Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #5 - Babette's Feast (Axel, 1987)

5.  Babette's Feast - Gabriel Axel, 1987

                Babette’s Feast is probably the most personal film on my Top Ten.  Yes, it is a beautifully made film with poignant and powerful themes, phenomenal performances, and gorgeous cinematography, but it is relatively minor in the film lover’s canon compared to the other pieces that top my list.  However, I can’t help but fall in love with it more each time I watch it.  Centering on a small, strictly religious community in 19th century Denmark, the film follows two sisters, daughters of a great pastor/strict religious reformer who work hard to provide for the poor and needy in their small community following the passing of their father.  In this town, pleasure in anything but musical worship and simplicity is sinful.  One day, their lives radically change when a French woman (Babette, played masterfully by Stéphane Audran) seeks refuge in their home.  As the years go by, Babette begins to change the ways things are done in very small ways, feeding the people with better food and exuding a warmth and joy in her service.  One year, she wins the lottery (her only tie to her Paris home after all these years) and asks to make a meal in honor of the birthday of the dead pastor out of her winnings.  It is through this meal that she breaks the walls of the frequently joyless people of the community, sharing with them that they can worship God because of and through the abundant and wonderful gifts He gives.
                As a budding amateur cook myself, it is my own personal greatest joy to give others the gift of good food, laughter, and warmth around a table.  This film opened my eyes and solidified just how good God is in giving us these beautiful gifts.  In addition, the film showcases the generosity of these seemingly simple acts, as Babette gives of herself in every single way – giving everything she has.  Each aspect of the film is wonderful, as Axel weaves together the tales of the daughters’ fleeting loves that they put aside so many years ago in favor of service to their father and God.  It all together forms a rich tapestry that showcases the many gifts of God - warmth, fellowship, art, and love all included.  It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1987, screened at Cannes, and is simply a fantastic film that warms my heart.

David’s Response:
The lovely and generous Babette.
                Films with simple stories are usually neglected in discussions of “great” films, but in Babette’s Feast, we see why this is truly unfair.  It is not an audacious film, but it is certainly an ambitious and, yes, great one.  Few films can so succinctly and powerfully communicate their convictions without for a second feeling confrontational.  It is fitting that we saw the film as a result of my grandmother’s recommendation – it is not a film that sticks out or calls attention to itself, but it is a film that sticks with you.  It is the kind of film a good friend shows you because they love it deeply, very different from the kind of polarizing films that make up much of cinephelia’s “best of” lists.  It makes me sad that many of my viewing choices are taken from such lists, because this film reminds me there is also a rich and meaningful cinema of simplicity to be found elsewhere.
                Unlike more complex films, this neglected cinema of simplicity allows us to delve deep into its themes and meditate on them without distraction.  With this film, this is especially appreciated, for as your words capture well, the film hits on some of the most meaningful themes and concepts in Christian thought, and do so in a way that is both humble and inviting.  As with the greatest of Christian filmmakers (Dreyer, Bresson, Malick), Axel’s focus here is not on proselytizing, but instead in relaying honest affections for God.  Axel asks us to examine faith, rather than demanding conversion.  If only more Christian filmmakers would understand that speaking sincerely about God while gratefully enjoying a quality meal and a glass of well-aged wine is many times more effective in relaying the beauty of trusting God than preaching from a pulpit.  The film does regularly find its way onto lists of best food-related films, mainly because the pickings for such films are slim, but it is also much more than that – it is an ode to God’s grace in all its forms, whether that be in community, salvation, or a perfectly prepared turtle soup.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Monsters University

By Dan Scanlon

                At their best, Pixar films are marked by a commitment to stories that flow from the neuroses and passions of their characters (yes, toys, fish, bugs, robots, and rats can have such things).  In recent years, however, they have moved toward more formulaic yarns, with archetypal characters urged forward by generic plot devices.  Monsters University falls into this latter category.  Yet, it must be stated, even with this more “minor” approach, Pixar’s quick wit and attention to detail shine through.  The film may not be an essential addition to the Pixar oeuvre, but it is nevertheless a brisk and enjoyable experience.
                The film tells the origin story of the unlikely duo of monsters Mike and Sully (Billy Crystal and John Goodman).  It turns out they met in college while studying to work as scarers, whose skilled work of creeping and roaring provide the scream energy needed to power their world.  Predictably, due to their own faults, institutional hurdles, and the social hazards of higher education, this proves to be a thorny venture.  Drawing from the shared experiences and broad stereotypes of academia, the film operates as an extended series of clever jokes and wacky visual gags.  Much of this works due to the aid of gorgeous and highly detailed animation, which talented Pixar animators utilize to produce a variety of bizarre monsters and absurd scenarios, with truly comical results.
                The formulaic story employs the overused trope of a rag-tag group of underdogs learning to be a team in order to win a high-stakes multi-week competition.  This narrative familiarity, unfortunately, does provide some slight lulls that feel a bit bland (a sin Pixar once would have never committed).  Yet, even these plot devices manage to provide some opportunities for effective bits, and there is enough humor and energy in fast order to create a fun, light, and eminently watchable adventure.

