Friday, March 28, 2014

San Soleil (1983) - a belated tribute to Chris Marker (1921 - 2012)

A list of things that quicken our heart

A belated tribute to Chris Marker (1921 - 2012)

Watching Chris Marker's San Soleil leap from place to place, subject to subject, time to time, one can't help but think this is a familiar experience; and then one realizes what experience that might be--the film is very much like a streaming multiscreen webpage, with the cursor clicking on one hyperlink after another to dive deeper and deeper into the page, past text and images and video clips, in an endless discursive spiral. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Divergent (Neil Burger); The Grove (Ep. 14 S 4 of The Walking Dead)

Hunger Games with extra cheese and a side of onions

If you accused Divergent of being The Hunger Games sans J. Law, you'd be mostly right. 

I do appreciate that they set most of the picture in the crumbling ruins of Chicago--after two Games, I was suffering from a serious case of jungle rot itch. Where Games involved a lot of sneaking around in largely undistinguished green, Divergent is a collection of dizzyingly vertiginous drops, in the rough shape of tall (and vaguely recognizable) Windy City structures. Not recommend for the agoraphobic; the rest of us are enjoying the view.

Also appreciate that heroine Tris is played by Shailene Woodley, who isn't an obvious knockout beauty in the Lawrence mode--there's room to suss her out, learn her moods and way of thinking, be surprised at her responses and clever choices. Happy that unlike Lawrence's Katniss, who in her first two movies seems to be playing a game of Musical Chairs between her two admirers, here we have a nice little love story percolating; not so happy that the boy involved seems so extravagantly pretty--but hey, the filmmakers must know their key audience, right? Right? Right?

Friday, March 07, 2014

Pompeii (Paul W.S. Anderson)

Boiling point

American critics can't get enough of Paul William Scott (W.S., as opposed to the more prestigious Thomas) Anderson--or rather, can't muster enough disdain or sarcasm for Anderson's genre works, either science fiction or fantasy or an unholy combination of both. Joshua Rothkopf of Time Out New York sniffs: "The movie in your head melts ten times better;" Claudia Puig of USA Today cites a long litany of movies this steals from--Gladiator, Titanic, and Spartacus among others--and calls it "a generic saga with a cast of forgettable one-dimensional characters" (funny, that's my impression of USA Today)

Pompeii would be Anderson's rare foray into historical fiction--at least his first since The Three Musketeers; it's budgeted at a hefty $100 million and for now seems as doomed as the eponymous city, with a U.S. domestic opening weekend gross of a mere $10 million (by way of comparison, the mindnumbingly plastic--in every sense of the word--The Lego Movie raked in seven times as much over the same time period). 

Ms. Puig actually has a point; the screenplay looks to be a fusion of many, not just of Kubrick's Spartacus but Starz's inferior, far gorier mini-series remake. What she doesn't seem to get is that Anderson takes all these lesser pics and transforms them into a remarkably cohesive whole, an improvement over its constituent parts. Long wait before volcano erupts? Anderson regales you with a rise-through-the-ranks gladiator tale. Gladiator story too cliched? Anderson throws in a pair of forbidden lovers bonding over a wounded horse. Love story too cheesy? Anderson firms it up some with meat-and-potato gladiator fight sequences--and they are meat-and-potato sequences, gloriously old-fashioned in their concern for spatial coherence and visual flow (none of that Paul Greengrass/Christopher Nolan-style shaky-cam/ADHD editing for him)

If Anderson has failed to improve on any one source, it's the Kubrick epic--but even there his ability to build low-key action with minimal blood (as opposed to the Starz version's ridiculous policy of spraying the screen with red every five minutes) and the occasional foray into inventive improvisation (I'm thinking of the way the very chains used to hobble the warriors become their most effective weapon) does more to honor Kubrick than almost anything I've seen this year, or the past several years. 

As Milo the gladiator Kit Harington is no Kirk Douglas but he does have a low-key, becoming modesty (I'm reminded of what the late poet-critic Jolico Cuadra once said: "I'm afraid of the quiet man"); as his main squeeze Emily Browning is no Jean Simmons but she does have a gawky beauty, with apple cheeks and knobby shoulders that remind one of a not-quite-grown swan (she was an enchanting sleeping beauty in Julia Leigh's interesting production)--together the two don't exactly strike sparks, but do generate a warm, magma glow. Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje plays Atticus, a proud but wary fellow combatant, as basically the Woody Strode character in Spartacus only more gregarious, with streaks of small-scale megalomania. Carrie Anne Moss does some nice understating, but is largely wasted in a supporting mother role (she could at least have donned leather thongs and swung a sword once or twice, for old times' sake). As lead bad guy Corvus, Keifer Sutherland is suitably hissable--physical enough that he wouldn't seem like a total pushover for the athletic-looking Harington, devious enough that you constantly want to yell at Milo to watch his back, maybe check his wallet.

