Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Holy Motors

HOLY MOTORS (Leos Carax, 2012)

Rather than being rooted in plot, HOLY MOTORS takes a journey through cinema via paired scenes that explore the human condition and technological evolution.  It organizes around the work day of Monsieur Oscar (Denis Lavant), who rides in the back of a white limousine around what may be a future version of Paris.  His elegant chauffeur Céline (Édith Scob) drives him to nine appointments.  Based on ambiguous conversations and Oscar’s appearance, it is suggested that he holds a position of power in the financial industry, but his assignments soon reveal his occupation to be something much different.

At the first stop he emerges from the car as an indigent, crippled, old woman and begs for money from passersby while moaning how nobody loves her.  When his work is done, he returns to the vehicle serving as his mobile dressing room and prepares for the next job as a motion capture performer in a state of the art studio.  Throughout the day he changes roles for the unseen cameras and crew in what cinema has become in the world of HOLY MOTORS.

Like a prayer for the dying, writer-director Leos Carax’s confounding and exhilarating film is draped in a mournful air.  There’s a deep sense of what has been and is being lost as technical innovations transform life and art as they’ve existed for centuries.  More specifically, HOLY MOTORS grieves for the loss of the tangible as progress favors the ephemeral.  Oscar expresses affection for the large, noisy cameras of old, which now have shrunk to the point of being almost unnoticeable.  Headstones don’t display epitaphs but direct visitors to websites.  Sex happens in the virtual domain.  Department stores give way to e-commerce.  Existence is in the cloud and can be easily manipulated.  Whether explicitly choosing to be something else or tweaking the code, the self is mutable in this new age.

Yet the artistic vitality and humor with which Carax undertakes the decline of analog permanence and rise of digital tempers the pain and fear of advancement.  HOLY MOTORS is gloriously alive with experimentation and the centrality of human involvement regardless of what form the end product of their efforts takes.  Even if people are cogs in the machine, they are the animating force.  Witness the physical beauty and grace of Oscar’s recorded fight choreography in the motion capture studio and the intense eroticism of his interaction with the cyber woman (Zlata) who later appears there.  
Carax devotes a great deal of time to show how people can alter themselves significantly through makeup and wardrobe, again highlighting the importance of human contribution.  HOLY MOTORS celebrates performance, and Lavant, inhabiting eleven characters, seizes the opportunity.  He displays astonishing range in roles that demand him to be pitiable, athletic, grotesque, menacing, and endearing.  His greatest accomplishment comes in the film’s funniest section in which he reprises the part of Merde, a chain-smoking, flower-munching, gibberish-speaking creature who climbs out of the sewer and wreaks havoc in proper society.  (Merde first appeared in Carax’s short in the omnibus film TOKYO!)  

The changes HOLY MOTORS studies have as much to do with the movies as anything else.  Cinema’s history and genres interact through juxtaposition while a vigorously played entr’acte emphasizes the duality.  Neorealism and the CGI era are linked through their symmetry and asymmetry.  A beauty and the beast fairy tale precedes a coming of age docudrama.  Scenes that could have come from a gangster film and an action movie are paired, as are a chamber drama and musical tragedy.  The domestic surrealism of the ninth appointment rhymes with and diverges from the impersonal modernist home Oscar departs from to begin his day’s labor.  

As heady as HOLY MOTORS can be, Carax playfully arranges the pieces.  Merde rampages through a cemetery to the theme from GODZILLA and guides the supermodel (Eva Mendes) he abducts through a private fashion show.  Kylie Minogue, playing one of Oscar’s fellow performers, drops in to sing a song as though she’s been transported out of the French New Wave.  Datamoshing gives unusual beauty to image corruption.  HOLY MOTORS reflects wistfully on what once existed and ultimately revels in the primitive impulses and dreams that persist across time.   

Grade: A


SKYFALL (Sam Mendes, 2012)

James Bond (Daniel Craig) is missing and presumed killed at the start of SKYFALL, the 23rd official 007 film.  Things are not looking good for the British Secret Intelligence Service either.  MI6 head M (Judi Dench) faces being pushed out of her job, agency headquarters are attacked, and the hard drive with the identities of undercover agents working in terrorist groups is still out there for the wrong person to use against them.

Although he’s the worse for wear, Bond reappears and is approved to return to active duty.  He sets out to find the computer device with all those important secrets.  The path eventually leads him to Silva (Javier Bardem), an amoral genius who feels a certain kinship with his pursuer.  

SKYFALL differs from previous Bond films in that it devotes more time to character study than the spectacle-laden series ordinarily grants.  It’s not exactly an origin story, and thank goodness for that.  As a character Bond doesn’t need some complex history to explain why he’s chosen his line of work.  Nevertheless, it’s heartening that this installment adds a bit of dramatic substance to its typical arsenal of flashy stunts, worldly glamour, and sexy women.  Whether Craig continues to play the spy, SKYFALL brings some closure to his trilogy of films that deepens the character and his relationships with co-workers.  

With his flamboyant performance Bardem’s Silva makes for the most memorable villain in a long time for the Bond films.  His alternately attempts to seduce and taunt Bond with the promise of what they can do together outside the purview of government oversight because, after all, bad guys have more fun.  Bardem plays Silva as the cross of The Joker, Br’er Rabbit begging to be thrown into the briar patch, a tech nerd, and a dandy. He doesn’t just want to show up Bond and MI6.  He wants to be able to show off how superior he is to them.
Director Sam Mendes gets strong performances out of the supporting cast too. Dench’s M continues a respectful but cool relationship toward Bond that pays off in unexpectedly emotional ways.  As her potential replacement, Ralph Fiennes pleases as a political weasel working to see that her resignation is demanded.  Naomie Harris’s Eve adds the complicating dynamic of professional admiration for and attraction to Bond as they work together.  Bérénice Marlohe brings the requisite sizzle to her scenes with 007 while lending sadness to what the franchise would typically treat as a disposable role.

On a technical level, SKYFALL has to be one of the best looking Bonds.  The lighting flatters the stars, but cinematographer Roger Deakins reserves full eye-popping beauty for how he captures the locations, including Istanbul, London, Shanghai, and Macau. The set for the uninhabited island, a stand-in for Hashima Island, is a dazzling space that supports the bigger is better mentality of these films.  

SKYFALL proves that a long-standing series can deliver the expected fundamentals while keeping the new films fresh and unpredictable.  If the three Bonds with Craig point the direction for another fifty years of the spy, let’s hope it follows the evolutionary path this one lays.

Grade: B

Monday, November 19, 2012

Head Games

HEAD GAMES (Steve James, 2012)

In the documentary HEAD GAMES sports journalist Bob Costas says, “In most other sports the chance of injury is incidental.  In football the chance of injury and long term serious effects is fundamental, and no honest person can watch this sport and not acknowledge that.”  If Costas is right, there are a lot of dishonest or, at best, willfully ignorant sports fans and commentators.  Spend enough time watching football games or listening to sports talk radio and inevitably complaints of protective rules making the game too soft will surface.  Go to a sports bar on any fall Saturday or Sunday and at some point you’ll likely hear patrons, if not the announcers, bellowing about how an unnecessary roughness penalty is uncalled for or how a dazed player isn’t tough enough.  

Violence, especially in the highlight reel hits, is a significant part of football’s appeal, but after seeing HEAD GAMES, one wonders if the long term viability of the sport is threatened as consequences of such brutal repetitive contact become better understood.  It doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that years down the line enough debilitated former players or their families sue the professional league into oblivion or the pipeline of participants dries up because concerned parents refuse to allow their children to play.   

Director Steve James draws from Chris Nowinski’s book HEAD GAMES: FOOTBALL’S CONCUSSION CRISIS and The New York Times reporter Alan Schwarz’s investigative writings to examine the effects of brain trauma experienced in the normal course of playing football, hockey, and soccer.  (Boxing is touched upon in one heart-rending section but is largely absent from the conversation, probably because public awareness of that sport’s dangers are widely acknowledged.)  Nowinski, an All-Ivy defensive tackle at Harvard and former WWE wrestler, was motivated to learn more about concussions after an injury forced him to retire.  He and others have found that concussions are much more commonplace, even among youth and college players, and that former National Football League players are at significantly higher risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which can lead to premature dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease.

HEAD GAMES is an important film for those who play and watch sports.  It explains what the symptoms of a concussion are, what happens in the brain during the trauma, and how to proceed if receiving the injury.  Education of players, coaches, and trainers won’t eliminate concussions, but it can help them to identify when someone should be pulled from competition for personal safety.

Still, all the information in the world won’t matter if a culture change in sports doesn’t occur.  Whether it’s internal motivation or pressure from coaches and fans, athletes often feel obligated to play through injuries and will not report them, especially if it means losing a spot on the field or having one’s toughness questioned.  

Although HEAD GAMES is an advocacy documentary that criticizes the NFL in particular for being slow to accept scientific findings on concussions, James and his subjects aren’t crusading for the end of football or other games that present the risk of head trauma. The film struggles with the contradiction of knowing the serious risks while enjoying the games as participant and spectator.

