Night Catches Us

It’s been far too long since I’ve had the chance to see a new movie on the big screen, but I finally got to watch a film that skulked in and out of far too few theaters at the end of last year. Its title, Night Catches Us, makes it sound like a flick spawned of zombies and succubi; but, even if it’s far from a supernatural thriller, it is, in its way, a ghost story. Laid in the Germantown section of Philadelphia, in 1976, Night catches up with former members of the Black Panther party, which had been active five to 10 years earlier. The bicentennial setting yields a mordant, and perhaps incidental, morsel of irony: It sheds light on the mixed legacy of the Civil Rights movement, which, of course, relates to a broader dysfunction of the American Dream. American society, in this post-hippie/proto-disco groove, is in a rut. The riots and revolutions have been relegated to memory; President Carter, overheard on the news, has yet to lose his steam; and Reagan hasn’t yet turned that national frown upside down—and blandished the dimples right out of us with snake-oil smoothness. In this meantime, there’s a sense of fragile peace—or, if not peace, a certain languid immobility. And the first-time writer-director, Tanya Hamilton, who courted accolades from both the Independent Spirit Awards and Sundance, evokes it with the utmost delicacy.

The story starts when Marcus (Anthony Mackie) returns to town, like a noir anti-hero, to attend his father’s funeral. It’s been years since he’s been back from God-knows-where, and he’s hardly embraced by his former comrades-at-arms, who’ve mostly turned into hoods (Jamie Hector) or cops (Wendell Pierce). Patricia (Kerry Washington), a one-time flame who’s now a public defender, is the exception; she’s made a charity case of the entire community, as her young daughter Iris (Jamara Griffin) wryly sees it. Iris doesn’t know what happened to her father, who died when she was young. And neither do we, through most of the film’s duration, because the past only dovetails with the present after Hamilton has established the sense of time and place. The threadbare plot rests on a series of mysteries and misconceptions—most notably those of a 19-year-old wiseguy named Jimmy (Amari Cheatom), who makes a living picking up cans, and has been shafted by his penny-pinching boss for the last time. Jimmy sees Marcus—whose old allies have already branded him as a snitch—as a fogey and a sellout, to boot; but he picks up the Panthers’ torch without knowing where to shine it.

On Fresh Air, Hamilton told Teri Gross that Jimmy represents “someone who borrows somebody else’s history without really fully understanding where it comes from,” and that he’s “kind of like us a little bit.” I think this points to one of the film’s flaws. Patricia, the community organizer, chokes on her words as she tells her daughter that murder isn’t what the Panthers were about; but, apart from this emotional monologue and some well-chosen archive footage from the time, we don’t get enough of a sense of what they were about. In a film about how history is lost even to those who made it, it seems to me, at least, that the filmmaker is responsible for setting the record straight—and not falling into her own thematic trap. Especially if the movie is grounded in actual history and not an exercise in abstraction. Clearly, Marcus and Patricia are meant to be seen as fallen idealists who fought the good fight and failed for reasons that they couldn’t fully control; but how were their antagonists any different than the racist cop that belittles Jimmy? (I don’t want the movie to be didactic, but I don’t want to end up like Jimmy, either.) The Panthers’ enemies were both within and without—Marcus says that a violent Panther comic book was actually propaganda manufactured by the Feds. Was it? Or has even the paranoia gone underground? It hangs under the subtext as suggestively as the ghost-town imagery imposes itself on the surface. On T.V., Iris watches Olive Oyl being dragged off by a pair of specters who appear, then, just as quickly, vanish. And there’s a strangely tranquil scene in which the shoes of policemen slowly work their way toward a helpless man on a hill who’s soon to lose his life. The blurry specks of fireflies hover above the dusk-gray grass like levitating spirits.

