Friday, July 30, 2010

Day Break

No romance flick (or book, or play) is complete without the lie. It's the sturdiest of third-act twists, the simplest of disruptive conflicts, the easiest ending reveal. And it's not what you did, one of them will say. It's that you lied about it. You didn't trust me. You didn't trust us. How can I trust us, our story together?

Of the many delightful things about Richard Linklater's dazzling walking-around-European-cities duet, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, near the top has to be the breezy avoidance of that standard arc. Perhaps "avoidance" is the wrong word; "translation" might be a better one. By centering the drama around time, and Jesse and Celine's choices at the inevitable endpoint, Linklater gives the two episodes a frame devoid of much narrative contrivance.

But the lie is there, and though Jesse and Celine help it along, it ultimately belongs to Linklater alone.

Upon its 2005 American release, Wong Kar-Wai's delirious, devastating 2046 was frequently compared to Before Sunset, and for good reason. Both were sequels to open-ended love stories, Wong's In the Mood for Love and Linklater's Before Sunrise. Both sequels played with issues of time, memory, and regret, watching their damaged protagonists fail to recover from the feelings they'd opened up in the golden-hued originals. That said, the filmmakers themselves utilize completely different languages. Wong, thanks in large part to cinematographer Christopher Doyle, has one of the most visually ravishing filmographies in recent memory. While In the Mood for Love played out like an exquisite portrait disrupted by unruly emotion, 2046 is feverish and spastic, its obscenely lush reds and interchangeably lovely paramours undercutting Mr. Chow's blind attempts to drown out his past failures.

Linklater, on the other hand, sets his diptych in two of the loveliest cities on Earth (Vienna and Paris, respectively), but refuses to indulge in much sky-gazing. Neither Sunrise nor Sunset establishes a distinctive visual framework beyond its protagonists' faces; it's only through Jesse and Celine, rootless wanderers and then careworn adults, that the audience can access the beauty of their surroundings. Linklater trusts dialogue like few directors working, and more importantly, he trusts his actors to shape that dialogue (it helps that Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy co-wrote Sunset). His scripts are delightful in and of themselves, peppy and sharp, but in the hands of Hawke and Delpy, they become sacred: a constantly re-orienting glimpse into their hesitations, their wounds, and their desires.

But very rarely their lies. The novelty of random love in Sunrise was dangerous mystery enough, and while both characters' guards gradually fall throughout Sunset, they begin not in the realm of deception so much as distraction, letting timing carry them along to admit the most wrenching dependencies. No big reveal or third-act twist required--just talking, and a final choice, just like last time.

There's one exception, and it's jarring enough that I almost interrupted my first viewing of Sunset to frantically flip back to Sunrise, wondering how I'd missed it. "It" being, as usual, sex. Not far into Before Sunset, Jesse and Celine mask/reveal their overwhelming shock at seeing each other by discussing Jesse's new book, which tells the story of their night together nine years previous. Celine gently teases him for including a fabricated sex scene. Jesse, wounded, protests that they actually did screw that fateful night. Celine flatly denies it. Later on, she wearily admits that she remembers: "We had sex twice, you idiot!"

It wasn't the traditional big re-orienting lie that forever (i.e., until the credits) alters the romance. How could it? There's no foundation to Jesse and Celine's love, no established stable base for a betrayal to eat away at. They live in one night, and then nine years of memory: it's theirs to relive and remake. That's their lie, and I can't begrudge it to them.

It's Linklater's lie that intrigued me. For once, the audience isn't in on the game--as far as what we saw in Sunrise (namely, a conversation in which they decided not to bone), Celine was originally telling the truth and Jesse had embellished for the sake of his book. Celine's ultimate admission left me adrift. If they hadn't remembered wrong, had I?

I opened up Before Sunrise, skipped ahead to the cemetery scene. There they are, impossibly younger than they were just a few minutes ago. There, they have the conversation. There, they're snuggling. Cut, to the sunrise over the trees.

...oh. I'm impossibly stupid. Had I really missed the most basic of all cuts, the "guys-they-got-it-on-but-now-it's morning" maneuver? I had, after a lifetime of seeing that exact prim sidestep in film after film. How had I failed to understand?

Partially, of course, I took Jesse and Celine at their celibate word, trusting naif that I am. I also trusted Linklater, who'd lovingly displayed every awkward silence, every almost-fight, every teasing meta-conversation throughout the film; it honestly never occurred to me to look for the lie, the cut. I'm not criticizing Linklater in the least--much as I, uh, might enjoy a Hawke-Delpy sex scene, it would've been a massive stylistic departure, not to mention an invitation for a less viable rating. The cut is simple and unassuming, emerging almost out of respect for the couple's privacy rather than out of deference to audience sensibilities. Most importantly, though, it's Sunrise's clearest line forward to Sunset, pregnant with meaning and sadder to return to even than the first film's desperately open ending.

Before Sunset is one of the handful of films I'm happy to call my favorite. When I returned to watch Before Sunrise all the way through, I was prepared for it to be irreparably tarnished, paltry in the shadow of its impossibly resonant progeny. I was wrong: Sunrise, always a delight, is more moving than ever if you know what's coming. Nothing is casual any more. You know that every sweet moment will be pored over for years to come, fixed in amber-hued memory by beautiful people who can't forget. Fixed, and then blurred, shifted, changed, vanished. Sunset expands and deepens every idea presented in Sunrise, but Sunrise holds the weight of history over Sunset, and Linklater's greatest gift is that he refuses to pick sides. He lies in Before Sunrise, and the truth is tucked into Sunset like an askew corner of a puzzle piece. "Think of this as time travel," Jesse says with a grin, "from then to now." Two lies, but one truth.

Altered Ego

My last two posts were devoted to dissing Paul Thomas Anderson's early ensemble entries Boogie Nights and Magnolia. Thankfully, I ease up when it comes to his next film. Punch Drunk Love, his decidedly odd Adam Sandler vehicle, was easily his best work to date, and it remains a bizarrely engaging work, quite unlike anything else I've ever seen.

There are three standard critical lines on Punch Drunk Love, two of which I agree with.

One: Love is an aesthetic triumph, built around sound--Jon Brion's ecstatically jagged score and those hypnotic harmonium passages. The lurching camera follows the same wild angles, underscoring the film's frantic nervousness, a rootless, self-possessed anxiety. Even more than Sandler's Barry Egan, Punch Drunk Love itself has a trigger temper, scurrying between dragging banalities, wordless fury, and brief, sweet releases. It's the most pleasurable of itches.

Two: Love is an excavation and exploration of "Adam Sandler," the screen persona. His mugging comedy, removed from popcorn context, flips to lurching savagery and a childishness more violent than funny. It's not a Bill Murray-style reinvention--in retrospect, you can see the seeds planted for Sandler's revelatory performance in his previous daffy work, and his full flowering as curated by PTA is a marvel to behold.

Three: Love is a romance. A jarring, blistering take on romance, but a romance nonetheless.

