In keeping with past practice, here are my top 2012 movies I haven’t seen and want to:
- Les Misérables – please don’t ask how it’s possible that I haven’t seen it. Since Christmas, it’s been hard to invest an outing with the appropriate amount of hysteria.
- Take This Waltz
- This Is 40
- Your Sister’s Sister
- The Master. I reviewed it here, and even after reading Kent Jones’s magnum opus review in Film Comment, I still couldn’t get over the feeling I came away with — that the movie’s circle was too tightly closed around Freddie and Master. But I wish I’d seen the movie Jones did, and I’m very glad to have read his review.
Owing to our holiday schedule, this week’s Monday Movies appears on Saturday instead. Who knows, maybe we’ll get another one in on Monday.
Have you seen Django Unchained yet? What did you think?
Quentin Tarantino’s films are such excesses of signifying that I get headachey trying to write anything comprehensive about what’s becoming known as his slavery revenge epic (not entirely accurately, for reasons I’ll get to). So I’ll throw out a couple of thoughts I had and hope that by now some of you will have enjoyed it and will throw in.
If you haven’t, I’m going to spoil away below the fold. You may prefer to prime your Tarantino pumps with this seemingly unending, possibly ouroborean, Kotsko-Canavan-et-al Twitter battle royale on the subject of Tarantino and revenge. I wrote a scattered summary of my thoughts on Tarantino before IB came out, and wrote about the use of language in its first scene here (with the return of polyglot performer Christoph Waltz as Dr. King Schultz, it remains relevant). AUFS discussed IB here, in many terms that pertain to Django.
Holy Motors — Begin in a dream (at least, call it a dream) of pushing through a forest wall into the balcony of a movie theater; a child, or a dog, walks on the red-carpeted aisle below. The audience pays no attention. A girl watches through a window.
“Goodbye, Papa!” You are stout and grey, and you walk down the driveway of a compound where men stand on the rooftops. “Good morning, Monsieur Oscar,” says the driver of your limo, an elegant, tall blonde d’un certain age. So that is your name.
There are nine appointments today. In the limo, you dress for the first one, and emerge as a hunchbacked gypsy woman with a cane and a cup. You walk away from the limo and find yourself on a bridge, where you panhandle, muttering aloud — or maybe to yourself? No one stops. No one even sees.
Back in the car, you strip it all away. You are no longer the gypsy woman–what’s more, you are no longer stout or grey, but wiry and shaven bald. For each of your appointments, you will don prosthetics, clothes, years, emotions. You will commit acts of violence, some savage, some skilled, some simply by dint of parenting, some by way of motion capture. You will murder; you will die. You will repeat your lines.
It will emerge that you are performing, seemingly for cameras smaller than the eye can see. This idea of a total theater is complicated by some of its impossible effects: how is it that you can confront a man who resembles you entirely? Your patron appears in the limo, neither exiting nor entering. He suggests your heart isn’t in it.
Your heart… by some chance, your limo bangs into another performer’s. The two of you steal what appears to be a genuine moment — itself an aria sung from a balcony — before she gives a performance that appears to be her last.
Is this a world of total surveillance? Is it our own? Is the self a prison which only your costly exertions can obliterate? Is the home you start in and the different one you end in an impossible odyssey, a parody of permanence in a Heraclitean river of a life?
Merry Christmas, Weblog! Have some additional cheer.
Is the The Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell, a romantic comedy? You might start to think so — clearly the story exists to unite Bradley Cooper’s broken motormouth Pat with Jennifer Lawrence’s angry widow Tiffany. Is the movie a romantic tragedy, about two people whose best hopes are ultimately misplaced in each other, or whose families’ inadequacies and suspicions trash their chances at happiness? It almost seems possible, as both crash over and over on the shoals of mania and heartbreak, that they’ll founder on them forever.
We first meet Pat leaving a mental institution. His mother, unsure but determined, has sprung him with the court’s permission and against his doctors’ judgement. It’s not immediately clear what he’s done, but it’s fairly obvious he’s not over it, as he lashes out against everything he comes back to, including his sports-obsessed father, the employer where he’s no longer welcome, the restraining order that underlines that condition, and A Farewell to Arms, lifted from his estranged wife’s high school syllabus, hurled through an attic window in fury at its downbeat ending. Downbeat endings aren’t for Pat, who preaches a gospel of optimism, forcing himself and others to see silver linings in every setback.
