26 March 2007

The Earrings of Madame de... (1953)

Directed by: Max Ophüls
Written by: Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls & Annette Wademant

Grade: A-

Max Ophüls is a critical darling, and the deserved gushing from the New York critics over the theatrical re-release of this classic film is difficult to match, let alone add to. I was lucky enough to see his Letter from an Unknown Woman as an undergrad, and it ought to be immediately apparent to any viewer that Ophüls is a monstrous, demonstrable talent. Unfortunately, most of his canon is still unavailable on DVD in this country, which ultimately, these days, makes it tough to access and assess. Let’s just say that: if you’re fortunate to have the chance to get your hands on some Ophüls, don’t pass it up!

Ophüls is something like the Flaubert of film, and The Earrings of Madame de… is masterful melodrama, regarded by many as his chef-d'oeuvre. His form is flawless; he’s able here to elevate a banal love-triangle tale to a shimmering, painful and often funny work of art, with a formal elegance that matches the superficial elegance of the characters’ surroundings. Danielle Darrieux plays Louise de… (her last name is never given), who sells—to cover some debts, she cryptically claims—the earrings that her husband (Charles Boyer) gave her on her wedding day; circuitously, however, they find their way back to her as a gift from her extramarital admirer (Vittorio de Sica). They soon take on a much weightier symbolic value as they are passed and sold back and forth between lovers and relatives; like a voodoo priest, Ophüls is able to take an inanimate personal object and, through some kind of “magic”, use it to delve deep into a person’s soul.

The Earrings of Madame de… has some startlingly beautiful passages, like the fluttering pieces of a torn letter that transform on screen into the flakes of a snowfall, but it’s greatest scene is the ball montage in the middle of the film, a triumphant and memorable moment of perfect filmmaking: representing the dramatic arc of an affair, Darrieux and de Sica dance their way through time, the film passing forward through the hours of night as it simultaneously passes weeks onward through time, concluding when a weary musician leaving for the night turns the screen image to black by blocking the camera with his coat. The affair is over, the majestic grammar suggests, at least for a time.

Ophüls’ dancing and dizzying photography, with assistance from cameraman Christian Matras, is nothing short of breathtaking in this scene and in others. Because of the relatively thin script, I would, though with regret, say that the film unfortunately falls short of masterpiece status, but Ophüls has done more with the material than any other director could dare dream. I find myself unable to express the praise that I want to shower on him, feeling it might just sound redundant or vacuous. As Madame de… herself observes, it’s funny that “it’s when we have the most to say that we’re silent.”

The Fugitive Kind (1959)

Directed by: Sidney Lumet
Written by: Tennessee Williams

Grade: B

Ostensibly, The Fugitive Kind has as sure a recipe for success as one could imagine: a talented director in his fresh, up-and-coming days; a screenplay by perhaps the most renowned playwright in American history; and a lead performance from the most revered American screen actor of all time, from when he was still at the very top of his game. (Not to mention Boris Kaufman on cinematography!) And yet, despite delivering on a number of accounts, The Fugitive Kind is relatively obscure for a reason: it’s an ultimate failure of a film.

It’s tough to decide whom to blame for the movie’s lack of success: whether Tennessee Williams, for his messy, meandering play that forgets it’s supposed to be a screenplay, or Sidney Lumet, for not fixing what was so clearly broken. From the film’s beginning, during an uninterrupted five minute confession from the star, Marlon Brando, before a judge, it feels like this is going turn out to be a forgotten classic, but it soon starts to slip and as it goes on it never fully recovers. Brando spends the early scenes traveling between a series of cages, but though the motif is soon abandoned, the film itself never feels like it escaped from the last one.

Adapted by Williams from his failed theater-piece Orpheus Descending, Brando plays Valentin Xavier, though most people just call him Snakeskin, after his emblematic jacket of the same material. (Many years later, Nicolas Cage would pay homage in Wild at Heart.) Right from there you can tell this is going to be a bit messy; maybe characters on the stage can get away with names like that, but in the pictures audiences expect their characters’ names, at the very least, to be a bit more natural. Xavier leaves New Orleans, with nothing but the clothes on his back and his beloved guitar (which he treats rather carelessly and rough for something he treasures so dearly; he doesn't even have a case for it!), and winds up in a sleepy Southern town, where he quickly lands a job as a clerk at The Torrance General Store, run by Lady Torrance (Ana Magnani).