I beg to differ with that last one, even though it seems the most basic of the three, the film's genre footing. I understand, it's right there in the name, and a basic rom-com arc regularly intrudes on the film's spastic id, but I don't think it can be most accurately labeled a love story. If it is, it's not an especially good one--Emily Watson is idiosyncratic and charming, but her peculiar connection to this madman doesn't exactly feel like a romance, though it looks like one.

My theory? Punch Drunk Love is a superhero movie, reduced to its most delirious and unsettling form.

Foremost among the film's many running gags is Barry's powder-blue suit, which he consistently fails to explain. The suit is its own explanation, Barry's costume, the source of his totemic individuality as marked out for the audience as much as his fellow characters. Brion's score is Barry's internal theme song, driving him not to save the city but to charge madly around his warehouse, his echoing fortress of reluctant solitude. There, he seethes with odd, quixotic obsessions (plungers and pudding), both laughable and strangely compelling from the outside. There's a waifish, adoring damsel (Watson) and a distant femme fatale (an exploitative phone-sex operator), but neither drives Barry's redemption forward. What does is a mysterious accident, which inexplicably grants him an external representation of his inner otherworldliness: a harmonium, on which he composes dissonant, resonant drones. Sounds like an origin myth to me.

In romantic terms, Barry's seven sisters are a lazy plot device, propping up the same sketched misogyny that haunted Magnolia. In a superhero tale, those seven (a fantastic number!) are something decidely more allegorical: the square society Barry can't jive with. Barry's war was cast by some observers as a loner fighting off an oppressive society that refuses to recognize his "sensitivity." Bull. He's not sensitive, he's obsessive, and that society isn't exactly oppressive--that's PTA's real twist on the superhero legacy. The world outside Barry's factory is shabby, selfish, and faintly absurd. The battle lines are nothing quantifiable. Instead, it's a question of perspective: the aesthetic comes back into play, tying us closely to Barry's feverish viewpoint while keeping his outbursts (e.g., smashing a sliding glass door) unpredictable and inexplicable. He's not cast as crazy, a locus of pity for a sane world and a sober film. He's the subject, not an object.

Sandler, of course, is perfect for this role. His crazed passion is worlds beyond the quirkily depressive antics of Tobey Maguire's Peter Parker. On the one hand, he's more than a little pathetic, caught in the crossfire of a phone-sex scam and his controlling family, collecting airline miles with no independent desire to go anywhere. On the other, his madness goes hand in hand with devotion, fearlessness, and an astonishing ability to kick ass when called upon to do so. His nemesis may just be "Mattress Man" (an irreplacable Philip Seymour Hoffman, finally given his due by PTA), but Barry still triumphs over him, and tied as we are to our hero's perspective, the triumph is oddly moving rather than ironic. Consider all of Sandler's previous on-screen incarnations his hammed-up Clark Kent. This is his true alien form, unleashed to wander through appropriately abstracted sets: supermarkets and tropical islands take on the weighty but transparent qualities of the best fantasy.

In hindsight, of course, Punch Drunk Love is a transitional work, excising the frustrated ambitions of PTA's late-90s work on the way to the transcendent unity of direction and performance in There Will Be Blood. As such, Love feels hermetic, a carefully controlled experiment in which nothing so messy as love is allowed to survive. Still, it's a fascinating, successful experiment, one of the genuinely unique films of the Aughts--a dead-end trail, but one I'm glad PTA blazed.

Everybody Hurts (and hurts, and hurts...)

Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson's third feature, certainly doesn't lack for ambition. Fresh from the critical and commercial success of Boogie Nights (see my last post), the director set out to "make the epic, the all-time great San Fernando Valley movie." Nights, a decades-spanning ensemble piece, had certainly represented a massive leap outward from the genre-bound Hard Eight. Magnolia, however, progresses just as far beyond Nights, from passive description to two-fisted engagement. So where to begin discussing "an epic spin on topics that don't necessarily get the epic treatment"?

The beginning is revealing. Magnolia comes with a prologue, in which an uncredited Ricky Jay describes the existential coincidences he says will dominate the film. As per PTA, the sequence is astonishingly well composed, complete with jarring sound and sharp, effective editing. It's also clinically detached, annoyingly smug, and far too enamored with its own conceits. Evidently, we couldn't possibly understand the ideas PTA is weaving together on our own, so we need him to draw a fucking ESPN arrow on the screen for us. These strengths and weaknesses are immediately apparent, but upon returning to the opening after a full viewing, something else becomes far more worrisome.

The introduction's wrong. That's not what the movie's about, not at all. Coincidences occur in Magnolia, sure, but they're background, starting points, irrelevant in themselves. Really, do we need to be convinced that convenient coincidences occur in cinema? Is this news to anyone, that we need to be eased in and reassured? Yes, frogs fall from the sky. But within the film, that Biblical downpour is received as a catalyst for the film's battered relationship arcs, not a hard-to-swallow miracle per se. Do we need to be warned, when the experience reveals all we're supposed to know? The point is that it's inexplicable; starting things off with a precise treatise on imprecise actions seems overeager and oddly counter-intuitive.

Coincidence, no matter how well-woven, carries little emotional weight, and Magnolia is all about hitting us with the heavy shit. The film's actual arena therein is communication, the lack of and the need for. Tom Cruise's absurdly misogynistic evangelism is mocked, but it's never truly condemned. If nothing else, he's encouraging his flock of macho shitheads to come clean and admit their own failures and frustrated desires. In that regard, they're well ahead of Philip Baker Hall's disintegrating game show host, who keeps his mouth clamped shut to prevent any of his horrendous secrets from spilling out. John C. Reilly's impossibly lonely cop is little better off: he describes his life philosophy to his empty passenger seat, and impatiently dismisses a young rapper who claims to have revealed a murderer's name in verse (crucially, the matter is never resolved). Cruise himself finally reaches redemption by spilling his guts at his father's deathbed in a powerfully feral scene, earning the Best Supporting Actor nod.

The closer the film hews to this theme, the stronger it is. It's a fierce, fearless polemic, light years ahead of the forced surface diagnosis in American Beauty that same year. Magnolia's occasional over-talkiness can be forgiven in light of its admirable faith in healing through honesty. Keep talking, guys, just keep talking.

The farther the film strays, as with that prologue, the more I become convinced that for all his technical skill, PTA isn't in full control of his moving parts here. In my last post, I argued that many of Boogie Nights' myriad characters and subplots felt sketched out, betraying the director's struggle to manage large ensembles. The same is true in Magnolia, perhaps best understood actor-by-actor.

William H. Macy ("Quiz Kid Donnie Smith!") is physically impressive, bringing the same flop-sweat sheen he made so memorable in Fargo, but is handed some truly wince-inducing lines: the one about love to give, the one about children and angels. These moments are not only clumsy, but also telegraphed. PTA commits the same grave error (though less reprehensibly) that Paul Haggis turned into an aesthetic in Magnolia descendant Crash: he treats a character like a mouthpiece. Philip Baker Hall's breakdown is extremely affective, and he mutters a despondent "Fuck" like nobody's business, but he's poorly paced. By the time we finally reach his abuse of his daughter (Melora Walters), his character's been so strung out that the final revelation can only ride the exhaust fumes, devoid of potency and punch.

