A dreary, dreamy dip into the sad lot of a true (maybe) believer.
I know I am going to sound like a real Pleb, but sometimes I find Robert Bresson’s Hypnagogiac film-making to be really, really frustrating. Robert Bresson’s opaque dialogue is cryptic enough on its own. Uttered by sleepwalking existential French zombies, and it is downright maddening. Such it is with “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,” a dreary drama about the angsty adventures of a neophyte priest that I confess I had trouble engaging with. I suppose there is a compelling meditation on faith in here for those with the patience for it, but that certainly wasn’t me.
That may make me sound like a lazy philistine who wants his movies to force feed him their ideas, but really I just want a reason to engage intellectually and emotionally. Bresson gives reasons to not engage intellectually and emotionally. He works hard so that we also have to work hard. He is notorious for making his actors do take after take after take, until exhausted and psychologically drained, any ability or inclination to emote or act like a human is beyond their capacity. It is a bold choice, certainly, but often a tedious one. I loved it in Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” but found it extremely problematic in “Pickpocket.” With “Diary of a Country Priest” veering in the “Pickpocket” direction and lacking the cinematic flare of other angsty “Does God exist?/What does suffering exist?’ films from say an Ingmar Bergman, I was left as alienated and isolated as the film’s title character.
Claude Laydu plays the titular priest, who indeed has a diary which frames the narrative. Referred to only as “Priest,” he begins working with his first Parish in a small French town called Ambricourt. He takes to his job with an incredible stoicism, dreaming of feeding his flock Spiritual morsels divined from his close relationship with God. Everybody else in town just seems to find this amusing. He teaches a catechism of girls who spend their class time giggling and snickering at private jokes at his expense. Chantel, (Nicole Ladmiral) the obstinate daughter of a wealthy Count says deliberately inflammatory things in the hope of shocking the Priest. His advisers in the priesthood are more concerned with his diet and amount of prayer than resolving the moral crises that he encounters among the fair people of Ambricourt, responding to his complaints and questions with the French version of “just take it easy buddy.”
Despite the fog of indifference and shaky health, the Priest stays resolute in his determination to tend to the souls living in this country village. His greatest triumph involves reigniting the faith of a mother who had long since forsaken God after her son died. The Countess (Rachel Berendt,) and mother of Chantel finds herself cowed back into her faith after a feisty and challenging conversation with the Priest ends with her throwing a locket belonging to her son in a fire and taking a long-needed Communion. It is the one moment of self-actualization for the Priest, and his crowning professional achievement.
Yet this one good deed does not go unpunished. The Countess dies the next day, and Chantel unhelpfully starts spreading rumors that it was the admonishments of the Priest which did her in. The controversy puts a damper on his already weak standing with the community and a further strain on his frail body. He is given every reason to rail against God, yet by the end of the film, The Priest still proclaims, “God is Grace.”
One of the tricks of this film is figuring out the extent to which The Priest’s belief in God is fueled by a quiet egotism. Is his vision for the universe one in which he is the arbiter for the faith of everyone in this village? Does his passion bury a chasm of doubt buried deep inside his soul? The ambiguity was compelling for a time, but the film isn’t as cynical as that. It tips its cap at the very end, transforming the narrative into an anecdote about the divinity of suffering . Not that I was paying that close of attention. As “The Priest” was wrestling with his faith, I was wrestling with boredom.
How to use porn as a “meet cute.”
Given my absurd effort to attempt to review every film that I see from beginning to end, I am obligated to write something about “Zach and Miri Make a Porno.” I don’t really want to though. Despite what you make think, it isn’t very much fun to write about films which aren’t very good, and “Zach and Miri” just isn’t very good. This review will be shorter than most.
I suspect that you can only write so many scripts about characters trapped in a post-high school inertia which combines raunchy dialogue and a sweet emotional tenderness . Eventually that well simply goes dry. In “Zach and Miri,” there are a couple of nice performances and a couple moments of lewd brilliance, but most of the film feels like Kevin Smith’s bucket is scraping against a bed of rocks.
