A Late Quartet

Unleash your passion

Allow me to share a lovely tidbit concerning movie dialogue, as suggested to me by a certain poet with whom I saw Yaron Zilberman’s A Late Quartet: “It’s good dialogue if a character says something and you’re not sure if they’re right.”  Yes.  In real life, your friends don’t speak in laconics, in absolutes, in spartan phrases that tie the meaning of everything that’s happened that day into a pretty bow.  A Late Quartet features dialogue so rich and a plot so adeptly structured that we not only appreciate and recognize the complexities of the characters’ conflicts, but we also know what else they’re thinking about as they speak.

As the story begins, an era ends: Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken), cellist in a famous string quartet – The Fugue, who have played over three thousand concerts – has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and has decided that this will be his final season.  The rest of the quartet is comprised of Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the controlling and humorless First Violinist, Juliette (Catherine Keener), the viola player, and Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Juliette’s husband, who thinks the quartet has grown dull and predictable due to Daniel’s failure to “take risks” (including his steadfast refusal to play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 14, Op. 131, without the music in front of them).  After Peter’s quiet announcement that he will only play one more show, Robert reveals that he would like to begin switching chairs with Daniel.  Since Peter’s replacement will not require this change, the group suspect that Robert has desired this for some time, and we soon bear witness to his inferiority complex not only within the quartet, but at home.

The film is split into three main conflicts.  Chiefly, Peter’s departure from the quartet and the struggles of the group to not only come to terms with his illness and abrupt exeunt after twenty-five years, but also to find someone worthy of replacing him – they push for Nina Lee (played by herself), but she’s already in a trio with the stubborn Gideon (Wallace Shawn), and remains a Godot character until the end.  Secondly, Robert’s frustration with the quartet spills into his home life, and he winds up having a one-night stand with a running buddy (Liraz Charhi), which he’s unable to hide from Juliette even for a day.  However ill-intentioned Hoffman’s characters have been in the past, Robert never becomes a stock “bad husband” character, and his attempts at Juliette’s forgiveness are heartfelt and sincere.  Lastly, Robert and Juliette have a daughter in her early twenties, Alexandra (Imogen Poots), who is taking private violin lessons with Daniel.  Their antagonistic student-teacher relationship veils not only mutual admiration, but a secret love/lust, and they begin an affair, which the headstrong Alexandra is less than hesitant to reveal to her mother, whom she believes has not been there for her due to the quartet’s seven-month-a-year touring schedule.  These issues, while organically developed and expertly paced, come to a head during a final practice at Peter’s house, and the fate of the quartet and their relationships hang in the air during the only possible climax for this story: the first concert of the Fugue’s final season.

Finally, we have a film not based upon contrivance, not a half-hearted remake, not a blasphemous adaptation of a beloved novel, and not cash-raking action fare.  It also doesn’t get caught up in its own “science” – the film explores the inner workings of a string quartet, and in such detail that any musician would likely be convinced that Zilberman knows his material, but nothing is included that does not push the story forward or deepen the characters.  This is the kind of film that should be taking home little golden men in February, and not just because of its structure and depth.  The performers, who have lately fallen into unchallenging roles (with the exception of Hoffman, whose role in The Master was a gem at the center of an otherwise disastrous film) shine as the members of the Fugue, and clearly spent time learning at least the basics of their characters’ instruments and how to make themselves look like professionals doing their life’s work.  Keener plays Juliette as a realistically conflicted and humble mother, wife, and friend.  Walken ceases his predictable comedy and self-parody to remind us that he’s an Academy Award winner and can radiate dramatic multitudes (not just caricature) with his mannerisms.  Ivanir plays Daniel as a sympathetic loner, and despite how inappropriate his relationship with Alexandra might be, we want him to have something good for a change.  Imogen Poots is Alexandra, and her rather angsty acting style sticks out due to her being the only young character in the film, but she holds her own with the older, more experienced actors, and the careful writing prevents Alex from ever coming off as a bratty kid.

I know a few people who will likely tell me that they haven’t seen Walken in a film this year, and wonder what he’s doing.  Those are the same people who would find a film like this “boring” – no fighting?  No superheroes?  No galactic threat?  I say screw the galaxy.  Try caring about human nature.  As the above-mentioned poet concluded about this film, “There’s nothing stupid in it.”

A Late Quartet (2012); written and directed by Yaron Zilberman; starring Catherine Keener, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Mark Ivanir, and Imogen Poots.

Skyfall

Last rat standing

The 007 film series took a step forward in the Brosnan era: despite the movies not being very good, the introduction of a female “M” (leader of MI6) was a progressive change.  This time around, we get three powerful female figures, which is all well and good until two of them die and the third becomes a secretary.  Skyfall, in spite of its strengths as an action movie and its inarguable superiority over the abysmal Quantum of Solace (Olga Kurylenko’s performance notwithstanding), is a step backwards in nearly all other ways.

