat judge’s office, where he has to bring witnesses like his daughter Termeh and her tutor to prove that he didn’t know – I also can’t help but point how as much as it’s perfunctory for both families to bring their children in to exonerate themselves, it’s still simultaneously hella classy and tragic, the daughters seeing handcuffs and Termeh seeing her father wearing a pair and being one of them criminals.
He has to prove that he couldn’t hear a conversation revealing Razieh’s pregnancy, etc. Both Razieh and her husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini) question Nader’s and the testimonies supporting him. How could he not have known? It’s obvious just by looking at her. I can’t look up Nader’s verbatim but he says something like how he couldn’t tell that she was pregnant because of the chador. I didn’t want to read it in a way that a first world perspective would, I coming from a third world background who sees the chador as a choice. Nevertheless, I still can’t help but hear this line as a critique of Islam, that article of clothing oppressively weighing her down.
I couldn’t see this movie any other way, as the chador is inescapably bound to Razieh’s character. It accentuates the waddle that she has as she goes up the stairs to Nader’s apartment, or her ghostlike running as she looks for Nader’s father or her hurried face and hands as she tells Hodjat not to take Nader’s money. Bayat’s award-winning performance fleshes out a woman whose duties as a mother and wife of a man drowned in debt is showing through her physicality, with or without that article of clothing. But that doesn’t mean that her words don’t matter neither, her Streepian revelation of ‘I have doubts’ contributing to the moral duplicity that the movie shows with sympathy and without judgment.
The movie can be seen as one with two halves. We spent the first half with Razieh while the second is where Nader’s wife Simin (Leila Hatami) dominates. A Western rendition of this story would have had to soften Simin up or villain-ize her. I don’t begrudge her for leaving home to move back in to her mother’s or being unable to take care of her father-in-law because she’s always at work although I know one or two wackos who would find a problem with that.
It is uncomfortable watching her push Termeh around, the latter reluctant to leave her father and Iran. Or that both husband and wife lock each other into a staring contest, waiting for the other to blink so he or she can blink back. She packs her bags into her car, waiting for Nader to agree with everything she wants. They’ve gotten to the point when compromise, an iomportant part in maintaining a family, is impossible, even if both can’t be seen as in the wrong. Both are proud, which I read as a masculine trait while neither character is ‘feminized.’ In the portrayal of their relationship, they’re even – their qualities and decisions aren’t divisible by stereotypes, Nader and Simin are the more ‘progressive’ yet flawed couple, unlike Razieh and Hojjat who are still bound by religion and patriarchy.
Let’s not forget that their separation occurs because she wants a better life for her family, their pre-trial being that electric Arthur Miller-like scene that sets the movie’s humanizing tone. She doesn’t have to prove anything as the story lets us know what her intentions are in the first place. And let me just say that my hesitation to view these characters’ tribulations as a critique of Iran’s theocracy and justice system. Every country sucks, every bureaucrat seen with disdain, especially ones who can sentence others although they don’t know the ‘whole story.’ Whether we’ve been struck by quandary like this, the movie still calls on our fears that we can be maligned. Either if it’s on a criminal standpoint, when people can get jailed for things they didn’t know were wrong – and you can’t get acquitted for ‘not knowing what you did was wrong,’ on a legal standpoint – or just under others’ piercing eyes of.
If the mothers in this movie symbolize a the state of benig broken, Razieh transgressing by taking care of two fractured families while Simin being the point of one fracture, the fathers then posit themselves as the fortress of the family. Nader tries to teach Farsi words to Termeh, despite her protestations that her school system prefers Arabic words. But if that means that he’s the ‘conservative’ stronghold of the family, then I don’t know whether telling his daughter that it’s ok to, spoiler, lie in court is deviance or traditional self-preservation. Every scene with Nader and Termeh has this slight sense of danger that a jerk is raising someone who will be a jerk.
Hojjat, however, tries to keep his family afloat through his creditors, sometimes forsaking his wife’s religiosity for their much-needed money. He’s a a man, after years of unemployment and trauma, whose version of protecting his family is harming others. It’s this sort of personal dysfunction that provides us with the most nuanced characters whom we haven’t seen for a long time until now.
Oscar Animated Shorts
I lied, the Oscar-nominated animated shorts come first. As I was watching them I kept thinking about how the next short was better than the last. Which kind of felt like a cheat because the latest one was probably fresher in my memory. This probably will show my biases about aesthetics but the audience during my screening saw, in the order that they were presented, go from capturing the mundane to portraying the fantastical, from the most rudimentary forms of animation to the most breathtakingly detailed. Oh, and before I talk about each short, I would just like to say that this is the first time I’ve seen these selections.
Patrick Doyon’s Dimanche portrays a titular regular Sunday in rural Quebec. It evokes the cloudy whimsy of childhood with its sensory interpretations of trains and elephants and the protagonist looking up while the adults, presumably his aunts and uncles, have indiscernible conversations. ‘Rudimentary’ is probably a belittling comment to describe this, as it does play with two-dimensionality. There’s also something remarkable with the economy of drawing birds and humans with simple lines and shapes. There’s also a texture that smoothed out, computerized animation hasn’t completely captured, making me miss the paper and pencil animated movie.
Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby’s Wild Life makes my biases resurface because I graduated high school to get away from stories like this ad nauseam. Most versions I’ve heard about Prairie settlement on the Canadian West which are full of Eastern European characters and that’s represented with a vocal cameo by the hilarious Luba Goy. But our protagonist here is a young British man who fancies himself as a cowboy. But just because it’s tenth-grade history doesn’t mean that it has parallels now, that a lot of co-dependent overgrown children still today. Some sequences feel like two frames interchanged to simulate movement but the sound brings that conceit to life. And I’m a sucker for watercolour so this gets a pass.
Contrasting those old school historical Canadian annies are two shiny ones from south of the border. The fourth one being William Joyce and Brandon Oldenburg’s The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the most widely-seen short when it hit online by itself. It’s a bit lengthy and sleepy – what kind of ADD do I have? – but the latter half of the short makes the titular books look tactile. It also hits on the ‘important subject matter’ criteria that may or not be important for the voters in the Academy, but it does touch on the topic of temporal loss and how books can comfort us from those anxieties.
