Friday, November 23, 2012

Flight, Cloud Atlas, Wreck-it Ralph, LIncoln, Life of Pi

(A warning: twists and surprises may be discussed in detail)

High, flying, adored

Robert Zemeckis' Flight surprisingly manages to lift its wheels off the ground and soar as often as it does scrape the ground, furrowing the tarmac

Judging from the previews I was ready for the worst: a drugs-and-alcohol parable of the most inspirational sort, ending with AA meetings and hugs all around. But Zemeckis' directing has grown only more impressive with each succeeding film (though this progress is harder to see in his brightly-lit, somewhat zombified digital animation features), the same time his sentiments remain stubbornly square, conservative even (in Forrest Gump the hero's sweetheart has to be punished for her liberal, sexually promiscuous lifestyle with childhood molestation, abusive boyfriends, and ultimately AIDs).

What the trailers don't prepare you for is how funny the film is. With a series of elaborately staged long shots Zemeckis throws us into the frenetic world of 'Whip' Whitaker (Denzel Washington): fueled by drugs, smoothed out by alcohol, basically surviving on an uneasy balance between several illegal substances, plus a sleep-deprived, sex-induced high. He takes the wheel of a passenger jet, dozes fitfully while the plane flies on autopilot, is jerked into sobriety by the plane's shuddering, sudden dive.

The rest of the film is Whip trying to survive the resulting crash. Not physically--if anything he's responsible for the insane stunt that saves nearly all the passengers and crew--but legally, socially, and spiritually; in effect, trying to take authoritative control of his tailspinning life the way he took control of the plane. The suspense doesn't arise from the oncoming crash, or even its consequences (an investigation into the crash, plus a blood test showing alcohol levels several times above the legal limit), but from Whip's jawdroppingly persistent ability to deny anything's the matter, and just how far this attitude will take him through the surrounding mayhem. 

That's the movie, basically; for Whip the crash never really ended; he's still flying upside-down, desperately trying to keep his messed-up head in the air. And he's good; what convinced me that he was the perfect man for pulling off that rescue was the way he'd coolly, nervily pull off everything else--a series of near-misses, quick dodges, outright lies. Best effect of all is the impression that he's a practiced hand at this, that he's been doing this all his life and this was business as usual (when he visits his estranged wife and son you can tell from their set and hostile faces how familiar they are with Whip's usual business; they're practically the only characters unmoved by his fast-talking charm). If he ever gets into real trouble it's towards the end, when circumstances have straitened enough that he has less maneuvering room and he's turning into a more earnest wannabe reformer, reduced to staring at a liquor mini-bottle. That little scene might have been a bit too explicit, a bit too earnest if it wasn't for the elaborate, extended spiral that preceded it. 

I mentioned flaws; the music is horrifyingly obvious ("Sympathy for the Devil" with the entrance of a dealer, among other groan-inducers), plus at every step you sense the squareness of Zemeckis' sensibility (this is after all a redemption film). Balanced this against the largely excellent cast, standouts including James Badge Dale's gem of a cameo as a patient whose cancer seems to have only sharpened his sense of humor, and a terrific John Goodman as the aforementioned dealer ("Don't touch the fucking merch!").

As Whip Washington is terrific; he's that rarity in movies nowadays, the charismatic leading man with an effortless ability to keep an audience's sympathy through the worse circumstances. More, if he doesn't try go through such circumstances--if he tries for straightforward hero and not something more curmudgeonly, more outright hostile--he comes off as flat, even dull. He needs contrast to push against, give his performance definition. 

It's Washington's show but really Zemeckis' film. The filmmaker gets the tone right from the very start, when Whip wakes up in a boozy, post-coital haze and clears his head with a few lines of coke. Yes, we do keep track of Whip's quest to keep his head pickled, we do spot the bottle raised surreptitiously to the level of his lips, but it's how he raises it that sells the shot--at the carefully calculated moment when no one (except the camera) is looking, managed with such casual elan that if you (or the camera) didn't know better you'd never notice. You might call Zemeckis Whip's enabler, giving us the calibrated angles and views Whip is constantly considering, the choices Whip is continually presented; the camera catches Whip's brows furrowing--he's making the necessary calculations--and he executes accordingly, flawlessly, sliding it all past the goalie with no one the wiser. 

A terrific collaboration really, and I can't say who deserves more of the credit; if Washington embodies Whip, Zemeckis with his sneakily simple angles, dollying shots and frenetic pace (frenetic not in the fashionable sense, with shaky-cam and ADHD editing, but the more classical (and more difficult) sense, through accelerating narrative momentum, accumulation of incident and detail), Zemeckis with his mastery of the film medium realizes a vivid world around Whip that slides past him faster and faster, till what looks like reality experienced at a run has turned into a slide down a slope has turned into a plummet down a precipice. Whip isn't sure just at what point it'll slip out of his control, or if he's in control at all, but he's all too aware that that point is close, and refuses to even acknowledge it--think of a man riding a rollercoaster backwards, a mix of fear and pleasure on his face.

