Summer Medley

Trying to pack in a few thoughts, like cans in a cooler. You can stack them only so delicately, as they sweat through your palms; they are in a hurry to get to the beach, and so are you. Unless you are of a spiritual bent, beaches, like moribund movie houses, are among the few places left to us in which time dilates, either oversaturated by sun or untouched by it. You can’t even get New York Times push alerts in these dwindling temples against time.

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Bless the summer, but it isn’t a refuge. I stumbled upon a collection of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa, Notes on the Death of Culture, the weekend after Justice Kennedy announced his retirement from the Supreme Court. In an open society, the Peruvian writer maintains, “culture should exert an influence over political life, submitting it to a continual critical evaluation and inculcating it with values to prevent it from becoming degraded.”

It’s been pablum for decades that the American left wins at culture and the right wins at politics. But what may have once looked like a stalemate now seems a divorce, with the right not accepting the alimony the left insists on paying. The left, operating out in the open because it has a product that can sell—in terms of its vision and policies—is disadvantaged by the right, which prefers to do its work in the shadows, shoring up its power outside the electoral process, and seeing to it that one’s vote counts less and less as those who’d vote against it account for a larger share of the electorate.

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Interstellar

So far as I can tell, the best vindication for Christopher Nolan’s method in Interstellar is its black hole. Like so much of this director’s work, black holes are spectacularly dense but ultimately empty, and yet the fallen star of this film casts a warm afterglow. That most lethal of all world-killers—an appetite incarnate that eats global warming for breakfast and Creation for doomsday brunch—is presented not as the jaws of nonexistence but rather a swirl of molten glass. It isn’t an impediment or the object of dread; it’s closer to being a miracle. Like so much that comes out of Hollywood, this image seemed too beautiful to be true. But, by feeding 800 terabytes worth of astrophysical research into special-effects software, the filmmakers have created the most scientifically accurate model of a black hole ever visualized. The artist’s instinct is to find truth in beauty; Nolan has found beauty in data.

Interstellar wants to ascend to the heavens, but it’s pulled down by the blue ribbons that Nolan has tied to every last meteoroid. Maybe ten minutes have passed before Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is told by his father (John Lithgow) that this world was never enough for him. Those lousy bureaucrats who don’t believe in dreams have reduced this erstwhile engineer, test pilot, and all-around gentleman and scholar to subsistence farming. In the midst of something-or-other that somehow relates to climate change, our intrepid hero’s old employer, NASA, has been defunded. Instead of trying to stanch this cataclysmic dustbowl, the powers-at-be are sticking every able body with a pitchfork, and rewriting textbooks to remind kids that the moon landings were faked. Strangely enough, for what appears to be a rapidly collapsing, quasi-totalitarian state, the military has also been abolished. The plow is mightier than the sword—until it comes time to take out the riot gear.

You see, it’s not like back in the day, when people used to have ideas and build things—or so Grampy Lithgow groans, again and again. But who could blame these neo-Okies for not wanting to listen? An estimable actor like Lithgow must need Ex-Lax to get lines like these out. Whatever his heartfelt convictions, Nolan is not a born populist when it comes to expressing them. He mistakes pablum for wisdom. And then he goes and does a flip on his perceived audience anyway by having Coop discover that NASA’s alive and well, and guzzling tax dollars in secret—ergo, whoever is running things is actively stripping its citizens of hope for the future, by way of propaganda, but is at the same time financing a rescue operation behind their backs because they’re too cynical to be counted on to support it? Perhaps I’m slicing things too thin, but considering his reputation as an idea man, Nolan sure seems oblivious when it comes to implications. This homage to 2001 could’ve been called Mr. Magoo Meets the Monolith.
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The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s movies are often called “magical,” and that’s typically not applied in the pejorative; but his sway has elements that Lord Voldemort, his unlikely box-office competitor, might be jealous of. “He is trying to film God,” Mick LaSalle believes; he’s “attempting … to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives,” Roger Ebert opines; “The Tree of Life ponders some of the hardest and most persistent questions, the kind that leave adults speechless when children ask them,” says A.O. Scott; “Should the film have been titled ‘Are You There, God? It’s Me, Malick’?” the Movie Monster mumbles. Clearly, the film strikes a chord. But if it makes one feel as if criticizing it were child abuse, well, someone’s waving a wand behind the scenes: Voldemort—the Koch brothers perhaps. Actually, the man behind this curtain both is and isn’t Malick, obscured by his cloak of public invisibility: “Genius” is inscribed on it, the way “Diva” is sewn on sweatpants booties.

