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Tuesday, January 29, 2013


The brilliance of Christopher Nolan’s movie is that it so successfully dresses up its ninth grade premise with spit and shine, you finish up feeling actually entertained.  The basic mind-invasion conceit is one that sounds at its root like it was cooked up in the back row of computer science class by a bright 15 year old, and it's so proudly offered on a silver platter of fine, earnest imagery and energy, you can't help but admire its precocious verve. But the movie takes a cue from its own idea-planting premise and knocks you unconscious with its relentless, always-at-the-climax music and absorbingly-shuffled time-space just long enough to make you think a nice little Möbius bow has been tied around your mind while you were out, even though it hasn't.  By the time you come to, sometime toward the end of the closing credits, the movie's as vacant as your now-emptied popcorn bowl.  

The film is blocky, heavy, emotionally inert even in its most emotional moments, visually homogenous - AKA boring (though the van takes the Nestea plunge in an agreeably Peckinpah-ish way, it still only acts as a series of cool but gimmicky stakes along the faux opaque journey), and its music pummels you into exhausted submission. You're constantly rattled and you think this Rube Goldberg spectacle will surely fall over at any moment - but to its credit, it never quite does. Like the beer-gutted raconteur on a spindly barstool, it spouts its braggadocio across the head of its tenth Budweiser, but never passes out. Then, the film is not so much full of ideas as full of rules for one idea (see Chesterton). And each newly-coined rule justifies itself in the very next scene, giving the repeated feeling of a man laying concrete to take his next step. It's hard to tell if Nolan is the genuine wunderkind whose idea is gilded with enough fresh surprises to keep us beguiled (and it does, to a point), or if he’s the old cynic who just wants to test how long he can keep us distracted by shiny, spinning objects.

If the legitimacy of the movie were to be found in the furrowed, ever-earnest brow crease of Leonardo DiCaprio, then it is legitimate in spades.  His forehead, the score, the editing, all work in overdrive to make you take it all seriously.  I kept wishing for something a little more leavened with - though it's a stretch for this filmmaker - a Tati-like amusement with the fact of the multiple, explorable strata of mind-time - or maybe just a hint of self-awareness that its overblown seriousness renders it a kind of sci-fi Sirk, if only it could trade even a few of its bombastic moments of import for a beat or two of actual, non-portentous fun.  But the exuding slick, silver-black ambiance matches the paneling inside Nolan's desperate need to be received as an important filmmaker, an open-faced plea that was like a metal rod down the back of his entire Batman series, with their veneer of political importance and social relevance that near-audibly screams "tag me meaningful!"  My only sin, and this movie rebukes me over and over for it, is that I didn’t love it as much as Christopher Nolan did.

Outside of the other obvious filmic antecedents like Eternal Sunshine and The Matrix, I keep thinking of the great little time travel movie Primer, another story that asks you to accept the truly impossible after only giving you the simplest of tools to make that impossibility happen  (also just a box, for goodness sake). But whereas Primer cast the audience as eavesdroppers on the kinetic mind-play of a specific kind of science, with its exposition wrapped in dense but off-handedly spoken jargon leading to a premise you believe because you trust that the characters, down to the man, know what they’re talking about, in Nolan's movie you have rules thuddingly catechismed in by necessity of what has to happen/can't happen next in the plot.  The continual dogpile of rules for the idea to work makes it ultimately cumbersome, like when kids gather in the street for a game and make up their own rules as they go along.  You never begrudge them their fun, and it’s sweet to watch such elemental creativity on display in ones so young, but eventually you want to stop watching and go back inside to finish Shutter Island.

Friday, January 25, 2013


Mike Leigh’s film is nominally a reflection on the ways in which we cultivate the relationships around us, but more so it’s a dissection of the prickly dynamic between the emotionally strong and weak.  Fortunately the film overcomes the prosaic symbolism of a garden, managed over the span of a year, by burrowing into the disparity between those who wish to give others help and those who clearly cannot be helped until they first help themselves.  It’s a set up of character conflict that promises drama, but Leigh doesn’t seem as interested in anything as fabricated as drama, in the sense of any “movie” drama we’re trained to expect.  Instead, the four pieces of his story – each corresponding to a season of the year – demonstrate the filmmaker’s gift for recording simple life moments, some triumphant, some humiliating, all of it true and awkward and real.

