Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained Review

Django Unchained
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Released in 2012

Quentin Tarantino has outdone himself once again, but Django Unchained, his longest, bloodiest and angriest film yet, is not necessarily better off for it. This cartoonish Spaghetti Western/Blaxploitation epic tackles the ignominy of American slavery while retaining the wordy humor and gratuitous action typical of the auteur’s work. It makes for an entertaining two hours and 45 minutes that never bores, but Django’s identity crisis precludes it from saying really anything about its sensitive subject matter.

From the opening credits, where Django (Jamie Foxx) and a gang of whip-scarred slaves shamble through the desert, the film insists on depicting slavery in explicit and uncompromising detail. There are grainy 16mm close-ups of Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), wailing as an overseer relishes in maiming her frail body with a whip. There are at least 100 historically accurate racial epithets, used more often as shorthand than as heated insults. A central plot point involves the fictional gladiator sport of “Mandingo fighting,” where two slaves fight to the death with their bare hands. White owners lock a naked slave inside a steel “hotbox” and feed another to rabid dogs. This is Tarantino’s first film with scenes I found tough to watch.

It is worth noting that the brutality above occurs mostly off-screen, while the abundant shootouts focus on every spurt, mist and trickle of viscous blood, often in slow-motion. Even in the underexposed first scene, when Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) guns down Django’s owners in the dead of the night, Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson (HugoJFK) backlight the murders to make the bloodshed startlingly visible yet comically abstract. A shot of an overseer’s blood splattering over cotton buds is even quite pretty, not to mention a shameless metaphor. There’s a clear divide between the violence against slaves and everyone else — as a rule of thumb, the more blood a character loses on screen, the less you should care about him or her.  It’s welcome, if not really brave or original, to elevate slaves above their owners — this is a Blaxploitation pastiche, after all — but by trivializing one current of violence and coarsening the other, Django props up America’s darkest chapter of history as justification for an ultraviolent and by-the-numbers revenge plot.

Tarantino lays the groundwork for a mature meditation on violence, which most would agree he’s about due for. Before saving Broomhilda from “Candyland,” a vast plantation owned by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), Django and Schultz raise money as morally questionable bounty hunters. Though the bounties always advise “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” the two take no chances and only turn in corpses. The sudden introduction to this practice makes for a bit of classic Tarantino dialogue, as Schultz cites little-known laws to talk a lynch mob into paying him $200. Later, there’s a haunting moment when Django snipes an outlaw from atop a cliff-face and we see and hear a panicked little boy run to his dead father’s side. But as the film jumps to the “rescue” second act and especially the final “revenge” act, this ambiguity disappears and the sides revert to unimaginative stereotypes. For all the sick fun Tarantino is having with us, it is disappointing that the trade-off is of any meaningful insight into the fertile, if problematic, backdrop of slavery.

Harsh as I may sound, Django Unchained is indeed a lot of sick fun. Waltz, DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson have jumped to the front of the Oscar race thanks to Tarantino’s juicy lines and monologues. DiCaprio’s speech about phrenology and the “subservience” of the “Negro brain” ranks up there with the Superman suit soliloquy in Kill Bill, and Jackson as Calvin’s parroting, conniving Uncle Tom inspires perhaps the film’s most grounded discussion on race. There are peculiar yet wise casting choices, like Jonah Hill as a bumbling white supremacist, Miami Vice’s Don Johnson as a plantation owner and Dexter’s James Remar, who for some reason plays two different characters. With his thirst for violence and limited psychological insight into his character, Django is the weakest of the bunch, with as much depth and charm as a generic video game anti-hero. His painfully passive wife fares no better; Washington admitted to IndieWire how she “barely survived” shooting the film, a believable toll considering every scene asks her to scream, shudder and surrender all agency. Once the film hits its second or third ending and the far more interesting characters have met their fate, the film reminds you that it’s all a love story, after all. The romance is as enchanting as … again, a video game comes to mind.

Django Unchained is a hell of a movie, for better or worse. As a long-time admirer of Tarantino’s oeuvre, I am content that this film merely exists and further pleased that it’s a seething and energetic marathon of cinema. But Tarantino’s maximalist approach here reveals his weaknesses, as his dedication to being a bloody, composite filmmaker flattens the nuances required for great filmmaking. Sure, there are nuances and flourishes here and there — nothing screams “final cut privilege” like multiple extreme close-ups of Schultz pouring Django his first beer. Yet somewhere a broader artistic statement is lost, which is almost fatal for a film with a subject that requires some tact. Whereas Inglourious Basterds wisely shied away from the heavier horrors of the Holocaust and instead stuck to full-out satire, Django Unchained accosts slavery in all its squalor and offers no better endgame than a “kill them all” revenge fantasy. It is awkward to come away from a film about slavery and think how the director needs to grow up.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Dancer in the Dark Review

Dancer in the Dark
Directed by Lars von Trier
Released in 2000

There is a moment in Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark when the sadness becomes just too much to bear. It is not one particular scene; there are a good half dozen that push the infirm Selma (Björk) into unwinnable scenarios, each worse than the one preceding. Different viewers will reach different moments and break in different ways. Some will sob, in full faith of the film’s melodrama, while others will fume and swear and call the whole thing trash. For me, director and writer von Trier pushed too far about 15 minutes from the end, when he crossed some unacknowledged threshold of mine where tragedy twists into sadism and emotion into forgery. I was fully aware the flickering frames were nothing more than an artificial creation aimed at extorting maximum misery from its viewer. Up to that point, however, Dancer in the Dark balanced its pain with its pathos and caught me under its experimental spell.

