Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shaft, Django And Intermediate Tarantino

There’s a moment in “Django Unchained” where Dr. Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and the freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) walk into a bar and pour themselves a drink. As Dr. Schutlz speaks, in love with the words filtered through his German accent, the camera focuses on his beer pouring. Suddenly, his speechifying stops. The brew pours gracefully into his glass, as the Doctor removes a knife to brush away the cream at the top. Director Quentin Tarantino preserves this moment, silently observing Schultz pouring a second glass and doing the same, the foam sensually slipping off the curved glass, into the bar top. It’s a moment that stops the scene cold, a borderline-romantic observation of objects in motion that reminds us that, if Quentin Tarantino is an expert linguist in the language of cinema, this is one of his more intermediate lessons.
As he has aged, Tarantino has begun to lose his youthful recklessness. Instead, he’s filled in these gaps by allowing his cinematic universes to widen, to create worlds with colorful characters that feel less eccentric and more of a product of a crooked world. This has shown not only in his camera-work, but also in his storytelling interests and long-winded dialogue exchanges that often seem to be talking about talking. Moving from the world of super cool hitmen and bulletproof assassins, Tarantino’s turned to re-writing American history, even if his historical awareness has rarely stretched beyond the movies of which have resulted. He’ll never be cinema’s greatest teacher, but in some ways he’s one of the more unique students.

“Django Unchained” right off the bat shows Tarantino to be our best remixer, opening “Django Unchained” with the triumphant Luis Bacalov “Django” theme from the 1966 film. Except this isn’t a lone gunman toting a casket behind him, but black slaves two years before the fall of the South. This recontextualization extends to the identity of Django himself -- formerly the wise, soft-featured hero played by Franco Nero, he’s now a man who removes his robe to reveal whip-marks scattered all over his back. He says little when freed by the loquacious Dr. Schultz, a traveling bounty hunter who needs reliable confirmation from the slave as to his former owners’ whereabouts. Schultz does most of the talking, as you can forgive Django’s reluctance to fully trust another white man with a gun.
Your political and moral readings of the world may interfere with your enjoyment of “Django Unchained,” which is a pity given that you should be able to separate the real world and the world of Quentin Tarantino -- such is the power of a skilled filmmaker. In Tarantino’s films, violence and revenge, intertwined, are a form of currency. When you put a gun in the hands of a Tarantino character, his intentions are to punish those who have less ambiguous moral shadings than he/she does. Violence is always the great equalizer, and in “Django Unchained” we’re dealing with a character who has faced a lifetime of oppression. When Schultz puts a gun in Django’s hand and points him into the direction of his former slave owners, Schultz is the only one surprised by what will happen.
This momentary union soon becomes a partnership, as Schultz vows to help Django find his wife Broomhilda Von Shaft (Kerry Washington) and free her from slavery. There is a moment where Schultz, in a moment of rare affectionate cultural exchange that never occurs in a Tarantino film, explains the meaning of Broomhilda’s name to Django, illustrating the myth of Siegfried. What Tarantino does here is both ridiculous and understandable -- the clunky Von Shaft surname refers to Richard Roundtree’s John Shaft in the three “Shaft” films from the 1970’s, meaning that Tarantino is essentially equating “Die Niebelugen,” the story of a heroic Aryan empire that crumbles under its own hubris, with that of a series that produced “Shaft In Africa.” Of course Tarantino’s appreciation of black history is going to start with a film series that helped pioneer the blaxploitation movement. Broomhilda was the name she was given by German slaveowners. Von Shaft is the name she has, and Tarantino here is taking great pains to take the story of slavery away from the white man, and gift it to the black man. Is what he’s doing any more problematic than Steven Spielberg turning black people into hood ornaments as a group of old white men debate their rights in dusty rooms through three hours of “Lincoln”?

