Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Looking at Killing Them Softly

I feel like there's not enough conversation about how great Andrew Dominik's Killing Them Softly is, not just on a plot/character/dialogue level, but on an aesthetic/technical one (I should mention, I just saw it for a second time, and it improved quite a bit even though I liked it a lot initially). It's a film that-like The Assassination of Jesse James-I'm still trying to sort out why is so gorgeous to look at besides the reductive answer that, well, maybe Dominik likes his images to look pretty. I've got an a decent explanation for the latter film, I'm still trying to sort out the former, and hopefully I'll get something up here soon that digs into this issue. In the meantime, here's some images from Killing Them Softly to feast your eyes on: 


Dogma (1999) It's a shame Kevin Smith's most well thought out idea (despite a misreading of what a plenary indulgence is) couldn't have been condensed into the zappy 90-minute film that could have made it amazing. Instead, the writer/director brings this comedy about a woman chosen to stop a couple of fallen angels on earth from exposing a supposed loophole in God's infallibility and returning to Heaven to a pretty bloated 128 minutes that's got too much talk and exposition for its own good. I see how Smith, who was raised a Catholic, is relishing in the opportunity to raise issues about problems in the relationship between the Bible, the Church, and Divinity. And I understand he's set up quite a task for himself in raising the issues he does while also making a comedy (admittedly, the later and the former often go hand in hand for Smith, but because it's also a Kevin Smith movie, he has to allow lots of extra room for pop culture humor and raunchy jokes) with an ambitious plot and a lots of characters. Ultimately, the film is weighed down by its talkiness, and honestly Smith could have kept all of the ideas, characters, and plot points in here and just cut out some of the blabbing (characters played by Salma Hayek, Alan Rickman, and Jason Lee all have too much to say) to give the film a better flow. But the film's still a winner, thanks largely to wonderful and often hilarious turns by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (male relationships and dialogue have always been Smith's strong point) as the fallen angels, and a surprisingly potent denouement. Whether this is all a big joke or not to Smith, his conclusion is a serious one within the confines of the film's interpretation of divinity, and renders it far less scandalous than the initial set-up would lead you to expect it to be. 

Amy (2015) This documentary from Asif Kapadia (Senna) consists of a massive amount of footage of Amy Winehouse taken from personal videos, interviews, media coverage, and concerts. The footage is impressively assembled, but whatever artistic merit it has I feel is undercut by the astounding and arguably disquieting idea that we can now make literal found footage movies about real people. I believe it was Matt Singer who called this the best found footage horror film of last year, which, given the tragic and terrifying downward spiral that Winehouse's life took, is quite accurate. This was a tough watch. It's a film that constantly shows us Winehouse's self-destructive behavior from drug and alcohol abuse once fame comes knocking, and that, coupled with the positive moments in which we see the singer's lovable, cheery side, makes us hope for a positive conclusion that we know isn't coming. Here is a woman who simply could not handle the pressures of superstardom, who probably would have lived a long and happy life if she could have stayed in London and sung in quiet jazz clubs. It's troubling that one of the great pop performers of this century, who had integrity as a musician and made her music deeply personal, was cut down by too much attention and public scrutiny. The world got and still has her music to love, but it all came at the price of killing the artist. There's no answer to this one, no solution to soften the impact. Only a remorseful, discomfiting, and fearful sensation. 

Chi-Raq (2015) While it's certainly a Spike Lee movie through and through, I don't know how anyone call really call it a success. I think Ignatiy Vishnevetsky put it best in his review for The AV Club: Out of all the wildly gifted black directors this country produced during the latter part of the last century, Spike Lee is the only one who ended up getting something like the career he was owed, and the only one who's been able to hold onto to what should be a basic right extended to all artists: the right to fail." This alone makes the giant mess that is Chi-Raq easier to accept, because even if Lee is not operating on his A-game, he's still making the kind of radical and gutsy choices that made him great, and as long as he's doing that, the film's problems suddenly seem okay. A clever reworking of the Aristophanes play Lysistrata set in modern day Chicago and concerning a sex strike by the black women of the city until senseless gang violence ends, the movie blends satirical and rambunctious comedy with social/political drama and doesn't seem to give a damn how the whole thing might be structured to actually work. And that's, paradoxically, the odd appeal of the picture. You get the sense Lee's going for the most energetic working of the Black Lives Matter movement in order to make the movie really speak to the audience as a truly urgent call. Sure the movie's too repetitious, often annoying, and never quite as funny as it should be, but it's Lee's sense of conviction, as well as his ability to stage big scenes like the one where a priest played by John Cusack gives a wildly heated sermon, that make it hard not to respect. If that's sort of what the right to fail entails, then it should be mentioned more often. 