That said, I do not disbelieve claims that he is ingenuous, guileless, unpretentious, ambitious, or talented; I do not believe that The Tree of Life is a bad movie; but I also do not believe its Creator is infallible. First off, there’s a reason this film invites such anvils of praise as “confirmation that cinema can aspire to art.” His “art” is writ so large it can be seen from space: and, indeed, he chucks us at the second star to his right, and goes straight on till the first-ever morning. In case you haven’t heard, Malick follows his opening shots of grown-up Jack (Sean Penn) daydreaming in a Dallas office, during the present day, with the reactions of Jack’s parents to his brother’s death, circa the 1960s—the cause of death is undisclosed, though Malick had a younger brother who is said to have taken his own life in 1968—and then the director hops back a bit further: to the Big Bang. The ensuing light show was designed in part by Douglas Trumbull, who, as a young man, went Beyond the Infinite with Kubrick in 2001. It’s a striking montage: Like the waves breaking on themselves in Jack’s memory, there’s an ebb and flow to the cosmic matter and, later, the lava, churning out civilization’s lifeblood. It’s an illustration of time. But it doesn’t have an inch more depth than Duncan Jones’s essay on ephemerality, scrawled in editing, in Source Code. This sequence was intended for another film—one that Malick never got around to making. It shows.

What follows, for quite awhile, is equally blunt “art,” although some of the images and gestures lodge in your mind like morsels of food lodge in your teeth. Though set in Texas, where Malick grew up, it never seems very hot; for the interiors, it’s as if the curtains veiled a full moon that’s parked itself next door. The camera is a character, the buoyant head atop an invisible child’s shoulders. Essentially, The Tree of Life is a portrait of the artist as a sensitive kid; and young Jack (Hunter McCracken, fantastic) isn’t much different than other sensitive kids. The O’Brien family is mildly dysfunctional—a headache rather than a heart attack—with a childlike Earth-mother (ginger-haired Jessica Chastain), representing “grace,” and a melancholic tough-guy dad (Brad Pitt), representing “nature,” as the two poles between which Jack is torn. And though it could be said that this lengthy midsection, by way of the director’s impressionistic editing, is true to the processes of memory, it struck me as a best-of reel of every early memory Malick ever wanted to sanctify on film; and it’s sanctified, all right, by the Mahler and the Brahms that exult in the imagery. But it’s like a Hallmark card written by someone with direly serious literary ambitions: The story doesn’t live up to the style, whether you call it a story or not. (Though the story does catch up eventually.) Malick’s camera gapes at adults as if they were skyscrapers, and skyscrapers as if they were adults; this glabrous equipoise is genuinely childlike. But when exaltation is the default mode, each scene—each memory—carries the same weight as the last. The style says: Everything is beautiful. Which is to say, it says nothing.

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The King's Speech

What is The King’s Speech saying? Is it about the importance of symbols, like the British royal family? Or is it about the importance of another kind of symbol: the little golden statuette that the whole movie seems to be gesturing “call me” to? I hope it picks up for Colin Firth. He’s tremendously eloquent as the stuttering King George VI; one can sense his every repressed thought, even the ones that good taste, psychosomatic trauma, and crippling propriety impede him from enunciating. It’s a more sustained performance, I think, than the often-brilliant one he gave, as another person suffering from multi-vectorial repression, in A Single Man; and it’s better-humored than much of the regal portraiture we get: He’s even a bit of a goofus. In a smaller role, as the Queen Mum-to-be, Helena Bonham Carter also shimmers like a royal jewel; one can see how the human resources that she devoted to her husband informed the public figure who was revered until her death, in 2002. (At the very least, she was more popular with her people than Carter’s screeching monarch in her real-life lovey’s Alice in Wonderland.) As a hammy, hardscrabble Shakespearean actor, Geoffrey Rush is also quite good, though he puts in the “gravitas” that Firth was so kind to take out; at times, he could be mistaken for an eroded statue.