This 2000 film is set in Washington State in 1964, though von Trier does not take great lengths to transform his native Denmark and Sweden into an American period setting. With digital video cinematography, the aesthetic looks rather timeless, in a grainy, neorealist kind of way. Selma’s primary struggle —coping with illness in poverty — is timeless by itself, so she also faces more severe mid-century injustices, like misogyny and the Red Scare, although on little more than a cursory level. As it stands, Selma, a Czech immigrant, works a monotonous job in a metal processing factory, saving her minimal wages in a tin container for her son’s optic surgery. He suffers from the same hereditary disease that is turning her blind. Even with her magnifying glass spectacles, she can barely see a thing, yet she insists on walking home every night, shuffling between the railroad tracks that pass by her trailer home.

Selma escapes through music. The factory’s metronomic clangs or tonal hisses entrance her into song, which, in turn, propels the film into full stop musical numbers. Von Trier brightens the washed-out colors and cuts furiously between dozens of cameras for the five songs, which, while confined to Selma’s mind, progress the story by reflecting on what has happened or is soon to take place. The choreography and effort put into the music’s production is as sincere as anything Gene Kelly or Stanley Donen tackled in the 1950s. Of course, von Trier adds his depraved touch, like when he reanimates a corpse for a ballad or directs his characters to frolic about death row. Von Trier’s unorthodox staging matches Björk’s alien voice, which freely climbs and falls octaves as “industrial” rhythms loop in the background. Dancer in the Dark reaches beauty when it resorts to music; considering the first song enters nearly 40 minutes in, perhaps it should have included more of it.

A multitude of familiar character actors join Björk, who swore off acting after this draining experience. David Morse (The Green Mile) plays an anemic police officer who provides Selma and her son a place to live, and Cara Seymour (American Psycho) serves as his witless wife. Peter Stormare (Fargo) once again plays a dim simpleton, here pining over Selma and seducing her with car rides after work, which she politely refuses. Swedish star Stellan Skarsgard (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Zeljko Ivanek (Damages) and Siobhan Fallon (Men in Black) fill in smaller roles that remain potent, especially in Fallon’s case. Catherine Deneuve (Belle de Jour) nails an unexpected lead as Selma’s closest confidant and mother figure, Kathy, clocking in the second-most screen time in the process. One of the cinema’s few canonical beauties, Deneuve wears minimal makeup in an unglamorous performance that relies on a lot of stricken reaction shots as she watches misfortune ruin her dear friend.

And there is plenty of misfortune. Independent cinema prides itself with probing the depths of human nature — John Cassavettes started the anti-industry with his rough domestic drama A Woman Under the Influence. So, not only is Lars von Trier excused to provoke, it’s his job. He mostly eschews shot reverse shot, instead panning back and forth or zooming in with a handheld camera as characters pour out their hearts to one another. I bought it all, including the central, agonizing scene of betrayal, perhaps because Björk seemed as shocked as her character Selma. It is after this point when, not only does the magic dissipate — that is clearly the point — but the passion devolves into artifice. There is no apparent self-referential commentary that von Trier wants to impart by calling to attention the deceit of his medium (they’re actors!), and the social backgrounds of his characters are so shallow that the Brechtian technique of gestus — “character action typical of a class” — seems an invalid excuse.

“In a musical, nothing dreadful ever happens,” Selma muses, with a smile. It is von Trier’s simple-minded goal to defy that thesis. Some will be able to weep in acceptance of his vision. Some will seek to burn the man in effigy. I am thankful for much of the film’s beauty, as embodied aboard a slow-moving train during the Oscar-nominated song “I’ve Seen it All.” Dancer in the Dark sees music as a buffer from life’s ills and the common force between all mankind. It’s the hackneyed case that mankind is callous and evil that I could have done without.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

Monday, December 3, 2012


This is the third post in Film Stock, a series of reviews appreciating the greatest films of all time. Fritz Lang's 1927 epic science-fiction/populist epic Metropolis is featured today; it screened at Cornell Cinema last month and I have finally gotten around to writing about it here.

Directed by Fritz Lang
Released in 1927

Many ancient religions begin with a man living in a haze of tranquilizing purity, only for an abrupt introduction of knowledge and suffering to ignite a spiritual reawakening. Christianity, Judaism and Islam have Adam and Eve, while Buddhism owes all to Siddhartha Gautama. Fritz Lang’s 1927 proto-sci-fi classic Metropolis lifts this narrative with protagonist Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), the son of superich industrialist, Joh (Alfred Abel). One can say that Lang tethers every plot point and image to a character or symbol from the Bible, Qur’an, Talmud or any other established religious text. With arresting dystopian art direction and a clear political thesis, Metropolis enhances its age-old tale to rise as a timeless work of art on its own.

