Sunday, January 4, 2015

Selma: Of Moral Arcs and Men

One of the most fascinating things about Ava DuVernay’s Selma is the way history itself seems to become an actual character in it. But not in a portentous, solemn way. Depicting the explosive events in the Alabama city in 1965, which culminated with the epic march from Selma to Montgomery, the film seeks not to contain the entire Civil Rights struggle, or to even offer a biopic-style portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. (played by the great David Oyelowo). Rather, it focuses on the machinations, negotiations, in-fighting, and backroom dealings that went into the organization of the march and Lyndon B. Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Watching the film, I was occasionally reminded of Francesco Rosi’s political dramas of the 1960s and 70s. In films like The Mattei Affair, Rosi gave us the spectacle of men talking and arguing about process, activism, methods, and organizations – history told through the mundane poetry of acronyms and theory, the kind of thing most filmmakers would ruthlessly avoid. It takes a unique kind of patience, sobriety, and skill to make that compelling on a movie screen. DuVernay’s clearly got all of that.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Interstellar: “The Loneliest Journey in Human History”

He wept to think that his dreamless slumber had spanned the entire lifetime of his first child.  When he could face the ordeal, he would summon the records that were waiting for him in the memory banks. He would watch his son grow to manhood and hear his voice calling across the centuries with greetings he could never answer…One day the pain would be gone, but never the memory.
           - Arthur C. Clarke, The Songs of Distant Earth*

You don’t hear the word “subtle” tossed around much in discussions of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, but here’s something I found quite nuanced about its first hour: The sly hint of a smile that creeps on Cooper’s (Matthew McConaughey) face whenever he discusses the idea of going off into space. For all his insistence that he has a family he needs to care for, Coop can’t help but grin – ever so slightly – when Professor Brand (Michael Caine) tells him that he’s the right man for a daring new space mission. And watch his eyes as he tries later to justify leaving to his distraught daughter Murph: “They chose me, Murph,” he says, and he seems to be beaming – more a proud child than a regretful father.

Coop, whose very name suggests restlessness, and whose one previous attempt to go into space was aborted before he left the stratosphere, basically is a child. Early on, when Murph comes to the breakfast table with a broken lunar lander toy from her bookshelf, he says, “What’d you do to my lander?” Coop’s daughter walks around school with his old science textbooks. He’s a loving parent, but not a particularly attentive one. He forgets parent-teacher conferences; he doesn’t know how to deal with his daughter’s problems; he’s more excited about chasing stray Indian spy drones than he is about getting his kids to school on time. He’s a dreamer, out of his time and place.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The Ice Harvest: Something To Do With Death (R.I.P. Harold Ramis)

The sad and untimely passing of Harold Ramis yesterday exacerbated my need to revisit his 2005 film The Ice Harvest. The film, shot for a very modest budget, flopped in its initial release, but has gained admirers in the years since. At the time, it struck me as a solid comedy with more than the usual on its mind, but in recent years, I’ve come to think of it as a stone-cold masterpiece. Maybe that’s why it was the first film I thought of when I heard that Ramis had died – not Ghostbusters, not Caddyshack, not even the wondrous Groundhog Day. Or maybe it was something else – something to do with the film itself, which is one of the most haunted and despairing comedies I’ve ever seen.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street: Performance, Transaction, and the Big Sell

Martin Scorsese loves to watch Leonardo DiCaprio. I guess we’ve known that for some time, but it never quite hit me as it did during The Wolf of Wall Street. We can argue all day over whether this is an attempt to remake Goodfellas or whatever (it isn’t), but there’s one thing that’s pretty clear to me: This is as much one of Scorsese’s concert docs (Shine a Light, The Last Waltz, etc.) as it is one of his narrative epics. Jordan Belfort, the real-life “Wolf of Wall Street,” didn’t just become famous for his crooked financial practices; he was also renowned for his revival-like, inspirational speeches full of blustery bullshit to his workers. He sells stocks with messianic fervor; then he sells selling stocks with messianic fervor. It’s a perfect subject on which to hitch an extended DiCaprio concert. Half the movie is just him performing in front of people, and much of the rest of it is people reacting to him. There are even a couple of scenes one could call dance numbers.

(Spoiler alert for the rest of the review, to the extent that there can be spoilers for this movie...)

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis: "Like King Midas's idiot brother"

A mesmerizing, haunted red herring of a movie, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is full of glancing blows and half-hidden truths. Every once in a while some kind of meaning or pattern emerges for just a brief shimmering second and then disappears from view, like the cats that keep slipping away from our lonely, dour protagonist. But if this beautiful film seems unnaturally elusive, there’s a good reason for that: The real story is happening somewhere else.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Five Things I Liked about Spike Lee's Remake of Oldboy

Spike Lee’s remake of Park Chan-wook's Oldboy is getting trashed left and right and flopping with audiences. But sue me, I kind of liked it. And while I love, love, love the original to death and still vastly prefer it to this one, I figured it might be worth noting down some things about Lee's film that I thought worked. It ain’t exactly Losey’s remake of M (though let it be noted that that film too was much hated for many decades before its reputation slowly began to repair) but I think this new Oldboy is worthwhile. I’d certainly be interested to see the rumored longer version some day.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips: "Relax. It's just business."

The real-life piracy thriller Captain Phillips opens with what feels at first like an inelegant bit of exposition. Preparing at home to embark on his next voyage, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) checks the itinerary on his computer for his date of departure, and his destination: Mombasa, Kenya. You may find yourself asking: Wouldn’t the captain of a major cargo ship know where he’s headed well before the day he leaves? You may even have similar thoughts a couple of scenes later, as Captain Phillips listens to one of his crew members tick off the contents of their container ship, the Maersk Alabama. Again, shouldn’t he already know all this?

But what seems early on like awkward filmmaking convention soon reveals itself as the first hint that Captain Phillips, for all its expert, armrest-tearing suspense, is about more than just a ship taken hostage by Somali pirates. “Companies want things faster and cheaper…You gotta be strong to survive out there,” Phillips says in another early scene, and it becomes clear that, for all his protestations of strength, he is a mere cog in the engine of global commerce. It doesn’t matter if he knows where he’s going, or what he’s carrying. But soon enough, he and his men, speeding through international waters off the horn of Africa, are being pursued and boarded by a ragged band of pirates led by a gaunt, intense teenager named Muse (Somali-American actor Barkhad Abdi, in a remarkable debut performance). “Relax, Captain. Just business,” the young pirate tells the middle-aged sailor. He’s right.