It was difficult for me not to enjoy Frances Ha, a movie about a marginally employed 27-year-old apprentice dancer who spends most of her time napping, holding one-sided conversations about her feelings, and ignoring social cues. In Noah Baumbach’s other movies, adulthood is presented as a strenuous condition, something won by a frantic race to the airport (Kicking and Screaming), a frantic race to the bus (Margot at the Wedding), a frantic race to the Natural History Museum (The Squid and the Whale), or a frantic, emotionally naked voicemail (Greenberg). Nothing like this happens in Frances Ha. At one point, Frances buys a last-minute ticket to Paris, but she ends up sleeping through most of her short trip and going into credit card debt. Still, she seems different, more buoyant, as if she has given up some of her ideas about what she is like.
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The last time I went to the opera I went alone, to a matinee of Berg’s Lulu at the Met. All I remember about the experience was staring, transfixed, at the LED screens set into the back of each chair. These had been programmed to closed caption the libretto in English in real time, and had been ingeniously tinted, so that the letters were only visible from straight on. Glance down the row to your left or right and all you see is darkness; ahead, one narrow, inoffensive beam of orange letters changing in sync. They were made this way for the purists who never use them—who believe transcription deflates the form. These people, who like to sit through ambiguity, would not have to look at the screens.
I mention this only to say how glad I am they have not developed this technology yet for planes. Now that most long-haul flights feature personal touch-screens I watch not one but seven movies at my neighbors’ discretion. Last week, on a plane, I watched three quarters of Silver Linings Playbook on mute, selected by the guy two seats to my right: a lot of finger-pointing and stomping around in the rain, glowering in smeary eyeliner and sudden shifts in mood. Lincoln, chosen by the woman to my left, was 50 percent anemic establishing shots, heavy on the selective coloring filter—that Photoshop trick you see mostly on deviantART where color images are made black-and-white except for a specific zone or palette. Here, red, white, and blue. All flesh in this film was gray. It could have made a great zombie film.
Watching movies this way makes for a fun formalist exercise. Neighbor three watched all the action classics available on this international flight, and by the end I could sketch out the standard arc. All throwaway martyrs will die by the end of act 1. If there’s a twist at the end, the final shot is a creeping zoom, usually of an epiphany in someone’s eyes, truncated by a cut to black. In Aliens, the remaining survivors by act 2 all have blue eyes except one: the tough Latina who can do a hundred pull-ups fresh out the cryogenic chamber with no bra, who wears a red Rambo-bandanna, the side of whose weapon says ADIOS. James Cameron directed this one, not Ridley Scott, so as soon as we see her sensitive side we know she’s toast by act 3.
This is phase one of watching plane movies: aerial critical remove. Phase two, defenses worn away by recycled air and fatigue, is raw emotional overload. Every Hollywood movie works on you. You are at the mercy of every trick. I’ve cried watching both The Departed and Changeling, and I know at least two grown men who were deeply moved by the Katy Perry concert movie when they watched it on a plane. I was approaching this phase when I watched, also on mute, almost all of The Untouchables, a French movie about a young black man from the projects who becomes an orderly to a paraplegic white billionaire. At one point the white aristocrat brings him to the opera to see The Magic Flute. Onstage, a baritone covered in leaves begins to sing and the orderly bursts out laughing: “A singing tree!” The homosocial breakthrough occurs when the rich guy cracks a smile, too. This movie also made me cry, at the end. As we landed, it left me wondering if laughing at the opera was opposite or analog to sobbing on a plane.
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World War Z is a dumb movie, even dumber than it looks, because it doesn’t know what it’s about. 2012, in many ways a dumber movie, was about how the rich were going to be given inside information about the end of the world and sold tickets aboard an escape ship—it goes without saying that this is obviously quite plausible—and only John Cusack would be able to figure it out. The Day After Tomorrow showed that if we didn’t listen to Dennis Quaid’s warnings about global warming (which are absolutely correct, his thesis about thermohaline circulation being cribbed from Columbia professor Wallace Broecker), the world would freeze and we’d have to hide out in the main branch of the New York Public Library. War of the Worlds, probably the best of these movies just as a movie, reminds us that when the aliens come to destroy us, some people, like Tom Cruise, are, at least at first, going to think it’s pretty cool and go outside to check it out.
