From the Archive — The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

diving bell

The nominations for the ninetieth Academy Awards will be announced this coming Tuesday, which I will, by self-set tradition, use as impetus to begin counting down my selections for the ten best films of 2017, six weeks or so after practically everyone else has already completed the task. While I’ve never been one to take umbrage with the notion of ranking films (in fact, I find it to be a useful exercise in sorting out my intellectual and emotional reactions to the art in question), I do dependably burble about my mixed emotions when it comes to the instinct to find prevailing trends within a cinematic year. Now, I write up an introductory post to serve that purpose, a step I realized I required when, ten years ago, I let the observations invade the review of an individual movie.

It will take a minute to get to the film at hand. Do bear with me.

I’ve mentioned before that I find pieces that identify trends in cinema to be faulty. While I believe that filmmakers are aware of and influenced by what their peers are up to, especially those who push the envelope most majestically, there are also artisans who are operating independently trying to get the most of the material they’ve chosen to work with. Influence takes time and any evidence that members of the vast, sprawling film community are simultaneous preoccupied by any given topic or stylistic approach is more likely to be simple coincidence than some grand mind-meld. This aren’t the old studio days and Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Haynes aren’t bumping into each other at the lot commissary to chat over Monte Cristos about how to best employ the latest editing techniques. The patterns in film are there because we imagine them to be there, just as assuredly as a smear of ink on a white card doesn’t actually depict a phallic-shaped monster. Stephen Holden can write in the New York Times about Sweeney Todd as a commentary on “the age of Al Qaeda”, but he can keep that rabbit hole for himself and any other hatters mad enough to follow him into it. The great films of 2007 exist in 2007 because of the vagaries of release schedules, not because some benevolent movie god grouped them there because they matched up nice thematically.

This is on my mind in part because this will almost certainly be the last lengthier review I post before embarking on my own annual excursion into backwards counting, admittedly another sort of fruitless grouping. But it’s also because I find myself throwing my better judgment down a flight of steps and marveling at the wildly inventive messiness that serves as the common denominator to some of the year’s most gratifying films. The audacity of the shifting identity study that is I’m Not There feels completely kindred to the anti-plot verisimilitude of The Savages or the resolute ambiguity of Zodiac and it’s easy enough to anthropomorphize the films enough to imagine them staring on admiringly at the fully intentional tonal spin-out of There Will Be Blood‘s cataclysmic final scene. You can say these filmmakers are challenging the rules, but it’s more like they’re operating as if rules never existed.

One last, but central, reason this is on my mind is that The Diving Bell and the Butterfly represents another entry in this list. Tally up another one for questionable choices that are the very point of the film, an overt awkwardness that fuels the film’s considerable power. In some ways, it feels like Diving Bell is the epitome of this sloshing creativity. Of course, part of the reason it feels this way is because it’s the most recent film I’ve seen that I can hold up as an example.

Director Julian Schnabel works with Oscar-winning The Pianist screenwriter Ronald Harwood to adapt Jean-Dominique Bauby’s 1997 memoir about living with “locked-in syndrome” after a catastrophic stroke. Bauby was about as paralyzed as a human being could be, effectively limited to movement in only his left eyelid. Eventually, a painstaking method of communication was developed which involved others reciting a modified alphabet to him until he blinked at a certain letter, spelling out his words piece by piece.

For a significant length of time at the beginning of the film, maybe the first reel or so, Schnabel places the audience inside Bauby’s inert form. The extended opening plays out as stylized point-of-view shot as physicians and therapists bend over the bend and give dour pronouncements, countered only by the internal voice of Bauby which has no means to reach the world. It is a cheeky filmmaking trick and it goes on for too long, well after the point has been made, the discomfort imparted as well as it can be to people who can bobble their legs on cushioned theater seats for personal assurance that they remain mobile. And yet, once Schnabel abandons this limited perspective (timed to coincide with the point in the narrative when Bauby has decided to stop pitying himself for his condition), it opens the film in ways that otherwise may not have been achieved. It is in part relief, but it’s also the welcome schism of contrast. The world of the film, still painfully confined, seems oddly free and diversions into fantasy are more welcome because they’ve been earned in the stasis of the opening. As with the films namechecked above, the fearless riskiness engages the mind with a dizzying challenge.

