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