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49 Up (2006)

1182Originally written May 15, 2010

In 1964, filmmaker Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, Gorillas in the Mist) interviewed 14 seven-year-old kids from different British backgrounds asking them about their futures. The half-hour TV special by Granada was called 7 Up and it aimed to show the world where the future politicians and doctors and trash collectors would begin. Every seven years since, Apted has returned to those same kids and peaked in on their lives, chronicling their lives. It’s one of the most famous documentary series in history. Thanks to the virtues of Netflix’s streaming service, I was able to watch six of the seven movies in the Up anthology (sorry 35 Up, the lone film not available for streaming). I spent the next twelve hours watching the lives of 14 complete strangers from childhood to middle age, and by the end they didn’t feel like strangers any more. They felt, weirdly, like family. And that’s the true appeal of the ongoing series: you are watching the evolution of human beings. It’s not everybody that gets a visual scrapbook of their life that’s viewed by millions worldwide.

01_49up-1Finally, after many hours, 49 Up is the first in the anthology to address the ideas of selective editing and building storylines to suit the “characters.” Long before reality television smoothed away life’s edges to make everybody fit into archetypes, Apted positioned the Up series as his thesis on class struggle. He purposely selected a cross-section of English schoolchildren from private schools and public schools and even two from a boy’s school for orphans. You can see it at 14, 21, and 28 how Apted sticks to his same line of questioning about class advantages and disadvantages, peppering his subjects with questions about what they didn’t have and then showing their current situations in a specific manner to make the audience feel a specific emotion. It’s not deliberately diabolical or partisan but the class warfare ideology certainly can chafe. Do the kids at the top still get all the perks? Are the kids at the bottom suffering with limited opportunities? Has anybody transcended class? Apted starts attributing achievements by the upper class boys as part of their upper class advantages and not due to their hard work, dedication, or talent, which they have every right to complain about. John complains at 21 that when, at seven, they declare their education ambitions, and Apted follows it up with narration, “John did attend such and such,” that it creates the illusion that everything has been handed to them. The hard work and long hours are not shown, and fair point. A few of his subjects actually begin to challenge Apted over his perceptions. Suzy takes aim at his line of questioning, hinting at her life’s disappointments, and fights back, accusing Apted of trapping her into a small narrative box. She even brings up another heated conversation in the history of the series, when Apted questioned whether Suzy, at 21, had experienced enough of life to settle down (she eventually divorced years later). You witness her youthful indignation and she remarks, with some resignation, that Apted is free to edit this outburst as he will and she is helpless (obviously Apted kept this in). It’s the first time I’ve seen the stars of Up contest their onscreen portrayals.

It is also with 49 Up that the film series starts to finally reflect. Part of that comes with living half a century, and many of the 12 on camera subjects are now at an age where they have grandchildren and are setting up retirement (I wonder what the economic meltdown of 2008 did for those plans). They can reflect about the accomplishments of their lives, the past dreams captured on camera that never came true, the marriages that dissolved, the joys and struggles of rearing children, the pains of burying parents, etc. They seem to be at that stopping point where they can take stock of a life lived. On top of that, the participants now begin to reflect on what being apart of the Up series has meant to them. It certainly shapes public opinion about who they are as people, and Apted gropes for any new info to connect with the prior material in the earlier movies.

28 UpPerhaps Apted feels like he has to keep flogging his class thesis because most of his subjects are pretty regular, i.e. boring, people. They’ve lived lives of modesty and hardship and persevered, but they’re at heart no more interesting than your neighbors. The problem with selecting a bunch of seven-year-olds you plan to follow for the rest of their lives is that you have no clue what will happen. The narrative is completely up in the air. This is why Apted, early on in the series, sticks doggedly to his class thesis to provide some sort of framework he can revisit every seven years. That’s why the series starts to become something of an echo chamber. The exact same sound bytes get used over and over again, trying to find new relevancy. The adults get forever defined, and continuously redefined, by something they said at seven years old, like Neil’s worry that a wife would force him to eat greens and he “don’t like greens” (I’m in the same boat, kid). The echo chamber effect is even more obvious if you watch the Up series in a row. You will start to memorize the childhood catch phrase of everybody and then watch the same clips recycled from 7 to 42. Each is like a little stepping-stone to the present. When viewed as a whole, the series can almost come across as facile. Apted doesn’t probe very deep into his subjects and their lives, mainly sticking to the Life’s Checklist of Accomplishments of Being an Adult: school, job, spouse, family. Personally, I hate how we become defined by a profession. That seems to be the second question that rolls off our tongues when we meet a stranger: “Who are you and what do you do?” What do we do? That’s a loaded question and I object to the idea that our job is the only relevant thing that we “do.” But that’s just my hang-up, I suppose. Apted also lets his subjects reveal the biggest changes in their lives, meaning that if somebody doesn’t want to broach a topic then it gets left unanswered. It can get frustrating and makes for some opaque follow-up visits.

Not every participant is thankful for the Up series. In fact, many of them are wary and somewhat disdainful of participating. Every seven years these people have to rehash their life’s highs and lows, boil them down into a package, and then have it picked over by Apted and his leaning questions, stirring drama anew. It’s easy to see why this becomes a difficult and challenging experience for most, something akin to a cross-examination about your life. So why do most of the 14 return every seven years? Is it the secret hunger for fame? John Brisby ducked out of the Up series after the third installment, upset that he had been made into the series villain through editing. He came across pompous and like a prototypical “old money” sort who lived in a small privileged world (fox hunting!) and reinforced Apted’s thesis on class advantages. Of course his interviews didn’t help him, but I’ll give the guy the benefit of the doubt. I’d hate for everything I said when I was 14 and 21 to follow me for the rest of my life. Well, in 35 Up, John returned, though begrudgingly. He had a reason. His wife and he had begun a charity to raise funds to help the beleaguered educational state of Belarus, a country where John’s family once resided. In 49 Up, he travels once again to that ancestral country and he remarks, somewhat graciously, that it was directly because of exposure on the Up series that donations increased and the kids in Belarus today have books and school buildings and dedicated educators. John made the most of his fame and directed it to a worthy cause. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that John’s passionate desire to help Belarus (his wife is the daughter of an ambassador to the country) feels like the “character” of John has matured.

7up1-1Is there any sense of privacy when you know that cameras will be regularly scheduled to appear? There’s this enormous pressure to continue with the Up series, I imagine. But whom do these lives belong to? They were chosen by school officials and Granada at age seven, so they never really had much of a say in what has turned into a lifelong commitment. It seems that the world has a sense of ownership over these 14 individuals’ lives, an ownership that they never granted permission. They must feel an enormous obligation to keep informing the public about their lives, much like a nagging relative. We are a nosy, intrusive lot, human beings are. And I must say that I personally feel weirdly paternal about them. I feel happiness when they too reach happiness through whatever means. I was smiling from ear to ear when Nick, who at 14 was so shy and awkward, became a wonderfully charismatic, articulate, thoughtful, and rather handsome 21-year-old man (he looked strikingly similar to Andy Samberg). I feel despair as well when marriages don’t work out or once secure jobs vanish. Watching the Up series is like watching the evolution of a human being through time-lapse photography; it’s voyeuristic but at the same time it’s like having an extended surrogate family that requires no commitment. We can watch people grow up, mature, gain wisdom, and without anything more than the click of a button. We can watch hairlines get thinner, faces get larger, bodies get saggy, wrinkles multiply, all while playing the visual game of connecting the current iteration of participants with their past selves. We have these 14 people’s lives at our disposal for entertainment.

The Up series aren’t individually great documentaries. In fact, they’re pretty plain and not fairly insightful. As a whole, they present a fascinating document of the human experience and make for a great way to spend a rainy day. You can’t help but reflect on your own life after watching several of the Up movies, and curiously wonder what you have done with your own life at various intervals. As of this writing, all 14 original participants are still alive, which is somewhat amazing in itself. It will be morbidly interesting to see how the film series carries on after one or more of the participants pass away. Millions around the world will mourn what otherwise would have been a normal stranger passing. It’s probably selfish to keep hoping for future installments, and for the participants to keep updating me about their personal lives, but after a 45-plus year investment for some, it’s hard not to feel a sense of attachment to these people.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Batman Begins (2005)

268Originally written June 20, 2005

I have been a Batman fan since I was old enough to wear footy pajamas. I watched the campy Adam West TV show all the time, getting sucked into the lead balloon adventures. Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman was the first PG-13 film I ever saw, and I watched it so many times on video that I have practically worn out my copy. Batman Returns was my then most eagerly anticipated movie of my life, and even though it went overboard with the dark vision, I still loved it. Then things got dicey when Warner Brothers decided Batman needed to lighten up. I was only a teenager at the time, but I distinctly remember thinking, “You’re telling the Dark Knight to lighten up?” Director Joel Schumacher’s high-gloss, highly stupid turn with Batman Forever pushed the franchise in a different direction, and then effectively killed it with 1997’s abomination, Batman and Robin. I mean, for chrissakes, these films were more worried about one-liners and nipples on the Bat suits. Nipples on the Bat suits, people! Is Batman really going, “Man, you know, I’d really like to fight crime today but, whoooo, my nipples are so chaffed. I’m gonna sit this one out”?

For years Batman languished in development hell. Warner Bothers licked their wounds and tried restarting their franchise again and again, only to put it back down. Then around 2003 things got exciting. Writer/director Christopher Nolan was announced to direct. Nolan would also have creative control. Surely, Warner Brothers was looking at what happened when Columbia hired Sam Raimi (most known for low-budget splatterhouse horror) for Spider-Man and got out of his way. After Memento (My #1 movie of 2001) and Insomnia (My #5 movie of 2002), Nolan tackles the Dark Night and creates a Batman film that’s so brilliant that I’ve seen it three times and am itching to go again.

photo016cqThe film opens with a youthful Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in a Tibetan prison. He’s living amongst the criminal element searching for something within himself. Henri Ducard (Liam Neeson) offers Bruce the chance to be taught under the guidance of the mysterious Ra’s Al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), the leader of the equally mysterious warrior clan, The League of Shadows. Under Ducard’s direction, Bruce confronts his feelings of guilt and anger over his parents’ murder and his subsequent flee from his hometown, Gotham City. He masters his training and learns how to confront fear and turn it to his advantage. However, Bruce learns that the League of Shadows has its judicial eyes set on a crime ridden Gotham, with intentions to destroy the city for the betterment of the world. Bruce rebels and escapes the Tibetan camp and returns to Gotham with his own plans of saving his city.

With the help of his trusted butler Alfred (Michael Caine), Bruce sets out to regain his footing with his family’s company, Wayne Enterprises. The company is now under the lead of an ethically shady man (Rutger Hauer) with the intentions of turning the company public. Bruce befriends Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the company’s gadget guru banished to the lower levels of the basement for raising his voice. Bruce gradually refines his crime fighting efforts and becomes the hero he’s been planning on since arriving home.

Gotham is in bad shape too. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), a childhood friend to Bruce, is a prosecutor who can’t get anywhere when crime lords like Falcone (Tom Wilkinson) are controlling behind the scenes. Most of the police have been bought off, but Detective Gordon (Gary Oldman) is the possibly the city’s last honest cop, and he sees that Batman is a figure trying to help. Dr. Crane (Cillian Murphy) is a clinical psychologist in cahoots with Falcone. Together they’re bringing in drug shipments for a nefarious plot by The Scarecrow, a villain that uses a hallucinogen to paralyze his victims with vivid accounts of their own worst fears. Bruce is the only one who can unravel the pieces of this plot and save the people of Gotham City.

photo_39Nolan has done nothing short of resurrecting a franchise. Previous films never treated Batman as an extraordinary character; he was normal in an extraordinary world. Batman Begins places the character in a relatively normal environment. This is a brooding, intelligent approach that all but erases the atrocities of previous Batman incarnations. Nolan presents Bruce Wayne’s story in his typical nonlinear fashion, but really gets to the meat and bone of the character, opening up the hero to new insights and emotions, like his suffocating guilt over his parents murder.

Nolan and co-writer David S. Goyer (the Blade trilogy) really strip away the decadence of the character and present him as a troubled being riddled with guilt and anger. Batman Begins is a character piece first and an action movie second. The film is unique amongst comic book flicks for the amount of detail and attention it pays to characterization, even among the whole sprawling cast. Nolan has assembled an incredible cast and his direction is swimming in confidence. He’s a man that definitely knows what he’s doing, and boy oh boy, is he doing it right. Batman Begins is like a franchise colonic.

This is truly one of the finest casts ever assembled. Bale makes an excellent gloomy hero and really transforms into something almost monstrous when he’s taking out the bad guys. He’s got great presence but also a succinct intensity to nail the quieter moments where Bruce Wayne battles his inner demons. Caine (The Cider House Rules, The Quiet American) is incomparable and a joy to watch, and his scenes with the young Bruce actually had me close to tears. This is by far the first time a comic book movie even had me feeling something so raw and anything close to emotional. Neeson excels in another tough but fair mentor role, which he seems to be playing quite a lot of lately (Kingdom of Heaven, Star Wars Episode One). Freeman steals every scene he’s in as the affable trouble causer at Wayne Enterprises, and he also gets many of the film’s best lines. Oldman (The Fifth Element, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) disappears into his role as Gotham’s last good cop. If ever there was a chameleon (and their name wasn’t Benicio del Toro), it is Oldman. Holmes works to the best of her abilities, which means she’s “okay.”

The cast of villains are uniformly excellent, with Wilkinson’s (In the Bedroom) sardonic Chicagah accented mob boss, to Murphy’s (28 Days Later) chilling scientific approach to villainy, to Watanabe’s (The Last Samurai) cold silent stares. Even Rutger Hauer (a man experiencing a career renaissance of his own) gives a great performance. Seriously, for a comic book movie this is one of the better acted films of the year. And that’s saying a lot.

