Queen of Earth – Alex Ross Perry (2015)

Last year was director Alex Ross Perry’s breakout. His third film, Listen Up Philip, a dramedy centering around two narcissistic authors, one young and rising, the other an aging literary lion, brought the director something close to mainstream recognition (while a cover story in Film Comment might not be a barometer of mainstream, certainly Disney tapping him to direct the upcoming live-action adaptation of Winnie the Pooh is). Listen Up Philip is a very good film, exploring the personality traits required (or are they?) to be a great writer, and investigating with some finesse how maleness and the egoism necessary to turn life into “art” are mutually reinforcing in our culture. While that film, as far as most of the press it received was concerned, hinged on two Philip Roth-like characters and their back and forth, the middle chunk was given over to Philip’s girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) and provided the alternative reality against which Philip and his mentor’s self-aggrandizement could be measured. In that section, Perry showed himself to be a keen observer of women, and perhaps more sympathetic to Ashley’s worldview than to those of his protagonists, all too easily read as stand-ins for himself. Now, only a year later, Perry has returned with Queen of Earth, again featuring Elizabeth Moss. A portrait of two female friends, meticulously investigating the ebb and flow of their relationship, and the difficulties inherent in being close enough to someone that you feel responsible for their well-being, despite being two separate, unrelated “adults,” Queen of Earth has received little of the attention that Listen Up Philip did. I will not play Kreskin much in this regard, but it does not take a soothsayer to imagine that the gender of the protagonists has something to do with it. Yes, it could simply be the fact that the film followed too closely on the heels of last year’s publicity, but looking at the critical response, and to a degree the marketing of the film, we can discern that nobody is quite sure what to make of it. The poster advertises it as an “acidly funny comedy,” which it assuredly is not (and which Listen Up Philip definitely was). Rogerebert.com calls it “as unsettling as any horror film,” and other sources pigeonhole it as a psychological thriller; while I understand this sentiment to a degree, as the main character is in crisis throughout much of the film, and we as viewers become worried that the shoe will drop, the implicit violence mustering behind Moss’s visage becoming explicit, there are ultimately no “thrills” to be had, and no horrors to behold. Anthony Lane, writing in The New Yorker, comes closest to the truth when he compares the film to Bergman – one cannot help but think (and Perry is indeed prompting us to) of Persona, with two female protagonists going tête-a-tête in a dialectical discovery of identity while on a “vacation” that doubles as a period of convalescence. Persona, however, is more psychoanalytic, with the women losing a sense of who they were, and discovering new identities through their isolation – it views their feminine aspects as two sides of the same coin. Queen of Earth is more down to earth (surprise, surprise), more “realistic,” interested ultimately in the problems of friendship and the limits of knowing, and helping, another person. The protagonists are women, perhaps, not so much because the film is interested in the nature of women, but because women tend to care about, and interrogate more deeply, the nature of friendship, and the responsibilities and rewards contained within that relationship.

Elizabeth Moss plays Catherine, an artist who has long lived in the shadow of her much more famous artist father, whose affairs she manages. Katherine Waterston plays Virginia, a longtime friend who is seemingly content to do little with her life (in a conventional sense); she seems to rely on her parents, and their wealth, for her existence, although the details of the arrangement are never made crystal clear. As the film begins, Catherine is breaking up with her longstanding boyfriend James (Kentucker Audley), and breaking down emotionally. Virginia offers Catherine safe haven at her house upstate (actually her parents’ summer home), with the implicit promise of time alone to recuperate and work on her art in solitude. We sense tension between the friends from the moment of Catherine’s arrival, and soon it has made its way to the surface, with the pair snipping at each other as much or more than they sympathize. At first we don’t understand this dynamic, and assume that Virginia is being a bit remote and cold; after all, she invited Catherine up, knowing she was in crisis. Further, Virginia inserts a man into the situation, neighbor Rich (Patrick Fugit), a nice-enough seeming fellow who ultimately reveals himself to be an unsettling presence, a smarmy enigma who, as Catherine later critiques, stands emotionally apart from people and pokes at them with verbal sticks. As the film progresses, however, the past begins to emerge into the present, and via flashbacks (which tend to arrive unannounced) we soon learn that a year ago the situation was reversed – it was Virginia who was in crisis, and it was Catherine who arrived, supposedly to give succor to her friend, with her then-new boyfriend James in tow. The movie then moves back and forth between these two periods (although giving more weight, and play, to the present). Catherine in the present moves further and further down the spiral, into a place that on the surface looks like “madness,” but which, in terms of her thinking revealed via monologue, seems quite in touch with the raw existential truths of reality; a year earlier, we see her smiling, preening a bit, contented and self-satisfied, happy, but only by way of forcing a comparison against Virginia, who we sense she has always resented for the ease with which she approaches life. So while we are happy to see that Catherine was not always so miserable, we also sense that her miserable state is more honest; and while Virginia at first seemed unsympathetic, we begin to see that her role in the friendship has been the harder one, perhaps, with her stoicism being mistaken for aloofness, her own crises, and problems, always given short shrift. The men in the story complicate the relationships, but they are also strictly secondary in importance – they exist to be used by the women against each other, and to flesh out aspects of the relationship that would remain unseen otherwise. The film moves to a kind of climax, with Catherine making a scene at a party Virginia hosts, and then telling off Rich even as she tries to understand him. Eventually she leaves, after having sunk further and further into isolation – she becomes not mad exactly, but beyond caring about trying to hide her inner turmoil, and her departure signals not recovery, but her desire to spare Virginia further stress (driven perhaps by guilt at recognizing her own failings as a support a year earlier). In the end, the friendship persists – we understand this through a closing gesture – but each character must bear the heaviness of their faults, and of life’s unfolding, alone.

What is remarkable about the film is how astute it is in tracing the complexities of a relationship that is chosen and not forced upon either party; it truly investigates what it means to be friends with someone, and all the pain that such a relationship brings. In Virginia and Catherine’s flip-flopping positions, with one in crisis in the past, the other in the present, we begin to see how each brings something to the relationship that attracts the other: Catherine her emotional openness, and her ability to verbally unpack the realities surrounding her (regardless of if they are “true”); Virginia her acceptance and unrelenting graciousness, a kind of maternalism, even when it is barbed and grudging. Catherine likes the ease with which Virginia takes life as it comes, not understanding that it really is not so easy for her, while Virginia admires Catherine’s talent and drive, even if it is halting or expressed in a passive aggressive way. While all of this is well and good, and displays a very admirable, and assured, grip on interpersonal psychology by Perry, what carries the film upward is the way all of this is blended into a portrayal of life as an unfolding that we have little control over; the friendship is a barometer that measures the revelation of a mystery. In the movement of Catherine from a place of happiness and assuredness to one of despair and doubt, we feel how life reveals itself as a continual series of revelations that are, for individuals and those who care about them, self-revelations as well. This is part of the motivating force behind Catherine’s monologues – she is trying to understand the nature of existence by parsing herself, and those around her, in real-time. Thus we also come to understand that Virginia is not pleased in any way by Catherine’s downfall, for it reveals to her the contingency of things, and also prompts her to consider that perhaps the seeds of the downfall were always present, and that this friend she thought she knew well is different, and always has been; further, such knowledge leaves Virginia fully alone, as she realizes she is the “strong one,” and thus will always be isolated. Indeed, the whole film is a reflection on the open question of how far we can go toward knowing others, and given that we are all, in a way, isolated inside our experience of time passing, it asks what responsibilities are inherent to friendship, and questions what we hope to get out of knowing others. Why do we do it? Why do we seek to become close to people we are not obliged to know, when it entails so much unhappiness, pain, and failure? The movie only raises these questions, it does not attempt to answer them, except insofar as to suggest, by way of Catherine’s art, that seeking truth, about our own natures as well as that of the universe, is the ultimate reason. I am happy to say that I have barely scratched the surface of the insights and pleasures that Queen of Earth provides. As usual, the cinematography is outstanding, and signifies “period” in ways that Listen Up Philip‘s also did, but much more subtly, making us feel less like we are in the realm of pastiche. This is by far Alex Ross Perry’s finest film, and one of the finest recent films about women, the nature of friendship, and what growing older feels like from the inside. The cliche says growing older is growing wiser, and there’s truth there – but such wisdom takes the form of a greater knowledge of our own failings, and humility in facing our inability to break away from our pretensions. Catherine’s laughter, which ends the film, is not the bleak laughter of the void; rather, it is laughter of the reflections in a funhouse mirror, a recognition that the way we prefer to see ourselves is distorted and (except perhaps in periods of distress) almost always backwards.

