Sunday, April 03, 2016

Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky wants us to consider the moral, legal, and logistical issues caused by the American and British use of drones in the War on Terror. The opening minutes of the film efficiently lay out the situation: A British colonel named Powell (Helen Mirren) has intelligence of a gathering of high-value targets in Nairobi. The targets include British and American nationals, including teenagers, known as members of Al Shabaab. The plan is to coordinate with Kenyan troops to capture the terrorists, but a small drone controlled by a local agent (Barkhad Abdi) gets a shot of suicide vests and explosives inside the terrorists' meeting place. Suddenly the mission changes, and Mirren's colonel must convince a host of superiors and politicians to approve a drone strike on the meeting and avert a terrorist bombing.

Director Gavin Hood (who also appears as an American military officer) bounces the action between several continents with energy and confidence. We always know where we are and why we're there. Most of the non-African scenes takes place in Powell's command center and in an office at Whitehall where a general (Alan Rickman in his final screen appearance) leads a group of politicians through the events. There are also Americans involved: We follow the pilots of a drone (Aaron Paul and Phoebe Fox) who serve as the "Eye in the Sky" and who will be called upon to fire the missile if ordered. Eye in the Sky, written by Guy Hibbert, has all the ingredients for a dark satire about the Western balance between politics and the prosecution of war. Hibbert's greatest idea is the lack of a final decision maker for the mission. Several politicians (including Ministers played by Iain Glen and Jeremy Northam) weigh in with equivocations, but the decision making process seems to have no center. The unseen Prime Minister and American President are insulated from accountability by their subordinates.

What complicates the decision to fire the missile is the appearance of Alia (Aisha Takow), a young Kenyan girl selling bread next to the terrorist compound. If the missile is fired Alia will certainly be killed in the explosion, but if the terrorists leave the compound the potential loss of life is much greater. The inclusion of Alia in the story is a form of special pleading on a par with Spielberg's red-coated girl in Schindler's List, and it sentimentalizes a situation which the makers of Eye in the Sky has already dramatized with great ruthlessness. Hood and Hibbert's argument is rigged to such an extent that we discover Alia's family is secretly educating her and letting her use a hula hoop (away from the eyes of disapproving adults) while the most wanted terrorist is a white British national who was "radicalized" by an African man. The playing to liberal sympathies is complicated by an ending that asks us to empathize both with those caught by accident in the War on Terror and with the Westerners making decisions about those same people. A film about the implications of drone warfare is certainly overdue in 2016, but the case that drone warfare is amoral is overstated here. Eye in the Sky will be remembered as Rickman's final film - and he brings great soul to a man who spends most of the film sitting at a laptop - but as a political work it is too broad by half.

Saturday, April 02, 2016

Work by Friends: Chris White's Unbecoming

(Full disclosure: Chris White, Emily Reach White, Teri Parker Lewis and other people involved with Unbecoming are friends of mine. Click here for more details on that and to read a review of one of Chris’s earlier films.)

I’m often daunted by the short film form, just as I am as a reader by short stories. The limitations of each form make the truths uncovered that much more powerful, and there is a case to be made that the work required to uncover those truths is more difficult. There is a reason we’re still reading the stories of Chekhov, Welty, and Cheever after all. Writer/director Chris White has worked in the short form before, and I even made my film debut in one effort, but the new Unbecoming finds White working with confidence on more challenging material. White bills Unbecoming, a 40-minute anthology of 5 short films, as a “Southern Gothic Comedy”, but don’t get the wrong idea. White isn’t interested in the comedy of Southern eccentricity so much as what has always interested him: the honesty, joy, pain, and pleasure of real moments between people. In the first chapter of Unbecoming a lonely, dignified older man (Michael Forest) shares a few minutes with a woman (Patti D’Arbanville) searching for her lost goat. The conversation they share offers a brief connection - and possibly a new reading of American history - but White’s script doesn’t force anything. Goats come back, and life goes on. Later, two other lost souls (Teri Parker Lewis and Jack Peyrouse) have some cross-generational conversation during a chance encounter at a fast food joint, That middle section feels the most conventional, as though the idea of the piece hadn’t fully been fleshed out, but the other chapters more than make up for it. The funniest chapter involves a bookish teen (Natalie Belz) and the self-involved coach (Aaron Belz) minding her in in-school suspension. After watching the young lady puncture Coach’s hopes with a few words I think that White may have a great high-school comedy in him.

