Sunday, January 31, 2016

Jane Got a Gun

The new Western/Romance Jane Got a Gun takes place in the rough country of 1870's New Mexico, with flashbacks to pre-Civil War Missouri. Jane Got a Gun, directed by Gavin O'Connor, doesn't linger on the beauty of the landscape or have much to say about the triumph of the American Experience; it's small, dark film that's deliberately personal its concerns and better off for that choice. Jane (Natalie Portman, who also produced) is raising her daughter in near isolation when her husband Bill (Noah Emmerich) returns home badly shot up. The shots were fired by the "Bishop Boys", an outlaw gang whose leader John Bishop (Ewan McGregor) has very specific issues with Jane and Bill that are revealed in flashbacks. Jane's only ally is Dan Frost (Joel Edgerton, who also gets a co-writing credit), a neighbor whose initial displeasure at Jane's visit also has a backstory that the film explores. With so many past connections to discover it no surprise that the main plot of Jane feels a little threadbare: a threat is made, defenses are mounted, the attack comes. What makes the film a little more than just a well-cast shoot-em-up is its unacknowledged villain: America. The unhappiness that Jane and Frost share runs deeper than the situation they find themselves in. It predates the Civil War and is a product of the hard choices required for survival. The characters in Jane are firmly within Western movie archetypes - the tough woman in hardscrabble conditions, the inarticulate gunslinger - but they also feel a good deal more emotionally true than the speechifying characters in The Hateful Eight. Frost reveals to Jane that he spent time as a prisoner in a Rebel Army camp. Samuel L. Jackson's character in Eight had been a prisoner too, and guess which character I believed more. Everyone in Jane is just trying to hang on, even the profiteering John Bishop. The climax of Jane Got a Gun is, of course, a gunfight. Jane, Frost, and the injured Bill try to hang on against Bishop's men, and O'Connor keeps the attackers mostly off camera. The effect is as though the house itself is attacking Jane, and the image of a rifle poking through a wall is as economical expression as I've ever seen of the American frontier as threat.

Jane Got a Gun had a famously troubled production history, and perhaps some of the choices that read as tonal were really the result of necessity. Natalie Portman acquits herself well though, and is actually more effective in the scenes where she's asked to show the most emotion. (Portman's frontier chic costumes are by Catherine George.) If Jane didn't spend quite so much time on flashbacks then Jane's sacrifices might have carried more emotional weight, but again it's hard to know just how much of that was an attempt at giving structure to a film that wasn't coming together. Finally Jane Got a Gun is a minor film in the canon of Revisionist Westerns, one too caught up with itself to get much past the familiar.


If you’re checking off Oscar films this month and get to Lenny Abrahamson‘s Room, then take a moment to stop and appreciate the work of Brie Larson. The likely Best Actress winner plays Joy - also referred to as “Ma” - a woman raising her 5-year old son Jack (a supremely poised Jacob Tremblay) in what appears to be a large garden shed. Mother and son’s only view of the outside world (which Jack doesn’t know exists) is a skylight and their only contact a man known as Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). If you don’t already know any more about the situation that means you haven’t read the novel by Emma Donoghue upon which her screenplay and the film are based. Donoghue’s most radical choice was to tell the story of Jack and Ma through Jack’s eyes and Jack’s understanding, and Abrahamson maintains that point of view as much as possible. Room begins with a long sequence establishing Ma and Jack’s daily routine, one filled with breakfast, games, TV, exercise, and the occasional temper tantrum. Jack doesn’t know the truth of their situation but Ma does, and Brie Larson is very good at playing Ma’s approach to a state of complete exhaustion. If Room is about anything besides Jack’s resilience it’s about the idea of adulthood - and motherhood in particular - as a performance, and Ma’s ability to carry off her role is becoming doubtful. Brie Larson also played a troubled caregiver very well in Short Term 12, but she goes deeper here thanks to her natural understatement, chemistry with Tremblay, and some canny external choices. (Room could win an Oscar for “Lack of Make-up”.)

