Break That Wall

Break That Wall

Steve James and Alex Kotlowitz’s The Interrupters; Raul Ruiz’s Mysteries of Lisbon; Jon Favreu’s Cowboys and Aliens; David Yates’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part 2; Brit Marling’s Another Earth; Miranda July’s The Future


Many documentaries follow a subject over the course of a year; but very few convert this structural device into a deep emotional current, pulling you into the most solemn possibilities of people’s choices in life, and into the pains and hopes of a whole community. The changing of the seasons takes on this force in The Interrupters, the new film by Steve James (a member of the Hoop Dreams team) and author Alex Kotlowitz. It is explicitly a film about cycles: recurring patterns of weather (always a big concern in Chicago, where the film is set), of loss and recrimination between the generations and especially of murder in the city’s black and Latino neighborhoods, where injuries (real or perceived) lead to killing, which leads to retaliation, which leads to still more death.

Attempting to break this cycle of violence are the main subjects of The Interrupters: former gang members, now in their middle years, who are employed by an organization called CeaseFire to intervene in disputes. It’s a tough business. Cops sometimes suspect the Interrupters of covering for street criminals; people in the neighborhoods sometimes suspect the Interrupters of snitching to the police; and the situations that call for intervention are always ready to flare into attacks against the Interrupters themselves. As a CeaseFire member observes, there is no way to mediate without confrontation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge, though, is the sheer pervasiveness of the violence, which the film suggests through two alarming episodes edited into the first minutes. First, when James and his crew are filming a meeting in CeaseFire’s Englewood field office, on the South Side, a fight erupts right outside, involving milling antagonists, a serious knife and a substantial chunk of concrete. Then, when James is a few miles further south in Roseland, filming a protest rally occasioned by the murder of a teenager, the police cars abruptly turn on their sirens and race off, summoned to a fresh homicide a few blocks away. You see and hear evidence of omnipresent mayhem. Meanwhile, you begin to make the close acquaintance of three people who are strong enough, each in a different way, to step up and stop it.

Ameena Matthews, a slight woman who wears the hijab, identifies herself early on as a former drug-ring enforcer and (more to the point) the daughter of Jeff Fort—a gangland name that sends chills through most Chicagoans. At various times you see Matthews face down an entire crowd of revenge-minded young men (who know enough to call her “ma’am”); exhort teenagers at a funeral to stop putting one another in caskets; and try and fail, and try and fail again, to help a damaged young woman in whom she sees herself. Cobe Williams, whose genial face is beginning to plump up, has a more relaxed style than Ameena (his wife calls him a nerd), as well as a less terrifying history. He merely did three stretches in prison for drug charges and attempted murder, after losing his father to a gunman. The most moving of Cobe’s interventions are with a hothead appropriately called Flamo (who is eventually persuaded to cool down, over the course of months) and a teenager recently released from prison who is determined to change his life. Finally there is Eddie Bocanegra (gang leader, car thief and murderer), who became a visual artist in prison and now greets every day as a blessed opportunity for penance. You mostly see Eddie, with his almost professorial air, working at a middle school (where he does art projects with the kids on the subject of violence) and visiting the cemetery. He keeps the mourners company.

These are the key people in The Interrupters. The key settings are the homemade memorials that crop up everywhere: sidewalk congregations of stuffed toy animals, empty Hennessy bottles and makeshift wooden crosses, gathered before backdrops of farewell messages written on poster board. Or sometimes the messages are marked on the sides of buildings. In Altgeld Gardens, a wall has the name of a different victim inscribed on every brick—except for the brick that says, in tiny letters, I Am Next.

The Interrupters is about trying to break that wall, day by day, season after season. It’s a task these extraordinary people have come to recognize as complicated, often heartbreaking but absolutely necessary—which is how I’d also describe the film.

* * *

Summer is inescapably the season of cinematic gigantism—so you might as well try to catch the year’s biggest movie by far, Mysteries of Lisbon: the unchallengeable champion in artistic ambition, narrative complication, visual splendor and sheer running time, if not budget, box-office or attendance figures. Directed by the incomparably idiosyncratic Raúl Ruiz, this mad nineteenth-century melodrama has finally been released into theaters (a few of them, anyhow) after triumphing on the festival circuit [see “The Magic Mountain,” November 8, 2010] and is guaranteed to sate your appetite, and more.

But in case you want to participate in real movie culture…

I generally advise against seeing any movie that credits more than three writers. Cowboys and Aliens owns up to six, plus the executive supervision of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and thirteen other producers of one sort or another. With so many parties asserting their interests and hedging against risk, this is less the formula for a movie than the framework for a credit default swap. An instrument hideously engineered to fail, in other words; a financial product designed to leave only the final buyer—you—at a loss.

But even in Hollywood, people sometimes stop acting like investment bankers and revert to being artisans in a strange and inward-looking village. When that happens—as it did with Cowboys and Aliens—the product you get is more like a Shaker chair. You wouldn’t call it original; it looks pretty much like every other stick of furniture turned out in this place. But it does have a certain elegance (the result of everyone’s having understood what they wanted to make) and even a pleasing simplicity, despite the tendency of things to explode amid rampages of computer-generated monsters.

