Wednesday, September 25, 2013

David's Top Ten - #1 - 8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963)

1. 8 1/2 - Federico Fellini, 1963

          I have yet to see a character study more complex, challenging, or innovative than Federico 8 ½.  While it is not the most perfect film I have ever seen, it is the most cinematically exciting, fluidly interweaving moments pulled from its filmmaker-protagonist Guido’s dreams, daydreams, memories, and present realities while also commenting on the nature of the creative process, both for an artist and an audience.  It is a film that humbly speaks to the burden of success while also challenging viewer suppositions regarding the authenticity of its subject matter.  Fellini creates a protagonist that mirrors himself, and his pains feel inspired and true, but he also playfully pokes his audience to ask how much is reality, how much is fiction, and whether that matters in the end.  The film is ultimately profound not because it provides answers, but because it pushes us to ask questions.
          From a broad view, the film is about the pressure to produce.  As Guido struggles to conceptualize his next film in the face of his producer, screenwriter, and cast’s pleadings, we lament with him the burden of achievement and the monetization of creativity.  Fellini, of course, does not really decry his status as a famous filmmaker, but he does draw attention to the many influences on artists if they are so lucky to find fame.  Likewise, all who display their own talents, whether they be artistic or otherwise, and are found desirable will face a similar reality – they can never return to their humble beginnings, and will always be held to the standard of their previous work.  As the film builds on this theme, it becomes increasingly exhausting and harried until catharsis is finally found in defeat.  The film’s conclusion negates many of its questions without trivializing them.  While there certainly are reasons to be wary of business interests in the creative process and the unduly worship of artists, Fellini ultimately calls his fellow artists and viewers alike to celebrate the joys of life apart from the expectations of others.  By recognizing his own inability to control or appease others, Guido is free to enjoy the process rather than any resulting acclaim.  After all, due to the collaborative process of producing films, his films are not purely his own anyway.
Guido, Guido, Guido
          What is amazing about 8 ½ is that these themes are communicated in the midst of an engaging and very personal portrait.  Fellini’s presence as the film’s creator is intentionally evident, and he creates a sense that he is actively fighting for the film to be about Guido as a man.  By injecting his voice into the film, and concurrently commenting on the forces working against the presence of such a voice, there is a feeling that each scene represents a battle lost or won.  For Fellini, each film represents is a fight to preserve a personal voice; a fight many filmmakers understandably concede.  It is amazing to me that this fight feels genuine despite the fact that, on reflection, it is intentionally communicated.  There is no denying that, despite the many and varied influences on his work, Fellini was an artist strong enough to recognizably assert his voice above the shouting demands of his audiences and collaborators.  With 8 ½, we are invited to witness his victory.

Chelsea's Response: 
          By the time 1963 rolled around and Fellini began work on his ninth film, 8 ½  he had already made quite a few masterworks and was a celebrated director.  8 ½ is, in turn, about a celebrated director attempting to make his ninth film.  As such, it is incredibly postmodern, and certainly way ahead of its time.  It still feels new and exciting today.  While Fellini may have in reality struggled to come up with 8 ½  the film's protagonist Guido truly comes up blank.  As many of us do, he searches and longs for that perfect bit of inspiration which will somehow save the day, but finds it doesn’t exist.
Staggering Setpieces
          I first saw 8 ½ many years ago, when we were dating, and I must admit I was confused by 8 ½ on 35mm.  What could I do but throw a birthday party that included a screening of 8 ½   By my second viewing, I had seen and grown to love several other Fellini films and had come to appreciate his contemplative rhythms, and I found that I loved it.  It was exciting and entertaining, throwing dizzying dreams at its audience and never once holding our hands.  It was visually beautiful, full of staggering and audacious set pieces.  And it was oddly honest, even as it was full of artifice.  I was thrilled.
it.  I didn’t understand Fellini’s cinematic language.  While it was still entertaining and had a brilliantly drawn central character, I didn’t quite know what the fuss was about, sighing that I would have to wait and watch it again.  Years later, David’s birthday rolled around and our local (read: two blocks away) microcinema decided to show
          Moral of the story: some films require a second look to reveal their riches, and like someone developing a taste for fine wine, sometimes those riches can only be found with a fuller and more experienced understanding of cinema's language.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

