Blue is the Warmest Color

The wolf is coming back

BITWCBlue is the Warmest Color is one of the most heartbreaking films I have ever seen, and simultaneously one of the most beautiful.  Its narrative operates under the same narrative we, as people, tend to operate by, more than it adheres to the inevitability of generic film formula.  Blue, like life, involves things happening with no overt or pre-established pattern.  Relationships begin and end, sometimes within minutes or days, and sometimes over the course of several years.  Sometimes they can be healed, sometimes not.  Mixed signals are sent.  There are misunderstandings.  Characters are frequently wrong when they speak.  Some conversations are very long, and not echoed in obvious ways later in the story.  And when it all ends, it doesn’t.

Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulous) is a high-school student interested in French and English literature.  The opening shots spend lots of time in the classroom, with the students giving their respective readings and philosophical musings concerning specific texts, which in lesser films would spell out the themes of the entire story and leave us with nothing to think about (the opposite of what it intends).  Adèle’s friends constitute the adolescent heteronormative, urging her to spark a relationship with a guy who looks at her in class (Jérémie Laheurte) and threatening to ostracize her when they suspect that she might be gay.  She tries dating Thomas, but according to her, she’s “missing something.”  There’s a part of her that she’s not in touch with, and she must shatter his dreams of being with her to prevent a greater hurt later, like him as she might.  A female classmate kisses her on the spur of a moment, but then lampshades her the next day.  Adèle is so well-characterized and possesses so much narrative power that when these things happen to her, they hurt us just as much.  We can’t help feeling that the barblike comments of her peers are aimed at more than a character in a visual fiction, and all of this happens in a film that, at heart, is not exclusively focused on misconceptions about and abusive behavior towards gay people – the secret is to write and present scenes honestly, to let them happen as they happen, and to leave out the overt social commentary (Look through the recent archives for the year’s most egregious perpetrators of that particular celluloid foul).

Adèle’s friend Valentin (Sandor Funtek) takes her to a gay bar to have some fun, and she leaves, opting to check out a nearby lesbian bar, wherein the film’s only application of the Rule of Inevitable Coincidence takes place: inside, she meets Emma (Léa Seydoux), an up-and-coming visual artist and college senior, whom she passed on the street just days before.  The two hit it off, and through one thing and another, a relationship begins.

This relationship is earned.  In fact, by the time Adèle and Emma begin seeing each other (runtime-wise), plenty of films would already be over.  Things start to progress: they have mindblowingly intimate sex, they meet each other’s parents and have middle-school-style sleepovers, and eventually, they move in together.  But here’s the thing: Adèle still does not identify as gay.  Years pass.  Adèle, per her dreams, has become a teacher of first-graders.  Again, plenty of time is spent in the classroom, and still, looking at Adèle’s face, we can tell that something is missing.  We begin thinking of her own days in school, which were years ago for her, but only an hour and change for us.  Emma, who embraces her natural hair color and abandons the candy-blue, is now a sought-after artist with a big house.  She has large parties.  Her friends, with whom Adèle still has trouble jiving, see Adèle as a trophy wife (a phrase never spoken, but look at how they treat her, and the topics of discussion they bring up with her as opposed to the high-minded art and gender conversations they have with Emma).  Joachim (Stéphane Mercoyrol) pontificates about gender identity, and we wonder about Adèle, how she thinks of herself and her new life, where her level of depression is, what she’s sacrificed over the years to be with Emma.  She meets Samir (Salim Kechiouche), an actor who appears as “terrorists” in American films (and gives a very accurate/humorous criticism of how the American film industry uses actors of Eastern European descent).  He’s interested in her, maybe as a friend, maybe something more, but they feel out one another’s personalities while Emma schmoozes, drinks, and flirts with a pregnant woman named Lise (Mona Walravens).  Adèle, feeling as alienated as ever, once again becomes lonely, even when she’s in bed with Emma.

An affair and a breakup happen.  More years pass.  Adèle, truly alone, floats on her back in the ocean as the lens tries desperately and to no avail to focus on her.  We beg for a reunion (maybe one of the most earned reunions in the history of film), and we get it, but once wounds heal, revisiting their origins can be impossible.  The story leaves us not with a new beginning, not at a definitive coming-to-terms, but where Adèle started and where she always seems to be: listing.

The film’s thread of blue coloring starts, of course, with Emma’s hair.  From then on (mainly because we’ve got the title in mind), everything colored blue seems somehow significant, especially in the end, when Adèle begins wearing a blue dress and cool-colored earrings, which everyone notices, while Emma is now blonde and plainly clothed.

The Palm d’Or received by Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux (only the second ever to be awarded to a woman and the first to be awarded to two) is more than deserved; it’s vital.  Regardless of the sexual identities of the actresses, they’ve given us an honest narrative about all types of identity through the eyes of a woman who happens to be in love with another woman.  And for the first time since Bound, we have sex scenes between women that are not meant for titillation, the director’s gender and sexuality notwithstanding – yes, it is possible for heterosexual men to create honest, non-masturbatory narratives about gay women!  From independent filmmaker and LGBT activist Jodi Savitz, writing for the Huffington Post:

“Forgoing clichés, the scene is not categorically arousing. Better yet, it is nothing short of mesmerizing. Throughout, it not only showcases Adèle’s innocence and instinctual desires but foreshadows the power struggle induced by Emma’s broad palate of sexual experience and her affected social class.”

