Film Reviews for January – March 2013
– David Schloss
I had the flu for 6 weeks, so saw comparatively few films during this time. The standouts were Zero Dark Thirty by Kathryn Bigelow, with Jessica Chastain; Rust and Bone by Jacques Audiard, with Marion Cottillard and Matthias Schoenaerts (now On Demand, and reviewed in more depth next time, perhaps); Amour by Michael Haneke, with Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintagnant; A Royal Affair (Danish) with Alicia Vikander and Mads Mickelson, a very serious political costume drama about an important era in Denmark’s history; and Qarantina, Oday Rasheed at UC’s Mainstreet Theater, my first Iraqi film, quite visually sophisticated alienated portrait of Baghdad post-Saddam: a hired hit-man, a family caught in the trap of the situation of harboring him, amid cultural conflicts between the past and present social situations.
Others of some interest or more modest pleasures were: Side Effects by Stephen Soderbergh,with Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, a tricky, cold take on money-driven manipulations by all the characters, with strong performances by all, especially Law; Django Unchained (see below); and Quartet by Dustin Hoffman (his debut!), with Maggie Smith, Tom Courteney, Pauline Collins, and Billy Connelly, a charming acting showcase for the leads, with Collins as the standout as a ditzy sweetie to Smith’s usual sacred monster. The males were subtle and canny in their less flamboyant roles. It was a sweet and pleasant, even touching, entertainment.
I also re-saw Silver Linings Playbook, by David O. Russell, a neo-screwball comedy. The constant bustle and emotionalism in crowded interior family environments, with odd minor characters hovering and intruding around the edges reminded me of Preston Sturges’ great works in this genre of the 1940’s. The guy who took pictures with his cellphone on the porch, (who turns out to have been played by the son of the director) and the entire dysfunctional family household held a zany hyper-reality: Bradley Cooper in a starey Ralph Fiennes mode; Robert de Niro, OCD and pathetic, but ultimately more moving than he’s been in years; Jacki Weaver, of the Australian The Animal Kingdom, where she played a fierce monstrous mother part, here is turned sweetly well-intentioned while enabling much of the family freakouts.
A long list of memorable minor characters, Chris Tucker. Julia Stiles, et al., created a manic energy in support throughout, as well. Jennifer Lawrence was terrific, sexy, poignant and consistently alert, I thought, in a complex zany/serious role, and quite deserving of the best Actress Oscar, even if Emmanelle Riva’s performance in Amour was even better in a more devastating role in a much more serious film. Amour was clearly the best of all, with a devastating (and depressing) story about physical and mental decline, and mortality in the face of long-term love. The surreality of some of it was expressive and expressionistic in tandem with the minutely observed realism and hyper-real photographic look of the film. Love is tested to the utmost extremes here, until something finally, fatally, snaps.
In Silver Linings, the testing tasks set for the characters and by themselves were Herculean, and the sense of self-invention was parallel to the classic examples of this genre. The prime example, the ridiculous set up of a dance competition as an arbitrary “test” was truly surrealistically inspired. It is a comedy of circuitously fulfilled romance, but the complications and hurdles here were both the pleasures and the troubling subtext: screwball in the old days wasn’t ever as realistically presented as this disturbed and pathological as much is here. So, the combination of farce and fantasy with rather gruelingly despairing personalities was a dangerous combination that through the wild swings of tone from grueling psychopathology to a joyful celebration of achieving simple mediocrity is somehow pulled off by Russell, I think, in one of his very best (with The Fighter, Three Kings, Flirting with Disaster, Spanking the Monkey). I went back to see it again, as a pick me up, post-flu. It held up well.
The most troubling was Django Unchained: it was recommended to me by various friends as an engaging entertainment, and by critics as a canny take on slavery through the lens of genre exploitation tropes. Well, I much preferred A Royal Affair that week, justifiably up for Best Foreign film at the Oscars) and Amour (the winner) to it, but found the 2:45 length of it passed quickly enough. It was lively, though often quite silly, and did hold my interest. I much preferred Christopher Walz in Inglorious Basterds to this even more mannered role. My reservations about both films were the comic book fantasies about serious and real historical situations.
