Film Review: Cloud Atlas

I’m not quite sure when “multiple story threads woven together around one theme” became such a thing in cinema. Probably before I started paying attention to it. Famous examples include Love Actually, its predecessor (which I personally prefer) Playing by Heart, and Crash. So far, of the variations on this structural choice that I have seen, I think Thirteen Conversations About One Thing has done it best. Cloud Atlas does not use the technique particularly effectively. I watched Cloud Atlas with my husband, and when we discussed it briefly afterwards, he pointed out that unlike the other examples of “multiple story threads woven together around one theme” I like to bring up, Cloud Atlas does not tell its story chronologically; the threads are woven together not by geographical location or consistent character interactions (all of the threads are separated in time, sometimes by decades, sometimes by centuries) but by themes of exploitation, resistance to oppression, courage, and love. My husband argued that the jumping backwards and forwards in time was confusing. I didn’t have much of a problem with that – the mise-en-scène of the different threads differed dramatically enough that I was able to follow which thread was being dwelt upon at the moment without too much difficulty – but I must say, the voice-over narration at the film’s start which acknowledges that such flashbacks and jumps forward are gimmicky but promises that they’re done for good reason in Cloud Atlas is misleading. The techniques, while not strictly gimmicky because they are done for an artistic reason beyond “this looks cool”, are still distracting and in my opinion detract from the strength of the themes they are meant to highlight.

Plot

Will humanity return to tribalism in three centuries?
Will humanity return to tribalism in three centuries’ time?

Cloud Atlas traces the outline of one possible version of Western civilization, from 1849 through present day and into a far future time when the Common Era system for tracking time is no longer used. (Note that the creative team tried, to some extent, to represent the lingual shifts that would happen over this kind of time jump, but the future language came across as slurred mumbling most of the time, punctuated by understandable speech just often enough for my ear to not be able to adjust to it… and heaven forfend they include subtitles! This feature of the far-future storyline really irritated me.) In each of these storylines, a main character is pitted against an oppressive social force: slavery, homophobia, corporate monopoly of energy, ageism, bias against “fabricants” (getting into future time here), a yawning social split between pre-industrial valley-dwellers and technology-wielding “prescients”. In each of these storylines, the main character commits rebellious acts that defy the social order. Sometimes these acts are successful beyond the character’s wildest dreams. Sometimes, the consequences are fatal and the character’s story gets (mostly) buried.

Two sets of stories are more closely connected than the others: a secondary character from the “gay musical genius storyline” gets trapped in an elevator with the main character from the “investigative reporter” storyline, and the main character from the “dystopian Neo-Seoul” storyline is worshiped as a goddess by the time the “after the fall of civilization” storyline rolls around. The other two stories – the “slaveowner finds a conscience” storyline and the “cranky publisher escapes a nursing home” storyline – are mentioned in the other threads only as inspiration via written and filmed evidence they leave behind. It is my considered opinion that these two less-connected threads could have been left out of the movie easily to create a more manageable runtime (172 minutes is an excessively long runtime for such little artistic payoff beyond saturation), and the two sets of stories that were more tightly connected should have been separated into two separate films of their own. There’s enough meaty dramatic material in both the “gay musical genius/investigative reporter” tale, and the “dystopian Neo-Seoul/after the fall of civilization” tale, to get two movies out of the experience, and those movies would be more richly textured emotional experiences with room for subtletly and nuance rather than cherry-picked moments of high dramatic tension.

Characters

Reusing actors across timelines can get complicated.
Reusing actors across timelines can get complicated.

I really did not find any of the characters in Cloud Atlas particularly compelling, with the possible exception of Hae-Joo Chang, the action hero/revolutionary Pureblood who rescues and individuates the fabricant Sonmi-451 in the “dystopian Neo-Seoul” storyline. His willingness to make idealistic love personal kind of reminded me of my husband, or maybe it was the dark hair, dark eyes, and slim build. At any rate, there simply wasn’t time for me to get attached to any one of these people. The brief flashes given of moments of high tension in their lives reduce them to manifestations of themes. That’s supposed to be the point, I guess, but I’m at a point in my own artistic journey in which I don’t want to view people as interchangeable manifestations of themes anymore. I want my films populated with fully-fleshed out real humans who have, to reference an old standby monologue that I memorized decades ago, “a fat stomach, chafe marks where my jeans cut in, bad breath from eating the wrong stuff, and my underarms are stubbly”. That’s what I care about. I think turning people into abstractions is dangerous and socially irresponsible.

Themes

Does the future look like fetishization?
Does the future look like fetishization?

Cloud Atlas is a movie that lives and dies by its themes. I’ve already mentioned them previously in this review: exploitation, resistance, courage, love. Many epic films have been made about these themes over the course of cinema, and Cloud Atlas certainly wants to have an epic scope. It is sweeping in its grandeur. But “more” does not necessarily equate to “better”. Way back in the day, when I was in high school, someone I knew had a sentence on her online profile: Too much of a good thing is still too much. These themes could be expressed just as beautifully in a more restrained fashion and I would not have been left feeling dazed, desensitized, and overstimulated.

I rented Cloud Atlas because, when I saw the preview for it last week, I drew the conclusion that it would deal with some Buddhist doctrines that I find poetically beautiful if not scientifically evidenced – karma and rebirth. This material was dealt with only tangentially in Cloud Atlas and that was very disappointing to me. I wanted the links between the stories to be more solid; I wanted the cloth to be more tightly woven. I also wanted a film that was about an hour shorter, and upon reflection, the “cranky publisher escapes a nursing home” storyline really didn’t enhance the film in any way. All in all, I think the Wachowski brothers and Tom Tykwer dropped the ball with this project.