The first two thirds of the film are far too heavy with long talky scenes between Lady and Xavier that don’t really go anywhere, and it’s a bit maddening to try and figure out what the heck this movie’s supposed to be about. I get it, there’s sexual tension, but…so? Even Brando seems a bit confused as to where he’s supposed to be going with it, and at times he exudes an infectious stifled-ness. It’s a well-crafted and well-acted film, but for seemingly no purpose. Starting with a marvelous climax, however, in which calliope music from the street gradually turns dissonant, discordant, and deafening as the drama in the sequence increases, the last act picks up and pulls the picture together, finally bringing in the action, drama and plot that had been previously, repressively denied. Unfortunately, it’s too late, and a bit too little.

Kaufman’s framing and lighting are exceptional, and Lumet coaxes fantastic performances from all his actors, not just from Magnani and Brando, who mumbles through his lines and actually makes Tennessee Williams dialogue sound natural, but also notably from Maureen Stapleton and John Baragrey in supporting roles. (The one exception may be Joanne Woodward, who hits her role a bit too hard, like her character with the sauce.) If Lumet had tightened up the drama in Williams’ script and trimmed the picture by a reel or two through better pacing, this could’ve been a classic—this could’ve been iconic Brando. As it stands, though, it’s merely an historical curiosity.

19 March 2007


Directed by: David Fincher
Written by: James Vanderbilt

Grade: A-

Zodiac is part of the serial-killer subgenre, and the first thing it does it get the killer’s motivations out of the way by playing the Three Dog Night cover of “Easy to be Hard” over a Northern California Fourth of July:

How can people be so heartless?
How can people be so cruel?
To be hard, easy to be cold.

And, thankfully, that’s about all the psychology that Fincher offers. Zodiac, after all, isn’t about what would drive someone to kill, but, by focusing on the twenty-five year investigation into those killings, about what would drive someone to care about them; it isn’t about the banality of evil, but the banality of the pursuit of evil. Who was the man who called himself “Zodiac” who killed at least five people in California during the end of 1960’s and the dawn of the 1970’s and took credit for many more? There’s only one way to find out—to the library!

Based on a couple of books by Robert Graysmith, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie is essentially his story, though for most of the first act he is hidden in the background. Graysmith was a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle, one of the newspapers that the Zodiac sent his rambling, threatening letters and cryptic cryptograms to for publication, who gradually becomes obsessed with the case. First aided by his newsroom desk-neighbor Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and later by Detective Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), among others, Graysmith is like a Woodstein with half a dozen Deep Throats, and the film has drawn comparisons to All The President’s Men; I saw a bit of Jim Garrison in him, too, as he poured over boxes of files while his marriage fell apart around him. But whereas Garrison, and Woodward & Bernstein, were trying to save the country, or at least uncover information that would have far reaching effects, Graysmith, whose investigation only gets more intense as the killings stop, just needs to know, just for himself.

Fincher brilliantly recreates the arc of emotional and psychological intensity behind this obsessive exploration into the killer’s identity: early in the film, when finding and arresting the Zodiac could still save lives, the story is frightening, exciting, and gripping, tapping into the actual hysteria of the times; but the suspenseful aura of fear that hangs over the film soon feels dragged-out, intentionally, as Fincher follows of the lead of the dragged-out quality of the case itself. Lots of loose-threads and false-leads go nowhere, and many of the characters—and most of the country—simply move on with their lives; as Det. Toschi notes, “people get old, they forget…” but those, like Graysmith and by association the viewer, who don’t get out while they still can get trapped in a destructive downward spiral of obsession that feels increasingly trivial. As the film once hurtled forward with titles like, “two hours later”, “two days later”, it soon slows and the titles read, “three weeks later”, “three months later”, and Zodiac, intelligently, descends into mundanity.

But that’s not to say that it’s ever boring, at least not for this recovering Unsolved Mysteries addict. (That was a self-deprecating swipe at myself, not at the film.) Even during the telephone conversations that deal with jurisdictional privilege and the bureaucratic red tape, even as the film’s emotional character goes from frightening suspense to prosaic, though beguiling, mystery, it’s always absorbing and funny, too, eliciting chuckles from my date and I even during the grisly recreations of the murders themselves. The acting is superb, the cinematography (by Harris Savides, cementing his reputation as arguably the finest of his generation) is astounding and the soundtrack (“Hurdy Gurdy Man” never sounded so good!) is marvelous. On all accounts, Zodiac is a great film, a rarity nowadays that, for its attention to detail, wouldn’t be anywhere near as effective as a Wikipedia entry.

