A Most Wanted Man

Lawyer, Banker, Drifter, Spy

wantedAnton Corbijn has taken on the task of adapting another John le Carré spy novel, the most recent being Tomas Alfredson’s admirable go at Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.  As with that film (not to mention most of le Carré’s work), A Most Wanted Man feels like a fragment.  Spy narrative, complete with slow burn, introspective protagonists, and sometimes impenetrable politics, constitutes such a deep and complex culture and experience that AMWM (even at its two-hour runtime) still feels like the middle of a story once it ends.  That’s in part a compliment to the filmmaker and actors, who never allow us to disengage from the tension, but also a comment on the painful realism of these stories: Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) does not want the story to end yet, but as we realize after our post-ending tantrum, the ending this film gets is the only ending possible.

Bachmann, a German espionage agent, runs an intelligence outfit in Hamburg.  When Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, illegally enters the country and is confirmed by Russian intelligence to be a terrorist threat, Bachmann puts out feelers, as Karpov’s intention to collect an inheritance from his dishonorable father’s account may have some connection to something Bachmann’s team (which includes Nina Hoss, Vicky Krieps, and Mehdi Dehbi) have been interested in for some time: Doctor Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), a Muslim philanthropist, is believed to be funding terrorist activities.  Bachmann needs proof.  Unfortunately, two other parties are interested in these issues: Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), an American diplomat, and German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock), who works with the Americans.  To put it lightly, gentle Bachmann and the gung-ho others differ on how to handle the Karpov situation, and are left to pursue things in their own way after Bachmann refers to Mohr as a “clown.”  They basically let Bachmann go about his business, but we get the sense that the Americans are almost too invisible as operations go forward.

The film’s deuteragonist is Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an immigration lawyer who wants to give Karpov a chance.  She puts him in touch with Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), a banker whose father had shady relations (money laundering) with Karpov’s father.  Karpov wants to give the money away, but is ultimately a young man trying to find himself, and has no real plan – a fact that may prove as frustrating to some viewers as it does to the film’s various spies and agents.  But it makes complete sense; in fact, if a homeless torture victim turned out to have a meticulously thought-out strategy for dealing with millions of euros, there wouldn’t be much of a case for the film’s realism.  Annabel truly feels for the young refugee, and goes as far as hiding him in a relative’s soon-to-be-renovated apartment when she thinks Bachmann’s group might have dastardly intentions for him.  What Bachmann really wants to do is convince Karpov to donate the money to Abdullah’s organization in order to prove that the latter is funneling money to Seven Friends, a shipping company that is actually a front for Al Qaeda.  The obvious choice is to simultaneously turn Annabel and Tommy, one by kidnapping and one by highbrow, gentlemanly schmoozing.  Guess which.

The other story thread involves several sparsely placed meetings between Bachmann and Sullivan, who try to work out a mutually beneficial method for dealing with Karpov.  Nothing works, yet the film refrains from outwardly vilifying Sullivan, whose genuine charm (that of the Princess Bride herself) actually convinces us that she’s being kind, and not jerky, by giving Bachmann various ultimatums, all of which seem fair if he can actually do his job.  She even gets him a meeting with the interior minister, who gives him the green light.

A Most Wanted Man is more genuinely characterized than Tinker, Tailor, which more or less amounts to a whodunnit wherein lots of middle-aged white men tirelessly dogmatize about what it all means.  The identity of the mole is everything.  Here, there are more pieces, and the pieces are people who are actually worth caring about, not to mention that every character’s motivation and reasons for acting the way they do are very well laid out (except for Karpov, who doesn’t know himself, which makes him even more of a wildcard).  The film opens with a nice, long shot of Bachmann’s entire team, giving an audience time to take in what each of them looks like, so that we recognize them as they stalk Richter and Karpov on the subway or pretend to be a target’s old acquaintance.  A long, father-son-style scene between Bachmann and his spy underling Jamal seems out of place, but provides a vital payoff later.  Best of all, Bachmann’s team includes almost as many women as it does men, with Vicky Krieps and Nina Hoss (as Niki and Erna respectively) convincingly portraying characters who have been doing this work with Bachmann for a long time.  Never do we get the sense that this is a group of cool, quirky movie spies with flashy skills.  Everything about them seems real, especially the fatigue.

Annabel, though, represents the heart of the film.  She cares about what she does.  She’s confident and brave, unafraid of Tommy, Bachmann, or the government, but able to be convinced when a good point is made.  Notably, she’s the only one who acts out of sympathy, whereas Bachmann and Sullivan facetiously refer to their motivations with the quip, “To make the world a safer place.  Isn’t that enough?”

Karpov, of course, is the film’s titular wanted man, but sadly, another man is “wanted” after the film ends.  This is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final lead role, and even though I’ll be able to gush about him twice more in the upcoming Hunger Games sequels, the final shot of this film – an extended, single-shot car ride through Hamburg with Hoffman’s eyes in the rearview mirror, as though he’s chauffeuring us to a staged performance of the Kinks’ “Celluloid Heroes,” before he gets out and walks away with the audience still in the car – is truly hollowing.

A Most Wanted Man (2014); based upon the novel by John le Carré; screenplay by Andrew Bovell; directed by Anton Corbijn, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Robin Wright, and Grigoriy Dobrygin. 

 

Only Lovers Left Alive

You just can’t run from the funnel of love

loversleftJim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive takes a few cues from Karen Russell’s short story “Vampires in the Lemon Grove,” and continues the recent trend (perhaps popularized by Charlaine Harris’s Southern Vampire Mysteries and HBO’s True Blood) of stories about vampires who have evolved past their savage desires to feed on human blood in favor of either mixing with society or keeping to themselves.  In Russell’s story, the main characters, a couple not so different from Jarmusch’s protagonists, discover raw lemons as a temporary placation.  In True Blood, human blood is synthesized into a bottled beverage, eliminating the need for murder altogether.  Jarmusch’s vampire yarn is a bit grittier and more cynical, although not overtly so: vampires must keep themselves hidden from humans, who have no idea they exist, and must scrounge up whatever blood they can find by looting hospitals and making deals with blood bank doctors.

