Whiplash

I’m Buddy Rich when I fly off the handle

Whiplash-4934.cr2Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller), a young jazz student at the fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City, spends nearly a year (his time) and nearly two hours (our time) confronting that beast of a fact that we artists learn all too early yet never accept: his plebeian family, concerned with division-3 sports and the accomplishments of his jock cousins, are just never going to “get it.”  If we all accepted that, maybe we would get more work done.  Or maybe we would be drained of all the audacity that fuels our best work.  It’s hard to tell with Andrew, because he’s never actually portrayed as an “artist”: he doesn’t make anything of his own.  But damned if memorizing Juan Tizol and Hank Levy charts isn’t going to bring him respect.

Whiplash is a tough film to pin down, which is probably good, but let’s ignore for a minute the pedantic misreading of musical history that defines the entire personality of Andrew’s scrupulous conductor/teacher, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and just look at this as a film.  The narrative follows Andrew as he shoots for greatness, albeit alone, sort of forgetting that successful musicians (especially in jazz, and including idol Charlie Parker) play with other people.  Andrew flaunts the fact that he has no friends.  He deplores his extended family, and even seems to resent his father (warm-faced Paul Reiser) for the fact that his mother (conveniently!) left the family when Andrew was a baby – not to mention the fact that he mixes popcorn with Raisinets, which is just undignified.  Andrew is put in Fletcher’s class as alternate to the core drummer, then promoted to core without anything close to a promise that he’ll keep that position.  It’s not just his opponents, Ryan (Austin Stowell) and Carl (Nate Lang); it’s Fletcher, known to abuse students and play mind games (and like any other coach/drill-sergeant villain, he’s not above hurling every sexist, homophobic, and otherwise offensive adjective at his proteges).  So it’s set up as a formula Student vs. Mean Teacher narrative in the Sports Underdog tradition, complete with the thought that, like Buddy Rich, the Mean Teacher is actually a big softie who is just being hard on his students so that they can achieve greatness – as Fletcher controversially puts it, the worst thing you can say to someone is “Good job.”

Thus, Whiplash‘s plot can be easily plugged into any pyramid graph you’ve ever seen, but the performances and the motivations of the characters are what allow it to be something of its own (or at least to try as hard as Andrew to be that).  What’s going on with Fletcher, exactly?  Well, “softie” doesn’t come to mind when dealing with a character who calls teenagers “retards,” harangues them so hard that they hang themselves, and instructs a student to “get the fuck out of my sight before I demolish you” (the latter is the film’s single deliberate gut-buster, which Simmons can make out of just about any line, and wisely reserves that talent when it comes to this character).

There’s one other character worth mentioning: Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a movie-theatre attendant/cashier whom Andrew is sweet on already (he frequents her theatre so often that he has a “usual” candy).  The development between them, beginning with Andrew asking her out “for pizza or something,” is as charmingly awkward as it is in real life at that age, yet more organic than a contrived Meet Cute because it doesn’t need to pretend to be anything more complicated than a teenage boy asking out a teenage girl for the first time.  Romance is indicated by a simple shot of a flat shoe sliding over a table leg to the other person’s side.  The issue with Nicole is that she’s introduced as an important character, and we like her, and then she is used as a plot device that exists mostly in the background, and eventually not at all: Andrew breaks it off with her after Fletcher becomes hard on him, assuming that having a girlfriend will distract him from his practice.  She reacts as she should: incredulous that he would just assume this about her without ever mentioning it before.  Later, when he gets a chance at what he thinks is his big break, he phones Nicole to invite her, but she blows him off, mentioning (whether true or not) that she has a boyfriend now.  At least she’s given the last atom of agency between them, but Benoist’s performance is so genuine (she is, in many ways, the most realistic character in the film) that her absence in the second half is sorely felt, especially considering the lack of women in the film anyway (why does there only seem to be one female student at Shaffer?).  Instead, Nicole is used as a convenient way of saying that warriors like Andrew need to be lone wolves in order to be successful, and that idea is never combated by anyone else.

Fletcher’s “revenge” scheme later is the most unexpected and ingenious device in the film, and leads up to a figurative battle, during which both blood and sweat fly. The cinematography throughout focuses on excruciatingly closeup details of minute movements – a trumpeter’s first breath before blowing, the lighting of a cigarette, blood spreading from injured hands into a bucket of ice-water, etc.  It’s not as calculated and thematic as the cinematography in, say, Birdman, but boy, does it make one pay attention (in a film that is, perhaps, not about details, but still lets its characters care about the things they care about simply because they care about them, in spite of the formula narrative they’re living).

