Thursday, November 20, 2014

In a Lonely Place

I used to know this guy who reminded me a lot of Louise Bloom, the titular nocturnal creep played by Jake Gyllenhaal, not because he was advantageous nor starved for social status, but because he had a way of appearing out of nowhere like a ghost with freshly rehearsed subjects on deck to readily sow into the conversation that he spent the previous five minutes pretending to participate in. He lingered around for a few years while things slowly went from awkward to borderline frightening. I think it’s important to empathize and consider another’s past before breaking ties, but there came a time in which it was evident that it wasn’t healthy for anyone involved to continue speaking. To this date I can’t think of another human that I’ve cut off so abruptly and permanently. Like Bloom, he was very well articulated and spoke with rapid-fire urgency as though the words were causing him some physical discomfort while gestating within. This would indicate anxiety, at least to me, but also a need to connect in hopes to validate himself as a knowledgeable and interesting person, which he was. It makes sense considering that he and Bloom would consider their expression a social strongpoint, often oblivious to how suffocating and overwhelming it can be to be the recipient of that wave of verbiage. Above all things he was lonely and in need of social vindication, to the point where it would appear that it became an addiction, much like Bloom’s insatiable lust for standing.

Dan Gilroy’s “Nightcrawler” is an impressive debut as far as I’m concerned. It’s both a character study and an indictment of our current media dilemma, Bloom playing the dichotomous role of the victim and benefactor of our patronage. We first meet him as he’s clipping chain linked fence to sell for scrap. A security guard rolls up on him and we get our first glimpse of his social operation (smile, talk fast, win), which ends appropriately with an act of violence that we don’t get to witness. --- I was wondering about what their tussle resulted in on my way to work today. The guard got a really solid look at him, I’m just saying. ---- He’s a thief, but he’s yearning for an honest living worthy of his effort. He’s willing to work hard wherever he ends up , and he’ll adapt easily and climb fairly quickly if he’s given the chance. The internet is his teacher. His drive carries out the rest. He isn’t looking to make an easy buck; he’s just another down-on-his-luck kid trying to work in our progressively dreary economic landscape. He finds his niche while stumbling upon a camera crew hovering around a car crash like the first vultures to a carcass. The carcass is then sold to the highest bidder on the news circuit, making our suffering a ghoulish commerce, pieces of metal at a scrap yard. After getting a foot in the door at a failing local station, Bloom begins to take his vocation to new depths only earning him more clout in the industry. The corporatized media trade preys upon our fear, lust for destruction, prying, and disengagement with pragmatic reporting. Turn on the news for thirty minutes and behold the horror.

“Nightcrawler” is strongest when working as a procedural, taking us through the mechanizations of a mostly clandestine job. We don’t know much about the procuring of footage, the price that footage goes for, and the way a producer works it into a narrative that has been tinkered to draw in an audience. There have been many great films about the news industry (Ace in the Hole, His Girl Friday, While the City Sleeps, All the President’s Men, Zodiac) but none about the men and women who sit by police scanners waiting gleefully for terrible things to happen. The scenes that I found the most engaging took place within the station headquarters where Rene Russo’s Nina Romina bids for footage and then cuts it and finds a narrative to hang it on, or in Bloom’s apartment or car where he studies police code and the fastest way from point A to B. There is a blunt but effective scene where Nina puppeteers some recently acquired footage, speaking directly into the ears of the anchors, repeatedly emphasizing phrases meant to both scare and incite the audience. Her approach is to emphasize affluent citizens’ safety encroached upon by a creeping marginalized threat. Sound familiar? It’s a fair target; I just wish Dan Gilroy’s directorial debut had sharper teeth. Where the movie fails is in its need to a: spell out the moral dilemma (there is a character planted in this movie for the sole purpose of telling us that certain footage is unethical, never so obviously than a scene in which he reveals information about the aforementioned footage) b: adhere to obligatory “lonely crazy guy” movie prototypes (the lame mirror sequence for instance) and c: the abrupt development of a narrative thread that shapes the remnants of the film in such a way that a big suspension of disbelief will be required to follow it through. This late chain of events succumbs to the same sensationalism that it seeks to indict. It nearly derails the whole damn thing.

