Movie Review – “A Ghost Story”

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ghoststory

So many of the immediately recognizable images in society are organic.  Sun = warmth, Life = Vegetation, Happiness = a smile or embrace.  It’s natural that this would be the case.  Our establishment of language, advancements in science and technology, and general evolution towards modern comfort, while unique amongst the Earth’s creatures, is nevertheless, in all iterations, an extension of what we are at our core.  Just as emojis, to use a recent example, are undeniably a 21st century construct, their pictorial simplicity is downright prehistoric – complex emotions delivered in a simple image.  All of this is prelude to say that despite humanity’s long history of communication via image, a concept that remains representatively illusory is the one of death.  This is likely because, at the heart of it, what death means to us is absence.  If one were drawing an image, it would need to be divided into “before” and “after”, the emptiness of the latter registering a presence no longer there.  Because visual mediums don’t typically adopt this comics-panel technique, something else, something manufactured by us, must be called upon to convey death, to highlight the emptiness.  Gravestones and tombs do this, certainly, but this registers more as a narrative statement – this person has died.  How do we convey that eternally unsettling notion of a spirit left behind, a cosmic remnant of the person which was previously flesh and blood, a ghost?

Look no further than the most minimalist Halloween costume in history – a white bedsheet with two eye holes cut out.  This is exactly (in concept, if not execution) what director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) uses in his latest movie, A Ghost Story, an elegantly simple exploration of the grief and confusion surrounding loss.  Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, the star-crossed lovers of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, reunite here to play a warmly intimate, if not rapturously in love, couple living in a somewhat dilapidated fixer-upper in small town USA.  Starting with a widescreen shot of the stars, the aspect ratio slides in to a home-movie rounded square, lending the proceedings an air at once nostalgic and voyeuristic; these are all of our lives and memories, while obviously someone else’s.  It’s within this cozy Instagram framework that various long scenes of domestic life – the autopilot back and forth of bedroom intimacy, frustrations over delayed decision making – unfold.  For long portions of the movie, present and flashback scenes of home play like streamlined Terrence Malick – though with hushed voiceover replaced by palpable silence.  What differentiates the movie from being imitation Malick, though, is the specter of its title.  No later than we’re introduced to Affleck’s bearded musician do we find him hunched over the steering wheel of a truck outside their shack, the home he somewhat inexplicably decided they were committed to and from which Mara yearns to flee.  This shot, one of many, is disarmingly beautiful.  Soundtracked by a chorus of insects those of us who grew up near woods and grass will identify with immediately, the camera tracks across a billowing, of what it’s not obvious at first, until we pan far enough to realize that it’s smoke and nothing is on fire.  The Thin Red Line lives in a scene like this, the incongruity of buzzing, hissing life on the perimeter of humans dying amongst their machines.

Once the story dispatches with Affleck in the present and acquires its titular wraith does the exercise begin in full, and it’s a doozy.  Rising off a hospital table post-identification, the apparition wanders corridors, seemingly discovering existence at the same rate as the audience.  In death as in life, home becomes this spirit’s beacon.  Without spoiling too much, suffice to say our ghost makes his (its?) way back to the ranch, adopting a hypnotically slow and graceful pace across dirt and fields, until it arrives in a home twice as empty as the day before.  Lowery uses the remainder of the movie to stage sequences we all identify with though probably don’t spend much of our day entertaining.  The way people and furniture transform a space into something humming with life, or how grief in a dark, cold kitchen can coexist with children’s ecstatic playtime wails.  The sheet remains silent and unnoticed – expect when it chooses to be – ever watchful against the relentless onslaught of time.  It is there in viewing repeated daily tasks, which hint at the boredom that must accompany such observance.  It is there in time jumps, when that litany of chores and habits has receded into a block of time no longer representative of where the sheet now lives.  The whole enterprise is even hijacked for a stretch – containing maybe the majority of the spoken dialogue – on a meditation about legacies and the ultimately futile hope for survival of ourselves beyond death.  A pessimistic outlook for sure, but if that leaves a bade taste in the viewer’s mouth, it doesn’t linger for too long, as our sheet pairs moving beyond temporal confines – something the film accomplishes through hypnotic, inventive editing – with physical ones, forced to explore beyond what it might be remaining for when that thing no longer exists.

Minimal dialogue and a mute bedsheet could make for some tiresome watching, and indeed there are stretches, one including a dessert, that seem to drag on.  Part of this is functional, for sure, to give us a sense of what our ghost might endure watching humans live out their overwhelmingly mundane lives.  But filmmaking exercises can be tedious, and Lowery must appreciate this because, in some of the most crucial moments, he lets his longtime composer, Daniel Hart, handle the emotional heavy lifting.  Hart has done the score for all of Lowery’s pictures, and while I’ve only seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, that score, a rustic, violin based ache of a score, made such an impression that I’ve inundated Spotify playlists with his music ever since.  And here he’s done one better – providing not only a key pop track to an emotional flashback, but his now reliable pathos to the instrumental segments which anchor flights from the home.

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I don’t believe in ghosts.  I concede there are plenty of anomalies in life that are curious – déjà vu, phantom sounds and movements in a house, getting a text from the person you were JUST thinking about texting…  Nevertheless, the idea of something corporeal (soul, spirit, essence) lingering in our realm after its vessel has failed just doesn’t seem possible, even in a time when the multiverse checks out, mathematically.  Which is to say, I don’t believe in ghosts on a practical level.  I also don’t want to believe in ghosts on an emotional level, especially if they’re in any way like the sheet in this movie.  Who wants their life stalked by a holdover from a better time?  Imagine the embarrassment, guilt and shame that would come with being assessed every moment of our days?  Am I doing enough?  How wasteful of time would I come across as to something to which time no longer applies?  By the very end of the movie, the ghost’s sheet has been through the ringer – torn, colored, faded – and we have too, a little bit, at least emotionally.  Humanity’s built-in narrative is always about wondering what’s on the other side – a sort of spectral, “grass is greener” corollary, suggesting our little moments or delusions or schemes aren’t the things that are worthwhile, there’s always that bigger, ineffable “what” out there.  For everyone who’s thought “why should I write that book, no one will read it?” or “why sing that song in the shower, no one will hear it?”, this movie suggests, gorgeously and (forgive me) hauntingly: don’t be so sure.

*Here is the beautiful final song of the movie.  It’s a spoiler, obviously, albeit a sonic one.*

Movie Review – “Steve Jobs”

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jobs

Michael Mann’s The Insider, which features Russell Crowe as a rightfully nervous whistleblower to big tobacco, has a scene where Crowe is sitting in a furnished room as the wall opposite him ripples and shimmers, revealing itself to be a distant beach, a sanctuary for our addled hero.  It’s a highly artful director’s move, injecting billowing impressionism into the otherwise somber and clinical procedures at play in the narrative.  It proves to be a beautiful move and is the sort of considered yet playful trick one wishes more Hollywood directors would entertain – embracing the atmospheric theatricality of the stage and the canvas to tell their moving stories.

Not one to shy away from the unorthodox, if not the downright visceral, Danny Boyle employs a very similar tactic to make manifest the lofty dialogue of Aaron Sorkin’s latest tech-titan tete-a-tete, Steve Jobs.  Having recently conquered the embryonic stages of social media’s reigning heavyweight, Sorkin turns his attention towards crafting a character piece of Walter Isaacson’s popular biography of the Apple figurehead.  Since Mr. Sorkin’s stock in trade is clever barbs offered as artillery, and there is nary an action scene or fistfight available, to fashion a visual story from voluminous pages of dialogue is the challenge.  Luckily, Mr. Boyle was able to successfully create a frenetic movie out of the premise of a man being trapped in a crevasse for five days.  Which is to say, challenge accepted.

In the scene in question in this movie, Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) is having a discussion with his Polish-American associate, Joanna (Kate Winslet), who’s Eastern European origins serve as the punchline to more than a few jokes regarding her own perceived lack of humor.  He is attempting to convey the dreamer’s rationale behind his latest venture and struggling with her straight-laced assessment of a seemingly failed project.  While a typical director would use this as an opportunity for a close-up, to play up either the wounded or proselytizing angles, or allow the music to cheesily swell (and the music does rise, to be sure, but I can’t say enough about Daniel Pemberton’s eclectic score – like Reznor and Ross’s work on the Sorkin-penned The Social Network, the arrangements oscillate between unabashedly triumphant, ala Sigur Ros’ rousing contribution to Mr. Boyle’s 127 Hours, to deliberately bouncy and playful, with mood pieces residing between and all seeming part of a whole).  What happens instead, however, is a medium focus take on the conversation in portrait as the walls behind the principals comes alive.  Jobs likens his latest venture (the middle segment of a three-act structure the script employs as we, the audience, follow the backstage machinations just prior to three mammoth product launches in Jobs’ career) to the historical Skylab project, launched without specific plans for how to bring it down safely, only the misplaced confidence that the ensuing years of the trip would allow those on the ground time enough to craft a solution.  As Jobs marvels at the audacity required to launch something like that while lacking an endgame, the hallway is illuminated with ignition flames and huge plumes of exhaust, a seeming eruption bookending the characters as they’re forced to deal with the real limitations of what they’re working with.  It wouldn’t be out of place on a stage and I’m glad those involved didn’t think to keep it relegated to one.  The Skylab reference has tie ins to the plot as written, and could even be seen as part of a larger comment on the world which Jobs and his colleagues and competitors have erected for us.  He and his successors would continue on their parade of upgrades and reveals and launches, but to what end?  Are they hoping the interim, some breather between models, will provide sufficient breathing room for an end-goal epiphany to register?

But that’s all a bit philosophical for a movie that admirably ignores the existential aspect of what its protagonist has helped streamline.  And while we’re not privy to the launches surrounding the most recent products (the screenplay concerns itself with the Macintosh, NEXT and iMac), we still get to witness the mania surrounding each career milestone and appreciate the subtle improvements in performance from all around.  Early glitches from the Macintosh are ironed out by the time of the iMac, though in the spirit of history repeating a simple failed voice command during the initial launch resurrects itself as numerous iterations of an image for the final.  To complement this steady march towards technological progress, Boyle and company saddle each segment with a unique film stock, lending some very tangible polish so by the time we’re seeing a performance in the famous jeans and black turtleneck, we’ve already entered at 16MM, upgraded to 35MM and are now settling in for digital.  The effect works tremendously well, rough edges all around eventually giving way to sleeker visuals, if less heart.

Outside of a terrific Fassbender, who demonstrated loquacious charm in Shame and Inglourious Basterds, and certainly twisted depravity in 12 Years a Slave, here bringing them together with a calculatedly angular playfulness, the supporting cast is uniformly strong.  Winslet’s Polish accent comes and goes as does her affection for Jobs, but ultimately remains his moral center in one of those thankless, undyingly loyal aide roles. Seth Rogen doesn’t add too much to this repertoire of decent wise-asses, but as written he handles the frustrated Wozniack quite well.  Of the smaller roles, while Katherine Waterston is good and Michael Stuhlbarg welcomely brings A Serious Man’s Larry Gopnik forward a few decades, the supporting standout is Jeff Daniels.  An expert at Sorkin’s dialogue at this point, and now with enough decades in the business to give John Scully the lived-in wisdom and weary he needed, Daniels alternates from charming, exasperated, furious, content, all primarily through dialogue.  It’s rare for a performance, in the shouty/pouty tradition which wins awards, to be so many things at once and yet remain so professionally restrained.  He has the quiet intensity and power of delivery, like when a parent says they’re not mad just disappointed.  And by all accounts his particular child (parent references abound) gave him plenty to be disappointed about over the years.  There are enough encounters throughout the movie to suggest, as biographies and anecdotal evidence no doubt support, that Jobs was a difficult man to work for and with.  It’s likely history will be kind and usher him into the realm of obstinate geniuses whose singular pursuits in one arena left scorched earth in several others.  If this is a first pass (ignoring TV movies and the output of Mr. Kutcher) at a visual legacy, it could certainly be worse.  What we ultimately end up with is a stitched together glimpse of the craziness on three of the busiest days of the man’s life, days which would fundamentally alter the trajectory of Apple and Silicon Valley.  And while certainly not a hagiography of the man, the ending does allow some sense of paternal closure, reminding, or perhaps telling for the first time, his daughter that she hasn’t gone unnoticed.  Not exactly something one would put on a Hallmark card, to be sure, but it makes a fair enough point that paying attention goes a long way.  Perhaps not unlike John Nash in A Beautiful Mind, the acknowledgment may not always register, but he’s always listening.

Movie Review – “Everest” (IMAX 3D)

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I don’t like places where my feet don’t touch the ground.  Every time I’ve gone in the ocean it hasn’t been without the concern, regardless of how remote it might appear, that momentarily I’d be yanked out into the abyss.  Also, sharks.  Those two phobias, as well as several other miscellaneous frights, follow me into pools and lakes, as well; and the last time I checked pools have bottoms and lakes are coming up short in the Jaws department.  Again, sense seldom accompanies a genetically primed, visceral aversion to aspects of the world.  That same sense of barreling unease, the snowballing dread that attaches itself to your mind and maddeningly intensifies the more attention it draws towards itself, can follow me into a movie theater as well.  Only a few years ago I sat in my seat and felt the ripples of helplessness as Sandra Bullock went end over end towards astral oblivion.  To me, that was the sign of a job well done, that with popcorn in my lap and feet planted on sticky theater ground I was brought into contact with a sensation typically reserved for summer afternoons.  That same replication was made manifest while watching the most recent IMAX spectacle, Everest.

Telling the story which John Krakauer (Michael Kelly, here) relayed in his best-selling Into Thin Air, the filmmakers behind Everest do an admirable job of treating both the human and the natural with reverence.  The mountain isn’t belittled because, as one character somberly prophesies not in so many words, it never loses.  And the people certainly aren’t made to appear foolhardy.  Which is important, as this movie chronicles what was, at the time, the most dangerous day in the mountain’s history.  (Sadly, given events of the last few years, this is no longer even one of the top two).

Not unlike the irascible group of rowdy thrill-seekers Michael Bay conjures up for us in Armageddon, we meet your every day nice guy (John Hawkes), the love-to-hate arrogant Texan (Josh Brolin), the good-vibes friendly rival (Jake Gyllenhaal), a handful of other expert climbers and relative newcomers, and our ostensible leader and hero, Rob (Jason Clarke).  Rob is an experienced Everest climber from New Zealand (I’m sure that country’s proclivity towards this particular mountain is not unrelated to the efforts of Sir Edmund Hillary) who’s company, Adventure Consultants, all but promises to get its clients to the summit and down safe and sound.  Amongst the party are repeat climbers who haven’t quite made it, intermediate climbers trying out the gorilla in the room for the first time, and people like Rob and his crew who have this absurd trek, this accomplishment which for any other person on the planet would be a glorious peacock feather in one’s cap, they have it tuned like a swiss watch.

Or, so they think.  This is a disaster movie, after all, and just as in Armageddon we might forget for passages of time there was an asteroid hurtling toward our blue dot, so here the moments of camaraderie and team-building distract us from the somber reality that this particular climb does not go well.  Are there stories of successful climbs which become best sellers?  In any event, to get into the particulars of why this became a doomed ascent, and why within the initial miscues even further, classically tragic events would unfold, is to both spoil the narrative and to some extent fail to acknowledge that these were real people (I’m assuming it was correct in Krakauer’s book and in the movie) and their actions and outcomes deserve more reverence than a dispassionate crossing off of a name on a list.  There are long portions of the movie which remind me of The Grey, the Liam Neeson wolf throat punching movie that is often times a punchline but impacted me more than most art-house or indie tweefests have in some years.  The best parts of that movie for me were the contemplative ones, the moments of cold candor where a person acknowledges their impending death, something which I still can’t quite appreciate though I know it’s been done by all ages all throughout existence, and how they chose too meet that end.  While The Grey was pure fiction, something like Everest reminds you that this does indeed happen, not necessarily with the pursuit of something as hellacious as a pack of timberwolves, though it is nature reiterating its default setting of indifference towards us, and maybe in that is our lesson.  It’s been told from Melville to London to Hemingway – nature is bigger and crueler than we could ever hope to be, primarily because we invent words like cruel and attempt to apply them where they doesn’t belong.  The instant we assign intent or motive to our surroundings is when we lose respect for it, and is there a better set up to tragedy in an outdoors movie than losing respect for nature?

In the ensuing chaos and confusion of the climb, people at base camp and at home fret and worry and curse their exhaustion while those they love and have sworn to look after battle unthinkable conditions.  It’s a credit to the movie that you feel it along with them.  Things that wouldn’t occur to me – helicopters can’t operate that high because of the air’s thinness, oxygen tanks need to be stored ahead of time to aid in descent – are inserted in heartbreakingly organic terms in the script, each realization adding a level of devastation to a trip that in hindsight looks to have been deliberately conceived to fail.

All of the performances are solid, if a bit one note.  It would have been nice to see performers of the level of Hawkes and Brolin and Gyllenhaal with more to do, as well as Keira Knightley and Emily Watson, both of whom imbue characters assembled basically to fret and worry with real meaning.  And again, to call them characters is almost callous – these were friends and coworkers and wives.  As it stands, Everest is a fitting tribute to the mountain which serves as the ultimate beam of light for the moths risky enough to endeavor.

Addendum:

As for the format, having not seen it in IMAX 3D I can’t adequately say if the experience is less than if you shell out for the premium ticket.  What I can attest is that the scenes of unthinkably long bridges, seemingly every inch of which are adorned with Tibetan prayer flags, suspended over “I-can’t-touch-the-bottom” crevasses are gorgeous.  So are the captured panoramas of the mountain – above, below, all around, it’s likely as close as I’ll ever get to Everest, and yet I won’t feel I’ve been cheated.  So while it’s possible that shots of cascading ice and snow, terrifyingly jagged, absurdly deep crevasses and overall confidence-eradicating magnitude announce themselves similarly with standard screens, they unequivocally do on The Big One.

Valhalla, IN

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Valhalla, IN

If Larson was predictably exceptional in any give race, then his ability approached transcendence on days when the wind’s soft, insistent presence coaxed a steady buzz out of the trees like the enveloping din of a train station. The sun alternates obscured and radiant among drifting clouds erratic enough to suggest the brewing of something that shortly would have to be contended with, barometric-wise. Days like this are not in the least uncommon for autumn in the Midwest.

He felt stronger on those days.  Inclement weather inspired in him a drive, a stubborn tenacity which competition alone failed to stir.  On those mornings where a cold, steady rain starts early and shows no intention of wavering, flying in the face of any number of practical and physical laws of natural governance, Larson disappeared further into himself for preparation.  This was hardly a conscious decision, at least at first.  Races won before had been done with little effort, autopilot by way of genetics.  These days, though, it seems when cold mornings infiltrate windowpanes at ungodly hours and its known the first thing waiting is that comprehensive chill which can’t properly be shaken but by a marathon shower at night, something within him is triggered.

For him the competition shifted, no longer one of many competitors within a surrounding but between one particular competitor and that surrounding.  It was the closest Larson had come in his lifetime to seriously approaching, from a mental constitution standpoint, what his Nordic ancestors might have endured on any number of those voyages into the haunting, frigid emptiness. While a tad hyperbolic, its not without merit to suggest that Larson shares and channels that same DNA, that his pre-race rituals are not, in fact, dissimilar to grizzled chieftains embarking upon landscapes acutely uninviting to human travel. There’s something to be said for efficacy, and you can’t choose the era in which you’re born, and so for Larson the seafaring mindset fortuitously lent itself to myriad feats of physical assessment. And as the Eriks and Haralds gazed beyond the horizon their vessels afforded and allowed themselves contemplation, they are granted an atmosphere of supreme, lucid solitude.   Extraction from this transfixion, they know, is inevitable, which ultimately conjures an anxiety so potent they lose their grip and in a cruelly ironic twist that purity of thought, only moments prior taut, begins to unravel.

The retreat to that solitude must become top priority, then, a withdrawal-mollifying narcotic. Whatever catalyst unleashed heroic expediency in his ancestors did not fail to materialize for Larson, either. It seems as if this is what he had been after even as a child, a remedy for deficiencies unrelated to protein or zinc but psychic in composition.  To watch him race in adverse weather was to witness not quite improvisational but more…adaptable greatness.  He’s Ayrton Senna in a Monaco deluge, capitalizing on colleagues’ panicked preoccupation with factors outside their control, all the while maneuvering to access and harness a unity within himself and all things.  Elemental, it could be called.

. . .

Like a bundle of dynamite, considered only by its likelihood to explode or not explode, was George Larson a runner.  As a gradeschooler his homeroom teacher, driven furious by the incessant typewriterly tapping of rubber soles on metal throughout the day, had designated a classmate each morning to tie George’s shoelaces to the mid-section of the rear legs of his desk, keeping his feet elevated while aimed down and back, as if riding a motorcyle.  Some mild writhing would shortly follow, stretching his shoelaces to their limit, his feet never quite reaching the ground to resume their paces, however.  This rebellion tightened the knot at the heart of the shoe’s flap to such a taut kernel of nylon that his same teacher, driven mad by the cacophany of rubber on metal, would have to take the scissors from her desk and carefully manipulate one half of the instrument to loosen up the lace, untie the boy and step back out of his way. Each morning for the duration of 8th grade George Larson and Mrs. Henrietta Waugh would engage in their bi-pedal tete a tete.

George was not inclined to make trouble.  Truancy and other means of academic evasion failed to occur to him in a realistic way, and so every morning he would innocuously walk in to that unthinkably bright classroom whose Eastward facing windows allowed in a disturbing amount of sunlight which the beige, essentially transparent, as far as the students could tell, curtains invited in.  Coupled with the heavy yellow layer of paint applied to the cinder block walls, Ms. Waugh’s 7:25 A.M. Reading Homeroom became what some of the kids proposed during lunch and after school as a psychological experiment in structured sadism (though at the time it was elocuted more as “they paint the walls like puke so we don’t look away from the board”).  Indeed, the educators seemed to have realized the frequency with which their children’s minds wandered and responded by dressing any surface or corner which might compete for their attention, any undefined slab of stone or cement onto which the students might project fantasies, daydreams or replays of last night’s tv shows, in a hue so intrinsically unappealing it would often enough have the same effect on the teachers.  Like the way a mother might taste a bar of soap after sanitizing her son’s mouth just to gauge the punishment’s severity, so too do Wilcott Elementary’s administrators, after enough hours of exposure to the spew-tinted walls, question the civility of their methods.

Gym and lunch granted him short reprieves, but otherwise those nylon straps atop his feet held him in place.  Physically restrained though mentally undaunted, the race continued in his mind: hurdles cleared, finish lines crossed, competitors overtaken.  There was a race to be run and if others around him couldn’t realize it, then they’d just have to be left behind.  In August, before his freshman year of high school, George appeared at the first optional practice of the Cross Country team.  “Appeared” is how it’s phrased it looking back while we, his teammates and coaches, recall him showing up with the unbridled manic ferocity of a fugitive.