Rosemary's Baby (1968)

Written & Directed by: Roman Polanski

Grade: A

Rosemary’s Baby, I’ll assume everyone already knows, is about witches in New York in the late ‘60s (essentially, the '70s). But rather than set the film in some godforsaken place like Studio 54 (too full of vampires?), the clever filmmakers place it in a bastion of Old Money, the Dakota Building, and rather than warty green monsters of the Wizard of Oz variety, all of the witches in the film are rather benign-looking septuagenarians.

The Woodhouses, Guy (John Cassavetes) and Rosemary (Mia Farrow), land a beautiful apartment in the Bramford, the movie’s alias for the aforementioned Dakota; their neighbors in the contiguous apartment, the Castavets, Roman (Sidney Blackmer) and Minnie (Ruth Gordon), seem like a perfectly nice old couple, if a little weird and over-bearing. Starting out, as Robert Evans has observed, “like a Doris Day movie,” the picture gets progressively stranger: a closet, with only a vacuum cleaner and some towels, is senselessly and ominously blocked by a secretary; strange chanting noises bleed through the walls; Guy’s central competition for a prominent theatrical role suddenly goes blind; and there’s lots foreshadowy talk of Devil worship, spirit raising and dead infants. (All that’s missing is an old newspaper turning up that indicates the Bramford is built on an old Indian burial ground.) It all culminates in the Act One finale dream sequence that blatantly recalls The Manchurian Candidate in its spatial discontinuity and freeform associations; but while in The Manchurian Candidate the country is figuratively raped by what we’d now call neocons, in Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary is literally raped by the Devil himself.

She gets pregnant, but loses weight and becomes increasingly sickly, sallow and pale, to the degree that everyone she sees makes a note of it: "You don't look so well." No kidding! And not only that, she’s in horrible pain and has taken up strange eating habits she doesn’t even notice, like eating raw chunks of meat and chicken gizzards. But the doctor says everything’s normal. And, incidentally, Guy’s career is really taking off.

Rosemary’s Baby is really a joy to watch for its crisp compositions and Fassbinderian color textures, not to mention the uniformly grand performances. Indie icon Cassavetes is perfect as a prick actor, and Farrow, a generally underrated actress (probably because she spent so many years as Woody Allen’s sidekick), is as always marvelous. Also, since so many of his characters are old timers, Polanski had the opportunity to cast many big Old Hollywood actors, with familiar names and faces like Ralph Bellamy and Elisha Cook (finally old enough to drop the “Jr.”) rounding out the margins with the sort of masterful performances that take a lifetime of experience to generate.

One could make the argument, albeit a bit thin, that Rosemary’s Baby is a feminist critique of how all institutions—marriage, motherhood, medicine, etc.—set out to destroy women, but I think the film functions better a bit more broadly. It’s a daylight horror film, without any special effects, set primarily within comfortable spaces like the bedroom and the doctor’s office, during waking hours, with familiar people like spouses, neighbors, and obstetricians, and yet all of these people and places become threat posers to the put-upon Rosemary. It’s the seemingly benign institutions of America that are set to destroy all of us; also the film attacks Broadway/Hollywood, where an actor needs to (here literally) sell his soul for a break, as well as the “older generation” that, in its gaudy clothing and garish make-up, uses and abuses the youth for its own selfish gains.

While waiting in a doctor’s office, Rosemary picks up a Time magazine, the headline of which reads, “Is God Dead?” Well, apparently these New Yorkers are selfish enough to think so, mad enough to bring the son of Satan into the world; but the bookending aerial shots seem to suggest a judgemental God watching over the whole proceedings. A short decade later, New York was in financial ruin with Gerry Ford telling it to drop dead. Looks like the devil-worshipping Gothamites got their divine comeuppance.

The Innocents (1961)

Directed by: Jack Clayton
Written by: William Archibald & Truman Capote

Grade: A

In contrast to what Gary Giddins called William Castle’s “medium-concept horror movies…for the adolescent market” from the same period, The Innocents is a high-minded ghost story, intended “for adults” as the original trailer makes incessantly clear. Adapted from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, it is a film both literary and poetic, while simultaneously managing to be utterly cinematic and viscerally frightening. It is the rare supernatural thriller that is made exactly how supernatural thrillers ought to be made.