Just as Inside Llewyn Davis was not a bad film simply because the ’60s folk scene was “friendlier” than depicted by the Coens, it doesn’t much matter that Charlie Parker’s exploits after getting a symbol frisbee’d at his head were different than what Fletcher tells Andrew.  As ostentatious as Whiplash‘s “message”(s) may be, it’s still a story about the people living within this world, not the lore.

Whiplash (2014); written and directed by Damien Chazelle; starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Melissa Benoist, and Paul Reiser.

Inherent Vice

Not hallucinating

inherent-vice-640x360PT Anderson’s adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, a novel written well into the age of irony and meta narrative, voluntarily entangles itself in genre trappings, and centers around a hippie version of Sherlock Holmes who simply cannot gel with the world in which he insists upon staying.  Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is never without joint in hand and never has a clear thought.  He misses his ex, Shasta (Katherine Waterston), but doesn’t quite know why they broke up, and doesn’t quite want to be together again either.  His attempts at hardboiled dialogue quickly devolve into non sequitur.  His professional rivalry with oafish cop Bigfoot Bjornsen (Josh Brolin) consistently proves disastrous for him.  A DA with whom he’s having an affair (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t trust his word because he’s stoned all the time.  Following a bold escape from white supremacist captors, a hand-off that should be climactic (complete with period cars parked at a safe distance whilst the skeptical strangers walk coolly toward one another) ends with a teenage girl flipping him off.  Like Doc, the film plods, meanders, and never forms any sense of direction, form, or anything that resembles a clear thought.  Doc pines for purpose but allows himself to drift, surrounded by people who inhabit rigid roles, and even when he actually does something (which is only ever in reaction to something that happens to him), he seems to resist genuine progress.

The film begins like the archetypal private-eye story: with a beautiful “dame” walking in and putting the reluctant PI on the toughest case of his career.  But the plot doesn’t take quite as long as The Big Sleep to become murky and incoherent because Inherent Vice does it on purpose.  Some things are resolved.  Some things are deliberately not.  Plenty of people – Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), Sauncho Smilax (Benicio del Toro), Aunt Reet (Jeannie Berlin), and others – are there for no reason or do not accomplish what appears to be their one purpose (at least as far as Doc is concerned).  The characters are fun to spend time with in a Jackie Brown sort of way, though a first viewing of this film isn’t necessarily for purposes of finding out what happens, as the plot and story become extraneous fairly early on.  Anything that could be exciting, romantic, or conclusive is subverted – Doc’s relationships with Shasta and Penny, Doc’s big shootout with thugs, even the involvement of Sortilège (Joanna Newsom), who narrates the story and whose face is seen plenty of times, is never defined in any clear way as a part of this story or a character of her own: who is she to Doc?  Who is she narrating to?  Why would anyone care, given the nature of the story’s structure?

Characters are enveloped in thick white-gray light so that the film is always wrapped in a sort of haze, which not only mimics Doc’s pot-addled mind, but also makes everything seem realistic and down-to-earth when the goal of the characters (read: main cast – Doc, Shasta, Hope [Jena Malone], Bigfoot, Mickey [Eric Roberts]) is to get somewhere that isn’t real or to grasp something that no longer exists – Doc’s fantasy life of being a badass private-eye on a scenic coast; Shasta’s seemingly perfect life with business mogul Mickey (who has become so sick of his life of corruption that he joins a cult where he doesn’t have to think about it any more); Hope’s insistence that her life of heroin-fueled debauchery with husband Coy (Owen Wilson), who has also run away (to become a snitch for several dangerous organizations), can be reconciled into a happy family life; Bigfoot’s bravado and conservative bullshit about being a respected cop when he’s actually whipped by his wife and moonlighting as an extra on Adam 12 and doing commercials in which he’s forced to wear a fake afro; even Clancy Charlock’s (Michelle Sinclair) hope that her no-goodnik husband (whose corpse we saw two hours ago and never shed a tear over) is alive. Closeups of characters involve unflattering framing and light that makes them appear as real people with disheveled hair, natural movements, and nary an airbrushed mole.  There’s natural beauty in the tiny moments, when Doc and company are not reaching for the ephemeral.

