Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Immigrant Review

The Immigrant
Directed by James Gray
Released in 2014

A title like The Immigrant, announced in large, white-on-black text that bookends the first and last frames of the film, casts a wide net. America is a nation of immigrants, we are told, and so a movie with such a bold, generic name should aspire to convey that common experience. Thick accents, obscure diseases, the Statue of Liberty. The Immigrant has all that, as would your Hallmark movie or Oscar-tuned period piece. But what makes The Immigrant a great film — certainly a highlight of the year so far, especially amid this artistically bankrupt season — is how it so studiously and tenderly trains it focus on its suffering protagonist. She does not stand in for some broad concept of the archetypal American immigrant; she is only herself, and a tormented, fully realized person full of contradictions she is.

Ewa Cybulski (Marion Cotillard) arrives at Ellis Island after a long voyage from Poland. It is 1921, and the Great War wasted her country and family. All she has is her sister, Magda (Angela Sarafyan), and even then not for long, since Magda looks ill from the moment we first see her and the callous doctors there herd her along into quarantine. Only five minutes in, Ewa has already felt hope and suffered loss, a cycle that will recur throughout the film. We catch a quick shot of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix) eyeing Ewa from afar, and so we know why he swoops in to sponsor her, before the officials can deport her. The high of finding a friend, with money and resources, gives way to unease when he shames her into dancing at his cabaret club and, quietly but insistently, coerces her into prostitution.

The conflict of this film boils down to a modern woman trying to survive in pre-modern times. To paraphrase Amy Poehler, no one plans on being a prostitute. Before she hits the pillow her first night in Bruno’s apartment, Ewa instinctively grabs a blade from a coal bucket by her bed. The camera follows this movement so naturally, smoothly that we immediately grasp Ewa’s history, fear and sense of self-worth — no dialogue necessary. Ewa stands erect, alert, with her arms to her sides and eyes darting from face to face. She does not enter America fooling herself that she has now found peace; she arms herself from the beginning. As both Bruno and the girls in his company push her to loosen up, and as she faces a steep price to save her ailing sister, she begins to drop her guard. She loses herself in absinthe and sees an advantage in returning Bruno’s clammy gestures of courtship. She opens herself up, and yet she is adamant when she says, “I am not nothing,” to a kowtowing prostitute. Marrying agency with prosperity — in her situation, with her acquaintances, with her looks — is a quixotic dream.

If this all sounds sad, know that the movie is, yeah, quite sad. But it’s not cheap, nor is it fake. Director James Gray (We Own the Night) takes cues from melodrama but restrains himself. Chris Spelman’s emotional score stays quiet, never drowning a moment. Cinematographer Darius Khondji (Amour, Midnight in Paris) absorbs all the rich period detail before him with filmic grain and lots of haze, not unlike Bruno Delbonnel’s work on Inside Llewyn Davis last year. But Gray never force-feeds us this beauty or makes, say, an establishing shot of Manhattan’s Lower East Side an event in itself. Many bustling shots that ostensibly required a lot of planning last no longer than a couple seconds. I am reminded of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, or at least what the great critic Dave Kehr said of it: “A brief glance is all we are given of a particular composition, and then Malick is off to something else, rarely granting us the leisure to contemplate and assimilate the images he puts before us.” Here, this briskness affords this two-hour film a tremendous pace, which never sags and does not seem to waste a frame. Most importantly, this inspired editing style, executed by John Axelrad and Kayla Emter, burrows us into Ewa’s head: The color, noise and stench of the city overpower her, but she can’t be bothered. She’s got other matters to sort out.

Marion Cotillard has long been a captivating screen presence and her Ewa may just be her most lived-in performance yet. There is a moment of transcendence when Ewa, in centered close-up, pours her soul out to a priest during confession. Either the camera lifts slightly up or she drops her head slightly down, but even as we see less of her face and all the business on it, her voice gains volume and we sense all that latent strength inside. The camera flirts with a god’s point of view before returning to its original, centered composition. This incredible cinematic moment takes a stereotypical sign of weakness — a woman baring herself, sins and all — and redirects it back to Ewa, for her to re-affirm her right to happiness without a god thumbing his nose in disapproval. This is how a film earns its sincerity.

