Month: January 2015

Selma: A Slow Look into the Past

SELMA

One of the many good things about Selma is the focus. Biopics tend to leave us with half the feelings, half the story, and half the truth. We can only imagine what someone’s life was like and being shown a snippet allows us to truly see the moments that  shaped him or her. And Selma is not just a portrayal of Martin Luther King Jr., but shows us a patchwork of American history.

What allows me to see this moment in history and man in a sympathetic and emotionally ridden way than ever before are many of Selma’s editing techniques. I haven’t seen a film in a very long time with this many slow motion shots. But it’s not redundant in the way that makes the film seem common. It allows viewers to truly slow down and take a look at what is happening in this segregated Southern town. The women who follow King (David Oyelowo) and his planned marches are beaten senseless. Black men old and young are hit over the head with bats and police canes while some are even murdered and all the while the camera mostly stays back, zooms out, and allows a slow unfolding of chaos and heartbreak. These slow motion scenes also allows time for reflection. No one can deny the chaos that happens in Selma is brutal and unfair, but how is that different than some of the chaos that’s happened recently? And I’m not just talking about Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin. Another independent eye-opening film Fruitvale Station released last year revealed a day in the life of Oscar Grant III, who was murdered in LA on New Years Eve in 2008. The men in both films face a nightmare I can’t imagine. But the events that take place in these films and in our everyday lives don’t have to be these horrible bloody episodes that prove how unjust the system and people are. What about all the minorities that simply feel less because they are surrounded by so many superior, big mouth white people? This is specifically shown in the Selma, too, although not in slow motion. The police chief and governor of Selma make everyone’s lives harder because they are threatened by the potential rise of the “other”. Despite how strong King is with the protests and the ongoing decision making, he still looks like he feels inferior to the all the white men he’s involved with.

Even though the intense, slow motion shots in Selma are essential to our feelings and the film’s overall entertainment, the quiet scenes are also important. The silence between King and his wife Correta (Carmen Ejogo) is displayed in a beautiful and soft light. These discussions between the two seem like an argument unfolding, but what comes is the dense silence from King as he decides how to answer his distressed wife. During these moments King sits in the shadows and only half is face is lit, but the darkness doesn’t stop us from knowing and seeing his true emotions: sadness and confusion brought on by constant struggles. The same is seen when the handfuls of black people are shoved in jail after their first protest. Their bodies and faces hide in the shadows and the light shines across an arm, a cheek, or a leg every so often. It’s an eerie but powerful moment to see the dim low-key lighting corresponding to the quiet sounds or all together silence.

MLK’s life may be familiar, but others that were involved in the Civil Rights Movement are often unheard of. This film, though, shows a handful of different lives and how they were personally involved and it’s not done in a way where I feel weighted with too many stories or subplots. Yet, all the minor characters in the film whose issues are focused on could be a separate film and I hope they are eventually. And as for these stories from the past being made into films, I can’t wait for the ones about right now that will be written and displayed across screens so we don’t forget about these gaps that desperately need to shrink. We have work to do, as the film coincidentally corresponds to current events, and the first step is seeing the issues through history and never repeating them.

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Inherent Vice: A Smokey Sleepwalk

inherant vice I wanted so badly to not only like Inherent Vice but also understand the film in a way no one else did. Instead, I stumbled out of the theater feeling sleepy and almost as if I inhaled the second hand smoke that’s in just about every scene. What we have on our hands is a protagonist much like The Big Lebowski’s the Dude, whose film is based off an American classic noir The Big Sleep. All three have many similarities, except the only overall success being The Big Lebowski for having the most likable and hysterical characters. I remember watching The Big Sleep in one of my intro film classes and the only things that kept my attention was the noir’s captivating shadows, costume design, and Lauren Bacall. The same can be said about Inherent Vice. Joaquin Phoenix plays a private investigator Doc and never falls a step out of character. Despite his lackadaisical attitude and grungy appearance, he’s a likable guy and despite the films lack of continuity we relay on Doc for our one entertaining constant.

