Making bad decisions and having a GOOD TIME

 

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Good Time (The Safdie Brothers, 2017)

 

There eventually comes a time where I witness an undeniable talent in the film world. Last year it happened with Moonlight and its director Barry Jenkins, and this year it happened with Good Time and its directors Josh and Ben Safdie. It’s a beautiful thing really to see filmmakers who inject such a personal serum into every fiber of a film. It’s beautiful because it has become so rare. It’s beautiful because barely anyone has a fucking imagination anymore. Many are too scared to reveal a whole deal about themselves.

Centered around a drug-rattled and morally questionable protagonist named Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson, who, like Ryan Gosling before him, has officially transitioned from cheesy teen heartthrob to an actor you actually want to pay attention to), the film takes us on a winding journey through Connie’s pathetically desperate attempt to save his brother Nick (Ben Safdie) from a botched robbery for which he was sent to jail.

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The Safdie Brothers don’t hide their artistic flair, and their inspirations, influences, and general view of the world are on full display. The opening shot, a robotic, thundering zoom into a glass building next to a sunny coastline, is like something directly out of a Michael Mann film. Everything that comes after subverts expectations of what I’ve become accustomed to being fed by “traditional” action thrillers.

Ironically, there is hardly anyone in Good Time who is likable. Nobody is lionized as some criminal hero. Connie manages to skirt many an attempt by police to stop him, and weasels his way through a number of fortunate situations, but there is hardly a reason to root for him especially since his actions are at the detriment of innocent civilians (It’s worth also noting that, whether intentional or not, the film perfectly showcases how black individuals end up being collateral damage and scapegoats in majority of criminal activities conducted by white perpetrators). The sad and easily-combustible cesspool-like environment here is a tamer version of the Safdie’s pervious much more gutting and much lower-budgeted film, Heaven Knows What (which I reviewed here).

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During Good Time, I found myself subconsciously wishing for Connie to get caught. He’s not Tony Montana, nor Don Corleone, nor Henry Hill. He has no air of superiority. He has no larger-than-life personality. He’s not charismatic. He’s just a slimy bumbling prick who needs to get what’s coming to him. His victories are luck, not an act of strength. His moral ambiguity and lack of clear lines make for an interesting introspection into how we perceive criminals in movies. Is the bumbling dirty poor criminal, who acts against the law out of desperate survival deserving of more sympathy, as a bit player scheming a system built to crush him? Is the organized white collar criminal, with power and wealth at his fingertips the one we should be tearing down?

Social and cultural undertones included, GoodTime provides a thrill ride that doesn’t rely on set pieces and pre-conceived situations as much as its characters’ decisionmaking. Connie and the rest of the cast’s fuzzy standing on the scale of “hero and villain”, which changes almost every sequence, change the way we’re supposed to think of action movies. There are no “keys to the city”, no “damsel in distress”, no “beating the bad guy”. Everyone in this movie is there for one reason: Surviving, for themselves, at all costs.

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Trapped – Middle-Class India in a High Class City

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Trapped (Vikramaditya Motwane, 2017)

Motwane’s latest film, Trapped, points its spotlight at the unsustainable infrastructure of India’s urban society. Its hustle and bustle, its middle class’s unwavering search for upward movement along the capitalist ladder, dependence on technology in a country where electricity and water, even in the 21st century, are still variables instead of constants, and the irony of dense population still leading to isolation as the city’s horizontal planar limits give way to vertical movement.

The main character, Shaurya (Rajkumar Rao), is your run of the mill nine-to-fiver, recently having taken the next big step with his girlfriend asking her to marry him. Her response isn’t clear and very hesitant, but his secret to winning her over is a brand new apartment which he tries to get through haggling despite not having a high paying job. The need to move ahead in stature is a common endeavor of the Indian middle class in the current economic age, the same as it was during the 90’s in the United States, and it is manifest in the construction of massive high-rise apartment towers throughout metropolises in the country. Many of these are built ahead of demand and end up stuck in construction for months even years (my uncle’s family is currently in this conundrum in Mumbai), leaving them essentially abandoned.

One of these unfinished abandoned complexes is offered to Shaurya through a less than reputable individual who just so happens to “know a guy”. Shaurya is desperate and like many desperate in India, there is always someone willing to give you something in the sketchiest way possible. Much like during America’s first economic boom in the post-reconstruction era, India’s growth monetarily and in population has created a black market in literally every realm of consumer products.