Lessmore reminds me of Up – book balloons! – and so does this last annie, Enrico Casarosa’s La Luna. It’s a 20th century version of a myth, as a three-generational Italian family who look like fishermen are actually out on the sea to work on the moon so they can clean it up. They take us on a journey that includes stars, both shining and exploding, on the moon. And spoilers, they make the moon wax and wane. This short is also the closest thing we’ll have to Melancholia getting an Academy Award nomination, with the moon and all, so it gets my vote. And this short is produced by Pixar and those guys know how to push their stuff so I’m not worried.
Oh and there’s the second one, Grant Orchard’s submission, the most forgettable of the bunch, which is a shame because it mixes both old school black and white and colour computer animation. It also has a gross-out, apocalyptic spin in the end as it envisions a zombie chasing a chicken down the street, a contrast from the earlier scenes when it’s just a man seeing a chicken. It also has the sleek, urban, virtual Fernand Leger that reminds me of that short that won in 2008-2009 I think, I can’t remember the title. Although A Morning Stroll doesn’t evoke that technological aesthetic though.
Yay! These shorts were very popular during Family Day when I watched them so they’ll still be playing from today until March 1st at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Images vis TIFF.
Motifs in Cinema: 2011 – Parent Relationships
Perhaps because it’s one of the youngest artistic forms, cinema is often assessed in much different manner that literature, or the visual arts. We discuss it in terms of genre, not in terms of thematic offering. Comparing, for example, Corpse Bride and Up because they’re both animated leads to some dubious discussion especially when – like any art form – thematic elements examined in cinema and the way different filmmaker address them make for some stimulating discussion. Motifs in Cinema is a discourse, across eleven film blogs, assessing the way in which various thematic elements have been used in the 2011 cinematic landscape. How does a common theme vary in use from a comedy to a drama? Are filmmakers working from a similar canvas when they assess the issue of the artist or the family dynamic? Like everything else, a film begins with an idea – Motifs in Cinema assesses how the use of a single idea changes when utilised by varying artists. – Andrew Kendall
Let’s begin this with the power of mothers, sometimes relying on their mystery of their and their children’s origins. Part of the journey that sons and daughters take in movies is to unearth this said origin. It could be of a sexual nature, where her past can be considered as a threat in comedies like Submarine‘s Oliver Tate hears news that his mother Jill’s ex boyfriend is moving next door, or No Strings Attached‘s Emma discovering that her mother is dating a biker.
She can also be like The Tree of Life‘s Mrs. O’Brien, the movie’s connection to world’s prehistory. In a way, it makes sense for her to be the character that we the audience first see in the movie’s two beginnings, manifesting and letting the audience experience the desire and poetic consciousness of her and any human being’s place in the world.
Her actions can be a catalyst that unite strangers, like Cindy from Win Win being temporarily separated with her son Kyle. Movies also inspire within its characters an impulse to write this history and its sociopolitical ramifications. The Help begins with Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan interviewing Aibileen and the latter’s maternal connections to slavery. She lives in a constructed world where men are passive and women have their own ways of controlling each other. She also discovers her own mother’s role in the stratification and divisions between the housewives and the maids, directly involved in the separation between her and her nanny who she might have loved more than her own family.
Both Win Win and The Help have children with ‘two mothers,’ the latter experiencing double-sided paranoia. One is the suspicion that a stranger can be better than one’s biological mother. The other is the inevitability when the child grows away from her. In Win Win, both fall on Cindy, while Kyle’s adopted mother Jackie Flaherty’s only complex is imagining Cindy to be a crack mother. The Help divides this double inferiority, the housewives having the former, and the titular help – as Aibilieen notices that the children she’s taking care of are growing to be as racist as their real mothers – having the latter. Both movies end with one maternal figure letting go, letting the audience decide if a victory is won with one woman’s concession.
I also pondered on other maternal models like Take Shelter‘s Samatha LaForche. Chastain, playing Samantha, makes me feel ambivalent for conceding her dissent against her husband Curtis and his compulsive need to have a storm shelter that’s killing their expenses which include an operation for their deaf child. Again, the mother holds the family’s origins, the same way Curtis might have inherited his mental state and delusions from his mother. She is where the story really begins. I also remember one of the characters telling Samantha to her face that both Curtis and their daughter are her burdens and as insulting as it is, it’s true. The same thing happens in a comedy like 50/50 where Katie, a young psychiatrist, dealing with an equally young, closed-up cancer patient named Adam. While complaining to her about his shrill mother, Diane, who won’t stop calling him, she eventually tells him something like Diane having a husband she can’t talk to and a son, Adam, who won’t. In both movies, both the child, in early or adult stages, becomes a liability and it’s unfair that it’s up to the mother to keep the family together and be the back-up plan.
Or ‘origin’ can also be seen and interpreted as a symbol of precarious tradition, like Audrey in Pariah. She is mother to Alike. We can argue that enforcing womanhood on her children is her way of transferring the sexuality which she’s robbed, as her suspicions of her husband Arthur having an affair makes more sense by the day. Her Christian, conservative world falls apart when Alike comes out of the closet. Their last encounter ends when Audrey, teary-eyed tells Alike that ‘I’m praying for you,’ this movie’s way of negotiating a mother’s ‘badness’ by following, for the lack of a better word, hate with love.
One parent’s essential place in a familial unit means that the other is kept slightly away. Two movies that show this are written by Steve Zaillan, showing paternal distance in present day families. His first movie Moneyball has Casey Beane getting firsthand news about her father Billy through her mother or the media and it’s up to Billy to either confirm, deny or comfort her. The second movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, also has the same theme with The Help when a de facto left-wing parental figure sees retroactive conservatism in their child figures. Mikael Blomkvist, a liberal journalist, has a teenage daughter Pernilla, who is going to Bible camp, although their relationship is more adult and amicable.