Far worse is the fate of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He plays a saintly nurse, no complications, no history, no humanity, a plot device through and through. He's forced to earnestly proclaim some winking bilge about how the film's convoluted character circles are, in fact, just like a movie, but we should still believe them! It's a failure on par with the prologue: unbelievably condescending, and even more unbelievably unnecessary.

And then there are the characters who aren't men above 25. Julianne Moore, Melora Walters, and Jeremy Blackman, put through hell just for the sheer painful kick of it. Moore is dragged from one histronic scene to the next, ostensibly on some massive guilt trip, but is mostly just employed to be a Hysterical Woman, Guys, and yell "I sucked so many cocks" really loudly. Walters is handed a more sympathetic backstory from the Trauma Hat, but we aren't given access to it until near film's end. As such, she largely comes off one-dimensional and, again, telegraphed. Finally, Blackman is subject to the film's most head-slapping contradiction between polemic and execution. As a manipulated boy genius, Blackman has little to do but be a locus of pain and shame. When he finally protests against being treated like a "doll" (in a ridiculously stunted monologue), he could be scorning Paul Thomas Anderson as much as Philip Baker Hall, but the movie seems distressingly unaware of this hypocrisy. At its worst, Magnolia dips below Boogie Nights' shallowness to plumb depths of misogyny, tastelessness, and laziness. I'm not accusing PTA of conscious prejudice, but Magnolia is evidence that balanced, democratic ensemble work is beyond his considerable abilities, and it's unfortunate that he fell back on such easy stereotypes to fill out this cheesecake.

It's not terribly surprising that Magnolia breaks down when scrutinized at the micro level. Every thematic hammerweight begs the audience to consider the film in macro terms, where PTA's persistent craft can still shine. And shine it does: no matter how thematically dubious, Magnolia exemplifies its maker's mastery of film mechanics. Time is PTA's tool and trick. Magnolia is built from the ground up, through carefully arranged montages that stretch awkward moments over days and cover weeks of hopelessness in brief, breathtaking moments. PTA pulls at emotional threads, creating ebbs and swells and dry pools of feeling seemingly at will, while still allowing his fuckups to make their own fuckups (an autonomy largely absent from Boogie Nights). It's a perfectly composed ensemble film, the careening interactions acquiring a breathless poetry, marred only by Hoffman's aforementioned insistence that he can perceive the web. Magnolia's power, after all, is showing the audience the connections no one character can see, in grand cinematic tradition.

It's this interdependency that separates the film from its predecessor; while Boogie Nights is studded with superb set pieces, Magnolia's threads are inextricably interwoven. Its centerpiece, the "Wise Up" singalong, is the strongest example. The deeply affecting sequence is at once summary, breather, and catalyst, employing the lightest of touches to access pure moments of feeling. Magnolia excels at exhaling pure feeling, though the roots shrivel upon examination and the filmmaker's hand lurches between cluelessness and fascistic control. Ultimately, it's more a distantly admirable film than a great one, a concept-heavy and substance-light work caught between an acting showcase and an auteurist project, never attaining the best heights of either.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Porn, Home-Style

There Will Be Blood blew pretty much everybody away (screw you, Armond White), but it was a particular coup for longtime observers of director Paul Thomas Anderson, probably the most intriguing and frustrating young auteur in contemporary American cinema. His technical talent (particularly in encapsulating time in montage) far outstrips that of peers Sofia Coppola and the other Anderson fellow, but Blood is his only fully realized masterpiece. It's grand enough to house the director's always-straining ambition, yet fleet enough to prevent him from becoming bogged down by the same. Sadly, I can't quite say the same for the brace of '90s ensemble flicks with which he made his name.

Boogie Nights, PTA's rise-and-fall story of a self-styled family of pornographers, is also one of the shamefully few films to explicitly address the advent of videotape and home viewing. Video marks the most significant technological advancement in cinema since the rise of the talkies, and while PTA's 1997 film is necessarily a period piece, rather than a contemporary document like David Cronenberg's Videodrome, the younger director deserves kudos. Cronenberg, however, couched his film in his own personal tics (paranoia and body horror) and a twisted, subversive attack on the body politic he would only top much later with A History of Violence. By comparison, Boogie Nights is linear, devotional, and decidedly impersonal, gravely sketching out the downfall of porno theaters as an aesthetic tragedy. I'm not aiming for a moralist blow at PTA's subject matter (quite the opposite, as I'll get to in a moment), but I am criticizing his rote, overly respectful treatment of a complex era. It's a far cry, for example, from the generous back-and-forth of ideas on display in Singin' in the Rain. One reviewer, in the middle of naming There Will Be Blood the greatest movie of the '00s, referred to Nights and its follow-up Magnolia as PTA's ''rebel cries.'' For my part, I'd be hard pressed to name a film more dutiful.

Indeed, Boogie Nights is first and foremost a love letter to film itself, in style as well as in subject. Altman's '70s ensemble work is the clearest reference point, but PTA's striped and suited homage extends well beyond the decade it loves so well. There's that final cock-shot, cheekily lifted from Raging Bull's own capper. The Scorsese riffs don't end there. Obviously, such a quintessential story arc has any number of forebears, but Nights' uncanny similarities to Goodfellas can be traced scene by scene--the early beatdown by the biological parent, the late hat-in-hand return to the surrogate father. De Palma also haunts the production, from the multiple-perspective take on ''Dirk Diggler's'' first flick to the delirious coke deal, in which the characters act like they've memorized Scarface for that very moment.

This isn't to say that PTA hasn't learned well. More than any of his other films, Boogie Nights is a showcase for PTA's mastery of the discrete set piece. Music, montage, and a mobile camera weave together astonishingly virtuoso sequences, holding their own against the restaurant tour in Goodfellas or the 13-minute opening shot of Snake Eyes. The glory-days pool party, the aforementioned POV-heavy shoot, the Dirk/Rollergirl downfall montage, and, of course, the ''Sister Christian''/''Jesse's Girl'' coke deal, classics all. PTA demonstrates tremendous skill at leavening tension with humor and establishing films-within-films, and Nights is indeed a rebel cry in that it demonstrates that stylistic nostalgia and contemporary talent aren't necessarily in opposition.

Sadly, the arcs in between don't fare as well. PTA rushes things in between his self-contained symphonies, exposing a flimsy script and some glaringly underwritten characters. Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman suffer the most, though neither is as used and abused as they would be two years later in Magnolia. Moore's backstory is shoehorned in, nothing but forced, overly sentimental exposition. Hoffman is granted the first half of the film to show off his character chops as a deliciously awkward cameraman, but is unceremoniously dumped from the narrative as soon as he finally kisses Mark Wahlberg. It comes off like PTA felt vaguely that he needed one Gay Moment in a movie about porn, and was all too ready to move on afterward.

