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December: Reel People In Movies [Fukubukuro 2010]
Jan 13th, 2011 by Dan

After watching Inception for the sixth time this year I mentioned to my friend Jenn that I was still loving and enjoying finding all the subtleties and nuances within the film. She countered that she didn’t really like the movie and questioned why I did. It got me thinking and, naturally, inspired this piece.

Inception might be this huge, bombastic summer blockbuster filled with guns, explosions, chases, and blaring music, but it’s also the story of a man’s tragedy. Dom and his wife, Mal, are the centerpieces to this story and the entire reason I love it. Sure, you’ve got this crazy dream sequence stuff going on, but the best part of it all is the way those two interact.

Every scene that the two are in is absolute dynamite. Marion Cotillard brings such an unhinged, romantically explosive devotion to her character that plays so well that I can’t help but love every psychotic minute of it. You see, what matters to me most in movies is genuine emotional expression and realistic human interaction.

Which brings me to my next big love of December, Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. I know it didn’t come out in 2010, but that’s when I saw it and that’s when I’m gonna talk about it because Jackie Brown might very well be Tarantino’s best work of cinema precisely because it’s probably one of his least Tarantino-ed out pieces.

Anyone who’s seen a Tarantino movie knows that he’s just a touch overindulgent. Conversations about absolutely nothing are peppered throughout his movies to express Tarantino’s worldview and scenes and sequences are often put into movies for the explicit purpose of seeming cool. That’s just fine by me, it’s just that you end up with characters who are not fleshed out in any real sense. They’re just cool.

Jackie Brown goes about its business in a very different way. Tarantino does still have his way with some of the characters, most notably Samuel L. Jackson’s, but nearly everyone else in the feature seems more grounded in reality. Jackie’s calm resolve to do what it takes to survive is such a far cry from the ostentatiously ridiculous main characters of, say, Inglourious Basterds that it’s hard to believe they were created by the same director.

Also of note is the Max Cherry character and his relationship with Jackie. As a man nearing the end stages of his life, he seems so invigorated by meeting Jackie that the crush he develops becomes so adorably interesting, considering his age. His decision to help Jackie get even and free is understated and interesting while simultaneously being uncharacteristically restrained for Tarantino. Imagine this pairing in a movie like Pulp Fiction and you’d end up with a duo that was like Honey Bunny and Pumpkin or you might even get vengeance on a Kill Bill level of blood-gushing ridiculousness.

I will give Tarantino one thing: he has a gift for the anticlimactic death. Pulp Fiction had the preposterous Zed and The Gimp scene, but that same sequence also featured Bruce Willis almost accidentally gunning down Vincent Vega in what is the most pathetic and ill-fitting deaths for a character of Travolta’s stature (in that movie) in cinema. The way that Jackie Brown disposes of Ordell is similarly muted, calm, and much more practical a route than you’d expect Tarantino to take.

Ok, so my point has gotten a little bit muddled in all of this wandering around Jackie Brown, but it still stands that the relatively realistic portrayal of its characters is far more of a draw for me than other Tarantino’s work. It’s also what enables me to absolutely love my some of my favorite movies that actually came out in 2010, Black Swan and True Grit.

Both movies are completely dependent on character to the exclusion, in True Grit’s case, of other aspects of the genre. It is Natalie Portman’s growing insanity that drives Black Swan as her isolationist nature and star status begins to take its toll on her socially undeveloped and immature mind attempts to deal with the pressure of the lead role in Swan Lake. True Grit is also carried by young Hailee Steinfeld, Jeff Bridges, and Matt Damon, participants in a manhunt that unravels at a pace befitting of the Old West. After all, when you have so much ground to cover to find a man with so slow a method of transportation as a horse, it becomes a question of the company you keep and the way you get along, doesn’t it?

I could go on for hours on both of those movies, but instead I’ll just say that my days of enjoying the mindless popcorn movie are all but over. I appreciate what directors are trying to do by creating mindless entertainment, but the real power of cinema doesn’t come from special effects or idealized, unrealistically hip, super-cool characters; it comes from watching people being people.

