25 June 2007

Secret Honor (1984)

Directed by: Robert Altman
Written by: Donald Freed & Arnold M. Stone

Grade: A-

As the recent Broadway production, and upcoming film adaptation, of Frost/Nixon ought to demonstrate, America's thirty-seventh president, who resigned in disgrace over three decades ago, is still a source of fascination for artists and audiences alike. It shouldn't be surprising, as Nixon's presidency and subsequent ruination has had far-reaching effects on American politics and society that continue to reverberate to this day. At the center of it, he himself is a difficult character to parse, as he's not easily reducible to simple motivations—except perhaps paramount paranoia. Several films in the past decade or so have focused directly on Nixon, from Oliver Stone's epic biopic simply called Nixon to the slight and forgotten farce crudely entitled Dick. (A quick IMDb search reveals many other titles: 1995's Kissinger and Nixon, 1997's Elvis Meets Nixon, and films like The Assassination of Richard Nixon in which Nixon is not the explicit subject; more than any other modern American President, Richard Nixon as man and legend enduringly refuses to stop popping up in pop culture—look for instance, for one of many minor examples, at his frequent appearance as a disembodied head on Futurama.) But in the years following the Watergate scandal and Ford's infamous pardon, talking about Nixon or making movies about him wasn't a popular pastime in the States, excepting 1976's All the President's Men, and it wasn't likely to win one any praise; he and everything he represented was something Americans just wanted to forget, or at least ignore, according to Philip Baker Hall (best known, unfortunately, to non-Paul Thomas Anderson fans as Seinfeld's Mr. Bookman) in an interview on the DVD's special features. So the 1983 stage production of Secret Honor, made into a film by Robert Altman at the University of Michigan, where he was at the time a visiting professor, was a risky anomaly, especially as it isn't particularly venomous in its treatment of the despised former president. As Michael Wilmington writes of the film, "Nixon emerges as not quite the comic villain of liberal imagination and not quite the conservative’s tragic hero but as an odd mixture of both." That's because Secret Honor is not merely a caustic rebuke of the Nixon years; it reserves its most vehement judgments for forces even larger than Nixon, whom the film ultimately reduces to a pawn.

Altman was on a streak of stage adaptations during the '80s, and Secret Honor is one of the standouts, though it has mostly faded into obscurity along with the rest of them, despite a Criterion release; I only even heard of it by pure chance. To say the least, it's unfortunate that the film doesn't retain a greater reputation, as Philip Baker Hall's portrayal of Nixon is nothing short of stupendous; without exacerbation I would say it's one of the finest screen performances ever recorded. He delivers an uninterruptible stream of energetic ferocity, portraying Nixon as a rambling manic who can never finish a thought, constantly wandering off into tangents and digressions; if Hall wasn't so assured and commanding, it would approach the caricatural.

Secret Honor posits a curious conspiracy at its climax, and as such comes with several disclaimers at its start, cautiously declaring, in as many different ways as possible, that this is a work of fiction. "An attempt to understand." Or, "A political myth," as its subtitle reads. Nixon is first introduced in the film as seen on a series of blue monitors, attached to closed circuit cameras, suggesting an apologia complementary to the opening disclaimers, that the Nixon we are about to see is an "image" and should be understood in that respect; it also speaks to Nixon's rampant paranoia—and narcissism, as he often has all four TVs set to himself—that he would even have so many cameras set-up outside of his study. Secret Honor gets off to an intentionally slow and unimpassioned start, as Nixon enters his study—the only setting for this wisely unopened theatrical adaptation—changes into a sweater, fixes himself a drink, tests his tape recorder, and sets down a loaded pistol in a prominent position on his desk. Nixon is casual, soon to be drunk, and ready to die.

At first, Nixon is inarticulate as he addresses quotidian matters, such as a gift for the gardener's sick wife, because he's got other things on his mind, namely himself; as soon as Hall gets going, he really gets going, never at a loss for words, only guilty perhaps of a spitting and hurried stammer, when it comes to discussing Nixon, and he brilliantly captures the spirit of a truly insane man grasping at a final attempt to tell his story; there's an urgency in this tape and video recorded confessional, as though this will be Nixon's last chance to set the record straight. Perhaps that gun is meant to stop anyone who might attempt to interfere. He speaks alternately in the first person and in the third, taking the persona of a defense lawyer, addressing the tape as, "Your Honor"—Nixon, you'll recall, was a licensed attorney before his political career and his subsequent disbarment following it. In moments of clarity few and far between, he offers instructions to "Roberto", the Diane to his Agent Cooper, about how to edit the tapes, suggesting he plans them as a posthumous revelation; or, a suicide note, but he acts at most times as though this will simply be the trial he never got, thanks to Ford's pardon, regarding which Nixon comes across as resentful. It's as though Nixon secretly suffered from an undiagnosed Tourette's Syndrome, as Hall makes him prone to uncontrollable vulgar outbursts on any of the myriad of subjects he tackles in this questionless self-interview. (There's also some historical basis for this, as the Nixon that emerges from the Watergate Tapes is not known for his delicate language.) He curses the Kennedys for stealing the 1960 election (and vaguely hints at a conspiracy in Dallas), rails against Eisenhower, and says of the Founding Fathers, "[they] were nothing more than a bunch of snotty English shits!" This animus for the Founding Fucking Fathers (!) plays into Altman and Hall's portrayal of Nixon's self-pitying self-characterization as an ordinary American, and a real man, that fell victim of the Eastern Establishment—"those Eastern pricks!"—and a tool of the overarching conspiracy he calls "The Committee of 100", who overlap with the shady Bohemian Grove collective.

Hall's Nixon saves his most direct and coherent vitriol for Henry Kissinger, whose painted portrait absurdly adorns the wall along with Lincoln's, Washington's, Eisenhower's and Woodrow Wilson's. "Dr. Shit-Ass," he calls him, hilariously, "ass-licking Kraut son of a bitch!" Hall paints Nixon a suspicious, paranoid, self-destructive, inferiority-complex ridden mess of a man, a smartly pitiable characterization rather than a sympathetic one, and he runs the emotional gamut with pitch perfectness, from madness and fury to rueful, mournful melancholy; he alternates between self-aggrandizement and self-pity, as when he shouts, "I coulda beaten Kennedy!" only to follow it a few minutes later with, "nobody coulda beaten Kennedy!" His rants jump around, as does Hall physically, from topic to topic, ripping through his personal history, with commentary, in a seemingly particular order that just doesn't work out; it's easy for the viewer to get lost amidst all of the naturalistic name-dropping and obscure historical references (the Wright Patman Committee?), but Hall's electricity keeps the viewer glued and provides most of the necessary information; dialogue, in fact, seems almost unnecessary, except to give Hall something to say as he tears through the set. This isn't Shakespeare, and the film's beauty is not to be found in the language itself.

Altman uses the above-mentioned portraits and other office miscellany as convenient cutaways, to break the monotony of the single set, but for such purposes he mostly he uses the aforementioned blue monitors, which increasingly take on significance and symbolic value, whether as a judgmental eye, the only interlocutor for a pitiably lonely man or, finally, a sort of moderntimes mirror, emphasizing Nixon's duality and suggesting that the only way the public can try, frustratingly, to come to know Nixon is through misleadingly mediated images. Altman also jazzes up the inherent theatricality of the proceedings with a snaky, prowling camera, but at times his style is too overpoweringly flashy, detracting from the focus of the film which isn't the script but the raging man at its center, Philip Baker Hall.

Nixon ends his ninety minute rant by offering up a sinister tale of Asian drug money, constitutional assault, the "true" nature of Watergate and, of course, a glowing portrait of himself. "I got out to protect the Presidency," he claims wildly, weepily adding, "I really did want to grow up to be Abraham Lincoln." Sure you did, Richie, sure you did. Secret Honor is a provocative exploration of Nixon the man and Nixon the historical figure, ultimately becoming a fierce admonishment of the thoroughly corrupted and irredeemable American political system of which Nixon is only the face, nearly a red herring; it provides a unique spin on Watergate, a fascinating alternate history (or "countermyth", in Stonespeak) that may or may not be the product of a madman's persecution complex, and a devastating portrayal of an endlessly fascinating human being. "The prisoner in the docks is guilty of one crime only," Nixon says of himself, "and that's being Richard Milhous Nixon." That may be true, but only because being Nixon comes with a hell of a lot of baggage.

22 June 2007

The Good German

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Paul Attanasio

Grade: B-

Steven Soderbergh, for no discernibly good reason, was apparently desperate to prove that he could be Michael Curtiz if he really wanted to, and thusly decided to make a film by aping his style—but not so much his substance—in the process channeling not only Casablanca but other directors' work like The Third Man, The Maltese Falcon, Notorious, and just about every other Hollywood movie made in the 1940's, in some way or another, into his mishmash pastiche The Good German. Soderbergh & Co. falter quite a bit in the film's first half, struggling to find the right tone in visual, performance and narrative style—to capture the '40sness while adding a modern flair—but against all odds the last half of the film starts to work, though it's never able to escape the fact that it's inherently gimmicky and unnecessary, or shake the feeling that everyone, from the actors to the visuals, looks as though they're playing dress-up in granddad's wares.