Batman Begins is such a serious film that it almost seems a disservice to call it a “comic book movie.” There are no floating sound effects cards and no nipples on the Bat suits. Nolan really goes about answering the tricky question, “What kind of man would become a crime-fightin’ super hero?” Batman Begins answers all kinds of questions about the minutia of the Dark Knight in fascinating ways, yet the film remains grounded in reality. The Schumacher Batmans (and God save us from them) were one large, glitzy, empty-headed Las Vegas entertainment show. No explanation was given to characters or their abilities. Likewise, the gothicly opulent Burton Batmans had their regrettable leaps of logic as well. It’s hard not to laugh at the end of Batman Returns when Oswald Cobblepot (a.k.a. The Penguin) gets a funeral march from actors in emperor penguin suits. March of the Penguins it ain’t. Nolan’s Batman is the dead-serious affair comic book lovers have been holding their breath for.

BATMAN BEGINSThe action is secondary to the story, but Batman Begins still has some great action sequences. Most memorable is a chase sequence between Gotham police and the Batmobile which goes from rooftop to rooftop at one point. Nolan even punctuates the sequence with some fun humor from the police (“It’s a black … tank.”). The climactic action sequence between good guy and bad guy is dutifully thrilling and grandiose in scope. Nolan even squeezes in some horror elements into the film. Batman’s first emergence is played like a horror film, with the caped crusader always around another turn. The Scarecrow’s hallucinogen produces some creepy images, like a face covered in maggots or a demonic bat person.

There are only a handful of flaws that make Batman Begins short of being the best comic book movie ever. The action is too overly edited to see what’s happening. Whenever Batman gets into a fight all you can see are quick cuts of limbs flailing. My cousin Jennifer got so frustrated with the oblique action sequences that she just waited until they were over to see who won (“Oh, Batman won again. There you go.”). Nolan’s editing is usually one of his strong suits; much of Memento’s success was built around its airtight edits. He needs to pull the camera back and let the audience see what’s going on when Batman gets physical.

Another issue is how much plot Batman Begins has to establish. This is the first Batman film to focus solely on Batman and not some colorful villain. Batman doesn’t even show up well into an hour into the movie. As a result, Batman Begins perfects the tortured psychology of Bruce Wayne but leaves little time for villains. The film plays a shell game with its multiple villains, which is fun for awhile. The Scarecrow is really an intriguing character and played to gruesome effect by the brilliant Cillian Murphy. It’s a shame Batman Begins doesn’t have much time to develop and then play with such an intriguing bad guy.

Batman Begins
is a reboot for the film franchise. Nolan digs deep at the tortured psyche of Bruce Wayne and come up with a treasure trove of fascinating, exciting, and genuinely engrossing characters. Nolan’s film has a handful of flaws, most notably its oblique editing and limited handling of villains, but Batman Begins excels in storytelling and crafts a superbly intelligent, satisfying, riveting comic book movie. The best bit of praise I can give Batman Begins is that I want everyone responsible to return immediately and start making a host of sequels. This is a franchise reborn and I cannot wait for more of it.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Before Midnight (2013)

before-midnight-posterOriginally written June 24, 2013

If you’re a fan of writer/director Richard Linklater’s previous movies (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), as I am, then a new Before movie is a cause of celebration. It feels like we’re checking in with old friends. It’s fascinating to take stock of these characters and their new points in their lives, now approaching middle age. This series is becoming the dramatic equivalent to the 7 Up documentary series that periodically checks up on its subjects every seven years in their lives (56 Up came out this year). Individually, the films are wonderful, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes something truly special, something indelible and sweeping and transporting. Before Midnight is a wonderful movie, brimming with heart as well as ache. It’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year and another touchstone to the impressive legacy of the series.

In 1995, 23-year-olds Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train and spent a magical day strolling through Vienna and essentially falling in love. In 2004, Jessie was touring Paris on his book tour, having turned the events of that Vienna night into a successful novel. Celine meets him and the two pal around, reconnecting, with Celine revealing how much that night meant to her as well. Now, in 2013, Jessie and Celine are together, though unmarried, and have twin seven-year-old daughters, Ella and Nina. They’ve been vacationing in Greece for a month while Jessie works on a new novel. Over the course of one long day, the couple will try and stir old passions and question whether they still share the same commitments.

Before MidnightWe’re watching the evolution of two human beings, and your response will vary depending upon your own life’s stopping point at the time of viewing. I must say, as a man now in his early thirties, that I enjoyed Sunrise and Sunset even more, finding greater thematic resonance to the characters, their anxieties, and the concern about faking your way through the “adult world.” I imagine I will find these movies even more emotionally engaging as I continue to age and cross similar hurdles as the characters do. For fans of the series, we’ve already invested 20 years and four hours of screen time with these characters. There’s more at stake when they fight. Watching the other movies beforehand, which I heartily recommend for multiple reasons, also provides stirring points of contrast, the romanticism of youth, the exuberance of promise. What Before Midnight does, and does so exceptionally, is take the romance of the earlier films and put it to the test. There’s a lovely dinner scene with several couples, and you realize that each one is an analogue for Jessie and Celine: the teenagers, the middle-aged couple starting out, the older couple discussing the demise of their previous spouses. It’s hard not to contrast the different stops and the different realities of love by the age.

Fair warning, Before Midnight is the least romantic of all three movies (I want a new movie every 9 years or so until the last one is essentially Amour). The first movie was them connecting. The second movie was about them reconnecting. The third movie establishes that they’ve been together for nine years and have a pair of twin daughters. The focus of Midnight is the struggle of maintaining a long-term relationship, something rarely given such thoughtful, perceptive, and compassionate depth on screen. We’d all rather watch lovebirds make goo-goo eyes at one another while we swoon appropriately, but Midnight’s many battles, small and large, new and ongoing, explore a relationship reality that many should find alarmingly relatable. While the particulars may be different, you may be surprised at how similar these conflicts can be. Exclude stuff like vacationing in Greece, the cushy jobs, and look to the mounting difficulty to retain that spark, a reminder of why you fell in love long ago, with the responsibilities of parenting and work stretching you in different directions. Routine can quickly transform into malaise. Jessie has a teenage son from a previous relationship, and this pushes him into great remorse when the kid departs, making him feel inadequate as a parent, which leads him to suggest unlikely relocation scenarios. Celine, being something of a worst-case scenario creature, notes the moment, saying this is when couples start falling apart. She’s worried he’ll resent her for choosing against a cross-country move. However, as the movie progresses, you realize there are already enough long-simmering resentments between the couple. This is a hard movie to watch at times because Jessie and Celine both go for broke when they argue, and it can get ugly (he dismisses her feelings as “crazy”; she vents about his lack of virility). Ending on a moment of ambiguity, like the other films, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you just watched a two-hour breakup movie. Their problems don’t really seem resolved but I guess we’ll see in nine years, won’t we? Hopefully the next one isn’t called Before Divorce.

600full-before-midnight-posterThe hallmark of the series, its sparkling conversation, is alive and well, with added maturity and reflection. When you get dialogue this good, this fluidly natural, this engaging, I could listen to them talk for days. In my mini-review for Before Sunset I compared it to listening to birds sing. The shots can last upwards of ten minutes as the camera just slowly walks ahead of Hawke and Delpy as they converse. In the first film we got a foot-tour of Vienna, the second Paris, and now Greece. The sights, while nice, are incidental because I was consumed with the dialogue, which spills so effortlessly from Hawke and Delpy, relishing playing these characters once more. Their give-and-take is often breathless, with nary a pause between them, and it can become overpowering for the uninitiated (lots of old ladies, I have found, dislike this movie, though when asked, none have seen the previous two). But there’s such added dramatic subtext now that we’ve jumped ahead in time. Rather than yearn for the characters to get together, now we’re assembling what we can of their history together and the durable conflicts. The exposition never feels forced, and each new bit provides another prism to view the character actions. You’re studying the characters, parsing their words, sizing up their honesty, and analyzing the various tests and dodges they dole out to one another. It’s a more active experience than you might expect for watching people talk a lot.

Hawke (The Purge) and Delpy (2 Days in New York) are so exquisitely natural with these characters and together and never better. They know these people inside out, and they should because both are credited yet again as co-screenwriters with Linklater. I’d expect another Oscar nomination in their future, much like Before Sunset. Delpy has a wonderful faux youthful voice she uses for hilarious disdain to narrate Jessie’s female fans. Both actors go a long way to flesh out their characters, provide degrees of new wisdom and worry while making us care about their problems. One character does not have the moral high ground, which makes their arguments all the more challenging to process. I don’t want to make it sound like Before Midnight is some twenty-first century Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? There are innumerous moments of humor and grace and compassion, but the louder ringing of the raging conflicts can swallow them up. I also found it intriguing that this is the first movie in the series with nudity from our couple. Granted, it would seem somewhat forward if it happened in Sunrise and Sunset considering the narrow timeframes. As presented in Midnight, it loses erotic context and becomes another indicator of the struggles of maintaining passion.

I want to reiterate that I really hope that Linklater and his stars continue to bless us with a new film every decade, checking back on the lives of Jessie and Celine. The next one, if we continue the nine-year tradition, will deal with them turning fifty, which seems like a grand opportunity for some existential ennui. Also, Jessie son from a previous marriage will be roughly the same age Jessie was in 1995’s Before Sunrise. That could provide another interesting perspective for dad. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to these characters yet. Much like the 7 Up documentary series, the movies provide a point to reflect on our own lives, how we’ve changed and grown, the setbacks and triumphs, surprises and sadness. Catching up with the series, I viewed the movies very differently than I did when I first watched them. The art remains the same but the frame changes; we change. The glorious aspect of Linklater’s series is that we get to chart that change, checking back with old friends we’ve grown with. The movie’s attention to character and the relatable problems of middle age and long-term relationships is rich, nuanced, and just about everything This is 40 should have been and wasn’t. Before Midnight may lack the idealistic romanticism of previous entries but it substitutes a soulfulness to a series that has always been mature beyond its years. Approaching half a life lived, the characters still have plenty of life in them, plenty of dreams worth pursuing, and plenty more hurdles to go. It has been an ongoing privilege to get to spend time with these two. I pray this is not the end but just another stop on what ends up being one of cinema’s definitive statements on love through the ages.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Black Swan (2010)

1365Originally written November 25, 2010

The prissy world of prima ballerinas and tutus doesn’t seem like a natural fit for sex, murder, lunacy, and mayhem. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) is used to exploring the punishments of the human body and the strain of the mind, so you know that Black Swan isn’t going to be your traditional dance movie. This is in a different universe from those Step Up flicks.

Nina (Natalie Portman) has been a company ballerina in New York City for years. She spends her hours at home practicing the grueling routines in hopes to break out for a lead role. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a former ballerina herself who gave up her shot at the big time when she had Nina. Then the head of the dance company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has decided that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will be the first show of the season. It’s a bit tired, he admits, but he has a plan to juice it up: the same dancer will portray both the swan queen (tragic protagonist) and the black swan (villainous temptress). All of the dancers are committed to doing what they can to earn that coveted lead role. Nina’s primary worry is Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who is imperfect in technique but honest and free in her movements, garnering the attention of Thomas. In the process, Nina is losing her grip on reality. She’s hearing weird things, seeing weird things, and something dark wants to take center stage.

Black SwanBlack Swan is a grade-A mind freak of the first order, a tonal fusion of sight and sound that echoes earlier masterworks of the eerie psychological horror like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. This is a movie that gets under your skin; I literally had a nightmare the night after watching it, though I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. Black Swan is not a horror film by the traditional standard we’re accustomed to today. The entire film has a downright Kubrickian vibe, from its devoted tracking shots, to the overdose on classical music underscoring the dramatic tension, and the unraveling of the human mind toward eventual psychosis. Aronofsky keeps the audience tethered to Nina, at times literally. The camerawork will rarely stray away from Portman, like we’re caught within her orbit and forced to see the world through her fractured perspective. She is our eyes to the world but, as becomes increasingly apparent, we cannot trust what we see. The unreliable POV leads to some fantastic freak-out moments that will consistently leave you scrambling. The diligent pacing marvelously matches the dissolution of Nina’s psyche. As her paranoia and delusion take control, Nina comes undone one thread at a time, with Aronofsky on the other end providing the tugs. The spiraling mental deteriation culminates with a glorious 20-minute finale that manages to be tense, beautiful, haunting, and powerfully moving. There are moments in this film that gave me goose bumps (a blood red-eyed Portman growling, “It’s my turn” is a chilling highpoint). I became determined to see Black Swan again even before the closing credits arrived.

Aronofsky makes use of every tool at his disposal to heighten the intense atmosphere. The attentive editing and camerawork create a shifty mood, communicating Nina’s desperate groping for direction. But beyond that, Aronofsky employs subtle sound effects to rattle you, keep you off guard. Routinely there will be the fluttery sound of wings flapping or hushed whispers. It’s enough to make you shudder time and again. It’s a small touch that elevates the mood and instantly snaps you to attention whenever you hear the eerie echoes. The disquieting sound effects are coupled with equally subtle visual effects. As Nina absorbs herself in her ballet role we occasionally will witness the pores of her skin raise, as if invisible hair, or feathers, are protruding. Sometimes these raised bumps will wash over her body in waves. As Nina becomes more consumed with her darker impulses, the special effects take a surreal role in conveying her madness.

