Monday, November 24, 2014

Force Majeure Review

Force Majeure
Directed by Ruben Östlund
Released in 2014

A staple of disaster movies is the breathless proclamation of love: The world may end any moment, so let me tell you now how much I love you, baby. By this yardstick, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is an anti-disaster movie, both literally, because the avalanche early on in the film turns out to be innocuous, maiming no one, and generically, because that false alarm awakens only hostility between two lovers and everyone they meet. For the confidence and subtlety with which it goes about saying all it has on mind, Force Majeure already feels like a classic, and it’s both hard-hitting and grotesquely comical enough that time very well may agree.
The premise is one of caustic genius. While vacationing at a ski resort in the French Alps, an upper-middle class Swedish family sits down for lunch when they witness a controlled avalanche build a threatening momentum towards them. At first the father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) laughs off the rising voices of his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren), but just as a cloud of snow consumes the balcony they’re on, Tomas decks an old man to the ground as he sprints off the scene, with only his iPhone in hand. After a minute of unease, the cloud dissipates and Tomas returns to the table where his abandoned family sits, shell-shocked. The rest of the film tries to come to terms with what Tomas revealed to his family when their lives were threatened most.
This film has many, but not too many, ideas weaving in and out of one another, and chief among them is an interrogation of gender relations. When acting on instincts of the blood and nerves, Tomas is clearly a coward, but when the dust settles he too settles back into the never-scarce persona that is the suave, deflecting male authority figure. Whether he is conscious of his aggression or not, he casts his wife as overly dramatic and tells her, while recounting a modified version of their episode to a couple friends over dinner, “You got a bit afraid but…” before gesturing to himself.
Ebba knows Tomas, by virtue of his gender, can determine the narrative of what happened, but she also knows that no one likes messing with a shrieking bitch who has downed one too many glasses of wine, and so she — again, whether conscious of it or not — demeans herself in the company of friends in order to set the record straight. Lisa Loven Kongsli digs into a Bergman-esque monologue, filmed mostly in one take, with the kind of simultaneous severity and sensitivity indicative of great talent, and given the acclaim this film has received since premiering in May at Cannes, we should expect to see her again.
Occasionally, Östlund’s camera crops Ebba’s head out of the frame, while her husband and children sit and lie down and, most of all, complain below her — if there’s any visual metaphor that better illustrates the invisibility that comes with being an intelligent woman and mother, I have not seen it. Ebba is, in fact, fiercely, dogmatically intelligent, to the point where she distrusts the emotions of others, particularly those of her husband. She has now seen that his very wiring prioritizes his safety over that of his family and how can she live with that? No amount of penance can change that fact, which explains why Östlund films an emotional scene late in the film from alienating, hilarious angles — Ebba knows melodrama is all a lie at this point, and you’ll know from the opening shots that Östlund believes the same.
Like Jacques Tati, Östlund tells his story, or rather the discomfiting truths that lie below it, through its setting. This luxury ski resort must promise families a good time to reconnect, yet the film features, in near-silent sterility, the automated devices like ski tows and moving walkways that isolate these family members from one another and keep them in rote single file. Ambient sounds like screeching ski lifts, electric toothbrushes and the vibration from cell phones provide comic relief in a slightly (and purposefully) annoying way, jabbing us until we realize there is no nature, and thus no bliss, for the affluent family so in love with their objects.
Force Majeure has three amazing, borderline surreal moments, one of which I will not spoil (though I will say it’s inexplicably loud) and the other, at the very end, from which I will vaguely conclude has to do with how armistice is the default state of modern marriage. The other one, which occurs first, unfolds in one long shot, when Tomas and his Norwegian pal Mats (Kristofer Hivju, Tormund Giantsbane from Game of Thrones and much nicer here) sit on flimsy folding chairs and sip from frosty pilsner glasses. It’s mid-day, yet a throbbing EDM song blares from off-screen speakers and a young girl approach the men to express her friend’s interest in Tomas. She leaves, they grin and starting bobbing their head along, yet she returns to clarify that her friend was looking at another man, adjacent to them, not Tomas — god almighty, not Tomas. It’s a profoundly awkward scene, basically Force Majeure in microcosm: Everyone wants to break the rules, but more than anything the world knows how to break you, and will, if you refuse to notice the cracks.
4 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Labels or Love

Late in Birdman, one of this season’s surefire Oscar contenders, washed-up movie star Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton) accosts Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the icy New York Times theater critic who has sworn to give his new play “the worst review anybody has ever read,” before even seeing it.

