Sunday, November 8, 2015

Disorder (Maryland)

Perhaps my favorite genre is the paranoid thriller (my top being, as one might expect, the 70s films The Parallax View and Three Days of the CondorMemento [2000], being a more modern version, and more of a mystery than a thriller).

Disorder (Maryland--the name of the estate in the south of France where most of the action takes place), by a young (age 39) auteur, Alice Winocour (she directed and co-wrote with Jeane-St├ęphane Bron), is an ultra-contemporary paranoid thriller told from the POV of Mattias Schoenaerts' character, Vincent.  He's an Afghanistan vet trying to cope with PTSD while on leave, working a private security gig protecting a Lebanese businessman and his family (which includes the businessman's trophy wife Jessie, played by Diane Kruger, and their son).  "The main plot is of the camera," as the French Winocour describes the POV.

Winocour's film is intense--she dials it up to 11 and sustains it.  She got the idea for the story from speaking with veterans, and in a Q & A after a screening of the film at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, also confessed, "I put all my fears in the film."  She specifically wrote the film for Schoenaerts, whose character "witnesses everything and at the same time feels powerless."  Is it his PTSD-induced paranoia and hypervigilance, or is someone really watching and following them?  I have to say that, as a psychotherapist, I think that Winocour gives us an amazingly realistic portrayal of PTSD.

Winocour uses sound design, and specifically silences and the music of techno artist/DJ Gesaffelstein to recreate Vincent's "mental landscape" and stimulate a heightened sense of dread in the viewer; the use of sound here is stunningly effective.  Winocour said she listened to Gesaffelstein every morning during the shoot and that his music helped her to create the rhythm of the film.  (She also shared that Schoenaerts prepared by sleeping only two hours each night.)

Perhaps the most incisive point Winocour made during the Q & A is her belief that "doubt is the principal ingredient of the paranoid thriller."  One viewer in the audience asked a question about what had happened to the family dog.  Winocour initially answered, smiling and slightly shrugging, "he disappeared."  Then she elaborated that she intentionally left that in doubt.  As she pointed out, in a conventional thriller, the audience would see the dog killed in the garden.  But this is not a film that deals in the usual tropes.

Disorder is also an unconventional "kind of" love story.  There's a wonderful scene that substitutes for what in a traditional genre thriller would be a sex scene (it's as singular as Faye Dunaway's line in Condor, as she's handcuffed by Redford to the toilet, "The night is young," but Winocour's scene is subtle, evocative, and moving--and that's all I'll say so as not to spoil it).

The ending will no doubt (pun intended) frustrate a few--those few who need to be told what happened to the dog.  Or whether the top ever stopped spinning in Inception.  Disorder (Maryland) induces the viewer to expand his/her capacity for empathy, and along with that, imagination.

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Sunday, October 11, 2015

Steve Jobs's Bitter Sweet Symphony

At one point in the impressionistic film about Steve Jobs written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle, former Apple partner Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) challenges Jobs (an astonishingly good Michael Fassbender):  "What do you do?  You're not an engineer.  You're not a designer.  You can't put a hammer to a nail.  So...what do you do?"  Jobs:  "Musicians play their instruments.  I play the orchestra."

Much has been written about Sorkin's innovative use of the sacrosanct feature film three-act structure.  Sorkin's script is audacious because its acts are structured around three thematic variations; i.e., product launches in 1984 (the Macintosh),  filmed in grainy 16mm; 1988 (the NeXT cube), filmed in 35mm;  and 1998 (the iMac), shot in HD digital.  Because of this and Sorkin's trademark smart, crackling dialogue, the script has been described as more "theatrical," but for me the film seems more symphonic in nature.  Jobs not only likens himself to an orchestra conductor, but he invokes Stravinksy's Rite of Spring at one juncture, aligning himself with the avante-garde composer whose work caused a near riot when first performed.

The film actually has, technically, four acts or movements, akin to a classical symphony.  Over the opening credits, there's a prologue consisting of black and white footage of Arthur C. Clarke predicting that one day there will be a computer in every household, and showing the audience prototypes that even look like primitive Macs.  

The next act/movement of the film is frenetic, but its Chrisann/Lisa intro is also slowly and painfully drawn out as mother (Katherine Waterston) and Jobs's daughter (in this act, Makenzie Moss) wait--beg--to be acknowledged by Jobs, who refuses his paternity and support of 5-year-old Lisa and denies that he named his computer after her. 

Similarly, Woz, softwear designer Andy Herzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) and even, in his way, CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) also vie for Jobs's acknowledgement of their places in Jobs's success and his favor (sounds Shakespearean, no?), even though Jobs's abiding affection for his colleagues is clear to us.  The one safe and steady constant in his life, the anchor of the three acts, is Jobs's "work wife," his faithful, maternal marketing exec played by Kate Winslet.

Each subsequent act continues with variations on these themes, which escalate in pressure and intensity.  Jobs succeeds, fails on an epic scale, then rises again like the phoenix.  

What's also symphonic about the movie is Boyle's direction, which harmonizes and syncopates in concert with/counterpoint to the script.  Boyle (on the left) is as kinetic in his directing as Sorkin is dynamic with dialogue, although in some of Boyle's films his style, much as I love it, can overwhelm.  Here, the two, writer and director, seem completely in sync, which is probably what has led at least one review I read to declare that Boyle's technique in this film (the camera keeping pace with characters feverishly walking and talking backstage) seems much more organic than the one shot gimmick of Birdman.