Rush plays the catalyst: Lionel Logue is not only the king’s speech therapist, but also his psychologist and cheerleader; ergo, The King’s Speech is basically Ordinary People—but with extraordinary people! As a subject, the film is beautifully conceived; it has a great real-life basis; an excellent angle for viewing history; and the kind of transatlantic cunning that lets audiences identify proudly with the low-born Logue’s democratic know-how while still adulating the royals—in a somewhat classier way than the tabs that psych us up for the forthcoming nuptials of Edward’s great-grandson, Prince William. (It also avoids perturbing the present sitters-on-the-throne by only skimming the surface when it comes to the scummy abdicator George VIII—played by a multivalent Guy Pearce—and his alleged Nazi sympathies. For Edward, his brother was a royal pain in the ass; but, these days, the scandal that sooted George’s marriage to the divorcée Wallis Simpson can be made to seem very archaic.)

The movie is also careful to dodge any theme that history lobs at it, except for such commonplaces as patriotism and overcoming adversity—and all that crap. Though there’s something to be said for the doctor-patient rapport; and the film is genuinely affecting when it deals with a rather ambiguous virtue: a people’s need for a strong leader (albeit a figurehead) to unite them in troubled times. Its wit, narrative charge, and performances make The King’s Speech engrossing for the ears, if not for the eyes. With a rich, bold, and modulated color palette, Danny Cohen’s cinematography is quite lovely; but, the director, Tom Hooper—or whoever it is who can be blamed for the blocking—stages the shots ludicrously. Beethoven helps him out during the rousing climax, but Carter should sue the director and editor for mishandling her introduction to Mrs. Logue (Jennifer Ehle). Even Westminster Abbey seems like a set (or worse, a computer simulation); maybe it is. The visuals make inexplicably extensive use of wide-angle lenses in a way that’s suggestive of the weirdo work by the expat photographer William Klein and the thick-skinned formalism of Stanley Kubrick. Everything is either dead-center or so imbalanced that I waited for some little wanker to fill the negative space and make lewd faces in the foreground. God save the King.

The Complete Metropolis

At a time when most of the new releases (Marmaduke, Prince of Persia, Sex and the City 2, The A-Team, The Karate Kid) form the punchline to some obscene and heinous joke, it’s refreshing to reflect on some revivals, now in limited release. The first, Fritz Lang’s silent Metropolis, was, in scale, the Avatar of its day; unfortunately, this German Expressionist capstone was chopped up and bowdlerized, and thus a dud with its transatlantic audience in 1927. The new version, released by Kino International, and incorporating long-lost footage that was unearthed in an Argentine cellar in 2008, is the most complete version shown since the Berlin premiere.

For filmmakers, the silent era was like college or band camp: a time for experimentation. And if you were conducting your experiments in Weimar Germany, at the height of the Roaring ’20s—well, things were bound to get out of hand. Metropolis is what can result from handing an imaginative, impassioned, ambitious nutcase a heaping wad of filthy lucre. Set 100 years in the future—or, roughly 17 years from now—it’s a parable about class rapprochement that was flayed left (for depicting the proletariats as brutes) and right (for applying Marx’s view of history to the future). A certain éminence grise, one Herbert George Wells, lambasted this shaping of the things to come for, among other things, its vertical urban planning: Why hasn’t Metropolis gentrified, depositing its dregs into suburbs? Why haven’t the efficient machines outgrown their need for human operators? (Two decades thence, Orwell might have had an answer for him.) In what sort of vision of the future do we still bop around in Packards, with biplanes in every garage? Wells shanked the movie and twisted the knife: “Originality there is none, independent thought none.” Ouch! He must have read the intertitles but stewed up his own imaginary dystopias while Lang’s visuals played onscreen. Luis Buñuel, writing two years before he picked up a camera to shoot Un Chien Andalou, was more appreciative of Lang’s balls-to-the-wall formalism:

Those who understand cinema as an unassuming storytelling mechanism will be deeply disappointed in Metropolis. … But, if to the tale we prefer the “plastico-photogenic” background of the film, then Metropolis will fulfill our wildest dreams, will astonish us as the most astounding book of images it is possible to compose.

Forty years later, Andrew Sarris neatly summed up the film’s flaws:

Fritz Lang’s cinema is the cinema of the … fable, and the philosophical dissertation. … Lang’s plots generally go inexplicably … sentimental at the very end. His characters never develop with any psychological precision, and his world lacks the details of verisimilitude that are so important to realistic critics.