I can’t say that every choice of Schnabel’s yields the same rewards. His attempts to make the metaphors of the title visually explicit are an unnecessary distraction. We don’t need an image of Bauby in a diving suit floating motionless in a blue expanse of watery nothingness to understand his isolation after a heartbreaking phone conversation with his housebound father. It’s an exclamation point that drains the emotional impact from the scene.

Subtlety is only an occasional guiding principle here. Schnabel, from the overt technique of the opening to the flights of imagination he allows Bauby to the occasional shots clearly framed with an artist’s eye (red hair whipping in the wind comes to mind), is engaged in a manifest dialogue with the audience. There is no attempt to make the directing choices invisible to the viewer. Instead, they are there, big and bold, pushing you to consider them as they are happening on screen. You’re not intended to fall into the narrative, immersed in character and motivation and mood. You’re to admire the technique and assembly of well-chosen frames as if it were unspooled from the metal reels and strung up on gallery walls. The movie is a challenge, at times maybe even to the very way we watch movies or consider their impact. That may keep the movie from becoming a full-fledged achievement. The paradox is that it’s also the aspect that makes it so intellectually thrilling.

From the Archive: There Will Be Blood

there will be blood

We’re in that part of the film year when patience is necessary. While a few big cities have every Oscar hopeful cramming onto their screens, those of us residing in less populous burgs have to wait and wait. On a recent trip to New York, I have the opportunity to get ahead of the roll-out release schedule somewhat, but there are a whole slew of titles that have me drumming my fingers while giving sidelong glances at the calendar. Among them is The Phantom Thread, the reunion of director Paul Thomas Anderson and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, the latter purportedly in his final role before retiring from the screen. Digging up this old review seems a perfect way to bide my time. This was originally published at my former online home.

There are so many things to say about There Will Be Blood. It’s difficult because I want to bring up specific scenes and choices to get to the complexities of what Paul Thomas Anderson achieves here, the way the intricacies of his storytelling pile up, double-back and sometimes burst forth like a strangely artistic jack-in-the-box. But, as always in this space, I’m reluctant to devote too many words to the details of the plot, the twists of the story, the striking transformations of the characters. One the great joys of moviegoing is the surprises delivered, especially by the most wildly creative artisans of the medium, a category that should certainly include the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, so I’d rather not be one of those that undercuts those strange gifts of revelation by condensing them to a couple sentences to reinforce my own points.

So what can be said instead? There is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, an act of uncanny transformation, bracing focus and deeply realized characterization that manages to dwarf his previous efforts, a thoroughly astonishing thing to assert give the high caliber of all that prior work and yet I believe it whole-heartedly, almost breathless at the though of his riveting performance. There is the score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood, which seems to reinvent the very notion of movie scores with its bending sounds and insistent rhythms. There is the cinematography by Robert Elswit, gorgeous photography that tremors with life. Part after part after part can be named only as precursor to marvel at Anderson’s ability to assemble into something that is as wildly ambitious as the works that made his mark, and yet more tightly controlled, more locked in, more committed. This is Paul Thomas Anderson’s love letter to the splendor of movies, their endless possibility and satisfying reward.

Even when the film starts to rattle on its own rails with the extended final scene, the culmination of all the themes and deeply considered psychology, while it is jarring, even off-putting, it is a less of an affront and more of strange invitation. The tone is different, the performances pitched in a drastically different register, the incidents of the film veering towards comedy, almost farce, and it becomes a puzzle to solve. What has happened here and why? Can it just be Anderson caving to indulgence or is there something more tactical going on? Anderson has spent the entirety of this long movie dazzling with the entire vocabulary of filmmaking: the opening reel free of dialogue, the epic, the intimate, the bellows of anger and the whispers of deep, punishing love. What’s one more wild trick? I’m not entirely convinced I can nail down what Anderson is trying to do in these closing minutes, but I feel it a little thrilling that the question is even there. And it’s worth asking.