“Is everything alright?!”, Coach Williams asked, as the boy stampeded into the clearing where the other guys were getting loose.

“Sure”, George innocently replied, no trace of uncertainty or deception.

Nobody was chasing him, he wasn’t late.  This was his life’s pace.  Those early practices had their share of growing pains for teammates who found the spectacle of his suicide-pace default setting quickly transform, in their eyes, from novelty to showmanship.  The coaches, naturally, were intoxicated by it.  They had found the absolute model of a competitor, someone who views warm-ups, stretching, cool downs and lifting sessions as totally essential, activities to be attacked with total absorption. In hindsight, Larson would admit to me that the total immersion he displayed in supplemental activities was simply fueled by the need to get back to running.  The sooner he finished his bench session or got his hamstrings warm, the sooner he’d be back in that trance, powering through the space before him because he could, because, as he would say, “he had to”.

. . .

In only the second race of the season, our first of two trips that season to Westfield Prep’s exquisitely manicured sylvan labyrinth, there was a moment, one which has been regaled to us at nearly every available opportunity by coaches, parents, and all racers in the vicinity.  I could only make out from a distance what seemed to be going on, but I’ve no doubt of the anecdote’s veracity.  Season concluding banquets, pre-race inspirational fodder, ammunition for particularly uninspired afternoons of practice; the occurrence would go on, in various interpretations, to serve as rhetorical gospel for years to come.  The nucleus of all versions of the story is how Larson, the lone Laurens beacon in a shroud of Westfield racers, got bottled up in some kind of bush league trap tactic. Along the serpentine path leading up to the two-mile marker, each attempt by Larson to burst through the cluster of Westfieldians was stymied by some (apparently coordinated) obstruction blueprint.  The inside tracks were perpetually occupied.  Any effort to escape to the outside was met with the corner-hugger sprinting up to maintain the lead while rear members of the group would move up along the edge of the path and fill in any gap relinquished by Larson’s push to the outside. When it became apparent after enough of these repelled advances that Larson wasn’t going away, the boy ahead of Larson decided to simply slam on his brakes. In the hubbub of the ensuing collision a pair of Westfield’s finest heaved Larson out into the surrounding bushes Breaking Away style and rejoined the pack, the entirety of them galloping off. What transpired afterwards is known only to the race’s participants, and since teenage conspirators are seldom chomping at the bit to recount lies publicly (much less one requiring solidarity and mental coordination, uncommon in your average high school boy), the remaining eye witness for this particular account was Larson himself, a kid whose garrulity on his best day would be described as “dispassionate”.

The press conference (for genuine lack of a better term – ordinarily I would say dungeon-chat, but the implications of that are too varied and troubling that it’s easier to grant the school’s recreational facilities this rare metropolitan treatment) was as without suspense or excitement as to personally offend those gathered.

“George, what happened out there?”

“A race, sir, and a darn good one it was.”

“But the Westfield kids, something happened, didn’t it?”

“Yes sir, they won.”

“There was a fight though, right? Something took place.”

“Sirs, and I can’t emphasize this enough, the only thing that took place today was a darn good race with some fast and tough kids. I hope they consider me one of them, cause that’d sure make me and my family proud.”

Somewhere John Glenn smiled.

Back and forths of this nature continued for about twenty more minutes. I couldn’t believe it, leaning in the corner, waiting for something, some sign of my teammate. Is this guy really this ice cold all the time? If those punks had tried something with me (in my dreams, I don’t pretend to think I hold their attention for more than the most fleeting of instances) they would’ve known what happened, there wouldn’t need to be some kind of recap to sort out the details. Those kids would be returning to their camps with spike indentations in some of the more heinous locations, eliciting rolling-pin-grabbing reactions from all but the most placid of mothers. But Larson didn’t betray a thing – it were as if he just wasn’t the fastest this go round and that wasn’t that big of a deal to him.

The only thing which made me think it was an act, and maybe this was nothing, but it’s stuck with me ever since. His feet. Sitting across from George on countless benches and bus seats, I’d always noticed how he carried his feet with an angular grace, each foot pointing away from the waist at what had to be a perfect forty-five degree angle. This barrage of questions, silly though it was, apparently had an effect on him. Whereas his feet would normally anchor him and his spine into a picture of desired posture, at this moment, fielding these sadly earnest inquiries about a high school race, his right toes were digging into the laces of his left. An arrhythmic swiveling ensued, like drilling a fencepost. I wanted to ask him about it before the session disbanded but all at once the coaches descended and kindly requested everyone head home. The next day the papers had plenty of theories, but they were predictably ordinary and uninspired, though in the schools some kids swear they spotted hoofprints in the dirt when they caught up to the scene. In accounts following the race, more than one rival team invoked Four Hoursemen imagery. For once the hyperbole rest with the kids themselves and not some local columnist’s sensational creation. These kids had messed with George up close and personal and, results aside, I don’t think they liked what they saw. As far as they were concerned, Westfield #1 was about to take its place alongside Bunker Hill and Thermopylae.

. . .

Lifting amounts normally reserved for defensive lineman, George exhibited an atypical runner’s build.  The length was there, standing 6’4 and with some chance still to add another half inch, but the mass is where he truly separated himself.  The gangly, rail-thin upper body, characteristic of the great distance runners, was foreign to the young man.  He possessed roughly hewn and rigid arms, a logger’s arms.  These hung from a wide and protruding chest; indeed, that year George was the lone freshman able to properly fill out his shorts and singlet.  Safety pins were used for the rest of us, whose massive inherited shorts lacked elasticity enough to stay on the boys unassisted.  This development also, or, rather, primarily, quieted those initial complainers who were in no rush to challenge the specimen to a match with one arm behind their back holding up their trousers.  When alone, the boys were curious about how this could be: If there’s always freshmen coming in who hadn’t yet physically blossomed, and the upper classmen are wearing the larger sizes, why are there no shorts that fit?  The articles really were decrepit.  Laughably so, until one boy put forth the notion that these disgusting shorts might have actually been around for so long they were a testament to a time when even the smallest kid could fill them out, which drained whatever nervous laughter remained in the room.  It was as the group of us (less one), grasping and sizing up our unwieldy uniforms, were staring at cavemen: unable to deny the lineage yet not quite comprehending it.  Puberty, or lack thereof, is hard enough by itself.  It’s made considerably worse when you learn you’re apparently supposed to evolve into a relic.  I would catch George glancing over now and again during these confidence pow-wows, grinning to himself and fidgeting with his spikes. It was important to see him smile now and again. So often his ability had an inverse effect on social circles that these brief glimpses of humanity, reminders of personality and joviality, helped ground the kid who months into high school was being elevated, fairly or not, to legendary status.

. . .

It doesn’t take him long to arrive at the mode of thinking he demands of himself on race day, though it’s tricky to maintain.  In the park, repeated challenges to concentration seem to manifest themselves in fifteen minute intervals.  ‘Good lucks!’ and ‘atta boys!’ from parents and family members are unavoidable, to be tolerated with a smile and the odd handshake.  There’s horsing around from lower-rung teammates not expected to participate, which often takes the form of some kind of tag/dodgeball hybrid with pinecones and acorns.  These distractions make for a merciful wash when a parent or sibling would inevitably take an acorn to the temple.  Hands-in-pockets, staring-into-the-distance whistling unsuccessfully conceals the culprits as mothers and fathers angrily corral their nuisance-makers, excusing themselves from conversation with transparent gritted-teeth politeness.

Free of all this, until the next interruption, he can lean back against the railing amid the unending mist.

. . .

For a freshman, Larson had enjoyed a phenomenal season.  Truth was he enjoyed a phenomenal season for anyone.  It took our coaches only until the finish times were announced after the first meet to invite the wunderkind to the varsity squad, an invitation which was never rescinded.  Larson managed personal bests in consecutive races for the duration of the season.  Such an accomplishment is common amongst freshmen who, with enhanced endurance, strength and conditioning as well as improving technique, typically improve by leaps and bounds those first few months.  For Larson, the bar had been set so high in that first race, though, that the idea of consistent, calculated improvement was simply irrational.  The coaches discussed in closed door meetings what to do when Larson finally comes back to earth.  They would take the young kid aside.  He’d surely be a little spooked at a personal meeting as a freshman, and they’d have to tell him right away, reassuringly, that the other freshman weren’t invited because they didn’t have to even think about this because they are not at his physical level.  He possesses gifts that even the veterans on the team haven’t been able to develop, and so in the coming weeks, maybe even days with the number of miles he’s logged, a let-up in performance is inevitable but nothing to be concerned about.  Once his endurance comes around and his technique becomes polished enough, he can be the best runner in the state.  Encouraging words, but they must toe the line carefully.  He has to be informed of his talent level and its absolute rarity without giving way to fawning.  These distance lifers know the danger of ego, especially in a pursuit as solitary as running, which makes stoking that fire a touchy subject.  What these current coaches, and coaches and teammates and reporters down the line consistently overlooked was that George Larson required no motivation.  Motion coursed through the young man’s veins at an elemental level.  Like a cadmium rod absorbing and maintaining a reactor’s enormous flow of energy, his feet pounding grass, dirt and cement kept his body manageable.

Larson’s teammates did not possess the same combustible fuse, though for their part they were steadily improving throughout the year. One of George’s actual friends on the team (the solitary path that accompanies those blessed with enviable gifts at a confusing age did not elude him), another freshman, Owen Sinclair, had managed to position himself just on the perimeter of the varsity squad, aiming to be a letter-man for the next three years.  Available as an alternate should one of Wilcott’s seven be unable to race, Sinclair accompanied Larson when training continued beyond the regular season and into this stretch of county, region, state and, potentially, national tournaments.  In these later portions of the year when the scheduled meets are finished, management of the team, though at what many would consider its most vital period, becomes exceedingly laissez-faire.  For some unknown reason the myriad demands facing a high school student’s time can be meticulously arranged so long as a concrete schedule of locations and times exists.  Once those dates take on a fluid quality obligations are subjected to triage wherein county and state-wide meets, opportunities for success worked towards the entire season, somehow become afterthoughts.  Coaches become blue in the face contending with the irony of preaching the importance of journey over destination and having it thrown in their face in the capricious manner unique to a high school athlete. The team tried their best to run together, though allowances were made for Larson’s, what local newspapers termed, “eccentricity”.  As a result, the days leading up to a major meet witnessed along the parks and streets of Wilcott townspeople united in support of their distance denizens, though an impartial observer might quickly note the distinct contingent of six (five varsity plus one of two alternates) running in unison, meanwhile finding Larson hurtling down an avenue or up a woodchipped hill, his pace-man (in title only), Sinclair, in breathless pursuit.

. . .

In late October, Laurens High hosted their conference championship meet.  Historically, Wilcott County featured the premier runners in Indiana, once or twice a generation actually producing Olympians, yet, with more regularity and somehow even greater local pride, producing Greater Midwest Group III High School Cross Country champions.  While athletics had demonstrated susceptibility, what did prove resistant to cyclical greatness was the eclectic array of goods and wares offered on the course’s interior perimeter.  All manner of booths, benches, tables and awning’d flatbeds peppered the plateau, offering hand-knit sweaters (always a favorite on a November Indiana morning), watercolor landscapes, lovingly rendered pine birdhouse sets, glass, metallic or stone jewelry – an altogether overwhelming display of heartland miscellany finally culminating in a stand where, it appeared, customers can present absolutely anything and have it deep fried.  The offer is most typically redeemed on hot dogs or chicken, with the odd pretzel or pizza slice plunged into the grease.  It’s not entirely unusual, however, to catch a wandering spectator, after an extended visit in the Hoosier Horseshoe, leaving behind a trail of flakes.

An embattled troupe of Wilcott’s former pride, members of the Hoosier Horseshoe arrange their tailgate in the eponymous symbol and commence to drink themselves into a furiously nostalgic back and forth of tales and yarns.  In the manner not uncommon to people whose promise and accomplishments intertwine at an early age, a game of bitter one-upsmanship almost immediately commences after the fifth beer.  In no reasonable way can it be discerned how an argument would 1) lead to such an action, or 2) how the resulting action has any bearing on a meaningful disagreement (though at this stage in the afternoon it’s more than fair to assume the disagreements are no longer meaningful, if they ever even were), but along with Wilcott’s sporting ineptitude and Marjorie Anderson’s sweater boom, the annual spotting of a Hoosier Horseshoe member whose boots have been crusted over and now sport a lightly golden, deep fried hue has become standard.

The circus that is the Wilcott County conference championship grants Midwestern race aficionados an opportunity to take in the proceedings while shedding children and money at regular intervals.  Tracking a particular runner through a race becomes in itself a spirited competition.  Dodging children with faces painted like big cats is second nature after twenty minutes or so, anticipating their erratic movements and, if necessary, employing a 20 percent effort Heisman stiff-arm to keep half of that still-drying cheetah from gracing your sport coat.   Of course, every other fan is doing pretty much the same thing, leading to a scene of practiced, disciplined running along the course at the perimeter by the actual, you know, racers, and fevered, hectic, sometimes colliding bodies in the center of all manner of spectator – as if the boys were circling sheepdogs and the fans their manic cargo. And so while the greater Wilcott area again basked in its annual craftawre boon, Laurens continued to find itself mired in a severe talent and title drought, each year more openly resenting the ongoing success of neighboring schools.  The freshman specimen figured to change their fortune.

. . .

Distance runners are not the fighting type.  At least not fist fights.  The boys stand with wire thing arms and nothing more than the canvas where a chest might emerge, like conscripted ancient soldiers awaiting what could only be laughably over-sized armor but are instead just sent out into the world.  The only region on their bodies where mass congregates in any long-term capacity are the foot and a half stretches between hips and knees.  Take an Olympic speed skater with the comic-book size quadriceps. divide that by about 2.5, and subtract any notion of this person having encountered a bench press ever in life, and you’ve got the build of a great distance runner.

Which is why Larson’s presence in these events inspires such cockeyed looks.  In our part of the country, a fella with his constitution should be fully padded and pursuing wide receivers with considerable hostility, but here he was, beguiling and majestic, absorbing the deep wet chill of the day.  Whether or not his size contributed in any way to his efficacy on days like this is difficult to determine.  People react differently to temperature based on factors as innate as genetics to more controlled variables such as diet and nutrition.  Focus and mental preparation (Buddhist mindfulness practices being decidedly in vogue at the time) could also account for the sterling performance of kids whose negligible body fat percentages made them candidates for contracting pneumonia in the dairy section of most local grocery stores.  Larson just didn’t look the part, to put it mildly.  And that’s fine, cross country squads always end up resembling some kind of alternate universe dream team: the sympathetically overweight, the painfully uncoordinated, reluctant asthmatics with questionable parenting…  Being an inclusive activity, unburdened by strictures of roster size which plagued football and baseball, running ultimately becomes a random assortment of personality and body types.  In that broad sense Larson fit right in, another curious addition to an ever growing cast.  Except that he was good, very good, unnervingly good, and in that season was quickly challenging previously held opinions on what someone of his makeup should be doing during the fall months.

George tossed his sweats in a pile next to his bag beneath the elm tree housing the rest of his teammates’ gear.  After jogging to his desired area on the line, off to the left to anticipate the first ninety-degree into the wooded path, he had to elbow his way into the preexisting group.  Sometimes he’d get a reflexive push back where the guy didn’t even bother to turn and look.  On these occasions, when he’d wedge right back in a moment later, the guy would finally turn around to meet the face of the insistent jerk and almost always lose the color in his face, now having to entertain the idea of Larson’s arms performing any number of half-nelson variations on himself.  Then, in a saving face manner he’d squint his eyes in annoyance and turn to look straight back out toward the opening stretch.  Despite this surface level cold-shouldered display of moxy, any reasonable observe could detect that where before had been an impregnable stretch of racers a noticeable gap in the line had appeared.

. . .

What these children discover at early ages is difficult, courageous, borderline dangerous performances can be wrung from their bodies by subscribing to one banal yet formidable thought: “This is expected of me.” It is the albatross for children born into privilege or family industries, the pervasive restrictions of a surname. The burden makes itself manifest in several areas of life, quite commonly in sports.  Significant physical thresholds are encountered and cleared all due to inferences children make from those five words.  The mind reprioritizes and, in a reason-eschewing manner, finishing a six-minute mile pace performance on a bruised heel sits perched atop an inverse hierarchy of needs, peering down at lesser considerations like pain management and general logic.  So much can be coaxed from adolescents, who by definition are unsure of their own selves.  Even more can be gained when you implant the notion that although difficult and frightening things lie in their path, the expectations of others don’t waver.

“You will feel terrible. You will be unsure why you chose this path. It will seem easy to stop.  Don’t.”

The child naturally should ask “Why?”, but doesn’t.  Fear might govern the lack of inquiry, but mostly the question is unwarranted.  At some point early enough in their training a series of adults engineered these children not to question their tactics, and now their imprinting is crystallized.  Any time a doubt might manifest itself throughout a run the thought is halted, intercepted and rerouted back to the reservoir of guilt coaches had dug months and years earlier, each time arriving at a dead-end of fear and shame at which their conditioned mind can only ever muster the same responsorial: “This is expected of me.”

Without this established standard, who knows how many racers would forfeit, never to continue?  A distance race is pain.  It’s full body assault as feet pound earth.  Ankles are overwhelmed by normal force until mercifully handing off the shockwave into muscles better suited to absorb it – calfs, quads and thighs usher the rippling up into the waist which is about where it tends to dissipate.  The torso is hardly spared in this debacle, though.  Acute shoulder strain migrates across both planes towards the neck and more or less congeals there, sending pulses of nerve action up to the brain stem or down to the ribs, varying its frequency enough to keep the shoulders locked up tight in dreaded anticipation.  Naturally such posture only worsens the strain and so this song and dance settles into its routine of spontaneous discomfort for the duration.  And all the while, with the physical barrage well under way, the mind, in its never ceasing capacity for lucid introspection on multiple topics at once, goes to town.

Coaches yelling quarter mile splits provide a brief epiphany, rescuing the occupied mind from considerations of what’s for dinner, tomorrow’s history midterm, the news that Sarah and Steve are apparently dating now?  Heretofore wise-decision making Sarah… An itch develops along the left calf and on any other day it’d be dealt with by a delicate scrape of the right foot along the back, but metal spikes on race day are a different animal and best not to risk it.  Not to mention that for some reason when I run I develop this OCD element, which either is non-existent or mercifully dormant in other realms of my life, and so if I scrape my left calf with my right foot, you better believe the right calf starts to expect some reciprocation.  On race day, that makes it at minimum 2 metal-spike swipes that I’m rolling the dice with.  I say “at minimum” two because if on the ledger-balancing one I happen to graze the calf with either too little or too much effort compared with the first, there remains a disparity and now a graze must be made with intensity less than the initial, enough to make up the difference, but not too much more than the gap otherwise left calf has been scraped 1.5 times, while right calf somewhere between .9 and 1.1.  And since the last time I checked mid-race calf scraping is not an exact science, this could go on for some time.  So I deal with the itch. What’s one more confused body part in this gangly mess?  We haven’t had meatloaf in awhile, I wouldn’t hate that.  Get some of this cold out of me.  Ugh, the parents section of the course.  They’re the most well-meaning bunch of people you’d ever want to meet but my God, do I want to smash something or scream profanity when I go past them.  Hearing urging chants and calls from people wearing coats, sipping coffee and cocoa while my arms and legs are windblown and raw…it is enraging.  And I know it makes no sense to get mad about it.  Were they standing there in swimsuits it wouldn’t change the essential facts of the situation that ricochet between my synapses:

I’m running this race.

It’s not over yet.

I’m the only one who can make it be over.

Just keep running.

Too often this was the race-day inner monologue I’d contend with for five thousand meters of mud and rocks and invasive branches.  I lament that I never got to approach George about his preparation firsthand, none of us really could.  It’s possible I knew even then that it would prove fruitless.  As if asking Willie Mays to diagram his catches makes them any more comprehensible, much less repeatable.  It would be nice then at the very least to run into him again, maybe Homecoming.

. . .

It is a dimly lit morning.  The light contracts and darkness ink-blots the sky at first suggesting thunderstorm then dials itself back, holds, maintaining this heightened pall for some time.  There is a cool pleasing breeze drifting through, licking at the face and neck, rippling shirt fronts back against stomachs.  A gentle reminder of things bigger than yourself, that unmistakable double down of latent epiphanies, occurring in rapid succession, that you are alive and unknowable forces outside your control have allowed this to happen. Now firmly in place along the line, George, with the rest of the Greater Midwest Group III High School Cross Country entrants, awaited the pistol.

In Progress

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It was somewhere between his seventh and eighth time lining up along third base that Domingo Alvarez contemplated what he was doing out there.  His coaches stood 25, 50 and 100 meters perpendicular to the line he and his winded teammates occupied, stopwatches bulging from shirt pockets, great hunks of tobacco from cheeks.  The purpose of the given drill was to sprint to the 25 meter line designated by the first timekeeper, touch the ground with their hand, about face and return to the starting position along third, touching again with the hand.  This is to be followed as quickly as possible by return trips to the 50 and 100 meter markers, culminating in a full sprint of 100 meters back to the line at third, the three distinct down-and-backs constituting one complete cycle.

Sprinting 350 meters is a fairly Herculean task.  Track and Field personalities will often, when considering the most difficult events for a runner, slot the 400M, one revolution of the track, behind the 400M hurdles and the 2 mile in terms of capacity for sheer exhaustion.  The race is a pure sprint, though with the mercifully short conclusion of the 100M quadrupled, managing to seem impossibly longer as each successive step becomes heavier and less rapid.  Having performed the near equivalent of six 400M cycles, all with predictably diminishing returns, morale along the dirt began to flag.  With his abdomen pulsing at alarmingly irregular intervals and quick pulls of air into stinging lungs providing little relief, Domingo Alvarez considered what in the hell was going on.

They had lost, 2-0.  Their opponent, Sacramento, has an unbelievable team.  Numbers one through six have been all-stars in various minor league levels, with at least four anticipating call-ups to the majors in the ensuing season.  Fletcher Rothchild, Albuquerque’s dependable though by no means elite starter navigated the lineup with startlingly clinical ease.  A former hard thrower who’s diminished velocity has almost certainly relegated him to one or another location in the unpromising stratification of the minors for his career’s duration, Rothchild nevertheless commanded immense respect amongst his teammates and opposition.

