Movie Monster So White, Part II

All right, guys. I’m pumped. The nominees for Best Picture crushed it this year, despite the color-blindness of the Academy—which isn’t the kind of color-blindness that the late, great “Stephen Colbert” used to compliment himself for back in the Colbert Report days. (Here’s a thought: There are so many good choices, why not widen the field to 2009 levels, as a means of increasing its diversity?) I’ll start where I left off, and dive right in.

And the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture of 2015 are . . .
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Wild is about a trial by fire for someone who plays with matches. That someone is Cheryl Strayed, who, in 1995, hiked over a thousand miles of the Pacific Crest Trail with very tender feet. She was not a precocious searcher, like Christopher McCandless, or an experienced mountaineer like Aron Ralston; she was recovering from loss, addiction, and divorce, and this challenge was her cleanse. I haven’t read her memoir—which wasn’t published until 2012—but it would appear that its adapters have distilled from her complex life a few gobbets of optimism and self-determination. In the end, Sheryl physically crosses her metaphorical bridge, but Reese Witherspoon cuts a fine figure of what it’s like to be at a crossroads.

There are times, though, when the script (by Nick Hornby) and the direction (by Jean-Marc Vallée) seems too inchoate, or too insensitive in its treatment of Sheryl. Perhaps the strangest miscalculation comes at the very beginning—which has the virtue of making it easy to forget by film’s end. We open on a black screen and coital-sounding noises which are revealed to be agonized huffs. This bump in Sheryl’s road is both graphic and upsetting—she rips off a toenail and loses a boot—but weighs very lightly on the plot overall. At one point, Sheryl finds herself hitchhiking. The driver who stops doesn’t pick her up but claims to be a reporter from The Hobo Times. It’s a pleasurably inexplicable moment—he snaps her picture and logs a quote into the notepad stored in his shirt pocket—but Sheryl reacts like a stolid nitwit, and there’s something hollow and stoogey about Witherspoon’s delivery. Sheryl’s feminism—which is folded into her naïveté, her predeveloped worldview—is the butt of the joke.

Least accountable of all the misfires, however, is the closeted eroticism imposed on the flashbacks involving her brother Leif (Keene McRae). Perhaps, in a scene where he comes home with a friend and asks their doting mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) what’s for dinner, the intention is to show that he’s saddling Bobbi with stereotypically female obligations that Sheryl does not approve of. Bobbi has, in fact, broken from Sheryl and Leif’s abusive father to raise them on her own, and is only now going back to school. But what is one to make of the dark look that Leif’s companion casts at Sheryl, or the weird, possessive way Leif gives his mother a kiss? The oddly loaded atmosphere carries over to a scene where brother and sister are in bed together talking about Bobbi, who’s dying of cancer. And when Sheryl convinces her brother to commit a horrific act after Bobbi’s death, the toll that this event takes on the siblings’ relationship is never made clear. Their only interaction during her hike is a brief, generic message she leaves on his answering machine.
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Humanity is meted out in Ida, as if hope and happiness were going out of stock. Shot in standard—four-by-thee—ratio, and black-and-white, Paweł Pawlikowski’s film resembles the behind-the-wall hits of the era in which it is set, such as Miloš Forman’s Czech tragicomedy Loves of a Blonde (1965). But a style which once implied alacrity is, in Ida, painstakingly composed, with subjects trapped by staircases and power lines, stark contrasts and infinite sky, snow blowing nowhere. The muted expressions, which glaze the women’s faces and have few rest stops on the road from numbness to suffering, are circumscribed by the limits of one character’s experiences and the other’s expectations. It’s like Melancholia externalized: a perpetual, institutional post-apocalypse.

Ida makes one feel cloistered; it begins, fittingly, at an abbey, where Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) is on the verge of taking her vows. Before this happens, the novitiate is instructed to visit with her only living relative, an aunt named Wanda (Agata Kulesza), who she has never met. (Anna had been deposited at the convent as a baby.) Wanda, whose apartment is luxurious by Lodz standards, goes through cigarettes and assignations on an assembly line, and greases the gears with booze; she has the worn, black pout of Jeanne Moreau. When she informs Anna that she’s a “Jewish nun,” the revelation is loaded like a black joke or insult. To Anna, it’s a non sequitur. Shown no more hospitality than a photo of her dead mother, and neither expecting nor feeling entitled to more, she heads back to the bus station that afternoon—till Wanda has a change of heart. They embark for the provinces to find where Anna’s parents were buried during the war.