Can we stop here for just a moment to acknowledge just how terrible the trailer for Room is? The spot gives away the second half of the film, in which after an act of bravery by Jack the story moves to new locations and introduces characters played by Joan Allen, Tom McCamus, and (briefly) William H. Macy. Abrahamson and Donoghue maintain Jack’s point of view in these scenes. Ma’s confusion and unhappiness is viewed from the outside, and Jack’s growing assimilation into a new life is defined in terms of bowls of cereal and a haircut. Ma’s uncertainty about the rest of her life and her own abilities as a mother is a rich subject, but the distance the movie keeps from those feelings becomes more problematic as the film goes along. There are striking moments in Room that convey the childhood feeling of the world filling up Jack’s senses, but the film keeps going back to that well at the expense of Ma’s story. Finally, despite Larson’s performance, Room is a film that views the world as something to either be embraced or endured with nothing in between. It’s that simplistic viewpoint that keeps Room from being all it could, and it’s also the reason I stopped reading the novel after 60 pages. Brie Larson deserves her Oscar, but there are better films in her future.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Revenant (mild spoilers)

The Revenant is a film made with the high craft and serious intentions of an Oscar contender which also traffics in some awfully musty genre tropes. The extent to which the two sides of the film can be reconciled depends on how willing one is to ride Leonardo DiCaprio’s ferocious performance past a story that isn’t nearly as radical as it pretends to be. DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a historical figure who in the 1820’s served as scout for a fur trading expedition up the Missouri River into South Dakota. Also among the party are Glass’s half-Native American son Hawk, (Forrest Goodluck), a profiteering trapper named Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and future Western explorer Jim Bridger (Will Poulter). Director Alejandro G. Inarritu opens with a Malickian sequence that reveals two things: Glass lived among Native Americans and raised Hawk with his wife (Grace Dove), and that his wife was killed in a raid by the U.S. military in which Glass killed an officer. Inarritu returns to images of the raid throughout The Revenant, and later to a memorable shot of Glass’s never named wife floating above him like a sort of not yet departed angel. The effect is to set up two poles, or two ways of looking at the world of the film. Glass is in touch with a way of life that’s somehow pure and connected to the Earth, while his comrades on the expedition - especially Hardy’s Fitzgerald - are concerned only with money and survival. Glass is able to speak fluently in a Pawnee language to his son, but throughout the film only the dialogue we need to understand the story is subtitled. At other points we hear Glass’s wife speaking on the soundtrack but we don’t know what she’s saying, as if the ways and ideals of the Pawnee had meaning even removed from all understanding or context. Inarritu can’t have it both ways.

If you’ve seen the trailer for The Revenant then you know the two incidents that drive the story: Glass is brutally attacked by a bear - in a sequence that deserves its own Blu-Ray featurette - and later Hawk is murdered by Fitzgerald with the injured Glass unable to intervene. The film turns into a chase picture at that point, with Fitzgerald and an unwitting Bridger on the run ahead of Glass. The rest of the fur trapping party make their way back their fort under the command of Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson), a man who never seems to quite realize just how uncivil a place he has come to. The middle section of The Revenant is a long sequence of Glass crawling around, foraging for food, and eventually running across another Pawnee (Arthur Redcloud) who comes to his aid. The character Redcloud plays is named “Hikuc”, but you won’t know that unless you look it up. Native American characters in The Revenant exist only to serve the story and to represent a sort of museum gift shop vision of purity. Hikuc is around until he isn’t needed any longer, and a subplot about a chief named Elk Dog (Duane Howard) searching for his kidnapped daughter intersects with Glass’s story when it’s convenient. Elk Dog is perhaps the best worst idea of a Native American that’s possible in film these days; that is, he’s awfully organized about the brutality inflicted as part of his search. For a film made with such care and ability The Revenant is surprisingly conservative in the way it treats Native American characters. The history of Hollywood marginalizing Native Americans is a long one, but The Revenant does manage to do something new: it puts these characters on a pedestal and takes away their point of view.