Right on, with one reservation: Metropolis is saccharine-sweet and sentimental throughout, like a river of simple syrup. (The mediator between the mind and hands must be the heart? Riiiight.) But I’ve doled out all this criticism of a classic for a reason: It wasn’t a classic when it came out; Metropolis was the UFA studio’s Heaven’s Gate. Nowadays, its place in the pantheon’s assured, if only for its influence—Star Wars to cyberpunk to animé, on down. And yet, in terms of substance, in terms of “verisimilitude” and “psychological precision,” this film’s no better than Slumdog Millionaire—and if that newer movie is going to end up in textbooks, like Metropolis has, it’ll likely be in reference to multiculturalism rather than technique. In 2001, Kubrick’s characters were about as lively as Civil War casualties, but he obsessed over the details of 21st-century life; Lang has no such fixations. I have no idea what the mediator, Freder, does in his spare time—aside from running track, and being chased by an all-girl flapper production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that’s accoutered like the court at Versailles. There are no human voices like Peter Lorre’s wounded cry in M, which would have been spooky in silence, too.

But Lang’s voice comes through. Our admiration of his technique—of his indulgence in the potentialities of a high-tech medium—is mirrored in the movie. In a take off of Cubism, people literally blend into the urban landscape: The workers perform a pas de deux with their clock-like contraptions, even as the Moloch-machines suck ’em dry like industrial vampires. Kaleidoscoped eyes look lasciviously on as a femme bot makes a jive out of her conniptions. Her dance number is the most brilliant, flagrant curveball in the movie; she looks like a lady but gyrates her hips like the pistons that power Metropolis. It’s as kinky as a carburetor. And yet the rich—dressed to the nines like Gatsby’s meretricious gate crashers—fall over each other to nab Čapek’s coquette. The poor fall for her ruse, too, and even more embarrassingly. This robot is in the guise of Maria, the deposed saint who preaches pacifism; the original has been kidnapped by the android’s mad inventor, whose incomparable appellation is Rotwang. But Maria’s followers are insensitive to the switcheroo even as their Gandhi spouts off like Sarah Palin; she goes from Tolstoy to Stalin in the blink of a cybernetic eye. Clearly, Lang is enamored with technology to such a degree that his characters can’t distinguish flesh from steel; but he’s enamored, too, with the Bible, and its austere moral certitude. (As Buñuel grasps, “Metropolis is two films joined at the hip, but with divergent spiritual necessities that are diametrically opposed to each other.”) The parable that passes for a script is credited to Thea von Harbou, but Lang and his artisans (among the cinematographers was Karl Freund, who later filmed I Love Lucy) were clearly infected with its conflicting passions. Their visual aesthetic—Art Deco-Babylonian—is as retro-futuristic now as it was in 1927. The ideas are ancient, and yet the vision—the emotional extravagance—is ageless.

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Moon

Duncan Jones’s Moon rises high in the sky, but twinkles somewhat faintly. It borrows heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris. It’s a variation on common themes, but themes that may not be common enough. And, compared to the others, Moon is exceptionally modest and accessible. It distills ruminations from the great sci-fi megillahs and boils them down to simple human drama.

In the not-too-distant future, Earth’s “clean” energy is mined on the lunar surface. The mines require only one overseer, who’s secluded on our satellite for three years; communications to and from Earth must be prerecorded, so his only face-to-face companion is a mobile computer called GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), whose operating system is half-HAL-9000 and half-WALL-E. Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) is finishing up his three-year contract as the movie opens. Homesick, he’s grown a grizzly beard and is surly with his programmed pal; he takes solace in videos from his family, and in making a paper model of his home town. But his reminisces get the best of him: He sees a mirage of his wife (Dominique McElligott) while driving in his lunar rover, and accidentally crashes into a giant thrasher. We then see Sam awakened by GERTY back on the station and forbidden to leave; but Sam seems to have an intuition, goes out to the thrasher, and discovers himself to be in the wreckage, as well.

If this passage seems a little hard to follow, it’s because there are now two Sams perambulating about the base. (If you don’t want to know why, you may not want to read on.) GERTY is invariably shady when the Sams question him about this, and, at first, the Sams can’t get much out of each other; they behave like one of the more unfortunate pairings forged through Craigslist. The “new” Sam thinks they’re both clones, and the old one concedes that their lives, memories, and destinies are all a sham; like the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, they are secondary to corporate directives. Eventually, they seek ways to return “home”—that is, to Earth—before a repair crew arrives at the base and discovers them both there. The Sams question their humanity and authenticity, but mature before our eyes. Like the vivacious replicants in Blade Runner, old Sam seems to be reaching his expiration date; new Sam starts out brutal and impatient, but learns to respect his fellow self.