The gasps induced by these scenes (three total) come not from the fact that we’re watching such a raw portrayal of sex in and of itself, but the fact that we’re being allowed into the intimate lives of these characters, into things that they would never tell us about over dinner (oysters or otherwise), into emotions and bits of characterization that simply cannot be injected through conversation and exposition.  We’re invested in Adèle.  We want to sock the kids who verbally abuse her; we want her to ask our advice on what she should do on nights when Emma stays out uncharacteristically late; we want to float past her in the ocean and tell her that, hey, whatever you’re feeling is okay (which is different from “everything is going to be okay,” because bromidic bullshit does nothing for the perpetually sad).

Perhaps the biggest roadblock for some will be watching this film with anyone else (without blushing, at least).  Why?  Doesn’t Adèle’s story give us enough about the consequences of being ashamed?  Well, maybe that’s the film’s meta-point, right there.  This is a masterfully-acted masterpiece whose ending has made me feel more broken-up-with than any before it.  And more than many actual breakups.

Blue is the Warmest Color (2013); based upon the graphic novel by Julie Maroh; scripted and directed by Abdellatif Kechiche; starring Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux.

Drinking Buddies

Lager than life

DBJoe Swanberg’s Drinking Buddies operates on multiple levels: it’s a movie about intimate human interaction between unique characters, and it’s also a movie about craft beer, although if you’re a non-drinker (like me), thoughts about whether the characters’ respective levels of drunkenness in any given scene are affecting what they say might not occur to you until later.  The alcohol is more or less a prop that provides a little image cycle (not a pattern, exactly).  As a result, the film has a very distinct flavor.

Witty and outgoing Kate (Olivia Wilde) and teddy-bearish Luke (Jake Johnson) are the titular “buddies,” coworkers at a Chicago brewery who share an extremely chummy rapport.  Those of us who understand that opposite-sex heterosexuals are perfectly capable of sharing meaningful, platonic friendships would probably not bat an eye (though we might wonder what kind of couple they’d make).  Luke is in a relationship with Jill (Anna Kendrick), who wants to marry him and is growing tired of waiting for a straight answer (though she’s never stereotypically pushy or catty about it), and Kate has been dating Chris (Ron Livingston, who recently played a Pinkerton agent on Boardwalk Empire) for a few months.  He’s introverted, loves the wilderness, and would rather be reading than downing beers at a bar all night.  How they came to be together is a mystery that remains unplumbed.

The couples spend some time together at Chris’s family’s cottage, and an immediate connection is made between Jill and Chris, who share a sudden kiss in the woods.  Chris subsequently breaks up with Kate, but not for the sake of trying to date Jill – simply because he realizes that things aren’t working.  Kate goes into a bit of a drunken funk and must move out of her apartment with the help of Luke, a situation that creates more than a little bit of “will they, won’t they” tension.  But the story of these characters does not end where fans of this type of film might expect it to; it ends where it would and probably should: where it began (“cycles” is still the key word).

The film contains plenty of very long shots, some of which mean something and some of which don’t.  A long shot of Kate riding her bike, for example, could have been cut from fifteen seconds to three and still served the same purpose.  However, an extended shot of Kate walking upstairs, removing her shoes, beholding the sleeping form of Luke, who is exhausted from a full day of moving her furniture, thinking long and hard about what to do, and then carefully sliding into bed next to him, contains the entire heart of the film in itself.  The non-frantic handheld camera, sweeping from important thing to important thing, is vital for these types of shots, particularly because of the character whose reactions we’re supposed to (to a point) share, despite the fact that we still see her.

Has Olivia Wilde done anything this impressive in the past few years?  I keep thinking of movies like Burt Wonderstone, Cowboys & Aliens, and Tron: Legacy, in which she played the token female character meant only to motivate or tempt the Boring Hero, giving her few layers to explore.  Here, she’s funny, cocky, and full of swagger, but also sensitive, frustrated, and loving (but never “nurturing”) at the same time.  Her speech, drunken or not, devolves into Goldbluming several times, and it’s a treat.  How much of her Kate stuff was improvised?  If you run into her, can you ask her for me?  This is a masterful comedy performance, but also a complete character.  There’s also Jake Johnson, about whom I cannot say enough, though he essentially plays another version of Nick Miller from New Girl.

I hesitate to think about the drinking games that could be applied to viewings of this film.

Drinking Buddies (2013); written and directed by Joe Swanberg; starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick, and Ron Livingston.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

What have we done?

la_ca_1016_the_hobbitI don’t know who’s paying reviewers to say that The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is leaps and bounds better than the mediocre first film, but as they say, the money-hose runs long (actually, I just made that up).  I wrote a bit about narrative payoff in the newest Disney film, which seemed all well and validated until last night.  The Desolation of Smaug makes Frozen look like Pulp Fiction.