This acknowledgement turned out to be the result of a fierce competition one wouldn’t ordinarily expect out of a soft thrower, but is made all the more understandable when considering the uphill battle they face each game.  Though it is common to associate velocity with tenacity, the supposed fire burning within a hard thrower is more the outward manifestation of their effort.  A grunt or a bellow following the whip of the arm mostly suggests the taxing physical aspect of tossing an object with such force, not an indication of any sort of drive beyond those of lesser arms.  As guys with big arms play, and if they remain ascending the ranks, play successfully, a comfort zone is often erected to surround their genetic gift in the steadily crystallizing realization that a pitch need only be partially rather than completely executed to achieve an out.  There is an inherent safety net by way of this enhanced appendage that allows the pitcher, if he so chooses, to insert a degree of nonchalance to his art.  If this aversion to detail evolves from generally isolated instances (for even the most mentally honed players will suffer the occasional human drift in thought) into habit, it almost certainly guarantees a decline in mental toughness.  The soft thrower is commonly addressed with such euphemistic adjectives as “crafty”, “tricky”, “deceptive” or overall referred to not as a thrower or a pitcher but as a “gamer”, someone who, despite their glaring lack of imposing physical tools, will nonetheless prove a very real obstacle.  This obstinate quality is often explained, on a scale inverse to that of the freedom afforded fire ballers, to be the result of a unique mental edge, some template in their preparation which acknowledges the physical gap between themselves and their more blessed peers and fords that passage with unyielding professionalism.  Allowing for the inescapable march of time and fatigue, these men remain relevant (to the degrees they remain relevant) by understanding the game.

If hard throwers populate one of three player categories which successfully pitch in professional baseball, namely “The Throwers”, then “The Veterans” are the ones who stick around with a combination, shifting for each particular practitioner, of guile, stamina, statistical assumptions, and, though slightly dramatic, bravery.*  *(If confidence can be considered an ability of one to enter a situation which has the possibility of ending horribly without concern, then it should follow that simply taking the mound, when there is a chance of each at bat ending with a high-five as the hitter is congratulated by the third base coach, requires something that resembles courage.)  The third group, one that deftly combines the innate ability of Throwers with the essential, survivable knowledge of the Veterans, is “The Pitchers”.  These are the guys who can strike out each hitter in a lineup with just a fastball but will save their bullets for late-inning jams.  These men have two to three effective secondary pitches behind that searing fastball but will not introduce at least two of them until the second time through the lineup.  Most pitchers occupy one of those titles, if at all, for only a brief portion of their careers.  Sometimes Throwers never make the adjustments to become Pitchers and fizzle out, failing to last long enough to become a Veteran.  A live arm might fade earlier than usual and through perseverance the pitcher resurrects the career – failing to achieve the nominal title of “Pitcher”, but doubtlessly having endured enough soul-searching and tinkering to, even at youthful age, achieve the tag of “Veteran”.

Fletcher Rothchild took the textbook path of progression.  Beginning as a terrifyingly wild sidearmer, with mounting frustration and the saintly patience of pitching Coach Hal Evans, the duo massaged that unwieldy delivery into a hellacious fastball/slider tandem, signaling his arrival into the Pitcher brotherhood.  Sapped of force by occasionally acute elbow trouble from that unorthodox delivery as well as the cumulative effect of a season’s worth of overall attrition, these days he is, unequivocally, a Veteran.

And so it was with the incorruptible fervor of a Veteran that Rothchild went after Sacramento that afternoon.  The game began on an inauspicious note for Fletcher and Albuquerque.  The first pitch offered to Glen Foster, Sacramento’s center fielder and leadoff hitter, is scalded back up the middle to meet Rothchild on the upper right (pitching) arm.  Maintaining awareness, Rothchild shuffles down the mound after the de-fanged baseball, its impact almost entirely absorbed by the fleshy patch beneath Rothchild’s shoulder, scoops it up bare-handed and lobs over to first.  As the ball makes its way around the infield, the manager, Marty Lomax, and trainer, Flip Hawkins, come jogging out from the bench to investigate the potential damage.

“How you feelin’ there, Fletch?”

“It’ll swell tomorrow but I’m good to go.”

Lomax and Hawkins exchange looks and slight nods before Lomax pats Rothchild on the back and the coaching pair shuffles back towards the dugout.  A combined 93 years of professional baseball transforms such discussions of serious bodily harm into entirely non-verbal exchanges.  Concern, frustration, honesty – some of the most significant mile markers on the emotional spectrum are conveyed and registered in gestures undetectable beyond the inner-most seating rows offering intimate proximity.  Rothchild need only tilt his head ever so slightly, as he does here, and let his right arm, still holding the ball, protecting, drift behind his back and out of view of the manger, to effectively plead his case.  Lomax understood implicitly.  And when he got the affirmative side-to-side headshake from Rothchild, a baseball equivalent of the counter-intuitive thumbs system employed in the Coliseum, he was comfortable leaving his man in.

The first pitch following a few granted warm-up tosses is up tight to Sacramento’s second basemen, Alberts, who backs out of the box to check the dugout signs.  No one chirps from Sacramento’s dugout.  A degree of wildness is expected after taking one near the shoulder, and considering the velocity of the offering wouldn’t have gotten him pulled over on 78% of U.S. highways, ill-intent was pretty much dismissed entirely.  Beyond that, if Alberts had the ability to diagnose pitches and redirect them with speed and accuracy at will, his presence in this level of baseball would be pointless.

The second pitch is a carbon copy of the first in location, though slightly faster.  Alberts again consults his dugout, wondering how to handle the favorable 2-0 count against a guy who may be developing control issues, though cultivating the budding counter-argument that these might be intentional.  ‘The next one will tell me’, he thinks.  ‘I’m looking up and in all the way, and if he dots the outside corner or drops in a breaking ball, then he’s fine.’  His ability to do that, however, betrays Rothchild’s actual control, meaning the two pitches prior were intentionally up and in.  ‘Is this gamesmanship?’ Alberts thinks.  ‘Rothy’s been around forever, seen all these things…this could actually be on purpose.’  As he digs back in with the green light from the bench, he decides to wait.  Rothchild doesn’t throw close to what he used to, and I’m ready to duck or back out if need be.  And even then, it’ll be 3-0, and he’ll either get warned or they’ll get someone going in the bullpen, which would make this one a rout given Albuquerque’s infamous relief struggles.

The third pitch is a slow barreling curve, letter high and middle of the plate, 2-1.  ‘All right, he’s doing his thing.  Doesn’t want to go 3-1, this should be hittable.’

The fourth pitch knocks Alberts on his back, as up as the first two but at least a foot more inside.

‘God damnit!’  Alberts rolls onto his knees and begins to gather his effects: helmet, bat, composure.

‘How ’bout a warning there, Jim!?’  Sacramento manager Otis Merriworth hollers towards home plate.  Assistant coaches coax recently mobile players back into seats on the bench – too early for this nonsense.

‘I’ve got it, O’ replies umpire Jeff Hicks.  Albuquerque catcher Williams ambles out to chat with his seasoned counterpart, with Hicks along in hot pursuit.  ‘How we doing, Rothy?’ asks Williams, quickly and quietly before they’re interrupted.  But Rothchild just smiles out the left side of his mouth a bit, taps the shoulder with his glove and winks at Williams.

‘What’s up here, Roth, we alright?’ says Hicks.

‘Oh the wing’s fine, thank you for asking.’

‘I meant what’s with the tight stuff?  If you’re not in control I’m gonna have to make a decision here.  Show me something.’

‘We’re good’, interjects Williams.  ‘Just talking some shop.’

‘Well let’s hurry it up.’

The pair head back behind the plate.  Hicks re-establishes the count at 3-1.

‘Come on’, Alberts mutters to himself, anxious for retribution.  Williams gives a glance upwards to find Alberts wringing the life out of his bat’s handle, chalk and sweat blending as a paste at the base of his wrists.  He then gives a glance out to Rothchild to come to a decision.  The tap of the glove lets Williams drop down two fingers and smile, settling into his crouch.

Rothchild nods at the sign, comes set and explodes towards home with a ferocious whip of the arm.  Alberts’ pupils dilate to an obscene degree and he lets loose a bruising, full-bodied hack which, just as it passes the plate’s halfway mark and his senses detect not the hastened end over end fastball rotation but the awkward, heavy, drifting spin of the curve, he desperately attempts to keep in the zone as long as possible.

He does, ultimately – though not fortuitously.  When his partial contact results in a benign foul behind the plate, Williams loses his mark, casually corrals the ball and hurls it over the third to begin the throw-around.  Alberts paces back towards the dugout with purpose, some combination of frustration, disappointment and confusion.

“Beat the hell outta that one,” offers Williams, mask back on and resuming his crouch.

“What’s that?” responds Alberts.

Hicks extinguishes the would-be kerfuffle.  “Back to the dugout – none of that.  Too hot and too early.”

But the seed was planted.  Whatever mixed bag of emotions was competing for dominance within Alberts following his at-bat all at once gave way to a bubbling incensement he knew he’d have to suppress for at least eight more batters.

He decided to use this time advantageously, keeping track of Rothchild’s tendencies, such as they were applicable to his at bat (left handed hitters and more traditional power hitters had approaches and plate disciplines incompatible with Alberts’ and provided little to no information on how his next at bat might play out).  What Alberts made sure to key in on, then, was how Rothchild handled Clifton “Spanks” Dillon, Sacramento’s 9th hitter.  Spanks had more or less the same skill set as Alberts, albeit with an avg. / obp below his of 30 and 60 points, respectively.  Spanks was in that all-too crucial part of his development where, if strides aren’t taken in rapid succession, he’d soon be acquainted with what folks in the organization had taken to calling the “10th spot” in the batting order – irrevocable banishment.  Spanks, armed with this knowledge, was going to approach each of his potentially dwindling number of at-bats with a tenacity Rothchild might not be prepared for.  At the very least, by the time Spanks had either reached and eclipsed first or returned to the dugout, Rothchild will have had to pitch to the same type of hitter utilizing two different approaches in the span of only three innings.  This, Alberts reasoned, was plenty helpful for his next trip up.

Just as the serenity of this realization settled into Alberts’ stiffened shoulders, Spanks made an abrupt – even for him – return.

“This some bullshit!”

Stomping down the long, slim cement steps it’s hard to suppress a smile when faced with the incongruity of a muscular, athletic, all-around universally intimidating specimen venting frustration and having the soundtrack to this outburst be the delicate plastic-on-concrete “click, clack” interspersed between obscenities.  Fortunately, the dugout half-emptied to return to the field, Spanks’ out being the ninth consecutive registered by Rothchild.  Alberts didn’t have to concern himself with keeping a straight face, having been studying intently in the hole on the top step.

What he was able to learn from Spanks’ outing proved almost completely useless.  Spanks decided upon a first pitch no matter what approach, but immediately and quite unfortunately found himself in the unenviable scenario of needing to make contact (a not insignificant prospect for a .220 minor league hitter) or losing an eye.  Whether Rothchild had designs on Spanks’ plan, if the arm was beginning to swell from the shot in the 1st or if he’s just a little unhinged, that first pitch veered in towards the batter’s box with an industrial, locomotive directness which registered a fear in Sacramento’s #9 hitter so elemental it lingered, in some capacity, for the remainder of his career.  It was as if he was reminded, like a dog owner taken aback by a rare display of ferocity, his profession involves a considerable amount of very real danger.  Success in baseball demands familiarity with its most violent axiom, an agreed upon contract between the pitcher with impeccable control who is not motivated by malicious factors and those whom he faces.  Players arrive at their comfort levels early on, either in high school or the lower ranks of their respective organizations.  This status quo is shaken every once in a while when a pitch comes sailing in with the kind of unequivocal intent that Rothchild’s did to Spanks.  The player is wrestled free of their comfortable ignorance to harm as the game reestablishes its propensity for chaos and each player has to pick up the pieces in whatever way they can.

To his credit Spanks managed to defend himself from the single pitch, but he became yet another victim of Rothchild’s infuriating efficiency that day, another zero in what seemed destined to become a decidedly binary box score, if only Sacramento could manage a hit.  Alberts would have to spend his next half-inning in the field with no more information than the last two.

Holding up their end of the apparently implicit ineptitude bargain, Albuquerque’s turns at the plate prove equally worthless.  Whether tired, clueless or slumping, there appeared no remedy for such a meager offensive performance against Shaughnessy, Sacramento’s pitcher that day.  Colm Shaughnessy, a somewhat tall right-hander, had thin, angular legs, which met his waist and then, curiously, gave way to a bulbous, barrel chested torso sporting arms dangling and defined enough to row across the Atlantic.  The spatial incongruity of top and bottom made him look cartoonish on the mound, like a uniformed placard that, appropriately, was an absolute strike-throwing machine.  Colm wasn’t utilizing any type of possibly malicious tactic the way Rothchild seemed to be, he was just dominating.

A year earlier in the Rule 4 Draft, held in the crowded, beige-lit conference room of a downtown Minneapolis Radisson, every team in the majors had “Shaughnessy” at the top, corner, or some otherwise marked and easily accessible segment of their draft sheets.  Regardless of the specific needs of any given team, the undeniable talent this kid possessed made his acquisition and cultivation an impossible-to-ignore circumstance.  Only twenty percent of the teams in attendance had any real shot of picking the kid.  That many had a chance since there were certainly a few other considerable talents demanded recognition, particularly to clubs who considered themselves adequately stocked with pitching prospects.  That few because the kid’s agent, predictably and alarmingly (as far as potential suitors were concerned) knew exactly how special this right arm was.  A pick, even of a no-doubter like Shaughnessy, carried with it significant concern over signability.

If a selection wasn’t paired with at minimum a six-figure signing bonus in a matter of days, the high school kid could always take one of the myriad scholarships he’d been offered and three years later some other club could snatch him up.  It was a combination of organizational need and liquidity, then, that was going to sign Colm Shaughnessy.  Thankfully for them, that year the Oakland A’s had jettisoned a few of their more stultifying contracts and were in a position to unload, if necessary, the requisite ransom.  Shaughnessy would have accepted a contract for a fraction of what his camp was advertising, though vocalizing this viewpoint was discouraged.

Thus far the move has paid immediate and promising dividends, with Shaughnessy anchoring Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate and putting up impressive slash statistics in the overwhelmingly offensive-geared Pacific Coast League.  His 12-1 record ranks first in the Pacific Coast League at this point in the summer in wins and win percentage, while his 12 wins and 14 quality starts are each in the top 3 in all the Triple-A levels.

In addition to the individual success he has garnered for himself, the nearly unblemished record has undoubtedly been aided by Sacramento’s brutal, war-of-attrition offense.  The team thus far in the year has managed to be in the top 5 of Triple-A teams in on base percentage, batting average, runs, extra base hits, walks, hit by pitches and batter strikeouts.  It’s a lineup opposing managers agonize about facing, while opposing pitchers often times mentally allow for the likelihood of a horrendous afternoon.  For some this means not abstaining the night prior when out with the team, for others it simply lessens the pre-game intensity and shortens rituals.

Which is why it was odd to see Fletcher Rothchild studying the lineup card and whatever scouting reports were available well before pre-game stretching was set to commence.  A couple of the younger outfielders joked he was reading himself his last rites.  In any event, this shot passed harmlessly overhead.  Rothchild kept shuffling papers, scribbling here and there into margins.  What looked like it could have been the early manifestations of veteran madness was apparently the groundwork for a successful, if idiosyncratic, plan of attack. By the seventh inning it was a scoreless affair and Sacramento was beginning to get frustrated – just as Albuquerque started to believe.

Alberts adopts a crouch in the on deck circle, cradling his bat between the knees, helmet tilted down at the ground, contemplative.  In the 4th, still incensed by their earlier meeting, he went to the plate with a see-it, hit-it attitude that Fletcher immediately exploited.  In complete pull mode, Alberts made a thoroughly athletic play simply making contact with a tauntingly lifeless changeup arriving at the plate’s outside corner.    A squib shot up the first base line hooked far enough towards the mound that with minimal effort allowed Williams to jog out from behind home, bare hand and with a slight pivot to Alberts’ left deliver a clean out to first.  Two outs, then.  First at the expense of an unpredictable pitch sequence, then by his own unchecked aggression.  Alberts ground the head of the bat into the barren dirt at his feet, perhaps some oil lay beneath.  If at bats 1 and 2 are the outliers in terms of discipline, he reasons somewhere in between is the Bombe to this particular Enigma.

I can eliminate first pitch fastball; he’d be too hesitant after the first pitch swing in the 4th.  I can eliminate a curve as well if he’s thinking the same thing about a fastball and assuming I’ve arrived at that thought as well.  A changeup is a certain possibility given the result from the 4th, but he can seldom throw that for strikes and at this stage in the game he can’t want to fall behind hitters.  Alberts, while never a pure guess hitter has also been concerned with going to the plate entertaining too many options.  In college and the minors his coaches and mentors had often professed this mythical Zen-like consciousness hitters are supposed to achieve, some kind of organic harmony between analysis and feel.  Never an overt convert, some of the teachings did make a good deal of sense, especially to someone as prone to overthought as himself.

Visualization exercises were often employed where one would see the path of the type of pitch they expect, and that would undoubtedly aid when that pitch was thrown.  Alberts found that this approach was phenomenally successful.  If he imagined a beautiful parabolic curve, for instance, and then had the good fortune to be thrown one, more often than not the result was a follow-through of such physiological bliss the credit, in his mind, rightfully had to be ascribed to something not of this earth.  For those times the visualized isn’t thrown, however, this tactic has the habit of leaving hitters out to dry.  What feels so inescapably destined when successful becomes positively conspiratorial when flipped on its head.  What ended up working best for him was a kind of Russian roulette, having one to two pitches in mind and assigning likelihood to each delivery from the pitcher with the unbiased objectivity of the spin of the chamber.

Glen Foster stares down a called strike three, remains in the box for a beat with a head shake then retreats to the dugout to nurse the afternoon’s inefficacy.  Alberts lifts his head and rises from the crouch, fastball and curve ping-ponging through his head like possessed electrons until he calls upon an empirical means of selection.

“Fuck it.”

Rothchild looks in to Williams, nods and comes set.  He doesn’t leer at Alberts in any capacity; he just as easily could have been a pinch hitter.  It wasn’t like Rothchild to harbor animosity or nurse grudges – a brawl or a feud has never advanced his career and didn’t seem likely to.  He remembers hitters in ways which benefit his performance. First pitch fastball hitter, first pitch taking all the way, pure pull…these consolidate and weave together over the years, but are never animated to become anything beyond reference points.  Whether a player liked him or didn’t was of little consequence, they are obstacles which can be solved.  And he had done his homework on Sacramento.  Alberts saw a looping curve tumble out of Rothchild’s hand and ease its way down towards the middle of plate, being thrown for a strike.  As his arms tightened and the barrel met the pitch and redirected it, this barely registered in vibrations through his torso.  He was delighted to find this lack of response was not the outcome of the failure-free visualization tactic but, much like Rosemary’s epiphany, “this is actually happening.”  Alberts met the ball on the lower inside part of the plate and fluidly extended his arms as his hips shifted through the zone.  The textbook swing was accompanied by a heavy and brief thud, an elemental thud so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quick the outcome, unmistakable, induced a unanimous, Pavlovian groan from the home crowd.  As the ball cleared the left field wall in approximately 5 seconds the day’s work for Rothchild had been undone that quickly.  Unceremonious and deflating, Lomax trotted out to take the pulse of his veteran and grant a few more tosses to Stults who, what with Rothchild’s elevated pitch count, had begun warming in the sixth.

“That’s just some shit luck there, Fletch.”

“I’m finishing this fucker.”

“We got Stultsy all ready to go, hasn’t pitched since last Wednesday.”

“Marty, I’m not asking.”

“This was a beaut until that Limey got lucky.  Hell, still is.  Take the final few off, you earned it.”

“I didn’t earn shit.  You pay me to pitch, let me pitch.”

An awkward tension had developed on the mound and the longer Lomax stayed out there, and the more infielders formed along the perimeter, he felt his argument weaken.

“Fair enough.  Have at ’em, kid.”

Rothchild didn’t bother responding.  He didn’t need to extend a glove asking for the ball from Lomax, either, as he’d never relinquished it.

Lomax returned to the dugout a bit embarrassed, begrudgingly fine with letting his guy stay in.  “What was that about?” asks Hawkins.

“Fletch is feeling his oats today.  Good for him.”

Lomax’ last line was said with enough bitter bemusement that, when coupled with the two coaches’ exchanging a devilish look, it inspires the same groan from the bench as Alberts’ dinger did the crowd.

Rothchild, whether incensed at the homerun, the quick hook Lomax was ready to use on him, or the frustration of riding out his career’s end in parks with chain link outfield fences and between-innings mascot competitions, experienced a decided bump in velocity for his remaining batters.

A walk and a hit batsmen were sprinkled in amongst four strikeouts and a short-hop back to Rothchild for an inning ending double play.  Alberts clunked his bat in the on deck circle and watched the donut rattle down the length of the handle, wobble for a moment then settle into the ground like a dropped quarter.  When he looked up he expected to meet Rothchild’s gaze on the way to the dugout but the man was already settled on the bench, jacket over his right side.  The look puzzled Alberts as well as Albuquerque’s personnel – it suggested the possibility of the game continuing, an unlikely proposition given Sacramento’s dominating bullpen, as well as the fact he had nine innings pitched already.

Ultimately it didn’t make a difference, the home team amassed a paltry comeback attempt, stymied for good by an inexplicable caught stealing at second down two runs.  As Jackson got up at second, wiped himself off and trotted back to the dugout, head hung in shame, Albuquerque’s dugout started to stir and gather effects.  Rothchild took off the right side of his jacket and stood up, hands on hips, tilting his head left then right.

“Hell of an effort, Roth.  That homerun was some bullshit.”

“No it wasn’t, but thanks.”

“Don’t forget your jacket.”

Rothchild exhaled through his nose and took two steps towards the dugout stairs.  “We’re not going anywhere” he said, continuing his climb out onto the field.

“What the hell?!  Why’s the door locked?”

Confusion and frustration at the door to the clubhouse.

“Coach Hawkins is walking out to third base, if you would all be so kind as to join him.”

“What’s up, skip?”

“What’s up is I asked you to go meet your coach in the field.  Will you do that?”

A few worried glances ricochet among the men before they take to the field not without a fair amount of trepidation.  When they start to arrive along the fence at third, Rothchild, who had been chatting up Hawkins, disengages and approaches the white line in left with the rest of his team.

“Mr. Hawkins, could you please take Coaches Anderson and Miles with you and each stand next to one of the cones I’ve set up.”

Movie Review – “Gravity”

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GRAVITY

Children of Men features two distinct, harrowing scenes which continue unbroken, for several minutes, through all manner of chaos and revolt.  Complicated, long-take shots have been a part of Hollywood for decades, from the gripping opening of Touch of Evil and it’s homage in The Player, to the intoxicating, serpentine VIP entrance in Goodfellas.  Often, these scenes serve dual purposes (in varying ratios) which are to introduce or expand upon a key element of the plot in a manner where the style and execution chosen enhance the impact of this reveal, as well as satisfying an urge on the filmmakers part to design and then accomplish a feat despite this (often times superfluous) obstacle.

