09 December 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 5-11 Dec

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

My Week With Marilyn (2011, Simon Curtis): 31

Saddest thing about this soggy bit of pop-culture piffle is that it makes me lose some respect for Michelle Williams, whose choice of roles had previously suggested uncommon intelligence and taste plus a complete lack of interest in "career moves." At no point does she transcend the sort of wide-eyed surface breathiness you'd get from any impersonation, despite obligatory efforts to capture Monroe's deep-rooted insecurity. And there's a truly embarrassing moment when Norma Jean deliberately flips her Marilyn! switch to ON for an adoring public and all you see is a very talented and quite pretty actress standing there looking not even remotely like the thunderbolt-from-heaven Movie Star My Week so laboriously contrasts with Olivier's highly trained non-magic. That crippling objection aside, though, this is just plain feeble: A blatant wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the memoir's author restores a broken icon to greatness through devotion and understanding, with every emotional beat painfully telegraphed and a strictly tourist's-eye view of how movies are made. Branagh's peevishishness keeps it somewhat bearable, even if he seems to be conflating the role with his own persona (when Olivier wearily quotes Prospero, he sounds just like Branagh's Hamlet); even there, though, the putrid script—from the dude who wrote Tom and Viv, a movie so boring I'd forgotten it existed 'til just now—undermines his hard work by saddling him with a maudlin speech in which he acknowledges that Monroe has a natural gift he can never possess. If you told me this film had been adapted from a high school student's C- term paper on Marilyn Monroe for drama class, I'd totally believe you.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010, José Padilha): 69

Much as I admired what Padilha attempted in the first movie (see Michael Sicinski's review for a sharp analysis), reacting oppositionally to BOPE's head banging for two hours gave me a massive headache. So it's a relief to find that the sequel makes no effort to camouflage its disgust with pretty much every facet of Brazil's ruling class, letting the scales fall slowly from Nascimento's eyes as he realizes what he's been unwittingly enabling. Mostly, though, this one's just much more effective in its guise as an action movie, right from the bravura opening that crosscuts an ugly prison riot with a leftist academic's grim statistics (over 90% of the country will be incarcerated by 2081 if current trends continue, he informs his class, all while being relentlessly mocked in voiceover), then combines the two in a way so patently absurd that I laughed out loud—it's almost the same joke that Louis C.K. employed to extravagant expense in season one of Louie. Attempts to make Nascimento a genuinely sympathetic, three-dimensional character (via a subplot in which he struggles to connect with his son) fizzle, and ultimately the film merely laments the near-impossibility of substantive reform (while nonetheless insisting that the effort is worthwhile), but its sheer revulsion at the level of corruption is bracing, especially since it somehow manages to be superficially "entertaining" at the same time. Maybe seeing Padilha's fascinating, little-screened doc Secrets of the Tribe, about warring anthropologists, in between the two Elite Squads helped to put me in the correct frame of mind.

Coriolanus (2011, Ralph Fiennes): 64

Skillfully stripped-down translation of a notoriously problematic play—a tragedy in which nothing precisely tragic happens*, with a protagonist who's never less than fascinating but borders on being inhuman. Not sure a whole lot was gained by the present-day setting (apart from saving a shitload of money on art direction), but shooting in Belgrade does lend a certain despairing quality to what's certainly one of the most physical and least talky Shakespeare movies since Polanski's Macbeth. The big brawl between Martius and Aufidius, in particular, derives considerable power from the juxtaposition of old-fashioned hand-to-hand combat with a blasted modern-day war zone. As director, Fiennes opts for the basics, juxtaposing classical master shots with handheld urgency, and it gets the job done; as lead actor, he tears into Martius' seething, aggrieved misanthropy, and if he can't quite sell the V.iii about-face, in all honesty that's more Shakespeare's fault than any actor's. Coriolanus is just a perverse hero, really—kind of like Thomas More if More had been a humorless, vengeful dick with a mommy complex. Even if you admire his refusal to ingratiate himself with the common man by parading his scars or declaring his fellowship, it's hard not to feel like he's acting as much out of sheer cussedness as personal integrity. In that sense, the movie concludes on a fitting note, eliding the last few lines ("My rage is gone, and I am struck with sorrow"; "Yet he shall have a noble memory") and funeral march in favor of a callous thud.

* If you didn't study drama in school, be advised that people dying is not inherently tragic.