Overall Rating: 2 out of 5.

Film Review: No Country for Old Men

One learns the strangest things from films. Apparently, if a psychopath gives one the opportunity to converse before being murdered by a shotgun with a silencer, it is inadvisable to plead by saying “You don’t have to do this!” Apparently, this will be considered unoriginal and you may be mocked for it. Of anything I could have possibly learnt by watching No Country for Old Men, which is a painstakingly realistic account of a way of life that is foreign to me, this was the film moment that made the deepest impression upon me. I guess because I’m more likely to try talking my way out of such an encounter than doing anything else. If my options are going to boil down to fight, flee or negotiate, and I’m going to choose negotiate because it’s the only way I’ve got even a slim chance, then I’d damn well better know how to negotiate right.

Unfortunately for the characters who try to negotiate with the villain of No Country for Old Men, sometimes people refuse to negotiate. Sometimes people prefer to abdicate responsibility for their actions, and claim that something entirely under their power is in fact determined by random chance. Woe to the human who treats a monster as a human. Sometimes the monster wins, sometimes he loses – but woe to the humans who get in his way, or sometimes, those who simply exist nearby.

Score/Soundtrack

What struck me the most about No Country for Old Men was its use of music, or rather, its lack thereof. The audio component of the film relies entirely upon speech, sound effects (such as the silenced shotgun), and ambient noise. I don’t think there’s a single music cue in it until the credits roll. Even when characters are riding in vehicles that might logically make use of FM radio, no music plays, just the sounds of driving and occasional speech. I enjoyed this as an artistic choice because music is such an easy emotional tool in a film’s toolkit. Time and again in my life, nothing has hooked into my emotions like music, not even the sight of my love’s face. The absence of music in No Country for Old Men simultaneously makes the film more present – this is what one would realistically hear when out at night in rural Texas – and more remote – by lowering the ceiling of emotional impact possible. Because my emotions were not as absorbed as I am used to them being by the content of a film with music, I had additional energy to intellectually contemplate the implications of the film’s narrative and other aspects of its construction, such as the painstaking attention to detail used to place the film in 1980 (see my review of Argo for my thoughts on the creative work required to do a period piece set in the late 20th century).

Characters

no country facesAnton Chigurh, No Country for Old Men‘s villain, completely steals the show in this one. Not because Javier Bardem hams it up, no, not by any means – in fact he displays very good control of his craft – but rather because the character of Chigurh is so distinctive. Carson Wells (played by Woody Harrelson, whom as usual I loved to hate) tries to paint Chigurh as a run-of-the-mill psychopath when Wells initially meets with the creatively named “man who hires Wells”, but Chigurh came across as very idiosyncratic to me. Even after his character seemed well-established in the film, when the viewer knows his method and motives, he continued to pull the occasional fast one on me that left me scratching my head. I guess it’s a good thing I couldn’t think like he did. I do have to politely disagree with Wells and the other characters in the narratives who assert that Chigurh is “crazy”. I can remember when I was young, around the time that Jeffrey Dahmer was in the news, asking my father whether serial killers were sick or not (and we are in a day and age when “crazy” is considered a form of “sick”). His reply was something like, “Some people aren’t sick, sweetie. Some people are just evil.” Now that I’m a lot closer to the age my father was when he made that solemn admission about the world, I must say I concur with his words. Chigurh is not crazy; Chigurh is a particularly dangerous brand of evil. One of Chigurh’s traits that I found most disturbing was his willingness to take actions that he had to know would cause him physical damage and pain, to achieve some other end. He neither avoids pain, nor seems to take masochistic pleasure from it; it simply does not matter to him, he’s got stuff to do. If the mind is the master, and the body is the slave, Chigurh’s mind is the Simon Legree of slavemasters. (Don’t know who I’m talking about? Go read a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.)

Themes

Is this a mess?  Well, it'll do until the mess gets here.
Is this a mess? Well, it’ll do until the mess gets here.

Hunting plays a prominent position in No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is clearly a predator who loves hunting intelligent game, taking it on as both his profession and hobby (kind of a one-note song that way I suppose). But Moss, who is arguably the film’s hero, is also a hunter. In fact, the first thing we see him do in the film is hunt wild game. How is it different to hunt a hunter, versus hunting quarry? This was probably the most intriguing aspect of the film for me. Time and again, I compared how Moss’ actions while being pursued differed drastically from what I would have done, and every time I concluded that the difference lay in the fact that he thought like a hunter, whereas I was thinking like quarry. The deepest observation that his wife makes about Moss is that he was never able to admit when he needed help. I guess some hunters are better able to work in packs than others. Sheriff Bell (played by Tommy Lee Jones in a manner reminiscent to his work in The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) is also hunting intelligent game. He has the authority of the law on his side, but that is not where his moral high ground comes from. His style of hunting, simply put has rules. It’s predictable. And the film makes a powerful argument that it is this predictability that dooms law men to failure. After seeing film after film in which police officers have been portrayed as either Supermen worthy of worship, or as corrupt and power mad, it was refreshing to watch Sheriff Bell the law man doing a job. It made the film’s ending, which don’t worry I am not going to say anything about that requires a spoiler, a lot harder to swallow.