Perhaps the most efficiently titled movie since Snakes on a Plane, Cowboys and Aliens delivers exactly what it promises (Indians included) while offering the passing diversions that give, if not life, then at least a little color to a product. These include Paul Dano strutting and flailing as the pipsqueak son of a cattle baron, Sam Rockwell fussing about as a saloon keeper called Doc and a gun-toting Olivia Wilde (in a role that’s ultimately more than decorative) staring holes through everyone with her slanted blue eyes. Daniel Craig, the man with the best level stare in the business, matches her, blue for blue, in the good bad-guy role; and Harrison Ford, one of history’s highest-grossing space cowboys, scowls his way through a grizzled old-time-cowboy role with an anger he’s rarely shown before. I don’t think it’s directed at the movie itself.

None of this means much of anything, of course; but there’s a frankness about money that I like in Cowboys and Aliens, and that helps to distinguish it among the summer blockbusters, without necessarily redeeming the blockbuster season. While trying not to give away the plot—plot, in the Shaker-like simplicity of blockbusters, being identical to theme—I can say that Cowboys and Aliens allegorizes the horrors of greed, the better to dispatch them and so render money-making clean once more. Ford may be a raging tyrant, you see; but he doesn’t have dripping fangs, or any of those slimy, erectile, clutching things growing out of his chest, and so at the end it’s OK for him to seize and exploit resources.

Contrast this with one of the year’s most lucrative blockbusters, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, which by coincidence is also full of explosions and computer-generated ghastlies but includes only one scene in a treasure vault. Faithful to J.K. Rowling’s novels in this respect, the present film (like the series as a whole) depicts lust for power as the great sin while portraying avarice as a mere shabby footman to this prince of evils. She is never wrong, J.K. Rowling; and so, as I look back on the series, I wish the Warner Bros. team had been more consistently true to her books.

Now, I don’t think the films are bad (though only the third, directed by Alfonso Cuarón, had any magic of its own); but they’re simply not as good as they could have been. Had you known your Potter only from watching the movies, you would not have realized, for example, that Hermione Granger is a character who initiates action rather than tagging along. The producers apparently assumed that tens of millions of blockbuster viewers required a simpler story than had been enjoyed by tens of millions of readers; and so Hermione was demoted to sidekick status until the seventh and eighth films, when the plot would no longer permit such neglect. Nonreaders will now be baffled to see her doing so much. Similarly, nonreaders may puzzle over one or two cryptic remarks in the eighth film about the undisclosed secrets of Albus Dumbledore. Screen time apparently was too short (even in a two-film adaptation) to dramatize the youthful misdeeds that tormented Dumbledore, and that gave the final book a moral grounding in the history of British fascism.

Rowling knows, as the movies’ producers evidently do not, that fantasy and fun can touch hearts and change minds, but only if something serious is at stake—something more substantial than the serpentine hamming of Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort or Alan Rickman’s attempts as Snape to speak as slowly as possible without actually stopping. This, to me, is the disappointment of the Potter movies: their frequent shrugging off of the story’s weight. You see the problem in the reaction shots, where actors are made to cue laughter from the audience by stepping out of character—burbling in delight at a desperate stratagem, for example, or pausing to congratulate themselves on the demise of a deadly enemy.

These faults have not prevented the eighth Potter movie from passing the billion-dollar box-office mark; in the context of credit-default-swap filmmaking, the blockbuster that disdains avarice will patch over its shortcomings with money. By contrast, Cowboys and Aliens, though an underperformer at the box office, is honest about wanting to make money and also honest about its characters’ behavior, however wildly anomalous the situation. “We were flying!” marvels Daniel Craig after one of many incongruous episodes, then catches his breath and gasps, “I never want to do that again.” Simple craftsmanship: he stays in character, and he gets the laugh.

Jon Favreau directed, on behalf of the village.

* * *

Summertime moviegoers who prefer more modest pleasures have been finding refuge in two highly touted films by and about women: Another Earth, starring its co-writer and co-producer, Brit Marling; and The Future, starring its writer and director, Miranda July.

The first of these pictures appears to have a lot on its mind, since death, guilt and redemption are on the agenda. There’s even a big, looming metaphor: a mirror-image planet that has somehow appeared in our sky, bringing with it the suggestion of alternate fates and second chances. But when you get past this Kieslowski for Dummies stuff, you realize that the real agenda of Another Earth is to be found in its shooting scheme, which devotes maybe half the images to close-ups of Marling. It’s all about her and the beauty of her furrowed brow.

I suspect Miranda July also likes to look at herself, because in The Future she has cast the similarly slender and slim-faced Hamish Linklater as her live-in boyfriend and given him a haircut almost identical to her dark curls. But this is clearly more than vanity. It’s one of July’s little jokes on the androgyny, or interchangeability, of the aging young overintellectualized bohemians scattered about Los Angeles; and the advantage of this gag, cinematically, is that it calls for many two-shots of July and Linklater, and an equal number of close-ups for both of them. The Future is not all about July, who at any rate is less apt to furrow her brow than to gawk about, or perform fragmentary dances while posed as if holding ice cubes in her armpits.

July also has a distinct visual style—she likes to poke holes in screen space, placing frames in the frame—and a wispy, deadpan-whimsical tone that annoys some people. Those who object to this latter quality might be pleased to learn that The Future is a work of subcultural criticism, laying bare the cruel and utterly conventional bourgeois heart that beats beneath so many faux-naïf boho exteriors. It’s not a particularly fresh criticism; but I’ve never seen it done this way before, and by the end July has made it into a real movie.

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