Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Wolves Paralysed

I really don't think people are, by and large, consciously aware of how sold they are on materialism. I think the primary reason The Wolf of Wall Street is being criticised for glamourising the lifestyle of someone guilty of financial fraud on a massive scale is that too many people, whether they can recognise it in themselves or not, agree with DiCaprio's character when he asserts money makes you a better person. I truly feel this is Scorsese's best film since Goodfellas. It does the extraordinary thing of showing just hollow a life can be when all you want, as Mr. Bernstein said, is to make a lot of money.

It has a lot in common with Goodfellas--it's based on the autobiography of a criminal, in this case stock broker Jordan Belfort, played by DiCaprio in the film. The engaging, conversational narration sounds so similar to the one in Goodfellas I could have sworn it was Ray Liotta at times. And, like Goodfellas, the film portrays a society of men and their families comfortable supporting themselves with crime. It's an accepted part of their culture.

One difference is that one suspects there's little real love between spouses and between friends. After Jordan starts to hit it big, he does seem a bit hurt when his first wife leaves him after finding him doing blow off another woman's chest. But that doesn't bother Jordan for long because that other woman, Naomi (Margot Robbie), is incredibly gorgeous and about as obsessed with wealth as Jordan is. But aside from a sympathetic greed, the two never bond the way Henry and Karen do in Goodfellas.

There's a lot more beautiful naked women in this movie than in Goodfellas, part of the reason this movie is being called misogynist. It's strange how movies that portray misogyny are so often labelled misogynist but that can go hand in hand with a movie showing the hollowness of greed being called a movie that glamourises it.

The most effective moments for me are the raucous, booze, coke, and prostitute filled office parties. A marching band that performs in their underwear at one being one of the moments that seemed to be a reference to Citizen Kane. Where the office party in Kane showed Leland just beginning to realise how spiritually bankrupt their enterprise had become, Jordan's parties are of a tradition going back to the broker, played by Matthew McConaughey, who mentored Jordan and who told him with a straight face that in addition to taking drugs he also has to masturbate twice a day just to "keep the blood flowing."

There's no question Jordan's crew is having a good time. They also look pathetic and permanently stupid. Guys rubbing themselves against hookers with phoney smiles may not be many a viewers' idea of unflattering but perhaps it ought to be.

It's true the film doesn't show much of how Jordan's victims are impacted by his crimes. But that's because this is a film about Jordan's perspective. A man who's forced to seek constant stimulus from sex and drugs because without it there's a terrible void that he knows he can never face sober.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Devil's Life of Mitty's Gravity

Okay, lightning round. I'm hoping to do my annual ranking of the year's movies on New Year's Day so I'll share my thoughts on three movies to-day.

Religious melodrama is made more palatable by incredible long takes that give the viewer an unprecedented perspective on space walks in Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity. The spacing between the characters in the movie's opening title recalls Alien but the broad and unambiguously spiritual aspects of the story make it quite different from Alien. In fact, it may be described as the anti-Prometheus.

Alien expressed its philosophy entirely through character and situation. Prometheus was more explicit in the horror and awe conveyed by a universe that makes no exception for humans, that our religious beliefs, far from being merely wrong, are signs of a deeper, stranger, and far more disturbing reality. Gravity gives us incredible visuals and attempts to tether them to a story that reaffirms the existence of heaven and an afterlife where everything's going to be okay. Like the delicate cable that attaches George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in the film, this tether proves ineffectual, inadvertently casting the greatness of Prometheus and Alien into sharper relief.

But the imagery is amazing. The movie follows Sandra Bullock's character completely from the beginning, where we see her going EVA to repair an instrument on the exterior of the Space Shuttle Explorer, to the end of the movie. So we spend most of the time in space with her, the first shot of the film lasting I would guess slightly over seventeen minutes--not as impressive as the eleven minute shot in Touch of Evil, though, since the space sequences in Gravity are accomplished with cgi. But it helps give one the feel for the environment.

I see on Wikipedia that Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman were all attached to the role of Ryan Stone at one point, any of whom would have been a better choice than Bullock whose doofusy delivery also sabotages the film somewhat. Clooney improves things when he's onscreen with his weird cockiness though, while charming, would run somewhat counter to the experience if the imagery itself weren't so impressive.

Maybe the biggest problem, though, is the melodrama. And, again, I'm not against melodrama, but one can't help imagining how much better the film would have been if the exact wrong things didn't keep happening at the exact wrong times with the clear purpose of moving the plot along. It's another thing that infringes on the wonderful verisimilitude created by the Cuaron's direction and the attention to detail. A particular problem occurs when Clooney and Bullock's characters are separated where we see, as has been pointed out, an inaccurate rendering of how gravity and kinetics would. The problem is so obvious that anyone with even a vague idea of how things move in a low gravity environment would feel something is up--which, even then, wouldn't be so bad except that it's clearly used as a way to shove a crucial plot point into place.