These stories of Jews hidden, and ultimately betrayed, under the gun, by their Christian neighbors—the only American variant that comes to mind is the Jonathan Safran Foer novel Everything Is Illuminated—are rarely told from a Gentile perspective. Seen through the prism of a “Jewish nun,” who is learning to react to external stimuli as a toddler, innately resigned to Original Sin, might, Ida’s journey has elements of both freshness and detachment. Pawlikowski’s take on it is both aestheticized and ascetic. I wasn’t thrilled with the disjuncture between his glacially paced, high-art cinematography and the glacial, dismal settings at first; the implication seemed to be that direct emotion would be too vulgar. But this is a story, essentially, of aftermath: told after the action has happened and history had been set. The film’s deliberative style gives the viewer unusually broad license to scrutinize each frame; it’s like looking at beautiful portraits in a gallery that don’t catch or create a moment in time but digest it. The two women embody “earth” and “grace,” but unlike Malick in The Tree of Life, Pawlikowski makes them flesh—lets them be flesh. In Wanda’s case, waxing flesh, sweating like a candle melting to the nub. A magistrate, she was nicknamed “Red Wanda” in the early ’50s because of her zealous prosecution—and execution—of enemies of the state. She gives the lie to the Soviet bureaucracy; public policy has absorbed her private thirst for vengeance, which neither blood nor vodka can sanctify.

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12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave starts out as a melodrama served cold. Its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), was a real person, but his name couldn’t be more fitting: He was an engineer, a husband, father of two, violinist, and respectable citizen of the spa town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when he was abducted by slavers in 1841. The sketch we have of his home life is about as detailed as a Christmas card, but maybe anyone’s memories of his former life would be as swaddled in gauze given the circumstances that these are remembered from. Far away, down South, Northup struggles to make a missive out of a reed and one of the three berries he’s been rationed for dessert; the makeshift ink blots on the page, forming an unintelligible puddle. His own words have been stolen from him.

At first, the movie, directed by Steve McQueen from a screenplay by John Ridley, fumbled with my trust. Were the con men—who hesitate to call their enterprise a circus; never a good start—meant to sound as if 19th-century English was not their first language? Are they bad actors or playing bad actors? Either way, goosebumps rise on cue. I get the point, but maybe it’s rather shrewd: within five minutes of tucking in his darlings, Solomon is flayed, caged, and a commodity on a steamship. The events are brutal, and so is the storytelling technique. McQueen’s use of celebrity cameos in this sequence is a stunning coup of hopeless dread: Michael K. Williams, familiar from his resilient hoods on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, is gagged and buried at sea in minutes; Paul Giamatti slaps and prods his hard-bodied merchandise at auction—the sound effect used is a Looney Tune whiplash—and his spare, mercantile diction spits all the warm feelings associated with him back at the audience’s face. The There Will Be Blood modernist thuds on the soundtrack when we see the boat’s wheel spinning are the first indication of the movie’s theme; the second is Giamatti’s reply to Benedict Cumberbatch when the latter, playing an upscale customer, evinces disgust at separating a mother from her daughter: “My sentiments extend the length of a coin.” Cumberbatch looks like Jefferson Davis and is about as ineffectual; he buys the mother and he buys Northup.

Although Cumberbatch’s planter is shown as a benign despot, an embodiment of the limitations of Southern courtliness, the melodrama continues unabated at his plantation. Paul Dano is making a career out of pathetic bullies; here he’s a cracker who holds Northup in contempt and tries to lynch him. This turns out to be the most thinly conceived sequence—his hatred has no more dimensions than the sadistic zookeeper’s did in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Though he shows Northup—rebranded as “Platt”—favor, Cumberbatch lets him down right on schedule, and pawns his tarnished merchandise off on a “nigger beater” named Epps (Michael Fassbender). It’s here that the plot and the dialogue—it sounds too theatrical to be common speech, but how’s one to know?—begin to transcend tendentiousness. Still, the film has already done something that I think is humane, controversial, and radically accurate all at once: Northup is inuring himself to his new station. He hasn’t given up, but he’s coping. 12 Years a Slave is presenting slavery as something that actually happened to actual people.