Tarantino doesn’t make films as much as he adds to the rich cinematic tapestry that has solidified the art form as the primary one for audiences in the twentieth and twenty first century. As Django sits at a bar, he’s greeted by a nameless figure played by none other than Franco Nero himself. It’s a brief moment of passing the baton, with the suggestion that Nero himself is playing Django, a character who has consciously walked out of his film to this one. He enters and exits, a tourist in a film carrying his character’s namesake. On another level, there’s the casting of Tarantino regular as Stephen, the “house nigger” for notorious slave owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). Jackson is instantly recognizable, a man of dark skin who has, for multiple generations, represented onscreen African American virility. But as Stephen, Jackson looks to have darkened his skin, while wearing artificial-seeming light curls in tufts of hair above his brow. Jackson is playing a symbol, one that carries certain significance, one that reminds us of this time period more than many others. Jackson, in costume, is THE Uncle Tom.
While DiCaprio’s Candie is a sadistic sociopath who genuinely makes the skin crawl as he rambles on about the phrenology of a black man’s skull, Stephen is his companion, his confidante, charged with keeping the Candie home running, and allowing the profiting off slavery in order to continue greasing the wheels for the white man. It’s an ugly performance, which some might find unsettling due to its abstraction: Stephen is playing all Uncle Toms, beyond all of cinematic history. Tarantino’s film lets no one off the hook, exactly, but it does suggest that the Uncle Tom archetype is something to be ashamed of, despite the fact that it still persists today in forms like the popular Magical Negro trope, with black characters in one way or another assisting in the advancement of whites. It’s the most scathing contemporary blow that Tarantino strikes, one that, judging by reviews, some critics are unprepared for.
Then again, maybe casting Jackson as an oppressor to Von Shaft has its own subtle critique within. After all, it is Jackson who starred in the stillborn “Shaft” remake, which didn’t whitewash the character, but it did de-fang the racial commentary of the material as well as the racial identity of the character himself, while casting a host of non-Hispanic black actors as Latinos. Problematic, that. Of course, there is the moment in that otherwise forgettable film when Jackson toasts to “Uncle Jay,” played by Richard Roundtree. Unlike many filmmakers, Tarantino understands cinema as a Moebius strip, and “Django Unchained” a highlight of another intermediate lesson.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On The Subject Of Torture And "Zero Dark Thirty"

There's a certain delicacy to the topic addressed not only by Kathryn Bigelow's bracing new film "Zero Dark Thirty" but also the debate surrounding the film's use of torture and mistruths in weaving the story of Osama Bin Laden's capture. You can come at this topic(s) from several perspectives, and for the sake of fairness, I will attempt all of them.

Mind you, "Zero Dark Thirty" is a film made by millionaires that will see a wide release in theaters and win several awards from critics and organizations discerning or otherwise.

Fairness is a concept that remains malleable in this context.
And now, an attempt to engage with the facts of this situation.

Kathryn Bigelow Is Not A ‘Nuanced’ Filmmaker

I'm personally a fan of Bigelow's pictures, as if that matters, but I also think they're culturally and socially relevant. I also think "Zero Dark Thirty" is her finest work, worthy of close observation and debate. And, like her best films (particularly genre fare like "Point Break" and "Near Dark"), there's a certain brute honesty to her craft.

The problem with our worst filmmakers who produce thoughtless, irresponsible work is the lack of aesthetic that produces films of non-specific spectacle. Bigelow's pictures, which reveal their strengths through force-of-will, show power through the details, the termite art behind paper-thin narratives like the bank robberies in "Point Break" and the sexually-poisonous future-shock of "Strange Days." Hers is the cinema of Anthony Kiedis' cheap sneakers hitting the pavement in "Point Break," or the uneasy sneer of Ron Silver in "Blue Steel," or even the exaggerated hell of suburban life in "The Hurt Locker." The easy way out is that she is a "genre" filmmaker. The complex truth is that she is a master of perception, of point of view, and of storytelling, but not of morality.