A strong *** out of ****

Just riding a monster pig, per usual.
                If nothing else, Monsters University will keep you smiling.  It is a feel-good movie with a bright palate and enough silliness to keep the kids entertained, but also has enough heart to bring simple joy to the adults in the theater.  Mike and Sully are fun and charming characters in the Pixar universe, and it was welcome to spend some time with them and discover where they came from, even if that was a question few were asking.  While the characters may be simple character “types,” they are still rather “human” in that they have conflicting feelings and motivations, as well as a complicated relationship with one another.
                With the story taking place over a series of competitive events, it is fortunate that one of the strengths of Monsters University is these inventive set pieces.  Each one, from a tunnel filled with poisonous glowing orbs, to a library policed by a fifty-foot octopus-like librarian, is imaginative and well realized – full of embellishment and fitting to the strange monsters’ world.
                This all culminates in a final set piece at a human summer camp, where Sully and Mike finally realize and encourage the greatest strengths in one another.  It is a well-executed sequence that relies on the characters creating a creepy atmosphere and using their imaginations as a team to frighten.  Although Monsters University certainly isn’t on par with the peak of Pixar greatness, it is nonetheless a fun and heartwarming film for the whole family.

A very strong *** out of ****

Ready for college!
                I found this to be a good example of how even the simplest and most familiar of formula narratives can nevertheless be effective.  The film wisely does not take the conventionality of its characters for granted, instead allowing them to grow over the course of the film.  Even though their growth pattern is a well-worn path, it works here because Mike and Sully are given back stories that make sense.  Rather than simply providing types, the film takes the time to explain why Mike and Sully have become who they are, and while who they are isn’t anything new, it nevertheless builds an understanding and connection to the characters.  As a result, their predicaments are engaging despite the fact that we know where it is all headed.  Like most Pixar productions, the film doesn’t take shortcuts, even though it could have easily done so due to viewer’s previous knowledge of the characters.

                I also admired that the writers refused to take short-cuts or easy ways out.  So frequently in children’s films or in any films trying to reach a wide audience, the film will put on a pat happy ending with an easy (and improbable) solution. However, in three different situations in the movie, the writers refused to do this, instead allowing the characters to grow and change through difficulty and heartache.

                I enjoyed the misdirection – Pixar seemed to recognize the formula nature of the plot and played off our expectations with a couple meaningful twists.  There are several times in which I fully expected a deus ex machina due to this misdirection and was happily surprised to see the film go in another direction.  Happy resolutions are, after all, more endearing when they do not feel contrived.

Some of the other newbies!  
                This film also introduced a few new and memorable characters to the monster universe, most noticeably the frightening dean of MU, voiced by the great Helen Mirren.  I thought Mirren did excellent voice-work here, and although the character was broadly written, she provided a formidable threat to our protagonists.

                From a purely visual standpoint, Dean Hardscrabble is an impressive piece of character design.  Her centipede-like limbs and bat-like wings are striking, if not only because they are such a stark contrast to their much cheerier surroundings.  With that said, I was not enamored with her as much as you.  She seemed to fit squarely in the common role of a harsh disciplinarian, sometimes to the point in which her character seemed a bit too one-dimensional.  I don’t demand a lot from secondary characters in formula films, as they are mainly there to provide a counterpoint to the leads, but here it felt a little too obvious.  As a result, I have a feeling this villain will not be remembered as strongly as many previous Disney villains.

                I think the main reason I like her is her impressive design.  She is extremely creepy.  I think, perhaps, the reason I didn’t much mind that she was an archetype was because I felt like she wasn’t so much a “villain” as a peripheral threat.  She didn’t actively go out of her way to harm the protagonists, she was mostly reacting.

                Of course, none of this negates how very terrifying she was.  In fact, there are a couple sequences in this film which are, perhaps, a bit too scary for the intended audience.  Mainly some sequences with Hardscrabble, and the climactic camp sequence in which Mike and Sully find themselves with the particular challenge of scaring adults.  As an adult myself, I have no doubt that I would be scared witless by their efforts - do you think it was too much for kids?

                I think that, generally, Monsters University may be too scary for a lot of very small children.  The thing is, the movie is about monsters, and we cheer for them to scare humans.  That puts us squarely on the side of rooting for the monsters to be more frightening.  In that way, it softens the blow of frightening sequences because we more or less know what will happen and want the monsters to be scary.

                The premise does take away from the scariness in some ways, but you can feel the filmmakers walking a fine line – they had to make something both understandably frightening and enjoyably light for the story to work.
Just because it scares David. :)
                Generally, I do not think about “intended audiences” when assessing a film, but with a film so clearly intended for family viewing, I couldn’t help but wonder how the children sitting near us in the theater would react.  I had flashbacks to watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as a child – to this day, that experience has stuck with me and I consider Oompa Loompas to be some of the most horrifying of movie creatures.  If one of them showed up in my room, pretty sure my scream could power ten monster cities.
                In any case, I am no longer a child and can only provide my own assessment of Monsters University as an adult, and as an adult viewer, I had a great time.

                Lovely readers, you may find me cruel when I admit that one of my favorite things to do is change our browser’s homepage to YouTube videos of Oompa Loompas.  David is not exaggerating the breadth of his terror.  This, to me, is rather amusing.
                I also had a wonderful time at Monsters University, and I think most (slightly older) kids will too.  As long as you keep the smaller kiddos home, it is easily accessible fun for all.