The Interrupters (2011, Steve James): 57

Doesn't entirely pass my standard test for docs these days: Would I rather be reading a book or lengthy magazine article about this subject? (Indeed, the end credits revealed that James was inspired by a New York Times Magazine story, which didn't surprise me at all.) And it's really super earnest, understandably but also kinda tediously. I confess that I zoned out during the long stretches when the Interrupters were reflecting on their own troubled pasts or hanging inspirational artwork with schoolkids, and perked up considerably at the appearance of Flamo, who initially dismisses CeaseFire as useless ("And I respect y'all, y'know what I'm sayin', what you doin' and everything, that's cool, but fuck that") and seems motivated to give it a chance entirely by the prospect of (literally) a free lunch. (Also, best dialogue exchange of the year: "How many kids you got?" "I'm claimin' four.") And while Lil' Mikey's apology to the employees of the barbershop he'd held up ends in forgiveness and hugs, it's riveting because of the woman who feels the need to verbally assault Mikey with the lingering remnants of her pain and terror before she can work her way around to nobility. Even then, though, I still have what I'll call my Wiseman Problem, which is an unshakeable skepticism about whether people are behaving normally in the presence of a camera—I tend to feel mollified about this when subjects at least acknowledge that the camera's there, which almost never happens in The Interrupters except during explicit talking-head interviews. The Arbor remains my doc of the year precisely because of how brilliantly it addresses and complicates that sweeping reservation.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011, Tomas Alfredson): 44

Something about the way Alfredson constructs his movies makes me break out in hives. Let the Right One In is perfectly straightforward from a narrative perspective, yet the experience of watching it—even the second time—was syntactically bewildering, as there seemed to be no relationship between contiguous scenes, or frequently even between contiguous shots. Soderbergh has talked about how he cuts the film in his head as he's shooting it; Alfredson apparently does whatever the opposite of that would be. Same deal here, only this time in a much more convoluted context—I was able, with some effort, to follow what was going on, but practically every cut found me screaming (out loud on one occasion; I live alone) WHAT THE MOTHERFUCK AM I LOOKING AT? I can handle the occasional jarring edit for effect, or even a nonstop barrage of them in something explicitly experimental (e.g. Container), but an adaptation of an author as stubbornly plot-heavy as Le Carré needs to flow, to guide us expertly through the thicket. I felt repeatedly stranded, and not in a productive way. And find it inexplicable that I seem to be alone (apart from otherwise admiring reviews conceding that the story is confusing, which they invariably abscribe to the source material rather than to the direction). Odds are I would have found this underwhelming even had it been crafted with more care, as there seems to me precious little emotional purchase in Smiley's professional detachment—the revelation involving his wife at the very end should cut deep, yet even the invented Christmas-party flashbacks expressly designed to achieve that purpose...no, you know what, that's a function of how they were directed/edited as well. Fuck this dude, how does he have a career?

/White Material/ (2009, Claire Denis): 36

Never wrote anything about this one from Toronto '09, and I'm not exactly overflowing with scintillating thoughts right now, either, to be honest. Basically, there is zero overlap in the Venn diagram of White Material's Raw Materials and Things I Find Even Remotely Interesting; it's a film to which I'm able to forge no connection whatsoever. Huppert's stubborn coffee farmer comes across to me not as intriguingly flawed or arrestingly self-deluded but just as a woman too dumb to recognize when things have gone irretrievably to shit and it's time to cut bait; it's like watching someone head back to their house to get their iPad as everyone else flees an approaching tsunami. The sudden introduction of her son nearly an hour in, followed by his equally sudden transformation (before we've even gotten a sense of who he is) into a deranged skinhead lunatic, seems not bold or powerful but utterly arbitrary...except symbolically, by which light it seems overdetermined. And call me nuts but I find that Denis goes weirdly soft whenever she shoots in Africa, as if her childhood memories dull her talent. (Though maybe it's just that her filmmaking becomes more African, given my longstanding inability to appreciate the continent's entire cinema. I'm convinced now that it's a rhythmic issue, ironic though that may sound.) White Material is undeniably "well-made," so my initial rating (44) was more respectful, but this time I spent the entire movie straining to find something, anything that would rouse me from my indifferent stupor, and there was literally zilch*. Where's "Night Shift" when you really, really need it?

* I do like the composition of the shot I used for this week's image, above, but it actually took an abnormally long time to find something good. Partly because the few standouts were all used in the ad campaign.


Victor said...

It's hard not to get the sense that "cussedness" is merely "integrity about things I don't give a crap about." What to give a crap about is one's own prerogative but it's hardly a criticism of a work from another era (that was already about "another era" at the time).

