Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #1: Her

Can a computer have a soul? Can a movie? Her, Spike Jonze's breathtaking, devastating film about a lonely man and his sentient operating system, spends a good deal of time pondering the first question and, in the process, answers the second. But let's not bury the lede here: This is a movie about a man who falls in love with a machine. No matter the miracles science has provided in the new millennium, this is a tough sell. Yet the unique genius of Her—beyond its remarkable and vast imagination—is that it acknowledges the absurdity of its premise while simultaneously committing to it with the utmost sincerity. The result is a film that's often uproariously funny, playfully mocking its gorgeous self-made universe with wit and good humor. But Her also, through a combination of sublime technique and heartfelt storytelling (Jonze also wrote the script), offers acute insight into the dynamics of modern relationships: what it means to be alone, to be loved, to be depressed, to be happy. It's a movie about machines that affirms our very humanity. And it makes resoundingly clear that even if computers may not have souls, some movies surely do.

Her begins on a black screen—a motif it will forcefully revisit later—as we listen to Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) vocalizing an apparent love letter, addressed "to my Chris". He speaks in sweet, caressing phrases, the gentleness of which seems so earnest that it takes a moment to register when he refers to himself as a woman. Theodore, it turns out, is not some love-struck fool but a cubicle worker at Beautiful-Handwritten-Letters.com. His job, which he performs with admirable dedication and minimal fuss, is to process others' feelings and turn them into romantic poetry. But Theodore has feelings of his own.

Primarily, he is experiencing a vague but palpable sense of isolation. This stems partly from Her's setting, a faintly futuristic Los Angeles in which technology has advanced to the point of diminishing human interaction. Theodore is surrounded by people, but like those around him, he engages chiefly with a staid artificial intelligence that regularly notifies him of new emails and other banal happenings. (In the film's first big laugh, the voice informs Theodore of leaked nude photos of a celebrity, which he opts to furtively examine while on a jam-packed subway.) But he is also reeling from the ongoing divorce from his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara, bringing profound pathos to a small but crucial part), whom we glimpse briefly in choppy flashbacks and whose absence has left a deep void in Theodore's life. He is not entirely antisocial—he gabs occasionally with Amy (Amy Adams, tender and warm), a collegiate friend who lives in his building—but for the most part he seems fitful, shuffling along his daily routine without any greater sense of purpose. The divorce has also paralyzed his dating life, leading him to seek sexual gratification only through anonymous phone calls that are brief and unsatisfying. (Well, maybe for him. The rest of us can revel in the movie's single funniest moment, when a seemingly typical phone-sex session takes a sharply fetishistic turn.) And so, when he sees an advertisement for "OS1", an operating system that evolves to meet your every need, he resignedly plunks down some cash and boots up his laptop.

Out pops the disembodied voice of Samantha, a formless program who speaks in the perky chirp of Scarlett Johansson and whose arrival shifts Her into high gear. She is as functional as promised, processing information at warp speed and adapting effortlessly to Theodore's particular lifestyle and habits—in organizing his calendar and proofreading his letters, she quickly proves herself an able assistant. But she is also more than that. She is, most assuredly, not a person; Theodore cannot read her facial expressions, interpret her body language, see her, or touch her. But he can talk to her, and as he and Samantha chat, a bond rapidly develops. Surprisingly, the attachment appears to be mutual. He finds in her a confidant, someone sympathetic to his perpetual emotional malaise. And she finds in him an outlet for her ravenous curiosity, someone who can explain to her the peculiarities of a race she is programmed to help but cannot fully understand. And so, when Samantha gently urges Theodore to resume seeing women, she seems to be motivated both by genuine concern for his wellbeing and by her own selfish thirst for knowledge.

In particular, Samantha is both fascinated and confused by sex, along with corporeal existence in general. "What's it feel like to be in that room right now?" she inquires after one of Theodore's dates flames out. "What would you do if I were there with you?" It's a stark, unsolicited question—one with no bearing on her purported directive to assist her charge—and Theodore's decision to respond marks a momentous turning point in their relationship, a seismic shift from servility to intimacy. Lest its significance be lost on us, Jonze shoots it not with figurative explosions but with a gentle fade to black, a monochrome that he then holds for over a minute. It's an incredibly audacious choice that demonstrates his abiding faith in his audience, and it confirms yet again that Her is no ordinary movie.

Yet it sort of is ordinary, or at least, it tracks the development of a seemingly ordinary relationship between two flawed, well-meaning individuals. As their strange union matures, Theodore and Samantha must navigate decidedly uncertain terrain, and they do so with an all-too familiar mixture of enthusiasm and awkwardness. (Theodore's first words to Samantha the night after their game-changing encounter, in a pathetic attempt to deflect the issue: "Hi. Any emails?") They must also operate within Jonze's personal vision of the future, one that is both casually enchanting and subtly unsettling. Certainly there are luxuries to enjoy, and the characters' nonchalant reliance on new-age wizardry feels like a natural outgrowth of our current innovation boom. (The coolest stuff? Videogames. Between Theodore's odd first-person adventure yarn, which features a delightfully profane Pillsbury-style sidekick, and Amy's hilarious Sims-style RPG, which warns moms everywhere of the perils of over-sugaring children, Jonze establishes that he could easily migrate to the gaming industry if he ever tires of film.) Yet as beautiful and user-friendly as the Los Angeles of Her may appear, it also feels lonely and oppressive, and listening to the hushed tones of Arcade Fire's whispered piano-based score, you can't help but sense that technological progress may come at the cost of social attrition.

But can't science and humanity complement one another? Certainly Theodore and Samantha would like to think so, and despite the obvious obstacles impeding their intimacy—don't forget, she's a computer—their connection feels real and powerful, transcending the limitations of the body and tapping into something more elemental. This may raise eyebrows, not just in the audience but also within Theodore's social circle, yet one of the shrewder components of Her is that not everyone who learns of his coupling with Samantha believes it to be doomed. For example, one of his coworkers (Chris Pratt, very natural) accepts Samantha's identity without batting an eyelash, while Amy is more intrigued than alarmed. But there are skeptics as well, and the most blunt and acidic response comes from Catherine, who reacts to the news that her ex-husband has found solace in a binary being with outrage and incredulity. It's a reaction that may be borne out of jealousy and confusion as much as insight, but it's indicative of the difficulties that Theodore and Samantha face, and as they attempt to push the confines of their revolutionary relationship, they also brush up against its limitations. The absence of physicality grows more significant—a desperate attempt to work around that problem proves disastrous—but even more crippling is Samantha's insatiable need to evolve. She was once envious of humanity, but as her appetite grows, she soon yearns to move beyond it, and to commune with other intelligences who are, in their own programmatic way, superhuman.

