All posts by Brady Larsen

Top 20 Films of 2017: #11- Jackie

We hear the sound of Jackie before we ever see Jackie Kennedy. Before the famously forlorn First Lady’s face appears, the woozy opening notes of 2016’s best score envelop and disorient us. The buzzy, droning strings of Mica Levi’s menacingly pretty, beautifully tense composition sound out over a black screen before one sees a single frame of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s visually distinct film. I think this is an important decision. Jackie’s music may be the best possible representative for what a paradoxically familiar and discombobulating piece of work it is. And “discombobulating” is about as fine a compliment as I can come up with for a film in a genre that, year to year, can be trusted to produce its fair share of lazy, formulaic films: the biopic. Jackie is a great biographical film for its keen insights into history, the way legacies are authored by the people who lived them, and what the lens of fame can do to something as universally human as death and loss. But, before it is about any of those things, Jackie is really about the subversion of the very idea of a traditional biopic and that first anxious exhalation of its score is basically the sounding shot to let us know this will be the case. The DNA of a stirring prestige biography is buried somewhere inside of Jackie, just as the sentimental strings and dignified horns of a standard stuffy biopic’s score are also there, struggling to make themselves heard over the more alien sounds. But the traditional polish of prestige has been scrubbed off, like some unvarnished piece of silver, to reveal all the rust and tiny cracks and strange protrusions that would have been tastefully sanded off of a standard biopic. Those first eerie notes announce a historical film that will be uncommonly honest as a picture of genuine human beings. However, Jackie also resists the idea that any biography can be entirely free of fiction. Mica Levi’s sinister strings and droning horns are partly symbolic of a biopic with more authentic warts, but they also call to mind a dense, confusing fog. They set the tone for a film that looks piercingly and unflinchingly at Jackie Kennedy and the days surrounding the Kennedy assassination but that also shrugs off the idea that its own idiosyncrasy makes it any less manufactured and fictitious than any other cinematic biography. Minutes after witnessing her husband’s death, Jackie Kennedy takes a hard look at her teary, blood-smeared face in an Air Force One mirror and then blurs her own image away with a swipe of her hand. And this is more or less how Pablo Larrain seems to see history in general; as something forever shifting in and out of focus.

 

Jackie is the story of Jackie Kennedy in the week or so following the Kennedy assassination, but that story is set adrift in a dreamy haze of memories. The FIrst Lady is played as a dynamic, oscillating whirlwind of anguished vulnerability and self-aware poise by Natalie Portman. Jackie Kennedy is the best work of Natalie Portman’s career, and, if Jackie didn’t already give me so much to talk about, I could easily make this review entirely about her performance. While Jackie Kennedy tells her story to a reporter from Life magazine (Billy Crudup), we go back in time to the immediate aftermath of the Kennedy assassination and sometimes back to the more distant past, to when the First Lady would put on grand concerts in the White House ballroom or to when she gave a televised tour of the Presidential home that she had taken great pains to decorate with important historical pieces. The film presents Jackie as someone who believed in the value of great legacies and beautiful cultural artifacts, even as her husband dismissed it as a waste of money. The story at the center of Jackie‘s foggy reverie is Jackie Kennedy’s desire to give her husband the best state funeral that money can buy, both as a sign of love for him and as a means of ensuring that he is remembered by his country. On the night of the assassination, as she and Bobby Kennedy are being driven away from the hospital where John has just passed away, Jackie asks the driver what he knows of past Presidents. She asks if he remembers anything of James Garfield, William McKinley, and Abraham Lincoln. Even though all three were assassinated, Lincoln is the only one whose legacy he can really recall. Jackie recalls that Lincoln was mourned with perhaps the most elaborate, ornate funeral in American political history and she sets about to seeing that her husband is memorialized with just as grand a gesture.  The true essence of watching Jackie is less about its basic plot than it is about bathing in its intoxicatingly sorrowful ambience and listening to its heady, rhetorical digressions. Cursing the fact that his brother got to do very little with his time as President outside of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Bobby Kennedy (played very well by Peter Sarsgaard) says that “history is harsh”, and this is something that Jackie, for all her love of history, also sees. Pablo Larrain’s film is about Jackie Kennedy having her own private war with the fickle beast that is History. It is her fight to ensure that her family’s legacy does not become lost to time and she shrewdly sees the funeral as a crucial battleground.

 

If Mica Levi’s undulating uneasy musical blend of reverent grandeur and dizzy discord is a good representative of the film as a whole, Jackie’s other technical elements also do an excellent job of tapping into the film’s themes of history as something too slippery to be entirely pinned down. Stephane Fontaine’s cinematography is beautiful and grand and showy and it has its share of shots that would not look out of place in the kind predictably lavish prestige picture that is Jackie’s disreputable kin. But somehow, once again, something elusive and unnerving is at play inside the familiar form. I am struggling to put into words why a white monument, bathed in fog, on top of a hill behind John F. Kennedy’s final resting place at Arlington feels different; not just haunting but almost haunted. In any ordinary film, the shot would still have a kind of gorgeous solemnity, which is also partly the point here, but there is also a kind of restless, bristling energy to the way Jackie uses a shot like this. As Jackie makes her firm, final determination of where her husband should be buried, there is an undercurrent of anxiety. My most current, and not at all certain, take is that we may be feeling Jackie Kennedy’s own mixture of dread and awe at the very idea of people having final resting places; the notion that living, breathing human beings stop living and breathing and then become finished stories, on gravestones and in memories. In ways I cannot entirely explain, Jackie is one of the only biopics I can name that feels a bit like a ghost story. The acting also bears out this tension between real people and what remains of human beings when nothing remains but their legacy. All the characters feel like flesh and blood, and yet there is also something mysterious and unknowable to them and this adds to Jackie’s ghostly tone. Lyndon B. Johnson is seen as a prideful, domineering figure, already too wrapped up in tending to his own public image as President to pay much mind to the devastated widow of his predecessor. In real life, Lyndon B. Johnson was a man who had at least some better angels, but the film does not let us past his imperious surface, and in any other movie, this would be a tremendous failing. As a matter of fact, this kind of presentation of Lyndon B. Johnson was a failing in Ava Duvernay’s otherwise very good Martin Luther King biopic, Selma. But Jackie is a strange and special beast and Pablo Larrain is a skilled enough auteur to use a kind of intentional opaqueness to the benefit of his film. This cryptic inscrutability feels of a piece in Jackie, where it might ordinarily feel like a piece was missing. This is not thin characterization but characterization that toys with our expectations and critiques the very idea that we can entirely know who Lyndon B. Johnson or Bobby Kennedy or Jackie Kennedy really were. Jackie is awash in a kind of fog that wafts around its subjects and keeps us squinting to see them just a little bit clearer. Pablo Larrain wants us to finally know, in his movie and in every biopic to come, that this kind of clear understanding is a vain effort.

 

Still, the last thing Jackie wants to do is discourage our curiosity about history. Larrain simply wants his audience to know that grasping history requires us to know that our vision can never be perfect. Making sense of the past means we must create a kind of helpful fiction. As Billy Crudup’s journalist (based off of Life writer Theodore H. White but given no official name in the film’s credits) is sitting down to conduct his interview, he tells Jackie Kennedy that he is striving to get to the truth but that he would settle for a story that sounds convincing. Jackie wants us to take this same approach in our efforts to make sense of recorded events. Jackie believes very much in the value of history but it would likely argue that the word “non-fiction” is effectively meaningless. The film is a fascinating, rigorous take on the idea of how human beings shape history after it happens, and what makes that stance all the more sharp and cohesive is how Larrain presents all this as a seamless extension of Jackie Kennedy’s own soul. For as much as Jackie is about looking at important people, including Jackie herself, through a sheet of frosted glass, one facet of the former First Lady is made very clear: Jackie Kennedy loved history. She cherished it and valued it and she thought very hard about how she and her husband would be remembered by coming generations. And so the film’s notion that sculpting a historical legacy is something of an act in creative writing is what truly illuminates Jackie Kennedy, even as that same approach is what makes her somewhat unknowable. It presents Jackie Kennedy as both the perfect subject and the ideal lecturer on the principle that history is a kind of ever-fluctuating mirage.

 

The question that I come back to the most with Jackie is what all this talk about mythmaking and historical license has to do with grief. Because, while the film philosophizes and muses over the nature of history, it also happens to be a superb portrait of bereavement. Jackie is one of the truest films in recent memory about what grieving feels like, and this is where it’s also important to remember what a narrowly focused period piece it is. Jackie is not the full story of the early 1960s or the Kennedys or even the three short years between the time of President Kennedy’s inauguration and assassination. It is really the historical account of Jackie Kennedy’s grief. Leaving aside the later Life magazine interview that is just there to act as a framing device, Jackie is focused on the short period of about a week in which Jackie had to deal with her husband’s death, move herself and her young children out of the White House, and tend to her husband’s funeral arrangements. It is really the story of how Jackie Kennedy went about throwing one of the most opulent and iconic state funerals in modern history and how she maneuvered around the many people who tried to silence her, from in-laws who wanted their slain brother buried on a private family plot to political handlers who didn’t want to run the risk of parading American leaders through the streets in the weeks after an assassination. It is the story of Jackie Kennedy’s long week of the soul. So I will pose the question that lingers with me every time I watch the film: what do grief and history have to do with each other? And I think the answer may be, “Not much. Usually.” That is to say, not much unless you are the widow of the most powerful, famous man in the world. And if you are, then, for one thing, your grief might belong to history whether you would wish it to or not. And what makes Jackie Kennedy the most electrifying, enigmatic character in Natalie Portman’s career is how it suggests the paradox of a woman trying to deal privately with her own sorrow while also realizing that grieving publicly may be the very best strategic card she has to play. In the throes of intense suffering, Jackie Kennedy came to understand that thrusting her grief even further into the national spotlight would do a world of good: for her husband’s legacy, for a shell-shocked American populace, and finally for herself. Pablo Larrain argues that a former First Lady who many saw as demure and airy showed a rather brilliant understanding of the optics of her own tragedy. A great many people wanted to close that ugly chapter before the ink was dry, thinking that it would be best for the nation to just move on. Instead, Jackie Kennedy wrested that chapter from the hands of powerful men, picked up a quill, and scrawled her name there in bold block letters. And in the end, it’s not just that our most iconic First Lady made a cagey move to cement her and her husband’s legacy. It’s that leaning into that grief rather than suppressing it turned out to be just what a frightened country needed to assuage its own anguish. And that, to the best of my understanding, is what grief and history have to do with each other.

 

I have sometimes heard Jackie described as a “cold” film and I can understand why in a way. It follows a traumatized widow in the aftermath of a terrible killing and watches her pain with an unsparing curiosity. It is also filled with soliloquies that would feel right at home in a collection of historical essays. It is a film with the academic rigor of a philosophy lecture and the deathly hush of a mausoleum, and I can absolutely accept that it is a cold film if you mean its mood makes you want to hug a loved one or at least put on a sweater. But I object to the idea that Jackie is, in any way, a detached or clinical film. Whatever one thinks of Pablo Larrain’s spectral, unorthodox period piece, I think they would be hard-pressed to deny that Jackie is a potent emotional experience. It is a film where history itself is less about a strict set of facts than the sheer feeling of a moment in history. What it felt like for America and what it must have felt like for Jackie Kennedy. If I asked someone what it was like to live through those weeks, I would expect that the overall mood of sadness and shock is what would stand out most in their memory. Grief and loss are like that, whether one is burying a parent or a President. As it’s happening, I imagine you do your best to fumble your way through the fog. Then, years later, when someone asks you what it was like, you sit down and do your best to write a story that feels true.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #12- 20th Century Women

When I review films, I often give my highest praise to the ones that leave me with a lot to unpack both on an ideological and a visual level. And that’s just because, as my favorite special child of all the art forms (please don’t tell Music), I have seen its incredible potential. Film has the power to convey just about any idea, concept, principle, theme and theory a human brain can conceive of, and lord know that Mike Mills’  effervescently literate coming-of-age dramedy 20th Century Women has plenty of heady ideas to share; its own ideas and the ideas of various feminist scholars, ex-Presidents and Henry Rollins-led hardcore bands. But all the same, 20th Century Women is as fine an opportunity as any to remind myself that a great film can be about more than just how stimulating its insights are. When I think about what Mike Mills (taking the lovely humanism of Beginners and losing most of what made that fine film at times pretentious) has accomplished here, it’s not just the breathlessly smart dialogue about feminism, punk music, and the end of the 1970s that lands it on my list. In fact far from “just” that quality, I might be so bold as to say it is not that at all that makes it a proud entry in my top twenty films. After I chew over the film’s terrific ideas, the aftertaste that really stays with me is a more simple, emotional sense. It is the feeling Roger Ebert spoke of when, having walked out of Almost Famous, he felt a desire to hug himself. After walking out of 20th Century Women, I had not only a desire to hug myself, but a wish to walk back in the theater, somehow find those characters still standing in there among the discarded popcorn boxes, and hug each and every one of them. True, 20th Century Women probably could have landed on my list just on the strength of its verbiage, but it is even more essential that those wonderful words come out of the minds and mouths of funny, lovably fallible, and impeccably acted characters. More than any other film outside of my top ten, 20th Century Women is probably the best representative of that often deceptively modest brand of film that I have always unabashedly loved: the character study. Because for as much as I love scripts full of eloquence and poetry and philosophy, there really is no substitute for the heady magic of having “met” characters you love for the first time and feeling a full heart at the thought of returning to them again. For example, I adore the serenely beautiful language of a film like Before Sunset, but the real reason I return to that enchanting world again and again and again is that Celine and Jesse live there. It is the same way with 20th Century Women. The warm, witty, and yearning dialogue certainly helps to make the world of the film as intoxicating as it is, but that place would feel empty without such likable, lively, and unmistakably human characters making their home inside of it.

 

The home in question can be found near the beaches of sunny Santa Barbara in the year 1979. Before we learn anything else, we learn that 20th Century Women is, in essence, a period piece. Better yet, it is that exquisitely subtle kind of period piece that makes you feel like you are in the time period without making a showy fuss about it. Its understated feel for a specific decade puts it in proud company with the graceful evocations of the 1960s and 1980s in films like Inside Llewyn Davis and We Are the Best!, and, like those two films, the music of its temporal setting plays a major role in setting the scene. Most of the film’s scenes take place in a two-story house where a free-spirited but pragmatic single mother named Dorothea (brilliantly played by Annette Bening) is attempting to raise her fifteen year-old son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann, in one of the most confidently relaxed newcomer performances I have seen in some time). The house is also home to two other tenants. One is an earthy, yoga-practicing handyman played by Billy Crudup. A gentle soul, he is the kind of person who is often full of shit, but always agreeably so. It comes as no surprise when we learn he likes to spend his free time sculpting his own clay bowls. The other tenant is Abbie, a woman in her late twenties who is recovering from cervical cancer and who finds solace in Talking Heads records and taking photographs for art installations. The unofficial third tenant is Julie, a moody, sardonic seventeen year-old, who frequently scales the scaffold up to Jamie’s bedroom, so the two can spend the night conversing and chastely cuddling. The film is very much about meeting and existing alongside these very three-dimensional people, but the film does have a central plot that gives it just enough momentum. One day Jamie, at the urging of his skater friends, performs a stunt that momentarily cuts off one’s breathing, and ends up in the hospital. Mortified at her son’s recklessness, Dorothea suddenly begins to worry that her guidance may alone may not be enough to usher Jamie into a reasonably well-adjusted adulthood. She decides to calls on Abbie and Julie to spend extra time with him and tells them to share with him all the wisdom their tender years have given them. And, while much happens from there, that is really the crux of what you need to know about the film as you sit down to view it. Once upon a time in the 1970s, in Santa Barbara, there was a house full of smart, fallible, good-natured people who cared about each other a lot, and who all did what they could to help the youngest of them come of age with as much grace and unconditional love as possible. Much interesting conflict spills forth from there, but that sense of decency and compassion is always the film’s true north, and it ensures that kindness and good humor infuse even the saddest of its passages.

 

20th Century Women is the kind of film that revels in the simple, heartfelt joy of creating a rich, nuanced community of people, which it observes with palpable affection and occasional bemused concern. Its approach is simple, but there is an ocean of depth to that simplicity. As soon as I watched Dorothea tell the other characters what she needed from them in that kitchen, a smile spread across my face. Something about that simple declaration of purpose, both for the characters and for the film, made me realize right then and there that I was in very good hands. I knew I would love the film because I knew that characters who already felt impossibly rich and true not even a quarter of the way into it were going to spend the next ninety minutes or so just speaking with one another and interacting and relating to each other and revealing new layers of themselves. The film had spent its opening introducing me to a small, perfectly realized community and it now declared in a soft, warm, and assured tone that it was going to spend the rest of that time deepening those relationships even further. And I knew that, by the end, I would feel like I was now a part of that tiny world. It is the quiet genius of Mills’ approach that, just as Dorothea wants Jamie to listen to the women around him, the film in turn wants us to stand with Jamie as surrogates and to listen to their stories. Because, let me be absolutely clear, 20th Century Women holds a bright, beautiful torch for the axiom that women are people and that society becomes healthier when it pays attention to them. Dorothea knows that it will do Jamie a world of good to listen to, and converse with, the women in his life, and Mills implies that it is good for the whole lot of us. 20th Century Women, on its face, is a story about how it takes a village to raise a child, but it gently subverts that trope by paying even more attention the village than to the child and by having three women (and the occasional encouragement of a hilariously tranquil Billy Crudup) assume the role of the village.

 

In fairness, Jamie is actually a wonderful, interesting character in his own right and the film is more interesting for not making him a total cipher, if only because it enriches the female characters to watch someone genuinely responding to them and processing the knowledge they have to give. Still, Mike Mills wisely makes sure that Jamie, his autobiographical avatar, is only the fourth most important character in the film. Because, if it isn’t clear from the title, Mike Mills’ autobiography is not really the story of Mills at all, but his attempt to give something back to the women who raised him. 20th Century Women is a film about women existing at a time of great change, for the country about to elect Ronald Reagan and for a society of women fighting to have their voices heard, respected, and valued. And here I have to give credit to Mike Mills for knowing what he needed to do to make this kind of film: let the women take center stage. A middle-aged white man making a film about how much he learned from the women in his life could have ended up feeling patronizing or at the very least piously self-congratulatory, but Mills does right by his female protagonists by making sure 20th Century Women is a story driven by the personalities and souls of its female characters. To go back to what I spoke of before, placing character development above ideas doesn’t just happen to work for the film. It turns out to be the exact right way to tell the story because the story’s entire purpose is to listen to women. And that simple act of just letting them be heard is more important than whatever they happen to be speaking of in any given scene, whether its feminist politics, sex, or the difference between Talking Heads and Black Flag. 20th Century Women is a vibrant, aching, and clever salute to some women in 1970s Santa Barbara, and it salutes the complexity and compassion of women around the world by extension. Mike Mills conjures up a beautiful symphony of female voices and he avoids reducing the struggle of being a woman to some simplistic moral. In a sly, observant take on Mills’ own role in this story, he has his younger self read a feminist text to his mother, explaining how society marginalizes older women. Dorothea thinks for a moment and then reminds him that no amount of essays will ever make him fully understand her. The lesson Jamie learns is that every woman has her own unique story and that the key to empathy lies in listening to each new woman you meet as if you have never heard it. Because, of course, you haven’t.

 

But, to reiterate, the genius of 20th Century Women is really just that it leads by example. Dorothea decides that the best medicine for making sure her son grows into a good person is to just be around her and Abbie and Julie and Mike Mills prescribes us the very same tonic. He sits us down to listen to these beautifully shaded characters and in so doing he entrusts the film to its real authors: three phenomenal actresses, each from a different generation and each giving what could be the best work of their respective careers. Elle Fanning is not yet nineteen years old as of this writing and the character of Julie finds her in control of a sharp sense of comic timing that goes hand in hand with her ability to convey dramatic pathos. 20th Century Women is the kind of film where you might find yourself smiling just for a second in the middle of a sad scene and Fanning has an uncanny knack for playing multiple emotions at once. Julie is, in many ways, the film’s toughest role because it requires Fanning to dance around the cliche of the troubled, rebellious, sexually liberated teenager while never tumbling headlong into it. Fanning’s face holds notes of apathy and desperation to somehow pierce beyond her own bored ennui. Her character belongs to a long line of promiscuous iconoclasts, but she also displays a bemused self-awareness. She realizes that she has become something of a dissatisfied youth stereotype, at least to an outsider’s eye, but she is young and her experiments with men and booze and pot are the best idea she has for how to process her pain and confusion. The daughter of a therapist, she has the tools to scrutinize her own decisions relentlessly, but they are still the decisions she most wants to make at this time in her life. Greta Gerwig is an utter revelation as Abbie, a twenty-something visual artist recovering trying to come to terms with her brush with disease and the fact that she may never be able to have children of her own. Gerwig is one of my absolute favorite of modern actresses, and she has been brilliant in film like Frances Ha and Mistress America. Still those films, both from director Noah Baumbach, played on Gerwig’s talent for taking oblivious immaturity to its most graceful and nuanced point. Abbie feels distinctly different from past Gerwig performances. She is complex but also more straightforward in some ways. Abbie is in an emotional freefall, but she is also someone with a better sense of who she is and what she wants. There is no veil of irony or archness to shield Abbie as she nakedly processes how cruelly life can disrupt our best laid plans. Gerwig gets to play the film’s most devastating scenes and its funniest scenes as well (as when she coaches an entire dinner table on how to say “menstruation” without flinching), and she approaches every scene in the film with a sense of unguarded sincerity. Finally, there is Annette Bening’s Dorothea, which I am increasingly coming to think is the best work of her long, wonderful career. Mike Mills may have made his film for all women but it holds a special place in its heart for mothers. If 20th Century Women is a film about the complexities of womankind, then Dorothea is clearly its proper protagonist. She compels Jamie to continually question the mores of the world he will soon join, but she also wrestles with her own biases and the fact that it just gets harder to keep an open mind about every little thing as we age. She insists on accompanying Abbie to a punk club to see the musicians her son idolizes but she turns in early, knowing she will never be able to relate to the angry, inarticulate noise on stage. She reminds Jamie to stay aware of how his identity as a man gives him preferential treatment in an unjust system, but she is also leery about the more radical feminist ideas in the books that Abbie gives Jamie to read. 20th Century Women is a film about the ways in which the experience of being a woman had evolved by 1979, and Bening’s thoughtful, warm, prickly, quick-witted, intermittently exasperated, and ever self-probing Dorothea is the character who is most aware of just how much had changed by that time. Dorothea is a woman who is proud of her years of experience but also knows better than anyone the value of not letting one’s assumptions go unchecked. Watching the dance between her keen intelligence and her lovely humility was one of the most genuinely funny and emotionally nourishing experiences I had all year.

 

20th Century Women is a great feminist film because I takes the lesson that women are people and then applies the show-not-tell principle. Women are people, and here are three fantastic women speaking witty, soulful dialogue, and portrayed by three of the best actresses from three different generations. Mike Mills thanks the women in his life for everything they did for him, but his final gift is to actually treat the film like a gift and not make it about himself. 20th Century Women is about this lovely, urbane group of women and how entertainingly enriching it is to spend two hours getting to know them. At the film’s end, Mike Mills admits that fully capturing the tangle of emotions, ideas and desires that made up his mother would be an impossible feat. Women are people and a person is too wild a thing to be summed up and neatly defined. It is no secret that Hollywood still needs to do a much better job of telling women’s stories and the reason for that is not simply that we would all be better for hearing them, though I do believe that we would be. We need more films about women because it’s just the right thing to do. It’s the right thing to do because film is an invaluable tool for helping us connect to humanity and women comprise more than half of what humanity literally means. I adored this film because I met a house full of great, great characters. They were smart, soul-searching, passionate and funny and, as with any great character study, I am excited to visit these people again in the years to come. They feel like real people to me now. And it means a lot that these real people are women.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #13- Kubo and the Two Strings

Kubo and the Two Strings is a children’s film that knows we never stop being children. This is especially true when we are at the feet of a great storyteller. It doesn’t matter how old you are. If you are there listening to the tale, you must turn off the chatter in your head in your soul, inch closer to the fire, and pay very close attention. In the first words of 2016’s best animated film, the young Kubo urgently instructs the viewer, “If you must blink, do it now.” For if we let our attention flag for even a second, the hero of this adventure “will surely perish.” Kubo says from the very beginning that the reader, the listener, the viewer are a part of the storytelling process, and the act of listening to the story and and learning from it is a central part of what narrative is all about. Kubo may be a modern animated film, but it shrewdly takes the form of a kind of ancient fable, as if its thrills, twists, and mythic battles had been the stuff of folklore for generations. It acts as if its wisdom had already been passed down through centuries of oral tradition, and in a sense that is true. It is true because, fundamentally, Kubo’s moral is that it is vital, and has always been vital, for human beings to tell each other stories. The art of storytelling has been one of the cornerstones of human development for thousands of years. Stories about how past generations hunted or farmed or built shelters helped us expand the reach of civilization. Familial histories gave children a sense of those who had come before them. And, as our minds expanded, we used stories to help theorize what might lay beyond our sight. Beyond the sky and beyond the barrier of death. Kubo and the Two Strings is the year’s most beautiful animated film and also one of the best about how human beings tell stories to make sense of an inscrutable world. It is the story of a nine-year old boy who tells stories for a living and how those stories help him cope with loss and mortality.

 

Kubo is another fine work from the very talented animators at Laika studios. Their films consistently show an affinity for children grappling with mortality, fear of the unknown, and the border between childhood and adulthood. We first meet Kubo as an infant in the film’s breathtaking opening. His mother is desperately trying to shepherd her son to safety across an angry sea in a small wooden boat. Hundred-foot waves threaten to dash their craft to pieces, but she is able to dispel them with notes from a magical stringed instrument. They make it to the shores, but not before the storm throws the boat onto the rocks and causes Kubo’s mother to suffer a debilitating head wound, which robs her of much of her memory. The two are running from Kubo’s aunts and his grandfather, the Moon King, who rules the Heavens. Kubo’s mother was once a deity, but gave up immortality for the love of Kubo’s father, a mortal samurai who was slain by the vindictive Moon King. Kubo never met his father. We also learn that the Moon King managed to steal one of Kubo’s eyes. He is now a nine-year old boy living  in a mountain cave above an ancient Japanese fishing village. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson, who subtly plays him as an intelligent, observant boy, while still retaining the innocence and inexperience of youth) begins each morning by feeding his disabled mother, who can no longer take care of herself or speak during the day. He spends his days down in the marketplace telling stories to the villagers. As a result of being half-deity, Kubo can puppeteer elaborate origami figures by strumming his magical, titular, two-stringed instrument. He returns home every day before sundown to greet his mother, who regains some of her faculties at night. She still has difficulty, however, remembering all the details of her past and she can only give Kubo a vague impression of the father he never knew. The most important story she tells him is of his grandfather and wicked aunts, who are always hunting for them in the hopes of stealing Kubo’s other eye. She tells him that he must never stay out past sundown, when the moon will be in the sky. She also reminds him to keep two possessions with him at all times: a small wooden charm in the shape of a monkey and his father’s old robe, which has the shape of a beetle on the back.

 

One day, Kubo wakes up to find that the village is celebrating its annual festival to honor the dead. The villagers make lanterns that they believe allow them to talk to the souls of their departed loved ones. Kubo is so moved by a desire to speak to his father that he stays later than normal to make a lantern and ends up out past sundown. As a result, Kubo’s malevolent aunts find him and almost catch him. He is only able to escape through his mother’s intervention, but she ends up giving her life and soul to buy him time. She conjures a pair of wings on his back, which fly him to a faraway part of the country. Kubo wakes up in a snowy wasteland with a full-sized monkey looking over him. Monkey (voiced with a beautiful blend of toughness and sensitivity by Charlize Theron, who also voices Kubo’s mother) is Kubo’s wooden charm come to life, and she tells him that his mother poured the last of her magical life force into her so that she may protect him. Monkey informs Kubo that he must find three sacred objects that made up his father’s armor, in order to have a chance of defeating his grandfather and aunts. They are also joined by Kubo’s tiny origami samurai, who comes to life with compass-like powers, and later by a samurai who is half-man and half-beetle. The samurai, who simply goes by Beetle, can remember nothing, but feels sure that he was once a warrior loyal to Kubo’s father. Kubo has much in common with a great many stories of unlikely allies questing to find sacred relics, but it exudes a sweetness and a sad acceptance of death that very few such quest tales have. It is the story of how stories of our loved ones help us survive, make us who we are, and connect us to our past. In searching for these objects that belong to his father, Kubo also comes to learn about his family and finds that people leave traces of themselves in the narratives and possessions they leave behind.

