Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Cold In July: Grappling With Character and Narrative

I watched Cold In July last night.  It's not a bad movie.  The acting and directing are stellar, and it is in some ways original and daring.  But when it was over, I was more frustrated than satisfied. Be warned: the following contains spoilers.

Rich (Michael C. Hall) accidentally kills a man whom he and Ben  (Sam Shepard) are told is Ben's son.  Ben makes thinly veiled threats, but the police refuse to act until Ben does something illegal.  The police are very concerned about the law, apparently.  Then Ben breaks into Rich's house.  That gives the police enough suspicion to watch the house, but not to arrest Ben?  Fine.  So they watch and find out that Ben never left the house.  Well, they don't see him, but they assume it was him.  So they arrest him. For what?  For breaking in and not leaving until late at night?  They couldn't have just arrested him for breaking in in the first place? In any case, they arrest him.  Then the police try to kill him.  They sneak him out of jail and try to make it look like an accidental death.  For what?  There is no reason at all for the police to want him dead, or to break the law to get rid of him.  One minute, the police are very concerned about carefully following the rules; the next, they are breaking them without any reason.

What was Ben going to do to Rich's son, anyway?  He could have killed him.  He could have kdinapped him.  He did nothing.  Did he just want to scare Rich?  He hid in the house all day and then risked getting caught (or killed) by the cops, just to scare them?  Ben must be insane to do that to a person's family just because the father accidentally killed his son in self-defense.  Which makes us wonder:  Why was Ben in jail for most of his son's life, anyway?  We never find out.

The Ben of the first part of the film is a dark, deranged and menacing figure.  Then Rich saves his life.  After that, Ben seems remarkably centered and disciplined, with a strong sense of duty.  Sure, he persumably a bit disturbed and he is clearly comfortable taking the law in his own, violent hands; but he's not so off-kilter that he would terrorize a family in these circumstances.  He is not so dark and not at all deranged or menacing.  Instead of carrying through with Ben's sinister edge in the second half of the film, Ben comes across as too likable, too principled, too moral.  This is not the same Ben that was in the first half of the movie.

This may to some extent be intentional.  The movie might be saying something about monsters and men.  Perhaps Ben has two sides:  one is a monster, the other is a man.  And we can see Rich's character arc in these terms.  By the end of it all, Rich has changed.  He is no longer afraid to use his gun.  He kills with determination.  Rich and Jim Bob Luke (Don Johnson) help him along with this transformation, but it comes from within.  Rich changes himself, and it is compelling drama.  He becomes more like Ben and Jim Bob Luke.  Perhaps we are supposed to be left with this question:  Has Rich become a man, or has he become a monster?

Perhaps they wanted Ben to have two sides, one monster and one man.  But in that case, we should see them co-existing.  We should be able to interpret the same action from both sides.  Instead, we just get two different characters when it is convenient to the plot.  Thus, Ben's character doesn't ring true, and the entire story that brings him and Rich together is unconvincing.  It's really a shame.  I found a lot to enjoy in Cold In July, but couldn't shake the bad taste after it was over.

The Unintended Irony of Birdman and Big Hero 6

Birdman, Oscar's Best Picture of 2014, is a satire of Hollywood's lack of artistic gravitas.  The primary target is the dark hole of superhero films that attracts much of the industry's money and talent.  Birdman goes out of its way to repeatedly poke fun at superhero movies.  And yet, the Oscar for Best Animated Feature went to Big Hero 6 . . . a superhero movie.  Who said the Academy had to be consistent?

I just watched Big Hero 6 and enjoyed a lot of it.  Yet, it suffers from all of the problems that often plague superhero movies.  It is the perfect example of the sort of film that Birdman is making fun of.  (Warning:  the rest of this post contains major spoilers.)

The hero (subtly named "Hiro"), a thirteen-year-old boy of limited means, somehow manages to produce thousands of tiny 'microbots,' and gear for controlling them directly through his thoughts.  It's not even so ridiculous that he could come up with a way to build such things--it's that he actually was able to build them.  But okay, he does.  Absurd, but let's move on.

