Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cagney Is Red Hot in White Heat (1949)

The cops are all procedural and techy and full of schemes, while the gangsters are Homeric, not only in ideas but in hubris and angst. Because of this, we might have the most complex and human portrayal of gangsters until The Godfather. It isn't that I don't know who to root for, but I truly wanted to see this play out, and the ending, while possible over the top ("of the world", so to speak), was also perfect-- the only way it could have ended appropriately.

Brilliant, and with some great scenery-chewing by Cagney.

Departures: Gorgeous Introduction to the Art of Encoffining

As sentimental as a Hallmark film and yet it is as elegant as the art of encoffining that it depicts. When the ceremony is presented again at the end of the film, I couldn't help but stare at the dance above, upon and around the corpse. When some in the film are disgusted at the procedure, I am stunned, because I am one of those few who have seen it at it's best, while they have not. Once seen, the respect and power of the profession cannot be denied.

And the parallels to music just add a layer to the art. Encoffining, preparing a corpse for coffin placement, has as little to do with western embalming as the work of a conductor has to do with a construction crew. The conductor is all about expressing life and respect for music through his movements, while a crew is all about the fast-and-dirty business of meeting the goal as cheaply and efficiently as possible.

As a movie, it is shallow and sentimental. As an introduction to an amazing art, it is perfect.

Ratatouille and the Pixar Magic

There are no spoilers in this analysis of an aspect of Ratatouille, but I’m assuming if you're interested in reading this, you’ve seen the film.

Ratatouille isn’t standard children’s fare, but it is a child’s fantasy: suppose a rat was a foodie, a natural chef, and suppose he could control a human well enough without speech to cook food on the very highest level.  Not very believable, but fine for a kid’s film.  Then, the final test comes, Anton Ego, the most pompous critic in town, arrives to review this restaurant he’s heard so much about.

Until this point, Ego is a stereotype, the shell of a human being, the negative critic who could be expected to sniff at the food.  Of course, Ego could be expected to exclaim his loud praise and run into the streets demanding people come in to eat this food.  That would suit the character of the film, but not the film's character.  At this moment Ego is fleshed out and we see who he really is: a particular man, an introvert who has high expectations, but when those expectations are met or exceeded, then he does not yell, but his emotion is just intense. 

And just as personal.  His response is not only about food, but about his childhood experiences.  He knows that his reaction is subjective, but he can't help it.  He has experienced art in the deepest, most intimate level, and this experience changes his life.  This is really about the response every artist dreams about-- the inner touch that only that one lover, the loving mother, the life-long friend can have.  An artist only has a moment, perhaps a matter of hours, to touch a human being so deeply that they will never forget it, and it changes how they see the world around them.  Suddenly, the world is brighter, clearer, closer.  This is the true moment of every artist who has ever lived.

Ego is suddenly packed with humanity and life.  It isn't enough to say that Bird gives critics a good shot while others' dismiss critics.  Some films skewer critics, while others literally have them killed (in the film, of course).  Bird makes his critic not only his eloquent spokesperson, but a genius who perfectly combines opinion and word to elevate everyone's perception of a particular piece of art.  Ego is the personification of the power of criticism, an artist in his own right.  Some claim that critics are leeches, at times borrowing, at times darkening the shining glory that is art.  But in Brad Bird's world, the critic is the artist who can empower art to be art, or to dissolve the work of the faux artist.   Perhaps Bird has such a good opinion of critics because even when his work was less than very successful (Iron Giant), the critics sang his praises, saw his art for what it really was.

Bird gives the power to critics that they sometimes deserve.  And in turning shallow creatures (Linguini, Ego, and to a lesser extent, Colette) into full characters in the final act, he also enriches the film to be a fuller film.  It is no longer about childish fantasy, but about a unique perspective on adult realities.