The newest Bond story, not based upon any of Ian Fleming’s original material (most of which has been exhausted by the twenty-three films), follows James Bond (Daniel Craig on his third run) as he fakes his own death, retires from MI6, and becomes reinstated after a crisis calls for his expert attention.  M (played by Judi Dench for the seventh and final time) needs Bond to deal with a cyberterrorist and former MI6 agent called Silva (Javier Bardem).  Silva, though, is obsessed not with wealth, not with base destruction, not even with Bond himself, but with M and her apparent disregard for her own agents.  “Mommy,” as he refers to her, once left Silva to die after a failed operation, and instead of killing himself while captive, Silva only succeeded in melting his own jaw with cyanide, making him look a bit like Richard Kiel’s “Jaws” character from Moonraker.

Silva’s style of terrorism revolves around hokey Youtube videos linked with the message “Think on your sins.”  When Bond returns to action, the film plays like it’s the first time Bond is doing any of this stuff (which they already tried in Casino Royale, with less tedious results).  He fails all of his tests, but is allowed to go after Silva anyway, and teams with agent Eve (Naomie Harris) and the newly-appointed Q (Ben Whishaw) to – to what?  We don’t really know.  But after a few stylized fight scenes (one of which involves an enormous CG komodo dragon), Bond finds himself on Silva’s personal island, where the latter runs his operations from a single laptop and a 1980s supercomputer.  Silva tells a parable about rats (which, given its level of attention in a film of this type, must be the scripture by which the story’s metaphors, ironies, and ideologies operate until the end), after which Bond dispatches his guards and takes the villain into custody.  We get the feeling this capture was too easy, however, and soon learn that Silva’s plan was to be captured, make his escape, and kill M after a public humiliation entailing her admission of MI6’s failures.  What follows might be the most well-shot gunfight of this year’s films.  It includes not only the main players, but also Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes), M’s boss, who thinks MI6 is an old fossil not worth the government paychecks it absorbs.  The film’s third act explores some Bond backstory (all invented for the film) and visits Skyfall Manor, Bond’s childhood home, where the caretaker (Albert Finney) is still watching over things.  Bond reveals to him the film’s entire plot in a nutshell: “Some people are coming to kill us.  We’re going to kill them instead.”

Throughout the film, we are told that sometimes “the old ways are best,” yet the only callbacks to the original Bond movies are brief references in the form of an Aston Martin and the old Dr. No theme song that appeared in almost all twenty-three onscreen adventures. Soon after, though, the Aston Martin is blown up, and Judi Dench is replaced by Ralph Fiennes in the role of M (a role originally inhabited by Bernard Lee and taken by men up until 1997’s Goldeneye), indicating that the best of the “old ways” is the idea of a man-centric action fantasy, not the beloved conventions of the series, and certainly not the progression the films of the 90s strove for.  The line about the “old ways” is spoken by Finney’s character as he places a combat knife in front of Bond.  This is meant to be foreshadowing (Bond, of course, will end up killing Silva with the proverbial “Chekhov’s Knife”), but to the unenlightened, I offer this tidbit: you should not realize that an event was foreshadowed until after the event happens.  If the film gives you a clue and you figure out what’s going to happen before it happens, that’s not foreshadowing; it’s just a clumsy spoiler.  Hasn’t Sam Mendes heard of the old “two weeks til retirement” trope?

Skyfall snatches a defeat from the jaws of victory when it comes to its female characters.  It also contains several holes we’re expected to overlook: what is the purpose of Severine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), other than to be naked and dead?  Why include her sad backstory and only keep her alive for five minutes, with Bond later referring to her demise as a “waste of good Scotch” (not to mention that he took advantage of her after she mentioned suffering sexual assault in her youth)?  How does Silva know that Bond will go through such an arduous quest (and survive) to capture him?  If he wanted to be captured, why not simply turn himself in to MI6?  Why is Eve, who saved Bond multiple times in the film’s early scenes (including defeating an armed henchman with nothing but a high-heeled shoe) considered “not cut out” for field work?  Why doesn’t she participate in the final battle at Skyfall Manor?  The revelation that her surname is “Moneypenny” demonstrates a slight misunderstanding of the character, but since they’re seating her behind a desk until further notice, I assume we’re not supposed to care.

In the original novels and short stories, Bond was complex.  His smoking and drinking were considered vices, and he often found himself in rehab and the hospital.  His womanizing, so glorified in the films, was an unbearable sex addiction in Fleming’s stories, and he lost the women because he either failed to protect them or they got sick of his bad habits.  To its credit, Skyfall attempts to reignite some of what made Bond human, not just a super-spy, though it’s not the same stuff Fleming used.  It’s not even from the same bucket of clay.