With his co-star from The Master no longer with us, Joaquin Phoenix has a claim to the throne of greatest living (and working) actor. “Damaged” is a word applicable to almost any performance of his, and here we are reminded also of how unpredictable he can be. Like Paul Thomas Anderson, Gray lets him move around the frame or else follow him with tracking shots. He explodes one moment and drops to a forlorn whisper the next. Bruno Weiss reminds me of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, in how Phoenix enchants us to sympathize with a psychopath, even while we are fully aware of how manipulative and violent he can be. Bruno, like all memorable literary characters, is complicated.

Bruno’s rage contrasts with the romantic ease of Emil (Jeremy Renner), a handsome magician who falls for Ewa when he firsts see her and throws a life raft, to a perfect life, her way. But where a sappy film would raise him as some angel next to Bruno the brute, Emil boasts in the face of his enemies and believes his own pathological lies. Most worryingly, he never asks Ewa for her input on really anything at all, and certainly not on their plan to run away together to the west. He promises a paradise only possible in his head, an ideal conglomeration of the American Dream and Manifest Destiny that this film patiently, and never snobbishly, disowns.

Ewa will go down as a classic character of the movies. The America before her presents an abundance of options: it’s just that they all seem to barrel down to similar outcomes. Life with Bruno, or life with Emil? That’s not really the question here. She just wants to be happy, something she vocalizes at one point, something we are not sure is even possible. But The Immigrant is open, alive and humble enough that none of this comes across as doom-and-gloom cynicism. It closes with one of those staggeringly perfect final shots, the particulars I will leave for you to discover. Know that it, in my mind, aspires to depict the Heraclitus aphorism that “the path up and down are one and the same.” It surrenders to interpretation, and it is a rare thing when a film can leave so much unfinished and still seal a silencing, spiritual closure.

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 here.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Tropical Malady Review

This is an essay I wrote on Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Tropical Malady, a movie I liked so much that this critical analysis sounds more like a laudatory review, by its end.

An Almost Fatal Spell of Tropical Malady

I prefer the films that put their audience to sleep in the theater. I think those films are kind enough to allow you a nice nap and not leave you disturbed when you leave the theater. Some films have made me doze off in the theater, but the same films have made me stay up at night, wake me up thinking about them in the morning, and keep on thinking about them for weeks. Those are the kinds of films I like.” — Abbas Kiarostami

I like – love – Kiarostami, so I agree with the sentiment behind this quote. I do not think it is a stretch to apply it to the work of Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and his 2004 film Tropical Malady. Watching it late at night on a comfy loveseat, I cannot deny the soporific quality to a soldier’s wordless journey through a dreary jungle, where rain falls and canopy dwellers drone on and on across a hypnotic aural ambiance. But because this is the second half of the film, following the loose if still narrative-bound and cliché-ridden love story of the first half, this slog does not need to make sense or be exciting to move us terribly, ineffably, irrevocably. The juxtaposition between orthodox tale of courtship and mystical, lyrical allegory affects the viewer on a subconscious level, where the associations can stay and fester and grow in significance for days and weeks after first viewing. That it does without analyzing it, reading it. So while it is not the most natural endeavor to break a movie like this down, paying attention to its visual form and parallels in narrative helps translate a hard-to-place but unforgettable experience into powerful, lasting lessons.

Tropical Malady opens with a scene of merriment, of soldiers smiling and taking proto-selfies. The camera adopts a handheld point of view akin to some unseen participant in the moment. It does not tilt downward so much as walk back a step or two to catch a glimpse of a flailing arm attached to what we realize is most definitely a corpse. A dissonance between emotion and context hits us, and we are not sure how to really react. The falseness of the human face — how it can never convey what we feel within — comes up again and again throughout the film, especially whenever two make eye contact. In that absence, Apichatpong finds truth in nature, landscape and, most crucially, juxtaposition. The film cuts from this embodied perspective to an extreme long shot of the soldiers traversing the heath, corpse in tow. The considerable duration of this shot, as well as its distance, stillness and sonic quietude, allows us to process the soldiers’ demoralizing actions just prior. A naked man, alone, stalks the brush not far away. From the very beginning, we know that things are not as they seem.