George Clooney, cut from the right old-fashioned-movie-star cloth for the part, plays a reporter for the New Republic sent to post-war Berlin in order to cover the peace conference being held in Potsdam. Tobey Maguire, overdoing it a bit in a desperate attempt to shake his Peter Parker reputation—like Leonardo DiCaprio in Celebrity, but far less convincingly so, he's a vulgar, violent, screaming prostitute puncher—is his appointed driver engaged in the black-market underbelly of the quadrisected city; coincidentally, his girlfriend/favored strumpet (Cate Blanchett) is Clooney's former, pre-war, flame, and she's engaged in some shadiness of her own involving her possibly dead husband and her own wartime perfidy. Clooney, with a bandaged ear that recalls Nicholson's cut-up nose in Chinatown (and both characters are named Jake), investigates both Blanchett's and Maguire's pasts, uncovering many layers of complex intrigue (really, what other word is appropriate?) involving several international governments. "You'll only get hurt," his sympathetic bartender (Tony Curran) warns him, "or hurt someone," but Clooney refuses to give up, monomaniacally consumed.

Even going to the questionable lengths of using the same lenses and cameras in use during the '40s—really, what's the point?—The Good German has the look down pat, including: its anachronistically hazy and soft black-and-white (which also allows for stock footage of the real post-war Berlin to be inserted for establishing shots); the full-screen format (1.37:1); the screenwipe transitions no one but George Lucas has used in fifty years; the cheekily blatant rear projection; and Howard Shore's epic, ersatz Max Steiner score. Clooney, in full-on Bogart mode even though he's really more of a Cary Grant, gets beat up a number of times and even gets a take on Casablanca's famous gin joints line: "This whole goddam country, she winds up fucking my fucking driver," he spits out to the bartender over drinks. One thing Soderbergh and friends have decided to abandon from their mimetic production is Production Code restrictions, letting the characters, and Tobey in particular, swear up a storm while even featuring an imprudent sex scene.

While Soderbergh has the visual style under control, for the film's first half he apparently doesn't understand that Casablanca is not merely a beloved film because it looks like Casablanca; as Tobey says of Blanchett, "just because you're a German doesn't make you a Nazi." The Good German aspires to be a romantic mystery, but in its first half it is neither romantic, due to Blanchett's understandably cold performance as a bitter post-Holocaust Jew laden with survivor guilt, nor mysterious, as too much information is given away too soon. Perhaps that's a consequence of there being too much information to reveal, as the script is rather gratuitously knotty, approaching The Big Sleep levels of confoundment. Soderbergh's major fault is the lack of narrative focus; the film's first third feels like a starring vehicle for Tobey Maguire with a George Clooney cameo, until it radically changes gears at the thirty minute mark. Soderbergh stumbles most egregiously whenever he wanders away from the focus on Clooney's character and his investigation of the predominant mystery; imagine if The Maltese Falcon had devoted a few reels, in their entirety, to Mary Astor or Jerome Cowan?

But once Soderbergh settles down, near about the fifty minute mark, he efficiently churns out an effective yarn whose intricacy and imitation actually become unlikely virtues; each scene gets better, culminating in a chase sequence through parade crowds that is at once derivative and worthy of Hitchcock. The lighting becomes increasingly shadowy as the story gets more sinister, and the noted liberal filmmakers insert a lot of critical swipes at war in general and America's foreign policy history specifically; there's a central conspiracy about getting Nazi scientists/war criminals to America, to get them working for our side, and the cover-up of wartime atrocity involving thoroughly corrupted military brass, while the mise-en-scene is a carefully constructed tableau of ravaged destruction, from the bombed out buildings to the physically and/or mentally injured city dwellers that pack every frame outside of the comfortable military men's offices. "You can never get out of Berlin," Blanchett bemoans, implying that anywhere she went she'd just be taking it with her, the theme offering a knock at the current situation in Iraq. ("If war is hell, then what comes after?" as the poster's tagline asks.)

But beyond the critical attitude towards America (something you'd never see from a wartime Hollywood '40s picture) and the rampant foul language, Soderbergh has added one more important alteration to the classical style that's revealingly indicative of our times; Clooney's character, unlike Casablanca's Rick, doesn't learn that there are greater forces and larger causes than himself. In fact, he sacrifices justice and truth for the sake of love and romance, a cruel reflection of modern narcissism and a charge that Soderbergh, as this project shows, is certainly not exempt from. The Good German is a self-indulgent formal exercise, but at least it works well enough, here and there, to enjoy on a superficial level.

20 June 2007

Let's Get Lost (1988)

Directed by: Bruce Weber

Grade: B-

If Louis Malle's formally efficient Elevator to the Gallows (1958) announced, with its Miles Davis soundtrack and slick black-and-white Frenchness, the birth of the cool—albeit perhaps a few years late—then Let's Get Lost, a documentary as sleepy as a standard record by its subject Chet Baker, documents its death. When Baker debuted in the '50s, he was the James Dean, the Jack Kerouac of the jazz scene; with his steel-blue eyes & dark-brown hair, he had charisma to spare, he oozed a virile magnetism. "He was trouble and he was beautiful," a woman remarks in voice-over, summing it up quite well; "I was attracted to him photographically," explains photographer Will Claxton, "and the camera was too." And so was the whole world. Not only that, but he could play as well! As one unseen narrator reminisces, Charlie Parker once warned his brethren (Davis, etc.) that there was this white cat out in California who was going to give them a lot of trouble; record producer Dick Bock says Chet sounded like the history of jazz all rolled into one, channeling the gamut from Louis to Bix to Bunny Berrigan.

Let's Get Lost finds Chet Baker not in his glorious heyday of the '50s but decades later in 1987, still out in the blazing California sunshine that inspired his sun-baked sound, but his face now ravaged by heroin addiction. (He bears a striking resemblance to Alec Baldwin near the end of Beetlejuice, as the séance summons his rapidly aging body to the dinner table.) Chet's fifty-seven but he looks at least eighty four. "How strange, the change from major to minor," as says the Cole Porter tune "Everytime We Say Goodbye", sung by Chet in the film. His senescent voice trembles a bit more on the whole notes than it used to, though the timbre of his trumpet, at least, is still as crisp and smooth as ever. Chris Isaak, decked out as something of a '50s throwback, makes a cameo curiously hanging out at the recording studio, serving as a pointed contrast to Chet's age, as well as a reminder of how inspirational Mr. Baker was, if not musically (those kids and their dang rock n' roll) than at least in terms of image and style. As Mr. Baker recalls, after going on French leave while enlisted in the army, "the next day half the [army] band went AWOL," a testament to the power of influence he wielded even then.

Bruce Weber's desultory film is the meandering visual equivalent of beat verse, with the obscure but deliberate intention of a jazzy improv. There's no story or narrative arc to speak of; Let's Get Lost, a sauntering character portrait, just gets lost. Intercut into the '80s footage of Chet—often appearing to be on the nod, as he comes across as slow, weary and inarticulate—are talking-head-provided reminiscences, sounded over an inventory of vivified still photographs and various other documentary media. "Everybody has a story about Chet Baker," the director himself remarks in voice-over, and Let's Get Lost, an amalgamation of them, turns into Weber's.

Shot, by Jeff Preiss, in a noirish black-and-white as woefully outdated as Baker's obsolete sound, and edited with complexity and lyrical grace by Angelo Corrao, there are many staggeringly artful moments, such as a long scene in which Weber plays the sound of a man discussing the variegated styles of jazz over footage of puppies playfully fighting on the Santa Monica street. Within the sunny, smoky haze of the California summer—the setting is driven home by the prevalence of backdrop beaches, palm trees, chicks and cars—the film bops around like a stoned daydream. As an exploration of its subject it's appreciably thorough, as Weber lets all the players in Chet's life sound-off, even allowing quite a bit of unflattering stories to be told in an attempt to gently tease out the real man from the consciously constructed facade. In fact, as the film rambles on, the stories get increasingly grim. "Did he disappoint you as a son?" Weber asks Mrs. Baker, who, after a reluctant pause, joylessly admits, "yes". "It's a no-win situation with a junkie," Chet's on-and-off girlfriend Diane explains. By most accounts, Chet Baker was something of a conniving cad, but he was often easily forgiven because of the beauty of his music, not to mention his alluringly handsome face, bubbling with repressed sexuality. Weber aims to disentangle the myth from the man, leaving as honest a representation of Chet Baker as possible on the screen.

But while Let's Get Lost is easy to admire, it's tougher to enjoy. Weber seems to take for granted the audience's knowledge of jazz, jazz history, and Chet history by failing to clarify a lot of the information proffered by the interviewees, making Let's Get Lost hard to keep up with, particularly as Chet's many wives and girlfriends dizzyingly blend into one another. Let's Get Lost could be said to be a bit too thorough, especially as it goes through several false endings; if it's not exactly self-indulgent, it's certainly Chet-indulgent. As girlfriend Ruth Young explains it, Chet inspires a mix of "love and fascination", which would've been an appropriate alternate title, particularly in Weber, who lets himself get a little carried away.

