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.

The Butler

We have no tolerance for politics in the White House

Lee-Daniels-The-Butler-Robin-Williams-Forest-WhitakerLee Daniels takes a page out of John Carpenter’s book: attempting to force us to give a crap about who directed the movie by putting his own name in the title.  This always fails.  Why not include the DP, the key grip, and the editor in the title as well?  What about the makeup artists who made Forest Whitaker look like an old man?  Or what about, y’know, the writer?  I’m not against everyone involved getting proper credit, but a film not written by the director belongs to the director insofar as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World belongs to me just because I bought a copy and had my own reading of what it was all about.

Thankfully, the film itself does not fail.  The Butler features Forest Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, in part based upon Gene Allen, a black butler who served in the White House under several presidents.  Starring alongside Whitaker is Oprah Winfrey, who should really quit the talk show/phony philanthropy schtick and become a full-time actress, as Cecil’s patient wife, Gloria, who must deal with not only Cecil’s long hours at the White House (which he’s not allowed to talk much about anyway), but the absence of her son Louis (David Oyelowo), who embarks on a life of activism in spite of his father’s insistence that the family stay apolitical.  The film’s narrative runs through Cecil’s and David’s entire lives over several decades, showcasing the points at which they intersect.  Gloria’s home life is touched on to some degree as well: she battles her own alcoholism, the horror of not knowing what’s happening to her own family members while they’re away, the advances of her lecherous neighbor (Terrence Howard), and whatever Cecil himself happens to bring home from work (and she is left in the dark for so long that JFK’s assassination doesn’t seem like such a big deal to her).

The various presidents are played by a cornucopia’s worth of movie stars, including Robin Williams, who plays Eisenhower completely straight, John Cusack as the opportunistic Nixon, heartthrobby James Marsden as Kennedy, Alan Rickman as the characteristically befuddled Reagan, Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan, and Minka Kelly in a great (albeit tiny) performance as Jackie Kennedy.  Best of all is Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose hilarious vignettes could have carried an entire movie.  Each character fits into their sections well, but the star power becomes overwhelming sometimes – Vanessa Redgrave appears in a small role during Cecil’s childhood on a plantation, and Cecil’s coworkers (larger roles) are played by Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Lenny Kravitz.  The inevitability of another famous person showing up every ten minutes is not too distracting, but it’s a bit funny, giving the film a “meta” quality it probably doesn’t want.

Where the film falters is the use of thematic voiceover – something never necessary to a film’s movement; didn’t we learn that in Blade Runner?  Cecil’s rich voice sums up each section of film by restating exactly what we just watched and heard, while we see real archive footage of things that actually happened at that time.  This is not ancient history, however; this is historical information that everyone living today already knows about.  And when a film is already upwards of two hours, this stuff needs to be chopped.  There’s also some sloppy and obvious dramatic irony: Nixon tells Cecil, “I’m not going to resign, no matter what!” when the audience knows full well that he will.  Sentimentalism also nears full stride: piano music over melodramatic dialogue, and so on.  Much of the movie is genuinely emotional, but attempting to squeeze tears out of an audience using every device possible actually takes away from that.  We even get a Hollywood Mentor played by Clarence Williams III, who tells Cecil that the “N word” is “a white man’s word, filled with hate,” and after a lifetime of using the word, Cecil never speaks it again.  Is the character’s advice good?  Yes, of course it is.  But moments of epiphany are a sham, and scenes like this are designed for synthetic echoes later in the movie.

I’ll let you judge for yourself whether the film’s overt messages about racism are oversimplified (and whether the portrayal of the Black Panthers is as cartoony as what they showed us in school), but what cannot be denied is the genuine impact of seeing the Freedom Bus torched with Louis aboard (one of the historical events wisely dramatized and not shown entirely in archive footage); the cringe-inducing image of a segregated water fountain; our collective concealed rage at Cecil’s boss’s apathetic reactions to Cecil’s insistence year after year that the black staff be paid as much as the white staff.  In the showing I attended, there was plenty of cheering at triumphant moments (and, not surprisingly, in a theatre full of white people, an obnoxious amount of “What did he say?” in reaction to Cecil’s dialect [which, by the way, is spoken in an American accent!]  I consider myself adept at understanding dialect, but it sometimes seems like no one else is even trying).