If the film stops short of true greatness it may be because Sorkin and Boyle ultimately seem to lose their nerve.  Sorkin appears to distrust the viewer's ability to intuit Jobs's psychology, and he resorts to that Major Movie Crime of telling in lieu of showing.  Sculley yammers on about Jobs's adoption history (finally getting Jobs to spew that he was returned one month after birth by the first family who took him in).  Even the most unsophisticated audience member can make a connection between Jobs's being adopted and his repudiation of paternity, and yet Sorkin feels the need to hit that nail on the head again and again. 

Jobs is a bastard in both senses of the word (from Isaacson's biography we know that Jobs's biological parents were not married when Jobs was born, and that his mother put him up for adoption; they later married and had a daughter, the writer Mona Simpson, but Jobs never met his father, a Syrian who runs a restaurant in the film).

It's not hard to wonder about the connection between Jobs's traumatic rejection as an infant and his unconscious desire to remedy whatever inherent flaw caused this by creating a perfected extension of himself.  We can't help but wonder, too, about Jobs's insistence on a "closed system," which creates  a major rift between him and Woz.  Jobs's system is a safe intact family of hardware that no one can dismantle or change because it can't be penetrated.

Enter daughter Lisa the Penetrator.  If you've ever seen toddlers navigating iPads at the Apple store, you won't be surprised that this little girl becomes immediately engaged with her father's machine, thereby engaging him.  It's no spoiler that Jobs did name his computer after his daughter, and that he ultimately embraced her as his.  

Lisa's character functions as a formal as well as an emotional device, given her growth from age 5 to an antagonistic teen (Perla Haney-Jardine) in the final act, allowing Chrisann's character to be summarily and rather awkwardly dispensed with, as she had functioned in that role earlier.

The filmmakers' wavering/loss of nerve is also reflected in the film's ending, which was reportedly "tweaked" after the movie screened at Telluride as a work in progress.  It veers disappointingly towards the sentimental, yet does not seem fully comfortable or committed there.  It's filmed with a kind of ambivalence that betrays its subject.  Because if there's one thing Jobs never appears to have been, it was ambivalent.

A word of caution:  do not approach this film as a biopic.  If you do, you will be disappointed.  Just as James Joyce's novel was titled A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, not The Portrait of an Artist, the Sorkin-Boyle film is an impressionistic/allegorical portrait of the innovator/visionary personality who shakes up and challenges the status quo.  Look no further than the portraits Jobs picks for one launch--among them Dylan, Lennon, Martin Luther King.

Jobs never wavered.  As The Verve song puts it, he couldn't change his mold.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

In the Labyrinth with Guillermo del Toro

Tonight the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures inaugurated one of its initial programs, a series of conversations with filmmakers.  An eloquent Michael Mann introduced Guillermo del Toro, who then sat with Kerry Brougher of the Academy for two hours, who had fittingly created a three-act thematic structure for the evening by showing clips of classic films that GDT loves:  Great Expectations (below right--"Gothic romance--geography is destiny"), Freaks, Bride of Frankenstein), along with clips from GDT's films influenced by those classics:  Pan's Labyrinth, Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, the two Hellboys, and Pacific Rim.

It was interesting to learn that GDT's father had won the lottery and suddenly become a gentleman (most Dickensian, GDT noted), then bought a huge library of encyclopedias that the young GDT devoured. GDT studied everything from comic books to great art, and believes it's important to to "consume as much variety" as possible as an artist so that "your language starts forming its own syntax," enabling you to "collect and repurpose."  (He also admitted to consuming lots of Doritos!)

"Everything," GDT believes, "becomes an exercise in narrative."  (For example, he liked to play a game with his children in the grocery store by having them collectively imagine what other shoppers might be saying to each other.)

Following are some GDT sound bytes from the conversation:

"There is a plasticity to film that is a language in itself."

"There's nothing in film that can be casual.  I want to codify everything."  GDT spoke of his consistent use of the color red as a positive symbol, usually of love, and declared that the main reason he made Pacific Rim was the character of Mako Mori, who as a child carried her red shoe as a symbol for her heart.  See my post on that film here.

This led at some point to a plug by both men for the Museum of Jurassic Technology on Venice Blvd. in Culver City (which I also love, defies description, and simply must be experienced).  GDT's home (we saw pics of that as well) is his own monastery/museum of artifacts.  Half his paychecks go directly to his wife; the other half go to his gothic collection, he told us.

"Every film is political."  Especially horror--classics like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead--they challenge the status quo.

"Downton Abbey for me is class porn."

"10% of everything is really good." (GDT's "law.")

"Within science there is poetry."

"The CIA and NASA have nothing on one app on the iPhone."

GDT worries about the business side of the film industry, about terms like "pipeline" and "content,"  which to him mean nothing but "sewage and fucking oil."

GDT admires the work of the Coen Brothers (such precision!) and David Lynch, who, GDT said, thinks in dreams and is the best horror filmmaker. (TG we have more of Twin Peaks to look forward to on Showtime!)

GDT talked of movies having been a religious experience when it was possible to miss them if you didn't catch them in the theater in time (as opposed to being able to download them or watch them on discs anytime).

And finally:  "We go to the movies for the same reason we go to church."  (That is, for the transformative moment that comes after sitting through Sundays of tedious sermons.)  Amen.

We didn't get to see a clip from GDT's upcoming Crimson Peak, but here's the trailer:

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