We joked all throughout the aughts about Peter Jackson’s love for All Things Orc, and when he shoehorned Orcs into the first Hobbit film (for the laymen: Orcs do not appear in Tolkien’s The Hobbit novel), even that seemed somewhat okay, since yes, the novel did have an army of Goblins (later referred to as a type of Orc in The Lord of the Rings) led by Bolg, the sworn enemy of Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage in the films), son of Azog, the sworn enemy of Thorin’s ancestors, and as we all know, the Boring Hero of a fantasy film must have an appropriate foil.  But in the first film, it wasn’t Bolg; it was Azog, who in Tolkien’s mythology is dead a century before the novel begins.  Alright, I thought.  Maybe PJ liked Azog’s name better.  Bolg didn’t do much other than get squished by Beorn off-page, so no harm done.  But then I remembered how many Orcs and Uruk-Hai received their own scenes in the first trilogy of films.  I recalled lines like “We ain’t had nothin’ but maggoty bread for three stinkin’ days!” Okay, okay, I thought.  This is all because they’re making a trilogy, and need to have a bad guy to knock off in a duel at the end, so let’s stick it out until Azog bites it and Bolg takes over the army in the next one.  And then Azog did not die, and what’s worse, I hadn’t brought anything to throw at the screen.

The new film is All Orcs All the Time (actually a better title than the one it has).  The wonder and magic are gone, as are all attempts to adapt the novel.  Beorn (Mikael Persbrandt), one of the most interesting and important characters in the novel, and also the subject of one of the novel’s funniest and most involving scenes, receives two or three minutes onscreen, wherein he says and does nothing that makes any difference or sense, before being shoved aside for scenes of computer-generated Orcs saying corny bad guy crap to one another.  Remember Barrels Out of Bond?  That’s included, but it’s extended to about twenty minutes so that a thousand Orcs can be killed trying to stop the barrels from floating down the river while simultaneously battling other characters who are not in the novel, such as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (Orlando Bloom), whose makeup so heavily tries to hide how much older and differently built than he was in the LotR films that his face might as well be animatronic – in fact, most of his fighting is done by a CG version of him, and it’s some of the most embarrassingly bad CG that I’ve ever seen onscreen.  Even the dwarves in the barrels appear as blobs of CG color.  Did they dump the entire animation budget into Smaug, spitball this stuff together, and just say “Fuck it; the Ringers won’t notice or care”?  If there’s a chase scene, there are Orcs involved.  If there’s a narrow or dark passage, an Orc is lurking somewhere.  If a new set is introduced, you can bet the Orcs will want to visit it.  If someone is eating a cake, an Orc will pop out.

The overt “prophecy” stuff about the dwarves takes a front seat.  Thorin is supposed to retake Erebor and become King Under the Mountain.  He believes and pursues this without question, even referring to people who might be sacrificed in the wake of this pursuit by their races instead of their names, absolving himself of all blame for their deaths.  He has a scene wherein he becomes not unlike Sean Bean’s Boromir in a fumbling attempt to snatch the Arkenstone.  Here’s the problem: no one in the theatre – and more importantly, not even the lens of the film itself – seems to realize that Thorin is the villain.  He’s the one making all of these bad things happen.  His adventure is putting everyone in danger and bringing back to life a dragon so steadfastly evil that he actually utters the phrase “I am death” – and not even to intimidate anyone; he says it to himself!  Thorin will not succeed in the end, of course, but none of Tolkien’s (nor Jackson’s) narrative remotely suggests that he gets what’s coming to him.

There’s an unbelievable amount of focus on material meant to raise the stakes, but the film falls victim to an ancient blunder: you cannot raise the stakes in a prequel by introducing stuff that has already been resolved in the originals.  Gandalf (Ian McKellan) goes head to head with the Necromancer (Sauron) before getting captured at the end.  Is anyone truly afraid for him?  Similarly, when the One Ring rolls away, is anyone afraid that Bilbo (Martin Freeman) will not retrieve it?  In further distractions, even the barely-relevant Master of Lake Town (Stephen Fry, basically playing himself) has his own scenes with yet another Jackson-invented character, Alfrid (Ryan Gage), who essentially fills the “Wormtongue Lite” role.  Furthermore, an excruciating amount of screentime is devoted to Kili (Aidan Turner), who falls for the flawless Tauriel in much the same way that Gimli becomes infatuated with Galadriel.  But it’s different this time because none of this, including Tauriel, is in the book, and readers know that any nuance or depth concerning Kili’s character doesn’t matter much at the end of the next film anyway.

You’ll notice that I have barely mentioned Bilbo Baggins, the titular Hobbit.  That’s because his role, the essential narrative voice of the novel (albeit told in vintage Tolkien third-person) is relegated to cameo status here.  There were times that the film lingered so long on Orcs and dwarves that I actually forgot about Martin Freeman’s involvement.  He saves the dwarves’ lives more than once, but the profoundness of these feats is never mentioned by anyone (Gandalf at one point chalks everything up to Bilbo not being “the same Hobbit who left the Shire,” and we’re left to accept him as a generic warrior character to go with the other thirteen).