It can (and has) been argued that these scenes, in particular Mr. Cuaron’s, the director of Children of Men, are needlessly technical and actually, despite their apparent “realism” by not featuring a break signified by a cut-scene, deflate the tension because the audience is more transfixed by wondering how what they’re seeing has been accomplished, as opposed to how this sequence benefits the movie.  While it is probably difficult for Cuaron or Scorsese or Welles to deny or have denied that an element of ego is involved in such bravura tactics, I’m of the personal opinion that I would prefer to see a master director push the envelope and challenge themselves, and the audience, with something that might scream of braggadocio. I would happily endure the occasional playful exercise from someone with command of their skill set rather than worry about offending the thin sensibilities of a populist movie-going public who might be alienated by such choices.  The key word in the preceding statement, however, is “occasional”.  Scorsese has always had a lively, wandering camera capable of super-close ups and dolly zooms, but he deploys those methods in the appropriate quantities, careful not to inundate his audience with creativity for creativity’s sake.  The same applies to the Copa Cabana steadicam in Goodfellas – Karen is falling in love with Henry, and the doe-eyed bliss that defines her and Henry’s steady march through hallways and kitchens is buttressed by this choice of shot; the audience is swept up right along with her, a wallflower observing her clandestine emergence into this foreign world.

The concern, then, if it is understood that such methods indeed can serve an important, if not vital, narrative purpose is, like any good thing, not to overdo.  When I first heard about Cuaron’s follow up to Children of Men, Gravity, and heard the premise, that was indeed my first concern.  Showmanship has its place and directors from Cronenberg to Cameron are constantly enriching the directing dialogue by injecting weird, off-putting, mesmerizing and unthinkable practices into their work.  Scanners is by no means a masterpiece, but a scene where a man’s head completely explodes, or one where combatants in a telepathic showdown rip off their skin, can confidently lay claim to enhancing the palette other directors will then paint from.  It doesn’t feature a protagonist with a physical or mental defect, it’s not a period piece, it has absolutely nothing to do with World War II, and yet, is there any argument that in 15-20 years from now more people will still be watching Terminator 2: Judgment Day than The King’s Speech?  And that is because T2, by focusing on the love of spectacle and meticulous execution of fantastic set pieces, by embracing innovation so wholeheartedly, becomes a great movie, whereas the evident strain in trying to be a great movie bogs down something like The King’s Speech.  I don’t mean to rag on the latter – it’s a perfectly acceptable, well acted movie, which I feel suffers from the disconnect between its obvious aspirations towards being “considered” great and what it actually accomplishes towards arriving at that end (which is not insignificant, but doesn’t quite reach its goal).

So actually, there were two things going against Gravity in my mind as I entered the theater:

1) If it truly was the kind of SFX gimmick movie it had been suggested to be in the months prior, it could quickly degenerate into a very long 90 minutes of clinical showmanship.  And while, like Scanners, those experiments can yield great results down the line – they’re seldom a great deal of fun to sit through.

And,

2) Was Cuaron, like Tom Hooper, assigning himself a lofty aspiration to keep safe from missteps?  Is the perceived weight of the undertaking enough, thus becoming somewhat casual in the execution?

A resounding “No” is the answer to both of those now ridiculous seeming concerns.  After some brief text indicating the severe shifts in temperature encountered in space, and the general uninhabitable characteristics which define it, the audience meets a few floating folks working around a shuttle.  In short order we’re introduced to veteran astronaut Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and what appears to be his somewhat frustrated associate, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock).  Their voices, friendly yet occupied, are the first bits of sound which puncture the vacuumed silence of the opening shot.  Stone, a medical doctor installing what appears to be a visual recording device of her creation along a satellite, works with purpose but a bubbling anger – her six month astronaut training has prepared her for the physiology and mechanics of being in Zero-G, if not the mindful patience that develops with multiple, extended trips.  Clooney, we learn, is on his final spacewalk (the old “one week til retirement” trope is trotted out here very early, though I wasn’t really bothered) and takes the time to appreciate the last glimpses of vistas he’s been privileged to witness as a member of one of the smallest brotherhoods of mankind.

This mentor-pupil tutelage is interrupted quickly, however, when word from Houston (Ed Harris, appropriately) comes that detonation by the Russians of one of their defunct spy satellites has created a debris cloud which is imminently going to impact their position.  Clooney and Bullock, along with mission member Shariff (Phaldut Sharma), scramble to evade the once thought innocuous cloud and board their vessel prior to collision.  Since we need a movie, this obviously doesn’t happen, and in a palpitation causing sequence, we follow the crew through all manner of directions and angles as the hulking debris rips apart their astral encampment and separates our heroes.

In one of the many pulse quickening portions of the movie, following the incident Bullock is entirely separated from Clooney, Sharma and their shuttle, hurtling end over end into, you know, everything and nothing.  With communications severed and panic ratcheting northward, the audience gets what I believe is the first of a few overt yet finely done homages to the cinematic giants on whose shoulders this one stands.  We see Ms. Bullock’s face – ubiquitous on screens for two plus decades – registering fear, dread, sadness, and countless other primal reactions to her predicament.  The camera stays honed in on her, as the light from the celestial bodies opposite her come upon her face and then disappear, depending on her orientation at the time.  The zoom steadily increases, not unlike the Star Gate sequence from 2001, as Keir Dullea is shaken about and transfixed by the etheral luminescence of his travels.  Similarly, what goes from intense viewing of Bullock quickly moves beyond the dividing barrier of her helmet and brings us into her suit, where the panic and confusion register all the more intensely.  It’s a subtle move, but one that is carefully calculated and expertly wielded – only 10 minutes in and we’ve had a beautiful melding of the clinical and the human.

Without spoiling too much of the next 15 or so minutes of screen time, suffice to say Bullock is brought back into contact with Clooney, operating a compressed gas thruster pack, and the two begin their survival adventure.  It’s after this reunion that Gravity morphs into a blended genre type of picture, fusing the meticulous procedural aspects of survival odysseys like Das Boot and Apollo 13 with the isolationist mental anguish of 127 Hours.  Clooney and Bullock allow the immense terror of their situation to register and then, with the practiced professionalism of a surgeon, go about their task.

The tasks include, but are not limited to – linking the two astronauts without getting in each other’s way, interpreting manuals and dashboards in Russian and Chinese, piloting a vessel lacking in fuel, and keeping at bay the personal demons which could derail the operation more definitely than any resource deficiency.

While there are certain areas which could have been improved upon – a script somewhat too eager to trade in cliches (tortured past, confident cowboy pro, last time on the job), an overlong denouement, a little-too-intense score – these are microscopic nits to pick in a fantastic sensory and emotional experience.

When there’s a moment featuring an astronaut decompress (physically and emotionally) and just drift in a fetal position as the camera patiently observes, it’s yet another 2001 reference the film absolutely earns.  What is often times lost in spectacle movies are the people – explosions and crashes are impressive from a technical perspective, but when it’s anonymous bystanders or inessential henchmen, the enjoyment registers and then diminishes, visual fast food.  Gravity is consistently aware of its protagonists as people, and each set piece obstacle doubles as an exploration of mental and emotional strain.

Since trying to describe what a movie like Gravity looks like in print is akin to conveying how delicious a cherry pie is through music, I’m going to just stop.  It is playing a video game, being on a Universal Studios ride, watching a NOVA special and a summer blockbuster in one.  If it were just a 90 minute wandering camera in space, it would be notable as an experiment.  The fact that it succeeds so thoroughly on so many levels is to be applauded.  If this constitutes showmanship for showmanship’s sake, then I will buy advance tickets for the encore.

Movie Review – “Upstream Color”

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Upstream_Color-review

2004’s Primer, Shane Carruth’s other directorial effort, left me confused.  I feel like I understood a good deal of what was going on, but once the time manipulation at the center of the movie’s narrative began to hum along at a steady clip, my heretofore firm grasp turned out to be quite tenuous.  It didn’t prevent me from enjoying the movie and respecting the hell out of the personal industry which produced it, namely an incredibly austere budget, single takes and using non-established actors (including Carruth himself).  What I ended up taking away from Primer, which is similar to what I took away from something like Pi or even 2001, is that the images and atmosphere presented might actually be more significant than the serpentine paths of their stories.  If I let myself off the hook and conveniently convince myself that it’s OK not to get it and to allow the mood to wash over me, then I am incredibly well set up for Carruth’s next movie, the beautiful and beguiling Upstream Color.

The movie opens on a scene of some kind of cultivator/botanist, combing through plants for larvae amongst the soil as well as a particular type of powdery secretion left behind, blue in color.  In addition to these moments, there are interactions of young boys in the nearby area practicing strange exercises which appear to the viewer to be either some sort of blending of consciousnesses, as their bodies intrinsically mimic a shared thought, or, more cynically, a style of possession by one party over the other.  In either case, something seemingly organic but menacing is afoot.

Which leads the audience to Kris (Amy Seimetz), a young professional woman who is assaulted by the man earlier seen cultivating plants and forced to ingest one of the larvae.  Over the next several days, Kris is placed under the incredibly potent hypnotic spell of this man, who controls her most primal desires (fear, hunger, joy) by simple verbal commands, and keeps her mentally and physically occupied reading Thoreau and forming paper loops.  Once the hypnosis period concludes, however, Kris’ bank accounts have been emptied, her absence at her job has irrevocably damaged her status there, and altogether her existence has devolved into a fragmented, desperate tailspin.

In between her regaining a sense of herself and meeting a man, Jeff (Shane Carruth) on a train in her new schedule, Kris is drawn out to a field.  What happens in the field, and its implications on the remainder of the movie, are significant but difficult to elaborate on without fear of suggesting anything which might affect one’s viewership.  Suffice to say, what emerges from her frantic post-abduction state is a development that offers up a number of curious themes Carruth wants to touch upon, and that I’m more than happy to spend the remainder of this piece going over.

Once Kris and Jeff meet, a tenuous though eventually powerful relationship develops out of a seemingly strong and immediate internal connection.  Both people have been through genuine trauma, including a divorce for Carruth, but it’s suggested each have been through the much more particular trauma we witness Kris endure in the movie’s beginning.  After some slightly evasive tactics on Kris’ part, the two fall in love and commit rather thoroughly to one another.  In these moments, Carruth manages to capture, with appropriately alternating saccharine and clear-eyed views, the momentous sense of falling for someone.  It’s in these instances that I feel Upstream Color is a cousin of Eternal Sunshine, who’s own take on the notion of retreating into the shared memories of a partner are explored as well.  In Eternal Sunshine it is a literal escape, as Joel and Clementine desperately attempt to burrow into the former’s subconscious, buying enough time to reevaluate their lives and, even then, learn more about one another – or at least reconsider past memories in light of current revelations.  While UC doesn’t concern itself too much with examining literal memories, it is significant that it devotes a substantial portion of the second half to examining how memories and personal histories, at once so immediate to the persons within whom they reside, have some if not all of their ownership relinquished in a two-way compact.

The two directors I’m most reminded of when watching a movie like Upstream Color are Terrence Malick and David Lynch.  Malick, because of the constantly wandering, tilting camera lense and hushed voiceover, not to mention the considerate, sensitive attention awarded nature and humanity’s own pathetic yet essential existence within its boundaries.  Lynch, due to the heightened editing and ability to make the mundane seem frightening, be it a speaker in a field at night or a desolate textiles workshop.  In addition, the best way I’ve found to watch David Lynch movies over the years are to take what the visuals show me as almost completely literal.  When the table is speaking Spanish in Mulholland Dr., it’s because they are speaking Spanish – they’re speaking an entirely opposite language from Naomi Watts, exacerbating her already heightened sense of anxiety and alienation.  In Lost Highway, all the supposed doppelganger physical impossibilities are forgiven and understood if you simply ingest what has happened according to what you are shown.  This method works wonderfully for Upstream Color, as well.  It’s not to suggest the story is too abstract to follow on its own, it’s genuinely straightforward.  But there are times where delving too much into what is happening, as its happening, is a drawback.  With a movie this gorgeous, I found it best to watch first, and ask questions later.

And there will probably be some questions.  Symbiosis, pig farming, organic hallucinogenics, American Romanticism, foley artists – these are a few of the crucial elements to a movie which has great ambition and largely succeeds.

There’s a recurring theme throughout the movie of a sound mixer taking everyday objects (bricks, rocks, wood) and manipulating their recorded reverberations to achieve something melodic.  From a macro point of view, it might make sense to view Upstream Color in this regard.  When people look for one another, and find solace in them, it’s not a physics-defying event or something worthy of historical remembrance, as it has happened every day for all of recorded time.  Rather, it’s more akin to finding someone out there whose physical and chemical vibration matches your own – taking the decidedly un-sexy things about ourselves (emotional baggage, workplace malaise, personal insecurities) and shaping them, pounding them in such a malleable state so as to allow them to resonate.

Movie Review – “The Loneliest Planet”

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the-loneliest-planet04

*What follows first is a review of the movie free of narrative spoilers, followed by a short take on some of the implications of the specific spoiler.*

Nature has a way of infiltrating movies to such a degree that it almost belongs in the credits list in some capacity.  The Thin Red Line – with its dejected longing and at times flat out shallow philosophizing – is elevated by the inimitable power of the pacific scenery.  Swaths of undulating hills decorated by knee-high grass swaying in sporadic gusts of wind as they capture, with heliotropic obedience, the brilliant bursts of gold and ashen pockets of shadow which disappear and reemerge in manic, unpredictable succession, a balletic display of uncontainable force and beauty upon which soldiers heap heartbreak and despondency.  It is an immediate representation of manufactured impermanence vs. ethereal longevity.  And yet since man is, by definition, a component of nature, the concerns and fears of these men, though dwarfed in the presence of this eternal arena, are none the less belonging to it.  These hills have harbored countless men and women throughout history, all with unique existential concerns.  While the particular psychic crises afflicting each soldier are doubtless their own, what remains constant is the immeasurably awe-inspiring power the landscape possesses and wields – men at once making history and joining its ranks.

What The Loneliest Planet and its director, Julia Loktev, work to achieve with their own stunningly gorgeous vistas is not dissimilar to Malick in TTRL.  Placing an internal monologue amidst and against elemental backdrops, the storyteller conveys to the audience a definite sense of proportion.  These people, our protagonists, are an incredibly small part of a vast place which predates them and will outlast them.  It is a narrative means of showcasing and constantly reiterating the insignificance in the grand scheme of these people, which is obviously an incredibly risky move for someone who wants people to become invested in the picture.  The strategy succeeds, however, because the flip-side of emphasizing humanity’s inefficacy against the natural world is to render the atmosphere almost alien.  There are mountains (in this case, the Georgian Caucuses) and streams and plains – environments certainly familiar to the average person, but when these sights no longer inspire reverence or, for that matter, recognition – the focus shifts deeply and engrossingly to what the characters and, by extension, the audience can relate to – each other.

The movie opens as two engaged tourists (Gabriel Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) are austerely making their way through eastern Europe.  They give off the impression of being experienced travelers – different combinations of no more than t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hiking pants and boots are worn at any time, with midsized personal backpacks containing a tent and sleeping materials.  With their tour guide (Bidzina Gujabidze), the group meander along unstable and rocky cliffsides, cross streams via precarious walking-wires and generally immerse themselves in their mountainous environs.  Along the way, the kind of microscopic exchanges and kindnesses of a long gestating love are displayed, whether it is Bernal, a native spanish speaker, helping Furstenberg with conjugation exercises, handstand endurance exhibitions or lending a hand with whatever physical task best benefits the group at that moment.  These glimpses into a relationship of such obvious intimacy prove to be a brilliant contrast to the distinctly non-human surroundings, almost answering the scenery’s unknowable challenge with a bond equally impregnable.

That is, until it’s not.  At just about the midway point of the film an incident takes place which throws into doubt all the implied connections of the first half.  It becomes difficult viewing, since the humanity at the center served as gorgeous relief to the natural, while from this point on it devolves, taking on characteristics as impassive and unrelatable as the Caucuses.  From a narrative standpoint, The Loneliest Planet does not bring much to the table.  The major incident happens halfway through, and it is up to the audience to assign the appropriate meaning and context.  If what you saw before resonated deeply, then the rest likely will as well.  If you couldn’t bring yourself to care about these people, it’s unlikely their futures will prove riveting, either.  Regardless of impact, the movie is risky and I think should be praised for that fact alone.  It is undeniably ambiguous, and slack storytelling is made up for by what the audience projects onto the characters and the settings.  It can be argued that most works of art are dependent, to some degree, on the emotional baggage inherent within each observer, though that given is stretched to a much greater degree here and I can’t argue anyone who would find fault in that.  Despite that, it is a full length feature which hinges on the beauty of a landscape, the mostly unspoken chemistry of its stars, the recognition of a momentary inciting incident, and the nuanced fallout from said event, which proves an intoxicating combination.

Spoiler Discussion

So, the event: When the elderly man of the other trio our protagonists run into is worked up and takes offense to their presence and, potentially, a gesture by Bernal, he turns and points his rifle at him point blank.  Immediately, Bernal retreats and puts Furstenberg in front of himself, until quickly regaining composure and resuming their original positions.

This event says quite a bit about the two people, not all of them bad, in my opinion, though I’ll save the positive interpretation for last.

Furstenberg is understandably floored by this action.  One thing it says is: “Kill her first, if you must.”  It also implies cowardice within Bernal.  Both of these implications, as well as many others which might feed upon earlier aspects of their relationship, prove powerful enough for the duo to reconsider their relationship.  The mise en scene expertly captures the emotional distance both people find themselves at from the other: the decision is so severe and lasting in its reverberations, it’s apparent the two can do nothing except replay it mentally.  What Bernal comes to find, as is evidenced by his stalled attempts to resume communication, is that the one thing which may be worse than doing something horribly alienating to someone you love is to discuss it.  It has happened, and it was horrible, but as long as it is not acknowledged it does not have to be re-lived again.  Each moment of non-communication is torture, and so it is between two incredibly painful alternatives he finds himself.  This is also where the scenery shifts from gorgeous and awe-inspiring to absolutely suffocating.  The pair is trapped in a land that even without personal complications was entirely foreign.  Now it is infused with pain and anger and confusion and such psychic, heartbreaking doubt which is embedded in the recognition that the person you love and the relationship you’ve maintained is not and are not what you thought.  The action calls into question all the beautiful exchanges the audience saw before, and makes no promise that they can be mended and recaptured.  There is a precise pain, the movie contends, which follows the inability of being able to speak with the one person whom you wish to most.

All the above is only a real issue, in my opinion, when viewed through a rather stereotypical vision of the man-woman relationship.  There are several moments in the film (Furstenberg outlasting Bernal in handstands, her assurances to their guide that she is strong and competent to make it across the river un-aided, she verbally announces herself as “Strong” before the trek begins) which display Furstenberg as powerful.  A long-term relationship between the two would no doubt make this fact known to Bernal in a very real, very implicit manner.  If taken at face value, these are two people thrust into a dangerous situation, and what happens?  One hides behind the other.  The movie explores the suggestion that Bernal acted “incorrectly” or was a coward.  If on some deeper level he appreciated that Furstenberg was the stronger of the two, did he actually do anything wrong?  If his immediate reaction to the introduction of a threat is to retreat behind her, acknowledging her as alpha, is that incorrect?

Movie Review – “Dredd”

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Dredd-Anderson There’s a special kind of presence and indifference towards vanity that encourages an actor to take a role which mostly obscures their face and voice.  Dustin Hoffman is unrecognizable as the essentially facially-burned Mumbles in Dick Tracy.  Though John Hurt is the lead, the prosthetic deformities he shoulders in The Elephant Man demand, not counter intuitively, the conveyed pathos come from within.  The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, at least the scenes set in the present, ask Matthieu Amalric to funnel the seismic emotional shifts one encounters throughout a life into the steady, though at times hesitant, blinking of a single eyelid.  In all these instances, the actors react to their respective constraints with incredible skill, adopting idiosyncrasies such that their shortened range of communication to the audience is not so much diminished, but simply requires smaller and more considered movements.  This last year alone has shown us two more instances of hidden or altered faces and the responses by the respective actors.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy has to give off an air of menace sprinkled with intelligence, resolution, fanaticism and spontaneity, all while his mouth and most of his bottom jaw is encased in a gas mask which also modifies his speaking voice.  It’s actually kind of a no-lose situation for an actor, a built in excuse for not doing more or standing out.  This excuse is not necessary, however, since Hardy uses the steady, measured movements and hypnotic eye contact to great success. The other instance from this past year is that of Karl Urban in Dredd.  While the actors listed above are either Oscar winners (Hoffman), nominees (Hurt), Cannes certified (Amalric) or set for stardom (Hardy), Urban occupies a curious niche in Hollywood.  He is or has been a part of two enormously successful franchises (Star Trek and Lord of the Rings), respectively.  Despite the cache and profile this affords, he still very much likes to participate in horrible action movies (DoomRed).  Having a respectable though not A-list level name does allow him, fortunately for us, to choose projects without the prestige of Middle Earth or the Starship Enterprise.  Case in point: Dredd. The plot of Dredd is even more straightforward than The Raid: Redemption, and shares many similarities.  In a dystopian future, the United States has evolved to have people in Mega-cities, vast metropolises with severe crime rates and fast acting, decisively punitive law enforcers: Judges.  Judge Dredd is seen in an early sequence pursuing and, with little hesitation, dispatching of a speeding car full of junkies-turned-firing squad.  Upon returning to base, the stoic, habitual growler is presented with a rookie (Olivia Thirlby) whose test taking skills are lackluster but possessing a powerful psychic ability.  With the odd-couple tandem established, the duo head out for Thirlby’s 24 hour observance period, responding to a heinous crime scene where skinned victims are hurled several stories into the lobby of a massive housing complex.  It’s revealed early on the perpetrator of this and other grisly confrontations is Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), an unbalanced former working-girl who has muscled out rival gangs with unmatched ruthlessness.  Ma-Ma’s game is drug-running, primarily, offering an inhaler-distributed toxin nicknamed “slo-mo” for the time-delayed sensation experienced by the users.  The scenes of people using “slo-mo” are strangely beautiful and certainly designed with the 3-D presentation in mind, all shimmering globs of water and twinkling lights. With some identifications of the skinned men and a little psychic sleuthing, Urban and Thirlby begin their difficult investigation.   Almost immediately, this leads to a lockdown of the complex which essentially becomes a fortress of goons and psychopaths for the officers to traverse (raid, if you will).  As they appreciate their predicament and siphon the occasional piece of information from Avon Barksdale, the carnage and destruction is ratcheted up with detached but stylish glee.  A proponent of instant judgment and punishment, Urban’s primary concern with Thirlby is her reticence to pull the trigger, though this is assuaged since survival is the primary objective and hesitation leads to bad things. Thirlby has the right balance of smart aleck insubordination and clean slate teachability. Her wide eyes and welcoming face are appropriately contrasted with Urban’s superhero steel jaw and opaque visor – expressionless, clinical and incorruptible.  His voice never rises beyond the steady, gravelly cadence one would expect to be the result of years spent in this wasteland.  The performance asks only for stoic line readings, balanced bodily movements and an eagerness to not steal the show.  It’s a role any actor of his size could have done, but almost because of that open-ended nature, having seen it I can’t imagine anyone else skulking the floors and apartments, administering martial law. Bullets fly, bodies pile high and the inevitable betrayal plot materializes.  Through it all, the tone is kept remarkably light in the face of violence and torture most comic book movies wouldn’t dare approach.  The methodical way both sides of the law dispatch one another makes The Dark Knight or The Avengers look positively childish – smirking heroes for an audience who don’t want the stakes raised to a level where there are genuine consequences.  Which isn’t to say the result of Dredd is ever in doubt, though if it had ventured into truly nihilistic territory, what came before would have been fair warning for would-be complainers. Amalric steadily and longingly blinks the alphabet, letter by letter until words and sentences emerge, to compose his memoir – an undertaking so monumental it actually makes me tired just thinking about it.  Urban shoots people through the face and pronounces judgment to loitering hobos.  It takes all kinds, people.

