Best of the 2000’s: #7

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– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

For David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, the Western code of protection hasn’t died as much as it has transformed into something far more complex, deceptive, and selfish, defining a modern world strictly divided by outward appearance and connected by interior conflict. In the film’s hypnotic opening long take, two men exit a motel room, gaze up at the sky then proceed to “check out.” The camera follows closely, oozing with menace but never confirming actual danger until Cronenberg cuts inside the motel office, revealing pools of blood and two dead bodies. When one unexpected survivor appears, the killer’s action is deliberate and swift. These men are “bad men”, plain and simple, unflinching and brutal in every respect, and they aren’t singular figures. Cronenberg’s universe is chalk full of them.

The whimpers of one doomed child lead to the screams of another, a young girl who awakens from a bad dream to the support of her family. Father Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen), mother Edie (Maria Bello), and son Jack (Ashton Holmes) encircle the little girl like covered wagons protecting a train of travelers, reassuring her that monsters don’t exist. Oh, but they do, and this dichotomy shows how action and violence transcend physical boundaries, slowly creeping along a landscape where safety is a myth and violence is a certainty.

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Like many revisionist Western heroes, Tom Stall is a family man of good standing in his small town community, the owner of a popular establishment and well liked by his peers. His family represents the American dream – a caring, devoted wife, and two seemingly innocent children. But something about the exaggerated locale and people feels forced, off-putting almost. Can it be this simple? Of course not, and when the two men from the first scene enter Tom’s diner, we know what to expect from them. What isn’t expected is Tom’s pinpoint deadly reaction, dispatching both men with a proficiency that calls into question his background. While certainly self-defense, Tom’s actions are too swift, too effective, and seem completely out of place on the homestead.

Cronenberg evolves this uncertainty of character throughout the rest of the invigorating narrative, forcing Tom and his family into a direct confrontation with the ugly reality of past events, furious demons rearing their ugly heads demanding payment in full. Each scene uses modern locales to confirm the Western iconography at their core. A shopping mall turns from a place of consumerism to a desperate stand off between mother and villain, and a school hallway illuminates a concise burst of unexpected violence between young men. Cronenberg complicates our expectations at every turn, most notably focusing on Tom’s eyes as they slowly change from simple hero to conflicted anti-hero, caring father to deliberate killer.

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The film infuses a brilliant third act with dynamic clashes between family, acts of retribution that clarify Cronenberg’s deconstruction of Western archetypes. Husband and wife contradict a previous act of love with an uncomfortable, loveless sex scene. Tom and his gangster brother (William Hurt) work out decades of repression and subtext in one bloody set piece. Finally, the traditional American family sits down together for one last supper, broken, changed, and warped by the reality that their exterior selves hardly match the brewing infusions of hatred and fear simmering inside. Their inability to look each other in the eyes becomes complimented by an ensuing dread of moving on together, in this house, as a family built on lies. But that might be better than nothing.

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A History of Violence is a nightmarish walk down memory lane, where characters compromise, murder, and deceive in order to protect an image of family, a shadow of togetherness. Surnames hold so much history, even when that history is built on fabricated versions of reality and dead bodies. Cronenberg dissects this idea with a razor sharp attention to human interaction, peeling away the layers of a man yearning for something more than murder and death, but dependent on it all the same. You can’t deny your true self, and Tom’s atypical homecoming holds none of the joy or celebration it should.

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Gone Poaching for Wild Things

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In what will be a regular gig over at Chazz Lyon’s excellent new blog Gone Cinema Poaching, I will be contributing weekly reviews of new films and the occasional long essay on various topics. It’s an exciting opportunity for me to branch out and explore new avenues of this fascinating business, so I’m looking forward to the increased workload. Not wasting any time, Chazz has already posted my first assignment, Spike Jonze’s fascinating and problematic Where the Wild Things Are, which you can find here.

