LOOKING and GIRLS

January 26, 2014

I’m looking forward to the second episode of the HBO series Looking later tonight because I liked the first episode enough to give the series a solid shot to make my weekly rotation.

Airing right after Girls, Looking seems in some ways like the antithesis of Lena Dunham’s show. This story of a group of gay men, close friends living in San Francisco, features an uncommon tenderness in terms of premium channel narrative and an appealing softness aesthetically.

While Looking may not take chances and push boundaries like Girls, at least not so far, I can use a respite from the self-absorption, unacknowledged privilege, and neurotic antics of Hannah and her cohort.

On the other hand, if I want to remain part of the cultural conversation swirling around the Millennials and to stay relevant to my own students, I have to stick with Girls and hope for some interesting character arcs and useful insights to emerge.

Looking


More on HER

January 26, 2014

It’s not often that I have the inclination or the time to see a movie more than once, especially when it is in theatrical release. Her, as you know if you read the previous post, is an exception.

I have a deep appreciation for this movie and wanted a chance to view it again and see if there are new insights to glean. It turns out that I loved what I liked the first time around and still loved what I loved the second time.

No reason to rehash previously covered ground, but I will add a few comments.

First, it would be possible to dedicate an entire post to color and costuming. Instead, here are a few lines.

When Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) meets the operating system that/who becomes his girlfriend, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), he is wearing a shirt of rosy, hopeful pink bordering on red that suggests hope and the possibility of passion. Not incidentally, it’s the exact same color of Samantha’s screen on the computer.

When things are going well for the couple, this remains Theodore’s signature color. The match is a giveaway – should two people be identically matched? Where’s the mystery in that? A fit is essential, of course, but happily enduring couples are not carbon copies of one another.

Another clue to pay attention to (MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW TO THE END) is that Amy (Amy Adams) is wearing a softer shade of pink the first time her character appears, a shade that complements but does not replicate Theodore’s clothing.

When Theodore exercises caution (see photo below), he wears yellow. When things with Samantha hit a rough patch, he wears blue.

When it is time for him to start all over again, he wears white. Does this represent a blank slate? Does it mark a new starting point from which Theodore might get it right? Let’s hope so.

And, exactly what is it that he needs to change? With pen and paper this time, I wrote down a few quotes in the beautifully written film (you may be a genius, Spike Jonze) that particularly resonated with me the first time I saw it.

The scene that still touches me most is when Theodore first opens up to Samantha and demonstrates an authenticity that he was not able to sustain (if ever established) with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara).

Samantha asks Theodore about his breakup and says, “I want to be as complicated as all these people.” To try to explain what happened, Theodore reveals a level of self-awareness that makes him such an appealing character, “I think I hid myself from her…left her alone in the relationship.”

It is hard for him to move on and sign the divorce papers because, as he shares with Samantha, “I keep waiting to not care about her.” Even though, as Catherine points out in a later scene, “It does make me sad that you can’t handle real emotions, Theodore,” and “You always wanted to have a wife without the challenges of anything real.”

Ouch.

These important insights do not keep Theodore from repeating the pattern again, this time with Samantha, but when the tables are ultimately turned on him and Samantha hides herself, there is a new possibility of empathy with Catherine that he was not capable of before and hope, demonstrated by the letter Theodore writes his ex-wife, that his new level of awareness may make it possible for him to be authentic with a new partner and find a better way forward.

I don’t really see this as a film about humanity and technology but, instead, as a film about learning enough about oneself to engage openly, honestly, and fully with another person.

If you haven’t seen Her yet, make haste to the cinema before it disappears – the cinematography deserves to be seen on the big screen.

Her 2


LONE SURVIVOR

January 25, 2014

It took me awhile, but I finally got around to seeing Lone Survivor, which continues to do brisk business at the box office after four weeks in release.

I’m glad I saw Peter Berg’s latest film, but I can’t do justice to the conversations I’ve had about this film in a little blog post.