Boogie Nights is fragmented and inconsistent, but I would argue that those failures result from a dominant style, rather than breaks in the same. PTA can't spin out the jazzy ebbs and flows that ought to mark a delirious period piece and a stacked ensemble flick. His visual style is too cool and exacting, his approach to narrative too rigid and methodical. In his own, less twee manner, PTA's as fussy a filmmaker as his spiritual cousin Wes. While W. Anderson stuffs his static compositions with as many dog-eared personal effects as possible, PTA is a control freak with his camera, wielding it like a ruler, staking out the sober boundaries in which the scenes will be allowed to occur. His hand is always visible, which isn't itself a problem, except that the lack of autonomy and agency granted to the characters clashes badly with the story the director's trying to tell. When Boogie Nights works, it does so in bite-size chunks that beg to be skipped to and from. When it doesn't, there's no chance of tying the scene into a compelling larger tapestry. The film just falls flat, and does so with depressing frequency, living and dying by its author's commitment to the moment at hand.

Fundamentally, Boogie Nights is square. It assumes (and adopts) our discomfort and queasy excitement with the subject at hand, but largely fails to expand beyond the most prim and nostalgic of visions. One is never allowed to forget that this movie about the '70s (good!) and the '80s (bad!) was released in 1997. It's a tidied-up retrospective rather than a panorama of life as lived. Porn itself, supposedly the film's focus, quickly becomes the drunk party guest that won't leave. PTA increasingly situates his pornographers as wannabe actors, and their industry as a failed farm league. There's nothing wrong (or inaccurate, for that matter) with having Burt Reynolds dream of elevating his work to art, or Don Cheadle protest his status at the bank. Still, I can't shake the feeling that PTA is reflecting less society's dismissal of porn and pornographers than his own desire to flatten and generalize the story. The closing "family reunion" feels decidedly unearned, less a tying up of loose ends than a tacked-on bookend. I'm not saying Boogie Nights itself ought to have been porn, but it's frustrating to watch a talented filmmaker chicken out.

Skip forward two months to Tarantino's Jackie Brown, which threads warm, funny drama into a disreputable genre (blaxploitation) without showing the seams. Or skip forward a year to The Big Lebowski, a genre-bending, insanely aestheticized tribute to L.A. that never blinks once. Set next to pastiches that boldly possessed and utterly committed, Boogie Nights feels timid, anemic, and forced.

Lebowski is a revealing reference point for Nights, and not just because the Cheadle robbery scene (the film's weakest set piece) could've been ripped from any number of Coens films. Brothers Joel and Ethan are often accused of the same cold, authorial fussiness that plagues PTA here, and not without reason. In Lebowski, however, they yield control to the distinctiveness of their own creation, letting the density of their riffs take hold. Then again, they had had six films to learn how to let go while still being wildly creative. Boogie Nights was PTA's second film. His first feature, Hard Eight, didn't give him much to go on; unlike the Coens' similarly noir-themed debut Blood Simple, PTA's first was a stylistic dead end, furthering my impression that he lacks the cerebral juggling powers of a Tarantino. Given time, and distance from the demands of star-studded ensemble pictures, PTA's execution has gradually caught up with his talent. Adam Sandler was a compelling promecium swimming around the petri dish of Punch Drunk Love, and There Will Be Blood succeeded in large part because Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to be actively raging against PTA's direction, like the God that Daniel Plainview finally admits to not believing in. Boogie Nights' best moments still sparkle, but the gaps stand out like missing teeth.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Monkeys Monkeys Monkeys

La Jetée, a French short about nuclear devastation, time travel, and doomed love as told through voiceover and still photos, is one of the most piercingly beautiful movies ever made. Twelve Monkeys, Terry Gilliam's feverish full-length remake, is not. But it's still Gilliam, who really should've been the one to adapt Dune, and so Monkeys stands head and shoulders above the rest of the 3 A.M. dorm-room pantheon.

Like Gilliam's alarmingly faithful adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Twelve Monkeys is a definitive cult classic. It's batshit insane, even borderline unwatchable at times, but it's utterly distinctive and strangely compelling. The camera collides with spastic architecture at near-impossible angles, while bloodstains and spraypaint compete to define the color red against a weirdly gray world. The narrative, such as it is, quickly implodes into a gloriously Byzantine series of tunnels, through which Brad Pitt frantically gnaws like a lazy-eyed termite with Tourette's. If Twelve Monkeys is about anything, it's the personal and collective insanity wrought (upon the characters and the audience, respectively) by delirious cinematic tricks like time travel. The nods to Vertigo, another film gripped by the same psychoses that torment its characters, are well earned. The loop-closing confrontation at the airport makes for an oddly moving finale, in spite of/because of Bruce Willis' wig.

Afterward, you will feel bloated and slightly buzzed, as though you've recently devoured a heaping plateful of greasy food and are not quite halfway to regretting it. I wholeheartedly recommend.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I'm a Mean Person

I'm sure that at some point in near future, I'll have the equanimity to coherently discuss everything that went wrong with Christopher Nolan's trainwreck of a blockbuster Inception, but with my ass still numb and my eyes still stuck in "roll," all I can think of is how many similar movies I would rather have spent those 2 1/2 hours on. So, save your $10, Torrent these.

eXistenZ -- A delirious dream-within-dream-within-dream by a director (David Cronenberg) who has the good sense to cap the whole affair at 90 minutes.

Raising Cain --
An insanely fun dream-within-dream-within-dream that gleefully wrecks its own fragile coherence rather than tortuously maintaining it.

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus -- An equally convoluted dreamscape, just as devoid of intelligence, emotion, and genuine philosophy, but by a director (Terry Gilliam) who still innately understands visual fantasy.

demonlover -- A surreal techno-capitalist heist with some freaking context.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
-- Tortured romance and breathtaking low-fi-sci-fi interwoven properly, rather than the former awkwardly shoehorned into the latter.

Synechdoche, New York --
A megalomaniac shell game, but one whose frustrated, ambitious heart actually makes you care.

Catch Me If You Can -- An actually relevant opening flash-forward to a disoriented Leo being dragged places.

Batman Begins -- A halfway watchable Nolan-directed vehicle for Cillian Murphy's eyes and Michael Caine's accent.

Inland Empire --
A legitimately experimental work in which surrender to the moment at expense of the infrastructure is the point, rather than a frustrated capitulation.

Shutter Island --
A marginally more tolerable ludicrously extended third-act flashback about Leo, his dead wife, and their adorable moppets.

The Matrix Reloaded -- A better movie.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Family Business

Steven Spielberg's Oscar-nominated Munich is still very easy to write about, should you need a grimly respectful paragraph in a pinch. This is so because of, not in spite of, Spielberg's admirable refusal to offer answers to the questions his film poses. Few things are easier to shallowly praise in art than ambiguity. Witness every purblind accolade offered up to The Hurt Locker for "not taking a side" in Iraq, for being "about the warrior, not the war." Every filmmaking decision is political, and not taking a side is certainly itself a position like any other. This is not to argue that explicitly historical and political films are lesser for not offering resolutions, but that since ducking the debate entirely is impossible, films would benefit from more open-minded explorations of ambiguity as a position.