Grade: B 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

My Neighbor Totoro


In no time at all sisters Satsuki (Noriko Hidaka) and Mei (Chika Sakamoto) enjoy exploring the new home they moved into with their father (Shigesato Itoi) in MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO. They laugh about its less than pristine condition and are intrigued by the dust bunnies--or soot sprites, as an elderly woman (Tanie Kitabayashi) nearby calls them--that scatter when they throw open the doors and windows to long-closed rooms.  This new place suits them fine, although they’d prefer for their hospital-bound mother (Sumi Shimamoto) to have joined them already.

While Satsuki is at school and her father works in his office, four-year-old Mei wanders around the garden where she spots two small, unfamiliar creatures.  She chases them into the forest and encounters a much larger one that also resembles an egg-shaped cat and rabbit hybrid.  Mei tells her sister and father that she met a totoro, or a troll from one of her storybooks.  She wants to introduce them but is unable to find the way back to the spirits.  The totoro reappear from time to time to enhance the girls’ appreciation of nature and to comfort them when distressed.

As a hangout movie for kids, MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO pleases with its easygoing pace, curiosity about the natural world, and sweet spirit.  It’s not quite a plotless film, but there’s an ambling feel to the unfolding story, as though these are just a few days plucked from the stream of Satsuki and Mei’s time.  They play, they learn, and they rest. Discovering the totoro is as and no more noteworthy than spotting any other woodland animal.  

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO lacks a villain, although the illness of the girls’ mother is a concern to the youngsters.  Here again writer-director Hayao Miyazaki takes a different tack, choosing not to impart major lessons or have his characters pursue self-actualization.  Instead he portrays such a matter as part of life rather than an all-consuming worry.  The children fret but are reassured by both parents and the old woman who sometimes looks over them.  

Miyazaki characterizes the children as children in all of their brash, inquisitive, creative, and vulnerable ways.  MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO respects where kids are in their development and provides them an unhurried space to continue to explore at their own speed.  Not much happens, yet every day is an adventure.  Few films understand childhood in such terms and present it in such beautiful imagery.  

Grade: B

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Cloud Atlas

CLOUD ATLAS (Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski, 2012)

CLOUD ATLAS plays connect the dots across the years in six concurrent stories with the same primary actors playing multiple roles over the different periods.  Lawyer Adam Ewing (Jim Sturgess) sees firsthand the horrors of slavery in the South Pacific islands in 1849.  In his diary, later to be published, he writes about this and his rapidly declining health on the voyage home.  Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) is reading it in 1936 as he works and stays with a famous composer in Cambridge, England.  On the side Frobisher writes “The Cloud Atlas Sextet”, which is largely unremembered yet sought out by Luisa Rey (Halle Berry), a reporter investigating a possible cover-up at a nuclear power plant in San Francisco in 1973.  

Luisa’s story is one that crosses the path of London book publisher Timothy Cavendish (Jim Broadbent) in 2012.  He writes about his own experiences hiding out from a client’s thugs and has it turned into a film, part of which is seen in 2144 Neo Seoul, Korea by server clone Sonmi-451 (Doona Bae).  Her inspirational words are passed down through an unspecified number of years and elevate her to god-like status among the primitives like Zachry (Tom Hanks).

The scope and ambition in CLOUD ATLAS are so enormous that the three writer/directors--Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, and Andy Wachowski--and editor Alexander Berner don’t so much as tame novelist David Mitchell’s unruly tangle of loosely linked plots across centuries but make it presentable and even coherent. Berner’s editing is often nothing short of remarkable in connecting these disparate pieces so that they seem part of a whole.  As an instructional in crosscutting, it’s quite an achievement.  

CLOUD ATLAS shouldn’t work.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Prosthetics and makeup are used to sell the transformations for those in the main cast who switch genders and races from story to story.  Often the actors look ridiculous.  The pidgin English that passes for the future language of a post-apocalyptic tribe can sound silly.  The shifts in tone from one storytelling style to another can be jarring and incompatible.

Yet CLOUD ATLAS proves to be worthy of wrestling with its big philosophical ideas, including the seemingly misguided ones, and engaging with a consistent vision of fluidity among the ages and eternal truths.  For such a sprawling endeavor, CLOUD ATLAS reduces to some basic points.  At heart are the beliefs that individual voices can make a difference across time, if not in their own, and that love is ultimately what endures. CLOUD ATLAS is prone to sappiness and threatens to disappear up its own tail like THE MATRIX trilogy, but it builds to an irresistible final act celebrating the human spirit.  

Grade: B-