First, here’s a brief word on Peter Berg. He appeared on my radar as an actor (and directed an episode) on the late ‘90s television show Chicago Hope. I was impressed with his film Friday Night Lights and even more impressed with the series of the same title, one of my favorites in recent years for reasons regular readers know all too well.

Given his comfort with visceral, masculine storytelling, Lone Survivor falls right into Berg’s wheelhouse. This is the true story of a Navy Seal and his team who set out to capture or kill an al Qaeda leader in the mountains of Afghanistan in 2005. The title of the film makes the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Now, back to those conversations. While I tend to go to the majority of movies I see by myself, sometimes I get to see a movie with someone then enjoy a discussion that expands my thinking on or appreciation of a film or, equally useful, offers something challenging that throws my perspective into sharp relief from other points of view.

Often this happens in my classes, too, which is exciting; learning is one of my favorite parts of teaching.

There are two particularly striking elements of Lone Survivor for me: (1) situations that speak to interpretation and larger meaning and (2) aesthetic choices that speak to perspective.

When two people see a film, it’s never the same film because of the experiences and perspectives they bring into the viewing, which I always think of as the reading of the film text. As I contrast the responses that my friend David and I had to Lone Survivor, I want to be sure to say first that I think we are both “right.”

Most significant for him is the story of a man, Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), who successfully navigates the maturation process. Quoting from an email exchange, “The movie is best viewed from the point of view of the lone survivor. Most war films are about good triumphing over evil. This is a movie about maturing and the stages of self-mastery.”

The stages Luttrell must pass through to advance are honing his skills, waiting until a situation arises to put his skills to the test, and the test itself, which begins in this film with an ethical dilemma arising on the mountainside when the Navy Seals encounter three goat herders, who can blow their cover and compromise the operation. (Since this is shown in the preview trailer, it doesn’t seem like much of a spoiler!) Because Luttrell passes through the stages successfully, he emerges an honorable and mature man.

While I find this reading of the film compelling and persuasive, there is another way of thinking about it that resonates more immediately with me, and it is contextual.

In the scene mentioned above, Luttrell must make an ethical decision to follow the rules of engagement and release the goat herders or to break the rules to save the mission and kill them. As indicated in the preview trailer, the rules of engagement are followed.

Later on, Luttrell must make another decision about whether or not to trust an Afghan who offers him a helping hand. I won’t reveal the details of the plot following, but a theme emerges that speaks to my way of seeing the film as a collective social space with competing factions, complex relationships, and political realities that cut much deeper and more authentically than the short packages presented on the evening news.

While Lone Survivor does celebrate the Navy Seals who suffer and die for their mission, it also complicates the conventional war narrative – a story of “us” and “them” – to demonstrate that some choices about how to live while serving humanity rise above contemporary conflicts.

I have also given a lot of thought to perspective and aesthetics. For me, I tend to prefer a more “realistic” perspective and watched the story unfold from an “objective” point of view without directly identifying with individual characters in this particular film. That being the case, the use of slow motion during some gunfight sequences, a “subjective” technique, took me out of the narrative from time to time.

Clearly mine is a minority opinion on this matter.

David notes that the slow motion is effective for him because life slows down for everyone who has lived through a life or death in situation that they are prepared to face. Discussing the same technique in class, one of my students said that she had read the book upon which the film is based, and that the visualization in the film matched accounts she read.

Several of my students had seen the film before I did and encouraged me to check it out. One student told me that both of her parents were in the military, loved the film because of its realism, and that her mother cried three times when she saw it.

Another student in a different class told me that it made him cry. Curious, I asked him what part of the film elicited this response, and he said the end of the film where Berg presents images of each of the men who died on this operation with their names, biographical information, and stills and clips that show them interacting with their loved ones.

I was struck by this revelation because in the end it was the most realistic portion of the film, strictly speaking, that made him identify with characters in a way he could not deny.

Movies, meaning, and magic…sometimes it all comes together. While this is not one of my personal favorite war films (Platoon still holds the top spot), it is definitely worth seeing and worth discussing with people who can teach you something.