“Keep scribbling down your labels,” he sneers. “That’s what you do. You label things. You label people and you label art. … Nothing about technique or structure.” He plucks a daisy from a vase resting on the bar beside them and shoves it in her face. “Do you have any idea what this is? You can’t even see it if you don’t label it. The beauty and depth of this simple thing escapes you. You mistake those sounds in your head for true knowledge.”

I love this scene, and I don’t love Birdman. I don’t hate it, either — I am not eager to label it “a volcano of creative ideas in full eruption,” as Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers did, or “the nadir of Western civilization,” as Tabitha presumably might. I’m not too into the “label” thing anyway; I prefer the notes on “technique” and “structure” that Riggan laments are missing in Tabitha’s judgmental and influential prose. Ironically, I find little to say when I apply such rigor to Birdman, aside from the given “Look how much the camera moves!” bromide, but, well, that is a topic for another time.

The topic today is the job of the critic, or how the popularity of professional labelers like Tabitha distorts the public perception of that job and, in turn, of how art works. Most people assume a critic should stand in for the paying moviegoer, à la Consumer Reports, here to tell you whether a movie is good or bad so that you can make an informed decision about where you spend your money. This view of criticism has never held as much sway as it does now, with Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, IMDb and other aggregate services pulling in tremendous traffic and ad revenue.

These websites do away with the act of reading altogether, for they quantify a movie’s value by swirling around sometimes over a hundred reviews and arriving, somehow, at a numerical grade. One four-star review holds no weight: A buzzworthy movie needs dozens, to plaster over a full-page New York Times spread and to bump its Tomatometer rating close to triple digits. Individual opinions collapse into unqualified praise or else the most fiery invective, those binary verdicts fill into a consensus and that consensus cements as some objective truth, e.g. “Look, Birdman has a 94 percent, what do you mean you don’t like it?”

The words that survive in this ecosystem are, fittingly, the loudest. Critics like Tabitha know how to pen a line to hammer home the “freshness” or “rottenness” of the work they have deigned to review. Why bother reading the full piece, when it’s all there in one conclusive sentence? Blurb-masters like the aforementioned Travers reward no critical investment, since they often repeat themselves (seriously, search Travers’ name and the phrase “sneaks up and floors you”) and pay little attention to films as texts with nuanced structures that produce dense, vital images worth unpacking. No wonder Travers loves Birdman so much: The peddler of sound and fury without substance has met his cinematic match.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Professional criticism is a business, as hilarious that may be to put to print, and businesses stay alive by appealing to as many people as they can. The majority does not want to consider films as texts, and would likely sock me in the mouth for using either of those terms, and again for putting them in the same sentence. For some, movies really are an “escape” from the troubles of the world and not an investigation of them, and I consider it a privilege to so devotedly believe in the latter.

But let’s hesitate before we so blindly eat up all the “labels” shoveled our way. Labels — whether they be adjectives, qualitative nouns (“triumph,” “train wreck”), comparisons to other works (“Interstellar is so much better than The Dark Knight Rises”) or numerical grades — can only serve as conversation-starters. For labels to consume the whole conversation is to have no conversation at all — just modifiers, without an anchor, or any involvement, in the film itself. The act of interpretation can run parallel to a firm opinion or many conflicting ones, but the act can only enliven what is there, not desecrate it. “Doing justice,” or at least attempting to, is what we like to call it, except we sometimes may watch a film so esteemed and see no justice to be done at all.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Interstellar Review

