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.

Perfect Pacing — Independence Day

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Review: ‘Independence Day’ is a good movie.  There, I said it.  I have watched and read review after review on the Internet trying to tell me otherwise — that this film is too ridiculous, too over-the-top to be ever be truly good; that, at best, the film falls in the so-bad-it’s-good category.  But I’m not buying it.  I have seen this film countless times over the past sixteen years since it premiered in 1996, and my resolve remains unshaken. It is many things, but a poor film it is not.

That isn’t to say I don’t understand people’s common criticisms about this alien invasion flick, namely that it has key plot holes, token stereotypes, overly silly moments, and a corny theme of American patriotism.  All true, all true.  There’s no question that infecting an advanced alien spaceship with a ’90s computer virus, as they do in the film, is a little absurd.  There’s no question that the film’s inclusion of characters such as a stereotypically Jewish man who says stereotypically Jewish things is a little ethnically insensitive.  There’s no question that the U.S. president jumping into the cockpit of a jet and fighting the aliens head on is a little silly.  And there’s no question that the film’s indulgence and build up to the titular holiday — and the president’s speech that accompanies it — is a little blunt about the whole “America Rules” idea.

But here’s the thing.  Wasn’t it fun?  I know that’s a very basic question to ask, but didn’t you, whoever is out there reading this, have at least a little fun watching it?  Weren’t you entertained during the jet-on-spacecraft dogfights?  Didn’t the president’s speech, silly as it was, move you just a little?  I know it’s ridiculous and implausible (an argument can be made for “stupid” as well, provided one is cynical enough,) but can’t that argument be levied against nearly all science fiction?  By attacking ‘Independence Day’ as absurd, escapist trash, have we not mistaken the messenger for the message?

Those are questions that you, individually must answer, but I will attempt to sway you with one idea: pacing.

Pacing is the rhythm of film.  It is less about what happens in the story and more about when it happens.  It’s about how long we wait and whether or not that waiting means anything.  Good pacing builds to an effective climax, it allows time for characters to stop and breath if necessary, it lets the story go to different places if necessary; but it is always building to something important.  The road to catharsis must be well-paced.

In the context of an action film like ‘Independence Day’ pacing is about knowing when to pull the punches, and that often means not jumping into the action right away.  It is about letting time pass; not to waste it, but rather to build suspense and add gravity to the action.  Again, the key is the action has to really mean something.  By contrast, when action movies are crammed full of as many guns, explosions and chases as the filmmakers can manage, the beat is is buried under noise, and the audience is denied the plot’s theoretical impact.  Thankfully, ‘Independence Day’ is in fact a darn near-perfect example of pacing, and so, even with all of its silliness, the film still seems meaningful.

Allow me to demonstrate: the film opens with an enormous mothership flying toward earth and releasing smaller ships, which enter our atmosphere.  They position themselves over cities and then what happens?  Do they immediately try to destroy them?  No.  They do nothing, at first.  That’s brilliant — people stop, they take notice, they wonder what the hell is going on.  Some are optimistic and try to communicate with them, some flee, others continue to scratch their heads until one man figures out that these extraterrestrials are organized on a countdown, but to what exactly he doesn’t know.  Then, as the countdown completes, the ships finally unleash hell upon the world.  And it means something.  That’s the key: it really means something now because we got to know people first, to identify with their unique mix of fear, paranoia, delusion and simple curiosity.  We, too, wondered what would happen at the end of the countdown.  And it’s great that the filmmakers made us wait that long, it was great that they knew when to build anticipation, and this sort of thing continues on until the end when we have a truly satisfying final battle.  Why?  Because the movie was smart enough to make things matter, and the only way you do that is by letting the film rest appropriately, allowing for the times between action scenes to have real weight and importance.  Most of the film, by the way, isn’t action.  For a film that stretches over two hours in length, I don’t there is much more than a half hour of pure action in the film, which again plays to its strengths.  Again, it’s the moments between all the fighting and explosions that are true heart of this picture, and I, at least, found myself believing in it.

So there, I have attempted, best I can, to convince you all that ‘Independence Day’ is a good film.  Undoubtedly some of you will cling to your former beliefs, but I hope that at least a few might consider giving this one another view, perhaps appropriately on the Fourth of July.  If nothing else the score is pretty awesome.  I think we can all agree on that.