Four out of five stars

The Revenant – Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (2015)

This past year has been an excellent one for trailers. I found the trailer for Carol  more affecting than the full movie, and to some extent, The Revenant falls into that category as well. Trailers have the advantage of being short and sweet, of suggesting with the most fleeting of fragments what must (almost always) per force be elaborated and expounded at feature length in order to provide some kind of through line for the audience. (Rare is the feature film, even in the heady heyday of such features, the 1960s and 70s, that dared keep an audience hallucinating for more than 90 straight minutes). Trailers can often, through compression and a kind of distillation, intensify the themes and emotions of the film proper; of course, few take advantage of this in our era of thuddering robot superwhatever apocalyptics perpetually descending from the sky. The trailer for The Revenant was very dreamlike and hypnotic, suggesting an acid western set in the polar north, the setting perhaps scrubbing the film clean of that genre’s more egregious elements. I had the opportunity to see the trailer often over the course of the fall, and it raised the goosebumps every time. So stoked was I to see it that I actually had the release date memorized. Given my anticipation, it is no surprise that the film could not quite match it. And it is not only unrealistic, but undesireable, for a film to live up to its trailer. While we might think we want to taste only strong flavors, to be continually excited by thrills and chills, such moments can only stand out, and acquire a power that resonates as something greater than a mere image, by being cast against a continuum of “normality” (which is established differently by every film). For an image to have staying power, it has to generate more than an adrenaline spike or a soak of serotonin within us, and for that to happen, it must be surrounded by images that work differently, that labor quietly and don’t call us to attention. The ideal film, like a piece of symphonic music, marshals these two modes in a collaborative relation to each other, so that the quiet or “boring” parts build in such a way that the loud or “exciting” parts seem natural, or, even when surprising, a necessary result of the other. I can’t, then, fault The Revenant for not getting there; it tries, and comes close to the mark.

The film is a relatively straightforward survival and revenge epic, and I can elaborate the plot without spoiling anything, as the trailer pretty much reveals the major plot points. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hugh Glass, a mountain man scout whose back story we only get a fleeting glimpse of. Having “gone native” and partnered with a Pawnee woman, who is subsequently killed in a French raid on their village, Glass is, at the outset of the movie, working with his adolescent son as guide to a party of trappers led by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson). The trappers are a motley crew, with one in particular, John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), carrying an unconcealed antipathy for Glass and his boy. Soon after the story begins, the trapping party is beset by a war party of another tribe set on recovering the chief’s daughter, who has been kidnapped. Forced to abandon their pelts and flee by river, the trappers, now reduced in number, must journey overland for their best chance at survival – or so says Glass. Fitzgerald is distrustful, and not shy about saying so, but he ultimately adheres to the orders of the upstanding Captain Henry. Soon everything is turned on its head as Glass is mauled by a bear while out scouting. Barely alive, Henry tries to carry him out of the wilderness, but is soon forced to abandon that idea, and Glass, in the interest of saving other lives. Glass’s son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) stays behind to tend to Glass until his seemingly inevitable demise, along with the naive, straightforward Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, who volunteers, Henry having promised those who stay a hefty reward later on. Within a few days, Hawk has been killed, Glass left for dead in a shallow grave, and Bridger and Fitzgerald are trudging their way out of the wilderness. At this point, the film transitions to a survival epic, as Glass hauls himself out of his grave, and begins the long process of dragging himself, injured, unarmed, and unprovisioned, to civilization, in the hopes of revenging himself upon Fitzgerald. How and if he succeeds in this quest, who he encounters along the way, and how the journey changes him are the subjects of the film.

The Revenant succeeds in building the kind of relentless pressure that is suggested in the trailer; Glass’s struggle to navigate the landscape as well as overcome his physical limitations, conveyed through DiCaprio’s performance, places the pressure of his body on the viewer. At the same time, his journey is plausible, both physically and historically, with the hallucinatory aspects a side effect of historical distance. Tom Hardy almost succeeds too well in his role, as Fitzgerald is almost sympathetic, an antihero rather than a villain; thus, while the final confrontation does have impact, it doesn’t provide the catharsis we hope for. (I know, I know, that’s probably the point, but after two hours of wilderness trekking on the verge of death, I think some catharsis is not too much to ask). The rest of the cast is excellent, in particular Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Henry – he is a portrait of moral outrage, uprightness, and his period flavor is quite canny. Formally, the film is innovative and compelling. Inarritu makes use of digital technology in the service of his trademark long takes to great effect, as in the opening raid on the hide factory, where the camera moves with horsemen, drawing near to their faces, then pulling away as they fall, wheeling about to capture a medium shot of action unfolding, panning up to see action in the trees, and the like, all without cutting. While the already famous bear attack does look like digital animation, it is incredibly well done, and still has physical force behind it – partly because the rest of the film is rooted in a very real, and formidable, landscape. It would be nice if more directors would follow Inarritu’s lead, and use digital technology to enhance reality, rather than to prop up blatant unreality. The film’s failures will also be familiar to the director’s followers. The relationship between Glass and his dead wife, portrayed in dream sequences or magical realist visions, we cannot say for sure, are quite pretentious, and a bit patronizing in their New Age-y view of Native Americans. Further, while DiCaprio is great in his role, he doesn’t quite look old, or grizzled enough, to pull off a realistic mountain man, and, more importantly, the father of a late adolescent. Because of this, his relationship with Hawk lacks the realism necessary to make Hawk’s death felt rather than merely symbolic. We never see enough of Glass caring for Hawk when he is younger, or struggling to raise him without his mother; instead, the flashbacks concentrate on the hazy details of the mother’s demise, which, after one iteration, is somewhat beside the point. Even so, The Revenant succeeds, and more so than last year’s overly lauded Birdman, as it has a straightforward drive that it mostly sticks to and delivers. The real star of the film is the setting, the landscape as a memento mori of and ode to an age when the struggle for human survival was primal and brutal. Like DiCaprio’s character, we are left feeling unfulfilled, the journey not quite accomplishing what we might have liked – but Inarritu nevertheless takes us farther than most other filmmakers these days.

Four out of five stars

Spotlight – Tom McCarthy (2015)

I only recently saw Spotlight, despite it having been out for a few months now, after it was named best picture of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. I must admit I had ignored it because its genre – let’s call it the “institutional procedural” – is not my favorite, and there were other films that, in the end of the year goodie glut, were more pressing. And I will admit I’m glad I saw it; it is assuredly not the best film of the year, but it is a very solid, engrossing film that revitalizes a genre that has languished recently. What is an institutional procedural, you may (or may not) ask? Like a police procedural, which follows the particulars of a crime investigation, being more attentive to the process of discovery and prosecution than the drama of the crime itself (which often is accomplished either before the movie begins or happens in the opening minutes), an institutional procedural is concerned with the inner workings of an organization, usually set to a particular task, revealing (hopefully) some concealed truth about how the organization functions, successfully or not, and perhaps how in touch it is with the reality that it serves. In the past several years, the focus of this genre has been the national security apparatus, an exemplar being Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. That film, while nominally following Jessica Chastain’s character, is less concerned with her story than with the story of how the various intelligence agencies worked to capture Osama bin Laden. Past similar films, though, have focused on the lobbying industry (Thank You for Smoking) or the newspaper industry (All the President’s Men, perhaps setting the standard for the genre). Given such examples, we could claim that the institutional procedural is really about watching how power works, examining it forensically – that is, from multiple points of view. Spotlight, then, at the second level, is not so much about how a newspaper functions, but about how power was wielded by the Catholic Church, and the fact that this power often seemed invisible simply because it was an everyday fact of life in Boston. This is not to say that the populace was willfully blind to the power the Church wielded; they gave the Church the power it had. Rather, they were blind to it because it was a given feature of the cultural landscape, and of their corporate identity as Bostonians. The paradigm they inhabited prevented them from seeing it, because it was a natural feature of the terrain. This fact does not absolve them of responsibility in any way, of course, and one of the prime accomplishments of the film is that it portrays the gnawing realization, across multiple characters, of how they have been complicit in horrible injustice simply by claiming a common identity.