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Shaurya moves into his new apartment, high above the city skyline and clearly way out of his own price range. His isolation is a product of having a lot of money and resources, or in his case, a shady back-end deal that allows him his “pretend wealth”. In any urban environment, the vertical geographical distribution of individuals is almost always proportional to their economic wealth. This idea is best exemplified by one of my favorite films, Kurosawa’s High & Low, and is reiterated here in Shaurya’s place suddenly way above his middle-class lifestyle. But much like abandoned buildings go, there are complications and the place is less than hospitable in terms of furnishings and basic utilities.

Soon enough, as Shaurya begins exploring the place, things start to fall apart. The water doesn’t work anymore. His phone doesn’t charge. He rushes out the door to get to work but forgets things. He leaves his keys in the door on the outside. This wouldn’t be a problem in the U.S. really, but again the reality of India’s infrastructure is a curious series of mismanaged and mis-engineered little quirks that make things go downhill in quite a hurry. India is a nation with a lot of money and a lot of building projects, but no attention to periodic maintenance and the country’s rapid acceleration into an economic superpower has suddenly made its feet move faster than its body or mind can really keep up with. Many of India’s newest buildings are being shot up so fast and at such a rate that the little issues, the minor details, leave for massive inconveniences and eventually, cracks and fissures over time. The wind blows the door closed, jammed by the upturned key. Shaurya becomes trapped inside.

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Motwane sort of belies the trend of filmmakers having a strong first half of ideas which wither away as their films trudge towards their finish mark by making memorable conclusions. He knows exactly how the film should begin and end. This comes at a cost though, and that cost is the central meat of the film. The cinematography and editing have a lot to do with the film’s lack of thrills, but it is Motwane’s decision-making which remains the main culprit. Surprising, since his stellar and emotionally-wrecking debut Udaan and his underappreciated follow-up Lootera situated him as one of the few and far in between serious talents of mainstream Bollywood. The majority of action takes place in the flat itself, and like bottle episodes of TV shows and some movies centralizing on stranded figures, (Home Alone, Cast Away and Buried come to mind) the suspense and forward thrusting mechanics of the story originate in the singular character trying and failing different methods of escape. It is much more difficult to do than it sounds because for a film consisting of only a single finite space and only one person’s point of view, every directorial choice must be made to keep the viewer hooked and in complete alliance with the character. Not surprisingly this is where Motwane’s flaws creep through.

Too many shots outside of the confined space disrupt the increase in tension. The geometrical area in which Shaurya is trapped would mentally begin to become smaller and smaller, more claustrophobic, and further up from the ground. Why do we need to know the watchman is distracted by a radio when Shaurya screams his name in hopes of his attention? The fact that Shaurya never receives an answer to his calls is enough of a frustration. If the purpose is to get us to feel the same level of choking enclosure of the walls of Shaurya’s prison, then points of view such as those from ground level and of the woman hanging clothes to dry on a terrace just a few blocks from the building are unnecessary and tear away the anxiety we should be feeling at every ticking moment.

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While as a thriller, Trapped doesn’t render much interest, the film’s social undertones are what keep it afloat as at least an acknowledgeable piece of filmmaking. The social realities of being ‘trapped’ in India are much easier to construct as plausible than in more developed countries, and Motwane has that to his advantage. The lack of water and electricity, which sporadically come on and off add the frustration of the main character, but are hardly ever utilized as devices to promote urgency. I don’t think Shaurya ever even once collapses of dehydration despite not drinking a sip for close to 3 days. One of the underrated nuisances in India are that there are hardly any apartments that have fully open window structures. From personal anecdote, I can tell you that all of my family members there have windows barricaded by thick metal wiring, artistically shaped so as to not be a total eyesore. Had the balcony of Shaurya’s cage simply been a ledge instead of a floor to ceiling metal bar fixture, the film would’ve lacked a plot.

Shaurya’s attempted escape from his accidental prison can be interpreted quite clearly as a metaphor for economic movement of the Indian middle-class individual. Despite the growth of the nation, there still exist structural and political obstacles which bring advancement to a screeching halt, an attempt to create so many barriers as to hope one with eventually say “fuck it” and lie in place. But once the taste of freedom and a new life is there, they can’t help but keep pushing harder.

Wakefield – A story of a patriarch

 

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Wakefield (Robin Swicord, 2017)

It’s unclear what the motive behind the movie Wakefield is. Not just the characters or the world they exist within, or the film’s “message”, but the reason for its existence. Why did director Robin Swicord, who gained fame for her literary adaptations such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Memoirs of a Geisha, feel the need to write and make this movie? I have a few thoughts, but I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m asking for the purpose behind a film’s creation. Frankly, it’s a question we should ask Hollywood films more often, and more often than not the reason is money. But that’s clearly not the case here because, besides me, I don’t know another human being who has seen this Bryan Cranston starrer which released three weeks ago. Yeah, did you know Bryan Cranston acted in a movie that released three weeks ago? Money could not have been part of the equation. The real reason behind my curiosity is the actual plot and story of the film….

Adapted from a short story by E.L. Doctorrow which in itself is a reimagining of the same story originally written by Nathaniel Hawthorn, Wakefield is about a family man with a city job who comes home late one night after being stuck on a malfunctioning train and follows a racoon loitering through his garbage into what seems like a storage area above his garage… and (take a breath)…. decides to just live there and spy on his family for a whole year.

“What the fuck?” – you right now, probably

Bryan Cranston plays the titular character, Howard Wakefield, a man disillusioned from his monotonous day to life-cycle of wife, kids, and job. He lives in a very upper-class WASP neighborhood, decked with picket fenced McMansions, luxury cars (Wakefield owns a Mercedes), fine china, private-school going children, and Joseph Aboud tailored suits. The need to cutting lose from a daily lifestyle is something a lot of people experience, particularly at Wakefield’s mid-life crisis age. However, instead of the expected trope of blowing off money on expensive things, Wakefield’s crisis takes him into a faux-“survivalist” lifestyle. I say faux- because he technically has food and shelter at his disposal at all times. He’s not ever in any real danger through this whole ordeal.

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But the way he enters into this commitment away from his family seems preposterous. Coming home late one night, he notices a raccoon scavenging in the bins on his driveway. In an attempt to shoo the rascal away, he instead sends it up the stairwell in his garage into a storage floor. There, Wakefield notices his wife and kids finishing up dinner without him and… decides to just spend the night. Over the course of a week, he argues with himself over what time would be appropriate to re-introduce himself into his family without it being a gigantic ordeal. Clearly, he supposes, his wife will assume he has been cheating. It’s such a strangely evolved concept that it not only challenges us into identifying with a clearly unlikeable person but also in the idea of what the hell the story is getting at.

Going through E.L. Doctorrow’s short story, written first-person, a marked distinction from Hawthorne’s original which is told as a third-person account, much of the actions Wakefield executes are hardly explained beyond a mere “unknown circumstances” or “can’t imagine why”-s. It’s almost as if this man doesn’t have any control over his mind or body, that he believes fully that his several months in that attic were a literal out of body experience as much as an out of lifestyle experience.

Is Wakefield clinically insane? He talks about the events towards the beginning of the story as having a Doppler effect, or a string of occurrences which seem to prophesize on the collapse of human civilization. He mentions his actions had a snowball effect of irrationality from the first night he spent in the storage area to the following several months. But his constant acknowledgment of his irrational behavior rules that out.

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The most logical interpretation of the film’s underlying social themes, in my eyes, is that Wakefield is engaging in a despicable patriarchal power move. One with an heir of complete self-importance in regards to his family. By removing himself from the family, and watching their struggles he finds a sort of sick joy in knowing they can’t handle life without him. He is not so much insane as he is sociopathic. The evidence of this is obvious in several instances where his wife is getting help from a friend on finances, and Wakefield chuckles knowing there’s no way she can afford her lifestyle without his paycheck let alone manage all the monetary budgeting that he and he alone does for the household. Given Swicord’s talent in translating fiction into a visual portrait of multi-dimensional individuals for the screen (her best work, in my opinion, Matilda, takes many moments of a whimsical child’s life and breaths soul-crushing emotional heft into them, quite daring for a children’s movie), her taking a short story to feature length with such a difficult to handle premise was not something I was particularly worried about… but the end result showed that stretching Wakefield as a character leads to many wrong turns and confusingly contradictory portraits of who he is, and why we should accept him as believable.

Much of the second half of the film, a swift turn from the first half, Swicord concentrates on humanizing Wakefield into a compassionate, humble character who ultimately has a self-realizing epiphany. It’s the classic case of a film which steers away from difficult, murky territory of seeing a truly depraved person eaten by his own mind and into a story of glorious self-fulfillment, that too, at the detriment of everyone around him. It’s strange coming from Swicord, who’s writing sensibilities clearly lean towards a feminist reading of the material. Why would she have us believe in this man’s motives as being anything less than a narcissistic act of neglecting three women in his life on a whim? That he is actually capable of learning a lesson and that is what catalyzes his return to society, and not that he is so egotistical, so emotionally distanced from his family as humans with wants and needs, he feels he can waltz back in just like that.

The film would have us believe that by removing himself from everything Wakefield has gained an appreciation for it all… one of the most tired and uninspiring Hollywood lessons. It’s like an American Dad episode written and directed with a straight face.