Craig gives his best Bond performance yet (the pressure to match Bardem’s performance as Silva probably contributed to that), and Naomie Harris is gorgeous, fun, and serious in the role of Eve.  Ola Rapace appears as Patrice, a silent hitman who should have been in the film for longer (but whose duel with Bond is shot on a wonderfully atmospheric set).  Whishaw’s new, younger Q is expertly handled, reflecting the relationship Bond had with the character in the old movies, and strongly echoes Desmond Llewelyn’s voice.  While Casino Royale was the be-all-end-all attempt at adapting one of Fleming’s books, Skyfall feels like a wholehearted attempt to reboot the films.

When asked why one of my students liked this film, he replied, “It has guns and attractive females.”  Who nowadays would believe that this film series was birthed from a series of beautifully written spy novels about an emotional, conflicted, and truly heroic character?

Skyfall (2012); written by Neal Purvis and John Logan; adapted from the original James Bond character by Ian Fleming; directed by Sam Mendes; starring Daniel Craig, Naomie Harris, Judi Dench, and Javier Bardem.

The Man With Iron Fists

Tiger-style!

The fights in The Man With the Iron Fists are about what you’d expect given any knowledge of its narrow range of influences: they’re numerous, long, gory, and full of glamorous-looking airborne kicks and the occasional dismemberment (see also: bull-shitsu).

It was only a matter of time before RZA created his own martial arts epic, considering the effects of those classic kung-fu favorites on his music and virtually everything he’s ever produced.  The film comes off as a love note to the beloved genre, albeit without much in the way of reinvention or originality, and the film occasionally skirts a Tarantino-esque style of tribute (namely in the opening and ending sequences).  The main issue is that RZA chooses to cast himself in the title role instead of a more adept actor, and while I’m not sure I’d be able to resist the temptation of casting myself as the central character in a film that resembles a generic arcade fighting game, there’s a certain responsibility that comes with having the money and privilege to actually make that choice, and RZA’s performance doesn’t match that of the other actors in the film, leastways not enough to afford his character the lead role.

The story sees Thaddeus (RZA), an escaped slave and expert blacksmith, trapped and destitute in Jungle Village, a made-up place somewhere in an anachronistic era of China in which people apparently spent their days fighting with inventive weapons.  Though he feels badly about it, Thaddeus makes a living creating deadly weapons for bad people, most notably the clan of Silver Lion (Byron Mann), a turncoat warlord who murdered his adopted father in order to seize power.  Silver Lion’s closest advisers include Brass Body (Dave Bautista), a mercenary with the inexplicable power to turn his body to solid metal with the bat of an eye (amendment: an era of China in which people fight with inventive weapons and magic powers), and Poison Dagger (Daniel Wu), a hooded figure who serves as the film’s codex for 3/4 of the story until he’s needed for a fight scene.  The other main power structure in Jungle Village is Madame Blossom (Lucy Liu), the self-proclaimed Queen of the village, who runs a brothel, the women of which practice (unbeknownst to the villagers) “black widow style,” another seemingly magic-based form of fighting.  Eventually, a Man With No Name type figure who calls himself (ugh) “Jack Knife” (Russell Crowe, who I still can’t believe did this film) wanders into town in search of fortune.  Through one thing and another, Jack becomes involved in a revenge plot against the evil Silver Lion, allying with the stoic Thaddeus and Zen-Yi (Rick Yune), the real son of Silver Lion’s murdered stepfather.

The cast of characters is ambitiously huge and also includes Jamie Chung as Thaddeus’ girlfriend, Cung Lee as Bronze Lion (Silver Lion’s main crony), Gordon Liu as an ancient monk, Grace Huang and Andrew Lin as the Geminis (fighters hired by the Emperor to guard his gold, the film’s MacGuffin), and Pam Grier as Thaddeus’ mother.  The film is paced in such a way that an audience may be confused as to whether each character is receiving her/his proper amount of screen time, but in the end, things seem to fall into place.  The cast and its use resembles Sonny Chiba’s The Street Fighter series (originally X-rated in America for its violence, which is somewhat laughable now), in that it features a group of fighters with various seemingly unstoppable styles, and relies on its main character to devise techniques for defeating each of them.  Thaddeus, I think, cheats a little bit, and Crowe’s character carries a gun, but it’s still somehow easier to root for them than the heartless bastards they’re up against.

A film like this relies 95% on its fight scenes, and despite the obvious wire-work heavily featured throughout, there’s a sense of consistency.  The sheer amount of fighting is exhausting, but nothing comes out of left field (judge for yourself whether that’s good or bad).  Women get a short straw here (all, as you’d expect, are either dead or prostitutes), but Lucy Liu’s performance is more dedicated and fun than it needs to be.  Crowe, who has gained considerable weight (and apparently lost it for Les Miserables), is reliably funny and likeable, despite his character’s womanizing tendencies.  The best performance, though, has to be Byron Mann as the deliciously evil Silver Lion, such a sociopath that he makes fun of his victims’ pleas before slaughtering them.  Mann makes the role fun without going over the top (maybe a task in and of itself when considering how over-the-top the movie is anyway).