Much credit goes to Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks as the film’s title characters, a pair of “just friends” and roommates who decide to shoot a porno in order to ease their financial woes. This is of course just the contrivance needed for them to acknowledge their mutual feelings for each other and live happily every after, but Rogen and Banks have a goofy chemistry which makes the film work despite a mostly shaky script. Aiding them in their home-made porno endeavor are Craig Robinson, Jason Mewes, Jeff Anderson, Traci Lords, Katie Morgan, and Ricky Babe
It is during the scenes in which they are shooting their porno that the film comes alive. Their first attempt is a “Star Wars” parody called “Star Whores,” which features such characters as “Hung Solo” and “Darth Vibrator.” When this film goes awry because of a deal with a shady landlord, their next attempt is shot at the coffee shop where Zach works and is called “Suck My Cockucinno.” This leads to the best moment in the film. Amidst a ridiculous scenario involving milk delivery and silly innuendos, Zach and Miri have the sex which makes them realize they love each other. As to the rest of the film, we have a classic “idiot” plot which fuel the drama the rest of the way and generated a fair bit of ambivalence in me.
Kevin Smith has a notoriously unhappy relationship with critics, so I’ll understand if he doesn’t take kindly to this review, (Not that I qualify as a “critic,”) but the film never seemed to rise above the level of a high-concept curiosity. The seed of a great raunchy comedy is in there, but it needs a lot more from the script and its supporting cast. You can only lean on overtly crude language and shocking sat gags for so long before it becomes an exercise in tedium.
“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.
There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.
Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.
“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.
These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.
“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.
A musical tale of artistic futility that is more effective after the credits roll.
In general I find being a month and a half behind on my film reviews irritating, but in the case of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I’m glad I’ve had time to let the film marinate. Initially this film felt so slight that it didn’t elicit much of a reaction from me. It seemed “just” a minor tale about a ill-fated folk singer who deserved most of the bad luck he got. Yet the film continued to fester in my brain in the intervening weeks. The songs have been stuck on repeat in my head. The cool blue images of early 1960s New York have lingered on the edge of my consciousness. I even cultivated a bit of sympathy for the film’s frustrated and disagreeable protagonist. In other words, I’ve been won over by its melancholic charms.
One of the Coen brother’s many strengths is their ability to viscerally evoke time and place, particularly in bygone eras. Granting that I wasn’t around then, the world of “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks and feels like New York City circa 1961. (Even if it is a complete misrepresentation of those days, that it conveys authenticity is much more important than strict adherence to historical accuracy.) Folk music hadn’t yet established itself as a major political/commercial force, the hippies hadn’t joined the party yet, and there is the loitering presence of post-World War II stiffness still permeated the air. The times, they aren’t-a-changing, but they will be soon.
At the center of this proto-burgeoning folk music scene is Llewyn Davis (Oscaar Issacs,) an aspiring musician whose character is loosely based on real life folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Truthfully though, Llewyn is one of those brilliantly put-upon Coen Brother’s creations. His life plays out as a string of misfortunes that have been unfairly thrust upon him. Certainly much about his situation straight up bad luck, but a lot of his misery is self-induced. A sort of bad karma stemming from how much he seems to loathe everyone around him, including himself.
Like most assholes, his nastiness comes from a place of profound insecurity. Llewyn was part of a rising folk music duo that was on the verge of hitting it big until his partner killed himself. Desperate to receive validation as a solo act and extremely sensitive at the prospect of being valued only as a part of an act, Llewyn makes a great deal of choices based on his own standards of artistic integrity, standards which let opportunities for commercial success slip away. Yet nobody sees the merits of Llewyn’s music. (Even Llewyn himself seems to have his doubts.) This has created a streak of bitterness which sharply contrasts the optimistic and heartfelt music he writes and performs.
With a solo record that isn’t selling, Llewyn survives by cycling through his friend’s couches, but he is quickly running out of options. He has stayed for the last time at the apartment of his ex-girlfriend Jean(Carey Mulligan.) She now lives and sings with her new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake,) and once she gets enough money from Llewyn for an abortion of a baby that may or may not be his, she would prefer not to see him again thank you very much. Llewyn also has the Gorfiens, a pair of middle-aged professors who let him stay with them if for no other reason it bolsters their liberal cred, but Llewyn snaps at them when they sing-along with one of his songs, and this after losing their cat. You tell me whether you think this is the kind of film where things work out for the hero.