Current Cinema Blurbs: “Land-ho!” confirms Paul Eenhorn as the wisest, most pleasant actor currently gracing our big and little screens. Tara noted that he had “a nice face.” He caught my attention first with 2013’s “This is Martin Bonner” and matches Earl Lynn Nelson’s gargantuan performance step for step. These two should make a set of Crosby/Hope road movies for our viewing pleasure. It also confirms my friend John’s suspicions that Aaron Katz is the real deal, not that we should disregard Martha Stephens’ contributions. This is easily one of 2014’s best, ignore anyone who damns it by claiming that it’s “slight” or tidy They are wrong. Doug Liman’s “Edge of Tomorrow” only falters in its final stretch, which is a bummer considering how fresh the first two thirds are. The death montages had me laughing out loud, especially when the main character rolls under a Jeep much to Bill Paxton’s baffled dismay (Paxton also whips out a refreshing performance in Nightcrawler). Cruise is top notch here, as is Emily Blunt, and the action scenes work precisely because of their willingness to embrace the absurdity of the film’s central concept. It’s an easy honorable mention. You should see it, I should see it again. HBO’s “Olive Kittredge” makes great use of its Maine setting both inside and out. It also surprised me in its reluctance to indulge in worn out archetypes and plot developments. You think you know where it’s going to go, how people are going to act, and how you are supposed to feel about them only wait and wait and wait for something to happen that would have happened in something else. Does that make any sense? It only falters a bit in its final chapters, a little here and a little there. If it was a theatrical feature it’d be one of the standouts this year. Then again, J. Hoberman put Todd Haynes’ “Mildred Pierce” on his list when that came out.

Recent First-Timers:

Masterpieces: 1943 Edge of Darkness (Lewis Milestone)

 Yes Please: 1935 Mad Love (Karl Freund), The Plough and the Stars (John Ford), The Ghost Goes West (Rene Clair), The Devil Doll (Todd Browning), Dracula’s Daughter (Lambert Hillyer), The Limey (Steven Soderbergh), A Lawless Street (Joseph H. Lewis), Jack Reacher (Christopher McQuarrie), Rosetta (The Dardenne bros), The Stalking Moon (Robert Mulligan). 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Great Big Visions

For a film about wormholes, Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar" sure likes to take the long way. Like much of his previous work, the narrative thrust lags as the plot piles on more and more baggage, becoming a new movie with its own conflict and concerns, which are almost completely autonomous from the central conflict. He seems to always struggle with the third act, or he tacks on fourth and fifth acts to squeeze things in that he’s not willing to leave on the cutting floor. He usually has a commanding finale in mind (montages set to a narrator’s impassioned epilogue over Hans Zimmer's swelling score, to a sudden cut to black) but finds the most convoluted way to get there. Even as his films stray he’s able to somehow land them manipulatively (positive) so that as I walk out of the theater I’m filled with heavy emotions and a sad score running ringing in my ears. Time, distance, and thought always bring me back down, and yet I still end up seeing his movies on opening weekend.  
“Interstellar” follows Cooper (a reliable Matthew McConaughey), a pilot sent through a wormhole to find an inhabitable planet as Earth quickly turns to dust. There are a dozen planets to survey, but obviously not enough time to do so. The wormholes were formed by “they” as a way to bridge the large expanse between galaxies. “They” are unseen and unidentified beings that can exist in several dimensions with an undisclosed providential interest in our survival. Rest assured that you will find out who “they” are, and true to Nolan’s vibe, it’s not as remarkable as you might hope. The heart of the story lies in a father's promise to return to his daughter (the fact that he doesn't seem to care nearly as much about his son sort of struck me as odd), and consequently to save mankind. His mission therefore is all sacrifice, a fight over flight mentality notably not echoed by his elder son in a later scene. This narrow focus is where Nolan thrives. He finds a way to make the passing of time (earth standard) a constant factor in the mission’s already surmounting dread and suspense. For instance, on a planet that’s almost completely water an hour spent is tantamount to a full seven years on earth, I didn’t even care about the giant waves (which are supposedly scientifically plausible for planets neighboring a black hole) about to smash the spaceship into smithereens; all I wanted was for the crew to wrap it up as soon as possible.

From that failed mission the movie finally succumbs to the Nolan bros’ trademark narrative glut. The excesses here begin when the crew, depleted after the loss of life and resources on the water planet, bicker over which planet to visit. With not enough fuel and resources to visit both, they (meaning Cooper and Anne Hathaway’s Amelia Brand) choose the planet manned by Mann. Without spoiling anything, I should note that this deviation ultimately leads to nowhere except a admittedly great “docking” sequence and a reveal about the nature of the mission itself. Both could have been accomplished without the beacon call and time spent paying redundant homage to the giants that came before, and all of the amped up chatty suspense that results. The time spent on this icy planet only exists to fulfill a quota. It’s part of the long way that I was referring to before. And even as characters fight, they talk and divulge/repeat information that frankly only strays from ticking clock that distances father from daughter, and makes it all the more unlikely for their reunion to happen within a reasonable period of time. And after that’s resolved we move on to the real “mindbender” which my friend correctly called “Shyamalanian.”
After the catastrophe at the ice planet, Cooper, Brand, and their two robots (the wonderful Bill Irwin adding some much needed comic relief) decide on a plan. First they move towards the black hole where they send their robot TARS to report back data on its singularity, while they slingshot (one of many nods to Arthur C. Clark Rendezvous with Rama) themselves towards the other planet manned by Hathaway’s implied love interest Edmund (but none of that really matters outside of her/Cooper’s subjective motivations weighed against the mission’s objectivity). Needless to say this chain of events results in some twists and turns due to an act of self-sacrifice as “Interstellar” enters its own “Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite” phase. I don’t want to spoil anything here so I’ll leave it alone other than to say that it’s a ballsy development that overcomplicates things and sacrifices the crucial reunion that the movie ultimately hinges on. In fact, I think the film could have been much better if it never returned to earth outside of the video messages that were so effective and brief.

