Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Gunning for Modernity

Wu Jiang makes his point in A Touch of Sin.

«««½ A Touch of Sin.  Written and directed by Jia Zhangke. DVD release on March 18, 2014.
It's no secret that the Chinese take the US as the standard by which to measure their emergence as a world power. That emergence isn't confined to skyscrapers and stealth fighters: Chinese fast food consumption (and obesity) are rising, and everybody seems to want a car to eat their burgers in, too. Troublingly, there are also signs that US-style gun violence is also becoming more common there, despite some of the harshest anti-gun laws in the world.
          In that context, Jia Zhangke's remarkable A Touch of Sin (Tian zhu ding) may be one of the most provocative films to come out of China in years. Its virtues haven't been lost on foreign audiences. Zhangke's film made the short list for the Palme d'Or at Cannes, and won the award for Best Screenplay. Alas, it is a touch too provocative for Chinese censors: as it makes its premiere in Ithaca this week, Zhangke's film has still not been cleared for release in mainland China.
          The thing starts with a bang. A spooky guy on a motorbike (Baoqiang Wang) is accosted on a remote highway by a trio of ax-wielding thieves. He reaches into his jacket---apparently  to get his wallet—but pulls out a gun instead. He blows all three away with extreme prejudice, then calmly proceeds on his way. The violent spasm is presented with the unadorned realism typical of Zhangke's other, more placid efforts (Still Life, Platform), lingering particularly on the victims as they expire.
          From there, Zhangke's screenplay wends through a handful of stories of people loosely connected by circumstance, but linked by instances of stunning, impulsive violence. We encounter Dahai (Wu Jiang), a rural villager outraged by corrupt local officials who, after failing to get his grievances noticed, takes matters into his own hands. We roundaboutly meet the motorbike guy again, who appears to support his estranged family by robbing people in broad daylight on city streets. And then there's Xiao Yu (played by Tao Zhao, Zhangke's wife), an employee in a massage parlor with a troubled love life that drives her to shocking acts against an abusive customer.
          This may not sound very appealing, but Zhangke shoots apparent chaos with such masterly control it's impossible not to admire his craft. Between the killings, his camera takes impassive measure of modern China in much the style that Michelangelo Antonioni looked askance at industrial Europe in the early 1960's. His figures wander a landscape tamed and scarred by massive infrastructure (bridges, bullet trains) that connect people physically, but alienate them socially. Unlike Antonioni's spiritually exhausted Italians, however, Zhangke's rootless characters insist on touching others, be it through the barrel of a gun or the edge of a knife.
          Given that China's "communist" regime buys the acquiescence of its people by keeping China growing economically as fast as possible, it's no surprise that the authorities are skittish about Zhangke's film. By suggesting that breakneck growth—without a culture that gives that growth meaning and context—is unsustainable, it calls that legitimacy into question. America isn't the only place where street violence isn't just a private vice. Both here and on the other side of the world, it's a symptom of something widely, and tragically, wrong.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Miss OS

Joaquin Phoenix mopes as Samantha installs in Her.

