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November 20, 2013


Discussed here:
Girl Most Likely
Blue Jasmine
In a World...
Identity Thief and The Heat

Gothic fiction's prominent elements are commonly listed as: psychological and physical terror, mystery, the supernatural, ghosts, haunted spaces and Gothic architecture, death, decay, doubles, madness, secrets, hereditary curses. Stoker has it all. Gothic romance also has, and for some reason this feature does not appear in the lists, repressed female sexuality, a predominant element, if not of all Gothic literature, certainly of Gothic tales told by men, full of heaving bodices representing libido.

Stoker is the first English-language film from Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known in the U.S. for Oldboy (which I just re-watched in anticipation of Spike Lee's remake scheduled for release late this year), the second film in his vengeance trilogy. Park earned a degree in philosophy before working in film, and it shows in his work. Park's characters are ordinary people who find themselves in situations that drive them to extremes of violence. The violence could seem gratuitous to the casual viewer, but an undertone of something more pulses in his stories, epistemological questions about the nature of knowledge and understanding, metaphysical forays into the nature of reality, and in the case of Oldboy, questions posed by normative ethics.

Stoker opens on India Stoker (Mia Wasikowka). It's her birthday at the threshold of womanhood. Her father has just been killed in a car accident. At the funeral his brother, Charlie (Matthew Goode) -- a mysterious stranger of whom she is entirely unaware -- announces that he will be staying with India and her fragile -- and seductive -- mother Eve (Nicole Kidman). Charlie professes to be a world traveler. He also has a disturbingly sinister charisma and a manipulative disposition. The housekeeper disappears; a concerned relative shows up; the Hitchockian suspense builds. The neo-Gothic Stoker mixes horror and romance with Park's hallmark aesthetic elegance on the one hand and brutal violence on the other. Not for the faint of heart.

Imogene (Kristen Wiig) lives blithely among the affluent on the Upper East Side where she attends fund raisers and does lunch. When her boyfriend dumps her, things go from bad to worse until a court order puts her into the custody of her benighted New Jersey mother Zelda (Annette Bening). New Jersey is the last place an aspiring socialite like Imogene wants to be, especially since the household also shelters her weirdo brother Ralph (Christopher Fitzgerald), a roomer (Darren Criss), and Zelda's beefcake lover who claims to be a secret agent for the CIA. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert PulciniIt, Girl Most Likely lays out a predictable setup. A plot about a girl who wants to put her past behind her goes through a few implausible twists in order for her to find that home is where the heart is.

I have great admiration for Woody Allen as a filmmaker. I remember when Interiors came out in 1978. People were outraged and felt betrayed because the film was not a comedy -- much as Bob Dylan's audiences booed when he went electric. I like Allen's darker side -- September, Another Woman, Crimes and Misdemeaners, which is one of my all-time Woody favorites, and Shadows and Fog, which I thought fell short. I did not like Match Point, To Rome with Love and Vicky Christina Barcelona, which everyone else loved, and I really liked Whatever Works, which everyone else hated. I consider Radio Days and Zelig brilliant. He does so much, tries everything, and though his neuroses are his hallmark, to look at his oeuvre one would be hard pressed to believe that he fears failure. So some of the films are better than others.

I was prepared to dislike Blue Jasmine, but I liked it. I had read that the title character is a female version of the Woody Allen character, but I don't agree with that (rather shallow) assessment. The plot is old, but Cate Blanchett's performance is off the charts. Everybody is good -- Sally Hawkins, Bobby Cannavale, Andrew Dice Clay -- even Alec Baldwin isn't bad. But Blanchett -- just when I am certain I have not a shred of sympathy for her self-centered character, Blanchett manages to give her humanity.
NYT Critics' Pick

In a World... is written and directed by and stars Lake Bell as Carol, a woman trying to break into the decidedly male world of voice-over. I remember as a girl, both my parents, not just my father, telling me that women simply could not do television news because their voices are too shrill. This is nothing against women, mind you. It's just that women's voices are unpleasant.

