Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

A decade ago, I went to see The Passion of the Christ in a theater that was completely packed. The response the Ash Wednesday audience had to the film made me wonder if I was just hallucinating a completely different movie; where I felt numbed by the depiction of violence and the glorification of, I don't know, some kind of stoicism under the weight of symbolic historicity, I saw an audience of religious people in tears, moved by an experience they shared, and immediately defensive with those who dared criticize the film itself or its technique, seeing any criticism as a personal attack on their Christianity and their right to express their beliefs. I even knew people who were so transformed by the film that they suddenly became much more firm in their religious convictions. One friend of mine even devoted his life to the seminary. I felt for a while like I really didn't understand people. It took me a while to realize that what The Passion of the Christ had done--and the reason why it became some kind of litmus test for patriotism and whatever else--was to reflect back at a specific audience the feelings they already had. The Passion of the Christ doesn't make a case for anything. It has literally nothing to say about Jesus or about Christianity. It's merely a propaganda film that reinforces (or in some cases, strengthens) the prejudices and self-righteousness that already exists in certain viewers by ennobling those prejudices and self-righteousness.

Now here we are, a decade later, and American Sniper is the exact same kind of movie. It has nothing to say about war, or about the war in Iraq, or Islam, or American interventionism, or the way we were lied into a bullshit war that wasted American lives on nothing. Despite what some more even-handed critics are saying, giving director Clint Eastwood the benefit of more doubt than his movie deserves, this movie is not intended to open up a dialogue. It's meant to stop one. There's no nuance, no subtlety, not even really any story. Like The Passion of the Christ, it's become a litmus test for patriotism and whatever else; and, like The Passion of the Christ, it's propaganda that reinforces prejudice and self-righteousness by ennobling it. Or, as the Rude Pundit aptly put it, "American Sniper is a film about stupid people who were brainwashed into doing something stupid and it justifies their stupidity so that the stupid people watching can feel good about themselves." He then went on to describe the film as "a psycho killer origin story," which is also accurate. (I also recommend Sophia A. McClennan's piece on Salon: “American Sniper’s” biggest lie: Clint Eastwood has a delusional Fox News problem.)

American Sniper disgusted me on a number of levels. It says the Iraq War was in response to 9/11, which is not accurate. It sends the message that all Muslims are "savages" and not to be trusted, that their lives matter less, and doesn't stop for a moment to consider that America invaded Iraq and some people were simply defending their homes and families, because the movie doesn't care about actual human beings. Instead, it simply glorifies the American power structure. Some critics have suggested that Eastwood was attempting to remove context in order to examine the personal toll of war, but I don't buy that for a second (the ending makes it clear that Eastwood thinks Chris Kyle was a hero and we're supposed to laud the guy--and, again, like the people who became more religious after The Passion of the Christ, I know people, including family members, who are suddenly very gung ho about making it a cause that Chris Kyle receive the Medal of Honor). This movie doesn't take place in an echo chamber or some kind of science fiction landscape that removes the issue from a specific time and place. Eastwood may not be interested in historical context, but it's still here, in our national consciousness, and all Eastwood is doing is telling the conservatives that their cause was righteous, that America's intervention is just, and that racism isn't just always correct, but a necessary part of patriotism. It glorifies war by elevating Kyle's sense of duty to something almost mythic. It's intellectually dishonest because it doesn't deal with the greater nuances; Eastwood simply wants to turn a sniper into a symbol of American goodness. He won't even deal with the fact that Kyle was murdered by a gun-wielding veteran with PTSD from the same war... what are we to make of that guy? Doesn't the fact of this occurrence alone reveal that there's more to PTSD than simply being the side effect of some necessary duty?

I didn't see a hero. I didn't even see a good person. I'm only going by the film portrayal and Bradley Cooper's non-performance. I saw a pitiable creature with no soul and no personality, running from his personal responsibilities to go commit murder in a shallow, video game hellscape with no room for morality, questions, or character. I don't think this is anything to be glorified. It's a lie, and it's propaganda, and it's not even subtle about it. *

Based on some of what I'd read, I wasn't really expecting much from this movie, but I found it very enjoyable. From what I can gather, it's basically the Hollywood movie version (not realistic, but gripping) of Alan Turing's work cracking the Enigma code in World War II, but it's a solid, well-paced film with a couple of good performances. Benedict Cumberbatch is great, and I can't believe this is the second 2014 movie in which I liked Keira Knightley. Just a very engaging film. ***1/2