The main attraction here is of course DiCaprio, who gives great life to a mostly mute character in what must have been a tortuous shoot. What DiCaprio does in The Revenant is certainly one kind of great acting. Tom Hardy and Will Poulter dig deep into their roles as well, with Hardy pulling off yet another impressive transformation. The level of acting on display is almost demanded by the way Inarritu shoots; the battle scenes are filmed in a you’re-in-the-middle style that will feel familiar if you liked Birdman, while during scenes where Glass is underwater or sleeping inside an animal carcass it feels as tough Inarritu was holding the camera three feet away. When the film wants us to take a breath Inarritu cuts to a plaintive shot of the sky as a reminder (maybe) that the country these characters inhabit contains mysteries that few can know. That’s a lot of dressing on a film that becomes a revenge plot plain and simple, and the fact that Glass and Fitzgerald represent opposite answers to the question of what Americans want from America isn’t explored deeply enough. The Revenant offers much to admire, but it can’t bear the false profundity that its makers pile on.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016


Anyone who has ever stood in front of a painting by Monet, Matisse, or Rothko, etc. and wondered just how all of those brush strokes added up to great art will find something to love in the Todd Haynes film Carol. A film in which excellent production elements are turned into something as moving and human as what Haynes pulls off here is a rare thing, and something to be cherished. If you’ve followed Haynes’s career (Far From Heaven, Velvet Goldmine, Safe) then you’ll know that he has often used heavy period detail to highlight the problems of his characters, who are people in conflict with the times in which they live. That is true in Carol as well, though Haynes’s control over the technical elements of a film has never felt less academic than it does here. I have appreciated many Todd Haynes films, but Carol is the first one that I have loved.

Carol is the second film this season (after Brooklyn) where significant life moments take place in a 1950’s New York department store. Therese (an indelible Rooney Mara) is a shy clerk in a toy department when one day just before Christmas in 1952 - a radio broadcast refers to Dwight Eisenhower as “The President-Elect” - she is approached by a customer named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). Their conversation is mundane on a surface level, yet coded like so much of Haynes’s cinema. Carol compliments Therese on her Santa hat, makes sure Therese knows her address, and deliberately leaves her gloves behind. Therese sends them back in the mail, and that provides an excuse for another conversation. We come to know quite a bit about Carol, that she has a young daughter and is in the process of divorce from her wealthy husband Harge (Kyle Chandler, finding new ways to complicate masculinity on screen). Carol has already had a relationship with one woman (Sarah Paulson) and has accepted her desires even though she doesn’t understand yet just how essential they are to who she is. Phyllis Nagy’s script (from Patricia Highsmith’s novel “The Price of Salt”) is very careful to make Carol’s understanding of her lesbianism pre-modern, part of her life that she accepts but views almost exclusively in relation to how it will make things difficult. Indeed, the word “lesbian” is never used. This choice is what keeps Carol from being either a “message” movie or a tragedy, and it’s also the reason that the film is the most genuinely moving of Todd Haynes’s career.

The conflict between Carol and Harge over the custody of their daughter motivates much of what happens, but the emotional journey in the film belongs to Rooney Mara’s Therese as her feelings for Carol come into focus. The fact that Rooney Mara also starred in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is difficult to accept, because here Mara is a woman just beginning to see herself in the world. It’s a carefully worked out performance that has been allowed to breathe; the facts that Therese likes beer and takes pictures with a cheap camera are clues that the woman who hates how she “says yes to everything” - what a summation of the 1950’s - is just starting to figure out what she wants. Much of Cate Blanchett’s performance is about Carol keeping up appearances with family and friends, but Therese is living moment to moment. Haynes and both actors are helped enormously by the costumes of Sandy Powell (mature glamour for Blanchett, more girlish for Mara), Ed Lachman’s cinematography, and the churning music of Carter Burwell. Burwell’s score suggests nothing less than the inexorable forward motion of the world and just how bittersweet that is. That same idea is played out on the faces of Blanchett and Mara, as Haynes keeps the beating heart of Carol alive in his two leads and never lets the film get lost in surfaces. Haynes always chooses a close-up of a face when a wider shot would say “It’s the ‘50s!”. To think of Carol as a “gay” film or as a film about “acceptance” or “diversity” is a shallow reading. Carol is a film in which American morals are the implacable enemy, and we are all just learning how to live.