One of the most frustrating parts about Inherent Vice are the women that surround Doc’s investigations to find his old lover, an ex-heroine addict, the Golden Fang (whatever that is) and all the other side jobs he’s taken on. The women—all minor characters—leave absolutely no room for imagination. Maybe they are meant to portray the type of femme fatales that always make a story more interesting, except they don’t hold the same classy, dangerous, or secretive traits like Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity or again like Laura Bacall in The Big Sleep. Instead, their revealing outfits, gaudy makeup and constant references to sex make them desperate women whose purpose becomes simple and known very quickly. They are eye candy—much like the blondes in last year’s Wolf of Wall Street. Viewers don’t have to imagine what the women look like in Inherent Vice when they are behind closed doors with their lovers because their butt cheeks are already hanging out of their miniskirts or they strut across the room completely naked, giving the male gaze on and off screen exactly what they didn’t even ask for. That’s not to say there aren’t women or moments in the film where they act human and respectable. Take Sortilege (Joanna Newsom) for instance, who acts like a mother figure to Doc and whose point of view the story is told. Except, like the cowboy in The Big Lebowski I wonder why we should trust her when there are many others who know Doc more closely. Her voice-over pops in out during the film as does her homely appearance. It’s a relief, though, to see a woman with a different look and agenda. I can’t say all things are frustrating with Anderson’s new film.

Like his rest, the cinematography is always a wonderful, unique treat. The long takes paired with great music are present in Inherent Vice too. One of my favorite scenes of all times is in Anderson’s Boogie Nights when Night Ranger blares through the speakers while Dirk Diggler and accomplices sit terrified on the couch during their much anticipated drug deal. I have the same strange but giddy feeling when Doc struts through the L.A streets with Neil Young singing in the background and wonder where he’s going next and who he’ll meet. Smoke is also one of the most interesting props used in Inherent Vice. It’s not the tobacco smoke we see in noirs after a couple lies in bed with the previous actions left unsaid. The marijuana smoke follows Doc wherever he goes and leads the lens into different parties, different rooms with fabulous 60’s attire, and once again superb music riding with the camera.

Don’t not see Inherent Vice because of what others are saying. See Inherent Vice because of what others notice and use your own eyes, own connections to see all that’s packed into this puzzling work. I’m a little biased, I admit, because Anderson’s work in my eyes is typically flawless. But there’s always different ways to get people talking—and talking we do. Perhaps that was the motive behind the making of the film. Even if our remarks aren’t always positive or helpful, at least we haven’t stopped thinking about Inherent Vice and ultimately wondering what the heck is going on.

The Imitation Game: Safe Secrets

Imitation

As much as Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is removed from relationships and lacks simple, general knowledge about human connection—The Imitation Game focuses on the unbreakable bonds that evolve throughout life. Unbreakable bonds that form for even men like Alan, who don’t seem to yearn for partnership and who lock themselves away from any potential attachment. This is by far the best thing about the film: watching Cumberbatch embrace a character extremely removed and painfully lonely.

The only relationship we see the mathematician desire throughout the film is one through flashbacks with a schoolboy who introduces him to code breaking and true friendship. These childhood memories let us see certain parts of Alan that are carried with him to adulthood, and the beginning moments when he realizes his sexual identity. Even though these flashbacks help us understand Alan’s experiences and personality, I have been battling with certain decisions the film made. Should we be shown the romantic relationships Alan might have had in the latter part of his life? Part of me thinks this would be more sincere than how we find out Alan is homosexual by these prude moments during childhood and when the assumption is finally proved as he nonchalantly tells John (Allen Leech) in a crowded bar during his engagement party. I have a hard time feeling the authenticity of this scene since Alan is happily closed off from his enigma team prior to this moment and the fact that these men can turn at any moment and go back to seeing Alan as a rotten outsider. At the same time, if the film focuses on these detailed aspects it could convolute much of Alan’s true character. The focus of his sexual orientation could mask other traits the film is clearly trying to show: his determination, persistence, and the true genius that’s hidden behind his quirks. Focusing on the relationships Alan may have had with other men could lessen the importance of the one between him and Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley) as well.

