Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

19 September 2013

Two 2013 Films about Fatherhood

Derek Cianfrance's The Place beyond the Pines is insistently about fatherhood – even to the point of being slightly clunky. "Are you thinking about the fact that the man you killed had a son the same age as your own?" a psychiatrist asks Bradley Cooper in the film's second act. "Is that why you're having trouble looking at your own son?" I can't tell you whether or not a psychiatrist would normally ask such a pointed question to a client, but either way, on film it felt forced and slightly obvious.

Thematics aside, The Place beyond the Pines is certainly interesting for its first act. And this interest derives mostly from the fact that Ryan Gosling's character was an unpredictable and erratic figure who never did what I expected him to do. Violent, scary, and very stupid, he was also devoted to his child in an immediate (also slightly terrifying) way. Gosling rides his motorcycle and broods and smokes cigarettes and says very little. His work is not without interest, here, but I think personally I'm a little Goslinged out. Okay not really. But I am a little tired of these brooding, silent figures who have secret love or secret pain or secret shame or something but aren't talking about it. And I know he works with directors other than Derek Cianfrance and Nicolas Winding Refn, but right now those gentlemen's characters seem like the only thing Gosling can do. I know that isn't true, but I also don't think I need any more strong, silent, good-at-revving-engines performances for a while.

Overall, Pines is more a piece about mood than anything else. It is also easy to say "thematics aside" above, but in truth The Place beyond the Pines is all about thematics. It is a kind of long-form meditation on what makes a father, what debt a son has to a father, and how we are or become the fathers to all sorts of sons – even the ones we didn't know we ought to be protecting.

To my mind Pines didn't have much else going for it. It's overly long, and the third act (which ought to be the most exciting section of the film) ends up being the flattest, with characters about whom we care much less than those who have been onscreen for the first two acts. I've read folks complaining on the internet that the third act dragged. To the contrary: the third act is probably the film's most exciting section; it is simply that there's no one onscreen whom we actually like.

Special note about the incredible character-actor Ben Mendelsohn, who is really superb in a supporting role as Gosling's only friend.

Pines is told mostly from the fathers' point(s) of view. Even in the third act when we adopt the son's viewpoint, we are watching as though we were his parent, so the point of view of the father predominates throughout Pines. In Jeff Nichols' Mud, we see the viewpoint of the son only.


Mud was everything I needed it to be. Two boys discover an outlaw named Mud on an island somewhere in the Mississippi River and decide to help him for no apparent reason other than that he is interesting and tells good stories. (I can relate; I love a good story.)

Ellis and Neckbone (That's a great handle, kid Matthew McConaughey tells him) are teenagers who really don't know what they're doing. We follow Ellis as he tries to get a much older teenage girl to be his girlfriend, deal with his parents' breakup, and assert himself as a full-grown individual. He is scared and naive and lovable, and the actor who plays him (Tye Sheridan) is unbelievably good. Watching this boy enjoy his first kiss will definitely be a cinematic highlight of 2013 for me.

Ellis is looking for another father figure – one different from his own father, I mean – and this outlaw is dangerous and exciting and apparently willing to fight for the woman he loves. Ellis admires that. Neckbone, too, needs more of a father in his life. His own guardian is a hilarious uncle played by Michael Shannon, who just wants his nephew to hang out with him. Of course, our father figures need their own fathers, too, and still need help even when they're grown. Mud is an orphan, too.

Mud is a suspense film, though, not a meditation. And, like he does in Take Shelter, Nichols handles the suspense superbly. Mud builds and builds until I absolutely loved the characters in the film and didn't think I'd be able to bear it if harm came to any of them. And it is a tribute to Nichols' excellent filmmaking that in a film that isn't a meditation – in a film that is really just a good old-fashioned genre picture – I spent most of my time thinking about fatherhood, about what we want our fathers to be, about what we need from them, and of the fantasies we project onto them about their abilities.

Perhaps it isn't fair to compare Mud to The Place beyond the Pines – they are, after all, working on totally different things – but I saw them back to back and they are both so much about fatherhood that I will probably always think about them together.

15 September 2013

Agony. Ecstasy. (Sodomy?)

There are a lot of things to say about an epic undertaking such as The Agony and the Ecstasy, but the thing I saw most clearly when I watched it was how generic it is. Agony is an amazingly enormous film: gorgeous sets, costumes, locations, battles, photography. And the whole thing is impressive.