Something I can’t help but notice – slavery seems to be a hot topic lately.  Cloud Atlas had a slavery storyline, there’ve been three movies about Lincoln out in the past year, Tarantino’s Django Unchained involves a slave hunting down slave owners, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave is being adapted into a film next year, and now, even a pulpy fight-movie by RZA has an abrupt and obligatory back-story in which white guys in cowboy hats beat the hell out of Thaddeus and throw the “n-word” around.  Of course, this is an issue that we may never come to terms with as a nation and as a people, but I have to wonder why this year is the time in which to act it out.

The Man With the Iron Fists (2012); written and directed by RZA; starring Russell Crowe, Lucy Liu, RZA, and Byron Mann.

Cloud Atlas

I will not be subject to criminal abuse

I have a single question about Cloud Atlas, the near-three-hour epic by the Wachowski siblings, and it’s a question I hoped I would not have to ask: what’s the point of it?  I know what it’s going for, but I’m not sure it ever gets there.  The film, despite being independently produced, is exactly the kind of problem-film crowding every marquee and raking in the cash, and in that sense, it’s doing Hollywood’s work free of charge.  It’s high on spectacle, short on depth (and take “depth” as every kind of depth – character, moral, story, philosophy).

Cloud Atlas is a successful genre-sampler; that is to say, it gives its audience a taste of a few different kinds of generic film-genres without actually delivering an entire movie of any type.  To its credit, it interweaves the narratives of six small stories and remains impressively easy to follow, and it’s emotionally gripping when it really wants to be, but in the end, our engagement, attention, and (perhaps) tears reward us with little more than exhaustion.  This is not to say that any of the widely diverse cast of actors do a bad job with what they have (quite the contrary), but recognizing so many missed opportunities and narrative dead-ends in a movie so long is a bit frustrating.

The actors – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Doona Bae, Hugo Weaving, James D’Arcy, Jim Sturgess, Ben Whishaw, Zhou Xun, Keith David, Susan Sarandon, Hugh Grant, and David Gyasi – each play five or six characters in different ages of the world, perhaps with the intention of a “shared souls” type of connection that we’re never made consciously aware of.  Some of these transformations lead to the film’s greatest pleasures: Hugo Weaving as a brutish female nurse, Tom Hanks as a psychotic Scottish (?) author who responds to critics by murdering them, Jim Sturgess as a Korean secret agent, Halle Berry as a male surgeon, and so on.  While I’m not completely comfortable with actors playing other races, none of these race/gender transformations are done with the intention of humor, and the Wachowskis (mercifully) understand that blackface (i.e. a white person portraying a black character) isn’t acceptable, and dodge a bullet.

The main stories/roles are as follows, in a chronology not completely obvious at the outset: a lawyer (Sturgess) travels home from a slave plantation while being poisoned by a greedy doctor (Hanks) and befriending a stowaway slave (Gyasi); a 1930s love affair between a young composer (Whishaw) and a scientist (D’Arcy) is conducted by letter as the former attempts to write his masterpiece in the company of a hubristic musician (Broadbent); a 1970s investigative journalist (Berry) sabotages an oil company determined to halt nuclear energy progress while being stalked by a deadly assassin (Weaving); a present-day (2012) publishing mogul (Broadbent) deals with the consequences of his hackneyed business decisions and attempts to escape a home for the elderly in a comic counterpart to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cloned “fabricant” in 2044 “Neo-Seoul” (Bae) makes a Plato-esque exodus from her life of servitude and sparks a failed revolution that will eventually lead to her being revered as a goddess, and finally, in post-apocalyptic Hawaii,  a mumbling would-be warrior (Hanks) attempts a mutually beneficial partnership with one of the last members of a dead technologically-advanced society (Berry) while seeing hallucinations/visions of Old Georgie (Weaving), an incarnation of the devil, who tries relentlessly to convince the former that this partnership will result in the ultimate collapse of society, and not salvation.

These stories in and of themselves are imaginative, tense, and fun to experience.  The most rewarding part of the film is imagining that the characters who share faces also share souls – look at the evolution of each actor’s various characters in the timeline.  Look at where they end up.  This also raises some questions, however, such as why every single one of Weaving’s characters is pure evil.  Most of the actors play both good characters and also those who start out on the “wrong” path but are redeemed in some way.  Weaving plays a violent assassin, an unsympathetic slave owner, an unfeeling corporate board member in charge of ordering executions, the aforementioned brutish Nurse Ratched clone, and finally, the devil.  Is the idea that the devil makes his way into every story, reinforced by the fact that he has the same face?  The film is populated with these types of religious overtones, and the straightforward idea that “Our lives are not our own; from womb to tomb, we are bound to each other, past and present, and by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future” is shopworn, unsatisfactory payoff for such an ambitious narrative, and more or less turns the film into 160 minutes of buildup.  The most satisfying bit of connection in the film occurs when we see how different cultural fragments, including phrases, lend different meanings to different peoples and settings.  Cavendish (Broadbent) shouts to a clerk in the nursing home, “I will not be subject to criminal abuse!”  We laugh as he huffs and puffs his way out the door.  Later, Tom Hanks plays an actor playing Cavendish in a movie based upon his life, and delivers the same line in a posh-looking mockup of the nursing home, and when Yoona (Xun) watches the film and shouts the very same line to a real-life diner customer who abuses her, the line finally achieves the meaning and impact Cavendish intended for it.