Saturday, January 09, 2016

The Hateful Eight

If you are old enough to have started thinking critically about movies in the early 1990’s, then there’s a decent chance that you found Quentin Tarantino’s sheer enthusiasm about the medium to be intoxicating. Interviews where Tarantino talked about Godard films - most of which I still haven’t seen - and reading Pauline Kael anthologies made Tarantino sound like the guy you’d want sitting next to you at a matinee, even though the actual experience would probably wind up being more like this. I’ve long forgotten the reason that Pulp Fiction is told in three distinct chapters, but at the time I knew it was important. There may even have been a moment I imagined I was the first person to get the Badlands references in the Tarantino-penned True Romance, but that was a long time ago.

My post-Pulp Fiction relationship with Tarantino has been more complicated. Jackie Brown demonstrated Tarantino could make something personal out of another writer’s work, but to me Kill Bill seemed like an empty exercise that marked a turn towards stylized violence. Inglorious Basterds is the Tarantino film I most need to watch again; it’s humor and subversion of WWII movie tropes were a great surprise and I at the time I thought Tarantino had made a great film about the difference between the ugly reality of war and the way that we tell stories about it. Then there is Django Unchained (review here), which attempts to view the institution of slavery through the lens of a genre revenge movie and in my view does not succeed. That brings us to The Hateful Eight, which the opening titles remind us is Tarantino’s eighth film. Has any other director ever had their output measured in a title sequence? Imagine John Ford getting the same treatment. Here again Tarantino is working with our history, and your feelings about the results will depend in large part on how you feel about the director’s desire to be taken seriously.

We are in Wyoming some years after the Civil War. The opening shots of wintry emptiness locate The Hateful Eight as much as any title card ever could. (Wyoming wouldn’t become a state until 1890.) We are in a rough, unsettled place that is only nominally in America. A stagecoach travels through the snow, just ahead of a ferocious blizzard. The stagecoach carries bounty hunter John Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prey, a criminal named Daisy Doumergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) whose head is worth $10,000. Along the way they’ll be joined by former Union Cavalry officer turned bounty hunter Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who’s transporting (deceased) cargo of his own. There is also Chris Mannix (a movie-stealing Walton Goggins), an ex-Confederate who claims to be the new Sheriff of the town they’re all headed to, the place where Daisy is scheduled to be hanged. The scenes between these four characters in the stagecoach are where The Hateful Eight begins to reveal itself. While Warren and Mannix are years removed from active duty they both still live in their stories, and their talk suggests what I think Tarantino is really after: the intractability of the American racial divide both then and now, 150 years later. Ruth shows no particular favorite in the North vs. South question, but his travel to bring Daisy to the noose is another timeless strain of the American experience. Forget race, Ruth just wants to make a dollar.

The bulk of The Hateful Eight takes place in “Minnie’s Haberdashery”, a restaurant/stables where the stagecoach stops for the night. There the travelers meet a hired hand (Demian Bichir), a hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), and most unexpectedly a former Confederate General (Bruce Dern). Here the talk continues, as old connections are discovered and Roth’s character delivers a lecture on justice versus the justice of the frontier. The question of why John Ruth (known as “The Hangman”) insists on bringing in Daisy alive when she’d be worth the same dead is never explicitly answered, but as the film unfolds events seem to suggest that Ruth’s belief in real justice is misplaced and that nature demands a rougher but more honest solution. Then, someone poisons the coffee.

Somewhere inside The Hateful Eight there is an idea for a pointed satirical Western. Take a sharp-tongued black man and a woman looking to please only herself, stick them in a room with a group of white men, and see what happens. Tarantino could have made that movie but instead he made this one, and what undoes The Hateful Eight is the fact that he has to explain everything. Who are these people, really? Is any of them working with Daisy? Why are they here? The Hateful Eight is almost three hours long, and a great deal of time and violence is devoted to answering these questions. The broader issues are forgotten in lieu of settling the story, and none of it matters very much. This is the first Tarantino film where I’ve really thought about how violence pitched so high sucks out all the meaning from the acts depicted, and I think the idea resonates here because Tarantino can’t find a tone. Jackson, Goggins, and Leigh are in one movie while Russell and Madsen are in quite another with the rest somewhere between. The close-quarters gunplay, over in a flash, isn’t interesting because Tarantino has written himself into a corner in terms of staging, and we’re not invested enough in anyone to care if they get out alive.