Moon runs the old what-is-it-to-be-human jag, but does so at full gallop. Fancy bouts of pontification are disposed of without detriment to the movie; the screenwriter, Nathan Parker, keeps the dialogue ever fluid and never dripping with significance. Unlike cousin HAL, GERTY—by way of Spacey’s smarmy-smooth diction—is ultimately humane, but this revelation is never lingered on. The ambiguous little smiley faces that GERTY expresses himself with are enough to make the complexity of his “humanness” clear. But, despite such touches, which make this a shimmering crescent-moon of a picture, Jones’s conception hasn’t entirely waxed.

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There Will Be Blood

Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood is the kind of film that hovers over you like a cloud; it has the immensity of an epic, the density of a biblical exegesis and the mood of a surreal horror picture. Its two and a half hours go by smoothly and yet the movie has something of an irregular heartbeat; it might be called a high-strung impressionist’s dream of American Gothic.

The thirty-year saga begins in 1898, at which time Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) is an amateur oilman operating a small derrick in a forbidding Southwestern desert, although, from the look of it, the scene may as well have been placed among the Iraqi ruins where Father Merrin unleashed the demon in The Exorcist. When, after much toil and the loss of at least one life, black gold finally manifests itself in the manmade well, it’s as though it’s coming to life—it sputters and seethes as if in a witch’s cauldron—and a grandiose climax on the soundtrack registers its birth as an evil portent. (The music here echoes that which played when Jack Torrance entered the haunted hotel bar in The Shining.)

Within a few years, Plainview becomes a shrewdly professional oil prospector. He moves into communities and, flashing his leathery smile, boasting of his “frank” manner and status as an old-fashioned family man (he has adopted a dead miner’s son, though claims that the boy, H.W., is his), swindles the townsfolk out of their land.

After receiving a tip from Paul Sunday (Paul Dano), he slithers his way into Little Boston, California, and sets up a rig there. Even when the derrick goes ablaze—with an explosion that costs H.W. (Dillon Freasier) his hearing—Plainview is perfectly, maniacally happy; the earth is pregnant with a seemingly unlimited supply of oil, the lifeblood of the burgeoning American economy, as well as Plainview’s planned isolation from the rest of the human race. Put as simply as possible, the plot of There Will Be Blood is a stringing together of the oilman’s exploits at toppling everyone and everything around him in order to divorce himself from mankind.

Plainview has just what his name implies—a “competition” in him and a simple distaste for people—but the way the camera lingers on him suggests a deeper, stickier quality to his personality. I’m still trying to determine how much I like Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance; he has the uncanny ability to contort his jaw and control every furrow in his brow. It’s wildly theatrical and magnetic—as in Gangs of New York, where he came off as rather silly—and once again he’s topped it off with an absurd accent, something like a Tammany Hall caricature mixed with Sean Connery. Anderson doesn’t quite get it, either, but he loves to let Day-Lewis’ facial fluctuations fill the frame. Maybe it works because it’s such a grandiose, classical performance (mustachioed, he looks like a silent movie villain or Timothy Dalton from Hot Fuzz) and yet he touches on something behind the misanthropy and greed—as Plainview’s interspersed malice and tenderness in raising H.W. suggests. Because it’s so blatant, it’s a discomforting performance—it has the effect of when a friend says something offensive and you think initially that it’s a joke, but come to realize that he really means it. His wittiness and scariness are eerily inseparable.

Dano’s performance and role are equally oblique. His plaintive face looks even more like clay here than in Little Miss Sunshine and this nebulousness is both his menace and vulnerability. In Sunshine, Dano’s role as a psilosopher amounted to little more than stylized teen angst. When, here, as an evangelical preacher, he casts out a demon from a parishioner, Dano builds up a fury that’s eerily adolescent but nonetheless hypnotic to watch, reminiscent of both Gene Wilder and the somnambulist in Dr. Caligari. The character is either a phony or has the wrath of God on his side, and that spooks—more than spooks, infuriates—smug, satanic Plainview. Dano and Day-Lewis are most enjoyable together—their smarminess, deviousness and sheer energy complement one another (we are tickled by our inability to determine which character poses a greater threat to the other)—and when their dialogue overlaps, as it does in one scene, one can see Anderson tipping his hat to the late Robert Altman, to whom this film was dedicated.

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