There are two gay characters, and both end up with guns going off in their mouths.  There are egregiously derivative sub-narratives, including concepts from Soilent Green and Blade Runner.  The made-up dialect of the post-apocalypse Hawaiians is corny and shows a very fundamental lack of knowledge about the evolution and digression of language (whether this is the fault of writer David Mitchell or the screenwriters, I couldn’t tell you).   There are two attempts at image patterning (one is teeth, and the other is a birthmark shared by several characters through the ages), but they are abandoned for hours of reel and hurriedly scraped together later for the illusion of plenitude or meaning.  Payoff would have been the prevention of Frobisher’s suicide after wondering for three hours whether he’d go through with it.  Payoff would have been a real revelation about why Berry’s character in the 70s recognizes a symphony composed by Whishaw’s character in the 30s.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a thousand times before I die: you cannot write with the intention of having an audience interpret what you mean.  Deliberate ambiguity is cheap and irresponsible.  It appears as though the Wachowskis haven’t grown out of that since the final Matrix film.  Additionally, Cloud Atlas is excessively violent, which strips away much of the film’s wonder and fantasy.  I’m not particularly squeamish (I’ve continuously named True Romance as my favorite movie), but I’m averse to gratuity, and plenty of the more grisly moments here could have been depicted off-screen for the same (or arguably more impactful) effect.  This, along with the unrealistic portrayal of sex (both dangerous in a movie teenagers will be sure to flock to), is a trap the Wachowskis are known to fall into, but they’ve avoided it before – look at Speed Racer.

Such an ambitious project, occasionally rewarding and entirely captivating in the moment, deserves better.  Did I enjoy seeing it?  Yes, very much.  But films should seek to achieve more than spectacle and the simple enjoyment of experiencing it the first time.  You get far more out of a book the second, third, and fourth time you read it, and if films want to be considered “art,” their creators should set aside their own self-importance and give this concept some thought.  I know, I know.

Cloud Atlas (2012); written and directed by Lana and Andy Wachowski and Tim Twyker; adapted from the novel by David Mitchell; starring Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Ben Whishaw, Doona Bae, and Hugo Weaving.

Farewell, My Queen

Wake up, Sidonie

Marie Antoinette was in some ways the Marilyn Monroe of her time.  Hearsay about her sexuality, relationships, and social exploits was as important to the general public as politics or war.  It made no difference that she was running France (alongside Louis XVI) and not starring in glitzy rom-coms; her life, misconstrued and misunderstood by her audience, may as well have been one.

Benoit Jacquot’s biopic, Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen), however, does not reflect the formula tale of romantic dithering and sexual deviance so many love to attach to Antoinette.  Based upon a historical novel by Chantal Thomas, who co-wrote the screenplay, the film is not so much a plotted movie as it is a fascinating character study.  This intimate narrative centers around Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux), the Queen’s reader, who observes the ongoing routine of the royal family before, during, and after the storming of the Bastille.  The most mesmerizing element of this routine is that the higher Sidonie seems to climb in the castle, the less it seems to change: on the ground, people scuttle about, nobles abandon the Queen, citizens desert.  Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), though, despairs because she knows she’ll soon be separated from her lover, Gabrielle de Polastron (Virgine Ledoyen), duchesse de Polignac.  In the novel, the protagonist plays a sort of fly-on-the-wall (not dissimilar from the role of Ishmael in Melville’s Moby Dick), but in the film, we tend to care about her a bit more than anyone else.  She gets involved, she feels, she loves, she hurts.

The film’s transitions are accomplished via an effective motif: Sidonie is repeatedly awakened from dreamless sleep, and rarely by natural causes.  She is shaken to life by fellow servants, especially Louison (Lolita Chammah), her excitable friend who insists she’ll die an old maid if she doesn’t start seeing men.  Louison goes so far as suggesting Paolo (Vladimir Consigny), a snarky gondola driver who knows some Italian and acts like a bit of a lecher.  Sidonie’s single tryst with Paolo, however, is cut short, and her heart isn’t truly in it.  Instead, she dwells upon an earlier meeting with the Queen – in the scene, Sidonie instinctively scratches some mosquito bites on her arm, and the Queen personally rubs a home remedy into the bites while the two share bounteous eye contact.  Seydoux’s expression here (ingeniously focused upon for longer than it might be in the nonexistent Hollywood version of this film) reveals multitudes: we instantly know that Sidonie is falling for the Queen – no definite statements about sexuality are needed; in fact, the Queen’s own affair with Gabrielle is not even given a sideways look by her ladies in waiting – but we also know that her heart must eventually be broken.  She pledges to stay by the Queen’s side forever, and Marie Antoinette soon uses her meetings with Sidonie to vent about her love for Gabrielle, and it’s evident (without use of so much as one flashback) that Sidonie is thinking the same thoughts about her Queen, wondering if she can once again achieve the same smile she had after leaving the Queen’s chambers that day.  Nicolas Moreau (Michel Robin), an old-timer who works in the library and befriends Sidonie, sees right through the latter’s claims of loyalty and recognizes the love she harbors for one who is absolutely off-limits.  Our feelings for Sidonie, a protagonist who truly deserves the best, make it all the more difficult to witness Antoinette’s histrionic monologues about Gabrielle, whose motivations and feelings about the affair are left (perhaps wisely) ambiguous (note, however, that she never once cries for the Queen).