There is More Value In Insight Than There Is In Moral Responsibility

"Moral responsibility," such as the non-torture viewpoint (of which I subscribe to) is a personal attribute. It's necessary to understand that it is also a judgment call, a dead end where viewers can find no added awareness. PERSONALLY, I would appreciate that all viewers who paid money to see "Zero Dark Thirty" did subscribe to that theory that torture is inhuman and inefficient (which is not the only subject involved in this debate), and if not, that after the film, they did. That has nothing to do with a discussion of the film, but Kathryn Bigelow isn't making the film for me. Clearly I'm not handsome enough.

So Kathryn Bigelow has a right to make a pro-torture film. She does not owe the national discourse a political opinion, nor does financier Megan Ellison or distributor Sony. As successful as "Zero Dark Thirty" might become, it is a big fish in a small pond. And this is because, sadly...

The Public Is Largely In Support Of The Industrial Military Complex
What to make of Times Square, a veritable port for wayward tourists, spotlighting several recent ads for the "Call Of Duty" videogames? I could have researched this further, but upon seeing one of the "CoD" games (the sinister-sounding "Black Ops") generated $1 billion in sales in only two months, I would assume this franchise and its latest installment are landing in a few households. Naturally, this puts the $80 million worldwide take of this spring's forgotten "Act Of Valor" to shame.

The latest game actually has ads that spotlight the use of unmanned drones to do "the dirty work" as a selling point. Never mind the fact that this is a hot button topic amongst some, regarding the use of these weapons and the resulting collateral damage that has occurred, not to mention the moral issues of sending robots called Predators into unconfirmed "war zones" (and never mind the fact that robots called Predators designed for killing suggest the creators have seen far too many sci-fi films). The sales numbers suggest what we already knew: mass audiences openly support flying death robots descending on small villages to kill what they TRUST are "the bad guys." Moreover, they gladly sponsor the raid that entered Bin Laden's compound and placed a bullet in his defenseless head. The idea of a fair trial is straight farce to them.

So, to re-adjust the narrative, you wonder how much responsibility is being laid out at Ms. Bigelow's (and writer Mark Boal's) feet in regards to shifting the narrative. Some might say it's responsible or irresponsible, but it is undeniable that they are feeding the beast. Any reluctance towards this idea should be checked at the gate. Perhaps next to the billboard advertising the new "Call Of Duty" video game.

For A Reference Point, The Movie At Hand

On paper, there is zero suspense to the story of Osama Bin Laden's murder. We searched for years, found him, executed him, and rid ourselves of the body. For government appointed killers, it was a professional task, pushed through with expedience, and a lack of judgment: by the powers that be, Osama Bin Laden had to be killed. Calling it a "procedural," as many critics have, is shorthand for "We have accepted the basic immorality of this premise as commonplace in American film and society as a whole." Dumb. Accurate.

"Zero Dark Thirty" opens with one of several scenes set at an unspecified CIA "black site" where a weary agent (Jason Clarke, creepily believable) tortures a suspect, cruelly forcing him into a small box, and later using brute force. He ends up being the entry point for poker-faced Maya (Jessica Chastain), herself something of a killer robot. Aside from the difficulty in participating in such cruel acts against another human being, she has no moral issue with the mistreatment of only potentially-guilty suspects. She also appears to have no family, and her only casual friend within the Agency dies during a suicide bombing (not long after Maya scoffs at her friendly inquisitions about a potential love life).

The character gains further purpose simply by being denied Bin Laden, whom she believes will be the biggest possible success thus far in the battle against terrorism. Critics, positive or otherwise, have called her crusade “heroic” and “brave,” which is placing labels where it seems as if they do not belong. To the weary agent played by Mr. Clarke, and to Maya, this is a job, presented via Bigelow’s clear-cut cause/effect storytelling. The first moments of the film feature the isolated audio of the September 11th tragedies over a black background. The first scene following this is an isolated black site, where a terrorist suspect is interrogated. There’s no judgment implicit: something happened, and the rest of the film is the reaction by the human bullets put out onto the field, trained to do one job only. In the final moments of “Zero Dark Thirty,” Maya confirms the body, then sits and quietly stares off into the distance, a tear of exhaustion falling from her eye. But her eyes are blank, emotionless, borderline absent. It’s not a rah-rah moment, as much as certain audiences will want to pump their fists. Maya, in essence, is almost like an unmanned drone herself: this is where she powers down.