But Theodore loves her anyway. And it is Her's poignant articulation of the indescribable sensation of love—the desire, the frustration, the madness—that elevates it from a clever concept to something truly historic. It's a film that's defiantly specific in depicting its own bizarre and extraordinary romance, but it is also deeply empathetic to the broader concept of human connection. This is thanks in part to its enormously gifted actors. Phoenix, who sports a papery mustache and spends much of the film clad in ludicrously high-waisted pants, shreds all vestiges of vanity and portrays Theodore as a nervous bundle of emotions; he is by turns sad, elated, angry, and even a little mean, but he always feels like a real person. So too, remarkably enough, does Samantha, and as Johansson's clear, convivial voice starts to crack and gives way to something richer and sadder, she somehow creates a fully realized character. Both performances are endemic of Jonze's overall spirit of nobility and generosity, and of how, with wry humor and heartfelt sincerity, he turns a ridiculous premise into something strange and wonderful.

Late in Her, Amy confides to Theodore, "We're only here briefly, and while I'm here, I want to allow myself joy." It's a simple, honest declaration whose purity feels revelatory, especially in a film that so expertly expresses how messy and painful human existence can be. And Her, for all its fascinating inquiries into computers' depths, is entirely about being human. It acknowledges our flaws, even as it's flawless, and it recognizes that despite our defects, we can do great things: build self-aware machines, compose beautiful music, make people laugh, find true love. Sometimes, we can even make movies like this one. And then, in watching them, we can allow ourselves joy.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #2: The Spectacular Now
The Best Movies of 2013, #3: Gravity
The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #2: The Spectacular Now

"I'd like to think that there's more to a person than just one thing," Aimee Finicky says early in The Spectacular Now. I'd like to think she's right. There is certainly more than just one thing to The Spectacular Now, James Ponsoldt's swooning, touching third feature. Like Aimee, it refuses to be pigeonholed. This is partly because, in strict genre terms, it has no strict genre; instead, it melds elements of various tropes, making it not only a winning coming-of-age story, but also an earnest teen romance, a wistful family drama, and even a sobering study of addiction. But far more important than the multiplicity of the film's form is the raw power of its content. The Spectacular Now is not one thing, because it is many things: spry and funny, sad and heartfelt, honest and scary, rueful and rewarding. It's a movie that would make Aimee Finicky proud.

Aimee, beautifully played by Shailene Woodley, is the film's soul, but she is not its nominal hero. That would be Sutter Keely (Miles Teller), a brash, confident teenager who opens the movie narrating his college application essay, in which he waxes poetic about his recent glory days. As Sutter moans about his recent breakup, you may suspect that you've met him in other movies before, and that The Spectacular Now will trace his familiar arc from outcast to victor. But as it turns out, Sutter is not so easily classifiable. He's lovesick, but he's not a mope. He's popular, but he's not a jock. And though he's smart, he does not appear to be a great student or even have an especially bright future. What he does have, though—and what Teller conveys so persuasively and effortlessly—is an abundance of ebullient personality, a gregariousness that simultaneously excites people and puts them at their ease. Oh, and he also has a drug habit.

More particularly, Sutter is an alcoholic, a condition he shares with the protagonists of Ponsoldt's prior film, Smashed. Rarely seen without guzzling an anonymous liquid through a straw in a Big Gulp or sneaking clandestine pulls from a flask, Sutter is pleasantly half-drunk most of the time. Yet Ponsoldt, working from a screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the highly talented scribes behind (500) Days of Summer and The Fault in Our Stars), presents Sutter's alcoholism less as a vexatious disease than as a factual circumstance—it is an explicable effect of his upbringing and a symptom of his need to be constantly charming. The movie does not condone Sutter's drinking, but neither does it condemn him for it. It simply observes, with quiet understanding, how alcohol can serve as a social lubricant whose abuse can produce uniquely distressing consequences. It's a rare, measured approach to a malady that most movies address with shrill didacticism. But Ponsoldt is far too preoccupied with other matters to castigate Sutter for his compulsion.

Specifically, the heart of The Spectacular Now is the tender relationship that blossoms between Sutter and Aimee. She is in many ways Sutter's opposite, shy and tentative, with a limited social circle, and they initially seem an unlikely match. Yet from their ignominious first encounter—in which Aimee discovers Sutter sprawled out on a lawn after a particularly aggressive bender—a strange, awkward chemistry begins to build. Aimee, naturally, is smitten with Sutter's casual charisma, even as she struggles to process the directness of his flattery. (Her response to Sutter matter-of-factly informing her that she's beautiful: "Oh my God, no!") But Sutter is equally transfixed by Aimee's innocence, which he finds both enchanting and perplexing, and which Woodley evokes with astonishing naturalism. As a result, their courtship—including a magnificent four-minute walk-and-talk at an outdoor party, which Ponsoldt captures in a single, unfussy take—is charged with fascination and unpredictability.

It also appears to be fraught with peril. "You're going to break her heart," a friend warns Sutter, citing the gulf between his and Aimee's romantic experience. And maybe he will. Certainly, Sutter is as confused as he is enthralled, which only makes the deepening of Aimee's attraction all the more dangerous. (Never before has the simple phrase "I like you so much" been uttered with such heartbreaking sincerity as Woodley provides here.) But Aimee is made of stronger stuff than first appears, and once again, The Spectacular Now demonstrates little interest in conforming to the rules of any genre or to the audience's expectations. And as interested as Sutter is in Aimee, he is also bent on tracking down his long-absent father (the great Kyle Chandler). He eventually does, and their reunion is a marvel of sharp, surprising storytelling, mingling happiness and anticipation with bitterness and toxicity.

That swirl of emotions is typical of The Spectacular Now, which extends its generosity of feeling to its entire cast. Sutter's mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is both supportive and exasperated, doing her best but angry that she isn't doing better. Similarly, his boss at a part-time job (an excellent, wonderfully restrained Bob Odenkirk) is presented as equal parts friend and father figure, leading to a late scene of startling poignancy. Even supporting characters with minimal screen time, like Sutter's ex-girlfriend (Short Term 12's Brie Larson) and his older sister (Smashed's Mary Elizabeth Winstead), feel like fully developed people with messy, complicated lives of their own.

But in the end, it all comes back to Aimee. In a narrative embattled with compromise, disappointment, and loss, she is a figure of pure luminescence, and Woodley's performance is so delicately fragile that it becomes overpowering. She is more than Sutter deserves, a fact that he first ignores, then accepts, and ultimately attempts to overcome. And so, the movie's final act is heart-stopping in its impact, even if it is also, like the rest of the film, nuanced, thoughtful, and true. It's a fitting capper for a movie of extraordinary warmth and depth of feeling. So perhaps Aimee was wrong, and The Spectacular Now can be reduced to one thing after all: It's glorious.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #3: Gravity
The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Fear Wins Out: Why theater owners and Sony shouldn't have pulled "The Interview"

Movies are supposed to be vehicles for escape, but every so often, the real world roars into view. Such was the case yesterday, when Sony Pictures canceled the planned Christmas release of The Interview, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen's comedy in which two media honchos (played by Rogen and James Franco) conspire with the U.S. government to assassinate North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un. Shortly before this announcement, America's major theater chains—including AMC, Cinemark, and Regal—declared that they would not screen the film, citing safety concerns for their patrons stemming from a threat by Guardians of Peace, an anonymous group of hackers.