Munich does so. Its visual and narrative arcs dutifully follow ground-rule political thriller tropes: the cold lighting, the austere European settings, the gradual moral and physical collapse of our heroic fighting team. Spielberg, of course, could out-direct the likes of Marc Forster from his deathbed, and Munich's technical craft remains a marvel. The opening sequence, covering the Olympics massacre itself, contains some of Spielberg's most stunning shots and powerful montages, primal images worthy of haunting protagonist Avner for the rest of the film. Spielberg's still got the chops to re-invigorate basic thriller DNA seemingly at will--that tumultuous phone call, that terrifying hotel explosion. These are all triumphs, but triumphs of degree, not kind, and they don't alone elevate Munich above the level of well-meaning garbage like Syriana.

As Arnaud Desplechin's most simpatico muse, Mathieu Amalric is synonymous in my mind with contemporary European (and Euro-centric) film. As such, his appearance in Munich as mysterious information dealer Louis immediately expanded my perception of the film beyond the well-worn cycles of 20th-century violence. Sure enough, Amalric's character is something deeper than a Bond-ready Frenchie plot device. As Avner's vengeance squad grows suspicious of Louis' motives and begins to act contrary to his instructions, Avner is forcibly introduced to Louis' world, and it's there that Munich truly attains masterpiece status.

Avner is blindfolded and driven away, and when he opens his eyes again, the visual and emotional infrastructure of the film has vanished. Gone is that shadowy, faceless urban architecture. Here instead is an impossibly beautiful (and impossibly French) countryside home. Gone are the moment-to-moment peril and underlying moral confusion and decay. Instead, we see contentment, earned safety, and family. Amalric immediately looks more at home, and it's not just because his character lives here. We're on modern European film turf: a lovely dinner outdoors and a philosophical stroll in the garden, scenes that wouldn't look out of place in Assayas' Summer Hours or the recent I Am Love were it not for the preceding tension, violence, and hate.

Again, Spielberg isn't exactly inventing archetypes here. The modern European as both politically involved and blissfully apolitical is a sturdy enough trope (and is therefore easily spoofed: "we believe in nozzing, Lebowski.") But in the context of the furious flurries of action and the even more furious ideological debates that mark the rest of the film, this calm, lovely oasis takes on greater weight. The relentless moral quandaries that mark Munich's central conflicts are enough to make even the keenest observers throw up their hands and fall back on well-informed neutrality. According to many of Munich's supporters and detractors alike, that's exactly what Spielberg did in this film. I don't disagree, but I do believe the sudden aesthetic leap to the "farm and family" scenes represents a glimpse behind the curtain, revealing Spielberg's true focus.

Family, of course, carries totemic power in Spielberg films, whether employed to warm hearts (E.T.) or chill them (A.I.) Avner spends most of Munich apart from his wife and young child, and Spielberg never devotes much time to building bonds of brotherly friendship among Avner's team. Louis' family represents the only functional family unit in the film. And how do they stay alive, how do they preserve their all-too-idyllic country retreat? By wielding that careful, studied neutrality, expertly manipulating political wills while using that power to maintain a safe distance from the explosive consequences. It's this balance--and perhaps only this balance--that allows one to engage with the struggles of one's time without taking a firm side, which would endanger not only one's political honesty, but also the survival of one's family.

Steven Spielberg isn't Michael Haneke, and while Munich's director unabashedly exposes the eyes-wide-shut mentality behind political neutrality, he doesn't condemn his characters--or his audience--for it. How could he, when he shares it himself? Still, he isn't as willing as Louis and Co. to hide from the fallout. I'm not referring to that closing shot of the WTC towers, as resonant (and earned) as it is. Spielberg proves himself an able and erudite political filmmaker throughout Munich, but it's in two moments of the personal and familial that he grounds the legacy of the film's deliberate confusion.

Just as the movie's thriller arc really gets cooking, speeding us along from one artfully constructed assassination to the next, Spielberg stops the film dead for Avner to gaze into a shop window. He sees a model kitchen, glowing with a welcoming but unearthly sheen, perfect but empty. In Avner's reflected eyes, we see both his desperate love for his family and his longing for a collective, safe homeland for his people. And then, Louis appears in the reflection behind him, and the heavenly image is blurred; this is what it means to be both a soldier and a family man, this is what it takes to secure a safe place of your own.

Eventually, of course, Avner returns to his family. His reunion with his wife is the film's (literal) climax, lending that final meeting in New York a fitting listlessness. The couple screws, making their next baby, but Spielberg's camera is drawn back in to Avner's tortured mind's eye. Avner finally (ahem) consummates the fantasies of the Munich massacre he's been toying with the whole film, but his simultaneous identification with the killers and the victims offers him no real release, and it's only that confusion, those personal and political conflations, that he can pass on to the next generation.

Is it any wonder that the only idea worth toying with in the otherwise useless Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was Indy's place in a grounded family? It's there, amidst potential banality and sentimentality, that Spielberg unleashes his strongest ideas. National identity and historical terrorism are an appropriately fraught backdrop, but Spielberg knows where to let the real weight of being "ideologically promiscuous" settle: around the dinner table, and in the marriage bed.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dream Factory

I saw Toy Story in theaters, and it was the first milestone moviegoing experience of my life. Six years later, my father gratefully received a DVD of Toy Story 2 for his 41st birthday.

Seven films, a Best Picture nomination, and several trillion toy sales later, Pixar’s ability to effortlessly (and profitably) straddle generation gaps is a universally recognized phenomenon, and the studio returns now to its flagship series as the proudest of prodigal sons.

So, naturally, I found my way to a Regal Cinema and invested ten more bucks in my lifetime with the movies. After an admirably brief title shot, the film launches us immediately into a fantasy within its fantasy: a Wild West chase, with Woody and Buzz as our heroes. The artifice is out in the open. The Potatoheads have stage names, Slinky can generate a force field, Ham has an awesome super-fortress-blimp.

Of course, at the climactic moment, the movie pulls us back to kid’s hands tossing limp toys in the air, exploding cardboard ships, and bouncing imaginary lasers around the bedroom. It’s familiar ground for Toy Story, but our perspective is altered. In the opening of the first film, we stayed firmly in reality, watching the stone-faced toys surrounded by cardboard boxes while Andy served as narrator. It was pure childhood turf, the revelation that the toys can indeed talk serving as sweet wish fulfillment. Toy Story 2 left us slightly adrift at first, in a fully inhabited playground for Buzz. He dashes through a hellish labyrinth to confront his nemesis…who promptly kills him. The movie pulls back to Rex playing the sequence in a videogame; it’s Pixar’s cheeky interrogation of its own success. The toys have grown so monolithic as to be able to play with themselves. (Oh, shut up.)

