Film Review: Dead Presidents

We watched Dead Presidents as a somber commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (or as I’m starting to call it, “MLKJR”), to acknowledge how young black lives were ripped apart by the Vietnam War in the years following King’s assassination. A lot of people in this country seem a bit myopic in their understanding of King’s life, unaware of how he was waning in popularity late in his career as an activist because he spoke out vociferously against the Vietnam “police action” and in favor of structural changes to the US economy as the only realistic way to end poverty. When he was assassinated, King was radicalizing, out of frustration. If he had not been martyred, he would not have a legacy so akin to sainthood today. The story of Dead Presidents reminds the viewer of just how far from King’s legacy the US strayed, squandering his wisdom.

Dead Presidents is a movie with a heist in it, but it is not a heist movie. Interestingly enough, it is also a movie with a war in it, yet not really a war movie. At its heart, Dead Presidents is a character-driven drama much in the same vein as House of Sand and Fog, a story of how our lives are gripped by social forces and trends that are much bigger than us and of which most people only understand small facets. In the case of Anthony Curtis, the protagonist of Dead Presidents, the overriding forces that shape his life are racial prejudice (and the economic consequence of becoming a de facto second-class citizen) and gender roles. Curtis feels compelled to join the Marines, rather than attend college, primarily because his father has told him that time in the Marines during the Korean War made him a man. The accusation that turns Curtis against his love interest, Juanita, is that he is not living up to a man’s responsibility to provide for his family. This need to be a man traps Curtis against the hard wall of racism, and PTSD treated only through self-medication with alcohol ensures that Curtis remains caught in this crossfire, even when there are no literal bullets flying.

Soundtrack/Score

Initially, I really enjoyed the music accompanying Dead Presidents. The theme that drives the opening credits is compelling and tense, and I was sorry that it didn’t get much play again until the heist scenes (which don’t show up until the film is about 7/8ths done, giving Dead Presidents the slowest “build” of any film I’ve watched in years, certainly of all the films I have reviewed so far for this blog). Period music gets used very effectively to cement the story in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and to make clear the subculture to which these Bronx residents belong. Unfortunately, this good use of score and soundtrack did not remain consistent. Several of the music cues present in interactions between Curtis and Juanita made me wince, and the score for the Vietnam sequences was entirely forgettable.

Use of Color

No one wants to post pictures of the blood in this movie online.  Perhaps because the movie is cool and the blood is hokey.
No one wants to post pictures of the blood in this movie online. Perhaps because the movie is cool and the blood is hokey.

The simulated blood in Dead Presidents is all wrong. It’s way too bright of a red. The simulation was obvious and it reminded me of paint. It discordantly clashed with the predominant earth tones and natural greens. Mind you, other bright, artificial colors were present, but unlike the blood, I didn’t mind the lurid red, orange, or yellow clothing and decorations because it meshed well with other examples I have seen of period fashion and decor. The costuming and set pieces looked realistic; the flesh special effects did not (with the exception of a certain hideous “good luck charm”, which was appallingly well-done).

Themes

Dead Presidents‘ title misleads the audience. Its obvious slang reference to the art adorning US currency would lead the viewer deciding whether or not to view the film to believe that it is about the hustle, the need to make money by any means necessary. This drive does push Curtis to the depths of his desperation. But Curtis’ ill-fated heist takes up so little of the runtime, and enters into the plot so abruptly, that it almost feels like it was pasted in from a different movie. In fact, there’s no real build up to it with rising action or very much foreshadowing. One minute Curtis is attending his first rally for the “Nat Turner Cadre” (why not use the term Black Panthers? It has more cultural cache), giving the reader every reason to think his character is finally going to develop a political consciousness instead of continuing to internalize failure… and this really is what the film has been leading up to; the next minute, Curtis and his friends are seriously diagramming an assault on an armored truck that had barely been discussed previously. It’s as if the story’s dramatic arc forms not a curve of rising action up to a climax, but rather trails along a bumpy downward path before making a direct vertical leap up to an unexpected plateau. If I hadn’t been taking sober pleasure in the downward path’s depiction of Curtis’ economic truth, I might have almost felt that my artistic sensibilities had been insulted by the script writer’s assumption that I would need the promise of a heist to get into my theater seat.

Lots of people have gotten this movie's logo tattooed on a body part.  Google it.  It's a thing.
Lots of people have gotten this movie’s logo tattooed on a body part. Google it. It’s a thing.

