Sunday, September 7, 2014

Frank


Grade: 70/B

There’s a danger in conflating eccentricity with creativity, something Frank plays with knowingly if not always deftly. Its titular figure is first introduced as an eccentric genius whose bizarre behavior is tied directly to his musical brilliance. It’s only as the film goes on and his behavior grows even more erratic and disturbed that it’s suggested that there might be something darker and sadder in him, and that it’s actually hurting him.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a mediocre keyboardist and terrible songwriter who gets a lucky break playing for the oddball band Soronprfbs (your pronunciation guess is as good as anyone’s) after their previous keyboardist tries to drown himself. Jon and the rest of the Soronprfbs relocate to a cabin in Ireland to record an album, but they won’t record a note until their eccentric singer and leader Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a large papier-mǎché head, is satisfied. While there, Jon posts videos of their rehearsals and drums up interest in the band at SXSW Music Festival. But when they arrive in America to play the gig, Jon starts to get a sense that Frank’s strange behavior isn’t an act or an extension of his creativity.

Truth be told, Frank is never funnier than in the opening scene, where Jon walks around Dublin trying to write a song, with piss-poor results (“Lady in the red coat/ what you doin’ with that bag?!”). Later scenes with the Soronprfbs at the cabin often take on a tone of strained wackiness, with Jon’s pleasant narration contrasting scenes of Frank chasing people around or pushing Jon to pretend he’s laying an egg a bit too bluntly.

The cabin scenes are more effective (and, honestly, funnier) when they’re quieter, when Frank’s welcoming tone is undercut by the his eternally hostile sidekick/theremin player Clara (a very funny Maggie Gyllenhaal) taking on a blatantly fake welcoming tone, or by the fact that he’s wearing a giant mask on his head. One of the better recurring gags in the film comes from the latter bit, as Frank tries to be accommodating to the mild-mannered Jon by describing his facial expressions (much to the annoyance of Clara).

The film also captures the excitement of creating music better than nearly any other film in recent memory. Before the band’s first performance goes terribly wrong, there’s a strange mythic quality to it, as if we’re seeing something new and original suddenly crash land on earth. The film is equally effective when dealing with the less central band members’ songs; Scoot McNairy’s depressed bandmate worships Frank to the point where he can’t recognize that his own song is actually pretty good rather than terrible; this scene is funny, if a bit sad, at first, and grows more painful as the events of the film unfold.

As Frank, Michael Fassbender is as committed and as fascinating as ever. Deprived of his expressive, handsome face, he’s pushed to express more with his body and his usually calm voice. He does work of incredible physicality and vocal elasticity, from low mumbles to guttural cries (the song “Secure the Galactic Perimeter”), inviting tenor to birdlike cries. It’s a perfect fit for the character, who, depending on the scene, is either a soothing presence or a more volatile figure.

The film’s second half leans on that, occasionally coming back to the broad comedy (Frank writes his “most likable song ever,” a funny Dadaist jumble, in an effort to be more accessible) and incongruity (Gyllenhaal doing a hilariously glum version of the usually annoyingly peppy song “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper”) of the first half. Frank’s behavior, which took after the odd showboating of British performer Frank Sidebottom (who wore a similar head) and the strange perfectionism of Captain Beefheart starts to go to more troubling places, revealing a manic-depressive side that’s harmful to himself and others (think Syd Barrett or Daniel Johnston). He may be a musical genius, but he’s also severely mentally ill, and at a certain point Jon and company’s worship of the genius Frank started to do catastrophic damage to the troubled Frank.

If there’s a problem with Frank, it’s that it doesn’t always have a good grasp on when it’s laughing at Frank and when it isn’t. Its use of Gleeson as an audience surrogate is clever: he goes from laughing at Frank to worshipping him to realizing that he’s been laughing at and worshipping a disturbed man. We go on a similar journey that somewhat justifies the comedy of the first half, but there’s still something a bit uneasy about how broadly it’s played. Upon rewatching the film, I felt like I should have a new understanding of those scenes, with clear reasons for anyone in the know about Frank’s illness that he shouldn’t be laughed at, much like I did with McNairy’s scenes. Instead, they still played as broadly comic.

But that doesn’t negate what the film is going for entirely. If anything, it makes Frank a more interesting film, if a flawed one. The laughs director Lenny Abrahamson aims for in the first half feel tonally off, but there’s also a sense of purpose to the discomfort, less an indictment of our view of mental illness than a plea for empathy and understanding. Besides, without the film’s strange arc, it’s hard to believe that Fassbender’s final song, a heartfelt if characteristically odd tune called “I Love You All,” would be half as moving. It takes an initial fascination with the strangeness of the character for the humanity to shine through.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.


Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Get On Up


Grade: 33/C-

Even before they were so indelibly parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, musical biopics were usually shapeless affairs that reduced whole careers and personalities to troubled genius templates, bonus points if their problems could be explained by childhood trauma. But even if Ray or Walk the Line had facile explanations for what made Ray Charles and Johnny Cash who they were, at least they attempted to have some sort of narrative throughline. The same can’t be said for Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic Get On Up, which doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to say about Brown’s music, his ego or his personal life.