But of course, this isn’t really a vampire story.  The word vampire is never spoken, and the parameters of vampirism are never laid out, aside from drinking blood, not going out during the day, and being able to “turn” others.  It’s a film about the failure of the twenty-first century and the bleakness of humanity’s future due to willed ignorance and backwards ways of thinking.  Not a particularly fresh theme in and of itself (truth and accuracy notwithstanding), but Jarmusch explores it through a fascinating character study, absent of silly exposition or literal dystopia.  Dystopia might be coming, but somehow, it’s more frightening to be a prisoner in the actual world we live in.

Eve (Tilda Swinton) and Adam (Tom Hiddleston) have been married for several centuries.  Eve has spent the past few years in Tangier, where she obtains her blood from Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), who goes by the name “Kit” since he is “supposed to be dead.”  No explanation is given for how Marlowe was turned, but the film’s great efforts to shove aside lore and backstory aid its focus, and these omissions never actually feel like omissions.  Just think of the degree of “hiding” that Marlowe has to do: he’s not only been hiding his identity for hundreds of years, but he’s also been hiding his influence on Shakespeare, whose portrait, complete with a dart in its head, he keeps on his wall.  Adam, on the other hand, lives in an abandoned Detroit neighborhood as a reclusive (albeit massively wealthy) musician obsessed with anonymity.  He broods, contemplates the sad state of the world and its treatment of artists and scientists (“They’re still bitching about Darwin.  Still!”), creates complex music that the underground scene cannot get enough of, and procures rarities from local rock-n’-roller Ian (Anton Yelchin).  One of these is a wooden bullet, and we know what those can do if applied to a vampire’s heart.  Eve blames Adam’s suicidal romanticism on “Those people he used to hang out with” – y’know, Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, without whom Jarmusch’s movie would not exist.

Adam is saved by a video chat with Eve, and the two reunite in Detroit.  The couple do not interact with each other until roughly a half-hour into the film, and thus the amount of time we spend with them driving the streets, exploring museums at night, listening to rough cuts of Adam’s new tunes, and lying around in bed, is well-earned and well-put-off until we have some context.  Adam obtains his blood from Doctor Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a blood bank worker who is more than happy to drop some “O-Negativo” off the back of a truck in exchange for a thicker wad of cash than he’s making doing honest work.  Notably, Adam goes by the pseudonym “Doctor Faust,” a reference to the most famous of the real-life Marlowe’s work (a derivative work in which a deal is made with the devil).  Still, Adam claims to have no heroes.

The film’s movement is made up of anti-narrative, as many of Jarmusch’s films are, though critics’ claims that the film continues Jarmusch’s “rebellion against narrative” may be a bit erroneous.  Dead Man‘s exploratory scenes relied entirely upon plot points, rebel against them as it might.  Similarly, Broken Flowers, The Limits of Control, and Ghost Dog feature a protagonist on a journey initiated by himself, and the real exploration (as well as the occasional inaccessible philosophizing) happens during the breaths in between.  Here, with Eve and Adam, we have two characters who want nothing to do with plot.  They do not want a story.  They’ve had enough of it.  Yet inconveniences are thrust upon them, and when the story does move forward, it is dragged kicking and screaming (not that its quiet characters do either).  The few “happenings” in the film involve Ava (Mia Wasikowska), the young vampire sister of Eve, who has lately invaded everyone’s dreams as a way to say that she’s coming to visit.  Neither Eve nor Adam wants Ava around to spoil what they have, especially Adam, who wishes Ava were dead (a reference is made to something that happened 87 years ago, but Eve and Adam were both there, so the specifics are not revealed, as that would be a violation where exposition is concerned).  Ava shows up, and things change.  Unlike Eve and Adam, Ava is curious, fresh-faced, eager for new experiences.  Do they dislike her because she’s been a perpetual teenager for centuries?  Or because she’s an amalgamation of who they used to be (name and otherwise)?

As expected, Ava ruins things in a single night, and again, movement is forced upon the couple.  In the end, as two blood-deprived vamps descend upon unsuspecting lovers in a back alley in Tangier, following Adam’s haunting justification – “What choice do we have?” – we see how quickly and easily one’s identity can be compromised in a world wherein that identity is not even acknowledged, let alone nurtured.  This is not to say that the film’s ending constitutes some broad idea, or even that is has to mean something, but there is, on the part of the characters, at least a “shift” if not flat-out growth – it’s subtle and reluctant, and greater parts sad than happy.

This is Jarmusch’s best film in a while.  Unlike many of Jarmusch’s others,  Only Lovers Left Alive is not saturated by obvious themes, nor does it revolve around a sainted everyman.  In the tradition of those films, however, it grooves to a magical, sludgy soundtrack that makes the tiniest of movements seem dire and urgent.  Planning a flight is excruciating.  Tiny interior things such as Adam taking interest in another musician (Yasmine Hamdan) contain multitudes of significance, while major flourishes like kicking Ava out of the house seem routine and likely to happen again.  The main cast make up a sad, wonderful family that is not only worthwhile to spend time with, but also carries the pain and quintessence of the “last people on Earth” while simultaneously being unaware of it and just trying to live.  It’s particularly affecting to realize in retrospect that Mia Wasikowska’s mischievous Ava inhabits the truest identity in the film, representing where things once were and where they’re unknowingly going again, and she, much like the film’s featured recluses, goes undernourished.

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014); written and directed by Jim Jarmusch; starring Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska.

 

I Origins

Pyrrhic Evolution

originsFor once in a film, it would be nice if the cynical pragmatist turned out to be correct.  But a facsimile of real life does not fantastical escapism make, so the resolution of Mike Cahill’s I Origins is about as close as we’re going to get.  Cahill is the director of Another Earth, one of 2011’s best films, and his mission to be “stricter” with himself leads to a film that satisfies three conditions for a spiritual sequel: another collaboration with writer/actress Brit Marling, another film with huge ideas about science and spirituality, and another story that is more about honestly exploring the self than finding answers that make everyone happy.

