Some Movies

I haven't had a chance to write about many movies over the past few months, so here are some stray, incomplete thoughts and blazingly subjective opinions on various films, before I completely forget my first impressions...

The Amazing Spider-Man. I've come to the conclusion that I don't much like super-hero movies, and my love of The Amazing Spider-Man, which most people seem to feel at best lukewarm about, is probably because it's not much of a super-hero movie. I didn't care for Sam Raimi's three Spider-Man movies much — indeed, I thought number 2, which some people I know consider the greatest super-hero movie of all time, worked vastly better when played at 1.5 speed, and probably would have been even better played faster, if the voices didn't sound like The Chipmunks. I went into The Amazing Spider-Man with very low expectations, then, and those expectations were exceeded all around. The casting is ultimately the film's greatest strength, because Andrew Garfield (who I've been fascinated by since Boy A) has a wonderful mix of insouciance, nerdiness, and intelligence that plays charmingly off of Emma Stone's typically bouncy/breathy Emma Stone performance. Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, and Campbell Scott are all delights, as well. The story really isn't much, Rhys Ifans doesn't have a whole lot to work with as the villain, and the special effects, while fine, are nothing particularly special for a film of this budget and type. But I never cared, because I loved hanging out with these characters.

Argo. A fun thriller with a surprisingly low body count. We're used to thrillers in which lots of people die, and yet this is in more than one way an old-school movie, a movie that is optimistic about the world-changing power of cinema, and nostalgic for a time when people thought movies could be a force for good in the world. At its core, it's a true story, but the liberties taken with the more mundane truths of the tale are all ones that fit the story into a conventional Hollywood mode. (More unfortunately conventional is its marginalizing of women.) And that's the point, as Jim Emerson has astutely written. It's enjoyable enough as a thriller, but it's more interesting as an exploration of audience expectations, genre conventions, and what we desire from our "true stories".

Beasts of the Southern Wild. I've been arguing with myself about this movie for a month now, which means I need to watch it a few more times. On the one hand, I was completely taken in by the performance of Quvenzhané Wallis as Hushpuppy, I found some of the cinematography lovely, and I found the ending moving. (The music totally got me.) On the other hand, it felt at times a bit too close to "noble savage" myths for comfort. What I want to look more closely at with a later viewing is the way the film uses Hushpuppy's point of view — as a child, she does her best to make sense of events and circumstances through her own perception, and because the movie is told through her eyes, her perception becomes ours (hence, the aurochs, which I also loved). While the surface of the film may seem to celebrate the self-reliance of the denizens of the Bathtub, and while Hushpuppy's abusive, alcoholic father Wink is celebrated with a lovely funeral at the end ... I didn't come away feeling that the movie itself was unambiguously celebrating all this. I was not left with an uplifting sense of the wondrous potential of human ingenuity in the face of disaster; instead, I left the film feeling overwhelmed by how limited the characters' choices were, how much they had been abandoned by the world beyond them, how much they had been forced to make do by a country that ultimately didn't really care that much if they washed away into the ocean. On the other hand, while I don't agree with the perspective of the Beasts-haters in this discussion at Slate, and even less so with the perspective of bell hooks, their points are worth considering, and I don't have good answers to some of them. On the other hand, there was a lot I enjoyed in the movie, a lot it made me think about, good and bad. (For other views, see Matt Denault at Strange Horizons and N.K. Jemison.)

The Cabin in the Woods. Maybe I'm just impervious to the charms of Joss Whedon (not maybe: I am), but I got to the end of this film, which Whedon co-wrote and produced, and was stuck thinking, "Really? That's all you've got?" I know lots of people find the movie clever, amusing, and innovative, but for me Mark Olsen at The Village Voice summed it up well: "A horror comedy with a structural twist intended to emit an air of being something more, Cabin has an off-putting vibe of cocky self-confidence, a 'don't you get it' conviction that it's something special. As with people, it's not a charming quality in a movie."