At 30 Carol still lives in her father's house. Sam (Fred Melamed) is not just her father but one of the giants of the voice-over world. He loves his daughter, but refuses to encourage her because 1) he's too self-absorbed and 2) he's a sexist of a certain age. To make matters worse, Sam is not Carol's only detractor in a subculture of underhanded rivalries and over-sized egos where up and coming talents vie to be taken into the fold. The casting is spot on, and Lake Bell's script steers clear of cliché, finding humanity and vulnerability even in characters who are potentially less than likable in this little world unto itself.
NYT Critics' Pick

Seth Gordon's Identity Thief  and The Heat, directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and co-starring Sandra Bullock, would both be really bad movies were it not for Melissa McCarthy's kinetic energy, rapid-fire improvisational delivery, and wildly self-confident physicality. The phrase "over the top" was invented for her. She is queen of the pratfall, empress of slapstick, an impish roughhousing buffoon who, without your even knowing it, is creating a multidimensional character that she springs on you unexpectedly about halfway or so through the movie. McCarthy burns with a magnetic attraction that kindles the chemistry between herself and whoever is cast opposite her.

Identity Thief

The Heat

November 18, 2013

2013: NEO-NOIR

Discussed here:
Gangster Squad
Broken City
Only God Forgives
(The Counselor is discussed elsewhere.)

I hope you spared yourself Ruben Fleischer's Gangster Squad, but if you had the misfortune to see it I am certain that like me, it made you mourn film noir. The story is hackneyed, and the clunky dialogue sounds like a laundry list of period argot. Likewise the set dressing and the costumes.

The notoriously vicious Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), at the center of the story, is being pursued by an LA secret police squad operating carte blanche. Cohen was a boxer who left boxing to run a gambling operation for Al Capone's Chicago Outfit. He briefly spent time in prison for the deaths of several gangsters in a card game gone wrong, then went to Los Angeles to work for Bugsy Siegal's sports book operation -- which is where we find Cohen in the movie.

Were the film based on an exploration of sociopolitical dysfunction, where political corruption and organized crime work in concert to facilitate Cohen's psychotic megalomania, it might have been interesting. Instead the characters are parodies and the CGI runs painfully amok.

(Though it probably won't get here until next year, I am looking forward to Claire Denis's Bastards, not only because I greatly admire her as a filmmaker and storyteller, but because I have read that the film is a genuine, and brilliant, contemporary noir.)

Broken City is a workable, if flawed, tale of political corruption. The city is New York. Russell Crowe plays the power hungry mayor running for a second term. Mark Wahlberg plays the ex-cop who has been forced to resign because of questions surrounding a shooting so he's eking out a living as a PI. Mayor Hostetler summons Billy to his plush office and makes an offer Billy is not allowed to refuse. As things get darker it becomes clear that Hostetler's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is up to something no good, but what? Everyone turns in professional performances, and Allen Hughes's direction usually makes us willing to suspend disbelief, even when we know better.

I did not hate Nicolas Winding Refn's "corpse of a movie" as many critics did. Refn and Rosling managed a thrilling Drive last year, but it is an understatement to say that Only God Forgives has none of that energy. Kristin Scott Thomas is Crystal (as in crystal meth?), a drug lord anti-mother who demands that her younger son Julian, played by a zoned out Ryan Gosling, exact revenge for the murder of her elder favorite son. She wants the killer's head on a platter ala Herodias, not metaphorically but literally. Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) is a retired policeman-cum-vigilante whom Julian enlists to do the deed, and apparently the surrogate God of the title. Everyone agrees it's all style/no substance, but I, dare I say it, kinda liked the style part, especially the cinematography. If you don't mind gore and enjoy richly textured visual composition, there might be enough here for you. Or maybe not.