World War Z lacks this clarity. After the opening, in which a very orderly traffic jam in Philadelphia descends into chaos when people realize they are being attacked by zombies, UN investigator Brad Pitt travels the world to try and find the cause of the zombie apocalypse. He doesn’t actually learn anything except that a few governments have come up with half-baked solutions—the totalitarian North Koreans tore out everyone’s teeth, so they’d be unable to bite others if they were infected, while the paranoid Israelis built a big wall just in time, due to being paranoid (after the Holocaust, as the head of Mossad explains to Pitt)—but eventually he realizes something. If the movie believes in anything besides the fact that everyone likes Brad Pitt (everywhere he goes, people, no matter how terrorized by zombies, welcome him; “Oh, good, Brad Pitt is here”), it is science. Unlike Dennis Quaid in The Day After Tomorrow, Brad Pitt is not himself a scientist, but he is given some scientific advice by a brilliant South Asian scientist who then proceeds to accidentally shoot himself at the first sign of danger. Pitt then uses the scientific method to alleviate the zombie threat.
I was interested by the fact that Pitt was from the UN—apparently the US government is now so morally bankrupt that you can’t even have an action hero representing it. And I was surprised, and sort of touched, when I read on Wikipedia that the filmmakers wanted to get a Bourne Identity-feel to the film. They must have thought all those foreign locations were in the Bourne movies because the Bourne movies were sophisticated and had something to say about those places—about London, Paris, Moscow, Algiers. And so the filmmakers of World War Z thought of some things to say about the places they were featuring, except that, as political allegory (unlike that big ship for the rich in 2012), the things they have to say are incoherent. Yet it’s a revealing mistake, their not understanding that the Bourne movies use those locations solely and exclusively because they look cool.
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It’s come to the pilots’ attention that the landing gear of the plane they’re flying is damaged. So what do the flamboyant flight attendants do while the plane flies in circles to avoid its inevitable fate? They take mescaline and provide entertainment for the plane’s pilots and passengers—the former, with blowjobs and bathroom sex, and the latter, with a dance routine to The Pointer Sisters’ “I’m So Excited.” But of course. The world of I’m So Excited is colored in saccharine brights and organized by near-supernatural forces of coincidence, providence, and oracle; like many of Almodóvar’s films, it blurs the ridiculous and tragic, the rational and insane, the believable and uncanny. It’s fun, and its setting provides terrific opportunities for comic potential (for example, the only way for passengers to say goodbye to their loved ones is to call over the public phone, so that everyone on the flight can hear everything). Yet unlike the Almodóvar films that I truly adore—Volver, Talk to Her, All About My Mother—I’m So Excited lacks human consequence. Its lightheartedness is persistent, never truly tipped by the plane’s heavy circumstance. As a result, like the passengers who finally slide unscathed off the successfully landed plane, I left the theater unaffected, without a character or emotion to hold on to, or a need or desire to reflect.
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The Ritz is a chain of movie theaters in a well-off section of Philadelphia that shows independent films. Usually its offerings (Frances Ha, et cetera) draw sparse audiences, often of older white viewers. But the chain’s single screening of the documentary Free Angela and All Political Prisoners was arranged by the Point Breeze Organizing Committee—a group fighting the gentrification of a working-class Philadelphia neighborhood—and the audience was different. I went with a political organizer from UNITE HERE who had offered me his spare ticket, and among the rest of the diverse crowd, I recognized people I used to see milling around the tents and media tables of Occupy Philadelphia. It was a nice change. But these special screenings of lefty docs for lefty viewers sometimes come at a cost. The atmosphere can be desperately boisterous. People talk liberally at the screen, laugh at the lamer jokes at George W. Bush’s or Ronald Reagan’s expense, and sneer at the chance reactionary that wanders unwittingly on screen. One doesn’t go to understand, one goes to believe.
Davis is an extremely charismatic and brilliant figure, but always at risk of being flattened into an icon. Free Angela succeeds beautifully in doing nothing to avoid that risk. Briskly narrating the rise of Davis as a prominent intellectual, her associations with Black Power, and her Reagan-sanctioned expulsion from UCLA, it flirts with various genres—biopic, caper—before becoming a trial film. Davis had been indicted for allegedly supplying the guns that Jonathan Jackson used in his fatal attempt to free his older brother, George Jackson, from San Quentin Prison. The defense’s argument in the trial hinged on the idea that Davis was obviously too smart to have done anything like that. Would it work? When not using talking heads, the film pulls up an impressive store of courtroom drawings.