And while I’d have to ultimately have to say that “Interstellar” feels to me like a noble/fascinating/frustrating failure, I still can’t shake it. There are enough successes to warrant at least one revisit. The docking sequence that I mentioned before is a brilliantly composed set piece with some of Nolan’s best use of sound and vision. Frankly, it’s one the best things I’ve seen this year and it reminded me of a much simpler sequence in “The Dark Knight” where Heath Ledger’s head was out of the window of a cop car set to persistent ominous ringing. I was also moved by the scene where Cooper drives away from his family, set to the countdown of his space shuttle, with a crucial intimate moment where he looks under the blanket of his passenger seat. Again we have great use of sound and montage, followed by some wonderful early scenes in space. With moments like this I find it hard to dismiss him outright as others have. I’m thankful that he wants to approach big budget Hollywood genre films with intelligence and economized human vision. But thinking back to the failures of the later acts, I am reminded of slogs in the first; the derivative agitprop vision of Midwest America, the cliché angry dad deriding the NASA-hating teacher, the far too-convenient NASA station coordinates, the characters talking to each other about things that were better shown. I’m reminded of an ironic scene in which Anne Hathaway’s Brand reminds Cooper of the importance of knowing when to shut up. For a director who posits himself as the smart pop-artist against the dumb system, he’s awfully susceptible to some of that system’s worst tendencies.     

Alejandro Jodorowsky is no stranger to ambitious vision and the Hollywood system that seems to thwart it. Between “The Holy Mountain” and “El Topo,” he’s solidified himself as a cult icon with fans like The Beatles to David Lynch. He’s an interesting interviewee, with that perpetual smile that often contradicts the words coming out of it. In the 2014 documentary “Jodorowsky’s Dune,” director Frank Pavich tells the story of the doomed movie that never was with interview from adoring friends like Nicolas Winding Refn and Richard Stanley to legends-in-their-own-right like H.R. Giger. The less skeptical talking heads, like Refn, claim that the film was never made because Hollywood was afraid of his imagination. Hearing hagiographic declarations like this, you can see why the director perpetuates his own greatness so emphatically. The reoccurring line of this movie is “I did this!” which is amusing considering what was actually accomplished. Jodorowsky has his spiritual army and they are so devoted/unbending that they can’t acknowledge the importance of the only physical vestiges left behind, the concept art (constructed by Giger and Christopher Fosse). The movie also insanely alleges that the un-filmed “Dune” gave birth to everything from “Masters of the Universe” to “Alien” to “Star Wars.” The evidence is laughable (especially when you realize that they actually imply that the world would have been a worse place without Masters), outside of the fact that he put Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Jean Henri Gaston Giraud might not have been involved in the Ridley Scott film if it wasn’t for this experience. 
I’m not completely disinclined to big egos and self-mythologizing. I understand its place in art but only if it’s there to exalt the work itself. The real conflict here seems to be the funding, though it didn’t stop the “spiritual warriors” from putting together an expensive book to help their pitch. But when the smile fades and true colors appear, this once smiling dreamer begins to rant about how he just might make the film twenty hours or ten if he likes, which might sound like a good idea to his warriors, but admittedly might not sound so good to the guy funding your film. This is common sense, and where money is concerned common sense sometimes means the difference between sinking and swimming. Jodorowsky correctly notes that money is "shit," but then proceeds to complain about people who are unwilling to give him theirs. And the more you hear this overconfident story about the little dreamer up against the machine system; you realize that he was willing to make ridiculous compromises to his vision in order to get what he wanted, like paying Dali $100,000 for every minute he appeared onscreen. The moment I realized that I hated this film came when he so eagerly besmirched Douglas Trumbull for his supposed self-importance, an attribute he so openly displayed before and after this mini-rant. Suddenly the “we are all Paul” spiritualist becomes the gossipy malicious brat who met an artist who didn’t buy into his legend so easily. He then basically claims that he is not a real artist but a technician, or a robot, which is funny when you consider who sought out whom in the first place. This story would have been better told on an episode of Karina Longworth’s wonderful podcast, “You Must Remember This.” Thankfully, Jodorowsky’s work can speak for itself because I frankly need a break from the guy.