The movie asks us inside with the ease and hospitality of its two central characters, content, aging couple Tom and Gerri – yes, they acknowledge how funny their names are.  In fact, the casual way they wave off a guest’s comment on their names – names we know could have been anything the writer chose them to be – is only one example of the lengths Leigh will go to establish a credible atmosphere and tone.  Tom (Jim Broadbent) is an industrial geologist who “digs holes” and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) is a psychiatric counselor who helps people out of theirs.  But mostly they’re the quietly blissful, unassuming curators of a growing menagerie of stray people.  Most prominent is Mary (Lesley Manville), one of Gerri’s co-workers at the clinic, a mid-50’s woman of such all-engulfing neediness that the steady revelation of her myriad failures – with love, with money, with everything – becomes, in time, a black joke, especially in constant contrast with the piston-true calibration of her emotional benefactors.

While Tom and Gerri’s patience and care frame the story, it’s Mary’s emotional unraveling that drives it.  Mary spins in a predictable cycle of denial and despair, but the shock of how short the frequency is from one to the other spikes her performance with just the right amount of manic urgency.  Because the despair follows so hard upon the denial, we’re never fully convinced that either is self-inflicted.  Her romantic desperation, manifested in a bureau’s worth of age-inappropriate attire, is aligned with anyone in the audience who’s ever feared the loss of their youth or the dimming of their allure.  She is guilty only insofar as any of us are guilty of holding on too long to the idea of our own singularity in a world of pretenders.  Manville gives a hair-flipping girlishness to the character, enough that she is blithely separated from any responsibility for what comes to crush her, but Leigh’s intimate camera is in such constant communion with the lines in her face that we can never fully forgive her the innocent act.  It’s a delicate formula, and Manville’s talent keeps it uncomfortably true – that is, tragic.

Leigh’s fascination with Mary’s dive-bombing psyche keeps it turning in all directions.  Even as she sadly pines, in terribly mis-guided fashion, for Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old, single son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), she rebuffs the earnest, albeit drunken, advances of Tom’s equally desperate friend, Ken (Peter Wight) – for being unattractive, giving Mary’s sexual attraction to Joe, the son, an even deeper shade of Pitiful.  Of course, Joe all but leads Mary on in her gambit for his attention by playing along with her double entendres and letting her continue to compliment his physique and good looks.  We can infer that his odd deference to her flirting, surely not actual reciprocation, is a learned response from watching his parents, who he’s seen give Mary a wine vat’s worth of behavioral latitude since he was ten years old.  If his attitude toward her, though, is deferential, it metastasizes into thick condescension only after he finds an age-correct girlfriend, Katie (Karina Fernandez).  It’s as if through the prism of something “real”, he can more clearly see Mary for the boozy cougar she is, and the sad lout his parents always knew she was. 

It’s in these moments of truth for Joe that we also begin to see Tom and Gerri in another light.  The quasi-enabling allowance given to her slow, confessional, profane drunkenness in an earlier scene, accompanied by a hug given by Mary (earnestly) to Gerri (awkwardly received), gives way toward the end of the movie to their subtle, head-cocked disappointment and condescension in the final scenes.  One is left to deduce – though it is subtle enough that it might simply be an impression, with none of Leigh’s intention to name it – Tom and Gerri might keep Mary around not to be her healing angels, but as part of their own need to be seen as the perfect model.  Like a perfectly kept garden is as much decoration as it is source of replenishment, this gaggle of scruffy need-niks might be all they need to keep their superiority intact.

