Around the Clock — Looper

This review contains devastating spoilers!

Review: Time travel functions with unique philosophical efficacy in science fiction and fantasy stories.  By nature, time travel tests mortality, explores sequences of moral cause and effect, and transcends cosmic expansion and collapse.  In other words, time travelers are analogous to storytellers — through their devices, they alter our perceptions, making us painfully aware of our human frailties even as they give us a god’s-eye-view.  Storytelling, like time travel, transcends the space-time continuum to which our bodies are bound.  Through them we revisit past mistakes and explore possible futures.  Therefore, the time travel conceit, as well as storytelling at large, are both permutations of spirituality.

Rian Johnson’s ‘Looper,’ by narrating a conflict between two versions of a self, embraces the mystical side of time travel.  Consequently, its logic is moral, rather than purely temporal.  Johnson’s script invokes temporal logic — namely, the titular loop — as a metaphor for a cosmological concept.  In this way, Johnson stands firmly within the tradition of classic science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury and Philip K. Dick, who used genre tropes to weave fables.  Young Joe  (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in great make-up) and Old Joe (Bruce Willis, doing great work) constitute a temporal loop that, like Yogic philosophy’s wheel of samsaras, keeps recycling the same bad choices over and over.  In effect, Joe’s loop renders him eternal, as despite his inevitable death his choices lead inexorably from past to future to past and back again.

Now, I’m about to spoil the ending, but it’s necessary to make my point, as to quote FilmCritHulk, “the ending is the conceit.”  Joe’s eventual solution to the horrible cycle first requires a moment of clarity, discerning the loop — an insight analogous to Buddhist enlightenment — followed by redemptive self-destruction.  By death, Joe transcends death, as the destruction of his loop restores harmony to the story world.  Director Johnson’s latent Christianity suggests a Christ parallel, but it’s far more likely, given the thematic significance of cycles, that the Yogic — and by extension, Buddhist — interpretation better fits the film.  Joe’s self-sacrifice is analogous to ego-death, which, in Yogic philosophy, ends the painful cycle and liberates consciousness.  An individual, so liberated, brings balance to his or her surroundings and reduces suffering — exactly like Joe.

It gets better; not only does Johnson’s take on time travel befit mysticism, it speaks to an effective storytelling ethos.  Old Joe, in trying to prevent a tragedy, attempts to rewrite history.  We process time as narrative, splicing memories — like film strips — into logical order.  So Old Joe’s mission is to tell a new story.  However, like his younger self, ego blinds him.  He sees only the historical narrative’s tragic impact on his fortunes.  All other persons and interests become expendable before his ego; he is, therefore, unable to tell a new story.  Young Joe receives enlightenment when he realizes that Old Joe’s selfish (not to mention murderous) rewriting actually ends in the same way that Old Joe tries to prevent — hence the loop.  The only way to write a new story, then, is to wrest the pen away from ego.  Truly inspired, effective storytelling is by nature generous, transcending one person’s interests and harmonizing within the larger human community.

‘Looper’ works because Johnson embraces a thoughtful conceit and lets it structure the film like DNA. Every scene, character and subplot relates obliquely to this DNA strand, even embedding time travel’s mystical dimension into virtuoso sequences of sex and violence.  An all-around brilliantly conceived and executed film, ‘Looper’ vindicates its conceit, genre, performers and director.

Drive (2011)

A Note: I’m no longer going to post review summaries, seeing as they are redundant and often pass over points I stress in the bodies of the reviews themselves.  So there it is.  

You are seated on a ratty bed in a motel room. All is still, and quiet. There is a woman in the bathroom, crying. You hear something outside the door. The knob moves ever so slightly. Outside the bathroom, a man raises a shotgun. You roll over and take hold of the mattress, throw it at the door, and–

Saying any more would spoil one of the fantastic action sequences in Nicholas Winding Refn’s brilliant ‘Drive’, an adaptation of James Sallis‘ neo-noir novel. This, like ‘No Country For Old Men‘, is a master class in suspense.  What Refn does in silence and stillness is infinitely more effective than the roar and the shake of the generic modern action picture.  Here is a film where we can look into a performer’s eyes and see the soul behind them, or the lack thereof, and so much more is said in the pauses than the scant lines of dialog.  Here is a film with bright neon and deep shadows, with rumbling engines and the creak of leather gloves.  Here is a film where a moment of love and one of violence can occur in frightful sequence stretched out so long we feel we will snap.  I daresay, quite pompously, here is a film.