Two-as-One Rating: *** out of ****


Thursday, June 20, 2013

David's Top Ten - #6 - Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

6. Ikiru - Akira Kurosawa, 1952

               Filled with heartbreak and insight, Akira Kurosawa’s gently personal Ikiru marks a high point in an impressive and prolific filmmaking career otherwise marked by more dynamic, violent pieces.  For many, the story of Kanji Watanabe, a dying man searching for meaning from a heretofore monotonous life as a paper-pusher, will be too meandering.  Yet, to preserve authenticity, this journey must initially lack a center and aim.  After all, Watanabe, a widower with only mooches for children and a disappointing existence, is at a loss – he certainly sees no need to return to a pointless job, but if not go to work, then where?  Kurosawa wisely invites us to walk alongside Watanabe as he fails to find meaning from vice, for this departure makes his subsequent discovery of joy in helping others more gratifying.
               Yet, Kurosawa knows that life is never this simple – even if one man finds purpose and meaning in life, this does not mean everyone will take notice or conform to his efforts.  In a stunningly honest third act, Kurosawa details the conversations that take place at Watanabe’s funeral – conversations tainted with pride, mockery, and empty resolutions.  Contrasting such conversations to the genuine tears of the formerly neglected people he has helped, Kurosawa’s point is clear – a virtuous life will not always change the world, but it can certainly change the world for some.  The film stands as a call to overcome the distractions and minutiae of life to delight in the purpose of making the world a better place, one small effort at a time.  Lacking the sentimentality of most films that carry this message, Ikiru stands tall; a film that studies generosity seriously and argues earnestly for more.

Chelsea's Response:

               Kurosawa is frequently thought of as a Japanese filmmaker with more American sensibilities.  He has been criticized for not being Japanese enough, but here, Ikiru stands starkly in opposition to those criticisms.  Detailing the everyday life of a bureaucrat in post-war Japan, the film brilliantly captures the meek politeness and reluctance to criticize or take credit for successes that often characterizes Japanese society, which trumpets unity and peaceful conformity above much else.
               What stands out for me in this film is that it is made up of a series of lengthy sequences, and each leaves the viewer with unique and indelible images.  As the protagonist finds out that he has terminal stomach cancer, his face fills with dread and hopelessness.  Then, he goes home, is brushed off by his son and daughter-in-law, and he cries himself to sleep - it is heartbreaking.  In each chapter or act: Mephistopheles taking Watanabe on the town, Watanabe clinging to a young girl, the wake, and the park, we see the character change and grow in a complete way; detailing the nuances of both his own actions and the resulting responses of those around him.  Remarkably, Takashi Shimura captures all this sadness, grief, and dogged determination in his extremely expressive face and physical performance.  He is perfect even when simply swinging alone in a swing.  It is a sad film; utterly depressing in some ways and poignantly beautiful in others.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel

By Zack Snyder

                Man of Steel by director Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) starts with an impressively strong sequence set on the desolate planet of Krypton that features the birth of Kal-El (Superman), political conflict, and the destruction of a planet and a people.  It is dynamically shot and edited, and Russell Crowe is quite good as Jor-El, the father of Kal-El, who sacrifices everything to ensure that his son is safe, and perhaps can one day flourish.  Unfortunately, this may be the high point of the film, and the first half is stronger than the rest, detailing Clark Kent's past and his own discovery of where he came from.  It also features Earth's introduction to villain General Zod in a fantastic sequence that shows people all over the world glued to their television sets as only darkness and ominous extraterrestrial messages surround them.  It is in these quieter moments that we see the best of Snyder's directorial style and distinctive visuals, where tension is allowed to build organically.
                Unfortunately these moments are few and far between, and Snyder can't seem to help but make this movie a longwinded string of CGI-laden action sequences.  When a whole movie tries to sustain an exhaustingly high level of drama, the sequences that are supposed to be the most impactful don’t work.  There’s no way to increase tension when it’s so high to begin with, and the whole affair just gets tedious.
To be fair, the visuals are very good, and the style distinctive.  The acting by all of the supporting characters was also solid, and I like the idea of trying to “Nolanize” Superman in theory.  However, Man of Steel simply turns insipid.  There can only be so many “cool” fight sequences in a row before it becomes a one-note bore.

**½ out of ****

                I understand that people like Zack Snyder.  I get that.  I have heard many a person (nearly always male) extol the merits of 300.  Yet, to be honest, I have never understood it.  Sure, his films have a dynamic visual punch, but they lack any subtlety, making the stories they carry plastic and uninteresting.  I found 300 to be akin to a high-concept WWE production and while I loved Watchmen as a graphic novel, the film simply cheapened the material.  (I have not seen Sucker Punch, but really, who has?)  Man of Steel is no different from Snyder’s other projects, steadily filled to the brim with the testosterone-laced operatics that have come to define Snyder and now feel tired and uninspired.