The film is also rather sensual without becoming trashy, late-night Cinemax fodder, though it can be trashy at times. Portman’s descent is linked with loosening up her own sexuality. She can portray the innocent and delicate white swan, but she’s having significant problems portraying the ominous and seductive black swan. She’s told to let go, lose herself to her physical impulses, and explore the confines of her nubile body. Black Swan is probably the artiest high profile film to feature prominent female masturbation since 2001’s trippy Mulholland Drive (the two movies have plenty of similarities in ambition). Nina’s suspicions about her rival transform into confusing erotic fantasies that will delight the teenage males in the crowd. Black Swan is candid about dipping into pulpy and trashy areas of titillation.

IMG_7391.CR2Portman ably takes the frazzled lead and gives an enthralling performance that will be hard to beat come Oscar time. The role is a lot more than screaming and crying. Although to be fair, Portman cries a whole lot. You may lose count the amount of times Portman is seen crying on screen. Her character is fragile but not fighting for sympathy. She can be distant and a little cold, obsessed with reaching the unattainable state of perfection. This pushes her to the extreme, goaded by her somewhat loopy mother. Portman has always been an attractive presence on screen, but she is also fairly transparent when she’s bored with her material (watch those Star Wars prequels and argue differently, I dare you). With Black Swan, she throws herself into a role like I’ve never seen before from Portman. I did not think the kewpie-dolled actress was capable of such heights. The immersion is entrancing. She physically trained for over a year before production to be able to do all those pirouettes and fouettés. I’m not being overly generous with the dancing accolades; Portman comes across as smooth as a professional. The fact that Portman is capable of expressing so much devastating emotion through dance is astounding. My eyes were glued to her every movement. This is the performance that officially lifts Portman to the acting big leagues. She dances circles around the acting competition for 2010.

While it’s certainly Portman’s show, the supporting cast all shine in their small roles. Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Book of Eli) is made to exemplify the edgy opposing force in Nina’s life. Kunis’s natural charm and alluring presence might make her the most likeable character in the film, even though her wild ways will keep you guessing about her true motives. Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) seems like a doting and supportive mother at first glance, but the actress reveals shades of desperation and mania. Winona Ryder (Star Trek, Girl, Interrupted) makes a welcomed near-cameo as the ballerina pushed out of the spotlight. And then Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Eastern Promises) plays lecherous creep like few others.

2500708_com_black_swanThe film manages to make ballet feel like a contact sport. These people punish their bodies, their artistic vessels. The rigorous routines require dancers to be in sleek form, which often leads to abuse via bulimia. The excruciating balance and coordination required places unusually high demands on the human body, particularly on the feet that must support the body in extreme positions. Broken toes and split nails are the least of the worries. Black Swan succeeds in showcasing the fierce brutality of dance; however, the movie also showcases the intrinsic beauty. I am a self-described novice when it comes to dance, especially ballet at that, but even I was spellbound by watching the dancing, notably the exhilarating Swan Lake opening night performance. The camera is positioned to be like another dancer, so we’re swooping and spinning around the stage with the featured performers. This gives the audience an intimate glimpse into the fluid movements and, just as importantly, the nuanced and sensual expressions of the performers. I would have scoffed at the idea of a ballet performance being anything more than frou-frou-ness, but Black Swan made me a believer. Witnessing the beauty and gracefulness of the dancing is proof that all that hard, punishing preparation is worth it.

Probing the stress of the body and fraying endurance of the mind, Black Swan richly explores the sacrifices we make for art and ambition. The world of ballet is highlighted as a hotbed for scandal and intrigue and female sensual desire. Not bad for all that hoofing around in frilly tights. Black Swan is anchored by Portman’s captivating descent into madness, a performance that will surely be awarded in the ensuing months to come. Aronofsky has fashioned a riveting psychological thriller with enough artfully crafted chills and spooks to make for one visceral experience at the art house. Beyond bringing the tingles of spine and bumps of goose, Black Swan digs into the psychological underpinnings of competition, devotion to art, and personal glory. There’s much more going on here than ballet. It’s a grade-A mind-freak but under Aronofsky’s skilled direction and Portman’s transfixing acting, Black Swan is also a grade-A piece of art and one of the most stunning works of cinema this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Blue is the Warmest Color (2013)

blue-is-the-warmest-color-(2013)Originally written November 22, 2013

The French drama Blue is the Warmest Color has been bathed in publicity and controversy ever since its debut at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. It’s a three-hour lesbian romance about sexual awakening and finding a deep human connection, but all anyone wanted to talk about was the graphic sex. The drama split audiences down the middle, with people like Steven Spielberg praising its unflinching examination on the craving and heartache of young love, and others like New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the director/writer Abdellatif Kechiche “oblivious to real women.” It’s an impressive film, a rapturous love story for the twenty-first century that defies swift categorization. This isn’t just a gay film. This isn’t just a romance. This is a highly relatable, appealing, and heartbreaking movie of the first-order; however, both the defenders and detractors of Blue have substantial merits to their claims.

Adele (Adele Exarchopoulos) is a normal 17-year old girl trying to gather a sense of her self. Her peers are pressuring her to lose her virginity with a popular guy, but it’s another person, a mysterious blue-haired lass, that Adele can’t stop thinking about. This woman, the somewhat older Emma (Lea Seydoux) is an art student and an out lesbian. One night, Adele follows her into a lesbian bar and they strike up a friendship, one that quickly translates into something more romantic. Over the rest of the movie, we cover several years of Adele and Emma’s lives together and learn that each has left an indelible mark on the other, for good and bad.

109202_galLet’s tackle the portion that’s gotten the most coverage in the media, the graphic sex sequences that earned the film the rare stateside NC-17 rating. You may have thought 2011’s sex addict drama, Shame, earned its NC-17 rating, but Blue trounces it. Short of unsimulated sex scenes in movies like Shortbus and 9 Songs, I doubt many audience members have experienced sex sequences this explicit and this lengthy (you may start checking your watch at some point). At its Cannes premier, the critical response breathlessly hyped a sexual encounter that went on for 18 minutes. That number may be the total onscreen copulation time; the longest sex scene is seven minutes or so, but you do feel the vigorous extension. Is there a particular reason the steamy sex scenes needed to be this long or this graphic? Kechiche likely wanted to communicate an explosion of immeasurable passion unlike anything Emma or Adele will experience in their lives. But did this need to be communicated with seven minutes of orgasmic fingers, lips, and tongues exploring every crevice of their bodies? Would six minutes of enthusiastic sex prove insufficient? I’d be a hypocrite if I said I found little entertainment in watching Exarchopoulos and Seydoux clinging to one another’s sweaty naked bodies, entwined ever so passionately. I just don’t think the film demanded as much drawn out sex when the drama is this strong.

And that’s the mass appeal blurb when it comes to Blue is the Warmest Color: come for the intensity of the sex, stay for the intensity of the feelings. You will swiftly feel the nervousness and sexual tension that comes from the exploration of attraction. All those high school butterflies come fluttering back. The depth of feeling is easily relatable. The characters are searching for unparalleled human connection but also discovering more about who they are. This is a moving, absorbing, and crushing love story, but it’s just as much about two people falling out of love. That was a major surprise for me. What’s more is that the forces behind their breakup are completely understandable and you can see them coming; at heart, they are two different people that operate in different worlds, and they do change over time. That’s excellent storytelling when one can feel for both sides of a breakup, comprehend how this moment arrived, and looking back, see how inevitable a conflict like this would be. Emma’s sphere of friends is one that Adele does not feel a comfortable place within. Emma worries that Adele needs to find a sense of identity outside their relationship. Adele is still too timid to admit the truth about her relationship with a woman to her colleagues and family. These are major conflicts and they simmer and gestate in ways that feel like real life. Beyond some of the specifics in the bedroom (more on that later), there isn’t a moment that feels unbelievable in the entire three hours. This is a naturalistic love story that unfolds in small waves, allowing us to get to know the characters and their lives.

blue-is-the-warmest-color-poster1-e1381173193485The two actresses are outstanding and bare much more than their flesh for this film. Exarchopoulos and Seydoux disappear into their characters. These are richly developed characters, and each actress does her best to bring them to startling life. Exachopoulos (who looks like a Parisian Maggie Grace) has so much of the film riding on her 19-year-old shoulders since her character is the film’s major point of view; we often see the world through her perspective. She’s excellent as the curious, anxious, bashful young woman, and her encounters with Emma open her world up, allowing Adele to broaden as a person. She’s still not confidant, given to doubts that Emma seems to lack, but Exarchopoulos convinces you of the difference. Every step along her journey is credible, acted with poise, even the uncontrolled weeping. In a just world, this French newcomer would be up for serious acting award consideration. Seydoux is the more assured character, the one who sizes up her interest, but when hurt, the ferocity of Emma’s fury is staggering. This is not a woman to scorn, and Adele will learn this the hard way. Later in the film, as the history hangs in the air between Emma and Adele, we get a powerful sense of how conflicted both women are, having never turned off their feelings but trapped by circumstance and consequences. You feel each member cycle through the myriad of emotions, fumbling between desire and desperation. The actresses work together beautifully, raising one another’s performance, and giving one another the environment to get truly intimate, emotionally and physically.

The film is more a representation of a man’s fantasy of lesbian sex. The male gaze, a term referred to often in feminist film criticism, is trenchant in this film. Kechiche’s camera doesn’t just love his two young stars; it fawns over them, lusts over them. The camera is always within inches of Adele’s face, glued to tight shots lingering over Exarchopoulos’s pouty lips. Seriously, the actress has her mouth open the entire movie, her lips forever pillowy, forever pouting. It’s a sensual movie, yes, but does every shot of young Adele need to be so tawny and voyeuristic, her hair always slightly askew in her face, her body positioned just so that her assets are featured? Critics like Dargis are correct about Kechiche’s fawning camera pushing over into the boundary of erotic fetishism. This is where my questioning of sexual positioning comes back; going ass backwards when it comes to cunnilingus (and yes, I will intend that pun) is aesthetically pleasing in a sensuous manner, and that feels like the dictum of Kechiche’s intimate camerawork. It’s heterosexual male pleasure represented on screen, at least in its depiction. Otherwise, with the camera always tethered inches away from Adele’s face, why don’t we remain focused on her face during all this physical pleasure? It can be just as erotic. However, with all that out there, why can’t lesbian sex be given the same ridiculous fantasy depictions of heterosexual sex in the movies? I can almost guarantee that pool tables are not a prime location for indulging one’s urges. And just showcasing lesbian sex onscreen between a committed couple (not just girl-on-girl flings like in Black Swan) and normalizing it, whatever intention, is a virtue.

-1But it’s not just the sex scenes that could use some judicious snipping; the entire three-hour enterprise could be easily consolidated. The film is replete with loping scenes that sort of drift along, recreating the ordinary rhythms of life rather than the plot beat connect-the-dots we associate with most film narratives. That’s fine, you need time to establish characters and setting, but do we need people interpreting poetry at length and indulging in gender philosophy for minutes on end? Perhaps if I watched Blue is the Warmest Color a second time I’d be more tolerable of the narrative bloat, finding added subtext and metaphor to all those ponderous philosophical discussions over the nature of the self and gender identity. Of course seeing a three-hour movie, again, is going to take a significant time commitment.

Sensual throughout, beautifully developed, richly observed, and brought to life with bristling and audacious acting, Blue is the Warmest Color is a love story that hits hard with emotional force. By nicely realizing the characters, providing them depth and fallibility, we can empathize with them along the different stops of their romantic journey, seeing where each is coming from and understanding the yearning, frustration, and passion. When things are good, there’s a frisson on screen, a palpable sense of desire accentuated by Kechiche’s loving (and occasionally obsessive/fetishized) camerawork. The acting by Exarchopoulos and Seydoux is as raw and fevered as their onscreen lovemaking. I doubt it needed to be a full three hours long, and I doubt the notorious NC-17-earning sex scenes needed to be as graphic to communicate delight, but I’m most pleased that Blue is offering a full movegoing experience, watching the formation of two characters over time and how they change. It’s easily watchable even during its more ponderous, dare I say French-y, sidesteps. The ending is a slight misstep, calling out for greater certainty, but the French title for the film was, Adele: Chapters 1 & 2, the implication being there may be future cinematic adventures that await these people. I don’t know if this will ever come to fruition considering the original graphic novel by Julie Maroh is a mere 160 pages, rather shrift considering the medium, but I can hope. Romances this involving, observant, and intense don’t come around too often and deserve to be cherished. Just consider the sex a bonus.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Brokeback Mountain (2005)

258Originally written January 1, 2006

Go ahead and work the snickers out of your system. Brokeback Mountain has been dubbed “that gay cowboy movie,” and been condemned by certain fundamentalist Christian organizations as “a very dangerous and insidious message to America.” But what message is Ang Lee’s film even putting out there? It seems to me that Brokeback Mountain is putting a human face on a slur, making homosexuals look like you or me. For some that prospect may be terrifying. The movie is playing well on the blue-state coasts, expectedly, but it’s also surprisingly playing well in America’s heartland. It seems that people are lining up all over to see a movie about two gay cowboys in love. And perhaps the more people that witness Brokeback Mountain, the harder it will be to listen to those so-called family advocacy groups with their sterling Christian morals. Maybe people will really see what’s behind many of the words of outcry – hate and ignorance (I am in no way insinuating that disliking the flick means you are homophobic). Despite all this political talk, Brokeback Mountain is by no means a political movie. It’s a love story, above all, and it’s a doozy.

