29 July, 2010

Movie Review: Time of the Wolf (2004)

Michael Haneke's Les Temps du Loup (Time of the Wolf or Year of the Wolf) is perhaps his least regarded and least discussed film for good reason. The movie mistakes pretension for seriousness, with a meandering, enigmatic plot that never begs any interesting questions, a large ensemble of loosely sketched characters, and none of the horror, suspense, or cinematic thrills that typically mark the post-apocalyptic genre. Michael Haneke believes that his film is the most meaningful of an overdone genre, yet none of its cursory themes ever take hold and at the most fundamental level it fails to resonate, entertain, or provoke.

Of all genres, the post-apocalyptic fantasy is perhaps the format that carries the most symbolic weight. Night of the Living Dead is an intense examination of anarchy and how self-interest, survival, and teamwork do not always intersect. Serendipitously, it is also a statement about race relations. Children of Men explores xenophobia and the nihilism of having no future, and in a profoundly moving climax it juxtaposes the universal reverence of creating life with mankind's thoughtless pursuit of destruction. Dawn of the Dead and Shaun of the Dead both satirize mindless consumerism and lifeless routines. Day of the Dead, 28 Days Later, Starship Troopers, and 28 Weeks Later all present horrifying depictions of military rule, fascism, and war. The Road examines trust and sacrifice. The Road Warrior, and its most rudimentary, is a condemnation of oil dependence. I could go on, but the list would be very long. My point is that most dystopian films criticize some destructive element of society, be it mass media, group thinking, anti-environmentalism, drugs, or what have you. And most of these films also manage to be exciting, in fact some of the most exciting of all films.

Time of the Wolf offers no new insight, and it does so with a stillborn plot. The film has little visual flair, except for some haunting scenes of roving bands silently moving by torchlight in the distance. Haneke's depiction of the French countryside is misty and gray, but it's not far removed from present reality. It's his way of saying that for many people in other countries (say, Somalia) his depiction of the "end of the world" is their present world, a life of poverty, rape, anarchy, and hopelessness that they must live with daily. By not explaining the origins of the apocalypse and by having the conditions thrust suddenly and awkwardly on the film's central characters--a mother (Isabelle Huppert) and her two children--Haneke suggests that this dystopia is not as far off as we would like to imagine. Beyond this, he offers no clear message about what we must avoid in order to avoid destruction. We must imagine for ourselves what must be undone in order to change our fate (stop polluting? stop warring? end class inequality? end ethnic racism?), but why do we need to imagine this when there exist ample films that imagine these things for us? Since the writers of the Hebrew Bible wrote grizzly prophetic visions like those in Isaiah and Daniel, people have been imagining the end times, how rapidly they are approaching, what might cause them, and what we must do to avoid them. Time of the Wolf offers very little to this established train of thought, instead merely depicting outcomes that are far more resonant in other films.

A man who has had almost no prior screen time is randomly murdered, and when his killer is later accused before a crowd he escapes penalty since the crowd is incapable of justice without evidence and structure. A young girl is raped and then she is either murdered or she commits suicide; the rapist is never revealed or punished. People commit robberies that others are accused of, and stress and prejudice become controlling factors of some people's behavior. Characters are introduced and dropped, none of them ever reaching two or more dimensions. It's all very realistic, but ultimately drab and tedious.

Out of everything, few moments are memorable:

When a woman (Luminita Gheorghiu) asks another (Huppert) for a cigarette, she readily offers a tin of food in exchange. Later, out of some remnant of politeness, she offers the woman a puff of the bartered cigarette, then stares longingly as a lost-in-thought Huppert lets the cigarette turn to ash. Having been returned the cigarette, she smokes it to the filter, knowing that the exchange has not been fair and that she may never again have another cigarette.

A father's burial is edited over, but when his son's parakeet dies, the mourning ritual is highlighted, perhaps illustrating the child's attempt to confront the larger, more difficult issue by treating the smaller issue with excessive care.

And in the film's climax, that same son builds a fire and prepares to thrust himself into it as a sacrificial lamb. Having overheard a description of such a religious ritual from an old man who swore by its religious effectiveness, the boy attempts to solve the world's problems. The scene is an instant of genuine insight into child psychology, revealing the boy's inclination to believe that everything is his fault and his readiness to fix things with a superstitious gesture of no real value.

Yet despite these brief moments, the film is a pretentious bore, uninspiring, selfish, and forgettable.

Time of the Wolf (2003)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Isabelle Huppert, Luminita Gheorghiu, Anaïs Demoustier)

Movie Review: The Piano Teacher (2001)

Austrian director Michael Haneke once said, "[My films] are an appeal for a cinema of insistent questions instead of false (because too quick) answers, for clarifying distance in place of violating closeness, for provocation and dialogue instead of consumption and consensus." Certainly, nothing comes easy in a Haneke film. Exposition is rarely offered, and things usually taken for granted such as division between "good" characters and "bad" are here denied. In place of honest monologues and meaningfully edited action, Haneke substitutes silence, well-placed, drawn-out moments of silence during intervals where conventional filmmakers would offer answers. The placement and duration of these pauses is sufficient to require an involved viewer to begin deciding what questions he or she needs resolved and, in the process, to begin trying to solve them. Whereas the concise speed of conventional films offers no opportunities for pondering until after the end credits have begun to roll, Haneke's films are equal parts puzzling presentation and ponderous pausing. While perhaps tedious to some, the movies of Michael Haneke effectively cement themselves in the minds of their viewers.

The titular character of La Pianiste (The Piano Teacher or The Piano Player) is Erika Kohut, a woman of uncertain quality. Played by Isabelle Huppert with no cosmetic frills, she is a grim, pale, stony woman, her hair, clothing, and face tightly constrictive. In the movie's opening scene, she is presented sympathetically as a late middle aged, depressed adult still living under the domineering presence of a manipulative, aggressive mother (Annie Girardot). In subsequent scenes, however, the film presents a thoroughly cold and unlikable side of her as she completes a day of work as a piano instructor at a Viennese conservatory. Grilling her teenage students, she is unyielding, negative, and demanding, insulting her pupils for failing to grasp what she, as a skilled, lifelong pianist, has come to appreciate.

Erika's mother, in her typical way of seeding virulent ideas in seemingly offhand, tangential remarks, suggests one reason for Erika's frigid approach toward her students: jealousy of competition. Suggesting that Erika should prevent her insecure student Anna Schober from becoming too competent in Schubert lest she step on Erika's toes as the modern master of the composer's complex works, the mother reveals that Erika's ultimate desire is not to teach but to do. Despite her accomplishments as a specialist of Schubert, Erika has never succeeded as a concert pianist. Her career as a teacher is a backup plan, a second choice, and it puts her in the awkward position of wanting to teach her students well, but not wanting to teach them well enough that they might prevent her from achieving her ultimate dream.

This frustrating fantasy--that despite her age she might still one day succeed as a professional musician--continually fueled by her mother's insistence, drives Erika to commit a diabolical act. Frustrated by Anna's growing success days before a school recital that, according to the mother, just may have important people in the audience, Erika secretly slips glass shards into Anna's coat pocket. When Anna shoves her hand into them, her fingers--and her possible career as a pianist--are destroyed. Erika does what any teacher must do; in order to allow Anna's fellow musicians the opportunity to perform in the recital, Erika fills her position as an understudy. And so the culmination of her irrational jealousy results in an awkward fulfillment of her desires: she will get to perform in front of these speculative "important people" in the audience, but she will be doing so as a fortysomething woman at a school recital with teenagers. What seems like a worthwhile fantasy is sometimes a miserable reality.

And that's the theme of this disturbing film: the crucial differences between positive expectations and their realistic fulfillment. Erika is, it's assumed a virgin. Despite her stern and serious appearance, however, she possesses the sexual desire of a hormonal adolescent. After work she visits sex shops in order to watch graphic pornography in the private booths, sniffing the semen-soaked tissues from the wastebasket. At night, she prowls about drive-in movie theater lots, hoping to find couples making love in back seats of cars. Her responses to sexual arousal are natural and bodily, but wholly abnormal: sexual stimulation causes her to cough, to urinate, to vomit, and to bleed. Her orgasms are physical eruptions and releases, yet they are far removed from normal sexual responses and instead are the symptoms of illness and injury. (To be fair, however, the bleeding is not spontaneous but a direct result of her having cut her labia with a razor blade in the bathtub.)

Her sexual fantasies are likewise unconventional. When she meets Walter Klemmer (Benoît Magimel), a young, charismatic engineering student who shares a similar skill in and passion for Schubert, Erika sees an opportunity to express her sexual self honestly. Walter is handsome, healthy, active, and masculine. An intelligent, practical, ambitious charmer, he is also perhaps the first attractive man to ever openly express an interest in Erika. She resists his desire to be a typical, dominant, male lover, however, and eventually confesses to him her real sexual needs in a lengthy handwritten letter detailing physical abuse, bondage, submission, humiliation, helplessness, and rape. She reveals a box full of ropes and tools she has collected for these purposes. She doesn't want tenderness, she wants to be brutally subjected to physical sensations. She wants to be overpowered by sexuality. She wants a tactile, unavoidable manifestation of the psychological, subversive control that her mother exerts over her everyday. Oddly, though she wants to be dominated, she details these desires in perfectly regimented instructions and rules. The constraints of wanting a specific fantasy fulfilled--in other words, needing to communicate this fantasy to another person and direct that person like an actor--are at odds with the submissive, spontaneous, uncontrollable nature of the fantasy. Whereas an unspoken aspect of any fantasy is that it plays itself out naturally without being discussed and artificially created beforehand, the specific, unusual desires of her fantasy, cultivated over several decades, could never possibly happen without some prior rendering of the fantasy as rehearsed playacting.