The human smile, an icon of romantic cinema, betrays its emptiness in Tropical Malady. When the soldiers eat dinner at Tong’s family house, one of them eyes his sister with blatant intent. She returns the gaze with a suggestive licking of her spoon. Mother looks from man to daughter in disbelief, and we giggle because we know, as she does, that these two aren’t thinking of love —they want something easier. Meanwhile, the film’s protagonist, Keng, looks up to the sky as he occupies the lowest fringes of the frame, and then he does something odd: he looks at us. Well, maybe just over the camera lens, but he seems to enlist us, somehow, in this encounter. This reading only gains more traction with the next shot, of Tong, in profile, averting Keng’s eyes and looking awkward while doing it. We can attest to the intimacy of Keng’s gaze, and Tong avoids it not just because he is shy or confused about his orientation or whatever — he avoids it because he does not think there’s any substance behind that focused stare. Keng is not for real, right now, he thinks. Do not forget that Tong walks around with a forced mask of a smile for most of his screen time, a smile he sticks with because it beats nothing. He sure feels something warm inside when he spends time with Keng — their romance is real — even if that feeling does not come across on his face. But the condescending way he sniffs Keng’s hand, later, and licks it after Keng’s sincere sign of affection, and proceeds to exit the whole movie, confirms Tong’s distrust in genuine, loving two-way contact.

This distrust in intimacy as a sign of love — and, by extension, the existence of true love, itself — emerges as the film’s primary thematic struggle. On first viewing, I may have missed some nuances of the jungle-set half, but I know it culminates in that arresting shot reverse shot sequence between Keng and the tiger. Sensing that the tiger in the tree is a reincarnation of Tong, with the same memories and feelings for him (“I miss you, soldier”), Keng quivers at the sight. His one hand trembles with a knife, while the other shines a flashlight on the tiger’s face, so that Keng can study Tong’s gaze now, in his atavistic form, so direct and uncompromising. The tables have turned, with Tiger-Tong as sincere, to a prelapsarian degree, and Keng as conflicted. Tiger-Tong forces him to play in the gamble that is love, where committing oneself to another requires the destruction of the self, in hopes that it will sublimate to some higher unity. 

Is true love not so? If your devotion is serious, you will embrace your lover not only physically but spiritually: in an intertwining of your mind and soul with his or hers. Baring yourself in such a vulnerable way can lead you to a divine plane of existence, or it could leave you a mess of body parts and shredded clothing in the corner of some tiger’s den. Either way, it is your choice. Either way, you must destroy to create something better. Keng wrestles with this paradox, to some extent, for he bows to the tiger with the words, “Monster, I give you my spirit, my flesh and my memories.” 

Monster. Tiger-Tong returns Keng’s gaze with the severity that long eluded him and Keng responds by calling him a monster. Only a monster could demand such sacrifice. The rest of us are upright and civilized, and have no clue what he means. Thankfully we have this film, for us, in our seated solitude, to tap into and discover, through the irreducible language of cinema, the stakes, beauty and music of human connection. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Talkin' World War III Blues in Kurosawa's Ran

This is an essay I wrote for a class I took on Shakespeare adaptations. I talk about Akira Kurosawa's unlikely modernization of King Lear via Ran.

Like any non-English adaptation of Shakespeare, Ran has both the privilege and the heavy burden to use the original text as a chassis, not a blueprint. Instead of translating King Lear’s verse to Japanese or condensing the plot to CliffNotes, Akira Kurosawa’s film reimagines the story in a country that has taken part in and suffered the most horrific practices of warfare. While the medieval setting may lend credence to Ben Jonson’s oft-mentioned praise of Shakespeare, that “He was not of an age, but for all time,” Ran derives much of its import from its context. Looking back on the Second World War that Kurosawa lived through, the film condemns the violence of the modern world through advanced, often overwhelming filmmaking techniques.