For the famous intro, Lang keeps his camera distant as he follows nameless workers descending into the depths of an industrial labyrinth for just another day on the job. 32 years after film history commenced with Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory, Metropolis inverts this canonical image to communicate despair and brutal classism. The story effectively begins with Freder, who we can tell is important through a liberal use of close-ups. He wears all white as he frolics about an indoor garden — the Eden symbolism could not be more blatant. Maria (Brigitte Helm) disrupts his peace when she ushers in a group of battered, poor children to his chamber; confused and curious, Freder tracks them back to their subterranean dwellings. There, he watches in horror as an intricate, mechanical complex explodes and transforms into a sacrificial altar where the survivors are herded to die. Whether or not the satanic visions are hallucinations or not does not matter, as Freder faces life-changing truths, deciding to defy his father and fight against extreme capitalist injustice.

Freder’s struggle rages both internally and externally, which allows for close-up decisions and long shot battle scenes. Psychoanalysts revere Metropolis for good reason. Freder must come to terms with his father’s cruelty and considers rebelling against class inequality as atonement for his many years of enjoyment at the expense of the proletariats. After changing clothes to match their black uniforms, Freder relieves a struggling man of his seemingly meaningless task — furiously adjusting the hands of an enormous clock — and substitutes with his own labor. His failure to keep up speaks to the futile and painful work so many “unskilled” hands must persevere through every day. The scene ends with Freder’s arms stretched across the clock like Jesus Christ. In Metropolis, religious metaphors overlap with political, social and technological commentary, and characters serve both micro and macro functions, as signs of human agony and symbols for class disparities.

The subtext in Metropolis relies on montage editing, for sure, but it’s the mise-en-scene envisioned by Lang and production designers Otto Hunte, Erich Kettelhut and Karl Vollbrecht that captures the audience’s attention with beauty and meaning. Like Chaplin’s Modern Times (produced nearly a decade later), boss Joh occupies an ornate office far too large for his needs — he is above mere “needs,” clearly. Cinematographer Karl Freund contemplates the cityscape throughout the picture, with emphasis on the central skyscraper, modeled after Brueghel the Elder’s The Tower of Babel. Maria captivates a crowd of laborers with the Biblical story of the Tower, which Lang stages through a very theatrical flashback. Placing his camera before a stage with the proscenium in view, Lang exaggerates the artificiality of this story to, in turn, make the present storyline only that more authentic.

The Alloy Orchestra, prolific silent film composers, accompanied the packed screening I attended at Cornell Cinema. In addition to pounding percussion, legato accordion and spooky keyboard, Ken Winokur and co. added diegetic sound effects, like striking a violin bow to indicate a creaky door or gear. The trio powered through the two and a half hour runtime not only with flawless accuracy but also with consistent energy, giving its all at minute 74 as well as minutes one and 148. Like the Alloy’s rich soundscape, Metropolis offers semiotic depth as deep as the dystopian city it depicts, but there lies the tempting alternative to just surrender to the spectacle.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Cornell Daily Sun's Best of 2012

The following lists were assembled from the votes of the Arts Staff of The Cornell Daily Sun. My tenure as Arts & Entertainment Editor has effectively come to an end, so I would like to feature the work of my colleagues (via links, of course) on my blog. While I may disagree with the placement of this album or that movie, these lists feature some very economical, sharp writing, and I encourage you to read each of them. At the end is a video that former Arts Editors Peter Jacobs '13, James Rainis '14 and I threw together, where we discuss (in not so serious fashion) the more popular songs of the year that may not have made the critical cut.

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 TV Shows of 2012

Reading for ... Fun?: Eight 2012 Books You Shouldn't Miss

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 Songs of 2012

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 Albums of 2012

The Cornell Daily Sun's Top 10 Movies of 2012

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Skyfall Review

Directed by Sam Mendes
Released in 2012

The first image we see in Skyfall is an out-of-focus silhouette at the end of a narrow hallway. We know this is James Bond, for obvious reasons — who else could it be? — yet we cannot be sure. The scale of the shot matches the trademark “gun barrel” sequence that has opened almost all other Bond films. Instead of obscuring Bond in shadow, as in the early films, or bathing him in bright light, as in the more recent ones, Skyfall does both. Backlit by the sunny window and masked by the dark hallway, Bond just stands there in a distorted haze. This teasing shot captures Skyfall in micro: an immaculately photographed film that places Bond between past and future, paying tribute to his history while forming a distinctly new identity.

Movies today obsess over being the next big thing so much that they overlook the pleasures of fusing multiple, smaller things. Skyfall is not a “high concept” film, in that it cannot be summed up in a one-sentence pitch. Casino Royale, the first in the so-called franchise reboot with Daniel Craig, aggressively distanced itself from its legacy — “Vodka martini.” “Shaken or stirred?” “Do I look like I give a damn?” — while the last film, Quantum of Solace, posited Bond as an action hero when, as Roger Ebert puts it, “he is an attitude.” That attitude returns, with Bond once again bedding beautiful women (Bérénice Lim Marlohe) and taking time to adjust the sleeve of his suit after jumping onto a collapsing train. But director Sam Mendes and screenwriters John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade shroud Bond in a layer of doubt and mystery that the recent films have flirted with yet never fully developed.

