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. 

The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

Arbitrage

Everybody works for me

Nicholas Jarecki’s Arbitrage presents a very clear metaphor: rich people can get away with murder.  The film’s story sees Robert Miller (Richard Gere), a sixty year-old billionaire hedge fund manager not dissimilar to Bernie Madoff, attempting to merge his company via a deal with Mr. Mayfied, a Godot-like character not often seen, but who sends several of his people to Miller’s offices to modify the deal.  However, Miller is involved in a multi-million dollar fraud, having hidden $400 million worth of debt from both his family and the investors.  Miller’s CFO is his daughter, Brooke (Brit Marling), a strong, stable woman who makes a capable business partner.  Miller also shares a seemingly healthy relationship with his wife, Ellen (Susan Sarandon), who knows her husband has at least one mistress, but accepts this as long as some set of conditions (which we are never quite privy to, but can assume has something to do with maintaining a lavish lifestyle) are met.

The central conflict, however, is not the merger and the fraud, at least not when Miller takes his mistress, Julie (Laetitia Casta) for a cruise to one of his rural secondary homes.  Julie, an up-and-coming artist whose ventures Miller funds, loves him and wants him to leave Ellen.  He puts off answering, but all of the discussion amounts to nothing when he dozes off in the driver’s seat, resulting in a gruesome car accident that kills Julie and results in an attempt at a massive cover-up.  Miller begins to dial 911, then thinks better of it and makes a collect call to Jimmy (Nate Parker), the son of a former chauffeur for whom Miller once did personal favors, asking for a ride home and keeping the cause of his (very visible) injuries a secret.

What follows is Miller’s attempt to hide every possible truth from every possible party.  Police Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth), a bristly lawman with a chip on his shoulder concerning “rich assholes,” is sent to discover the identity of Julie’s absent driver, and knows Miller was the wheelman after a surprise interrogation.  Bryer explores Julie’s apartment, harasses Jimmy (who is pegged as a witness after police trace the call), and even goes as far as photo-shopping a photo of Jimmy’s license plate in order to place his car at a guilt-proving location.  Roth’s character wears a black suit and made me imagine all-too-vividly what might have happened if Mr. Orange, Roth’s black-suited undercover cop from Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, had continued with his career and worked another twenty years.  The lines engraving his face and his passive-yet-menacing interrogation style say more than could ever be spoken about this guy’s position in life.

Brit Marling, who scripted and starred in Another Earth, my favorite film from last year, performs strongly here, matching the veterans Gere and Sarandon line for line.  It’s truly an amazing thing to see. I’m fine with a film centering around a male character, but if I have one gripe about the film, it’s the mild underuse of Brit, whose longer scenes are rare chestnuts in a film so full of handsome men doing bad things.

The ingenuity of a thriller like Arbitrage lies in the fact that a filmgoer’s instinct is either to immediately identify with the protagonist, or try to remain completely neutral until one event or another forces them to take a side.  It doesn’t take very long for Miller to reveal himself as a snake, and while no sane person would root for him to get away with either of his schemes, we as an audience are burdened with each of his lies and deceptions until the pressure is unceremoniously relieved in the film’s all-too-true-to-life ending.  No, bastards like Miller never lose.

Arbitrage (2012); written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki; starring Richard Gere, Brit Marling, Tim Roth, and Susan Sarandon.

Lawless

Year of the Southern

Lawless, based upon Matt Bondurant’s historical novel The Wettest County in the World, is violent to the degree that it makes something like The Expendables look like The Wizard of Oz.  This isn’t due to gratuity, mind you; the various malicious acts in Lawless occur due to some unspoken code of violence upheld by its characters, and while there’s a lot of blood, violent scenes are effective not because of spectacle, but because of what is happening to whom, and the degree to which the event itself frustrates or discomforts the viewer – I’ve always said one of the most most violent scenes in film was Sonny’s death in The Godfather.