Before I go any further, take a look at this two minute clip of the film’s opening sequence on the Cannes Festival site.  Now you know what we’re talking about.

According to Refn, in an interview with Jeff Goldsmith on the Q&A Podcast, the idea was to translate fairy tale archetypes into a neo-noir setting. Gosling’s Man With No Name character, the Driver, is therefore the Knight, prompted to protect the Damsel, who is played by the stunning Carey Mulligan.  But there’s no point in using archetypes, in my view, unless you subvert them, as is par for the course when you’re talking film noir.  Refn goes on to describe the now infamous scene in the elevator (you’ll have to see it; probably between your fingers) as the film in a bottle, the central moral conflict displayed at its clearest.  It is the ultimate neo noir sequence; it demonstrates the director’s ability to slow down time and extend a powerful, beautiful moment, only to shatter it with an act of brutality, severing the link between the Knight and the Damsel beyond repair, on account of their natures which they cannot compromise.

Every supporting performance in the film is wonderfully wrought, but I’d like to further highlight Gosling and Mulligan.  They play the two sides of the coin, and share a quietness and an ability to communicate best with their eyes and the slightest movements of their lips.  As Refn observes in the Q&A interview, filmmakers and audiences are often scared of silence, and I would add that this is because dialog is the clothing which naked emotion demands.  Refuse to cover it, however, and the scene is wrought with suspense; sometimes of the dangerous kind, sometimes of the sexual, sometimes of the moral.  If you want to know if your male and female leads have chemistry, put them in a scene together where they cannot speak, but have so much to say.  Suffice it to say, Gosling and Mulligan have it, and that tension underlines the whole film.

Nicholas Winding Refn clearly understands something so damn crucial to the art that it makes some other filmmakers appear downright pathetic.  If you, the hypothetical filmmaker, have a whole movie full of giant robots blasting through skyscrapers with lasers and missiles, and you still can’t manage the visceral shock generated by a single sound in Refn’s film, you’re doing it wrong.  Stop making movies.  If you’re a filmgoer, however, and you would rather be awash in the mind-numbing, meaningless chaos of a ‘Transformers’ film than seek out the human truth present in films running the gamut between ‘Drive’ and ‘The King’s Speech’, than you should probably stop watching movies.  Yes, I know I’m being harsh and leaning hard on hyperbole; but there is nevertheless such a thing as taste, and an obligation as an informed viewer to cultivate the good and shirk the bad.

If there’s anything wrong with ‘Drive’, is that it has no business being this good, much less in this market, with ungrateful audiences who will gladly patronize the latest regurgitated fluff and somehow still find room to complain about the lack of original material.  Seriously, people; this movie might not be your cup of tea, but it’s a damn sight better than most fare.  In truth, ‘Drive’ is an anachronism, something you could’ve caught an auteur making in the ’70s and early ’80s.  It makes me rather giddy to declare this thing Kubrickian.

For further exploration of this film, I recommend, of course, the excellent interview referenced earlier, as well as the hilarious (and insightful) thoughts of Film Critic Hulk; Matthew DeKinder’s review; Laremy Legel’s review; Jim Emerson’s thoughts (though I disagree thoroughly on some points); a very good comment on Emerson’s site; and anything else of repute you happen to find on Google.

Black Swan

Stars: ★★★1/2

Summary:  A finely-crafted noirish psychological thriller, abounding with insights into sex, identity, and art, but occasionally overindulgent.

Review:  Imagination is the life of the soul.  It enables us to evolve beyond our boundaries.  As a million and two film thrillers will tell you, it can also be incredibly dangerous.  Enter Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’, a fascinating neo-noir movie about ballet that I’d dare call the female counterpart to David Fincher’s ‘Fight Club’.  Similarities abound; the relationship between physical and spiritual maturity, the destructive side of sex (both gender identity and intercourse), struggles against imposed ideals, psychological separation, paranoia — probably more.  They’re both disturbing experiences, though for reasons of demographics I found ‘Fight Club’ the more resonant film.