Despite the setting of rural Texas, despite the presence of sheriffs on horseback and shootout after shootout, No Country for Old Men is not a Western. In fact, it could even be viewed as a postmodern commentary on the Western genre. Viewed this way, the title can be seen as a warning – if you’re expecting a Western that follows a formula and the rules, you’re going to be disappointed. I guess my disappointment in this film stemmed from not reading the back of the box and relying on the fact that I remembered hearing the film’s title being mentioned by more than one source I respect as that of a great film. While No Country for Old Men is extremely well-crafted, challenges genre conventions and provoked a lot of thought from me, as a film experience I would say it’s good but not great. The ending really did dissatisfy me, and I also cringed at the way the camera lingered on some gory, bleeding injuries. Though I do have to hand it to the Coen brothers for one aspect of how violence was handled: No Country for Old Men pays a lot more attention to the aftermath, how violence must be mopped up, than any other film I can recall. Down to the detail of having Sheriff Bell wisecrack with the man hauling bodies away from a crime scene under a loose tarp. Body haulers don’t really get a lot of screen time in most films. Well done, gentlemen.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Film Review: Argo

Films don’t usually get secondary titles the way some books or academic works do more frequently. What would the best secondary title for Argo be, I wonder? Argo: The Tensest Film Ever Made? Well while I suspect that secondary title to be accurate, it’s hardly a good selling point. True story: I actually walked out of Argo when I tried to watch it in a theater, not because it was a bad film (and yes, I’m the sort of moviegoer who will walk out on a film if I consider it to be bad enough to deserve it) but because it was so tense that watching it was making me gravely uncomfortable. The experience was excruciating for me. I could only make it for about 20 minutes. This week I decided to try watching it on the small screen. I reasoned that in a less panoramic context, the tension might be more bearable. I was completely right. I still caught myself exhibiting physical symptoms of tension many times while watching this film – I had to consciously un-grit my teeth – but the experience was more manageable for me, I made it all the way through.

Argo: A Most Curious Intersection of Art and Politics? Better, but the phrasing of “A Most Curious…” gives this secondary title something of a Victorian feel, and Argo is not just a period piece about 1980, it’s the best period piece about 1980 I’ve ever seen. A secondary title should have resonance with a film’s artistic qualities, and Argo does not feel antiquated. Its political content remains vibrant and relevant, thirty years after the events went down.

Perhaps Argo: This Is How It Happened? Argo is very much a movie about the HOW of this particular declassified covert operation. There’s a little information given about the WHY, enough context that the viewer understands why the Iranian hatred of the Shah and his allies is so virulent, but much, much more attention is paid to the HOW. It is the focus on HOW that makes this such a period piece. HOW is very much a question of technology, and the technology of thirty years ago is not the technology of today. For a moment of mental relief from the film’s tension, try to take a step back and consider whether the main characters would have been more significantly helped, or hindered, if mobile phone technology had been present in their crisis.

Authenticity of Setting

Her hair... it's just like Farrah Fawcett!
Her hair… it’s just like Farrah Fawcett!

I have to handle it to Affleck’s design crew and creative team, Argo really does feel like a page ripped from time. Every detail fits together, from the haircuts to the costumes to the props to the soundtrack. I suppose the fact that by the time 1980 rolled around, the Information Age had been born, so these period details were well-documented in sources that are still available. It’s easier for a design team to research 1980 USA than, say, Bronze Age China. But it’s one thing to have detailed research available, another thing to apply it. There is a temptation to update, revamp, to make a “fresh twist” that takes elements from the period and blends them with contemporary elements that young, hip viewers will find more familiar. And of course in any design work there is the desire to be creative, to leave a fingerprint so that someone who knows how to pay attention will know that yours were the hands that made it. Maybe I just don’t know how to pay attention, but in Argo all the fingerprints are invisible. To use an image from classic typographical theory, the design work of this film is like a perfectly clear, plain wineglass. The wine of history is what gets caught by the light; creativity gets out of the way.

Plot

You don't want to need one, but when you do, you don't do it yourself.
You don’t want to need one, but when you do, you don’t do it yourself.

As stated above, Argo is a nailbiter. A CIA operative who specializes in getting US citizens out of places where US citizens are hated in a murderous way takes on the challenge of a lifetime: 6 staff members who have escaped the US Embassy in Tehran where the other staff members are currently being held hostage with the asking price of the head of the exiled Shah (which the US can’t deliver without losing current allies it has in other countries). Every way to get these staff members out of the country looks like certain disaster. The CIA operative gambles on creating a fake film as a cover story to get himself into Tehran, a film for which the 6 embassy workers will pose as crew members just long enough to get back out of the country. This really happened, folks. There was even a press event that featured a reading of the script for the fake film (they picked up a real script). Thinking about this makes me wonder what else I’ve heard of in the media that might have been entirely staged… Argo is based on a declassified CIA case file. What’s still classified, I wonder?

Putting my tin foil hat safely back on its peg, this film’s tension is derived from its extended sequences of narrowly-missed disasters. In most action/suspense stories, there is time taken away from the tension for character development (even if those characters are cardboard cutouts) and also time devoted lovingly to exhilarating extended action sequences. You know what I’m talking about: choreographed fight scenes that are more like dances come to mind. Argo‘s plot takes the time that would be normally devoted to that stuff, and uses it to ratchet the tension up another few notches. No scene is wasted. Even something as mundane as a long-distance phone call home to a kid is kept only because it moves the plot along. Do not start watching Argo thinking you’ll have time to get the microwave popcorn from the kitchen during a slow scene. There are no slow scenes in your immediate future.