The beauty of this friendship is shown in many scenes in different ways. One of the most essential moments is when Joan stands in front of Alan and does not even flinch when he tells her his secret, but she simply accepts his homosexuality and promises to stand by his side. The most prominent is in the end sequence when Joan arrives at Alan’s home and knows exactly what to say and do to get his spirits up again. The shot/reference shot editing here allows the camera to focus completely on Joan’s expressions and the true concern she feels for her friend, no matter how much he has let her down in the past. And the most unique aspect about their relationship besides these sincere moments—possibly one of the reasons they connect in the first place—is the their place in society. Both are minorities during the time period of the film: Alan a gay man and Joan an intelligent workingwoman. Although we know from the start a romance between the two is unfathomable, we see a magnetic force that brings about an entire different partnership.

The film does a nice job revealing these similarities, but I still want to see more. Another close-up shot of Joan’s reaction when Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) compliments Alan shows us how bemused she is that Menzies refuses to acknowledge her achievements. However, I want to see Joan’s frustration other than the brief moments we get of her twisted facial expressions. The same goes for Alan. When he is interrogated about his homosexuality and goes deep into the psychoanalysis of judgment to the police officer, I wonder where these reflections were earlier. Instead, the internal frustration within the characters is either saved for the end or not shown enough. The film has a chance to reveal so much about certain people’s place in the world. It has a chance to take a risk—one that the industry desperately needs—but unfortunately it lingers in the safe zone.

Big Eyes: Seeing Through the Shadows

bigeyes

I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Big Eyes as much as I did. Being that it was a Tim Burton film, I assumed the topic/story would not be taken seriously enough, but again to my surprise it was not very Tim Burtonesc.

The film opens with Margaret Keane, played by a wonderful Amy Adams leaving a pastel colored world with neat little houses and a picture perfect blue sky. It’s a place viewers may not want to leave just yet, but the pastel color scheme carries through the next few scenes when Margaret settles down in California in a new apartment and job. Burton changes tones once Walter (Christoph Waltz) is in the picture and the two get married. Some of the simple scenes that follow these moments are constructed creatively and effectively and the moment I saw them, I knew I had to write about them. When Margaret makes an appearance for the first time at the club where her artwork is being sold and a buyer asks whom the artist is, the camera stays on Walter and Margaret for an uncomfortable amount of time. The two search for how to answer the question, but it’s also a moment for the viewers to notice the position of the characters and the key lighting. Margaret stands almost a head taller than her husband on the stairs and grips the painting. Walter is below her with a shadow casts across his face. Here, we have time to truly judge them (Walter especially). Is Walter really so controlling that he’s going to take credit for something he didn’t do? And is Margaret that insecure to let yet another man prevent her from the life she deserves? However, no matter how the question is answered the scene provides foreshadowing that eases any worried minds with the dark lighting and by Walter’s staggered position. Of course Margaret is going to eventually rise above her controlling husband and take ownership of the artwork she holds protectively. Another one of these moments is when the two argue in the living room about some of the secrets Margaret has discovered about her husband. By argue I mean Margaret quietly, but sharply reprimanding her husband. The position of both during this scene is similar. Walter sits in a chair with the same dark shadow across his face. Margaret stands above her husband, looking down, and realizes how much smaller he has become. This is yet another one of Burton’s ways to show who these people are and what they will ultimately become.

Margaret also progresses realistically in Big Eyes. We don’t have this frustrating, meek woman who wallows in self-pity and we also don’t have a dynamite female demanding the rights to her work, which would be reasonable and fine, but that’s not who Margaret Keane is. Margaret starts off naïve even though she insists to her closest friend in California that she isn’t and we so desperately want so see her grow a pair, which she thankfully does. But my awe isn’t in the moments Margaret gains strength. It is when her struggle unfolds on screen and we watch how these unimaginable situations take a toll on female artist. In the second half of the film, we bounce back and forth from Margaret trapped in a dark, dusty studio painting masterpieces for her husband, then Margaret roaming around outdoors looking completely out of place and completely unhappy. Margaret becomes someone unrecognizable and so does her artwork. She sincerely tries to keep her work a personal experience—something the film also comments on and a theme that’s present in other films this season. Several times through the minor characters in the film, Margaret’s largely commercialized big eye paintings are criticized for not being a true work of art. I can’t say I disagree and I’m not sure Margaret would either. After all, the more they are printed and the more she is forced to paint, the more artificial they become.