Lone Survivor


Oscar Nominated Shorts — Documentary

January 25, 2014

Don’t you love that theaters are now releasing programs of Oscar nominated shorts before the big awards night? I have had a chance to check out some of the films.

CaveDigger
Ra Paulette digs huge and elaborate caves, and director Jeffrey Karoff is there to document the glory. Paulette digs the caves, many of which look like cathedrals, to become closer to God and to fulfill his aesthetic impulses. This would be enough to sustain a shorter film, a character study devoted to process and purpose, but there is much more here. By also including sequences with his past girlfriend and her partner, with former clients who have commissioned caves, and with Paulette’s wife, Karoff develops a rich and fulfilling narrative about an unusual man who is devoting his life to finding meaning through a singular approach. The film is also beautifully photographed.

Facing Fear
I think the most important thing we can do for others is to be kind. But, I believe the most important thing we can do for ourselves is to embrace forgiveness. Usually slick aesthetic choices put me off in documentaries, but Jason Cohen’s polished production seems to complement this story, one that seems almost too “Hollywood” to be true. A former neo-Nazi and the gay victim of his hate crime meet again years after the attack under extraordinary circumstances and have an opportunity to move past shame, denial, and fear to forge a supportive friendship once one forgives the other and the other forgives himself. Did I mention that this story really does take place in Hollywood? What a lovely film about redemption.

Karama Has No Walls
Watching the Oscar nominated short documentary Karama Has No Walls is difficult not because the film is not worthy – it most certainly is – but because there are no easy answers to age-old problems of abuse of power. The film examines a pivotal point in Yemen’s 2011 uprising, the “Day of Dignity.” Two videographers, survivors of the onslaught, and families of the dead present narratives that are skillfully woven together by director Sara Ishaq to tell the story of that day, a story that deserves to be told. As the film concludes, we learn that the videographers are still shooting, and I am no closer to understanding why horrors like this continue to happen. But, in the meantime, bearing witness is something that needs to be done.

The Lady in Number 6
Alice Herz Sommer, the oldest living Holocaust survivor at 109-years-old, has an inspiring personal story and a personal philosophy that may be profound. When she declares that music is God, her lived experience bears this out, and when she talks about the value of each day, it is hard not to listen more carefully to her testimony than to others. The aesthetic choices made by director Malcolm Clarke feel overwrought, intrusive, and sometimes formulaic to me and undermine rather than reinforce the power of Sommer’s personality and insights.

Coming soon: notes on Oscar nominated animated and narrative shorts!

CaveDigger

Image from CaveDigger.


Get Ready…

January 25, 2014

February sweeps are upon us.

Huffington Post

How about consistently good programming year around? Too much to ask? Seems so.


My Top Ten List for 2013

January 19, 2014

This time of year, I’m usually scrambling to find ten movies that stand out from the year’s viewing as my favorites. This year, on the other hand, the choice has been quite difficult.

Remember the ground rules? These are not what I consider the ten “best” movies of the year but, rather, they are my favorites among those I’ve seen.

In alphabetical order:

Before Midnight — Talking is about revealing, sharing, and binding together for Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy). We watch them fall in love over and over again in ways that loom large and small, but this time there are undercurrents of what is not spoken, and therein reside the tensions that are played out in the first two films in terms of time and distance and played out this time by holding back in Before Midnight. Eventually, circumstances and events drive Jesse and Celine to a hard conversation that they have needed to engage in for a long while but have not found time for amid their complicated daily routines. After sunrise then sunset, reality sets in, but that doesn’t mean the opportunity for enduring passion and love need disappear overnight. This third installment by Richard Linklater exploring Jessie and Celine’s love story makes me hope for a fourth.