In the summer of 1963, Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is a quiet man looking for work in rustic Wyoming. He finds a job as a sheep herder working atop the canyons and mountains of Brokeback. Working alongside Ennis is Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), a charismatic rodeo rider. The weeks are long and Ennis and Jack are all the company they have, excluding the hundreds of sheep they tend. Eventually, the more taciturn Ennis finally opens up and bonds with his herding partner. “That’s more words than you’ve spoken in two weeks,” Jack says. “Hell,” Ennis adds, “That’s the most I’ve spoken in a year.” The rules have been laid out: every night one man sleeps in a tent campsite, the other sleeps next to the sheep to guard them. Well one night Ennis has had too much whisky and cannot make it back to the sheep. Jack invites him to sleep in the tent instead of freezing outside. Then something surprising takes place – both men have an alcohol-fueled bout of rough sex. The next morning both men stress they “ain’t queer,” but they have a hard time fighting their feelings inside. Ennis warns that, “If this thing, it grabs hold of us again… at the wrong place… at the wrong time… and we’re dead.” He recounts a childhood memory where his father showed him the corpse of an older homosexual man, brutally beaten and mutilated. For them, their love must stay on Brokeback Mountain.

photo157qoThe men part ways. Ennis marries Alma (Michelle Williams), a quiet woman after his own heart, and fathers two daughters. In Texas, Jack meets fellow rodeo rider Lureen (Anne Hathaway) and gets involved in a relationship with her, fathering a son of his own. But Jack still thinks of his Brokeback pal and sends him a postcard. Ennis nearly lights up at the returned sight of Jack and the two passionately embrace. He tells Alma that Jack is an old “fishing buddy” and they sneak away every few months for a fishing getaway. Really the men are returning to the countryside to rekindle the love that they haven’t left behind. But can they keep their love a secret, and should they even have to?

I wonder if Lee would ever have directed this if 2003’s Hulk didn’t bomb so badly. Lucky for us, he’s taken the Brokeback helm and infuses lots of emotion into the story. The Wyoming countryside (actually Canada, but it’s all close enough) is gorgeous, and the film has a great earthy feel. Best of all, Lee allows his love story to breathe and go at its own pace, never cutting corners or rushing an emotion. There’s a lovely, lilting feel to the film, and Lee’s guided hand allows the story to play out to its grand promise. Based on Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Proulx’s 11-page short story, screenwriters Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show) have given incredible depth and subtext to the tale. McMurtry, in particular, has great knowledge of the West and the cowboy lifestyle, and the screenplay gives you an idea of small-town Western life. There are a few moments at bars, social scenes, stores, but they brilliantly give you every detail you’d need to know about this way of life. I even loved how the people of Wyoming wore fashions that were five years removed from their height of popularity, which is exactly how fashion moves around to the smaller parts of America. Ossana and McMurtry are also commended for presenting their characters as people first and never as agenda bulletins. All three lend a level of authenticity that makes the story feel organic and never trite.

In films about forbidden desire and heartbreak, the acting is the cornerstone for how powerful the tale resonates. The acting in Brokeback Mountain is phenomenal. Ledger is the breakout star and the majority of the film’s focus. He gives the performance of his life (I know, not saying much). Ledger is outstanding as the reserved, taciturn Ennis, brought to believe that queers were something sub-human and now he wrestles with his own identity. He may be a restrained man of few words but you see every emotion bubble under the surface, every conflict played out in his eyes. Ledger’s few violent or emotional outbursts are startling because they show an uncontrollable feeling, one even he can’t withhold 24/7.

Gyllenhaal has the showier role but masterfully displays the frustration of forbidden love. He’s willing to sacrifice everything for Ennis, and the fact that Ennis won’t do likewise tears him apart. Isn’t love enough, he wonders. There’s a moment in the film that so sharply displays Jack and Gyllenhaal as an actor. It involves two different shots in a moving truck. The first is Jack headed to Ennis’ ranch, singing, bouncing, and with a wall-to-wall smile. The second is Jack driving away from the ranch unfulfilled, sullen, broken, and seemingly unable to cry another tear. It’s two small moments and they sum up Jack and Gyllenhaal perfectly. The only thing unsettling about Gyllenhaal’s performance is his late 70s porn star ‘stach. With his tremendous work in Jarhead and now Brokeback Mountian, Gyllenhaal is in class all his own (he’s got the dreamiest doe-eyes in Hollywood).

The ladies of Brokeback Mountain have less screen time to play with but they each deliver fine performances. Williams is a silent, put-upon mother and is shattered when she discovers her husband’s secret love. She just crumbles. She’s never the same and Williams showcases her character’s distress and mounting bitterness. One of the film’s highpoints is her confrontation with Ennis, many years later, finally sharing all that she knows. Me thinks an Oscar nod is headed in her post-Dawson’s Creek future. Hathaway plays quite an opposite character. She begins as a wild, headstrong cowgirl with a healthy sexual appetite, something perhaps Jack sees as a reflection of his self. Then their love dies at some point and she pours herself into work, but Hathaway illuminates every step along the way. Her small smile during a scene where Jack finally browbeats her obnoxious father is terrific. And girls, if you’re having trouble dragging your significant other to see Brokeback Mountain with you, remind them that both ladies get naked at some point.

This is an elegiac, engrossing love story. Brokeback Mountain is not necessarily a “gay thing,” more so it’s a story about forbidden love and about the consequences of moving forward without ever letting go. That sounds universal, right? Nothing “gay” about that. Brokeback Mountain explores the force of love and shows how uncontrollable and unpredictable it is. Jack and Ennis are just as surprised by their feelings and their rough night of passion as the audience, but the happiness they share is hard to argue.

photo_06Because of the film’s gentle pace, and Lee’s loose control, we really immerse ourselves in their relationship as they frit away the hours looking after sheep. There was a woman in my theater (I won’t name names, partly because I don’t know hers) who felt that Brokeback Mountain was far too slow and could have been put to better use by cutting 2 hours out. The film’s placid pace is integral to the story’s success; you need to see how expansive that countryside is to feel alone, you need to have the many small conversations to draw out a closer camaraderie, you need the added time to open up to these men, and then once you have –BAM! — they turn their worlds upside down. This buildup is necessary for our connection to the characters but it’s also essential so we can understand what happens. Yes, the film portrays love as it truly is: an all-encompassing emotion that can be as maddening as it is passionate. But Brokeback Mountain doesn’t dare introduce a gay romance, something so dangerous in this land, all lickity-split. It’s supposed to be a surprise to these men, grown up with John Wayne movies and strong, silent role models. The movie enjoyably takes its time to seduce an audience with its tale before choking out every last tear in the end.

The tragedy of Lee’s film is that these men have each found the love of their life but, because of society’s prejudices, are not allowed to act. As a result, each man puts on a different face and pretends they’re a happy heterosexual Western buck for the public, but each is being eaten away inside. Ennis drinks a lot and is full of self-loathing. Jack is less publicly reserved about his feelings and finds momentary comfort with other warm bodies, mostly through silent nods with other closeted gay men. I’m reminded of a line in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia: “I have a lot of love to give; I just don’t know where to put it.” Ennis and Jack cannot quit each other but they also tragically can never fully commit to one another, at least without any threat of ostracism or death. That’s the power of Brokeback, that it shows you these simple men, shows you their love, and then won’t let that happy ending ever manifest that we yearn for. When we reach our somber, haunting conclusion there weren’t many dry eyes in the theater, mine included. Brokeback Mountain is a love story that won’t let itself be happy, and that’s what provides all the kicks to the gut and lumps in your throat.

I think some of the more hostile criticism of Brokeback Mountain is because of how normal Jack and Ennis are presented. Neither is a swishy stereotype, neither is any less of a man, and that notion probably terrifies the homophobes:  “Well, they look normal, and if they get gay then maybe I will too!” That’s a shame really, because those ignorant few will miss out on a powerful, sweeping, complex, aching love story with fantastic acting. Ledger and Gyllenhaal will make you feel every moment of joy, every moment of pain, and every lingering conflict on what makes them whom they are. Lee stressed that he wanted to show the world a love story where you really felt that love was an uncontrollable force. His heartfelt, touching film is a revolution for being a normal love story, albeit with two classic Marlboro men. There is no propaganda, no gay agenda, but perhaps the film will open people’s eyes and strip away any narrow definitions we have toward the ownership of love. Brokeback Mountain set out to merely tell a good story, not change the world. It’s accomplished the first part and maybe, just maybe, it’ll spark discussion, debate, and lasting memories to lay groundwork for the second.

Nate’s Grade: A
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Cloud Atlas (2012)

Originally written October 26, 2012

Most people regarded David Mitchell’s 2004 sprawling novel Cloud Atlas was unfilmable. It has six different stories each set in a different time period, slotted into a different genre, and each a variation on storytelling. Mitchell’s tome was structured like a series of nesting dolls, each narrative pulling back to reveal a character reading the previous manuscript, and eventually the direction was reversed. We go from the mid-nineteenth century to post-apocalyptic and back again. I read the book over the summer and found it to be enthralling, especially because each storyline was written so distinctively in a different writing style. The post-apocalyptic linguistics definitely took some getting used to. How could you turn this unwieldy book into a workable movie?

The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana, teamed up with German director Tom Tyker (Run Lola Run) to try and find a way. They decided to split up the stories into a musical syncopation, with stories blending into one another. As a result, Cloud Atlas is six different movies for the price of one but it’s far more than the sum of its parts. Cloud Atlas coalesces, bleeds, and bends, becoming a Mobius strip of causality and courage and love. The trio of directors, who shot simultaneously with two separate film crews, has done the impossible and translated Mitchell’s brilliant novel into a soaring, compelling, and multifaceted epic on hope and humanism.

Where to begin with this one? Well, in 1849, Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) is traveling across the Pacific back to his home in San Francisco. He’s fallen ill on the ship and keeping the secret of a stowaway in his chamber, a Moriori slave named Autua (David Gyasi). In 1931, Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is a penniless gay musician looking for refuge. He offers his services to the aged but still famed composer, Vyvian Ayers (Jim Broadbent). Ayers will dictate and Frobisher will assist in writing. In 1971, Luisa Rey (Halle Berry) is a reporter investigating a series of murders tied to a nuclear facility and a report the head honcho (Hugh Grant) doesn’t want exposed. In 2012, Timothy Cavendish (Broadbent) is a small-time publisher who mistakenly checks himself into a nursing home that won’t allow him to leave. In 2140, a new working class is grown from the lab. Somni 451 (Doona Bae) is one of these fabricants. With the help of a revolutionary (Sturgess), she escapes her confines and learns the horrors of the totalitarian world and becomes part of the rebellion. And 100 winters after “The Fall,” mankind has descended into agrarian tribes. Zachry (Hanks) is a goat herder who reluctantly agrees to take Meronym (Berry) to a hallowed mountain. Meronym belongs to the last group of technology-abled civilization, the Prescients, and Zachry mistrusts her and is tempted to kill her to protect his people. Just describing this stuff is tiring and could take up two reviews.

This is going to be a very divisive movie, this much I can tell. It’s so powerfully earnest that you either embrace its mushiness and ambitions or you smirk and mock its New Age philosophy and optimism. There will be no middle ground with this film. We’re talking about transmigrating souls over the course of 500 years, Tom Hanks as a post-apocalyptic goat herder, and an evil presence known as Old Georgie, who looks like the forgotten cousin to the Wicked Witch of the West. There is some stuff in this movie that is plenty goofy, especially when seen on the surface. It takes a while to ease into the film, adjust to its tempo and accept the context of those goofy elements. But once that’s established then it feels like you can handle anything. There’s such an overflowing of feeling in this movie that it’s easy to make fun of it, to dismiss it under the safety of ironic detachment. It would be easy to decry the Cloud Atlas team for being self-indulgent or pretentious. What they are doing is far from normal, but the achievement of Cloud Atlas is the graceful way it finds to connect the rhythms of a deeply felt humanity. It has its stirring moments and memorable scenes, but when compacted and collected into a beautiful whole, that’s where the movie transcends. When an authoritative character barks, “You are but a drop in an ocean,” and our hero responds, “What is an ocean but a series of drops?” you either roll your eyes or you cheer. This is an earnest movie that wears its humanism on its sleeve. You either roll with that or you don’t, and I decided to embrace the big, messy, mushiness of the whole project and was swept away.

For a three-hour movie, the time flew by, and by the end I knew I had to see Cloud Atlas again. The first viewing requires much in the way of processing. You’re stringing together the disparate strands of the narrative, you’re listening hard to decipher the post-apocalyptic tongue of Zachry and company, and then you’re also keeping track of what actors are playing what characters, crossing lines of race and gender. The disguised actor factor is something of a fun ”who’s who” party game throughout the movie; initially distracting and somewhat questionable (especially the cross-racial makeup). I think seeing Cloud Atlas a second time will allow me to immerse myself further, finding new depths and connections. The pacing is surprisingly swift for a three-hour movie. You barely notice the time is gone, and honestly I could have done with even more movie, especially during the Neo Seoul segment. Given the six segments, some stories are going to be more compelling than others. I don’t think too many people are going to be as compelled with Frobisher’s creative sessions as they are Somni’s escape from enslavement. Initially, you’ll be scratching your head what they all have in common, and the lighthearted segments seem to clash with the more severe segments of systemic abuses. But then the big picture starts to eventually emerge and you see the parallel themes of oppression, bondage, rebellion, sacrifice, abolition and the yearning for freedom at all costs. The filmmakers find clever ways to thematically link their different tales. The movie starts to become a musical experience, much like Frobisher’s central melody, the overlapping notes of repetition and the swelling movements of human life in minor and major.