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) Scripted by Quentin Tarantino and directed (and edited) by Robert Rodriguez, this hybrid of the crime thriller and vampire actioner sounds appealing until you realize that it's not really a hybrid at all, but instead a really excellent crime thriller with a pretty boring extended vampire action scene tacked on at the end. Perhaps it would be less disappointing if the first part of the film wasn't really good, but because it is, it's a letdown when we have to abandon that entire narrative to watch the characters kick ass against the vampires at a strip club called The Titty Twister. At this point Quentin Tarantino, who plays a bank robber along with his brother (George Clooney), gets dispatched, which on paper sounds like a good considering the filmmaker's sub-par acting chops. But here he's written a character for himself who could be described as a slimy violent idiot, which actually is the kind of character Tarantino excels at playing. I wanted more of him, his relationship with his brother, and to see an actually interesting conclusion to their journey with a family of hostages. Either way, you get the sense this exactly the movie Tarantino and Rodriguez wanted to cook up. It's the kind of thing you can imagine two movie buffs conjuring on a lazy saturday afternoon but never actually seeing to fruition. That they did, I suppose, is pretty cool. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Limelight (1952)

Charlie Chaplin spent years working on Limelight.  He based it largely around his own life as well as the idea of an entertainer growing obsolete ("what a sad business being funny"), and after it's completion was banned from the United States for supposed Communist ties. Because of this, and the fact Chaplin only made two, largely unremarkable films in Europe afterward (A King in New York, A Countess in Hong Kong), Limelight comes across as the artist's grand final statement, a swan song commemorating the world of comedy and reflecting on the melancholy that comes with having to say farewell to it. 

The movie concerns Calvero (Chaplin, acting worn, beaten, and tired, his smile often seeming painful or forced), an aging, washed up Vaudeville star who now spends his nights bumbling around drunk. As the film opens he happens upon a young ballet dancer living in his flat who has attempted suicide. He takes her to his room, gives her aid (all while being intoxicated-one of the funnier parts of the movie even though it theoretically shouldn't be), and literally helps her get back on her feet, as her recurring past traumas manifest themselves in leg paralysis. 

Essentially this is the story of an older man and a younger woman who have both given up on life and how they help each other find value in the idea of living. While this is certainly a familiar idea, what could have been a trite presentation of it becomes something more beautiful and mysterious thanks to Chaplin's understated performance and his unpredictable dialogue and plot structure. 

Calvero is essentially shocked that a young beautiful woman like Terry would want to stop living, as he sees in her youthfulness the potential for zest that he once had and embraced. As such, he sermonizes to her, talking about the vitality of the human person with grand, opulent lines like "think of the power that's in the universe! And that's the same power within you, if you'd only have the courage and will to see it." 

But Chaplin's too smart a writer to let such speechifying exist as so, and instead turns Calvero's attempt at getting Terry to embrace life into something of an act-understanding considering the life he's lead. The picture Calvero paints of life is not one he actually subscribes to (at one point he even says "since I've been preaching and moralizing to you, I'm beginning to believe it myself"), but that does not mean it cannot be effective and produce a change in another. After all, is that not a key function of drama--people doing and saying things that are't real but still impacting their audience in powerful ways? 

The film, which runs over two hours (at times it can feel messy and little longwinded), has a lot going on once Calvero rejuvenates Terry back into a dancer, including a reversal of their roles, a subplot involving a young composer Terry once admired, and even a lengthy cameo from Buster Keaton, who shares the screen for the first and last time with Chaplin (another reason, I suppose, Limelight feels like Chaplin's farewell).

But all the while it keeps its main focus on Calvero as a man who can't decide what to do with his life now that the glory days are behind him. The film doesn't come up with an answer, as Calvero's wishes ebb and flow between the idea of making a comeback and moving forward, even if doing so simply means being a lowly street musician. The combination of the psychology of Calvero and the personal aspects of the narrative makes us feel like we're inside Chaplin's own mind, and if so, a beautiful and complicated one it was. 

If this still doesn't sound like Chaplin's swan song, then watch the film and its final scene will surely change your mind. The last two shots in particular are stunning. Chaplin doesn't make a lot of dynamic visual choices in the film, but the penultimate shot, followed by a perfect cut inward that we don't expect, and then a slow track backward of the camera are brilliant, revealing a grand and selfless closing statement.  

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Love & Mercy (2015)

Love & Mercy takes its title from a song written by Brian Wilson that was released in 1988. When a musical biopic takes its title from a song written by its subject, I expect there to be a pretty conscious choice for that particular choice. The decision, I imagine, is based on two things: it sounds good (and looks good on a poster) and it might bear some thematic resonance to what the film is trying to get at as a whole. So what would the words in the title Love & Mercy have to do with the movie itself? This kind of question of course is simply open for speculation, so here's two ideas that don't so much reflect on the film in its entirety, but demonstrate how this title serves two distinct and crucial parts in the movie:

 In a scene early on, we see Paul Dano as Wilson sitting at a piano playing a rudimentary version of his classic God Only Knows. Director Bill Pohland and cinematographer Bob Yeoman (the great DP behind most of Wes Anderson's movies) use a single-take medium shot as the camera slowly circles around Wilson and his piano, panning between Wilson's face and his hands as they gently press on the keys. Given the visual information we've got, the assumption is that he's working out the song in solitude (we've learned minutes before that the insecure leader of the Beach Boys has decided to skip their Japan tour in order to stay in California and work on a new album-eventually to be Pet Sounds-he's really excited about).