I will continue to post on Match Cuts as always, with a plethora of new material in the coming weeks like posts on The Informant!, Eden Lake, the Korean gangster film Breathless, and A Serious Man, not to mention the continuing Best of the Decade Project. So here we go…

Best of the 2000’s: #8

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– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Andrew Stanton’s WALL•E begins with “Put On Your Sunday Clothes”, a tune from Hello Dolly that floods the outer reaches of space, paralleling images of staggering mystery with a simple, unassuming audible joy. The music bounces off vast corridors of darkness then down toward Earth’s orbit, breaking through a blanket of motionless satellites. As Stanton’s birds-eye view jettisons downward, the hazy horizon becomes overwhelmed with skyscrapers of trash, waste, and rusting objects of hollow consumerism, a place chalk full of ignored foreshadowing and void of human existence. Yet the music still resonates clearly, and WALL•E, a worker robot built to clean up the earth, emerges in fragments – first his worn tread, then his small hands, and finally his longing face – a daring emblem of personality amidst a desert of lifelessness.

In the dialogue-less opening act, Stanton brilliantly uses WALL•E’s fondness for show tunes and manmade objects to juxtapose the fall of mankind against an expression of playfulness and curiosity. WALL•E explores the city ruins just as he’s done for hundreds of years, touring for trinkets and piling up cubes of trash sky high, fulfilling a programmed duty while improvising and expanding his unique thought process. Through his actions, we piece together the inevitable decline of human existence – mass consumption, global warming, human evacuation – and revel in the quiet destitution of it all. It’s virtuosic filmmaking that relies on the pacing of image and ambient sound rather than special effects or exposition.

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Stanton’s introduction of EVE, the sleek futuristic object of WALL•E’s affection, shifts the film toward moments of slapstick and romantic comedy while expanding the thematic and visual complexities. EVE is a white glowing orb that can fly through the sky at high speeds and decimate any surface with a laser canon arm, and her one goal is to search for new life on Earth. She’s an accidental tourist on a mission she doesn’t understand, but WALL•E sees her as the companion he’s always wanted and needed, an equal worthy of his attention. Even though their initial time together is short, the impact of this meeting unveils layers of consciousness these robots are not supposed to have. This clear desire for connection pushes WALL•E into a grand adventure of impressive action set pieces and daring escapes, all experienced in the hope of locking eyes with EVE long enough for her to understand his devotion.

As WALL•E drifts through the atmosphere, this instinctual need for connection begins to develop beyond his female muse to incorporate every environment he inhabits. This ranges from interactions with other droids to his accidental brushes with humanity. One of the great scenes in the film comes when WALL•E lifts his hand up into river of colorful space dust, finding beauty in the contrast of vibrant color and fascinating texture. The action of touch becomes a common and potent motif throughout the film, whether it’s robots trying to hold hands or humans falling into each other’s arms. Call it an understanding of re-connection, a personalizing of interaction.

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But WALL•E does not envision mankind through a rose-colored lens. The film views space not as the final frontier, but as a potential final resting place for the human race. Bloated by seven centuries of apathy and isolated by technological bubbles, these humans are ripe for critique and vitriol, ripe for the picking. They have mindlessly languished on the epic Axiom space liner without a care in the world, breeding generations of coagulated lost souls unaware of their infinite jaunt into oblivion, happy with the inconsequence.

However, Stanton finds the grace in mankind’s ability to break out of this vicious cycle, focusing on our hibernating need for that same physical connection WALL•E longs for so dearly. The ensuing battle against the subtle control of artificial intelligence, menacing in its clarity and consistency to stay the course, plays into the desperate need for an ideological revolution, something WALL•E has achieved years ago. We recognize modern society’s increasing inaction and lethargy in the film’s nightmarish vision of mankind, and it’s to the film’s credit that we get a second chance despite this horrific outcome.

