Sunday, November 30, 2014

Don't Make a Scene: A Serious Man

The Set-Up: From its opening frame, A Serious Man—the 2009 film from Joel and Ethan Coen—is about the frustrations of life, of not knowing the unknowable and, more importantly, not minding (not caring isn't the issue as, of course, you care) that you don't know.  

You can fill your personal blackboard with life's equations. You can theorize and formulate about uncertainty (thanks, Dr. Heisenberg) to your head's content, but you're still in the box with Schrödinger's cat.

And no one's getting out alive. That is certain.

The Coen's A Serious Man is a frustrating movie to watch at times. is life.

The Story: The story follows physics prof Larry Gropnick (Michael Stuhlbarg), as he struggles with a life seemingly out of control for no good reason.  As he says, he is a "serious man," yet his wife is leaving him for another man, his stoner son is prepping for his bar mitzvah, his brother (Richard Kind) is living with him as he struggles with his own recipe for madness, one of his students has attempted to bribe him for a higher grade, his tenure is in question...and then there's the result of his X-ray, which we see him getting at the beginning of the film. 

As Larry packs to move to a hotel (his wife's boyfriend will be moving in), he is confronted by the father of the student (played by Stephen Park—the same actor who played Sheriff Marge's lonely classmate in Fargo!) who attempted to bribe him, and in a moment of confusion, mis-communication...and culture clash...kinda nails it.


From off, SARAH projects:
SARAH Dad. Chinese guy.
A middle-aged Korean man, well groomed. He wears a nicely cut suit and a jeweled tie-pin.
MAN Culcha clash.
He bangs his two knuckles together, illustrating.
MAN Culcha clash.
He faces LARRY in the driveway. LARRY's car is half-loaded with open boxes that are haphazardly stuffed with clothing and effects. LARRY is leaning against the hood, arms folded, gazing at the man, unimpressed. 
A long beat. Finally he bestirs himself.
LARRY With all respect, Mr. Park, I don't think it's that.
Mr. Park Yes.
LARRY It would be a culture clash if it...
LARRY ... were the custom in your land to bribe people for grades. 
Mr. Park Yes.
LARRY So-you're saying it is the custom?
Mr. Park No. This is defamation. Grounds for lawsuit. 
LARRY You-let me get this straight-you're threatening to sue me for defaming your son? 
Mr. Park Yes.
LARRY But it would- 
Gar Brandt Is this man bothering you?
Gar Brandt stands on the strip of lawn separating the two neighbors. He is giving Mr. Park a hard stare.
LARRY Is he bothering me? No. We're fine. Thank you, Mr. Brandt. 
Gar Brandt, not entirely convinced, withdraws, glaring at the Korean. LARRY turns back to Mr. Park.
LARRY I, uh. .
LARRY See...
LARRY ...if it were defamation there would have to be someone..
LARRY ...I was defaming him to, or I...all right
LARRY All right, I...let's keep it simple.
LARRY I could pretend the money never appeared. That's...
LARRY ...not defaming anyone. 
Mr. Park Yes. And passing grade.
LARRY Passing grade. 
Mr. Park Yes. 
LARRY Or you'll sue me.
Mr. Park For taking money.
LARRY So... he did leave the money.
Mr. Park This is defamation.
LARRY stares at him.
LARRY Look. It doesn't make sense. Either he left the money...
LARRY ...or he didn't... 
Mr. Park Please. Accept mystery. 
LARRY You can't have it both ways! If 
Mr. Park Why not.
LARRY stares.

A Serious Man

Words by Joel and Ethan Coen 

Pictures by Roger Deakins and Joel and Ethan Coen 

A Serious Man is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Focus Features and Alliance Vivafilm.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Written at the time of the film's release...

The Best-Dressed Rebel in History (You Say You Want a Re-vo-lu-tion, We-ell, ya know, We'd All Love to See the Wardrobe)
"(If I Get Killed), Make Sure You Get it on Camera"

Okay, now it gets interesting.

"The Hunger Games" saga gets interesting, even as the dramatic momentum slows to a crawl to set up the paradoxes and conflicts that will ensue in the next film of the series due November 20, 2015 (mark your calendars, but better do it in pencil).

Mockingjay Part 1 has been released, and it is a game-changer, after two movies with the same premise (distopian society conducts its own crowd-pleasing and -controlling form of entertainment by pitting gladiators from each state into a winner-take-all death-match) and moves to the next step—those gladiators rising up like Spartacus to do battle against the leaders that oppressed/glorified them in the process.  