But as the camera continues around to the front of the piano, we see behind it a man sitting on the couch, and when Wilson finishes the song and turns around awaiting judgement, we learn the man is his father, the former manager of his son's band. Now embittered and in a bathrobe drinking a whiskey coke in the middle of the day, the father dismisses the song, calling it "a suicide note." What started as a beautiful scene as we witness an early rendition of not just one of the great Beach Boys songs, but one of the great American songs in general, becomes tragic. It's not just that the father does not recognize the beauty in the melody and the words Wilson has created, but that we get an image of a son trying to impress his dad and experiencing blatant rejection. That he's even making this attempt after what we hear later in the film about the father's abusive treatment of Wilson in his childhood makes the repudiation sting even more. We can read into Wilson's mindset about going to his father's house to play him his new song: The Beach Boys have only played "fun" music, we kicked you out, but now the band is going in a new, more ambitious direction, and I want you to hear first what what I'm working on. 

The idea is that Wilson respects his father because, despite his abusive and rigorous parenting methods, he harnessed the musical skill and integrity that made the Beach Boys famous in the first place. Brian's looking to be loved not just for his commitment to his craft, but for his eagerness to go beyond the conventions that have made his band such a sensation (namely fast, snappy tunes mostly about surfing, girls, and cars). To take what's dull and make it more personal and musically complex. If Brian were a less sympathetic character, he might be doing this to spite his father, to add insult to injury, yet instead the scene is framed around the idea of a son desperately wanting his father to care about his work, and more importantly, to appreciate it. It's an act of a son's love for his father, and a positive reception would in turn be a father's love for his son. 

Alas, Wilson is denied this, and when his father tells him to leave and Brian dejectedly saunters out of the room, we get the first of many times Brian's denied a basic need for love from those closest to him that ultimately is far more important than the acclaim he received from other musicians and critics over his musical ingenuity. 

If the film frames the first part of Brian's story around this denial of love, then the second part-where Brian's story moves from the 60s to the 80s and he's is played by John Cusack-could be framed around his need for mercy being affirmed. This is the part of Brian's story in which his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, one of the few actors who I look forward to seeing yell at the top of his lungs, which he gets to do plenty of here) is micromanaging the musician's life and issuing a detrimental medication regimen. While Landy deserves praise for rescuing Brian from his three year booze, junk food, and drug infused confinement to his bed, his methods now that Brian's on his feet again are clearly detrimental to the musician's well-being. 

Wilson is unhappy and desperate for escape, which is manifested beautifully in the opening scene of the movie when he goes shopping for a Cadillac. As he sits in a brand new Fleetwood with the sales associate, Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks), we see his bodyguard watching from outside. "Can we just sit in here for a minute?" Brian asks, and they close the doors. In the free open world Brian's access to privacy is positively zero, so this confined space ironically serves as a brief moment of liberation from him. Before he departs, he leaves a note for Melinda that reads lonely, scared, frightened, the brevity of which only heightens the extremity and desperation of his circumstances. I'm not sure if this is how Brian officially met his future wife (Banks is stated, though, that the real Melinda was very generous in disclosing details about her relationship with him), but either way, it's an extremely effective way to establish his need for someone gentle and kind like her and her willingness to provide him help.

Melinda, then, can be seen as a representation of mercy towards Brian, though depending on how you want to define that word, a better one might be compassion. You can turn to many moments in the movie that indicate Melinda's beautiful commitment to understanding and helping Brian, the best of which might be a diner scene between her Wilson's maid. She talks about her love for Brian, but also her sense of feeling selfish. Pohland, who makes some interesting directorial choices throughout despite this being the first thing he's helmed since his debut in 1990, frames Melinda alone waiting for the maid, but we hear in voiceover the first part of their conversation, as if she's really thought through the situation as opposed to just acting out of pure emotion. Banks is really terrific in the film as a whole, and I think one of the reasons is that she so convincingly captures how Melinda has to balance her infatuation with Brian with a more pragmatic understanding of the severity of the man's situation and the immense challenges embedded in his past. 

The voiceover ends with her remarking: "I do not want to be one more person in his life who wants something from him." This to me is the key line of the movie, and if there's any mercy in Love & Mercy, I think it's best expressed in this sentiment. To have mercy on Brian Wilson is to not use him for one's own sake. That's not what his father did, that's not what his brothers did, and that's not what Landy did (though the film doesn't stress it, Landy got all sorts of fame and attention for his work with Wilson before he started taking it such damaging extremes). 

I won't reveal just how the rest of the plot unfolds except to say that Melinda ends up holding true to this sentiment while also managing to stay with Brian, which makes this very sad story almost giddily triumphant. Unlike most musical biopics, this one really leaves you feeling good instead of slightly irked that the man behind those songs you cherish was such an ass. During the end credits we get recent live footage of the real Wilson performing the song Love & Mercy. It's an end-credits technique I normally don't endorse, but here's it's apropos because it affirms that the victory Wilson ultimately achieves in the movie was not something fleeting, but that it really did change his life to this day. He's one of the few great musicians from his era who you can't help but root for and love. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Hard to be a God (2015)

On paper, Hard to be a God is not a movie that's terribly complicated from a narrative standpoint (the gist is that scientists travel to an alien planet that is intellectually inferior to earth and is set on remaining so), but you'd also be hard-pressed to find someone who's fully in tune with the goings on of its plot from start to finish. This is partly because director Aleksei German (who died just before post-production was complete, a shame considering this was a project he'd been trying to passionately get made his entire career) isn't very considerate when it comes to the extent his audience might be able to make sense of what's happening, and also because the pure scope of his vision and the brutality and nastiness in it ultimately takes precedence over any narrative coherence. And because, as I mentioned, this isn't at the end of the day a very complex narrative, you get the sense that the look and feel of the film is what German wanted his audience to really take away from it. 

If we can't quite make sense of the story the film is telling, it's partly because the ugliness of this world we're in muddies up what were probably fairly basic plot machinations in the script and the Arkady and Boris Strugatsky novel from which it's based. Depending on what you want out of a movie, this is arguably one of the most astounding things a film can do: fill the screen with so much mud, shit, blood, guts, and general muck that we're simply overwhelmed by the ghastly yet astounding vision at hand that any semblance of narrative structure or cohesion is undermined by the director's unreal commitment to the environment he's operating in. 

Another difficult aspect of the movie when it comes to making sense of what's actually going on is the fact that there's so much dialogue to deal with. There are scenes aplenty where German packs several characters into the frame (his camera not focused on anyone in particular) with many of them talking whilst doing other nasty things. Much of the dialogue is senseless blabbing, and that, coupled with the occasional lines of important exposition, the fact a lot of the scenes are murky, rainy, and low lit, and that it can be hard to differentiate between characters because their faces are often covered in gunk, makes the scenes difficult to make sense of and/or organize in any coherent fashion. At one point, the protagonist, one of the scientists sent to this planet from earth who has been defied by the people there, says to another character: "I'm speaking to you, but that doesn't meant we're having a conversation." And that's sort of how a lot of the dialogue works: there's lots of words spoken, but it's hard to tell which ones really matter.

And that, I think, is sort of the whole point. This is ultimately a movie about ugliness, about how circumstance (in this case, poor conditions, innate selfishness/cruelty, and intellectual sterility ) coupled with a faulty notion of order leads to a savage kind of disorder where any idea that creatures can get along peacefully seems impossible.

This is a behemoth of a movie, and the story told is one I can only possibly imagine wrought through film. I haven't read the novel and don't plan to. How could it possibly live up to the grotesque vision German has created, one in which images of crude, violent, and downright disturbing things would only grow tedious on the page, but when writ large on a massive canvas with grand sets and actors, becomes sort of thrilling? What terrible thing will we be shown next? Not exactly a feel-good experience, and certainly only fitting when a precise mood-one in which a desire to see just what a grand vision of ugliness might actually mean-strikes. 

I've intentionally avoided any concrete description of what's at play in Hard to Be a God, partly because I'm still trying to sort through the movie myself in whatever way I can, and also because it is one of those movies, like Mad Max: Fury Road, where the inexplicable power of the images largely negates any value in describing them. 

Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Fly (1986)

This masterpiece from David Cronenberg is somewhat of a culmination of his body horror movies and the themes they expressed, only he takes it a step further by an unprecedented buildup of sympathies as the horror progresses. Never have I seen a movie in which a director has managed the tonal balance of disgust and compassion so expertly, building to a crescendo wherein the most disturbing creation Cronenberg's ever conjured-a man fully turned into a fly-coincides with the greatest amount of pity he's ever given to a character. 

Cronenberg was hired to direct this remake of the 1958 Kurt Neumann version of the short story that was originally published in Playboy in 1957. Given how perfectly the film fits into his oeuvre, it's a bit surprising that he wasn't supposed to direct the film at all, and when it was originally in development he was working on making Total Recall. That project fell through, and when The Fly's original director, John Bierman, left the film due to his daughter's tragic death, the movie was Cronenberg's. It's a sad beginning to a very sad film in that Bierman, though clearly not on Cronenberg's technical or aesthetic level, is stated as saying he wanted to make a truly great movie, and that Mel Brooks (an uncredited producer on the film) gave him several months to recover from his personal tragedy, but even then the director, understandably, could not muster up the passion with which he originally approached the project.

But even given Bierman's original intent on greatness, it's unlikely he could have come up with the vision Cronenberg achieved, especially because this was not just the case of a director-for-hire, but of Cronenberg, as ususal, truly making the movie his own. He re-fashioned the script to suit his own interests, brought on the same crew he had worked with on previous movies (though, as Cronenberg superfans probably know, this was his last film with DP Mark Irwin-all of his movies following this were shot by the great Peter Suschitzky), and even personally selected Jeff Goldblum for the lead, despite the fact that make up artist Chris Walas wanted someone with small ears and nose to make the fly-morphing scenes easier to create. Not a huge issue, though, especially considering the fact that Goldblum is one of those rare actors who's equally convincing as a geeky scientist and a strapping dude (and very tall, as well-6-5, which is one of the reasons the 6-0 Geena Davis, Goldblum's girlfriend at the time, was cast as his love interest, making the many two-shots of them a little less jarring) two attributes that are vital to his character. The brainy part of him is certainly more obvious, as the genius of his character, Seth Brundle, is apparent from the get-go: the very first thing he shows Davis' Veronica upon taking her to his laboratory/apartment is his potentially-groundbreaking teleportation device. His total commitment to scientific/intellectual endeavors is evident in other ways too, like his Einsteinian fashion choice of owning identical sets of clothing as not to waste time deciding what to wear each day. 