My favorite chapter of Unbecoming is the fourth, which is also the most ambitious. It’s here that White reaches for all the power of a great short work in a story that touches on love, aging, choices, and most of all memory. (There’s also a gag about a local landmark that’s too good to spoil.) Lilly Nelson is excellent here as a woman who loves the man (Bill Mazzella) who doesn’t know how to handle her. There’s a scene of foreplay between Nelson and Mazzella that feels like something out of a French New Wave film and that serves as a testament to the creativity that come from limitations. White ends Unbecoming with a musical grace note in a scene between brother and sister (Shua Jackson and Phyllis Jackson) at their father’s funeral. That moment speaks to two of White’s larger concerns in this short collection: Time never stops, and we all just have to do the best we can.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

So, this is what we’re doing now. We are bringing our superheroes to Earth, both literally and metaphorically, and turning them into unhappy humans who interrogate the meaning of their own power and develop strong opinions on how it should be used. We are screwing around with imagery that evokes 9/11 to suggest the damage that unchecked superhero powers can create. We are having beloved characters fight with each other for the thinnest of reasons. We are blowing shit up. Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice aspires to nothing less than to be the termination point for an one era of superhero films and, I guess, the departure point for another. Dawn of Justice begins with the end of Snyder’s Man of Steel, the battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) that tears apart Metropolis. Snyder includes shots of citizens fleeing billowing dust clouds on city streets that serve as a perverse kind of escapism, as if it would take aliens and nothing else to bring down buildings in a major American city. One of the casualties of the mayhem is a building belonging to Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) which is in the process of being evacuated when it collapses. Eighteen months later and Wayne still broods on the loss of his employees, though it’s hard to tell because in Dawn of Justice Affleck’s Batman is little more than a scowl and some high-end gadgets.

In the new DC Comics Universe, which Dawn of Justice is mean to kick off, “Justice” is a funny word. Neither Batman nor Superman seem interested in participating in a system of due process and accountability for those they apprehend. Instead both want to do exactly as they like and each finds the other’s methods over the top. Wayne is offended when Superman’s rescue of Lois Lane (Amy Adams, whom I feel I should remind you has five Oscar nominations) leads to the loss of innocent lives. This incident is told secondhand to the committee of a Senator (Holly Hunter) who is worried about Superman going bad, and the narrative distance means it’s hard to gauge just how out of control the situation became. Meanwhile Superman - in his Clark Kent guise, and here Kent is just a device to move the plot along - doesn’t like how rough Batman plays when bringing down low level hoods in Gotham. Bruce Wayne and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) are actually in pursuit of information held by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg, who takes the camp out of this character for once) which might prove inimical to Superman’s interests. Snyder spends a great deal of time on Wayne’s search, a choice which pushes the film’s running time out to 2 and a half hours but also leads to Wayne crossing paths with Diana Price (Gal Gadot, warming up for next year’s Wonder Woman film). Wayne spends so much time sitting in front of screens that at one point he has a dream-within-a-dream, a scene which introduces another familiar DC character and also fails to suggest that anyone involved with Dawn of Justice possesses DePalma-like levels of psychological complexity.