Leigh is not afraid to make the audience work – and this is refreshing.  We’re brought into many situations that linger for minutes before we’re enlightened to key information.  In the “winter” segment, Tom brings Gerri and Joe to his rustic hometown for his sister-in-law’s funeral.  They find his brother Ronnie (David Bradley) in a state of walking catatonia, barely grunting between drags on his cigarette and beer.  But was he this way before the death, or is this his response to it?  It’s up to us to decide.  Left to wonder, it seems clear that he became this way over years spent with an unpleasant woman.  Ronnie stands recoiled, gaunt, and near-mute, as a foil for the hyper-conversational Mary, so that, if this were a typical movie, it would be as inevitable they’d be together as it was inevitable she’d be with Ken, for all the par-for-the-course misery she and Ken would no doubt bring each other.  But nothing plays out as we expect.  From the beginning of the film, we’re introduced to people who sometimes come out of nowhere with their sorrows fully formed, and who we never see again, with no resolution.  The movie pretends for its first ten minutes to be about Janet (Imelda Staunton), a darkly depressed patient of Gerri’s who just wants a good night’s sleep to blot out the horrors of her home life.  Then, just as soon as she is wholly rendered and our hopes are fully pinned to her recovery, she’s gone forever.  After half an hour, the audience gives her up.  But Leigh’s lesson has been learned: just like life, don’t expect resolution here.

This is a movie that has the power to refute a year’s worth of explosions, bombast, gunplay, melodrama, psychic breakdown, pat history, and filmmaking gimmicks with a final encapsulating moment of irreducible melancholia.  Like earlier moments, wherein Mary (and us) are left to feel like we’re on the outside of an inside joke, Leigh has, in this ultimate moment, created an empty sigh of pure loneliness.  In such purity, there is perfection, and it is Leigh’s adeptness with that last dread feeling that can leave the viewer feeling at once weighed down by his lesson on life and uplifted by the power of his art.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


This essay is part of the For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon 2015 - which is an effort to restore, score, and stream Cupid in Quarantine (1918), a one-reel silent comedy. Click the GORT "donate" button to the right to contribute to this worthy cause. This year's blogathon is science-fiction themed, and I thought, what's more science-fiction than the mind of a crazy despot. Read on to see what I mean...

I realize I’m in a quiet minority, but I’m bound by a DNA-imprinted love for quaint and questionable fare to always say yes to watching a man stomp around in a rubber monster suit.  It’s a weakness that’s never left me.  You can still catch me watching Godzilla vs Megalon or Gorgo or The Land That Time Forgot, but you won’t see me laughing derisively – you’ll see me smiling warmly at the memory of childhood belief.  In the case of 1985’s despot-bankrolled Pulgasari, which I’ve just seen for the first time, I’m a sucker not only for the direct, electric connection to my pre-teen taste for the destruction of miniature sets, but for the way this particular specimen subverts the expectation of three-gong cheese with ever-so-brief flashes of weighty political ornamentation, pop mythology of the North Korean kind, and moments of legitimate cinematic flare.  It’s just the kind of thing that hits me right in the nexus of personal nostalgia and fascination with political history – it’s dyed-red communist propaganda in the guise of one of the most magnificent giant monster movies I’ve seen. 

Pulgasari is not on par, especially at first glance, with the somber greatness of the original, pre-Burr Godzilla (1954), but fall into the broad, theatrical rhythm of the movie and you might see how its dark, surprisingly rich connection to the plight of humans under political duress builds up a poignancy that, like Godzilla, transcends the wanting quality of the special effects.  In this case, the movie’s not as much a chilling allegorical frame placed around the radioactive grief of a country’s recent tragedy as much as it’s a prescient and anguished, even operatic, cry of a people whose grief was yet to be wholly manifest.  Pulgasari was green-lit, you see, by the most unlikely of movie moguls, “Dear Leader” himself, Kim Jong-Il, when he was just a 40-something upstart heir apparent, working out his jealous fascination with the teeming culture beyond his borders via a slate of films he sanctioned during the 70s and 80s, some of them – like Pulgasari – directed by a filmmaker, Shin Sang-ok, allegedly kidnapped from out of South Korea and into forced creative labor.  None of the films saw the light of day but this one, and you have to wonder if it was a point of pride or embarrassment down at the palace, given the movie’s premise:

In feudal, sword-wielding Korea, a tiny doll made of rice and earth, crafted by a dying old peasant, lolls to life under the single drop of his daughter’s pure blood, consumes all the raw steel in sight until it’s the size of the UN, and becomes the lumbering, horned and armored confidence of the people as they throw off the yoke of their evil, oppressive leaders. 