Furthermore, Walter is disgusted. He doesn't want to be told what to do. He prefers his sex life to be unscripted and unregulated. He also is into traditional lovemaking, not loud, violent rape. He rejects her. She relents and persists, realizing that her honesty may have been to abrupt and startling and offering him an opportunity to do whatever he wants to do with her. Having bared her soul to someone, she doesn't want to lose perhaps her last opportunity for a sexual, mutual relationship. He, however, having learned more secrets about her than most people ever learn about another, cannot shake the reminders of what he deems disgusting and inhuman. Though she assures him that the specific circumstances of anyone's desires for love and sex are ultimately "banal" trivialities, his new knowledge that she is a sexual, biological, desperate creature presents an unconquerable challenge to his fantasy of her as a talented, controlled, sensible mentor. How can he respect her when she's titillated by being disrespected? And why would he want to have sex with anyone he doesn't respect?

A mark of happiness and a guarantee of success is an ability to convince ourselves that our fantasies and reality bear any resemblance. The Piano Teacher is a tragedy for Erika because it reveals her inability to form realistic, achievable fantasies and her recognition that when these fantasies come as close to being true as possible, they are never as good as she imagined they might be. The climax of The Piano Teacher is a disturbing and enigmatic depiction of this unfortunate fact. Though Erika convincingly informs Walter that she has no feelings, this is a lie, a mere fantasy that she wishes were true about herself. Though she keeps her emotions bound up and hidden, they are unleashed when she reveals her desires to Walter. The secret box under her bed that holds her sexual torture devices may as well be a Pandora's Box, for its opening chisels at her rigid exterior and reveals a frantic flurry of emotions beneath. She is desperate to be touched, to be loved, to be recognized, to be appreciated. In the bed that she shares with her mother, she frantically kisses, hugs, and touches her in a moment of strange incest that results in the mother beating her back and screaming at her. She pursues Walter, apologizes, berates herself, and offers him whatever he wants, but during an act of relatively normal sex, she orgasmically vomits. Misinterpreting her bodily reaction to his penis as the ultimate rejection of his manhood, he offers her insults and disgust. Finally, on the same night that her insane father dies in an asylum, a confused Walter forces his way into her apartment and offers her everything she wants.

Angry, frustrated, and confused, Walter accuses Erika of being a pervert. His frustration is genuine, but it also seems forcibly mustered, as though he's trying to play the role of an angry man. When he suddenly slaps her, he asks, "Not as you imagined, huh?" When her mother enters and tries to phone the police, he reacts instinctively and aggressively, throwing her in the bedroom, locking her up, and telling her off in a way that Erika must have wanted to do for decades. "'Forget your mother.' We have time. We have all night," he says. Then he pauses, closing his eyes and thinking. "Let's pick up where we left off," he says pointing to the place by the door where he slapped her. It's as though he's rehearsing, attempting to build a believable character while dealing with bad lines, forgotten actions, and interruptions. "Is this really what you imagined?" he pleads with her, and she shakes her head for an ambiguous reason--does she no longer want it or does she want it differently? She seems flustered and disappointed, and at one point it almost looks as though she rolls her eyes. It's not her job to direct him once the fantasy begins; he should be a better actor. Quoting her erotic confession, he hits her about the face. He beats and kicks her. She bleeds. She gives him a solid command to avoid hitting in the face and hands. But when she tells him to please stop, the request comes from a different voice. In her letter it predicted that she would say no and insisted that if she did say no, it meant that he should only be more aggressive. He is, but then he stops himself. He's not having fun, she doesn't appear to be having fun, and he's not even certain he's doing anything right.

He excuses himself to the kitchen to collect himself and drink a glass of water. Perhaps he takes off the costume at this point; perhaps he wishes to end the play. When he brings her back a glass of water, he sees her attempting to unlock her mother. Not part of the script, he reacts suddenly, smashing the glass and hitting her. Why is she trying to get him in trouble? Is she merely improvising, or is she actually trying to avoid his rape? When he responds violently, is it merely to protect his criminal self, or is he just trying to stick to the script? Is he raping her or not? Explaining that he's not enjoying the script and that it's time for him to play by his own rules, he rolls on top of her and begins to have sex with her in a tender, conventional, missionary position. He kisses her face, eyes, and mouth, though she doesn't kiss back. Her face is expressionless. She tells him to stop, but he keeps going. Finally, responding to her cold behavior, he deviates fully from the script, asking "Are you trying to tell me I should go?" She says nothing. He orgasms and then selfishly leaves.

They don't call the police. Maybe calling the police, given the evidence of the letter, would be ineffectual. Maybe they don't call the police because he didn't truly commit a crime. Maybe they're just scared. The next day, at the recital, Erika seems rather composed despite her bruised face. She brings a kitchen knife in her purse, and when Walter treats her as though nothing positive or negative had ever happened between them, she thrusts the knife into her own chest and exits the building into the night. Maybe she planned to kill him. Maybe she always planned to kill herself. The film closes without answering this question.

But it also leaves a host of other questions unresolved. The climactic sex act was undeniably a "rape," but was it nonconsensual, and if it was, then was it nonconsensual from the beginning or only at the point when Walter deviated from the script? Is there such a thing as consensual rape? Was it inevitable that Walter would leave Erika after conquering her sexually, and are the specifics of the sex thus irrelevant in regard to the fact that Walter was a teenage boy only after sex whereas Erika was after a deeper relationship? Does Erika kill herself because Walter rapes her, or does she kill herself because he leaves her and moves on? Or does she kill herself because she can no longer deal with having her emotions and desires exposed? Or does she kill herself out of embarrassment? Or does she kill herself because she realizes that what she wants and needs from life will always be unattainable? Does she even kill herself, or is it merely a showy display of masochism, an attempt to feel something near her heart despite truly being able to feel anything in her heart? Is she telling the truth when she says that she has no feelings? Can any relationship based on preset, unequal roles of domination and submission truly reach a level of loving equality outside of sex? Is sex really just a banal aspect of a broader love? Is Walter's statement after the rape that "love isn't everything" what truly kills her? And what role have Erika's domineering mother and absent yet important insane father played in her psychological development?

The Piano Teacher, which is Haneke's only theatrical film to date that was not based on his own original story (it is based on a novel by feminist Austrian novelist and playwright Elfriede Jelinek, who later won the Nobel Prize in 2004), is the perfect representative of his "cinema of insistent questions." Anyone who watches the film must decide for him or herself what its intentions are. Having called it a perfect representative of a thought-provoking screenplay, however, I must admit that The Piano Teacher is not enjoyable film to watch. There are numerous scenes of what can only be described as sexual horror compounded with monstrous levels of psychological ugliness. Isabelle Huppert is uniform and convincing in her portrayal, but her character is inhuman and possibly psychotic, impossible to relate to on any emotional or personal level. While the film is fascinating and gripping, its outcome is bleak and discomforting, and whether or not a normal viewer has anything to learn from its psychology is questionable. The Piano Teacher is a remarkable film, but not a recommendable one.

The Piano Teacher (2001)
d/w: Michael Haneke
(Isabelle Huppert, Benoît Magimel)

27 July, 2010

Movie Review: The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids are All Right opens with Laser (Josh Hutcherson), a fifteen-year-old skateboarder capable of getting into some mischief. He and his friend Clay barrel down a neighborhood street, knocking over curbside trashcans and wreaking suburban havoc. In a garage, Clay smashes up a prescription pill, snorts it, and then commands that Laser do the same. He does, and soon they're sky high, wrestling in Clay's living room as his trashy father berates them. As the father jokingly wrestles his cracked-out teenage son to the ground, Laser looks on with a passive, almost envious smile.

Following Laser is a good place to start this film. The son of two lesbian mothers and the less ambitious, less talented sibling to an older, valedictorian sister, Laser is the only male in his family, and also the youngest and most powerless. He's a good kid, pretty reasonable and fairly level-headed, but he's at an age where committing meaningless criminal acts begins to look like an appealing opportunity. Will he become wayward and impressionable, or will he develop a strong, independent personality? Does his look as he watches his friend's father suggest a silent yearning for a male role model? What does it mean for a boy to be raised by two alternately doting and high-strung mothers yet have no positive older men to look up to?

The opening of The Kids Are All Right suggests all of these themes, and when Laser soon after initiates the movie's main plot--getting in touch with the anonymous donor who contributed half of the kids' genes via a sperm bank almost two decades ago--the screenplay further cements the idea that this is Laser's story.

