Last Days in Vietnam
Directed by Rory Kennedy
Released in 2014
There is no such thing as a good war, but good people fight in the worst of them. The Vietnam War has never been mistaken for one of the good ones — not then and not now. Yet it is easy to conflate the war’s negative legacies, which include My Lai, Agent Orange and, of course, our country’s defeat, with the worth, or lack thereof, of those who served. Last Days in Vietnam, a clear-eyed and unusually gripping documentary opening at Cinemapolis today, makes the case for the American forces who risked tribunals, not to mention their own lives, in order to evacuate as many South Vietnamese civilians as possible on those last two chaotic days of April 1975.
The film, directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, is a rather straightforward talking heads affair, where you don’t even have time to fumble with a stopwatch before, blah, there’s Kissinger grumbling before his millionth camera. Good thing the film gets him out of the way early on so it can spend the rest of the time with the boots who were on the ground of Saigon when it fell. These men, like Army Colonel Stuart Herrington and Republic of Vietnam Navy Captain Kiem Do, recount the events of the evacuation and little more, which is all it takes for an enlightening narrative of morality during those most liminal hours between war and peace.
Over 16mm footage of the frantic city and maps animating the North Vietnamese Army’s push through Da Nang and toward Saigon, voices of the veterans interviewed frame their “terrible moral dilemma” in stark terms. Would Nixon boost U.S. air power to save them? Could Americans save anyone other than their own? Could they even do that? A target of derision for the first third of this 98-minute film is Graham Martin, the last U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, who was seen as “skittish” and aloof of the imminent defeat, and very real physical peril, his people would soon suffer.
As a sign of Last Days in Vietnam’s disinterest in demonizing, with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, especially against those dead and not present to defend themselves, Ambassador Martin develops a dimension or two. We learn that he lost his only son in the war, which is cause for one acquaintance to observe, “One becomes pretty invested in the country.”
Right before Operation Frequent Wind — the airlift of 7700 Americans and South Vietnamese from the U.S. embassy and other points in Saigon, and the specific focus of this film — commenced, Martin pointed to an old tamarind tree in the embassy’s parking lot and said it was “as steadfast as America’s commitment to Vietnam.” The irony that the tree had to be razed to allow helicopters to land and Americans to flee was not lost on him, since he at first stubbornly refused. But obviously he changed his mind, and not just about one tree: One colleague says, “The evacuation of Vietnamese [as opposed to only Americans] happened because Graham Martin wanted it to happen.”
Ambassador Martin bucked orders from the White House in order to see that those who aided America would escape persecution, and he did so with a valiant and orderly cache of soldiers, pilots and sailors committed to this humanitarian cause. The film tells the oral history with more punch than words here might, but it is imperative to mention the wound Colonel Herrington reopens when arriving at the part of the story where they left behind 420 civilians at the embassy without so much as a goodbye. Like Oskar’s final words in Schindler’s List, Herrington’s remorse for “so serious and deep a betrayal” cuts deep and contrasts the film’s narrative of success against all the loss and failure surrounding.
Last Days in Vietnam demands little from the viewer aside from a willingness to learn. If that sounds in the least bit like eating your vegetables, consider the entertainment value of Argo, apply almost all of that to this film, and then remember that this one is a documentary produced for PBS. So, basically: It’s better than you might think. It unfolds a complicated story in chronological order without much effort figuring out what it all ‘meant,’ and so makes it simple. But that simplicity suits these events well, since unthinking heroism is the only genuine kind.
3.5 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.
“I never remember plots in movies,” Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood and certified Big Deal, said before an attentive audience Sunday morning. According to Indiewire’s dispatch from the New York Film Festival, Anderson elaborated as follows: “I remember how [movies] make me feel and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen, but my brain can never connect the dots of how things go together.”
Note how Anderson, who I agree with, says “emotions,” and not themes, subtext or any other undercurrent that could be deemed intellectual and thus pretentious. It’s not a matter of reading into a film, at least not at first. Critics — those who write professionally and the rest of us who argue with friends over a film we just paid to see — look for meaning because we have to do something with those emotions a movie brings to the fore. Taking note of what Anderson calls “visual things” helps us comprehend those feelings, and tether them to some valuable lesson, but they stay with us longest when they are incomprehensible.