A Serious Man [Filmmakers Bleed]
Dec 2nd, 2010 by Dan

Poster A Serious Man

"Don't you want somebody to love?"

I’ve seen four other Coen Brothers movies before I came to this one (Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and Burn After Reading) and while some of their movies (O Brother) tend to have a well-defined plot that makes sense (mostly on the basis of it being based on one of the oldest stories in history), most are blessed with a more realistic vision of life and the world around it. Like Burn After Reading, which immediately preceded it, A Serious Man is a movie about nothing in which random events seem to happen and no one understands why. Unlike Burn, ASM‘s perceived randomness stems from an examination of Jewish religious mythology and faith, in general.

Like most deities, the randomness of God, in the Jewish sense, is ascribed to be beyond human comprehension. The best we can do, per most religions, is to try and live pious, good lives and hope that things go well because asking that very human question, “Why?”, will get you absolutely nowhere. No one should know that better than the main character, Larry Gopnik, professor of physics at a midwestern university. Both of the lectures we see him deliver in the movie (Schrödinger’s Cat and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle) deal with conventional properties of physics meant to undermine our ability to perceive anything in this world, yet his personal philosophy is much more along the Newton’s Third Law variety. Actions have reactions. There is a first cause to everything.

Larry’s life begins to fall apart not long after the movie begins. One of his students is bribing him for a good grade, while his father threatens to sue him for defamation if he comes clean on it, his wife wants a divorce from him so that she can marry a more distinguished man, the subject of his tenure is up for review, but anonymous letters have begun appearing making claims against his moral fiber, and his socially awkward and unstable brother is becoming more and more of a nuisance in his home.

As the drama and tension escalates, Larry finds himself confronting rabbis at his local synagogue to try and make sense of it all. This is where the true beauty of the movie shines through. The first rabbi is young and obtuse to his problems while the second actually hits the point of the movie on the head. He tells a mythological and spiritual shaggy dog story, naturally with no point and no resolution, with the very real and brilliant moral that Larry should stop trying to make sense of why his life is crumbling and worry more about living his life.

There’s a brilliance in the way that this movie both tries to convince you that actions have consequences and that they don’t. At one point in the movie Larry and Sy, the man who is stealing his wife, get into simultaneous car crashes, only Sy’s is fatal. Surely the viewer is supposed to view this as karmic punishment for stealing away Larry’s wife, except it’s also the kind of bizarre coincidence that is absolutely meaningless and that happens every day. Not to mention the final scene of the movie in which Larry decides to take the bribe to help pay his mounting legal fees only to have a phone call come in from his doctor with ambiguous, but serious news the second he finishes changing the grade all while a tornado bears down on the Hebrew school at which his son attends.

The movie starts with Larry’s misery, shows the people who trouble him perhaps getting their much deserved karmic comeuppance once he begins living a more pious life, and then, at the last minute, things turn sour for him when it appears he turns away. Coincidence? Meaningful cosmic decision? That’s the point. Is there a point?

I’m being obtuse, but so are the Coen Brothers. Their intention was to present a midwestern Jewish community, much like the one they grew up in, while simultaneously exploring the futility of seeking meaning. The situations are unclear, the outcome of both Larry and his son Danny is left to the viewer, and we’re supposed to leave the theater feeling satisfied.

Even more perplexing is the fake Yiddish folktale told at the start. No mention of it is made again, none of the characters reappear, and the only real point, to the degree that there can be a point, is that it’s impossible to tell why things happen and whether the actions you make will have the right outcome.

I like this movie because it reminds me just how limited my attempts at attributing meaning to the ups and downs of life really is. If you absolutely require a true narrative arc with defined motivations, actions, and reactions, this is not the movie for you. Coen Brothers movies have a powerful ability to leave you feeling uneasy and uncertain about life and that’s precisely what I love about them. I can’t wait for True Grit to come out later this month.

True Grit Trailer (ER/FB)
Oct 20th, 2010 by Dan

I know I’m posting a lot of videos recently, but this movie just looks so cool. I’ve loved Jeff Bridges since Crazy Heart and the Coen brothers usually do good things. Enjoy!

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