It’s worth noting that one of the final credits on the screen is a note that the film is dedicated to Robert Altman. The two-and-a-half hours that precede this notice are filled with such audacity, vision, sprawl and tenacious devotion to wild narrative tendrils to the point of foolhardiness that it’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to that lost master.

From the Archive: Michael Clayton

clayton

Since I carved out a little digital space this past week to express my disappointment with one of the new movies being aggressively positioned as a Oscar contender, I’ll use this regular archival rummaging to share a review from ten years ago that examined a film that I felt was also overpraised. I actually find Michael Clayton to be a solid movie, but the fervent celebration it enjoyed left me a little perplexed. I’ll take director Tony Gilroy’s follow-up, Duplicity, over this one any day.

Screenwriters routinely see their work savaged after they submit their printed pages to the money machine that cranks out films, so it’s hard to begrudge a writer who, given the opportunity, perhaps adheres a bit too closely to their nicely processed words. Tony Gilroy, with plenty of produced screenplays since he made “Toepick” into a smugly satisfied put-down fifteen years ago, makes his directorial debut with Michael Clayton, and the film plays like the script probably reads. There’s a novelistic seriousness and sturdiness at play in this legal drama about a major law firm’s fixer and the crisis of conscience he faces when he’s called in to bring a mentally unhinged attorney under control. Gilroy wants the story to carry the weight, which generally works nicely, but there are passages where some directorial flourishes and inventiveness may have transformed the more familiar elements into something fresher. Even the actors sometimes seem overly beholden to the script, really punching the emotions that likely showed up in the stage directions. “Worried” and “Manic” come across clear as the studio logo at the start of the film.

It’s not just an empathy for the resounding satisfaction that must come from preserving work that’s often discarded which inspires an inclination towards forgiveness for these minor faults. There’s also the simple fact that all the pieces of the film, including these that I’ve just mildly maligned, add up to something satisfying. It’s hardly groundbreaking — the story of corporate malfeasance harming good, working people echoes from the spirited rambunctiousness of Erin Brockovich and the earnest crusading of A Civil Action to cite two recent examples — but it leavens its familiarity with its solid storytelling. It may be a marker of its era as much as anything that a film with the sheen of peak professionalism and a movie star at its center feels refreshing simply because it’s free of masses-massaging compromise. It’s very craftsmanship is the film’s greatest attribute.

George Clooney, the movie star in question, continues his trend of choosing projects that strive to say something. It may be amusing to identify this as continued penance for prior crimes against moviegoers. Truth is, as Clooney has gotten more capability to chose his projects, he’s defaulted to the sorts of 1970’s potboilers-with-a-point that he adores. His performance here may be more about presence than plumbing depths, yet he does artfully get to the title character’s weary problem-solving and desperate opportunism. He’s just as likely to get out of the way and let Tom Wilkinson verbally pinball through a scene as the conflicted lawyer off his meds, or, better yet, bob in the gentle wake of Sydney Pollack’s beautiful underplaying as a senior partner impatient with the needless distractions he’s facing. As the Dorian Gray portrait of Pollack-the-director continues degrading in the attic, the Pollack-the-actor who periodically waltzes through supporting roles grows more and more vibrant.

This is what movie-making looks like when a writer preserves the integrity of his own vision. This what movie-making looks like when everyone involved cares about the finished product with something more valuable that box office rewards in mind. Studio movie-making used to look like this far more often. It is something of an achievement, that it can briefly look like it again.

From the Archive: Ratatouille

ratatouille

On the weekend that brings a new Pixar release — thankfully not a sequel or other overt franchise stab — I’ll import this review from my former online home. 