The film follows the historical Bondurant brothers, Virginia moonshine bootleggers in Prohibition-era Franklin County.  Forrest (Tom Hardy) is effectively the boss, and is feared for being legendarily invincible.  Jack (Shia LaBeouf) is the youngest, who feels he has something to prove to Forrest, who often treats him like a child.  Howard (Jason Clark) is apelike and unpredictable.  Together, they are a local treasure, and along with the lovable Cricket (Dane Dehaan), they make and jar the best moonshine available, supplying everyone from local yokels to fearsome gangsters, including Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman), who seems at the outset like he might become the villain, but despite his tendency to walk into the street and casually mow down groups of people with a Thompson submachine gun, Banner is actually quite agreeable.

Jessica Chastain, who created the greatest female performances of 2011 (and, to be honest, maybe some of the best film performances ever) in Take Shelter and The Tree of Life, appears as the enigmatic Maggie, who wanders into town and snags a job in the Bondurants’ restaurant in order to escape the Chicago city life.  This role is not the stuff of her characters from last year – in fact, she is given criminally little to do – but her limitless dedication to every one of her characters produces the film’s best dramatic scene when she finally reveals to the mumbling Forrest (at this point her romantic partner) that she’s tired of him going out and sustaining near-fatal injuries every single day.

Mia Wasikowska, who also had one of the most moving performances of last year in Jane Eyre, appears as Bertha, playing opposite LaBeouf’s character, who goes so far as infiltrating a church meeting in order to steal a smile from her.  Her performance is great, but I get the feeling she’s acting around a group of Hollywooders indulging so deeply in their own project that they don’t realize she’s secretly a leading actress, and one of the better ones we have right now.

The trouble reaches new levels when Special Deputy Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) ventures into Franklin County, ordered by corrupt feds to seize the Bondurants’ operation: first, he offers a deal, but his foppish nature and condescending personality illicit a belligerent response from Forrest, and we soon have a turf war on our hands.  If he can’t have a share of the Bondurants’ profits, he must destroy them, and he succeeds on most levels: razing their still with explosives, brutalizing Jack, murdering innocent parties, harassing (and later unspeakably harming) Maggie, and sending multiple goons to get rid of Forrest while framing Banner for it.  The brothers aren’t duped, however, and before you know it, one of the most intense firefights since The Guard takes place at an otherwise gorgeous covered bridge.

The film features one of Hardy’s best performances in the unbelievably tough and lovably soft-spoken Forrest, and LaBeouf’s character is surprisingly sympathetic, proving he can do things other than yell and fidget in big-budget shlock about giant robots.  Even his accent seems authentic (it should be noted, however, that I’m a Northerner).  My one major regret about this film is that Jessica and Mia, two of the best actresses working today, are relegated to supporting cast and never have a single scene together (at the end, we see them in the same room together, but they never share so much as a glance).  I suppose, at heart, this is a movie about dudes shooting each other, and I understand the concept of focus as well as anyone, but it still seems a waste, as these two could carry a film with no other actors at all, if it came down to it.  Pearce, accustomed to playing irredeemably evil characters, basically plays the Devil here.  “You know, I don’t much like you,” he is told by a local lawman forced to work with him.  “Yeah?” he responds, unshaken.  “Not many do.”  It would have been interesting to see him clash with Oldman’s Banner, but the film doesn’t lend time for it.

Lawless is reaching for an Oscar, but its plot is actually a carbon copy of John Nichols’ novel The Milagro Beanfield War (also adapted into a film featuring Christopher Walken), a story about regionalism and also featuring a showdown between simple country folks and federal law enforcement.  The main difference is that in Nichols’ story, the main character is defending a beanfield instead of a distillery, and the women are tougher and better respected.  Lawless deals with (most of) its own characters well, though, and being one of those derivative-yet-supposedly-true stories this country knows and loves, it may yet bag the glory its American underdogs feel they so duly deserve.

Lawless (2012); written by Nick Cave; based upon the novel by Matt Bondurant; directed by John Hillcoat; starring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Shia LaBeouf, Guy Pearce, and Mia Wasikowska.