It's not. His acts of delinquency go unnoticed and unpunished by his parents. His desire for a father figure remains unfulfilled, even after meeting his biological father. Quickly, as the film switches to the moms as the main characters, Laser drifts to the periphery of the film and the family, almost serving as a nonperson in much of the proceedings. During emotional scenes as the rest of the family breaks down in tears, he is oddly silent and awkwardly non-responsive, almost emotionally detached from the people who are supposedly closest to him. I know "teenage boys don't cry," but trust me, they do. Laser never does, perhaps because within the scenes we see he has no relationship with anyone. One of his mothers, Nic (Annette Bening), the powerful, bread-winning matriarch of the family, constantly cuts him off, mocks him, or dismisses him. (The film's final line, in fact, is a sarcastic "Thank you, Laser" directed to him in the backseat before the camera moves to focus exclusively on the two mothers, who we are made to believe are much more important than him. The sarcasm is appropriate given the context, but it's also uncomfortably dismissive given that Laser's prior remark may be deeper than its surface appears.) His other mother, Jules (Julianne Moore), has too many personal issues to resolve within the film's time span for her to have much of a relationship with either of her kids, and his sister Joni (Mia Washikowska) maintains a civil but altogether unintimate friendship with him.

At best, his role in the film is warped by his mothers into an irrelevant subplot where they attempt to project onto him a level of meaning that they would appreciate yet that has nothing to do with him or reality. Concerned about his only close relationship--the dysfunctional friendship with his idiot punk friend Clay--Nic and and Jules begin to assume that their son is gay. There's absolutely no reason to assume this; there's nothing gay about the kid, and any mother with any sense and likewise any lesbian with any gaydar should know that (and trust me, both of these are intuitions that exist in a very real, very physical sense), but through some combination of wishful thinking and an attempt to justify their son's need to have someone with a penis in his life, they wander into a silly subplot of questioning and interrogation. "You know you can tell us anything and we won't judge you," they tell him. It's supposed to ironically comical--imagine two gay parents being judgmental and unsupportive of their gay son!--but the scene comes across as insulting and unrealistic. Later, when Nic jokingly confesses, "I wish you were gay--then maybe you'd be more sensitive," the remark is oddly stereotypical, bluntly unloving, and reveals an unspoken chasm between the two. She judges him for not being gay. In a world where men are bullies (Clay), slobs (Clay's father), nincompoops (an effete friend who, in a brief scene, delivers a silly monologue about açaí smoothies), sex objects (the couple, oddly enough, watch vintage gay male porn during sex), racist tropes (an Hispanic gardener is ridiculed and then fired for no reason by Jules), wallpaper (Joni's best friend is a passive, nonsexual Scrabble player), or villains (the biological father), Nic desperately tries to find some justification for Laser and his presence in her life. "Maybe, God willing," she seems to think, "he will be gay, and then I can in some way relate to him."

I'm not saying this is how real lesbians or real lesbian mothers think and behave. I think it's far from impossible for a middle aged lesbian woman to have a relationship with her teenage straight son. But, given Laser's presence in this film, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko suggests otherwise. Maybe it's Josh Hutcherson's fault. He was okay in Disney's Bridge to Terabithia (2007), but maybe he didn't have the acting chops to pull off more meaningful scenes, and perhaps those intended scenes were left on the cutting room floor. That doesn't seem likely, though.

Laser only has two other major--though very brief--segments in the film. One is an irrelevant scene in which he and the sperm donor Paul (Mark Ruffalo) attempt to bond while shooting hoops. They get into a heated discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of burial and cremation. Whether this scene hints at Laser's obsession with death--or at any other deeper psychological meaning--is never disclosed; the topic is never mentioned again. The other segment is a pair of scenes involving him, Paul, and Clay. Paul witnesses Clay's rude, controlling behavior toward Laser, and rather than perceiving a nonexistent homoerotic subtext or clothing his advice in the meaningless self-help jargon that the moms are prone to speaking in ("How do you feel that your relationship with Clay is developing your path to self-actualization?"), Paul bluntly and honestly tells Laser that he doesn't like Clay's disrespectful behavior. Laser defensively dismisses Paul as being a misinterpreting, interfering idiot, but in their next scene together, as Clay tries to force Laser to hold a stray dog still while Clay pisses on its head, Laser finally stands up for himself and ends his friendship with the loser. Paul's amiable honesty enacts Laser's only change--and one of the only positive developments--in the film, whereas the mothers' doting and clinical "love" only results in confusion and frustration.

And yet, despite this, the film presents Paul as the villain. Mark Rufallo plays the character as he plays many of his roles: charming, relaxed, harmless, and aimless. As a young man he donated sperm out of combination of wanting to help people and needing the sixty dollars. Whether his intentions were truly noble or not is irrelevant; can the donation of sperm (or blood or plasma or any renewable resource) ever be deemed a serious, altruistic sacrifice? In any case, people were willing to pay for his sperm, and the family in the film would perhaps never have existed if not for donors like him. As a fortysomething, he owns and operates a successful, nice-looking, upscale casual restaurant using organic ingredients that he grows himself in a local cooperative farm. His employees all seem to like him, and I think most people would agree that--with his nice, large home and his cool record collection, his extensive wine collection and his BMW motorcycle--he has done pretty well for himself. Maybe he hasn't changed the world in any drastic way, but what would our country be without cool restaurants, and how many people honestly change the world anyway?

None of that is good enough for Nic, however. If she's to have a man in her life, he needs to be the perfect kind of man, a textbook example of a positive role model. She ridicules him for having dropped out of college, and she dismisses his autodidacticism as being dangerous, even though he is probably more successful and happier than many people with college degrees. She dismisses his notable career as mere employment in the "food service industry," as though he is flipping burgers and operating a fryer. As an emergency room nurse, she curses his motorcycle driving, though he operates the vehicle with the fullest measure of safety. When Paul offers Jules the support and encouragement that Nic refuses to offer (Jules wants to start her own landscaping business, which Nic routinely dismisses as a foolish proposal)--in fact, when he offers anyone in the family the kind of bare bones, realistic, human advice that he's good for, inspired not by self-help books with boldfaced terms like "developmental process" but by actual exposure to reality--Nic attacks him as an interloping, vicious rogue.

But Paul is not foolhardy, nor he is an interloper. The kids contact him first; and their repeated contact brings him deeper into their lives. It is Nic's idea to invite him over to dinner at their house in order to "kill him with kindness." He plays along like a good sport, mostly because he has an earnest interest in understanding and loving these kindred spirits, but it is entirely their fault that he is a part of their lives.

At the first meeting between Paul and the kids, Laser sees his motorcycle and expresses his enthusiastic desire to ride one. He never has, however, because his parents refuse to let him. If Paul were dangerous or careless, or even if he simply wanted to impress or ingratiate himself into the lives of these new acquaintances, he might say something along the lines of, "What they don't know won't hurt them!" How many thoughtless adults try to buy the love of children by letting them do things they're not supposed to do? Nevertheless, it never crosses Paul's mind to violate the real parents' rule, and Laser never rides the motorcycle in the movie.

This early scene solidifies Paul's rather noble character, and further scenes--such as his honest talk with Laser about Clay--illustrate his presence as an honest, realistic, and positive influence. At one point he tells Joni, who is preparing to leave for college in a month, that the only way to initiate her path to independent adulthood is to initiate it herself. It's not the typical advice that parents give to children--that any adults give to children--but it's true. No adult should be dominated by a controlling mother for her entire life. Paul even bonds with Nic, albeit very briefly, over a shared love for the songwriter Joni Mitchell (the daughter's namesake).

His most damningly positive influence, however, is with Jules. Starved for affection, attention, encouragement, and purpose, Paul provides for the insecure Jules everything that the controlling, judgmental, disinterested Nic denies. Stirred by his good vibes, and weirdly aroused by his resemblance to her children, Jules initiates a frantic, stress-inducing love affair with him. Though he is complicit, she initiates it and she allows it to persist, despite her reservations.

Why does she have sex--lots of sex--with a man? Why does she watch gay male sex during lovemaking with her wife? Has she ever had sex with a man before? Is there some psychological need that only a man can fulfill? Is she as gay as we thought she was? Is she as gay as she thought she was? The affair is the major focus of the film's many divergent, confused subplots, yet these interesting questions are either never raised or scarcely discussed. That's okay, since what's most important is Jules's need to feel loved, but it's odd that this lesbian-made film manifests that need in such an uncomfortably sexual way. I didn't like how these films were dismissed as mere comedy. When a middle aged, married lesbian has an exuberant affair with a man she's just met, I want more than a few jokes. I want insight.

But Lisa Cholodenko doesn't offer insight. Instead, the affair--and Nic's discovery of the affair--is used as the kick that sends Paul's character toppling down. Joni dismisses his positive influence, discoloring his entire personality because of one mistake that wasn't entirely his fault. Laser, who can so easily remove people from his life because he apparently forms no attachments to anyone, shrugs him off with a hateful glance and nary a goodbye. Following an earnest, naive, and completely unbelievable confession of love, Jules hangs up on him in disgust, in a way pushing all the responsibility onto him for her mistake. Nic, however, is given the final word; in an angry telling off, she accuses him of being an "interloper" and tells him that if he wants a family, he should go create his own instead of ruining other people's. That's Paul's last scene. The film continues for about fifteen more minutes, but it continues without Paul, who is outcast without a chance to defend himself. In these final scenes, happiness abounds and normality returns. Jules makes a tearful apology. Everyone cries (except Laser). Everyone hugs (except Laser). Joni grows up and goes to college. The couple holds hands, and all is right in the world.