Discussed here:
Now You See Me
The Angels' Share

Danny Boyle's Trance enters the canon of compromised memory movies like Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Mulholland Dr., the wonderful indie Moon, the surprisingly OK Vanilla Sky, the unbelievably horrible Inception, and the almost as unbearable Shutter Island (and I'm a Scorsese devotee). It's a heist movie, which I love; a psychological thriller, which I love; a con movie, which I love; a compromised memory movie, which I love. All rolled into one.

There's also a clever subtext about Goya, whose painting "Witches in the Air" is being auctioned and is the target of the heist, being the progenitor of modern art. If this movie is not nominated for best cinematography Oscar, the Academy is out of its mind. I know art and follow the art world, but I could only wish I had the art historical ability to recognize every visual allusion in this film. At one point characters behind three glass screens look like a Francis Bacon triptych, which makes it seem ironic that just last week Bacon's 1969 triptych of Lucien Freud became the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction.

Trance is smart, clever, a visual feast accompanied by a throbbing electronic soundtrack by Underworld, Boyle's collaborators on four other films including Trainspotting.

("Trance" is not only the title of the film. Trance music emerged in Germany in the 1990s and is among the musical genres that Underworld incorporates along with techno, drum & bass, and progressive house music.)

Trance (2013) Poster

Louis Leterrier's Now You See Me is to movies what McMansions are to residential architecture. Look beneath the surface bling at the stick construction armature, and there's no there there. We enter the world of high powered prestidigitation where one upmanship is big and egos are bigger. A mysterious guiding hand using Tarot card invitations brings four rival magicians together who become the Four Horseman. Their stunts involve long distance, computer orchestrated bank heists with a Robin Hood twist, each performance culminating in money fluttering down like confetti into crowds that have been oppressed by the 1%. As the plot lumbers along it grows tentacles that entangle any logic it might have started with.

And a drum roll, please...

At 76, Ken Loach (above) has followed up his delightful 2009 Looking for Eric with a marvelous little gem of a movie where the 2% of single malt whiskey that evaporates during the aging process, known as "the angels' share," becomes a metaphor for humanitas. Like Kirk Jones's 1998 Waking Ned Devine, The Angels' Share and Looking for Eric recall the tradition of Ealing Studios, especially the 1949 Whiskey Galore! directed by Compton MacKenzie. What these films have in common is that the material object of the quest is merely a vehicle for the quest's larger purpose, which is its power to bring the community together.

New dad Robbie finds himself in trouble with the law -- again -- and winds up in a Glasgow community payback program under the guidance of Harry, played by the ever wonderful John Henshaw. Harry has a penchant for fine whiskey and takes his miscreant charges to a tasting, where it turns out Robbie has the gift of a nose. The young people's pursuit ensues and will ultimately bring redemption to them all.

(The soundtrack is punctuated by the Proclaimers' "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)" from one of my all-time favorite albums.)

November 15, 2013


I go to a lot of movies, a lot of movies. I usually know a reasonable amount about what I'm going to, but every now and then.... In 2009, I walked into the theater thinking I was going to a film about global water shortages. It was called Thirst, and I was convinced I had read that it was an excellent documentary. Instead it was Park Chan-wook’s film about a priest who volunteers to act as a guinea pig to find a cure for an epidemiological disease. The experiment seems to have miraculously worked until it is clear the infection has taken hold. A tainted blood transfusion saves him, but at the cost of turning him into a vampire with considerable carnal appetites. The movie devolves into gratuitous excess, even for a vampire movie. I like Park’s 2003 Oldboy, but Thirst spirals out of control. Or maybe it's just that if one walks in expecting a documentary, and one gets Park, one's reception is bound to be off.

This year it was a horse of a different color.