Pixar magic, when they take the time to use it, is not just about excellent storytelling, but also about taking the time to make characters more than a millimeter deep.  Ego could have been just a throwaway one-note character, but instead they take the time to give us a background and a more complex motivation.

They do this a lot with supporting characters-- Jesse the cowgirl in Toy Story 2, Doc Hudson in Cars, Mirage in The Incredibles, Gil in Finding Nemo.  How many animated films take the take to make real people out of side characters.  But it is this that makes many Pixar films full worlds and not just fluff.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Sweet Anguish: Remains of the Day

I think I could watch Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson sweep and talk and wipe candlesticks all day. 

So much unspoken anguish is sweet.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sentimentally Joyful: About Time

On his 21st birthday, Tim is told by his dad that all the men in their family can travel through time. They can't go into the future... they can just go back to times and places where they have already been. But they can change things. They could use this power to make a lot of money, or to read books. Tim decides to use this power to get a girlfriend.

A deeply sentimental movie... actually a completely joyful movie about life. This isn't primarily a romantic comedy, but a series of lessons about living life. There is no major conflict here, no immense tragedies. Just a series of everyday events packed in peanuts of laughter and smiles. 

No, it's not penetrating, nor is it important. Rather, it is a film that makes you glad to be alive. 

And makes you want to call your dad.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Just Another List of Movie Awards for 2013

The "Justy", which is commonly known as the "Bored"

Frankly, I’m tired of the usual lists.  Best actor/actress—as if that could even be determined?  Best cinematography?  Who but a camera buff could even determine that?  Look, I’m not qualified to give awards for the real lists.  So I’m giving my own awards.  So there.  And some of them may be very specific to this year.

Best attempt to change the world
The Act of Killing
Joshua Oppenheimer wanted to change the basic point of view of the Indonesian massacre decades ago.  He started by interviewing victims’ families, but he found that between fear and police crackdowns, he wasn’t getting far.  So he started interviewing the killers, whom he found to be proud to tell of their participation in the killings.  Then Joshua invited them to re-create their participation on film.  They were happy to do so.  In this manner, Joshua created one of the best films about mass killings not the Holocaust.

Best Documentary
Cutie and the Boxer
Although The Act of Killing is powerful, it didn’t engage me near as much as the story about two artists and their difficult marriage: Cutie and the Boxer.  It has a lot to do with gender politics in marriage, a personal story about immigration and how a person can be liberal in every way except their personal life.

Film that Most Failed Its Basic Premise
The East
The East is supposed to provide a response to the Occupy movement, supposing what would happen if a radical form of that gave to CEOs what they were giving to the public—mildly poisoning them, etc.  It begins in an interesting way, exposing the complexity of such a situation, and then it just falls flat into stereotype and a political message which denies that the Occupy movement ever happened (“Let’s get involved in politics” as if politics had never failed the public.)  Pitiful.

Most Underrated “Comeback”
The Reluctant Fundamentalist
In opposition to The East, The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a powerful, insightful story about the war on terrorism and what terrorism is about.  It is also an examination of judgmentalism.  Mira Nair directed, who is known for great films such as Salaam Bombay! and Monsoon Wedding.  Yet this film was just ignored by almost everyone.  Very few of the film buffs I know even bothered to see it, which is a terrible shame.  Some might say it doesn’t deserve to be on this list because it was really a 2012 film, but so few people saw it that I bet no one calls me on it.

Best Comedy
The World’s End
Edgar Wright is the smartest comedian around, especially when he is helped with his friends Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.  The film at first isn’t even funny, but the layers are deep, providing both personal and social commentary.  In the end, the real test of a comedy is: Did you laugh?  And it thoroughly passes with flying colors.

Best Talking Film
Before Midnight
Richard Linklater would win this category almost every year.  He has a sense of how intellectual and personal dialogue can be dramatic on screen and gives us beautiful, interesting scenes for us to look at.  This year, we have the return of his most compelling couples, Jesse and Celeste, and they are in their most dramatic situations.  For those of us who love this couple it was hard, at times, to watch, but worth every minute.

