ZERO MOTIVATION

January 18, 2015

A promising feature debut for Israeli writer-director Talya Lavie, Zero Motivation chronicles boredom, hijinks, infatuations, disappointments, and imperfect but enduring friendship between two women soldiers stationed at a remote, desert army base.

Zohar (Dana Ivgy) is hard-edged, smart, completely unmotivated by everything in the office except computer games, and beneath her crusty exterior, a bit vulnerable. Her best friend Daffi (Nelly Tagar) seems as hapless and helpless as she is unhappy, but there is just a bit more to her than meets the eye.

It’s rare to see two such flawed but authentically drawn characters set amid an equally original and complicated set of supporting players and, furthermore, to have them surprise us, make us laugh, and perhaps even elicit a tear or two. Neither of the best friends seems cut out for the Israeli army, but the same can be said for most of their office cohort.

Lavie breaks the film into three interlocking stories, and the structure is effective here in delineating major narrative arcs while also allowing room for overlaps. Sometimes this technique can fracture the narrative, but Zero Motivation coheres as a film and is surprisingly entertaining.

Zero Motivation

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The WWWII Invasion: THE IMITATION GAME, FURY, and UNBROKEN

January 18, 2015

I’ve been waiting to write in tandem about the three major WWII releases this season. Each offers a bit of nostalgia alongside something fresh, and one works better for me than the others.

Overall, The Imitation Game is both the most anticipated and the most satisfying of the three depictions of WWII. Of course, this isn’t your typical war movie. Instead, this film tells the story of real-life mathematician Alan Turing who led the English team that cracked the enigma code and won the war.

His personal story is as tragic as his contribution to the war effort is triumphant if mostly unheralded. During his lifetime, homosexual activity was criminalized and he was persecuted and prosecuted, and the story of how he, essentially, won the war was kept secret for security reasons.

The idea of using flashbacks and flashforwards around the Bletchley Park project to fill in the gaps of his character’s backstory is a good one, but at times, the attempts feel a little too spot on or a little too clumsy.

While I am no expert on Turing’s life, written accounts suggest there is more nuance and depth to the man and his lived experiences than turn up on the screen. Still, in terms of having a great story to work with, it’s hard to top this one, and Benedict Cumberbatch brings what he can from his considerable skillset to the portrayal of Turing.

Imitation Game

Fury was a bit of a surprise for me on two levels: there were several sequences that were completely engaging and illuminating, and the film takes a story about the “greatest generation” to a new generation by using visuals the evoke certain popular video games.

Thanks to my friend Laura for tipping me off about the video game aesthetics. I wrestled with the imagery a bit when watching the movie, but don’t know much about video games (her son is a gamer). My students confirmed the connection when we were talking in class last week.

The general narrative is not new. There is a battle-weary sergeant (Brad Pitt) leading a tank crew deeply bonded by experience (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña, Jon Bernthal), and a new guy (Logan Lerman), who becomes the emotional center of the film as he comes of age amid harrowing circumstances.

Three sequences that bring the sergeant and the newbie together as the latter “comes of age” are appropriately intense, but the rest of the film is a bit of a blur. Maybe that’s the way war is, but it is something we have seen before.

Fury

My least favorite among the three films is Unbroken. The tedium of internment is, no doubt, repetitive, but that is not a recipe for good cinema. I was hopeful that director Angelina Jolie would bring a fresh perspective to the story and excited to see Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini after his explosive performance in Starred Up, but left the theater feeling this film is a bit less than the sum of its parts. Not bad, mind you, but not as extraordinatry as Zamperini’s own story.

Unbroken


BIG EYES

January 1, 2015

There are many elements (mostly visual) that I have admired in Tim Burton’s films over the years, but I haven’t enjoyed one of his movies as a complete work as much as Big Eyes since Ed Wood, which is still my favorite among his films.

In a way, the stories are inverse narratives.

Ed Wood examines the eponymous character from the outside in as we look at the director of such widely reviled films as Plan 9 From Outer Space who strives against great odds and with limited talent for creative expression.

The scene in which Wood (Johnny Depp) commiserates with Orson Welles (Vincent D’Onofrio) is remarkable for showcasing a lovely paradox: they are battling some of the same obstacles and for similar reasons, but the expression of their creative visions could not be more different; the two directors are at once exactly the same and completely different.

If you can accept the paradoxical nature of things and appreciate the inverse narrative, you’ll understand why I see Margaret Keane simultaneously as one of the most oppressed women I’ve seen on the screen lately and also a bold, feminist icon.

Much is made of the fact at the beginning of the film that Margaret (the sublime Amy Adams) packs up her daughter and her art supplies in the 1950s and leaves her “suffocating” husband back when women just didn’t do that.

She finds a job and begins making a new life with her daughter in San Francisco. Only when her husband threatens a custody fight does she abruptly marry a charming amateur artist/real estate developer, Walter Keane (nobody plays delusional like Christoph Waltz).

Always smarmy to the viewer, it is easy to see why Margaret is sucked into the relationship with Keane, who very soon begins capitalizing on and taking credit for her distinctive Big Eyes paintings.

The duality that Burton plays with in both Ed Wood and in Big Eyes is complex and compelling.

While we watch Wood as outsiders and both empathize with and cringe at his artistic efforts, we are drawn into Margaret Keane’s interiority, celebrate her efforts to resist, understand the constraints and reasons she does not break free sooner or more forcefully, and indulge in the ways her journey is emblematic of the path taken by so many women during the Second Wave of feminism.

While I did not find the film as intense or inspiring as Wild, another film in theaters currently, I thoroughly enjoyed the story, the performances, and – not surprisingly – the art direction, which evokes Vertigo, makes great use of foreshadowing with a Perry Mason clip, and calls to mind various delights from Burton’s visual treasure trove.

But, the real selling point: it’s impossible not to pull for Margaret Keane.

big eyes


INTO THE WOODS

January 1, 2015

I went into the film with an open heart and an open mind with no preconceptions based on the stage version (never saw it), I stuck with the movie through the setup, and I left cinema with a letdown.

What is the point of it all?

To critique and revise the fairy tale genre? (Shrek does it so much better.)

To reinforce the sexism of old stories? (One might think so when the Baker’s Wife, who doesn’t even have her own name, must pay for a minor indiscretion with her life while the caddish prince goes obliviously on his way to chase another day.)

To make some money recycling a musical from one medium to another? (It is a business, after all.)

Whatever the point, Into the Woods falls apart after the set up because not enough attention has been paid to the thesis of the film. What does it mean? What is the point? I should have defensible answers to those questions, and I do not because I don’t care about it at all.

My friend Chad maintains that “Be careful what you wish for” is a defensible premise, although he thinks it is not developed very well.

I agree with him that this is a theme that emerges in the final act, but it is a skimpy frame to hang a narrative on when there is so little support for contextualizing that idea more broadly, imbuing it with richer layers of meaning, and pulling together a story that coheres in terms of plot and theme.

Instead, the effort seems focused on structure at the expense of context, and even the structure has some problems.

No Maleficent here…and more is the pity.

Into the woods