Movie Review – “Mud”

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mud

While not necessarily a requisite shot, I have to imagine one would be hard pressed to find a movie scene set on a river, lake or some body of water that doesn’t utilize the tactic of filming the water from an aerial perspective perpendicular to the water level and then slowly, in the direction the vessel is moving, bring the camera up to meet the horizon its sailors are gazing into.  It’s a cool effect – the combination of the camera sliding up towards a 180 degree angle and the forward push of the boat as the water recedes creates a genuine sense of the weak-kneed, uneasy momentum boat travel can induce.  Sure enough, the riverlife-set Mud employs this shot within the movie’s first 10 minutes as two seemingly intrepid Arkansas boys embark on an unknown journey with an implied degree of danger that the director, Jeff Nichols, allows his camera to detail while the dialogue takes a back seat.

What the two lads are in search of, and quickly find, is the head scratching sight of an old boat resting amongst the tree branches of an out of the way, forgotten island.  The phenomenon is quickly explained by one of the boys as a remnant of the last great flood their region had seen, and though that is at once a plausible and most likely correct explanation, our brains (or at least mine) remain so rationally hard-wired that the image of a boat tucked away in the upper reaches of a wooded area provokes a wonderfully surreal sensation that sets the tone for much of what follows, which does so in short order.  After a cursory investigation of the boat, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) discovers recently purchased groceries and still-muddy bootprints along the wall, consistent with the reclining position a man might be able to achieve in the confined cabin space, and discerns they’re not the only ones who know about the vessel.  Before the boys can reach their skimmer and head back, however, they come into direct contact with the boat’s squatter (Matthew McConaughey) – a burly, unkempt, questionably tattooed man with the name, eventually divulged to the boys, of Mud.  The three chat uneasily at first – the boys are rightfully hesitant in the presence of a very real potential danger, though it’s less surprising a grown man who looks the way he does and is drawn to an abandoned boat in a tree is willing to divulge little to people he does not know.  Mud leaves the boys with a request for food, if possible, under the tentative understanding the gesture and resulting provisions might be exchange enough for ownership of the boat.

While Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is the more rational and safety-minded of the boys, Ellis is immediately intrigued by the notion of a grown man who is dependent on him.  Both boys have imperfect home lives: Neckbone lives with his uncle, a hilarious Michael Shannon who dives for pearls and is a bit of a low-rent lothario, while Ellis realizes his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are drifting apart as his father’s river livelihood and lifestyle leave Ellis’ mother desperate for a mainland life of greater respectability.  Sensing the chance to learn something from a man who he’ll be able to view with more objective eyes than his father, and most likely entranced by an opportunity to escape his now tumultuous home life, Ellis is on board for whatever this mystery man has in store.

The attention to familial ties and parental figures is extended even further when Mud, having been again visited by the boys and successfully enlisted their aid in his spiritual rehabilitation, encourages them to approach a man for materials and guidance.  Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), Ellis’ isolated, presumed curmudgeonly neighbor across the bank, agrees to visit with the enigmatic Mud when Ellis drops the name while seeking him out one evening.  “You Mud’s daddy?” Neckbone inquires during one of their trips, which Tom replies to in the negative, explaining Mud’s origins are as foreign to him as it is to the boys.  Tom, after no doubt spoiling Mud’s plan by equipping him with nothing more than a tongue-lashing, encourages the boys to spend no more time with Mud.  Like with a true father figure, Tom’s advice has the opposite effect on the boys, making their (though primarily Ellis’) curiosity even more heightened.  Toss in the fact that Mud’s reason for his current predicament, though possibly apocryphal given his questionable moral fiber, is explained as one borne of love and commitment, the kind of literary pledges of devotion that Ellis, now more than ever, needs to know really do exist.

Mud’s story, which is lent credence by Tom’s belief in it, places him as a fugitive from police and worse after having murdered a man in San Antonio for causing his star-crossed childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), unimaginable physical and emotional pain.  Through testimony offered by Mud, Tom and Juniper herself (staying in town, hesitant for hers and Mud’s planned rendezvous) a relationship of primal desire and mercurial tendencies is painted for the boys to see as they choose.  A cynic might see a toxic, co-dependent partnership which is no good for either participant.  In his current position, however, Ellis is more than willing to believe in a love that transcends earthly hardships.

The remainder of the plot is rather straight-forward.  Visits to and fro Mud’s wilderness bivouac progress with supplying parts for the boat, a note and a message for Juniper, and, most importantly, pieces of emotional honesty and personal history are exchanged: the most meaningful form of currency between boys and men, down and out.

There is a lot to chew on from an analytical perspective in this one.  Certainly the boat’s reconstruction can parallel that of the relationship erected between Mud and the boys, primarily Ellis, as well as signifying the rebuilding of his own empty existence.  I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn since High School, so I am in no position to try and in any way make an accurate or even representative comparison between the two, but young Southern boys, men on society’s outskirts, river travel – these elements I’m thinking are not coincidental.  And much in the way a great bildungsroman novel charts the emotional progress of a young character does Mud give the audience a thorough account of the education Ellis receives in only a short number of days.  Familial strife, broken hearts, economic disparity, the haves and the have-nots – all these topics are explored deeply, and just as the black eye Ellis brutally receives is mostly healed by the film’s climax, it’s easy to assume his soul has begun its natural cycle of regeneration as well.

Beyond the overt references to Twain or any other Southern literature which may have been by design, what I took away during certain moments are the gloriously affirming connections to other movies.  David Wingo’s Southern tinged score is elegant and moody, but there are times when a movement or a specific piece of score aren’t used but more of a tone, not unlike the cues by Cliff Martinez in Drive.  When what is trying to be conveyed is primarily contemplative, when someone feels something first and on a time delay tries to work through it mentally, these simple, ambient notes equip the scene with a pathos full of both longing and contentment – desperately wishing for a different situation but willing to adopt the necessary stiff-upper-lip countenance to live in reality.  Where a novel can only tell what a character thinks or feels, film can, and does, show.  I think of Salieri, in Amadeus, painfully working through a Mozart composition in his head; forcing himself to know and feel a genius he can never generate within while the sublime orchestration contradicts his panicked expression.  Or I think of how Winding Refn’s Driver carries home Irene’s son, any exposition rendered meaningless since Martinez illuminates the scene with a shimmering, haunting tune – their day together was special.  In the world of Mud, where words are already carefully considered, these beats of poignancy constantly revitalize the movie’s atmosphere and remind us we’re watching the lives of fleshed out, thought-through characters, not thin sketches or crude caricatures.

In addition to musical cues, there are a couple of times when these lost-in-time shots of Michael Shannon appear, pearl diving, wearing a neo-Medieval Cousteau-ian helmet with dual lights along the sides as he peers both into the riverbed and upward to his boat.  Maybe it’s the presence of Sheridan and Shepard that I think of Terrence Malick, but it’s hard not to admire the obvious appreciation the director has for a great visual image.  Not to mention the Malickian themes of how out of place people can seem when they introduce modern mechanics into the natural order of the world, a fact Mud and its river-land setting consistently reiterate.

Inevitably, what one is going to take away from Mud is the desire to contextualize the relationships in their lives.  That sounds like a heavy load for a Matthew McConaughey movie to bestow, and it is.  But then again, the script gives us a parentless wanderer who is blindly, violently lovesick; a man whose personal loss would have debilitated weaker specimens; a loving couple who face the bitter reality of drifting apart while remaining ultimately sound, honorable people; an Uncle faced with the task of acknowledging his genetic limitations in demanding respect but needing to shepherd along his kin anyways – fertile ground for post-viewing introspection.  As a paperback, Mud would not be out of place in an American Lit class, and for good reason.  It realistically offers up portraits of the myriad ways we love one another – how losses and hardships can make that love intolerable, but also how impossibly gorgeous the world can seem when viewed through that singular, amorous lens.

The shot introduced in those first 10 minutes is recreated during the course of the movie, though split into two parts.  There is an instance where the camera glides along as the water whips by underneath and just as it appears it will pull up and reveal the horizon, a new scene is cut to.  Never fear, however, because that horizon is eventually arrived at – magnificent and open ended, a vision imbued with the kind of world-conquering zeal that bubbles up when your eyes scan over the last words of a good novel’s final page: “The End”.

Movie Review – “The Place Beyond The Pines”

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pines

Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine trades almost exclusively in discomfort.  As the film unfolds and the viewer experiences the simultaneous courtship and dissolution of a relationship, the no-frills wandering camera puts the viewer right there in the trenches.  From bad comb-overs to canine neglect to a terribly sad motel rendezvous, it is very much an unglamorous look at a doomed relationship between people more in love with the idea of being in love than one another.  What makes watching that movie difficult is its contentment in just showing.  The minimal plot points it strives to hit underscore the attention being paid to aesthetic  over narrative, happy with meticulously capturing pock marks and beer bellies and despondent longing through windows without feeling obliged to wrap things up neatly.  Where Cianfrance’s follow up, The Place Beyond the Pines, differs is it applies that same lived in quality of the characters and neighboring society to a story which unfolds with the abrupt, calculated and sometimes seismic shifts of epic literature.

Not unlike The Wrestler, (another protagonist who works in a physically demanding niche profession), Place opens with a camera tightly following Ryan Gosling’s Luke Glanton as he meanders through a neon carnival accompanied by buzzing (of people and on the soundtrack) to a tent where a throng of enchanted spectators chant for him and his “Heartthrobs” to perform hazardous motorcycle tricks in an imposing steel sphere.  Our first glimpse of Gosling provides the characterization of a great opening chapter: muscles, hand drawn tattoos scribbled across the chest, neck, arms and face, lit cigarette hanging precariously from his lips while practicing with a butterfly knife.  This, all before donning a sleeveless Metallica “Ride the Lightning” shirt and a red leather biker jacket.  A man seemingly off the rails though acutely aware of it.

This is about as good as Gosling’s life is going to get in the movie.  He is reintroduced to Eva Mendes, a woman with whom he had a fling when his circuit was in town the year prior.  Upon discovery that this produced a child, Gosling awkwardly tries to ingratiate himself into Mendes’ reasonably settled life (work, school, husband and mother, house).  There remains an undeniable attraction, however, either to the bad-boy lifestyle or the pull of reuniting with the man who donated half the genetic material to the boy she dedicates herself to each day.  When Gosling seizes upon this minor opening to stick around and be a part of these people’s lives, he teams up with a fellow survivor at life’s perimeter (Ben Mendelsohn) working for a short time as a mechanic at his unintentionally abandoned auto-shop and then, at Mendelsohn’s proposition, as a small time bank robber.

Together, Gosling manages smash and grab jobs and flees into the back of a waiting storage truck which Mendelsohn quickly shuts and drives off.  The small time heists solve a few of life’s problems for awhile – they grant some monetary flexibility, re-invigorate some dormant impulses.  It’s when Gosling tries to deal with people the way he deals with his job and his crimes, that it becomes apparent this man will forever be on society’s outskirts.  Sensing his chance to give at least one minor contribution to the world, namely provide his estranged son some money, he takes a chance which alienates his partner and, indirectly, irrevocably defines his (though really Mendes’) family’s world for at least a generation.

Naturally, in a small town like Schenectady (whose Native American translation approximates “The Place Beyond The Pines”), all this bank crime would attract notice of the local police department.  Bradley Cooper, a golden boy rookie with a law degree and a district attorney Father, finds himself enmeshed in the chase to apprehend Gosling and, subsequently, the fallout that arises when the police re-appropriate the funds which had been allocated to Gosling’s infant son.  With some time off following an injury sustained on duty, Cooper finds it difficult being in the house with his own young son.  The familial tension is intensified when both his wife (Rose Byrne) and Father question his desire to be a street-level police enforcer, when his education, name, eloquence and, now, injury would seem to make him a dream political candidate.

Whatever idealism Cooper was personally championing in his “regular cop” role quickly diminished the moment the seized money, and all the favors and misremembering and head turning it implies come calling.  Faced with the not uncommon movie cop conundrum of being the guy on the street making the real difference yet battling the day to day corruption – Cooper gravitates towards the other civil service career trope – the politician who gets his hands dirty to affect the greater good.

Where The Place Beyond The Pines really goes for it is the last half hour or so.  After spending enough time with Gosling’s pulsing Id and Cooper’s conflicted do gooder, the movie leaps forward while panning back.  While directly acknowledging that these people’s life decisions impact the families they erect and send out into the world, in reality, people just keep living.  What seemed so immediate and charged for Gosling, or so unbearably momentous for Cooper, a mere generation later is relegated to newspaper articles.  When an entire person’s life and all their exploits become fuzzy memories or oral tradition, that’s when they become at once irrelevant and mythical – historical fact yet ultimately unknowable.  And it seems Place wants to suggest that these intricate Father-Son relationships and generational debits and credits are definitely inescapable, but their meaning is transmuted with the passing of time.

A few items make recurring appearances throughout the film (a pair of sunglasses, a bag of money, a photograph), and just as how in a great book the reader does a double take when they’re encountered, here the viewer makes a connection.  It doesn’t scream of flashing “this is important” signs, either – it happens for the most part organically, and is a testament to the deft touch required to make material this emotionally charged consistently engaging and believable.  The most staggering piece of symmetry the movie presents is the shot of a bike traveling down a sylvan bordered, undulating road while hauntingly sparse piano notes trickle into the theater – its rider searching for something he can only feel and which the audience only knows, both yearning for some middle ground.

Movie Showdown: Best Baseball Movie (Final Four Edition)

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baseball

With baseball having resumed last week and tonight being the final of the Men’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, it seems a fitting time to do a Final Four inspired assessment of baseball movies.  By starting with only four, I’m naturally eliminating quite a few candidates right off the bat.  This being a purely subjective exercise, cases by others can certainly be made for their spurned favorites, I’m shooting from the hip and, in general, ignoring a few genres altogether.  Let’s hash out some of the non-competitors right off:

The Saccharine Love Letters to Baseball’s Mystical Essence

The Natural

Field of Dreams

For Love of the Game

A League of their Own

All of those movies have a bit to recommend them.  They are all literary based, so a great deal of the introspective tone can be attributed to the novel medium, which allows for description and exploring a character’s thoughts in a way that doesn’t interfere with the story.  For a movie to incorporate those realizations and motivations which an author can more subtly spell out, quite a bit has to be force fed to the audience, and this is where some valuable nuance is sacrificed.

The Improbable Dream Comes True for a Kid

Little Big League

Rookie of the Year

The Sandlot*

These three really aim for the kid audience, understandably.  Little Big League offers a kid the chance to manage an organization (the Twins), while Rookie of the Year takes a freak accident and gives a kid the chance to pitch for the Cubs.  The Sandlot could more easily belong in the former group, being soaked in nostalgia and set decades earlier than the other two, however the characters, target audience, and spirit of the movie is certainly more in line with this second group.

Somber Character Studies

Pride of the Yankees

Bang the Drum Slowly

I take no umbrage with folks who would choose these as their favorites.  And really, the movies I am electing to my final four take qualities from all of the above, but don’t exclusively occupy one category.  A movie can have a difficult protagonist and be rife with struggle, but the great ones can supply humor, excitement and awe as well.

Honorable Mention

The Bad News Bears

This one occupies it’s own niche category, in my opinion.  It inspires nostalgia, but only because it’s some decades old now.  It features kids, but not in any kind of cheesy gimmick like Big League or Rookie, and it doesn’t gloss the day to day of these kids in the halcyon summer sheen of Sandlot – these are kids who do what you do that that age, play Little League, but alot of them suck, the best ones are ridden into the ground, the one who has a family member as a coach is going to blow up at them, and it’s all a little awkward and ridiculous the way youth sports inevitably are.  Why I exclude this profane, unapologetic gem is because it doesn’t really fit in with the four I want to talk about (convenient!): It’s not involved with professional baseball (beyond Buttermaker’s failed career), and so while some of the themes of acceptance and camaraderie and disappointment are universal, it’s relegated to a world populated by kids.

Which brings us to the four entries:

Moneyball

Eight Men Out

Bull Durham

Major League

Semifinal Matchup #1:

Major League vs. Bull Durham

Let’s get right into it.  While the finals could have been these two against each other with not much surprise elicited from the reader, I figure let’s have the two that are always compared just go at it from the beginning.

Major League:

Best Character: Ricky Vaughn

Runner Up: Jake Taylor

Best Quote: “I hear baseball players make awfully good salaries nowadays”

“Well it all depends on how good you are.”

“How good are you?”

“I make the league minimum.”

Runner Up: “We wear caps and sleeves at this level, son.”

Plot Originality: More or less Slap Shot meets baseball with some of the game’s insider knowledge that Bull Durham offers though with a more widely crowd pleasing sports movie mentality.

Key moment: Pedro Cerrano using voodoo to elicit strong performances from his bats as well as acknowledging his respect for Jesus Christ, yet seriously doubting the impact the worship of him would have on hitting and, by extension, the man’s ability to hit a curveball.

Overall: Major League is a firmly entrenched staple of baseball filmmaking.  Closers choose “Wild Thing” as their intro music and millions of casual fans were introduced to Bob Euker’s self-deprecating, insightful and hilarious persona.  It throws alot at the viewer, with most of it sticking agreeably.  A Hollywood sports production to its bone, but also reverent and clear-eyed when it has to be – Major League manages a tricky balancing act like a seasoned vet.

Bull Durham

Best Character: Crash Davis

Runner Up: Ebby Calvin “Nuke” Laloosh

Best Quote: “We’re dealing with a lot of shit.”

Runner Up: “Get a hit, Crash.”

“Shut up.”

Plot Originality: Not unlike Slapshot as well, Bull Durham has the bona fides of being a “taken from the life” sort of memoir, bringing real life experience in the minor league to what also doubles as an engaging three way love story.

Key moment: When Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis initially declines to dance with Susan Sarandon’s Annie Savoy, in jumps Tim Robbins’ Nuke Laloosh to the rescue.  Except at this point Crash claims her, and the minor dust-up outside wonderfully introduces Nuke to his new catcher, Crash.

Overall: Major League‘s second sequel was subtitled “Back to the Minors”, and had it been a quarter of as entertaining as Bull Durham that would have been great.  Instead, Ron Shelton’s masterpiece about bottom scraping athletes and the people who love them is tender and jaded but also aloof and engaging and a great deal of fun.

Winner: Bull Durham

Despite my absolute affinity for Major League and even its two sequels, just about everything Major League brings to the table in vulgarity, eccentric characters, over-the-hill resentment at a would’ve-been career Durham has, and in addition throws in an absurd tryst, a serious connection between two kindred old souls and in its bittersweet, resigned ending, acknowledges what baseball reiterates constantly – in a game where you fail 7/10 times, you’re a Hall of Famer.

Semifinal Matchup #2:

Eight Men Out vs. Moneyball

Eight Men Out

Best Character: John Cusack’s frustrated moral compass George “Buck” Weaver

Runner Up: David Strathairn’s Eddie Cicotte

Best Quote: “Hey Jackson, can you spell ‘cat’?

“Hey Mister, can you spell ‘shit’?

Runner Up:  “These guys don’t look so tough.”

“Yeah, that’s what Custer said when the Indians took the field.”

Plot Originality: Well known but seldom addressed, Eight Men Out offers a fresh look at a fascinating tale of the 1919 Black Sox Scandal wherein many Sox players agreed with various gamblers to intentionally lose the World Series.

Key Moment: After clinching the pennant, the White Sox players return to the clubhouse to find their gift: flat champagne.  One of the many indignities visited upon the players by owner Charles Comiskey, early on this introduces not only the ability of the Chicago squad, but their obvious desire for something more in the face of such blatant disrespect, setting the table for one of the great sports riggings in history.

Overall: John Sayles’ filmography has plenty of gems in it, and Eight Men Out stands proudly along any of them.  Old-time baseball rarely is given its due beyond Ken Burns, and so it’s refreshing to see that the guys with baggy trousers and goofy gloves faced the same issues as modern day players.  Even more so – plenty of heft is put upon players today due to their paycheck size, but when baseball was as glamorous as any 9-5, it becomes much easier to appreciate why the slighted would try and do something about it, moral judgement irrelevant.

Moneyball

Best Character: Brad Pitt’s Billy Beane marries the physical presence of a former star athlete and the intellect to recognize a faulty system – an uneasy though eventually stable fusion of brains and brawn.

Runner Up: Jonah Hill’s composite character Paul DePodesta, a Yale graduate whom Billy acquires from the Indian.  Together, they indoctrinate the A’s organization to become one of quantitative assessment as opposed to subjective eye measurements.

Best Quote: “It’s a metaphor.”

“I know it’s a metaphor.”

Runner Up:  “It’s a problem you think we need to explain ourselves.  Don’t.”

Plot Originality: Based upon Michael Lewis’ best-selling book, Moneyball” as a term has been in the baseball lexicon for some years now.  Some see it as a catch-all for getting walks and not stealing, while in reality it is a broad term which suggests finding and cultivating undervalued assets, not overpaying for players and being able to field a competitive team on a minimal budget.  As a baseball movie – no other movie I can think of has directly addressed the important of hard numbers and unorthodox evaluation in this manner and in an era where fantasy sports flourish – it is very much a product of and reflection of the time.

Key Moment: The movie, somewhat ironically, reaches its climax during a record-setting regular season win.  Though unconcerned with fleeting success, the game features staples of the “Moneyball” team Billy acquired and none the less is a monumental victory.

