Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Year: On How Life Is

We tell stories about all kinds of things. Love. Passion. Murder. Crime. Retribution. Triumph. Smart people doing dumb things. Dumb people doing smart things. There are stories about kings leading armies into battle. There are stories about small romances and great romances, and there are stories about little people that one would never hear of or remember unless they were a personal acquaintance. Every so often, there’s a story told that we call a “slice of life.” Another Year is one of these stories, but it’s more than that. Where other films try to portray the lives of people we think we know, Mike Leigh holds down the corner on the market. This is one of the truest examples of what a slice of life looks like that I’ve seen.

The story’s simple. In 4 acts that mirror the changing seasons, it’s about another year in the lives of two of the nicer people you’re ever bound to meet on a movie screen. The emphasis isn’t on any obvious character arcs, which is in direct opposition to the accepted norms of most standardized screenwriting. Instead, it seems to me that Leigh’s goal is to portray the grace and nurturing power that these two people hold over those they come in contact with.

Tom and Gerri, wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent and Ruth Sheen, weren’t even on screen for 2 minutes and I found myself thinking, “That is the kind of relationship I want to have when I am older. That is the type of person I would like to be.” I can only hope that, if I am fortunate enough to marry, my partner and I will have the kind of love and deep friendship that they have. There’s not an ounce of fakery in the kindness evident in every frame they share. These two people love each other, and what’s more, there’s not a moment on screen that either of them is shown concealing anything from each other. They’ve moved past pretense and pretending and are content to simply be, and be together.
Another Year is very different from the film I’d been anticipating. Mike Leigh is interested in relating the totality of a person's life experience, not just the fun bits. Near the end of the film, there’s a scene where someone shows up at Tom and Gerri’s house unannounced and has to talk a third person into letting her come inside. In other hands, this sequence would have lasted about 30 seconds. Leigh lets it run its course, and it lasts at least 2-3 minutes, possibly even longer.

You know something? It’s awkward when 2 people don’t know each other and are trying to get something done. You know this. I know this. I think everyone does. The difference here is that Leigh has confidence that his audience will keep a steady eye on things, even when they’re awkward. In the movies, we’ve become very used to only seeing the most exciting parts of someone’s life. There’s a reason that the quiet months that Forrest Gump spends with Jenny in his big ol’ house only last for about 5-10 minutes, now, isn’t there?

Unlikely as it might seem, I don’t think Another Year’s central character is Tom or Gerri. It's Lesley Manville who gives the film's standout performance. I’ve seen her in a couple of Leigh’s other films, but I can’t say I remember her from them. She’s wonderful here. Mary is a co-worker of Gerri’s that, I suspect, has been coming over for dinner/counseling sessions since the day they met. She’s the type of person that I’ve met on many occasions and have been more times than I care to admit. She’s fundamentally unhappy with the way her life’s going and is convinced that the next big thing is what’s going to make her happy.

First, it’s a new car that’s going to be “small and red.” When she gets it, there are all manner of problems. They’re funny as can be, and it’s a warmly affectionate kind of humor. While it’s clear that she’s been pining away for Joe, Tom and Gerri’s son, for years, I don’t think she’d be happy even if she got him to like her. The happiness she seeks can only come from self-actualization and self-acceptance. She already has all of the support she needs to begin the process. Her mistake is to look outward for what can only be found within.
It’s ironic when she finally does find someone that she connects with as an equal. Everyone else in the group is used to her nattering on and on about her life and what she’s going to do. Not this person. He has no frame of reference, and is so quiet that it forces her to slow down and, sometimes, just breathe. Later, she tells him, “it’s really nice to have someone that you can talk to.” This is coming from a woman who’s spent the entire film talking, talking, talking to anyone who will listen to her. She’s only known this man for a matter of hours and has hardly told him anything about her life, but feels that the tiny bit of herself that she’s shared is more genuine than these people she’s known for 20 years. That’s striking.

Mike Leigh doesn’t usually do what I want him to do, and he doesn’t usually do what I think he ought to do. I am beginning to think that this is a good thing. Another Year has a combination of subtlety, honesty, and clarity rarely encountered in contemporary film. It is my continued hope that room be found for the film on the awards circuit, with particular regard to Leigh’s screenplay and Manville’s performance. In a year dominated by high concept stories and "big stars," Another Year and the people in it have a little place in my heart. They can stay as long as they like.

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, December 24, 2010

A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001): Look Again

Contribution to The Spielberg Blogathon. Thanks to Adam Zanzie and Ryan Kelly for hosting.

If you have not seen the film in question, you would be very foolish to read this.