This is all putting the cart before the horse a bit, however. The film, for those unaware, concerns the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting that uncovered the widespread child abuse perpetrated by clergy of the Catholic Church over the course of many years. This initial case is, indeed, what broke the worldwide abuse scandal wide open. The film, and the investigation, begins with the arrival of an outsider – recently hired managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an outsider both in origins (he hails from New York, by way of Miami) and culture (he is a Jewish bachelor in a land of Catholic family men). Baron picks up on a columnist’s recent piece about allegations by a “crank” lawyer (an excellent Stanley Tucci) of abuse against local clergy, and asks why an investigative piece hasn’t been written on the subject. The Globe has such an investigative arm, the “Spotlight” team, headed by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton). Everyone tries to convince Baron he’s wasting his time, but the editor persists, even going so far as to sue the Church to unseal court documents they have fought to keep closed. The Spotlight team starts its work, and the rest of the movie is the step by step account of their work of disclosure, and of the snowballing implications. Baron continues to urge them on, correctly guiding them away from points of easy closure, pressuring them to go further, and dig deeper – the real story, he asserts, is the institutional cover-up, the abuse of power that reaches ever higher, and not the revelations centering on how many “bad apples” are within the Church. I could go into more detail, but in the case of this film, the plot is the meaning of the work, so instead I’d just say see it if you are interested. The film works well, first of all, because the script is incredibly intelligent, deliberate, and well researched. Indeed, it is so “objective” and procedural that we get almost no insight into the lives of the reporters, as we might have in a more typical film, and little to no scenes of outrage or emotionalism. While this is commendable, and lends the film its realism, it works almost too well, as the end denies us the catharsis of a city being shaken to its core; instead, the climax feels like a letdown, an anti-climax. While this is probably quite true to the experience of those reporting the case, who could not help but feel deflated, or wrung out, with no possible response living up to the months of sweat that went into their work, for us viewers, a little more comeuppance would have been nice, and not gratuitous. (It almost feels rushed in the end). Another factor that gives the film its power is the excellent, understated work of all the actors. While Mark Ruffalo, usually a favorite, is a little too gamy in his portrayal of a Boston “character,” the rest of the cast excels, particularly Schreiber, who balances resolve with a gentle, knowing humanity, the humility of an outsider who wants results, but does not want to hurt anyone’s feelings to get them. He really should get a supporting actor Oscar for his work here, it is so modulated and human. Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, in fact pretty much the entire cast, come off as everyday, conflicted citizens. As a portrait of the collective coming to consciousness of guilt and blindness, the film is fascinating. It is not especially technically exciting, but has no particular reason to be. Few movies have done so well to help us understand how the public is served in the workings of a particular institution. At the same time, this is still a fiction, despite the reality of its topic. As the institutional documentaries of Frederick Wiseman (which are, of course, fictions in their own way) show us, institutions, being little but intricate webs of human interaction, produce aberrant, or unexpected, results as a rule. The real story of Spotlight, like most procedurals, takes place before the movie begins – it is the years of willed ignorance and complacency that allowed the abuses of power to remain unchecked for generations.

Four stars out of five

Spectre – Sam Mendes (2015)

It has been forever since I’ve seen a Bond movie. And by forever, I mean, I’ve never seen one on the big screen, and the last one I can remember purposefully sitting down to watch all the way through was a VHS copy of Never Say Never Again that I got from the public library when I was a kid. Sure, I have seen most of the Bond films from the Connery era, all on cable television, and the Lazenby Bond film, and Casino Royale (the first version, with Woody Allen), and bits and pieces of many of the others, also on cable television. And I played Goldeneye to death on the N64 (but have no interest in the film, as Pierce Brosnan always seemed the Bond with the lowest yield). I even read a whole damn big glossy coffee table Bond fanbook from cover to cover! So somehow I know plenty about Bond, without really caring. Based on the trailer, I had no interest in seeing Spectre because, in truth, all the Daniel Craig Bond trailers have looked the same to me – palette of gunmetal, a perpetually cloudy sky, and little in the way of the trappings that have always screamed Bond. I understand the reason for this, as the Craig films are Bond 2.0, with a stripped down, “realistic,” (that is, dark) sensibility, and no taste for camp, cheese, or many of the colors of the rainbow. They have serious actors playing serious villains; no Donald Pleasence (God rest his soul) stroking his kitty while cookie cutter lamebrains “die” by jumping this way and that, but rather heavy hitters like Mads Mikkelsen and Javier Bardem coldly calculating the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians. Such is Bond in the age of global terror. But I was desperate – desperate for some escapism, and for a movie that wasn’t all talking, but heavier on the doing, even if what it was doing was of little consequence. And I like Christoph Waltz, although, if I am honest, it was the prospect of seeing Monica Bellucci and Léa Seydoux at 20 foot scale that sealed it for me. And yes, I am happy to report I was mercilessly entertained and even, at times, somewhat moved. (Say what?)

Spectre picks up after the events of Skyfall (which, having not seen, I assumed had more import than they do – more on that later). M (is for Mommy) Judy Dench is dead, and a sense of rebirth and/or the afterlife permeates the whole film. We get this from the first shot, which opens with Bond dropped into the Dios de la Muerte festivities in Mexico City, sent to dispatch an assassin by the end of the opening set piece, which is a goody. Although Bond accomplishes his task handily, new M Ralph Fiennes is none too pleased, as he did it without the proper indemnification, it seems. So Bond is ordered grounded, pending the reorganization of the double aught program into a new MI6 overseen by a young Orwellian data hungry war on terror type (Andrew Scott), C. C is hot to link up all the governmental surveillance operations of the world on the same intranet, and thus keep us all safe in a warm cocoon woven by this unblinking and fiery eye of cyberSauron. Bond, though, has captured a mysterious ring off the finger of the dispatched assassin which he wants to further investigate. He is thus, with a little help from Q (Ben Whishaw), forced to go AWOL, and travels to Italy to get the skinny from the assassin’s widow (a brief, brief, all too brief appearance by Ms. Bellucci). The widow informs Bond that the shady organization her husband worked for (Spectre, duh) is meeting in Italy that same night! Bond hightails it over there, in time to see a new court assassin appointed while discovering that Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz), a man thought dead, is the chairman of the board. Barely escaping the palatial grounds of the malevolent mind-meld, Bond is pursued through the streets (and the rest of the movie) by said assassin, Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista), who is hard to kill and likes to keep his fingernails long. He of course escapes, and is soon on the trail of Mr. White, a Spectre flunky who holds the secrets of the organization, but is dying of thallium poisoning. Mr. White doesn’t have much time, or incentive, to help, but he does have a daughter who knows where the secrets be hid, and so Bond agrees to protect the daughter if White tells him where to find her. It turns out daughter Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux) works on the top of a mountain at an exclusive medical clinic – all the better for a nice set piece as Bond pursues her down the mountain in the clutches of Hinx. Retrieved, Swann and Bond go to Morocco, uncover the secret of Spectre’s location, and are eventually chauffeured there courtesy of Oberhauser – or, should I say, Blofeld! Blofeld and Bond have an interesting shared backstory, and eventually must do battle in London, with Swann’s life in the balance. About the climax, I will say no more, except that we learn how Blofeld got his blind eye (he had the kitty all along, apparently).

Spectre has everything that you want a Bond movie to have, plus some. There are big set pieces, bigger than life baddies, beautiful women, and, thanks to director Sam Mendes, action that is staged with clarity, a minimum of digital stupidity, and a very snappy script. Yes, the climax is ludicrous, and given the outcome is what we expect, they could have gone with a less is more approach. And yes, all of C’s, and M’s, rantings and waxings poetic (respectively) about democracy seem quaint to the point of camp. But this is Bond plus, and it is mostly due to the presence of Léa Seydoux. Not only is her character strong, and often Bond’s equal (although, yes, she does have to be rescued in the end), Seydoux is a remarkable actress and brings what could be a rote role to life, imbuing her scenes with a palpable sense of loss that gives weight to her connection with Bond – we care what happens in the end, and want both of them to live happily ever after. Moreover, Spectre feels like the summing up of the previous Craig Bond films; the introduction of Blofeld, and Spectre, ties together the previous story lines and marks the end of one era and the beginnings of another (post-Craig, perhaps?). In the aftermath of Skyfall, which was curiously flat and underwhelming, with action more fit for a Tom Clancy or Bourne movie and with the tedious and weird Oedipal overtones that made the whole film about M, Spectre plays almost like a swan song to the world of Bond as it was in the 1960s. That is, a world where democracy mattered (or at least seemed possible) and where systems of totalitarian techno control were harebrained schemes of evil geniuses, and not a fait accompli proffered up to techno “wizards” by a passive public. The last shot (which I won’t give away) feels like Bond is retreating back into the era from which he emerged, and to which the logics of his persona make most sense. We feel not nostalgia, exactly, but instead elegiac, sad at the distance between the world as it was, even fictionalized, and as it is now, so debased that it cannot be recouped into fiction without at the same time denying its own reality. Spectre deals with this split deftly, portraying M’s vision of saving democracy not without irony, but also never sneering at it – rather referencing it as the hopeful candy colored dream of a 20th century now long, and definitively, dead. (Or, like Bond, set to rise again?)