I am a fan of concert films, the greatest of all being Martin Scorsese's The Last Waltz (1978). The Velvet Underground and Nico: A Symphony of Sound (1966), Don't Look Back (1967), Monterey Pop (1968), Gimme Shelter, Let It Be, Woodstock (1970), Fillmore (1971), Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones (1974), Stop Making Sense (1984), Rattle and Hum (1988), Bridges to Babylon (1998), Buena Vista Social Club (1999), Heart of Gold (2004) and Neil Young: Journeys (2011), I'm Your Man (2005), Shine a Light (2008)....

The list gives a sense of my taste, so I was not prepared to like End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones (2003), Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (2004), Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006), or Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (2011), but I did. I liked them very much.

So a movie pops up for which there have been no trailers to my knowledge, and all I know is that it is a concert film. It's called One Direction: This Is Us, and I go. I did not know that One Direction is the name of the band, much less what kind of band it is.

As I walk in, I'm a little uncomfortable because the only people there are pre-teen and teen girls. No boys, and the only adults I see are one couple who has brought their three little girls, and a dad who has brought two little girls. And then there is 60-year-old me. I had paid for the ticket, the theater was filling up, so I decided to experience it as a cultural exercise.

For those like myself who have no clue as to who/what One Direction is, it is a British-Irish boy band. Ranging in age from 19-21, they are the brainchild of Simon Cowell, a judge on The X Factor, who, after listening to each lad audition individually, thought to package them as a group. "Package" is the operative word. They are a prepackaged commodity with a prepackaged sound, doing prepackaged choreography on a prepackaged tour. Each is winsome in his own way, but it is all packaging and no substance. The fact that they admit that this is a short chapter in their lives is actually rather endearing, and none is intent on pursuing a lifelong career in music.

I have tried to figure out why there is no  mainstream music being made any more that I have an interest in. GE Focus Forward 3-minute films sometimes precede the trailers at my indie/foreign film theater. One is called "The Auto-Tune Effect." It's about pitch-modulation audio software, which the film describes as the audio equivalent of Photoshop, and if the interviewees are correct, and I have no reason to doubt  them, it is ubiquitous. That may be the answer I've been looking for.

I have a friend who is a committed plein air painter. En plein air means "in the open air" and refers to the practice of painting landscapes outdoors from life. In 1841 a portrait painter, one John Goffe Rand, invented the paint tube. That may not sound like much, but it transformed the way painters work. Before the paint tube, preparing paints meant grinding pigments and mixing them with linseed oil, then hauling the resultant tints around on horseback in pig's bladders. This made painting outside the studio if not prohibitive, cumbersome at the very least. The paint tube changed that. Rather than sketching out of doors, coming back to the (often badly lit) studio, enlarging the sketch in transferring it to canvas, and painting with those painstakingly prepared paints, painters could easily paint outdoors in the open air. This, along with the concurrent development of photography, had much to do with the rise of Impressionism.

With the camera to record representational images and the paint tube providing a convenient means to paint in real time, so to speak, artists began to move away from the subjects of traditional studio painting -- the monumental themes of war, mythology and religion; portraiture as a record of status and position; static still lifes. They began instead to explore scenes of domesticity and urban sights of regular people doing regular things in ordinary places. They could also paint directly from nature, where light changes with moving clouds and the time of day, and breezes flutter leaves and flowers and drying laundry. Suddenly what the artist sees is not static, and that is very much a part of the Impressionist aesthetic. The ideal became spontaneity and an emphasis on the play of light and movement. A studio model cannot sit perfectly still, so even portraits took on a sense of movement in the hands of the Impressionists.

Music needs spontaneity, too. It needs voices that are imperfect and human and individual, not homogeneous and prepackaged. The boys in One Direction seem to be nice, sincere young lads, but just as CGI threatens to ruin the cinema, pitch-modulation software and prepackaged pop idols threaten to ruin music. Not that there won't always be rebels out there, it's just getting harder to hear them through the noise.