But in ‘traditional’ environments, the father is closer to the children, causing resentment within the child. The Tree of Life‘s Mrs. O’Brien and her eldest son Jack have a borderline Freudian bond but her husband overpowers her influence. Footloose‘s Rev. Shaw Moore bans public dancing, angering his rebellious daughter Ariel. The Devil’s Double, Uday Hussein preferring his mother and not his father Saddam. One of the few exceptions of this paternal resentment is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Thomas Schell, the coolest dad in recent cinema, the reason his son Oskar remembers him after his death.
Sometimes the mother gets killed off for the father to make a bigger impression – it’s also a convenient way for some movies to write lesser female roles. Beginners’ Georgia Fields recedes within flashbacks as her son Oliver faces his father Hal’s homosexuality and cancer. The titular Hanna gets training from her father Erik. Super 8‘s Elizabeth Lamb leaves her husband Jackson to raise their son Joe. A Better Life‘s Carlos Galindo is a father trying to give to his son the opportunities he never had. Real Steel‘s Charlie Kenton’s journey to bond with his son is an uphill climb. The Descendants‘ Elizabeth King succumbs to a coma and her husband Matt gets put to use. These families sons and daughter of those movies eventually learn to accept their loss.
The past few paragraphs have reminded me how heteronormative this year in has been. I’m interjecting on myself to call on Annette Bening and Julianne Moore to work together every year. And the funny thing is that I didn’t even like The Kids are All Right, mainly because of my ambivalence about the ending and Mark Ruffalo’s character. Neither do I find Lisa Cholodenko’s movies perfect.
But speaking of perfection, that’s something I couldn’t meet here. So I wrote separate posts coming out on the next two days on two different movies. First is A Separation, the four main characters and how class binds their behaviours and decisions as parents. I also wanted to dedicate the last paragraph on the parent-less, the characters with ambiguous parentage and ones confirmed as orphans. The relationships they build and the heroism they can conquer. There have been so many characters like them in movies during the past year, all of them wanting to know who they have to fight and who’s on their side. I concentrated on one movie, Hugo, and the different meanings, superficial and hopefully deeper ones, on what it means for the titular Hugo’s to rediscover his father and finding a new home and purpose.
This mini-blogathon exists because of our mutual friend Andrew Kendall, quoted above, of Encore’s World of Film and TV. Click here to see what he says about characters in the movies of 2011 and how they work hard for the money and links – more links! showering links like gold coins of wisdom! – of the other participants of the blogathon.
2011: I am Mavis Gary
This recreates my mental state three days before Valentine’s Day. It ain’t pretty.
A conversation I had with a critic – the same person with whom I was discussing Dragon Tattoo – eventually got us discussing Jason Reitman’s Young Adult. I agree with him, it’s a zombie walk where hack writer and man stealing slore Mavis Gary’s (Charlize Theron) converses with her high school co-alum Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) as a way of Diablo Cody talking to herself like, pardon the comparison, Ingmar Bergman with hoodies and home brewed whiskey. It’s only energized by Mavis’ blood curdling speech at the end. A villain’s tirade before leaving an all-American environment – in this case it’s Mercury, Minnesota, a small town provenance she’s seemingly outgrown – and her departure typically resulting with the other good-natured characters hugging and keeping their relationships intact and so forth. That speech is one of the elements within the movie that riskily decides to side with Mavis despite her being an intentionally terrible person and I give brownie points for those things.
His criticism against Young Adult stems from how it tries to both mock and pander to opposite sides of whatever line the movie draws to divide Mavis from the other characters. There’s the use of “Kourtney and Kim Take New York” among many uses of pop culture to either make fun of lowbrow culture, the working class reassured that the middle class is more pathetically trashy. In short, condescending to both classes but mostly to the townies who don’t even know what ‘the TV’ is. Keep in mind that it’s screenwriter Diablo Cody doing the finger-pointing, funny enough because she has appeared on the E! Network as well as being engaged to someone who works there. Also keep in mind that I watch and secretly love “Kourtney and Kim Take New York.”
It’s like a rom-com making fun of Katherine Heigl like Friends with Benefits does. It’s equally hurtful when an intellectual like Woody Allen makes fun of us. But Young Adult shows my reflection pointing back, a flawed conceit that my reflection is an ugly mean girl AND Charlize Theron. The rich make fun of us whether they’re classy or trashy and I still feel ambivalent knowing that these masks of class, education and breeding are in place against others.
What he also finds smug is something that, despite deeming the movie passable, I also could never make peace with – she’s one of the unique cases who, despite being love struck, only chooses one target for her supposed goodwill if at all. Why is Dolce-clad Mavis still holding out for Buddy Slaide (Patrick Wilson), who has unkempt facial hair, wears thick plaid jackets without being ironic and works in a factory? Just because Patrick Wilson has cheated on his wife in many miniseries/movies doesn’t mean he’ll cheat on her for you this time, Mavis. I don’t even know if he has sex drive in this movie at all.
This perpetual high school reunion one-upmanship happens all the time. Someone created the Twitter handle @FriendFromHS for this purpose. Or like what I used to do during the first year I joined Facebook – I’m trying to forget that someone else might be doing the same to me – and laughed at how this guy got fat and so forth despite not being able to find my man who got away who by the way is straight. I should actually do that now because looking at him will make me feel good about myself, hoping he finally signed up.
Oh my God he got hotter.
And I don’t care if he’s the kind of guy who takes pictures of himself in his bathroom without closing the shower curtains, holding the camera in his hand in front of the mirror because he can’t figure out how to use the timer, accessorizes with cubic zirconium bling and befriends girls who spell ‘sexxxy’ or ‘chineese’ (He’s white. Aryan, even). His face is in the same immaculate state when we were both young, belonging to better clothes and a svelte body.
If he blocks me, I wanted to write the typical ‘I hope you’re not offended by the past’ thing. But I always had a speech prepared if I see him. That there have been others after him – ‘after’ despite him not reciprocating in any sense of the word. That I thought he was the one and that those others made me feel lost, that I didn’t know what love is when I fell out of my infatuation for him. But now that I can see him again that changes everything. I could have pressed enter and told him everything, making me seem crazy if I didn’t have a friend to stop me.