Diane Kruger and Léa Seydoux, two of the best actresses (bilingual and otherwise) working today, make a great pair, and the sparsity of their encounters makes their scenes together all the more tense and desperate.  We know their time together is limited and we know the Queen is becoming unstable; we need Sidonie to make the most of every conversation, and Léa (who oddly enough appeared as the primary villain in Hollywood’s Mission: Impossible 4 earlier this year) spares absolutely nothing.  She glows with a sort of anti-Hollywood beauty, showing off what they’d tell her to hide over here (I’m thinking in terms of what can be seen on her face).  Kruger, the standout in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds a few years ago, plays Marie Antoinette without stylizing, glamorizing, exploiting, or judging her, and that’s something I’m not sure we’ve yet seen onscreen.  In fact, the whole package has a vibe similar to last year’s My Week With Marilyn in terms of its treatment of the subject and the eyes through which we see her.  You could not have asked for a better pair of actresses to fill these roles.

Because the film is a character study and not one of the climactic biopics to which some of us are accustomed, the story feels unfinished in the end, if only because the action ends where the action of most of these types of films begins.  In a brash act of selfishness, the Queen asks (or perhaps commands) Sidonie, with whom she now shares a great trust, to dress as Gabrielle and accompany the real Gabrielle (who will dress as a servant) on her exeunt from the capital.  The intention: if any of the numerous folks calling for Gabrielle’s head discover her, they’ll kill Sidonie instead, and Gabrielle will be spared.  Despite Madame Campan’s (Noémie Lvovsky) rather bold instructions not to accept this proposition, Sidonie realizes that this is the one way she can show her devotion (not necessarily as a romantic partner, but as a friend, follower, and keeper of a precious trust).

Here is where the film’s other motif (an image pattern consisting of only two occurrences) closes: there are two “undressings” in the story, the first of which occurs when Sidonie is sent by the Queen to wake Gabrielle.  Instead, Sidonie compulsively removes the single bedsheet from Gabrielle’s body and beholds her naked form flung haphazardly across the bed.  Later, the Queen instructs Sidonie, who has worn the same outfit (rather, been stuffed into the same corset and gown) throughout the entire film, to undress and get into Gabrielle’s clothing.  As her clothes crumple onto the floor and she stands nude before the Queen, Sidonie lifts her hands to cover herself, assuming a position similar to Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.  While she’s being sized up and transformed, tears stream from her eyes, though she makes no sound and her face remains solid and straight.  Does she cry because she’s afraid she’ll be killed?  Does she feel betrayed by the Queen?  Or is it the crippling knowledge that she’ll never see this woman, who never truly knew her but may have loved her in another life, again?  When the Queen finally touches her lips to Sidonie’s (and I’ll leave it up to you as to why it happens), Sidonie does not kiss back.

As the entrancing look at these characters ends, Sidonie introduces herself to us.  “Soon,” she says, “I will be no one.”  Little does she know, the hearts of patient film-goers will disagree.  Sidonie, where are you now?

Les Adieux à la reine (Farewell, My Queen) (2012); written by Chantal Thomas and Benoit Jacquot; directed by Benoit Jacquot; starring Léa Seydoux, Diane Kruger, and Virgine Ledoyen.

Taken 2

What I do best

One or two good action pictures make it to the top of the pile each year.  Only once or twice a century, however, does a film sequel outshine its predecessor, especially when the original idea was as thin as a film like Taken.  Don’t be mistaken: the idea is still “any excuse for Liam Neeson to beat up non-Americans” (despite the fact that Neeson himself is Irish), but Taken 2 is better than the original for two reasons: it gives Neeson’s character an emotion or two, and it makes better use of its supporting cast.  The secret?  Acknowledging that they’re people.  Even if they hopelessly revolve around a male action hero, it’s nice that they seem important to him, and Taken 2 focuses more on the theme of fatherhood and responsibility (even if it does so mostly with action) than the first film, which only sought to find new ways of piling bodies as quickly as possible.