Those pecs have gotta be CGI.
                These theatrics simply seem out of place in this film.  While they fit well enough with the darker aesthetics, they fall flat as the film spends a lot of time providing back-story and relies heavily on stilted character development for much of its plot.  For example, while there is nothing inherently wrong with the film using flashbacks to relay character history, one would think that to build an emotional connection, these flashbacks would contain some semblance of normality.  Instead, Snyder elects to (try to) amp up the already highly sustained dramatics by confining these flashbacks to two varieties: grand moral lessons from Clark’s father Jonathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) and applying such lessons to high-intensity scenarios involving bus crashes and tornadoes.  As a result, we never get to know Clark outside of these extreme contexts, so he seems pretty cardboard and unrelatable – I simply never felt like I knew the guy, or why he turned out to be so ethically flawless. This all creates a deflating air of contrivance that is only hurt by a detached lead performance from Henry Cavill, who seems to be directed to pose and squint with the same nuance as a Calvin Klein underwear model.  That alone (coupled with Cavill’s pectorals) may be a fine enough excuse for many women to see the film, but it ain’t enough to engage this critic.

** out of ****

              Henry Cavill certainly is a good-looking guy (extremely handsome, really), but you’re right that his performance was stale.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it bad – it just seemed like he wasn’t given much to do outside of appear heroic and handsome, and voila, that’s all he did. 
In another film altogether, really.
              I love Michael Shannon.  I think he’s absolutely terrific in just about anything he does, and I thought he did his best with the material he was given here, but the problem was his character was written so poorly.  So much of his dialogue is ridiculously corny, which doesn't work at all for the dark visual sense Snyder maintained throughout, and many of his lines spell out things the audience already knew.  He seems to be out of place, in a different, more lighthearted film.  Clearly, Snyder didn’t know how to build tension from the story, and it ends up feeling painfully forced.


Jor-El would make a pretty intense history lecturer.
              There were also an abundance of head-scratcher moments in this film.  Not only were there a handful of instances in which random scientists confidently stated timely solutions to impossible problems with bogus deus ex machina science, but there were also multiple times in which characters show up out of the rubble to share emotional moments with no explanation of how they got there.  With battles seemingly taking place across miles of a city in a full-blown disaster situation, it is an eye-roller for key characters to come out of the woodwork in this fashion.  Yet, these were not the most distracting head-scratchers; that honor goes to how Clark Kent discovers his past.  This scenario involves Clark happening to find himself working as a cargo worker on a crew in the frozen tundra investigating a strange object buried deep in the ice – an object that just so happens to carry not just hints, but entire monologues about his origins.  The fact that Snyder tries to sell all of this with a straight face is off-putting, to say the least.  This many hanging question marks are simply too much to ask for a suspension of disbelief.

                To change gears, I noticed that the film is rife with Christ-figure metaphors.  Kent is 33 when he puts on the cape (the age Christ was when he was crucified), Kent’s mother wears a cross necklace, both Kent’s mother and father seem to believe in a higher power, Superman has been sent here to save the world, etc. etc.  What did you think of all this?

Mary and Joseph, naturally.
                I have read that Warner Bros. actually sent notes to various churches on how to preach sermons using this film.  For many reasons, this is a joke.  Yes, Superman was sent by his father to save the world and create reconciliation, but that is about the end of any parallels.  The main difference is that Christ is God and, with the Father, created the world and everything in it, and knowingly inserts himself into the creation story to redeem it.  Superman, on the other hand, is forced into his role and had no part in designing a redemption plan.  Let’s make things clear – creation was built to fit the reality of God’s redeeming purposes, but Superman enters into a broken world and has to reluctantly be convinced to accept a role his father designed for him.  Furthermore, while Superman may seem kingly in some senses, he has no right or desire to rule over the world, and if he did, he would risk turning to tyranny.  Christ, on the other hand, rightly rules over creation by virtue of being its creator and is immutably the same today and forever.  Also, due to the goodness of the world inherently reflecting Christ’s image by design, his wise rule is what is best for creation – something that Superman cannot boast, and the film prudently does not propose.  Superman is a hero and a helper, not a sovereign ruler.
                This is a problem I see with many Christ figures in films, and it is disappointing to see so many churches jump at opportunities to say, “Hey look!  Jesus is like that!”  The reality is that Jesus is like no one but Jesus.  If anything, I think an effective sermon would be on how Jesus is far better than Superman.  Who knows, maybe this is what the studio pamphlets say, so I could be off base.  What did you think about the Christ parallels in the film?

                Theology notwithstanding (even if he wanted to, I don’t think Snyder could accurately capture the nature of the Trinity on film), I am with you in your disappointment.  I mean, I think it’s interesting to talk about Christ metaphors in films, but we don’t need to jump on the bandwagon of support only when there are obvious references to the Christian story.  Mostly, it seems cheap.  This did, however, at least give me something to think about when I had mentally checked out from the action onscreen.

Seemingly, Superman doesn't not mind destroying entire cities and their inhabitants.
                Let’s take a step back, look at the big picture, and be honest – this is a story about a super hunky alien flying around in a cape; it doesn’t deserve the pseudo-serious, somber delivery Snyder imbues it with.  It all feels so insincere; the kind of Hollywood schlock that simplifies our world into nice categories and clean lines.  Life is not like this, and if there were a Superman, he would be far more complex than the one in this film.  Perhaps if Snyder took the lead of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films and made strides to make Superman a darker, more conflicted character, his brooding aesthetic would work.  Alas, Man of Steel is a real disappointment - a misguided and dull attempt to bring viewers to contemplate mostly empty, simplistic themes.