The artist is someone who insists on content, form and image – especially image’s importance – despite others perceiving it as unapproachable. Her present is everyone else’s past, she views it as nostalgia but others perceive it as stubbornness. She performs this past ad nauseam but never tires because of its comforting rituals. She’s a risk taker in her eyes but that doesn’t matter if the others see madness or chooses not to see her at all, their rejection making her lose everything. This creation or dedication is caused by love and some conceive love, giving into love and to another person, as containing destruction. Love forces a person to change for the other person, to create herself anew, making her lose her individuality. But love can also be an instinct against outside forces and this form of stasis could lead to the same destruction she’s been trying to avoid.
Sorry about that insanity, although I wanted to talk about that. It’s been a long time since Young Adult came out, but what I remember from its criticism is Mavis as an unsympathetic character or her place within the movie’s class boundaries. But what about her character’s mental state? Most movies about the insane are pretty self-centred, the other characters are either supporting her convalescence or driving her to madness. We see the other characters through Mavis’ warped prism, blocking them, their relevations of ‘I feel sorry for you’ seemingly tacked on and coming out of left-field. Are we not seeing her mental condition because she looks like she has her shit together or am I using her state as an excuse? Buddy’s wife gets a whiff of her condition and I don’t know if it sticks. And her presence within Mavis’ peripheral vision causes for new lines to drive up between them, making the movie problematic.
P.s. I still haven’t added him yet.
Oscar Live Action Shorts
I’ve seen the Oscar Live Shorts a few weeks ago and they’re apparently bad crop but they show different emotions and they’re better than the animated ones. I ranked them, but doing that via Twitter limits the discourse towards whoever’s favourite short or whatever, so for completist’s sakes I’m writing about each in the order I’ve seen them.
Pentecost (Ireland) – Peter MacDonald – It’s the most visually pleasing of the bunch, the digital photography deepening the hues of the leaves and the brick walls of the setting. It reminds me of Albert Nobbs cinematography in some ways, showing us that the trees in the British Isles makes North American ones look malnourished. But it plays out the same joke that becomes tedious even in its ten minute running time, an 11-year-old altar boy named Damian (Scott Graham) in the late 20th century and those around him bringing up comparisons of mass to football. The deacons as coaches, the boys as players, the Archbishop’s mass as the big game. Meh.
Raju (Germany/India) – Max Zahle and Stefan Gieren – A couple (Wotan Wilke Möhring and Julia Richter) come to India to adopt a child named Raju. The husband and Raju go out to Calcutta before they leave for Germany but he loses the child, leading to a big reveal. The camera loves Möhring’s face as he observes the city’s squalor-filled third world streets with wonder, not revulsion. The movie deals with colonialist issues so it’s not going to win in some people’s eyes. If you’re filling your Oscar ballot with your mind and not your heart, pick this movie because the Academy loves important issues and this movie fits that bill.
The Shore (United Kingdom) – Terry George – Ciaran Hinds and Kerry Condon lend their talents as a San Francisco father and daughter Jim and Patricia visiting his hometown Northern Ireland, having left because of the turmoil decades beforehand. But this is more about the personal secrets between him and the other townspeople, specifically his best friend (Conleth Hill), an alcoholic who works as a seafood harvester, married to a woman (Maggie Cronin) who used to be Jim’s girlfriend. The bucolic tone makes sense in the beginning but it unfortunately stays on that. Nothing happens, the storyline feels chopped up as funny anecdotes and the ending makes me feel like Hinds’ character is a terrible person.
Time Freak (United States) – Andrew Bowler – I read another blogger’s column about these shorts and asked why would the protagonist make a time machine and keep coming back to a specific day within the present and not visit Ancient Rome. With all due respect, listen. If you visit Ancient Rome, you would die, everyone from the present day would die from an extremely violent and disgusting moment of human history. While prosperity and safety was only given to 1% of the population of previous eras, our generation is the most advanced and we can only go downhill from here. And short filmmakers are poor, they don’t have money for costumes and period sets. Our mistakes, big or small, haunt us if only in the faintest sense. This is what neuroses are like. Besides, I’m part of the Youtube generation. I have no idea what my forebears looked for in their shorts but I look for compelling – read, hiLArious – storylines so this one gets my vote. But not for my friends who find the next as their favourite.
Tuba Atlantic (Norway) – Hallvar Witzo. We’re spending a few minutes with a curmudgeon named Oskar (Edvard Hægstad) who likes to shoot birds. His seaside existence is interrupted when a doctor announces his impending death. Fortunately his mean-spirited nature, which governs the movie’s tone, is counterbalanced by a perky blond Death Angel (Ingrid Viken) who comforts him in his last days while ensuring that he goes through all five stages. I like this interesting concept, heightened by Oskar’s regression into his childhood inventions like the titular tuba, a quirk that’s successfully played. His progress parallels her growth as an angel. Witzo is an exciting filmmaker and I can’t wait for his next movie.
The Oscar-nominated live action shorts are playing in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the next few afternoons and evenings, as they have been for the past two weeks. Pictures via TIFF.
2011: David Fincher’s “Dragon Tattoo”
I was having an hour-long conversation with a critic who will choose to name himself if he wants to. I choose for his anonymity because my few disagreements with some of his arguments will make me look like the kind of douche who uses the internet to talk back. I have to write about the movie we talked about weeks after I saw it, I guess. Meant no harm.
Our conversation got to his dislike of rape revenges, leading to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. He dislikes the book – yay! – Oplev’s adaptation – hated that too! – and Fincher’s version. Wait, what? That movie is gunning for a place in my list top movies of 2011! People who apparently watch this polished turd – my words – wouldn’t be caught dead in an equally schlock-y Saw series.
I agree that Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) is a false and misguided conception of the left-wing’s more extreme version of himself, stemming from white male guilt that does more harm than good. Speaking of fetishizations it also relies on the concept that rich people makes Charles Manson’s childhood seem normal. I explained to him that as a fifth-generation nobody that the riches are more like the Kings in The Descendants with some of “Revenge’s” Amanda Clarke.