The Issue Regarding “Facts”

The movie very explicitly states that “enhanced interrogation techniques” aided in the knowledge that led to Osama Bin Laden’s courier. Ms. Bigelow has claimed that she took a “journalistic” approach towards the material while also playing fast and loose with the facts (ill-advised contradictions she should have avoided). But this piece of information was apparently “vetted” by a CIA lackey so in-the-tank for “enhanced interrogation techniques” that he’s been ostracized by colleagues even as he currently pens a pro-torture book. As such, the CIA cooperation received by this production was compromised, according to… the CIA.

So yes, it does appear as if there aren’t many ways to figure out “the truth.” Did torture play a part in locating Osama Bin Laden? The CIA says no, and major voices, from the likes of Senator John McCain, claim that the CIA do not use these, ahem, coercive measures to gain key tactical insight. Writer Mark Boal, like Bigelow, has sounded somewhat like an idiot during the press campaign for this film, but he makes an interesting semantic point, noting that one of the suspects divulges information not during a torture session, but while sitting and eating lunch with interrogators. Boal thinks this to be a defense against those who claim the character is giving information in response to EIT, which is ludicrous given that the character explicitly says he is revealing what he knows to avoid further torture.

Inadvertently, he’s revealing the convenient hole in the logic used by politicians like McCain, a former POW who briefly endorsed EIT in an effort to detain terrorists. Which is, in essence, where this whole situation becomes farce in the first place. Senators like McCain are placing the burden of truth on Bigelow and Boal, instead of the CIA itself, who openly collaborated with the filmmakers in making the film. Of course, the torture issue obscures the thornier, more unsettled issue of the black sites where torture occurs. Guantanamo Bay has yet to close, somehow, while worldwide, the CIA continues to operate unspecified black sites to illegally detain citizens.

A large chunk of this film takes place at these locations. Does anyone want to tackle the fact that we should not be operating these black sites and holding these “enemy combatants” without a conviction or trial? Torture in films is going to be a mainstay, now and forever -- black sites are something we rarely see and, like unmanned drones, represent a topic that few in the mainstream media want to question.

And when they do, they may be speaking to the wrong people: a scene in “Zero Dark Thirty” finds agents casually watching President Obama interviewed on “60 Minutes,” where he disclosed that America did not torture, contrary to… reality, I suppose. The characters are silent when he says this, and a great deal has been read into this silence by commentators. By the manner in which Maya turns away should be most significant. This President, leader of the free world, doesn’t factor in her universe. Her job has little to do with elected officials, television programs, or idealistic mantras. When one agent fumblingly quotes Donald Rumsfeld and is shouted down by another, it’s proof that these people operate in a world where morals are not of anyone’s concern. The reality of “should” is not a part of their job description, and the voices in power have almost nothing to do with their actions.

The Role Of The Viewer

The issue is representation versus lionization -- as was once said, paraphrased, one cannot make an anti-war film. The implication of that train of thought implies that the camera immediately sensationalizes, though I disagree, and I feel it has more negative connotations: That thought process instead reflects the base mentality of filmgoers, who have inherent biases depending on their generation, and who will not see their views challenged by a film even if its main intent is to upset the status quo. People seek validation for their opinions, not opposition.

So yes, people will walk out of “Zero Dark Thirty” endorsing torture as a means to “get the bad guy.” They will accept the existence of black sites as a necessary tool to win the “war” and, in some parts of the country, that third act will feature cheering sections amongst the crowd. But living in the information age, it is their civic responsibility to take something home from the film. “Zero Dark Thirty” deals with a crucial moment in American history, one where much of the actual information is clouded in secrecy (as the makers of “Zero Dark Thirty” learned). To let the film do the heavy lifting for you is intellectually dishonest, as much as some would prefer it.