As anyone who endured the Matrix sequels will attest, the Wachoswkis are film theologians and Cloud Atlas is unabashedly spiritual. The filmmakers openly favor examining the spiritual side of Mitchell’s novel rather than the political. I found the results to be intriguing but short of profound. From a philosophical/theological standpoint, Cloud Atlas is not breaking new ground or even going into great depth. We’ve got some basic Eastern notions like reincarnation and trying to improve upon one’s soul through various lifetimes. There’s also the notion that death is just a transitional phase and not the end. The film is also very interested in the transcendentalist interconnections of human history. “With each crime and each act of kindness, we give way to our future,” says Somni at one point. I like this; it’s essentially karma in its purest form but it also denotes that every choice gives ways to multitudes of possible futures (perhaps pedestrian but I still like it). I feel that human kindness is long-reaching and casts out many ripples, and Cloud Atlas is a film all about the ripples, seeing the long-reaching effects to causes, and discovering that individuals can become movements and movements can become inspiration. I also like the relatable debate over religious belief in the far-flung future; the Valley people worship Somni as their gracious Goddess, but the more advanced Prescients view her as a person, noble and with strong and important ideas but flesh and blood. And yet the film doesn’t look down on Zachry and his people for their beliefs; Somni inspires them to do good. Do the details matter when the results are positive? Cloud Atlas has plenty of intriguing questions roiling around, moments of pause worthy of post-screening debate. It’s not too deep but it’s far from shallow (the Wachoswkis love their Christ-like imagery, don’t they?).

From a filmmaking craft standpoint, Cloud Atlas is often breathtaking. In some respects it feels like something radically new, a $100 million dollar art film. The visuals are wonderful and the different time periods all come across handsomely mounted, perfectly realized, the details vivid and period appropriate. The future worlds are easily the most engrossing just because of how different they are. You’re never spoon-fed the answers in this movie, so we’re left to put together what lead to each future. I would have loved to have gotten even more details about Somni’s world, a time where democracy has been replaced by “corpocracy,” a world run by corporations. The ambitious story structure of Cloud Atlas could have easily become confusing, but the filmmakers smartly give each segment its own little undivided period to set up that world and its unique tone. They even provide date stamps. Then things get more spliced together, the different storylines cascading and braided together. Some of the storylines have to wrap up early and others are saved for heartbreaking finales of tragic resonance. The elliptical romances spanning centuries provide nice counterpoints and satisfying out-of-time conclusions for storylines that don’t always end cheerful.  The movie is often thrilling, intellectually stimulating, disturbing, and poignant, though to be fair it comes up short when it comes to emotional involvement. Like the stunted depth of its philosophy, the movie has a way of drawing you in but never fully; it’s all about a wealth of human feelings and the nature of humanity yet it quixotically comes up short emotionally.

With up to six roles to play, the actors are given plenty to work with. It would be redundant to say you’ve never seen many of these actors like they are in Cloud Atlas (has anyone ever seen Berry in whiteface?). Every actor gets to play heroes and villains, saints and sinners. Only Weaving (The Matrix) and Grant (The Pirates! Band of Misfits) play antagonists in just about every story, and when you have Weaving at your disposal you have to give the man a role with menace. Grant gets to play a post-apocalyptic marauding cannibal. You won’t see him eat anybody’s face in one of those Bridget Jones movies. Like the filmmakers, the actors display full commitment to their varied roles no matter how silly some of the future diction may sound (“for true-true”). Hanks instantly anchors your empathy as Zachry and grounds a storyline that has the biggest danger of slipping into silliness. Readers will know I’m not the biggest Berry fan, and that is probably being charitable. However, I was truly impressed with her work in Cloud Atlas and would easily classify this as her best work since her Oscar-winning turn in Monster’s Ball. Her portrayal of Luisa Rey has such fire and her Meronym has such melancholy. Broadbent (The Iron Lady) is still highly enjoyable as a pompous sort, I’m always happy to see Keith David, and Weaving is delightful in his venomous villains, as a devil, a hit man, and most vividly as the Nurse Ratchet-style sadistic head nurse antagonizing Cavendish. The real breakaway star is Bae (The Host), who also benefits by having the most involving storyline. Her gradual awakening is just about note-perfect, alternating between curiosity, horror, amazement, and finally anger. All of those emotions need to be free of histrionics but if too underplayed then Somni seems like a walking zombie. Bae finds the right somber middle ground and her journey is the most emotionally rewarding.

In the end, there’s so much to unpack, dissect, discuss, debate, and contemplate with this movie, and every hour I think of some new connection that dovetails the plots. Cloud Atlas is a thrillingly artistic mosaic, a giant puzzle that begs for closer examination. Unlike the films of Terrence Malick, this is a dense, challenging work that is also accessible and, here’s the heretical part film snobs, entertaining. We get a kaleidoscope of the human experience told in beautiful flourishes. There are a lot of demands with Cloud Atlas, and ultimately it may demand multiple viewings to completely sort out one’s opinion on this gigantic picture of gigantic feeling. I’m still uncertain whether I really enjoyed it or loved it, nagging doubts concerning the limited emotional attachment to consider. I’m curious what a second viewing, stripped of analyzing which actor is in what body, will allow me to further appreciate the scale and scope of the film’s achievement.

The individual stories of Cloud Atlas may not be terribly profound but collectively this movie is something special. I anticipate it will be trendy to mock its sincerity and ambition and New Agey spirituality (not that a negative opinion is automatically invalid). We live in a cynical world. It’s rare to find a movie that has so many things to say with such intense earnestness. It’s even more rare for that movie to be good. Due to the sci-fi elements and time hopping, The Fountain and 2001 will be natural film comparisons, but In some ways Cloud Atlas reminds me more of another divisive film, 2001’s Moulin Rouge!. Both were sincere movies about the genuine power of love and human connection, told with such artistic flair, drive, and ambition, and both attempt to transform the traditional tropes of storytelling and drama into a brave new 21st century collage of sight and sound and sprawling spirits. Simply put, you’ll never see a movie like Cloud Atlas again. So do yourself a favor and see it already, then find someone to talk about it and compare how fast the time goes. Then, if you’re like me, see it again.

Nate’s Grade: A

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First Reformed (2018)/ You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Originally written August 28, 2018

Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here use sly genre subversion to act as commentary on what kinds of movies the audience associates with these kind of haunted men, their arcs, and the nature of violence. Subverting audience expectations is in and of itself not necessarily a better option. You can have unexpected things happen but the narrative that happens after needs to be compelling, and if possible, unavoidable in hindsight (Game of Thrones is good at this). By the same notion, the finale of Breaking Bad was pretty easy to anticipate but that’s because of how well written the storytelling trajectory was pointing to its natural end. I can tell a tense father-son reconciliation story and then if I end it with a meteor wiping out the Earth all of a sudden, well that’s unexpected but that doesn’t make it better storytelling. What helps elevate both movies is that the subversions are thematically related to the relationship between violence and vengeance, absolution and atonement, and the audience and our desires with these films.

In First Reformed, Reverend Toller (Ethan Hawke, enthralling) is the caretaker of a small upstate New York church where the weekly attendance can be counted on one hand. The church, First Reformed, is nearing the commemoration of its two hundred-fiftieth anniversary that will be celebrated by local dignitaries and the governor. Reverend Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer, surprisingly adept in drama) is the pastor for the mega church that seems to have everything that First Reformed lacks. Jeffers wants to help out Toller but the humble man of the cloth refuses. Rev. Toller is pushed out of his comfort zone by the husband of a pregnant woman (Amanda Seyfried) who challenges him on man’s stewardship of the environment. The husband worries about bringing a child into this world and contributing the larger problem of climate change. This interaction gets Rev. Toller to think about his own culpability and sets him on a path of righteous justice.

Writer/director Paul Schrader is famous for his stories about violent men confronting the wickedness of the world around them. From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to Hardcore, Schrader has a penchant for documenting the self-destructive recourse of flawed men who feel removed or constrained by a society they feel is out of step with morality. What better canvas then for Schrader than a middle-aged pastor at a small, reclusive church? Rev. Toller is so humble he doesn’t own more than a few sticks of furniture in his home, the adjoining parsonage to the church. He’s friendly but often choosing to keep to himself, forgoing comforts and perceived handouts from the people around him. A woman his own age keeps trying to connect with him, their romantic coupling in the past a platform for her to continue hoping he’ll come around to her. She’s a perfectly nice woman, a choir headmistress for the mega church down the road, but she reminds Toller of his weakness and maybe even something worse. The aforementioned mega church basically keeps Toller’s small parish afloat as a charity (First Reformed is nicknamed the “gift shop church” for its historical notoriety). Rev. Jeffers is concerned about his fellow man of the cloth and the toll his solitude and seclusion is taking on him. It’s like he’s trying to atone for something, taking on a very Christ-like path of penitence. It’s around here that the character is activated into a higher calling in conflict with the church.

I’ll explain what I was expecting given the premise and presence of Schrader. I was expecting a movie much in keeping with A History of Violence, where a small-town man is thrust back into a past life of violence by outside forces and he has to confront how far this “new him” has come from the sins of “old him.” I was expecting Toller to become more violent and radicalized, pitting others in his cross-hairs for retribution. That’s not really First Reformed at all. First off, it’s the slowest of slow burns. You better be prepared to luxuriate in the day-to-day details of Rev. Toller’s simple life, from unclogging toilets to visiting with parishioners in their homes and having long philosophical conversations with them about faith and man’s role in the ecosystem. That conversation specifically teeters toward ten minutes and serves as the end of Act One, and I think if you’re still invested by then, you’ll be along for the rest of the film. However, it’s not going to be an easily accessible movie. This conversation stirs something deeper inside Toller, dissatisfaction with the church and how it coddles with big business, the chief polluters of God’s kingdom. Toller becomes a late-in-life environmental activist who questions the stewardship of the church body. This sets him on a path that seems destined for bloody violence. He’s going to go out in a fury of righteousness. We’re expecting a big bang by the end, especially given Schrader’s history of these kinds of stories with these kinds of men. But that doesn’t happen.

I’ll try and avoid spoilers but discussion over the thematic relevance of the end of First Reformed will unavoidably suggest to the reader some significant plot developments, so please feel free to read this paragraph or skip to the next one. The second half of the movie is setting you up for a very specific ending, one where Toller strikes back against forces he feels are detrimental to the well being of the church. It’s setting you up for a climactic showdown with powerful forces that feel unaccountable for their actions. I was ready for a final rush of violence to serve as the crescendo to Schrader’s slow burn. This is where the movie swerves away from audience expectations. We’re prepared for a meaningful death but instead Schrader’s ending, in retrospect, makes us question why we should have desired such a violent and vengeful finale. Why should this character be a martyr for our bloodlust against the powerful? Ultimately, Schrader’s movie ends on a romantic, optimistic note of personal salvation after setting you up for a dark story with a predetermined, self-destructive end. The abruptness of the ending may inspire some titters, but when you look back at the film, it makes complete sense and calls into question why we would wish for blood and violence over human connection and forgiveness. Schrader is saying that you wanted the wrong kind of movie.

First Reformed takes the modest aims of its protagonist to heart when it comes to the presentation of its story. Schrader films the entire movie in the old-fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio, the square box of old pre-high definition televisions. It’s an aspect ratio that keeps everything centered for the audience and on display. I think there was exactly four camera movements in the entire movie; almost the entirely of the 113 minutes is from a stationary, documentary-styled camera. It’s a very specific visual style that limits the visual information and dynamism but manages to personalize the main character even more. It’s his movie and his journey of self, so the visual representation is also restrained. There’s really one flash of upsetting violence in the whole movie, as if to remind the audience how a violent death is not something to be celebrated. For an R-rated Paul Schrader movie, it’s far more reserved, subtle, and thoughtful. It left me thinking about Rev. Toller and his messianic mission and our desire for a big bloody finish. The idea of a selfless death directed toward violent retribution is inherently self-involved. It’s not death that provides meaning but life, it’s not how we end but what we do with the days beforehand.

You Were Never Really Here is built as a hitman thriller based on Jonathan Ames’ novel. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a hired gun who specializes in rescuing young women. He’s hired to find the missing adolescent daughter of a senatorial candidate. He investigates the underbelly of sex trafficking to save this little girl, but larger forces are at play and will make Joe suffer gravely for interfering with their wanton exploitation.

The average audience for You Were Never Really Here has been steadily fed a diet of these kinds of movies, from the artful (Luc Besson’s The Professional), to the pulpy (The Long Kiss Goodnight), to any number of hollow, nihilistic video game-styled murder fantasies (Hitman, a thousand straight-to-DVD movies). We’re expecting men of action who are ruthlessly efficient and clever when it comes to their killing. We’re expecting stylish merchants of death who leave behind a heavy body count with swagger. That’s not what brilliant Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin) has in mind at all. She takes the iconography of the hitman thriller and turns it into an expectation-smashing existential character study, but not just of its disturbed main character but also for the audience and our relationship to these movies. We expect remorseless killing machines that turn death into splashy and cool tableaus. These movies aren’t so much key on mediation and reflection, beyond the standard “reap what you sow” adage.

Much of the violence is kept off screen or purposely denied to the audience. I’m trying to remember if we even see Joe kill anyone on screen. The infiltration of the sex trafficking organization hops between fixed security angles, edited together in a dissonant manner, where the last shot doesn’t fully line up for a smooth edit, leaving a half second. The effect is one that’s knowingly alienating and challenging. When Joe does unleash his violent skills, it’s rarely given a showcase for entertainment. This is a movie that doesn’t celebrate its violence. There’s a moment where Joe lies on the ground beside a mortally wounded bad guy. They exchange a few cordial words, he procures some vital information, but then Joe stays with the man and the two sing a song together. It sounds bizarre when written out but it’s a moment that really stuck with me. After everything, these two men can find a small sliver of humanity between them to share. Even the final confrontation, the big climactic set piece of any other movie, ends with a shoulder shrug, as if Ramsay is saying to the audience, “Why would seeing all that be cathartic?”