Weber might care too much, but it's a counterbalance to the apathetic response Chet gets elsewhere. "People couldn't care less about the music," he laments after a set in France, but who could blame them as they're watching a drifting, junk-broken man who, at that point or in that state, can't sing for shit. Shortly after filming, Chet would be found dead, apparently having fallen out of the window of an Amsterdam hotel. With him went the cool, whose funeral took place long before it was documented in this alternately attractive, plaintive and soporific film. When Weber started filming cool wasn't dying, it was dead; and so, essentially, was Chet Baker.

18 June 2007


Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia

Grade: B+

Apocalypto's at its best when it shuts up and runs. Or fights. And, surprisingly for a mainstream American movie, its last hour or more is largely dialogue-free. That's a testament to Mel Gibson's formalistic fortitude, which is best on display during some truly impressive set-pieces; he only falters in some early scenes, which are guilty of an oversimplification of good and evil (see if you can figure out which ones are the bad guys), common to religious types like Gibson or Guillermo de Toro, and petty anachronism (Mayans had shrewy mother-in-laws, too? Some things never change, yuk yuk!). "A great civilization is not conquered from without," Gibson tells us in the film's first moments, flashing a quote from historian Will Durant, "until it has destroyed itself from within." That line was penned in reference to, what else, Ancient Rome, but Gibson has claimed Apocalypto is meant as an allegorical critique on contemporary America, though it feels like a more literal attack on post-classical Mayans, or at least on the generally uncivilized (of which I suppose then that America, to Gibson, is a part.)

The film's first moments feature a slow zoom into the depths of the jungle undergrowth; kept in suspense about what we hope to find at the "heart" of this forest, it is ultimately revealed to be a feral boar, less than a flattering comment—you're swine!—to whomever it may be aimed at. A hunt of said boar follows, drenched in foreshadowing, and concludes in a brutal slaying, an explicit organ harvest, and a graphic feasting on testicles. Apocalypto is only a hair away from torture porn; later, to pick just one small and noisome example of many, an arrow goes through the back of someone's head and comes out the mouth. That testicle bit, though, is a practical joke; the small tribe of Mayans who function as the main characters, as in the ones we are forced to sympathize with, are portrayed as a quasi-naked gang of pranksters and knee-slapping good old boys. Soon though, in a slyly implicit critique of the indefensible Iraq War, which Gibson is on the record as being against, a different tribe, this one far less good-natured, invades the home of our heroes; they're led by a warrior, a butcher by the name of Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo)—perhaps a loose and subtle, anti-semitic reference to Fiddler on the Roof—with a string of human jawbones where sleeves ought to be, and an intense scene of rapacious pillaging ensues, in which our protagonist, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, an appropriate name for the novice actor) hides his enceinte wife and young child in a small cave that resembles a well. He, though, is captured and, with the other prisoners of war, forced to march, with the ultimate intention of being sold for sacrifice.

The battle scene is an accomplishment for Gibson; among the tacky violence and horseplay, rousing and tense as it is at times, he finds some silent moments of genuine pathos, as the villagers watch their neighbors and families slaughtered while they remain impotent, tied-up prisoners. However, he lays the manipulativeness on a bit thick, most of all with a long line of dew-eyed children following the slave procession crying out for their mommies. In its first hour Apocalypto can be a bit knuckleheaded, but visually it's astounding, most of all in the subsequent set-piece, a twenty minute spectacle in the form of a human sacrifice ceremony. The ritualized violence is for religious purposes, of course, an offering to their Sun-God in imploration for an end to the epidemics of famine and disease, and it involves the captives' hearts being cut out, their heads cut off and thrown down the temple stairs, followed by their necktop corpses. (Hey, remember that pig hunting scene?) The sequence is awash in details that Gibson draws little attention to, such as a porcine child prince relaxing in the rearground. The scenes flares as tribal drum music blares, citizens dance and rejoice, but the technique used to capture it is, overall, level-headed and patient, and the scene a modern masterpiece for which the film should be seen alone.

As it comes Jaguar Paw's turn to die, his friend wishes him luck. "Journey well," he recommends, but Jaguar Paw, sending his love down the well to his cached family, refuses. "I can't go. Not now." By nothing short of a miracle—or a serendipitous coincidence involving a simple natural phenomenon—the slaves not yet slaughtered, including Jaguar Paw, are spared, and remanded to the custody of their original captors, disappointed that they won't make any cash off of the bloodthirsty fanatics. So instead they use them for sadistic sport, hunting them with spears and arrows while they run, in teams of two, for their freedom down a narrow field. It recalls a similar scene with prisoners in Melville's Army of Shadows (there's a lot of movie references in the film, from a Fugitive-esque waterfall leap to a hilarious moment in which a tree falls in the path of the traveling procession of conquerors and slaves, and Zero Wolf declares, "I am walking here!"), but moreso it recalls Ambrose Bierce's story, and the popular French short film/Twilight Zone episode An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Apocalypto's overall structure, in fact, is very reminiscent of Occurrence..., and I was ambivalently anticipating the same twist; thankfully, it doesn't arrive, though that at once feels like a smart move and a cop-out. (Yo, dat kudda bin awssum!) Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf's son, during another miraculous escape, and now the hunt is on, which takes up the second half of the film (hey, remember that pig hunting scene?); J.P., wounded, is tracked through the jungle in a thrilling chase sequence that seems to never end, as his pursuers are done in, one by one, by the jungle (jaguars, snakes) and J.P.'s use of the jungle as his weapon (beehive bombs, toad-poison-laced thorn-darts blown out of a rolled up leaf).

It's in these sorts of large-scale moments that Apocalypto really shines, while the small moments, few in number as the film goes on, are irritating if not worthless. At bottom, there can be no denying that Apocalypto looks beautiful, from the gorgeous jungle cinematography, the vivid sets and the meticulous costuming; in fact, it sports some of the most impressive make-up and set- and costume-design I've ever seen, thanks in no small part to production designer Tom Sanders, and a crew too large to identify each by name, who create a tactile universe that, along with the dialogue being spoken in authentic Yucatec, give the film a convincing aural and visual verisimilitude that only adds to the urgency of its execution. With hundreds of extras and baroque sets, it looks, deliciously, like it cost a lot of money—and not just, like most modern movies, for CGI effects, of which there are thankfully few.

After a shaky start, awash in "telling", Gibson firmly plants his feet in "showing" and lets pure, riveting action do the job of the cheap character development he engaged in earlier. The film ends with J.P. taking his family into the woods and speaking of finding their new beginning; he seems like an American surrogate, who needs to not only shed his fellow tribesmen but to kill off the posse of cohabiting autochthones before he can establish a new life for himself, just as we couldn't have a United States before getting out of Europe and getting dem injuns out of the way. But though J.P.'s survival is the result of another apparent miracle—the appearance of strange, floating men bearing large wooden crosses—a small knowledge of history tells you his future isn't very bright, and his children won't be hunting the same forests his ancestors have always hunted. Is Apocalypto meant as a parable for what happens to the unChristianized savage, and is it supposed to serve as a warning for secular humanists with their rampant abortions and callous stem cell research? Well, it's a Mel Gibson movie, so of course it's going to be politically problematic, even annoying, but it's a whole lot easier to get past here than it was in his previous movie, the irredeemable Passion of the Christ, a viscerally and theologically disgusting film.

15 June 2007

12:08 East of Bucharest

Written & Directed by: Corneliu Porumboiu

Grade: A

I think you're allowed to officially call it a "wave" now, because there're three. Romania is in the midst of establishing a viable cinematic movement, a decade and a half after the revolution that overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu, its Communist "president" for thirty-some years. Sandwiched, chronologically, between two compatriotic films, the 2005 and 2007 winners of the Prix un Certain Regard at Cannes—the acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, respectively—12:08 East of Bucharest joined the ranks of recent Romanian Cannes prize winners by taking 2006's Camera d'Or. But even though Romania may be pumping out first-rate cinema, according to 12:08... it doesn't seem like a very nice place to be, let alone live. And it's still trying to figure out how to deal with that revolution.

Set in Vaslui, a small city (north)east of Bucharest and the thirty-two year-old director's hometown, 12:08... presents contemporary Romania as quite a drab and dreary place, with every shade of gray imaginable fairly represented in its palette. Nothing works—the televisions, the tripods, the clarinets—and the citizens, from what we see, are entrenched in drink and destitution. Some revolution! Set three days before Christmas, on the sixteenth anniversary of Ceausescu's flight from the capital, 12:08... is centered around a call-in television talk-show that aspires to establish whether or not there was any scrap of revolution in Vaslui that may have contributed to forcing Ceausescu's abdication of power; specifically, whether or not anyone was actually out on the streets protesting prior to 12:08 pm, when the government officially collapsed. The film's Romanian title, A Fost sau n-a Fost? roughly translates to Was There or Wasn't There?, but ultimately the film ends up asking a very different question—does it matter?