««½ Her.  Written and directed by Spike Jonze. At area theaters.         
Folks "love" their iPhones, and they "love" their Teslas, but what if they literally fell in love with an object, like a computer? That's the question behind Spike Jonze's silicon-based romance, Her. Sound strange? Jonze directed even odder material in Adaptation and Being John Malkovich, so you'd figure he'd propel this boy-meets-computer story in some wildly interesting directions.
          In this case, you'd figure wrongly.
          Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a still-waters-run-deep kind of guy. His sensitivity makes him perfect for his job, ghost-writing heartfelt personal letters for clients for a website called "". Convincing as his fake letters are, his own emotional life is a struggle: he's still in love with the wife who's divorcing him (Rooney Mara), and he won't permit himself to get serious about anyone else. Mostly we see him moping around a near-futuristic version of Los Angeles, surfing the web, scarfing instant noodles, and feeling sorry for himself.
          Into this wasteland comes "Samantha" (voiced by Scarlett Johannson), an "artificially intelligent operating system" that Theodore installs on his computer. Needless to say, Samantha is not just an upgraded version of Siri. She's curious, she's personable, and she's adaptable, rapidly becoming the ideal mate that Theodore could never find in real life. Miraculously (or creepiest) of all, she falls for him too, and yearns for a physical body with which to consummate their relationship. Where the story goes from there had the potential to truly boggle any mind, organic or not.
          The boy-meets-girl, boy-maybe-loses-girl aspect of Her is well-handled. Phoenix finds an appealing spot between vulnerability and hope, his neediness never sliding into mush. When he falls for a disembodied voice, we believe it. Nor is it hard to imagine falling in love with Johansson's smolderingly raspy tones. If the technology ever gets good enough to produce something like Samantha, it's a good bet most straight males would find better uses for her than sorting their emails. As an offbeat sort of Valentine's Day date movie, Her is perfectly fine.
          Unfortunately, Jonze seems to have no further ambition for this story. For instance, there's the looming question of whether any artificial intelligence, no matter how cleverly programmed, can have real (as in "genuine") feelings. Jonze raises the issue in his script, and indeed takes a liberal point of view on it, by making Theodore a composer of fake emotions at his job. A computer may not have real feelings, but humans fake them pretty well too, and pretty regularly. So what's the fundamental difference?, Jonze seems to ask. Human is as human does.
          But for the most part, Jonze barely dips a toe into these deep philosophical waters. The question of Samantha's humanity is less a existential crisis than a bump in the romantic road, like discovering your supposedly perfect lover once killed a man. Meanwhile, other questions scream to be answered: if a human user is emotionally harmed in a relationship with an AI, is the software company liable for damages? Would a product recall amount to emotional abandonment? What's the agenda of a company that dares unleash such potentially "loveable" products on the market? What if it tried to use the AI to influence the behavior of their human companions (sort of the way marketers use children to sell products to their parents today)? If things go sour in your relationship with your operating system, can't you just reboot it and start over? Should you?
          Sure, even a greeting-card writer like Theodore Twombly deserves his share of happiness. But there were more interesting directions to take this idea. Jake Schreier's Robot & Frank is another recent film that covered similar ground, though it was less about love than memory and the loss of self. Of the two, Schreier's seems the less ambitious, yet it ended up going deeper into its premise than Her. Unless it's date night around Valentine's Day, I'd stay in and stream Robot & Frank instead.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Guy Before Dylan

Winter is coming for Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis.

««« Inside Llewyn Davis. Written by Joel & Ethan Coen. Directed by Ethan & Joel Coen. At select theaters.        

In America, artists succeed wholesale but fail retail. While the winners are more or less public property—the "break-out stars" and the "sleeper hits" and the celebrities on the road to "inevitable" stardom—we more or less only encounter failure on an individual basis. On one hand, we all squeal and adore Taylor Swift, and on the other we vaguely recall that cousin who almost made it onto American Idol but didn't, or the former classmate who washed out of film school, or that uncle who quit his job to write a novel that never found a publisher. Depending on your level of cynicism, it's either charming or delusionary that, in our minds, the successes of people we don't know outweigh the failures of people we do.
          Hand it to the Coen Brothers to wring poetry out of the spectacle of artistic failure. Their Inside Llewyn Davis isn't just the story of a struggling folk singer (Oscar Issac) in and around Greenwich Village in 1961. It's a odyssey of hard luck in every guise it can visit a poor, talented schmuck with a guitar. In a society that's convinced it's "got talent", this is a pretty rare choice, to give a showcase to a character whose sole distinction is his failure to earn distinction.
          Fair warning: Llewyn Davis is bleak stuff. We're talking about Fassbinderish, Ken Loachian levels of dreariness here—the kind of story that seems like it was shot in stark black and white even though it's actually in color. As such, it is not recommended for those with affect disorders, who have suffered a recent breakup, or are looking for something to watch on a frigid winter night.
          The script finds Llewyn bumping along the trough of a personal low that doesn't seem to end. The rump end of a folk duo whose lead man jumped off the George Washington Bridge, he plays gigs at a few venues that keep him in pocket money but not much more. To his ex-lover (Carey Mulligan), his given name is "asshole". Making his rent is a remote dream, so he makes the rounds of his friends' couches. It's winter in NYC, and he doesn't own a warm coat. And it pretty much goes downhill from there.
          For those looking for "that Coen Brothers feeling" they got from Fargo, Barton Fink, and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Davis will come off too dry by half. In tone and purpose, it most resembles their 2009 serio-comedy A Serious Man, which was also about a character with the temerity to believe he'd suffered all he could suffer.
          What makes this film better than A Serious Man, though, is the fact that Llewyn is not just some nebbishy loser, but a guy who can actually sing and play the guitar. As hauntingly played by Isaac (Agora), he's a genuine artist with a sweet, heart-felt style that makes people sorry they can't reward him more. The difference between him and Bob Dylan isn't really musical talent, and it isn't how much pain they've suffered. The difference is actually not much: a point the Coens drive home when they have Llewyn finish his last set at the Gaslight CafĂ© just as the young Dylan comes on to do his first.
          This is the story of the guy who went on just before Bob Dylan. Between greatness and obscurity, just a few ticks of the clock. And in that dark, narrow gap, there's a kind of poetry winners' stories rarely touch.    
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro