PREMIUM RUSH

The only thing that looked good to me this weekend was bike messenger action thriller (yes) Premium Rush whose few shortcomings (Dania Ramirez’s acting; the macguffin being loaded with stakes too high and heartstringplucking for its outcome to be in doubt) are swept away by its many pleasures (geographically clear action photography and editing; real-time storytelling; and the threat of crashes that actually imply physical injury).

Perhaps most joyous of all is Michael Shannon’s dirty psycho cop who is equal parts pathetic, frightening, and comic. He mixes these shades so well (of course) that his would-be cookie cutter villain stands alongside the best interpretations of this type, such as Cage in Bad Lieutenant and Liotta in Narc. For such an essentially non-dramatic film (attempts at emotional scenes notwithstanding) Shannon could have spared the effort but he treats the movie like it deserves his talents, and manages to inflect his character with dark humor without becoming a cartoon (despite his references to such). The film also accomplishes some excellent nonverbal gallows humor in a cyclist’s Sherlockian ability to mentally extrapolate the outcomes of competing route options through cross traffic.

If the film is flawed, it’s because it observes screenwriting rules too closely. Joseph Gordon Levitt’s personal and professional crises align and are resolved right on cue with his primary physical challenges. These may be indulged as affectionate respect for the genre or indeed the form of popular screen storytelling, but these time-honored (viz. box office-tested) conventions become a Trojan horse for one or two cliches in the third act. Naturally the entire bicycle messenger community in Manhattan — except for our clean-cut leads! — are alternative lifestyle Wall Street Occupiers on wheels. And one of Joe’s most deeply held beliefs is the configuration of his Fixie — it’s not a machine, it’s a way of life! Little does he know that while he’s waxing eloquent in voiceover about extreme brakelessness, Fixie don’t care, Fixie laugh! If only the film had careened as breathlessly into unexpected territory.

But these are minor irritants in a film that did more than I hoped it would, which was just to have great, visually intelligible chase scenes.

MOONRISE KINGDOM

This is probably my favorite Wes Anderson picture. The immature adults who are usually the focus of his stories finally recede to the background to make room for children trying to be adults. Similarities to Rushmore are superficial since Moonrise Kingdom lacks the meanness of Rushmore’s characters; even most of the adults are altruistic, and the sincerity of Ed Norton’s Scoutmaster is one of the film’s highlights. Style notwithstanding, Moonrise has more in common with Malick’s Badlands than any of Anerson’s previous films.

Edward Norton as Scoutmaster Ward in Moonrise Kingdom

The artifices of craft which characterize Anderson’s films now appear primarily in his subjects. I should have known that Wes Anderson loves Boy Scouting and Noah’s Ark, both of which combine encyclopedic taxonomies with handicrafts on a micro or macro scale. The Chester Cycle mystery play of Noah’s Flood appears as a church production of Benjamin Britten’s operatic setting, providing the avian-costumed romantic interest of the uniformed Scout.

Anderson’s obsessions with craft and catalogues find their most explicit expression in his choice of another Britten composition, The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, for the film’s titles. Britten’s dismantling of a theme from Purcell, one family of instruments at a time, makes the artifice of musical composition as transparent as the cross-section of Steve Zissou’s boat, the sequence in The Life Aquatic whose technique of dollhouse exposition is repeated for Moonrise‘s titles.

But while the cross-section of the Belafonte defines The Life Aquatic, the presiding diagram of Moonrise — the map — is incarnated in an omniscient cartographer played by Bob Balaban, who narrates the story’s path and sometimes intervenes in it, and cartography’s acolytes, the orienteering Scouts.

Map of New Penzance in Moonrise Kingdom

SON OF THE MASK (2005)

Who knew this undistinguished sequel starring Jamie Kennedy (not even a poor man’s Jim Carrey) is actually about Norse god Loki’s attempts to overcome his father Odin’s unfair comparisons of him to Thor? Alan Cumming and Bob Hoskins are prescient lookalikes (but no more) of Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins, so it’s easy to see why this got programmed on TV in the wake of the Avengers’ success.

Unfortunately the only thing going for this attempt at a live-action cartoon is an extended Looney Tunes-inspired sequence in which a Mask-wearing dog and his rival, a superpowered baby, attempt to kill each other with ACME style ruses. (The baby’s father is named Tim Avery though I’m not sure how honored Tex would feel.) This was more fun when Bob Hoskins had both eyeballs in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

AVENGERS ASSEMBLE

At least 90 minutes of Avengers Assemble is dedicated to large-scale property damage but, unlike Transformers 2, even in the action scenes you can tell exactly what is happening. Directing only his second movie, I was impressed by how well Whedon manages the action choreography, keeping track of both the geography and the characters. A bravura shot in the third act traces the position of all six Avengers — Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye — fighting discrete battles around Manhattan in one seamless movement. This is far from a gratuitous cinematic flourish because it re-establishes precisely where the characters are standing, running, or flying in relation to each other.

