Sunday, May 4, 2014

To Be Known By Another—The Invisible Woman

Marriage as traditionally conceived is challenged by this film about a woman who loved a literary giant.

Depth 4
Acting 5
Plot 5
Originality 4
Production 5
Entertainment 3 (deliberate pace will frustrate some viewers)
Demand on Viewer: Moderate to High
Overall: Recommended

In this beautifully shot film by Ralph Fiennes, we see the love of a couple who cannot marry, not at least if they wish to preserve his standing as a published author. 

Charles Dickens is thought to have lived secretly with a much younger woman for the last 13 years of his life. How did this relationship develop, and what might it have been like for the woman? The social construct of marriage is examined, along with the role a male is allowed to play.

A Wilkie Collins play opens and closes the film, a nice touch, with lines delivered by Nellie, "To love is life." To really know and be known by another is more important to the protagonists than to deliver a sort of "product" to the world in the form of an outward contract.

The interesting and original feature of this story is that their affair does not end in some tragedy or over-wrought conflict. There are no duels or bar fights as a result, no one dies (even though Dickens' train accident was a close brush and is included in the film as a way to heighten the existential feeling between him and Nellie). 

Not even his wife objects, though she is deeply hurt, as revealed in a fantastic scene by Joanna Scanlan that looks like a Velasquez painting. The high artistry of this film is nowhere more evident than in this scene.

Felicity Jones does a captivating portrayal of a character who must age and mature, and who must carry herself with an almost royal bearing while also feeling a depth of passion not present in the other women. This is a sensitive mixture of pathos and classical beauty we rarely see.
Ralph Fiennes' Dickens is a larger-than-life character, constantly in the public eye, but who nevertheless recognizes the essence of his own explorations in this younger actress. Both his and Nelly's character are shown to be very patient, sometimes agonizingly so, in order to follow their own inner directives about their lives, and each other.

Still following that inner directive, Nelly walks by the ocean every day in the years after Dickens'
death. (His death by stroke is not portrayed in the film.) Even when she cannot walk there, she hears the sound of the water. A sympathetic admirer of Dickens provides an ear (and a way out) toward the end of the story.

"I do not feel the freedom you seem to see," she cries to Dickens in one scene. There is a sense of inner freedom that such characters convey, and that a penetrating mind like Dickens would have recognized.

Such freedom of mind and heart does not always extend to societal or sexual codes, and this meant a lonely existence much of the time for them. When one considers what would happen to a 45-year-old man trying to be with with an 18-year-old girl today, not much has changed since the 19th century. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Crescendo to Silence — Gravity

Waves of sound and silence surround a story of connection—to Earth and to Hope.

OVERALL Highly Recommended for all ages!

Two aspects of this film stand out off the top: the sound, and the visuals. The soundtrack and sound editing, the with excellent production of 3D elements to bring the viewer out into space like no film about this subject ever has.

The sound comes in waves, fading in from nothing, swelling to a crescendo, then suddenly dropping to silence. The effect is to highlight and emphasize the silence, and also the way objects careen at unthinkable speeds through that silent void. The characters all point to the silence in the dialogue; the sound thus underpins this important theme.

And if there ever was a film to see in 3D, this is the one. It takes you out into space and gives you a picture of earth, impossible to describe in words. By turns you hover over continents, oceans, cities, mountain ranges. It feels as if you are actually looking down on their vast immensity. 3D often feels to me like a gratuitous use of media/technology toys; something for kids to do on a rainy day. Not so this film. The dimensionally enhanced views are used in a restrained way; to illuminate the feeling of being untethered from earth and from its gravity.

And now for the story. It is a deceptively simple one.  Space engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first shuttle mission; her colleague Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) is a calm veteran with a remarkably reassuring voice. They are hit by debris and must make their way back to the earth's surface.

We are given a way in to the story through Dr. Stone's eyes, as we get queasy seeing the way the world so easily turns upside and out of control with no gravity. At first she shudders and shakes at the slightest movement. We feel her disequilibrium and near motion sickness as she is flung about and rotated around whatever she happens to be holding onto. With her we cling to Kowalski's expertise as he guides their actions.