Themes

This happened.
This happened.

The opening sequence, in which the angry mob breaks into the Embassy to take hostages while the 6 staff members slip out the only door in the complex that leads directly to the street, brought tears to my eyes. Particularly when the head of security tried to go outside to reason with a street full of angry people wanting revenge for decades of oppression. I have never gotten myself into a situation that careful use of words could not get me out of. The prospect of being in a situation so grave, not as a soldier but as a civil servant, filled me with a sort of blind terror as I watched. A mob’s not going to care that I’m an anarchosyndaclist who despises the hegemonic policies of my nation. A mob’s still going to want my blood. Right now, I have the luxury of living somewhere where there is no mob. Will that always be the case? Will I someday be the one at the door with my hands bound and a strip of cloth over my eyes, pleading with my allies to let me back in? Most of the time I’m able to shush my fears down to a dull roar in the back of my mind. Argo paraded them in front of my eyes, and said with stern intensity: “This is real. This could happen. This did happen.”

I would like to give this film 5 out of 5. I really would, for its artistic integrity is stellar. But I am going to have to knock it down a point, because anxiety and tension is such an unpleasant experience. I respect Argo deeply and I think it does exactly what it intended to do. But respecting something is not the same as liking it, and even though I was able to get all the way through this time, I didn’t like doing it. It is possible to make a film that has artistic integrity, deals with an unpleasant subject, and still has enough beauty to make for a pleasant experience. Argo is not House of Sand and Fog. I guess I can’t give reality 5 out of 5.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Review: Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thieves)

I haven’t seen a lot of movies filmed in the years immediately following WWII. I’ve seen practically no movies, apart from Bicycle Thieves, that were filmed by Italians, in Italy, for Italians, in Italian. So I think it’s important that I approach this review with as much humility as possible. My eyes have been trained for a completely different cultural context. I’m sure that many of the details that I found odd, unusual, or striking, would have been completely commonplace for the audience for which they were intended, and other details that in current time I consider commonplace and cinematically routine, to the audience for which they were intended were revolutionary, thought-provoking techniques. So take this review with a grain of salt. It’s quite possible that some of the things I’m about to say, I simply have not done my homework on and can’t back up with any cultural information. These are just some observations that I made.

Plot

Life Among the Lowly, Italian-style.
Life Among the Lowly, Italian-style.

Bicycle Thieves was created to expose the ugly truth of the life of poor people in Rome after WWII. Because the economy of Rome was clearly depressed, it stands to reason that most of its populace could be counted among the poor. Antonio Ricci, the film’s main character, is one of the working poor – barely. He pawns his bicycle to put food on his family’s table, and when he gets a city job that requires him to provide his own bicycle transportation, his wife pawns their sheets to get the bicycle back. Unlike the elderly character referred to in the credits as “The Beggar”, he is not reduced to accepting charity meals at a church, but Ricci obviously lives a marginal existence. Bicycle Thieves tells a meandering tale of just how low a person living in the margins will stoop to keep from going over the edge. Just what is a guy to do when he plays by the rules to protect the people he loves – and gets kicked in the teeth for his efforts?

This is not a new story. It kind of reminded me of a less dramatic and more compact version of Les Miserables.

Bicycle Thieves did its best work when it reviewed, in excruciating detail, the sometimes minor and sometimes major injustices Ricci is expected to bear without complaint. The audience watches him die a death of a thousand cuts as he is required to provide a bicycle he can’t afford to get the job he needs in order to afford it, to overlook the damage that was done to the bicycle by the pawn shop, to perform well at a job for which he is given about 30 seconds of training, etc. etc. etc. the list goes on and on in scene after scene. The biggest affront of all is probably the expectation on the part of the police that he do their detective work for him and track down his bicycle himself after it is stolen. I guess that’s one bonus to the phenomenon of vigilante justice, from the eyes of the state – it cuts down on the paperwork and manpower required to actually perform one’s function, freeing up time and resources to sit on one’s hands in meetings.

Themes

Bicycle Thieves does its worst work, in my opinion, when it attempts to portray Ricci as a loving man. The most glaring difference in cultural contexts between what I know and what the film appears to expect me to know, is the normalization of the way Ricci treats his wife, Maria, and his son, Bruno. He belittles and chides Maria and engages in ‘horseplay’ with her which (and believe me I was paying attention to the actress’ face) she does not appear to enjoy. At a key moment in the film, Ricci slaps Bruno across the cheek because Bruno dares to question his judgment. He also takes Bruno along with him in his vigilante quest to regain his bicycle and frequently leaves Bruno to wander the street. The film does provide a cautionary note when this pattern gets a little extreme and Bruno is pestered by a man who, according to my interpretation of the subtext, is a pedophile; but these tendencies in Ricci that, in my opinion, are minor instances of family violence and neglect, are accepted by the film’s network of characters as perfectly acceptable behavior for a family man. I really found the family dynamics of the film’s main characters to be deplorable and I’m glad I still have the sensitivity, and sensibility, to feel that way.

However, the film performs a valuable work in its exploration of where crime really comes from. Everybody in Rome is desperate and they’re all driven by social forces they neither control nor really understand. While the film provides no explanation for why the Thief stole Ricci’s bicycle, as the Thief maintains his innocence until the bitter end, it is crystal clear why Ricci does what he does. Who among the audience can honestly say that he has never bent, twisted, or broken the rules due to desperation and fear for survival or at least safety? What’s the old saying – “Desperate times call for desperate measures”? A little charity, and a little compassion, goes a long way, especially when one is entering a situation in which there are a lot of moving parts that have already been in motion for a long time. On the other hand, the film warns, it’s easy to let the impulse to heal get out of hand. You could end up like the film’s “Holy One” woman – sitting with a bedroom full of desperate, hopeful, expectant people, spouting vague platitudes and trying to pass them off as divine inspiration.