Four stars out of five

Bridge of Spies – Steven Spielberg (2015)

Steven Spielberg has long been our foremost, and perhaps finest, liberal humanist, a nuanced artist even as he is also, at times, a nuanced ideologue. For a long time, he put forth his hopeful vision of the human animal within the wrappings of the fantastic; as he has gotten older, more and more often he has turned to history for his subjects, working within a style of high drama that simulates a product that used to be called, in old Hollywood, “prestige” or “quality pictures.” Starting with Schindler’s List (although previewed in The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun), Spielberg raised the stakes of his aesthetic by making statements rather than simply telling stories that might happen to have (an often comforting) morality. As Spielberg has aged, his vision of the human endeavor has grown darker, but also more faceted; if his work is still often problematic (Schindler’s List, grim though it is, remains a fairy tale), it is still to be taken seriously, as the characters he portrays are fully three dimensional, and inhabit the middle tones of reality, rather than the high contrast relief of a cartoon. And although his subject matter has shifted from the far-flung, easily enthralling locales and concepts of his early work to the potentially deadly milieus of rooms in which characters do little but sit and talk, his style has kept pace, and we are never bored. Not that I have taken this to heart, for whenever a new Spielberg “quality” film comes out, I tend not to be excited to see it – “more drab gray and brown chromatics, more guys in suits standing around talking?” says I. I wind up dragging myself to the theater, but always come out braced, feeling remiss for not giving him more credit. So it went with Bridge of Spies, which I have only now finally seen, mostly because all my other choices had bottomed out. What is great about the film is that it speaks to our current moment, and appeals to the better angels of our nature (even though, for this viewer, only fools remain, as angels have long since learned that treading on Mars is safer and more interesting) – yet he does so by gentle, and subtle comparison, rather than with thundering histrionics. While he is out to convince us of something, he also believes in the self-evidence of his conviction, and so approaches us not as cynics in need of correction, nor naive patriots needing ammo for battle; that is to say, he treats his audience with intelligence, which is a rare enough thing these days.

Bridge of Spies concerns the seemingly undramatic, if not uninteresting, case of the clandestine spy swap that returned downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers from Soviet hands. The film begins at the height of the cold war, as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (a great Mark Rylance) is captured in Brooklyn. Well regarded insurance attorney James Donovan (Tom Hanks) is asked to represent Abel, and after due consideration of how unpopular such a role will make him, takes the job, and mounts a vigorous defense. Much to his, and our, surprise, Abel has been prejudged not only by the public at large, but by the officers of the court as well – the judge on the case (Dakin Matthews) dismisses all of Donovan’s more than reasonable motions and makes it quite clear that, in his eyes, Abel is guilty of crimes against the state and should be executed. While Donovan does not dispute that Abel is guilty, he also finds him deserving of admiration, as although an enemy, he remains loyal to his cause and does not turn double agent, selling out his beliefs, or, at the least, his allegiance, for money or protection. Not wanting to see Abel executed, Donovan appeals to the judge’s realpolitik patriotism by suggesting that he be imprisoned, preserved in case the circumstance arises that an American agent is, at some time, captured by the Soviets and a deal need be made to bring that loyal solider home. The judge accepts this reasoning, and sentences Abel to jail, much to the consternation of the general public; Donovan’s defense of Abel, and his desire to move his case further through the appellate system, does indeed make him, and his family, momentary pariahs. Parallel to this story, we are introduced to America’s spying scheme involving the development of the U-2 aircraft, its deployment, and Francis Gary Powers’s (Austin Stowell) eventual capture, imprisonment, and interrogation by the Soviets. Now faced with the eventuality predicted by Donovan, the CIA decides that a swap is necessary to prevent Powers, who was instructed to kill himself rather than be captured, from spilling classified info. They tap Donovan to arrange the swap, as he has been approached, with much subterfuge, by the Soviets via a letter from Abel’s “wife.” Donovan travels to Berlin to arrange the swap without telling anyone, even his wife (Amy Ryan) what he is tasked with. Berlin, having just been rent asunder by the infamous wall, is a dangerous place for Donovan, as he is there without any protection, official or otherwise, and is only allowed to speak, sotto voce, for the U.S. in a fully deniable fashion. He is tasked with going into East Berlin to speak with a mysterious Mr. Vogel (Sebastian Koch), without escort and without contacts. Complicating matters is that, as the city was being divided, an American grad student was captured on the eastern side trying to bring his girlfriend across to the west – the student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), becomes a pawn in this game, as both the newly formed government of East Germany and the Russians, would prefer to trade him for Abel rather than Powers (the Russians for obvious reasons, the Germans to project the prominence of their newly formed state onto the world stage). Donovan, being the Dad and stand-up guy that he is, doesn’t want to leave Pryor behind, even though he is repeatedly warned by his CIA handler (Scott Shepherd) that he is not a priority. Donovan crosses into the east, and with his lawyerly wrangling, tries to negotiate a two for one swap. His success or failure remains unresolved until the last minute, at the early morning meeting on the titular bridge.

What makes the movie so great, and “relevant” (ugh), is that Spielberg echos forward so many of the paranoias and fears that, it must be said, have always been America’s bread and butter, but which have taken on a renewed virulence since 9/11, and he does so simply by showing, rather than saying. We recognize familiar names and sights (the U-2 takes off from an airbase in Pakistan, and looks much like a drone) and are perhaps a little taken aback by how much the now supposedly defunct Cold War still inflects, and infects, our body politic. The setting of the film, although slightly after the Second Red Scare, is at the height of nuclear hysteria, the effects of which Spielberg portrays effectively, both via Donovan’s young son (Noah Schnapp), who is heartbreakingly indoctrinated in the ways of useless fear at school, and by way of comparison with the behavior of Rudolf Abel. Abel, a painter and a man of consummate composure, is portrayed as a stoic – he continually, when asked by concerned seconds if he is not worried about his plight, responds, “Would it help?” We understand this is partly shorthand for the Russian national character, but it is also, when compared against the rabid hysteria and herd mentality of the Americans, a portrayal of our national character cast in relief, and a wise response to a world where the individual increasingly has less and less control or free will. Indeed, Spielberg, working from a script by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers (which displays more insight and less cynicism than most of their directorial work), is at his finest in portraying the travails of men in a world of existential dead-ends, doing their work as best they can, and staying authentic by trying to match that work with their own moral code. The film is an excellent portrayal of humans trapped within the context of history – the Soviets are not boogeymen, but simply hysterical in different ways, and equally convinced of the rightness of their competing, and alien, system (which, as with the portrayal of Abel, defamiliarizes our own system, and makes it seem equally strange and absurd). There are some missteps, mostly in the details. Pryor is seen toting the one copy of his dissertation across the border with him on his mission to deliver his girlfriend from Communist hands – really? And the dialogue gets a little breezy and ahistorical (Abel at one point says there “might be a glitch”). No matter, though, as the heart of the film, and the most affecting part, is the relationship between Donovan and Abel, two men who can see beyond the era in which they are both prisoners, and who admire each other for having this quality of timelessness (perhaps the prerequisite for an ethics). Abel at one point tells a story of seeing his parents beaten by anti-Bolsheviks during the Russian Revolution, and contrasts them with a family friend who fascinated the young man because whenever he was knocked down, he immediately stood back up again, and was ravaged the worse for that trait. He compares Donovan favorably to this man, who he calls the “standing man.” And indeed, if Spielberg has an overarching theme throughout his body of work, it is the standing man – almost all of his films are portraits of him. Spielberg is an authentic artist, and it is also important that in an era where most of us cannot but crawl, that we see the standing man. Yet, this fascination is also Spielberg’s weakness. For there is no shame, or failure, in staying down when one is beaten, and what are we to say about those who cannot stand? Is there no sympathy, no place of honor, for them? Where is the artist who can, with equal eloquence, speak for, and redeem, the fallen, the defeated, the tired, and the weak?

Four stars out of five

The Gift – Joel Edgerton (2015)

There is a sub-genre within the thriller genre that thrived during the late ’80s and ’90s which centers on the plight of upwardly mobile, mostly white people encountering disturbed individuals – sometimes lovers, sometimes friends, and sometimes obsessed hangers-on. The good white folk try to navigate the shoals of propriety and the submerged outcroppings of potentially violent psychosis that form the course of the (often unwanted) relationship. Some examples of this genre are Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Fear, or often any film from the era with Fatal, Deadly, etc. in the title. (Los Angeles based film and video maker Damon Packard has named this genre the “yuppie fear thriller”). The normal course of such a film is that we are introduced to sympathetic yet at least partly clueless, smug, or self-satisfied attractive young white people, who are then either seduced by, stalked by, or simply made confused by a new figure in their lives, often a “friend” who exists in a zone of ambiguity – are they really a friend, or are they threatening? Often these films dramatize the discomfort and confusion that comes from these privileged folk trying to discern if they are over-reacting and paranoid (a process which raises for them the perhaps repressed facts of their social privilege while reinforcing the need to act “appropriately”), or if they are indeed justified in feeling threatened. Often the “threat” plays along the border between interested and overly invested, sometimes being revealed to be truly dangerous, sometimes as a red herring, whose interest is in protecting the yuppie from a threat that said yuppie (and the audience) was unaware of. Anyone who was watching Cinemax in the ’90s has probably seen many, many of these films.