One of the main charges that’s often labeled at Steven Spielberg is that he’s never content to leave well-enough alone and must always end his films on a sentimental (if not clearly positive) note. This viewpoint isn’t entirely unfair. It’s a trait that, for better or worse, Spielberg has demonstrated at various points throughout his career. The guy likes things to end on the classic Hollywood lump-in-the-throat. However, putting whether this is good or bad aside, there’s one place that the sentimentality charge simply doesn’t fit, and, oddly enough, it’s one of the most often used examples of Spielberg’s penchant for sentimentality.

A.I. Artificial Intelligence
is often criticized/decried/lamented for being the film that Stanley Kubrick might have directed. The story’s simple enough. In a distant future, humans use robots called "mechas" to do all of the jobs that they don't want to do. A technician creates a child mecha that, once activated and specifically imprinted to a human being, has the ability to love that person. David, the child mecha, spends his entire life looking for ways to earn the love of the human being he considers to be his mother. Kubrick started conceptualizing the project in the 1970’s. Along the way, he showed Steven Spielberg what he was working on, spoke with him at length about the project, and attached him as a producer. For various reasons, he didn’t actually make the film, and tried to give the project to Steven, who didn’t want to take over the film. However, after Kubrick’s death, his family approached him with the project again, and Steven set out to complete Kubrick's vision.

Visually, the film’s spectacular, and I’d argue that the script (written by Spielberg himself) has nary a wrong step. Despite this, the fact remains that there’s a large contingent who believes that the film goes on about 20 minutes too long. Their preferred ending would come with David sitting in the sunken underwater remains of Coney Island, staring at the statue of the Blue Fairy, waiting for her to turn him into a real boy.

Then, the film departs into a distant future. A group of advanced mechas/robots exploring a frozen Manhattan find David and re-activate him, downloading his memories. What’s quickly apparent is that humanity has become extinct and these beings have never met their creators. David is the first link they’ve found to the heritage they cannot understand. After telling him the fate of humankind and of his “mother,” they tell him that they have found a way to recreate individual humans from a single strand of DNA present in something like a lock of hair. However, these people only live for one day, and, upon falling asleep, die for the last time. Unsurprisingly, David asks for his mother to be revived. They spend a wonderful day together, the kind of day that David had always wanted to spend with her. Finally, she falls asleep, as does David, and the film ends.

Detractors find this ending a cop-out, claiming that this is Spielberg’s attempt to soften a narrative that’s too harsh to fit within his usual aesthetic. Initially, I understood this point of view, even if I felt that the ending served the film successfully. What’s ironic about this is that the film ends exactly the way that Kubrick intended.

So, what does this mean?

The first time I watched the film, I took the ending at face value. It meant what it said it did, and wasn’t anything more than that. Then, I thought about it, thought about it some more, and came to a different understanding.
See, the ending is anything but a happy one. It is impossible to recreate all that an individual human being is from a single strand of DNA, even in the fantastical world of A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Even if it were possible to recreate a person’s body (which is not entirely inconceivable), DNA isn’t truly what makes a person a unique individual. Memories created by a singular life experience are the things that define who someone is. If it were possible to reconstruct someone’s body, there would be no way to restore that person’s soul. The lights would be on, but the same person wouldn’t be home.

It’s ironic that the most caring creatures in the film are these advanced mechas. Even as person after person has used (and abused) David, what remains after humanity is dead has surpassed its creators in kindness and basic “human” decency. After David’s memories have been downloaded, the advanced mechas have learned all that they’re going to about humanity from him, and they’ve decided to give him the only thing that he’s ever really wanted: the love of his mother. It would be simple for them to deactivate David or to modify him to become a member of their community, but instead they choose to GIVE. They know exactly what it will take to make him happy, and they provide that for him. The Monica that we knew in the first part of the film wouldn’t treat David with as much love as her recreation does. No, she’d want to know where her husband and son were, what was going on, and why David, who she’d abandoned, was there in the first place. Through their processing of his memories, the advanced mechas knew exactly what David has always wanted from her, that he had a lock of her hair, and construct an elaborate fiction that will allow them to provide it for him. Finally, remember that David does not sleep, so his curling up next to Monica to go to the “place where dreams are born” is an impossibility. Essentially, they’re allowing him the chance to end his life after experiencing ultimate happiness.

While it’s a tragedy that A.I. Artificial Intelligence hasn’t taken its place in the cinematic canon, I think it’s because the film is smarter than a lot of its audience. In this version of the Pinocchio story, the dream of becoming “real” doesn’t come true so much as the protagonist, and, by extension, the audience, believes that it has come true. It’s no small thanks to this ruse that A.I. Artificial Intelligence gains so much resonance.

What resonates more? A lump-in-the-throat happy ending or an ending built on the deception that someone’s gotten everything that he wants when he hasn’t gotten a thing? You already know what I think.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Tale Told In Gasps

I gratefully acknowledge my good friend J for being a first-rate discussion partner after the screening.