Instead of falling into the usual genre devices of aliens as the villains, here it is simply an accidental barrage of debris, smashing into them at lethal speeds, and the inner fight against panic and despair that ensues. (Again the sound: a juxtaposition of the explosions and impact with deafening silence is memorable and a marked contrast to the usual overwrought sound effects of action films.)

The situation forces Dr. Stone to come face to face with her daughter's death. She talks about it with Kowalski, but later must determine on her own whether life is still worth living without someone she loved so much.

It is this inner story that makes the film. Science fiction and space stories are often delinquent in this most critical area: whether the story connects in a real way to other human beings. Here we have a profound and emotional struggle going on simultaneous with the external threat, and it draws us into the heart of the main character. 

In Gravity the vastness of space is shown to be both intimidating and beautiful; but it is Earth that comes out as the victor of the heart. "Thank you," Dr. Ryan whispers, clutching mud in her hand. The alien landscape she has encountered mirrors the newly adopted inner landscape she has now found. She is now a colossal figure, whereas in space she was tiny, both in comparison to what was surrounding her, and in the way she felt inside.

When Dr. Stone finally makes it into the safety of the space station, and removes her suit, the shock of seeing her body is visceral and stimulating, in way that evokes an appreciation of all the earthly elements of being human; flesh, muscles, strength and agility in arms and legs. When she gets to earth, we get to see this stripping down to the body again. The meaning here is unmistakable: return to earth, to the body. 

Paradoxically, this movie also heightens our appreciation of space exploration, but by a counter-intuitive method. Just as dancers learn to concentrate on the ground and the feeling of weight and gravity in order to learn to jump higher, perhaps the focus on earth and our foundations will lead us out into space again.

The athletic figure of Sandra Bullock is shot gracefully in zero-g as well as underwater.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

And a Child Shall Lead Them — Ender's Game — JDIFF Screening Event

When children lead our wars, we have truly lost our ethical moorings.

(Orson Scott Card's book gets a 4)
ORIGINALITY 3 (Book gets a 5)
OVERALL Somewhat recommended. 
**Special Ender's Game Screening with the Julien Dubuque International Film Festival featuring Khylin Rhambo and Aramis Knight.** SEE LOCAL NEWS CLIP

This is mostly a film about boys made for boys. Which is not a bad thing if you have them. My two had a great time and in addition to being very entertained, we had a very intelligent discussion about genocide and ambiguous moral choices.

When I first encountered this story, it was as a middle-schooler just beginning to explore the science-fiction and fantasy genre. Even after many years, it stands out as a major work, one that made an impact on my development as a boy. One of the reasons (beyond that it is very imaginative) is that Ender is a strong, memorable character, who shows how a child can take on adult responsibilities, and may even be forced by circumstances beyond his control to accept leadership roles.

I rooted for Ender, through all his training, alienation from his peers, and coming of age in the space training camp. In many ways this story mirrors the trials of one's teenage years, including the mixed feelings one has for the father-authority figures in one's life. I wanted him to win! And he did, except for one thing—genocide.

We discover that Ender's game is no game at all. "Why are we still seeing these images?" Ender asks of the simulation, after it continues to show the enemy planet burning and collapsing, a whole civilization destroyed.

There are signals that something is amiss, seen in the stern, worried-looking Harrison Ford. He brings the proper gravitas to the narrative he must give to Ender, "These are beings that killed many on earth! We must go after them and wipe them out! Ender, you are the only one who can do it." 

Ender is tricked; or is he? His character is prone to violence, to total retributive justice, to ruthless pursuit of victory. Despite occasional flashes of compassion and deep emotion (conveyed only partially convincingly by Asa Butterfield), Ender is a battle commander at heart. This is what the general sees in him. Ender does begin to develop deep reservations about what is happening, and thinks he still has time to decide otherwise. 