Dawn of Justice could be as serious-minded as it liked and I would even forgive the violence if only Snyder had injected even a fraction of the joy that earlier Batman and Superman films possessed. That sentiment no doubt sounds like the carping of a man who’s angry that new toys don’t look like the ones he grew up with, but consider: we’re supposedly living in a time where films are being made and studios run by people who grew up as “geeks” or “nerds” and yet I don’t remember the last time I saw a superhero use his powers without considering the moral responsibility. (Maybe Ant-Man, but the pendulum began to swing somewhere around the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man film.) Where is the joy of flight, or even the novelty of a utility belt? I couldn’t help but think about the children who were in the theatre where I was watching Dawn of Justice. I’m talking about the actual children, not the overgrown ones. They’ll never thrill to Christopher Reeve’s Superman saving lives at the Eiffel Tower or be confused by the emotional dynamics between Michael Keaton’s Batman and Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Instead they, and the rest of us, are treated to Martha Kent (Diane Lane) being terrorized by armed goons and Lex Luthor playing Doctor Frankenstein in the remains of a Kryptonian spaceship. The child sitting with his father next to me loved seeing Superman fly but grew oddly quiet during the civics lesson.

The extended climax of Dawn of Justice occurs in a series of empty buildings that Zack Snyder finds various to shoot blowing up or crumbling into rubble. It’s practically promised at the end that these sequences will motivate the action in some future DC film and that more heroes will be required to fight off new evil. Those films will no doubt have their audience, but they had also better matter much more than this one did. I didn’t care that Bruce Wayne wanted to kill Superman because this Wayne is barely a person. Christian Bale’s Wayne wasn’t the most fun guy, but you at least believed he watched a basketball game now and then. Dawn of Justice is the “high” point of the movement to replace the wonder in superhero films with sheer spectacle and debates about the uses of power. The idea that the people in films should be frightened of the heroes protecting them - a theme that has crossed a number of franchises - has never been less appealing or provocative than it is here, and with any luck we’re moving away from its repeated use in blockbusters. Oh, wait a second, 2016 still has films called Civil War and Suicide Squad yet to come. I’ll probably see them both, and so will you.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Some Thoughts on My First Murakami Novel

I’ve just finished reading Norwegian Wood by the acclaimed Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. Having heard Murakami celebrated for years - I worked in a bookstore for over a decade - and even mentioned as a possible Nobel Prize winner, I can report that Norwegian Wood is a novel that from what I can make out is far removed in theme and style from the author’s best-known works and was probably not a good choice with which to begin reading him. Set during the turbulent years of 1969 and 1970, Norwegian Wood is the story of the relationship between a student named Toru and a young woman named Naoko. The two had known each other for years before falling in love because Naoko was the high school girlfriend of Toru’s best friend Kizuki, who has committed suicide before the novel begins. Naoko and Toru take long Sunday walks through Tokyo, but soon Naoko withdraws and eventually becomes a patient at an odd sort of spa/hospital which Toru visits as his schedule permits. Toru becomes friends with Naoko’s older roommate Reiko during his visits, and she counsels him about Naoko and about his feelings for a free-spirited fellow student named Midori whom he has met back in Tokyo. To reveal more would be unfair, but the question of Naoko’s mental health becomes central to how all of the characters resolve themselves.

 It has been some time since I read a novel in translation, and the language barrier may account for some questions I have about Norwegian Wood and about Murakami’s work in general. I was planning to write a kind of insouciant “5 Questions about This Novel” post that I might have slapped up on Tumblr, but these are actually things I want to know before I pick up another Murakami novel.

 1. Characters in Norwegian Wood have a habit of saying exactly what’s on their minds. Is this trait a Murkami thing, a Japanese thing, and/or a translation thing?

 2. At one time or another the three central women in Norwegian Wood all want to sleep with Toru. Do Murakami’s other men do as well?

 3. Several characters in Norwegian Wood commit suicide. Again, there’s something here in Japanese culture that I don’t understand and I wonder if it comes up in other Murakami novels.

 4. Do Murakami characters refer to books and music as often as these characters do? Because I liked that. 

5. I was under the impression there was more “Magic Realism” in most Murakami novels. Is this true?

6. What does Haruki Murakami think of the “Shoshanna in Japan” storyline on Girls?

 If you’re a Murakami reader and can answer any of these question then you would be performing an invaluable public service.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane (mild spoilers)

10 Cloverfield Lane is J.J. Abrams playing with us and doing it well. When the trailer appeared online a couple of months ago it wasn’t apparent if Abrams had produced a sequel to his surprise hit Cloverfield or if he was merely indulging a taste for surprises already displayed in Super 8 and the introduction of a certain smoke monster to a certain TV island. The finished product is a well-executed genre film that may (or may not) connect to an already established cinematic universe. After watching the film the inclusion of the word Cloverfieldin the title feels like quite a tease; producer Abrams and director Dan Trachtenberg (working from a script co-authored by Whiplash director Damien Chazelle) play to our love of the movie franchise while delivering something small, shocking, and mean.