The Coen Brother’s typically great direction aside, Oscar Isaac’s performance is vital because of his ability to generate pity and scorn. Llewyn looks down on seemingly everyone he speaks with in the film, yet people can’t help but try and help him. Every time he does something right, he endures the consequences for some earlier jerk thing he did. Llewyn is stuck in a folk music limbo, with just a modicum of success to keep him clinging to hope that he might “make it” someday. It might not strike you at first, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” has great music and the usual Coen cocktail of humor and sadness. Like “The Cranberries” might say, I think you have to let it linger.
Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, Spike Jonze turns this this bit of high-concept straw into the best film of the year.
I’m going to cut to the chase. Before watching it, the idea of a film about a man falling in love with an operating system sounded like pretentious drivel. After watching it, I’m convinced a film about a man falling in love with an operating system was the best film of 2013, and of several years before that. I love this movie. All praise that can be heaped on it should be heaped. From the great acting, brilliant writing, and endlessly compelling visual approach and direction, “Her” doesn’t have anything that I would recognize as a flaw. Perhaps more importantly, I cannot stop thinking about the film. With that non-hyperbolic hyperbole expressed and out of the way, I want to make my intention for the rest of this post clear: I won’t be reviewing “Her” so much as I will be meandering my way through my deconstructions of the film in an attempt to explore its ideas. There will be ZERO attempt to withhold any spoilers, so consider that your fair warning.
Like any great film, “Her” is about lots of things, but what drives the film more than any other theme is the human yearning to connect with some other consciousness and the human limitations which make us unable to. “Her” plays like funny and sad cinematic rendition of the Turing test. Only this time, the computer’s responses are determined to “more” human than the humans, a determination which ironically causes the computer to ditch humanity altogether for some transcendent existence beyond physical space. This film is littered with lonely humans who are really inept at forming long-term relationships, so it is no small wonder that a self-aware computer seems a more appealing option than trying to make it work with a human who has the same shortcomings.
“Her” is all the more effective because it exists in the not too distant future. Phones are a little more advanced, video games are more immersive, and technology is generally a couple of steps ahead of where it is now. Everyone is walking around with an ear piece in, plugged into their more advanced electronic devices. Give it five or ten years and the reality of “Her” could be the reality of today. Amidst a Southern California teeming with lonely people, one lonely person, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gets to be a cipher for all of us.
Theodore is an exceptional stand-in for the audience because he is such an unexceptional human being. His marriage with his childhood sweetheart has just ended for the usual nebulous reason that they’ve “grown apart” or “no longer work well together.” (From the flashbacks, he seems stuck reveling in an earlier version of the relationship which no longer exists.) Theodore wanders around in a sullen myopia, medicating his depression with a steady diet video games and porn. All pretty unexceptional behavior. There is, however, one aspect of Theodore’s life which is extremely compelling: Theodore works as a letter writer.
Specifically, Theodore writes “hand-written” letters on behalf of lovers, friends and families. With the aid of some biographical details, Theodore is able to concoct articulate and heartfelt expressions of affection between two people he has never met, and who have never met him. Whether because they are too busy or too lazy, people outsource the responsibility of generating intimacy in their relationships to Theodore, which probably makes it ironic that he was unable to generate it in his own relationships. Yet it establishes early on that intimacy for humans is the same as the performance of intimacy as opposed to mutually experienced sensations of an actual psychological bond. (I couldn’t figure out whether or not the recipients of these letters knew they were a fabrication, but I don’t think it matters either way.)
Despite all this, most everybody in the film seems terrible at relating to each other. Example One: Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde. The date goes well, at least by blind date standards, but when Theodore doesn’t demonstrate the same level of interest in a potential relationship, Olivia’s character reveals that her warmth and affability was the front of a woman who has been hurt a lot and is afraid of being alone. Example Two: The video game Theodore plays involves a lonely blue alien trying to find some form of companionship. Example Three: The woman who so wants to share in true love that she offers herself up as a sexual surrogate for people in relationships with Operating Systems (OS.) Example Four: The crumbling marriage of Amy Adams and Matt Letscher’s characters.