The film’s roadblocks are all in the choices made by its director, and maybe its purpose altogether (i.e. its self-conscious lack thereof).  A film should not be made with the intention of becoming a misunderstood cult classic.  Nearly all of its most positive reviews by respected critics involve the phrases “a film for film lovers” or “a film that demands comparison to [this] and [that].”  Being derivative is one thing, but you cannot say those things and then call a film “unique” and “original” in the same breath, much less when it’s based on a novel and so desperately (and here’s where I compare it to something) xeroxes Coen Brothers material.  Yes, nostalgia is a big theme in the film, perhaps its strongest.  But nostalgia shouldn’t be the one thing that causes us to 1) see a film, and 2) get so precious about it – similar to actual memories.

Worst, maybe, is Anderson’s continued misuse (and the word “use” is sadly appropriate here) of the female cast.  Where his last film had Philip Seymour Hoffman singing an active and impressive version of “Amsterdam Maid” while dozens of nude young (and old, none in between) women bounced around like decorations, this one has plenty of attempted characterization of women with one common trait: they all sit around waiting for a man (or multiple men) to save them.  But look at Shasta: she’s the one who doesn’t seem to need any of this.  She’s the film’s most liberated soul.  Until, of course, she returns to Doc’s apartment, strips down, and nakedly monologues in a several-minute-long single shot about how she’s in fact a much worse kind of person, objectifies and verbally degrades herself while rubbing her foot along Doc’s crotch, and then allows herself to be spanked and sexually ravaged.  I’m not sure which I prefer, if I have to prefer one: a film with practically no women (There Will Be Blood) or one wherein the women debase themselves at the whim of the men before and behind the camera (and wherein their greatest fantasy is living a life that involves actually making choices).  Also note: the fact that the actress has stated that the scene did not bother her doesn’t mean that the scene isn’t problematic as a whole or that it doesn’t perpetuate serious issues in our culture.

So yeah.  Inherent Vice is nostalgic, deliberately uncomfortable, and fun to try to puzzle out, but when it “says” something, it says the wrong thing, and much like its protagonist, who never knows what’s being said or whether he’s actually saying much of anything, the film itself isn’t too clear about whether its makers understand exactly what they are saying.  It doesn’t take repeat viewings to figure that out.

Inherent Vice (2014); based upon the novel by Thomas Pynchon; screenplay and direction by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Katherine Waterston, Josh Brolin, and Jena Malone. 

Inside Llewyn Davis

It was never new, and it never gets old

llewynThe Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity.  Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way.  Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn.  Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.

The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler.  Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed.  There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes.  Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.

Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself.  The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story).  The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines).  Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties.  He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet.  This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.

The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward.  Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer.  It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act.  But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible.  Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.

There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic.  The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day.  Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses.  Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.”  Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.

The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn.  Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago.  Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.

Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski.  Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted.  Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish.  Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him.  “And losers?”  In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going.  Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were.  But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron?  Is his record ever going to sell?  Will his relationship with his sister improve?  Will he visit his father again?  Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.

I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds.  But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out.  He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done.  He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.”  How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.

Does Llewyn achieve anything?  I’m more inclined to look at micro details.  Llewyn has made steps.  Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot.  Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him.  He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it.  Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate.  “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

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.

Moonrise Kingdom

What kind of bird are you?

Wes Anderson has somehow generated a collection of movies (with the possible exception of Fantastic Mr. Fox) that can be watched in any order and seemingly belong to the same universe.  The dry humor, the pallet of exclusively primary colors, the jump-cuts that act like missing reels, and the delicious mulligan of working class heroes and frustrated rich people pop up again and again.  Moonrise Kingdom features Anderson’s most eclectic ensemble cast yet, and the most amazing part is that these characters revolve organically around two first-time child actors.

The story focuses on the adventures of Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), penpals who decide to run away together, the former from his blooming career as a “Khaki Scout” and the latter from her dysfunctional family, who live in a lighthouse.  When their respective caretakers discover their disappearance, Captain Sharp (Bruce Willis) is dispatched to find them.  Unbeknownst to Suzy’s father, Walt (Bill Murray), Sharp is having an affair with Walt’s wife, Laura (Frances McDormand).  In addition, Scoutmaster Ward (Edward Norton), who cares deeply for his scouts (including Sam), leads the rest of the Khakis on a journey to apprehend the wayward couple.  Throughout the story, the threat of a terrible storm looms over New Penzance (the fictional New England town in which the story takes place), reported via the amusingly-named “Narrator” (Bob Balaban), an incredibly dry documentary filmmaker.  The storm, which in part provides a reference to Noah, serves more to foreshadow Sam and Suzy’s coming adulthood: they both know this is the final summer during which they’ll be young enough for these sorts of adventures.