Ideally, audiences will see a film and use their two hour experience to build upon (or even create a base for) a certain type of knowledge. “Zero Dark Thirty” will only be the beginning of the thirst for knowledge. And ideally that thirst for knowledge would be quenched by a government who can be free and clear with the details. At that point, we can have a debate about ethics.

And perhaps one day, that audience member will see fit to tell a more accurate version of the story of how we located Bin Laden. Filmmaking is not a democracy: that’s both the good and bad news.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Reality Seeps In

I’m no longer in my early twenties, and I feel as if movies are attempting to make me feel my age. It’s not necessarily that I am outside the ideal 18-25 age bracket for blockbusters (I very much am) but that I can no longer watch films without some sort of specific reality seeping in. The issue is, why does this disrupt my feelings not through the escapist fantasies, but in the more ground-level offerings presented to movie fans this season?

And that’s unfortunate, because during awards season, the films released tend to touch on topics that are familiar to my world, elements of story that have a certain truth, metaphorical or not. But is it possible they’re, in a way, lying to ourselves? I felt like that during David O. Russell’s “The Silver Linings Playbook,” in which we meet two self-destructive individuals knee-deep in therapy, medicated to prevent mood-swings that still almost seem inevitable.

Considering Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence are fairly limited actors (Cooper in particular has been gifted with dead eyes), I was surprised at how familiar their characters were, in sometimes troubling ways. Sitting at a table obnoxiously rattling off prescriptions, launching into shit fits that consume everyone around them, and generally behaving erratically, the two are a portrait of mental imbalance that strikes the right tone, considering the narrative of the film mostly keeps them out of Worst-Case-Scenario territory people like this generally live in. Both are especially susceptible to emotional bouts of doubt and anger, given that she’s a suffering widow, and he’s recovering from the deceit of his wife’s infidelity.

Being a big Hollywood movie, there remained choice elements that still felt preposterous, but I accepted them. I accepted the alleged age difference between these two characters -- I’d guess it’s meant to be a decade, which is plausible, though I’m guessing in reality it’s somewhere near fifteen years, considering Lawrence is in her early twenties and Cooper is likely late thirties. I even went with the improbability that the two most mentally-damaged people in town are also the best-looking, and that the man could conceivably be People Magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive©. As long as there’s emotional truth behind the characters and a plausible reality established by the filmmaker, then there can be a tenuous acceptance of the Hollywood nature of the endeavor.

Unfortunately, there’s that third act, where this genre-approved romantic comedy has to tie itself into a bun. And these characters had grown on me that I had realized I had seen them before. I had seen them come together and find common ground. I had also seen these people create havoc together, fight endlessly, and generally cause harm to others. Russell’s gamble is that you can also buy that these two could heal each other, that they could fix each others’ wounds and generally walk off into the sunset. But if you know these people in real life, and you see them get together, you know the only future is in late-night fights, frantic phone calls and police-tape. I felt as if Russell, who knows comedic dysfunction based in his work in “Flirting With Disaster” and “The Fighter” (which makes light of some certain mental imbalances), had established that these two people could find salvation. But their situations (she’s placed herself in a high stress dance competition, he lives with his impulsive, undiagnosed OCD father) seemed ill-fitting for where they were within the film. She was headstrong and sexually liberated. He had control and trust issues, and a notoriously short fuse. Guys, this just isn’t going to work, no matter what David O. Russell and a best-selling novel say. 

I’ve always had issue with the class concerns of Judd Apatow as well, but they never quite came to the forefront as they did in “This Is Forty.” The characters of Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up” have moved on to their life of suburbia, where he runs a record company and she labors over a small boutique store while they raise two mostly sweet little girls who nonetheless fight like monsters (Apatow, their actual father, likely edited this film after a huffy argument with the two of them). But Apatow, a TV vet who has struggled to get material on the air, shows exactly where his sympathies lie with his troubling reading of the music industry.

