Sunday, February 28, 2016

Recent Movie Roundup 21, Part 2

In a few hours, this year's Oscars will be handed out, concluding a season that has been interesting more for the conversation surrounding the nominated movies than for the movies themselves.  Nevertheless, here are some more thoughts about nominated movies (plus a recent one) with my ranking of the best picture nominees at the end.
  • Room - A few years ago, when Emma Donoghue's novel was the topic of discussion everywhere, I found myself, on several occasions, just on the verge of picking up a copy, and then deciding not to.  What held me back was the reaction I had to every one of the novel's reviews, and their description of its premise, in which the experiences of a teenage kidnap victim are filtered through the point of view of her young son, who has spent his entire life in the room in which his mother was imprisoned by her abductor, which he believes to be the whole world, and who must rebuild his worldview when they are rescued.  I kept thinking: this sounds unbearably cute.  And that, unfortunately, was also my reaction to Lenny Abrahamson's adaptation of Donoghue's novel.  To be sure, Room is unflinching in its depiction of "Ma's" (Brie Larson) life as a years-long prisoner, stressing the meanness of her circumstances and the utterly selfish entitlement of her abductor.  And some scenes--chiefly the one in which young Jack (Jacob Tremblay) escapes and tries to get help--are unbearably tense.  But the focus of Room is still on Jack, and on his experiences learning the world, and it expresses those experiences in terms that I couldn't help but find twee, and not entirely believable.  Ma has taught Jack, for example, that the room is the whole world, so he doesn't use the definite article, but refers to "bed," "wardrobe," and "skylight" as if there were only one of each.  The film's segments are bookended by Jack's internal monologue, a cutesy explanation of his personal mythology and how it develops after his rescue, but to me this focus obscured the more interesting story, of Ma and her family's adjustment to life after her rescue.

    This is, obviously, to criticize Room for not being the movie I wanted it to be (and given how heavily the idiosyncrasies of how the book and the film tell this story have been publicized, I can't even claim that I didn't know what I was getting in for).  But the way in which the film prioritizes Jack's story over his mother's is more than just an unsatisfying (to me) narrative choice.  It expresses the film's preoccupations and worldview, in a way that I found increasingly frustrating and disturbing as the story draws on.  What Room is about, fundamentally, is parenthood, or rather motherhood, the way that parents shape their children in ways both good and bad, and the way in which they are, in turn, shaped by being parents.  For Ma (whose real name is Joy), becoming a mother is simultaneously a burden and her salvation.  It gives her confined, hopeless life a sense of purpose and focus (as she tells Jack, before he "came along" she was living in despair, "a zombie").  As we see in the early parts of the film, Joy has worked hard to make Jack's life as happy and as rich as possible.  She tells him that Room is the whole world so that he will never feel as confined and trapped as she does.  She invents activities and stories for him in order to develop his mind and body.  She fights with her captor to get him medicine and clothes, and uses her own body to protect Jack from his father's attentions.  But at the same time, motherhood is something that has been imposed on Joy in the worst possible way, and it means that she will never be able to fully move on from what was done to her.  There are moments when Larson looks at Tremblay, and her face suddenly twists with anger, that to me felt like the most honest, most important scenes in the movie.

    For the most part, however, Room doesn't address this tension, and when it does it's only to criticize Joy and put her down.  Throughout the film, I kept waiting for someone to tell Joy what an amazing mother she was, and how astounding it was that she had managed to give Jack such a normal life under such terrible circumstances, even though she was not much more than a child herself when she became a mother.  But instead, all she gets is criticism.  Seemingly everyone--her own mother, a reporter, even her captor--lines up to tell Joy that she's doing motherhood wrong, when really they should be marveling that she's willing to do it at all.  And the only person in the movie who isn't immediately accepting of Jack, Joy's father, does so in terms that are clearly designed to make him look villainous, and is quickly removed from the story.  There are, obviously, some very complex questions that are raised by Joy and Jack's connection, and I'm not trying to say that Room should have ended with her abandoning him.  But the movie doesn't even try to raise those questions, and instead takes it for granted that a happy ending for Joy is one in which she fully embraces her role as Jack's mother.  In the film's third act, Joy sinks into depression, and while it's understandable that Jack would feel betrayed and abandoned by this, the way in which the film validates his point of view seems to be pointing us towards the conclusion that Joy doesn't have the right to feel her own trauma--or worse, that the only way for her to heal is to embrace her role as a mother.  Near the end of the film, Joy laments that she is a terrible mother, to which Jack replies "but you're Ma."  I think the movie means for me to see this as hopeful--to think that Jack is a positive presence in Joy's life who can help her move forward from her experiences.  But to me it just felt like a continuation of the film's tragedy.  Like any child, Jack loves his mother not because she's a good mother, but because she's his.  So the only positive presence in Joy's life is also the one that traps her in a role that she never really had a choice in assuming.