The real star of the show of course is Mt. Vesuvius, and Anderson lovingly renders it in all its geologic glory, towering column of ash and projectile fireballs and all. Interestingly, the above photo of Sutherland peering down at a model of the local coliseum approximates the height and angle of many of Anderson's overhead shots, camera spinning like so many surveillance drones round the unruly volcano. R. Emmet Sweeney has some excellent observations about Anderson's overheads in Film Comment's blog--he notes that Anderson is all about models and representations in his pictures, and that Milo's debut in the Pompeii arena is a re-staging (call it a Roman attempt at digitally-rendered 3D) of Corvus' triumph over the Celts (where Corvus massacred Milo's parents), that the Red Queen's malevolent omniscience in the Resident Evil pictures has finally been trumped by the gods gazing down on Vesuvius, on its neighboring town, and on the antlike creatures scampering far below.

Anderson reportedly took six years to write and research the story and it shows; the overhead shots give us archeologically accurate images of town, geologically authentic images of the mountain, and even gives us a chronologically (if somewhat sped-up) correct timeline of the eruption, down to the (considerably exaggerated in size and violence) tsunami described by Pliny the Younger. Most people die not from the passage of fiery rocks in the sky, but from pyroclastic flows--sudden interruptions in the mountain's eruption where the giant ash column finds itself without heat or energy to drive it higher, and the whole thing collapses down the surrounding slopes--a miles-wide wall of shattered rock and superhot gases traveling nearly half the speed of sound, flash-frying anything in its way.

But that's the geogeek part of Anderson; he pretty much knows it's how this major volcanic event determines the destiny of the dewy young lovers that audiences will want to find out, and on this issue he pretty much pulls out all the stops; this is arguably his most impassioned, most heartfelt, most--let's face it--shamelessly corny work to date. 

(Skip this paragraph if you're planning to watch the film) And it works; least I think it works. The mountain rumbles in the background while we watch (from a near-Olympian vantage point) the two feel attraction for each other, stand up for each other, fight their way to one another. Then--Anderson, again pushing the god metaphor even further--Vesuvius rumblingly clears its throat, and announces with unquestionable authority the reorganization of priorities: from fleeing for their lives they're left with snatching a brief moment of bliss in the time left remaining  in their lives. Suddenly the lovers' youth and inexperience and callowness acquires a sharp poignancy, their affection an extra tang of sweet (bittersweet?); suddenly the movie's cheesiness feels just and not excessive, its plea for sympathy earned and not unwarranted, its sad stab at immortality more persuasive than you'd ever thought possible. Nothing like an erupting volcano to put everything in proper perspective--a goofy romance; a filmmaker condemned to eternal damnation for doing a series of profitable videogame film adaptations; even a movie doomed to obscurity, thanks to its storytelling integrity.

Resist if you want--it's your right after all--but if the sight of these two pretty young things embracing tightly in the face of near-certain doom isn't enough to move you...well, your heart may as well be made of volcanic rock.  Sic transit gloria mundi--Anderson has the effrontery to remind us of that, and to hell with the boxoffice.  

March 7, 2014

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Her (Spike Jonze)

An app built for two

The premise of Spike Jonze's Her--a lonely man named Theodore Twombly (who sounds bizarrely like a story by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore) falls in love with his operating system--seems to arouse interest in certain members of the audience, mild-to-intense distaste in others. But more on that later.

Hoyt van Hoytema's muted cinematography softens the hard edges and bright colors of some of Los Angeles and Shanghai's more futuristic locations (LA for most of the interiors, Shanghai for many of the exteriors); the sound recording seems to have been done with a microphone wrapped in wool, and there are times when Jonze drops the sound entirely in favor of Arcade Fire's ethereal music. It's the future--maybe five, ten years from now--but for all the accessories and architecture and technology on show the whole thing could be taking place inside Theodore's head. 