But first Porumboiu subjects us to half-a-film's worth of lightly lugubrious and occasionally comical scenes of quotidian Romania, introducing us to the three central characters: Manescu (Ion Sapdaru), an alcoholic high school history teacher; Old Man Piscoci (Mircea Andreescu), an erstwhile Santa Claus; and Mr. Jderescu (Teodor Corban), the pretentious owner of a television station, prone to quoting Heraclitus and alluding to Plato, and the host of the show. Manescu squabbles with his wife over money, berates failed students he has to look after ("what am I supposed to do if you can't even cheat properly?", a disparagement Porumboiu surely wants to extend to his fellow countrymen), and loses his wages to his neighbors-slash-creditors-come-calling. Piscoci gets asked to be Santa again this year, and is given a stained and weathered costume he compares to a "dirty dishtowel"; again, as evidenced by the quality of the various wares, some revolution. Meanwhile, Mr. Jderescu scrambles to find his guests for the day's show, making call after call—"they'll call back," his wife assures him, "everybody wants to be on television" (some things transcend national and cultural borders)—until, finally, he enlists Manescu and Piscoci.

All of these early scenes are filmed by a stationary camera that, almost always, chooses one angle per scene and sticks with it, reflecting the paralytic character of Romanian life while also serving as a polished contrast to the amateur television production to come. But it's also clearly an important aesthetic choice for Porumboiu, who berates current cinema's jittery handheld trend in a humorous scene: Jderescu arrives at the television station, where his cameraman is filming a small musical ensemble by hand; when asked why he's filming that way, the cameraman replies that it's the new style. Jderescu smacks him on the head and orders him to put the damn thing on a tripod, allowing the audience to do vicariously what they've surely wanted to do to many a modern cameraman before.

12:08... is neatly split in half and, tonally, plays like two separate films, though they are far from incongruous. The second half, the television show, is characterized by crisp comicality; what was previously a bleak survey of Romanian life becomes a raucously underplayed comedy, and the stars show off their range as they slide easily from one genre into the other. The TV station's farcical low-production values—awkward compositions, bad focus and inappropriate zooms—provoke a lot of laughs, along with the contentious callers who phone-in, disputing Manescu's assertion that he and three other teachers—all conveniently dead or emigrated—took to the town square around 11:30 that morning with chants of "Down with Ceausescu" and the like, thus courageously creating the small but nevertheless existent Vaslui Revolution.

"I don't get it," Jderescu's mistress says, "what's with all this stuff about the revolution? No one could care less anymore." That's the running theme beneath 12:08..., as when Manescu's bartender asks snarkily, "what revolution?" or when Manescu himself incredulously asks Jderescu of the program, "You think anyone will watch? No one gives a damn anymore." The only ones who can muster any enthusiasm are the gangs of children scurrying around town, as it gives them an excuse to set off firecrackers. (Although that naughtiness seems more for a lack of anything else to do, as one child beseechingly asks Jderescu when he'll be showing cartoons again.) One caller even goes so far as to lament that things were better under Ceausescu. I'm not sure that Porumboiu would go that far, but he's obviously expressing disappointment with the squandered promise of a new Romania, as the country is still mired in impoverishment. There's a cleverly metaphorical conversation between Jderescu and Piscoci in which the former berates the latter for giving him, as a child, a teddy bear for Christmas when what he really wanted was a toy gun. Jderescu reminisces that he cursed Santa (who was Piscoci in disguise) because he never got the present he really wanted, reflecting the attitude, presumably, of many Romanians towards the Saint Nicks known as capitalism and democracy.

So was Manescu drunk on December 22, 1989? Was he out protesting before 12:08, or is he just boasting disingenuously now? Do the callers' charges hold-up under closer scrutiny? "We're just trying to piece together certain fundamental circumstances," Jderescu implores, but Piscoci—who has spent most of the show making origami and, um, resting his eyes—sets him straight: "why split hairs over such stupidity?" The point is that it doesn't really matter, which is ultimately reinforced by the final caller, a woman who lost her son in the revolution, with a brief and touching moment of dialogue. "It's snowing now," she tells the studio shut-ins, "big white flakes. Enjoy it now, tomorrow it'll be mud."

Ostensibly, 12:08... is almost a Rashomonesque evaluation of the undependability of memory and the mendacious stories that we tell ourselves, but in the end Porumboiu implies it doesn't matter who started the revolution as much as it matters what's happening right now and what's going to happen tomorrow. In Romania, it seems like not much. The film ends with a nod to L'Eclisse, but out of different motivations, as Porumboiu revisits, in a silent survey, the exteriors from the film, darkening and depopulated, asking us not to worry about how the past affects the present, but rather how the condition of the present affects the future.

12:08 East of Bucharest is that rare movie that only gets better from reel to reel, right up until the very last feet of film; it's funny and moving and all emotional points in between, moving through them in a logical progression, no less. I imagine it speaks more to a Romanian than I could fully appreciate (although a Romanian writing unintelligibly on IMDb seems unappreciative; to quote verbatim: "If u seek for knowledge you are waisting time with this mystification, if you seek for entertainment... this is NO ENTERTAINMENT, time lost and lies" [ellipsis not mine]), but on a universal level it's still a marvelously enjoyable and deceptively simple film that proves this Romanian New Wave, as we could call it, is definitely worth watching.

12 June 2007

Ocean's 13

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Brian Koppelman & David Levien

Grade: B

"You don't run the same gag twice," Don Cheadle says—his irritating Cockney accent thankfully dampened—somewhere in the middle of the third installment in the unnecessary Ocean's franchise, and it's tough to say whether Soderbergh means it as some sort of peremptory apologia or as just a moment of glib, ironic self-knowing. As Soderbergh must be aware, even though the plot is "different" and the details aren't exactly the same, Ocean's 13 is essentially a mere replaying of Ocean's 11; so it's lucky for everyone involved—filmmakers and audience—that that was a pretty good flick.

This time around Al Pacino's on board, mercifully not chewing on the scenery as is his custom—I don't recall him ever even shouting, if you can believe it—following his turn as Shylock by playing Willie Bank, yet another shyster. He fucks over Danny Ocean's (George Clooney) gang's mentor, played with chewy Jewy panache by Elliott Gould, by cutting him out of a casino partnership; that's an especially fucked up move because they both "shook Sinatra's hand", and there's an unwritten code in Vegas dat says guys who done dat don't do dat. It causes Gould to suffer a myocardial infarction that almost sends him to the big casino in the sky, and Clooney decides to get the gang—Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Bernie Mac, Cheadle, Carl Reiner, Casey Affleck, Scott Caan, etc.—together to exact revenge.

Their plan is a convoluted scheme to sabotage Pacino's hotel-casino on its opening night by rigging the machines and game tables to pay out big, while also spoiling the stay of an influential guidebook writer. Oh, and they also have to steal some excessively-protected diamonds. A complicated scheme, it involves a good deal of tampering, fixing and fine-tuning—including causing an earthquake (!)—but Soderbergh keeps the pace steadily charging along, as everything that could go wrong does and the gang scrambles to resile. The implausible becomes the impossible, the complex turns convoluted, and it's all deliciously pointless, leading to an anticipated climax that manages to be, like the entire film, superficially satisfying and flagrantly vacuous. "I like you," Eddie Izzard tells Clooney and his partner, Pitt, "you've got style, you've got brio," and it's those very qualities, and those qualities alone, that make the film such a pleasure.

In its glorification of criminality, Ocean's 13 functions as a reminder that the halcyon post-Hays days are still with us, as it harks back to the flashy cinema of the 1970's in its stylish credit sequences (both opening and end) and absence of a meaningful moral center. (Soderbergh, whose last film was The Good German, is becoming a professional homagist.) If Ocean's 13 has any subtext, aside from a loopy subplot about Mexican labor struggles, it's a melancholic acknowledgment of the vicissitudes of Hollywood. "You're analog players in a digital world," Izzard, again, tells Clooney-Pitt, as though they and their director are a dying breed of old-fashionists, the sort who wouldn't fuck over somebody who'd shook David Selznick's hand. Or at least Robert Evans'. It's strangely self-pitying and aggrandizing but also wholly forgivable, and does at least provide for a small but touching scene in which Clooney-Pitt turn nostalgic, having a conversation that concludes, laconically: "town's changed."

There's a good share of this sort of small character moment interwoven into the larger tapestry of flash, dazzle and razzamatazz that makes the film stronger. Clooney-Pitt, with a delightfully breezy rapport akin to a back massage, are often cut to in mid-conversation about their romantic relationships, while Damon deals with his Daddy Issues, particularly his quest for validation that his faux-pointy-nose disguise is a job well-done. (Disguises are a recurring joke, from Clooney with a thick, Latin mustache to a hirsute Pitt recalling his True Romance days.)

It's also a very self-conscious film. When, in answer to whether or not he's ready, Andy Garcia cracks, "I was born ready," the camera lingers on Clooney who delivers a sweeping eye roll. Ocean's 13 has no patience for hoak or corn, being, as it is, the embodiment of effortless cool. There's a lot of talk that Soderbergh (and Clooney) make these big cashcows so that they can afford to fund their smaller, more personal projects, but it seems more likely that the Ocean's films are just as personal to Soderbergh & Co. as anything else they produce. Gould, in Polonius mode, makes a speech at the end about remaining true to oneself, which feels like a sly admission from Soderbergh in regard to what he's become, a convivial and substanceless filmmaker. This disappoints the sex, lies and videotape contingent of his fans (or former fans, as they surely consider themselves) but I don't mind. As Clooney alliteratively shouts near the end of the film, "it sure as shit ain't sad!"