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One of the hallmarks of a depressed mind is what Travis Bickle called “morbid self-attention.” Perhaps that explains why the depressed mind behind Melancholia—the film that Lars von Trier was supposedly trying to promote during his foot-in-mouth outbreak at Cannes this year—is so acute at describing the condition, as well as the delusions that always creep in its wake, and yet pedestrian in his handling of so much else. The flesh on her face brittle, as if, on top of those exemplary cheekbones, dishwater was coursing through paper veins, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) chokes on tears, as well as on meatloaf, which, in her state, tastes like ashes; she cannot even let her anxieties steep in a hot bath without her sister’s assistance. Earlier, on her wedding night, she can—but only while the guests are waiting for her to cut the cake. Though bluntly written, and slightly overplayed by Kiefer Sutherland, as John, Justine’s pretench swain of a brother-in-law, there’s a prickly, honest scene in which John has his dolorous in-law, whose lavish reception he funded, promise to be happy, for the sake of her sister, Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg). This is a promise no one can keep, really—but especially not Justine. To be melancholy is to be emotionally paralyzed; the shortcomings of the will and the problems of the world mesh together like the junkers in a demolition derby, and you feel as if you’re behind each wheel. When someone as beautiful as Dunst is overtaken by despair, it underlines the ineffability of the soul; the halo of glamour, mislaid though it might be, is backlit by mystery. The actress has down pat the way the afflicted cast their glances in multiple directions at once. All too often, the real world is filtered from that field of vision, as if it were hidden behind a pane of pain.

Dunst’s performance aside, the movie itself seems a little sealed off. In Dancer in the Dark (2000), Trier juxtaposed Björk’s bleak existence with the escapism of Hollywood musicals; here, Justine’s Pre-Raphaelite princess fantasies hardly contrast with the jet-set profligacy of her “real” world. Even though the limousines have Pennsylvania plates, John’s ancestral castle, where Justine’s wedding reception is held—judging from the the topiary, Marienbad has been retrofitted as a driving range, though its one-percenter clientele is still in zomboid circulation—was shot in Sweden. (In Vladimir Nabokov’s slim, wonderful novel Pnin, a pompous nonconformist—read: Vladimir Nabokov—calls melancholia a “bourgeois” affliction. Here, it seems, depression comes with a much heftier price tag.) The delocalized setting, the faceless guests in their Armanis and ice, the Bruegel and the Wagner, the casting of Charlotte Rampling and John Hurt as the bride’s—thank God!—separated parents, are all so foundational to the European art house that Trier’s attempts at contemporary realism, viz Rachel Getting Married, resonate unevenly. All the more so because they’re thinly conceived. There’s no way to accept Justine as a whiz at advertising; or Stellan Skarsgård, as her boss, bullying her into inspiration in the midst of her holy matrimony; or her blank-slate groom (Alexander Skarsgård), whom she immediately cheats on with a random pischer—she’s too fickle to consummate her vows. And for all the cheddar he cheesed on these nuptials, couldn’t John have hired a better band? In air this refined, how could “La Bamba” on a keyboard even exist?

