10 February 2014


It is always at least a little bit impressive to see Kristin Scott Thomas speak French -- although there are plenty of American movies where actors are using their second (third, fourth, who knows) language, there's something surprising about seeing it in a non-anglophone film. But the movie doesn't offer much else, aside from a few great sex scenes, and the always dazzling ability Thomas has to let her face be a conduit for flickering emotions. Thomas plays a woman who falls in love with a construction worker who is helping to renovate her home office. She wants a divorce from her husband, and he not only doesn't want to give her one, he does everything in his power to starve the lovers out -- so that she will come back to him. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't end well. 

The film mostly trucks in melodrama and cliche, without really developing the characters (surprisingly, it's the lover who is most realized psychologically, despite being highly unrealistic). The movie wants to be a daring take on forbidden love across class lines, but there's just not much to it. Utterly skippable.

08 February 2014

Wolf of Wall Street

I can't really make up my mind about this movie. It's definitely thought-provoking. I wouldn't be surprised if Leo finally gets his Oscar -- he does a great job. Though I will say, sure the guy has a baby face, but I'm sorry, 22 year olds don't have those kinds of lines on their foreheads. That distracted the hell out of me. But whatever. Jonah Hill is good, but the Oscar nomination is overdoing it, if you ask me. But to get to the point: during the intermission (ah, the joys of the cinema experience in Turkey!), my friend and I were remarking that the movie felt totally soul-less. We found ourselves not really caring what happened to the character -- would he get caught? Would he get away with it? Would his crazy drug-addled lifestyle have horrific consequences?

By the end of the movie, I'd decided that its sense of detachment is crucial to its success. If it had in any way pushed me towards a specific emotional reaction, be it sympathy or outrage, I would have bridled, but the flatness of the film allows you to passively take in the completely disgusting scenes before you with some measure of amusement and interest. You feel somehow insulated from it. And indeed, there are some completely hilarious moments (though also some very unpleasant ones, though they are typically seen from afar -- when Leo slaps his wife, for instance, you view the scene from the end of a hallway. You are literally distanced from it, and it makes a huge difference in its emotional impact.). Actually, it reminded me of the discussions about alcoholism in movies that were happening (well, maybe only on NPR) when Arthur came out, about how it used to be ok to have lovable, or at least comical, scenes of substance abuse in movies. For some reason, it is totally hilarious when DiCaprio is so bombed on 'ludes that he enters into what he calls "the palsy stage." This is again making me wish I'd posted about Flight, by the way, which has a similarly gleeful portrayal of drug abuse, though it balances it with an unbelievably heavy-handed (and deeply hypocritical) moralizing message.

Anyways, the real point of The Wolf of Wall Street is, of course, the debauched excesses of untrammeled Wall Street living. This is where the morality of the film is so bizarrely ambiguous. We never see the victims of the protagonist's frauds, and they're only briefly alluded to. On the other hand, it occasionally seems that perhaps we are meant to share his self-pity; a fairly offensive notion. It isn't entirely clear whether we are to be repulsed by the scenes of utter hedonism, or somewhat envious of them. Is the take-away point here that the problem with Wall Street schemes is that they don't even make the perpetrators happy? Because the film is largely lacking in any sense of social responsibility.

But of course, maybe that's what the audience is meant to provide. In this regard, what I find perhaps most intriguing about the film is the way in which it is aggressively dated in the past. Occasionally we get scenes of tv footage, for instance, and it is so grainy and obviously outmoded, that you're jarred into remembering that this is not happening in the present. What really drives this effect home is the soundtrack, which is insistently grounded in the 90s, to an almost surreal extent. People dance to Baby's Got Back at a wedding; the Lemonheads' cover of Mrs Robinson plays at one point, and in the most climactic example, a scene on the yacht is set to a Foo Fighters track. Yes, it's thematically appropriate ("gotta promise not to stop when I say when"), but it's also rather charmingly dated. Now, you ask yourself, why on earth would a film that is so clearly timely and related to the present moment of backlash against Wall Street and luxury living* so relentlessly remind you that it is NOT talking about the present? My theory is: because it really isn't. What this movie quietly wants you to realize, I suggest, is that it is obsolete. What looks like outrageous excess and absurd amounts of money is simply laughable in comparison to the kinds of profits those types of people are making nowadays. Although Leo's world looks like another planet to us, one of unimaginable, unfathomable extravagance, it is but the tip of the iceberg. We literally cannot imagine the opulence and astonishing greed and power of comparable characters in our own time.