I wrote about similar matters in my last column, “How to Read a Movie,” where I detailed a few loose rules to which I hold the films I write about. I do not wish to repeat myself, but with Anderson’s comments and David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl in the air, I would like to defend my first rule, “Story is not enough,” with a few more words. Because, you see, when faced with that standard, Gone Girl does plenty right but even more wrong.
I will not spoil the movie, but let me just get it out there that, regardless of whatever grievances I am about to air, you must see it. Not only are movie people talking about it but also TV people, music people, you-say-I-get-to-see-Ben-Affleck’s-penis? people — all the peoples. For Gone Girl satisfies a basic human need, in that it tells a ridiculously engrossing murder mystery set in small-town suburbia. Gillian Flynn, who wrote the best-selling novel and adapted it to screen, leads you to one assumption before blindsiding you with its inverse, and Fincher is so precise that even those familiar with the book will be surprised by certain cuts, reveals and flashes of light, like those from media cameras refracting through glass onto Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) statuesque orange cat.
Yet the movie is so, so compelling for the speed with which it serves its ever-shifting plot that I worry it overlooks qualities that would stand out with subsequent viewings, when the question is not, “Is this entertaining?” but “Is this art? Is this really a masterpiece?” While our conditions for “masterpiece” status clearly differ, one condition I hope we can agree on is that plot for plot’s sake is not ideal, for revisiting a mystery story with the answers in hand usually amounts to diminishing returns. Gone Girl does not suffer that problem, exactly, for it quite loudly and incessantly calls attention to the bloodsucking media swarming the Dunne family, the sexist construct that is the “Cool Girl” and the delusions required to marry and stay committed to another person. At one point a character rants to another about how his/her (I said no spoilers) demands condone murder, and the other character snaps, “That’s marriage.”
The movie is making a Big Point, you see. In fact, it does what critics are relentlessly accused of: overanalyzing a situation. By pushing its multiple critiques so far into the foreground, Gone Girl wants to assure us it is more than pulp, not just meaningless “airport novel” trash. It has things to say all right, but these verbal and visual stingers indicting cable news, marriage and sexism struck me, for the most part, as easy, smug and way too abstract, like the lazier bits from The Daily Show. It’s one of those things where I “get” what the movie is trying to say and then, in my head, scream, “You think I don’t know that already?!”
The indirect reason for this is that Gone Girl spends almost every waking moment issuing plot developments that the psychology of Nick and Amy Dunne never finds time to take root. Now that may sound like a pretentious thing to say, but I am convinced the great movies we return to again and again feature protagonists with tricky and boundless interiorities, snippets of which we see during largely plotless moments.
These moments do not need to be slow, though they many memorable ones are, such as Scottie’s silent stalking of Madeleine in Vertigo or Juliette Binoche’s stare into the camera in Certified Copy (the masterpiece I keep imploring you, yes YOU, to see). We can also peek into the minds of our heroes when the action gets tense, like when Gary Cooper’s conflicted marshall stalks the streets in High Noon. Just so you know I think Fincher does this beautifully in other movies, how about in The Social Network, when Mark Zuckerberg aims his genius at coding Facemash.com, in what we see, through a brilliant, exhilarating montage, to be a misogynistic reaction to an unsuccessful date.
During revealing moments such as the ones described above, these movies cease to be about a story of made-up people or hot button themes but human behavior. There is no phenomenon better suited to cinematic exposure than the way we look, move and sweat, and if the filmmaker is talented enough, those external snapshots will clue us into what lies within, which, as a viewing experience, can be quite emotional.
Gone Girl is so cynical that neither Nick nor Amy Dunne face any chance at redemption, and so Fincher keeps their interiorities, to say nothing of their moralities, out of sight. It’s a shame, because not only did I not learn much new from this slick piece of entertainment, but I left the theater without any empathetic connection to two of the most messed-up characters in recent cinema, and what the hell am I doing to deserve that?
The Haunt, Ithaca, N.Y.
September 30, 2014
The Haunt, Ithaca, N.Y.
September 30, 2014
To put to bed the recurring complaint that all Real Estate songs sound the same (and the New Jersey quintet naming one of their best “All the Same” surely didn’t help), just look at the crowd that filled The Haunt Tuesday night to see them. Or, rather, look how it moved.