I’m a 90’s kid but that’s exactly the problem, lumping him with other movies I outgrew. Most of what governs my taste as a film viewer is my re-education when I was in college, shoving away the shock violent quirk of 90’s American indie movies. Fincher always has ‘something missing’ anyway. Se7en is elegant yet chooses one form of elitism over another. Fight Club is boy stuff. Zodiac and The Social Network seem cold. TSN specifically feels like a missed opportunity as Sorkin’s one liners feel stunted through an emotionally distant lens. Ben Button is fine.
I was sceptical of Dragon Tattoo because of the bad reviews Alien 3 and Panic Room and if you add TSN‘s yucky gender politics I’d even conclude that Fincher doesn’t know women. But Dragon Tattoo pumped my adrenaline from the opening credits and as the movie continues, I exclaimed yeah! he’s back to form and these people are hitting each other! But why do I like that he’s back to form now even though I stopped liking his form for half a decade now? And why am I responding to this movie that’s supposedly more vulgar than his earlier work?
It’s the mood, isn’t it? Jeff Cornenweth’s cinematography of the snow and the cozy interiors. Lisbeth’s techno-gothic iFetish. Techno-gothic also applies to the howls escaping Martin Vanger’s (Stellan Skarsgard) Frank Lloyd Wright-esque house built on top of a ‘laundry room’ on top of a priest’s house. I can almost hear Trent Reznor pressing down harder on his keyboard. A push and pull from the aesthetic making the subject simmer down.
The performances are also great, Fincher fleshing out scenes while screenwriter Steve Zaillian economizing the characters’ words. Mara is indisputably great under Fincher’s direction, screaming during the right times and deadpan in others. She can be as sexual aggressor as she is a victim, telling her elder cohort investigator/boyfriend Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) to keep his hand under her shirt, coldly demanding affection like Garbo in Ninotchka. The ending also feels relaxed, Martin’s words ‘immigrant whore’ a slightly suitable alternative to the elongated caricature of the book and Oplev’s movie.
This refining of schlock reminds me of Miss Bala, a festival favourite, Oscar-shortlisted version of a drug cartel movie. Same thing with how my family would turn their nose up on jeep gangster movies while Brilliante Mendoza’s Kinatay, gets recognized as the gritty film-making for which Filipino film gets recognized. But whole ‘nother parameters, making me wonder what kind of room cinema has for the needlessly sadistic.
The second part of this conversation is bat shit, which is why I ask you if I should post it.
Post-VDay Movie: Cafe de Flore
Don’t be mistaken – I like Jean-Marc Vallee’s Cafe de Flore. A friend of mine criticized its ‘acid trip aesthetics’ but I like how it flows, showing osmosis between oceans and generations, characters dancing to variations of the same life, like the song sharing the same title as the movie. It visualizes the present and the different healing practices of a complex middle class Montreal family – yoga, jogging, floating in an incubated tub, reading about dreams and past lives, the odd joint. The family’s head is Antoine (Kevin Parent), a man with an ex-wife and girlfriend, a DJ nonetheless who has to work with lights and laptops and music of different tangible and data formats. The objects around him are disposable yet still beautiful.
Antoine’s story is an intertwining half of another taking place forty years beforehand, where Jacqueline (Vanessa Paradis) cares for her son, Laurent, with Down syndrome. If the present day scenes scream ‘The future is now,’ the portions may be set in 1969 but might as well have been any other decade, Jacqueline and child in earth tones walking the unwashed cobblestone of Paris. Her working class conditions also seem impervious to the Yves Saint Laurent Mondrian dress that another mother in her school wears.
Its implicit worldview also concerns itself with the hierarchy of boundaries. The middle class are supposedly better than the poor, the present an improvement of the past. Jacqueline feels inferior because of Laurent, studying ways to improve his brain, subconsciously thinking that educating and raising him properly will lead to a cure. That while the present day characters, surrounded by their comfortable, manicured property, disregard what someone like Jacqueline would have worked hard for while being petty and vindictive towards each other.
The movie eventually connects both plots, bringing us to flaw number three, that the mysticism that Antoine’s wife dabbles ends up revealing her ‘punishment’ and the justification for his adultery. It imposes this viewpoint upon her while she suffers through mental issues while all he has to do is to fall in love. This new family situation is also imposed on Antoine’s children who prefer her as the parent. But I’m making it seem more one-sided than it really is, as Antoine and his ex-wife explore their pasts, within memory or otherwise, portrayed as vividly in flashbacks. His new girlfriend joins in with the introspection, questioning the replaceable aspect of love and lovers and searching for the happiness and stability within it.
- Cafe de Flore, A Dangerous Method lead Genie nods (vancouversun.com)
2011: My Week With Marilyn
Oy, this movie’s a mess. If I see another burnt light bulb again and go insane, it’s because of Simon Curtis’ My Week With Marilyn. The iconic Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) from the second she lands on England to work in the troubled set of The Prince and the Showgirl with (Michelle Williams), Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Dame Sibyl Thorndike (Dame Judi Dench), those light bulbs help to capture her image and aim to symbolize the fanfare around her but only shows how badly edited the movie is. Speaking of aesthetics, the cinematography is decidedly British, dulling the bright colors of 1956 movie making but it looks occasionally dewy and romantic.
I watched it expecting to experience the shadows that walked the hallways of those British studios in 1956. Marilyn, her arm cradled by her Method acting teacher Paula Strasberg (Zoe Wanamaker) while third assistant director Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne) watches from behind. But neither Williams, Branagh, nor Julia Ormond who plays Vivien Leigh, capture these old essences, although it’s understandably hard for them to do so knowing how famous those characters still are. These actors’ voices are a bit deep for the characters they play and yes, I do want mimicry.
Let’s talk about Marilyn Monroe, the alter ego to Norma Jean Mortensen, the ineffable within the already ineffable. The closest that the latter is documented is in Monroe’s performance in The Misfits. Marilyn is the person on camera while Norma seems to be more of a blank slate. Williams portrays ‘Marilyn’ because she might be accused of playing herself if she fully tune out from emulating Monroe’s on-screen persona. It’s a kind of shorthand. But even in her attempts the poster for Prince has more chemistry that Williams and her co-stars. And despite getting Marilyn’s comic timing right, there’s too little in her performance that warrants the other characters’ praise of her. Her performance also has its share of multiple personalities, talking in Marilyn’s well-known whisper-y voice then dropping it in the next sentence.