The cast is fun to spend time with, especially as the people and conflicts accumulate.  Jason Schwartzman, who appears in most of Anderson’s films, shows up here as Cousin Ben, a relative of one of the camp scouts who offers to help Sam and Suzy escape.  He never removes his sunglasses.  Tilda Swinton appears as Social Services, a stern character who embodies her job, and there’s even an appearance by Harvey Keitel as Commander Pierce, the leader of the Khaki Scouts.  The world Anderson has created for this movie does not operate under the parameters of real life; desire reigns supreme here, and simple imagination can translate to very real magic.  This sense of fantasy is buttressed by the intricate maps of the fictional region and the nonexistent (in real life) young adult novels that Suzy brings along for the trip.

As the adults scramble and worry, the children enjoy the only true freedom either of them have ever had, as far as we can tell.  Walt, played with a familiar melancholy by Murray, seems to look at the world with a resigned disappointment, performing certain functions only because his maleness demands him to.  “I’m going to find a tree to chop down,” an axe-wielding Walt informs his three young sons as he wanders shirtless out the back door of his home.  None of these scenes are delivered with any kind of self-conscious humor.  Sharp and Laura know their affair cannot go on; Laura is simply bored with Walt, and Sharp has no companionship in his life.  There seems to be no escape for adults in the world of Moonrise Kingdom; there is only the cage of childhood, the thrill of adolescence, and the frustration and dissatisfaction of adults who were once thrilled to be alive.  The individual conflicts are resolved in the film’s colorful and imaginative finale, but we have to wonder, what is the trigger?  The storm?  The influence of the children on the stilted grown-ups?  Genuine epiphanies on the part of the adult characters?

The dialogue between Sam and Suzy during the soon-to-be iconic beach scene (after they discover their hiding-out spot, name it Moonrise Kingdom, and adeptly set up camp there) is delivered as thoughts-out-loud, a decidedly Anderson-esque method of conveying information and deepening characters.  For example, the children discuss kissing before they actually do, and grant verbal permission for other activities (“You can touch them if you want,” says Suzy).  It’s hard to put a finger on this technique, but it gels with the story’s pacing and provides several very funny moments (if not only serving to remind us how awkward everyone’s first romantic encounters actually are).

Lastly, a dog is killed in this movie.  People get upset about that.  I admit, sometimes these moments are sad, but I cannot understand being on the fence about an entire film (especially a wonderful one such as this) due to the appearance of a fake dog corpse.  At least the dog in this one didn’t deserve it; I recall a viewing of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men during which two friends (a couple) became vocal and disturbed after Josh Brolin’s character kills a vicious hunting dog in self defense.  They did not, however, bat an eyelash during scenes in which Javier Bardem brutally murders countless innocent bystanders.  This oversensitivity to dog death in movies – and it’s always dogs; cat death is often portrayed humorously (see The Boondock Saints) – was parodied to an unbelievable extent in What Just Happened with Robert de Niro and Michael Wincott, in which a test audience has a berserk reaction to the ending of a film: they’re okay with Sean Penn being shot a zillion times by gangsters, but not with the fact that the gangsters also kill his dog.  Bruce Willis also appeared in that film, not as a cop, but as an exaggerated version of himself.

Canine murder aside, Moonrise Kingdom is one of Anderson’s best live-action movies, an adolescent echo of The Darjeeling Limited’s sensibilities, and if its characters will one day become the characters of that film, let’s allow them to live on their fantasy island for good.

Moonrise Kingdom (2012); written by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola; directed by Wes Anderson; starring Jared Gilman, Sarah Hayward, Bruce Willis, and Edward Norton.

True Grit (2010)

Fill your hand!

When writing an allegedly impartial piece, one should refrain from making such claims as “The Brothers Coen are the most prolific filmmakers working today.”  Omitting any cliche’ I could dig up to justify this sort of claim, I’ll avoid stating it altogether and simply take a look at the recent record.  Joel and Ethan Coen have released a film every year since winning Best Picture for 2007’s No Country For Old Men, and even prior to the McCarthy adaptation, they were turning out films of great variety and substance near-annually.  From dark, violent, atmospheric breath-stealers (Fargo; Blood Simple; Miller’s Crossing) to screwball comedies (Burn After Reading; The Hudsucker Proxy) to thoughtful, dialogue-laden adventures with colorful characters (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) to cult favorites with no defining label (The Big Lebowski), the Coens have tried their four respective hands in plenty of territory.