Deborah Kerr plays Miss Giddens (no relation the aforequoted author), a timid minister’s daughter given her first governess position at a gorgeous country estate, looking after two orphaned children in the indifferent legal care of their insouciant uncle. As Giddens uncovers the house’s sordid past—a tawdry affair between the former governess and the erstwhile valet, both recently deceased—she becomes convinced that ghosts are haunting the grounds and manipulating the children.

In her defense, a lot of creepy stuff happens; but then again, is it really all that creepy? The housekeeper makes an ambiguous remark, ominously in the past tense, but was it just a slip of the tongue? A window slams shut of its own accord and puts a candle out, and at a perfectly frightening moment no less; but couldn’t it reasonably be a mere windy coincidence?

Whereas your ordinary phantasmofilm encourages the viewer to trust in and sympathize with the protagonist, especially when she’s a fraughty woman like Deborah Kerr, The Innocents keeps us at a skeptical arm’s length, although Clayton manages to maintain a mood of fear and suspense through the whole thing, largely through an expressionistic manipulation of light and sound. It seems something ain’t right with those kids, but just as much it seems there ain’t something quite right with Miss Giddens either, no matter how many ghosts she shows us; as she herself admits early on, “sometimes one can’t help imagining things.” Leaving us wondering whether the images are primarily subjective or objective, whether Miss Giddens is crazy right or just plain crazy, The Innocents, like the recent film Zodiac, understands that the most frightening thing of all is not to know.

The Hills Have Eyes

Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Written by: Alexandre Aja & Grégory Levasseur

Grade: C-

When the remake of Wes Craven’s 1977 gorefest first hit the theaters, I wanted to see it, though I'm not quite sure as to why. But, after reading the critical reception (universal pans), I resigned that I probably wouldn’t after all. We’re only alive for so long, and there’re so many movies to see. But then, many months later, I stumbled across an evangelical Christian movie message board, and their repulsion and revulsion at the film piqued my interest anew. Isn't the enemy of my enemy my friend?

Well, apparently not always, and the lesson learned is that when my instincts tell me to trust my beloved critics, I oughtn’t betray them for the sake of spiting the born-agains. (Although, surprisingly, the film's cinematography is fantastic!) The Hills Have Eyes follows in the tradition of atomic monster movies in which detonated (American) nuclear bombs cause far more trouble than anyone would’ve bargained for. But rather than adhere to the usual allegory in which mother nature, in the shape of some grossly enraged and enlarged creature, metes out her revenge for the abuse of her green Earth, in The Hills Have Eyes the monsters are deformed human beings, which complicates the metaphor.

In a bit of cheap filmmaking—essential expository information is culled from serendipitously placed newspaper clippings, which have large, juicy, informative headlines—we learn that when the American government ordered some miners in the desert to abandon their land so that it could be utilized for nuclear experiments, the miners refused; the American government went ahead and conducted the experiments anyway, setting off their atomic weapons and driving the miners and their families underground, where they mutated into savage murderous beasts with a penchant for cannibalism, apparently. Running afoul of these monsters years later are a bickering family of vacationeers, each of whom represents the worst of America: a meek and whiny Democratic son-in-law; a hollowly religious matriarch; a slutty, spoiled and shallow daughter; a violent, hard-assed, right-wing patriarch; etc.

At first it all plays out as an allegory for 9-11, as “monsters” born out of American arrogance and aggression attack us at our most unsuspecting. But by siding with the family and making their struggle for survival drivingly sympathetic, the film doesn’t say anything interesting, merely suggesting that when American might gets its comeuppance, the best recourse is to grow some balls (that means you, Democrats!) and kick some ass. They even manage to kill one of the mutants by driving an American flag through its throat—no joke! While the crowd-pleasing violence is deliciously over-the-top, it never gets campy enough to read sarcastically (or even gruesome enough to be shocking, except by sensitive Christian standards), thereby offering a jingoistic point-of-view I could’ve gotten from the nightly news. The Hills Have Eyes, Brian Williams: either one’s a waste of time.

The Proposition

Directed by: John Hillcoat
Written by: Nick Cave

Grade: C+

Set in 1880’s Outback Australia—a land from which, as one character notes, God has evaporated, thusly giving credence to Mr. Darwin’s theory of man’s common ancestry with apes (these are beasts, not men!)—The Proposition is a dirty, sweaty Western full of shaggy and bearded men whom the flies buzz around as though they were already dead.