A non-CGI'd Hoffman, Moore and Jeffrey Wright plotting, plotting...

The games—the government's weapon of mass-distraction—are over, interrupted by Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) defiantly firing an insurrectionary arrow into the overhead circuitry of the Hunger Games arena. Now, it's sudden death and the battle is real. But...not really. What makes this entry interesting is that the battles and explosions mostly happen off-screen, the real fireworks are in the media as both sides of the conflict—the government and the various districts—engage in propaganda wars over the public air-waves. At this point, image is the big weapon of choice and the rebels (led by new-to-the series Julianne Moore and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, along with former champions Woody Harrelson and Jeffrey Wright) against the administration of President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who rescued Katniss in the last installment, Catching Fire. Now, the pressure on Katniss is not to participate in the games, but to become "The Mockingjay," "The Girl on Fire," the poster-girl to inspire and incite the masses to revolution.  

"If we burn, you burn with us"

They want her to be Joan of Arc—in which case "Girl on Fire" is not the most promising of titles.

The masses hardly need encouraging, with rebel attacks, random sabotage and giving the three-fingered (read between the lines?) Katniss salute in solidarity. Ms. Everdeen is not so spontaneous or rebellious—she chafes at her role as role-model.  Her concerns are for her family (who may have been lost in an attack on her home district 12) and her friends in harm's way, particularly Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) who has been captured by "The Capitol" for use in their own media wars.

Part 1 is merely the set-up for the fireworks to come in Part 2, where loyalties will be tested  and ultimate sacrifices made (inevitably). But the set-up has its interesting aspects embedded in author Suzanne Collins' designs that have been slightly glossed over in the previous movies. For instance, the Panem situation is an interesting commentary on existing political systems and their failures in practice, combining both communist and capitalist models that have both degenerated into the most lop-sided of societies of "some being more equal than others" and rich and poor separated by a wide economic gulf, with no middle-class to provide aspiration and cushion. Collins also argues that both agrarian and technological systems have their inherent weaknesses (she's preaching to the choir here—I live in Washington State).
Katniss receives a sly message from President Snow in Mockinjay 1

The other nice thing about Mockingjay 1 is the role of symbology in the proceedings—a concept that Christopher Nolan only stumbled around in his "Dark Knight" trilogy without really getting to the point. Katniss was made, reluctantly, into the Mockingjay of The Hunger Games by the Capitol.  She is just as reluctant to fulfill the role for the rebels, so there's a psychological war going on amid the bombings and the district-cleansings. The Capitol made The Girl on Fire their symbol. Now, that she's playing for the other team, they're just as ready to tear her down, even as the rebellion tries to build her up as their own, and as these things have a cyclical nature, once the rebellion claims her...
Even District 13 has a cyclical nature...

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. It's sufficient to say that The Hunger Games in the larger picture is saying something about fame and fortune, the danger of depending on symbols—especially reluctant ones—and the general manipulation of fiction for fact—certainly in its parallel to the "reality" television blip (please, God, is it over yet?), but also in the general use of myth-making and how the general public can be led like sheep to believe one thing as long as its comfortable (and what they want to hear), and then, on a dime, turn into a slathering "burn-the-witch" crowd at the contrary, even if it's that one has overstayed their welcome. (I would say that mob mentality could use a healthy smartening-up of "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" but I don't know how well I could float with my hands tied behind my back).

Don't believe me? Ask Bill Cosby. Or any U.S. President. Or anybody who has sought fame and still has something resembling a conscience, however useless as an appendix it has become to them. You probably have a hero right now walking a tightrope just one misstep from a fall. Hope they have a good press agent. A good alibi would do.

End of lecture. Back to Mockingjay, Part 1: Sure, there are things really, really wrong with it (Katniss shoots down a jet fighter, which then swerves into another one, taking down two jets with one shot...from a bow-and-arrow?  A bow-and-arrow??), but, in general, I liked this chapter better than the previous ones.  It will be interesting to see what they do for the finale.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Big Hero 6

"This...Is What I've Been Working On"

Animation has come a long way since Winsor McKay first made Gertie the Dinosaur dance. From crude (if meticulous) key-animation to today's computer animation, it is still quite noticeable when somebody does something a little bit more innovative than what one is used to. Toy Story took computer imagery out of the clunky stage to give it grace, Ratatouille started to take things into the realm of photo-realism, Tangled took traditional Disney animation and gave it depth, which only advanced further with Frozen. Now, here comes Big Hero 6 (only somewhat related to the Marvel source), which advances things even further, while taking things in a slightly tangential tack in style.  