There was a lot of the head- and waist-swaying you could expect for a band whose signature guitar sound is shimmery, entrancing and quintessentially “chill.” Tellingly, however, the movements of the college students and townies in attendance varied throughout the night: Some songs called for eyes to the floor as fists air drummed along, and others sparked a no-contact variant of moshing that, while respectful, still fueled a most entropic display. During the slowed-down breakdown at the end of “The Bend,” a key track off this year’s Atlas, almost everyone bobbed their heads back a foot and forward a few more, like loyal pumpjacks on an oil field.
A Real Estate concert demands more energy than you might think. For an hour and a half set of spritely indie rock to not just stay interesting but engage every soul in the room says more about a band’s intimacy with its fans than any technical skill. It’s not even a matter of sobriety, or lack thereof, for the parking lots were packed and plenty of friends before the show spoke in hushed tones about how much work they had to do when they got home. But once the show, which was organized by Dan Smalls Presents, got going, it was as if all that baggage fell to the floor and a mid-week respite took on a more powerful, albeit different meaning for each person there. I heard friends and total strangers gush, after the show or mid-song, how isn’t this just the greatest?
Like the night’s headliner, opener Regal Degal exercised surprising control over the audience with their loud, loose and very ’80s post-punk. Frontman Josh da Costa, sporting a possibly ironic mullet, did the typical opener thing where he introduced his band’s name and place of origin (“New York City!”) between every song, which became a running joke that worked because he kept a straight face. He also dropped the vivid titles of their songs, such as “Eaten Alive in Front of Stained Glass,” “I Sit Like a Chair” and “Ruining My Life.” If these guys lack the sincerity of Real Estate, they also boast a crazy sound that shifts with each song, where you get drum machines on one track and Peter Buck-esque guitars on another, with macabre confessionals as the only throughline. My friend Ana Niño ’15 summed them up: “They’re like The Smiths plus The Cure … but adolescent.”
Fading in their performance with “Green River,” a breezy song off their 2009 debut, Real Estate started small in order to build to something big, like the hypnotic “Kinder Blumen” or an energized update of “Beach Comber.” About a third through, bassist Alex Bleeker said as such, “I feel like we can go farther, and push this show into legendary territory.” And they sure came close. That is not to shortchange some of the great songs early on, like “Had to Hear,” “Crime” and “Green Aisles,” which I scrawled in all caps in my notes upon recognizing that opening arpeggio. But once the band got a feel for the audience and their many microphone levels in order, the songs flowed blissfully from one to the next and raised us with them higher and higher, to the point that when it was all over, the band looked sad to go.
The individual members of Real Estate do not appear to carbon copies of one another, in look or temperament, which made watching them live that much easier. Though I could not see Matt Kallman at the keyboard, drummer Jackson Pollis held the rear of the stage with an intensity that matched the deliberate, slightly slower tempo he set and stuck to for the night. Lead singer and guitarist Martin Courtney carried a similar introverted presence, opting to stare into the middle distance as he sang halcyon or else mournful lyrics rather than goof off or move about the stage.
Bleeker fulfilled those duties, being the gregarious one who saw fit to poll the audience for Grateful Dead fans and schmooze about the beauty of Ithaca. Guitarist Matt Mondanile, meanwhile, looked lost in thought during the verses of “Talking Backwards,” where he does not play, and considering he helms a separate band, Ducktails, one can imagine that thought was fruitful. But most of the time he was on the verge of stealing the show, like when he closed his eyes and tore into the simple but lush chords of “It’s Real.”
I’d be remiss not to mention an unexpected star of the night, who happens to not even be a member of the band, though maybe an honorary one at this point. The name “Josh Kay” was shouted right before “Horizon” and popped up every so often to the very end, even serving as the chant that summoned the band’s encore. Like Real Estate and, it so happens, myself, Josh Kay hails from Bergen County, New Jersey, and in an interesting twist of journalistic disclosure, I must admit I’ve known him since high school. He is a senior at Ithaca College with many friends, and while we are not close, we’ve exchanged too many niceties at too many parties, in too many states, for me to not say it was pretty surreal seeing him invited on-stage for the encore.
The band knows and clearly likes Josh, for this was his tenth Real Estate show. I caught up with him briefly after the show and he counted this as one of the best because “they resonated with the crowd.” I’d say that’s accurate, for it is the main reason why a sold-out audience familiar with Atlas and Days ended up, still, so surprised and pleased this great band could be so much better in the flesh.
