Sunday, May 29, 2011


In his last film, "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," Woody Allen returned to the deeply pessimistic themes outlined in "Crimes and Misdemeanors" and "Match Point." The illustration wasn't quite as violent or as grave but the message was the same: the universe is empty, there is no absolute morality, and the quality of a person emanates from inside of them rather than through the outside influence of any greater governing force. Characters made poor, selfish choices and the question of their consequence was left hanging, beholden only to instances of universal randomness and something best identified as "luck." While the gravity of actions in "Stranger" was nowhere near the bleak brutality of those in "Crimes" or "Match Point" it was refreshing to see Allen still feeling the need to convey these ideas; on some level it's comforting to know he still wrestles with these sorts of philosophical complexities and feels compelled to deal with them in an artistic way. But it can also feel like he's beating a dead horse. Like his straight comedies, sometimes the shtick wears thin and he's moved to steer the work in a different direction. Little surprise, then, that his newest film, "Midnight in Paris," steps with a much lighter foot and traffics in matters no less serious or complex, just much more friendly and approachable. The result is a quintessential Allen dramedy that adds little to the oeuvre but doesn't take away from it either.
Owen Wilson stars as Gil Pender, a successful screenwriter taking a stab at writing an actual prose novel. Afloat in Paris with his arrogant and uppity fiancee Inez, Gil romanticizes the golden age of the 1920's, wishing he could live in a simpler time where genius rubbed elbows with vision. While stumbling home one evening from a boring social engagement Gil is scooped up by a cab and magically transported to his preferred time where he finds himself attending parties with F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, talking writing with Ernest Hemingway and falling in love with one of Pablo Picasso's mistresses. There isn't much else to it other than that; like in most Allen films the meat of the story is in the dialogue. There's a richness to Allen's treatment of his 1920's luminaries and Gil handles himself well amongst all these intellectual heavyweights; everyone he meets takes an immediate shine to him, laughing and cajoling and basically letting Gil right in to to their circle. The question of conflicting time is never an issue, as Gil is so enamored with the magic of Paris in the 20's that he blends in easily enough to not cause a stir. As things advance, typical Allen plot devices assault the characters: infidelities reveal self-truths and romance blooms in likely and unlikely locales, and by the end of it all everyone's where they need to be and more or less happy with the way things work out.
If not for the happy ending, "Midnight in Paris" would be more or less a rewrite of Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo;" the ideas and the themes are so similar, as well as the nifty narrative device of time travel and a main character named Gil, they seem cut from the same genesis cloth. In both films there is a reverence for a bygone era, but only in "Cairo" is there a suggestion that the reality we inhabit is hazardous to the human condition. "Midnight in Paris" speaks to the value of imagination and history, but it also accepts that "Golden Age thinking" is a romanticized view of existence and that if we're really going to make it, we need to accept the reality of the moment we're stuck in. Hemingway may have been a great writer, but he was also capable of being a colossal asshole. Picasso may have had talent to the heavens, but he was a misogynist besieged by paranoid anxieties. These people dealt with these deficiencies the same way as anyone else, and it wasn't the time they lived in that defined them or made them remarkable-it was the way they conducted themselves within that time. Eventually Gil comes to see this, a "minor insight" as he terms it, but it's the key to the film and also a hint at some of the underlying optimism that permeates Allen's usually bleak worldview.
That insight is the major "reveal" of the film, and as such it renders "Midnight in Paris" one of the director's lesser works. Much of Allen's humor is very intellectual; he trades on the idea that you've got almost as decent an understanding of all these historical giants as he does, and if you're close to there the film does yield ample rewards. One of the best scenes is Gil's encounter with Salvador Dali, Man Ray and Luis Bunuel as they attempt to talk him through a romantic conundrum. Though the three surrealists have very few lines, the words Allen chooses for them are so illustrative of their personalities that you come away with the sense that Allen really gets all this shit-really, seriously gets it. The guy's a genius. Of course it helps that his cast here is phenomenal as usual. At this point I don't think there's any way I could dislike Owen Wilson. His portrayal of Gil Pender shines with such wide-eyed enthusiam and boyish amazement I don't think I could bear to see his heart break the way Mia Farrow's does in "The Purple Rose of Cairo." You just want things to work out for him, and I think Allen's casting of Wilson shaped some of the film's overall outcome. Corey Stoll is fabulous as Hemingway, coming off as drunkenly handsome and arrogantly masculine but still possessed with a fearsome intelligence. Adrien Brody takes the aforementioned role of Dali, stealing into the man's skin with impish delight and mischief. Marion Cotilliard is passable as Gil's 1920's love interest, but she's playing to her strengths as a chanteusy flapper type who flirts with the Parisian literary scene. Allen hangs a good chunk of the film's overall philosophical heft on her, though, and she plays out her own golden age syndrome with conviction and believability (she's almost as pie-eyed as Gil when she lands in her dream realm.)