Acting

Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola
Bruno, played by Enzo Staiola

When it comes to actors in Bicycle Thieves, Enzo Staiola steals the show. He is expected to play not a child, but a miniature adult (it is Bruno who notices the dent in the bicycle while he polishes it after it is retrieved from the pawn shop, not his father) with essentially adult cares. Staiola does what the role requires him to do, which most frequently is to visibly worry. He worries in his home, he worries on the street, he worries in the church, he worries in the rain. I was relieved when he was allowed to visibly enjoy a mozzarella sandwich in a restaurant, because I was starting to worry on his behalf, wondering if the pint-sized actor might have had a stress headache at the end of the day. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a child in real life emote as effectively as Staiola does on film. When I took an acting class in college, I remember discussing the phenomenon of child acting with my professor; she said that child actors frequently do not fare well in the art as adults, because the skill set required is different (adult acting requires drawing upon experience, which children simply cannot do because they have not had enough experiences yet). Enzo Staiola has 15 acting credits listed on the Internet Movie Database. The most recent listing is for 1977. No further comment necessary.

The Internet Movie Database is a great resource for amateur film critics like me. It tells me that Bicycle Thieves is an example of the Neorealist movement in film, and it has this to say about Neorealism:

The neorealist movement sprung up in Italy after the end of WWII as all of Europe was trying to rebuild itself. It was in retaliation to a general belief that most people find life dull and boring and use their imaginations to fantasize a better world. The neorealistic film is one that attempts to see the beauty in everyday life as people go about doing what people do. Consequently, the neorealistic film is made to look as realistic as possible by, for example, shooting outdoors in natural light and using amateur actors.

Bicycle Thieves? Beauty in everyday life? Reminds me of the person who introduced this film in the theater calling it “delightful”. Bicycle Thieves is hardly beautiful, and far from delightful. While it’s not gritty, and it certainly doesn’t wallow in tragedy, the film is a realistic portrayal of a hard life shared by little people who are not masters of their own destiny. It’s sad, somewhat depressing, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or schadenfreude. I recommend it to people who are living in soft comfort, as a wake-up call to help understand how things are going for the rest of us. One doesn’t have to live in a post-WWII depression to have a hard life.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Review: Singles

The film Singles has been in my life a long time. I first learned about it through a reference made in an online journal post by the dude who would eventually become my least favorite ex. He was nine years older than me and he said that Singles was the movie that defined love for his generation. The film asserts that love is not about grand gestures or beautiful rhetoric, it’s about parking spaces. I suppose this struck him as deep. I bought a copy of it in the hopes of better understanding him, and despite the ugliness that followed between the two of us, Singles has stayed on my shelf. I’ve watched it in many contexts and shared it with many peers that I am close to. I’m reviewing it here now because I felt like watching it again recently, and because it’s high time this blog ventured into comedic territory.

 

Crushed velvet!  Textured vests! Flannel!  Spurious hats!
Crushed velvet! Textured vests! Flannel! Spurious hats!

Singles was originally released in 1992, making it a film that my older sister would have been more likely to have seen at the theater than I would have – I would have been a little young to care about supposedly timeless truths about dating. At the time, the costuming would have been unremarkably fashionable. Nowadays, it marks Singles as a period piece about the Seattle grunge scene (the extensive concert footage at the clubs where people headbang, dance awkwardly and occasionally bodysurf also helps in this regard, as does the cameo by Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder). Even when I first watched Singles, more than ten years ago, it was starting to feel dated. It’s not aging too badly, but not too well either; is “aging mediocrely” even a thing?

The other noteworthy mise en scène element of this film is the casting choices, the actors selected. Campbell Scott, Kyra Sedgwick, Bridget Fonda and Matt Dillon play the leads of this ensemble cast and what I was truly amazed at, after being inundated with Hollywood’s exaggerated sexiness and beauty over the course of my adult life, was how ordinary these beautiful people looked. They’re still beautiful people, but they’re the sort of beautiful people one easily encounters in day to day Midwestern life. The only time I’ve seen standard Hollywood-quality beautiful people grace my existence with their presence in the past twenty years has been when a rare pharmaceutical sales representative has happened to be in a doctor’s waiting room at the same time as me. Briefly. The cast of Singles doesn’t look like that. The actors look approachable. It’s a relief.

Themes

And just what do they say about artificial redheads again?
And just what do they say about artificial redheads again?

Remember how I said in my review of Arbitrage that I got a lot of fun out of watching the characters tick through tough choices based on their ethical alignments? Singles is another film about alignments, but not those that deal with ethics. Well, somewhat. Singles is about different relationship styles. Which ones are compatible. Which ones definitely are not. The problems a person encounters when wading through the dating world without being explicit with partners regarding, or sometimes even aware of, one’s own style and one’s expectations regarding the style of a partner.