But Agony has a structure similar to Becket (1964) and Cromwell (1970) and Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), whereby two very important historical figures – Henry II (Peter O'Toole), Thomas à Becket (Richard Burton) / Oliver Cromwell (Richard Harris), James I (Alec Guinness) / Elizabeth I (Glenda Jackson), Mary Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave) – face off and battle one another, while respecting and even loving one another. In Agony the pair is Pope Julius II and Michaelangelo Buonarotti as they work together to make the Sistine Chapel a reality.

I want also to say how much I hated – I mean absolutely loathed – Alex North's score for this movie. It is awful. Alternating between drummed-up marches and chorus-boys singing alleluias, more than once I begged for the soundtrack simply to shut up. 

There is a rather fascinating scene about Michaelangelo's presumed sodomitical tendencies. Charlton Heston talks to Diane Cilento about how he simply can't love her because of how much he loves art, and the camera can't help but capture all of these sketches of naked men while the conversation happens. I watched with mild amusement and slight horror during the whole of it.

Worth a watch? I think so, although I think Becket and Cromwell are superior.

13 September 2013


It is funny to me how certain things can push me in the direction of liking a movie or disliking a movie. Of course, a movie is not just itself, right? A movie is also how we happen to feel the day we watch it, or the expectations of greatness we bring to it, or the way other people have built it into something. Our enjoyment is also deeply affected by anything we happen to be going through at the time we watch a movie, and how we continue to feel about a movie can have as much to do with specific associations from the first time we watched that film as it does with anything "good" or "bad" about the movie.

(I really liked It's Complicated at a time when my ex-boyfriend and I were trying to get back together and make things work. The film resonated with me, whereas when I saw Love Actually I spent the whole time cringing at its treacly sentiments. But this kind of thing is totally arbitrary, really.)

What I am trying to say is that Stoker is really not that good. 

But.... I was really excited for Park Chan-wook's first English-language feature.

I love the cast: Nicole Kidman, Matthew Goode, Phyllis Somerville, and Jacki Weaver, especially. And the opening credit-sequence is kind of wonderful.

And then the rest of the movie just isn't.  

Stoker is slow, and it is creepy, and it is beautifully shot – with Park's typical gorgeously picturesque blood-spatterings, neck-breakings, and death throes.

Ms. Weaver in Stoker
The movie could be filled with tension, and I think Park is trying to be very suspenseful, but the characters are so washed out, they feel so hollow, that I just didn't care about any of them, and it's fairly difficult to have a lot of feelings about what is going to happen when none of the characters seem like real people and I don't actually care what happens to any of them. As it turns out, every person in this movie is a homicidal psychopath. So I wasn't very invested.

As it happened, though, I was kind of into this movie for quite a while. And this was because of the awesome cast, the beautiful photography, Clint Mansell's score, and the fact that the movie was Park's. I gave Stoker a lot of leeway. But by its end, I had had enough of its constant delays and numerous tiny cliffhangers. I needed something finally to happen... and nothing ever did.

10 September 2013

Spring Break Forever, Y'all

I am not quite sure what I figured I'd get from Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers, but it was recommended to me by two sources that I don't really trust (ahem: Carlos and Jonathan), and so my expectations were fairly low. More than anything else, I figured Spring Breakers would be like 1998's Wild Things for a new generation.

In fact, as I write this, the comparison makes perfect sense. Wild Things (if you grew up in the '90s like I did) was the sexiest mainstream film I had ever seen: Neve Campbell and Denise Richards have sex with Matt Dillon in a swimming pool and it's all very exciting. Wild Things was all about trafficking in this kind of eroticism: Kevin Bacon even appears fully naked (he did that a lot in the late '90s). But Wild Things is a plot-driven film that has about twenty-five twists: this person double-crossing the other and then being double-crossed in return to the point of total absurdity. The tittilation in Wild Things is the point of the movie, of course, but the film pretends for all the world that it is a crime caper, almost as if it is in denial of its own purpose. 

Spring Breakers does things differently. It's set in Florida, too (Florida is apparently the favored setting for both real-life criminal behavior and its cinematic equivalent these days) but Korine's film is not about plot any more than it is about eroticism or faux-lesbianism. Spring Breakers is, for one thing, about time.