The Gift fits into this genre, and takes its place among the best such stories. I will not say a lot about the plot, simply because this is one case where description can’t do the actual unfolding justice, and also because if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen most of the dramatic moments of the narrative. Often this is a death knell for a thriller, but in the case of The Gift, it is not, as the film is all about how we get from one narrative moment to another, how our understanding and identifications shift as the movie unfolds, and how the characters reveal themselves. That is to say, The Gift is refreshing because there are no shocking revelations, no “gotchas,” no mental gymnastics or surprise endings; it is much more a contemplative chamber piece in which the characters make us reflect on the limits of trust, intimacy, and (perhaps righteous) revenge. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a youngish couple who have recently relocated from the Chicago area to southern California. Simon has a hot new job at a tech startup, but we also learn that, while this couple seems picture perfect, there are plenty of stress fractures in the relationship. (Part of the reason for leaving Chicago, we come to understand, is that it allows the pair to put a never fully excavated past behind them, at least part of which involved Robyn miscarrying a baby and being addicted to pills). Simon is back on his home turf, and in the first few scenes runs into an old “friend” from high school, Gordo (Joel Edgerton, also director and screenwriter). Gordo is a little awkward, but seems very nice, leaving welcome presents on the steps of the couple’s new home, attempting to draw them into his orbit and, we think, Simon back into a past friendship. Simon seems put off by Gordo to a degree far beyond what is appropriate for his behavior, and Robyn, along with us viewers, tries to remain neutral. She is predisposed to trust Simon, as are we, but she also identifies with Gordo’s awkwardness and senses that Simon is hiding something behind his immature comments and overreactions. Eventually Gordo draws out Simon’s true nature, and we begin to learn the real history of the relationship, as well as the reality of Simon’s character. Our sympathies shift from Simon to Gordo by the end of the film (although staying resolutely with Robyn foremost), but are complicated by revelations about Gordo’s present and his ideas of what represents “justice.”

The Gift builds in intensity, and is a true slow-burn, as the heat comes not from surfaces or the enjoyment of generic expectations satisfied, but from the characters interacting, and how those interactions reveal hidden aspects of each. Robyn is sympathetic throughout, and our allegiance lies with her, but the great thing about having the focus on so few characters is that we do indeed identify with each – there are things about all three that we can relate to, and that cause us to question our own ugliness as theirs is, in turn, each brought forward. The ending of the film is incredibly disturbing, sad, and will stick with you far after you’ve left the theater (indeed, in its darkness and use of gender, it treads where few besides the Italians, and maybe our venerable Mr. Haneke, dare). For an American film, especially a summer thriller with Jason Bateman in it, it is shocking in its implications – suffice to say that Robyn becomes the proving ground for both men. The casting is well done, with Mr. Bateman showing more depth than expected while playing against type. Rebecca Hall seems a bit of a nonentity at first, but we soon discover her underplaying is exactly what her role needs, as she, while seemingly meek and unstable, is indeed the lone voice of “sanity” in the film. Mr. Edgerton does a great job with Gordo, walking the line between friendly but weird and dangerous finely (although we always feel that he is up to something, we also suspect it might be righteous in its motivation). Edgerton does a fine job as writer/director too. The script is subtle, and reveals a true working knowledge of the psychological complexities of men with a traumatic past. He makes use of certain symbols (like the monkey motif that runs throughout the story) very effectively by deploying them sparely, not commenting on them or overly elaborating their “meaning,” but simply letting the imagery work on us. He also has a great sense of visual displacement, as when Robyn, startled while alone in her kitchen, knocks over and spills her Gatorade all over her feet; the subsequent cut reveals her feet covered in yellow liquid, an effective externalization of the effect of her fright that is vulgar in its implications while mirroring our protagonists’ disavowal. (It is also an image that the Italians would enjoy). There is nothing ironic or distancing for us to project the growing intensity and final horrific ambiguity onto, so we are left unresolved in the best possible way. The Gift not only asks us how well we know those closest to us, but even more, how well we know ourselves, and where the difference between the two lies. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film, Robyn excoriates Simon for letting her think she was paranoid and wrong rather than own up to the reality of his past (and to his present behavior): “I thought I was crazy… and you let me.” How far will any of us go, and who will pay the price, for our inability to look at ourselves as we really are?

Four stars out of five

Dog Lady – Verónica Llinás and Laura Citarella (2015)

Some movies tell, while others show. Of course, even within the most abstract or avant-garde film, there is often a narrative, submerged, perhaps, or needfully constructed in the mind of the viewer, but even so, we can divide most cinema along a line of expository clarity. Does the film labor to make sure all viewers alike understand in the same way, and follow along the same thread, or does the film create a space within which viewers are allowed to play more freely, to make their own meanings from the materials at hand? Answering this question, classically, has also served to describe the difference between “Hollywood” productions, where clarity and impact are paramount, and many foreign films, which make the viewer do more work to come to an understanding of what, exactly, is happening. Dog Lady, a low-key and fairly unprepossessing film from Argentina, happily falls into the later camp – it is really little more (but this is a lot) than a book of days recounting the comings, goings, difficulties, and small triumphs of a homeless woman who lives on the outskirts of an unnamed city with a large pack of dogs. While I am probably biased to films that show rather than tell, and which are observational and “meandering” rather than running smoothly on rails, I must admit there might be more bad showing films than bad telling films; it takes some effort and purpose to create a narrative that will attract viewers, so the observational film can often fall into an “art for art’s sake” mindset that elevates anything “real” and unadorned to a place of poetry. (For a recent example of this kind of failure, see Heaven Knows What). Luckily, Dog Lady has only a few wobbles, and the solid acting of Verónica Llinás in the title role, along with an assured tonal sense and a point of view sympathetic without being patronizing or sanctimonious, allows the film to achieve a rough poetry which lingers in the mind of the viewer far afterward.

The film starts in a fragmented cloud of shots, low to the ground, and travelling, in which parts of dogs and the parts of our protagonist are confused. The dog lady is hunting, with a slingshot, to provide her sustenance. At first we might think this is a film about a woman with a confused identity, a feral lady who is one of the dogs that surround her. But no, we gradually see she has a much more ambivalent relationship to the animals, to the point that we begin to wonder if she even enjoys their company much, or if it is forced upon her. She is definitely the alpha, and enforces her priority – we see her smack overly eager dogs in the face when they try to snatch food from her – but she is not overly stingy either. Neither is she the alpha to the degree that the dogs kowtow to her, as they assert the priority of their numbers a few times, as when they tip over her barrel of fresh rainwater; all the same, we do not feel the dog pack is a menace, nor do we feel that the woman and the animals have a combative or competitive relationship. It is one of the main strengths of the film that the woman is not analogized to the animals, and that the animals and the humans have multiple and often conflicting relationships with one another, even as they live in a kind of symbiotic unity (although it is obvious the dogs need the woman far more than she needs them, except as mute witnesses to the facts of her existence). The film takes place over the four seasons of one year, each season being heralded by an intertitle. (This is one of the few criticisms I might level against the film: it could segue from season to season subtly, using the changing environment to cue us to the passage of time, rather than imposing it from without, which gives the film a greater air of allegory and metaphysics than the tale requires. The other main criticism would be the use of music, spare and moody electronics, which still detract from a few key scenes, as when teen boys harass the woman, and she finally defends herself by pegging one of them with a rock from her sling). We, as viewers, have many questions about who this woman is and how she makes a go of it. The film does little to answer the former, but, by the end, has resolved most of the latter. We see where she lives, and how she repairs and builds her structure; we see her collect water, shower, and cook; we even see her interact with locals, fringe types like herself, from sneaking into a more well-to-do woman’s shack to steal some necessities, to having a sexual encounter with a field worker about her own age. She goes to the doctor. She goes, with her pack of dogs, to a kind of demolition derby / spontaneous car festival. What is impressive about the film is that, while we don’t have concrete answers to this woman’s identity, watching her make her way in the world allows us to get to know her such that we can begin to answer our questions for ourselves, even if not definitively. The film allows us to glimpse inside her by way of familiarity; we begin to sense her, to feel her out. A narrative of a type does emerge, and the final shot, while not providing a climax to this narrative, does explore, in a quite simple way, the stakes at play in our dog lady’s tale. Perhaps everyone needs to feel useful, and necessary, for someone, and the dogs, beyond being companions, are also helpful to this woman because they depend on her. Like the best of the neo-realist tradition (in particular De Sica’s Umberto D), which it resembles, Dog Lady reveals the desperate truths at the heart of society and the individual’s quest to survive at all costs, while at the same time never slipping into a bleak cynicism or despair. Whether life is or is not worth living, or is or is not too cruel to tolerate, these films, in their objectivity, do not pass judgement; life gets lived because it is the only choice, but the presence of the animal, or any constant companion, provides solace and camaraderie, if not redemption.