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In the end, WALL•E inadvertently saves the world by following his heart, framing ecological warnings, social nightmares, and haunting delusions of grandeur through an epic love story between robots searching for a spark. This is best on display during WALL-E and EVE’s hypnotic space dance, a mesmerizing musical number where connection, touch, and interaction take on a deeper meaning as two supposedly lifeless souls teach us how to live again.

– The Filmist’s # 8 choice, Park Chan Wook’s Oldboy can be found here.

Best of the 2000’s: Discussion # 1

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– The following is the first of ten planned online discussions between myself and The Filmist regarding the best films of the 2000’s. These transcriptions have been slightly edited due to length, but the published content remains exactly as written.  After a short, casual introduction, we begin…

Topics: The Dark Knight and Blood Sunday

MATCH CUTS: I’ve seen The Dark Knight at least four times now, and I still have reservations about it. I’m curious why you think it made such an impact on people? It seems to delve into moral complexity, but at the same time establish a safety net of super hero conventions, with the exception of The Joker.

FILMIST: Well, I think it affected the movie-going public and the critics because it “transcends it’s genre,” while still remaining a distinct part of it. Much like, say, The Searchers is still clearly in line with John Ford’s previous Westerns while at the same time being it’s own work with it’s own set of layers. This kind of this is particularly rare with comic book films, which are almost the definition of cookie-cutter…And, I think it acknowledges those conventions to a point, and plays with them – like Rachel’s death, or Harvey’s sudden scarring. Scenes that kind of pull the rug out from under us, purposefully.

MC: I agree that it attempts to complicate both the familiar structure of the comic book film and the notion of heroism. But some of its layers are so much stronger than others. Ledger overwhelms the film in ways I still am unable to comprehend. He’ a force of nature that keeps upending the story. It’s as if everyone else, including the characters, are in just as much awe as the audience.

F: I think that’s intentional, really – and one of the reasons I like to view the film apart from it’s predecessor, which I’m not very fond of. He’s like a penny put stuck onto the train tracks.

MC: That’s interesting. You referenced Batman Begins in your piece and I was surprised you found it overwrought. I love the first film. It has a purity of purpose, a clarity and arc that the second film lacks. But I think Nolan is doing this on purpose. The Dark Knight is obviously an epic, whereas the first film is a character study on a more personal level.

F: The main reason I’m no particular fan of it is because of David Goyer – I do agree that structurally, it’s very well done. But here and there, the dialogue becomes floppy and overly expository – which wouldn’t really be a large problem, except that it’s a constant, throughout the film. And, while those kinds of things are still there in The Dark Knight, their presence is more minimal.

MC: My main issue with the film is Nolan’s impatience with scenes in the first hour. I’ve written on this a few times at the site. I called it “Narrative Bursts” in one piece, where short scenes pop up in rapid fire succession, never allowing for the actors or pacing to breath. It’s as if Nolan is attempting to set up a universe that’s too big, incorporating everything, compacting storylines and relationships down to a few minutes. What do you make of this style of pacing?

F: I think that the pacing is intentionally rapid-fire within that first hour or so – I think the only one who might possibly suffer from it is Eckhart’s Harvey Dent, although we do learn far more about him later on. Actually, I think one of my favorite scenes from the film is the one near the beginning that follows Alfred as he finds Bruce Wayne missing from his Penthouse. In contrast to what’s come before, the pace slows down here pretty measurably.

MC:  I’ve never been able to reconcile these moments. For me, the film begins and ends with Ledger, who stands alone looking down at a world so consumed with self pity and salvation that they never see the forest for the trees. Ledger’s Joker seems to be the only three dimensional character of the bunch, and we know the least about him. His ambiguity is a welcome change of pace, a far cry from the more transparent characters in the film, Dawes, Bruce, even Dent is pretty clear cut. But even with these reservations, I can’t deny the film’s importance.

