Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Meal for the Senses — Django Unchained

Nothing less than a modern opera, Django Unchained is a towering work of art, a true 21st-century Western, creating a legendary character for our era.

DEMAND ON VIEWER: Moderate to high, for violence and length
OVERALL:  Recommended

This film is a work of art and a real contribution to the art form that is film. It combines carefully placed, stunning visuals with exceptional aural sound experience. This is typical for Tarantino, but what is unusual here is the way he applies this to the genre of Western, and combines it with the creation of an epic character.

From the opening credits, a well-selected and operatic soundtrack helps set the theatrical backdrop for this latest of Tarantino's universes. He has a knack for selecting just the right tune: "Django" accompanies the gang of slaves at the beginning, and "Moving Me Down the Highway" by Jim Croce accompanies, not a highway, but a snow-clad vista shot in the mountains of Wyoming. The music is perfect for the mood of the film: "and I'm gonna go there free."

DiCaprio puts in a fine-tuned, entertaining performance; his flair and timing are drawn out by Tarantino in way I haven't seen before.

Foxx is magnetic mostly because of his costume. In its own right a very worthy art form.

Samuel Jackson is once again at his rhythmically  intoned best as the aged butler who tries to keep Django down, reminding us that sometimes your worst enemies are from your own camp. This film, like Pulp Fiction, will be worth watching over and over just to enjoy Jackson's humorous and witty dialogues.

The most intriguing performance is turned in by Christopher Waltz. His beautiful German accent—a tonic to the rough southern drawls—is a nod to diversity, that with the coming of global diversity comes more freedom.

Waltz' character, Dr. King Schultz, is a great choice for a name, because he gives Django his chance at a dream, at freedom. Even though King is a mercenary, he carries enlightenment-age ideals with him and seems to want to promote a more rational way of life. Unfortunately for the film, and for Tarantino, Schultz is not allowed to carry his higher self through to the end. "I'm sorry, I just couldn't help it," he says, after giving in to violence one last fatal time. Is this Tarantino speaking a confession?

One gets the feeling of catharsis in this film. Racial catharsis, of finally arriving at a time when those without power suddenly have it before them, and take it lustily. But is this the way we really want things to be? The bloodletting and gun-firing is perhaps a staple of westerns, and certainly of Tarantino, but one wishes there weren't quite so many bullets. The story would have still had its magic without being an advertisement for the NRA.

THIS IS A FUNNY, very entertaining, exceptionally dramatic film. If art is meant to take us someplace else, someplace we won't forget, Django hits the mark. At the same time it will provoke discussion simply because of its full-frontal assault on white supremacy (the scene with the bags over the heads of the KKK deserves special mention for its Tarantino-esque black humor - watch it for a good laugh). See this film, it will leave you a bit breathless, but it will also enrich you with a full meal for the senses.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Movies in The Age of Obama


Michael Witte's artwork in the New York Times depicts, clockwise from top left, Zero Dark Thirty, Django Unchained, The Help, Lincoln, and the Avengers.


DEEPER RESPONSE: Are these film inspired by the era of Obama? What does it say that so many films seem to portray African Americans as legendary figures in a prominent film roles? Or that the overtly political films such as Lincoln seem to carry overtones of Obama?

Read Times Article, Black Characters Are Still Too Good Too Bad Or Invisible - on the current state of race in film. Is the review of Django fair in this article? I don't think so - the critique of Django as being a fantastical character is not in keeping with the genre. A bit like saying Clint Eastwood's westerns were too fantastical.

It is true that we need more realistic and complex portrayals by African American actors, but leveling that charge against Django Unchained is perhaps expecting it to be something it was not. Still, it is a point worth taking that black actors are still props for white actors in many films, even ones that purport to be about the black experience.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Runaway Magic — Silver Linings Playbook

Excelsior! A film about the positive, clear-eyed view of life, and celebrating those closest to the heart.

OVERALL: Recommended

 Ostensibly about football, this film ended up being just as much or more about dance. It rallied around team sports and family, but also around artistic expression as a way of healing and finding oneself.
Jennifer Lawrence ran away with this film. Her magic carries the story along, and while there were four oscar nominations, I think she was the clear winner.

The acting ensemble including DeNiro was remarkable, and it helped create a real father-son dynamic. It also helps the film reach across generations. I found myself wanting to write a letter to my father, and I did so after coming home from this film.

I was engrossed in the moments created by the film, the specific-ness, the quirkiness of the family lingo, the strange personality traits that somehow go from annoying to lovable.

The real questions in this film were about how we interpret ourselves, and Tiffany (Lawrence) helps lead the way in asking, What about all that muddy, slutty, bad stuff? Do we deny that about ourselves, or do we learn to embrace it? Can we stick together no matter what? 

DEEPER RESPONSE: What do you think of the dance element in the film? How is that important as a therapeutic method, where others may not have worked?

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Black at His Best — Bernie

A mild-mannered mortician gets trapped with a cruel, demanding woman and the worst results. 

ACTING: 3 (Jack Black: 5)
OVERALL: Recommended

Read "How My Aunt Ended Up In the Deep Freeze", an account of the true story by family member Joe Rhodes in The New York Times

Jack Black is nothing if not talented, and this is by far his best film. He absolutely shines. What is remarkable is that he remains in character, never resorting to any wild slapstick or improvisation sometimes present in his other roles. He carries off the role of a light-hearted, generous, hymn-singing community leader with flair and grace and not a hint of self-consciousness.

Bernie is not a story about double-identity! That would have been very clich é. We have all seen that story before, and it is ubiquitous on television series.

What makes this film interesting is watching the gun-slinging D.A. Buck Davidson (McConaughey) try to make it into a story about double-identity. But Bernie is not a person with a dark alter-ego, any more so than the rest of us. Linklater's use of actual townspeople in interviews lends freshness to the story and also gives one a sense of having visited the place. These interviews also round out the portrait of Bernie as someone essentially harmless, who may have gotten the wrong end of the rod in court.

This is a hilarious movie about a dark subject, but handled with a deft touch.
See the film; you'll enjoy the ride.


What do you think?

Given the fact that Bernie's character, and his heartfelt confession, does his conviction seem fair? What does it say about the townspeople that they would have acquitted Bernie if given the chance? What does it say about our justice system that his trial was moved?

The film alluded to Bernie's being gay. Do you think Buck may have had this as a motive for pursuing a murder charge, rather than something more lenient? What do you think the film was trying to get at here? Why is this facet of Bernie's character left "in between the lines" for the viewer to pick up on?

What do you think of this film?

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Cold Power — House of Cards S1:E1

Cold power on display in the year 2013, with an interesting array of characters, fools, and villains.

I just began House of Cards, the new political series on Netflix exclusive. A good idea for Netflix to commission their own series, as this has been HBO's success as well as other networks, and Netflix has the corner on streaming. Television series are sometimes able to give us the power of film, extended over many episodes.

Kevin Spacey is well-cast as congressman Frank Underwood; he carries gravitas, fear, and a certain resigned sadness to the life he has chosen.  His wife Claire (Robin Wright), is as cool as they come. Both are in love with power, more so even than each other? Can such an arrangement last? One thinks of the Clintons.

The world they live is a drab one; dinner parties where guests wink and nod at each other with fake smiles, long nights up calculating the next move on the political chess board, meetings at 4a.m. in cafes. This is an interesting underside to the glitter and glitz of politics, what is seen on the news. It is a world that would make me miserable, I know, if I were forced to live in it.

Danger ahead: Zoe Barnes boldy approaches Frank Underwood
The dialogue is very well done. It is rhythmic, and Spacey's monologues have a poetry to them that belie a beauty of character underneath the coldness. How will this aspect of himself develop over the series? There is real danger in the younger journalist Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara) involvement with him; will it end up destroying them, as it has so many in Washington?

Unique feature: the Return of the Monologue
Perhaps the show's most unique feature: Spacey looking directly into the camera and sharing thoughts with the viewer. An interesting device that lends a sense of candor to his character, while also breaking the barrier between screen and viewer. It calls attention to the fact that this is theater, contrived for us to watch. 

We feel "in on the joke" with Spacey. A testament to how cynical we have become. Will the series endeavor to show that there are still pure motives despite this sense that it is all a stupid game?

Read The Guardian's John Crace's comparison of this to previous House of Cards

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Veracity of Self—Life of Pi

Ang Lee has given us a film for the ages, fitting for our century, and it will be remembered for its vision, veracity, and honesty, particularly about god and religion.

DEMAND ON VIEWER: Mild (some scenes may startle children)

For all the reasons already given by others—its use of 3D technology in a balanced, sophisticated way, its breathtaking artistry, its surround-the-viewer with an ocean adventure sweep—Ang Lee's Life of Pi is a good film. But these things by themselves do not make it the masterpiece that it is.

Pi is a timely film about all of the Big Questions: the meaning of suffering, religions and god, and the stories and myths we tell ourselves as a human race in order to survive and flourish. It pits us face to face with a natural world that is both stunningly beautiful and horrifically dangerous. It asks us to examine just why we are on the journey we are on, and whether god is really at the heart of it.

Piscine Molitor Patel is an inquiring boy who is open to the contribution of religion (over and against his family's barbs at the dinner table). He explores Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, feeling devoted to them all. At the same time he introduces us to a world of sound and color in India, where dance forms and family customs are not our own. So there is at the outset a very global, diverse feel to the story.

Pi is an emotional film, but its emotion is genuine and not gratuitous or manipulated. The tiger is not a pet; it is a danger constantly, and there is a message about not sentimentalizing nature here. The tiger leaves without a word, even after Pi has done so much for it. Pi's heart is broken over this; and words from his father echo from the beginning of the story: "The tiger is not your friend." For a film with a clear love of animals and of their grandeur, this is a remarkable and unusual twist.

Pi is a call to bravery. My sons saw the film and had to be brave along with Pi during the story. They are not ready to digest the meta-narrative about religious story-telling, but they could understand that Pi held out through unbelievable odds. This kind of virtue-instillment is an important feature of film. Good films help encourage us to keep persevering under great stress; they help us to see that the turns of fate will be as fortunate as terrible, and that we can find and redefine ourselves in that struggle.

***SPOILER ALERT*** Please, if you have not seen the film, stop reading here, and go experience this film for yourself.

The adult Pi (Irfan Khan) explains to a journalist (Rafe Spall) that by the end of the story, the journalist (and by extension, we the viewers) will believe in god. This is a brave gauntlet to throw down at the beginning of a film. I worried throughout that by setting itself up in this way, it could only disappoint in the end, either by becoming all about proselytizing a religious view, or by simply biting off too much topically.

At the end of the story, Pi relates a harrowing tale, one that was far less beautiful and far more traumatic. Rather than being trapped at sea with animals, he had been trapped with his family and an evil, cannibalistic cook.

(An earlier scene in the film becomes an important touchstone at this point, when that cook was shown to be a mean and miserly person. Gerard Depardieu's face was so memorable that even though he does not appear again, mention of the cook works to recall this scene. A fair bit of expert storytelling here.)

The cook kills his family in order to survive at sea; Pi is forced to watch his mother devoured by sharks. He makes up the images of the animals to stand in for these people. The hyena that so unceremoniously kills the monkey and the zebra on the lifeboat is the cook.

The conclusion is inescapable: "So you are the tiger?" the journalist asks. The tiger was a self-projection of Pi's. A way of making sense out of a reality his mind could not grasp in its shock and trauma. "Which of these two stories that I have made up, do you prefer?" Pi asks. "The one with the tiger," says the journalist.

Pi concludes: "So it is with God."

This is perhaps the best, simplest, and kindest treatment of the explanation for religion I have ever seen. What gives rise to the religious and mythmaking consciousness of humankind? Why do we desire it? Our desire for paradise is literally represented in the film by a magical island, the island that Pi finally arrives at after being driven to the depths of his being, after praying mightily to god to save him. Yet the island turns out to be poisonous. "What it gives during the day, it steals back by night." This is a singular and stunningly astute commentary on Pi's own religious motives: he was looking for Eden, and yet finally realized he had to leave it, that he was on his own. What religion purports to give on the one hand by way of comfort and explanation, it steals back on the other by weakening the mind and soul, making it dependent, leeching energy while it promises security. We must leave it or be slowly poisoned by our own fantasy.

The tiger walking away without a word of goodbye is heartbreaking because it is Pi's own former self, the one that he had to call upon in order to survive such an ordeal. The wild tiger, one with nature, fierce and able to brave anything, is gone now that Pi is back in civilization. But in another sense, this represents the grief that humanity in an age of enlightenment must face, as it sheds its religious illusions and moves to a higher plane of consciousness.

The fact that Ang Lee captured all of these themes in a simple story viewable by children is astounding. We hope this film garners many awards, as it deserves to do, and that Yann Martel also gets credit for telling such a remarkable tale. They have once more elevated storytelling to the art form it aspires to be.

Life of Pi helps us, ever so gently, to revise our view of our own religious stories, admitting as Pi Patel does that we love them and that we invented them because they are prefereable to the mundane and brutal reality we face. In this sense Pi's coming of age is something we must all go through. In doing so we will suffer. We will be brought to the edge, but there we can achieve a veracity and luminosity of self, represented by all the fiercest and most phosporescent images of this film. Like the whale in the ocean at night, we can see our soul before us, and truly possess its infinite beauty and strength.