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Source Code

12 Monkeys ÷ (Groundhog Day + Unstoppable) = Source Code > your average blockbuster. That’s a fairly simple formula, especially compared to the one supplied by the screenwriter, Ben Ripley; and if you don’t want to know what his is—well then I suggest you close this browser and refresh Facebook for the nth time instead. If you’re still here, Ripley’s source code is like a virtual-reality program that doesn’t send its participant back in time, but gives him or her the ability to interact with an “echo” of the past, as seen from the point of view of one of its spectators. But if you want to get an avatar, you have to meet a very particular, and very rigorous, requirement: Let’s just say, it’s not something you want to be on the waiting list for. Captain Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a helicopter pilot who was serving in Afghanistan, not only didn’t expect to find himself on said list, but didn’t bank on being in the body of someone named Sean, on a commuter train to Chicago, one beautiful April morning. So when the train explodes—well, that really catches him off guard. His mission? Find the person who planted the bomb. And, if time permits—the source code reboots after only eight minutes—grab a quick coffee in the Dunkin’ Donuts club car. (This amenity wasn’t present on any of the METRA trains I’ve ever ridden on; but if we can accept super-sized dorm rooms in movies, I guess we should be able to swallow this dollop of product placement.)

Either I’ve undergone a corporeal swap of my own in the last few sentences or I’ve simply neglected to add the other key variable to the Source Code equation: the 2009 movie Moon, the first directed by Duncan Jones, and the only—before he moved on to this. Moon was an all-too-rare hybrid: a sci-fi epic that’s indie in scope. Despite the shift in setting, from lunar surface to Midwestern metropolis, there’s a remarkable overlap between Sam Rockwell’s astronaut and Gyllenhaal’s commuter—who’s slogging between realms of reality courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, as embodied by Vera Farmiga and Jeffrey Wright. Don’t let this cast trick you: Source Code, released by Summit Entertainment, is not “indie.” But its larger scale redounds to the filmmaker’s ripening technical skills; he’s not yet a master, but he’s found solid footing on the film industry’s own two realms of reality: artistry and commerce. (“Mastery” looks more like 12 Monkeys.) It shows in his special effects—the shorthand editing (by veteran splicer Paul Hirsch) and unusually expressive computer graphics; the lovely Venice-on-Lake Michigan skyline that seems to be smiling for him and his cameraman, Don Burgess—as well as in his handling of the cast.

Gyllenhaal has had a boyish buoyancy, along with a healthy taste for the deranged, since playing Donnie Darko; and Jeffrey Wright, as he’s proved in Angels in America and elsewhere, is a maestro of made-up dialects. (He’s doing “unctuous nerd” here: a computer programmer caught in the military-industrial complex, like a gadfly that doesn’t know it’s stuck in a spiderweb.) Farmiga, playing his subordinate, is chastely brunette—her commuter was butter-blonde in Up in the Air, to enhance her status-symbol standing—and mostly hides behind a monitor; but her immobility highlights her dexterity. She gets more out of guardedness, and the way she flicks off coworkers or shifts in her seat, than some actors can cull from effusion. Only Michelle Monaghan seems a little slighted. As Sean’s lady friend—who sees Stevens as Sean—she has a deliciously feisty grin. But she’s also, technically, D.O.A., and dead love interest ≠ happy vibes. Like The Adjustment Bureau, Source Code is a formalized Twilight Zone episode fatted with thrills. (This one’s also part Quantum Leap.) But nobody, not even Jones—a marksman who aims at melancholy—can make a bull’s-eye when trying to hit both a Hollywood ending and “hard” sci-fi.