Blue is the Warmest Color — To be fair, the film is frank – sexually and emotionally – and that means it is not for everyone. But, the film is also a remarkable merger of director and actors, so much so that the top prize at Cannes was awarded (for the first time) to director Abdellatif Kechiche and to actors Adèle Exarchopoulos (Adèle) and Léa Seydoux (Emma). Over three hours, we watch Adèle transform from a French high school student who likes to read and wants to be a teacher into a young woman who has grappled with her sexuality, fallen in love, and suffered a heartbreak that marks her transition into independent adulthood. The film is a visual and emotional triumph.

Don Jon — Joseph Gordon-Levitt wrote, directed, and stars in the film and makes an important statement about the dehumanizing and individualistic influences of porn. I think this is a particularly powerful film because the “argument” is embedded into the narrative and comes from the unified creative perspective of a man (a smart, funny, talented, and sensitive man). The cast – Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, and Glenne Headley in major roles – is perfect. The film is remarkably bold and ultimately nuanced, yet it coheres nicely. Don Jon’s union of form and content with vividly competing emotional tones over the course of the film draws a striking contrast that reveals in a compelling way what a steady diet of porn (and, in what turns out to be an equal opportunity indictment, schlocky romantic comedies) does to reorganize our thinking (and actions) in damaging ways.

Fruitvale Station – What a dazzling narrative feature debut for writer-director Ryan Coogler and a terrific performance by Michael B. Jordan in the main role. This is a pared down, realistic narrative based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old man who was murdered by a police officer in the Fuitvale Station of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) during New Year’s Eve festivities as 2008 transitioned into 2009. It’s a true story, so this is not a spoiler, and even if it is (for a particular reader), knowing what is coming only intensifies the experience of watching what comes before. The film is nuanced and even graceful within its slice of life style that unfolds gently and realistically. Just thinking of it all, I am again heartbroken.

HerHer, written and directed solely by Spike Jonze, is only going to enhance his already coveted reputation. Sometime in the not too distant future, a vulnerable writer who makes his living penning letters for hire falls in love with his new operating system. Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) and Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) may not be such an unlikely couple, but naturally reality eventually catches up with Theodore. The film is marked by exciting production design with terrific use of color and style, beautiful yet understated cinematography, terrific performances all around, important ideas, and incredibly good writing. But, more than that, some insights into the human condition touch me in a way that feels very authentic, suggests so very much more than the few words uttered, and draws me into these characters and the situations.

MudMud has a star-studded cast with Matthew McConaughey in the title role supported by Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shephard, Michael Shannon, and familiar faces like Joe Don Baker, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, and Paul Sparks. But, it is newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland playing two young teens who anchor the story; they are perfectly cast, their characters are well-written, and writer-director Jeff Nichols knows how to make the most of them on screen. On the surface, the story is simple. Two boys from rural Arkansas find a boat lodged in a tree after a previous flood and soon after encounter a fugitive. They decide to help Mud (McConaughey) because it is love that has driven him on the lam from the law, and Ellis (Sheridan) is drawn in by that because of his own experiences with first love set against the unraveling of his parents’ marriage. Love drives everything that happens in the film, but the individual stories fit together perfectly to support the plot in ways that are subtle and beautifully rendered.

Nebraska — I have a lot of respect and admiration for Alexander Payne, and I’m happy to add Nebraska to my list of his best films, a list that also includes Election and Sideways. The storyline is simple. An old man receives a notice that he has won a million dollar sweepstakes prize, and everyone laughs at his foolishness except his younger son. Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) is not particularly likeable, frequently confused, and an alcoholic. His wife Kate (June Squibb) and older son Ross (Bob Odenkirk) criticize the cantankerous old man, who keeps leaving home to walk to Lincoln, Nebraska to claim his prize. Younger son David (Will Forte) takes stock of his own modest life and disappointments, listens to his father, and decides to take Woody to the sweepstakes headquarters. The journey includes an unexpected side trip to Woody’s hometown and a reconsideration of the past that is revealing and inspires David to continue to give his father attention and dignity. What unfolds in this film is a delicate and powerful from of storytelling that is revealed through the interplay of characters so well-written and performed with such truth that the lessons emerging from the narrative are as close to universal and timeless as I am prepared to acknowledge may exist.