November 14, 2013


Like Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master last year, the first movie of 2013 to come out screaming, "I am a contender," was Lee Daniels' The Butler. (I just looked up The Master in my 2012 Molskine. It is #70 in my log of theater screenings, exactly where The Butler falls in the 2013 Molskine!)

The Butler may be inspired by a true story, but it is not based on a true story. There was a person, Eugene Allen, who served presidents Truman to Reagan as a White House butler, but beyond that, pretty much everything about the character is pure fiction. Virtually nothing about the butler of the movie, Cecil Gaines, aligns with Allen's personal life. Ironically, much as Anderson and his cast insisted that The Master was not based on L. Ron Hubbard, perhaps fearing repercussions from Scientologists, Anderson did enormous research on Hubbard, and The Master reflects it in many biographical details.

I found The Butler pretentious, but I always defend Quentin Tarantino and tell people who go to his movies and are offended by his excesses that they should realize by now that when one goes to a Quentin Tarantino movie, one is going to get a Quentin Tarantino movie -- so stay home if you don't like it. Some Tarantino films are better than others, but all are over the top. By now I should know that a Lee Daniels movie is going to be pretentious. And likewise some are better than others. The Butler falls in the weaker range, partly because it tries to cover so very much. As we march through the years and the decades, Daniels finally has to employ montage to squeeze in every historical benchmark. I tried to be generous and think, Well, maybe that's good  for younger people who, unlike me, did not live through the times the narrative chronicles. That is to say, it works better as a history lesson than it does as a work of cinema.

NYT Critics' Pick
Slate's Forrest Wickham catalogs the historical record of L. Ron Hubbard's life and The Master's screenplay.
Slate's Aisha Harris catalogs the historical record of Eugene Allen's life and the The Butler's screenplay.

Unlike The Butler, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Solomon Northrup's autobiography no matter how implausible a particular detail may seem, as historians Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon attest in their 1968 edition of Northrup's book.

I saw Michael Fassbender the week before in The Counselor and Fassbender and Brad Pitt play off each other in that film. Seeing Fassbender in 12 Years a Slave and the two actors face off again, I was gratified to have the opportunity to watch a master of his craft in such dramatically different roles back to back. Fassbender melts into his characters. He is hardly recognizable from one to the next. (He is also McQueen's faithful collaborator.) Chitwetel Ejiofor is also a powerful presence on screen who succeeds in communicating a broad range of emotion in a character whose condition consigns him to silent deference and submission.

The film is brutal, filled with brutal characters of which Fassbender's Edwin Epps may be the most sadistic, though it is a distinction for which many vie. Mr. McQueen has assembled an impressive cast, all of whom are excellent: Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford), Paul Dano (John Tibeats), Garret Dillahunt (Armsby), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Scoot McNairy (Brown), Adepero Oduye (Eliza), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Brad Pitt (Bass), Michael Kenneth Williams (Robert), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Chris Chalk (Clemens), Taran Killam (Hamilton) and Bill Camp (Radburn). Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey is heart wrenching.

I was a little baffled, however, by the cinematography. With the exception of about a dozen shots, which, were they stills, would look like submissions to a nature photography competition, the visual aspect of 12 Years a Slave is bland. McQueen came to feature film out of the London art world, where he continues to exhibit conceptual video pieces, and he is represented by a gallery there and one based in New York and Paris. Hence, the lackluster look of 12 Years a Slave seemed odd to me. As I watched, I noticed that often the camera does not move. The characters move through a static background which often looks bleached out. I wondered if this is meant to reflect the lives of those imprisoned on the plantations, the static nature of their enslavement day after day, year after year.

I looked through reviews to see if anyone else commented on this component of the film. Manohla Dargis and David Denby had interesting takes on it. Dargis argues that "Mr. McQueen has largely dispensed with the conventions of art cinema to make something close to a classical narrative; in this movie, the emphasis isn’t on visual style but on Solomon and his unmistakable desire for freedom." Denby observes that "It shows up the plantation scenes of Gone with the Wind for the sentimental kitsch that they are, and, intentionally or not, it’s an artist’s rebuke to Quentin Tarantino’s high-pitched, luridly extravagant Django Unchained."