Toy Story 3 seems at first to be working in similar territory, but old fans may notice that something else is pricklingly familiar. A forcefield attack dog! Well, I’ve got my dinosaur, who eats forcefield dogs! The hyper-stylized, larger-than-life fantasies of 3 are, in fact, the exact events (right down to the dialogue) sketched out in imagination in the first movie, when all we saw was Andy shaking the toys around and trying out a few accents. Here, Pixar is fully aware of their own power to turn those childhood dreams into movie magic, showing more delight, wonder, and loving self-critique than a thousand Dreamworks vehicles. Yet notice that Rex actually is gigantic and scary in this oh-so-brief headspace, and that Buzz’s laser is finally, gloriously, actually a laser. Whose fantasy are we seeing here? Andy’s? The toys’? It’s both: the kid and the toys desperately need each other to escape their respective confines. What better place than the cinema to unleash those dreams?

There’s a third fantasy at work here: this time, when we pull back, it’s not to “reality,” but to another movie, a home video of young Andy immersed in his toys. His mother is recording her son’s brief, sweet childhood. That’s the final arm of Pixar’s power, inherited from Disney, literalized: appealing not only to kids, but also to parents trying themselves to appeal to their kids. Mutually created dreams--such is the work of Toy Story.

Yet all is no longer well in this dreamworld. After the opening sequence ends with a sudden cut to black, we shift gears to a heist, in grand Toy Story transition. Our heroes use their cute-awesome toy powers to the fullest, in order to…make a call on one cell phone, to another inches away. Andy appears, having aged along with us, and retrieves his phone from a trunk of toys he clearly hasn’t opened in years. He closes it again and stomps away. Something is off. The adorably serious toy world, in which Andy is usually treated like the boss of a bunch of toy co-workers, has been upended to reveal its essential fragility. Has there been any more potent image in cinema so far this year than a toy pressed against a cell phone, listening to the boy man he loves on the other end, unable to say anything lest he break a spell that’s already long dead anyway?

Thus Toy Story 3 sets its foundation: ruthless exposure of what it means that the characters are toys. The giddiness and fun of the previous installments was always briefly punctured by the sight of the toys suddenly falling limp on the approach of a human, ingeniously animated expressions reverting to frozen smiles. It’s the troubling side to Pixar’s fantasy, that what seems real and humane is subsumed when we giant, stomping humans come to play. The “human” analogue that comes quickest to mind is Haley Joel Osment in A.I. Osment’s Uncanny Valley features made him both endearingly pathetic and unbearably strange, upsetting the whole notion of cuteness as an end in itself that grounds kids’ animated films.

As with Osment’s “David”, the toys’ worshipful love for their owners crosses the line from cute to upsetting in 3: witness Rex’s desperate lunge for the daycare doors, begging to be played with, unaware of the havoc to come. Fantasies become twisted when you leave them alone—that’s an idea that’s underpinned many a psych-thriller and revenge fantasy in its time, but it’s most effective here, employed by a movie machine built on keeping us engaged in our make-believe. Also like David, the toys become less relatable as we realize how unfettered they are to that most human condition, death. Even more disorienting than college-bound Andy is his dog Buster, so instantly loveable as a puppy in 2, here reintroduced as a creaky old hound nearing his last waddle. Woody, struggling to revive the dog’s fighting spirit, has stayed exactly the same.

The toys’ own peculiar kind of aging is best understood through the film’s biggest change to the cast, the inevitable pairing up of Ken and Barbie. There’s a whole bunch of random new toys in the Sunnyside Daycare eager to abuse our heroes, but it’s Ken’s sneering domination that cuts deepest. Here are Ken and Barbie, decades old, considered hopelessly dated and often offensive by millions. Yet they’re still enough a part of our cultural memory to be introduced without explanation, to have specific attributes so well known (dream houses, ascots) as to be easily spoofed, and to walk us through their own internal power reversal. Watch Ken hold onto his favored place in kids’ fantasies by keeping the new toys imprisoned. What will we be mocking and adoring in 2050? Will Woody and Jessie ever make it to that museum in Tokyo (“that’s in Japan”)? The first two Toy movies dealt with this stylistic aging, but in terms of human transitions: the cowboy v. space age metaphor. Here, it’s more open-ended. This is one toy phenomenon, “Ken and Barbie,” whose hold on our make-believe has stayed strong. Pixar’s on top of the world now, but they’re clearly troubled about how much of an impact they’ve really made.

Examples abound. For one paralyzing second in the Sunnyside bathroom, we think a janitor’s seen Woody move. The first two movies’ most suspenseful moments came from the threat of discovery; the toys used that potential to their advantage in the first film, but it could represent the end of the world here. But it was just a smudge on the mirror, of course; the fantasy persists, down to what we see and don’t see. Bo Peep, Woody’s luv interest in the first two installments, is nowhere to be found, her absence noted early on with all the brief gravity common to offscreen film deaths. But her fate isn’t death, as Woody says: she’s been moved to a different family. Why worry about these toys at all, when there’s so many like them? Swap ‘em, lose ‘em, move ‘em around: they’re endlessly replaceable, just like the glut of mediocre animated spazz-flicks whose previews were launched into my face before I got to see 3. Of course, Pixar also works out these ideas at a lighter level, emphasizing the freaky toy-ness of the Potatoheads. The missus can see through her eyes even when they’re not in her (a tantalizing spy-movie gambit if there ever was one), while her husband entrusts his body parts to a tortilla in perhaps Pixar’s most utterly bizarre sequence to date. These aren’t just kooky characters that are stand-ins for human archetypes--these are toys, and that’s weird. Pixar certainly isn’t above marking itself out as the latest in a long line of upstart mythmakers: notice the Totoro among Bonnie’s flock of thespian toys.

My Neighbor Totoro was my number one childhood movie, and it’s only gotten more delightful as I’ve returned to it over the years. The best Studio Ghibli films have a dreamy, wandering spirit like nothing else I’ve ever seen. They feel like they were actually made by kids: the sprawling, decentralized pace, the willingness to get lost in subplots, the exquisite back-and-forths of wonder and terror. The likes of Totoro and Spirited Away are some of most meaningful memory machines to ever come out of an art form that specializes in irresistible nostalgia.

Interestingly, after the debacle that was Cars, Pixar’s been moving in the exact opposite direction, producing films openly indebted to serious “adult” filmmaking. Ratatouille’s glowing cinematography moves well beyond the accepted color-saturation and spastic architecture of kid’s-film universes to create a hauntingly gorgeous cityscape, more reminiscent of the Paris of Breathless and Charade than any animated precedent. Wall-E’s opening shots earned every bit of praise, undercutting its hero’s Chaplin antics by sinking him in zoom-outs and dragging him through long takes of decay and destruction. Last and best is Up’s marriage montage: its impossibly fluid evocation of comfort, glee, risk, familiarity, trauma, and loss qualifies it as one of the finest pieces of humanist cinema in recent years, and maybe ever. Of course, all three have their glaring faults. Ratatouille’s human characters lack any investment or charm, making the film an exercise in delighted but detached stargazing. Wall-E’s second half, a stunningly clumsy and slapdash affair, nearly wrecks the gains made by its beginning. Up never really loses track of its battered, beating heart, and as such is the best of the three, but it still begins to go downhill as soon as it mires itself in rote chase scenes involving a giant bird ripped straight from old episodes of Looney Tunes. But such are the sacrifices made when you want to sell toys, and Pixar got so huge so fast that I’ve always had the nagging feeling that its movers never had time to figure out what the rules were. Certainly the fat-people satire in Wall-E smacks of laziness, or, more charitably, creative desperation. There were a lot of expectations building up behind Wall-E, and even more behind its follow-up Up: Pixar, Disney’s reluctant heir, has had to carry the future of animated film after Beauty and the Beast’s Best Picture nod, and it’s a heavy burden.