The film follows Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his beginning as an impoverished kid and troubled teenager to an up-and-coming musician with the Famous Flames. Brown’s clearly the star, so King Records changes the band to “James Brown and His Famous Flames,” forcing all but the loyal Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to quit. Brown continues to test the patience of his musicians with his egotism and his poor treatment of them, all while conquering the musical world and making great strides for African-Americans. His personal life is a mess, too, with his marriages crumbling and Brown sliding into drug abuse after the death of his son in a car accident.

Like The Help, director Tate Taylor’s deeply patronizing previous film, Get On Up isn’t a cohesive narrative so much as it’s a bunch of events strung together with no clear rhyme or reason. Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth start the film with Brown’s infamous incident where he fired a shotgun into the ceiling of his strip mall, only to go directly to Brown and his band traveling to and performing in Vietnam. They then cut to Brown playing before and upstaging The Rolling Stones at The T.A.M.I. Show, then to Brown meeting Byrd in prison, then forming The Famous Flames following advice from Little Richard, then back to his childhood where he’s inspired by a funky band to win a boy’s boxing match (seriously). Just when this needlessly achronological approach starts to feel really enervating, they switch to a chronological approach when Brown and co. and signed to King Records, which only makes the earlier approach feel more pointless and slapdash.

What’s bizarre is that the episodes are simultaneously disconnected narratively and monotonous. Brown behaves badly, only to be validated when he displays some sort of genius immediately afterwards. Here he is treating his musicians like shit, but it’s OK because he’s explaining why “Cold Sweat” needs to be off-beat to work. There he is being a jackass to them again and refusing to pay on time, but it’s OK because he and Byrd have more great music to make together. Rinse, repeat. It seems to be going for a “he was a complicated man” narrative, but it mostly works to undersell his difficulty. That’s a constant tonal problem, which gets more uncomfortable when Brown is actively abusive. Here he beating his wife, and now we’re going to have him strut out. There he is waving a shotgun around, but it’s played as broad comedy. Taylor’s choice to open the film on that note is particularly miscalculated, as it shows more interest in showing Brown the mess than Brown the musical genius. Its even more embarrassing whenever Taylor and the Butterworths try to play with race. You see, deep down, virulent racists just want to get funky.

Chadwick Boseman, whose intense focus and anger as Jackie Robinson somewhat undercut the piety of 42, is stuck here doing a James Brown impression. He never hits a wrong note, but he’s not given a character to play beyond a superficial caricature of Brown. Get On Up even fumbles its attempt to tie Brown’s complications to childhood trauma, never giving his reluctant mother (Viola Davis in fine form) the screen time to make their distance seem significant. Get On Up wouldn’t have been a good movie had this material been reworked – it’d be the same reductive move that Ray and Walk the Line take – but it’d at least have some pretense to insight about Brown’s character. Note: if you’re trying to make a movie about a historical figure, you should have something to say about him other than “Well, he did all of this stuff.”

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Wes Anderson Roundtable #6: Fantastic Mr. Fox


Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in our Wes Anderson Roundtable.

Loren Greenblatt: At the time, Life Aquatic and Darjeeling Limited left some people feeling that Wes Anderson was getting too caught up in his style.  He did little to assuage those anxieties with his follow up:  a stop-motion film, a form that, quite literally, gives him control over every hair of his mise-en sene.

Max O’Connell: Some already thought his films were cartoons – A.O. Scott seemed to dance around that idea in his The Royal Tenenbaums review, whereas those arguments become more common around The Darjeeling Limited. So, he did what anyone might do to counteract those arguments: he made a literal cartoon! And yet it’s become one of his most embraced films, well reviewed even if it didn’t do well at the box office, and a lot of people saw it as a return to form after Darjeeling and Life Aquatic split a lot of people.

LG: What else is interesting about the film is that Anderson doubles down on the storybook aspect. Like many Anderson films, it starts out with a book (the original Roald Dahl book), with an illustration of Mr. Fox, or “Foxy,” (Clooney) only to cut into a glorious sunset as Foxy listens to “Davey Crockett,” a spectacular myth-making song. Yeah, we’re in a fable all right!

MO: And part of what makes it such a wonderful fable is that it’s dealing with an antiquated style. 2D animation is becoming less popular as 3D animation boomed, and stop-motion has been almost completely phased out. Not too many people other than Laika and Tim Burton still do it. Which is a shame because it fits people like Wes perfectly, because while it’s not as fluid as, say, Up, that’s kind of the point. It has this wonderful warmth, this handmade quality. It looks like something out of a storybook.

LG: They animated the frames a little slower than they normally would have so we see the seams, too. There’s a sense of the thingness of things: you can clearly see that all of the smoke, for example, is made of little cotton balls and it’s adorable! And he’s adapting his overtly whimsical style that he used for adult stories to carry over to children’s films, which he’ll do again in Moonrise Kingdom.

LG: I think while there’s still some darkness and edge to both films, but it’s no secret that he’s let up on tone a lot here, this is by far his lightest film.

MO: Part of why it’s so wonderful is that it does maintain a bit of an edge, which is important. It’s something both Anderson and Dahl understood: children’s movies without any real conflict or sense of danger are really dull. Here, we get some of the Dahl macabre jokes. Fox gets his tail shot off, and it’s worn as a necktie by the main villain, Bean (Michael Gambon).

LG: And the hero actually kills someone, a rat played by Willem Dafoe. There’s not a lot of modern kids movies that have a death scene at this point, the kind of old-fashioned fairytale thing that a lot of recent kids movies have moved away from.