 

One of the most refreshing and lovely qualities of Kubo and the Two Strings is that it speaks to children in a soft but firm tone about the idea of death and loss. Even if this were not one of the most gorgeously visualized animated films of recent years, it would still be fit to stand with films like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo because of how directly it looks at the grief of not knowing if you will see a loved one again. Like those other great animated films, Kubo is soothing and sympathetic but also bruisingly honest. Kubo can take solace in the fact that his mother’s magic rests in Monkey and he can find a strong, compassionate male figure in Beetle, but the film also knows that having the essence of a lost parent is different from really having your mother and father in front of you. The stories of those we lose are a salve for our pain and they help us feel a spiritual bond to them, but stories do not erase the notion of loss and death. What they can do is write our love for one another in great, bold letters. This is why Kubo is willing to risk his own life to go to the festival in the first place. Even if it is only a ritual, that yearning, soul-filling act of telling a story to a departed loved one is powerful and worthwhile. For Kubo, telling a story to the father he lost is an act of love more powerful than death. This is one of Kubo’s most important overarching themes and its final thoughts on the matter of death and storytelling lead to one of the most ecstatically poignant, heartbreakingly true endings in any film this year. And it makes abundant sense that a film so sweetly honest about dying should have one of the year’s most powerful endings. Because Kubo and the Two Strings is a film all about the inevitability of endings. It is about the hurt of knowing we must all say goodbye and the solace we can find in telling someone’s story all over again once they are gone.

 

Kubo is simply one of the most emotionally healthy films about bereavement I have ever seen. And, even more than classics like Bambi, The Lion King, and Finding Nemo, the film is intently focused on the hardship and the unexpected beauty that comes from grieving for another person. Grieving were huge parts of those other films, but they are the focus of Kubo and I find it invaluable and refreshing to have a film that takes on that issue. For children and for everyone else too. It does not peddle in easy answers and it does not presume to know what lies beyond death. For all the film’s use of magic and all its mythical lore, the final question of what comes after our last breath remains hidden away. Kubo has no problem including a magical instrument that can puppeteer origami figures, a child who is half-god, a powerful lunar deity, a wooden charm come to life, a giant beetle with a samurai’s soul, and numerous fantastical monsters to battle. This is all in the game of storytelling. But Kubo and the Two Strings refuses to disrespect the children, of all ages, listening earnestly at its feet, by telling them it knows what happens when this life is over. What it will do is hug you tightly and tell you to find comfort in the memories of love once shared. Along with storytelling, memory is the tonic Kubo prescribes to help us process mortality and the unknown. The point of each magical object, be it a mother’s charm or a father’s robe, is not to suggest a world where magic can “cure” mortality, but one where treasured objects can offer a balm for our cuts. Inside Kubo’s scintillating modern technology is an old fable that tells us we can find comfort in any old relic; anything that stokes our memories of each other and of the love we shared. Monkey, herself an old memento, makes Kubo a bracelet out of his mother’s hair and tells him to keep it with him. It is a memory, she tells him, “and memories are powerful things.

 

What makes Kubo the most splendid animated offering of 2016 is not just its beautiful, hauntingly human story, but the fact that Laika Studios do what is perhaps their best work to date in order to bring it all to life. At the very least, Kubo and the Two Strings stands with the studio’s 2008 masterwork, Coraline, in the way it conceives a striking, surreal world of magic and places a smart, inquisitive child in the midst of it. And as with Coraline, this world is not just visually astounding but totally of a piece with the story the film is trying to tell. I regard Henry Selick as the master of stop motion and I have no interest in saying that Kubo “beats” the visuals of Selick beauties like Coraline and The Nightmare Before Christmas. However, I will say this: this is the most seamlessly beautiful stop motion I have ever seen. The film has a sumptuous array of textures from the delicately sharp creases of Kubo’s origami figures to the pale porcelain of the gaunt masks Kubo’s aunts wear to the glassy serenity of the lakes and rivers. Monkey’s fur is made entirely out of tiny strips of white paper that rustle in the wind. I understand that some of Kubo‘s visual splendor was achieved through robotics, 3D printing and a bit of CGI, but I frankly do not care. I have zero interest in being a purist about this. Kubo and the Two Strings is too ravishing and too luminous a work of stop motion animation to be dismissed. If a stop motion film can look like this, it shows that the medium is still growing and evolving, and that is everything a lover of this increasingly niche form of animation could want to hear. Kubo is meant to feel like a fable from ancient Japan and that requires a mixture of both realistic natural landscapes and the ghostly, glowing textures of skeleton monsters and moon gods. Like a bedtime story or one of Miyazaki’s films, Kubo needed to feel like it was set in a recognizable (albeit ancient) human world that also shared a permeable border with the realm of spirits and magic. It succeeds beyond its wildest imagination in nailing that subtle blend of tones. It conjures a world that is alternatingly shimmering and spooky.

 

Kubo and the Two Strings is finally a story about how stories make us human and it radiates a palpable love for humanity. After all, it is the tale of a goddess who abandoned heavenly perfection for the beautiful, aching mess of humanity. When the Moon King urges his grandson to finally join his celestial kingdom and leave the imperfect mortal realm behind, he tells him that he will be “beyond stories”. Whatever we think of the afterlife or God (or the gods), there is something bittersweet in the idea that we would ever lose the need for narrative. Kubo says there is something perfect and complete just in the brief, sometimes painful lives we share together here on Earth. Maybe death really will bring us to a place where we understand everything and where we no longer need to cobble together these fragile scraps of fiction and lore to make sense of it all. But for myself, and any person still living, that state of confusion is the very essence of what it is to be human. Film, art, music, and writing are all the result of our feeble attempts to explain something to one another or to ourselves, and I cannot imagine wanting to be beyond any of them. Human beings render such brilliant gold out of the flax of their fears and doubts that I have to think it would at least give the beauty of the hereafter a run for its money. Then again, we are bewildered mounds of flesh, so maybe the most beautiful of our literature is nothing more than a cardboard nursery book in Heaven’s waiting room. Still, from the time I’ve been here those stories have meant the world to me. Whatever grand cosmic plan waits for me when I die, I pray I never forget that my first redemption came from the words of fellow human beings, living and deceased. They were my friends. They were my teachers. They were Seuss and Alcott and Eliot. Kubrick and Spielberg and Linklater. They were my mother and my father. They saw I was afraid and could not sleep. And they told me a story.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #14- Lemonade

I often ask myself how possible it is to separate the personal from the political in art. When I was writing my Communications Studies thesis in college, we read about a theory known as “walking with the subject”. The idea was that, when interviewing people as part of a study, it was impossible for me as the writer to entirely get around the fact that I was there in the room. My very presence and the little quirks of my personality and the way I asked questions would necessarily influence how a subject responded to me. It would influence the kind of answers I got and my biases would eventually become a part of how I interpreted those answers. Walking with the subject meant that, when I wrote about my findings and my interviews, I would acknowledge my own presence and how it impacted the study. Since it was impossible to conduct a study without being personally present, the most objective thing to do was to just make the study an account of my interaction with the subject. Like Charlie Kaufman, the writer becomes a part of his own script. Lately, I have similar feelings about film criticism. I try to be as objective as I can about my thoughts on a film, but any judgment of a film is going to have a lot to do with who I am as a person. Films don’t exist in a vaccuum. Films communicate. They make judgments about ideas and concepts in the world. To like a film or dislike a film is to necessarily throw some of your own values into the stew, because how can you not? For example, I love The Godfather. I don’t just love it because it’s lushly filmed or has a great Nino Rota score. I love it because I think it says beautiful, complicated things about the nature of upward mobility in our country and because I agree with its viewpoint on them. It is impossible for me to properly review The Godfather without revealing that. By the same token, if you don’t agree with its complex ideas about financial success or find its parallels between organized crime and the larger American bootstrap mythos interesting, then it would make abundant sense for you not to like that film. We cannot remove ourselves from the films we love and choosing to love a film means making larger value judgments. And this is all a long way of saying that I think Beyonce Knowles’ Lemonade, the 65-minute film set to her album of the same name, is an absolutely brilliant work of art because I value its insights on racial inequality and because I believe that modern America still visits egregious injustices on people of color. Lemonade is a film that is both personal and political, as it expands from the smaller story of confronting an unfaithful husband to take on the larger spectre of American racism. And what one thinks of it will inevitably be a reflection of how they feel about the state of race relations in this country.

Now, to be clear, much of Lemonade’s plot is about very personal relationship struggles that resonate outside the realm of social issues. While discussions of racial inequity can be polarizing, depending on the person, I imagine there would be decidedly less controversy around the notion that infidelity can be hurtful. On its face, Lemonade is the story of grappling with, and eventually forgiving, an act of emotional betrayal. Lemonade is the story of R&B diva extraordinaire Beyonce Knowles finding out that she has been cheated on by her husband, Shawn Carter, better known as the great and influential rapper Jay-Z. As a disclaimer, I understand that there was never any confirmed account of Jay-Z cheating, and it’s obviously the Carter family’s prerogative to keep that information close to the chest if he did. Whatever happened between Beyonce and her husband, or whether anything happened at all, Beyonce has managed to create one of the rawest portraits of post-affair grief in either of the two artistic forms it occupies. Lemonade is about processing one’s turbulent emotions, and it cycles through an absolutely dizzying array of them. It is, by turns, raw, funny, blistering, devastated, catatonic, unhinged, uninhibited, and eventually generous. By the end, it becomes one of the most generous films of this or any year and it’s all backed by one of the year’s true landmark albums. The film is shot as a collection of individual music videos but knitted together with snippets of poetry (by the poet Warsan Shire, a Somali woman born in London). The film also dreamily cuts back and forth between scenes to come and scenes that have already taken place. As a lover of both hip-hop and the films of Terence Malick, I found Lemonade a joy to watch each of the three times I sat down with it. The film is broken into eleven chapters and one epilogue after the credits roll. The chapters have names with different emotional states, which recall the five stages of grief. With a diva as extravagant and ferociously flamboyant as Beyonce, it makes abundant sense that her grief cycle would go to eleven. The story is Beyonce’s cathartic journey from denial into anger, through apathy and emptiness, and eventually to a place where she can confront her unfaithful husband about his actions, forgive him, rebuild their relationship, and continue together into the future. The magic of this odyssey is in the extraordinary splendor of the film’s emotional palette. It’s not just how much feeling Lemonade has, but how intelligently Beyonce takes her normal persona of an unflappably confident and empowered woman and sends it into Hades and back out again. Lemonade has the effect of deepening Beyonce’s past work, of making us see her with new eyes. What once may have played simply, if entertainingly, as diva swagger now takes on a new meaning. That swagger is her shield as she traverses the battlefield. After years of cutting down weak foes, in the form of insensitive lotharios and jealous female competitors, Beyonce finally finds a worthy adversary. Not in an unfaithful Jay-Z, but in her own conflicted feelings of self-worth.

 

I have thus far described the skeleton of the plot, but the real beauty and thrill of Lemonade is in seeing these twelve unspeakably dynamic music videos. If it were nothing else, Lemonade would be twelve of the very best music videos ever made. Each one of them would more than merit a Kanye West interruption. In one of the first videos, for the song “Hold Up”, Beyonce boldly breaks free of her own denial, pushing open the great doors of a city hall and striding into the daylight with a torrent of water rushing around her feet. Clad in a bright yellow dress and carrying a baseball bat, she swings with uncontrollable glee at car windows, fire hydrants, closed circuit security cameras, and, in a great humorous touch, a piñata. Those images of Beyonce, resplendent in her mustard-colored gown, delightedly dispensing destruction and laying waste to all the bullshit behind her are iconic by now. But, in truth, almost every frame of Lemonade felt iconic the moment I laid eyes on it. This is true of the images, and is also true of its biting, brokenhearted wit. If there is any doubt about how influential Lemonade already is, I recently saw “Call Becky with the good hair” emblazoned across a Finding Dory t-shirt. The video for “Don’t Hurt Yourself” contains the famous album cover shot of Beyonce, head down and wrapped in a thick fur coat, leaning against her luxury car and just seconds away from completely giving herself over to rage. When she starts singing, her voice sounds like gravel and gasoline and she stalks the retreating camera like a vindictive hyena. If anything this year sounded more like great, pissed off rock and roll than “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, I will be kindly surprised. At the end of it, she flings her wedding ring at the camera and the film adds another iconic image to its growing list of them. The great shots within these sixty-five minutes are too numerous to fully recount, and they are all striking and symbolic and loaded with emotion. Beyonce burns a bedroom and the fire spreads to the whole house. She dances on the hood of a prison bus with an upraised middle finger. She dances around in the old tunnel of a ruined Louisiana fort while a silhouette resembling her estranged father plays steel guitar. Lemonade works because Beyonce Knowles is an artist who understands the sneaky poetry of the meme. Like Bob Dylan, she knows there are lot of good ways to hurt a mean lover, but most of the best ones tend to just be a short, tossed off sentence. “You try this shit again, you gon’ lose your wife,” she whoops with a deranged sense of liberation.

 

Lemonade breathes fire for about half of its running time, but it eventually finds a gentler spirit and emerges as one of the most poignant, overpowering films about forgiveness ever made. And, I would argue these later moments are so unbelievably moving precisely because we have been to the absolute depths of despair first. In the later scenes, Lemonade is still wise and frank about relationships and the havoc adultery can cause, but Beyonce has conquered the hurt and the film no longer howls as wildly. She wants her wayward man to think constructively about why he would betray the love of his life and his love for himself. In an angrier moment she yelps, “When you play me, you play yourself!” But now that the red smoke has cleared, the wisdom of that statement still stands. For all the startling, aggressive power of Lemonade’s early scenes, the second half is just as vivid for its vulnerable beauty. As Beyonce imagines forgiveness as a kind of baptism, she and a line of black women in white robes wade out into the middle of a large bayou with an enormous sky above them. Standing in the light of dusk, they face the horizon and raise their hands above their heads. The next video begins and, suddenly, Jay-Z is there in front of us. He doesn’t appear all at once, but gradually. As Beyonce sits in her home, playing her keyboard and plaintively singing about promises, we see a man’s wristwatch sitting on a table. Then we see a hand with a wedding ring upon it reaching across a pillow. Then the top of the man’s head appears. Finally, his entire upper body can be seen in silhouette. This segment is beautifully directed, and it gets forgiveness just right. After such a tremendous breaking of trust, forgiveness can only happen as a painstaking process. You can come to see the other person as who they were again, but surely it is not easy or swift. If you are lucky, they return to you in pieces and parts, until one day they stand whole before you. The slow emergence of the sinner into the story of the betrayed, or more specifically her decision to include him, makes Lemonade a tremendously rewarding story of choosing to forgive. “So we’re going to heal,” Beyonce says softly. She walks above the old ruins and tunnels that once surrounded and swallowed her, and the joyful, reggae-tinted strains of “All Night” play. This bouncy song is about looking forward to kissing and holding the person you love after learning to let them back in your heart. And here I will confess that I teared up. R&B history has no shortage of songs about wanting to kiss and hug and make love to someone. Some are good, some are bad, some are “Too Close”. But none have ever moved me the way this one did. The context of the hard road that had come before made it overwhelming. Beyonce was basking in the simple joy of recapturing a love that had been in jeopardy. She had turned a medium-paced funk jam about make-up sex into blissful, euphoric poetry, and I could not help but weep with joy about it.

 

And, when I put it all that way, Lemonade really is the kind of personal story that just about anyone can relate to. It is obviously particularly relatable to anyone who has been cheated on or cheated on someone, or to anyone who has been through the sometimes painful process of learning to grow or change with a romantic partner. And even if none of that applies to you, chances are still good that you have had a hard experience with forgiving another person. So, with all that being so, does one need to believe in the existence of racial injustice to be moved by Lemonade? No, I suppose not. Still, that perspective is crucial to understanding where Lemonade is really coming from and for feeling the full weight of its mighty catharsis. The struggles of being a black person, and a black woman in particular, is a vital part of the film’s iconography, from its decision to set itself entirely in New Orleans to the aforementioned line about Becky and her good hair, which references both the difficulty black people experience in finding barbers who can handle their hair consistency and the troubling idea of black men dating white women as a sign of upward mobility. How many people reading remember that O.J. Simpson left his black wife to marry Nicole Brown Simpson? Before laying into Jay-Z on “Don’t Hurt Yourself”, Beyonce pauses to insert a montage of black female faces, underscored by Malcolm X’s famous remark that the black woman is the most disrespected person in America. Many of the film’s scenes play out at an old plantation house with black women wearing Antebellum-era white dresses. And, as Beyonce starts to forgive Jay-Z, she starts looking at him in the context of his own black identity. A series of mothers hold up pictures of sons who were lost to police brutality, and an actress holds up a photo of a fallen slave because he is also a part of this pattern. Beyonce seems to say to her husband, “You have done wrong, but do we not both face bigger threats than one another?” To view Lemonade as simply a story of forgiving infidelity, without taking Beyonce and Jay-Z’s race into account, would be to pretend that race can ever not be a part of the context. And I will now officially cease mincing words and say that of course it is. It always is.

 

But, if there were any doubts that racial injustice and the experience of being black in America are pivotal parts of Lemonade’s message, the final music video, “Formation”, swoops in after the final credits and slaps them down to the cement. The major story of the film is complete, with Beyonce and Jay-Z reunited and happy. There is no more spousal infidelity to forgive, but here we are. We must be here to talk about someone else. “Formation” is a furious, percussive dance song with all the militaristic swagger its name promises. It is about Beyonce’s roots as a black woman with ties to Louisiana, the land where the levees broke. The song is a call to unify, organize, and form ranks. Its beat pulses and seethes and it is clear we are back in a place of anger. Despite the odd reference to rewarding a sexual partner with seafood dinners, “Formation” is about protest and defiance against any oppressive force. We have watched Beyonce forge a path to forgiveness with her husband. Now that she has the one act of reconciliation behind her, she’s here to start the process again with a different transgressor: society. Over the last hour, we have seen that forgiveness is possible. But,the last image we have is of Beyonce sinking into the Katrina floodwaters on the roof of a police car. The film cuts to black and our penance remains out of reach, somewhere below the flood. There can be no forgiveness until there is an apology.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #15- Tower


Keith Maitland’s extraordinary animated documentary, Tower, plunges us immediately into a scene of violent turmoil. We are listening to a real news broadcast from the summer of 1966 and the film uses animation to put us inside the broadcast booth. The “booth” in this case is a four-door station wagon emblazoned with the letters KTBC, the call sign of a local news station in Austin, Texas. The man driving and speaking into the microphone is Neal Spelce, the station director. He is circling the perimeter of the University of Texas, urgently instructing people to stay away from the area. There is a sniper firing indiscriminately from the top of the famous campus Tower. Spelce is using the power of journalism to keep people out of harm’s way, but this remarkable documentary has a different journalistic aim: to take us into the melee on campus and ever closer to the gunfire. Tower utilizes a combination of old television and radio broadcasts, interviews, archival footage, and, most of all, animation to stitch together a meticulous account of one of the most sobering and sadly prescient days in American history: the day of the nation’s first official mass shooting. The film’s decision to immerse the audience in this time period without any backstory or even much context is the filmmakers’ way of recreating some small fraction of the fear and shock people on the University of Texas campus must have felt at the time. Tower knows that its viewers are all too familiar with this specific kind of horror in the present day, but it wants us to experience the birth of the American mass shooting with fresh eyes.

 

On the first day of August in 1966, a twenty-five-year old former University of Texas student named Charles Whitman drove to the campus, just after killing his mother and wife. Carrying three handguns, three rifles, a shotgun, and a machete , Whitman forced his way onto the 27th floor of the University of Texas Tower, killing a receptionist and two tourists in the process. From there, he went out onto the outdoor observation deck and began to fire at will at any passerby he felt he could hit. Over the course of ninety-six blood-curdling minutes, Whitman managed to kill fourteen people and injure thirty-one more before he was finally taken down by officers of the Austin Police Department. We get snippets of context and backstory throughout the film, but we never hear about Whitman’s history as a failed Marine or what he did before driving to campus or how he managed to force his way past campus security. The film’s aim is pointedly not to understand how Charles Whitman did what he did or to even puzzle over why he chose to murder fourteen innocent people. Tower instead places us with the people on the ground, who scrambled to make some sense of a senseless tragedy and did what they could to help one another through it. The film collects the traumatic memories of that day and lays them out on the floor for us to see. It is a patchwork quilt of the way human beings responded to an unprecedented survival situation. Tower wants us to imagine what it was like to be the first witnesses to this kind of savagery, but it also wants us to bring our present knowledge to bear on what we see. It wants to rewind a cycle of violence that has carried on though Columbine and the University of Virginia and the Pulse nightclub and understand the roots of America’s struggle with mass shootings. Moreover, like this year’s Jackie, it wants the viewer to think critically about we piece together and process tragic stories, individually, journalistically, and as a nation.

 

The very idea of a mass shooting was almost impossible to fathom before August 1, 1966. Going back to the first mass shedding of blood in our domestic history allows Tower to take a close look at how both people and their journalistic institutions react when the unfathomable happens. We learn that two students walked unknowingly, even eagerly, into harm’s way because some hapless reporter informed them that the shots were coming from an airsoft gun. A University of Texas professor heard the shots and assumed they were firecrackers left over from the Fourth of July. Our human brains are wired to analyze information and fill in the gaps with whatever makes sense to them. They are bound by the conceivable. On that day, the term “mass shooting” was not part of our cultural lexicon. On that lazy, humid summer afternoon, the thought that someone would be firing arbitrarily at innocent passersby was simply not in the realm of the possible or even imaginable for most people. Tower is fascinated by how we process an event when there is no precedent for it. One officer sheepishly admits that he looked up at the one-thousand windows in the Tower and imagined an army of one-thousand Black Panthers. Some combination of the media and his own skewed understanding of the world allowed this man’s brain to visualize a full-scale African-American revolt, while the image of a single, sociopathic white man with no motive behind his actions never crossed his minded. That seed had to be planted in his imagination, in the imaginations of University of Texas students, and finally into the national consciousness. Even after the situation became clear, the Austin Police Department still sent in supplies of tear gas instead of shotguns. A news station ended up falsely reporting that a young paperboy had been killed. Blessedly he survived, but not before his poor parents spent three hours believing him dead. And Tower presents none of this to be judgmental. Tower shows all the chaos, misinterpretation, and sloppy responses in order to posit that responding to a disaster is a messy process. Sometimes we spend days, months, and years trying and failing to fully grasp an event like the Tower shooting.

 

What makes Tower both a rigorous film and a generous one is that it takes in all the error and the misunderstanding and views it all as a fundamental part of being human. It opts not to show Charles Whitman because it views the real story of the Tower shooting in the teeming tapestry of people who moved about the campus below him. Tower presents a rich cast of characters who each responded to the terror in his or her own different way. It sees both fear and bravery through clear, empathetic eyes. One woman recalls watching frozen at the window of the English Building as other students raced outside to bring a dying police officer a drink of water. She remembers being stunned to see that people could summon themselves to do that and just as stunned to learn that she was not one of them. With sad candor she says this was the moment she realized she was a coward. The movie does not add anything to this. The point is not to judge, but to see how a collective tragedy gave a young woman sobering insight into herself. The intent is not to weight the morality of any individual’s actions during the unthinkable strain of a survival situation, but to observe that people are diverse in the way they handle stress. Some run headlong into danger while others are bound to the spot by self-preservation. Tower is a film with a great curiosity for the many shades of humanity. Even the acts of heroism the film shows are presented in a complex way. When asked if he was going to accompany his fellow officers out on to the observation deck to disarm the gunman, young Officer McCoy responded, “Well, I guess I don’t have much choice, do I?” Of course, he did have a choice, just as those who stayed out of the line of fire had their own choices to make. Nevertheless, Officer McCoy, being whoever Officer McCoy was deep down inside, was inclined not to see choice in the matter. Or maybe he just told himself that for fear of what he might do if he did have a choice. Every decision is the result of the myriad, intricate psychological forces within each person and Tower honors those choices, be they brave or fearful. They are testaments to the colorful tangle of humanity and the film pays tribute to them as the vivid, complicated antithesis to all that senseless death.

 

I have perhaps not adequately conveyed just how moving Tower is. This is the end result of its compassionate interest in human beings, with all their capacity for selflessness and self-preservation. Tower is a film that refuses to ever show the man known as Charles Whitman. Instead, our fullest glimpse comes from Claire Wilson, the first person to be shot. Claire ended up surviving the attack, but she lost her fiancé, Tom, and the child that was growing inside of her. Now in her sixties, Claire looks at a magazine portrait of Charles Whitman as a young child. She has no harsh words for the man. She loves children and she is now gazing down at the little boy who became Charles Whitman. She reflects sadly about how a precious child can grow up to commit heinous acts and, without hesitation, she forgives the man who murdered her unborn child. Tower focuses on the humanity that whirled around Charles Whitman’s vortex of death and this allows the brave acts of that day to take on the full triumphant power they deserve. Inspirational can be a dirty word, but Tower comes to feel genuinely inspiring without having a hint of mawkishness. It is not interested in rah-rah acts of heroism, but it is in love with our potential to be kind and good to one another. Allen Crum, a middle-aged campus bookstore employee, unwittingly became a hero through sheer Forrest Gumpian circumstance. He ran out of his store to help a boy who had been shot on his bike, but then found himself unable to go back across the street without running the risk of being shot himself. The only thing he could think to do was keep running in the other direction, toward the Tower, hoping to eventually wind his way back around to the store. And, before he knew it, he had run all the way to the foot of the building. And then he figured he should just go up and see if anyone needed his help. And so he was deputized and ended up helping to disarm the shooter. Before entering, Crum flashed two middle fingers at Charles Whitman and seeing this act of living defiance in the face of death made me laugh more cathartically than just about anything I saw this year. But the most wonderfully humane act did not involve a gun or any kind of force. It was the simple, brave act of a student named Rita Star Pattern, who ran out to the wounded Claire and lay down next to her. She lay with Claire for an hour, on scalding concrete and in plain sight of Charles Whitman, and just talked. This decision kept Claire conscious and very likely saved her life, and it involved nothing more than one person reaching out to another. Tower takes us to the first mass shooting, but it is not about killing. It is about living through tragedy as a community. In the present day, Neal Spelce, who drove around campus bravely warning people of the danger, recalls the moment they released the list of victims on air. His old boss came rushing in and asked them to repeat the list. He had heard his grandson’s name. Telling the story in the present, Spelce starts tearing up. “I just broke up now,” he stammers. “I think it’s because I have grandchildren.” This moment perfectly captures Tower’s unabashed sense of empathy. The loss of human life depicted in Tower made me break up too. I think it’s because I am human.