Hostel: Part II

Written & Directed by: Eli Roth

Grade: C+

There might be a point to Hostel II, the follow-up to Eli Roth's now classic entry into the "torture porn" genre, but Roth underplays it so often at the expense of violence and exposition that it can be hard to spot. Horror movies, in general, can be the best measure of a society's fears and concerns (although whether or not the frightless Hostel films should be called "horror" movies is open to debate); Roth surely knows this, but he doesn't really seem to care. The first Hostel film was a gross and gory jubilee that at times paraded itself as an examination of post-9/11 anxiety, an acknowledgement that, as Scott Tobias writes, "bad behavior overseas could result in a little blowback"; it also approached a critique of masculine aggression in which men who treated women as meat were treated as meat in return. Well, those readings work at least up to a point, and that's Roth's problem; he's no fool, but he's more than happy to succumb to a fool's delights, trying to delicately balance the crowd-pleasing carnage with informed commentary in a manner that is sure to please neither camp.

Though I suppose Hostel II should feature enough climactic violence to satisfy the jones of any pimply teen—particularly one with a DVD and a fast-forward button, as the bulk of the violence is to be found in the finale. Opening immediately where the first film ended, just like Halloween II (or, going back a bit, The Bride of Frankenstein), we find a bloodied Jay Hernandez unconscious on a train. It proceeds to do away with him, the first film's sole survivor, just like in Friday the 13th Part II. (This is an incredibly self-aware sequel of Kevin Williamson proportions, though subtler, without being so loud about it.) That out of the way, Roth cuts to three American girls studying in Italy, each representing a familiar archetype—the freak, Lorna (Welcome to the Dollhouse's Heather Matarazzo, a marvelously cast misfit); the bitch, Whitney (Bijou Phillips); and the sweetheart, Beth (Lauren German). Guessing in which order they'll be killed shouldn't be too difficult, nor should hypothesizing as to which will be the Jamie Lee Curtis left standing.

They are thoroughly shallow and irritating characters; is it less a consequence of careless writing than a reflection of American character, and the perception of its citizens abroad? The girls decide to take a trip to Prague, but en route a sexy Italian model tells them about the wonders of Slovakia, civilization's final frontier; she even knows a cool place to stay! Hey, thanks! Of course this turns out to be the eponymous hostel, and all in all a bad idea. "So few safe places left in Europe," bemoans the Italian bitingly, and it's especially true for women; after all, woman is the nigger of the world, and on the Eurorail the Americanettes are seen as nothing but fuckable (and drugable) meat by the Eurotrash. But Hostel II has more up its sleeve than a simple rehashing of the first film, despite the fact that the girl's scenes often feel that way, by focusing on two of the (American) killers (Roger Bart and Richard Burgi) who will, later, be the ones murdering Whitney and Beth. To Americans, women are just butcherable meat.

Roth examines their crises of conscience, both before and after the acts. "Do you think we're sick?" Bart asks Burgi, who replies with a resoundingly enthusiastic, "fuck no!" The two killers-to-be are like a neo-Leopold and Loeb, except in the modern world they pay can big bucks in an internet auction—a montage featuring a humorous overview of the international rich and homicidal—for the thrill of the kill and a bit of legal protection. There's nothing money can't buy! Hostel II is not, like the first film, a parable of American vincibility, but rather could easily be read as a struggle between feminism and (masculine) capitalism; and of course, as always, the latter is the victor.

But that reading only works if you cut out the peripheral fluff, such as a lesbio-erotic scene of blood-letting that proves allegorically problematic. Roth suffers from a lack of focus, or at least comitment, and, as in his debut Cabin Fever, by the end Hostel II has devolved into sheer farce. (Though not before a ballsy killing sequence, a crossed-legs-inducing scene of literal emasculation. How on earth did this get an R rating?) But, I suppose, at least Roth is trying, and Hostel II is mildly interesting, if ultimately spotty, on an intellectual level and perversely entertaining to those who find such things entertaining. Torture porn doesn't get much better, or much worse.

08 June 2007

Mala Noche (1985)

Written & Directed by: Gus van Sant

Grade: B-

"I have to show him that I'm gay for him," Walt (Tim Streeter) says of his object of affection early on in Gus Van Sant's debut, Mala Noche, a film that, with a line like that, might be laughable if not for its low-budget sincerity. Shot on high-contrast, black and white 16mm, it's tough to tell whether its shadowy look is a consequence of deliberate artistic intention or unfortunate budget constraints; either way (though most likely the latter) its look, along with an accompanying sarcastic-poetic voice-over from Walt, makesMala Noche play like, as Nathan Lee termed it, "slacker-noir". Set in the streets and flophouses of skid-row Portland, nothing actually sinister happens—save for an act of violence in the third act—although the primarily chiaroscuro lighting and smoky interiors seem to constantly threaten that it will, while the role of femme fatale is filled, defying convention queerly, by a harmless Mexican drifter by the name of Johnny (Doug Cooeyate), who claims to be eighteen, but Walt figures he may be as young as sixteen. His age is beside the point—with that boydumb face and Jim Morrison hair, Walt falls in love at first sight despite, at the very least, their language barrier, to say nothing of the cultural barrier that exists between a Mexican migrant and a puto gringo.

What follows is a rambling (one-sided) love story that feels at once earnest and disingenuous; when rejected or abandoned by Johnny, Walt seems just as happy to take up with Juancito's buddy, Pepper (Ray Monge), who, as Walt the maricón describes in narration, seems to use his dick as a weapon, a satisfying and specific expression of revenge against his otherwise abstract American oppressors. But Walt says it with a bemused and knowing acceptance—if all's fair in love and war, why not in war-like lovemaking?—that seems to betray a sort of sodomitical masochism. Is his attraction to Johnny, or Pepper, a result of their virile, irrepressible youth? Or is it informed by some sort of misguided liberal guilt over the undue savagery of the (illegal) immigrant-experience of police brutality and pitiful living conditions? Are his feelings respectful or condescending? Walt obviously thrives off of surrounding himself with the downtrodden, paying the rent (and for his muchachos) by manning the counter at what appears to be a small convenience store, though it's only patronized by bums and winos and the only thing they want to buy is Night Train.

As shown by a brief visit to the supermarket, where he insists on buying cakemix in lieu of "good food", Johnny's a "sugarfreak" (as one of Walt's friends calls him; does that make Walt his sugar daddy?) Or, put more simply, he's just a boy, an unavoidable truth for which Walt is constantly admonishing him; "driving's not a game for kids!" he shouts after letting Johnny drive his car, which he does so rather recklessly; later he scolds, "that's not a toy!" in reference to Johnny's new pistol. Freudian implications would seem unavoidable with that last one, but van Sant manages to eschew them. It's 7-Up, in its sugary ebullience, that becomes an iconic representation of azucarado Johnny, whether it appears as a can of soda being drunk by a Mexican or as a imposing billboard looming over a forsaken Walt; a doorsign at Walt's store reads, "7-Up Likes You", ironically taunting him while reflecting his deepest sexual desires.

But other than these small, practically accidental character-defining details and symbols, van Sant, in typical van Sant fashion, seems entirely unconcerned with Walt's or anyone else's motivations, focusing instead on the bare day-to-day intricacies of the characters' complex relationships to one another. Van Sant explicitly avoids any moralizing or psychologizing, forcing the viewer to follow suit or succumb to dead-ended, frustrating speculation, such as I briefly engaged in above. Mala Noche has an awkward and discomfiting relationship at its center, and yet van Sant avoids ever making it problematic or offensive, at least not for the obvious reasons, as he similarly did two decades later with a school shooting in Elephant.

At turns intriguing, absorbing, and dull, Mala Noche sports, at the very least, a share of great moments; the intercutting of a speedy joy ride with shots of a video racing game, for example, or the lyrically-edited scene of lovemaking, set to the sound of a passing freight train, in which you see nothing and yet see everything. But Mala Noche's only real claim at significance is that it announces a major talent, a vibrant new film artist with a powerful sensibility. Essentially, it functions as a love letter of sorts to the West Coast Mexican immigrant experience and the Oregonian underbelly of 1980's, or at least as a primer for the man's work to come; in particular for My Own Private Idaho, for which it seems like a photocopied rough draft, with its Portland hustlers and gorgeous landscape shots in which the screen is full of timelapse clouds that move forward as quickly and aimlessly as the characters and film itself. There is even a long stretch of straight road that van Sant must have returned to for filming the bookending scenes of My Own Private Idaho; otherwise, the country must be full of such tucked away two-lanes, though I suspect there could only be one road like that, just as there's surely only one Gus van Sant. "Fuck it, do I need him?" Walt asks near Mala Noche's end, "am I really that desperate? (beat) Of course I am." Fuck it, I need you too van Sant. I'm gay for your movies, just not so much this one.

06 June 2007

The Fountain

Written & Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Grade: A

The Fountain opens with Hugh Jackman dressed as a conquistador, doing battle with a brood of tribal Mayan warriors at the base of a temple's tall, stone staircase. It seems straight out of Mel Gibson, though with the visual sophistication of Terrence Malick, and I began to wonder why this film wasn't more popular with American audiences upon its initial release. After Jackman receives a dagger wound from a high Mayan priest, a significant moment that'll be revisited several times throughout the film, Aronofsky jumpcuts to Jackman, now draped in robes and with shaved head, in the lotus position, levitating in deep space. He awakens from his meditation and floats into an orb, where he begins talking to a tree—the only significant object in this homey sphere—telling it not to worry and that everything'll be all right. Oh, right, that's why this movie wasn't popular.

But that's unfortunate, because The Fountain is a great film, a bold and successful amalgam of Biblical imagery, Mayan mythology, Eastern spirituality and modern science. (I suppose in the last six years since Aronofsky's made a movie he's been reading books—and not just pulp fiction courtesy of Hubert Selby, Jr.!) The Fountain has three intersecting stories, featuring the same principal actors, that parallel and inform one another; each is set in a different place and time frame—the past, present, and future, presumably—and each deals, in its own way, with the task of facing our own, and our loved ones', mortality. In the present, Jackman is a surgeon and researcher, dealing with his wife's accelerating cancer by denying its finality and trying to find a cure. (You certainly can't fault him for lack of ambition.) His wife, however, played by Rachel Weisz, is dealing with it by trying to come to terms with the inevitability of her impending death, primarily through the study of Mayan legends and folklore. She's also writing a romance, coincidentally entitled The Fountain, about a conquistador searching for the Tree of Life, an arboric take on the Fountain of Youth courtesy of Genesis 3:24.

The conquistador storyline plays as a clever, if somewhat simplistic, allegory for Weisz's declining health. (Had Aronofsky tried to make The Fountain any more complicated, it probably wouldn't work.) In it, the Inquisition is laying waste to Spain, with the Grand Inquisitor—introduced in a gruesome, still Gibsonesque scene of self-flagellation—in the oncogenic role previously played by Weisz's cancer, "an enemy thriving within [Spain's] borders, feasting on her strengths," as Jackman the conquistador explains it. But mixed into these two storylines—the search for a cure and the search for the Tree—is a bit set in the future, or so I've read; nothing in the film indicates the aforedescribed bubble scenes are set in a different time. (Maybe it's in the Press Kit? Or it's just a marketing ploy?) At that point, I think you have to abandon concepts of time and space, and understand that the bubble is a different plane, man, a manifestation of Jackman's subconscious or spiritual life...or something like that, perhaps; it's as though the starchild from 2001 is all grown up and taking an interest in gardening—Aronofsky certainly can't be faulted for lack of ambition, either.

Though I suppose he never could be; both of his previous films, Pi and Requiem for a Dream, are high-reaching, just a bit overwrought and jejune in their sensibilities. (Though I am partial to Pi.) The Fountain, however, indicates some substantial growth for Mr. Aronofsky, and marks what will hopefully be a turning point in his career; it's a work of real emotional, spiritual and cinematic maturity, and though his story and imagery are spectacular, they're captured on celluloid with thoughtful restraint. He recognizes that he needn't add flash, in order to make his points, to the already present power of his high concept, and so the camera is reserved; the editing's tempered; the lighting, while complex and gorgeous, is rarely showy; and scenes fade out gracefully, as though they too, like Weisz, are softly dying. Meanwhile, Jackman and Weisz bring enough sensitivity and passion to their roles to carry the film, keeping it grounded in genuine human emotionality and saving it from possibly falling off into either sentimentality or stiff intellectual exercise.

By expanding his story, which is essentially just a man dealing with his wife's fatal illness, into a triptych mescaline trip through space and time, Aronofsky uncovers more hard human truths than he'd have been able to through any one story alone; by having each section comment on the other, and enhancing the meaning therein, he comes to a reasoned conclusion on the nature of death and loss, and their relationship to love. It's surprisingly, and impressively, sophisticated for a man of his still young age.

Jackman's fatal flaw is that he sees death as a disease, something that can be cured like any other; if over two thousand years of tragedy have taught us anything, it's that that sort of hubris can only be destructive. Meanwhile, Weisz is honestly confronting the reality of her death, constantly telling her husband she is no longer afraid. Death for her, by way of old Mayan texts, is an act of creation. "Our bodies are prisons for our souls," the Inquisitor declares, adding that "death frees every soul." I don't know if I'd trust the Grand Inquisitor, but his brimstone speech still falls in line with the film's central theme. "Death is the road to awe," a Mayan priest tells the conquistador, and over the course of a brisk and stirring ninety minutes the audience comes to face that death cannot be conquered or destroyed; the best we can do is to consume it, rather than allow it to consume us.

05 June 2007

Knocked Up

Written & Directed by: Judd Apatow

Grade: B

It feels like the majority of contemporary comedy films, whether insipid claptrap like American Pie and Wedding Crashers or superior fare like Knocked Up, have all become afflicted with the same formulaic malady—in a word, they're too plotty. They take a potent comic premise, wring some laughs out of it, and then get mired down in their final acts trying to wrap up the characters' story arcs with a straight face, though the audience might not really care. If anyone could get away with such a narrative transgression, you'd think it would be beloved TV and movie veteran Judd Apatow, who's proven adept at creating sympathic and endearing characters, from the teenage ensemble cast of Freaks and Geeks (many of whom reappear in the film) to the middle-aged celibate of The 40 Year Old Virgin. But here, though his skill at fashioning drama is satisfactory, it's not really effective, particularly at a pregnant running time of 129 minutes. Knocked Up's about as swelled as its female lead's enceinte belly.

Though, grammatically, Knocked Up's title might suggest that its central character is a member of the fairer sex (as in, she's been knocked up!!), it's primarily a film about men, the immature kind who need to learn to step-up when life, in all its unfairness, not only asks them to but demands it of them. That is, specifically, when they knock a chick up. Seth Rogen plays B[e]en Stone[d], a bejewfroed bongophile—with a framed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas poster on his bedroom wall—who's lucky enough, in a short-term sense, to get careerista Katherine Heigl drunk enough to initiate sexual congress; unfortunately, in a longer-term sense, it results in an accidental pregnancy. Deciding against have something that rhymes with shmusshmortion at a shmusshmortion clinic, Heigl decides to keep her baby, and she and Rogen see if they can make an unlikely relationship work.

It's a trial, as Rogen's the epitome of Bill O'Reilly's mythical stoner/slacker. A lot of sex- and drug-related shenanigans ensue, and Knocked Up's first third is hilariously fantastic, as a supporting cast of Apatow regulars and harmonious newcomers—each with an impeccable knack for comic delivery—hit all the right notes as they recite line after line of knee-slapping dialogue. Particularly effective are Rogen's roommates, each playing if not themselves at least characters with the same names—Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Jason Segel and Martin Starr; their rapport with Rogen and one another is marvelously natural, and Apatow's got a real knack for goading on their improv. (Essentially, their scenes amount to watching five really funny guys hanging out and being really funny. Awesome.) Honorable mention also belongs to Kristen Wiig for her turn as a bitter television executive, whom she brilliantly downplays, and Apatow's eldest daughter, whose confession to googling "murder" and speech speculating where babies come from are unexpected and priceless.

Although at times the humor is a bit too pop- and tech-savvy in a way that's sure to date the film, not least of all in its humorous digression on Munich, a mediocre film destined, one can hope, to be forgotten. Also the best running gag, the guys' teasing of Martin for his uncut hair and beard, surely won't play as well for long. ("Was it hard when you changed your name from Cat Stevens to Yusef Islam?" someone asks him with a deadpan casualness; someone else compares him to "Scorsese on coke," a reference sure to light up the eyes and quake the belly of anyone who's seen The Last Waltz.) But for the first half of the film, by and large, Apatow's flexing his directorial prowess as he takes a familiar sort of story and, for now at least, executes it perfectly, complementing the peripheries of the familiar romantic comedy center with vulgar and scatalogical raunch.

Ironically, however, it's what makes Knocked Up a head above its multiplex competitors—its heart and attention to character—that curiously proves to be its undoing. When it gets too caught up in the ups-and-downs of Rogen and Heigl's relationship, and the concomitant dramatic tension that amounts to "will they or won't they?"—of course they will—it starts to get a bit tiring. Knocked Up is too funny to be convincingly dramatic; that is, it's simply too funny to just redirect its focus from laughs to tears or pathos without feeling like it's running out of steam. Nobody wants to be told to stop laughing and pay attention. Rogen is exceedingly likeable but not quite loveable, and all of the relationship-related hoopla between him and his girl, though presented with complexity and maturity, isn't really anything new, and I'm sure it's been done better. Propulsory plotting gets the best of the film at the expense of its comedy, whereas it's in the latter that Apatow and the cast truly shine. (Though no one is by any means bad; for example, Heigl's tearful breakdown at the "gynechiatrist"'s office, when she learns she's pregnant, is a laudably strong piece of acting.)