Best Film that Should Win Best Picture at the Oscars
12 Years a Slave
I don’t know that 12 Years will win today, but it should.  What are we going to tell the future about what we want from movies?  That the best we could come up with is another spectacular whose special effects will eventually be bested in another decade or so?  That we love to watch excessive greed gone wild?  Or that we are the kinds of people who, at our best, are compassionate and concerned about social justice?  The Academy has the opportunity to say something about our decade, tonight.

Best Performance No One Will Admit To Because It Was In a Teen Flick
Jennifer Lawrence in Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jennifer Lawrence is a gift to this generation.  She is subtle and powerful.  Almost every film she does is a lesson in acting.  In Catching Fire, her role is almost too subtle to catch the conflict she was struggling with.  But in case we missed it, we just need to keep watching to the end.  The best screenshot in the year is the final close up of Lawrence’s face.  We almost don’t need the next two movies—they are contained already in that ten second, speechless shot of her face.  I was floored.  So powerful.

Biggest Disappointment
Monsters University
It was funny enough.  John Goodman and Billy Crystal were fine.  But it’s as if Pixar took the book they re-wrote about how a studio makes films and they threw it away.  No stakes, no energy, nothing compelling.  Some good laughs, sure.  But no Pixar magic, not a hint.  Look, it’s not a game-breaker guys, but I thought you were better than this.

Best Category I’m Not Allowed to Vote On          
Best Film about Excess
People letting their greed and lust for fame get away with them was a big theme this year: The Great Gatsby, Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Wolf of Wall Street and perhaps The World’s End all are about people who just go too far.  But I can’t vote in this category because I haven’t watched The Bling Ring and I won’t watch Wolf of Wall Street.  Please, if you’ve watched these films, vote.  Your voice deserves to be heard.

Best Surprise
Ben Kingsley’s role in Iron Man 3
I’m not saying anything, just in case you haven’t seen this film.  But it’s all worth the superhero stereotype just to watch Ben Kingsley.  So much fun.  Best. Bad. Guy. Ever.

Best Crier
Short Term 12
The most emotional experiences this year at the cinema have the number 12 in them.  12 Years a Slave made be shake with passion at the injustice.  Short Term 12 stabbed me in the heart and made me weep openly.  No one involved in any kind of social work, from a kindergarten teacher to a CEO of a nonprofit cannot help but be touched by this story, not so much of struggling kids, but of people who work with struggling kids.   It was an amazing experience.

Best Film of 2013
Upstream Color

A number of critics didn’t think much of this film.  Everyone thinks the cinematography was amazing, and the presentation unique.   Many critics felt that it was “just a bunch of images with nothing to hold them together.”  So, let me get this straight.  You didn’t like it because you didn’t get it and decided not to research the film at all to see if you, just maybe, missed something?  Just maybe there’s an amazing science fiction story that tells us something about ourselves and our relationships that Her doesn’t touch?  Yeah, the storytelling is amazing because it requires some experience in radical storytelling and some thought.  This is the most innovative and one of the most insightful movies of the year.  Hands down best.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Llewyn Davis: A Serious Man

Inside Llewyn Davis has received a lot of critical acclaim, but probably more about the soundtrack by T Bone Burnett than by the film by Joel and Ethan Coen.  Like many of the Coen Bros. films, there are unlikable people, but less of the quirk or the criminal that keep people interested.  Instead, it is the story of a wandering performer, following his wandering and his interactions between a variety of girls, musicians, managers, and music admirers.  It just doesn’t seem as entertaining as many of the Coen’s films. 

I believe that it is one of Coen’s “message” films, with a symbolic plot.  And it deals with many of the same themes and ethical queries as their previous film A Serious Man.   Before I discuss the themes of Llewyn Davis, I’d like to spend some time on A Serious Man and the themes in that film.