Pete’s record company is flailing, and his Hail Mary strategy is to reunite Graham Parker and The Rumor, an actual act that likely less that 1% of this film’s actual audience will recognize. Of course Pete doesn’t realize that this is commercial suicide, because this music-loving record executive is so tone deaf he thinks his young daughters will respond positively when he turns off Nicki Minaj and replaces her with Temple of the Dog. After a much-touted Parker concert yields limited interest, a depressed Pete goes backstage to greet Parker, who genially tells him the show went well anyway, and that he’s just made a stack of cash selling a song to “Glee” (not likely). As he and random guest Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day walk off into the distance to celebrate their commercial success, Pete is left to tabulate the weak numbers.

It’s amusing that Apatow feels the music industry operates like this, as he empathizes with the music execs and curses (and envies) the successful artists who can sell a single song independently in the modern age. The reality certainly seems reversed -- a music industry beset by piracy, and a Top 40 world forever fractured, forcing artists to agree to middling deals with streaming sites, where a thousand plays of their hit song will get bands a cool ten cents to split amongst them. If the music industry is a Titanic, the execs are controlling the ship, and ensuring that they retain the majority of lifeboats. There are VERY few scenarios where the artist who only moves 600 digital copies of their latest online walks away laughing as their record company screams poverty. But that’s where Apatow’s head is right now: sympathy for the management, cursing the freedom of the artist.

Of course, the mostly-plotless “This Is Forty” attempts some forward momentum when Pete attempts to hide that the couple is behind on their mortgage payments, and have stretched themselves thin financially. Pete obviously has no clue how to run a record company, while Debbie has to deal with an employee skimming thousands off the profits in her store (is it slut-shamed Megan Fox, or dowdy truth-teller Charlyne Yi? Oh, Judd, you master of suspense!). In addition to this, there are economic realities at play -- Pete’s been lending thousands of dollars to his broke father, who in turn correctly informs them that the house where they live is simply too big (he says this with no knowledge of their finances, but it’s impossible to ignore their excess).

Except the film is loaded with wasteful spending by both characters that ignores they’re headed towards a fiscal cliff. The couple decide to remake their life, which involves getting rid of fatty foods of any kind, the majority of which goes not to a shelter or to a neighbor, but straight into the trash. It also involves more quality time with each other, which involves the two taking an unannounced vacation to one of the most gorgeous hotel/spas you could imagine, ordering room service by the truckful in a scene IMMEDIATELY following a moment when a character is worried about finances. And after a movie-length debate about what they need to do about their failing businesses and home payments, Pete has a massive, wasteful birthday party with professional catering and “Happy Birthday” sung by a rock star. Because it doesn’t really matter, I will spoil that by the end of the film, the solution about their declining funds is simply to love each other just a bit more. Not move into a smaller house. Not eliminate extravagancies. And not stop pretending that Graham fucking Parker is going to sell out clubs.

“The Impossible” brought back memories of when I had first read about the horrific tsunami that claimed the mainland of Thailand. For most people, their feelings were immediately with the people of Thailand, the thousands of lives lost and the savage nature of the disaster itself. I can’t think of a single person who said, Oh no, what if there were white people there as well? Fortunately, we have “The Impossible” to present us with that conundrum instead. The film finds Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the leader of a British clan vacationing in Thailand when the tsunami hits, viciously separating them. Director J.A. Bayona previously helmed “The Orphanage,” and you can tell some of his boo-tactics remain during the harrowing disaster scenes, horrific moments cued by a string-heavy score that suggests a supernatural force has taken over the mainland.