But it's the other part of him, the physicality, the sturdy good looks, and his realization that a woman might find him attractive that I find most compelling. After all, what is The Fly but a love story undone by detrimental scientific ambition? When Veronica seductively tugs at his tie and comments on his cuteness, Brundle's timorous response "Am I?" suggests this is the first time he's let a woman woo him.

The love story element is vital to the film not just because of the Veronica/Seth relationship, but also because of the jealousy of Veronica's editor and ex-boyfriend, Stathis Borans (John Getz of Blood Simple fame--also not the only time he played an editor-see Zodiac). While he does initially seem to simply be playing the part of the bitter asshole ex, Cronenberg actually gives his character a lot more weight upon deeper consideration. While his sneaking into Veronica's apartment and taking a shower, or asking her for sex as a form of stress relief aren't exactly redeemable actions, why would he show up in a department store where Veronica is shopping and make a fool of himself in expressing his concern over her budding relationship with Brundle unless he felt a real emptiness over her absence from his life? Further, his growing sense of responsibilty for Veronica once Brundle begins to morph into a fly climaxes in a scene where he becomes the traditional hero of the story, albeit with a somewhat tragic end (I should add, though, that this is the story of co-heroes, with Borans operating in a more chivalric tradition, while his counterpart, Brundle, is heroic in his ultimate request for death).

I should also add that the entire reason Brundle goes inside the pod, unknowingly accompanied by a pesky fly, to see if his creation works with humans, is because he is drunkenly upset over his suspicion that Veronica might be involved with Borans (I wonder if Josh Trank was inspired by this for the similar drunken teleportation sequence from Fantastic Four). This is all to say that for all its brilliant make-up and special effects, and for its commitment to taking scientific terminology and ideas seriously, The Fly ultimately resonates and lasts for its human storyline, the wonderful idea of what it would be like if a man alienated from romance because of his commitment to science suddenly fell in love, but then that commitment to science ultimately tore the love apart. 

This is also why that for all its queasy, horrific, and disgusting elements in its last half, the predominating feeling in The Fly is one of sadness, a disquieting sense of melancholy that science didn't just end a man's life, but kept him from the kind of human love he probably never got the chance to really feel. For a movie about a man turning into an insect and spouting lines about becoming "the first political insect," this might be Cronenberg's most human film ever. 
Bilge Ebiri on Lonergan's latest, Manchester By the Sea: "Like a baby yelling during a funeral, Manchester by the Sea is a vision of grief occasionally interrupted by by the awkward vitality of life."

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Criterion just released a little chat between Guillermo Del Toro and the Coen Brothers on Inside Llewyn Davis (out now on Crtierion blu ray and DVD, in case you hadn't heard!). As much as I think A Mighty Wind is one of the funniest movies ever, I loved this line from Joel Coen: "I think a lot of people thought it was going to be a parody of folk music, or that scene, and you can't parody folk music really. It's funny enough by itself." 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Sicario and the Silence of the Lambs

When I first saw the great Sicario, I quickly noticed a similarity between Villeneuve's film and the 1991 Jonathan Demme classic The Silence of the Lambs. But while Sicario has deservedly received lots of attention and plenty of good analysis, I've read only a handful of reviews that mention it alongside Demme's film. And those that have mainly refer to it briefly, with quick references to the similarity between Emily Blunt's Kate Macer and Jodie Foster's Clarice Starling, largely due to the fact that here are two thrillers with FBI women operating in a precarious man's world. Besides that, the best you'll get is that both women are taken from their comfort zones and confronted with Evil. 

Scott Tobias came closest to getting at something between the two movies in his review of Sicario, not only deeming it to be "the next Silence of the Lambs," but even citing specific parallels between the scenes when Macer is questioned and then recruited by Matt (Josh Brolin) and other men of power and the moment in Lambs when Starling is left alone in a room full of cops, who "look at her like she's just barged into a men's locker room." He's getting at the aforementioned idea of the intimidating aspect of a woman operating in a man's world, but that's about as much discussion I've found on the issue (granted, it's a review for GQ, so even if he wanted to, Tobias wouldn't have the room to examine the comparison much further). 

There are several other ways in which one could compare these movies (i.e. symbolism, like the head with the moth in it in Lambs and the dead body in Sicario whose head is covered in a plastic with the edges sticking upward like devil horns--or the fact that both films climax with night vision scenes), but for now I'm simply going to look at the relationship between Macer and Starling, with an emphasis on their behavior and how the fact that they're woman impacts the respective worlds they find themselves in.

From a feminist perspective, it's clear why it's a big deal to have central female characters in these two films (particularly in Sicario, since we live in an age of ever-growing pressure to provide women with empowering roles-Macer joins Furiosa from Mad Max and Rey from the new Star Wars as the standouts of 2015). But while it's easy to draw a comparison between these characters because they're women working in a man's world, the comparison mostly stops there, which is actually something I find quite interesting. And that's not even considering the nature of their jobs: Macer is more focused on action and is an expert on kidnapping response, while Lambs emphasizes that Starling is merely competent when it comes to the physical aspects of her job (see the mock home invasion scene and the climax of the film) and is better suited to nitty-gritty details, observation, and psychological study. 