Ender's Game reminds us that war-happy military-industrial minds will recruit anyone, even young children. But it also depicts something more basic: that war itself is childish. That the aims of war, and all the training and all the gadgetry (and in this case, all the cool space-age stuff like zero gravity laser tag) are all for a purpose that, seen in light of this story's end, is not only absurd, but colossally destructive to every form of life.

This is a good point to make in a story; except that, the film doesn't quite deliver, because of the massive production and sensational, block-buster style visual effects. All the boys who watch this film will get swept up in the adrenaline, the battle, the rooting for Ender to win! They will go away remembering the glory of it, rather than grasping the ethical dilemma.

Unless, of course, they are guided by an adult, who can teach them what the terms "morally ambiguous" and "genocide" mean, and who can help them process why it was that Ender was so upset, why he turned to a peaceful mission, and why it was significant that his enemy never retaliated. Parents who do so will have added a consciousness of war and peace to the minds of their children; and doing so recapture the true aim of the story.

Does this film transcend its author? 
I believe it does. The presentation of its ethical dilemma lifts this film, and the book, out of the morass of Orson Scott Card's personal views, his clumsy and rather stupid statements against homosexuality. Given that this is a story for boys about boys, one does have to wonder about the same-sex leanings of the author, despite his vociferous denunciations of it. (And isn't it those people who always come out most strongly against?) 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Pulse of Sex — Come Undone

Why would she do it? Why get involved with another man when her domestic life with husband Alessio is secure, loving, tender, full of support and comfort?

Don't watch this to see gratuitous sex or to escape from a long day.
OVERALL Selectively Recommended. 
Mature theme, don't watch if you don't want to open the can of worms called "affairs."

This film is a fine example of the material offered by
Film Movement. Check them out!

This 2010 film directed by Silvio Soldini, Come Undone examines an affair between two people already in committed relationships. Anna, in faithful cohabitation, and Domenico, married with children, meet by chance and immediately begin courting each other. Soldini sensitively dramatizes all the smallest, mundane details of what transpires when one begins an affair of this sort, and the relationship is beautifully unfolded.

"At least there are no vampires here," says Domenico, when they enter the hotel room. (Which they can book for four hours at a time—this European invention is an acknowledgment of the need for a neutral location.)

Vampires indeed—is precisely what they are there to do, the red-lit ambiance giving expression not only to their passion but to the devouring lust at work.

At this point each viewer will read his or her own judgment and history onto the film. But if we can stand back from that, we are led to ask, How do we deal with our bodily chemistry, our emotional pull toward the passion and vitality that can so easily go missing from our secure domesticated arrangements?

What do we do, in other words, when the pulse of sex takes over, and the "logical" parts of brain begin to shut off? When the pre-frontal cortex of brains, the "reasonable" side of ourselves, is revealed for what it is—something of a piece with the lower brain, something that arises out of the unconscious, something that is only a small aspect of our person, not the whole—what are we to do? We don't have as much "choice" in the matter as we might want to believe.

According to one perspective from Slant, this film, while balanced, has its share of cliché moments and characters. I disagree. In fact, it is astonishing to me that the questions asked by this film are regarded as cliché, when the fundamental problem posed is at once so powerful and so intractable, and when I rarely see them handled as sensitively as they are in this film.

If anything, the cliché is not this story but in our conception that romance should only happen between two single people. Escapist romantic comedies abound of that sort. If any of those stories added in the element that one or both parties are married or in a committed relationship, they would at once become heightened with artistic tension. 

What I like most about this film is that these are two of the most ordinary-looking people you will ever see on screen. Their ordinariness makes the story convincing, and it lends an especially poignant and even breathtaking quality to their lovemaking. This film is anti-porn, the opposite of the blitzed-up pseudo-world of internet sex, with ordinary people breathing and moving together instead of showing off moves for the camera.

I also like that the momentum of the affair is led in the first place by the woman. She recognizes something in herself that needs expression, but also that the personalities around her in her family are never going to recognize it. She quite bravely pursues her own path (though it must be said that lying about it was not courageous). Eventually she realizes she will not choose to continue the affair. But her choice comes from experience, not from theorizing or moralizing.