I almost called this film "masterful," but I think that's not quite true. It makes sense that this movie has a jazz drum score, because, like jazz, there are times where the movie goes off on tangents or seems unable to find itself before hitting on something. It's a masterpiece, I think, but a messy one that doesn't always hold together. Honestly, though, I think that style is perfect for what the film is trying to do--which is, as far as I felt it, to depict a mental state without any judgment, to ponder the nature of creating art (and the validity of critical response), and to challenge the viewer to consider what constitutes magic in everyday life. Of course, that may all be something done on purpose; the cinematography, the acting, are possibly deceptively loose, because so much seems to depend on timing and on long takes. I love the way this film is shot, and the naturalistic acting. Michael Keaton's performance is tremendously good, as an actor who once starred in a superhero franchise and is now trying to put on a Broadway adaptation of one of my favorite stories (Raymond Carver's "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"). I've never actually liked any of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's previous films (there are two I have not seen) and I found it refreshing how comfortable he was with magic realism, which is a really strong tradition in Mexican literature. I really, really loved this movie. ****

The story of Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane Wilde, and Hawking's struggle with ALS. Eddie Redmayne is an actor I do not like, but I thought his performance elevated the movie here; he never loses the light in his eyes, and you can always see him thinking, engaged in what's going on. He's very good here. But I do think the film was rather insubstantial; it's fluffy and easy to like, but it never really rises above that. Jane's story seemed far more interesting to me, and I really wish the whole thing had just been her story from her point of view, because I wanted to see more of how it affected her and her life, the challenge of caring for a husband with a severe condition. I think it relies on cliches of the romantic drama and on its desire to be inspiring a bit too much; I wanted more of the reality and more of why Jane would sacrifice as much as she did in service of Hawking's ideas, which the movie is less interested in than his commitment to them. Good cast, but I do think Felicity Jones wasn't up to the challenge of portraying Jane. ***

SELMA (2014)
A powerful, compelling film about the historic civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. This is an extraordinary film, made all the more vital by the way director Ava DuVernay pulls back from making a King-centered biopic to portraying him as the focal point for a movement of change, and then layers it by taking us to other people and creating a larger picture of the time period and the event itself and its historical importance. It's not an overly-reverent film; it's a movie about human beings. What impressed me most is that, somehow, this is the first film I've ever seen that I felt didn't really shy away from the dehumanization of Black people in the 1960s and the extent to which it would be enforced. The film opens with the bombing of the Birmingham church in 1963, and even though I knew it was going to happen (I saw the little girls walking down the stairs and I immediately knew what was coming), it was so sudden and shocking that the event reverberated through the rest of the movie, as it should reverberate through history. We see the aggressions, the way people are stopped from voting, the way allies are beaten and even killed, the way someone feels so secure in their privilege that they can walk up to a man like Martin Luther King, Jr., and punch him in the face, knowing he will suffer no consequences. The film forces you to confront the terror of racism. The murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson; the Bloody Sunday on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. These are all incidents in a larger system of brutal, exacting dehumanization.

I think any of the backlash against this film is for a number of reasons, some of which are explained in these articles pointed my way by Roger. There seems to be a weird sense that a disturbing number of people just aren't ready for Black people to be the heroes of their own stories. They should be less worried about how President Johnson is portrayed (and a lot of those complaints seem to honestly be that the film doesn't lionize Johnson as the true hero of the civil rights movement) and more willing to listen to what they're being told by those with different perspectives. It's interesting to see the criticism of this movie in the wake of the box office success of American Sniper (which is inspiring all kinds of racist tweets from people who say the movie made them want to shoot Arabs) and last year's Best Picture win for 12 Years a Slave. Though 12 Years a Slave is more brutally graphic, it's the easier film to award, because people can pretend that racism and slavery are all in the past and don't affect us today. And American Sniper glorifies the American power structure and reassures racists that their racism is righteous and that gun culture is noble. But Selma is all about confronting and challenging the American power structure. We still live in a world where Black kids have to fear standing up for themselves, because police officers feel empowered to murder them without consequences. Fifty years after the Voting Rights Act, there is still disenfranchisement. There is still the terror of Ferguson. Selma is an excellent, masterful film, in large part because it's as much about 2015 as it is about 1965. ****

BOYHOOD (2014)
Richard Linklater shot this film with the same actors, a little at a time, over 12 years, depicting 12 years in the life of a Texas boy with divorced parents. It doesn't really have a plot; it's 12 years of moments in a boy's life, an observational movie that has a realism and lack of pretense that I found more jolting and energetic than I anticipated. It has a real vitality to it. I think Linklater only slips up a little bit at the end, when he can't quite resist spelling out what he's been trying to say. We don't really need him to, as the film speaks for itself. Still, even with that one lapse, it's a masterpiece. ****