Or maybe I'm giving the movie too much credit. Maybe I'm projecting all my thinking about income inequality and cinematic glorification of opulence onto this film, and it's much less interesting than I think. Maybe its emotional flatness is a failure rather than an intentional decision. At three hours, it definitely feels self-indulgent, though on the other hand, I'm not sure that I'd know what, if anything, to cut. Whenever you start to think, ok, I see where this is going, some new dynamic emerges; the film makes an odd move in a totally unexpected direction, illuminating some entirely different aspect of the interactions between the characters. It's actually quite remarkable. So in the grand scheme of things, yes it's worth seeing, and on the big screen, for the full effect. I think you need total immersion in this world in order to suspend your sense of repulsion -- not entirely; just enough to sit through the damn thing.

*On a sidenote, I was really intrigued by all the anger at the Maserati commercial during the Superbowl (most obvious example, that is maybe cheating as far as making the point because it's so half-assed). Because as far as I can tell, the critique isn't so much about the commercial itself, as about the fact that they had the nerve to air a commercial for a luxury car that 99% of the audience could not afford. And to top it off, they didn't make it look like the typical commercial for an absurdly luxurious item: the galling thing, it seems, is that they made it look just like any other commercial. Even worse, they used an aesthetic pulled directly from a popular film (Beasts of the Southern Wild) about poor people. If you're going to advertise luxury cars -- and you probably shouldn't, during the Super Bowl, seems to be the sentiment, at least not if they're that luxurious -- then at least have the decency to let us know from the jump that you're telling us about something we can never have! You jerks! What?

06 February 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

The curious thing about this movie is that it's structured like a short story: it begins in media res, and ends without any sort of resolution. There is some gesturing towards a potential development, but it's open-ended: this could be a climactic shift, or it could be just another thing in a series. Actually, I just realized -- (and I think it doesn't give anything away to say that) the movie's final scene actually strongly reinforces an anti-developmental plot. The final words are literally about recurrence and return; although it verges on heavy-handed, it's actually kind of clever. Anyways, point being, most of the sub-plots (and mysteries) the film develops are left in process, nor do we ever learn how they started.  It's kind of refreshing.

The movie depicts a few chaotic and adventure-filled days in the life of a struggling musician, evoking a thick tangle of struggles and disasters. The film treads lightly on the question of "selling out," and gives it some pleasing nuance (Llewyn may be revolted by the idea of joining a trio just to make a living, but when asked to play for a group of friends he angrily protests that this is his living, not something he does for free). Being on the academic job market myself, I couldn't help but relate to the underlying questions of career versus vocation, and the trials of a talented man who just can't seem to make it.

The movie is also, subtly, a musical. Each one of the performances does major work in developing the characters and moving the story along. And, it's worth mentioning: they are really, really wonderful. I was surprised to learn that the actors actually did the singing. Of course you recognize Justin Timberlake's voice, but I had no idea that Carey Mulligan had such singing chops (I vaguely remember her performance in Shame, but it didn't leave that strong an impression).

It's also a great cast. It's just fun to see those specific people gathered together. Two of the guys from Girls (especially funny, given this piece pointing out the double-standard in receptions of Dunham's character vs this movie's protagonist), Timberlake, John Goodman (who was surprisingly restrained, especially in contrast to his recent turn in Flight -- did I seriously not post about that movie? I had SO many things to say about it! Weird.), Garrett Hedlund, who I have a weird fondness for, etc. But the real star of the film, for me at least, was an orange tabby cat (variously played by a few different cats, as it turns out from the wiki entry). The opening segment, where the cat watches the city go by outside the subway window, is up there with Woody Allen's best in terms of homages to New York.

It definitely doesn't have the humor or the verve of other Coen brothers movies, but it's an interesting film.

Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Even when he is mediocre, Kazuo Ishiguro is still pretty good. I found these stories strangely magnetic, even though they never really came together for me. The voice was uniform throughout, despite the fact that each was narrated by someone else, and the prose was vaguely annoying. It was more American than British, and somehow saccharine and cloying. Although the stories purported to be meditations on music and nightfall, the music seemed more like a pretext, and didn't really infiltrate the stories. Attempts to interweave the tales felt hamfisted and unnecessary: the characters weren't developed enough that knowing something about them from a previous episode made any difference. Still, you did somehow want to keep reading, and there was something compelling about the twists and turns of the interactions between the characters. Overall though, a surprisingly weak effort from such a gifted author.