We don’t know why Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) leaves her unseen fiance in the opening scene. Trachtenberg doesn’t let us hear the phone message she leaves him but instead plays the insistent score of Bear McCreary over shots of Michelle clearing out of her apartment. One stop at a spooky Louisiana gas station later and Michelle is waking up after a car accident in the well-stocked underground bunker of a man named Howard (John Goodman) whose intention seems to be to keep her alive. Howard tells Michelle she can’t return to the surface; a biological attack of unknown origin has left everyone dead. The bunker’s other occupant is a hired hand named Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), a gentle sort who thinks Howard is to be trusted. The heart of 10 Cloverfield Lane is Michelle’s effort to find out if that’s true. A close-quarters film like this one is of course actor dependent, and Abrams and Trachtenberg have nailed casting with the pairing of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Goodman. Winstead has wound up in more than a few horror films over the years, but she’s capable of much more - see Scott Pilgrim or her Oscar worthy turn in Smashed - and is perfect for what turns out to be a psychological duel. Her natural intelligence is well-matched with John Goodman’s richly detailed study in paranoia. It’s terrific to see Goodman’s turn his charm into something menacing; the more we come to understand Howard’s motivations the more his references to an absent daughter hint at a disturbing past.

The tension of 10 Cloverfield Lane is released after an act of violence, and your opinion of the ending is a function of your tolerance for ambiguity. We can reveal that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is a good actress even when fleeing and fighting; in the unfortunate event that someone ever remakes Alien then Winstead would make a fine Ellen Ripley. It does seem likely that there will be more Cloverfield films at some point, and while Abrams’s desire to vary casts and tones is appealing it also wouldn’t be the worst idea to keep Winstead around. 10 Cloverfield Lane - a film we didn’t need and weren’t aware we wanted - is a pleasant diversion made with some craft, and in a film where there’s this much fleeing that is good enough for me.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The word “resources” gets used several times in the new Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. News producer Kim Baker (Tina Fey) winds up as a war correspondent in 2003 Afghanistan because her network’s resources are stretched due to the beginnings of the Iraq War. Later, a network president (Cherry Jones) ponders using fewer resources in Afghanistan because in the three years Baker has been there the story has become less vital to Americans. When thinking about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which Fey produced along with Lorne Michaels, one might regard it as a case of misspent resources. What could have been a darkly funny film about what war reporting does to people is instead a film in which the U.S. Military, other reporters, and the entire nation of Afghanistan serve as the supporting cast in the story of Kim Baker acquiring a backbone. Baker - the film is based on a nonfiction book by journalist Kim Barker - has almost no field experience when she arrives in Afghanistan and is dependent on her local guide Fahim, played by the very non-Afghan actor Christopher Abbott. Kim proves her courage and impresses a general (Billy Bob Thornton) by getting close-up footage of a firefight, but Whiskey Tango Foxtrot isn’t a movie about military strategy.