Rampart

No plan survives contact with the enemy

The above statement proves all too true when Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson) tries to talk with his daughters near the ending of Oren Moverman’s Rampart.  Everyone in this film seems to have a plan, the fundamental fibers of which have begun deteriorating long before the beginning of the story.

Dave Brown is a bad guy.  He’s a Los Angeles police officer in the wake of the Rampart scandal, determined to retain his job despite the laundry list of allegations against him for everything you can think of, including unnecessary brutality, to which we bear firsthand witness.  He lives next door to his two ex-wives, sisters who each have a daughter by Brown.  This makes his daughters both sisters and first cousins; when the younger daughter asks if she is “inbred,” Brown responds, “I married your moms consecutively, not concurrently.  It’s all perfectly legal and up to insurance industry standards.”  I can’t help but wonder how the sisters (played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), both married to Brown within such a short time frame, get along so famously and nearly always stick together when it comes to issues involving him.  Perhaps their lives have reached such a low point – not to mention a point at which nothing can surprise them – that acceptance is the only fallible response.

Rampart is not presented as a film with a plot as much as a mulligan of vignettes and sideplots meticulously woven together to await their respective inevitable results.  What we might consider the major meat of the story involves Brown facing sanctions and possible forced retirement for a suspicious shooting set up by a former gangster simply named Hartshorn, played by convincing old-timer Ned Beatty.  As all of the Hartshorns in America are related, I naturally wanted to root for him, but the film makes that a bit difficult.  In the face of the allegations, Brown repeatedly tries to talk his way out of trouble using the wit, crude humor, and pretense of intelligence that got him so far on the force (for example, we learn early in the film that he often makes up quotes from nonexistent court cases in order to illustrate points to police rookies).  However, it is clear from the get-go that he has no chance of charming assistant district attorney Joan Confrey (Sigourney Weaver), agent Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube), and politician Bill Blago (Steve Buscemi).  When the womanizing Brown meets a lawyer named Linda (Robin Wright, the Princess Bride herself), a conflict blooms in that it would be much more beneficial for her to work against him.  When she attempts to discuss feelings vs. professionalism and the reality of the situation with him, he cannot get past the fact that she will not simply do as he says.

The movie would be over in a hurry (or quickly shift focus to the domestic conflicts only) if Brown wasn’t so desperate to keep his job as a police officer, despite everyone knowing he’s a loose cannon.  Why is staying a cop the most important thing?  “Because I am a hard-charging, dutiful motherfucker and I want to explicate the LAPD’s somewhat hyperbolized misdeeds with true panache regardless of my alleged transgressions,” he says with pretentious, self-conscious eloquence in front of a group of big-shots who know he has no respect for them.  The story, then, represents a series of struggles, perhaps a two-way struggle against a river that runs both ways: Brown is not going to convince his superiors, who are more concerned with the public embarrassment the force has become because of him than with the fact that he’s beaten and killed countless unarmed people for the hell of it, and he’s not going to make any headway with his daughters, who are young, but old enough to know he’s an all-around ne’er-do-well.

The scenes showcasing Brown’s shady dealings with Hartshorn include some great tough-guy dialogue, most often seen in movies we might now think of as fossilized (Bogart, Mitchum, John Wayne) and more recent movies that seem to know they’re gangster movies (Reservoir Dogs, for instance), but it seems to work organically here:

Brown: “Look, if this was the gang fucks, I don’t mind.  Generic criminal scum, bogus lawsuit settlement scum, press scum – I can deal with scum.  But if this is Rampart, LAPD, some fucking girly politician setting me up as a shit-magnet to take the heat off the fucking scandal, I gotta go deep into this.”

Hartshorn: “Lookit, what can I do?  I am just a law-abiding retiree enjoying his golden years.”

Brown: “Fuck you with the Mickey Cohen routine, old man.  You’ve got your fingers in more department pie than any active cop I know.  Now, milk your contacts.  I’ve got cash left from the Harris job – thanks for that, by the way.”