Ian Gray (Michael Pitt) is a frumpy grad student researching the evolution of the human eye.  His surface goal is to discredit creationists who believe that the eye is so complex that it must have been intelligently designed, but his obsession goes much deeper than that (plus the creationists’ argument is not really an argument – it’s conjecture based upon personal limitation, which makes it a bit sad that Gray takes it so seriously).  Part of his fascination with the eye involves photographing the irises of strangers, which no one seems to have a problem with, least of all Sofi (Astrid Berges-Frisbey), a mystery woman he meets at a Halloween party.  She’s dressed in a black mask that makes her unrecognizable, but there’s an unmistakable connection between her and Gray, who spends some time tracking her down, which involves breaking his cardinal rule of not believing in “signs.”  The number eleven keeps popping up after he buys a lottery ticket (the New York Lotto slogan, “Hey, you never know,” is deliberately framed center-screen as Gray ponders the coincidence), and his trail ends at a billboard hawking cosmetics.  This wouldn’t be a big deal if not for the fact that the eye-model on the billboard is Sofi, gazing out over the city like TJ Eckleburg.

The film is split into two very distinct halves with a seven-year gap.  The first half involves Gray’s blooming romance with Sofi, whom he finally encounters again on a bus, and despite her better judgement, begins a relationship with him.  On the other hand, Gray is forced to “babysit” a first-year student named Karen (Brit Marling), who immediately combats Gray’s unfounded passive-aggression by showcasing her scientific prowess: the key to what Gray is looking for, she says, is to find a sightless animal that has the DNA required to actually develop an eye.  She narrows it down to about 400,000 animals, and goes to work with nary a qualm.  Kenny (Steven Yeun), Gray’s other lab partner, is developing a database that will allow everyone to be identified by their unique iris patterns.  As breakthroughs are made, Gray and Sofi prepare to marry.  Here’s the problem: Gray and Sofi are fundamental opposites.  Gray is a rigid scientist, and Sofi is a spiritualist who believes in miracles and keeps assorted gewgaws around her apartment.  In nearly every scene, they argue.  This clash of science and faith comes to a head when Karen finally discovers a species of blind worm with the DNA they’ve been looking for, and Sofi visits Gray’s lab for the first time.  Sofi dismisses Gray’s research as “torturing worms” and says he’s playing god.  She asserts that if blind worms go about their lives without the knowledge that sight exists, yet humans know sight is real, then it’s perfectly possible that there’s another level of existence that humans are completely unaware of (again, this is presented as a real argument, but it’s conjecture – there’s proof of one of those things, Sofi!  Your argument isn’t actually based on anything!).  This presents the question of why these two would continue a serious relationship.  Is it the stubborn thought (on both of their parts) that one of them will eventually “win”?  As Gray realizes in retrospect, this was never meant to be – y’know, not that he believes in that.

The film’s most central conflict, or leastways Gray’s most central personal crisis, grows out of something that every trailer spoils because no one knows how to market a slow-burn drama about characters: Sofi’s death, which happens about halfway through.  A devastated Gray briefly loses focus, but the unfortunate truth (not spoken in the film, but sadly obvious) is that Sofi’s absence is convenient: no one to berate him for being pragmatic, no one to take up space in the lab, and most importantly, no one to get in the way of the will they/won’t they between him and Karen any longer.

But there’s a reason for how long this takes.  If the film had begun with Sofi’s death, she and Gray having been in a relationship established before the narrative entry point, the rest of the story would not be as effective.  Because of the pacing, Gray is sympathetic even when his decisions are rash.  We liked Sofi.  We want to know that this was all worth it.  Seven years later, Gray and Karen are married with a toddler, Gray has published a controversial book on his research, and Sofi exists only in the digital folders of his laptop.  Kenny’s iris database has become a universally accepted system.  But when the couple visits Dr. Jane Simmons (Cara Seymour), who wants to test the baby for autism, they quickly realize that this test is for something else.  Come to find out, the iris database read their son’s irises as matching those of a recently deceased man, which should be statistically impossible, considering that every person is supposed to have unique iris patterns.  Finally, an even more profound discovery is made: a young girl at an orphanage in Delhi, born shortly after Sofi’s death, has Sofi’s eyes.  Karen, ever the calm and sensible one, encourages Gray to go to India and figure this out, as it could be important to the scientific community, along with helping Gray move on.  With the help of Priya Varma (Archie Panjabi) and a very expensive billboard, he finds the little girl, Salomina (Kashish, a real-life Delhi orphan and the most wonderfully natural child actress I’ve seen in years) gazing up at Sofi’s eyes, her own eyes, just as Gray did at the beginning of all this.

I Origins could have gone on for another hour, considering its scope and its natural pacing.  But it’s a story about a character, about discovery, and about abandoning rigidity in favor of open-mindedness (as Gray puts it, science is always evolving, while religious beliefs are unbending, and we get the feeling that Gray forgets this before his trip to India).  Criticism will come from the fact that the film doesn’t present a “correct” or definitive answer as to the nature of the duplicate eyes, but let’s not forget that the film never promises to, nor is it about that (just as Another Earth was not about where Earth 2 came from or what would eventually be found there).  The protagonist’s name, for crying out loud, says it all: Gray area.  Nothing absolute.  Species evolve.  Theories change.  People and ideas can grow.  The door Gray walks through in Cahill’s masterful-as-usual final shot, while reflecting Sofi’s earlier allegory about not being afraid to enter the “other side,” does not mean he’s accepted anything spiritual, nor does it constitute proof of intelligent design – it illustrates the change that Gray himself has always argued for.  Something in the natural world has changed, or is preparing to.

The film isn’t without its characterization flaws.  Gray sometimes speaks the movie’s themes, which we can chalk up to the fact that he’s mostly drunk or worked up when he does, but it still stands out and serves a deliberate purpose.  Sofi’s death – she is implicitly disemboweled by an unseen sharp object when Gray attempts to pull her out of a teetering elevator – is bizarre, unscientific, and awkwardly shot.  If Cahill needed her to die instantly in an elevator accident, the threating-to-fall elevator could have just fallen, couldn’t it?