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Certified Copy

In the opening scene of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, an esteemed English essayist named Miller (William Shimell) arrives fashionably late to a speaking engagement at a modest literary society in Tuscany. Behind the dais, he apologizes for his tardiness with a variation of the same lame jest that the man who introduced him had made before he arrived. It’s hardly happenstance that Miller’s field of interest is copies: whether the “original” of an idea, a painting, or even person has any intrinsic value. And it doesn’t much matter to him whether his joke bombs, anyway; he’s wrapped in his impeccable reputation, which is vacuum-sealed by his smugness. The lecture is dry enough to drown in, and one attendee—a shaggy-haired boy of about 12—treads water by texting. With accusatory looks, he communicates his displeasure to his mother (Juliette Binoche); and though the dragger scolds the draggee with her eyes, and smiles blandly in her front-row seat—which looks like a wheelchair with the wheels removed—she’s also gabbing, to a partner who’s there in person. All we hear is Miller’s insouciant droning on. But Kiarostami is siphoning off the audience’s visual attention to people in an audience who aren’t paying attention; it’s multilateral irony. Our eyes shift from “original” (mother) to “copy” (son); the camera “copies” the substance of the speech. So either I’ve lost my wits or the director is making us aware of our own awareness.

Often, when an American film—or T.V. show or, God help us, even a certain kind of YouTube vid uploaded by a certain kind of pseud—alerts us to our awareness of it, it’s apologizing for its inability to extricate itself from convention. Such attacks are usually either pious or piteous: Filmmakers hope that we’ll applaud them for being above the fray, or they’re blaming us for forcing them to find themselves stuck below it—like that wad of gum on the bottom of your boot. But the Iranian-born Kiarostami, working in the French film industry, teases us like a swarthy Continental. Binoche’s character doesn’t have a name—sometimes a bad omen, sometimes not—but she’s a 40-something Frenchwoman who’s run an antique shop in Italy for five years. (Is there anything sexier than a Frenchwoman speaking in Italian? Bellissimo!) She’s skeptical of Miller’s work, but takes the author out for an “intentionally aimless” Sunday-morning stroll. They look at a painting that was only recently discovered to be a forgery; crash a wedding; quaff the requisite vino and espresso; and bicker like a couple that’s been married for 15 years. Wait. Have they been? What begins as a role-playing game that digs into contentious divertissements on the nature of life and art becomes something of a shared dream; and who’s to say whether they’re even awake?

Not Kiarostami. Last month, David Denby wrote, in a profile that will, with luck, add the auteur to not a few Netflix queues—I’d link it, but it’s only available to New Yorker subscribers; sry to be so 1.0—that Certified Copy is comparable to Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (1961). That movie, in the decades since its release, has become the poster child of the European “art film”—something of a snot-nosed succès de scandale. Put simply: A well-dressed man tries to convince an even better-dressed woman that they met the year before. It’s easy now to disparage Resnais, whose “chilly formalism and high-fashion chic” looked stuffy in light of Breathless or Bonnie and Clyde. Compared to a Pulp Fiction, it seems downright pointy-headed. But he grappled with Adorno’s thesis that lyricism was impossible in the wake of the Holocaust, and thus worked to perfect a language that bespoke an elegance robbed of emotion. His movies’ “chic” is trashy but tragic. I think many Americans long for a fresh form of lyricism now, in features set around the time that Marienbad was made—and on T.V., too: in Mad Men. (Don Draper takes an extended lunch to see the film in one episode.) Kiarostami, working in the present tense, has found what we’ve been looking for; and, as Denby notes, his subjects are “irritably alive, not mannequins.”

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Sucker Punch

The beer in my gut from before I hit Sucker Punch doesn’t preclude me from knowing what the film was about; I only wish it did. The trailer had me fooled that maybe Zack Snyder, directing his own material for the first time, had gone ballistic in a redeemable, wacko-Zacko way. I’ve successfully evaded his 300 for four years now—not just for its emetic machismo, but also because its recreation of Thermopylae all-too-conveniently synched up with our hawkish stance toward Iran. (Those two elements go hand-in-hand, like paper and ink for a recruitment poster.) And I thought his Watchmen was thoroughly mediocre—except for the infamous Leonard Cohen makeout scene, which transcended bad taste enough to become a big-budget microcosm of Troll 2. (That’s what convinced me that Sucker Punch would be worth watching.) Like his Art Center classmate Michael Bay, Snyder’s a punching bag for those who care for movies that do more than dole out boners to adolescent boys; and I doubt it’s coincidental that Snyder’s directing career, like Bay’s, began in advertising. Sucker Punch is another fantasy-within-a-fantasy-within-a-fantasy, a by-now triply tripe trope; and Snyder’s ineptitude actually had me longing for Christopher Nolan’s anality. In films like The Wizard of Oz or The Fall, we see the real-life inspirations for the figures in the dreamworld; here, we can’t even be sure who’s cooking all this up since some of the figments of our heroine’s imagination are people that only other characters encounter in “reality.” Is this supposed to pass for a twist?