There are important divergences, however.  ‘Black Swan’ is about art and sacrifice and not popular culture and violence, for one.  Stylistically, Aronofsky’s film is claustrophobic and documentary where Fincher’s is large and hyper-real.  ‘Black Swan’ is more intimate, personal, and terrifying in the inescapable moment rather than by implication.

This brings me back to imagination.  Nina (Natalie Portman in her best role yet) is a soul struggling for perfection in the world of ballet, and she hopes to fill the lead role of her director’s new version of Tchaikovsky‘s ‘Swan Lake’.  This version, however, will need her to fulfill the role of the White Swan — innocent, virginal, controlled, much like herself — and the Black Swan — dangerous, sensual, passionate — and the director doubts she has it in her.  The film plays as an adaptation of ‘Swan Lake’ as Nina transforms into the Black Swan, first in her life and then on the stage.  This metamorphosis is a deadly combination of her repressed womanhood and the Black Swan character, her imaginative dreams invading her constrictive waking life.

Many psychological thrillers spring from the idea of personifying unwanted feelings, memories, and behaviors, separating the lead character from their internal torment and therefore dramatizing the conflict in a very visual way.  For the cinematically savvy, this can become predictable, taking the punch out of it.  Where ‘Black Swan’ and ‘Fight Club’ succeed is in diverting our interest from surprise revelations about identity and conscience to broader external conflicts.  ‘Black Swan’s source of tension, the upcoming, life-defining performance of ‘Swan Lake’, is a simple and powerful one.  It grips us like a vice, and everything else adds pressure.

Like a classic film noir, ‘Black Swan’ has strong sexual themes, in particular seduction, jealousy, and control.  Aronofsky dives into explicit territory, but what makes it work is the nagging question of how much is happening in Nina’s mind and how much is real.  Because of the subjective cinematography, we’ve reason to doubt either explanation.  I found this conflict’s resolution incredibly cathartic; by embracing her Black Swan persona, Nina gains control over her sexual identity and becomes assertive, granting her equilibrium and freedom from her mother’s implied abuse.

The film also has a strong horror backbone.  It plays similar to ‘District 9’ in Nina’s queasy, gradual transformation, which may or may not be real.  A quill here, a bleeding fingernail there.  And, of course, the doppelganger stalking her in subways and mirrors.  This is a film about self-image, which can be the worst enemy of self — or a powerful boon.

‘Black Swan’ is packed with great performances, cinematography, music, and ideas, but it certainly isn’t a film for everyone.  I wouldn’t call it the best picture of the year, either.  In some places it overplays its hand.  Nevertheless, it’s another reason to believe that cinema as an art will continue to survive, and even flourish, no matter how imperfect it is.

No Country For Old Men

Stars:  ★★★★

Summary:  Existential, genre-slashing, disturbing cinema at its very best.

Review:  Cinema gives us innumerable opportunities to vicariously experience fear.  The raw reaction to the most basic of survival instincts is a large part of why we keep coming back for more.  Most times, we opt for the proverbial roller coaster experience; the main characters, our conscious avatars, make it through alive, often by the skin of their teeth to intensify catharsis.  Populist movies are structured to insure such satisfying escapes.  If we want to take these animal emotions seriously, however, we need filmmakers capable of dropping the bottom out.  While we’re physically safe, our psyches, so well-trained by common experience, are vulnerable to truly nightmarish twists.  When filmmakers go this route, they tend to compensate by helping us identify with the killers over the victims.  When the Coen brothers went for it, in their Best Picture adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s ‘No Country For Old Men’, they balanced our sympathies nigh perfectly, creating a truly disturbing film.

Nihilism and justice collide in an unrelenting chase through Western Texas.  Roger Deakins’ gorgeous and clear cinematography heightens the sense of you-are-there, and the Coens’ screenplay, with minimal dialog, exposes a multitude of procedures that the hunter and hunted use to stay in the game.  Even in the film’s wide vistas, we feel the walls closing in, as the characters we identify with at a simple human level fight to survive.  The hunter and antagonist, Anton Chigurh (played absurdly well by Javier Bardem), exhibits believable sociopathy and a moral code all his own.  He’s a predator incomprehensible to his prey.  In our introduction to the hunted, Llewellyn Moss (ditto by Josh Brolin), the filmmakers encapsulate this theme without saying a word.  Llewellyn is a socially acceptable hunter, a creature who by virtue of intelligence and superior fire power preys on game from a comfortable physical and emotional distance.  In short, in relation to pronghorn, Llewellyn sees himself the same way Anton relates to, well, anything.  Doing his damnedest to put a stop to this cat-and-mouse game is Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (ditto for Tommy Lee Jones), an aging lawman who views the unfolding chaos with due horror.