This is probably the first superhero movie that actually “felt like a comic book” to me, maybe because I’m  used to reading comic with more than one superhero in them. This is really the first movie in 34 years of sincere superhero films to depict more than one non-mutant hero who are not related by blood (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer notwithstanding). The fact that a minority of the assembled heroes are wearing black leather, instead of all of them, also contributes to its joyfulness, as does the refreshing absence of mutant angst.

In fact Mark Ruffalo, playing the character most justified to exude angst, Bruce Banner, quietly steals the movie with his interpretation of a defeated Dr Jekyll whose hope to eliminate the “other guy” with a cure has finally given way to stoic acceptance of his fragile temperament. He might be Marvel’s best casting decision since Robert Downey Jr. — and they seem to know it as they’ve just signed him to an eight-picture deal (five of which are no doubt reserved for cameos in his colleagues’ sequels). Speaking of Downey, it’s too bad his Stark persona with attendant facial tics has become so familiar because it thrives on being surrounded by so many costumes begging for gentle ridicule. Even Jeremy Renner, conspicuous by the relative absence of his backstory, makes a lot out of the least material.

THE CABIN IN THE WOODS

Finally, the movie I’ve been waiting for. Even better, I didn’t know I was waiting for it till I saw it. It will be in my Top Ten of 2012 even though (or because?) I’m not really a horror fan.

The Cabin in the Woods makes the knowing discussions of film conventions by the genre-savvy horror fans in Scream look naive by comparison. Craven’s metafictional deconstruction of the horror genre now looks more like he merely loosened a few rivets.

Writer-director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon have done to the horror film what Inglourious Basterds did to the war movie: deliver a devastating critique of the genre even as they lovingly fulfill and, thankfully, exceed its conventions. Like Tarantino’s, their film may undermine your ability to enjoy the genre in the future, but the experience itself is so worthwhile that there’s hardly room for complaint. The final act is so joyfully gratuitous it covers the sins of many films I wish had ended comparably.

If The Tempest is the Last Shakespeare Play then The Cabin in the Woods is the Last Horror Picture Show. The comparison will be evident.

Malick’s quotations of Augustine and Kierkegaard

Christopher Page helpfully provides a transcript of the sermon at the center of The Tree of Life. (When compared against the Blu-ray, it is complete except for the line, “We run before the wind. We think that it will carry us forever. It will not.”)

The syntax at the end of the sermon is so rhetorically distinctive, in a higher register than the rest of the sermon, that I wondered if Malick had written this sermon himself or whether it was taken from another source. A cursory search of Google Books reveals the answer is both. Most of the sermon appears to be original but Malick also quotes Augustine (with modifications) and Kirkegaard (directly).

This selective quoting of eclectic sources seems to be Malick’s method throughout the film, because John McAteer has pointed out that Jessica Chastain’s whispery distinction between Nature and Grace that opens The Tree of Life is a paraphrase of Thomas a Kempis (Imitatio Christi, Book III, chapter 54).

In any case, here are the passages Malick adapts, as they appear in the film then followed by their sources, with direct quotations in bold.

Priest’s sermon:

Is the body of the wise man, or the just, exempt from any pain? From any disquietude, from the deformity that might blight its beauty, from the weakness that might destroy its health?

Augustine, The City of God, Book XIX, chapter 4:

Is the body of the wise man exempt from any pain which may dispel pleasure, from any disquietude which may banish repose? The amputation or decay of the members of the body puts an end to its integrity, deformity blights its beauty, weakness its health, lassitude its vigor, sleepiness or sluggishness its activity,—and which of these is it that may not assail the flesh of the wise man?

[Trans. by Marcus Dods, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers: First Series, Volume II—St. Augustine: City of God, Christian Doctrine, ed. by Philip Schaff (1887), p. 401.]

Priest’s sermon:

The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal. Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?

Søren Kierkegaard, “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed Be the Name of the Lord”, Four Upbuilding Discourses (1843), IV, 19–20:

The very moment everything was taken away from him, he knew it was the Lord who had taken it away, and therefore in his loss he remained on good terms with the Lord, in his loss maintained intimacy with the Lord; he saw the Lord, and therefore he did not see despair. [IV, 19] Or does he alone see God’s hand who sees that he gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that he takes away? Or does he alone see God who sees God turn his face toward him, or does not also he see God who sees him turn his back, just as Moses continually saw nothing but the Lord’s back? [IV, 20]

[Søren Kierkegaard, Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses, ed. and trans. by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 121.]

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY

Oldman’s taciturn performance (he doesn’t speak for the first 20 minutes at least) reminds us that the less an actor “does” the more profound the performance appears because it lets the audience do the work of reading depth into the character (cf. Drive). That isn’t a knock on quiet performances, because not all actors have faces interesting enough or eyes expressive enough to sustain such sustained study like Oldman (and Gosling).

In the central scene Smiley (Oldman) recounts an encounter with another spy which feels a little too actorly only until one recognises that in any other film this scene would have consisted of a flashback — indeed, this film itself employs flashbacks many other times — and the significance of the episode is what it means to Smiley now. Indeed, it implicitly explains his modis operandi and why he is so reluctant to reveal himself through speech.