There are plenty of creators working in animation, computer or tradition, who know how to use the inherent flexibility of the technique to expand the parameters of what they can include in the storytelling. The can turn sentient candelabras or tough guy baked goods into supporting characters and use the wildest of worlds as settings that are as easily attainable as a suburban kitchen. But until Brad Bird’s Ratatouille, I don’t think I’ve even seen a director take full advantage of the limitless possibilities of animation when it comes to things like staging and shot construction. Bird creates images that are astoundingly dense with details and concocts camera angels and placement that truly ingenious.

The story revolves around a French rat named Remy whose pronounced sense of smell causes him to eschew his family’s garbage-eating ways in favor of the life of a aspiring gourmand. This gets a boost when an unexpected disruption separates Remy from his clan and he winds up in the kitchen of a Parisian restaurant using a strange, follicle-driven method of marionette-esque manipulation to guide an otherwise unskilled member of the staff into creating dishes that become the talk of the city. While Remy’s methodology in controlling his culinary figurehead don’t make much sense, neither does a rat who can rescue a disastrous soup after a few deep sniffs, so griping too much about the necessary devices to drive the action would be a needlessly curmudgeonly response to the wonders onscreen. Besides, the involuntary muscle responses yield at least on scene that serves as a worthy, animated successor to Steve Martin’s astounding physical achievements in All of Me. The willing suspension of disbelief is richly rewarded.

If there’s any complaint that can be leveled, it’s that Bird’s film is so stuffed with ideas, that his themes and overall points sometimes get a little muddled (for a little stretch, the film seems to be presenting the argument bros-before-hos, which doesn’t really mesh with the film’s earlier standpoint on the female character that makes up the latter part of that equation). But that same bustling, bulging busyness more often develops into grand set pieces, such as the film’s inspired scene of kitchen rescue late in the proceedings or moments of unexpected grace and insight like the monologue about the art, futility, and daring of criticism (and Bird is certainly not picking a fight; as the director of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles he’s been the beneficiary of their largess).

When it comes to that monologue, it’s definitely elevated by Peter O’Toole’s cragged mountain voice, one of many wonderful vocal performances in the film (one of the best, surprisingly enough, comes from Janeane Garofalo). The great cast is just another way that Bird makes the most of the options afforded to him by working in animation. I don’t know if he’s spent a lot of time thinking deeply about how to use the inherent adaptability of his chosen style of filmmaking to push past standing parameters into grand new achievements. I do know, however, that that’s absolutely what he’s accomplishing.

From the Archive: Margot at the Wedding

margot

Since the new Noah Baumbach movie, The Meyerowitz Chronicles, has arrived, the time seems right to dig out this old review of the director’s fourth feature, released ten years ago. It was Baumbach’s follow-up to The Squid and the Whale, his most successful film, by several measures, to that point, amping up expectations for what proved to be a fairly sour cinematic experience. That was Baumbach’s goal, to be sure, but the segue into Bergmanesue drama didn’t particularly suit him.  

While generally very good, Margot at the Wedding perhaps could have used a little less dedicated approach to maintaining the integrity of its unlikable characters. His prior film, The Squid and the Whale, unexpectedly established Noah Baumbach as a writer skilled at depicting the emotional abuses that can occur within families and a director unafraid of pushing that material at the audience with discomforting plain-spoken forcefulness. If anything, he ups the ante with Margot.

The film focuses on two sisters reuniting after a stretch of angry silence as a wedding approaches. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays the bride-to-be and Nicole Kidman is her domineering sister, a woman seemingly incapable of saying a single thing that isn’t, on some level, intended to wound. Kidman’s character is the most relentlessly negative, but the whole array of characters is loaded down with unpleasant tendencies. Leigh’s character is more commonly victimized, but she also has enough flares of her sibling’s armor-piercing judgment to establish that as a common family trait. Jack Black’s groom-to-be easily lapses into futile fury and other inappropriate behavior. There’s a poisonously egotistical writer with his own cruel streak played by Ciaran Hinds and even a set of creepy backwoods neighbors who grimly stare down the people on the other side of the fence when they’re not stripping down to underpants to gut animals in the kitchen. It gets so pervasive that when John Turturro shows us a relatively nice, well-adjusted guy you wonder how he got there, both into the family and into the movie.