  • Brooklyn - Coming as the follow-up to Room only did good things for this movie by John Crowley, which taken on its own is sweet but extremely small.  After the rather punishing experience of a movie in which everyone, good and evil, behaves as if the young heroine doesn't have the right to live for herself, it was a profound relief to come to Brooklyn and find a story about a young woman's pursuit of happiness, on her own terms, and even when the people around her tell her that she's being selfish to do so.  This is, perhaps, to make Brooklyn seem rather combative, when in fact it's an extremely, perhaps deceptively gentle film.  Saoirse Ronan (luminous, and to my mind a better choice for the best actress Oscar than Brie Larson because she has to carry so much more of her movie on her own, and manages to convey her character's emotions without a child to play opposite) plays Eilis, a young Irish woman in the early 50s who, lacking job prospects or any hope of a good future at home, emigrates on her own to the US.  Eilis's life in Brooklyn follows the familiar beats of an immigrant story--she's terribly homesick at first, then slowly finds her footing, makes friends, and even meets a young man (Emory Cohen)--and it's therefore easy to see Brooklyn as by the numbers, or even perfunctory.  But the real story here is Eilis's growth into womanhood and adulthood, her discovery of the kind of life she wants and of her ability to pursue it--even when her behavior can seem hurtful, such as when she returns to Ireland for a visit and strikes up a flirtation with another suitor (Domhnall Gleeson), concealing the fact that she's got someone waiting for her at home.  Even more interesting is the fact that the people who help (and sometimes hinder) Eilis on her path towards finding herself are almost all women--her landlady (a delightful Julie Walters), the girls at her boarding house, her boss at the department store where she works, her mother and sister, the local busybody at her home town.

    Brooklyn's script, by Nick Hornby, is sharp and extremely effective, but also a little on the nose.  This is particularly true when it comes to the rather simplistic contrast the film draws between Ireland and the US, which represent, respectively, a genteel conformity that Eilis eventually comes to see as restrictive and narrow-minded, and the land of freedom and opportunity.  (This reductiveness is responsible for the one bum note in the script, the event that finally jogs Eilis to decide where her home is and what kind of life she wants to have, which requires one of the characters to act in a way that, as even the script itself acknowledges, she has no real motivation for.)  But the film's rose-tinted perception of America also means that it makes an unexpectedly powerful statement.  Eilis's story--an immigrant seeking a better life in a foreign country, getting help and support from those who came before her, and establishing herself with a profession and a home--is the story of so many immigrants all over the world, and just as Irish people like Eilis came to America in the 50s and before, people from Syria and South America and everywhere else in the world are making that journey today.  One hopes that at least some of the people who were so charmed by Eilis's story will realize that there are countless young men and women like her living that story today, and feel a little more sympathetic towards them.

  • Hail, Caesar! - The trailers for the Coen brothers' latest movie make it look like one of their trifles, on the spectrum between Intolerable Cruelty and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a comedy full of exaggerated accents and implausible coincidences.  This isn't entirely inaccurate--the accents do pour forth like water, and the film is, indeed, more a comedy than anything else.  But Hail, Caesar! is also a great deal stranger than its promotional materials suggest, and it lacks the kind of structure that might make it a successful comedy.  The loose framing story follows 1950s Hollywood studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), as he puts out fires that include a starlet pregnant out of wedlock (Scarlett Johansson), a Western star who is having trouble adjusting to the transition to dramatic roles (Alden Ehrenreich), warring gossip journalists threatening to unearth dirt about his stars (Tilda Swinton in a double role), and the kidnapping for ransom of the star of his biggest movie (George Clooney).  The individual pieces are all impeccably made--Johansson is a lot of fun in the few scenes that reveal the hard-bitten reality beneath her Esther Williams-esque, bathing beauty facade, and Channing Tatum gets to show off his dance moves as a hoofer in a ridiculously cheesy musical scene--but most of the players appear for only a few scenes, and their stories fizzle out more often than resolve satisfyingly.