But I will say I thought the last few minutes of the film were rather beautiful.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be. It has some genuinely funny moments and good supporting performances from Shirley MacLaine, Kristen Wiig, Sean Penn, and Patton Oswalt. Ben Stiller doesn't give a bad performance either but as the film's director he's made something that falls rather far behind his own wonderful Tropic Thunder.

Based on a short story by James Thurber, this tale of an ordinary, mousy, daydreaming office denizen who goes on an adventure to impress the woman he has a crush on seems as though it's meant to seem Capra-esque but ends up feeling more like a remake of UHF. We see Mitty's daydreams of himself performing heroic acts or caught up in romantic stories and they feel more like sketch comedy skits than like things a man like Mitty would actually imagine. On their own, they were at times pretty funny--I especially liked a parody of David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button that works partly from the premise that Mitty has never seen the movie and isn't quite sure how Brad Pitt's aging disease works. But within the context of the rest of the movie, an ostensibly earnest tale about a man trying to change his life, the sketches don't quite work.

Mitty eventually goes to Iceland, Greenland, and the Himalayas in an attempt to track down Sean Penn's character and none of his travels feel remotely authentic. Mitty's cell phone apparently has no trouble finding a signal in the Himalayas so he's able to chat with Oswalt's E-Harmony representative. We see Mitty narrowly escape the ash cloud from an erupting volcano and, not long after and at not too great a distance, we see the sky is still a magically clear blue. So we don't have that crucial sense that Mitty is actually experiencing character changing hardships.

One of the reasons I wasn't enthusiastic about seeing the movie is that the trailers made it seem that Kristen Wiig, who delivers such a wonderfully abnormal, funny performance in Bridesmaids, is relegated to the more typical object of the male lead's desire in Walter Mitty and that sadly proved to be the case. But I did really like a scene where she performs "Space Oddity" on acoustic guitar.

By far the best movie I'm writing about to-day is Devil's Pass, a wonderful horror film shot in found footage style about a group of American college students who investigate the real life Dyatlov Pass Incident in Russia's Ural Mountains. This refers to the mysterious deaths of nine hikers in 1959. The film, directed by Renny Harlin, is fiction and provides an explanation for what happened that is interesting but not as interesting as the way in which the film builds to it.

The beginning of the film reminded me of Hostel in that it features a group of ignorant and naive American kids blundering into eastern Europe so conditioned by their own culture to feel so privileged and entitled they don't even bother bringing along someone who speaks the local language. This is despite the fact that their intention is to investigate and film a documentary on the Dyatlov incident. Like in Hostel, the more confident the protagonists seem, the more tension is created, though the protagonists of Devil's Pass mostly seem like nicer people.

The film was shot on location in the Ural Mountains and there's plenty of gorgeous footage of the tiny figures trekking through the snow and rock. One of the things I really like about the found footage format is that it creates potential for the characters to be in real darkness. The fact that audiences are familiar with the green hued night vision function of cameras allows filmmakers to create scenes previously left to literature where we can see characters groping about in complete darkness.

The characters have very credible feeling arguments about the pieces of evidence they discover that there's something very strange happening around them--bare footprints in the snow, an arrival at the pass that seems to come too soon. They accuse one another of pulling pranks or of just being paranoid. At the same time they continue flirting with one another, their habits formed in youthful arrogance can't even be broken even as you get the impression their instincts are telling them something is really wrong.

The last portion of the film is a really great sequence of pursuit and hopelessness. Strange things happen faster and faster, the characters start to come up with theories that may or may not be thoroughly accurate. And then things get downright, wonderfully demonic.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Neon in a Vacuum

One of the problems with what is often called film noir in modern cinema is that such films have uncomplicated protagonists whose actions are simply heroic, as in Sin City. A truer example of film noir in 2013 was Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives which creates a beautiful world of death propped up in darkness by pink and blue neon where neither virtue or ruthlessness insure success or survival and misfortune comes with an inevitable sense of guilt. It's not half as good as Winding Refn's previous film, Drive, but I admire the endeavour immensely.

Ryan Gosling plays Julian, an American gangster operating in Thailand with his brother, Billy (Tom Burke). Together they also run a boxing club.

At the beginning of the film, we watch Billy prowl the Bangkok brothels and streets trying to find a 14 year old prostitute. Eventually he settles on a sixteen year old he beats to death after having sex with her.