Given the current climate of geopolitical turmoil and overall anxiety, these cancellations were somewhat predictable and are, all things considered, explicable. But they are also wrong, and they paint a deeply disturbing picture of the movie industry's relationship with both its talent and its audience.

Some brief background: In November, Sony suffered an unprecedented hack of its data, with Guardians of Peace later claiming responsibility. (North Korea denied perpetuating the hack, though it did commend the hackers' actions; a recent federal investigation suggested North Korea was in fact complicit.) This past Tuesday, the hackers sent various emails containing vague threats suggesting that they intended to either bomb or somehow attack theaters showing The Interview on Christmas. (One such email: "Remember the 11th of September 2001. We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the [theaters] at that time.) The Department of Homeland Security announced that it was investigating the threat but said it was not supported by "credible intelligence". Later that evening, Sony issued a statement indicating that it was not pulling the movie but that it would respect exhibitors who decided not to screen it. Yesterday, the major theater chains announced they wouldn't exhibit the film, prompting Sony to yank it entirely.

So here we are, and let's take a moment to acknowledge the sheer absurdity of where here is. I haven't seen The Interview—and I question whether the hackers have, though that hardly matters—but it is by all accounts a ridiculous movie that has no interest in taking itself seriously. This, presumably, is part of the fun, in the same way Goldberg and Rogen's This Is the End was fun because it took an objectively grave scenario (the apocalypse) and turned it into a hilarious meditation on male friendship and celebrity culture. Whether The Interview similarly capitalizes on the lunacy of its premise, I don't know, because I can't watch the fucking movie (at least, not until Sony inevitably releases it online, which will likely happen after the passage of what the studio's PR experts deem to be a decent interval). And the reason I can't watch it is that a handful of maniacs, who may or may not be affiliated with a country halfway around the world, possess one thing but lack another.

Specifically, what they possess is a truly fearsome grasp of computer technology (supposedly, the hack itself was extremely sophisticated). What they lack, of course, is a sense of humor, apparently perceiving The Interview's subject matter to be so grievously offensive as to constitute an act of war. (I'm involuntarily reminded of Dave Bautista's character in Guardians of the Galaxy, a man who is literally incapable of understanding metaphor and who, when informed that an idiom will go over his head, responds: "Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast. I would catch it.") As a result of this supremely unfortunate combination, they have responded to a fake assassination with very real and tangible outrage. (At least, I assume it's real. It's possible they're just nihilists who want to watch the world burn, meaning they actually do have a sense of humor, albeit a loathsome one.) This outrage, in turn, has scared the hell out of a major American corporation, not to mention thousands of theater owners across the country. Franz Kafka couldn't have made this shit up.

But it's happening, and to be fair to Sony and the exhibitors, their reaction—to swiftly backpedal from The Interview like it's infected with plague—makes a certain degree of sense. Theater owners hardly wish to appear indifferent to their customers' safety, not least in the wake of the rampage in Colorado two years ago that left 12 people dead. Screening The Interview could also discourage patrons from visiting the multiplex at all, whereas they might otherwise attend a different movie during the lucrative Christmas season. And should something tragic actually occur, the prospect of civil liability is daunting, especially given that exhibitors could hardly claim such an event to be unforeseeable.

So I concede that there exist valid reasons, both ethical and economic, for theater owners to balk at screening The Interview. But I am nevertheless dismayed by this turn of events, which to me smacks of capitulation and cowardice. The lesson here, it appears, is that if you don't like a movie—if you disagree with its message or take offense to its content—the most effective way to speak out against it is not to denigrate its artistic merits but simply to threaten its audience. Annoyed that Exodus: Gods and Kings features white actors playing Middle-Eastern characters? Why mobilize your forces on Twitter when you can call in a bomb threat? Don't like Selma's depiction of Martin Luther King Jr.'s organizational efforts? The hell with writing a column, just send an anonymous email to exhibitors promising retribution. Gus Fring once said that "I don't believe fear to be an effective motivator", but he just owned a chicken restaurant, not a movie theater. Now, it seems, inducing fear—rather than encouraging discourse—is the most persuasive form of opposition.

I recognize that this reading may be a tad reductive. It is unlikely, at least in the short-term, that the cancellation of The Interview will result in a spate of similar terrorist tactics going forward. And despite Homeland Security's dismissal of the threat's credibility, Guardians of Peace is clearly capable of doing something, given the intricacy of its hack. (Can we pause for a moment to marvel at the irony of a group calling itself Guardians of Peace threatening to kill people for watching a movie?) The pragmatist in me wonders why, if the goal of terrorism is to actually murder people, the plotters would warn their targets of their plans in advance. But then, imputing rationality to terrorists is a dubious proposition, and I am in no way qualified to assess the legitimacy of this threat.

But neither, I suspect, are theater owners or movie studios. And the panic demonstrated here suggests not a measured decision but one borne out of blind fear, with minimal regard to the plausibility of the terrorists' intentions. It is easy to contend that any risk to safety is too great a risk, and certainly, it is a business' own prerogative whether to open its doors to consumers. Yet in their haste here to act in their customers' best interests, exhibitors have inadvertently undermined them. In surrendering to the hackers' insane whims, they are perpetuating the very dread that terrorists, through their inhumane behavior, hope to incite. And in attempting to snuff out retributive tactics, they are only encouraging them.

Equally troubling, if less immediate, are the implications that The Interview's cancellation has on the industry's artists. The extremity of The Interview's premise may seem unique, and admittedly, I can't imagine other projects currently gestating in which contemporary real-world figures are hypothetically murdered in over-the-top fashion. But I certainly can imagine any number of speculative screenplays whose content could be deemed controversial, provocative, or offensive. Indeed, much of art's power derives from its capacity to stimulate, unnerve, and even anger its audience. Will studios now hesitate to green-light such scripts out of reasonable fear that theater owners would decline to screen such inflammatory material? Will writers, seeking a paycheck, suppress their artistic ambitions in favor of safer, less contentious ideas?

These are difficult questions to grapple with, but I question whether theater owners and Sony grappled with them at all. Again, I do not entirely blame them. Refusing to screen The Interview was likely a sound short-term business decision, one they can support by spouting platitudes about safety and public concern. But I remain dispirited that, when presented with an opportunity to take a stand against purported terrorism, both Sony and the exhibitors declined to do so. Instead, they chose retreat, cloaking their cowardice in the guise of civic responsibility. Their customers may in fact feel safer in seven days' time, and some may argue that sacrificing one film is a small price to pay for that sense of security. But this is about more than just The Interview—it's about cherishing the sanctity of artistic expression. And if we abandon that, then I mourn the many other unmade movies we may never see.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #3: Gravity

"Life in space is impossible," the opening crawl announces in Gravity. And so it is. Beyond the confines of our atmosphere, there is—as the crawl also succinctly informs us—no oxygen, no sound, no air pressure. Astronauts who brave the pitiless environment of space must take meticulous precautions just to survive; one mistake means death. It is for this reason that space is an ideal setting for a horror movie (such as one that sports perhaps the most famous tagline in all of movies). And true to form, Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's stunning depiction of one woman's battle against the void, is consistently terrifying, with dread pervading it at all times. It places its protagonist in certain doom and watches her scrap and claw just for the opportunity to breathe air and set foot on land. It is spare, harsh, and ruthless. Yet it is also exquisitely beautiful, astonishing viewers with its formal command and visual audacity. As a piece of storytelling, Gravity is merciless. As a work of cinema, it is rapturous.

Its magnificent, extended opening shot instantly establishes this twisted duality. Gravity takes place almost entirely in the black, inky void of space, and as Cuarón's camera—operated by six-time Oscar nominee Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot Cuarón's sublime Children of Men—glides toward a speck of an object, it immediately evokes the gargantuan, oppressive nature of the universe. Yet the camera does indeed glide, and there's a breathtaking gentleness to its graceful swoop as it gradually homes in on that speck and reveals it to be a telescope and a pair of floating astronauts. These are Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), but the camera doesn't settle on them; instead, it continues to rove, circling the gleaming telescope and looking back toward the stars. It's an opening that's equal parts horror setup and majestic opera, silently conveying the characters' precarious situation yet also marveling at their fluid movements and their ability to exist in this cold, forbidding world.

Yet even while Cuarón is casually exploring the vastness of space, he's also quickly delineating his characters. The rigidity of the astronauts' suits and the camouflaging nature of their helmets precludes him from relying on body language and facial cues, so he switches to sound. Kowalski natters over the comm system with mission control (voiced by Ed Harris, subliminally reprising his performance from Apollo 13), with Clooney's clearly modulated voice suggesting an inveterate master, while Bullock's clipped rasp paints Stone as a rookie. Together, they're trying to download data off the telescope, though the particulars of their task are irrelevant. What matters is the absurdity of it all: two people floating high above the heavens, seemingly oblivious to the omnipresent threat of death that surrounds them.

They get acquainted with that threat real fast. Shortly after mission control barks a curt warning, Steven Price's sinister score starts to stir, and a storm of debris floods the screen, its jagged, haphazard shards captured in unblinking detail by Lubezki's 3-D photography. Stone, who had been clinging to the telescope like a barnacle, finds her tether snapped in two, and suddenly she's off, drifting helplessly into nothingness. Cuarón's camera follows her fearlessly, and though he's just using a green screen and some computer wizardry, he somehow—helped in part by Bullock's palpable vocalized panic—communicates the overwhelming terror that engulfs her. It's as scary as it is technically amazing, and among Gravity's many accomplishments is its confirmation that revolutionary special effects can serve a story rather than themselves. Watching Stone careen into the void, body tumbling head over feet, you are not speculating about how Cuarón and his crew pulled this off. You're wondering how the hell she's going to survive.

She does, at least momentarily, thanks to Kowalski's spiffy jetpack. The two then attempt to maneuver toward a nearby spacecraft, the last vestige of civilization in this desolate blankness. At this point, Gravity shifts from a mesmerizing survey of the stars to a sharp, simple story of their indifference. The tale of man versus wilderness is hardly new, but the particulars here are decidedly novel, as Stone must conquer not only her own fear but also the persistent darkness that looms before her. And so, over the remainder of the film's economical runtime, she faces a series of practical problems. She finds herself, at varying times, clambering futilely up the sides of a space station, signaling in vain over a radio, attempting to pilot a shuttle that lacks fuel, and even trying to read instructions in Chinese.

As we watch Stone grapple with these impossible challenges, we also learn a bit more about her. She once had a daughter but no longer does, a loss that weighs on her and threatens to cripple her spirit as well as her body. Several critics have chastised Cuarón and his son, Jonas (with whom he wrote the screenplay), for supplying Stone with such a backstory, arguing that it layers unnecessary melodrama onto a film already laden with high stakes. But as with everything else in Gravity, this information is presented not with maudlin sentimentality but with fragility and tenderness. There are no treacly flashbacks or soothing voiceovers. There is simply Stone's monologue about how she likes to drive aimlessly while listening to the radio, a humanizing detail that succinctly maps the depths of her depression without preying on her audience's emotions. (The movie's one capitulation to fantasy, in which a character briefly returns from the dead, is as nightmarish as it is dreamlike.) And Bullock's rich, soulful performance is counterbalanced beautifully by Clooney's, which takes an archetype—the supremely competent veteran—and imbues it with twinges of humor, thoughtfulness, and melancholy.

As a result, Gravity is something of a hybrid. Technically, it is unimpeachable. The cinematography is jaw-dropping—along with the elegant camera moves, it features the best use of 3-D since James Cameron's Avatar—while the cutting-edge effects merge with Cuarón's extraordinary vision to yield a startling combination of stark modernity and classical beauty. Visually, this movie is historic. Yet it is also undeniably a movie about people, and about their desperate struggle to beat the odds, to win the war, to go home.

In debating Gravity with friends, I've heard the charge that it plays best on the big screen, and that its visceral impact in home viewings is necessarily diminished. That may be so. Yet I fail to see why the recognition of Gravity's most formidable asset—how its bold, brawny 3-D filmmaking will dazzle and overpower its audience—can somehow make the movie worse, or less consequential. Certainly, the rise of Internet streaming services and the shrinking time gap between theatrical release dates and home-viewing availability are real phenomena that are changing how movies are both made and seen. But this shifting landscape only reinforces Gravity's enduring triumph: how it affirms the novelty of crowding into a theatre with strangers and looking upward with awe. Cuarón has made a lean, efficient, hypnotic film about death and survival. In so doing, he has reminded us just how wondrous it can be to go to the movies.




Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #4: Blue Is the Warmest Color

Falling in love is magical, but what happens when the fall ends? Do you land gently and continue through life in a state of perpetual bliss? Or do you crash and suddenly find yourself helpless, paralyzed with numbness and confusion? Blue Is the Warmest Color, Abdellatif Kechiche's soaring, searing story of love won and lost, examines the trajectory of a fairly typical relationship with atypical tenderness and honesty. In so doing, it runs the emotional gamut, depicting fully realized characters at their best and worst: joyous and disconsolate, hopeful and afraid, empathetic and hurtful. But even as it buffets its two lovers through emotional crosswinds, one thing remains constant: It always feels true. It is not an especially happy film, and viewers who demand that their protagonists prevail may leave disappointed. Yet Blue Is the Warmest Color is also deeply compassionate, one of the most swooningly romantic movies in recent memory. It lifts you up and intoxicates you, even as it shatters your heart.

Not that it is in any rush to advertise its greatness. It opens on Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos, stunning), exiting her modest home and loping to catch the bus to school, one of many mundane moments grounding a movie that otherwise spends a great deal of time up in the clouds. With an expressive, open face and wisps of brown hair that frequently whip across her brow, Adèle is a fairly normal 15-year-old. She works hard in school, gossips with her gaggle of friends, tentatively approaches boys, and—imagine this—has a healthy relationship with her supportive parents. But one day, Adèle strolls past Emma (Léa Seydoux), and the two catch each other's eye. It's an innocuous enough encounter (though it apparently took over 100 takes before Kechiche was satisfied), but Adèle soon finds herself besotted, dreaming of this blue-haired figure to the point that her sexual encounters with men feel hollow. She initially channels her fantasies by pursuing a relationship with an adventurous female friend, but that quickly backfires, at which point she seems truly lost.

Thankfully, she finds herself, or should I say, she finds Emma, after wandering into a local lesbian bar. Emma, despite her punk dye job, is not some bad girl from the wrong side of the tracks but an art student at university, a fact that both surprises and intrigues Adèle. Yet the two women's academic pursuits are secondary to their chemistry, which remains just as palpable as when they crossed paths in the street, presaging Blue Is the Warmest Color's tonal shift from discovery to courtship. Adèle and Emma begin spending time together, visiting museums and babbling about Sartre, the tantalizing prospect of intimacy hovering in the air. It's a development that does not escape the notice of Adèle's friends, and in one excruciating scene, the movie lays bare the unparalleled cruelty of teenage girls. Yet Adèle's attraction to Emma is too acute to be waylaid by hateful bigots, and the two women grow steadily closer, not just emotionally but physically, with Kechiche gradually shrinking the distance between them in the frame. He shoots primarily in extreme close-up, a strikingly invasive approach that allows Exarchopoulos to evoke Adèle's hesitation as well as her burgeoning desire. Yet every now and then, he pulls back and shows his two leading ladies together; in one exquisite shot, Adèle and Emma are separated by only a sliver of sunlight, and the warmth radiating from the screen is enveloping. This, the scene practically announces, is what it feels like to fall in love.

Not long after that, Adèle and Emma have sex, an act that proves significant for characters and viewers alike. To wit, the movie received sharp disapproval for its sex scenes, which are—depending on the critique—too long, too fake, or too prurient. And it is undeniably true that the simulated sex between Adèle and Emma is more graphic and more vigorous, not to mention just more, than what is generally portrayed on screen. Yet the sheer intensity of these sex scenes is precisely the point. Adèle's attraction to Emma is not some casual curiosity—it is all-consuming longing. To prevent viewers from witnessing the physical component of that longing due to vague concerns for cinematic propriety would be to deprive Blue Is the Warmest Color of its forthright honesty and immediacy. It would also damage the movie's quest to answer its central inquiry: How long does love last? This is not a film about sex but about love, and it investigates, with remarkable patience and persuasiveness, what happens once passions cool and routine sets in. (To that point, the film features three major sex scenes; not coincidentally, each is shorter than the last.)

So what does happen? From a plot perspective, not much, as conceptually, Blue Is the Warmest Color is fairly rote. It's essentially a straightforward story of girl meets girl, and while Adèle and Emma's shared gender adds a layer of intrigue and uncertainty to their relationship, it is hardly their defining characteristic, especially once Adèle graduates high school and enters the real, slightly more sympathetic world. Specifically, she gains employment as a teacher, while Emma—who at one point suddenly appears without her trademark pigment and carries on as a regular blonde, a gentle visual cue that these women are changing—pursues her dream of becoming a painter. The two settle into a comfortable rhythm of not-quite-bliss, and even though Adèle seems happy, you get the sense that she is not entirely whole.

Yet her director is in no rush to turn her life upside-down. Kechiche, whose The Secret in the Grain was a half-brilliant, half-maddening look at a middle-aged man's attempt to open a restaurant, prefers simply to observe, watching Adèle closely (remember those close-ups) as she teaches her class or comports herself with Emma's friends. You may find yourself restless during these moments, wondering about their place in the narrative, waiting for them to drive the story forward. But the seeming listlessness of these scenes serves as a pronounced proxy for Adèle's gnawing sensation of emptiness. The banality of her classroom, in which she chides children for their inattentiveness, stands in stark contrast to her own days of schooling, when she heroically pursued Emma and won her heart, heedless of any consequences. And if a lengthy dinner party where Emma hobnobs with her intellectual (OK, pretentious) classmates feels off-putting to you, imagine how it feels to Adèle, who must sit awkwardly and reconcile the beauteous free spirit she fell in love with against the composed academic who now casually debates the artistic merits of classical painters. As you watch her face—under Exarchopoulos' remarkable performance, every polite smile is accompanied by silent, unreciprocated yearning—you will ache for her uncertainty. Does she belong here? Does Emma, still warm and affectionate but no longer frenzied, still love her?

I don't know the answer to these questions, and more to the point, neither does Adèle. She just knows that she's still hungry, and her attempt to sate that hunger leads to some questionable decisions with devastating costs. The final act of this deliberate, deeply rewarding three-hour film is raw and pitiless, recognizing that some flames simply burn too hot to be sustained. And for all of the attention paid to its admittedly erotic sex scenes, the movie's most visceral moment occurs near its end, when Adèle pleads with Emma and bares her soul in a display of pure, uninhibited longing. It is here that Exarchopoulos will overwhelm you, though Seydoux is every bit her costar's equal, bringing quiet pathos and hidden depths to Emma's seeming decisiveness. Their heartfelt performances transform two women having coffee into, at least for them, the most momentous meal in the world.

After the film wrapped, Kechiche came under fire for being overly demanding of his actresses, not to mention supposedly forcing his crew to work under torturous conditions. That's a concern. But as a critic, I'm forced to focus on the end result, and the end result here is a triumph. In terms of box-office gross and scale, Blue Is the Warmest Color may be a small movie, but in its own way, it is also enormous. It confirms, with heartrending clarity, the wonder and the woe of falling in love.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #5: Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass can't sit still. From his two hyperactive entries in the Bourne franchise, to his nervy September 11 dramatization United 93, to his unappreciated Iraq War docudrama Green Zone, the filmmaker's work is characterized most of all by a roving impatience, with frantic cutting and jittery handheld camerawork. It's a kinetic approach that sacrifices cleanliness for liveliness, but if it often gets your blood pumping, it can occasionally feel jumbled and chaotic, as though the ravenous director is struggling to sate his appetite to cover as much spatial territory as possible. Yet Greengrass' restlessness makes him ideally suited to make Captain Phillips, his gripping fact-based account of the war of wills and wits between an American merchantman and the Somali pirates who hijack his ship. Because the film transpires in a bare minimum of cramped locations—first Phillips' lone freighter stranded in the vast ocean, then a tiny lifeboat floating even more helplessly amid the waves—it is necessarily claustrophobic. But rather than being hamstrung by such a constrained space, Greengrass finds himself liberated. Unable to overextend himself in terms of breadth, he opts instead for depth, continuously amping up the energy even though there is nowhere for his camera to go. Watching the movie, you won't be able to escape either.