The worst part about an affair is the deception. Lying is a kind of poison that slowly worms its way into each relationship affected by an affair, and to Silvio Soldini's credit, he does not spare the characters the emotional consequences of lying.

Guiseppi Battiston does a marvelous job as the "straight man" to Anna's deviancy. His genuine all-around good-guy-ness, as boring as it is, nevertheless is good for her, and she knows it. Without his character as a foil, Anna's would not stand out so starkly. His grace in handling everything is commendable. Would that we all could get a dose of it.

Be sure to see other work from Come Undone actors. Stay tuned, reviews of a few of these films coming soon at Deeper Film!
Alba Rohrwacher
Pierfrancesco Favino
Guiseppi Battiston (gotta love these names)

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Elegant Huntress, Nietzschean Warnings — The Counselor

If you think you've seen this tale before, think again.

DEMAND ON VIEWER: Moderate to High (extended dialogue featuring complex poetically styled sentences of Cormac McCarthy; judging by the comments posted to the Ridley Scott interview below, this artfulness was lost on some viewers. Very violent and disturbing images, including beheadings, not suitable for the young or impressionable.)

OVERALL: Recommended

This film is a joining forces of two names of wide achievement: Ridley Scott and Cormac McCarthy. Scott's films include Alien, Promethius, Black Hawk Down, and Blade Runner.
McCarthy's books include The Road, No Country for Old Men, Child of God, The Passenger, and All the Pretty Horses

The pretext for Counselor is a story about a lawyer involved in a drug deal gone bad. But a deeper tale is told here, one about the arrogance of the 1% rich male, whose casual callous bravado is shown as stupidity, and whose sense of control is a complete illusion. (How they got to be 1% is another matter; for some it is financial bullying, others hard machismo, and others a leechy sloth, playing off other people's wealth. The men in this film seem to combine all of these lovely traits.)

Fassbender. Pitt. Bardem. Diaz. Cruz. An all-star cast, and they each do their job well. Bardem and Pitt especially play off previous roles to misdirect the viewer. These are all strong men, and yet they are, one by one, made weak and brought down by a woman who loves to hunt.

The "Counselor" turns out to be the one who needs counsel, and he gets it elegantly from several sources. A diamond-seller (Bruno Ganz), referring cryptically to a gem as cautionary, says, "Why do we adorn beauty? Because we know it is fragile, and yet we also know that this fragility is noble." 

What is this overconfident lawyer to do when he is in trouble? He is already past that crossroads, he is told by a philosophical drug lord (Ruben Blades), and cannot go back and recreate the world that existed prior to his choices. "When you know that your reality must die," he offers, "your view of death changes."

The end is a surprise, because of its quietness, and lack of the usual Hollywood showdown. There is enough fighting, gore, and shoot-em-up to go around, but after so many of the don't-know-when-to-quit variety action films recently, I expected a crescendo rather than a diminuendo to the finish.

The end is also indirect, another welcome change to the usual storytelling methods. There is a CD, but what is on it? The viewer is left to work that out (to its fairly horrible conclusion), but this can only be done if close attention has been paid to the dialogue.

There is a tale here of female ascendancy. The Cleopatra-like eyes of the villain-
anti-hero remind one of the horus-eye, the all-seeing glyph of ancient Egypt, and its corresponding tigress imagery reveals that Mexican cartels and headless bodies are only one way that a cold and calculating, all-seeing eye can wreak revenge. 

Importantly, this tigress also does it with sex. She masters her male victims and slowly strangles them in their own nets. The trip wire is a repeated visual, though used for much more sinister purposes here. People are beheaded and strangled, blood spurting. But far before that, she had already attached herself and wound her way around them. She does the same to the viewer. We at first take her for a bimbo, a party-favor, part of the poolside show. She fucks a car; Fassbender asks, "Why are you telling me this?" Bardem doesn't even know, but he knows he is scared by her. He describes her against the windshield of his car as some sort of sea animal, with suction. This is not simply a circus act. It is what she does.

Is she some sort of avatar for all those who have been taken advantage of by those with power and status? Is she an incarnation of the unholy impulse for revenge? A prophecy of retributive justice against the stupidity of the patriarchal system that includes priests, kings, lawyers, and the doe-eyed women who prop them up? Or simply an acknowledgment of a primal (sexual) urge within all of us for the hunt, something that we as humans never fully escaped from our evolutionary past?

Sam Spruell (tough-as-nails criminal, the one who springs the trip-wire), Bruno Ganz (who played Adolf Hitler in Downfall) and Ruben Blades (reminiscent of the Godfather) all deserve mention for turning in fantastic performances in supporting roles. Without them this film would be less than half of what it is. They give the film its philosophical heft and visceral power; they bring to life Cormac McCarthy's poetry and imagery.

Friedrich Nietzche
Counselor is said to be Nietzchean and nihilistic. It is true that the characters' viewpoints are amoral, and McCarthy's work clearly trends that direction. (Unlike so many movies lately with trite titles such as "Into Darkness," this one really is about the darkness, and about our greed and the choice to enter that darkness.) 

Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil and Thus Spake Zarathustra are meditations on what it might mean to honestly re-create our values as human beings. What must be rejected and destroyed, in order to get there? This is more than mere negation of value; it is the encouragement of honest engagement with our values. 

Perhaps we do not have to do the destroying; those who choose the path of darkness will destroy their own. Ultimately we are spared the brutal dire consequences that the characters in the film face. We are left to walk out of the theater, out of the story, to re-enter a world of our own choices, seeing that they still lie before us. In this sense Nietzche still speaks to us through films and stories like Counselor. Can we hear what is being said, or do we ignore it and go about our business? Cormac McCarthy and Ridley Scott at any rate seem to be saying, take heed.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Tangle of Dazzling Complexity—Dimensions JDIFF Screening

**JDIFF SCREENING EVENT** At Eronel, Thursday Oct 17, 7pm

A man dances at the edge of a dark hole"I know, deep down that if I don't do this, I'd never be able to truly live my life. I'd always feel like I'm not really here, like I'm in a dream."


DEMAND ON VIEWER: Mild-Moderate. Slow, very quiet, English film. 
OVERALL: Recommended

So begins the oblique storytelling style of this atmospheric and very literary film, combining elements of English countryside, dapper period costume, mysterious time travel, and a restrained but powerful love story. 

A jump rope is used to show how time can fold back on itself
Stephen (Henry Lloyd Hughes) is an inventor obsessed with time travel; he has lost a childhood friend, Harriet (Hannah Carson) and wishes to go back and rescue her. Annie (Olivia Llewellyn) helps him on his way. Could she somehow be Annie? There are enough parallels between them to get Stephen wondering.

The machine he builds is made, interestingly, with a piano. The elemental quality of music is alluded to as a possible key to time. The haunting score
is very appropriate here; the strings play hovering chords, suggesting the larger cosmos turning.

The film avoids some of the usual traps and cliches of the genre. Almost all plot and theme development is accomplished through the dialogue, with very careful and exquisitely shot visuals between. Very literary and appreciable by children (good for attention span development and vocabulary, and features children as characters. It hooked my kids from the beginning!)

Dancing through his three-dimensional string map, Stephen seems to show us that no left-brained, linear exercise in mathematics or physics can lead us where memory can only go. He and Annie go through a beautifully rendered waltz through the same map. Their connection seems to indicate the need to pay attention to our present circumstances, and our present loves, even while knowing that they are transient and part of a fragile web of possible futures.

"I don't believe that time is a straight line from point A to point B. It's a line, a loop, a tangle, a sculpture of dazzling complexity." The end of the film leaves us with much to ponder, about the nature of time and reality, and whether or not Harriet's future remains unchanged or is altered by events and time-traveling interventions. There is delicious ambiguity here; if we expected a neat and tidy explanation, we will have been disappointed.

However, if we let the questions of what-who-where-when fade into the dreamy Cambridge countryside as they were seemingly meant to do in this story, we can dwell on the film's themes, and find a remarkable and tragic tale of love and loyalty; lenses through which we can see our own histories more clearly.