Some of our more courageous Holocaust films delve directly into questions of evil, the capacity of ordinary people to justify acts of utter depravity, the human spirit and its power to endure unspeakable suffering or its temptation to forsake hope altogether. 12 Years a Slave is rare in turning that gaze onto the institution of slavery in the United States. That said, I believe the critic Edward Rubin makes an important observation when he says that "12 Years a Slave ... is too by the book, and its relentless attempt to have the last word is laced with a heavy dose of didacticism."

The debasement and torture that Northrup endures throughout his ordeal is paralleled in the character of Patsey who, broken by implacable horror, begs Northrup to drown her. In a way, Patsey is doubly enslaved, as a tyrannized captive like Northrup and as the object of Epps's sexual abuse.

One of the ways in which Mistress Epps punishes Patsey is to refuse to allow her to bathe. When Patsey returns from the neighboring plantation and pleads with Epps to spare her, she tries to prove she is telling the truth by opening her palm to reveal a tiny cake of soap for which she has risked so much, a desperate entreaty for ablution. Epps commands that Northrup whip her. Unsatisfied, Epps finally grabs the lash and proceeds to flay her. Of any sequence in the film, I found this the most affecting. Patsey's shame is bottomless -- her smell, she says, makes her gag -- and the anguish Northrup endures in being forced to raise a hand against such a tormented innocent is palpable.

12 Years a Slave fixes an unblinking eye on the inexorable damnation to which our country condemned generation after generation of a guiltless people. We would be wrong, I believe, to view this narrative as historical, as an anomaly of the past. Enslavement endures to this day in the gun-fueled violence of abandoned inner cities and in prisons across the land; human trafficking flourishes across the globe.

NYT Critics' Pick
Historical reaction to Solomon Northrup's account: New York Times 20 January 1853
Slate's Dana Stevens, Aisha Harris and Forrest Wickman catalog the historical record and the movie's screenplay.
Stanley Fish has written an excellent piece on 12 Years a Slave and Steve McQueen's narrative choices in the New York Times Opinion Pages, 11/25/2013.


I have another entry titled Dystopia, and thought about including Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity and J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost there with the argument that man has now littered the galaxy/ocean with so much garbage (satellites and space junk/shipping containers and Chinese-made sneakers) that we have turned the serene beauty of space/the sea into dangerous, dystopian environments for astronauts/seamen already threatened by an indifferent universe.

Since seeing Gravity, I have started every conversation about it by paraphrasing an astute observation A.O. Scott makes in his excellent review of the film. "Gravity," says Scott, "is less a science-fiction spectacle than a Jack London tale in orbit. .... [T]here is a swift and buoyant story of the struggle for survival in terrible, rapidly changing circumstances. Cosmic questions about our place in the universe are not so much avoided as subordinated to more pressing practical concerns."

Mission Specialist Ryan Stone and Mission Commander Matt Kowalski (Sandra Bullock and George Clooney) have piloted space shuttle Explorer to service the Hubble telescope. Houston warns that a Russian missile has accidentally struck a communications satellite, sending debris their way. They have little time before it is hurtling at them, cuts their communication with Houston, and then their tether to each other. To make matters worse, the initial explosion has created a domino effect, with waves of debris coming at regular intervals. Early on, the story becomes Stone's and her fight for survival.

Scott says that "The defiance of impossibility is this movie's reason for being." Well, it might be possible to overcome the impossible in Gravity, but it is not at all probable, and therein lies one of the film's weaknesses.