I’ve been anticipating Black Swan for months. MONTHS. The studio’s release schedule is one that’s pretty tough to figure out. I don’t get why they’ve screened the film to high heaven at festivals and previews, building anticipation to a fever pitch, and then have put it out an inch at a time.

No matter. It’s gone wide now, and whether or not it finds its way to a large audience remains to be seen. Now, onto the matter at hand.

Black Swan is a crazy ride of a movie, filled with moments that alternately make the head tilt, the body cringe, and the heart flutter. Natalie Portman's performance is the best I’ve ever seen her give. Period. Not only do I think she’ll merit some serious consideration come the year-end awards process, but I also hope she wins, since my other favorite performance (Juliette Binoche in Certified Copy) probably won’t be eligible. While the rest of the cast is strong, this is Natalie Portman's movie.

Portman is Nina Sayers, a member of a successful ballet company. After the forced retirement of the company’s aging star (a strong Winona Ryder), Nina is cast in the title role in Swan Lake, and must portray both the chaste, serene White Swan and the wild, lustful Black Swan. Her struggle for perfection, present from the first frame, drives her mad as her role becomes reality.

To be honest, Black Swan isn’t quite the film I’d expected. I’m not sure if the superiority of the last half of the film is due to an increase in quality or to the first half laying tracks for the train. Who knows? Black Swan kept me guessing, and made me wince more than once, which is a lot more than I can say for most other films. I am more inclined to think that it’s a film that requires time to build traction and gain momentum to make its way to a climax. After having heard so much about it, I was surprised to see this. I’d anticipated the type of mindbender that would engross from the get-go, much like the way Mulholland Dr. enthralls from the opening frame.

Here, I stumble over my own thoughts. Both films are fairly “quiet,” allowing the viewer time to take a deep breath before sucking the air out of his/her lungs. However, they’re very different in the way they go about telling a story, and I’m not entirely sure how to describe the divide. Let's try this. . . both films put the viewer down in drastically different places than he/she had been picked up in the first place. Where David Lynch’s film is a lyrically hypnotic dream in which the nightmare is in found in waking up instead of going to sleep, Darren Aronofsky’s fever dream simmers, simmers, and finally boils until it’s consumed.

The validity of perception is one of the biggest questions raised throughout Black Swan. As a viewer, it’s so easy to get caught up in Nina’s struggle to keep her head on straight that it can become tough to keep an objective perspective. By objective, I’m not suggesting that the film experience should be a dry and boring one that’s approached like a reporter covering a bake sale. What I mean is that, by the end of the film, it dawns upon the viewer how little of the story may have really happened the way it initially appeared to. For example, Nina’s mother seems to be a very controlling person, leaving almost no part of Nina’s home life unregulated. It’s in the reexamination of the narrative that I began to wonder exactly how accurate my perception of her actually was. I mean, if I thought that A, B, and C were all true, and they were proved to be tied up in Nina’s delusions, then it’s logical to conclude that the ramifications could spread through the entire alphabet, right?

However, with Black Swan, I really do want to understand the subtleties of the narrative, and will watch the film again (if not several times) with the hope of gaining valuable perspective. Conversely, with Inception, 2010’s biggest "head trip" movie, I’m not particularly interested in trying to plumb its shallow depths to try and figure things out. I just don't really care.

Darren Aronofsky’s direction reminds me very much of his work on The Wrestler, particularly with his prolific use of Super 16mm and his fascination with following his characters from behind as they move from place to place. However, I’m not a big fan of his prolific use of hand-held cameras, though I did warm to them a bit, at least in the way he tried to film the dancing sequences so as to capture their sense of rhythm and movement. There was one specific instance where I felt that he was trying to unnecessarily punctuate a certain surprise moment. I got it the first time, Darren. No need to go for a “da-DUM!” It may seem like a minor quibble, but it does detract from the air of gravitas he’s trying to establish.

Through much of Black Swan, I found myself waiting for the thrills I’d expected to manifest early on. Let me tell you, when they hit, they come with a vengeance. The last 10 minutes or so is gripping cinema that's tautly beautiful. I’m inclined to think that the film’s ending is quite possibly a perfect one. I have a very small number of narrative endings that I consider to be perfect, and I wasn’t expecting Black Swan to find a way on that list. The conclusion thrilled me, but, much more than that, I was enthralled, blasted back in my seat, in the happy delirium of the satisfied cinephile.


4 ½ stars (out of 5)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Early Review: True Grit

If there are better filmmakers than Joel and Ethan Coen alive and working today, then I’d like to meet them. The seemingly effortless way they control the tone of their films and the brilliance of their craftsmanship are second to none. I’ve often said that, if one wanted to make a film, all that’s necessary is to watch No Country For Old Men for a “textbook” example of how do to do the job right. True Grit is the next chapter in that book.