By Lee Daniels

            It is hard to resist the feeling that with Lee Daniels' The Butler, Lee Daniels is daring his audience to criticize his work.  The film so unabashedly and lackadaisically preaches to the choir as a celebration of civil rights that it seems Daniels was simply banking on the fact that he could finger anyone pointing out its glaring flaws as a bigot.  “What, you didn’t like The Butler?  What are you, racist or something?”
            But here is the thing: throughout the film, Daniels seems bored with his material, caring more about economically progressing the film’s timeline than much else.  We are rarely given any time to process the subject matter, though this is perhaps a blessing considering the film’s matter-of-fact arguments.  Rather than provide a thoughtful contemplation of the civil rights movement and its far-reaching socioeconomic impact, Daniels provides a cursory and simplified history filled with tired character types and broad moral declarations.  Dispassionately carrying out Danny Strong’s amateurish script, which seems to have been researched using nothing but a poorly written 8th grade history textbook, the film relies heavily on musical cues and pandering voiceover commentary to tell its story.  With many aspects of the film being underdeveloped, such cinematic tools fall flat and far too often feel forced.
            These lazy efforts from Daniels to instruct his audience how to feel and think quickly become tedious.  One the one hand, he seems to rely on the fact that he is preaching to the choir to gain the audience’s sympathy, but on the other, he directs the film in a sententious way that communicates he is presenting groundbreaking ideas.  Either way, it feels condescending and obnoxiously self-important.

** out of ****
            More than anything else, The Butler is contrived.  And in its contrivance, it is lazy.  Lee Daniels has provided a thoughtless film that is somehow boring while plowing through its timeline at a cut-rate pace.  Based on a true story, The Butler follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a black man who served eight presidents in the White House (real life name Eugene Allen).  It attempts to parallel and contrast Cecil’s life and work with the plight of his son, a young man who is strongly involved in the changing civil rights movement.  To Louis, Cecil is an Uncle Tom, but to Cecil, Louis is a delinquent law-breaker.
Louis, arrested again.
            There are several scenes, played for tension and emotion, in which Cecil struggles at work with his position, intercut with scenes of the son, Louis, in famous civil rights moments (including being at the very hotel of the assassination of MLK, Jr.!).  The coincidences just don’t add up, and the themes lack nuance, so Daniels’s cookie-cutter thesis ends up being poorly drawn and argued.  Forest Whitaker tries his hardest here, and is joined by a lot of other actors who are doing their best, but the material is just too badly written to be believable.  Even Oprah is pretty good in a part that is unnecessary and almost ridiculous, and that is coming from a person who doesn’t like Oprah at all.  You’re right, David - it does seem like Daniels is daring his audience to take issue with his work.  The Butler is a pandering and lazy movie that tries to skate on its message.

* ½ out of ****

            With films like this, you can sense that the filmmakers were sniffing for Oscar gold in their conception of the film.  The film just has that sense of self-importance about it.  Rather than thoughtfully consider the motivations and relational dynamics of the characters, this film relies on cardboard-deep personalities to act out stiff melodrama, paying lip-service to its themes.  It is the kind of movie that will leave many people feeling good about themselves for watching it, but will in the end do little to challenge anyone.  In a climate of persistent racial tension, I struggle to see what Daniels hoped to achieve.

Look, it's Lyla!  And she's first lady.
            Daniels is clearly trying to say something about race – but he makes it so reductive that it is almost harmful.  Take for example the end *SPOILERS* which seems to portray the election of Barack Obama as the ultimate expression of how far we’ve come as a nation in terms of race.  And while it was a historic moment and certainly does exhibit that the nation has taken a lot of positive steps forward, there are still monumental problems in America’s race relations.  Everything isn’t better just because we elected a black president and Cecil got a raise, and we have a lot of difficult, complex work ahead of us.

            I had the same uncomfortable feeling in the climactic moments involving Obama’s election.  This kind of uninhibited celebration is disconcerting, to say the least, especially coming from a black filmmaker.  I think this kind of oversimplification is not only dangerous because it makes people think that there is no need to make any more strides for equality in this country, but because simple answers that cut out the messy realities of the issues only further conflict in American politics.  You get the sense that Daniels is furthering a tendency to suppress voices that want to discuss the complexities of this topic, making anyone who wants to find real solutions into an enemy.  Daniels is allowed an opinion, and in this case it is safe enough that few will disapprove, but it is the fact that he states it without really arguing it that is disappointing.
            I think the development of Cecil’s character is a good example of how Daniels suppresses complexity.  *SPOILERS*  The entire film develops Cecil as a goodly rule-follower and does a good enough job presenting his disapproval with his son Louis.  Yet, late in the film, with little explanation, he changes his mind about civil rights protests and spends the last half hour of the movie reconciling to his son and preaching the virtues of the political demonstrations he spent the entire film opposing.  As viewers, we are supposed to applaud this change, but any thoughtful viewer is left asking, “What in the world created such an abrupt shift?”