In spite of its rigid narrative, The Butler manages genuine impact and a whole lot of true moments.

The_Butler_posterLee Daniels’ The Butler (2013); written by Danny Strong; directed by Lee Daniels; starring Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, and David Oyelowo)

In a World…

Sister Code!

in a worldAdd Lake Bell’s name to your film vocab list.  If you’re looking at films as art, her name holds more weight than any Cameron or Bay.  In a World…, Bell’s feature-length debut, provides a feminist reading of the movie voiceover industry, and subverts certain expectations by shooting a female-centric romantic comedy as though it’s a drama (look at the shots!).

The story’s protagonist, Carol Solomon (Bell herself), is the daughter of voiceover king Sam Soto (Fred Melamed), who has published an autobiography and is about to receive a lifetime achievement award in the wake of Don LaFontaine’s passing.  He’s also dating a much younger woman (Alexandra Holden) around Carol’s age, and is fairly overt concerning his opinions about women maintaining their roles and not trying to do what men do (despite having two daughters).  Excited about living with a woman half his age, he kicks Carol out.  Carol, whose work as an independent voice coach barely provides her with two nickels to clink together, moves in with her sister, Dani (Michaela Watkins) and her husband, Moe (Rob Corddry).  The two have been together for a long time, and Dani’s long work hours as a concierge have prevented any real intimacy (chances are, the arrival of Carol isn’t going to help).  Carol, however, does her best to mediate: Moe asks her for advice (or rather, freaks out at her) after innocently allowing his young female neighbor to use his and Dani’s shower while the latter is at work.  Dani inevitably calls to say she’s coming home early, and Moe nervously jabbers that he will cook them a “sandwich bar” for dinner.  It’s a great gag, and the banter between these three characters is such a pleasure that I would probably (read: definitely) watch a sitcom starring them.

Through one thing and another, Carol is called by coworker Louis (Demetri Martin in a tolerable performance) to coach Eva Longoria, because her Irish accent sounds, in his words, “like a retarded pirate.”    Carol also provides a temp track for a new movie trailer when Sam Soto’s heir apparent, Gustav Warner (Ken Marino) is sidelined by laryngitis.  The new film (a meta-movie that spoofs The Hunger Games and just about everything The Hunger Games itself rips off) brings back Don LaFontaine’s famous introductory clause, “In a world…”.  Unexpectedly (to Carol, not us) , the film’s executive producer wants Carol for the job.  Carol, of course, does not tell her father, who is so wrapped up in himself and his voiceover legacy that he assures Gustav he will put this unknown woman in her place for trying to take the job.  Simultaneously, Carol asks Dani to record the voice of an Irish client at the hotel for research (Carol has been banned from the hotel for recording people).  When the Irish rogue comes between Dani and Moe, Carol feels obligated to help, even while she has her hands full with potential stardom.  At a family dinner, Carol gives the news to Sam, who shows absolutely no support for her.

In a World… is not racked with surprises and twists.  Who wins the voiceover role is not as important as why.  Films about the film industry do not work when they’re too self-conscious or inside-jokey (see Argo), but that’s just it: this story is not about films or big breaks; it’s about characters.  Carol, not the stuff that surrounds her, is important.  Dani’s relationship with Moe is important – these are things that people are concerned with, things that in real life (and in good films) feel urgent.

