Mar 172014

PhilomenaThis film was fine, and I suppose I liked it well enough, but I honestly can’t account for its popularity. Its characters are ultimately incoherent to me, and I can’t understand why I am supposed to care about any of them.

The writer: does he have anything but contempt for Philomena, even at the end? I don’t think so.

And the son’s lover: why would he not see Philomena when she shows up, given that he and her son spent years trying desperately to find her?

And Philomena: she serves as the film’s emotional core and seems as if she should elicit our pity or sympathy. Yet the film’s and Judi Dench’s portrayal of her insist clearly that in fact Philomena doesn’t want either. And so, I’m left thinking, “ok, then I don’t pity you. Glad things seem to have worked out for you. Since you think they have.”

I suspect that part of my difficulty is that this is a film about a few bad nuns. It refuses to confront the religious world view that creates Philomena’s problems. Philomena never gains any insight into that world view or her commitment to it. So I’m left thinking that the film, like Philomena, wants to accuse and then forgive a few bad people without ever critiquing or changing anything that matters.

Mar 142014

A film that begins with the worst, most stilted dialogue I’ve heard in a long time. It becomes an efficient engaging variation on the action-in-a-box subgenre typified by Diehard.

What everyone I’ve talked to remembers are the final ten minutes, when Captain Phillips breaks down as he’s being cared for by a nurse. In those last minutes, the everyman action hero becomes simply Everyman, and this is something I don’t think I’ve seen before. (Although again, Diehard moves in that direction. Kinda.)

So for me, the film is nicely, efficiently generic but offers an interesting expansion of its genre at its conclusion.

Mar 122014

Alexander Payne makes movies that I like. I wait for them, watch them, remember them, but without ever mistaking them as bigger than they are. They are short stories on film. Which is the opposite of a failing.

Interesting. Beautiful.

I loved this film for two reasons. First, it refuses to tell us that people are the boring standard people we imagine them to be in most of our movies but it doesn’t ironize or idealize them either. They are ordinary and interesting. Second, the photography could have been an annoying sign of “indie-film” credibility. But it wasn’t. Instead, it thematized the approach to character: the ordinary world is interesting and beautiful when looked at with care and with craft.

Not Gothic.

In the days after seeing this film, I kept thinking about that fact that this film, which at every moment seemed as if it should manifest as gothic, never does. Lynch who at every moment should manifest as an antecedent does not. I’ve decided that this evasion of the gothic is not an accident, but is in fact a conscious effect generated by refusing the past’s claim on the present.

(The gothic is, in an important sense, an eruption of the past into the present: a ghost, a family history, an archaic brutality, the body in the closet, whatever. This is the context for Faulkner’s famous line from Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”)

In Nebraska, the central characters live in the present, insistently. They mock the idea of living under the shadow of the past. The most obvious example of this is also the film’s most excerpted moment: the mother not only speaks ill of the dead as she shuffles from tombstone to tombstone in a cemetery, she mocks the dead for being dead and gone, lifting her skirts to their graves and laughing at the fact that they wanted but cannot have her still-living body. Skin sags down the back of her knees and over the elastic of her socks but she glories in the fact that her body alive is better than any flesh rotten underground.

Every conflict between the world and the core family (the father, the mother, the two sons) arises because someone claims rights based on the past. Aunts, uncles, cousins and old acquaintances lay claim to the family’s future by speaking of past debts. Yet these debt are all illegitimate, baseless and without force. When the parents meet old friends in this movie? They have nothing to say to them. And the old man on the street who keeps thanking the father and son for coming back to their home town? He’s a comic figure. The central characters refuse to be (and laugh at the idea of being) haunted. 

I think this refusal of the gothic goes a way towards accounting for the difference between Payne’s films and those of his indie-film contemporaries.

Mar 102014

I love sci-fi but so much of it is just terrible or silly kid stuff. This movie is proof it doesn’t have to be.

The narrative is small scale: focused point-of-view, clear stakes, well-defined obstacles and time-frames. The setting however is monumental: these characters move in a hostile environment accessible only because of people’s efforts to reach beyond our limits through science and technology. Our tools and our knowledge bring us beyond our natural state.

The film feels modern and relevant–it’s real people dealing with the consequences of our technical short-sightedness–but it is also extraordinarily beautiful. In a film culture lost in seas of noise–visual and aural–this movie goes silently, moves slowly. It looks around and breaths (although sometimes too quickly given the available oxygen).

Perhaps most importantly, this is sci-fi that holds onto a faith in human reason. It has hope in our potential. There’s no cyberpunk pessimism about corporate capital here. Yes, technological fallout our stupidity and carelessness creates problems. But by working together and being tough mentally and physically, the characters overcome these problems through reason. 

Coming after Children of Men, Gravity makes Alfonso Cuaron, unexpectedly but happily, a name to watch in science fiction.

Jan 112014

The story space of this film came alive for me as I watched because of the actors (not the subject, not the characters).

Matthew McConaughey isn’t someone I find interesting or like watching, but this really is his best work. Jared Leto’s performance is uncanny but deeply moving, a difficult combination to pull off.

Oct 122013

The Beav hated this movie, and I get it. There is darkness here. And yet, I really liked it.

Like To Rome with Love, this movie has more going on than appears on its surface: in this case, a running allusion and update of A Streetcar Named Desire by way of Cate Blanchett’s recent turn as Blanche on Broadway. There is also the final revelation that remakes what had come before in interesting ways.

Is it high art? No. Is it among the best movies I’ve seen this year? No. But Blanchett is incredible as Jasmine and the script is generally strong. So I enjoyed it.