The action of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot covers 2003 to 2006, years when Afghanistan receded from the American consciousness as the Iraq War increased in intensity. Kim gets some traction by reporting on gender issues, but Ficarra and Requa cut away from a scene in which a group of Afghan women get to meet Kim and express their concerns. Instead we get more of the frat house life at the journalists’ base, where Kim’s friends Tanya (Margot Robbie) and Ian (Martin Freeman) encourage her to get over her unfaithful stateside boyfriend (Josh Charles). There is also an Afghan politician (Alfred Molina) who it turns out is around only for plot purposes, since neither Kim nor anyone else seems that interested in what kind of country Afghanistan is becoming. Instead there’s a late twist - involving Kate getting Thornton’s general to commit men to a dangerous mission - that offers Kate an opportunity to advance her career; she doesn’t hesitate to seize her chance, though weirdly Robbie’s Tanya is judged for doing exactly the same thing. Tina Fey is mostly up to the role of Kim, though I never bought the idea that Kim was in danger of thinking the extremes of war zone life were “normal”. Whomever made the choice to make Whiskey Tango Foxtrot about Kim’s self-actualization did so at the expense of dramatizing the lived experience of soldiers and journalists on the ground. The result is a film that looks big and feels small, one that traded Fey’s comic voice for jokes about Muslim women covering themselves. WTF indeed.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Son of Saul

This year’s Foreign Film Oscar went to Son of Saul, a first feature from Hungarian Laszlo Nemes which follows an Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz through several hellish hours. We know almost nothing about Saul Auslander (Geza Rohrig) except that he is part of the Sonderkommando, a group of Jewish prisoners forced to assist in the movement of other prisoners into the gas chamber and with the subsequent disposal of their remains. One day Saul finds a young boy barely alive after the gas; the boy dies during an examination but Saul believes the boy to be his illegitimate son and decides to bury him. The rest of the film is his quest to do so. Much of the discussion around Son of Saul has been about Laszlo Nemes’s shooting style; for almost the entire film Nemes shoots Saul in close-up or shows us only what the character sees. This choice means we only hear scattered references to what other prisoners are doing - a group is planning an uprising - and that various atrocities take place out of focus, at the edge of the frame, or are conveyed only through sound. Other prisoners are barely individualized except for Warszawski (Levente Molnar), a man whose lack of understanding of Saul’s behavior seems to represent the feelings of everyone else.

Son of Saul is not an easy watch. Nemes’s determination to avoid false uplift or aesthetic distance (there’s not a master shot to be found here) keeps us firmly within the realm of Saul’s perceptions. That’s a frightening place to be but also a tiring one, as Rohrig’s inexpressiveness makes Saul’s refusal to engage with his fellow prisoners hard to read. Whether the boy is actually Saul’s son is called into question - another prisoner tells Saul “You have no son.” - but a bigger issue is the film’s lack of a moral framework. Nemes wants to put the poignancy of Saul’s desire to bury his son in opposition to the other prisoners’ efforts to organize and fight, but the film only sets up the situation without investigating it. Indeed, it isn’t clear why the other men would enlist Saul in their plans for an uprising; his mission to transport materials that the men need goes wrong when he wanders into a group of new prisoners in search of a rabbi. The other prisoners in Son of Saul haven’t forsaken religion; the first rabbi that Saul approaches tells him he will say the Kaddish for his son but that a proper burial is logistically impossible. But Saul’s fellow prisoners see survival as an imperative that Saul never seems to consider. We’re told in the opening titles that members of the Sonderkommando were executed after a few months as a matter of course, and Warszawski and the other prisoners feel their time running out. “You failed the living for the dead,” Warszawski says to Saul, and later when another prisoner comes back for Saul during the escape it’s a pointed contrast to the image of Saul almost being dragged underwater by his son’s remains.

I recently watched another Oscar-winning film set in a concentration camp, Stefan Ruzowitsky’s The Counterfeiters. That 2007 film told the story of “Operation Bertrand,” a Nazi plan to destabilize Allied economies by flooding them with counterfeit currency. The Jews forced to produce the fake money lived in relative comfort in the camp, and the film establishes their role in the infrastructure of the Nazi war effort while also dramatizing why they needed to resist. In Son of Saul, giving the audience the eyes of one prisoner - the film most definitely does not “get inside his head” - heightens the emotion but also elides the particular systematic nature of the Nazi evil, and that is a mistake I can’t ignore. When we last see Saul he is experiencing a moment of connection that the film hasn’t earned. While I respect Nemes’s stylistic choices I also don’t think they work; Son of Saul is finally a film where artistic ambition gets in the way of lessons that we should never stop learning.