Two-as-One Rating: **¼ out of ****


Thursday, June 13, 2013

Before Midnight

By Richard Linklater

                All who have lived serious romances and fought to preserve their meaningful joys will find a knowing and empathetic friend in Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight.  Detailing a single night in which the inevitable conflicts and competing desires inherent to intertwining two lives bubble to the forefront, the film deftly captures the competing push of human selfishness and pull of commitment’s comforts.  Linklater seems to state the old adage that you cannot have your cake and eat it too, but carefully adds that with enough effort, a couple can work together to share more cake than either could eat individually.  While recognizing the unavoidable pains and sacrifices of functioning relationships, the film poignantly expresses that it is worth the effort.
                This is a stark break from the prior two installments of this story, 1995’s Before Sunrise and 2004’s Before Sunset, for while those films skillfully captured the thrill of new love’s promises, this film provides a counterpoint – those promises don’t come easy, and many times feel fleeting.  Where previously the obstacles of distance and circumstance distanced Jesse and Celine, here they must face the reality of their own faults.  Adding a fitting gravitas to their continuing journey, the film provides an insightful survey to what happens after the gusts of a whirlwind romance die down, leaving the consolation of familiarity.
                In this sense, the film reminds me of Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy, which also follows a couple searching to find a spark in their relationship, but to Linklater’s credit, he does not follow that film’s cynicism (per my reading, at least).  Rather, this film celebrates the joys of overcoming conflict and striving to make things work, and by avoiding any sugarcoating, the true weighty significance of the seemingly small victories we see come to light.  At first glace, the film may seem slight compared to the events of its prequels, but in digging deeper, it is an inescapably essential addition to this couple’s story.  So many films celebrate momentous romantic gestures, but this film joins the ranks of the few that successfully celebrate the much more common daily efforts that sustain and nurture lasting romance.

**** out of ****

Celine and Jesse amongst the group.
                There is a scene in the middle of this film in which a group of intellectual European couples discuss relationships, monogamy, and “to death do us part”.  The conversation is quite cynical about lifelong monogamy, focusing on the (now common) idea that it is no longer possible or good to expect people to remain in relationships for the long haul.  Or at least, if they do, the people in these relationships will become exceedingly unhappy and no longer love each other. This view of our times prioritizes the momentary emotions of falling in love and devalues the work involved in staying in love.  Soon after, the film provides a biting counterpoint, as Jesse speaks about his grandparents who seemed to be deeply in love until their deaths.  It is the example of couples like them that leads Jesse and Celine to hold out hope and pursue one another through the bad – trying to reignite a now-mundane romance.
                Shot almost entirely in a series of conversations between Jesse and Celine, what is most striking about this excellent film is its incredibly realistic dialogue.  Even when Jesse and Celine discuss big ideas of life and time, or simply playfully flirt with one another, they pause to talk about how they haven’t had conversations like those in years – how very true to life!  Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke slip comfortably back into the roles they helped create, diving headlong into the conflicts of resentment and pride that are all-too commonplace in everyday life.  Additionally, the film gutsily tackles the meaty subject of fallout after divorce, not glossing over it as the result of “fate” or “true love” as so many modern people would be wanton to do.  The film is an honest, heartbreaking, and hopeful examination of a relationship in the middle stages of life.  In today’s world, this may be more romantic than falling in love as depicted in the previous films of this Before trilogy.  Wonderful.

A very strong ***½ out of ****

"Monogamy? No thanks!" (D&C like monogamy.)
                I’m glad you brought up the dinner conversation, because I found it to be a pivotal to the thematic progression of the film.  If marriage is nothing more than a means to mutual gratification, it is foolish to believe it will last, let alone be worth the fight.  Some of the couples in the film would agree and argue that once the flame is gone, it is time to begin the search for the excitement of a new flame.  Yet, the film ultimately pushes back against this concept as selfish and base, for while its characters may understand their positions in theory, their actions and affections speak volumes about their underlying desires.  As actions reveal true positions, it is clear that the characters of this film are innately drawn to the concepts of commitment and sacrifice.  After all, only one comment brings a toast from the table, and that comment, from an older widow, spoke to the deep joys of successfully making two joined lives feel natural and reassuring, even if death makes these superior joys temporary as well.  As Linklater works in references to art inspired by Christian faith and piety at various points of the film (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the ancient paintings of a small chapel), it makes sense that these characters, who appreciate such works with adoration, all grasp for lasting meaning in their respective relationships – an ode to the Imago Dei and common grace of God if I have ever seen one, albeit most likely an inadvertent one.

                It was absolutely an important scene, and a lovely one at that.  It was, however, the only scene I had (very) slight problems with.  It didn’t detract from the film overall, but I felt like the dialogue from the people that weren’t Celine and Jesse was just a bit too on-the-nose, especially the young couple.  On the other hand, I feel like young people often say things that are obvious in that way; I know I do!

She's just a baby!
               The younger man states that this is the first time they have been invited to eat with the adults, and I think that young people in that position (especially if they are in a relationship) have a benign eagerness to prove themselves that seems somewhat insincere.  I’m not sure if that is what Linklater was going for, but it nonetheless captures it well – a case of cinematic serendipity, if you will.