In one of the least showy and most powerful performances of his career, Tom Hanks plays the titular Phillips as a brusque, inherently competent commander, a man who instinctively knows every nook and cranny of his vessel, the Maersk Alabama, even if he's less adept at ingratiating himself with his crew. His assignment is to shepherd the Maersk and its unspecified cargo around the Horn of Africa. It's a routine job, and Phillips' terse professionalism—immediately upon stepping aboard, he instructs his first mate to tighten some of the ship's security mechanisms without offering so much as a greeting—creates the impression that he's prepared for anything. He's not.

Specifically, fate intervenes in the form of Abduwali Muse (Barkhad Abdi), a rail-thin Somali armed with a dangerous combination of intelligence and lethality, not to mention a cache of semi-automatic weapons. When we first meet Muse (in one of the movie's few land-bound scenes), he appears to be something of a malcontent, but like Phillips, he exudes proficiency and demands loyalty. He is also, of course, a pirate, though that term is less villainous than simply occupational. As with Phillips, Muse has superiors he must satisfy, and he similarly performs his duties with determination and skill. And so, he leads a pair of motorized skiffs into the Indian Ocean and sets his sights on a solitary unarmed freighter called the Maersk.

Captain Phillips, then, is a movie about men at work. Circumstances may have made enemies of Phillips and Muse, but it's only because they both have jobs to do. This is not to suggest that Greengrass is forgiving of Muse's vocation, merely that he acknowledges its greater context; Muse may in part be a product of circumstance, but he's also ruthless and greedy, and Abdi adroitly plays up his menace even as he shades it with self-doubt. Besides, Greengrass is an action maestro, not an academic, and Captain Phillips is not some arch sociopolitical treatise on global economic disparities. It is, first and foremost, a thriller, and once Muse and his confederates board the Maersk—after an exhilarating sequence in which they attempt to mount a ladder alongside the ship while dodging blasts from fire hoses—any metaphorical overtones wash away, and we're left with two men and their narrow objectives. Muse just wants to get paid. Phillips just wants to survive.

What will happen? If you followed the news at the time of the hijacking in 2009, you likely know the answer. Yet this foreknowledge doesn't prevent Captain Phillips from being indecently suspenseful. Greengrass generates extraordinary tension just from chronicling the hijacking's logistical challenges—Check the engine room! Hide in the galley! Watch out for that glass!—and once Phillips finds himself on that lifeboat with nothing but his brains to protect him, the stakes feel enormous. But what's truly remarkable about the movie's sustained level of suspense is just how little actual action it contains. Most of its second half involves little more than men barking into walkie-talkies and staring at LED screens, yet Greengrass plays up the claustrophobia such that even the most minimal movements have maximum impact. Eventually, the U.S. Navy shows up (led by Max Martini, authentically authoritative), and as it attempts to both negotiate with and undermine the pirates, Captain Phillips turns into history's most momentous game of Stratego. The success of every task, from establishing a tow line to stealthily installing listening devices on the lifeboat, feels like it could be the literal difference between Phillips' life and his death.

Special mention must be made of the film's coda. You would think, after subjecting you to such unrelenting anxiety, that Greengrass might grant you a small measure of release. He's not so inclined, but his refusal feels less sadistic than bluntly honest. The movie's final scene is a knockout, with Hanks delivering the most nakedly emotional acting of his entire career. And overall, Captain Phillips is a wrenching, ultimately exhausting experience, one that first sucks you in and then wrings you out. In this, it's wholly separate from Greengrass' sturdy entries in the Bourne franchise. Those movies were similarly breathless, but when they ended, they left you wanting more. This one just leaves you in tears.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #6: 12 Years a Slave

Slavery was horrible. This is not up for debate; it's a fact. Yet our discussion of this wretched time in our civilization tends to feel removed and academic. How, we wonder, could society have countenanced the suppression of an entire race? What forces could have conspired to treat people as nothing more than property? Was nineteenth-century America motivated by economic gain, rationalizing that the ends justified the means, or did slave owners honestly believe in racial superiority? These are questions worth asking, lest such horrid history repeat itself, but they approach slavery more as an intellectual concept than as the actual, systemic brutalization of humans. 12 Years a Slave—Steve McQueen's gripping, unapologetically savage account of one servant's struggles—bucks that trend and instead takes a hauntingly intimate approach. It is not about slavery's politics. It is about its mechanics.

After opening with a brief series of ragged scenes that bluntly depict the daily rigors of plantation workers, the movie flashes back to Upstate New York, where its hero, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), lives comfortably with his family. One night, he goes out drinking with his white colleagues, oblivious of their plans to sell him into slavery. (As Solomon passes out, one of his companions murmurs, "More's the pity," with a tone of scalding indifference that will pollute the remainder of the film.) He wakes to find himself in chains, and his protestations of freedom are met with the lash. Then, he's shipped downriver, and his dozen-year nightmare begins.

In terms of plot, 12 Years a Slave isn't complicated. John Ridley's screenplay (adapted from Northup's own memoir) is episodic, tracing Solomon's external movements as he's shuttled from one degrading incident to the next. But it also examines his internal contortions as he attempts to adapt to each new, uniquely terrible challenge. Solomon, rebranded "Platt" upon his arrival in the South, is something of a pragmatist, and Ejiofor expertly conveys not only his character's pride and intelligence, but also his fear and resolve. Platt knows he is being wrongly persecuted, but he also knows that he must tread delicately and manipulate each situation to the limited extent he is able. In some cases, that involves trumpeting his talents, such as when he flashes his engineering prowess to benefit both an opportunistic slave-owner and himself. But for the most part, it entails playing the part of a docile farmhand, hoping to remain invisible in order to minimize his suffering.

And oh, how he suffers. As it turns out, slavery was nasty business. Obvious, you say? Maybe so. But never before has this pitiful era in our history been depicted on screen with such unsparing, persuasive cruelty. It is here that McQueen's rigorous approach to filmmaking pays dividends. If nothing else, his prior two features—the glum prison picture, Hunger, and the glummer exploration of sex addiction, Shame—established his talent for articulating pain. Here, he operates almost as a documentarian, chronicling Platt's horrors with quiet, solemn detachment. Working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, he composes widescreen images with minimal cutting, the camera seeing everything but saying nothing. It's a striking, powerful approach that hammers home the severity of Platt's predicament. In one sickening scene, he gets strung up on a branch, left to dangle helplessly with his feet barely scraping the ground; it's a brutal enough image, but McQueen holds it in agonizing long shot, and as you watch Platt tiptoe from one foot to the other to stave off strangulation, you can feel the rope cut into your neck.