A Walk Among the Tombstones
Directed by Scott Frank
Released in 2014
There is something to be said of knowing your job and doing it well. That is the draw of an old-school, R-rated thriller like A Walk Among the Tombstones, the latest installment in the ongoing and glorious ReNeesonance.
If you pity me enough to still be reading, know that Google returned no results for that word, so I’m claiming it. And we got to call the last few years something, right? Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has starred in an improbable number of action films, first as an Old Testament-angry father figure and then, with 2012’s The Grey and this year’s Non-Stop, as a disgraced enforcer who starts each film at rock bottom and slowly redeems himself through wit, instinct and shocking physicality. He smuggles a lot of pain into these archetypes, but these films keep getting made because, like all true movie stars, Liam Neeson does one thing the public wants to see again and again: He kicks ass.
Like the cult of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, the paeans to Neeson’s badassery have resounded through culture with queasy insinuations: Violence is awesome, morality is black-and-white and women are helpless or, in Skyler White’s case, shrill nags. This response has less to do with the texts in question than the appropriations of them, which strangle out any nuance with a macho fist. But as exhilarating as Taken was and still is, those readings stick, which is why the uptick in quality (a.k.a. complexity) in Neeson’s films since The Grey has been most welcome, if scarcely noticed.
A Walk Among the Tombstones, an adaptation of Lawrence Block’s novel of the same name, suffers from a few careless lapses into cliché and does not set its ambitions too high to begin with, but it may be the most moral movie yet of the ReNeesonance (I just shuddered typing that again). Neeson plays Matthew Scudder, a former police officer and now unlicensed detective tasked with finding the pair of serial killers who kidnapped and, after taking a ransom, murdered the wife of drug trafficker Kenny Kristo (Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens). The story goes through the procedural motions, but because Neeson and director Scott Frank know what they are doing, it is often unfairly compelling.
This is one of those movies to fail the Bechdel test (which only serves macro-industrial critique, not individual artistic analysis anyhow) for a reason. Look at the opening credits: The camera pans over a young woman’s pale, nude body, which is washed out from oversaturated lighting. A hand reaches into these frames to caress her hair and skin, and the sensitivity of his touch looks almost loving. Yet the woman does not move apart from breathe, and the single tear rolling down her face hints at something off. The final shot of this sequence tilts up to show us her mouth, which is silenced with duct tape, and for the first time we see both of her eyes, piercing us with terror.
Psychopathy, victimization, the male gaze, the opening titles from Hitchcock’s Vertigo and the shower scene from Psycho: many keywords apply. The credits upend expectation and frame the violence that follows as caused not by an excess of men but by an absence of women. Since the serial killers target drug traffickers only, due to their reluctance to phone authorities, camaraderie develops between the male criminals whose wives and daughters have been taken from them. They relish in the opportunity to harm the murderers, as shown when Kenny inspects a butcher’s cleaver just as the pair earlier fondled wire, handcuffs and linoleum knives in Dexter-esque slow motion.
This is all to say that you, the viewer, very much want these serial killers to die, too. Over a slow but deliberate 113 minutes, this film whips you into a bloodthirsty frenzy, where you eagerly root for Scudder to compromise his morality in order to realize brutal, satisfying ends. The movie gets darker and darker up to its seemingly saccharine final scene, which features a drawing by TJ (Brian Bradley), a droll, vegetarian, Raymond Chandler-quoting inner-city kid who becomes Scudder’s unlikely sidekick.
Idiosyncrasies aside, TJ feels like a plot device for most of the movie, but his contribution to the final scene indicts the self-mythologizing nature of most genre — action, crime, superhero, etc. — fiction. Just because Neeson growls into a phone again and this time says, “Motherfucker,” does not make him a model citizen. It’s too rough a world for another white hat versus black hat. A Walk Among the Tombstones knows that, but for the sake of getting you to pay to see it, it hopes you do not.
3 Stars Out of 5
Artist: Aphex Twin
Released in 2014
Artist: Aphex Twin
Released in 2014
Calling Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, a genius is no bold claim, for it is a largely self-evident one. A self-described “music maker” since his early teens, James has remained unclassifiable while reworking or just straight-up inventing dozens of genres: acid house, glitch, drum and bass, garage, prepared music, ambient techno, ambient ambient, the all-encompassing “braindance.” He does funny-scary things with his face, plastering it on album covers, children (see the “Come to Daddy” EP and music video) and big-breasted women (ditto “Windowlicker”). He grants few interviews or public appearances, letting the work, and that grin, inspire the obsessive, odd-humored introverts that are his fans.
