2013 First-Time Viewings: November Week 1

Ender's GameEnder’s Game

Hints of spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film yet.

While watching this long-awaited film adaptation of the famous Orson Scott Card novel from 1985, I couldn’t help but think back to just a short while ago, when there was quite a bit of inflammatory rhetoric coming out of North Korea. I remember reading articles about the kind of jingoism being preached to the country’s inhabitants, and the incredible influence that has in shaping public opinion, especially within a society that does whatever it can to remove any influence from the outside world. If a person exists in a sealed-off environment, it becomes easy to manipulate their ideas and attitudes. Now, I haven’t read the source material, so the fact that this film conjured up those thoughts was a pleasant surprise, as indeed was the presence of some truly dark thematic content, including the gross manipulation of children by seemingly benevolent authority figures and the mass genocide of an entire species. This is heavy material for a film, but I’m not convinced Ender’s Game gives its dark subject matter the weight it deserves. More often, the film seems to exist in a strange sort of young adult limbo, with the tricky material taking a backseat in favor of a lighter approach geared to attract a wider range of ages.

Discussing the many details of the plot would probably take up too much space. What I’ll say is that there is a disconnect between the focus of most of the film and the major revelations that come in the final scenes. Those revelations take the film in a daring direction, but by the time they come around, the film is already wrapping up. For most of the running length, the film instead places its focus in an area that seems strangely inconsequential by the time the end, and all the revelations that come with it, rolls around. To tie this in with another ill-fated franchise hopeful from the last decade, the film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s first entry in the His Dark Materials trilogy The Golden Compass, there is the feeling throughout Ender’s Game that you’re only really getting a Cliff Notes version, and that the filmmakers have chosen to emphasize the least confrontational element of a much more subversive story to gain the widest audience. And just like with The Golden Compass, there is a good chance audiences won’t be seeing subsequent stories in this universe. This all gives Ender’s Game the feel of an moderately-fulfilling appetizer for a main course that will likely never come. 6/10.

12 Years A Slave12 Years A Slave

Definite ending spoilers for those who haven’t seen it yet.

I think at this point it’s fair to say a general consensus has already formed concerning the third feature from Hunger and Shame director Steve McQueen, that if it isn’t the best film about slavery ever made, it surely is one of the more accomplished ones. While there is much to admire in the film’s unflinching depiction of this sensitive topic, what really impresses me about 12 Years A Slave is its more nuanced character depictions, specifically its criticism of people who have chosen to disregard conscience in favor of security. To emphasize this focus, John Ridley builds his screenplay around a series of contrasts, with important characters given mirror representations and specific scenes later given emotional reprisals. For instance, the compassionate Bible readings of one plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) are given a bleak reversal with the menacing scripture interpretations of another (Michael Fassbender). Despite the more empathetic nature of Cumberbatch’s character, he still mostly turns a blind eye to the injustices of the times. The two men are really not that different from each other; even their cold-hearted wives seem completely interchangeable. Elsewhere, a character played by Alfre Woodard becomes the mistress to a plantation owner in an effort to distance herself from the realities of her life as a slave. Her actions are contrasted with the continually battered slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who would rather die than continue suffering from the violent advances of Fassbender’s plantation owner. Woodard’s character has seemingly found an escape from her suffering, but she distances herself from the suffering of those around her. These contrasts don’t just apply to these two supporting characters, but to Solomon Northup as well. The big difference between them though is that Northup learns and grows as a person through his first-hand experiences, while the others remain content to live on with their delusions.