He builds them and shows them off, because he wants to impress the head of a school:  Callaghan, who is duly impressed and convinces Hiro to bring the new technology to his school for further research.  To repeat, Callaghan--who is in charge of what may be the most advanced technological research academy in the world--has successfully convinced Hiro to bring the tech to his school.  This would put this new technology in Callaghan's hands.  Callaghan wants the technology in order to exact some twisted revenge fantasy.  So what does Callaghan do?  He destroys one of the buildings at his school, fakes his own death and steals the technology.  He risks his life and gives up his career just to steal technology that he otherwise would have had complete control over at his school.  Nonsense.

Also, remember that Hiro thought all his microbots were destroyed in the fire.  Hiro, the person who built them.  If anybody knew how those microbots would respond to a fire, it was Hiro.  But Callaghan assumed that the microbots could protect him from the fire--that the microbots were actually fire-proof.  How did Callaghan know that, and how could Hiro not have known that?

Then there's the fact that Callaghan's plan is absurd:  he thinks the best revenge is to destroy Krei's building.  The building?  If he just wanted to destroy a building, he didn't need microbots.  And if he just wanted to destoy a building, he didn't need to put together that weird interdimensional teleportation device.  (And how'd he get that device to work without a power source?  Where were its controls?)  As with many superhero movies, we have a villain who is so poorly motivated and whose plan is so convoluted, we cannot possibly take it seriously.

The flaws don't end with Callaghan.  There's also the fact that Hiro knows every spec about the microbots and the headgear which Callaghan steals from him.  It should be very easy for him to regain control of the microbots, or just build new ones of his own--which could've been cool:  a microbot showdown--but he never even considers that.  Instead, he creates superheroes out of his late brother's fellow science students (and one mascot), people who have had no combat training at all.  How are they all of a sudden supposed to be super warriors?

At the beginning of the movie, we learn that Hiro is a hustler.  He does not respect authority or rules.  He is a loner, happy to use his skills to take advantage of others.  At the end of the movie, he has control over the most powerful technology in the world.  Why are we supposed to trust him?  Oh yeah, because he gave up his prior life and decided to commit himself to . . . to what, exactly?  To going to school, where he could develop even bigger and better technology?  To exacting revenge on the person who stole his technology and killed his brother?  At what point did Hiro become a good person with a convincing sense of social responsibility?  Never.

There was supposed to be some transformative moment when he watched the video of his brother.  He learned that we should heal people, not hurt them.  That's it?  One video, and he's a different person?  That's just the sort of magic moment that distinguishes popcorn entertainment from serious drama.  It's just the sort of narrative weakness we have come to expect from Hollywood.

In reality, Hiro does not seem interested in making Baymax the sort of health care provider his brother had intended.  Instead, Hiro makes Baymax into his personal slave.  Why isn't Baymax constantly trying to help as many people as possible?  Why is this "health care provider" only doing what Hiro wants?  We are supposed to think that Hiro is following his brother's altruistic footsteps, helping bring his dream of health care to life.  But in reality, Hiro is stealing his brother's invention and using it for his own personal betterment.  Sure, Hiro thinks he can save the world.  He's delusional.  He's selfish.  He's thirteen.  We should not be happy with how this movie ends.

Last point.  At the end of the film, before Baymax uses his super-punch to send Hiro back into our world, he takes out the disc which controls his programming and puts it in his hand.  That way, Hiro is able to make another Baymax just like the first one.  The problem is, how and why would Baymax send Hiro back into our world once he removed the disc?  Without the disc, he is nothing.  Baymax magically transcends his wiring in order to make sure that Hiro gets a hard copy of his programming.  Again, nonsense.  This plot hole could have been avoided.  Hiro could have returned home after losing Baymax and then found a copy of Baymax's program.  I mean, his brother must have made a back-up disc, right?  No?  Seriously?

Big Hero 6 is funny, exciting, touching and visually-entertaining.  It lacks well-developed characters and the plot is absurd.  Nobody acts in a way that makes sense, and the whole thing is an absurdly disturbing sort of wish-fullfilment.  It is everything that Birdman is against.  Yet, both films won Oscars.  Can we be fans of both?  Can we enjoy Big Hero 6 one minute, and make fun of it the next?  What does this say about us?  Are we just used to living with cognitive dissonance?  Do we enjoy it?  Or are we not even paying attention?

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Movies of 2014

In lieu of the Oscars, here are my own categories (and winners) for 2014 films.