Life is tragic here.
                I love your term “benign eagerness.”  It describes that interaction perfectly.  The setting of scene, in general, just bothered me a bit.  A group of four (clearly wealthy) couples, eating grapes and fresh food on some patio in a villa in Greece – it just seems so cliché.  It makes sense why Jesse and Celine are there, but it still is a bit pat, especially since everyone seemed to have the perfect quip in perfect timing.  It provided some of the only moments of the film that felt scripted, even if they were poignant.

                You make a good point – the scene could have benefitted from a bit more conversational authenticity.  That being said, it provided a thematic base to interpret the film as a whole, so I’m not sure Linklater could have been as successful providing this base while maintaining the high degree of verisimilitude the rest of the film carries.
                On another note, it was interesting that, in a sense, this film serves as a retraction of its prequels.  The ending of Before Sunset, in which Jesse elects to leave his wife and child for Celine, while utterly believable, was also deeply unsettling for me as someone committed and strengthened by the concept of romantic commitment.  It seems odd that Jesse, who left his wife and life in America so rashly, would weather the storms of his relationship with Celine. Would not it be more expected for him to likewise leave Celine for a new romance found on one of his book tours?

                One of the things that (slightly) bothered me about the film was the way that Jesse and Celine both demonized Jesse’s ex-wife.  I understand that divorce is extremely messy, and it is probably easier to justify if you do demonize your ex-wife.  However, at one point Celine refers to her with some extremely strong language, and it would have been more realistic if Jesse maybe simmered her down a bit and reminded her that she is, in fact, the mother of his son.  If she is that horrible in real life, then that seems a bit convenient for the story – it’s easier to side with new lovers if the old lover is terrible.

Apparently, Hawke signs autographs for Mark McGrath.
                I mostly agree, though I do not find it unbelievable that Jesse would not speak up for his former wife.  That particular comment marks a small blemish in the midst of one of the film’s most impressive sequences - the climactic fight scene.  It could have been the best relational tiff I have ever seen, for its ebbs and flows were both illogical and understandable – like any real, good fight.  I could ask what you thought about this sequence, but instead I will ask something a bit more provocative: who did you find yourself siding with?

                That IS a provocative question!  I found myself siding with Jesse most of the time – with the exception of a few exchanges regarding his cheating and efforts to circumvent the question altogether.  What drove me nuts about Celine was how she would assume she knew Jesse’s thoughts in their entirety and read into them whatever her insecurities were.  Frequently she was right, but it didn’t mean it wasn’t frustrating.  She had the ability to make everything much bigger than it needed to be, possibly blowing things up on purpose, or making up insecurities to gain sympathy.  Sometimes people just like to fight!  In that way, I identified with Celine.  Clearly, the sequence was ultra-realistic.  It would be hard to think Linklater and his actor collaborators were not pulling from experience.  That fight, and the aftermath, was ultimately what sold me on the film.  Who did you side with?

How can I serve you, honey?
                I mostly agree with your assessment of the quarrel, though it is really an unfair question since both play such petty games with each other.  I found Celine utilizing her commitment to feminism as a crutch to be particularly frustrating; especially when it seemed to trivialize Jesse’s deeply felt pain over his growing distance from his son.  I found the sequence to be a microcosm of the paramount problem of so many marriages: people living and thinking about themselves rather than serving their partner.  In this is found an important indictment of the modern romantic ideals espoused by those in the critical dinner scene –modern relationships have become far too self-centered, where they had once been ideally characterized more by mutual submission and service.  Where couples now live two separate lives and cross each other’s paths for a time (per the wisdom of the dinner’s attendees), happy couples throughout history have chosen to give up their independence to work as a team to strive for something greater.
                I have a tendency to put a high value on tautly written films, and I think this film is a prime example of how simplicity in film can enhance thematic impact.   There didn’t seem to be anything out of place, nor anything superfluous, and this made it engaging from beginning to end.

                While I didn’t think it as flawless as you, I loved it all the same and would recommend it to anyone, whether you have been in a relationship long enough to empathize with its characters or if you simply know someone who could empathize.

Two-as-one rating: *** ¾ out of ****

Note: This film contains graphic sex talk/language as well as prolonged female nudity.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #6 - Touch of Evil (Welles, 1958)

6. Touch of Evil - Orson Welles, 1958

                Orson Welles was a man far ahead of his time.  He wrote, directed, and starred in what is consistently noted as the “greatest film of all time”, Citizen Kane.  Although I consider Citizen Kane to be a very fine film, it’s Touch of Evil that most impressed me.  The film opens with a lengthy and tense tracking sequence, following a bomb in the trunk of a car as it drives the streets of a Mexican border town for over three minutes.  The bomb explodes as the car crosses into the United States and sends the movie diving into a twisty tale of drugs, police corruption, prostitution, immigration issues, and racial strife.  Charlton Heston plays a straight-laced Mexican cop, engaged to a beautiful woman.  Orson Welles plays the crooked American border cop who plants evidence based on hunches.  From there, the plot gets all twisty and turny and quite pulpy.  No matter, because this movie isn’t about the plot, it’s absolutely about watching a master director at work.  In each and every take, you can feel Welle’s strong hands guiding you through this labyrinthine story, and it’s wonderful to be in the hands of such an assured artist.  It’s considered the key film to bring the film noir era to a close, and it is the last film Welles ever made in Hollywood.  It is dark, thrilling, exciting, and altogether fantastic.