I’m married. Happily. My husband and I met through a free dating website. This website, which I shall leave nameless because this is a film review not free advertising for anybody, placed a lot of emphasis on understanding the different styles that are out there, identifying one’s own style, and looking for compatibility of styles. After spending so much time hunting for a mate in their system, I can’t watch Singles without identifying the relationship styles of these Seattle twentysomethings lost in time from twenty years ago. The two “main” characters (remember, this is an ensemble cast) exemplify what happens when a “Wild Rose” (Deliberate Brutal Love Dreamer, Kyra Sedgwick’s character) pairs off with a “Loverboy” (Random Gentle Love Master, played spot on by Campbell Scott). The mismatch between Bridget Fonda’s “Sonnet” (Deliberate Gentle Love Dreamer) and Matt Dillon’s “Manchild” (Random Brutal Love Dreamer) is painful to watch, and the “surprise ending” for these two characters comes across as forced and unrealistic. Note that I said Random Brutal LOVE Dreamer for the character of Cliff Poncier. At first blush he appears to be a Random Brutal Sex Dreamer, or the “Last Man on Earth”, but the only way to incorporate the end of his storyline with Janet is to understand that the swaggering horn-dog approach he takes for most of the film is just a macho posture. Even when Janet is in her needy phase early in the film, when Cliff finds her smothering and easy to neglect, he is also still attracted to her. To some extent just because he likes attention, but I think on a deeper level even Cliff is looking for love. It’s harder to see for his character than it is for Debbie (played comfortably by Sheila Kelly), the other character who looks away guiltily when Janet announces that casual sex is lethal. Debbie is clearly a woman who uses sex as a commodity when looking for love, which is unfortunate but a classic amateur mistake. I’d say she’s most likely a Random Gentle Love Dreamer or “Window Shopper”.

Acting

"Your hair... it wants a different part..."
“Your hair… it wants a different part…”

Just as in my post for Arbitrage I decided to spend some space talking about my respect for Susan Sarandon, in this post I’d like to discuss my feelings about Bill Pullman. Pullman has been in many feature films over the years, ranging from the role of the comic hero in Spaceballs, to the President of the United States in Independence Day, to the dark and disturbing role I will always love him for: Fred Madison in Lost Highway. Yet if you say the name “Bill Pullman” to the average Joe on the street, I would wager that average Joe would not be able to connect a face to the name. Pullman can carry the role that a feature film’s plot hangs on, the star role of the film, and somehow maintain an anonymity. To use a gaming analogy, he’s like the GURPS of film actors. If I’m going to enjoy the story being told for other reasons, including plot, themes, and characterization, Pullman’s good work will let me focus on those elements; but if I don’t like the other elements of the story – such as plot, themes, and characterization – Pullman’s work, while still good, will not save the film for me. He’s just not distinctive enough. So if you’re reading this, Bill, congratulations on being a solid workhorse of an actor and make sure your agent picks good artistic projects not the glorified action hero roles. Assuming you want to impress me.

Singles still works as a comedy. It has some nice, snappy dialogue, and believable characters that face predicaments that anyone who’s spent more than five minutes in the dating pool will find familiar. But it is definitely dated. I’m not sure to what extent the creative team behind it wanted to create a period piece, versus to what extent they wanted to create something timeless. If they were looking to create something timeless, I would say they pretty much failed. But if you like the grunge movement and other aspects of 1990s culture, you should probably watch this one. Then again, you probably have already.

Overall Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Film Review: Arbitrage

“I’m the patriarch. That’s my role, and I have to play it.” – Robert Miller

Arbitrage (a lawyer has informed me that it rhymes with “entourage”, not “Anchorage” like I originally pronounced it) pulled a fast one on me! Twice! Not a lot of films do that to me anymore, I gotta give it kudos.

First, based on the back of the box I assumed it was going to be “macro economic events seen through a microcosm of characters” a la Margin Call (the film featured in the previews that interested me the most, though Winter’s Bone looked good too), but with the exception of one confrontation between the main character and his daughter in Central Park, that wasn’t what this film was about at all. I would summarize its content as “how a smart, rich, True Neutral covers up a crime”.

(For those among my reader base who are not familiar with the term “True Neutral”, I’m lifting it from Dungeons&Dragons. It refers to one of nine potential ethical alignments for characters in that game. It’s a two-axis system of morality, one axis covers how a character feels about laws and social codes, the other axis covers how that character feels about altruism. In this film, Robert Miller is a True Neutral, someone who picks and chooses which social codes to follow and also displays both altruistic and selfish tendencies. His daughter, Brooke, is Lawful Good. His wife, played stunningly by Susan Sarandon, is Neutral Good. His driver, Grant, is Chaotic Good. Watching these characters tick through tough moral choices based on their alignments was half the fun of this movie.)

Second, the film ends at a point in the storyline where I was completely not expecting it to end. This is the first film I’ve seen in ages where I actually wanted it to keep going another twenty minutes, so many movies take for-freaking-EVER to end and this was definitely not one of them, I was on the edge of my seat until the very end. But looking back on it, I can understand why the writer ended it when they did. The way the characters had been set up, everything that needed to be said had been said. The dominoes were all set up in perfect alignment, there’s no reason the audience should be given the emotional schadenfreude of watching them fall when the entire point of the film is the tension. Well played, Arbitrage. Well played.

Characters

Sometimes it's possible to understand your mate a little too well.
Sometimes it’s possible to understand your mate a little too well.