True Grit is based on a 1969 film with John Wayne, which was itself based on a 1968 novel. All three feature a quest to find the man who killed 14 year old Maddie Ross’ father, with Maddie helped by Marshal Rueben “Rooster” Cogburn and La Boeuf, a Texas Ranger. Now, I can’t speak for the novel, because I haven’t read it. However, the Coen Brothers’ film is so much of an improvement over the original that it suggests the difference between the Jonas Brothers and the Beatles. It’s all pop music, but they are NOT, by any stretch of the imagination, doing the same thing.

The script is fantastic. Joel and Ethan have more than found a way to walk the narrative tightrope between retelling a well-known story and putting their own spin on things. Their version is much more organic than Marguerite Roberts’ original. I was amazed at how much more fluid the film’s pacing is. Most of the same moments, conversations, and setpieces take place, but they’re allowed to do so within a narrative rhythm, where certain bits in the original stuck out in awkward places. Joel and Ethan’s seamless script takes the same moments and, through changing the timing or setting, infuses the story with an energy and vitality that just wasn’t there the first time around.

It’s because of the structural tightening that True Grit really takes flight. Not surprisingly, the Coens bring out a lot of the story's inherent humor. I found myself cracking up all throughout the film, and not always when everyone else in the theater was too. I’m ok with that. What’s more, their version of the post-Civil War South feels so much more real than anything that the original accomplished. Where 1969’s take was squeaky clean and refined, 2010 is still refined, but much, much grimier, leaner, and meaner.

Jeff Bridges’ performance. . . oh, wow. He’s five times the actor John Wayne ever was. (yes, I said it) While Wayne's Cogburn was a charming character because of his self-consciousness as a performer, Bridges effortlessly goes further than that. He brings a remarkable sense of depth to the character. Instead of only being an old man who wants to do things his way and usually ends up shooting anyone who tries to stop him, he’s a gruff guy who can barely be understood a lot of the time. He drinks too much and sometimes says things that he doesn’t mean. Mostly, he’s got a very simple way of looking at the world. After making Maddie climb a tall tree to identify and cut down a dead man hanging there, he turns him over and says, “I do not know this man.” And it’s hilarious.

You know why? It’s because it’s true. He doesn’t know the guy.

Like The Big Lebowski and the Dude who only wanted his rug back because it tied the room together, Cogburn needed to find out if the man was who they were looking for, was too old/heavy to climb the tree, made Maddie do it, and it just wasn’t the right guy. Case closed. That’s where a lot of the Coen Brothers’ humor comes from. Their jokes aren’t anything revolutionary, and they’re not even that complicated. They just have the guts/balls/chutzpah/common sense to say things out loud that are completely obvious.

The direction and editing are wonderful. By serving as “Roderick Jaynes,” their own editor, Joel and Ethan are able to alternately shoot and select exactly the shots they want. Sometimes, when I’m watching a film, I want to stretch out my hands, make them into a rectangular window, and try to capture what I’m seeing. I think of those shots as shots that were born rather than created. True Grit has many born moments, and they're beautiful.

There’s another aspect of the Coens’ craft that often goes unlooked. They have the souls of poets. No matter what type of film they’re making, there’s an element of what Herzog refers to as a “deeper truth, an ecstasy of truth.” Whether it’s the evocative simplicity of the ending of No Country For Old Men, the Dude and Walter’s hug on the cliff in The Big Lebowski, or the rumination on the meaning of life in the police car in Fargo, they’re quietly at work creating some of the most affecting moments in cinema today. It’s not enough for Joel and Ethan to just tell a story. They find a way to leave the viewer with something that connects that story to daily life. Here, in a story that’s been told for years, there’s a sense that more is at hand than simple retribution for a crime committed. Time passes. Children are forced to grow up too soon. Men must admit that they are wrong. People grow old. “Time has a way of moving past us.” I am grateful, so grateful, for these moments.

As True Grit neared its conclusion, there’s a sequence where two characters on horseback race against time, and you know what, reader? I got a little bit emotional. 2010’s been such a lackluster year for cinema that it was like giving a hungry man a meal. On the inside, I was crying out, “THIS is how you make a movie. This is how you do it.” I’m reminded of something Emily Dickinson said once. Someone asked her what poetry was and she said that she didn’t know how to describe it, but when she read something and felt like the top of her head was being blown off, then that was poetry. She knew it when she found it. That’s what True Grit is. I may get tongue-tied if you ask me exactly what makes a great film, but I know how it feels when I find it.

People often look fondly at older films and say, “They just don’t make ‘em like they used to.” They’re right.

Here, Joel and Ethan Coen didn’t make one like folks used to. They made one better.

4 ½ stars (out of 5)