Anderson also lifts from film history. One of the big influences that struck me on this viewing is Raising Arizona. H.I. McDonagh and Foxy are both characters who give up a life of crime so they can raise a family, only to regress for their own reasons. Their animal instincts or criminal natures are still there, and both films are about putting those impulses behind you for the sake of growing up.

MO: I can see it. I’d also connect the film to traditions by Dahl, though, where family life is never ideal. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, they’re all good people, but they struggle in poverty. In Matilda, it’s an unloving home. In Fox, the father’s kind of a cad (as George Clooney characters tend to be), and he’s a classic Wes Anderson bad dad. He’s not Royal Tenenbaum, but he’s not always the best father to Ash (Jason Schwartzman).

LG: He likes to give people false options to validate himself. From the first scene, he’s constantly intimidating people into going his way as a way to make them like him. It doesn’t always work.

MO: In Wes Anderson’s films, characters try to have an impossible level of control over their lives. Fox does that in an interesting way by trying to inject more spontaneity in his life rather than letting himself be controlled. He’s a wild animal, and he doesn’t want to give up that. He doesn’t want to be stuck in the doldrums, he wants to “steal squabs on the side.”

LG: He positions himself in ways where he’s almost trying to get into trouble, trying to inject spontaneity into his life where it might mess him up, and that kind of fits with what Wes is trying to do with animation and with his own style. There’s a sense of spontaneity here that’s rare in animation and I think it has a lot to do with the way the dialogue was recorded. In most animated films, actors record their dialogue separately in closed off sound booths, which is no way to act. Anderson was novel, recording his actors together, in physical locations mirroring those in the film. There’s a trade off sometimes in the technical quality of the recordings, but at the same time the technique adds life to the performances that might not be there otherwise.

MO: Yeah, the cast is wonderful. I’ve been on the record as being a semi-contrarian on Streep, in the sense that I think she’s frequently praised for performances that are well below par for her (*cough*Doubt*cough cough*The Iron Lady). Here’s a performance that’s actually underrated: she’s as warm and empathetic here in a way that she doesn’t always get to be, a companion character to Anjelica Huston’s mother figure in The Royal Tenenbaums.

LG: It helps that she’s picking better material and working with a great director for a change, instead of the auteur of Mamma Mia!


MO: But while we’re talking about that new spontaneity, we shouldn’t undervalue how his films always the offbeat little character bits that stand out amidst the tight control over everything. What’s one of your favorite bits of side-whimsy here? Mine’s “Petey’s Song,” that wonderful Jarvis Cocker, playing the villain’s assistant, Petey, makes up a song that brings us up to speed but uses made-up words that displease the villain.

LG: “You can’t just make up words! That’s bad songwriting! Bad job, Petey!” The look on Petey’s face makes me feel that that this putdown is almost as big an act of villainy as Bean shooting off Foxy’s tail.

MO: Him making up a song on the fly infuriates a villain who’s one of Wes’s classic control freaks. Or maybe I’d go with the choice to have the characters say “cuss” instead of cursing, which hits its peak in that great little scene where Foxy and Badger (Bill Murray), his accountant, getting into a loud, wild animal argument.

LG: Yeah, there’s an interesting tension there, where they’re both anthropomorphized and animalistic at the same time. For me, I love Whack-Bat, with the ridiculously complex rules that remind me of Fizzbin from Star Trek. There’s this whole thing where Ash really wants to be the best Whack-Bat player like his dad, but he’s not an athlete. He’s trying to be his dad in a lot of ways, the mischief side especially, but he can’t really live up to it, so he’s inevitably going to go through sulky teenager phases. That’s only made worse by the arrival by his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Anderson, Wes’s brother), who’s very athletic and gains Foxy’s approval over his own son.

MO: This movie, like no Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore recognizes that kids can be cruel, too. It’s telling that Ash is played by Max Fischer himself. He doesn’t treat his cousin very well. Kristofferson is almost impossibly unassuming, even with all of his talent. He’s just a nice, calm kid trying to make the best of a situation where his father is deathly ill and he has to live with a bunch of relatives that he’s never met. Foxy takes to him right away, but Ash is needlessly cruel to him.

LG: We understand where that frustration comes: he’s jealous because of how his father takes to Kristofferson. But he can be cruel, yes. There’s a nice moment where Kristofferson wants to sleep in a less cramped position than under Ash’s bed, and Ash refuses. Kristofferson starts to cry, and Ash reluctantly realizes he’s being a dick and turns on his train set. There’s a moment of brief connection before more rivalry.


MO: “More rivalry” emphasized. He’s still awful to Kristofferson, even after he stands up for Ash when he’s being bullied.

LG: Every kid goes through a period where they’re dicks. It doesn’t help that he’s seen as “different.” It’s never mentioned that he’s dressed as a superhero with a little white cape and bandit hat. He’s that kid who’s a super-nerd and doesn’t understand why people don’t like him.

MO: He’s a strange little guy who’s trying to blend in and be something he’s not, much like Max Fischer. He wants to be an athlete and push down everything that’s unique about him, just like Max wanted to hide his working class roots.

LG: Though I’d stress that the pain isn’t as deeply felt here as it is in Anderson’s previous films, or even in another great children’s film from that year, Where the Wild Things Are, which has a similar theme running through it (and which we both love far more than the rest of the world).