Overall: Had I chosen a runner up for Key Moment’s, Moneyball‘s certainly would have been when Peter walks Beane through his big board and computer models.  It doubles as a mission statement for the movie – about abandoning prejudices and scout-driven group think when evaluating players and seeing – beyond appearance or excitement or entourage – who is a winner and why.  It’s pure exposition straight at the viewer but, as Moneyball successfully argues, it’s necessary to be blunt in order to make your point.

Winner: Moneyball

Both movies take a much more sober, realistic approach to their mostly true story accounts.  Maybe it’s the primary recency effect or that Eight Men Out seems a bit dated, but there’s just a very alive feeling to Moneyball that Eight, though smart and creative and interesting and well acted  – doesn’t hit upon.  Moneyball features a great deal of dejection and bitterness (do baseball people need hugs or what?!), but is also a rousing success story.  There’s nothing Eight Men Out can really do about that, it’s a downbeat ending to a downbeat story, what are you going to do?  If I have to watch one of these, though, it’s Moneyball.

Final: Bull Durham vs. Moneyball

At this point it pretty much comes down to feel – watchability, re-watchability, getting something new out of the experience with each viewing, things like that.  Both movies offer up a great deal in that regard.  When I come back to Bull Durham, I’ve actually probably read some Walt Whitman in between viewings or seen someone younger than me move up the ranks at work – in other words, the things I thought at the time of my first viewing which I thought were just purporting to be movie filler and beats in a story turn out to actually be real life concerns and issues people face, and they turn out to be the actual literature and culture and past times that people console themselves with and use to smooth the edges and decorate their lives.  The first time I saw Bull Durham I was Nuke, in the coming decades I feel like I’ll appreciate Crash and Annie more and, time permitting, maybe I’ll watch the events unfold yet again with the sage contentment of the Clown Prince of Baseball.

As for Moneyball, not enough time has passed to comment on how it’s aging, and how the viewing experience changes.  I can’t imagine it’s reputation will worsen over time – the facts of the movie are the facts, the numbers and the math aren’t wrong and will not be wrong, so the story is pretty airtight in that regard.  Beane, as well, his past is his past – and no future success with the A’s or any other club will alter his difficult times as a player.  Moneyball’s going to be remembered for featuring a number of actors at the top of their careers (Pitt, Hoffman, perhaps Hill), a strong director (Miller), a wonderful approach to the material (pseudo documentary intro, with the archival ALDS footage and pulsing strings lending the thing a very Errol Morris / Philip Glass vibe), and, in contrast to the vast majority of baseball and sports movies in general, a level-headed approach to the material.  Beane was drafted and brought up because he looked the part – when things went south for him as a player, he could’ve went the Crash davis route and pondered why he was given an elite skill but not made exceptional at it, battling personal demons and afraid to confront his life’s next chapter.  Beane didn’t do that, however – instead of wallowing in defeat because the Gods gave him some talent but not enough, he wanted to figure out why.  He wanted to know why some teams and players and organizations are great.  It’s because of this call to intelligence, creativity and alternate paths to truth that I pick Moneyball as my winner.  While romanticism is nearly inseparable from a great baseball movie, one can inject thought and logic and consideration into the proceedings and watch as there remains plenty of mystery left to keep fans and moviegoers stupefied.  So much of the sport and the way it burrows into people’s minds and hearts is either unknowable or inexpressible – more than enough to keep people operating even the most high powered microscopes fascinated – and so I’ll root for the folks who know they’re up against something that can’t be quantified but want to try anyways.

In fact, I’ll let Moneyball explain it, since it can much more eloquently:

“It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see. People are overlooked for a variety of biased reasons and perceived flaws. Age, appearance, personality. Bill James and mathematics cut straight through that. Billy, of the 20,000 notable players for us to consider, I believe that there is a championship team of twenty-five people that we can afford, because everyone else in baseball undervalues them.”

Winner: Moneyball*

* Liable to change on any given day at any given hour.

Movie Review – “Seven Psychopaths”

psychopaths

In Bruges is one of the funniest movies I have seen in the last couple of years.  It impressively walked a line of amusing cleverness, laugh out loud punchlines, existential pathos and cartoonish violence, all while grounding the nuts and bolts of the plot to a few days in a less than thrilling Medieval city and the droll conversations that arise from forced smalltalk with increasingly agitated fellow travelers.  It plays like Before Sunrise with a Tarantino filter, and I say that as a compliment to all.  So, when I heard that the writer/director responsible (Martin McDonagh)’s next project was a tongue-in-cheek Hollywood fable re-teaming him with Bruges star Colin Farrell and adding folks like Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Woody Harrelson, I was delighted.  When I left the theater I wasn’t disappointed so much as apathetic – it wasn’t unpleasant, but not the powderkeg of excellence I had been anticipating.  Part of that is on me – as I say in my The Raid review, I, whenever possible (since I’m a bit scatterbrained), remember to judge movies based on their goals, not failing to address personal expectations I have assigned it.  When your previous feature is In Bruges, however, there are going to be expectations.

I saw Seven Psychopaths when it came out in theaters last year, and after catching it I had pretty much forgot about it.  I caught it for a second time the other day with a friend, and as tends to be the case, I picked up on and appreciate a great deal more with the additional viewing.  Before I do a compare/contrast on what I considered to be strengths the second time through vs. amplified weaknesses, let’s do a broad recap.

In present day Hollywood, a boozy screenwriter (Farrell) is working on his next screenplay, though struggling beyond the title: “Seven Psychopaths”.  Disquietingly enthusiastic and loyal pal Sam Rockwell presents him with a copy of a recent newspaper for inspiration.  The article chronicles the activity of the “Jack of Diamonds”, a lone vigilante who has taken to killing “mid to high ranking officials of the Italian American crime syndicate”.  Facing his own struggles as a seldom employed actor, Rockwell and friend, Hans (Christopher Walken) operate as part time dognappers – maintaining a veritable pound of soon-to-be-returned canines for cash rewards.  These low-stakes crooks enjoy their seemingly innocuous operation until they abduct the wrong person’s dog.  The person in question (Woody Harrelson) happens to be one of those mid-to-high level members of the Italian American crime syndicate and more than a little bit excitable when it comes to the well being of his Shih Tzu.  Conflict introduced, psychopaths presented – not a bad start.  It’s around this time, however, that the movie starts to feast on itself in increasingly bigger bites.  At first, a movie written by an Irish man named Martin starring an Irish man playing a screenwriter named Marty would seem self-referential enough.  But then the movie dives head first into meta cannibalism and the result is predictably muddled and more than a little self-congratulatory.

I don’t have a combative attitude towards movies which are self aware: from Sunset Blvd. to The Player, Bowfinger, Mulholland Dr., and Adaptation., Hollywood has been fair game for those willing to bite the hand that feeds and I find the inside look to almost always be fascinating.  My issue with some of the developments in Seven Psychopaths is that they, for lack of a better term, seem lazy. When women characters are thinly written and either completely degraded or, more typically, brutally killed, the apparent deficiency on the writer’s part for creating these broad outlines is addressed and supposedly justified by Farrell’s character being bad at writing women.  Get it?  The women in the movie are written poorly, but they acknowledge it, so now it’s a strength?  It doesn’t work that way.  This might be entirely a matter of preference – when Adaptation. begins to delve into all the cliches that Charlie Kaufman’s surrogate desperately wants to avoid, it’s a writer very much having his cake and eating it too, but it doesn’t bother me.  Maybe Adaptation. is a special case because the existence of that movie is literally the result of the real life Kaufman’s struggle with adapting an actual assignment on orchids, so while there is a pervasive degree of self indulgence that goes along with it, I think a great deal of it can in fact be forgiven because without that author’s struggle and all those idiosyncracies that movie literally wouldn’t exist.

In the case of Seven Psychopaths, the titular screenplay Farrell’s character is working on is a part of the movie, though it’s almost entirely a narrative device to bring together wild characters in loony situations and give Mr. McDonagh a platform on which to call attention to various Hollywood taboos.  Among them, he suggests that people can be eviscerated, but don’t kill animals.  Also, no one wants to see a pacified resolution to a violent build-up. which inevitably will need a final shoot-out, which it gets (obviously not a spoiler).  Nothing overly new, right?  There’s simply too many minutes spent without a purpose – partially crystallized ideas and critiques more suited for a satirical essay or an aside within a more focused movie as opposed to being the movie.

This sounds incredibly bitter and wet blanket-esque, and I really don’t want it to be.  I liked the movie a great deal more the second time through.  Christopher Walken, I think, is a serious revelation in this – the profound sadness and contemplative nature of his character is the only genuinely moving part in an otherwise quite silly production.  I’ll also give a shout out to the use of The Walkmen’s Angela Surf City, a fantastic song by a band I’m starting to seriously love – and it’s like a shot of whiskey the movie and audience crave.  And when the violence becomes absurd, like it does in a fantastically morbid sequence featuring Tom Waits or a hallucinogenic script pitch by Sam Rockwell in the desert – the movie flies.  When it decides to go for it – in black humor, violence, or just slapstick – the movie soars, and watching it doesn’t seem like a chore.  Unfortunately, the scenes of winking acknowledgement to the audience and Hollywood insiders become a bit tiring, and you wonder what movie it might’ve been if it took itself more seriously.

On Baseball – “Proudly Nostalgic”

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jake

Since the first two thirds (or half?) of my blog’s name references baseball, and up until this point the entirety of my shoddy output has been devoted to movies, I feel it’s time to rectify this.  Baseball is starting up again in a few days, friends of mine are talking about fantasy, Yankees and Mets fans are bemoaning the current state of their rosters, and somewhere Dusty Baker is mad that Joey Votto walks alot.

Since Baseball is a game that lends itself to nostalgia and wistful remembrances more than most (Field of Dreams, The Sandlot, racism), I am going to offer up an anecdote in no way insightful or backed by quantitative analysis, but pure shoot from the hip reminiscing.

The scene of this memory is that of the second floor of my off-campus house junior year of college.  A random evening (April 25, 2007, to be exact) spent with friends relaxing on one of the last weeks we would all be together that year before the summer.  Now, from freshman year in college on, encouraged equal parts by an all-time character of a roommate hailing from San Diego, an infatuation with a fantasy team drafted purely on the basis of the ridiculousness of people’s names (Can you say Coco Crisp #1 pick?!) and the kind of inexplicable je ne se quoi that accompanies why we become fascinated by what we become fascinated by, I had developed a fairly unhealthy obsession with San Diego Padres pitcher Jake Peavy.  On the surface there was nothing incredible about the guy that would inspire so much devotion.  That’s not to say he wasn’t or still isn’t talented – but he’s a guy who throws hard with good offspeed stuff, plays in a pitchers park which might boost his peripherals and plays in a bad division in what was at the time considered the weaker league.  In short, unless you were a baseball or fantasy aficianado (and I wasn’t really either at the time), the name wouldn’t mean too much to you.  With anonymity threatening to keep this pitcher off my radar screen, in stepped 1) my silly roommate with a penchant for promoting all things San Diego and 2) my immature sense of humor, which found the phonetic breakout of the name (PEE-vy) strangely satisfying, to rescue him from obscurity and bring Mr. Jacob Edward forever into my world.

It was on this evening that my friends (who after three years of knowing me and continuing to be my friends have clearly exhibited an ability to weather my idiosyncrasies) and I were having a low key evening on our floor – chatting, imbibing, enjoying whatever music we had on loops at the time (good money on some combination of Patrick Wolf / The Knife / Metric) and, like any totally normal 20 year old’s, watching an April game between the Padres and Diamondbacks on a crummy Dell laptop with questionable wireless fidelity and even more questionable screen resolution.

Thankfully, on that night there wasn’t much to see.  Actually there was a great deal to see, though none of what went on for the majority of the innings was particularly balletic or worthy of visual appreciation.  Starting in the first inning, Peavy (who would go on to unanimously win the Cy Young after capturing the NL Triple Crown that year) methodically went about dispatching Diamondbacks hitters at a near record pace.  Guys like Eric Byrnes, Stephen Drew, Carlos Quentin and Chris Young were made to look bad – real bad.  Now, Peavy (and by extension myself) are fans of the strikeout.  In a different game that season against the St. Louis Cardinals, leading 2-0, two men out and Albert Pujols (who could easily tie the game given the chance) on deck, Peavy was in a 3-0 count against Chris Duncan and let his frustration show.  After achieving the hitter’s count, Peavy dispatched with the typical pitcher/catcher subterfuge of going through signs or simply awarding the man his base.  Instead, Padres catcher Josh Bard looked out to the mound only to see (and certainly hear) Peavy shouting “Fastball!”.  The folks in the bleachers were able to detect what pitch was next in the sequence, any strategy or mind games tossed aside, sacrificed to the gods of fierce competition.

The pitch wasn’t close, Duncan saw the away fastball all the way and trotted to first.  Would he have swung if it was close?  It could’ve been viewed as a tactic – if he’s announcing it, would he throw anything else?  Being a standard fastball count, the pitch itself wasn’t jarring but the guy on the mound seemingly unraveling had to be.  In any case, up came Albert Pujols now to face the guy who is yelling at himself and anyone else who will listen with a chance to tie the game and erase a lead from a team who thinks scoring runs is a fine-able offense.  The outcome?  Strikeout.  The guy can’t get a strike over in the least threatening count possible at the time (who is going to take the bat out of Pujols’ hands swinging on 3-0?) then strikes out the best player on the planet.  It is ridiculous and doesn’t add up and that’s why I love the guy.

And so the night began, with hitters flailing at high fastballs and biting sliders, staring when they should be swinging, chasing what can’t be hit – a deadly combination of stuff, execution, and intimidation.  As the performance progressed I would announce each time Peavy got himself a strikeout, because half the fun of watching him in those years was because he would rack up the K’s and then probably yell about it, or Vasgersian would go nuts – it was my own little observance session across the country from where the damage was being done.  By about the third inning, though, the incredulity of those around me regarding my statements started to materialize.  “Again?” became the second most uttered term that night after “K”.  Indeed, it was videogame-esque.  Return from commercial, Diamondbacks up:

1 minute later: K  Nice.

2 minutes later: K  “Haha, seriously?”

4 minutes later: K. “Holy shit.”

Indeed, it went on like this.  What Peavy totaled that night (16) approached the major league strikeout record for a single game (20 – Roger Clemens – twice, Kerry Wood), and in only 7 innings of work, and with his demonstrated dominance, a case could be made he had a puncher’s chance.  16 is good, but many have done more.  Peavy approached another record that evening, less heralded but arguably more difficult to attain: consecutive strikeouts in a game.  Tom Seaver holds the current record with 10, and Peavy finished at 9.  Innings 3-5 featured 9 consecutive at bats ending in strikeouts, with the walk to Eric Byrnes on hitter #10 arriving painfully close to the zone but ultimately deemed wanting.  So, two records in sight: none achieved.  Furthermore, the Padres lost the game!  Oh yeah – Jake was lifted after the 7th, the Padres holding a 2-0 lead with the all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman waiting in the wings.  As was a common sight in big Padres games of the last decade, Hoffman gave up a lead and the Padres went home losers.

Why does this night stand out for me, then?  Because that is what baseball is.  It is an opportunity to, cliche though it may sound, see things you have never and may not see again (strikeout records, blown leads, walk off homers).  I don’t work for ELIAS, but I’m wiling to gues there hasn’t been another 16 strikeout performance where the pitcher tallied 9 straight K’s and then the game was lost due to a walk off homer.  The game also sticks out for me because of the company I kept.  For my friends tolerating my neuroses and heightening them, encouraging my fanaticism without making me feel self conscious about it.  That night for me has to be like what Butler fans felt like the last few years in the NCAA tournament – like something you decided to root for and have faith in was blessed, if even for a short time, and the results are playing out just for you.  Not many things make sense to me, and when things that used to start to become confusing, the tendency to retreat to simpler times and past incarnations is natural.  It’s through this propensity towards retreat that the nostalgia aspect of baseball makes so much sense.  When I see an inside the park home run I’m reminded of that time as a fourth grader, wearing an unconscionably ugly Rockies uniform, I smacked my first ever Little League home run, which failed to clear the fence.  When I watch Peavy now on Chicago’s South Side, a little older, a bit heavier, fastball without some of its explosiveness – it’s impossible to mistake him for the pitcher from that Arizona night.  But those glimpses – when a slider bites at a hitters knees, when a fist pump and a howl greet an inning ending punchout – it seems less impossible.  I look forward to every start of this guy’s career for the rest of my life because there are those brief moments where I know the future is going to bring me back to my past.

Movie Review – “Side Effects”

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side effects

Early on in Steven Soderbergh’s latest (and supposedly last) feature, there is a deliberate car crash, one which the driver prepares for by fastening their seatbelt.  Thinking back on the movie now, this jumps out as a pretty good metaphor for what the director does – he’s going to put the audience through a thorough emotional and intellectual ringer, though he’s ready for it.  I’m going to tread lightly in terms of plot discussion since much of the pleasure I derived from Side Effects was the result of just allowing myself to be led by a master filmmaker.

Rooney Mara is the first character we meet, a sorrowful and anxious seeming newlywed.  The anxiety is quickly explained by the impending release of her husband (Channing Tatum), recently incarcerated for white collar insider trading offenses.  The two face what has to be considered the expected difficulties of resuming an interrupted romance – making small talk when you want to discuss everything of importance, rediscovering one another physically, the tricky balancing act of shame/forgiveness for him and her, respectively.  While this all plays out for a detached, clinical camera – the movie also informs us that there are psychological and pharmaceutical concerns as well.  Mara, who has had past psychiatrists and drug regimens to keep her depression manageable, now has to reclaim her role as the lovely partner of Tatum’s eager to return businessman, though doesn’t seem to have the energy.

To help with her mounting dread, Mara goes to see a psychiatrist (Jude Law) who very quickly enlists her to partake in a clinical trial of a new drug, Ablixa.  Law uses his natural charm and on screen intelligence to great use here, projecting the potent combination of earnestness and manipulation that makes the viewer constantly guess his true motivations.  The new drug appears to work for Mara, as evidenced by the fact she transforms from listless to voracious in the bedroom and now enjoys strolls with the husband in the afternoons whereas previously she’d be under the covers.  A minor drawback to her newfound lust for life is some attacks of sleepwalking.  This appears a small price to pay for an altogether drastic mood overhaul, though once her somnambulism leads to a serious incident and liability has to be assigned, the movie really gets going.

Soderbergh uses the situation – which reads like a great ethical dilemma / thought problem – to explore who would really be considered culpable for an incident involving someone under the influence in this way.  Is it the victim?  Can the faulty wiring of the brain be considered criminal on its own?  What about when hypnotized by medication?  If the medication bears some of the blame, then surely the pharmaceutical companies and those testing the drug retain a degree of culpability?  And speaking of those public testers (Law), were they adequately charting their patient’s progress?  And in a most welcome exploration, what about the prior psychiatrists for patients?

Reuniting again with her longtime collaborator, Catherine Zeta-Jones is delightfully ruthless as Mara’s prior therapist.  Herself most aware of the shield a therapist needs to erect and maintain, she disperses information, mostly to Law, in maddeningly vague chunks.  As the story travels its circuitous path, the audience is treated to the various motivations of all these characters.  Mara’s despondency and helplessness in the face of her illness; Law’s eagerness to please and advance and then manic desperation to save face; Zeta-Jones’ frigid refusal to concede ground or assume fault.  Soderbergh offers us a number of great characters who, though the inciting incident is somewhat of a stretch, are still very real personalities one can see left to drift in the wake of a happening such as this.  It’s never suggested that pharmaceuticals are anything beyond a serious business, and in that pursuit of the bottom line little folks are always going to be marginalized.  Does having an illness make you a bad person out of the gate?  Does a willingness to embrace medicinal solutions imply a lack of fortitude?  Are therapists who would sooner prescribe than diagnose the real problem?  These are questions not so much directly raised as indirectly touched upon, and all the better for it considering the movie is born of the world of fiction and, at least in my opinion, thankfully ultimately retreats there.  If there is to be a serious exploration via movies into those questions (and there probably already is/are), best to let the real parties speak for their sides.

All in all, Mara is excellent in a really difficult role – alternating as needed from lethargic, morose, pacified, indifferent, frustrated, content, excited – an impressive swath of the personality spectrum.  Law, Zeta-Jones, and Tatum all round out the rest of the principals solidly.  The emphasis on blacks, whites, and greys in the color scheme help underline the moral no-mans-land these people tend to occupy and passively illuminate the movie’s neo-noir-ish attitude – manic sleuthing, labyrinthine plot and femme fatales oh my.  And when the movie arrives at its final twist, we’re reminded yet again, though we shouldn’t have to be, that a really good story told well is hard to beat.  If this is Soderbergh’s actual swan song then I’m going to miss him.  While I don’t know that I’d consider any of his most recent releases (Contagion, Haywire, Side Effects) absolutely critical, they are all deftly handled, interesting, at times exhilarating and generally just a good time.  Those are attributes of movies which will always be missed.

Movie Review – “Safety Not Guaranteed”

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safety-not-guaranteed-szn

A lot of lower budget movies that clock in around 80-90 minutes are forced by a number of constraints, primarily financial, to at least have a strong premise.  In fact that’s probably the reason the movie is getting made in the first place – not enough star power or backing to get made with substantial resources, but intriguing enough to get made at all.

Safety Not Guaranteed is no exception in this regard.  When the biggest names attached to your movie are a guy who is a founder of a genre called “mumblecore” (Mark Duplass) and a girl whose most notable role is that of a jaded, serial mumbler on Parks and Recreation (Aubrey Plaza), it would behoove the project to have something an uninitiated viewer might like straight off – which it does.  Within the first five minutes we’re introduced to Plaza’s unpaid, socially reclusive magazine intern who gets swept up when, at a staff meeting, a full time writer (Jake Johnson) chooses her and an innocuous though worrisome Indian undergrad (Karan Soni) as his investigate team.  What they are investigating is the (apparently based on real life) absurd classified a Pacific Northwestern man has placed where a companion is sought to travel with him back in time, provided they are a true believer and can provide their own weapons because, naturally, safety is not guaranteed.

After a half-assed attempt to prove he’s the right companion fizzles out, Johnson, who chose the story entirely to pursue a prior fling with a woman who lives in the same town, convinces Plaza to audition.  After some uneasy talk early on, Duplass sees a smart, shielded girl who just might fit the bill.  At this point in the movie the storylines become predictably splintered, with Plaza slowly infiltrating Duplass’ unusual though not entirely psychotic program.  As the trust builds between the two, with Plaza allowing herself to experience the most forbidden of hipster emotions, true sincerity, the audience grows uneasy waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of coming clean about the magazine article.