Knocked Up has a long list of good things going for it, but they unfortunately just don't add up. A subplot involving Heigl's sister, played by Apatow's real-life wife Leslie Mann, and her diegetic husband (Paul Rudd) is a prime example; while providing a good many laughs through Rudd's oustanding chemistry with Rogen, and a necessary example for Rogen and Heigl of how marriages based on child-rearing can go wrong, the lengths to which Apatow examines them feel excessive and unnecessary, the mark of a self-reflexive middle-aged man. (Which probably accounts for the film's critical popularity.) Though Apatow's love for his characters is what makes his work so likeable, he loves them a bit too much, proving unable to leave them off-screen or on the cutting room floor to the ultimate detriment of the end-product; and, in a world where a DVD could be loaded with miles of outtake footage, why not sacrifice affection for tautness?

But I don't mean to be unduly critical of Knocked Up because it is, admittedly, enjoyable and oftentimes a real aisle-roller, also managing to tend the delicate divide between sweet and sappy. I feel I should, though, counter the startlingly glowing praise the film's been getting from all corners of the country. All in all, Knocked Up is good, nothing more and certainly nothing less. Rent it, it's funny.


Directed by: Satoshi Kon
Written by: Seishi Minakami & Satoshi Kon

Grade: A-

Try too hard to make sense out of Paprika's plot and you're liable to miss out on all the pageantic fun. While it sports a muddled, convoluted, esoteric and enigmatic storyline, it isn't as a result of carelessness, at least not entirely; essentially, Paprika's about contrasts, and its complex storyline functions in clever contradistinction to its wild and viscerally affecting imagery—some of the most far-out animation to ever fuck my mind. As such, it's like an animated, Japanified Inland Empire—and just as narratively coherent—with a "Sonic the Hedgehog" soundtrack. Paprika's mythology is about as sensible as its mercurial sense of space, but at its heart it's simply a film about dualisms, namely the real self in waking life vs. the dreamself in dreamlife—or, the spectator vs. the spectacle, a film about film.

Satoshi Kon's film seems designed as a commentary on our pressing desire to find escape from the mundanity of quotidian existence. In the film, the real world is full of dull spaces, like elevators, offices and laboratories, bland in their blank and impersonal construction, while the dream world's landscapes are colorful and tactiley multitextural. The real spaces in Paprika are confining and limiting—one of the earliest scenes features a morbidly obese scientist physically stuck in a narrow elevator—but the virtual spaces of dreams, cinema and even the internet prove infinite. (A necessary fantasy for the Japanese, whose small island nation is steadily growing in population, regardless of their recently spiking suicide rate.)

"Don't you think," Paprika, a sexy sprite of sorts, asks her new friend Detective Kogawa, "[that] dreams and the internet are similar? They are both areas where the repressed conscious mind vents." (Paprika, in its profundity and perpelxity, is not intended for a young audience.) Dreams, the internet, and the movies all function in the same way in Paprika; there seems to be little distinction between them, and in the film's universe they're each corporeally pervious. Japanese scientists have invented a device they call the "DC Mini" which, when attached to a subject's head in a very Cronenbergian manner, allows the subject's dreams to be viewed on a monitor like an unpausable DVD; but it can also allow two people to dream together, much like the dreamlike space of the darkened movie theater. When a DC Mini prototype is stolen and misappropriated, the citizens of Japan's dreams and waking life are invaded and affected; madness spreads as reality and dreamity begin to fuse.

There's a lot of confounding exposition in Paprika that inevitably leads to a confusing climax and resolution. As David Denby recently wrote, the narrative logic is "an outright challenge to American viewers, who may, in the face of its whirligig complexity, feel almost pea-brained." It's the images, however, that count, and it's there that the viewer can discover what Paprika really has to say—for example, when an enormous little girl is sucking up a stream of broken dreams and growing into a giant woman, which enables her to eat an evil and giant man, what matters isn't the mythological intricacies, but the sexual subtext and cultural commentary beneath the bare imagery.

It's even difficult to explain who or what exactly Paprika, the title character, is; she appears to be some sort of fourth dimensional, full-grown-human-sized pixie, but eventually she becomes, in effect, one of the characters' idealized cinematic doppelganger, one who is able to travel freely through the interconnected intangible virtual spaces. Although, as the real world and dream worlds begin to overlap (don't ask how), all of the characters become free to, for example, jump into a television set and pop out of a camera, or to push through a movie screen, like Freddy Kreuger pushing through Nancy's wall in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, and break into the (dream) action on its screen, à la The Purple Rose of Cairo.

I like movies, obviously, and as such I have a sort of predisposition to liking movies about movies and the experience of watching them; while Woody Allen is nearly in tears when watching Duck Soup, near the end of Hannah and Her Sisters, I'm crying along with him. And so I was thrilled by Paprika; ostensibly it's a muddled science fiction tale but below its manga-esque surface it's a penetrating exploration of spectatorship and a celebration of cinematic spectacle. The film opens with a dream sequence, Kogawa's, that brilliantly captures the actual illogical rhythms of the dreaming experience in all its spatial inconsistency and logical incongruity, but it also plays as a quick trip through a myriad of film genres, like flipping through the high-numbered cable stations where all the movie channels are. Later on, an ascending elevator stops at every floor, opening up onto glimpses of Kogawa's dreams, as though his mind were an enormous and vertical multiplex.

The very first image is of an enormous clown exiting from a ridiculously tiny car, exclaiming (in English), "it's the greatest showtime!" And it sure is! But the most mindblowing image in Paprika is the recurring appearance of a snowballing dreamparade, comprised of various pop icons—Japanese dolls, the Statue of Liberty—and various twentieth century detritus, such as refrigerators and toy robots. It's a manifestation of the collective unconscious of (Japanese) society, marching in step, an unstoppable force that at one point spills out of a theater's projector room window and steps straight through the screen. I wanted to march right alongside them, in a conspicuous display of amour du cinema. The final image in Paprika is of a man buying a movie ticket, and I enthusiastically encourage you to follow his lead, readership.

01 June 2007

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

Directed by: Elia Kazan
Written by: Budd Schulberg

Grade: A

Why A Face in the Crowd isn't more popular, let alone universally revered, is anybody's guess; a good twenty years before Network, Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg—who'd previously teamed up for one of the masterpieces of American cinema, On the Waterfront—tackled the dangerous manipulative power of television in their story of a drunken hobo, "Lonesome" Rhodes, turned celebrity. Whereas much of Network hasn't aged well, A Face in the Crowd, which even predates the famous Nixon-Kennedy debates, feels more relevant than ever, as its prescient commentary on television's effect on America's culture—and, most notably, its political sphere—has proven true ten times over in the decades since it was made.

In the first scene, Marcia (Patricia Neal), host of a smalltown radio programme called "A Face in the Crowd", enters an Arkansas jail to gather some soundbites for her show. (The Southern atmosphere, in all its sweaty, crumbling, filthy grit is rendered as palpably as it was in Kazan's previous effort, Baby Doll—another heck of a film.) After the inmates don't prove too accommodating to Miss Marcia, the sheriff suggests she try the drunk with the guitar, Rhodes, that they picked up last night. Who is that animal, curled up on his back in the corner—Marlon Brando? James Dean? No, it's none other than Andy Griffith! (My how far Sheriff Andy Taylor has fallen, one thinks watching the film now, as the jailer has become the jailed.) From that moment on, Griffith, rarely off-screen again, tears through the film in a honest-to-goodness tour-de-force, roaring through every scene, his enthusiasm only stopping short at defying gravity and dancing on the ceiling. "I put my whole self into everything I do," Lonesome boasts early on, mirroring Griffith's commitment to his screen debut—and Kazan doesn't have a reputation for being a masterful actor's director for nothing. In a soiled t-shirt, and with the nickname "Lonesome" bestowed on him by Marica, Rhodes proves an instant radio smash, singing improvised songs and telling stories with an irrepressible, avuncular, Southern-bumpkin charm. He endears himself to the audience right away, even giving an impassioned speech on the plights of the typically overworked housewife that attracts their gratitude as they scrub the scum out of the oven at home; later, he wins over the black folk in a similar fashion, by putting the TV station's cleaning lady on his show. (Kazan shows Rhodes' effect on the American people by cleverly cutting to random families at home expressing their admiration for the man on the air.) Such an immediate success, he's given his own radio show, which leads to a television show in Memphis, and eventually a nationally syndicated program; Lonesome completes the transformation from country hoodlum to New York suit in no time at all, with all the changes it would seem to imply. "You're getting to be all the things you used to harpoon," Marcia tells him accusatorily, and the story arc is vaguely reminiscent of another fictional fella from below the Mason-Dixon, Willie Stark.