F: I just love the film’s treatment of Dent’s arc – we see faint, unexpected glimmers on this All-American lawyer near the beginning, until finally we’re made aware of something deeper simmering underneath when he threatens that schizophrenic with the gun in the alley, and into his madness in the hospital. Which is another thing I wanted to write about in my entry for the film – those moments where the film’s sound cuts out, replaced by ambient waves, as the action on-screen becomes quietly frenetic. In this case, Dent waking up and his realization as to what’s happened…
Oh, yes. The film’s had a huge impact – although, it did lead to Zach Snyder’s Watchmen, so we can fault it for that.

MC: So what are your thoughts on Bloody Sunday?

F: As an Irishman, it really poked at my heart-strings. I particularly enjoyed Greengrass’ framing of the film in faux Newsreel footage – and, it’s interesting to contrast this with his more traditional films, like The Bourne Supremacy.

MC: I remembering seeing Bloody Sunday the first day it came out in Santa Barbara, when I was still in University, and it floored me, absolutely devastated me, and I think more so than any other film using this documentary approach, it denied the full articulation of the event, only catching glimpses, and this destroyed me. I guess I love it when a film lets my imagination fill in the blanks. If you look at all the films I’ve mentioned as favorites, they all share this in common.

F: Oh, indeed. That was one of the things I so enjoyed about it, as well – how we hear the first shots that sent everything rolling, but we don’t know where the sounds came from. And then, later on, we can see the marchers trying to hold back their own gunmen.

MC: History seems to be an evolving monster of inaccuracies, miscommunications, moments of indecision and guilt, and Greengrass captures the tragedy of this thought process.

F: I love that there’s a clear bias about the film, but at the same time, Greengrass doesn’t restrain himself from presenting the marchers as almost equally as frenzied as everything else in the film.

MC: The last scene in the film, where (James) Nesbitt’s character gives another press conference, definitely proves the theme of the film, radicalizing all of Ireland against the British, but also the escalation by the IRA, the ideology infecting the youth, is equally destructive. It’s a fascinating realization of the contradictions inherent in a traumatic situation like this one.

F: Yes, indeed. It actually reminded me a little of the ending of Animal Farm, for some reason. And, on a personal level, this interested me, because my father’s mentioned quite a few times that he’s sent large amounts of money to the IRA. Also, I think it’s funny that Greengrass took a more dramatic approach to his next rendition of real events, United 93, when this more verite aesthetic carried over so well for the subject matter – I think it could have had the same effect for that film, although I don’t know how well it would’ve worked, given that we’ve less concrete information about what went on inside that plane than the events provided in Bloody Sunday.

MC: Yeah, the dramatic rendering of United 93 seems to adhere more to the conventional, not as ambiguous, although equally as powerful. You could talk endlessly about how those films overlap. But Bloody Sunday allows you to get close to the characters, whereas United 93 sees them as emblems of 9/11 as a whole. Bloody Sunday feels untainted, a perfect understanding that history cannot be reproduced, just reinvented.

F: You know, I’ve never been able to understand the criticisms thrown at the film by the Irish critics at the time, that the film is too focused (too focused) on the leaders and the ideologues rather than those who’d decided to follow them. If anything, I think it’s an interesting perspective to view the film from – from the top-down.

MC:  But you do get a sense of the common man in the film, like the young man who’s dating the protestant girl, then gets dragged into the conflict by his buddies. You definitely get a feeling for the collective loss with his story. I don’t understand those criticisms either.

F: Well, I think it’s telling that a lot of those criticisms seemed to come from the guys who worked on Sunday,which was an Irish television movie about the events – it’s pretty traditional docu-drama TV movie stuff, but they were remarkably loud about how much better their film was than Bloody Sunday, which was strange. I’ve only seen the film twice, but it’s its critical reception that interested me the most, as you can tell.

MC: It got universal acclaim in the States, yet it seems to have faded from memory here. None of the top critics are mentioning it for the end of the decade lists. I still thinks it’s an essential piece of historiography. Timeless really.

F: That is strange – kind of a sudden drop off, when you think about it.

MC: I guess that’s why we do what we do. To defend the films we feel passionate about.