In action films, there are few ways to trigger an existential crisis both profound and palatable, but killing off the main character 15 minutes in must be one. After a reliably thrilling pursuit through the linen shops and fruit markets of Istanbul, M (Judi Dench), the head of British intelligence agency MI6, orders field agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to “take the bloody shot,” with both Bond and a bad guy in the crosshairs. The bullet hits Bond, who falls off a moving train and plummets into a raging waterfall a good 100 feet below. This scene transitions into Adele’s title song, with visuals dominated less by the usual naked lady outlines and more by Gothic, visceral and M.C. Escher fractal imagery. There is one animation where Bond shoots mirrors surrounding him, suggesting a split in identity or some Freudian metaphor primed for over-analyzing. It all sets the tone for the “resurrection” motif that runs through the film; both Bond and M must confront their age and failings in order to reconcile them with their duties.

Bond — who doesn’t really die, in case you’re worrying — and M face a conflict that is, in more ways than one, the fault of their own actions, particularly M’s. A hard drive containing the files of cover MI6 agents falls into the hands of the baddie (Ola Rapace) Bond fights in the opening sequence. Since he gets away, his boss, Silva (Javier Bardem), now has the power to slander the image of MI6 and enact vengeance on M, who he believes betrayed him in the past. The compelling part is that M did, indeed, fail him, which places her cold-blooded determination to get the job done — “Take the bloody shot!” — on shaky moral ground. Dench has been the series steady since 1995’sGoldeneye and Skyfall affords the Dame her meatiest role yet. Only Bond surpasses M in screen time, and she rivals in lines spoken. M treats Bond like a son, with all the impatience a mother would have for such cheek, and the script has fun with their relationship, inverting romantic staples like “Why didn’t you call?” to mix arch authority with maternal concern.

Even Silva has some strange “mommy” thing with M, though his obsession with killing her belongs more in the house of Atreus than any working relationship. Javier Bardem balances the camp of the Blofelds and Goldfingers before him with the composed anarchy of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Silva takes more than a few cues from The Dark Knight: Always one step ahead, he compares himself to a “rat” (remember The Joker’s dog analogy?) and fascinates us with a mix of humor, sadism and disfigurement (and I’m not referring to the wig). Of course, Bardem owns the part. What starts as a superficial display of strength — pay attention to how he rolls his eyes and forces a laugh — stiffens to homoerotic queasiness before unraveling to full-out animalism. This is the best Bond villain in decades and the best movie antagonist since Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.

Skyfall may be the first “auteur” Bond film, and I’m not referring to the work of director Sam Mendes. The soul of this film is indebted to cinematographer Roger Deakins, Hollywood’s greatest living cameraman, known for his collaborations with Mendes and the Coen Brothers (Barton Fink through True Grit). Deakins enhances the globetrotting adventure typical of a Bond film by imbuing each locale with a distinct color and lens technique. The Chinese port city of Macau glows yellow against inky black skies, balancing fantasy with sharp acutance. Harsh sunlight saturates the ransacked island colony where Bond first meets Silva. The fog of the Scottish Highlands extends into oblivion through careful manipulation of natural light reminiscent of Days of Heaven (a nod to The Third Man in a sewer chase and Apocalypse Now during a helicopter attack). Skyfall’s most stunning set piece is in Shanghai, which apparently radiates blue everywhere — tunnels, road signs, computer screens, escalators, you name it. The metropolis looks like the futuristic nightclubs in the Mass Effect video games. It serves well for a noir-esque action scene in a skyscraper, where shadows cloak Bond as he sneaks through glass doors to take out an assassin. The hand-to-hand brawl is pitch-black, save for a few muzzle flashes from the assassin’s rifle. Even with such theatrical presentation, the sparse use of light and exacting audio pack a punch. Deakins heightens the exoticism intrinsic to the series by transporting Bond not only to different cities but singular worlds.

Skyfall reminds us how old Bond is — surely a meta-commentary during the franchise’s 50-year anniversary. James Bond’s redemption in this film doubles as a resurrection of the character’s vitality for our age. Skyfall takes on new with old (Albert Finney plays a figure from Bond’s childhood), old with new (youthful Ben Whishaw brings the MI6 Quartermaster “Q” to the 21st century) and composite with middle-aged (Ralph Fiennes as the male complement to Dench’s M). But as Q reminds Bond at their first meeting inside the National Gallery, “Age is no guarantee of efficiency.” For those unfamiliar with names like “Bernard Lee” and “Desmond Llewelyn,” Skyfall remains a uniquely modern film, approaching a story that began in the Cold War with relativist sensibility and production values both visionary and state-of-the-art. And for those of us who consider the Bond canon one with our own, let us collectively weep at the sight of 007 driving his Aston Martin DB5 across the Scottish countryside as the soundtrack strums “duh dadada duh da da da duh dadada duh da da da …”

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Our Picture Perfect President

With Nov. 6 a full week behind us, the implications of President Obama’s reelection and Mitt Romney’s defeat should have settled in by now. So, now would be an ideal time to talk about it all, right? Wrong, actually. News outlets have moved on (hello, General Petraeus), and the public is just thankful the election is over. Imagine how peaceful Ohio must be at this very moment. Frankly, I am just tired of all the encomiums for Nate Silver and autopsies of Karl Rove, as on the nose as both may be.