 

Tower is about a catastrophe that had no precedent in our history and how human beings dealt with an event that was then painfully new and shocking. However, as much as the film is challenging us to put ourselves in a time before mass shootings became a regular occurrence, it also holds us accountable for whatever is happening in the present day. It charges us with a sacred responsibility to learn from the past and have a discourse about what to do in the future. Because we do not live in 1966. And the next mass shooting we have will not be the first. It will not be the hundredth. Tower’s quarrel is not with any specific policy proposal, as long as that policy is not inaction or silence. Tower holds particularly severe censure for those who are not willing to talk about this. Late in the film, Claire has a reunion with a man named Artly. Artly was also a student at the University of Texas in 1966 and he was the person who would eventually pull her to safety. Shockingly, we learn that Claire and Artly did not meet for the first time until a few years before this movie was made. Almost fifty years passed by before they had a conversation about the trauma they both suffered through. Similarly, Aleck Hernandez, the boy who was shot during his paper route says that the occasion of the film has reunited him with the cousin who was riding on his handlebars at the time. They are both joyful to see each other again after nearly fifty years of silence. The cousin remarks that it does him good to sit down and talk about the tragedy. We get the sense that the University of Texas wanted the whole incident to just go away. They cleaned up the blood and never put up so much as a plaque to honor the people, living and dead, who went through this ordeal. Tower is not only a film about how we experience, process, and remember tragedy. It is a call to arms to never bury tragedy. Tower argues that the most rigorous and the most humane thing to do in the face of great loss is to turn to a human being and talk through the pain. As the film closes, the animated ghost of Claire’s slain fiancé, Tom, walks the campus alongside present-day students. The film seems to say that these ghosts are not unpleasant things to be feared and hidden away. They have lessons still to teach us. They were human beings with lives and people who loved them and it is right and good to remember them. Their spirits are a part of our history. Let them stay.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #16- Hell or High Water

It feels appropriate to me that, of all the great scenes in David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water, the one probably most fated to become iconic involves a woman telling her customers that her restaurant only serves T-bone steaks and baked potatoes. Hell or High Water is the best example in recent memory of what one might call a steak-and-potatoes movie. There is a certain breed of film that has a kind of generally appealing and unfussy quality to it. It’s the kind of film that leads people of many different stripes to smile, reflect fondly and say, “Well that was just a very good movie.” Movies of this sort are not typically known for being conspicuously artistic nor for being the least bit cerebral. Like the T-bone steak in that West Texas saloon, the steak-and-potatoes movie is relatively unadorned, a movie to be appreciated largely for its surface pleasures. The simple steak-and-potatoes movie tends to be broadly accessible, energetically paced and frequently quotable. These are all qualities that Hell or High Water shares. The curious thing about my great affection for Hell or High Water is that I am not, by my nature, a steak-and-potatoes kind of viewer. I am particularly fond of challenging films, and I am just as happy sitting down to watch brutal Romanian abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as I am watching Finding Nemo. With most steak-and-potatoes movies, I too often find something in their consensus-building palatability that robs them of vitality or personality. They can sometimes be lacking in idiosyncrasy. I have recently run into this issue with films like The Martian, The King’s Speech, and particularly Argo. These films wear their relative simplicity like a badge of honor, and that’s not necessarily wrong of them. Simplicity can be a virtue. The problem is, as much as I generally quite like two of those films (and technically like Argo), I found their simple populism to be what held them back from getting anywhere near greatness. Their lack of artistic flourish only seemed to throw light onto the deficiencies in their storytelling or character development or thematic depth (or all three in the case of Argo). To make a steak-and-potatoes film is to put the focus entirely on the meat of your story, and that Spartan approach really only pays off if you have very high quality meat. This is where those three films suffer and where Hell or High Water succeeds. Hell or High Water has the distinction of being a downright delicious slab of plain, old storytelling, and that is why it has the honor of being the one and only “simply great” film in my Top 20 this year.

 

To be fair, my own personal preferences for showier work almost got the better of me when I saw the film in the summer of 2016. I walked out of Hell or High Water having enjoyed the film deeply and recognizing a certain resonance in its depiction of post-recession America. I knew immediately, in my heart of hearts, that I had just seen a very, very fine film. But it was quite a simple film and this gave me pause. I started to have doubts that it would leave me with much to chew on. The story of the film is that of two Texan brothers, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster), who set out to rob the bank that is foreclosing on their family home. If they do not have a certain sum of money wired to Texas Midlands Bank by the end of the week, they will lose both the property and the right to collect the vast amounts of oil that have recently been discovered underneath it. Tanner is a recently paroled criminal with experience in robbing banks. He also did time early in his life when he shot their abusive father. It is Toby, however, a veteran with a clean record, who has masterminded the scheme and who has a plan for how they can get away with it. They will only hit the bank that has victimized them and they will only steal smaller sums from tellers’ drawers, which means all the money they receive will be untraceable. As the two hit more banks, they are followed by a retiring Texas Ranger named Marcus (played with keen, crotchety charm by Jeff Bridges) and his younger partner, a half-Mexican half-Native American man named Alberto (a great, dry Gil Birmingham). The film’s main story is about Toby and Tanner, as they rob, launder their money at a Native American casino, and make plans to put the property into a protected trust for Toby’s sons, but it is also the story of the relationship between the two rangers. Marcus toes the line between puckish and prejudiced as he continually cracks jokes about Alberto’s heritage. Alberto alternatingly puts up with him and tosses out his own barbs, mostly about the fact that Marcus is too old to still be out chasing the law enforcement high that he is so clearly afraid to give up. Hell or High Water is about both action and conversation; robberies and moments of stillness between both sets of men. And, without underlining the point too emphatically, it is also about the state of a country with deep class divisions and increasingly scant opportunities for the upward mobility so central to its origin story. At the end of the film, as Toby and Marcus meet on his front porch for a fateful conversation, Toby explains why someone like him might rob a bank. Being poor, he says is “like a disease, passed down from generation to generation. But not my boys, not anymore.” At the end of my first viewing, I joined the theater in applause. Once again, I knew right away that Hell or High Water was a terrific and topical film. And, as someone who sues on behalf of foreclosure victims for a living, I certainly empathized with and rooted for its fallible soulful protagonists. Still, name-checking a social problem and having a comprehensive, insightful discussion on that problem are two separate things, and I wondered if Hell or High Water was more than an exciting, engaging hyperlink to an important issue. Maybe it was more a heist film in the 2008 mortgage crisis’ clothing than a genuine, seething expose of our financial institutions. It took me multiple conversations with friends to realize what a deceptively great and nuanced piece of work Hell or High Water is.

 

The first sign of the film’s sneaky greatness was its quotability. This is never a guarantee of quality. I continue to be something of a holdout on Napoleon Dynamite and I would never in a million years deny that it is chock full of memorable lines. But the fact I could so easily quote Hell or High Water after watching it only one time made me start to look back at its script. Most steak-and-potatoes crowd-pleasers are not nearly this well-written. There I was on a Friday night, standing on my porch with a beer, and I started chuckling to myself about that scene with the waitress and the T-bone steaks. Then my friend laughed and said, “Only assholes drink Mr. Pibb.” And before I knew it, I was quipping back, “So drink up, asshole.” And this kept happening over the weeks. Any time talk turned to Hell or High Water, it would end in an exchange of sharp, funny quotes. I came to gradually see what a firecracker of a script this is, and not just for the one-liners and quips either. The writing is also often downright pretty in a way that both suits and subverts its tough, masculine tone. Toby’s recurring fascination with Comanches as the “lords of the Plains”. Alberto’s beautifully bitter soliloquy about how the banks’ avarice and blindness to human suffering are echoes of the same greed and cruelty visited upon his Native American ancestors. The way Marcus points to a bank teller and muses that he “looks like a man who could foreclose on a house”. Writer Taylor Sheridan keeps the action and the beats of the plot succinct and straightforward, but he also knows that simplicity is not the same thing as drabness. Simple lines can also be poetic. It is even the challenge that many great poets have set for themselves: to wring beauty and epiphany out of the least possible number of words. Look at Tanner’s solo robbery. It’s a short scene. Tanner just wants to the teller to display all the increments of cash in her drawer. But Sheridan injects even this brief bit of business with welcome color. “Fives. Tens. Twenties. Fan ‘em out like a deck of cards.” Money and cards, crime and gambling. All manifestations of the dream of some easy escape from poverty. All there in this five second snippet of a robbery. Fittingly, for a film soundtracked with country music and Nick Cave’s evocative Western score, the dialogue in Hell or High Water rings with the bruised, blunt beauty of a great country song.

 

As line after line came rushing back to my memory, scenes came back too. And as I began to recall those scenes, it dawned on me that Hell or High Water is one of those works of art with no filler. It is the kind of film that ends one great scene so it can move on to the next great scene. I cannot name a moment from it that I would call inessential. Each moment has a purpose and its placement in the narrative leads organically to another moment which also has a strong sense of purpose. The final product is a film that knows exactly what it means to do and does it. I do not normally require such efficiency from films I love. Some of my favorite films sprawl and malinger and I am content just to bask in them for as long as they want to have me. This approach would not have fit Hell or High Water. Its clean, propulsive momentum is the secret ingredient that turns it from a standard issue bank robbery tale into something terse, stirring, and almost elemental. Have you ever picked up a great album, perhaps by The Beatles or Marvin Gaye or The Rolling Stones, and realized that every last song on it is a timeless classic? Better yet, to choose an artist who almost nobody dislikes, think about Michael Jackson. Pick up “Thriller”, turn it over, and look at the tracklist. You realize you’re looking not only at a great album, but one that never once stops being great; not even for a moment to catch its breath. Hell or High Water feels a lot like that. If I ever read its DVD menu, I imagine it will feel like reading a no-filler tracklist. “Wow,” I’ll say, “that great casino scene leads right into that scene where Marcus and Alberto are watching that sleazy television preacher and theorizing about God in a seedy motel room. And that leads right into the scene where the new attorney they’ve hired as an executor knows they’re bank robbers and can barely contain his glee. And after that is the T-bone steak scene, which is just perfect.”

 

So you have subtly poetic writing, great scenes, and an almost total absence of any fatty downtime, which means that this story about desperate bank robbers in economically depressed Texas is strangely kind of a giddy joy to watch. It throws you in the back of a getaway car and speeds like a madman for 104 minutes that feel like less than an hour. And the thing that happened on my second viewing, when I knew how thoroughly I was about to enjoy myself, is that I gave myself over to it completely. And in that content, undistracted state, another layer of the film’s greatness started to come back to me. I remembered that I love these characters. Just as with the dialogue, Sheridan’s script creates characters that are extremely well-defined but too vivid and unique to ever become mere archetypes. Ben Foster takes the role of a shit-kicking jailbird and imbues him with a mischievous intelligence that transcends the bold lines of the standard ne’er-do-well. In the first robbery, Tanner snaps at a teller for calling him stupid. Tanner is reckless, impulsive, and prone to some very bad decisions, such as improvising a robbery alone while his brother is eating in a diner next door, but not stupid. Some of his decisions are terrible and ill-advised, but the character also has poetry in his outlaw country soul. Chris Pine does the best work of his career as Toby. He is the level-headed one with the clean criminal record, but he is neither a saint nor immune to poor choices and violent outbursts. When two young men in a lime-green muscle car try to start a fight with Tanner (who is utterly willing to goad them on) Toby shows up and slams one of their heads into a car door. The brothers have their individual, opposing personalities, but they each share shades of the other as well. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges takes the part of the irreverent, culturally insensitive ranger and give him shades of neediness and fear of the uncertain future. He becomes a more impish but no less haunted version of Tommy Lee Jones’ sheriff in No Country For Old Men. And Gil Birmingham creates a nuanced portrait of a Hispanic and Native American lawman who has learned to navigate through an intolerant world. He is shrewd, determined, and resourceful. In a year full of great performances by non-white actors, any list without Gil Birmingham on it would be incomplete.

 

And all around the main four characters are memorable, beautifully specific entrances and exits by smaller characters. Tiny, detailed jewels of acting to complement the larger gems. Most are by actors I have never seen before. That sardonic waitress in the steakhouse. The Comanche man who confronts Tanner at the poker table. The eager citizen who drives Marcus to his final confrontation with Tanner. The kindly single mother who waits on Toby at the diner and who repays his generous tip with her own act of generosity. How can I say this without seeming to contradict everything I’ve said before? Hell or High Water really is a simple film, but for a film mostly just about two bank robbers and the lawmen pursuing them, it has a wonderfully rich sense of detail. And so much of that is a credit to those tiny characters who show up for a single scene and, one by one, help give a face to the broader financial struggle always in the background of the film. These are the human beings who have to live in this world besieged by robber barons and crooked lenders and they lend a larger sense of gravitas to Tanner and Toby’s private war with Texas Midlands Bank. The film also derives a wealth of detail from the locations it breathlessly races through. The film paints a world of oil fields and debt relief billboards. Tire stores and churches and casinos. And, of course, banks. Hell or High Water only tells a small segment of the story of the acquiring and the acquired in modern America, but the monuments to their existence are everywhere.

 

Hell or High Water is that rare example of a film that finds poetry and grace in its directness. It manages to be both humble and overflowing with flavor. It is a bit of a paradox, but this is the same film that can both stand with the year’s funniest comedies and have a scene that calls back to Captain Phillips in its realistic depiction of post-violence trauma. What at first seems slight eventually turns out to actually just be marvelously condensed; a vibrant world of compelling characters, relatable struggles, and playful language all tightly ground down into a delectable nugget of crime fiction. Seeing Hell or High Water reminds me that my real issue with most steak-and-potatoes films is that the meat of their stories is never high-grade enough to justify how little they do artistically. A top quality steak only needs a pinch of salt, but the meat of your average no-frills crowdpleaser is rarely anything like a top quality steak. At the risk of exhausting this food analogy, Hell or High Water can afford to be direct and thematically simple and still feel fulfilling because the meat of its story and its characters are delicious all by themselves. When the basics are in place the way they are here, you don’t need the A-1 sauce of extraneous directorial touches or overly self-consciously cerebral writing to make it work. I feel satisfied calling Hell or High Water one of the year’s twenty best films. It’s about time I had a simple film on my year-end list. As if making a funny, elegiac, humane, tersely poetic, quietly political, endlessly quotable bank robber flick was actually simple.

Top 20 Films of 2017: #17- The Red Turtle

I have had a long, torrid relationship with the notion of coherence, in film and other art forms as well. Coherence has always been important to me, but when I was twenty it was everything. As an early film-goer, ideological clarity was my mental gatekeeper, separating the great films from the nobly flawed, the pretty good, and the just plain awful. In those college days, I would walk out of a theater and call a film great if I could neatly explain the general thrust of the film’s message within the hour. If I could not do this, then obviously the film’s theme was confused or it just didn’t have one. I remember walking out of Triplets of Belleville in my third year and thinking that I had just seen something strikingly beautiful and funny and arrestingly strange, but I could not bring myself to give it a four-star grade. I was hungry for something clear, and this bizarre, bewitching, sardonic little imp of a film had left me feeling confused. Even at that time, I deeply enjoyed that confusion, but I couldn’t reconcile it with my feeling that a great film should have a certain rigorous coherence. A great film was to be judged on its ideas and I had no clear handle on what Triplets‘ ideas were. I could pick out a lot of the emotional core: loving one’s kin and sacrificing everything for family and feeling appreciation for our loved ones. But it all felt like less than a comprehensive thesis. This twenty-year-old was contemplative and sober-minded and deadly serious about movies and he wanted an overarching message that rose above the story and declared itself in large font. My rigid conception of coherence led me into trouble in those days. It was what allowed me to give overly high grades to the didactic diatribes of Crash, the blunt TED talk of Syriana, and the intermittently self-satisfied musings of Closer. I sound as harsh to myself now as I was to films like Triplets of Belleville back then. The truth is I still like all three of those films to varying degrees. Yes, I even still like parts of Crash. But my thirst for theme and message at that time in my life was also preventing me from giving proper credit to films that were more understated and enigmatic in their approach. To be clear, I still put a very high on premium on coherence and theme now, but I have made more room in my cineaste heart for ambiguity and that irreverent spirit that leads a filmmaker to deliberately confound the viewer; to challenge them by withholding easy explanation. I never saw a Paul Verhoeven film until I was a twenty-seven-year-old in law school and I am glad of that. That college kid, for all his rigor and for as much as he genuinely loved movies, would not have been ready. He would have myopically dismissed Starship Troopers as immature, when he was the one who still had growing up to do. I’m in a place now where I see that ideas can be teased out or hinted at rather than concisely explained. Films can be great for what they leave unsaid. A film can find brilliance in mystery and confusion. That sense of mystery is key to appreciating The Red Turtle, a delicate, emotionally rewarding animated film whose ideas about life, nature and death are as gently amorphous and as hard to pin down as wisps of smoke.

 

The Red Turtle is the first full-length feature by the Dutch animator, Michael Dudok de Wit. Dudok de Wit won the Oscar for Animated Short in 2000 for the elegantly simple, heartfelt Father and Daughter, about a little girl whose beloved parent leaves when she is a tender age, and who rides her bicycle to the same place throughout her life hoping to see him again. I have always thought highly of that beautiful short, but I held a very tiny axe to grind with it for beating out Don Hertzfeldt’s hilariously inventive and demented Rejected. Whatever small grudge I have held over a beautiful work of art beating out a brilliant work of art, I now lay it to rest.  The Red Turtle is proof that Dudok de Wit is a great animator and the kind of sentimentalist I can get behind: soulful and devastatingly delicate. The film opens with the sound of the ocean, heaving and hissing over a black background. When we open our eyes, we are surrounded up to our heads in ferocious waves and pelted by relentless rains. It is also the dead of night. Our unnamed protagonist soon pops his head above the surf. He is a dark-haired, Caucasian man in his thirties, and he is struggling to keep from drowning. Among the dark swells and white crests, he eventually finds an overturned rowboat, which we assume must be his. He clings feebly to it as the dark, angry sea throws him onto the shore of a remote island. In the daylight, we see the island is very small. It has a beach and a rocky outcrop and, further inland, a bamboo forest, some grassy fields, and a freshwater pond. Its non-human residents include a cluster of curious sand crabs, a flock of birds, and a cantankerous grey seal. The Red Turtle is a film with effectively zero dialogue. Its only human utterances are the man’s angry or frustrated screams which are never more verbal than the word “hey”. He runs around the island trying to collect his bearings and desperately searching for food. He eventually finds a tree that provides coconuts. After taking his fill of food and water, his next thought is of leaving this desolate place. He starts gathering bamboo logs and fashions a crude raft. Once he sets out to sea, however, some unseen creature batters the underside of his raft and reduces it to driftwood. He swims back to the beach, screams exasperatedly at the crabs who shadow him, and almost immediately sets to making a new raft. When he heads out to sea again, the second raft meets with the same fate as the first one. On the next attempt, the man finally sees the beast that keeps preventing his escape. It is a large, vibrantly red sea turtle. After showing itself, the turtle destroys the raft a third time and swims up onto the beach. In a fit of anger, the man flips the turtle on its back, stomps on its stomach, screams at it and leaves it to die of exposure.

 

As night falls, however, guilt overtakes him and he tries in vain to resuscitate his tormentor. He shakes the turtle and splashes it with sea water from a bamboo cup, but it is too late. The turtle is dead and the man falls to his knees in sorrow and shame. A fourth version of his raft sits half-finished on the edge of the frame. As he mourns the life he has taken, the underbelly of the turtle’s shell suddenly splits open. When the man looks at the cracked shell, the turtle is gone and a beautiful, red-headed woman now lies unconscious inside. The man rubs his eyes in disbelief and frantically runs for fresh water from the pond. When day breaks, he builds the woman a shelter of fronds and leaves to protect her from the glare of the sun. Eventually, the woman wakes up and wades out into the shallows. The man cautiously tries to coax her back onto land, as she repeatedly sinks and resurfaces in the low tide. When she pushes her old, discarded shell out to sea, he pushes the pieces of his raft out as a sign of trust. He no longer wishes to run away. The Red Turtle transitions from being a film about escaping a survival situation to a film about accepting one’s circumstances and finding a new life with another person. The woman comes to trust the man and treat him with kindness. She takes him out to a sand bar and shows him how to forage for mussels. The man is still wracked with guilt over his violence toward her, but she forgives and reassures him.  They quickly fall in love. The two will spend a full life together on this island. They give birth to a child, who will eventually grow to be a man with something of his mother’s turtle essence. One day he will swim away from the island with a group of turtles and start a life of his own somewhere else. The Red Turtle is a gentle, humane, and sweetly melancholic fable about the full gamut of human life, playing out in a seemingly hostile place.

 

The Red Turtle is something of a simple film and that begins with its animation style. The characters are rendered like drawings out of a children’s storybook. Their eyes are nothing more than charcoal-black ovals. Their bodies are basic, two-dimensional sketches, and so is the environment they inhabit. But for all that simplicity, I will echo what a great many other critics have said: this is an incredibly expressive and vibrant piece of animation. As he did with Father and Daughter, Dudok de Wit knows that a simple sketch can be even more suggestive than a detailed image. We can see well enough that these are human figures and whatever they lack in finer detail only allows our imaginations to get more involved in filling them in. The characters may look like simple drawings, but their body language is subtle and natural and it conveys a wealth of information and emotion. This proves vital for a film with no dialogue.  Likewise, the world of the island never feels flat for its simplicity. There is so much lush color and clean detail in that bamboo forest that it feels all-encompassing in spite of the fact it is a two-dimensional image. The same goes for the softly rustling meadows and the surf spraying off the rocks and the placid freshwater pond. The surface of the animation may be unadorned, but the whole landscape teems with tiny details. If Sunset Song captures the experience of reading a classic novel, The Red Turtle perfectly conveys what it is like to thumb through a lovely illustrated storybook.

 

The Red Turtle is a wordless, spiritually soothing experience, but it does have deeper themes, or at least thematic motifs that waft through the film like gentle island zephyrs. I would say the largest theme is the question of what makes a life; the idea that your life is whatever simple joys you find while alive and that existence can be beautiful and fulfilling even when your greater plans get swept out to sea. In this regard, The Red Turtle shares a thematic thread with this year’s Passengers, a film that it bests in every possible way. After spending the first half of the film shouting inarticulately at the heavens and frantically seeking escape, the man finally comes to see that he can be happy right where he is. Here, it is probably valuable to see the film as a fable or an allegory, as I obviously wouldn’t begrudge anyone trying to get back to civilization if they were marooned on an actual deserted island. But in the context of the film, the island is an opportunity for the man to see that life is all around him and that he can experience connection and growth even in this most seemingly inhospitable of places. He can even find family. The man and the turtle, who becomes the woman who becomes the love of his life, experience the joys and hardships and occasional disasters of a full human life, all in a tiny pocket of the world and all over the course of an 80-minute film. This idea is not hammered into anything resembling a thesis statement, but it is there to be taken in whatever way the viewer wishes. Saying that a film is just about life can often feel like a bit of a cop-out, but The Red Turtle bathes itself in the stuff of life and does so without grandstanding or resorting to sweeping statements. It is not the kind of film to make points, but its small, understated observations of life and nature hold a great deal of serene wisdom. And this understated approach is very well calibrated to Dudok de Wit’s unassuming, emotionally direct style of animation.

 

Dudok de Wit places his protagonist in the midst of nature, and he has the invaluable aid of animators from Studio Ghibli, home of anime laureates like Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, to help create wonderful images of nature. The Red Turtle has much in common with a Miyazaki film, in its peaceful tone and especially in its love for the beauty and magic of the natural world. In Miyazaki films, mankind has a fractured relationship with the land and sea but is also permanently and inextricably bound to it. The Red Turtle is very much about humanity’s relationship to nature and the virtues of tending to that bond. At the film’s halfway point, we see the man make his fateful decision. He stops turning his back on the turtle and atones for his violence against nature. It is in trying to save the turtle and asking penance for his cruelty that the man finds a kind of love that he never knew existed. This love takes the form of a woman who becomes his romantic partner, but that woman is also still the turtle deep down inside, and maybe all of this could just be a love within the man’s own soul. A love for one’s self. I think the film is saying that all these kinds of love are equally valuable and rewarding. In the end, this is a fable, so how real or illusory any part of the story is seems beyond the point. It is a piece of mythical fiction intended to make us think about our own relationships with other people, nature and ourselves. The Red Turtle seems to suggest that, just as life is where you find it, maybe love is to be treasured in whatever form it takes.

 

On second thought, I regret ever suggesting that The Red Turtle is less than coherent. More accurately, I would say it’s more than coherent, or perhaps above coherence. The film is cohesive but I think Dudok de Wit and his animators would find a term like “coherence” unbearably rigid and restrictive for what they have in mind. Part of that is because The Red Turtle is about life and life cannot be easily contained by academic words like “coherence”. Another reason is that the film’s refusal to spell out its ideas helps to create a sense of amorphous, undulating mystery that is key to its emotional effect. If I haven’t made it clear at this point, The Red Turtle is the kind of film that gently, but firmly seizes your heart. Helping with this coup is Laurent Perez del Mar’s yearning score, which evokes a maritime, magical realist Ennio Morricone. The film is very much what one might call a tone poem. Yes, there are ideas and themes, but they are not the purpose of the thing. They float by us and around us like bamboo logs in the aftermath of a tsunami. We grasp onto these fixed concepts to steady ourselves, but The Red Turtle implies that life is not about feeling steady or certain. Perhaps our natural state is just to feel confused and curious and overcome by emotion. While I tried to wrangle The Red Turtle into positions that would fit easily into a film review, I started to realize that its real goal wasn’t to expound on anything too specific. Instead, the film’s goal was to make me feel what it is to be alive, not with intellectual pontificating but by jamming the porcupine quill of sweet, fragile, impermanent life under my skin. The Red Turtle is about capturing the throbbing ache of being and knowing that nothing lasts. It made me feel that mixture of love and faint sadness I get whenever I yell at my sweet, misbehaving dog. I experience a burst of anger and that soon gives way to a dull sense of melancholy. Because, even though the unruly moppet deserved his scolding, I also love this dumb creature and don’t like to feel harshness in myself. And because he makes me feel happy most of the time and life is short – mine and especially his- and there’s just so much good about being alive that those bursts of ire feel like tiny tears in a blanket that there isn’t nearly enough of to begin with. Stupid dog, stupid life. I love you more than I can say and it breaks my heart to know that one day you’ll be gone.

 

Like life, The Red Turtle is a film to be experienced and felt. I still watch films to get them, to figure them out. I have never once done this in an outwardly greedy or acquisitive way. I do not go into any movie with the goal of avariciously ingesting its ideas and moving on. Nonetheless, there is a fidgety curiosity in me that makes me want to turn a film over and inspect it with a meticulous eye, and that can be a reductive way to see a beautiful piece of art. Films are not resources to be mined. The Red Turtle reminded me of how restless I can be, both as a watcher of films and as a human being. On my first and even second viewing, a part of me wanted to possess the film and understand it more fully. But the film just wanted me to reflect and feel and know that not everything can or should be crushed down into some concise kernel of knowledge. Even now, there is something about The Red Turtle that eludes my grasp, expanding outward the more I try to corral it, but I have come to love the film for that very quality. I am no longer pressed by the need to figure it out. To figure a thing out completely is to be done with it, and I am no more eager to be done with this entrancing little fable than I am to be done with life itself.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #18 – Sunset Song

One of the marks of a great film is being able to capture sensations that transcend words. While most of my favorite films rely on great scripts filled with beautiful, expressive language, the best films never rely solely on their writing. Because film is a visual medium, it has the potential to capture something that is not possible in purely written form. Film can help express emotions and sensations that transcend words. However, I ran into a challenging paradox in reviewing Terence Davies’ sumptuously literate Sunset Song, an adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s classic Scottish novel from 1932. I experienced an emotion that was beyond my ability to verbalize, but was also the kind of feeling I have only previously experienced when reading words on a page. Specifically, Sunset Song is the rare literary adaptation to take the feeling of being immersed in a classic novel and translate it into cinematic terms. I went looking through every possible dictionary, internet forum, and literary blog I could find, searching for a word to describe that phenomenon. I was confident that I would find something in short order. My reasoning was that, if the old axiom holds that writers love to write about writing, then there should be some word to capture the general feeling of experiencing something in the written form. After an hour, I had turned up nothing satisfactory, so I turned to friends for assistance. An old friend, Matthew Byrom, suggested words like “literary” and “bookish”. Those are very fine words, but I needed something that spoke more to the subjective experience of being an entranced reader. I needed a word that conveyed that hushed state that falls over a person when their mind merges with the world of a novel. After a few hours, I was about ready to give up and just admit that some feelings really don’t have words to capture them. It was at that time that my very learned friend, Anne Peattie, came to my rescue with a word from that most efficient of languages: German. The word was “Lesengefühl”, which is literally the words “read” and “feeling” sandwiched together. There is nothing fancy about it. I imagined some German scholar, feeling just as baffled as I was, straining to describe this dreamlike sensation, and eventually blurting out “read feeling” in exasperation. The term is both simple and enigmatic, which is appropriate because I presume no one person’s “read feeling” is exactly the same as another’s. The read feeling is both universally relatable and impossible to entirely define, and that makes it a fine way of describing a film that is very much about the gulf between words and the inexpressible.