Gravity is a highly improbable, thin tale, and one unworthy of London, whose stories are meticulously crafted. Its raison d'etre is visual dexterity and ingenuity; it's certainly not acting. I admit it is all quite lovely, but after 30 minutes I had gotten the picture, so to speak. The film is an encyclopedia of special effects techniques from analog to digital with CGI and 3D and everything in between. I am sure Emmanuel Lubezki will be nominated for Best Cinematography, though he has a veritable host of people who collaborated with him, from an art department of almost 50, to 22 special effects, 470 visual effects, and 58 camera and electrical people, to 38 animators. It is ALL about the visual effects.

All Is Lost, on the other hand, is brilliant. Robert Redford's performance is a tour de force. Frank G. DeMarco's and Peter Zuccarini's cinematography is breathtaking. Alex Ebert's score is transcendent. This is Jack London transported from the Yukon to the open sea, where the unnamed man must draw from untapped reserves to survive the wilderness. He is an existential character fighting the elements alone. There is no God to pray to in London's world, and Our Man in All Is Lost gives in only once to a single primal scream. Redford's performance is a hallmark of what it means to be an actor. He is in almost every frame and gives his silent protagonist a complex inner life without saying anything at all.

Chandor and Redford have done something remarkable in All Is Lost: they have told a deeply existential story. In a 1946 lecture, Jean-Paul Sartre used the phrase "existence precedes essence," a distillation of the ideas proposed by Martin Heidegger and Søren Kierkegaard. Our Man embodies this precept of being as the source of meaning in a meaningless world of indifferent nature. This reality leads Albert Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, to conclude that "there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide."

In the face of indifferent nature, why don't we just shoot ourselves? We chose  not to. Instead, every action we take is a choice to give our lives meaning in the face of nothingness. Our Man is resolved to survive,  and his final action is an exposition of the freedom that is just another word for nothing left to lose.

For all their parallels, Gravity stars big names with pretty faces; All Is Lost stages a noble performance by a great, mature actor. Gravity is special effects and 3D; All Is Lost is aesthetically stunning cinematography. Gravity is Hollywood conceit; All Is Lost is an exploration of the truths of the human condition.

'All is Lost' / Lionsgate

J.C. Chandor's All Is Lost with Robert Redford

Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity
[The film rating for Gravity's trailer was priceless: "Intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language."  Intense perilous sequences?]
NYT Critics' Pick

November 8, 2013


Henry-Alex Rubin's Disconnect is a disturbing examination of our increasingly plugged in culture, especially the degree to which it allows people to facelessly act out their basest natures with no fear of consequences. It is a multi-linear narrative in the vein of a master of the form, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores perros21 GramsBabel).

We too often look to technology as a savior, forgetting that, like any medium, it is merely a tool that can be used for good or ill, distraction or enlightenment, charity or criminality. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles public schools rolled out "An iPad for Every Student" project. The city is not alone. School districts across the nation are mounting similar initiatives. There is, to my mind anyway, an alarming pedagogical trend toward replacing human teachers with software -- robots even -- while the people who used to teach are moved to the peripheral role of facilitator, roaming classrooms where kids stare at screens. I am not saying that technology is evil. Technology simply is what we choose to do with it. That we have chosen to make it a substitute for human interaction is at best sad, at worst soulless.

One of Disconnect's stories involves a television reporter whose investigation into teen runaways, who earn their keep in the sex chat trade, must violate trust when the FBI demands access to her sources. Another centers on a couple whose son is manipulated into sending a compromising picture of himself on a cell phone. In the third, a former Marine and his wife who have lost their infant child, lose everything else when someone in a support chat group where she seeks solace steals her credit information. Each story is achingly told as oblique connections among the characters gradually emerge.
I use the term multi-linear narrative though the term of art these days for films with multiple story lines seems to be "hyperlink cinema," coined by blogger Alissa Quart in her 2005 review of Don Roos's Happy Endings, and popularized when Roger Ebert used it in his brilliant 2005 review of Stephen Gaghan's Syriana. Ebert understands that it is not merely that the characters in each separate story are connected to those in another, but that "In a hyperlink movie the motives of one character may have to be reinterpreted after we meet another one." The need to reinterpret the narrative once we see it from a different perspective is at the heart of multi-linear narrative.  