    Tying the movie together is Mannix's passion project, a dramatization of the life of Christ seen through the eyes of a Roman centurion (Clooney, delightfully cheesy in a recreation of 50s swords-and-sandals epics).  It very quickly becomes clear that in the movie's central metaphor, Mannix is a stand-in for this centurion, and that his doubts over whether his work has meaning--he is entertaining a job offer from Lockheed, whose executive promise him a chance to get away from the movies' triviality--are being treated as tantamount to the spiritual awakening experienced by the character.  Making movies, in other words, is likened to finding Jesus.  This is, to say the very least, quite odd (and all the more so because it makes Hail, Caesar! the Coens' most Christian--not to say Catholic--movie, which feels strange coming from creators whose previous work's religious undertone has tended to reflect their Jewishness).  It only gets stranger when one considers the kidnapping plot, in which Clooney's abductors turn out to be Communists scriptwriters who spend his incarceration educating him in Hollywood's role in perpetuating the Capitalist machine.  If nothing else, one has to wonder what the Coens are trying to say when they imagine a cell of Communist Hollywood scriptwriters--with direct connections to the USSR, no less--at the height of HUAC's activities, which are directly referenced when Clooney tries to extort a share of the ransom money by threatening to "name names."

    Wondering what the Coens are trying to say with Hail, Caesar! is, in fact, my overall reaction to the entire movie.  Whatever the trailers might suggest, this is not a screwball comedy about old Hollywood and the excesses of the studio system.  But neither is this a film that really seems to know what it's saying.  Near the end of the movie, when the recently-discovered actor playing Jesus in Clooney's movie is sneeringly asked whether he's to be treated as an extra or a featured player--while he hangs from the cross, no less--one simply has to throw up one's hands up in dismay.  The Coens are perfectly capable of making oblique movies that nevertheless have a lot of emotional heft (I'd argue that Fargo, one of their best movies, has some of that attribute), but Hail, Caesar! is ultimately a bum note in their varied filmography.

  • Son of Saul - Like a lot of Israelis my age, I spent my teenage years obsessed with the Holocaust, consuming fiction and non-fiction about it.  But at some point--probably not long after returning from the March of Life--I found myself feeling burned out on the subject.  These days I tend to avoid Holocaust fiction, not least because I've found the modern variations on it frustrating in the extreme--either misery porn, or, worse, sickeningly sentimental.  If it hadn't been for my project to actually give this year's Oscar nominees a serious look, I probably would have given László Nemes's Son of Saul a pass as well, which means that I finally have a reason to feel genuinely thankful to the Oscar voters, because Son of Saul is the closest I've ever seen a fictional depiction come to capturing K. Tzetnik's description of life in a Nazi death camp as "another planet."  A lot of this is down to the film's striking visual (and auditory) style, in which an old-fashioned square frame remains tightly fixed on the film's protagonist, Saul (Géza Röhrig), as he moves through the hellish environs of the camp's apparatus of death--the gas chambers, preparation rooms, and crematorium.  The camera's shallow focus means that everything around Saul and in the background is glimpsed only dimly, even as the sounds of atrocities are unnaturally amplified, conveying not only the chaos and confusion of of the camp, but Saul's own disturbed state of mind, his growing disconnect from the world, from humanity, and finally from life itself as he surrenders to the horror that he's witnessed and been made to participate in.

    Saul is a member of the Sonderkommando, Jewish prisoners made to assist in the running of the gas chambers and crematorium.  In the film's harrowing opening scene, we see him help to corral a newly-arrived group of prisoners into the changing room and the "showers," then brace against the door of the gas chamber as their heart-rending screams emerge from behind it.  Later he and his fellow prisoners scrub the gas chamber clean, and transport the bodies to the crematorium.  The fact that the camera remains trained, for the most part, on Saul's face or back, focusing more on his reactions than on the depiction of horror, helps Son of Saul avoid the pitfall of reveling in that horror, but it--and Röhrig's performance--make it clear that his months in the Sonderkommando have scraped Saul's soul down to nothing.  When he spots the body of a young man among the victims of the most recent transport, and becomes convinced that the boy is his illegitimate son, it's very clear that this is merely an obsession.  Saul becomes determined to give the boy a proper, Jewish burial, stealing the body to keep it from the crematorium, and frantically searching for a rabbi to perform the funeral service.  Along the way he endangers and betrays the trust of several other prisoners, even those who go out of their way to help him, and puts at risk the plans of the other prisoners to smuggle out evidence of the atrocities happening in the camp, or launch an armed attack against the guards.  It soon becomes clear, however, that Saul's insanity is, in his insane situation, actually quite rational.  The other prisoners insist that he is betraying the living in order to honor the dead, but the film leads us to question whether their forms of rebellion are any more sane, and any more likely to accomplish something meaningful, than Saul's belief that he can give meaning to what his life has become by giving one child a proper burial.