This reservation aside, the film is still of this fine new vintage of Baumbach: intelligent discourse laced with inspired, bitter humor and acted with nakedly honest performances. This bleak picture holds some power because it’s grounded in recognizable truths, truths especially familiar to anyone who has ever had cause to apply the word “dysfunctional” to any part of their family circle. Every line of dialogue is a scar, painful because it is a reminder of old wounds. It’s almost a relief when the closing credits finally appear. That may make for tough going, but it’s also a central goal of the film.

From the Archive: Juno

juno

Few filmmakers experienced quite as precipitous a drop as Jason Reitman. He went from back-to-back Best Director nominations to a pair of films that were universally panned (with, it’s worth noting, one compromised but ambition feature in between). Through it all, he’s at least had the live reads, regular events that brought together impressive groups of actors to offer one-time-only, live stage performances of some truly beloved screenplays. Though the event is officially retired as an ongoing concern, Reitman is clearly keeping it in his back pocket, ready to throw on the table when the moment is right, such as a live reading of the screenplay for his breakthrough film, Juno, with proceeds going to Planned Parenthood. While Juno has — and has always had — its detractors, I still think its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. And the prospect of Ellen Page returning ten years later to the role in which she spun such acting wizardry is enough to make me long for a ticket. This is the review I wrote when Juno was released.

Debuting screenwriter Diablo Cody spends the first ten or fifteen minutes of Juno trying ever so desperately to prove herself as a someone with a distinctive voice–the film is rife with hyper-stylized dialogue and boasts an immediate sardonic distance from it’s small-town Midwestern setting. Every word uttered by every character seems to reach for some level of arch distinctiveness. Luckily, after that somewhat anxious beginning, the script settles down and the remainder proves decisively that Cody does indeed have a unique voice and it’s worthy of attention. In other words, after some initial squirming, I sort of loved Juno.

The film is a comedy about teen pregnancy, pointed in its consideration of cavalier youth and the neediness of the classes above and deeply sympathetic to most every character that edges onto the screen. It is a movie with unexpected reservoirs of hope and happiness, finding some measure of contentment in its own worried cynicism. It shows how difficult it is for people to come together thereby enhancing its moments when honest, unadorned connections happen. Cody creates indelible characters and puts them forth on perilous emotional routes.

It’s Cody’s name that most often invoked when talking about the film, making her perhaps the most discussed Oscar-bound scribe since two dopey friends from Boston wrote themselves a couple parts. Maybe it’s because her backstory as a filmmaker is more compelling than that of the director, which boils down to “they’re letting the kid of the guy who directed Ghostbusters make movies now,” but it’s worth noting that Juno represents a major step forward for Jason Reitman as a director since his debut, 2005’s Thank You For Smoking. While that film was muddled, flailing around looking for a consistent tone to call it’s own, Juno is assured and compact, downright thrilling in its thoughtful humor and barbed asides.

Reitman has seemingly also found a better approach to working with his actors and helping to mold his performance. Smoking was often marred by uneven, disjointed work among its cast. Juno boasts tremendous work all around, led by the practical paternal attention of J.K. Simmons and the wondrous work of Ellen Page in the title role. Page was deeply impressive in last year’s Hard Candy. Here she takes a complicated band of emotions, often disguised by mordant wit, and portrays it all with great care and crackling invention. She herself goes a long way towards making the jigsaw words of Cody’s script into something firm and believable.

In the end, no matter the stumbles, the film is warm and winning. And, in the end, the film has one of the best endings of the year.