Directed by Christopher Nolan
Released in 2014

It’s odd, hearing Matthew McConaughey talk in space. His is a voice of the earth, American earth — the kind of slow, colloquial drawl to pass the time while watching baseball games, driving past cornfields or losing your mind on HBO.
In Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, McConaughey’s hero Cooper leaves these icons of Americana (well, two out of three) behind in order to save them. Naturally, Cooper takes that star-spangled sensibility with him through the cosmos, and it’s that from-the-gut-ness, as Stephen Colbert might say, that wins the day, or something like that. Throwing McConaughey and all he stands for into a sci-fi retelling of The Odyssey is a simple but potent concept, one this clumsy and often visually pedestrian movie works hard to undermine. Yet Interstellar drops its sentimental payload with such aplomb that it’s futile to resist it, which makes it, intentionally or not, a pretty thoroughly American movie.
On a remote, dust-ravaged farmhouse in the near future, Cooper lives with his family, or what remains of it: daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), son Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and the father of his deceased wife, Donald (John Lithgow). The days of Homo sapiens are numbered due to a disease called “blight” that destroys crops, but the timbre of the earthbound first act is quiet, even calm, as the adults adapt to or just ignore the intensifying hostility of their surroundings in order to provide for their children a comfortable existence.
Murph is daddy’s girl, a restless, red-haired intelligence nurtured by Cooper’s attention and playful humor. The rapport between father and daughter is sweet and just strong enough that their estrangement, once Professor Brand (Michael Caine) recruits Cooper, a former pilot, to lead an expedition through a wormhole adjacent to Saturn in search for hospitable planets, sets the emotional stakes for the rest of the film. With Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), the professor’s daughter, Doyle (Wes Bentley), Romilly (David Gyasi) and a sarcastic A.I. system named TARS (Bill Irwin) that uploads the comic relief of HAL 9000 into the shape of The Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cooper sets off, determined, of course, to find a new home and return to his own.
Interstellar is as flawed as Hollywood tent-poles come. It’s worth noting that Nolan’s style has long been one of the most compromised in the business, eschewing narrative concision for verbosity at every turn yet resorting to flat, recycled compositions to constrain actors hired to talk and talk and once in awhile act. That he and his brother Jonathan, who co-wrote the screenplay, so waste John Lithgow by sitting him down on a porch to listen to McConaughey spoon-feed purple prose (“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”) in static medium shots not once but twice should mandate a budget cut of 90 percent for their next film, with Lithgow and, I don’t know, Sigourney Weaver as leads.
This visual and verbal blandness carries over into space, where the razzle-dazzle you’re paying for sits next to a lot of shots of astronauts sitting around espousing the themes or else questions of their movie. Of the half-dozen people I have spoken to about this, not one has failed to mention Amelia’s speech about how love “transcends time and space,” or mock vomit while doing so. During one of the protracted sequences that cross-cuts between the astronauts quarreling and Cooper’s now grown-up children (more on that in a bit) back home for no purpose other than to remind you how little use the latter have in the plot, I wrote in my notes, “This is bad. How bad?”
Yet since watching Interstellar to its completion and mulling over it quite a bit, I have taken a softer tone. This is not cohesive or exemplary filmmaking, not at all, but a bunch of moments in it land, moments that define Cooper and present him to us without pretense. In an atypically understated scene, we learn that Cooper walks around the cabin listening to sounds of rain, thunder and chirping birds, an ambience that calms Romilly and reminds us of the simple pleasures (and completely unique ecosystems) they are fighting to preserve.
For the stakes here are devastating, are they not? Cooper not only faces the easy possibility of never seeing his children again but also, by exploring planets where time elapses at a slower rate (the relativity physics of which the film attempts to explain many, many times), of seeing them die before him. A parent’s worst nightmare, and Cooper grieves over those lost moments in one of the most affecting scenes in any blockbuster, ever. It’s the rare full stop in a movie that runs for almost three hours and yet always seems to be in a rush, and it cuts through all the talk of multiple dimensions and “quantum data” to get the heart of our heroes’ and Nolan’s endeavor.
For while he has gained a devoted (I’d say too devoted) following for his so-called “heady” themes and tricky narrative structures, Nolan has always been a closet sentimentalist, obsessed with dead family members mainly wives) and wringing these clichés for all the male angst, guilt and mopey faces they are worth. Here, at last, he has made an old-school tearjerker that starkly, painfully illustrates the new-school science of his plot through an intimate family drama that should resonate with just about anyone.
The trouble with Interstellar, then, is that it does not know how simple it is. The tension between inspiring awe and explaining that awe — a tension no doubt enforced by studio executives and the loathsome bunch that judges fiction for its scientific veracity — deflates a fascinating scene in the last act, where Cooper explores some Inception-like impossible architecture and refuses to stop postulating as to its origins. Kubrick, the obvious precedent, let his mysteries just sit there, unnervingly silent, and the legacy of Interstellar will be a short one for wrapping up all its loose ends so neatly and anxiously.
Yet as much as this film wears an unearned intelligence on its sleeve, it is still about a man who is not a thinker but a doer. No matter how much the directing or writing may saddle the purity of that man’s struggle, Cooper’s farm-grown charm carries him through a wormhole and pulls us in with him. Perhaps it’s only fitting that he comes face to face with the secrets of the universe and can hardly contain his excitement, for he holds the instinctive assumption that he must share these stories with his children, in due time.
3 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, November 7, 2014