The man had balls.
                Welles always had the balls to put his camera where other directors of his time would find absurd.  He didn’t care – he had confidence in his artistic hunches and stuck with them, even if it meant being relegated to making B-movies for pompous Hollywood producers.  Maybe this was a good thing in the end, for it was this relegation that most likely allowed him the freedom to make the daring choices we see in Touch of Evil, even if these producers ended up cutting the film to shreds anyway.  For example, there is a murder scene in this film which includes a shot from a soon to be victim’s helpless point of view as she lays strapped to a hotel bed, staring into the bulging eyes of a fresh corpse draped over the bannister.  Surely something this dark and disorienting would not have been allowed with a larger budget, but on a smaller budget, studios could take more risks.  In the context of this film, which capitalized on the end of the Production Code era by providing a logical and suitably bleak conclusion of the film noir genre, shots like this shockingly unearth the dark fantasies of crime so many had been drawn to in the genre.  By this time, it seems that Welles saw this cinematic obsession with crime was an American sickness (albeit one he contributed to with The Lady from Shanghai), and his work here pulled back the veil on the very real horrors of greed, corruption, and hate.  Pulsing with a frenetic Henry Mancini score and offering consistently cramped, uncomfortable compositions, the film serves as a warning to both be aware of crime’s terrors and avoid glamourizing them.  For any lovers of crime film, you simply cannot do better than this.  See it, and make sure to see the 1998 version, which attempts to restore the film to Welles’s original, darker vision.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

David's Top Ten - #7 - To Be Determined Again!

Folks, it looks like I have rubbed off a little too much on my wife.  For the second week in a row, I have a film on my top ten that is on Chelsea’s top ten at a higher rank.  As such, I will punt my comments on this film until a later point.  In lieu of those comments, here is another round of clues to what this mystery film may be.  Enjoy! 

If you get this right, you gain ten friend points.  That could put you in to friend level G, depending on current friend level.  Friend levels may or may not be real.

Clue #1:  A late-period film for a classic silent film actress whose father was from a line of Dunkard ministers.  (Don’t know what a Dunkard is?  Wow.  I thought I knew you.)
Answer: Lillian Gish, and Dunkards are a sect of German baptists.
Clue #2: There are iconic tattoos in this film that inspired tattoos in only the second film ever to have gained a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination for a black screenwriter.
Answer: The Spike Lee written and directed Do the Right Thing
Clue #3: Though it was never made, the director’s next feature was planned to be an adaptation of a book later made into a film by a filmmaker who had starred with the actress mentioned in today’s first clue in his silent film acting days.
Answer: The project was an adaptation of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, which was later adapted by Raoul Walsh in 1958, who had acted with Lillian Gish in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.  He played John Wilkes Booth.
Clue #4:  One of two films adapted from the authored works of this film’s source material.  The other film features the work of the actor who was said to “look too old” by the director of our first mystery film.  (And you thought you would get out of answering that mystery!)
Answer: The author is Davis Grubb, and the other adaptation was of his novel Fools' Parade, which starred an aged James Stewart in 1969.  (Which should help you with the answer to the other mystery film!)
Clue #5: This film was later remade into a television movie starring the lead actor of a 1960s television series about a doctor that ABC aired on Thursday nights from 8:30-9:30 for five straight years.
Answer: The 1991 television remake starred Richard Chamberlain, who starred in the show Dr. Kildare.

The movie is, of course, Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, which comes in at #4 on Chelsea's Top Ten of All-Time.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Frances Ha

By Noah Baumbach

            I have seen two films in my entire life, that I recall, that have beautifully and accurately captured the experience and feelings of being a young woman involved in deep female friendships.  One is Mike Leigh’s 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky.  The other, I have just had the pleasure of viewing – Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha.  That is not to say that either of the films are melodramatic, saccharine, or any of the adjectives typically associated with women’s pictures, chick flicks, and the like.  In fact, far from it.  Frances Ha is a frequently bleak and uncomfortable look into the life of a young dancer living in New York City hoping to make it big.  The film establishes her long-lasting best friendship with her roommate Sophie, and it follows her as she frequently fails in the workplace, in romance, and even in social situations, while still trying to gain a sense of dignity and purpose in her life.
            Although there are many things that are remarkable in this little film, several stand out.  Greta Gerwig’s performance as the title character is absolutely incredible. She embodies this character completely – the slight awkwardness, the nervous word vomiting, the uninhibited silliness that is somehow still just a little self-conscious – everything that makes Frances both lovable and annoying.  She co-wrote the script and reportedly did a lot of improvising on set; not surprising considering how natural the performance is.  The writing itself is also outstanding – capturing little things this group of New Yorkers say to one another without feeling twee or trying too hard.  It is a wonderful film, and one that captured my heart and allowed me to identify so much with its main character, not because we share similar worldviews or personalities, but because she is so well drawn that it is impossible not to see some part of your own neuroses and fears in her.