            You’re right – it was extremely abrupt.  Daniels attempted to show that Cecil was tired and downtrodden, but it was so sudden a shift that it wasn’t very palatable.
In a completely unnecessary scene.
            Also abrupt were the many shifts in Oprah Winfrey’s character, Gloria Gaines.  While I understand the inclusion of her character – she is Cecil’s wife – the family drama was shoehorned in.  It’s fine to be both a film about race and a family drama, but to have both notched to 11 on the melodrama scale just serves to wipe each other out.  Gloria goes from being a lovely woman to an alcoholic cheater to on the wagon to off the wagon each time we see her.  There is no gradual change, and although Oprah sells the heck out of it, the character just constantly feels odd.   The scenes of the home life of Cecil vary in tone significantly to his work life, and they never work together to form a whole.

            Couldn’t agree more – her character felt completely out of left field and did nothing to contribute to the film’s larger themes.  As a filmmaker, he seems to think that simply inserting scenes of infidelity or alcoholism is profound, but someone needs to tell him that to make an impact, he must comment on these issues rather than simply showing them.
            You could say much of the same for Cecil’s youngest son Charlie who, due to the film’s lacking sense of time progression, startlingly appears looking ten years older without warning and stands in moral opposition to his older brother.  Yet, there is a goodly amount of fun in Elijah Kelley’s limited role here, as his comedic timing is pretty great, providing my favorite moments of the entire film.  I wish I could say the same for Cuba Gooding, Jr. – whose obscene comic sensibility and standard Cuba Gooding, Jr. delivery feel out of place.

And Mariah Carey, in the film for about 2 minutes.
            How about the long string of stunt casting for each of the presidents?  We have Alan Rickman as Reagan, James Marsden as JFK, John Cusack as Nixon, and Robin Williams as Eisenhower.  Some of them, like Marsden, work very well, but some are just awkward and laughable, like Cusack, whose Nixon is a depressing, tone-deaf sad-sack.  In general, Daniels paints a broad political stroke - each of the Democrat presidents is wonderful, while each Republican is evil.  It’s very odd and naïve to trivialize politics that way, as Daniels attempts to simplify something as complex and problematic as the political system.
           Meanwhile, Cecil’s son is attending lectures by Malcolm X, getting a first-hand speech from MLK, Jr., and is one of the very first in the Black Panther movement.  It’s all so over-the-top and contrived, I found myself occasionally laughing out loud.    Not to mention the completely unnecessary role for Terrence Howard that never goes anywhere except to mention that Oprah is having an affair – she’s falling apart!

            It is all so ridiculous.  And yet, the most ridiculous thing about the whole movie to me is that Lee Daniels had the ego to make sure every time you saw the film’s title, it was associated with his name.  The film is not The Butler, but Lee Daniels’ The Butler.  With his film looking and feeling like a Lifetime special apart from the occasional fuzzy glow of overexposed photography, what makes him think he should tout himself as an auteur?

            This being my first Lee Daniels film, I don’t think I can accurately answer your question, but he certainly does have some name recognition at this point.  You wonder how long he can ride the coattails of his success with 2009’s Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire before people stop paying him much attention.

Two-as-One Rating: *¾ out of ****


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Chelsea's Top Ten - #1 - Ordet (Dreyer, 1955)