The girl's father, who had forced her to work as a prostitute, shows up with Lieutenant Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm), a police officer who in practice seems to be more of a mob boss. He gives the father permission to murder Billy for revenge, which he does.

This has been a good year for female crime lords in cinema--in addition to Cameron Diaz in Ridley Scott's The Counsellor we can include Kristin Scott Thomas as Crystal in Only God Forgives. She's Julian and Billy's mother and comes to town to find out who killed Billy and take vengeance. She has clothes and hair like Paris Hilton but it's like seeing Lee Van Cleef dressed as Pee Wee Herman. The person and the wardrobe are too at odds to be even ironic. Somehow this dissonance leads one to assume Crystal is especially dangerous which Kristin Scott Thomas backs up with her performance as the ruthless woman.

Unknown to her, Julian has already tracked down Billy's killer before she even got to town. She's furious when she learns Julian had decided to let the man live.

This is what makes Julian unlike everyone else in the movie. When he learns Billy had murdered a sixteen year old girl, he doesn't feel like punishing the girl's father for what he did to Billy.

At the same time, Julian is completely loyal to his mother. When Mai (Rhatha Phongam), a favourite prostitute who Julian has pose as his girlfriend, witnesses Crystal humiliating Julian at dinner, she asks him why he lets his mother speak to him like that. He angrily responds, "Because she's my mother." Mai returns the dress he gave her.

Julian and Mai have a strange, possibly supernatural relationship. At the brothel drenched in dim red light and violent wallpaper, we watch the woman tie Julian's arms to a chair and then masturbate in front of him. This seems to grant him a vision of Lieutenant Chang.

I like this part of the movie but it's also one of its shortcomings. Julian's vision of walking up to a completely darkened doorway and a long reaction shot of him standing still, quietly staring into it was slightly too Lynchian. It was almost like the episodes of Twin Peaks not directed by Lynch which falter because the directors are trying too hard to replicate Lynch's strangeness and so stray too far from their individual languages as artists. This scene in Only God Forgives was just a bit too reminiscent of Fred Madison in his hallway at home in Lost Highway or Laura Palmer walking into the picture on her wall in Fire Walk With Me.

But Only God Forgives has plenty to love in its visual style. The production design is gorgeous, seedy and dreamlike. My favourite is a club owned by an English gangster that looks almost like it was shot by Jack Cardiff.

Ryan Gosling is the central character yet he only has seventeen lines in the film. It says something about Gosling's performance and Refn's direction that his moral conflict is nevertheless so interesting.

Lieutenant Chang is also a quiet fellow but as impressive as Angel Eyes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. Yet the only thing that really makes him the villain in this movie is the fact that the point of view is established from Gosling's character. Chang tortures people to find out who put a hit on him and he executes a murderer. That's not even close to the bad shit Crystal and Billy get up to.

In one fascinating scene, Chang and Julian have a bare-knuckle boxing match at the boxing club. The outcome of the fight will seem strange to many viewers. The same viewers will find it stranger that we can detect a very subtle respect Chang feels for Julian afterwards.

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Shadow faced fast food lurched through the mirror.
Frozen axes hack out uneven dice.
Rough edged crackers dry out the blue shower.
Fire finger paintings fade behind ice.
Obscene key chains break the water piping.
Wicker Santas wake up confused outside.
Mochibana practice lifelike typing.
Willow finger paintings will bloom inside.
Granite rockets moulder in a file.
The manila clouds darken with webbed ink.
Hot fish beach on dehydrated tile.
Oil finger paintings in soft sand sink.
Colour digits point through the shadow sod.
Sloppy finger paintings cooled the snake god.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Worms that Bind

First of all, congratulations to my sister, Chelsea, and her boyfriend, Alex, on their engagement to be married. Their relationship is already better than the protagonists' of Upstream Colour (awkward segue, I know).

Ostensibly a science fiction film about mind controlling, parasitic worms, this film directed by Shane Carruth (who also wrote and starred in it) plays as a nice experiment with cinematic language to portray the mechanics of human relationships and the effect of social mores on them.

I've seen the film compared to the work of Terrence Malick and Upstream Colour does feature imagery reminiscent of Malick's tendency to avoid establishing character point of view by using extreme close-ups of parts of people's bodies and a detached editing style creating a sense of omniscience. The subject, in Upstream Colour as in Tree of Life, is never visible and all the people are objects. As in, always kept at a distance from us as though we're studying them from an alien place.