John Wick Review

John Wick
Directed by Chad Stahelski and David Leitch
Released in 2014

John Wick is the best action movie of the year and living, throbbing proof that great directing can enrich just about anything. The auteurs responsible are Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, two veteran stunt actors whose talents perfectly suit Derek Kolstad’s terse screenplay and testify to the artistic imperative of getting more men and women of their training behind the camera. They do not just choreograph and shoot action scenes with preternatural intelligence and grace — really, only Snowpiercer from this year comes close, and forget anything from Marvel — but they also toe the line in depicting violence as both a beautifully intricate and deeply inhuman act.
Keanu Reeves stars as the man with the flammable name, and sure enough it doesn’t take long for him to go off. In the opening minutes, his wife dies from cancer, and the only respite from his grief arrives in a pet carrier — an adorable beagle and special note wait inside. Just as normalcy creeps back into John’s life, a trio of Russian thugs, led by Iosef (Alfie Allen), break into his house to beat him up, steal his ’69 Mustang and, you guessed it, kill that poor puppy. That is more than enough to let him loose, for John turns out to be equipped with a particular set of skills, skills that make him a nightmare for people like Iosef and the New York-based crime syndicate run by his father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist, fantastic). One of the film’s biggest laughs, among many, comes at the precise moment, via a reaction shot, when Viggo realizes who his son has messed with.
Unlike sadist pulp like Game of Thrones — whose Theon Greyjoy plays Iosef — John Wick does not linger on the dog slaying or any of the ensuing deaths after: I was surprised how quick they passed, how Stahelski and Leitch knew they would land an R-rating and yet still showed restraint. While the carnage can rightfully be described, and praised, as insane, the style that frames it is, by today’s standards, anything but. Good luck trying to spot any discernible CGI, which likely was used to add bullet holes and entry wounds but not to, say, topple buildings or disfigure characters beyond belief, à la Only God Forgives. With their focus on blocking, lighting and capturing gunplay for maximum coherence, Stahelski and Leitch emerge with entertainment that doubles as art, by sheer virtue of its formal excellence.
This excellence carries over to scenes of dialogue, which the directors fill with as much dynamic and telling character business as possible. When Viggo meets Iosef for the first time since learning of his attack on John, the stern father walks toward his son with a tumbler of brandy in his hand. Instead of just handing it to him, Viggo walks deliberately into his son’s space so he must amble backwards, cowed by his father’s gestures but, at that point, oblivious as to why. Then he delivers a punch straight to the gut. This is not a dumb movie: The psychology of these characters is there, just left unspoken and embedded in the way they move.
John Wick also deals exposition without ever treating it like exposition, or at least how we have come to expect it to be with the ubiquity of origins stories these days (The upcoming Kingsman: The Secret Service might as well throw in the towel now). Reeves’ protagonist has a history in this world of crime, we learn, but Stahelski and Leitch translate that history and that world through spaces, nods, smiles. After dispatching a dozen masked hitmen with startling ease, John answers a silhouette lit by red-and-blue lights at his front door. “Hi Jimmy,” John greets the cop. “You working again?” Jimmy asks, peering past John at a corpse splayed across his foyer. “No, I’m just sorting stuff out,” John replies, to which Jimmy is content and says, “Okay John, good night.”
This criminal underworld of codes, corruption and gold coins belongs in an art movie like Blue Velvet, but the sobriety with which the filmmakers explore it here carries a pretty clever critique of capitalism. Elites in the assassin business, played by Willem Dafoe, Ian McShane and Clarke Peters (The Wire), welcome John back into The Continental, a criminal racket that fronts as luxury hotel, with grins, and they are actually sincere. So long as you stick to “the code,” which means following through with your word and withholding all feeling. John, in his machine-like way of killing and assuring no collateral damage, proves to be the apotheosis of this code and therefore its perfect enemy. Near the end, Viggo laughs at John’s umpteenth return from the grave, and it is a laugh at his own collusion in John’s perfection.
But John Wick is not a great movie because it has meaning — this so-called commentary is all incidental. It is great because it is some of the richest cinema my eyes have enjoyed this year. The music slays, too, like when Kaleida’s “Think” bops on the soundtrack while John slowly plunges a knife into a dude’s chest. I struggle to think of another movie with such a dire look at humanity that I so eagerly look forward to seeing again.
4 Stars Out of 5
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

You're Liking It Wrong

‘Tis the season for best-of-year list-making to once again consume the minds of tastemakers, both actual and wannabe. For us clammy, opinionated few in the Sun arts section, that means a lot of time murmuring, alone, at a shared GoogleDoc spreadsheet, worrying why FlyLo’s “Never Catch Me” is not on every ballot and casting shade at everyone else’s taste through snarky comments and Tim & Eric GIFs.