Spring Break forever, y'all. The film's characters chant this mantra as a plea for living in the now and as a demand made upon those participating in spring break to celebrate this time during spring break to the fullest. It's a way of saying YOLO or (as we used to say) carpe diem. And essentially this time during spring break is assumed to be "free" time, or time that is outside of time. The young ladies at the film's center speak about getting away from their lives, leaving their humdrum existences. They need to get out of their lives: out of the regular time of their lives in order that they can have "the time of their lives". They repeat hackneyed expressions such as these are the moments we'll always remember, but aside from being so intoxicated that memory of anything would seem impossible, the moments that are intended to be remembered are themselves outside of time, approached as outside of time. It is central to the film's premise that the moments in these young ladies' lives are not at all memorable and the moments lived outside of "real life" are worth remembering, indeed are the only ones worth cinematic retelling.

And if Spring Break is considered a break from time, Korine's film explores the ways that time itself is disrupted through the activities attached to the popular notion of spring break: the film is often unclear about when we are and where we are. Sometimes we watch things that haven't happened yet, flashes-forward that we then see in real time, giving the entirety of the film the feeling of having happened already. I found myself saying wait, has this already happened? or hasn't this happened before?. Lines repeat, sometimes ad nauseum, and Spring Breakers plays with the totally intoxicated way of living this life out of time. The young women re-enact a scene of violence from the first act of the film in the second act. Only this time they're in a parking lot and everything is different. It's just play-acting. And the film flashes quickly between the memory and what is happening in the present. But even what is happening in the present feels like it has already happened. And one begins to feel a bit nauseous. I began to feel as though I had had as much to drink as they had. But you said that already. Didn't you say that already?

James Franco as Alien
Spring Breakers, too, is essentially about our time. It feels very much about the current moment: the total banality of collegiate sexual activity, of naked men and women, of alcoholic intoxication, of beach parties and public, sexualized play. The police appear in the film at a key moment and they (as you can imagine) do nothing but cause much more trouble. They are present for none of the violent criminal activity in the film, but appear only to slap a hand or two, only to facilitate further criminal behavior. And this no longer feels like a total failure on the part of our legal system, but par for the course. This is the way the law works. When, late in the movie, Alien refers to Britney Spears as one of the greatest voices of our time, it doesn't land as a joke. I nodded my head. He's right. That is the version of greatness we are willing to accept.

The plot of the movie is essentially that three young ladies violently rob a restaurant and set fire to a car so that they can go on vacation with their friend. The four girls then have a wild time in Florida (St. Pete, to be exact) and spend their time getting trashed and flirting with guys. Then they are hauled in by the cops for drug use. They spend a night in county lock-up and then when they come before a judge they are sentenced to two days in jail unless they can pay a fine. The fine is paid by a musician/gangster with a mouthful of gold teeth and a head of cornrows. This guy, whose name is Alien, sells drugs and collects weaponry, and spends most of his time barging into the hotel rooms of spring breakers and robbing them. The young women take up with this guy and form a kind of gun-toting, bikini-clad gang. Eventually two of the women go home, but the two main girls form a ménage à trois with Alien (there is a Wild Things homage where the three have sex in a swimming pool).

The film is filled with bright lights and saturated colors, and these are used to fabulous effect both by the film's cinematographer and its editor. The film is violent and shocking and spends most of its time attacking the famous urban/rural axis that Carol Clover analyzed so well in her study of 1970s horror films. Class conflict is central to Spring Breakers, and that conflict is literalized as the film becomes increasingly violent. Spring Breakers is about money. And to return to time, the film questions who is able to afford time and what people might do to pay in order to buy some time out of time.

By the point at which Spring Breakers is over, it has begun to seem less and less real. Paradoxically, however, the way that Korine has told his story recommends the narrative to us as a real one. I was convinced, by the movie's finale, that such things happen and probably with frequency. And further, I found Korine's approach to be an empathetic one. The young women in Spring Breakers make foolish decision after foolish decision, but they are, after all, more trapped than anything else: trapped in boring lives, trapped by their age, trapped by their relative lack of intelligence, and trapped in a time when the best idea anyone can come up with for escaping a life of boredom is robbing a restaurant in order to get wasted and flash your tits at a video camera.

07 September 2013

Blurred Lines

Maybe I'm deaf. Or maybe I'm blind. Maybe I'm going out of my mind.

But "Blurred Lines", a song that I've been digging for a while now, is pretty much exactly the same song as Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack".

I know that Adorno said that all pop music is just recycled from previous pop music. And I'm not complaining. I liked "SexyBack" a lot in 2006 and I like Robin Thicke's version of it now. What I was thinking about today, though, is all of the backlash surrounding Robin Thicke's song and how sexist it is. I find discussions about things like this fascinating because for some reason people are like actually up in arms about this song and how it is misogynist and objectifies women.