I should probably mention that Melancholia is not only the title, but also the name that some cutup at NASA has given to a planet on an improbable course to collide with Earth during the film’s second half. (This sapphire bulb has, if nothing else, a more metal name than Pandora.) We get a glimpse of it early on, in a prelude—or, maybe, premonition—that precedes Part I, the wedding sequence, which is named after Justine—whose own name is somewhat tackily lifted from de Sade. The hypnotic lentor of this preview is astounding—dead fowl fall from the heavens and, in the heavens, two C.G. globes perform an interstellar waltz, neither of which certain if the other is leading. (It’s almost too astounding, because its intensity goes unequaled until the end.) We can tell this is the tempo that Justine perceives life to be playing at because she’s hitched to a smog of gray yarn, which she later describes as her figurative ball-and-chain. And, since we see serpents of electricity flutter from her fingertips, we know she’s got the power. Not the power to zap enemies, like the emperor in Return of the Jedi, but to face the impending apocalypse. John, swaddled in silk suits and faith in reason, denies it; the scientists say, or so he says, it ain’t gonna happen. But Justine intuits the end, accepts it, and claims “The Earth is evil … We don’t need to grieve for it.” Claire, for whom Part II is named, is as damaged as her sibling, but in a different way; she wants to ring in the end-times as one would the new year, with a glass of wine on the balcony. Maybe a round of Cranium. Her indulgence in the worldly and material seems to be, in Trier’s view, a lethal form of repression. Fatalism is pragmatism: Trier’s trying to convert us. As Claire whimpers, Justine, still as the Buddha, embraces the blaze.

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Midnight in Paris

One of the fun things to do when playing critic is envisaging analogues—whether they end up useful to real people, or not. So with The Tree of Life still branching out through my ears, it seemed inevitable for me, in the lamplight of Midnight in Paris, to extend Malick’s branch all the way to Woody Allen’s arrondissement. Malick is a country mouse; Allen is city. Malick gestates his films for an eternity; Allen craps his out faster than he can digest them. Both tackle the meaning of life in the bluntest ways possible; but Malick’s dialogue is mystical and sparse, whereas Allen blurts out everything that comes to his mind in an idiosyncratic version of Gothamite vernacular. And yet … boats against the current, they’re both borne ceaselessly into the past.

As Anthony Lane recognized, Malick has only recently basked in the light of the present day. Allen, in his diabolically prolific career—Midnight in Paris is approximately his 41st feature since 1966; The Tree of Life is Malick’s fifth since 1973—has given us quite a few presents, a handful of pasts, and at least one Orwellian future. He was the original Marty McFly. But even during his ’70s and ’80s heyday, when Annie Hall and Zelig broke more ground than the often-atrophied Allen sometimes gets credit for, he was in thrall to the influences of his childhood: trad jazz, Cole Porter, the Marx brothers—even their cousin Karl. It seems ironic that Manhattan is now considered the filmic apotheosis of the mythic New York that hosted CBGBs, Grandmaster Flash, and Studio 54 simultaneously—just as bottom-scraped denizens of that time and place, spurred by Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, felt a fillip of wistfulness for Weimar Berlin. The past is always greener to the future eye, Allen here concludes. Happily, though, that’s a “delusion” he can’t quite part with. It’s an impulse that this art form was founded on.

Midnight in Paris isn’t a fantasy on par with The Purple Rose of Cairo, its closest relative in the writer-director’s filmography; and it doesn’t herald a fresh start in new directions, as did Vicky Cristina Barcelona, with its influx of south-of-the-border blood. But it has serenity and charm. As one friend of mine said, it has the same faults that Allen films are increasingly culpable for; hence, the present-day-Paris frame of the story, involving an aspiring author (Owen Wilson) and his unlikely in-laws—Allen in extremis—is pretty blah: shoddily framed and edited, written as on-the-nose as a pimple, and, for the most part, hollowly acted—Rachel McAdams is its most tragic casualty. It’s impossible to conceive that either her Inez or Wilson’s Gil would ever remotely consider tying one another’s knots, especially since she has the hots for that stygian classic of Allen’s stock company: the brainiacal blowhard (Michael Sheen). You want to rip the beard right off his face. Wilson, however, transcends all this. He’s the omnipresent Allen surrogate, and he’s adjusted his lope accordingly; but his slower prowl and self-effacingly flaky grin make this familiar trope gleam in a new light. A Cali light. One can imagine this successful screenwriter—what, I’d love to know, is he “selling out” with?—as West Coast Woody, surfing when not reading Schopenhauer. Gil’s cool airs makes him the perfect Cinderella / Alice for Allen to toss down the rabbit-hole—in the form of a Peugeot phaeton—that deposits him, every night as the clock tower tolls midnight, in the year 1927.

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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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