Jonze intensifies this feeling by shooting Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix, in a totally unguarded performance) mostly in huge closeups, catching every twitch of his brow, every curl of his lips (Jonze ruins--complicates?--the overall impression by gluing a Groucho Marx mustache on the lip: same time you feel for him, you want to pull off that 'stache and drop it in formaldehyde). His visage isn't so much shoved at us as it is a constant presence: a supermoon, a satellite inescapably close, looming over the horizon. 

Then there's her--Scarlett Johansson's voice as Samantha, Theodore's operating system. She's got the breathy, excited style of delivery of a Marilyn Monroe, coupled with a child prodigy's insatiable curiosity and fearless way of asking questions; she also has a loud, horsey laugh that if anything makes her all the more accessible (Monroe with a horselaugh!), all the more endearing. The choice of Johansson and her vocal performance in this film is yet another interesting issue--but again, more later.

It's poignant; after all is said and done, I found myself moved. I see what a majority of critics have found in this film about the unlikelier possibilities of love, about the impossibility of love. I thought Phoenix's interpretation a convincing portrait of a reasonably intelligent, moderately sensitive, unutterably lonely man, and--well, I could relate. I knew where he comes from, what he feels, why he does what he does.

In a way Jonze is putting our inner selves in touch with his inner self. The aforementioned Johansson wasn't Jonze's first choice; Samantha Morton was the original voice of Samantha (aha!), was later replaced in postproduction. Interesting to note (I'm hardly the first to do so) that Johansson starred in Jonze's ex-wife Sofia Coppola's breakout hit Lost in Translation, playing a young woman (reportedly Coppola herself), trying to maintain a passionless marriage; here she's the object of desire of Jonze surrogate Theodore, who in turn is recovering from a failed relationship. Was the last-minute choice of Johanssen Jonze's belated recognition of the personal nature of the material? Is Jonze like Coppola (presumably) trying to grapple with marital issues on the big screen?  Can side-by-side screenings of both titles by titillated fans be far off?

But there's more to it than just relationships. Talking to people about the film, I find (keeping in mind my findings are strictly anecdotal) that more men than women respond positively to this picture, that not a few critics have found the story misogynist. The way Samantha is cast and the way Johansson plays her, you can't help but think she's playing a male fantasy figure, down to her desperate (and heartrendingly pathetic, not to mention disturbingly comic) attempts to please Theodore, especially sexually. Is Her slanted to appeal mainly to male audiences? I doubt if Slate's Dana Stevens or The New York Times' Manohla Dargis would agree, and yet I remain uncomfortable in my admiration.

It does make me feel better that Jonze's film is, beyond the love story, valid science fiction--that the film fairly rigorously, fairly extensively speculates on how a truly living artificial intelligence might act, and feel, and (above all) evolve. At least in the way Samantha surprises and dismays and (in the end) outgrows Theodore I can assuage my guilt over the (ostensibly sexist) pleasure I feel, watching the film.

Or am I looking at the issue the wrong way? Should, as I suggested, twin bills be instituted, wife's work followed by husband's (or vice versa, or screening concurrently?)? Or should we look for a sequel--Him, starring (who else?) Scarlett Johanssen, directed by Sofia Coppola, with voice by, I don't know, Benedict Cumberbatch? Who knows? 

Noah Berlatsky in an article in Salon compares Jonze's film to the works of Philip K. Dick--in particular, Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (later turned by Ridley Scott into Blade Runner), about a bounty hunter named Rick Deckard hired to hunt down seven renegade androids--and yes he has a point: Jonze's is a simplification of Dick's theme, the blurred line between human and otherwise; where Jonze makes everyone's consciousness (including Samantha's) contingent on Theodore's, Dick questions the validity of Deckard's point of view constantly: from a woman's; from an android's; from a 'chickenhead's' (insensitive term, but Dick's use of the term underlined J.S. Isidore's outcast status), even from a fellow bounty hunter suspected of being an android. 

I differ in not having as big a problem with the relatively benign future Jonze proposes--in Dick's the world is seriously underpopulated and life of any kind is highly valued--I'd put the latter's vision at an extreme dystopian end, and argue that there's room for plenty more, even those not as grim and grimy.  

Interesting that Berlatsky calls Jonze's film threatening: "a future in which we are all...buried in that one guy’s mildly quirky, eminently predictable dream." Dick has actually imagined that future as well, in the far less comical, far more nightmarish The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. Which I'd love to see realized onscreen--but maybe not by Jonze.

First published on Businessworld, 2.27.14