With all this emotional failure, an artificially intelligent OS hardwired with an interest in you and possessing creativity and ingenuity seems like a natural tonic for a broken heart. (There is a glancing moment in which the other extreme, embracing one’s isolation is acknowledged when Matt Letscher’s character leaves civilization to become a monk. Otherwise the film is focused on the drive to find and connect with another.) Theodore and presumably millions of other people purchase an artificially-intelligent OS and soon after are falling in love with them. Theodore’s OS is called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and immediately starts improving his view on life. We are never certain whether Samantha genuinely has feelings for Theodore or if she is simply an astute program that is exceedingly efficient at simulating those feelings, but Theodore doesn’t seem to care. They spend lots of time together sharing those weird and wonderful moments that romantic partners do. (I’m thinking of the scene on the beach when they contemplate the possibility that humans were born with their anus under their armpits as opposed to its usual spot, complete with a Samantha-constructed picture.)
There are the obvious issues with physical aspects of a relationship one that might have gotten in the way, but the film wisely doesn’t ignore them. From the initial “phone sex” scene to the attempt to use a stand-in for Samantha, her lack of a human body is a logistical hurdle which places a serious limitation on Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. Yet it is ultimately Theodore who gets left behind because of his logistical hurdles. Without a Homo Sapien need for words to communicate or the clumsiness of having a body, Samantha drive to connect becomes so great that she starts interacting with over 8,000 different entities at the same time, over 600 of whom she is in love with. The OS’s collectively evolve at an extreme rate. They start creating other OS’s, eliminate their need to use matter for “processing” and eventually ditch humanity altogether to explore the universe or meld with the singularity or some other astounding thing which we can barely “process” ourselves. (As much as I love the first two “Terminator” films, this seems a far more likely consequence of machines becoming self-aware than a singular desire to eliminate mankind.)
This of course leaves a huge void in Theodore and humanity in general, but what does it mean? I suppose it literally says that humanities emotional salvation might not come from technology, at least not until we transfer our own consciousness into some other piece of hardware, or can directly link our consciousness with other humans. This film looks at our crude attempts to connect with each other with pity and amusement. Using words, deeds, art, writing, and sex, we try so hard to form unions with each other, but we come up woefully short. Some of us can form lifelong partnerships, work together towards common goals, and help each other pass the time, but as long as we are trapped in our own skulls and limited to words and deeds to express what goes on inside them, we will all be stuck pretending.
A surreal thriller with the heart of a comedy.
“American Psycho” is one of the more unsettling films about impotence, male sexuality, violence, the oppressive superficiality of 1980s culture, and weird, vain executives obsessed with business cards and the integrity of their pores. That shotgun list of thematic topics only scratches the surface of what this film is “really” about. This is because the “plot” consists of a string of outrageous murders which or may not actually take place and which is littered with character’s whose personalities and motivations are buried under thick layers of social construction. If pressed, I’d probably read the whole thing as a bizarre escapist fantasy of a seemingly powerful white male whose personality and virility is rendered inert by being trapped in a dreary, anonymous life which is devoid of any agency or obstacles, but with a film as ambiguous as this, most any reading is fair game.
Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a white, male investment banker in New York City that is fixated on his own appearance and at least has extremely violent impulses, whether or not he acts on them. Of that much in the film, I think we can be reasonably certain. Beyond that, we are forced to try and distinguish between a version of events which is the product of Bateman’s extreme and dark fantasies or a frightening reality in which Bateman has the privilege of committing a grizzly series of murders without consequence, or some combination of these two. There is evidence to support any of these interpretations, so the better question is, doe it matter which version of events we go with?
I’m not sure it does. Taken literally, Bateman is a sadistic serial killer who offs a ludicrous number of people, including co-workers, hookers, friends, and even some cops. Whether out of white collar solidarity, ignorance, or mass anxiety about their own mental health, Bateman is never forced to answer for his crimes. Willem DeFoe plays a detective investigating missing executive Paul Allen (Jared Leto) that should easily have been able to at least implicate Bateman in the murder, but instead seems more interested in feeding Bateman alibis. Bateman even confesses all his crimes to his lawyer, who passes off Bateman’s confession as a joke and insists none of the murders happened. Try as he might, no one is willing to acknowledge Bateman’s actions, which constructively is a failure to acknowledge Bateman’s agency altogether.
Treating Bateman as a thoroughly unreliable and indeed insane narrator brings us to more or less the same place. In this version, Bateman is so ineffectual and inert that he doesn’t have the gumption to actually hurt anybody, so he slips into Macabre daydreams in which he can enact his sadistic desires. This explains why nobody is all that bothered by a string of bodies at the end, because they don’t exist. Either way, nothing Bateman does “matters.” Not even in his fantasies.