No character is quite good while none is altogether bad, and the unceasing violence leaves them all without redemption. Guy Pearce plays Charlie Burns, an erstwhile member of the viciously vile Burns Gang given the opportunity to earn a pardon for himself, and his younger brother Mikey, by hunting down and delivering his older, far more dangerously degenerate brother Arthur. Meanwhile, Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone), who offered Charlie that controversial bargain which gives the film its name, struggles, like many an archetypal Western “hero”, to bring civilization to the wild frontier.

The Proposition’s essential and damning drawback is Mr. Cave’s heavy-handed script which at times is nearly laughable, not least of all when a voice-over whispers, what else, pretentious Nick Cave lyrics. Cave brings this pseudopoetry to the dialogue as well (cf. “what are the sun, the moon, and the stars without love?”); if nothing else it reveals the acumen of the actors—particularly John Hurt, a survivor from that generation of English thespians who, at this point, can seemingly do no wrong—as they turn out universally strong performances regardless of having to deliver such drivel.

Despite their ineptitude for conversation, Cave, along with his sycophantic director John Hillcoat, is a decent storyteller, it’s just that The Proposition, while offering an interesting take on many of the Western’s tropes, amounts to little other than an antigenre exercise.

14 March 2007

Fast Food Nation

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Rick Linklater & Eric Schlosser

Grade: B

There’s shit in the meat. Literally. And it’s flavored by scented laboratory chemicals, and, of course, the kids making the sandwiches are spitting in them. Still want to eat hamburgers? Well, Linklater’s just getting started!

Eric Schlosser, along with Linklater, adapated his non-fiction book of the same name, the now classic muckraking, neo-Sinclairian expose of the American fast-food industry, into narrative fiction, comprised of three character-driven stories centered around a not-so-fictitious fast food chain called “Mickey’s”: one involves Greg Kinnear as a corporate honcho; another concerns Wilmer Valderrama and the exceptional Catalina Sandino Moreno as border-crossing, undocumented workers who find employment at a slaughterhouse; and the last finds Ashley Johnson playing an idealistic teenage cashier, er, "associate" who undergoes a socio-political awakening. Basically, according to the film, the burger industry works like this: Mexicans make ‘em, teenagers sell ‘em, and middle-aged, fair-skinned men reap the profits.

Fast Food Nation's central problem is that Linklater is such an old, white man. It's hard to believe he's the same guy who made Slacker, as the scenes centered around the youth are so artificial and hamfisted—one actually propounds, "right now I can't think of anything more patriotic than violating the Patriot Act"—especially because they look like Hollywood "teens" more than they look like real kids. Linklater's got just as terrible a handle on Hispanics, as well; the plight of the immigrants in Fast Food Nation, who are relentlessly abused and exploited by the meat-packing plant, their bosses, and the soundtrack, is handled in a terribly melodramatic style, playing out like a telenovela with better film stock. In contrast, however, Kinnear's scenes, as a VP of Marketing on an odyssey to discover how the shit gets into the meat, work exceptionally well. Linklater, and Schlosser from what I can tell, are middle-aged, middle-class, Caucasian males, and they have a good handle on the details of what the experience is like, from pornography in hotel rooms to perky, pesky clerks. It isn't exactly the filmmakers' fault, but the film turns out to be a little over-ambitious.

But fashioning such a contrived and formally mediocre movie may ultimately work in the filmmakers', and the film's, favor, since that's what American audiences are used to, and generally what they expect from a movie. Fast Food Nation's failures as a piece of filmmaking are offset somewhat, for me, by its noble thematic intentions. While it could’ve worked better as a freeform indie ramble less concerned with histrionically tackling "all sides of the issue", its more conservative, by-the-books approach—even if it doesn’t always work—has the potential to attract a larger, more mainstream audience who should see the film for its message; he may just yet reach those who aren’t already singing in the choir. It's Fast Food Nation for Dummies.

And after all, though it has its weaknesses, it’s not an altogether irredeemable movie-it even has a share of great moments, such as when tears fall from Moreno’s eyes as she watches cattle intestines slide down a conveyor belt (less literal than metaphoric), or the allegorical scene in which some college fauxradicals cut down a fence to free the slated-for-slaughter cattle within. (The cows don’t budge.) Regardless of its shortcomings, those who need to see it ought to; as Bruce Willis, in a cameo, puts it, “we all have to eat a little shit from time to time.”