There are moments where this bipolarity works. They’re filming an easy scene yet Marilyn fumbles lines. When Larry yells ‘Cut!’ she hides behind the door, sweat filling her brows. But when they do another take, she glows from afar. These transitions happen in seconds, Williams showing Marilyn’s professionalism. Then Larry tells her to ‘be sexy,’ making her eyes and lips quiver like Monroe’s, breaking down. In a way, Williams is micro-acting here, stretching and moving her body express both the sorrow and the joy. Leaning her head forward as Marilyn nervously tries to get another line right, or a hand gesture while spending alone time with Colin. If it’s not the real Marilyn, it’s the studied performance of a mid-century lady who finds her life’s mission to seduce either in person or on-screen. In a way she can represent the 21st century infantile ego, someone who’s been comforted into thinking that she can take her own time for the sake of professionalism. Someone who is addicted to constant praise and yet is never satisfied by it. We’re seeing this woman’s insecurities, putting her in a situation where she’s placed to work to be her best for these issues to come out, as an actress who’ll never know how great she is.
2011: A Dangerous Method
The title and trailer of David Cronenberg‘s A Dangerous Method made me assume that Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley) endures histrionic mental states and transforms into a seductress going after her psychiatrist-turned-lover Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender), making him unfaithful against his wife Emma (Sarah Gadon) and destroying his friendship with his colleague Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen). Fortunately it’s a more intelligent movie than that.
Cronenberg as usual tells the story of subconscious sexuality that the real Freud and Jung obsessed about. But this is mostly playwright-turned-screenwriter Christopher Hampton‘s movie, adapted from “The Talking Cure,” which is in itself a condensed version of “A Most Dangerous Method” by John Kerr. Hampton is in his comfort zone with another period piece about the restrained, yearning, upper class. I’m not usually a Hampton fan, but the project landing on Cronenberg’s hands has just as much to do with the way he tackles the story. Yes, there’s some lust here but the characters also converse with each other with erudition. Working in psychology, they’re tailor-made into observing each other’s flaws, deceitfulness and slips of the tongue. Sometimes they’re in the verbal combat I’ve been waiting to watch on-screen, resisting while the other person imposes their viewpoints towards them. Subverting assumptions this film’s sexual context feels genius, Hampton and Cronenberg siding with Carl, questioning Freud’s insistence in the sexual.
Knightley’s performance was always going to be imperfect, burdened in early scenes with a younger Sabina’s schizophrenia. Name me an actress who can go from laughing to crying to yelling within seconds while making us get used to a Russian accent, I’m sure you can. There’s bravery in her physical portraying Sabina, protruding her chin and bending her body, as if taunting her detractors who make fun of her face, posture and weight even when she’s looked her best. She’s an animal in the movie’s first scenes. But what’s fascinating is her great work after her spells, transforming herself as the dependent lover and intelligent student. And even if she shows Sabina’s insecurities and paranoia about relapses, when she’s in a room with intimidating men like Fassbender and Mortensen and forming and verbalizing theory, she commands these men’s respect as an intellectual equal and has enough stature in her frail body to get it.
Mortensen has great supporting work as Sigmund, showing the character as confident about his theories and flippant about the anti-Semitism that both he and, he assumes, Sabina faces. Vincent Cassel appears as himself under the name of psychoanalyst Otto Gross. But keeping Sabina in mind, and knowing that this sounds reductive, all she has to do is climb down towards relative convalescence. Carl, thus, is the most difficult character to play, Fassbender embodying the struggle between repression and sublimation that Jung struggles with within the decade-long time period. He also gives us the theoretical and emotional heart of the movie even if he makes us work for it a little.
I also sense the characters’ ambivalence towards sensing a bigger – that is the war – conflict that will arise out of smaller ones like the ones Jung serve in and his growing rift with Freud. The movie’s goodbye doesn’t have the same feeling of dread, but separating these three different persons – they haven’t been happy together anyway – signals how they are never going to be complete without each other. And that Sabina has made peace with that but Carl, who has perceived her, among many things, as his theoretical muse, hasn’t.
- ‘Dangerous Method’ probes men of psychoanalysis (mysanantonio.com)
2011: Monsieur Lazhar
In Philippe Falardeau‘s Monsieur Lazhar, an elementary school teacher hangs herself in her grade school Montreal classroom.
This is not what the trailer promises, with its piano music softly trumpeting the titular substitute teacher Monsieur Bachir Lazhar (Fellag) – hired by headmistress Mme. Vaillancourt (Danielle Proulx) – who shows and paves for his impressionable students (including Sophie Nelisse and Émilien Néron) the magical road towards higher learning.
Surely his presence in the school would mean some healing for these kids, especially the two who have seen their previous teacher’s body. Right?
Monsieur Lazhar can also be known as Bad Teacher, his minor flaws putting into question our traditions and cultural understanding on who and how to raise our kids.
Many of his colleagues and some of the parents relish to remind him how terrible he is at his job. Good God there’s a lot of passive aggressive workplace verbal exchanges in this movie.
And these body check-size words hint towards the cultural barriers that separate Bachir from everyone else, tiptoeing on saying that he doesn’t belong in the classroom.
The first comes from the child psychiatrist, telling him that his classroom needs colour. Every other classroom in the school looks like a Treehouse TV set.
He tries his best to emulate the other teachers, hoping to get inspiration by entering one of those classrooms as if incubated in a cutesy alien civilization. He buys a plant that dies because he doesn’t water it.
But as a child from across the seas, I actually prefer his very Spartan arrangements – desks straightly aligned, little to no decorations. He believes in learning above playing, and a good smack upside the head to a child who deserves it. The later is problematic, I know.
Another teacher tells him that it’s sad that he doesn’t think that his students have an interest in his life. This coming from somone who incorporates her travels in her lesson plan, assuming that he must have a lot to say about a faraway land.