The plot mechanics, the $2 Million McGuffin and the why’s behind it all, take a backseat to the story’s inescapable present tense and ever-increasing violence.  While other stories make a point to ensure the audience’s karmic satisfaction, the kernel of truth here is that, despite the best of intentions, evil continues to haunt the human race.  The struggle here is cosmic, between the animal and spiritual natures of humankind.  Predatory and survival instincts often overrule justice.  Our higher ambitions, a fire in the night, pass from one generation to the next, keeping the cold, meaningless chaos from turning us all into Anton Chigurh.  The Sheriff and Anton are almost absolute opposites, but they both answer to a code of ethics.  The difference lies in empathy.  True justice submits to and ensures harmonious coexistence, countering the lone wolf within us.  Anton’s justice, whatever it is, is truly unknowable, because it belongs to him alone.  It is therefore meaningless.

This is an example of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences making a, if not “the”, right choice.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ is probably the best picture on this subject.  Being a Coen brothers film, it’s the height of craft, but what makes it special is how far they go in subverting genre expectations.  ‘No Country For Old Men’ defies convention and substitutes original story.  This is a movie for cinephiles who like getting existentially scared out of their wits and making sense of their reaction.  It’s not for the fainthearted or brainless.  It’s too good at what it does.

Classic Review: Alphaville

Stars: ★★★☆

Summary:  A logically opaque, madcap, pretentious, and hilarious genre mashup.

Review:  To a geek like me, combining deconstructed film noir with a vague science fiction dystopia makes for a beguiling premise.  After hearing about ‘Alphaville’ and reading a little about it via the Criterion Collection, I made it my first DVD rental through Netflix, expecting an equally exciting product.  Of course, I had overlooked that this is an art film, and moreover it is quite insane.  This means it ended up even better than I expected.

‘Alphaville’ moves swiftly from episode to episode, slapping random ideas together like an optimistic French philosopher who is both drunk and convinced that ‘Axe Cop‘ is the next big thing in serious literature.  That’s hyperbole, yeah, and it’s cathartic to say it.  The point being, it seems the filmmakers weren’t concerned with making the premise seem credible, but they were using it as an excuse to indulge in various kinds of madness.  “Tangent” is the word of the day.  It’s possible that Godard did find reason for the randomness, however, as the story, in its most vanilla form, could be described as the man of passion (viva la France!) versus the cold logical computer society of tomorrow.  A stylistic rebellion against narrative sense, perhaps?

The protagonist, Lemmy Caution, a character borrowed from detective novels and films set in an ostensibly more realistic time and place, is summarily transposed, with all his noir tendencies, into the Huxleyian future city of the film’s title.  In this setting, the sheer arbitrary nature of his behavior clashes directly with the computer that nigh-intangibly controls everything.  It’s like an episode of classic ‘Star Trek’ — the episode ‘Return of the Archons‘ comes to mind — only instead of Bill Shatner lasering zombies we have Eddie Constantine shooting holes in centerfolds.

The parallels between ‘Alphaville’ and the previously mentioned ‘Return of the Archons’ are actually pretty striking, as are the differences.  Both involve men on a mission, looking for missing persons in a computer-controlled, soulless society.  Unlike the Enterprise crew, who wander only because they don’t know where to start, Lemmy Caution does whatever the hell he wants, despite having a clear objective from the get go.  The film’s plotting is startlingly opaque.  If Lemmy has a grand plan, he doesn’t share it, to my recollection.  He’s there to find a couple of people and blow up Alpha 60, the monstrous computer, preventing Alphaville’s influence from infecting other “galaxies”.  This being an art film, Lemmy’s solution isn’t bombs or bullets, but unbearable love poetry.  It’s similar to James Kirk’s tactic of talking alien intelligences to death, with the writer’s naked ideas as the ultimate weapon.