There are a few gaps that would make the film stronger if they only they fused together. Like Margaret’s relationship with her daughter. It is like her daughter is a ghost. She appears only in the background for most of the film: in the backseat of different cars or lingering in the hallways of new and old homes. Her name is inserted through the dialogue a few times—but only so we don’t forget she exists. However, I didn’t focus too much on these faults. After all, movies always have the possibility of being better. There are only a handful of films in my opinion that have nothing that needs to be done: Twelve Years a Slave, The Piano, and Adaptation to name a few. Big Eyes may not scream inventive or brilliant, but Burton certainly changes up his style and left me more impressed in an unexpected and strange way.

Foxcatcher: The Truth about the American Dream

foxcatcher

As I read the title cards after the very climatic ending of Foxcatcher, one single thought crossed my mind: interesting. What an interesting film.

Throughout the film, we know something unexpected will happen, conveniently right at the end and the foreshadowing in Foxcatcher is done very well. It’s in a way that makes us feel uncomfortable and makes us question every character because once we have a hold on someone’s personality, they change within the next scene. The only one that stays static is wrestling sponsor John du Pont (Steve Carrel). But he’s not static in the way where we know why he acts the way he does, but because his actions are strange from beginning to end. The most peculiar thing about du Pont, however, is not his weird behavior or sudden coke addiction we learn about halfway through the movie, but in his relationships. His mother is in a handful of scenes, but the idea of her is embedded everywhere and I question whether du Pont wants his mother’s approval or is intentionally trying to give her nightmares. Also embedded everywhere is du Pont’s fear of women. Whenever his mother enters a room, du Pont watches from afar, making sure a barrier is always between them. Perhaps this is just backlash after being rejected by her for so long, but what I see most of the time is du Pont ridiculing her and keeping an odd distance whenever she is around.

The only other woman in the film is Nancy Schultz ( Sienna Miller) who is not interested in du Pont, his money, success, or plans for the Foxcather Olympic wrestling team. All star wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his sister-in-law even get into an argument regarding her aloof behavior towards du Pont, who ends up leaving the room once Nancy says a meek hello from the hotel bed and turns her attention elsewhere. Although du Pont never says anything negative or degrading about Nancy, he ignores her and does not respect the fact that Mark’s brother David ( Mark Ruffalo) won’t be joining the team because he does not want to uproot his wife and family. Nancy may disregard du Pont, but he does the exact same to her because in his world women are an untouchable, jeopardizing part of life. In fact, he acts the same towards Nancy as he does with his own mother: keeps his distance and often ends up walking away or watches her from across the scene. Why do you think there are so few women in the film? They don’t belong in the story about du Pont, but linger around the outside proving just how paranoid and afraid he is that they may recognize how little of a man he feels.

To me, du Pont not only fears women, but fears not representing one of the most manly traits associated with males: fatherhood. Mark has a tainted childhood and idea of fatherhood ever since his parents’ divorce—but what’s du Pont’s excuse? Why is he infatuated with being a father, a good father for that matter, and making sure that label is given at any opportune moment? He’s obsessed with leading Mark to success and obsessed with being an iconic leader of America. And it is clear what the film eventually tries to say about this country, which like du Pont, is obsessed with sports and guns. We are supposed to have hope in the Schultz brothers and see the Olympics as this beacon for Mark especially. Where the event is supposed to bring the brothers and America together, somehow weapons get in the way and are placed as massive symbols throughout the film. When du Pont wants a machine gun and throws a hissy fit and doesn’t get his way, we are left wondering why he wants it so badly in the first place. Another moment like this occurs when du Pont walks slowly into wrestling practice with a handgun and fires it off. A few men flinch, but sadly the others don’t find this behavior abnormal or alarming. Society has become used to weapons being used recreationally and the film has successfully paired the idea of America with weapons and violence.