At first I was confused that a movie okayed by an oppressive regime would feature as its core drama an uprising of peasants… against an oppressive regime – was this an exercise in megalomaniacal denial?  A blind, unself-aware hubris?  Until I learned that Kim Jong-Il declared any story set prior to North Korea’s embracing of communism should be represented as chaotic and corrupt.  This leaves room for the lower class underdogs to be portrayed as innocent and true, and their government (representing pre-communist Japanese occupiers) to be shot through with cataclysmic arrogance and knee-jerk belligerence, not to mention comical incompetence as idea after idea presented to destroy Pulgasari fails miserably.  By the time the governors, kings, and generals have seized the holy farmers’ tools of replenishment and turned them into weapons of destruction, it’s time for a hero to rise.  Enter man in rubber suit, as symbolic of the unity of the collective as it is, by the end of the movie, a symbol of the ease with which over-consumption of goods (in this case, an infinite buffet of the world’s steel) can drag industry into lethargy.  When the movie’s “twist” arrives, and the righteous engine of vengeance becomes an inert layabout demanding more and more of what the peasants no longer have, the message is clear: we need communism, because communism will save the world from itself!

Despite the high-profile politico pulling the strings, the movie carries the pock marks of a woefully anemic budget, suffering as it does from high-school-stage production design, an overdependence on creaky, just-line-‘em-up character blocking, outdated – even for then – rear screen, poorly translated subtitles, gilded-cardboard acting, and enough continuity errors to feed a village, yet it still sports a quiver of filmic allusions that could lend an air of possibly accidental street cred amongst the legit kaiju crowd: intended or not, there are reflections of everything from Godzilla, to Harryhausen (the monster’s ominous growth spurts mirror the Ymir of 20 Million Miles To Earth; the beast turns to stone and breaks apart in a nearly shot-for-shot copy of the Kraken in Clash of the Titans [1981]), to Kurosawa’s always urgent samurai pictures, to the burning sacrifice of The Wicker Man (1973; the emotion wrung from simply dropping out the music while Pulgasari is “burning to death” inside a raging inferno speaks to the nuance and talent of its captive director), to Dino De Laurentiis’ overgrown animal diptych King Kong/The White Buffalo, and beyond.  Nothing at any given moment of the film could ever lead to the assumption of its greatness, but the steady rollout of these quotes, along with dollops of graphically charged and striking imagery (a woman is crushed by the wheel of a cart; an old woman is beaten and tortured with sticks in front of a small child; the fire-reddened monster, smoke ebbing away from him, positively engorged by steel and fire and looming righteously over the king’s scattering squad of cowards like a giant Satan and then boiling them alive in the sea), and all of it wrapped in a cloak of warbling, synthesized 80s Asian music that gives the monster a sort of embraceable, kitschy pathos, allows the movie to continually rise above its construction paper flimsiness.  There’s even a believable sense of scale, relative to most of the picture, during the battle scenes between the peasants and the king’s men, complete with chaotic group-on-group swordplay and exploding hillsides.  Several money shots adorn the proceedings, most of them successful for the sheer number of people in the frame – crowds that are, one must haltingly assume, composed of actual unpaid and starving peasants.

The final note of the film, the devolution of the redeemer into a fatigued, lounging god, is one of satire, nudging it close to, but not quite inside, the world of Dai Nipponjin (“Big Man Japan”, 2007), with its tired, lonely giant killer and its slow-motion critique of capitalist excess.  It stands, also, in a long line of stories that feature young and/or innocent protagonists thought-bonded to a large, sentient creature, including: virtually every Godzilla movie after the original; the tv series Gigantor and The Space Giants; The Iron Giant; and the Transformers tv and film series.  I’m fascinated by the perpetuation of this device – the befriending of a killer monster or machine and the turning of that friendship toward the rescue of the world.  It’s a silly idea from the mind of a small boy, and it’s that lack of guile in the center of the idea that keeps me always looking forward to its next incarnation. 

I’m realistic about Pulgasari not appealing to more than a scant few.  It’s a niche movie within a niche sub-genre, easily mocked because of the easily mockable man who demanded it be made, and easily relegated to the failure column for its surface “badness” – or at the least, consigned to the “so bad it’s good” column.  But it’s more than that.  The stirring mythology at the heart of it, married to the wobbly but earnest and sometimes near-operatic performances, and carried along by a nascent (but eventually recognizable) awareness of cinema and its place in it, makes it, for me, a nugget of irresistible gold.