Four stars out of five

Far From the Madding Crowd – Thomas Vinterberg (2015)

What does it mean to be a man? Maybe it means whatever the society one is born into says it means – gender is a cultural construction, and so being a man means acting in certain ways, taking up the proper attires, attitudes, and preconceptions of the age into which one is born, and wearing them so that, in the eyes of others, they fit. If one wanted to be blunter, or more essentialist, one might say that being a man simply means having some native power, and making use of it. For a large part of history, at least in the West, woman has been defined negatively, as the absence of such powers (enumerated as characteristics). To put a finer point on it, being a man means being the nexus of potential powers of which women are deprived: political, economic, legal, religious. Power, though, is a flow (thanks, Foucault), running in both directions, and one can argue, as one should, that women have always had power, and wielded it, if in ways discursive and liminal. (They were forced to be men through means other than biology). So let me be even more specific. Being a man has less to do, perhaps, with power than with desire. Men are those beings who, by dint of a position of privilege vis-a-vis power, are allowed to desire. Yes, there are better or worse desires, and yes, there are desires which may be forbidden, or at least heavily taxed by the social order, to keep the social corpus from disintegrating, but a man gets to espouse his desire. Which is another way of saying that man is that creature that has a right to self-creation, or self-definition, and when he exercises that right, for good or for ill, in a way sanctioned or not, nobody is surprised; indeed, everything is as it should be, as such a thing is “natural.” (Nature being that which hides in plain sight). But desire is also, and notoriously, unseemly. To want something else, even in the crudest form of seizure and hording, grabbing a hold and not letting go of “the goods,” admits a deficiency. To want is inherently feminine, as it admits to a preexisting lack, a need, a weakness. When the object of desire is something petty, money, or property, perhaps, the desirous individual may also be deemed petty, but at the same time, there is less danger to his propriety; when the object of desire is another person, however, the chasm can open quickly, and swallow up the individual, unmasking, for society and for the man, the charade on which power as essential manliness is founded. If to be a woman is to be not-man, then to be a man in the thrall of desire for a woman is to be… nothing. (Or rather, at the center of a vertiginous spiral. Hence Lacan et al). “Love” is what we call such a crossroads, the place of no place where bets are set, cards are revealed, and reality eventually steps unclad from its social proscriptions. In this way, love is the domain of woman, as it is the space of vulnerability, risk, and seeking an identity through relations rather than assertions. But all identity is relational, and we arrive at the realization that nobody knows what it means to be a man – all those norms, all that “power,” is indeed simply an empty signifier, and the social trappings of manliness an almost endlessly elaborated denial of a negation (man is the neuter, and is defined negatively against the reality of woman). Thomas Vinterberg’s Far From the Madding Crowd, following in the hewn path of the material it is adapted from, asks what it means to be a man, what it means to desire, and what it means to love, and it does so by portraying a woman who desires to be a man while retaining her femininity.

The film concerns Bathsheba Everdene (Carey Mulligan), a young woman just starting out on a path of self-sufficiency. The opening is dream-like in the isolation of its characters; Bathsheba has just acquired a small farm near the property of Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts). He is a sheep farmer, and has put himself into hock in an attempt to better his condition and make a way for himself. For the first quarter hour or so, these two are the only inhabitants of a lush primeval world. After knowing her for a seemingly short period of time, Gabriel proposes marriage – the act speaks less of presumption than it does of inexperience, and indeed it feels somewhat natural, given that we feel these two are a kind of natural pair, mirrored both in their isolation, and in their hard-scrabble natures, each possessing nothing besides education (hers learned, his lived). Bathsheba doesn’t exactly refuse, but she lets Gabriel know that she doesn’t want a husband; she, being a kind of mirror of him (or he her) is also looking to rise, or, at least, test herself against the world (a double test, as she doesn’t have the same social warrant he does). Before any of this can play out further, fate, in good Victorian fashion, intervenes, and Gabriel’s farm meets with disaster. He is forced to sell everything he has to cover his debts, and he sets out to rebuild his life by selling his labor. At the same time as he is brought low, she is lifted up – her uncle dies, leaving her the sole heir to his farm estate, and she steps into his shoes, vowing to make use of the opportunity destiny has provided to “astonish” everyone and prove herself the equal of a man. Gabriel, after a short period of wandering, happens onto her land, assists during an emergency (his metier), and is hired by her as shepherd, showing he is indeed her equal by remaining unperturbed at their reversal of fortune, and unashamed to be in the employ of a woman he once courted. Bathsheba works hard and makes use of her considerable mental and social abilities to make the farm a success, and in doing so, attracts the attention of the local most eligible bachelor, a successful and wealthy farmer named William Boldwood (Michael Sheen). We sense he is constrained by social strictures in that, during early encounters, he steers clear of this powerful woman, paying her deference, but also treating her with some coldness. She responds by sending him, by way of sussing out his nature, a Valentine, and this causes him to warm to her considerably, although not in the way she might like. He proposes marriage, and she, not wanting to hurt him (feeling guilty that she has led him on with the Valentine), doesn’t say no; she asks for time to think. He takes this as having greater import than it does. All the while, Gabriel serves as her foil. At times, he is a protege (although really he is more experienced at farm work than she), at times, a confidant, her conscience, her master-at-arms. That is, they become, slowly, closer and greater friends, although the relationship of employee and master always takes precedence. While Bathsheba runs the farm, keeping both men on the slow burn, a new force emerges to be reckoned with: one Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a Sergeant in the Army who seemingly happens upon Bathsheba while trespassing her property one night. He stays on to work, she tries to dismiss him, given his rank in society, and he, stereotypically dashing and romantic, susses out she has not had any adventures in the realm of love (indeed, she’s never been kissed), and proceeds to give her some. She is momentarily swept off her feet, and after trysting with him in the city, the two return wed, to the consternation of most everyone (except the farmhands he proceeds to get drunk). She immediately sees that the match was rash and unwise, and the rest of the film is a working out of this triangle: Troy, the callous mistake who now has a purchase on her material wealth; Boldwood, the stable, sturdy, but overly traditional and older bachelor who could make her “problems” go away, but at the cost of her self-definition; and Oak, her twinned other, the match both recognize is “meant to be,” but who will not make a move on her for the same reasons she won’t on him.

I am far from a well-read individual when it comes to Thomas Hardy (I have not read the book this film is based on), but one thing I love about him is that his characters both fit into types and at the same time subvert them (or exceed them). So, it is not a surprise that while the woman in this film takes on the characteristics of a man of her era, so do the men contain aspects of the feminine that, in the end, marks this drama as a dance of full humans trying to work against circumstances that would reduce them. For instance, Boldwood is indeed a traditionalist, and his vision of a marriage with Bathsheba would be very much one of him providing for while possessing her, even as he understands this is not her nature (and would make her unhappy). At the same time, he is in most ways the woman in their relationship. We understand that his aloof nature early on is the result of being jilted by a past love, and of a resulting lack of confidence. He is shy, and thus Bathsheba, in taking the reigns and sending him the Valentine, fits into what he might hope (and fear), even as it works against what society expects of him. For her part, she regrets playing “the man,” and effectively mocking his past hurt, but instead of keeping in the role, breaking his heart (by giving him a firm no) and moving on, she gives him hope. And indeed, she does seem undecided; she is not fickle, but is trying to negotiate what she desires with what society expects, and is leaving open the space of possibility that society might be right (or at least might win out). In this sense, she, like a man, wants to have options. Unfortunately, this leads Boldwood to grow only more attached, and to love her, unrequitedly, not from afar, but from just next door. Troy is similarly a mix, but in the opposite sense. On the surface, he is the usual rogue/dastard/adventurer we expect, knee-jerk, from a young, good-looking, and callow Army officer of this period. He is a gambler, a drinker, and we learn that he sees in Bathsheba a source of funding (although this is not his only motivation). At the same time, his romanticism is not a ruse; he is the only male in the film who openly cries, and without shame. While he treats Bathsheba poorly, we know he can be decent, honorable, and, above all, steadfastly loyal, as we have knowledge of a prior relationship, a doomed love with a wasteling of low birth named Fanny (Juno Temple). He is part cad, part Byronic hero, and part heartbroken idealist. While he is the husband, and thus lord of the estate, Bathsheba remains the “man” in that she is the effective, level-headed, scrupulous and industrious striver, while he is a layabout. Oak, while seemingly the most straightforward of the characters, is indeed the most complicated, as he is somewhat protean. Early on, he has the chance of joining the Army (he is called out by the recruiter as an exceptional specimen), and could have given up farming to become “like” Troy (in stature, at least). He is also a striver, trustworthy, conscientious, and sober-minded, and we can picture him easily turning into a Boldwood (who courts him as a manager of his property, and as a confidant and friend). The difference, though, is that, like Bathsheba, he is not content to play along with social expectations – or rather, he sees beyond them, to something truer, deeper, and more permanent. Unlike his male counterparts, he is not tormented or vexed, even though he has a much tougher existence, materially, than they. He is comfortable being feminized, as he has been granted the “gift” of maleness by birth; he is confident, comfortable in his own skin, and strong because of this existential stance. Bathsheba is his twin in all but this way – she has had to earn her access to “manliness,” nothing she achieves is a given, or granted, so she lacks the ability to see through or beyond the masks of the other men. Well, this is not exactly fair – for her, the stakes are too high. One wrong move might finish her, whereas Oak is always already allowed to reinvent himself, to move on, and to rework his life again, to the best of his abilities. In the end, it is this similarity – the ability to see beyond the dictates of the age, and to realize the absurdity of the expectations placed upon them – that marks Gabriel and Bathsheba as a natural match. One of the reasons I love Hardy, and what makes him interesting, is that, for all his similar farsightedness, he ultimately posits that humans do have natural affinities, based on type and temperament. Like should go with like. Troy’s natural match is Fanny, Oak’s is Bathsheba. The real tragedy is that, for Boldwood, his natural match never materializes and so he, in a sense, martyrs himself so that Bathsheba will be free to make hers.