    Most Holocaust movies tend to have a broad sweep, showing us the characters' lives before Nazism disrupted them, or the course their life took--whether to death or rescue--once in the camps.  Son of Saul is focused not only in its style but in its timeframe and storytelling.  We learn almost nothing about Saul, and it is in fact implied that he has lost all sense of connection to his previous life (for example, the other prisoners seem to imply that he never actually had a son, and Saul can't offer anything like a detailed counter-argument).  And he also has no hope for his future--there are rumors circling that his Sonderkommando unit is headed for the gas chambers soon--and at no point does the film suggest, as so many other Holocaust stories do, that escape and survival are something he could reasonably hope for.  To both himself and to us, Saul exists only in the moment, and in the hell of the death camp, and the only way for him to hold on to what's left of his humanity is to latch on to the futile, meaningless mission of burying his "son," just as the other prisoners have latched on to their rebellion or attempts to witness and document Nazi atrocities.  Son of Saul wisely avoids the trap of sentimentality--it never for a moment allows us to believe that Saul's mission is noble or meaningful, and indeed he never really manages to bury the boy as he wants.  The only triumph it offers him is a partial, sad, and brief one.  This, too, is essential to its being a worthy work of Holocaust fiction--as I grow older, I become more and more convinced that telling stories about the Holocaust through the lens of survival (for all that it's an understandable focus, since most Holocaust stories come to us from survivors) is inherently dishonest.  The Holocaust was an engine of death, its survivors statistical errors.  Son of Saul depicts that engine, and the small, partial, fundamentally insane instances of humanity that nevertheless managed to survive within it.
With six out of eight best picture nominees under my belt, I'm not very surprised to report that I'm still rooting for Mad Max: Fury Road to win the day (my complete ranking: Mad Max; Spotlight; Brooklyn; Room; The Martian; The Big Short).  None of the other films even approach George Miller's level of accomplishment, on either the storytelling or filmmaking levels, and I think it probably says all I need to say that I saw Mad Max nearly a year ago, and yet it lingers in my mind more than films I watched in the last month.  That said, if I could choose to give the best picture trophy to any movie, it would go to Son of Saul, and I'm honestly disappointed that it didn't make the general ballot instead of just the foreign picture one.

2 comments:

Kate Nepveu said...

The more I hear about _The Room_ the more convinced I am that watching it would make me want to claw my skin off.

zahrawithaz said...

Interesting take on Room. As someone who did read the book (and laments that it's the Jane Austen Book Club of Donoghue's work, a minor piece whose outsized success overshadows the author's far better fiction), in which the adult reader is constantly discerning Joy's horror story by reading around or through Jack's POV, I think the film increased the emphasis on Joy powerfully. Having the reader encounter her directly made her take up far more space in the narrative. Maybe it doesn't overcome the source limitations, but I do think Brie Larsen dominated the film and engaged by sympathies more fully than her co-star, despite the film's interest in childhood.

As for the criticisms of Joy's motherhood, I think calling attention to the lack of validation anyone gives Joy is part of the point. There's a particular scene, in which after the escape Joy speaks with a doctor about Jack, and very clearly needs validation for all that she did for her child. In the pause after her question, every audience member I've spoken to has described thinking of what they had seen her do for Jack in the first half of the film, and mentally supplying the affirming answer Joy needs. So when the doctor responds by saying the best thing she did was get Jack out while he was still young enough to adapt, it's a slap in the face for the audience as much as Joy. That felt deliberate.

Re Brooklyn, I think the final catalyst's lack of motivation comes from the fact that Hornby's script cuts entirely the opening sequence in the book in which Eilis gets her original job in Ireland & works it for a while; reading I thought the final catalyzing event was the most in-character action in the entire book. But the film also greatly strengthens Eilis's character through her much stronger reaction, which makes her an actor rather than acted-on, and I thought the coda on the ship added to the story's symmetry.

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