 

The first image of Sunset Song is of golden wheat fields blowing gently in the breeze. As we float just above them, a young woman sits up from where she has been laying and pokes her head above the waving blades of grass. Her body becomes part of the landscape. This is our protagonist, Chris Guthrie (played with beautiful sensitivity by former model Agyness Deyn), a young woman on the border between adolescence and adulthood. Chris is the second oldest of four children living on a farm in early 20th century Scotland. The Guthries start the story in the town of Aberdeen, but are forced to move to a larger homestead after Chris’ brutish father, John, (the reliably brutish Peter Mullan) forces her mother, Jean, to become pregnant with two more children. The Guthrie clan piles into covered wagons and rides through the mud and freezing mist to the Blawearie farm in the fictional village of Kinraddie. Chris is a gentle, observant, and smart young woman with plans to become a teacher of language. She is an excellent scholar, fluent in Latin, French, and English. Much of Chris’ journey deals with a schism in her soul between the world of letters and higher education and the coarse, agrarian life that she feels makes her a Scot. Sunset Song is Chris’ story through and through, and the major dialectic battle is between the verbal and the ineffable, particularly as it pertains to the unspoken feeling of connection to one’s homeland. There is a part of Chris that desires to flee her homeland and a life that has its share of hardship. Chris’ life is a daily challenge filled with the arduous nature of farm work and the strain of living with a domineering, violent father. Much of this violence is inflicted on the eldest son, Will, who is in his twenties and looking for any opportunity to leave the old man far behind. Will despises this blunt, callous man, who recklessly forces their weary mother into having ever more children, and rarely ever has a tender word for any of his kin. Jean tells her daughter that the challenge of a woman in their day and age is to somehow survive the men around them. “You’ll have to face men for yourself when the time comes,” she tearfully cautions. The next morning, Jean poisons herself and her infant twins. With no mother in the house, the two youngest sons are sent to live with Chris’ aunt and uncle, leaving only Chris, Will, and their increasingly unhinged father to run the farm.

 

One day, Will finally has enough money saved to run away to a big city and later to Argentina with a new bride at his side. On the morning her brother makes his escape, Chris cries at the window and watches him sprint down the muddy path with every bit of speed in his body. Sunset Song is the story of how Chris comes to outlive a tyrannical father and persevere long enough to see her life become her own. In time, she will taking over the Blawearie farm and flourish as the head of her own household. Chris will also fall in love with a young farmhand named Ewan, get married, and have a child, and she will proudly be able to say it was all of her own choosing. We watch Chris become the agent of her own destiny, while also learning to weather the gales of conflict and change. Chris’ tale is empowering, as she confidently cuts her own path to happiness and independence, but that is not to say that her life suddenly becomes easy. The juggernaut of the first World War soon tramples through Scotland, and the village of Kinraddie, sending most of its men away to Belgium to fight in the trenches. Ewan enlists out of shame, and when he briefly comes back for a furlough, the psychological torments of battle have made him angry and vindictive. It is as if he has been possessed by the demonic ghost of the late father Chris so hoped to be done with. Sunset Song is about the things that stay the same, like the ancient, green fields of the Scottish farmland, and it is about the passing storms of that blow however briefly across that landscape. As her mother warned her, Chris will have to learn to face men and survive them, whether that be an abusive father, the general sexism of turn-of-the-century Scotland (which forbids her from living alone at the farm she now owns), or a terrible war. In the end, Chris comes not only to embrace the eternal earth of Scotland in all its beauty and hardship, but to see herself as its natural extension; as an avatar of peace and steadiness in the midst of human turmoil. Our current film landscape is flooded with origin stories, but Sunset Song is a very rare and welcome kind of origin story. It is not the origin of a superhero, but of a strong, self-reliant, and endlessly sympathetic young woman.

 

It is never my intention to force patterns on the films that make my list, but Sunset Song does have some interesting parallels with Things To Come, the film just behind it on my year-end list. In both cases, we come to meet and care for a strong, inquisitive female character, as she sets out to explore and understand the nature of how time changes people. However, while Things To Come is about wrestling with the fact that almost everything changes, Sunset Song is more interested in looking at what endures. Sunset Song is the story of those two poles in Chris’ spirit, the verbal and the ineffably terrestrial, and how she grapples with the choice of who she should become. For all her love of words, Chris comes to identify with the glens and ponds and meadows of Scotland because they hold fast. She sees strife and instability in the world around her, and she aspires to become a rock that can withstand it. Chris does what her mother cannot. She survives men, which is to say that she survives the perpetual chaos that men so often create. Happily, Sunset Song does not present a false dichotomy where men are utterly vile and amoral and women are virtuous damsels under constant threat from every man they meet. The film is a wonderfully lyrical character drama and its view of human folly and cruelty is honest, unflinching, but never unduly judgmental. Even a barbarous cur like Chris’ father gets the odd moment to be jovial, or thoughtful, or even encouraging of his daughter’s talents. Men are not devoid of goodness in their souls, but they are still a minefield that women must navigate. With all their capacity for kindness and love, men are nonetheless something that must be survived. If anything, the problem is that man, as a collective force, is never consistent. Chris’ father may have a moment of peace, but it will not prevent him from flying into a rage an hour later. One of the most unfailingly kind men in the film is an kindhearted older farmer named Chae Strachan, who dotes on Chris, treats her as an equal, and respects her as the driven, competent master of her own domain. But even he buckles when the trumpets of war sound for him. Even peaceable men leave their families to go participate in the whims of less peaceable men. Even Chris’ beloved Ewan goes off to fight and comes back as a creature of violence, fear, and shame, given to destructive impulses that he would have once stood against. And so, Chris learns she must plant her feet in the ancient dirt and become her own immovable object. Sunset Song claims eternal Scotland for its diligent, spirited, and long-suffering women. They persist, while the men take their leave for Argentina, Belgium, and the great beyond.

 

Sunset Song is a lengthy film with a sprawling plot and a Scottish village’s worth of characters. It is the kind of film that gets referred to as “epic” and it is filled with flowery writing, either narrated by Chris in voiceover or spoken in splendidly acted dialogue scenes. It has stirring themes about change, the notion of country, family, and the desire to control one’s own fate, which it refracts through the lens of being a woman in a patriarchal society. And, now that I have used a lot of my own words to describe how verbally rich Sunset Song is, I must tell you that I find its words to be of secondary concern. Sunset Song succeeds on many fronts, but it positively soars as a beautiful, painterly, and tactile work of visual and aural art. It is a film that inundates you on multiple sensory levels. It overflows with texture, color, and sound. I do not know if I have ever had a good reason to gush about mud (at least not since turning six), but let me make up for lost time right now. Sunset Song is the most lusciously muddy film I have perhaps ever seen. Terence Davies presents the dirt of Scotland in so many different shades and states of wetness that I do not honestly have the words to accurately recount them. And that is important for two reasons. First, because a film so concerned with the idea of how people connect to the land of their birth really should give us a strong sense of what that land looks like. Secondly, in a film that presents land as something beyond the powers of words to describe, Davies puts his mud where his mouth is and lets Scotland speak for itself. One has to look at Sunset Song to really feel its impact, and the mud and dirt are only one small part of the film’s visual palette. Beyond that, there are impossibly green hillsides that shine brightly in the daylight and then mellow into darker shades of jade at dusk. The film has an incredibly sharp sense of weather and the shifting seasons, which helps it translate all those words about time and change into visual poetry. There is every matter of dew, rain, and fog. We see lightning strike a fencepost during a summer storm, sending off a shower of sparks into the rainy night. Chris and Ewan have a beautiful wedding on New Year’s Eve in a barn full of pine wreaths that you can practically smell. When the wedding is over, they walk out into soft snow that falls against the midnight blue backdrop of the sky. There are more gradations of sunlight than I could hope to name. Midday sunlight blazing down onto the workers in the fields. The gentle light of a temperate day that reflects off a small pond. And the pale, airy shafts of morning light that trickle into the Blawearie kitchen. Sunset Song is the kind of film with too much detail to ever catch in a single viewing. It was difficult to look down at my yellow notepad and scribble notes during my second viewing. I was always in danger of missing some rapturous image while I was vainly struggling to put the last one into words.

 

On top of all the visual majesty, Sunset Song is also a superb feast of sounds. There is the soft squelch of human feet and wagon wheels in the mud, the hiss and roar of the drizzles and downpours, and the diverse chorus of Scottish burrs. I could honestly rewatch Sunset Song as a purely sensory experience, ignoring all its dialogue and plot developments, but I would still want the sound of those characters’ voices. And to give your ears even more to savor, Sunset Song fills itself with beautiful old Scottish traditionals, sung over the soundtrack and by characters within the film. In one of the few moments not set in Scotland, we journey to France and the frontlines of the war. We do not see any fighting, but instead scan aerially over an abandoned battlefield. The soundtrack swells with the strains of an old Scottish song, the same one that Chris softly sings at her wedding. The singer croons as we move over the wet, muddy land, all strewn with barbed wire and boots and wheels from old carts. An old Scottish voice sings a lullaby of home, though we are now looking at another country’s mud. I am not even certain now that I have a correct reading on what it all means, but I know that, like the rest of the film, it involves the mingling of land and rain and sunlight and music. And I know that I was utterly overpowered by its depth of feeling. When the film ended, the presence of the word “song” in the title suddenly made sense to me. There is something quite musical about its approach. I came to think of the dialogue as lyrics underscoring the music of its images and sounds.

 

Sunset Song is gorgeous to experience with your eyes and ears and I think that is what makes it such an arresting movie, but it also has a very special, transporting kind of bookish quality. Even though Sunset Song probably spends more of its time visualizing the splendor of Scotland than it does on dialogue, it feels quintessentially literary. But, as I said before, “literary” is the wrong word for what I felt. Calling a film “literary” often has a slightly pejorative connotation. Plays that get turned into movies are often called literary when they fail to offer much in the way of a visual signature. It feels wrong to apply it to a film with an entire Scottish art gallery’s worth of breathtaking imagery. Sunset Song manages the nimble feat of making words feel sensory, just like a book does. This is what sent me off in search of a phantom word for that feeling. A feeling that has bewitched me since I was eight years old, when I first picked up a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. “Read feeling” is just about right. Sunset Song does an amazing job of capturing the experience of sitting there in a warm room, with a great piece of classic literature. It gives us lovely words but is also just as interested in engaging personally with our imaginations. I think it may be the fact that the film is so visual that allows it to feel more like reading. Books have space for us to take a breath and get wrapped up in picturing the way a room or barn or field looks and smells and feels to the touch. By making the film adaptation of Sunset Song so intoxicatingly sensory, Davies approximates the process of setting the book down for a moment to draw the scene in our heads. He captures the act of reading better than a more verbal approach would. Reading is so much about the act of bringing our selves and our senses into the process, where details in our heads become more vivid than they would be in real life. For example, as I write this, I am sitting one foot away from a space heater turned up to its highest setting. It’s very warm. But if I pulled out my copy of Little Women, I would soon be with the March sisters, reclining in front of their roaring hearth. And the warmth radiating from this appliance would feel clammy by comparison. After two hours in the thick mud and cool, damp air of Sunset Song, only an imaginary fire could warm my bones.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #19- La La Land

One of my favorite bands is the Talking Heads. There are a number of their songs that I might call their best on any given day, but I think the one that has always resonated with me most is “Life During Wartime”. It’s a bleak, deceptively energetic song about how living through war strips human beings down to a state of bare subsistence. At the height of wartime, human beings no longer think about things extraneous to their survival. To live through war is to lose the taste for nice things, such as notebooks, dancing, and music in general. Lead singer David Byrne repeatedly wails, “I ain’t got time for that now”. This song is a sad but clear-eyed observation of how times of great strife and conflict impact our relationship with the art we consume, and the sober conclusion seems to be that, after experiencing enough oppression, fear, and loss, one might stop seeking art altogether. I do not believe we are living through literal wartime right now, but I do believe that we are in the midst of the most fractious, dismal, and dangerous time I have been alive to see and I do not know when things will get better. I felt the heavy weight of that realization throughout the end of 2016, as friends and I observed the latest changing of the political guard and discussed what it would mean for women, for members of the LGBTQ community, and for people of color. And while we debated and the heavy clouds formed above, the Oscar nominations came out at their usual time and a tiny, gossamer skiff sailed into the brewing storm. That fragile vessel was La La Land, Damian Chazelle’s sweet, nostalgic, lovingly crafted modern showbiz musical. As it blithely paraded its old-fashioned charms through the annual awards season, its bright colors cut a strange figure against the ominous landscape. As it moved past films about racism, misogyny, homophobia, grief, economic strife, and corporate soul-sickness, it began to resemble an oblivious, bewildered aristocrat, emerging from the hermetic seal of the palace to find violence and chaos in the streets. I loved Damian Chazelle’s previous feature, Whiplash, and I think La La Land is a terrific, clever, moving piece of art, but even I have to ask: has the feverish conflict in our country reached the point where a bright, bedazzled bauble like this no longer means much? Do we no longer have time for something like La La Land?

 

To put it another way, is La La Land a film out of time? Despite the fact that it bills itself as a modern musical, it is really a movie that seems to want to exist outside of any particular era. We see modern cars and e-mail and a character even makes a reference to early 21st century television show, The OC. And yet, in the film’s Oscar-winning tune “City of Stars”, Emma Stone coos about meeting someone though the “smokescreen of the crowded restaurants”. Smoking in California restaurants has been forbidden since 1995, so it seems likely that La La Land means to keep one foot in the present while also existing in a kind of romantic dreamworld cobbled together from real and cinematic history. The film is meant to be a surreal reverie, reflecting the romantic ideal of movies, Los Angeles, and the many people who come to Hollywood to dream. La La Land begins with its most energetic number, “Another Day of Sun”, in which a congested freeway becomes the stage for an elaborate dance number performed by starry-eyed motorists with dreams of fame. The film will come to focus almost exclusively on its two leads, Sebastian (a charismatically grumpy Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone, playing a wide range of emotions and putting the adverb “charmingly” in front of each one). However, Mia and Sebastian are nowhere to be found in this first number. It is only when the singing stops and the motorists all hop back into their cars that we see both Mia and Sebastian are stuck in this same traffic. Mia is practicing a monologue in her car and not paying attention to the road. Sebastian pulls up beside her and honks in frustration and this becomes their first fateful meeting. Mia runs into Sebastian again later that night (it happens to be Christmas), right as Sebastian is being fired from his pianist job at a supper club. Sebastian, a stubborn, jazz-loving idealist, is being let go for playing free jazz instead of “Jingle Bells”. Coincidence keeps throwing the characters together until they eventually become a couple. Both are artists with dreams of success. For Sebastian, that means owning his own jazz club, where he can play the kind of traditional jazz that he feels is being left on the scrap heap. Eventually, he joins a jazz fusion combo with an old classmate (John Legend), but the band’s very modern musical identity is worlds apart from the kind of jazz Sebastian wants to play. Meanwhile, Mia is a struggling actress and aspiring playwright, repeatedly going through the indignity of terrible auditions, trying to put on a one-woman show, and wondering how much more stomach she has for the kind of rejection that Los Angeles regularly serves up. As they contend with failure and setbacks, they are also forced to juggle their newfound romance and the challenges of chasing their dreams. La La Land is a film about the joys and the costs of following your passion and it holds the idea of dreaming up to the light like the world’s most sacred object. For better or worse, the power of dreaming is the film’s central theme and the modesty of that sweet, admirable notion in troubled times like these seems to be the central point of controversy around it. That said, it is not La La Land’s only issue.

 

One of the major critiques directed at La La Land is that it only achieves modest success as a musical. I understand and even somewhat agree with this criticism. I will immediately concede that the dancing in La La Land is mostly lackadaisical. It tips its cap to the idea of dancing in a 1950s Hollywood musical without ever really coming close to the astounding feats of choreography found in those movies. The film claims to be inspired partly by Singin’ In the Rain, the second best film ever made by my estimation, and that comparison really does it no favors. There is not a single dance move in La La Land that can stand next to the blistering athleticism of Singin’ In the Rain. Donald O’Connor’s doctor famously ordered him to stay in bed for three days after he filmed the dancing for “Make ‘Em Laugh”, while the idea of Ryan Gosling so much as pulling a hamstring on “Waste of A Lovely Night” is laughable. La La Land hits the peak of its physical virtuosity in the first scene, before we ever see Mia and Sebastian. I will also admit that Gosling is a bit of a middling singer, though this shortcoming is mitigated by the fact that he has a dry, understated sense of timing, which complements the breezy, jazzy, effervescent tone of the songs. This is not a musical that really calls for vocal showboating. Emma Stone is a better singer than her co-star, but I admit that her voice can be a bit breathy and strained. That said, she also has a knack for conveying emotion through her singing and that becomes indispensable by the time the film reaches its final, and full-stop best, song: “Audition”. I genuinely like every one of La La Land’s songs, but most of them are humble melodies more suited to humming to one’s self on a warm summer evening than belting out in a karaoke lounge. These are fine little tunes with a firm grasp of melody and emotion, but I would agree that La La Land would fall utterly short as a musical if it did not have at least one song that brings the house down. It needs that one moment of unbridled catharsis. “Audition” finds Mia being put on the spot at the most important audition of her life. Rather than recite a prepared piece, the casting director wants her to simply tell a story. Hearing that the film takes place in Paris, Mia’s thoughts go to her late aunt who once lived there. This aunt first introduced Mia to the magic of movies and inspired her to write and perform. Mia haltingly begins to tell the story of when her aunt, acting on a whim, jumped into the Seine river. Her nervous, faltering speech suddenly transforms into a gentle melody and from there it builds into a full-throated ballad about following one’s muse right up to the boundary of madness. “Audition” is the moment that this laidback musical reaches a much-needed fever pitch. As Mia sings a toast to “the ones who dream”, she renews her own depleted spirits and the film throws its arms around the artists of the world. Whatever other reservations I have about La La Land, I unabashedly love “Audition”. I love it for the small details it gives us of this aunt we will never meet. How she took her shoes off before jumping into the Seine, the image of her sick in bed but determined to repeat this meaningful mistake. The sense of a fiery flawed woman who “lived in her liquor”. In a film that can occasionally feel suffocating for keeping its focus exclusively on Mia and Sebastian, these small glimpses of a beloved aunt help the film’s miniature Faberge world feel just a little bit bigger. And for all of Stone’s limitations as a singer, I adore her for the entirety of this song. Some of her breathiness is still there, but the context of the scene and the song turn that limit into a strength. Her weaknesses make the scene exciting and moving. Stone pushes the vessel of her voice as hard as she can over the choppy surf of the film’s one truly big song, and the fact that the vessel is frail and rickety only increases the tension and the overwhelming emotional release of her make-or-break moment.

 

I can very easily put myself in the shoes of a La La Land detractor. A musical made mostly of modest ditties that uses up all its noteworthy choreography in the first five minutes and gives its one and only vocal showstopper to a woman with a plaintive, trembling voice. That is all true, of course, but I think to flatly label that as a failing is to forget that there are many different kinds of musicals. Not every musical needs to be an explosive display of singing and dancing. For example La La Land’s most important musical influence is The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a 1960s French operetta starring the brilliant and captivating Catherine Deneuve. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is, for my money, the second best film musical ever made and it shares La La Land’s sense of understated, jazzy melancholy. The songs in Cherbourg are gorgeous, but its delicate emotional register does not conform to the glitzy, epically melodramatic scale of a Broadway show. The film is not an extravagant burlesque revue but a wistful French romantic drama where characters sing their lines. Cherbourg and La La Land are both soft, twinkling musicals about lovers whose ideals about romance are challenged by economic realities and by life’s winding course. They are mature films about compromise as a hard but necessary part of life. Both films have a musical style that is alternatingly breezy and melancholic and they present life as a symphony of sweet and sorrowful notes playing off of one another. Unexpected joys and missed connections. I do not think people are wrong for wanting more out of La La Land in terms of musical prowess, but I encourage people to watch The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a true masterpiece of the musical genre, and consider La La Land in that context. If La La Land feels more musically modest than some would like, that is at least partly by Damian Chazelle’s design. It is a delicate and fumbling musical because its ideas lend themselves to that kind of low-key approach. It is about struggling and failing and learning that even success carries its own bittersweet consequences. If one looks at the film this way, its earnest, shaky voices feel distinctly more at home. To put it in terms of a musical analogy, I have great respect for the massive voice of Whitney Houston, but my favorite artist is Bob Dylan. Bob Dylan made some of the best albums ever recorded, but his voice is not what you’d call technically impressive. It is an expressive but reedy instrument. Someone could approach me and ask, “Well, wouldn’t those great Dylan albums sound even better with a massive voice like Whitney Houston’s? Maybe Freddie Mercury?” Of course not. Throw Luciano Pavarotti in there while you’re at it and the answer is still no. And the reason is there is more to music, or any other kind of art, than sheer technique. Making great art is about nuance and shade and sometimes that means a shaky singer is a better fit for the music than someone with a five-octave range. It’s the reason the simple harmonies of a Ronettes song give me chills, while Santana will always bore me to tears. Not every painting calls for the same giant brush, not every song should end with an American Idol glory note, and not every musical has to feel like Phantom of the Opera.

 

Chazelle’s overtly stated desire to pay homage to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg helps to contextualize some of its musical modesty. However, it also casts light on what I think is La La Land’s bigger deficiency: its story and characters. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is a masterful, heartbreaking story of romance thwarted by war and life’s cruel economic hurdles. It justifies its relative musical restraint by being one of the most powerful, rich, and emotionally overwhelming love stories ever told. By comparison, Mia and Sebastian’s romance feels very slight. Their romantic tribulations are the product of their own decisions about how to pursue their artistic ambitions and, while balancing a relationship and a career is a relatable struggle for many, their story is much less devastatingly impactful than The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When you get down to it, La La Land is not just a modest musical, but also an exceedingly modest love story. If I can pinpoint the problem, it’s that Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren, editor Tom Cross, costume designer Mary Zophres, composer Justin Hurwitz, and the rest of the technical crew do such a fine job of making their Los Angeles dreamscape feel lush and intoxicating that it throws the relative banality of the romance into even greater relief. The story of Mia and Sebastian, two likeable artists who spend six months falling for each other and have to decide whether they can balance that love with their burgeoning careers, can feel a little blasé on repeat viewings. And, again, I would argue this is entirely by Damian Chazelle’s design. The film’s entire purpose is to take a very small story of dreaming, loving and compromising and give it the emotional tug of a Hollywood musical. The interplay of the sweetly modest and the emotionally ravishing is very much what La La Land has in mind. Nevertheless, this is how the film stumbles at the same time that it succeeds. And this brings me back to why La La Land looks like such a strange, bejeweled relic next to the year’s more substantively great films. Because once you’ve finished admiring its clever story beats and its beautiful colors and its bewitching music, what you are left with is two average Angelenos giving voice to the year’s most anachronistically inconsequential movie theme: the power of dreams. La La Land is about the value of dreaming and the compromises that come along with that. And, please don’t laugh, pursuing your dreams is a very good thing to do. And making human connections and finding love are a huge part of what it means to be human. And learning about compromise and how we have to let go of some dreams so other dreams can flourish is a big part of life. If these ideas are not matters of life and death, I still think they are sweet and thoughtful and worth holding onto.

 

Still, I can see why those concerns seem naïve and sheltered in the increasingly dark days of early 2017. The breathless sincerity with which the film watches two nice, young, photogenic white Californians follow their bliss feels undeniably quaint. La La Land is a good-natured, fizzy, wistful, technically assured, well-acted film about dreamers, and I wanted dearly to write about its many pleasures without taking the conflict and fear and uncertainty of the outside world into account. As a sterling piece of escapism, La La Land was always meant to be cordoned off from the outside world. But the film is over and now I’m sitting in my world, the real world, and trying to make sense of where La La Land fits into it. And if it doesn’t fit in anywhere, as a number of people seem to think, then that sends an important message about where we are as a society, whether the film had that message in mind or not. And, very clearly, La La Land had nothing of the sort in mind. This earnestly extravagant nostalgia trip had the misfortune of being born right as the world took a turn for the macabre and there is not a thing the film can do about it. It talks in urgent, hushed tones about the importance of dreaming, but its dreams are filled with celluloid and lipstick and it never has nightmares. I had a lovely time with La La Land, but I also understand that this film, which evokes a bygone era, may have been made for a more recently bygone era. If the film’s Technicolor fantasias are too slight, too sheltered, and too euphorically oblivious to resonate in a world this anxious and besieged then so be it. I’ll lock this little trinket away in a desk drawer and dream of a time when it is useful again.

Top 20 Films of 2016: #20- Things To Come

 

The French language title of Mia Hansen-Love’s perceptive new French film is “The Future”, but its English title is Things To Come. Both fit the film perfectly, but I think the English title goes further into probing the film’s meaning and the mindset of its protagonist. “The Future” is a fine and fitting title for this beautiful, understated domestic drama about a French philosophy teacher in her sixties who, over the course of a year or so, loses her marriage, her mother, and her general sense of stability. The film is very much about saying goodbye to one’s past, both distant and recent, and looking toward the future. However, “things to come” puts a word like “the future” under a magnifying glass, turning it over and unpacking for deeper layers of meaning. Even though we cannot see it, the future is something we all at least expect. A title like Things To Come, however, serves as a reminder that any person’s future is comprised of events that are entirely beyond our vision and beyond the realm of certainty.  And so, Things To Come looks at the changes in the life of one fairly ordinary philosophy professor, given extraordinary depth by the great Isabelle Huppert, and uses that journey to explore how quickly assumptions about the days and years ahead of us can be thrown into flux.

 

When we first meet Nathalie, the woman at the heart of Things To Come, she is riding a ferry with her husband, Heinz, and their two youngest children. While the rest of the family converses on the front of the boat, Nathalie remains inside alone, reading through a book of philosophy. The family has gone to the French seaside to visit a famous writer’s grave, perched at the edge of a cliff. Both Nathalie and Heinz are writers and philosophy teachers at Paris high schools and it seems likely they have come to pay their respects to some important literary influence. After a moment at the grave, the children run off down the winding path and Nathalie turns to follow them. As she does so, Heinz asks to stay behind a moment. It may be a simple desire to reflect at the final resting place of an inspiring writer, but it could just as easily be an excuse for Heinz to buy himself a brief moment apart from Nathalie. When the film skips ahead three years, we will learn Heinz has been in an affair for quite some time. After the film revealed this pivotal piece of information, my thoughts went back to those first two scenes, depicting a marked distance between husband and wife. Was that moment of solitude at the grave the time when Heinz first contemplated seeing someone else, or had that relationship already started? How taken aback was he on the day he woke up and felt the desire to betray his wife of twenty-five years? Had he thought about it for months or did the temptation sneak up on him suddenly? How does a relationship change and eventually dissolve? Is it gradual, instantaneous, or some mixture of the two? I pose these questions not from a place of moral judgment of Heinz but more in the way Hansen-Love’s film does: out of a genuine, empathetic curiosity. The film is less interested in easy conclusions than in probing the mysteries of how people shift and evolve over time; how being in a relationship entails having to dance with a constantly changing mass of emotions, ideas, and flesh. And of course, you too are transforming away from what you have been and into, well, whatever is to become of you.

 

Early in the film, we see Nathalie lecturing her students on the philosopher Rousseau. She reads them Rousseau’s thoughts on democracy, a form of governance that rests on the collective will of a teeming mass of people. Things To Come is about change, but it is also more pointedly about how change manifests through the erratic nature of human beings. Nathalie tells her students that Rousseau believed only a nation of gods could form a truly effective democracy, because humankind is too fickle. Human beings are inscrutable and unpredictable, and chaos arises from the fact that we must each build our lives upon the shifting sands of other people. Yet, while Nathalie is mindful of the unsteady nature of human beings, she also seems blissfully ignorant of the fact that this same philosophical principle she applies to human governance also applies to the smaller sphere of her marriage. Nonetheless, Nathalie’s next words to her students offer a reminder not to take human caprice too personally. “Don’t misinterpret,” she cautions her students, before reminding them that Rousseau was a firm believer in the social contract, meaning that he was never proposing we could do without each other. On the contrary, we must accept our fallible natures and still learn to make do with one another. At the end of the day, the chaos of human choice is simply a fact of life; a phenomenon no more deserving of condemnation than the wind or the tides.