Lambs makes it clear that despite her qualifications, Starling is out of place both among the psychiatrists and doctors involved with Hannibal Lecter, and the cops who are in the hunt for the killer Buffalo Bill. Demme stresses this visually in the elevator scene where Starling is surrounded by men in red polos, her face tilted upward like she's trapped by red-blooded male dominance, and in the scene mentioned by Tobias where the cops silently judge her, like she's violating a macho code of exclusion. It's also more blatantly expressed in an early scene where Frederick Chilton (Anthony Heald), the slimy doctor in charge of Lecter, quickly deviates from general info about Lecter to comment that "we get a lot of detectives around here, but I must say can't ever remember one as attractive." And then, later, he comments that it was a clever move having Starling assigned to talk to Lecter, to get a "pretty, young woman to turn him on." While her skills and her stamina should be and largely are the incentives for bringing her into the case, Chilton is partly right here. In dealing with someone as twisted and intelligent as Lecter, the fact that Starling is a woman might be a solution to getting the stubbornly guarded Lecter to disclose information. Either way, the film makes it clear that it is unusual to have Starling in this situation, which ultimately only makes her resourcefulness and tenacity in the face of both gender conflict and chilling evil all the more impressive.

I'm less inclined to hold these viewpoints when I think of Macer. The fact that she's a woman actually is far less significant to the narrative or the other characters. This is a reflection both of a contemporary need for women to appear in roles traditionally designated for men, and because Macer's sexuality doesn't necessarily impact the film in any large way (with the exception of a scene where an attempt at a one night stand with a crooked cop nearly gets her killed). The fact that this a woman in a man's world is given far less weight than in Lambs. Even the scene recruitment Tobias mentioned alongside the "lockeroom" scene (or the interchangeable elevator scene) in Lambs plays down the fact that Macer is a woman in favor of simply giving the scene a sense of eerie strangeness. Who are these guys talking to her and what do they want? Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins shoot the scene such that the men are all seated and looking up at Macer, who is standing. While it clearly separates her from the men, it also gives her a sense of autonomy as she learns she will be joining a special task force to take down an evil drug lord based on what she's done (namely, she's good at breaking down doors, but they word in fancier, more appealing terms: she'll be a "liaison," because they need someone with "tactical experience"). We'll eventually learn that she's involved not so much for her achievements but for who she is, but this has nothing to do with the fact that she's a woman. 

After all, during the recruitment scene, Macer is also considered for the job alongside her male partner, Reggie. Reggie, however, is turned down because his credentials are too good (a tour in Iraq sounds nice, but when Matt learns he has a law degree as well, he quickly dismisses him. "No lawyers on this train," he says, the first indication that there's something shady about the job at hand). Macer, however, is simply a thumper, 5 and 0, and when Matt hears this and says "I like her already," you get an inkling that he wants someone with grit who gets things done and doesn't question authority figures. That's the exact opposite reason why Starling was recruited. The only real similarity then would be the fact that both of these woman are brought into situations by powerful men who conceal their motivations in order to gain their support. Though she suspects it, Starling isn't initially told that her recruitment is intended to help the police in finding Buffalo Bill, while Macer remains completely ignorant for most of the film that she's needed simply because "CIA can't operate in U.S. borders without a domestic agency attached." Needless to say, Macer's job is the far more thankless of the two. 

This is simply to get at the why of the presence of these two FBI women in these two films who are asked to augment missions to catch dangerous men. It seems that their sex and that they're FBI are the only truly concrete parallels we can make between them. And once we get into the real action of the films' respective plots and these characters' involvement in them, the separation only increases. Starling's progression through the narrative she finds herself in is a movement from subordination to power. Any sense that she's simply being used by the men above her is diminished when Crawford and his men mistake the location of Bill while Starling, working alone, successfully solves the mystery of his whereabouts and proceeds to kill him. 

Macer's progression however is the exact opposite: initially she's made to be an important figure in the Task Force's mission to take out the cartel, but when she's confronted with the shady dealings and morality of her superiors, as well as the senseless violence that everyone else seems just to shrug at (evinced most clearly in the brilliant Juarez sequence where a shootout occurs in Border traffic, and dead bodies are left as nothing but litter thrown from a car), she begins to crumble. She becomes confused, terrified, and overly stressed as her sense of agency dwindles and her questions are ignored. "You're asking me how a watch works," says Matt's enigmatic partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro). "For now let's keep an eye on the time." Not the greatest answer for a woman who, when asked what to tell the U.S. attorneys after a bunch of dead bodies are found in the walls of a house at the beginning of the film, answers simply and resolutely "the truth." Macer wants to follow the rules, and her progression in the film is the realization that in the world of quashing drug cartels, rules are undermined by convenience. What we mainly get of Macer after she's initially established as a woman of power and resolve is someone who frets and smokes lots of cigarettes in desperation. This is not, by the way, a critique of her character, as her response to her situation is quite understandable. Her frailty makes her seem more human, while Starling's display of brilliance in Lambs makes her seem almost super-human, but also more emotionally distant. 