I see in Bachir, an unlikely advocate for French-ness, a bit of an Uncle Tom. He teaches Balzac and Moliere instead of elementary school level readings. He educating the kids in proper grammar and teaching them big words. He tells his one Mediterranean student to stop speaking in Arabic and to speak in French instead.
All of this is ironic because assimilation is a philosophy drained into immigrants, welcoming their new home while their hosts find traits within immigrants to other them.
But most people just want to a taste of the exotic. They want to hear, as he concedes, an image of Algiers as a city of blue and white.
But what about the scars produced by a dangerous land, as he has experienced? He thinks Algiers is an inappropriate subject, a topic he has to deal with in court appointments, associating his home town with a family separated from him because of the Algerian Civil war.
Seeing his difficult life outside the classroom, his assimilation complex, although a character flaw, becomes understandable.
He also wants to treat these children like adults. As much as he doesn’t like discussing his wounds, he lets his students have an open space where they can talk about theirs.
In a way, the children mature and are able to deal with trauma, a state of being that scares some of the children and most of the adults.
And the most emotionally wrenching and devastating thing about this movie is not the loss of innocence produced by horrific incidents. Falardeau effectively shows us in this Oscar nominated movie how barriers, cultural, personally built, or otherwise, stops the characters from the healing that they need.
- Monsieur Lazhar: An unforgettable tale, artfully told (theglobeandmail.com)
Movie Association Game: Pina
Oh Pina, you esoterically creative movie you. You adequately use 3D. You let old people dance. I thought you were going to be just one dance piece after another but you also show the titular Pina Bausch teaching her company and those dancers whose lives she has touched. Here’s a media-heavy, pretentious are the movies/ dances/songs that I remember when I watched you.
1940: Fantasia – Walt Disney uses the end of the Jurassic period to accompany the music as opposed to the original subject matter. Speaking of which, how old was I when I knew about human sacrifices. I couldn’t have been that old. Also, my high school put together a performance of Printemps.
2009: Coco and Igor – Director Jan Kounen takes us to the first performance of Vaslav Nijinski‘s vision. We mostly see the the blackness that envelopes the dancers as the wait for the audience’s reactions while having to go on like professionals should. Nijinsky and Igor Stravinsky later fight about the piece’s reaction.
2009: Mao’s Last Dancer (Bruce Beresford. ch. Graeme Murphy) – Instead of a woman, the company’s star is a man, Li Cunxin. I’m not sure what the story is here, whether he’s the sacrifice or the one doing the sacrificing but this athletic, daring and exposing choreography looks enthralling.
2011: Pina (Wim Wenders) – Bausch’s interpretation of the dance is more arm-y although it incorporates the jumps in Nijinsky’s original choreography. The story is more coherent and shows how death randomly chooses its young victims as the multinational company pass along the chosen virgin’s ironic red dress.
2002: Hable con ella – This movie’s Cafe Mueller scene is probably many movie lovers’ introduction to Bausch. Her gaunt face and slenderness complements the piece’s theme of yearning, even in an adult, contemporary setting where those kind of emotions should be eliminated by civilization and choice. The movie ends with Bausch’s piece Mascura Fogo, which is so simple and physically expressive that only someone like Bausch can invent it.
2011: Pina – The movie both shows Bausch’s rendition of her own choreography with the equally moving tribute by one of her company’s dancers. They also take bits of Café Mueller to different environments, making its lines look natural and transcendent. Oh and her pieces mostly seem to be about mating, barriers and behaviours about love.
1946: It’s a Wonderful Life – Kontakthof strikes me as a very American piece with the multipurpose dance hall setting. It’s if its context would be relatable on both sides of the Atlantic, the dance hall a place for people to reacquaint with each other. I’d also make the same association with They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? if I saw that movie.
2011: Pina – Unlike the two movies I stated above, Kontakthof uses the setting to play around with age and dancing traditions. A ‘senior’ troupe performed this piece in Britain. The Wuppertals mix the ages around, the seasoned veterans sharing the floor with the new blood. The pieces have their different purposes, Printemps showing what Bausch is famous for, Mueller retraces her steps, Kontakthof passes her legacy to new generations.
2002: “The Private Press” -Contemporary dance seems like the medium’s Wild West in a way that despite of the dominant use of (contemporary) classical and baroque music used in the pieces, any company can use whatever music they like. My favourite scene is when I’m sure that are the performers dancing to a song from the first half of DJ Shadow’s second album.
2010: Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky. ch. Benjamin Millepied?) – It’s taken me this long and this piece to revisit that movie’s histrionics. The set here is just a full moon at the background, one of James Wolcott’s points against the movie in his scathing review. I can only compare Black Swan‘s sets to Wuppertals’ big rock and flooded stage as apples and oranges. There’s an air to their approach to how both stage dance as minimalist if not for the ornamental details, like the translucent curtains that both movies share.
- The Magic Of Pina Bausch (buzzfeed.com)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The new movie adaptation of veteran spy novelist John le Carre‘s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy feels a bit quiet but that wouldn’t be a surprise because of its director, Tomas Alfredson, who made a vampire movie look sanitized. Although instead of snow and tiles painted with blood, he brings the same craftsmanship to London and Istanbul circa 1973. Unlike the more casual 1979 BBC miniseries, Alfredson and crew have the burden of making the movie feel distant from contemporary times. Old wooden furniture, soot-stained marble and stone buildings, MI-6 employees wearing sepia tone double-breasted vests, typing on dull green computer prototypes. I have a few issues with the tone, like the soundtrack in the beginning and the shadows on the actors faces but nonetheless, its’ an exercise in style in the best of ways, the formalism appealing because everything’s so toned and filed down, like a dull but blunt object.
Control (John Hurt) sends Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong) down to Budapest to get a codename of a mole who has been in the MI6 – nicknamed ‘The Circus’ – for years. The set-up goes awry and Jim dies. To redeem themselves from national embarrassment, Cabinet Secretary Sir Oliver Lacon (Simon McBurney) enlists someone from the ‘outside,’ cuckolded and ousted agent George Smiley (Gary Oldman) to pick up where Jim has left off. George differs in his approach to the matter, he’s not trying to lure some field agent overseas. Instead he looks within the agency, its paperwork and interviews of ex-employees, convinced that the double agent would try, and fail to cover his tracks at home.