The Kids Are All Right would be quite interesting if it highlighted its unfairness toward Paul. His only real flaw in the movie is a presumptuous dismissal he gives to a waitress/lover (played in a brief but convincing role by the beautiful Yaya DaCosta), with whom he ends his affair by explaining that he wants a serious relationship (and thus assuming that she is incapable of being serious). Even this flaw, however, reveals a yearning toward some goodness (i.e., he is in love with Jules, which is the real reason for the breakup). Despite his dearth of serious shortcomings, the film gives him the short shrift. By giving the last word to the film's least likable character, Nic, whose only saving grace (and she even admits this in a pointed comeback that's supposed to make us fully side with her) is that she's monogamous, the film effectively vilifies Paul and lends credence to all of Nic's prejudgments of him (that he is ignorant for dropping out of school, that he is reckless for driving a motorcycle, etc.). While the film could serve as a contrast to Nic's triumph--either through the cinematography or the structure or the title or something--it doesn't. The unrealistically happy epilogue, in which Paul disappears and is forgotten about, reinforces Nic's victory. Cholodenko wants us to conclude that Paul was harmful. Though he only exacerbated preexisting problems, we are supposed to conclude that he created them. Though he could very well play a positive, albeit limited, role in the children's lives, we must conclude that this is an impossibility. As in the beginning, the family can only truly function if Nic is in complete control. "Thank you, Laser," but please shut up.

The Kids Are All Right is a scattered, confused, and rather offensive film. Lisa Cholodenko's cinematic condemnation of Paul is an accusation that men are at worst destructive influences or at best unnecessary. I know that many male filmmakers--and in fact men throughout history--
have been making some of the same accusations against women since the dawn of time. I know that in a majority of movies and books they don't even have to prove these accusations; they can simply assume them, like in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with its sexist hero, its evil antifeminine villains, and its acclaim of mindless, men-praising prostitutes. But the solution to this unjust societal structure isn't to create a mere mirror image of hatred. A narrow-minded, mistaken condemnation of all men is no closer to reality, justice, or progress than all the misogynistic portrayals that have come before it. It does nothing to balance the scales, but merely upsets them.

What is to become of Laser, uninvolved and unimportant in the back seat of the car? Must he simply accept that he is purposeless? Joni might be "all right," but will Laser ever be?

A dramatically inert and cinematographically flavorless film, though The Kids Are All Right boasts a couple of fine performances (notably Mia Wasikowska and Julianne Moore) and a few interesting moments, its puzzling screenplay raises troubling questions that it no way attempts to answer.

The Kids Are All Right (2010)
d/w: Lisa Cholodenko
(Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo)

23 July, 2010

Movie Review: Inception (2010)

This review is a spoiler-ridden, indepth analysis of what I believe the film must be about. My reviews generally contain spoilers as they are typically intended to be consumed after viewing a film, but I make the distinction here because this film is still in theaters and is heavily dependent upon interpretations and surprises. Not only does this review have many explicit spoilers for Inception, it also has quite a few spoilers for the other movies in Nolan's oeuvre. Consider yourself forewarned.

Christopher Nolan, whose filmography has been a winning streak of clever, thought-provoking, exhilarating films (Following, Memento, Insomnia, Batman Begins, The Prestige, The Dark Knight), has made a career of cinematic sleight-of-hand. Since his first low-budget feature film Following in 1998, which exploited the audience's and the characters' lack of knowledge about each character and their circumstances and relationships while pretending to offer the protagonist and the audience intimate insight into the characters' lives, Nolan has had a penchant for fooling viewers into a false sense of security of understanding. What seemed like a fairly straightforward (though inversely told) revenge tragedy about a man seeking justice for his wife's senseless murder in Memento in fact revealed a man ultimately uninterested in justice and morality, seeking merely a worthwhile reason to keep living a worthless life. Insomnia negotiates a shadowy terrain of truths and lies and how each can be used for both good and evil during the investigation of a murder trial where both the culprit and the lawman can be destroyed by a full accounting of the truth, and The Prestige is a mind-bending magic trick, replete with disguises and distractions, about a dedicated magician (Hugh Jackman) who willingly sacrifices his soul for the benefit of his art. At the conclusion of The Dark Knight, the most heroic men in town (Batman, Jim Gordon) conclude that what society needs more than the truth is a truth that sounds good, a truth that will inspire goodness in everyone and help them to make it through the day, even if that truth is an outright fiction. Framing Batman for Harvey Dent's nihilistic revenge crimes, Batman and Gordon successfully imbue the once noble, once handsome freedom fighter with all the heroism that he ultimately failed to possess while simultaneously the butler Alfred keeps Batman's spirit alive by destroying evidence that the love of his life--his reason for living--did not in fact love him anymore.

If Nolan has proven one thing throughout his writing and directing career, it's that he loves a good deception, even if it's a self-deception capable of destroying the humanity and ultimate virtue of an otherwise likable protagonist. All of Nolan's characters, even the smallest bit players, live and breathe with vibrant realness, with believable motivation and interesting quirks (think of Tom Wilkinson's "like a dog" speech in Batman Begins, or Cillian Murphy in the same film, or Michael Caine in The Prestige, the hotel desk clerk in Memento, Robin Williams in Insomnia, or Eric Roberts as the seedy mafioso in The Dark Knight--these were all minor characters who left an impression, who seemed too real to be contained in the confines of the film). He's never lost himself in his plots, even incredibly labyrinthine ones like The Prestige, and he's always had a knack for a skin-tingling reveal (think of the moment when Harvey Dent reveals to Rachel--and to us--that his decisive coin is only one-sided; that he never almost snapped and killed a suspect, but that justice was always on his side... and consider how this important, character-defining revelation comes immediately before one of the most engaging and breathtaking action sequences ever filmed, in which this redeemed man's life is put in dire jeopardy). Nolan is an expert writer, a compelling philosopher, a skillful editor, and a talented storyteller. Even in aspects of filmmaking such as set design--consider the permanently sunlit Nightmute in Insomnia or his dirty Art Deco Gotham in Batman Begins--Nolan is an unquestioned master.

So why, on its surface, does Inception seem like such a lackluster film? Consider the plot. Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the son of Miles Cobb (Michael Caine), an esteemed academic who pioneered a technology that allows multiple people to enter and control the dreams of others. This technology is primarily used by the military for lifelike tactical training sessions, but a handful of artists and criminals also utilize its innovative concepts. Miles Cobb teaches his son everything he knows about the architecture of dreamspace, but this knowledge ultimately proves unprofitable in the real world, so Dom exploits the technology's criminal capabilities: entering the dreams of targets with top secret information in order to unknowingly extract that insider knowledge from their deepest subconscious. It's the corporate spying of the future, and to pull it off, Dom uses a team of skilled professionals, including architects, who build the perplexing dream worlds in which the targets and their subconscious projections (violent, uncontrollable humanoid characters who at any moment can interfere with the extractors' plans or alert the dreamer that he is dreaming) get lost; forgers, chameleons who can convincingly mimic persons from the real world within the dreamspace; and lookouts who guard the sleeping bodies during the dreaming process. The lookout, in addition to keeping the bodies safe from outside interference, is also responsible for administering "kicks," physical cues that awaken the dreamers. Proper timing of the kicks is important both to allow the awoken extractors a chance to make a getaway before the target awakens and to insure that the extractors do not get stuck in the various levels of their dreams.

In the course of his criminal escapades, Dom meets and marries Mal (Marion Cotillard), a sweet, beautiful French woman who is also a skilled extractor. They have two children: Philippa and James. One day they decide to do some recreational experimentation with the dream technology. They enter Mal's dream, then they enter dreams within dreams, and then they enter limbo, "unconstructed dream space," the place where people go when they die in dreams but fail to wake up. (Dying in a dream, it's pointed out early on in the film, typically causes the dreamer to snap awake--but not always.) Within limbo, they build dream homes, skyscrapers, cathedrals, shorelines. They create their perfect version of the universe, and Mal convinces herself that it is reality. Dom, wishing to return to the real world, manages to convince her that their surroundings are a fiction, and after nearly fifty years in limbo (dream time is longer than time in reality, and dream within dream within dream time is exponentially longer), they lie their heads on a train track and commit suicide, finally waking from their long, complicated dream excursion.

Mal, however, becomes convinced that even after awaking she is still in a dream, so she contrives a suicide designed to ensure that Dom will follow her into the final reality. Throwing up legal obstacles that will guarantee a horrible future for Dom if he doesn't enter a suicide pact with her, Mal leaps from a hotel room window and plunges to her death. Dom does not follow, and he is charged with her murder. He flees the country, leaving the kids behind, and spends the next two years desperately searching for a way to be reunited with them. When a powerful Japanese businessman, Saito (Ken Watanabe), offers Dom an opportunity to fix all his mistakes and return to his home and his kids, he leaps at the idea. The task: rather than extract information, he must implant in the mind of Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), a corporate heir, that the young man will dissolve his dying father's monopolistic empire. With this mission, known as inception rather than extraction, successfully completed, Saito will make a phone call that will fix everything.