For Ramsay, the focus of the movie is on the man committing the acts of violence rather than how stylish and cool and cinematic those acts of violence can be. This is the one area where I feel a longer running time could have better helped her goal. I think Ramsay might be the best filmmaker we have for triptych narratives. 2011’s We Need to Talk About Kevin is a startling and insightful movie that opens up the guilt of a woman whose son grew up very badly, jumping around time periods, using a repetition of images to provide visual stings and associations. You Were Never Really Here does similar labor, establishing our strong silent protagonist through glimpses of a troubled past, from a childhood with an abusive father and a mother he would have to save, to incidents during military service and police investigations that reminded Joe about the depravity of others, in particular the ability to exploit and dehumanize women as disposable property. Ramsay offers discorded images and brief flashes and asks the audience to put together the pieces to better understand Joe as a man propelled and haunted by his bloody past. However, at a slim 89 minutes, the audience could have used more time and opportunity to better develop and analyze this central character. The pieces are tantalizing but I wanted more, and as a result I found Joe to be an interesting start to a character that was in need of more time and attention to transcend the boundaries of his archetype. I needed a little more from him and his world.

There are several moments that quickly come to my memory, sticking with me because of the level of artistic arrangement or implication. Because Ramsay wants to take the Hollywood hitman revenge thriller and deconstruct it and provoke her audience and its desires for violence, there isn’t much of a plot to this movie. I could literally spoil the whole thing with the following sentence: a man of violence is hired to find a missing girl, finds her, loses her, and finds her again at great personal expense. The movie is more of a poignant and intriguing exercise in our relationship to these kinds of stories. There are moments of beauty in the movie that took my breath away, like when Joe lowers a wrapped body into the depths of a lake, and with the shafts of light, the curls of hair, the small visual details, it felt like watching a living baroque painting. There are also several bizarre moments that stand out, like when Joe fantasizes about blowing his brains out at a diner while the patrons, and the blood-soaked waitress, go about their day. It’s these little flourishes that make the movie stand above other hitman movie deconstruction exercises like George Clooney’s overly solemn The American. It’s not all tragedy and inescapable dread. Amidst Joe’s tortured past and troubled future, there’s a necessary sense of hope. You don’t know what will happen next but you’re not resigned to retrograde nihilism.

Both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here are slow burn indie character studies that ask their audience to question the movies they’ve been set up for. Schrader and Ramsay are deft storytellers who pair their visual gifts to the psyches of their damaged, haunted, and self-destructive middle-aged men. Hawke is phenomenal as Rev. Toller and Phoenix is suitably unsettled from a life of confronting predatory violence. Both movies have also stayed with me, though First Reformed I find to be the better developed, better executed, better acted of the two films. It’s enough of a comeback for Schrader, whose last film I remember seeing was the laughably bad Lindsay Lohan “erotic thriller” The Canyons. These are two movies that aren’t exactly the most accessible. Both challenge the audience to analyze the personal relationships with genre storytelling. If you have patience and an open mind, both First Reformed and You Were Never Really Here provide thoughtful and methodical examinations on genre, violence, and the visceral appeal of empty bloodshed.

Nate’s Grades:

First Reformed: A-

You Were Never Really Here: B

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Humpday (2009)

1061Originally written December 31, 2009

There’s a definite squeamishness out there when it comes to the idea of men expressing intimacy. Brokeback Mountain proved even liberal Hollywood wasn’t ready to anoint a movie about two gay dudes secretly getting it on. There will be large portions of people that will refuse to give a movie like Humpday a chance simply because of its premise: two guys plotting to have sex. It’s not a dirty movie by any means, nor does it get graphic with details or conversations. But the movie exactingly explores the uncomfortable relationships men have with expressions of romance. Humpday is also extremely funny in that pained, awkward sensibility, and I challenge the squeamish to give this charming indie a shot at love. If it makes it any easier to watch (SPOILER ALERT) they don’t actually go through with it.

Ben (Mark Duplass) is living a comfortable existence with his wife, Anna (Alycia Delmore). Then one day his old friend from college, Andrew (Joshua Leonard), unexpectedly visits. Andrew has lived a Kerouac-like existence on the road as an aspiring artist. The two guys catch up on old times and Andrew invites Ben over to a party. He ditches his wife, and her pork chops, for the party, which turns out to be hosted by a group of free-love artists. The alcohol-fueled conversation lands on “Humpfest,” the annual amateur pornography festival held in Seattle. Ben and Andrew come up with their own entry idea: two straight guys that will have sex. “That’s beyond gay,” somebody says. Both men refuse to back down. Ben books a hotel room. The only thing he has to do now is tell his wife about Andrew’s “art project.”

humpday2Humpday explodes male sexual insecurities better than any film since 1997’s Chasing Amy. Each man refuses to back out of having gay sex because they don’t want to be seen as less masculine. It’s masculinity brinksmanship, willing to go all the way to prove superior heterosexuality through a homosexual act, and it’s nothing short of brilliant. Neither Ben nor Andrew wants to “puss out” on their big moment. But neither of them really wants to go through with it either, which leads toward tremendous amounts of awkward comedy. Writer/director Lynn Shelton has fashioned a scenario that is hilarious but also subtlety heartfelt; many films deal with the “bromance” of heterosexual love, but Shelton pushes it to the limit. These two guys do care about each other, and you can see their camaraderie as they recount old stories and open up to one another, and in the end they might be willing to go to the extremes for their friendship, whatever the consequences may be.

Both Ben and Andrew have deep-seated insecurities about their personal lives; Andrew wants to live a free-spirited artistic lifestyle but is really too scared to fully commit, and too “square” for abandoning all sexual inhibitions like some of his casual artsy pals; Ben has a house, a job, a wife, and feels defensive about his life choices, particularly the idea that he’s settled down and giving up. Both men are also insecure by sexually adept women, so it may be natural that they seek the company of each other for solace and mutual understanding. The final act, where the two friends meet in a hotel room for their big night, is a slice of awkward comedy heaven. They haven’t worked out any logistics, locations, warm-ups, anything, and watching them verbally hatch a game plan is hilarious and oddly touching in equal doses. They really don’t know what they’re doing and why they’re there.

The actors have a naturalistic feel because, as I’ve found, the dialogue was almost entirely improvised. They shot in chronological order so to build from conversation to conversation, and you can feel the character dynamics strengthen and deepen. Duplass (The Puffy Chair) has a great, wide fake smile that hides a lot of anger and dissatisfaction. He’s sort of a schluby everyman that we can empathize with even as he moves forward with his participation in the “art film.” Leonard (The Blair Witch Project), and his scraggly beard, effectively conveys a man weary about where his rugged life has led him. He is also hiding behind a guise, the guise of being a nonconformist that chooses to have no earthly ties, but bit-by-bit you see that Andrew is tired of disposable human connections. Leonard and Duplass feel like life-long friends. Then there’s Delmore, who really is the wary, incredulous voice of the audience. She too comes across as realistic under the circumstances, and her reaction when she discovers the true purpose of the “art project” is volatile, yes, but also surprisingly reflective. The three leads never feel like actors; the illusion that these are real people is never broken even given the peculiar circumstances of the premise.

2009_humpday_001What I really appreciated about Humpday is that every moment feels genuine and every scene has a point. I was amazed that Shelton and her small unit of actors had made it so that every conversation had purpose; there is so little fat to this screenplay. Each scene reveals something new about a character or pushes the narrative forward toward its uncomfortable climax, and each moment never breaks the reality of the story. Given these characters and the amiable direction they follow, Humpday is believable. I suppose it might be easy to dismiss it as another entry in the fly-on-the-wall “mumblecore” film series gaining traction in independent cinema, but Humpday is really more an observational character study that examines male relationships and the sexual politics of being a “man’s man” in today’s world of sexual liberation. There is a nuanced perspective on human sexuality here that I may be erroneously crediting to Shelton simply because she is a woman. It helps to have a more mature, open-minded perspective about the complexities of human behavior for this story to succeed, and I think a female presence behind the camera affords that luxury. There is commentary below the surface; however, Humpday can be entirely enjoyed as a surface-level comedy of an awkward heterosexual showdown.

I find it interesting that the original theatrical poster only featured the two shirtless guys eyeing each other, and with a pink background no less. The DVD cover has inserted Anna between the two guys and gone with the more boy-friendly blue background cover. I think this tiny detail is another reflection of just how uncomfortable the subject matter is for many people. Humpday is an insightful, perceptive little character study that feels real and honest, while at the same time the movie doesn’t allow sexual politics to become the headline. The movie remembers to be funny, often, and any discomfort is worth it.

Nate’s Grade: A

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The Invisible War (2012)

Originally written August 25, 2012

Kirby Dick is a documentary filmmaker known for picking fights with powerful institutions that operate in secrecy. In the Oscar-nominated Twist of Faith, he scrutinized the abuses of the Catholic Church covering up for sexual predators.  In 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, he hunted down the then-unknown members of the MPAA ratings board and delivered an overwhelming critique of their ratings hypocrisies. With The Invisible War, Dick has taken on a subject that’s even more powerful. The Invisible War, which won some awards at the Sundance film festival, examines the rampant numbers of sexual assaults and rape within the military. Through extensive, emotionally draining interviews and enraging statistics, Dick shows that most of the victims, when courageous enough to report their abuse, are met with skepticism, contempt, and injustice. One interview subject says that being raped isn’t what makes her angry the most: “It’s the commanders that were complicit in covering up everything that happened.” This is a shocking, sobering, and eye-opening documentary that deserves to be seen by every American. You owe it to the brave men and women who serve this country, to see this movie. The ugly truth needs to come out and be finally dealt with.

The upsetting statistics of sexual abuse within the military come from the Department of Defense, not an advocacy group, but our own government. Here are some of the most devastating stats:

-20 percent of all women in the military have been sexually assaulted and/or raped while serving.

-Women are twice as likely to be raped in the military rather than outside it.

-Military sexual assault/rape victims have a higher rate of PTSD than soldiers who have fought in combat.

This is a profoundly revolting, morally repugnant, and infuriating story presented with damning testimonials clear-eyed logic. When I left the theater, I was radiating unquenchable fury. You could have harnessed my rage as an alternative resource. A lot of people blithely say they support the troops but we as a nation are letting these brave men and women down. The system is letting these people down, protecting rapists, training them to be better rapists, and then setting them loose upon the civilian population to continue their heinous crimes (it’s estimated the average sexual predator commits 300 acts in his or her lifetime). Listening to these heartbreaking stories can be grueling, but it is vital to listen. The women speak with such candor and bravery, befitting those ready to lay down their lives out of service for this country. But lest you believe this is merely a “women’s issue,” the film has a few interviews with male victims as well. With men outnumbering women six to one in the military, men are the majority of the victims of sexual abuse, a fact I doubt many would have known. As the experts attest, for an organization that rewards machismo, the shame for men can be compounded by the rampant homophobia within the American military culture.

It’s sadly understandable that so many of the interview subjects contemplated or attempted suicide. “Suicide or AWOL, those are your only two real options,” a military investigator laments. According to TIME’s investigative report, one Iraq and/or Afghanistan veteran commits suicide every day in America. Now remember that stat above concerning PTSD, and think about what the suicide rate must be like for victims of sexual abuse. One military man, husband to a rape victim, breaks down in sobs recounting his phone call for help while he tried to stop his wife from taking her own life. Watching proud, grown men break down into tears when they try and make sense of their institution harming their wives or daughters, it’s heartbreaking all its own. These veterans would not advise any woman to consider a career in the military, not when this is the sorry state of justice.

These victims were often handled with apathetic, callous, or downright hostile behavior, often being blamed for being attacked. These victims risked their careers to report their abuses, expecting some semblance of justice, and many times they were simply ignored or punished for “making waves.” One interview subject talks about how her commanding officer related that he had heard about three rape accusations that week and incredulously asked if the women were all in cahoots. One woman was raped and then charged with adultery; she wasn’t married but her rapist was, though he was never brought up on charges. Dick’s documentary lays a clear argument that giving the commanding officers, people often without any legal training whatsoever, the power to prosecute cases leads to plenty of ignored abuses. In 2010, the military reported 3,158 reports of sexual abuse (remember that 80 percent of cases generally go unreported), but only one-sixth of those cases lead to a court martial and only 175 of the assailants served jail time. And when they do serve jail time, it’s often knocked down to mere weeks. That way, the convicted serviceman doesn’t get charged with a felony. This also means when they leave the military, the convicted sexual offender does not have to register with a national sex offender database. When investigations do arise, they are routinely stonewalled.

What emerges from this inflammatory documentary is that the command’s response wasn’t to protect the victims but to protect the accused, time and again. These commanders are supposed to be objective and impartial arbitrators, but this is hardly the case. It’s all about saving face, and a commander looks bad when he has a rapist in his unit, so rather than expel and punish the rapist, the military often drops the case and punishes the victim. Sometimes the commanding officer the victims are supposed to report the abuse to was in fact the perpetrator.  In those instances, the victims have no possible path to justice. Major General Mary Kay Kellogg, Director of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (DOSAPRO), said victims could appeal to the Defense Department’s Attorney General, hence going over their commander’s head. Except that of the almost 3,000 cases sent to the DOD AG, not a single case was ever prosecuted. Kellogg also absurdly suggests that victims petition their Congressman. Just imagine a civilian being raped and told, “Better ask your Congressman if you want justice.”

The response to the systemic abuses has been ineffectual. The military response was to raise awareness, not sift out rapists from the ranks and protect their own soldiers from sexual predators. The ad campaign to raise awareness is jaw-dropping, with slogans like, “Wait til she’s sober,” and a horrendously ear-splitting rap song about sexual assault prevention. It’s so bad you can almost feel the seething resentment of the military. There’s also an informative video with a dramatization of a woman, fleeing helplessly after a man tries to touch her (the fact that this dramatization makes the woman look silly is intentional, me thinks). This woman runs into another serviceman who admonishes her, “Where’s your buddy?” The implication is that women should know that they can be raped at any time unless accompanied by a buddy. Does this not imply that every man in the military is capable of rape at the drop of a hat? And what if that buddy ends up being your rapist? The military builds a greater sense of camaraderie, and the men and women in uniform feel like a family. As one interview subject notes, when one soldier rapes another, it is akin to a crime of incest, a betrayal of that family. One victim was told she brought on the sexual harassment because of what she was wearing… which just happened to be her military uniform.