As a love letter to Woody Allen's new home, "Midnight in Paris" is a fine demonstration of all the charm and historical richness that city offers. As a crucial piece in the director's body of work, it ranks closer with a film like "Mighty Aphrodite" than its thematic forebear "The Purple Rose of Cairo;" while visually "Midnight in Paris" is more appealing, it lacks the underlying despondency that defines the best of Allen's films. It's fine for things to work out sometimes, but his strongest films never let us forget how crushing reality is for the dreamers.

Saturday, May 14, 2011


Metal has always been an "outsider" genre. It attracts the angry and the violent, the depressed and the defeated, the hopeless and the humiliated. Metal is a refuge, an outpouring of aggression that serves as much as therapy as it does music. The best films made about metal understand this and reflect it; it's very easy to separate the directors who really get it from the hacks who simply try to co-opt a genre for ironic consideration and broad characterizations. Spencer Susser obviously gets it, and the resultant film is one that takes metal's dystopic isolationism to a nihilistic extreme, crafting a dirty, arid shitscape that screams sadness and rage.
The film follows barely teenaged T.J. Forney (Devin Brochu) as he attempts to navigate the world created by the death of his mother several months prior. The loss has left his father Paul (Rainn Wilson) in a walking coma, immune to almost everything happening outside the sphere of his private grief. T.J. is tormented by bullies at school, too meek to fight back and completely unable to cope with the anger bubbling up inside him. His only friend is Nicole (Natalie Portman), a lowly grocery store cashier who becomes the object of T.J.'s misplaced emotions. A chance act of vandalism in a junkyard summons Hesher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the ultimate id personified, a burned-out metal fanatic prone to random acts of destruction, pyromania, and all-out badassing. Hesher does not take any shit, and he insinuates himself into T.J and Paul's lives and begins to awaken the feelings and awareness still hidden in both.
Hesher is an almost mystical presence in the film, at once of this earth and far beyond it. He appears wordlessly at various times of stress in T.J.'s life, more of a mocking figure than any sort of refuge or reprieve. T.J. wonders why Hesher stands idly while bullies force him to eat a urinal cake; similarly, Hesher can't seem to understand why T.J. is so unwilling to fight back. Hesher's whole life is a chronology of doing exactly that, and he's so far removed from society's norms that he can't fathom not acting out of individual desire. This sort of behaviour could be interpreted as base selfishness, but in Susser's world this sort of objectivism is an ideal; Hesher is a standard against which all other characters in the film are judged. He adheres to something akin to collectivism, a passivity that allows "win/win" situations for everyone (illustrated by an amusing anecdote involving an orgy.) Susser complicates this further by making Hesher extremely unlikeable. There is no way to feel any sympathy towards him; he simply is and he acts, and that's it. It's very black and white. This lends an interesting distance to the picture of Hesher as disturbed; when we watch him go on a destructive rampage at a swimming pool, damaging both inanimate objects and himself, we watch and feel almost nothing other than the impact of watching the damages occur. Much like Nicole and T.J. trying to take in exactly what's happening as they watch Hesher set fire to the pool water (again, the idea of mysticism), we're in a place where traditional values are being eroded, a landscape that is totally alien from a moral perspective.