MO: It makes sense that it is lighter, because he is making a children’s film. My minor complaints on this front is less that he’s treading lightly and more that there are times where I feel he spells something out a bit too much for kids or parents, as if he’s trusting them less. There’s a moment where Foxy says aloud to Felicity, “I need everyone to feel I’m the greatest.” We know his problems. We don’t need it restated. More notably is right after the rat, in his dying breath, gives them some information to help find Kristofferson, they say aloud something to the effect of, “He redeemed himself.” It’s already demonstrated beautifully in the scene before, so we don’t really need to be told, and I don’t think the kids need to be told either. Kids are smart. They’ll get it.

LG: Yeah, though I do love the line about him being “just another rat found in a garbage pail behind a Chinese restaurant.” It was a problem in The Darjeeling Limited too, what with the “you’ve still got some healing left” moment.

MO: Yeah, clonk. These aren’t as bad as that, they’re minor things.

LG: I can see Anderson and co-screenwriter Noah Baumbach feeling out to what degree they can be themselves in this film in certain scenes, but at its best it’s wonderfully idiosyncratic in the best Wes Anderson-y way. In the opening scene, Felicity and Foxy break the chicken roost in a large simulated tracking shot set to “Heroes and Villains.” That’s just such a joyful moment.

MO: It is. We talk about Anderson’s great use of music in all of his films, and this is no exception. You mentioned “Heroes and Villains,” I’ll mention the other Beach Boys song used, their version of “Old Man River,” which is so gentle compared to the more raucous song they use earlier.

LG: The only bit of music that doesn’t quite work for me is the use of “Street Fighting Man.” It’s in a great sequence, but I don’t think the song quite fits.

MO: I’m on the edge for that one as well, maybe just because I want him to use another left-of-center choice like “I Am Waiting” or “She Smiled Sweetly” or “Play With Fire” instead of a big hit. But I agree, thematically it doesn’t fit.

LG: Then again, I don’t know how “Heroes and Villains” fits thematically, but it’s perfect for the feeling. It’s his first film with Alexandre Desplat doing the score, as well, which gives it a wonderful rustic feel that separates it from his Mark Mothersbaugh collaborations.

MO: Desplat does his best work with Anderson. It’s not just a wonderful, whimsical nursery rhyme thing to it, but it also reminds me of the kind of stuff that Georges Delarue would have done for Truffaut in the 60s and 70s (Wes does use a Delarue song at a key point in the film), a bit like the jaunty score for “A Gorgeous Kid Like Me,” which Baumbach later used himself in Frances Ha.

LG: They both have this warm, loving, inviting style, which is something I love about what Anderson takes from Truffaut. They both love playing with film history in a warm, affectionate way, rather than the playful but cold way Godard does.

MO: Some of the references are a real delight. There’s a scene where Boggis, Bunch and Bean meet up and Bean is framed in the dark almost like Vito Corleone, plotting the death of another man (er, animal). And Bean’s freak out tearing apart a room is a nice, funny reference to Citizen Kane, where he’s reimaging a life-crushing moment from that film as a petty moment in Bean’s life.

LG: That scene in the dark reminded me of Once Upon a Time in the West where Harmonica’s waiting out in the dark, being shot at.

MO: That’s an interesting comparison, too, because there are more overt Leone throwbacks, as in some of the eye-framing standoff moments. It’s a much smaller scaled film, but he’s trying to give it that same kind of epic conflict. There’s also the bit of the score where Foxy confronts a wolf and the score plays like Ennio Morricone. Though, honestly, I never really got why that scene was there.

LG: Well, it’s his pure animal nature physically embodied. It’s completely without borders. It’s dangerous. It goes back to the Raising Arizona comparison I made, with the wolf in the place of the biker. It’s also a bit of a Jeremiah Johnson reference, where Redford sees his opposite in the distance and they acknowledge the power they have over each other before passing.

MO: That makes a bit more sense, though I still wish they played with it a bit more. Then again, I complained about him being too on-the-nose earlier, so maybe I just don’t know what the hell I’m looking for.

LG: I really love the ending of the film. You complained that the action sequences in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou were clumsy, but he does a pretty wonderful job here. It helps that he can control everything in the frame. The go-for-broke rescue scene is wonderful. They have to race through town, hiding behind crates as they’re being shot at, and Anderson really uses the stillness of stop-motion to his advantage to emphasize motion. The ending, though, after they’ve lost everything, they find a way to live outside of their nature and find a way to survive by taking from this supermarket. They’ve found a civilized world to be a part of, even if the lighting is fluorescent and awful and the linoleum floor doesn’t feel great on their feet, but they have each other to get through it. Of all the Wes Anderson films, this film more than any other stresses community.

MO: I wouldn’t say more than any other, since Moonrise Kingdom expands upon that, but it does more than any other Anderson film before it. We have all of these wonderful side characters (Murray’s Badger, Wally Wolodarsky’s spiral-eyed opossum Kylie) that Fox constantly talks over. There are two important toasts in the film: in the first, Fox interrupts Badger’s toast and makes it about himself. In the second, it’s more about everyone. It’s about sticking together and surviving, about creating a giant family and being about more than just yourself. It’s another cautiously optimistic ending, as it was in Rushmore, because it’s not going to be easy for them, but they can get through it together.