Dom assembles a team that includes Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a level-headed thinker; Ariadne (Ellen Page), a brilliant young architect; Eames (Tom Hardy), a suave forger; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist who has developed a powerful sedative for accomplishing previously unreached depths of dream invasion; and Saito, who tags along in order to ensure the mission is successful. Using Yusuf's powerful drug, they sedate Fischer on a first-class transoceanic flight in an airplane secretly owned by Saito. They enter a dream within a dream within a dream, ultimately--and accidentally--plunging into limbo, and with the help of Ariadne's mazes, Arthur's swift action, Dom's thinking, and Eames's ability to impersonate Fischer's loving godfather, they successfully convince Fischer that rather than inherit his father's empire and his unhappy world, he should make a new life for himself and dissolve the family company. In the process, Dom makes amends with a subconscious projection of his dead wife--a violent, crazed phantom he has never been able to let go of.

The inception succeeds with only minor hitches. Saito makes the phone call. Dom enters through customs, and arriving home to Los Angeles for the first time in two years, he reunites with his children, finally seeing the faces he's longed to see. The movie ends.

That's a fair enough movie on the surface--an action-packed heist in a fantastic world guided by strange but consistent rules. A man overcomes his grief and his feelings of guilt surrounding his dead wife. He lets go of the idea that he can ever be with her or fix the fact that she committed suicide, and he moves on into the less-than-perfect yet wholly real world of reality. He chooses life over lies. Not bad, but if this is all the movie has to offer, than it's not a very good movie.

Consider the characters. Whereas Nolan usually crafts such interesting, complex, and convincing characters, the supporting cast in Inception is incredibly flat. Arthur, who has one of the largest roles in the film, is little more than a well-dressed body with a handsome face. He has no back story. How and when did he decide to become a dream thief? What is his motivation for joining in this final criminal caper? Is it merely money? Money is never even mentioned as a payment for success; only the phone call is offered as the reward. Consider Eames, a stereotypical exotic conman, or Saito, a run-of-the-mill "powerful businessman" type who can make all-important phone calls and who has the world wrapped around his finger yet has no emotional motivation and essentially no background. Ariadne is Miles Cobb's star pupil, and Miles Cobb is one of the biggest names in the dream business. Presumably he teaches sleep studies or something along those lines, yet prior to meeting Dom, Ariadne has never even heard of dream invasion. What is this American girl learning at this French school from this British teacher? Actual architecture? Spanish literature? Why does she decide to join these criminals in their dangerous task? What is she as a person beyond a mere means for Nolan to reveal some exposition to the audience? Mal is a psychotic, psychobabeling phantom, but then she's not a real person, so that's acceptable. Aside from Dom, the only character with an inch of depth is Fischer, the young heir tortured by conflicted feelings about his aloof father.

Christopher Nolan spent ten years working on Inception, and works such as Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were supposedly done only as preparation for this film. Can a man with a perfect batting average, who turns a stepping stone (TDK) into a masterpiece, really misfire so badly with his batting average? Did he really not bother to make any of his characters complex?

Or consider the editing, done by Lee Smith, who also edited Batman Begins, The Prestige, and The Dark Knight. He was nominated for an Oscar for the last film, and he was also nominated for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. He's a good editor. Editors typically work in conjunction with their directors. So why is the pacing of Inception so muddled? Dom arrives in France from Japan (?) to speak to his father and pick up Ariadne. The next moment he's in Mombasa, Kenya, trying to convince Eames to join his team. They're caught by some spurned business associates, however, and Dom is chased through the labyrinthine city streets while angry pedestrians scowl at him. He tries to hide in a cafe, but the waiter and all the coffeehouse patrons yell at him in undecipherable Swahili (?), so he flees through an impossibly narrow alleyway, only to discover Saito in a town car waiting for him. Saito, who has apparently been following him, saves him from being caught. Cut, and they're in... well, I don't know. Maybe they're still in Mombasa. Maybe they're in Mumbai, India. Maybe they're in Ancient Mystical Asia. They meet Yusuf, a chemist who sells drugs in colorful, nineteenth-century glass vials and who runs an underground sleeping den peopled with bearded Confucians. And then, bam, they're in, I think, Australia, ready to pull off the heist on the plane to California, where Miles Cobb, who was just living and working in France, is somehow there ready to meet Dom as he disembarks, but who didn't bother to bring the kids with him to meet their daddy at the airport.

A lot of confusion. A lot of contradictions. A lot of complicated questions that--while they can easily be resolved and answered--would never have to be asked if the film were simply good.

Or consider the scene in which Mal kills herself at the hotel. Dom enters the room after she has already been there for some time. The place is a mess. Going to the window, Dom looks out and sees her across the way, sitting in an opposing window, ready to jump. Judging from the lighting behind her, that window appears to be part of the same room, meaning that the hotel room they have is a vast, horseshoe-shaped suite that wraps around some sort of small courtyard. Dom leans outside of the opposing window in order to talk to her face to face. You would think he would run through the room to her window in order to pull her back in, but he doesn't. Maybe she's actually rented some separate room and it's not possible for him to reach her, but if she's done that then that'll be a clue against her in her attempt to set him up for her murder. Anyway, they have their tragic talk, she dies, and later he realizes that she filed a letter with a lawyer explaining that he had threatened to kill her and that she had visited three psychiatrists (three!) in order to declare herself sane (what?). In other words, he's screwed. A mysterious, bald man with a nightmare face silently hands him a plane ticket in his living room the next day, and he flees the country. For some reason, though, he can't take his kids with him or arrange for his father to bring them to him. They have to remain in the United States, cared for by a grandmother who is never seen.

Does all of this sound real... or does it seem like a dream? You know how in a dream you can be talking to someone face to face--because that's what you talk to, someone's face--even though it doesn't seem logical that you would be oriented to talk directly to that face if real physical conditions and limitations applied? One can make any number of excuses to explain why Dom is facing Mal when she leaps from their hotel room, but isn't the simplest explanation that he's dreaming, and that talking directly to her face made the most emotional sense at the moment of dreaming?

The whole film is a dream. I stand by that theory. I think the only way to justify the film and the only way to reconcile its seemingly shabby filmmaking with Nolan's genius is to accept that the whole film is a complex, distracting, layered dream. At no point--except maybe in brief glimpses and memories--do we see the actual reality of the film, which consists of a Dom of unspecified age and circumstance either lying in a deep sleep or else in a coma. Maybe his father was based to some degree on a truth from that reality, and maybe Mal was too--but I think the majority of the characters are complete contrivances, which would explain their simplicity. That would also make sense of the film's incoherency.

I think Dom and Mal--in the reality that we pretty much never actually see--were married and grew old together. Dom tells Mal that they grew old together but that she doesn't remember it, and we see a very quick glimpse of an old married couple walking down a street hand in hand. One could assume that this is them at the end of their fifty years in limbo, yet at the end of their fifty years, when they lay their heads on the train tracks, they are as young as they were at the beginning of limbo. They did not physically age in their limbo. So what is this image, which is treated with a degree of authenticity, if not a glimpse of a level of reality we know nothing about? I think that's the truth of the film. I think Mal died. I think Dom, in his grief, entered limbo by himself and, in addition to creating cathedrals and buildings and seaside cliffs, he recreated Mal. He brought her back to life, like Orpheus diving into the underworld to reclaim Eurydice. Orpheus was forbidden from casting his eye on his dead wife until after they had resurfaced, but the temptation was too great. He saw her shade, and she plunged back into Hades, never to be seen again.

Dom goes into limbo and creates his wife, but he can never forget how simple she is in comparison to who his real wife was. She is merely a shade, less complex, less perfect, less imperfect. She is one-dimensional, his creation. Loving her is mere masturbation. Cobb says he plants an inception on Mal--that they will kill themselves and wake up in reality--and he does this by screwing with her totem. But the inception is really committed against himself, an act of self-deception designed to convince him that after dying they will return to a "reality" in which they both exist. This "reality," the reality of the film that I described above, is actually a deeper limbo. But it, too, loses its hold. He forgets that she's fake, but she--as part of his aggressive subconscious--remembers that she's not real and tries to tell him the truth. She kills herself--in a way his mind is trying to save itself from insanity, killing off a false idea--and it's during the suicide that the kids become an important part of his life. He almost seems to invent them at that very moment, using them as a plea for her to stay alive. The kids, offspring of a nonexistent mother, are equally unreal. The film, with its vast distractions and subplots and layers, is a maze designed make Dom completely forget what reality was and surrender completely to the idea that he is in reality, a reality which he manufactured.

Inception works by reducing an idea to its essence, a tiny kernel of resonant, positive emotion. These kernels build upon each other through repetition. First they tell Fischer that his father had an idea about dissolving the business. Then they tell Fischer that he should make something for himself. Then they tell Fischer that his father didn't want him disappearing in his footsteps. With enough repetition, Fischer buys the idea.

Chronologically, the film repeats a line about taking a "leap of faith." Dom, the originator of the line, first tells Mal to make a leap of faith--to believe that they will awaken in reality--when they lie on the train tracks. Mal then tells Dom to take a leap of faith as she kills herself. And finally Saito tells Dom to take a leap of faith--that he is capable of making of phone call that will reunite him with his kids. This final time seals the deal--guaranteeing the inception of the idea that Dom has real kids he can return to.