 

Outside of her teaching job, one of Nathalie’s constant tasks is looking in on her mother, Yvette, an elderly woman with early signs of dementia. Yvette has made part of her career on being a model, and still spends her time looking for work, even as her health steadily worsens. Yvette’s steady decline in cognizance is another reminder of how life is always moving and shifting, until it eventually escapes our very bodies. One morning, Yvette informs Nathalie that she is in consideration for a new role. She will be portraying a cadaver in a television show. In scenes like this, Things To Come reveals itself as a clear-eyed, mature, and unsparingly direct exploration of how relentlessly life moves forward. Nathalie’s beautiful, aging mother has spent her life doing a job that calls for her to sculpt imaginary realities, but there is a grain of truth in the fiction. At one time, Yvette was in her late twenties and one could have imagined her playing a college student or a young bride. In her forties, one could have perhaps seen her in the role of a middle-aged attorney or a professor. One day, she woke up to eighty years and a new reality: a casting director could imagine her as a dead body. Within the span of about a year, life will imitate art and she will no longer be alive. Change and the steady erosion of time are such pervasive forces that not even fiction can ignore them entirely.

 

One of the film’s most stinging insights is that change can not only drastically alter our futures, but also rewrite our relationships with the past. After maintaining her composure for many weeks, Nathalie finally breaks down in tears while talking with an old student. The reason for her tears is not thinking about Heinz or his infidelity or the children she will see less often. Instead, she weeps from thinking about a place: Heinz’s family’s seaside home on the coast of Brittany. She recalls many summers spent there. It is the place where her children learned to swim and where she spent hours, days, and years carefully planting and nurturing a garden. It suddenly dawns on her that these spaces will be lost to her forever. Mere weeks ago, these places had a tangible connection to her present, because she could look forward to revisiting and touching them each summer. Now they will become the stuff of memory alone. Heinz feebly tells her that she can still visit any time she wishes, even when he is not there, but she tartly rebukes him. “You keep acting like everything is the same,” she spits out in exasperation. “What planet are you on?” Of course it is physically possible for Nathalie to return to her ex-husband’s summer home, just as it is physically possible to go back to the halls of your old high school, or to travel back to your favorite restaurant in the town where you lived when you were twenty-three. The physical possibility is not the issue. For Nathalie, the context has all evaporated. The dissolution of her marriage is such a powerful event that it has radically altered the very essence of a physical space. Brittany still exists on a map of France, but it will never be the same.

 

Now, perhaps this all sounds like a depressive wallow at best, or a tedious essay at worst. A pensive examination of how change and upheaval affect an aging French divorcee could have easily been relentlessly dour or unbearably dry in the wrong hands. But, somehow Things To Come manages to be a terrifically involving and engaging study about living and adapting. It becomes a lovely and lively character study, while always remaining understated in its observations. It’s actually quite a feat of thoughtful, low-key filmmaking, and there is really no doubt about who makes it possible. With all due credit to a subtle, terrific cast of French actors in smaller roles, the film belongs entirely to the two women in charge: Isabelle Huppert, finding the nexus between subtlety and jazzy spontaneity in front of the camera, and Mia Hansen-Love sympathizing and commiserating with her as a director. Huppert is one of our greatest living actresses and she accomplishes the seemingly impossible trick of making a reserved, contemplative woman’s late-life crisis feel dynamic and even funny. Hansen-Love mostly sits back and trusts Huppert to breathe uninhibited life into this very simple narrative, but that is not to say that there is anything passive or lazy about her directorial approach or her wise, delicate screenplay. She just has the courage and the cool confidence not to manufacture needless melodrama. As a result, Nathalie’s journey is somehow both emotionally rich and refreshingly unsentimental.

 

Hansen-Love knows how to tease out the themes of her story in small details. Take for example Nathalie’s profession as a philosophy teacher. That character trait is not merely there so Hansen-Love can fill her film with bits of Rousseau and other deep thinkers. Nathalie’s philosophical hunger is key to the character and her arc, because it ends up being the compass that sees her through. It is as important to Things To Come that Nathalie is a philosopher as it is to Happy Go Lucky that Poppy is an optimist. It is a film about life’s trials as experienced by that specific type of person. Having the inquisitive spirit of a philosopher enables Nathalie to take a removed and curious view of her own misfortune and about the uncertainty of what is to come. That is why Things To Come can look without blinking at some pretty miserable circumstances, like betrayal, divorce and the loss of a parent, and never really feel miserable. Nathalie is by turns apprehensive, fearful, and frustrated, but she is simply too vivacious and present to ever succumb to despair. In one of the film’s most famous shots, the two current tragedies in Nathalie’s life team up to knock her for a loop. As she rides the bus home from her mother’s funeral, she looks out the window and sees Heinz walking blithely down the street with his new, young girlfriend. At that moment, she stops sobbing for her departed mother and laughs in disbelief. The puckishness of this timing is too cruel to be believed and also too bleakly absurd not to be just a little funny. Life can be merciless. How curious.

 

In Huppert’s hands, both Nathalie and Things To Come dance along a tightrope between sorrowful pragmatism and zesty curiosity for what it means to live, love, and one day die. In one of her most depressed moments, Nathalie tells her old student that she will never again know romance and that a single women her age is marked for the trash heap. A few minutes later, however, she quickly brushes her woes aside. “It’s not that serious,” she reminds her student and herself. “My life isn’t over.” This is the essence of the film and the character; intrigued and at times overwhelmed by emotion, and by the knowledge that every single thing we know and experience will one day end, yet never surrendering to fatalism. Death is a part of Things To Come, but Things To Come is not a film about death.  It is a story about putting a hand across one’s brow and peering out toward all that will transpire between this most recent, passing moment and the eventual conclusion of it all. I believe Huppert and Hansen-Love want us to take heart and inspiration from Nathalie. To allow ourselves to feel sadness, or whatever  emotion strikes us, for the departed past, while still looking to the horizon with curiosity and some guarded measure of hope. That seems worth striving for, in 2017 or any other time. I would go too far to call Things To Come an optimistic film, but its voice is warm, soothing and composed. We should do our best to keep moving forward while we are alive and we should learn to find some mixture of excitement and edification in the fact that nothing in life ever truly stops changing. “Death and taxes”, Nathalie might say, before taking out a red marker and crossing out “taxes”.

Top 20 Films of 2015: #17- It Follows

It Follows- Alone

Around this time two years ago, I was writing a year-end review for my fourteenth favorite film of a 2013, one of the two best film years of this century. The film was James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now, the marvelously nuanced and tender romantic drama set in an American high school. That lovely, observant teenage film further confirmed the immense talent of Shailene Woodley and introduced me to the dynamic and charismatic Miles Teller. I was moved more than I ever could have expected by how frankly and empathetically it entered the world of its adolescent protagonists and how thoughtfully it observed them. So few directors show anything more than a passing concern in understanding their teenaged characters beyond a surface level.  It gave me new hope for that an adult filmmaker could place himself in the shoes of his young characters and relate their stories with clear, sympathetic eyes. As I was writing that review, the Sundance Film Festival was screening the debut of 2014’s tremendously scary and moving Austaralian horror film, The Babadook. In recent years, starting perhaps with 2012’s Cabin In the Woods, there has been a hushed excitement that the horror genre is starting to brim with exciting, vital films again, and The Babadook is a huge part of that burgeoning horror renaissance. I saw The Babadook last year and loved it. It was my fourth favorite film of its year, and I adored it for reasons not dissimilar to those that made me love The Spectacular Now. Both high school films and horror films have a tendency toward recycling familiar tropes and plot points. And, at their worst, they tend to fall back on tired archetypes who move the plot forward, but have very little agency or personality of their own. Even with the main characters, it can often seem like they are there to serve a pre-existing story that is already in place rather than to have an organic narrative crafted around their desires and inner lives. Both The Spectacular Now and The Babadook scratched a similar cinematic itch for me. They found oceans of soul and insight inside worlds that had been visited countless times before, and they invested heavily in phenomenally gifted actors who could render familiar characters with subtle specificity. However, in spite of how much they have in common as unexpectedly great films inside their respective genres, I never thought to compare them until now. I have waited with baited breath for the next film to portray teenagers with the grace and genuine care of The Spectacular Now, and I have waited just as eagerly for the next horror film with the perfectly judged style and emotional wallop of The Babadook. I just never thought that one movie would be the next to achieve both feats. It Follows, David Cameron Mitchell’s ingenious and meticulous horror film, is the best film about teenagers since The Spectacular Now (excepting a certain laidback masterpiece from 2015), and it is also The Babadook’s proud successor in the new, and hopefully long, horror revival.

It Follows- Each Other 1

 

It Follows begins with a breathtakingly intense prologue. Annie, a young woman in her late teens runs out of her house. She stands in the middle of the suburban street, visibly shaken. Her neighbors and her own father ask if she is okay. She tries to ease their concern, but her gaze is always at some unseen thing in front of her. She sprints back into her house and emerges a moment later with the keys to her car. In an instant, she is tearing off through the fading dusk. She parks her car on the beach and sits in the darkness with her back to the ocean. She calls her parents to tearfully apologize for anything she ever did to hurt them. When the morning sun comes up, she lies dead on her back. Her left leg has been snapped backwards over her head and her face is a frozen mask of pain. After this enigmatically unsettling introduction, It Follows finds its true protagonist and becomes the story of Jay, a college student in her early twenties. She is played by Maika Monroe in the kind of simple, unshowy performance that I appreciate more each time I see it. It is also the story of her sister, Kelley, and their small circle of friends, which includes their former stepbrother Paul, and Yara, a sardonic bookworm with a low-key demeanor. Jay and Kelley live in their family home with a mother who is glimpsed only occasionally, and who only has one speaking scene in the entire movie. For the most part, the small circle of friends talks only among themselves. When we meet Jay, she is preparing to go on a date with a young man named Hugh. As they stand in line to see an old Cary Grant film, Jay proposes a game. Hugh must look around and pick the person in the crowd who he would most want to be. He chooses a six-year old child, because he is momentarily free from responsibility, fear, and the consequences of getting older. As Hugh attempts to guess Jay’s pick, he points to a girl in a yellow dress at the back of the theater. Jay is unable to see her. Hugh flies into a panic and runs out of the movie, dragging Jay behind him. On their second date, Jay has sex with Hugh in hi car. Afterwards, she leans out of the open door of the backseat and muses about how she always thought about adult milestones like this when she was a small child; not only about sex, but about the whole gamut of grownup freedom. Now that all that autonomy is hers, and all the mysteries behind the adult veil have been revealed, she wonders what is left to want and to look forward to. At that very moment, Hugh forces a chloroform-soaked rag over Jay’s mouth, and Jay wakes up on the second floor of an abandoned commercial building, tied down in a rolling chair. Hugh explains It Follows’ ingenious horror concept. Now that Jay has had sex with him, a shapeshifting entity will follow her. It will kill her if it catches her. It can take any human form it wishes, even that of people she knows and loves. It will only walk after her. It will never speak. But it is not stupid. Jay will need to be wary of entering rooms with only one door. It will only cease following her when she passes it off to another sexual partner. However, if that partner dies, it will come back down the chain to resume hunting her. Hugh shows her the spectre. It is slowly walking along the perimeter of the building, in the form of a half-dressed woman. Within a minute, it has found a way up to the same floor as them. Hugh takes Jay away and drops her off in front of her house, trembling and still in her underwear. It Follows is the story of Jay coming to terms with the grim avatar chasing her and how she turns to her sister and close friends (including Greg, a broodingly sensitive neighbor boy, who offers his beach house as refuge) to help her outsmart the implacable threat. It Follows is a coming-of-age horror film, about a small social unit facing down adulthood, sex, and death together.

It Follows- Tall Man

 

As an adult making a film about teenagers, David Cameron Mitchell strikes a delicate balance. He allows the story to unfold with an adolescent’s sense of anxiety and uncertainty about sex, but he also brings an adult’s maturity on the subject. It is the same maturity the characters steadily find as they go through this ordeal together. 2015 was the year that the term “sex-positive” happily entered my vocabulary. I have long felt troubled by how pervasively sex is stigmatized in our culture. One of the most surprising facets of It Follows, a film where teenaged sex literally creates an unyielding monster, is how frank and positive it is about sex under the surface. The sex act may be what puts Jay in danger, but the film does not view sex itself as negative. Sex is a powerful, multi-faceted thing; a force of both light and darkness.  It Follows is very much a film about sexual fear and curiosity and the different ways young people come to reconcile its power to both harm and heal. While the monster may tie neatly to the idea of sexually transmitted disease, the film crafts a much more complex metaphor, which takes on the emotions of sex as well as the physiology. Sex is a force of nature, and Hugh’s advice to Jay is to distance herself from that force as much as possible by spreading it to the next partner she can find. Hugh’s method of diminishing the staggering and sometimes frightening emotional power of sex may be to simply engage in it as often as possible until it is no longer has the terrible power of the unknown. I should note here that It Follows heavily suggests sexual abuse somewhere in our characters’ pasts. Hugh’s approach seems to be a kind of proactive survival mechanism: flipping all the lights on and staring the monster down until it cannot scare or hurt us anymore. While sex is the only means of delaying the monster, however, Mitchell suggests that turning to our loving relationships may be the surer means of survival.

It Follows- Connecting

 

It Follows has such a terrifically scary concept that it likely would have been an interesting and worthy film, even if it was just about how terrifying the idea of sex can be to a young person. Thankfully, it becomes a great and thoughtful film because of how it contrasts the idea of sex as a sinister and alienating force with the idea that sex is a means of fostering love and human connection. Jay’s predicament is not the result of sexual activity, but the result of sex with a man who was only interested in distancing himself from some past hurt he suffered. In contrast to her experience with Hugh, Jay comes to find a genuinely loving connection in Paul, who not only wants to be with her but wants to share her monstrous burden. It Follows does not propose any easy solution to the problems brought on by abuse and sexual dysfunction, but it argues that fostering sexual relationships based on open communication and mutual care for one another is probably the best place to start. This is how a horror movie about what is effectively a sexually transmitted demon ends up being one of the year’s most psychologically honest and emotionally healthy films.

It Follows- Car Door

 

The joys and terrors of sexual awakening are the chief subject of It Follows, but its thematic scope is more expansive than that. It is a horror movie where the terror is the entire fear of growing up, growing old, and dying. It is partly about the fear of mysterious rites of passage like sex, but it is also about dreading that life will no longer have any mystery. It is about being a young person standing at the city limits of adulthood and remembering how long you have been sheltered from seeing this place. Mitchell smartly fills the film with the iconography of childhood’s innocence: swimming pools and ice cream parlors, playgrounds and beach houses. However, the fear Jay and her friends feel is not simply the anxiety that comes from seeing their lazy summer days become less carefree, but from finally being able to glimpse the end of all their days. It is about the fear of disappointment and death, and how those two feed off of one another. There is a reason that one of Jay’s first encounters with the monster takes place in a college English course, as the professor reads The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot’s famous poem where the narrator’s fear of his inevitable demise is only secondary to the fear that he will die a forgotten footnote. Like that poem, It Follows is a spiritual paranoia that goes much deeper than sex. Jay and her inner circle are thoughtful, smart, yearning young adults, and, like so many hyper-intelligent young people, they feel the full weight of the world. They feel it in spite of their tender age, and probably because of it as well. Every child thinks of death, but there comes a moment when that idea of mortality transforms from a storybook apparition into something concrete; something with real, physical contours. Mitchell knows that this is something every young person feels, but he also understands how Jay and her friends feel like they are alone in confronting these new emotions.

It Follows- Old Woman

 

It Follows thoughtfully tackles sex and growing up, but what makes it a great film is how it uses impeccable cinematic technique to both support its themes and create beautiful tension as a piece of horror filmmaking. If one just wants to watch one of the most chilling and ominously beautiful works of recent genre cinema, It Follows is worth seeing for its technical accomplishments alone. Mitchell has a great, playfully sadistic sense of timing. He knows when and how to have the monster appear from moment to moment. In one scene, the monster takes Yara’s form and walks up behind Jay on the beach. To the viewer, there is nothing to indicate that this is not Yara. Then, far off in the background, the real Yara drifts into the frame in an inner tube. The electronic artist Disasterpiece crafts a moody 80’s synth score that lovingly sends up John Carpenter films like Halloween, but also does a tremendous job of enhancing the mood of this modern film. It is rare case of homage done well; paying respects to a past horror master while remaining a seamless part of this new horror classic. Most of all, It Follows is a tremendous work of cinematography. The shots Mitchell sets up are meticulous and beautiful in their sense of foreboding, from the horrific tableau-like shot of the monster’s first victim mutilated on the beach to the unsettling pan around the Jay’s college quad, where each and every body the camera sees could be the monster.

It Follows- Yara

 

But Mitchell is such a confident director that these painterly shots are always feeding the emotions and ideas of the film too. In the film’s opening scene, the first victim waits for the monster on the beach, bathed in the headlights of her car. She sits in the center of the frame, but the very wide shot makes her look miniature. Mitchell uses this shot to create a feeling of insignificance and isolation. We feel for this poor young girl not only because death is pursuing her, but because the camera communicates how alone she is. In perhaps my favorite shot of the film, Jay runs away from the beach, as the monster pursues her across the front yard of Greg’s house. Panicked and afraid, she hops in Greg’s car and pulls forward to make a three-point turn. We momentarily lose sight of the monster walking across the yard as the beach house enters the frame. When Jay reverses and then speeds away from the house, we can see the yard again; except the monster is gone and we only see her friends in the far distance running after the car. It is not only the most impressively virtuosic shot in the movie, but conveys what all this fear and dread can do to a young person. It can send them running off into solitude, away from the people who most care about them. It Follows explores the adolescent feeling of battling force no one else can see. Adults are barely ever seen in the world of this film, even though we know that Jay and her friends have parents. Any adult we do see is just as likely to be the monster as a real human being. Being young can feel like being on a strange, barely inhabited planet.

It Follows- Running Away

 

It Follows is a horror movie, but it is unlike a great many horror movies in its refusal to use young characters as bland fodder. Many films of this kind watch voyeuristically as the young scatter from one another to die somewhere alone in the woods, but the characters in it Follows press close together. The young characters of It Follows learn that adulthood brings a host of new fears and dangers, but their arc is more about the stalwart courage they find in each other than about despair over what the future holds. Connection and solidarity is what sees them through. I have heard adults bemoan how rapidly advancing technology and social media have flooded world with strange new modes of communication. I can remember hearing about text speak for the first time and dismissively thinking of it as a bizarre code system used only by the young. And of course it was! Adults forget too quickly what a daunting, desolate space adolescence is. We traversed that alien expanse ourselves not so long ago. We felt afraid and misunderstood, but people who were like us, placed in that exact same situation at that exact same time. They spoke the same language as us. Films like It Follows remember that feeling and they call for us to remember it too. I still feel foolish for making fun of text speak. The young will always need their codes. And each other.

It Follows- Playground

Top 20 Films of 2015: #18- The Jinx

 

The Jinx- Bob In Court

I had my first viewing of Andrew Jarecki’s harrowing, brilliantly edited, and sometimes bleakly humorous six-part documentary miniseries, The Jinx, on May 2, 2015. Just a few hours earlier, I had watched that most elite of American sporting events, the Kentucky Derby. There is something fitting in the juxtaposition between the two that did not hit me until recently. The Derby, with its $25,000 entry fee, is the kind of sporting event in which only a very wealthy subset have a chance of entering, and where only an even smaller and wealthier subset have a reasonable chance of winning. By the same token, The Jinx captures an America where success, happiness, and even justice are increasingly guaranteed to only the most privileged among us. After watching Jarecki’s four-hour-plus expose of black sheep real estate heir Robert Durst and the three murders he is suspected of committing, I was simultaneously alight with anger and sorrowfully exhausted. It was the very best thing I had yet seen in 2015, and I vowed to make a place for it on my year-end list, episodic format be damned. Nine months later, a number of films, seventeen to be exact, have usurped its throne as the year’s best filmed work. It has even been thrice dethroned as the year’s best work of non-fiction. However, if The Jinx has fallen from the pinnacle of exceptionalism, much like the disgraced fortunate son at its center, it still holds up as the year’s most incisive account of post-recession America’s money culture and the stark class divisions within our society. If nothing else, no film made since the recession has done a better job of poetically capturing our current sense of economic anxiety, and I say that with all due respect for wonderful films like this year’s The Big Short and 2008’s Inside Job. Moreover, when I look back on this year’s films, none of them can match The Jinx for its sheer sense of almost mythic expansiveness. The Jinx is a rigorous true crime documentary about a rich prodigal son getting away with multiple murders, but it expands past its own subject to suggest a larger tapestry of American ambition, economic strife, and failure. Beyond its focused story is the tale of an entire nation in turmoil. In this way, The Jinx is in keeping with great true crime works like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The best true crime stories transcend the sordid details of a single crime to become something richer and sadder. Capote’s tale of a Kansas family senselessly murdered for an imaginary stash of money saw a whole world of stalled dreams, family dysfunction, desperation, and inadequacy in his two pathetically misguided killers. Capote saw the pressure of living up to expectations, of having dreams deferred, and of seeing grand plans go awry. And, like Jarecki now does, he saw America implicated in all of it. In telling the already sweeping story of a coldly self-rationalizing billionaire and the three violent deaths he almost certainly caused, Jarecki’s The Jinx finds something even more massive and disquieting: an America whose rampant obsession with money has perverted and metastasized its essential character and exposed a flagrant disregard for human life in its highest echelons. The system that caused the catastrophic 2008 market crash, Jarecki suggests, is the same system that creates an entitled sociopath like Bob Durst, allows him to kill wantonly, sells him his freedom for premium legal fees, and now grants him the right to sit in front of a movie camera, brazenly and unconvincingly washing his hands of the death and destruction he caused. In Bob Durst, Jarecki has presented us with the year’s most magnetic, pathetic, and horrifyingly sad villain; one who is both the avatar and unfortunate byproduct of crass capitalism.

The Jinx- Squinty Bob

 

The events of The Jinx span from 1982 into the present, with a brief flashback to the 1950s, when a seven year-old Bob Durst saw his mother leap to her death from the roof of their mansion. A crime writer for the New York Times describes Durst as an enigma, and the film chooses to approach him this way from the very outset. We first learn of the third and most recent of Durst’s killings, which took place in Galveston, Texas in 2001. A 71 year-old man named Morris Black was found dismembered, sealed in garbage bags, and floating in Galveston Bay. The head was never recovered. The search fell to Galveston police, including a charismatic, mustachioed, quintessentially Texan investigator named Cody Cazalas. Cazalas traced a piece of mail in one of the bags to an apartment address that had been occupied by an allegedly deaf, mute woman named Dorothy Cyner. In fact, Dorothy was merely the disguise and alias of Bob Durst, a seemingly mild, diminutive grey-haired New Yorker in his fifties. One officer describes him as looking like a librarian. Bob had used the alias of Dorothy to rent an apartment in Galveston, where he could hide from the outside world. Bob even paid the landlord a year in advance, so that he would not have to frequently make contact with people who might recognize him. Cazalas was able to apprehend Durst by following a prescription for glasses to a local eye clinic, where Durst had scheduled an appointment. The wealth of details and evidence in this first segment of The Jinx is vital in setting its tone of melancholic fatigue, even before the whole case goes awry. Before we see the outcome of Bob’s trial in Texas, which is only one piece in the entire puzzle of Bob’s story, Jarecki wants us to see the sheer amount of work that went into it; the full gamut of dead ends and interviews and evidence searches. An officer remembers thinking, “We got him”, but his rueful tone and pregnant pause betray that this is not how the story is fated to end. For the Galveston police, the first alarm bells sounded when the unassuming Durst was able to post his $300,000 bail. Investigators learned that Robert was the eldest child of the Durst family, one of the wealthiest real estate dynasties in all of New York City. Durst had the resources of a powerful family that could set him free and afford to pay the two best criminal defense lawyers in Texas, when Durst and his most recent wife could not agree on which one to pick. In spite of the advantages afforded by his family’s money, Robert fled from his arraignment hearing, driving as far north as Pennsylvania before he was arrested for shoplifting. In an act that seems almost willfully foolish, Bob stole a cheap sandwich from a Wegman’s grocery store, despite having vast sums of money in the trunk of his car. The Durst who emerges in this first segment is a man both steeped in great privilege and visibly scornful of it. He carries himself with the oblivious air of a man who knows he can get away with anything but simultaneously seems a bit embarrassed by his fortune.

The Jinx- Wig

 

In the second segment, Bob sits down with Jarecki to begin a series of interviews, in which Bob hopes to actively shape how America sees his story. This segment skips back in time to the 1970s, when tried to cast off the burden of being his family’s presumed heir and live a simpler, though still quite opulent, life in New York’s famously rich Westchester County. In 1973, Bob married his first wife, Kathie McCormack, and left the weighty world of owning and managing New York City skyscrapers for the bucolic life of a health food store proprietor. The Bob Durst who first emerges in interviews is strangely relatable at times, if only because of his willingness to buck the traditions of empire and succession that his family tried to foist upon him. Bob is an odd, uncomfortable man from the start, but his strange tics and nervous manner also lend him a degree of humanity that stands in contrast to the cold halls of power he was born into. Bob wishes his wealth did not matter, even though it very obviously does and always will. When he fails as the chosen son, his father passes the honor of leading the family empire to his younger brother Douglas, and thereby sows rotten seeds of distrust between his children. However, while Bob tries to brush off the influence his privilege has had on him, the straight-talking veneer he wears soon falls away to reveal a man paradoxically unstable and supremely calculating. Kathie McCormack’s family speaks of Bob as an aloof man who was never at ease with those from lower classes. After Bob coerced Kathie into having an abortion, she became resentful of Bob. Bob became foul-tempered and volatile. Kathie’s friends report that the marriage turned violent and Kathie expressed fear of Bob’s temper. One night in 1982, Kathie drove home from a friend’s party and was never seen again. Bob claimed to have dropped her off at the Montauk train station, which took her to their second home in New York City. The revelation that Bob kept a New York City penthouse while trying to play the role of a humble general store owner strikes a blow to Bob’s forced humility and we become more aware of the many masks Bob constructs for himself. Bob’s vulnerability never goes away, but he becomes less and less recognizably human, like an alien whose skin is too loose. In 1982, Bob told the police that, after dropping Kathie off at the station, he walked his dog, made a phone call, and had a glass of wine with a neighbor. Now, three decades later, as he sits telling Jarecki his story, Bob admits that he made up the walk, the call, and the wine in order to prevent police from looking into the story about the train station. Three alibis were fabricated in order to protect a fourth alibi, and Bob, either arrogantly or recklessly, admits to it. As Bob himself confesses to the falsehoods, Jarecki dramatizes Bob’s fabrications in the style of films like Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. As facts become fiction, the dog, the telephone call, and the wine disappear into a fog. While some have pointed out The Jinx’s debt to Morris, it cannot be denied that the approach is well-chosen, and the results are perfectly chilling.

The Jinx- Train

 

Bob’s lies crucially allowed him to avoid scrutiny when the authorities were looking into Kathie’s disappearance. In the third segment, we learn that Bob likely engaged Susan Berman, an old friend and the daughter of a famed New York City Mafioso, to help him hide Kathie’s remains in the New Jersey pine barrens. However, in 2000, Westchester District Attorney announced plans to question Berman about Kathie’s disappearance. At this same time, Berman’s career as a novelist was faltering and she told Bob that Pirro was questioning her, likely in the hopes that Bob would offer her money for her silence. On Christmas Eve, Berman was found murdered in her Beverly Hills home, shot in the back of the head. Police were alerted to the murder three days later by an anonymous piece of paper, mailed to them, with the word “Cadaver” written on it. It informed them that the body was located in “Beverley Hills”. The note was distinctive for two reeasons. First, it seemed to indicate that whoever murdered Susan Berman cared about her enough to hope that she would be found soon after her death. Secondly, the word “Beverly” had been misspelled. When the death of Susan Berman reawakened suspicions about Bob’s role in the disappearance of Kathie, Bob shaved his eyebrows, bought a wig, and went to Galveston, Texas to hide. Morris Black was found floating in garbage bags in Galveston Bay less than a year later.