Warning: there are serious spoilers ahead.

A Serious Man takes place in 1967 and is the story of Larry Gopnik, a Jewish professor whose life is falling apart.  His wife is leaving him for another man, he is bribed and then threatened by a student failing his class, his brother is accused of various legal issues and his son, who is about to have his bar mitzvah, is a first class jerk.  He feels that his life is falling apart, and he doesn’t understand why.  After all, “I didn’t do anything.”

The film makes it clear that his main problem is just that: He isn’t doing anything.  He is so passive that he is allowing others to enact evil around him without taking any action against it.  He is just moving from one bad situation to another, which he neither created nor did anything to prevent. 

A central theme in the film is the situation in which a being is neither one or the other, but in stasis.  This is introduced with the story of Schrodinger’s cat, who is in a box, in a state of both being alive and dead, until the box is opened and then it is either one or the other state.  Even so, there are many situations in the film which is neither here nor there.  Larry is married and not married.  His wife is both married to him and to Sy.  F Troop is both on and off.  And the rabbi at the beginning of the film is both a dybbuk (a ghost/demon) and is not.

What changes all of these situations is direct action, which Larry won’t take.  He just wanders from person to person, being pushed or led or advised, while he never does anything.

The main conclusion to this theme is found in the conversation with the senior Rabbi, whom Larry is unable to speak with, but his son, having just had his bar mitzvah, could speak to the Rabbi.  Rabbi Marshak quotes from Jefferson Airplane, as if their lyrics were Torah—the word of God--, “When the truth is found to be lies and all the joy within you dies…” and he expects Danny, a student of the Torah, to come up with the next line.  And that line is the center point of the movie: “Don’t you want somebody to love, don’t you need somebody to love, wouldn’t you love somebody to love, you’d better find somebody to love.”

The issue in the film is that each person is either passive or doing evil to others around them.  The film is about why there is evil in the world, and the answer is: because too few people are actively loving.  Everything is in stasis because some are passive, and there is evil because some are acting out evil against their fellow man.   But if the passive would actively stop the evil and begin to actively love, then evil would no longer reign in the world.  But, instead, we live in a world of selfishness and inaction.

Okay, now we are ready to talk about Inside Llewyn Davis.

Llewyn isn’t exactly passive the way that Larry is in A Serious Man.  Llewyn is a travelling musician, trying to make a career for himself, attempting to get gigs and to get money for his album.  But something seems to be stopping him. 

As a “mistaken” line in the film shows, Llewyn is the cat whom he happens to be carrying around with him. And the cat is neither here nor there, neither this nor that.  Assuming that the cat is the same one throughout the film, it is both male and female, both housed and wandering (it’s name is Ulysses, the epic wanderer), both alive and dead.  Just like Schrodinger’s cat.  And so is Llewyn.  He acts and makes decisions, but they never accomplish anything.  Even when he decides to give up on his music and become a merchant marine, he find that he is unable to.  What is his problem?

His problem is his lack of connection with other people, his lack of love.  He never stays in any one place, he never grows roots.  He impregnates two girls, but he never becomes a father, either through abortion or because he doesn’t follow through.  He agrees to not receive credit for a song he helps record.  He used to have a partner, but his troubles start when his partner commits suicide.  He is invited to join a trio, but he refuses.  And when he is invited, the theme of the movie is spoken to him by a nightclub manager (quote is approximate): “You’re an okay singer, but you’re no good on your own.”

Like A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis is a study of a man who thinks he can live his life without pursuing love.  Through these negative examples, the Coens hope to prod us toward love.

In the end, I think that A Serious Man is a better film.  The characters are more compelling and Larry's plight really draws us on, while Llewyn just seems kind of pathetic.  Also, A Serious Man weaves a variety of stories on their theme, allowing us to see a number of perspectives, while Llewyn Davis is a more straight forward (and less interesting) approach.  I like them both, but only one makes my top 100.