Pushing politics, demographics and numbers aside, what can we learn from the most expensive campaign in American history? Not much, to be honest, but for me it reaffirmed the importance of a candidate’s image. Voters consider personality a decisive factor — a vital and uniquely human facet of our decision-making process. As much as we heard about how Romney is the perfect father, husband, parishioner and so on, he had a bit of a branding problem on the campaign trail. In comparison, voters signed onto another four years of Obama because, for all his failings and empty promises, they still trusted that he could see the job through. To visualize this dichotomy, think about the most memorable images of Romney and Obama in the last few months of the campaign.

For Romney, is there any answer other than his blurry profile from the leaked “47 percent” video? A supporter may hold Romney’s reflection at Jerusalem’s Western Wall in high regard, but it is hard to detach the overt political motives of that photo-op from any compassion he may have felt. When watching the infamous Mother Jones video, it is impossible to detach the surreptitious angle of the camera from a sense of illicit voyeurism. We, not just the “47 percent” but the 99.9 percent not wealthy enough to afford a plate at such a fundraiser, are not meant to see the contents of that video, so the forbidden images sear into our minds. And what ugly images to remember. The hidden camera is distant, unfocused, ensconced between fancy glassware and obstructed by passing waiters. That its pixel resolution is no greater than that of common smartphones only inspires more unsavory associations. How do we react to amateur videos on YouTube? With laughs, embarrassment, shock and nausea, but certainly not tears or goose bumps. The aftermath of the video leak was a defining moment for the campaign, the power of media and the priorities of the electorate.

The electorate chose Obama, and, if there is one sublime image that encapsulated his homestretch promise, it was shot on the devastated shores of my home state. In the picture, the President holds close New Jersey resident Donna Vanzant, who stands about a head shorter than him. Hurricane Sandy destroyed her marina and livelihood. Tears well up in her red eyes. The digital camera’s high-resolution brings out the wrinkles on her face yet emphasizes Obama’s smooth skin and salt and pepper hair. He looks both strong and wise. He remained optimistic, as he was reported to have said, “It’ll be OK. Everyone’s safe, right? That’s the most important thing.” This snapshot is worth a thousand words and the complete picture is worth closer to a million. To his left, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie looks on in silent gratitude — to the G.O.P.’s dismay, he did not stay silent, as he appeared on all the major news networks, Fox News included, to praise the President. The Obama camp now had beautiful proof that their compassionate candidate was also a capable and bipartisan Head of State.

President Obama is no stranger to moving images, in both senses of the phrase. Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza shot a poignant photograph that hangs in the White House to this day. In it, Jacob Philadelphia, a five-year-old black boy, told President Obama, “I want to know if my hair is just like yours.” He replied, “Why don’t you touch it and see for yourself?” The President bowed 90 degrees for Jacob to touch his hair and realize that, yes, the most important man in the world has hair that feels just like his. In the other definition of “moving images,” Obama has an active online video presence, as his “BarackObamadotcom” Youtube account has tallied 270 million views over six years of uploads. Stars like Will Ferrell and Jon Hamm endorsed Obama without too much fuss; more impressive is the prolific output of shorts that aim to both inspire and inform — within Democratic parameters, of course.

You may have seen the post-election speech where Obama expresses gratitude to his campaign staff and, in a rare shedding of armor, chokes up and lets a few tears flow. This fulfills the meaning of “moving images” on both counts. For all of his decisions and indecisions over the last four years that I disagree with, I watch a moment like that and am stunned that such a man admits he is, after all, just a man. Whether or not that qualifies him for President is not really the point. It simply proves that, even in a year of bloated campaign finance, nothing shapes a candidate’s image like, well, an image.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Flight Review

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Released in 2012

The trailer for Robert Zemeckis’ new film Flight is about perfect, so, naturally, it is a total lie. The two and a half minute spot promises sex, courtroom drama, a screen-filling John Goodman and an upside down 747 skimming just meters off the ground, all jacked to The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” the omnipresent movie rock song, if there is any. Flight has all these moments, yes, but the spectacle is a Trojan horse for an unabashed, male-centered melodrama.

“Melodrama” is considered a pejorative term today, which is fair. It has become secondhand for “manipulative” and “exaggerated,” adjectives that can describe even the classics from the genre’s heyday in the 1950s. Hawkeyed critics like Dave Kehr praise them for their subtle contradictions in mise-en-scene (props, scenery, lighting). Take Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life: As a neglected black mother dies in her bed, a dated photo of her shamed, light-skinned daughter leans on her night table, beaming into space. Sirk is in on the joke, and hopes you are, too. The best melodramas are both sappy and ironic — it just takes effort to notice the latter’s undertones in the midst of all the crying, shouting, etc.

So, in 2012, we have Flight. Save for its digital cinematography and black leading man, this film could have been made over half a century ago. You can say it has and point to Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend. Both study the physical, mental and familial consequences of alcoholism and do so with a heavy hand. Your enjoyment (or at least appreciation) of the film balances on whether or not you recognize that hand and its duplicity. Put simply, Flight veers into histrionics here and there, like when airline pilot Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) stumbles around his lake house with an inordinate number of empty vodka and beer bottles strewn about. Our gut may force a laugh, but are we deriding the performance or the emasculating effects of substance abuse? Oh, the drama of melodrama!