Yet James’ genius has very much to do with his music, more than his place in and around it. That aesthetic range defines individual Aphex Twin songs as much as his more obvious leaps of style between albums: “Girl/Boy Song” riddles spritely oboe and strings with tommy gun-fast polyrhythms to unexpectedly poignant effect, and that similar chill-crazy tension animates “Alberto Balsalm,” perhaps his most beautiful achievement. Even the songs that repeat ambient motifs over and over, like the 10-minute “Stone in Focus,” don’t do so aimlessly: They provoke mounting introspection as the patient (and again, probably introverted) listener navigates the song’s, and their own, vastness. For all his irreverence, there is arguably no electronic musician as sensitive as Aphex Twin, no one as committed to expressing his interiority through jagged and supple sonic landscapes.
Which brings us to Syro, Aphex Twin’s first studio album in 13 years. This is a satisfying hour-plus of music, visceral and industrious in ways that make you perk your ears and cock your head askew. After almost two dozen listens, I am convinced opening track “Minipops 67” starts before you press play — there is something so insatiable, so slick to its drive that anticipating it becomes as pleasurable as listening. At the end James incants warbly nonsense, through countless filters of course, and it works because that song’s foundation is already so beyond the limits of intelligible language.
Some, like my roommates and Sun colleagues who have been subject to repeated Syro blastings, will want nothing to do with this music. If Aphex Twin does not compromise to popular trends — even the bumping rave track, “180db_,” sounds like a feral cat got hold of the knobs — he’s not making new ones with this album, either. There’s no formal breakthrough on the level of Richard D James Album opener “4” or anything from Selected Ambient Works Vol. 1 or 2. Syro is a perfection of existing Aphex Twin elements, the whole myriad of them, but it is unlikely to speak to the unconverted.
Poor them, then, because this is the rare album to grow with each listen. On “Xmas_evet10,” Aphex Twin lays down a palpitating drum machine beat and plays with a Guitar Center’s worth of instruments on top of it: out-of-tune upright piano, milky synthesizers and, for a blissful five seconds at the 3:40 mark, crunchy paradiddles. You could say Aphex Twin is just messing around with his reported 138 pieces of gear for 10 minutes and 30 seconds, but the seamless way he phases in and out different sounds gives shape to his madness. Compared to the formulas of most EDM, Aphex Twin’s compositions are almost classical.
“Produk 29” starts in thick funk mode before introducing creepy, Twilight Zone-esque keys and flaring synthesizers. “Circlont14” fades in on a sparse, celestial soundscape straight out of Forbidden Planet and devolves into rancid glitches and bleeps and bloops that Sun Managing Editor Tyler Alicea ’14 saw fit to describe as “crazy robot sex” (sad to say he wasn’t a fan). After shredding through some extremely technical scales, “Syro U473t8+E” (how fun are these names?) finishes on a fuzzy, groovy outro that I swear features a police whistle once or twice. In every song, Aphex Twin covers a staggering swath of sound that is ecstatic in its excess.
Two tracks near the end of Syro call on the past in order to build to something new. “Papat4” pulses with the bubbly energy of the best off 1995’s …I Care Because You Do, riding on uplifting ambient texture and, naturally, gnawing it apart with filtered vocals and hyperactive breakbeats. But if that song mashes together its predecessors, then album closer “Aisatsana” whittles them down.
Reminiscent of drukqs pieces “Jynweythek” and the Kanye-sampled “Avril 14th,” “Aisatsana” is a triumph of restraint. With birds chirping outside his window, James sits at his piano and repeats a few permutations of a simple minimalist melody. He allows each phrase to fade to near silence before starting the next, whereupon a little pressure applied to keys breathes life into another world of unconsummated expression. Indebted to Cage, Satie and Chopin, the song is also pure Aphex Twin, for it approaches clarity only through the extremities of sound.
4 Stars Out of 5
|Courtesy of Nils Axen|
“It’s ironic that a critic trying to establish simple ‘objective’ rules as a guide for critics who he thinks aren’t gifted enough to use taste and intelligence, ends up — where, actually, he began — with a theory based on mystical insight.”