Stories We Tell – Sarah Polley’s remarkable documentary explores truth, memory, and family secrets with Polley mainly behind the camera interviewing family members and a few close friends and colleagues of her late mother. What is most extraordinary about the film is not the stories they tell – though some of them are a bit eye-opening – but the way Polley pieces, paces, and crafts them into a glorious whole that is so much more than the sum of the film’s many parts. The pacing of the film and balancing of the various stories is carefully calibrated to give each participant just the right amount of screen time at just the right point in the telling of the overarching story to speak to the larger truths of the situation. And – with incredible nuance and skill – this unfolding reveals Polley’s own emotional arc as a character and establishes her own set of complex and evolving emotions about the stories she hears. Seldom is it I have seen a film that so skillfully adapts forms and conventions to serve the needs of the story at hand. Stories We Tell is original, accomplished, and engaging.

The Grandmaster — Life has four seasons. That is one of the themes cutting through Wong Kar-wai’s majestic and masterful film about martial arts master Ip Man (the teacher who trained Bruce Lee), and the film is one of the most poetic I’ve seen in years. There are three things about this movie that appeal to me on a very deep level, and none of them have anything to do with martial arts. First, this is a bold, feminist statement. Enough said. Second, this is one of the most romantic films I’ve seen in years. Perhaps it is the most romantic (in at least a couple senses of the word) film I’ve seen since The Secret In Their Eyes. Love (and all of its mysteries) fascinates and confounds me, but there is more to the characters in this film and their connections than can be rightly said. This, to me, is an example of how cinema can, at times, transcend other art forms by going beyond the spaces controlled by words alone or by images alone. Third, there is the form. I have a predilection for the spare and understated in cinema, but there are exceptions, films of such formal accomplishment that they go beyond and go deeper so that the power, precision, and indelible beauty of these rare films is undeniable.

12 Years a Slave — Director Steve McQueen, a black man who grew up in London with ancestors from Grenada and Trinidad, has delivered the most compelling, emotionally complex, and aesthetically authentic film about slavery in the American South that I have ever seen, and he tells the story in ways that border, at times, on the experimental without the fillips and flourishes that mark, yet undermine, so many Hollywood films. On the surface, the story is simple and told in a straightforward way, but there are layers and layers of meaning and nuance and small details that make the film extraordinarily rich for interpretation and striking in terms of the relationships and patterns of power that are revealed. And, McQueen does so with images that are simultaneously searing and subtle, as in the contrast between the brutality of the whip and the simplicity of a bar of soap. From misguided paternalism to the complicity (or more) of white women to sexual exploitation to making the “other” alternately exotic and bestial (but always less) to the vilest acts of cruelty, this film focuses on one story but suggests the expansiveness of the system of slavery and conveys the power of the culture and traditions that fixed it in place in the American South. It is not surprising, given his work on Hunger and Shame, that Steve McQueen has the insight and the talent to explore and expose the darkest and most painful dimensions of the human psyche and behavior and that he does so with brilliance in this film.

Other contenders include: Behind the Candelabra (terrific all around), Blackfish (powerful and important), Broken Circle Breakdown (dynamic and heartbreaking), Frances Ha (charming and authentic), Philomena (conventional but so well-crafted), The Act of Killing (extraordinary film), The Butler (beautiful depiction of how differently African Americans have had to hide their authentic selves and, for survival, had to present a different, public persona in the white world), and 20 Feet From Stardom (entertaining and informative).

It’s been a very strong year for films. Here’s to hoping 2014 will be the same!


TRUE DETECTIVE

January 19, 2014

On the other hand (compared to previous post), Nic Pizzolatto’s HBO series True Detective is a little overwritten.

Still, I like the idea of an anthology (eight episodes each season featuring different characters and different cases) and will stick with the season to see how it unfolds. The chemistry between detectives played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as they investigate a grisly murder case is strong enough to generate additional interest.

I will try to remember to report back after I’ve seen some additional episodes.

True Detective