I would also say the film owes some debts to Ingmar Bergman's Persona and Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville. Like that latter film, the two protagonists seem detached from themselves when they meet, eminently Post Modern characters who analyse in dialogue how they're supposed to behave as characters within the story.

In this case it's because both of them have previously been carriers of the peculiar worm which creates an extraordinary psychic connexion between two people. After Kris (Amy Seimetz) and Jeff (Shane Carruth) meet on the train they go out for coffee. But it's hard to tell why--their conversation is perfunctory and irritable. She tells him she works for a place that makes signage and he accepts her business card with annoyance, telling her he will never have need for such a thing. But they leave together--the tone of their conversation is like two people who've been forced to partner up by their bosses.

This meeting occurs almost halfway through the film. The first part of the movie focuses on Kris who we meet as an aggressive, A-type personality who works in some aspect of film production. We hear her making phone calls and pushing through her decisions, firing and hiring people.

Then she's kidnapped at a club by a man credited as "the Thief". He forces her to ingest a worm which makes her completely compliant to his vocal commands which function like hypnotic suggestion. He tells her his face is made of the same material as the sun causing it to be so bright that she must avert her eyes, which she does. He tells her an ordinary glass of ice water is the most wonderful refreshment she's ever had and he allows her to drink from it in return for copying down sections of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. This is to keep her occupied when he's not forcing her to slowly sell her home and antique coin collection.

There's never any suggestion in the film that she is raped. Which seems strange as it seems the first thing one assumes an attractive woman would be drugged and kidnapped from a nightclub for. In fact, there's very little sex in the film. And yet, the shots of the worm working its way through the inside of Kris's body certainly convey the sense of a physical violation. When one considers the worm as a phallic symbol, the absence of literal sexual assault in Kris' captivity compels me to ponder it as a possible metaphor for such an assault. Previously an assertive and independent woman, Kris is subjugated and subdued by the Thief's philosophy.

This impression is heightened by the omniscient POV--we are neither seeing the situation from the Thief's perspective or Kris'. The music is melancholy and understated as though we're considering a broad and inevitable situation playing out rather than the interactions of just two specific characters and we're reflecting on this as a portrait of human nature in general.

When the Thief is done with her, Kris is taken in by a pig farmer who transfers her worm into a live pig. Apparently he's done this with many other victims of the Thief, including Jeff and it's caused many of the pigs in his farm to share a psychic bond with the victims.

Kris and Jeff feel the fears and needs of the pigs without realising where the feelings are coming from. But the most significant incident of empathy with the animals comes with the only sexual intercourse that occurs in the film. In bed after sex, Kris and Jeff are shown as also lying under sheets in the middle of the pig pen.

At this point, I pretty strongly had the impression that Shane Carruth has a very negative opinion of sex. I think it's connected to a statement the film is making on the relationship between humans and religion.

The pig farmer is credited as the "Sampler" because of his hobby where he records various sounds in nature as well as candid bits of human interaction. In caring for the pigs, helping to conduct the empathic worms between people and animals, and being someone who pays sharp attention to nature, the Sampler is both godlike and reminiscent of the philosophies of transcendentalists like Thoreau. The Thief, who tasks Kris with copying Walden, is also a gardener and harvests the worms from his flower pots.

Thoraeu was no great fan of organised religion though we could see the Thief and the Sampler as the attempts of organised religion to regulate the organism, the human being. The Thief has purely selfish motives, much as religion can be used to exploit people, and the Sampler seems to work under the impression that humans are hopeless and somewhat disgusting animals who must be regulated and dominated, even as he's sensitive to their feelings and needs.

Carruth seems to be suggesting with his shot juxtaposing the post-coitus couple with the muddy pigs that in indulging in such carnal desires the couple is behaving precisely to the Sampler's expectations.

I won't spoil the ending, but there is an aspect to it that portrays the end of an instinctually driven reproductive cycle as a positive thing. The film gave me the impression that chastity is to be valued. I suppose my reaction would be somewhat like Nietzsche's reaction to Parsifal, which is to say that Upstream Colour is well made but, perhaps unknowingly, harbours a perspective antithetical to life. I think if they were alive to-day, Herman Melville and Edgar Allan Poe would be as inclined to be critical of a work like Carruth's as they were inclined to be critical of the Transcendentalists.

Friday, December 27, 2013

And Way Beyond the Pale

I wonder who chose the tattoos Ryan Gosling's character has in The Place Beyond the Pines. I'm not sure what the one on his left arm is meant to mean but it strikes me as suiting his character rather well. His character is one of the best things about this very good noir crime film. It's a movie about human nature being at odds with a society corrupted to suit the needs of other flawed human beings. Many critics have said the film feels more like two films, the first and second halves so distinctly separate in terms of plot and quality, the first half being definitely the superior. I agree, but the latter portion isn't bad.