A word of the difference between Zemeckis and his oft collaborator and kindred filmmaker, Steven Spielberg: both come up with inventive mis-en-scene, both follow modern man's largely adolescent sensibility as it founders and flails in an increasingly hostile modern world. Spielberg has only recently attempted to fight this aura of wholesomeness--problem is, the very seriousness with which he struggles works against him; Zemeckis seems to have arrived at his gravitas after a long and often hilarious odyssey (from Used Cars, the Back to the Future movies, and Death Becomes Her to Forrest Gump, Contact and A Christmas Carol). With Flight Zemeckis seems to have struck a balance between his cynical and sentimental self, and it has at least with this picture improved his work--simply put, I'd take this movie over anything Spielberg's done recently.

Six arcs in search for an auteur

Siblings Andy and Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer are brave souls to try tackle Cloud Atlas, and like Zemeckis' latest, theirs flails as much as flies. Perhaps the worse bits are when the messages of fellow humanity and social tolerance become galumphingly obvious, almost half the picture; best are when the movie relaxes and just tells the stories, which are often as hilarious as they are harrowing.

Six stories, two in the past, two in the more or less present (one takes place in the '70s) and two in the future, the quality varying widely. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing"--about the friendship between a Moriori slave and a lawyer--didn't really do much for me, basically an odd-couple, slave-wins-freedom drama with an unsubtle bit of poisoning thrown in. "Letters From Zedelghem" fares better, mostly from the fascinating dynamics between Ben Wishaw as the apprentice composer and Jim Broadbent as his famous employer (the employer thinks the innovative melodies he's hearing are coming from his own head when they're really from the apprentice--who is both inspired by and attracted to him). "Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery" takes a page from the true-life mystery of Karen Silkwood but fails to transmute the basic premise into anything more interesting (the segment does benefit from all the cracker-jack action sequences (directed by Tykwer) punctuating the narrative). "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish"--to my mind the funniest and best of the six stories--is about a publisher turned fugitive turned (thanks to his resentful brother) prisoner in a retirement home (is it a coincidence that this also prominently features Jim Broadbent? Didn't think so). 

"An Orison of Sonmi 451" on the other hand is possibly the worst, a pious account of a dystopian future where servile clone Sonmi 451 (Donna Bae, usually terrific but not here) turns revolutionary. Again the direction (by the Wachowskis this time) saves the segment with vivid and coherent action sequences set in a future Seoul that outdo anything George Lucas attempted in his Star Wars prequels  (the Wachowskis finally redeeming themselves for their clunky direction of the Matrix movies). Sonmi 451 is presented as a mostly passive witness; when she's finally called upon to do something heroic, she solemnly quotes Solzhenitsyn while the world goes to hell below her (fortunately the image of all those people dying at her feet lend some gravitas to her otherwise uninspired oration).

"Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After" is the latest of the stories, taking place  a hundred and seventy-seven years after the Sonmi story, and features a kind of postapocalyptic lingo made up of (far as I can tell) distorted Southern and street slang a la Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. The made-up language is fairly easy to follow (when in doubt just remember Tom Hanks is escorting Halle Berry on a secret mission). I'm on the middle on this segment--not especially bad but not particularly memorable, other than the Road Warrior costumes and makeup (somehow more suited to the Australian Outback than some vaguely Arcadian wilderness) and the fairly well-directed action sequences (again, the Wachowskis). Onscreen and summarized in a magazine article (or in this case a blog post), the storylines seem trite and overfamiliar.

The use of recognizable celebrities in elaborate makeup playing multiple roles is even more problematic--I suppose this echoing of faces is meant to imply an echoing of themes and values over different ages, over different cultures, and (as the occasional cross-dressing actor implies) even over differing sexual orientation. But you can make the connections without badly done makeup; you also avoid unintended comparisons to (among others)  Monty Python ("Oh look, Hugo Weaving in drag! Again!"). A noble experiment, not a successful one.

And yet--and yet--there's something to the film. The novel is shaped according to a brilliant conceit: each story is told in chronological order and ends--pauses, breaks off--in a cliffhanger, all except the last one which finishes; then the second-to-the last story continues and concludes, the third-to-the last continues and concludes, and so on till the novel ends with the earliest story, set in the 19th century--a sort of Russian matryoshka doll structure of narrative nested in a narrative nested in a

Don't know if Tykwer and the Wachowskis could have pulled this off onscreen (kind of wish they did), but they do resort to one of the oldest of storytelling devices, dating all the way back to D.W. Griffith's Intolerance: different stories from different time periods told in parallel, one cutting to the next in a vague matching scheme. Doesn't help the first half-hour much--we meet one new character after another, six stories' worth, and jump across stories without pause or introduction. Matters improve on the second half-hour, with the conflict established for each, the entire section being possibly the movie's most structurally conventional.

