Mar 142017
 

Oddly boring and ponderous movie. Yet its style—the color, the editing, the script—is all over the map. Everything but Joseph-Gordon Levitt’s performance feels one misstep shy of out of control and I don’t mean that in a good way.

Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour (2014) is the better film by orders of magnitude.

I miss the Oliver Stone of Natural Born Killers. Nothing he’s done except JFK has ever come close to its level of lucid insanity. And nothing he’s done—nothing at all—comes close to the earned confidence of its anarchic beauty.

 March 14, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Mar 082017
 

When first writing about Hell or High Water, I skirted talking politics except for an oblique reference to Trump’s supporters, but the movie wears politics like a badge. Billboards and graffiti announce the horrors of debt like a drumbeat through the first hour of the film. Characters ruminate over the situation in conversation. The point is clear. Jobs are gone in small-town America. The financial crisis has pushed families to the brink of poverty and is tearing them apart in the process. Smelling blood, the banks, mad with greed and shameless despite having caused the financial meltdown, have rushed in to snatch people’s homes and land. Losing these, the families lose the last of their hope.

The film’s solution to the characters’ economic problems is simple: if people could only get out from under the thumb of the banks, if the debt that is crushing them were wiped away, they could fend for themselves. This libertarian world view is perfectly suited to the western as a genre, and the film plays out its story in these terms. The brothers—talented, industrious, and clever enough to accomplish wonders if given a chance—rob the bank swindling their family out of their ranch and pay off their debt to that bank with the money they steal. Their debt paid, they live off the fat of their land. (Well, it’s oil, “Texas T”, not fat, but same difference.)

Unsurprisingly, the film insists upon the morality of the brother’s actions. They may be violent, but that violence counts for little: one brother is a bit crazy and has been ruined by childhood abuse and prison; the other doesn’t want the violence even if he points a gun around. Likewise, their string of robberies is defined as somehow not quite theft: they steal only what they need to be free from the bank’s clutches. At one point, they share a bit of it with a single mom struggling to pay rent, but they don’t waste it on prostitutes, and they aren’t looking to accumulate personal wealth. In other words, they are not really thieves. They are doing what they have to do to save their family and to give their kids a chance at the American Dream.

The western is a genre perfectly suited for this clannish, libertarian view of the world, and this film is as pure a western as I’ve seen in a long time. The sheriff even rustles up a posse at the end. And so, despite all the talk in interviews and reviews about the interesting moral ambiguity of the film, I don’t buy it. The moral stakes of this film are generic and clear: eastern interests and their local agents are ruining families and the law can’t solve the problem. So a virtuous gunslinger has to step in and do what he can, and the local law-man understands, whatever his office compels him to say or do. This is Pale Rider/Liberty Valance 101.

The problem with all of this is that however satisfying the idea of the solitary man taking matters into his own hands and doing what needs to be done is (and it’s very satisfying, especially when filmed as well as it is here), the problems these characters face are bigger than a bank loan, and their solution is more complex than paying it back.

Part of the film’s achievement is that it seems to know this on some level. The oil found lying under the family ranch waiting like a miracle to make the protagonist’s sons wealthy and secure is a lucky break. The fact that it is luck highlights the fact that the ranch itself is just fields of grass too dry to raise cattle. The protagonists aren’t robbing banks to save a family farm. They’re robbing them to hold onto a winning lottery ticket.

The early presentation of the mother’s deathbed likewise undercuts the political fantasy. Her colon cancer gave the the bank an opening to swoop in and gives emotional grounding to the sons’ efforts to save her land. But it’s fair to ask if paying off a reverse mortgage offers a reasonable solution to the problem of falling sick? Obviously it does not.

The film flatters viewers by suggesting they’d be fine if left alone, but in reality cowboy libertarianism encourages them to ignore (and perpetuate) their misery by escaping to a world in which real solutions—universal healthcare, improved infrastructure, human-scale agricultural practices—don’t exit and would appear horrific if they did.

Generic Hollywood fictions are entertainments. They have few political obligations and when they address the political, their “politics” will often be risible. By motivating character with economic frustrations and reaching aesthetically toward “seriousness,” Hell or High Water invites consideration of the political underpinnings of the western. These generic politics are a dream and are beautiful, but if you look carefully through the cracks in this film, you can also see they are exactly the opposite of a way forward.