Moneyball

Review: Whatever terrible implications the following confession may have for my masculinity, I feel it must be made.  Let the record show that I do not enjoy sports.  I do not enjoy watching them, playing them, or thinking about how much time other people spend following them.  Pretty much the only sport I could ever get excited about is (legitimately magical) Quidditch.  I only care about them in sympathy with friends, making for a very temporary affinity.  Given this predilection, sports movies tend to leave me cold.  The culture simply does not resonate with me.  If I am to appreciate a sports film, I have to connect with it in some way beyond the outcome of the games, as these formulaic confrontations can thrill in the moment but seem, frankly, pathetically overblown in hindsight.  As with any genre, for a sports film to succeed it must first do so as art rather than dramatization.  There’s a key difference; dramatization inherently lacks authenticity, working from the surface down, while art builds from human nature up.  When a film is sufficiently artistic, whatever genre it grows into is the inevitable result of its underlying human truths.

‘Moneyball’s underlying truth is that people fall short of their dreams, and some fall harder than others.  Brad Pitt, an actor I’m praising more and more often, plays the real-life General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, a man who survived a crushing blow to his dream of baseball stardom on the field by changing the game’s behind-the-scenes mechanics for the better.  The two screenwriters, Aaron Sorkin (‘The Social Network’) and Steve Zaillian (‘Schindler’s List’) refuse to baldly state Beane’s subconscious motivations.  Such obvious dialog often appears in sports films, as “I just wanna do X so I can be Y”, or any number of variations thereof, and this sort of thing sucks the suspense right out of every subsequent scene.  In a principle going back to Aristotle’s Poetics, the emotional revelation should only occur in tandem with the climax of the story, and it should do so in a way that it occurs to the audience and the characters at the same moment.  And so it goes in ‘Moneyball’, as the truth that Beane is actually struggling for redemption hounds us and him through every scene, only bubbling up to the surface — but still without a direct statement — at the climax.

The other great character in ‘Moneyball’ is portrayed by, of all people, Jonah Hill, the portly, geeky comedic actor of ‘Superbad’ fame.  He’s the film’s pleasantest surprise, crafting a legitimate spin on his usual archetype that feels stunningly true to life.  Pitt and Hill have a distinct chemistry that recalls Redford and Hoffman in ‘All The President’s Men’, a perfect one-two punch of complimentary personalities.  There’s Billy Beane, athletic, lanky, drawl and confident, and beside him is Peter Brandt, chubby, short, nervous and exploratory.  Beane acts as Brandt’s natural mentor in most ways, but Brandt is actually Beane’s in the most critical areas.  Hill shows incredible range here, and I hope he keeps taking up disparate roles and avoids the comedy pigeonhole that has trapped so many of his cinematic antecedents.

The book on which this film is based bears the title because it is mainly concerned with the economic implications of the story.  The film, on the other hand, is a proper adaptation because it finds something cinematic in the book and expounds on it.  An improper adaptation tries to match, content-for-content, the source material.  This is a common and easily avoidable mistake.  To adapt anything, one must not ask what was said, but rather what was not said or not said enough.  These are the things that lend themselves to extensive permutation and therefore proper adaptation.  Sometimes, a story’s innate greatness is such that it can naturally cross mediums without harm, but this is extraordinarily rare, and even in such cases the adaptors must find a way to channel this greatness in a manner specific to the medium.  A natural adaptation is not necessarily the best adaptation.

Also working in ‘Moneyball’s favor is Wally Pfister’s cinematography.  Cinephiles may recognize him as Christopher Nolan’s most frequent collaborator.  His work here with director Bennett Miller is up to the usual par.  His fragmented, psuedo-documentarian style lends the baseball montages a memorable dreamlike quality.  There’s typically a lot of depth in the compositions as well.  Take my favorite sequence, for example: Beane and Brandt face off in a battle of wills with the Oakland A’s scouts, the confrontation being framed in a conference room at a long table.  Pfister tightens the focus so that each change in speaker — and, due to the strong writing, each dramatic turnabout — is highlighted, and the room’s depth is retained.  It recalls Lumet’s technique in ‘Twelve Angry Men’.  In this way Miller, Pfister and editor Christopher Tellefsen avoid the usual method of cutting from speaker to speaker, only making such cuts to isolate characters or illustrate their relationships to one another when the story calls for it.