Fred Melamed, who appeared as Larry David’s therapist in Curb Your Enthusiasm (another character whose obnoxiousness was begotten by his obliviousness), plays Sam Soto in a way that could convince anyone that this character is based on an actual person (he isn’t).  The film’s great supporting ensemble comes in the form of Tig Notaro, Nick Offerman, and Carly Chaikin, all of whom have (and display) plenty of experience with comic timing.  There’s even a cameo by Cameron Diaz as herself playing the lead in The Amazon Games, and I daresay it’s one of her more satisfying recent roles.

There’s a lot of Goldbluming in this film, and I’ve never seen it done so well.  This is one of very few instances in which “improv” actually makes sense in dialogue meant to carry a story: Bell’s characters tend to stutter and stumble over the beginnings of their sentences, digging for the right words when they’re put on the spot.  Human beings do this.  Not a whole lot of film characters do.  But because of that, it feels wonderfully exclusive to this film and its titular “world.”  This is one of the best directing jobs I’ve seen this year.  Its blood is rollicking, but every bone is deliberately placed.  Bell has given us the “nose kiss,” the “sandwich bar,” and “sister code.”  Good comedy, actual improv (i.e. not Will Ferrell rattling off unfunny one-liners in totally unscripted scenes), unsettling commentary about women in male-dominated industries, and best of all, a unique character.  I’m not sure what’s better.

In_a_World_posterIn a World… (2013); written and directed by Lake Bell; starring Lake Bell, Michaela Watkins, Fred Melamed, and Demetri Martin.

Machete Kills

Machete don’t blog

Robert Rodriguez is the only director left who makes pure action films worth a damn anymore, and it’s in part because of his affectionate spoofing of the ’70s exploitation film genre.  The absurd action of Desperado still upstages anything John Woo has ever done – look at the differences in how seriously each film’s stunt-laden gunslinging takes itself.  The original Machete, which grew out of a fake prevue in front of Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (also a parody film), took time-honored grindhouse traditions (unbelievable violence, unbridled misogyny, unnatural levels of badassery, a plot too big for its britches, missing reels, and way too many characters) and rolled them into an hour and a half of nostalgia.  The roadblock I continually hit here, as much as I like the first film, is that when you do a sequel, people take it more seriously because they now have expectations.  Machete (Danny Trejo) may be a thin character, but by the time Machete Kills was released, viewers of the first film had already known him for several years, and cheered on his relationship with biracial Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba).  Thus, whether or not a common convention of cheaply made exploitation films is to kill off the “love interest” at the start of the next film as a throwaway excuse for the protagonist to go off on another killing spree, it’s not funny when Sartana is shot in the face by a luchador with a laser gun.  Uh, spoiler, I guess.

On that note, many women are brutalized in this film.  Yeah, it’s all tongue in cheek, but it’s still happening on screen, it’s still being acted out, we’re still seeing it and paying for it and swallowing it.  Sofia Vergara and Alexa Vega play a couple of prostitutes bent on revenge (on whom?  More later).  It’s supposed to be funny – look at the types of ridiculous characters that folks in the ’70s thought were empowering or this or that! – but the fact is, this movie was released this year, and we’re not past a lot of this stuff yet (plus, most know Vega as a pre-teen in Rodriguez’s Spy Kids, where she played a more layered heroine).  Vanessa Hudgens, one of the better actors in the film, plays an innocent bystander (figuratively) who is shot multiple times and tossed from a helicopter after becoming a victim of Rodriguez’s still-evident issue of immediately killing off characters when he does not know what to do with them in the plot.  Michelle Rodriguez returns as Luz, who was shot in the eye in the first film and miraculously survived as a result of being hilariously indestructible.  There, it worked.  Here, she’s shot in the other eye and becomes totally blind.  As funny as her continued invulnerability is, in theory (she’s still able to overcome her opponent without sight, and without caring much about the fact that she cannot see), it’s a bit of a bummer to see it happen, especially after the director’s heavily sound-bited insistence that he loves “strong women” (there’s that dangerous adjective again).  Amber Heard plays the turncoat handler Miss San Antonio, who acts as Luz’s foil.  I won’t spoil whether she gets shot in the face, but you can guess.