Tiffany, the sister-in-law of his one remaining friend, is his perfect match, a teller of awkward truths with a complementary menu of psychotropic prescriptions. She meets Pat at the tail end of a tantrum of promiscuity, a reaction to the sudden death of her cop husband. When he declines her invitation — he’s holding out hope for a reunion with his wife, TRO be damned — their relationship begins.
The movie, set in the shabby working-middle-class burbs of Philadelphia, feels of a piece with Russell’s last film, The Fighter, set in a similar white ethnic milieu in Boston, and with an equal nervy energy. As Pat’s father, Robert de Niro substitutes for Melissa Leo — as an OCD sports bookie, he’s a softer presence on the screen, but he’s been kicked out of the Eagles’ stadium for fighting, a living and live backstory for Pat’s rage.
De Niro’s nest of symptoms isn’t alone. Pat’s friend bursts with suppressed rage. His parole officer doesn’t think twice about trying to take advantage of Tiffany’s reputation. His brother is a dumb, successful jerk. His psychotherapist pranks him with a trigger stimulus in the clinic lobby. No one in the movie qualifies as normal, which saves it from Benny and Joon territory.
Russell’s gotten less obviously weird since I Heart Huckabees (one of my all-time favorites), but he remains aware that the world hasn’t. The editing is thrillingly shaggy, allowing the scenes to run past pat cuts and into new episodes, giving Pat and Tiffany a chance to reflect on the conflicts and obstacles that have just played out. Russell doesn’t allow mental illness to make them prophets. He just listens closely to what they have to say.
If you must see The Hobbit, and pace event-movie evangelism it really is not a must-see, under no circumstances see it in high frame rate or 3D. The 3D adds nothing remotely interesting, and the frame rate makes it look like a telenovela. Or a little like this:
The Hobbit is more of a children’s tale than the LOTR trilogy (which I loved), and it has a certain kind of children’s-story narrative shape to it. Something happens! Then something else happens! Mostly jeopardy, followed by a quick save from Gandalf. Which wouldn’t be so damning if Peter Jackson hadn’t expanded the single volume into three installments without doing anything about it. There are a couple of moral-of-the-story points that provide emotional structure: Thorin doubts Bilbo’s bravery! But then comes to respect it! But the movie doesn’t make it very clear why Bilbo decides to go on the adventure in the first place — Gandalf teases him a bit, but we don’t see that there’s anything wrong with Bilbo’s life that an adventure would fix.
The exception, of course, is the Gollum sequence. Andy Serkis’s physicality is the best argument for motion-capture technology; it’s a lonely point in favor, but a sublime one. My memory of the book is that once Bilbo has the ring, Gollum doesn’t show up again until the trilogy, so I can’t see much reason to go back for the next two installments.
Barcelona — Mrs. K-sky and I blew off our families, got on a plane, and spent Thanksgiving and the following week drowning our jet lag in small plates of small fish in the Catalonian capital. She’d never seen anything by Whit Stillman, so we queued up his 1994 sophomore effort for the flight back.
In high school and college, I’d loved Metropolitan and Barcelona (Last Days of Disco less so; recently, Damsels in Distress was a pleasant but underwhelming return) and I was a little nervous about going back to them. Without question, the movie holds up.
Ted and Fred Boynton are fractious cousins living together in Barcelona at the end of the cold war. Ted (Taylor Nichols) runs a sales office for a corporation whose purposes are so generic they approach Platonic forms; between Dale Carnegie, Glenn Miller and the Bible, he theorizes himself a Boy Scout’s life of rectitude, spooling out a plan to abandon the distracting pursuit of trade-fair-girl pulchritude in favor of “plain or homely girls.” Fred (Stillman’s muse Chris Eigeman) is an advance man for and passionate defender of the U.S. Navy.
Despite their immaculately wordy debates, the two function as a recognizable comic pair, even classical: hapless Ted and thin-skinned bullying barnacle Fred. Paired off with local girls (Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen, fondly bewildered), they splash through a wave of anti-Americanism. As practically religious emissaries for American capitalism and militarism, they pout and protest as they draw the ire (and fire) of their hosts.
It’s said that Woody Allen showed just how far Brooklyn was from Manhattan, creating in Alvy Singer and his other fictional substitutes a figure who was always traveling towards the center while gripping tight his baggage from the periphery. Paradoxically, even though Stillman’s figures represent the WASP power structure, his success — the reason his bald conservatism is never sour or reactionary — comes from giving his “urban haute bourgeois” (as Metropolitan put it) characters some of this same marginal quality. They lash out at the modern world, but their bafflement and insecurity takes the place of that resentment holds among their more politically oriented relatives.