Best Drama:

Best Sci-Fi:
Under The Skin

Best Horror:
The Babadook
Runner Up:
A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night

Best Comedy:
Runner Up:
What We Do In The Shadows

Best Action:
Edge Of Tomorrow

Best Children's Movie:

Best Director:
Richard Linklater (Boyhood);
Runners Up:
Ava DuVernay (Selma)
Jonathan Glazer (Under The Skin)
Jennifer Kent (The Babadook)

Best Actress:
Essie Davis (The Babadook);
Runner Up:
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Actor:
Jake Gyllenhaal (Nightcrawler)
Runners Up:
David Oyelowo (Selma)

Best Actress in a Supporting Role:
Laura Dern (Wild);
Runner Up:
Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role:
J. K. Simmons (Whiplash)
Runner Up:
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)

Best Cinematography:
Mikhail Krichman (Leviathan)
Runner Up:
Robert Yeoman (Grand Budapest Hotel)

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Jonathan Glazer & Walter Campbell (Under The Skin)
Runner Up:
Jon Ronson & Peter Straughan (Frank)

Best Screenplay:
Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin (Leviathan)

Most Overrated Movie:
The Imitation Game;
Runners Up:
Captain America: Winter Soldier
Gone Girl

Most Underrated Movie:
The Amazing-Spider Man 2

Biggest Disaster/Disappointment:

Movies I still want to see:
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya
Song of the Sea
Two Days, One Night
Two Faces of January
Mr. Turner
Winter Sleep
and all of the Oscar-nominated documentaries

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Judaism Lost: A Comment on "Ida"

My initial reaction to Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida was anger and frustration:  Not at the historical injustice documented in the film.  Not at the personal tragedy.  Rather, it's the film itself that bothers me:  It is a film about two Jewish women in the wake of the Holocaust, but Judaism itself is absent from the picture.  A. O. Scott observes, in his New York Times review, the film "unfolds at the crossroads where the Catholic, Jewish and Communist strains of Poland's endlessly and bitterly contested national identity intersect."  What Scott fails to notice, however, is that Judaism exists in the film only negatively:  Jews are victims of the Holocaust; Jews are corrupt communists, faithless, self-destructive and morally lost.  The film makes "an implicit argument . . . between faith and materialism," as Scott also observes, but it is Catholic faith that is on the line, not Judaism.  There is no representation of Judaism as a viable option in the film at all.

Finally, thanks to Joanna Auron-G√≥rska, there is a review of the film I can wholly get behind.  She writes: "Ida shirks the responsibility that there is in the terrible knowledge imparted to its main character."  That knowledge, of course, is that the titular Ida is a Jew whose parents were slaughtered by Polish farmers during the Holocaust.  The entire review is well-worth reading, but this is where she identifies what I think is the main problem with the film:

"Why doesn't Ida ask herself what her being Jewish may mean to her? She has a go at the secular life; why does she not at least try on her Jewishness, the way she tries on the pearls and the vodka? It may have been difficult if not impossible to be a Jew at that time in Poland in any other sense than that of an internalized, partially hidden identity, of memory, or of faith; but it was certainly possible in those ways. For Ida, though, Jewishness is inconsequential. Had she at least explored the appearances, she would have to ask herself what it is like - if it is not possible to learn what it actually is - to be a Jew; she would have to assess the viability of her Jewishness; try to make meaning out of her family's death; attempt to understand the significance of the virtual disappearance of Jewish communities from Poland; finally, she would have to critically appraise the Poles and their Church. She does none. The return to the convent is Ida's best, in fact her only choice."

During a scene in the middle of the film, Ida and Wanda struggle over a Christian Bible.  It may be the most emotionally salient scene in the film, for it is the only time Ida expresses any significant emotions.  As Wanda suggests, it is as if a wild beast awoke inside the otherwise placid and stoic girl.  When Ida finds out she is Jewish, her face doesn't change.  When she sees the man who killed her parents during the Holocaust, her face doesn't change.  When she is handed their remains, and travels a long distance to bury them properly, her face doesn't change.  But when Wanda wants to quote the Bible to her, seeking to justify her decadent lifestyle, Ida erupts in violence and forces the holy book out of her hands.  Ida can face genocide with a dispassionate eye, but she cannot tolerate misuse of the Christian Bible--at least, not in the hands of a drunken, promiscuous Jew.