 March 8, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Feb 282017
 

I was worried this movie would be melodramatic and sentimental, but it’s not.

Not counting credits the film is only a bit over an hour and a half long, which means it’s all the time busy getting things done. There’re no wasted moments, no detours into side plots. The clock is ticking down to disaster, and the story marches clearly forward at a steady pace.

Because events not people are the focus here, the characters don’t really need to be more than believably sympathetic outlines. Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg both play to type to great effect giving performances that suggest imperfect but admirably reliable men. Dylan O’Brien, inexperienced and eager, is well cast as the boy among men. You’re rooting for these guys once everything goes up in flames and genuinely nervous when fear plays across their faces.

On the other end of the spectrum, John Malkovich looks like he grew a new set of teeth to play his loathsome BP exec and his Louisiana accent is near perfect. I expected him and his pudgy colleagues to throw people out of the lifeboat at the end but they didn’t.

So I’m pleasantly surprised. The movie’s a real jaw-clencher and I think it will stand up to repeat viewings. So I’m adding it to my informal list of great disaster movies.

 February 28, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Feb 272017
 

A tightly scripted and beautifully photographed western set in the America a subset of Trump’s voters think they’re living in. Maybe they are.

The only part of the film that felt off was Chris Pine’s performance. Viewed in isolation, it’s strong. But viewed without blinders on, it comes across as an uncannily accurate impersonation of Timothy Olyphant playing Raylan Givens—his hair, size and posture, even the pacing and intonation of his line delivery—and that echo is distracting.  You can see the visual aspects of what I’m talking about in the poster image above.

The resemblance caught my attention enough times to have “What?!? Oh, it’s just Chris Pine” running through my mind like a refrain as the movie played.

Feb 272017
 

A small film offering a convincing portrait of what life is like in a moment when what you knew and relied upon is failing you and falling apart but what comes next hasn’t taken shape yet and seems like it never will.

There are no easy options for the young protagonist, no quick jumps beyond the reach of his felt obligations, beyond the limits of his situation. And the film ends with a meaningful question that, after a lot of thought, I am still not sure I know the answer to (or even if there is one).

I really liked this movie.

 February 27, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with:
Feb 132017
 

Sunday wasn’t a great day, and as the afternoon wound down, I flipped over to Netflix to see if anything would catch my eye. For some reason, I clicked “play” on this movie which had never before tempted me in the slightest.

Looking back now, it’s hard to reconstruct exactly how it happened that I sat through it to the end, but I did, and as a result, I can say without reservation that Mortal Instruments is the biggest mess of a movie I’ve seen in ages. It’s gasp-inducingly bad.

And yet, there is Jonathan Rhys Meyers in black leather and rat tail braids. There is Lena Headey doing nothing but lying there asleep in scene after scene without ever getting a chance to wake up and kill her kid or fuck her brother. And there is Godfrey Gao in briefs and a dinner jacket mixing and mingling at a party. And there he is again striding smartly across an empty set in a fitted black robe with a cavernous hood that isolates and sets off his perfect profile. Also, there are vampires

These things alone should, by all rights, have made this movie wonderfully “bad” and carved it out a place in my magical gallery of guilty pleasures, regardless of what else was going on in the dreadfully silly (and even worse cast) main plot. Yet they don’t, they can’t, the rest is just too awful.

Which is tragic.

 February 13, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Feb 112017
 

I haven’t read, hadn’t even heard of the text being adapted here—Austin’s “Lady Susan” and called a novella in the credits—but watching it, something about this unstoppable woman with her American friend made me imagine Austin writing with Henry James sitting at her elbow whispering in her ear. (Although obviously I hear the echo because she was whispering in his.)

My pleasures here are pretty specific and fully non-literary. I think Kate Beckinsale is great in even her worst movies (and am bothered that everyone else doesn’t), so seeing her in something wonderful is, well, wonderful.

And Tom Bennet’s Lord Martin may be the most perfect comic invention of 2016. His idea of what a good-natured simpleton trying to appear to be a sophisticated nobleman looks like had me in tears. I need a Martin in my gang of friends.

 February 11, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , ,
Feb 092017
 

I find everything about the Beats fascinating. Yet oddly (and I would have thought impossibly), I also simultaneously find most things about the Beats deadly boring.