As for what the tragedy in CORIOLANUS is other than "a bunch of people die" (which, yes, is not per se tragic) ... it's that CORIOLANUS is caught between two pairs of irreconcilable goods that he has spent his life cultivating -- (1) What Rome Is and His Ideals About Rome / Abstract Patriotism; and (2) Family/Friendship versus Country/Family (note the orderings; the film inverts them as a result of Coriolanus' actions). Whatever the specific forms of those conflicts and how they play out in Ancient Rome, they are hardly alien to today.

Victor said...

Some idiot typed: "CORIOLANUS is caught between..."

I obviously should have typed "Coriolanus" as I was referring to the character not the play. #anal

md'a said...

Bud do you think I just make this stuff up? From Schanzer's The Problem Plays of Shakespeare:

"For alone among [Shakespeare's] tragic heroes [Coriolanus] undergoes no experience to which the name 'tragic' can be applied...Our dominant emotions at the end of the play are awe and wonder rather than pity and fear, so that some critics have been doubtful whether Coriolanus is properly to be called a tragedy at all."

That's a pretty standard scholarly assessment. "Being caught between two conflicting ideals" isn't a tragic flaw as that term is generally understood w/r/t Elizabethan drama.

If it were just "integrity about things I don't give a crap about," I would not have explicitly cited that very integrity in the same sentence. One can have integrity and still can be a gigantic misanthropic dick, and that is quite clearly the case here imo. I mentioned Thomas More as an example of a historical figure and literary character who behaves similarly in many ways but does not come across as an entitled flip side of the Unabomber.

I respect your need to defend Shakespeare and others from the Tyranny of Presentism but nothing I said here justifies that response.

Victor Morton said...

First of all, if one were engaged in some lengthy crusade against The Tyranny of Critical Failure X, it would not at all be surprising to find considerable scholarly support for X. By definition, it could not just be about one person, such as yourself, just making stuff up.

But anyway, I'm handicapped (as I know I've said in your presence) by the fact I've not read the play. And you yourself note that Fiennes actually gives the right (or at least "better") ending, one productive of pity and fear.

Speaking of "pity and fear," and without going into a lengthy debate about the dozen or so plays we've both read, suffice to say that Aristotle's theory of tragedy and (admittedly flexible) understanding of "hamartia" fits Fiennes' CORIOLANUS as well as it does any other Shakespearean work (and frankly, even some Greek ones). I honestly was more reminded while watching Fiennes' film of something like "Oedipus Rex" or (the admittedly dryly historical) "Seven Against Thebes" than anything by Shakespeare. Which, given the period setting, seemed kinda cool. It isn't simply that Coriolanus is caught between conflicting ideals, as Antigone is between the city and the gods, it's that his (her) pride pushes the permanent tension between them to the breaking point. I thoroughly admire both Coriolanus's love for Rome and his contempt for the Roman masses, but his "mistake" was pushing the latter in the overt way he does in the specific forum of giving the speech for consul, indifferent even to the scheming consuls who'll use it against him. It's like Antigone's devotion to the gods insisting on (and then overtly performing) a proper burial for her traitor brother. The gods and the city may be in permanent conflict, but Antigone's "cussedness" leads to the tragedy. Same with Coriolanus's idealism about Rome and cynicism about Romans. Same with Obama and the "bitter clingers" speech (OK ... that didn't end tragically, but whatevs; that gap is still a permanent feature of politicians).

Victor Morton said...

"One can have integrity and still can be a gigantic misanthropic dick, and that is quite clearly the case here imo."

What does Coriolanus do this is misnathropic and dickish, but not a function of his martial-aristocratic pride? (The presentism I'm smelling is blindness to those virtues, seeing and understanding them as dickishness. But I'm willing to be proven wrong.)

md'a said...

What does Coriolanus do this is mis[an]thropic and dickish, but not a function of his martial-aristocratic pride?

This depends on how one defines "a function of." But for example, while I am a proud atheist, and would refuse to profess belief in God in order to win public office (as would be necessary for e.g. any atheist hoping to run for President at the moment), I would not stand up in front of the world and speak the complete unvarnished truth about what I think of those who do believe in God. In fact I won't even do so right now in this piddly comment that'll be read by six people, out of respect for you and any other religious readers. (Not that you don't know the gist already.) Refusing to lie is integrity; speaking the whole truth when that isn't necessary or productive is just being a gigantic dick. All Coriolanus needed to do was walk; the way he lashes out is borderline sociopathic.