Despite Linklater’s vegetarian ethos, Fast Food Nation doesn’t argue for an end to meat eating period so much as it argues that Americans ought to refrain from eating industrial, factory-farmed meat; it’s an approach more philosophical than sermonic. That is, moreso than stopping the merciless slaughter of animals—though that’s important—the filmmakers argue that Americans need to reclaim the moral and spiritual core that they've surrendered, of which the prevalence of the fast food industry, and the tacit approval of its practices, is indicative, or symptomatic. The fast food industry doesn't just hurt animals but people, too, and not just illegal immigrants but the whole collective national character; the footage near the film's end of the killing floor is to be understood figuratively as well as literally. (You are what you eat.) After all, the country's in trouble, as the film points out: earthen land is paved over (what else is new?) as ranches are transformed into exurbs; animals and human beings are trampled and debased; and the spectre of methamphetamine's extirpation lurks in every corner. (Just to cite a few problems.) Kris Kristofferson, in a cameo as a rancher, gets to deliver the film’s thesis line: “this ain’t about good people vs. bad people, it’s about the machine that’s taking over this country.” Or, more bluntly America, it’s about the fact that there’s shit in your meat.

The Devil's Backbone

Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Antonio Trashorras, and David Muñoz

Grade: B-

With the recent critical success of Pan’s Labyrinth, I reckoned there was no better time to step back and check out what del Toro has called its companion film, The Devil’s Backbone. They have a lot in common—both are portraits of orphaned children surviving the Spanish Civil War who get into trouble by hanging out underground—but where Pan was fantastical and visually sumptuous, Devil’s is supernatural and on all accounts flat. Both however, for what it's worth, open with the image of a bloodied child, apparently a fetish of Mr. del Toro's?

Carlos is a handsome, sympathetic stripling left at a school for war orphans, run by Republican sympathizers, where he must contend with a bully, a hot-headed swarth and a ghost known as “the one who sighs” (for a moment I thought they were talking about me, and I was embarrassed that the actors could hear my apparently audible expressions of exasperation), not to mention the war raging all around them. In a bit of rather heavy-handed symbolism, del Toro sticks a large, undetonated bomb smack dab in the middle of the campus’ courtyard; tensions are high at the school, just waiting for something to set them off, not only figuratively but, sigh, literally.

Though told primarily from a child’s point of view, The Devil’s Backbone is in no way sugary; it has more than its fair share of brutal violence and dirty sex. Life during wartime hasn’t the time nor the means for the preservation of youthful innocence, and eventually, or inevitably, the surrounding violence infiltrates the school's walls, culminating in, sigh, explosive violence that not only knocks most of the characters off their feet but the film itself as well.

When The Devil's Backbone gets back up, it seems to have forgotten who it was. What was formerly a horror movie, crossed with guerric drama, suddenly becomes a revenge saga with Lord of the Flies undertones; while cinematic generic hybrids sometimes work, here the mishmash of styles just leaves the film feeling unfocused.

But aside from all that, del Toro’s most pronounced and unforgivable fault is that he’s such a Catholic filmmaker. He has an insistently naïve conception of good and evil as starkly exclusive—for example, it's the kind of film in which one of the villains is named “Pig”—as well as a belief that those on earth can’t succeed without the benevolence of those outside the realm of petty physics, whether it’s a magical faun or a creepy ghostboy. That kind of idealistic simplicity may make for good manipulative heartwarming, but it just doesn’t make for good storytelling.

The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

Directed by: Irving Pichel & Ernest B. Schoedsack
Written by: James Ashmore Creelman

Grade: C

Boy, Criterion’s really scraping the bottom of the barrel with this one, eh? The Most Dangerous Game might be fun to catch on television in the wee small hours of the morning, and it may be a head above its now forgotten B-movie contemporaries, but any case for it as a cinematic touchstone—and isn't that what we expect movies released by Criterion to be?—would be, uh, spurious, at best.

Rainsford, played by a young Joel McCrea, is a famous big game hunter and a writer of adventure-memoirs who finds himself stranded on a mysterious island after being the sole survivor of a suspicious shipwreck. Thought to be uninhabited, the island is in fact home to Count Zarloff, a Cossack who successfully fled the Revolution with his fortune in tact, and his macabre retinue. Zarloff, too, it turns out, is a passionate hunter, but he has an appetite for the biggest, most dangerous game of them all—Joel McCrea.

It’s a potent, oft-worked premise, but the filmmakers don't really take it anywhere. Is The Most Dangerous Game an animal rights polemic that deglamorizes sport-hunting by turning the tables? Or is it a subversive socialist allegory for the barbarity of the ruling class? At only a little more than sixty minutes, it’s over too quickly to find out. The film does have its moments—a gruesome collection of “trophies”, some creepy close-ups and a ravishing final shot—but doesn't nearly every movie have something nice to be said of it when one tries hard enough? (And Lord, Criterion, I'm trying!)