From the Archive: 3:10 to Yuma

For the opening weekend of Logan, I initially figured I’d simply link to the consideration of the old Wolverine limited series that I wrote for Spectrum Culture ages ago. For reasons I still can’t pin down, this “Revisit” piece was by far my most widely praised contribution to that site. Then I remembered I also have a stray review of a film by James Mangold, director of Logan, hanging out at my former online home, just waiting to get transferred over.

I’ve spent quite some time trying to figure out how to approach the review of the new film 3:10 To Yuma. It’s not that I’m especially conflicted about it or that I find the film so drab that it’s had to conjure up a big batch of words about it (this certainly happens from time to time). Instead, I kept coming back to a single observation that can be applied redundantly to several principle collaborators. So, in the spirit of another regular feature ’round these here parts, I offer to you…

Five Contributors To 3:10 To Yuma Who Seem Especially Well-Suited To Westerns

1. Russell Crowe. The combative Aussie thespian has long been hit-or-miss for me, far more than most actors with similarly serious reputations and extensive acclaim. His self-regard shows up too often in his performances, a seeming personal satisfaction with his command of the craft that oozes through his performances. I watch A Beautiful Mind or Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and see the actorly choices and an accompanying stiffness that I guess others see as something far more transformational. One of his first American films was Sam Raimi’s blissfully bonkers western The Quick and the Dead and none of these shortcomings were apparent there, which I always chalked up to the relative humility of an actor who hadn’t yet broken through with anything approaching permanence. Now I think it may have been the manly restraint of the genre that held him in check (certainly those flaws that rankle me are fully apparent in his other studio film from around that time. He is more willing to subsume himself in the role and let the material come through without his mannered tinkering. It help that any glimpses of egotism nicely fit the character he plays, a legendary outlaw, who finds himself unexpectedly captured after a stagecoach job.

2. Christian Bale. If Crowe tends towards overly fussy work, Bale is in many ways the opposite. He’s an actor that withdraws to the point of disappearing, often flattening his British accent until it is a verbal pattern devoid of any nationality or region. There’s a reason why strapping himself into the batsuit and inhabiting the dehumanized focus of Bruce Wayne was a breakthrough performance for him. As a failing rancher who finds some sort of personal redemption in his part in capturing the storied villain and delivering him to the long train track of the law, Bale settles into the character’s hesitancy and restraint. There’s a coldness and focus that feels right on the hard, baked dust of the plains, and the freedom from the need for bold outward gestures lets Bale do what he does best, signal the inner conflicts and wounds of his character.

3. James Mangold. The director of Walk the Line has spent ten years churning out sturdy enough films for about a decade, following up the heartfelt stillness of his indie debut Heavy with a series of endeavors that always seem to promise a little more than they deliver (for awhile Entertainment Weekly could be counted on to tout each developing project as a surefire Oscar contender that every actor in town wanted to dive into). Mangold is a solid craftsman, but hasn’t ever brought real fire to a project. That very sturdiness free of flash is a perfect match for Mangold’s stalwart camera. The most grounded of filmmakers meets the most grounded of genres and the results are, as might be expected, deeply satisfying.

4. Ben Foster. Foster is a good actor in a moviemaking world stripped of roles that benefit from his fervent invention. Here he plays one of the more off-kilter members of the criminal gang intent on freeing their former boss before his placed on the titular train to prison. It’s not necessarily a great performance, but it’s a fearless one, feathered with colorful details and carefully warped line readings. And yet he keeps it grounded enough that key moments of recognition or tethered thought processes are right in character.

5. Elmore Leonard. While I’ve read some of the punchy works of the author, I’ve missed the westerns from early in his career. Of course his work is right at home: the precise, piercing dialogue placed in the mouths of men who feel the effort and ease of being men with every step, laced with dry humor that is black as campfire coffee. I don’t know if the strained character shift in the closing act is his doing or some sort of Hollywood invention, but the closing moments seem purely a product of his typewriter. And, like most work that bears his literary signature, it is a pleasure to take in.