‘Moneyball’ just works beautifully.  Its immediate impact may be diminished, depending on the individual, because of how well the story’s emotional core is sublimated, but it is a film that makes you think, and I couldn’t help returning to it and discovering that it continues to pay dividends long after it is over.  The term “forgettable” is often thrown about in critical circles, but what is it that makes a film stick in or slip from the memory?  I would say that a memorable film is one that works powerfully on the subconscious, giving shape to emotions and concepts that otherwise lack definition.  A forgettable film exists only the surface.  ‘Moneyball’ is terrifically memorable, and highly recommended.

For further reading on ‘Moneyball’, I recommend Once Upon A Time In The Cinema’s take.

Polishing The Silver Mirror

Here’s where the blog turns from a smattering of ideas and bursts of insight into something bigger.

The subtitle, as reads on the head of every page, is reflections on cinema and culture.  We cover a fair bit of popular cinema, but what about culture?  Specifically, whose?  Well, obviously American; but that’s general.  I’m a journalist in Indiana, and it’s time to make note of that.

The goal is to transform The Silver Mirror into an online magazine that serves as the nexus between filmmakers, cinemas, and cinephiles in four tiers: Indiana cities (largely Indianapolis), Indiana, America, and the World.

So what you’re going to see, dear reader, is far more than film reviews.  We’re going to interview local filmmakers, big and small.  We’re going to keep an eye on cinemas and the average filmgoer’s experience.  We’re going to attend festivals.  We’re going to help inspire filmmakers across the country with fresh footage of locations and events that deserve to be up on screen.  We’re going to continue analyzing trends in filmmaking and film criticism in the Elements of the Screen column.  The average film review is going to be much more in depth, probably doubling or tripling in length.  We’re going to conduct our own private film screenings and record our discussions for your reading pleasure.

We’re going to do a lot.

With that, I’d like to wish us a happy 200th post!

Captain America: The First Avenger

Summary: Deliciously pulpy and rich in character, ‘Captain America‘ makes for a fine adventure, a welcome addition to Marvel’s increasingly impressive roster.

Review: As Marvel’s comic book universe unfolds on the silver screen, unique talents step up to take on the challenges presented by each story.  For an adaptation of Marvel’s most old-fashioned hero, they did well to recruit Joe Johnston, the director of period adventure ‘The Rocketeer’ (which I reviewed).  Under his reign, ‘Captain America’ translates into a shamelessly idealistic and muscular picture, improving in every way upon ‘The Rocketeer’ and boasting action that puts Marvel Studios‘ other entries to shame.

Nothing in this film would work if we could not identify with Cap himself, a.k.a. Steve Rogers, brought to life by Chris Evans refreshingly playing against type.  We thankfully don’t have to endure yet another rendition of the Campbellian Hero’s Journey, as Steve Rogers’ heroism isn’t founded on mythic notions of destiny, but pure selflessness.  In a twist on the usual themes, the villain, played with great spirit by Hugo Weaving, views himself as the mythic hero, the Chosen One of the gods who alone has access to their power.  “What makes you so special?” He sneers at Rogers during a confrontation.  “Nothin’,” Steve answers, “I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.”  So while we see the dark side of Rogers’ gifts in his villainous counterpart, what draws us to him isn’t a played out struggle to resist the heady draught of power, but his steadfast humility, that he retains his social awkwardness and innocent patriotism despite his new powers and authority.  It’s an enthusiastic affirmation of a simple, but oft-ignored, fact of life: There really are good people.  In the interest of drama, many filmmakers cloud this fact, assured that the more demons given to their characters, the better.  It isn’t — what matters is truth, regardless of content.

The action works out against a rich backdrop of pulp iconography — the European theater of World War II, secret factories constructing impossible weapons, Norwegian churches hiding ancient relics, supply trains and eight-story tanks and a humongous Flying Wing.  There are fist fights, gun fights, flamethrowers, lasers, alien energies, deformed villains, mad scientists, masked stormtroopers, motorcycles, and an invincible shield colored like a flag.  The film’s Americana is obvious, and of course the more deeply ingrained the viewer’s appreciation for that particular nation, the more likely they are to appreciate the film from that perspective.  Nevertheless, ‘Captain America’ is somehow less jingoistic than other modern action pictures such as ‘Transformers’, ‘Air Force One’ and ‘Independence Day’, all of which promote the myth of American superiority to an embarrassing extent.