If you’ve made it this far, I’ll say this: Bilbo’s scene with the Mirkwood spiders is very good, and even includes the twisted speech of the spiders, and the horrifying revelation (to those who pay attention) that Bilbo’s desire to keep the ring is more than fairly similar to the spiders’ blind desire to feast on living flesh.  But it’s soon punctuated by yet another unwelcome and noncanon arrival of the Elves, whom Jackson shoved into Helm’s Deep (where they did not belong), and now has them rescue our gang from spiders and Orcs using painfully choreographed bull-shitsu, most of which is animated and not performed by the actors or stuntmen.  The involvement of Gandalf is well done, despite the fact that his trek to Dol Guldur is not shown in the novel, because it’s simple: he wants to check out a suspicious magician whom he (correctly) presumes to be Sauron.  So he joins Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, still covered in bird shit) and heads to the center of the problem.  It’s straightforward and mostly relevant.  Take a guess at whether he fights Orcs, though.

And then there’s Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch), a creature so painstakingly created that he took the entire title of the film for himself.  The scene with Smaug is great in the novel not because we see a cool dragon or a battle, but because we see a genuine bit of characterization on the part of Bilbo: due to the Ring’s influence, he begins arrogantly taunting Smaug without even thinking about it.  In the film, he still refers to himself as Riddle Maker and Barrel Rider, but he does it all jittery-like, and both characters react to the other exactly as you’d expect characters in a fantasy movie, and not from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, to react.  The wordplay soon moves aside in favor of a film-invented battle with the dwarves, whom, again, readers know will not succeed in melting Smaug’s indestructible hide with molten gold (although it takes us a half hour to get there before the film abruptly drops us).  Wherever there arises the opportunity for a cliffhanger, there will be one.  Even Legolas’s lakeside duel with Bolg ends in a stalemate.  Smaug, though, is expertly animated and acted, albeit at the expense of the filmmakers’ one true love: the Orcs.  Evangeline Lilly’s involvement is also a welcome breath, adding a feminine energy and voice that the story desperately needs.

The biggest chip I carry is that ever since the original Rings films, I have continuously suspected that Peter Jackson and Philippa Boyens, reread as they might, have no idea what Tolkien’s books were actually about, and this was Tolkien’s biggest fear and pet peeve when it came to adaptations of his work.  It’s so easy for someone with the money and fanbase of New Line to say that a certain addition is “in the spirit of Tolkien,” when in fact, there was a reason he did not write penis jokes, ten-page battles with Orcs, and a wrestling match atop Mount Doom.  Tolkien’s cultural insensitivity aside, he knew the workings of his own universe.

All things considered, I can say with genuine honesty that I think the final chapter (which should have been this one, considering the amount of taffy-style narrative stretching seen here) will be better in all ways, if we can find our way back to even a single facet of what makes the story resonate – the smallness of it all, the deliberate and unique narrative, the characterization of Bilbo.  Is it an “enjoyable” film?  Yeah, sure.  But as I’ve said, spectacle and entertainment do not make quality art.  Leave the enjoyment to the Wargs.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013); based upon the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien; screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, and Peter Jackson; directed by Peter Jackson; starring Ian McKellan, Martin Freeman, Evangeline Lilly, and Richard Armitage.

Frozen

Not bro-zen

Anna-and-Elsa-frozen-34118411-2046-2195Here are a few stray observations about Disney’s Frozen, in some particular order (“Alright, Whatever” to “Wow; That’s Vital”):

They’re sticking to the adjective-as-title thing.  Enchanted, Tangled, Frozen.  Oddly, these Titles for the Too Impatient to Read a Full Line generation represent the studio’s best films in a long, long – well, ever.

The just-for-humor sidekick characters are actually funny, particularly Josh Gad as Olaf, a snowman whose one true desire is to experience summer.  He gets dismembered a lot.  It’s always hilarious.  Having walked himself into several sharp tree branches, he looks upon his wounds, which would be unspeakably painful and deadly to anyone but a snowman, with childlike fascination:  “Huh.  Look at that.  I’ve been impaled.”

In a rare move for Disney, the bad guys do not die, which leaves a gaping, unsatisfied hole where the dual protagonists’ parents end up.  The villain is not the typical Evil Incarnate character, but he still has it coming after repeated attempts to murder both of our heroines.  I’m not one to pander for violence, but narrative payoff is something else entirely.

Finally, a Disney movie that is unabashedly feminine.  Both the protagonist and the deuteragonist are women.  The goofy love interest is a bit of an afterthought, and the princess’s naive dreams of true love are subverted when the handsome prince turns out to be a ruthless manipulator.  By the time Anna (Kristen Bell) meets someone she actually likes, she’s matured, and doesn’t allow the film’s epilogue to be a grandiose wedding with the supporting characters stupidly grinning in support.

Different is good.  Elsa (Idina Menzel), the elder sister and by far the most interesting character, is born with the uncontrollable ability to create ice and snow, with which she nearly kills Anna during a childhood game.  When she becomes Queen, she can no longer hide her powers, which cause her to be ostracized and exiled by the homogenized population of Arendelle.  But her reaction is not to wish that her condition could somehow be “fixed,” and not that the superstitious minds of her kingdom would welcome her back.  She realizes (during a soliloquy-style song, naturally) that the only person she needs to be good enough for is herself.  What a move for Disney, whose narratives about women mutilating themselves and otherwise conforming to suit the standards of other people will never live down the harm they’ve caused.  Thankfully, plenty of time is spent alone with Elsa, and what was undoubtedly originally planned as a one-dimensional Snow Queen antagonist turns out to be the most sympathetic, misunderstood underdog of the bunch.