I quote Pauline Kael to remind myself how ridiculous a column like this is. In 1963, the New Yorker film critic took on her contemporary Andrew Sarris, whose auteur theory, she claimed, reduced criticism to a game of ready-made formulas and minutiae (i.e., “Because Howard Hawks directed this, it, by default, has value and speaks to and with his other works, inspirations, obsessions, etc.”). Kael valued her visceral response to a film over any post-viewing theoretical posturing, be it astute or not.
It is wrong to praise a film that leaves you cold just because it has neat camerawork or you find in it some interesting commentary. A good movie involves you in its stakes and in its world — even a stark, “cold” movie like Caché does such a thing. I don’t think there is one movie I’d call a masterpiece that does not, at least, bring me close to tears (Okay: Hot Fuzz is an exception). Writing about a masterpiece is so tough because to attempt to translate its effect — not its story, images or sounds, but the whole package — into words is to butcher it. Most of the time, the secret to appreciating great art is to let it be its own witness.
But, by virtue of the bell curve, most movies we watch are not masterpieces. That sacred, silent response to Vertigo gets real tiresome if applied to all the movies. And the “Well, that sucked!” response does us little good, either, as easy and satisfying as it is to say. If we hope to be discerning consumers and reasonable thinkers, we can start by bringing to movies high, nuanced standards of evaluation (“That was good/bad because…”) and analysis (“That said [insert theme here] by…”).
There is no one way to go about this. But I know my way, so how about I list it, as if it’s fact:
- Story is not enough. The tighter and more decisive a protagonist’s arc, the less I take it seriously. Not many agree with me, and it’s an especially contentious position to take in this golden age of “quality TV,” or serialized narrative. Perhaps I’m suspicious of the possibility of true heroism, or else bored by it. Whatever the reason, I find most meticulously plotted movies to gloss over human qualities like doubt, fear and contemplation. A story needs to halt for quietude to set in, and that pause can be jolting when it arrives. The rapid-fire Grand Budapest Hotel defines itself in its plotless moments, like when Zero dutifully recites Gustave’s poetry at dinner or when a key light switches on by the dinner table to illuminate old Zero’s crying face. A film’s worldview can click through such a throwaway gesture.
- Cherish movement. In the end, a director’s most basic job is to make a film look interesting. Sometimes, he accomplishes this by wringing a manic energy from his actors, as Mike Leigh does, or she coasts her camera over objects and bodies in a sensuous way, as in the case of Claire Denis. We are watching “moving pictures,” so there better be movement within and across frames. Movement can take its time, as it does in the little-seen 2010 western Meek’s Cutoff, where protracted dissolves morph landscapes, people and colors to hypnotizing effect. Action movies and art films alike should flow from one image to the next; if that flow breaks, it should betray a twist in the story or, better yet, a character’s psychology, not sloppy filmmaking.
- Have fun with colors. Color cinematography may appear more “real” than black-and-white, but there is no reason filmmakers, at least fiction ones, should feel obligated to capturing doors, walls and jackets as they actually look. Two of this year’s finest thrillers, Non-Stop and A Most Wanted Man, set their moods and tell their stories through colors alone: The former’s ocean blue airplane cabin speaks to modern slickness yet brings out the disparate colors of the passengers’ skin, which fits its critique, while the latter film color codes its settings (stifling office quarters are fluorescent yellow and streets are melancholy blue) to match the perspective of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s protagonist. When a movie with the resources fails to toy with its palette, like the new Captain America, it is a letdown indeed.
I have more items in mind (“Good movies don’t need to be P.C.”; “Sometimes, ambiguity is just bullshit”; “Anything with Dwayne Johnson is automatically great”) but I sense I am running out of space. It must be reiterated that the most important evidence of a film’s quality comes from the gut. While these parameters provide a loose system for evincing one’s enthusiasm or disapproval, they still kowtow to that initial response. It can be disheartening to know that words will always fail to do justice to the most transcendent experience, but at least most of the movies out there aren’t so perfect, and therefore leave us with plenty to quarrel about.