This review probably comes across as an indictment, but the truth is that I really liked Dead Presidents. I liked it much more upon this viewing than I did after watching it previously, approximately ten years ago. I had forgotten many, many details in that time, and misremembered others (for example, somehow in my mind the armored truck target became a much more conventional bank robbery). But I liked it despite the realization that its quality is best described as uneven. Its pace can get gruelingly slow at times, and its characters are painted in rather broad strokes. But it does a good job of bringing the struggle of Anthony Curtis and the rest of his Bronx to life, and makes it easy for even a white Midwestern woman to understand how a black East Coast man can feel like a victim of circumstance. This is a good film for anyone who cares about social justice.

Overall Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0.

Film Review: Violette

This is the story of Violette Leduc, 20th century bisexual Parisienne authoress. Leduc kept company with several French intellectuals and artists that I am familiar with and admire, such as Jean Cocteau and Simone De Beauvoir, yet I had never heard her name before encountering this film’s promotion. After watching the film, I can understand why. Violette explores a life eked out in the margins of history. A life of dependence, and being pushed aside because heightened emotions are messy and take time to deal with. A life of acting out, and accusations of drama.

Characters

Not ugly... but probably plain.
Not ugly… but probably plain.

About three-fourths of the way through Violette, Leduc is hospitalized. Her diagnosis is never mentioned in the film, but De Beauvoir makes reference to Leduc receiving “electroshocks”, usually referred to in mental health treatment circles these days as ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). My off-the-cuff diagnosis of the film’s portrayed Leduc, with the insight provided by Master’s level coursework in social work? EID (Emotional Intensity Disorder), more commonly referred to as borderline personality disorder. Behaviors displayed by the film character common to those with EID included, but were not limited to: polarized black/white thinking and alternating idealization/demonization of people she related to, suicidal thinking and threats of suicide, inappropriate attempts at intimacy ignoring commonly recognized social boundaries, attempted use of sexuality as a commodity in exchange for intimacy, frantic acting out to avoid real or perceived abandonment, and ascribing her own thoughts and motives to others due to a lack of sense of self. If this attempt at diagnosis rings true (and I don’t feel like taking a trip over to Wikipedia to find out at the moment, it’s been a trying day), the real Leduc would have had my sympathies. The lived experience of people with EID is frequently nightmarish; the disorder is a direct assault on quality of life, an impairment only compounded by the social consequences of disability. I listened to the assessment of Violette’s character by other moviegoers with interest. One pejorative adjective I heard them label her with was “whiny”. Well, if you experienced the pain of excruciatingly intense negative emotions that someone with EID lives with on a daily basis, you would most likely whine too.

Authenticity of Setting

Check out that wallpaper!
Check out that wallpaper!

After my dismay over the staged feel of The Artist, the believability of Violette as a mid-twentieth century period piece refreshed me. The film included so many details about Violette’s marginal life in Paris that I never would have thought to include, from sponge baths and toilets down the hall from the apartment, to dingy peeling wallpaper, chipped paint and scuffed wood. Even the furnishings of the office of the richest character in the film (gay perfume-maker Jacques), while sumptuous relative to the rest of the setting’s decor, would have appeared modest if juxtaposed with the brass, marble, polished wood and brilliant lighting of the standard Rich CEO’s Office of most current Hollywood creations. Violette’s studio apartment reminded me of my own studios in days gone by in Chicago, except the general shabbiness of Violette’s place was much worse – absolutely to be expected in 1950s Paris from someone living the feast-or-famine lifestyle of a black marketer, like Violette wades through at the start of the film. What I really loved about all of this mise-en-scene was the fact that if someone had asked me what life was like in Paris during the era of the film, I would have strained to imagine the details, but every time a new scene started in Violette, some part of my heart and mind said “Yes! Yes, that is exactly what it was like!”

Casting

Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.
Yes, Virginia, there are images of real women in the movies.

Violette‘s casting was equally painstakingly realistic. Again, I must contrast this film with The Artist. Unlike Bejo’s conventional Hollywood beauty, the actresses who played De Beauvoir and Leduc had the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from passing everyday women on Midwestern streets, the sort of approachable look I am familiar with from looking in the mirror. Sandrine Kiberlain, who played De Beauvoir, is thin, but it’s not a glamorous, hypersexualized thin, she’s just a thin woman. When Emmanuelle Devos gives voice to Leduc’s insecurities about her age and appearance, I can believe that the character would think such things, and not experience cognitive dissonance like I did when I watched Eva Mendes fuss with her hair in Hitch. If this is how French cinema in general or Martin Provost in particular usually rolls, I have to watch more.