The Dark Knight Rises. Ugh. The Honest Trailer got it right. There were moments in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight that I enjoyed well enough, despite the terrible scripts and plodding direction, but The Dark Knight Rises was just atrocious, the ungainly love child of Cecil B. DeMille and Leni Riefenstahl. It's time for me to give up on Christopher Nolan; the only one of his movies I've completely enjoyed was The Prestige, and both Inception and The Dark Knight Rises were for me symphonies of boredom and annoyance.

Django Unchained. I never really liked a Quentin Tarantino movie until Inglorious Basterds. There were things I admired in his earlier work, particularly his ability to fill banal moments with tension, but I just didn't care much about whatever it was he cared about. And then came Inglorious Basterds, where suddenly so many of Tarantino's influences were ones I knew well, having grown up with the World War II movies beloved of my father (the Hollywood movies mostly, but also plenty of German ones — I remember falling asleep while he watched an unsubtitled videotape of Kolberg). For once, a Tarantino movie felt vaguely morally complex, as if he'd reached a point in his life when he not only wanted to celebrate the movies he loved and revel in the pleasures of a revenge narrative, but to wonder what those movies and pleasures had done to him. Django Unchained lacks some of the complexities and ambiguities of Basterds, but it's a different beast. Where World War II and the Holocaust have been subject to every sort of cinematic representation from The Great Dictator to Night and Fog to Schindler's List to Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS; American slavery has been narrower in its representations, more fraught. As Steven Barnes points out in an excellent piece on Django Unchained, popular culture (for better or worse) thrives on revenge narratives, but there has never been a movie about slavery that ends with unambiguously successful revenge by a slave. And that's what Django Unchained gives us. Its ending images are thrilling in a way no movie (to my knowledge) has ever been allowed to be thrilling before. While Inglorious Basterds is more morally complex because it provides moments suggesting we might not want to be so proud of ourselves for our revenge fantasies, Django Unchained just says: "You've never really been able to indulge in this fantasy before. Here you go. If you can't have fun fantasizing brutal deaths for slavers, when can you have fun fantasizing brutal deaths?" Interestingly, Tarantino doesn't merely let us fantasize brutal deaths for the slave-owners and -sellers themselves. He flips the normal racial hierarchy of black/white buddy stories, where we all know that the black guy's got to die so the white guy can live on and tell the tale. Not here. While much of the movie is dominated by Christoph Waltz's charmingly brutal Dr. King Schultz, the emotional force is all on Django's side, and he's the one who gets to finish the work. The effect is like taking a pile of nitrate-based prints of Gone with the Wind and setting them on fire.

I had some reservations about the movie — it's very male, for one thing, and if we're indulging in fantasies, I don't see why Tarantino couldn't have had more female characters contributing to the mayhem. Kerry Washington as Broomhilde especially gets short-changed. Django should have tossed her a shotgun and let her rip. (A note on the name Broomhilde: while the spelling is amusing, it makes sense that all the non-German-speaking characters would spell it that way. Christoph Waltz always seemed to pronounce it correctly as Brunhilde, as he should, since he's the one who explains the story of Siegfried and Brunhilde to Django. See also, as I'm sure Tarantino has, Fritz Lang's magnificent Die Nibelungen.)

What are we to make of Samuel L. Jackson's character, Stephen? It's the most flagrantly racist portrait in the movie, and the flagrancy is clearly intentional, because neither Tarantino nor Jackson are complete idiots. As always with Tarantino, there are no answers except in movies past, and Stephen seemed to me an embodiment of the "uncle Tom" figure common to so many old films, the kind of character many black actors were forced to spend a career playing. This makes me want to revisit Donald Bogle's classic Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks before seeing Django Unchained again, because Bogle's description of the "tom" character type sums up much of Stephen's character:
Always as toms are chased, harassed, hounded, flogged, enslaved, and insulted, they keep the faith, n'er turn against their white massas, and remain hearty, submissive, stoic, generous, selfless, and oh-so-very kind. Thus they endear themselves to white audiences and emerge as heroes of sorts.
The name of course comes from Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the effect of the 1927 silent film adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel did much to perpetuate the most pernicious elements of the stereotype, as Bogle documents:
Tom still came off as a genial darky, furnished with new color but no new sentiments. Yet to [actor James B.] Lowe's credit, he did his tomming with such an arresting effectiveness that he was sent to England on a promotional tour to ballyhoo the picture, thus becoming the first black actor to be publicized by his studio. The film also introduced the massive baptism scene, which later became a Hollywood favorite. Curiously, in 1958 this version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, although silent, was reissued with an added prologue by Raymond Massey. Because it arrived just when the sit-ins were erupting in the South, many wondered if by reissuing the film Universal Studios hoped to remind the restless black masses of an earlier, less turbulent period, when obeying one's master was the answer to every black man's problems.
This, it seems to me, is the character Jackson is portraying, and the loathing we are meant to feel for him is, then, not a loathing for any real person or historical character, but for the one "good Negro" type allowed over decades of popular American cinema. His fate in Django Unchained is one many black viewers must have yearned for, secretly, for a long time.