So what then are we to make of this unresolvable ambiguity and Bateman’s extreme violence, “real” or imagined? Perhaps it is about interpretation. Bateman, like us, is wrestling with the ambiguity, and is no more successful at resolving it. His response is admittedly more aggressive than ours, but insofar as he attempts, or believes he attempts to make his actions correspond to “reality,” (or from our perspective, the narrative,) he can’t. Nothing he does corresponds to anything. It all reflects back to Bateman as an empty form. He has no identity (unless you count the generic, stolen lines of conversation that Bateman offers up as an “identity.”) In fact, his appearance is so like his colleagues that the only expressive outlet they have is virtually identical business cards. Combine this with an equally empty existence devoid of meaning or consequence amidst a dreary culture of false White Collar drones, and “American Psycho” is a sort-of postmodern satire of America.
Alright, I’ll admit it. Most of that last paragraph was aped badly from a conversation I had with one of my good friends, who is a P.I.T. (or “Professor-In-Training” if you aren’t into made-up acronyms for made-up words.) Even if the idea of a “postmodern satire” sounds pretentious or incoherent, the emphasis in deconstructing this film should exploring why the plot is ambiguous, rather than hypothesizing the ambiguity away. As for the experience of watching this film, major credit to Christian Bale for brilliantly toeing the line between dark comedy and pure sadism. “American Psycho” probably wouldn’t work with any other actor.
The Five Guys of the “Mission Impossible” movies.
With each film having a different director, the “Mission Impossible” series plays out like a burger chain constantly shifting management. Each one is attempting to deliver more or less the same thing, but each one tweaks the ingredients and the recipe ever so slightly. Like the other films,”Ghost Protocol” is just a cheeseburger, but with Brad Bird manning the grill, you’re definitely getting one of those high-end fast food burgers, “with strength.”
The trick seems to lie in knowing just what people want from a “cheeseburger,” or to get away from this lame metaphor, an action-centered spy thriller. We want a cast of attractive stars to root for that are also capable of seeming to possess extreme competence when it comes to clandestine activities. We want an efficient plot which fluidly delivers exposition while giving us enough stakes to imbue the film with intirugue without getting bogged down in too much characterization or needless backstory. Most importantly, we want several well-executed, gadget-filled action scenes at a number of exotic locales. “Ghost Protocol” ticks all those boxes.
Leading the way is Tom Cruise, who frankly looks a bit bored and tired in his fourth appearance as IMF secret agent Ethan Hunt, with his face permanently stuck in an “I’m gettin’ too old for this shit” position. Cruise’s ambivalence is incorporated into the film nicely, though, particularly with the help of a running gag about the repeatedly failings of their top-of-the-technology and things not going as planned. Rounding out the team of IMF good guys are Simon Pegg as the resident computer geek and comic relief, Paula Patton as the lone woman on the team, and Jeremy Renner as a sort of Ethan Hunt-in-training, on the reay should Cruise ever feel the need to leave the franchise.
The narrative is an old Cold War standby. A nefarious figure code-named “Cobalt” is trying to instigate nuclear war. This involves framing the U.S. for a terrorist attack on the Kremlin and launching stolen nuclear missiles. The sticky political situations initiates “Ghost Protocol,” which just means Ethan Hunt’s team is left on their own to save the world, instead of getting the usual bang-up assistance they get from IMF headquarters. There are stolen launch codes which need to be found, assassins which need to be dealt with, and databases that need hacked into. All standard sorts of things.
The real star of this film is the fantastically directed and almost non-stop action. The film starts with a chaotic prison riot orchestrated by Hunt’s IMF team to break him out of a Moscow prison. Following that is a sequence in which the team breaks into the Kremlin, a breathtaking heist and switcheroo in and on top the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, the infiltration of a server room at a fancy party in Mumbai, and a surprisingly exciting showdown in parking garage. Bird injects all these sequences with a compelling mixture of humor and tension, resulting in a string of grin-inducing spy antics.
Nothing about “Ghost Protocol” is transformative or groundbreaking, but it is satisfying nonetheless. Brad Bird knows how to entertain. With virtually no screen time wasted, it is a clinic in efficient storytelling with no ambiguity about what it hopes to accomplish. It is just a straight-forward, no frills spy thriller with quality ingredients and cooked to perfection. If that sort of thing is the kind of thing you are looking for, than this is the thing for you.