Is Davis smart? Free Angela takes it as axiomatic that she is, not bothering to go into what she’s smart about. I guess that’s what gives director Shola Lynch license to spend the rest of the film turning her into hair, clothes, and cigarettes. Ill-advisedly, Lynch peppers her film with “recreation” scenes. A figure plays a younger Davis in silhouette. Angela Davis chain-smokes, Angela Davis canoodles with George Jackson in a prison visiting room. In an interview with the FBI agent who found Davis when she was underground, the agent reveals that the way he identified Davis was by lifting her upper lip to see “that gap” between her two front teeth. Free Angela treats its subject kind of like that FBI agent did: she’s an immediately recognizable look, an indelible pose. When not busy making Davis into a cartoon, Lynch occasionally digs up some arresting images. I won’t soon forget footage of one of the jurors, a white man, leaving the courtroom after Davis’s acquittal and blushingly raising a power fist to the camera. That’s a pose too, but there’s something there in nuce about what the radicalizations of the ’60s and ’70s meant, something to be explored, but by that point we’re already at the end of the film.
Jackson’s collection of letters, Soledad Brother, is an incredible book, but though you learn that it was popular, you don’t learn what it’s about. Davis herself wrote academic essays in prison, among them a superior piece on how ideals of black womanhood developed under the conditions of southern slavery—her scholarly response to the Moynihan Report. She’s also written a few books since. Women, Race and Class remains a forceful polemic. Are Prisons Obsolete? is a classic. Free Angela sees fit to mention none of them. Davis is smart; Free Angela isn’t.
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I think Pacific Rim might be the first 21st-century action movie to understand and process the fact that action movies are now mostly cartoons, as in they do not include much footage of people or objects really moving through space. There are maybe five minutes in Pacific Rim that do not make use of computer-generated animation. There are maybe forty minutes, tops, where computer animation only plays a supporting role. The other ninety minutes do not feature live action in a meaningful sense. The best thing to do if you are directing a monsters vs. robots cartoon is to cast the guy from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia in a supporting role, direct the cartoon with visual and spatial intelligence, and give the thing roughly the same color palette as Spring Breakers.
I liked the international coalition of robots. They are called “Jaegers,” and each requires two pilots, except for the speedy Chinese robot, which requires three pilots, because of that country’s enormous population. The Russians have a bruising, Cold War-era Jaeger that is piloted by a stern blond woman with an eye-patch. Most of these robots are eventually eaten by the monsters, or “Kaiju,” that pop out of a wormhole at the bottom of the sea. I found the Kaiju very easy to love and root for.
I did not see Pacific Rim in 3D, but now I’m thinking that maybe I should have. I am pretty sure that 3D should only be used in films that include dancing. Pina was all about dancing, and it was in 3D, and that was a really beautiful film. 3D would have also been nice in the closing scene of Silver Linings Playbook. Pacific Rim closed with an elegantly choreographed underwater battle, which is pretty close to a dancing competition, when you get down to it.
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Despite director Joshua Oppenheimer’s assurance to the audience before the 10:30 PM screening of The Act of Killing that it’s “okay to laugh,” the man sitting next to me whimpered for the documentary’s entire two-hour run. I wanted to seize him, “Get a hold of yourself, man!” but really, I just let him go on like a wounded animal.
Needless to say, this is a difficult film to stomach. Much has already been said about its “stars”: Indonesian gangsters Anwar Congo and Adi Zulkadry, and Congo’s cross-dressing sidekick, paramilitary leader Herman Koto. Congo and Zulkadry were leaders of a death squad in the anti-communist purge following a failed coup in 1965; Congo was personally responsible for over 1,000 deaths. They have never been held accountable for their crimes; today, they remain comfortably among the Indonesian elite. But the film doesn’t recapitulate history in the way many documentaries do—no archival material is dredged up, no experts interviewed. There’s no need, when Congo, Zulkadry, and Koto willingly and, at times, eagerly reenact their atrocities in surreal and garish fashion.