– Next week we’ll tackle the epic Lord of the Rings Trilogy and the equally hefty The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Best of the 2000’s: # 9

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“The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing discussion between Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

Thick clouds rush the blue sky into a gray existence, filtering the Western world of Andrew Dominick’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford down to the barest essentials. Here, the frontier is a darkly hued place of inevitable silence, a lyrical last stand for iconic names with dirty faces against the passage of time and the culmination of guilt. Roger Deakins’ camera captures mountain ranges, forests, and tundra’s shrouded in haze, blurring, romanticizing, and complicating the yarns of yesterday. And the death rattle of Western iconography begins and ends with the complex relationship between an American idol and his biggest admirer.

“All of America thinks highly of me.”

Omniscient narrator Hugh Ross, a kind of soothsayer for Dominick, juxtaposes the legend of Jesse James (Brad Pitt) with painterly images of the man gently running his hands through a field of wheat, standing alone against an endless horizon, a figment of history’s imagination. In these early moments, Jesse’s eyes give away a sadness and torment living inside him, something no other character fully understands yet Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ indelible score immediately realizes.

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Dominick’s imagining of James borders on ambiguous, especially when his paranoia and suspiciousness begin to tear his life apart. We only have Pitt’s deep optic wells to relay crucial character information on a sub textual level. But James physically emotes a combination of ego, charm, and unpredictability, creating a ripe tension of identity within a man convinced the world needs his iconic status to be complete. As Jesse disintegrates right before our eyes, the haunting process reflects Dominick’s brilliant complication of Western archetypes.

“You don’t have the ingredients son.”

When Robert Ford (Casey Affleck) walks into a space, eyes avert and conversations die, as if the occupants (including his own family) feel incredibly uncomfortable with his presence. From the start, Dominick paints Bob as a lonely cipher amongst a small canon of outlaws, and then contrasts his sly impact on two different James Brothers. Elder Frank (Sam Shepard) can’t stand the sight of him, while Jesse (Brad Pitt) tolerates Bob with casual talk of noodle soup. This discrepancy could be a matter of character, but it also represents one man’s admission to ending the legend and the other’s adherence to compromising it. Bob seems to be the primer for a downfall years in the making.

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The Blue Cut Train Robbery, the last official criminal act perpetrated by the James gang, sets this long descent into motion. It’s also the most stylized sequence in the film, as Dominick shrouds the tracks in complete darkness until the blinding light from the locomotive floods the trees, casting shadows on the masked bandits lying in wait. During this robbery, Jesse brutally beats a railroad man nearly to death, and it’s the first and only time the public forum gets to witness his legend in action.

More importantly, the robbery represents how far the James Gang as fallen, populated by unprofessional rubes and bumpkins, eliciting few returns on the massive investment of time and preparation. This flux of certainty and confidence allows Bob into a select group led by Jesse, who remains skeptical, needy for admiration, and unsure of his iconic status.

“It is interesting the many ways you and I overlap.”

Soon, patterns of character overwhelm the Western conventions in The Assassination of Jesse James. Bob retracts and restates his devotion to all things Jesse James again and again, yearning for the man’s approval while detesting his ability to manipulate and control. In one of the decade’s most evocative performances, Affleck plays Bob as a time bomb of facial ticks, half smiles, and outbursts of childish anger, an engine of interior thought and calculation.  The breaks and cracks in Bob’s voice speak volumes about his riddled persona.

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Not surprisingly, Bob never receives the respect of his peers because he resides outside their universe, a subjective historian of their public evolution. Understanding his hero does not create increased admiration, but more anger. The chameleon resents being taught how to manipulate shape and figure, causing a permanent rift in each character.

Jesse becomes more and more secluded from Bob’s notions of heroism and the audience’s expectations of a historical personage. Their conflicted relationship begins to overlap in many of the same ways Bob has foreseen, each waiting for the other to commit to a specific vision of self, neither staying in one form for very long. The murder of Jesse James only slightly clarifies Bob’s motives, but ultimately muddies the context in which both will be remembered.