As always (in just about every film he’s written or directed, except maybe Jackie Brown that I can remember), there were Tarantino’s torture porn sequences in which someone with the whip hand threatens and hurts someone who’s helplessly in his thrall, and the inevitable fantasy revenge conducted by unstoppable superheroes of his feverish cartoonish imagination. Here, it’s Jamie Foxx, who simply can’t be shot while dispatching scores of men with his superhuman perfect shooting. I didn’t so much mind the unreality of it all as not being able to take it seriously enough to respond emotionally to its heavy-handedly set up cartharses, lots of blood pellets exploding in “overkill” mode.
The plotting was often so stupid as to destroy any sense of real danger or consequence, especially more and more so toward the end. For example, Django could have saved the man torn apart by dogs easily enough, and chose not to: signifying what? Django would NEVER have been accommodated by DiCaprio at his dinner table, even if the owner was on complex terms with Jackson’s slave character, for example. Walz’s Doctor Schultz, by shooting the DiCaprio character (who WAS broad fun) was risking his follow up death, but “just couldn’t help [himself].” The point? As the plot contrivances piled up, I gave up any logical concern and just let it wash over me. Since there was some (intended) consequence, I thought, it was undercut by the constant plot contrivances, as when, at the verge of his emasculation, Django is sent to the mines for life, instead. Of course, he conveniently talks his way out of that and is given a gun– to kill the men transporting him so he can return and wreak havoc on everyone back at the plantation in a one man crusade. Or, most forced, when DiCaprio’s character lengthily insists on a handshake after taking Walz for $12.000. Just so Walz can kill him and thereby pointlessly commit suicide by the hired guns. Everything is for splashy effects, but none of it really means anything.
Tarantino will probably never transcend his genre predilections, though I once had hopes at the time of his Jackie Brown, a time long since past. It’s all sensationalist manipulations of plotting to get the maximum gore and violence generated. Tarantino does have some wit in writing dialogue, sometimes, and though the characters were all cartoons, the interactions generated occasional laughs, mostly mocking and often heavy-handed. I did like Samuel Jackson’s vicious character, a slave who has come to completely identify his interests with his master’s against his own people, though his astute conclusions about Django and his wife were completely overdrawn from his “evidence,” and too soon put into play to convincingly advance all the plot reversals. I really disliked Kerry Washington’s role: a helpless suffering woman, whose on screen behavior was almost all screaming, crying, even fainting–or occasionally smiling sweetly in Django’s mind’s eye dreamy romantic hazy sequences, as equally sexist as any suffering woman in distress. These were about all she had to do on screen–a cartoon of an “idealized” yet really objectified woman–even shallower than the rest of the suffering slaves who were all just stand ins for suffering, really(except for the invincible Django). She’s even naked in a sweatbox torture scene, the ultimate helplessness before Tarantino’s exploitative eye.
So, the characterizations, though obviously deliberate, and often played for laughs or pathos, were too glibly easy and too silly to make any impact as a critique of slavery, or anything “human.” The action was decently managed, but others (Kathryn Bigelow in Zero Dark Thirty, for example) do action much more clearly and viscerally (e.g., the long killing of bin Laden sequence at the end, which generates real suspense and tension even when you know the outcome). This is a bit like Argo in this sense, but Argo milks the tension and manipulates it for sensationalist inventions at its end..
To sum up, my one word review is “Trash,” which it really is, proudly embracing its genre mode on purpose: a shallow entertainment, on a not really “serious” theme, that seemed merely an excuse for his melodramatic fantasies. So those who claim a deeper significance to this are unconvincing to me. The childish plotting did not deserve an Oscar at all, either. But, though I was not really bored, once was quite enough, quite enough. I’m sorry to say I may have seen the last of Tarantino that I’ll ever see.