The two main women in the film, Karen and Sofi, are such polar opposites (Karen = science, pragmatism, practicality, all the way down to the way she dresses; Sofi = leather jackets, whimsicality, Manic-Pixie-ism) that they almost feel ripped from a Christopher Nolan film, and instead of allowing them to be real people on their own merits, their personalities function to “teach” the male protagonist things that will help him in the story.  It’s a real issue in media, defining women by men, and perhaps Cahill’s somewhat ironic claim that he wanted to be more rigid in making this film resulted in the adoption of such conventions.  On top of that, Karen, the smartest and most driven character in the piece, is relegated to stay-at-home-mom status even after Gray publishes a book and appears on TV talking about ideas that were mostly rooted in Karen’s research.  Given her character, it’s almost insulting that Karen does not call attention to any of this, but maybe it’s Brit Marling’s performance that makes a character seem like she has more layers than are really written beneath (a big problem when a film wants to have powerful women in supporting roles, yet the plot relies on what the man does – not impossible to reconcile in the hands of a competent writer).

At one point, Gray runs into a traveling preacher (William Mapother in a cameo), who becomes a plot device that catalyzes the ending.  Gray and Karen run tests on Salomina to see if she is Sofi, but no, that would be ridiculous.  Gray moves to return Salomina to Priya, who will soon pull up in a taxi, and decides to take the elevator, which he avoided earlier after seeing the obnoxious preacher waiting for it, in favor of taking the stairs.  When the elevator opens, Salomina freaks out at the sight of it.  The brilliant part of this revelation (whether Cahill himself or commentators realize it) is that this goes two ways: our instinct is to believe that Sofi would be afraid of elevators were she reincarnated.  But a young, homeless orphan like Salomina has probably never seen an elevator, and it’s perfectly understandable that she’d be afraid of such a machine.  The idea, most likely, is that eyes are connected to neural receptors, which means that if you have someone’s eyes, you have some of their personality as well.  In the world of I Origins, whether this is an amazing scientific discovery or Sofi’s version of the spiritual “other side” may be something you’ll have to let your own biases decide.  One important bit to consider, however: when Gray is looking into Salomina’s face at the end, does he remember that conversation seven years earlier, wherein Sofi made clear that she never wants to be reincarnated?

Regardless, nothing excuses making a film with the intention of “sparking a conversation” if the filmmaker doesn’t know exactly what that conversation is.  And your crazy neighbor who thinks her deceased husband was reincarnated as her cat still isn’t on to something.

I Origins (2014); written and directed by Mike Cahill; starring Michael Pitt, Brit Marling, Astrid Berges-Frisbey, and Archie Panjabi. 

 

 

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy

You’re welcome

guardiansWomen were the original storytellers.  Those visual narratives smeared on the walls of ancient caves?  Created by women.  Women have also penned some of the greatest novels, short stories, and poems in our history, from Sappho to Flannery O’Connor to Grace Paley, right down to Amy Hempel, Karen Russell, Jennifer Egan, Helen Oyeyemi, and Eowyn Ivey.  So as much of a landmark it is that a female screenwriter (Nicole Perlman) finally has her name attached to one of the Marvel Universe’s cornucopia of formula CG-action movies, it’s no revelation, and it’s infuriating to read headlines such as “Who Knew Women Could Write Superhero Movies?” We all did.  Women write much better stuff on a daily basis.  The real landmark here is that the Marvel people have finally allowed for this to happen, and the result is a superhero movie that is more sarcastic, self-possessed, and absorbing than anything of its type since the original Iron Man.

The story begins yet another “boy with a dead mother” narrative.  Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) fails to comfort his mother (Laura Haddock) as she dies of cancer.  Equipped with only a mixtape of her favorite ’70s songs (“Awesome Mix #1″) and her final unopened birthday present to him, he runs out into a field, where he is soon abducted by aliens.  A normal day at the hospital, really.  Twenty-something years later, in a utopian used-future, Quill is a bandit and has fashioned himself “Star-Lord.”  The whole thing has a real Outlaw Star vibe.  His frenemy/mentor Yondu (Michael Rooker) becomes annoyed when Quill takes a valuable sphere for himself, as does a religious fanatic called Ronan (Lee Pace), whose henchman Korath (Djimon Hounsou) was sent to pick it up before having an unfortunate encounter with Quill.  In the absence of his mother, Quill has become a selfish, thieving womanizer, and now some serious galactic powers are after him.  Ronan, played by Lee Pace as a laconic, one-dimensional amalgam of Shredder and any Dragonball Z villain, sends Gamora (Zoe Saldana) to retrieve the stolen orb.  Through one thing and another, Gamora, a ruthless assassin whose sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) also works with Ronan, reveals that she was planning on betraying Ronan anyway, as the MacGuffin everyone is after contains an Infinity Stone, an object able to raze entire civilizations in seconds.  Guess what Ronan plans on doing with it?

Quill and Gamora, after meeting bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a science experiment gone wrong, who appears as a foul-mouthed raccoon, but has never heard of raccoons – and Groot (apparently Vin Diesel), a walking CG tree who only knows three words (“I am Groot”), end up in a classic scenario: imprisoned with a bunch of tough inmates who hate them, and in need of a friendly inmate to help them out.  This help comes in the form of Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), whose family was killed by Ronan during one of the latter’s routine killing sprees.  Convenient motivation!  Once they escape, they discover that Ronan’s next target is the planet Xandar, a facsimile of Earth, and home to the Nova Corps (generic good-guy space-marines), plenty of unsuspecting folks with children, and a certain philanderer who looks an awful lot like Stan Lee.  Needless to say, this aggression will not stand, man.  Quill’s group formulates a plan to get rid of Ronan and keep the stone safe, and the whole thing goes pretty much how you’d expect.

Chris Pratt, known for playing the frumpy and loveable Andy Dwyer on Parks & Rec, does a lot of work with the character of Quill that an already-established film comedian – say, Ben Stiller – would not have had to do.  Perlman’s script is not afraid to make Quill initially unlikeable and selfish for the sake of being selfish, and even though we know he’s destined to become the film’s Boring Hero, he feels like an actual character by the time he gets to that point (or at least, as much of a character as one can be in a movie made up of nearly nonstop action).  Dave Bautista’s stilted acting suits the character of Drax perfectly: he’s a muscleheaded Spartan-style warrior who only speaks literally and doesn’t understand metaphors or sarcasm (“Nothing goes over my head!  My reflexes are much too fast.  I would just catch it.”).  Cooper’s voice is nearly unrecognizable as Rocket, who ends up as one of the most fully realized characters in the film, albeit with almost no real background revealed – I imagine this will be sequel fodder, along with the details of Quill’s parentage and the leftover villains.