Hartshorn: “You could just stop, um, beating people up.”

The more touching parts of the film involve Brown’s attempts to reconcile (or, as far as we’re concerned, to develop an anything-but-antagonistic relationship) with his older daughter, Helen (Brie Larson), who smokes, dyes her hair, and is dating another girl.  She also has a deep knowledge of her father’s treatment of his family, and needs only a television to see what he’s been doing elsewhere.  When she treks far from home to see what he’s up to at work, he asks, “How’s school?”  She answers, “It sucks.  It’s full of candyass future fags and dykes like me,” adding that these are Brown’s own words.  “You’re a dinosaur,” she says.  “You’re a classic racist, a bigot, a sexist, a womanizer,  a chauvinist, a misanthrope, homophobic, clearly, or maybe you just don’t like yourself.”  As an audience, we cannot help but admit that this is what we’ve been thinking since square one, and root for our protagonist as we might, we know that if he were a real person, we would ostracize him the same as everyone else.  This argument takes place beautifully and ingeniously framed between two very different trees growing from the same soil, one bare and ragged (the one closest Dave) and the other, closest Helen, covered with sturdy bark, leaves and ivy.

But there is one bond that these two share: they’re outcasts.  Even after Brown has alienated every possible character in the story, that fact cannot change.  We don’t get the sense that Helen’s mother and aunt are any more gay-friendly than Brown, but only because they don’t seem to care about much of anything too deeply (how else can their casual living situation be explained?).  When his exes decide it’s time to sell the house and move, Brown desperately tries to stop this.  Why?  Is this just further proof of his unwillingness to accept change, or does he really see potential for reconciliation?  For love, even?  The final scene of the film seems to speak to this: after all of his schemes have failed, he trespasses on what was once his own property and spies on Helen, who sits on the porch with a cigarette, experiencing what looks like a peaceful moment.  Brown does this earlier in the film, watching Helen with her girlfriend and perhaps noticing how happy she looks; after the way she acts around him, it may come as a shock to him that she even has the ability to smile.  As she sits on the porch smoking, she seems to notice him in the bushes, and he makes no attempt to hide.  After a few seconds of wordless and expressionless eye contact, the two part ways, with Brown leaving and making his way back to his squad car, which will probably not be his for much longer (along with everything else), the camera lens seeming to crack apart with reds, blues, and combination shots of Brown’s face.  Was Helen happy to see him?  Do either of them recognize their potential as father and daughter?  Is there any hope of getting that back once the family disappears from Brown’s life?  The film leaves it up to our scrutiny of Helen’s facial expressions and body language, and it’s a very rewarding scene (albeit not absolute by any means) to watch over and over again.

Rampart is a difficult film.  I’m writing about it nearly two months after seeing it.  It’s a film you must see for Woody Harrelson’s performance and its expert treatment of an ensemble cast, and it deserves an Oscar for the former, but in my experience, it’s also a film you must see, think about in great detail, rewatch parts of, try not to think about for awhile, then come back and face, just like Brown must do with Helen in the end.

Rampart (2012); written by James Ellroy and Oren Moverman; directed by Oren Moverman; starring Woody Harrelson, Brie Larson, Robin Wright, and Ned Beatty.

Haywire

It begins and ends with the same word

“It’s always about the money,” says Ewan McGregor to Michael Fassbender, as we in the audience wait to be surprised.  Instead of a surprise, though, we get the feeling that what Ewan (or Kenneth, as his character is so named in the film) says refers to something broader than the events within the film.  Just look at the films Steven Soderbergh has done.  Now look at this one.  Now look at this one’s cast.  It’s either the director’s charisma and substantial resume, or an equally substantial paycheck that brought this group of fellows together.