If you are unsympathetic toward people who have mental illness and behave in ways that push the limits of what is socially acceptable as the result of their emotions running high, you are unlikely to find anything here that will challenge your preconceived notions about the meaning of such people’s lives. If, however, you would like to examine how such people are able to find solace in art or the written word, and can produce works that even people who do not struggle with such illness or behavior find valuable, Violette is probably worth your time. It’s not a short film and it is quite possible that it will emotionally drain you. But I enjoyed it, and it reminded me of why I engage in creative endeavors like this blog.

Overall Rating: 4 out of 5.

Film Review: The Artist

I’ve watched a few silent movies in my time. Some Buster Keaton for a high school class. One Halloween I rented a copy of The Man Who Laughs from one of Chicago’s art houses, hoping for some old-fashioned spookiness (it didn’t turn out to be so spooky). But the vast, vast majority of films I have watched have not been silent, and this meant that the most striking feature of The Artist, for me, was the novelty of its audio composition. It provoked accompanying musings about the visual differences that came with the silence – the exaggerated facial expressions that the character of Peppy refers to disdainfully as “mugging the camera”, the breaks in action necessary for dialogue to be flashed on the screen, that sort of thing. If what you want is a narrative about a washed-up silent movie start interacting with a young go-getter, might I suggest you check out Sunset Boulevard instead? Don’t watch The Artist for its narrative. This is a film in which content takes a back seat to form.

Dream Sequence

Feathers can roar.
Feathers can roar.

The Artist is an almost silent film. I’m going to give the game away and state up front, the film switches over to (now) conventional audio in its final scene, and that switch is handled pretty well (I say “give the game away” because half the fun of watching The Artist was trying to guess whether the filmmakers were going to use conventional audio at any point, and if so, when they would make the switch. I must sheepishly admit that they kept me guessing right til the end). However, there is one scene in which the creative team decided to have a little fun.

About halfway through the narrative arc, the film’s protagonist, aging silent film star George Valentin, experiences a dream sequence in which the film’s ambient score drops out and, when George knocks over an item on a desk, sound effects occur. George appears both fascinated and terrified by this and begins knocking other items around, creating a cacophony of ordinary sounds… but when George attempts to speak, his voice produces neither sound, nor the on-screen text boxes that have shown up for important dialogue in the film prior to the dream sequence. George’s shock at “suddenly” being mute is extremely well-played, but what I really enjoyed about this dream sequence was the brief window of time in which George experimented with knocking things over on the desk to make noise, before he discovered he was muted. For a delicious instant, everything went very surreal and I wondered if the story was about to take a radical turn toward breaking the fourth wall, in which the characters might display a precocious awareness of their nature as film characters. It felt very Last Action Hero to me. Unfortunately it only lasted for a moment and I was disappointed when I figured out George was in a dream sequence, but it was a pretty fun moment while it lasted.

Authenticity of Setting

The Artist falls flat when it comes to authenticity as a period piece set in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A film that does well on this axis, such as Argo, is believable as a slice of history. The Artist doesn’t feel like history; it feels like people from the 21st century putting on a period piece. It feels staged.

I think one of the main reasons I felt this way was how the character of Peppy Miller, the ingenue, was handled. Peppy Miller (played unremarkably by Bérénice Bejo, though given how blandly the character was written Bejo didn’t have a whole lot to work with) does not have the characteristic look of a film star from the late 1920s to early 1930s.

Compare this face...
Compare this face…

The way female beauty is conceptualized in pop culture has shifted over the past 90 years, and while examples of the earlier conceptualization are still hanging around in media, like the afterimage of the sun one gets when one has looked at it and then looked away,

...to this one...
…to this one…
...or this one.
…or this one.

the creators of The Artist decided to take the easy way out and give their viewers a more familiar image of female beauty, with just enough signs from the period (Peppy’s hairstyle, Peppy’s clothes) for the casual viewer to suspend their disbelief. I’m not just talking about Peppy’s eyebrows and makeup. I’m also talking about her body type. The actresses from the 1920s and 1930s did not typically have the 21st-century sculpted body that Bejo displays. Actresses from the era were not chubby by any measure, but they also were not, typically, muscular or toned. They had a softness that Bejo lacks. This discrepancy made it hard for me to believe that someone who looked like Bejo looks now would have been as wildly popular as the character of Peppy supposedly becomes. She would not have fit in with the times and it makes it harder for me to suspend my disbelief. By contrast, the character of Constance, played by Missi Pyle, looks very much like a woman of the times.