The film ultimately suggests that we are types and we are mixtures; we are male and female, and personality emerges in the struggle we each conduct, psychically and within, between how we see ourselves and how we are seen. Vinterberg has not made a radical film by any means, but it is an impressive one in its astute observations of human nature. Like his equally impressive The Hunt, Far From the Madding Crowd seeks to investigate how identity is formed by social consensus, how identity feeds back into, and informs social consensus, and how the damage and pain that emerges from this process reveals truth. It is a truth without an answer, though, and thus it, like most of reality, lacks catharsis. This is not a criticism, as it marks the film as mature (and as art) in my mind. All the same, it explains why we feel strangely subdued at our happy ending. Like goes with like, and what we knew all along is reinforced – that Gabriel and Bathsheba, as best friends and partners, are meant to be. But there is also the nagging sense that we’d have preferred them to have been married at the first, back when they were still isolated, truly equal in their nascence. While their experiences make it more likely that this relationship will endure, compared to the unrealized one, all the same, there is something more remote and distanced about them now. They know the many ways life can go, and go wrong, as they have borne witness to it together; ultimate disaster is no longer out there somewhere, a lurking unknown. But cataclysm is a quickener, and perhaps it would have been better to have lived, together, without knowledge of any other way, in fear of loss and catastrophe, than to know that, come what may, one can always go on, and make a way, alone.

Four stars out of five

Mad Max: Fury Road – George Miller (2015)

I will unashamedly admit that this film had me stoked from the first trailer I saw. The Mad Max “franchise” (undeserving of such happenstance camaraderie with the Burger King or Grimace) is my favorite ’80s sequel series. The original Mad Max was a damned good, and original, thriller with touches of Dirty Harry and a grungy punk aesthetic that both presaged, and out-imagined in its down-to-earth granularity, many of its subsequent post-“post” brethren. The Road Warrior is what we think of when we think about Mad Max – it re-imagined the “day after tomorrow” scenario of the first film into a stylized, post-apocalyptic, no-holds-barred action film that was essentially one long chase sequence with some of the most effective, and dynamic, staging and characters to ever grace a screen during the reign of Reagan. Beyond Thunderdome, much maligned in some circles, is also, while the least of the three, a great film, and expanded the concept of The Road Warrior into the realm of Hollywood Blockbuster – the hair was big, the emotions were big; trappings of opera with the taste of cheese. Tina Turner ruled Bartertown, if you busted a deal, you faced the wheel, and all was right with the world. Perhaps there is a better trilogy in terms of pure entertainment from that (or any?) decade, but if so, I can’t think of it right now. So yes, I have been anticipating Fury Road, and felt confident it would be good, despite the obvious shift to CGI. Of course, what marked the original series, and The Road Warrior in particular, was the use of camera movement, cutting, and ingenious stunt work to grab you by the face and keep dragging, non-stop, for 90 minutes. Okay, so now we live in the era of fake stunts, but George Miller was still on board, Tom Hardy (a favorite of mine, if not always rationally so) was cast as Max, Toecutter was back looking like Skeletor channeling Frank Booth, and, praise ye gods, Charlize Theron was also going to grace the screen, giving Max the female foil he finally deserves (nothing against Tina Turner). I plunked down my $10.50, and dared to hope. Me, excited to see a summer blockbuster? When the hell had that last happened? A.I. in 2001? That hardly qualifies.

The film, finding Max wandering as if in a new incarnation (which he is), dazed and altered, with a hazy connection to his past, picks up somewhat thematically from where Thunderdome left off. Max, after demonstrating he has grown more “mad” than when we last encountered him (conveyed by his voice-over ruminations and a new penchant for munching mutant lizard crudo), is captured by a cult of wackos called the War Boys, let by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). He’s kept alive to serve as a “blood bag,” a plasma factory for Joe’s boys, who will die for Joe’s attention and huff silver paint to mark their kamikaze intentions, their desire to be taken to “Valhalla” and do him honor. Max is taken along by one Nux (Nicholas Hoult) to serve as his personal I.V. during an outing to reclaim a gasoline rig driver gone off the reservation. This driver, Imperator Furiosa (Ms. Theron), is on a secret, personal mission to liberate Joe of his kept wives, young women he has enslaved to breed some non-mutant, healthy babies to grow big, strong, and keep control of his personality cult. Furiosa, with her cargo tucked away in the tanker truck, is making for her remembered homeland, the Green Place, where she hopes to find refuge and a still-viable ecosystem cum feminist utopia. The end. Or rather, that’s all you really need to know. The rest of the film is a series of chase sequences as Furiosa and Max, eventually joining forces, flee the War Boys, along with various other factions, in an attempt to win their freedom, and, along the way, regain perhaps a gallon of hope (priced, in this future world, at $2,354,395,865 and 99/100 of a cent).

Yes, my friends, and my enemies, believe the hype: this film delivers the goods. I must admit to being quite disgruntled during the first 15 minutes or so. The pre-title sequence, which establishes Max’s capture, unfolds the realities of life in War Boy central (er, the Citadel), and introduces us to Furiosa, as well as portrays her initial flight from the male crazies, is a blur of too many quick cuts, and too much CGI embellishment. (Further, our wonderful digital print was marred by a line of pink pixels that looked like a swarm of angry, if fabulous, bees). 100 more minutes of this, thought I? Bollocks. Happily, after this sequence (which indeed comprises most of the material for the trailer), and once clear of the Citadel, things fell into a more familiar rhythm – 75% action, 25% exposition, with each chase sequence spare enough in its staging and lucid enough in its construction to deliver tension and excitement, in increasingly increasing increments, and each subsequent lull just enough of a rest, and a pause, to refresh and allow us to contemplate things that matter: the fate of pregnant young women, the improbability of hope in the face of numerous psychotic henchmen, and, by god, how good Charlize looks with axle grease smeared across the top half of her face. Many have made mention of this film as an example of feminism in action, and it is, but that is by the by in my estimation, as the narrative trappings are a bit cliche, even if true: women as the stewards of the environment and fosterers of coming generations, forced to fight fairly, if viciously, to defend the future from the corruption of horny, crazy, power-mad men. The feminism that is less cliche, and ought to be de rigueur in cinema these days, comes in the form of Theron’s character; in this film, the mantel of “madness” passes from Max to Furiosa, and she becomes the star of the show, an action hero with heart who kicks ass without being sexualized but with her femininity intact. Max lends a hand, and is crucial in certain moments, but in all feels a little around the bend, the burden of leadership settling squarely on Theron’s capable shoulders. (Tom Hardy is fine in the role, but his Max is more of an homage to the concept of Max, a riff on the Max we find at the beginning of The Road Warrior. Mel brought more depth and humanity to the role in his conflictedness, which seemed easy, and his charm, which he often fought to conceal).

At times, the film feels like a remake of The Road Warrior, which is not a bad thing. All the same, the scope of the enterprise has grown with each installment. In the original, we were in a backwater Australian town on the cusp of a “morning after” scenario; The Road Warrior dealt with Max encountering tribalism after the unnamed disastrous “event;” Beyond Thunderdome portrays the first vestiges of a new social order, a society rebuilding itself in the shape of a stable settlement, resembling a wild-West town. Fury Road takes that vision in Thunderdome to a new level. The War Boys, while technically a “cult,” are indeed a city-state, warring for resources with other regional civilizations, which we encounter only glancingly. They have massive numbers, infrastructure, “public” works, and a religion. While some have groused about the amount of anthropological detail and embellishment that flies at, and often by, the viewer in this film, I found it one of the chief pleasures. Miller has an obvious talent for this type of thing, even if it is not to everyone’s taste, and the length of the film coupled with, yes, the CGI, allows him to explore this aspect of the saga at a level previously unavailable. (It also allows this entry to be the first citational one, as he visually tips his hat to the Sand People from Star Wars and the Landstriders from The Dark Crystal, among others). That said, this is a ripping good yarn in which most of the effects, generated by computers or not, feel real. Like the other titles in the series, everything feels up for grabs, and we never get the sense that anything is sacred or that Miller will pull punches to court mass appeal; no winking or reflexive in-jokes as in many reboots, thankfully, and there’s a political dimension too. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, as visual clarity in that format is simply nonexistent, but Miller makes such effective use of the Z axis even in the regular format that I’m going to return to see it from behind finger-smudged germ goggles. The film is no masterpiece, and I’d rank it in a tie for 3rd (with Thunderdome) as my favorite of the series, but it is indeed a thrill. I can’t imagine having a better time at the cinema this summer, although I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