In the early scenes, Northup isn’t presented as a crusader fighting for emancipation/abolition, but rather as a free black man enjoying a life of relative prosperity in New York, with a loving family and a strong reputation for his skills as a violinist, and with little to no social awareness. The twelve years Northup is bound in slavery forces him to come to terms with the reality of the times, and to realize his own future part to play in fighting back against that reality. This character change is depicted both through the structure of Ridley’s screenplay and the specific rhythms of McQueen’s direction. The nature of the role requires Chiwetel Ejiofor to exist mostly as an observer for a good portion of the film, but 12 Years A Slave is told from his perspective and consequently he still remains the main focus of almost every scene (off the top of my head, I can only think of one brief scene where he is not present). Although the film is still very stylish, McQueen dials back some of the artier flourishes of his earlier work, and when he does employ more elaborate tactics, it’s for a purpose. The best example of this is in the film’s two lengthy one-take sequences, which contrast with each other to show the evolution of Northup’s character. In the first sequence, he is kept offscreen as a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) haggles with plantation owners and callously tears families apart; only at the end of the scene do we see that Northup has been present. Nearer to the end of the film, the other one-shot sequence occurs, a brutal whipping sequence where Northup is forced to become significantly more than a mere witness and swing the whip himself. The payoff of Northup’s journey is not just the final scene where he is reunited with his family, but the realization (through summarizing pre-credits text) that he would eventually go on to be a noted abolitionist. Northup’s evolution reinforces the idea that 12 Years A Slave isn’t just a film about the horrors of slavery, that it’s more valuable as a complex character study and an advocation for socially conscious action, no matter what the time period. 9/10.

Scenes From A MarriageScenes From A Marriage

It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally nearing the end of my quest to view all of the major works of master Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. The only issue is I’ve saved the longest for last, the two most notable omissions being 1973’s Scenes From A Marriage and 1982’s Fanny And Alexander, which run 281 and 312 minutes, respectively, in their original television versions. The latter will have to wait just a little bit longer, but the former has now been crossed off the list. And my biggest fear going in, that the subject matter wouldn’t be able to sustain consistent interest over five hours, ended up not being an issue at all; rarely has a film of such epic length passed by so quickly. True to its title, the film is separated into six “scenes,” titled Innocence and Panic, The Art of Sweeping Things Under The Rug, Paula, The Vale of Tears, The Illiterates, and In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World). Each successive scene chronicles the constantly evolving marriage between Marianne (Liv Ullmann) and Johan (Erland Josephson), and the challenges and changes that come from unexpected infidelity and long-term separation.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a film about a couple who grow to hate everything about each other and who just want to be out of each other’s lives completely, but one about two people who still share a deep connection even after the realization they are not suited for a traditional marriage together. Because of this, histrionics are kept to a minimum; most of the film plays out in a manner that is more quietly devastating than anything else. Bergman maintains an incredibly minimal approach throughout, with the action consisting almost entirely of conversations in single settings. Apart from giving the filmmaker plenty of opportunities for his trademark close-ups, this also creates an almost-documentary level of realism (which is appropriate, considering the film begins with the couple consenting to a lengthy filmed interview on the subject of married life). Of course, none of this would have nearly the same impact if the central actors weren’t willing to completely invest in their characters every step of the way. Other familiar faces show up for brief stretches of time (Bibi Andersson as one half of another unhappy couple, Gunnel Lindblom as an amorous associate of Johan’s), but make no mistake, Scenes From A Marriage is completely dominated by Ullmann and Josephson. In fact, for the entire stretch of scenes three through five, they are the only two people to appear onscreen. Together with Bergman, they create a portrait of a relationship that is never anything less than completely believable. The legend supposedly goes that divorce rates in Sweden increased drastically after the first television run in 1973. Whether that is actually true or not, it’s the kind of legend that seems appropriately plausible. Scenes From A Marriage is one of Bergman’s best films, maybe even his very best, but unless you want to seriously reconsider the state of your relationship, it might not be the best choice to watch with your significant other. 10/10.

La NotteLa Notte

Try as I might, I can’t seem to recognize the supposed greatness in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. With the lone exception of Blow-Up, Antonioni films have always caught my attention through their pure technical craft, but have otherwise left me cool to their virtues, and this 1961 film is no different. The middle film in Antonioni’s “alienation trilogy,” which also includes 1960’s L’Avventura and 1962’s L’Eclisse, La Notte revolves around a day in the lives of an unhappy married couple, played by Marcello Mastroianni and Jeanne Moreau. Their day begins with them visiting a dying friend in the hospital, which provokes them to question the value of their own existence. Mastroianni is an author who has just had his latest work published, but he isn’t satisfied with his marriage, and he finds himself frequently drawn to other women. Moreau is also dissatisfied, but instead of directly confronting her husband about his straying eye, she chooses to just wander aimlessly around the city of Milan. As day turns into night, the couple heads to a lavish party, where Mastroianni becomes enraptured by another party guest, a lively Monica Vitti. Moreau, in the meantime, continues to mope around.