Headhunters. An entertaining and often surprising Norwegian thriller that does a marvelous job of starting out as a slow-paced, ostentatiously "realistic" movie and then metamorphosing into a fast-paced twist-upon-twist grand guignol. I've seen few thriller that so well make their form an essential part of their thrills. Just as we're beginning to get a bit bored, just as we're beginning to wonder if this movie will ever actually go anywhere, just when we think we've figured it out all — bang. The story is pure hokum and all the better for it. The realism of the first part of the film prepares us to accept all the absurdities of the later part of the story, and thus our pleasure (and terror) is ramped up in a way a more conventional movie could never achieve.

How to Survive a Plague. A powerful, important documentary about ACT-UP's quest to get the world to care about AIDS deaths and treatment. For people who don't remember life before effective AIDS drugs existed, this is essential viewing. I found it wrenching, because my first awareness of what life as a gay man means was formed during the years ACT-UP was most active, and I remember watching a 60 Minutes report about them that terrified and exhilarated me. It wasn't until my junior year of college that the cocktail of effective drugs was declared effective — I remember reading an article by, I think, Andrew Sullivan in the New York Times declaring that AIDS could now become a manageable chronic illness, and I thought he was being hyperbolic and ridiculous, and yet I also hoped he was, even to a small extent, correct. I'd been to some ACT-UP events myself at that point (nearly got arrested at a protest against the Pope). Seeing the footage of the assembly room at the Community Center brought back memories I didn't even realize I had. The story is told well, though inevitably by focusing on the treatment group, various other aspects and offshoots of ACT-UP are left out. I'll be curious to compare it to another new documentary on ACT-UP, United in Anger, which I haven't yet been able to see.

The Innkeepers. Writer-director Ti West has been getting lots of press as a low-budget horror movie wunderkind, but so far, I'm a skeptic. The Innkeepers in particular seems to me to be horror for people who don't want things to be particularly horrifying, but prefer to have a tedious story and shallow characters moving through the familiar turns and motifs of a million other horror movies. If you thought the one thing horror really lacked was a mumblecore sensibility, then this is the movie for you. (At least it's not as self-satisfied as Cabin in the Woods, or quite so tedious as West's earlier Trigger Man.)

Killer Joe. Worth seeing for the performances, maybe, but pretty noxious overall. Apparently, some people find the film to be darkly humorous, but I just couldn't access the humor here. It's ultimately a movie about stupid people getting brutally punished for their stupidity, and it climaxes (literally) with a scene where the audience is encouraged to be thrilled by the beating and obscene degradation of Gina Gershon's character, Sharla. It's well made, but a perfect example of a film that does well that which is not worth doing at all.

The Life of Pi. Not as bad as it could have been. I found the first half hour a bit slow and the imagery in the central part of the film schlocky in an unappealing way, like a Hallmark card come to life. That said, I loved the final monologue by Irrfan Khan, and the twist at the end (preserved from the book) in some ways thematically justifies the Hallmarkyness of what has gone before. The film does a good job of raising the question of what we desire from stories and life, but that wasn't really enough to make it a particularly memorable or visceral experience.