Zoe Saldana plays Gamora with great confidence, and she is the film’s truest badass, but as the story begins to center more and more around Quill, the woman who overpowered every member of the cast at the beginning (including Drax, whom she could have killed back in prison) suddenly relies on the stubbly hero, is reluctantly attracted to his silly dancing, and agrees to follow his lead.  She’s not exactly downtrodden, but she’s always second fiddle, is needlessly called a “whore” at one point, and ultimately satisfies the male wish fulfillment that comes with having a protagonist like Quill, right down to occupying a void left by Quill’s mother at the beginning (as if taking Gamora’s hand during a vital time makes up for the fact that his mother died a lonely, agonizing death).  The group makes heavy use of the No Girls Allowed Clause, even allowing two Big Tough Guys, but only one woman.  The opposition does the same: Nebula is the most adept, hardy, and consistent of the villainous characters, while Korath grovels and gets his butt whupped, and Ronan alternatively broods and bickers with his partner, Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Nebula’s real conflict is with Gamora, her adoptive sister, and her escape enables future layers for her character, rather than just having her function as one of the big three bad guys, so that every member of the hero team has someone to fight at the end (although in terms of this movie itself, she satisfies that condition too).

Most of the characters’ behavior makes sense, and the adventure itself is something they’re simply dragged into, making them Marvel’s true “ragtag” group.  In fact, Ronan pejoratively labels them the “Guardians of the Galaxy” after what seems to be a crippling screw-up on their part.  Everyone has a background that could have conceivably brought them to where they are, although most of that background isn’t explored because so much time is devoted to chases and explosions, and because the structure of the film is that of a fast-paced and linear video game.  Even the histrionic theatrics of Ronan, which he goes through again and again instead of just killing the heroes, seems justified when you think of him as a fanatical alien whose sense of ceremony is just as important to him as what he actually accomplishes.

What sets Guardians apart from other superhero stock is its sarcasm and self-conscious quality.  Or at least, its attempt to be aware of what it is.  During an obligatory Hero Shot, Gamora yawns and Quill wipes his nose.  Quill constantly makes references to pre-’90s pop culture, including Ranger Rick, Alf, Alyssa Milano, and others that the film’s target demographic won’t get.  When Quill makes his plea for aid from the Nova Corps, who have vilified him for years, his big justification is that he’s “an a-hole, but not one-hundred-percent a dick.”  The funny parts are genuinely funny due to Pratt’s delivery.  But the issue is that the film still carries the structure of every other Marvel movie, in spite of how much they make make fun of it, so when the inevitable epiphanies happen and Quill decides to be a good guy, it’s a sham.  Even Quill can’t explain why he risks his life to save Gamora when she’s spaced by Nebula; he knows it would have made more sense to just save himself.  His big rallying speech to the Guardians argues that this is their chance to “give a shit,” and even after Rocket correctly lampshades the obligatory Heroes Standing Up One at a Time scene as “a bunch of jackasses standing in a circle,” that scene has still happened, and for the same reason it happens in every one of these movies: Freytag’s Superhero Pyramid.

The film comes very close to being Marvel’s redheaded stepchild, and is genuinely better than most Marvel movies despite being bogged down by conventions and still being too “safe” for fear of not making its money back.  But hey, we’re talking about a company that responds to accusations of gender discrimination by turning one of its already-famous male characters female instead of just creating a new female character.  What are you afraid of, Marvel?

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014); written by Nicole Perlman; directed by James Gunn; starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Karen Gillan, and Bradley Cooper. 

 

 

 

Nymphomaniac (V2)

No more wounds

Read my writeup of Nymphomaniac: Volume I here.

nymphomaniac2The second film (or rather, the second half of one long film) in Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac duology, sees the exeunt of Stacy Martin as the young version of Joe, which means we get to see Charlotte Gainsbourg do more than sit in a poorly lit room.  What the film unfortunately does, however, is remind us that it’s made by a cynical filmmaker who loves to smash sandcastles after hours of careful building.  I never thought he could do worse than his slow-burning and nightmarish destruction of Earth in Melancholia, but at least that film did not operate under the pretense that things might end up okay.

From the start of Volume II, things I picked at in the first volume begin to make sense.  Joe becomes tired, much as I did, of Seligman’s constant allegorical digressions, but soon realizes that it’s because he cannot relate to the content of her stories.  He reveals that he’s a virgin and considers himself asexual, which makes him the perfect audience for her chronicle.  He recognizes some serious iconography in the story of her first orgasm – apparently, when she was twelve and on a field trip, she spontaneously levitated and had a vision of Valeria Messalina and Babylon the Great (two promiscuous mythological figures with rather sexist story trajectories, even by Christian standards).  This is important because Joe went through life assuming that these were separate versions of the Virgin Mary judging her for her transgressions, but they actually represented the great schism of the Church, after which the Orthodox (Eastern) side focused on redemption, while the Western church became obsessed with suffering.  What a motif.  “The concept of religion is interesting,” he says, “just as the concept of sex is interesting.  But you won’t find me on my knees in regards to either.”

Such indulgent dialogue is fine when it’s so delicious.  But the question of whether von Trier’s synthetic framing devices for the film mean something, or leastways whether we’re supposed to take them seriously, is soon answered.  Yes, dummy, he seems to tell us.  Don’t you remember who I am?  I made Antichrist! Seligman, in a broad commentary on epic storytelling, uses his own personal experience (texts, mathematics, etc.) to form an understanding of the story, just as an audience to anything would.  But as it should be, that’s without bringing his own opinion into it: he makes himself an impartial witness by claiming to be Joe’s inverse.  As such, he continues to play the part of observer and listener, and when he stops protesting the aforementioned “preposterous coincidences” in Joe’s story, that means we’re supposed to stop too.  But when von Trier introduces such an obvious plot device as Chekhov’s Gun, everything we thought we were onboard for becomes exasperating.