Depending on the hermeneutic you use, the real world of the film centers around either a.) a quartet of fetching young ladies (Emily Browning, Abbie Cornish, Jena Malone, and Vanessa Hudgens) trying to escape from an insane asylum on the outskirts of Gotham City; b.) a quartet of fetching young ladies—orphans who’ve been snatched up by mobsters and conscripted for exotic dancing—trying to escape from a harem on the outskirts of any film noir; or c.) a quartet of Charlie’s Angels engaged in combat with cybernetic Nazi zombies on the outskirts of Middle Earth. I think it’s d.) none of the above. The realities in which the girls are abused and molested are oppressive and maudlin, and yet no less cartoony than fantasies in which dragons collude with Germans. Snyder, like Tarantino, contrives to use a feminist gloss to pump his exploitation flicks full of high-minded airs, but that only makes them doubly exploitive; his girls are kicking ass to fulfill young boys’ dirty-old-man dreams. (Maybe man-children have such trouble emerging from their cocoons, and even more difficulty getting laid, because they’re being bred to think that dolling up like Sailor Moon while slaying baby dragons is the substance of real girls’ reveries.) Sucker Punch is an homage to Kill Bill, and Kill Bill was nothing but homages. At least Tarantino was building on his prized collection of esoterica; Snyder seems to have never set foot outside a multiplex, just as he seems to have never picked up a novel that wasn’t graphic. (And his ear’s as dull as his eye. I’m not sure which is worse: that all of his musical choices are obvious or that half of them are emo’d covers.) There’s no imagination under this movie’s baroque surface. One might say that to heap all this slag together takes talent; but the cyborg-Nazi-zombies do nothing that their non-hyphenated brethren don’t do in other video games—err, movies. And people often confuse talent with creativity. Creativity is having ideas; talent is knowing what to do with them.

Insanity, like irony, began to seep into the mainstream in its it’s-all-in-your-head, you’re-not-crazy-the-world-is form during the counterculture ’60s; there’s a reason they called it “freaking” out. But, as Jack Shafer implied a few months ago—in an appraisal of how the edgy ontology of Philip K. Dick, the Tucson gunman’s favorite writer, has affected our pop culture—the cray-cray is here to stay. The year 1999 was a sort of watershed for Dickheaded schizophrenia: The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Sixth Sense all became über-mega-hits. American Psycho and Memento followed in 2000, proving that even mind-fucking indies could cross over and make the big bucks. Just in the past year alone, Shutter Island, Inception, Tron: Legacy, Black Swan, The Adjustment Bureau, and now Sucker Punch have all skied down the lobes of slalomed brains, bouncing between realities the way you change your socks, and viewers have sucked this brain candy down like popcorn. There may well be a kernel of hipster snobbery in this—the mentality that dictates that my favorite (Brooklyn) band loses its caché of cool if you’ve heard of it. But Dick, who died in 1982, was the underground’s man; his vision was paranoid yet critical. Sucker Punch doles him out like baby food—and reduces him to a spoonful of empty calories. If we accept “insanity” as mere entertainment, then we begin to take sanity for granted. The Dickian vanguard is valuable because it lets us look outside the box. It teaches us that taking “reality” for granted is the insanest form of complacency.