“The Impossible” has been advertised as what it is: a true story about survival (which is to say it isn’t about much). But this also emphasizes what we find out early on -- they’ve all survived, it’s simply a matter of reuniting them. To do this, these white interlopers have to withstand the harsh conditions, most of which leave the corpses of locals at their feet, which they must tastefully step over. All the while, I could not divorce the film from the true story, recognizing that while these loaded white people underwent a traumatic experience, there remain thousands dead, and even more loved ones in painful grief. To vacation somewhere and become victim to an awful tragedy is terrible. But to the thousands of residents in Thailand, they could not have predicted this would arrive at their doorstep. That reality seemed far more upsetting than the ordeal in which these characters had participated.

And then, the final credits inform us that it WASN’T a reality. We see the photos of the actual surviving family, and they seem to be Spanish. Which is doubly fascinating, considering “The Impossible” has a Spanish director and a Spanish screenwriter (and, likely, a Spanish crew). The reality in which this film exists is where one family lived to tell its story, but thousands died and left their arguably more important narratives buried in their watery graves. And then that family got to be whitewashed. As their private plane (!) takes off at the film’s close, they look out the window. The film’s reality is, I can’t believe we survived this. The actual reality is, “Thank God we got out of that hellhole. Good luck suffering, natives!”

Ironically, the only film that spoke to me about a familiar reality was a picture that just got released to complete audience rejection and critical apathy. Following the sprawling, elegiac “The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford,” director Andrew Dominik instead directed the tight, caustically funny “Killing Them Softly.” In this film, which received a rare ‘F’ Cinemascore from audiences, a couple of idiotic mooks (Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn) knock off a high-stakes card game held by organized crime kingpins, bringing down the heat in the form of sly dog Coogan (Brad Pit). As the designated mob enforcer working with a nameless corporate stooge played by Richard Jenkins, the two of them in the service of unseen benefactors, Coogan breaks down the ins and outs of the situation with comic ease, understanding exactly what happened that night and who were the culprits.

But it’s 2008, and as the country is turning towards the hope of soon-to-be President Obama, Coogan positions political pragmaticism as his accepted dogma. Which is to say, it isn’t that the guilty need to suffer, it’s that there need to be fall guys that serve the narrative of cause and effect. America is a business, he argues, with the implication being that he’s serving a machine, greasing the wheels more accurately by hitting up targets to the left and right of the two rootless drug-addled morons who just walked away with dirty petty cash. Dominik isn’t subtle about these themes, which is a turn-off to those who prefer their sledgehammer honesty to be sunnier and more optimistic -- happy horseshit is still horseshit. “Killing Them Softly” has curious, clever music cues, but the soundtrack is mostly occupied by the televised political speeches of the era, emphasizing that those in power are peddling straight bullshit in an attempt to convince others to toe the line.

The treat of “Killing Them Softly,” which was advertised as a go-for-broke actioner it most certainly isn’t (which is thematically appropriate, in a way), is that it’s often enormously perceptive. In two extended scenes, Coogan’s old pal Mickey (James Gandolfini) comes to town to provide services. But in his older age (despite Gandolfini being two years older than Pitt (curse you, Brad Pitt)) Mickey has compromised his principles in order to provide for himself. Of course, being a sickened, diseased degenerate who subsides on coke, scotch and sodomizing prostitutes, his interests are strictly prurient, but Coogan is more concerned with the job and its ramifications. What’s interesting is that Coogan retains his movie-star stoicism as Mickey rattles on about the ugliness in his life, but there’s also a wincing sadness that starts to weaken Coogan’s eyes. He’s a plainspoken, curt type with sharp sarcasm, but his voice softens considerably when he asks Mickey to drink just a little bit slower.

It’s only when Mickey responds to Coogan’s light requests with belligerency that Coogan snaps back into professionalism, reminding him that they all serve someone else. The coolly practical Coogan is about recompense, and his compassion drops out as soon as Mickey’s behavior makes it clear he might be responsible for the money train halting before it arrives. “Killing Them Softly” feels toxic at points, but appropriately so, one of the smarter films in recent years to realize “politics” reside not in “politics” but in the darker desires we all understand, whether that be our vices, or the need to get ahead, even if it means jeopardizing the lives of others. I hated this truth, but it was one of the year’s only cinematic truths to me nonetheless.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Meme-Watching "Rust And Bone"

I’m always trying to consider different ways of watching movies. I’ve been toying with a piece on what matters when watching a film, what to focus on, and what to examine. Cinema is a collaborative art, and hundreds of people can find employment on a movie set. Their work creates various avenues from which to explore a picture, from the music that plays, to the performances of an actor, to even the financial involvement of the producers and the possibly-colorful world in which they inhabit.