Where the first film is about character depth, this one is more about plot and overt themes.  So much so that summing up its events is reasonably easy: After Joe’s enjoyment of sex vanishes, she still hungers for it.  She and Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf) accidentally conceive a child together, and after three years, Joe’s frustration has become so great and her sexual demands so high that Jerôme suggests she sleep with other people to satisfy her mood (while of course remaining a family with him and their son, because that usually works out).  Her exploration becomes increasingly violent, culminating in her visiting K, a menacing (not a word I thought I’d ever use to describe Jamie Bell) sadomasochist who viciously abuses women who volunteer, but never has sex with any of them.  Joe asks what he gets out of it.  He says it’s none of her business.  Convenient for not having to make him a real character – on that note, why doesn’t Seligman ask Joe why she uses the letters of the alphabet in the place of the real names of everyone but Jerôme?  We even get his surname, which we don’t even get for Joe.

Joe loses her family after prioritizing her visits to K over taking care of her son, and her employer demands that she seek counseling under penalty of losing her job.  There’s a bit of narrative whiplash here in terms of how we’re meant to view Joe: in Volume I, we never saw her as someone who needed to “get better,” or someone that we were supposed to “take care of.”  Now, we see her admit that she has a sickness.  The psychologist (Caroline Goodall) tells her to remove anything from her life that reminds her of sex.  In the next shot, her apartment is completely empty, and her mirror painted over.  Thankfully, she soon lambastes the therapy group, claiming that she loves herself and that she’s not like the rest of them, who have used sex to fill some hole (a word that gets deliberately repeated throughout both films) in their lives.  The next image, beneath a rocking Talking Heads soundtrack, shows Joe tossing a Molotov cocktail at a parked car and walking away like an apathetic action hero.  Did this really happen?  Seligman stops the story.  “Wait,” he says.  “I didn’t get that part.”

Joe backpedals.  She becomes an enforcer for a debt collector named L (Willem Dafoe), who respects her “qualifications” (i.e. she understands the desires of men, and knows how to hurt people).  Okay.  We get it.  Natural empathy is nonexistent to Joe.  But now we get a narrative manifestation of a theme, and in a story about a character, it’s too jarring.  Then we remember von Trier’s obsession with self-loathing, and that his films’ examinations of paranoia and depression carry an unequivocal undercurrent of cynicism.  Suddenly, in a film we can’t imagine an ending for, things don’t seem so rosy.  L suggests that Joe find a “successor,” and recommends P (Mia Goth), a fifteen year-old daughter of criminals.  The girl moves in with Joe, and their relationship soon grows, as it must, into a sexual one.  But where Volume I would have seen Seligman asking Joe if she knew she was interested in women (i.e. deepening her character), Volume II sticks to forward action.  P wants to work in debt collection too, so Joe brings her to work.  Finally, the Law of the Inevitable Coincidence takes over, and it’s particularly sad because we know it’s coming: one of the men Joe must extort is Jerôme (now played by Michaël Pas, which is off-putting after seeing LaBeouf in the role for 3+ hours).  What follows, which includes P’s betrayal of Joe, makes little sense because we haven’t gotten to know her very well, and ends where the first film begins: with Joe lying in the alleyway after a beating from the two people she actually has feelings for (and notice what P does to her in this scene.  “P.”  Get it? Hardy har, Lars).

Joe has never looked at the whole story like this before.  Look what she has in front of her: all of the most important parts of her life, compartmentalized in some truly dazzling (and above all, logical) ways.  There’s some sort of epiphany, maybe.  She wants to be who she is while pruning the parts of her that make happiness impossible.  She remembers seeing a lone, deformed tree at the top of a mountain.  We remember her father (Christian Slater) and his allegory about the lone, beautiful ash tree.  How the souls of trees look like the souls of people.  We remember Yggdrasil.  This really could end gently and nicely (not “happily,” mind you).

But then we remember something we forgot: it’s Lars von Trier.  The final thirty seconds of the film, while not undoing absolutely everything that came before, bring cynicism to the surface.  It’s pretty revolting, albeit awarding Joe with the agency she’s never had.  All at once, Seligman’s various “misunderstandings” about Joe’s story become the manifestation of horror that lurks in all of von Trier’s films, and in a much more personal way than a rogue planet bashing into Earth (although, in its actual physical movement, it is a bit like that).  We are reminded of Selma’s execution in Dancer in the Dark, of the destruction of Dogville at the hands of Nicole Kidman and James Caan.  None of those hurt quite like this.

Nymphomaniac is a fascinating character study, which is why the plot-centric nature of Volume II’s latter parts is so difficult.  The rare interruptions now come as reliefs rather than annoyances, even as Joe begins to point out that Seligman is beginning to jump the shark with his digressions.  The nonsensical parts of the story increase, and are pointed out less often, then eventually not at all.  For example, why would Willem Dafoe’s character seek Joe out?  Why would he care if she obtained an apprentice?  Why would he recommend this particular disturbed teenager?  How has Joe “heard of” K?  Why does he take her in after being so sure that S&M is “not for [her]“?  Why does Marcel (Joe’s son) completely disappear?  Why has Joe read all of Ian Fleming, but never heard of Poe (though it’s notable that James Bond, a character she idolizes, is a sex addict in the novels)?  The answer is the House of Cards Plot.  It all happens because it has to in order for the plot to reach a convenient point.  In this case, it works if the journey was all worth it.  I guess I’m still unsure whether von Trier is haranguing Joe or rooting for her.  Let me say this another way: if the writer is indifferent about the character, none of it means anything.  Maybe it doesn’t matter where Joe goes from here.  Just that she got to this point.

I could have watched a third volume if the ending of this one allowed for it, but similar to Joe when the tiny blot of sunlight outside the apartment signifies dawn, I am exhausted, and I have to be done.

Nymphomaniac: Volume II (2014); written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgård, Stacy Martin, and Mia Goth. 

 

Lucy

The Great Transhuman Empire

lucyHere’s a fact.  The name Lucy was given to the first “person” we know about: a 3.2 million year-old hominid, whose discovery proved that our taxonomic family was bipedal before our brain size increased, shedding further light on human evolution (i.e. which primates we came from).  Here’s a fact about that Lucy: she used 100% of her brain capacity, and so do I, and so do you.