There’s no question that Barcelona’s heart is with Ted, Fred and America. The men of Barcelona are deluded, angry leftists. Stillman doesn’t stint on their arsenal — I can’t imagine another movie that would reference George Meaney and labor imperialism with the old epithet the “AFL-CIA” — but they misfire it (they think it’s an actual union; of course, Fred doesn’t know whether or not it is, and, sublimely, Ted points out that it should technically be the AF of L-CIA). The cousins’ ultimate imperial victory is total, even classical: having triumphantly spirited away their Catalonian beauties to a Midwestern lakeside, they show them the makings of a proper American hamburger.
Monday Movies is traveling this week. A few things we liked:
Via Gerry Canavan, a Zizekian reading of Wreck-It Ralph.
At Back to the World, Margaux Williamson reviews Moonrise Kingdom.
I really enjoy this blog, and especially Margaux’s voice for film reviews. She watches with an open mind and notices something about the film and expresses it clearly and simply. Doesn’t sound like the height of ambition but it always works. She’s a painter, I think, and there’s something about her simple but trenchant observations that I like to think comes from cross-training.
How about you? Do you still like movies? Did you see any? Did you make any?
The Sessions is a beautiful story, tenderly told. Based on a widely linked 1990 magazine article, it is the (mostly) true story of Mark O’Brien, a thirty-something man with polio who lives confined to a wheeled bed or an iron lung and who, wishing to experience sexual connection, seeks out a sex surrogate. It is not a story of “triumphing over disability,” although there are various triumphs and more than one disabled character.
O’Brien, played by John Hawkes, is an observant Catholic who “can’t tolerate the idea of not having someone to blame for all this.” The movie cuts back and forth between the life he leads with attendants, friends, and the subjects of his writing, and his conversations with and confessions to Father Brendan, a liberal Berkeley priest (William H. Macy). The movie’s unshowy portrayal of O’Brien’s Catholicism is remarkable. O’Brien takes his religion seriously, and it provides a structure for both his succor and his shame, but it’s not a totalizing experience, just a part of his life. It’s one of many details — the Berkeley setting is another — that give the movie a subtle, lived-in specificity. When we first meet O’Brien, he’s crinkling his nose to fend off a sneeze; in two other scenes, characters lift their hands to scratch their noses, a throwaway gesture that illuminates the extent of O’Brien’s prison.
Helen Hunt plays Cheryl, the sex surrogate who O’Brien finds through a therapist. Hunt is matter-of-factly naked and sexual, and the movie’s comic heart lies in their awkward and tender sessions, limited to six. There is a drama of transference and counter-transference — more commonly known as a love story — that feels invented (the various articles bear that out), but the characters feel real throughout. One theme that returns is how O’Brien’s helpers’ partners get jealous of him — it’s well played with the boyfriend of one of his nurses, but a little strained with Cheryl’s husband.
Hawkes is a good bet for an Oscar nomination, but I’d bet against a win–the movie is moving, but not bombastically or unbearably so. There may be a little too much joy.
See any good movies?
Skyfall is the twenty-third Bond movie and the third featuring Daniel Craig as the priapic spy. It argues the superiority of field agents over computer nerds, HUMINT over SIGINT, the old school vs. the new kids on the motherboard. And for all the thumbs that it puts on the scales — the Aston-Martin ungaraged to save the day after the hackers are out-hacked, the shaking-not-stirring — it winds up making its case against the spy game in toto more than for either the jocks or the nerds. It’s ambivalent to the point of nihilistic.
It’s not too spoilery to give away that James Bond, though we see his obituary in the trailer, is dead neither after the first ten minutes of the movie nor by its end. But it is striking just how much the villain accomplishes, and how little terror and death the spies prevent. Javier Bardem’s fey villain is a rogue MI6 agent who wants nothing but revenge on the agency. He has no ideology, nor even any client — there are no red herrings of Yellow Peril, only the barest mention of terrorist cells. He doesn’t even want to take over the world or blow up the moon. He represents blowback without empire, as if the sins of spies could be committed without involving others.