There’s a lot of talk about “an act of true love” being the only thing that can heal a frozen heart. Barf, I know.  But wait – the final act of true love does not turn out to be the much-expected “true love’s kiss” between Anna and her chosen beau; it’s Anna’s decision to save Elsa’s life in spite of the entire kingdom wanting the latter dead, and Elsa’s subsequent weeping as she throws herself over her sister’s icy form.  The whole film rides on this moment.  What a relief.

My one regret about the above is that with a single miniscule adjustment (removing the sibling-hood and making Anna and Elsa friends), this could have been a story about two women who love each other.  Well, it is, but I mean romantically.  Anna’s relationship with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) is so shoehorned in that there’s no time for it and it feels synthetic.  Maybe Disney isn’t ready for a gay princess, but everyone else is.  With the studio’s first black princess a few years back, and the first truly women-centric story in their history, a gay Disney narrative could provide so much in the way of healing.  But Frozen is a positive step.  Most of all, it’s gently done.

Frozen_(2013_film)_posterFrozen (2013); based upon The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen; screenplay by Jennifer Lee; directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee; starring Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, and Josh Gad.

Catching Fire

The only solution

Quarter_quell_johannaJennifer Lawrence returns for another romp as Katniss Everdeen, but this time under the direction of Francis Lawrence, who has only directed formula films, but has both experience with character-centric sci-fi and the good sense to direct Catching Fire as more of a reserved drama than a Cloverfield-esque “found footage” battle epic.

J-Law is springboarding from a Best Actress win last year (undeserved over Jessica Chastain, but deserved in and of itself), and she shows no lack of seriousness as Katniss.  In the story, which features our heroine living through the year after the original Hunger Games, Katniss experiences severe night terrors and still lives in general poverty despite the monetary reward for her victory.  Perhaps worst of all, President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of Panem, has a personal vendetta against her for publicly embarrassing the Capitol and forcing their hand at the end of the Games.  He approaches her at home and strong-arms her into participating in the Victory Tour, during which she and co-victor Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are to publicly thank the Capitol for their generosity, and to convince the masses of their love for each other, which Katniss faked in the first story in order to increase the “reality TV” value of the Games broadcast and win the hearts of the viewers.  Schmucks like TV host Caesar Flickerman (the ever-hilarious Stanley Tucci) eat this stuff up, but the people in the Districts are not fooled.  Revolution is brewing, and unbeknownst to Katniss (but knownst to us!), she is their symbol.

Meanwhile, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) harbors real romantic feelings for Katniss, and after an impromptu kiss, claims that he “had to do that at least once.”  What a wretched attitude.  Even after knowing her since childhood, he can’t just be her friend?  Regardless, the director wisely stays away from the romantic triangle that bogarted much of Katniss’s brain in the novel, because as readers know, it doesn’t really matter.  Gale, alongside Katniss’s family (played by Paula Malcomson and Willow Shields) have their own problems: Snow brings the hammer down on District 12, threatening to raze everyone’s homes if Katniss doesn’t behave during the tour.  He brings in Commander Thread (Patrick St. Esprit) to enforce martial law on the District, flogging people in the square for minor infractions, and shooting people on sight for breaking curfew.  It’s all fairly silly, mustache-twirling villain material, but St. Esprit sells it, despite his short appearance, with one of the scariest performances I’ve recently seen.

The Victory Tour, of course, does not go as planned.  It mustn’t.  Katniss and Peeta ditch the speeches given to them by human peacock Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and instead speak to District 11 about the friends they lost in the Games.  The scene is truly emotional and difficult; these are the kinds of scenes we need in YA.  Scenes that remind the target audience (read: teenagers and impressionable people) that killing people isn’t fun and exciting, that military life is not made of glory and reward, regardless of what the heavy-metal TV propaganda says.

Through one thing and another, Snow realizes that the only way to shut Katniss up and turn the people against her is to put her back in the arena.  Because this is the 75th year since the installation of the Hunger Games (an event meant to illustrate the Capitol’s power over the people), a special Games must be held.  This time, the tributes are reaped from the existing pool of victors, and since Katniss is the only victor in the history of her district, hers is the only name in the bowl.  Katniss’s grizzled, alcoholic mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is also chosen, but Peeta predictably volunteers in his place.  Even Effie, the Capitol’s bright-eyed mouthpiece for the reaping in the first story, starts to feel the agony of this process, showing reservation in the live broadcast and weepily apologizing to Katniss in private.

Something isn’t right in these Games – half the tributes seem to be protecting Katniss from the other half.  Katniss meets previous victors Johanna Mason (Jena Malone!), a fiercely intelligent and sarcastic axe-wielder who goes so far as to strip naked during a long and confined elevator ride simply to make Katniss uncomfortable; Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), a vain musclehead with a big mouth; Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), an eloquent and rather enigmatic engineer who knows everything about manipulating electricity; Wiress (Amanda Plummer), Beetee’s partner, who seems unstuck in time; and Enobaria (Meta Golding), one of the “Career” tributes (people who train from birth to volunteer for the Hunger Games and usually win), who has had her teeth filed into fangs for purposes you can guess at.  Moreover, Snow has brought in a new head Game Maker, the unfortunately-named Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to ensure Katniss’s death by any means necessary.  The star power is almost too much to handle, but amazingly, the characters all fit into their roles well.  The issue with having so many great actors in supporting roles, however, is that each of them only get so many lines, and only so many of that small number are memorable – a shame when considering how little we’ve seen Amanda Plummer lately.