There’s still a lot at stake in Toy Story 3, but it’s of a very different kind. Pixar has come through the fire (mostly) unscathed, able to translate its sacred cows to every marketable opportunity possible and still get good reviews. Not since Spielberg released Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List within six months of each other has a filmmaking institution conquered this much territory.

Toy Story 3, then, could not have come at a more appropriate time. This franchise represents the only slip in the curtain Disney’s ever allowed, the only self-aware glance at the monopoly on fantasies enjoyed by an animated empire now past its 80th birthday. And it ain’t just because those are literal, bought-and-sold toys on screen, though that’s a big part of it. It’s because these three movies openly display the workings and complexities of externally aided fantasies, and they increasingly show it from both sides: the dreamer and the dreamed-of. The traditional ideal with kid’s movies is a relationship that changes and deepens as the audience ages, allowing a viewer to use her/his favorite VHS (etc.) as, again, a memory machine, filtering childhood through a fiction more memorable than most real days. Of course, given Pixar’s pace and general chicness, the Pixar Generation (in which I proudly include myself) doesn’t even have to look back. The old ones appeal for much the same reasons they did the first time, and we get new ones like clockwork. It’s this phenomenon, which I would argue is unique to Pixar, which makes Toy Story 3 so crucial.

Because it’s been eleven years since Toy Story 2, and that opening montage of Andy playing with his toys—that’s us now. This is the power Pixar has, and the studio is generous enough to reveal it to us: it helped build not only our childhoods, but also our lifelong memories of those childhoods, and this movie is here to remind us of the fantasies we’ve shared. They’re beautiful fantasies, but they’re fantasies, but they’re beautiful.

And that’s what Toy Story 3 is all about. It’s there in that breathtakingly perfect moment when Andy’s mom just stops short and looks at his empty room, all items of significance removed. It’s just a room now; Andy’s little sister gets it next, begging him to leave behind some of his neat things. They’re just toys, the endlessly reproducible family, Disney’s dream product. You can always get a new huggable bear, and next summer will always bring new shiny animated movies. But, again, A.I. becomes the reference point: through adventure and growth, the fungible copies become individuals, unique, worthy of love. These individuals can also be given new life, new fantasies to roam in, to infinity and beyond. Witness that brilliant penultimate scene, in which Andy acts out each toy’s personality to their new owner Bonnie. Like Lotso the bear says, just as there will always be more toys, so too will there always be more kids to play with those toys (after their parents buy them). But you can almost see Andy reviving his old toys, charging them up with that same fantastic wonder, even as they (importantly) remain unmoving in his hands. The fact that he gives them freely to Bonnie, just as his mom donated them to Sunnyside, is a beautiful argument for artistic generosity coming from the star-child of the world’s least generous dream factory. Fantasies don’t always have to be bought and sold.

Yet Pixar isn’t re-delving into the (hypocritical) critiques of capitalism that dragged Wall-E down. Instead, the studio takes the opportunity of this return to its origins to ask what happens when fantasies age. Disney’s built an empire on being able to constantly revive the old dreams, from theme park rides to the Kingdom Hearts franchise, a naked bid for commercial relevancy on par with Space Jam. Yet none of the tricks in the old wizard’s hat can match the sight of a family of toys holding tight to each other as they descend towards the eternal flame, wondering if they’ll come out the other side.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Ten Reasons The Village Was And Is So Damn Great

I'm listin' this now to gently correct a friend of mine who's Wrong about this movie, but I've meaning to get around to the subject for a while. M. Night Shyamalan, auteurist critical darling around the turn of the millennium, has seen his reputation spiral steadily earthward over the last decade. His insufferable pomposity and increasingly (hilariously) stilted scripts play well to the derision, and he certainly deserved nothing but scorn for The Happening. I've yet to dutifully fork over ten bucks for The Last Airbender, but I've little hope for it. Still, the groupthink of Shyamalan-hating blots out his successes, relative and absolute. I'll take Unbreakable over every faux-dark superhero fantasy that washed up in its wake. Lady in the Water is irrevocably bad, but not the total trainwreck everyone made it out to be (as with Gus Van Sant's "Death Trilogy," it works better with the sound off). Shyamalan has serious ambition, which isn't always his downfall, and monumental craft, which never is. In the (understandable) rush to dismiss, we miss things, and when it came to The Village, we missed a masterpiece.

It's probably the most sorely underrated film of the last ten years (Michael Almereyda's disjointed, fascinating take on Hamlet comes closest). But, hey, I like to do things besides bitch. One of those is making lists. So, here're ten reasons why The Village should slot high in everyone's "re-watch" list for the Aughts.

10. Learning the "spoiler" doesn't turn the movie into a game of "aha!" rewatches à la The Sixth Sense. It deepens mystery into tragedy.

9. This movie was made in the 21st century. It's about denizens of the 20th century fleeing their era's problems by constructing a 19th-century-style utopian fantasy, which eventually becomes paralyzed by the fearful mores of 18th- and 17th-century colonialism. The Village ages backwards before our eyes.

8. The impossibly graceful (and gloriously correct) shift of the narrative focus from Joaquin Phoenix to Bryce Dallas Howard.

7. Bryce Dallas Howard. (W-Will you marry me?)

6. Some of the most striking, evocative, and thematically resonant use of color in recent cinematic memory.

5. The dialogue is laughably unnatural at first, full of period hard-ons and oddly incongruous with Night Shy's visual storytelling. Witness the early scene wherein some local lads taunt a dreaded beast with some truly awkward braggadocio. But the final reveal repositions the script, later to become Night Shy's Achilles heel, as an essential part of a tightly woven pattern. Of course the dialogue's unnatural: it's an artifice, a painful attempt by the characters at recapturing a past long gone.

4. This was 2004, the year of Dogville, Fahrenheit 9/11, and (gulp) The Passion of the Christ. It's difficult to imagine a more convoluted and depressing state for the collective American political psyche than that election year, and cinema responded, to varying degrees of success. Night Shy is no one's definition of a politically astute filmmaker--his previous films barely acknowledged the existence of a society outside his protagonists' paranoiac inner lives. Yet The Village paints the most damning, comprehensive, and searingly accurate political mirror this country refused to look into this past dumbass decade. Running from confusion, taking refuge in the past, demonizing the outside, ignoring it when it breaks through, letting tears in the pattern go unacknowledged, letting our children take the burdens, and when the end of our painstaking world knocks, we vote to keep on keepin' on, even as it's been made brutally clear that we can't.