So I went back to the video for "SexyBack" and found these two images:
The plot of Timberlake's video is some kind of spy/James-Bond thing, and it involves this lovely woman wearing very little (with, however, a well-placed pearl necklace) looking around a hotel room for something. There is literally no logical reason that this woman is not wearing more clothes.
And then there is this image:

There is some kind of public lesbian sex club in the video. Justin walks through the halls of this well-lit sex club (where women don't have sex, really, but just sort of make out with one another and look sexy). There are lots of delightful shots of women in various seductive poses and in various states of undress.

The reason I point this out is to ask, well, how is the Thicke/T.I./Pharrell video any different?
Leaving aside the question of how sexist these songs and videos are (and they are sexist), I am mostly just wondering why this video gets everyone so mad.

And I am not saying that we shouldn't talk more about how sexist pop music is, and the real-world damage done to the bodies of actual women who attempt to conform to these sexist images. I'm not saying that we oughtn't to criticize the way the music industry supports and promotes the notions of men as the keepers of sexual pleasure and women as objects who need constant sexual satisfaction. And I am certainly not saying oh just shut up and dance. But let's talk about this more. Point out the sexism in pop music more. Point out the sexism in our legal system more. Because if we are focusing only on how sexist Robin Thicke is, we are allowing ourselves to be distracted, when this sexism permeates popular music in general and our society as a whole.

06 September 2013

Lots of Pain. As for the Gain...

The best thing I can say about Pain & Gain is that I still like its three stars after having watched their asinine movie.

This is a comedy, I guess. A crime/caper/comedy thing. In a lot of ways it is very similar to a movie like The Informant! (the Soderbergh film with Matt Damon) and especially I Love You Phillip Morris (that sort of gay prison/crime comedy with Jim Carrey).

The idea is kind of like a long-form narrative version of the Darwin Awards: let's watch these total idiots do something we can't believe the cops were stupid enough not to notice for so long. Bay's film is told in the most smug tone you can possibly imagine.

Whatever. I mean, who cares. Late in act two there is a ridiculous joke about a bathroom covered in feces and the entire audience I was with laughed. So apparently Pain & Gain is connecting with some people.

But this was not for me. As much as Dwayne Johnson is a hilarious performer and as much as I love Mark Wahlberg and Anthony Mackie.

Michael Bay. What the hell.

Also, anyone casting Ken Jeong in something is a jackass. The single joke at which he excels stopped being funny in 2009 at the latest.

03 September 2013

Kon-Tiki vs. Life of Pi

Apparently, I liked Life of Pi when I first saw it, and I guess I should stick with that opinion because I have no intention of re-watching the film. But last evening I sat down and watched Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg's Kon-Tiki and all I could do was compare it to Ang Lee's beloved film from last year.

First off, Kon-Tiki, unlike Life of Pi, is not a kids' film, and it doesn't have the kind of storytelling frame that Pi has, where the story is told to us by an unreliable narrator.

More importantly, Kon-Tiki is a true story, an actual historical event that took place in the late 1940s. Kon-Tiki is the tale of a group of six men who sailed from South America to the Polynesian islands – in other words: five thousand miles across the Pacific Ocean – on a raftKon-Tiki, though, always seems real. And I am sure that some of the film was done using CGI. I have no doubt of it, in fact, but it never looked fake. These guys are sailing the ocean on a raft and they look like they are in the ocean on a raft. (I don't know if you remember Life of Pi, but what with the fake tiger and the flying fish and the fake sunsets and the fake water and the fake animals, I never felt like I was in the real world at all.)

Kon-Tiki is an adventure/journey story, rather in the mode of Deliverance, The Way Back, or The Grey: so it is really a movie about testing the mettle of a group of men who are alone in the wild with no one to help them but their own ingenuity and a bunch of blind luck. It is gorgeously made, with impressive and immaculate costume design and a group of actors doing fine work, and I have to say I found most of it rather gripping.

Rønning and Sandberg's movie has its share of clichéd scenes – the terrified and useless Ned Beatty character from Deliverance is embodied in this case by a tubby refrigerator salesman played by Anders Baasmo Christiansen – but it also has a few filled with extraordinary tension. There is a sequence where the men literally grab a shark out of the ocean and eviscerate it on the raft that left me with my mouth gaping.

All in all, Kon-Tiki is something like Life of Pi for grown-ups. Kon-Tiki doesn't take the (child's) point of view that the world is magical; it looks at the Earth, thinks about it scientifically, and still finds the world wonderful.