As tempting as all this social commentary may be, you may notice I am dancing around the fundamental question of a review: Is it good? Time for a diplomatic answer: It depends. The macho thriller promised by the trailer is sidelined for an effective domestic drama. Married adults with families will connect; teenagers and unchained college students, not so much. Flight features a masterful opening crash sequence, where pilot Whip saves nearly all of the passengers aboard his flight. There is an ostensible realism to the crash — the erratic descent takes agonizingly long and handheld cameras zoom in on panicked passengers and dolly backwards through the aisle. Memorable though this sequence may be, the rest of the film stays grounded. A fridge stocked with liquor replaces a plummeting fuselage as our object of fear.

Given that he drank liters of liquor not only the night before but during the fateful flight itself, Whip has a nagging feeling that he may be a bit responsible. His only scars are a cut over the eye and a limp leg, while his religious co-pilot (Brian Geraghty) will likely never walk again. Silently repentant, Whip retreats to his family’s lake house and dumps all of his booze into the sink. Even in a brisk montage, it takes a couple of minutes to dispose it all. With the stress of investigations, guilt of lives lost and long-standing family issues flaring up, Whip retreats back to the bottle, his tonic and poison.

While Flight may not always be subtle, Denzel channels the flabby screenplay with remarkable control. Whip lies to everyone, including himself, without pause, and it’s in his eyes where his subconscious betrays him. His gaze lingers too long, with glints of the unacknowledged struggle raging inside. Denzel works on another level here, slipping into his character’s mental state to the degree that I think our CIA should pull a Team America and recruit him as a spy. Expect to see his name on the shortlist for next year’s Academy Awards.

Don Cheadle and Bruce Greenwood (sporting a Sully Sullenberger stache) flank Whip as a criminal lawyer and airline union rep, respectively. Cheadle either rolls his eyes at a passive aggressive simmer or lets loose at a raging boil, making for an unusually predictable performance. Greenwood’s character is all about staying cool, which he does until he can no longer tolerate the self-destructive actions of his old friend, Whip. A jolly John Goodman also joins the cast as Harling Mays, Whip’s drug dealer and body man. The film steps into a moral quandary when, as Whip lies on the bathroom floor blacked out from boozing the night before, Harling saves the day by administering him a few lines of coke. The scene is played for laughs and, for all the hidden meanings in melodramas, I see no acquitting explanation here.

The female characters in Flight, as Julia Moser ’15 vented on The Sun’s video review online, are static and borderline exploitative. The opening minutes cut from the critical plane crash to the misadventures of Nicole (Kelly Reilly), a drug addict. She visits a porno set to score some merchandise from her dealer, who pressures her to “act” with him. She does not (*spoiler*), but it’s an unnecessary set piece in which to introduce the female lead. As it turns out, Nicole isn’t even a lead, or at least not provided any insightful lines or actions. Her lengthy introduction ruptures the suspense of the opening, and for no thematic benefit.

With just Denzel under the spotlight, Flight builds to a satisfying close, despite how predictable it may be. Denzel and Zemeckis endow Flight with all its memorable qualities — they manipulate the typical melodramatic tropes to contemplate sin, mortality and redemption. John Gatins’ screenplay does not seem to bother with women, and the two hour, 20 minute runtime will prove painful for those expecting another plane crash. Why anyone would hope to see another plane crash beats me; the title’s a metaphor, get over it.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

'Lights! Camera! Inaction!'

Action holds a lot of stock in Hollywood. A director yells, “Lights, camera, action!” from his or her chair, a gun goes off and a stunt car explodes. Or something — I don’t know, it’s a very tired cliché. The point is that action rules Hollywood movies, even those without car chases or explosions. Atticus Finch would be pretty lame if he sat on his porch for all of To Kill a Mockingbird and just thought to himself, “I should defend that innocent black man … if only I weren’t so tired.” In a Hollywood film, character action, as channeled through an ‘active’ protagonist, underlines theme and generates entertainment.

Few Hollywood pictures can get away with a ‘passive’ protagonist, and, for the ones that do, they strike us as unusual or subtly profound. The ennui of The Graduate or the “Dudeism” of The Big Lebowski are groundbreaking, in retrospect. They subvert mainstream ideals of success, class and masculinity. In indie and foreign cinema, you will find more films with atypical protagonists who do not always steer the narrative.

As proof, I present two great films: City of God, directed by Fernando Meirelles and produced in Brazil, and The Pianist, directed by Roman Polanski and produced across a smattering of European countries. Coincidentally, both were released in 2002. Even if you have not seen these films, you have heard of them. You probably have one of these on your laptop hard drive, ready to watch when you’re not in the mood forArrested Development reruns (so, never). Both of these movies feature protagonists who, for most of the plot, stand to the side and watch horrific forces destroy their homes (gangs in the “Cidade de Deus” favela outside Rio de Janeiro and Nazis in Warsaw, respectively). While a screenwriting guru like Robert McKee would decry such inaction, a passive protagonist can reflect injustices — specifically, violence — with honesty and without euphemism.

Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), a smart boy unfortunate enough to grow up in a slum, narrates City of God. He introduces us to the favela’s other inhabitants, most of whom steal, deal drugs and murder on a daily basis. With little personal opinion, Rocket’s voiceover ties together a nonlinear plot that spans two decades. His one passion is photography, which allows him to appear active even when he is standing on the sidelines, “shooting” the gang members who are shooting each other. Film theorists have long loved to compare the camera with the gun, as has the general public. While the gun aims, shoots and kills, the camera aims, shoots and preserves (but this philosophizing is for another column). Rocket’s passivity allows us to see, through a naked pair of eyes, the extreme violence (to the extent where children murder other children) infecting his home.