Thanks to Suzanne Collins’s original prose, Katniss is never a Boring Hero.  Despite the action in which she participates, she never seems like a role meant for [insert popular male action star].  She’s layered.  She’s feminine.  She’s strong-willed, but she’s as scared as any of us would be.  She’s determined, but still a kid in all respects; she’s never going to have the perfect plan.  She must learn, she must toil, she must improvise.  Since Collins was a producer on the film, the narrative sticks pretty closely to that of the novel, and the perspective never breaks away from Katniss (save minor breaks for evil dialogue between Sutherland and Hoffman), which means Lawrence has to carry the story on her back.  She does.  She just does.

Jena Malone, however, steals the show whenever she’s on.  A multi-talented actress/musician playing a multi-layered character whose complexity does not match the amount of attention she gets in the film, Malone completely owns Johanna Mason (one of the best characters from the novels) at every corner.  One second, she’s mercilessly taunting Katniss.  Another, she’s laying down her life for her.  But even in a film under two hours, this relationship is earned.  Far more so than the “will they, won’t they” between Katniss and Peeta, leastways.  What is her true allegiance?  What will her fate be?  There are some answers, and some big questions left to the next story.  The filmmaker, in an uncharacteristic move for this kind of film, avoids shoehorning in character deaths for emotional impact or creating big boss battles to ensure audience satisfaction.  No one gets any particular comeuppance here, and only with the absence of that do we see how much these formulas routinely distract us from real attention to character.

I have one fundamental issue with The Hunger Games: the fact that it was made into a movie at all. Here you have a story that essentially displays how reality TV and movies that people become addicted to are actually harmful tools used by the power structures to keep people complacent. This is a piece of text, a piece of writing, i.e. the freest and most liberal form of art, made to closely mirror our current culture and to demonstrate the court of public opinion’s destructive power, and now you have made it into a movie, into which people dump endless sums of money, and which you have advertised on network TV channels that also show reality TV shows and conservative news. So as stories, I like The Hunger Games, and as visual art, the films have something, but it’s a property that contains a vicious commentary on our power structures, and it has now been appropriated by our power structures, which is exactly what Big Brother does. This dystopian future is not a future: it’s where we are now. It was the present when Huxley and Orwell wrote it, and it is the present now.

The higher-ups see something that might start a fire (to use a metaphor from the book) – in this case, young people (namely women) starting to think that the government may not have their best interests in mind – and they say, “We must take possession of that. If it looks like we support it, the people remain on our side.”  Sound familiar?  I wonder who those involved in the films’ production think the “real enemy” is.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013); based upon the novel by Suzanne Collins; screenplay by Simon Beaufoy; directed by Francis Lawrence; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Jena Malone, Josh Hutcherson, and Woody Harrelson.

 

12 Years a Slave

Platt, you are a marvel

12yasSolomon Northup’s true story is one of the greatest narratives about slavery and freedom in the history of anywhere.  Published in 1853 (in the years leading up to the American Civil War), Northup’s memoir was a unique look into not only the living conditions of slaves, but the real-life relationships between slaves and masters.  Steve McQueen’s film takes some Hollywood liberties with Northup’s original story (it’s not as if Northup himself is here to protest it, not that he would probably want to relive the brutality through fiction in the first place), but thankfully, he neither Hollywoods the emotional impact nor synthesizes a formula plot.

Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black violinist living in Saratoga.  Through one thing and another, he is tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery by a couple of opportunistic charlatans, and finds himself on a plantation owned by baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Once he accepts his position (though never giving up hope of seeing his family again), Northup is able to remain on good terms with Ford, who seems only to own slaves because he’s expected to (one must assume that he inherited his money).  Slaves Robert (Michael K. Williams) and Eliza (Adepero Oduye) are not so lucky.  Northup engineers a waterway for Ford, which leads both Ford and his head carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) to wonder whether Northup is actually more than he seems.  Tibeats’ reaction is one of hatred, and he antagonizes the slaves, especially Northup, every chance he gets – in fact, the character is introduced when he sings the most evil song in the history of cinema (and I hope for Dano’s sake that it doesn’t become a meme anytime soon).

The conflict between Northup and Tibeats (which culminates in a horrific several-minute-long single shot of Northup hanging by the neck while everyone goes about their day around him) becomes a liability for Ford, who sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a character so racist and abusive that he might be a caricature if not for Fassbender’s painfully truthful performance combined with the harrowing knowledge that Epps was a real person, and one of many generations of people just like him.  His wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson) is a stock character whose scenes alone with Northup are mostly unnecessary, but whose verbal attempts to emasculate her husband in front of his workers causes plenty of trouble for the latter.  Epps directs his sexual frustrations and violence towards one slave in particular: Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), whom he rapes and brutalizes with absolutely no comeuppance or complaint.