The pieces all fit together in the end. The infatuation with guns isn’t just another one of du Pont’s odd traits; however, these messages aren’t hammered over our heads either. Instead the film has a quiet mood, yet we are waiting for this big moment that makes sense of everything. We get that moment eventually, but reflect on the meaning of this true story after the film ends and we recognize all the signs that point to catastrophe.

Wild: A Woman in Threes

wild

The true story chronicling Cheryl Strayed (Resse Witherspoon) and her 1,100 mile hike reminds me a lot of the Chris McCandless in the film Into the Wild. Of course there are many differences between the characters—but the nature of hiking in solitude because they both wanted to disappear from society is the same. Cheryl’s journey is beautiful and also ends beautifully, something that was unfortunately absent in Chris’s story.

Much of the reason why Cheryl’s hike and life ends up the way it does is because of her ambition and desire to get better and improve. Her voice-over throughout the film reveals the dark, depressing thoughts of a lonely woman, but underneath all those profanities and anger is someone who is basking in the struggle because she knows the outcome will be better than her life has been in the past few years. Throughout the hike we get to know Cheryl’s sarcastic and sometimes naïve side, but we also learn about all the women she once was. This is, in fact, one of the most important aspects of the film: a person is made up of different layers and Cheryl’s are revealed and change slowly.

We meet the most current Cheryl in the beginning of them film when she’s getting ready for her journey and have to wait for the story to unfold to know who she was before and why her relationships are in shambles. As we are taken back to her past, it’s hard to imagine that the woman hiking all these miles alone, fearing the men along the way that make her feel uncomfortable, is the same person in these flashbacks giving up her body to strangers, or leaving her husband and shooting up heroin with her new companion. And once we get to know the self-destructive Cheryl, it is hard accepting it’s the same woman in other flashbacks who stays up late studying, writing papers, reading Flannery O’Connor, and hanging out with her mother. The same woman who was addicted to drugs, refused therapy or help in anyway, left her family and friends to find herself, is the same mousey haired, innocent woman who had perceptive dreams that no one was going to stand in the way of.

The flashbacks of Cheryl are not featured in order and it’s up to us to place these moments on a timeline, but part of me thinks it doesn’t really matter. Certain people, places, but most events are what makes Cheryl want to leave and change. The time they happened is irrelevant—the importance lies within the three different parts of this woman—and whether or not she will choose one to be again or someone else entirely. Some reviews about Wild complain about the ongoing flashbacks, but to me they are needed to show us just how human Cheryl Strayed is. Like all of us, she is complicated and is affected by her past and worries about her future. She also hikes 1,100 miles mostly alone—so who wouldn’t take that time to reflect? These reflections/flashbacks is also what brings Cheryl to her truest moments. There are only a few times when Cheryl lets her guard down completely and sobs for help—but the vulnerability is important because it allows her to realize her own weaknesses.

The plethora of flashbacks is necessary, but more with her ex-husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski) could be included. The moments with Paul are out of order, but that’s not why I feel a disconnect between the couple. I want to know when they first fell in love and see that relationship play out a bit on screen and then watch it fall apart. What’s most interesting about the relationship, though, is Cheryl is the one who faults Paul. She whole-heartedly admits her infidelities and mistakes, when typically in films we see these situations reversed: the woman is usually the one left behind. Cheryl’s still left behind and taken over by her own grief, but chooses to find a life again. Except it’s without Paul.

There are other aspects of the film that also could have been sketched clearer, like Cheryl’s heroin addiction, if she’s sober, or when she last used. However, perhaps focusing on Cheryl’s relationship with Paul or heroine would take away from the most essential one in the film: the bond between Cheryl and her mother. Yet, for Cheryl the loss of her mother doesn’t mean dwelling on how much she misses her. Loss turns into the desire to know oneself and fleshing out all those others that live within us that either need to disappear or shine through again.