If King Lear can be boiled down to the idea that the will to power usurps family commitment and basic decency, then Ran goes so far to say that the will to power, and the entrenched systems of power built atop it, breed pure chaos. This theme comes to the fore when Tango, the Kent equivalent, offers provisions to Hidetora, the Lear figure, and his men. In a medium shot, Tango bows before him, hoping to make peace, and raises his eyes after enduring an awkward silence. Instead of cutting to a medium shot of Hidetora, via a typical shot reverse shot sequence, the film frustrates us with an extreme long shot. On the far right of the widescreen frame, Tango continues to raise his head while on the far left, Hidetora stares down the hill, his body frozen like a statue. He does not seem to be processing Tango’s charity. Two umbrellas in the foreground roughly split the frame into thirds, and their presence brings to mind the heat punishing Hidetora’s bald scalp at the moment. The delirious, desiccated Hidetora holds the most tenuous nominal authority over this gathering, and this extreme long shot shrinks him to actual scale. 

Yet Hidetora still has power, for a little longer, on this otherwise beautiful, cloudless day. Those subordinates kneeling on the brittle white gravel look to him, worried by his silence, while miles of forest stretch across the background. Kurosawa’s meticulous framing does not hide the natural splendor of this setting, a huge contrast from Peter Brook’s austere adaptation, but it also stresses the heat and void and lifelessness of this anti-oasis where the humans reside. The obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki informs this composition and the greater film, where death can be felt before the armies, with their arquebuses and cannons, enter the scene. In the famous sequence of painterly carnage soon after this scene, these forces destroy not only Hidetora’s men but each other, along with their codes of honor. When Hidetora, here on the gravel, waves his hand and rashly orders the destruction of a peasant village, and the blurs of soldier bodies whiz by in front of his face, he perpetuates this chaos, even if, and especially because, he is too oblivious and senile to grasp the consequences of such action. He bombs his own people when one gifts him food, practically razing all circles of life to the ground. This is a film sadly indebted to World War II and its paranoid Cold War legacy. 

The weight of war only hits Hidetora after Tango breaks the news that his son, Taro, decreed that anyone who assists him will be executed. Hidetora collapses onto his seat, and even in a medium shot, we can feel the unbearable anguish that fills his face. He sits there for over thirty seconds processing this information, that his child has sentenced him to death, and instead of asking us to “make sense” of this revelation and Hidetora’s reaction to it, the film floods its soundtrack with the shrill calls of birds. The film calls this what it is: chaos. The sonic dissonance speaks to the cognitive dissonance in Hidetora’s mind, at this moment, and the sheer volume of these clashing noises attempts to give voice to entropy, the most ineffable of phenomena. Kurosawa’s sound design graduates from monaural, 1950s art house minimums to overpowering, crippling stereo. It is fitting that the film uses this modern technology to assault its audience’s ears, to commit violence against them. In Ran, everything that can be used as a weapon is, from arrows to words to gestures to recording microphones. 

This scene leads into the film’s centerpiece, the Third Castle massacre, where sound cannot do justice to the bloodshed on-screen and, so, the film dives into abstraction. Toru Takemitsu’s score pairs corpses and soon-to-be corpses with elegiac accompaniment. The spattering blood resembles that of a Goya painting, especially under the hazy, somber quality of the lighting. No one enjoys a dignified death: soldiers splay their arms, fall on the arrows piercing their backs and get trampled by horses. The film does not center its violence in one location but emphasizes its omnipresence. For instance, a centered shot of a tower burning, with a corpse hanging over the bannister, cuts to a long shot of enemy forces galloping past the tower, which is now only visible in the background. From here, an extreme long shot of the fortress’ destruction shows a glimpse of the burning tower, obscured by haze, in the far distance. Finally, the film cuts to a shot of another tower, where Hidetora’s few remaining soldiers are fired upon, with their backs to the camera, by a line of enemy infantryman in the background. The scale of this massacre is massive. Hidetora’s men and women, implicit in their leader’s savage colonialist past, cannot hide from the agents of mass destruction now raining down on them.

Neither this scene nor the other is analogous to any scene from the King Lear text. Ran stakes out its own artistic territory by building off and tweaking the themes of that play. It is a film fearful of a world obsessed with destruction, where the will to power carries with it a drive toward death. It is a film that judges Lear’s famous plea, “I am a man / More sinned against than sinning,” with the derisive laughs it deserves (III.2.57-8).