LG: Everything that happens is Fox’s fault, and it’s about him learning to get over his own selfishness. We love Clooney, as he’s a wonderful rascal, but watching him grow is all the more satisfying. And then we get that last song, Bobby Fuller Four’s “Let Her Dance.” It’s a song about infidelity and breakup, but it’s such an upbeat song. It’s like “Ooh La La” in Rushmore. There’s a sly attention to a mix between happiness and sadness that makes the ending work.

Loren’s Grade: B+

Max’s Grade: A-

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Boyhood


Grade: 88/A-

It’s not a new idea to watch a character or group of characters age on screen. François Truffaut did it in his Antoine Doinel series, the Up documentaries follow a group of Londoners over the course of 45 years and 8 features, and Boyhood director Richard Linklater himself has traced a relationship from college age to middle-age in the Before trilogy. But it’s remarkable to see the youth and adolescence of a boy over the course of one fictional film, which Linklater shot over the course of 12 years little by little, incorporating what was going on in actor Ellar Coltrane’s life to fit the film.  The conception of Boyhood is so remarkable that it’s hard not to focus more on the gimmick and overarching structure over the film’s smaller (yet greater) virtues.

Coltrane stars as Mason Evans, Jr., who lives with divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Loralei) and sees father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) every other week. He witnesses his mother’s two additional failed marriages (including to an abusive alcoholic played by Marco Perella) and her transformation from back-to-school mother to college psychology professor. He experiences first love and first breakup, experiments with drugs and alcohol, and goes from quiet boy to talented teenage photographer and an amateur philosopher ready to join Linklater’s bull session films Slacker or Waking Life.

There’s an inherent fascination in watching Coltrane (and young Loralei Linklater, who could just as easily carry her own film, Girlhood) grow from a hesitant to a confident presence, both as a boy and as an actor. In Boyhood’s early sections, the key to his performance is its apparent lack of performance, of innocent mischief (an early comment about breaking a pencil sharpener by trying to sharpen rocks into arrowheads, pretending to know more about sex as an eighth grader than he does) and of a kid trying to process his parents’ divorce or his stepdad’s strictness and alcoholism.

As a teenager, however, Coltrane starts to form a more distinct personality, someone more willing to voice his frustration and confusion at what his place in the world is. Dazed and Confused fans might recognize traces of Wiley Wiggins’s dorky freshman, right up to the point where Mason hits his junior and senior years, stops faking confidence and starts (sometimes – appropriately – infuriatingly) actually developing it.

The genius of Linklater’s film is in how it’s somehow rooted in the perspectives of both the kids and the parents. Early scenes embody childhood confusion at the big, scary, complicated arguments world of the grown-ups, whether Mason hears mom’s boyfriend complaining that she can’t devote more time to them or, perhaps more distressingly, Mason and Samantha can see but can’t hear their parents yelling at each other outside for reasons that we can guess but can’t know; a later scene, in which Mason Sr. sells the car he promised his son for his 16th birthday without thinking of or remembering his promise, captures teenage disappointment and frustration as well as any scene in recent memory.

But we also see both Samantha and Mason act like, well, inconsiderate teenagers around their parents, with the former blowing off picking up her brother when her mother counted on her, then treating her mother’s complaints as an unfair annoyance. Some of Mason’s youthful tendencies are even simpler, like having to be chided to wash a dish to make his mother’s life that much easier, or coming home after curfew, or treating a school assignment to shoot a football game as an excuse to get arty with his photography. None of these moments feel like a head-shaking “kids these days” sentiment, nor do Mason’s experimentations with booze and pot feel sensationalistic. It’s all matter-of-fact, with Mason’s limited perspective sometimes clashing with the older, wiser view of his parents (and of Linklater). Part of growing up is not realizing how hard it is for parents to raise you.

That story is just as matter-of-fact, and with few exceptions, Olivia’s story never feels needlessly heavy. Arquette has the most difficult role in the film, as she’s required to be warm, scolding, frustrated and empathetic, often switching back-and-forth between modes in one scene. So much of what’s great about her performance is simply watching her become a more exhausted person as the film goes on, someone who had big dreams, reinvented herself, and gave her kids a better life but still hasn’t found the place she wants to be.

The film’s only real missteps are big ones, involving the men Arquette marries and divorces. With the first, there’s an immediate feeling of tiresome inevitability as soon as he’s introduced, of “how is this going to blow up,” and, when his alcoholism becomes a factor, “how long before he hits mom?” While the individual scenes are well-played, they feel programmatic compared to the free-flowing and adaptable nature of the rest of the film, as if there was need for Capital-D Drama somewhere in the story, and the stepfather goes from stern but empathetic to little more than a device, a heavy. And while the apparent rationale behind having Arquette marry another (thankfully not physically abusive) controlling alcoholic is sound (we often repeat ourselves in life), it can’t help but have the same mechanistic feeling where as soon as the character is introduced we know exactly what his function is.

The film’s better emotional scenes are less showy. Many will cite Arquette’s breakdown as Mason, her second and youngest child, leaves for college as a moving moment. It is, but an even smaller and greater moment comes earlier, as a character she helped earlier in the film approaches her to thank her for what she did for him; she’s in the middle of admonishing her kids to please just do what she said, and her switch from irritated mother to someone moved she could make a difference, especially when her life has been so disappointing to her.