Ida's violent outburst over the Bible is not a sign of bubbling anger or frustration with the world and her place in it.  She never again shows any inclinations towards violence.  She never again shows anger or frustration at all.  In fact, her only other outburst in the film is the momentary, slight laugh she accidentally emits during dinner back at the convent.  What recollection or insight brought laughter to her lips?  We have no way of knowing.  The point is not why she was laughing, but that she was noticeably out of place, no longer comfortable in her old skin.  It didn't have to be laughter.  It could have been any emotional outburst at all.  Why does she laugh?  This should be striking, for nowhere in the film is Ida ever given reason to laugh.  She and Wanda have just found the man who killed her parents, watched him dig up their remains, and then driven a long way across Poland for a proper burial.  After all of that, Ida returns to the convent without any hint of emotion.  No anger, no frustration, no tears.  Then, for no apparent reason, she gives a small laugh over dinner?

Imagine if, instead of a laugh, Ida had quickly suppressed an unintended cry of grief?  What if she gripped her fork tightly and brought it down just a tad too hard on the table, causing some heads to turn?  Wouldn't that have made more sense?  Wouldn't it have given some depth to her journey, and not made her seem so empty and uncaring?  Some sense that she was struggling with what had happened to her and her family?

Or does she simply not care?  Is that the point?  Forgive and forget, as they say?

When Ida finally decides to leave the convent on her own, it is not because she is Jewish.  It is not because of her situation, her family's fate or her people's tragedy.  It is because she is childishly and innocently curious about the world.  And what she finds is death and a meaninglessness that cannot be cured by romance or the possibility of a family.  So she turns back.  Pawlikowski has said that we are not supposed to know if Ida returns to the convent or not at the end of the film.  Why, then, does he have her dress as a nun?  If he wanted an ambiguous ending, he should have had Ida wearing plain clothes at the end of the film.  And how much more effective would that have been:  a young woman taking the first steps alone towards self-discovery as a Jew, with no clear path forward, venturing bravely into a mysterious world alone, hoping for meaning but not sure where to look?  That would be a powerful ending, especially if we had seen her struggling with anger and rage, fear and mortification, beforehand.  Especially if we had seen her doubt the institution and faith which so far had dressed her.  Unfortunately, that is not Ida.

Ida looks most comfortable, most natural, when she is a nun.  At the hospital, after they have confronted the man they believe killed her parents, Ida holds Wanda, comforting her.  Wanda is in turmoil, but Ida is emotionless.  She is dutiful.  That is her character, but it does not feel real.  She does not seem human.  This may be partly because of how the part is acted (we have to wonder whether Ida's restrained characterization is the result of Agata Trzebuchowska's acting talents or the lack thereof; either way, it is surely intentional), but it is also because of how unnaturally the image is framed:  the two women are at the lower right-hand corner of the screen, their bodies cut awkwardly out of the frame, and their huddled shapes overwhelmed by the vast, barren wall behind them.


Such awkward framing is common in Ida, and it is visually striking.  It also draws our attention away from the characters, making them seem less real, as if they aren't quite there.  The characters take on a more symbolic significance:  Ida, the innocent, graceful child; Wanda, the emotionally-charged victim of evil, her own as well as others.

Has Ida struggled with her faith?  Presumably she had some doubts, or she wouldn't have left the convent the second time.  But where is her struggle?  How does it play out?  In a short-lived experiment with alcohol and cigarettes?  In a one-night flirtation with secular romance?  These are traversed without pause or hesitation, without reflection or consideration of their significance.  It is as if Ida is trying to force her awakening before its time.  Or perhaps she is awake, but unable to feel.

Ida tries on Wanda's decadent lifestyle, but without Wanda's tears.  Ida still does not cry.  She does not scream.  She does not rage against her fate.  There is no visible grief or struggle at all.  Instead, she is playful.  She spins delicately in Wanda's curtains and falls clumsily to the floor.  As with the laugh in the dining hall, this scene would make much more sense in a different movie, one with a lighter tone and less at stake.  Ida does not seem to experience the world around her.  She does not respond to the world as it is.  She is not there.

Ida is a film, like its protagonist, without an emotional compass.  It ends with Ida as she has always been:  most comfortable clothed in Catholic garments, without an identifiable sense of loss or discovery.  Ida is more cipher than human.  And while we might respect the artistry with which the auteur has pulled off this abstraction, we have to wonder at its meaning.  What is gained by making a film about the Holocaust in which the only salient emotional struggle occurs between two Jewish women and a Christian Bible?