This is another one that I honestly didn't expect much out of, but this movie blew me away. Miles Teller stars as a student at a fictional, prestigious music conservatory who is pushed by his teacher, Terence Fletcher (JK Simmons). It sounds like the set-up for a thousand faux-inspirational movies about teachers, but Fletcher pushes the boy (who dreams of being the next Buddy Rich) in such a way that he essentially terrorizes him. Having been a teacher, it was interesting to watch from an educational point of view. The film raises questions that it wisely chooses not to give cheap, pat answers about whether or not it's right to push students so hard. Fletcher argues that it doesn't matter how far you push the next Charlie Parker, because the next Charlie Parker would never be so discouraged that he would quit music. Perhaps those who get discouraged along the way aren't ready to make the necessary sacrifices in order to create something beautiful. The music itself takes a backseat to this examination, which is far more intense than I had anticipated, with Miles Teller literally shedding blood, sweat and tears in pursuit of his dream, and JK Simmons--in a breathtakingly good performance--pushing him, humiliating him, shaping him, always treading a line between really teaching and being self-serving. We've all had those teachers, but Simmons brings so many layers and that excitement you get from really great acting. Another thing that gets me, too, is how lean this movie is in setting up its conflicts; it doesn't spend a half-hour setting up a cliched story about achieving your dreams. It simply uses your knowledge of those cliches to set the stage, and then smashes through all of those damn music prodigy movie cliches. It's gripping, and ends at exactly the right moment. ****

An interesting take I came across today: 'Whiplash' Is The Best Homoerotic S&M Film About Jazz Drumming You'll See This Year. The author really nails the horror aspects of the film, but I hadn't thought about the male bonding aspect.

Back in 2013, I saw Before Sunrise for the first time, and was deeply touched by it. In that film, Jesse and Celine (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) met on a train and explored Austria together for 12 hours before resuming their separate journeys. They left with a promise to meet again in six months, a fate the movie left hanging in the air. In this sequel we find out, nine years later, that they never met again. They're only meeting again now that Jesse has written a book about their experience and ends up on a book tour in Paris, finally reconnecting with her. But the movie doesn't simply exist to resolve that mystery; if it did, it would be pretty cheap. What have now are the same characters, older and more experienced, no longer as spontaneous and open as they once were. This is the continuation of the conversation from the first movie after nearly a decade has intervened. I wrote of the first film that Jesse and Celine were "spontaneous and uninhibited, because they're strangers in an unfamiliar place, and when they're detached from the world, they have the freedom to be caught up only in each other. It has the effect of taking them outside of time and place (and even outside of their generation, despite its reputation as a Generation X movie), and peeling back the layers. There's no time for lies or schemes or illusions; it's just two people dropping the artifice and being open to one another and, briefly, the world." Here, the conversation is different. They are in Celine's neighborhood; she lives nearby, and Jesse walks her home. The conversation begins more tentatively, and both are afraid this time to reveal too much too quickly, even though they clearly want to know one thing: were we intended to spend our lives together? There's a moment that nearly killed me, where Celine talks about studying in New York City during the time Jesse was living there. He says he once thought he saw her in a deli. She says that she lived very close to that deli. Maybe he did see her. The moment brings up this feeling that these two were cheated of a life together, and the abstractions of their conversation become more revealing. But that sense of easy trust is gone. There is the constant reminder of the responsibilities of their respective worlds, even as they struggle to reach that earlier feeling from the first film, that desire to truly understand someone who is sharing themselves with you. Like the first movie, there's a time element. Jesse has to meet the plane to go back home to his unhappy marriage, which he has stayed in because of his son. The film once again leaves the ending open. Did Jesse make his flight? Did he stay with Celine this time? Well, both this movie and its sequel were on cable the same day... ****