The glorious thing about ‘Captain America’ is that it somehow tells a good standalone story, ties directly into Marvel’s grand plan for ‘The Avengers’, is stunningly retro and yet quite modern in its presentation.  Its weakness is that it moves so fast that it requires repeat viewings to catch all the character and background detail so easily missed on a first pass.  A more suspenseful build-up to the climax would have been beneficial, underscoring the impressive action sequences like a rest between the notes.  A longer stay with Cap and the Howling Commandos would have been most welcome.  Nevertheless, these are good problems to have, symptoms of a well crafted film.

‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ stands alongside ‘Iron Man’ as the best of Marvel Studios’ pictures to date.  Though DC Comics and Warner Bros. have the benefit of Christopher Nolan‘s ‘Batman’ films, Marvel has proven to me that they are unashamed of their material and are more than capable of delivering quality adaptations to the screen.  These are films which today’s kids and geeky adults like myself will hail as classics in twenty years’ time.  Thanks to Joe Johnston and company for yet another.

Classic Review: The Lord of the Rings Trilogy

Summary:  A superb adaptation, the most suitable cinematic echo of Tolkien’s immutable trilogy, and one of the greatest epics ever put to film.

Review: In setting out to review Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s supreme fantasy epic, I’m forced to consider the three films in their entirety (i.e. the extended editions) and as one work, because unlike other famous trilogies such as, say, ‘Star Wars’, the studio didn’t wait to pursue a sequel after a successful first installment — it was a single gamble from the beginning, and divided only by marketing and logistical necessity, as with the source material.

But to tackle such a monumental work, something that is so inseparable from my personal development, a little biographical reflection is necessary.

Tolkien first captured my imagination when I was about 9 years old, as I read his playful ‘The Hobbit’, the witty, straightforward adventure that serves as the prelude to ‘The Lord of the Rings’.  As anticipation built for the upcoming film trilogy, I absorbed the giddy excitement of my friends through osmosis, and plunged into the thick prose of the greater work with gusto.  I came out the other side somewhat changed, in ways I of course can only now appreciate.  Being an imaginative boy, I had always loved fantasy, but Tolkien’s lengendarium was different — it had substance, having in fact less in common with strict fantasy than history.  What Middle-Earth lacked in physical reality in made up for in spiritual truth — both in the religious sense and the broader rational sense.  I would never touch The Shire, but it was nevertheless solid to me.

When ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ hit theaters, I was simply too young to handle the emotional intensity of it, and so I had to rely on the secondhand experience of my older brother, my parents, and my friends.  To me, it was like hearing from people who had visited Middle-Earth, and could describe it as fresh observers.  I relived the book, again, from the perspective of a witness.

A habit of mine at the time was to stay up way too late and wait for the creative part of my brain, perhaps in want of the dream-state, to be released.  Then I would write, draw, and imagine with the freedom only a child can possess.  As if I needed any more motivation, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ in its two forms, literary and witnessed, inspired a new burst of creativity, as I intuitively sought to capture the emotions of reading the novels, the anticipation of revisiting the world in a new way, hearing about it from friends, and finally seeing it.  To the point, Jackson wasn’t just adapting the story I loved, he was adapting me — into a filmmaker.

My fate was sealed when ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ was released on DVD.  The experience was everything I wanted, and more.  It was actually not as though the filmmakers had reached into my imagination and created my vision of Middle-Earth — the dissonance, in fact, made it more profound.  The emotional intensity was great, but my absorption into the world was complete, and I believed once again.  A great film is like a stage magic act — you know that somehow the artist has fabricated what you are seeing, but the method escapes your notice, and the thrill of magic, the mystery of it, appears.  The magician is at the top of his form when you most want to be like him.  The best thing a magician or a filmmaker can win is not applause, nor critical adulation, nor an apostle, but an apprentice.

The second most beautiful thing about ‘The Lord of the Rings’ films is that the filmmakers never compromise on the level of graphic detail that is present in the source material.  The plot is highly condensed, and with good reason; Tolkien’s dense, meandering prose is impossible to translate beat-for-beat to cinema.  What works for an invented history does not work for narrative film, even one that stretches 726 minutes.  The story itself survives.  Filmmakers should always understand story in the sense of a retelling, as if you had to explain everything that really mattered in a short amount of time.  Proper film craft stresses  economy and emotion.  When the key emotions are tied up in how real the world feels, it takes a special effort to achieve immersion.  Here Tolkien’s description and the filmmakers’ production design synchronize; the visuals suggest all the depth of history that Jackson never has a chance to share with us.