The Most Dangerous Game's historical significance is that it was made at the same time, and by the same people, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoesdsack, who brought us King Kong, using many of the same sets, crew and actors—including Fay Wray. But in relation to its sister film, The Most Dangerous Game is like a turkey soup made from the remnants of a Thanksgiving dinner. As Wray runs for her life through the jungle from Zarloff the mad hunter, I found myself wondering: where’s Kong when you need him?

07 March 2007

Stranger than Fiction

Directed by: Marc Foster
Written by: Zach Helm

Grade: B-

Poor Harold Crick has a problem—he knows he’s going to die. Well, I suppose we all have that problem, but the essential difference is that he's the main character in a novel by Kay Eiffel (Emma Thompson, who has a lovely voice), only he thinks he's a real person, not a narrative device; maybe he is, it's hard to say, and the sloppiness in the specifics just needs a little good old suspension of disbelief. As Kay struggles to overcome a decade of writer's block to finish her novel, Harold becomes conscious of her voice elegantly narrating his actions. Sounds like schizophrenia, or some pretty quirky cinema.

One could read his ability to hear "the voice" as a psychotic manifestation of his loneliness; and when "it" mentions that he’s going to die, it's only after he meets a girl he likes, Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and we could easily see it as an expression of his fears of rejection and intimacy. After all, Harold is not very sociable; a numbers man more than a people person, he’s an IRS agent, for Heaven's sake, who obsessively counts his brushstrokes in the morning and the number of steps to the bus stop.

Or, we could take it on its gimmicky face and, unfortunately, ultimately I think we have to. It’s too bad, because the romantic comedy, stripped of all of its metacinematic, or perhaps metaliterary, comments on the relationship between character and author, is surprisingly strong. Somewhere underneath the not-always-successful superficial trappings is a very charming romance.

I usually go for this kind of postmodern shit, but a lot of Stranger than Fiction doesn’t really work: Dustin Hoffman’s, as Professor Hilbert, discursions on literary theory and the nature of storytelling are a bit heavy handed, Ifill’s scenes with her new assistant, Queen Latifah, fall flat, and the conceit of author as deity is uncomfortably aggrandizing, not to mention that it smacks of a cheap device Helm conceived in order to conquer his own writer’s block. (There’s also a very intrusive musical score.) But Stranger than Fiction does modestly succeed on some level, thanks if nothing else to the chemistry between Ferrell and Gyllenhaal; Ferrell, doing his own Punch Drunk Love/Truman Show thing, for once in his life plays the straight man, whether it’s to Hoffman’s caffeinated academic or Gyllenhaal’s manic, anarchist baker, and he’s very good at it. As a tribute to the virtues of comedy over tragedy, and of life over death, it’s the rare movie whose happy ending I genuinely rooted for, just not at all the points along the way.

The Prestige

Directed by: Christopher Nolan
Written by: Christopher & Jonathan Nolan

Grade: A-

It’s curious that 2006 should’ve seen two new movies about Victorian magicians, and they inevitably invite comparison; where The Illusionist was convoluted, The Prestige is concise; where the former was competently acted, to be nice, the latter is masterfully so; and while The Illusionist was pretty to look at, The Prestige has substance. But it wouldn't be fair to celebrate the virtues of Nolan's film only in contrast to the failures of its counterpart, as in years to come they will only be as connected in our culture’s collective memory as Harry Houdini is to Chung Ling Soo.

Early in the film, Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) explains to a young boy, “the secret”—of an illusion—“impresses no one; it’s the trick you use it for.” Well, what a ruse the Nolan Bros. have in their hands. The three parts of a magic trick, explained in an opening voice-over by Cutter (Michael Caine), cleverly correspond to the three-act structure of not only this film but most traditional Hollywood films, although this particular film is exceptionally twisty--let's not forget that the word "prestige" comes from the Latin word for trick, praestigiae--as it unfolds within a particularly complex flashback narrative structure. Like a tempered Memento, The Prestige mostly moves forward dramatically by moving backward chronologically, as an imprisoned Borden reads Robert Angier's (Hugh Jackman) diary, which is mostly about Angier's reactions to reading Borden's journal, which he had stolen.