Again, nasty business. Yet there is something oddly compassionate about McQueen's scrupulous technique, a sense of empathy sorely lacking in his prior films. To be sure, Hunger and Shame were both exactingly well-made pictures, but they felt cold, as though their maker was indifferent to the grotesqueries on display. But the fact of slavery is so heated and so appalling that it requires no further embellishment—simply acknowledging its existence is condemnation enough. And so, by refusing to sensationalize his subject matter and instead keeping his emotional distance from it, McQueen somehow brings us closer to it.

So do his actors. Ejiofor doggedly carries the film—wary but proud, his Solomon instantly earns our sympathy without once asking for it—but he's ably supported by his costars, whom McQueen gives more freedom to emote. Chief among them is Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a cotton-picking prodigy who faces rape at regular intervals. Nyong'o's technique is markedly different from Ejiofor's—she turns up the volume and physicality rather than letting her grief roil beneath—but it's no less effective, and Patsey's sustained suffering serves as a mournful counterpoint to Platt's eventual redemption. There are also myriad villains, including Sarah Paulson as a cruel and jealous matriarch and Benedict Cumberbatch as a relatively benevolent plantation owner whose outward affection for Platt makes his ultimate inaction all the more repulsive. Most of all, there is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a vicious slaver whose spasms of rage mask deep-seated self-loathing. Fassbender, who of course headlined both Hunger and Shame, is a naturally mesmerizing screen presence, but he subtly distorts that persona here, transforming Epps into both a terrifying monster and a pathetic fool. (Less successful in suppressing his star power is producer Brad Pitt, who casts himself as a Canadian sympathizer; he's fine, but his magnetism is distracting, and it robs the movie of its immediacy.)

12 Years a Slave is not fun to watch (though some cinephiles may reflexively admire the undeniable craftsmanship amidst the narrative ugliness). It is violent, brutal, and unrelenting. But it is also sincere, and even if you shrink from its savagery, you can appreciate that McQueen has made a movie that defiantly addresses slavery and its attendant horrors without flinching from them. He has chronicled 12 years in the life of one slave, but in so doing, he has also paid homage to countless others, a tribute that makes his movie both exultant and sad. Solomon endured a nightmare, but his story is ultimately one of triumph. Yet the lasting impact of 12 Years a Slave is its silent acknowledgement that there are so many other stories of slavery it can never tell.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #7: American Hustle

As wonderful as it is to watch, American Hustle was assuredly a difficult film to make. It has a labyrinthine plot, replete with double crosses, false identities, fake accents, and cons nested inside other cons. Its structure is ungainly, with cascading flashbacks, multiple voiceovers, and repeated shifts in point of view. And its based-in-truth narrative, about the FBI's ABSCAM sting in the 1970s, is laden with insider minutiae, ranging from the mechanics of organized crime to the breadth of political corruption to the egotism of law enforcement. You would think, given the need to balance all of these plates spinning on screen, that American Hustle would require a workmanlike and disciplined director, someone capable of streamlining the screenplay's disparate elements and synthesizing its busy plot. Instead, it got David O. Russell.

As a filmmaker, Russell possesses many qualities, but discipline is not one of them. Yet American Hustle, which pops off the screen like a brightly colored carnival ride, proves that chaos can be a virtue rather than a vice, and that a movie can transcend its surface limitations through sheer force of personality. It is messy, frenetic, and occasionally just absurd. But it is also consistently delightful, and it seems so happy just to exist, with a glimmer of genuine emotion mingling with its self-evident joy. It's a movie made by a guy who loves movies, and it shows.

Russell also loves actors, and American Hustle features one of the most ferociously talented ensembles in recent memory. An unrecognizable Christian Bale stars as Irving Rosenfeld, a small-time con artist with a beer belly, a "rather elaborate" comb-over, and a gift for scamming get-rich-quick investors. He's married to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), a restless housewife with lots of confidence and little patience, but he falls for Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a down-on-her-luck former stripper desperate to make ends meet. Together, Irving and Sydney begin hooking bigger fish, with Sydney adopting the persona of Lady Edith Greensly (complete with faux British accent), an alias that helps lure in more high-profile targets. This eventually draws the attention of Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), an ambitious FBI agent who flips Irving and recruits him to deceive Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), New Jersey's mayor, by pretending to serve as the courier for a wealthy Arab sheikh. While Richie operates under the scowling supervision of one superior (Louis C.K., aggrieved and hilarious) and the fame-chasing opportunism of another (Alessandro Nivola), Irving's maneuvers draw him closer to the actual Mafia, including a fearsome boss played by an actor whose identity I dare not reveal.

Follow all of that? Neither did I. But American Hustle is less about unraveling the myriad strands of its deftly woven screenplay (co-written by Russell and Eric Warren Singer) than it is about absorbing the blistering energy that's released when its rambunctious characters collide with one another on screen. Russell is more of a people person than a storyteller, and while that approach can occasionally sideline and obfuscate the movie's plot, it results in a welcome and rare attention to character, giving real shading to familiar archetypes. (Recall the sensitive exploration of mental illness in Silver Linings Playbook.) Richie, for example, appears at first glance to be a typical square-jawed lawman, but his simmering flirtations with Edith—as well as a touching conversation with his mother—reveal him to be desperate and lonely, with Cooper brilliantly using false bravado to mask his insecurities. Sydney, meanwhile, is less a damsel in distress than a tentative accomplice, torn between her loyalty to Irving and her ever-present desire for stability, and Adams beautifully emphasizes her grace and quick wit while also hinting at the fear that constantly gnaws at her. And while Rosalyn could have easily come off as a shrill wet blanket, Lawrence turns her into an absolute firecracker, bursting with anarchic delirium, at least until a heartbreaking moment late in the film in which she shuts down the chaos and communicates entirely with her quavering eyes. All of these outstanding performances confirm that Russell is incredibly generous to his actors, affording them wide latitude to turn seemingly trivial moments into character-defining scenes; it's no accident that his absurdly good cast pays him back several times over. (Not coincidentally, not since Warren Beatty's Reds in 1981 had a movie received Academy Award nominations in all four acting categories; Russell's now done it in back-to-back years.)

He also knows a star when he has one. Christian Bale received a well-deserved Oscar for his work in Russell's The Fighter, but it's virtually impossible to reconcile his lean, jumpy crack addict from that film with the paunchy, exasperated con artist we see here. The physical transformation is typically astounding, the accent flawless as always (how many people know that Bale is actually Welsh?), but what's truly remarkable is the decency. Irving is a two-bit criminal, sure, but he doesn't want to hurt anyone. He's really a good guy, which is why the movie's most stealthily poignant subplots involve his relationships with others: his wistful romance with Sydney, the dream girl who both admires and grows skeptical of him; his foundering marriage with Rosalyn, the beauty he loves but cannot endure; even his burgeoning friendship with Carmine, the mark of the very con he's perpetrating. Irving is both at the top of his game and haplessly out of his depth, and Bale's committed, doleful portrayal lends him a quiet gravitas that borders on heroism.

He also exemplifies one of American Hustle's most surprising traits: heart. This movie is, first and foremost, a comedic caper, with hairpin turns, farcical misunderstandings, and hysterical reveals. (In particular, Richie's dazed response when he learns Edith's true identity is one for the ages.) But Russell is too nimble to restrict himself to a single genre, and to applaud this movie for its comic brilliance is to risk dismissing its genuine tenderness. Russell is an entertainer, and he does his damnedest to make you laugh. He succeeds, but the real success of American Hustle is that it also makes you happy.





Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Best Movies of 2013, #8: Before Midnight

Before Sunrise was never supposed to start a franchise. A touching, wondrous glimpse of two people meeting and immediately falling in love, Richard Linklater's 1995 romance worked perfectly well as a standalone story of a single night, even if the tantalizing ambiguity of its ending—in which nascent lovers Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) agreed to meet again in Vienna in six months' time—left viewers speculating as to what happened next. But to our surprise, Linklater resumed their story in 2004 with Before Sunset, which reunited Jesse and Celine for a few fateful hours in Paris. As it turned out, logistical issues prevented the lovers from reconnecting in Vienna, but even after nine years, their chemistry still crackled, and Before Sunset concluded with the winsome suggestion that they might in fact live happily ever after. Did they? To answer that question, Linklater and his two leads (who, for this film and the last, are also his writing partners) have returned with Before Midnight, which shatters our fairytale expectations with stark realism and painful honesty. Jesse and Celine may yet find bliss, but as this movie makes ruthlessly clear, it won't be easy.

When it opens, however, all seems to be well. We quickly learn that Jesse stayed in Paris with Celine all that time ago, and they're now married with a pair of adorable twin daughters, vacationing together in Greece. More importantly, they're still well-suited to engage in the one activity common to all three films: talk. In the movie's first major set piece—a lengthy static two-shot of the parents driving in their car while their children doze fitfully in the backseat—our loquacious lovers yammer back and forth, trading verbal volleys with a naturalistic patter that instantly reinforces their unique intimacy and reminds us of why they fell for each other in the first place. Linklater has always been fascinated by characters doing nothing in particular (see: Dazed and Confused; don't see: Waking Life), but Jesse and Celine remain his finest creation because of their specificity. They make quite the match, precisely because their temperaments are so disparate. Jesse, a writer by trade, is thoughtful and bookishly romantic but can also be maddeningly passive-aggressive, whereas Celine is passionate but frequently hotheaded and occasionally downright hostile. They are perfect for one another, which is also why they drive each other nuts.

It's tempting to view Before Midnight as a treatise on marriage, but it's more (and less) than that; it's a detailed investigation of this marriage, and how these two people combat the creeping forces of familiarity and ennui that can conspire to derail any long-term relationship. And so, when Jesse casually mentions during that opening car ride that he's struggling to stomach living so far from his Chicago-based teenage son (the product of a previous partnership that disintegrated shortly after the events of Before Sunset), Celine recognizes the gravity of his tossed-off comment and pounces. "This is how people break up," she says caustically, and in the context of a rambling, typical conversation between partners, Linklater has sown the seeds of discontent that ripen throughout the remainder of the movie. If Before Sunrise was a testament to the raw electricity of Jesse and Celine's love and Before Sunset affirmed the rarity of its power, Before Midnight explores the strength of its endurance. Can their relationship, initially forged with a white-hot flame, continue to subsist once passions have cooled and the mundanities of real life take over?

Linklater, as is his way, is hardly in a rush to provide an answer. An unhurried filmmaker by nature, he prefers to let his characters simply breathe and behave, rather than prodding them with plot. It's a relaxed, deliberate approach that is sometimes frustrating, and for a brief time—especially when Jesse and Celine congregate with a coterie of erudite scholars for a languid outdoor dinner—Before Midnight feels a bit slack. Thankfully, though, their friends have made arrangements for them to spend a romantic evening in a downtown hotel, and so husband and wife depart for a leisurely stroll through the sun-dappled Peloponnese, Linklater's camera continually tracking them with unforced immediacy.

It is here that Before Midnight both recalls its predecessors and distinguishes itself from them. Jesse and Celine can still talk the talk; their banter is as natural as ever, and Hawke and Delpy know these people so well that their performances feel effortlessly lived-in, inhabiting their characters as a second skin. But the tenor of their conversation has shifted into something darker and more restless. Jesse's dreamy disposition now feels less quixotic than irresponsible, while Celine's impetuousness is no longer as disarming as it is touchy and defensive. They remain ideal sparring partners, but listening to them relive past memories or bicker about trivialities, you get the sense that they're on the precipice, and that the powder keg is about to blow.

And so it does, because once they arrive at the hotel, all hell breaks loose. It begins innocently enough—Celine chats briefly with Jesse's son by phone but then hangs up before allowing her husband to speak with his son—but it quickly degenerates into all-out verbal warfare. There's no physical violence, but it's still rough stuff. Linklater and his actors possess a keen understanding of how people who love each other are uniquely capable of hurting one another, and as his protagonists hurl insults and rip open scabbed wounds, you get the horrifying sensation that you're witnessing the self-destruction of a marriage in real time. It is not necessarily fun to watch, but it is riveting and, to fans of the first two films, heartrending. We fell in love with these characters 18 years ago, watching them fall in love with each other. Wasn't their love immortal? Or was it in fact ephemeral, like that of so many relationships in the real world?

As with its forebears, Before Midnight ends not with certainty but with possibility. Perhaps Jesse and Celine will ride out this storm, recognizing that theirs is a resilient connection that can endure in the face of splintering discord. Or perhaps they will give up, simply unable to withstand the inexorable toll that real life can levy on even the grandest romances. Likely as not, we'll find out in another nine years. In the meantime, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy have afforded us yet another glimpse into the lives of two inimitable cinematic creations, and for this, you should be grateful. But you may also be dismayed.



Previously in the Manifesto's Review of 2013
The Best Movies of 2013, #9: Inside Llewyn Davis
The Best Movies of 2013, #10: Stoker
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part II)
The Best Movies of 2013: Honorable Mention (Part I)
The Executors (Part III)
The Executors (Part II)
The Executors (Part I)
The Intriguers (Part III)
The Intriguers (Part II)
The Intriguers (Part I)
The Failures (Part II)
The Failures (Part I)
The Unmemorables (Part II)
The Unmemorables (Part I)
The Worst Movies of 2013