That explains my experience, at least. Truth is, all this antagonizing comes from a playful place, not from any legitimate, swirling anger directed toward the tastes of my peers. Part of this ease stems from my acceptance, sometime over the last two years, that there is no “Best” anything, especially when decided en masse. Midway through last awards season, when movies become racehorses and cease to be seen as art, New York Times film critic A.O. Scott observed, “Criticism rests on the independence and integrity of the singular.” Words I can live by.

With the power to judge works on a personal level comes the profound yet, in this clickbaitian epoch, devalued responsibility to respect the opinions of others. I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true, and it requires a few more words to unpack. So let me first backtrack and pose a new question: Is it possible to take issue with someone who likes a movie that you do but for totally different, and therefore wrong, reasons?

In short: Yes, you most certainly can, you definitely should and this should not come as a surprise to any of you. One of the more implicit and important lessons to a humanities education comes in the recognition that there are not just other people in the world but other minds, too, all equally vast and treacherous. That is humbling to admit, and crucial to remember until the day you die, but it does not mean we should keep quiet. Every person is a precious flower, yeah yeah, but growth stems from these little intellectual quarrels, when we form an argument addressed at a formidable friend or foe and secretly, unconsciously hope his or her retort is good enough to keep the volley going.

You think The Grand Budapest Hotel is just a barrel of laughs and pastel colors? I’d say you missed a great deal of sadness, fascist metaphor and meta-commentary on the iterability of storytelling. Boyhood is “relatable” and nothing more? I’d say it’s an upsetting depiction of the ways we both change and fail to change, or even retain agency, over time and how our messy lives never fit into neat narrative arcs. Non-Stop and Lucy are trash and thus worthless? Well … you should know where I stand on those two by now.

Of course, no one else shares my takes on every film. Not because mine are right or better than anyone else’s, but because they are influenced by my own subjective experience, which is something I have elaborated on a couple times this semester. I have put in the time to develop what I hope are rigorous and interesting readings of a great deal of films, yet I recognize that these readings coexist with a million different others. Just because I say something specific about, say, the tracking shots in 2001: A Space Odyssey does not cancel out, in my eyes, the validity of an opposing interpretation.

I hope others think I’m “getting at something” or that I’m “right on the money” with my piece on [insert film here], but deep down I know any supposedly perfect review could be countered by a perfectly reasonable alternative written from a different frame of reference. I still own what I believe in, and I will defend my position with fire if required, but I’m not going to lose sleep because one friend or the Tomatometer disagrees. All I have in this world is my taste, which is true only to me no matter how adamantly I believe otherwise, but I’ll do my best to sustain the illusion with a marvelous grace.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here

Friday, October 31, 2014

Dear White People Review

Dear White People
Directed by Justin Simien
Released in 2014

The title is what it is just to get you talking, and hopefully paying. Dear White People is a far more diplomatic, unguarded and ideologically adrift movie than its name or the thousands of defensive (and racist) comments below its YouTube trailer may imply.

This movie arrives at a time when issues of social justice, and the intersection of those issues, has finally, it seems, reached the mainstream, and writer-director Justin Simien packs so much of this political zeitgeist into his debut that it can be said to be, sight unseen, The Movie for Our Time. But while some of its strands wobble or else lapse into polemics, Dear White People assumes a freewheeling, even self-effacing pose in the face of this responsibility, for it knows it is a thoroughly college movie, in both subject and style.

In this film, the world entirely exists on the campus of Winchester University, a sprawl of gothic architecture and manicured landscape bound to be familiar to any Ivy League student. The student body is a white one, with exceptions, of course. We follow four of these exceptions: Biracial activist and filmmaker Sam White (Tessa Thompson); Troy (Brandon P. Bell), suave president of the predominantly black Armstrong Parker House and son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert, excellent); Colandera “Coco” Chanders (Teyonah Parris), a South Side girl with an outsize personality she is pitching to a reality TV producer; and budding writer Lionel Higgens (Tyler James Williams), who is timidly gay and sports a gnarly afro that, in his words, doubles as “a black hole for white people’s fingers.”