SONG TO SONG and VOYAGE OF TIME: There’s Something Wrong With Terrence Malick

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Song to Song (Terrence Malick, 2017)

When you feel as if an artist you always admired has lost something, what do you do? Do you hold out hope for future projects? Continue to selectively relive their past glory? Review their work chronologically to determine when and where it exactly all went to hell? It’s a troubling thing, realizing that a brilliant filmmaker, painter, sculptor, writer, or whoever cannot create the beautiful works which helped change your life, which helped inspire countless moments of your own burst of creativity.

Terrence Malick is one of my favorite filmmakers ever, and to me one of the greatest artists in American history. His repertoire, much like Kubrick’s, is sparse, spread out, untamed, and utterly brilliant. In the 30 years between 1970 to 2000, Malick made only 3 films: his debut feature Badlands, his most “critically acclaimed” work, a tragic romance called Days of Heaven and after a long hiatus, a film I consider to be possibly the single best movie I’ve ever witnessed, the war epic The Thin Red LineIn the 21st Century, however, his production increased in both volume and frequency, churning out The New World in the last decade, and a whopping 4 features and 1 documentary since 2011, a ratio of output to time-span that shocked pretty much everyone in the cinema world. Something about Malick had changed.

Initially, I thought he had simply had an explosion of great ideas he felt were necessary to put to film. When The Tree of Life released in theaters, I made it a point to revisit and experience Malick’s filmography in chronological order to prepare myself for what many hailed as a decades-long passion project. My roommate Joe and I spent the week watching 1 Malick film each day, starting with Badlands and working our way to The New World. I learned a lot from that experience, especially the historical and technical origins of Malick’s signature voice-over narration that haunts his characters and landscapes like whispers of ghosts reaching out into our world. I saw glimpses of dazzling visuals, lingering tracking shots, and an aching small-town nostalgia within Badlands that would culminate in a tidal wave of personal memory in The Tree of Life. The definition of auteur given by film critic Andrew Sarris boiled down to the idea that there existed a thematic string, a world-view, within a filmmaker, which was prevalent throughout their entire oeuvre, and that made the “auteur”. This string was clear in Malick’s career.

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Has it been cut? If his last three narrative features are any indication, at the very least it’s been weakened and frayed. A few weekends ago I saw his latest offering, a romantic music-centered film called Song to Song. A compilation of all the typical Malickian ingredients, from the dream-like visual work to the understated characters to the themes of love, loss, death and memory, the film felt like it was directed by Malick on autopilot. It was a movie filled with the filmmaker’s most natural instincts and so many of them packed together with no theme that it becomes a self-parody. The style that I used to love, that used to evoke such a deeper questioning to the themes he explored, that added immense depth to a painterly celluloid canvas, now evoked only an eye-roll, a sigh, and a glance at my cell phone to see how much time I had left before I could go home.

Is Malick bored? Or did he just run out of ideas? It seems counterintuitive for a bored and imagination-dry filmmaker to start making movies at a faster pace than he used to.

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Voyage of Time (Terrence Malick, 2017)

Even more perplexing is the other movie I saw from him, a short documentary in IMAX at the Smithsonian Air and Space museum called Voyage of Time was so moving and beautifully composed. It’s is a visual “companion” of sorts to his narrative masterpiece The Tree of Life, and is a representation of human existence told through the creation of the universe. The film has no dialogue and almost no humans aside from a girl standing in a field and two kids playing in the front yard of a colonial suburban home. This film was purely the essentials of Malick’s visual technique. Aside from a beautiful opening scroll that in itself eclipses any inane forced voice-over dialogue from his last 3 disappointing films, the film is just CGI and natural shots depicting the birth of the universe and the world and ultimately, its expansive relation to us and our place within it.  What is the string between this film and Song to Song? Is there any thematic connection? They were made by the same man, a director I have incredible admiration for, but one is comprised of all his greatest tendencies and the other all his worst. One felt personal and profound while the other felt like pseudo-intellectual blabber and faux-artistic posturing.

The clearest distinction I can make between the old and new Malick, is that before, his visuals and his words were dictated by an inner voice that was so clear, making his style a necessary vehicle to project that voice to us. Malickian style now seems like nothing more than a pandering technique for his fans. The weight of his voice-overs is absent, the meaning behind his mesmerizing images isn’t there. Song to Song‘s entire aesthetic could be recreated by anyone with a high definition camera and it wouldn’t lose any of its already flimsy effect. That is sad to say about a filmmaker who didn’t miss a step for almost 4 decades of sparse but masterful filmmaking.