Ignoring the film’s issue of presenting urban legend as science (see here), Lucy lists between human drama and sci-fi goofiness, occasionally trying to remake Akira and 2001: a Space Odyssey in its structure and imagery.  The title character, played by Scarlett Johansson, is a grad student abroad in Taipei.  Her boyfriend of one week is worried that his employer, who overpays him for simple courier services, is up to something devious, and tricks Lucy into making today’s delivery in his place.  Of course, this is the day his employer, Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) is expecting the delivery of a volatile drug that he and his identically black-suited mooks will sell for a fortune in Europe.  Jang decides to use Lucy as a drug mule, sewing a package of the drug – a tiny blue crystal – into her stomach.

While she’s being held, Lucy is assaulted by a bored henchman, who accidentally ruptures the package inside her and releases the drug into her bloodstream.  Just like that, she knows Kung Fu, how to use a handgun, how to navigate the city on her own, and how to fearlessly use violence and intimidation to get people to do what she wants.  She escapes captivity, has the package removed from her abdomen, and finds out what it is: CPH4 (made up by Besson, at least as far as its name), a synthesized version of a substance that pregnant women produce to help a fetus grow.  Apparently, when you ingest a whole bunch of this as an adult, you gain telekinetic abilities and all sorts of insight into how the universe works, as well as gradually losing your humanity in the process.  Lucy, who somehow knows what’s happening to her, phones her mother and reveals that she now vividly remembers details of her infancy, including nursing.  She then launches a solo attack on Jang, whom she inexplicably refuses to kill after decimating his security force and reading his mind in order to glean the whereabouts of the other three drug mules (she needs more CPH4 to continue transcending her own abilities).

Meanwhile, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman) lectures a French university on what might happen if humans could harness a larger percentage of their cerebral capacity (I feel compelled to again point out that this is all nonsense; humans use one-hundred-percent of our brains at all times, and Besson should be embarrassed not only for perpetuating a dangerous myth, but for insisting that he spent years on this film’s “science” before even writing a script – Freeman delivers his lecture while his facial expressions tell us “Everything I’m saying is bullshit, and so can you!”).  With her newfound omniscience, Lucy discovers his research, reads all six-thousand pages of it in seconds, and hashes over the meaning of life with him.  Through a few conversations made up of profound tripe, they decide that the purpose of existence is to pass on knowledge, and Lucy devises a way to allow humans to finally learn to “use” their lives once she’s gone.  As she travels from country to country, memory to memory, era to era, she keeps French police captain Del Rio (Amr Waked) around as a “reminder” that she’s human (How so?  Because he’s handsome?), all the while being stalked by the Korean gangsters she left alive for plot convenience.

What works about the film is Scarlett Johansson.  The bad science and derivative story don’t get a pass, but with Johansson’s voice, what could have been a tough sit becomes pretty engaging, even in a universe where the highest of minds produce philosophical drivel that wouldn’t impress a mildly well-educated middle-schooler.  But carry the film as Johansson might, a character needs to be characterized.  She almost is, but the plot gets in the way far too early, and the effects of the drug cause Lucy’s personality to become increasingly stoic and robotic.  But we still root for her, and it’s hard not to when her opponents are essentially the Devil (I mean, come on; does anyone imagine that Mr. Jang and his seemingly regenerative mooks have actual home lives?).  The biggest difference between her and her Akira predecessor, Tetsuo, is that Tetsuo’s inferiority complex and lack of control led him to transmogrifying legions of people into puddles of gore at the wave of a hand, whereas Lucy would rather leave them in suspended humiliation as she casually leaves the room in stiletto heels, taking their prized MacGuffins with her.

As for the rest of the cast, Waked shows some real versatility as the bewildered-but-capable police captain, and Choi, prolific as he is, turns it off to play a villain who has to be menacing no matter what he’s doing.  The Professor character, maybe, should have been played by someone other than Morgan Freeman.  Nothing against him; quite the opposite – a thin character’s thinness is made even more obvious when a famous actor, known for complex and intense performances, is relegated to inhabiting it.  The result is, “Hey, there’s Morgan Freeman doing something,” not “Hey, this film needed this character.”  In fact, the whole thing would have been passable if Lucy had gained the powers from the drug the exact same way, but without including the brain-capacity angle.  Think of how much room there would have been for characterization without all the big-headed pontificating and fake jargon.

The real emotional apex occurs when Lucy, in the 2001 part of the film, briefly travels back to the time of the primordial Lucy, who is busy drinking from a river.  Present-day Lucy extends her finger, and old furry ape Lucy reciprocates, recreating Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam, but with two women (not to mention at least one person who actually existed).  I love that this can happen in a film, and that this film can outsell Dwayne Johnson’s leviathan-esque biceps.

Lucy (2014); written and directed by Luc Besson; starring Scarlett Johansson, Choi Min-sik, and Morgan Freeman.

 

Nymphomaniac (V1)

House of Usher, House of Cards

nymphThere’s a meta layer to Nymphomaniac in which director Lars von Trier allows character Seligman (Stellan Skarsgård) to comment on the nature of the film’s narrative.  He complains that a story being told to him by Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), which makes up the entire film, is full of preposterous coincidences.  She replies by implying that he’ll get more out of it if he simply believes in it.  Is von Trier, mischievous as he is, commenting on the concept of stories and storytelling in general, on the idea that nonfiction is a weave of lies and truths just as love, as Joe tells us, is nothing more than “lust with jealousy added?”  Or is this an unfortunate cop-out, wherein the filmmaker tells us he’s going to show us what he wants to, and our choices are to either enjoy/learn from it or have a bad time?  You don’t necessarily have to choose one while watching the film, but shortly into it, you do have to accept that the parts of Joe’s herstory that are most heavily featured (and more so the parts that are skipped) are chosen with almost no justification by Joe (and by extension, von Trier), and that the film’s most preposterous coincidences are not the things that happen in Joe’s stagy, melodramatic tale, but the ways in which she and Seligman segue into them, the unlikely-to-the-point-of-absurdity observations that trigger the transitions.

The film opens as Seligman, a polite bachelor, finds Joe unconscious and badly beaten in the street.  He takes her in when she refuses an ambulance (your first House of Cards moment), gives her a blanket and something to drink, and asks how she ended up in this situation.  She claims that it’s her fault because she’s a terrible human being.  But there’s an ostentatious quality to this statement.  Joe wants Seligman to ask, as von Trier wants of his audience, what she means so that he (and we) can prove her wrong.  She says she’ll need to start at the beginning, and promises that it will be long (to be precise, four hours and two films).