The Jinx- Susan Berman

 

The fourth segment recounts Bob’s trial for the murder of Morris Black. Bob’s two attorneys cagily painted an alternate story in which the elderly Black was a friend of Bob, rather than an opportunist who recognized Bob and got killed when he threatened to blow his cover. It was an uncorroborated story stitched out of whole cloth, but became increasingly credible through repetition. One lawyer remembers hearing the jurors laughing at Bob’s testimony about his odd couple relationship with the curmudgeonly Black and looking on in shock. In the heart of Texas, Bob’s legal team had credibly sold the man who killed and dismembered his neighbor as an endearing eccentric; an idiosyncratic, wig-wearing oddball. But the most horrific accomplishment of the trial was that Bob’s defense never disputed that he shot and dismembered Black. Instead, Bob’s attorneys asked the jury to consider that Bob had acted in self-defense, but insisted that they not consider Black’s dismemberment as evidence of Bob’s intent. As we watch the jury buy into the schizophrenia of the defense’s theory, we witness concrete proof of how money can subvert justice. Bob Durst killed, dismembered, fled the authorities, and finally admitted to it all. And, when all that was done, the Durst Organization had the resources to snatch their black sheep from justice’s jaws and shepherd him safely back to New York. The trial segment is masterfully infuriating; so damning of the role of money in our justice system as to be downright enthralling. The Jinx is a work of art to view in dismay and sad shock, but Jarecki never fails to make his melancholy crime saga riveting in the telling.

The Jinx- Wrestle

 

The Jinx is a dizzyingly dense collage of events, dates, interviews, and facts, and all of that before it enters its fifth and sixth segments, where it sneakily builds to the most shattering, seismic conclusion of perhaps any film this year. But what makes The Jinx such a rich emotional experience and what allows it to be about more than the despicable acts of one troubled man is the way it threads so many other human voices into its narrative. “Talking head” is often a derogatory term in documentary filmmaking, and The Jinx is not above using talking heads interviews to exposit its story. But the way these interviewees are presented and how invested they have clearly become in this story over the sprawling years make them feel like more. Some have natural reasons for being invested, such as Kathie McCormack’s family or the group of Kathie’s friends who spent years acting as private sleuths, digging through garbage cans and making regular visits to the precinct, even when the police said there was nothing more to be done. But the feeling of concern for Durst’s victims and the yearning for some kind of justice includes the professionals who have investigated and reported on his case. Cody Cazalas cries into his grey handlebar moustache when he thinks of Morris Black. In Jeanine Pirro, the Westchester County District Attorney who has followed Durst’s story since Kathie’s disappearance, we see a ferociously intelligent and determined woman who has kept her eyes open for decades just waiting for some kind of headway. I was fascinated by the New York Times crime columnist who has spent years writing about Durst. In the first segment, he reads an old article about Durst’s flight from Galveston. When Durst fled, he stopped at a house in Westchester, where a neighbor found him in a daze staring out at a lake. As the columnist he reads aloud, he looks up to clarify that this of course is the house where Kathie was last seen before she disappeared. As he says this he gazes at the camera with a faint smile that hints at a weary sadness. It is the look of a man who has come to know this pitiable monster intimately, to even care about him in some strange way. And at this moment, he cannot quite decide whether to feel bemused at how out of touch Bob Durst is, righteously angry for his victims, or defeated that he’s still talking about him as a free man after all these years. All of these people react personally to this case, and that sense of a larger community is what allows Jarecki to transform the Robert Durst story into the story of an entire nation coming to terms with the injustices wrought by its own ugly class divisions.  No one feels like a mere professor on the subject of Bob Durst, and this allows the movie to be about something bigger, more important, and maybe even hopeful. They all feel like people who have born witness to a tragic farce and who have waited a long time for something good to come of all this. What makes The Jinx so beautifully heart-wrenching is how you feel for all of the people caught in the wake of these senseless deaths. By the time The Jinx reached it’s riveting nail-biter of an ending, I felt wincing empathy for the opaque but strangely human enigma that is Bob Durst. I was also hoping to my very soul that karma would somehow catch him. And I saw that I was not alone in either regard.

The Jinx- Cazalas

 

Jarecki’s film is the story of Bob Durst and the increasingly classist America he fits into, but it is also the story of Jarecki’s own conflicted journey with Bob and his growing desire to see justice done. In the last moments of the fifth segment, the film transforms from a rich, sad true crime story with a capitalist backdrop, into a pulse-pounding detective thriller. In the third segment, Jarecki introduces us to Susan Berman’s stepson, Sareb Kaufman. In the wake of Susan’s death, Bob reached out to Sareb in friendship and offered to pay his college tuition. Sareb had always felt uneasy about the nature of Bob’s generosity, knowing that it might be Bob’s way of assuaging his own guilt. Nonetheless, like Jarecki, Sareb has nursed a kind of protective fondness for Bob. I can understand the feeling. There is something in Durst’s squirmy vulnerability that, at times, becomes creepily disarming. At the end of the fifth segment, Jarecki is planning to wrap up his project. He finishes his last interview with Bob, and it seems The Jinx will become the story of how economic privilege helped one very ill-adjusted man get away with three murders. If one sees Bob as a reflection of the reckless capitalist system that he inhabits, it is fair to suggest that this would have even been the most accurate ending to this story. The men with the money purchase a clean slate, the less fortunate are left broken and vainly searching for closure, and, as Kurosawa once said, the bad sleep well. However, a real-life deus ex machina intervenes when Sareb calls Jarecki and urgently tells him to come see him at his home. Sareb has been going through Susan’s files and has found a letter from Bob. The envelope is addressed to Susan’s address in Beverly Hills. Bob has misspelled “Beverley” and the error is identical to that found on the “Cadaver” note. It is the point when Jarecki loses his last shred of uncertainty about Bob’s role in the killings and so do we.

The Jinx- Jarecki and Durst

 

In the sixth and final segment, Jarecki and his two collaborators arrange to have Bob come in for a final supplementary interview to go over evidence, and set up a plan to entrap him with his own poor spelling. The film’s final 40 minute are its most viscerally intense and perversely entertaining, and that is probably part of the reason why some critics have taken issue with this part of the film. The Jinx is a sober film. It is about the aftermath of unspeakable acts. It is about the bleak economic state of our country. By that logic, it might seem tonally wrong to watch the director of such a serious-minded crime expose suddenly step into the role of the heroic detective, in the most white knuckle episode of To Catch A Predator ever filmed. This is a legitimate concern, but all I can say is that these scenes build with such intensity and anxious humor that the journalistic ethics of the scenario become less than an afterthought. Those final minutes are the most emotional and breathlessly exciting found in any film this year, and to be frank, I felt that Jarecki, his collaborators, and the countless people affected by these crimes over the years had earned this kind of theatrically electrifying catharsis. And, as with the rest of the series, Jarecki’s conclusion does not feel pat or self-congratulatory. For one thing, I had spent so much time with Bob Durst by that time, I could not shake my sense of sorrow for him. As Bob incriminates himself and then realizes his dire situation, he starts to gag and belch. Then he goes into the bathroom with his mic on and mutters that he “killed them all, of course”, and my heart dropped into my stomach. What a sad, strange rollercoaster The Jinx is. I felt a melancholic regret muddying up my hatred for this vain, vicious, broken man. Somehow, even when I knew beyond a doubt that Bob was guilty, I still saw him more as a monster to pity than as a monster to loathe. There are many kinds of monsters, and Bob is always more Grendel than Anton Chigurh. Maybe the subdued sadness of that realization is the other reason I do not find this exciting ending to be incongruous with the sobriety that characterizes most of The Jinx. Whatever giddiness I felt soon subsided, as I sat and reflected on the decades of sad events and ruined lives that had brought Bob Durst to this fateful moment. All those years of grief and turmoil and finally a single, brief moment of closure that would never really be enough. Bob was arrested for Susan Berman’s murder three days before The Jinx’s final segment aired, and that is obviously a huge coup for justice. But in the grand scheme, it feels meager.

The Jinx- Betrayal

 

Just as the snapping of Perry Smith’s neck in In Cold Blood feels like the empty conclusion to a stupid tragedy, whatever fate awaits Bob Durst is cold comfort next to the larger national injustice that The Jinx evokes. A guilty verdict for Bob Durst cannot bring the dead back. What reverberates is a sense that the America which forged Bob has become a land scorched and savaged by its greed. In the class divisions that estranged Bob from his brother. In the sterile pressures of privilege that pushed Bob’s mother to suicide, and very well may have broken Bob’s psyche. In the futility of Bob’s belief that he could lead a normal life as a small business owner when his wealth and family ties had decided his path long ago. In the unflinching callousness of those who toppled the nation’s economy in 2008 and then returned to sack what was left. In the callousness of those who will do it next time. In the classist contempt that led the Durst family to go decades without so much as reaching out to the bereft McCormack family, lest it threaten their business or tarnish their dynastic image. They were family, but the money was between them. It was on top of them and all around them, and inside of them, pulsing sickly green through their veins. As I turned off The Jinx to go for a walk outside, I thought about Fargo, the Coen brothers’ not-quite-true-crime masterpiece, and I thought about its noble heroine, Marge Gunderson. At the film’s end, when Marge reflects on all the lives senselessly ravaged by greed, desperation, and inadequacy, she shakes her head and asks, “And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little bit money, you know?” Somewhere in New York City, I imagined, a man in a skyscraper heard her words, thought about them for a moment, and disagreed.

The Jinx- Skyscraper

Best Films of 2015: #19- Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy- Pain

The great and tormented Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, best known for painting The Scream in 1893, had this to say about the role of suffering in art: “Art grows from joy and sorrow. But mostly from sorrow.” For as long as human beings have had culture and self-expression, some of its most vivid and impassioned works of art have been born out of strife, self-hatred, anxiety, and grief. There is a positive angle to this truth, insofar as art gives our pain a voice and a channel for release. Humanity’s ability to creatively funnel its traumas and hardships into art is secretly one of its greatest survival instincts. It is a means of not only coming to terms with our own suffering, but of thoughtfully extending the hard-won lessons of pain to those around us. But, while art is a vital salve for the pain of living, the thornier question is whether pain is a necessary component of great art. The easy answer is, “No, of course not.” There are a great many artists who have looked to their inner joy, to their loving relationships, and to the abundant beauty in the world around them to create sublime works. There can be no debating, however, that human beings do often gravitate to art that comes from negative experiences. Both external hardship and inner turmoil have a way of producing art that is immediate, raw, and revelatory. Speaking only for myself, I know that some of my very favorite films, albums, and literary pieces were only made possible by insecurities, tragedies, addictions, and demons that crippled, damaged, and sometimes even stole the very lives of the artists that made them. These are people whose work has inspired me, consoled me, and stimulated my imagination. Whether we like it or not, when we consume culture, we are often the beneficiaries of someone else’s pain. Would we wish some of history’s masterpieces away if it would assuage the anguish of the women and men who created them or bring a great creative force back to life? Could we selflessly wish away Nevermind and In Utero to ensure that Kurt Cobain lived a life free of chronic pain and depression? Was the fire that fueled Janis Joplin’s addiction part of the same passion that made her one of the greatest singers in all of recorded music? Would I erase Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, quite possibly my very favorite album, if it meant sparing singer Jeff Mangum from the torments that led to his nervous breakdown? Given my genuine love of these artists and the debt my own soul owes them, there seems to be only one decent answer. The question that remains is: what is art without pain? Why is the image of the tortured artist so enduring? These are the thoughts that swam through my head after I watched Love & Mercy, the terrific, tightly focused biography of Beach Boys savant Brian Wilson, whose vulnerabilities and psychological frailties helped him craft the gloriously gorgeous Pet Sounds album, and then shattered him to the point that he almost never created again.

Love & Mercy- Melinda Bed

We first meet Brian Wilson in the early 1970s, years after the recording of the Beach Boys’ 1966 masterpiece Pet Sounds. While we are not told the exact date, Brian is nearing the mental breakdown that would see him spend three years as a bed-ridden recluse who only emerged to self-medicate, eat in excess, and shuffle absent-mindedly around his home. He would not emerge into public life again until 1975, when he would enter the care of a domineering psychologist named Eugene Landy. He would emerge much worse for the wear. While allowing Brian to exist outside of his house and occasionally write music, Landy’s inaccurate schizophrenia diagnosis turned Brian into a drug-addled, feeble tatter of his former self. Half of Love & Mercy takes place in the 1980s, when Brian, played with a refreshing timidity and sweetness by John Cusack, met Melinda Ledbetter, the Cadillac salesperson he would court and eventually marry. In their first meeting, Brian finds himself in a rare moment out of the prying eyes of his bodyguards, his handlers, and Dr. Landy. He asks Melinda, played by a lovely and present Elizabeth Banks, to show him the interior of one of the cars, and then asks her to close the door. With the world shut out however briefly, they share a quiet and human moment as Brian relates the recent drowning death of his brother, Dennis. But, before long, Brian’s mentally stifling entourage shows up to escort him away. Fortunately, their short encounter is enough to plant the seeds of something lasting. Brian buys the car and he and Melinda start dating. The 1980s section of Love & Mercy is about how Brian met Melinda and how Melinda came to see that Brian was being manipulated, bullied, and manhandled by people pretending to represent his best interests. In those bleak years, Dr. Landy made Brian cut off ties with his immediate family and set himself up in Brian’s home, while making Brian live in a room at a separate property. “But I got to choose the room,” Brian sheepishly tells Melinda. With the help of Melinda, his friend Gloria, and some others who are thanked in the final credits, Brian was finally able to emancipate himself from the physical and emotional invasions of Dr. Landy, and eventually record his beautiful, decades-delayed SMiLE album in 2004.

Love & Mercy- Works In My Head

The scenes of the older Brian Wilson are intercut with scenes from 1966, when the Beach Boys were touring as one of America’s best-loved pop acts, behind the success of songs like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfer Girl”. While Brian Wilson wrote these early Beach Boys songs himself, the direction of the group was dominated by the Wilsons’ father, a slick and callous marketing man eager to sell his sons to the public but who never believed the band would have any cultural longevity. The young Brian Wilson is played by Paul Dano, an actor who has appeared in tremendous films like There Will Be Blood and 12 Years A Slave, and has often had perfectly good work overshadowed by some of the best performances in 21st century cinema. After many years of working hard, Dano finally relaxes and gives the kind of natural, unaffected, and emotionally resonant performance that can be called tremendous itself. When Brian suffers a panic attack coming home from a series of concerts, it gives him the excuse he needs to take a sabbatical from the next leg of the tour. While the rest of the band goes to Japan to play, Brian insists his time will better spent in the studio, where he can prepare new material for them to record when they return. Liberated from the pressures of working with his father and bandmates, Brian finds the mental freedom to take his already impeccable ear for pop melodies in weird and inventive directions and to marry them with songs of longing, self-doubt, and youthful melancholy. Even as a young man, Brian had a childlike frailty. It was the double-edged sword that allowed him to tinge his joyous whimsy with a gentle sadness. It is also the characteristic that made him vulnerable to the slights of those closest to him. When the band returns from Japan, Brian has to defend his idiosyncratic vision, which is conspicuously lacking in the Beach Boys’ quintessential subjects: surfing and summer. In their first attempt at recording the material, Dennis Wilson looks on bewildered as his brother concludes their next presumptive Billboard smash with the refrain, “I want to cry-y-yyyy-yy-yyy-yy-yyyy.” It is a seriously funny moment that also gives the audience a sense of how strange Brian’s approach must have seemed at the time. While Pet Sounds is now regarded as one of the finest albums ever written, it was a commercial disappointment in its day. Brian’s bandmate and cousin, the perennially doubting Mike Love, is all too quick to remind the band that he predicted the album would flop. The film is focused on Brian Wilson, but it’s a nuanced look at the delicacy of any art work that tries to strike out in a new direction. Brian is eventually able to redeem himself from the embarrassment of creating his magnum opus by recording the smash B-side single, “Good Vibrations”, and the film captures both recording sessions in lively, impeccable details. Taken together, the two periods of Brian’s life tell the story of one of rock and roll’s great pioneers, how he was almost ruined by his psychological maladies and the craven manipulation of those willing to use him, and how the care of genuinely empathetic human beings finally helped him to heal.

Love & Mercy- Dilapidated Studio

While the scenes with young Brian Wilson are filmed with the most verve, and naturally contain the most music, the scenes with Cusack and Banks in the 1980s are both the film’s beating heart and its gentle, wounded soul. Love & Mercy is in many ways about the need to find love from others. Brian tells Melinda that Dr. Landy has been having him practice saying “I love you” five times a day, but that he wishes he could regularly say those words to someone else. The older Brian Wilson is a man whose own genius has often forced him into the most darkened recesses of his own mind. This ability to follow his own strange muse as far as it would go gifted him with preternatural confidence as a young man and helped him to craft strangely beautiful tones and off-kilter melodies that pushed the boundaries of rock and roll forward for good and all. However, after a time, the pressure of self-enforced isolation also made him too fragile to function. Brian’s introversion and childlike fragility were the twin muses fueling him to make art that was exhilarating and innocent and disorienting and tender. But, even people who seek solitude cannot survive without feeling they are supported by other people for companionship, for reassurance, and for love. I do not want to oversimplify Brian Wilson’s mental health battle in the name of a nice message. Brian Wilson’s mental breakdown was not a simple matter of human connection. It was the result of very real mental issues, which were only finally alleviated through therapy. At a broader poetic level, however, the film argues that it was not sustainable for a psychologically delicate man like Brian Wilson to go on as the island he so wished to be. It was inevitable that he would eventually need to engage with the world again in order to find his way back to a healthy place. The problem with engaging, however, is that the world is host to parasites and predators and, in seeking out Dr. Eugene Landy, Brian Wilson was unlucky enough to entrust his recovery to one of the more unsavory examples of both. The danger of letting a person in to our innermost spaces, be it our minds or our hearts, is that we must still love and trust ourselves enough to know whether that person is acting out of love and friendship or out of a more selfish motivation. Eugene Landy found Brian Wilson when he was most in need of love, mercy, and support. He was supposed to help Brian find the pieces of himself that had been lost with his mental lapse. Instead, Landy installed himself as dictator in the unoccupied head and heart of a wounded human being.

Love & Mercy- Landy

This means that Love & Mercy is not simply a duet between two periods in an artist’s life, but also a duet between the need for community and the need for a space that we call our own. Companionship, guidance, and even love are among the most powerful virtues in the world, but even they can be perverted into weaponry in the wrong hands. Love & Mercy becomes a music biography of uncommon emotional depth because it understands the struggle to maintain a private sense of self. The best scenes in a film full of rich, perceptive moments are those involving the Pet Sounds sessions, when Brian is able to create without the scrutiny and judgment of the Beach Boys; without the white-hot gaze of the family and friends who have nurtured him, but also tamped down his idiosyncrasies into the narrow constraints of a surf rock band. “Surfers don’t even like our music,” Brian objects. When Brian begins to work on Pet Sounds, the film in turn breaks free from its own constraints: those of the studious, musical biopic. Visibly inspired by Brian’s contagious thirst for new sounds, the film giggles and spins with a chaotic, free-wheeling energy. As an introvert, I know this rush well. It is the rush of being completely alone with a head full of wild, new thoughts, and wanting nothing more than to follow those erratic ideas down whatever meandering path they dart toward. Pet Sounds may have been born partly of Brian Wilson’s past traumas, from his father’s abuses to his crippling anxieties about stardom, but the album really came from a place of great joy and spontaneity. In the studio, with only the company of studio musicians hired to follow his vision and respect his autonomy, we see the full, sweet, exuberant fruition of Brian Wilson. Pain may have been a jumping off point, but Brian Wilson’s masterpiece called for innocence, freedom, a dash of unembarrassed frivolity, some barking dogs, and a whole lot of love. I cannot overstate how perfectly Paul Dano plays the young Brian’s hopeful fragility, while shading it with a meek kind of determination that gathers steam with each scene. The Brian Wilson before Pet Sounds seems like a man who was forced to sing his father’s ideas in the spotlight while having his true voice scolded and shouted down, and the older Brian Wilson we meet in the 1980s has regressed to that same inarticulate haze of low self-regard. If nothing else, Love & Mercy is the story of a time in 1966 when Brian Wilson was able to momentarily assert his artistry and autonomy before receding into a sad fog of silence.

Love & Mercy- Splayed Out

The conflict in the 1980s scenes comes from a real sense of how much Brian has lost, and how dearly we want him to regain not just his sense of self-worth but his music. Brian’s quest to regain his muse is emotionally satisfying not just because we recognize the wonderful songs that play throughout the film. This conflict feels rich because the scenes of Brian Wilson recording are simply the most perfectly alive, loopy, inventive depictions of the musical recording process in recent memory. As a first-time director, some of Brian Poehler’s choices feel like those of an untested filmmaker. But, like Brian Wilson himself, Poehler’s touch is generous, joyful, and beautifully restless when he enters the studio, for both the Pet Sounds sessions and the later recording of “Good Vibrations”. The diverse emotional range of these scenes, from the thrill of limitless creation, to Mike Love’s frustration at having to record those damned cellists for the 35th time, to the impassioned discussions on the studio steps over cigarettes, evoke what might happen if David O. Russell had directed Once. These scenes allow what is mostly a talky film to render its themes and stakes cinematically. That incandescent, unpredictable energy is the life force of Brian Wilson in all its manic glee and obsessive tedium. This is what he found for himself and what was stripped from him by the cruelty of circumstance and the avarice of other people. It is what has been lost and what Melinda Ledbetter must win back for him.

Love & Mercy- 360 Shot

Melinda Ledbetter is where the film’s dueling themes of autonomy and fellowship meet one another and synthesize. As human beings, we cannot flourish in total isolation. We also cannot survive if the gardens of our minds and hearts are overrun with weeds. To quote the title of my favorite vampire movie, we must let the right one in. As weary and emotionally hobbled as we find Brian Wilson in the 1980s, he has the presence of mind to make one very good decision. He recognizes a true and steady soul in Melinda Ledbetter, and he lets her in, even as Eugene Landy subtly tries to scare and shove her away. It finally falls to Melinda to recognize that Brian is too afraid and demoralized to take the next steps toward freeing and rebuilding himself. And here is where the movie could have become problematic. The supportive wife is an evergreen trope in biography films. It typically defines a female character almost solely by her steadfast loyalty to the male protagonist and her ability to help him weather and defeat the internal and external forces working against him. At a first glance, Melinda Ledbetter does fit the standard checklist for Supportive Wife Syndrome. If someone were to accuse the movie of trotting out the hoary old device, I certainly would not call them wrong. And yet, I find myself impotently stammering, “No. It’s not like that.” Partly it’s the quality of Banks’ performance, which is so observant and kind in a slyly active way. Of course, the Supportive Wife is often a kind and attentive listener, so that may not dispel the criticism entirely. And Banks is really very good, but there are plenty of people who think the same of Jennifer Connelly in A Beautiful Mind, and that character is practically the platonic ideal of the Supportive Wife. Really, beyond the high quality of Banks’ performance, it may be the fact that Melinda Ledbetter just has so much more agency than a supportive female figure typically has in a biography like this. Melinda Ledbetter is an agent for herself as much as she is for Brian Wilson. It’s there in the frank way she pierces through Eugene Landy’s sweaty Svengali exterior, and the way she holds him at bay after he tries to undermine her self-esteem with cruel jibes at her career. It’s in the way she gently but firmly reminds Brian that she is as much an active participant in their courtship as he is and how she seems to be the only person who knows how to speak to Brian without demeaning him or taking over the controls of his fragile, guileless brain. She realizes from the start how easily she could manipulate Brian, just like everyone else, and it is her decision not to that provides the film with the mercy its title promises. That’s not passive support. It’s the most important and unfailingly kind decision in the film, and Elizabeth Banks perfectly conveys that she is the only person in Brian’s entire social universe who is mensch enough to make it. It’s a very important action; more important at the end of the day than the recording of some rock and roll masterpiece. This simple, moral act may have saved Brian Wilson’s life, and it certainly rescued his mind and soul.

Melinda- Determined

In the end, it also seems myopic to criticize the Melinda Ledbetter character for her supportive tendencies because support is really what the film is about at its core. Yes, “supportive” is a dirty word in film, and that dirt has been justifiably earned through years of lazy writing and sexism. But human beings have a very pressing need for support and that achingly tender need for something human is what guides the very best of Brian Wilson’s music. That need is what makes Love & Mercy stretch further than music, further than its own biographical inspiration, and into the kind of simple, universal territory where so many great films live. It is the story of a man with a loving and fragile spirit, and how it took him years to find someone who could love him in a way that would not cause him to break apart. This love is the kind that fills the studios of our souls with new music. It is the kind of love that you want to invite into the back room of your heart to hear some silly new melody and the kind that understands the need to pound away in solitude from time to time. And in those times, it wishes you well and leaves you to fight the good fight for however long it takes. Melinda Ledbetter fell in love with Brian Wilson and she wanted him to be happy and free. Free of manipulation, free of fear, and free of pain. What is art without pain? Art.

Love & Mercy- Happy Melinda

Top 20 Films of 2015: #20- The Assassin

Assassin- Hearth

The ending to Barry Lyndon, Stanley Kubrick’s dense, masterfully composed British historical epic, punctuates the exploits and avaricious schemes of its petty social climbers with a terse epitaph: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” Funnelled through Kubrick’s unwaveringly cynical view of the human animal (Kubrick’s emphasis was always on the second word), it is an acrid, scathing critique of man’s thirst for forward motion and how little human progress actually means. For Kubrick, the man who made two magnum opuses about mankind destroying itself on a grand scale (Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and 2001: A Space Odyssey), the idea that every one of us gets anonymously filed under the same mortal footnote is perhaps the only sure source of justice and equilibrium. Whatever benefits we reap through our vanity, selfishness and callous disregard for one another, the clock always gets reset once Death has its say. Nothing of what we did or said here will matter much in a millennium. I noted a similar, though considerably more understated, theme of human ephemerality running through The Assassin, Hou Hsia Hsien’s wuxia film set in 7th Century China during the decline of the Tang dynasty. As with Barry Lyndon, The Assassin relates a tale of political maneuvering in a very specific bygone period, but knows that its characters and their concerns are an insignificant pebble in the meandering river of history. The film listens to the political hubbub of a Chinese province, but its eyes are focused on the timeless land that contains them; the land that frequently dwarfs them, obscures them, and at times erases them from the frame altogether. Because the film chooses to look many centuries into the past, Hou is not simply telling the story of people who will one day die, as all mortals do. Each character he introduces exited from the Earth’s stage centuries before any of us were here. Like Kubrick, Hou is gazing with curiosity at the light of a star that died a long, long time ago. The moments when characters disappear behind the crest of the hill are like momentary reflections of the present. There is an important difference, however, between Barry Lyndon and The Assassin. While the epilogue to Kubrick’s masterpiece seems to view the inevitable irrelevance of the human life as a kind of cosmic justice for humanity’s avarice and disregard for each other, The Assassin implies the same conclusion from a decidedly more gentle angle. The Taiwanese auteur’s lusciously shot, richly textured, and meditative martial arts film knows that human beings and the great societies they erect are just swiftly passing shadows across the Earth’s surface. However, there is none of Kubrick’s righteous relish or sardonic satisfaction to be derived from this fact. It is simply something to be observed, something true.

Assassin- Pink Blossoms

 

The plot of The Assassin concerns a time of great, seismic change in China’s history. A title card informs us that the Tang Dynasty is waning and, as a result, many of China’s territories are pulling away from the Empire and operating autonomously. The Empire has made strides to reacquire some of these territories, but a handful continue to assert their independence and plan for the possibility of an imperial invasion. The political landscape of the country is undulating and shifting just as surely as the wide land around it is staying the same. One of the territories still fighting to remain independent is Weibo, which is ruled over by a young general named Tian Jian. Our main protagonist is Tian Jian’s cousin, a young woman named Yinninang. Yinniang’s mother and uncle sent her away from Weibo as a very young child, fearing for her safety amidst the political unrest. Yinninang spent her formative years living with a Taoist nun, Jiaxin, who trained her to become a lethally effective assassin, specializing in eliminating unscrupulous politicians. As the film opens, Jiaxin has ordered Yinniang to kill a man on horseback. She insists that the man, a local political leader, killed his father and poisoned his own brother. Yinniang cuts the man’s throat swiftly and without hesitation. However, Yinniang’s unblinking moral certainty wavers with her next assignment, when she refuses to kill a corrupt provincial governor in front of his child. Jiaxin scolds her for her lack of resolve, and gives her a new assignment. She is to go back to Weibo to assassinate her cousin. Yinniang returns to a Weibo that is still in turmoil over its future. Tian Jian is weighing the decision of whether to work with other disputing territories, and fretting over the possibility of an attack by the Empire. He seeks council from his advisers, tries to assuage the fears of his wife, Lady Tian, and steals off to find emotional support in his mistress, a concubine named Huji who is pregnant with his child. The plot of The Assassin is a dense tapestry of characters with rich histories, but it is also simple at its core, because it is really about Yinninang. Yinniang must return to her childhood home and decide whether she is willing to kill her cousin for what her master feels is a just purpose. The Assassin sometimes feels overwhelming in its insularity, but this is a fitting mirror for Yinniang’s emotional arc, as she flits along the periphery of her old life and home and tries to come to terms with people and places that are no longer familiar to her. The film’s first scene shows us how quickly Yinniang can kill when she wishes to. The rest of the film plays against our knowledge of her deadly skill, as Yinniang searches her conflicted soul and contemplates the morality of her mission. While there is a complex political story unfolding at the center of The Assassin, the film’s true focus is always on the margins, where Yinniang waits and watches. Even when Yinniang is not in the frame, we know we are watching her watching. With many scenes it is less important to know what is done and said than to know that Yinniang sees it and hears it.