The Silence of the Lambs concludes with Starling being rewarded for her services, while Macer is left staring off of a balcony at a world far more terrifying for her than it was at the beginning of the film. While she had thick skin when it came to dealing with violence, part of this had to do with her understanding of American principles and a fairly simplistic perspective wherein bad people must be caught, the truth must be told, and the American constitution must be adhered to (literally, she basically says that at one point in the movie). Now she's left wondering what hold those principles have when the real truth is that violence can't be stopped, but only subdued, and that the means to this are not grounded in anything concrete, but are made up and quickly altered whenever necessary. 

Both films end with these women receiving "calls" from the men who make the worlds of these respective films so terrifying. Lecter phones Starling to say that he will not pursue her and that he wants her to do the same. Starling refuses. Macer gets an actual visit from Alejandro, who asks her to sign a confidentially agreement, which she also refuses. But Alejandro eventually coerces her with a gun to the head, and Macer signs.

In refusing to heed to Lecter's request, Starling is throwing herself into the world of evil that she's just encountered as if to say my job has only just begun. Macer, on the other hand, is essentially kicked out of the world she found herself in. "You're not a wolf," Alejandro tells her as he advises her to move away. "And you're in the land of wolves now." 

It seems then that these movies, through their female protagonists, offer two very different takes on how to deal with evil. While they both conclude with very scary final shots revealing the presence of evil in our everyday lives (in Lambs we get Lecter walking through a crowded city, blending in with everyone else, while Sicario shows a group of kids playing soccer while ominous gunfire is heard in the distance), Lambs makes it clear that the fight will go on because of steadfast folks like Starling, and that the killers will be taken down. Sicario distances itself from this perspective and instead concludes that if there is any solution, it is compromise, and if there will ever be a victory, it will come at the expense of the principles that people like Macer construct their identities around. 

To close, you might wonder, what is the value in looking at these two films and their female protagonists side by side? Without getting into the constructiveness of comparing different things for its own sake, we might conclude that it's useful to look at these movies together as two examples of different types of cultural fascination with evil, and how Clarice Starling and Kate Macer respectively represent different attitudes towards these types of evil. The Silence of the Lambs can be see as a culmination of sorts of a decades long American fascination with the serial killer. While serial killers have been around for centuries, when we talk about the truly notorious ones, the lion's share of them operated between the 1960s and the 1990s. It's fitting then that Lecter arrived on the big screen when he did (Brian Cox did play him in Michael Mann's excellent 1986 film Manhunter, but he wasn't immortalized as a character until Hopkins' role in Lambs): at the tail end of what might be called the serial killer era, we get the most twisted and terrifying and complex of them all. I don't buy into the idea that Lecter's escape at the end is a reflection on audience sympathies with him. I think it's simpler than that, that he is too cunning and too twisted to handle, and yet the film concludes with the notion that because of people like Clarice Starling, these monsters will always be hunted and never given the chance to fulfill their killing fantasies without getting caught.

In Sicario, we find a different America, the America where the focus has shifted from a fascination and repulsion over these individuals towards violent groups who carry out vicious acts that get copious amounts of media attention. The fear has moved from things inside our own country to things outside it that we're terrified will get in. ISIS and the Mexican drug cartels are the two clearest examples, and because we have visual access to the crimes committed by these groups, our fear is more immediate and paranoia-inducing. Sicario, and also the documentary Cartel Land, take cautious and largely pessimistic approaches to the such issues, suggesting that the inefficiency of the law and the savage nature of these evil groups have rendered our nation frightened and helpless. 

As Starling represented the unwavering dedication to stopping evil in The Silence of the Lambs, Macer is the example of a national decline in morale as a whole. This evil can be stopped, but at this point, Sicario suggests, we have solutions that are unsettling at best. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Yi Yi (2000)

Though he made ambitious films before Yi Yi (A Brighter Summer Day, packed with social and political ideas and running for nearly four hours) and released it seven years before his death, Edward Yang's 2000 masterpiece does have the feeling of a swan song, the culmination of everything one might learn from both life itself and a life making movies.

One doesn't ask what is it about, but rather, what is it not about? Yang's relaxed approach to his subjects, his subdued camera, and the largely quiet nature of his actors can make the film seem just a languid and gorgeous slice of life, but only if you let that description serve as an excuse for not looking closer and thinking more deeply. 

With his three main characters, a father, NJ (Nien Jien Wu), his 8-year old son Yang Yang (Jonathan Chang), and teenage daughter Ting Ting (Kelly Li), Yang captures nothing short of the different types of confusion we have at different stages in life: youthful curiosity, adolescent frustration, and parental responsibility, and the varying types of sadness that hovers over all three phases. On top of that, the father is given additional weight as a character because besides his family he is forced to confront the conflict of his need for human decency at his work (he's an executive at an electronics company) and his colleagues' greed. Intersected with this is the arrival of a lover from the past, at which he must not just grapple with why that relationship did not work (he explains he had many reasons, but in retrospect finds them to be silly, while she, despite having found both success and a husband, laments their separation and still sees a scenario where they could reunite), but with the past itself and the conflicting need to simultaneously look backward and move forward.