Hesher's effect on T.J. is what the film is really about. There's always a question of whether or not Hesher exists or is just a created part of T.J.'s personality, brought into being to help him cope with his grief. A "hesher" is a broad descriptive term attached to those who look to be involved with heavy metal culture; there is little personality associated with the term other than stereotypical ideas of grit, dirt, violence and antisocial tendencies. Hesher is simply nobody, an exertion of will on the world. As he leads T.J. down a strange road of embracing anger, rage, and revenge, there's a strong suggestion from Susser that this sort of societal antagonism is what really distinguishes a bland existence from a meaningful, fully lived one. Though the tone of Susser's film is distinctly darker, it's hard not to see echoes of Akira Kurosawa's "Ikiru"; both films are concerned with illustrating the damage done when we hide behind ideas of what life should be rather than embracing the side of ourselves that is actually able to live them. Hesher's "instruction" opens T.J. up and shows him the necessity of resistance in life; Hesher's presence also does wonders to wake Paul out of his grief-driven stupor, reminding him of what he still has left despite all the loss he's suffered.
Nicole is an interesting character in that she seems to be an illustration of what average existence and compliance ultimately breed. She has a good heart and is attempting to play by what she sees as the "rules" of society; all this gets her is a job that demeans her and barely allows her live along with a continuing string of indignities and defeats. She is the opposite of Hesher in every regard, and Susser allows this contrast to obviously value one way of thinking above another. Nicole is used and humiliated and makes poor decisions, inflicting emotional damage on those closest to her in the same manner that Hesher doles out punishment to random objects. When Nicole sleeps with Hesher we grasp the depth of her self-hatred; the world we live in is so caustic and crushing we're more apt to resist anything resembling real affection in favor of sensory experience disguised as emotional connection.
Susser's world is a strange but effective distillation of Harmony Korine, Todd Solondz, Cameron Jamie, and Wes Anderson. The landscape of "Hesher" bears more than a passing resemblance to the grotesque world of Korine's "Gummo"; so too does the effective use of heavy metal music and culture to create an aura of bleak defeatism. There's a nod to Solondz in the awkwardness of every interaction and the demand to view ethically compromised characters without judgment, and like Anderson there's a melancholy poignancy to every action we witness. The violence in Hesher is easily something that would belong in one of Jamie's backyard wrestling films; so too is the layer of dust and dirt that hazes over "Hesher"'s aesthetic. Susser's ultimate suggestion is a little more hopeful than any of the aforementioned directors (aside from maybe Anderson, whose overall vision isn't near as malicious as the others) but the arrival at that epiphany exacts a heavy emotional toll on the majority of the film's characters; true enlightenment never comes without a cost.
The acting is superb throughout. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is astonishing as Hesher; there seems little this man can't do in whatever role he's cast. Rainn Wilson turns in another excellent dramatic performance, making good on all the potential he showed in "Six Feet Under," thankfully distancing himself from "The Office" once more. Portman is fine here as well, leading me to wonder why so many other reviewers have singled her out as terrible in this film. There seems to be an issue with making her "unattractive", as though this sort of transformation were beyond belief and that we can't take Nicole's struggles in life seriously because there's no way to get past the idea that this is the breathtaking Natalie Portman. That sort of criticism is assinine; Portman vanishes into her role her with grace and depth, and I found her simple, banal anxieties to be incredibly relatable and realistic. The real star, though, is Brochu, who brings such anguish and torture to T.J. that it's almost painful to watch him onscreen. Grief is not an easy emotion to convey, and Brochu does so with restraint; it seems like he could snap at anytime but he never goes so far overboard that his depiction becomes caricature.
This is a complex but rewarding film. Like Todd Solondz's "Happiness," Spencer Susser has given us a portrait of modern banality and complacency that is both disturbing and moving. The focus on the idea of individualism at any cost is one that may put a lot of people off, but these sorts of presentations are absolutely necessary if we're to break free of the constraints society continuously imposes on us. Hesher is an ideal that we all need to aspire to; compassion and resistance aren't always at odds with one another. You can hate most people and still be a good person. A life lived mostly alone doesn't make you a failure. Sometimes it takes destruction to make people realize they're sleepwalking through life; the meaning of metal isn't so much music as it is defiance and questions. Susser knows this, and his film an open engagement with possibility and the power of self-realization.