In The Critical Mind blog, in a post called "Hyperlink Cinema," MM observes that "A successful hyperlink film manages to evoke the central theme in much the same way critical thinking can interrelate multiple evidence (qualitative in this respect) to support a central argument. This is not to say that filmmaking or hyperlink cinema is strictly meant to be a logical argument or within the bounds of evidence per se – as standards of creativity can vary from person to person (and from viewer to viewer). What I personally find compelling about hyperlink films is that the usage of multiple character plotlines for the film’s grand exposition is akin to the critical thinking process of finding analogs or parallels between multiple concepts or abstracts."

This all makes the muti-linear, or hyperlink, narrative sound like a hip new 21st century trope with Steven Soderbergh's 2000 Traffic, Fernando Meirelles's Cidade de Deus (2002), Greg Marcks's 11:14 (2003), Paul Haggis's Crash (2004). 2005 was a big year with Happy Endings and Syriana cited above, Rodrigo García's Nine Lives, and the Australian film Look Both Ways written and directed by Sarah Watt. Then two to four coming out each year since. There are plenty of lists out there, some of which stretch the definition a bit as my two examples below may do as well. There's Wikipedia's; IMDb's, which is a little looser;'s; etc.

Yet we can go back to 1962 and Satyajit Ray's Kanchenjungha, Louis Bruñuel's 1974 Phantom of Liberty and Robert Altman's Nashville (1975) and Shortcuts (1993). Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, along with Jerry Garcia, revived interest in the Polish film The Saragossa Manuscript when they financed a restoration of an uncut print that was released in the U.S. in 2001. Directed by Wojciech Has and originally released in 1965, the film is based on an 1815 novel by Jan Potocki. The narrative springboard involves two officers from opposing sides of the Napoleonic Wars who find a manuscript that tells the story of the Spanish officer's grandfather and his travels meeting a varied array of unusual characters, each of whom tells fantastical tales, many of which intertwine.

We find the device in American literature, from Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, published in 1919 and re-imagined in Tim O'Brien's 1990 The Things They Carried. My point is that it is nothing new. Two films that do not appear on any of the lists I googled are an Italian and a Canadian film.

The Double Hour, Giuseppe Capotondi's 2009 feature debut, is not quite hyperlink cinema but it speaks to Roger Ebert's observation that the motives of one character -- or in the case of The Double Hour our perceptions of a situation -- have to be reinterpreted when we meet another character -- or see the action from a different perspective. The narrative plays with the dream/reality conundrum. In a fast-paced, Hitchcockian thriller, things are not what they seem.

Sonia works as a maid in a high-end hotel. As she becomes more romantically involved with Guido, complications ensue that lead to their capture in an art heist at the estate where Guido works as the high-tech gate guard. The double hour of the title is the time when the hour and minutes match, 12:12 say, and it signals the moments when what we think we know will be subverted by another point of view. The narrative is a clever cat and mouse that demands constant re-evaluation.

Another film I would add to these lists is Denis Villeneuve’s 2010 Incendies, based on a play by Wajdi Mouawad. To say that the film is about family secrets is an understatement. The secrets are so intertwined and at times almost entirely implausible, but the skill with which the story unravels is such that we willingly suspend disbelief.

Twin brother and sister in Quebec are tying up the estate of their mother. When the lawyer hands each of them an envelope with separate instructions from their mother, their journey of self-knowledge is set in motion. They go off on what seems could be something of a snipe hunt were it not so serious. What they find in their mother's native Lebanon will unearth the tragic secrets of her life and ultimately reveal their own identities. It is a profoundly moving story of the triumph of love over unspeakable brutality.

Disconnect is a NYT Critics' PickThe Double Hour is a NYT Critics' Pick
Incendies is a NYT Critics' Pick