With True Grit, the brothers continue to surprise.  This film is their first true genre exercise: an adaptation of Charles Portis’ 1968 Western novel.  While the film is a second adaptation of the book and not a remake of the 1969 film with John Wayne, it does share plenty of similarities, right down to some scenes being carbon copies dialogue-wise.  What sets this film apart, among other things, is the cinematography.   Not only do we have a vintage Coen Brothers film that manages to be dark, serious and (I guess I have to use the word) gritty, but also a story that remembers its origins: where James Mangold’s 3:10 To Yuma and Ed Harris’ Appaloosa began to pave the way and both almost succeeded, the Coen Brothers’ True Grit has restored the true spirit of the Western to modern American cinema.

For those who have been asleep since the late sixties, the story follows Mattie Ross (formerly played by the spunky Kim Darby, now played by Hailee Steinfeld, a young newcomer) a fourteen year-old girl looking for revenge against a drifter who killed her father.  She seeks the help of a rough, homely old U.S. Marshal, Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, in the role John Wayne played in the original), who is seldom caught sober and who apparently doesn’t take many prisoners.  Joining them out of personal interest is a Texas Ranger named La Boeuf (a moustached Matt Damon in the role formerly occupied by Glenn Campbell).  The adventure centers largely around these characters, and the antagonists are only talked about, never seen, until the final fourth of the movie.  However short a time they are given on screen, they are played to full effectiveness by Josh Brolin (as Tom Chaney, the object of the quest) and Barry Pepper ( as Lucky Ned, the leader of a dangerous gang with whom Chaney has fallen in).

The cast works together as a dysfunctional machine.  This film is Steinfeld’s first shot at a leading role, yet we never get the sense that she is being buffered by the grizzled Bridges and the experienced Damon – in fact, it’s quite the opposite.  As Mattie is the main protagonist, she narrates the story, controls the main action, and commands every scene in which she appears.  She is a strong presence and an incredible gift to young actresses (it’s okay to have an unknown thirteen year-old girl as the lead character in a movie that has Bridges, Damon and Brolin!).  Bridges is wonderful as Cogburn, making the role his own and never looking back at John Wayne, yet paying as great a homage to the rugged Duke as anyone ever has.  The Coens wisely keep the iconic buildup to the four-on-one gunfight, and when Cogburn shouts his famous lines at Lucky Ned, it’s difficult to not only suppress a cheer, but to avoid seeing John Wayne on that horse for just a moment.  In addition to being a weathered old anti-hero, however, Bridges’ Cogburn has his lovable moments, particularly when traveling alone with Mattie and relating the events of his life.  On the other end, Damon is great as La Boeuf, the character whose alignment is constantly in question (the “problem character,” if you will), and you’ll never once think “that’s Matt Damon” when watching him.  Brolin plays a pure villain with whom even the toughest gang in the West wants nothing to do, and Pepper plays Ned as a woolly-chapped gang boss who, while completely sure of himself, knows he’s an outlaw and a ruffian, and avoids being a blowhard Western baddie.  Domhnall Gleeson also appears as the ill-fated Moon, in a role once played by a young, pony-tailed Dennis Hopper.  The “Your partner’s killed ya” exchange is preserved and wonderful.

The Coens make good decisions with the supporting cast as well.  The characters we liked from the novel and the old movie return and are given a bit more to do, such as Harold Parmalee (Bruce Green), the “simple-minded” member of Ned’s gang who communicates only by making farm-animal noises.  They eliminate the character of Mexican Bob altogether, and they severely reduce the appearance of Mr. Lee (Peter Leung), the Chinese grocer with whom Cogburn lives.

I am concerned about a certain scene, however.  During the hanging at Fort Smith, the prisoners are given last words before taking the plunge.  But as the Native American prisoner begins to speak, a bag is shoved over his head immediately.  This drew laughter from the audience.  It isn’t supposed to.  This is a person being treated as a second-class citizen on his own land.  The land belonging to the “injuns” is called “unsettled territory.”  It isn’t a joke.  It’s a small gripe, but I haven’t decided whether it’s a gripe against the filmmakers or the rabble.

The film has beautiful locations and ambient music by Carter Burwell that knows when to take center stage and when to back up.  There are a few editing errors here and there, but having worked on a film myself recently, I know they happen and I know why they happen, especially when deadlines come into play.

The Coens continue to push their own limits with film.  Did True Grit need to be remade?  No.  The original is an adventure that has held up to this day.  However, the Coens’ version stands apart as its own film, and has the most likable trio of protagonists in recent memory.  By the end of the film, I wished I could have spent more time with the young Mattie and old Cogburn before the epilogue.  But hey, maybe in fifty years, someone will remake Rio Bravo…again.

True Grit (2010); written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen; starring Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon and Josh Brolin.

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