That looking backward and looking forward is partly due to the crucial point in these peoples' lives that Yang chooses to focus on. He opens the film with a wedding between NJ's brother-in-law and a woman pregnant with his child. While this suggests new life and looking ahead, the day of celebration ends with NJ's mother-in-law having a stroke and falling into a coma, where she'll stay until (spoiler) her death concludes the film. 

On top of that, the wedding itself is hardly a joyous affair. Simply due to the film's 3-hour running time, I half expected Yang to pull an epic Deer Hunter-esque wedding banquet scene full of elation and pathos. Instead, though, he keeps it quite brief, and mostly centers in on unhappy undercurrents of what's supposed to be a celebration. A wide shot of the mother-in-law sitting alone outside, a confrontation with the brother-in-law's ex-lover, who barges in and decries the married couple (we realize that the wedding is probably just due to the bride getting pregnant), and a sad moment where NJ takes his son to get fast food because he won't eat the meal at the reception after he's made fun of by some other kids. And any hint of the usual raucous good times at these events is limited to another wide shot of the bride, groom, and a handful of friends drunkenly celebrating together in a mostly empty reception hall, whatever other guests remaining sitting awkwardly at their tables (Yang's withdrawn camera emphasizes the emptiness of the party, with whatever unity there is coming over being wasted). It's one of the most memorable wedding scenes in any movie I can recall, not because this is how weddings are supposed to be, but because it so successfully captures the mood of emotional distance and disappointment that permeates the rest of the film. 

For the characters in the movie, the problem of this wedding seems to create a sense of cynicism or discomfort about the present, while the coma suffered by the mother-law-law establishes a sense of fear about the future, as if their reward for living their dissatisfied lives will simply be to eventually arrive in her position. The characters take turns sitting by her bed, where they're supposed to talk to her for her own sake, but she ends up becoming a means for them to reflect their own problems/weaknesses. NJ's wife tells her about her day-to-day routines, but this only awakens in her a sense of banality over her life. Yang Yang refuses to even say anything, while the brother-in-law merely mentions his improved financial position and NJ uses her to confront his own existential dilemmas about the purpose of moving forward if everything always stays the same.

It sounds like a bleak movie, and in many ways it is, yet I left it feeling exhilarated and deeply moved. I'm still trying to sort out why I feel so warmly about the film, and while an easy answer would be that it captures the often difficult routines of everyday life while managing to offer a convincing portrayal of the big dramatic occurrences of a full lifespan (by this I mean things that generally all people will experience in some way or another between birth and old age), I think it has more to do with Tang's perspective on such things. 

These are issues Yang has obviously thought about a great deal--and possibly experienced in his own life--and rather than looking at them through a jaded lens, he approaches them with a sense of subdued contentment with the trials that life brings. And it seems that part of that is that he recognizes the value of finding beauty amidst the banality, heartbreak, and tragedy that makes up so much of living. This is evinced most clearly in NJ's encounters with a software developer named Ota (comedian Issey Ogata). Initially their meetings are built around a business deal, but when they learn of a mutual interest in music, they visit a night club and share a brief, wonderful moment over drinks. The scene culminates with Ota actually going up on stage and playing songs on the piano, the last of which is Moonlight Sonata. The camera cuts to a medium closeup of NJ listening to the song, his expression one of a man worn down by problems who finds brief relief in a moment of beauty. 

The song continues on into the next scene as NJ returns to his office, but it's much quieter, as if it's simply still playing in his head, the way any great one does after you hear it initially. Yang disperses moments like these throughout the film, and just like the song keeps playing for NJ, these moments gently perfuse the more difficult moments in the movie. We're left not feeling we've seen a harsh depiction of life, but a kind of somber and lovely reconciliation with its harshness. 

Besides these more headier issues, Yang also seems to be investigating movies themselves, what they can do and why they should exist. At one point, Yang Yang asks his father questions about perspective, how we can never see what's behind us or know what another person sees. His father proceeds to give him a camera, at which Yang Yang sets out to photograph the backs of people's heads (after, though, he tries capturing images of misquotes, interpreted by his scoffing teacher as an attempt at avant-garde artwork-a heartbreaking scene that can easily get lost among the film's larger moments). 

Similarly, Ting Ting goes on a movie date with a boy, after which a discussion ensues about the ways in which cinema allows us to experience other ways of life than the single one we're given (his example of a murderer is followed by-spoiler-his killing a man sleeping with his mother, and when Yang follows this up with scenes of video game violence, I understand him to be commenting on the danger of art/entertainment overlapping with real life, but it's all too rushed and contrived, interfering with other, more important drama in the film-it's my only real complaint about the movie). And this access seems to be what Yang himself prizes in this medium. What sounds like an intimate family drama a la Ozu becomes an ensemble epic that nonetheless is privy to all of these characters' most private actions and thoughts in a way on film is able to.

A novel, I suppose, also can bring us inside the worlds of lots of characters, but only in a movie can this be done with consideration of space, wherein we're able to obtain a sense of realism that the novel fails to achieve. This sense of space comes in the mode of presentation via the camera, and here Yang's strategy is to keep it as distant as possible, often hiding behind doorways or looking in through windows. In one sense it makes us voyeurs of the private lives of others, but that is only if we want to feel guilt for the gift of access of lives outside our own that cinema offers.