Themes (warning: this section contains spoilers)

I’m not really sure why the creators of The Artist chose the title that they did. The film’s main characters, George Valentin and Peppy Miller, do not come across as artists; they come across as entertainers. They never talk about the art of acting, are never referred to as great actors by other characters, and in the brief sequences that are displayed of their films-within-films, their acting seems thoroughly average. To entertain is not the same thing as to create art. So if we accept that the title of The Artist is a misnomer and that the film is really more about entertainment, the main theme that emerges is the importance, for entertainers, of being relevant. George goes from riches to rags in the matter of a couple of years because he scoffs at his producer’s admonishment that talking pictures are the future. I found it hilariously apt that the solution Peppy turns to in order to save George’s career is the musical dance number, because that is a genre that has also had its day in the sun and is practically never seen these days. I guess the central message of the film is the adage to make hay while the sun shines. If I had known that was the film’s focus, I am not sure I would have picked this one up off the shelf.

The Artist won Best Picture for the Academy Awards in 2012. Either the Academy had slim pickings to choose from, the Academy has poor taste, or the Academy really likes films about Hollywood. Or some combination of the above. Or perhaps there were just no films available in 2012 that starred a non-disabled actor playing a disabled character. I hear those are pretty popular.

Overall Rating: 3 out of 5.

Television Series Review: Firefly

As far as I am concerned, Joss Whedon is the walking definition of a big fish in a small pond. Many of the people of the U.S. who do not self-identify as geeks don’t even know his name, but among members of the geek subculture he inspires diehard fanaticism like few other artists. I’ve heard a Whedon fan toss out the phrase “In Joss We Trust” into casual conversation, comparing Whedon to God without a second thought.

After watching Firefly, I finally understand why my friend would talk like that.

I’ve seen other Whedon material – a little Buffy, a little Angel, his recent work on comic book blockbusters. I liked what I saw, it was good, but I just couldn’t wrap my head around the fervor of the fandom for it. It seemed to me like Whedon cashed in on tropes too often. It seemed to me like he was pandering. To me, that made it good, but not great.

But someone finally persuaded me to watch Firefly all the way to its premature end. And now I too say In Joss We Trust. When he worked on Firefly Whedon made the choice to stop turning to the easy answers and feel-good formulas. He showed his audience what he was capable of. He produced something true to an artistic vision, a world in which the microcosm reflects the macrocosm. To lift a lyric from another favorite artist of mine, he took us where the drop contains the sea. For that, I owe him a debt of thanks as an artist, and a roll of the eyes to those who decided Whedon’s vision was not profitable enough to pursue to denouement. I look forward to watching whatever resolution the film Serenity provides – no spoilers, please!

Let’s explore why Firefly lifts Whedon from the realm of the good to the realm of the great.

Authenticity of Setting

Alliance officials take heed: the Resistance is here already.
Alliance officials take heed: the Resistance is here already.

When I created “authenticity of setting” as a review point tag, I had period pieces in mind. This is the review point to use to evaluate how well a period piece displays internal consistency with historical fact, vs. the extent to which it relies on anachronism. When DiCaprio’s character uses the work “malarkey”, which was not coined until the 20th century, in the film Django Unchained, set in the 1850s, we see Tarantino displaying a lack of authenticity of setting.

And yet I am now using this review point for a science fiction series set 500 years in the future. There is a measure of irony in this, I think, but I’m using it anyway, because one of Firefly‘s biggest selling points for me will always be the internal consistency it displays with (its self-created) history. Firefly blends elements of historical fiction found in classic Westerns such as True Grit with futuristic technology to explore the question of what is truly timeless. This pastiche of chronological elements is expressed perfectly in the closing image of the series’ title sequence, in which the flight of a spaceship scares a herd of horses. The reason Firefly feels so authentic is the work that was put into keeping this blend of elements in balance. Some episodes lean a bit more towards the Western genre while others would be absolutely impossible from a plot perspective without the futuristic side of the show, but really Whedon establishes the balance in the first episode and sticks with the ratios initially laid out, on the whole. By maintaining his balance so carefully and consistently, Whedon makes his story more believable. Because the show is about the degree to which “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” as long as Firefly‘s characters keep behaving like human beings, the audience continues to identify with their struggles, and the magic just builds as the scale of the show gets bigger and the characters shuttle from frontier planet to frontier planet.

Characters

Note the sheen on Inara's dress (far left).  That gal knows her fabrics!
Note the sheen on Inara’s dress (far left). That gal knows her fabrics!

