cinema

Listen Up Philip: A Double Gaze

 jason_dree

Listen Up Philip is filmed like a home video—unsteady with quick movements that make you wonder who is in charge of the camera. Of course the film does this on purpose and allows this realistic feeling to form as we see Philip’s (Jason Schwartzman) and Ashley’s (Elisabeth Moss) relationship dwindle and how their life proceeds without the other.

Despite the serious tone the story has regarding success and relationships, the film’s subtle humor makes the comedic moments cherished. You’re watching along realizing how self-absorbed the main character Phillip is. So much that his quick insults can be humorous because he is so nonchalant about his feelings towards the other minor characters. There are even a few moments that are laugh out loud funny like when Philip escapes the city to stay in writer Ike Zimmerman’s summer home and he finds a bizarre joy is mowing the lawn and smelling the fresh cut grass during the early mornings. Or when Philip meets up with an ex-girlfriend and she runs away after he suggests they kiss. The camera cuts to his sullen face as he watches her sprint away from him. There’s nothing to do but laugh. Then the funny business is over and we are back to feeling the utter loneliness both Ashley and Philip hold as well as everyone else in the film.

Overall, the film gives us a close look at vulnerable people. Literally a close look. Most of the shots are close-up profiles of Ashley and Philip or their faces straight at the lens as they hold back tears. What I like most about the film, though, besides the close-up shots that I do appreciate, are both the female and male gaze I saw throughout. For example, in the beginning the camera seems to be from the perspective of the different women looking at Philip. We see Emily (Dree Hemingway) a young woman who helps during a photo shoot of Philip and her eyes follow him throughout. She’s meek and quiet, but we get the sense that we see someone she admires. We feel her lust. The same is said later, while soon to be girlfriend of Philip, Yvette (Joséphine de La Baume), scans the writer in a crowd of people. She seems sneaky, but interested in the new writer. We feel what she does through the lens. However, while the camera has a women’s view for some time, it flips eventually. Soon Philip and Zimmerman stroll through the college that Philip teaches at and the lens focuses on thin college students, all of which are women. The dialogue between the two references all the beautiful women in college and it becomes clear the gaze has changed to a male’s. This flip-flop allows us to see the difference in male and female perspective regarding the opposite sex. In a more specific way, these two sides allow us to see the different reactions of Ashley and Philip, post breakup.

Ashley is so clearly more affected after the relationship ends, but I loved the strength the film ended up giving her. There is something inspiring in Ashley’s character that I think the film tries to point out: just because you’re alone, doesn’t mean you have to be or are lonely. I don’t want to spoil too much, but Ashley becomes what all women urge others to be like: strong, resistant, and confident. The issues regarding male verse female success is extremely relevant too, and the film did an excellent job showing how self-conscious Phillip was when Ashley was climbing the ladder of success faster then he was.

Except Philip remains the same from beginning to end. If only he cared about his life as much as his fictional one. But this also points out the issue with creative occupations: it’s a fantasy world most of the time so how do you live two lives? Can there be a balance? Philip treats his life like a novel. He writes in a scene and plays out the part. He creates his own drama because he can’t ride along with life’s own twists and turns. He simply wakes up and decides which ex he would try to swoon again. He finds a way to make himself miserable. This all goes back to the title. You want to shake almost every character throughout the film and show them the truth they’re missing or give some sound advice, but Philip is the one who really needs to listen up.

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The Skeleton Twins: Irresistibly Flawed

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Whenever I hear about a movie featuring Kristin Wiig I think of Bridesmaids and her irresistible humor. Hence the reason I make an effort to see her movies. How come it feels like she chooses films to be in rather than the other way around? Her humor doesn’t falter in Skeleton Twins—but there’s a twist and it’s an absolute treat: Wiig’s character has a dark, strange humor, but a sad and serious side that reveals the film’s maturity as well as her own.

And Wiig’s not the only one who gives a new performance. Bill Hader plays her gay twin brother Milo, who at first seems like a total downer. His negativity eats up the scenes at first, but he slowly puts a positive twist in his sister Maggie’s life. The duo is also off balance at first. The siblings haven’t seen each other in ten years and what they used to have in common or what connected them in the first place is lost. There’s a shot sequence in the beginning of the film that reveals this humor, and at the same time the depressing realization that this family has grown so far apart. After Milo’s suicide attempt Maggie tries to comfort her brother who lies in the hospital bed, but even her touch seems cold because she doesn’t know what he’s been through. The next shot she does the same by convincing him to stay with her for a while. Milo uses his quick sarcasm to make his sister feel uncomfortable and also to remind her they have years of catching up to do. But like all of us who have the blessing of experiencing special sibling bondage, they are fused together once more. After all, we can’t choose our family and Milo and Maggie come to terms with this again and again—making the most interesting and entertaining film companionship I’ve seen in awhile.

What we can’t understand throughout the film is Maggie’s pure unhappiness, until her mother comes along and we get an inside look at the selfish actions that have haunted the family. However, Maggie also has positive reinforcements in her life that you think would make this human change, appreciate, and move on from her past. Her enthusiastic husband Lance (Luke Wilson) like Maggie says more than once is extremely kind, patient, understanding. The definition of love. Except the feelings are not reciprocated, even if she tries and pretends. This situation is frustrating, but Milo puts it so simply during the film’s climax that makes the most sense it is going to ever make when he tells her, “Maybe good isn’t your thing.” And these are the simple perspectives that make the story so compelling: we are hard wired the way we are and there’s nothing we can do about it. We can choose to suffer in self-denial like both Maggie and Milo or we can face the truths that hide in these dark places and finally accept our flawed fibers.

The gaze the film projects on the siblings is not judgment either. The strange moments they share are both hilarious and heartfelt and show an enchanting yet raw relationship. There is a special humanity in this film: the featured lives are nowhere near perfect but the issues are realistic. And I also enjoyed the creative motifs represented throughout that prove this unbreakable connection. The movie opens with Maggie underwater in a pool as a child and the same is seen when she’s older, but her motives in the water this time are different. Milo is present in both scenes—Maggie’s constant even through the depths of her sadness. For Milo, he holds onto tokens that represent the love he cherishes and needs. He gets rid of some. A plastic whale that represents Moby Dick but others like a skeleton keychain he keeps forever. Just like the relationship with his twin sister that’s more than rocky at times: it’s there, twisted, comforting and permanent.

Selma: A Slow Look into the Past

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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.

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

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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.