The story follows Bryan Mills (Neeson) and his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) as they try to resume their lives after the events of the first film, in which Mills saved Kim from a ragtag group of Albanian criminals and sex traffickers.  The biggest conflict in Mills’ life is now whether he can train Kim to ace her driver’s test.  He’s also spending more time with his ex-wife, Lenore (Famke Janssen), whose new boyfriend happens to be a Spiteful Sleaze.  Before the charming family scenes, though, we witness Murad (Rade Šerbedžija), father of Marko, a goon who met a particularly unsettling demise at Mills’ hands in the first film, making plans with his own goons to take revenge upon Mills.  Considering the fact that Mills killed this man’s son in order to save his daughter, I think there must be a circular logic meme in there somewhere.  Long story short, Murad’s men kidnap not Kim, but (surprise!) Mills and Lenore, who are just beginning to reconcile their relationship.

This is where it gets good: in a very nice role reversal, teenaged Kim must save her parents from the bad guys.  It doesn’t happen instantly, either.  A lot of time is spent alone with Kim, who takes some direction from her father over the phone and improvises the rest.  It takes some suspension of disbelief concerning law enforcement and witnesses, considering a few of the things Kim does might render her an international terrorist in real life, but it’s wonderful to see her evolve into a breathing organism as opposed to the cardboard “teenage girl” stock character she played in the original.  And of course, Maggie Grace, who shone as Shannon on TV’s Lost, is second-to-none when it comes to crying convincingly on screen.  Best of all, she gets to play a person with real concerns and genuine bravery – and she gets to do most of it while fully clothed!

Once freed from prison, Mills teams with Kim to rescue Lenore, who is still in the clutches of Murad and his dedicated team of bloodthirsty fighting machines.  The film then becomes a somewhat formulaic two-way cat-and-mouse game between Murad and Mills, who must fight his way through legions of enemies before he, Murad, Kim, and Lenore are the only remaining players.  Refreshingly, Murad’s henchmen are in limited supply, and it’s pretty easy to keep track of roughly how many he has left because the same faces repeatedly show up throughout the chase.  Additionally, it’s easy to sympathize with the mostly one-note Murad, thanks to Šerbedžija’s dependably dedicated acting: he lost his son; why wouldn’t he want some resolution?  But he makes one too many villainous decisions to escape this film alive.  On the other hand, his followers are viciously devoted to torturing and killing Mills.  Marko (Murad’s son) must really have been the toast of Albania for these guys to be so convicted.

Like this year’s The Bourne Legacy, Taken 2 opens the possibility of a sequel, but does not promise, require, or guarantee it.  It’s a good action film with some subtlety and a fair attempt at character.  While it does include the unfortunate trope of non-American villains who could be any race to an American audience (just look at Šerbedžija, a Serbian actor who constantly plays Russian and Bulgarian characters), it doesn’t involve the obligatory sexual objectification of white women that was heavily featured in the original Taken, nor is Mills as much of a ruthless brute as he once was.  Nearly every bad vibe is gone, stripping the film down to a likeable action flick wisely contained in its own drama.  It’s not the highest film art of the year, but you don’t go into something like this expecting Rob Roy, do you?

Taken 2 (2012); written by Luc Besson; directed by Olivier Megaton; starring Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Jensson, and Rade Šerbedžija. 

Looper

Counting the paradoxes may cause a paradox

As Oscar-winning screenwriter Jim Rash once said (albeit while playing the role of Dean Pelton on NBC’s Community), “Time travel is really hard to write about.”  The fatal flaw in time travel films is often in the explanation of the time travel science itself – a problem wisely sidestepped in the recent Safety Not Guaranteed, which relied on character depth and development to forward the action.  The science problem tends to drag down films that are desperate to appear brainy – Primer and Donnie Darko come to mind.  In Looper, the third film by Rian Johnson (director of the subversive Hammett-esque high-school crime drama Brick), the exact science is sidestepped in a rather ingenious way: it hasn’t been invented until thirty years after the main story takes place, and even in that time, it’s so illegal that barely anyone knows it’s being used.  The main characters have no idea how it works; it just happens to provide them with an income.

The story centers around Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt in his 4th or 5th leading role this year, and it won’t be his last), an assassin known as a Looper.  His job does not involve stealth or theatrics, however: he simply receives a time and location, arrives there, and waits for a hooded prisoner to materialize out of thin air.  When that happens, he immediately pulls the trigger of his “blunderbuss” (a futuristic shotgun) and collects his payment (bars of silver).  The prisoners, whose faces are always shrouded, are targets of a crime syndicate thirty years in the future, who send their marks back in time to be disposed of without a trace.  Not a bad profession if you can stomach it; the pay is fantastic.  There’s one catch, however: when your contract runs out, the syndicate sends the future version of yourself back in time, and you execute yourself.  This is known as “closing the loop.”  Forget how many paradoxes this would cause in accordance with popular time travel theory (in movies, leastways); it’s an effective device.  In addition to Loopers, there are people called TKs – folks who can use telekinetic powers, but most of them can do nothing but float coins around in silly attempts to impress women, so they’re not taken seriously.