As struggling, up-and-coming prestidigitators, Borden and Angier are colleagues and chums soon transformed into obsessive adversaries after an accident, with possibly malicious undertones, occurs. Fingers are lost, legs are broken, bullets are fired but—most seriously—each other’s new tricks are sabotaged, stolen, or one-upped, always with pernicious results. Their rivalry is mirrored on-screen by the competitive enmity between Nicolai Tesla (David Bowie) and an unseen Thomas Edison, whose appearance on the film’s fringes, along with Cutter’s mechanical contraptions, seems to suggest something about the passing of mere legerdemain into the legitimate wizardry of technology, or the evolution of the sleights of hand of the stage into the contrivances of the cinema.

The picture is full of these kinds of doubles, not just in the oppositional foils but in its characters’ own dualities, expressed, for example, in the binary conflict between Borden as philandering performer and as loving husband and dutiful father, or in Angier’s disingenuous declaration to Olivia (a barely tolerable Scarlett Johansson): “I don’t care about my wife, I care about his [Borden’s] secret!” It suggests the bipartite nature of the artist—magician, actor, director, what have you—and of the film itself; identity is as much an illusion as the magic-acts.

Though ultimately passing away as a simple vindication of the pleasures of the general moviegoing experience, The Prestige is not without a confounding conclusion; just when I thought I had it all figured out, for as I said there are many twists, the Nolans blatantly—through another voice-over from Cutter—told me I didn’t. Well, did they really mean me? And so the Nolans leave off with one final trick: is it true, or are they just fucking with me? Was I not watching closely enough?


Written & Directed by Richard Linklater

Grade: A-

Anyone familiar with Linklater's work (cf. Before Sunrise/set) knows he's just about the only living filmmaker who can make a great film about people talking. Just, you know, about stuff. Slacker is a de facto documentary of early-'90s, Austin-American alienation; at the conclusion of the end credits there's a sly spin on a familiar disclaimer: "This story was based on fact. Any similarity with fictional events or characters is entirely coincidental." It's also, however, an avant-garde call to and celebration of artistic anarchy, going so far as to have a digression on the only American anarchist, though not an artist per se, worth his salt, Leon Czolgosz. (And, incidentally answering the age old question of how the heck you pronounce his name!)

Linklater intentionally and importantly opens his film with himself in the backseat of a taxi, describing a dream that he had to the cab driver in which he did nothing but read and watch television. (See the film's title.) He also talks about how he dreamt that every time we make a choice in life, the option we reject goes off to become its own reality, and how that reality, like ours, thinks it's the only one. All of these realities intercommunicate through dreams; it may, at least here, sound like a lot of gobbledygook, but it's the film's starting point: Slacker is, essentially, a series of phantasmagoric short films, told in long rambling takes by a curious camera and overseen by the omniscent dreaming director, connected only by the fact that its characters usually pass one another by, handing off the narrative like the baton in a relay race.

With a strong DIY aesthetic, every person who turns up on screen—and there are a lot—seems to be either a friend of Linklater's or some local character. Their conversations sway with ease from automotive mechanics to the intricacies of the Kennedy assassination—we are in Texas after all. (Any film that uses a woman randomly picking up Mark Lane's Rush to Judgment in a bookstore as an excuse to have an in-depth review of the individual merits of various assassination-books is all right by me!) Overflowing with interacting youngsters and philosopho-political digressions, it's the purest form of Gen X portrait, Baumbach stripped of his bourgeois morality and narrative conceits. It's also end-to-end hilarious; though it celebrates its generation's morally coherent turn-on, tune-in, drop-out, and sit-still ethos—"I may live badly, but at least I don't work to do it," one character intones—it also never stops laughing at it.

Linklater's a good sport, but beneath the good-humored veneer is a formal seriousness, a declaration of a radical break from the traditional filmmaking style; as one woman notes in the film, "breaking a wall is really making a brick," and so Linklater tries to tear down the Fortress of Hollywood in the hopes of ending up with his own tiny building block of the future. There's a scene in which some guys throw a typewriter off of a bridge, and the film ends with a shot of a dude tossing his movie camera off a mountain, suggesting: kill your parents' narrative-form, man.

Even better though than active destruction, the characters find, is inactivity as revolution. As in an early scene, a coffee shop patron, named "Dostoyevsky wannabe" in the credits, remarks on the great effort required not to create. Don't, however, confuse Linklater's generational avatars with the frightened, lazy smarms popularized later in the '90s in, for example, the films of Kevin Smith. Linklater himself, for one, is anything but lazy; it requires a great effort indeed to make a movie this good. For instance, when was the last time anything made you actually want to go to Texas?