The Act of Killing requires a certain kind of suspension of disbelief: facts and fictions graft onto one another in astonishing ways, testing viewers’ capacity to hold onto the documentary’s assertion of reality. But this audience proved tough. Only two people left before the end, and the whimperer next to me chose to remain under duress rather than relieve himself. Complicity, after all, has a seductive power, and the film wields it brilliantly. It’s impossible not to both admire and feel a little ill-at-ease at Oppenheimer’s enabling role, and there’s a perverse kind of pleasure in looking at and condemning Congo and the rest, but even more so in acknowledging their contradictory humanity.
The most agonizing scene to get through comes near the end, when we find Congo once again at the location where, five decades ago, countless voices were snuffed out with the yank of a wire. But where earlier in the film Congo shows off his dance moves and demonstrates his killing technique with an unyielding smile, this time he wretches deafeningly, bent over and stumbling around the rooftop in the dark, for what feels like an eternity. Oppenheimer is silent behind the camera, the audience is catatonic. Perhaps the most important question the film forces us to ask is: We’ve borne witness to forgotten human evil, we’re all really shocked . . . so now what?
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Computer Chess (and the fictional early-’80s tournament it depicts, in which teams of programmers pit their chess-playing computers against one another) kicks off with a reference to the 18th century’s most famous chess-playing “machine”: the mechanical Turk. It’s clear by the end of the film that Andrew Bujalski is as little concerned as Walter Benjamin with the practical possibilities or limitations of the machine itself. Instead, the central problem of the movie is found in the parallels between the programmers, at work crafting rudimentary A.I., and the goofy gathering of middle-aged “seekers” with whom they must compete for use of the tournament hotel’s conference room: What does it mean to be a subject? both groups wonder. What kinds of interaction between subjects are possible? The characters engage in increasingly ridiculous and continually thwarted attempts to connect with others, and as the movie progresses, it performs a kind of mental breakdown: people and cameras “glitch,” like chess programs stuck in endless loops. Finally the State Department, droves of dwarf cats, and a computer asking questions about love overwhelm the end of the narrative. Which is almost a shame—a considerable part of the movie’s charm comes from its initial loving rendering of the peculiar milieu and moment in history the tournament represents. Film shot entirely with terrible period cameras allows for a home-video immediacy, for a certain shock of recognition in someone who’s been at home in such intensely nerdy settings, and for a realism at least as powerful—and as effective at depicting the inner workings of the film’s human machinery—as the surrealism that overtakes it.
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If you want to avoid thinking about how you live in a society which persistently condones the murder of poor young black men by its official or self-appointed police agents, there are a couple of film-geeky things to focus on in Fruitvale Station: The cell phone deserves a co-star credit. We almost never see Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan) without his, and a helpful cell phone cam often pops up in the bottom right corner of the screen to let us know what he’s doing with it. He calls his mom when he’s in bed with his girlfriend, texts his friends when he’s at his mom’s New Year’s Eve birthday party, calls his grandmother from the supermarket to help out a befuddled white girl who’s trying to look up a recipe for “fish-fry” with her smart phone. We later see the same white girl using it to film the Bay Area Rapid Transit Police brutalize and shoot Oscar, but—shit—that takes us back to something we don’t want to think about. Better to comment on how all this self-mediation creates a challenge for any contemporary filmmaker, not to mention actor, trying to convey a sense of everyday, peaceable life. All we do is stand around using our phones.
“He hated to be alone,” Oscar’s mom (Octavia Spencer) says, when she views his corpse in the hospital but is forbidden to touch him because he’s now become “evidence” in his own murder, but that takes us back to what we don’t otherwise want to think about. We also see Oscar, in his last minutes, open and close his phone repeatedly, trying to film the police, trying to call his girlfriend, just holding on to the object, but we don’t want to think about what happens next. We’re just glad that director Ryan Coogler had the sense not to use a cell phone cam. The film also opens with footage of the shooting of the real-life Oscar Grant, taken on smart phone video, and without which we probably wouldn’t have this movie to prompt us to avoid strenuously thinking about how we live in a society that locks up nearly 33 percent of its black men for one reason or another and tolerates a high number of accidental or tragic shootings of other black men by the police. To be poor and black in America is already to be treated as someone engaged in suspicious, criminal behavior, which is how it happens that Oscar Grant could find himself sucker-punched in a crowded train, and then manhandled by police who of course think he and his friends are the culprits.