Gosling plays Luke Glanton who, as the film opens, is a daredevil motorcycle rider for a travelling circus. He runs into an old fling named Romina (Eva Mendes) who he met the last time he was in town.

Luke discovers Romina had his child, Jason, who is now a year old. She's reluctant to tell him about it--she lives with a boyfriend now, a more stable and responsible father figure for her child.

I like that someone made a modern film about a guy in a travelling circus who accidentally gets a woman pregnant. But it gets more old fashioned than even that--Luke decides he wants to stay in town and help support his child, to be there for the kid like his father never was. So he quits the circus and starts robbing banks. Too bad Peggy Cummins wasn't around to team up with him.

What makes the first half of the film so great are director Derek Cianfrance's understated direction and the performances by Gosling and Mendes. This is only the third film I've seen with Eva Mendes--the other two being Once Upon a Time in Mexico and The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. I like both films but it was in the latter that I was first really impressed with her.

In The Place Beyond the Pines, she brilliantly plays a woman caught between two versions of her conscience: to tell Luke about their child or to avoid doing so and hopefully maintain the good situation she has for the kid. She makes this old scenario seem authentic, as does Gosling. Her open and emotive technique contrasts interestingly with Gosling's quieter, more restrained style.

He reminds me of Marlon Brando or Paul Newman. Gosling can hold a pause very effectively. He takes several seconds where he essentially does nothing, then breaks it with a smile or a frown.

Also really effective is Ben Mendelsohn as Robin, a mechanic who lives at the edge of a forest and who, impressed with his ability to handle a motorcycle, lets Luke stay in his trailer after Luke quits the circus.

When Luke tells Robin about his money troubles, it's Robin who suggests bank robbing. Robin tells Luke he's robbed banks a couple times, telling him if you do it in moderation you don't really need to worry about being caught.

Luke is reluctant at first but finally agrees to try it with Robin using a white truck for a getaway car--the idea is Luke speeds off from the bank on his bike and rides into the back of Robin's truck where the cops won't see him.

Robin gives Luke a gun but explains it's best not to use it, that going without a gun entirely may be preferable--the most effective means, says Robin, is just to hand a note to the most nervous looking teller.

Robin doesn't anticipate that the soft spoken Luke has an intensely violent and sometimes reckless personality but it makes sense when one considers his former profession. Far from a quiet note, Luke decides to shout at everyone, walk across the desks, brandishing his pistol. And far from robbing a moderate few banks, Luke quickly becomes addicted to the empowering vocation--empowering both for feeding his compulsion for danger and control and for the money it provides him to prove to Romina that he's a viable father for Jason.

The movie eloquently conveys the very noir-ish story about a man whose violent and unconventional nature and skills drive him farther from his most fundamental needs.

The second half of the film focuses on a rookie cop named Avery (Bradley Cooper). This latter portion is much more plot driven but it does have an effective story about a basically good but imperfect man falling prey to rampant corruption in the police force. Bradley Cooper doesn't give a bad performance, but it's hard to top Godling, Mendes, and Mendelsohn in the first act.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

From Komodo with Love

I could have stared at this beautiful Komodo dragon all day. It's hard to get a sense of scale from the pictures--I'd say she was at least five and a half feet long. She was sitting pressed up against the glass when we first saw her, just inches from us, but there was too much glare on the glass to take decent pictures.

Here are the rest of the photos from the Christmas Eve my family and I spent at the zoo.

I also could have sat with this sleepy panther all day.

Anyone for croquet?

And here are some pictures with no animals in. I don't think people understood why I was taking them. I just love the weird, twisty plants in the area around the zoo. And the complex shadows they create on a sunny day.

We had lunch at the zoo, a nice restaurant in the middle of the park where I was pleasantly surprised to hear Marlene Dietrich singing "Little Drummer Boy".

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The mulched holly paints the land with ribbon.
Dislodged toy men wait in a candy fog.
Santa's map curls in his darkened cabin.
On the corner is an elf's brandy nog.
Koala lumps snort Santa's espresso.
Mutating holly waxed kaleidoscope.
Styrofoam Frosty cracked under lasso.
Candy cane antennae smoked periscope.
Unexpected Marlene sings Drummer Boy.
Liquid peppermint sterilised the hand.
Alien sheriff can fix any toy.
Boxes of red socks run the shoe land.
Snowflakes melt on seasoned soya buttons.
Christmas lights illume splendid new glutens.