It is a very good movie whose total absence of genre competition might make it look great by (lack of) comparison. Its most evident accomplishment is recreating the dreary atmosphere of a 1970s cold war thriller — though “thriller” doesn’t seem appropriate given its pessimistic view (despite a Wire-esque concluding music montage) of counter-espionage policies as inherently destructive of trust and relationships. If American cinema in the 70s was charactertized by the Active Paranoia thriller, then this British film by a Swedish director is a portrayal of Passive Paranoia — the life-sapping fatigue effected by suspicion as a professional state of mind.

HANNA

The premise is completely conventional semi-sci-fi material and Joe Wright has tremendous fun with it visually. The strobe effect during the chase through the military base makes one of the best “montages” achieved through lighting since the time-lapse photography sequence of A Zed and Two Noughts. I even got to enjoy another long one-shot that Atonement confirmed as Wright’s trademark.

Hanna’s exuberant style is a welcome relief from the “documentary” self-seriousness of Greengrass’s Bourne sequels. The constant parade of diegetic folk musicians verges on cacophonous, but it effectively forefronts Hanna’s subjective experience and keeps her character in focus. I doubt Soderbergh’s version of this story in Haywire will be as enjoyable.

THE BEAVER

Mel Gibson’s choice for a prospective second comeback couldn’t have been more lucky. Had he filmed this movie after his latest meltdowns, he still couldn’t have chosen a better role given that most audiences would have trouble separating any character from the actor and his many mistakes. So the role of failed husband and father who cuts himself off from his family until he discovers an alternative mode of communication (with a severe suggestion of mental illness) is embarrassingly ideal.

Despite the film’s sincerity, it is still a dark comedy and I laughed out loud at a half dozen moments that I think were intended to be (again, darkly) funny. Ray Winstone’s voice as the puppet has a gravelly quality so similar to Gibson’s that it is quite credible as Gibson’s own voice with Foreign Accent Syndrome.

Anton Yelchin as his son is much better than, say, Ashton Holmes in the comparable role in A History of Violence although, in contrast to Cronenberg’s preferences, there is plenty of Theme to go around in The Beaver. Nonetheless, I thought the son’s ghost-writing subplot nicely underlined his dad’s situation in the vein of Ryan Gosling’s co-workers with their action figures and stuffed animals in Lars and the Real Girl. Since Yelchin never verbally observes that he was being a “beaver” for other people I don’t think the film can be accused of being too thematically on the nose, especially since the whole premise is that the son is exactly like his father and neither of them want to be him.

SENNA

You should see Senna. AKA The Passion of Saint Ayrton. Well, he doesn’t suffer too much, except at the hands of McLaren teammate and arch-rival Alain Prost, especially his political machinations for the 1989 championship, and FIA prez and machiavel, Jean-Marie Balestre. After winning the penultimate race of the season, Senna was disqualified in a behind-the-scenes showdown that gave the championship to Prost. But Senna avenged himself at the same race the next year in a satisfyingly symmetrical real-life instance of poetic justice.

In the third act of the documentary, we see Senna becoming more politically adept, including forcing Balestre’s hand in a driver’s meeting by using the FIA’s own regulations against the president. Balestre is humiliated by a vote of the drivers immediately after he delivers a tyrannical rant about the justice of all his decisions by virtue of the fact that they are his decisions. Balestre’s personal application of divine command ethics in his superintendence of Formula One contrasts with the devout Senna’s frequent references to his relationship with God, reflected in his apparent humility about his accomplishments and his discussion of racing like an alchemical practice that is a catalyst for spiritual experiences on the track.

No doubt about it, Kapadia’s documentary is pure hagiography, no more so than in its portrayal of Senna’s final weekend. His sister reports that the night before his death in the San Marino Grand Prix, Senna read the Bible for comfort (after another driver had died during qualifying) including a passage that says the best gift God gives is God himself.

The access to personal video footage provided by Senna’s family probably came with a restriction on the filmmakers’ freedom to delve into Senna’s personal relationships which are not explored beyond superficial references; neither his wife from a brief early marriage nor his last girlfriend are mentioned at all. But as long as exhaustive biography is not your expectation, then the omission of personal soap opera doesn’t feel like too much of an absence because it leaves more room for the drama of Formula One which is entirely sufficient material for an hour and three quarters.

As it is, there are already lacunae in his racing performances you wish could have been fleshed out, but the choice to focus at length on decisive moments from a few specific races, integrated with coverage of the politics being played behind the scenes, is immensely satisfying. The merciful absence of talking heads in favor of voice-overs from contemporary witnesses — commentators, friends, family members — in turn allows more room for video footage of the subject himself whose face, thanks to his sympathetic personality, is implicitly interesting to watch regardless of whether he is speaking.

This is by no means the final word on Ayrton Senna. But the dramatically perfect arc of his life, especially his rivalry with Prost, ought to make this story fascinating to anyone regardless of their interest in racing for its own sake. Recommended!

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