Here is what I have to say about La Notte: it’s an emotionally empty film populated by emotionally empty characters, who lead fairly privileged lives but find no satisfaction in their privileges. It could be though that that’s the entire point, and with that said, if what you’re looking for is a film about the emptiness of humanity’s existence, you might as well be watching an Antonioni film, because he knew how to do that sort of thing better than anyone else. And if you’re going to spend a nearly two-hour stretch of time in the company of empty people, you might as well be spending it in the company of Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, and Monica Vitti. Because the film is directed by Antonioni, it’s at the very least a technically impressive presentation, and the pointed direction and cinematography takes full advantage of cold Milan architecture to further emphasize the malaise of the main characters. But so much of the film is made up of Moreau and Mastroianni just walking around, sporting their best solemn faces, and I will admit to just getting fed up with it after a certain length of time. Certain moments register as just a little too on-the-nose as well, nowhere more glaring than the scene when Moreau wanders upon a broken clock, a metaphor for her stalled-out life that’s either perfect or perfectly-obvious, depending on how you choose to look at it. Maybe down the road I’ll give this and Antonioni’s other “classic” films another chance and a light will suddenly switch on and I’ll suddenly understand their appeal, but for now I’m ironically left completely alienated by his tales of alienation. 5/10.

Night On EarthNight On Earth

Jim Jarmusch established himself long ago as an important name in American independent cinema, and while he still continues to put out interesting, relevant work, his films have never been quite as remarkable as they were near the beginning of his career. ┬áHis 1980s triple threat of Stranger Than Paradise, Down By Law, and Mystery Train all showcase a very specific, very “Tom Waitsian” view of America, one that doesn’t shy away from walking down the country’s dark, seedy alleyways. 1991’s Night On Earth came on the tail end of Jarmusch’s great early run, and in many ways it feels like a final statement of sorts. The film consists of five separate stories, each focusing on the interactions between a cab driver and their passenger(s). Each story features a different set of characters and a different location, beginning in the U.S. (specifically Los Angeles and New York) before moving across the Atlantic to Europe (specifically Paris, Rome, and Helsinki). As with any portmanteau film, you inevitably end up comparing the quality of each segment, and with Night On Earth there’s certainly some inconsistency present. It’s safe to say though that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The film starts off with its two weakest segments: the Los Angeles tale is brought down by a miscast Winona Ryder playing the least believable cab driver in the history of the movies, while the New York tale is a comedic clash of cultures that is serviceable but ordinary, boosted up by a very funny and warm performance from the normally quite serious Armin Mueller-Stahl. Things really pick up from the third sequence onwards, beginning in Paris with a tale of a short-tempered cab driver and his blind passenger that has a very “Waitsian” feel. The Paris tale is headlined by a manic Roberto Benigni, who finds himself in the unfortunate predicament of having his passenger die on him (between Down By Law and this film, Jarmusch somehow found a way to get the best out of Benigni). The best segment is the final tale, set in Helsinki, with melancholy cab driver and passengers exchanging heartfelt tales of woe. While it’s the most sober tale of the five, it achieves something not normally associated with Jarmusch: a genuine since of heartbreak and pathos. It also serves as the perfect closing signature, shutting the book on both this film of nighttime travels and lost souls, and Jarmusch’s most successful run as a filmmaker. 7/10.

Trailers:

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About Andrew Alan Ramseyer

I am a Phoenix resident and I graduated from Arizona State University in 2011 with a Bachelors degree in Film and Media Studies, and from Northern Arizona University in 2013 with an English Masters degree and an emphasis on Professional Writing. The real world made sure that I would need to continue schooling in other areas, but I still love watching films and writing about films. Maybe someday I'll be able to do something film-related on a professional level, but for now I'm content with writing for myself and for others, who hopefully find my thoughts worthwhile.
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