The story this time follows Machete as he is hired by the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen under his birth name, Carlos Estevez) to investigate Mexican revolutionary Mendez (Demián Bichir), who plans on launching a rocket at Washington, D.C.  Through one thing and another, Machete uncovers a conspiracy led by arms dealer Luther Voz (Mel Gibson): Voz has seen a vision in which the world is destroyed and everyone must move to space.  To expedite the process, Voz has installed a proverbial Mendez in every country, planning to launch several of these missiles at key locations all over the globe.  He wants to recruit Machete as part of the special group who will go to space with him, but our stoic hero wants no part of it (especially once he sees the collection of luchador masks in Voz’s headquarters).

Performances, again, are what hold this film together, especially when it feels like every actor understands the tongue-in-cheekness and the nuance.  Heard is a gem as Miss San Antonio.  Even Mel Gibson seems to get the joke.  In the film’s best stretch of subplot, a bounty is placed on the heads of Machete and Mendez, who are then hunted by a collection of colorful ne’er-do-wells.  These include a maniacal sheriff played by William Sadler, a vengeful cop played by Julio Oscar Mechoso, and a faceless/genderless bounty hunter called El Camaleón, played by four actors: Walton Goggins, Cuba Gooding Jr., Lady Gaga, and Antonio Banderas.  It’s an ambitious idea and a very good string of scenes (especially when Banderas speaks deliberately bad Spanish with a forced Mexican accent), and may have been one of the most interesting film villains of any age, if not for the throwaway joke that brings the character to a narrative dead-end.

Two films, in any series, are enough for me.  When you plan on doing more than two, you enfranchise the series.  Franchises are bad.  They exist to fatten pockets and egos and stomachs and the shelves of people who collect mindless crap.  When it’s a film series, the second one is often an incoherent celluloid goo that merely connects the two important films.  If Rodriguez really intends to do a third Machete (which, if we’re going to believe what this film promises, will take place in outer space and feature Trejo, Kristen Stewart, Michelle Rodriguez with one of her eyes back, Alexa Vega, Mel Gibson, and Sofia Vergara), it’s going to require a lot more thought.  Either that, or it will be just plain non-ironically bad.

ImageMachete Kills (2013); written by Kyle Ward; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring Danny Trejo, Amber Heard, Michelle Rodriguez, Demián Bichir, and Mel Gibson.  

The Wolverine

Only Hugh can prevent the technological apocalypse

THE WOLVERINEWhen I go to superhero/ine films at all, I go in cold (for reasons that probably don’t apply to this piece).  I don’t know (or care) much about what Silver Samurai does in the X-Men comics.  Objectively, however, James Mangold has put together a superhero movie that actually manages not to be a superhero movie, but a movie that happens to feature a guy with superpowers as the lead.  While still fitting into the seven-installment movie franchise, The Wolverine sheds preconceived obligations and limiting crossover lore in favor of telling a story about the character of Wolverine and what he may have done after the events of the original X-Men trilogy.

The story follows Logan (Hugh Jackman, no longer singing, but returning to curt delivery of laconic dialogue), now a hermit in the Canadian wilderness.  Having fought in pretty much every war in American history, we begin with Logan’s survival of the atomic bombing on Nagasaki, during which he saved a Japanese soldier named Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) – given Logan’s immortal nature, it’s difficult to imagine how he was captured, but never mind.  In a touching flashback, the young Yashida offers Logan a special Japanese sword, which he instructs him to hold with two hands.  Logan refuses, stating that he will “come get it someday.”  In the distant future, long after the events of every subsequent X-Men film, the elderly and dying Yashida wants Logan to fulfill his promise, and sends Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to fetch him.  Reluctantly heading to Tokyo after completing the superhero trope of knocking around a bunch of disrespectful thugs (in this case, hunters who have provoked and killed a grizzly bear), Logan finds that Yashida, now a billionaire “zaibatsu,” hasn’t called Logan here to say goodbye – he’d rather absorb Logan’s unwanted powers of immortality and live forever.  Logan refuses, Yashida dies offscreen (i.e. doesn’t die), and Logan decides to protect Yashida’s granddaughter, knife-wielding business mogul Mariko (Tao Okamoto) from two parties who seem to want her dead: Yakuza assassins hired by her own father, Shingen (LOST‘s Hiroyuki Sanada), who wishes to inherit Yashida’s legacy, and an enigmatic clan of black-clad bowmen led by a female gaijin known only as Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova) and her right-hand man, Harada (Will Yun Lee), the film’s resident “frenemy.”