Speaking of characters behaving like human beings. The crew of Serenity are people. Full and multi-dimensional. The show’s villains don’t get explored in as much detail, because there simply isn’t time (although Saffron is given a repeat performance, to my irritation – I would much have preferred more time be spent on an Alliance officer, to give a face to the hated entity, like we are given the characters of Servalan and Travis in Blake’s 7, to which I suspect Firefly deserves a nod). Whedon made the artistic choice to thoroughly establish and ground the characters of the crew in Firefly‘s first season, and it was a great choice. Mal doesn’t want to admit what type of honor he has. His best friend, Zoe, has a story to tell, hinted at in flashbacks and re-tellings of how stone-faced she used to be – somehow she fell for a jester – Wash, who I can’t watch on screen anymore without seeing my husband’s face, that’s how lovable he is. They’ve hired a mercenary, Jayne, who names his guns and loves his mother enough to wear her knitted hat. They’ve hired a female mechanic, Kaylee, who can’t decide how comfortably the tomboy role fits. They transport a “Companion” – a prostitute given honored social status by membership in a guild, the closest parallel I have been able to think of from history being a geisha – Inara, whose name I suspect to be a reference to Inanna, another name for the ancient love goddess Ishtar, though how I would go about proving the reference I’m not sure. And they transport a “Shepherd”, a missionary priest named Book (once again Whedon demonstrates his love for naming characters obvious references to concepts from the real world – I think back to Angel, Harmony/Harm, Willow, and Spike from Buffy days) with a past that never gets explored but referenced enough to clearly be a doozy. And then there are the star passengers – Dr. Simon, and his sister River, whose unusual mind and behavior hit a little close to home for me as someone who has experienced altered states of reality as a result of mental illness.

(Potential viewers should take note of this, River’s behavior and dialogue in episode 14, “Objects in Space”, were particularly disturbing to me and triggered a very strong reaction of hurt, guilt, and recognition. Viewers with a history of mental illness, especially if that history includes psychosis, should be warned that this material has the potential to be disturbing, and should recognize that there is no shame in employing the “pause” button to take a breather if they find their reaction becoming intense.)

While Mal is the show’s protagonist, Firefly employs ensemble cast techniques very elegantly. The only time that I noticed a character was missing was episode 11, “Trash” – the next time I sat down to watch, I asked my husband what had happened to Book in the previous episode. The sensation I had when I realized Book had not been present was that the writers had pulled a fast one on me, and I didn’t like it. Like a single dissonant note during a masterful piano performance, it stuck out all the more because the other episodes had employed the suite of characters so skillfully. Everyone’s likeable – even Jayne, which amazed me because he is clearly sadistic and I normally severely dislike sadistic characters. It is possible that Jayne is likeable due to a phenomenon I once heard a pastor refer to as the reason why Forrest Gump gained such popularity in the 1990s: “redemptive stupidity”. Of course, Gump is clearly labeled in his film as intellectually disabled, whereas Jayne would slit someone from nave to chops if they called him such.

Themes

Burn the land, and boil the sea - you can't take the sky from me.
Burn the land, and boil the sea – you can’t take the sky from me.

So what’s eternal?

If Firefly is to be believed, the struggle for freedom against oppression is eternal.

Mal and Zoe lost a war with fronts against an oppressive government, the Alliance. So now they fight a war without a front, a very private, very guerrilla war. But they’re still fighting, and no matter what Mal says about Serenity being willing to take any job, their primary mission is still to free people from oppression. Sometimes the oppressor isn’t a political one; Whedon’s extremely laudable personal quest to explore gender oppression and the strength of character frequently demonstrated by women who don’t necessarily have combat ability is given ample play in Firefly. But sometimes it is. To what extent does Mal harbor River and Dr. Simon because he cares about them? To what extent does he harbor them simply to make an object lesson for the Alliance, still the enemy, always the enemy? Again, no time to explain. In the 14 episodes of Firefly‘s run, the can of worms is opened and dumped on the table. There’s enough time to get a good look at the worms and to see that they are alive and moving around. There is not, however, enough time to find the bigger can. And that is the biggest drawback to watching it and liking it. The only dramatic resolution fans are going to find is the resolution they can create for themselves. They are forced to create their own trajectory for the story’s arc. They are forced to decide for themselves where the bullet hits, even though they never fired it.

The show’s title is taken from the class of spaceship to which Serenity belongs. But that class was named after an insect that most of the show’s viewing base would be familiar with from personal experience. A creature that has been a source of ephemeral wonder from our childhoods til today. The firefly appears at dusk and leaves evidence of its existence for only a few hours of night, for only one season of the year. For its fragility, we value its glow all the more. Would Firefly have finished as strong as it started, if it had lived a full narrative life? Yeah, I think it would have. In Joss I trust.

Overall Rating: 4.5 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: 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.