The Trip to Italy
Directed by Michael Winterbottom
Released in 2014
Despite its reverence for ancient architecture, Romantic poetry and mid-century Italian cinema, The Trip to Italy is very much grounded in the here and now. It stars two funny British men, Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, playing fictionalized versions of themselves eating, laughing and griping their way through the not-so-fictional travails of middle age. The effortless comedy between Coogan and Brydon concerns mortality, irrelevance and depression, of the chronic, unassailable kind. While the film is hilarious and sunny and beautiful, the sadness beneath it all is tough to shake, especially with the deaths of Robin Williams and “adulthood,” as New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently argued, weighing on our minds.
The Trip to Italy does more or less what The Trip did in 2010, except writer-director Michael Winterbottom trades the dreary pastoral of northern England for the immaculate shores and cliff faces of western Italy. As in the last film, The Observer hires Coogan and Brydon to tour the country and eat at gourmet restaurants under the pretext of writing a review, which only Brydon ends up doing. Who knows why a national newspaper would hire two comedians who know nothing about food to write criticism of it, but it gives them carte blanche to trade celebrity impressions, Lord Byron and Shelley trivia and bizarre hypotheticals at the table. For instance: In the event the two of them were stranded without food after a plane crash, Coogan admits, “I’d eat your legs before Stephen Hawking’s,” but he’d savor the physicist’s brain before even digging into Brydon’s.
Like The Trip, this 108-minute film is condensed from a six-part series that aired in April and May on the BBC. That explains the loose nature of the editing, which covers gaps in conversation with cutaways to kitchens where chefs prepare incredible-looking meals like pot-roasted rabbit, grilled octopus, stuffed onions and lots of pasta. If some of the craft feels haphazard, it only complements the banter, which feels off-the-cuff and ingeniously silly. The dueling Michael Caine routine returns, with the two parodying Caine’s yodel-like crying in The Dark Knight Rises. (“I’ve buried 14 Batmans, with their little pointy ears.”) Because they are in Italy, expect a lot of Pacino and Brando from The Godfather, the latter of whom, according to Coogan, sounds like a “deaf person” when Brydon attempts it.
The hostility between the two men has waned since the first movie, and one detects a palpable ease when they are singing along to Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill, the only CD in the car, away from failed or failing marriages back home. More often than not, Brydon and Coogan behave like little boys, which is why the introduction of their agent Emma (Claire Keelan) and other intelligent women who prefer Mary Shelley to Percy Bysshe threatens to ruin their fun. Competition also gets the best of Coogan when Brydon auditions for “a starring role” (he’s actually an accountant) in a new Michael Mann film. For his audition tape, Brydon steals a kiss from a young waitress reading with him, and Coogan almost loses it when she says she enjoyed it.
There is lot of film history running through The Trip to Italy, in its dialogue, title and very construction. The men idolize Bogart, Pacino, De Niro and Marcello Mastroianni, and Brydon even dreams in Godfather cosplay. The title echoes Rossellini’s Journey to Italy and sure enough, Coogan and Brydon visit Pompeii for an existential crisis rivaling Ingrid Bergman’s own. Emma refers to Godard’s Contempt when she jokes about “that Brigitte Bardot film” that plays its romantic theme over and over again as we hear Richard Strauss’s similarly majestic “Im Abendrot” on the soundtrack for the umpteenth time. She says this while they ride a motorboat along the rocky Italian coast, as in Antonioni’s L’Avventura.
This all amounts to little more than cinephile miscellany, but this awareness of and devotion to the past packs a bit of weight onto what could easily be paper-thin YouTube comedy. The stop at Pompeii, in particular, marries the dark with the light: Gazing upon an ash-covered mummy preserved behind glass, the two men belittle his choice of sandals and guess at what he was doing before he died. Brydon asks the corpse himself in a virtuosic routine where he answers his own questions with the nasal, muffled voice of a man stuck in a glass box. For some reason, this crosses the line for Coogan, who storms out of the hall. But Brydon carries on, unloading his friend’s problems and his own onto this devoted listener, who happens to be dead. It’s funny because, well, what else could it be, but it reminds us one man’s entertainment is another’s sole channel of release.
3.5 Stars Out of 5
The Cynic's Notebook is a blog operated by me, Zachary Zahos. Here, there are reviews of and thoughts on movies, music, television, video games, politics, etc. Optimism and cynicism coexist here, despite the name.
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Class Speaker Speech '11
Here is a link to the speech I delivered as class speaker for the Northern Valley High School at Old Tappan Class of 2011. No umbrellas or ponchos necessary.
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