Due to a mild case of Island Syndrome, Logan nearly becomes a Boring Hero, and is saved only by the frequent appearance of Famke Janssen as Jean, the love of his life, whom he was forced to kill in the third film due to her destructive second personality.  This presents a much needed layer to Logan, a drifter directed only by hallucinations and animal instincts (and more than occasionally, convenient plot points).

The women of the film, like most in the series, are presented as independent people with their own strengths – Yukio is an unrivaled bodyguard (count how many times she saves Logan throughout the film); Mariko is a competent businesswoman and knife-thrower, and is fiercely dedicated to her family despite her desire not to own Yashida Corps; and Viper, the most one-note speaking part in the film, is actually an accomplished oncologist in addition to being a toxic mutant who spews villainous threats you’ve heard a million times before.  In various ways, this is a superhero movie that relies on its female characters despite none of them taking the lead (similar to the ways Unknown was actually about Diane Kruger’s character consistently rescuing Liam Neeson in spite of her better judgement and the sheer lack of credit received, this film, if told from another angle, could really be about the complicated sisterly relationship between Yukio and Mariko, and how their interactions with an impossibly-muscled foreigner help shape the direction the future takes).  This is unlike Iron Man 3, which presented the illusion of female empowerment by having Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), after being a damsel for two hours of reel, briefly take up the mantle of the male character to dispatch the villain (read: rather than being an empowered character on her own merits, she becomes the male character).

This is, as my father would say, “a pretty good movie,” considering the genre and the countless comic book reboots clogging theatres and shoving great indie work aside.  Most of the actors do their best to turn stock characters into believable people and formulaic shlock into viable drama.  The lion’s share of characters are normal humans, not mutants who exist for the sole purpose of showcasing cool CGI powers.  There’s just enough nuance for genuine interest; real questions about what Logan’s immortality means (albeit answered either with laconic statements or unanswered altogether); women who get to do things, and moreover, decide what they do; and ultimately, a mite of character growth not really seen in The Last Stand (which contained so many characters and plot alleys that the only dialogue I can remember is Vinnie Jones’ silly reference to a Juggernaut YouTube video).

I’m conflicted about the obligatory mid-credits lead-in to a full reboot of the core X-Men story, wherein Magneto (Ian McKellan) and Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) approach the finally-free Logan in an airport and inform him that yet another deadly force is out to extinguish all mutant life.  Can’t these sons of bitches leave well enough alone?  I’m not sure if I mean Professor X and Magneto, or their real-life supervillain counterparts at Marvel Entertainment.

The Wolverine (2013); written by Christopher McQuarrie; directed by James Mangold; starring Hugh Jackman, Rila Fukishima, Tao Okamoto, and Hiroyuki Sanada. 