***1/2 out of ****

            Character studies have an unfortunate tendency to be self-indulgent.  As they rely heavily on the allure of the personalities they study, it is far too easy for such films to force viewers to sit through boring hours spent examining people with little nuance or charisma.  With Frances Ha, Noah Baumbach avoids such pitfalls by providing not only a magnetic and eccentric protagonist, but also fully fleshed relationships from which this character can reluctantly face her faults and search for meaning.  And while that may seem trite, the film never feels forced, allowing the story to flow organically from the mistakes of its characters while never resorting to crass moral preaching.  There is never a moment in which you feel Baumbach (or co-writer/lead actress Greta Gerwig) feel anything but deep affection and care for their creation – she is a mess, but a wonderful, vibrant, and believable mess.

Almost roomies.
             More than anything, I was impressed by the way the film captured the postmodern drift of my own “millennial” generation.  With so much of American culture telling us we could be anything we want, many 20-somethings will certainly empathize strongly with the resistance of Frances in facing her own shortcomings. This is more than an overdue coming of age story; it is a touching and affecting portrait of our times.

A strong ***½ out of ****

            Beautifully put that it is a portrait of our times; I agree, one hundred percent.  With that in mind, I found it interesting that much of the dialogue is extremely frank in its depiction of sexuality, while never once showing a sex scene.  I found it honest in a lot of ways, never resorting to showing something sensationalistic or exploitative.  In addition, some of the male characters are seen parading their one night stands through the apartment while others are there, knowing clearly they are fully aware of what went on behind closed doors.  None of the characters are phased by this and I thought that was interesting and a reflection of the relaxed attitudes about sex of our times.  What did you think?

Frances is "undatable."
            One of the motifs of the film is Frances labeling herself as “undatable,” and I think this motif points to why Baumbach and Gerwig wisely opted out of any overt sexual depictions; this is not what the film was about.  While an honest depiction of sexuality could have further developed Frances’s insecurities, the film takes strides to portray her as someone who keeps men at a distance.  I found this to be a daring move, as stories of sexual exploration or dysfunction are both difficult to execute with proper complexity and are attempted (and failed) far too often.  It is a far more rare for a film to tell the story of someone who finds men to be unrelatable and sex to be blasé.  Indeed, Frances seems to get more joy from her time with Sophie gossiping about the habits of the men they have been with than the actual sexual experiences she has had.
            Which, I suppose, is why I appreciated the frank depiction of sexual discourse.  In a world in which sex is something people do simply for amusement or to boost their own sense of pride, it is not surprising that the act also could become commonplace and uninteresting.  There is a brilliant scene in which Frances and one of two male roommates are platonically zoning out to a movie and their other roommate nonchalantly brings home yet another hook-up.  The juxtaposition of movie viewing and sex as parallel hobbies is stark and insightful.  For Frances, watching a movie is simply a far less complicated hobby to add into her own discombobulated life.  Once again, the film manages to capture our times, critiquing some unfortunate results of postmodern life without the taint of ego or judgment.
            Another critique the film has of modern friendships is their inherent competitiveness.  This is a big theme of the film, as though Frances loves Sophie deeply, she is plagued by constantly comparing herself to Sophie’s successes.  This brings about much of the conflict central to the film’s story.  I am curious – what did you think of this aspect of the film?

            Unsurprisingly, I loved this exploration of competition in friendship, specifically in how it occurs in female friendship.  I found it all too familiar, as this frequently affects the dynamics of my own friendships.  I think a specifically interesting moment was one pivotal scene in which (*SPOILER*) Sophie confesses to feeling this competition between herself and Frances, but due to her own pride, Frances denies having ever felt that way; despite the fact that the whole film details just the opposite.  In fact, this competition nearly ruins their beautiful relationship, and it is only after this confession that Frances is able to allow their friendship to flourish once again.
Let's fight.  For realsies.
            I found it true to life and honest.  For some odd reason, female friendships are frequently held up by a sense of competition – even if the women are in different careers, have different personalities, and are happily attached to different men.  There is no real reason for competition to exist, and yet it does, ruining so many relationships and stopping others from the get-go.  I thought this film captured this tragic reality well.
            As a final note, I was struck by the sequence of Frances going back home for Christmas.  I thought it was particularly poignant – what did you think?

            The Christmas sequence was one of the most touching for me, as I personally identified with it from my own past.  As the film allows Frances to pit personal ambition against the reassurance of loving community, the sequence nicely communicated both the deep emotions that come from the unconditional love of close family and the personal pride that stops many from admitting their need for such comforting encouragement.  For those with loving families, homesickness is all too common, especially when things “out there” turn sour.  What the film ultimately relays is that it is not the goals or successes of our lives that define us, but the people who love and shape us along the way.  The film takes time to remind us that if we neglect this truth, the result is a cold and desperate dissatisfaction.  The fact that the film slowly and patiently braves this lonely territory is a testament to its sincerity, for it makes the contrasting joys of its story both authentic and subtly powerful.  Ultimately, it is far better to accept our failures while drawing strength from loving relationships to move forward and find joy in developing and pursuing new aspirations.

Two-as-One Rating: ***½ out of ****