3. Had us pegged, has us pegged. The direct allegory was perfect for its time and place (or, uh, it would've been, had we payed attention), but six years later, the emotional resonance remains. The Village isn't furious like Fahrenheit or vengeance-minded like Dogville, but it's certainly not purblind like Passion. For all its moments of wispy tenderness and genuine terror, The Village is above all sad, and tragedy ages better than fury.

2. This shot:

1. Yeah. You can giggle at Villagers breathing "Those We Don't Speak Of." You can roll your eyes at Disney's blatant product positioning. You can, hey, even learn they're not actually monsters. But when the camera slides around Howard in the forest and that creature is standing there, red blazing, it's still fucking scary. Which, of course, is exactly the point.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Bearing Witness

A few posts back, I argued that Mayor Vaughn's warning against "yell[ing] shark" in Jaws was a moment of open self-reflection by Steven Spielberg, describing his own M.O. in directing the film but cloaking the revelation in narrative conversation. I brought up that concept again when discussing Betsy's "walking contradiction" line in Taxi Driver; it's a pet game of mine. Spielberg's remained one of my favorite directors even at his worst (Always, Amistad, The Terminal). The only thing that's ever shaken my faith is how rarely he returned to that moment of explicit contemplation following Jaws' unprecedented success. The obvious, glorious exception is Indy's "Oh, a sword? How adorable" move in Raiders of the Lost Ark (a happy accident resulting from Harrison Ford's dysentery, but I'm a hopeless auteurist and too young to know better, so I give the director credit). Yet Spielberg, inventor of the blockbuster, unparalleled CGI pioneer, and majority shareholder in the collective American memory of the Holocaust, stands to benefit by shedding some more light on his own success. I say this only partially for the sake of my own private parlor games (stop judging me, imaginary contemptuous audience). It bothers me that Spielberg displayed less and less reflection on his films' status as popular icons even as, through the '90s, he tackled weightier, trickier material. A good wink would've cut perfectly through the string-soaked treacle of Saving Private Ryan.

Over the last decade, that subtle self-awareness has returned to Spielberg's films, but in a manner fitting the grave, futurist urgency of his best new works. The mass-produced Davids in A.I. and the unreliable video-visions in Minority Report hinted at a director uncertain about his own place in the American popular consciousness, and willing to explore how such power might play itself out decades down the line. As I said in the aforementioned Jaws post, however, it wasn't until 2005 that Spielberg returned to that most elemental of wake-up calls, blank horror devoid of any meaning beyond our own shared fear.

In Spielberg's hands, War of the Worlds becomes a misnomer. Wars tend to have turning points, back-and-forths that bubble over into comebacks like the one feverishly recorded in Saving Private Ryan. What War of the Worlds records is extermination, barely staved off near film's end. As such, the turning point deals with something different, and far more complicated, than victory.

An hour into War of the Worlds, the Ferrier family is traipsing through yet another desolate farmyard on their way to yet another sanctuary that won't be enough to protect them from the hell raining down from the heavens. Robbie (Justin Chatwin) suddenly speeds up, ignoring his father Ray (Tom Cruise) and sister Rachel's (Dakota Fanning) cries for him to return. Robbie straggles his way up a shallow hill, beyond which we can see an unearthly yellow glow: the promise of carnage unending, cinematic thrill-violence with the safety off. Ray is Tom Cruise possessed of his most unfettered (and, in this film, comforting) athleticism, and he catches his son easily. "Why are you doing this! Why!" Ray roars, finally bereft of the puckish bravado he had previously hid his wounded alienation behind ("Boston? That how it is?") Robbie just stares back at him. Chatwin's eyes had previously exemplified the annoying prettiness common to male goth teens in American cinema. Now, the obnoxious (if unerringly justified) anger is gone, as are the kid's stuttering attempts at explaining the passion that drives him. They are replaced with a blank, reverent acceptance as frightening as any mecha from beyond the moon. "I have to have to let me see this."

Ray understands, as his body sags away; he watches unmoving as his son runs, possessed, to his doom. And, ultimately, that's all there is to War of the Worlds, the most artfully (and brutally) simple blockbuster in recent memory. There is no lesson, there is no arc, there is no skill, there is no war. All you can do is watch, bear witness. As Robbie's eyes testify, there are few more powerful lures. Surely we can agree--don't we show up in droves to watch, pile into the cinema to see?

This is violence as irrevocably physical, a purely instinctive transfer from the action to the observer: a sly generic transgression as unsettling--and resonant--as Cronenberg's A History of Violence that same year. Spielberg returns to that idea in the first part of the film's ending, which he swipes neatly from Wells--the aliens defeated by Earth's innate reactions, while we scurry around on the planet's surface, powerless as ever. Yet, as much as I'd like to forget about it, there's the matter of the actual ending, in which Spielberg pulls such a spectacular cop-out (the kid survived) that I had to suspect some sort of massive, cannibalistic cynicism at work, rather than the easy sentimentality staring me in the face. If Robbie lived, is bearing witness Spielberg's salvation, the only way to come through the fire with your humanity intact? Certainly, it's an idea that dovetails with the filmmaker's intentions for Schindler's List, but it doesn't jive so well with the rest of War of the Worlds itself, in which watching is but the purest locus of horror. Robbie's religious pilgrimage over the hill isn't a moral victory, it's an instinctive rush, and rewarding (or punishing) him for it seems beside the point. Witnessing is its own phenomenon and end, and death is merely an inevitable formality when the sky rains fire.

Or, hell, maybe Spielberg was just frantically looking for a way to end this traumatic scar of a blockbuster, the darkest fantasy he's ever unleashed on the popcorn-buying public. War of the Worlds' ceaseless flow is never swept up by the cavalry, rarely leavened by calm or humor, and absolutely devoid of the charming, magnetic, and/or redemptive individuals that mark Spielberg's earlier landmarks. It's Jurassic Park without any experts. It's Raiders of the Lost Ark, not only without Indy, but without any top men. It's Saving Private Ryan, with no way to fight back and no "back home" to fight for. It's Empire of the Sun, but with no chance to reach across the borders. E.T., with no individuals among the intruders. Close Encounters, but they want to farm your blood after they beam you up. Schindler's List, but they've come for absolutely everybody.

Was that last one in poor taste? Perhaps, but grave reverence would dilute the pure existential chill that haunts that pivotal eye-to-eye in War of the Worlds. With all taste and palatable history stripped away, leaving only the simplest of fantasies and the starkest of realities to collide, it was difficult for many to embrace War of the Worlds as a deadly serious and aware film, beyond the expertly calibrated genre trappings. Certainly, it was easier to wait a few months and fall over ourselves praising Spielberg's Munich, but I feel the two work best taken together. 2005, then, is endgame for Spielberg's best ideas: as sinuous storyteller, as soul-shaking image factory, as allegorical myth-maker, as humanist saint. No wonder Kingdom of the Crystal Skull felt so inessential--Spielberg's planet-sized philosophies had reached their peak. War of the Worlds is that philosophy's purest expression, blurring the lines between spectacle and tragedy, reminding us all the while that our approach, for better or worse, is the same for both: to look and see.