Dick’s film is obviously advocating a very specific side, but who cares about the idea of presenting balance given the subject? The Department of Defense spokespersons and their rote, officious responses are edited for some major points of baffled, incredulous laughter, as we contrast their company line with the testimonials of the men and women they failed to protect. Again, I return to the notion that not every story has two sides. What exactly is the other side in this epidemic of abuses? What possibly could the merits of the other side be, the status quo? This is not just some anti-military screed. In fact, many of the participants speak so highly of the ideals of the military, the duty to serve, and their genuine feelings of belonging to these hallowed institutions. This makes their disillusionment all the more distressing. Almost every interview subject has a military background, some discharged and some retired, and the movie presents its claims with clear, level evidence. The testimonials are so damming, the abuses so clearly documented, the obfuscation from justice so repeatedly maintained, that I cannot even fathom a second side to this story. When it comes to sexual assault, there is only one side to this issue.

Dick also doesn’t overplay the obvious emotional appeals in the film. There is plenty, but he doesn’t sensationalize the drama or amplify the emotions in a self-serving manner. Instead, the film looks to clearly examine a systematic problem. Rather than deal only with potent outrage, Dick’s film is also a call to action with some strong ideas on how to better protect the victims of sexual abuses. Set up an independent system of justice outside of the commanders’ control, and work on preventing rapists from joining the military rather than cutting down the possibilities of how women can be raped. How about we punish the guilty party?

Last year, a group of veterans who had been sexually abused, initiated a class-action lawsuit against the military. This suit was dismissed by the court because, in their words, rape was an “occupational hazard of military service.” Reread that sentence again. Let it sink in. Now ask yourself is that at all acceptable given the values we profess for our country? The culture within the military is simply that rape and sexual abuses are just not that big of a deal (a Congresswoman admits that the Defense AG told her they have “other, higher priorities” to worry about), and so it all continues. The implication is that for the military to function, you’re going to have to excuse some excess, that excess being an estimated 30,000 sexual assaults a year. I’d like the military brass to explain to me what number would be unacceptable. How prevalent do these abuses need to be before proper action is taken, and not some facile PR, face-saving empty gesture, but something real? To me, one rape is one too many.

Dick’s excoriating advocacy documentary is powerful, furious, but sensitive to the victims and their horrifying ordeals. It declares that we can and should do better. In April, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta watched The Invisible War and two days later made some changes. He took the decision to prosecute away from the commanders. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go to fixing the military’s patronizing view of women. The movie opens with a series of advertisements targeted at women through the years, and the treatment is astoundingly patronizing and the film’s only spot of bleak humor. At one point, one of the victims asks if she and her fellow victims hypothetically deserve purple hearts for being wounded in battle too. “We’re never going to get anything,” another replies. These victims deserve recognition and justice, which has long been denied them. You won’t see a more challenging, infuriating, and compelling documentary of this year. It’s hard to watch at many points, and I cried at five separate occasions, but this is a movie that needs to be watched. I invite all readers to visit the Not Invisible site and consider joining the advocacy of this noble cause. You say you support the troops? Prove it.

Nate’s Grade: A

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Margaret (2011)

1731Originally written August 11, 2012

The behind-the-scenes story of Margaret could make for a compelling feature all its own. It began filming in 2005. Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan had spent two years on the script. It was the follow-up to his Oscar-nominated 2000 film, You Can Count on Me. The only requirement was that Lonergan turn in a cut of the movie that was under 150 minutes. His first cut was three hours. The producers paid their own editor to chop the film down to two hours. Then came the flurry of lawsuits and countersuits between the producers and Lonergan. No less a cinematic statesman than Martin Scorsese was asked to take a look at the movie and edit it down to 150 minutes (Lonergan labored on the script for Gangs of New York). Several protracted years later, Fox Searchlight dumped the 150-minute Scorsese cut in a handful of theaters. Then a funny thing happened. The rare critics who got a chance to see Margaret flipped for it. Lonergan’s initial three-hour cut is now available on Blu-ray. It’s a happier ending than any of the participants might have imagined only a couple years ago. I’ve been eager to see Margaret for myself, to see if all these arty critics were being a bit overzealous in their praise. Days later, I can’t get it out of my head and I’m sure others would suffer the same wonderful affliction.

Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) is a privileged New York City teenager who usually gets what she wants. She’s on the hunt for a cowboy hat when she spots a bus driver (Mark Ruffalo) with one. She runs alongside the bus, trying to ask him about the hat. It’s just enough to distract the driver. He runs a red light and plows into a pedestrian, Monica Patterson (Allison Janney). As a crowd forms and help is called for, Lisa holds the broken woman during her final, hellish moments. Afterwards, she lies to the police to protect the driver. The guilt eats away at her. She lashes out, she hurts others, she butts heads with her stage actress mother (J. Smith-Cameron), and she’s looking for anything to cope. Eventually Lisa decides to come clean and seek justice but it just might be too late.

margaret-04062012Margaret is a messy, imperfect film, over-indulgent and cluttered, but man does it stick with you. It sits in your stomach. You can’t shake it. You just keep thinking back on it. And after a while, the flaws itself start to transform into virtues themselves. The film is messy and all over the place but my God does it excel at recreating, in startling spasms of uncontrollable emotion, the life of an American teenager. There is no off switch when it comes to emotions, and when you’re young everything seems like the end of the world. Like Lisa, you alternate between self-involvement and idealism, and you haven’t hardened to the way the world works just yet. The movie, thematically, latches onto the same wavelength as its heroine. Lisa is a flawed creature, deeply hurting and trying to come to terms with her own responsibility and guilt for the accident. It just so happens that she makes mistakes trying to deal with that pain, and innocent people get hurt, and people we once thought were noble reveal their own impulses and vulnerabilities. Whether she’s sympathetic as a protagonist doesn’t matter, though even when she hurt others I never found her less than fascinating. She feels everything so intensely, and those intense feelings bleed into other areas of her life. She can be woefully self-involved and callous at times, but she can also be self-possessed and fearless in a moral quagmire. At one point, a character argues that teenagers would govern better than adults because teens are still idealistic and proactive, even if their actions are dismissed as naive. Lisa wants to find justice in the world somehow, so she can make sense of this random tragedy. She still clings to the belief, even as the film becomes a messy legal battle (one of its many genres Lonergan dabbled in).

There are plenty of storylines and themes and messages that Lonergan wishes to weave into a seamless patchwork version of our intolerable, detached, self-involved culture. The film is something of a time capsule, way back in 2005, and the post-9/11 anxieties and civil insecurity is also dealt with in interesting ways. Lisa’s social studies class repeatedly descends into shouting matches, debates that reduce the opposition in the simplest terms. After a while, all we’re doing is trying to out-shout the other and no one is listening anymore. Lisa comments that our culture feels so disconnected and that people have stopped relating to one another. Of course his also extends to her as well, as she confuses her feelings and those around her. The mother-daughter dynamics are a fascinating character insight and one of the better onscreen relationships I’ve seen in years. You can clearly see where Lisa gets some of her showboat tendencies. Both mother and daughter have stopped being able to relate to one another, and Lisa, can wield sarcasm like a weapon, as teenagers are wont to do to their parents. Mom is dating a man she doesn’t particularly connect with, and yet she enjoys the company and the desire to be wanted. Is that enough to fulfill her gnawing sense of loneliness? Lisa’s father is the type to run from conflict, and yet the man is just as self-absorbed and hurtful as anyone else in the film. Except he’s an adult and, theoretically, should know better. In that regard, the movie reminds me of the excellent Little Children; this is a movie of mitigated personal responsibility from people of all ages. If this is the way the world works, then why not give teenagers a chance?

82782_galThe opera is a reoccurring motif for the film, and it’s a strong artistic association for the film because Lonergan sort of gives his characters arias with which to work. The emotions are sent to overdrive, the arguments are full-blast, and the dialogue lands in that articulate, hyper-verbal territory but isn’t self-consciously snappy. It’s had to quantify but it’s dialogue that’s painful and revealing and, while beautifully crafted, can come across as genuine. The entire movie is the same way. This is a drama where, in Spinal Tap terms, the emotions go to eleven. It’s a big bleeding heart of a movie, but it’s not corny or maudlin or mawkish or TV movie sentimental. It’s fearlessly emotional and takes you on a journey with many stops. You’ll likely be horrified, thrilled, precarious, elated, angry, saddened, and frustrated.

It may be best described as a series of potent, powerful scenes rather than a traditional screenplay with a clear through line. The most memorable scene also happens to be the one that sets everything in motion – the accident. It is horrific and awful in ways that movies rarely deal with. The first image we see is a leg pinned under the bus. Oh no, we think. But then the camera continues to pan down and we see… the rest of her in a heap. Oh no, we say to ourselves again, even more aghast. We’re there for the harsh reality, the sad realization of Monica that she’s going to die (“Are my eyes open? I can’t see…”), and the shock and confusion of the situation. There’s blood shooting everywhere, no sign of help, and the woman is fading away, confusing Lisa with her deceased daughter of the same name. Lonergan makes us stay in this traumatic scene for a long time, an uncomfortable amount of time, enough that the horrible incident is burned into our memory as well, and when Lisa crusades for justice or looks for some physical or emotional escape from the trauma, we know why. It’s one of those one-scene marvels, a byproduct of near-perfection on every technical level.

This is pre-True Blood Paquin and boy does she deliver when it comes to the dramatic feats of her character. She’s convincing as a coy, too smart for her own good teenager, she’s devastating as a lost, dour soul lashing out at the world, looking for anything to ease the pain, and even when she stumbles, she’s fascinating. Paquin goes through a variety of moods to suit the variety of tones and storylines for the film, and her performance never falters. I’m amazed at how fast she can spit out the verbiage, while crying her eyes out, and all without gasping for breath. She’s nothing short of amazing.

margaretThe rest of the movie is filled with recognizable actors in small parts, from Matt Damon (The Adjustment Bureau) as a nice guy math teacher with his own weakness, Matthew Broderick (Election) as a pompous English teacher, Jean Reno (Couples Retreat) as the off kilter suitor to Lisa’s mother, Kieran Culkin (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as the bad boy druggie who deflowers Lisa, John Gallagher Jr. (TV’s The Newsroom) as the nice guy with the unrequited crush on Lisa, Rosemarie Dewitt (The Watch) as the bus driver’s wife, Lonergan himself as Lisa’s neglectful father, and the triumphant return to screen of Jeannie Berlin (The Heartbreak Kid) who hasn’t appeared in a movie since 1990. Berlin has the juiciest part as Monica’s closest friend and eventual confidant for Lisa. She takes on Lisa’s mission for justice, but she’s still wary of Lisa and her hyperbolic nature. She accuses Lisa of making up a garish detail (the Lisa name confusion in Monica’s last moments): “This isn’t an opera! And we are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life!”

The title of the film comes from a poem called “Spring and Fall” by Gerard Manley Hopkins addressed to a grieving subject named Margret: “Ah! as the heart grows older/ it will come to such sights colder/… /It is the blight man was born for/ It is Margaret you mourn for.” When you come down to it, Lonergan’s film is about the awareness of mortality, the shock of death, the realization of the end, and our pitiful attempts to turn off the feelings more fully felt. Adults, Lonergan argues, have become hardened to the world to the frailty of life, and you question if that hardening, a natural process, is a good thing. Perhaps the dubious claim that teenagers should take a chance running the world is not without some sliver of merit. Margaret is a movie that’s hard to pin down; there’s so much going on, not all of it fully realized or satisfying I freely confess, but it’s a thrill to witness an artistic vision that’s bursting with things to say, so many things that life cannot contain them all. The 150-minute running time will be a stumbling block for some, but honestly I never felt the film drag like I do most Hollywood action thrillers of that length. When you step away, and take the film’s messiness into context, then Margaret stops being an ambitious but erratic artistic miscue and starts coalescing into something bolder, richer, and thought provoking. It took a long strange journey to get here, but Margaret is a movie that deserves to be savored and debated.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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mother! (2017)

Originally written September 17, 2017

Now I know why there weren’t any promotional screenings for mother! in the lead-up to its national release. Director Darren Aronofsky’s highly secretive movie starring Oscar-winners Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem was marketed as a horror thriller, a claim that is generous at best and dishonest at worst. This is not Rosemary’s Baby by a long shot. It’s a highly personal, livid, and visually audacious think piece on mankind, so it’s no surprise that general audiences have hated it and graded it with the rare F rating on Cinemascore (a shaky artistic metric, granted, but still a dubious honor). Aronofsky is a polarizing filmmaker who routinely makes polarizing works of art, so the stupefied outrage is not surprising. mother! is a challenging film that demands your attention and deconstruction afterwards. It’s not a passive movie going experience. I’m still turning things over in my brain, finding new links and symbols. mother! isn’t for everyone or even many. It requires you to give into it and accept it on its own terms. If you can achieve that, I think there is enough to be gained through the overall experience.

Lawrence and Bardem are husband and wife living out in the country. He’s a poet going through serious writer’s block and she’s remodeling the house in anticipation of a future family. One day a stranger (Ed Harris) comes by looking for a place to stay, and Bardem invites him into his home. The stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) soon follows, looking for her husband. These uninvited guests awkwardly make themselves at home, testing Lawrence’s politeness and the bonds of her marriage. More and more strangers follow, flocking to Bardem and the home, and their unpleasantness only grows, pushing Lawrence into further states of agitation, desperation, and shock.