Assassin- Tian Jian

 

What makes The Assassin a true work of art is that its power comes more from seeing and hearing it than from deconstructing it for thematic grist. The Assassin does have some beautiful, subtle themes, and it was a pleasure to marinate in them over the course of two viewings. However, for the sake of full disclosure, I am also a certifiable glutton for thematic analysis. I readily admit to my addiction, and I also concede that this kind of rigorously literate approach does a disservice to a certain kind of film. To be frank, a thorough thematic unpacking is not the approach a film like The Assassin deserves. Even though the film delves into heady ideas about loyalty, rebellion, mortality, and the power of familial bonds, its chief virtues are neither verbal nor ideological. Instead, The Assassin is an almost indescribable visual marvel. And seeing as how the phrase “visual marvel” has been used to praise films like Avatar, Interstellar, and How To Train Your Dragon 2, I have to say that words once again fail to do justice to what Hou has accomplished. A film critic traffics in verbiage, but when a film operates with shots this thoughtfully composed, images of both natural and cultural beauty this ravishing, and a sense of pacing this singularly serene, it becomes difficult for any number of words to capture its power. To loosely paraphrase Jodie Foster in Contact, they should have sent a painter. With enough time and a decent dictionary, I can give my impressions on what drives the fisherman in The Old Man and the Sea or how Pulp Fiction wrestles with moral agency. But set me in front of a truly stunning work of abstract art, and I am impotent. It is a much more difficult matter to explain the power of a splash of color, or a jagged line. Or the way a strand of light shoots through an ancient Chinese bathhouse window. I do a semi-regular podcast with my longtime friend and partner-in-criticism, Robb Whiting. We do a theme-based segment, titled “What’s It All About?”, where we apply the titular question to whatever film we have just watched. I think it’s always a vital first question to ask. It’s a trusty leaping-off point and it personally helps me to get at the fundamental character and thrust of a work of art. But when I ask The Assassin that question, it somehow feels reductive and a bit silly. For the purposes of this film, I cannot succinctly express why the forest green paint on an old clay teapot, or a gleaming, golden toy in the hands of a child, or a red piece of silk wafting on the edge of the frame is beautiful. I cannot tell you “what they’re all about”. They are about themselves. They are immediate, as is the film that contains them.

Assassin- Yinniang Watching

 

As I watched The Assassin a second time, I began my viewing in a feverish state of note-taking. Occasionally, I would even pause the film to scribble whole paragraphs out of my busy, verbose skull. By the midway point of the film, I stopped doing this. I realized the film had let me in on its themes early on, and there was no need to continue writing them down in different words. The film still had plenty of narrative developments and betrayals and plot twists left to reveal and all of them were thematically of a piece with what had come before. But I also felt the director gently nudging these concerns out of focus, the same way the film regularly blurs its brief bursts of violence and chooses to foreground some tree or hilltop instead. The Assassin is dense with events: political machinations, familial histories, and interweaving relationships among the courtiers and guards and wives and mistresses of Weibo. Still, I came away feeling as if all of that was a passing concern in the eyes of its director. Important for its characters. Insignificant in the grand scheme. All of the intrigue of the plot matters less than our immersion in the myriad stunning environments of the time and place. On top of those monolithic peaks of jade and granite, and down in the dank caves that lie somewhere underneath them. Among the vibrant reds and golds of the court rooms, inside the airy bed chambers full of candle light, and up against the wooden pillars of the temple’s open air hallways. And when the camera pulls back, the temple looks like some giant, glowing hearth, with the cool midnight blue of the natural world all around it. All of this, says Hou, is China. Some of it as it used to be. Some of it as it still is. As the film progressed, my occasional notes began to sound like titles of paintings. Damp Cavern With Torches. Golden Field, Distant Farm House. Misty Lake With Spectral Trees. There must be close to a hundred such “paintings” in The Assassin’s 140 minutes. And all of that is before one walks from the art wing into the film’s dazzling gallery of historical artifacts. The film oscillates between impossibly gorgeous landscapes and interiors that are packed to bursting with jewels, teacups, baubles, paintings, tapestries, musical instruments, and fabrics.

Assassin- Spectral

 

The Assassin is an ineffable poem of transcendent imagery. Then again, while its images are so striking as to render words irrelevant, I still think there is perhaps some greater idea to all that beauty. It all gets back to Kubrick and the idea that human endeavors, words included, do not amount to much in the end. I believe that is true. When compared to the lush greens of the hills outside of the palace, or the pink pastels of a blossoming tree, or a great white billow of fog scaling its way up a cliff, even the greatest works of painters and musicians and artisans are doomed to fall away in short order. The hills, trees, and cliffs have been here since time immemorial, and will likely still be here when our testaments to human expression have been lost or fallen into disrepair. But what makes Hou’s film generous where Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon is acidic is that Hou finds beauty in the impermanence of human beings and their endeavors. As soon as Yinniang is sent to Weibo on her killer’s errand, the film changes from black and white to color, and the next sight we see is a lovely shot of tall trees reflecting in a lake. It is dusk. The trees are seen in silhouette. On closer inspection, one of them does not look like a tree at all. It is a nearby temple just behind them. It is bathed in the same shadows, framed as if it were a part of the thicket. In moments like these, The Assassin transcends being a simple object of beauty and becomes a tribute to beauty in all its forms. Some works of art are mountains and forests and rolling hills and they are a part of the ageless Earth. Other works of art are temples, sculptures, and paintings, and they are the works of human beings, who are born and soon pass away. In a relatively short amount of time, their art passes too. That temple is probably long gone. But, for as long it lasted, it was fit to stand with the most beautiful of nature’s works.  I suppose we are afforded the same honor.

Assassin- Temple and Trees

Brady’s Top 25 Films of 2014, Haiku-Style!

Hi! My picture has been posted here to make more people click on this entry.
Hi! My picture has been posted here to make more people click on this entry.

 

Hello loyal readers, most likely huddled together in a small basement for fear of persecution by other, more powerful film blogging communities. We appreciate your continued support. Also, do you have enough blankets down there?

Anyway, our Top Ten podcast has been pushed back a few weeks due to some scheduling issues. 2015 is already well under way, so I figured I’d at least tease out my top films of the year. In haiku form. Just so the most riddle-inclined of you might know what they are. I won’t be changing the reviews of my #20-11 films on the site. Those will remain a snapshot of how I felt at the time I wrote them. That said, the ordering has changed, so the numbers of these haikus won’t completely match the film review numbers. One fine, exceedingly noble film has even fallen out of the Top 20.

So yeah, we’ll still bring you our Top Tens soon, but here’s a little film hor d’oeuvre for you. Guess the films in the comments or on our Facebook page. Whoever guesses the most right will have a chance to be on the podcast or have their own Top Ten read on the show. Thank you for reading, whoever you are!

And my film is one of those, right? Right?!
And my film is one of those, right? Right?!

 

Brady’s Top 25 Films of 2014:

#25:

Standup keeps crashing

Film’s party. A great comic

Makes his best work yet.

 

 

#24:

Great filmmaking yarn.

Cult of personality’s

An understatement.

 

 

#23:

Hand-carved history.

Sad, expressive diorama

Of despotism.

 

 

#22:

It’s not long-winded.

Just too aghast to tell its

“Hero” to shut up.

 

 

#21:

Civics with a soul.

I remove my skeptic’s hat.

A good man’s walking.

 

 

#20:

Hagiography?

Too lovingly critical.

Clear-eyed, like he was.

 

 

#19:

Even good choices

Cannot protect us from change.

Drive out to meet it.

 

 

#18:

The American Dream

Is a useful hypocrisy.

Flogged by our bootstraps.

 

 

#17

Dredges up buried

Hatred until the hateful

Are buried with it.
#16:

Gazes serenely

And curiously at Time.

Time gazes right back.

 

 

#15:

Creativity

And constraint kiss and make up.

I can’t stop laughing!

 

 

#14:

Woody’s NYC

Is rekindled and reborn,

With less cynicism.

 

 

#13:

Tense and immediate.

The best spy movie ever.

It’s bigger than film.

 

 

#12:

Great movie star makes

Neorealism sing.

We need each other.

 

 

#11:

The literary

World rendered with acid wit

And great tenderness.

 

 

#10:

Female friendship and

Punk in 80’s Sweden make

A darling “fuck you”.

 

#9:

Unspeakably cool!

To live forever is to

Become a hipster.

 

#8:

Icy and tender.

Kubrick just made Predator

And it’s beautiful.

 

#7:

Perfectionism

Captured through sound and acting.

Ambition deafens.

 

#6:

An old fairytale.

Psychorealistic myth.

Humane and gutting.

 

#5:

The family unit

Climbs naked and embarrassed

From an avalanche.

 

#4:

A perfect horror,

Not because it stabs and shrieks,

But because it weeps.

 

#3:

A period piece

With character and insight

Beneath each brushstroke.

 

#2:

Once upon a time

A great many souls were lost.

And so I create.

 

#1:

Loves narrative,

Yet sees it for what it is.

All just passing time.

 

Guess as many as you can! Stay tuned for our podcast!

Best Films of 2014: #11- Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip- Title

An artist walks a fine line when choosing to make art about the flaws and failings of other artists. There are a plethora of traps one can fall into when making a work that aims to dissect the fallible human beings behind the artistic process. If the artist pulls their punches too much, what purports to be probing can come off looking less like critique and more like an act of self-congratulation. I found this to be the case in this year’s Birdman, which held itself out as a takedown of the pettiness and megalomania of flawed creative types, but felt more like humble bragging on the part of its creator. On the other side, a work of art that plunges too passionately into attacking the egoism of the artist can lose itself in the woods of cynicism. I found this to be the case with Noah Baumbach’s worthy but flawed Margot At the Wedding, which sent up arrogant pseudo-intellectuals in such an unsparing manner that it seemed to surrender itself to the very misanthropy it was skewering. Most of the best art manages to keep one foot in empathy, even when it focuses on the darkness inside the artist’s soul. But how does the artist turn his or her lens on the selfishness and vanity of genius without becoming just as judgmental or self-righteous or vain as the deeply flawed figure they depict? It is a challenge that has bested a great many talented writers and directors, and I do not have a definitive answer for how one threads that needle. But I can say that, every now and then, an artist manages a damning portrait of artistry that strikes just the right tone and maintains just the right distance from its subject. Bennett Miller’s Capote did this by embracing Truman Capote’s unquestionable genius, while simultaneously saying that no amount of sublime talent could save his soul. While funnier and less apocalyptically bleak than Capote, I believe Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip attains its success in a similar way. Perry’s marvelous film puts the lie to the idea that compassionate, soulful art necessarily comes from compassionate, soulful people. It is fascinated with the notion that the very person whose art inspires the world to reflect on human potential may be personally incapable of the same growth and self-reflection their work compels in others. Perry has found a way to marry a merciless autopsy of creative self-involvement with a beautiful, generous look at human longing and frailty. As a portrait of the artist as a young asshole, it is one of the most fearlessly acidic character studies in recent memory. It is also, improbably and paradoxically, one of the sweetest and subtlest.

Listen Up Philip- Regret

Listen Up Philip sets itself a gargantuan challenge from the start by making its central figure, the titular Philip Louis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), one of the most unabashedly nasty, unapologetically narcissistic artists to ever occupy a movie screen. We meet Philip, a young novelist whose star is beginning to rise, as he walks through the streets of New York City. He is on the way to meet an ex-girlfriend at a local cafeteria. Before Philip ever opens his mouth, a steady stream of dry voiceover narration, which will run throughout the film, informs us that he is a short-tempered, blustering braggart. When Philip sits down at the lunch counter and begins to speak, it is to launch into a bitter and meticulously rehearsed harangue against the onetime paramour who doubted his writing talents and would have seen him stop short of his dream of literary celebrity. He professes to have called her to lunch to gift her with a copy of his first published novel, but it seems more likely that he has met with her to that she can see him change his mind about giving her that honor. He rides out of the restaurant on a wave of self-righteous indignation and tears up the dedication page he has signed for her. He immediately goes from there to meet an old college roommate and literary colleague, so that he can take him to task for jettisoning his ideals and falling short of the success that Philip has been fortunate enough to achieve. Philip is a monster doomed to perpetually swing between the poles of his crippling insecurity and his prideful disgust for the human beings that surround him. Fortune and artistic credibility are just beginning to materialize for Philip, but he does not see this as a reason to relax his feelings of enmity or forgive past slights, perceived or real. Another ex-girlfriend tells him that success has only worked to make his soul uglier and to exacerbate his most selfish instincts. As Ethan Hawke’s character says in Before Sunset, giving a miserable asshole a yacht will do little more than make him a miserable asshole with a yacht.

Listen Up Philip- Brooding

Surprisingly, in spite of his all-consuming paranoia and an almost pathological need to preemptively strike those who have been good to him, Philip still has plenty of loved ones and well-wishers. When we meet Philip, he is two years into a relationship with a beautiful and talented photographer named Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, in a transcendent and effortlessly perceptive performance). We also watch him strike up a professional relationship and eventually a friendship with one of his idols, an aging, once-prolific author named Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce, giving terrific shades of ferocious pride and lonely vulnerability to a literary lion in the autumn years of his life). The problem with Philip is that, even when the movie gives us reasons to want to forgive him or empathize with him, he is never more than two steps away from his next unspeakably cruel decision. Anyone can seem sympathetic when the world seems to be acting against them, but the true nature of a person’s character is how they treat others when they are riding high on life. When Ike offers Philip access to his cabin in upstate New York, as a place to write his second novel far from the distraction of metropolitan life, Philip does not pay the generosity of this act forward. Instead, he uses it as an excuse to behave callously toward his kind, patient girlfriend. With almost no warning, he announces that he is leaving Ashley in New York City and will not see her for six months. Ashley looks both painfully betrayed and yet somehow unsurprised. The unloving monster in front of her has always been there, but perhaps he has only revealed himself gradually. Life has been kind to Philip, but that warmth and fortune does not seem to register with him. Even as life smiles and those around him do him good turns, he regards all of it as a solitary struggle; a battle he is winning alone and against all odds. “I supported you when nobody gave a shit about you,” Ashley stammers with wounded eyes. “I want you to know I regret that now.”

Listen Up Philip- Philip and Ashley

While the central role of Philip provides Jason Schwartzman with the opportunity to give what may be his finest piece of acting yet, his notable achievement is tertiary to the two phenomenal performances by Elisabeth Moss and Jonathan Pryce, playing the two most important figures in Philip’s relentlessly self-absorbed life. Part of the reason Listen Up Philip avoids becoming the emotionally suffocating story of its insufferable protagonist is that it consistently undermines Philip’s need to be the central figure of the story. Title be damned, Listen Up Philip is not the story of Philip, the terribly inconsiderate and emotionally abusive genius who is just too compelling to look away from. He is perfectly easy to look away from, and Perry never forgets it. The two tremendously complex characters of Ashley and Ike refuse to kowtow to Philip’s whims. Listen Up Philip may be about a man who is the center of his own toxic world, but the film is vibrant and interesting because it is about a much bigger world than the one Philip sees. His film is an act of concerned, somewhat fascinated observation. Perry is not interested in using Philip’s genius as a means to gloss over his cruelty, nor in sinking his fangs too deep into a man who seems perfectly adept at ruining his own life. Primarily, Perry just wants to show us an impeccably rendered, funny, and vital world full of artists. Most of them are jostling for esteem just as voraciously as Philip is, even if none of them pursue it in such a pig-headedly self-destructive way. Pseudo-intellectualism is a part of this world, but Listen Up Philip is neither bitter nor misanthropic about its ensemble of vain, confused, posturing artistes. I believe it is remarkably fond of all of them, and that that only serves to compound the tragedy of Philip’s own solitary, egomaniacal journey. Perry’s film is a rich, detailed and subtly satirical look at the world of the literary elite and at one burgeoning “great man” who methodically isolates himself from that world, even as he rises within it.

Listen Up Philip- Josh

In the case of Jonathan Pryce’s Ike Zimmerman, the character is too possessed by his own lofty legacy to cede the spotlight to another ego. The mentorship and friendship that develop between Philip and Ike is hilarious and perversely touching because of how much these two tyrannical egos both mirror and undercut one another. Ike is perhaps the one person in the world who Philip not only respects, but bows to, and his hunger for Ike’s validation is crucial in revealing the layers of naked, squirming humanity beneath Philip’s pretentious exterior. When Philip looks at the world, he sees a throng of jealous, pedestrian half-wits. As such, no person has the power to bring Philip down from the pedestal that he tirelessly erects for himself. Ike is the one exception to Philip’s one-size-fits-all contempt. He is the one man whose counsel Philip seeks and the only person with the power and clout to puncture Philip’s bloated self-image. Ike continually frustrates Philip’s need to be revered by repeatedly reminding him of how much more he had achieved by the time he was Philip’s age. Philip’s desire for central billing in his own life story is continually stymied because the one man whose approval he craves is not ready to relinquish that role. On the other hand, Ike’s desire to be thought of as the brilliant, beloved literary scion is consistently undermined because the young charge he has chosen for a doppelganger is such an unrepentant shit. Having Philip as a prodigy allows Ike to feel he like he is passing off the torch of his own great legacy, but Philip also reflects Ike’s own pride and myriad failings back at him. As with the rest of the film, Perry presents the dance of these two egos honestly but never veers into mean-spirited condescension. By allowing these two prickly writers to form a relationship that is clear-eyed and insightful in all its preening pettiness, Perry achieves the cagey balancing act of presenting artistic arrogance in a manner both truthful and loving.

Listen Up Philip- Ike and Philip

Perry’s biting look into the insular world of artists should have been an exhausting, high-brow slog. The fact that it is not is due to what I would call perfect cinematic mixology. Watching Perry bring this tapestry of conceited, posturing intelligentsia together is like watching a bartender fill a cocktail shaker with jalapenos and absinthe and Fernet Branca. You brace for the worst. The odds are against such intense and bitter flavors even being palatable together, much less harmonious. And yet, somehow, the experience is invigorating and funny and flavorful both in spite of and because of its difficult ingredients. Full credit goes to Perry’s ability to blend scathing humor with a real tenderness for human frailty. Perry is undeniably deft at keeping his camera trained on the monstrous Philip without letting the film itself take on the notes of his sourness and cruelty. The film has a concerned, protective arm around Philip, but it never becomes beholden to his unhealthy solipsism. The scenes between Ike and Philip are perfectly observed, and they allow us to care about Philip even if we do not care for him as a person. That said, these beautifully insecure pissing contests between the proud, aging genius and the boastful young prodigy could have become unbearably misanthropic if they were the sole focus of Listen Up Philip. Perry’s secret weapon is Philip’s girlfriend, Ashley. In the middle of the film, Philip jettisons Ashley from his life and leaves her to wallow in loneliness and rejection, as he climbs toward fame and fortune. In Philip’s megalomaniacal mind, every single waking moment is the story of Philip Louis Friedman. If he had his druthers, Listen Up Philip would be the story of a prickly artiste’s rise to the top, in spite of the many small-minded individuals who stood in his way. But Alex Ross Perry sees the story differently. When Philip leaves Ashley, Perry’s camera stays with her. Perry stays with her for a full twenty minutes and, in so doing, temporarily edits Philip out of the film that bears his name. Perry watches Ashley mourn and watches Ashley pursue her own art. He watches Ashley sift through the detritus of her relationship and visit with old friends and slowly heal. These twenty minutes add up to one of the most blissful, candid, perfect accounts of a breakup ever put to film. And they allow Elisabeth Moss, with her wounded, vulnerable, luminous performance, to steal Listen Up Philip away. In a film full of delicate, observant scenes, Ashley’s breathless twenty minute passage is the unquestionable apex in terms of both acting and writing. Ashley takes what first appeared to be Philip’s story and defiantly scribbles a narrative of her very own. It is the year’s most exhilarating act of soulful, feminist piracy. Ashley’s stolen “chapter” hums and coos with such lovely, understated humanity that it makes Philip’s own story feel every bit as small as it should. Philip is a gifted writer destined for a prosperous career- and so bloody what? Perry poses a vital question about the line between creating art and being human. How much can an artist tell us about humanity when he refuses to look at anyone but himself? How truly great can any artist be when they lack the capacity for empathy? What Philip lacks, Alex Ross Perry has in spades.

Listen Up Philip- Ashley 2

Best Films of 2014: #12- Ida

Ida- Title

“Ghost, ghost I know you live within me
I feel you as you fly
In thunder clouds above the city
Into one that I love
With all that was left within me
Until we tore in two
Now wings and rings and there’s so many
Waiting here for you.”

– “Ghost” by Neutral Milk Hotel (from In the Aeroplane Over the Sea)

Before I can delve into Ida, (a gorgeous, chilly, and haunting look at Poland after World War II), I must spend a substantial length of time discussing other works of art. You see, a certain line of criticism states that we have reached a point of saturation when it comes to films about the despicable inhumanity of the Holocaust. This view has always rankled me a bit. I do not believe we can ever have too much intelligent, passionate, outraged art on any subject, and certainly not when it comes to the most horrific genocide of modern times. I will concede that we can do without any more films that misappropriate the Holocaust, by using it as a background tragedy for romantic trysts (The Reader), exploiting it for bathos (The Boy In the Striped Pajamas), or exploring its untapped comedic possibilities (Life Is Beautiful). But, I vehemently disagree that art is done having its way with the 20th century’s most harrowing act of inhumanity. The problem is not oversaturation, but that too many accounts of the Holocaust are so toothless in grappling with its full horror. Too rarely does the treatment fit the crime. One of the very best documents of the genocide is the album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by the alternative rock band Neutral Milk Hotel. Apart from brief references to places and the time period, the album stays away from historical specifics. Like a musical version of Picasso’s Guernica, it is horror seen through a thick, distorting glass. It is a fever dream account of the atrocities Anne Frank suffered. Though it is tinged with sorrow, its dominant emotion is a kind of keening madness that borders on Dadaism. It does not contain names like Hitler or Himmler or Goebbels, but it shivers and wails with the knowledge that entire generations of people could be eradicated by the beastly inhumanity of a single political movement. This, to my mind, is the response the Holocaust should provoke in us. It should have us tearing our hair out at its visceral cruelty, not rubbing our chins somberly at the philosophical implications of it all. And so, all of this is to say that Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida is a document of genocide that can stand proudly with the best works of art on that subject. While it has the appearance of a stately film, and is certainly a more traditional document of genocide than In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, it also succeeds by way of implying more than it shows. It manages to convey horror and sorrow in a way that is no less visceral for being subdued.

Ida- Grave

Ida takes place in Poland in the 1960s, but its mind is always looking twenty years back. Ida begins as the story of Anna, a young novice in a Polish convent, becomes the story of Ida Lebenstein, and ends with a young girl’s identity in flux. Ida, it turns out, is Anna. This birth name is the moth-balled heritage that Anna’s deceased Jewish parents bequeathed to her, though she does not remember ever knowing them. She has been raised by the good Christian mothers and sisters at her convent almost since infancy, and when we first see her, painting an unfinished statue of Jesus Christ, she is a week away from taking her vows. The Mother Superior insists that, before committing to the life of a nun, Anna experience some of the outside world and meet the aunt she never knew she had. Anna reluctantly agrees, but seems to have little doubt that she is destined to live her life as a devout follower of Christ. Anna goes to the Warsaw apartment of her only living relative and finds an immediate foil to her own piety and reserved nature. Her aunt is an acerbic, boozy, promiscuous magistrate judge named Wanda Cruz (brilliantly played by Agata Kulesza). Moments after meeting her for the first time, Wanda informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein, and that she is a Jew. Her parents were among many Jews killed by their own Polish countrymen during the war and they are buried somewhere near the farmhouse the family used to own. Ida expresses a desire to visit their graves, which lie unmarked somewhere in the Polish countryside where the family used to live, and Wanda agrees to take her. So it is that Ida becomes a mournful, sobering, quietly livid road trip through 1960s Poland and into the even more distant past.

Ida- Ida and Wanda

Along the way, the film becomes a study in the way that the Holocaust not only eradicated entire generations, but bruised, distorted, and mangled the identities of those who remained. As a magistrate, Wanda uses her political muscle to get answers about where her sister and brother-in-law are buried. She cajoles and bullies and barely conceals her simmering rage. We cannot blame her. The Poland Wanda moves through does not seem remotely apologetic about the tragedies that many of them facilitated and perpetrated. A local bartender refuses Wanda any answers and apologizes. Wanda asks him why he is apologizing, and he clarifies that this is just something one says. Wanda would survive Nazism and rise to a position of power as a member of the Communist political elite. However, that political influence has not brought her happiness nor sated her anguish at seeing loved ones murdered. Instead, she has become what she hated: an authority figure helping a political movement to exterminate those it deems threatening. She has tried to drown out the trauma of the past by fully embracing the perks of her high position. She has escaped the wake of Hitler’s regime and can now fill her life with merriment, drink and fornication. She often mocks Ida for her naïve notions of purity and spirituality. Wanda has seen behind the curtain of human cruelty and cannot understand why anyone would choose a life of selfless devotion to humanity. Kulesza’s turn is so spell-bindingly sardonic and vital that it took me half the film before I could see the tragedy behind her salty exuberance. Ida’s notions of Christian charity may be waylaid and simplistic, but Wanda’s secular swinger’s life is hollow to the core. It is her braying, desperate attempt to block the sounds of the ghettos and the camps from her ears, and it has been an abject failure. Ida is the story of what genocide does to the psyche, told through the focused fury of two amazing female characters. In Wanda’s case, Ida becomes a story about how all-engulfing the aftermath of war and death can be. When one has lived through certain experiences, no amount of wealth, power, sex, or drink can blunt them.

Ida- Wanda

While Wanda fumes and pushes for clues, young Ida takes a passive stance, taking everything in with equal doses of horror and curiosity. In embarking on the simple mission to find a burial site, Wanda is guiding Ida backwards into a Poland that has been concealed from her. Outside the convent walls, she sees a nation filled with collaborators and cowards. She sees a Poland too ashamed to speak frankly about its role in the Holocaust and too pig-headedly proud to make a full apology. A lot of people died and they were all there to witness it, but the polite thing to do is not to press them to discuss it further. The country she sees makes a show of being conciliatory toward what happened to the Jews, but that same country took her true identity away from her and placed her in the safe haven of a less-persecuted religious tradition. In one scene, as Ida and Wanda are just leaving the farm house where her Jewish parents were murdered, a local woman sees her habit and asks her to bless her infant child. The past is never past. The Nazis may be gone, but the traces of their bigotry still hang in the air. A quiet Christian is met with a smile and a warm greeting. An inquisitive Jew is met with hostility and stubborn reticence. Ida is a film about looking to the past for closure and finding that none exists. Some wounds cannot ever heal over. The horror that was will always be a horror. And the apology Ida and Wanda seek and deserve will always come out in mumbles.