The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. I'd been meaning to get around to this classic of New German Cinema, directed by Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von Trotta, for years, but didn't until recently. It's a perfect complement to more expansive, wild portraits of terrorism and Germany in the 1970s such as Baader Meinhof Complex and Fassbinder's Mother Kusters Goes to Heaven and The Third Generation. (It actually has a lot in common with Mother Kusters, which was released just a few months earlier in 1975.) It also seems to me to be a particularly fine example of how a style of objective, unemotional realism can be used to foster real emotion in an audience and also to suggest depths of history and psychology that would feel forced, obvious, or too convenient if presented through more obvious exposition. We don't really know much for sure about Katharina, especially in the first half of the film. We learn along with everyone else what has happened, and the truth of it all, while apparently present, is nearly lost amid the accusations. We as the audience have to do some work, and there are some things we'll never know. While very much a film of its time and place, it also very much transcends those particularities, as Amy Taubin points out in her Criterion essay on the film. For America in the Age of the War on Terror, it is a cautionary tale, indeed.

The Master. A movie I very much need to see again before I can decide quite how I felt about it, because the only feeling I had after a first viewing was indifference. I left with admiration for some of the cinematography and performances, and a complete inability to emotionally connect with any of it. I didn't care about the characters in any way, couldn't have cared less if they all died in a nuclear holocaust or suddenly created peace on earth. If the movie had ended after half an hour, I would have felt about what I felt about it after 144 minutes, and if it had lasted for 444 minutes I probably would have started moaning and writhing in my seat, but been no more or less enlightened than I was. Some viewers and critics I generally respect feel passionately about this movie, and I hope with a second viewing I can begin to access some of what might cause someone to feel passion one way or the other about it.

Melancholia. In the first half hour, I thought I would hate this film. Stupid rich people at a stupid wedding being stupid. I was about to turn it off when something clicked. And then it really clicked. And I was entranced. Moved. Astounded. Shocked. Perplexed. Blown away. A perfect complement to another movie from 2011, The Tree of Life (a movie I continue to think about, wrestle with, and about which I am somewhat more ambiguous in my love for than Melancholia, although it is still love). Melancholia seems at times to be about nothing, and that may partly be some of the point, but to really get at all the somethings within its apparent nothingness, check out Steven Shaviro's extraordinary exploration of it.

Moonrise Kingdom. Easily my favorite movie of 2012. I love Wes Anderson's movies, but I've now watched Moonrise Kingdom three times and been entranced even beyond his other films. It's a marvelous synergy of casting, writing, design, and filming. I haven't come up with any good explanations or interpretations of its wonder; all I know is that it is delightful in every way.

Oslo, August 31st. I adored director/writer Joachim Trier's first feature, Reprise, which also starred Anders Danielsen Lie as a troubled young man. Oslo, August 31st is a less jaunty, more focused movie than Reprise, but each film's style fits the tale it has to tell. Lie's performance is so captivating, so perfectly modulated that it doesn't really matter if, in the end, we say, "So what?" The so what is that we've spent time with someone struggling against his addictions, struggling to connect to other people, struggling to feel something, struggling to find meaning in his life. The first hour or so of the film is absolutely perfect, because it makes us care about someone who is easy to write off, and it makes us want for him to succeed. When he slips into a party and takes his first drink in ten months, the effect is overwhelming. We know how this will end. He's told us. We keep hoping he will change, that a great light of illumination will suddenly move him away from self-destruction, but this story has no interest in fantasy, it has no interest in being feel-good entertainment. The ending is not satisfying. It shouldn't be. It's important that we end with the question, "So what?" in our heads, because that is the question Anders himself never escapes. His answer is unsatisfying. We are left to each find our own ways to answer it differently.

Sleep Dealer. A little science fiction movie about the U.S/Mexico border, drone attacks, guilt, and hope. There's nothing particularly innovative or subtle here, but the story is told well, and it's a story eminently worth telling. It was not a big-budget film, so some of the special effects are a bit clumsy when compared to $200-million blockbusters, but it doesn't matter, because it's not primarily a movie about its effects. The plot turns are mostly predictable, but that doesn't mean they're wrong. The familiarity of some of the plotting allows us to think about other things that few more surprisingly-plotted films do: questions of identity, militarism, class. Sleep Dealer is hardly perfect, but it's more interesting and engaging than at least half of what's slithering through the multiplexes right now.

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