This movie is the epitome of boy’s club but in the best of ways, as the story lets us into the group’s fracking façade. The infighting, as these middle-aged Received Pronunciation speakers bellow about how authentic each other’s stolen information are and the sources from which these files are produced. They end up accusing each other of being too old, too much of a wild card or too paranoid, leading to some dismissals from the agency. The next step, of course, is for Smiley and other agents to spy on each other. One of the circus’ mostly deluded yet loyal members is a woman, Connie Sachs (Kathy Burke). When Smiley ends her interview, she waves, saying along the lines of ‘If it’s bad, don’t come back to let me know.’
Loyalty is the biggest conundrum here. It lacks the showy-er elements of contemporary spy movies which is a deterrent for some audiences. However, the MI-6 of the 1970’s doesn’t need muscular action against its enemies and neither do their battles involve a weapon that can kill them all. They live in a world where agents cross the Cold War’s already fluid lines. This betrayal is sickening and perplexing enough to these characters although thankfully, George and his rogue allies are jaded enough not to fight while brandishing Connie’s blind patriotism.
I’m on the fence here – the more time elapses between that surprisingly exhilarating last shot makes everything else seem more like a passing flavour. Like an experience that immerse its audience then just as gradually lets them go. A few things stay with me, like Tom Hardy’s performance as footman Ricky Tarr, that burly man reintroducing himself and his voice as a wounded stray. Or Colin Firth’s modest expressions as Bill Haydon. The zoom-outs between two pillars as dread-inducing jet fighters fly through European skies and another one from Control hearing about Jim’s death. And the slow motion sequence in the conference room with Control’s suspects, Tinker – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones), Tailor – Haydon, Soldier – Bland (Ciaran Hinds) and Poorman – Esterhase (David Dencik). The pipe smoke lifting from their faces, their eyes mockingly looking at George the Spy, Control’s oblivious fifth suspect. Good movies are one that twists the mind.
Overrated: The Descendants
The Descendants, based on a novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, is adapted by writer-director Alexander Payne but without his usual morbidity and nihilism. But in losing these qualities, there are many ways in which this film feels conventional, like the Hawaiian-inspired soundtrack reminding us of the paradise that the source material may be trying to subvert.
There’s the acting, especially from George Clooney, playing the protagonist, a Hawaiian-born and bred man named Matt King, over-narrating the story’s sociopolitical ‘undertones,’ but more on that later. In one of his voice-overs, he asks his wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie), in a coma after a boating accident, to ‘wake up,’ even if his deadpan delivery of those words inadvertently suggests that it doesn’t matter to him either way. The acting has strong points, especially when each character is reacting towards news that Elizabeth won’t recover and has to be take off life support. When Matt hears the news from a doctor, the former surprises us with glazed puppy dog eyes. Then his older, vulnerable, seventeen year old daughter Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) submerges her head in a leaf-littered backyard swimming pool. Then it’s someone else’s turn, Matt taking on the duties of breaking the news to her family and friends. I’m fully aware that my indifference towards these characters in a time of need makes me seem like I have a heart of stone but the fault is how the movie presents it. The repetition makes me focus on the ritualized state of mourning as opposed to the emotions within the said ritual. Either Payne or the source material doesn’t have a handle on how an event like this affects the story’s many characters, and not enough variation with the who and the how.
These road trips and rituals allow Matt to be around people who think differently on what Elizabeth, a woman with many friends, means to them. But at the same time, it’s as if these people carry the burden of Elizabeth’s loss without any of that emotion transferring to him. A stranger case is Alex’ boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), who stays within Matt’s posse because Alex demands that she’ll be more civil throughout the ordeal. Despite of what Sid says to aggravate Matt, the former stays a few days longer to conveniently redeem himself, telling Matt his approach to take life in stride despite its difficulties and defends the old man against an older man, Elizabeth’s father (Robert Forster). It’s as if Matt’s self-described ‘back-up parent’ disposition is an excuse to keep characters unnecessarily close to him.
Elizabeth’s accident also comes within bad timing, as Matt and his cousins, friendly with each other on the outside, decide on whether and whom to sell 25,000 acres of untouched property inherited from their ancestor, King Kamehameha. This part of the story interests me more, especially with how Matt distances himself from the decision, despite being the land’s trustee. One cousin thinks the transaction is ‘sharing the land with the world.’ Matt also talks condescendingly about the need to sell because of the poorer cousins, personified by Cousin Hugh, who is played by Beau Bridges, using a cheaper version of his brother Jeff’s ‘acting intoxicated’ playbook. He and his ‘pro-sell’ cousins treat this situation smugly because his generation can get rid of a land that seems useless to them. The only dissenting voices against the sale are some cousins who aren’t given lines – those cousins are from experience, the kind who will make a bigger fuss than the placid movie allows them – and Matt’s younger daughter Scottie (Amara Miller) who, when hearing an anecdote from Alex about camping in the property, tells her ‘I want to camp too!’ The movie’s ending awaits for his decision that isn’t really accounted for by his reactions to the voices around him. In both family matters, Matt doesn’t seem to learn anything or change, not because of an outright refusal but because the writing doesn’t give him an option to do so.
The are instances when the movie isn’t lukewarm, the first of which involves the supporting characters talking to Elizabeth. They’re having sincere conversations with someone who can’t talk back. She’s shown in close-ups, her face wan with liver spots, her mouth wide open, the image unavoidably disconcerting yet honest. Everyone says goodbye, including a nice stranger named Julie Speer (Judy Greer). Matt’s farewell is the most poetic yet surprisingly least sincere out of all of them. The other kinds of scenes show a more realistic, Islander’s perspective of Hawaii and its roads, skyscrapers and overpopulation. A last scene shows the family on a small boat, supposedly on a Arcadian ritual until the camera switches to Matt – even from afar they can’t escape the islands’ skyscrapers. Nature is lost and so is the family’s mother, but only if these images were captured by a director and a movie that cared more about them.