So much of what’s great in Boyhood is about small observations and changes, like watching Hawke (in one of his most likable and empathetic performances) change from the good-time Hawke of Before Sunrise to the more sentimental Hawke of Before Midnight, or hearing the pop culture that matters to Mason and Samantha at any given point (Mason is astonished that the girl he likes could dislike The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express), or watching Hawke tell his kids all about supporting Obama or “anyone but Bush” without giving them a real idea of why they should actually care or what any of it means.

It’s watching how much and how little changes in children and parents over the years and between generations (admittedly something older and future generations will be able to speak to with more acuity, given my own close-ish proximity in age to Coltrane). It’s about becoming an individual and still searching for meaning in life, about dad’s awkward but truthful metaphors (“life doesn’t give you bumpers”) or mom’s mix of relief and sadness in her last kid leaving for college.

Through it all, Linklater maintains the same unshowy but assured touch, whether he’s giving the kids a limited POV shot during an argument or letting Coltrane and his girlfriend’s relationship play out in carefully-selected two shots and close-ups, drawing them closer to each other, and then, in the film’s final year, framing them in a wide shot far apart from each other after they’ve broken up. With each selection and each observed moment, Boyhood’s modus operandi is one of supreme empathy. It’s not a great movie because it’s relatable (a term that flaunts limited perspective and assumed universality). It’s a great movie because whether it’s seen from the perspective of the boy, the sister, the parents, a teenager, a twentysomething or older, it’s understandable.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.7: Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 45/C

Kurosawa’s influences are as many as they are varied – John Ford, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Frank Capra, William Shakespeare – but perhaps the most important is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The great Russian writer’s interests in morality and human nature shaped Kurosawa’s own obsessions, and with films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog and Rashomon he came closer to capturing Dostoyevsky’s philosophical inquisitiveness. Kurosawa finally got the chance to adapt his favorite writer’s work in 1951 with The Idiot, which reset the novel of the same name in Japan.

The film originally ran in two parts at 265 minutes, which would have made it the longest film of Kurosawa’s career by some margin (even Seven Samurai is "only" 207). But when an early screening was poorly received, the studio, Shochiku, demanded extensive cuts. The next cut was 166 minutes, which the studio still said was too long (Kurosawa bitterly remarked then that it "should be cut lengthwise instead"), but released it anyway to negative reviews. Kurosawa would try to find the lost footage while shooting 1991’s Rhapsody in August, but to no avail. It’s easy, then, to lament The Idiot as a lost masterpiece. That possibility exists, but the truth is likely closer to "lost folly."

Masayuki Mori (the samurai in Rashomon) stars as Kinji Kameda, a man whose being falsely accused of war crimes caused a series of seizures that have since rendered him mentally ill. On his voyage home, he befriends the wealthy Akama (Toshiro Mifune), who’s in love with Taeko (frequent Ozu muse Setsuko Hara), the former mistress of another man. Kameda falls for both Taeko and another woman, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga, another Ozu regular). He’s torn between the two women just as Taeko is torn between the passionate but violent Akama and the simple and sweet Akama.

The Idiot works best in isolated moments – a festival set to "Night on Bald Mountain," a series of close-ups in a party where everyone’s too nervous to say anything about Taeko’s ill-repute, the introduction of a snowy and melancholy Hokkaido – than in full scenes. Much of that has to do with the extensive damage done to the film, particularly in the first half. Too often Kurosawa is forced to cut to an intertitle to fill in the gaps of what’s missing, both in terms of character, plot, and even original intention (example: "Dostoyevsky wanted to portray a good man and the destruction of a good soul in a faithless world"). Even when he reaches a point where this is no longer required, it still feels like characters have been simplified or we’re missing information that would make performances more coherent. Hara in particular is impressive mostly on a scene-to-scene basis rather than as a full performance.

But even had Kurosawa’s full version seen the light of day, it’s hard to imagine The Idiot being a particularly successful film. Like most great novels, the works of Dostoyevsky are difficult to translate to film because most of what’s great about them is in the prose and the thoughts of the characters rather than in the story. Removing that from the equation feels fundamentally misguided. And while Masayuki Mori was a talented actor, he can’t quite overcome his character’s function as the embodiment of human goodness and innocence, something that feels better suited to the page than the screen in this case.

Worse, Kurosawa is so reverent to the text that his imagination and usually immaculate sense of pacing have disappeared. Individual scenes drag on forever, while others repeat the same points made earlier in the film (if you didn’t get that Kameda is innocent and honest and wonderful the first time, you’ll get a reminder soon, possibly in the next scene). The Idiot has fewer memorable or evocative shots than nearly any other Kurosawa film, as if asserting his own personality would sully the work. Even scenes that feature strong work from the actors are frequently weakened by Kurosawa laying on a heavenly choir to underline Kameda’s saintliness. The great director would have far greater success years later by setting Shakespeare in Japan with Throne of Blood and Ran, but those works forced him to actually reimagine Shakespeare’s text and story for the setting and medium. This is mostly stenography in light, a film that captures Dostoyevsky’s text without preserving its pulse.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Director Spotlight #16.6: Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon"


Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the incalculably influential Akira Kurosawa.