Sam hosts the titular radio show, where she addresses the pale majority with such proclamations as, “Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” On top of everything else she is doing, like making the whiteface satire “Rebirth of a Nation” for her film major, Sam runs for president of the Armstrong Parker House on the platform to “Bring Black Back,” though she perhaps has ulterior motives because Troy is an old flame. Surprisingly, she wins, and her outspoken, self-segregating reforms exile the bratty Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), who is naturally the university’s president son, as well as the soft-spoken Lionel and lead to mounting conflict with the administration, her peers and eventually herself.

But enough of plot — Dear White People elaborates itself more through minute human interactions than through its overarching plot, which it only debatably has. All the aforementioned characters have face time with one another, sometimes in lecture halls and other times in bed. In case the poster and trailer have not made it clear, this is a sexy movie, with attractive people filmed under expressive, not necessarily realistic lighting set-ups. Simien has an eye and ear for sensitive interaction, which notably does not survive in the political arena, even on a college campus.

If this film gets at one of its issues with something resembling clarity, it’s not race, though the treatment of it is revealing and often hilarious. (Like when a huddle of black students browbeats a movie theater cashier over Tyler Perry stereotypes, the film sympathizes with their pent-up frustrations but pokes fun at the misdirection of their discourse.) What Dear White People handles with grace is the interrelated question of identity, and how with all the options and tolerance we cherish today, that question remains daunting. Through wardrobe and hairstyle changes, Sam and Coco take pains to present a truthful version of themselves to the world. Troy struggles to find a balance between appeasing his father and honing his own assertive voice, though that tension is quite clichéd, now isn’t it.

It is Lionel where much of the film’s, and undoubtedly Simien’s, sympathies lie, for he is the most resistant to classification. Like a ronin of questionable skill, Lionel wanders from the dean’s office to Armstrong Parker to the campus newspaper to Pastiche, the humor magazine, victim of Kurt’s homophobic hazing at the latter location and receiving little empathy at the rest. The film forfeits points for veracity by presenting each of these locations as walled-off institutions with strict barriers for entry when in actuality, I don’t know, campus institutions are looser than that, I think? (How else did I get in this paper all those years ago?) Institutions can be as lackadaisical as the people working for them, but a stylized film like this has to cut corners somewhere. So against his stuck-up, careerist or else inhumanly confident peers, Lionel stands out as a relatable and unpredictable work in progress.

Because Simien is black and his movie stars a multi-racial ensemble cast and ends with a race riot (here, in response to a student party featuring blackface), the parlor game of influences will draw us to Spike Lee and, specifically, Do the Right Thing. The comparison is apt, since both movies track multiple characters that encounter prejudice, in its many forms, and alternately ignore, laugh at or lash out against it. But as Sam’s boyfriend guilts her into remembering, “Your favorite director is Bergman but you tell everyone Spike Lee.” Indeed, you can see some Ingmar Bergman in the way two lovers’ faces overlap and are draped in shadow during a post-coital scene, as well as some Wes Anderson in the font and shot symmetry and some Kubrick, circa Barry Lyndon, in the painterly frames that capture ennui at Pastiche headquarters.

There are even a few times when the camera zooms in, slowly and during innocuous moments, like when Troy and his girlfriend (Brittany Curran) scale a set of stairs. That’s a move out of the Robert Altman playbook, another director mentioned here by name, and I’m not sure it’s a wise one. In fact, with Satie, Swan Lake and “Für Elise” on the soundtrack, Simien indulges in the kind of on-the-nose music and visual mixtapes you’d expect from a precocious college student. But for some reason I like that approach, because it’s honest and fitting for the setting. Like the characters in his movie, Simien is still working through his influences to emerge with a voice of his own. That voice right now may be more prolix than clear, but it’s exciting for what it’s trying to say as well as how it’s saying it, and in the world of American independent film, you can ask for little more.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Loving and Hating, But on Whose Terms?

In all worthwhile criticism, two inclinations are always at war, and they are humility and vigilance. Too much humility precludes the ability to say anything at all, while excessive vigilance almost always reads as petty after the blood has cooled. Being discerning but fair and above all curious demands a balance, which seems feasible until you’re faced with the question: Do you judge a movie on your terms or its own?