It’s a peculiar fantasy, and one that matches up well with Daniel Craig’s portrayal. Skyfall is the first Bond movie (as far as I know — my parents banned them on feminist grounds, and I’ve not caught up) to display an interest in Bond’s psychology, and it turns out his folder is filed next to a superhero’s. Like Batman, Bond was a traumatized orphan who has too much house. All Bond’s winking fun and games of chance stand revealed, in Daniel Craig’s joyless interpretation, as compulsive tics, showy hurdling in a race against the Reaper. Even when Bond, presumed dead, washes up in the anonymous embrace of a Mediterranean vagina, he doesn’t seem to be having a good time at all. At least the suits still look good.
As David Graeber puts it, “Almost never do superheroes make, create, or build anything.” Movie spies are the same, although for slightly different reasons — spy stories require an hysterical forgetting of the thing that their real-life equivalents do make, create and build, which is empire. The hermeneutic study of Bond’s soul is of a piece with the contextless villain. Skyfall is existentialist Bond. It strikes me as unnecessary, but I guess people appreciate the variation.
The movie is entertaining. Bardem proves that he can play a villain with more than one type of weird hair. Judi Dench is a divinely stiff-upper-lipped M, and Ben Whishaw is a cute Q. The opening sequence has a great backhoe fight on a freight train moving through Istanbul, and the London Underground gets used and abused with style and wit. The locations, from a traditional shiny-red Macau casino to a Shanghai office tower fight staged in a hall-of-mirrors of reflections and projections (including of a seven-story jellyfish), are classy. Even if our hero seems at times to be punching the clock.
So. You see any movies?
Haywire is Steven Soderbergh at his leanest and most improvisational best. It bears a strong resemblance to The Limey, although it’s not as ambitious — as before, the director is working from a script by Lem Dobbs, although this time I get the sense that they are working more in concert than with knives drawn.
The story is a functional espionage thriller: a contract agent, betrayed, finds out who sold her out and takes revenge. The unlikely star, Gina Carano, is better known as “The Face of Women’s MMA” (mixed martial arts), and she’s surrounded by an A-list cadre of male actors–Bill Paxton, Ewan MacGregor, Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas, Michael Fassbender and Channing Tatum, two-thirds of whom she gets to beat up.
Carano isn’t supremely comfortable with dialogue, and Soderbergh turns this into a dramatic advantage — she’s surrounded by men who underestimate her, but when the talking stops and the dancing begins, she’s more than their match. This subtle play between the fact of the actor and the character on the screen is a variation on a theme that has fascinated Soderbergh for a long time. It was a little too cute in Full Frontal and it was offensive in Ocean’s 12, but here it works just right.
Question: Ewan MacGregor is really good as a venal toady — has he played a sack of shit before? I can’t place it in his IMDB. Playing Obi-Wan Kenobi killed him as a leading man, and I’m glad of it.
The motivating idea behind Haywire is pretty simple: Gina Carano is probably the closest living thing to a female action-hero, let’s see what happens when we make her one. It’s an idea about performance and gender, one without a huge amount of depth, but here it’s free to go where it wants to and its structure serves it well. Soderbergh demonstrates mastery by using it lightly. By contrast, P.T. Anderson’s The Master is a study in heaviness.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, an unmoored WWII vet and a horny, raging dipso. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic snake-oil salesman who welcomes Freddie into his young following, The Cause. Their performances are otherworldly, but the movie makes embarrassingly little of them; there’s a way in which they’re too specific to be engaging, and their relationship becomes hermetic, unsettling to Dodd’s family but of no discernible stakes or impact on anyone else.
The Cause was rumored to be a clef for Scientology, and there are certainly resonances — L. Ron Hubbard was a Navy man, and his Florida HQ is a ship — but there’s very little sense of what effect Dodd’s cult (or Freddie, for that matter) might have on American society. There are many interesting facets, including a dramatic shape that comes from the tidal pull between the two stars more than an Aristotelian mountain-climb, and some intriguing mythopoetic resonance. I thought of Ishmael’s dangerous philosophizing in “The Mast-Head.” But ultimately, I walked away with little more than sometimes the best thing about a relationship is that it keeps two people away from everybody else.
Food for thought: I was telling a friend about Matt Zoller Seitz’s impressive video essay about Wes Anderson’s influences and influence. (I can’t recommend it highly enough.) She argued that Alexander Payne, whose career is roughly contemporary with Anderson’s has been as, if not more, influential. We didn’t have time to get too far into it–what do you think? Payne’s slowly sinking middle-class white guys have definitely showed up in a certain type of film — Little Miss Sunshine, for example, owes a lot to him, and a lot of movies owe a lot to Little Miss Sunshine. Is there something there?
Have at it! If there’s anything to have at. Pay no attention to the timestamp.