NOTE: There’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 98/A

It’s hyperbolic to suggest that a film “changed everything,” but it’s hard not to be hyperbolic about 1950’s Rashomon. Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece took the formal and thematic sophistication he’d built in his first decade as a director and found a new way to tell a story, a structural gambit that was both radical for its time and directly connected to the central questions of the film. In a way, it serves not only as an introduction of a master director to the West (the film’s triumph at the Venice Film Festival and the Academy Awards shot him to the top of the list of great foreign filmmakers of the 1950s), but as Kurosawa’s thesis statement on humanity, moral failure, and the capacity for acts of great evil and good.

A woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), a priest (Minoru Chiaki) and a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) gather under the Rashomon city gate to stay dry in a severe rainstorm. The priest is shaken by a story regaled to him by the woodcutter, about the murder of a samurai (Masayuki Mori) and the rape of his wife (Machiko Kyō) by the notorious bandit Tajōmaru (Toshiro Mifune).

The woodcutter then repeats the story for the commoner, first telling it from the testimonial of Tajōmaru, who claims the wife consented and he killed the husband honorably in a duel (after which the wife ran, frightened). But the wife’s story is varies greatly, as she claims that the bandit left her after the rape and the husband loathed her for being dishonored. And the samurai’s story (as told through a medium) is different still, claiming that his wife begged the samurai to kill him and he committed suicide after the incident. All three have twisted the story to their advantage, and while pieces of each might have some veracity, the plain and simple truth becomes hazier with each tale.

Kurosawa opens the film in the middle of a rainstorm, one of his many uses of weather to suggest a world bearing down on its inhabitants, and the sound of a drum and strings to suggest that something is not right with the world. Shimura and Chiaki are introduced slouching with bone-deep spiritual exhaustion; Shimura in particular is our moral center to the film, so his drooping, pained expression and grave intonations of the world’s disorder brings us into the inquisitive, mournful mood that Kurosawa wants us to be in. Why can’t we treat each other better?

Still, Ueda is essential beyond the need to hear exactly what it is that has Shimura and Chiaki so upset. Kurosawa often used the lower-class to contrast with the high-minded pursuits of the samurai, and that hits its stride here. The commoner is the healthy dose of skepticism in the film’s moral inquiries, the one who sees horror of the story but can’t help but point out that the idea man lying and killing for his own purposes isn’t exactly a new concept, and that our solemn moral voices of reason are hardly perfect themselves. It’s his presence that keeps the film’s morality from falling into naïveté. Plus, he gives Kurosawa a chance to use deep focus to contrast the ease and comfort in his body language with the way Shimura and Chiaki seem to fold into themselves.

When Kurosawa comes to the testimonials, he wisely chooses not to let the voices of the inquisitors be heard – he puts us in their perspective, lets us imagine that we are asking the questions, and puts us on their level, so as to hear their stories and take them at face value until we can’t anymore. Kurosawa and cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa also get a lot of mileage out of slight contrasts in camera placement for each witness:  while the woodcutter and the priest are shot from roughly the same objective angle, there’s a greater distance when the arrested Tajōmaru and his captor are brought in. This has nothing to do with need for greater space – Kurosawa could comfortably fit both in the same shot from the same distance – and everything to do with making us more frightened of Tajōmaru. When the cop reaches the end of his testimony, the camera is closer to him, until it dollies out to show Tajōmaru lauging like a maniac. We’re then brought onto the same level for him that we were for the woodcutter and priest, then even closer…and we don’t want to be there.

A number of Western critics have found Mifune’s performance to be a bit too over-the-top; it is one of his Cagney-esque big performances, a lot of ranting and raving, but with purpose. Everything Tajōmaru does is exaggerated with an almost superhuman level of bravado. He’s playing up his fearsomeness, with occasional moments of relative calm in order to assert that he’s also a noble, dignified warrior who gave the samurai a chance rather than a cold-blooded murderer. It’s also a purposeful contrast to what we learn might be his true nature later in the film.

He’s not the only one performing. It’s more than understandable that Machiko Kyō’s character is distraught, but there’s something overly considered about her performance, with reason. She’s trying to represent herself as an innocent victim of both her attacker’s brutality and her husband’s indifference, omitting any sense of moral grey that might suggest she was a guilty party in the murder. Here, Kurosawa dances on a dangerous line, but it’s less about blame and more about suggesting her limited faculties in defending herself in this case. In that era, questions of her virtue overshadow any harm that might have been done to her (hell, just hear how lowly her husband considers her following the assault), so any slim hope for justice would be dashed if those suggestions came about. Perhaps without even intending to, Kurosawa exposes the inherent misogyny of the system and of the men of the era, and her omissions actually humanize her more than a standard grim victimization storyline would have.

With the samurai, Kurosawa goes one step further in exaggerated performance by bringing out a female medium (Noriko Honma), whose kabuki-influenced performance turns his anguish into a form of performance art. By necessity, Kurosawa uses a wider shot to showcase the performative aspect of the medium’s role, but he also turns up the fans to bring an even greater level of cosmic disorder, as if the earth screamed right along with the samurai. Sure, he might be tortured anyway, being dead and all, but combination of the writhing of Honma, the gasping voice of Mori and his perspective of victimization and being dishonored lend themselves to the idea that everyone performs when trying to represent themselves, so as to best convince the listener that their perspective is the correct one.