Much Ado About Nothing

Our watch, sir, have indeed comprehended two auspicious persons

Amy AckerShakespeare is one of the only writers whose work can be acceptably “interpreted” to fit new adaptations.  One of the more popular ideas about Much Ado About Nothing – among the most effective of Shakespeare’s comedies – is that Beatrice and Benedick are rediscovering an old love as opposed to finding it for the first time.  Joss Whedon plays with this in his new adaptation, which he shot at his own home in Santa Monica in record time.  Much of the great nuance stems from Whedon’s film technique, including his use of black-and-white, which may remind one of the great comedies of old (Shakespeare’s play is unarguably one of the earliest examples of screwball comedy), namely the 1930s.  Finally, a Shakespeare film adaptation by a director that not only understands the text, but also understands the conventions of the film genre in which he works and how employing those conventions might bolster the effectiveness of the movie.

The story follows the original, down to the exact word aside from some interesting shifts – the various songs from the play, sung by characters, are here absorbed into the film’s soundtrack – and Whedon’s inspired choice to switch Conrade’s (Riki Londhome) gender, rendering her the lover of the mostly-offscreen scoundrel Don John (Sean Maher).  This enables some wonderful opportunities in blocking, and also some invention on the part of the filmmakers, which is always important in an adaptation, and usually leads to vicious abuse of the source material.  Not here.

Beatrice and Benedick, the leads, are played warmly and familiarly by Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, who just might be the new sweethearts of the screen (think Peppy and George, but not quite so forced).  Acker’s Beatrice is steadfast, opinionated, and witty beyond belief.  Denisof’s Benedick is relentlessly hammy, and never misses the mark with his nearly endless quips.  I’d have watched a movie comprised of nothing but these two, but we get much more, namely in Riki Lindhome as the infamously straightforward Conrade, whose facial expressions in the film are as good as any of her lines, and Nathan Fillion as Constable Dogberry, written by Shakespeare to be the dumbest, most inept character of all time, who inadvertently (along with his underlings) saves the day by revealing Don John’s dastardly plot to frame naive and frustratingly-silent Hero (Jillian Morgese) for an adultery she never committed.  Fillion delivers Shakespeare’s arduously-crafted malapropisms more naturally than anyone I’ve seen in the role (don’t take that the wrong way, Nathan).  Fran Kranz appears as Claudio, the play’s Boring Hero, and delivers most of the film’s straight-played dramatic dialogue more than convincingly.  The role of Don Pedro, Prince of Aragon – who functions mostly as Claudio’s drunk friend whose lot in life is to provide bad advice with high-school-level maturity – is taken up by Reed Diamond, who keeps an appropriate presence and doesn’t upstage the less overt Claudio when he isn’t supposed to.  Clark Gregg of The Avengers plays Leonato, governor of Messina, who decides on all of the ridiculous stipulations in the story.

The resulting movie is the best onscreen comedy in years, in a world wherein screwball comedy has lately been defined by lowbrow sex jokes, hit-or-miss improv, and increasingly preposterous situations.  Here is something low key, accessible, cultured, and smart.  Here is something heartfelt, truly funny, and furthermore, relevant – Shakespeare’s poking fun at the incompetent police forces of his day (which at the time were made up of respectable citizens who took up the job for a few nights a year despite being all but completely unqualified to do so) doesn’t quite pinpoint the more serious missteps of our current enforcement, but Dogberry’s ineptitude (not least of which is his famously redundant list of Conrade and Borachio’s felonies) and eventual day-saving suggest that social order and emotional normalcy can and will be restored by sheer providence/circumstance.  It also showcases women in a medium (Renaissance comedy) wherein many folks may not have thought prominent female characters would exist (or at least not as wives and damsels, as they do in much of Shakespeare’s work).  Moreover, all the wit and wordplay still dazzle, right down to the title: “nothing” and “noting” were homonyms when the play was written, and here we have a story in which every character’s emotional stability is upturned due to something that did not actually happen (i.e. “nothing”), and every major turning point in the story is triggered by characters spying and eavesdropping on one another (i.e. “noting”).

May Whedon continue along this road.  This is real superhero work.

Much Ado About Nothing (2013); written and directed by Joss Whedon; adapted from the play by William Shakespeare; starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Nathan Fillion, and Riki Lindhome.

The East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

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