You want a real surprise?  Okay, here goes: Haywire isn’t a bad movie.  There’s a literary form called Paraprosdokian, which occurs when the second half of a sentence or phrase is so surprising to the reader that it changes the reader’s interpretation of the first half.  Can you think of any films that effectively apply this technique to a visual medium?  If you answered yes, were any of those films released after 1990?  Countless movies of this generation attempt the “shocking” narrative twist, but they omit that special moment when, after hearing a clever turn of phrase, you take that split-second breath before saying, “Ohh, I get it.”  That breath is what makes getting it satisfying.  This generation’s thrillers do one of two things: hold your hand and ease you into the twist so slowly that nothing could possibly shock you, or lead you down one path before violently shoving you down another.  Haywire falls victim to the former (want an example of the latter?  Check out my review of Unknown).  Fortunately, Soderbergh’s thriller has a little bit of cushion.

A fair warning: if you don’t fall for Gina Carano’s character of Mallory Kane when she’s gently sipping tea in an upstate New York cafe’ in the opening scene, then you never will.  The film follows Mallory’s retelling of her betrayal at the hands of a private military company.  The fact that most of the film is told through flashbacks eliminates a lot of potential tension, but not inherently: Carano’s straight-laced delivery perishes any though of Mallory being an unreliable narrator (unlike last year’s The Debt, a similar narrative in which a detail left out by Jessica Chastain’s character changes the entire plot).  The company, which may or may not be run by Kenneth (McGregor), has murky dealings with contacts in Barcelona and Dublin, where Mallory is sent to do a couple of jobs.  The company also involves Rodrigo (Antonio Banderas) and Aaron (Channing Tatum), whose positions are unclear.  While doing a job with Paul (Michael Fassbender), an MI6 agent, Mallory is sold out and becomes the object of an international womanhunt.  While attempting to figure out who’s pulling Kenneth’s strings, she systematically takes down her hunters, simultaneously protecting the innocent people involved – namely a diner named Scott (Michael Angarano) and her father, John (Bill Paxton).  Michael Douglas even appears as a guy who does something for the U.S. government.

What struck me about the film is how quiet it is.  Not sound-wise, mind you; the gunshots are thunderous enough.  But there are long shots of Mallory running, walking, and driving – shots that I admire.  A scene in which Mallory backs up a car shows us not what’s behind her (all elements of danger: angry cops, wild deer, rugged road conditions), but just her face and what’s moving away from her in the safe distance.  Carano does all of her own stunts and fight work, which is refreshingly easy to follow, as it’s well-cut (i.e. not edited much) and makes no obvious use of wires or CG.  The music is equal parts calming and vein-pumping when it should be.

I’m still not certain, however, whether the “big reveal” is supposed to be a genuine surprise.  We had no reason to believe it wasn’t this person.  Furthermore, due to the fact that the male characters (with the possible exception of Paxton’s sympathetic dad) have as much personality and as many distinguishing features as a six-pack of toothpaste tubes, Haywire becomes a film in which it’s pointless to try to solve the mystery yourself.  You know it’s all going to be spelled out in an hour anyway.  The ending also leaves one begging for another five seconds with the characters (and not in the incredible way Another Earth did).  “That’s a hell of a way to end a movie,” a film-goer said to me as we exited the theatre.  “It’s like they were setting up a sequel.”

Mallory’s most revealing scenes happen when she’s sipping tea or walking through her apartment in a bathrobe.  There’s not much growth for her character – there almost is, when her father, unbeknownst to her, spies her killing an attacker, and we know it’s the first time he’s seen this happen – but we’re allowed to feel for her.  She has sympathy for the innocent, and has a life – or wants one – outside of killing bad people.  We did, however, need that extra five seconds.  The film’s best scene is a terrific one-shot conversation between Mallory and Michael Douglas’ character, who appear almost as silhouettes, in a garage at the end of an airport runway.  It’s tenser than any of the fight scenes, and the potential consequences are much greater (because, let’s be honest, are we ever afraid Mallory is going to lose a fight?).

Gina Carano is a good actress, though I’m afraid that if her career skyrockets, she will be pigeonholed into this exact same role again and again.  But at least it’s a leading role.

Haywire (2012); written by Lem Dobbs; directed by Steven Soderbergh; starring Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor and Antonio Banderas. 

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