In other words: Do you evaluate a movie for what it does do or for what, in your lowly opinion, it should do? Do you place it against the exemplary works of its own genre and judge accordingly, or do you have the right to rebuke a whole genre, a whole mode of filmmaking, for violating principles you yourself set? These are questions with answers that vary on a case-by-case basis, but like Ready to Die versus Illmatic and sexual preference, you tend to lean one way or the other.

I’ve gotten to the point where I embrace my power to set the terms of engagement. By that, I mean I don’t watch a movie now and give it a thumbs-up or down depending on how successfully and seamlessly it “does its job.” Instead, I see my job, when writing a review, to track down missed opportunities in a movie, moments of shallowness or cheapness that are often reinforced by the codes of genre and narrative. And when a movie connects, the priority is not to judge it against its generic peers but rather for the revelations it touches upon by breaking expectations, by doing what it should not do.

Let me clarify with an example. Over the weekend, I saw that other Brad Pitt World War II movie, Fury. It’s brutal, draining and unequivocally “well-done,” my friend and fellow Sun columnist, Julia Moser ’15, and I agreed. About halfway through, the battlefield carnage halts for a 20-minute interlude in an apartment that two soldiers, played by Pitt and Logan Lerman, have entered with the intent of raping the female occupants. Things complicate from there, and through facial expressions, pregnant pauses and the use of space, the scene vivisects a much less gory, but more entrenched form of male violence.

The movie surprised me there, for its commitment to exploring sexual violence at the expense of on-screen action or spectacle. That’s something not many war movies dare to do, and I give Fury credit for trying. It’s too bad the movie ends with one of those airheaded stand-offs that glorifies the valor in mowing down as many Nazis as possible. It shoots itself in the foot by obeying and so ferociously embracing the “last stand” scene intrinsic to so many war movies instead of subverting that trope in some way. The ending was “well-done,” no doubt, but far and away the stupidest part of the film.

So I reject Fury’s reality and substitute it with my own — or something like that. I don’t care for the “the acting was good, that plot twist was dumb” kind of pseudo-criticism that stays within a movie’s world and makes no effort to bridge it with our own. That line of thinking, or lack thereof, assumes that no film exploits, cash-grabs or, worst of all, panders. Lord, to think of all the pandering we’ll soon slog through with Oscar season now upon us. Time to flex that vigilance I mentioned before, for no matter how polished every Blackfish or Philomena may be, we all have the right, and distinct pleasure, to call bullshit.

This disparity between what is “well-done” and what is actually interesting to each of us, on a personal level, has been reinforced by the illusion that there is any difference between “favorite” and “best.” We lie when we say, “That is the best movie of the year,” yet we feel no personal connection to it, no urge to think it over or watch it again. “Best” most often esteems the “white elephants” in the room, Manny Farber’s term for those lumbering films with loud artistic or thematic aspirations, which are often unpleasing, unimaginative and overlong. The idea that we can objectively judge works of art, as so many gamers insist when a critic entertains a feminist reading instead of just sticking to the “gameplay,” perpetuates a borderline fascistic, anti-intellectual and above all boring culture.

Let your taste carry you, through all the cultures and all the genres. It’s really the only way to open yourself up to surprise after watching hundreds and thousands of movies. I’m guilty of not rushing to see Frances Ha last year because I anticipated just another ditzy indie comedy. When I finally saw it at Cornell Cinema, I couldn’t shake it, and my instincts urged me to keep that opinion to myself because this was, after all, just another ditzy indie comedy and not worth serious attention.

But no, Frances Ha is a masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it because it is a judgment forged in my soul. It is in turns the funniest and saddest movie of last year, for its depiction of melancholia is all but unspoken, maybe even unrecognized by Greta Gerwig’s protagonist. I ranked it alongside heavyweights like The Act of Killing and 12 Years a Slave in my “Best of 2013” list, and if I could do it again I’d rank it higher. Frances Ha obliterates any expectations of its genre through its command of cinema and its intimate understanding of what it is to be human, and for doing all that in a way that speaks to me, it’s simply my job to meet it with awe.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Last Days in Vietnam Review

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.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When Story Is Not Enough

“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, 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?

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Real Estate Concert Review

Real Estate
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.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, September 26, 2014

A Walk Among the Tombstones Review

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.

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Aphex Twin: Syro Review

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.

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

How to Read a Movie

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.