She starts with her fascination with sex, and how it began when she was two years old.  This comes as no surprise, but only because of the film’s title.  If it were called something else, say, “Joe’s Story,” would this really feel like an organic way to begin?  Would Joe believe that a middle-aged stranger is automatically interested in her lifelong sexual escapades?  Maybe she sees an opportunity to work through something.  Or maybe this is just what von Trier is interested in about her.

First, she’s certain she’ll convince him of how bad a person she is when she relates a story of how, as a teenager (now played by Stacy Martin), she and a friend referred to as “B” (Sophie Kennedy Clark) dressed as hookers and had a contest to see how many male train passengers they could seduce in a single night.  The prize was a bag of candy, so of course, it wasn’t about the prize.  At least not for Joe, who engages in these sexual encounters with absolutely no joy.  So what is she after?  She’s a self-diagnosed addict, so I’m not asking about the past.  What is she trying to achieve by relating these stories?  Is there actually anything to discover?  Seligman, a conveniently well-read man with a wide net of interests and knowledge, tells her that nothing on the train was her fault, because one cannot blame an addict (even after she sexually assaults a married man – it’s interesting to observe that she has such power over a man twice her size and more than twice her age).  The numbers three and five keep coming up in her supposedly unrelated side-stories, and Seligman recognizes them as Fibonacci numbers.

Here’s what I mean about the transitions.  The Fibonacci thing, okay, it’s in Seligman’s nature (as a loner and a thinker) to make these connections, to dig previously undiscovered meaning out of stories and literature.  But the challenge on our part is whether any of these connections actually mean anything in the context of the story we’re witnessing.  Joe remembers the train story after noticing a colorful fishing lure hanging on Seligman’s wall.  He’s not much of a fisherman, but knows a lot about it, and once caught a big fish with that very lure.  Fishing imagery intermittently pops up during the scenes of young Joe and B luring men to them.  Not only that, but present-day Joe and Seligman’s voiceovers explain the imagery to us.  Aesthetically, it’s fun, but we actually don’t need any of it in order to create this metaphor for ourselves: young girls in skimpy outfits are essentially fishing lures for men, who are essentially dumb fish.  Later, Seligman brings her a plate of rugelach (a Jewish pastry), and happens to serve it with a cake fork.  Lo and behold, Joe used to know someone who ate rugelach with a cake fork, and she has very strong feelings on the “unmanliness” of the practice.  This brings her to one of the most significant characters in the story, Jerôme (Shia LaBeouf), who helps her lose her virginity, and then appears at increasingly unlikely points in the story – he just so happens to be interim boss at her first job and hires her on the spot, and then happens to be present when Joe finds a torn-up photograph of him in a random park.  Here’s the thing about Jerôme: he’s the only guy she does not indulge herself with as a young adult, which makes him the single important man in her story (aside from her father, played by Christian Slater, whom I’ll get to).

Another transition: Joe notices that Seligman has been reading (or rather, “re-acquainting [himself] with”) Edgar Allan Poe.  Joe has never heard of Poe, and Seligman’s chosen detail about the writer is that he died of severe delirium after attempting to tear himself away from his own addiction (in Poe’s case, alcoholism).  This reminds Joe of her father, who died of cancer, but experienced delirium in his final days, shouting for his wife, flopping around on the floor of the hospital (not unlike a fish) until the point of being straitjacketed, and so on.  Again, it makes sense for Seligman to make this connection with what he has, but the fact that the book happened to be sitting in plain view of this exact person, who he didn’t know would be there, is more than a little tough to believe, not because the film’s thematic stuff is too heightened or because I don’t believe such an encounter could happen, but because of how complex it is, and how reliant on these themes the film’s story is (and von Trier makes sure to have Joe and Seligman explain them until you get it – another example involves Joe going on long walks, intercut with images of a lion pacing in a cage, only to then have Joe state in a voiceover, “I was like an animal in a cage”).

Wait.  Joe has never heard of Edgar Allan Poe?  For all her knowledge of mythology, religion, sport, numbers, she hasn’t heard of the inventor of detective fiction, one of the first well-known people to try to write literature full-time, the guy who gets over-quoted and over-reported-on ad infinitum?  House of Cards again – she doesn’t know him because if she does, then the next important part of the film can’t happen, even if it defies all logic.  Remove one card, the house collapses.  But she’s got a lot more in common with Poe than she thinks, besides their rhyming names.  Seligman doesn’t mention it, but curious/careful viewers and readers may remember that shortly before Poe died, he was found barely conscious in the street, and incoherent about how he ended up in such a situation.

Volume 1, the halfway point, ends with a revelation about Joe that mirrors a common belief: that sex addicts cannot perform or become aroused by someone they actually care about.  Joe is told that the secret ingredient to sex is love, and when her more-than-coincidental reunion with Jerôme happens, she tries.  And she feels nothing.

Nymphomaniac is a film wherein it cannot possibly all mean something.  But it’s about the thought that it could, that there is something to discover in the disjointedness of the past.  It’s sometimes over-explanatory, sometimes artistic for the sake of being artistic, and visually sexual for the sake of shock, but beyond the gloss, it’s challenging, and not for its run time (Volume I is actually under two hours).  A lot feels at stake, even when the only present action is a late-night conversation between strangers.  Charlotte Gainsbourg continues to dominate difficult scenes and dialogue, and Stellan Skarsgård retains his ability to make himself someone we would want to spill our secrets to.  Stacy Martin, though, steals the movie.  She has all of the difficult physical scenes, does all the naked acrobatics with the film’s legions of homely men, and shows serious dramatic chops in her scenes with Christian Slater (who gives one of the greater performances of his recent career, at least that I’ve seen, in a character who does little but give his daughter allegories about how beautiful she is, which may or may not have contributed to her present problem).  It’s a film about failure, self-possession, self-deception, and taking walks.  It has the wrong title.  It’s also a film that made me listen to Rammstein.  Twice.

Read my writeup of Volume II here.

Nymphomaniac Volume I; written and directed by Lars von Trier; starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stacy Martin, Stellan Skarsgård, and Christian Slater.

 

 

 

 

 

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