1. Ordet - Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1955

          When I first read about Ordet, I knew immediately I would really like it.  When we finally got ahold of a copy of a DVD at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee library, my suspicions were confirmed.  We watched it, loved it, discussed it, told everyone about it, and subsequently watched all of the other Dreyer films we could get our hands on.  Based on a play by Kaj Munk, a Danish priest and WWII martyr, the story follows a family with three sons in a small Danish town with two major Christian sects.  The eldest son is an kind, agnostic man, but is married to a woman with great faith and hope that her husband will return to God; the middle son believes he is Jesus, having gone nuts studying Kierkegaard at University; the youngest son is in love with the daughter of one of the elders of the other Christian sect – a Romeo and Juliet of sorts.  As the family prepares for the birth of the newest grandchild – the child of the eldest and his wife, they try to seek God and discover who He is and how He works on Earth.
          Munk’s was the only name that appears in the credits in the original release, emphasizing the audience should pay close attention to the words and themes of the story.  Even so, Dreyer directs the film simultaneously tenderly and starkly.  It is a beautifully crafted film: the lighting, mise-en-scene, the patient way the camera moves all build up to the climax.  And what a climax it is!  The entire story hinges on one moment at the very end, the belief systems of each of the characters sharply seen, sometimes shattered, until finally…!  Not that everything that came before it was a trifle – far from it – each scene is deliberate and careful, capturing glimpses of the internal and external conflict of all of the characters and focusing on each of the characters closely held belief systems.  Although it’s slow, deliberate pacing may not work well for some modern audiences, it has a modern sensibility in the honesty with which it approaches its themes and characters.  It is a deeply challenging film, spiritually and artistically, and I encourage each of you readers to dive headfirst into this incredible work of art.

David's Response:
The middle son, believing himself the Christ
          Carl Theodor Dreyer is to film what Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky are to literature – a prime example of a brilliant artist operating from a Christian worldview, expertly expressing his faith through his work, not with pompous overtures, but in earnest humility.  As a result, his films are not off-putting for those who do not share his convictions.  Instead, they invite all to a shared discussion of difficult and weighty topics.   Ordet (which translates as “The Word”) is his best, most heartfelt film.  No, it is not his most visually stunning film (that prize goes to his silent masterpiece The Passion of Joan of Arc), but its visuals are suited to its purposes, and it is his most well-structured and affecting film.  As a Christian, its call for ecumenicity is deeply convicting, as Dreyer’s own heart and sadness over conflict within the church is clearly felt.  His rebukes, as with any Godly rebuke, are gentle and mournful, rather than brash and prideful.
Beautiful composition
          What makes this film work so well is that it gives us time to process its events.  Its visuals are simple and its pacing is deliberate, which draw our attention to its characters and the weight of their plight.  All characters are complex and deeply troubled, and Dreyer does not seem to be content to discard the importance of any of their stories.  In every moment, there is unrest, but its characters’ discontentment is hard to place.  What we see is more than the simple existential angst of Bergman (who was in many ways a disciple of Dreyer himself) – it is a buried sense of stubborn resentment for God in the recognition of guilt.  It is not so much that the characters are angry with God, but simply that they refuse to recognize they are disappointed in their own weakness and petty scruples.  Rather than run to God in weakness and find true solace, they pridefully suppress their pain and frustration.  Dreyer uses his camera to achieve much of this feeling, which subtly puts his audience into a similar place of discomfort, emphasizing the confusions of faith and the brokenness of our present reality.  The film’s final image answers with powerful impact – there are no easy answers in this world, and pain is unavoidable, but we are never alone.  In the midst of our doubts, God loves us and seeks to comfort us, calling us to shed our pretenses, put our silly quarrels in perspective, and recognize His power and wisdom is infinitely greater than our own.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The World's End

By Edgar Wright

          The “Cornetto Trilogy” as it has come to be called, is a loosely linked collection of three films by collaborators Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright.  When I say loosely, I mean loosely.  Each of them is a comedy, but each has different settings, characters, and wildly different plots.  The only thing besides the collaborators connecting them is the sighting of a different flavor of Cornetto ice cream treat, a British drumstick type of thing.  Besides that, they are all connected because they are all extremely funny in a wild, over-the-top way.  What is wonderful about Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and now The World’s End, is that Pegg and Wright seem to understand that with cinema, anything is possible, no matter how outlandish.
          The World’s End centers on a group of five high school friends who reunite in their late 30s/early 40s to complete a 12-pub crawl that they were unable to finish at age 18.  Almost all of them are tentative in their engagement with the night’s activities, and Wright and Pegg do an excellent job of gradually teasing out the shared history that pulled them apart.  There are a lot of satisfying character beats because they aren’t all expositional and are revealed with time.  It’s also electrifyingly funny, filled with quotable throw away lines and ridiculous conversations pulled off by the very talented cast of known and unknown British actors – there is not a weak link in the bunch.  Full of twists and turns along this “Golden Mile”, it’s hard to not spoil, but the ending was a bit disappointing, in that it didn’t quite tie things together as it seemed to try to.  Regardless, this is a good capper to this loose “trilogy”, and if you enjoyed Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, as I did, then you will certainly laugh your way through this one as well.