By the next half hour you begin to notice a reinforcing repetitiveness to the way the Wachowskis and Tykwer cut from one story to another. A door is blasted; Sonmi intones "Heaven is just another door opening;" another door swings wide to admitting Adam Ewing; and so on. The echoing gives these initially pedestrian themes emotional amplitude, starts to intensify one's viewing experience. By film's end--well, you may not have seen the best mainstream movie of the year (I'd say that's Zemeckis' Flight) nor the most lyrical and innovative (arguably Beasts of the Southern Wild), but you just might have seen the bravest, which is no small thing

Reel it in, Reilly

I suppose part of the appeal of Rich Moore's Wreck It Ralph stems from a nostalgia for video arcade games, and if one doesn't like arcades or video games one is basically screwed. All is not lost; John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman make the most of their fairly substantial characters to form a fairly believable relationship, and Moore directs with some satiric bite, the way he presumably did some of the better TV animation out there (The Critic, classic episodes of The Simpsons). But the the real world is every bit as digitally animated as the virtual world inside (hence the lack of contrast), the movie overall follows the Disney/Pixar template of 'following one's dream' (in this case a game character's ambitions of winning a car race), and the finale is your standard issue saccharine sweet. If it comes to animated, make mine Ghibli, please.

Monumental movie
Spielberg's Lincoln is a preach-it-to-the-choir feel-good film about the United States' sixteenth president but--all that said--a surprisingly easy one to take, thanks mainly to Tony Kurshner's focus-on-the-details script and Spielberg's willingness to dial down on his trademark 'poetry' (not entirely, alas; the opening scene--where Lincoln has almost his entire Gettysburg Address quoted back at him--is wince-inducing, and the final sequence--where Spielberg equates Lincoln to an illuminating flame--can cause the tearing of hair and gnashing of teeth, and not in a good way).

Daniel Day-Lewis' decision to use the wavering, high-pitch voice contemporary historians deem as more authentic pays off: it dynamites our view of Lincoln off its encrusted pedestal. We can hear as well as see with what miserable equipment the man had to work with (except one: he was far uglier than the noble-jawed actor who plays him), and how he had to resort to indirection and tricks to bring his point across (the shortened speeches; the self-deprecating humor; the running gag that he liked to tell stories that appear to amble away from topic, and you see the people shifting impatiently in their seats, and hear the thin drone they're trying to catch). 

It helps, I suppose, if one enjoys a liberal point of view; the story (focusing on the passing of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery) recalls the passing of Obamacare, and the sausage-making on view is an unflinching reminder of how sordid was the process needed to pass a law so significant (whether the recollection is pleasant or horrific probably depends on one's political leanings). For a more unsparing and complex view of the legislative process one might have to go back to Otto Preminger's 1962 Advise and Consent (can you imagine how magnificent Laughton could have been in this picture?)--I can think of no higher praise. 

Almost everyone is good here, from Tommy Lee Jones as the terrifying Thaddeus Stevens (his fire-and-brimstone rhetoric contrasting with his exhausted, melancholic eyebags) to Jackie Earle Haley as Alexander Stephens (Stephens was oft sickly, and Haley looks appropriately consumptive). Perhaps the most serious flaw to the film (aside from the opening and closing) is the John Williams score, which was predictably full of horns and fanfare--one wishes Spielberg had instead resorted to period accurate songs, or perhaps just plain silence (he did black-and-white for Schindler's List; can't he teach his ear to be as sophisticated as his eye?).

The film's real ending has a servant full of foreboding watch Lincoln descend a stairway on his way to the theater--can't swear to this, but I'm willing to bet Spielberg appropriated the shot from Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. A beautifully lit image, held for the right amount of time--perhaps my only problem with it is that Lincoln had to stop at a landing and do a right turn (Kurosawa of course never took half measures; he had Takashi Shimura go down a sufficiently long flight). It's fine, honest work, far better than Spielberg's visually and emotionally syrupy War Horse; it does its subject matter justice.

Fairy Tale

Ang Li's Life of Pi, an adaptation of the novel by Yann Martel is well made--never thought Lee was anything less than a skilled craftsman, able and always to bring good taste and moderation to any project he undertakes; perhaps my biggest problem with the film (and with Lee) is that he's a skilled craftsman, always bringing good taste and moderation to any project he undertakes. 

One sees the upper limits of that good taste here--the gorgeous cinematography, the striking images of boat, tiger and boy floating, either on a mirror image of the sky or seemingly on air, suspended as if by magic. The details of his survival are engagingly inventive and thorough--how to feed the tiger, how to catch fish, how to survive in a boat with a wild animal and not be eaten. Some details stretch credulity--a hyena, a rat, an orangutang, a tiger and a boy sounds like the setup for a dirty joke, and one wonders how Pi manages to create his floating mini-palace with a giant carnivore sitting on most of his supplies, and sharks circling the water.

Turns out the questions are all academic, which brings us to the truly crucial question: was this the right attitude to take towards Pi's two stories? Perhaps it's personal taste, but subscribing to the first and more fanciful one smacks too much of self-delusion in the face of life's horrors. It's like meeting a child who believes in Santa Claus--do you implicate yourself by maintaining the fiction, hope his inevitable crash in the sometime future isn't too harsh, or do you give him the facts straight