What's the key clue here? What's the device that fools the audience as well as Dom? The totem. A totem is an object that helps a dream expert to assess his reality. A totem should function in a way that is consistent and yet inconsistent with natural expectation. Arthur has a loaded die that always lands on one side, whereas a normal die would land on all six sides evenly and randomly. Ariadne creates a chess piece that has its center of gravity removed so that instead of sliding like a normal chess piece when pushed, it always topples to one side. Saito has a rug in his apartment that looks like shag and yet is made of synthetic vinyl, thus making it feel completely different. All these totems seemingly betray physics, but they do so in a consistently possible way.

What's the effectiveness of this kind of device? Does it distinguish between A and B, where A is reality and B is a dream? No. It distinguishes between C and D, where C is either 1) reality or 2) a dream created by the dreamer and D is a dream created by another architect. In scenario D, the loaded die would not fall on the correct side (though if the architect knew that the dreamer had a die and were clever enough to assume that the die was loaded, she would have a one in six chance of getting it right, so even then that particular totem is not foolproof). The dreamer would instantly know, it's assumed, he was in a dream world created by some manipulative architect. For example, the crew tries to fool Saito but fails to realize that his rug is synthetic. He touches his rug to his face, knows that the world is not right, and realizes that he is dreaming. In scenario C1 (reality) the loaded die will always land on one side because that's what it physically has to do. In scenario C2 (the dreamer's dream), the die will presumably land on the one side because the dreamer knows that it's a loaded die and knows to make it land that way. (Whether or not that's foolproof is up for debate.)

What is Dom's totem? Well, we don't know. He relies on Mal's totem, which is itself a mistake since part of the effectiveness of a totem is the assurance that you're the only person who has intimate knowledge of it.

So what is Mal's totem? A top. A small metal top. How does it behave differently from the laws of physics? It doesn't! Dom's is the only totem that is expected to behave normally. Supposedly, in a dream the top will spin forever and in reality the top will (like any normal top) eventually stop spinning and topple over. Why? A top naturally falls over. Anyone seeing a top expects it to fall over. If I am an architect trying to deceive Dom, I need merely to create a world with tops that fall down. If I am Dom having a dream that I don't know is a dream, then I will know to make the top fall down. And in reality, the top will of course fall down. When will the top not fall down? When Dom is in a dream and knows that he is in a dream (a frequent occasion). Dom's totem distinguishes between X and Y, where X is a situation in which Dom is in control (a dream he knows is a dream) and Y is all other situations (reality, another person's dream, his own dream that he's being fooled by...). What's the importance of that?

Well, it's important because Dom doesn't seem to realize that. Somewhere along the line he's managed to convince himself that his totem distinguishes between A and B, reality and fantasy. And getting himself to believe that--by planting that spinning top in "Mal's" safe in limbo--he takes the first step in blurring the boundaries between truth and fiction. Because he believes it without ever questioning it, the audience readily swallows that conceit. At the end of the film, right before he reunites with his kids, he spins the top. The camera focuses on this top as it spins and spins. It starts to wobble, but before it begins to topple, the film ends and the credits roll. We never see the top fall at the end, which is Nolan's hint to us that we're in a dream. But we know that the top is about to fall, which simply means that Dom has bought into his "reality." As we know, we needn't be in reality for the top to fall, especially when almost every other person in the film knows about the top and many of them have even examined it closely.

But what's even more important about this top? It's that Dom doesn't care. He leaves before he even has a chance to check whether or not it will fall. He sees the faces of his children at the end of the film and at that point nothing else matters. Whether or not he is in reality does not matter to him. He just wants his kids.

And it also doesn't matter whether my interpretation is right or whether the film really is right on the surface level. The intelligence of the film is that it can equally support either claim, and also some interpretations I don't even know about. Viewers who like the film on its surface level--who thought the characters were complex enough, who enjoyed the action sequences, who were touched by the happy ending--are perfectly entitled to enjoy the movie on that level, and they have plenty to support them. Viewers who needed more than that--viewers like me--have enough evidence to support deeper, darker theories. Like a dream, the film is open to endless, equally supportable interpretations. I think it's funny how angrily divergent these two groups are. Some people who insist that the film depicts a reality are truly offended by the idea that the movie might not depict any tangible reality. If we don't have anything firm to grasp onto, then isn't the whole movie meaningless? Dileep Rao in an interview compared people with theories like mine to people who believe that the September 11 attacks were committed by the US government. Do these people forget that the entire film is a work of fiction? Does not having a tangible reality make it less fictional? Is Last Year at Marienbad a terrorist act whereas Mulholland Dr. is merely a threat?

Knowing that there is a Dom Cobb somewhere in the film's world who is alive and capable of all of these dreams, emotions, manipulations, and regrets is enough of a tangible reality for me, and it makes for a better film than one with an unacceptable happy ending, a mishmash of a plot, an ensemble cast with zero characterization, and fairly stale action sequences (in large part because there are no interesting characters to root for and because there is nothing tangible at stake, except some unrealistic phone call). Does Inception need a happy ending when Memento ends with a man deciding to continue on a path of killing people for the wrong reason? The only thing that keeps Shelby alive is his quest to find the man who murdered his wife and mete out revenge. When he realizes that he murdered his own wife and that he's already killed several fake murderers in his quest, yet has forgotten all of it, he decides to continue deluding himself. He doesn't want justice after all; he just wants a reason to live. The people of Gotham, Batman decides, don't need truth and reality, then need likable heroes. In The Prestige, Hugh Jackman allows himself to become part of a horrifying science experiment in order to entertain others and secure his legacy as a magician; but he's no longer a magician playing games, he's a sacrifice repeatedly killing himself.

I didn't enjoy Inception much when I first exited the theater, for all those reasons I criticized its reality, but reconsidering it through the lens of my interpretation, my esteem for it has grown in my mind. Is it an emotional movie? No, though the scenes with Fischer and the closing scenes with Mal and Dom are somewhat touching. Is it a thrilling movie? No, because there's never a strong sense that anything happening on screen really matters. Is it visually appealing? I suppose, though it lacks the cinematographic flair, surreal visuals, and tonal qualities that most dream movies possess. Jeffrey Kurland's spiffy costumes and Hans Zimmer's intense score are both wonderful, but that's the only unequivocal praise I can offer this film.

Is the film smart? Is it a clever Rorschach test and a complex puzzle? Maybe. Or maybe I'm just giving one of my favorite living directors too much credit.

Inception (2010)
d/w: Christopher Nolan
(Leonardo DiCaprio, Cillian Murphy, Joseph Gordon Levitt)

21 July, 2010

Movie Review: Metropolis (1927)

To appreciate Fritz Lang's 1927 science fiction masterpiece Metropolis, one must try to not read too deeply into its plot. Though the film speaks in the language, imagery, and music of political allegory, one must approach the film as merely an apolitical fantasy, for any attempt to apply its naive symbolism to the real world will be at best baffling and contradictory and at worst downright offensive. The film's simplified politics scarcely mirror any normal symbolic representation of society as seen from any standard philosophical perspective, neither contemporary society nor, as in 1984, a projection of where society is doomed to be headed.

Co-written by Lang, an anti-fascist of Jewish extraction who was inspired by Soviet literature, and his temporary wife Thea von Harbou, an aristocrat and future member of the Nazi Party, the film's story is an awkward fusing of two magnetically opposed philosophies. Hence, the story depicts the "heads," the thinking elite known as the "upper ten thousand" who live lives of leisure and mindless luxury in magnificent skyscrapers stretching to the heavens, and their "hands," the dirty, shoeless workers who live beneath the earth and keep the machines--and the city above them--running. The beautiful Maria, an odd prophet of the Protestant work ethic and the spirit of capitalism, advocates that the workers keep their noses to the grindstone, earnestly hoping that a "mediator," a "heart," will redeem them. Joh Fredersen, the oligarch in charge of Metropolis, combines forces with Rotwang, a crazed, ugly, dark-featured intellectual who controls the scenes from behind to his own benefit, to build an evil robot version of Maria that incites the workers into a violent, destructive revolution while simultaneously encouraging the upper ten thousand to abandon their virtues to wanton decadence. Society and progress come screeching to a halt, all the children almost die--including Fredersen's own son Freder--and everybody on both sides, after killing the evil Rotwang, realizes that they are all brothers and sisters of one race. They must work together according to their abilities--the animalistic, brutish hands running the machines, the cold but sensible heads controlling the hands--in order to build humanity on a continual, godlike path of progress closer to the stars. On the steps of a cathedral, the hands and the heads are united by Freder--the mediating "heart"--a symbol of compassion and religious faith.

In other words, the status quo is confirmed at the end of the film. The workers should not try to revolt because otherwise they will become homeless and their children will die. Joh Fredersen should remain in power because every society needs a leader with complete authority, and because he has a son that he (sort of) loves, the workers should love him and sympathize with him because they know that he is a human just like them. Rotwang--the sinister intellectual with the crazy dark hair (perhaps he's Jewish?)--is the only villain. And all that the status quo needed to be a perfect society capable of transcending human limitations was a demagogue clothed in religious imagery who just so happens to be the dynastic successor of the current governing elitist. Whatever specific compassion this mediating "heart" will offer is never mentioned (better wages maybe? nine hours of constant, backbreaking work instead of ten?), but his role is likely just propagandistic.