“By his own approximation, Bob assassinated Jesse more than 800 times.”

That Dominick allows Bob an epilogue infused with regret and memory makes The Assassination of Jesse James twice as tragic, not just creating a parallel destiny between two men intrinsically linked but expanding the Western universe to include the complex social aftermath of the act itself. The ramifications of Bob’s betrayal take on a national meaning, foreshadowing America as a media-heavy beast obsessed with perception over reality.

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While Bob and his brother Charlie (Sam Rockwell) reenact the infamous assassination for hundreds of theater patrons, the legend of Jesse James grows in astronomical proportions. Bob’s rise is equally impressive, but Dominick always flanks this public attention with a lingering sense of guilt and comeuppance. In the final moments, the narration even surmises that Bob “missed the man just as much as everyone else.” History’s human face has come full circle.

“…the light going out in his eyes, before he could find the right words.”

By the end of the film, Dominick builds his crescendo around potent freeze-frames and extreme temporal shifts and The Assassination of Jesse James becomes a hypnotic vision of loyalty and pain, a personal requiem for the very images defining the American West.  The escapades and lies add up to an incomplete rendering of History more dynamic and fascinating than any book lesson or educational program could imagine. Dominick interrupts the revisionist Western with a cinematic poem on what it truly means to survive long enough to become the villain.

– The Filmist’s # 9 entry, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy, can be found here.

Still Walking (Kore-eda, 2009)

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In Hirokazu Kore-eda’s sublime new film Still Walking, the often mentioned but deceased Junbei remains the only character defined by selfless action, a decision that killed him a dozen years ago. Junbei perished saving a young boy from drowning in the sea, and Kore-eda finds his small immediate family gathering for the annual memorial. Prodigal younger brother reluctantly returns home with a new wife and step-son, while older sister and mother banter about plans for a move back home, and elder statesmen father, once a proud doctor, now sits alone in his study aching toward an uncertain and pointless future. Junbei’s picture occasionally haunts the frame like a small phantasm briefly reminding each character of their own slow motion dive into old age.

Supposedly celebrating Junbei’s life, the family incessantly focuses on his death – what could have been, “why did he have to save this boy who wasn’t even his son? – reflecting the guilt and doubt of a family long concerned with hierarchical tradition, role, and legacy. But Kore-eda enlivens familiar tensions (father vs. son) and scenarios by circling the small, vibrant moments of a family attempting to move on. As they slowly languish in the afternoon sun, walk slowly through a lush cemetery, and sit quietly while naive grandchildren rambunctiously play, these characters evolve without a word. Kore-eda gives his scenes and actors plenty of room to breath and time to percolate, trimming action with a memory or word, bringing each relationship into focus.

At times Still Walking is so reserved we almost give Kore-eda too much credit for eliciting emotion from the subtle nuances of this family. Unlike Olivier Assayas’ Summer Hours, an obvious kindred spirit to Kore-eda’s story, Still Walking ends with a sly and conservative repetition of generational ideologies. Son replaces father, daughter replaces mother, and the family continues on under similar circumstances, still deeply complex characters but ultimately overwhelmed with duty to their ancestors. Assayas’ film dares to revolutionize its family dynamics by allowing for rejuvenation and change in the younger generations, while Kore-eda paints all children as either inevitable or eager heirs to replicating their fathers and mother’s influences, following in footsteps and filling empty shoes.

But Still Walking is remarkably successful at illuminating the sadness in every composition, lining both exteriors and interiors with a texture of melancholy paralleling Kore-eda’s cyclical sense of family. The film feels like an answer/solution to the director’s devastating Nobody Knows, where a group of children are shoved into oblivion by an absent mother. Even when jaded by a tragic twist of fate, the father and mother of Still Walking are strong enough to trust the process of life, giving their children more than a puncher’s chance at understanding the complexities of death.