In The Pianist, Władysław Szpilman (Adrien Brody, in his Halle Berry smooch-winning role) survives the Holocaust through inaction, not to mention a lot of luck. He watches an execution of Jews that, for some reason, does not include him. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising rattles the street outside his friend’s apartment where he furtively squats. Another acquaintance — a member of the traitorous Jewish Ghetto Police — literally pulls Szpilman from his family as they are ushered into a cattle car destined for Treblinka. It makes for a cold procession of events, marked by horrified reaction shots rather than deliberate bouts of action. Schindler’s List, while uncompromising in its images, ends on an inspiring note thanks to Oskar Schindler’s heroism. Stories like Schindler’s provide needed hope when digesting such atrocities, but it is Szpilman’s helplessness that betrays the true darkness of the time, as hard as it may be to face.

There is a sharp cynicism in pivoting mass murder around a passive protagonist. Rocket, Szpilman and, by extension, the viewer witness inexcusable violence while surrendering the resolve to stop it. Even worse, the belligerents are not cackling caricatures but children eased into the drug trade through opium or young men brainwashed to believe their genocide is righteous. The balance of good and evil is a bit off, isn’t it? It’s no surprise Hollywood doesn’t go for the passive protagonist, particularly one under such duress. As we watch the character buckle under forces out of his or her control, we think, “Damn, that could have been me!”

Thus, a passive protagonist steers a film towards realism and away from romanticism. You could say a photojournalist like Rocket as City of God’s narrator likens it to a documentary, though that opens a whole new can of worms as the movie is still a work of fiction (even if it’s based on a true story). Its veracity notwithstanding, a film with minimal character action is likely to provoke and disturb us more than one in which an active protagonist overcomes the odds to save the day. A film like City of God or The Pianist may also offend us to the core, which is likely why some despise character inaction in all cases: Where’s the happy ending? How I am supposed to walk out into the world with a shred of respect for my species after that?

The recently released Cloud Atlas may be the ultimate antithesis to such life-negating, humbling fare. The film — which, I will say, is well worth your time — strings together six, century-spanning plot lines, all connected by different incarnations of characters, each played by the same actor. It’s ludicrous. The movie’s official plot summary reads: “An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.” The pitch allows for a lot of car chases, explosions and be-all, end-all character choices, all in service of a lie we would go crazy not to believe.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Visual Collision in Ménilmontant

The following is a paper I wrote for a film class I am taking this semester. Academic writing requires more patience than journalistic writing, both for the reader and the writer. In this case, my aim was to deconstruct a few scenes from a film while also presenting a readable, mildly amusing argument connecting all the film theory jargon. The film in question is called Ménilmontant, a little-known and silent avant-garde film by Soviet-French director Dimitri Kirsanoff. You can watch this beautiful, 37-minute film in full on YouTube.

Stuck in a Nightmare You Can't Get Out of:
Visual Collision in Dimitri Kirsanoff's Ménilmontant

For all the romantic analogies between dreams and movies, is it not rare for us to even remember our dreams? In Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, Georges Méliès nods to a young boy in his studio and says, “If you’ve ever wondered where your dreams come from, you look around … this is where they’re made.” Most of us have difficulty recalling the specifics of our most recent ‘sweet’ dream. Less problematic, however, is reliving our nightmares (Suddenly, Méliès’ quote transforms into a creepy omen). The fragmentary structure of nightmares, as we piece them together after the fact, lends itself to film well and has undoubtedly influenced countless filmmakers. One of them is Dimitri Kirsanoff, the Soviet-French director of the 1926 masterpiece Ménilmontant. The silent Ménilmontant stresses filmic storytelling through its montage editing à la Sergei Eisenstein, yet also warps the gap between cuts with an innovative use of protracted dissolves and double exposure. The eminence of colliding images, whether adjacent or superimposed, makes for a very visual, dreamlike editing technique.

The scenes in Ménilmontant that prescribe to a strict Soviet montage style may follow an established set of cinematic rules, but they use this framework to build an intimate series of images aimed at arousing intense emotion from the viewer. The film opens with a brutal struggle: An unknown, and practically unseen, man brandishing an axe hacks the protagonists’ mother and father to death. Those protagonists are two sisters — the younger, more prominent one played by Nadia Sibirskaïa and Yolande Beaulieu as the older, ancillary sister — frolicking in the forest down the road, giggling as a cat scales a tall tree. Thus, their parents’ horror proves a stark juxtaposition; Kirsanoff likely wielded montage editing for this reason. Eisenstein asked the question, “What characterizes montage and, consequently, its embryo, the shot?” and answered it with, “Collision” (21). “Conflict lies at the basis of every art,” he declared (21). This concept takes on social dimensions when imbued with the Marxist class struggle he and his pro-Soviet intellectuals preached (before Kirsanoff left the U.S.S.R., that is). But, for the aesthetic and apolitical analysis of this essay, the Soviet montage method generates action, tone and meaning.