The final scene of The Hateful Eight includes the reading of a letter purportedly from Abraham Lincoln, the President who saved the Union. The moment is laced with irony, because by then we know the letter’s true origin. Tarantino calls attention to the emptiness of the letter because it’s the punctuation on what he’s trying to say in his bleakest film. The most memorable image in The Hateful Eight is Jennifer Jason Leigh’s face covered in a mask of blood. All the talk and all the years don’t matter in Tarantino’s vision. We are all covered in blood. We are nowhere.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Big Short

The Big Short is a terrifically angry film, and it is also a necessary one. Adam McKay’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’s book about the roots of the 2008 financial crisis and the men who saw it coming bubbles with fury and  populism all the more moving for being so unfamiliar in recent American cinema. The screenplay, written by McKay and Charles Randolph, is an argument: The collapse of the housing market was inevitable, but greed and shortsightedness rigged the game and the American people paid the price. There has never been a harder time in our history to put a securities trader at the center of a major motion picture: who wants to watch the rich get richer, right? McKay wisely doesn’t spend too much time trying to make the men at the center of this story likeable. We learn just enough about Mark Baum (Steve Carell in a perfectly judged performance) and Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) to know that their backgrounds put them on the fringes of Wall Street, and that Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) is a player smart enough to see the disaster around the corner. The decision that connects these three, along with two younger investors (John Magaro and Finn Wittrock) working independently, is the choice to believe there is a housing bubble. Or, as a retired trader (Brad Pitt) helping the young ones puts it, to “bet against the American economy.”

McKay is working in dense territory here, so to keep The Big Short from becoming either preachy or too confusing he invents a style that might best be described as High Didacticism. Characters, especially Gosling’s Vennet,  acknowledge the camera to explain their behavior or clarify whether or not a moment is real or invented. We’re never supposed to get too caught up in the drama here without forgetting that this story really happened and that it affected people’s lives. When the thicket of financial jargon threatens to become overwhelming, McKay cuts to a famous person (Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, Margot Robbie) explaining terms like “credit default swap” or “collateralized debt obligation” in direct address to the camera. This spoonful of sugar has a sting: McKay isn’t indulging famous friends with cameos, rather he has understood that having a good-looking celebrity explain something important  to us may be the only way to keep our attention. As The Big Short reaches and then passes the spring of 2007 - the point when Michael Burry believed the number of mortgage defaults would trigger a crisis - the film becomes a horror show in which it’s revealed just how deeply Wall Street was looking after its own interests. A Standard & Poor’s officer (Melissa Leo) can’t defend the company’s triple-A ratings of junk securities after acknowledging that S&P gets paid by the banks to do its job. The young traders who have just made the deal of their lives can’t get a Wall Street Journal reporter interested as the crisis begins to blossom in 2008. McKay Has made a message film and the message becomes clear in these late scenes: Wall Street’s desire for self-preservation overcame any need to correct its own misbehavior.

The Big Short wouldn’t work if the film weren’t so solidly constructed. The directorial flourishes undergird good storytelling; they aren’t a substitute for it. The film doesn’t forget that the characters and the investors they represent are making a choice to profit off of something that will ruin lives, and the character who interrogates his own actions the most is Mark Baum. Steve Carell plays Baum (based on a fund manager named Steve Eisman) as a man whose shell is crumbling due to a combination of scruples and personal tragedy. Carell takes everything endearing about his usual persona and shoves it aside, and the result is both moving and surprising. The rest of the ensemble is equally up to the task, with Bale finding great notes of vulnerability and Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, and Jeremy Strong making a very entertaining chorus of disbelieving traders. Adam McKay is known for making broad comedies like Anchorman, but with The Big Short he proves himself a director of both confidence and social conscience. What a pleasant surprise to find, at the end of a year when American politics reached new heights of dark silliness, a film that genuinely rakes the muck. We need so many more just like it.