Before that happens, though, the real best part of the movie (in my opinion) is taking place as Johnson manages, with surprising ease, to slide back into the life of his youthful paramour.  In a kind of behavioral solidarity, while Plaza drops her guard so does Johnson his infatuation with materialism (his mentioning his Escalade takes on a sour note of empty self delusion) and he allows himself to imagine the kind of slow, normal, fulfilling life his Seattle setup isn’t providing.

Both fantasies are spoiled by the time the movie needs to wrap up, though neither unsuccessfully.  Johnson does some great work as the truly sad and drifting 30 something, a decade younger than Rob Corddry’s psychotic sad-sack in Hot Tub Time Machine, whose next decisions could push him towards the kind of life he thinks he covets, irrevocably dooming him to the psychic despondency of second-guessing.

Not irrevocably at all, though, because we’re talking about time machines.  Duplass plays the nutcase in question with the right blend of firm belief and wacky aloofness, though really remains static, instead allowing Plaza to emote as best she can.  Though rather limited in terms of dramatic range, the natural skepticism someone like Plaza exudes works well in this kind of environment, since every member of the audience is harboring the same doubts.

In terms of a finale I’m not totally sure what the movie was trying to get at.  With Johnson’s plot-line it clearly argues the difficulty of literal time travel, revisiting people and situations from your past when you’re entirely different people.  On the opposite side, is a good moral to end on that when your life sucks because you can’t regain the woman you love (Duplass), or because you are too scared to talk to people (Plaza), you should just find some other damaged soul and try to completely escape to a different time?

I know when movies apply “indie”, “quirky”, or whatever fey modifier to their description as a moviegoer we’re basically supposed to forgive heaps of nonsense because it’s “different”, and that’s good enough.  While this is a completely harmless and mildly satisfying way to spend 90 or so minutes, writing this up now I can’t think of why I would recommend it to anyone.

Movie Review – “Django Unchained”

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django

So it’s pretty much accepted that Tarantino is his own genre at this point, right?  This isn’t a knock.  More often than not, reaching that point exhibits having a singular vision, the culmination of a style the director(s) has been cultivating from the beginning.  A few near-contemporaries I can think of that have arrived at their own genres would be the Coen brothers who, no matter what ostensible genre they attempt, manage to infuse their works with idiosyncratically delivered dialogue dictated by region and rather esoteric diction which pinballs around the darkly comic entanglements of their plots.  Paul Thomas Anderson, likewise, has mostly discarded the Altman/Scorsese influences which defined his early features and appears to be populating a filmmaking style in no rush to hit plot points or resolve themes, allowing outsized personalities and ideals to be generated in, and then actually inhabit, their often desolate, consistently contemplative surroundings.

Though while someone like Anderson is certainly, as I’m sure cineastes can quickly point out, still borrowing from past masters, it’s hard to watch something like There Will Be Blood or The Master and immediately make a 1:1 comparison.  Those movies are definitely Anderson’s in style and tone.  Where I feel Tarantino differentiates himself in this sense is that his influences remain as immediately recognizable as ever, arguably even more so, as his style crystallizes.  Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction heralded him as a film historian with a pop sensibility, blending high art with low-brow trash in accessible and stimulating ways.  This remains very much the case, though with more overt strategies and, in my opinion, diminishing returns.  Watching Inglourious Basterds it would be nearly impossible to not detect Tarantino as the director.  As the movie chugs along all the primary tallies are registered:

  • Non-Linear / Chaptered / Segemented narrative: Check
  • Use of Morricone-esque instrumental pieces: Check
  • Overt allusions to older movies within said genre: Check (Aside from the obvious title-related one, the “all our rotten eggs in one basket” line is lifted wholesale from The Great Escape)
  • Intense, cartoonish violence: Check
  • Crucial use of pop song in tracking shot: Check (An inspired David Bowie choice, to be sure, but none the less there it is)
  • Mexican Standoff (Again, incredibly well done, but been done): Check

I’m sure there are more, but the point is made.  And I really like Inglourious Basterds, reacting somewhat lukewarmly to it in theaters but in subsequent viewings appreciating the story much more.  Django, to me, falls into the category of when directors make pretty much the same movie on the heels of a huge success.  (Ridley Scott: Gladiator/Kingdom of Heaven; Martin Scorsese: Goodfellas/Casino; Woody Allen: Midnight in Paris/To Rome With Love).  Inglourious Basterds is a genre-mashing, historically set revenge story which celebrates colorful, serpentine conversation, uses anachronistic musical cues and provides a bombastic finale; all of which can just as easily describe Django.

Jamie Foxx stars as Django, a slave the audience meets right away trekking through a wintry Texas evening chained to a number of his brethren.  He is freed when Christoph Waltz’s Dr. King Schultz, a German bounty hunter masquerading as a dentist, peacefully then otherwise forces the hand of the traders and acquires Django – insisting on an official bill of sale.  From there Schultz explains how Django can assist him in killing (since the reward is the same either way) the Brittle brothers by way of verbal confirmation of their identity, as Schultz has no sketch.  Upon completion of this assignment, Schultz will provide Django with his freedom.

The mission transports Waltz and Foxx into the company of a number of memorable characters with a flourish for unique phrases and circular logic.  Don Johnson is great as a plantation owner who comes around to dealing with Schultz when the money is right and must make the awkward though crucial (to him) distinction to one of his slaves that, though Foxx is free and not to be treated as a slave, he is not to be treated the same as a white man. (1)

In the midst of finding and eliminating the Brothers Brittle, Schultz takes a moment to explain to Foxx the mythology associated with the name of his captive wife, Broomhilda.  Essentially, Waltz explains that Broomhilda is a Disney-esque princess laying in wait for a man (Sigurd/Sigfried) to rescue her. (2)  It’s at this point that some of the coincidences of the movie begin to, if not frustrate, test the already sizable suspension of disbelief which accompanies a Tarantino movie.  Foxx explains that his wife’s owners were of German descent and taught her how to speak German, which Schultz naturally speaks.  Alright, I’ll buy that she had German owners, and they gave her a name from German (though really Norse) mythology.  So, Schultz tracks down Django to help identify the Brittle Brothers, and over enough time comes to appreciate that he loves his dear wife and pines for her, and he becomes pals enough with him to offer his services in helping a man he is presumably only using to kill people for money to buy his wife from whatever plantation owner she happens to currently belong to, and oh yeah, since she can speak German, Schultz can now talk with her in another language in key scenes?  Sure.

The plantation owner in question turns out to Leo DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, a francophile dandy who wants the entitled respect of sophistication without ever learning the basics. Candie’s interest at the moment is mandingo fighting – neo-gladitorial death matches between slaves.  Under the guise of being a Mandingo expert (Foxx) and a potential buyer (Waltz), the duo is escorted back to DiCaprio’s plantation (Candyland) to examine his specimens.  While uneasy and tense, the counterfeit negotiation progresses rather well until Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) brings Calvin aside with an important interjection.  Jackson is mesmerizing as the twisted, self-loathing right hand man to Calvin, choosing instead to protect the child he has raised since infancy than his own racially oppressed counterpart.  After this sidebar, the discussion turns sour with a long, now-standard monologue by DiCaprio highlighting the intellectual capacities of blacks and whites and why nature simply manufactures them for different purposes.  From here, the dialogue heavy second half gives way to a spectacularly violent melee which plays like Kill Bill meets The Wild Bunch. (3)  There’s nothing wrong with the choices made during this sequence, it just screamed of the movie theater climax of Inglourious Basterds.  Tupac and Rick Ross invade the 1860’s much the same way David Bowie did the 1940’s, though this time taking me out of the action instead of heightening it.  Tarantino’s always been a “notice how I’m doing it as I’m doing it” kind of director, though the more I see how the sausage is made the less appetizing it becomes.

It makes sense to not mess with the formula.  The Strokes made Is This It? pt. II with Room on Fire, and I love both.  But there’s consistency with evolution (Pixar) and there’s spinning one’s wheels (How I Met Your Mother).  In no way do I think Tarantino has checked out or disengaged himself from his work, in fact it’s because his filmmaking is so alive that it’s becoming a bit tedious.  After enough barrages of stylized panache and references, I’m left wanting to find out what he has to say rather than how many different ways he can cobble together what others already have.

(1) At this point in the movie, Tarantino’s dialogue dredges up and really begins to revel in the use of America’s sorest racial epithet.  I’m not going to get into its use one way or the other, because the absolute truth of the situation is that it is a term which was used without hesitation in this time period, and it is used probably around 200 times or something in the movie.  One side can argue authenticity, the other insensitive, potentially racist exploitation, and neither would be really wrong.

(2) Between Ariadne in Inception and now Broomhilda, using names from mythology that no one in their right mind would actually bestow upon their child is getting annoying.  The reference is shallow and implausible, and worse asks that the viewer award the movie they’re watching greater narrative heft because an earlier, more revered work is alluded to.  Furthermore, in no way does a tale of racial tension having a character named “Dr. King” qualify as a coincidence, and so what is the purpose of assigning the title of a revered proponent of non-violence to a bounty hunter?

(3) My final curmudgeonly issue with the movie is not that it actually suggests – because the coincidences and circumstances and actual events are simply too cartoonish and staged to be taken seriously – but, by way of the characters we meet, presents us with a world where no free American really thinks ill of slavery.  With Inglourious Basterds there were many, as there were in the world at the time, who recognized the atrocities of the Third Reich and resisted.  In Django, the only white man who feels a sense of moral reprehension towards the custom is a European, and Django’s violent evisceration of an entire plantation (whose guilt and justification for death is, I guess, assumed?) is applauded by the moviegoers because hindsight is twenty-twenty.  I just have a hard time getting behind a movie, fun though it is, where the harsh realities it claims to address are sidelined because the plot has invaded somewhere entirely fantastical.  There was realism to much of Inglourious Basterds, injecting deserved tension.  With Django, unfortunately the plot is so absurd from the start that any meaningful stakes are almost immediately abandoned.

Movie Review – “Senna”

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I’ve always had a passing interest in cars.  The kind of cursory fascination kids harbor towards astronomy or military history extended for me to automotives, subjects at once worthy of appreciation but daunting enough to repel the undetermined. As a result of this merely passing curiosity, I couldn’t explain to you what we were looking at if I lifted up my hood, nor delve into any of the myriad options, upgrades, models and various iterations of performance enhancement currently offered. I viewed racing through a similar lens: there is obvious appreciation for the machines and those who operate them, though the skill, endurance (both mental and physical) and, finally, courage also populated the category of only general amusement.

All this is preamble to make the point that Senna, the stirring, at times wrenching, and altogether haunting documentary on former Brazilian F1 driver Ayrton Senna absolutely kidnapped my attention for its 100 or so minute running time. With no prior knowledge of professional racing, let alone F1, I was a complete novice. While I know little more now than when I started about what makes a car go, I have at least been somewhat initiated into the cult of F1, its devoted fans, the competitively hostile working conditions amongst the most elite racers and the surprisingly political nature of the sport’s governance.

The movie charts Senna’s rise from accomplished go kart racer, whose interest in driving piqued and was encouraged in his comfortable birthplace of Sao Paulo, steadily progressing through the ranks of machine until arriving in the big leagues of F1. The movie makes two things about Senna quite clear early on. The first is that while he came from a background of privilege, he had the foresight to recognize that real and lasting success in F1 would have to be the result of paying dues and nurturing his talent. The second point the film makes is his fierce sense of competition.  In what was only his sixth race in Formula One, Senna, in rainy conditions at the legendary track in Monaco, overcame poor starting position to climb into second place and cut into the lead of first place racer Alain Prost. Though he was gaining on Prost at an incredible pace, the competition was ended early as a result of the conditions and Prost wound up the winner.  The documentary makes clear that those present, from fans to fellow racers, all bore witness to the arrival of a major talent.  In fact, Monaco, rain and Alain Prost were to become inescapable hallmarks of Senna’s career, and it seems fitting they would all arrive as early as possible.

Stranded on a less than elite team and car, every accomplishment and burst of brilliance was made that much more mesmerizing and eventually big players like Lotus and McLaren came calling. Having already won a world championship, Senna teamed with Prost and McLaren, forming a veritable 1 and 1A of the F1 world at the time. Both men would win championships after this union, though the professional and personal relationship, described at best as tense, apparently disintegrated rapidly. The movie captures a number of wonderful camera shots whose visceral impact words can’t adequately recreate, so I will suffice to recap what seemed to me the most important incidents of their tenuous relationship.

Shortly after joining McLaren, Senna was not atypically leading a race in Monaco, though in this case seeming particularly motivated to obliterate Prost. With a commanding lead the Brazilian became slightly careless and wrecked, failing to finish the race, so great was his desire to crush his teammate, the movie argues.  Senna retreated to his apartment following the crash to regroup, emerging after a few hours of isolation.  

Beyond that, the two experienced seasons whose finishes parallel one another quite eerily. In 1989, with Senna needing a fist place finish in Japan to continue their points battle to the final race of the season, he and Prost collided on an early turn. Prost spun out and left the track, though Senna re-entered the race and, miraculously, came in first. The euphoria of this comeback was short lived, however, when FIA officials convened, with the curious presence of Prost in their offices, to eventually disqualify Senna for maneuvering around the chicane and entering the race through pit lane. This overt influence of politics (the head of the FIA at the time was a countrymen of Prost’s), the movie and first hand interviews with Senna suggest, robbed him of a chance at a title.  A man known for being ruthless in pursuit of angles, positions and wins was, even after performing a comeback the F1 higher ups should have been championing as an instance of incendiary perseverance, muscled out of victory by infuriatingly bureaucratic machinations.  

The beautiful thing about sports, though, is that they tend to offer redemption in the most mirrored of fashion. The following year, engaged in another microscopically separated battle of points, Senna and Prost met in Japan for the season’s penultimate race.  In this situation, if Prost failed to finish Senna would claim the title. Entering another turn early on Senna, known for being voracious in the presence of a slight but manageable inside opening, shot the corner and wrecked with Prost. Unable to finish, Prost relinquished his quest for a title and Senna was crowned, though with the distaste of technical victory in his mouth.  It was not the gloriously awe inspiring come from behind performance from the year prior, but having been instructed in the impersonal rulings his sport hands down, it was the one a man after victory had to ensure.  

The disillusionment at his victory in that situation is an important point to focus on when considering the person Senna appeared to have been, which the movie spends an admirable amount of time doing. From images, interviews, and testimonials it becomes apparent that Senna was a vibrant force in F1, as well as a rallying point of humility and integrity for Brazilians who at the time felt ashamed of their country’s global reputation. A devout man who cherished friends and family, Senna, like many in the dangerous and often times violent sports world, was forced to reconcile the seeming recklessness of his passion and profession with the quiet, reserved personality he adopted in private life.

Unfortunately, racing intervened to make that premature reconciliation for him. On a day in San Marino in 1994 Senna, on the heels of the fatality of Austrian Roland Ratzenberger, lost control of his machine and struck the wall of a turn, being mortally wounded in the process. The grief displayed by the F1 world and a huge degree of Brazil was legendary, supposedly the greatest mass mourning in world history in Sao Paulo.  A small footnote to what was discovered in his crash devastatingly summarizes the person this documentary highlights: An Austrian flag.  Senna had taken to carrying a version of the Brazilian flag in his machine to hold up during victory laps.  In this instance, the presence of an Austrian flag showcases both the genuine and uncommon compassion he felt towards a racer he hardly knew as well as the unfailing confidence in his ability to finish first.  

There are many live fast and die young stories in the world, some not surprisingly in the sport of competitive racing. What differentiates this story, at least to me, is the sense of who this person was. His demeanor and thoughtful, considerate tone with fans, family, reporters, etc. is so warm and inviting, it’s impossible not to feel regret that a person like that isn’t around anymore. Like the best documentaries should, Senna presents the viewer with a topic and subject they may not be enthralled by at the outset, and by the conclusion they are converts, believers in the fullest. What I came away from Senna with, among other reactions, is an appreciation for the nuance and sublimity of an expertly won race, the disgust that politics and bureaucratic machinations infiltrate what should be some of the more objective decisions in the world, the awe that can be inspired within complete strangers who happen to share a nationality with someone of prominence, and the sobering regret that accompanies the loss of a person with honesty, motivation, talent and humility, regardless of their chosen pursuit or profession.

Movie Review – “Looper”

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Looper

Movies set in the future have a strange kind of history to live up to.  While the freedom granted by creating a setting and time which doesn’t yet exist should be creatively liberating, since they are immediately compared to movies within their genre, there remains very much a lineage.  Should a movie place its futuristic world in the not-terribly distant future, the setting tends to be recognizably modern with surreal and technologically advanced flourishes (Blade Runner, Minority Report, to name a few).  If the future extends much farther into the not-yet-known, the shackles of familiarity are more or less abandoned completely as fantastical societies, creatures and cultures populate the worlds (The Fifth Element, Avatar).  These are not the only two categories, obviously, though I would venture a pretty healthy amount of movies set ahead of present day align themselves relatively closely to one of these camps.

Looper, Rian Johnson’s latest feature, shares DNA with the former group while almost entirely eschewing the latter.  In the movie’s present day (some decades from now), time-travel is an outlawed practice, though used by criminal syndicates as a way to irrevocably eliminate from existence people who are causing problems.  In the early time frame, tough-guy adolescents and other seemingly at risk youths are solicited to become “Loopers”, hit men for the syndicates who, when instructed, appear at a specific time and place equipped with a blunderbuss.  A near instant blast will greet the victim from the future, erasing them in a prior timeframe which removes their trouble causing activities in the future.  The catch to this gig is that after enough years of service the Looper is eliminated.  It’s a trade all of the boys accept, like any immediately rewarding but damned bargain, right off with the assurance the day of reckoning is far enough away it might never come.  This allows the want-to-be tough guys to live fast, adorned with retro-chic attire  acquired with their handsome commissions of silver bars (which accompany their targets through time) in a vibrant, hedonistic nightlife consistent with a nefarious career and increasingly finite lifespan.

The difficulty inherent in the Looper compact is the promise of extinction.  Living hard is easy when the comeuppance is at a distance, but the sacrifice becomes unthinkable as past pleasures provide no comfort at the threshold.  Bruce Willis, as an elder Looper who’s day of reckoning has arrived, resists and, in attempting to neutralize his assailants, loses the woman he loves.  Eventually, by way of doing Bruce Willis things to his assassinators, he removes the hood typically affixed to victims (presumably to prevent any eye contact and potential reticence on the part of the shooter) and goes through the warp.  Upon arrival his younger self (a very good and digitally aided Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recognizes the lowlife staring back at himself, granting Willis the brief window to disarm the situation and flee.

A Looper losing track of his charge is a major problem, seeing as blowing away a restrained person whose exact coordinates and travel arrangements are known to you is pretty difficult to mess up and is more or less their only responsibility.  But these things happen from time to time, and in an excellent and unnerving sequence early on the audience is shown the consequences of such a Looper (the always punchable Paul Dano) screwing up.  Due to the nature of time travel (or at least movie time travel, unless science is holding out on us) the advantage the younger versions have over their more wise and battle hardened twin is complete dependence.  Decades of experience and knowledge are meaningless unless the foundation of their existence, their younger self, is thriving in the earlier time frame.  As a result of this linear debt, methods as diverse as incision based messaging, torture and shared memories are deployed by Johnson in creative and refreshingly restrained fashion, lending the notion of something not approachable by modern technology a very tactile quality.

Utilizing this blue-collar upper hand, some noir-ish sleuthing and a (mostly) civil face to face, Gordon-Levitt comes to learn how in the future a criminal presence known as The Rainmaker is ending the contracts of Loopers and taking exacting, brutal control of their area.  Willis reasons, and the earlier sequence with Dano corroborates the notion, that elimination of this Rainmaker at an early age would prevent such a dystopian development decades later.

As it would almost any movie, the introduction of a plot line where an old man attempts to murder a child creates a tonal shift.  Surprisingly, though, the abrupt change in focus and location is not unwelcome.  When a movie knows not only how to change gears, but why, the effect can be exhilarating (Goodfellas, Full Metal Jacket).  Gordon-Levitt, now an unwillingly detoxing fugitive, shows up at the farm of Emily Blunt (also quite good).  Perfectly acceptable prickliness on her part keeps Gordon-Levitt at arms length, though eventually her personal family history and Gordon-Levitt’s recent education on Willis’ sinister motives force an alliance.

The third act is incredibly low-fi considering the movie’s setting, though it helps reinforce a lot of what Looper, at least in my take, wishes to argue.  Of the three principals, one is a genuine time traveler whose life is in ruin, the other is a bottom scraping criminal profiting off of the market created by time travel, and the third has the near Sisyphean task of making up for an up –to-that-point wasted life and years she can’t recover.  What Looper is trying to argue, it seems, is the inefficacy of physics bending tricks and (forgive me) loopholes of those who don’t respect their preciousness, the movie contends that a poorly run race can’t be amended by returning to a false start.  Almost like an inverse of the given that the best high stakes poker players are the ones who have no respect for money, what use is more and more time if you’ve demonstrated you’re just going to waste it anyway?

24 Frames – “The Social Network”

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I love repetition.  I can’t explain the neuroscience of why my brain responds so enthusiastically to the introduction then reiteration of things, be they tessellations in nature, rematches in sports, or the chorus of a song.  Even on a subconscious level, when a taste or a smell hurtles me back to a practice field or a classroom or a kitchen, places I hadn’t realized I was nostalgic for until that moment, I’m always staggered.  As I’ve gotten older, I have begun to appreciate what I’ll call a “delayed repeat”, where something (a term, musical cue, scene or setup) is introduced early in a work, with either portions of the whole or its entirety being addressed throughout the work, usually in a way that reinforces the original meaning, turns it on its head, or some variation of the two.  In David Fincher’s The Social Network, the opening scene wherein Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg has a spirited back and forth with his increasingly weary, not-for-long girlfriend, (Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright) throws a considerable number of memorable terms and phrases at the viewer, almost all of which bear fruit throughout the rest of the movie.  (I’ll admit, a few additional phrases take place after their conversation, though I’m lumping them in as they are more or less caught up in the intoxicating first twenty minutes).

Presented below are some key phrases doled out in the bar conversation.  The first bullet point indicates the original context, while the second one explains its use later in the movie.