Arbitrage is a film that lives and dies by its characters. The plot’s not especially complicated, there was really only one twist I didn’t expect – but the main reason I didn’t expect it was, I thought my understanding of the moral position of the police investigator was complete and then the film proved that it was entirely incomplete. Basically, if you don’t enjoy watching well-fleshed-out characters wading hip-deep through murky moral territory, this film is not going to be compelling for you. That’s something I really dig, so it was compelling for me. Who really has the moral high ground here? On the surface, it appears that Brooke does, but is that only because she is ignorant and naive? She may not have been confronted with very many tough moral choices in her life. Her father has worked very hard to put her in a position where she has the luxury of taking the high road, and one of the reasons I didn’t want the film to end where it did was, I wanted to see what she would do when confronted with the knowledge of her father’s corruption. Would she continue to take the high road once she realized who’d been footing the bill for this particular luxury good for the length of her entire life, when in order to take it she would have to give up something she valued dearly? From the way the dominoes were set up, my hypothesis is that she would choose to take the low road. This is certainly hinted at by her public praise of her father at the gala that is the film’s final scene, but a hint is not a certainty. Really, this character’s dramatic arc was arrested by the closing credits. Probably because she was not the film’s main character. This is Robert Miller’s story, and that story is told to completion.

Acting

Sarandon works her way through a pivotal scene for Ms. Miller.
Sarandon works her way through a pivotal scene for Ms. Miller.

Despite the fact that this is Robert Miller’s story and the film should really be considered a vehicle for Richard Gere, I’m going to take this paragraph to write a brief homage to Susan Sarandon. I would have watched this film if someone else had been cast in the role of Ms. Miller, but Sarandon’s involvement was definitely a selling point for me on the back of the box. Sarandon starred in some less than classy roles early in her career – Rocky Horror Picture Show anyone? Or how about that topless scene in Atlantic City? – but somewhere along the line her agent wised up and for decades now she’s been turning out quality work in great films like Thelma and Louise and The Banger Sisters (I may not have reviewed any on this blog yet but there is a part of me that will happily watch a chick flick, Steel Magnolias has a place on my shelf and I will not apologize to the gamer guy part of my reader base for that, not now and not ever). In this film, Sarandon plays an Empress, and I use that term in the tarot sense. A mature woman who understands the world and is willing to walk the low road so that others don’t have to, and keeps her regal bearing every step of the way. My heart just about broke for her character when her husband wheedles his mistress into taking an upstate vacation with him, a scant handful of scenes after Sarandon’s character tried to persuade him to do the same thing with her instead. I would have felt empathy for her character based on my feelings about infidelity alone, but when Sarandon plays her full hand of cards late in the movie and finally has a chance to talk about what SHE believes in, I really wanted to cheer. Sarandon made the character come alive. She’s got the gift. Watch her stuff. At this point in her career, she won’t steer you wrong.

Themes
As I said earlier in the review, I came to this movie assuming it was going to be like what I have come to understand Margin Call is like (I’ve never seen that one). Macroeconomic principles discussed in a microcosm. I therefore approached this movie with all the enthusiasm that a twelve-year-old can muster when required by a parent to eat peas. I know that understanding economics is good for me, just like a preteen’s understanding of health is developed enough to know that a body requires the nutrients in vegetables. I’ve been skirting the topic of economics to the maximum extent possible for most of my life, because I find it so dismal and depressing, and just like someone with a nutrient deficiency, it’s impacted my quality of life. So I resigned myself to eating my vegetables. I mean, with a title like Arbitrage, how fun could this movie really be? More fun than an Internet primer on hedge funds, surely… but not very fun.

Well the title’s a misnomer. If I were going to retitle this film, I would call it… The Patriarch. You see, “arbitrage” is a legal process, and if any of the characters were in arbitrage at any time in this story, it was never discussed. I got all the way through this film knowing how the word “arbitrage” is pronounced, but not really understanding what it meant, or how it differs from, say, “arbitration”. But if the film had been called The Patriarch, it would have been clear from the beginning that it was a character-driven movie. It also would have been clear that a modicum of intelligence is required to understand the film, because “patriarch” is a three syllable word (I do appreciate that aspect of the film’s real title), and that many of the problems encountered in the story stem from its reliance on patriarchal social systems (if you want to knock your brain for a loop while watching this one, pay attention to the significance of documents and documentation).

Whoever thought of this tagline for the movie got it wrong - power is Miller's motive, not his alibi.
Whoever thought of this tagline for the movie got it wrong – power is Miller’s motive, not his alibi.

I’m never going to be a billionaire. Watching Arbitrage confirmed both why this is true, and why I want it to be so. It’s a lot easier to stay on the high road, safe in the company of people I respect, when you’re not confronted with the choices someone like Robert Miller has to make every day. Frequently over the backs of the people he loves.Arbitrage will make you think and make you care. That’s a Hollywood rarity. I repeat: Well played, Arbitrage. Well played.

Overall rating: 5 out of 5.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Calculation”

a poem written for Harry Kotecki on the occasion of his 90th birthday
by his granddaughter, Lyn Wilder-Dean

We played chess.
Grandpa, I came to your house so many times when I was young.
Grandma was a vibrant personality and I always beamed her light back to her
so happily,
But you and me, we played chess.

The game of chess is known across the world
for the requirement of calculation.
Masters of the game have piece arrangements memorized
and are planning at least six moves deep from the moment they touch a pawn.
I may have the raw computing power in my brain to make chess work,
but when I let my emotions take the driver’s seat
I lose the knack for calculation
that I admire in you.