The best way to digest this film is as a comedy, a guilty pleasure packed with odd moments.  Judging by its creator’s pedigree, it’s probably not unintentional.  It’s not a bad film.  In fact, it’s rather brilliant, in a quirky way.  It deserves a bigger cult audience than it has accumulated, especially in light of substantially better, relatively recent sci-fi dystopia film noir such as ‘Brazil’, ‘Blade Runner’, ‘Dark City’ and ‘Minority Report’.  They all owe an artistic debt to this wonderfully off-kilter classic.

Shutter Island

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: A powerful, skillfully plotted film about the dangers of self-illusion and refusing responsibility.

Review:  Let’s talk about plot.  Some movie plots are bad, being separated from logic and character, and some are good, being the same with character and organically interrelated.  A plot’s nature is its shape, a simple movement from point A to B, naturally a straight line, which can get complicated and turn in any direction at the artist’s whim.  For those films that draw their plotlines in radical shapes, often the result is a twist ending, which can shock an audience, providing the rare pleasure of surprise.  Is this preferable or superior in any way to a straight ending?  It depends primarily on the emotional content.  Catharsis is the goal, here; resolution, for better or worse.

I have heard complaints that Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel ‘Shutter Island’ did not successfully pull the wool over the audience’s eyes.  The surprise factor, for some, was lost.  But what is a temporary surprise compared to releasing buckets of suspense?  ‘Shutter Island’, thematically and structurally, is not about springing a trap, but the slow, terrifying revelation that the trap has already taken hold.  Madness, the film’s preoccupation, is not a bestial thing suddenly snapping at you from the dark, but the refusal to accept the truth that you share the nature of that bestial thing.  ‘Shutter Island’ doesn’t have a proper twist ending.  It doesn’t try for the magic act of, say, ‘The Sixth Sense’.  It’s more like Christopher Nolan’s ‘Memento’, where the truth is gradually revealed, like steam wiped off a mirror.  In Scorsese’s film and Nolan’s, we sympathize with the protagonist and stubbornly believe his version of reality, until it becomes impossible to do so anymore.  Therein lies catharsis, as we let go of our fear and indignation and reorient ourselves.  Whether the protagonist comes to terms with the truth or not, we move on, hopefully having divined the narrative’s moral purpose.

‘Shutter Island’ is the perfect companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Inception’.  Coincidentally, they share the same lead actor, but otherwise they are thematically similar, with different ideas and resolutions.  They are both concerned with tragedy, loss, guilt, dream logic and the in-movie use of stories as redemptive tools.  Pared down, ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in plot, how a story’s complexity works around the mind’s defenses and moves the primary participant — the audience, or in this case, the protagonist — according to its agenda.  ‘Inception’ focuses on the positive effects of self-revelation and abandoning illusions, while ‘Shutter Island’ does the exact opposite.  Note that both stories grow on the one tree.  They’re the same straight line from point A to B, but they take radically different directions, with ‘Shutter Island’ acting as ‘Inception’s filmic shadow.

On the surface, the film asks the question, “Is it better to live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”  In the plot below, however, it asks, “Is it better to live with painful reality, or to live in an endless nightmare of your own devising?”  The death posed in the surface is not necessarily literal.  It’s a spiritual death, the loss of an honest, ugly self in favor of an attractive façade.  When facing guilt, the soul must decide whether to abandon itself to mercy — not forgiveness, per se, but judgment — or to deny any reason to be guilty at all.  There is no other choice.  In Orthodox Christian theology, Christ’s unconditional forgiveness draws the soul to honest self-appraisal, but it still must decide whether the painful, terrifying truth is preferable to defiant fantasy.  Hell, in this theology, is God’s love perceived by the deluded mind.  ‘Shutter Island’ illustrates the dangers of illusion most beautifully.  The waking nightmare of the mad man’s hell crawls with horrors, but it provides an escape from the sanest, scariest thing of all: self-knowledge.

Martin Scorsese and company have a masterful film here.  It’s packed with spiritual insight, cinematographic genius, and genuine thrills.  I think it’s obvious… I loved it.