Along comes Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), a white man whose drinking habits cost him enough of his living that he’s forced to get a job picking cotton on Epps’ plantation.  In a bit of nice (albeit appropriately frustrating)  dramatic irony, Armsby commiserates his position whilst cleaning lash wounds on Northup’s back.  Northup asks Armsby for a favor, but we know he’s a red herring and that Northup will not yet escape.  After being turned in, Northup remains on the good side of Epps, who considers Armsby useless anyway (going so far as touching a knife to Northup’s chest and stating, in regards to Armsby, “If he weren’t free and white…”).  Soon after comes the arrival of outspoken Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), whom readers of Northup’s book (or viewers of the original film adaptation starring Avery Brooks) know will eventually help Northup escape.  It’s very telegraphed in the film, as Bass has no problem telling Epps that his slaves are human beings and that he has no right to own them (a concept that seems so foreign and ridiculous to Epps that Bass might as well have told him that one day there would be a thing called motion pictures, and that he himself would be played as a villain by a British actor).  Northup bonds with Bass after listening to this conversation, and takes another risk.

It’s difficult to see Northup’s homecoming as a happy ending, because most of us are still thinking of Patsey, who still lives and will eventually die on Epps’ plantation, alongside the countless other slaves still in the south, who were born into slavery and will never know anything else.  The film’s final line, “There is nothing to forgive,” has multiple layers to read.  The titles at the end, which reveal that Northup took his kidnappers to court and lost the case due to the fact that blacks were not allowed to testify against whites, did nothing to stifle the weeping of the entire theatreful of viewers where I saw the film (about a half-hour’s drive from Northup’s home).

The film is (expectedly) a marvel performance-wise; Ejiofor hits a vein of silver as Northup, bringing a careful respect to the character in every scene.  His performance of “Roll Jordan Roll” puts most of the cast of Les Miserables to shame, and acts as a fantastic figurative response to Tibeats’ hate-filled song earlier on (at the expense of reminding the audience that this is a movie).  Fassbender is incomparable in his second role in a row 1) as an American, and 2) alongside Brad Pitt, who acts more reserved than usual, letting the more important characters remain in focus.  What McQueen robs us of, however, is the scene in which Northup actually relates his story to Bass.  This is important; Northup has not told anyone his story in twelve years, and thus not heard himself say aloud who he is, where he is from, and what he cares about.  It’s something we’ve been waiting for, and the filmmakers sacrifice it for the sake of narrative movement in a film that has established a general okay-ness with slowing down and allowing people to talk (certainly, bits of Bass’s anti-slavery diatribe could have been trimmed if the issue was time; actually helping a slave escape holds a bit more precedent).  Nyong’o as Patsey really strikes a nerve: here is the character who receives every imaginable brutality, and gets absolutely no restitution.  Her whipping scene is something that no one will ever forget, and her performance (her face is in focus while blurry images of two or three different characters take turns decimating her) made me feel like I was standing nearby watching it happen, as helpless as Northup to do (or say) anything about it.

Unfortunately, 12 Years a Slave is the most recent (and hopefully last) in a string of movies about two things: 1) slavery, and 2) white people rescuing black people.  Lincoln, Django Unchained, The Butler, The Man With the Iron Fists, The Help, Elysium, etc.  Why the fascination with slavery?  Why not a film where the black characters don’t rely on white saviors?  Why can’t a popular film feature a black protagonist who isn’t the victim of her/his identity as a central point of the narrative?  McQueen’s film gets a pass because it’s a true story, but it still sets a certain trend, especially when it’s so extensively lauded.  I really hate to think the recent onslaught of slavery films has some ulterior motive, as if Hollywood knows it’s a sensitive topic that will automatically place it against the best dramas about other things.

I feel I should end with a lighter-hearted question: why isn’t Paul Dano allowed to play something other than a psychopath?  I’m not naive enough to think the other questions will receive actual answers.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013); written by John Ridley; based upon the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.  

The Counselor

Truth has no temperature

the-counselorCormac McCarthy’s The Counselor is a film comprised entirely of dialogue and brutally matter-of-fact violence, wherein characters communicate via Shavian monologues and aphorisms.  On another level, it’s a film wherein everyone talks about decapitation, and then everyone gets decapitated.  I wish I meant it more figuratively.

McCarthy isn’t known for gentle narrative.  His themes of unstoppable evil and destruction in both the novel and movie versions of No Country For Old Men are about as subtle as a kangaroo in a dinner jacket (thanks, Chandler).  This worked well in tandem with the Coen Brothers, who employ similar themes, but when it comes to Ridley Scott, I’ve discovered that anything magical usually happens by sheer coincidence (talk to me about Alien sometime).  The narrative is right in line with Scott’s violent tendencies, but as far as thematic material, nuance is not part of this film’s vocabulary.  If a character in The Counselor gives another character a warning about how to behave in a certain situation, that situation inevitably comes up.  If someone seems way to concerned with his own well-being, or seems a bit too confident that he will make it out of this story alive, he dies (more brutally based on level of arrogance).  Early on, a bizarre, head-removing weapon is mentioned in casual conversation between the titular character (Michael Fassbender) and his associate Reiner (Javier Bardem).  Reiner tells him something along the lines of “You have to see these things to believe them.  Once you see them, they change you.”  By the patterns established thus far, do you think this exact weapon appears later on?  At this point, I almost wanted Reiner to add, “Do you know what the term ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ means?”