But the light, the light in this otherwise matter-of-factly shot film is very good. The camera mostly looks at the light source, whether the too-bright single bedside lamp in the first scene at Oscar’s girlfriend’s apartment, or the winter, late-afternoon sun in the yard of the daycare center when Oscar goes to pick up his daughter (he races her outside shouting “I can’t lose,” when we know he can’t win); or the eerie yellow globes of the above-ground BART station as the train pulls out on Oscar’s final trip. The outdoor light isn’t particularly warm, although we’re in San Francisco, it’s light that you have to squint into, painful, always slightly wrong.
If you want more distraction, you can fantasize that Jordan, who played Wallace from the first season of The Wire, is still Wallace, that Wallace wasn’t really shot by his two friends as part of their initiation into the higher ranks of the Barksdale Gang but instead escaped to California, where he was eventually shot by a police officer who claimed, in court, that he’d mistaken his gun for his taser and got off with a two-year suspended manslaughter sentence. In other words, in the garden of forking paths of Black urban life, too many roads lead to the bullet. There’s really no escape from the realization that it worse-than-sucks to be a young, poor, black man in today’s America. This has been true now for so long that it seems almost easy to forget. Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing came out almost twenty-five years ago; James Baldwin’s “A Report from Occupied Territory” in 1966, although these words and the gap they describe are no less true now: “The law is meant to be my servant and not my master, still less my torturer and my murderer. To respect the law, in the context in which the American Negro finds himself, is simply to surrender his self-respect.”
Fruitvale, however, is not really a political film in an agit-prop sense. It muffles its outrage always in favor of starkness. It has none of Spike Lee’s Brechtian exuberance and addresses to the audience. When Oscar’s friends pour into the hospital, we understand that they’re enraged, but we never get to see their rage. They’re effectively rallied into a prayer group by Oscar’s mom. Like the people on screen, the audience is just supposed to sit there and take it. Coogler’s close-quarter shots of low-ceilinged Oakland bungalows and apartments, and the usual awful hospital waiting room, convey stifled lives without any of the characters needing to speak about it. Fruitvale simply places you inside Oscar’s life and his family’s for the last day of it. One of its most original and psychologically insightful scenes is almost ruined by the film’s reliance on dramatic irony and foreshadowing. Oscar is putting his daughter Tatiana to bed at his sister-in-law’s, before he goes out for what we know will be a fatal night on the town. Tatiana, a winning four-year-old or five-year-old, beautifully played by Ariana Neal, understandably does not want her father to go away; from what we’ve already seen of her—in the movie’s first minutes she talks her way into bed with her parents when we know they’d rather be doing something else—we know that she’s bent her whole considerable toddler intelligence toward keeping her father around and in her sight as much as possible, and who could blame her? “Daddy, I’m scared of guns,” she tells him, a line that’s been properly set up by a shot of her watching men shoot firecrackers out of starter pistols by the roadside, out of the car window. Of course, Oscar’s role as he tries to be the good father, is to tell her that these are just firecrackers, toy guns, and that nothing bad will happen to him if he goes out for a few hours with Tatiana’s mom and his friends, that he’ll see her in the morning.
This scene occurs in a thousand variations between parents and children everywhere. It’s a necessary rite of passage of childhood, learning to trust your parents, to confirm through experience that the world is not an evil fairy tale forest where bad things happen when you let loved ones out of your sight and out of your control. Children are controlling and testing the reach of their power over adults as much as adults over children. They become more so when they sense the family is fragile, and many of them are very good at it. For the scene to work, however, the viewer has to ignore Tatiana’s role as a sentimental agent of foreshadowing, and understand that both father and daughter are playing out an ordinary ritual whose meaning will become, because of future events, perpetually broken. They have been placed in an impossible situation. For the rest of her life, Tatiana will believe, on some level, that she failed to protect her father and save her family by letting herself be assured by his promise to return. She will be haunted by both a sense of failure and distrust of men that’s completely unjustified and unjust and yet will feel all too real to her. And Oscar’s last moments are poisoned by the understanding that his daughter will feel abandoned by him, simply because he believed he was a free man when he was already treated as a criminal in the eyes of the society we continue to make our peace with, every day.