Let’s play chess again.
Show me your patience now that I can admire it with adult eyes.
Patience is a rare commodity
and without it very little can get done in life
that will stick around for more than the lifespan of a mayfly.
You have always been patient with me.
You have told me of travels around the globe – to Sri Lanka, to Cairo –
yet you live a quiet and peaceful life in the same townhome
where I bounded up and down the stairs as a child,
back when the pilot light in the laundry room was a blue beacon of wonder.
My life has been made more wonderful by the time you shared with me.
Your quiet love has always been
a more precious gift than I can describe
with these paltry words.

Commentary

Right now, I guess you could say I fit the “starving artist” stereotype. I mean, I’m not literally starving, but my husband and I can’t meet our monthly expenses (we’d be breaking even if I didn’t have a backlog of hospitalization bills from last year to pay off, don’t get me started on the topic of healthcare in this country, this is a poetry entry not a political essay). I’ve had some encouraging job interviews recently, but we’re definitely not in a position to be buying gifts for people. So I told my grandfather at his celebration yesterday, right now, my words are the best thing I have to offer people. He’d already read this poem, so he felt comfortable in saying those words are an “entirely satisfactory” offering. That’s my Grandpa. Coming from another person that might not seem like much of a compliment, but when you’ve spent a lot of time with someone who calculates everything carefully, including praise, you know that “entirely satisfactory” really does mean something. And he said he wouldn’t be able to read this poem to the celebrants without tearing up, so I know I touched his heart as well as his mind. And since this poem was written specifically for him, that means that if no one else who reads this blog entry thinks the poem is worth spit, it’s still done its job.

I chose the title “Calculation” before I wrote the poem, not afterwards. That’s the quality I most associate with my grandfather and I really wanted this poem to be about him. That actually turned out to be a bit of a problem and the poem as it stands has a lot of me in it, probably more than I am really comfortable with. I wanted to write about Grandpa and in the end I mostly ended up writing about my relationship to him. That probably has something to do with my starting point; when I talked with my father about wanting to write this poem, he suggested that Grandpa would enjoy reading about the memories I have of spending time with him in my childhood. I ran with Dad’s suggestion (the original version of this poem actually had another stanza, discussing the awe I felt as a child when I looked at a framed copy of my grandfather’s patent – I cut that stanza to make room for a chess piece graphic on the printed copy I would give to Grandpa at the celebration, I wanted to keep it to one page. This is one of the few times I’ve made a substantial alteration to a poem I originally thought complete, trying to re-bake the cake as it were, but it turns out I like the shorter version better, it’s more tight), because my grandfather is quite humble and I thought that a poem that was only a description of him or that consisted mostly of praise would embarrass him. But in doing so, I created some tension between my original intent and the finished product. It’s a good poem – though probably not my best, I worry that the ending lines come across as saccharine. But it’s not “what the doctor ordered.”

The structure of this poem is a bit different from my usual condensed 5 paragraph essay. This poem has more of a progression or climb; it ends in a fairly different place from where it began. The first line is very simple, plain, and a bland statement of a memory, not very much emotion… and the last line is a flowery outpouring of emotion, replete with adjectives. So I guess I fulfilled my personal objective stated in my last poetry post, to vary poetic structure. I didn’t do that intentionally, it just felt right for this piece. Possibly because my grandfather does a lot of linear progression and building from point to point when he talks. I don’t think he has much use for the emotion-building power of repetition.

Specific lines worth commenting on:

  • Grandma was a vibrant personality…
    I struggled for a few minutes on the extent to which I should talk about my grandmother in this poem (she died in 2009). In the end I decided it was appropriate to acknowledge the significant role she played in my grandfather’s life and how inseparable the two of them were in my mind when I was a child, but I wanted to emphasize that this poem was for Grandpa now as I see him, as an individual, not just about nostalgia.
  • But you and me, we played chess.
    I’m proud of the awkward grammatical construction of this line. I feel it gives the poem a colloquial element of casual tone. I wanted this poem to feel less like a poem and more like one side of a conversation I might have with my grandfather in private, one where we could really speak from our hearts. I thought he might appreciate that more than some of the exaggerated artistry I’ve produced in the past.
  • I may have the raw computing power in my brain to make chess work
    This is another line that I’m proud of because I think it’s a good example of the written word mimicking the spoken word. This is how I talk off the cuff with my friends and family, it’s not lyrically polished, and that was something I was striving for here.
  • Show me your patience now that I can admire it with adult eyes
    This line is rather grandiose. It’s got a beauty to it and an earnest truth, but it’s not something I would ever feel comfortable actually saying to my grandfather in conversation, so it clashes with the last two lines I just mentioned. I’m not happy with it but I wanted to express the sentiment anyway.
  • that will stick around for more than the lifespan of a mayfly
    This is the line I am least satisfied with in the poem, for two reasons. The first word, “that”, makes for an unclear clause construction. It is supposed to refer back to “very little” in the preceding line, but it wouldn’t be hard for a reader, especially someone reading the poem quickly, to assume that it refers back to the immediately preceding word, “life”. Sloppy writing on my part and I wish I’d taken the time to finesse it. Also, while the mayfly image is pretty and works well for me, I’ve always associated Grandpa more with civilization than with nature. I doubt the image of a short-lived insect holds much resonance for him, and he’s the audience, not myself.
  • back when the pilot light in the laundry room was a blue beacon of wonder
    I was always fascinated by the bright blue pilot light in my grandparents’ laundry room as a little girl. I thought it was the neatest thing. I knew better than to try to touch it (and it was behind a grate), but it was really fun to look at. I’ve never had a reason to share that information about myself with anyone before writing this poem. I’m grateful for the excuse.