Richard Linklater has, I realize, quietly managed to become one of my favorite filmmakers, simply by shooting a serious of interesting, naturalistic conversations in long takes. Here, another nine years later, we catch up with Celine and Jesse. They stayed together, and now they're parents who have to be more concerned with the problems of the present than the dreams of the future. What really makes this movie special is that Linklater, Hawke and Delpy aren't endeavoring to say that happy ever after is impossible, but to show it as a sweet (but ultimately absurd) fantasy. This is marriage at 41 between real human beings and all of their flaws, frustrated ambitions, and dissatisfactions. Celine and Jesse now know each other intimately, and the familiarity leads to a very natural irritation at times. Through the film, there are conversations about love and marriage and happiness as seen through young lovers who have just met, or old widowers and widows who have their own perspectives. This movie shows us what happens to the young, idealistic romantics who got off a train in Vienna 18 years ago when they've matured. There's a moment when the two are walking together towards a romantic night at a hotel when they realize they don't have long talks the way they once did because they've naturally been caught up in meeting their adult responsibilities. Celine asks Jesse, if they met today on the train, would he still ask her to run off with him. Jesse hesitates. Not because he doesn't love her anymore but, now knowing her as thoroughly as he does, he has trouble idealizing her the way he once did. I realize I make it sound like the movie is about the two of them not really being happy together, but the film is more mature and challenging than that. It's realistic about how people change over time, but hopeful that even as our needs and lives change, our love changes with it as idealization of the past becomes the comfortable familiarity of the present. This is a magical series of movies, and I hope we catch up with these two at 50, in 2022, and check in on them once again. ****


Tallulah Morehead said...

I just posted your brilliant piece on American Sniper on my Facebook page. On The Nose!

Roger Owen Green said...

The ONLY Best Picture nominee I haven't seen is American Sniper, and I'm kind of on the fence about seeing it at all.

Whiplash is surprisingly good; I saw it last year, before the awards season, and thought it was my little secret, until JKS got the Best Supporting Actor at the Golden Globes, and rightly so.

The Theory of Everything was fine, but The Imitation Game, which fictionalized stuff (and I didn't care) really stuck with me.

You are, of course, correct that Selma's resonance in 2015 is staggering.

I can't explain why I didn't love Birdman. It was clever and well-acted, but it just bugged me, maybe because no one was particularly likable? Nah, I've liked other movies with no heroes

I worry that people seeing Boyhood on video will find it boring, because it lacks the Big Events. But I liked it a great deal.

Roger Owen Green said...

I've added this post to my Oscar post, mostly because I haven't reviewed American Sniper, and you've ALMOST convinced me to take a pass on it, even though I've seen 7 of the 8 noms.

SamuraiFrog said...

I have this compulsion every year to see the nominated movies, even though I haven't actually watched the Oscars since around 2008/2009, I think. I always feel like I HAVE to see them as a film buff. And I enjoy doing it, it's not like I'm complaining. This is the first year in a while, too, where I've liked the majority of nominees.

Your review of Whiplash is what got me really thinking there might be something special there. When it came out, I saw so much advertising for it, and I like JK Simmons a lot, but I couldn't even really tell what it was about until I read what you wrote. While we were watching it, I quoted it to my wife ("Drum solos are boring, unless they aren't").

Becca didn't like Birdman, either, and, like you, she's not exactly sure why.

Jez In Dallas said...

That was fantastically well said wrt American Sniper. It's left a bad taste in my mouth since I heard about it but I wasn't really able to articulate why.

The Pretentious Know it All said...

You are, honestly, one of my favorite writers on the internet. I especially enjoy your film reviews, even when I disagree with you. Thank you for writing.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

I just have to say that I have read your movie reviews for years and no one does them better. I just watched Whiplash and you made me feel smart for having the same reaction you did to the movie. I talk about movies too but I am a toddler next to you. This is smart critique with the right social commentary to connect it all to the larger viewing experience. You added to my enjoyment of all these films by your opinions. I too am SHOCKED I kike Kierra Knightly in anything.

Nathan said...

I haven't seen American Sniper and had no desire to do so, but now I kind of do just because it sounds like a total spectacle. I mean, I watched The Passion of the Christ because it sounded god-awful, and it fully lived down to these expectations.

Tallulah Morehead said...

I reposted your American Sniper review on my Facebook page, properly credited, and it's amassing "Likes," one from Phillip Proctor of The Firesign Theater. Noiw it's getting reposted by others. You're going viral. You'll be like Measles at Disneyland!

Jason said...

I've not seen any of the current Oscar nominees yet (and I have no intentions of seeing the right-wing rah-rah wankfest American Sniper), but I wanted to briefly comment that I'm delighted by your reaction to Linklater's "Before" cycle. I love these movie, and love Jesse and Celine as if they were actual people and friends of mine. I, too, hope Linklater keeps checking in with them every decade or so, all the way into their (and our) dotage.

Splotchy said...

I've only seen Before Sunset, but it was great. I love Richard Linklater, mostly for what I think is a strong humanist streak in his work. I don't know how else to put it.

Thanks for writing, and blogging, and just being you. I appreciate it.

Splotchy said...

(meaning I haven't seen the other two Linklater Before... films)