This film is no exception, and I find my reaction to it an inexplicable jumble of engagement and disregard.

Kudos though to Daniel Radcliffe for caring enough about the project to put his knees where his ears are, which is pretty amazing to see. A popular star in his position doesn’t have to take the career risk a gay sex scene this blunt entails. That he does and that, as a result, so many different types of people will see it is no small thing.

 February 9, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: ,
Jan 072017
 

Aliens arrive at twelve different sites on Earth. They are unavoidably menacing—their ships hover impossibly over land and sea, they manipulate gravity, and they look like slow–moving giant facehuggers—but nothing they do is hostile. Two scholars, one a linguist, one a physicist, have to figure out how to communicate with them while also keeping various militaries from blowing things up.

This isn’t an action film. Violence threatens, but when it happens, it happens off-screen, structuring the story as a deadline or countdown. Camera movements are slow, the shots composed. Both are independent and consistently meaningful channels of information, a feature of sophisticated communication explicitly celebrated in the dialogue. Bracing thoughtfulness is the dominant tone of the narrative. The dominant activities are listening, studying, and remembering.

Despite the aliens, their technology and the narrative’s mind–bending approach to time, the focus of the film is squarely on two educated people’s efforts to solve cooperatively an unabashedly intellectual problem. Their antagonists are the uneducated and thoughtless people around them who are driven by suspicion, anger, and fear and who are urged on by a hysterical and irresponsible media. These people cut off possibilities for cooperation, prefer violence to patience, and, whether committing suicide, looting, sabotaging, or inciting or threatening others, consistently act badly.

The fantasy of this science fiction is that humane intelligence wins out in the end, a triumph that manifests not as spoils but as a book about translation, a learned work offering help to those wishing to understand the thoughts and ideas of Others in their own words.

 January 7, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
Dec 302016
 

I don’t know what I would have thought about this movie if I had seen it when it came out. I disliked Tom Hanks in it enough to find him distracting, and the first hour or so of the story’s jumping was incredibly frustrating to follow, not least because I couldn’t understand half of what was said in the 19th and 24th century sections.

And yet, as the first hour drew to a close, things began to fall into a rhythm, and I was hooked by the play between the stories and by Bae Doona’s and Ben Whishaw’s performances. I was also quite moved by the voiceover discussing the conventionality of our world. (I haven’t read the novel, so I don’t know if the speech was lifted from it.)

In actual fact I’ve seen the movie not when if first came out but months after watching Sense8, and as a result, everything about my experience of the movie stands in relation to this more recent show. Viewed in this light, Cloud Atlas feels like a test to me. Everything it attempts is worked out with more space, more detail, and greater success in Sens8. More importantly though, I can’t shake the feeling that the television series pursues a more fundamental formal experiment than the film does.

In the film, the different stories are connected genealogically as part of a larger narrative but remain distinct one from the other, like beads lined up on a string. The film’s experiment is to present these stories simultaneously as a collage rather than as a sequence. At the most basic level, this allows the climactic events in each of the stories to be presented together as the climax of the film. More ambitiously, this narrative collage encourages us to read the events in one story as relating to or informing events in another. To the extent that something like a karmic notion of cause and effect is in play (it is), the resonances created across stories are clearly thematic.

Yet, if I’m ruthless in looking at the movie, all of its narrative fireworks boil down to the fragmentation, intermixing and then juggling of multiple stories. Everything is taken to an extreme, yes, and the technical challenges involved are enormous and perhaps unprecedented in their scale. But the basic project is recognizable, even if it is virtuoso work. (To be clear: I love virtuoso work.)

It seems to me that Sens8 does something much more radical than the film. As I explained in an earlier post, the series uses classical Hollywood techniques (cross-cutting, etc.) to imagine and then to represent an entirely new mental landscape and an entirely new conception of character. The fact that that landscape and that conception of character have a stoner-esque “We are all connected” quality to them is less significant than the fact that they manifest without digital tricks. They’re the product of montage, the most fundamental process of cinema. The austere simplicity of this return to so basic a device is beautiful in its own right, but when set against the power of the effect it produces, the brilliance of what the Wachoski’s are doing shines.

Cloud Atlas is impressive, but Sense8 feels powerful and large. Here’s hoping Netflix sees the show through to its full five seasons.

 December 30, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,