The narrative itself plops us into the middle of a business deal that has been in the works, in some form, for about two years.  Exact details are sparse, but the Counselor, an unremarkable lawyer whose greed has finally gotten the best of him, has invested in a drug deal with a four-thousand percent return rate.  His partners include the aforementioned Reiner, a posh mogul in the underground club scene; a blowhard cowboy named Westray (Brad Pitt); and most importantly, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), an unbridled sociopath with a traumatic past and a nearly full-body tattoo of a cheetah.  Malkina is named after the Grimalkin, an evil faery cat in Scottish mythology (during the infamous witch trials, many women were preposterously accused of using the Grimalkin as a familiar).  The other players are the Counselor’s painfully naive girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz), who has no idea about his goings-on (and is thus destined to be a sacrificial lamb because of them); The Wireman (Sam Spruell), a simultaneously theatrical and stone-faced mook working for Malkina; and of course, the shadowy Cartel, who are never portrayed as much more than ill-tempered and bumbling grunts (with the exception of a high-ranking member played by Rubén Blades), but who, in the words of Westray, will “rip out your liver and feed it to your dog” in the event of a misstep.  Other vital but briefly-seen characters appear; I’ll get to them later.

The Counselor performs a legal favor for Ruth (Rosie Perez), a client currently in prison, whose son, a biker known as the Green Hornet (Richard Cabral), is a cartel member involved in transporting the cocaine – unbeknownst, of course, to the Counselor, whose involvement in the Hornet’s case is the Inevitable Fuckup that catalyzes the film’s tragic narrative thread.  When the Wireman assassinates the Hornet and steals the cocaine, everyone’s crosshairs gravitate toward the Counselor (which is a bit of a surprise, given his apparent knack for keeping his name a secret, but everyone knows that in the movies, two organizations are always invincible and omnipotent: the Mafia and the Cartel).  He asks everyone what to do.  No one knows or cares.  The wealthy Westray can make himself disappear if he likes, so he travels to London in order to waste time until everything blows over.

These events unfold on minimal sets, and through dialogue clearly meant for the stage.  People say big things, and you know that in this world, they’re right.  Irrelevant characters (albeit played by great actors like Toby Kebbell and John Leguizamo) are shoehorned between important scenes to pontificate about some broad concept.  While this approach to dialogue is pragmatic for this type of narrative and quite pleasant to listen to, I’m not sure I’d call it “good.”  It’s indulgent.  McCarthy’s characters resemble Greek gods, or some other beings that know more than regular humans do and stage their battles in a world separate from everyone else’s – note the names of the ancillary characters – The Blonde (Natalie Dormer), The Buyer (Dean Norris), The Diamond Dealer (Bruno Ganz), The Priest (Edgar Ramirez) – people named for roles and functions.   The Blonde exists to distract someone.  The Buyer exists to buy the cocaine (and give narrative satisfaction to, quite literally, the only bit of plot movement).  The Diamond Dealer exists to sell a diamond to someone important.  Someone more important will receive the diamond, and someone even more important will notice the diamond later.

The female characters are either stereotypically innocent and helpless, or sexually manipulative and calculatingly evil.  In and of itself, this is irresponsible and clumsy, even for (perhaps especially for) such a forwardly “masculine” writer as McCarthy, but consider the fact that none of the male characters are very layered either.  The Counselor is the everyman.  Reiner is vanity.  Westray is misplaced confidence.  The Blonde is a succubus.  Malkina is death.  I’m sure you could find a tarot card that corresponds to everyone in this story.  I’d never excuse badly-constructed female characters, and there’s no excuse for a story populated entirely with thin characters, but I guess I’m thinking about intention here – not that the writer’s intentions aren’t transparent or shopworn, but I still can’t help but imagine this same story with this same dialogue taking place in an arena theatre.  Cameron Diaz digs up a performance so commanding that one wonders why she has been so heavily relegated to funny love interest roles and self-conscious cameos.

I am lucky to have seen this film, but I’m not sure I could see it again (I had similar feelings about the adeptly-constructed Shame, also starring Fassbender).  All the wrong people are killed, and not ironically.  Death scenes are dragged on until the character bleeds out, and if that doesn’t take long enough, it’s shown in slow-motion.  The excess of the violence would be laughable if not for the film’s hopeless tone and the way the blood brightens against the black and yellow deserts and cool cityscapes, which are so bland they may as well be black-and-white.

I feel compelled to mention a certain internet consensus that states, “The Counselor has received negative reviews.”  I’ve read some of these reviews, and I’ve come to a conclusion that I cannot stop coming to: the Hollywood blurbsters cannot deal with anything that does not operate under a formula they’ve accepted as one of X amount of ways a storyteller is allowed to tell a story.  I promise you: there is no limit.  Everything has not been done.  A fiction author is allowed to write a screenplay any way (s)he desires, and you are free not to like it, but the implication that McCarthy had no clue what he was doing is beyond sophomoric and belongs on the blogging room floor.  Formula is dying.  Get hungry for new types of narrative.  As the final line of the film goes, “I’m famished.”

The_Counselor_PosterThe Counselor (2013); written by Cormac McCarthy; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem, and Penelope Cruz.

  • Calendar

    • September 2019
      M T W T F S S
      « Mar    
       1
      2345678
      9101112131415
      16171819202122
      23242526272829
      30  
  • Search