In 1932, Thea von Harbou joined the Nazi Party, and in 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power, the two divorced. In 1934, Lang's film The Testament of Dr. Mabuse was banned in Germany by Joseph Goebbels, who feared that it would undercut the country's faith in ideologues; however, Goebbels, a fan of Metropolis, offered Lang a loaded position as head of a film studio. Fearing that he was being forced to become a fascist propagandist, Lang fled that night to Paris. Two years later he moved to Hollywood, where he lived until his death.

At its center, Metropolis is a fascist film, but Fritz Lang's anti-fascist sentiments are evident in the film's heartfelt depiction of the workers as oppressed individuals, in its ridiculing of the elites as non-consequential fuddy duddies in short pants and combed hairdos, and in its depiction (throughout much of the film, at least) of Joh Fredersen as a heartless, calculating tyrant in love with his own unquestionable power. The film contradicts all this at one point or another, which makes for a perplexing message, but Lang's heart is evident somewhere amongst the soupy mess. Years later in an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, Lang explained
"The main thesis was Mrs. Von Harbou's, but I am at least 50 percent responsible because I did it. I was not so politically minded in those days as I am now. You cannot make a social-conscious picture in which you say that the intermediary between the hand and the brain is the heart. I mean, that's a fairy tale — definitely. But I was very interested in machines. Anyway, I didn't like the picture — thought it was silly and stupid — then, when I saw the astronauts: what else are they but part of a machine? It's very hard to talk about pictures— should I say now that I like Metropolis because something I have seen in my imagination comes true, when I detested it after it was finished?"

And that's a key point in the enjoyment of this film. If one can dismiss the plot as merely a fantasy, then one is free to enjoy the visual and technical splendor of the film and all its inspired imagination. The most expensive film ever made at its time, Metropolis features over 38,000 actors and extras, who are used to emphasize the dehumanized role of machine-like workers in a technological future, to illustrate the exhaustion and robotic motions of the oppressed classes, to highlight the anonymity of even the upper classes in a vast and wealthy urban culture, and to add sweeping chaos to climactic scenes of destruction. The disaster scenes of the film's final "furioso" moments, which combine miniature models with actual grand sets, are exhilarating even today. The film, with its starkly black on white nods to German Expressionism, utilizes a variety of meaningful and alluring architectures--the Art Deco skyscrapers and their flashing advertisements; the brutal modernism of the machine district and the workers' underground city; the organic, earthy darkness of the ancient catacombs with their twisting staircases and hidden passages; the intricately detailed Raygun Gothic style of Rotwang's futuristic laboratory; and the larger-than-life, surreal Biblical structures seen in the Tower of Babel and the shrine to Moloch.

Lang's visual compositions are breathtaking, with constant motion in every direction--elevators, trains, airplanes, hoards, falling buildings. Even the camera, in one panicked moment, moves forward to zero in on an important discovery. Some of the special effects will be obvious to today's viewers, but Lang's vision is timeless. Metropolis achieves the utmost levels of movie magic in that its never quite clear what was really filmed and what was mere camera trickery. Given that, it's easy to give up guessing and succumb to the film's imaginative world.

While the acting, particularly that of Gustav Fröhlich as Freder and Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Rotwang, often succumbs to silly silent overacting, Brigitte Helm is notable as both the saintly Maria and the evil robot. With a devilish smile, one constantly winking eyelid, a pivoting head, and gyrating arms, Helm as the Machine Man conveys the terrible possibilities of progress and the dehumanizing nature of rampant technology. She's one of the first notable screen villains, in addition to Fritz Rasp as The Thin Man, a tall, ghastly thug with chiseled features, pointed ears, and strong, slender fingers concealed in black leather gloves. He wears a black outfit resembling both that of an assassin and a monsignor, and his leering face reveals a desperate desire to unleash his destructive power.

Metropolis is full of such captivating details as this holyman assassin. Even the numerals on the film's many bizarre clocks are strange and interesting. Metropolis is a testament to a total style of science fiction filmmaking in which the creation of a good, convincing film requires the creation of an entire new universe full of countless believable yet unreal details. (2001 and Children of Men are further examples of this.) Though the story is baffling and childish, Fritz Lang's complete investment of imagination has guaranteed that the film will always remain a must-see masterpiece.

Metropolis (1927)
d: Fritz Lang w: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou
(Brigitte Helm, Gustav Fröhlich, Alfred Abel)
TSPDT?: #69

20 July, 2010

Movie Review: Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)

Cam Archer's debut feature film, Wild Tigers I Have Known, at times perfectly illustrates what it's like to realize that you are gay at the age of thirteen.

Malcolm Stumpf plays the film's coming-of-age hero, Logan, a boy who spends a lot of time alone or avoiding being picked on or delving into idealized, not-quite-sexual masturbation fantasies. By most standards Logan should measure up to being deemed cool by his junior high peers: he has an awesome wardrobe (heart-splattered sweaters, vintage tees, fashionably cut hoodies) and wispy salon hair, he's just intelligent and funny and soft spoken enough to not be offensive in either direction (neither too brainy or too dumb), and he's neither fat nor ugly. He should be quite popular, and yet his only friend, Joey (Max Paradise), is a nerdy, awkward child with a horrible haircut and the most bizarre bedroom ever filmed (think lava lamps, globes, and slide projectors).

Logan's alienation is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy, a defense mechanism from within that has forced him to remove himself from "normal" friends so that others, as well as he himself, can avoid discovering how severe his abnormality is. Logan is gay, a fact he doesn't quite understand. He denies being gay--"gay," after all, is an insulting term, so who in their right mind would ever admit to being it?--but knows that he likes boys, a fact he confesses to an uncomfortable Joey late in the film. If he can avoid being too close to people, then Logan can avoid ever having to reveal his secrets to others, and he can avoid the rejection that may come from his confused, frightened peers when this secrets are inevitably revealed. Logan has chosen loneliness, but a prevaricating conversation with his guidance counselor reveals he dreams of a world where he is loved by others.

He mostly wants to be loved by Rodeo (Patrick White), an older, sullen rebel without a cause whose quest to be a true loner drives him to befriend the uncool, younger kid. Rodeo tells Logan exactly what he wants to hear--that he doesn't hate him--and their friendship begins as a meaningful one. But the relationship enters darker territory when Rodeo begins feeding his own self-esteem at the expense of Logan's affections by fueling the boy's obvious though secret desires. It's a scenario that can only end in disaster, and it perfectly illustrates the disastrous nature of most teenage relationships, where each side is driven more by its own alienated insecurity than by any mutual understanding.

Cam Archer has beautifully photographed a sad childhood--an intense era of raging hormones, of crushing loneliness, of desperation, of morbid depression, of constantly fearing failure and rejection, of yearning to be loved and understood, and of being unable to understand even yourself. With cinematography by Aaron Platt, Archer has painted an impressionistic vision of a contradictory time: a time that is beautiful and yet obsessed with ugliness, a time that we wish would just hurry up and pass and yet carries with it such important moments in life, a time when our bodies demand sex though our minds can't quite comprehend it. Much of the film is spent with Logan alone, either watching him navigate his loneliness in bathrooms or while staring at the television, or else entering into his mind in more personal journeys--elegant yet sex-free sex fantasies that emphasize his own desire to be beautiful as much as his desire to see beauty in the flesh, frightened flashes of bullies, and vague yearnings of death.

There isn't much dialogue or action in the movie, which is perhaps best given the amateurish acting of the young cast. Fairuza Balk, as Logan's exhausted and demanding mother, gives a solid turn as a woman who can provide just the right tenderness at precisely the right moment yet who mostly resorts to thoughtless criticism and stress-inducing nagging. In that respect she's a typical, complex mother, a woman who's not always a teenager's best friend yet will always be there with love and forgiveness. The screenplay doesn't demand much of Stumpf rather than his mere presence, tortured yet surviving, so in that regard Stumpf is solid. His subtle facial expressions, mixed with subjective sound, editing, and photography, comprise the basic plot of this artsy film: an emotional journey from fear and self-loathing into independence and security. A subplot involving mountain lions, one of which has recently wandered onto school grounds provoking fear and its extermination, cleverly manifests the movie's theme of irrational fear. The mountain lion, as frightened as the kids it encounters, not wishing to harm anyone except to defend itself, is a lot like any kid let loose on a junior high campus: capable of serious damage but mostly just wanting to find and get back to its place in the world.

Wild Tigers I Have Known is an elegantly filmed, poignant, and genuine debut film, likely the first of many notable films to come from the young Cam Archer. It's not perfect in its presentation. I for one am tired of films about gay or sexually confused teenagers always featuring a scene in which the youngster dresses in makeup and women's clothing in a bathroom (L.I.E., Billy Elliot, Ma Vie en Rose, Hallam Foe). I never did nor ever felt interested in doing that, something that hints at a desire to be female (or at least the ease that would come in securing boyfriends if one were female) which, I think, is more prevalent in films about gay men than in reality. Yet despite cliches like this, the film is overall truthful and fresh.