And, thematically, the way Disney has been doing lately, it manages to break away from the tropes of the genre and move in a fresh direction.

It is the future in the blended city of San Fransokyo (you can immediately tell the cross-culturalism when the Golden Gate Bridge has some decidedly pagoda-like stylings). Young Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) is a genius 14 year old engineer, who hasn't really applied himself except in the underground world of "bot-fights," where he wins wads of cash with his deceptively simple, unassuming little gadget that becomes a Tazmanian devil in the ring.

His hustling gets him in trouble with local toughs, but he is rescued by his older brother (Daniel Henney)—also an engineering genius—and encouraged for the umpteenth time, not to waste his life hustling, but become study and use his talents where they can do the most good—a quick stop at the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology on the way to the next bot-fight lights the spark in him, and he begins to apply himself to the Next Great Idea that will gain him entry into the Institute.

What he comes up with is a lulu, a swarm of micro-bots that, with a neural transmitter, can be controlled by its human host to become...nearly anything. His presentation at the institute attracts the attention of the school's legendary Dr. Callaghan (James Cromwell) and the corporate kingpin Allistair Krei (Alan Tudyk), both of whom want Hiro's technology; Hiro decides not to sell his tech and his presentation wins him a scholarship.
But, things do not go well that night. The presentation hall where the competition is held erupts in flames and Dr. Callaghan is trapped inside. Hiro's brother Tadashi rushes in to save his mentor and the whole place explodes. There could be no survivors. Hiro is despondent over the loss of his brother, and foregoes his college plans, despite the encouragement of Tadashi's friends and colleagues. His only comfort is the Baymax (voiced by "30 Rock's" Scott Adsit), the "healthcare companion" that Tadashi was perfecting at the time of his death. Baymax is a big inflatable medical scanner that can diagnose, prescribe and comfort the sick.   Hiro, not being in the best of shape, accidentally activates him and the two discover that one of Hiro's micro-bots has survived the explosion at the presentation center...and appears to be trying to respond to commands.

But, from whom?
Baymax and Hiro set out to find out where the tiny micro-bot is attracted to and find an abandoned warehouse, with tones of Hiro's micro-bots in stasis. They also find a Kabuki-masked stranger controlling them. Both are set upon by the controlled micro-bots and only barely manage to escape, with the help of Tadashi's fellow students. The group decides to get to the bottom of all this and form a team with their tech-gadgets to try and find "Mr. Kabuki" and bring him to Big Hero 6, each of Tadashi's friends taking on a persona and "power" that matches their personality and research path.
Not the most promising of scenarios. Two things struck me about Big Hero 6, though, that took it out of the norm of most animation and superhero stories. Number one, the animation. It is of the Disney 2-D school (the directors worked on The Emperor's New Groove, Bolt and The Princess and the Frog) that has been plumped into three dimensions the way the studio's been doing it since Tangled.  But, there's more of an emphasis on detail and shading than has been done in the past—San Fransokyo is bathed in diffused light from a combination of fog and neon. And there's no Uncanny Valley near this Silicon Valley.  The characters are clearly cartoonish and caricature, but the shading and play of light across the faces and expressions suggest a musculature that could not be found in your standard artist's maquette. That awareness comes early on with the expressions of the participants in the bot-fight sequence, and after, one just becomes used to it, noting when something is noticeably tactile looking. I've missed an animated feature or two (like the Madagascar's and Box-Trolls), but this was the first time I got a sense of depth and musculature in the faces. It's definitely a step up.
On the well-trudged superhero front, the story is interesting. It sets up the by-now required de rigeuer "revenge/eye-for-an-eye" scenario that dominates the entire sub-genre of superhero movies (born out of the more commonplace action film), but—and this might have come with the influence of Disney exec/former Pixar head John Lasseter—that "avenging" storyline is subverted to the point where the "taking revenge" impetus is both undermined and rendered moot (as being indistinguishable from the villains' motivations). It is odd that the "superhero" story has become so enmeshed in this singular through-line of story (to the point where even the most altruistic of the "meta-heroes" must be shoe-horned into the "you shall be revenged" Bat-school) when the history of the comics have been rife with different origins. Big Hero 6 breaks the mold and even questions its legitimacy.

And that, for one, makes it seem all the more fresh...and heroic.
Big Hero 6 is accompanied by a short cartoon, Feast, that pushes the way narrative is told in a purely visual way.  Definitely worth checking out.