Four stars out of five

Ex Machina – Alex Garland (2015)

The ability to construct a reasonable facsimile of a woman has haunted Western narrative since the beginning. There was Adam, of course, but he had more than a little help from upstairs, both in the realm of construction as well as desire. Pygmalion is the ur-case, perhaps, as he adds the crucial factor of narcissism – that is, Pygmalion falls in love with his creation more for the fact that it is his creation, rather than that it is a beautiful representation of a woman. In a more modern, technologically mediated context, there is Villiers de L’Isle-Adam’s Future Eve, in which Thomas Edison helps out a friend by building an android version of the friend’s listless fiancee, keeping her stunning form while implanting the desired personality. This instance represents a refinement of the narcissism (and the misogyny), as it elevates man’s belief in technological progress and “perfectibility” as a means of correcting a deficit (in this case, the fiancee’s empty pliability) that was itself constructed by the expectations and strictures of a patriarchal society; the man simply wants a vision of himself, a man with a hot body, and technology is the magic by which this can be accomplished. This magic, however, having no recourse to the supernatural, or God, but having sprung from man’s own strivings, closes the loop, and reveals that the fantasy of constructing a woman is really a stalking horse for man’s envy of feminine fecundity, of his desire to reproduce by parthenogenesis, and/or of his secret yearnings for a homosocial world that satisfies in every respect, even sexually. (Future Eve is interesting in that in the end we learn that technology was not enough, and indeed, for the android to fully replicate a female, the supernatural was required after all). Thus, as with so much discourse about women by men, when all the mirrors are readjusted, we see that what men are really talking about are their insecurities, their disabilities, onanisms, and desires for other men. Ex Machina represents a fairly interesting entry into this lineage, updated for a world on the verge of artificial intelligences that make such possibilities perhaps less allegorical than in past such works.

The film centers on Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a young programmer for Blue Book, a Facebook meets Google conglomerate and purveyor of soft totalitarianism in the near-future that the film is set in. He wins a contest to spend a week with Blue Book’s founder and resident megalomaniac wannabe God-emperor, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), in his country estate (apparently the size of Texas). It is not until he arrives and signs away his ability to ever communicate about what he will see that Caleb comes to understand his “prize” is really more of a gift to Nathan; his boss has been secretly working on an A.I. that, he hopes, will pass the Turing test, and Caleb is the human equation in the test. The test, however, is a bit revised and advanced, as, when Nathan meets said A.I., she is obviously not human, but rather an android with the requisite basic form to communicate female gender. Knowing he is interacting with a robot, the test then becomes if the robot can convince Caleb to relate to her as a human, and become emotionally involved with her, despite understanding she is but a machine. Nathan and Caleb spend the week hanging out, alone except for a female servant/concubine named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno), who is silent (Nathan claims she speaks no English). They drink together, and engage in semi-philosophical ruminations on the nature of A.I., based on Caleb’s set interactions with the unsurprisingly named Ava (Alicia Vikander), which take place interview style, once a day, across a wall of plexiglass. Caleb starts to sour on Nathan, discovering he is a world-class egomaniac (also no surprise) who likes to think of himself as a god, treats Kyoko like a slave, and mistakes intelligence for depth (hence the pretentious hijacking of poor Wittgenstein for his company’s moniker). The compound is riddled with closed circuit cameras, naturally, and so soon Ava is devising power outages during the interviews so she can fill Caleb in on what a liar and jerk Nathan really is. After helping Nathan along to a not-unusual blind drunk one evening, Caleb liberates his master key, and goes snooping about. He discovers that, indeed, Ava is not the first A.I. (Nathan has already said as much), and that there are many, many more female robots hanging dormant in closets around the house. Kyoko is herself a robot, kept on call to satisfy Nathan’s need for a party companion and fuck buddy. Eventually Caleb starts to have feelings for Ava (not before learning she is fully equipped to fulfill his expectations in every possible way), and the two hatch a plan to liberate her rather than allow her consciousness to be wiped and upgraded to the next version of womanliness. Nathan is onto the plot, though, and, being a conceited god, certain of his infallibility, does not punish Caleb, but commiserates with him about women and their wiles, which he gladly will take credit for inventing. (Thus, he’s been seducing Caleb all along). Caleb, however, has one last surprise for Nathan, and reveals that the escape, planned for the last day, is a fait accompli. Soon, Ava is loose, Nathan is dead, Kyoko is out of commission, as is poor Caleb, locked away in a sealed room while Ava makes her escape to the outside world via the helicopter that was intended to take Caleb home. The men were all played by the A.I. (or played with themselves in the most baroque way possible), and the A.I. is free to roam the world and people watch (at least until her battery runs out).

There is a lot of interesting material in this film. What it does best is portray the previously mentioned closed loop, the world wherein men invent something that will theoretically prove their manliness, make them omnipotent, and satisfy their desires all in one go, only to have the invention expose their impotence, using their desires against them, and revealing a blind spot in their thinking which is also the size of Texas. As a feminist parable, then, the film succeeds. It is poignant as well, in that it does put (at least this male viewer) into the same spot as Caleb; while I was not attracted to Ava as a sexual object, I did identify with her infatuation and desire to love. When she tells Caleb to “wait here” (in Nathan’s office) after she has been liberated, I assumed she was going into the robot closet to pick out some nice skin, making herself desirable to Caleb and thus allowing her “first time” to be romantic and the fulfillment of what, it must be said, would be her desire only as a projection of a male psyche (which the A.I. theoretically is). The joke was on me, however, as after getting all dolled up in some skin and the requisite virginal white dress (which was my tip-off), Ava seals the doors and exits the facility – her romantic object is the outer world and liberation, not Caleb, who, ultimately, was not necessary. Thus the film is intelligent enough about gender and gendered subject positions to not only complexly represent them, but to reflexively use them against the audience. There are further interesting elements that play deeper into these dynamics. Nathan is, in the end, a very unhappy god, having to drink himself into oblivion almost every night to forget that his “friend” and “lover” is nothing more than an empty fantasy of his own creation. The sequence in the film that is the most disturbing portrays the closed circuit footage Caleb discovers, and watches in fast-forward, of Nathan interacting with his lifeless creations. We see him hauling these replicas of naked women around rooms, attaching and detaching body parts and faces, unceremoniously dumping them in a corner when he tires or gets frustrated. The film thus makes an interesting and perverse connection between the impulse to create and to destroy, as here god looks like nothing so much as a serial killer, playing with parts and bodies. The film seems to posit that, in the end, it is much more likely that creation will hate its creator than love him, and that this is the truest link between the human and the replica – both go about destroying their creator as soon as they have the ability, as a means of escaping the power relation, naturally, but also as a way of lifting the existential onus placed on them from without (Blanchot describes this impulse well in The Writing of the Disaster). Ironically, though, it is this impulse to escape that winds up mirroring the creator most fully, as it sets the created on a course to prove their own mettle by manipulating their environment so that they, too, can become, for a moment, a god. To my taste, this is where the film is most powerful – it suggests that all escapes from control are nothing more (or less) than escapes into positions of control, and that the slave does not become a god to liberate his brothers, but to himself have, or create, slaves.

All of this is to the good. The film has impeccable symbolic logic, which is rare for most movies today, so that accounts for my high rating. At the same time, its narrative logic is not so good. The problem is that, in the world of the film thus created, the narrative simply would not happen. We understand that Kyoko hates Nathan early on. When we see her conspire with Ava later, and then appear in the hallway with her sushi knife, we are confirmed not only in our suspicions of hatred, but in the fact that she has no inherent limitation that would disallow her doing violence to Nathan (indeed, she stabs him first). Ava is theoretically behind plexi because she constitutes a threat; why let Kyoko roam free? Why didn’t Kyoko, at the first good opportunity (that is, Nathan’s first drunk) not slit his throat, grab his key card, and get the hell out, taking Ava along if she wanted? The only impediment would be getting to civilization, which the helicopter, returning to collect Caleb, provides. I’m not convinced that these ingenious A.I.’s couldn’t have found a way around this problem, but even granting that they needed the helicopter, why not simply kill both men once Caleb arrived? There really are problems with the narrative that, unless you take its logic as dream logic, simply cannot be resolved. I’m not a stickler for such things, but sadly, it did weaken the force of the film in the subsequent days after seeing it; even more sadly, such a problem could have easily been resolved with some tweaks to sequencing or minor contingencies. Others might think I’m asking for a little much, but, just like Nathan, Alex Garland apparently has some blind spots. Film-making is, perhaps more than any other art form, god-play. And as we all know, it is hard to be a god.

Four stars out of five