Wild Tigers I Have Known (2006)
d/w: Cam Archer
(Malcolm Stumpf, Fairuza Balk, Patrick White)

Movie Review: Suspiria (1977)

Italian director Dario Argento purportedly wrote the classic horror film Suspiria with his girlfriend, actress Daria Nicolodi, based upon a combination of a dream that she had once had and a scary story that her grandmother once told her. The screenplay was originally to star a cast of twelve-year-olds, but when producers balked at the idea of exposing children to graphic violence, the screenplay was changed to accommodate a cast of young adults without changing a single word of their immature dialogue or a single act of their childlike behavior. The result is one of the worst screenplays ever filmed.

The convoluted, plot hole-riddled story tells of a German school founded in the late-nineteenth century by a Greek immigrant, Helena Markos, who was actually a powerful mistress of the dark arts, Mater Suspiriana ("Our Lady of Sighs"). The school she founded was a combination school of dark arts and witchcraft-slash-classical ballet studio, but following public outrage and the death of Markos, the witchcraft department was removed from the curriculum, leaving only the dance school. Or so we think! New student Suzy Banton (Jessica Harper), with the help of Scooby Doo-style clues, physically impossible revelations, an idiotic and easily spooked friend who insists upon solving a mystery that doesn't even seem to be a mystery, and a chance encounter with a professor of occult studies who has literally written the book on Markos, connects the complicated and ridiculous dots and realizes that Markos is still alive, in some way planning something that's probably dark and possibly even powerful. So Suzy kills her by, of course, thrusting a glass feather into her shadow, which causes the entire school and all the evildoers within it to explode.

Most critics these days don't spend much time discussing the obviously absurd and inane plot of Suspiria, insisting that its set pieces offer chilling horror despite a lack of overall plot structure. I don't buy that. Supposedly, original audiences of The Great Train Robbery in 1903 would scream and hide under their seats when the villain pointed and fired his gun at the camera. A century later, such a gimmick doesn't scare a single spectator because most of us need more than visuals and camera trickery to feel a visceral, emotional response to the film reel. We--some of us more than others--need something that allows us to transcend the knowledge that we are merely watching a film. We need a heartfelt theme, a believable character, a raw conflict--something that tricks at least a tiny part of our brains into believing even if only for a few minutes that we are perceiving a meaningful reality and not simply twenty-four frames a second of contrived filmmaking. This is what the "suspension of disbelief" is. It's not just believing that pigs can talk or vampires fly at night; it's believing that anything at all in the film is something real. It's that tiny bit of movie magic that sells us the deception that we are no longer on a couch or in a theater staring at a flickering screen.

Argento never achieved that with me in Suspiria. I often speak of being "taken out of a movie." By that, I mean taken out of total immersion in the film's world and thrust back into my seat, abruptly jolted into the reality that I'm just a guy consuming a movie. A good movie is a sustained act of hypnotism; a bad movie consistently reminds you that you're being hypnotized. Though Suspiria starts strong with a storm-soaked, dreamlike establishing scene, it quickly devolves into confusion. The idiotic setting of Suspiria (the "coven-slash-ballet academy"), the atrocious characterization (fully grown young women who speak and act like bratty children), the ludicrous plot structure (a key revelation revolves around Suzy being able to count the distance and direction of footsteps throughout a massive building), the lack of motivation (what exactly are these witches trying to accomplish? what are they even capable of accomplishing? what have they accomplished aside from killing a few people they don't like?), the over-the-top, unrealistic effects of the grisly murder scenes (you can plainly see that the barbed wire in one memorable death doesn't have any barbs), the disoriented editing (cut to: a scene in which a bit character, a blind man, is killed far from home for reasons that have almost nothing to do with the plot), the hammy exposition (Suzy meets a professor at a pivotal moment who just happens to be able to answer all of her questions), the bad accents: all of these elements and many more constantly prevented me from feeling that Suspiria was anything more than a horribly made horror film.

We go into a horror movie prepared to be scared. In doing so we build up our defenses against being scared. A good horror movie tricks us into feeling fright anyway; Suspiria never does. At its best, it gets two things right: lavish, otherworldly sets painted in gorgeous, nightmarish Technicolor strokes of mutant green and blood red and a theme song by Goblin that--while much overused--is effectively unnerving. These elements save Suspiria from the vast, swampy dregs of the worst horror movies, but they're not enough to make it scary or a classic film. Why have Entertainment Weekly, Bravo, and Total Film named it one of the scariest movies of all time? Why has the Village Voice called it one of the hundred best films of the twentieth century? Why does the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? list of the greatest movies of all time list it at #484?

I have no idea.

Suspiria (1977)
d: Dario Argento w: Dario Argento, Daria Nicolodi
(Jessica Harper, Joan Bennett, Udo Kier)
TSPDT?: #484

15 July, 2010

Movie Review: Winter's Bone (2010)

Debra Granik's Winter's Bone is in a category of its own. Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the novel from which the film's screenplay is adapted, coined the term "country noir" to describe his genre of crime novels, which take place in isolated regions of the Ozark Mountains in Missouri. But I think Winter's Bone is more suitably seen as a fantasy adventure tale, with the major distinction that the film's landscape is not an imaginary world of vampires and orcish humanoids but a gritty reality unknown to most of us, a rural subculture of meth-addled monsters who live off the radar. Jennifer Lawrence, as the film's heroine Ree Dolly, does not wield a sword or possess telepathic abilities; her superpowers are honesty, determination, and a strong desire to hold onto her humanity as she journeys from a cold, bleak world into a darker, more terrifying underworld and then back to the surface.

Lawrence is convincing as Ree, a seventeen-year-old farm girl who has been forced to care for her younger siblings, nine-year-old Sonny (Isaiah Stone) and five-year-old Ashlee (Ashlee Thompson), after her mother loses her mind and her father Jessup, an infamous methamphetamine manufacturer, disappears. Ree, technically still a child, shows signs of wishing she could be free of the unwanted responsibilities of raising two children (and an incapacitated mother) and running a financially strapped household. But if she ever considers abandoning her life to chase after a better dream, she never shows it. Her commitment to keeping the kids safe, well-fed, and as happy as possible remains strong, even as she passes the point of desperation. When a drug dealing, duplicitous cousin, a small-time criminal ringleader, makes Ree an offer to purchase the boy and "raise him up," she responds with outrage even as she secretly wonders if an immoral life of crime and addiction might be preferable to a freezing death from starvation. Instead of taking easy paths, Ree struggles by with support from her neighbor Sonya (Shelley Waggener), a stern but compassionate mother figure, and her only friend Gail (Lauren Sweetser), a teenage mother and wife. They offer Ree all they can afford, but in a world of far-reaching poverty, that assistance isn't much.

When the local sheriff (Garret Dillahunt), a young man disliked, untrusted, and nearly powerless in an outskirt community that puts more faith in family ties, militias, and the right to bear arms than they do in the local law enforcement, arrives with news that if father Jessup does not show for his court date in one week the house and the land will be taken as forfeited bond, leaving the family homeless, Ree embarks on an epic quest to discover the whereabouts of her derelict father.

This quest takes her to increasingly strange realms as she encounters colorful outlaws with names like Teardrop (John Hawkes), her hardened but helpful rogue uncle, a dilapidated compound of smoking trailers and lean-tos gated by chicken wire and possessing its own primitive surveillance system, the charred ruins of a burned down meth lab, a noisy cattle auction, smoky bars, and a horrifying excursion to uncover the secrets that lie in the middle of nowhere. In the process she is lied to, threatened, beaten, and left in the cold. A few times her life comes dangerously close to ending. She has no weapons and she can hardly fight back, but sincere words, a stony expression, and her determination to care for her siblings keeps her one step above disaster.

I don't know whether to praise Granik, Woodrell, co-screenwriter Anne Rosellini, or maybe even the actors for the dialogue, but what these characters say is fresh, interesting, and always rings true. The film shines with authenticity. I've never been to the grimy world Winter's Bone depicts, but I don't for a moment doubt that it exists precisely as Granik, cinematographer Michael McDonough, and production designer Mark White have presented it. What we see tantalizingly hints at a vast universe of traditions, crimes, rules, and villains. We never see Jessup, but we receive a full, complex portrait of his many roles as a charmer, a talented musician, a disastrous family man, a trusted scientist, and a coward. We barely see Blond Milton (William White), the portly, gray-bearded kingpin of the film's criminal universe, but his brief presence resonates with frightening power.

The actors, some of whom were actual impoverished Missourians, ring true at every turn, with an especially memorable performance from Dale Dickey as Merab, a burned-out matriarch of the clan barely retaining the last shreds of her humanity. Merab abides by the clan's animalistic rules even as her face betrays tiny inklings of compassion. Degradation and filth have pushed her far past the boundaries of normal human thinking and behavior, yet a scene in which she wordlessly puts her coat around a terrified Ree is one of the most touching moments in the film.

Winter's Bone is a unique adventure, a journey into a nightmarish alternate reality. Though bleak, the movie is illuminated by the presence of Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly, a role model who despite innumerable obstacles remains stronger, kinder, and more optimistic than most of us can ever manage. Winter's Bone is a story about never giving up, and so far it is one of the best films to be released this year.

Winter's Bone (2010)
d: Debra Granik w: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini
(Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey)