Young Adult (2011)

Director: Jason Reitman

Screenplay: Diablo Cody

Cast: Charlize Theron, Patton Oswald, Patrick Wilson

The Agony & the Apathy


You know, of course, the old Klingon saying that revenge is a dish best served cold, but that is rarely true in cinema where the revenge film genre is full of hot-blooded violent male fantasies. It is also true that these films tend to be thrillers in which males become, at least in part, victims of their own drive for revenge for wrongs done to the women in their lives (the subtext being that without women there would be no need for revenge and the male soul would be at peace). Some of these are pretty good movies — Mad Max (1979), Memento (2000),Taken (2008), and  Drive (2011), for example — while others are beyond the pale in their implications and cruelty (and, in my experience, they tend to belong to the rich sub-genre of Korean revenge thrillers).But in the wake of all this blood and gun-play, imprisonment and mutilation, comes a very different kind of revenge fantasy: Young Adult from the director and writer tandem that brought the world Juno(2007). Now, I’m going to abandon my usual (and common) director-biased view of cinema in favour of the writer of this film, Diablo Cody.

It seems to me that Young Adult is a film seeking vengeance not for its main character (Mavis), but on its main character. The film is cold and cruel as it strips away her props and delusions until she is left stained and naked save for the decidedly un-sexy NuBra stuck to her breasts. She perfumes herself with booze, sleeps it off face-down in her own self-negligence, washes it out with diet soda, gorges on KenTacoHut (KFC + Taco Bell + Pizza Hut all in one far too convenient fast-food box store). She is repeatedly pricked, snipped, and re-polished by indifferent manicurists and pedicurists; she plucks out the grey and pins hair-extensions to her head; she smashes her Mini and abandons her Pomeranian. Mavis is a wonder of both projection of loathing and injection of self-loathing. Do I think we are supposed to feel sorry for this character? Yes, that’s where I think the revenge fantasy is seemingly fulfilled. When Mavis finally has her breakdown in public, none of the other character is surprised. They pity her and yet have no mercy for her. But Ms. Cody isn’t done with Mavis yet. Victimized geeks must get their revenge, too, and Patton Oswald’s Matt Freehauf fulfils his fantasy by having sex with the hottest girl from high school whose jock friends beat him to within an inch of his life and left him an emotionally and physically scarred cripple. But the ultimate revenge comes right at the end, after talking with Matt’s sister on the morning-after, the promise of Mavis’s redemption, atonement, and self-awareness is rendered meaningless. Mavis is nudged back toward loathing and she accepts the invitation whole-heartedly. She apologizes to her dog, but to no one else, and heads back to a life of denial and reaffirmation in Minneapolis. I suppose this is the final cruelty to complete the fantasy, and ultimately because she’s a type and not a person, she deserves not to be redeemed; it wouldn’t be true and she clearly doesn’t want it — and neither does the audience.

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Mean Streets (1973) & Hugo (2011)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast:

Mean Streets: Harvey Keitel, Robert De Niro, Amy Robinson

Hugo: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invention of Martin Scorsese & the Invention of Hugo Cabret

In 1973, Martin Scorsese arrived on the New Hollywood train and opened up new tracks for himself, his contemporary peers, and the aspiring film-makers to follow. With Mean Streets (not his first feature length film), all the hallmarks of Mr. Scorsese’s craft and visual narrative-style are on display and in development. For me, however, the most notable of these traits is not the slow-motion tracking shots, not the inspried pop-rock soundtrack song selection, not the collaboration with Robert De Niro; it is instead his ability to present deeply personal films with such inviting sincerity as to make the characters and themes accessible to a range of viewers. Sure, there’s low-level gangsters and ejaculations of violence (by men against men and against women) and Catholic guilt and Sicilian modes of family dynamics, and I’ve never had to deal with any of those things. On the other hand, I’ve felt the muddy mixture of ambition and weakness that plagues Charlie; I’ve known people not as self-destructive as Johnny Boy but certainly with those tendencies; I’ve fallen for the wrong girl at the wrong moment. I can find my experience inside Mr. Scorcese’s Mean Streets just as clearly as he can find his in the characters of Charlie, Johnny Boy, and Teresa. The same is true of Hugo, so why didn’t I connect to it? Why didn’t I love it?

Hugo  is personal for Mr. Scorsese in an academic or intellectual way rather than in the visceral way of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver (1976),  Raging Bull (1980), and The King of Comedy (1983). There are some similarities thematically to most of his work: search for redemption, the boundaries of small communities, family and honour, but the over-arching theme of this film is much more self-referential. It is so not to Mr. Scorsese himself, but to the milieu he had a hand in transforming, the world of film. The power of cinema on both an individual and a culture, the art of film-making, the preservation of film, the wonder and child-like adventure associated with the craft and experience, the debilitating struggles of financing and fickle audiences, all of these are apparent in this movie. Film is so important here that the film academy library is housed in a building that appears are grandiose and large as the Paris train station where Hugo lives. The difference is that the library is full of light (and knowledge) it is silent and a place of serious study while the train station is a place of toil and threat for Hugo.

I wanted to love Hugo, but as beautifully crafted as it is, it feels like a clockwork invention or a wind-up movie. I’m sure this was most definitely deliberate: the tightening of the book’s narrative (such as, cutting out the character of Etienne, softening Hugo character, playing up the part of the Station Inspector), the intricacy and depth of 3D composition, and the family-friendly redemption and healing for all at the end certainly point to this conclusion. I hope Mr. Scorsese continues to make deeply personal films, but I also hope they are about life and people rather than work and hobbies.

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Overdose: Orson Welles, Part One ~ Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane (1941)

A Note on Overdoses:

The idea is a blatant theft of the Filmspotting podcast’s Marathons. Every once in a while I will either gorge myself on or shame myself into (usually) a director’s work that I love or want to love. I thought the first Overdose was going to by Jean-Luc Godard (as it states on the Coming Attractions) page. However, while I did watch four Godard films over my winter break in January, I still have three more on my list to watch. And so, the honour of being the subject of my very first Overdose goes to the man who may just be responsible for the existence of the American Auteur and whose work is the greatest influence on many of my favourite films and film-makers: Orson Welles.

Not by coincidence, the class I am teaching this semester is opening our screenings with Welles’s first two films. I had seen Citizen Kane many years ago, but The Magnificent Ambersons is new to me. The whole experience (from discussing the basics of shot making and cinematography to watching the films) thus far has been thrilling. I am so glad that students approached me to open this course and grateful to the students preceding them that inspired me to strive for more. I’m also very lucky that I work at a high school that has a curriculum flexible enough to allow students to request courses that meet their own academic interests.

Now, on to Citizen Kane

It is perhaps difficult to appreciate Citizen Kane without paying attention to its mastery and innovation of film craft. That’s not to say that the narrative isn’t compelling; it is, and full of wonderful performances (Welles himself is charismatic, bombastic, blustery, commands the attention fitting to a character as large as Kane; Dorothy Comingmore is pitch-perfect as the increasingly hysterical Susan Alexander Kane; and Agnes Moorehead, as Kane’s mother, has only one scene (but what a scene!) in which to deliver to the audience her conflicted nature that is as icy as the weather beyond to window of the Kane ancestral shack). When you pause to consider the interaction between this narrative, the deep focus photography, the low-key cinematography, the sound, and the use of both long takes and montage, the true pleasures of the film are unfurled. There is far, far too much to be written about this film in a single blog post, so I will save myself and focus on what occupies my mind at this time: realism in narrative.

The narrative is told not in a straightforward, chronologically sequenced manner. This may not be such a big deal to audiences today with their familiarity with such looping and unreliable narratives as Memento(dir. Christopher Nolan, 2000) and Pulp Fiction (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 1994), but I’m going to guess it was pretty ground-breaking in 1941. The difference, of course, is one of time, but not just of time; it is a difference of purpose or philosophy. Whereas, Pulp Fiction to a great extent  is a postmodern pastiche of winking self-awareness, Citizen Kane is a piece of modern direction in which the camera informs the narrative voice as much (if not more so) than the characters actions and words. Starting with it omniscient opening sequence of shots and then shifting from character narrator to character narrator, backwards and forwards through time, never giving the viewer anything other than one kind of or one person’s truth until the very end. Even then when we retreat out of Xanadu, borne away by Welles’s camera at a god-like perspective, we are given no real resolution. We have the identity of Rosebud, we have the fractured pieces of Kane’s life as told by the fractured parties who dealt with him, but we are also given the ambiguity of the film’s penultimate lines:

Female reporter: If you could’ve found out what Rosebud meant, I bet that would’ve explained everything. 

Thompson: No, I don’t think so; no. Mr. Kane was a man who got everything he wanted and then lost it. Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn’t get, or something he lost. Anyway, it wouldn’t have explained anything… I don’t think any word can explain a man’s life. No, I guess Rosebud is just a… piece in a jigsaw puzzle… a missing piece.

And, it’s final words: “No Trespassing”.

Put together, the dialogue, the final frames, and the camera perspective provide a perfect example of Chekhovian irresolution. There are no answers here; Welles has aksed the questions and left us to contemplate and provide our own conclusions.

In Overdose: Orson Welles, Part 2The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil.

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A Return to School

This past week has seen the start of a new school year, and while it’s an unwelcome end to vacation time, I always look forward to reconnecting with students as they move up a grade and welcoming new students to my classroom. This year I’ve changed my non-credit film discussions classes to a more formalized credit project studies course called “Elements of Film”. I’ll be leading two groups of students (one in grade 11 and the other in grade 12) through a basic introduction to aspects of cinema in discussion-based seminars with the goal of each student producing a quality piece of film criticism at the end of the semester in June.

Here is the basic outline of the course:

A: Elements of Film Production

  • composition & cinematography
  • editing
  • performance
  • design & sound

B: Elements of Film Authorship

  • writing
  • directing

C: Elements of Film Criticism

  • realism
  • auteur theory
  • other perspectives — genre, psychoanalytic, cognitive, gender, gay

SCREENINGS

Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942, dir. Orson Welles)

The 400 Blows (1959), Jules et Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964, dir. Richard Lester)

The Graduate (1968, dir. Mike Nichols)

Harold and Maude (1971, dir. Hal Ashby)

Mean Streets (1973), Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990,  dir. Martin Scorsese)

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Certified Copy (2010) (2011)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Cast: Juliette Binoche, William Shimell

If you have not seen Certified Copy, then you should immediately stop reading and see the film, and then you should come back and read my thoughts. I really knew very little about this film and do not want to take away the rewards received from it by anyone watching it for the first time. Needless to say, I think it’s marvellous, and I would  encourage anyone and everyone to see it.

The Art (or Forgery) of Marriage & the Art (or Forgery) of Europe

Certified Copy is the type of film that invites you to think rather than makes you think. It’s not because the film is full of big ideas, but it is because the film doesn’t explain itself. In fact, if it did try to explain itself and let the viewer explicitly in to what the characters and/or the filmmaker know, then it wouldn’t work nearly so well. At best it would end up like good M. Night Shyamalan; at worst it would end up like bad M. Night Shyamalan. I’m not suggesting that there is anything supernatural about the events depicted in this film (there absolutely isn’t), but there is something unearthly about the quality of this film. And so, I will attempt to explain the unexplainable and, in doing so, probably destroy the magic of this movie.

Central to the scenario is the relationship between the two leads, Juliette Binoche as the unnamed woman and English opera singer William Shimell as James Miller. This relationship can be summed up in two simple sentences and yet be unfathomable:

They are strangers. They are married.

Of course, these are not exclusive of each other. I’m coming up on eight years of marriage (a drop in the bucket for some, but a lot longer than many), and while I certainly wouldn’t describe my beautiful wife as a stranger, I also wouldn’t be arrogant enough to say that I know her completely and fully (and I think she would say the same about me). If the lead characters in Certified Copy are married (and I have no idea whether or not they are), then the notion of the individual and her/his existence within the environment of marriage is something the film is exploring. Do lives become more individual as marriage elongates?  Do we find excuses in work or the relationships with our children to justify a desire to retain our individuality just as money and child-rearing entangle us with tendrils of practicality and responsibility and love? Is the  nature of love (or a certain type of love) to be simultaneously estranged and intimate, to be hostile and forgiving? These questions and more are brought out not initially in the film, but after one absolutely brilliant scene: in the café where Juliette Bincohe’s character confesses or schemes or employs the ruse of her marriage. The owner of the café sees the couple in one way; it is a perspective we have not yet thought of. To her there is no doubt that they are married, yet for the audience it is the planting of the seeds of doubt since before this point we had accepted them as strangers. For the rest of the film we are not distracted by this question. For the rest of the film our attention becomes heightened to their relationship, and we have our ears pricked to pick out clues to satisfy our curiosity. It’s not a puzzle or a game; it’s a key idea of the movie.

So, are they married?

Their intimacy, Miller’s fluency in French, their shared memories of the night before and her drives from Florence (I think) to Rome all point to them, in fact, being married. There are subtler clues also, such as how Kiarostami brings us into intimacy with these characters as they begin their drive to the village. He starts the camera deliberately outside the car, shooting through the windscreen and then slowly, almost imperceptibly brings us into the car, into their relationship as it becomes more personal and less of a conversation between strangers and about art, but about marriage.

At least equally, however, there is evidence the other way: that this is all a fake and they are not married at all. Miller’s complete lack of memory of the village upon their arrival and the personal landmarks within the village (such as where they spent their wedding night). Also, the son at the beginning of the film displays neither recognition of nor interest in Miller. Does it matter whether or not these characters are married? To me, it does not, and if it does to you, then Certified Copy will leave you frustrated. What seems to matter is the attention placed on their relationship and the tension between the real and the unreal, the original and the forgery, and, in terms of art according to the James Miller character, the value intrinsic to both forms.

Now, briefly on to the other matter this film raised for me… Europe.

Let me qualify this by saying that I don’t think Certified Copy is an overtly political film. But, in these days of the questioning of the legitimacy and the existence of Europe, I think the politics are present with the question of what it means to be part of Europe.

Technically, I am a European… I was born in England. Of course, the UK is not really part of Europe, so for that reason I don’t count myself as European and I grew up in Canada, so that disqualifies me also, and I’ve lived a huge chunk of my adult life in Asia, so I’m disqualified again. So, definitely, I’m not European. Certified Copy, on the other hand, is European; French financed, French star, English leading man, Italian location, and directed by an Iranian. Yes, this is the new Europe, the 21st century Europe.

On one hand this plays into the clear theme of the film: the tension between the real/original and the fake/copy. Who can be a European? An Englishman? An Iranian? The European Union is politically experimental, but based somewhat on the model of the United States of America. How original is it? More than politically or economically, Europe is about culture and why, with its dealings with art and art criticism, I feel comfortable talking about Certified Copy as a statement on Europe even though it excludes the Germans. Clearly my thoughts on this topic are still embryonic and I’m not entirely convinced within myself that there’s anything more to them than just an inclination on my part to have them. But, as Juliette Binoche and William Shimell’s characters were arguing in the restaurant in the final act of the film, I couldn’t help but wonder if on some level this film was a statement on the moment of European existential crisis.

If it is or if it isn’t, it makes no difference. Certified Copy is a magnificent, thoroughly enjoyable film. Bravo.

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The Interrupters (2011)

Director: Steve James

Cast: Eddie Bocanegra, Tio Hardiman, Ameena Matthews, Gary Slutkin, Ricardo “Cobe” Williams

Apathy & Empathy

The Interrupters  is the latest documentary feature from Steve James, the celebrated director of Hoop Dreams (1994), which, I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit, I have never seen. The Interrupters highlights the work done by CeaseFire in Chicago and its dedicated violence interrupters as they attempt to mediate peace between individuals and within individuals on the streets and in the neighbourhoods of some of America’s most violence-blighted places. From a rhetorical perspective, the film posits that violence is a disease and, as such, that it is infectious, viral, and communicated in a hereditary manner. Being surrounded by violence creates acceptance of violent behaviour, witnessing violence instigates new violence. being a victim of violence spawns retaliatory responses, and having a violent parent creates offspring prone to violence. The interrupters of CeaseFire step in as social/community antibiotics  or antibodies and, by their own admission, are not trying to solve the root causes of violence in these Chicago neighbourhoods (poverty, education, political disenfranchisement), but the major symptom these factors lead to: violence on the street as it is happening.

The Interrupters is a movie full of emotions; anger, guilt, and regret are the most prevalent for the subjects of the film. For me, there is sadness here, too, and it is derived from my own reflection on this movie rather than the states of the lives depicted within it. Statistics presented in the film, such as more Americans being killed in these neighbourhoods than in the Iraq War, are sad, but sadder still is that it doesn’t shock me; it doesn’t even surprise me. My own apathy to the plight of urban America is also sad. I could excuse myself by stating that Englewood is so far away from me here in Korea and my white middle-class liberal upbringing and lifestyle. It is far away and far outside my experience and it doesn’t touch my daily life.  Could it be that I just don’t care?

Is this movie even asking me to care? I don’t think that it is. It doesn’t feel like a call for action from the intended audience as it is not an overtly political film. But, with its direct cinema style, it strives to present a truth by being in the situation. The film is successful in creating empathy for how these kids, mostly, see themselves and their futures whether it be at a funeral or from a little girl crying in a classroom or a troubled teen receiving a manicure at an up-scale suburban shopping mall. Indeed these most moving and powerful episodes in the film work precisely because the camera is there just as the Interrupters need to be there when violence erupts. The personalities in the film (notably Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie) are strong and wilful. They seem to be the best Interrupters not just because they can relate to the gang and violence stricken youth having come from these neighbourhoods and culture and having spent time in prison, but because they made the hard choice to activate their knowledge and experience to help. They didn’t “get out” of this culture, instead they are seeking to have the culture view itself in another way. The individuals Ameena, Cobe, and Eddie most closely interact with in the movie are being asked to make that choice, too. Mr. James and his documentary don’t offer up any greater answer than this: be there and choose. Or, as Spike Lee so magnificently demanded, do the right thing.  The film shows, in the complement of content and style, that individual actions make a difference to individual lives and if these actions are positive then instead of a cancer you have a regeneration of self, community, and society.

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Midnight in Paris (2011)

Director: Woody Allen

Cast: Owen Wilson, Rachel McAdams, Marian Cotillard, Corey Stoll, Michael Sheen, Alison Pill, Tom Hiddleston, Kathy Bates, Adrian Brody, Léa Seydoux

Woody Allen & the Art of Impression

There are few things  in cinema as delightful as a good Woody Allen comedy. Happily, Midnight in Paris is a good Woody Allen comedy and ,as such, a delightful combination of dreamy lightness and romantic allure. Most of its script breezes by effortlessly, and it’s only when the film attempts satirical digs of cynicism that things fall a bit flat. For example, the entire relationship between Owen Wilson’s Gil and his fiancée Inez, played by Rachel McAdams. I bought this relationship in their scene together in Monet’s garden at Giverny, but once they actually started interacting with each other and with others, I couldn’t understand how they ever got together in the first place. Likewise, the repeated jokes of Gil’s politics and his would-be father-in-law’s Republican ethics also fall flat and feel tired. In fact, by design or not, all of the characters in the present day story are either completely forgettable, one-trick ponies (Michael Sheen and his deliciously wicked smile, for example), or stunt casting (Carla Bruni). Another thing that didn’t work for me is the film’s opening montage of Paris, its streets and corners. It recalls the opening of Manhattan (1979), but lacks the majesty, romance, wit, and drama of that opening. It feels touristy or superficial rather than displaying the intimate knowledge of a native resident.

But, these are quibbles, really, because the charm of the fantasy and its main character completely won me over. Perhaps the reason for this is the film is a kind of pastiche of Mr. Allen’s earlier work. Aside from the allusive Manhattan opening montage, this films share other similarities: both films’ protagonists are successful comedy writers (Isaac Davis a television writer and Gil Pender a Hollywood screenwriter) and, to my eyes, there is a resemblance between Mariel Hemingway’s Tracy in Manhattan and the character of Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux) in Midnight in Paris.  There are also pieces of Everyone Says I Love You (1996) — including, a reference to Mr. Allen’s character’s introduction in that film walking the streets of Paris with a baguette under his arm — and, most notably, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) that thread through Midnight in Paris. Gil Pender’s name is suspiciously close to the second Jeff Daniel’s character’s name in Purple Rose, Gil Shepherd. Both films draw the audience into the acceptance of the fantasy through sympathy with the protagonist and our desire to break the fourth wall and join our heroes and icons in a life away from the normal, and both films offer up the same message and conclusion, that life in the present, life in the real is not so much the correct choice, but the only choice. Just as Cecilia cannot join Tom Baxter on the silver screen, Gil cannot really join the Lost Generation or Adriana in the Belle Epoque. The difference is that Cecilia’s life really is miserable and is a much more sympathetic character: she lives in the Depression, a shitty job, and an abusive husband. Gil, on the other hand, is wealthy and successful, and his misery comes from the neglect of his dreams and emptiness of his life. Where we desire the best outcome for Cecilia because we genuinely feel pity for her, we desire the best for Gil because of his innocence, charm, and ability to drop his current life to pursue his dreams; it is an envious position to be in and that’s really our fantasy fulfilment.

Another aspect in which Midnight in Paris is similar to the writer-director’s previous  work, this time I’ll recall Everyone Says I Love You specifically, is the presence of the Woody Allen on-screen persona. Both these films exhibit two of the best Woody personae, but in very different ways. Edward Norton’s performance as Holden Spence in Everyone Says I Love You is much more of an impersonation of that persona, almost as if Mr. Allen was directing his younger self once again. After watching the PBS American Masters documentary on Mr. Allen, it is made evident that he spends very little time working with the actors trying to explicitly get what he wants from them. It’s plausible that so many of the performers in Mr. Allen’s films receive acting accolades is because the director trusts the actor to do his or her job. If this has been a consistent trait throughout Mr. Allen’s directing career then Mr. Norton’s performance comes from his own decisions to embody the ticks and traits of Woody. Owen Wilson’s performance decision makes the Woody persona a much subtler presence; it’s more impression than impersonation in that it suggests Woody rather than shows him. This allows the Owen Wilson screen persona to shine through and fill out the character of Gil Pender with the winsomeness that has permeated probably all of Mr. Wilson’s roles — my favourites being Dignan in Bottle Rocket (1996), Eli Cash in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and Hansel in Zoolander (2001). I’m not suggesting that Mr. Wilson’s performance is better than Mr. Norton’s. The latter is probably harder to do well (just watch Kenneth Branagh try it in 1998’s Celebrity), but I do think that Owen Wilson’s performance lifts Midnight in Paris. He endows Gil Pender with anti-gravity so that the audience can float along and away much like Goldie Hawn dancing by the Seine near the end of Everyone Says I Love You.

I’m sorry if I again sound down on this movie by continually comparing it to Mr. Allen’s previous works. I’m not. I really, really like Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen recalling the artistic past of the early 20th century by way of his own past is a cab ride I’ll gladly take for 90 minutes once or twice and probably more than twice. I don’t think Midnight in Paris is a great film, but it is a very good one and a very sweet and earnest one. If it’s your introduction to Mr. Allen’s work and you enjoyed it, then seek out its tonal soul-mates Everyone Says I Love You and The Purple Rose of Cairo (which is the best of these films and one of Mr. Allen’s finest efforts). And, if you enjoy those, go forth and indulge in the wonder of as many of his films, the light and the dark,  as possible.

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