When Kurosawa takes us into their takes on the incident, then, we’re not just seeing what they see, but we’re seeing what they’re thinking about, what the environment was like, where people were in relation to each other. My fellow freelancer Kyle Turner wrote something on Letterboxd about how he felt certain POV shots in these sequences didn’t make sense, given that these sequences are about putting ourselves in their perspectives and these shots imply another person’s presence. With all due respect, I feel a closer comparison would be how David Cronenberg places Christopher Walken in the midst of the murder when he flashes back to them in The Dead Zone. We’re now seeing everything about their perspective and the incident as they describe it.

With that in mind, a shot that pivots from showing Tajōmaru by a tree, watching the samurai and his wife pass by to showing them in the distance after they’ve passed is there to suggest the bandit’s single-minded focus on and awareness of his objective (the wife) and his obstacle (the samurai). A low shot of the wife fighting off Tajōmaru with a knife places her on his level even though she’s actually lower than him as a way to suggest his admiration for her for being able to fend for herself; a higher shot afterwards shows how lowly he thinks of her once she’s driven to beg for the death of her husband. The camera’s dolly towards him as he stabs the samurai (after a thrilling swordfight) blocks out the man’s death, so as to honor the man after a valiant fight and, in turn, make Tajōmaru an honorable warrior rather than a murderer.

In the wife’s story, meanwhile, Kurosawa places greater emphasis on wide shots to show her distance, her abandonment by both Tajōmaru and her husband. A shot placed behind the husband, still bound, as she pleads for him to stop looking at him lets us imagine the look of judgment and anger on his face that she dare be violated. Fumio Hayasaka’s score takes on the driving rhythms of Ravel’s “Bolero” (something I had no idea was intentional until about a minute ago) in order to drum away at the wife’s remaining defenses. The camera shifts, still only showing the wife but suggesting that she can’t escape her husband’s terrible gaze no matter how she tries. We’re brought closer to her perspective and in his hateful expression as she begs for death, anything to escape her fate and judgment by the society; her pleas will not be answered.

The score takes on a more exaggerated tragic element in the dead man’s story, so as to change from a story about a defenseless woman being demolished by men to a story about a poor man who was unlucky enough to have his wife’s rape happen to him. We have a more limited perspective, both to put us in the man’s shoes (he’s still bound) and to suggest just how trapped he is by this incident, to grow more claustrophobic, to make suicide seem like the only out. Kurosawa gets a thrilling effect in a match cut between the man’s fall from his suicide and the medium falling in a final bit of performance, which only hammers away the samurai’s own sense of victimization.

All of these stories are shot so as to best support the given perspectives, but there’s a constant through all of them: the contrast between shadows from the trees and light from the sun. The mixture of shadows and light are there to suggest the moral ambiguity of the situation, the lies that all of the storytellers are telling to support their respective versions. Miyagawa is either the first or one of the first cinematographers to point a camera directly into the sun, and it’s a striking effect, but it’s also an important one to the storyline. One debated scene is whether, when the wife stares into the sun, the sun goes out or stays shining, and whether or not both could support the idea that evil is borne in that moment. To me, it’s as much about the doubt of what happened in that moment and in the aftermath, and the difficult need to search for the truth.

Perhaps we get closer to that truth in the fourth version of the story, where the woodcutter, finally revealing that he was a witness to the crime and not just a man who stumbled upon the aftermath, tells a version of the story that makes all three parties look bad. The bandit is not a valiant warrior, but a pitiful man who begged for the wife to be with him rather than the husband. The husband becomes a worm of a man who’s self-important and unforgiving of his wife. The wife becomes a new judgmental figure, one who recognizes the weakness in both of them and can’t help but laugh at her situation. Even the swordfight has changed: no longer the dynamic, highly choreographed battle of Tajōmaru’s story, it’s now a pathetic battle between two cowards; yet she’s also a coward in her own right, one who calls for blood but can’t watch the fight. It’s all shot in a more objective way that doesn’t psychologically support any of them, but rather undercuts them.

The woodcutter’s version is likely closest to the truth, yet he omits that he stole the woman’s priceless dagger, which went missing after the crime. This comes out after he, the commoner, and the priest find an abandoned infant and the commoner chooses to steal the kimono protecting the child; the commoner sees through he woodcutter’s moral superiority and calls him out on his own misdeeds. That's also the real reason the woodcutter is so shaken by the story: it's not just the lies and selfishness of these people, but that they bring to light his own lies and selfishness – he's no better than them. It’s in this moment that the film’s focus shifts from the subjectivity of truth to the question of whether morality is futile. The commoner might be doing a low thing in stealing an abandoned child’s only protection, but he has no illusions as to who he is. He does selfish things because, as the film has illustrated in the earlier stories, that’s what needs to be done to survive. The acts of goodness might not be worth a damn at all, and moral failure might be inevitable.

Yet Kurosawa maintains hope as Shimura’s woodcutter chooses to take the child in, to take on another burden even though he has six children to feed already (“one more wouldn’t make a difference.”) The child might not have a great chance in the world, but it has a chance, and the smallest of kind acts has the capacity to mitigate moral failure (Kurosawa and Shimura would revisit this two films later with Ikiru). The film isn’t naïve enough to think that all is right in the world (Kurosawa wanted the skies to look overcast rather than clear but couldn’t wait to shoot any longer), but for the time being, order is restored.

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.