Ménilmontant opens with a close-up of a cottage door and its glass shattering from an unseen force. This shot orients at about 45 degrees from the door’s parallel, and cuts to a perpendicular view of the door and the violence behind it (with a continuity error of the glass intact). We see very little besides a blur of faces and hands. Cut to the doorknob twisting, back to the door, back to the knob — cut to the wife opening and running out the door as the assailant grabs her hair, with the camera framing her face in a startling close-up. Cut then to the husband opening the door (in another apparent continuity error), and the killer following him as he walks out. It then cuts to a strange low angle shot of the wife stumbling out the door, with her white dress covering the screen for a seamless natural wipe into a shot about 180 degrees around, of the killer’s and wife’s feet stepping forward out of frame. In yet another continuity issue, the next shot frames the attacker in a blurry close-up with the open door behind him and the couple completely absent. The husband has his back against a wall in the next shot, while the subsequent shot cuts back to the killer shaking his head side to side in a vigorous, rabid motion. One of the more unforgettable images follows, with the wife jutting into the frame from its left side, only to be pulled in and out of it by the man who is messily murdering her. After two more shots of this repeated action, we see the axe propped against a log and cut to a reverse eyeline match of the husband who recognizes its presence. So does the killer, as Kirsanoff cuts to him in a grinning close-up. The two men wrestle in the next shot, which then cuts on action to the husband’s hand reaching for the weapon in a close-up of the axe. About four more back-and-forth shots like this repeat, and then we see the bloodied wife in a close-up, reaching out her hand and pleading for her life. The most memorable image — the extreme close-up of the husband and his agape gaze of terror — soon follows, as does a still, high contrast image of the axe held high in the air. We then see the killer hack away, only to disappear through the bottom of the frame where our imagination finishes the rest.

This all times in at right under 40 seconds, with 34 shots, making an average shot length of 1.17 seconds. The swift editing overwhelms the viewer with the power of these images, while the increasing acceleration of cuts builds tension. Kirsanoff communicates ideas both simple and profound through the “assembly of [the] elements” “of montage” (20). Cutting back and forth, multiple times, from door to doorknob demonstrates the time it takes to open the door; the escalating speed of these cuts, as well as the confused swirl of limbs behind the windowpane, instills in the viewer the desperation this husband and wife must have felt. With the exception of the quick still image of the raised axe, the editing in the opening sustains its invisibility and only seeks to communicate a subjective perspective of a violent event, in hopes that this scene will arrest the viewer. Technical limitations may have stripped dissolves and double exposure from the opening, but the disjointed barrage of this opening scene (rife with perhaps purposeful continuity errors) infuses a nightmarish quality that is achieved through its montage style above all other factors.

But just as some dreams frighten us with confusion and speed, others wring us of energy through lingering images and sensations. Kirsanoff inverts the montage technique in several key scenes, placing one image over another. These overlaps span a breath of time to numerous seconds, with the intent to convey internal character struggle. There are a few, more stylistic touches in this vein, such as when the girls leave home and head for the city: A continued shot of a long, tree-studded dirt road holds steady while the subject — the girls — of the image transports down the road in a series of jump cuts masked by long dissolves. The same technique casts the younger sister and her rapist across his apartment in an effort to expedite narrative and establish an unsettling mood to his abode. 

Multiple pre-Vertov city montages with a liberal use of superimposition occur throughout Ménilmontant; the most powerful sequence would be when the younger sister walks by the river with her illegitimate child. An unsettling point of view shot drifting alongside a concrete sidewalk barrier, focusing on its sharp edges before panning left to reveal the lethal tides just yards away, commences this series. Kirsanoff cuts to a reaction shot of the girl, who keeps on staring into the inviting waters as seen through POV pans down the stream and distorted close-ups of the waves. A shot of the water then lays over a close-up of the girl throughout a lengthy dissolve; as she closes her eyes, the frame becomes solely hers once more. Her exact immoral fantasy remains unclear, — Does she want to throw herself into the water? Her baby? — but the potential of utilizing the river weighs down on her, quite literally, through editing. As her baby wails and she puts her ear to the child in a vain attempt for comprehension, the city begins to meld into her torment. Double (and often greater) exposure centers a close-up of the girl in the frame as blurs of cars and faceless pedestrians layer over. An even closer shot of the girl seamlessly follows as the frenetic metropolitan superimposition continues. Kirsanoff goes so far as to take the girl out of the frame completely and let us see and — through Paul Mercer’s eerie music — hear her agony, one steeped by rape, murder, betrayal and abandonment. An innocuous establishing shot of a bridge now deforms into an indictment of modernity and the toll it takes on the innocent and vulnerable. The girl walks dejectedly through the city as these thoughts continue to wash over and fight within her. What is a nightmare to us cements as a cold, harsh reality to this girl. She wants to wake up from it all but cannot, for the only escape is ending herself, once and for all.

In Ménilmontant, Kirsanoff balances his homeland’s established editing school with a new one very much his own. The “collision” of moving images rooted in Soviet theory creates a bloody collision of axe and human skin, as well as all the victims’ fears piling up until that final point. Superimposition of disparate visual icons expresses one young girl’s inner pain and its underlying cause. Despite colliding these techniques not only in the same film but also often in the same scene, Kirsanoff builds a consistent, surreal mystique to the whole film. Ménilmontant hits so close to home, so often, that the dreamlike feel teeters on raw realism. When that sick awareness creeps upon you, however, it is wise to pinch yourself and be thankful you have the option to walk out of the theater.