The first thing you need to know before sitting down to watch mother!is that it is one hundred percent metaphorical. Nothing on screen has a sole literal intention. The movie is clearly Aronofsky’s statement about mankind’s harmful tendencies, as well as a larger potential indictment, but this is a movie that exclusively traffics in metaphor. Accepting that early will make for a much better viewing experience. It took a solid thirty minutes for me to key into the central allegory, and once I understood that lens the movie became much more interesting (this was also the time that more unexpected visitors began complicating matters). I was taking every new piece of information from the mundane to the bizarre and looking to see how it fit into the larger picture. I would genuinely recommend understanding what the central allegory may be before watching the film. Looking back, I can appreciate the slower buildup that, at the time, felt a bit like an aimless slog awaiting some sense of momentum. Even the significant age difference between Bardem and Lawrence is addressed and has a purpose. mother! is the kind of movie that gets tarred with the title of “pretentious,” and yeah, it is, because if you’re devoting an entire two-hour movie to metaphor, then you’re going to have to be a little pretentious. Terrence Malick movies feel like obtuse, pedantic navel-gazing, whereas mother! felt like a startling artistic statement that had a legitimate point and was barreling toward it with ferocity. It invited me to decode it while in action, keeping me actively alert.

When dealing in the realm of metaphor, much is dependent upon the execution of the filmmaker, and Aronofsky is one of the best at executing a very specific vision. Black Swan and Requiem for a Dream are both excellent examples of Aronofsky putting the viewer in the distressed mental space of the characters, utilizing every component of filmmaking to better communicate the interior downward spiral. With mother!, Aronofsky attaches his camera to Jennifer Lawrence for the entire movie; we are always circling her or facing her in close-ups, always in her orbit. She is our tether. When she walks out of a room, we follow, trying to listen to the conversations going on without us. When the revelers and mourners show up, we experience the same confusion and irritation as her. The film builds in intensity as it careens toward its hallucinatory final act. It’s here where Aronofsky unleashes his targeted condemnation with extreme vigor. It’s one confusing moment cascading upon another, strange images that ripple like a nightmare. There are some pretty upsetting and offensive acts meant to provoke outrage, and Lawrence is always the recipient of much of that cruelty. Like a Lars von Trier film, Lawrence plays a heroine whose suffering serves as the film’s thematic underpinning. Aronofsky’s commitment to his vision is complete. He doesn’t leave anything behind.

Existing as a highly metaphorical work of art, there are numerous personal interpretations that can be had from mother! although, even with that said, one interpretation seems very obvious (spoilers to follow). This is first and foremost a Biblical allegory with Bardem portraying God and with Lawrence as Mother Earth. They live by themselves in tranquility but God is bored and unable to find solace. That’s when Ed Harris (Adam) and then Michelle Pfeiffer (Eve) show up, and all of God’s attention is soaked up with these new people, who bring their warring sons (Cain and Abel) and then more and more strangers. The people won’t listen to Mother Earth’s requests and warnings, and after trashing her home and breaking a sink that causes an explosion of water (Aronofsky Noah meta reference?), she and God kick them all out. She says afterwards, “I’ll get started on the apocalypse.” It’s Aronofsky’s retelling of humanity’s existence from a Biblical perspective up until the fiery, vengeful end. From here there are all sorts of other symbols, from Jesus and the Last Supper, to the spread of the Gospels, and the corruption of God’s Word and the subsequent cruelty of humanity. These newcomers are selfish, self-destructive, ignorant, and pervert the poet’s message in different ways, caging women into sex slavery, brutally executing divided factions, all while God cannot help but soak up their fawning adulation. God finally admits that Mother Earth just wasn’t enough for him, like a spouse coming to terms with her husband’s philandering. He’s an artist that needs an audience of needy worshipers to feel personally fulfilled. Ultimately it all ends in fire and ash and a circular return to the dawn of creation. For viewers not casually versed in Biblical stories, the film will seem like an unchecked, unholy mess.

This is going to be a very divisive movie that will enrage likely far more viewers than entice, and this result is baked into Aronofsky’s approach from the start. Working in the realm of allegory doesn’t mean the surface-level story has to be bereft of depth (Animal Farm, The Crucible, and Life of Pi are proof of that). However, Aronofsky’s story just feels pretty uninviting on the surface, lacking stronger characterization because they are chiefly symbols rather than people. There are recognizable human behaviors and emotions but these are not intended to be recognizable people. This limits the creative heights of the film because the surface isn’t given the same consideration as the metaphor. If you don’t connect with the larger metaphor and its commentary, then you’re going to be bored silly or overpowered by artistic indulgences. Everything is, ironically, a bit too literal-minded with its use of metaphor. The movie’s cosmic perspective is, to put it mildly, very bleak. It can be very grueling to watch abuse after abuse hurled upon Lawrence, so it doesn’t make for the most traditionally fun watch.

mother! is a movie that is impossible to have a lukewarm reaction to. This is a shock to the system. Aronofsky’s wild cry into the dark is a scorching cultural critique, a condemnation on the perils of celebrity and mob mentality, and a clear religious allegory that posits mankind as a swarm of self-destructive looters that are as ruinous as any swarm of Old Testament locusts. It’s an ecological wake up call and a feminist horror story. It’s an artistic cleave to the system that’s meant to disrupt and inspire debate and discussion. This is going to be a movie that affects a multitude of people in different ways, but I feel confident in saying that fewer will connect with it and its dire message. Motherhood is viewed as martyrdom, and Pfeiffer’s character sums it up best: “You give and you give and you give, and it’s just never enough.” It’s about dealing with one-sided, usury relationships, surrendering to the insatiable hunger of others who are without appreciation or introspection. It’s not a horror movie like It about scary clowns. It’s a horror movie about how we treat one another and the planet. Aronofsky can confound just as easily as he can exhilarate. mother! is a provocative, invigorating, enraging, stimulating, and layered film that demands to be experienced and thoroughly digested.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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The Myth of the American Sleepover (2011)

1718Originally written January 6, 2012

The curiously titled Myth of the American Sleepover owes as much to American Graffiti as it does to the works of John Hughes. This sprawling teenage opus by debut writer/director David Robert Mitchell resonates with all the beautiful aches and joys of adolescence, wonderfully understated but brilliantly realized. I fell in love with this movie.

Set over the course of one night in suburban Michigan, a slew of teenagers try and make the waning summer days worth remembering. Claudia (Amanda Bauer) is the new girl in school and invited to the cool gal’s (Shayla Curran) slumber party. She learns her boyfriend slept with the cool gal and plots a little boyfriend stealing of her own. Rob (Marlon Morton) is obsessed with a pretty blonde girl he once shared a look with in a supermarket. He is scouring the neighborhood, going from party to party, looking for her so he can reveal his true feelings. Scott (Brett Jacobson) is unsure of whether he wants to finish his final year of college, now the site of a painful breakup from his longtime girlfriend. One day while walking the halls of his former high school, he comes across a picture of him with twin sisters, Ady (Nikita Ramsey) and Anna Abbey (Jade Ramsey). He heads out to the University of Michigan, where the twins are enrolled, convinced he could win one, or both, of them over. Maggie (Claire Sloma) is navigating between the middle school sleepovers of her peers and the world of the cooler upperclassmen. She’s been nursing a crush on an older boy (Douglas Diedrich) who worked at the community pool all summer, and will find the courage to make a move.

The Myth of the American SleepoverUnlike other coming-of-age entries, this is a movie that forgoes scatological comic setups and other Big Events meant to mark the passing into adulthood, like the loss of virginity, college admittance, or the prom; instead, Sleepover tackles a subject much more honestly and with tremendous naturalism. The level of detail is outstanding; set in what seems like the late 80s or early 90s, I was astounded at all the nostalgic artifacts of adolescence brought back to life. I kept going, “Oh yeah, I forgot about those,” or, “That’s totally something that me and my friends did.” I loved that the movie shows different social spheres and age ranges, so we go along with the late teen house party but we also get see a middle school/junior high sleepover that involves girls staying up late, talking about boys, and eating large bowls of chips. Obviously not everyone will have this reaction, but it just shows the commitment to recreating a very specific time, place, and sense of being. These feel entirely like real teenagers, and their troubles and desires are achingly articulated. You feel the powerful sense of yearning throughout, where the nudge of a knee, the closing distance between two hands that can cause your insides to fill up with a thousand butterflies. Sleepover is about teenagers grappling with emotional connection and personal identity, but it never drags out a soapbox or breaks from its verisimilitude. Every single character in this movie, even the ones meant to be seen in a questionable light, is deeply empathetic. Being an ensemble, you’ll gravitate to different characters and their pursuits, but the movie balances a nice mixture of storylines, cutting back and forth to build a graceful picture of the uncertainty of adolescence.

I found this movie to be so charming, so overwhelmingly affecting, and poignant without slipping into mock sentimentality, which would have been easy. It’s been a big year for nostalgia, but nostalgia is the “least authentic of all feelings,” according to Enrique de Heriz. It’s easy to sit back and say, “Oh I remember that too,” and feel the tingle of some wistful pull from the past, the yearning for a bygone time and place that has magically transformed in your mind into some idyllic spree. Does anyone remember those times, before there was an Internet, and cell phones, and social media, when you got together with your friends to witness the shared experience of a movie with female nudity (this might just be a guy thing), or when you didn’t know if you’d see your crush ever again? The Myth of the American Sleepover does, and so do I. In the words of Lou Reed: “I don’t like nostalgia unless it’s mine.”

sj_product_image_65_6_1447_6695Indeed, it seems like the film exists in a bit of a cultural time warp, where sleepovers were the social apex and holding hands and making out were considered victories worth celebrating. There are no computers or cell phones, thank God. If you excuse the casual and extensive teenage drinking, Sleepover is a rather wholesome film. I was wary that some storyline might take an unexpected dark turn, especially with all the alcohol and hormones, but the movie maintains its sweet appeal without fail. While ostensibly existing in a late 80s/early 90s, I believe this movie is timeless and can be felt effortlessly by people of any age. The pains of adolescence and the anxiety of growing up, not to mention the peculiarities of the other sex, are universal. There is a superb scene where Rob and the girl who secretly likes him pass each other accompanied by friends. We get both sides of the story cut together; he tells his bud that one night he kissed her and then they made out. “It was a pretty good day,” he admits. She says she spent all night trying to get him to hold her hand and then just gave up. We instantly know that her side of this tale is far more accurate, but then this small exchange tells us even more about Rob, his fumbling attempt to be seen as cool with girls. Later, this same girl gives Rob a pep talk about unrequited crushes; she wonders if a person thinks hard enough about an individual, if they’ll know. Like most men, Rob misses her real meaning, but I’m happy to say that this story is tied up in such a sweet manner that I got choked up. The emotions of Sleepover are genuine and genuinely felt, no big overtures or outbursts, but the quiet moments of realizing who you are, who you like, and what you are and aren’t willing to compromise. It all feels utterly real and relatable.

The one storyline that seems to stand out amongst the rest of the panoply of sleepovers is that of Scott. He’s a college junior and at least three years outside the social realms of the majority of the other characters. You can’t help but feel at the start that he doesn’t belong and his presence, in a movie primarily about 14-15-year-olds, might feel a tad icky. Scott’s misguided attempt to get over his ex-girlfriend seems like some strange leftover plot from a sitcom. The fact that he’s trying to drown his sorrows in twin sisters almost seems skeevy. However, he comes clean early, and opens up to reveal startling vulnerability, thanking the twins for a memory that would be incidental to them but has meant so much to him. It is this memory that gave him hope. The twins reveal that one of them had a huge crush on Scott back in high school, wishing he would one day reciprocate. But they won’t tell him who. He has to guess. The fact that this setup is actually a push toward personal growth and maturation is a great revelation and a relief.

American-Sleepover-Still-3-550x229The cast of unknowns may be low when it comes to star-wattage but they lend the film another degree of authenticity. I wouldn’t say a single participant in this movie is a bad actor, though their characters are often understated, which under the wrong guidance can lead to blandness. None of these characters are exceptionally verbose or opinionated, which leaves the impression that they are thinly drawn. However, the characters coexist within the impressionistic nature of the film; it’s like a coming-of-age movie with the tone poem ambitions of Terrence Mallick. They are not as memorable or as sharp as the characters from Dazed and Confused and American Graffiti (Rob’s pursuit of his blonde dream girl, and his several near-misses, screams Graffiti homage), but the goal is a disarmingly sweet authenticity, allowing the viewer to discover relatable moments throughout the ensemble. I will say that Sloma imparts the biggest impression as the pieced, platinum pixie-gal feeling out the level of interest in her crush. I think we’ll be seeing more of Bauer and her cherubic, Scarlet Johansson-etched features as well.

The Myth of the American Sleepover is a sincere, observant, insightful, gentle, and overall wonderful little movie, brimming with life and the rocky experiences of growing up, but mostly it will make your heart sing. The details and small gestures feel completely believable; building an ode to youth that feels earnest without being sentimental and knowing without feeling like a know-it-all. There wasn’t a moment in this movie that didn’t leave me smiling, chuckling to myself, and feeling immersed in this innocent, heartfelt, exuberantly youthful world. The pleasures of Sleepover are small but numerous, and I don’t mind admitting to tearing up at several points, shaking in anticipation, and celebrating the personal triumphs of the cast of characters. The Myth of the American Sleepover made me feel like a teenager all over again, nervous, anxious, excited, and beguiled by the imprecise negotiations into adulthood. I’m sure some people will find this movie boring or too embryonic, a coming-of-age tale crystallized in dewy emo-earnestness. For me, I fell in love with this movie. It filled me with joy. I know it will do the same for others; Sleepover just needs a little tenderness and an open heart. The movie and its homespun magic will do the rest.

Nate’s Grade: A

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