But there is something to be said about a visceral, primitive reaction and appreciation to film. This approach and understanding does not lend itself to writing, but it does honor a modern shorthand that I would like to call Meme-Watching. A similar designation would be Hashtag-Watching, but I would like to think viewers would not Tweet their way through a film, unless it were something inherently not worth the attention -- even then it should be done in the safety of your own home, and remains debatably disrespectful on a case-by-case basis.

Regardless, this approach, which lends itself well to films of certain types of spectacle (shallow or otherwise) is probably the only non-critical way to engage with some films. Films lack the poeticism of earlier eras, and more and more studio offerings feel like station-to-station filmmaking, checking off boxes in a vain attempt to adhere to Screenwriting 101 rules, as well as the tenets of blockbusting (see: Marvel). Those films can be deemed worthy of meme-watching almost derisively: to say anything negative about “The Hunger Games” is to fail to acknowledge that it’s a machine, not a film, comprised of only loosely-related moments meant to be Frankensteined into a plausible, inoffensive, apolitical, forgettable narrative.

But sometimes Meme-Watching can be the product of an idle or unprepared mind. You can’t parse through the narrative, or the themes, but you can grab onto a film moment-by-moment, riding the picture as if it were a roller-coaster (an analogy used for years to describe blockbusters that always struck me as subversively backhanded). The truth is, I do think there’s a sense of egotism when someone suggests they’re always going to be invested and intellectually involved with every film they see, particularly as far as the notion of understanding the filmmakers’ thesis.

So yes, Meme-Watching has an element of guilt attached. That guilt nagged at me during Jacques Audiard’s “Rust And Bone,” a somewhat-preposterous but emotionally engaging film which I very much Meme-Watched. Though “Rust And Bone” is a dead-serious awards-season release from Sony Pictures Classics, starring respected actors, and featuring the deadly-serious combination of songs by Bon Iver and a totally non-ironic reappropriation of a Katy Perry tune, I couldn’t help but think that any way I would describe the film, it would feel like endless hashtag abuse. *Deep breath*

#This handsome guy is totally broke #This pretty woman works with whales #He becomes a street fighter #She loses her legs #Amputee Sex!

And so on and so on. My descriptions of this film can only be captured through breathless run-on sentences. My takeaway from “Rust And Bone” was that Audiard’s fascination with curves and flesh allows a fetishization of Marion Cotillard’s (digitally) amputated legs, and Mathias Schoenarts’ muscled gut. But that discussion is cowed by absolute fascination that the two lead characters become f-buddies first, and colleagues second. By the time Schoenarts was enlisting her as his streetfight booking agent, I was merely checking off what thrilled me about this setup. As if her fabulous metallic replacement legs weren’t swaggy enough, he refers to her as “Robocop,” as she walks into a mess of sweaty moneymen (where, previously, a woman was not permitted) proudly displaying her gray limbs while strutting with a cane, hand full of hot street cheddar. I suppose it’s a testament to the filmmaker that I stopped looking for heady ideas when I simply wanted to cheer for a decidedly unconventional narrative.

I attended the film with uncertain expectations. Knowing that it involved a handicapped character and the notoriously-intense Cotillard, “Rust And Bone” (especially given it’s elliptical title) was earmarked as something of a chore. Truth is, the film is compelling from start to finish, funny, sensual, and populated by these two delightful actors who imbue two troubled personalities with touching humanity. And yet that endorsement, if you will, feels like just another mishmash of hashtags. #criticalthought