By far the best quality of the trilogy is the cast.  Their chemistry is fantastic.  Not a single actor is miscast.  It’s clear from the extensive behind-the-scenes material that they grew into a family.  There’s not a relationship, scene, or line that feels wrong.  If life did not so directly compliment the art, these films would not work.  There’s no such thing as a flawless film, only a film you can’t quit.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ is highly addictive.  Like the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy, the people give this production, which could have easily collapsed under its own weight, such soul that the story transcends standard cinematic storytelling.  In this way, its emotional detail alone equals the historical detail of the novels.  You couldn’t hope for a better adaptation.

Considering the films as a single experience, it becomes much more difficult to criticize the weaker sections of the narrative, in particular the ending.  In the theater, I did not begrudge Jackson’s decision to follow Tolkien to the Grey Havens.  Later on, as other viewers complained that it was too long and perhaps too sad, I flipped over.  Now I’ve flopped back.  I understand why the long ending is the right one.  After all the darkness and despair, to transform the final section of the film into a potion of joy through a veil of sadness  — well, I think it’s obvious that it’s poetry.  Heck, the ending is kind of short in the proper perspective.

‘The Lord of the Rings’ is the ‘Star Wars’ of my generation, because obviously the ill-conceived prequels were not.  All things considered, I’m pretty happy with that.  ‘The Lord of the Rings’ pushed filmmaking craft forward in all the right ways, with a timeless story at its core, and it is undoubtedly a classic, one epic to rule them all.

A Serious Man

Stars: ★★★★

Summary:  A beautiful, complex cinematic fable that forcefully challenges the viewer to examine his or her worldview.

Review:  Life is complicated.  There’s no easy answers.  It’s difficult to separate cause, effect, and random chance.  We all need lenses with which to interpret the world, but there’s so many of them to choose from.  Cinema, as a lie that supposedly tells the truth, often presents us with a clear worldview that purports to explain every happening within its narrative.  What happens when you remove this objectivity and leave the audience and the protagonist adrift in a tumultuous sea of competing perspectives, leading the audience back to their uncomfortable, uncertain lives?  You get ‘A Serious Man’, a complicated faux-Talmudic fable and Rorschach test as only the Coen brothers can tell it.

From the opening scene, detached from the rest of the story entirely, to the staunchly ambiguous ending, ‘A Serious Man’ manages to keep us struggling in those murky depths for its entire running time.  We’ve never sure whose story is true, or how to process the tragic events and mysterious circumstances that occur outside of the protagonist’s control.  ‘A Serious Man’ isn’t a nihilistic movie, per se; it just challenges us with the horrifying possibility that it might be.  The important thing is to make a choice.

Because of its unpredictable, confrontational approach, ‘A Serious Man’ is highly suspenseful, arguably to the same degree as their previous film ‘No Country For Old Men’, for suspiciously similar reasons.  If a narrative is unsurprising, it is probably unfulfilling.  The chaotic nature of a plot, whether introspective like ‘A Serious Man’ or athletic and violent like ‘No Country For Old Men’, stems from its tent-pole philosophy of faith vs. meaninglessness.  A screenwriter is expected to satisfy burning questions:  Who is who, what happens next, why does it happen, how does it end, and others.  When a screenwriter provides us with just enough information to draw logical conclusions, but an equal dose of counter evidence, we are left on a high tension wire between truth and falsehood, the greatest suspense of all.

In this way, the Coens communicate directly with us, like a wise man spinning an instructive fable.  The intent of such stories is to provoke a proper ethical response to real-life situations.  We are likewise instructed, here, to believe in something.  To remain uncommitted is a great error.  Time and chance happen to us all, but if we see the world through a focused lens, we can take a measure of control.  If you don’t believe, you can’t act.

‘A Serious Man’ is a gorgeous movie.  Roger Deakins’ cinematography is, well, impeccable.  The score plays sorrowful and menacing under Carter Burwell’s hand, and the soundtrack composed of Jefferson Airplane and Hebrew chant is a singular, evocative earworm that keeps the fable running through your head long after the movie cuts to black.

I do like food metaphors.  If I were to compare ‘A Serious Man’ to food or beverage, I’d call it alcohol, and something strong, at that.  An acquired taste that can cause strange reactions and possibly headaches.  It’s damn delicious, though.  Very good year.