*** out of ****

          Edgar Wright’s films abound with energy and move with a driving and insistent rhythm.  As a director, he reminds me of a punk kid in high school who can’t sit in his seat or stop talking, but mysteriously gets really good grades and loves to talk deeply about the intricacies of his favorite comic books.  In other words, though his films may be an acquired taste, and don’t bring anything all that profound, they are surprisingly smart and worthy intermittent entertainment – not something you would like to spend time with regularly, but a lot of fun when you do.  They represent the cinematic equivalent of the kind of fun partier who actually invests in his friends rather than using them.
The oddballs.
          Which is, essentially, the heart of The World’s End.  The film thrives when it hones in on the relational dynamics of its oddball cast in the context of chaos.  As you said, the further the film goes into crazyland, the more Wright peels back the layers of his story and reveals motivation.  Ultimately, however, I found this method of revelation to undercut the film’s proposed values of honesty and perspective in relationships.  While the film’s major twists are admirably batshit, they are too big of a distraction from what was most engaging in the film’s exposition – the characters themselves.  I couldn’t help but feel that Wright and co-writer Pegg were too enamored with the direction they take the film in its second half to pay proper attention to the quality stuff what they established in the first.  As a result, I found the more explosive second half far less engaging than the nuanced interplay of the first.  In the end, though, this isn’t a major complaint, for the direction the film goes, though more shallow, is a lot of fun and brashly represents the unique vision of its very talented collaborators.

*** out of ****

          So we both said we enjoyed the film's characters.  I felt as though Pegg and Wright did the characters a great service in how they became fuller and richer as time progressed.  The writers provide a fast-paced exposition from the protagonist's perspective and then reveal immediately how things had changed, followed by a gradual return to the past dynamics and unveiling of the shared history between them all. However there were a few characters whose development was stopped short.  *SPOILER* About halfway through, Oliver (played by Martin Freeman of Bilbo Baggins fame), is replaced with a robot version of himself that was obvious to the audience, and seemed cheap because it was given so little weight.

The dynamics.
          Like you, I appreciated the crash-course in the history of the ensemble, but felt like, perhaps, the filmmakers didn't appreciate it quite as much.  There is a lot of attention given to establishing the group’s relational dynamics, but much of this is abandoned when *SPOILER*, oh look, robots and explosions and aliens, oh my!  With the film resolving its romantic subplot in a matter of fact fashion and wholly abandoning the development of some characters it spent a lot of time to develop (Oliver being the main example), it feels kind of unfinished.  Furthermore, I found the most satisfying comic interactions to be built on the years of frustration and resentment amongst these friends, so when the film moves away from its characters in favor of formula, it also relies too heavily on more shallow slapstick for laughs.
          The protagonist Gary King (Simon Pegg) is, perhaps, the most interesting character of the bunch, as he stands out from the pack as someone who cannot let go of the past.  I found this character to be a nice little microcosm of how many people of today’s delayed-adolescence generation are unable to find joy in growing up.  Yet, the film also portrayed the other friends, who did move on to grown-up things, as quite stodgy and unhappy as well.  I am not sure the film provides a satisfying answer to the questions it poses in relation to all this.  What did you think?

          That’s an interesting thought – that the film presents both adolescent and adult lifestyles as unsatisfying without showing us what is satisfying.  But I’m not really sure that the filmmakers had to show us anything ultimately satisfying – the film would have had to have taken an odd turn for that to work and not feel preachy.  The only character who seemed mostly well adjusted was Sam, and we didn’t get to know her quite as well.  Speaking of, I liked Sam and Steve quite a bit, even though the romance was cliché. I liked that Wright and Pegg drew comedy by winking at the genre conventionality of this relationship in the end, at least.

Same old Gary King.
          I still find much of the film’s themes be a bit off because the film actually does attempt to inject a happy-ish conclusion.  While there is clearly a wink with Sam and Steve’s romance, I feel like we are supposed to think Gary and Andy have found themselves, but I am not sure that makes much sense.  Yet, I suppose this is mostly a misplaced complaint, as the film ends up using its characters effectively enough as simple springboards to its over the top, entertainingly madcap plot.  While it may not be the deepest or most fully developed comedy you could see, it is undeniably an amusing experience.

Two-as-one-rating: *** out of ****