The trouble begins when Joe notices how many of his coworkers are suddenly closing their own loops.  Someone in the future is seemingly shutting down the Looper program. The reactions of the other Loopers is perhaps what’s so shocking about this: they’re all happy.  They receive a glorious payload (bars of gold this time) and drink up their paychecks with buddies before retiring and living lavishly for the next thirty years (at which point, we can safely assume, they are seized and sent back in time to have a hole blown in them).  This seems to be a commentary on the culture of immediacy we currently live in.  Is no one thinking about the future?  Are we only concerned with what we want right this second?  It’s an effective allegory for our times, and doesn’t try to borrow from George Orwell, like so many of these stories are tempted to.

One Looper, however, recognizes the voice of his future self and cannot pull the trigger.  This is Seth (Paul Dano), a good friend of Joe.  Having failed to complete his contract and close his own loop, Seth knows he will be hunted down by the incredibly efficient enforcers of the Looper program.  How do they operate so well?  Because they’re headed by Abe (Jeff Daniels), a man sent from the future to manage the Loopers and make sure everything resembles clockwork for the next thirty years.  Abe, despite Daniels’ vintage fuzziness, can be intimidating at times, and he convinces Joe to sell out Seth, which is immediately followed (as we know it must be) by Joe’s own loop being closed.  However, Old Joe (Bruce Willis) appears without a hood, and Young Joe has no chance to react before the former knocks him cold with a Magic Movie Punch and vanishes.

And so a double man-hunt begins: Young Joe is searching for Old Joe, because if he doesn’t kill him, his fate will be the same as Seth’s.  Abe’s right-hand man, Kid Blue (Noah Segan) would love nothing more than to see Joe dead as payback for an earlier insult, so tension is high.  Old Joe, on the other hand, is searching for someone else: in a diner conversation with his younger counterpart, he reveals a piece of information mentioned by Seth’s older self earlier – that in the future, a man called the Rainmaker has taken control of everything in a Fidel Castro-style takeover (apparently after seeing his own mother die), and is closing all of the loops for unknown reasons.  Old Joe has returned to the past in order to kill the Rainmaker before he can put his future plan into effect, thus ending this cycle and bringing his wife (Qing Xu) back to life.  Young Joe doesn’t care.  He wants to live his own life now.

On the run from Abe’s thugs, Young Joe happens upon a farm owned by Sara (the wonderful Emily Blunt).  In spite of her trepidations, she takes him in, helps him through drug withdrawal, and agrees to let him stay for a few days under the condition that he stay away from her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon).  We soon learn, however, that Cid, a powerful TK, may be the future Rainmaker, which means that not only is Sara in danger, but both Old Joe and Kid Blue’s posse will soon descend upon the farm.  The film makes use of effective and clear flashforwards in order to illustrate what might happen if certain conditions are (or aren’t) met, including which decisions on Young Joe’s part will either cause or prevent the rise of the Rainmaker, and the action ends with a The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly triangle-style shootout.  The action, though, doesn’t cap the film – we’re always encouraged to care about the characters before the sci-fi backdrop, which is an incredibly fresh change from inspired-but-flawed sci-fi installments such as the recent Total Recall remake.

Emily Blunt puts her heart into every role, and Sara is no exception.  I’m still on the fence about her character, however – per usual, there’s only one principle female character (the only other woman with lines is a prostitute played by Piper Perabo), and despite being tough as nails, Sara’s entire existence revolves around motherhood.  If nothing else, she overcomes the sci-fi trope of the women being either nonexistent or uber-dependent damsels who can find their way around a bedroom but not a gun, and it’s clear that Sara is an independent woman who holds all sorts of cards over Joe.  Bruce Willis essentially plays his Die Hard counterpart here, delivering tough-guy dialogue and mowing down legions of enemies while shouting “motherfuckers!”  Paul Dano is underused as Seth – did Johnson forget that Dano appeared in all sorts of Best and Almost Best pictures?  Jeff Daniels is great as Abe, which seems almost like a comeback role for him, and he successfully plays against type here.  Abe is also funny – when Joe talks about possibly moving to France, Abe says, very deadpan, “I’m from the future.  Go to China.” Unfortunately, his comeuppance is depicted off-screen, which is not only a wasted opportunity (Daniels vs. Willis!), but a lack of payoff from a film that promises an action finale (and as you know, I’m not one to pander for action).  Finally, Gordon-Levitt is made up to look like Bruce Willis, which I worried may be distracting and hokey (see DiCaprio’s makeup in J. Edgar), but it’s seamlessly done.  His character, a sci-fi leading man, is predictably one-note, but with more compassion than you might expect, and the performance is strong.

Looper is one of the better sci-fi thrillers to come out in a long time.  It handles its characters well, and never quite allows its material to get away from it or become too complex.  The most complex thing involved may be Bruce Willis’s feelings about playing a character called Old Joe.

Looper (2012); written and directed by Rian Johnson; starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, and Jeff Daniels. 

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