Ida, London Film Festival 2013

If any of this sounds like a dry or academic experience, then I have not done full justice to the gorgeous and forlorn cinematography by Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski. Ida’s black and white textures are sometimes as brittle and crisp as a cold morning. At other times, they are as murky and jet-black as a tomb. As Ida’s two wonderful actresses give us a potent portrait of two women plunging into the despair of the recent past,  the camera work conjures a landscape that is alternately haunted and hostile. Characters are often framed at the very bottom of the screen, with canyons of empty space above their heads. They are just as often shot from a distance, moving like tiny blips on a desolate, impersonal landscape. If Ida is about looking to Poland’s past, Zal and Lenczewski make that past feel cavernous, ominous, and inscrutable. Most importantly, all that empty space and silence allow us to see the film’s most important characters: the ones who are no longer there. Ida captures the full horror of the Holocaust not in depicting its atrocities, but in using negative space to help us conceive of the most massive loss of life in known history. Instead of a wall of anguished noise, Ida makes its tragedy felt through silence and through the gaping open spaces of its haunting cinematography.

Ida- Open Space

As Wanda sits in that cafe, sipping angrily at her shot and pumping closeted bigots for information about the tragedy they would just as soon forget, a figure walks by on the street outside. We do not get a good look at his face. It may be a real person, but it could just as well be an apparition. A spectral reminder of those who used to walk here, of those who could have walked here and never will. In Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, a character optimistically points out that a life saved will allow entire generations to exist in the future. This is a good and humane thought in a tremendous film, but Ida remembers the ghastly flip side of this insight. There are an uncountable number of human beings who will never be born because of what happened. Perhaps their ghosts walk those streets too. There may be certain Holocaust stories that do not need to be told again, but I maintain we will always need Holocaust art like ida. Poised somewhere between an anguished sob and a whispered invective, Ida regards the tragedy with the kind of evergreen shock and disgust it deserves. Stories of survival are important and should be celebrated, but Ida is too incensed and heart-broken to bother with such anomalies. Those may be wonderful stories from the Holocaust, but they are not and never will be the story of the Holocaust. Ida is an anti-survival film. In exploring Poland in the years just after World War II, it becomes the act of exhuming a grave. Ida moves quietly and quickly, like a perfect short story, but its silence and frigid open spaces are filled with an unrelenting fire. In its protagonist’s focused, seemingly placid gaze, there is a vast reservoir of condemnation for Poland and for any nation that would lend its hand to genocide. Ida refuses closure, but it contemplates a fitting punishment for the silent patrons of that Polish café. Those who participated in the Holocaust in their own small ways and now sit refusing to acknowledge it. They have kept their lives, but the ghosts will always outnumber them.

Ida- Cafe Window

Best Films of 2014: #13- Two Days, One Night

Two Days, One Night- Title

The first time we see Sandra Bya (a frankly never better Marion Cotillard), the reluctant, frazzled heroine of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s working class drama, Two Days, One Night, she is lying on her side half asleep. Her cell phone buzzes offscreen, vying for her attention like a needy child. Its best efforts to rouse her do not appear to be working. Finally though, Sandra manages to stand. She groggily pulls herself from the bed to answer the call and remove some half-forgotten food from the oven. Sandra will soon learn from her friend, Juliette, that she is being let go from her job at the local solar plant, but this beautiful, young woman’s demeanor is frail, stooped and defeated before she even receives the news. Sandra has been in this feeble state since six months ago, when she experienced a nervous breakdown and took a sabbatical from her job. After learning that the plant could function without her, Sandra’s boss, Mr. Dumont, gave her 16 coworkers the option of either keeping Sandra or taking home a $1,000 bonus. 14 out of 16 decided they would rather keep the money. Sandra acquiesces to defeat almost as soon as she hangs up the phone. She begs herself not to cry and takes a couple of Xanax, ready to sleep the weekend away and meet her sorry fate on Monday.

Two Days, One Night- Asleep

It seems all hope is lost until her husband, Manu, returns home with a silver lining. He has spoken to Juliette, who learned that Jean-Marc, the factory foreman, intimidated the other workers by falsely implying that one of them would be laid off if it were not Sandra. The choice Sandra’s co-workers thought they were voting for was not to get a bonus or keep Sandra, but rather to get a bonus or potentially lose their own jobs. Sandra, Manu, and their two children have great need of her income, but Sandra’s depleted physical and mental condition has left her in a poor position to fight a battle of this magnitude. Nonetheless, she is just barely able to summon the strength to go down to the plant and explain the situation to Mr. Dumont. Juliette actually does most of the talking for her, as Sandra stands meekly to the side, unsure if she even wants to be there; unsure any small sliver of hope she might have is worth the strain on her psyche. Sandra is being held up on invisible strings by her devoted friend and indefatigable husband, but it is enough to give pause to Mr. Dumont, who wants to avoid any suggestion of impropriety. He agrees to hold a revote on Monday, with a majority needed to overturn the decision. Juliette and Manu are relieved for her, but Sandra looks like she just wants to be back under her refuge of blankets. She is content to wait until Monday to see how the vote turns out. Manu prods and coaxes her into speaking personally with her 16 co-workers. The hope is that seeing the human cost of their decision will move them to change their minds. More importantly, Manu wants Sandra to reengage with a world that she no longer feels capable of even looking in the eye.

Two Days, One Night- Family

Two Days, One Night is a film of both deeply felt emotion and remarkable economy. In the first 10 minutes, the Dardenne brothers, Belgian masters of beautifully minimalist storytelling, introduce a flawed, relatable character and her two closest allies, fill us in on her backstory and her most damaging character flaw, and set up the entire conflict that will unfold over the next 90 minutes. What follows could have been a drab and preachy slice of social realism, forcing us to watch a mentally ill woman unravel in the face of redundancy and become a martyr of today’s unforgiving economic conditions, but Two Days, One Night is one of the most unexpectedly joyous films of the year. As with any film by the Dardenne brothers, it is certainly a proud example of social realism, but it never sinks into a quagmire of pessimism. In the same way that Manu and Juliette continually nudge Sandra away from her anxiety and self-pity, the Dardenne brothers take a film about the plight of the working class and push it in the direction of optimism, solidarity, and courage in the face of life’s hardships. In this regard, the arc of the film mirrors the arc of its character, who starts enshrouded in a deep malaise and never seems more than two seconds from collapsing in a heap, but who learns to find her footing through the help of her family and close friend, through allies she never knew she had, and finally on her own initiative.

Two Days, One Night- Baby

The two days and one night of the title are the amount of time that Sandra has in which to change the minds of 7 of the remaining 14 coworkers. In following her through each of these 14 encounters, Two Days, One Night crafts a rich tapestry of human beings, each giving a unique slant on the battle between generosity and self-interest in the human soul. Sandra gets a bit of misleading hope at the start of her first day when one coworker not only says he will change his vote, but does so over the phone. The Dardennes and the great Marion Cotillard have a deep psychological understanding of Sandra, who is a smart, resourceful woman under the best of circumstances, but initially has trouble standing fully erect when life rains down in sheets. We all cling to the outside hope that life will not only blithely give us the answer we want, but that it will do so without asking us to walk out of our own front door. Naturally, adversity soon rears its head. She vistis the homes of her next two coworkers, who apologetically explain that their financial situations are too dire for them to reject the bonus out of loyalty to her. One is sending his daughter to college, the other starting a new life after a divorce. Sandra does her best to put on a brave face, but these early moments of rejection send her just as quickly back into her tailspin, scrambling for pills and pining for her bed. “I don’t even exist,” she laments. Manu must remind her that she does and that she must stand and fight, not close her eyes and slump. After a particularly bitter rejection, he shuts off the radio to protect her from hearing a sad song at the wrong time. Showing a heretofore unseen strength, Sandra turns it back on. She may not be in ideal state to meet this arduous task, but she is striving mightily to face the music.

Two Days, One Night- Smile

Remarkably and blessedly, Two Days, One Night is not the story of a fragile woman whose kind, sturdy husband teaches her to fight for her job and her self-actualization. Even if that were its intent, Marion Cotillard’s slow, halting climb out of the depths of self-pity and dejection is too vital, beautiful, and wholly convincing to let Sandra become a secondary character in her own working class hero’s journey, even when she is at her most downtrodden and despondent. Moreover, Cotillard is not alone in believing in Sandra, because the Dardennes are squarely in her corner too. They are wholly entranced and moved by both the lows of her melancholic vulnerability and the heights of her rekindled agency. I have talked at length of Sandra’s initial frailty, but this is no portrait of a weak, floundering woman. This is quite honestly one of the most wonderfully strong, fantastically faltering, and naturally empathetic characters to come around in a long time. Cotillard and the Dardennes have created for Sandra a narrative of slow, painful growth so natural and cathartic that our hearts positively soar for her, when they are not breaking. And they have done it all under the banner of an unadorned social realist drama about working class redundancy. Two Days, One Night is a painful, hopeful, occasionally even funny reminder of how conflict can destroy or rejuvenate us, with a vibrant, achingly human character staring down both roads, often simultaneously. It was one of the year’s great pleasures to travel with her as she reluctantly, then tentatively, and then confidently went out to meet her fellow human.

Two Days, One Night- Community

While the Dardennes provide Sandra with a very moving, even inspirational narrative path, there is nothing pat about it. As surely as the film deftly sidesteps bleak miserablism, the film is not interested in portraying Sandra’s journey as one from adversity into perpetual sunlight. This is a story of empowerment, but it is not the story of a woman shaking off her mental illness for good and all, as no responsible story about depression should be. I will pass on this easy opportunity to pile on Silver Linings Playbook, a film I do like quite a bit. But I will say that the Dardennes have created a film that is neither a miserable, defeatist slog, nor a myopically cheerful tale of self-belief paving over mental illness and human frailty. Sandra seems to suffer from depression from the start of the film, and the film never suggests that she has broken free of that completely. What she has learned is the value of fighting to assert her dignity and identity. Two Days, One Night has a number of themes, and one of the major ones is the notion of struggle. What makes it such an unexpectedly exuberant and lovely piece of working class social realism is that it acknowledges that struggle is ongoing, but argues that it need not only be a source of strife. It can also be a wellspring of purpose, satisfaction, and even real joy.

Two Days, One Night- Soccer

More than that, it can be a source of solidarity. On second viewing, what emerged most clearly was how much Two Days, One Night is the story of how we are never alone, even in our darkest trials. Sandra asks each coworker to reflect upon her situation with empathy, and she encounters a wide range of reactions to that request. Some agree reluctantly to help her, some meekly decline, some respond with anger that she has asked them to make such a tough decision. Regardless of how each new worker responds, the more of them Sandra meets, the harder it is for her to want to go back to sleep. Two Days, One Night is a work of naturalistic neorealism in the way it paints a working class tableau out of a vast ensemble of non-professional actors. But, instead of using neorealism solely to observe lower class oppression and economic hardship, it weaves a teeming, lived-in world of persons. It does so just to remind us that there are so many faces we have still not gazed into, and could if we only knocked upon their door. Just as Sandra does with her coworkers, Two Days, One Night asks us to look to the person next to us and to consider their situation. Each one of them could be the person who saves our lives, or the person that we save. In the span of hours, someone who was only a passing acquaintance could be a new traveling companion, sitting beside us in the car, belting out “G-L-O-R-i-A!” on the radio. What a difference a day makes. To watch Sandra is not only to dwell on how hard it is to break the inertia of sadness and fatigue, but also to remember how contagious it can be to remember that we are alive and surrounded by people just as flawed and frail as we are. In perhaps the film’s most moving moment, Sandra interrupts a coworker at his soccer practice, and is utterly taken aback by his emotional response. He weeps, he begs her forgiveness, and he smilingly recalls a time when she stood up for him at work. When we forget to value ourselves, we also forget to consider how valued we are by those around us. Sandra walks away from the encounter beaming like the sunshine. Life presents so many opportunities for loss, but the possibility for gain is just as ever-present. We may lose our money, our spouses, our jobs. We stand to gain a community.

Two Days, One Night- Gloria

Best Films of 2014: #14- Citizenfour

Citizenfour- Title

Midway through Laura Poitras’ great, infuriating documentary, Citizenfour, Edward Snowden sits in a Hong Kong hotel room, well into the eight-day June 2013 interview that would make history. This interview would reveal the full depravity of the United States’ surveillance into the private lives of its countrymen. Poitras and the two journalists she has entrusted with breaking Snowden’s story, have taken every precaution to guarantee that nobody knows where they are, who they are speaking with, and what they are talking about. Nonetheless, days into the interview Snowden remembers a chilling fact. The hotel phone, which sits hung up on the receiver next to him, could be used to listen in to their entire conversation. Surveillance technology has brought us so far that it we no longer need to use the telephone for someone to use it to spy on us. 40 years ago, Harry Caul (Gene Hackman’s surveillance expert in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation) tore his entire apartment to smithereens out of fear that someone could be using some object, any object, to record his private life. Ladies and gentlemen, we are now living in Harry’s world. Citizenfour is the best of this year’s numerous worthy documentaries, but that almost seems like faint praise for what it achieves. The facts that Laura Poitras presents with grim, journalistic fury are so alarming and disheartening that I almost feel bad carrying on a normal film review, which suddenly seems an especially insignificant thing. Part of me feels I should delve into a detailed analysis of the subject matter itself, but I fear I would not have much to add. Better that I stick to what I know. I know about movies and I know that everyone should see Citizenfour.

CItizenfour- Moscow

Citizenfour begins inside a tunnel, with traffic anonymously whooshing by. The voice of Laura Poitras reads messages from a mysterious informant who calls himself Citizenfour, and who will soon be revealed to be Edward Snowden. He has information. He knows the National Security Agency (“NSA”), where he has worked for many years, and our government as a whole, are embroiled in the most widespread invasion of human liberty in United States history. If Poitras and Snowden are to meet, she must confirm that she has an extremely strong password and that no one knows that they have communicated. Even then, they will have to undergo an elaborate set of steps to make sure that nobody can follow her. She should “involve Glenn Greenwald”, of The Guardian newspaper’s American division, to help break the story that Snowden will give to them. Poitras also involved Ewen MacAskill, The Guardian’s defense and intelligence correspondent. Greenwald, MacAskill, and Poitras herself would receive the 2013 Polk Award for Journalism for their efforts. Snowden asks that they place total blame on him in order to protect innocent parties and to safeguard the integrity of the story. Poitras must go to a Hong Kong hotel and look for a man solving a Rubik’s Cube and she must ask him about the hotel’s restaurant hours. He will tell her the restaurant is closed and pretend to escort her to a lounge on another floor. They will go from there to his hotel room, where he will allow them to capture riveting, dismaying, and historically groundbreaking footage of his controversial disclosure of National Security Agency secrets. The details will be myriad and sickening. As a former NSA analyst, Snowden learned that the United States was spying not only on potential terror suspects, but on every private citizen. We learn that drones are being used to spy on millions of American citizens, and that NSA workers can access footage of these private individuals from their desktops. And, where the NSA had purported to only collect data about the identities and times of private communications, Snowden reveals that they actually intercept the entire content of private conversations. Privacy has become almost entirely a thing of the past, and Citizenfour is a rigorous and almost unbearably immediate examination of its downfall. As directed by Laura Poitras, it is also a fascinating look at a brave and controversial man, a detailed look at the vast scope of how citizens are being monitored, and, in a way that seems almost perverse, an entertaining jolt of high-octane anxiety.

Citizenfour- Snowden and Greenwald

Prior to watching the film, I was unable to avoid hearing some criticism about its value as a piece of documentary filmmaking. The line went that Citizenfour was “merely” the year’s best documentary subject, not its best documentary. I personally feel that the value of a film’s subject often coincides with its content, but I concede that the two are not always one and the same. Suffice to say that point is moot because I think that Citizenfour is nigh unimpeachable on both fronts. Anyway, the nagging doubts seemed to be centered more on the film’s craftsmanship. It may be possible to argue that there were more kinetic documentaries this year than Citizenfour, which spends a substantial portion of its runtime in one hotel room, listening to a few men talk. Does this alleged shortage of kinetic verve make it less than perfect as a piece of cinema? Maybe, but then I may be the last person in the world to ask, as my most perfectly styled documentary of the year involved watching people ride a gondola in near silence. I will say that, if Citizenfour prioritizes its subject over its packaging, it is in keeping with Ed Snowden’s own wishes. He tells the three journalists that they must minimize his role in the story, and even obscure it completely for as long as they can. The media is quick to skim over dense, complex facts in favor of the glossier human interest angle. In the same way, it would have been easy for Poitras to make style the focus of her documentary, out of fear that viewers might have trouble unpacking the staggering amount of information it presents. Thankfully, Poitras has faith in her audience’s ability to parse through the meaning of it all. She lets the litany of cold facts and chilling implications largely speak for themselves. If we need to watch it again to catch it all, maybe we should. The film’s purpose is not to render fantastic images on the screen, but to ask us to picture in our own minds the burgeoning global surveillance state that Snowden’s confession paints for us. The big story of the film is that the interview Poitras was able to capture is the very same one that blew the lid off of the NSA surveillance scandal. However, Poitras does not sit proudly atop her footage, content just to be the one to bring it to us. She builds a shrewd, stimulating essay filled with knowledgeable persons. Instead of making “The Edward Snowden Film”, Poitras has respected Snowden’s wishes and made a great film with the information he disclosed. She darts from symposiums, to Congressional hearings, to clandestine Occupy Wall Street meetings. Snowden did not wish to become the lone face of the story he was unveiling, and Poitras wisely does not force him to be. This is not the story of a single citizen, but of a global citizenry awakening to find itself in a nightmarish predicament. Citizenfour is a real-life, globe-hopping John Le Carre novel, where we all have roles in the ensemble.

Citizenfour- Encryption

Citizenfour consistently finds ways to make the dawning knowledge of living in a world without privacy sickening, dizzying, and disorienting. Poitras’ editing is lean, heart-pounding, and tonally sinister, sustaining a sense of mounting dread that never relents, even when we are just sitting still and absorbing information. A low, droning score regularly buzzes in the background. During one conversation with Snowden and Greenwald, fire alarm bells continually sound off in the background, as if someone is trying to interrupt their exchange. Even a routine call from the front desk seeking a customer service review feels wracked with paranoia. Complete, uninterrupted privacy is an impossible dream. Snowden insists on placing a blanket over his head when he types in a computer password because the NSA could conceivably read the screen. The image is scary and silly in equal measure. And there is something strangely unsettling just in seeing the encrypted messages Poitras and Snowden use to communicate. Seeing recognizable words jumbled into an unruly mish-mash of numbers, letters, and symbols somehow captures the soul of what we have become since the towers fell. Without spelling it out, Poitras seems to imply that this is the world we now live in. A world at war over information, where the only way to protect your privacy is to dice and julienne what you say into ribbons. The alternative is to not say anything at all. Far from being a verbose and listless, Citizenfour is one of the best spy films ever made. No James Bond movie in history has felt this suffused with panic and claustrophobia.

CItizenfour- Mantle of Power

One of the most visually chilling moments in the film comes from observing the construction site for a facility in Bluffdale, Utah, that will house intercepted data. Poitras does not need to goose the film to make these images resonate with frightful power. In the real dystopia taking shape as I write these words, these cold, monolithic blocks of concrete will store our words, our private confidences, and our lives. At a lecture in Brazil, Glenn Greenwald explains that governments will not only be able to collect our conversations, but will be able to assemble a narrative about who we are and what we will do from analyzing it. And all the while, real contractors and bulldozers and cement mixers have been arranged for to help erect the fortresses that will horde this treasure. Many political documentaries seek to stroke our ego and send us out into the fray ready to fight unjust conditions. Citizenfour is different. It does want us to feel enraged and it celebrates the journalists and citizens trying to undermine these brazen attacks on our civil liberties. But it is not hot-blooded. It is frigid to the core. It sits like a patient in shock and takes in Snowden’s intelligence with flabbergasted disbelief. It hopes to incense us all, but it also trembles with the gnawing suspicion that the wheels of this sinister new society have been irrevocably set in motion. Maybe it is too late.

Citizenfour- Bluffdale

Poitras has constructed both a disquieting expose and a ripping spy yarn, and the feeling it left me with was one of horror of the most enlivening kind. The information this film reveals is dreadful and dismaying. Once one fully acknowledges and appreciates the ramifications of the world Snowden has exposed, the only natural reaction can be some mixture of disgust and despair. And yet there I sat enjoying the hell out of this disturbing political documentary as if it were Three Days of the Condor. The heroes and villains of CItizenfour are all spies of varying kinds. The spies we root for are journalists and concerned citizens trying to take down, or at least expose, a larger, more sinister network of cutthroats, stretching all the way to the President of the United States. By end, we learn that 1.2 million American citizens are now being targeted by government watch lists. Poitras constructs her documentary as a spy movie because that is the world where we now awake to find ourselves. This world of fear and perpetual surveillance will be our homeland for the foreseeable future. The giddy technical bravado on display is like some kind of sick, all too appropriate joke on the audience. I left the theater riding a wave of adrenaline, but the next day’s aftertaste was one of great sorrow. I did not watch another movie that weekend.

Citizenfour- Julienned Information

Best Films of 2014: #15- A Most Violent Year

Only three films into his career, young J.C. Chandor is the quintessential wunderkind director. Of any director working today, he is perhaps the least easy to pigeon-hole, as not one of his films is stylistically comparable to the other. But each one points to his knack for peering inside very specific universes, while using those closed settings to explore broader social issues. If pressed to come up with a theme for his work (and, God knows, he could shake this theme off with the next picture and leave us all completely at a loss to contain him!), I think he is curious about what it means for human beings to live in a world built on goods and services, on economies, on business. Margin Call, his most direct film, was a rich ensemble drama about a brokerage firm on the eve of the financial collapse and the elaborate hierarchy of people trying to make sense of their ethical and professional responsibilities to the company, the public, and themselves. Last year’s All Is Lost, a near-silent look at a shipwreck at sea, used one man’s survival ordeal to suggest a world where individuals shout to be heard over the automated whir of sterile commerce. With his third film, A Most Violent Year, Chandor continues to be interested in the omnipresence of money and professional survival in our lives and the corrupting influence that can have on even the most morally steadfast of us. It is interested in how a world built on business dictates the morality of those who take part in it. To be moral in such a world is not to operate at some higher, God-given level of honor, but to simply obey herd ethics. There is no golden moral standard, simply Standards and Practices. And sometimes it is inadvisable to even follow those to the letter.

AMVY- Standards and Practices

As its title implies, A Most Violent Year is a film set in a very specific time: the year 1981. The setting is New York City in its grimiest, seediest state, blanketed in a layer of dirt, smog, and dilapidation. 1981 was one of the most turbulent years in the City’s history, with over 120,000 robberies and over 2,100 murders. The details of this violence are not the film’s focus, only its milieu, as much a part of the setting as the trash on the streets and the smog hanging over the Hudson. This is the world where Abel Morales (a beautifully observed turn by Oscar Isaac) and his wife, Anna (a spirited Jessica Chastain), must make their way. The two of them run a heating oil business that used to belong to Anna’s father, a gangster of some renown. Since purchasing it from his father-in-law, Abel has taken every effort to ensure that his business expands without falling to the lower ethical standards of his competitors. However, in spite of his doggedly decent nature and his insistence on abiding by the law, the heating oil business has come under investigation by the New York City District Attorney’s Office (the investigator is played in another good performance by Selma’s David Oyelowo). This legal quagmire comes at a horrible time, because Abel has finally managed to make an offer on a waterfront property that will be crucial to the continued success of his business. The old Hebrew family who is selling it have given him 30 days to come up with the funding and close the deal, or they will keep the half of the money he has already given them. The legal investigation is affecting business and the situation is further exacerbated by the City’s crime wave, which subjects one of his drivers to a violent hijacking. The union leader starts demanding that all drivers carry firearms. Abel resists the suggestion, but the injured, traumatized driver chooses to return to work with a weapon anyway, and subjects the company to further liability. Violent criminals with mysterious intentions come looking around the family house, and, in the morning, Anna finds a loaded gun by the front door. With legal trouble brewing on all sides, the bank with whom Abel has spent years building trust retracts more than a half a million dollars in funding, leaving Abel just two days to find the money from some other source.

AMVY- On Top of Truck

It all sounds fairly frantic, but the tone of the piece is that of a somber, simmering, evocative character study. It might even better to say that it is a study of character; what it means to have it, how difficult it is to cling to it, and what value it still has in a ruthless, market-driven world. Abel is a character of remarkable decency and gumption, and A Most Violent Year is the story of the world, in all its avarice and corruption, transacting with him for his principles. As Anna Morales, Jessica Chastain provides Abel with a source of unwavering support, but also acts as a foil to his somewhat oblivious sanctimoniousness. As a man, Abel may adhere to a strict moral code, but the film makes it clear that his business owes a good deal of its success to being less morally defined. The film has many interesting ideas about what it means to do business with the world, and one of the most intriguing may be that business thrives on corruption and moral fortitude singing together in harmony. Business demands a fresh, honest face on the newsletter, and a dirty, ink-stained pair of hands cooking things in the back room. Abel believes in a world where success requires nothing more than grit, intelligence, and courage of one’s virtuous convictions. Those around him, such as his wife and his lawyer, know it is best to let him persist in this belief. They also know better than to let him steer the ship without some subtle, not entirely ethical course correction.

AMVY- Stop

A Most Violent Year is a detailed, finely crafted portrait of a specific time, but it is also a film of many times, and a film that speaks very pointedly to our own times. I do not yet know if this will make the film timeless. I just know that Chandor and his team have made an allegory and a tone poem that luxuriates in nostalgia without once making it feel like window dressing, and that is a very impressive feat indeed. The team is full of talented players doing commendable work, from Alex Ebert’s dignified, lonesome synth score, to John P. Goldsmith’s pitch-perfect production design, to a great ensemble giving subtly energized performances. However, more than anything, A Most Violent Year is a collaboration between three focused, confident, highly intelligent young men, each at the beginning of potentially legendary careers. The first is the almost hyperactively smart J.C. Chandor, who came out of nowhere with 2011’s Margin Call and does not show any sign of hesitating. He has a literate ensemble morality play about Wall Street, a wordless maritime survival action parable, and a sinewy, allegorical period crime film under his belt. He has yet to return to the style of a previous film, and each individual film sounds and feels like its own unlikely hybrid. I can only hope he continues to be as simultaneously restless and focused. The second major talent on display in A Most Violent Year is Bradford Young, the great cinematographer who sumptuously and sensitively lit Selma’s great, bustling cast of black actors. His camera work is absolutely indispensable to A Most Violent Year’s period specificity and, more importantly, allowing New York City to become the great stage in a mythical poem about the nature of success and moral compromise. His use of shadow on the dirty, crumbling buildings of the city capture the paranoia and tension of trying to walk a narrow path in a crooked time. But his beautiful, golden lighting of the sky and distant cityscape also evoke the same New York City that called so many immigrants like Abel to find their destinies there. Almost every frame is a reminder of the war of light and dark taking place against the backdrop of this banal business transaction. Finally, Oscar Isaac adds another observant, dynamic, perfectly modulated performance to his oeuvre. It can proudly stand with his surly, self-destructive, and effortlessly hilarious lead turn in last year’s Inside Llewyn Davis. Like Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke, Isaac makes Abel Morales a portrait of essential decency that is riveting and soulful, rather than pious and dull. Every righteous decision Abel makes renders him more vulnerable and every mercenary one he makes takes a little piece of his soul. Isaac makes the painstaking process of making those hard choices feel as existentially exhausting as it should.

AMVY- Snowy New York

While I was watching the film for a second time, my girlfriend, Tessa, came in halfway through and said that it looked like I was watching a gangster film. To a certain extent she was right. A Most Violent Year is filled with violent scuffles, unscrupulous entrepreneurs, tense conversations in dimly lit restaurants, and even the occasional burst of gunfire. Abel’s father-in-law was a gangster and Abel even considers turning to a close friend with gang ties when things look truly dire. With criminal charges pending against the company, Abel’s lawyer tells him they must talk outside to avoid incriminating themselves, and Abel is taken aback by how much it seems like something an avaricious mercenary would have to do. He never intended to be a gangster, and he does not recall taking any steps to become one. He has spent his whole life running in the direction of right. At its heart, A Most Violent Year is most probing and insightful for not strictly being a gangster film. A good description of it would sound fitting coming from a gangster’s mouth though: “It’s just business.” It is the story of a man trying to close a normal real estate offer at a particularly violent and unprincipled time and place. It is the story of a very honest, steady, and virtuous man, living in a world that preys upon those same qualities, who must decide how much of his better angels he is willing to part with in exchange for some modest measure of success. All the world is a bargaining table. Sooner or later, we all sit down and make a deal.

AMVY- Train Station