1) “You would do that for me?”
  • Erica, when Mark comments that he would bring her to the Final Clubs gatherings
  • Mark, to the Winklevii / Divya when the latter tells him Harvard Connection could help rehabilitate his image on campus
2) “I have no intention of being your friend”
  • Erica, to Mark at the end of their conversation
  • The movie ends with Mark “friending” Erica and impatiently refreshing to see if she’ll accept, which, given everything we’ve learned…I think not.
3) “…she’s getting all kinds of help from our “friends” at Victoria’s Secret”
  • Mark, drunkenly blogging about Erica following their break-up
  • Sean tells Mark the story of the founder of Victoria’s Secret at the nightclub.  Mark seemingly takes the advice to heart and will work to make sure he doesn’t impede the growth of his own empire
4) “…well I can’t do that”
  • Mark’s response to Erica’s statement that she likes guys who row crew
  • Mark tells the Winklevii that he ‘has a minute’ to talk them after they reveal they spend time at the gym since they row crew
5) “Sometimes from a girl’s perspective not singing in an a capella group is a good thing”
  • Erica, to Mark, when he is listing things which could distinguish himself from his peers
  • Divya first learns that “the Facebook” went live during an a capella performance
6) “…it’s because you’re an asshole”
  • Erica, the final comment to Mark on their date
  • The counsel-woman at the movie’s conclusion tells Mark: ‘you’re not an asshole, you’re just trying so hard to be”

Sometimes intentionally recurring dialogue is a turn-off for me as a moviegoer.  When done poorly, it screams of self-satisfied praise on the part of the screenwriter, that what they came up with is not only strong enough to make the final draft, but bears repeating.  In the case of this movie, I wasn’t put off by any of this.  One reason is that I probably, almost certainly, didn’t make all of these connections during my first watch.  The insanely verbose protagonists of most Aaron Sorkin works draw you in with their eloquence and passion, though a great number of important points can actually be overlooked, missing the trees for the loquacious forest.  Another reason I concede the serious talent on display in this few minutes of writing is that it manages to set up so many important themes of the movie (Mark’s self-confidence issues, his seemingly unnatural drive for acceptance and excellence, his reluctance to listen to, much less absorb, the very reasonable objections of those he’s closest to, etc.).

That’s it for concrete instances of set-up and payoff, though I have more to ramble about if you wish to continue.  There’s a bit of a recurring theme in the movie where Erica incorrectly comments on what mark does.  In the opening, she vaguely calls him a “computer person”.  At the restaurant midway through she sarcastically wishes him luck on his “video game”.  The theme being exposed is how Mark is being constantly misunderstood throughout the movie:
1) Divya / Winklevii think he’ll want to work on the site to rehabilitate his image
2) Eduardo thinks he’s the head of the financial aspect and Mark is content letting him handle the company’s image,
3) Sean thinks Mark is just a smart programmer who is pissed at a girl, while Mark is almost supernaturally motivated beyond Erica at that point.
Also more of an implicit idea, but the writing of the formula on Mark’s window reveals expectation about a match-up of two sides.  It could be a comment on the movie’s main conflict, Mark vs. the Winklevii; new money / geeky vs. old money / classical hero archetype.  If at the outset you had to guess, you’d say the Aryan Olympians from a millionaire family would be expected to win, but not in this instance.  Mark sums it up pretty well with the line “The Winklevii aren’t suing me for intellectual fraud.  They’re suing me because, for the first time in their lives, things didn’t work out the way they were supposed to for them.”
This one is more of a stretch, but in the advertisements when TSN came out in theaters, it was being hailed as a Citizen Kane for this generation, I’m guessing terms of the quality of the feature, and the similarities of story re: a driven man creating an empire while simultaneously alienating himself from relationships.  One of Citizen Kane’s most noted scenes, aside from the “Rosebud” ending and the “dissolution of a marriage” montage set at the dinner table is probably Kane as a child playing in the background through a window as his mother and the men discuss how his life will play out.  That sequence is set up with the camera staring through a window, and Charles building a snowman and enjoying his time out in the snow.  There are two key bits of dialogue near the end of that scene which have very pertinent parallels to TSN:
1) “You’ll be the richest man in America someday, probably”, and
2) “You’ll never be lonely.”
If I can try and draw a parallel, it’s interesting that in Social Network, Eduardo wrote the chess-ranking algorithm in a grease pen on the window at Kirkland.  Additionally, at two later points in the movie the significance of the formula is mentioned.  First, when Mark explains to the head of tech security that if they had known what they were looking for initially, they would have found on his window at Kirkland.  Secondly, while Mark and Eduardo are sharing a beer with Mark telling him he has to come back for the 1,000,000th member party, Eduardo mentions “Do you remember the algorithm on the window at Kirkland?”.  At this comment a friend and fellow member of their mutual, successful enterprise would have joyously agreed and reminisced, though Mark almost doesn’t react.  He’s come too far beyond that, but it’s also kind of his Rosebud moment as he recalls back to when Facebook was personal to him because of Erica and him, and his friends were creating because of the thrill of creation and the fulfillment of revenge.  Either way, both movies deal in the corruption of individuals’ decency and social alienation, and I think it would be pretty coincidental that a key part of TSN‘s plot, a motif it returns to a number of times, was arbitrarily written on a window.  Of course, it could just be that that’s what geniuses at Ivy League schools do:
Finally, and probably the biggest stretch is the tagline about ‘500 million friends’.   There is a parallel with Sean’s story about Victoria’s Secret, when he explains after the founder sold it for a few million, a couple years down the road it was worth $500 million.  Additionally, the movie’s story is primarily about the dissolution of a 2 person friendship.  “You know what’s cool?  $1 Billion dollars.”  If Eduardo and Mark were really co-founders, then a $1B company split 50/50 = $500 million.  Could certainly be coincidental, but in a movie with a director that meticulous and a writer so keenly aware of his words, I will give them the credit.

Movie Review – “Silver Linings Playbook”

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SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

Wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” – Adaptation. (2002)

The piece of narrative advice given above by a fictional surrogate of real life screenwriting guru Robert McKee in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. distills much of the meta-anxiety facing Charlie Kaufman in his script crisis.  Many difficult themes and unique approaches can be explored and adopted when making a movie, but once all the choices, agonized over for months or years, have been finalized, there is still a product to sell.  Audience’s can and do endure an awful lot at the movies, often with the assumption that their patience and loyalty will be rewarded with a strong note to leave on, something that will remain in their minds on the drive home or to discuss at dinner.  Without going into overly spoilerific desciption, I will say at the outset here that David O. Russell’s adaptation of Matthew Quick’s novel adheres very much, and in welcoming fashion, to Mr. McKee’s directive.

Set a few years ago in a lower-middle-class Philadelphia neighborhood, Silver Linings Playbook opens on Bradley Cooper’s Pat, a man who at the moment lives in a rehabilitation center for mentally afflicted individuals.  After spending a few minutes in this world, Pat and the audience are taken home courtesy of his mother, Jacki Weaver, retrieving her son just as soon as the courts will allow.  The tension between them is noticeable immediately, Weaver doing her best to project the proper motherly authority Pat’s rescuer should possess, though acutely aware of and almost immediately hurt by her son’s easily excitable anger.  Shortly after, Pat is reintroduced to his father, an immensely enjoyable Robert De Niro.  While Mr. De Niro has appeared almost aloof in the last several years, that degree of lightly bemused incredulity which quickly gives way to bursts of anger is perfect here, and the audience can immediately appreciate how someone like Cooper might descend from a father like De Niro.

The reason for all this cautious set-up (rehabilitation center, uneasy reunion with family, enthusiasm to reclaim his life) is quickly explained to the audience as Cooper attends a therapy session.  After being deliberately provoked in the waiting room by an auditory cue, Cooper, through indirect exposition, recaps that upon returning home and finding his wife in the shower with another teacher at their high school (while their wedding song, the auditory cue “My Cheri Amour”, plays, no less) Cooper’s rage consumes him and he beats the man brutally, leading him to psychiatric analysis and rehabilitation via plea bargaining.

Cooper’s initial agenda is to reclaim his wife, who now owns a restraining order against him, by reading through her high school English syllabus and getting himself into better shape overall (a continuing theme is people being impressed by the amount of weight Cooper seems to have shed).  Since the plan itself is rather skeletal, and his family and friends would prefer to see him socialize, he winds up attending a dinner between his old friend, his friend’s wife and her younger, recently widowed sister, played by Jennifer Lawrence.  As evidenced earlier, needing little time to say the wrong thing Cooper mentions early and often that Lawrence’s husband is dead.  While such bluntness might offend an average person, Lawrence proves to be similarly off-center and the two quickly bond while discussing the various effects their respective litany’s of prescription drugs can cause.  An interesting point both raise in this dialogue is the concern over how certain drugs made them “cloudy”, “not sharp” or some variation of hazy.  A contention the movie implicitly makes is that some people (at least the principles) with mental illness are not actually “sick” in the sense of requiring medication, and that by dulling or numbing the mere capacity to get worked up or worse, the rest of the person is being numbed as well.  It’s a difficult argument to make, since there exist mental issues far worse than what afflictions Cooper and Lawrence have which surely are unmanageable without some prescription aid.  For a movie, and these characters, in particular, where the illnesses are mostly relegated to huffing and puffing interspersed with the occasional fist, the suggestion that prescription aid isn’t the answer is not completely ridiculous nor insulting, but it’s still an important distinction to make.

The cure for these folks then, if not medicine, is people.  More specifically: one another.  Both protagonists have managed to alienate themselves pretty thoroughly from their families and initially each other.  Cooper is hesitant to let any other woman interfere with the quest for his wife, especially one who has been recently fired for almost unprecedented promiscuity.  Lawrence, on the other hand, sees a fellow soul adrift, one whose penchant for brutal honesty and emotional hangups mirror her own, though she takes umbrage with the notion that Cooper thinks he is more sane than she, and the audience has to agree with her.  After some brief, literal run-ins in their neighborhood, and because movies have to chug forward, Lawrence presents Cooper with an opportunity for him to speak to his wife in a letter she can hand deliver, though her courier service comes with a price: he must assist her in a dance contest she inexplicably signed up for.  Some posturing and bellyaching ensues, but the agreement is reached.

The magic of montage takes over, and we’re treated to instances of awkward fumbling, some minor progression, eventually arriving at a passable level of efficiency on the eve of the contest.  Since this is where the movie is headed, an obstacle needs to be presented, and it is here in the form of the Philadelphia Eagles.  In a family mad about the Eagles (De Niro’s recently unemployed patriarch has taken to bookkeeping as a source of income and pleads with his son to watch the games with him for good luck, Weaver enables the ritualistic bonding with homemade cakes and sweets, Cooper’s brother drops by and later accompanies Cooper to a game which tests his stability…), the greatest narrative issue that arises is that since Cooper apparently brings good luck to the Eagles, his sacrificing family time for Lawrence is dangerous to their mojo.  In what is, up to that point, the movie’s best sequence, Lawrence confronts all the main participants in defense of her practice sessions and responds to De Niro’s disapproval with a thorough and thoroughly entertaining rant detailing the specific rendezvous’ she and Cooper have had in the last month or so and how in each circumstance this has benefited the eagles.

I say “up to that point” because what has to happen as the finale of a movie where a couple practice a dance routine does, obviously, happen.  Sure, there are side situations which add a bit of tension, but mostly the audience is given over to a spectacle of watching two unstable people perform a dance we’ve in no way been led to believe they can adequately perform with pumped up emotional (and financial) stakes.  And not that during the course of the movie you forget you’re watching beautiful movie stars, but even when what up until then had been a relatively restrained character study transforms into a full-on Hollywood crowd-pleaser, it doesn’t make the moment any less unapologetic and euphoric. 

Throughout the movie Cooper champions a few different slogans.  “Excelsior!”, which has a great payoff down the line, serves as a carpe diem style affirmation for situations.  The other, more prominent outlook Cooper adopts is, as evidenced in the title, the idea that situations have silver linings which one needs to constantly work to see and appreciate.  “Wow them in the end, and you got a hit.  You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.”  Sounds a lot like a Silver Lining to me.

Note: The handling of mental illness, especially when the narrative evolves into such a blatant happy ending, could be viewed as insensitive.  If these people were just poorly adjusted to the real world, the audience would likely despise them.  Since they have genuine mental afflictions, however, erratic behavior is tolerated and an overall higher level of patience for their antics is adopted, which allows more tension and drama to be injected into the story.  I personally did not see a problem with the treatment of mental illness, though each person can make up their own mind if the device is misused. 

Movie Review – “The Raid: Redemption”

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As a critical reviewer, John Updike fashioned for himself a series of rules to abide by when assessing the work of another.  First amongst these is:

“Try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.”

I believe this to be an essential directive not only when critically reviewing a work, but even in experiencing it, talking about it, and remembering it.  The most common tactic, it seems to me, in criticizing a movie is to address what it did not have.  A musical can be enjoyable, but lack the deep pathos of a more somber picture.  A war movie is gritty and nihilistic, yet without uplift or hope.  Since it’s incredibly difficult for a motion picture to encapsulate everything and appease viewers of all sensibilities (except for maybe Back to the Future), I think Mr. Updike’s rule is pertinent and necessary when looking at a movie; does it accomplish what it sets out to accomplish?

This litmus test provides the most benefit to genre movies, which by way of constraining narrative outlines, the need to hit familiar beats and an already established niche audience, seldom possess the broad appeal of other, more praised ones.  And The Raid: Redemption is, unequivocally, a genre movie.  The genre?  A hybrid of martial arts (incorporating an Indonesian style of fighting, Pencak Silat) and atmospheric, moody Carpenter-esque action pictures, peppered in spots with slasher-movie tension, all filtered through a vertical climb video game style challenge hierarchy of villains.

So, then, we have the following way to look at a movie like The Raid: Redemption: Does this mixed-genre movie accomplish what it sets out to accomplish?  The answer to this relies on an appropriate definition of what this type of movie is setting out to accomplish.  The director, Gareth Evans, has one previous feature to his name, Merentau, a movie I have not seen but from available descriptions and synopses is a similarly themed martial arts production, though the main detraction appears to be that it suffers from a slow, plodding plot.  Indeed, a martial arts film carries with it expectations of kinetic battle and rapid pacing, though in that movie, apparently, the fights are few and far between.  If that is the case, then The Raid: Redemption corrects that meandering vibe to an absurd degree.

The Plot: Elite group of Indonesian police (among them a young talent, a weathered veteran and a seemingly out of shape higher-up) are tasked with the raid (hey!) of a drug lord’s production and housing complex wherein all manner of criminals, including the operation’s respective brains and brawn, are at his disposal to eradicate this invasive capture attempt.

That’s pretty much it.  So from what is known about the history of the director and the plot of the movie, one can surmise the goal of The Raid: Redemption is “to make a fast paced, frequently violent martial arts/action combination that puts on display Indonesian martial arts.”  Does this movie succeed in that end?  Very much so.

From a couple of minutes in the bloodletting begins, pausing occasionally for the audience to catch its breath and unwind some of the balletic assaults they had just witnessed in an attempt to process the physics of how, exactly, that guy threw that other guy through that window/table/floor/door.

Iko Uwais, as the rookie with otherworldly stamina, re-teams with Evans after Merentau and is aided by Joe Taslim, in the role of his skeptical squad leader, and Yayan Ruhian, the film’s fight choreographer, as the unsettling, clinical henchman “Mad Dog”.  The physical abilities of all three performers, as well as the myriad extras and supporting cast, are simply dazzling.  The same vicarious thrill that’s found in watching something like the Olympics is had in processing the dizzyingly quick movements of these men and, coupled with inventive use of edits, cuts, and camera positions, a tapestry of devastation is erected floor to floor, fight to fight, culminating in one of the most brutal, exciting, inspired choreographed fights in a long time.

While movies like The Dark Knight or Children of Men have brilliant set piece sequences which quiets the audience and draws the viewer in, these are only momentary injections.  The Raid: Redemption attempts to capture more of what the second half of 13 Assassins does so exceptionally, which is strike a chord of awe and reverence for the action on screen and sustain that over a considerably long period of time.  Evans and co. rise to that challenge admirably.

Not unlike how a movie such as In The Loop wields profanity as poetry, there is genuine, overwhelming pleasure to be had in appreciating that all these masters of their specific talents have been gathered together to illuminate your day, though a clever pun or well timed comeback is replaced here with a propane tank in a refrigerator or a face smashed along a tiled wall in 4 different places.  You say tomato…

Does it seem excessive to apply the critical mission statement of a Pulitzer Prize winner to a movie where a man’s jugular is impaled on the jagged remains of a bashed in door?

Perhaps.

Does it seem right to ask a movie called The Raid: Redemption to tackle socioeconomic disparity or costumed melodrama?

Nope.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “A really great talent finds its happiness in execution.”  All those involved with The Raid: Redemption couldn’t agree more, though execution, admittedly in this case, has a bit of a double meaning.

Movie Review – “The Master”

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Much has already been written about “The Master”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest feature.  Initial discussions focused primarily on the parallels between one of the protagonists, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, a charismatic leader of a cult-like faction in the immediate post-World War II United States, and that of real-life Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard.  Once people began to see the movie, however, and appreciate that these similarities exist to provide a narrative template and mostly disappeared beyond the surface of the character, the discussion turned to the dual performances at the movie’s core, the first being that of Mr. Hoffman.  An Anderson regular, Hoffman brings to bear his considerable charms and persuasiveness as the slippery patriarch of a constantly evolving family both biological and artificial, more Anderson touchstones.  The second performance is Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell, a seriously unhinged, booze addled Navy veteran whose circuitous post-war existence eventually places him in the camp of Dodd and his “Cause”.

Discovered as a stowaway aboard a ship (sailing imagery abounds) hosting the wedding ceremony and reception for Dodd’s daughter, Quell is allowed to partake in the festivities, provided he conjures more of the alcohol and chemical hybrid that Dodd finished.  Fresh off spectacular failures in portrait photography and migrant farming, and needing little excuse to agree to a drinking proposition, Quell hangs around.

This two-way relationship is absolutely where a great deal of the discussion relating to the movie belongs, in my opinion.  This should not suggest that no other performers are worthy of the same degree of mention, however.  Shining brightest amongst a game supporting cast is Amy Adams, so good and ubiquitous over the last decade or so, here cast somewhat against type as the suspicious, devoted and behind-the-scenes influential matriarch to Dodd’s would-be revolutionary.  Ms. Adams’ girl next-door demeanor and polite, measured tones belie a menacing fervor; she is a true believer and knows what she wants.  And yet while a flesh and blood human being, her role in what story there is serves primarily to highlight the conflict between these two men.

Over the next few hours the audience is introduced, though not schooled, in some of the teachings and practices of The Cause.  A recurring motif, in both the exercises and the film’s chronology, is the persistence of memory, and Anderson illustrates this theme with fittingly surreal flourishes.  An early instance has Dodd “processing” Quell, asking him a series of disjointed, personal, rapid fire questions, not unlike Freddie’s psychiatric evaluation prior to his Navy discharge, though noticeably more cathartic.  The sequence requires the acting be realistic and, as a result, is severely unnerving.  Both men asking and responding to such ridiculous questions (“Do your past failures haunt you?”, “Have you had intercourse with a relative?”) with sincere conviction could only be believable in the hands of major talent, as it is here.  (The scene calls to mind another early, set-piece dialogue in recent movie history: Christoph Waltz’s opening interrogation in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.  That discussion features Waltz as chiseler, chipping away at his French farmer’s defenses with each sentence until the inevitable, awful climax is reached.  Anderson’s talk, while just as emotionally wrenching, has no obvious goal.  Dodd exerts some degree of mental and emotional dominance, but is clearly moved and impressed with his subject, and that vague appreciation permeates the movie.)  Beyond the principles, the filmmaking itself is exciting and yet familiar.  It is an exhausting back and forth, a literal staring contest rooted very much in the ticking-clock now while yielding moments of grace and despondency, as Dodd has Freddie parse through his hometown memories to arrive at something concrete, some reason for his violent meandering.  That something, at least partially, winds up being a sometimes deliberately (on Freddie’s part) elusive girl Quell allows to enter and exit his life with similar ease.  And while Quell is very much an id driven individual, combining any measure of liquids that will impair cognitive function and often pursuing women with increasingly overt strategies, the females in his life are more representative of the great unknown he would like to have shown to him, if only he would sit still for it.

Convenient, then, that someone seeking instruction comes upon another promising direction.  Anderson uses this relationship as a platform to touch on a number of issues which were surely prevalent in post-war America, and certainly persist today, namely: middle class ennui, broken families, lost opportunities for companionship, and the crushing awareness that problems of the mind will exist in any geographic location.

This dynamic, Quell the searcher and Dodd the navigator, defines their connection.   Dodd has found in Freddie exactly the type of follower a “mystic”, as he is referred to later in the movie, would both love to have and can not abide.  It is imperative to have the unquestioned devotion of a few so as to encourage loyalty amongst the rest.  But for a chameleon like Dodd, when it becomes convenient to change course and rewrite the book (or, in his case, release a sequel) shifting the foundations of his entire system, this sort of manic commitment can be difficult to maneuver.  And it’s this sustained tension that prevents any actual narrative conclusion from appearing.  If both men could just be honest with one another, perhaps they’d be friends for life.  But from the movie we get the impression that Dodd won’t descend from his self-important perch for more than a few drunken moments with Freddie, often retreating to the steady embrace of Ms. Adams.  Dodd is not above a ribald evening of celebration, but each time reverts to the dapper image he prefers to broadcast.  Quell, no matter how many times he is dressed up and prepared for the public, remains restlessness personified; all wandering eyes and hands-on-hips passive inquisitiveness, it’s as if he’s perpetually studying his environment but absorbing nothing.  Not to mention the fact that often times it seems his only reason for hanging around with Dodd is the free booze, though he is discouraged from drinking.

A short interlude in the second half of the movie represents, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, the mission statement of the picture and does so with a straightforwardness that is surprising, considering the overall undefined feel of the movie.  Quell, along with Dodd, his daughter and son- in-law, head out to an unspecified desert for a bit of motorcycle horseplay.  Dodd proposes they engage in a game called “Point” (minor validation for my contention this is the movie’s main theme), a simple game that has the rider choose a distant reference point and then race their at top speed.  Dodd demonstrates easily enough and hands over the reigns to Freddie, who looks at the machine uneasily (and makes the audience uneasy I would imagine, given that his state of mind and sobriety are unknown at this time) but then boards and is off.  Dodd mutters a light “good boy” when he notices Freddie accelerate as instructed.  His pride quickly diminishes, however, when he recognizes Freddie has no intention to stop and head back and barks his name in resigned futility, fully aware that you can’t ask a program to stop computing its task once you hit “go”.

That is what the movie leaves us with, as well.  The frustration of a leader whose most malleable acolyte is also his most unwieldy contrasted with the primal nature of a man who craves definition for his life but resists commitment at every encounter.  The 1950s setting allows for gorgeous fashion and inspired musical cues but is inessential when the movie is mostly concerned with ideas.  We’re not sure if Freddie is deranged from war or simply deranged, and even then is the conscious decision to believe in an empty orator any saner than genuine mental instability?

Dodd explains to Freddie that in a past life they were allies in a Prussian siege, and in a future incarnation it is likely they will be sworn enemies with no quarter shown.  At this rate it seems natural that their current relationship is uneasy and co-dependent, ships crossing in the night along decidedly different currents leaving behind marvelous wakes.