Rhodes' persona is a fraud; he's simply a performer with an invented backstory, which, as an unlikely shrewd businessman, he uses to rise to prominence, aided by the medium perfectly suited to him—television. "I'm sure glad to leave that dump," he casually tells Marcia, to her surprise, on their way to Memphis, giving the nondiegetic audience their first look at the real man behind the facade, the true personality that'll ultimately be his undoing. But, for a time at least, the manipulative power of the television medium gives Rhodes something bigger than mere popularity; it gives him real sway and influence over hypnotized Americans—it makes him a "force"—which he uses first to hock the sponsor's cheap pills and later to affect the American political process, agreeing to help a reactionary, right-wing Senator become the next President of the United States. A Face in the Crowd unabashedly confronts the way that television has reduced politicians, previously "statesmen", into saleable products. As one character notes, "politics have entered a new stage, a television stage...the people want capsule slogans...more bang for a buck, punchlines and glamour." (Schulberg's script can be a little heavy-handed, but with Kazan's assured direction it never becomes overbearing.) The film also hits on the increasing Southern dominance in American culture and politics, and the concomitant hayseed anti-intellectualism. "Back where I come from," Lonesome tells the Senator, encouraging him to soften and dumb-down his approach, "if a fella looks too dignified we figure he's looking to steal your watch." When Lonesome is at a state fair against a backdrop that reads, "The Voice of the Mid South", it's hard to forget that in nearly twenty years we haven't seen an American president who at least didn't pretend to be from the South. "This whole country's just like my flock of sheep," Lonesome explains, "they're mine, I own them. They think like I do, only they're even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for 'em!"

"If they ever heard the way that psycho really talks," the sound engineer laments. The bitterly cynical A Face in the Crowd does just that—it tries to take the plugs out of America's ears so it can hear itself, take the mask off so it can see itself in the mirror—and its leaders and leading figures for who they are. But, as people rarely like to confront the truth, particularly about themselves and the nation they've begat, the film was a flop in its own time and still struggles to overcome obscurity today. See it as soon as you can, readership—it's a masterpiece.

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Written & Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Grade: A

Despite his glowing reputation and relative improlificacy, there are still a small number of Stanley Kubrick films that have fallen below the radar of the casual cinephile; most of these are early efforts (Killer's Kiss, anyone?) but stuck in the belly of his hallowed oeuvre is an underseen and often undervalued classic: Barry Lyndon, a flop upon its release that has struggled ever since to claim its rightful place in popularity. While its proponents tend to hyperbolize its distinction, calling it not only Kubrick's finest film but one of the best ever made—it's neither—Barry Lyndon is indeed a marvelous film that deserves a loftier position in the annals of history and criticism, not to mention on the video store shelves. Leon Vitali, who was Kubrick's assistant to his death and has a supporting role in the film, laconically introduced the film recently at Walter Reade in New York by saying, with tears in his eyes, "It brings me great pleasure to say: this is Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, and I just know you're going to love it." As well you should.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by William Makepeace Thackeray—an increasingly forgotten contemporary of Dickens'—Kubrick's film maintains a literary character by being divided into two "chapters" and using voice-overs from an omniscient narrator (Michael Hordern). Ordinarily, narration is as anathema to good filmmaking as Michael Bay, used as a cheap shorthand by unimaginative and insecure directors, but Kubrick's narrator provides a valuable ironic counterpoint to the on-screen images, as he'll go out of his way to undermine a seemingly romantic or heroic scene with a flippant remark, providing the film with a genuinely novelistic depth. But Barry Lyndon is not a film of mere words, which Kubrick emphasizes by allowing many scenes to play out silently, their emotional content expressed only in gesture and facial expression; Kubrick also maintains a proper level of cinematicality to counter the literariness by composing, with his frequent cinematographical collaborator John Alcott, some of the most impressive shots ever seen in film, before and since. The compositions mimic famous paintings, and contributing to the recreated pictorializations effect is that oftentimes many of the characters, placed within the gorgeously arranged tableaus, remain as stationary as the static figures on a canvas. Alcott and Kubrick went to such meticulous lengths for fashioning a proper period atmosphere that they even designed and built their own special lenses, based on NASA technology designed for the moon landings, that would be able to capture natural light; many scenes are amazingly lit by candles alone, providing a startling naturalism to the mise-en-scène. Beholding the stream of evocative images in Barry Lyndon is akin to a three hour walk through the Metropolitan Museum of Art while listening to a book on tape.

Even Barry Lyndon's detractors, however, would acknowledge the mastery of its photography, as well as that of the Victorian production and costume design. (Barry Lyndon marks the height of baroque set design in film; it's like Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons taken to the next level, incidentally complemented by the Bach and Vivaldi on the soundtrack.) Their gripes have more to do with its extended running time (184 minutes), its deliberate pacing, and Ryan O'Neal's lead performance. (We may also attribute American audiences' reluctance to appreciate the film to a rejection of all things "too English", as this is certainly Kubrick the expat's most thoroughly British film.) In this regard, Barry Lyndon is nearly as divisive in its reception as Kubrick's swan song Eyes Wide Shut, another undervalued masterpiece. I won't bother arguing about the pace of Barry Lyndon—just to say that it isn't "slow" by any means, and is never guilty of superfluity—though I will mention O'Neal, as I think he's unfairly maligned for his performance. He plays Redmond Barry, the title character, a man of base birth who rises to a position of power and influence only to fall back down, and O'Neal does so mostly with appropriate reserve; in his scenes of youth, he conveys a convincingly deep longing, an idealism informed by lustful and jealous impetuousness that, through the course of the film, ages somewhat but never matures. Barry winds up a scalawag among gentlemen and, as Jim Ridley recently noted in The Village Voice, "O'Neal's gauche inability to fit into the surroundings ultimately suits the role."

Barry Lyndon, divided in two by an intermission (unwelcomely elided at the recent Lincoln Center screening), concerns Barry's rise to title and his fall from grace; it's a tale of coming-up and comeuppance. Part One is primarily a story of fate and chance; the course of Barry's life is determined by a series of random fortunes, starting with his escape from the law after, or so he's lead to believe, killing a competing suitor (Leonard Rossiter) in a duel over the love of his promiscuous cousin. The narrator bemuses about how different Barry's life may have been had he not fallen for that girl, or instigated the duel, as it's the starting point for a series of contingent adventures: stopping for a drink of water, he attracts the attention of bandits who happen to be at the same inn; losing his money and horse to said bandits a bit down the road, he walks to the next town, where he is recruited into King George's forces; deserting the army, he finds an officer's uniform hung to a tree; traveling in that uniform, he meets a buxom Prussian who takes him in; leaving her, he's met on the road by a Prussian officer who catches him in his lie; conscripted by the Prussians, he is assigned to spy on an effete gambler who becomes his employer; and so on, all of these events ultimately leading to Barry's meeting and marrying Lady Lyndon (Marisa Berenson).

Part Two deals with Redmond Barry's, now Barry Lyndon, fall from the status that he's married into. If Barry was brought up by chance, he is brought down by action and poor decision, particularly the ill treatment of his stepson (Vitali), and eventual mortal enemy; their antagonism culminates in a dragged-out and unbearable duel, a sequence accompanied by a ceaseless and unbearable beating of the timpani, punctuated from time to time by violent string trills. Ritualized violence plays a prominent role in Barry Lyndon, whether it's the twisted custom of dueling, the ring formed by soldiers when Barry boxes a man who embarrassed him, the gauntlet hazing of the Prussian Army, or, most devastatingly, when a line of English soldiers marches on the positioned French army, unflappable even as large numbers of them are picked off. Never has war made less sense than it does in that moment, and Barry thankfully gets it quick and runs off. While Barry Lyndon is certainly a romantic film in some regard, it does not romanticize violence, nor does it afford its characters with any sort of cheap heroism—indeed, Barry is not a hero by any means, and Thackeray's novel is considered by many to be the first English-language novel without a respectable hero as its protagonist. War is grim, war is fire, and war is death, an observation underlined by a sermon from the narrator. (Cf. "It is well to dream of glorious war in a snug armchair at home, but it is a very different thing to see it first at hand...")

The two sections of Barry Lyndon vaguely parallel one another, up to a point at least; they both feature a session of fisticuffs, instigated by an insult to Barry's hono[u]r, as well as Barry engaged in a competition for the attentions of a woman—this time with his stepson for his wife's—that ultimately results in pistols at dawn. But while the Redmond Barry of Part One is a forgivable youth, the Barry Lyndon of Part Two emerges as nothing short of a categorical cad, mercilessly caning his insolent stepson and engaging in extramarital affairs right under his wife's nose. In one scene, Barry hovers lovingly over his wife and his newborn son, but Kubrick immediately cuts to Barry osculating with two topless sexpots, neither of whom happen to be his betrothed. Even Barry's mother, who in Part One was a kindly Irish peasant, is by Part Two transformed into a shrewy, manipulative Lady Macbeth type; she's used to help reveal another of Barry Lyndon's many themes, the corruptibility of stature. (Though the film is thematically dense, it's never convoluted, and the clarity of its execution is a mark of its master director.) Barry strives throughout the film to reach the level of gentlemanhood, but once he does it destroys him; even his one redeemable trait—his genuine and unqualified love for his son—proves to be a deciding contributor to his undoing. "Behind my back I am despised," Barry acknowledges near the film's conclusion, adding, "and quite justifiably so." Barry Lyndon is the tragic tale, told with grace and patience, of an antihero's decline, ruthlessly concluding with Barry legless and alone; it's a melancholy reproach of war and money, of polite society and powerful institutions. Sprawling in length, ambition and thematic intent, it's an emotional epic and a roaring success.